media consumption update

January 23, 2020

I’ve just finished reading The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I love Conrad’s writing and there are still a number of books of his I haven’t read. I’m working through them. This one is slow, but great, if that makes sense. So one of the things I love about Conrad — he’s been elevated to the canon, he’s considered a classic, literary author. But that wasn’t how he published. He was a contemporary of folks like H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was writing the same kinds of things they were — adventure stories, mysteries, and so on. I mean, he’s such a good writer and his work is complicated and deep. . . but read him back-to-back with Haggard and you suddenly realize that Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are adventure thrillers. I love that.

The Secret Agent is a crime novel. It’s also a whole collection of character studies. But the chapter where it all comes together, the murder that marks the climactic moment. . .it’s masterful. Whew. I’m taking notes.

Moving on to my current obsession, The Witcher, which I have now watched through twice. How long do we have to wait for more? Hrm.

Wanting not just a fantasy fix, but the very specific fantasy fix I feel like The Witcher offers, I rewatched Dragonslayer.  I know I’ve sung the praises of this 1981 movie before. But it’s still great!  And it really does push the same buttons as The Witcher, which made me happy. I’m trying to figure out what makes this kind of fantasy tick. I think Willow and Ladyhawke fall into the same category.

What I’ve got so far:

Likeable, competent characters who are basically good people trying to do good. Even if they are wearing black leather.

Magic that is commonplace but also wondrous. That is, this is a world where there’s a kind of standard magic technology — but that only makes it all the more surprising and inspiring when someone pulls out some real genuine badass wild magic. It’s about pushing past what the characters think is possible.

The world may be grimdark, but the characters aren’t. The protagonists coming together to look out for each other in a grimdark world is one of the great appeals of this kind of story.

Doesn’t take itself too seriously. Jokes are allowed. Poking fun at itself is allowed. Silliness is allowed.  Something Connie Willis says about romantic comedies — for a romantic comedy to work, the story can make fun of everything except the feelings of the main characters for each other. Mock and satirize whatever you want — but that relationship has to be real and genuine and honest.  I feel like there’s something similar going on with this kind of fantasy.  It can be funny, it can be cheesy. But there’s a core to the story — the goodness of the main characters, the power of magic when it’s used unselfishly — that has to be in earnest.

And that’s what I’ve got so far.

 

peak superhero TV

January 13, 2020

Binged two more shows over the last couple weeks, both of them superhero deconstructions. Both of them nominally about family as well, which puts them firmly in my wheelhouse.

Umbrella Academy. A group of children is born under strange circumstances, and an eccentric billionaire adopts them in order to train them up into a superpowered team that will be able to stop a coming apocalypse. Trouble is, they grow up, and most of them leave. Now as adults, they need to come back. Oh, and there’s also a couple of cross-time assassins gunning for one of them. This started out really well, I thought. The characters are all really well drawn, the situations are intriguing. The last few episodes start to fall apart when the plot starts getting driven by people being stupid. Particularly Luther. When the whole lesson of the story is so clearly “trust your peeps” and he is so determined not to…  Anyway, it’s generally fun and stylish and I liked it, even if the last couple episodes got frustrating.

Watchmen (TV). An impressive series that manages to be a genuine and generally fulfilling sequel to the graphic novel, with the addition of a whole lot more — and more specific, and therefore I think more successful — political commentary. The backstory of Hooded Justice? That’s how you do a retcon. Take a detail that was never really developed, then look at it in a whole new light, and maybe even build the whole story on it? Yeah, I’ll take it. This is truer to the book than the movie was, while still borrowing heavily from the movie’s aesthetics which I think was a good choice. I got impatient with some of the absurdities, esp. re: Adrian Veidt, some of the contrivances re: Dr. Manhattan. But I loved Laurie, and I’m sad we didn’t at least get a scene with Dan.

Anyway, we all bitch and moan about the number of sequels and reboots and all the rest, but then something comes a long that at least does something new and interesting. I still wish some more original properties and such would get developed. (hint hint, just putting that out there, Hollywood…)

There are still a ton of superhero shows I haven’t seen yet. The Boys, Raising Dion, Titans, Doom Patrol, and a bunch of others I’m missing. Too many to keep up with. I don’t even try anymore. (Which I think is part of what contributed to me basically not watching anything for a year or more. I just peaced out of the whole thing.) People are obviously finding new things to say about superheroes, or leaning hard into the familiar superhero tropes that people like so much.

