Thursday, August 27, 2015

Vicious is Back! Watch it right now!

So, remember when I told you to find and watch Vicious' Season 1 at all costs (well, don't download it illegally; showrunners et al. need to be rewarded for their good work)? Did you?

Great, because Season 2 is here and you can watch it online right now. Given past PBS practices, you have at most three weeks per episode before they disappear, and Episode 1 was on Monday (August 24, 2015), so get cracking!

"How was episode one," you ask? "Was it still full of the amazing goodness of Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacobi being catty with each other?"

Yes. The whole gang of bitter septuagenarians is back, the mantelpiece of urns of dog ashes is back, Iwan Rheon is still being sexually harassed, Ian McKellan's character is still excessively proud of being an extra on Downton Abbey, etc.

Also, in Episode 1, Derek Jacobi's character Stuart attempts to pretend to be straight; it's part of a complicated ruse that Iwan Rheon's Ash walks into right after declaring to his girlfriend that Freddie (McKellan) and Stuart are "the most authentic people I know." The "masculine" walk Stuart adopts, a gait worthy of Monty Python, is alone worth watching the whole episode for.

So, what are you waiting for! Watch it now! Be entertained!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Netflix I Watched on Paternity Leave: The Transporter, The Series (designed and written for teenage boys, apparently)

Another thing that I've been spending my time on as a small person is being fed from a bottle or being held while I bounce on a pilates ball making soothing noises is Transporter: the Series.

Did you see the Luc Besson action film The Transporter with Jason Statham? (Note that I am not asking if you saw the two sequels; they were pretty crap.) It was an insubstantial but well-constructed action film where Jason Statham is a getaway driver par excellence in a tricked-out BMW doing jobs for criminals in the south of France, but he gets tasked with delivering a package that turns out to be an attractive Chinese woman in a duffel bag, and he ends up breaking his traditional non-intervention code of conduct and instead just beats on a bunch of people who really deserve it (also two cops who then get blown up by a car bomb, but Statham totally didn't know his car was going to get blown up when he stuffed the knocked-out cops in his trunk, so let's give him a pass on that).
One of the best scenes in the film Transporter is this balletically choreographed fight where Jason Statham stands on bicycle pedals in the middle of a giant oil slick and everyone else is playing slip-n-slide on the floor.
The movie had two great attributes: amazing driving sequences and some of Luc Besson's best fight sequences.

The TV show is capitalizing on the popularity of the movies, but also needs to make its money from somewhere (Canadian, French, and German TV subsidies only go so far), so it uses the Audi sports cars from the later movies as promotional consideration, as well as Fords whenever the show is shot in Canada (more on Canada later). Also for TV, intensely bald and working class-looking Jason Statham is swapped for Chris Vance, who looks like how teenage Sherlock slash-fic writers probably imagine Martin Freeman in sex scenes.
No, ladies, he is not shirtless enough. You get to see some fat, hairy British dude's not-as-tan-as-the-rest-of-him butt for like two straight minutes in one episode, but Chris Vance is rarely shirtless.
Chris Vance is good at following creative fight choreography, and he has appropriate looks of grim determination while pretending to upshift, which is really all you can ask for in a show like this.

This show was shot with a ton of Toronto film subsidy money, so if you know how to spot Canadian soundstages portraying everywhere else in the world, you will see them here. However, there are legitimately scenes shot in France and Berlin, possibly to get local content requirements high enough to be considered "local shows" in some European markets and avoid foreign (read: American) TV rebroadcasting limits, so unlike some "pretends to be NYC but shot in Vancouver" shows, there are some real locations.

So, what's the show, well, about? Basically, imagine watching someone remake the first movie in a 45 minute version. Over and over and over again. I liked this, you may not.

Frank Martin, "the Transporter," has a secret package he has to deliver. There is a problem with delivering the package. Car chases and fistfights and maybe some gunplay ensue. The package is either delivered to the good guys or not delivered to the bad guys, or maybe the package is delivered to the bad guys and Frank Martin then comes back to beat the everloving tar out of them. One of those three.

Also, there's usually a woman involved. Either she is immediately enraptured by Frank Martin's animal magnetism (he's got the Irish mythological figure Diarmuid's love spot or something, seriously) and will have sex with him on or off camera if she doesn't die during the episode, or she is someone else's girlfriend/wife who will have sex with that character on or off camera. Odds are 50/50 you will see her topless, except for Vikings' Katheryn Winnick, who managed to keep all of her clothes on and wear normal clothes (as opposed to the usual form-fitting slinky clothes) for her guest starring episode, and even managed to fight a bit. Lost Girl's Rachel Skarsten apparently did not have as good an agent, and is for her episode both gratuitously naked a bunch and basically a useless Macguffin object of a character.
This is Frank Martin's fixer/computer hacker partner. This particular bikini scene is less gratuitous than the scene where she spills red wine on her blouse and you watch her take the blouse off along with her bra to immediately spot-clean as she talks to Frank on the phone, or the episode where she's naked for a couple scenes because the guy she's having sex with turns out to be tangential to the plot of the episode; the latter being an episode which is otherwise entirely about people with their clothes on driving from Paris to Marseilles.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that this show does not feature women as actual human beings, but as occasionally topless plot points and eye candy. If this is a deal-breaker for you, then you have been forewarned.

"So what," you say, "what about the driving and the fighting, which is what The Transporter is about?"

Let's start with the driving, which is weaker. The driving is awesome on closed courses, such as off-road and in parking garages; the stunt drivers do some pretty amazing things. The show is also willing to crash some real cars in some impressive ways.

However, the show can't afford to shut down the streets of any of the cities (Nice, Marseilles, Berlin, and Toronto) it's set in, so the on-street driving scenes are mostly scenes of cars weaving back and forth jump-cut to stock footage of clutch pedals being depressed and sticks being shifted. It is lame.
Just look at this, then look at a picture of a road, then look back at this, and you'll get the idea of what the city street driving sequences are like.
On the plus side, Chris Vance's Frank Martin doesn't always drive an Audi, but will drive other cars (including a Smart car and an ATV) when necessary.

The fighting? It's pretty great. Lots of clever work with improvised items; for example there's a great fight in a lingerie store where mannequins, clothing racks, and some fabric items are put to great use. Any fight in a kitchen is going to be amazing; my favorite ended with a knockout via cutting board.

