Saturday, December 17, 2011

Xmas: Disco Santa Claus

Becca just got home and had to find this song; apparently she heard a few seconds of it as a radio bumper and wanted to track it down. Never heard it before, but why not, says I?

Some More Christmas Tree Pics


Friday, December 16, 2011

Xmas: I Need This on My Lawn

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

I didn't agree with a lot of things he said--sometimes he downright infuriated me with his tireless defense of Bush and his destructive policies--but I think in Christopher Hitchens we've lost something we can't afford to lose. There are too many people dying who are unafraid to say what they think, and to be able to defend those thoughts with intelligence. Hitchens was never a man I expected to find screaming his unmeasured opinion on television. So even when I disagreed with him, I never heard a man who was toeing a party line or simply shouting down those who held contrary opinions. It's rare to see someone you disagree who can actually defend their opinions instead of falling back on the old trope of "But it's what I believe."

Here is a piece in the new Vanity Fair, in which Hitchens questions many of the things said about death, particularly Nietzsche's maxim that "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." It's a fascinating read just a day after the author's death.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Xmas: The Chipmunk Song

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #5. This is another one of those songs that people tend to hate, but it just fills me with warmth. I hear this song, and I'm in my grandma's house just before Christmas. So no one may agree with me (except my Dad, maybe... maybe), but this is a Christmas classic to me and it always will be. And, honestly, I just genuinely like the song. I have no use for Alvin and the Chipmunks, but I will always love this song.

Star Trek: Voyager, Season Two

One thing I didn't mention last season that I should have: the opening credits sequence is just lovely. Beautiful special effects, an excellent and compelling title theme by Jerry Goldsmith. It really is something to look at. Easily my favorite of the Star Trek openings.

So, on to the second season. This was a lot more watchable than the first. There were slow patches, but this is the season where I've really become interested in a number of the characters as people. I expected to just flat-out hate this show, but I really don't. I'm not in love with it yet--I think this show has a tendency to repeat the worst excesses of The Next Generation, including its fastidious tone--but I'm enjoying it more than I thought I might.

1. The 37's (my rating: 4 out of 5)
It's my understanding that this episode was meant to be the first season finale, and it would've served better there. But as it is, it does pull you right back in, especially with that excellent, startling image of a pickup truck floating in space. I really liked Sharon Lawrence as Amelia Earheart; I'm a little disappointed she didn't get to go into space, but I liked what they did with her and how much meeting her obviously meant to Janeway. This episode is set up to finally cement the sense of shared purpose between the crew, and it does it well.

2. Initiations (4/5)
My sense of this episode is that it's not particularly well-regarded, which is kind of a shame, because not only is it the only Kazon story I ever really got into, but it's also the first time so far that I've been interested in Chakotay as a character. Up until now, he's just sort of been there to make a comment or something, but here we get a much better insight as to what he's about as a person. I like how Robert Beltran here takes lines that could be angry and confrontational and instead makes them sound thoughtful and measured. It's a very interesting way to approach the character; Beltran's trying to find a way that's somewhere in between the stereotypical warrior and the stereotypical spiritual guru that a Native American character can too easily fall into with weak writing. Also, I liked Aron Eisenberg on this one.

3. Projections (5/5)
This episode might also have made a very good season finale. The premise is brilliant: the Doctor suddenly finds that he's entirely real and everything else is a holographic projection, and then, of all people, Reg Barclay shows up and tells him he's really a Starfleet scientist trapped inside a holographic simulation. They sell the premise so well that, even though you know you're only on the third episode in the second season of a show that went to seven of them, you kind of wonder what the hell's going on. What the writers explore here is the nature of what reality is and how we experience it and whether we create our own reality through what we imbue with importance, which is one of the more immediate and intriguing science fiction premises left these days. A minor classic, and the best episode of the series up to this point.

