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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (1/1/18) 9:01pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Cat vs. Cat, Star Wars: Lando
Movies:  The Last Jedi
TV:  Crunch Time [season 1], Jane the Virgin [season 1], Stranger Things [season 2]

Cat vs. Cat: Keeping Peace When You Have More Than One Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett
This is the 2004 book about ensuring that all the cats get along in a multicat household.  I picked it up because, after a month or so under the same roof, Freya and Kaya are still periodically snarling at each other, and I wanted to make sure I was doing what I could to encourage peace in our household.

And to that end, Cat vs. Cat was a really good book.  I don't think it gave me the One True Answer to ensure that the two cats would be cat-friends, but it was full of interesting and convincing advice on how to keep cats as pets.  I hadn't ever thought, say, to put on a three-hour youtube video of "birds at a birdfeeder" and let Freya go to town on it, or to move cat toys like they are actual prey, darting from cover to cover and staying out of sight.  At its best, the book lays out simple explanations: this is how cats are, and this is what that means for properly taking care of them.

There's honestly not much to say about the book besides that.  The prose is simple and effective and readable, and the information is interesting and applicable.  I'll probably check out her other, more generalized book on cat care (Think Like a Cat), and I do recommend this one to any of my cat-owning friends.


Star Wars: Lando (2016) by Charles Soule and Alex Maleev
This is the 2016 Charles Soule and Alex Maleev Star Wars comic-book miniseries that follows Lando Calrissian on a pre-Empire theft that goes very, very wrong.

And kudos to the miniseries for knowing exactly what it is.  This is just one job.  It takes maybe two days total, with most of the action happening within two hours on a single ship.  There are arguably six main characters, but really it's more like three.  This is purely about telling a really solid heist story.

And they carry out that genre really well.  It feels a lot like Firefly, though it's more proper to say that it feels like the heist narratives that Firefly borrows from.  Lando gets a gig that sounds too good to be true, and then every major plot development is actually a reveal of something bad about that deal.  The first such reveal makes the job seem fatal, and every subsequent reveal makes things even worse.

Also, further kudos to this comic for knowing who Lando is.  He's not a jedi.  He's not a great fighter.  He's not an ace pilot.  He's not the smartest guy in the room.  But he *is* the best *schmoozer* in the room -- he can make deals, he can rely on networks of support, he can romance the ladies -- and the comic does a brilliant job of foregrounding those skills.  Lando deals with every problem by cajoling, or manipulating, or sweet-talking just long enough to stay afloat until the next thing goes wrong.[1]

And that's a really challenging story mechanism to write.  Look, you can say that "<x> is the best hand-to-hand fighter anywhere," and then put them in a fight with a big dude, and have them win the fight.    Only the readers who are also experts in hand-to-hand fighting will read that and say no, no, no, they shouldn't have won that fight at all, their stance is all off-balance, their attacks were broadly telegraphed, and they punch in a way that would immediately break their own knuckles.  But everyone else (i.e., nearly everyone) will shrug and say, "huh, guess they must've punched super-hard."

But it's different if you say "<x> is the best *negotiator* anywhere."  Because *all* of us negotiate.  All of us have conversations.  All of us try to get what we want.  So *all* of us have a pretty sensitive bullshit detector for negotiations that don't work, or don't make sense.  Suddenly, you it's not just "they have a fight; my hero wins."  You have to create a clever and *credible* way for your hero to *convince* his enemies to do what he wants.  And Lando does that beautifully, over and over.

I also really dug the tone of this miniseries.  It has its moments of high-action derring-do -- Lando escaping the Star Destroyers was especially spectacular -- but generally this is dark, quiet, and tense.  There are moments of violence, but those punctuate long stretches of people thinking very hard about how not to get killed, and carefully trying to talk their way out of disasters.

I know very little about comic art, but it feels like the style of the books really helps this mood.  It's all dark palettes and moody colors.  The inkwork seems rough -- oftentimes like something out of a sketchbook -- but incredibly expressive.  And the dialog backs this up -- sure, there's lots of gallows-humor repartee as the deal catastrophically falls apart, but any time someone speaks at length, we feel like we're getting a peek at depth and nuance we hadn't seen before.  There's an opening speech that nails down just how good Lando is at manipulation, while implying a sort of conflicted humanity in his Imperial mark.  And the advice to Lando that closes the miniseries is simple and beautiful.

