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Friday, December 16, 2016 07:12 PM
(Last updated on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 10:24 AM)
On the Viewer - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
 by Fëanor

TL;DR - Despite some weird choices and missing details, this is a great movie.

The first of the standalone, spin-off, non-"Episode" Star Wars movies has been released! Rogue One sits in a territory of the timeline that is already being effectively mined by the animated series Star Wars Rebels: the period between Episode III and Episode IV, when the Empire is spreading and gaining power, and the Rebellion is still a scrappy little thing seeking its first big success. It focuses specifically on the small team of misfits that pull together against all odds to steal the plans to the first Death Star. In fact, (spoiler?) the movie takes us right up to the opening second of A New Hope, and features various cameos from that film's cast of characters - sometimes even going so far as to include creepy computer-generated recreations of the actors, or actual footage from the movie.

One of the more interesting things about Rogue One is that it gives us a different perspective on the Rebellion than we're used to. The original trilogy of Star Wars films is fairly black and white: the Rebels and the Jedi are the Good Guys, and the Imperials and the Sith are the Bad Guys. Sure, there are Han and Lando, who do questionable things, but they're the exceptions that prove the rule - a couple of rough and tumble dudes who are ultimately transformed and choose to join the Rebellion when they see it's the right thing to do. The Alliance itself is presented as a kind of monolith - a group of good people united to do good.

Things get a bit more complex in the prequels, as these films are the story of good things going bad - a Republic rotting from the inside and becoming an Empire (sounds familiar!), and a great Jedi falling and becoming twisted into a Sith Lord. But still, there's not a lot of gray area; Anakin and the Republic are good, and then a switch is flipped and they are bad.

What Rogue One gives us is an Alliance that isn't as allied, or as good and pure, as what we've seen in the past. These Rebels are fractious, with their own internal politics, intrigues, and warring factions. One of the first Rebels we meet, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) does very questionable things in service of the Alliance. So questionable that he himself cannot look back at them, and must always move forward, trusting that the end will justify the means (which is a pretty morally and ethically shaky stance for a Star Wars hero). Later, at a Rebel council, we see how at odds the various heads of the movement are, and how easily the whole resistance could have fallen apart in despair and hopelessness right at its beginnings. But hope is what the film is all about: hope that we can see our loved ones again, hope that we can redeem ourselves, hope that we can make a difference, hope that we can somehow stop the darkness, no matter the cost. The "New Hope" from the title of Episode IV starts here - is born here, with the selfless and desperate actions of a group of people thrown together by fate (or the Force?) who seek only to stop the rise of the horrible, destructive, all-encompassing power of the Empire and its terrible new weapon, the Death Star.

Another interesting new perspective that Rogue One gives us is a view of the Star Wars universe through the lens of the ordinary people in it, instead of through the lens of a heroic prophesied Jedi. In fact, for the first time, this is a Star Wars story that has no Jedi in it at all. Donnie Yen's blind mystic warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, appears to be at least Force-sensitive, but as his close friend and partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), points out, he is no Jedi - because there are no Jedi anymore. Despite that, a faith in the Force flourishes among the Rebels, and it is much more like a religion here than it has ever been in the other films, where it was more a super power than anything else.

(Time for a plot summary! Mild spoilers follow.)

The central character of the film is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a girl orphaned by the Empire, raised by a rebel even among the Rebels - the warrior Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) - and then cast off into the world to fend for herself. Jyn believes in little except her own survival, and is resigned to the world the way it is - under Imperial control - until she has hope kindled in her again by a message carried by defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The message is from her long-lost father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), and it reveals that he is still alive, still loves her, and is not truly the traitor he appears to be. In fact, he has hidden a fatal flaw in the heart of the Imperial superweapon he's helped build, if only the Rebels can acquire the plans, and find an opportunity to exploit it. (It's a pleasing revelation that the design flaw in the Death Star was actually put there on purpose by the Rebel sympathizer who was forced to help build the thing.)

Even speaking as a die hard Star Wars fan, I have to admit that the series has never been big on complex characters or deep characterization. Anakin/Vader, as examined over the course of six (now seven!) films, probably ends up being the most complex and deeply realized character in this universe, despite the fact that he starts out in A New Hope as little more than a mysterious black-clad uber villain (albeit the daddy of them all). That being said, The Force Awakens made a successful attempt at deeper characterization, especially with Finn and Rey. Rogue One makes that attempt again, but it goes less well. Part of the reason is simply that there are so many characters, and so much story to tell, that there's little screen time available to devote to backstory and development for them all. By the end of the movie, I didn't feel like I'd really gotten to know any of our main cast. We only get the barest glimpses at their pasts and motivations. Jyn is the person we learn the most about, and I still felt like I was missing important information about her. The good side of this is, we want to know more about these people. They are intriguing, and clearly have fascinating pasts. I'd particularly like to know Captain Andor's story. He clearly has done some horrific things for the Alliance, and they haunt him.

