Friday, December 25, 2015

The Force doesn't awaken so much as reboot

Let's get this out of the way right now: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW, so if you haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, you do not want to read what follows. Of course, if you really liked the film, you probably also don't want to read what follows...

Finn's (John Boyega) expression above is probably the best rendition I could find for what I was feeling through most of the movie. Note the mild scowl, the slightly cocked eyebrow, and the just parted lips, on the verge of saying: "Fer reals?" I mean, seriously, if I wanted to watch Star Wars: A New Hope again with flashier graphics, I can do that in about 15 different formats and for far less money than the full IMAX 3D experience that I sat through this morning. I say that because The Force Awakens is virtually a note-for-note retelling of the first film, down to the young person discovering the Force on a desert planet with a droid carrying a crucial piece of info, and getting transported to the Imperial base to both rescue a hostage and destroy the galaxy's ultimate weapon. The only real difference is that this time there's two of them.

Don't get me wrong. I respect JJ Abrams' attempt to put this thing back on track after Lucas' abominable prequels and if his route for doing so is essentially the same thing he did with Star Trek: rewriting the lore but with different people and a few funny moments, I can understand that. But that's exactly what it is: a reboot. That's not "Episode 7". It's a retelling of Episode 4, which comes out feeling like a cheat, rather than an actual step into the future.

So... you're saying you didn't like it?
The key thing for me in most films is story. I don't care about your flashy lights or beautiful people or funny one-liners or skillful camera work in and of themselves. I appreciate all of those things but, dammit, tell me a story. Give me an idea (or even more than one!) that makes me think while I'm watching; that makes me say to myself "Yeah, that's a good move there."; or, best of all, that lets me lose myself in the film as it's proceeding. The worst thing for most fictional tales is to lose your audience's immersion in the plot. The water for this one never even got to knee-high on me because there basically wasn't a plot that we hadn't seen 38 years ago and countless times since. Most adventure films can be broken down into the basics of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, but they can rarely be as linear as this and remain interesting, especially when someone has told the same damn story 4 decades ago. At the very least, tell me a story that equates to more than one half-hour episode of a Saturday morning cartoon (Hero discovers unknown power, hero finds friends who help her use said power, hero uses power against evilest people in the universe. The End.) The first film was never more than a straightforward fairy tale. Harlan Ellison dismissed it as the equivalent of a B-level Western. He was aghast that people would call it science fiction because he felt it lacked depth. He was right. It was never going to be deep because Lucas based it on old Flash Gordon serials that he saw as a kid and then perpetuated that monochromatic approach in the prequels. So along comes JJ Abrams with an opportunity to right some of the wrongs and instead he walks the road most traveled by and came up with no difference at all.

On the positive side, no one's performances were abysmal. I think Boyega and Daisy Ridley as Rey did well with the material they were given, which was far more than anyone else. The two of them functioned like actual humans in that they had lines that indicated that they were thinking and developing in the changing circumstances while playing their roles, rather than just regurgitating fan-serving one-liners like, say, Harrison Ford. Here's a key example: At one point, Han Solo asks for Chewbacca's bowcaster when the latter is injured. In two instances, he spouts lines like: "Wow!" and "I really like this thing!" So, you're telling me that in the forty-odd years of their association, through all of the shady deals and consequent gunfights, that Solo has never traded weapons with his Wookiee partner. Seriously? That scenario plays like a character who's hitting the screen for the first time, not a couple of SF icons who were given an opportunity to play up the legacy of their long partnership a few minutes earlier ("Chewie, we're home!") All it would have taken to make Solo an actual human with a history is a simple change. Instead of "I really like this thing!", you'd have "I always liked this thing!" That's a micro-intensive look at how these characters existed in the minds of the writers and the director. They're not humans. They're archetypes. But you can extrapolate that out to their presence as a whole and discover that Abrams really wasn't saying anything new. He was just getting the chance to say "Star Wars" for the first time and treating all of us like we were in the same boat with him.

Yeah, I kinda felt like this, too.
A perfect example is Carrie Fisher's role in the film. What was she doing there? What was her purpose? She was a minor foil for Han Solo (again) and then she kinda stood around and let people emote to her. They had to have her because they have the rest of the (still living) original cast and at least she's become a general in the Rebel- ahem, Resistance*, but she didn't actually do anything. She's a complete cipher with maybe two dozen lines and none of them particularly meaningful other than to tell her ex-husband to bring back their estranged son, the emotional baggage of which Ford had already expressed to Rey and Finn. I've seen a couple comments around the Web suggesting that she'll actually have something to do in the next couple films. But if all you're doing is a reboot, you could have summed up her role in the opening scroll at the start ("General Leia Organa, off-stage, awaits the return of her estranged son who now leads The First Order...") And that's the key problem again: this is just a reboot, not a story, because one of your supposed main characters has nothing to do in this film.

*And that's another thing. What exactly are they resisting? If the end of Return of the Jedi signaled the return of the Republic and if the First Order are determined to destroy the returned Republic (which they apparently do when we see the Republic's key(?) worlds for all of 5 seconds before being disintegrated by the Starkiller), that sounds like two competing states, not one dominant one with an internal rebellion. Is it a Resistance inside the worlds controlled by the First Order? If so, is the Republic operating a Contra-like army inside the opposing state? Is this a Cold War? None of this is explained because, for Abrams' purposes, it doesn't matter. The Resistance is just the Rebellion because all we're doing is a rehash.

So you're saying you've seen this kind of thing before...?
The aforementioned offspring, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is another fine example. This kid is Darth Vader. That's all he is, down to the same black armor and propensity for torturing people telekinetically. We've been here before. Hell, he even talks to the new Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke (Snoke? Really? Not menacing like 'Maul' or elaborate like 'Palpatine'. Snoke.) on a floor-lit hologram. If you're trying to tell a story about tragedy, it helps to not expect people to have an emotional response about the same thing you've been running with for 38 years. Driver, at least, was given a fine moment of patricide, where you could see him struggling with his inner demons, but the whole character was kind of a wash to me because a) he was Darth Vader and b) he was the son of two key people in the films. Science fiction will always involve suspension of disbelief by its very nature. But if you're expecting me to believe that the son of two people that were intimately involved with the former dark lord who led the destruction of the Jedi is now walking in those same footsteps because he was somehow corrupted, you're losing me. I get that unusual circumstances and heroic moments are what make adventure stories in the first place, but when it all keeps happening to the same family, we're getting more than a little Die Hard 2 here, which is a film that no one wants to be accused of cribbing from. And I haven't even talked about the fact that, since the Resist- ahem, Rebellion destroyed two planet-destroyers, the Resistance now has to deal with a star-eating, multi-planet-destroyer. This is straight out of Michael Bay. "We had 5 explosions per minute in the last film, so now there has to be 10 per minute! And bigger!" Seriously? This is what it took 4 or 5 years to come up with? Getting a cheap laugh from the audience when you do the "size matters" comparison between the Death Star and the Starkiller?

Snoke. Really. I mean, you gotta be kidding me. Snoke?
The other thing that's sure to initiate my departure from immersion is technological issues in a science fiction film. Yes, it's high tech and beyond that of our world, so it takes that suspension of disbelief I was talking about. I have that already when it comes to Star Wars when you consider things like hyperspace and lightsabers. But here we're talking about basic concepts like, say, navigation. The McGuffin in the film is a mini-drive containing the map to where Luke Skywalker supposedly resides. ... Why in the galaxy would anyone need a map when you have hyperspace travel? Wouldn't you just need coordinates? Give somebody an X, Y, and Z and they should be able to find what they're looking for as long as they have a consistent central point to orient from. If you're using hyperspace travel, you kinda need that central point in the first place. But we're talking basic astronomy here. Using a "map" means we've reverted back to second star to the right and turn left at the nebula. What it is, of course, is an excuse to replace the plans to the Death Star with some other piece of data that is presented as enormously important. Speaking of stars, was there any consideration given to what happens to a planet if you drain its host star of all its energy in order to power your superweapon? Or was that all just lost on the way to the next exponential function of Bayism?

