Manga, TV Shows

Watching: Attack on Titan

Shingeki no Kyoujin

Sometimes, buzz just gets to you. I heard about Attack on Titan from at least 5 different sources over the last month. About how people were watching a dozen episodes in one sitting, how the manga is the next big shonen blockbuster and how it pushes boundaries in terms of graphic content (the Eating-humans-alive-and-spraying-blood-everywhere kind, not the Will Eisner kind), for a title aimed at teenagers. Then I went to Anime Expo and found out that there were AoT cosplayers galore. I sat next to one at a panel I was attending, and while making conversation, asked him if the series is really getting better as it progresses. “It’s good enough”, he said.

This could only mean one thing – anime marathon. One lazy Sunday later, my thoughts about the series:

  1. 13 episodes are out, with 11 remaining from the season. I cannot wait! And I am giving myself reasons to not start the manga, because I am sure it will spoil the anime for me. But it’s haaaaaard.
  2. Giants are the new zombies! I am stretching things a bit too much here, but with Jack and Pacific Rim, and now this (it’s going to be a live-action film soon), I get the feeling that pop culture winds blow in that direction, now that we are done bleeding the shuffling dead and the bloodsuckers. Giants have always been played (at least in recent times) as bumbling behemoths that can be incapacitated by resilient humans, but using them as cause for mankind’s extinction is a concept that is only beginning to be explored.
  3. The characters are a little too high-strung for my taste, especially the lead Eren Jaeger. When Eren is not yelling at the top of his voice at every single situation, he’s busy being intense and angsty about life.  Maybe it says something about my expectations from a shonen series, that I expect moments of lightness to bookmark the intense scenes. But the arc until episode 13 (The Battle of Trost) just builds up the tension steadily. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I feel somewhat lost minus minimal ecchi or slapstick. It’s me, I know. (Oh well, you could argue that Sasha Braus provides the comedy, but come on, it’s not what I meant, you know it!)
  4. Story-wise, the series does live up to the hype. At this point, it is hard to pin down the themes of the manga. Lots of intriguing “hints” are dropped about the world at large. We have not seen society within Wall Sina. Levy, from the Recon Corps is a bad-ass whose story arc looks like it will be very important going ahead. Unexplained events – Eren’s father’s involvement, Eren’s own past, the mysterious disappearance of the Armored Titan on Wall Rose, the origins of the kyoujin. Is it political drama? Is it a military sagaOr It could be played as just dystopian horror. The body-count is staggering in the first 13 episodes, and I have no doubt it gets worse.
  5. What I do not like was the fact that the shonen hero template of Eren follows Full Metal Alchemist a bit too much. Teenagers caught up in wars, and Eren becoming important not because he is an everyman but because he’s his father’s son. What I do like is the combination of the core trio – Eren, Mikasa and Armin, and how they seem to complement each other’s skills. For this is truly the hallmark of a good shonen series – characters that evolve and learn from each other, and from circumstances around them. And I love the 3D-Maneuver Gear. It’s a bitch to cosplay with them, but the visual concept is brilliant and very Spider-man-esque.
  6. Aditya on Twitter asked me what I thought about the fact that the giant-killing machines in Pacific Rim are called ‘Jaegers’. Del Toro is co-writer of the screenplay. Del Toro is also the man who is optioning the manga Monster as an HBO series, which supports the assumption that the man knows his Japanese comics. Hell, the whole kaiju concept comes from Japanese movies. HOWEVER, the idea for PR (according to the Wiki entry) came about in 2007, AoT started in 2009. I am going with coincidence, or maybe a sly reference at the script-rewrite stage.

All in all can’t wait to see more of this series.

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TV Shows, Weirdness

The Sherlock Problem

So I’ve been watching Sherlock. Have you been watching Sherlock? You should. Season 2 Episode 2 just aired yesterday, and I saw it about 5 hours after the telecast time. Making this the first TV series EVER, since BR Chopra’s Mahabharat aired on Indian National Television way back in 1987-89, that I’ve watched the same day it first came on TV. The Hounds of Baskerville was fun, though not as much as episode 1. There, I said it – even a great TV series like this one has its off moments, and this episode was it. The structure and the plot was too glaringly obvious for my taste, and besides, the whole set-up felt a little too X-Filesey for my taste. Though there are a bunch of snappy moments between Holmes and Watson that iron the disappointment away.