Another good thing about this big cast: it's quite diverse. We've got a woman as the main character, accompanied by a Hispanic man, a black man, a couple of Asian men, and a Pakistani man. The people in charge at the Empire are white, but it seems clear that there's a point being made there - they're Nazis, after all. The Alliance has a lot of white guys, too, but they also have women, aliens, and black and brown people on their ruling council, as well as black and brown people among their ground soldiers.

Probably the greatest character in the film, however, is not any of the humans or aliens. It is instead Captain Andor's sidekick, the reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). The droid is a sarcastic, pessimistic, wise-cracking misanthrope, and it's hilarious and fantastic.

More mild spoilers: one of the things I found most disconcerting and odd about the movie was the decision to use computer technology to resurrect Peter Cushing so that he could reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. Similarly weird was the inclusion of Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia in the final shot, made young again through computer technology. This was very distracting and totally unnecessary. The filmmakers could easily have found actors who looked and sounded like Cushing and a young Fisher and put them in the roles. We're smart people, used to different actors playing the same part; we would have been able to figure it out.

Rogue One is a Star Wars movie that takes a hard look at the filthy reality and the hard costs of war. It is a dark and a brutal story, but it offers us the promise that with these peoples' many sacrifices, a terrible evil will be destroyed, and future people will live in freedom and peace. And sometimes that's the best we can hope for.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Friday, December 18, 2015 04:31 PM
On the Viewer - Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (No Spoilers)
 by Fëanor

Thought I'd dust off the old blog to do a quick, spoilerless write-up of the new Star Wars.

The Bad: OK, let's get the negative stuff out of the way first. The movie has two major flaws: lazy writing, and a tendency to slavishly repeat character relationships, dialog, and other elements from the original trilogy. The former is a typical flaw in gigantic blockbuster movies of this kind. There's a McGuffin at the center of the story that just doesn't really make a lot of sense, and one or two other plot twists that seem a tad contrived. But the second flaw is the larger one. At first it's fun recognizing the echoes from the original trilogy, but as the movie goes on, it starts to feel less like the filmmakers are simply referencing the preceding trilogy and carrying on its themes, and more like they're desperately trying to repeat it in every particular in order to recapture its magic and success.

The Good: All that being said, let me add, the filmmakers actually do a pretty damn good job of recapturing the magic of the original trilogy. For the first half of this movie I just sat there staring at the screen with this gigantic grin on my face that just wouldn't go away. Multiple times I clapped and cheered along with the rest of the audience - as the familiar Lucasfilm logo materialized; as the "A long time ago..." epigraph appeared; as beloved old characters were reintroduced; as the new characters did something amazing.

Speaking of those new characters, John Boyega's Finn and Daisy Ridley's Rey are a delight, and absolutely the best thing about the movie. They are real, warm, human, sympathetic characters, funny and likable, with involving and fascinating stories. Make no mistake: The Force Awakens is not one of the much maligned prequels. There's no awkward dialog and wooden performances. This movie is so much fun - so funny and entertaining. The visual spectacle is awe-inspiring, the special effects are gorgeous and amazing, the action scenes are breathtaking. The Force! Lightsabers! Spaceships! Lasers! WOO!!

Ahem. The point is, this is a Star Wars movie. A real, good, old-fashioned Star Wars movie, like the ones I fell in love with when I was a kid, and have loved ever since with all of my heart. And I cannot wait to see the next one.

Spoilers: OK, so I lied, there are a couple spoilers here. But I'll white them out for you. Highlight if you'd like to see them.

OH MY GOD THEY KILLED HAN!!!! I mean, it worked. It made sense as part of the story. But man. How am I going to show that scene to my son?? I'm gonna have to cover his eyes or something.

The McGuffin I was talking about above is the map to Luke. Why would somebody have part of a map to a guy? And if R2 had almost the entire thing the whole time, why didn't he speak up earlier? And who was Max von Sydow supposed to be? It seemed like we were supposed to know him. And how do you get such a great actor, and then kill him off immediately?

But man, how about John Boyega? A stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and switches sides. What a fantastic idea! And he plays it so well. And Rey! What's her story? Why did her parents leave her? Who were they? (If they turn out to be Skywalkers, too, I'll be pissed. Damn Skywalker family.)

I'm really fascinated by the character of Kylo Ren. He seems like such a bad-ass at first, doing these amazing things with the Force that we've never seen before. But as the film goes on, we start to realize he's just a confused, angry child. And really that's what the Dark Side is and should be seen to be: childish, selfish, bratty. Just a bunch of dudes having super-powered tantrums.

What is the deal with Snoke? Is he actually a giant or does he just project himself in holograms that way to be impressive? And Luke! So good to see him at last! I'm so, so curious to see how the next movie plays out, with Snoke completing Ren's training, and Luke hopefully training Rey (and maybe Finn?? Will he turn out to be a Jedi, too?). I'm so excited!
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not)
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Sunday, May 17, 2015 04:49 PM
(Last updated on Sunday, May 17, 2015 04:52 PM)
On the Viewer - Mad Max: Fury Road
 by Fëanor

I know everybody and their brother has written something about this movie already, but whatever, now it's my turn.

