Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What I Want From The New Star Wars Movie:

From all appearances, J.J. Abrams has done good work with his new Star Wars sequel. I'm excited to see John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong'o and Adam Driver heading this cast, which will push the saga forward. (I'm talking about diversity, y'all.) All the new additions and directions the series looks to be taking seem OK by me, but here's a list of elements I'm also interested in seeing in a Star Wars movie, some of which are commonly found in the previous installments, some... maybe not.
  • Heroes from humble beginnings
  • Monstrous villains who represent corruption and repression of the people
  • The fate of the galaxy at stake
  • Strange, exotic locales, usually in the form of planets with a single defining characteristic
  • Daring escapes
  • People being shot at but never hit
  • Crazy looking creatures in busy social meeting places
  • A musical number
  • Weapons of mass destruction
  • Space dogfights
  • Rad lightsaber battles, but ones that look like they are occurring in a place with gravity
  • People concocting flimsy lies to get themselves out of tough situations
  • Confrontation with, and defeat of, the conflict within, between right and wrong
  • Impractical, but cool-looking industrial structures, catwalks and balconies
  • Funny, charming droids
  • Bickering
  • A good Sand-Person
  • Last-minute rescues
  • People using the Force but not talking too much about how it works
  • Vague allusions to things that have happened in the past that the audience doesn't have any clue about, but sounds cool
  • Ewoks... like a bunch of them all over the place. Preferably one as a tertiary protagonist.
Don't forget to keep reading my music blog, Sonic Sandwich

Friday, January 16, 2015

That Song Belongs To Me: 2014 in Music

The 16th of the January is, by some reckonings, too late to bother spending time reflecting on the previous year, but this blog has never been all that concerned with timeliness anyway. I also, famously (as famous as I can be to the three regular readers I have) am not a huge fan of regular year-end lists: while they can be useful, I certainly didn't listen to enough music myself throughout the year to form any kind of authoritative list. I listened to a lot of good music - some of which was from this year - but the year ended early for me on that score.

Back in July, I found out the store where I'd worked for nearly 5 years was closing by the end of September. I wasn't devastated exactly, but it meant an upheaval. There were times over the course of the next three months that I felt broken and lost, confused how to proceed. It wasn't just that I was losing income (I was fairly sure I could find a way to make money) it was that I was losing something that provided a lot of stability in my daily routine. Something that, in a way, had defined me since the middle of my undergrad years.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Web of Insanity: Spider-Verse Thoughts

Comic readers have an insatiable appetite for alternate universes. Whether it was DC's old multiverse and imaginary stories, Marvel's What If's and Ages of Apocalypses, or DC's new multiverse, people who read comics will never, never, ever, never ever stop thinking "Hey, I love these characters, but what if they were different?" Would they hold true to the core principles and remain true to the essense of the original, or will they be dark and grim and gritty - and in so doing be way more marketable? Being published continuously for decades on end will have that effect I suppose. And then once you've racked up a sufficient number of alternate versions of your well-known character, you start to wonder, "What if some insanely high-stakes event were to occur that caused all the different versions of these characters to have to interact with each other?" That's when shit gets real.

The current Spider-Man event is called "Spider-Verse." It seems to have been going on forever, gradually building until it became the all-consuming focus of my comic-reading life. In reality it's only been a few months, but this has been a very long few months and I am not sure when the story ends. Not that I'm checking my watch exactly, although there are times.

The premise of the story is this: All the Spider-Men and Women from across the Multiverse are being hounded by a group called the Inheritors, which feast of the life-force of "Spider-totems," ie people with spider powers. They go around killing and (after a fashion) ingesting different versions of Spider-Man, many of which have been created over the years, and some specifically for this story.

Academically, this is kind of fascinating. It's a concept that explores the notion of Spider-Man's uniqueness, that is the "real" Spider-Man whose adventures have been published monthly-or-more since the 1960's. He's not unique, there are thousands out there who are like him either because they are an alternate Peter Parker or because they are a different person with spider-powers (shout out to Spider-Gwen,) but he also must somehow be unique, because he's the one whose adventures we've been following. We are attached to him. The creators must some how prove to us, the reader, why we care more for the Peter we know than some other one. It's, incidentally, the same concept that was recently explored in Superior Spider-Man, the year during which Dr. Octopus inhabited Peter's body and acted as Spider-Man on his behalf. The question at the core of that was why was Peter a better Spidey than Ock was?

It's either a fun postmodern examination of a trope only really found in mainstream comics, or a story that disappears very far up its own ass and is inaccessible to anyone but the most hardcore obsessive reader. So, you know, it's a modern superhero comic.

