Summer Classes: Angel season 1

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I start the first season of Joss Whedon’s spinoff series, “Angel.”  

There really was nowhere left to go with Angel. After his return in the third season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” he became a tedious extra, left to do little but brood and occasionally fight monsters. He didn’t really have much of a reason to still be there and the writers  consistently had to figure out new reasons why Buffy would still stay with him. By the time he realizes that he has to leave Sunnydale late in the season, the writing was already on the wall that we were going to be seeing much less of the character.

Let me say this immediately. Of all the Buffy characters that could possibly have merited a spinoff series, Angel was among the least worthy. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why he was given his own show but even now, it seems like a pity that the honor didn’t go to Spike, the true breakout character of the show. Angel’s broody, quiet, reserved and suppressed. Essentially, he’s a slightly less whiny Buffy. Why would we possibly want that?

The first 5 episodes of “Angel” don’t even try to answer that point. What we have instead are a series of vastly stand alone episodes, setting some pieces together and introducing the major and minor players. Cordelia is thankfully back, giving some actual levity to the darker show and we meet Drunk-Irish McPlot-Device, also known as Doyle, and inevitable love interest, Kate. Whedon’s been long known as a creator who’s able to flesh out characters but everyone new here is little more than an archetype. Its vastly the same problems that I had with Firefly but we’re just starting out here.

What initially sets “Angel” apart from its source material is in style and tone. Moving the show to LA naturally gave the series a noir-ish feel, particularly having Angel and company setting up a detective agency. It leads the whole endeavor to have a more episodic feel. Where Buffy is always hunting and patrolling, running into threats that are intevitably connected to the season’s big bad, “Angel” so far just deals with the women who inevitably come running. Call it sexism, call it a genre homage or call it lazy writing but there sure are plenty of women who are oh so scared of the big bad men in these first few episodes.

The second issue is tone. It was clear from the series premier where Angel stops a rape attempt that rapidly becomes a vampire attack that this was going to be a considerably darker show. From there, the darker, more profane tone shines through. Cordelia thinks that a producer wants to have sex with her. A beaten woman is threatened at gunpoint by her crack addled boyfriend. A vampire torturer reveals that he’s also a pedophile. A boy is sealed inside of a wall by his insane mother. I’m not saying that “Buffy” never got mature, and the fourth season particularly made the show a much smarter more adult series, but Angel feels much more like a show aiming to shock. When its done well, particularly in the hard to remember “Rm w/a Vw,” the more mature content makes for a compelling monster of the week episode but it feels messy in the sex-murder demon worm filled “Lonely Hearts.”

My biggest issue so far is that the cast is just too damn small. Even from the first episode of Buffy, we had Giles, Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Angel and more. Nothing felt too somber just because there were more people to bounce off of. I’m sure, by the end of the season, Angel Investigations will be filled in with more employees but for now, it feels empty and bereft of the character that a full cast can bring.

On its own, I don’t know that these first few episodes would do anything for someone who isn’t already thoroughly into the Buffy-verse. Each is a fairly standard standalone adventure but do nothing to show off what Whedon’s supernatural shows can do well. Surely, its too early to really pass judgement so we’ll have to really just wait and see.

Next Class: We’ve got 6 more issues of “Angel” before the end of the week which will put me at the half way point.


Summer Classes: “The Producers”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on Mel Brooks’ theatrical comedy, “The Producers.” 

While watching “The Producers,” all I could really think about was the ways that progressive, transgressive comedy becomes the cliché of tomorrow. I remember how fresh, controversial and thought-provoking the obscenity of “Mr. Show” felt in the late ’90s, the raw fusion of boundary pushing jokes with ’60s zaniness in “The Sarah Silverman Program” and the way that “Louie” has fused the urban jungle of New York City with the familiarly skewed headscape of the titular comedian. I was saddened thinking about the comedy that pushes borders now being looked back on as something hokey, repetitive or worst of all, unfunny.

Mel Brooks’ 1968 film is revered in theater circles mostly, I assume, for its slightly meta premise. It naturally led to a remake, albeit an unbearable musical one, in 2005 and has run in theaters forever. It totally makes sense why. Its a film that claims to be offensive and crass and in bad taste where really its a bold concept pushed into a slapdash slapstick caper comedy.