Furthermore, said awakening of the Force was wildly inconsistent. At one point, you have Rey as young Jakkuan scavenger who has no idea what the Force is and wouldn't care since it probably can't earn her food from the local junk dealers. But then she has a series of elaborate visions just from touching Luke's old lightsaber. Guess there must be a deep connection that's been activated, even though she has no idea what it is or why it's happening. But then, somehow, despite Luke needing extensive training from one of the greatest Jedi masters to have ever lived, Rey employs an almost master-level technique with her power, from the brute force of resisting and then overpowering an acknowledged adept when she beats Kylo Ren (twice) to the incredibly subtle mind trick of confusing the guard of her cell at the Starkiller; all without any guidance whatsoever. And, oddly enough, despite the extensive visions that accompanied her grasp of Luke's old weapon, when she sat there for a minute of screen time in an invisible push-of-war with Ren, we got nothing but the two of them grimacing at each other. Wouldn't that have been a great moment to show how her resistance (ahem) was expanding her mind or exactly what kind of mental darkness Ren was throwing at her? Instead, we got two mimes in a slapfight.

This is the legion of fans who think I'm clueless.
This isn't a case of the film coming in below my expectations, because I really didn't have any. Lucas' prequels had mostly killed my Star Wars fandom 15 years ago. And, like I said, I largely agree with Ellison on the first film's storytelling merits. It's not something that's going to leave you pondering its nuances hours later. But the first film was groundbreaking because of both its visual effects and the broad appeal of its imagery and story. That's why it deserves a place of respect in the genre of science fiction. Why bother to mine that vein again? We've been there, multiple times. What's even worse is that, in the succeeding 4 decades, we've seen countless Star Wars comics and novels with ready-made storylines that were actually original ideas, from 20,000 years before the Star Wars films, to many decades after them. If Hollywood doesn't do anything but reuse established material at the moment, at least rehash one of those stories that dared to make its characters something other than figments of themselves from the 70s. And if I'm supposed to come into the theater and turn my brain off and just enjoy the visual ride (something which is, uh, not me, as you may have noticed) at least give me something different to look at than what I've seen before. Otherwise, it's like channel surfing and stopping on a movie you've seen 20 times because it's familiar and you don't really need to pay too much attention to it. Same thing here. I can do that without shelling out $30, thanks.

So, just like Guardians of the Galaxy, I have little doubt that I'm in the distinct minority on this one (94% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Lucas gave an apparently snippy response to someone asking about the new film, saying that he figured "the fans will love it", as it was made for them. My kneejerk reaction to that was: "You mean it has a screenplay above an 8-year-old mentality?" But, in the end, I think there is some merit to what he said, in that the fans revere the original trilogy and The Force Awakens is basically a carbon copy of the first of those films. Abrams isn't directing the subsequent episodes, so there's reason to believe we'll avoid the trainwreck that was the attempted rehash of Wrath of Khan (Star Trek: Into the Darkness of Screenplay by Committee.) But if the replacement is simply The First Order Hits Back, then I have zero interest in seeing any more of this. Do I regret losing the two hours of my life? No. I'm just wondering why, with all the possibilities, would you do this again?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Show without fear

Anyone who's read Frank Miller's and David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One from the late 80s would have instantly recognized the setting and atmosphere of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It's inescapable. The aura of angst, shadow, and determination- the grit -is all there. It's a hallmark of Miller's storytelling. He once said that he wanted to be a crime writer who just happened to have a superhero or two hanging around. His Batman stories are essentially that, as they deal with genuine people trying to respond to unusual circumstances. The fact that they dress oddly in order to make that response begins to seem almost natural. Miller's Daredevil was where he developed that singular style that, along with Alan Moore's Watchmen and Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, became the defining oeuvre of comics in the 80s and early 90s. Appropriately, "grim and gritty" was the tag for that period and Netflix series creator, Drew Goddard, mined that same approach for Daredevil.

The obvious intent was to dial it back from the rapid explosions of the Marvel films like The Avengers to show how "regular people" get by in a world of thunder gods and narcissistic genius inventors. The fact that one of them gets by with an accidentally- and radioactively-induced radar sense that compensates for his blindness is just one of the things that seems "normal" when half of Manhattan has been laid waste by alien invaders from another dimension (and, no, Trump supporters, they weren't Mexicans or Syrians and you aren't "normal", either.) This is Miller to a tee. Daredevil's history up to the late 70s had been as a half-assed Spider-Man who regularly encountered other denizens of the Marvel Universe like Electro, Mr. Hyde, and Death-Stalker. A consequence by the late 70s was bimonthly publication and being on the verge of cancellation when Miller started drawing it and quickly convinced then editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, to let him take over the writing duties, as well. Why would anyone read about some human guy when you could have a spider-human in the same city and fighting the same threats? Thus are the eternal woes of DC Comics laid plain for all to see...

The difference, of course, is in the humanity. Marvel's trick was always to show costumed superhumans dealing with real problems: jobs, relationships, car problems, etc. Miller took a step back even farther from that and began to focus not just on Matt Murdock, crusading attorney of downtrodden Hell's Kitchen, but on the downtrodden themselves and much of what took place in the "real world" beneath the view of Asgard and the Baxter Building. Goddard's show has done the same thing, keeping the light touch of reference to things happening in the world so that the magic of the Marvel Universe is maintained, but refusing to step past that street level so that every inch of shadow can be explored by the one man whose vision can't be affected by any of it.

What helps Goddard in this respect is the excellent cast he managed to cobble together for the show; most prominently the supremely engaging Charlie Cox, as Murdock. As a comic character, Murdock was usually distinctly second-class to his alter ego. It's as if writing a character with a significant disability kind of put Marvel's writers off their game, such that Murdock didn't stand out as a personality in the same way that, say, Peter Parker or Ben Grimm did. But Miller changed that, giving him very distinctive drives and mannerisms, based in part on the extensive background detail Miller introduced to what had been a stock origin story. It's clear that Cox has studied all of this material, as he embodies the Murdock character as well as Robert Downey, Jr. does Tony Stark. You can understand the urge to act outside the law, given the rules and failings that so constrained his father. You can see the determination in the face of someone who has overcome blindness but has also overcome the barrage of sensory input that, in some ways, inhibits normal function even more than the lack of the primary sense that most of us have access to. There's depth here and Cox uses all of that depth to create a whole image.

Likewise, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page and Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich are whole people. They react as real people do to ostensibly real situations; with all the hesitation, uncertainty, and outright fear that most would in those circumstances. As I've mentioned before, Sansa Stark may be the most well-rounded character in Game of Thrones because she's reacted like humans would to terrible events. Page and Urich are in that mold and, even moreso, have often overcome that reluctance to perform heroic acts which is all we should normally ask of dramatic characters. Curtis-Hall, in particular, was excellent as he played my image of Urich almost note for note; the cynical, embittered, and yet quietly outraged reporter.

Adding Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk was kind of a coup. If you want to present a character who is enormously dangerous but still kind of a child inside, who better than Private Pyle? While still hewing to the Miller version of Fisk (and completely avoiding the character's original public title: The Kingpin), D'Onofrio presented a more sympathetic figure than the comics; one struggling with his own past and inner demons in a way that makes for a genuine "villain". Unlike Sauron, he's not acting out of pure malice or spite or ambition, but instead is performing his own drama that attempts to satisfy the circumstances that made and make up his existence. Upgrading Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) from the somehow-innocent waif of the comics to a starkly ambitious woman was another good step forward for the series.

Having said all of that, the one down note in casting and the screenplays, in general, is Foggy (Elden Henson.) Foggy was never that crucial of a character in Daredevil, even under more lighthearted writers than Miller. The idea of the goofy sidekick is one firmly embedded in comics lore, albeit one that has thankfully been dwindling away in more recent decades. Henson isn't a bad actor. In fact, I think he plays the part well. The problem is that the part sucks. Cox doesn't need more humanizing as Murdock. He does that well enough by himself. Trying to add in Foggy to give the more human angle to some of the ongoing events just ends up laying it on too thick. What's even worse is that most of Foggy's antics aren't even that funny, since they tend to contrast most of what happens in a rather jarring fashion.

