Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How to throw a Serenity Shindig

Today is the third anniversary of Serenity's theatrical release. On this occasion, I would like to share one of my happiest college memories (and that's saying something, indeed). It is the story of my Serenity Shindig.

For those who do not know what Serenity is, it is the movie sequel to tragically short-lived Firefly, a brilliant and delightful TV series created by the great Joss Whedon (who also created the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series). Words simply cannot express my adoration for this show. It is probably my all-time favorite TV show and I have yet to find anyone who saw it who was not extremely enthusiastic about the show and utterly depressed that it managed to be canceled after just half a season. Its cancellation is a complicated tale of woe that does not belong in this overall joyful post, and those who care about such things probably already know the story anyway. Still, if you haven't seen Firefly, you should definitely find and watch it the first chance you get. Remember, 14 episodes--it's not much of a commitment.

Senior year, I came to school equipped with the DVDs of the complete series of Firefly (all 14 episodes) and Serenity. My roommates and I shared an apartment-like dorm room with a nice common area with a couch, some chairs, and a TV. Every couple of weeks I would invite about a dozen friends over to our room, and we would watch an episode or two of Firefly while munching on cookies I had freshly baked. As was inevitable, they all fell in love with Firefly and got totally hooked. We were done with the TV series by the end of first semester, but I was determined to make them wait a little before watching the movie so they'd appreciate it more. Spring semester senior year was pretty hectic, but I managed to nail down a date that (almost) everyone could make. And so I emailed invitations to all my Firefly-watching friends...

Subject: Mighty fine shindig!
(Badger): 'Course you couldn't buy an invite with a diamond the size of a testicle, but I got my hands on a couple...

Well now you've got your hands on one as well. You are invited to our shiny
6:00 PM
We will be having a fine home-cooked dinner, featuring some Firefly-themed foods (Protein in all colors of the rainbow! Mmmmm... Just kidding). After dinner, we will be watching Serenity, maybe around 8 pm.

Here's the catch: Seeing as this is a themed party, you're going to have to dress up as characters from Firefly! If you don't dress up, I won't give you food. It's that simple. To help you in your task to dress as a Firefly character, I have even compiled a COSTUMING GUIDE, which you will find on my homepage. Yes, I spent hours formatting my college-granted homepage entirely for this purpose, so now you have to dress up. Besides, it'll be really fun! Now here's the catch within the catch: I don't want any repeats. I'm not going to eat dinner with four Jaynes--one makes bad enough dinner company. Naturally, two Hands of Blue are allowed. Reply all to the email list to claim your character!

Mal: Turns out this *is* my kind of party!

I aim to misbehave.
P.S. I claim River!

Some advice to anyone planning on throwing a Firefly party: Since Firefly is so quotable, it is important to pepper Firefly-related messages with quotes. When I sent a reminder to my friends to come on time, I included the quote
Mal: 'Pears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
Zoe: Big damn heroes, sir.
Mal: Ain't we just.
And the multiple times I reminded my guests to claim a character for the dress code, I used the "pretty floral bonnet" quote, the "them soft cotton dresses feel kind of nice" quote, and the "slinky dress" (Wash: I can buy you a slinky dress. Captain, can I have money for a slinky dress? Jayne: I'll chip in. Zoe: I can hurt you.) quote.

Anyway, my "costuming guide" was merely a collection of pictures of the characters wearing various outfits. In such a short-lived series, there was only a small number of non-main characters notable enough to warrant an entry in my costuming guide. I think I included Saffron, Niska, Badger, and the Hands of Blue. I also included Early, but didn't exactly expect anyone to come dressed in the red leather jump suit. It would have been pretty awesome, though. I highly recommend having people dress up for a Firefly party. Really, it's not that hard to dress up like the Firefly characters--it's not like you have to wear Star Trek unitards or anything. And it really helps set the atmosphere. I also bought (yes, bought) the Firefly soundtrack to provide nice background music during the dinner party. A simple but effective touch.

Now, what to serve at a Serenity Shindig dinner party. For the most part, I just cooked a whole load of Chinese food because they eat Chinese food in Firefly and I know a lot of Chinese recipes. I made beef broccoli on a bed of fried noodles, chicken with peanuts (and rice to go with it) and fried dumplings, but my biggest triumph of the night was making char siu bao from scratch. Bao is one of the things Saffron made for Mal (Wash: Did she really make you fresh bao?!)--a round bun with seasoned pork inside. I had never made bread dough myself, so I was so pleased when they came out perfect from the oven. In addition to this Chinese food, I'd also bought some fresh strawberries that Kaylee would have appreciated. Another anecdote, lest my boasting about the char siu bao lead you to think I'm some sort of competent chef: After my friends had arrived and were all there watching me, the kitchen got a little exciting. First there was a small 4-inch high split-second grease fire. It was there and out again before I had any time to panic, so I found it all quite funny, though I realized that it really could have ruined the evening. Not long after this, I burned the first batch of dumplings, making enough smoke to set off the alarm in our room. We opened the windows, and the alarm stopped, but a fire safety guy still had to come by to check on our room. We were all there in costume, but he was only concerned about one of us. As he was leaving, he asked, "Why is that guy wearing blue lab gloves?"

