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Friday, January 4, 2013

Firefly Ep 1: Serenity - James' Review

Episode 1: Serenity

For a long time, I put off watching Firefly. It was really a combination of reasons,
the main one being that I didn’t believe all the praise the show got. But as I neared the
end of my Star Trek marathon (every single episode of every single show including the
movies), I started to plan out my next SciFi show, and Firefly came up as a possibility. It
was only 15 episodes, so I figured I could breeze through it.

The first thing to note is that you really can’t just breeze through it. The show is
much to complex. The characters are detailed and interesting, and the story requires
some dwelling upon to fully appreciate it. This is immediately apparent in the first
episode. The show starts of with a bang, quite literally. Shots of explosions and gunfire
make it apparent that this is a full fledged war. This is where you first meet Mal and Zoe.
Mal is immediately portrayed as a risk taking, enthusiastic individual, and someone who
truly believes in what he’s fighting for. The latter fact is realized when he is told to
surrender by whoever was in charge of his army. Zoe has no real development in the

The first half of the episode introduces all the characters in two ways. Mal, Zoe,
“Wash”, Inara, Jayne, and Kaylee’s roles and personalities are introduced, and we see
the “new” members of the crew, Simon, Book, and River. Up until the scene where
Kaylee is greeting people at the ship, I was really enjoying the show. However, Kaylee
really began to get on my nerves. The blatant, and frankly a bit obnoxious, immaturity
didn’t strike me as funny. Her frequent use of the word “shiny” in place of “good” or “fun”
made me think she had the mind of a three-year-old. As for the other characters, I
thought they were all done really well, and seemed very authentic. Mal is a bit of a
cliché, but hey, who doesn’t love a classic character?

Now comes Book. I absolutely love him. He’s coolheaded, intelligent, and kind,
and doesn’t force his beliefs onto others. I find his character refreshing in two ways, one
being that he acts as a sort of “shore leave” from the sometimes gritty and stressful tone
of the show. Book is the friend you can talk to after a long day of work, and feel
immediately better afterwards. The other reason is the fact that he doesn’t press his
beliefs onto others. So often you see religious individuals, and even non-religious
individuals trying to prove their point and press their beliefs onto others endlessly and
tirelessly. Book understands that his beliefs are not the only beliefs, and respects that
wholeheartedly. His relationship with Inara highlights this, as he begins to farm a
friendship with her. He even jokes about the lectures he can give about her line of work
(prostitution), and states that he has no intention of using them. I am exited to see more
of their relationship.

One of the things that did bother me though, was the whole Western theme. To
put it bluntly, it seemed unnecessary, not well thought out, and at times, unrealistic.
Now, if the show had a Wild West vibe to it, or some motifs or comparisons to life in the
Wild West, I would have jumped right on board. The idea of the lawless “Rim” is almost
the exact situation of the Wild West. However, it went beyond allusions and similarities.
Everyone talks like they’re in a spaghetti Western, all the civilian guns are very close to
the old 1800’s weapons, the dress style is, without exaggeration, exactly the same as
Western movies, and even the music is folky. While it’s not exactly “tacked on”, the
Western style really seems like a gimmick that Joss Whedon thought “would be kind of
cool, I guess”. Why are guns 500 years in the future less high tech than they are now?
Even the military guns are the exact same models that the military uses today. Some
things can be explained away like the style of dress, but then why do they talk like
Rooster Cogburn without the accent? The music is purely folk-Western, and has
nothing to do with the SciFi aspect of the show, and seems completely irrelevant.

As the story continues, it becomes clear that Simon is hiding something. It comes
as a shock when he turns out not to be the government agent Mal suspected him to be,
and even more of a shock when the incompetent agent shoots Kaylee in the stomach.
But what really caught me off guard- well, actually I knew what was going to happen
next because I had seen the next scene when I was younger while my Dad was
watching it. But if I had not known, what would have really caught me off guard was
what Simon was really hiding: his sister, River.