To recap what the show is about, Transporter: The Series has Chris Vance in a suit and tie either delivering or not delivering a package via an Audi. Car chase and fisticuff complications ensue, as well as occasional female nudity. If you were ever a 13-year-old boy, this will hit a little fun zone in your brain even if you find it problematic from an "is this good for culture" standpoint. That's why I keep watching.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Netflix I Watched On Paternity Leave: Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, Season 2

I know, I know, I really did a hatchet job on Attack on Titan [sic], even though I tolerated it for about 13-14 episodes more than I did Vexed or Red Data Girl. 

You know what I also watched a lot of while holding a six-pound child? Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, season 2.
To recap for those of you who just picked up this blog today and don't watch any comic book related TV, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD follows the efforts of SHIELD, a sort-of-spy agency tasked with being regular folks who fight supervillans and whatnot. They have invisible planes and spy gadgets.

I watched this show all the way through Season 2 for the following reasons:

1. Clark Gregg.
If you do a Google Image Search for images of Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson, you will get something like 200 pictures basically identical to this one. 
Clark Gregg is just a lot of fun as "responsible dad figure of SHIELD." It's basically the role he was born to play.

2. Patton Oswalt sightings.
Patton Oswalt shows up in Agents of SHIELD about as much, proportionally, as he showed up in the Diablo Cody dark comedy Young Adult. Only in the latter, however, does he have a deeply awkward sex scene with Charlize Theron.
I was really, really hoping that, from the end of Season 1, Patton Oswalt would be a regular on the Agents of SHIELD cast. But he's not. Apparently the Whedons who executive-produce the show don't want to pay him for regular appearances. Which is sad, because he is amazing.

3. Kyle Maclachlan.

Paul Atreides from Dune and Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks is in this season, letting his inner Bruce Campbell free. His plot line is deeply, deeply stupid, but he is so gleefully over-the-top you don't care.
There are no good production stills of Kyle Maclachlan looking as unhinged as he usually does on Agents of SHIELD, so I'll go with this one where he's his usual scruffy. 
To explain what the heck is going on with Kyle Maclachlan's character would basically require a step-by-step spoiling of the whole season, because his character is (sometimes inexplicably) written into every part of it, from the Hydra plotline to the Kree plotline to the Inhumans plotline.


...and here's a bulleted, nitpicky list of what I didn't like about Season 2.

  • Skye. Weakest link of Season 1, now critical to the plot but even less compelling in Season 2. 
  • Not enough Lucy Lawless.
  • Not enough Edward James Olmos.
  • Not enough of that guy who plays the FBI agent on White Collar
  • Stop trying to make Fitz and Simmons kiss, writers. She can just be not that into him.
  • Not very good Avengers 2 tie-in.
  • I was really hoping we were done with Deathlok. 
MOST IMPORTANT: Editors and fight choreographers of Agents of SHIELD -- I can tell when you cut from the actual actor to a body double from behind to do a fight scene, and it is really, really cheap and distracting, since you do it nearly every fight. If your actors suck at fighting, train them better. 

"I Killed Them All"

If you’re like me and 60 million other people, you spent most of last fall listening and re-listing to Serial, the podcast from This American Life that examined the 1999 murder of high schooler Hae Min Lee and the subsequent trial and conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The story was riveting, despite being unabashedly reflective of real life police work (an entire episode was devoted to cell phone towers and how they work), eschewing the fancy Hollywood noir for journalistic investigation. And while we’re still waiting for Serial’s second season to come out, apparently sometime this fall, HBO has created a miniseries that may fill the Sarah Koenig-sized hole in your heart while waiting for the next installment. The miniseries, The Jinx, was released this spring and, much in the same vein as Serial, re-examined a long cold murder case with a fresh eye to the potential killer.

Just a guy sitting in a dark movie theatre alone. Nope, nothing creepy here.

The Jinx focuses on Robert Durst, the son of an extremely successful and powerful Manhattan real estate developer, Durst was in line to inherit the empire his family built, but the head position ultimately went to his brother instead.  In 1982, Durst’s wife Kathie vanished after a weekend at the couple’s home in Connecticut. She has not been seen or heard from since and is still missing to this day. Durst was a suspect in her murder and The Jinx follows Durst through the investigation into her death. But just when you assume this is a simple cut-and-dried case of spousal murder, that’s when the other bodies start to appear.

The Jinx benefits from the cooperation of Durst himself. He speaks freely about his past, the investigations he’s been at the core of, his thoughts and opinions of his family and Kathie’s friends. Durst became interested in the project after seeing the 2010 movie All Good Things, a fictitious account of Kathie’s murder starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Impressed by the lack of sensationalism in the movie, Durst approached that film’s director to see if he was interested in “finding the real story.” The result is the six episode miniseries you see here.

Hollywood turned its unflinching eye on reality and bravely cast this Robert Durst lookalike as the lead. 

So what is “the real story”? The facts, as they say, are these: Sometime over the weekend of January 31, 1982, Kathie Durst went missing around Newtown, Connecticut.  Robert Durst told police that they were in Connecticut at their weekend home and that he had put Kathie on a train back to New York City the night of the 31st because she had to be back to attend classes she was taking the next day.  Robert said he called their Manhattan apartment and talked to her that evening to verify she made it home before returning to the city himself a few days later.

Kathie never showed up for her classes the next morning, however staff at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she was a student told police that she called them that morning to say that she was ill and wouldn’t be in class today.  And that’s when Kathie disappears off the face of the earth. Robert reports her missing on February 6, almost a full week after he says he saw her the last time. He claims the delay is due to her busy schedule as a final year medical student, saying that he would often go several days without seeing her.

I'd say there's some eerie foreshadowing in their wedding picture, but to be honest that's pretty much how all the early 80s looked.

Worth noting that is that in the weeks prior to her disappearance, Kathie told friends that Robert beat her and even sought medical attention for wounds. She claims that he forced her to have an abortion and that she considered divorce but felt hamstrung by a prenuptial agreement. The night of January 31st, Kathie had been a friend’s party when she left suddenly after receiving an angry phone call from Robert. Kathie reportedly told her friend, “If something happens to me, check it out. I’m afraid of what Bobby will do.”

