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

Monday (8/30/10) 10:24pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[I missed over a month of Media Updates because I was busy with tons & tons of improv.]

Movies:  Toy Story 3 [mild spoilers], Inception [spoilers]
TV:  Doctor Who [2005, 1x01-1x10], Chuck [2x09-2x20], Burn Notice [3x02-3x05], Album Review:  OK Computer
Books:  Why Things Break, Incognito
Other:  Blowback (RPG), The Tobolowsky Files

Toy Story 3 [mild spoilers]
One of the problems with waiting over a month to write the 'weekly' media update is that you wind up writing a review of a film you haven't seen in over a month.  I recall liking Toy Story 3, but I don't recall much detail about my impressions.

I did get the strong sense that they knew how trilogies are supposed to work.  The first movie introduces the concept:  "Ooh!  Toys have a life of their own when we're not watching!"  The second one can hit the ground running (yeah, we already know these characters, that's why we're watching the sequel), and so it can explore a different take on the material:  "Some people treat toys as important mementos to be preserved, instead of played with."

And then the third one... well, you *can* do the same thing as the second one -- just find a new angle and explore it.  But generally the better option is to make the third one The End.  The basic concept behind the franchise ("Andy has toys!") becomes moot.  And at the end, well, either everybody dies, or we find away to make the story loop around to the beginning.

(Compare this to an earlier take on Toy Story 3, which was just about a massive recall of Buzz Lightyear toys -- where's the gravitas in that?)

So I was glad to see Toy Story 3 find a new angle ("Eventually, we outgrow our toys") that decisively ends the franchise (Andy does, indeed, outgrow his toys).  We loop around to the beginning (Andy donates his toys to Bonnie), and we walk away satisfied that the story is complete.  It didn't just stop; it ended.

That sense of completion went a long way towards making me like the movie.  I was crying at the end, partly because it was sad, and partly because it had something accurate to say, but also partly because it was just an elegant way to end this fifteen-year journey.

That said, I got kind of bored halfway into the story.  For most of the second act, it turns into a prison-escape movie.  And for that stretch of the running time, it's very much about its plot logistics.  We watch this toy employ this superpower in this particular way to get past this obstacle and coordinate with the next participant in the escape, and so on.  It's fun, and it's clever, but it doesn't really feel like it's *about* anything.

When we get to act three, and we resume this notion that Andy is inevitably going to leave these toys behind, it's immensely satisfying because that, not the 'crazy escape movie', is what this third movie is about.  We shut everything down.

Inception [spoilers]
(This will also have some spoilers for Memento.)

Often times, Christopher Nolan pictures succeed for me just on the strength of being brilliant puzzle-boxes.  Memento is notorious for its Cuisinarted chronology, and most of the fun of that movie comes from piecing together what it all means, as every ratchet backwards in time recontextualizes the whole picture.  The Prestige had its flashbacks-inside-of-diary-entries-inside-of-letters, and it pretty much dared you every step of the way to figure out which key bit of information it was artfully hiding in that matryoshka doll of false documents.

Then we have Inception, which seems to exist largely as an excuse to create the world's most difficult level of Braid.  I have never, ever seen a story that intercut between simultaneous storylines in which time proceeded at different rates.[1]  So really, Inception gets a pass from me no matter what.  I just sat there with a goofy grin on my face, thinking, "I haven't seen this before."

In fact, I'd argue that most of the movie is dedicated to pushing pieces into place to set off that bravura multilevel/multispeed heist sequence .  Okay, we have to have this many characters; we have to have this many settings; we have to have these action sequences putting each of the levels in jeopardy; and most of all, we have to dump a ton of exposition on the viewers -- both about the general rules of this sci-fi universe, and about this specific 'anti-heist' (they're trying to place something, not steal something).

So the secondary characters get set up quickly, efficiently, and without a lot of nuance or depth.  The lead character is given a pretty standard "Guilt About the Heist That Went Bad" storyline.  I'll grant that it's a very clever version of that trope, and they present it as a neat little mystery that I wasn't able to solve.  It was also interesting to see Nolan go back to the "I accidentally killed my wife because of this odd psychological situation" well.  (Though I guess it shouldn't surprise me; he wrote the first treatment for Inception the year after Memento came out.)

