Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I Watch TV Too: Out of time

Season 1, Episode 7: "Stranded"
NBC, 2016

As I've stated, I enjoy this show, but it's not exactly good. That is, it's fun when it gets into rollicking time-travel adventures, but it's at its weakest when focusing on interpersonal drama between its characters. But while this episode does feature some of the latter, it balances it out with a decent amount of the former, enough so that I'll call it a win.

I suppose some focus on the characters was necessary after the big revelations in the previous episode, which set the main trio of the show at odds with each other as they all found reasons to be distrustful of one another. So, this episode sticks them in multiple situations in which they have to figure out how to work out their differences, which is fine, but neither the writing nor the acting is strong enough to justify the time spent. This means that we have to suffer through some interminable conversations about how they have to learn to work together and all that jazz.

But luckily, the rest of the episode has some fun stuff. The team pursues their nemesis, Flynn, to Pennsylvania in 1754, thinking he's going to try to change the outcome of the French and Indian War or something. But it turns out he has something more dastardly in mind: sabotage of their time machine in hopes of causing them to get stuck in the past with no way to get home. Oh no!

Luckily, our heroes are resourceful, so they come up with a ridiculous plan to sneak into a French fort and steal some supplies so Rufus, the team nerd, can cobble together a capacitor and get the ship working well enough to jump back to the present. This is pretty ridiculous (not that I've looked into the science or anything, but replacing circuitry with some bottles and flattened tin seems suspect), but it's one of those things that sciencey guys can do on shows like this, so we'll go with it.

And they also end up having a series of adventures on the way to their destination, including being captured by both French troops and Native Americans, with the latter providing one of the more dramatically ridiculous moments of the episode when Rufus somehow convinces them that he's not a slave and he'll put his life on the line to free his friends. This scene also gives us the requisite brush with history, as Lucy gets excited to meet their chieftess, Nonhelema (who has a surprisingly good grasp of modern English slang), but doesn't get the chance to explain who she is. Maybe they just didn't have time for the exposition, but it was kind of nice to have a character acknowledge that this is somebody notable without giving us a synopsis of their term paper about them.

And along with the historical shenanigans, there's also some drama in the present as the team of time-travelers try to send a message to the future through a time capsule, which gives Gia, the mousy (in Hollywood terms) technician who Rufus has a crush on, the chance to angst about her relationship with Rufus and eventually use their shared history of incredibly obvious sci-fi fandom references to interpret the message he left that will help them get back to the future. It's an example of a bit of writing that doesn't make sense (why would he leave such a cryptic message?), but as a way to develop character relationships, it works much better than the dramatic scenes between the three leads.

So, sure, the show is still fun. It's got time travel adventure, action, technobabble, and lots of ridiculousness (my favorite thing this episode was when our heroes were trying to hide from French soldiers and they just kind of wandered around in the forest without checking to see if they could be spotted). I'm still on board, although this focus on interpersonal drama might wear me down at some point. But as long as there's stuff like people dressed up in tri-corner hats and breeches and guys using blacksmith equipment to fix a time machine, I expect I'll be enjoying what they've got to offer.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Black Dahlia: She's not ready for her close-up

A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: Black Dahlia
By Rick Geary
Published by NBM

True crime seems like a genre that would be perfectly suited to comics, but there don't seem to be too many examples of it, at least not in the English-language comics scene. But maybe that's because Rick Geary has got the market cornered, first with his "Treasury of Victorian Murder" series and now with his ongoing "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" books. Between the two series, that's more than 15 books of impeccably-presented tales of people meeting their gruesome ends, and it covers some of the most famous cases of the past couple centuries, giving readers pretty much all the information they need to know about these examples of human nastiness.

Actually, that might be selling Geary short. His books aren't just basic recitations of facts with competent illustrations; they're detailed examinations of events that cover as much as possible in around 80 pages, examine the relevant personnel, and place these events within the proper perspective, filling in whatever details about the time and setting are needed to understand what captured the public attention and continues to make them intriguing. While some salacious details are provided, Geary makes implication go a long way, keeping most of the gory imagery off the page but still providing a sense of realism. I love the way he gives things a sense of the mundane, making the players seem like everyday people who got caught up in something larger than they ever expected.

This particular case gives him plenty to work with, featuring a young woman's mutilated body found in a vacant lot outside of Los Angeles in January of 1947. Some investigation reveals that her name was Elizabeth Short, but while dozens of men were questioned, the killer was never found, and the horrific nature of the murder (she was beaten and had her face sliced open, and the body was cut in half) almost defies comprehension. Geary brings up several possible explanations, including that she might have had mob connections or that there may have been a serial killer who preyed on several women in the area throughout the 1940s, but none of it is satisfying, which is the nature of many of these true crime tales, and a probable element of why they continue to be so compelling.