Kathie’s case grows cold for lack of evidence. Robert’s claims are dubious; he says he called Kathie from a payphone, but no payphone was close to their home; A doorman at their Manhattan apartment recalled seeing Kathie arrive home but admits that he only saw her from the back and it could have been someone else. In the end, there is no body so Kathie is officially a missing person. Durst recedes from attention, selling his home (and many of Kathie’s possessions) and fading from view.

It’s not until a seemingly unrelated murder in Los Angeles happens on Christmas Eve, 2000, a full 18 years later, that the case begins to find life again. Susan Berman, daughter of a mobster and longtime friend of none other than Robert Durst, is found murdered execution-style in her apartment.  And it doesn’t end there. In September of 2001, a family fishing in Galveston, Texas, finds a grotesquely dismembered torso floating off the beach surrounded by the severed body parts. Police are able to identify the body as that of an elderly man named Morris Black. Take one guess as to who happens to be living in the apartment above him. Robert Durst? Actually, a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner, someone Robert went to high school with. Confused? It only gets crazier.

The Jinx dives deeply into this story, one that spans multiple decades and the length of the United States. Durst himself comes off as unsettling at best. His voice is odd, his facial tics like something that an actor would create in order to appear mentally unbalanced. Durst has a way with words that  is unpolished and strangely refreshing, particularly for someone who has been through so much media and legal questioning. When asked, for example, why he told police that he had talked to Kathie when she arrived back in New York the night she was last seen given that there was no other evidence of her ever even making it on the train back to the city, he says, “I was hoping that would just make everything go away.” An odd sentiment for a man whose wife has just gone missing.

Definitely not a murderer. Can't even see how you could go there.

For all it traffics in the hugeness of the story, The Jinx strives to approach Durst with objectivity as well. It explores his childhood, humanizing him without apologizing for him. Durst tells a story about being woken in the middle of the night when he was seven years old by his father and brought to a window in their mansion. Durst's father told him to look to the roof where he saw his mother in her nightgown standing by herself. Durst says his father made him watch as his mother fell or was pushed to her death. The series establishes the myriad ways in which Robert was made to understand himself as not like his other brothers, the ones who had earned their father’s favor. To say that the Durst family dynamics were complicated is, obviously, an understatement.

In the end, The Jinx makes its biggest splash when it uncovers evidence not previously found in the original police investigations. The day before the final episode aired in March on HBO, police made a high-profile arrest based largely on evidence that the filmmakers uncovered. The filmmakers made clear after the fact that they turned over all evidence to the police upon finding it. The arrest was certainly well-timed from a ratings perspective, but unrelated to the production schedule of the show.


In that sense, The Jinx manages to do what Serial did not – figure out what really happened. And while that’s no detriment to Serial’s production, it does give The Jinx the kind of closure that you may find yourself craving after all this true crime hullabaloo. The Jinx manages to come off as a more interesting 20/20.  It doesn’t sex up the effects or take any questionable licenses with the topic, but it is engaging, fascinating storytelling. It’s the perfect thing to take up your time until the world’s most favorite podcast comes back. Get on it, Koenig! 

Monday, August 10, 2015

I Am Jazz

The statistics are staggering.


According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, approximately half of transgender youth will have made at least one suicide attempt by their twentieth birthday.


photo.jpg
Jazz Jennings, star of TLC’s I Am Jazz.


That’s why it is so heartening to see an honest portrayal of the struggles of transgender youth on, of all places, TLC. TLC has gotten a bad reputation due to its exploitation of children, such as the now-defunct Toddlers and Tiaras, the hot mess that was Here Comes Honey, Boo Boo, and the recent sex abuse scandals involving both the Boo Boo clan and  the Duggar family. TLC has obviously decided to class up their act, and while we cannot really expect The Learning Channel  to actually be, you know, about learning, it’s good that they have finally decided to create a show about a nice, normal, healthy family.


Enter I Am Jazz.


Like Caitlyn Jenner, Jazz Jennings has several advantages. One, her family is incredibly supportive. Mother Jennings is a tireless advocate for her daughter, and is basically a mama grizzly. The Jennings family was involved in a two-year lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation over the federation’s refusal to allow Jazz to play on a girls’ soccer team.  Jazz’s father, older twin brothers, college-age sister, and adorable grandparents all support Jazz’s transition.


images.jfif
Sister Knows Best


Secondly, the show makes it clear that although Jazz is bullied by certain individuals at school, she has a strong group of female friends who accept her and form the core group of her social life. Thirdly, just by looking at the family home and considering the fact that Jazz has access to excellent health care, I think it is safe to assume that the Jennings family is well-off financially.


Thirdly, although Jazz is suffering through the pains of adolescence, and like any normal 14-year-old is stressing about her looks and her relationships with boys, her awesomely supportive family and her social network are there for her one hundred percent. How many cisgender teens can say that?


That is not even to mention that this girl is drop dead gorgeous.


5f835680_Jazz_3.xxxlarge_2x.jpg
Genes like this always come in handy.


Jazz has signed a deal to appear in Clean & Clear commercials and has also modeled for the NOH8 campaign.


Having watched both I Am Cait and I Am Jazz, I have a pretty good idea which I prefer, and I prefer I Am Jazz. Although Jazz has been a YouTube celebrity and was featured on talk shows starting at an early age, there is definitely a more authentic quality about I Am Jazz.  I won’t go into Caitlyn Jenner’s obtuse commentary (which I feel she hasn’t taken enough slack for) here but I do think there is less of a circus atmosphere on Jazz. Jazz is a kind and genuine person, and her struggles to be accepted by her peers, her worries about her changing body, and her touching relationship with her family give me the feelz. Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl, or any parent of a teenage girl, can relate to Jazz.


Kanye-West-and-Caitlyn-Jenner-640x337.jpg
Caitlyn, Imma let you finish, but Jazz Jennings had the best reality show of all time!


I am not closely associated with the transgender community, but here are a couple of personal tips I’ve picked up and that I’d like to share with you:


  1. Sometimes people are born into the wrong body. So what? It happens. Anyone who is transgender has the right to take the necessary steps to correct this, be it clothing, cosmetics, or surgery if they can afford it.
  2. Anyone who isn’t transgender: Why do you need to have an opinion?