That, of course, may simply be an aftereffect of the series' presentation as a whole. Daredevil is a story on the streets. It's dark and shadowy and, most importantly, almost always dark and shadowy when the good guys are present. Daredevil operates in the shadows, obviously, but it's interesting to see that even when Matt and Karen and Foggy and Ben talk strategy or simply about life, it's always in the darkened office or a dimly lit bar or Matt's apartment that lacks lighting other than the neon display. Most of the time, our heroes are in those shadows that the primary hero depends on and has had thrust upon him since he was 10. In contrast (literally), Fisk and Vanessa are frequently depicted in the well-lit gallery or Fisk's warmly lit apartment. The good guys inhabit the darkness in this tale, while the bad guys are usually in the bright light of day. It's a smart method to demonstrate how Daredevil's extra-legal methods may be the right thing to do, if not always the right thing to do.

But the show abounds with other little touches in similar fashion:

- Elaborating upon Stick and his crucial role in Murdock's development. The character is played by Scott Glenn, who resembles David Carradine of Kung Fu fame, who was the original visual inspiration for the character in the comics.
- Namedropping Elektra, Matt's old girlfriend and antagonist in the comics, and giving other vague references to The Hand (the opposite numbers of Stick's organization) which should excite old DD fans for season 2.
- Including Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, but who also is effectively Night Nurse from the early 70s and who makes an appearance in the Netflix series, Jessica Jones.

Again, this is all typical for the Marvel approach. Their universe is a living, breathing organism and events that take place in one part of the world will impact or at least be heard of in another.

But one of the key elements that was pointed out to me before I saw the series and which I also really appreciate is, again, that commitment to "realism". This is a man with a radar sense, sure, but this is also just a man. When they move to the action sequences, it's quite evident that it's two (or more) humans beating the crap out of each other and they're both feeling it. That's what action is like in the "real world" and that commitment colors this series moreso than most other Marvel productions because, again, the scale is reduced down to the level (or close to it) of you and me. I really hope that in season 2, even with the emergence of the devil costume, they continue to restrain the excesses of the Marvel Universe. Iron Man and Thor can have all the galaxy-spanning explosions they want, but Daredevil is not on that scale and the story will flow better if we can see that we're still simply dealing with a man without fear.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Late to the deal

Tricia and I have finally returned to Netflix and have, thus, begun watching House of Cards. My departure from the streaming service a few years ago had a little bit to do with money (when it's tight, you get rid of non-essentials, etc.) and a lot bit to do with time. There's so much good TV out there right now and so many good documentaries (two media that Netflix excels at providing) that I could easily find all of my free time consumed by watching the big, red screen. Given that I'm still trying to use at least some of said free time to create a career, that would be bad. But she decided to re-start her subscription on a free night and so here we are.

This had to be an 'Iron Throne' swipe, yes?
Overall, I like it. We've already blazed through season 1 and are two episodes into season 2. I think they've done a good job of injecting believable drama into what is ordinarily a fairly grueling and soporific process. No one likes to know how the sausage is really made and sticking a half-dozen suckers in a committee room for five days without showering is sometimes how it's made. In the same way that Veep took the driest and most pedantic of subjects and made it the funniest show on TV, House of Cards creates real tension around the process of guiding a bill through Congress and who gets sacrificed (sometimes literally) along the way. Oddly enough, they're the flip side of the same coin, in that Frank Underwood desperately wanted to be Vice-President (so far) and Selina Meyer wanted to be anything but.

What makes Veep work for me is that no matter how goofy the story gets, the characters remain largely authentic. I can still look at any given moment and say: "Yep, I knew someone on the Hill who was just like that.": Vainglorious, petty, oh-so-desperate to be seen as important but still smart, capable and ridiculously hard-working. That's essentially the consummate Congressperson and/or their aides/flacks/tools. HoC does the same thing, albeit with a bit less of the absurd as you might expect. That doesn't keep Frank from being contemptible at the same time he's being masterful in his manipulation of the world around him. Spacey's frequent moments of breaking the fourth wall as he snarls disdainfully about the inability of others to keep the proper Beltway pace don't hide the fact that what he most wants others to do is make him look good. That, in the end, is often what politics and influence are all about: ego, and Frank has plenty of it.

"I'm a good person! BWAHAHAHAHAHA!"
The one notable exception to that blanket statement of authenticity is, unfortunately, Spacey's co-star Robin Wright, as Claire. The character strikes me as a device and not much more than that. Her role is like a scriptwriter's photo album: ""Here I am ruthlessly destroying my idealistic assistant!" "Here I am enjoying my boilerplate tragic affair with the sensitive, creative man my husband can never be!" and so on. Her role apart from Frank seemed to be on shaky ground from moment one, since they've never really established why she'd be interested in running the Clean Water Initiative and why that would be crucial to their combined goals, as she repeatedly emphasized. Lots of Congresspeople have done quite well without their spouses running a charity and axing half the staff in the process. They've never stopped to say that Frank's campaign war chest was relying on the bleeding hearts of those concerned about water issues, Democrat or no, so Claire's "crucial" activity seemed to be more of an effort by the writers for her to simply have something to do other than plot to ruin people's lives and keep the window cigarette box filled. That's not to say that Wright has filled the role poorly. On the contrary, her shark's eyes stare has often been one of the more exciting performances to appear on the screen but she's not doing much other than be the female version of Frank and aspiring to far less lofty goals of her own.

OTOH, Kate Mara (when I first saw her, I was like: "I know those eyes. Is that Rooney Mara's sister?"), Michael Kelly, Corey Stoll, and Mahershala Ali have also been mostly excellent and quite textured. Kelly's Doug Stamper is kind of fascinating, in that the struggle in his eyes between his 12-step-influenced concern for others constantly loses to his absolute obedience to Frank. But the fact that the struggle is there makes him interesting to watch. You normally only get that kind of loyalty from someone who deeply believes in the person he's adhered to. Frank doesn't present as that kind of inspirational leader and it's Ali's Remy Martin who makes that most obvious, since he's been vibrating with disdain for Frank and everything he does since the moment he appeared on screen. Martin knows the truth, on both a personal level (as he points out that the first time he made it past Frank's doorstep after 8 years was when the latter actually needed something) and a policy level, but he's accepted that this is his world. I made the point more than once when I was with the Greens that to be in the game, you have to play the game, to one degree or another. Martin is clearly in the game, but his contempt for most of it constantly shines through.

Mara did some great things early on as the ambitious reporter, Zoe Barnes. Unfortunately, the writers didn't seem to give her enough room to really transition from partner-in-crime alongside Frank to seeker-of-the-truth against him. For the last couple episodes of season 1, I was regularly wondering just why she was choosing to pursue him so doggedly. Did she really perform an about-face that drastically when she decided to stop screwing him and become the daring reporter for the people? Was her pursuit just another aspect of her desire to show him who was really important in the context of their professional relationship? Or did it all boil down to her shock over Peter Russo's death? If it was just the latter, I didn't feel like it was spelled out enough for the character to make such a shift over that short span of time. Of course, I may be the victim of binge-watching, too.

Zoe was also part of my only true "WTF?" moment of the series, to date: her being ground under the tracks of a Metro train. Both Tricia and I had a "Wait... Wut?" moment when that happened. Everything that Frank had done to that point had been careful, planned, assured, even subtle. Suddenly, he was the VP of the country tossing someone in front of a train with three dozen potential witnesses nearby. That dog don't hunt. I guess it's possible that the writers had kind of cornered themselves with the Zoe storyline, knowing that she wouldn't give up and/or that her relationship with Frank was now a dead-end, since they'd never have the same level of trust. The only way out was to get rid of her. If that's the reason for it, it's clumsy, but it does leave the "crusading reporter" aspect running without the complications, since Sebastian Arcelus' Lucas will continue on in her memory and without the personal ties to Frank. That's the best way I can look at it. The worst way is to assume that they did it for shock value to kick off the second season and used the ever-more-frequent reasoning that "Game of Thrones does it!" I really hope that's not the case, especially since both Tricia and I thought that Frank's ascension(?) to the role of VP would have made a far better ending to season 1 than a beginning to season 2.

