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

Sunday (4/1/18) 10:01pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Think Like a Cat
Movies:  The Big Short, Get Out [spoilers], John Wick, Kedi
TV:  Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [season 2] [spoilers], The Expanse [season 1] [spoilers]

Think Like a Cat by Pam Johnson-Bennett
This is the second edition of cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett's primer on how to raise and care for a housecat.

This is the same writer behind Cat vs. Cat, the book specifically about handling tensions in a multi-cat household.  This book doesn't repeat much specific material from that one, but it does get across the same general idea: to care for a cat, think like a cat.  For example, if your cat is scratching the sofa, it's because they want something to scratch on.  The simplest fix is to give them something better to scratch on, and make sure they know about it.  That makes sense to a cat brain.  Something like shouting at your cat while pointing at the sofa conveys nothing useful -- it's just "mah human is being mean to me for no reason."

And so it is with most cat behaviors: see what's going on, figure out why it's going on, and find a way to adjust the behavior that your cat is capable of understanding.

Think Like a Cat feels mostly like a reference book -- reading it straight through had me reading a lot of sections, like "how to make your home safe for a kitten", that aren't really relevant to my pet situation.  But the writing is clear and pleasant, and it's nice to read a reference where the writer is clearly invested in your being able to provide the happiest life you can for your pet.

I've been trying to make some of its recommended changes, like changing out their water more often, cleaning the food dishes more often, providing more cat trees, cleaning out the litter more frequently, and making sure to play with the cats a few times a day.  Hopefully the cats are better off.  Still, my cat care is well short of the near-constant maintenance the book recommends.  (I'm sorry, unless it's direly necessary, I am not trimming my cat's nails.)

Overall, I'd say it provides a good overview of the subject.


The Big Short
This is the 2015 film adaptation of Michael Lewis's novel about the eccentric financiers who saw the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis coming, and bet against the market.

This is one of those rare times where I had a wonderful time watching a movie, but I'm not sure that I can recommend it.

I have a lot of trouble understanding economics.  Therefore, I spend a lot of time banging my head against things like the subprime mortgage crisis, trying to make sense of what went wrong -- and more generally puzzling that modern capitalism gives such rich rewards to people doing, apparently, nothing of value (or actively committing harm).  So I'd read the Michael Lewis book, and I'd read other bits and bobs about the situation, and so basically I came into this as a superficial fanboy of the material.  I didn't (and don't) deeply understand why the economy tanked, but I know plenty of surface-level details about it.

And that meant that through the whole movie my main emotional response was "HEE HEE I RECOGNIZE THAT."  The insane mortgage offers.  The corruption at S&P and Moody's.  The massive over-leveraging.  And, in the end, the theft so gigantic it bordered on treason.  (And yet there was only one token conviction.)  There's just a delight in finally seeing all that come together in movie form.

And I don't think I was able to get beyond all that and accurately judge the movie.  I could tell it was scattershot -- like the book, it follows several disparate groups of investors through the mad run-up of the housing market, as they come to the horrified realization that the entire thing would collapse.  I could tell that they got real drama out of that, though -- it was amazing to see a real-life version of the Twilight Zone episode where you're the only one who knows the plane is about to crash and nobody believes you.

Even I could tell the movie was over-edited -- or, more precisely, "conspicuously edited", the sort of editing that says, "HEY LOOK AT ME I'M AN EDITOR!!" and detracts from the actual storytelling.  Some aspects of it worked.  I thought that using celebrities to explain the basic principles of economics in play was great -- the information passed the sniff test for me, it was concisely presented, and each time, the gimmick didn't overstay its welcome.  Just as often, though, the editing choices felt random, straining to create no particular effect beyond 'trying to look cool'. 

So I dunno.  I had a delightful time watching this.  If you've gone slogging through stories about the subprime crisis, you probably will, too.  If you haven't, it might still be worth a watch -- fun moment-to-moment, but never quite adding up to a real story.  If you were instead a victim of the subprime crisis, it might just make your blood boil.

Choose wisely.


Get Out [spoilers]
This is the 2017 horror film from Jordan Peele about a black photographer whose first visit to his white girlfriend's family goes very, very wrong.

