A weak week recap

I don’t know that I have much to say this week. We’re still adjusting to Rhodey’s absence in our home. After a week of struggling, we took today to get back to work on getting things unpacked, organized, renovated, etc. Today I tackled some yard work I’d let build up after Rhodey died. The previous owner kept a lovely lawn and garden, but in the months between her death and the home purchase, weeds crept in, and grasses spread like wildfire through the flower beds. So on top of the usual mowing and trimming and pruning, I’m finally getting around to beating back these vegetative invasions. My goal for this evening is to get as many of the books put away as possible. Truly, I don’t know that I’ll get that much done, or that I’ll continue it during the weeknights.

Speaking of books, I’m regaining my appetite for reading–or, really, my focus. I’m still all over the place with partially read books. Last week, I made a concentrated effort to finish A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell. I rather enjoyed it, but my (relatively) increased reading speed was largely motivated by the return date for the library. I racked up a little bit of a late fee there. Plus, it’s in demand, so I’m that jerk delaying someone’s hold. Not the main point: the main point is that Virginia Hall is a fascinating woman, the French Resistance is a fascinating movement within a period of history shrouded by great evil, and there are interesting parallels to today. Not the sort of book I usually talk about on this blog, but given that it helped jump-start my reading again, I figured it was worth a mention. (Thanks, Mom, for the recommendation however long ago that prompted me to place the hold in the first place.)

I still have a pile of books to get through, though. The list:

  • On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, by A’Lelia Perry Bundles (another library loan, and another of those books I don’t normally write here about, but I’m a fan of nonfiction, especially histories and biographies, especially those about Indianapolis and its significant residents, and even more narrowly, the people and culture of Indiana Avenue from its segregationist roots to its thriving status as an African-American arts and business district and its eventual destruction as the result of a complex variety of factors that, in general, don’t cast the city of Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, or IUPUI in the greatest light);
  • Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper, picked up because a mutual on Twitter was raving about it (and I like it so far, largely due to some really wild world-building, but I haven’t gotten very far in, and this in fact started as an eBook library loan but transformed into an inexpensive purchase when the loan expired);
  • Star Wars: Bloodline, by Claudia Gray, because (1) Star Wars, (2) Leia, and (3) Claudia Gray; and
  • Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters, one of the old Expanded Universe short story anthologies and an impulse buy for nostalgic reasons while at Half Price Books for something completely unrelated.

Oh, also, I haven’t even started it, but Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, recommended by a friend when I admitted to a lack of familiarity with this Daoist text (having only read the Tao Te Ching in college), is another book in my pile and another library loan.

I haven’t played any video games, old or new, familiar or unfamiliar, lately. Haven’t really been in the mood. I haven’t even hooked up the Switch in our new home yet. I’ve kind of been getting into the mood for mucking around in a Grand Theft Auto game. Before the move, I was playing Desert Child on Switch (which had been perfect timing, since I finally watched all of the Cowboy Bebop series), and I’m starting to feel the desire to get back to that. But I just haven’t had much of a drive to play games. Similarly, I haven’t really watched any movies lately, other than going to see a showing of Jaws in IMAX at the Indiana State Museum on Wednesday.

What’s everyone else reading or watching? Any recommendations that might tie into any of the above?

Here’s to a better week than the last one. Hopefully next week’s post, and my general mental state, will be more focused.

What I’d like Stranger Things to do next

Reader, I assure you that I have no intention of turning this into a blog about first-time homeowner anecdotes and DIY stories. That said, it’s where a lot of my head space is, as we cross projects off the lists, entertain new project ideas, and work to organize and put away all of our stuff. The weekends see most of the work because we have the time and energy for it. I say that like it’s been a while, but we’ve just been homeowners for two weeks and two days! I’m still very much so enjoying the process, and (knock on wood) there have been no nasty surprises, but even so, the sheer amount of things to do can be exhausting at times.

That said, I did make time to finish Stranger Things 3 over the week. I found that I continue to greatly enjoy the characters and relationships on the show, and I am glad that the show still manages to throw surprises and emotional punches that pay off. I actually found the arc of the season to be a little mundane; besides the gross monster-growing body horror, the whole trajectory of the Mind Flayer using a human host(s) to accelerate its domination of our dimension felt a little like a repeat of Season 2 (keeping in mind, again, that the characters continued to grow and evolve, and to process the tragedies and traumas of the previous seasons, in interesting ways).

