‘Royal Pains’ is ‘Playing God’ meets ‘The OC’ (with a dash of ‘MacGyver’)

June 20, 2009

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FROM JASON’S HULU QUEUE — In case you didn’t know, rich people are evil. They do lots of drugs. They’ll only sleep with you if you own a jet. They either ignore their children or bend them to a sick kind of personal agenda. And if they speak with a Bavarian accent, they’re probably doing something illegal.

At least those are the conceits embraced by USA’s new drama, Royal Pains, which is one part Playing God, a dash of MacGyver, and a healthy dose of The OC (but replace angsty teens with a boat-full of vicious Long Island social climbers).

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Now, as a member of the lower middle class, I haven’t spent much time with the nouveau riche. But I’m fairly certain they aren’t the debased caricatures Royal Pains presents — vainly self-elevating, nearly James Bond villain-esque at times. And I have a good hunch that people who live in the Hamptons don’t need to remind themselves of such by saying, “Dear, this is the Hamptons,” or some such cloddy dialogue ever three-and-a-half minutes.

Why do we feel compelled to calumniate the uber-wealthy? I think we make them social Nazis out of sheer schadenfreude-ish jealousy. We hate them because we want to be them.

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That aside, Pains has several marks of excellence: While at time the characters may seem cut from uninventive archetypes, they are very well acted. Lead Mark Feuerstein is a bit dry as the doctor expelled from his profession; luckily, the supporting cast is vibrant enough to prop him up, and then some.

Paulo Costanzo (as Feuerstein’s brother) does more than anyone else to hook you with a loopy horndog lifeview, while Reshma Shetty and Jill Flint make for sympathetic (and eye-pleasing) cohorts in the shark-filled social pool.

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Of course, some of the eye-candy can be a tad distracting as Pains takes a cue from Two and a Half Men and saturates each episode (three, to date) with babes in order to snare its male viewers. Director Jace Alexander does nearly the same with establishing shots, offering what amounts to architectural porn featuring all the luxuries New England money can buy.

The real mark of excellence here is that Pains doesn’t dally too much on the debauchery, and so far it hasn’t stooped to CSI levels of procedural… well, procedure. It strikes a pleasant balance of bloody medical rescues and blueblood feuds, staking most of its bets on the intrigue surrounding the characters themselves.

It’s a drama where medicine and machination are both incidental, opening doors for relationship developments. And so far it’s been fairly (but not excessively) clever about it. Let’s couch it this way: This show has the potential to be the best that the summer season has to offer — which may be damning with faint praise. I’ll keep watching on Hulu for the time being (until something better comes along).

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Big Windup: Wait, is there really this much crying in baseball?

June 1, 2009

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bwlogoFROM JASON’S FANSUBS — When I typically sit down for a new anime, I expect — no, I demand! — mecha, evil reptiles, psychic samurai, or space pirates.

I’m looking for an escape from reality. So when Andrew put Big Windup in front of me, I wasn’t optimistic.

It’s ostensibly a baseball anime, totally destituteof laser battles or acid-spitting mutant biker girls. It doesn’t even sport jiggling breasteses or upskirt shots, so I’m not even sure it fits the definition of anime.

This one’s all about psychology, game strategy, and building character. And in the first seven episodes, a good chunk is dedicated to crying and/or getting our hero, Mihashi, to stop crying. He’s kind of a pussy.

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Honestly, I would have stopped watching after the fourth bout of crying if Andrew hadn’t promised to watch Gurren Lagann if I watch Big Windup.

The tears wear pretty thin, and they all stem from crippling self-esteem issues. Folks, you have to wonder what kind of everyday soul-crushing is going on amongst the Japanese youth with all these shows about abashed teenage boys bereft of self-worth. There just seems to be so much paralytic social awkwardness and self-doubt running amok in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Don’t get me wrong — I like the show so far, even though there are flaws. The animation is not top-notch (there are a large number of pans over stills), and the pacing drags just a bit. But I want to like it. I like baseball. I like Japan. I like cartoons. That should add up to winning numbers for Big Windup.

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What I like best isn’t actually the character story (which is rare for me; that’s usually what I put a premium on), but in this case I’m more obsessed with the baseball strategizing. There’s a lot of analysis of form and mechanics, as well as situational tactics, adaptation, and signaling. Maybe that’s the American in me fawning over his national pastime.