I Am Jazz airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TLC. It is also available on various and sundry streaming services.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Netflix I Watched On Paternity Leave: Ben Nitpicks Attack on Titan

So, I've been spending some quality early mornings feeding and rocking and otherwise caring for a small person whom I am 50% responsible for. As a result, I've watched a lot of streaming video. Also I am writing this with a baby in my left arm.

First up: Attack on Titan. It's a diverting show, not a complete waste of time, but a bunch of things keep wrecking my suspension of disbelief:

1) The Title. The show's English title is "Attack on Titan" because that's what the Japanese designer wrote in English under the Japanese title, in English only slightly better than my Japanese.
These two lines of text are not the same.
Basically, the way this was translated is if I wrote a manga-style comic called "Revenge of the Otters" and titled it in Japanese "Revenge on Otter." Depending on whom on the Internet you ask, the Japanese literally translates to "advancing giants" or "the giants' attack." Also, in Japanese grammar you don't always have to indicate whether a noun is plural (you can leave it to context), but this is kind of an important thing in English.

And the Japanese version makes a lot of sense, because the story is one of mankind under assault by giant, man-eating, genital-less naked people with varying amounts of skin and/or grotesque physical deformities (for which "titan" is an acceptable homonym). So the titans are attacking. 

But with every opening sequence, I'm smacked with that English title and I say, "translation fail!" Which opens me to be critical of-

2) That's How You Intend To Kill 50-Foot-Tall Monsters?

So, you are being attacked by giant, super-strong, regenerating monsters, and cannon are not ideal weapons against them because you can only kill them if you hit a precise spot on the back of their necks. Let's further add that you have a century to develop an awesome steampunk way to combat these giants.

The obvious development in weapons technology is to arm the traveling cast of Peter Pan with Batman grappling hooks, jetpacks, and mini versions of those utility knife swords from Evangelion, right?
This makes so much more sense than developing man-portable, semiautomatic artillery with high-explosive shells that could be mass-produced for use by minimally-skilled troops.
As you can imagine, when humankind's soldiers fail to be the absolute perfect combination of Spider-Man, Zorro, and Cirque de Soleil, they get eaten. And as this show keeps a plausibly low number of characters with superhero-level talents, casualties are high.

So, every episode, I ask myself, "why aren't you doing something more efficient?"

But this is not what made me say, after episode 15 or so, that I could put this down and watch more episodes of Leverage when bottle-feeding a newborn. That was:

3) Obligatory Magical Teenage Boy.

So, after watching a lot of Lost Boys fail to think enough happy thoughts to avoid getting eaten by titans, the plot decides to give one of the obligatory Overly Moody Teenage Boys magical powers. Of course it goes to the Harry Potter-like one with the impulse control issues.

An aside: this show's Harry Potter has as his potential love interest his sort-of adopted sister (who has the same name as the company that made my wedding china), which is made even weirder because the reason she's sort of his sister is that as pre-tweens they teamed up to kill the slavers who murdered her family and were going to sex traffic her, so she ended up living with his family. In my mind, that's a set of facts that do not lead to a romantic relationship that I am comfortable endorsing.

The powers, sadly, do not go to the show's Ron Weasley.
Sorry, Armin, you're totally the Ron Weasley of this show.
So, basically, now I have to get smacked with bad translation title, cry with frustrated despair at futile wire-work swordplay, and deal with the least deserving, most irritating main character with magical powers, plus at least Ron gets to mack on the brains of their trio. I may finish the season; I'm a little curious what's in Magical Angst Teen's Creepy Unethical Medical Dad's basement, but I'm in no hurry.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

HUMANS

It's summer! Yeah, still. Ugh.

I know, I know--it's hot, you're tired, you're cranky, you want to just kick back with the AC on and get lost in a tv series that won't tax your brain too much.

There's not a lot of choice right now, but thankfully AMC is there to fill the void with its series (made in partnership with British television station, Channel 4), HUMANS

Cue the synopsis!
Your Saturday afternoon errands could result in purchasing a fully functional robotic domestic helper that will get your kids ready for school or take care of an ailing parent. Whether that’s a good or bad decision is the question HUMANS sets out to explore. It’s not about what this technology is capable of; it’s about the impact that this advanced technology will have on the human population. Will this new way of navigating life be detrimental or beneficial to us as a human race? And who will we become when this technology arrives?  
Set in suburban London, HUMANS takes place in a parallel present where the latest must-have gadget for any busy family is a “Synth” – a highly developed, artificially intelligent servant eerily similar to its living counterpart. At the center of the four concurrent story lines explored throughout the series is the flawed but loving Hawkins family. 

HUMANS isn't plowing any new ground. There are androids, they are used as servants, some of them have developed feelings. Blah blah blah. What sets this show apart from its predecessors are the mysteries that surround the characters. We know a lot of things aren't right...but we aren't exactly sure why.

Nobody is this happy to be cleaning. Something ain't right, y'all.

HUMANS is expertly plotted with multiple story lines that connect in surprising ways. I was gratified that it doesn't take too long for characters from seemingly disparate plots to begin interacting with one another. Each episode teases out more information about the underlying mysteries--some about the overall plot and some about the characters themselves. Why does Laura, the mother in the Hawkins family, keep her kids at arms length and doesn't trust herself around them? Why is Leo tracking down four synths that have developed personalities and what is his connection to them? What is Dr. George Millican's (William Hurt!!) connection to the synths and why is he hiding his old original model?

See? MYSTERIES.

Another point in HUMANS favor: the actors. Much like the similarly atmospheric sci-fi series, Orphan Black, HUMANS is anchored by an amazing performance from its lead actress, Gemma Chan. You might recognize her from Sherlock (but probably not). She absolutely nails the role of a synth...who's not quite right and frankly kinda creepy. The other performances are excellent too, especially Katherine Parkinson as Laura Hawkins, the mother with a secret.

In short, HUMANS is a perfect summer series. It covers familiar territory but is tightly plotted, well-acted, and addictive. And you don't need to worry about getting drawn into a series that will get cancelled--it's already been renewed for a second season.

You took her out of the original packaging? YOU FOOL.

