10 October 2017

RIVERDALE Fails to Thrill

After catching up with RIVDERDALE on Netflix, I’m not so sure I want to continue on watching it week to week for season two. While the show seemed once to be billed as DAWSON'S CREEK meets TWIN PEAKS, it never approached anything supernatural or weirdly odd –the things that David Lynch’s legendary series actually did. It offered only warm retreads, in the end.

While the underbelly of small town life is a trope we’ve seen for decades in TV soaps, not many shows have been able to pull it off and make it look natural, organic in nature. Fiction writers like Stephen King have a knack for creating towns that are often hardscrabble, filled with plain spoken people, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, designed to cover the dysfunction and malice that lives just below the surface of those towns.

RIVERDALE lives and breathes at the corner of convenience and coincidence, which I admit is something all soaps need, but  –and I guess I’m naive to believe it was going to be anything else – this is just another teen soap featuring actors who all look way beyond their teen years. No one, and I mean no one, on this show could pass as teenager. Even star KJ Apa at 19 (when he filmed the first season) did not look like he belonged in high school. Maybe his tricked out body made him look older, or something else, but I felt no connection to his version of Archie. 

Everything is just wrapped up with one impossible scenario after another, and after a while, it seemed even the central murder mystery arc was going to take second fiddle to the schemes and plans of the 1%. 

Performances range from your typical scene chewing found in this genre to plain TV acting okay; I mean some actors can handle the cheesy dialogue with great panache, while others (including more than a few or the regulars and recurring one) only deliver their discourse like a blunt instruments. 

However, in a surprising turn, veteran Disney child actor Cole Sprouse is remarkably good here, making the comic book version of  Jughead a rather complex character than the weird kid trope he’s been assigned (and the doofus version in the funny pages). There were many times as I watched these thirteen episodes that I wished the show revolved around Jughead (and Skeet Ulrich played his Dad, so that was neat) than Archie and his luckless Dad. Fortuitously, Sprouse also has some great chemistry the New Zealand born actor Apa, and this bromance (both on screen and off) with him (I find him forgettable a lot of the time, and I don’t know why) elevated the torpid drama presented on my monitor screen.

The other thing that bothered me was the whole Who Shot Jason Bloom arc, scion of Bloom Maple fortune. While the plot line played out over the first few episodes, it eventually takes a back burner to love triangles, mean girls, and betrayals before circling back. And while they kids do some investigating of their own (and Jughead has his own Wall of Clues) there really is no full blown Scooby gang going on here. And like all whodunits of the last few decades, no one actually puts the puzzle pieces together to figure out who killed Bloom. In the end, the killer is always caught by making a careless mistake, or a slip of the tongue, or in this case, a flash drive found in the lining of Jason’s letterman jacket that contains a video of his brutal murder –and the person who did it. Convenient, right?

Blah. Not sure if I would call that lazy writing, a TV series that knows its audience is a few tacos short of a combination platter, or they’ve never just read an Agatha Christie novel. 

Maybe it’s all three.

Ultimately, it is not as odd and dark as I remember it being advertised. It’s a teen-soap that relies too much on what has come before and while it features a supporting cast of veteran 80’s & 90’s actors (hi Molly Ringwald), it’s only really purpose is designed to appeal to the older audience members who have no idea who these young actors are. 

For me, the only worthy character is Jughead, and that all has to do with Sprouse’s layered acting.

As season two approaches, there is one thing I am curious about: Betty's dark rage. Will the show break into the TWIN PEAKS universe with whatever is driving young Betty to hold in whatever darkness is wanting to breakout? This seed, which was well planted through out season one, might keep me watching, along with Cole Sprouse's Jughead Jones.

23 September 2017

Books: Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray (2017)

Author Claudia Gray has an uncanny talent of tapping into the character of Princess Leia that makes these novels a joy to read. And while Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan is technically a YA title, the book is also part of puzzle that leads to Episode VIII. Much like the hand full of novels released before The Force Awakens dropped back in 2015, this book is part of a series of novels, called Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which give hints and background information on things that will be seen in the next film. 

Since the old Expanded Universe became null and void after Disney acquired the franchise, these new books reboot a lot of the characters past. So, essentially, we get new versions of what came before the prequel and original trilogies (along with tales set within those respective films series). While I won’t debate the merits of Disney tossing two decades of assorted novels (both good and bad) the real interesting thing about these new books is that they’re all canon –something not often seen in this type of media. 

