Movies: Logan Lucky, The Princess and the Frog
TV: The Dragon Prince (season three)
Other: Untitled Goose Game (video game)
The Science of Flight by James W. Gregory
This is the Teaching Company's 2017 course about how airplanes work.
I wasn't particularly in love with this one. The instructor clearly knows the topic, but the lectures are very much the "read a wikipedia article aloud" school of instruction. That, and (I should have realized this) aviation is a very visual subject, so often you'd need to watch the video version of the course to see a chart or keep tabs on some physics formula.
It's a challenging subject (I suppose it is, in some cases, rocket science). It reminded me of their meteorology course — both of them quickly ramp up into fluid dynamics, and that subject is just hell. For my part, I just had to kind of accept that it was going to get out of my grasp about once or twice per lecture, even in this very-dumbed-down version of the subject. I strongly suspect that aerodynamics is just too math-intensive for a casual set of lectures to cover it in any worthwhile way.
Only recommended for people who are already into this.
P.S. The dubstep theme music at the top of each episode got... wearing after a while. Fortunately, it's easy to skip.
Shoot That One by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
This is a 2019 book of essays about entertainment by TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach — a sequel to 2015's Shoot This One. As usual, Mr. Grillo-Marxuach matches deep thoughts about entertainment with his breezy, funny, easy-to-read prose. His behind-the-scenes run-down of the first two seasons of LOST is alone worth the price of admission — any improvisor will grok the fascinating balance between "what they had planned" and "what they were making up" episode-to-episode. Likewise, every improvisor — especially every improv *director* — should read his "11 Rules of Showrunning", which is here presented in its 'mean' form. But the whole book is well worth reading if you've followed his work, or really if you just like digging into storytelling. None of the individual pieces run that long — he gets in, he says what he has to say, he gets out — so the overall effect is like discovering a great TV-writing blog, and taking in its advice.
Logan Lucky [spoilers]
This is the 2017 Stephen Soderbergh comedy about a heist at a NASCAR race.
It's nice to see Soderbergh do another straight-up heist movie. It's all very solidly-constructed. True, we don't do the wholly traditional "lay out the plan, execute the plan, improvise as the plan goes wrong" structure — instead, they gather the team and, from our perspective, hit the ground running. It's up to us to figure out what the plan is supposed to be, and keep up with the minor inconveniences that threaten to throw it off.
Instead, the game is that our protagonist is running a game on his own team. We get minor signs of this through the heist itself, but it's all revealed in full in later flashbacks. It makes for a nice variation on the usual game.
And of course the other gimmick is that this is all taking place in and around West Virginia. While I have not been to West Virginia, I am from a small town in Kentucky, and I was actually impressed with the setting's verisimilitude. It understands several things about this sort of setting that other, lesser movies have bungled. For example: class distinctions in the community are very much a thing. Even though none of you live in a fashionable coastal city, there is still very much a difference between the petty thief who's in and out of jail, and the well-regarded used-car magnate — and if you have status, you sure as hell show it, buying the nicest house and the nicest car and establishing that you are somebody.
Another point: there are smart people in these communities. Yes, there's a steady brain drain — lots of people will want to flee their small town in favor of, say, a tiny engineering college in Houston, but that's not the whole picture. Plenty of smart, talented people like staying where they are. Plenty of smart, talented people want to leave, but can't. Any small town in the Appalachian South will have its share of George Baileys, full of grand ambitions but never quite able to get out of town. So the safecracker who thoroughly understands chemistry makes sense, as does the down-on-his-luck ex-football-star who has a keen sense of project management.
Only Sam and Fish, Joe's two brothers, struck me as a bit like "poor south minstrelry" — the sort of "oh, aren't rednecks stupid?" that always strikes me as thinly-veiled classism.¹ But even that, I came around on. Yes, if you're from a town like that, you knew those guys, self-important malapropisms and all.
Later on, I found out that the name of the screenwriter, "Rebecca Blunt", is a pseudonym, and the bulk of the writing was done by Jules Asner (Soderbergh's wife), whose family is from the area. To some extent, I wonder if this whole project was an excuse to express what it was like there.
So: nothing earth-shattering, but it was funny, and twisty, and exciting, and it was neat to see them try to do the setting justice. And there's something basically heartwarming about seeing a solid, mid-budget, three-star comedy these days. It makes you feel hopeful about movies again.
The Princess and the Frog [spoilers]
This is the 2009 Disney animated musical about a waitress in 1912 New Orleans who, upon kissing a prince who was turned into a frog, herself turns into a frog. Hijinks ensue. It's the last traditionally animated, Broadway-musical-style Disney production to date.