I still can’t help but think we’re headed for a bust soon. Has any other genre so dominated pop culture? Even in the great heyday of the western, were westerns this pervasive?

I’m now officially curious what the post-superhero entertainment landscape is going to look like.

 

The Witcher

January 2, 2020

Okay, binged the whole thing (only 8 episodes makes bingeing so much easier), and I decided this show deserves its own post because it really, really sucked me in.  I didn’t think it would, then it did, and I’m now picking it apart to figure out why. I will probably binge it all again soon.

It starts rough. It feels so much a part of this low-budget fantasy mode that always wears me out, like the World of Warcraft movie and that terrible Dungeons and Dragons movie. First off, The Witcher is a much better Dungeons and Dragons version than the actual Dungeons and Dragons movie. But that still means there’s a pretty high self-important cheese factor. When discussing the early episodes with a friend, I referred to “Stupid Wizard School” and “The War of Bad Tactics.”

My friend had to tell me that these storylines are all taking place at different times and I need to hang in there until they converge. I was already willing to do that because A) only 8 episodes, B) broody fantasy Henry Cavill, and C) the raging feminist subtext.

There’s a conversation that happens a couple of times, in a couple of different versions, in the early episodes. It goes like this:

Dude: We need you to kill a monster.

Geralt: Hang on a sec, didn’t that monster used to be, like, a girl?

Dude: Well yes, but it’s a monster now, very dangerous. So you’ll kill it, right?

Geralt:  But she’s a monster now because you cursed her/neglected her/etc. It’s because of shit you did. This isn’t fair.

Dude: And yet, here we are.

And then Geralt will do his very, very best to try to save her. He doesn’t always succeed. He kind of hates people in general after a few rounds of this. This story is filled with women forced into terrible situations and then using whatever agency and power they have to get out of them, or get some kind of power for themselves. Also women and girls who are cursed, abused by destiny, in situations made worse by the selfishness and arrogance of the people around them. Geralt seems hyper aware of this, and it makes him very endearing.

So this looks like a typical fantasy centered on a badass sword-wielding dude. But the story is just about entirely driven by the choices and actions of women. I think that’s interesting.

The episode where things start coming together include a splendid live-action version of the “Hans My Hedgehog” fairy tale, which just about won me over. Then came the dragon episode. This was so neatly done, and so like an old-school D&D scenario, I just loved it.

Then suddenly, somehow, I felt like I was in the middle of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. (This is Steven Erikson’s massive epic fantasy series, the only recent epic fantasy series I’ve read all the way through.) The multiple timelines, the jumping around between misfit characters who aren’t part of the power structure. The huge, very confusing backdrop that doesn’t really matter because what’s pulling us through are these characters and their very focused, very personal stories. And then that mage battle, which felt like something Erikson would write. Magic here is common, but the implications aren’t.

The last minute of the last episode was perfect, and I almost went back to watch the whole thing right then. So. Yes. Every now and then I take a chance on a series and am rewarded with the reminder of why I love stories in the first place. Can’t wait for the next season.

Also, I’ve had that stupid song stuck in my head for three days now which basically makes it the perfect bard song. Long live the bards!

 

TV watching update

December 27, 2019

I feel like it’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these, because it seems like it’s been awhile since I watched any new TV. Like, I’ve spent the last two years watching all of Midsomer Murders and rewatching Babylon 5 and nothing else. Well, a smattering of things like The Good Place and Good Omens and catching up on Legion and Mr. Robot. But all the amazing TV people have been raving about? I’ve been running and hiding. Watching an episode and then just not committing.

Which makes it super weird that I’ve watched like 4 entire new seasons of TV in the last three or so weeks. It’s like something in my brain has switched and I’m ready for new things. Ready for non-comfort viewing. We’ll see if it holds.

Crisis on Infinite Earths.  I’ve given up on the CW shows because I just lost patience, which makes it weird to dive in on the big crossover. Like, Superman has a kid? Where’d Winn go? Where’s Felicity? So confused. But the crossover is nice because it’s like drinking from the firehose, and the cameos and easter eggs are fantastic. Brandon Routh as Christopher Reeves’ Superman, and all the tribute that entails, makes the whole trip worthwhile. Still two episodes to go on this, and yeah, I think this is enough Superfriends for me these days.

The Expanse season 4. Still one of the greatest space-based SF shows ever. This season includes the scenes I got to be on set for last year, so I loved finally getting to see them in context. This is a show where reading the books first and knowing what’s coming makes things even more stressful. More on that in a bit.