I've always loved the Mad Max movies. The first one is probably the weakest, but still good, and they keep getting better from then on. The latest is the ultimate essence of the series.

The first film showed us a world on the brink of falling apart, already with only the barest elements of law and order left, already ravaged by gangs of wild, violent, amoral men. In the succeeding films, society has collapsed completely into savagery and mysticism. The remaining people are either terrorized or terrorists. They are all battered and traumatized, freakish and poisoned. They've gathered into desperate cults and gangs, roaming the wasteland in search of gasoline, water, and a rumored paradise that probably doesn't exist.

Max, despite always appearing in the title, is rarely the center of the story, but a lone, hungry wolf that stalks through someone else's story and then vanishes, a presence that everyone in that story becomes aware of and wants to use for their own purposes: a savior, a weapon, a blood bag. As he haunts the dead world, he in turn is haunted by his own ghosts: the people he couldn't save, the horrors he's seen. He is a witness of the story, and eventually a reluctant participant in it.

At the beginning of Fury Road, Max (a grunting, near wordless Tom Hardy) has been reduced to one instinct: survival. He's an animal. He has no hope. He's lost everything. He'll just do whatever awful thing he needs to do to keep going. But then he meets Imperator Furiosa (a stunning, unrecognizable Charlize Theron; if Max is the eyes of the movie, she's the heart). At first they're enemies, for the simple reason that they are both dangerous and in each other's way. But then they find they need each other's help. Totally against his will, Max becomes a part of her quest - a jailbreak, a return home, and a search for redemption. He watches her story. He sees her lose the thing she had been hoping for so desperately, hears her howl of despair and rage, and recognizes it. He made that sound himself a long time ago. He tells her it's a mistake to hope. But then, he sees her go on, keep trying, and finds he has begun to hope again, too. He helps her, saves her life, and in the process, comes back to life again himself. But he doesn't stay. He moves on. Still and always running.

I said that Max was a witness of the story, and in one scene he is actually explicitly asked to witness. The road warriors in the cult of Immortan Joe and his hideous family follow a kind of Viking berserker religion in which, when they believe they are about to die for the cause and go to Valhalla, they spray shiny silver paint on their mouths and call upon their brothers to witness their sacrifice. It is a weird, horrific, beautiful, deeply realized world, with surreal, jaw-dropping fever-dream visuals. A world of endless peril and danger, a hypersonic dance on a flaming knife's edge, where survival is so difficult and all-encompassing that everything is reduced to essentials; to rituals and superstitions. Who protects me? Which of the people and things that are precious to me can I protect? What magic must I do to make God listen?

Mad Max: Fury Road is a story about women who take a desperate chance to steal back their freedom and their humanity, and a guy who ends up tagging along. It's also a fast-motion, heart-thrashing, freakshow thrill ride that will rip your face off and leave you gasping for air. It's one of the most amazing spectacles I've ever witnessed. Witness it yourself.
Tagged (?): Mad Max (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)
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Monday, February 23, 2015 02:15 PM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Four - Balance
 by Fëanor

I looked back and saw I'd never written up the last season of Korra! Seemed like a terrible oversight, so here I am. I'm going to get a little spoilery here, but this show is pretty old now, so I think I'm allowed.

The show creators start the season off with one of those crazy, gutsy moves they do so often and so well: they jump ahead in time three years from the end of the last season! As the episode goes on, we slowly figure out what all our heroes have been up to. Mako is now the rather unwilling bodyguard of the pampered, self-important Prince Wu, who is about to take the reigns of the Earth Kingdom (or at least, so he believes). We also find out why they made a big show of introducing us to Kuvira at the end of last season (a scene which felt weird to me at the time): she has now become a huge power in the Earth Kingdom and is (not to put too fine a point on it) this season's villain. She calls herself the Great Uniter, and is bringing order to the lawless Earth Kingdom. But it's order without freedom and peace without choice. Like many others, Bolin, Varrick and Zhu Li have been taken in by Kuvira's pretty speeches and are helping her take over - which makes Bolin's relationship Opal complicated, as Opal hates Kuvira.

But of course, the big question is, where's Korra? The answer is revealed in the shocking end to the first episode: she's lied to her friends about where she is and what she's been doing, and she's hidden herself away in a backwater town, telling no one there her true identity. She's spending her time fighting - and losing! - earthbending cage matches.

In episode two, a flashback explains how Korra got here, and again I was impressed with the show's creators for not just pushing on from last season's story like it never happened. In fact, Korra is deeply scarred both physically and emotionally by her battle with Zaheer and her near death at his hands. Physical therapy eventually heals her body (mostly), but she finds it much harder to get over the fear and the block in her mind, and she is haunted by the dark specter of herself as she was when she fought Zaheer - a ghost that actually physically attacks her. The imagery is incredibly powerful: Korra fighting her old self, being pulled inescapably into the past to relive the fight with Zaheer over and over.