I liked Get Out.  I thought it was a really solid three-star movie, which is a rare thing these days.  It aimed to be a straightforward, exciting genre movie, and it hit that target nicely.  Sometimes it feels like modern cinema is split between bloated, ponderous tentpole genre pictures and indie pics that are downright afraid of using genre tropes or telling an engaging story.  Get Out was lean, well-written, and did exactly what it set out to do.

And what it did was pretty damn exciting.  Using horror -- and not even modern horror, really, but more like 70s horror -- Mr. Peele cites Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives as influences, and it shows -- to tell a story about race is brilliant.  It made me see a lot of things I hadn't thought about before, like just how much people of color have to routinely pick their battles in the face of relentless prejudice, or how far you can skid into the uncanny valley just by code-switching inappropriately.

The movie is smartly-written, too.  Specifically, it's that rare horror movie where nobody acts like an idiot and the plot still works.  It kind of reminded me of Death Note.

Okay, bear with me.  Death Note was a story where the good guys were constantly wrong-footed because they were dealing with a piece of technology -- a bad guy could write an upcoming death in his magic notebook and that death would come true exactly as described -- that none of them had ever dealt with before.  So they had no way to guess what it was, and even as they figured out what they were dealing with, they had no *intuitive* way of dealing with it.

Get Out had the same sort of feel to it.  Chris has no way of reasonably guessing what's going on, just because what's going on doesn't happen in the real world.  He reacts like a smart, resourceful man faced with an impossible scenario.  Everybody plays to the top of their intelligence, even the TSA Agent.  Yes, Rod is played for laughs, and he's working from what he knows about pop culture, but he's also logical, and resourceful, and he's just following the ludicrous conclusions that the evidence is pointing him towards.

They even solve the "why don't they just call the cops?" question with the early, agonizingly specific scene where it's clear that the cops don't trust a black man in this secluded white community.

I was very surprised at how well-directed it is.  I expect sketch comedians to be primarily verbal -- like they're ready to do their material onstage, and for most of the laughs to come from the one-liners, or from how well they play broad, physical characters.  I forgot how cinematic Key & Peele was, and how often the humor of that show comes from capturing the feel of a film style, or delivering a sight gag through editing.  So of course Mr. Peele was excellent at telling his story through pure cinema -- this image, then that image, then that image, and you're following the plot without a word.  Yes, I'm keen to see what Mr. Peele writes next, but I'm equally keen to see what he directs.  And since he's likely got a long film-auteur career ahead, he's sure to do both for many films to come.

Still, set your expectations accordingly.  This is entertaining, but it won't blow away your notions of filmmaking or anything crazy like that.  Expect a good little horror movie.  Expect it to strain a little bit at the edges, trying to reconcile tones between the crazy premise and the TSA comic relief against the nightmare scenario that unfolds.  ("Yeah, the über-rich would do that if they could," I thought to myself, and was unsettled.)  But that's just one quibble against a very strong and worthwhile movie.


John Wick
This is the 2014 actioner about an ex-assassin who gets revenge on the Russian mafia after they kill his dog.

Everything goes in cycles.  We had god knows how many years where an action movie had to have some gimmick.  (We could call them "but with" movies: "it's an action movie, but with time travel!")  Now, maybe, we've circled back to "let's just make a straight-ahead action movie."  The storyline is clean and simple: bad guys kill John Wick's dog; John Wick shoots his way through <x> boss levels to get back at bad guys.  That's especially a relief after so many bloated tentpoles that feel compelled to give us A- and B- and C- stories, with runtimes that long overstay their welcome.

And the action choreography is clearly presented.  There's none of this arty cutting around a fight sequence to conceal that nobody in the scene knows how to convincingly fight for more than two seconds.  When two assassins fight, you can see what's going on.  You can understand the geography of the place.  You can see the strategies the fighters are using.  Yes, a lot of films can cut corners here, because it's easier, and maybe the scene is more about how the fight *feels* than how it proceeds.

John Wick makes a deal with the audience: you are here to see Keanu Reeves shoot a bunch of bad guys.  We are going to deliver on that.