The story slows down a bit at this point, though Kaylee is still battling for her life
with Simon trying his best to help her. A bit later on, Simon starts telling the story of
what happened to River, that she was extremely intelligent and that the government
was performing tests on her. He smuggled her onto the ship in response to a plea from
River to get her away from the government scientists. Frankly, the story was a bit cliché,
but I could have shrugged it off if River was a better character. Throughout the rest of
the episode, she added nothing except panicky scenes, tantrums, and scary mutterings,
shoving the fact that something “wasn’t quite right about her” into my face. There could
have been some really great insight into her character right from the start, but instead
the writers chose to make the viewers not care about her instead. She is the only really
weak character in the group (at least Kaylee is somewhat interesting), and I hoped that
would change soon. After only about 40 minutes, I was sick of River just sitting there,
adding nothing to the episode except for a potential hostage for the Alliance Agent.

One thing that I wish the episode did earlier on was show the crew fluidly working
together like they did in the exchange with the colonists near the end of the episode.

They carried out a plan fluidly and almost flawlessly, showing that they are able to work
together well. However, this didn’t seem to be the case previously. I got the impression
that Mal just gave them orders, and the crew just screwed around until work got done. I
will be interested to see which of these facts is predominant in the upcoming episodes.

The end of the episode ended with my two favorite characters (Book and Inara)
talking, with Book opening up to his most unlikely friend. Well, actually there was one
more scene, but I really don’t care much about Mal or Simon, so it really didn’t any
anything for me personally, except to set up the stage for the next episode. Overall, the
show doesn’t really live up to its reputation, but defiantly has potential.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Firefly Ep 3 Bushwhacked - Mike's Review

In this episode I noticed how crowded space is in the Firefly Verse.  Responding to a distress beacon Serenity encounters an apparently derelict ship.  They board and find one person alive and everyone else who was aboard dead.  They also 'salvage' the cargo and before getting away are waylaid by an Alliance cruiser and it's bureaucracy.

When the distress signal is received there little doubt about going to investigate and render aide if they can among most of the crew.  The doubts that some express, like a worry about Alliance ships responding and encountering them by Simon I understood in part I think because they were not raised very strongly and it was pretty clear they would go.  Only Jayne seemed the most reluctant until the possibility of booty is raised.  It's intended as a funny moment when Jayne agrees to go and see what can be done to lend aide when he's clearly just thinking of personal gain and I did chuckle familiar with Jayne as I am from having watched the series before.  But it was a pretty cold chuckle it didn't strike me as funny as I think it was intended.  I think I could imagine my fear giving rise to thoughts of leaving to others the task of going to see what happened to the ship and if anything could be done.  I can not imagine changing my mind for booty, or maybe even that but then to pretend it was due to a sudden change of heart.  That is difficult for me to imagine and I wonder about what could shape a response like that?  Because I do think real people can and do act that way.

An interesting scene happens that I think shows the virtuoso writing, in two scenes I felt a sense of comradeship among the crew grown, the character of Simon fleshed out a touch, and the contrasting natures of two important poles of the crew Kayley and Jayne is brought into sharp focus.  And it was funny.  Earlier in the show we learn that Simon has a fear of EVA in spacesuits.  Initially the crew has to board the derelict ship in suits and Jayne tricks Simon into thinking he's needed onboard the ship and has to suit up.  Simon enters the ship, makes his way to where the rest of the crew is and finds them all unsuited.  Everyone laughs, Simon curses Jayne.  Kayley walks up and gently tells him he attached his helmet incorrectly.  It's funny and you see the caring nature of Kayley in stark contrast to the self centered nature of Jayne.

I always thought the show handled science pretty well and depicted space well.  The images of the ships approaching and rotating around each other was beautiful and silent.

River again seems distant but maybe getting closer.  She's drawn to the ship and it's due to her that they figure out Reavers committed the murders.  I began to feel a connection to her wondering and to her as a part of the crew.