But honestly?  I don't feel like the movie is *about* that emotional sturm und drang.  Inception isn't *about* incapacitating guilt.  If it were, the that theme would be reflected in the secondary characters -- Ariadne and Eames and Saito would all lope under the weight of their own terrible memories, and they'd try to find their own way out even as Cobb tried to escape his own past.

Instead, it's about the logistics.  It's about these crazy and beautiful dream worlds, and it's about how these clever and talented professionals navigate through them.[2]  I suppose, in this regard, Inception is kind of the inverse of Toy Story 3Inception has an emotional core that's kind of perfunctory, but brilliant and engaging heist logistics.  Toy Story 3 has a great emotional core that gets interrupted by a kind of perfunctory prison break.

And of *course* Inception ends with Cobb's top, on the table, possibly spinning forever.  People, damn near *every* story about virtual reality (yes, "shared dreams" are a subset of the "virtual reality" section) ends with some stoner-philosophy question about "Ooh, then how do we know *this* level of reality is really, y'know, man, *real*?"[3]  If you've done your storytelling job respectably, the audience of your virtual-reality story is going to be thinking that at the end, so to not acknowledge that is almost disrespectful.

Or maybe that spinning top is the filmmaker's way of reminding us, "Hey, it's only a movie."

Doctor Who [2005, 1x01-1x10]
This is the first season of the mid-2000s reboot of the classic English sci-fi franchise.  These episodes kick off the season that features Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor.

Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat:  there is no way I will like this show as much as my friends like this show.  Let me emend that:  "as much as my friends who go to Doctor Who convention like this show."  So far I love Eccleston's performance, I suppose the cheap special effects are kind of cute, and I'm glad to see a sci-fi show that isn't petrified of showing STIH ("Something That Isn't Heterosexuality" [yes, I just made that up]).

Apart from that, though, I feel a bit tepid about these first episodes.  I suppose one of the pitfalls of sci-fi is that, conceptually, everything's been done, and done to death at that.  So, often with an anthology-like sci-fi show like this, you see the first ten minutes, and you pretty much know what's in store for the remaining fifty.  Ah yes.  Things will get worse until <x>.  The unsolved mystery will be <y>.  Then there will be a twist wherein either <z1>, <z2>, or <z3> happens.

So I watch the plot go through the motions, but mainly I'm watching it for Eccleston's giddy enthusiasm.

Karin pointed me to one blog discussion of whether they could ever make an Americanized version of Doctor Who.  One commenter said, "They already did:  it's called The Middleman."  The more I watch of Doctor Who, the more astute that observation seems.  And I don't think the commenter meant "Americanized" in the sense of "they watered it down and removed all the good jokes".  In this case, it has to do more with the central character.  In The Middleman, you look at the title character, roll your eyes a bit, and say, "C'mon.  No American is *that* American."  It's like they take a standard American archetype and turn the knob up past the maximum level it goes to in the wild.

So I wonder if the same thing applies to Doctor Who.  Does Tom Baker's Doctor embody a kind of classic British bohemian, only ramped up to a level that it just seems a bit off?  Does Christopher Eccleston play a cheery Mancunian who just wouldnt exist in the real world?  I suspect this is just a silly idea, but such are my thoughts while I wait for the sci-fi plot to hit all its appropriate beats.

It's also interesting to compare how the two shows deal with their characters' pain.  Doctor Who really foregrounds the Doctor's agonizing past -- losing his entire people in the Time Wars.  We also see Rose's strained relationship with her mother.

The Middleman uses the same exact milieu -- boy and girl have sci-fi adventures, against a general background of sadness.  But the American show is more resolutely candy-colored.  I would argue that the pain is pushed into the margins, as we focus on Our Heroes Fighting Luchadors and so on.