Part of the problem is how little there really is to the movie. This is really clearly a first movie script, with it barely lasting to 84 minutes and much of that running time is devoted to Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel engaging in really broad slap stick. Brooks excelled at writing genre parodies where he had less of a need to write characters and needed to just write jokes. The whole thing plods through every scene that doesn’t feature jokes about Hitler. I was consistently reminded of pop culture aficionado Nathan Rabin’s description of Robert Rodriguez’ “Planet Terror.” We’re waiting for them to bust out that machine gun leg and when they do, it is going to be glorious.

I’m personally sort of mystified by what comes after that. As the eponymous producers prepare to reap in the profits from their sure fire flop, the musical moves into its second act, in which L.S.D., played by Dick Shawn, plays Hitler as a bizarre combination of a mincing homosexual stereotype with an amalgam of hippy singer-songwriter traits. Hitler is all grooves and swinging hips and the crowd eats it up for no discernible reason. Its not clear if Brooks is making fun of musicals, their audiences or the ridiculousness of it all but it just doesn’t land.

Its abundantly clear that Trey Parker and Matt Stone learned a lot from the first song of “Springtime for Hitler.” Combining the most garish clichés of the classic musical with the ridiculous excess of fascism and a portrayal of Hitler as an overall just misunderstood guy is hysterical, if solely because of the combination of form and lyrics. The overall surreal stylings of the second act lessen the impact of the dissonance of form and function.

When “The Producers” clicks, its almost unbearably funny but everything else is stuck in a movie that feels like a relic. There are lisping gay theater stars, unnecessarily long static scenes, strange shifts of momentum and tone and a bit of a predictable cop-out ending but that’s not what I’m going to remember of the whole thing. Its a fun film in retrospect but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh a lot more at “Spaceballs” when i watched it minutes later.

Next Class: The Summer of Whedon is coming to a close so it looks like we’ll be exploring the least deserving spinoff show since “Joey,” the LA supernatural kung-fu noir of “Angel.”

Summer Classes: “Batman: Hush”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on Jeph Loeb’s final Batman arc, “Hush.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the intensive pre “The Dark Knight Rises” Batman reading sessions have helped to change some of my opinions on some of the most well known classics of the hero’s comic book history. If anything, it has reminded me of how much I adore Jeph Loeb. “The Long Halloween” is undoubtedly one of the best Batman stories, “Dark Victory” is an under appreciated gem, “Haunted Knight” is an intriguing anthology and I’ve enjoyed much of his work at Marvel, particularly “Spiderman Blue” and “Daredevil Yellow.”

That being said, I hadn’t read “Batman: Hush,” Loeb’s last story of the Dark Knight and one of DC’s best selling arcs of the last 10 years. Naturally, I knew the big plot twist, many of the ramifications of the plot and that Jim Lee’s art work in it was incredible. I pretty much knew what I was getting into, I just needed to get into it.

In many ways, “Hush” is incredibly similar to “The Long Halloween” and “Dark Victory” in all ways but art. Loeb always loved cramming as many iconic heroes and villains into a single story as possible. I’ve criticized him for this before, usually for the fact that many of the villains don’t exactly get their due and it often doesn’t add much to the story and that vastly is the case here as well. Killer Croc shows up for a chapter just to kidnap a kid. Poison Ivy is in a pair of issues so she can pull the same stunt that she did in “The Long Halloween.” The Joker pulls a gun on Thomas Elliot when just about anyone could have been the trigger man. I know that people love seeing their favorite villains in Batman stories but Gotham is a big place and there’s lots of room for these guys to be doing vastly different things.

Where Loeb’s use of villains in “The Long Halloween” feels organic and useful to the plot, here it does nothing but distract. We’re led to believe that Hush and (spoiler for a 9 year old story) the Riddler are manipulating all of the most dangerous villains in Gotham to put Batman off balance. What’s worse, none of the motivations for the villains make sense until Batman explains why they did it at the very end of the book. Its a crappy way to end a fairly engaging mystery. I always want to feel as if I have a chance at figuring out who-dun-it and I can’t imagine anyone wants to feel like they’re being cheated at the end of a story.