I was kinda thrilled to see Molly Parker show up, as I hadn't seen her in the last decade since Alma Garret and the rest of Deadwood fell victim to the ratings beast. Garret started slowly, but grew into a favorite of mine as the show progressed. I'm already intrigued by what Parker's Jackie Sharp could bring. I'm a little less sanguine about the storyline overall, since the essence of the show seemed to be Frank's maneuvering within the halls of Congress as a leader but not the leader. I thought there was still a lot of ore to mine in that vein. By assuming the role of VP (no one, and I mean no one, aspires to that office so this is clearly just a story step toward what Frank and Claire's "goals" have been this whole time), he's in the same quandary: he can influence the shots, but not call them. In that respect, the story dynamic hasn't markedly changed, but it's still a pretty rapid departure from what seemed to be the core of the idea. How long would people be willing to watch Frank stroke legislation in amoral fashion until HoC became a funhouse mirror version of The West Wing (all preach, no party)? I dunno. I guess we'll find out.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Into the bad(writer)lands

Yes, I am going to write about Into the Badlands. Yes, that is a picture of Darryl from The Walking Dead leading off the post because the intent, despite the title, isn't to talk about how bad the writing was on Into the Badlands because it wasn't, overall. I actually found the show to be pretty interesting, if a little shallow but it was a first episode so, whatevs.

No, the moment that really stuck out to me through two hours of TV was one that many people probably coasted past because they either a) didn't know, b) didn't care, or c) thought that what was being portrayed was accurate. That moment was the one where Darryl's new friends, Dwight and Sherry, use insulin to "save" the third new friend, Tina, who's apparently in some form of distress (obviously, a diabetic.)

Now. I've been a diabetic for 40 of my 45 years, so this stuff is as natural as breathing to me. I never begrudge anyone their lack of knowledge of the condition (Tangent: People refer to it as a disease. There is no disease. There's no bacteria or viral agent involved. There may have been when it first emerged, but that's only a theory. It's a condition like having any other body part that doesn't work properly; in my case, the pancreas. /tangent) I've had emergency room residents not know how to respond to various situations (e.g. attempting to treat me for drastically high blood sugar when mine tested within normal limits not 10 seconds earlier) so, despite the prevalence of both type 1 (my type; permanent) and type 2 (can be at least partially alleviated) diabetes in the body public and the social consciousness in recent years, there's still a fair amount of confusion out there about what the condition entails and how to treat its rougher moments.

That being said, there's zero excuse for writing it into your screenplay and not performing the most basic research so that you not only portray the condition accurately for the sake of your story, but also don't mislead your audience into making a potentially fatal mistake if they encounter someone having a problem in the real world.

Left to right: Darryl, Tina, Sherry, Dwight
Darryl escapes from his new "friends" and swipes their infantry duffel bag (which they've stuffed a cocked and loaded crossbow into; Raise your hand everyone who thinks that's a smart idea?) A few minutes later he discovers that the other item in the bag is a small cooler, clearly labeled "Insulin" (this is akin to labeling your bag full of shells "Ammo" so you don't forget; again, WTF?) Darryl, being the morally consistent type in this our semi-civilization, returns with the cooler to the trio so that he doesn't deprive whichever of them needs the drug that's keeping them alive (whether that's a favor or a curse in this our semi-civilization, I'll leave to the viewer to decide.) Now, despite Tina seemingly functioning normally to this point, a few minutes later she's impaired and clearly suffering the effects of hypoglycemia (aka low blood sugar.) "Hypo" means low, as in the body has a calorie deficit and the person afflicted will have muscle spasms, lose motor control, and possibly lose consciousness as the body desperately searches for energy. You know what causes hypoglycemia in diabetics? Insulin. You know what the worst possible response to hypoglycemia is? Injecting someone with insulin. And, yet, that's exactly what Sherry does in order to "save" Tina at a crisis point in the script. What Sherry did there is effectively poison her friend, since Tina's state of semi-consciousness would typically continue to a complete loss of consciousness, seizures and, if it persists long enough, death.

If Tina was suffering from advanced hyperglycemia (aka high blood sugar), she would have been showing effects from it long before the point where she stumbles and collapses and, if she was in the state where she's unable to function, one small injection of insulin isn't really going to help her, since she's probably well on the way to the shutdown of several bodily systems (kidneys, heart, etc.) and the resulting coma and eventual death that follow (also known as the way all diabetics used to die before the synthesis of insulin in the early 20th century.) That injection certainly isn't going to snap her out of her problematic state, so it's pretty safe to assume that writer Heather Bellson figured she'd just take that moment that diabetics have in public sometimes (hypoglycemia) and decided that they must be taking this drug in order to keep those from happening; a misinterpretation that could have been cleared up with five minutes of reading between two pages of Wikipedia. This is writer/producer/director fail.

I mention this not just because it's colossally stupid, but it's also potentially dangerous. Just spinning a struck-by-lightning scenario here: What if the next time someone's suffering from hypoglycemia and unable to respond and someone decides that the solution is to jab them with an insulin syringe, just like they've seen on TV? And I ask this not to do a Helen Lovejoy, but because I've been in the situation where I've been fading out and people have asked me: "Do you need insulin?" Thankfully, I've been aware enough to refuse, but Bellson, director Jeff January, and the producers have just reinforced that idea to the largest single audience in America.

This is the expression of confused dismay that I was wearing.
But the reason I think it's mostly writer fail is not just because of that ridiculous error that, again, could have been resolved with very basic research. It's also the loaded crossbow in the bag thing, where anything (say, a cooler?) could have knocked against the trigger and shot someone in the ass or worse (Sure, Sherry may be a little dim, but if they've survived this long, some sense must be evident.) And the clearly marked cooler, as if the people carrying it need to be reminded of what they're carrying (this is to say nothing of the fact that, in the Georgia heat for an extended period of time, the cooler would have done exactly zero for a drug that needs to remain at room temperature or below to remain effective; they might as well have been shooting her up with water, at that point.) Furthermore, who in the world lets anyone get as close as Tina did to a corpse, almost knowing that they're going to be active? Seriously, in TWD America, who does that anymore?

But the crossbow had to be loaded to get the last-minute shot off to save Darryl and the cooler had to be labeled so that Darryl could immediately make his moral decision and go back for the trio. And Tina, apparently, had to die to lend pseudo-weight to the episode and ensure that Sherry and Dwight could rob Darryl again and escape, since they couldn't cram three people on his bike. It's just a series of writer shortcuts that, yes, sometimes are left to fortuitous circumstance (i.e. that's why people are heroes, because they're able to do heroic stuff that wouldn't otherwise happen (aka fiction)) but in other cases are just papering over a story that really doesn't work. This episode was one of those. It was only reinforced when we shifted to the other storyline and found Abraham muttering ridiculous lines like: "A man can tell." when Sasha confronted him with the fact that she may not want to get horizontal with him. My girlfriend snorted in disdain at that line for the same reason I did: we know that Abraham has a high opinion of himself and his own capabilities, but that line means we've crossed the point from confident to idiot and an otherwise fairly moving sequence of him coming to grips with his own anger and frustration at his impotence in the world at large is diminished.

This whole episode was doubly frustrating because Darryl remains one of the more interesting and complex characters in the show and yet here he's reduced to placeholder for a contrived crisis so that the show could introduce another set of "bad guys" that may or may not be worse than the Wolves. In short, this is how trying to cram too much into one episode can often lead you down a path that doesn't make sense for either characters, story entire (Seriously, who lets someone get that close to a corpse? Who?), audience, or basic science.

And now a few words from our other show...

