Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Stranger Things (Season 3)

I grew up in the 1980s.  I remember Back to the Future and The Soviet Union.  I remember New Coke being a thing.  Since I live in a major city, I had a few malls to choose from.  For the residents of Hawkins, Indiana, many of these things are new.  (Back to the Future was released on July 3, 1985, during this season’s time frame.)  They also have a new mall in town, which has all but killed Main Street.

Speaking of killing, The Mind Flayer is back, so Eleven, Dustin, Lucas, Jonathan and Co. have their work cut out for them.  Add to this the discovery of another menace:  Soviet operatives underneath the new Starcourt Mall.   In fact, they’re the reason that the Mind Flayer is active.  They’re trying to drill a hole to the Upside-Down.  To what end isn’t made clear, but the Mind Flayer is up to something.  It starts with rats consuming fertilizer and becomes stranger from there.  All of this is happening while Mayor Larry Kline just wants to put on a nice Fourth of July show.

When you’re trying to use several elements in a story, you have to find balance.  Here, there’s definitely nostalgia.  We even get to see several clips of Back to the Future. Observant fans will notice stores at the mall tht still exist, like Burger King and The Gap, and those that are no longer with us, like Sam Goody and RadioShack.

There’s even a Jazzercise studio.  It’s a franchise that uses jazz music to set the tone for the exercise.  It started in 1969, but became big in the 1980s.  Oh, how I would have liked to have forgotten that.  I think I was in the fifth grade when they had my entire elementary school do it.  It must have been in shifts, but all of the students had to participate.  I remember some being enthusiastic about it.  I remember doing the bare minimum necessary to look like I wasn’t just standing there.

Anyway, I digress.  Many of the nostalgic elements blend into the background.  You might see an old logo or something.  The big thing is the Soviets.  I think we’re to assume here that the Soviet Union somehow built a huge secret underground base, put a mall on top of it and hoped no one would notice?  Well, someone noticed.  Dustin happened to build a receiver that picked up one of their transmissions.

The other side of this is the tension.  You have good against evil.  Those that were fighting for good are still doing so, only in different groups.  But even the bad guys are nostalgic.  (How many old movies and cartoons had Soviets as the enemy?)  I mean, it works.  They are a pretty solid enemy.  However, it seems odd that they have that large a base with that many people (in uniform) that went unnoticed except for some pesky kids.

From what I’ve read, the show was meant to last three to five seasons, although there is talk of a fourth.  Given how this one plays out, I’m not certain what the next will look like.  Each season so far has focused on going between dimensions.  If I recall, the first season was the only one not to take place on a holiday, although it does happen between Halloween and Christmas.  Will the next one take on Thanksgiving?  Will there be a new enemy from another dimension?  I’d settle for an explanation of the whole Soviet angle.  And please, don’t tell me it was Moose and Squirrel.


IMDb page

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Yesterday (2019)

One could be forgiven for not having heard of Jack Malik.  He’s a musician who sings his own songs.  He has a loyal fan base of his manager and a few friends, but that’s it.  He has absolutely no chance of becoming famous.  It’s frustrating because he really believes that he could.

Just when he’s about to give up, Jack is hit by a bus during a blackout.  When he gets out of the hospital, he comes to find out that no one knows who the Beatles are.  Everyone knows who the Beatles are.  Except that no one does.  He goes home and finds no references to the band.  (Searching for The Beatles brings up the insects.)

This presents an incredible opportunity.  Since no one has heard of any of their songs, Jack could pass them off as his own.  Since they were never published, copyright wouldn’t be an issue,  No one would know.  So, that’s what he does.  He records a few of the songs that he can remember and waits.  And he waits.

Again, despair sets in.  Maybe he really is a crappy artist.  He can’t even get attention with songs that got lots of attention.  To be fair, context does matter.  The actual song is as important as who is singing it.  When it’s released also has an effect.  Songs released 50 years ago won’t have the same impact on modern audiences.  This is why it’s surprising that the songs do attract attention.

Ed Sheeran invites Jack to go on tour.  This leads to the long-awaited contract, which leads to the inevitable guilt.  Remember when I said no one would know?  Jack knows.  He comes to realize that he’ll always be waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I came into the movie expecting it to be like Bohemian Rhapsody, and in a way, it is.  The movie showcases the music of The Beatles, but does so in a much different way.  Everyone has that moment when they think no one would know, but Jack has no way of knowing what caused John, Paul, George and Ringo to not form a band.  It’s possible that the music was written, but never released.  It’s possible that one or all of the band members were never born or that they simply never met each other.  Some version of the songs might exist out there.