On a side-note, I feel glad about having read the Sherlock Holmes stories early on in life. An attempted rereading of A Scandal In Bohemia last week ended up being a little disappointing. I have a bad feeling that if I start rereading the Conan Doyle stories, I may not enjoy them as much.

Now here’s something that sort of stuck in my head, with all these reboots and remakes being churned out nowadays, especially the ones where the lead characters and the main story-line are re-imagined as contemporary characters. There’s an obvious problem with these reboots, one that I had not thought about until watching Sherlock. Or specifically, one scene in episode 1 of the first season, where John Watson searches online to find out more about his prospective flatmate. The results show us that within the world of Sherlock, Arthur Conan Doyle never existed. Or even if he did, he never met Dr Joseph Bell. Well, maybe the two did meet, but Conan Doyle definitely did not write the Holmes stories. Which also means that there were no adaptations of those non-existent Sherlock Holmes stories. No Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. No Jamyang Norbu or Laurie King or Detective Comics #572. None of these are particularly earth-shaking changes. But one specific thing worries me quite a bit – Google does not exist in this world. How on earth the absence of Conan Doyle’s Holmes is related to the non-invention of the world’s biggest search engine is something that needs careful, logical train of thought, something that astute people around me will know I am not capable of.

Quest Search, the fictional search engine inside the Sherlock TV series

But if you extrapolate this further, every fictional world has the same problem – which real-world people and items can exist inside a given work of fiction without upsetting the central conceit of that world?

Homework: Can anyone think of a movie with a sequel that contains the former as a movie inside itself, watched by a character in the latter? (I can)

Also, can you think of a reboot/remake that explicitly refers to the events of the original movie? (I can’t)

Also related: Rockstar as Speculative Fiction. Because I think of shit like this all the time.

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Television, TV Shows

The (Spoiler-Free) Breaking Bad Post

What if you knew you had six months to live?

A lot of talented storytellers have already done variants of this particular narrative scenario in different mediums. The TV series Breaking Bad is just one of them, and when you first hear about the premise of the show – mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White learns he has cancer and takes to cooking and dealing crystal meth with an ex-pupil, a junkie named Jesse Pinkman to provide for his family – you feel tempted to get dismissive about it. Too much been-there-done-that. Didn’t Weeds have a similar setting of a non-criminal taking to crime and making us cheer for the anti-hero? But I got around to watching Breaking Bad sometime last year, thanks to a belated reading of a Patton Oswalt blog post. The post seems to have disappeared, fuck you Myspace, but critical commentary on the post remains online, thank you Internet.

I believe I was well and truly hooked at the point where, as I was balancing my dinner plate on my lap and trying not to spill rice all over my underwear, strange goings-on involving dead drug dealers, hydrofluoric acid and a metal bath-tub were unfolding onscreen. I believe that was it, the mix of gut-wrenching, edge-of-the-seat drama, interspersed with laugh-out-loud moments of gruesome humor, that made me regard Breaking Bad as being something more than Just Another TV Show. I finished the first two seasons in a weekend, and then learnt that there was a third season that had just gotten over, watched that too. When the fourth season started this year, I resolutely refused to see it until the season was over.

Having completed the season finale of the latter just two days ago, I feel … empty. It feels like the year has given me the best it has to offer, and there’s nothing more to look forward to before The Dark Knight Rises releases in 2012. Of course that is just self-inflicted hyperbole that will dissipate in a few days(I hope, whine whine). But it’s a rare artistic offering that produces such an effect in me, this emptiness and this feeling of contentment at the same time, this sense of wonderment at a story that takes its time to unravel and is so fucking satisfying. At no point in the course of this TV series have I had the occasion to roll my eyes, or shake my head at an illogical plot-point. Trust me, there is none. This is ridiculously good writing right there. It has messed with my head, it has shattered every expectation I had, and it’s done a stellar job in balancing violent bursts of action with quiet emotional moments and nerve-wracking tension.

Season 3 ended with a gunshot. Season 4 shows us the repercussions of that shot, beginning with a flashback sequence that is a reminder of the magnitude of what just happened. Episode 1 has one of the most visceral sequences I’ve seen in recent times, a perfectly-pitched set-piece that is aided by its excellent sound design. The season then becomes a carefully-played, slowly-unfolding game of cat-and-mouse between the two major players in the story, with additional complications that are introduced by the choices made by the other inhabitants of this world, most of them from Albuquerque, some from across the Mexican border. Every episode has moments that other lesser works might milk for as much onscreen value as possible. But this show knows just when to pull back, when to let the individual moments speak for themselves.