The rest of the episode involves dealing with the Alliance who suspect the crew of committing the murders and dealing with the sole survivor.  The survivor becomes savage and goes on a rampage.  Mal says it is due to the atrocities he witnessed and says it would be kinder to kill the man.  Again I realize this same character that insisted on helping strangers if they could is also capable of killing another human being without any apparent distress.  It stuck me that although Mal may be an extreme example Kayley is much the same.  When she has to disarm a sensitive booby trap her approach is to face it with the same pleasant disposition she has in every trouble she faces, she gets hurt and sad but at the start she just goes in, with a pleasant voice she details the options regarding the booby trap.  When Mal asks if she is sure she can do it she points out either she can and all is well or she can't and they will be dead and wont have to worry.  She faces each step as she is and takes that step.  So does Mal, they are just different in how.

It is a chilling moment when I realize that when the survivor says "No...mercy' it isn't a plea for mercy but a statement.  As a friend of mine likes to remind people, good grammar can save lives.

And by the end of the episode, only the 3rd, I feel already that the crew is becoming one group.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Firefly Ep 2 "Train Job" - Mike's Review

The Train Job felt like diving right into the deep end after the introduction in the first episode.  Same kind of job in a sense, illegal, don't ask questions, but in that we are introduced to the widening web of the Verse.

In quick summary Mal signs the crew up for a job for a notorious and ruthless crime boss.  We are introduced to Niska where he explains his theory of reputation and relationships.  He knows he has a reputation for ruthlessness he wants to turn the idea that he is ruthless and demanding into reality for Mal.  To do this he shows them a man he has tortured and killed for failing to complete a job he hired him for.

Niska tells Mal that he knows of Mal's reputation for getting things done but that only how he completes this job will make that reality for Niska.

Mal's idea of what it means to be a free being and loyal to his crew means that he can not ask questions his other ideas of morality would normally demand.  It showed to me how we all prioritized our ethics and morals, holding one above all the others we can easily allow ourselves deliberant or not to be blind to some of our choices and actions.

The job is to rob a train on a resource poor world.  It has one resource, an ore that combined with other environmental conditions creates a chronic disease condition in the human settlers there.  The condition is painful and fatal except when treated regularly with medicine.  The question Mal didn't ask was what the cargo to be stolen was.

After they steal the cargo they learn it is this medicine.

The settlers on the world are people who in general share the Brown Coat (the rebel, anti-aliance faction) sentiment but as Mal tries to make the larger political/social moral point about the exploitation of the less powerful settlers by the alliance the sheriff makes the point that it wasn't the alliance who stole the medicine.

Even when we try to be blind to the real consequences of our actions often the 'verse just keeps trying to show us and Mal is forced to see the consequences of his actions because of spending time with the sheriff and others in the settlement.  Once faced with the reality he chooses to return the medicine and face the consequences of dealing with Niska.

And in fact this choice only strengthens his connections with his crew; with the possible exception of Jayne, although it puts them in danger.  It was a crack in Mal's image that let in all the others and together they are able to if not fully resolve at least live through the resolution of the job for a while.

And so it seemed to me that Niska was indeed right, by his actions in "accomplishing" the job Mal did show who he was.  That time at least.

A few other things of note in this episode.

Having been part of and entangled with big bureaucracies I thought the portrayal of the bureaucracy on the Alliance ship excellent.  The Alliance isn't an evil empire, just large, powerful and trying to maintain the status quo and made up of moral human beings doing the best they can with the lives they have.

River still seems inaccessible to me as a character.  Interesting in an intellectual way but while I find something in each of the other characters that touches something inside myself I haven't felt that yet in River.  Along those lines I felt both Simon and Book really started solidifying for me.  Simon when he says he'll deal with Jayne on his own shows the courage to take responsibility for his own life that he must have had to rescue and flee with his sister in the first place.  And Book at first feeling useless but in the end provided valuable information and help to the crew.

The ease in which Mal shoves Niska's thug into the engines at the end is disturbing and yet somehow it seems appropriate to me for the character of Mal.  This is not a soft hearted enlightened man, this is troubled determined man who wants to be free and wants to be good.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Firefly - Episode 1 Serenity (Mike's Review)

James and I decided to watch Firefly together and each write a review of the episodes.  I am one of those Firefly fans, you know the type that seemingly search out any and all Internet lists or discussions of what were the best Science Fiction TV shows or even just the best TV show and has to mention Firefly.

