Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Following (Season 1) (2013)

The pilot for Fox's new series The Following, about a Poe-obsessed serial killer (James Purefoy) and the former FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) in pursuit of him, had about as dark an ending as anything I'd ever seen on television. Honestly, it was a bit too graphic for me. My brother stuck with it, however, and convinced me to hang on for a few more episodes. While subsequent episodes remained as violent as almost anything on broadcast TV, I thankfully did not find them as disturbing and fatalistic as the pilot. Instead, I found the first season of The Following to be, to my surprise, perhaps best described as "The Vampire Diaries for adults." Maybe this shouldn't have been so surprising, since The Following's creator, Kevin Williamson (Scream, Dawson's Creek), was also the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries.

Like The Vampire Diaries, The Following is an incredibly fast-paced, twist-driven, and cliffhanger-heavy serialized show. It's also completely nuts. Past the pilot, the series actually focuses less on Purefoy's serial killer character, charismatic English professor and failed novelist Joe Carroll, and more on his (as it turns out) massive and pervasive cult of fanatical followers ready to carry out his murderous plans even as he sits behind bars (Carroll is apprehended at the end of the pilot). The show is not remotely a realistic study of cults, and it frankly strains credulity how this guy lecturing on Edgar Allan Poe ever managed to attract such a devoted and well-organized following of capable killers from all sectors of society. Basically, any character other than lead good guy Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) is potentially an agent for Carroll, and so often does an episode end with the twist that some friend, neighbor, or local law enforcement officer is an undercover cultist that you're quickly left more wondering who isn't a follower, rather than who is.

As implausible as it is, The Following also makes for some intensely gripping television viewing. Just like The Vampire Diaries, the show has a twisted affection for its irredeemably evil characters, which it somehow manages to spread to the viewer as well. After the part they played in the pilot, I wanted nothing more than for Carroll and the core trio of followers in the main cast to get what was coming to them. As subsequent episodes shifted attention away from Carroll's ritualistic killings, however, and more time was spent exploring the threesome as they fended for themselves, I found myself bizarrely invested in their story. It wasn't as if there were ever any developments redeeming them; these people remained always thoroughly and murderously insane. But they exhibited occasional semblances of humanity in their three-way relationship, and the volatility within the group, setting up one or another at different times as more sympathetic, quickly became a bigger draw for me than the conflict between Carroll and Hardy. Somehow, even though I knew they didn't really deserve it, I found myself rooting for them to make it out—break free of the cult and just ride off into the sunset. As on The Vampire Diaries, however, there are seemingly no happy endings in the cards for anyone.

Indeed, as even major characters can get taken out very suddenly on any given episode, the best thing about The Following is just how unpredictable it is. Of course, what do you expect when most of them are insane? Eventually, it becomes apparent that, although Carroll has plenty of influence, his actual control over his own followers is limited at best. The man himself doesn't quite live up to the idea of him that these psychopathic romantics have built up in their own heads, of this visionary mastermind who has made death his art. And so what we have is a show where almost every character is a complete wildcard, and hell is perpetually threatening to break loose (and does). I really don't know how they'll be able to sustain this, but I'm already feeling the long wait for the second season.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series (Season 1) (1966-1967)

I started re-watching the first three seasons of Arrested Development. I thought I'd go through all the old episodes on Netflix in preparation for the debut of the new season, but, turns out, I would have needed to have started a lot sooner in order to have been done in time for the premiere, because, as much as Arrested Development was one those shows remembered as having been canceled too soon, its original run actually lasted a fairly long three seasons.

Likewise, the original Star Trek TV series, although considered unsuccessful in its original broadcast, actually managed to make it three full-length seasons. That's about half what later series got, but, for a non-serialized show, that's still a lot of material to burn through on Netflix (or watch it for free on I did finally get through all of the first season, and, as a brief overview, I think much of the writing still holds up, and the show has probably aged better than just about any other TV series of its era. Much of what is good in The Next Generation and Voyager is found in The Original Series, albeit it's far more raw.

Some of the stories are ridiculous (e.g. "Mudd's Women," "Shore Leave," "Arena,"), but often that's owing to the poor production values and weak special effects of the time limiting the places they could venture, hence a notable lack of aliens that actually seem, well, alien, and not merely regular humans, storybook characters in outlandish costumes, or straight-up monsters. Even the bad episodes have intriguing ideas with promise; they're just laughably executed.

What you don't find in these early episodes, I imagine again owing largely to technical limitations, is a convincing fully realized universe that the characters inhabit—so much a part of later Trek. On an average episode, I don't think you'll see the characters in more than four or five distinct locations (and that's counting a single room or hallway on the Enterprise as a "distinct location"). Rarely is there ever the sense that there is anything at all that exists beyond the immediate set. That surely is partly due to the cheapness of the sets, but also, in these early goings, they have yet to establish much of the fictional history of Starfleet, the Federation, or really any developed human-like alien societies. Instead, the crew of The Original Series really do feel like explorers of old, mapping uncharted territory.

When they do encounter alien lifeforms, they are, more often than not, well out of humanity's league. As a result, The Original Series often feels like the "Old Testament" of Star Trek, in more ways than the obvious. Many episodes follow a basic formula of:

  1. Crew is faced with alien threat.

  2. Crew contemplates moral dilemma over how to deal with threat.

  3. Crew ultimately has moral choice taken away. (Either they're forced to choose the more expedient of two evils, or else a greater power literally makes the decision for them.)

Repeatedly, Kirk and crew are made to realize their own ultimate powerlessness and failure to match their moral agency with sufficient wisdom to guide it.

Where The Original Series has its descendants beat is in the strength of its cast, despite it having only three characters of regular consequence. In fact, only William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are credited as regulars, but DeForest Kelley is early on established as a de facto regular. The other familiar faces—Uhura, Sulu, Scotty—are distinguished from the random one-off crew members only in that they are recurring; they never contribute significantly to the plot. Nevertheless, Spock and Bones, and the men who play them, are so brilliant that the show doesn't require much more.

Spock purports to operate on pure Vulcan logic, but his barely veiled smug superiority belies his supposedly nonexistent emotions. As the season develops (and, since the episodes weren't even aired in production order, there are no character arcs but only a gradual stabilizing of character identities), we observe him as a person of enlightened morality; far from having an unemotional disregard for life, he is the crew's one true pacifist, who regards the preservation of life (for all lifeforms) as a matter of chief primacy on principle. He's also intensely loyal and readily self-sacrificing. The combination of all these qualities, matched with a performance from Nimoy that is deceptively brimming with humanity, makes for a character that, despite being the one alien on the crew, frankly embodies most purely all that is good in any of us.

McCoy, the ship's doctor, appears on neither the rejected pilot "The Cage" nor the chronological first episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Those episodes feature two different characters and actors in the medic role, and, in retrospect, there was really something lacking in them. McCoy is such an essential component of the classic Trek that it's a real shame that the character has become such an afterthought in the new movies. They've gone in a different direction, giving more prominence to the new Uhura instead, which is fair enough—the new movies don't have to, and probably shouldn't, just try to replicate the old—but the characters of Kirk and Spock actually suffer without Bones there to complete the trio. McCoy is not just another crew member, but his unwavering sense of compassion motivates him to consistently be the one guy to disregard chain of command and openly speak to his captain as an equal and his friend. Likewise, he is able to constantly spit forth seemingly bigoted remarks in Spock's direction, and yet there is never any doubt as to his genuine respect and affection for the Vulcan. This is such a common reality of the playful ribbing among the closest of friends of different races, and yet it's also such a difficult thing to pull off on TV without offending someone. McCoy manages it because Kelley's portrayal of the character is so honest and unpretentious that the viewer feels an instant easy familiarity with the character.

William Shatner's Kirk is such a peculiar character. As an actor (and maybe just as a human being), Shatner has gotten increasingly eccentric over the years, and this original TV version of Kirk is definitely more subdued than the character he would eventually become in the movies. Still, he already feels always like a character that seems to exist, to some extent, in his own world, even apart from Spock and Bones. Bones clearly treats Kirk as a friend, but it's less clear how Kirk really feels about Bones, or about anyone. There's just something always slightly off about the guy, as though he's operating on a different wavelength from normal human beings, and, even as he is charming and charismatic, there are parts of him that seem unapproachable. His is such a singular self-motivated, self-confident ego that you don't quite believe that he could even have real friends. But he's believable as the captain of a ship, precisely because he's the kind of one-in-a-million maverick, before whom others will naturally fall in line, not because he's a tyrant but because he simply exudes a larger presence—a veritable god in whose footsteps follow mere mortals. You get the sense that, more than any other captain on any other Trek, he is the one that really rules his ship, and every important decision must be his call to make.

As I ready myself for Season 2, I leave you with a list of my favorite episodes from Season 1 (episode numbers reflecting broadcast order):

Episode 11 "The Menagerie, Part I"

This is actually the first part of a pretty dreadful two-parter. My advice: Do NOT watch the canned pilot "The Cage" before watching this, because most of the footage from "The Cage" ends up recycled in "The Menagerie." Nevertheless, the first part is notable for being the first episode to really highlight the character of Spock, hinting at there being far more to him than just his purely logical exterior. He defies orders, going to extraordinary lengths and placing his career in jeopardy, in order to see through a kindness to a man he once served under, all the while never breaking his outward stoicism, which we learn can just as well signify modesty as arrogance.

Episode 14 "Balance of Terror"

A clear precursor to Wrath of Khan's submarine-inspired combat, it's a gripping and uniquely shot episode concentrating on a single protracted battle, as much of wits as of ships. This is also the first episode to feature an alien race that, rather than being either a monster or a god, is analogous to a foreign nation.