This book focuses on sixteen year-old Leia, along with her parents Bail and Breha, with extended guest appearances from Mon Mothma, Governor Tarkin, and new characters and planets that will be seen in The Last Jedi

“Sixteen-year-old Princess Leia Organa faces the most challenging task of her life so far: proving herself in the areas of body, mind, and heart to be formally name heir to the throne of Alderaan. She’s taking rigorous survival courses, practicing politics, and spearheading relief missions to worlds under Imperial control. But Leia has worries beyond her claim to the crown. Her parents, Breha and Bail, aren’t acting like themselves lately, they are distant and preoccupied, seemingly more concerned with throwing dinner parties for their allies in the Senate than they are with their own daughter.

“Determined to uncover her parents’ secrets, Leia starts down an increasingly dangerous path that puts her right under the watchful eye of the Empire. And when Leia discovers what her parents and their allies are planning behind closed doors, she finds herself facing what seems like an impossible choice: dedicate herself to the people of Alderaan—including the man she loves—or to the galaxy at large, which is in desperate need of a rebel hero…”

The only real drawback of this novel is Gray’s choice (or Disney’s) to add the teen romance angle. It’s distracting, and at times made Leia a victim. It sort of changes the view of Carrie Fisher’s performance in many ways as well. I mean, we see from A New Hope that Leia is a strong-willed woman who has (probably) been fighting secretly in the Rebellion for years, and to see her reduced to chasing a boy is odd and unrealistic to the true nature of the character presented on screen. 

Granted, until Disney bought the franchise and laid waste to what had come before, Leia’s early childhood and teen years were unexplored, but the whole romance angle was an easy gimmick, cheap in many ways. 

Still, as noted, Gray gave us a realistic view of parenting with Bail and Breha (who comes off as a bad-ass here, and next to Mon Mothma, one of the best in the book). I enjoyed those parts a lot.

The book also gives us a view of the planet Crait years before the remnants of the Empire use it to hide the First Order (apparently, like all good villains, the Emperor had multiple back-up plan just in case Darth Vader and rest of the Galactic Empire failed him). We saw footage of the planet in the teaser trailer for The Last Jedi, the part where we see ships skimming over the surface, stirring up the white-colored salt that nearly covers the entire planet and the red-colored mineral base underneath.

Also given a background is future Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. Here in this book she’s a free-spirited young lady (think Luna Lovegood) who is dear friends with Leia. But it’s well-known that in The Last Jedi, there was a falling out between Lei and Amilyn, so it should be interesting if this is explored.

And there is also an unnamed cameo by Director Krennic as well, from Rogue One, so talk about connecting the dots and whatnot.

A good book that sheds some light on Leia’s years on Alderaan, but it’s also has too much teen romance to be taken seriously.

09 September 2017

Books: 'Salem's Lot By Stephen King (1975)

After reading The Stand, I think the second book I read by Stephen King was The Shinning followed by ‘Salem’s Lot (it would be a while before I ever read Carrie, his first book though). But while I’ve re-read both The Stand and The Shinning several times over the last three decades, for some reason, I’ve never took up ‘Salem’s Lot.

This tale of vampires set in a small rural town in Maine was King’s second novel. What strikes me now is how fully formed a writer King seemed to be at this early stage of his career. Yes, the book is not perfect, it takes a bit to get going, the exposition too obvious and too detailed, but this would become a hallmark of King’s works as well –the slow build up of terror; the plain-spoken people of the small towns he does in his world building mode, people who very obviously choose to ignore the malice and the utter dysfunction that simmers on low just below the surface of the town. It is also here, I think, that King begins carting out a lot of the same ideas he would reuse in later novels, in particular I see the foundations for both Needful Things and IT (he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts) running through this novel. There is also the character of Father Callahan, a ruin of a Catholic priest who vanishes from the Lot after drinking the blood of Barlow the vampire only to reappear decades later in King’s Dark Tower novel The Wolves of Calla. While I can’t be sure, but I think when King wrote this book he had no idea he would reuse this character in those later year; and one can be cynical and say the writers attempt to connect all his books to his DT is a huge bit of retconning, but like all artists, you can never really second guess their motives for doing this. It can be called clever or just an attempt to get people to buy other tales. Also, Barlow is described in the DT novels as a shape-shifting level one vampire.