That’s the high point for me, though: watching the players obsess over strike zones, which breaking balls to use in different scenarios, how to load bases, how to shake a pitcher’s or a batter’s confidence, even a speech on how brain chemistry affects play (I’m not sure how pseudo-scientific the coach’s diabtribe was on thyrotropin, corticotropin and dopamine).

There’s just one nagging problem topping it all off: It’s a bit shonen, falling victim to what I’m going to label the “Bleach Syndrome.”

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For example: It takes three episodes to get four innings into a single ball game. That’s too long; it might as well be an epic showdown between Ichigo and Byakuya. It feels like our heroic pitcher is slowly leveling up, gaining the spiritual strength necessary to release his next big power-up move.

In this case, it’s just a special type of throw rather than some mystic energy release, and the show is “realistic” instead of fantasy.

Regardless, I’m probably going to keep watching Big Windup. At the very least, it will give me a little more insight when the wife and I go this summer to watch the Indians play. Go Cleveland! Please don’t suck!


Gurren Lagann believes in the me that believes its robots are awesome

May 23, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FROM JASON’S RANDOM POWER-UP — So there’s this kid, see. And he’s human. And he really, really believes in himself.

In the far-flung future, that kind of self-confidence has replaced fossil fuels and is used to run the giant robots that have replaced cars. Living underground has replaced mankind’s expansion into space. Meanwhile, evil alien beast-men have replaced the Internal Revenue Service as mankind’s greatest foe.

So, just to pre-cap here, so you’ll know what you’re getting into, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is about Ma-Ti from Captain Planet using the power of spirit to force his Transformers Headmaster to combine with Voltron and defeat BattleBeasts ruled by those aliens from V in a huge manifest destiny showdown for a Mad Max planet.

Or something.

lagann01Sounds pretty zany, huh? Well, at times it is, almost to the verge of spoofing every other giant-robo-shonen show out there. But Gurren Lagann takes care to mock its own genre and break some of the old conventions, including taking a wrenchingly brave turn by killing off a charismatic hero in early episodes.

It was that move that convinced me there was more to Lagann than its madcap earnestness — that there was a stoic story hiding under the fluff, V-wing sunglasses, fan service, and comically large drills.

Believe me, you’ll like the drills — especially when our protagonist pulls his GIGA DRILL BREAKER!!! finishing move by sprouting a borer as large as his robot’s entire body. There’s absolutely no phallic subtext there. Nope.

Yes, there are still the shonen stand-bys: last-second power-ups to unleash inner power and defeat a seemingly invincible enemy. Sudden new robot transformations. Shouting the names of attacks as they are performed. The linear appearance of progressively stronger enemies. Some scantily-clad warrior babes.

But these cliches are delivered with enough of a wink at the camera, are punctuated roundly enough by truly gut-sinking tragedy, and filled with enough fist-pumping rock-soundtrack victory moments that you hardly notice. It also helps that Lagann has ditched the tendency of shows such as, say, Bleach, to obsess over a single battle for six or seven episodes. Simon the Digger’s battles are concise but epic.

The result is that the Gainax ‘toon so far has managed to draw a comfortable median between buffoonery and profoundness without choking on its own gravity.

It’s also demonstrated the rare ability to get me rowdy and cheering for the characters, mainly by tapping into that corner of my mind still hooked on the cheese and machismo of 1980s action flicks where good guys exploded the bad guys in the name of justice.

It cribs equal parts from The A-Team and Robotech with that old message: You can do anything you put your mind to, as long as your guns are big enough and your soundtrack is rockin’ enough. Determination, the show says, is the most deadly weapon, and it’s what separates the humans from the aliens. More than anything, the Japanese seem to worship the virtue of an untempered resolve.

Untempered resolve and jiggling boobies. In Japan, there is always a Yoko. I mean, the number of butt-cheek and cleavage shots here are embarrassing, and are clearly intended to bring the horny 13-year-old audience into the fold. The resulting fan art has strained Rule 34 to a breaking point.

All that considered, I give Lagann a big score, as it’s the first anime in about two years that’s actually coerced me to watch more than four episodes. Given its flash and dazzle, which is more in the writing than the at-times shoddy animation (see the infamous episode four), it will probably lodge itself in my top 10 anime list somewhere just above Tenchi Muyo and right below Outlaw Star.