Luckily for Korra, she runs into Toph Beifong (yay, Toph!), Aang's old earthbending teacher. She's been hiding out in a swamp, communing with the Earth and avoiding everybody, because she's now a super grouchy old lady. She shows Korra some tough love and helps her to finish her physical healing. But even now, Korra is not magically fixed. There is still a final mental component to her injuries that she has not fully dealt with. It's hard to watch Korra in so much pain for so much of this season, being defeated over and over again, but it's all in service of character and story, and it's a powerful commentary on trauma and healing.

One of my favorite characters, Varrick, gets to shine again this season, and his relationship with Zhu Li finally gets to the next level, which is great to see. The rather infamous clip show episode "Remembrances" (which, as I understand it, the creators were forced to do in order to avoid firing anybody after Nickelodeon cut their budget) is saved only by Varrick's ridiculous action movie retelling of previous events.

Korra's team-up with Zaheer is unexpected and interesting, as is Asami's reconciliation with her father. The final epic battle against Kuvira's forces, led by her incredible, gigantic, spirit-vine-powered mecha battle suit, takes three whole episodes to complete and is exciting and impressive in the extreme. When it's all over, again a tremendous change has come over the world: the explosion of spirit energy has led to the creation of a new spirit portal. This season also reminds us over and over again that the villains Korra fights are never just evil for the sake of evil. Zaheer and Hiroshi both end up helping our heroes. Even Kuvira was trying to do what she thought was right, and in the end is penitent.

But maybe the biggest and most important moment in the entire Legend of Korra series happens at the very end of the last episode, when Korra walks off into the sunset not with Mako or with any other man, but with Asami. They don't quite go so far as to have Asami and Korra kiss onscreen, but that they now have a romantic relationship is strongly implied. In other words, this cartoon has a female bisexual hero. That's amazing! I don't think it's completely unprecedented, but nearly. When I watched that final scene, I felt like I was watching a really important part of television history. Progress!

Book Four is probably the best season of Korra, and really pulls together all the characters and stories from previous seasons in a powerful way. There's also plenty of room for more stories in this world - about Korra and Asami's adventures in the Spirit World, or about the next Avatar, or previous Avatars, or what have you - and I hope we get to see some of those stories eventually.
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015 03:22 PM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Three - Change
 by Fëanor

One of the things I like best about the creative team behind the Avatar shows is their willingness to fundamentally change things about the world they've created. At the end of last season, Korra engineered one of these changes by leaving the spirit portals open, and in this season the world has to deal with the consequences of that decision. One of those consequences is that the spirit world has encroached on the real world in physical ways, enveloping large portions of Republic City in vines and jungle. Needless to say, the citizens and leaders of the city are less than pleased.

Even more astonishing, non-benders all over the world are suddenly developing the ability to airbend. Airbenders, once almost utterly destroyed, are returning. We already knew that air was the element most closely linked with the spiritual side of things, so this makes sense. The problem is, it isn't only good people who are suddenly gaining this ability. The mysterious prisoner Zaheer (voiced by Henry Rollins!!!) has also become an airbender, and he uses his new power to free not only himself from prison, but also a handful of other former compatriots with extraordinary abilities. Their target, as should not be surprising at this point, is the Avatar.

There's nothing like a prison break to start things off in a thrilling way, and a series of prison breaks of incredibly powerful and dangerous criminals from incredibly high security prisons is even better! It is really a great team of bad guys we have this time: an airbender mastermind, a lavabender, an armless waterbender, and a crazy firebender who can make the air explode with her mind (Zuko has an amusing exchange about the time he hired a similar guy to kill Aang).

Meanwhile, Korra, unaware of her danger, is kicked out of Republic City for not being able to clear up those spirit vines and decides to use her new-found nomad status to wander the earth gathering up airbenders in the hopes of rebuilding the long lost Air Nation. Naturally she's joined by the rest of Team Avatar: Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, and so forth. And naturally she starts making new enemies almost right away! A lot of the new airbenders don't want their new abilities and aren't interested in picking up and leaving their whole lives behind to go train. Meanwhile, other people have their own ideas for how to make use of airbenders.

It's great that we get to catch up with Fire Lord Zuko, and to visit with his Uncle Iroh again in the spirit world. And I love that we get to meet Mako and Bolin's huge extended family, especially their little old grandmother, who's a hoot. Speaking of families, there's drama aplenty when Korra visits a metalbending clan to meet a new airbender only to discover that the girl in question is Lin Beifong's niece, the lady in charge of the clan is Lin's sister, and there is a lot of bad blood between them. We finally get to find out how Lin got that scar on her face, and learn a bit more about what happened to Toph. The original Team Avatar from Last Airbender turned out to be a bit uneven as parents!

And of course there's the usual relationship drama. Thankfully the girl Bolin throws himself at this time (Lin's niece, Opal) is a lot less creepy and evil. And although Jinora falls for a little thief and liar named Kai, he ends up being a decent guy in the end.

Book 3 is my favorite season of Korra yet. A really solid, exciting story with the usual clever ideas, wonderful characters, exciting action, hilarious comic relief, and stunning supernatural stuff. I particularly like that our villains this time aren't just pure evil. They love each other, and are passionate about changing the world for what they believe is the better. They want freedom for all people. The only problem is, their way of going about it involves a lot of violence, chaos, destruction, and murder!