But Geary does give as complete a picture as possible, delving into Short's troubled history as a would-be model and actress who bounced between her hometown in Massachusetts, Miami, Chicago, and southern California, developing relationships with a string of men but never able to find the right guy to settle down with and eventually getting involved with some unsavory characters in LA's underworld. Geary makes her into a sad character, someone who is never able to realize her dreams, but she still feels painfully human, undeserving of her awful fate.

And as usual, Geary brings it all to life with fascinating detail. He has a knack for giving people a homely look, the kid of person you would expect to encounter on the street, but they're all individual, unique people, everyday Joes and Janes lost in the sea of humanity, only standing out due to their proximity to events that we're still trying to reckon with.

And he also does his usual great job of filling in the settings, which here consist mostly of the palm-tree-lined streets of Los Angeles, but also include a variety of hotels and nightclubs. I like the way he gives many of these places an art deco feel, evoking the era without being too obvious about it.

So, all in all, it's what you would expect from someone who has gotten to be a real pro at this sort of thing. I don't know if I feel especially enlightened by what I've learned, but that's to be expected. Cases like this are famous due to their incomprehensibility, but they're still intriguing because they involved real people, and Geary is able to capture both the realism and the mystery, tying it all up in one succinct package. If you're looking to immerse yourself in some of the uglier moments of recent human history, you're not likely to find a better guide. Just don't expect to gain much understanding of humanity along the way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

I Watch TV Too: I want MORE of Timeless (I suppose)

It's been several years since I wrote about a TV show on an ongoing basis, so here's the first installment of what will hopefully be a recurring feature in which I discuss at least one show that I watch:

Season 1, Episode 6: "The Watergate Tape"
NBC, 2016

It's been a while since I've had a show that I enjoyed as something fun and kind of silly, without much in the way of importance on any real artistic level. Luckily, I'm kind of a sucker for time travel stories, and this show, which began airing on NBC this fall, pushes all the right buttons for that genre: recreations of the past that mostly focus on recognizable signifiers, people gawking at famous historical figures, characters recalling important details that help them in their adventures to the past, lots of hand-wringing about maintaining the sanctity of history, that sort of thing. And it's all wrapped up in a goofy ongoing plot about some sort of Illuminati-based conspiracy too!

So, the story goes as follows: some corporation invented time travel and immediately had their time machine stolen by some sort of evil mastermind who is out to destroy the United States by wrecking important historical moments. Luckily, they have a backup time machine on hand, so they recruit a young lady who is an expert in American history and a rakishly handsome special forces soldier, and along with one of the scientists who acts as their pilot, they get sent back to the past to foil the evil plots. That's your basic structure for every episode: the scientists track the bad guy's time machine, figure out what event they're going to screw with, and send our heroes to stop them. Rinse, repeat, enjoy.

And it has been pretty enjoyable, with the characters getting involved in events like the crash of the Hindenburg, Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and the Alamo, and interestingly, they've often ended up changing history, resulting in significant alterations when they return to the present. There's plenty of angst about whether or not they should try to change the past, but much of this is just a dramatic hook to hang the next action sequence on. They do at least try to make it compelling; the episode about Lincoln had some real emotional moments built around whether to let a great man die just because it's supposed to happen, along with a nice look at the plight of black soldiers who fought in the Civil War. It's all generally fun times, but the show does seem to want to struggle a bit with its themes, and maybe with American history as well (there's a nice moment in the pilot episode when Rufus, the time machine's pilot, says that as a black man, pretty much any moment in the past would be a bad one for him to visit).

But, since this is a TV show in the 2010s, there has to be an ongoing plot and some sort of shadowy conspiracy pulling the strings, and many of the early episodes have seen some menacing stuff going on around the fringes. The pilot, Rufus, had been tasked with providing intelligence on his fellow time travelers by secretly recording them and providing said recordings to his boss (British actor Paterson Joseph, who retains the aura of creepiness that he brought to his role as a cult leader on The Leftovers), and he's only doing so because some organization called Rittenhouse is threatening his family. In the first episode, Lucy, the historian, ran into the bad guy, Flynn (played by ER's Goran Visnjic), and he claimed that he's actually carrying out a campaign to bring down these same Rittenhouse people, and he's helped in his task by a journal that he received from Lucy's future self. So many secrets; when will our heroes ever find out about them?