What's neat is that both takes have different advantages.  Doctor Who, by including the agony directly, can turn on a dime from light comedy to serious, dramatic angst.  The Middleman, on the other hand, develops this sort of undertow over the course of its one season.  Yay!  They're fighting aliens! but... it slowly dawns on you that what you're seeing is the one *good* part of these protagonists' lives.  And somehow that gives the feather-light stories a bit of weight, even though the tone is consistently light.

That said, few sci-fi shows are brilliant out of the gate.[4]  Most of them need time to broaden the cast of characters, give them all some depth, add more recurring elements, get a little bit away from the monster-of-the-week structure, and figure out what they're really about.  I'm assuming the Doctor Who reboot follows that same trajectory.

Chuck [2x09-2x20]
And so we continue with season two of NBC's spy-action-dramedy about a slacker big-box employee who accidentally winds up downloading a database of spy secrets directly into his brain.

Apparently this past season, fans have gotten into quite a tizzy over plot developments with the Chuck/Sarah relationship.  This is odd, because it feels like the showrunners handle this relationship rather brilliantly.

Here's what impresses me the most about it:  it's almost like the season arc doesn't *care* that Chuck and Sarah never get together.  The season just rumbles along and explores the same issues that we'd encounter if they *were* a normal, 'together' couple.  Let's face it:  Sarah is trained to be a cold-blooded killer, and Chuck is just a regular guy -- eventually, Chuck has to face the fact that he's really never going to be comfortable with that side of Sarah.  And let's face it, Sarah's life is going to put her in contact with a lot of sexy man-spies, so Chuck is going to get jealous.

These are the exact issues that would come up if Sarah and Chuck were boyfriend and girlfriend, and the TV show blithely disregards the fact that they're still apart, and goes about exploring them anyway.

So this gets them around the major problem of the Moonlighting myth:  stasis.  A relationship that's stuck at the "oh, we are lovers kept apart" stage for year after year can start to feel like a broken record.  The writers may invent other *reasons* for keeping them apart, but the characters never get to explore new *emotional* territory.  It's just "Oh, I love you, but it Cannot Be," over and over again, forever and ever.

But once they get past the One Problem Keeping Them Apart, and they start a real relationship, then... well, then they get to have a whole panoply of problems, each one more complicated and emotion-y than the last.  So I love that Chuck found a way to mine this territory without giving up on its tired, 'separated lovers' cliché.

The show continues to be good at all the other things that it's always good at.  There's the usual balance between A-story (spies!) B-story (work!) and C-story (family!).  The guest casting is lovely as always (Bruce Boxleitner! Andy Richter!).  The mythology arcs are well-designed:  we gradually home in on Chuck's father; we learn a bit more about what Fulcrum is up to; and best of all, we get an overall goal for Chuck:  to get the Intersect back *out* of his head and get his real life back.

And that last bit interlocks with one of the best things about season two:  overall, it's about Chuck's growth as a character.

Look, we know the whole "spy" thing is a sham, right?  I mean, first off, it's not realistic.  It's not even faux-realistic the way Burn Notice is.  It's just the big, loopy world of James-Bond spying, the silly Moonraker-y stuff that John Le Carré and Len Deighton took such delight in deconstructing.  The real strength of Chuck is that we could, well, chuck the spy stratum, and we'd still be left with a real story.  A slacker big-box-store employee makes tentative steps towards an independent life.  His relationship with his girlfriend has its ups and downs.  An old flame shows up, but he breaks things off with her.

And slowly but surely, for the first time, he takes control of his own life.  That's what the show's really about.  And that's what gives season two a real spine:  Chuck takes on more responsibilities, and the end of "Chuck Versus the Lethal Weapon" is a tipping point:  by god, Chuck's going to track down this 'Orion' fellow, and he's going to get his life back.

That's where season two really improves over season one.  Season one did a great job of sending Chuck off on little spy adventures, and dealing with a miscellany of personal issues -- but season two really gets some momentum going, and it feels like it's *about* something.  Sure, you can dismiss all the spy stuff as silly, but deep down, it's about getting on with your life -- it's something real and universal, and you can't just wave it away as 'silly spy stuff'.