4. Elogium (3/5)
I find it weird that Neelix and Kes have been inseparable all this time and haven't done it yet. Here, Kes is basically set through puberty too early, and considers having a child with Neelix because it may be the only time she can conceive. The writers seem to be trying to make a point about teen pregnancy that doesn't quite come off, but the story is character-driven and has some good moments. I like how mothering Janeway is with Kes, especially.

5. Non Sequitur (2/5)
Isn't it about time spell check programs recognize "sequitur"? Anyway, this episode didn't sell it for me. I didn't realize up until now just what a non-character Harry Kim is, which is kind of funny since he seemed like the audience entry character in the pilot. The writers don't do much with him, and he just comes off kind of boring, and this episode--which sees Kim wake up in San Francisco without having been assigned to the Voyager--doesn't remedy that. Kim's life is boring, his girlfriend is boring, even his coffee order is boring. And then he has to sacrifice himself (possibly) just to make Tom Paris' life better? Ugh, why?

(By the way, Becca is convinced that Harry and Tom should be in a gay relationship. When she said that, I realized that I was surprised to see Harry with a girlfriend because I'd just sort of assumed he was gay, but I have no idea why I felt like that. Anyway, going in that direction would've made Tom and Harry more interesting, or at least given them something to be happy about occasionally. Boring, boring characters.)

6. Twisted (3/5)
What this episode lacks in urgency it makes up for in character moments. This episode does a lot to solidify some of the relationships between the characters, and even if they have to do it in that truly lame Parisian pool hall, it's pretty well done.

7. Parturition (2/5)
I'm just glad there's an end to this brief rivalry between Tom Paris and Neelix over Kes. That was going to get old and unpleasant if they had pursued that. I'm not sorry to see that arc die at all. Ethan Phillips is especially good in this one, but I'm just never going to like Tom. It's just not going to happen. Also, I found the puppet repto-humanoid baby a little silly. Took me right out of it. They don't really use puppets on Star Trek, and it was just bizarre to see now.

8. Persistence of Vision (3/5)
I like Kate Mulgrew and Jennifer Lien's performances in this episode, but I really don't find myself with much to say about it. The end, with the crew's psychic tormentor simply disappearing, is pretty scary. I think I'm just so burned out on Killer Holodeck episodes that I find psychic threats hard to enjoy.

9. Tattoo (1/5)
I always have a hard time with science fiction stories and episodes that ascribe human ingenuity and development to some kind of alien (divine) intervention. It just offends me. They get out of it here, I guess, by ascribing that to one specific group of people, but still, it just sours me. Add to that a story that's approached with so much sensitivity that it blands the whole thing.

10. Cold Fire (1/5)
Interesting premise, and nice to see Gary Graham again (Alien Nation is one of my favorite unsung science fiction series), but I'll be honest, I don't care about the Caretakers and this one literally put me to sleep.

11. Maneuvers (1/5)
We've really hit a patch, haven't we? As much as I think Martha Hackett is great as Seska, I just don't find the Kazon interesting, and my attention really drifted on this one, too.

12. Resistance (5/5)
Boy, the Mokra are way more interesting villains than the Kazon, and we only get to see them once? That's really too bad. This is a beautifully done episode, in large part because of the scenes with Caylem, a confused old man who thinks Janeway is his daughter and helps her rescue Tuvok and Torres from prison. Caylem is played by Joel Grey, and he is wonderful, and the scenes between he and Kate Mulgrew are touching. This very human father-daughter relationship--one that she knows is false but refuses to shatter--adds such a lovely layer to an already taut and thrilling episode. One of the best of the first two seasons.

13. Prototype (3/5)
I don't necessarily think it's a bad episode, but it's definitely one where the hokey stuff drowns out some of the potential it has. I can overlook the robots being guys in 1970s era Doctor Who suits for the sake of the premise--what bugs me is that the whole "robot war" element makes its ethical questions moot, and then tries to save it by turning the whole thing into a false childbirth allegory. It just handles this stuff in completely the wrong way. It's especially too bad because this is one of the few times I've liked B'Elanna Torres as a character.