Well, this week's episode answered that, as most everything was brought to light. During a trip to 1972 to recover the missing 18 minutes of Nixon's recordings (it turns out he's also afraid of Rittenhouse), all three main characters have their secrets revealed to each other, and now they're all rather mistrustful. But they also discover more about the Rittenhouse conspiracy, which seems to involve some sort of secret society that is so intertwined with American history that it's basically inextricable from the United States itself. Which may provide some interesting plots going forward; should they continue trying to stop Flynn each time he tries to ruin history, or should they team up with him? How can they use their exploits in the past to give them more power in the present? Will they ever stop whining about how they can't trust each other? We'll have to see, I guess.

But in the meantime, I'm sure there will be many more time travel adventures to go on. This episode had some enjoyable moments, like Lucy and Rufus getting in touch with Deep Throat (since we actually know who he was now) to try to extract some information about the Watergate burglary, or Rufus happening to know all about the relationships between the leaders of the Black Liberation Army so that he can convince them he's a member in order to recover something they were hiding from the Nixon administration (it turns out to be a person who knows a bunch of secrets about Rittenhouse, but for some reason nobody asks her to share any of that information with them, even though it would probably help them fight this evil conspiracy).

This show isn't exactly high art, but it's a pretty good time, with lots of action and at least some attempts to pay attention to historical details, even if those often take the form of interesting factoids that somebody can note on their current trip to the past. It's fast moving and goofy enough that you can usually just roll with it, even when some things don't make sense (where did Flynn get his army of thugs who are all too willing to accompany him to the past and get killed in the many shootouts that he has with the heroes?). Because why worry about the boring stuff when you can go on an adventure where you get to shoot a bunch of Nazis? That's what I'll be tuning in for each week; more of that sort of thing, please.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Kung-Fu Klassix: Return to the 36th Chamber

Return to the 36th Chamber
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
China, 1980

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the all-time great martial arts movies, cementing Gordon Liu into the ranks of the best kung fu stars and establishing a lot of the standard tropes about training sequences and Shaolin monks. This sequel-in-name-only is an odd way to follow up on that greatness, taking a much more comedic approach and only vaguely paying lip service to the original. But it's still pretty fun, even if it doesn't rise to the level of its predecessor.

This time around, Gordon Liu plays a goofball who poses as a monk to beg for money from people on the street. His brother, who works in a dye factory, starts having trouble with the management, who bring in outside workers and start docking everyone's pay, then threaten violence on anyone who tries to quit. The poor working stiffs (one of whom include a guy with some ridiculous-looking buck teeth) come up with a plan to have Liu pose as a Shaolin monk and confront the boss to tell him to treat his workers fairly. This leads to some goofy bits in which they help him pretend to use his awesome kung fu powers by throwing themselves around after he waves his arms at them:

This all backfires as expected when the boss, a guy with some actual martial arts skills, challenges him to a fight, and the resulting beatdown that everyone is given puts them in a worse place than ever. So, in despair, Liu decides to go to the actual Shaolin temple and get some real kung fu training so he can avenge his pals.

But, since this is a comedy version of the kung fu movie, he can't get officially admitted as a monk, so he has to try to sneak in to the temple, leading to lots of shenanigans as he pretends to be a monk, tries and fails to participate in the training, and gets repeatedly humiliated. But the wise abbot uses some lateral thinking and tasks him with building some scaffolding around the entire temple, with the ostensible goal of fixing the roof. This gives him the chance to not only build his physical skills, but also to watch as the monks train and come up with his own makeshift version of their techniques:

After spending something like a year working on this, he finally completes the scaffolding, so the abbot kicks him out, having seen that he has unwittingly learned everything he needs to know. He returns despondently to his hometown, feeling like a failure. Everyone is excited to see him, and they're sure he's going to use his new kung fu skills to avenge them, but sadly informs them that he didn't learn anything. But then he discovers his amazing reflexes, and realizes that he did learn kung fu after all, so he goes to confront the bosses at the dye factory.

And all this build-up leads to a pretty great series of fights, as he not only uses the standard punches and kicks to beat up the bad guys, but he also utilizes his scaffolding skills to tie guys up with strips of bamboo in mid-fight:

And then there's a final battle that takes place in a construction site, meaning that Liu has plenty of scaffolding and bamboo to use, giving him the chance to do stuff like this:

So, overall, this one is pretty fun, if not one of the all time greats. It's definitely on the goofier end of the spectrum, with lots and lots of humor that's hit or miss, and it takes quite a while to get to the good stuff, but the final series of fights is enjoyable enough that the wait is definitely worth it, especially when you've got a charismatic performer like Liu to watch throughout. And it's got some unique ideas; I love the way some of these older films would come up with techniques and fighting styles that fit the story and characters while still feeling dynamic and exciting. And there's also plenty of the old standby stuff, like the way the bad guys' weapon of choice in the final battle is those stools that people were always using to fight with in old-school kung fu movies.