Burn Notice [3x02-3x05]
This is the third season of USA's light actioner about a "burned" spy, blacklisted from his job with the government and forced to make ends meet by working as "an unlicensed private investigator-cum-fixer".[5]

The question hanging over Burn Notice was always "how can they spin this out into multiple seasons?"  Sure, Michael could do these espionage gigs every week, but the overall story was about Michael's efforts to get his old job back.  Surely he'd eventually figure out who burned him and set things right... right?

Burn Notice has handled this challenge with a combination of success and failure.  In the broad strokes of things, they've moved this story ahead with each season.  In season one, Michael tracks down the people who burned him.  In season two, he tries to gather more information on him while ostensibly helping them put together a very evil operation.  And here in season three, they've cut him loose, and now he has to get by without anybody's protection.

That seems like it should work.  But in many ways, it leaves the show feeling like it's stuck in a rut.  Seasons one and two got into a nasty holding pattern:  Michael would track down one very talented operative who worked for "Management", AKA the people who burned him, only to discover that no! this person works for yet *another* shadowy figure.  Fine, now we repeat the process as Michael tracks down operative #2, and operative #3, and... yawn.

But the main problem is that it feels like an *emotional* rut.  The logistics may vary over time -- now he's trying this strategy to get at the next operative, and now he's trying that one -- but where he's at as a person stays the same.  He's got the same goal, he's got the same state of mind, and he's just moving in the same direction like a wind-up toy.

So it's with some interest that I watch the latest developments in season three.  One of the best scenes in the last few episodes is a simple two-hander between Fi and Michael -- essentially, it's just Fi asking him, "Why not just quit?"  Michael doesn't seriously consider the idea -- so the wind-up toy is still marching in the same direction, but at least there's some hint that he may wind up thinking about his goals instead of just marching and marching.

And this is a good time for this character conflict to come into play, because the show really is starting to feel exhausted.  They keep finding novel A-story setups (the client is schizophrenic! Michael gets kidnapped!), but Michael's attempts to get his job back are starting to feel like the castaways' efforts to leave Gilligan's Island.  Eventually, it feels like we're just watching the same failed effort, over and over again.

Album Review:  OK Computer
This is from the BBC documentary series about various rock albums.  There's not much to say about this one -- they list off some wikipedia-like facts about the band, and then a series of unknown-to-me music critics discuss the album track by track.  One of the critics has a piano handy, and explains some interesting music-theory aspects of a few songs, but they don't go very far in that directions.  It's generally just a soup of random critical opinions, intercut with concert footage.  I suspect that Sound Opinions could put together a better album dissection than this.

Why Things Break by Mark E. Eberhart
Mark E. Eberhart is a chemistry professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and Why Things Break is a book about his lifelong research into... well, into why things break.  Eberhart points out that humanity has done tons of research into *when* things break, and how *likely* something is to break, but we've been fairly blind as to the 'why'.

The book is essentially a series of essays, each one veering back and forth between Eberhart's personal history in the field and information about stress and fracture.  He's fairly lucid in his scientific explanations, and the personal anecdotes are entertaining enough.  I picked up some interesting information from the essays.  For instance, a 20° day in Boston feels colder than a 20° day in Denver because the air is denser in Boston, and more air molecules can draw off more heat.  Also, both the Challenger and the Titanic failed because of components that changed properties under freezing temperatures.  In the first case, rubber O-rings lost pliability on that cold January day; in the second, substandard steel became brittle in the subzero north Atlantic seawater.[6]

Towards the end of the book, it gets hard to follow.  The research gets too advanced to properly explain in layman's terms, and Eberhart finally digresses to a lament about the anti-scientific, anti-intellectual state of things these days.  It's impassioned, but it's familiar, and it makes one long to hear just a few more interesting facts about materials science.

This is the superhero comic miniseries from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (AKA the writer and artist behind Criminal).  Incognito is about a supervillain who has turned state's evidence and gone into witness protection, and the trouble he subsequently gets himself into.

Damned if I have anything to say about this one.  It's certainly a clever concept, and Brubaker and Phillips explore it in the sort of gritty, hard-boiled style one associates with Criminal.  I had the usual feeling that this miniseries is probably informed by/reacting against a long history of comics that I'm wholly unfamiliar with, and no doubt cribs a lot of from 30s pulp novels I know nothing about.