HUMANS airs Sundays at 9PM EST on AMC.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

I’m Back (Part II): Comics Are Coming

Hello again! Welcome back to Part II of my television comic book round up.  Last time, we went through all the comic book properties that aired on television during the 2014-2015 television season. This time, let’s take a look at the shows that are scheduled to air in 2015-2016. You’ll find some spin-offs of current shows, some new entries into larger universes, and one that’s just…weird.

As with before, this is only meant to encapsulate comic book properties that are based on the “superhero” idea, as opposed to the myriad of other comic book-based stories that occupy different worlds and tell different kinds of stories, such as The Walking Dead.


Superhero detective agency? Why not.
Jessica Jones
Remember Daredevil? You didn’t really think Marvel/Disney was going to let that be the only show they released through Netflix, did you? Jessica Jones is the next scheduled Marvel hero to get her own series and, like Daredevil, it will be part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, three of Marvel’s new television series will follow this format and are schedule to converge, along with Daredevil, into a fourth new series, The Defenders.  Jessica Jones is a former superhero who is recently retired after a brief career wearing the spandex tights and now runs her own detective agency that caters particularly to a superhero clientele. The show is already filming with Krystin Ritter as the title character and Mike Colter playing former “hero-for-hire” Luke Cage. Comic fans know there’s quite a bit of history between Jessica and Luke, so you can bet the hype for the two of them together on screen will be significant.
Airing: Scheduled for fall 2015, but possibly delayed until spring 2016 on Netflix


Well done, casting agents.
Luke Cage
Hey, he sounds familiar! Luke Cage will pick up directly where Jessica Jones leaves off (wherever that may be) to continue the story that Marvel has begun back in Daredevil. Similar to the two previous entries in this series, Luke Cage is expected to follow a grittier, more adult look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a character, Luke Cage traces his roots to the 1970s Blaxploitation era that recall a grungier, dirtier New York City. The character himself has transitioned beyond those roots to become a member of the Avengers for a while. He’s super strong and highly resistant to injury. As in Jessica Jones, the character will be portrayed by Mike Colter. (Bonus fact: A young actor named Nicolas Coppola used the character’s name to avoid the appearance of nepotism with his more famous uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, when he was getting started in Hollywood. And that’s how we have Nicolas Cage, people.)
Airing: Likely 2016, following Jessica Jones on Netflix


No word on human casting yet, but I hear the dragon from Mulan is being considered for a role...

Iron Fist
And we’re not done yet! Following Jessica Jones and Luke Cage will be Iron Fist, which will focus on a character frequently portrayed in the books alongside the previous two characters. Iron Fist is the furthest from development of the three, so Marvel has thus far not released any information about casting or a confirmed release date. Nonetheless, he continues the trend established with Luke Cage of mining characters with 70s-era bent, this time for martial arts stories. Iron Fist is a hero who is a martial artist and the wielder of a mystical force that allows him to summon and control his chi.
Airing: Unknown, but after Luke Cage and Jessica Jones on Netflix


Hail, hail, the gang's...well, half-way here.
The Defenders
Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist will culminate in The Defenders, a miniseries that joins the four heroes into their own super team. In the Comics, the Defenders were a group of “non-team” outsiders, not ready for the Avengers, not family enough for The Fantastic Four, and not mutant-y enough for the X-Men. Various Marvel super heroes have been members of the Defenders, including Luke Cage. Details on this show are extremely lax, so it’s very possible this won’t even air until 2017, but I’m including it here for continuity’s sake.
Airing: Sometime this decade?


Action! Adventure! Splody things!
Legends of Tomorrow
Moving on the world of DC Comics, the big event is Legends of Tomorrow. Unlike most comic book properties that are based on a series, this is a new bird. It is a spin-off of Arrow and The Flash and came about once executives realized that they had populated this world with enough interesting super-powered characters that they could become their own super team. In other words, it’s a Justice League that’s not the Justice League. As such, Legends of Tomorrow isn’t based on any one comic book in particular, but will star the characters already introduced in Arrow and The Flash, including The Atom (Brandon Routh), Captain Cold (Wentworth Miller), Firestorm (Victor Garber), and fan-favorite Sara Lance, the White Canary (Caity Lotz). The heroes, brought together by Rip Hunter (Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill), will be pitted against time-traveling baddie Vandal Savage. Exactly how all these characters come together, particularly the White Canary who is severely dead at this point on Arrow, has yet to be revealed but early teaser clips show a lot of big-budget action, something that the show creators have cut their teeth well on in their previous shows. The show is also designed to be something of an anthology where the cast of characters can rotate somewhat for each new season.
Airing: Scheduled for mid-season, 2016


This is literally the only production photo I can find for this show so far.
Krypton
Gotham seems to be working out okay for Batman, right? Let’s do the same for Superman! Of all the shows on the DC slate, this is the farthest out in terms of development, such that it may not appear until next year. Details are slim, but we know that it will be the story of Superman’s home world, Krypton, prior to its destruction. In the best care scenario, we could get a show like Rome, which effectively showed a decadent society that was about to fall apart. We could be in for some interesting alien politics and cool sci-fi. Of course, the alternate is also true and we could have to listen to uninteresting droning about the end of the world. Personally, I’m hoping for something more like the criminally under-appreciated Caprica series. (Seriously – check it out and leave your BSG doubts at the door when you do.)
Airing: Unknown


Girl's got that hero pose thing down...
Supergirl
Remember how I said the big event for DC this year is Legends of Tomorrow? I could be lying; it could be Supergirl. The show is from the same production team that runs Arrow and The Flash and while DC has said not to expect the three shows to overlap with each other, they haven’t put the kibosh on any future interaction just yet. The biggest barrier to interaction with the others will be how to explain away Superman. In Supergirl, he’s already a presence, something that would likely have come to a point of conversation among Barry or Ollie in their shows. Either way, Supergirl will follow Kara, Kal-El’s cousin who is also from Krypton and managed to escape before it was destroyed. The show will follow the modern take on Kara, which is to say that rather than follow Kal as a baby, Kara will have left Krypton as a young teenager tasked with caring for her baby cousin and keeping him safe. Unfortunately, Kara is separated from Kal and by the time she makes it to Earth, Kal is already on his way to becoming Superman, leaving Kara to play catch up. This might be the superhero show I’m most excited about this year – Melissa Benoist seems to “get” Kara and plays her strong and tough but also with an eagerness to prove herself and with an appreciation of how cool it is to fly around and have super-strength. To say nothing of the fact that it’s more than time that superhero show was based around a female character. Don’t let me down, Supergirl.
Airing: October, 2015