For dessert, what else? Ice planets, those balls of ice cream hanging from a string attached to a stick about which River remarked, "My food is problematic." In the show, it actually looks like there's a bowl that helps support the ball of ice cream, but the script does not describe it as having a bowl. I didn't know how I'd get a bunch of appropriately sized bowls or how they'd work anyway, so I decided not to use them. Some of my friends doubted my ability to make the ice planets, but I was determined. The question was how to assemble them with limited resources. Here's how I did it:

-ice cream
-half-sized popsicle sticks (available at a craft store)
-unflavored floss (I was trying to figure out what kind of string I could get my hands on that people wouldn't mind putting in their mouths, and was thus pleased when I realized this solution)
-chopsticks (Swiping a handful of disposable chopsticks from a college cafeteria snooty enough to have them works quite well.)
-plastic wrap
Knot a ~15 in. string of floss around a popsicle stick. Lay a square of plastic wrap on the table. Place two half-spheres of ice cream on the plastic wrap, most easily done with a large ice cream scoop (they don't really have to be hemispherical, but the closer they are, the easier the next couple steps will be). You can now lift the plastic wrap to shape the ice cream inside the plastic with your hands on the outside of the plastic. The next step is a little awkward: if you have two perfect hemispheres of ice cream, push their flat sides onto both ends of the popsicle stick with the string positioned so that ideally it will be perpendicular to the flat plane of the popsicle stick (simply a common sense way to give the ice cream a better chance of holding on to the stick). Then use the plastic wrap to shape the ice cream into a ball around the popsicle stick. If the ice cream is not in perfect hemispheres, you'll just have to work a little harder to get it into a ball. Once it is sufficiently shaped, place it (still in the plastic wrap) into the freezer, which should be cranked up all the way to make the ice cream as hard as possible (and give its consumers more time to eat it before it melts and falls apart). Someone more resourceful than I might find a way to avoid this, but I found that the ice planets would sort of flatten on the bottom when I put them on the flat bottom of the freezer. I had to re-shape them once or twice (they won't flatten if they're sufficiently cold and hard, but the first time I had shaped them they were a little soft). When ready to serve, tie the other end of the string onto the end of the stick (the chopsticks I found had little notches around one end, which were perfect for securing the placement of the string) and remove the plastic wrap. Try dipping the ice planet into bowls of chopped nuts, crushed oreos, or shredded coconut to make "dirty" ice planets. Enjoy!

The ice planets were actually really fun--kind of the same appeal as bobbing for apples. This was probably the highlight of the party.

After dessert, we watched the movie. I had cookies for us to snack on (if anyone was still hungry) while watching the movie. We all loved the movie, of course. My guests all said they had a great time, and I think they did; I certainly had a blast.
Mighty fine shindig!

And so went one of my most cherished college memories. Sure, I'm a total geek. I should point out that some of the people at the party would definitely not consider themselves sci-fi fans, though the fact that they all (except one who came late) dressed up for my party reveals that they too are some sort of geek. Call us geeks, Firefly fans, Browncoats, whatever. We are proud. We are many. And remember, you


My friends and I pose for a group shot (with my signature grotesquely rough photoshopping so you can see who the characters are).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Emmys, Pirates 4, and Spider-Man: The Musical

Well, it's been an interesting week. All sorts of... things... have been happening in the big scary Real World. But what news from the entertainment industry?

The week started off with the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. You may have read that the show was bad (since judging by the numbers you didn't actually watch it yourself). Well, as someone who managed to watch the first half hour, I can tell you that whatever you read was probably accurate. I never had much respect for the nominated reality show hosts, but Sunday night showed me how right I was to withhold my respect. In any case, the only show I watch that won on Sunday was Pushing Daisies, with the Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series win for Barry Sonnenfeld. Congrats to him. I guess I've also recently picked up watching The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, now that I've discovered they put the episodes up on Hulu the day after they air (I don't get Comedy Central). All the excitement of current events has given them more good material than they could have ever hoped for, so the shows have been particularly sharp and entertaining recently. Anyway, they each won an Emmy, so congrats to them, too. I'd given up watching the Emmy telecast, though, before the Daily Show got up there. I think I turned it off shortly after poor Josh Groban sang his misguided theme song medley.

Speaking of really dumb shows, I was pleased to see Hole in the Wall ranked number one on Entertainment Weekly's list of The 10 Dumbest TV Shows of 2008. I have to say that I found the initial trailers for this show hilarious. Seeing clip after clip of people looking in wide-eyed terror at the approaching wall, contorting themselves into some awkward position, then being inevitably swept into the water was surprisingly entertaining. Simple minds, simple pleasures, I guess. Watching Ellen DeGeneres do a version of the game on her show with random audience members or--better yet--guests, was also highly amusing (though not quite as funny as Ellen's new game, "Aw, snap!"). But when I saw part of the actual Hole in the Wall show that Fox tucked in after the season premiere of Fringe, I was not amused at all. I think part of the humor in the game on Ellen's show was the fact that these were poor unsuspecting people who were called out of the audience, plunked in front of the moving wall, and forced to make a valiant effort to keep on their feet. And then it was over, whether they succeeded or not. In the montage of the trailer, the contestants had the same appearance. But in the actual show, you realize that these people wanted to be there. They signed up. They thought they'd be good at it. They actually trash-talk the other team. And then they go and make fools of themselves. And then they do it again. All the while, an audience pumped with more excitement than they have a right to cheers on, and the unnecessary two hosts yell into microphones as if they're having fun. You can be sure I won't be tuning into that show again. The concept of the show is funny (and owed to the original Japanese version) and makes for amusing snapshots. But as an actual TV show? Dumb.

Mid-week, Disney announced their plans for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean installment (see Variety article). I'll be the first to say that Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow is brilliant. And Curse of the Black Pearl was one of the most pleasant surprises in my cinema-going experience (I mean, I'd actually seen the Country Bears movie, sadly, so I wasn't expecting all that much from a movie based on a Disney ride). But I think I'd be a slightly happier person if the sequels had never been made. Maybe a third sequel will redeem the other two, but more likely, it will just be another bad (though lucrative) idea. In other sequel news, it looks like they're planning to make an I Am Legend prequel with Will Smith reprising his role as Robert Neville. A prequel is smart, since a sequel would have had some difficulties (Gotta love how none of the articles about the prequel announcement care about spoilers. When does a movie lose the privilege of spoiler warnings? After it leaves theaters? After it comes out on DVD?). But I wasn't really a fan of the first movie, so I have doubts as to how good a prequel could be.