Hm... I liked it, for the most part? I thought they did a decent job of introducing setting and characters while still avoiding exposition dumps. They kept a certain level of mysticism which is important for a lot of post-apocalyptic stuff where people speak of far-off lands that may or may not exist. I always found that to be essential when running games of Gamma World, for example (nerd moment.) I did appreciate the fact that they avoided a lot of the usual "badass" symbology (for example, Baron Quinn's house symbol is an armadillo, rather than something ferocious, like a dragon) since different symbols grow into contexts that may not always be apparent, which means there's some depth and thought given to the story and just how long this state of affairs may have been extant. I thought the sword work was good and exciting, although if they're deriving most of it from Japanese origins, as seems to be the case, there's still way too much edge on edge contact (do that with two katanas and you'll end up with your blades stuck together.)

On the technical aspects, I thought the dialogue was a little pedestrian. Why use: "You're every bit as good as they say you are."? We already know that about Sunny. We've seen it. That's a superfluous line and doesn't do anything to enmesh the Widow in the story. If, instead, she'd said: "Good to see that all the rumors were true.", the audience would still know what she was talking about and it would be apparent that she lives in that world, instead of just reading scripts in it. I thought some of the set pieces were a little too kitschy. That final fight in the town felt a little improbable because here was the Widow, apparent enemy of Quinn, rolling right into town with several of her Clippers and sitting there watching the fight without any apprehension whatsoever, even as her car gets pierced multiple times. Perhaps there's more to that because of what she mentioned about Sunny not being able to touch her because she's a baron, but it still felt like a scene that was supported on more artifice than it should have been.

Speaking of which, Martin Csokas, as Quinn is kind of a weird mesh of two recent Hollywood figures that ran plantations. He looks like Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, but he acts more like Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Calvin J. Candie in Djanjo Unchained. It left me wondering if they'd consciously aimed for that kind of derivation when considering what a post-apoc poppy plantation owner with what is, in essence, both a slave workforce and a slave army, might look and act like and how the audience might be able to identify with him. OTOH, Daniel Wu was kind of wooden. This is his first major venture into American film or TV and it's not like there's a ton of difference in how the industries operate or how audiences react between China and the US, but acting styles are different. I know much more about Japanese cinema and I could see how Wu's reactions (or lack thereof) might play better in a culture that's generally more reserved than the American one. It may just have been the contrast between Wu's seeming diffidence and everyone else emoting pretty regularly. Regardless, I'll certainly watch next week and see where they take it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Brave New World

Yes, nerdism has taken over the formerly almost-sacrosanct environments of non-cartoon TV and movies. With the dramatic success of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, all things Marvel, and the impending Star Warsapalooza, there's no shortage of projects that may be springing from prose to screen (Yes, Star Wars first hit big on the screen, but in terms of actual solid storytelling, many of the comics and novels beat the films from the word 'May'.) Someone on the board linked Tor's massive list of potentials and almost-realities (ahem) here. So, let's review, top-to-bottom:

Good Omens: I heard Neil Gaiman tell a hilarious story more than once about the initial attempt to write a screenplay from this book. Whether it can ever beat that story is up for debate.

Altered Carbon: The possessing-someone-else's-body experience has been done, many times, and has still never been improved upon since All of Me. This was a great book. Film? Eh.

Ancillary Justice: This, OTOH, would be, as Leckie says: "tremendously cool"! How to translate it successfully to a TV audience? There's a question.

Bone Street Rumba: Never read it, but the premise sounds way too much like the "villain of the week" serial that they attempted to make of Hellblazer this year and which, of course, died a totally deserved and hopefully agonizing death.

Brave New World: Spielberg? Nope. Syfy? Nope. If it was being done by AMC or HBO or Gilliam, I'd have hope.

Gateway: This, OTOH, may be right up Syfy's alley, in that it can be easily converted to a Star Trek-like "problem to be solved by the 4th commercial break"-of-the-week delivery, even if a lot of the subtexts in the story may be lost. Beyond the black screen horizon...

Little Brother: Creative death, thy first name is "reality-based young adult" series. Seriously.

Lock In: I hate Scalzi's stuff. That is to say I love Scalzi's stuff because he's so much better than I am. This, however, was not one of my favorites and recommending Legendary by referencing Colony does not do it any favors.

Luna: New Moon: Haven't read it. Have heard good things about it. CBS? Ugh. Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Redshirts: This, OTOH, was one of Scalzi's best. FX adaptation for a limited (key word) series? Oh, hell, yes.

Robopocalypse: Haven't read it. If it truly is trying to compete with The Walking Dead, but with robots, I'm not particularly interested unless it's carrying some kind of philosophical bent akin to The Matrix.

Six Months, Three Days: Creative death, thy second name is "light procedural" (read: cop show.) If they do want to turn this excellent story into a modern version of Moonlighting, that only reaffirms my contempt for NBC (see: Hellblazer.)

Spin: Haven't read it. Not a real Wilson fan. Sounds ideal for Syfy...

The House with a Clock in its Walls: As you may have guessed by now, I'm not a huge fan of kids' fantasy,either, and haven't been since I was one. (Exception made for Skeksis.)

The Last Policeman: Haven't read it. Sounds kind of intriguing on a very personal perspective level. But, alas: CBS.

100 Bullets: I really like Azzarello's work. I think he has a good sense of pace and a great understanding of his characters. That said, I think Bullets is one of the more sorely overrated series of the past 20 years and attempting to make a film of it, rather than a TV series, doesn't strike me as wise.

Fortunately, the Milk: Haven't read it. Again, not too excited about kids' stuff, except to say that Gaiman's light, yet layered, touch would probably interest me more than others.

And, no, I didn't put in another pic just because it's Scalzi. I'm trying to break up the wordage.

Ghost Brigades: Doing the whole Old Man's War story would be amazing. Doing it by Syfy would be less so, especially given their inability to normally sign actors that could truly bring Scalzi's stuff to life (young or old.) Still, I'd watch.

His Dark Materials: Eh. This sounds like a slightly younger version of the BBC's recent Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which I watched one episode of and fell asleep halfway through. Twice. I have the other five on the DVR. No telling if I'll come back to it.

Horrorstör: "Hey, you know what'd be cool? If we do a more focused version of Office Space, but with ghosts in a warehouse!" No.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties: Haven't read it and, y'know, Neil is reliable and all, but I keep thinking of Jeff Goldblum in Earth Girls Are Easy and just... nah.

Hyperion: Would be killer. Even on Syfy, I'd be glued to this.

MaddAddam: Margaret Atwood. Darren Aronofsky. HBO. What else needs be said?

Midnight, Texas: Haven't read it. Actually sounds kind of intriguing. But NBC? Any broadcast network that uses the words "humorous, sexy, and downright scary" is going to produce something like Wicked City. Seriously, does anyone that isn't trying to sell middle America another piece of shit use the word "downright" anymore?

Ready Player One: So, so geeked (ahem) for this.

Red Mars: Epic books. I have little background with Spike TV, so I've no idea if they'll throw decent weight behind something as cerebral as this, but Straczynski is a selling point, even if I only saw a few episodes of Babylon 5.

Skin Trade: Decent story. Almost ideal for Skinemax. Maybe.

The Dark Tower: Read the first one. Didn't like it. Not inspired, but remain to be convinced. I'd be far more enthused about a cartoon of Dork Tower.

The Forever War: Would be teh awesome. I'm a little cagey about Tatum, but he was quite good in Foxcatcher.

The Kingkiller Chronicle: Haven't read it, but have had it recommended to me by a couple friends. Anytime someone signs up in as large a way as Lions Gate has, it always strikes me that they're leaning on marketing (and, typically, copying someone else's success as an aspect of that marketing; GoT anyone?)

Time Salvager: Reading the description makes me think 12 Monkeys has already done it and then I see who the director is... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! No.

Uprooted: Reading the description makes me think Dragonslayer has already done it.but at least Ellen Degeneres has more credibility than Michael Bay.

Y: The Last Man: I would kill for this. Hopefully, I won't have to.

American Gods: This would be amazing. The Starz label makes me hesitate somewhat, but expanding things actually sounds viable for once and they're clearly engaging the fanbase, so...

Neil Gaiman's Likely Stories: I've read most of them. They're good. Sky TV isn't easily available in the US, so I'm muted on this (in more ways than one.)

She Who Brings Gifts: I'm sorry. No more zombies. Do Not Want. Yes, perhaps humorous, innovative take. Doesn't matter.