The 1979 miniseries version of the book is excellent, generally following the same story as the novel, but it was forced to take some liberties. As with most of King’s long books, some characters are deleted, while others are combined; some subplots have been excised as well; scenes are also rearranged and Barlow is based on the classic German expressionist film Nosferatu than the suave, handsome Eastern European creature King creates in the book (which is an improvement. This version of Barlow is probably, as well, the last time on screen a vampire was truly presented as evil, and not some creature of the night who looked like a male model). Also, a lot of the violence and many graphic scenes were curbed –or dropped (the scene where Sandy McDougall discovers the body of her baby boy Randy is fairly gruesome for 1975 [“The small body, still clad in wash-faded Dr. Dentons, had been flung into the corner like a piece of garbage. One leg stuck up grotesquely, like an inverted exclamation point”] and still gruesome in 1979 and even 2017) - due to broadcast restrictions of the period. Still, that version, directed by Tobe Hooper (who eerily passed away the day after I began re-reading this book) creates an atmospheric, almost old-style Gothic horror film of the book which works just as well (in many ways, it’s a cousin to the classic soap opera Dark Shadows).  Of note is the scenes involving Ralphie Glick (who is the first preteen vampire ever presented on screen, a character that predates Anne Rice’s Claudia in 1976’s Interview With a Vampire as well as that novels screen adaptation in 1994), the first person taken and then killed by Barlow. Hooper is able to capture the spookiness of the scenes in the novel, as Ralphie floats outside the bedroom window of his brother Danny, trying to lure him into "letting him in" to be bitten.  It was chilling in the novel and even creepier on screen. Those scenes alone became hallmarks, immortalized in several other media enterprises, including a segment of The Treehouse of Horror on the long-running animated series The Simpsons

Much like motion picture version of The Dead Zone, this TV movie (which was remade in 2004) seems underappreciated by many for whatever reason. The acting is fine, with David Soul playing the befuddled writer Ben Mears that is light-years away from his role on Starsky & Hutch. Then there is the legendary James Mason, who is wonderfully sublime as Straker, the thrall of the vampire Barlow.

The book, despite the 1970s pop culture references, still holds up in 2017. It may be hard to believe in this day and age of Google mapping and 24 hour news cycle, a town like Jerusalem’s Lot, haunted by evil, could go unnoticed, but there are many ghost towns not only here in the US, but across the world. Who knows, maybe somewhere deep in the woods of Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, and even Maine, there can be a town that holds back time. A town where people only come out a night for some fine dining on anyone curious enough to step across the line between light and darkness.

27 August 2017

Books: Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves by James S. A. Corey (2014)

“When the mission is to extract a high-level rebel spy from the very heart of the Empire, Leia Organa knows the best man for the job is Han Solo—something the princess and the smuggler can finally agree on. After all, for a guy who broke into an Imperial cell block and helped destroy the Death Star, the assignment sounds simple enough. But when Han locates the brash rebel agent, Scarlet Hark, she’s determined to stay behind enemy lines. A pirate plans to sell a cache of stolen secrets that the Empire would destroy entire worlds to protect—including the planet where Leia is currently meeting with rebel sympathizers. Scarlet wants to track down the thief and steal the bounty herself, and Han has no choice but to go along if he’s to keep everyone involved from getting themselves killed. From teeming city streets to a lethal jungle to a trap-filled alien temple, Han, Chewbacca, Leia, and their daring new comrade confront one ambush, double cross, and firestorm after another as they try to keep crucial intel out of Imperial hands.”

Like most all other novels in any long running franchise, some are good, some are weak. Some have strong stories, while others just seem to cruise by on just the familiarity of the characters -which seems designed to cover some the tales inherent weaknesses. For me, Honor Among Thieves -a Han Solo focused tale- gives us a simple, yet interesting story, set just a short time after the advents of A New Hope, but author James S. A. Corey (The Expanse writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is able to capture the characters so well, you can forgive him for such a silly premise. 

The book is witty and well paced, but here Han Solo gets more depth and complexity than the even the first film in the franchise could provide. He’s still a rogue, still unsure he wants to be involved with the rebellion, but he can see that his old life, that free-wheeling, smuggler’s blues world of shadows and tenuous freedom, is over. 

I would also say this book is a great one to read if you don’t read Star Wars novels all the time –or at all. Another words, even as this book falls out the new canonicity (it was approved just around the time the deal was struck for Lucasfilm to be sold to Disney) and is stuck with the “LEGENDS” moniker, it still feels like it could easily fit into the New Expanded Universe. Plus, I super enjoy The Expanse series and it becomes even more clear that James Holden –the hero of that series- is inspired by Han Solo.

17 August 2017

Books: IT by Stephen King (1986)

One question that really appears to have been sort of answered in Stephen King’s 1986 best-seller IT is whether the fictional town of Derry, Maine he creates here is haunted because of the IT creature or did that creature take up residence there because it found a town that contained more cruelty than any other place –a town where a lot of horrible things happen and yet the people who are born there, who live and work there seem to exist in the ether of indifference?

It’s something King does touch on, though near the end of this book, when the reader is taken on the horrible ride that is Patrick Hockstetter’s death, King implies somewhat that maybe what haunts Derry is nothing more than human failure, the fact the we grown up and stop believing in a magical world, and then our inability to try and fix it, so we bury it: “In other words, Derry Elementary School was the typical confused educational carnival, a circus with so many rings that Pennywise himself might have gone unnoticed.”

I originally read this book back when it was released in 1986. And I took it up again, if I remember right, around 1990 when ABC aired the 2-part version of the novel. I may have read it again sometime in the 90’s, but I’m not sure. I have seen the TV movies version several times, and like many will note, the first half is much better than the second half. In the end, like many King adaptations, IT can be chalked up to the perpetual difficulty of translating his works to the screen, both TV and silver. Part of the problem with the 1990 version is that aired on broadcast TV in an era when broadcast standards were still super strict (though they still are today). A lot of what happens in the book –the extreme description of death, the foul language and the bullies lighting their farts on fire could never been shown on ABC.

But the TV movie also left a lot of reasons why things happen Derry, why the people ignore its own past, why the world ignored the fact that Derry’s long history of child deaths and other murders were well outside the per-capita of the rest of the world. It also condensed too much, left out more interesting plot points in favor of the larger set pieces. It made odd choices in what to keep and what to excise, I'm saying.

With a new version of IT scheduled to be released next month, I took up the book again to remind me what King can do when given a wide palette.  He sometimes can do off the rails, detailing the lives of minor characters that do not have any connection to the main plot, but it’s also this sort of world building that does not go on very much anymore. He creates hundreds of minor characters, breathes life into them, gives them a back-story, and then moves on. 

The book was, in many ways, another trip to King’s life of growing up in the late 1950’s and early 60s (an affinity shared with Peter Straub). Here he creates small town life that is hardscrabble, yet filled with plain spoken people (and King would revisit 1958 and Derry again in his 2011 novel 11/22/63), but all of it is just smoke and mirrors, covering the dysfunction and malice that lives just below the surface. Sure, like the novels  released prior to this and the many ones that came after, King continues his endless ability to recycle the same tropes (2009’s Under the Dome in particular), yet for me it’s the sharp sizzle of his language that makes me continue reading his works, and mostly because he can bring these age-old stereotypes alive. Whatever weakness he may have, this ability alone makes him worth reading. It’s a talent many authors of today can never come close too achieving. 

This re-read also gave me a chance to discover again the early beginnings of his shared universe with the Dark Tower novels. Most strikingly is the turtle, a “long time enemy of the creature, It. In 1958, the Turtle communicates with Bill Denbrough for a moment while he is under an illusion created by IT. Bill pleads for help from the Turtle in defeating IT but the Turtle says he does not get involved with those matters. Pleading again, the Turtle simply gives some advice in that he must stand by his friends and perform the Ritual of Chüd. In 1985, when Bill and the remaining member of the Losers Club returned to finally kill IT, Bill is told that the Turtle has died sometime after their last meeting in 1958.”

The lore of King’s series, the turtle is one of the guardians of the Beams that support the Dark Tower. Where the IT creature came from can be implied somewhat, as well. King calls it the macroverse, though it could be one of the many universes that exist within the Dark Tower itself. We also get a cameo appearance from Dick Hollarann, the caretaker who takes on the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in The Shinning. Here, we meet him in 1930, who is an Army cook and member of the African-American army nightclub in Derry called "The Black Spot", which was burned down by the Legion of White Decency. Dick's Shining allowed him to save the lives of several other clubgoers, including Mike Hanlon’s father. He is also notable for being one of the only sane adults able to see IT in one of its varying forms. The town of Haven is name checked, which would be the focus of a non-supernatural book called The Colorado Kid and a fantasy series that would air on the cable network Syfy. 

The book remains for me, one of King’s best (and certainly the best of the 1980s work) and re-reading filled me with happiness. I have hope that the theatrical remake coming in September will be able to capture the essence of the story without defaulting to word soup. King’s adapters (and even himself doing Pet Semetary) seem unable to get out a proper explanation for things, instead those descriptions fall short of making any sense or are dropped like a rock into the ocean, never to seen again. 

Time will tell. It always does!