Thursday, December 22, 2016

Decembrion In Excelsis

As the end of every year draws near (well, ends of 2013 and 2014 and 2015, at least) I compile a very eclectic and personal list of pop culture superlatives. Often this has more to do with my experience with the entertainment in question than the objective quality of same, but that is kind of the whole raison de blog 'round here. So without further ado, the 2016 Year-End Countdown Something Or Other!

1. Best visual pun Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. OK, stay with me on this one. This summer I picked up the first collection of a newish comic book series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It is a dark reimagining of the beloved Archie character Sabrina the Teenage Witch, done as overt horror assuming that Sabrina's family heritage of witchcraft involves actual demon worship and ritual human sacrifice and whatnot. It is a HOOT. It's not played for laughs, it's legitimately creepy and pretty far from camp. But there's still an inherent humor to it simply by nature of the premise, taking this innocuous character orginially presented in bright colors with rounded edges and pushing it into nightmare territory, and incongruous juxtaposition which can certainly produce a chuckle or two when things go really over the top. And furthermore, it's all done as a period piece, which allows for certain amusing, historically 20/20 social commentary as well. Quite a bit of the art is at least photo-referenced, using celebrity archetypes from the late 50's and early 60's to drive the point home. So ultimately this leads to a great joke when the characters of Betty and Veronica show up.

And, see, Veronica is a brunette so she gets modeled after a very famous brunette pin-up, with her square cut bangs as a dead giveaway: Bettie Page. Whereas Betty, with the waves in her blonde hair, looks like she's being drawn as an homage to ... Veronica Lake. So Betty is Veronica and Veronica is Bettie! OK, I thought it was funny.

2. Best late bandwagoning (second annual!) Orange Is the New Black. Right about the time that Orange Is the New Black was releasing its most recent season my wife and I decided to finally give it a try. And at this point, really, what is there to say? It's pretty great! We did our version of binge-watching, which means we would watch one episode per night every night, as long as we were home and neither of us was too exhausted and there wasn't something else, like a live sporting event, that we needed to watch more urgently. Some nights we would watch two episodes back-to-back, if we were feeling particularly wild.

We paused after the third season, in an effort to savor the fourth. I know that there are three additional seasons more or less guaranteed, which is great, but of course what will probably happen is that Season 5 will be released right on top of the premiere of Game of Thrones Season 7, #firstworldproblems. (In fact, one reason why we paused OINTB was to re-watch GoT Season 6 when our Blu-ray copy was delivered. Now as we wait to get back to Westeros, we can amble back to Litchfield for a spell, #fantasyworldproblems.)

3. Most problematic recommendation Jessica Jones. See the post from earlier this week for the full explanation as to why I really dug Jessica Jones but find it hard to impress upon other people that they should watch it.

4. Most depressing thing I read The Sun and the Moon. OK, as long as I've re-opened the unhappy box, let me go ahead and get this one out of the way, too. The Sun and the Moon is a fantastic book! It covers a specific moment in American history, basically the summer of 1835 (although it does provide quite a bit of backstory as well), to tell the tale of the rise of city newspapers as a truly populist mass medium, as opposed to a luxury for the upper merchant class. It delves into early 19th century sensationalism, scandals and crime reporting and whatnot, but ultimately explores the production and reception of a series of articles purporting to be authentic scientific discoveries of lifeforms and civilizations on the moon observed by new telescopes. This, of course, was pure science fiction, but well-crafted and presented to stand on its own in such a way that many people believed the hoax until it was revealed to be just that. Along the way the story loops in various American luminaries, several of whom are near and dear to my heart, including P.T. Barnum and Edgar Allen Poe.