So this is all well worth your time if you're a Star Wars fan.


The Last Jedi
This is the eighth film in the Star Wars saga.  This Rian Johnson-helmed 2017 installment has the last remnants of the Resistance facing down an impossible standoff against Kylo Ren and the First Order, while Rey tries to coax a recalcitrant, elderly Luke Skywalker into training her as a Jedi.

Sequels can do a lot of things.  Most typically, a sequel does the same thing the original did, with enough slight differences to merit a new batch of ticket sales.  ("It's Die Hard, but on a plane this time!")  Sometimes they'll do the same thing, but bigger this time.  ("The girls from Pitch Perfect move on to an *international* competition!")

Sometimes sequels will find ways to subvert or undercut the earlier installments.  Logan, for example, takes the relatively whiz-bang X-Men franchise and asks painful questions about, say, what it means to live as long as Wolverine, gradually losing everyone that you love.  Even The Empire Strikes Back finds a way to take the gosh-wow, farmboy-goes-adventuring world of A New Hope into darker, more troubled territory.

What intrigues me about The Last Jedi is that it's not going the "cheerful reinforcement" route, but it's not going the "dark subversion" route, either.  Instead, it's treading a middle ground that I think I've only seen in fanfic.  They're expanding the frame on this universe.

Yes, that's a terrible phrase.  Bear with me.  Many, many sequels expand the world of a franchise *physically*.  If there were three planets before, now we visit five *new* planets.  If we were in district one before, now we see districts two through five.  Or they expand the scope of the plot.  If the first film was a conspiracy in a small town, the sequel is where see that it goes all the way up to the state government.

This is something more deft than that.  They're expanding the frame to show you that the moral messaging from the previous films -- the things that the previous films told you about how the world works -- don't comprise the whole picture.  For instance, to this point, nearly every problem in the film saga has been solved by a hotshot who disobeys orders but gets results.  In The Last Jedi, Poe is our hyper-charismatic hotshot, and he disobeys orders, and it's a blunder that nearly kills everyone in the Resistance.

Now, this isn't the same as an edgy, grimdark sequel saying, "Yeah, the idealism and individualism of the original was *stupid* -- this is what the world is *really* like.  (*emo hair flip*)"  Because frankly, the hotshot hopping into an X-Wing and blowing stuff up really *does* save the day in a later situation in the same movie.  It's totally valid that, say, Han Solo pops in to save Luke at the end of a New Hope.  This film is just saying that that's not how it works *every* time.  The picture is bigger than we thought.

That's how I felt, too, about a lot of the casino sequence.  Yes, it's correct that this world has forces fighting for the Dark Side and the Light Side, and yes, we're correct in concluding that the Dark Side is evil.  (If anything, The Last Jedi doubles down on establishing the consequences of the First Order for regular civilians like Rose and the planets they inhabit.)  But beyond that long cycle of the sith predominating, then the jedi taking over, and so on, back and forth, forever, we find that there are happy arms dealers profiting from both sides.  It doesn't invalidate our investment in the sith/jedi struggles we've seen to this point, and it doesn't make us wrong for rooting for the jedi, it just means that there's a larger picture there.

Honestly, when the credits rolled on The Last Jedi, I wasn't sure how I felt about this aspect of it.  Maybe all I want out of Star Wars is a big, simple spectacle about spaceships blowing up bad guys.  Maybe Star Wars is an intrinsically unquestioning thing -- at best, it just spouts some feel-good woo about The Force and then calls it a day, hoping that nobody peers too closely at its shoddy, Successory philosophizing.

As such, I was convinced that the film would face blowback from dyed-in-the-wool Star Wars fandom, and I was not wrong there.  I was also pretty sure that, given some more thought, I would come around to liking this aspect of the movie a lot.  And I think I have.  It's such a strange thing, seeing the flagship film of a franchise dare to ask, after forty years, what this all *means*.  Or to wonder if we're seeing an accurate and complete view of this fictional world.  It's a strange, minor-key feel that nicely complements the rest of the saga for me.

