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

Thursday (8/14/14) 5:13pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Mulan, Reform School Girls (1986)
TV:  Arrow [1x11-1x15]
Books:  The Final Command [audiobook], You Don't Know JS: Scope & Closures, You Don't Know JS: this & Object Prototypes

This is the 1998 Disney musical based on the Chinese folk tale about Hua Mulan, a woman who takes her aged father's place in the military and becomes an acclaimed warrior.

This is a solid, second-tier Disney musical.  For me, the top ones from the Disney Renaissance are (predictably) the first four musicals: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  Then, there's the tier below that, with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules and so on -- each one has something to recommend it[1]  Then there are outliers like Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor's New Groove, anarchic-feeling projects that benefited from weird production processes, and which I'd rank nearly among the best.

And there are the rest: Brother Bear, Home on the Range, and so on.  The less said about those, the better.

Like I said, Mulan fits comfortably into that second tier.  They crib a bunch of good ideas from better Disney movies.  Eddie Murphy steps in as the equivalent to Robin Williams (or perhaps Gilbert Gottfried) in Aladdin.  The studio turned from Persian influences to African influences to, this time around, Chinese influences, which is pleasant and different.  It follows the same classical musical-theater beats that the first three Disney-Renaissance films used.[2]

The variations from the traditional Disney format are welcome.  It's nice to see them finally hitting the mark with a positive message for girls.  I feel like in their heart of hearts they were trying to be positive towards women with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but both of those films definitely have their problematic elements.[3]  I like that they finally depict a hero with two living (and supportive!) parents.  I like that they give their heroine a goal other than "OMG WEDDING YAY" -- which is especially ironic given how the movie starts.

There's a lot to like here.

But all that said, there's only so much you can do without Howard Ashman.  They did the best they could after his passing.  Elton John wrote some good pop songs for The Lion King (but remember, he also wrote the cloying "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" -- *shudder*), but it wasn't the musical-theater mastery you got from Ashman.  For Mulan, they got a couple of fairly anonymous pros (though David Zippel did write the lyrics for City of Angels), and the result is neither great musical theater nor great pop music.  The songs have a grudging, obligatory feeling: "*sigh* Okay, there has to be a song here, so... *shrug* let's sing something, I guess."

Granted, second-rate Disney musicals are better than many, many things, but Mulan is still a keen reminder that we shall never see Ashman's like again.

That "good enough" feeling pervades a lot of the production.  The supporting characters are exactly what they need to be to make the story go -- no more, no less.[4]  Once Mulan hatches the idea to pose as a man and take her father's place in the army, the plot does exactly what you expect it to do, no more, no less.  It makes its way through its 1½ hours with solid professionalism, and then it's done.

There are some aspects of it that go above and beyond.  The art in the film is wonderful -- honestly, the movie might be worth watching for the stylized clouds of smoke alone.  And granted, Eddie Murphy somehow became tame and boring in the 90s, but his Dragon character is legitimately funny.  The switcheroo of having the three soldiers pretend to be concubines at the end was a pleasing bit of symmetry.

It was fun and it was pleasant and I doubt I'll watch it again for a long, long time.

Reform School Girls (1986)
More research for Reform School for Wayward Girls: this is the 80s exploitation film about a (relatively) innocent 'new girl' who gets sent to an incredibly sadistic reform school.

Wikipedia lists this as "a satire of the women-in-prison film genre", but I'm not 100% sure that "satire" is the proper word.  Yes, Reform School Girls does use all the clichés of women-in-prison films: gratuitous shower scenes, prison fights, depictions mental and physical torture, and so on.  But "satire" would imply that it had some knowing commentary on the genre.  Even "parody" feels wrong for this -- it's campy as hell, but I can't perceive any sidelong wink at the audience here.