“Hush” has been criticized since its release for several seemingly bizarre reasons. The most common one seems to be that by the conclusion of the series, two additional characters know the identity of Batman. Personally, I have no idea as to why this bothers people as much as it seems to. Bruce’s reveal to Catwoman of his secret identity is an emotional moment in the series and it makes sense for a character who sees a chance to maybe connect to another person. “Hush” offers a great take on the seductive nature of the complex relationship between Batman and Catwoman and Bruce and Selina and his reveal of his secret identity shows how much Bruce could learn to be a different person.

Much more of the criticism was leveled at both the revelation and the explanation of the Riddler’s knowledge of Batman’s secret identity. Admittedly, its one of the least successful moments of the series. The Riddler suddenly knows Batman is Bruce Wayne because of his diagnosis of cancer as well as a trip into Ras’ Lazarus Pit. It isn’t a particularly well established property of the pit or Nigma’s personality and it comes from nowhere. What makes it even worse, Loeb cheats Nigma right away, making it so the Riddler would never be able to reveal what he knows. This is one of my most hated cheats for characters learning secrets. If there’s a need to have someone know something hidden, why cheat them out of the use of the knowledge immediately. Its barely worth letting the Riddler be a part of the mystery if he ultimately gains nothing of it.

Like much of early 2000s Batman, “Hush” is just fine. Its a shame that much of the plot would be retconned, changed or otherwise made null by later stories. Ultimately, its another fine story from Loeb and a solid artistic work from Lee.

Next Class: Mel Brooks has made some undisputed comedy classics but I’ve always dodged one in particular. For this Summer Class, we leave the heat wave and enjoy some springtime and fascism with “The Producers.”

Summer Classes: “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I take on The Beatles’ companion records, “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”

The news that I was doing “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” for this Summer Class was, apparently, a bit of a shocker for some readers. I was told that I should be shot in space, generally argued with and mostly, just greeted with surprise. The truth is, I hadn’t listened to “Rubber Soul” or “Revolver” pretty much solely because I don’t really like The Beatles. I think that their legacy and their impact on music is mostly just nostalgia rather than actual appreciation for what they did.

The people I know who always swore by The Beatles were the one’s who got into them young. They adored the album as almost a symbol of a time they didn’t live, as something of a time machine to go back to an idealized ’60s. I wasn’t introduced to really any bands as a child. My parents were never really music fans and I really discovered a lot of music on my own. I really got into The Who, Pink Floyd and The Clash early on, meaning the line “No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones / In 1977!” always meant more to me than anything the Fab Four ever released. The Beatles were a relic and a joke before I ever gave them a chance.

I entered “Rubber Soul” skeptically. The only Beatles albums I had listened to before were “Magical Mystery Tour” (an engaging album that’s pretty much all singles we’ve heard on 10,000 commercials), The White Album (psychedelic smut) and “Sgt. Pepper’s” (I just don’t get it) so I didn’t have high expectations.

And vastly, “Rubber Soul” didn’t surprise me. I’m not saying that it is unlistenable, I just didn’t find anything particularly surprising or interesting there. It is definitely a lot of American inspired folk mixed with a touch of Indian sitar and rigidly traditional psychedelica. The fusion of the two in and of itself is interesting but it isn’t anything that couldn’t be found done better elsewhere, even by bands of the era.

That being said, there are moments of “Rubber Soul” that stand out. “Norwegian Wood” combines moments of twinkling folk and singer-songwriter style with sitars and world-music style that is beyond engaging. “Drive My Car” mixes the pop stylings that the group did when they were a mod-pop group in ’64 with the new stylings they’ve been picking up. It doesn’t feel like a huge step forward but it is certainly an engaging lateral move.

So, yes, “Rubber Soul” confirmed pretty much every opinion I already had about The Beatles. Songs all sound nearly the same, its pandering in both a worldly and feel-good sort of way and the songwriting isn’t particularly inspired. Considering that other groups at the same time were effortlessly blending lyrical darkness with pop beats to much greater critical, if not commercial, success makes the acclaim of “Rubber Soul” feel empty. I dreaded having to go on to listen to “Revolver.”

