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Saturday, November 19, 2022 11:08 PM
(Last updated on Saturday, November 19, 2022 11:25 PM)
On the Viewer - Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities: Season 1
 by Fëanor

Hello folks! Been quite a while since I posted on here about anything other than my books, but I recently finished making my way through the first season of Netflix's horror anthology show, Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities, and I thought I'd talk about it a bit.

Guillermo del Toro, if you are somehow unaware, is a film director who is known for fantastical movies about monsters. I'm a huge fan. This show is kind of his version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; he shows up at the beginning to introduce each episode, but it's a different director telling a different story each time, and there's no connection between the stories, besides the shared genre.

Episode 1 - Lot 36
This is one of the two episodes co-written by del Toro; it's directed by Guillermo Navarro, a cinematographer and long-time collaborator of his. It's set in America during the Gulf War and stars Tim Blake Nelson as a mean, greedy, self-interested, misanthropic veteran who buys the contents of abandoned storage units and sells off the items in them for as much money as he can get. He has no sympathy with, or interest in, the former owners of the units, and when one shows up to ask for some of her personal effects back, he refuses out of pure spite. He's the classic awful horror protagonist that you spend the whole story just waiting to see get his comeuppance.

His latest unit, it turns out, belonged to a former Nazi, and has some very creepy, but also very rare and valuable, items hidden away in it, including an infamous set of volumes on black magic. If he can find the final volume in the set, a collector promises him a huge cash payout - large enough to pay off the loan shark who's been threatening him.

This is a pretty solid horror story, with a creepy story, creepy and effective visuals, and some of my favorite horror tropes. But it does suffer a bit from having a completely unlikable and occasionally stupid protagonist. It also introduces some mysteries that are never satisfactorily explained. I'm okay with that sometimes, but this time I really wanted to know why that guy was skipping on the security cam footage. The conclusion of the story, though satisfying in its own way, feels a bit anticlimactic. You're told what's going to happen, and then you have to wait around while it inevitably happens.

Episode 2 - Graveyard Rats
This one's quite fun. It's written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, who made the original Cube. It has a darkly comic flavor to it and stars David Hewlett as a highly-educated man who, nevertheless, finds himself trying to scrape by as a graverobber. The cemetery where he plies his trade has had only slim pickings lately due to an extraordinary rat infestation - they keep stealing away the corpses, and all the valuable items buried with them, before he can plunder them. If he doesn't come up with some big ticket items soon, the sketchy guy at the dock who buys the goods off him may just bury him instead.

You may notice the plot here is very similar to that of the first episode: a down-on-his-luck guy engaged in a seedy enterprise must make a big score or likely die. This time, though, our protagonist is slightly more likable. Sure, he's a little pompous and awkward, but he has something of the sad, bumbling clown about him, too. Oh, and he's also claustrophobic. You can imagine what happens to him later.

This episode is a lot of familiar tropes presented well, with good effects and cool visuals. There's nothing astonishing here, but it gets the job done in the creepy crawlies department.

Episode 3 - The Autopsy
Another rather strong entry, this one directed by newcomer David Prior, and written by the prolific and talented screenwriter, director, and producer David S. Goyer. Our main character this time is a clever, likable medical examiner played by F. Murray Abraham. He's deathly ill, but facing it with wry equanimity. A sheriff who's an old friend of his has called him in to perform autopsies on a bunch of dead bodies recovered from the site of a mining accident. The "accident" was preceded by a strange series of disappearances, reappearances, and grisly discoveries, and the sheriff wants to know how it's all connected and what it all means. Our medical examiner hero discovers the answers, to his cost.

This is a disturbing and gory one. There were a couple of scenes where I had to turn away and squeeze my eyes shut until they were over. With Abraham in the lead, and other talented actors in the secondary roles, it's full of fine performances. There's a thoughtful, philosophical feel to portions of it, but in some ways I feel like it explains too much. The villain is an inveterate monologuer, and he gets a little tiresome. But if you want the creeps, this will give you the creeps!

