Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Muppet Christmas Carol

I started writing this post, or something a lot like it, last year, but I deleted it entirely by March, as by then it was no longer topical. I suppose I’d better post this one now, lest it suffer the same fate. Christmas is over, but it’s still the holiday season, so let’s see if I can get this out before the new year.

I generally don’t like Christmas movies. (Some smartass usually makes some quip about Die Hard when this topic comes up, but we’re going to ignore that for the purposes of this piece.) I love Love Actually, actually, but the Christmas movie I treasure above all others is The Muppet Christmas Carol.

There’s no reason at all that it should work. It’s absurd on its face, yet somehow everything contributes to the whole. A friend sent me a link to a look behind the scenes and it confirms what I’ve always thought, that the movie works so well because Michael Caine plays it absolutely straight.

“I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.”
It’s him, but it’s not just him. There many other decisions where the absolute best choice was made, and the whole thing fits together as tightly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

(It also doesn’t hurt that the story itself is one of the most enduring tales of the past two hundred years. The thing about a Christmas Carol is that, like anything that’s been around for a long time, we forget how powerful a work it is. I’m a sucker for a good story of redemption and maybe one day I’ll be featured in my own, and this is the archetype, the Ur-example that laid down the framework for all that would follow.)

The framing mechanism of Gonzo as Charles Dickens also works really well, and it wouldn’t work without Rizzo. Having them during the visit from final spirit was an inspired decision as well.

The casting of Statler and Waldorf as the Marleys was brilliant.

That cracks me up every time.
They include the aging over the course of the day of of the Ghost of Christmas Present, which is something a lot of adaptations omit, but which I think is a fundamental part of the character.

The music is brilliant.

Using new creations for the ghosts instead of going with established Muppets was absolutely the perfect call.

And, finally, the scene with Kermit as Bob Cratchet, explaining to his children the loss of their brother. It’s astounding how a thing stitched together of cloth and foam can radiate such sorrow and loss.

I picked a spot for Tim where he can see...It-It's a spot on the hill...and you can see the ducks on the river.
Tiny Tim...
Tiny Tim always loved...watching the ducks on the river.

It's all right, children. Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it. I am sure that we shall never forget Tiny Tim, or this first parting that there was among us.
Christ, that’s just heartbreaking.

And I'm sure you know the rest. Scrooge wakes up and learns it's not too late to change.

He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Donald Got Run Over by a Reindeer

Reposted with permission, from a family member much more talented than I:

To the tune of Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer

Donald got run over by a reindeer,
Walking from a rally Christmas Eve,
You can say there's no such thing as Santa,
But as for me and Sanders, we believe

He'd been hating on the Muslims,
Saying they all would have to go,
Took a parting shot at Clinton
As he swaggered off the stage into the snow

When Fox posted Christmas morning,
From the scene of the attack,
Christie shouted, “Merry Christmas!”,
And Jeb tweeted “Trump got trampled. Bush is back!”

Donald got run over by a reindeer,
Walking from a rally Christmas Eve,
You can say there's no such thing as Santa,
But as for me and Sanders, we believe

Now we're all so proud of Marco,
And Cruz has taken this so well,
See them talking economics,
Debating ISIS while The Donald burns in hell.

It’s so boring without Donald,
All the Hopefuls dressed in black
And we just can’t help but wonder:
Who will Santa nail next when he comes back???
Donald got run over by a reindeer,

Walking home from a rally Christmas Eve,
You can say there's no such thing as Santa,
But as for me and Sanders, we believe.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Single Sentence Doctor Who Review: Shield of the Jötunn

You can kill a man, destroy his body, break his spirit, but only Big Finish's American accents can annihilate a man's soul.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Revenant: A Hugh Glass movie!

Hey, a movie about Hugh Glass! Why did no one tell of this?! It's close enough to Zelaznian for the purposes of this blog. I'd better get to seeing it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Jessica Jones and the Case of the Karma Chameleon

Jessica Jones is the story of a psychotic narcissist, who sees other people as nothing more than tools or obstacles, and, through dint of superhuman abilities, manipulates or intimidates innocent victims into terrified compliance.

(Also, the Purple Man is in it too.)

Jessica Jones is kind of a horrible person.

The story works well as a metaphor for overcoming an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, it only works on that level. Even if you take the allegory away from the Narnia, you have a story about a talking lion and some kids. Jessica Jones is just a garbled mess as a narrative.

Stuff I liked:

Episode One was taut and tense and compelling, and the best hour of TV I’ve seen in years.

Luke Cage:  Sweet Christmas, he was great. He’s oozes charisma, he’s used in moderation, he’s interesting and sympathetic.