Wallpaper of the Week: G.I. Joe

April 24, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — I’m not sure how I feel yet about the upcoming live-action G.I. Joe movie, The Rise of Cobra. But if it is anything like the recently-launched G.I. Joe: Resolute on Adult Swim, then it at least has a fighting chance.

And that’s half the battle. The other half, as you can imagine, is knowing.

I was grinning madly and hopping up and down in my chair watching the Resolute webisodes the other night. This ‘toon is serious. People die. They get shot in the head at close range. There’s blood. A familiar Joe is assassinated, and 10.4 million Russians are murdered in a single thrust by Cobra.

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There are no Viper pilots parachuting to safety at the last second. And Snake Eyes… let’s just say Snake Eyes is badass, even with a trench knife through his palm.

Like anyone born in 1980 or thereabouts, I watched the old cartoons and played with the toys until the legs and thumbs were broken. Lots of days were spent building sandbox Joe forts and waging complicated campaigns, so there’s a powerful nostalgic connection.

One thing I’ve always found interesting with any 1980s cartoon franchise is how much more compelling the villains are than the heroes. I mean, who else found themselves silently rooting time and again for Destro and the Baroness to finally hatch a winning scheme, or for Cobra Commander to grow a pair (boy, does he ever in Resolute!)?

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I think much of that feeling is wrapped up in character design. While Cobra agents are slick and powerful and domineering almost to the point of being alien or robot, the Joes are near-uniformly tall, strapping lads and lasses, clean-cut and boistrous in all-American gear. They’re practically quarterbacks and homecoming queens in red, white, and blue-speckled military garb.

Which gives birth to a realization, watching one or two episodes recently as an adult: The series was incredibly jingoistic, to the point of being an overt recruiting tool for the armed forces. It’s probably just as responsible for today’s rash of “rah rah sis boom bah” patriotism as any Reagan speech.

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The ‘toon might as well have been intercut with Starship Troopers-level nationalist propaganda. They’re doing their part. Are you? Join the Mobile Infantry and save the world!

I can’t imagine that the new movie will have that same slant. After all, this is war-weary America, and Hasbro and Paramount surely are smart enough to understand that cheerleader patriotism doesn’t really jive with post-Korea, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq viewers. Right?

At any rate, just given the leather outfit and sexy glasses, I’m already backing Sienna Miller’s Baroness.

That aside, enjoy these older-school Joe wallpapers. More can be found, strangely enough, at Skywarp’s Hardy Boys Casefiles Encyclopedia. There’s a mash-up for you.


Wallpaper of the Week: Flight of the Conchords

April 3, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Flight of the Conchords might have been deported in their season two finale, but muddy comments by HBO president Michael Lombardo suggest the New Zealand parody popsters could get a green card for a third season.

The duo have not confirmed this news, not even using their telepathic text messaging super powers.

I discovered FotC sickeningly late, just this January, and have been getting a big kick out of the band’s self-depricating-haha-we’re-simple-mumbling-shepherds humor. The HBO show’s gag is almost entirely a fish-out-of-water one, playing on the ethnocentric American view that New Zealand (which is better than Old Zealand) is just a backwater nation where Vikings and hobbits clash in epic warfare against a pastoral background filled with sheep.

It’s the kind of humor that’s not going to stick with most New World viewers, simply because it doesn’t have enough fart jokes, guys getting hit in the balls with baseball bats, or fratboys having hilarious sexual mishaps — the three most common and egregious forms of American comedy.

Witty cracks (like riffs on robo-genocide or Footloose dance homages) take a little more thought. Maybe that’s why FotC have been relegated to “cult” hero status instead of mainstream entertainment.

So to celebrate a possible continuation of the Conchords’ television success, I hunted down some desktop wallpapers featuring Bret and Jemaine in all their glory. They seem to be made using fan art from whatthefolk.net, which uses the appropriate three w’s (www.) in its URL instead of alternately four or seven. Click to enbiggen:

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BSG finale: Religious buffoonery and other shortcomings

March 23, 2009

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FROM JASON’S SPOILERS — Did you see the Galactica ram the base star? The crash was amazing! And the old-school centurions during the assault? Awesome! Cavil eating his own bullet? Sweet!

Not to mention how hot Caprica Six was in that flack jacket. Then Baltar finally got some redemption, and Andrew and I were all cheering for him as he took that assault rifle from Apollo. How cathartic was that?

And then there were angels. God-damned angels. Sigh.