Episode 4 - The Outside
Hoo boy. This one is something! I'm not familiar with the writer or the director, who are Haley Z. Boston and Ana Lily Amirpour, respectively. This episode features our first female main character, a bank teller named Stacey. She's played by Kate Micucci, with Martin Starr as her husband and Dan Stevens as the host of the unsettling infomercial that claims it can make Stacey's dream come true. Said dream is to be beautiful and popular, so she can fit in with the beautiful, popular girls at work. Why this is her dream isn't always easy to understand, as the other girls at work are pretty awful to her, and do nothing but gossip incessantly about all the sleaziest local drama, insulting and disparaging everyone they talk about.

After a hallucinatory interaction with a late night TV commercial, Stacey becomes obsessed with a skin cream that she's sure will help transform her into her perfect self. She uses it and continues to use it, despite the fact that it makes her break out horribly in red itchy spots. The cream is white and does a lot of splurting and squelching. The resemblance to another white substance is definitely not a mistake.

One thing I found interesting about this story is that, counter to the expected stereotype, Stacey's husband is not an abusive jerk! He is unflaggingly supportive and loving. It doesn't make any difference in the end, but still, it's refreshing.

This is really the only story in the whole anthology that features social commentary. It talks about the cultural obsession with a very specific kind of shallow, boilerplate sexual attractiveness, which television media encourages women to seek out and inhabit at the expense of all else. The pursuit of the destruction of idiosyncratic self in preference for this smooth, plastic ideal leads one woman into madness, violence, and death. It's surreal, darkly funny, and often deeply uncomfortable to watch.

Episode 5 - Pickman's Model
This was one of the episodes I was looking forward to the most, as it's based on a classic short story by H.P. Lovecraft that I quite enjoy. Sadly, I was disappointed. It's directed by Keith Thomas, another newcomer I was unfamiliar with. I did recognize the two male stars, however: Ben Barnes is our main character, Will, and the perpetually weird and creepy Crispin Glover plays the titular Richard Pickman. Will and Pickman are both art students at Miskatonic University, a school familiar to anyone who's read Lovecraft, and a school which is, most unfortunately, located in Arkham, Massachusetts. I say "most unfortunately" because this setting convinced the filmmakers to have Barnes and Glover speak all of their lines in absolutely atrocious Boston accents. Glover's is particularly egregious. It makes listening to the dialog a truly painful experience, far more horrifying and off-putting than any of the nightmarish sights we're presented with.

The plot is tiresome, proceeding in odd stops and starts, and sometimes veering off unexpectedly. It opens with odd outsider Pickman joining Will's art class. Will is fascinated by the man's unique, nightmarish paintings, and at first tries to befriend him, even calling him by the unfortunate nickname "Dickie." But Will quickly discovers that Pickman's work doesn't just look nightmarish - it also seems to bring nightmares to life in the waking world. The surreal visions Will experiences after looking at Pickman's paintings nearly ruin his relationship with his girlfriend and her family. Luckily for him, at this point Pickman inexplicably decides to pick up and leave, taking all his paintings with him.

Here the story makes a jarring time jump. All of a sudden, Will has gray in his hair and the girlfriend who seemed to have dumped him in the previous scene is now his wife. They even have a young son. This was such an unexpected and unexplained turn of events, I thought maybe it was meant to be a dream - but no!

Anyway, Will's successful, comfortable life is once again thrown off the rails by the sudden (again, unexplained) reappearance of Pickman and his oddly infectious paintings.

There's an attempt made to connect this story with the larger Lovecraftian Mythos by having some of the characters start chanting about Yog-Sothoth (the name of one of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones), but it doesn't go much of anywhere.

What exactly is the deal with Pickman's art? What does it do to people, and what does that have to do with his family history and the thing in his basement? It's not entirely clear. This adaptation does eventually recreate the shocking reveal that was the climax of the original short story. But since by that time we've already guessed as much, it's not very shocking. Furthermore, this adaptation seems to be telling a different story entirely, so the reveal doesn't make a great deal of sense. The final scene, though certainly horrific and effective in its way, is also a well-used cliche. After it's strongly implied that a certain horrible act has been performed, we crawl slowly toward the shocking reveal that...yes, that's just exactly what happened. Clumsily undercutting your own final revelation doesn't make for a great ending.