Major spoilers follow.


 

The ending was still rewarding. The final couple episodes were action-packed, exciting, and brought everything together rather nicely. Poor Joyce, yet again witnessing the death of a romantic companion–and this time a direct agent in his demise (even though she truly had no other option). I was in disbelief at first. I was sure there would be no way that they’d kill Hopper. The absence of an on-screen death or body set off my bullshit detectors. I kept waiting for him to pop up at any time, even in the parking lot as Joyce broke down realizing she’d have to tell Eleven that her dad was never coming back. When we saw the newspaper headline following the time jump, I finally accepted that he was really dead, and I started to feel a little cheated by it all. He was just gone! And then Eleven gets his letter, and we hear the heartfelt addition he added at the end, and I was crying. Of course, the roller coaster continues, when in the final scene we learn that the Russians are keeping an American  alive at their Kamchatka facility.

It doesn’t have to be Hopper. But I certainly believe it is! Like Agent Mulder (in a completely different dark and weird Americana sci-fi series), I want to believe. (Eleven being powerless leaves a convenient explanation as to why she couldn’t just take a psychic look for him.) What I hope is that Season 4 does something really different, building on the lore in divergent new ways in the manner of Season 2’s expansion of the threat from the Upside Down and the addition of the sort of X-Force street gang. I’d love to see Hopper’s escape or rescue and the shutdown of the Kamchatka facility be a major plot point. And I think that the shift to espionage or military black ops could be a refreshing change of pace and style for the series. I’m sure that Joyce, Steve, and the whole gang of kids will be implicated at some point, if only because I doubt that Netflix would just let the cast go, but it would be fun to see the show move to a whole different locale and type of threat (and narrative), at least for a little while.

“It is to be commended. What is its number?”

Despite some delays, we’re still holding out hope for a closing at the end of this week on our first home. While a delay of a few days or a week wouldn’t be a big deal, it would be especially nice to close and take possession this week because it’s also the week that my work site has a summer shutdown. Regardless of whether we can actually start moving this week, we’ll at least be getting ready for it, packing and removing some of the stuff we won’t be taking with us.

It’s also a good week for catching up on other things I’ve been putting off. One of those things has just been keeping up with the Clone Wars rewatch, so last night I was binging several episodes, and tonight will get me back on pace with the once-a-week recaps on the official Star Wars website. In the rush of episodes, one small detail stuck with me.

In the episode “R2 Come Home,” R2-D2 must rescue Mace Windu and Anakin Skywalker from a lethal trap by escaping pursuing bounty hunters and contacting the Jedi Order. In the beginning of the episode, R2 is briefly partnered with Mace’s droid, R8-B7, before the latter unit is destroyed. But wait. R8? It looks like an identical model to R2. Why the different designation?

It’s a silly thing to get hung up on, but droid designations have long been really confusing to me. In the films alone, it’s easy enough to decide that the designations might be partial serial numbers or something to that effect. But at least in the old Expanded Universe, droid designations came to represent both the model and unit. For instance, there was a whole R-series of astromech droids that included R2 models, R4 models, R8 models, and so on. (Higher the number, newer the model release.)

Again, there’s nothing in the films, at least that I can think of, that would dictate this interpretation. I think it’s an artifact of the Expanded Universe’s impulse to extrapolate general characteristics from very limited anecdotal film details–like that all Hutts are gangsters, all Rodians are bounty hunters, all Twi’lek women are dancers, and so on. (Thankfully the EU moved more and more away from that, and the new canon doesn’t seem too guilty of that outside of casting the Hutts once more as a Space Mafia race.) And I’m sure that a lot of those generalizations are a result of the need to gamify elements of Star Wars; so much of the broader lore originated with West End Games and was spread in supplements created by WEG and the publishers who filled the tabletop publishing niche in the following years.