I would never have expected The Last Jedi to be nuanced and relevant, but here we are.  Because it feels like also, in gently questioning the principles of this saga, or (again) 'expanding the frame' to show additional context, it's raising questions about traditional masculine roles as well.  Look, the original trilogy has, what, three named female characters?  And it drew a lot of inspiration itself from old Flash Gordon serials.  So if The Last Jedi is asking questions about what it means to be (say) a hotshot hero, then it's really asking what it means for a *dude* to be a hotshot hero -- a dude acting in a traditional, 1940s-dude inspired way.  It's taking *that* and putting it under a microscope, in a way that feels current.

This feels a lot more relevant with their development of Kylo Ren, taking the character who wants to be a powerful imperial ruler and, well, interrogating it, and finding the insecurity, the petulance, the entitlement and weakness that can lie underneath it.  Again, we've seen ambitious evil characters in the saga before.  This is just another aspect of it that wasn't in the frame before, and it feels painfully relevant now -- we all know that guy, and we've seen a dozen of his clones somewhere on reddit.

(Seeing reddit complain incessantly about the movie has been weirdly satisfying.)

The most frequent complaints I see are about Luke's portrayal in the film, which is just baffling to me.  Luke is one of my favorite things about this film.  Look, I get it, yes, it could be hard to swallow that Luke would, in a moment's weakness, think to strike down a kid who's apparently going to go Full Hitler.  Apparently that's something that Hamill himself had trouble with in early drafts of the script.  But I love that what they've got is a story arc that Johnson and Hamill apparently went back and forth on: it gives us a Luke who is about as far as possible from where we left him at the end of The Return of the Jedi, but still, credibly, that same man, even after all these years.  Yoda casually calling him "Young Skywalker" nearly brought me to tears, just because the movie so beautifully made me feel all these decades that had gone by for this character.  Again, the character journey we saw in the original trilogy wasn't wrong -- it was just part of a bigger picture.

I'll come back to this and I'll watch it again.  Lord knows, I haven't written everything there is to say about this movie, and I haven't yet seen everything there is to see in it.

And I'm very interested to see how J. J. Abrams will finish out this trilogy.  I worry that Abrams cares more about his intricately-designed 'mystery boxes' than he does about these sorts of brought, weighty, thematic arcs.[2]  But wouldn't it be nice if the first trilogy was the story of Luke, then second trilogy reframed it as the story of Anakin, and then the third changed it to something new entirely: the Skywalker storyline itself drifting away, ceding the fictional galaxy to the grunts, the nobodies, the stable boys with brooms -- the whole, wide galaxy coming into the frame at last.


Crunch Time [season 1]
This is the 2016 Rooster Teeth comedy webseries about four "jackass grad students" who invent the dream-machine from Inception, make a series of not-great decisions with the technology, and nearly destroy the world.

I won't be able to discuss this in much depth, for two reasons.  First, I breezed through its two-hour running length while I was recovering from this horrible Christmastime cold that's been going around, so I didn't have my sharpest 'thinking hat' on.  And second, I know way too many people involved with the show to be able to assess it with any degree of impartiality.  (Hell, I'm *in* one episode.)

But in broad strokes: it's great fun to watch this show play with the old "world of dreams" sci-fi trope -- something that goes back at least to Lovecraft -- and hit it with the sort of anarchic, blue humor you'd associate with (say) Red vs. Blue.  It's also great fun to watch these core characters make bad decisions over and over again -- at its best, the show is like a gaming group got hold of an Inception playset for Fiasco, and you're watching their desperate, terrible decisions mount from scene to scene. 

It's great to see a Freaks and Geeks alum (Samm Levine) turn in a sharp, funny performance as the main scientist on the team.  And the show *looks* amazing, especially given what must have been a minuscule webseries budget from RT.  (At this point, I can only conclude that their producer is a wizard.)  Their depiction of the world of dreams is delightful, and their director creates perfect looks for the 'real world' around the lab and the police-interrogation framing device.

That said, I don't know how much I really connect with Rooster Teeth productions in general, these days.  I feel like there's a very strong "gamer bro" vibe baked into the company's DNA[3], and while that was hilarious fun back when I watched season one of Red vs. Blue, these days I instinctively associate gamer-bros with, say, doxxing beloved female celebrities or complaining that Nazi-killing games don't properly respect both sides of the whole "Are Nazis evil?" question.  So, for example, when one of the main characters is introduced incapacitating his girlfriend and then taking her back to the lab, it *feels* more misogynistic than it was, I think, intended.  Just: lots of little moments where I had to remind myself that they're aiming for a reaction of "oh, those scamps" and not "stop. ruining. America."