Episode 21 "The Return of the Archons" and Episode 23 "A Taste of Armageddon"

A pair of episodes showcasing Star Trek at its ambitious, allegorical science fiction best.

Episode 28 "The City on the Edge of Forever"

Arguably the greatest story in all of Trek, the time travel fun in the first half prefigures the genius of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, while the ending is a standard inclusion on any "greatest moments in television" list. The unforgettable climactic scene is brilliant, and so are all three actors in it. That said, Kirk's decision doesn't strike me as especially Kirk-like. I always thought of him as that guy who overcame no-win situations and always searched for a way through, even when there was none. But TV Kirk seems quite often ineffectual in the face of moral dilemmas, so at least here he finally takes the burden of most crushing responsibility upon himself.

Episode 29 "Operation: Annihilate!"

Another precursor to the movies, here we see the "needs of the many" argument laid out, and the friendship among the three main characters cemented. After some erratic early episodes, the writers and actors really found the core three characters—Spock and McCoy especially—and it's remarkable how, as early as this first season finale, we could see exactly who these men were and what they were made of—qualities and characterizations that would last and continue to be fulfilled in the movies more than a decade later.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (J. J. Abrams, 2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness

Quick Take:

Not one of the best Trek films, but one of the better ones. Never meandering, the most entertaining action movie I've seen in a long while. Internally sloppy script is exacerbated by ill-conceived attempts to tie into Trek history. Brilliant score. Highly recommended.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

One thing I always enjoyed about the Star Trek franchise, pre-J. J. Abrams, was how much effort the writers across all the TV series and movies put into maintaining a consistent continuity, with each project merely adding to the history of what always remained the same fictional universe. As a fan who had followed everything post-Next Generation, I had invested quite a lot of my own life in that world, and so I appreciated that the writers kept it going and never left me feeling like I had wasted my time keeping up with all this developing mythology. That said, what bothers me most about the "rebooted" film series is that they haven't just dumped the old lore entirely but are still trying to tie into it, even as characters and events in the new movies have diverged dramatically from previous canon. The new movies try to have it both ways; this is supposed to be a fresh start to bring in new audiences, but, at the same time, so much of Into Darkness especially depends on the viewer having seen, in this case, The Wrath of Khan. It gets to be a real mess, but, worse than that, even as the references and connections are sometimes rewarding as fanservice, it often feels like Abrams's team is just appropriating old canon in order to lend the new movies weight and credibility that they haven't earned on their own merits.

The big twist in this movie is that the villain, despite all the pre-release materials insisting otherwise, is none other than Khan, the titular antagonist of the most well-regarded film in the franchise. But why exactly did that need to be a twist? Why the deception? The revelation that he is Khan would only mean anything to fans of the old movies, but, even then, the reveal is only worth maybe a few seconds of going "Ohhhhh . . . . " It's such cheap gratification compared to the Iron Man 3 twist, which 1) had significant in-story repercussions, rather than just being playful marketing (although it was that too), and 2) was effective and fun even for people who knew nothing of the comics (although those who did know the comics would have appreciated an extra dimension to the twist).

The upside of entangling Into Darkness with Wrath of Khan is, I suppose, that the new movie could resonate with the old in occasionally clever ways, playing against history and fan expectations. This could make for a fun (if needless) game of "spot the difference."

Kirk's sacrifice was, for the most part, well-done. Internal to the character's Into Darkness arc, I thought it made sense. Not only had I felt, up to that point, that Kirk was strangely the one member of his crew without a clear function—he didn't seem much as a commander; Scotty and Uhura never would have challenged the Shatner Kirk's authority the way they gave lip to new Kirk—but his sacrifice also felt like the proper payoff to his and Spock's relationship, beginning from the movie's opening scene. When the dying Kirk says to Spock, "And this is what you would have done," it's a great, honest, and touching moment that reflects how these two characters, as headstrong as each is, have grown together and learned from one another. Factoring in the added resonance to Wrath of Khan, the line gave me an extra chill. Of course, for a number of reasons, the scene still doesn't touch the sacrifice scene in Wrath of Khan. Mostly, even though new Kirk and Spock have fine chemistry, because the characters (and actors) haven't had the many years and dozens of television episodes' worth of history that original Kirk and Spock had going into Wrath of Khan, the new movie was never going to be able to manage the same unique weight of the original moment. But if you take the Into Darkness scene on its own merits (if you can take it on its own merits, which the filmmakers seem reluctant to let you do), then it's still a good moment.

Spock yelling "Khan!" was far too much. For anybody who got the reference, it could only be enjoyed as comedy, but if it was intended as comedy here, then it was rather tacky and ruined a moment that I had been on the way to finding genuinely moving.

That was not the worst moment for me, however. My least favorite moment, by far, was Leonard Nimoy's gratuitous cameo as old Spock. More than anything else I've mentioned, this scene really encapsulated what I find most distasteful about new Trek. They can't just let old be old and new be new, with a clean break between; they have to remind us that the new movies do connect to old canon, thereby reminding longtime fans also that all that history they invested so much of their lives in was canonically erased by a genocidal time traveler.

Its relationship with old Trek aside, this is still a movie sloppy with plot holes and unintended raised questions galore. They barely touch on the implications of the discovery of the miraculous properties of Khan's blood, which can not only cure cancer (or whatever that girl at the beginning had) but can even resurrect the dead. In the short term, yeah, it's the key to saving Kirk, but shouldn't it also revolutionize medical science and even irrevocably alter society by effectively curing death? And if this is actually old science (since Khan and crew were cryogenically frozen centuries ago), why didn't it already revolutionize medicine and life long ago? If there are no negative side effects (as with, say, steroids), why isn't everyone in the future as perfect as Khan? (Yeah, I know old Trek had an answer, which Into Darkness glosses over, but, to be honest, I've never bought the outlawing of genetic engineering as being the likely course of the future.) Also, aren't the rest of Khan's crew also supermen? In which case, shouldn't they have the same super-blood? In which case, why did they need to bring Khan in alive, and so urgently, in order to save Kirk?

For that matter, once it's all done, why is Khan merely refrozen and stored with the rest of his crew? Are they saving his superior intellect again for the next rainy day? By the end of the movie, this guy has done more damage, claimed more lives than probably every other villain in all of this year's summer action movies combined. Doesn't the public need to see someone stand trial for crashing a gigantic top-secret Starfleet ship into San Francisco? All that destruction and loss of life goes barely acknowledged, even though the reality is that, whatever Khan's endgame was (which isn't clear), if he didn't outright win, the good guys still lost pretty badly in this one. Instead, it ends on a note of, essentially, "Five-year expedition, baby!" (Maybe those weren't Kirk's exact words, but close enough.)

For all its faults, Star Trek Into Darkness was nevertheless a thoroughly entertaining film. I was engaged all the way through, and I honestly felt it was the most satisfying and expertly directed action movie I'd seen in years—chase sequences, fistfights, and giant ships shooting other ships out of warp (I swear, that last one was ripped right out of my imagination (which probably means I saw it somewhere else once, and that was where Into Darkness ripped it off from)). The value of this is not to be overlooked, even if I'm not going to spend a lot of words explaining why it's great. I mean, if I had the movie on home video to reference, I probably could give a blow-by-blow breakdown arguing why that Spock-Khan fight is so much better—more thoughtfully constructed and more gratifying—than any of the fights in the latter two Star Wars prequels (giving me at least some hope for Episode VII), but who really cares? It's something you recognize in the moment, but, unless you're an enthusiast of the craft, talking about it only dilutes its potency. The bottom line: I hated a lot of things about this movie, but I loved the experience of watching it.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

JJAMZ - The Griffin, May 21, 2013

JJAMZ at The Griffin(Drummer Jason Boesel is perpetually a faceless blur.)

I caught JJAMZ again last week, when they were playing at The Griffin in San Diego (presented by 91x Loudspeaker and Space Camp), this time as the headliner. Opening for them were two local bands, Inspired and the Sleep and Hills Like Elephants.

Inspired and the Sleep was a very young band, consisting of three members: vocalist/bassist, guitarist/Korg operator, and saxophonist(!). It was clearly the brainchild of the lead singer, Max Greenhalgh, who, besides singing and playing bass, compensated for the band's relatively spare makeup by employing a rather innovative technique, wherein he would record short clips of himself playing a variety of different instruments before each song, then loop the samples to add depth to their sound. Sometimes he would create as many as 6-7 samples, including drums, flute, tambourine, egg shaker, and a vocal clip or two. Whether a song technically began once all the clips were ready, or as soon as he started recording the first one, I felt the live experience resembled the video game Amplitude, where you could hear a track come together piece by piece.

Hills Like Elephants was a more seasoned act, although, not being hip with the local music scene, I had obviously never heard of them either. They would announce when they were about to play a new song, which, from my perspective, seemed a tad pretentious (because what was the likelihood that most attendees would even know any of their songs?), and the lead singer also charmlessly complained about the provided equipment at one point. But, for the most part, I thought they were quite good, albeit all their songs kind of blurred together without leaving an impression. One neat thing, I thought, was that the singer also played keyboard, and another band member would also alternate between guitar and keyboard, so sometimes they would have two keyboards going at the same time.

JJAMZ was what I had come to see, and they were as good as expected. Some of the male members of the band—James Valentine (guitarist, also of Maroon 5), Jason Boesel (drummer, also of Rilo Kiley), and Michael Runion (bassist)—were hanging out at the bar before their set, and what I hadn't realized before is that these guys are all really freaking tall. When their turn came up, the band was ready with surprising speed; I guess they had most of their equipment good to go before doors opened and just needed to quickly check it again when they took the stage. They played all the same songs as last time (i.e. every original off Suicide Pact, their 2012 album) and in nearly the same order, only adding in one new song, "Waste of Time," in the middle.