James only knows the show from his encounters with others of my ilk.

It is an interesting thing to rewatch a show you like so much with someone else who is at fairly skeptical about the show, particularly if you respect that person's opinion on these things.

And strangely the opening of the first episode reflected my feelings.  I wasn't sure how it would go, a little confused and on the screen confusion rained in the ranks of Brown Coats trying to hold a position in a valley.  And as Sgt Reynolds worked at getting his men in order and continuing the fight I felt sure James would become as captivated as I had been when I first watched.  And like Mal by the end of the scene I was still in uncertain territory and perhaps a bit betrayed.  Like his superiors who decided to surrender I had no influence over James reaction which seemed unmoved.

The rest of the episode introduces us to the crew and the ship and a typical job.  They need to unload some smuggled goods.  There are lots of funny moments that I laugh out loud at, only one is shared with James - Wash playing with his dinosaurs.

The character of Book, the wandering preacher, ends up on Serenity because he's looking for a ship not a destination claiming that he's not interested in destinations only the journey.  I think when I first watched this I may have thought that just a cute McGuffinaa to get the character aboard, this time it felt important.  I like he does at one point wonder if I'm on the "wrong ship", not just in this project but often in life.

We're also introduced to Simon and River, a brother and sister, doctor and genius, refugees from the Core or Civilized planets.  Book was looking for a journey and only after embarking does he wonder if he's on the right ship.  Simon didn't want to be on a journey and yet like Book he too has no clear idea of a destination beyond keeping River safe.  River of course only knows she wanted to get away and had no choices at all in where she ended up.

We met Kaylee the engineer, although intelligent and capable which is clearly shown in how she takes care of her ship both the engines and recruiting passengers she's the relative innocent to the rest of the crew.  No horrors of war, no long mysterious past, no one chasing her.  And she's aware of this and still lives her life fully unafraid of the missteps she knows she'll make out in the verse.

I already mentioned Wash the pilot.  And then we have Zoe his wife and war veteran like Mal.  Stable and confident as a rock, yet something trembles insider her I feel like Wash gives her refuge.

Then there's Jayne.  I'm reminded of the Cucumber Monk from my Zen reading.  Wise in his simplicity.  Wise in the way that he knows what he is, and goes full tilt into life with that.

I've talked about Mal and I wont try to summarize him here.

It is fun noticing things I didn't notice or realize before, like the camera shots made possible by the full scale set of the ship they built and the odd cuts trying to create a documentary feel.

The episode ends with Mal having managed to get paid for a job after many missteps, bad choices and good choices, not the moral good or bad just things that go well and don't.  From a superficial view it was a bad few days and things are still tough, but Mal says it's ok because they're still flying.  This doesn't strike me as trite as it might sound reading this.  It is offered again with a full heart, it is truly all he wants at that moment.  And this what I remember loving about the show, the characters so fully living their lives and making those good and bad choices and finding love of life in where ever they are no matter how painful.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Monument Ave - Movie Review

Monument Ave

A list on of movies set in or around Boston caught my attention and this movie staring Denis Leary and Colm Meaney caught my attention.  Set in the 90's and in Charleston neighborhoods I expected to find the setting, characters and themes familiar and hoped for an interesting look at something familiar.  My family history is more closely connected to Southy than Charleston but I knew and hung out with kids from Charleston connections and the two neighborhoods had very similar histories.

As the film opens I certainly felt the familiarity.  I found myself smiling, not that there were jokes but at the familiar foolishness of the guys hanging out in the neighborhood and at Denis Leary's character Bobby's home.  They are caught up in criminal activity, robbing cars primarily but connected to a larger crime organization run by a Whitey Bulger type character played by Colm Meaney named Jackie O'Hara. 