The other drawback is that the ending, while a fine cliffhanger, leaves many, many things unresolved, both in terms of the core mysteries of the story and in terms of the character arcs.  I trust a lot of that is sorted out in season two, which I hear has been written (?) but Rooster Teeth has yet to pull the trigger on it. 


Jane the Virgin [season 1]
This is the 2014 CW adaptation of the 2002 Venezuelan telenovela of the same name.  It's about a young waitress who is accidentally artificially inseminated at her ob/gyn exam, leaving her pregnant with her boss's child.

I know this is not accurate at all, but I like to imagine this show happened because a bunch of telenovela writers watched Arrested Development and said, "Ooh, *we* could do that."  There are a few editing tics that are eerily similar -- say, the fades to white (instead of black) and (I think) the use of bongos to punctuate an act out.  Both use a narrator that has a very specific attitude towards the show.  Where Arrested Development relies on mountains of false documents, Jane the Virgin gets the same effect from creative captioning, dream sequences, and brief nods to magical realism.

As such, Jane the Virgin shares a lot of good qualities with Arrested Development.  For one thing, the density of the show is insane -- by two episodes in, you could build a 'crazy murder wall' for the show, full of myriad relationships, mysteries, and secrets.  And with rapid scenes, efficient narration, and post-production elements blasting through the exposition, they can take time to establish very clear characters for the show to build from.

I love that the show has a setting and a point of view.  Jane the Virgin is practically going Dickensian on us, using its broad array of characters to show us all the strata of Miami society: this is what it's like to scrape by as a single mom; this is what it's like to be a luxurious scion of privilege; this is what it's like to be in showbiz; this is what it's like to be a twenty-something minimum-wage waitress; and so on.  Sure, it's not David Simon's Baltimore or  Jenji Kohan's Litchfield Penitentiary, but it is *somewhere*.

And I like getting to have a glimpse at Latin-American culture.  Sure, it's through the funhouse mirror of a, what, meta-telenovela?  But underneath all the soap-opera antics, the show has lots of aspects that feel genuine and lived-in.  It hits hard with its calls for immigration reform, and its depiction of what it's like to live, day-to-day, as an "undocumented immigrant" who's spent most of their life in the States.  It finds lots of little things I'd heard of -- quinciñeras, telenovelas, and so on -- that were just a natural part of the show's world.  Like, I knew telenovelas existed, and I knew what they were like tonally, but I had no idea that multigenerational families will happily plop on the couch and watch them together (but of course they would).

All that said, this wasn't a good show to binge.[4]  On the one hand, it's delightful to see the show (presumably) stay true to its telenovela roots by being absolutely fearless with its plotting.  Yes, they'll have a murder, and a cover-up, and a conspiracy about cosmetic-surgery alterations, and a corporate takeover, and double-crosses, and people getting thrown in insane asylums, and then it's, like, episode three.  And you're vaguely convinced that, in the real world, *everyone* would be ready for a mental hospital after that much upheaval.  But if you watch it all at once, it starts to feel like -- here's my favorite phrase again -- "complication without complexity".  Lots of stuff is happening, but it doesn't add up to much beyond churn.

Or, put another way, the events are happening to surprise the *audience*, not to affect the *characters*.  There are a few occasions where the show takes a breath and lets, say, Petra be raw and emotional after her kidnapping, or lets Jane and Rafael wonder at how much stuff has happened in their relationship.  But things happen mostly just to be momentarily sparkly and dramatic.  Which is great, but after 22 episodes you're definitely ready to change gears and, say, watch Rectify be slow and contemplative for a few hours.

I'm definitely glad I watched its first season, but I don't know when I'll get around to watching the rest.  I feel like I know what the show has to offer now, and it's fun, but there's just so much out there on the infinite queue that I can't prioritize more servings of that known quantity.


Stranger Things  [season 2]
This is the second season of netflix's surprise hit sci-fi thriller about a group of kids who discover that secret government experiments are endangering their small midwestern town.  The second season happens one year after the first, when the Upside Down is finding strange ways to intrude back into the everyday reality of Hawkins, Indiana.