Avoiding all cat jokes from here on in.
Vixen
Speaking of female superheroes, Vixen is coming to the CW this fall. But this one has a twist – it’s coming as an animated series that will nonetheless take place in the same continuity as The Flash and Arrow making it the fourth official show to occupy that shared universe. Cast from the previous shows will make vocal appearances on Vixen, but for the time being it’s not clear if anyone from Vixen will appear on The Flash or Arrow. Some history: Vixen is Mari Jiwe McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), a young woman from the fictional African country of Zambesi. Mari comes into possession of a totem that can give her the ability to take an attribute from any member of the animal kingdom and use it for her needs – flight from a hawk, the running speed of a cheetah, the ability to breathe under water from a fish, for example. Show creators have said that they reason the show is animated is due to the production values needed to accomplish the special effects being much easier in this format. And while I would love a live-action Vixen series, here’s why this is such a good idea: by debuting a relatively unknown character (Vixen is seriously great, but she’s hardly as well-known as Batman or even Green Lantern) as a low-cost series, DC can introduce a wide variety of characters to their shared universe and see what sticks before investing in bigger, more costly live action shows. As such, the success or failure of Vixen is going to be critical for DC going forward.
Airing: Fall, 2015 on the CW Seed


But wait, where are the giant naked man-eating monsters? 
Teen Titans
This is possibly the most nebulous of all the shows I’ve talked about here, but I’m listing it only because it seems to be chugging toward reality, if at a slightly slow pace. The Teen Titans are one of DC’s premier super hero groups, typically made up of all the sidekicks. Traditionally led by Robin/Nightwing, other regular teammates include Superboy, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash. Something like a Junior Justice League, you can see an excellent interpretation of the same thing in the animated Young Justice series. Akiva Goldsman has written the pilot for this series, slated to be released on TNT and it features Nightwing, Starfire, Raven, Barbara Gordon, Hawk, and Dove. I’m an unabashed fan of the Teen Titans and would love to see a live-action take on the characters. Here’s hoping this one comes through.
Airing: Pilot is scheduled to be shot in 2015.


Handsome devil.
Lucifer
Finally, here’s the weird one. Lucifer is technically a DC property about the Devil (Marvel fans, make your jokes here). In DC Comics, the character Lucifer squared off against Morpheus in Neil Gaiman’s excellent Sandman series before decided to abandon Hell all together and move to, where else, Los Angeles to run a piano bar. The comic’s Lucifer is described as having rebelled against God three seconds after creation and spent the last 10 billion years causing mayhem, however he has grown bored of his existence and the various stereotypes applied to him and seeks a new life.  The television series will take this same approach, only because its Lucifer will now assist police in solving crimes. Because even the Devil can’t resist a good police procedural. I’m openly skeptical of this approach because the comic series was so good and the policy procedural idea is just so pedestrian. That said, Comic-Con fans watching the first episode came out raving about it, particularly star Tom Ellis’s portrayal of the character. Plus, since the announcement of the show, One Million Moms has thoroughly denounced it, claiming the series will “glorify Satan” and demanding that Fox cancel the show. Anything One Million Moms opposes is probably good in my book. My hope is slightly renewed, but I can’t help but feel like it’s a trap laid by a demon.
Airing: Early 2016, on Fox


So, what to be most excited about? Obviously, that’s in the eye of the beholder but the ones that have my Spidey-Sense tingling most are Jessica Jones, Supergirl, Vixen, and Lucifer. Jessica Jones has a lot of potential to merge the Daredevil and Agent Carter audiences if done well. Supergirl just looks like fun to me and, hopefully, done in a way that illustrates a good, strong female protagonist without underlining too much that she happens to be a girl. Vixen is fascinating to me because of the business behind how superhero stories will get made and told in the future. Lucifer has, unexpectedly, gotten my hopes up with its positive reception at Comic-Con. I’m holding back a few molecules of skepticism to keep myself safe with on this one, but I’d be lying if I said that my nerdy little heart didn’t beat a little faster at the idea of the show being well-done.


Bring it on, Fall Schedule!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

I Am Cait

I don't know about you, but when I think "ground-breaking documentary series addressing sensitive issues of identity and culture" I immediately think of the E! network.

Wait, I meant PBS. Did I say the E! network? I must have had a brief seizure or something.

Except that's what E! is trying to sell us. I am of course referring to the new reality series, I Am Cait, chronicling the gender transition of Caitlyn Jenner and how her transition affects her life and relationships.

I applaud Jenner for taking the steps to live her life as a woman. I can't imagine how scary something like this must be--it takes a lot of bravery to transition, and it can't be easy to be the subject of such scrutiny. And I am talking about scrutiny above and beyond what we normally subject celebrities to. As an Olympic athlete, Bruce Jenner's body was under constant surveillance, but what Caitlyn Jenner has to endure is intrusive on a wholly different level. And while that adds to the pressure Jenner must face, it's also kind of the problem with the show.

But before I rain all over the parade, let's talk about the good parts of the show. I will tell you with all sincerity that I was surprised and gladdened by the way the subject of gender transition is addressed in I Am Cait. It's clear that Jenner and the producers take this topic very seriously. Jenner talks extensively about how she understands how her position as celebrity has made her a role model for other members of the trans community. And I appreciate her honesty in expressing fear and doubt that she will live up to the pressure and expectations placed on her. I also thought it was very truthful the way Jenner's family, especially her mother, react to her transition. Everyone was supportive and loving, but her mother admitted it would take time to get used to to the change.

I read an article a few months ago in a magazine (I wish I could remember which one, and I googled for a long time looking for the article) written by a woman whose brother transitioned to a woman. The author loved her new sister, but she also missed her brother and went through a grieving process for his loss. This is an aspect of the relationships between trans people and their families that isn't usually addressed, but the article really resonated with me. And I appreciate that the E! series showed Jenner and her family openly discussing this part of their lives.