14. Alliances (2/5)
The Kazon return to star in an obvious twist that ends with a scene stolen from The Godfather, Part III and ends with a very lame speech wrapped in a tight little bow. Painful, but some good moments here and there.

15. Threshold (1/5)
Extremely silly and tedious. This is one of those episodes Brannon Braga seems to love to write, where he comes up with this big concept--in this case, apparently going warp 10 will advance you to the next stage of human evolution, trap you in scenes from David Cronenberg's The Fly, and then turn you into a human-sized salamander that mates on a swamp planet, because evolution totally works backwards like that--then doesn't know how to execute it and basically loses interest and shrugs it off. Really awful.

16. Meld (4/5)
First off, Brad Dourif is excellent on this episode. The guest stars they're getting on this show are generally spectacular, and Dourif is very compelling as a Betazoid who mind-melds with Tuvok to quell his violent tendencies. The result is that, for a time, Tuvok is unable to suppress his own violent tendencies. I never really thought until now how much sense it makes for a Vulcan to be in charge of security, because everything I read as a kid about Vulcans made reference to their violent, barbaric pasts, and how logic was originally seen as a means to overcome what was apparently a natural Vulcan violence. So Tuvok makes sense as a security officer, because he understands violence on an instinctive level, and must work to overcome it. For me, Tim Russ really steps into his own here. I never, ever liked Tuvok before now. Here, he's fascinating and well-acted, and I'd love to know more about him.

17. Dreadnought (4/5)
And in this one, B'Elanna Torres steps into her own for me. Roxann Dawson is very good here, running across a missile she created and sent to Cardassian space, and which got lost in the Delta Quadrant and is headed towards an inhabited planet. It's also a good episode for Janeway, as we see the lengths she's willing to go to in order to protect the innocent.

18. Death Wish (5/5)
Glorious. Q really fits in well on this show, possibly because it's so much like TNG, whereas he didn't fit in at all on his episode of DS9. Here there's a real meaty issue to sink into, which is that another Q (played by Gerritt Graham, who is wonderful and latches right onto the camp elements without going over the top) wants to commit suicide. What really makes this episode work is the way John de Lancie, as Q, relates to Janeway. This isn't the way he is with Picard, where he sort of comes in as an imp or a gadfly and plays verbal chess with him. With Janeway, he approaches her on a completely different level, without the testosterone. I like this Q; he's more introspective than we've seen, but still completely in character. He's not testing humanity anymore--the finale of TNG showed that trial come to a close--but the producers here have given Q a reason to exist in the universe of Voyager that's not simply tacking on. Very well done indeed, one of my favorites.

19. Lifesigns (3/5)
Wow, the Doctor's second romance now. His track record is better than Tom Paris'. I like that this episode brought a little more depth to the Vidiians, who are scary villains, but also tragic. Just a sweet little episode with a little bit deeper romance than usual. Great ending.

20. Investigations (3/5)
I like the structure of this episode, the way it plays with Neelix's morning talk show to uncover a betrayal within the crew. I was less interested in Tom Paris: Spy Hunter, but again... Tom Paris. At least we're done with insubordinate Tom Paris now, who was no more interesting than romantic rival Tom Paris or womanizer Tom Paris. It's like the producers just can't decide which 1970s Jack Nicholson character they want him to be from episode to episode. But hey, Neelix saving the day is pretty cool.

21. Deadlock (5/5)
We've seen this sort of premise (an accident creates two separate realities) on science fiction shows, but I have to give it up for the producers here; they really went for it. Killing crew members, killing babies, driving people insane, they just run with it. Even Harry Kim gets an action scene, making him compelling for an instant or so. I love Janeway in this one--both Janeways--and that cat and mouse moment: "Welcome to the bridge." Fan-fucking-tastic. This one really did it for me. Action, adventure, mindbending twists... what an episode. More of these, please.