The moments, oh dear Lord, the moments. The final sequence of Episode 11, the aptly named ‘Crawl Space’. The use of a Spanish song on a car ride that spans a day. The camera angles in some Jesse sequences – from a shovel, from a Roomba vacuum cleaning robot. The terminator moment. Jesse asking for “phenylacetic acid, bitch”. Walt’s attempts at self-defense. Skyler’s plans within plans. Saul Goodman’s wise-cracks. “I am the danger. I am the one that knocks”. “Your wife, your son, your infant child.” “Is that your real name?” I could go on all night, you know. Part of me is tempted to let this post be and go rewatch Season 4 all over again, but I have herculean self-control and I am not afraid to use it.

The most striking aspect of Season 4 was the way it toyed with every one of my emotions towards the major characters. It is hard to empathize with most of the principal characters in Breaking Bad – even the “innocent” have shades to them. This incidentally is a blocker for most people when they begin watching the show, that the characters are unlikeable, or too “ordinary”. It is but natural for any work of fiction to have us take sides; Breaking Bad shows us that in real life, you can take any side. Just as it gives us characters that can make real choices, not just ones that maintain the status-quo (*cough* Dexter *cough*) It gives every character time to shine, and lets you get into his or her skin. Just when you seem to be getting comfortable with your feelings (good or bad), the writers introduce something that dramatically changes the equation. It’s like being bitch-slapped into submission at the hands of an expert Swedish masseur, and it feels great.

Yup, get this straight – there is no status quo in Breaking Bad. The only predictable thing about the show, the only bit of consistency since S1EP01 is that it is still primarily about Walter White and his relationship with Jesse Pinkman. The cancer angle has all but vanished – it would be ridiculous to assume that the show is still operating under the plot mechanic it began with. At some point in the middle of the season, it struck me – perhaps a little too late – that Walter White is the cancer that is eating away at everything around him. It also seemed to me that Walt represents every negative cliche associated with middle age – the feeling of dissatisfaction about having made the wrong choices in life, the idea that one’s lack of assertiveness is mistaken by others as weakness, the continuous sense of proving one’s worth as the head of the family, the need to be the provider, the need to be respected by your wife, your relatives and your children. Then I started thinking about whether the show is an examination of the seven cardinal sins – though I cast that interpretation aside because I could not fit gluttony into my theory. Elsewhere, Patton Oswalt tries to draw a parallel between the characters and comicbook super-villains, which is a bit too hard-core even for me. Like him, however, I was also struck by how similar the series is to Watchmen, in the sense that it is the kind of layered work that reveals themes and patterns with multiple viewings, and the themes are themselves open to scrutiny and interpretation.

I call Breaking Bad the best thing TV has to offer. It is my generation’s Godfather, it is what Deadwood and Sopranos have wrought, the flowering of the ideological seeds laid down by these shows, that television can be used for outstanding sequential narratives.  Many people would agree – the Emmies sure do, because the show, in particular its lead actor Bryan Cranston, has won multiple awards these last three years. Cranston has also directed episodes of the show himself and they are magnificent. Others may try to counter my statement with mentions of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. I have not watched either, I probably will, and then we’ll talk, you and I. But I am confident about my assertions about this series, and it will take something really special to make me budge.

Probably the only series that I think might break this stronghold at the moment is the The Wire, recommended to me by none other than The Mage of Northhampton himself, he whose tastes bear serious weightage. I am almost afraid to watch The Wire now. There’s the nagging feeling that it might just be better than BB, and then there’s the other nagging feeling where I am underwhelmed by it, in which case I would have failed The Bearded One. The poster on my wall would glare disapprovingly at me every single day, questioning my lack of taste, my ill-found judgement.

Behold, His Look of Reproach

Oh, the pressure.