I Am Cait also uses a significant chunk of its airtime to clearly and unflinchingly portray the challenges and heartbreak that many trans people, especially trans youth, face in our current culture. Jenner sits down and talks with a mother of a trans teenager who recently committed suicide. It didn't feel cheap, it just felt honest--especially since Jenner was there to simply listen to a mother's story and shine a national spotlight on the sad fact that trans teens have a significantly higher suicide rate than other member of our society.

So what is there to bitch about? Despite all the good stuff I just mentioned above, this is a celebrity reality show. It doesn't detract from Jenner's struggles to live her honest life, but it does mean that half the time she's being interviewed, she's sitting in a makeup chair getting her hair, makeup, and clothes professionally styled. It means her coming out as female is done on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. And it means Kim Kardashian and Kanye West drop by for a chat about half way through the episode.

Jenner is rich, white, and privileged. One of her best friends is her hair stylist. But almost every other transgendered person in the world doesn't have the luxury (literally) of these resources. Many can't afford gender reassignment surgery, or hormones, or a new wardrobe. What are their lives like? You're not going to find out on I Am Cait.

Before writing this review, I asked my cousin Alyson (my Mom's first cousin) what were her thoughts on the show. Alyson is herself a member of the trans community and has been for some time. She's also a lawyer who has used her knowledge and skill to fight for the rights of those who don't typically have a voice in our society. Here is what she wanted to say:
"I decided, quite a while ago, not to watch I Am Cait. The basic reason is that I don't believe Ms. Jenner has enough experience and knowledge in the trans community to be either a spokesperson or a role model. Her economic gain from doing a reality tv show when there are so many unemployed, and underemployed, individuals in the community is disheartening. While I think there are many trans individuals who are excited about her sudden popularity, I am not in that group. There have been too many trans individuals who have either abused or wasted their 15 minutes of fame at the harsh expense of the community. 
This is broader than Caitlyn Jenner's situation. People like Martine Rothblatt, the prior owner of Sirus radio, and Rikki Swin, the inventor of the variable speed windshield wiper, have not given back or assisted others in the trans community even though they had the opportunity, and/or ripped-off, used, and abused those who assisted them or with whom they had professional relationships... myself included. My advocacy in the legal arena has been largely uncompensated yet well known, and yet those advances have benefited the likes of Ms. Jenner. So she goes on to make money without compensating those who blazes the trail ahead of her. Chutzpah!"
So at the end of the day, I am of two minds about I Am Cait. It's wonderful and exciting to see a trans woman chronicling her journey and living proudly and openly on national television. But it's still a celebrity reality show. And you can bet she's making a lot of money.

I Am Cait airs on E! Sunday nights at 8PM EST.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I’m Back! And Still Talking About Comics

Hello, Readers!  Apologies for the long delay since the last time I’ve written (Cancer sucks; let’s just leave it at that), but I’m back with a few more thoughts on comic books and the glut of comic book properties we saw on TV this past year.  Let’s run through them, shall we?

For the record, I’m mostly ignoring comic book properties of the non-heroic variety here. My reasoning is that “comic book character” as a genre is largely associated with capes and tights, as opposed to the wealth of incredible graphic novels out there that are also being given the live action treatment.  The Walking Dead is probably the most famous comic book-based TV show, but a glut of upcoming properties like Sex Criminals, Preacher, and my personal favorite The Wicked + The Divine are on the horizon.


"Sistahhhhs...are doing it for themselvessss.."
Agent Carter
Let’s start with the good. Agent Carter was a miniseries designed to give us more about the life of Peggy Carter, Captain America’s one-time love interest from before he got all frozen at the end of the World War II. Introduced in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger, Peggy Carter finally gets to be the hero that her fans know she is in this short-run series. Hayley Atwell reprises the character from the movies and presents Peggy as a secret agent working for the precursor to S.H.I.E.L.D. after the events of the first Captain America movie.  Peggy balances her life as a single woman in the 1940s with all the assumptions about her skills that era had with her actual ability to be a bad ass while hunting down an arms dealer. This show was beloved, not only for its obvious girl-power bona fides but for the fact that the sexism that Peggy faces is presented realistically. The men in her office who barely see her as more than a secretary are less two-dimensional stereotypes and more obvious signs of a world that is slouching toward change.  There’s a ton that you can say about the pretty incredible writing here, but I think of a friend of mine summed it up best when she said watching Agent Carter was the first time she felt like someone in Hollywood made a comic book superhero story for her.
Status: renewed for season 2, to air early 2016



"Wait, are we all still on this show?"
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Now maybe with the less good. Look, I know fans of this show love it. The thing I hear most frequently about it is, “but you’ve got to start watching, it’s gotten SO GOOD!” I’m glad for you and I’m glad for the show, but it lost me after the plodding first season full of characters I don’t care about. Of all the highly successful Marvel properties, this one to me illustrates most the danger of trying to run an integrated universe across multiple entertainment platforms. The show suffered because of revelations in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and while that’s unfortunate, it’s also not reason enough for me to come back to it.
Status: renewed for season 3, to air fall 2015



"Ours is a determined walk."
Arrow
Arrow had what should have been a big year that unfortunately got overshadowed by a flashier (heh) kid brother and some wandering in the woods on the part of the writers. As The Flash went full bore with establishing a world full of powers and magic, Arrow struggled to keep up. The introduction of Ras al-Ghul should have been a game changer and instead fans felt mistreated by the relative little screen time of the character and him once again being whitewashed. A creative change is in the air for next year, and it’s looking like we’ll finally see Ollie officially become Green Arrow and start to move away from the angst of the past two years. For the first time, all the characters are aware of each other’s secrets and finally working together. And no matter what anyone says, I’m enjoying Katie Cassidy’s Black Canary. The character is one of my favorites and Cassidy has done a good job of showing the damage that Black Canary carries with her without letting it destroy her.
Status: renewed for season 4, to air fall 2015



"Ahh, bugger."