22. Innocence (4/5)
Yep, I love Tuvok. I am now officially sorry that I said he was the shittiest Vulcan ever. I love him on this episode. I know it's easy to get laughs by putting someone serious in a room with kids and having him act uncharacteristically, but it's very sweet and cute here. And I thought the twist worked just fine. I just loved watching the relationship between Tuvok and Tressa grow and develop, and him staying with her until the end. Lovely stuff.

23. The Thaw (5/5)
Oh, did Becca hate this one. But she's one of those weird people who are terrified of carnivals and clowns. I just don't get it. This episode, on the surface, looked like it was going to be ridiculous as hell, but as you get further and further into it, it's actually quite suspenseful and enjoyable. The idea is that there are people in stasis who are being held captive by a computer program who manifests himself as a clown and feeds off the mental and emotional energy of his victims. I think it's electric. Michael McKean is fantastic as the Clown, and watching him negotiate with the Doctor and then attempt to take on Janeway in a battle of wits is exciting television. I should also mention how wonderfully colorful everything is. Too much science fiction for the last 30 years is just muted blues, shiny blacks, and gunmetal grays. It's nice to see so much color on an episode.

24. Tuvix (5/5)
A mistake with the transporters melds Tuvok and Neelix into one, wholly new being. The producers really run with this premise, too, creating a new character who is the best combination of the two, and acted wonderfully by Tom Wright. I like that the writers took the ethics involved head on; there's really no way to return things back to the status quo (when is spell check going to start recognizing "quo"?) without essentially killing Tuvix so that Tuvok and Neelix can live. So they turn that into the major conflict of the episode's final act, and we see just what Janeway is willing to do. The final scene--where we can see the agony of the decision on Janeway's face--really hits home, because ultimately this was going to come down to a character choice and not a definite message about which was the right decision to make. This is head and shoulders above DS9's offensive "Sons of Mogh" episode, which presents the idea of taking away someone's agency as necessary; here, Janeway makes her decision and has to come to grips with it on her own. I really appreciated the way this didn't go for any easy answers.

25. Resolutions (4/5)
At last, Janeway and Chakotay are stranded together. It seems an obvious choice for a romantic pairing, but from what I understand, they never pursued this further, which is kind of a shame. If the two of them were going to be stranded together on a planet, it seems like they could've explored the romantic possibilities more than they did here, which is like G-rated meaningful hand-holding and talking in code about solutions. I think there's a definite way to go here with exploring the feelings they seem to have. Look at how they almost seem disappointed to have to go on again as captain and commander instead of man and woman on equal footing... it's too bad.

26. Basics (3/5)
Very glad to see Brad Dourif back as Suder, and to see how he's developed away from violence, now living like a monk and tending his orchids. I still get bored by the Kazon, but at least here the threat they apparently pose seems more credible, with the Kazon taking over the ship and stranding the crew (except for a hidden Suder and, of course, the Doctor) on a planet. Oh, and of course, Tom Paris is out there, rushing to save the day. It's as easy to forget action hero Tom Paris exists as it is the other versions.

And there we end, on the cliffhanger of a stranded crew. There were a lot more high points this season than in the first, and I get the sense we're going to leave the Kazon and the Vidiians behind and move on to more interesting villains, which is something this show needs. But I'm looking forward to where it goes.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Xmas: Merry TARDIS

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Surprising and wonderful. Like Melancholia, it's another film that uses a science fiction idea (in this case, the discovery of a second Earth) to quietly explore ideas of connection and loneliness. Brit Marling is excellent as a girl who has served time for accidental manslaughter; she killed a child and a pregnant woman in a car accident, and now finds herself unable and unwilling to live up to her once-promising potential. She purposefully puts herself in a position to become part of the life of the man whose family she destroyed (a very good performance by William Mapother, who I'd like to see in a lot more movies), hoping to make things better for him and maybe redeem herself, but without owning up to her identity (her records were sealed because she was underage when the accident occurred, so he never found out who she was). The way they come together is understated and beautiful; what happens after is perhaps inevitable, but I really respect the way the movie approaches its major confrontation and the main points I took away from it--that you can't run away and hide from your problems, and that redemption only begins when we can forgive ourselves--without once lapsing into sentimentality. The haunting image of a second Earth always in the sky beautifully underscores the film's urgency. One of the year's best movies. **** stars.