So when they're ridding around in Digger's cab talking about what they're going to do for the night, it felt familiar, not the things they're going to do so much like the drugs but just the feel of being in that car having that conversation.  The smells of cigarette smoke and fake leather car seats in side a cold car with four other guys, the overlapping comments, conflicting suggestions about who to see and where to go, it was all familiar.

The story moves on and introduces Teddy who prior to the events of the film was in jail on a conviction related to some job he had done for Jackie.  And Ted has for some reason been let out early.  The presumption being that Ted got out early by talking to the Feds about Jackie.  We never really learn if this is true or not and it doesn't really matter.

The scene where Ted and Bobby and friends are all together for the first time since Ted came back again brings up feelings of familiarity and nostalgia.  Then Jackie appears.  The uncomfortable chill even as the characters welcome Jackie to join them strikes me as well.  I think of all the guys in my life I've been afraid of and how you just hope they don't take notice of you or if they do that they don't think you're important enough to concern themselves with in any significant way.  I know bolder and perhaps more successful people instead deal with that fear by making themselves not only noticed by valuable.  It isn't a path I've ever been able to walk.  And the film could've taken that turn, I thought maybe that was how Denis Leary's character would deal with it.

Ted is killed by one of Jackie's henchmen, right in front of Bobby and the others.  And they hold the code of silence, saying nothing to the police.  It at once seems so obvious what they should do and why they don't.  Who could be the first?  Who would even risk being the first to ask the group to stand together?  I was right there in that fear with them.

Another character is Seamus, Bobby's cousin from Ireland.  Although he comes from Dublin at a time when he surely saw plenty of violence and hatred it seems the violence he witnesses in Charleston shakes him.  He tells Bobby he wants to go home.

But before he can the police pull Seamus into a police car in front of others right in the neighborhood.  We learn later, after he is shot dead in Digger's cab, that he didn't talk.  But of course that doesn't matter to how someone like Jackie runs their organization, their neighborhood.

Bobby doesn't make himself valuable.  Despite the fear he so clearly has, the uncertainty about what he is or isn't capable of, or perhaps the certainty of his limitations he doesn't confront Jackie but does kill him.  It isn't a heroic act, and when I watched the scene I felt neither elated or sad.  It did feel right.  Not right as in good, right as in it made sense given all that had happened in the film and by implication in the character's lives leading up to the part of the story told in the film.

The acting was pretty excellent all around.  With the possible exception of Cam Neely,  The man was an Outstanding hockey player and from all accounts I know of an excellent guy all around.  All he had to do was walk into a room and look surprised, he didn't even have to talk.  He pulled it off - just. 

This is a pretty wonderful movie in a terrible kind of way.  It felt so familiar even with the evil it portrayed and it isn't easy to see the beautifulness of humanity in the story although it is clearly there.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review - Mike

I am an enthusiastic fan of the books of JRR Tolkien and the movies Peter Jackson made of the "Lord of the Rings" and I've been in a state of excited anticipation since I first heard rumors that Mr Jackson was planning to make a film interpretation of "The Hobbit".

As it turned out I finally ended up walking into the theater carrying concern about the fact that this fairly short, simpler story was going to turn into three epic films.  I put my trust in Mr Jackson and took my seat.  I didn't leave or squirm in my seat the full nearly 3 hours of the movie.

Well I did squirm a bit, but not for sitting to long, it was right at the start.  The movie opens with a sort of prologue which takes place just a bit earlier in the day of Bilbo's birthday celebration.  He is just then starting to write his book on his adventure to the Lonely Mountain.  Here we encounter the first of several items that don't match how Tolkien wrote down his story.  These things generally don't bother me, certainly there were several of these types of departures in the LoTR films and still those films told an excellent story of comparable quality in the form of film as Tolkien's story in the form of the written word.  What bothered me about the prologue was, it wasn't necessary, it felt like pandering to an audience that didn't need pandering, even people unfamiliar with the books didn't need this preparation if they'd seen the LoTR films.  And even people who hadn't seen the LoTR films didn't need it, the story for them could've started off just as the book did.  At least this is what I think and it seemed like Mr Jackson just wanted to show Frodo and Bilbo from the LoTR movies, token cameos.  That's how I felt watching it and that could be uncharitable based on other elements of the film that seemed to be taken from the appendices found at the end of the LoTR books to provide more depth and complexity perhaps this prologue was a way of introducing the idea that Bilbo at first lied about how he came to have the ring and the fact that the Hobbit as most read it was a children's version of a tale much more series.