"Waste of Time" was sung by Alex Greenwald, who mostly plays guitar on Suicide Pact, although he provides vocals (alongside Z Berg) on "LAX" and is also the lead singer for his other band, Phantom Planet. Yes, that was him singing on "California," the theme song for the FOX TV series The O.C. The sunny power pop sound of Phantom Planet's album The Guest (2002) feels, in many ways, like the backbone of Suicide Pact as well, and I was also excited just to hear something new from the guy who sang what is, for one generation at least, the quintessential SoCal song. But "Waste of Time" didn't really sound like "California" (which, in fairness, was over ten years ago, and I'm not personally familiar with any of Phantom Planet's later stuff), and it didn't really sound like any of JJAMZ's other songs either. It was a more downbeat and noisier kind of garage rock. It wasn't bad; it just made for a slightly odd departure in the middle of the set. Also, with the sound smothered by the small venue acoustics, it was impossible to make out lyrics for any songs I didn't already know, making it harder to appreciate anything new to me. You can hear a YouTube capture (courtesy of slothitronic) of a previous performance from last year here, which is probably clearer and less heavy than what I heard live.

They also performed their other new song not on the album, "Ceremony," which kind of hits at the opposite end of their sound spectrum. Sung by Z Berg, it's very catchy, although it also doesn't fit perfectly with the dreamily melancholic summer sound of JJAMZ's other songs. Sassy and flamboyant, with different production it could pass for one of the retro pop tracks from the second iteration of Z Berg's girl group, The Like.

Of course, it's not as if Suicide Pact has an entirely uniform sound. It's actually quite remarkable that it's as cohesive as it is, given that the material was accumulated over the course of about three years of the band's members—five real-life best friends—intermittently writing music together between and during tours with their other groups. During the show, Z Berg alluded to the history behind their first song, "Square One," and, in an interview with Interview last year, Michael Runion gave a fuller account of the band and the friendship's origin:
Jason wasn't even in Rilo Kiley yet. James had just moved here. Maroon 5 was still called "Maroon." Phantom Planet hadn't even made their second record yet, so "California" hadn't even been out yet. It was a long time ago. We just became friends over the years. At one point, we went out one night to karaoke at a bar. It was kind of lame. We were like, "Let's go back to James' house." James had set up a little studio in one of his guest rooms.  So we went back and Jason put down a drum beat, Alex started playing chords over it, and I played bass over that. Then, James was like, "I'm going to record vocals." Z went into the shower attached to the guest room; we put up a mic, and she sang this song that none of us had heard before. That became the demo for our first song, which is on our record. Not that version, but we made that demo, and we were like, "This is awesome! We already love hanging out. Let's just do this all the time!" We got together the next day, and we wrote a song called "Get What You Want," which eventually became the first song on our record. We didn't set out to make a record, but we knew when we hung out that good things happened: when we had time. Everyone was on tours; Maroon 5, Rilo Kiley and The Like were all touring. It was hard to make time for it. As time passed in the studio, we recorded six songs. We didn't know what we were going to do with them. We wrote some more songs, then we thought, "Oh, we should make a record." We tracked those songs.  We recorded those songs, and we started mixing the record last year. Now it's done and out in the world. It's really crazy for me that it actually exists. It was kind of a long process.

If the stories match up, then that first song Runion is talking about is "Square One." Interestingly, although the song was collectively written by the members of JJAMZ, and was performed by them as early as 2009, it was first recorded, in a very different form, by The Like for their 2010 album, Release Me.

Z Berg will be down in San Diego again this Friday, May 31, 2013 to support Tom Brosseau and Sean Watkins at the North Park Vaudeville & Candy Shoppe. I don't know if I'll make that one ($15), but maybe she'll perform some of her solo originals, which, so far, are sounding yet again something apart from either JJAMZ or The Like.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Vampire Diaries (Season 4) (2012-2013)

Elena: Remember that time you tortured me until I told you how to find the cure? You ruined my relationship with Stefan, and then you trapped us with a werewolf?

Rebekah: Yes, so?

Elena: So, you're not a good person.

The Vampire Diaries Season 4, Episode 19 "Pictures of You"

It's difficult, even perhaps pointless, to step back from the in-the-moment experience of watching The Vampire Diaries to then reflect on whether this past season was a strong one. What I know is that, throughout its fourth season, this remained the show that, week to week, I would most look forward to, the show I would consistently helplessly get caught up in—the breathless pacing and all the insane twists and cliffhangers that would leave me jaw agape in a mix of awe and bewilderment.

The big "moment" this season was—SPOILER—Silas announcing himself by snapping Jeremy's neck. Brutal. I had always felt Elena's kid brother was dead weight, but The Vampire Diaries continued its tradition of unexpectedly killing off characters right at the peak of their coolness. As with Alaric the previous season, they took a character that had, for a good while, been in a limbo of having no clear role to play and probably needed to be cut loose, and they gave him one final moment to shine, sending him off in the most awesome way possible. Well, maybe it wasn't awesome for Jeremy, but his death was used to create an awesome moment. Seriously, this was, as much as anything I saw on scripted TV all season, one of those "where were you when" moments for me. I mean, obviously I was at home watching Vampire Diaries, but it was one of those moments where I had to take a minute there to just process what I had seen . . . . So, to be honest, I do feel pretty cheated that they decided to go back on it this time. All I can do is give the writers the benefit of the doubt in trusting that 1) it was not a planned fakeout but merely one decision to kill him off, and then a later, second decision (no less valid and carefully considered than the first) to bring him back, and 2) they will hopefully find ways to keep this character interesting.

I suppose it shouldn't have been all that surprising that they chose to resurrect Jeremy. I mean, this is the show, after all, where characters are constantly getting their necks broken, but it's not a big deal, because a vampire can get back up from that in maybe under an hour, just as soon as their healing ability repairs the damage. And, more absurdly, even humans can and have come back from broken necks, provided they were wearing one of those special rings that will resurrect them if they were killed by a supernatural being (even if a broken neck doesn't seem like an especially supernatural cause of death). Which brings us to my other favorite moment this season.

If perhaps Jeremy has seemed like dead weight at times, then surely Matt's consequence has been even more in question all along, as the one member of the regular cast who has always been just a normal human, with no powers nor supernatural lineage. And yet, I've always liked Matt. He's humble and loyal and reasonable. And even if he's the most ordinary character on the show, he does kind of defy expectations by being the quarterback—not normally a sympathetic character in young adult fantasy—yet also the easiest character in the show to relate to. Against the vampire love triangle that is the core of the show, not to mention all the high-stakes supernatural warfare surrounding it, this regular guy had often seemed like a complete afterthought even in the eyes of the girl he was always there for. It was a great touch, then, having his death be the trigger that brought Elena back from the dark side. Was it cheap that it was all an obvious ploy, since it turned out he had the resurrection ring on? In this case, no; it was just a clever move by the brothers Salvatore. What's more, you have to believe, given everything we've learned about these characters over the last four seasons, that Damon would have gone through with it and snapped Matt's neck even if the ring hadn't been in play, if that had been the only way to get Elena to feel anything. And Stefan would have let Damon do it too, because these guys prioritize Elena's life above her will and above what is "right," because, at the end of the day, they're not heroes and never have been. And they have never given a damn about the quarterback.

I've always been fascinated by how, even though there are both good vampires and bad vampires, the show in general has rather a skewed sense of morality. This was most embodied in the long-problematic character of Klaus, who was introduced in Season 2 to be the big bad (the ultimate bad, in fact—almost supremely powerful, and a total dick about it), but whom we were then also supposed to buy as a legitimate romantic interest for the virtuous Caroline, even though he never really did anything to convince us that he was anything less than the most evil and sadistic character on the show.

This was the guy who killed Caroline's actual boyfriend's mother, and then, just a few episodes later, we're supposed to believe that he has a sweet side, and we're supposed to be invested in that potential relationship? And then another few episodes pass, and he nearly kills Caroline herself, and then afterward, once again, fans are supposed to go right back to shipping them? And these are, debatably, not even the worst things Klaus has done over the course of his time on the show. Remember that time he murdered Aunt Jenna? Or remember also that time he killed Tyler in order to turn him? Or how about that time he compelled Elena's mother to kill herself?

But it's not just Klaus. Remember that time Elijah slapped a dude's head off, just because they once both liked the same girl? And then we're told over and over again that Elijah is defined by his mighty morals? Or remember that time Rebekah killed Elena (leading to Elena becoming a vampire)? And then, for the rest of the season, we're apparently expected to feel pity or something for Rebekah because she's actually the most sentimental and emotionally vulnerable character on the show? Even everybody's favorite character, Damon (my favorite too, until I actually watched Season 1, after having originally gotten into the series starting with Season 2), is, remember, a guy who raped and murdered teenage girls. And now, three seasons later, he's the show's hero and the guy who gets the girl? And, yeah, I know we're not supposed to think of it as rape or murder or even to think of these high school girls as minors. Let's not forget that he also murdered Stefan's best friend just to cover his own ass. Or that Damon himself at one point snapped Jeremy's neck, having no idea that Jeremy was wearing the resurrection ring at the time, just because he was pissed, not even specifically at Jeremy but just in general. And that was after Damon was one of the "good guys"!