Story of Your Life: Never read it, so I'm blank on this one. Can't really go wrong with Adams and Renner... except what am I saying? Of course you can go wrong. But, again, I have no idea. The premise doesn't sound exceptionally different from many similar stories (like one we'll see below.)

The Sandman: Not a chance in hell. The whole series in one film? I don't care if Gaiman and other notables like Goyer and Gordon-Leavitt are involved. It's not feasible. I mean, good luck to'em and all, but to be honest, I was never that huge a fan when comparing it to other things that Vertigo was doing at the time.

Childhood's End: This is what Story of Your Life could aspire to. I'm eager to see how they make this work, especially since I always arched an eyebrow at the appearance of the aliens, since it seemed like too obvious a message. And it is Syfy, but this book may be something they can excel with.

Hunters: Never read them, so I'm blank on this one, too, but the phrase "heavy procedural" just entered my mind. Edit: Having now watched the trailer, it looks bad.

Lucifer: Hrm. I never liked this idea and wasn't particularly enthralled with the story the first time. Now it's going to be a series? Hellblazer, here we come (Ironical!) Edit: Having now watched the trailer, it looks bloody awful.

Preacher: The sole saving grace (heh) of this one is that it's AMC. The comic series, while initially excellent, faded over time and I'm not entirely certain that even AMC will be able to sell some of the excesses of Ennis' imagination to a non-pay-cable (i.e. HBO) audience and, if not, why bother?

The Expanse: Never read it. Sounds pedestrian (MASSIVE conspiracy!) and, of course, Syfy. But it's at least open-ended enough to give a look-see on the pilot and see if they've escaped the clutches of the Sharknado.

The Magicians: Harry Potter as a college student! Awesome! Not really. Edit: Having now watched the trailer... just, no.

The Man in the High Castle: Often Dick's most highly-regarded work, I'll certainly watch it, but I'll begin by questioning whether anyone can capture the twists of his particular insight. Ridley Scott did it once. Edit: Having now watched the trailer, it looks promising.

The Shannara Chronicles: In essence, they're adapting the only worthwhile book of the Shannara series (Elfstones of Shannara) but I have doubts about how well that will come across in the lower budget of TV and, of course, MTV, which doesn't have a track record of releasing anything of cultural impact and/or merit since circa 1983. Edit: Having now seen the trailer: production values are high; acting maybe not so high. Worth a look.

So, a few highlights, some more possibilities, and then the usual amount of fool's errands. We'll see.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Caught in a loop of its own making

Arterial Splendor
Time has stopped and, no, not because of the implied shock of the scene above (even though time has "stopped" in that picture because, y'know, it's not moving... Meta!... This may be why some people believe cameras steal your soul... but can they steal the souls of zombies? I digress...) No, it's because the first three episodes of season 6 of The Walking Dead have all revolved around the same two-hour period. In the same way we never left that goddamned farm in season 2, we may never leave this day in the show. It'll turn into a soft landing spot for Bill Murray after the movie bomb of the weekend- Groundhog Day 2: Continually Back from the Dead (Meta!)

My friend, Nathan, texted me a few weeks ago as he was catching up on season 5 and said that he thought the writing in the second half of last season was the best yet and I agreed with him. I thought they were really pushing the envelope on certain characters and showed that they were willing to drive people like Rick into seeming insanity as the grinding, horrifying nature of life finally started taking its toll. Clearly, the theme of this season is the introduction of chaos in the form of good intentions. Happy Fun Land, otherwise known as Alexandria,  has been doing just fine up until Rick and Co.'s arrival. Now that they're here to demonstrate to the natives what it takes to survive in our brave, new world, said natives are dying in droves. What was this supposed to help again? If the intent is to show the road to hell, that's great. Sometimes people don't need a whole new outlook on life when they've been doing just fine to this point and turning Rick's group, the people that the audience is closest to, into well-intentioned idiots is something of a curveball. Will people still be fans of Rick and Carol and Abraham and the other hardliners if they show that the only thing that they brought to Alexandria was the elimination of half its population?

We're here to help. Really.
But some things are starting to gnaw on me (Zombie joke.) On the one hand, yes, being cooped up inside Alexandria with actual food, electricity, and Call of Duty: Black Ops (Meta!) means you haven't really been tested on how to live in the "real" world, but it also doesn't reduce you to the equivalent of a 2-year-old trapped on an escalator. The stark, raving incompetence of most of the inhabitants makes me think they'd have trouble pushing a wheelbarrow, much less maintaining a solar grid and constructing the kind of wall that surrounds the place. Yes, the Grimes band are survivors, but that doesn't mean that everyone in Alexandria is incapable of using a fork when eating, either. The writers have been really heavy-handed in emphasizing just how vulnerable and stupid most of the Alexandrians are and it's starting to get a little tiresome. We know that Rick is tougher than everyone else. He's proved it. But if you're telling me this whole town of fools and invalids has lasted for a couple years, post-apocalypse, I say you're a liar and these people are all actors.

Similarly, they've now introduced at least one person per episode this season who is only too ready to overtly accuse Rick of leading everyone to their collective doom. That person is subsequently killed off within minutes of stating said objection. If this is how the writers have chosen to portray the fact that Rick's best intentions are actually doing a ton of damage, we've gone past "heavy-handed" to "hit you over the head with this plot element like it's a cinder block." We can already see that things are going awry just fine by ourselves. We don't need to be reminded by the whiny assholes each episode, only for them to suffer the Truthsayer Phenomenon ("If you'd only listened to me, maybe I wouldn't be dead!") Perhaps that's their way of keeping Rick as a sympathetic figure while he's leading everyone to destruction because other people have to keep standing up for him, even while doubting his actions (like Michonne this episode)? If so, well played, but it's still getting annoying.

This one gang kept wanting me to join because I'm pretty good with a bo staff.
Next episode is supposed to be another time excursion as we get 90 minutes of Morgan, delving into his past and watching him wrestle with the problem of being the designated Arbiter of Morality in a world that tends to lack any. I like Morgan more than many of the other characters because he's conflicted but said conflicts haven't become a weight around his neck in the same way that, say, Carl's moroseness has become for him. (How annoying must it be for Chandler Riggs to have spent the vast majority of his acting career to date playing a petulant teenager, especially because he's... sixteen? Um, meta...?) Morgan also wields that staff (it's either a short bo or a long jo) with something approximating real knowledge of the weapon (I still grit my teeth every time I see Michonne gripping that damn sword like a baseball bat), so he automatically qualifies as interesting/hardcore for the martial arts geeks among us. So, even though we'll still be trapped in the Day of Infamy while we take the flashback train with Morgan, I'm OK with it.

The other big topic is, of course, the fate of Glenn (not really shown at the top of this post.) My opinion is: he's not dead, walking or otherwise. It was clear that Nicholas, after conveniently removing himself from the ranks of the returned via serious head trauma, fell on top of Glenn as they made the world's worst attempt at crowdsurfing. The blood and entrails were clearly coming from that body and Glenn's anguished reaction was from seeing someone else torn apart on top of him (which, y'know, could be trying) after having just witnessed a suicide. This is clearly a bad mental health day for Glenn. So, yeah, he's alive and this is shock value. Of course, in doing so, the writers are taking the viewers on a bit of a thrill ride by dangling the possibility that a crowd favorite is on his way out, but the payoff at the end of the ride seems almost impossible to do correctly. If Glenn does just die, then they might as well have just shown that and given everyone the Game of Thrones moment ('Anyone can be killed! Er.. except people crucial to the plot!") and moved on. If he doesn't die under a pile of walkers, then they're going to have to introduce some kind of deus ex machina moment that saves him and no one with any sense of storytelling will like that. At all. If they do come up with a way that successfully navigates out of this scenario, great. They've surprised me and that's always good. If not, well, they've made a cheap gamble for viewers on the most popular show on TV so... WTF?

Anyway, still worth watching. It's just descended a bit from "really intriguing" to "OK, but what do they do when this day is finally over?"