So, absent any historical context, I just read the story.  I suppose I picked up on a lot of noir influence -- the protagonist lives a quiet, normal life, but in the end he can't escape his own demons or his shadowy past.  This story includes a lot more flying and energy blasts than, say, The Postman Always Rings Twice, but deep down it felt like familiar terrain.  It became a bit of a weakness, though, in that many times I felt like I wasn't dealing with relatable characters so much as with noir types.  Even the main character felt at times more like an amalgamation of hard-boiled tics and tropes than a real person.

One last note:  I appreciated the miniseries's sense of world-building.  They've clearly thought through how superheroes showed up in this universe, how they progressed through history, and how government agencies have sprung up to contend with them.  I had a lot of moments of, "Oh, of course this world would work like that!" when they revealed some new facet of this alternate America.

And... yep, that's it for me having anything to say about this one.  I begin to suspect I'm just I'll-equipped to talk much about comics.

Blowback [RPG]
AKA "the RPG that's loosely based on Burn Notice."

Of course, I know next to nothing about RPGs.  I mainly wanted to mention, "Hey, there's an RPG loosely based on Burn Notice.  Isn't that cool?"  Beyond that, all I can really say is that "It had pretty pictures."  (No, really, it does.)  As to the real game design, I don't quite know how to assess it.

The one time I played it at GenCon, it was pretty rocky.  This was partly because none of us really knew much about espionage, so it was tough to create Michael-Westen-esque spy hijinks.  Also, each player-character is either a spy or a 'civilian' (e.g. the Sharon Gless character from Burn Notice), and it's not obvious how to keep the civilians involved in the story when it goes off into spy-caper-land.

That said, the mechanics do tend to mold the story into a classic spy-caper shape, with things going wrong at all the wrong times, and the spy lifestyle generally wreaking havoc on everybody's personal lives.  In our game, we even wound up with a proper "rat-f***" scene at the end, where the baddie got herself into trouble when she thought she was delivering the coup de grace.

I suspect it'll take some time for people to figure out how to play this one properly, though.

The Tobolowsky Files [podcast]
This is a podcast where Stephen Tobolowsky tells stories.

Probably your first question is, "Who the hell is Stephen Tobolowsky?"  Well, you probably already know who Stephen Tobolowsky is.  He played Ned Ryerson ("Bing!") in Groundhog Day.  He played Werner Brandes ("Passport.") in Sneakers.  He currently plays Sandy Ryerson ("Who is Josh Groban?  Kill yourself!") on Glee.  He's the classic "Hey, it's that guy!" character actor.

So the next question is, "Why the hell do I want to listen to Stephen Tobolowsky tell stories?"  And there are two ways to answer this.  The first is that Mr. Tobolowsky has led a fascinating life.  He played guitar on an album with Stevie Ray Vaughn.  He got beaten by monks in Thailand.  He came down with a severe case of anterograde amnesia (the "I can't make new memories" problem), an experience he would later draw on in Memento.

But mainly, the man just knows how to tell stories.  You sense that, if you asked him how his trip to the store went, Stephen Tobolowsky would find funny, something tense, something surprising, and in the end, something poetic and beautiful about his quick grocery run.  And it would probably cross-reference a half-dozen stories he had already told you, and lay the groundwork for a half-dozen more.

Honestly, it's been a bit of an eye-opener, for me.  I recall once, at Austin Blues Party, Zarina asked me how I got the scar on my chin.  I summarized it for her:  "Got two scars; one was from when I was a baby and my carriage fell down a flight of stairs; the other was when I was eleven and fell chin-first on a furniture dolly."  Later, I was listening to these podcasts, and it hit me:  Stephen Tobolowsky wouldn't *summarize*.

Hell, there are a half-dozen stories circling that first scar alone.  There's the family disagreement over who, exactly, said, "Oh, the baby will be fine there at the top of the staircase."  There's the generally accident-prone nature of my childhood, and how that feeds into my reluctance to mess with anything mechanical.  There's the running Battleship Potemkin jokes that have been part of my family for as long as I can remember.