On the one hand, the movie is enjoyable.  I think most people can relate to someone who wants to make it big.  Those that try and don’t make it often question how someone else made it.  As both a comedy and a fantasy, the movie would have us believe that Jack can make the songs work.  Yes, they’re great songs, but it is a bit odd that it just happens.

It’s also odd that so much of the alternate universe is the same.  Cigarettes and Coca-Cola don’t exist, but it’s never really explained why.  (A search for Coke turns up Pablo Escobar.)  However, there are no small differences to drive Jack mad.  There are no restaurants on the wrong side of the street.  The Eiffel Tower isn’t in Germany instead of France or known by some other name.  I suppose that’s just as well.  Many movies and TV shows have stated that stuff like this is done for simplicity.  Focusing on too many extraneous details can make the movie drag.

Given that the movie has a plot, it’s going to have much broader appeal than Bohemian Rhapsody.  The movie focuses more on Jack’s journey and his ethical dilemma, which it does well.  The script isn’t heavy-handed with it.  It’s exactly the kind of movie you could reference to show the difference between legal and ethical.  There are also shades of grey.

His other options are to be honest all along or to not release the music and go about his life.  If he’s honest, people would think he’s crazy.  If he remains silent, the world is denied some beautiful music.  But, if you do release the music, how do you do it?  You could credit the music to the right people, but they may not exist.  And if they do, they would have no memory of having written it.  So, there is some room for discussion.  I think this is really where the movie works best.


Monday, July 08, 2019

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)

It’s natural to long for what we once had, especially if we know we can never get it back.   We tend to remember the good times and wonder where they went.  Jimmie Fails goes to a house and paints it, despite the constant objections of the couple living there.  He just hates to see it in disarray.  One might wonder why Jimmie is so interested in this particular house.

He grew up there.

Jimmy spends his much of his time working at a nursing home or hanging out with his friend, Montgomery.  They live with Montgomery’s grandfather.  Jimmy and Montgomery go to the house when they feel certain that the husband and wife won’t be there.

One day, opportunity knocks.  The house is actually owned by the wife’s mother, or at least was.  When the mother dies, the house is now in dispute and, more importantly, unoccupied.  Due to the situation, it could sit unoccupied for years, giving Jimmy plenty of time to squat.

The problem with a drama is that it’s never that easy.  If it were a comedy, Jimmy would have found a way.  Maybe he would have won the lottery.  Someone would have found some clause in a long-forgotten contract that would have set things right.  Even the squatting might have come through.

Jimmy is not a man in control of his circumstances.  He was just a child when his parents lost the house.  Now that he’s older, he’s denied access by the current occupants.  When that obstacle goes away, he’s presented with more obstacles.  It would seem that any attempt to look for help only leads to someone pulling the rug out from under him.

Add to that the fact that his neighbors would hold him back.  The grandfather and Montgomery would seem to encourage him, but Jimmy doesn’t seem to have many options.  There’s pressure from outside the community, but there’s pressure from within, as well.  The four or five guys that Jimmy sees every day deride Jimmy for being too soft.  He dresses better than them.  On the other hand, he’ll never have the millions of dollars necessary to buy the property.  Even when he promises to do everything he can to get the money, it’s not enough.

Perhaps the hardest part of growing up is realizing that no matter how hard we work, we don’t always get exactly what we want.  Sometimes, we can.  Sometimes, it means coming close or finding something else that would give us joy.  Like the Rolling Stones once said, you can’t always get what you want.  That doesn’t mean you have to focus solely on what you need.  It just means you have to decide what’s important and come to terms with what’s possible.


Sunday, July 07, 2019

Star Trek: Discovery -- Season 1 Episode 15 (Will You Take My Hand?)

Star Trek: Discovery was a good news/bad news kind of situation.  The good news was that there would be a new Star Trek series after many years.  The bad news was that you’d have to pay for it.  Alas, my local library saved the day with the first season on DVD.  I had to put in a hold and wait, but I was still able to get all 15 episodes of the first season.

So, here we are at the last of those episodes.  It would seem that there’s a resolution to the Klingon War at hand.  Starfleet has a plan to send a probe to the Klingon home world and maybe find a way to threaten the Klingons into submission.  Only, it‘s not really a probe.  It’s a bomb intended to destroy the planet.  And when I say intended, I mean that it’s what Starfleet actually planned to do: Destroy the home world so that the Klingons would realize how serious the Federation is.