As of the end of Season 4, I'm pretty sure there's not a single main character on the show who hasn't committed mass murder. Even Matt, the stalwart human, presumably (if unknowingly) wiped out a ton of vampires when he staked their great-grand-sire Finn, who seemed to be the one good guy among the Originals (which means he was probably some kind of serial killer, like everyone else on this show). And always the show moves on very quickly and expects us not to dwell on the many horrible things these characters have done.

The only way, not to excuse it but to rationalize it, is to consider that anyone who has lived for over a hundred years (and themselves died along the way) is very likely going to be blase about a lot, and so of course they get over things quickly. It may sound like I'm giving the show too much credit, but it all comes back to that great Season 3 moment, when Stefan and Damon, wondering what would happen between them, if ever Elena were to make up her mind and choose one of them, agreed that the one not chosen would leave to give the happy couple space until Elena passed away at a ripe old age, after which the brothers would go back to being brothers, no girl between them. That's the insane perspective that comes with being a vampire. When you can look ahead ninety years with no regard to age, how deeply can you be concerned about these days that you know are just going to die and fade away? Kudos to this show for sincerely exploring at least some of the implications of what it would be like to live as an immortal.

Mixed feelings about the Originals getting spun off into their own show. On the one hand, the fan in me is thinking, "Yes! TWO hours of Vampire Diaries every week! It's gonna be Buffy and Angel all over again, hopefully with more crossovers and none of that complicated split networks business." On the other hand, that episode of The Vampire Diaries that served as the backdoor pilot was definitely the worst episode of the season. Part of it is that I'm accustomed to The Vampire Diaries pushing forward at a constant breakneck pace (no pun intended), whereas this episode was completely a midseason sidetrack that consequently felt like a lost week.

Moving Klaus off of Vampire Diaries might be the best thing for that character. He had become too popular a character, and Joseph Morgan far too ridiculously charismatic in the role, for them to ever kill him off, and yet, for the reasons stated above, he could never work as a hero, so keeping him around as a sub-antagonist or wildcard was just going to make an already tangled story messier and messier. Of course, I don't know how he's supposed to be any more believable as the hero on his own show, especially when its antagonist appears to be just a regular vampire leagues beneath him, and there doesn't appear to be anything else to hold Klaus back from murdering everything. It also leaves us with some unfortunate lack of closure over on The Vampire Diaries, since neither his mortal nor romantic rivals could ever decisively best him, but instead it feels like they just managed to outlast his interest in their town. And I'll admit, as preposterous as I always found the Klaus-Caroline pairing, there was something sweet about how Klaus arrived to the rescue for her graduation in the finale—made for the best graduation episode ever in my eyes, even if the high school angle was increasingly an afterthought on this show (which hopefully means at least that, instead of a clumsy attempt at a college phase (a la Buffy Season 4), the writers will just recognize that school is not a priority for immortals).

I'm more surprised that Rebekah is moving over to The Originals. The finale gave no indication of this, so I'm guessing this was a late decision. It should make The Originals a better show than that pilot we saw with only Klaus and Elijah. And if she's more of a core character on that show than she was on Vampire Diaries, I suppose I'll no longer have to worry as much about how sad I would have been when they inevitably killed her off in brutal yet awesome fashion. Yes, as much as I established that she's not a good person, the show still managed to make me feel for her. Damn this show for getting me to fall for unscrupulous serial killers. Hopefully they'll spend at least a moment next season to give her Vampire Diaries story more closure than her siblings got with their abrupt exits. And, yes, crossovers, hopefully.

As for what's in store for Vampire Diaries itself, that was some crazy season-ending cliffhanger. Stefan trapped in a coffin at the bottom of a lake (ripped from Angel, but still cool), while the new bad is walking around town with his face? Does this mean the villainous Silas will be replacing Stefan as Paul Wesley's main role on the show? It's been said before that the core three characters are the only essentials—the only ones who are safe from the threat of getting killed off at any moment. But is it really more the three main stars who are essential, rather than their characters? Both Nina Dobrev and Paul Wesley now have multiple characters that they play on the show, so even Elena and Stefan could theoretically be killed off without it affecting the actors' contracts. I don't honestly think the writers would ever do that, but, still, having Paul Wesley play Silas could be a game-changer. Stefan had gotten stale a while ago, not necessarily through any fault of the actor. I used to find Elena pretty boring in the early seasons, and yet I loved Katherine. It was hard to believe that Nina Dobrev played both characters, since Katherine came across so much more charismatic, more deliciously saucy, and, I could have sworn, more physically attractive even than Elena. Maybe giving Paul Wesley likewise a villain to play will invigorate his performance.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Google's Nexus 4 - One Slick Phone

Just over half a year since its release, the Nexus 4 is, spec-wise, already no longer on the cutting edge of smartphone tech, but, man, is it one slick device. I mean, literally, with Gorilla Glass covering both front and back, this thing is so slick that it could function as a really crude level, informing you if a surface is even slightly, if imperceptibly, slanted. At work the other day, I set my Nexus 4 down on a table that looked fine and level to me, and then I watched as the phone started sliding slowly but steadily back in my direction. Given that its all-glass shell makes it considerably more fragile than Samsung's plastic Galaxy phones, maybe being this kind of slick is not such an asset, since it will be always threatening to slip off any flat surface you place it on.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)

Before Sunrise

Before Sunrise is largely just a running conversation between its two main characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student. Strangers meeting on a train, they spontaneously decide to get off together and spend the night roaming Vienna, understanding that, after they leave, they will most likely never see each other again.

Nothing these characters have to say is especially groundbreaking or insightful. They're not neurologists or geneticists or war heroes; they're just dweebs, as are most romantics. If you've never tried online dating, maybe browse around the profiles on some of the dating sites, and you'll very quickly discern a pattern in the self-written "About Me" sections. Well, first of all, disregard about 90 percent of the dudes on these sites, because they're all either 1) muscled douche bags with shirtless selfie pics looking for hookups, or 2) really creepy bearded or mustached guys with no self-awareness, who, in their loneliness, have turned to weirdo hobbies like wood-whittling. Among the remaining "hopeless romantic" types (even if they are not explicitly self-described as such, though many of them are)—both male and female, but obviously I've perused more female profiles—a majority (not all, certainly) seem to fall into one of two categories: either 1) they describe themselves as "simple" or "just your ordinary [insert hometown] gal"; they enjoy dining, the beach, sincerity, or 2) they describe themselves as "not your typical girl"; they are "pretty weird" or "unusual" (hopefully you can handle that), often with a "sarcastic sense of humor" (you better be able to handle that!), and they prefer wit and "intellectual conversations." I oversimplify, of course, but these words do come up in people's descriptions of themselves with alarming frequency, which, in the case of the latter group, is, you'll grant, a tad ironic. What you realize, coming away from that, is that there are not very many original personalities out there, and, no matter what we may believe of ourselves, most of us are not the exception.

What is understood in Before Sunrise, however, is that, while the content of even our most seemingly profound "intellectual conversations," is, in fact, rarely original or objectively interesting, the dialogue can become intensely interesting to the participants, when there is a romantic chemistry there leading them to become invested in one another's personalities more so than in any specifics of what they are saying. At least for a while.

That Jesse and Celine's time together is limited is a blessing in disguise, because the two really don't seem compatible for the long-term, despite their both being romantics. Having arrived in Europe to spend time with a girlfriend studying abroad, he's the kind of guy who will literally cross an ocean (uninvited) in order to find his end in another person. But some bad experiences have also cultivated in him a reflexive cynicism that makes him hard to tolerate for long stretches. Meanwhile, Celine is transparent and unguarded, tending to assume the same level of sincerity in others. But, whereas he seems in need of an other half, it's harder, despite her transparency, to pinpoint what she's after, because she herself doesn't seem to have a definite object in mind. She's looking toward something as yet formless, unarticulated, not finite. Mostly, I imagine what would doom their relationship is that she would never be as emotionally co-dependent in it.

And yet, there probably is a deal of truth in what Jesse predicts. Celine probably will end up marrying a decent guy and settling into a stable life. And she probably would, years down the road, have wondered about that guy she didn't pursue, not because she'd be unhappy with her marriage necessarily, but just because she'd be having that kind of a day or moment when she couldn't help herself reflecting.

I didn't find Before Sunrise to be an especially profound film, but it felt authentic to an extent. I'm more intrigued by the sequels. Not knowing anything about them, other than that they pick up the story nine and eighteen years later, I'm especially interested to see how Jesse might mature as he grows older.

I had this coworker once, a single mom, whose day consisted of working six hours, then leaving early to pick up her kid from school, preparing dinner, doing the laundry, and basically occupying herself with typical all-consuming motherly duties. But, at work, she would always relate to us these crazy stories of her youth—growing up on the East Coast, then, at the age of nineteen, trekking across the country with her roommate, no destination in mind, getting into all kinds of trouble, before finally settling in San Diego. She had led such a colorful life, but that was all before any of us at work had ever met her. When asked if she ever got the itch to go adventuring again, she didn't hesitate to say no. Although she cherished the memories of her youth, she was a different person now, and she was adamant that being a mother to her son provided her more joy than anything else she had ever known. Even so, I couldn't help wishing that I could have known her as her young adventurous self, and I said as much.

"Sounds like she was a fun person," I joked.

And then she joked that she would rather know my ten-years-older self: "I bet he'd be pretty cool."