Instead, it just feels like a movie in the genre.  Yes, it's a movie that revels in cranking the tropes of the genre up to eleven, with kittens getting stomped and prisoners getting branded and a riot finally setting the place on fire while the head of the ward blasts away with a shotgun that seems to have infinite ammunition.  But for all that, it never feels like it really steps *outside* that genre -- it's not a "women-in-prison movie" in quote marks; it's just being as much of a women-in-prison movie as it can possibly be.  (And 80s-ing as hard as it possibly can.)

Honestly, I found myself laughing at the movie for than really getting into it.  I suppose that was the filmmakers' intentions, but again, they never tip their hand.  It just plays like a really wonderfully terrible 80s movie, with a Casio soundtrack, acting that alternates between "flat and lifeless" and "hilariously overblown", and a production budget of literally tens of dollars.  And if you're a jaded hipster like me, the worse it gets, the funnier it gets.

The plot is actually not horrible: there's an overall move from "the girls are all backstabbing each other" to "the girls unite against their oppressors", and that's heartwarming, especially given how relentlessly exploitative the movie is.[5]  Now, this is not to say the plot is *good* -- the movie spends its first hour meandering around the reform school, showing little episodes of individual oppression and conflict as it pursues its primary objective of getting viewers to the next shower scene.  Towards the end, it kicks into gear -- there are some simple machinations around the counselor's attempt to take down the school, and then somehow, suddenly, OMG RIOT.  Throughout, events have at best a glancing acquaintance with the real world, but it's all delightfully intense and soap-opera-y.

So: not a good movie, but if you can stomach all the exploitation, it's entertainingly over-the-top.

Arrow [1x11-1x15]
This is the latest batch of episodes from the CW comic-book adaptation about a spoiled überrich kid who returns from a shipwreck on a mysterious island to fight criminals in his city as a masked (well, hooded) vigilante.

I don't think marathonning this show is doing it any favors.  This is often the case with light adventure stories like this (see also: Burn Notice): when you run the episodes one after another after another, the patterns become much more apparent.  Oh, here's another white, male, middle-aged corporate guy from The List.  Okay, here's Oliver using resources from Laurel and Felicity to track down leads, and there fistfights along the way as he gathers evidence.  There's Diggle with his regularly-scheduled "You are going *too far* his time, Oliver!" speech.  Here are the five minutes of flashbacks to The Island, with yet another arbitrary, forced double-cross.  Here's the three minutes of plot development on the season-one story arc, where mysterious people talk vaguely about mysterious things, and concrete nouns are tantalizingly hard to come by.

It all starts to look the same.

This makes the variations from the formula all the more welcome.  The straight-up procedural where he tracks down an insane fireman in "Burned" was not a great story, but it was a fun (if dark) change of pace, as was the Island episode "The Odyssey".  It provided nice moments where I thought, "Okay.  *This* is an episode I haven't seen before."

And there are still things to like in the show.  Felicity continues to be wonderful, with a specific, off-kilter manner that actually feels right for an IT employee while making the character really endearing.  I hope that they brought Felicity in as a one-off character, noticed that she was awesome, and changed course to incorporate her further into the show.  I want to believe that this is a show that's observant enough to see when they've got something good, and nimble enough to then lean into that thing.

On the other hand, I'm just not growing to like Laurel.  I'm curious to know what fandom thinks of her.  I used to be much worse at reading facial expressions than I am now, and Laurel, for me, is an unsettling reminder of what that was like.  You could make a little multiple-choice game out of "match the situation to Laurel's facial expression," with options like, "she's just been stood up on a date", and "she's just won a thousand dollars", and "she just saw a dead puppy", and I would be completely stymied: "This is impossible!  She's got the same blank expression ALL THE TIME!"  Laurel is what it's like when you can never get a bead on other people.

