• The Good Stuff

    Dune

    I feel like an apostate who has just experienced a religious revival, like my faith had lapsed for years and years and was suddenly reignited.

    I have read and reread Frank Herbert’s Dune many times over the years (though I haven’t revisited any of the sequels in quite some time), most recently about a decade ago. I was in the theater on opening day for David Lynch’s adaptation in 1984, and still have the one page “Glossary” that was handed out to moviegoers at the door. I watched the Sci Fi channel miniseries, and liked them well enough. But I haven’t thought about Dune much in recent years, and even after seeing the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation last year I didn’t really get my hopes up, despite having loved Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. Then I watched the movie on Friday.

    I’ve spent the two days since then listening to Hans Zimmer’s three soundtrack albums (The Dune Sketchbook, featuring long moody pieces of atmospheric music from the film, is probably my favorite of the three), getting my hands on a copy of the book to replace the many copies I have sold or traded in over the years, and clearing room in my To Read pile to dive into a lengthy reading project. I don’t know if I’ll make it all the way to Chapterhouse: Dune for the first time since the 80s, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

    I absolutely loved Villeneuve’s adaptation. The casting was perfect. The music and sound design was sublime. The cinematography and visual effects, the production design and wardrobe, the all of it and everything, just fantastic. And I’m overjoyed to see that it is connecting with viewers, both longtime fans of the books and general audiences who are experiencing Herbert’s world for the first time. I’m glad that a sequel seems likely, and delighted to learn that a prequel series focusing on the Bene Gesserit is in the works for HBO Max, with Diane Ademu-John attached as writer and showrunner and Villeneuve onboard to direct the pilot.

    I know a lot of my friends have already watched the movie multiple times over the weekend, but I’m waiting to watch it again next week, when I introduce it to my kid who will be watching it with fresh eyes. I’m curious to see what he makes of it, and will be ready and waiting to answer any questions he has about the world of Dune.

  • The Good Stuff

    For All Mankind

    There’s has been a lot of ink spilled in recent months about the absolutely amazing Ted Lasso, and justifiably so (it’s one of the best things I’ve watched in years, and substantially altered my emotional state in ways that have stayed with me ever since I finished watching the first season and all the way through the second), but I think that there is another Apple TV+ series that more people should be talking about, and that is For All Mankind.

    To say too much about the specifics would run the risk of spoiling some key plot points, so I’m keeping this vague, but here goes: For All Mankind is a science fiction series created and written by Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek fame), Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi, that imagines an alternate history of the Space Race. The divergence from real history happens in the opening moments of the first episode and I don’t intend to spoil the reveal here, but in the subsequent episodes we follow a number of astronauts and administrators and engineers at NASA as they push to go much further than simply landing a man on the moon. The characters are a mix of fictional, fictionalized-versions-of-real-people, and real historical figures, and the setting and the era (mostly Houston in the 60s and 70s, and the moon, I suppose) are brilliantly rendered.

    It’s gripping as a drama, and clever as a piece of hard science fiction, but as a work of alternate history it might just be unrivaled in television, as I struggle to think of another example of a series getting quite this granular about how minor changes might have increasingly profound changes to how history unfolds.

    Two full seasons are currently available to stream on Apple TV+ with a third on the way, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

  • The Good Stuff

    Harley Quinn

    I’ve been meaning to do a better job of sharing my thoughts about books and shows and movies that I enjoy here, but I’ve been extremely derelict throughout The Present Crisis. My last capsule review was the better part of a year ago. Now that my kid is back in school in person and my workdays have a little more normal structure, I’m intending to be a little better about sharing my thoughts here, not just about the media that I’ve been enjoying but about writing and life in general. So I’ll start with a cartoon that I like, which is a long-standing tradition on the site.

    I heard from a lot of people over the last couple of years that I should really check out the Harley Quinn adult animated series, which launched on the DC Universe streaming service and has since moved to HBO Max. Developed by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey and based on the character originally created for Batman The Animated Series by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the series has a stellar voice cast, great character designs, and is gorgeous to look at, but beyond that it’s also incredibly clever and very, very funny. The designs most closely resemble the characters from the late period Bruce Timm series like Justice League Unlimited, but with some nice tweaks and refinements. I’ve seen the series compared favorably to shows like The Venture Bros, and I think those comparisons are apt, but where other series deal with tropes and types the makers of Harley Quinn have the advantage of getting to mine the rich continuity of the DC universe for material. There are some nice deep cut references, and clever takes on long established characters that I don’t know that I’ve seen before.

    I’ve only watched the first season so far, but I really, really enjoyed it. I would say that I regret waiting so long to check it out, except now I have two full seasons to enjoy all at once, which is welcome as we continue to endure These Uncertain Times. If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend checking it out. (While noting that it is VERY much Not For Kids. They take pains in the first episode to firmly establish that this is not family friendly viewing, and is very much just for mature audiences.)

  • The Good Stuff

    Better Things

    I’ve had the fourth season of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things sitting on my DVR since lockdown started, waiting to find the right moment to watch it. The series has been a personal favorite of mine since it started airing on FX back in 2016, and I usually rush to watch it whenever new episodes start airing. But my experience with the previous seasons is that my emotions are usually put through the wringer a LOT when watching it, and while the show has brought some moments of transcendent joy there have also been more then a few times when scenes were difficult to get through. As a parent, the struggles that Adlon’s character Sam Fox goes through raising three daughters on her own in Los Angeles resonate with me quite a bit.

    So I’ve been holding off watching the new season until I felt like I was in a good space to do so, both emotionally and psychologically. And in the early months of the covid-19 lockdown, I most definitely was not in that headspace. But then as the summer wore on and the election drew near, I had a whole other set of anxieties and stress to contend with. It wasn’t until this past Saturday, when the election results came in and the race was finally called for Joe Biden, that I felt like it was time to dive in. Then I did something that I hardly ever do: I binged watched the whole thing in two days.

    Normally I like to savor the shows that I enjoy. I start at the beginning, and watch one a night until I reach the end. I like to spend my time digesting the stories, spending as much time with the characters as I can.

    Not this time. Saturday night after my kid went to bed I started in on the first episode of the new season, and watched four episodes back to back. Then on Sunday afternoon I watched the other six episodes over the course of a few hours, taking occasional breaks to do laundry or cook. And while I normally prefer to take my time, I feel like this viewing benefited from being done all at once, as there were a lot of plot threads that were teased out gradually over the course of the whole season, and that I might have lost track of if I’d been going through them more slowly.

    I’ve raved before about how much I admire the lack of a traditional narrative structure in Better Things. Rather than episodic stories that fit into neat half-hour time slots, instead it feels like we’re just dipping into the lives of these characters for a few days and weeks at a time. Characters and conflicts are introduced, then seemingly not resolved, only to turn back up years later in another season. (This piece by Phillip Maciak for the LA Review of Books includes some really insightful analysis of how the show is structured, while focusing on the spiritual and supernatural elements of the plot.)

    (One aspect of the viewing experience that was more than slightly surreal was the fact that the recordings on my DVR dated from the beginning of March to the end of April. Those first episodes aired before the pandemic really hit and the latter ones were from a few weeks into full lockdown. The commercials shifted from the Before Times to These Uncertain Times around episode four or five, and the last episode featured an introduction by Adlon herself over a Zoom call exhorting viewers to stay home and wash their hands. The whole show was like a time capsule, both capturing the world before the pandemic as well as what it felt like when it finally hit.)

    I absolutely adore this series, and love spending time with this family. If you haven’t sampled it yet yourself, all four seasons are available on Hulu. And if you’ve seen earlier seasons but haven’t yet tried out the new one, you are in for a treat. As for me, I think I’ll be going back and watching the whole thing from the beginning again soon. I think I’m in the right headspace to enjoy it again.

  • The Good Stuff

    The Imagineering Story

    Finally had a chance to watch The Imagineering Story documentary series on Disney+. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, the six-part series covers the history of Walt Disney Imagineering and the Disney parks from the earliest days of Disneyland in the 1950s through the opening of Galaxy’s Edge this past year. I have always been a fan of the Disney parks, but as the years have gone on I’ve become increasingly obsessed with them. I’ve done a lot of reading about how the various rides and attractions were developed, and hunted down interviews with the Imagineers responsible for my favorites. So I went into The Imagineering Story with high hopes, because it seemed to be extremely relevant to my interests.