I was already cool, of course, but what she meant was that she looked forward to the day I would finally grow up and become an adult, instead of the generally nice but flighty man-child she saw me as. If I ever see her again, I'm sure she'll be disappointed, because I pretty much crystallized into who I'll be the rest of my life at age fifteen, which was when I first saw The Matrix (kidding!). But I also kind of get what she meant, because now I'm really curious to see how cool a grown-up Jesse might be, if he ever grows out of being such a grating douche bag. Guess I'll have to hunt down Before Sunset next.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Google Play Music All Access

I've been checking out the free trial of Google's recently upgraded-to-compete-with-Spotify music service. Previously, Google Play Music had been just a digital music store and a cloud space for up to 20,000 of your own songs. The deals and selection on the store had always compared unfavorably against Amazon MP3 and iTunes, but the cloud option was probably more generous than any other. None of that was very compelling, however, against the rise of music subscription services like Spotify and Rdio, which allow users on-demand access to 20 million-song catalogs for a monthly fee (or free-with-ads on Spotify).

Google Play Music's new "All Access" option is the same basic idea as other on-demand services like Spotify and Rdio, and it boasts a comparably large collection—ultimately smaller, and with the only exclusives being a handful of "Live @ Google" performances that have always been free downloads anyway, but it still has almost any current song the average user is likely to search for. Put head-to-head against Spotify and Rdio for the same $9.99/month price, All Access feels bare-bones and decidedly inferior. Aside from its smaller catalog, it doesn't sport as informative and feature-rich an environment (with lots of exclusive performances and commentaries) as Spotify, it's not as elegant and intuitive as Rdio, and its only social functionality is sharing via Google+. Google's advantage is that any of the up-to-20,000 songs you've uploaded to its cloud space can be shuffled together with the All Access on-demand library and seamlessly streamed from the same interface. But that's only a big deal if you've uploaded a lot of songs that aren't in the Google Play catalog. A lot of the service's shortcomings can be attributed to Google just being the latecomer, and you might hope that it will catch up quickly, but, then again, its music store, after having debuted two years ago, still feels years behind iTunes and Amazon MP3. The All Access mobile app is also currently Android-only, although I would expect them to roll it out to other platforms soon.

One cool feature is All Access's integration with the Google Play Sound Search widget for Android. The only reason I still have SoundHound on my phone is because, when it IDs a song, it also gives me a link to the song on YouTube, in the very reasonable event that I want to hear it again or share my discovery. With All Access, Sound Search is even better, since it links you to a much higher-quality version of the track available in Google Play's on-demand library (although, of course, you still can't share it the way you can share a YouTube video).

Aside from the on-demand catalog, All Access also includes a Pandora-style radio mode. For some, this will be an afterthought. For others, it will be the service's primary function. Personally, when I just need background music, I tend to leave the selections to the radio, rather than manually queuing up songs or assembling my own playlists. I only go on-demand when I want to check out a new release, or when I hear a song from a new-to-me artist and want to see what else they've done.

All Access operates the same way as Pandora, intelligently generating stations of like material based on an initial song, artist, or album you select. It has a thumbs-up or -down system to help it get a sense of your tastes. To get you started, Google will suggest a few stations based on songs already in your collection (provided you have one). Before All Access launched, I remember Google Play Music suggesting "mixes" (automatically generated playlists) in the same way, assembled from songs in your cloud space. I never tried any of those mixes, but I assume the idea was the same as the "Genius" feature on iTunes (though I never used that either, so I wouldn't really know). In any case, based off just a few days of use, I've been pretty impressed by how well Google seems to understand what I like.

Following Google's suggestion, I launched a radio station based on JJAMZ's "Square One." Then, as an experiment, I also used "Square One" as a launching point on Pandora, supplying it with no other information about my tastes. I even did the same with Spotify's radio feature, which I'd never really tried before.

Pandora was definitely the most eclectic. Within the first five songs, it had already played two that aren't available anywhere on Google Play Music—LoveLikeFire's "Inner Space" and Plane's "I See Love in the Future," the latter of which isn't on Spotify either (and which isn't missed). The fifth song, however, was by Rob Thomas (the Matchbox Twenty guy, not the Veronica Mars guy), and that's when I pulled the plug on that. And nothing else it had given me was anything I felt especially compelled to investigate further afterward.

Spotify's rarely discussed radio service surprisingly fared a little better. It was not as adventurous and played some songs I already knew (whereas Pandora's first four recommendations were completely unfamiliar to me), but everything seemed to make sense in being of a kind with "Square One." That is, until the tenth "song," which was a 30-second commentary track of Youngblood Hawke discussing their song "We Come Running" (which, no, was not the eleventh song; that was the completely unrelated "Jag in a Jungle" by Brite Futures). A bug, I'm thinking?

Google's selections were generally similar to Spotify's—The Submarines and The Joy Formidable even popped up on both, though not the same songs. I found more winners overall—that is, songs to my personal taste—among Google's song choices. It also has the unique and really cool feature of letting you look ahead to see the next 25 songs that are coming up on your station.

If you're curious, here's what each service picked for me:

Google Play Music All Access

  1. "Recover" - Chvrches, Recover EP (2013)

  2. "We Got the World" - Icona Pop, We Got the World (single) (2012)

  3. "Little Numbers" - BOY, Mutual Friends (2011)

  4. "Robots in Love" - Beautiful Small Machines, The Robots in Love EP (2009)

  5. "Human" - Oh Land, Oh Land (2011)

  6. "Dark Doo Wop" - MS MR, Candy Bar Creep Show (2012)

  7. "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" - The Joy Formidable, The Big Roar (2011)

  8. "Junk" - Kitten, Cut It Out EP (2012)

  9. "Always the Last to Know" - Blondfire, My Someday (2008)

  10. "Swimming Pool" - The Submarines, Honeysuckle Weeks (2008)


  1. "Culling Song" - The Bluetones, A New Athens (2010)

  2. "How Do You Go On?" - Pete Yorn, Nightcrawler (2006)

  3. "I See Love in the Future" - Plane, I See Love in the Future (2007)

  4. "Inner Space" - LoveLikeFire, Bed of Gold (2006)

  5. "Her Diamonds" - Rob Thomas, Cradlesong (2009)


  1. "Interlaid" - Lasorda, Lasorda (2012)

  2. "Barefoot Winter Waltz" - The Last Royals, Twistification (2013)

  3. "9669" - The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning (2009)

  4. "Just Like Honey" - The Submarines, The Shoelaces (2011)

  5. "Photolights" - California Wives, Art History (2012)

  6. "Roman" - Housse de Racket, Alesia (2012)

  7. "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny" - Kitten, Sunday School (2010)

  8. "Magic" - Air Traffic Controller, Nordo (2012)

  9. "Leaving You Behind" - Amanda Blank, I Love You (2009)

  10. "We Come Running" Commentary - Youngblood Hawke (2013)

  11. "Jag in a Jungle" - Brite Futures, Dark Past (2011)

This is all fairly anecdotal. I don't truly understand how any of these radio systems work. Pandora has been around the longest and is based on the Music Genome Project, which has received the most input, which, in theory, you might suppose would produce the most accurate results. Spotify supposedly draws from Facebook data, in addition to its own community. Google's All Access service just rolled out, and even though its Play Music store has been around longer, it's not the most popular destination for consumers and reviewers, so I'm not sure what its selections are primarily based on. Maybe it uses all that search and Gmail data it collects from spying on its users? In any case, for all three, their accuracy surely varies according to the song you choose to start from, and even the same song will produce different results every time; Google and Spotify's selections were close enough that that contest could have gone either way. That Pandora experience was not an isolated incident, though. No matter whether I'm starting from Metric, whose appeal is fairly well-established, or something newer like Chvrches, it seems that Pandora will invariably inevitably point me in the direction of Train or Five for Fighting or some such thing. I really can't account for this head-scratching behavior.

There were also no ads on Google's radio, but that's because I'm on the 30-day trial for its premium service. There is no free level for the radio, and I suppose that's the main reason why, once the trial runs out, I'll just go back to ad-supported Pandora (and maybe try Spotify some more). Meanwhile, for the on-demand, which I know I wouldn't use as often anyway, ad-supported Spotify is good enough in a pinch.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Parks and Recreation (Season 5) (2012-2013)

Parks and Recreation's fifth season was, like its third, more of a "rest and rebuild" season, following an intense last season that focused on one major story. There was no big project or campaign this time; instead, Season 5 more broadly followed Leslie as she adjusted to her new position and responsibilities as a member of city council. The obstacles she faced throughout the season finally culminated in an almost clip show-style finale that suggested the direction for Season 6. In the meantime, more attention was also given to the supporting characters' own individual arcs.

Episode 2, "Soda Tax," was a highlight for me. In fact, it was seeing this episode when it first aired, having not watched the previous four seasons, that convinced me to go back and check out the series from the beginning. Tackling a real-world political debate of the moment (and still ongoing), it encapsulated what I would come to appreciate most about the series in general—its willingness to explore politics in a fun and funny way while also being informative and relevant.

Episode 11, "Women in Garbage," was another great episode—one where the show's writers took a real position, using the fictional character of Leslie Knope to voice legitimate complaints about gender inequalities in the work force. It was also amusing to see all the cameos by real political figures this season. They didn't add much of anything to the show, but, again, it's funny to imagine Amy Poehler and the crew having developed Leslie Knope into a savvy political player with real-world voice and influence, such that politicians like Joe Biden and John McCain would have to treat this fictional character seriously.

On the whole, however, I did find this season to be weaker than I've come to expect from Parks and Recreation, and, to be honest, I do feel the show has, at this point, exceeded its optimal length and is now entering the creative decline that is inevitable with any series that goes too long. Other than the occasional topical episode and the highlight of Leslie and Ben's wedding (the real climax of the season, despite it coming in the middle of it), the show and its characters felt pretty tired.