The Terror. This is based on the horror novel by Dan Simmons about the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage, which vanished utterly in 1846 (except the wrecks of the two ships, The Terror and Erebus, were finally discovered just a few years ago). I’ve read it, and I wanted to see how they adapted it. The novel has one of my favorite scenes of horror of all time. . .and that scene was not in the show, alas. I think it should have been. Overall, this was uneven. It has some utterly brilliant atmospheric moments. Beautiful arctic hellscapes, the threat of cold personified. There’s a battle with the Creature in ep. 4 that is off the rails. And…then the show goes sideways. The last couple of episodes are kind of a mess, threads not carried through, characters who were looking fine just an episode previous suddenly turning cadaverous and dying, that kind of thing. And it diverges wildly from the novel. Wildly. Frustratingly. Like, in the course of simplifying the story the show just kind of lost the thread.

Anyway, The Expanse and The Terror are both shows where I have read the source material. Knowing what’s coming in The Expanse — knowing that the last scene of this season is actually the first chapters of Book 5, which is arguably the most harrowing, epic, tragic story of the entire series, is really super upsetting.  Nail biting. Like, when the settlers on Ilus start rubbing their eyes and I’m on the sofa screaming “OH NO ARGGGGHHHH!!!!” because I know what that means.

Versus The Terror where I know what the Creature is and I know what’s coming and I know more details than the show is giving us, and I’m liking the characters I’m supposed to be liking (crossover moment:  Jared Harris plays protagonist Francis Crozier here, and he also plays Anderson Dawes in The Expanse.  Isn’t this neat?). But I’m not upset? I kind of stopped worrying about them? Part of this is the difficulty of telling a story where I know from the outset that nearly every single person is going to die horribly. Anyway, I think it needed a couple more episodes to draw out the tension — and I really wish it had followed the book, which is a more interesting, fraught outcome than what the show gave us.

Next up:  The Witcher. I really know nothing about this at all, but the publicity stills of scruffy leather-bound Henry Cavill are so smoking hot I can’t not watch this.

 

The Mandalorian – so far

December 9, 2019

Star Wars is doing that thing again where they basically took an old West End Games RPG campaign and filmed it, which is great, right?

Except that I am becoming increasingly suspicious of fan service.

When the audience is getting their appreciative jolt from fan service — from recognizing the familiar, from a delightful easter egg, from confirmation of a fan theory, from getting a concentrated dose of the cosmetic stuff they love about their thing — then they may not be getting that jolt from the story. If fan service isn’t done well, then it runs the risk of letting the story and character fall completely by the wayside. The thing becomes a mummers play instead, a pageant that hits the expected notes for the sake of hitting the expected notes.

Mind you, I don’t think The Mandalorian is doing this. I’m really invested in Mando and the Child and what’s going to happen to them. I think it’s doing some really interesting things with the Star Wars world. I love seeing Gina Carano in this. I love in Episode 5 that someone finally pointed a post-colonial reading at the Tuskan Raiders and suggested that maybe someone ought to try talking to them.

But I’m also aware that this show is getting very, very close to the line of too much fan service. Avengers: Endgame did the same thing. Are we nearing Peak Fan Service? I don’t know.

You can see the line in the social media reaction to Ep. 5, which people complained about a whole lot more than previous episodes, for various reasons. I think this episode basically hit all the same notes and did a lot of the same things as all the previous episodes. But I do think the audience is maybe starting to develop resistance to the fan service. It’s like a drug — the first few doses do exactly what they’re supposed to do. That scene where a dozen Mandalorians come flying in on jet packs to save the day? Pure fan service, but it was exhilarating and exactly what everyone wanted. Trouble is, the next time that sort of thing just isn’t going to pack the same punch. Third or fourth or fifth time? Even less punch. And people start getting restless.

The trouble with fan service is if you give your audience exactly what they want, then you’ll never give them anything new. You’ll never figure out what they didn’t know they wanted.

And that is why I’m suspicious of fan service.

 

Summer update

July 23, 2019

It’s that point in the month where I realize I’d better get going on all the things I said I was going to finish by the end of the month.

A couple of reminders:

The Jean Cocteau Cinema has signed books by me for sale.

My long review of the film Tolkien, and mini-critique of the genre of Idyllic English Schoolboys Do Things, is up at Lightspeed.