Season two does pretty much exactly the same thing that season one did.  It tells an exciting supernatural story that zips along with lots of scares and tension, while reveling in that mid-80s milieu that its creators were barely alive for.  The scoring is still phenomenal, while some of its pop-music choices feel a little obvious/boring.  They do a fine job with structure, creating the first signs that something is wrong, putting the characters in more and more danger, and then building to a finale where multiple "teams" have to execute particular tasks before a ticking clock expires.  None of it reinvents the genre-fiction wheel, but there's nothing wrong with building another really solid wheel.  Hell, hardly anyone can do a decent job of that these days.

And there are some incremental improvements.  I love how well they set up the 'platform' of the first few episodes -- they draw a lot of power from just letting us rejoin this cast of characters a year later.  They set us up to get deeply invested in their hard-won happiness, and that powers the story beautifully when things start going wrong.  And they do a fine job of blowing up the scale of that threat, moving from one individual monster to a straight-up apocalypse.  They bring in some new secondary characters who mostly gel with the vibe of the show[5], and continue their "Moneyball casting", where they find name actors that aren't, say, headlining features these days but are absolutely perfect for their show.  And they manage some incremental character growth with their core cast.  It's nothing too tremendous -- character arcs aren't really the show's main strength -- but they do a great job with Steve getting his heart broken and trying out taking care of the core cast of kiddos.[6]

I liked that it feels like they're bringing in more female characters, most notably with El's "008" counterpart in Chicago and with Max Mayfield joining the core kids' group.  At the same time, I sometimes feel like the show doesn't really 'get' its young female characters.  And that's a weird thing to say, given that five of its (now) seventeen episodes are credited to female writers.  But it sometimes feels like the main job for Nancy and Max is to serve as love interests, with even Eleven being nudged through a love story (her sudden jealousy towards Max felt... odd).  I'd be interested to hear from ladies-who-are-nerds of my age group, and hear how this show does or doesn't reflect their childhood experience.  In any case, my critiques may be unjustified[7], and again, it was good that they were making an effort at making it less of a boys' club.

I even liked the crazy "Eleven goes on an adventure in Chicago" episode.  Now, let's be clear, that was not a great episode in and of itself.  They set themselves the challenge of creating a whole new setting (1980s Chicago), and a whole batch of new characters, and a tone that was more "rollicking action-adventure" than their usual slow-burn conspiracy wheelhouse.  And... they didn't quite succeed at that.  But it was still nicely-plotted and well-acted, and it was great to expand the world of the show a little.  Now there's a city nearby.  Now there are characters who live there.  Now you can have a self-contained, action-y plot that wouldn't have been terribly out of place on an 80s TV show.  It felt good to sort of take a breath in this season, and I like seeing the show take tentative steps towards expanding its palette.

So given all this, I'm all in for a third season of Stranger Things.  It wants to be a solid, three-star genre story, and it delivers.  It's fun, and exciting, and well-made.  It doesn't have to do anything more.


For next week: I am all caught up on media-update stuff.  I'm still catching up on podcasts, and I need to sort out what I'm watching next (maybe Get Out?) and what I'm reading next (maybe the next book of the King James Bible?).  We'll see.


_______
[1] It reminds me a little of
Dark Force Rising, which neatly rests the fate of the universe on Leia's ability to execute a nigh-impossible diplomatic mission.
[2] A little like Steven Moffat in that regard, I guess.
[3] Though I don't recall that tone in RWBY.
[4] ... which might be the wrong word for my viewing habits, since I'm usually watching maybe twenty minutes of stuff per day.
[5] ... and yes I'm ecstatic that there's a dorky middle-aged nerd dating a cute lady with two kiddos.  GET OUT OF MY HEAD, SHOW.
[6] What they've done with Steve is one of the few "redeeming a villain" arcs I've really liked lately.  Usually that process just sands off all the rough edges of a charismatic villain and leaves you with a charismatic cipher.  But here, they're weaving a sharp story about a popular kid who finally chooses to grow up.[6b]
[6b] Also, good on them for bringing in Billy as a "genuine" villain, though I wish they had done *nothing* to try to explain "this is why Billy is mean".  It's okay for evil to be incomprehensible.  In the real world, it so often is.
[7] ... and more informed by the vibe of the Beyond Stranger Things discussions than the show itself.

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