Episode 6 - Dreams in the Witch House
Another disappointing Lovecraft adaptation! Yay. This one was directed by Catherine Hardwicke and written by Mika Watkins, and it stars Rupert "Ronald Weasley" Grint in the main role, struggling with another very bad fake accent. He plays a spiritual investigator who, as a child, witnessed his twin sister's spirit being dragged away into another dimension upon her untimely death. He's been obsessed with finding his way to the other side ever since. With the help of a mysterious drug, and a stay in a haunted house built by a witch, he succeeds - unfortunately for him.

"Dreams in the Witch-House" is a lesser known Lovecraft story, but one I quite like, with fascinating ideas like mad geometry, impossible angles, and a creepy rat-like familiar named Brown Jenkin. Unfortunately, this adaptation doesn't really capture the flavor of that story, though it does include some of the characters and plot elements, and certainly features some really fantastically unsettling images. The crooked silhouette of the witch, lit only by her own burning eyes, lurking in the dark corners of the old house; the walls covered with strange symbols and creeping vines; and within those walls, the pattering feet of a rat with a human face...yeah, that's quality stuff.

Sadly, there's a lot of other stuff here that feels like filler, and doesn't work as well. The episode drags on a bit, and certain twists of the plot, including the final one at the end, feel random and arbitrary.

Episode 7 - The Viewing
A lot of horror stories can be broken into two parts: the slow buildup of tension and mystery, and then the horrifying revelation and payoff. The Viewing is like 80% buildup. It's well done, and super stylish buildup, but still...that's a lot of buildup. And the payoff, when it finally comes, is anticlimactic.

This episode was written and directed by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn, who are also responsible for the absolutely insane and surreal Nicolas Cage vehicle, Mandy. I was not surprised to learn this, as the music and visuals in this short reminded me of that film. The music and visuals are effective and fun - this thing is dripping with style.

Eric Andre, Charlyne Yi, Steve Agee, and Michael Therriault play experts in widely varying fields who are all called together for a mysterious "viewing" by a reclusive and fabulously wealthy eccentric played by Peter Weller. After a lengthy intro, a rambling conversation, and a lot of drug-taking, Weller's character finally reveals that he's brought this group together to look at a weird rock he found. The rock is much more than it seems (natch), and things go horribly awry (natch).

The climax is exciting and gory. But then the story just kind of...trails off. There's a lot of philosophical talk, and a pretty cool monster, but what exactly is the point of it all? It's not clear.

Episode 8 - The Murmuring
This episode is easily the best of the season. It's written and directed by Jennifer Kent, who made the modern horror classic The Babadook. This short is concerned with the same theme as that film - grief.

Nancy and Edgar, a married couple who've recently experienced a terrible loss, are researching why and how birds are able to move so swiftly and seamlessly in enormous flocks called murmurations. As part of their research, they head out to a secluded island to record the behavior of birds called dunlins. They've been provided an old house to stay in while they're out there, but the house is haunted by its own terrible secrets. As Nancy struggles with sleeplessness and terrifying hallucinations, she becomes obsessed with learning the history of the house and the family that once lived there, and her relationship with Edgar begins to break apart.

Powerful, visceral performances from Essie Davis and Andrew Lincoln give this story weight and realism. It's a slower, more lyrical story than the rest, but it has plenty of scares and terrifying moments. It's also far and away the most emotionally hard-hitting episode of the season. My eyes were definitely leaking by the end. It's a gorgeous, deeply moving piece - a wonderful conclusion to the season.

It sounds like del Toro is already planning a second season. The first one was uneven, but that's to be expected of an anthology series. I'll definitely be curious to see more.
Tagged (?): Horror (Not), Lovecraft (Not), Netflix (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not)
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Wednesday, April 7, 2021 10:03 AM
(Last updated on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 10:07 AM)
On the Viewer - Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003)
 by Fëanor

Here's another live-tweet compilation, this time from a re-watch of Genndy Tartakovsky's Clone Wars micro-series, which recently got added to Disney+. Technically, I believe this series is no longer canon, but as this article points out (thanks to my friend Camden for sending me the link), it could pretty easily be inserted into the story that the later The Clone Wars series tells, with a few small exceptions. And it should be, because it's great!