Putting the focus more on Tom and Andy's stories this season did not work at all for me. Those are fairly one-dimensional characters, who only work well in supporting roles, providing well-timed supporting humor. Trying to make us pity Tom only ever serves to take us away from what was fun about the character—his misplaced confidence and swagger. And Andy has always been a pure cartoon; everybody likes him, but it's not meaningful to root for him, because we're never really convinced that he's a real human being with real human feelings. Likewise with Chris. And, as great a moment as it was when Ben surprised Leslie by returning to Pawnee and proposing to her, his character seemed to become irrelevant almost as soon as they were married.

But my least favorite part of Season 5, by far, was the character of Jamm. The series' first true villain, Jamm, the corrupt councilman serving only his own interests, appeared on almost every episode to get in the way of whatever Leslie was trying to accomplish. I'm sure the character was meant to be unlikable, and I also don't doubt that he represents a reality of the bureaucratic world. Nevertheless, he was so utterly repulsive and uniquely despicable that I just couldn't enjoy watching him on any level.

As for Leslie, the show's center, the reality is that city council should be the ceiling, at least for a while. She can't just keep rising to a new office every year, so I'm not sure where else there is to take that character within however many seasons remain. I'm betting that the order to recall her will come to a vote, and that will provide a more focused arc again (although I don't know if that particular angle could sustain even a half-season). Maybe she will be recalled, and then she'll embark in a different direction. Who knows? Hopefully the show's writers . . . .

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sam Neill is my friend (that's what a mutual follow on Twitter means, right?)

So apparently Sam Neill is one of those guys who will follow you back on Twitter if you follow him (I'm @FragginCivie, by the way, but not very active):


(Well, unless you're one of those unlucky 644 followers whose tweets he's apparently not interested in. They're probably spam bots.)

It's not a verified account, though, and it's hard to be certain if it's really him. It's not a parody Twitter, and his tweets are mostly on-topic (the topic of Sam Neill, or else of his New Zealand wine estate), but he doesn't have any "obviously legit because they're so unprofessional" cellphone pics. Whoever this is, he does count Lucy Lawless and Rufus Sewell among his followers (and they're not people to follow just anyone). (Rufus Sewell isn't verified either, but, c'mon, who would bother making a fake Rufus Sewell account? And, actually, it appears he will follow just about anyone who asks for it.)

This reminds me of those golden Myspace days, back when you could actually friend request celebrities and expect them to grant it. I had 3/5 the main cast of Spike TV's tragically short-lived Blade: The Series in my Top 8. Kirk "Sticky Fingaz" Jones, Jill Wagner, and Neil Jackson all very promptly friended me back. If Jessica Gower was on Myspace, I never found her. The one guy to snub me, ironically, was the dude who played Blade's Asian sidekick. Not ironic because he was the one Asian, but because he was clearly the least celeb of the celebs I friend requested, so who the hell was he to think he was too good to be my friend? Well, maybe because he was the least celeb, his was actually a legit personal account for personal friends, not a self-promotional account like the others' (not that they didn't still maintain their own accounts, because I'm pretty sure at least Jill Wagner did, judging by how ghetto and disorganized I remember it being). And maybe it was a stretch to call any of those people "celebs." I realize that just being on TV or having a major label record doesn't make one a "star" per se. Certainly, there was no one of Sam Neill's stature on Myspace. Still, it was one cool thing about Myspace (in fact, the sole reason I was on it)—that it allowed you to brag that Jill Wagner (yes, "the girl from the Mercury commercials") was your "friend." (I probably wouldn't brag that Jill Wagner, host of Wipeout, was my friend.)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013)

Iron Man 3

Quick Take:

Hollow, full of lies, leaves a bad taste in the mouth . . . kidding! Ben Kingsley is the greatest. The rest of the movie is good—better than Iron Man 2—but fairly by-the-numbers summer superhero flick fun. Recommended.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

Iron Man 3's "Barrel of Monkeys" scene, wherein Iron Man, equipped only to carry, at most, four people in his arms, must somehow rescue a dozen people falling from an airplane, by having the first person he catches then helping to catch the next falling person and so on in a human chain, is maybe the greatest superhero sequence in movie history. I've always loved these moments when the regular people the superheroes protect are then able to assist in small ways as participants in the action. Those were some of my favorite parts of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films—when New York bystanders would rally to Spider-Man's defense against the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus, or when the tiny Asian child in Spider-Man 2 tried to pull Peter Parker to safety from near-death in a burning building. Maybe it's hokey, but I guess I find these moments of random ordinary people rising to the occasion to be especially inspiring—more so than just the idea that a superpowered hero will save us all. Iron Man 3's scene might be the most amazing of all such scenes, and yet, speaking honestly, I don't expect I'll remember it in another week. It's a great, well-constructed scene, but it feels largely disconnected from the main story of the movie. It's the sort of set piece that one can imagine they filmed before they ever even had a script locked down. So, even as cool to behold as it is, there's a certain lack of consequence to the scene that kept me from fully engaging with it.

What I found more striking and likely to be remembered was the lady with the scarred face, showcased briefly but notably in the middle of movie to rumble with Tony Stark in probably the best action sequence in any of these Marvel Cinematic Universe movies so far. Between actress Stephanie Szostak's natural good looks and performance and the great hair and makeup work, this character may have been the most visually well-realized character in any superhero movie to date. She looked like she had stepped right out of a comic book, and I mean that in the best possible way. I hope I didn't just say all that because I thought she was hot.

Above all else, if Iron Man 3 is to be remembered for anything, it will be for the Mandarin and for that big twist. I can't think of any other case where all of the marketing was so deliberately deceptive in setting up audiences' expectations for something that would turn out so far off what the movie would actually be. I think back to those trailers, where Ben Kingsley's voice-over as the Mandarin was prominently featured to such chilling effect, and meanwhile Guy Pearce barely appeared and I assumed he would have a minor supporting role. Boy, they sure got me! No wonder Ben Kingsley's character was never seen doing anything but sitting or standing, nor even glimpsed in a single shot with any of the other characters. The question now, however, is whether it was worth it.

I know a lot of comics fans do not care for the movie's take on the Mandarin, and I do sympathize, but, really, Ben Kingsley is, far and away, the best part of Iron Man 3—already before the twist, when he plays it rather like a more effortlessly menacing version of the Tom Hardy Bane, and then even more so after the twist, which is when we truly come to appreciate his genius as one of the most amazing actors in the biz. I can't help wondering if his character's turn here was intended as a sly commentary on all the over-the-top villain roles he's inexplicably taken on in some truly wretched productions. Ben Kingsley's performance aside, the Mandarin's reveal is also the only moment where the film is elevated to being anything more than just a predictable superhero action movie. And it may have been the only way we were ever going to see the Mandarin in these movies in any form.

For those not familiar with the comics, the Mandarin was, from the 60s through the 90s, as close as Iron Man had to an archenemy (i.e. the Joker or Lex Luthor to Iron Man's Batman or Superman). He never had a particularly compelling story (but then Iron Man himself was always a B-lister in the Marvel stable anyway), but he was the most popular and successful of Iron Man's foes because his powers—ten alien rings, each bestowing upon him a different ability, collectively allowing him to go toe-to-toe (or, better yet, at range) with Iron Man (or almost any superhero)—were simply the coolest. Also, like Doctor Doom or Magneto, albeit to a much lesser degree, he was a villain who could be interesting apart from his principal heroic nemesis, because the Mandarin, unlike, say, Iron Monger or Crimson Dynamo, was not defined by his relationship with Iron Man.

Then political correctness became a thing in this country, and people realized that maybe having a Communist Fu Manchu-looking sorcerer named "The Mandarin" was a little dated. (Personally, I also suspect that the rise of British comics writers has had an influence, leading to stories where Iron Man himself plays the bad guy (or at least the capitalist American tool) with alarming regularity.) So when I heard that they were going with the Mandarin as the villain for Iron Man 3, I was surprised, but also excited. What they ultimately ended up doing with the character is perhaps an admission, in the cleverest way possible, that the character really is too over-the-top and dated to believably adapt to film.

I do get that some fans are disappointed that we didn't get to see the real Mandarin in this movie. Even though I liked the twist, a part of me is disappointed too. Mostly, I'm saddened that this effectively rules out any possibility of ever seeing the real Mandarin in these movies. Dated though the original comics character may be now, there are nevertheless ways that they could conceivably have adapted the best parts of him for film (like, maybe just don't refer to him as "The Mandarin," and don't make him look like Fu Manchu). And it's not like the character was completely written out of the comics at the turn of century. He was even a main character in the 2009 Iron Man: Armored Adventures cartoon, which I felt modified the character enough to make him inoffensive, while still doing justice to the Mandarin's role in Iron Man mythology. In Iron Man 3, the best we get is Guy Pearce's character declaring himself the "real" Mandarin, Not even close, sorry, but I suppose it allows us a way to fool ourselves, if we must, into insisting that Iron Man did fight the Mandarin in the movies, and the Mandarin was formidable and not just some absurd fiction.

As for the rest of the movie, I found it much more enjoyable than Iron Man 2. Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance in the first film was brilliant. As with Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, one could afterward scarcely imagine that character or that franchise existing apart from its star. Downey simply was Iron Man. By Avengers, however, I was kind of starting to hate him. Iron Man 3 manages to somewhat scale back his abrasive egomania (it probably helps having Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts to stand up to him and keep him in check), and it's nimbler overall than Iron Man 2—more self-contained, without any appearances by Nick Fury or that other S.H.I.E.L.D. guy. I did not at all buy, however, that Tony Stark would suffer some sort of PTSD from the events of Avengers (not after the at-least-as-harrowing experiences of his solo movies), though Iron Man 3 is largely predicated on the premise that he's going through something.