So is it depressing to read about people's gullibility? Not really, no, at least not with respect to whether or not winged furry humanoids called Lunarians really exist. What gave me the blues was the fact that the book identified another facet of the ascent of daily newspapers, which served as political mouthpieces often with unapologetically brazen agendas. And in 1835, one of the hot-button political issues in the U.S. was slavery. What was depressing was reading some of the arguments for and against slavery which went back and forth in the pages of the papers. Pro-slavery voices often fell back on the Bible to justify the practice. Abolitionists often pointed out that there are lots of things in the Bible which weren't done anymore, and cherry picking chapters and verses to rationalize crimes against humanity is really not a particularly satisfying answer. This of course went round and round and changed very few minds and accomplished very little, and then we had a bloody war about it to settle things. It's my own fault, really, that like many modern people I think any given phenomenon is something new and unique to our slice of history. And so I was blindsided by this idea that people holding up the Bible to justify trampling others' rights, and people pointing out how inconsistent and hypocritical that was, and people continuing to trample while jamming Bibles in their ears and chanting "Bible! Bible! Bible!" was actually a good hundred and eighty years old. I like to believe things do get better as life goes on, but sometimes I wonder.

5. Biggest missed opportunity Charles Dance as the big bad of the Monsterverse. Right, now, let's talk about stupid monster movies! We added HBO to our cable package some time ago (2014, maybe?) and I often find myself comparing the experience of having it now as a middle-aged parent, after a long stretch where I didn't have it, to back when I was a kid and HBO was one of many perks of living in my parents' house. One of the biggest differences is that, as a child, I often would be flipping around the tv channels, bored, hit HBO to find that a movie had just started, and wind up watching the whole thing. This almost never happens as an adult, for reasons which I assume should be obvious. But it did happen once this past year. My wife and I settled onto the couch after getting the kids to bed, there was nothing we were in the midst of slow-bingeing (see above), and my wife only wanted the tv on as background noise anyway (she had paperwork to do). So I stumbled upon Dracula Untold on HBO and gave it a few minutes; I remembered it had more or less flopped but I wanted to see if it was "so bad it's good" or merely sub-mediocre.

I ended up watching most of it, and I have to say, it might not be much above mediocre, but it's certainly not sub. I admire the ambition of the filmmakers, turning Vlad into this scary-yet-sympathetic-yet-still-really-evil tragic protagonist. They Batmanned the hell out of him, and Luke Evans works with what he's given. Moreover, you might (read: you probably don't) recall that Universal was trying to breed their own cash cow mega-franchise, wherein they would do origin stories for the classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein and the Wolfman and the mummy, and then bring them together MCU Avengers-style for a billion dollar blockbuster. Batmanization notwithstanding, turning monsters into superheroes is a bit of a stretch, and announcing the intent ahead of time just seemed like hubris and probably had people rooting for them to fail, but for what it's worth, again, I will not personally crap on someone for aiming too high.

And then there's Undead Tywin Lannister! I had a vague recollection that Charles Dance was in Dracula Untold, and indeed he is, as the ancient vampire who transforms Vlad Tepes, a perfectly good use of Dance's ice cold bastard persona. What I did not know, until I got sucked into the flick and suddenly two hours later found myself watching the epilogue which apparently woudl have set up the modern day crossover, was that Dance was going to be the primary antagonist, being just as immortal as Dracula and having followed him into the present ready to make his life hell. That would have been great! A movie where Dracula, the ghost of Frankenstein, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon have to save the world that fears and despises them might have been dumb as all get-out, but if it had included sufficient supervillain scenery chewing by Charles Dance, I would have been there full price on opening night! Alas, it seems this potential was squandered by middling box office returns. Oh, what could have been.

6. Most surprising use of Netflix stand-up specials. For a long, looooooooong time, way past the period when everyone else shifted over to the streaming model, my Netflix account was used to rent physical DVDs by mail. If you are a long time reader of this blog, you know that's because for years I rode the train and often watched movies or tv shows on the commute, using a portable DVD player and discs, because the rails went through some terrain that didn't have reliable cell coverage and the train didn't have WiFi and blah blah blah. I have since come around and gotten the streaming version myself. But if you had told me, back in 2010 or so, that one of the best uses I would get out of the in-home streaming service was the ability to order up a stand-up comedy special any time I wanted, particularly when my wife and I needed a break from scripted dramas and such, I would have found that pronouncement ... odd. Not unbelievable, I've always really liked stand-up comedy, just not the knee-jerk assumption I would have made. Nevertheless, here we are, and after watching a few online series (in addition to OINTB, we loved Kimmy Schmidt and Stranger Things) and several on-demand movies, the fact that we streamed Aziz Ansari and Ali Wong and Bo Burnham and Jen Kirkman and Donald Glover doing killer comedy is like this crazy bonus jar of funny cherries on top.