From the first notes of “Taxman,” it is clear that “Revolver” is a different kind of beast all together. The music is much more densely arranged, lyrics clearer and more engaging and there’s a sense that you’re stepping into something that others hadn’t exactly done before. This doesn’t feel like a natural evolution of what The Beatles had done before; it feels like an entirely different band.

Where “Rubber Soul” is an occasionally ambitious, shambling mess, “Revolver” takes a variety of disparate elements and brings them together in a way that is more than compelling. Stylistically, I’m reminded of The Who’s landmark bridging record, “The Who Sell Out” and The Beatles’ record is similar in many ways. Both represent a major artistic shift, with “Sell Out” signaling Pete Townshend’s transition from a mod to a conceptual drug addled guitar god and “Revolver” changing The Beatles from a group of photogenic mods to psychedelic pop provocateurs.

“Revolver” is an exercise in accidentally making a statement. McCartney and Lennon’s songwriting here, particularly on songs such as “Here, There and Everywhere” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are entoxicating examples of the fusion of cyclical lyrics with experimental pop. The only problem the album comes across is the moments that lack sharpness. Despite being recognizable, both “Yellow Submarine” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” are shambling lyrical and musical messes. That being said, I don’t feel like either song is a failure. I just always feel like I’m missing something.

And that’s really the problem I had with both of these records. For ever moment that I thought I was enjoying myself, I was reminded that I didn’t have the same feelings I had the first time I listened to “Pet Sounds,” “Blood on the Tracks,” “My Generation” or any other number of albums that I consider classics. I totally understand why people like, even love, The Beatles. The thing is, I’m never going to have the same feelings about them. They’re never going to be a group that I consider anything more than pioneers. For me, phony Beatlemania never even had a chance to bite the dust.

Next Class: In preparation for “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman Week kicks off with one of the most hotly debated modern comics and another of my blind spots, “Batman: Hush.” 

Summer Classes – The Final: Firefly and “Serenity”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we finish “Firefly” and check out the feature film finale, “Serenity.”

The fans were wrong. FOX was right. Even as a fan of the show, we don’t need more episodes of “Firefly.”

We need a sequel to “Serenity.”

I guess I should probably justify this. After running through the entire series in about 10 days, I was a little underwhelmed by the series’ final few episodes. “Heart of Gold” was the kind of episode that technically worked but isn’t anything overly memorable. It explores the relationship between Inara and Mal in a way that is both trite and overemotional and it goes back to the tradition of Mal just being a goofy killer. “Objects in Space” is a considerably better episode and one that shows a little of what Whedon clearly wanted to explore in the future of the show.

Serenity,” on the other hand, is a whole different piece of work. It manages to have all the style, scope and characterization that Whedon struggled to give his characters in the show and masterfully colors the crew with shades of morality and wonderful care. Even the show’s trademark style, a fusion of anime, spaghetti westerns and space opera, is handled considerably better and helps to create a more full and complete vision of the universe. Its certainly among the better, more complete sci-fi action films.

Its enough to make one wish it could be a standalone film and its obvious that Whedon made some concessions to try to pull in new viewers. The opening is a twisting and well done introduction to the universe and the war between the Alliance and the Independents, all while showing how River and Simon escaped from the Academy. The opening, with its dream, that twists into a torture session, that becomes the escape, that becomes a security footage being studied by The Operative is a fantastic way to set up the Universe’s backstory as well as make it engaging and exciting.

Its even clear that Whedon is hitting the tone that he wanted to in the show. Mal is a brutal, take no prisoners leader. He’s determined to believe that he would do anything to survive and save his crew but he’s proven again and again by The Operative, that he’s still a man, maybe not a man that’s willing to cruelly take a life. That being said, he’s never appeared scarier and more unhinged. He kicks a fleeing kid off of the hover craft, shoots the unarmed Operative in the chest and draws a brutal line in the sand as he attempts to bring the Serenity to Miranda. Whedon draws his star character as the Han Solo who shot first, a brutal and unforgiving guy who thinks he’s got all the answers.