The movie was consistently funny in short bursts without ever trying too hard or carrying on a joke too long. I particularly enjoyed a scene where Tony Stark and Rhodey snuck aboard the oil tanker that served as the enemy base. Equipped with only small arms and no armors, they reminded me of my experiences playing co-op shooter video games like Army of Two or Splinter Cell: Conviction. Stark especially, technically a civilian, reminded me of myself—reckless and inept.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Your Touch" (Blake Lewis, Portrait of a Chameleon, 2013)

It has both puzzled and amused me what a seeming misnomer American Idol's title is. It was, for years, the most-watched show(s) on American television, and the results were (supposedly) determined solely by votes drawn from that massive American audience. At one point, it was suggested that the show received more voter participation than the US presidential election. Yet, with a few exceptions, the winners chosen by America have never enjoyed anywhere near the same amount of support during their post-Idol careers. And, frankly, you look at (and listen to) some of these people, and it's painfully obvious that they were never going to be pop idol material (again, with a few exceptions). Even the original American Idol winner (and one of the few legitimate stars produced by the show), Kelly Clarkson, has never been a conventionally attractive pop star.

The baffling incongruity between what people like in an American Idol contestant, versus whose music they'll pay money for, became most apparent when Taylor Hicks, a dorky harmonica-playing white soul singer, who was only 29 but looked about 40, was voted the winner of Season 5, ahead of Katharine McPhee, who possessed the most stunningly mainstream good looks of any contestant yet, and baldie Chris Daughtry of the band Daughtry, who, subsequent to his finishing in fourth place on the show, went quadruple-platinum with his album Daughtry. As for Taylor Hicks, his post-Idol debut album did all right, but who the hell knows or cares what happened to him after that? I don't think I've ever heard a single Taylor Hicks song on the radio.

Maybe it's not that baffling and can be explained a couple ways. Certainly, one problem is that the contestants' performances on the show—just covers of famous songs—are rarely indicative of the B-grade "let's manufacture a pop star" material that will be on their albums. Mostly, I think the reality is that American Idol viewers aren't really interested in the music so much as they are in the personas (which itself is completely irrational, since every contestant is presented essentially through the same filter of flat wholesomeness). Hence, once the show is over, and these people no longer have the visibility of being on a weekly TV series, we find that America has only limited interest in what remains (i.e. the music).

At any rate, one contestant, who didn't win but whom I genuinely kind of liked on the show, was Blake Lewis, the Season 6 runner-up. He was not a great vocalist, but his gimmick was that he was a beatboxer, which made him unique among American Idol contestants, and it would have made him rather unique in pop music. He was noted for his adventurous renditions of well-known songs, over which he would add beatboxing, no matter how inappropriate it seemed. He was also one of those guys who really looked and sounded like a viable mainstream star. He was young, good-looking, and always savvy in taking on fresh-sounding songs that could conceivably have indicated what his potential original album might sound like (as opposed to most other contestants' Idol performances being indicative of songbook standards albums or Christmas records). What he lacked perhaps was the charisma or attitude to stand out as a solo male artist. Or maybe his original stuff just wasn't very good. I mean, would I, even as someone who liked him on the show, ever buy an album that was a mix of beatboxing and weak singing? Either way, I never heard mention of him again after his run on American Idol. That is, until I was surprised to recognize him featured—not just his music but the man himself—in the "Explore Touch" commercial for Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which debuted during the Super Bowl and is now playing in theaters before a number of summer blockbusters.

No idea what Microsoft was thinking in using this guy to promote their updated Internet browser. I guess, according to Wikipedia, he has enjoyed moderate success on the dance charts, but, honestly, how many people now seeing this commercial would have a clue who he is? It would more likely be one of those annoying moments when you see a vaguely familiar face featured in a commercial, and you're not sure if you're even supposed to recognize him. You wonder to yourself, Who is that? Do I know him? Am I supposed to recognize him? Is he somebody? Is that why he's in this commercial? Or is he just some model featured because his look fits the ad?

Anyway, the song kind of sucks. The only digestible part is the refrain (i.e. the only part featured in the commercial), which is full of "sounds like technology" noises—very suitable for showing off how cutting-edge cool the new Internet Explorer is (even if it isn't).

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Demon in a Bottle

"You know, sometimes, when I drink, it makes me drowsy, and then even I'm driving and I almost fell asleep, haha. That ever happen to you?"

Despite that "haha," the lady appeared to be in earnest in sharing her personal findings on the effects of alcohol consumption on one's ability to operate a motor vehicle. At least, if she was joking, I couldn't tell what the punchline was supposed to be, unless this middle-aged, mumbly Filipino lady was playing the part of some sort of living satire of the impaired judgment of the intoxicated. Then again, supposing hers was a serious question, I was at a loss at how to respond to that either.

"What the hell?!" answered her appalled companion, a younger Mexican woman. "That's why you don't drink and drive!"

Apparently not one to suffer fools, this second woman sounded legitimately pissed. I wanted to step in and suggest that maybe she was being a tad severe. Like, I dunno, maybe the first lady came from a land without automobiles, and so, even having reached her forties, she had never properly been acquainted with the concept of driving under the influence. But then it came out that this second woman had once lost a high school friend to a drunk driving collision. I could see that there was naught to be done but let her speak her piece.

A few minutes later, they were friends again. They started discussing Iron Man 3, and suddenly it was my turn to lose it.

"It's Tony STARK! Not 'SPARK!' You don't know what you're talking about, you should just do what I do and shut your mouth. Just shut your mouth."

At least, that's what I might have said, were I not versed in the art of self-control. I held my peace. You'll appreciate, however, that it was a sensitive subject for me, having lost a friend to an Iron Man.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Resident Evil 6 - Leon Campaign (Capcom, 2012)

Resident Evil 6 - Leon

Resident Evil 6 is, if nothing else, gargantuan by action game standards, comprising three full-length campaigns (plus an unlockable fourth) with very little overlap in content, and each distinguished by some unique gameplay mechanics and design philosophies.

I started with Leon's campaign, which is clearly intended to be evocative of the classic PS1-era survival horror games, although it's not ultimately very much like them at all. The early proceedings do present the illusion of a more deliberately paced adventure. Starting out indoors in a mansion-esque environment, you're trudging through the building, searching for the way forward or for anything useful to pick up. It's actually quite a long stretch before there's any action, and you're more just exploring the area. It is all an illusion, however, because, whereas the classic mansions were fully realized environments that allowed you some leeway in your exploration, only nudging you (via locked doors limiting your possible paths) in certain directions, RE6 always progresses along effectively a straight line, with only the occasional side room along the way toward triggering the next event or objective. You can scavenge around for items, but there aren't any documents to pick up. If you just want to get to the next cut scene, you can even call up arrows (on top of the already busier-than-ever on-screen display) to point you in the right direction.

When the action does commence, Leon's campaign again tries to channel the classics by bringing back zombies as the primary enemy type. They're more mindless than the infested of the last two numbered installments—not as organized or dexterous at handling weapons, they just lurch toward you—but, honestly, it's not that pronounced a departure from the recent games. Combat is similar but, in my opinion, inferior to RE4 and 5. You can move while shooting now, there's finally analog walk/run control, and melee attacks can be performed at will, but it all feels very imprecise, not nearly as methodical and strategic as previous games. The old RE4 mechanics, though sluggish compared to modern shooters, were very thoughtfully engineered, involving care and consideration on the player's part, every time you took aim at a particular body part on a target, either to line up the head shot or to set them up for a contextual melee attack. With RE6, on the other hand, it feels like the designers just looked at what shooters were popular on the market and then responded by putting out a generically average one. The action is faster and the enemies more reckless, so you end up spraying fire or, at least early on, spamming the obscenely juiced new melee attacks.

It's rather ridiculous that the heroes' kicks and pro wrestling maneuvers can crush zombies far more efficiently than bullets can put them down, but what's even more ridiculous perhaps is the arbitrary stamina meter, which regulates how much you can use your melee attacks. Spam that melee button, and watch as your character tears through a crowd of zombies as though a god of war . . . until your stamina runs out, at which point your melee transforms into a pained and pathetic limp slap. The meter will automatically refill after a bit of time, and I suppose this is meant to encourage strategic management of your resources—not just bullets anymore but also your stamina—but it just feels so unusually contrived to have this arbitrary limit to the number of kicks you can perform.

Elsewhere on the gameplay front, the menu system has been overhauled, and there are new dodge/roll maneuvers. The problem with all this is that the controls, while theoretically simpler and faster than the dated and clunky systems of RE5, are still not exactly intuitive, and if, like me, you only play games once a week at most, there's a good chance you won't remember each time how to quickly use these systems to your advantage—assuming you even remember that they exist!

The camera was also an issue for me. It was positioned way too close in on the player character, leaving me with huge blind spots that led to me constantly getting ambushed by unseen enemies. I understand that Capcom actually patched the game specifically to add options for adjusting the camera angle, which is commendable, although I haven't yet tried out the post-patch camera to see if the options actually fix the issues.

As for the experience of Leon's campaign specifically, after those first twenty-or-so minutes of pretending to be classic Resident Evil, the game settles into frantic action, big set pieces, and over-the-top cut scenes. The first chapter ends in spectacular fashion with a sequence echoing the barricade cabin from RE4. The cabin, the first time I played it, was probably one of my top 5 experiences in gaming, and this sequence, wherein the player characters and a few AI allies in a gun shop try to hold the fort against a zombie siege, comes as close to replicating that "Battle of the Alamo" experience as anything I've played. It's not as well-paced, and it doesn't have that cool bit of pushing the shelves in front of the windows, but, on the other hand, you can play it co-op this time, and it ends in much more satisfying fashion, with your party actually having to make a desperate escape, instead of the enemies just relenting after you kill enough of them.