And lastly, in case you haven't heard yet, Julie Taymor (Across the Universe, The Lion King Broadway show) is making a musical version of Spider-Man which will be released in 2009. I am reminded of a trivia question from one of those series of trivia/quotes/photos/movie moments that loops on the screen in the movie theater before the movie starts and you realize that you're already out of popcorn. I'd like to tell you the question was about Spider-Man, but I think it was actually about The Hulk:
"Was the Hulk originally a 1) TV show 2) Musical or 3) A comic book?"
Well, first of all, duh! And second, Hulk: The Musical?! The idea of it had me laughing out loud in the theater. And now an accomplished Broadway director is making Spider-Man: The Musical. I have to say, I think Spider-Man is significantly better suited to musical form than the Hulk (though is that saying much?). In fact, I saw Spider-Man Rocks in Universal Studios Hollywood, and it was pretty entertaining. But a short show at a theme park venue is a little different from a full length Broadway show. Well, it could turn out to be embarrassing, but hopefully it will be great. Wish I were living close to New York so I could see it.

Now that I've written this post, I've realized most of the stories are pretty negative. That was not my intention. Oh well. I guess that's just the world I've been living in this past week.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Heroes Season 3 Premiere


Well, they sure dove right back into it. I'd barely changed the channel from Sarah Connor Chronicles, and already future-Peter is coming back in time to shoot Nathan in the shocking scene from the Season 2 finale. The two episode premiere cut hurriedly between its many characters and plot lines, seemingly checking off a laundry list of New Mysteries:

-Whom is this speedy Daphne working for?
-What is Parkman doing in Africa? Who is this guy who found him in the desert?
-Why can't Clair feel pain anymore?
-Why is Ali Larter Tracy now, and why can she ice cube* people?
-How is present-Peter stuck inside one of the scary escaped Heroes? I mean, obviously future-Peter put him there, but where is his real body and what happened to the other guy's mind? This is definitely an odd situation.
-How is Linderman back? Why can only Nathan see him? Does he have any relation to Number Six?
-Just what is the deal with Mrs. Petrelli? What are her motives?

Unfortunately, the episode raised a few skeptic's questions as well. Obviously, I'm a big fan of this genre and am willing to suspend a lot of disbelief, but there are some things that make me either roll my eyes or purse my lips. In most cases I'm willing to put up with them, but inconsistencies, weak explanations, and dumb character actions can erode the quality of a show and its wide fan base. And occasionally, a weak, nonsensical plot device will influence the story in an unfavorable way (say, when a villain survives a situation that he never should have survived and lives on for multiple seasons to continue to kill), and that really ticks me off. Here are some questions I had for the premiere:

-When Hiro took a peek into his future, how did he manage to find such a crucial point in the future (i.e. Ando killing him with Sith powers) and--correct me if I'm wrong about this, but--how did it happen to be on the same block that he had been standing on in the present?
-If they're emphasizing the profound butterfly effect future-Peter has had by coming back, how did Hiro's previous forays into the past avoid screwing up the world so much?
-How has genius scientist Mohinder gone from dumb to dumber?
-If the type of power someone has is determined by their unique blood chemistry, why are there so many repeats in powers?
-Is Maya ever going to be able to justify her existence on this show? (The season opener did not give me much hope.)
-What, exactly, is the stuff that the speedster leaves behind when she runs? We know that it takes on her colors and it's something that Hiro can run his fingers through when he "freezes" time. That seems a little weird to me.

Well, in spite of all this, I really enjoyed most of the show. My favorite moment was when Elle kicked Sylar's a%s. As I have already implied, I am not a huge fan of Sylar--or at least the Sylar of the present. First season, he was an awesome, creepy love-to-hate-him bad guy, but the only reason he's still alive is the disappointingly clumsy, botched Season 1 finale. While he was one of the highlights of Season 1, since his should-have-been death, he has, like Maya, yet to justify his presence. Still, it looks like he is poised to get interesting again.

I have high hopes that the Heroes team can bring the show back to its former glory. Sadly, it looks like it may not be able to recover its first season audience. It was one of the biggest freshman shows of the 2006-07 season, with frequent "Save the Network, Save the TV Season" jokes, but like many serials it has had trouble gaining new viewers, and the relatively weak Season 2 lost a significant number of followers; the Season 3 premiere had 20% fewer viewers than the Season 2 premiere. While the numbers are still solid and the show is not in danger of cancellation, it may be falling from the water cooler gossip status it enjoyed two years ago. But I can hope. As a strong proponent for mainstream geekdom, I'm sure rooting for Heroes.

*I have deemed "ice cube" a legitimate transitive verb since my days as a Diablo II sorceress enthusiast.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I have a confession to make. Eleni is not my name; it is the name I chose as my blogger alias. And it is not pronounced "eh-LAY-nee" (as an acquaintance of mine named Eleni pronounces her name), but "EH-leh-nee". Pronounced this way, "eleni" is the Quenya word for "stars".

For those who are asking, "Quenya? What the heck is Quenya?" Quenya is one of J.R.R. Tolkien's Elvish languages. Yes, there are multiple Elvish languages; Quenya may be described as "High Elvish". Almost all of the Elvish spoken in the Lord of the Rings movies is Sindarin--basically, the vernacular at the time of the events of LotR--but Quenya can be heard on a handful of occasions, including Galadriel's farewell to the Fellowship ("Namárie"), a couple of incantations, the song Aragorn sings at his coronation, and the Enya song that plays over the credits of FotR (mornie utúlie = darkness has come; mornie alántie = darkness has fallen). Tolkien based Quenya loosely on Finnish and based Sindarin loosely on Welsh. Quenya is supposed to be related to Sindarin in much the same way that Latin is related to English, both linguistically (their structures are different but they share many word roots) and historically (Quenya is extinct as a vernacular but is still used on certain occasions). Quenya is a complicated artificial language with an advanced system of grammar, complete with irregulars to give it a "realistic" feel. Why did Tolkien bother creating his Elvish languages? The real question is, Why did Tolkien bother writing The Lord of the Rings?