The idea that a droid’s name always starts with its model number doesn’t even really make a lot of sense, unless one assumes that there are a lot of droids designated R2-D2, or that owners are picking random elements of a much longer serial number to supplement the droids’ names. It feels more right to imagine a generic droid series, the “R-series,” for instance, with many models and unique designations under that. (Still, I bet there are other so-called R2-D2s rolling around in that galaxy far, far away.)

I got hung up on R8 in particular because that would have been a model released much later in the old EU, but also because the designation seemed to have no practical effect on the droid’s appearance. As usual, I seem to be late to the party. Wookieepedia’s Legends page for R8-B7 has a behind-the-scenes section referencing an old Star Wars Insider issue (58) that apparently explained that droid names are fragments of longer designations. (Without a copy of that issue, I’m just going to have to trust the accuracy of the source. For my purposes, seeing the existence of the proposed theory is sufficient, even if the source is incorrect.) That was before the unified canon reboot, but that seems like a very plausible explanation.

I still want to put too much emphasis on those model numbers, though. I remember as a kid reading about them in Star Wars Gamer issue 3 (“DROIDS”!) and the “Droids” chapter of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook during the publishing reign of Wizards of the Coast. Something about that was formative enough to lock it in as a thing I “knew” about droids. It’s a hard thing for me to unlearn–even though nothing says that those model numbers aren’t still canon. It’s easy enough to reconcile model number designations with inconsistent droid names under the serial number theory. Searching keywords related to this subject, I stumbled on a Reddit thread that points out that the personal designation of a droid could be pulled from anywhere in its serial number. So even the apparent rule-breaker R8 could really be R2-B17998R8-B7743, or something like that. Still, if that’s true, why even grab random numbers at all? Why not just name your droid “Frank” or “Scruffy” or just call it “Astromech”?

It’s really not something that needs more explanation, because there’s not something truly broken here. It’s just silly, is all.

A Growing Film Roster on Netflix

Just a quick thought, mostly because I’ve posted before about how Netflix has a small but growing number of Filipino films. Last time I brought this up at the start of February, less than two months ago, there were a total of seven options in the “Filipino Movies & TV” category. There are now literally dozens of options (obviously ranging widely in quality). This seems to reflect a generally varied offering of international films in general.

The streaming services’ limited licensing of films and constant renegotiation of titles means an ever-changing lineup, not just of new releases but of the back catalog of available films. That back catalog often matters more to me, and I’m glad to see a generally greater availability of foreign film options on the North American Netflix site.

While it’s easy enough to find charts of Netflix’s profitability and subscriber base, or to see month-to-month “news” about what’s changing in Netflix’s availability or what Netflix and other streaming services are developing in-house, I don’t know of a source that clearly shows long-term changes in available films and television, especially broken down by, say, genre, year of release, and national origin. However, it’s not like I’ve looked very hard into the issue! If you know of such a source, please let me know. I’d be very interested to see if the narrow window of changes I’m observing more broadly reflects long-term changes in the availability of international films, or if this is just a tiny, anomalous blip.

Review: Love, Death & Robots

I did not like Love, Death & Robots, but I’m glad that it exists. It’s incredibly genre stuff: scif-fi, horror, and fantasy. Some of the stories do interesting things and take risks. A lot of the stories seem to delight in the chance to be included in an “NSFW anthology,” leaning into gore, grotesque violence, graphic sex, and sometimes a combination of the three. Most of the stories are dark and despairing and macabre. Most were vulgar and crude and unpleasant. A few were not these things, and seem to have been included because of their ideas or their humor or their style rather than sheer edginess alone, and I liked these few best.

My favorite thing about the anthology as a whole was that each short film in the anthology was so different. Some were mostly live action, some were puppetry and/or stop-motion (or else convincing CG-based facsimiles), some were CGI animation (with some of the films within that category appearing hyper-realistic), some were apparently traditional animation, and one was a seemingly live-action film filtered with an over-saturated and cartoonish look and punctuated by text sound effects (this last one was the most visually arresting, but the story was a fairly bland time loop narrative with violence and hyper-sexuality). The drastic shifts between styles kept each new film fresh and distinct.

With 18 episodes averaging about 10 minutes each, it’s incredibly easy to binge the roughly 3-hour affair (even though the episodes range in length, they’re all still rather short). I know that I did. At some point, though, it became about finishing, wanting to put the show behind me. The amount of bad outnumbered the good.