Despite a plot that focuses mostly on River, Mal does remain the star, which lets Whedon ape “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” as hard as possible. The Operative is constantly a few steps ahead of the captain, using Inara as bait, killing the fast talking robot fetishist, Mr. Universe, and engaging Mal in a series of deadly fights. He’s a great, engaging villain, one that believes what he’s doing is for the greater good, despite the fact that he doesn’t have all the facts.

As I stated in the earlier reviews, my biggest problem with “Firefly” was always Whedon’s refusal to make many of the characters little more than archetypes. He still hasn’t done much better. Shepherd is still little more than a preacher with a past and Inara might as well be the epitome of the hooker with a heart of gold archetype but under the constraints of a film that has so much to say in two hours, its not a big problem and its one you almost have to expect. I don’t have a problem with Whedon refusing to giver deep, rich and compelling back stories to characters when he’s got a would-be blockbuster to make.

Instead of just ignoring archetypes and quick and dirty characterization, Whedon embraces it in “Serenity.” Kaylee, the smitten ship’s engineer who spent 14 episodes swooning over Simon, is brought to a character defined by that relationship. The fleeting glances, the smiles and the final embrace, give a great romantic arc to both of the characters and its one that could only be done this satisfyingly in a feature film.

Not everything is perfect, with the film really not being able to stand alone without the show, the reveal of River’s secrets being not particularly satisfying and an ending that is dangerously close to a zombie film. The emotional payoff, the characterization and the style are all great but by no means is it a perfect film.

Overall, I was satisfied, just satisfied with this excursion into the Joss Whedon oeuvre. “Firefly” was definitely a show that was messed with by FOX but by no means was it a perfect show that was destroyed. It was an intriguing and promising first season that was cut off before it was able to grow into something interesting. “Serenity” definitively proves that Whedon would have been able to make something of the show but it took a big budget and time restrictions in order to refine that idea down to something that was artistically accomplished as well as crowd pleasing.

Next Class: I explore one of my biggest pop culture blind spots by listening to The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.”

Summer Classes: Firefly

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we take on the next 6 episodes of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.

You know, really not a lot has changed as “Firefly” approaches its conclusion. My problems with the characters remaining little more than archetypes, the show still depends on the plot and the charm in order to keep episodes coherent and a lot of the mysteries that Whedon introduced early on haven’t been fleshed out particularly well.

Even with all of that, these episodes just work better. I don’t know, maybe I’ve jived a little better with the show’s rhythms, maybe the reappearance of several characters has made the universe feel more filled in and complete or maybe its the focus on having some action but “Firefly” just feels more watchable and a hell of a lot more fun.

While the first batch of episodes was a sporadically dull, rather formulaic series, these ones have a lot more fun just by putting the characters in danger more often. Even in the lone dud, the formulaic and expected “Out of Gas,” there’s a legitimate sense of danger just by leaving Mal aboard the ship and at the mercy of others. Similarly, “The Message” takes a fairly expected plot twist (old war buddy doesn’t have the purest of intentions) and makes the whole episode work with a series of great action sequences and some fun and interesting different character motivations.

The standouts of this batch of episodes, as well as maybe the whole series so far are “Ariel” and “Trash.” Both episodes epitomize the differing goals of “Firefly” but they both do it in a way that shows the capacity Whedon’s sci-fi epic had to go on for years.

“Ariel” is the better of the pair, mostly for the great twists and turns as well as an excellent tense slow burn. While Mal and Zoe attempt to infiltrate an Alliance hospital to liberate medicine to sell on the Rim, Simon uses the opportunity to perform a brain scan on River to figure out what was done to her at the Academy. All of their plans are complicated when Jayne puts in a call to an Alliance officer, making a deal to sell out Simon and Jayne. The whole thing flows unexpectedly, with Zoe and Mal’s seemingly idiot proof plan hitting constant snags and Jayne constantly having to readjust his plans as more and more of River’s condition is revealed to the group.