7. Best new media audio books of memoirs written by comedians and read by the comedians themselves. Speaking of comedy, 2016 was also the year that I finally gave in to the recorded siren call of audiobooks. I had been of the firm opinion that audiobooks simply don't count, by which I mean of course that everything in my life is some kind of running tally which translates quantifiably into a sense of accomplishment: how many blog posts I make, how many hits my blog gets (obviously I got over both of those this year, too), how many classic movies I've seen (hence my 1001 Movie Blog Club experiment), how many books I've read in a given year (thank you, GoodReads). Reading, to me, feels like an active mental undertaking, while listening to an audiobook seems like more of a passive thing which I wouldn't deserve too much (if any) credit for .

But things change. I don't take a train to work anymore, I drive, and the state police really frown on people reading books while operating a motor vehicle, even in the stop-and-go bumper-to-bumper traffic of peak rush hour I-66! I even went on a few work-related trips this year, and had to drive myself from Virginia to New Jersey and back one weekend. It was on that trip that I decided to finally make use of this Audible membership with monthly free credits I apparently get with my Amazon Prime account. So I downloaded Patton Oswalt's Silver Screen Fiend to my phone and listened to it while driving the leg home, and it was enjoyable enough that it unleashed a flood. (It helps that the radio in my car is totally dead, so it's the apps on my phone or dead silence for those two hours out of every day I'm behind the wheel.) I figured if I'm going to start listening to audiobooks regularly I ought to impose totally arbitrary limits on my consumption! Okay, not really, but I did like that Patton recorded himself reading his own book, because it guaranteed that all the jokes would at least be delivered as intended, and it was kind of like listening to a comedy album, something I assuredly have never had a problem with. I tried, and am still trying, to break things up with an audio novel read by a professional vocal narrator artist type every so often, but mostly I gorged on comedians performing their memoirs: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Nick Offerman, Aisha Tyler, Jenny Lawson. Really I've found that it's kind of like going on a road trip with someone cool and funny riding shotgun, where the agreed upon division of labor is that I'll do all the driving if they just tell me entertaining stories from their life.

8. Most exciting yet unsettling development the little guy getting ahead of me on Clone Wars. Star Wars has gotten its clutches into my kids in a big way, most especially the little guy, who is now eight years old and absolutely the prime age for it. And of course I am thrilled about this development. I've found myself softening quite a bit on the prequels, because my kids really dig them. The bino (he's three) thinks Jar Jar Binks is funny, thus settling the age-old question as to whether Jar Jar is in fact designed to appeal to children or fails at that and is simply universally reviled, and the little guy really likes the whole Jedi Order and seeing them at the center of the story rather than as abstract background information.

It is strange, in its way, that the little guy is growing up with a different version of what is canon than I had. I had the original trilogy all on its own for a while, although that was fleshed out in little bits here and there by Star Wars comics, novels, role-playing games, video games, and the like. Then came the prequels, which were a mixed bag to adult sensibilities, and then a ton more comics and games and novels and Wookieepedia ... and then Disney bought Lucasfilm and said a lot of that Expanded Universe stuff no longer counted, but also gave us the very good Force Awakens. But before that, I had really kind of drifted away from trying to experience and understand everything about Star Wars. It felt like diminishing returns; the let-down of Episodes I through III predisposed me to think that any further attempts to wring more story out of that particular galaxy was not worth the effort.

Case in point: years ago my sister gave me a DVD for Christmas which was the pilot movie of the Clone Wars tv series. And every year I told myself I should make time to watch it, and every year I failed to do so, and it just sat on my bookshelf, still shrinkwrapped and collecting dust. Then my kids watched all six Star Wars movies and were still hungry for more and I figured, why not let them watch Clone Wars? At that point I had heard good things about Clone Wars, that out of all the ancilliary tie-ins it was definitely at the top end, quality-wise. My own reasons for never breaking the seal had shifted from "eh, I've got better things to do than be disappointed in Star Wars some more" to "I just don't have the free time to invest in this no matter how good it is" but that's not a problem my kids share. Sure enough, they liked the movie and so started watching the series (which, cybersaints be praised, is available in its entirety on Netflix). This is all well and good, except that at this point the little guy has watched something like 38 episodes of the show and I've never seen a single one. He now considers Ziro the Hutt and Captain Rex and Luminara Unduli and Cad Bane big parts of the canon. Technically he knows more about Star Wars than I do! Which makes me happy and proud but also the slightest bit wistful. Passing torches is good, but my torch-hand now feels conspicuously empty. I suppose it's all just part of the whole parenting gig.