This was pleasant. I can imagine worse ways for the run of "traditionally animated Disney musicals" to end. Their character work especially is top-notch, even by Disney standards. Sure, their central princess is, as always, a bit of a cipher, but Naveen and Lottie and Facilier are as sharply drawn as anything in their catalog.
And with the former two, I was really intrigued by how they took characters who would be classically evil and made them 100% endearing. Naveen is, on paper, a caddish, vacuous womanizer. But the movie takes pains to establish how he respects consent. It's just, well, he's a prince that looks like Naveen looks, so there's a lot of enthusiastic consent on offer. And Lottie is the hyper-privileged daughter who just wants to marry a prince someday — and the movie goes to great pains to give her agency, to put us on her side, and to ensure that, where a lesser movie would force things into a tired love triangle, she genuinely supports her best friend.²
Likewise, the story itself feels gently subversive, not just in the "the logline is the joke" concept of "she kisses the frog and turns into a frog". The rich, handsome prince is *not* who you should be pursuing, both because he's been replaced by a doppelgänger, and because the real fellow has plenty of growing up to do. The princess is keenly interested in being an independent businesswoman. The servant is definitely *not* the moral heart of the story.
And it does all of this without really *leaning* on it. It's unabashedly old-fashioned, doing its best to color within the lines of the same type of storylines we'd seen since the start of the Disney Renaissance. It was an inclination that would ultimately doom it at the box office, as kids didn't want to see a genre that was 20-odd years old.
While there was a lot to like in this movie, I wasn't really blown away by it, either.
I love that we've got a movie about New Orleans in the Disney canon. But it did feel a little... touristy? It was like somebody had read a wikipedia page of "things that are associated with New Orleans", and patiently built the script from that.³ In retrospect, I guess this is what happens when you get old white guys from (presumably) California to write your movie about a young black woman in Louisiana. Hopefully that wouldn't fly now, and from the looks of things they stepped in a bunch of landmines *then* as they developed their film.
I was *very* excited to watch a Disney Musical with songs from New Orleans native and national treasure Randy Newman. I'd put "When She Loved Me" up against anything in the Disney-Pixar songbook, and his early albums are monuments. And... his work here is fine. The villain song here, "Friends on the Other Side" is as good as everyone says it is, but the rest feels a little generic. Okay, here's a by-the-numbers zydeco song. Here's a straight-ahead jazz number. And so on.
Similarly, the story seems a little undercooked. For all the in-dialog talk about what Tiana wants versus what she needs, the plot doesn't do much to specify a difference. Presumably she wants a restaurant but she needs love, but the movie doesn't have the finesse to make that not sound misogynist: "don't worry your pretty little head about business and go get yourself a man". So, wisely, it leaves that muddled, but unfortunately leaves its hero without much of an arc.
The story is mostly silly and episodic. By the time you meet the trumpet-playing alligator based on Louis Armstrong, you sort of know what you're in for. They go from New-Orleans-y place to New-Orleans-y place. They get into and out of random scrapes. They fall obligatorily in love.
It's all done very competently — let's be clear, I was moved to tears at the death of a goddamn *firefly* — but you find yourself thinking, "Right, it's a kids' movie," where "kids' movie" means "kind of dumb movie," and is thus kind of insulting to kids' movies.
But then the ending neatly ties up the loose ends. You see the twists coming, but they're so neatly arranged that you don't really mind. And Lottie, unmarried but cheery by the end and as determined as ever, gives me life.
So: not really a lost gem, and not something you must go out of your way to see unless you're a completist about the Disney canon. But definitely a satisfactory way to end the line of cel-animated musicals.
The Dragon Prince (season three)
This is the third season of the 2018 Netflix animated YA fantasy series about a few kids on a magical quest to avert a world war.
As usual, I half-suspect that The Dragon Prince is just showing off. The first season showed how effortlessly they could set up multiple characters with strong objectives, powerful relationships, and dangerous secrets. The second season added a storyline for the adults, far, far better animation, and a closing scene as well-constructed as the conclusion of a farce. And here in season three, you realize they're pulling the same trick as (of all things) Bone⁴: start with a small, quirky adventure with some lovably comic characters, and then, over time, expand out to massive, Lord of the Rings-level scope.
They do this across nine half-hour episodes, with speed but not haste. It's not that a lot of things happen in each episode: it's that very few things happen, but each of them counts. And as usual, they make it look easy, and it feels of a piece with the rest of the show. It's just, at the start, most of the twists and turns were based on relationships between a bunch of middle-school-aged kids on a road trip. And here in season three, we're seeing similar twists and turns, all similarly rooted in character, except now it includes, say, a coup, or a prison escape, or a international diplomatic disaster.