If you’re into stories and storytelling techniques, if you want to witness masterful jugglery of multiple plot points and narrative devices, if you’re up for some serious emotional involvement with characters that have a life of their own free of predictability and brimming with free will, and most importantly, if you aren’t averse to traumatic violence, watch Breaking Bad. And while you’re at it, go read the episode guides on AVClub as you finish them one by one. Read the comments even, there’s a surprising lack of trolls on the boards, which either proves that people watching the the show are more rational, or that Breaking Bad is good enough to merit serious discussion sans offensive buffoonery. Go watch, and when you’ve wrapped your mind around that last shot at the end of season 4, take a deep breath, come back here and thank me. There’s one more season to go still, and we can all mourn and celebrate the inevitability of time together.

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Books, TV Shows

A bad thing. A good thing.

Bleh

Bleh

I tend to do things in spurts. For instance, when I read a book that I like a lot, I have to follow it up with another book. And another, and another, until the flow is broken by a Door-stopper. When that happens, the frenzy stops, and I have to start all over again – and a new interest takes over, like a new computer game, or an urge to work on FL Studio. This is why, before heading for a bus journey or a flight, it takes me some time to select a bunch of books – I either don’t get the time to read any of them, or I bulldoze through them with the enthusiasm of a cute little spaniel running after a frisbee.

Inkheart was one of those Door-stoppers that completely killed a bout of reading fever that struck me a month or so ago. I had finished a bunch of Pratchetts and Sharpes and a Tim Dorsey, decided that I should get out of the absurdist humour rut and picked up this highly-recommended book. Funke is a German writer, and this book – and its sequels – had received praise both in its home country and abroad. The English translations were by Anthea Bell – she of Asterix fame – and I had nothing but high hopes for it. Unfortunately, Inkheart happens to be one of the flattest, most one-dimensional children’s books I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading in my life. I haven’t read an Enid Blyton in years, or I could venture to say that I would probably enjoy reading a Famous Five story much, much more than I liked reading this book.

Where do I begin? Let’s start with the premise, some minor spoilers follow. Inkheart is primarily about a book-binder named Mortimer and his daughter Meggie, and their love for books is covered in the opening chapters in detail. Things turn upside down for them when someone named Dustfinger turns up at their doorstep, addresses Mo as Silvertongue, and talks about someone else named Capricorn who wants a book from Mo. A book called Inkheart. So far so good, and it turns out that Mo has the power to manifest things out of books when he reads them aloud, and nine years ago, he conjured a bunch of villainous characters out from the story of Inkheart. An unwanted side-effect was that his wife was transported into the book. So far, Mo had avoided the villains who were trying to find him and his daughter, and he had kept his secret from her, lying about her mother’s disappearance.  They run away again, and go seek the help of Elinor, Meggie’s aunt on her mother’s side, who is borderline obsessive about books.

The first thing that completely turned me off was the complete lack of personality of all the characters involved. The only thing we know about Mo, Meggie and Elinor is that they are all crazy book-lovers. Hey, you like books – that’s great, that’s just hunky-dory, but when you’re discussing books while running away from someone who is out to kill you, it’s not a healthy sign. Mo’s power is glazed over, with nothing to show that it’s special or fun or life-altering in any way. If you imagine that someone with this power, especially someone who likes books, would experiment with it, try to find its limitations, you are obviously not Cornelia Funke. Meggie is more concerned with how lucid Mo’s reading skills are, rather than being awed by the extraordinariness of it all. There’s no reasoning, or explanation behind why only certain people are brought to life by Mo’s reading. Just when you think he can only bring living characters out into the real world, in one segment, Capricorn gets him to transport gold from the pages of Treasure Island. There is a vague implication that the transfer from the written word to the real world also involves a reverse transfer to balance it all out, but no such thing happens later on, when Meggie is imprisoned by Capricorn and finds out that she has the same power.

The villains fare no better. Capricorn is an irritating generic villain who wants gold and terrorises farmers and policemen by employing incendiary persuasive tactics. His grand plan, as the story unfolds, involves getting a lot of gold out from books and to invoke an assassin called the Shadow into the real world. Yawn. He has a lieutenant named Basta, who has a way with knives and a ridiculous fear of the supernatural – the closest thing to comic relief the book has ( and this is the way I can use the word “relief” in this book’s context). Dustfinger provides the moral grey area that the book apparently needs to call itself “young adult” instead of being a good-and-evil children’s book. I will admit, he was the only character in the book that, instead of putting me to sleep, made me want to wring his neck.