9. Best movie-going experience Keanu. When I started compiling notes for this post (months ago, obvs.) I had more or less assumed that this slot would be dedicated to taking the little guy to see Rogue One in the theater. Not only does it tie in nicely to the previous entry, but it raises an interesting tidbit: the little guy has never seen any Star Wars movie on the big screen! He turned down an invitation to see Force Awakens at a theater, but he's a year older now and I do believe he's ready. Or, I did believe. Here's the current logistical considerations: I personally haven't gotten to see Rogue One yet. And since Christmas is about two and half days away, I probably won't until next week. At which point I will see it with my wife, while the kids are at daycare, because Rogue One is rated PG-13 and that at a minimum calls for a pre-screening by both parents to ascertain whether or not we are comfortable with the eight-year-old seeing it. Assuming it passes that test, I can then think about scheduling a father-son outing, but for all I know that might not come together until some time in early January, and this list is supposed to be all about 2016, soooo ...

Keanu was really good! I went into it with fairly low expectations, just bound and determined to support Key and Peele because I loved their sketch show so much. My wife did, too, so it was an ideal date movie (except that it didn't feature any sandal-wearing emo heroes with ripped abs - I'm not going to link to the old posts explaining why that's a running joke, just trust me, I'm hilarious). And we continue to love the local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, so here, take my money, give some of it to Jordan and Keegan-Michael, and bring me your finest beer and chicken wings. The fact that the movie was LOL-funny was a welcome addition to the overall enjoyment.

10. Mea Culpas I can't think of any other highlights in my year of pop culture, so I'll close with the other things, like Rogue One, which were never in contention for this list because I just didn't get around to them. This year I got into Breaking Bad, but only through Season 1 and a little bit into Season 2, so I understand I still have the best parts ahead of me. I failed to catch Season 2 of Agent Carter, or Season 1 of Preacher, and I gave up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I DVR'ed Thor: The Dark World, watched half of it, but have yet to finish it, so that remains the one flick in the MCU I've never seen. I really wanted to see Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden in the theater, but it got a very limited release and never came to my local Alamo, so I'll have to VOD it at some point. I started reading Justin Cronin's The Twelve about six months ago but never finished it, because I designated it my "read while I'm working out on the elliptical or treadmill" book and, oh man, have I been bad about working out lately. That's a whole 'nother story. (It's a short one, though: I'm lazy AF.) There remains to this day a tiny part of me that longs for an injury or illness which would force me to be on bedrest for three or four weeks, during which time I could read and write and watch tv and movies and just generally have minimal responsibilities and maximal free time. I know that's ridiculous, both because I clearly have a lot of free time to enjoy a lot of things I like, as this post demonstrates, and there are countless scads of people less fortunate than I am in that regard, not to mention the fact that the very responsibilities to which I refer are primarily my wife, my kids, and my cool new job, all of which by an honest accounting make me very happy!

So instead I will simply content myself with having made it to the end of another year, knowing that I have a whole brand new year to look forward to. I will doubtless read more books, see more shows, go to more movies, and do lots of other stimulating, worthwhile things, and I am truly grateful for that. It may not come all at once, and it may in fact come in tiny fits and spurts around the edges of a very full life, but I will never actively complain about that, either.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Line Reading of the Year

In this era of interweb content churn, amidst the current golden age of television, there’s no shortage of people online overanalyzing pop culture and looking for deeper meaning, attempting to isolate and identify the ultimate microcosmic encapsulations of the present moment. And who am I to deny myself the chance to take a stab of my own? Spoilers follow for one of my favorite pieces of entertainment of the past twelve months, Jessica Jones.