The climax of this season is incredibly thrilling, building to such a fever pitch by the end that I was literally gripping my chair and holding my breath with the tension. And at the end, again things have been irrevocably changed. Korra doesn't just spring right back from being attacked and nearly killed. She is traumatized by what's happened and it will take her time to heal and recover. It's hard to look at her in that final shot, the sickness and weariness in her face, the tear rolling down her cheek. I'm probably going to have to start the next season right away so I can see her get better!
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Tuesday, January 6, 2015 10:11 AM
On the Viewer - The Legend of Korra: Book Two - Spirits
 by Fëanor

All the shows I was watching on TV went on winter break, so I took the opportunity to catch up with one I'd left behind: Legend of Korra! The second season delves into Korra's family's recent past, as well as the distant past of the Avatar and of this world.

Korra heads home to visit with her parents and meets her uncle, Unalaq, who has expertise in one of Korra's few remaining weak areas: spirits and the spirit world. There's some bad blood between him and his brother, however, connected to some unpleasant events in the past, which make things a bit complicated. When those events finally come to light, it drives a wedge between Korra and her father, and between Korra and her adopted father, Tenzin, and convinces her to turn to Unalaq for her continuing education.

Unalaq reveals that a once-in-ten-thousand-years event is about to occur: the Harmonic Convergence. Before this happens, Unalaq says, it's essential that Korra open the spirit portals that sit at the North and South Poles. This will bring balance back to the world and stop the invasion of dark spirits that has recently begun. But Unalaq's plan is darker and more far-reaching than he's letting on, and it will lead first to civil war, and then to momentous changes not only in the nature of the Avatar, but also in the structure of the worlds themselves.

Book Two is thrilling and epic, and a lengthy flashback in the middle reveals the identity and origin story of the very first Avatar, which is really cool and interesting. For comic relief this time we have crazy rich guy Varrick, and Bolin's relationship with Unalaq's creepy daughter, Eska. I particularly love Varrick; he's hilarious. I was kind of happy to see Korra and Mako's relationship fall apart, too; I never really liked them together, and their breakup adds some interesting drama. Another fun dramatic relationship is the rocky family dynamic among Tenzin, his waterbender sister Kya, and his goofy, story-telling, ex-soldier, non-bender brother Bumi. They all have very different personalities that don't fit together well, and they all have very different memories of their childhood and of their father who, it comes out, was not always the perfect hero he's been made out to be.

My only real problem with the season is some of the hand-wavy (to borrow a favorite phrase of my friend Peccable) spiritual shenanigans that occur near the end. There's a lot of back-and-forth and up-and-down in terms of who's got the magic powers and what their exact nature is and where the spirits are and what they can do and so on and so forth, and all the sudden Korra is a big glowing giant. There are a lot of rules to all this that the writers seem to be making up as they go along to generate drama, and I always felt a step behind, not quite understanding what was going on or how. It's possible that I just wasn't paying close enough attention, but I don't know.

Still, the big climax is exciting and amazing to look at, and the fundamental change to the world that occurs as a consequence is really interesting, and the writers do so many things right that I'm willing to give them a pass. This is still, unquestionably, a really great show. In fact, I'm nearly done the third book now, and if anything it's the best season of the show yet. Look for the review soon!
Tagged (?): Avatar (Not), Cartoons (Not), Legend of Korra (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 09:58 AM
On the Viewer - A Look Back at Recent TV at the Winter Break
 by Fëanor

I've been trying to keep up with TV shows while they're actually on TV this season! I haven't actually watched most of them on TV (just caught the replays online later), but still.

Gotham
I gave up on this one after a couple of episodes. Just couldn't stand the ridiculous, ham-handed foreshadowing, the incredibly cliche way they were handling the Bruce Wayne character (he's grieving and hurt! You can tell because he's drawing scary things and listening to heavy metal!), and the relentless darkness. There were also one or two spots where I just couldn't suspend my disbelief. (Sorry, but one person cannot hide on an empty school bus from another person who knows they are in there.) I'm disappointed, but a bit relieved, as it would have been difficult to keep up with this show along with all the others I'm watching!

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
I'm pleased to say that season two of this show picked up quite a bit after that rather lame first episode. I often find the dialog and writing a bit clumsy, but it's still a fun and exciting show with plenty of humor and unexpected twists and turns, and I always look forward to the next episode. I particularly like Patton Oswalt's inexplicable gang of twin brothers, and it's exciting to have seen, in the most recent episode, the birth of a superhero. I'm a bit ashamed to say that I had to do a bit of research to discover that a couple of the characters we thought we knew are actually minor characters straight out of the pages of the comics. Cool stuff! I'm a little disappointed to (spoiler alert!) lose a promising character, and one of the only two black guys on the show at that. Especially since I'm still stinging from the loss of Lucy Lawless. But we'll see. People rarely stay dead in Whedon world.