Tolkien was a linguist. He was a professor of linguistics at Oxford and had at least a working knowledge of around twenty languages. Language was both his profession and his hobby. He had played around with creating primitive languages as a child, and as an adult he continued to make up languages, now more complex, for fun. During World War I, he started developing the language Qenya, which would evolve over the years into the Quenya of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien created other languages as well, though Quenya was the most fully developed. Once he had these languages, he needed people to speak the languages, a world for those people to live in, and stories about that world and its people. Tolkien once said that, in a way, he wrote the Lord of the Rings books in order to give a context to the languages that he had created.

Why do I know about Quenya? Well... I've studied it. For school. Sort of. Here's the deal: When I was a junior in high school, my best friend, a senior at the time, explained that the English department was beginning a program in which all seniors would be responsible for carrying on a year long project called their "Hero's Journey". It was unclear what this had to do with developing skills in English, because the project could be about anything. Really--just about anything, as long as there was some sort of goal that one could at least attempt to achieve. To give you an idea, I remember one kid trained to run in the marathon, another learned to cook French food, another wrote songs on her guitar, another worked on being nicer to people.... Anyway, at the time, Lord of the Rings was in the midst of a surge in popularity with the release of the movie trilogy. My friend and I were among those fans high on the LotR buzz. I suggested that she learn Quenya for her Hero's Journey, and directed her towards the Quenya course I'd found on the Ardalambion site, a site that had been recommended to me by another friend. Well, being the crazy person that she is, she learned Quenya for her Hero's Journey project. And I, being equally if not more crazy than she, did the same the next year when the English department continued the Hero's Journey program (we had different teachers, so it's not like my teacher was sick of crazy Elves by the time I got there). And I am very proud to say that I got an A+ on the project. To the skeptics saying, "How could your teacher grade you on Quenya?" I would say that they have a point. I got a little lazy in the spring of my senior year (understandably) and didn't actually learn the second half of the Quenya lessons, and in my final presentation, I showed a clip of FotR where they were actually speaking Sindarin (the class didn't need to know the difference). Aside from the Sindarin intrusion, my final presentation was pretty awesome: I dressed up as an Elf (well, I wore a full length velvet cloak; I take this incident as evidence that media depictions of high schoolers as petty, cruel, and image-obsessed are grossly unfair), showed a clip from the movie, played a little of the "Aniron" song from FotR (also Sindarin--shhh!), recited a portion of the "Namárie" poem, taught the class a Quenya greeting (interestingly, I was never able to find a Quenya word for "Hello" so settled for the more lengthy "Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo" from the first book: "A star shines upon the hour of our meeting") and the Quenya word for farewell (the much simpler namárie), and even handed out index cards to the whole class and the teacher with their names roughly translated into Quenya. My teacher loved the presentation, partly because he had encouraged us all to give "multi-media" presentations, which I certainly did, and partly because on each Quenya name index card I had glued a thumbnail portrait of a different LotR character and on his had put Gandalf, the wise, powerful wizard. The fact that this was a less than subtle suck-up move is balanced by the fact that at the end of the presentation, the teacher proudly announced to the whole class how appropriate it was that I had given him Gandalf, the wise, powerful wizard. He was like that; did I mention that he had us clap for him when he entered class every day? No? Well, he did. I am not kidding.

Now, I can't play guitar or run a marathon (or probably even a quarter marathon, for that matter), but I would never say that devoting time to the study of a language not only extinct but also artificial was not beneficial or useful. I actually learned a lot about linguistics in general--just look at all the detail, references, and side notes in Fauskanger's Quenya course. I've always had an interest in language--grammar, etymologies, and similarities and differences between languages--and studying Quenya introduced me to linguistic concepts I never knew and gave me an interesting perspective on languages. Learning Quenya also gave me some significant geek cred. I am not your classic Lord of the Rings nut; in fact, I think many LotR fanatics would look down on me. I have seen the movies many, many times but have only read each of the books once (I have read The Hobbit nearly twice). I have never read The Silmarillion (I did read the chapter on Beren and Lúthien, though--I actually wrote a paper on Beren and Lúthien in college, but that is a tale for another day). But learning Quenya illustrates a high level of devotion to LotR, and studying an artificial language in general advances me to a higher tier of the geek elite.

My friends in college all liked to say that I was fluent in Quenya, but I would quickly correct them: I am not fluent--I have a "working knowledge" of Quenya. It is not actually possible to be fluent in Quenya. Tolkien developed the language extensively, but he passed away before publishing a definitive, comprehensive grammar or a dictionary with enough vocabulary to survive usage in daily life. Unlike, say, Klingon, which was (as I understand) developed enough to allow fluency and can be heard spoken at Star Trek conventions, Quenya is mostly used by those who know it in poems, rather than in speech. Besides, as I already admitted, I kind of cheated on the second half of the Quenya lessons, so I'm not even good at the Quenya that does exist. I have written simple poems, but my vocabulary is mostly Elf-like words such as "star", "moon", "tree", "horse", "warrior", and "maiden". Once my roommate dragged me downstairs to a study room where someone had scrawled Tengwar across the chalkboard, but at the time, I hadn't even learned the Tengwar alphabet so couldn't begin to interpret the message (I have since rectified this ignorance, and can now read and write the beautiful script). Another time, though, I did know enough Quenya to sound knowledgeable. A friend called me excitedly to tell me that Stephen Colbert was on Conan O'Brien speaking Quenya! It turns out he was watching a rerun of the July 12, 2006 episode in which Colbert illustrates how much of a Lord of the Rings geek he is by sharing some random LotR trivia and speaking Quenya. Now, I love Stephen Colbert--I think he's smart, brilliantly funny, gutsy, and overall just pretty awesome, all the more so because he is a total fantasy/sci-fi geek (I know he is also a fan of Star Wars and D&D). But what did he say that night on Conan O'Brien? Elen síla lúmenn' omentielvo: "a star shines upon the hour of our meeting." Really, Stephen, that's all you got? That's all you have to show off your Quenya knowledge? Please--my whole 12th-grade English class knows that one.