On the other hand, “Trash” feels like an early build of the kind of show that FOX wanted Whedon to make. When the crew of the Serenity links back up with Mal’s sort-of ex-wife Saffron, they’re led to pulling a job on a series of orbital islands. The whole thing has a series of entertaining set-up and execution moves that fans of heist films are sure to recognize and the series of crosses and double crosses, although expected, are entertaining. That being said, Mal is particularly goofy here, rather than the hardened and occasionally cruel killer he can be and I was constantly wondering why he wasn’t shooting people first rather than asking way too many questions.

As I approach the end of the show, I think the thing which I’m constantly reminding myself is not to view “Firefly as a finished product. The hints of characterization, the unfolding of mysteries and the development of romantic relationships between the characters are little more than that, the beginning of something that could have been. And something that’s about to end.

Next Class: There’s a pair of “Firefly” episodes left and the companion film, “Serenity.”

Summer Classes: Firefly

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we take on the first 6 episodes of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.

For a long time, I didn’t really care to get into Joss Whedon. Of course, I knew people who really into it, who swore by “Buffy,” could quote “Angel” chapter and verse, and had opinions about a sci-fi show that I had never even heard of. I know some of my unearned distaste for Whedon was in the way he was presented by these people. No one ever talked about the worlds he created, the characters that were developed or the complex mythologies that were developed. Instead, people just mindlessly quoted the characters, making themselves out to be annoying Monty Python fans rather than people who had valid opinions about things.

A year ago, as the summer began, I started watching the first season of “Buffy,” the notoriously dull and hokey season of Whedon’s first work. I was unimpressed to say the least and abandoned it quickly. I was given no reason to keep going into the second season.

After “Cabin in the Woods,” I was given a reason to explore all of Whedon’s oeuvre. His 80’s horror homage was such a potent mix of genre defying  plot, the bitter and world weary sense of humor and the Lovecraftian conclusion showed me that the guy might deserve a second look. I started on a project (which will receive at least one additional post later) called the Summer of Whedon, and luckily, this class is helping me out.

Of all of Whedon’s cult shows, “Firefly” is the cultiest. The quickly abused and cancelled sci-fi show was treated beyond poorly by FOX and a ravenous group of fans have demanded more for the show for years. As a person who loves sci-fi, and as watched plenty of his favorite shows be trashed by FOX, I had a pretty decent chance to enjoy this one.

Ideally, yeah, I would love it but a lot of the problems that I’ve always thought Whedon has had initially held me back from getting into it. For one, he writes worlds and stories much better than he handles characters. Now, I’m not saying that he can’t do a great job defining the voice of certain characters or the way that they interact with one another but he definitely has trouble writing the initial character.

“Firefly” is a fairly obvious fusion of the western and the space opera, with a group of former rebels completing crimes for unsavory clients on the edges of civilization. The ship, the Serenity, is filled with archetypes: the cold quiet protagonist, the tough as nails deputy with morals, the sure-of-himself pilot, the shoot first-ask questions later killer, the whiz-kid, the priest with a dark past, the hooker with a heart of gold, the humanistic doctor and the survivor of atrocities.

The thing that bothers me the most about the use of these fairly obvious archetypes is the fact that Whedon doesn’t twist them at all. Granted, I’ve watched the first 6 episodes and so far, the characters remain little more than cliche. If Whedon’s purpose was to show how easily the old western cliches could be ported over to the space opera, then he’s succeeded but if he was trying to make those characters compelling in and of themselves, its a failure. I don’t care about River as a character because she’s flat, instead I’m forced to depend on the plot to make me care.

Luckily, the individual plots of the episode have been great. Where Whedon often played a very long game with episodes of “Buffy,” he’s working much better in making stand alone episodes that are loaded with world building. Watching the crew infiltrate a high class gathering looking for jobs might not feed into the long running plot of the show, but it manages to show that there is a richly developed world beyond what Whedon is showing us every episode.

That being said, the characters really grow on you. By the time I hit “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” the rhythm was working a lot better, with the characters bouncing off of each other in expected but enjoyable ways. We know that Zoe is going to bring the whole crew down to laugh at Mal’s fate, we know that Jayne is going to have a semi-romantic relationship with his favorite gun and we know that Wash isn’t going to cheat on his beloved wife with Saffron. The pleasure is watching them do just that in their own unique way.