I felt the old excitement return or rather I should say my heart filled with part of what my excitement for the film hungered for when the dwarves broke into song and started juggling Bilbo's dishes, and again a short time later when they sang the lament for their lost homeland.

We see the discussion around the map, the key and the plans such as they are, the introduction of the idea that Bilbo would be the burglar and his own hesitation and the doubts of the dwarves but unlike in the book Bilbo seems to not feel the need to defend himself as a stout and capable fellow.  And yet the next morning he runs out of his hole, contract signed after the company of dwarves.

I felt impatient at the lack of attention given to Bilbo's motivation.  I'll get back to this in a bit.

When the company encounters the trolls I felt pretty satisfied that the scene was meeting my expectations, except perhaps that I had always pictured the Trolls as a bit more humanoid.

And there were additions, things not in the book that worked well and I enjoyed.  Like Radagast (a bit of a quibble here though in that why do we get Radagast in the Hobbit where he doesn't appear but not in Fellowship of the Rings!?), that was fun and added to the story.

I enjoyed the Rivendell scenes but as the film moved to a scene showing a meeting of the White Council, Saruman, Elrond, Gandalf and Galadriel we are shown Galadriel standing alone in an archway with soaring music and we are left here for what is probably less than one minute but feels much longer.  It struck me again like a pandering cameo.  But then the scene develops into a good and valuable addition to the film version of the story I thought.  But again a moment at least of impatience.

And at this point I'd like to step back a bit to the Troll scene.  The Tolkien's version is a wonderful example of the quality of his story telling.  It uses the first adventure as an opportunity to show Bilbo practice for the first time being a burglar and also showed well the kind of Wizard Gandalf is, not one who waves a wand or casts a spell at every need but uses small tricks and cunning.  He keeps the Trolls arguing, using their own disagreeable nature against them until sunrise overtakes them.  In the film he get just a bit of that in the form of Bilbo trying to pull this same trick.  That seemed to me a fair enough change to put the focus of the story more on Bilbo but it felt to short for me and then Gandalf uses his staff like he does at the Bridge of Khazad-dum to crack a rock to let the sun shine through.  Too quick, too overdone for Gandalf; these Trolls hardly deserve the kind of effort Gandalf puts into fighting the Balrog.  And so my reason to return to this scene for comment is that it seemed to me more time could've been spent on this to bring it closer to the story as told in the book and not overuse Gandalf's magical powers if other unnecessary aspects I spoke about earlier; the prologue, Galadriel's entrance; were cut shorter.

I don't know what the world would've done without Ian McKellen, in my mind there is no life of Gandalf outside Tolkien's pages without Mr McKellen, no other person could be him as fully as Mr McKellen.  And I felt the actors all did well and fit well their characters, although Thorin I have to reserve a little on, I didn't feel the level of connection to his character I did for most.

I always considered myself more of a Lord of the Rings man, I might still identify with Frodo and Sam more than the other characters, but I also on occasion thought of myself of Boromir and even Strider (if not Aragon if you know what I mean).  After all the Books making up the Lord of the Rings story are much more adult, complex and subtle.  Even with the refashioning of the Hobbit after the Lord of the Rings stories implied a connection the book "The Hobbit" is still the book as it was and it is a simple story, calling it a children's story doesn't seem fair but it is a story a child could read and enjoy.  And it seems this story, as told in the book, is much more a part of my own story of myself than I was aware and I think because of this Mr Jackson's first installment of his film version of the story will have to withstand my sensitivities when he retells part of my story.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Haiku - Modern Reflection

Spidery lines of glass
Reflections on the day
After dropping the iPad