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The purity of struggle

I saw my first Michigan football game on November 20th, 1976. Michigan picked off OSU in the end zone to secure a 0-0 tie into halftime and then came out and scored 22, unanswered, to beat the Buckeyes for the first time in 4 years. I remember being fascinated by the helmets early in the game, with a design so unlike the animal pictures or simple letters of other teams that I'd seen; a simple design that implied uniqueness and the power that came with that; yellow wings on a blue field and lines that could be claw marks or simply the streaks of light as the last thing you'd see as they went racing by. I turned to my dad and asked which team it was that wore them. He said: "That's Michigan." I replied: "That's where I'm going to college."

That's actually a game against West Brom.
I saw my first Liverpool game sometime in April, 1979. It was a replay on CBC of the match between LFC and ManU that had taken place on April 14th. Kenny Dalglish scored just before the half and Phil Neal scored just after it to secure a 2-0 win at Anfield. I remember being fascinated by the all-red uniforms of Liverpool, even though that was the diametrically-opposed color of the hated Buckeyes. Of course, by then, I'd only seen 3 straight wins over the Bucks, so I didn't have quite the visceral response that other Michigan fans would have had. To me, the Reds looked glorious, menacing, dominant, flames alive on a field that burned only when and where Liverpool wanted them to. Of course, they were dominant and would go on being so for much of the decade that followed, just as Michigan had and would. My fandom was born in the bonfires of success, like many people. One tends to follow winners because winners are more fun.

Times have changed. Michigan is just now emerging (we hope) from an extended streak of futility and Liverpool hasn't won the Premier League since the top division was renamed to that, 23 years ago. Michigan has been irrelevant to the national scene in football since 2006 and Liverpool has seen its place in the traditional Top Four of the first division usurped by Manchester City, previously not even good enough to be considered an afterthought, and Chelsea. I'd thought before about how similar my main rooting interests are, since they're both entities and fanbases that have great history and expectations to match, despite current struggles on their respective fields, but a great article by Brian Phillips on Grantland the other day kind of crystallized a few things for me.

Happy, happy! Joy, Joy!
In it, he questions whether the Liverpool fanbase, mired in the tradition of their club and the majesty of that tradition, can handle the ebullient, energetic and, yes, happy Jurgen Klopp. The picture is of the brooding fans of LFC, having famously adopted the grudging respect nature of the home city; its port lessened in importance by the Manchester canal, its musical glories long since faded; the only thing left being its football team (Oh, yes. Fine. Teams, if you stoop to including Everton. /LFC fan) and its heroic record from previous decades.

At this point, the easy answer is: Of course we can! [pause] As long as he wins. The piece echoes the many questions surrounding Rich Rodriguez's arrival at Michigan back in 2008. Could he handle Michigan? Could he handle Michigan since he's not a Michigan Man? Could he deal with the expectations of playing real football, as opposed to that spread stuff that won't possibly work in the Big Ten? Uh, yeah, on that last point? Urban Meyer would like a word.

The tone of disgust in that last paragraph probably reveals my attitude toward most of that glory and majesty routine. The last few years have drained a lot of the prototypical "arrogant Michigan fan" out of me, in part because they've been so awful, in part because my distaste for the injustice of the college athletic system has only continued to grow, and in part because I find it really aggravating to be identified with a lot of people who don't know shit about the game even after decades of watching it. I've gone through a similar transformation with LFC, in that even though I still sometimes think of ManU fans as bandwagoners, there's no denying that they've been one of the best teams in football for the past 25 years. That's a long time to be on a bandwagon. But it's more recent to me because I was watching Liverpool dominate the world for over a decade prior to that. I have the same reaction when people talk about Wisconsin "always being good." While I was growing up, Wisconsin was bloody awful and we routinely beat them by 20 or 30 points. So, no, they haven't always been good. But they have been quite good for over 20 years now, so it's easy for people, especially younger people, to think that way. There are probably any number of younger people out there right now who think that Michigan and Liverpool always suck.

I think that's part of what Philipps was referring to, in that (like Rodriguez) Klopp represents a younger, more modern way of approaching the game and Liverpool is so mired in its history that it makes him wonder if people can enjoy a brand of football that doesn't try to overwhelm you with the ominous nature of how "This is Anfield" but tries to shock and bewilder you and score before you realize what's happening and you're already on the way to the next fixture on Monday.

(As a side note, I've always been really disappointed in the appearance of the "This is Anfield" sign. I mean, really. That's it? Just the words and the shield. Shouldn't there be a picture of Shankly melded with Leonidas, roaring at you with the liver bird embedded in gold on one extended fang: "THIS! IS! ANFIELLLLLD!"? Maybe a little OTT...)

But right there is both sides of my mindset, struggling with each other. The expectation is for the grandiose, the glorious, the dominance. But is that just covering for the club's inability to meet those expectations for most of the past couple decades? Should the implied majesty of the simple sign and the simple phrase be enough, akin to the "This is Michigan" tagline that will be Brady Hoke's one positive legacy for much of the fanbase? By the same token, as much as I can acknowledge the failings of Michigan's program for the past decade, when people dismiss them as irrelevant, I can feel my chin starting to stick out. More wins than anyone in the game, man! Biggest stadium in the game! Best fight song! Most recognizable helmets! Huge TV audiences! Everyone wants to see Michigan, whether they suck or not! Because we matter! Same thing with LFC: Most wins! Most points! Highest average finish for the past 50 years! 2nd highest for the 20th century! The only reason I knew they existed as a kid was because everyone wanted to see them and they showed up on the Windsor station! Because they matter! Man!

It's a fight response because it's touching on something that I grew up thinking was worth fighting for. As Philipps notes, there's a kernel of that in the Liverpool fanbase, as well. If the Reds get back to the top of the football world by hopping on the Klopp Joy train, will the purity of the struggle be sidelined? Is it possible to get to that position of dominance while making the struggle... fun? Does that diminish the seeming righteousness of the whole thing? Or is victory enough?

The question has meaning to me because I've spent most of my life in that mode. Most of my major interests have centered around the struggle to change things, whether it was building a political party in the face of the systemic obstacles and massive corruption of the American system or running a tiny business in a market completely dominated by two players who spammed a genre that we weren't interested in. The struggle, for many years, was my life and was always pursued with the idea that we were doing the right thing, if people would only listen; similarly to how many Michigan fans wax poetic about doing things the "right" way, even if it derails pursuit of a national title, but then go on to extol the virtues of the dominance of Michigan's program, anyway. My two major rooting interests are actually the mirror image of my life's other pursuits, in that they have been dominant, whereas consistency would say that I should be rooting for Purdue and West Ham. But winners are more fun. Or is it the struggle that makes it fun? Is there purity in struggle or is it simply a way to spread a salve over the fact that you keep losing, as I have, so often? I wonder sometimes if it's been easier for me to keep struggling in other areas, simply because when I turned to the sports world, I could go back to being a kid when Michigan and Liverpool simply couldn't lose.

In the end, I can't say that I identify very much with the fanbase that Philipps describes for the Reds, in the same way that I don't identify with much of the Michigan fanbase. I like modernization. I like change. I like looking forward. That's what most of my life has been about. The past, in many ways, seems magical, but it's easy to see it that way through eyes that were 6 and 8 years old. Jim Harbaugh is doing a great job of returning Michigan to some of that past, in more ways than one, given the Stone Age roots of his favored form of offense. But there are enough tweaks in it that it's an odd form of back to the future. I think Klopp will do the same for Liverpool, even if his strategic route is more direct; less borrowing from the past, more pushing into the future. At least, that's my hope. It'll be fun to win again, as we return to the flashing helmets and the flames on a field that won't die and, of course, the glory.

That's our guy. And our sign. YNWA.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Time travels they are a changin'

Amazon has produced their latest "100 Science Fiction and Fantasy books to read in a lifetime" list. Like most listicles, it's a marketing tool, but at the very least, it's an obvious marketing tool, coming from one of the three legs of the marketing (s)tool that makes up the Interwebs (the other two being Google and porn.) Couple things:

1. Why they feel compelled to combine SF and Fantasy, rather than splitting them into their own lists, is kind of jarring. They were always combined as the wing of geek literature that most booksellers didn't care about. Now, with the prevalence of all things geek (see: Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, impending Star Warsapalooza, etc.), you'd think that there's enough material to define each genre on its own. But, then again, it might be weak on the Fantasy side, but I think it's weak just based on what they have listed already (more below), especially since they insist on including some of the hoary classics that aren't even good books.