    I’m happy to report that it did not disappoint. If anything it was even better than I was expecting, and was surprisingly emotionally affecting at times. I’m taking my kid to Disneyland next month for their sixteen birthday, and watching The Imagineering Story has left us both even more excited about the trip than we already were. Even if you don’t have plans to visit a Disney park anytime soon, I highly recommend checking out the series.

  • The Good Stuff

    I Love Star Wars

    I love Star Wars. All of it.

    I have tried and failed to sum up my thoughts about the series as a whole this morning, in advance of seeing The Rise of Skywalker tomorrow. I have seen every Star Wars movie in the theater since 1977, when I saw A New Hope shortly before my seventh birthday. Like Cassian Andor, “I have been in this fight since I was six years old.” And I have loved them all. Even the ones that I didn’t always like so much, I found something in them to love.

    I’ve stayed off social media this week, to avoid spoilers for the new movie. I’m even trying to avoid seeing headlines for the reviews that I will not be reading until after I see the movie. But honestly, I don’t care what a single other person has to say about it. And the experience of recent years has shown that when it comes to Star Wars movies our individual responses can be wildly subjective. There are people who hate my favorite Star Wars movie with a white hot passion, while I love it unreservedly and refuse to recognize that it has any possible flaws. There are other people who will passionately defend as the best in the series a movie that I enjoy to a point but think has marked flaws. And I think that is perfectly okay.

    The point is that for many of us Star Wars has become far more than just a series of films. Through the books, and comics, and role playing games, and video games, and TV spinoffs, and theme park rides, and on and on, and on… It’s become an outsized part of our lives. Sure, it’s a fantasy about space wizards with laser swords that is intended for children, but Star Wars is still real and it matters in profound ways.

    There has always been talk about Star Wars being a “modern mythology,” and I think that is true. It’s the closest thing to a religion for many of us (and the often rancorous disagreements between fans do resemble doctrinal disputes in a lot of ways). The moral lessons that Star Wars teaches still resonate today, and the new movies continue to provide lessons that we very much need.

    I’ll be seeing The Rise of Skywalker tomorrow morning on my own, and then again on Saturday with the family, and by then I’ll probably have gotten back onto social media, and taken a look at a few reviews. But in many ways I feel like the only opinion that will matter to me is that of the six year old me that lives in my head and has been waiting for this movie for more than 42 years, and I strongly suspect that he’s going to like the movie just fine…

  • The Good Stuff

    Star Wars: Resistance Reborn

    I have been on a serious Star Wars kick the last few weeks. I’ve been absolutely loving The Mandalorian on Disney+, and Jedi: Fallen Order is one of my favorite video games in years, and probably the best Star Wars game I’ve ever played. I’ve been rewatching all of the films (in in-universe chronological order) in advance of the end of the Skywalker saga, as well as starting rewatches of both Clone Wars and Rebels (along with teaching myself to read Aurebesh, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for ages). And I’ve been inspired to go back and revisit stuff that I might have overlooked. For example, after learning that the Fallen Order video game had a lot of connections to the second volume of Marvel’s Darth Vader comic from 2017, I realized that the series had gone on for more issues than I realized and I hadn’t finished reading the whole thing the first time around. With scripts by Charles Soule and art by Giuseppe Camuncoli, the 25-issue long run ended up being one of my favorite Star Wars stories of recent memory, with the final issue being absolutely staggeringly good. (And now I’m rereading the first volume by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca, which is every bit as good as I remembered.)

    I’ve also been working my way through the various prose tie-in novels in the “Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” line in the run-up to the new flick, and last night finished reading Rebecca Roanhorse’s Resistance Reborn. The novel picks up shortly after the events of The Last Jedi, with the few surviving members of the Resistance fleeing from the First Order onboard the Millennium Falcon in a desperate search for new allies and safe harbor. The story is very well constructed, and I feel like Roanhorse does a spectacular job of capturing the voices and personalities of the various characters. And one of the things I enjoyed most about reading it was seeing characters that I had first encountered in video games (Battlefront II, to be precise), comics (primarily Poe Dameron, again by Charles Soule), and even other novels (Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy and Claudia Grey’s Bloodline, in particular) interacting with characters from the films. It made that world seem even more like a cohesive whole, and I was left feeling like any one of these characters could appear in The Rise of Skywalker and fit in perfectly with the live action cast.