Every thing that happens along the way, you think "well of course that's what happens next", and after nine episodes of that, you're kind of shocked by how much ground they covered.
They also do a much better job of maintaining interesting storylines in Xadia and Katolis. This was a minor gripe (for me) in season two, where the 'quest' storyline had fully realized characters bouncing off of each other in interesting ways, while the castle storyline was basically "Viren is talking to a bug". For season three, they dispatch Ezra to the castle, draw on dozens of established characters, and eventually send Viren across the continent. They do a fine job of balancing action sequences among the 'grown-ups' with talky bits of castle intrigue, and they give Soren, the dumb jock comic relief of season one, the most heartfelt and inspiring character arc of season three.
Again, that feels like they're just showing off. If you'd told me that the 'jock storyline' would have me pausing the video to talk to the kids about the moral lessons it was imparting, I'd never have believed you.
And the 'quest' storyline plays at the top of its game, too. They efficiently develop a romantic storyline that should make most of the show's little shipper-hearts happy. Their animation department really spreads its wings, creating majestic dragons, massive armies, and all sorts of visually-arresting magic.
And they do a great job of brining their current storyline to a satisfying conclusion, with a quick teaser that promises more material for later on. I'd love netflix to keep signing on for their seven-season plan for this show, but clearly the team recognizes that netflix likes to kill a lot of shows after season three.
So the lede here is "good show continues to be good".
Untitled Goose Game (video game)
This is the 2019 game from House House that was briefly all the rage on the internets. In it, you play a horrible goose who terrorizes a pleasant English village.
I suppose nearly every game has a moment — let's call it "the tilt" — where it undergoes, for the player, a special transition. There's the starting phase, where you appreciate the game's world for what it is. You buy into the characters as they are. You pursue the objectives as if they are meaningful, emotional things in this setting.
And then there's a concluding phase, where all of that falls away and you just see, and grind, the game mechanics. Ori and the Blind Forest begins as a heartfelt, Miyazaki-esque tale of vulnerable creatures in magical forest. Eventually, it's just an endless puzzle of "how do I use my new skill <x> to get around impediment <y>?"
Even the beautiful island imagery of The Witness eventually disappears from view, and you're just trying to figure out what the little fizzgig symbol on the latest grid puzzles mean.⁵
I suppose most of the exceptions to this are 'pure mechanics' games — there is no story, for example, in Super Hexagon — or 'pure story' games — you'll never get lost in the game mechanics of, say, To The Moon, because those game mechanics are barely present. But most games are somewhere in the middle.
And that brings us to Untitled Goose Game. It has the most engaging concept I have seen for any game in years, summed up in the promo compy: "It's a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose." The simple, vaguely pictorial graphics are appealing, and the score's procedurally-generated variations on Debussy are a delightful departure from typical video-game music.
Before the tilt, it's just perfect: you are in this world, wreaking havoc on a just-so English village, and it's bliss.
But then that falls away, and you see the mechanics: it's a stealth puzzle game with an iffy controller. And that's not the end of the world — many of the puzzles are intriguing, and pleasant to figure out. They do what they can to cut out the tedious waiting for (say) a guard — yes, there are a variety of characters, but mechanically, we know they're all guards — to get to spot <x> so you can walk to spot <y> and retrieve thing <z>.
But you can't help longing for the start of the game, when you just wandered in circles around the gardener, insistently honking at him and making his world a living hell.
I'd still say Untitled Goose Game is worth playing. But if you've just seen memes and jokes about this, and you feel bad that you haven't played it, don't worry about it. Just by getting into the spirit of the idea, you're getting most of the fun that it presents.
For next week: </i>I'm currently watching the TV shows The Mandalorian, The Good Place, and Club de Cuervos. I'm watching Aguirre, The Wrath of God and just started on Lindelof's Watchmen. I'm now readingSaga (in Spanish) and Indistractable (in English), and listening to an audiocourse about writing creative nonfiction.
¹ I mean, there are plenty of things to criticize — not least the sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism you'll find under every rock (or, I suppose, strutting out from under the rocks, these days).
² One wonders if Frozen took some notes here.
³ From wikipedia: "The directors spent ten days in Louisiana before starting to write the film." Oy gevalt.
⁴ An animated adaptation of which is under development at Netflix.
⁵ And I suppose that game takes advantage of that "setting blindness" somewhat, and has something to say about it.