It's been strange, suddenly realizing that personal storytelling is something one can get good at.  I doubt I ever will, but it's nice to know that the avenue is there, should I ever want to pursue it.  And sure, if I did try that, I might wind up being a long-winded bore -- but I myself would find it more interesting than usual mumbling-while-staring-at-the-floor.

Anyway:  go and listen to Mr. Tobolowsky's 'FAQ' episode, and then start from the beginning.

For next time:  I'll watch more episodes of Chuck, more episodes of Burn Notice, and perhaps a documentary about the movie-rating system.  Also, I'm reading Snow by Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk(Ooh, look at me, trying to be all intellectual & stuff....)

[1] ... which is not to say there aren't stories like that out there.  I can imagine that some hard-sci-fi novel could play with relativistic effects to get this same sort of bizarre story structure.

[2] Many critics have pointed out, astutely, that "creating dream worlds" is essentially the same as "filmmaking", with all sorts of detailed parallels, down to the fact that DiCaprio based his portrayal of Cobb on Nolan himself.

[3] For my money, my favorite of these moments is when Barclay tentatively says, "Computer, end program." at the end of "Ship in a Bottle".

[4] Yes, I know, Doctor Who has an eleventy-billion year history back to when the druids etched runes about Rani Chandra into the sides of Stonehenge.  I'm saying the reboot probably takes some time to find its footing.

[5] No, I really couldn't improve on the wording in the wikipedia article.

[6] Really, if you think about it, the Titanic should have just gotten a nasty dent in its hull and kept going, kind of like a car that glances off of a guard rail.

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (8/31/10) 12:25am
1) My impression of the top-spinning-forever-or-not final edit of Inception is that Nolan is just him telling us that it doesn't matter if this is just one more level of dream or not (it's totally not), but that Cobb sorted his business out, and whether it's real or not (it totally is) is beside the point. And, yeah. The dream construction == film-making thing thunders loudly.

2) One of the several things we did wrong in playing Blowback, to my limited understanding, was that each of us was supposed to have both an agent and a civilian, so that one person wasn't stuck holding the shopping bag. So, we're each playing two characters, and we can swap between them as needed, which gives us more angles to ask for things from each other and add relationship stress, which blows up eventually. I've read it a few more times since then, and I still feel like I need to read it at least one more time before throwing down, but I'd be into giving it another shot sometime soon, for sure.
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[User Picture]
Date:Wednesday (9/1/10) 8:18am
(It's "Mancunian", by the way. ^_^)

I will say that the story structure of Doctor Who is pretty much the same as it's ever been, always—i.e. Monster of the Week (or, in the old days, Of the Fortnight, or the Month, or the Six Weeks, or whatever), usually kicked off with a "Something's not right!" of some kind. That reliable plot structure is arguably a part of the series' charm, sort of like the reliable plot structure of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories.

I'd say that New Series Who does hit some kind of solid vibe midway through the second season, and then it's a series of ups and downs depending on what you make of the character and story choices. Season 3, for example, is one that I refer to semi-fondly as "The Season of Pain" (character pain, not audience pain, at least not for me), and I'm not too keen with some of the aspects of Martha Jones's characterization ... but on the other hand, Season 3 also includes "Human Nature/The Family of Blood" (one of my favorite two-parters, but which I can't ever watch again because it makes me so achingly sad) and "Blink", one of the best pieces of puzzle-box TV ever. Season 4 was pretty damn great until it totally broke my heart in the finale, and not really in a good way (ping me about that when you get there). The year of "specials" that followed—decidedly uneven. This last season I've really loved, and I do feel that Steven Moffat and Matt Smith blew in a lot of fresh air. I don't hate Russell T. Davies the way some fans do, but I do think he had a good run and it was time for him to move on; ditto David Tennant.

So ... anyway, I'll be interested to continue getting your impressions of the series as you go. Glad you're enjoying it so far!
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[User Picture]
Date:Wednesday (9/1/10) 8:20am


(It's "Mancunian", by the way. ^_^)

~ fixed ~
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