As it is, she feels like a drag on the show -- a sexy and attractive drag, sure, but a drag nonetheless.  Her love scenes with Tommy are still delightful, though, which I'm guessing is mostly down to the actor playing Tommy.  And yes, I'm sure they'll break up this relationship one way or another.  Exploring the stories of a couple that's together and stable feels way more experimental than Arrow can handle.[6]

And that exemplifies the problem I'm having with Arrow at this point: it's not experimenting.  The show knows what its structure is, knows what its strengths are, and it's just filling out the Mad Lib slightly differently in each episode.  It's competent, but it's not compelling.  I don't mind watching it, but I don't need to watch it.  I'll watch the rest of the season, both out of a dismal completism and a hope that it will start to liven up, creatively.  But this is a golden age for TV -- surely there are better shows to watch, right?

The Final Command by Timothy Zahn [audiobook]
This is the concluding volume of the Thrawn trilogy, the best-regarded of the Star Wars "Expanded Universe" novels, which use the film canon as the basis for a much larger and self-consistent universe of storytelling.  This is the amazing audiobook presentation, complete with scoring, sound effects, and the formidable vocal talents of Marc Thompson.

In my earlier posts about the first and second novels in the series, I kept cracking wise that "as a novelist, Zahn is a great screenwriter" -- implying that his novels skimmed the surface, showing us what characters said and what they did, but rarely what they thought or how they felt.  This last novel corrects that problem wonderfully.[7]  It's astonishing how much of this action-packed novel takes place inside the characters' heads.  Even when Han jumps across a hallway and blasts away at stormtroopers, Zahn doesn't just describe the physical action -- he sidebars into how Han is strategizing, what's catching him by surprise, how he's reacting emotionally, and so on.  Long stretches of the novel are just characters thinking about things, including a bravura sequence where Leia patiently pieces together the identity of "Delta Source", an Empire spy in the heart of the New Republic.

It never gets bland because the stakes are so incredibly high by this point.  In spite of the New Republic's best efforts, Thrawn has gotten hold of a massive starfleet, an inexhaustible supply of soldiers, and bountiful supply lines, and the New Republic is seriously up against a wall.  Not only that, but Zahn somehow finesses having all his principals -- Han, Luke, Leia, Tolan Karrde, Mara Jade -- up against Joruus Shabaoth, isolated on an unknown planet, at the end of the book.

All in all, it felt like Zahn was really hitting his stride here.  He had the characters down, he was letting everything gain more depth and more emotional weight, and he had the payoff to the storyline he'd been building up for the last two books.  By this point in the trilogy, everything just works.

The things that were good about the first two novels are still good here.  The audiobook production is still spectacular, with Thompson voicing an dazzling variety of distinct characters.  Zahn is still a wizard at letting his characters make smart-but-wrong decisions, and it's still riveting to watch them slowly puzzle out scenarios with woefully incomplete information.

Really, my only complaint is that the denouement, the bit after the final confrontations with Thrawn and with Shabaoth, were so short and perfunctory.  I wanted the book to breathe a bit, to just let us *be* with these characters for a little while longer, before saying goodbye.  But then again, for normal readers of the Expanded Universe, this wasn't goodbye -- there were more novels, more stories, more adventures.  But for me, this is probably the end.  I'm told the other Expanded Universe novels are nowhere near the same league as the Thrawn trilogy, so I'll be moving on.  But what a ride it was.

You Don't Know JS: Scope & Closures by Kyle Simpson
You Don't Know JS: this & Object Prototypes by Kyle Simpson
These are the first two volumes of a book series by local author Kyle Simpson dedicated to the more difficult parts of the JavaScript programming language.

JavaScript is a strange beast.  It started out as a dashed-off thing created in (literally) two weeks to run simple web applications.  And when I say simple, I mean useless little toy apps, like a counter that would increment every time you click it.  And now, somehow, it's running the interfaces for maybe half the web sites you use and half the mobile apps you use.  It's this language that works well enough for most purposes, but under the hood, you can clearly see the chewing gum and baling wire holding things together.