On the one hand, the main story is kind of bleak. The bad guys are murderous vampire types who hunt versions of the protagonist for sport. They rack up a lot of kills in any given appearance: many Spider-Men exist as fodder. It's pretty dark. In the most recent installment, we meet the chief antagonist, Solus, who has the ultimate power of a multiverse-conquering God and shows it when he handily defeats a version of Spider-Man who has the powers of a single-universe God and, you know, eats his soul or whatever. The odds have been stacked impossibly high against our heroes, to the point where you wonder if it's possible to resolve this story without some kind of cheapo ending.

On the other hand, it's led to some pretty great moments, from Miles Morales and Ultimate TV Comics Peter Parker teaming up to find 60's cartoon Spider-Man, or the debut of the new Spider-Woman series by Dennis Hopeless, which is surprisingly readable for its own merits despite being part of this whole hullaballoo. (And let's not forget, again, that this whole event has added Spider-Gwen to the landscape, and Spider-Gwen rules.) There's a punk Spider-Man, a Japanese robot Spider-Man, Spider-Man Noir, and of course Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham. As bizarre and chaotic as it is, it, like the X-Men's Battle for the Atom last year, endeavors to be a celebration of the patchwork of insanity that a comic franchise becomes after so many years of existence. In the end, I think it's a labour of love, whether it winds up working or not.

Lastly, by design or not, this whole story bears an odd resemblance to the final arc of my beloved 90's Spider-Man cartoon, where the Beyonder and Madame Web recruited multiversal Spider-Men to defeat an insane Spider-Carnage who was bent on destroying the multiverse. In that one too, we learned there was something special about the Spidey we know and love. I guess that all just means that the longer these things go, the more reiterations we get, the more new spins on the old webs.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Science Rules: Andy Weir's The Martian

The other week, a spaceprobe landed on a flipping comet. What was previously only possible in Bruce Willis movies is now reality, and the probe has since learned all sorts of scientific stuff from this mission... I assume. I don't know what it was for, I don't really follow the news, but I'd be satisfied to hear they did it just because they could. Once thing that people seem to agree on lately is that space is cool: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is cool, that Mars rover guy with the mohawk is cool, Chris Hadfield is cool (who, I should always point out, went to the same high school as me, but you know, before I was born.) The whole concept of looking to the stars is cool these days in a way it hadn't been for a while. What The Martian by Andy Weir does, besides tell a gripping tale of survival, is tap into that zeitgeist, that thirst that we as a people now have for the subject matter that we didn't a short while ago. Not just by being about space travel, but by being about space travel in the way that draws on what we all find so fascinating about it.

A lot of that is up to the main character, Astronaut Mark Watney, who is left stranded on Mars when his crew believes him dead. Most of the book is written in the form of logs Watney writes upon finding himself the sole inhabitant of the red planet. Given that, in order to make it to outer space, you need to have a huge base of knowledge (Watney is a botanist and engineer) and he relies on a lot of this knowledge to facilitate his survival, the book in concept runs perilously close to being a dry lecture on how one might conceivably survive on Mars. Watney is written with a goofy charm, though: a quirky sense of humour that lands him just on the good side of "snarky Big Bang Theory character." At one point he has to describe a very wordy unit of measurement, so he chooses to abbreviate it to "pirate-ninja." He's self-effacing and vulnerable, aware of the gravity (haa) of his situation, and sure intimidated by it, but never overwhelmed by its hopelessness. So he becomes a guy we are eager to hear from, root for, and relate to... which it makes it easier to read attentively when he's describing the process of converting oxygen and hydrogen into water, or farming potatoes in the habitat. Why he has potatoes on Mars is one of the bigger leaps the book asks us to take, but is pretty necessary to believe in for the story to happen.

So yes, while there's a lot of hard science in the book (which I can only assume is reasonably accurate) it never drags, never bewilders, never loses the point or falls too in love with the idea with explaining the gadgetry and methodology. It retains forward momentum, and while it doesn't expect its readers to be experts, it doesn't aim itself at idiots either: you picked up a book about a guy surviving on Mars, you're going to learn how this guy survives on Mars, dammit!

The book has an equal reverence for science and human determination - basically the recipe for an astronaut. Like, if you're not into hearing what an awesome bunch of people astronauts are, (crazy bastards to blast into space in giant bombs basically just to look at rocks) - and even ground control gets into the mix - this is decidedly not the book for you. Luckily, as we know now, science is pretty damn cool, and is a favourite subject of a large number of cool people.

Come for the content, stay for the tone. As much as the situation is dire, on a fairly grandiose scale, its view never slips from the very human, eye-level perspective on Watney, and later the people charged with helping to save him. In fact, I'm actually a little disappointed that Ridley Scott picked it up to adapt, with Matt Damon in the lead role, because that feels like they're taking a fun, quirky story and trying to wring a prestige picture out of it (not to mention there's not a ton of action and thrills in the idea of Watney riding a 20 km/h rover for days on end.) The project threatens to unsettle everything that makes the book what it is. It would make a great cult film, though.