Like a lot of Tartakovsky's work, the original Clone Wars strongly emphasizes action and awesome visuals over words. There are lengthy sequences with no dialogue of any kind. Yet you always know what's going on. It's a very clear visual story, often told on a massive scale.


A lot of really fun and inventive designs, for the characters, settings, and vehicles. Also some great characters are introduced and developed here, like Ventress and Grievous. The Grievous we meet in this show is far more terrifying and dangerous than the one in the movies.


Durge is another really interesting character design. The way he bulges and extends and persists reminds me of Akira, and of the rampaging poisoned animal spirits in Princess Mononoke. I'm pretty sure the character never speaks, either. At least, he hasn't so far.

[Editor's note: indeed, he does not.]


One of the things Tartakovsky's Clone Wars is better at than maybe any other Star Wars show or movie is capturing the awesome power and incredible abilities of the Jedi, especially Jedi Masters like Windu.


It's also amazing at handling things of massive scale, like a gigantic warship with a huge, army-flattening piston on the bottom. Not a vehicle we see anywhere else, but this show makes it very memorable.


Anakin's duel with Ventress near the end of volume one of Clone Wars is just a masterpiece. Gorgeous setting, dramatic lighting, amazing action. And then of course the powerful metaphor of him picking up one of her own red lightsabers to ultimately defeat her.


The duel is followed by the introduction of Grievous, which is equally fantastic. Previous episodes have established how powerful the Jedi are, and now we see them defeated and cowering in terror from Grievous, who easily defeats a group of them single-handedly.


On Tartakovsky's Clone Wars, we learn more about the rituals and ceremonies of the Jedi than we ever have before. We learn there's a series of trials a padawan normally has to overcome to be granted knighthood, and we even get to see the rite where Anakin becomes a knight.


Yoda himself cuts off Anakin's braid to officially knight him. In a nice touch, Padme receives the braid and places it in a keepsake box along with the japor snippet necklace Anakin made for her when he was a boy. There's also some nice Qui-gon references.


There's a funny scene where Anakin gets to see 3PO in his gold plating for the first time. Then scenes of Anakin being a competent hero, coming to the rescue of other Jedi. Which is nice. Sometimes in the movies he's such a jerk it's hard to understand why anyone likes him.


Padme sees Anakin with his scar for the first time. R4 is destroyed and R2 becomes Anakin's droid. Lots of milestones in their lives, but it doesn't feel like they're just ticking boxes; it feels organic, like you're watching these characters change and grow.


I appreciate that Commander Cody first appears flying in with a jetpack. He's named after an old serial character who was famous for flying around with a jetpack.


Star Wars repeats lines of dialog like it repeats musical phrases and themes. I like that Obi-wan gets to say, "What an incredible smell you've discovered." They do a good job here developing their slightly antagonistic, big brother/little brother friendship dynamic.


Anakin is the hot-headed, action-oriented guy, while Obi-wan is more patient, thoughtful, precise. "There are alternatives to fighting," more repeated dialog...


It's nice that Mace Windu has a purple starship and a purple droid, all to match his purple lightsaber.


I'm not a huge fan of Star Wars' heroes tending to take advantage of a native alien culture's beliefs to manipulate them into assisting in their wars. It happens again here, with Obi-wan putting Anakin forward as some kind of prophesied hero.


Yoda absolutely wrecking the droid invasion forces with jaw-dropping displays of power. Good stuff.


Let's pick up where we left off with Clone Wars!

Yoda & Windu together are an almost unstoppable force.

I love the image of the Chancellor calmly drinking tea, watching the battle outside his window. He's orchestrated this war between disposable armies and he's gonna enjoy it!


Fantastic build of drama and tension as the Jedi wait at the elevator, watching the closed doors of the chancellor's office, behind which they can hear Grievous picking apart the clone soldiers...


Grievous is a deadly force of nature in this show. Just a terrifying monster. It's great.


The Ithorian Jedi's roaring trick is a unique ability that we haven't seen before. Fun.


I think this marks the first appearance of Grievous' staff-wielding bodyguards, another fun creation.


One of the trials a padawan faces to become a Jedi is the trial of the mirror, where they must overcome the darkness within themselves. This is the trial Luke faced in the cave on Dagobah, and the trial Anakin is facing on this alien world.


In Anakin's cave, the pictures on the wall begin to move, and they tell the story of a warrior whose hand was lost in a battle with evil. The new hand that took its place gave him power with which he defeated many enemies. But the power ran wild and killed his friends, too.


As the story ends, a face appears in the midst of the twisting vines of darkness: the face of Vader.

What a powerful moment. And as with a lot of Tartakovsky's most powerful scenes, it is entirely wordless - a purely visual story.


I love the realistic details, like the recorded voice repeatedly asking them all to "please deposit two Republic credits" as they run into the subway.


I love the inventive ways they use the force here: quietly lifting up the end of Grievous' cape and tying it to the end of a departing train. Brilliant!

Also, "no capes!" :LOL:


Yoda and Windu aren't just incredible warriors, they're also brilliant thinkers. As they're fighting, they both realize at the same moment that the invasion is just a distraction to hide the enemy's true purpose: the kidnapping of Chancellor Palpatine.


Shaak Ti stays behind to give her fellow Jedi time to get Palpatine to safety. Man, you just hate Palpatine even more in this scene, knowing that her sacrifice is meaningless, that this is all just a little play he's directing, and that his kidnapper is really his servant.


Anakin: "Do you think they'll be able to reclaim their old lives?"
Obi-wan: "I sense they will, as long as each of them is able to accept himself."

Anakin cringes at this. He doesn't seem sure he can accept what he might become...


Shaak Ti actually survives this, but is defeated. Windu manages to get a parting shot in on Grievous, crushing his chest plate, which explains why Grievous is always coughing and wheezing in Revenge of the Sith.


Anakin replaces his destroyed mechanical arm with a new one, now gloved in black - an ominous sign of what's to come. Obi-wan tries to comfort him, saying what we see inside ourselves can be frightening, but our choices shape our destiny. Unfortunately, Anakin makes bad choices.


Clone Wars takes us right up to the opening of Revenge of the Sith, ending literally moments before the events of that movie begin.

It's a thrilling, gorgeous, brilliantly realized part of the Star Wars story. I was really glad to be able to see it again.
Tagged (?): On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not), TV (Not)
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Tuesday, April 6, 2021 07:06 PM
On the Viewer - Godzilla Vs. Kong (2021)
 by Fëanor

This is another live-tweet compilation! I hope that's okay! There are some spoilers in here, so beware.


[Thread #1]

"Kong bows to no one."
:Thumbs up: :COOL:


I like that each monster has a girl as his advocate. Also, spoiler: the scene where Kong talks is real good. I came in a much bigger Godzilla fan, but they're selling me on Kong here.


It's interesting how the military guys just wordlessly do whatever the scientists say. I guess that is generally what happens in these movies, but it seems like at least in American movies there's usually more friction.


Also, I strongly suspect we're going to see Mechagodzilla, and I'm HERE FOR IT!!!


Can you really break into a secure electronic door by breaking open the keypad and jabbing it with a screwdriver that you licked the end of? I mean, I'm asking, maybe you can.


Bro. HOLLOW EARTH! So cool.


It's just a tad hard to believe that these three yahoos could just wander into this extremely secure, top secret area without anybody noticing or challenging them. But whatever, I'm here for the giant monsters.


MECHAGODZILLA!! Called it! Yeah!


Kong, axe in hand, on his throne, in an ancient hall in the center of the hollow earth. That is freaking cool as hell.


Ghidorah's skull as a living psionic super computer. Damn, they just threw all the crazy ideas into this, and I'm loving it. The visuals are fantastic, too.