Woody Allen succeeds here in making a somewhat obvious observation about nostalgia and romanticism, but in a whimsical sort of way. I like that Woody Allen is one of a very few directors who can handle magic realism anymore (less of the audience seems to understand it with each passing year), and the device of a frustrated writer entering a cab and going back in time to meet the luminaries he so adores is an interesting idea; it's sort of the reverse of The Purple Rose of Cairo. Not one of Allen's best (what is, anymore?), but very likable. *** stars.

I ultimately found this movie unsatisfying. Elizabeth Olsen is excellent as a woman who has lived with a cult up in the Catskills, and retreats to her sister and brother-in-law but cannot shake the feeling that somewhere, somehow, the cult is going to find her and steal her back. We see two narrative tracks--Martha's attempt to rejoin society, where she is not met with the most loving reception; and her time with the cult, where they renamed her Marcy May. Ultimately, the movie is about a young woman who is lost between two worlds. In the cult, she was abused and witnessed a murder, but she was also cared for and part of what she sees as a positive attempt to live off the land without modern society dictating her life. She obviously needed to feel she belonged somewhere, and this cult and its charismatic leader (compellingly played by John Hawkes) fulfilled that need before going too far for her to go along with them. She misses them as much as she fears being brought back. Meanwhile, in the world of her sister's materialism, she's cut off. Her sister is only willing to put up with so much, only willing to go so far to help her, not willing to truly inconvenience herself in the name of family. What do you do when one family is doing something truly wrong but loves you, and the other family is emotionally distant? Still, I wish the movie had dug deeper into Martha's psyche; Elizabeth Olsen plays her well, but I wanted to know more about the cult and about what she was going through. It doesn't really commit to being either a character drama or a thriller, and as a result I think it's just too understated for its own good. **1/2 stars.

HALL PASS (2011)
You remember how bad the trailers were? It's even more annoying than that. Two schlubs (Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis) get a week off from marriage from their shrew wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate), with predictable, unfunny results. Owen Wilson's whole role is basically "Waaah! My wife won't have sex with me! Waaah! I can't get laid by anyone else because I'm such a loser! Waaah! I want my comfortable routine back! Waaah! I learned nothing but I'm not going to complain and be a stereotype anymore, or something!" No stars. Not only shit, but pointless shit. Why did anyone even bother making this?

Lifetime movie about the bitchiest students you'd ever want to punch in the neck. I basically watched it because Ashley Benson is the ringleader of the girls, who basically run rampant over the school, terrorizing anyone and doing what they want, simply because her mother (Tatum O'Neal) is the principal. Typically overdramatic, but surprisingly more realistic than Mean Girls about how bitchy teenage girls can be. It also made me wish teachers could still use corporal punishment. ** stars.

THE A-TEAM (2010)
Meh. A very boring movie with a likable cast (even Bradley Cooper McConaughey wasn't as typically irritating as I tend to find him). Kind of a wasted opportunity; its attempts at pathos are laughable, its plot twists are predictable, and its interest in big set pieces shot completely without clarity or purpose is disappointing. Still, that sequence with the parachuting tank is awesome. That's the kind of demented abandon the movie should have gone for the whole way through; it didn't even bother trying to be believable and instead went for fun instead of being smarmy and cool. ** stars.

I fucking hate Lee Evans. Tedious, tedious, unwatchable movie. No stars.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Xmas: 'Twas the Night Before Christmas in Space!

An Atari commercial I don't remember, but am glad I saw!

Some Christmas Tree Pics

We've been decorating, so over the next couple of weeks I think I'll spread out some pictures.