I do have some nitpicks of my own, which have nothing to do with the scientific content. I could have done with an Epilogue rather than the novel's somewhat abrupt ending, but that ending is consistent with the concerns of the book. The other nitpick threatens to unravel the whole thing: at one point CNN is described as airing a regular half-hour program called "The Watney Report." In reality, CNN covered the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 around the clock for weeks on end with absolutely no developments to report on, so it's safe to say the entire network would be the Watney Network.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just a Way To Hide Your Face: Doctor Who Series 8 Thoughts

I had been writing weekly recaps for Comics! The Blog, but eased back when it became clear they were doing a pretty good job covering it themselves.

"Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face."

Like a lot of long-running sci-fi series, it sometimes feels like Doctor Who can do nothing right. Depending on who you ask, the show is either being run by the wrong guy, stars the wrong guy, has the wrong actress playing his friend, leans too hard on romantic relationships or not hard enough, is too scary, too corny, too episodic, too serialized, too British, too old-fashioned, too pleased with itself. It can be hard to engage as a member of the fandom because more and more it's feeling like everyone who loves Doctor Who hates Doctor Who.

I'm not just talking about the often very valid criticisms about showrunner Steven Moffat's style, and his tricky relationship with his viewing public. I think in general a lot of people want a lot of different things from Doctor Who: because the show can be a lot of different things and over the course of its history - not just its 50-year existence but even since returning to TV in the form we now recognize - it has. Sometimes it's romantic and sweet, and sometimes it's dark and traumatizing. Sometimes it's corny, sometimes it's whimsical. Sometimes you get Weeping Angels, sometimes you get Slitheen.

Like, I've learned to be pretty forgiving of a show whose first major alien menace of the 21st Century was a bunch of farting aliens who looked like evil fat monster babies.

Series 8 bent the show against some of my preferred traits: in general a lot of time was spent unpacking the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, when I'd usually rather just take it as read and let the show get out of its own way. Did Clara need to sulk off at the end of "Kill The Moon" when she was going to come back the next week and decide she did want to stay on the TARDIS afterwards? Did we need the constant clashing between the Doctor and Danny? Did the Doctor need to be such a miserable dick the whole time?

I twisted in my seat as this season-long character arc played out week after week, and yet with a few exceptions I found myself enjoying the individual episodes. A lot. Most of the season was exceptionally good, whether it was the high adventure of "Robot of Sherwood," the existentially creepy "Listen," or the more conventionally terrifying "Flatline." "Time Heist" was a lot of fun, and "Mummy on the Orient Express" was basically pitch-perfect in its blend of imagery, terror, action and mystery, with the Doctor struggling to save a trainload of people and ultimately throwing himself on the grenade.

And what about the finale? What about giving the fanbase its first gender-bent Time Lord/Lady in "Missy?" What about the finale fate of Danny Pink, or the Brigadier for that matter? As Cyberman plots go, it was pretty good. As Master plots go, it oddly didn't go quite far enough over the top, because the Simm incarnation was such a good fit for the high camp of Russell T. Davies' era, and Missy more befits the sly, low-key femme fatale favoured by Moffat (when she tells you she's bananas you don't quite believe it in the way you did when Simm ran around singing along to the Scissor Sisters.) Yet if it wasn't my favourite story of the year, it provides enough material to talk about, and look at that: fiery discussions are being held all over the internet as we speak as to whether aspects a, b, c and d were good, great, or abominable. (For what it's worth, I'm glad we got Female Master before we got Female Doctor.) You don't spend that much time picking something apart if you don't absolutely love it.

Along the way, Peter Capaldi distinguished his performance from his predecessors in a most expected way. He's older, he's curmudgeonly, he's not really a people person. He's prone to insensitive remarks about Clara's appearance that many in the audience find legitimately offensive. (I think they were shooting for endearingly callous, ended up with something closer to genuinely hurtful.) The TV landscape doesn't need another Hard Man Making The Tough Choices™, but with the Twelfth Doctor, we've got enough reassurance that the grizzled exterior still masks two hearts that beat for humanity. And there's something weirdly adorable about his aversion to hugging.

You have to really love Doctor Who to hate on it. You have to care about the fate of this franchise, which is always in flux and at any moment feels like it's just a few degrees away from becoming something you can't stand anymore. Amid all the criticism of the direction, the performances, the characters' behaviours and everything else, there's a protectiveness that comes with really liking something and not wanting to lose it. We want it to remain the same as it was when we first came to it, and more than that we want it to be better. But hey, it's still only a show.