Taking a break for tonight, but I feel like this movie has captured more of the spirit of comic books than a lot of movies I've seen recently that are supposedly based on them. The wild invention, the crazy colorful visuals, the epic scale, the rivalry, the big brutal fights.


[Thread #2]

Picking back up where I left off with #GodzillaVsKong !


I'm not totally clear on why they only need a tiny little sample of the hollow earth magic power rock, and boom, they're good to go. In fact, they don't even need the rock itself, they just need the data download about it. How does data let you produce enormous amounts of energy?


Godzilla shot a hole into the middle of the earth with one blast of his radioactive breath?? Dang.


Why did the hollow earth temple start falling apart anyway? Because of the tiny sample they took? Or because Kong switched the thing on with the axe? It seemed to start happening before Godzilla zapped the hole in...


So, no massive gravity anomaly on the way out of hollow earth? That's only on the way in. Like the toll into Philly from Jersey.


I love how colorful the movie is. Maybe partly a reaction from having recently seen the incredibly gray and drab Snyder Cut, but it's just beautiful.


Did they consider a possible theme park ride based on this? The ship flying around between the battling titans is making me imagine a Star Tours type experience...


Kong hanging off the top of the skyscraper is a nice callback.


Not sure I ever remember seeing Godzilla crawling around on all fours. That was different.


So, mechagodzilla just immediately starts thinking for itself once it's charged up with replicated hollow earth magic rock energy? Okay. Man, they're really asking us to swallow a lot here.


Now we're gonna use the underground spaceship as a giant defibrillator paddle to restart Kong's heart. Sure!


Okay, cool fight. But I feel like it would have been more interesting if people had actually been in control of Mechagodzilla, and if they hadn't just been crazy bad guys. I mean, there's a sane argument that can be made for destroying the Titans to protect humanity.


A fun movie. It's interesting that it's really Kong's movie. He's basically the protagonist. I didn't expect that.

I'm a little bummed there are no post-credits scenes. They couldn't give us a little tease for the next movie? Maybe a little Gamera or something? Ah well.
Tagged (?): On the Viewer (Not), Star Wars (Not), TV (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.

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.

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.

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, March 28, 2014 02:35 PM
On the Viewer - Veronica Mars
 by Fëanor

After I supplied my drop in the bucket for the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter, I realized I really had to go back and watch the rest of the series (I never watched the last season first time around). And while I was at it, I should really watch the whole thing over again from the beginning. So I did. It was a blast. The show can tend a bit toward the repetitive and the melodramatic, but it always cuts the melodrama with sarcastic humor, and I never really got tired of its standard formula.

Once I was done with the series - which ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, to my surprise - I quickly downloaded my copy of the movie and fired it up. I was not disappointed. It's a wonderful and faithful continuation of the series, returning to all our favorite characters nine years later, and examining how they've grown and how they've not in the intervening time. (Even Dick Casablancas! My favorite dumb-ass asshole of all time.) In particular, and understandably given the title, it's a portrait of Veronica Mars herself and her destructive, addictive personality. She realizes ultimately that the past nine years have been her attempt to come clean, to escape the dark need inside her - and it's all been a lie. She's been playing at being a good, normal woman with a good, normal job; pretending she can be with a plain, upstanding, nice guy (poor Piz); trying to convince herself she can live without the dirt and the darkness. But with her 10th High School reunion looming, and an old lover in trouble again, she's quickly sucked back to her old town and her old ways, and nearly loses everything in the process.

The movie has the same cleverness, the same sharp sense of humor, the same wild drama as the show. But now they can also say curses! Well, some curses. It's PG-13, not R. Also, Wallace and Mac got super hot.

There are some great cameos from celebrities playing themselves, my favorite being James Franco, as his appearance involves a super-nerdy Tolkien reference. Also, remember to stay tuned after the credits for an extension of his cameo (yes, the movie has an after-credits scene; these seem to be de rigueur now).

I don't know how interesting or entertaining the movie would be for anybody who had not watched the show, but then again, I don't know why anybody who had not watched the show would bother seeing the movie, so there you go.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not), TV (Not), Veronica Mars (Not)
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