(Note: spoiler for the post itself, this is gonna get dark, as I’m sure you can imagine and won’t be surprised by if you’ve already seen Jessica Jones. But on the chance that you haven’t seen but want to hear my thoughts anyway, consider yourself forewarned. Later this week I will do my usual hilarious rundown of superlatives for 2016, if you’d rather read something lighter!)

Jessica Jones was so great in so many ways, and I’m going to drill down with hyperspecific focus on a single one of those elements because of its particular resonance, but I don’t want to give the impression that’s the only good thing about the show. The acting was terrific, especially Krysten Ritter as Jessica but not discounting the entire supporting cast, and the storyline was awesome because it was so different from the usual superhero fare, and the direction was on point and the music was perfect, etc. etc. etc. If you blew past the spoiler warning above despite not having seen the series, seriously, do yourself a favor and watch it.

Although (and here, as we get a little closer to the eventual point of this post, we start to acknowledge how complicated it is to engage with Jessica Jones as a whole) at the same time that I recommend the show so highly there is a major caveat, which is that the emotional heart of the show is really fairly brutal. Jessica Jones takes place in a comic book universe and is ostensibly the tale of a former-and-maybe-once-again super-heroine and her evil arch-nemesis, but that’s a superficial read. What it’s really about is trauma, surviving it and coping with it, or at times spectacularly failing to cope with it well. It’s a superhero story where we come in fairly late in the game and get a lot of info via flashback and exposition-laden monologues, but what’s in the past includes the super-villain getting the best of the heroine in profoundly disturbing fashion for a long time, and the heroine ultimately emerging victorious but at tremendous personal cost. And then, as the series begins, we learn that even that previous defeat of the bad guy might not have been as complete and total as one would hope.

The bad guy in question is a man called Kilgrave, played by David Tennant. He absolutely slays in this role, pun only semi-intended. (I am not a Doctor Who fan - nothing against that venerable franchise, I just never got into it and now it seems like a daunting, enormous timesink I honestly do not have the spare time for. But I am aware of Doctor Who, and aware of its fandom, and aware that Tennant played one of the incarnations of The Doctor. I’m further aware that some DW fans very vocally freaked right the heck out over Tennant as Kilgrave because how dare any silly superhero show sully the good image of The Doctor by portraying him as an unsympathetic irredeemable sociopath? Apparently these people do not understand that actors sometimes take on different roles which are not intended to be commentaries upon one another. Arguably I could have written an entire post about fan entitlement, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.) Kilgrave’s whole superpowered deal is that he can control the minds and actions of others simply by speaking to them; if he says “give me your wallet” the person he says it to will happily comply, and if he says “take this gun, put the barrel in your mouth and blow your brains out” the person will just as happily do exactly what he says. He’s utterly amoral and completely insidious and basically unstoppable and Jessica got away from him the first time because he stepped into the street without looking both ways and got hit by a bus. Jessica thought he died in that accident, but it turns out she was wrong. The series hinges on Kilgrave’s return, and his obsession with Jessica and how she deals with all of that.

The show, to its credit, does not shy away from how gross Kilgrave is. It is at times profoundly uncomfortable to watch him move through the world, constantly violating the lives of others. He knocks on strangers’ doors and tells them to invite him in, feed him the dinner they were preparing for their family, let him sit at the head of the table. And they do it. When people make him angry, he tells them to hurt themselves. And they do it. If you have an ounce of empathy, it’s unsettling. Then there’s the sex angle, because let’s be honest here, if you could make anyone in the world do anything you want just by naming it, you’d at the very least be tempted to satisfy various carnal desires, right? Anyone who’s never at least daydreamed about this must have spent puberty in a coma. But to see it play out with a grown man exploiting the fact that people are helpless to resist his superpower is (intentionally) revolting.