I’m behind on movies. I don’t even know what’s showing, which isn’t like me at all.

TV? I’m trying to catch up on last year’s season of Supergirl, that’s how far behind I am. And guys, I gotta tell you, it’s a slog. The standard 23 episode season isn’t really designed to be binged, and feels interminable after the short streaming seasons. It’s like you need that whole week between episodes to forget just how bad it all is, but when you watch episodes back to back, all you see is how bad it is.

I still like the show’s positive ethos. I love that it has rooms full of professional, sharp women solving problems. But holy cow there are times when all these characters are dumb as bricks. The entire plot is built on characters keeping stupid secrets from each other for stupid reasons. There’s a point where Kara is explaining why she can’t tell Lena she’s Supergirl, and I’m thinking, “Lena is literally the only person in that room who doesn’t know, how the hell does this make any sense.”

And the heavy-handed “issue” episodes are groaningly, agonizingly bad. Like, fine, include issues. Have ripped-from-the-headlines stories, sure. But having the characters deliver lectures cribbed from FB memes? Having deep important issues suddenly be relevant for all of ten minutes and then never mentioned again?  It’s painful. Just stop.

I think for next season I’m going to watch all the DC crossover episodes and skip the rest.

This is why it’s been really hard for me to find something to watch. Apparently my tolerance has bottomed out this summer.

 

So I’ve made it through all 19 seasons of Midsomer Murders available on Netflix. “I don’t know what to watch I guess I’ll just put on Midsomer Murders while I sort the yarn stash” has come to an end. This is going to take some adjusting.

I have thoughts. Like, watching the evolution of the show in a short amount of time is interesting. About halfway through, people of color suddenly start appearing, and the show progressively becomes more diverse. Also about halfway through, the detectives start rescuing the would-be final murder victim at the last minute, as if the showrunners realized that having three or four murders in sequence was making Barnaby & Co. look rather incompetent. How many people would live if they could just figure things out sooner?

I could rate the sergeants, that would be fun. Troy might still be my favorite and not just because he’s first, but because his personality seemed more distinct. Vaguely clueless, still awfully brave, and so on.  My least favorite is the guy who only lasted like three episodes, departed with an off-hand comment about being out sick, and was literally never spoken of again. (All the other sergeants at least get a mention, if not a future guest appearance.)

Playing “where else have I seen that actor?” is a huge amount of fun on this show, because I think just about everyone from the BBC Jane Austen films shows up sooner or later. And Doctor Who. The best was probably seeing the one with Olivia Colman right after seeing her in The Favorite.  It was also massively startling when John Nettles, aka Tom Barnaby, showed up in my binge watch of Robin of Sherwood. British acting really does seem like a tiny, tiny world sometimes.

The same themes come up over and over again. The same patterns, and I’m not sure if these are things that are actual concerns in rural British life, or if they’re common tropes in English cozy mysteries, or if they’re just things that make for easy mysteries on this particular show. The newcomer starting a business that will “destroy village life.” The landed gentry fallen on hard times and having to face selling or converting the use of the country manor. The business based on some new technology moving in and causing suspicion. A person vanished ten or twenty or fifty years ago returns. The local person become famous for art/music/writing/something and then ownership of that thing causes strife. It’s a lot of traditional conflicts of old vs. new, upper vs. lower class, and so on.

And is every pub scene filmed in the same pub or is that just me?

I think my favorite episode, or at least the one I’ve thought about the most, is “Death and Dreams,” from series 6. This is the one with the three psychopathic children who systematically and gleefully murder all their mother’s potential suitors, and then it comes out that their father did not die by accident in a mountaineering outing but was pushed. This one stuck with me I think because of the visceral horror of it. Not the blood and guts kind of horror, but the profane kind of horror. The sheer psychological ick of it.  Their mother is an old friend of Barnaby’s. The episode ends with him preparing to explain to her what has happened. We don’t get that explanation, or the reaction, on screen, which is probably for the best. But it’s that elided moment that I can’t get out of my mind. She’s a psychologist, her children–all of them–are monsters. What is she going to do with that?  The episode takes us right to the edge of that cliff, and it’s gut-turning.

This is also the episode with the obsessive marching band that made me realize that I think I understand The Prisoner much better after watching this show. Village life, indeed.

I can’t remember which episode it is, but it’s about my favorite exchange in the whole show:

Jones:  “This village is weird.”

Tom Barnaby:  “Jones, they’re all weird.”