I’m not sure I like this plan.  There is a parallel to the United States dropping the bomb on Japan.  It shows that Starfleet is serious.  I had never thought of Starfleet being that serious, but this is what they get for putting a Mirror Universe Emperor in charge of the war effort.  It puts an admiral on the verge of selling Starfleet’s soul just for the sake of winning.

Given that there’s a Klingon home world in the other series and that this is the second-earliest Star Trek series, it’s safe to say that it doesn’t come to that.  The question is how and why it doesn’t come to that.  This is where Discovery has a chance to redeem itself.   The previous series had been about exploration.  Deep Space Nine had a wormhole, which led to a new part of the galaxy to look at.  Even Voyager, which was stranded 70,000 light years from home, took time to look at a new planet or meet a new race.

Discovery was mostly about conflict and war.  It’s almost a darker version of Deep Space Nine.  I am hopeful for the second season.  I know I’ll have to wait a few months if I don’t want to fork over the money, but I waited this long for Season 1.  I’ve also seen some spoilers for Season 2, which have me curious.  Despite what I may have felt before, there is some Star Trek in Discovery.


Thursday, July 04, 2019

Star Trek: Discovery -- Season 1 Episode 14 (The War Without, the War Within)

Life is rarely fair.  Ash Tyler turned out to be a Klingon spy.  To cover his secret, he killed the chief medical officer and nearly killed Michael Burnham.  He’s allowed to walk around the ship unsupervised.  Also, Michael Burnham saves the Emperor of the Terran Empire.  She’s the most ruthless product of a ruthless version of humanity.  Rather than lock her up, they make her captain of the Discovery.  Makes sense.  Right?  That’s how this episode goes.  But, hey!  We’re back in the Prime Universe!  There’s no more evil humans or Vulcans with goatees to worry about.

The crew can focus on the Klingon war again, which has progressed nine months since they left.  Things aren’t going too well for Starfleet.  20% of Federation territory has been lost.  About a third of the Fleet is no more.  Starfleet Command needs something major and Emperor…er…Captain Georgiou might be the one to give it to her.  They do have the Klingon T’Rell in holding, so she might provide something useful.

The fact that they let two major threats walk freely through the ship is my major issue here.  You might say that there’s some major plot point that will require both Georgiou and Tyler.  And you’d be right.  I have seen the finale.  However, use of those characters would be done grudgingly.  Someone would be forced to let them out of prison to accomplish something.  That’s not the case here.  It would seem that being human, or at least appearing human, has its advantages.

It’s also a bit of an insult to Saru to make Georgiou the captain.  Saru has done a great job commanding the Discovery.  You can’t even argue plot point here.  First off, doesn’t the entire crew know what’s going on?  Why the pretense of saying that it’s the Prime Georgiou other than to remind the crew that they have to keep up an act?  Why even make her captain?  They could just as easily keep her on as an advisor or something.  If anyone asks, you could say that she’s taking time off to recover from being held captive or something.  The fact that she’s given direct command of a starship means that she could take over the Prime Universe.

So, yeah.  The first season of Discovery will end with some major questions.  I’m sure the writers have something planned for Tyler and Georgiou, but many of the details seem forced or unnecessary.  Basically, there are three people on the ship that shouldn’t be trusted and two of them are trusted in this episode.  I’m not sure any explanation would be sufficient, but I am curious to see where the characters go in season 2.


IMDb page

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Good Omens (2019 miniseries)

I’ve never been a religious person.  I had seen Breakthrough out of curiosity, mostly to see if it was as religious as I thought it would be.  When I saw advertisements for Good Omens, I had similar concerns.  Was it meant for an audience that had a better understanding of Christianity?  I wasn’t sure I was willing to watch something like that so soon.

Then, I read that a group of Christians, calling themselves Return to Order, was petitioning Netflix to cancel the series.  There were several problems with the petition.  Most notable is the fact that the series is produced and distributed by Amazon.  It’s also a limited series, a.k.a. miniseries, so there were never any plans for a second season anyway.  So, if 20,000 Christians were that raving mad about it, I knew it was worth a try.

The show centers on Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon.  The two are friends, although they may not admit it.  It would probably be better to call them the ultimate odd couple.  They hang out together and occasionally cover for each other.

The story starts around 4004 B.C. in the Garden of Eden.  The miniseries hits on a lot of Biblical events, like Noah’s Ark.  Most of the story takes place in the present day, though.  Both Crowley and Aziraphale are told that the Antichrist is about to land.  Crowley was the one that had to deliver the baby to an American diplomat.  Through a misunderstanding, the bouncing baby boy goes home with another couple.