I had my favorites. “Three Robots” follows, well, three robots who are touring a post-apocalyptic city; it’s funny and cute. “Suits” feels a bit like StarCraft fan fiction in the best possible way–it’s about farmers living normal lives except for the mech suits they must use to fight off Zerg-like aliens. “When the Yogurt Took Over” is just plain silly, and it’s one of the rare nonviolent stories in the bunch, serving as sort of a ’50s B-movie deconstruction with charming animation and a Vincent Price sound-alike narrator. “Lucky 13” feels like something set in the Halo ‘verse, but it’s essentially the story of a pilot’s bond with her craft, and it’s rather sweet. “Zima Blue” is an interesting sci-fi art story with a fun twist. And “Ice Age” is a whimsical story about a young couple who discover the old fridge in their new apartment contains its own lost civilization.

References and homages to other stories abound. In addition to the references I noted above, some of the stories felt like they were fan fics for Mass EffectDoom, a variety of werewolf stories of all things, ’80s toy-tie-in cartoons, and Pokémon (but with considerably more sex, violence, and gore, and set in a hard dystopian-cyberpunk setting). Fan fiction initially feels like the right term; they’re not officially licensed to play in those worlds, but the stories seem to work best when contemplating the universes and ideas they’re riffing off. To be fair, much of the source material for these short films outright predates the sources I’m pointing to; my lack of familiarity with most of the original short stories leaves me ill-equipped to say how much is contained in the originals and how much actually could be drawing from later sources. Sci-fi and fantasy are rather self-referential genres, after all, and the round of properties I’ve named are of course referencing dozens of other stories in turn. So to be more accurate: the anthology is a send-up of genre pulp of the past few decades. There are very few ideas that feel truly original or fresh–or even complete, without the context of the genres that they reside within.

While I won’t break down all the stories, I do have to point out that many of the shorts would have simply been easier to get through if they could have shown some restraint, focusing more on telling a consistent and notable story rather than focusing on maiming and killing. Just for example, consider “Sucker of Souls” and “Good Hunting.”

“Sucker of Souls” was incredibly gory and violent, which was a turn-off for me, but it felt a lot like a mature spin on Jonny Quest or something similar, spliced with a Castlevania-esque Dracula story, and it was just plain funny even amid the bloodshed; still, that relentless violence and blood splatter, and the ultimately futile ending, makes it hard to recommend as a comedy or parody. “Good Hunting” is The Witcher meets wuxia meets steampunk, but the grotesque violence against women and moral blackness of the setting (and a sociopathic, morbidly obese man’s tiny flopping dick) are hard marks against it for me; the setting was interesting but the story it wanted to tell was not what I wanted to see. I cannot overemphasize how much graphic violence there is in this collection–and how much of that violence is directed toward women.

Like with Black Mirror, I can appreciate the good episodes but don’t like having to wade through so much bad to get to the good. Like with Black Mirror, I feel like Love, Death & Robots is presented as an edgy, genre-pushing, radical reinvention of speculative fiction, but in the end they both feel like mere edgelord recycling of what’s come before.

That said, I hope that Love, Death & Robots can lead to more genre anthologies and more experimentation, on Netflix and other platforms.

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 2

I liked the first season of The Dragon Prince. I had my qualms, mostly with the animation, but I liked the story and the characters, I was intrigued by the lore and setting, and I was excited to see more. The second season delivers. In truth, it’s an improvement on the first in just about every way.

One of the most impressive feats of the second season is that it makes the first season feel worthwhile and fundamental. The first ended with the dragon prince hatching from its egg, the core party of adventurers still far from their objective and with danger in close pursuit. Yet while the adventure may have progressed only a little, the characters have grown a lot. This is a story about the characters and their relationships and growth in particular. Sure, the core party of Callum, Ezran, and Rayla is central to this, but every character, whether hero or villain, is allowed a character journey and clear (though sometimes complex) motivations. Even the villains are operating from perspectives that you can understand, though you will hopefully disagree with them. The central antagonist, the king’s former adviser, Viren, twisted by years of dark magic and trapped into ever-more-desperate decisions in an effort to retain power, is still ultimately acting out of a misguided effort to protect his kingdom (though, grotesquely, not his former king and best friend’s children).