Really, that’s kind of how I view all of Whedon’s work but I’m willing to keep going. The charm of “Firefly” is in seeing those classic plot archetypes being updated, although there might not be anything particularly new or original there. You know what you’re going to be getting in Whedon’s sci-fi show but, for the most part, that kind of works in this homage filled space opera.

Next Class: We’ve got another 6 episodes of “Firefly” before we finish the show and watch “Serenity” in two weeks.

Summer Classes: Battle Royale

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we examine the 2000 Japanese cult-smash, “Battle Royale.”

“You just have to fight for yourself. That’s just life…” – Mitsuko Souma, “Battle Royale”

On Patton Oswalt’s album “Werewolves and Lollipops,” the comedian discusses the moment where children finally realize that their parents aren’t always filled with wisdom and knowledge. Its a moment that he plays for laughs, but its also one of self discovery. Its the moment where the world’s gatekeepers are shown to be not all knowing, not all powerful and maybe, just maybe, fallible.

Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” doesn’t as much focus on that moment of self discovery as much as the fallout of such. The film, loosely adapted from the manga of the same name, takes a gory, exploitative look at children on the cusp of adulthood and what they are willing and unwilling to do when they lose the guiding force of adults.

“Battle Royale” is where the premise for the teenage blood-bath began. For a variety of poorly explained reasons, the Japanese government institutes a series of laws in an attempt to reduce teenage crime and truancy, which force a randomly determined class of 9th graders to kill each other to the last man. Thankfully, there’s a helpful video to explain the rules.

From the moment the students leave the room to begin the battle, the film takes a considerably more episodic look at the various survivors, spending much of its running time focusing on a few unique killers and pacifists. Its to the film’s benefit and detriment. A few of the side characters, the sex obsessed Kazushi, the cheerleading squad and any number of the girls Mitsuko kills, all seem to have rich personalities and motives for their choices. What we get from them is interesting but maybe deserving of more content than we receive.

That being said, the episodic nature seems to be deliberate, comparable to other violent teenage entertainment. I was consistently reminded of “The Warriors,” with its’ cartoony themed enemies and picaresque plotting but “Battle Royale” is much more united in theme.

“Battle Royale” uses the premise of high school being like life and death, something we’ve seen much more often in recent years, and takes it to the natural conclusion. Characters work out their lost loves, deal with their childhood traumas, try to take revenge on those who wronged them and try to just slip quietly by. It isn’t a particularly trenchant look at the topic, with others such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mean Girls, and Lord of the Flies offering a more insightful look at the issue, but “Battle Royale sticks with viewers. Whether its the gore, the unique style, the memorable sociopaths or the smart ending, it all ends up working.

There are a fair share of problems holding it back. The version available on Netflix Instant Stream is the remastered cut, which adds additional CGI, a handful of confusing, unnecessary and pointless flashbacks, three epilogues that try to explain said flashbacks and a somewhat comical subtitle translation. Its generally pretty good but I couldn’t help but laugh at translations like “you always hurt my ass.”

There’s a point late in the film that crystalizes everything that “Battle Royale” was going for and it doesn’t involve a drop of blood. As Nakagawa and Kawada wait at the temple for the rendezvous, Nakawaga looks back on her life before being brought to the island, remembering that she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. As she stares into the woods, she says “I thought I was going to have children and grow old. Now, I don’t think that’s the case.” Much like so many people, myself included, think about the future as a phase of their life ends, the sense that she knew she could die, forces all of the students on the island to deal with their unfulfilled futures, the choices they’ve made and more importantly, the things that they never did. “Battle Royale” reduces those regrettable seconds into a flurry of gunfire, flying knives and an ever running river of blood.

Next Class: We board the Serenity to view the entirety of one of the most well loved cult TV shows of all time, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi epic, “Firefly.”