Alas, there are four more chapters after that, and it's all downhill from there. It's a lot of stumbling through generic and dimly lit caverns, the only other notable sequence being a chase through a Chinese street market, where you're pursued by a uniquely freaky enemy that can split itself into multiple parts and is determined to literally cram itself down your throat to burst you from the inside-out.

The story crosses over at points with the other campaigns, but the long-awaited in-game meeting between Leon and Chris Redfield is only a non-playable cut scene. Also, the way Capcom has chosen to present the story results in each campaign basically spoiling what happens in the others, even when they don't seem to have a lot to do with one another. For example, sometimes a thread will move from one campaign to another, but you won't be able to follow along, and when it eventually rejoins your campaign, they'll explain what happened but, in the process, rob you of the chance to actually experience the events firsthand without foreknowledge of their outcome. I wish they had opted more for a Suikoden III-style system, whereby you could switch between characters' perspectives after each chapter, instead of having to play through each entire campaign one at a time. Oh well. The story's pretty terrible anyway, and, once I play the other campaigns, maybe I'll find I didn't miss out on much at all.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Community (Season 1) (2009-2010)

The funny thing about being smart is you can get through most of life without having to do any work. So, uh, not really sure how to do that.

— Jeff Winger (Community Season 1, Episode 1 "Pilot")

It took a long time for me to warm to the first season of NBC's Community.

It had the occasional good joke, but there was no sense of comic timing. It was very rapid-fire, feeling more like sketch comedy than a sitcom, although its punchlines were often punctuated by cheesy musical cues.

I got that the writing was smart, but it felt to me like a show that was clever while having nothing to say. It would poke fun at anything and everything—activism, debate, religion, making an effort, showing enthusiasm, or sticking your neck out in general—usually by setting up straw men, all the while showing no convictions of its own. It all seemed rather gutless to me.

I didn't consistently enjoy any of the characters other than Jeff, who reminded me a little of myself (the taking of shortcuts through life), and (after a few episodes) Annie, on account of Alison Brie's scene-stealing comedic brilliance and commitment. There was a certain homogeneity to the other characters' voices, owing to the aforementioned timing issues, as if they were all transparently just mouthpieces for the joke writers. Whenever they did present more distinct personalities, they would all be so narrowly defined (except for Britta, who would unaccountably alternate between being the undermotivated burnout and being the know-it-all Brainy Smurf-esque punching bag), and they would adhere so strictly to type that one could practically predict what each character was going to say or do at every moment. Shirley would behave in a passive-aggressively judgmental manner, Pierce would make some tactless old white man comment that would go ignored, and the impervious Abed would neatly summarize the situation in a way that would make everyone else look stupid. I especially objected to the handling of Abed, the Asperger's character, in the same way that I object to the "lovable fat guy" character trope in TV. Although I imagined they meant well in approaching it with a celebratory "everybody's a winner" attitude, that just trivializes what a person in that condition would have to deal with in reality, ultimately encouraging us to live in denial, instead of working toward a truly healthy understanding of how their life experience might be unique, in both good and bad ways.

Worst of all, though nobody else will likely admit it, it seemed to me that the first half of the season proceeded according to a formula borrowed from that much-loathed 90s sitcom Home Improvement. Typically, an episode would begin with Jeff, acting out of ego and self-interest, behaving like a jerk to someone. Then, another character, usually Britta, would make him feel bad in pointing out how hurtful and inconsiderate he had been. Finally, Jeff would resolve to make things right with a noble gesture. It was all quite groan-inducing.

After watching the first 12 episodes in fairly rapid fashion, I had to take a break from it. I actually didn't realize that my break happened to match up with where the show itself had taken a mid-season break, both in the story and in the production. At any rate, when I got back to it, it seemed to have somehow become a much better show. Whereas the earlier episodes had been fairly conventional, the latter half was far more inventive and full of high-concept themed episodes, most notably the mafia film spoof episode, "Contemporary American Poultry" (Episode 21), and the action movie parody, "Modern Warfare" (Episode 23). While the first half of the season was more structured and possessed a more definite theme, it was in the second half that the show truly began to find its own identity, becoming surer of itself ironically as the sitcom without clear rules or confines.

As of the end of the first season, I still don't quite love Community—even when it comes to sitcoms, I like having characters I can root for, and this show doesn't really offer that—but I'm looking forward to watching more.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

Oblivion (2013)

Short Version:

From the director of the super-slick Tron: Legacy (and also that Halo 3 commercial, which this almost plays out like the aftermath to). Very cool, stylish look. Moody, epic score by M83. Story is deceptively thin and hits a lot of familiar beats, but at least one plot twist took me by surprise. Recommended.

Longer, SPOILERY Thoughts:

The opening narration, wherein the protagonist, Jack (Tom Cruise), bemoans that his committed partner (in every sense of the word), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is too shallow and uncomplicated a match for him, as he is meanwhile haunted by dreams of an unknown other woman, had me almost immediately groaning. So it's going to be one of those stories, eh? A veiled rationalization/justification for why men stray from their significant others? Sure enough, the first act largely amounts to an episode of him playing hooky from his wife (which we understand he has been doing regularly, probably for years), and we are obviously expected to be on his side, since she's all mechanical and unromantic—more like an uncool boss than the super-hot and affectionate lover that a stud and poet like Jack deserves (never mind that she is super-hot and shows plenty of affection). Fortunately, for sci-fi reasons, it's not as simple as all that. Turns out his real wife, from before he was mind-wiped by a hostile alien entity, is Julia (Olga Kurylenko), the woman from his dreams.

Not that surprising a twist. And neither is the revelation that Jack, mind-wiped Earth custodian tasked with repairing the drones that fight alien invaders called "Scavs," is actually being manipulated by the real aliens, while the Scavs are actually the human resistance force. The trailers pretty much blew that twist, although I'm guessing most moviegoers would have seen it coming anyway. Even if it hadn't been done before, I think we've all been conditioned, in the post-Shyamalan era, to be on the lookout for "the big twist" before it happens (somewhat ruining the movie-watching experience, I'm starting to find), and when the guy telling the story admits to having been mind-wiped, that's usually a good reason to doubt anything we're being told.

The movie's most unexpected twist is the one that seems to make the least sense—that Jack is actually one of many clones of the real Jack, the astronaut who, 60 years ago, made first contact with the aliens, who then captured him and made clones of him to do their bidding. It's a cool, potentially game-changing moment, when we first realize that there's more than one Jack. And yet it ultimately feels like an unnecessary twist, raising new questions late in the game, without answering any of the dozens we already had. Why exactly did the aliens need to clone Jack? If they needed more humans to work for them, couldn't they have just captured or bred some? Or why, if they were determined to have a bunch of clones, couldn't they have just come up with a story to explain it to the Jacks? I mean, would it have been any harder to swallow than the cover stories they were already using to explain the last 60 years to the mind-wiped Jack?

The cloning element also raises Oblivion's only truly profound philosophical question, which it is wholly unprepared to explore to any satisfying degree: What becomes of "identity" in a world of clones? When Jack, our Jack, realizes that he is not the original, but only a clone of a man likely long dead, Julia assures him that he is the man she knew and loved. He possesses those memories of the life they shared, as well as the original Jack's heart and personality; collectively, we might understand these to make up the soul, and so the original Jack's lives on through his clone. But isn't that too easy? The second Jack we meet, Tech 52, also has those same memories and feelings. Would Julia deny that Tech 52 is as much the man she married 60 years ago? If so, on what grounds? If not, then how would she choose which Jack to be with (supposing the choice had presented itself)? Or would she? In fairness to Kosinski, this probably is a philosophically unanswerable question. I foresee such advanced cloning as inevitable, however, albeit in a distant future, and I truly believe that the development will be a tipping point for many of humanity's most long-held philosophical and spiritual ideas regarding identity and the soul. When humanity eventually comes to that bridge, I predict we will cross it, giving up certain convictions in the process.

To return to an earlier point, I suppose our existing, largely accepted notions of monogamy, "true love," etc. are quite problematic, often reaching their own tipping points. How does Jack choose between Julia and Victoria, having spent significant portions of his life with each? We could probably guess he'd choose Julia (and not because she's legally his actual wife), but I hope everybody can agree that he'd also be kind of a jerk, if he simply ditched his longtime partner (even if he didn't end up in that situation of his own will) to get with the woman of his dreams. But, in fact, he never does come to a point of having to choose. The decision is conveniently rendered unnecessary, just as with Julia's having to choose between Jacks.

Oblivion's ending, not nearly as thought-provoking or memorable as those to Dark City or The Matrix trilogy (other stories that spring to mind of humans taking back their freedom from aliens/machines they didn't know took it from humanity in the first place), really has more in common with something like Independence Day, but it also reminded me just how unsatisfying (perhaps, in hindsight, even deeply depressing) I found the ending to The Matrix Revolutions. I went into that movie prepped for a heroic slugfest finale, and instead I got something that left me with possibly a more pessimistic view on life in general. And so it was that, as Jack went on a suicide mission to take on the AI mastermind in Oblivion, that pessimistic side of me felt so sure that, instead of following through with destroying the villain, Jack was going to deal, and I was going to come away feeling depressed all over again. Instead, Oblivion's ending is like the "alternate happy ending" to The Matrix Revolutions, and if it's perhaps a bit easy and simplistic, at least, for that moment, it made me want to cheer. I'll take that.