What I’m trying to say is that, even though the adventure plot had not advanced very far by the beginning of season two, the first season still felt like necessary viewing. It was a true first chapter, not just a prologue, and the inciting events and early steps on that adventure helped to define the characters and direct their motivations and passions. Ezran and Callum end up greatly changed by the experiences of season two, but they were already on that path thanks to the first season. And their close former friends, now enemies, and children of Viren, Claudia and Soren, are on especially interesting paths. Everyone is freed from the chains of perceived destiny, and now the young cast of key players, protagonist and antagonist, is left to make their own decisions about their fates. (By the way, when I told my wife what I believed Callum’s fate would be, she pointed out that his master-them-all potential path would be rather like that of the Avatar in The Last Airbender. Fair enough!)

The series also grew in depth, providing quite a bit of backstory at a well-timed moment that helped cement the state of the world, how it got there, and how even such a seemingly good and just king could be led down a path of darkness and violence.

The lore dripped out this season provides a gradual accumulation upon the stratum of the first season. The story continues to grow in tandem with and in benefit from that lore. It’s getting more complicated, but I’m rather enjoying the magic system of the world in particular, and I’m very interested to learn more about the figure in Viren’s mirror, who just so happens to seem a master of many of the schools of arcane art.

The show outdid itself in diversity. While it still seems to be a predominantly white world, there are still a variety of people of color populating all roles in the world, and the show has close to an equal balance of male and female characters, especially in speaking roles. Also, of the five human kingdoms, one is run by an incredibly clever young girl who is the orphaned daughter of two heroic queens. The homosexual relationship is presented explicitly, without comment, just as part of the story. Families separated by death or divorce are also central to the story. Beyond the deaf, and still badass, General Amaya, there are other characters living full lives with disabilities (there’s even a blind sea captain, and while he’s sort of a joke character in many ways, his capability as a sailor is never questioned, and his ability to man the ship blind is not even a subject of discussion–it’s just accepted). None of this is vital to the narrative, but none of it hurts anything either. The Dragon Prince truly shows how easy it can be to increase diverse representations of humanity. It is a great counter-example against anyone who claims that the inclusion of diverse characters is “forced.” This fantasy world is diverse, that’s just the way it is, it’s not a story about that, let’s move on. That’s great, and I’m sure it’s meaningful to many viewers to see themselves represented in some way on screen.

Finally, the animation seems greatly improved. The show still looks beautiful from moment to moment, but now the movements between actually look smooth. There were a couple times where a jerk of a hand or a walk seemed robotic, but for the most part things looked great in high action moments and in quiet character scenes.

Season two ends on a cliffhanger and with many threads left dangling. I’m excited to see season three!

Pseudo-Review: The Ted Bundy Tapes

I watched Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes over this weekend. As if anyone needed a reminder, it established how evil a man Ted Bundy was. There weren’t any jaw-dropping revelations, and if there were any new insights into the man, I didn’t register them.

I don’t really want to write a full review for this. I’d rather just leave today with the pretty pictures from my other post. But I just wanted to share that I saw the documentary, and while it was morbidly fascinating, it was not really must-watch television.

I don’t think this documentary will really challenge your views or present you with much new information. I don’t think that we as an audience, as a society, benefit from the rehashing of murders committed by a very disturbing, yet very small, fraction of our society. But I recognize that the grotesque nature of the crimes and the alien psychology of the killers is…mesmerizing? Haunting?

Bundy’s kind of confusing because he doesn’t seem to have the same sort of triggers or childhood behaviors that are typically associated with serial killers. He’s frightening because he seems almost like he was just born evil, though I imagine it’s not as simple as that. But my opposition to the death penalty remained untested. I imagine that if you support the death penalty, your views will similarly be untested. I hope that if you disagree with me about capital punishment, you will at least agree that the people who celebrated his impending death with partying, drinking, and cheering are reprehensible and represent a deplorable facet of human psychology.

I actually have more thoughts–as usual, a lot more thoughts. But I don’t have the same desire to write them out. It can be depressing to dwell on these real-world monsters.