Again, the show confronts this head-on, and forces the audience to do the same. And at a pivotal moment in the narrative, when Kilgrave has forced Jessica to spend time with him, not by using his superpower but with old-fashioned extortionate threats (do what I say or I will use my powers to make people you care about do unspeakable things), Jessica unloads on Kilgrave, demanding that he acknowledge what it is that he does, what it means and what the consequences are. She doesn’t use euphemisms. She tells him that he raped her. “You raped me,” she says, more than once. Which he did, of course, and that’s what I was euphemistically referring to above as “the super-villain getting the best of the heroine in profoundly disturbing fashion for a long time”. In the backstory, Kilgrave met Jessica Jones and told her she found him irresistible and wanted to be with him, and she did it. For months or years, she was his companion, arm candy and sex slave, seemingly willingly but in truth totally unwillingly, because that’s how Kilgrave’s powers work. He gets what he wants, despite anything anyone else might think or feel or suffer as a result.

That in and of itself could probably qualify as one of the most important themes to be addressed by a piece of pop culture in 2016. And especially now, as we seem to be at real risk of drowning in the sentiments of a small, crass, disproportionately amplified segment of our society whose credo is “we want what we want and we don’t give a fuck who that hurts or who else stands to lose”, it feels pretty goddamn prescient. But what really struck me in that scene, and what I imagine will haunt me for years and years to come, is the contrast between what Jessica is saying (and Ritter’s powerful, unflinching delivery of it) and Tennant-as-Kilgrave’s reaction.

I tried, I really did, to find a screencap or an animated gif of the exact moment, but no luck. I shall have to fall back on description. In the scene, Kilgrave is slouching in a chair while Jessica stands across the room enumerating his sins. She says “You raped me” and the camera cuts to him. He sneers and rolls his eyes. He shifts his weight in the chair with visible discomfort. And he grumbles, mostly to himself, “Gah, I hate that word.”

There it is, folks, that’s my nominee for 2016-in-a-nutshell, first prize. This past year has frequently felt like one big long fight, specifically a fight where both sides are playing by different rules and aiming for different things. On one side, people who recognize injustice and want to force others to acknowledge it so we can all move on and do something about righting the wrongs. On the other side, people who refuse to engage, who deflect by focusing on (a) terminology, (b) the ways that the argument itself makes them feel bad, which is far more important than whatever the argument is actually about, or (c) both. All of our cultural struggles writ large are present in that aggrieved, dismissive redirection. It’s the prime tactic for today’s bad guys. An athlete kneels during the national anthem to protest police brutality? That’s disrespectful to our armed forces, and I think that guy should just be thankful he lives under the freedoms they fought and died for, and he should show his gratitude by shutting the hell up! A presidential candidate brags about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it because he’s rich and famous? That’s just locker room talk and people are way too oversensitive these days! Man-made climate change is a serious problem we need to take concrete steps to solve immediately? If it still gets cold enough to snow in the winter, then “global warming” is a hoax, and I’m not giving up my 6 mpg truck! I could go on and on, except it took me like an hour to force myself to type out those three examples and if I try for four I think I might kill myself.

(And yes, I am well aware that this sometimes cuts both ways - liberals defending Roe v Wade who think the most important thing is to rebrand the “pro-life” movement as the “anti-choice” movement, or those who get caught up in arguing whether or not safe spaces are good ideas or trigger warnings are valuable while ignoring the root causes, and so forth. But my point stands that litigating semantics and/or obtusely changing the subject are both dick moves no matter which side employs them as tactics. Like a great many wrongheaded impulses, from gerrymandering to genocide, it’s a bad idea no matter whose idea it is.)

Some things - perhaps most things - which are genuine problems with demonstrably harmful effects are difficult to talk about. They make us uncomfortable, as well they should, whether it’s some form of guilt that we caused them or made them worse, through action or inaction, or just the fact that they skeeve us out. Nobody willingly grapples with pain and death. But sometimes the only way forward, the only way to make things better, is to do things unwillingly, not because they’re pleasant but because they’re right. And talking about things, honestly seeing things and calling them what they are, is the bare minimum first step for that. And yet we’ve reached the point where people balk at even that. A word makes them twitch and they somehow channel that into an indignation which gives them every right to refuse to engage, full stop. It’s appalling. And writing a supervillain who is genuinely appalling is a high achievement within the genre! But when that appalling super-villain resonates so very deeply, it’s time for all of us to take a long, hard look in the mirror and figure out if we’re going to make our feelings paramount at the expense of our future.