Personally, I often get the urge to snipe back, "Don't like it? Stop watching it," but that doesn't really engage with the weird complicated feeling of being a Doctor Who fan. It's pragmatic, but not a helpful thing to say and I know that, but I hope people do know why they are still watching it, that they are getting something out of it beyond just new material to complain about. My hope is that everyone can sit back, either now or when the DVDs come out, and realize that this was actually a pretty great 12 hours of television. It's fair to demand a lot from something you love, and I think we all want the show to be exciting, scary, life-affirming and above all forward-thinking. Just don't let your memory of the show be defined solely by the things you don't like about it. That can't be healthy.

In any case, the concept of the Doctor teaming up with Santa Claus seems like a damn brilliant idea to me, so I'm excited for that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Life and Legend of André the Giant: Review

Few subjects seem as appropriate to being told in graphic novel form as the life of André the Giant. It's almost too easy and obvious to say he was larger than life, but it's definitely true, not only of his physical stature but of his inner life, his kindness and the problems he encountered daily. It's not at all impossible that this story could be made into a movie (modern special effects might enable an actor to portray him in a movie, and Hollywood recently got professional wrestling "right" for the roughly first time in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler,) but Box Brown's voice in telling the story here feels uniquely suited to it. It's balanced, nuanced between the kindness and loneliness that made André a compelling, complicated person. We get a view of André that is intimate despite being from the outside (and often admittedly speculative) sympathetic but not overly sentimental, and thus the story feels real and true, even if it emerges from decades of unverifiable memories, rumours, and legend.

The story follows a more or less classic biography structure. André is unusually large even as a 12-year-old in France, and ends up wrestling practically by default. As he rises in popularity, there's a great scene with Vince McMahon Sr., which shows how good the book is at getting into the world of pro wrestling, where he examines that as impressive as it is just to see André, there are ways to present him that better enhance that spectacle. At a few moments throughout the book, such as this, followed by the analysis of a pro-wrestling handicap match (where the Giant squares off against two opponents at once) and a boxer-versus-wrestler match with Chuck Wepner (the inspiration for Rocky Balboa) Brown shows his keenness for the subject matter, elucidating for the audience what every move in a match is meant to accomplish in telling the story for an audience. The book climaxes, more or less, with a blow-by-blow breakdown of André's famous match with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III (which I've actually written about before.) It's a great use of form and medium.

André's meteoric rise, coupled with the natural shenanigans he got up to as a Giant living in a world too small for him, give the story a lightness, but it often and effectively reminds us how literally painful life was for André - not just that he was physically disabled by the condition that caused his success, but that he was emotionally distanced from everyone around him, and likely depressed as a result of being told he wouldn't live past 40 (he died at 46.) The balance of humour and pathos is kept very strong by the art, which in its clean lines and puffed-out anatomy do well to represented the over-sized world of wrestlers. On the surface, it appears simple, but it conveys the depths of its characters very well. One scene, where Bad News Brown confronts André over an overheard racial slur, could have been hard to watch unfold under a different pen. As the story goes on, much as in real life, André seems to become bigger and bigger. In general, the elastic reality of it serves as an unconscious reminder that the biography we're reading isn't meant to be a strict factual account (although a helpful endnote and bibliography section lets us know who to take issue with if the stories aren't true) but to evoke the overall spirit of the story, the characters, and the unreal world of wrestling.

It can be hard to get these things right, and to make them appealing for the non-wrestling audience. Dealing with pro wrestling, especially during its 70's heyday, is tough because the truth was heavily guarded then, and what we know now is only what has managed to stay alive in the minds of those who were there, usually speaking long after the fact. My love for pro wrestling comes from an admiration of the way the stories are conceived and told, built bigger than reality, and it's clear Brown is with me on that score. And he could not have chosen a better subject: you get a well-rounded sense of André's humanity, as when he places his hand on Robin Wright's head to warm her during a cold night shoot on The Princess Bride, or how the situation with Bad News is resolved, but also the faults he carried with him as a result of his life experience, his loneliness at the way people saw him as being alien to them, his temper and his demons. It's unflinching but rendered lovingly.

André the Giant was deservedly a legend while he was alive, and it's only fitting that that legend has grown in the years since. Box Brown has made a great contribution to not only André's legend, but to the depiction of the world of wrestling overall.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

That Old Familiar Feeling: Kiesza, "What Is Love?"

I've just started a new job after keeping the old one for five years, and as similar as it is to the old one it can't help but bear its differences. I find myself frequently saying to my new co-workers "Oh, we used to do this" or "We had things arranged that way," not to be difficult, but just to sort of take stock of what I need to get used to. Life's like that sometimes, where familiar things are arranged in a way that takes some getting used to. A dance song made into a lovely ballad, for example.