Summer Classes: Rescheduling

If you remember our last Summer Class posting, I mentioned that the next class would be on the J-horror classic, “Pulse.” For now, that entry is being pushed back. Instead, coming Friday is the controversial manga turned Japanese cult-classic “Battle Royale.” The film is now available on Netflix (along with a variety of less savory means). For those not sure if this is going to be your bag, here’s the super violent, amazing trailer.

Summer Classes – The Final: “Symphony of the Night”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we finish playing “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.”

I’ve only killed Dracula two times. Over the course of one summer, I ruthlessly played through the first “Castlevania,” defeating Death, getting through the infamous Medusa/Knight hallway and firebombing the shit out of the king of all vampires. My freshman year of college, I played through “Castlevania IV,” constantly reentering passcodes to start at the last level, relentlessly trying to get to Dracula and finish the job.

“Symphony of the Night” has players fight Dracula not once, but twice and both times are disappointments. The first match is little more than a gimmick to set up the backstory and the second battle is a joke. For a game designed to challenge players every step of the way, “Symphony of the Night” begins and ends on a whimper and it ultimately ended up poisoning one of the best games I’ve played in a long time.

Initially, I was really pleased with the way the Inverted Castle managed to balance the increased difficulty with slightly changed dungeon layouts that refreshed the game. However, it ended up being entirely too easy. By that time in the game, I had so many ways to overcome and avoid challenge that there wasn’t any reason to put myself in danger. The only time I died was when I put myself in no win situations. I could easily avoid every difficult fight or turn to mist as I approached the next save point. That’s not fun or challenging. It just sort of feels like cheating.

Even the bosses at this point weren’t hard based solely on how many options were available to me as a player at any given moment. I had a bevy of weapons that could deal differing damages as needed. I had armor that could stop petrification, prevent poisoning, heal me when I was struck by lightning or increase my speed. If I was stumped, I was one clothing choice away from being able to best my opponents. I didn’t feel powerful as a player or avatar, I felt as if I was cheating the game.

That’s not always a bad thing. In one of my favorite RPGs of this generation, “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” the thrill of the experience is using your bionic abilities to work around the challenges that the game presents you with. You’re never punished for your decisions and always given a route to success based on what you choose. On my first playthrough, my invisible sniper would creep through cities and offices, using his tranquilizer rifle, his bare hands and his ability to slip out of site to destroy his enemies silently. My second trip through the game featured a hacking expert who was more likely to turn the enemy’s robotics against them rather than get his hands dirty. Both times, I felt like I was a badass and as if the game wanted me to succeed, even when I broke the rules the game already had set up.

I never had that same sense playing through the final half of “Symphony of The Night.” The abilities that I had didn’t make the rest of the game more challenging or interesting. If the Inverted Castle would have featured boss fights, encounters or platforming sections that kept in mind the fact that I was capable of nearly any action at any time. Other games have managed to keep these different factors in mind. The Elder Scrolls games have allowed players to overcome the obstacles they face, regardless of individual points placed in certain skills. Likewise, Fallout has managed to balance the player’s character choices in the quest progression. If you don’t have experience in lockpicking, you can hack a computer or maybe search the area for a password. The game balances the choices you have with the increased power your character gains as you play the game.

“Symphony of the Night” just throws more and more monsters at you, hoping that you’re challenged more and more. It doesn’t take into consideration the fact that you can fly and be invincible, shoot fireballs and use spells to heal yourself at will. That isn’t a scaling difficulty. Its just lazy, thoughtless design.

That’s the true failing of “Symphony of the Night.” It never considers the way that the game develops after the well designed first half and never really challenges you after that. Sure, enemies are stronger, bosses are bigger and items are still hidden but little consideration is given to the way in which the player’s avatar strength has been raised and how that meshes with the design choices.

I finished “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” with the good ending, killing Shaft and the final form of Dracula. Despite the 12 hours I spent with it, I didn’t have a sense of accomplishment like I had when I finished the first game or “Castlevania IV.” I felt relief and when you’re watching the castle crumble after banishing evil, that’s never the right emotion to have.

Next class: The J-horror genre made a big splash in America with “The Grudge” and “The Ring” but one entry never made it to our shores. Next time, we check out the quintessential film of the form, “Pulse.”