Disco, Beer, and Patrick Swayze

No irony whatsoever, which is kind of refreshing these days.

Monday, December 12, 2011

An Xmas Memory

I guess a lot of people tend to think about the people they've lost when the holidays come around. For whatever reason--I'm in a depressed mood, I think--I've been thinking tonight about my late sister Ellen. A big part of the fun of Christmas for me in the 90s was that I had two half-sisters who were experiencing their childhood Christmases, and getting to see it through their eyes was just wonderful.

On her first or second Christmas, I remember Ellen messing with the presents. Like any kid, she was fascinated by the boxes and the wrapping paper and wanted to investigate. I was amazed and proud at the lengths she'd go to just to deceive me. I remember one time, pacifier in her mouth, she kept trying to hobble over to the presents, towards one very big box in particular. It was my job on this particular afternoon to herd her away from those things; and she learned quickly that she wasn't supposed to be playing with them. You'd just have to say her name firmly, and she'd hobble off and, when my attention went back to the TV, she'd head back. What really got me--like I said, amazed and proud--is that once she started playing with her toys, batting around something that was hanging. I looked over at her, and she was craftily heading towards the big box. I realized she'd actually set the toys in motion so I'd hear them and think she was playing with her toys. "Ellen," I warned. She almost jumped, surprised and guilty. Later, I laughed at it, but I couldn't undermine my Big Brother authority in front of her.

Ellen loved Christmas, like most children who get brought up in it. I always wanted to make it special for her, but I've never been good with money or even made very much, so I always felt guilty that I couldn't really ever do anything for her--or anyone else--that I wanted. I think that guilt is part of the reason that I can't enjoy being around my family on Christmas. It's just too much for me.

When Ellen was a little older, around 3 or 4, she was really into Santa Claus. She would get too excited to sleep on Christmas Eve, which was something that I'd long since outgrown. You practically had to lock her in her room so that Dad could get to leaving out the presents from Santa. Back then, I'd spend the night of Christmas Eve at my Dad's and wake up with my sisters on Christmas morning. I remember groggily waking up one morning, very quiet, and just enjoying being half-asleep. Because my door didn't close all the way--it had to be latched--I could hear whatever was going on in the main rooms. So I heard Ellen's door open and her joyous gasp when she saw the presents. I figured she'd look around for a while, but instead I heard her thumping footsteps running for my door, and she knocked excitedly, calling me to come out and see. That'll always be one of my favorite Christmas memories; that she wanted me, her brother and her godfather, to be the first one up with her on Christmas morning.

She got so into Santa Claus, and I remember when she was about 9 or 10 she started looking up information on Santa in books and was going to "scientifically prove" that Santa Claus was an elaborate ruse. My Dad had signed her up for one of those services where you get a phone call from "Santa," and she was convinced it was actually my Dad. I don't know what happened with that, but I thought it was very cute.

I think Ellen dying in 2006 is a big part of what muted Christmas with my family. I feel guilt from that, too. For not seeing her enough in the last years of her life. I feel unwelcome in places now.

But when she was here, she made those Christmases special. I just really miss her today. And everyday, but for some reason especially today.

Kristen Bell Mondays

2 weeks.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Song of the Week: "Sleigh Ride"

SamuraiFrog's Essential Christmas Songs #4. Oddly enough, I think I have more versions of "Sleigh Ride" on my Christmas Playlist than any other song... five off the top of my head: the classic Leroy Anderson piece, one by the Ronettes, one by Fozzie Bear, one from the Star Wars Christmas album, and this version, my favorite, by the Ventures. I was blown away when I first heard this, because I was always a fan of their similar-sounding surf rock classic, "Walk--Don't Run." I actually grew up hearing that song in large part because my Dad used to play it on his guitar, one of a couple of surf rock riffs he liked to play around with. So, once again, nostalgia kind of takes the cake for me here.

Xmas: Peanuts, 1955

Bonus gif: