Friday, July 27, 2012

Slayage 5

It's no secret that Joss Whedon got me into the popular culture analysis game.  I've written and presented on his work for six years now and he keeps putting out things that need to get looked at (the Angel & Faith comics have some storylines that deserve examination, for instance, along with a little film called The Avengers that may have slipped by you this summer), so I imagine I'll keep writing about his work.

Every two years since 2004, scholars have gathered (no one seems to know what the proper collective noun is for such a group; I've suggested a "dissertation of scholars."  We'll see if it catches on.) for a conference devoted to Whedon and his works.  While Whedon is often the subject of papers and full panels at popular culture conferences, the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses is devoted exclusively to him.  Papers are presented that look at his works from a nearly bewildering variety of perspectives - a copy of the program can be found here - and I always leave the conference fired up and brimming over with (hopefully good) ideas for future projects.

In the past, I've tried to recap the conference, which is an exhausting endeavor.  Seriously, this conference is gogogo for three straight days, plus one evening beforehand.  On top of which, we (my husband is also a Whedonian) had travel "adventures" both outbound and returning, so it took longer than usual to get our breath back - plus there was jet lag from journeying from North Carolina to Vancouver and back.  Fortunately, I don't need to feel bad about not recapping the conference presentations, because several others are storming the summarizing ramparts.  Check out the following and I'm sure there are more:

  • Nik at Night is the wonderful blog run by Nikki Stafford of Toronto's ECW Press.  She is in the process of taking her notes and turning them into full-scale write ups for each day that are both informative and chatty.  She also has pictures, which is doubly cool.  And she's the editor for the Wanna Cook? project, so she's triply cool.
  • David Kociemba and Kristen Romanelli maintain the blog for Watcher Junior which is the undergraduate journal for Whedon studies.  They are taking turns posting recaps of the conference - both the blog and the journal itself are well worth reading.
  • The beyond charming witnessaria (go back and watch "Once More with Feeling" to get the name) has also blogged about the conference.  
  • If you want to see the live tweets that came out of the conference, go to your Twitter account and look for #slayage5.  This hashtag is still active, so you'll need to look back a bit.  Multiple folks were tweeting throughout the panels, which was (I think) a first for Slayage.  At one point, the #slayage5 hashtag was trending worldwide!  Academics talk a lot, be that on Twitter or through any other channel!
  • Also, the Slayage journal will have official write ups from three reporters soon.  Those are always solid and complete, so you'll want to check that out.
It's a great time and it's not just for academics, so we'll see you in a Slay-age (three days followed by two years) for the next one!  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 23

After the whizbang start of Season 5A with last week's "Live Free or Die," this week's "Madrigal" slows down a bit.  Gilligan understands that we need to start unpacking how Walt got from eradicating two major players at the end of Season 4 to sitting alone in a Denny's on his 52nd birthday at the beginning of 5A, so he starts giving us bits of the journey this week.  Don't let the slower pace fool you - there's a lot going on here.

First - the title.  We knew that "Madrigal"*  was some sort of shell company that Gus funneled money through - possibly to do some "laundry," but also to buy the industrial lab equipment used in the large-scale meth business that Walt and Jesse have been running for Gus.  Seems that at least some of the Madrigal black-turtleneck crew knew something of the inner workings of the laundry business, too.  At least one of them isn't talking (zap!) and the question becomes who knows what and how much?  These are questions that Hank very much wants answers to.  I think a penny dropped for Hank this week as his on-his-way-out boss related the tale of Gus coming over to the house to grill sea bass while his son shucked corn for the feast.  Look under your nose.  See who's hiding in plain sight.


We also meet a new player in "Madrigal."  Lydia's a nervous sort and she sees people as loose ends to be tied up - or shot to death.  Mike doesn't want to have anything to do with Walt (who he refers to as a "time bomb" - a comment that's more true than he knows), but the DEA found and froze the offshore accounts - indirectly through Walt's utter inability to know when enough is enough - and there's no money.  So Mike gets Lydia onboard to get the necessary methylamine to start cooking again and a three-way partnership is formed between Mike, Walt, and Jesse, albeit a reluctant one.

Last thing.  Jesse breaks down at the thought that he nearly killed Walt over what he thought was Walt's attempt to poison Brock with the missing ricin.  Shoulders shaking, voice strained, he sobs and sobs and my heart breaks a little bit more.  For Walt did poison Brock - remember the potted lily-of-the-valley Walt dumps in his trunk? Walt has hidden the ricin vial and created a dummy vial filled with salt which he then helps Jesse "find" to prove his innocence.  Seeing Walt comfort his crying partner points up the fact that this Walt is thoroughly despicable as well as being truly dangerous.  Walt's willing to go to any length - any - to keep Jesse close and dependent and the "no rough stuff type deal" Walt has been shed like an outgrown snakeskin.  Jesse's no saint, but at least his eyes haven't gone dead.  

It's not going to go smooth, is it?

Let me also bring to your attention my co-author's blog, which is now featuring "Meth Monday" as a companion to these "Walter White Wednesday" posts.  Check it out - we find different things in each episode, so the two blogs are good to read together.

*A "madrigal" is also vocal music composition dating from the Renaissance era.  Most usually, a madrigal contains from three to six voices.  It'll be interesting to see how many "voices" play a sizable part in telling the "Madrigal" story.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

. . . and stalls a bit.

To begin with, no commentary on Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is ever going to not be tainted by the events of the midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado.  Growing up, I had family in Aurora (one of my uncles was assigned to the base nearby as an army doctor) and "horrified" doesn't begin to cover it.  With great difficulty, I'm going to leave all that aside - my impressions and feelings on the shooting don't belong on this blog - and try to stick to the movie itself.

Nolan signed on for a trilogy and DKR is a satisfactory ending to that run.  While different opinions are bound to be expressed - comics fans are notoriously attached to "their" properties, and I include myself in with the fangirls - I thought Anne Hathaway was quite good as Selina Kyle.  To begin with, she seemed as if she was having fun with the part, something that a movie this heavy needs for balance.  Throughout the trilogy, Nolan has dealt with the darker themes of Batman, including the brooding antihero and the deep corruption of a decadent Gotham City.  Here, he weaves those threads together in a film of economic terrorism, class warfare, and the shining incorruptibility of the police.

And he almost pulls it off.

Alas, the film comes in long, at 2 hours and 44 minutes, and I felt every minute of it.  There's some dialogue that is so clunky I actually cringed in my seat and some plot holes that are so large that Nolan thought his audience either wouldn't notice or wouldn't care - both of which are attitudes I find insulting.  (And before you jump on me about that - you tell me how Bruce Wayne is transported first to the literal hellhole in the desert from Gotham and [even less plausibly] back to Gotham, which is primed to explode if anyone leaves, so everyone is feverishly guarding all entries and exits.  I'll leave my thoughts on Bane and Tate to myself.)  Oh, and the whole "well, it's a trilogy and the third film is always weaker since it's tying up the loose ends" argument is negated for me by The Return of the King.  Nolan had years to work out his arcs; his failure to do so without lumbering through the Plot Convenience Warehouse is on his shoulders and no one else's.  Television can work out arcs over a number of seasons (see Buffy and Babylon 5 for examples, just to name two), so there's no reason why films can't.

That said, I felt the ending worked as a way of putting a period on Nolan's tenure with Batman.  Michael Caine is again excellent as Alfred and there's a nifty role for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a onetime lost boy who brings Bruce Wayne back into the world.

By the way, one of the trailers showing before DKR is for a Nolan produced, Zack Snyder directed Superman film due out next June.  Trailers don't always portray the finished direction of a film, but this one intrigues me.  See what you think.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 22

WOW!  You saw the first episode of Season 5A* by now - or I certainly hope you have, because I plan to talk about it in this post.  So if you haven't seen "Live Free or Die," just stop reading right now.  There will be spoilers, you have been warned and I simply cannot abide whiners.

Let's start with the title, which is the state motto of New Hampshire.  In the cold open, Walt presents a New Hampshire driver's license to get the "birthday discount" (after all, as the chatty Denny's waitress puts it, "free is free")' and his car has NH plates.  We're probably all glad to see the Aztec go, but NH is a long way from NM, so something very strange has happened since the end of Season 4.

"Live Free or Die" starts with a cold open that looks further into the future than we've been taken before.  I suspect Gilligan will take his time getting us back to this point on the circle, but he starts with an open that left me with my jaw dropped. As Walt breaks his bacon into pieces and spells out "52" on the plate, we've come full circle from the pilot episode in which Sky decorates his plate with veggie bacon (truly an unholy thing; little wonder Walt broke bad eating that sort of non-food) for what is Walt's 50th birthday.  Walt has hair, so time has clearly passed.  And this version of Walt has plans.  Plans that involve our favorite thoughtful dealer in unlicensed firearms.

What the hell has happened?

By the end of the episode (I'm not going to spoil too much here, but there are a couple of biggies coming up), we learn a couple of truly disturbing things.  Maybe Walt actually IS the Danger, the One Who Knocks ("OWK," my term).  Certainly Jesse, Saul, and even Mike (yay, Mike's back!) seem to view him with a newfound caution.  Skyler's out and out scared of him, and Sky's becoming a scary being in her own right.  Just ask Ted.  Yeah.  Ted.

The storm clouds are gathering, children.  And the rain falls on the righteous and the wicked alike.