Monday, September 15, 2008

George Takei weds

Original Star Trek star George Takei wed longtime partner Brad Altman in Los Angeles this past Sunday.

While Massachusetts has had same-sex marriages for years, it seems that the recent legalization of gay marriage in California has garnered a lot more attention, in part because so many celebrities live in California, and many of them are gay and letting people know about their happy marriages.

I haven't gotten political in this blog before, and it's not my intention to get very political. I generally try to avoid unneeded confrontations; in person, I've always been a bit of an appeaser--usually with things as simple as likes/dislikes of movies, foods, etc. ("That movie was so dumb." "I loved it!" "Oh, I just mean I wasn't really in the mood for it at the time...")--I don't like to offend people because of their opinions. In truth, there are some political or economic issues about which I don't see myself as informed enough to make a strong argument. But when it comes to certain social issues, I can be very passionate and get into heated arguments. But I don't want to get into any heated arguments here (with no one reading this blog, there's no one to argue with... though it does mean that I don't have to worry about offending anyone).

All I want to say here is this: I was watching Ellen DeGeneres' talk show last week, where she was showing a lovely video montage from her August wedding to Portia de Rossi. Now, I don't usually get sentimental over weddings, but I got a little teary-eyed watching the video. The wedding was so beautiful, and they looked so loving and happy together, I don't understand why anyone in this country would wish to deny them that joy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fall 2008 TV Season

It may not be fall by astronomical standards, but it's fall on FOX, as the new TV season is off on an early start. I suppose a number of CW shows have also premiered, but I haven't gotten hooked into any of them, so I don't much care. I do, however, have two FOX shows on my schedule, and I watched their premieres the last two nights.

I watched the first season of Sarah Connor Chronicles in the spring and got hooked. I mean, it's Summer Glau, and she's awesome. The funny thing is that I have somehow never seen any of the Terminator movies. I mean, obviously I like that genre, and they're famous enough that even people who don't particularly like the genre have seen them, so I don't know how I've managed to unintentionally avoid them, but I have. Anyway, while I may miss certain nods to the movies, like the "Come with me if you want to live" line and all, it's not like the TV show doesn't make sense without the movies, so I still enjoy the show. It has yet to prove itself to be particularly intelligent or profound--I guess there's already a brilliant show that explores the condition of synthetic being--and any story with people traveling back in time starts creating confusing paradoxes, but it is a lot of fun.

Last night I saw the Fringe series premiere. I'll have to get used to Joshua Jackson. Even though it's been years and I never even watched Dawson's Creek on a regular basis, I still see him as Pacey. And then of course there's Dr. Denethor. John Noble seems to have cornered the market on bad-fathers-gone-insane. Anyway, I liked the show. The premise is cool, the characters are fun, the action is entertaining, the mystery potentially intriguing... I'll definitely tune in next week. J.J. Abrams, who created the show but who I understand didn't have much to do with the making of the pilot because he was busy with Star Trek, said that the episodes following the pilot are better than the pilot, so that certainly sounds promising.

And there is much more to come, including some frustrating time conflicts. Thank goodness for online shows (I don't have DVR). Anyway, here are the premieres of the shows I'm planning on tuning in for - my personal fall schedule:

Monday, Sept. 8
8pm - Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (FOX)
Sarah Connor protects her son John, destined to lead mankind's resistance against a future robot takeover, from robots sent from the future to kill him.

Tuesday, Sept. 9
8pm premiere, 9pm regular time slot - Fringe (FOX)
FBI agent Olivia Dunham is tapped for a special division that investigates crimes, disasters, and other phenomena related to the fringe sciences.

Monday, Sept. 22
8pm - Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
BBT: Nerds Leonard and Sheldon and their new "normal girl" neighbor Penny learn that they can learn from each other. Hilarity ensues.
HIMYM: Ted tells his two kids the long, meandering story of how he met their mother. Legendary hilarity ensues.
I've seen only one episode of BBT--twice (funny how you always manage to tune in to the same rerun over and over--don't they ever show a different rerun?)--but I thought it was pretty funny, so I'd give it a shot. My brother is a huge HIMYM fan, and the dozen or so episodes I've seen were hilarious. I don't know if I can come in after missing so many seasons, though; it's not a serial, but it does refer to itself a lot, so I wouldn't get as much out of it as someone who has been following it all along. I may not actually watch any of these shows, since the time slot is already crowded.

9pm - Heroes (NBC)
If you don't know what this one is about, get out of your box.
Last season was a little disappointing, since the first had been so good (except for the relatively weak first season finale). Let's hope this one picks it back up again.

Tuesday, Sept. 23
9pm - The Mentalist (CBS)
Patrick Jane, an abnormally observational, intuitive man who previously passed himself off as a psychic, works as a consultant to the California Bureau of Investigation.
Not sure about this one, but I'll give it a shot and see how it is. It does conflict with Fringe, so this would probably be the one I'd catch online.

Sunday, Sept. 28
9pm - Desperate Housewives (ABC)
The housewives of Wisteria Lane struggle through their stressful, scandalous, tragic, sensational, hectic, quirky lives with differing grace, clumsiness, tenacity, grief, joy, and humor.
Even if Nathan Fillion isn't on it anymore (I'm not sure actually if he will be returning for his guest role), I thought last season was pretty funny. I'll give this season a try (what else do I do on Sunday nights?), but with the season finale "five years later..." cliffhanger (kind of like the BSG season 2 finale, but not quite) it seems there have been some major changes on Wisteria Lane. Hopefully, they'll be good changes, or at least entertaining ones.

Monday, Sept. 29
8 pm - Chuck (NBC)
Having accidentally downloaded all of the FBI, NSA, and CIA's secrets into his brain before the computer containing these secrets crashed, Buy More sales employee Chuck is a valued government commodity who must help the agencies while maintaining the appearance of his normal life.
This will be my major time conflict as Adam Baldwin goes head-to-head with Summer Glau. With Chuck's first season cut short by the writer's strike and Sarah Connor Chronicles premiering mid-season, I didn't have this scheduling conflict last year. But I'm hooked on both. Which I watch on TV will depend on which I find to be more reliable online. But I love Chuck, and I'm interested to see where they'll take it this next season.