And good on them for going hard R with the action, too.  I'm surprised to see them take that kind of financial risk -- if your movie shows hundreds of people getting shot in the head, you're going to lose that PG-13 kiddo market.  But maybe it made sense to leave the kiddie-action field to Marvel, Star Wars, and all the other various other heads of the Disney hydra.  For this film, being able to show the gore means (again) that they can actually show the fight sequences instead of cutting around them bewilderingly. And it adds a visceral quality to the fights -- like the blows are landing and the bullets are flying -- that deliberately bloodless, cut-around-the-damage editing lacks.

Beyond that, there really isn't much to say about the movie.  I love its cheeky world-building of this secret underworld of assassins.  Kudos on its supporting roles -- it's just fun to watch Ian MacShane and Willem Dafoe and Clarke Peters do their work.  The cinematography is kind of silly -- over-the-top saturated colors -- but at least it's fun, and not a bland, self-serious, teal-and-orange fest.

The best I can say about this movie is that it makes actioners look easy.  But lord knows, writing a simple, effective script is hard.  Long-take action sequences are hard.  Getting a distinct, expressive look to a film is hard.  So good on them, putting in all the work so you can't see the seams.


Kedi
This is the 2016 documentary about the street cats of Istanbul.

And, from that, you probably already know if you need to see this or not.  The documentary is neither more nor less than you imagine from this description.

I feel terrible saying this, but the film is really just a few notches above a screensaver.  It has beautiful footage of the city, and it follows various cats around, each for ten minutes or so, with the humans who care for them talking about the cat's personality, and philosophizing about caring for cats in general.  Between the voiceovers and the shot selections, it does a fine job of showing eacch cat as a quirky individual.

And that's pretty much it.  I love cats, so I had a fine time watching it.  (I was kind of delighted that Freya was riveted for most of the running time.)  The film makes some vague statements about how Istanbul is changing, and somehow not caring for its cats like it used to, but that only comes through vaguely -- most of the focus is on watching some tabby go bounding through a busy marketplace and then parkour up to some friendly hyoomin's second-story apartment.

Good times.


Crazy Ex-Girlfriend [season 2] [spoilers]
This is the second season of Rachel Bloom's musical comedy about a successful lawyer who throws away her New York City career to move to a small town in California and pursue the boy she dated when she was a teenager.  The second season has her in a rollercoaster of a relationship with said boy, while her friends and her workplace face their own tumultuous changes.

This is a hard season to write about.  Often, with a season, there's an overall theme to how I feel about it.  With this one, though, my feelings are a hodgepodge.  So first, let me take inventory:

So I was a little all over the place.

And I think all of this is to say, I felt ambivalent about the central storyline of the show: Rebecca's relationship with Josh.  The two characters, perhaps deliberately, don't have chemistry.  And the whole thing feels like "schmuck bait" -- if the clouds lift, the angels sing, and Rebecca sorts out a healthy relationship with the man of her dreams, the show is over -- I don't see them pulling a Cougar Town and gleefully walking away from their premise.

And so in season one you'd see scheme after scheme to pursue Josh, but you'd know that none of them would quite work.  Here in season two, you see scheme after scheme to keep Josh, and you'd know none of those will quite work either.  The antics to try make the latest scheme work were always pleasant enough in a sitcom sort of way.  Oh, the scheme went wrong, but they averted total disaster, and we'll see the same thing next week.  So the A-story always kind of drifted by, and I paid closer attention to, well, everything on that bulleted list I wrote.

And yet.  And yet.  The reveal at the end, that Rebecca was having dissociative episodes and that she had been institutionalized over a bad breakup in college, was a home run.  The quotations from season two's opening song were brilliant -- in the moment, it felt like a LOST reveal: "OMG the ending was in plain sight all along!" -- even if it really wasn't.  And the pivot from "I must marry Josh" to "I must get revenge against Josh" is a hell of a way to set up season three.

So I don't know what all that adds up to, besides "confused ambivalence".  I always felt a little reluctant to watch the show stumble through another batch of sitcom hijinks, or present a song clearly thrown together just before a deadline, or try to convince me to like Nathaniel.  But it still produced those moments: the perfect song, the perfect feminist take on a story, the perfect deconstruction of mental-health clichés, the perfect pivot from sitcom-wacky to raw, overwhelmed hurt.

Season two was not a winner every episode, but I'll sure as hell watch season three.

       
The Expanse [season 1] [spoilers]
This is the 2015 Syfy series about a set of seemingly-unrelated tragedies in a future where mankind has colonized the moon, Mars, and the asteroid belt.

Maybe twenty years ago, TV had this little cottage industry of syndicated sci-fi and fantasy shows.  Each one would be some unambitious adventure story about, say, an exotic dancer fighting robots, and it would have production values that tried really hard, and somehow it would scrounge together enough viewers to run at least a season or so.

It feels like we're in that age again -- between this, and Dark Matter, and Killjoys, and The Orville and more, we have a whole bunch of fun, straight-ahead sci-fi going on.  Only now, the medium has advanced quite a bit, and the technology of making TV has advanced quite a bit, so it's all much, much better than the syndicated fare of the late nineties.

And that brings us to The Expanse, a mishmash of a police procedural, a political-conspiracy thriller, and a pew-pew spaceship adventure, all set in a solar system that runs on class warfare and untrustworthy governments.

It all works surprisingly well together.  I think a lot of that's because of the strength of the world-building.  They hired a proper conlanger to invent the asteroid belt's "belter slang".  My favorite detail is that Detective Miller has a cell phone.  And it's one of those UIs that's a see-through display screen -- which is just hilariously stupid[1] -- but it has a massive crack in it, because even in the future, people drop their cell phones.  This is a solar system where Mormons are busy building a generation ship so they can set up colonies around other stars -- another example of the "oh, well of *course* that would happen" logic the show excels at.

But I think the world-building is the only aspect of The Expanse that's a total home run.  In other ways, the show is very, very competent, and it makes for a show that's engaging, but rarely moving.

For instance: the show's design is solidly competent.  It has that "Vancouver look" many 2000s sci-fi shows have.  They crank up the contrast, which makes everything look a bit gritty and stylized, and also conveniently washes out most of the little details that would be expensive and time-consuming to put in the shot.  The back wall is rarely that far away from the camera.  The color schemes are simple, often monochromatic, which is less work for whoever's setting up mise-en-scène.  But: they make a limited budget go its absolute furthest, and you don't notice the seams unless you're really looking for them.

The actors and writers put in solid, journeyman work.  I don't see any breakout stars on this show, but I don't see any bad performances, either.  And the writing is similarly solid.  They set up quite a lot of plot complexity.  Their reach exceeds their grasp a little, though, and one often loses track of exactly who is doing what and to whom.  They set up characters who are engaging and charismatic, but they often get caught up in 'ooh, do you know if you can *really* trust this person?' to the point that they feel under-defined.

(Also: they have their detective wear, unironically, a fedora through most of the first season.  I know they're going for suggesting "40s private eye", but these days it feels more like they're suggesting "10s gamergate neckbeard", and that's no fun.)

Still, there are stretches where they absolutely hit a home run.  The closing episodes of season one are especially strong.  I absolutely believe that the rich and powerful in this solar system would slaughter innocent belters (i.e., asteroid-belt citizens) to develop a vague superweapon.  And the finale, with our detective and our space rebel fighting to escape the doomed asteroid station while they were themselves dying of radiation poisoning (a fate I've found terrifying ever since I first read about it as a kid) was riveting.

And also, their action sequences are damn good.  It's rare that a show takes the time to set up combat where you know the geography of the fight and you know why the combatants are doing what they're doing.  This show manages to convey the confusion and disorientation of combat without actually confusing and disorienting you.  And on top of that, they were willing to kill characters, and make the sort of bold plot moves that you can make when you have a short episode order and exactly no interest in running in place.

So all in all, it's a solid, three-star show.  If all the 2010s crop of space shows are this good, it'll make for a very good Silver Age.


For next week: right now I'm watching The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and reading a manga-based book about Japanese grammar.  On audio, I'm catching up on Opening Arguments, an entertaining and fascinating podcast that discusses the legal ramifications of current events.  Oh, and I still need to write about Black Panther.

_______
[1] How much would you like it if your iPhone were a translucent window? -- you wouldn't.  You would hate it.  You would hate every second of using it.  Jesus, I get pissed off enough when I can see a reflection on my iPhone screen.

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