To put it another way, when you start doing really sophisticated things with JavaScript, it gets very difficult very quickly, because you get the sense nobody made any design decisions in JavaScript on purpose.  As such, most JavaScript developers (myself included) write off huge sections of the language with a "Here be dragons", and stick to what we know and trust.

This new You Don't Know JS series, on the other hand, wades directly into the muck.  And as such, these are exactly the books I need to read right now. 

The first book handles "scope", which in programming means "how your code knows what variables mean".  The rules for scope in JavaScript are cryptic, counterintuitive, and awful.  And surprisingly, I'd been coding in JavaScript without bothering to properly learn them[8] -- I just wrote my code, and when I hit scoping problems, I made hitting-the-TV-to-make-it-work-style tweaks to it until it worked.

But the book patiently lays out exactly what the awful, awful rules are.  It explains all the gotchas that this leads to.  It explains how you can write code that takes advantage of quirks in the scoping system.  Granted, I'll never want to take advantage of quirks in JavaScript's scoping system -- that's a recipe for writing programs that nobody else will understand -- but it did show me some simple rules I can follow in order to keep scoping from acting *too* crazy.[9]

The second volume covers the "this" variable, a variable which always points to... something.  What it points to is governed by a set of rules every bit as batshit-arbitrary as those covering scoping.  Again, the book carefully lays them out.  Again, I doubt I'll use this newfound knowledge to do fancy and clever things with "this" -- because, again, that's how you get unmaintainable code -- but it does tell me how to avoid some simple gotchas with "this".

The book goes on to talk about classes in JavaScript -- specifically, how JavaScript does not have classes.  It doesn't have any mechanism in place for creating a class definition and then using that blueprint to construct instances.  All JavaScript has are objects, and sometimes those objects point to other objects, and that's it.  But since most other popular languages are class-based, everybody tries to hack together classes in JavaScript.  Generally, the results are brittle code that keeps breaking in incomprehensible ways.

So the takeaway there is "when you're programming in JavaScript, just don't think in terms of classes."  Find a way to make it work via objects linked to other objects, because that's how the language actually works.

All in all, You Don't Know JS been a very useful book series so far, and I look forward to reading the rest of it as it's published.

For next week: more reform-school movies, as I prepare for the Wayward Girls show, more of Arrow, and maybe another Tufte book.  Hopefully I'll start reading Tapworthy (it's about iPhone app design, not dancing), and maybe start another course from the Teaching Company.

[1] Lindsey has made the fascinating point that Hunchback has some amazing choral work, and is surely the only Disney movie that's often trying to sound like Beethoven.
[2] The Lion King is a bit of an outlier structurally, and IMHO suffers for that -- it feels kind of episodic and duct-taped together.
[3] Online debate still rages over whether Beauty and the Beast depicts a positive way for women to stand up for themselves or a disturbing brand of Stockholm Syndrome.
[4] ... with the notable exception of Chien-Po, a pleasant, affable, vaguely Buddha-like soldier that one of the songs sells out with a fat joke for some reason.
[5] And yes, it is hilarious that a movie so obviously exploitative in nearly every frame tries to espouse a feminist message.  In the trailer for the film, the voiceover exhorts us to "meet the loveliest ladies of socially-conscious cinema," which sums up the self-contradiction nicely.
[6] That, and such explorations would be pretty unrelatable for their desired audience of teenage children.  It's hard to empathize with a long-term relationship hitting problems when you once had a relationship that lasted, OMG, like, a whole year.
[7] ... though I do wonder if I'm grading on a curve here, comparing this audiobook favorably to
the Veronica Mars novel I read last month.
[8] This in spite of Eric Heiberg patiently explaining it to me at some point.
[9] I remain shocked at how often JavaScript will say, by default, "oh you must want a global variable".  No, JavaScript.  No, I almost *never* want a global variable.  Hardly anyone ever *does*, JavaScript.  What is wrong with you?

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