10pm - Life (NBC)
Released after serving years of a life sentence for a crime he didn't commit, LAPD detective Charlie Crews returns to the job with a new partner and a new view on life.
I did not watch Life last season, but my dad did and he seemed to really like it. I may give it a shot. Whether I stick with it will depend on how much I like the characters.

Wednesday, Oct. 1
8pm - Pushing Daisies (ABC)
With a single touch, Ned can bring the dead back to life, but there are two caveats: 1) a second touch will kill the revived--permanently and 2) if he does not re-kill the revived with a second touch within one minute of the revival, another roughly equivalent being (a flower for a strawberry, a squirrel for a dog, a human for a human) will die in its place. Emerson Cod, a PI with a penchant for knitting, teams with Ned to solve murder cases by heading down to the morgue, bringing the victim back for a 60-second interview and then returning him or her to death. Complications arise when Ned finds himself "interviewing" his recently murdered childhood sweetheart, whom he cannot bring himself to allow to die again.
My favorite new show last year, I'm definitely looking forward to the new season. I can't believe they've made us wait since last December for new episodes. Hopefully they'll be able to get right back into the groove and keep up the delightful tone, quirky plots, charming characters, and outrageous situations that made the first season so utterly delectable. And there should be more spontaneous singing. Get on that, Kristin.

9pm - Private Practice (ABC)
Having left Seattle Grace hospital (of Grey's Anatomy), Dr. Addison Montgomery practices her neonatal surgery at a small private practice in sunshiny L.A. amidst much drama.
Okay, give me a break. It was there. It was on after Pushing Daisies, and it's so cheery and goes down easy. I'm not a Grey's fan or anything, so I don't really know why I started watching this show. I just remember getting totally choked up and teary watching one of the early episodes where at the end the mothers have to switch the babies they've been raising as their own. *Sniffle.* Anyway, I somehow got hooked. Not really my normal fare, but neither is Desperate Housewives, and I am a girl, after all.

Monday, Oct. 13
10pm - My Own Worst Enemy (NBC)
Family man Henry Spivey is blissfully unaware of his super spy alter ego Edward Albright, thanks to a brain implant. But when the implant malfunctions, Henry starts cluing in on his dangerous double life.
I saw the promos during the Olympics but wasn't interested. But after reading an article about it in Entertainment Weekly, I'm at least willing to give it a go.

Tuesday, Oct. 14
10pm - Eli Stone (ABC)
Hotshot lawyer Eli Stone starts having vivid hallucinations, gets a brain scan and finds he has a basically inoperable brain aneurysm. But these hallucinations (which are usually in the form of a flashy song and dance number, sometimes starring George Michael) seem to be sending him messages, guiding him towards important cases and clients in need. While these visions wreak havoc on his personal and professional life, he's starting to think he may be doing significant good in the world.
Oh, Eli. I don't really watch many legal dramas, but this one's so adorable. And then there's the singing. I love musicals, so every time the characters burst into choreographed numbers in Eli's head, I fall in love with this show all over again.

Well, that's about it for this fall. I'll have to wait for mid-season for Lost, Dollhouse, Reaper, and Castle. But these should be enough to occupy me for the time being. Happy TV Fall!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Reflections on Watchmen

When I finished reading Watchmen this past weekend, I was so beside myself with a dizzying mix of intense emotions that I couldn't gather my thoughts together into anything nearing coherency. Hence the delay of this post.

It's been a long time since I've read anything so sharp, challenging, moving, or beautiful. I have to admit that when I first heard of Watchmen, I found it surprising that Time Magazine would put a graphic novel on its list of 100 Best Novels (all English language novels 1923-2006). I mean, this is the list that has To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, Invisible Man, and all those other books you read in high school English class (as well as The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). A glorified comic book on a list with these greats? But now that I've read it, I see that it deserves its spot on the list.

I am a far cry from an avid comic book reader--I could count the number of comic books I've read on one hand (leaving the binary count-to-31 trick aside)--so while I cannot evaluate Watchmen's impact on the world of comics or compare its content and presentation to other prominent graphic novels, I can comment on my reaction to Watchmen as (like the average person) a genre outsider. Dave Gibbons' art was a perfect visual complement to Alan Moore's dialogue. Dialogue continuing over flashback panels, cuts back and forth between scenes, intertwining a fitting comic book throughout the novel, the use of motifs--I was struck by the artfulness of the presentation. Various characters provided striking insight in unexpected places. A section at the end of each installment provided newspaper or magazine clippings, personal invoices, chapters of an autobiography, and collections of other tidbits, which was a clever way of giving the reader a better understanding of the characters and the world in which they lived. And I loved the little details, such as the short quotes slipped in at the end of each chapter as relevant commentary on the events in the chapter. It all seemed to me to be everything that a graphic novel should be, a perfect display of the format--I cannot begin to imagine it as an unillustrated novel.

The story was incredibly powerful. It takes place in a world just like ours up to the point that a handful of people suddenly decided to put on costumes and fight crime (or promote it) as masked vigilantes. The other major event that threw this world in a different direction from our own was a scientific experiment accident that yielded an enormously powerful individual who can single-handedly end a war as well as develop new technologies at a super-human rate. In the present day (1985) of this world, masked heroes are illegal, forcing most into retirement. The murder of one of the masked heroes leads others to believe that there may be a mask killer hunting them down, but there is something much bigger being set into motion. Watchmen is a fascinating study of psychology and morality. What kinds of people become masked heroes? What do such people do when they retire? How do they think? What means can be justified in the pursuit of a noble cause? What is a person worth?

I wouldn't have thought I would describe the experience of reading a comic book with these words, but between the engaging, challenging story and its artful presentation, I found Watchmen to be breathtakingly beautiful.