I'm always up for a classic Gordon Liu movie, and this one was definitely worth checking out. I wouldn't recommend it for first-timers, but if you're looking for a fun bit of Shaw Brothers chop socky, you could definitely do worse.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Barreling bizarrely toward the present

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 2: Battle Tendency, Volume 4
By Hirohiko Araki
Published by Viz Media

So here's another volume of classic manga craziness, so, since this series has defeated my abilities to offer much in the way of cogent analysis, get ready for another recap of the madness contained within. Let's get started!

The previous volume ended with Jojo and his mentor Lisa Lisa about to confront the evil Wamuu and Kars following the heroic death of their ally Caesar. But they soon discover that the bad guys have created an army of vampires, including this guy:

But even though our heroes are outnumbered, they manage to bluff their way into a pair of one-on-one duels, since they still have the magical gem in their possession that will grant their foes untold power. They agree to meet at a nearby location called Skeleton's Heel, which is a Stonehenge-style stone circle (in Switzerland, because this series' grasp of history and geography is rather tenuous) that also doubled as a chariot-racing arena in Roman times.

In case you're wondering if that means what you think it means, here's what appears as soon as Jojo shows up for his scheduled fight:

Yep, that's right: it's time for a chariot race with vampire horses! That sounds pretty awesome, and it quickly turns into a classic shonen manga battle, with rules about weapons being deployed by being hung on pillars throughout the track. Jojo manages to get an early lead due to some trickery, but the early advantage he gains by obtaining a giant sledgehammer is quickly undone when Wamuu does this:

The fight soon turns into one of those affairs where each guy uses some awesome move against the other, only to find that his opponent has foreseen it and come up with a counterattack, but then the original guy has a counter-counterattack ready, and so on. We seem to reach a turning point when Jojo uses his Hamon super-breathing powers to basically rip Wamuu's arms off:

But Wamuu uses an awesomely dramatic technique to power through the pain:

Sure, why not? Blinding himself apparently also heal's Wamuu's wounds, and he extends a unicorn horn that he can use to sense vibrations, Daredevil style, and keep going. After more fighting involving super-powerful crossbows and meticulous ricochet skills, Jojo seems to have delivered a killing blow, but Wamuu doesn't go down easily:

Yep, even with his body disintegrating, he keeps attacking using awesomely weird moves, including a suicide maneuver in which he sucks large volumes of air into his lungs and shoots it out with a laser focus, threatening to decapitate Jojo. But Jojo manages to come up with a counter that basically explodes Wamuu's body, leaving only his head to finish off. Which Jojo does, in a surprisingly merciful fashion:

Yes, it's all about respect between warriors, that most classic of shonen manga tropes. The other vampires don't see it that way though, and they try to attack, giving Wamuu the chance to make one last awesome attack:

After all this nuttiness, it seems like there's almost no way for the big climactic battle with Kars, the leader of the Pillar Men, to top it, but it ends up being epicly dramatic, involving the revelation of the secret connection between Jojo and Lisa Lisa (spoiler: she's his long-lost mother), the last minute arrival of Nazi cyborg Stroheim to lend some help, Kars becoming the "ultimate being" and gaining the power of all life on earth, and one last final plan by Jojo that involves flying a plane into a volcano. It's pretty amazing stuff.

However, I've shared enough images, so more of my breathless "and then this happens" descriptions can only dull the brain-melting effects of experiencing this manga. Just know that it's crazy and awesome and full of so many bizarre things piling on top of each other that the only possible response is to just hang on for the ride.

Of Hirohiko Araki's various artistic tics, I was disappointed that there weren't very many chances for crazy outfits in this volume, although I did like Wamuu's battle garb, which consists of a bulging, jeweled loincloth, some sort of bicep guards, and a vest pinned to his chest with knives:

There's also this goofy chapter-opening illustration of Jojo wearing what appears to be four hats that have been loosely stitched together:

And I also caught several appearances of one of Araki's weirder anatomical impossibilities that he keeps returning to (I mentioned it all the way back in part 1, volume 1 of the series) in which a character gets hit so hard his legs seem to get shortened:

Note that that page also includes Araki's weird sense of scale, in which it's hard to tell how big characters are actually meant to be. Is Wamuu really supposed to be three times as tall as Jojo? Maybe it's just exaggeration, but it works to make the series feel strange and unearthly, the kind of story where literally anything can happen (and often does).

So, as of the end of this volume, the series seems to finally make its way to the present (that is, the late 80s), and part 3, Stardust Crusaders, kicks off with what is sure to be more awesomely nonsensical fighting. I can't wait to read it.