    If you’ve ever enjoyed a Star Wars prose novel, I strongly recommend checking out Resistance Reborn. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, and left me even more excited to see The Rise of Skywalker in a few weeks than I was already.

  • The Good Stuff

    The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

    I don’t know why it took me nine years to watch Luc Besson’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, but I’m glad that I finally did. In my defense I hadn’t read the comic series by Jacques Tardi until a couple of years ago, by which time I’d already had the movie in my iTunes library for AGES.

    In the event that you haven’t come across this 2010 French-language adventure film yet, I highly recommend it. Set in 1911 Paris, the plot is largely adapted from two different Tardi stories featuring the titular heroine Adèle Blanc-Sec (her surname means “dry white,” as in wine), with little nods and winks to other Tardi stories along the way. The film is live-action with some nicely-done CGI effects, with many of the actors wearing makeup and prosthetics that make them look like Tardi drawings. There are clever action set-pieces and some nice running gags, plot twists that I did not see coming, and a stellar cast, lead by phenomenal performance by Louise Bourgoin as Mlle Blanc-Sec. To say too much about the plot would spoil the fun, but it’s a period piece adventure/mystery with a healthy dose of science fiction and fantasy, and it is well worth 105 minutes of your life.

  • The Good Stuff

    Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

    After the superb 2013 documentary about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I wasn’t sure that there was much left explore on the topic. And when I recently learned that GKIDS had released another documentary about Miyazaki last year, Never-Ending Man, the trailers and clips that I watched gave me the impression that it would largely be a meditation on mortality and the inevitable entropy of diminishing physical and mental capacities that come with aging. And it is. But it is also so, so much more.

    The documentary opens with the press conference in 2013 when Miyazaki announced his retirement. Again. But this time, he assured us, he meant it. It then jumps ahead a couple of years, and we find Miyazaki puttering around his personal studio every day, still somehow managing to find art projects to occupy his time and attention, all day, every day. There are some melancholy shots of the Studio Ghibli building, now shuttered and empty. The documentarian following him around with a camera is literally in the room when Miyazaki gets the phone call that a former employee of Ghibli has just passed away, on two separate occasions. Miyazaki seems worn out and drawn, talking a lot about mortality and how his time has passed.

    After a chance encounter with a group of young CGI animators leads him to reopen Studio Ghibli and begin work on a new short film, we see Miyazaki gradually become re-energized. The process is not without its pitfalls, but the act of starting a new project and seeing it to completion seems to reignite something in him, and by the end of the documentary his outlook appears to have completely changed. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling how it all unfolds, but there is a moment at the end where Miyazaki has made the decision to keep working until he dies. It would be better, he says, than simply stopping and then wait around for death to claim him. Better, he says, to die with something to live for.

  • The Good Stuff

    Carmen Sandiego Season Two

    Back near the beginning of the year I raved about Netflix’s new original animated series, Carmen Sandiego, which was an unexpected treasure. It took a property that I was never personally invested in, and turned it into a thrilling superspy adventure with healthy doses of educational content. Well, we finally had a chance to watch the new episodes that were released last month, and the second season is even better than the first. The plot twists are twistier, the action set pieces are brilliantly choreographed, the laughs are more frequent… The ten episodes in the season almost function as one long narrative, with cliffhangers ending almost every episode and each new episode picking up right where the previous one left off. Big secrets are revealed, and even bigger questions are uncovered, yet to be answered. There is genuine diversity here, as well, both in terms of the cast of characters, but also the settings and the cultures being depicted.

    I loved the first season of the show, but I really loved the second. Carmen Sandiego is one of the best TV shows currently in production, on broadcast, cable, or streaming, and I really hope that it finds a large enough audience that they can keep making new seasons for a long time to come.