The following are a couple of my reflections on specific issues in the story.
HERE BE SPOILERS until next set of asterisks

Reflection 1: People as Miracles
Dr. Manhattan's ultimate reason for returning to Earth was his realization that every single human being is a miracle; considering the chances of our parents and their parents and each of their parents, etc. meeting and procreating, coupled with the probability of each particular sperm meeting each egg to produce each person in every step of the process, the chances of each of us being born seems infinitely small. I have considered this idea before, though not in the context presented in Watchmen. I am familiar with the concept as a part of a philosophy of religion argument, an argument that had led me to dismiss the notion that each person is a miracle. The argument goes something like this: What are the chances of the fundamental constants and properties of the universe being such that we can have a solar system like ours and a planet like ours with just the right characteristics to foster life? The chances are so infinitely small, how could it be an accident? It cannot. Therefore, there must be some greater power that created the universe in this specific way. The response (let's see if I can do a reasonable summary; trust me that the argument is at least somewhat convincing if explained well): This question is irrelevant since we would not be around to ask it if the universe hadn't worked out the way it did. Consider the infinitesimal chance of my birth. Should I assume that a higher power specifically orchestrated every single occurrence, every single sperm movement throughout history such that I would be born? Such an assumption would be extremely conceited. Had events played out differently someone else would merely be here to wonder at the tiny chance that she was born. Since it doesn't make sense to assume that a higher power guided events leading to my birth, it does not make sense simply to assume that such a power guided the creation of the universe. And so I had grudgingly concluded that, though it may seem that way at first, each person's existence is not a miracle. But Dr. Manhattan's conclusion made me think about the issue again--I did not like finding my reasoning challenged by one such as he--and I realized that the philosophical argument is not actually contrary to Dr. Manhattan's conclusion. The argument merely says that my birth is a miracle of chance, rather than one of active guidance. I suppose we can each be considered miracles, after all.

Reflection 2: If the end is right...
Ah, the big philosophical elephant in the room, or, shall we say, the giant octopus in the city: Can any means be justified by a great enough end? When all is said and done, it is difficult to find a fault in Adrian Veidt's goodness (which is not to say whether or not his actions were right, simply that it is hard to dismiss him as evil). He knows that he has done a horrible thing to countless people. Millions in New York killed in a moment of pain and terror by the monster he created, plus all the people who helped him create the monster murdered by him as well. But he remembers them, honors them, tries to picture their faces, feel the pain that he made them feel. And it was all to bring about world peace. How many more did he save by (apparently) unifying the world in peace when it was on the brink of nuclear war? In the end, only Rorschach could find fault in Adrian's actions. At least, while the others may have found fault in Veidt's actions, given what had already occurred only Rorschach was still willing to bring Adrian to justice for the wrongs he had committed. Viewing the morality of the issue in black and white, like the mask through which he views the world, Rorschach saw no room for compromise. Morality is not black and white, but that is not to say that Rorschach was wrong. I think readers are meant to take his side; he is the most popular character from the novel even though he is, well, a bit crazy. But is Veidt actually the crazy one? To hatch a plot like his and see it through... Is it insanity or clarity that allows him to drop the bomb on the chance that it will save more lives than it destroys? The position that Dan and Laurie find themselves holding is extremely complex. Had they been able to, they would have stopped Adrian's plan. But given that they failed to stop it, they are not willing to expose his crime and see him punished. This middle ground, this compromise, is maddening. Were they right? Was Veidt right? Was Rorschach right? These three possibilities are mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the issue is left open ended. "In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."


It will be interesting to see how the movie turns out (assuming that it turns out at all). The casting choices were intriguing. Some of the age castings were odd; Matthew Goode, 30, was cast as Adrian Veidt, who is supposed to be 46. Of course, the story hops through time so much, I suppose they had to cast the actors and let makeup age them appropriately, knowing that they'd be the right age for at least one scene. I think the casting of relative unknowns was a good choice, and I look forward to seeing how the actors do. Still, I wonder if the movie can possibly do justice to the graphic novel. Alan Moore, in his typical disdain for Hollywood, has washed his hands of the movie, saying that there are elements of Watchmen that can only work in graphic novels, and no movie adaptation could--or should--attempt to do it justice. I already know the comic-book-series-within-a-comic-book-series will not be in the movie, though it will apparently be an extra on the DVD. How many other clever bits had to be cut? What can a movie version of Watchmen bring to the story that the graphic novel could not? Will it be enough to compensate for what is lost? The Lord of the Rings movie adaptations did what few adaptations are able to accomplish: while cutting out significant portions of the story, they were able to add enough to the experience to validate the transformation of the book to the film medium (e.g., I felt more sympathy for Gollum in the movie than I'd ever thought to feel while reading the book). Can the Watchmen movie do the same? Already a graphic novel, it is perhaps more difficult achieve this goal. A tall order, indeed.

The Watchmen graphic novel revolutionized the genre. Watchmen movie director Zack Snyder has said that the movie will similarly turn the comic book movie genre on its head; for people who think that comic book movies are unintelligent fluff, this movie will prove them wrong and validate the comic book movie as a respectable genre. The thing is, this summer's The Dark Knight was a phenomenal success with both critics and the general public. If Dark Knight already accomplished what Snyder hopes Watchmen will accomplish, this may not be the climate in which he wants to introduce his movie. I am a little concerned about this fact. Of course, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was published immediately before Watchmen (February - June 1986 vs. Watchmen's September 1986 - October 1987) and was heaped with praise, and there was still room for Watchmen to be recognized for its greatness. Movies are a different business, but still, there's hope. Hope, assuming the movie is good. I will be one of the fans in line to see how it turns out.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Appreciating Voiceover Artists and Voice Actors

Don LaFontaine, the "King of Voiceovers" passed away yesterday at the age of 68 (see Variety's article on his passing here). You may not know his name, you may not know his face, but I'm willing to bet that you know his voice. I first learned his name and face a few years ago when I watched this funny video featuring LaFontaine and four other top voiceover artists. I still remember seeing it for the first time, wondering why the man in the limo was lipsynching to the voiceover, when I realized that he was the voiceover man himself! It was somehow very comical seeing an actual person speak with a voice that has grown so familiar over the years--a voice that I recognize but can't quite place simply because I have heard it in too many places. LaFontaine provided the voiceovers for the trailers of over 5,000 movies. He certainly kept busy. We have lost a great talent in an important but under-recognized art.