So much more will come for Season 5A, but I'm actually blogging this as I travel home from Vancouver, which hosted the 5th Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses.  Travel has not been without glitches and I won't be home and over jet lag before this needs to be posted, so I tapped this out from 38,000 feet in the air and am posting it before I collapse from jet lag.  That's how much you matter to me.  We (my co-author was there in Vancouver with me) actually had a makeshift viewing party Sunday night, which was great fun as we introduced a number of friends to the show.  What an episode to start on!

*just to be clear, "Season 5A" refers to the eight eps that will air in the summer/fall of 2012.  The remaining ones airing in 2013 will be referred to here as "Season 5B," since Vince Gilligan talks about all these episodes as "Season 5."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 21

The premiere of the first half of Season 5 is only a few days away and you can bet that next week's "Walter White Wednesday" will focus on the first episode, which AMC has revealed is titled "Live Free or Die."  Wonder what we should make of that title?  At the end of Season 4 Walt seemed to think he had "won," but I'm not at all sure about that.  Drug cartels, much like nature, abhor a vacuum, and with the end of Gus and Hector, there's a distinct blank space in the cartel structure.  Walt wants money, power, and prestige and he's shown a willingness to kill to get what he wants.

Then again, Gilligan has taught me to not assume much of anything in this show.  He's a twisty as they come.  Too curious to wait?  Then check out this "what you might expect in Season 5" video from AMC.

In the meantime, I'm up in Vancouver enjoying the Fifth Biennial Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses. New material for this conference includes presentations on The Cabin in the Woods, Avengers, and the comic Sugarshock.  I'm scheduled for Friday and I'll be talking about space Westerns and how Firefly owes a "thank you" to Watanabe's anime Cowboy Bebop. So much has been written about Whedon's works - it's by far the most popular television series to get the academic treatment - but Whedon's comic work is not discussed as much as his TV/film work, so I'm especially looking forward to hearing more about his run on X-Men (Kitty Pryde was a model for Buffy Summers, BTW) and the continuation of Buffy in comic form.  In the past, I've blogged about the conference as it was going on, but this time, I've decided to save up the commentary for afterward and spend more time with actual live people.  But I can tell you this much.

There are going to be puppets.  And a sing-along.  And probably a sing-along with puppets.

Oh, I know - this makes it sound like we're not Serious Scholars, but trust me.  These people are scary-super-smart and the Slayage conference is one time in two years where puppets and enthusiasm don't need to be accompanied by an apology.  So I'm going to go blow off some steam with like-minded individuals and come back refreshed and recharged.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Pretty Much Okay Spider Man

I know, I know.  I sound like a curmudgeon.  It's my understanding that most folks are quite happy with the rebooted Spider-Man and that's dandy.  I certainly didn't dislike it, but Spidey is all about heart and I think it's missing here.  I can niptick some other things I did dislike, but let's keep to the main point.  Spidey's story is one that resonates with so many of us because we get Peter Parker.  We know him and often he is us.  Face it, in the comics, Peter is a nebbishy sort of fellow, sort of the anti-Bruce Wayne.  Super bright, but socially inept.  He's uncomfortable in his own skin and that remains true after he gets superpowers from the bite of a radioactive spider.  (Note that he's neither "born this way," as our mutant X-Men are nor are his admittedly amazing superpowers something that he actively sought out.  Right place, right time.  Or maybe wrong place, wrong time, depending on your viewpoint.)  Peter's just trying to get by and, in the process, make New York a better place.  Noble goals, but getting there isn't smooth sailing.

Tobey Maguire nailed this.  He was greatly aided by Sam Raimi, who is a giant-sized comics geek - and having Raimi at the helm also gave us Bruce Campbell cameos, which is always a plus as far as I'm concerned.  The second film has one of those moments that actually makes me choke up.  Oh, you know the scene - when the community comes together to protect their protector.

"We won't tell nobody."  See, that's what good movies do.  The most recent Spider-Man just made me appreciate the air conditioned theater and the buttery goodness of the popcorn.  Nothing wrong with that, but movies can be so very, very much more. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 20

We're ramping up to the July 15 premiere of the first half of the final season of Breaking Bad!  To get you in the proper frame of mind, check out the following:

First, a thoroughly magnificent not-quite-nine-minute video that answers the question, "So what's been going on in this show?"  This is fan-made, so be sure to send nice comments Jswinney1's way! (I was going to spend time posting about certain events to get anyone up to speed before the premiere, but seriously - this does it better.)

Next is the first clip to be released from AMC of the first episode of Season 5.  The episode is titled "Live Free or Die," and I think the title might be a threat rather than a defiant boast.  Watch Walt's reaction to what Junior is telling him.  Can't wait!

This time next week, I'll be in Vancouver at the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses putting the final touches on my paper discussing Cowboy Bebop and Whedon's Firefly.  Don't worry - I've got the final, pre-Season-5 Walter White Wednesday ready to launch and, when I come back, it'll be time to start talking about Season 5!

Grab your respirators, folks!  It's sure to be a bumpy ride!