The Flash
This is one of my favorite current TV shows - possibly my very favorite. It's definitely the best superhero show on TV, and the only one that's really succeeded in capturing the flavor of superhero comic books - the earnest emotions, the heroism, the over-the-top insanity, the goofiness. It's just a ton of fun, with lovable characters, a good sense of humor, and a warm heart. Plus, an exciting ongoing story with secrets and romance and betrayal, and new supervillains and superheroes getting introduced every episode. I was a little disappointed that in the Arrow crossover episode, the actual confrontation with the villain occurs off-screen (!!!), but I guess that wasn't what the episode was really about. It was, as it should be, focused on the characters. It was about Barry - his unresolved issues with Iris, his overconfidence. It was also about Oliver and what a different hero he is from Barry. I hadn't watched Arrow before, but I was inspired by this episode to jump over and watch that show's followup crossover with Flash. It was quite good! Dealt with some pretty deep, and very timely, ethical issues around torture, and whether the ends justify the means. I might have to catch up on the rest of Arrow at some point.

Constantine
I read an article or two that suggests this show might get cancelled soon, which is a shame, because it's quite good and has the potential to be even better. Basically it's a monster-of-the-week show, with the bitter, sarcastic, haunted (but sexy!) loner Constantine using dubious magic to save people as best he can. But, as with most shows, there's an over-arching story in the background as well, about a mysterious Rising Darkness that Constantine must stop. There's also a blot on his soul from an exorcism gone wrong that he's hoping he can somehow wipe clean; a guardian angel who hangs around him, mostly teasing him with vague pronouncements; and a visionary artist partner with her own mysterious past that's come back to haunt her. He's also got an inexplicably immortal buddy and a totally sweet hideout full of creepy magical artifacts.

The bitter, sarcastic, haunted (but sexy!) loner act can be grating at times, and the show has been a bit unimaginative and even racist in terms of who it casts as the villain (a gypsy witch, a black voodoo man), but it's got good ideas, interesting characters, it's exciting, and what the heck, I love a good monster-of-the-week show. The cliffhanger before the winter break was particularly stunning.

Star Wars: Rebels
The latest Star Wars animated series, and the follow-up to the sadly cancelled Clone Wars, is a really fun show that I enjoy quite a lot. It's set in the period between Episode III and Episode IV, after the fall of the Republic and Anakin and the Jedi, and before the rise of the Rebellion and Luke Skywalker. The Empire has a firm grip on the galaxy and is looking to solidify that hold by mercilessly destroying anyone with even the potential to become a threat - like, for instance, anyone with Force sensitivity, including children. One such child is our main character, a self-interested, street-wise, not-particularly-law-abiding orphan named Ezra. When Ezra runs into a small rebel cell led by a Jedi named Kanan, they make him realize there might be more to life than just stealing what he needs to survive and letting everybody else fend for themselves. He joins the crew of the Ghost, which includes the ship's pilot and owner, Hera; a Mandalorian explosives expert named Sabine (on whom Ezra quickly develops a crush); a screwy, grumpy droid called Chopper; and a big, tough, prickly creature named Zeb, who's one of the last Lasats in the galaxy, thanks to the Empire nearly wiping them out. Needless to say, he's not too happy about that.

The crew of the Ghost do what they can to ruin the Empire's day and to protect the citizens being crushed under its heel. Meanwhile, Kanan tries to teach Ezra how to be a Jedi, Ezra tries to figure out what the Empire did to his parents, and they all try to steer clear of the Empire's Sith agent, the Inquisitor, who's working clean-up for Darth Vader, executing any Jedi or potential Jedi he can get his hands on.

One of the things I like most about the show is the different perspective it has on the Star Wars universe. The great majority of other Star Wars shows and movies have focused on the most important characters in a huge conflict: the Generals and Emperors and Ambassadors. This is a story about a handful of criminals and misfits living on the outskirts of everything. There is no Rebellion yet, as we see it in A New Hope. There's just this little bunch of angry weirdos doing what they can against an impossibly huge and dangerous enemy.

I also really like the great dynamic that's developed among the main characters. They're an uneasy dysfunctional family, always fighting with each other, but under the surface, bonded tightly together by mutual loss and a united purpose. Also, there are two women in there, and they're important and interesting and active characters!

Which makes me doubly pissed that when they put out the first wave of Rebels action figures, those two characters were not included. Seriously, they put out Rebels-branded figures of characters who only make cameo appearances in the show (Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi), and others who are not even in the show at all (Jango Fett, a Clone Trooper, and Luke Skywalker), but did not release figures of two of the main characters. If you're going to try to tell me that has nothing to do with the fact that those two characters are women, then I'm going to tell you you're wrong.