Voice actors, while distinct from voiceover artists, are similarly underappreciated. The current fad in animated movies seems to be assembling a star-studded cast to provide all the lead and featured voices in the movie. Some of these big name castings work out better than others--I myself get annoyed when an animated creature looks and sounds exactly (and sometimes disturbingly) like, for instance, Will Smith. But the big names can frequently lead to big returns at the box office (there are some notable failures, as well as notable successes that do not feature celebrities), further encouraging studios to cast the stars for their voices. This trend makes life even harder than it already is for the career voice actors--people generally more versatile, more creative, more dedicated to shaping a character out of a distinctive voice than the celebrities increasingly replacing them. It is an unfortunate trend.

To show my appreciation for these hard-working voice actors, I'd like to recognize here my favorite voice actors--basically, the people who have caught my attention through a variety of voices in computer games and cartoons.

Jim Cummings
I know Jim Cummings oh so well as the voice of Minsc in the great Baldur's Gate series. Everyone I know who has played Baldur's Gate has agreed that Minsc, with his miniature giant space hamster Boo, is their favorite character. Who wouldn't love that big oaf, on a valiant quest to give evil a good butt-kicking? Hilarious dialogue by the talented BG writers still needed Cummings' eccentric voice to bring it to life and turn Minsc into a lovable character whom players can feel like they really know. In addition to doing assorted other voices in the BG series, Cummings has provided his voice talents to such classics as Shrek and Aladdin, as well as for the beloved characters of Tigger and Winnie the Pooh!

Jennifer Hale
Dynaheir, Mazzy, Bastila, and Commander Shepard (female, obviously)--I have become very familiar with Jennifer Hale's voice through her roles in Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate 2, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect. Her voice is my voice in Mass Effect (Commander Shepard is the player character), as well as the voice of the ship's computer and a couple people on Feros, I believe (her flexible voice and accents can make her difficult to recognize). I was also pleased to pick her out in a number of guest roles in the Justice League cartoons I recently watched.

Rob Paulsen
One of my small personal triumphs came when watching a Honda commercial and thinking, Hmm, that voice sounds oddly familiar... somewhere between Anomen and Yakko... Hey, it must be Rob Paulsen! In addition to providing the voice of Mr. Opportunity in those persistent Honda commercials, Paulsen voiced a number of notable characters in Animaniacs--Yakko Warner, Pinky, and Otto Scratchensniff--and in Baldur's Gate 2, including both party member Anomen and his hated nemesis Saerk (when I recognized the voice on my second play through, it added a bit of comedy to their confrontation). That's right, the same guy who did Anomen did Yakko and Pinky. Try to picture Anomen singing "United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama..." or exclaiming, "Narf!" For those who don't know who Anomen is, he's the knightly prick third down in my compilation of pictures in the sidebar of the blog (and unfairly the only romance option for us playing female PCs in BG2). Paulsen does lots of other versatile voices as well--I picked him out in Justice League, plus I know he has done the voice of Ninja Turtle Raphael.

Jason Marsden
I remember Jason Marsden in live action back in my elementary/middle school days on "Step by Step". I didn't clue into the fact that he was an active voice actor until watching the DVD extras for Spirited Away (he's Haku), and realizing that he had also done a number of voices in the Baldur's Gate series, including party members Ajantis (original BG) and Cernd (BG2) and Lilarcor, the talking sword. I have since then picked him out in KotOR and in--sense a pattern here?--the Justice League cartoons.

Mark Hamill
Unlike the others on this list, I have not grown familiar with Mark Hamill's voice acting through a number of computer games. In fact, the times that I've heard his voice in assorted cartoons, I found it totally unrecognizable even knowing it was him. I have him on this list because so many people wonder, Whatever happened to Mark Hamill after Star Wars? Well, he is a busy voice actor, that's what. While he has had many roles on many different shows, I know his voice best as the Joker in a number of DC cartoon series (including, as you may have guessed, Justice League). I find this fact pretty wild.

Now, I feel I should note that I may have omitted these actors' most famous roles in my selected filmographies. I have merely listed the places that I know the actors from off the top of my head. All I mean to say to these and other voice actors is this: While your faces and names may not be as well known as those of Jerry Seinfeld or Bruce Willis, your voices are a much more welcome sound. I, for one, am listening.

Monday, September 1, 2008

New Pictures

Eleni is terribly pleased with herself right now. So pleased that she is referring to herself in the third person. She can be a little crazy. Ahem. Right, so I put a collection of seven screenshots/images from rpgs that I've played at the side of my blog, so it doesn't look quite so boring anymore. I'll have you know that lots of careful thought was put into the selection of these pictures. Of course, nobody's looking and no one's going to appreciate the pictures, but at least I'm very pleased with them. 10 points for each game and each character identified (though some are more obscure than others), plus 100 points for identifying what it is the compilation of pictures is referencing (I all but spelled it out with the titles) and why it fits with my blog's theme of "RPG called Life".*

On another note... Happy September! I can't wait for the weather to start acting like fall. Can't believe my long Labor Day weekend is almost over already, though. Somewhat pathetically, I spent the entire weekend holed up in my room reading. Finished A Game of Thrones, then went and read Watchmen. I may have to gush about the latter in a separate post, once I manage to wrap my mind around it and pull myself out of this funk that the combination of the two books has put me in. Doing my best to retain my faith in humanity. Hanging in there...

* Edit 12/14/08: I never really expected anyone to be interested in guessing. The explanation of the pictures is here.