Constantine
This is probably the show that I wanted to work out the most. After a lackluster movie, I really wanted Constantine as a character to have his due. I wrote before about how it’s essentially an American Doctor Who, although clearly the longevity is not the same. The show saw John Constantine battling the Rising Darkness with his trademark punk wit and whimsy. The show touches into the area of DC comics that I find the most fun – the area of magic and the occult. The show, unfortunately, failed to find an audience, however it may not be completely out for the count: there’s a chance the character could find his way to Arrow since they technically occupy the same world. Additionally, the upcoming Lucifer is based on a character from the same source.
Status: cancelled



So much blood, you guys. Seriously, so much blood.

Daredevil
Remember how I said my friend referred to Agent Carter as the comic book show that she finally felt like Hollywood had made for her? Well, the other half of that sentence was that she felt like Daredevil was the one they made in disregard of her. Daredevil is Marvel’s first foray into Netflix’s original series. For those unfamiliar, it’s the story of Matt Murdock, who lost his eyesight at a young age and now fights crime using his heightened senses. The fact that some weird super chemical is responsible for the loss of his sight is also what explains how UTTERLY heightened his senses have become. The show is by far the entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the one that includes The Avengers, etc.) that is the farthest removed from Marvel’s “house style” of high contrast shots, bright colors, easy humor, and breezy attitude. Daredevil is filmed in murky blacks, greens, and yellows and plays up the idea that Daredevil is Marvel’s Batman.  It’s also somewhat predicated on the idea that all that damage and destruction to New York from the first Avengers movie maybe had a consequence. The show veers more toward the violent and the gritty, which is a big factor in my friend’s less-than-enthusiastic endorsement. Nonetheless, it scored well with critics and with lots of fans.
Status: renewed for season 2, to air on Netflix in 2016



"Just try and catch me, bad ratings."
The Flash
Along with Agent Carter, The Flash is the best comic book property that this year’s television season brought us. In the same joined universe as Arrow, the show is a fast-paced (I’m never going to stop with these speed puns) take on a classic superhero. By embracing the elements of the character that made The Flash a touchstone in the world of comics, the show has reaped a lot of dividends. The trend in a lot of superhero stories is to get away from the more ludicrous story elements of the comic books. The Flash took that notion and ran away from it. It managed to make Gorilla Grodd an effective character, for God’s sake. What’s more, the series was immensely popular, outperforming Arrow and forcing that show to rethink how it would conduct its next season. DC Comics has taken heat for how it plans to manage all its properties, from the upcoming shared universe movies like Batman vs. Superman to Arrow and The Flash, but this show may hold the method to their madness. Season one ended with an acknowledgement that the multiverse is real, opening up the possibility that all of the DC properties are, in fact, connected even if they seem contradictory. The Flash plans on delving even deeper into the multiverse next year when it returns.
Status: renewed for season 2, to air this fall


So much rain, you guys. Seriously, so much rain."
Gotham
Oh, Gotham. Where do I begin with you? You know I’m a huge Batman fan, so you’ve pretty much got my attention from the start. I’ll never quit you. That said, let’s tighten things up a bit in season two, mmkay? Gotham made strides in its first season by establishing a very lived-in Gotham City. The show was stylized and beautiful to look at. And what they got right, they nailed: Carmen Bicondova’s Selina Kyle is precisely how Selina should be played as a young teenager. Donal Logue is Harvey Bullock and Robin Lord Taylor has earned the praise he’s gotten for his portrayal of the Penguin. Now the show needs to focus on fixing its two weakest links: Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne, ostensibly the heroes of the show. Gotham was predicated on the notion that the show was going to be more about the development of Batman’s villains than on him. In that sense, the show has succeeded because the “evil” characters are by far more interesting to watch. The problem is that we still need to feel like we’re on the side of Gordon and Bruce Wayne, even if Bruce is still only a child. Creating compelling, layered bad guys is important for good storytelling, but as long as the narrative focus is always returning to Jim and Bruce the show will have a hard time capitalizing on its biggest assets.
Status: renewed for season 2, to air this fall



Undeath is no excuse for an unrefined palate. 
iZombie
Last but not least, the little zombie show that could. As a comic book property, iZombie is perennially overshadowed by its bigger siblings, the superheroes and that other zombie show that people are losing their heads over. That positioning is unfortunate, because iZombie is delightful. It’s the story of Liv Moore (yes, that’s on the nose), a medical resident who is bit by a zombie at “the world’s worst boat party” and awakes to find herself desiring brains. Unable to connect with her old life, Liv becomes a medical examiner and discovers that if she eats the brains of bodies brought in, she can take on flashes of their memories and personality which, natch, she does to help solve crimes. So long as she regularly eats, Liv seems to be a normal, if pale, girl, so much so that her family and friends hardly notice that anything has happened other than assuming her new more lethargic personality is the result of the trauma of the “boating accident” she was involved in. The show plays with melodrama and humor masterfully, which is to be expected given that the show was developed by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, the creators of Veronica Mars. As such, the show contains some of the same DNA as their previous creation. Liv is, essentially, Veronica if she had moved to Seattle, become a zombie, and grew up in a slightly less paranoid home. The same noir-tinged voiceovers and wit that made Veronica Mars memorable to fans is on display here. The show was praised by critics and fans, although some fans were displeased by the in some cases significant departures that the show makes from the comic book.  iZombie was probably the biggest surprise of this season and season two looks to continue the trend.
Status: renewed for season 2, to air this fall


So, winners and losers of the 2014-2015 comic book television season? The Flash and Agent Carter are comfortably sitting on top, followed closely by iZombie. All three had positive fan and critical reactions and all three are coming back for their second season. Daredevil and Arrow occupy the middle ground; both were solid entries into the genre, however both darker and both shows that took themselves far too seriously at times. Gotham and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. come next; both shows are very high concept and will have hardcore fans loving what they’re doing. They both have the backing of their parent companies probably more than either one deserve, but that alone should keep them chugging along for at least a while. Constantine, the only show not to be renewed, is sadly the biggest loser. Fans of the character know, however, that John Constantine usually finds a way to show up in places where he wasn’t supposed to be, so we’ll see how long it will be before he’s mucking things up for everyone again.

But wait! There’s more! This post gives you a sense of the current slate of comic book shows, but next season is going to nearly double the number of properties on your television. For a full run-down of the new comic book characters about to grace your screen this coming year, check back soon.