Sorry, I get super pissed whenever I think about that. Anyway, the point is, it's a good show!
Tagged (?): Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Not), Comic books (Not), Flash (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 10:17 AM
On the Viewer - Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. S2E1, "Shadows"
 by Fëanor

Something I forgot to cover in my recent TV post was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The first season of this show had its ups and downs, but overall I really enjoyed it and was very much looking forward to the second season. Unfortunately, the premiere was disappointing in a number of ways. But first, let's talk about the things I liked:

Things have changed in deep and important ways, and I always like when TV shows have the courage to do this. I saw the twist coming in Fitz's story, but was still moved by it. I liked the introduction of the new villain, even though I'm not terribly familiar with the character from the comics. I liked the opening set during WWII, and the quick cameo from Agent Carter and the Howling Commandos. I liked the explanation/origin of the 084 code name. And I liked the addition of Lucy Lawless to the cast.

What I didn't like was the then (SPOILER ALERT!) immediate removal of Lucy Lawless from the cast. Of course, in Whedon World, dead characters rarely stay dead, but jeez. We only just met her!

Also, the weird primal 084 just... burns you if you touch it? So what? And the purpose of the big, all-or-nothing op where you sacrifice everything and put everything on the line is... to get a jet? It's a cloaking jet, but, c'mon, big deal. A jet? It's not even that big. Huge let down.

I also really, really didn't like Director Coulson's long, earnest, expository speech at the end of the episode. It was nearly unbearable to listen to. Whedon is better than that. We don't deserve to be talked down to like that as an audience. It's patronizing and cheesy and just completely uncalled for.

But hey, maybe I'm just grumpy. I'm watching the second episode now and I'm hopeful it will be better, and that Lawless will somehow rise from the dead, perhaps with a bionic arm or some such. We'll see!
Tagged (?): Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Not), On the Viewer (Not), S.H.I.E.L.D. (Not), TV (Not)
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Monday, September 29, 2014 12:01 PM
(Last updated on Monday, September 29, 2014 12:15 PM)
On the Viewer - Recent TV
 by Fëanor

Doctor Who
I've loved Doctor Who since I was a kid, and poppy and I have been slowly catching up on the modern incarnation of the series on Netflix, while at the same time keeping track of the new episodes on BBC America. The confusing mix of timelines seems appropriate, given the show's premise (a nigh immortal space-and-time-traveling alien who goes cavorting about the universe solving and creating problems in equal measure). Unfortunately, neither of us are huge fans of Season 8 so far. I was interested to see what Peter Capaldi (an actor I was unfamiliar with) would bring to the role, despite the fact that I'd been disappointed with the decision to cast yet another old, white guy as the character. Unfortunately, my disappointment deepened after the first episode. He seemed really uncomfortable and out of place in the role, as if he were reading lines written for Matt Smith and couldn't quite work out how to say them properly. But after all, that's rather appropriate to the story, and in the next couple episodes, he grew on me a bit. I really enjoyed "Into the Dalek" and "Listen," and even the rather silly and disposable "Robot of Sherwood" had its moments. "Listen" in particular is a really fascinating examination of the Doctor's character and the strangely formative and essential role Clara plays in his life. She's his conscience and his humanity, his judge and his caretaker. But "Time Heist" and "The Caretaker" I found oddly lifeless and disappointing. Again Capaldi seemed ill-suited to the character and dialog that was being written for him. Clara also has always been hard for me to pin down as a character. She seems less like a fully realized human and more like a walking, breathing plot device. Danny seems similarly skeletal, and their relationship has little chemistry and holds little interest. I'm hoping the season will take a turn for the better soon, but so far Capaldi has nothing on Eccleston, Tennant, or Smith, and Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson have nothing on Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill.

Gotham
I almost gave up on the pilot for the new Batman-without-Batman TV series after the first 20 minutes or so. So much cheesy foreshadowing of where these characters will end up! Such relentless grimness and darkness! But I stuck around and eventually warmed to the show a bit. It's a great cast, with some vaguely intriguing characters and plotlines, and I liked the solemn symbology of the end of the pilot, with Bruce handing Gordon back his badge and condoning the continuation of his quest for justice, against all odds. The suggestion of a past, possibly romantic, relationship between Montoya and Barbara was also unexpected and intriguing. I'll try to stick with this one.

Gravity Falls
The second season of this Disney cartoon recently started, and it may very well be my favorite thing on TV right now. It is hilarious, brilliant, and creepy, and I am continually amazed that it's Disney, of all companies, that is broadcasting this weird, dirty little freakfest of a show. If you're unfamiliar, Gravity Falls is kind of like a comedic X-Files, with the Mulder and Scully roles filled by a brother and sister named Dipper and Mabel. Dipper is a nerdy, anxious, shy, obsessive kind of kid, while Mabel is outgoing, silly, and perpetually joyful, and though they often argue and clash, a tighter, more devoted pair of siblings would be hard to find. The weird stuff they investigate takes place in the town they're staying at for the summer, Gravity Falls. The supporting cast is full of fascinating weirdos and includes their shady Great Uncle Stan, who runs a fraudulent tourist trap called the Mystery Shack. Dipper and Mabel work at the Shack with goofy handyman Soos and slacker teen Wendy, on whom Dipper has a serious crush. I cannot recommend the show highly enough. It has a wonderfully sly, off-kilter, biting sense of humor, with a real sweetness and warmth at its core.
Tagged (?): On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Friday, May 23, 2014 12:06 PM
On the Viewer - Godzilla (2014)
 by Fëanor

There's nothing like a good giant monster movie. Godzilla is of course the most famous of the breed, and hails from Japan, where he's the star of a popular franchise. Hollywood, never one to sit by while there's money to be made, tried to make the story its own pretty much immediately, releasing a version of the original 1954 film with a completely new subplot starring American actors inserted into it. Many years later, in 1998, a wholly American reboot of the franchise was attempted, and the result was an awful, nonsensical disaster. But sixteen years have passed since then, and Hollywood decided to try to adopt the Japanese monster again, this time with director Gareth Edwards at the helm, and Dave Callaham and Max Borenstein sharing writing duties. I'm happy to report that this attempt has been a success. Godzilla is that rare and precious beast: an exciting monster movie that's also actually a good film.

The movie succeeds where others of its type have failed by taking its time and helping us get to know the tiny people who are going to be running around under the monsters' feet before actually introducing the monsters. (And yes, spoiler alert, there's not just one monster!) But don't worry, plenty of weird and exciting stuff starts happening pretty much right away. We open on Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his partner Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) arriving at a mine where a cave-in has occurred. The disaster has revealed a hidden cave where they discover an impossibly huge and ancient skeleton, and something worse: evidence that the things that killed that tremendous monster might still be alive.

Then our perspective jumps to Japan where an American named Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) are worried about strange seismic activity that could seriously endanger the nuclear power plant where they work. We soon see that their fears are well founded, but the cause of the seismic activity remains a mystery. A dozen years later, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has tried to put the tragedy behind him, but Joe cannot. He's obsessed with what happened at the power plant and convinced that whatever happened then will happen again, and soon, if something isn't done about it. He drags his son away from his own family - a little boy named Sam (Carson Bolde) and a doctor named Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) - to help him sneak into the quarantine zone around the old plant and find the information he needs to prove his theory correct. But they both end up finding a lot more than they bargained for.

"That's all very well," you're probably saying, "but what about the giant monsters! Are they... cool?" Yes, yes they are. The creatures are literally breath-taking, the special effects stunning. I saw the movie in 3D IMAX, and I can't recommend the experience enough. Multiple times I found myself actually almost hyperventilating as I became enveloped in the titanic action. Not only that, the imagery in this film is horrifically beautiful and awesome in the old, jaw-dropping sense of the word. Occasionally the movie will pull back to give you a bird's eye view of the destruction and chaos, but more often it wisely sticks you right in the middle of things, sharing the perspective of the people on the ground, running for their lives. It's thrilling.

There are two levels to the atmospheric terror that the film produces. The first level is a kind of existential one which you feel when you realize that these gigantic beasts take no more notice of humans than we do of insects. Sure, they're destroying our cities and our lives, but that's purely coincidental. Those big buildings and crowds just happen to be in the way as they're going about their own, completely unrelated, instinctual, giant animal business. They couldn't be less interested in us and our entire civilization. Even scarier, the humans in the film only once succeed in actually affecting the monsters at all. So when the next level of terror kicks in, and the monsters actually do notice people - even at one point becoming aware of our main character as an adversary and staring straight into his eyes - it's a whole new kind of terrifying.

Another thing the movie does well is to eschew dialog and allow the viewer to work out what's going on purely from the images on the screen. Sure, there are some of those classic monster movie scenes where the scientist explains to the military guys (David Strathairn and Richard T. Jones) or the main character what's going on and why the monsters are doing what they're doing. But mercifully not many.

The acting is also a lot better than you might expect from a Godzilla movie. Elizabeth Olsen really makes you feel how it's tearing her apart to send her child off to what she hopes is safety. Bryan Cranston might get a tad melodramatic at times, but after all, his character is going through some pretty melodramatic stuff. Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ford isn't a particularly complex character, but he's easy to sympathize with and understand.

But one thing I really didn't understand about the movie was why Sally Hawkins' character was treated the way she was. The IMDb page for the movie lists the character's name as Vivienne Graham, but if her name was said aloud during the movie, I don't remember it. She has a good amount of dialog, and is clearly knowledgeable and smart, but she's rarely spoken to herself, or given much respect. Almost all the other characters direct their questions and comments to her partner, Dr. Serizawa, despite the fact that most of the time all he does is stand around looking concerned. It was a puzzling dynamic that really stood out to me, and I couldn't work out what the point of it was, unless it was meant to be a subtle commentary on sexism in the military and in STEM fields.

This is not to say that Dr. Serizawa's character is completely without merit. The scene where he shows the Admiral his grandfather's watch is particularly moving.

Godzilla is also treated in an interesting way in the film, as an almost mystical force. It seems apparent that he doesn't attack the other creatures out of a desire for food, but rather, as Serizawa says, out of a need to "restore balance."

As I was driving home from the movie, I imagined any moment some enormous, prehistoric thing might loom out of the clouds ahead of me and begin stomping down the street, shattering my conception of the world. It gave me a cold, delicious shiver deep down in my guts.
Tagged (?): Godzilla (Not), Kaiju (Not), Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)
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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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