It was Andrew, that dirty whelp, who convinced me in early February to consume a couple of hours every night for the past month and a half shotgunning all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica. I rather enjoyed it, mainly for the whodunnit intrigue.

I’m proud to report — and Andrew can attest to this — that by the middle point of season two I had successfully prognosticated the identities of the Final Five (though I was really only half-joking when I suggested early on that Tory was a nanny Cylon sent to watch over Hera).

I guess all those hours in college studying narrative devices and literary mechanics were worth something after all.

Sure, there were highlights: I had been rooting for Roslin’s death since season one, for instance. “WHY WON’T SHE DIE?!” became a rallying cry in nearly every episode. (Sorry, Lydia.) And who could deny that seeing the Final Five standing together on the CIC bridge was really stinkin’ cool and a pay-off well worth the wait?

But while I tremendously enjoyed the series, the finale rang a bit empty for several reasons, mostly thematic.

The biggest problem I had was the religious aspect. Of course the Mormon undertones are there; they have been since the 1978 iteration. There was the Christ symbolism with Baltar and the constant reference to the zodiac. There was the whole Last Supper promo pic ordeal. But that’s all just mythology, and I could stomach it. What upset me was the intervention — for no apparent purpose — of the supernatural on a scientific universe.

Those damned angels.

Baltar’s “mental” Six and Caprica’s “mental” Baltar turned out to be messengers, nay meddlers, from God instead of projections, Cylon programming, the products of the subconscious, or some other clever mechanism. Angels to me have always been the same as amnesia: the very worst kind of plot device.

Also, I had been hoping all along that the writers would choose the humanist high ground and force the characters to learn that higher powers — whether monotheistic or polytheistic or the Force — were all fake. I wanted the show to be about how people live or die by their decisions, not the whim of some invisible bearded man.

Even if they hint that god is Bob Dylan.

The larger problem with the idea that god’s master plan was behind the events of the series is that it makes god a horrible murderer. Think about it: He didn’t use his agents to stop the genocide of the 12 colonies, or the ensuing war that killed thousands more humans and (ostensibly) millions of Cylons. You’d think that an all-powerful being would answer a higher moral calling to prevent that kind of death, but no.

It brings to mind the old Epicurean addage:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Or to crib from Denis Leary: “If there is a god, he’s got a whole shitload of explaining to do.” Or if you prefer Mark Twain: “If there is a God, he is a malign thug.”

Then there’s the Starbuck quandary. She’s apparently an angel too, which ruins the big emotional investment we had in her character. She just vanishes while talking to Lee. There’s not so much any pay-off there, and no real answers as to why she’s been “special” since she was a child or why she’s been painting the concentric circles so long. Another great character chalked up to mysticism.

Neither was I such a fan of the colonial and Cylon settlement of “our” Earth. I mean, Douglas Adams called: He wants his plot back. If you looked carefully, Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect were in the background checking out the same group of 148,000 AD primitives.

And who but Arthur Dent would have slept with those primitives? Surely not the advanced humans; they wouldn’t cross the huge intelligence and developmental gaps to mate with Neanderthols. So when did the Cylons, humans, and proto-humans merge into our singular modern race? The whole “they are us” idea is just candy, but it doesn’t really work.

The anti-technology message, though it’s a typical mantra in science fiction, was a bit too strong as well. Our buddy Thaed said it right: The show’s lesson is that technology is bad. Hell, it’s practically a recruiting tool for the Amish. “I have never seen a bigger middle finger given to an audience of a show before in my life,” Thaed said.

And I agree. Why would such a brilliant show overall advocate that kind of arbitrary Ludditism?

That’s all I’ve got to say. Everything else I’m going to choke back to avoid fanboy gushing or overt nerdiness (I mean, more overt than outright blogging about a sci-fi show to my Internet friends. It’s possible to get more nerdy, I suppose, if I were to try). I’m going to clench my teeth and make sure this isn’t a revisiting of the ol’ Firefly trauma. The show is over.

Now I’m off to watch the 1978 version, which has people in capes and that one guy from The A-Team.


YouTube Cinema: Robotix

March 16, 2009


Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11
Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15

FROM JASON’S ROBOT AND DINOSAUR OBSESSIONS — Robotix was to LEGOs what MASK was to Hot Wheels. It had a limited release, an oh-so-brief flare of popularity, and then collapsed into obscurity when marketing agents turned their backs on it.

A product of Toei Animation — the Japanese studio that gave rise to both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata — Robotix was a typical 1980s cartoon enterprise in that it was a blatant vehicle for a toy line.

The “Motorized, Modular Building System” made by Milton Bradley was comprised of interlocking blocks, gears, differentials, winches, tires, and sci-fi accouterments. It was a worthy antecedent to the far more successful LEGO Mindstorm franchise, and is surprisingly still sold today (though by a different manufacturer and distributor). Every set made is still backward-compatible to the original 1984 systems.

Those systems were the byproducts of a 90-minute movie which aired just once in 1985 as part of the syndicated Super Sunday. The Marvel Entertainment block ran several serialized ‘toons, including Jem, Bigfoot and the Muscle Machines, and Inhumanoids. It split Robotix into 15 six-minute shorts. Jem and Inhumanoids became popular enough to warrant full-length treatments, but at the end of their respective runs, Bigfoot and Robotix got stomped into cartoon purgatory.

I was five years old, living in Oregon at the time, and happened to see a couple of those episodes. Like any true 1980s man-cub, I was captivated by the Eastern animation idea of mecha; I was equally caught by the magnetism of GoBots, Transformers, and RoboTech, Exo-Squad, AT-ATs and AT-STs, Centurions, and of course Voltron.

So I was stupidly happy when a family friend (I believe it might have been a sometime babysitter) purchased a Robotix kit for me that Christmas. Certain clickable pieces, which themselves resembled smaller red-and-chrome robots, remained in my possession for years, finding an out-of-place life in the ol’ LEGO bucket.

They may still be there, hidden away in my parents’ attic, held hostage along with some action figures and comic books until such time as I give my parents some grandchildren.

Some awesome person posted the full Robotix series on YouTube two years ago, and it has yet to be yanked down on any kind of copyright claim, which is excellent because the ‘toon is only on DVD in the UK.

Helmed by Wally Burr, voice director of G.I. Joe the Movie, it’s rendered in the same detailed anime style of the 1980s’ most memorable 22-minute-long toy commercials. It’s also got some of the most interesting pulp plot elements: Stars going nova, lizardmen, giant robots, benevolent supercomputers, suspended animation, alien spirits transfered into machines.

And it seems as though Burr tapped some of his old Joe buddies — who geeks will recognize as some of the biggest names in the voice business — to star. There’s:

  • Peter Cullen, who was Pincher from GoBots, Zander in G.I. Joe, Optimus Prime in Transformers, and Cindarr in Visionaries.
  • Frank Welker, known for playing Scooter from GoBots, Megatron in Transformers, Torch in G.I. Joe, and Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters.
  • Pat Fraley, aka Marshall Bravestar, Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Max Ray on Centurions, and Ace in G.I. Joe.
  • Corey Burton, who was Spike in Transformers, Tomax in G.I. Joe, and Dale from Chip & Dale’s Rescue Rangers.
  • Michael Bell, who had big roles as Duke in G.I. Joe, Lance in Voltron, and Prowl in Transformers.
  • Arthur Burghardt, who was Devastator in Transformers, Destro in G.I. Joe, and Turbo in GoBots.

Robotix also had narration by Victor Caroli, who did the same type of voice-over for Transformers: The Movie in 1986 and several of the television series’ episodes.

That, and many stylistic choices (such as the rock-anthem theme that’s one-half “who you gonna call” and the other half Max Hedroom), made it obvious Marvel was trying to capitalize on the Transformers craze and hoping to spur a similar sales frenzy.

Sadly, it didn’t work.

It’s a shame, because as such things go it wasn’t a bad story line, boasting a bit more complexity than most children’s adventures of the day. Of course, Robotix had the normal, innocent lack of moral ambiguity as most shows; the bad guys were determinedly evil, the good guys irreproachably ethical. But it also cooked up some interesting Cold War metaphors, and served them on a plate of techno-imagination to a pre-computer-literate audience.

Oh well.

I guess I pine a little too much for these old-style cartoons. They seem so much more detailed and rich and imaginative than the line-and-paint-bucket-fill computer-aided works aired today by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. And believe me, I’m tired of the modern “burps and farts are funny” and “wacky, zany people doing anti-social and ludicrous things” mentalities.

I wish we could go back to blasting through the universe in spaceships that look like oversexed submarines with fins, and exploring the jungles of exotic planets filled with dangerous and mythical inhabitants.