2. On the one hand, it's gratifying that they're including a lot of new (and very good) material rather than exclusively dwelling upon said hoary classics. OTOH, this is a marketing tool that can be used to sell new stuff, amirite? So, as with most listicles, this is one set of opinions and far from definitive. That said, again, good to see new(er) stuff, in addition to some things which may not have been recognized before.

I've read only 54 of them, believe it or not. Guess I'm slacking(?):

1. A Wizard of Earthsea. The first of three LeGuin selections. It's gratifying to see her reputation continue to grow as the decades pass, as she was among the best of the New Wave that elevated SF and Fantasy past what the Sad Puppies were whining for at the Hugos for the past few years. I liked the Earthsea stuff, but didn't stay with it.

2. The Windup Girl. One of the aforementioned newer selections. This was excellent.
3. Snow Crash. Still Stephenson's most iconic work, even if it is awash in "old school" cyberpunk trappings and came during his "troubled ending" phase, where it seemed like he had much more story to flesh out but decided to cut it off before he wandered too far afield. The Deliverator lives on.
4. Starship Troopers. Iconic and inflammatory in a far different way than the Verhoeven film, which remains high comedy in the guise of action.
5. Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed this one and I think the film was decent on its own merits. Do I think it belongs on this list? Maybe in one possible future.
6. 20K Leagues Under the Sea. This is one of those classics that I'm OK with in terms of giving the reader a broad appreciation of how the genre has developed and where it began.
7. The Forever War. This is one of those irreplaceable choices, because it remains timeless, even if it was a very pointed statement for its time.
8. Solaris. Lem's work was always legendary among the SF set. It's starting to descend to the hoary level, as one film after another tries to capture it and fails. I actually read this for an SF course at Michigan, suggesting that you can get something useful out of education.
9. The Road. Obvsly.
10. Slaughterhouse Five. Something else I read in that course at Michigan. Prior to that, I'd never really considered Vonnegut or his status as an SF author.
11. Blood Music. This was a selection in one of those "10 books for a penny" deals that Publishers Clearinghouse used to run. I knew Bear's name from several other books I'd seen on the shelves in bookstores, but had never stopped to read one. That's what marketing used to be.
12. 2001: A Space Odyssey. I appreciate the story, but this one has more impact for Kubrick's film, which makes me question its status as an actual thing you should read before you die, or simply one of those boxes to be checked.

13. Game of Thrones. This was also a selection on a different Publishers Clearinghouse list (yes, I guess I'm a good example of marketing success; that was the original cover, too), shortly after it was first published in 1996. I knew Martin only vaguely, but the blurb about political infighting in a fantasy world was enough for me to snag it.
14. Ender's Game. Another checked box. His best book and the one that should really be read is Speaker for the Dead.
15. Old Man's War. So, similar question: Do you include the first of a now-iconic series or do you replace it with the better writing and better story of later entries?
16. A Wrinkle in Time. I have several friends who swear by these books that they read when they were kids. I was unimpressed when I did.
17. The Sword of Shannara. Here's where we arc from pseudo-serious list into the land of total marketing. Sword was a blatant Tolkien ripoff and not a good book in any way. If you want to recommend anything from the Shannara series, you want The Elfstones of Shannara.
18. The Martian Chronicles. Box checked, but still a great work.
19. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Worked better as a radio play, honestly. I think Adams would agree with me.
20. Sandman Slim. As pleased as I am to see this new(er) work here, I'm also kind of surprised. I didn't think it had gained the kind of cachet needed for this list.
21. The Left Hand of Darkness. Another LeGuin and probably her most famous.
22. Good Omens. I have a hilarious story about the attempts to write a screenplay of this book...
23. I Am Legend. Book decent, not sure it belongs here. Movie awful
24. Dune. Still probably the best fictional political tale until GoT and yet shared the Hugo with a much smaller book (This Immortal) written by a man absent from this list.
25. 1984. Box checked. Predictions continue to resonate, even 31 years past. The more things change...
26. Childhood's End. Forget 2001. This is the Clarke book that should be here, even if the imagery does get kind of heavy-handed. (Devils? Really?)

27. Lord Foul's Bane. Eh. I really enjoyed the Thomas Covenant stuff when I read it at the age of 10, even if it was an obvious Tolkien lift (it was done better than the Shannara stuff...) I guess it's become kind of a pillar of Fantasy, but I'm still arching an eyebrow.
28. Pawn of Prophecy. Awful. Eddings wrote these as an "exercise of the form" and his paper-thin characters and lack of real action display that to the fullest.
29. The Lord of the Rings. Box checked. Still worthwhile as the foundation of modern fantasy.
30. Ringworld. Possibly Niven's best stuff.
31. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Read these as a kid. Liked them better than l'Engle, even if the Christian imagery was obvious even then.
32. Red Mars. Was a great leap forward when it emerged. Robinson has been doing great stuff.
33. Dragonflight. Has unfortunately been an anchor around her neck ever since. I liked it when I first read it, but I drifted away from her books as I got older.
34. Stranger in a Strange Land. Overrated, but interesting for the deep insights into Heinlein's philosophy and his dismay at the changing times.
35. Brave New World. See: 1984.
36. The Gunslinger. Again, have a few friends who loved this series. I read this one and stopped. I just wasn't impressed.
37. American Gods. I don't have a good screenplay story about this one, but it's the better book of the two Gaiman selections included.

38. Neuromancer. Easily my favorite of the list. Gibson rejects this work now, but I'm an old-school cyberpunker and I still love the taut but fluid prose in much of it. This book inspired me to write more than any other.
39. The Handmaid's Tale. You can see the dreams of much of the Republican base. Solid, if unheralded, film, too, even if it largely deviates from the book.
40. World War Z. Great book. Riotously awful film.
41. H.P. Lovecraft: Tales. I've read all of them, even if not in this particular collection.
42. Riddle-Master. I read all of these on the advice of another of these lists (but printed on paper, as they did, back in the 80s) but never quite "got" them, I think.
43. Hyperion. Like Red Mars, kinda ground-breaking at the time, and deserving of all the praise it's gotten.
44. The Time Machine. Probably the better pick of the hoary classics, between this and War of the Worlds, since it's a social statement on the level of 1984 and others.
45. The Stars My Destination. Another I picked up as a kid from a "Best of" list.

46. Perdido Street Station. This is one of those books that discourages me from writing, since I don't think I'd ever be able to do something this good.
47. Interview with the Vampire. Ugh. Got 23 pages into it and put it down because she'd used the same phrase 4 times in those 23 pages. Old girlfriend insisted that it got better. It didn't.
48. The Hobbit. Marketing. Not a great book, prologue to LotR or not.
49. The Colour of Magic. Yes, it's the beginning, but The Light Fantastic is where the series and his writing really begin to shine.
50. A Canticle for Leibowitz. Still excellent, even today. That he didn't follow up is one of the great voids of the genre.
51. Frankenstein. Box checked. Read this for that class, too.
52. I, Robot. I find it fascinating how Asimov's Laws have become a kind of public property for much of science fiction.
53. Fahrenheit 451. I also find it fascinating how Bradbury's political views changed so much over the decades that he objected to Michael Moore's averring to his title.
54. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Perhaps the one instance where I'll say the movie (Director's Cut only!) was better.

Requisite "But where...?" response, albeit brief:

Where are Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny? If Neuromancer was the book inspiration, those two were my author inspirations. Strangely, they have the effect of both Neuromancer and Perdido Street, in that I read their stuff and am just awed into depression. The insight of Ellison and the poetic flow of Zelazny are both mind-blowing and crushing, all at once. "Maybe there was a pocket universe under my bed. I'd never looked." kind of sums it up.