He grows up to be a normal kid named Adam Young.  He has friends and would like a dog for his eleventh birthday.  Funny thing is that his eleventh birthday is supposed to be the beginning of the end of the world.  (He even gets a small dog that’s actually a hellhound.)

Aziraphale and Crowley realize that they have to do something.  Aziraphale finds the thought of killing Adam distasteful, but might prove necessary.  Even if they did decide to do something, their respective bureaucracies are adamant about letting The Devine Plan unfold as it should.  Plus, it takes them a while to realize that they gave the baby to the wrong couple.  They have no idea who the actual couple is or where they live.

There is a satirical element to the miniseries.  We’re given an angel and a demon who have to face normal problems.  Both have bosses that don’t seem to do their due diligence.  (Crowley has admittedly been phoning it in for a few millennia.)  Both sides are intent on a war that could be easily averted because it’s part of an ineffable plan.  The Four Horsemen even get an updated look, riding motorcycles instead of horses.  There’s also a book of prophecies that happens to be true.  It acts as more of a McGuffin, but it has its moments.

It’s difficult for me to say if the Christian group has a point.  It’s easy for me as an outsider to think they have no sense of humor about this, but I do get that it’s a religion.  People tend to take that sort of stuff seriously.  I don’t think that it was anyone’s intent to poke fun at Armageddon.

Rather, it serves as a mirror of just how easily we are to do battle.  Look at how easily people argue over issues when we might find we agree.  No one wants to be shot.  Do we limit access to guns or do we arm more people?  No one wants to go hungry.  Do we give tax breaks to corporations?  Do we extend unemployment benefits?  It’s easy to see our differences when maybe we should be looking at our similarities.  If Aziraphale and Crowley can get along, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.


Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Star Trek: Discovery -- Season 1 Episode 13 (What's Past Is Prologue)

Nothing is ever simple in television.  It’s bad enough that your car breaks down, but it only happens on the way to a meeting, rather than on the way home.  It’s also raining and the only available tow truck will be there in three days.  Oh, and your mechanic just left for a long vacation.

Such is the case with Star Trek: Discovery.  The crew is trapped in the Mirror Universe.  They’re not sure how it happened, but they know they can use the spore drive to get back.  The problem is that they also have to stop the Mirror Universe’s Terran Empire from overusing spore technology and destroying all life in every universe.  To do so would probably leave them stranded, unless they can come up with a better plan.

We also find out that Captain Lorca was from the Mirror Universe and that the Mirror Version of Georgiou is the Emperor over there, at least until Lorca stages a coup.  He wants Burnham to stay, but that’s not going to happen.  Unless, of course, Burnham can use it as leverage to let the Discovery go home.

Saru, who’s becoming a very good captain, gets the crew to work towards a better option.  (Whatever else happened in the first season, there is at least some character development.)  The episode ends with three major events:  Lorca dies, Burnham saves Georgiou and the Discovery makes it back to the Prime Universe…Nine months after they left.

There’s a part of me that feels like the story is coming together.  Saru and Burnham seem to each have their own character arcs that are progressing nicely.  We see Saru becoming a leader and Burnham becoming comfortable to being part of a crew again.  Then, there are certain things that seem either overly sentimental or done for the sake of progressing the plot.

Why save Emperor Georgiou, for instance?  Trek is no stranger to letting people die.  Heck.  Georgiou has died once already.  Well, Lorca dies and it looks like they’ll be needing an evil character later on.

Then, we get to Tyler.  We know he’s a Klingon sleeper agent.  He does have his uses, but he’s allowed to roam freely, maybe because he looks human.  L’Rell is kept in confinement, but she’s Klingon on the outside.  Whatever Tyler’s fate may be, why not keep him locked up?  Isn’t he as much of a threat?

I do think the story is progressing, but it’s doing so it fits and starts.  This is a trend that I’ve seen with streaming series, though.  Since the shows aren’t confined to a broadcast network’s schedule, the writers have more leeway.  Episodes can be 30 minutes or 75 minutes, as the story needs.  The modern series had 26 episodes per season.  Discovery seems to be happy with half that.

This is also the first series to start out serialized rather than episodic.  The Klingon War spans over a season.  Going into the Mirror Universe takes a few episodes.  This can be good if handled well.  Here, it would seem to have been done to draw in those long-time fans.

Discovery uses the continuity, but takes liberties with it.  Yes, it draws on the previous series, but one would think that the Mirror Universe was new in Mirror, Mirror.  Yes, the appearance of Klingons has changed before.  I’m just hoping that subsequent episodes will put some detail on those broad strokes.