Another jarring aspect of the book is its setting, which is never made clear. The story plays out in small Italian villages, with very little real-world implications of whatever’s happening. At one point, the characters talk of cellphones and travel in cars, but it is almost as if they inhabit some strange parallel world where nobody else exists, except for people who are directly connected to Inkheart. Fenoglio, the writer of the book, joins the motley crew somewhere in the middle, and finds himself drawn  into this business, and things play out exactly the way you would imagine. Go ahead, think of a possible ending to a story where there are characters created by an author, in the latter’s presence. Yep, that’s exactly what happens.

The complete lack of imagination throughout the book made my head hurt. I mean, here you have this wonderful power, and murderous people are after you – your  first reaction, I should think,  would be to read something like Jason and the Argonauts to life and let them loose on your pursuers, instead of reading Hans Christian Andersen and bringing little tin soldiers out.  Sheesh.  The movie, which came out early this year and suffers from the same lack of audience credibility that the onscreen versions of Eragon and The Golden Compass suffered at least tries to ratify some of those mistakes, but I cannot see any way in which it could have made the story more appealing. The translation is lacklustre, no one has any distinct voice to speak of, and the random quotations from different books ( from The Never-Ending Story to Watership Down) that began every chapter grew more and more irritating as the book progressed.After nights and days of trying to get this book over with ( yes, I have this bad habit of finishing everything I start), I finally managed to do it yesterday – nearly a month after I began reading it. Phew. Hello, goodbye, Ms Funke. You will not be missed.

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Saving the world at $11 an hour.

Saving the world at $11 an hour.

The awesomeness that is the second season of Chuck ruled all of last week. Epic frustration prevailed when there were multiple powercuts in the evenings – from 8 PM to 1 AM in the morning, so we had to change schedules to wake up a little early, take some time out to watch an episode and then head to the office. And on Saturday, we finished the season finale. What. A. Trip.

I realize that Chuck is probably nowhere close to the cerebral fan-space that a series like Battlestar Galactica, Lost or The Wire generally occupies. But what gets me every single episode in the show is the element of fun that permeates every single minute. Crackling humour. Funky soundtrack choices, including a great paean to Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ ever, possibly the most kick-ass onscreen utilisation of the Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’. The kind of sizzling on-screen chemistry between Agent Walker ( Yvonne Strahovski) and Chuck Bartowski ( Zachary Levi) that frustrates and wows you at the same time. A hilarious, well-developed supporting cast. Stolid-faced John Casey (Adam Baldwin, last seen in Firefly) whose quips, like his efficiency, just get better as the season progresses. The parallels between Chuck’s moonlighting and Morgan’s shennanigans at the Buy More. The unprecedented battalion of guest-stars as the show progressed – Chevy Chase, Scott Bakula, Nicole Ritchie, Arnold Vosloo. The development of the “mythology”, which is the core ingredient of any show that wants to elevate itself from a generic sitcom to something really epic.

By the time the last episode came along, the ride looks like it has all but stopped. Because unlike other shows which sticks to the status quo, and makes you wonder about how they’re going to shake things up, Chuck was building up the kind of golden finish that leaves every plot thread tied up, every conflict reaching its logical conclusion – the happy ending that is denied to every character in sequential fiction. “How is it humanly possible”, I thought, “to continue this story further?” I was actually worrying about how the writers would maintain the status quo – by the time I was watching this, news of a third season had percolated into my internet-attuned senses. How? How? HOW?

And of course, the last 20 minutes of the season finale. From a tribute to ‘Domo Arigato Mr Roboto’ ( they could start a spin-off series called Jeffster and I would watch it, no questions asked) to an epic sequence that pays tribute to The Matrix, the three words – “to be continued” have never left me so frustrated with the normal 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year rule that we earthlings follow. Why cannot March 2010 be tomorrow, goddamnit? So now, while I wait for Chuck season3, I listen to the Cake song ‘Short skirt, Long Jacket’ ( which is the title theme to the series), download pictures of Yvonne Strahovski for my wallpaper, and read up on interviews with creators Josh Schwartz, Chris Fedak and various cast members. I have also started watching Leverage – the first two episodes of which kick major ass, and so far it appears to be a caper series that does not piss all over its audience with its smartness ( *cough* Ocean’s Twelve *cough*). Also in the queue, Jake 2.0, Extras seasons 1 & 2 ( done with half of season 1) and The Big Bang Theory season 2.

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