Trish: What a Hellcat! She gave a superb performance. She was best when she was her own person and not acting like an off-brand wannabe Jessica Jones.

Stuff I didn’t like:

Jessica: As a rule, I like shows with female protagonists.

I was hoping for Season One Veronica Mars.

I got Season Six Buffy.

Remember what I said about Luke Cage. Jessica is the opposite of all that.

I tend not to like anti-heroes anyway, but I stuck with Breaking Bad to the end, because it was interesting.  I don’t want to diminish the trauma suffered by the real-life survivors of abuse on whom Jessica is based, but this is a story that’s designed primarily to entertain and I found the lead neither interesting nor sympathetic.

"For thirty years you dreamt you were a hero, and condoned a thousand petty lapses--because a hero, of course, can do no wrong."

David Tennant: He’s part of the problem. I was nervous about watching the show, because I knew the subject matter. I had heard it had been toned down for TV, so tentatively, we began watching.

At least he was interesting, but I have mixed feelings about liking him more than Jessica. As a character, I mean. They’re both reprehensible, but at least he’s interesting when he’s on the screen. And I think that might actually be an interesting and possibly legitimate choice. It’s easy to sympathize with the charming rapist, and just as easy to ignore the words of his victim if she’s not as articulate or somehow marginalized. That’s a great message for a public service announcement, but a lousy choice for entertainment.

I’m not sure where they were going in trying to make him sympathetic halfway through the series. Probably because abusers often suffered abuse of their own in the past? It didn’t work, because the first impression we have is him compelling Hope to murder her parents, just to send a message to Jessica. Regardless of what happened twenty years in the past, you own that murder, dude.

The show can never decide if he’s a master manipulator even without his powers, or a ten year old boy who never had to grow up. The answer is, he’s neither. He’s an abusive ex-boyfriend with superpowers, and there’s nothing more to him than that. The dichotomy works within the context of the allegory, but it collapses if you want to look at it in any other way. (And when did he learn how to read lips?)

Kilgrave’s name: “Kilgrave” sounds like a name. It sounds like some Eastern European name anglicized at Ellis Island. It’s unusual, but I didn’t think it was fictional. (Notably, more people in America have Kilgrave as a last name than have mine.) The characters on the show find it so unbelievable that they dismiss out of hand any possibility that it might be real. Also, they use the same joke twice.

It’s not as funny as you think it is, and it doesn’t even make sense. Corpse and carcass aren’t synonyms with grave!

Will: I liked Will (and didn’t figure out who he was until they showed us the pills), but he existed only to serve the allegory as a different take on an abusive ex-boyfriend. But Will has a goddamned point. Kill Kilgrave when you have the chance! Only Hamlet is allowed to dither this much when planning a murder. Jessica was carrying around that syringe as early as episode two, as part of her ridiculous Rube Goldberg torture room plan. She should have been hefting a cinder block, and thrown it through the window when she saw Kilgrave for the first time. It would have saved a lot of innocent people, depending on when she got wise, Ruben, Hogarth’s wife Wendy, the next door neighbor and Will’s buddies, the courier, the guys in the penthouse, Kilgrave’s mom, Kilgrave’s dad, those he ordered to die if he didn’t return, presumably many others.  Hope would still be in prison, but she’d still be alive.

I could also have done without Trish’s “He was a good man, once” defense at the end. I get it, TV show.You don’t need to spell it out for me. Teeth had a more favorable opinion of men than this show.

Hogarth: Oh, I loved Carrie-Anne Moss in this role. At first. The show doesn’t trust us to figure out anything on our own, so she heavily foreshadows her heel turn by speculating about all the things she could do with Kilgrave’s power. Jessica sputters in righteous indignation. (She cares because she was personally wronged.) Later, of course, she gets her comeuppance, as do all who question Jessica.

Hogarth was interesting. Her character is very opaque, and as a viewer, you never know what's going on inside her head. Jessica is also inscrutable, but I didn’t get that impression of inner life. But when Pam asks her why she was at Wendy’s (after Kilgrave commanded her to take him to someone she trusts), she doesn’t tell the obvious lie (“He told me take him to a doctor and Wendy was nearby”), instead, simply floundering like a goldfish outside of its bowl.

Malcolm: I hate Malcolm so much.

He’s a convenient eunuch who only exists to tell everyone how great Jessica is, because it looks like bragging if she does it herself. (Still, you can see her lips moving when he’s talking.)

How to cure a junkie.

Handcuff him to a toilet overnight.

"Bless you, Jessica Jones!"

Fortunately for Malcolm (but unfortunately for the viewing audience), they have another secondary black character so that Malcolm can live, but Marvel doesn’t have to forgo its policy of killing a black dude to give the white characters a little extra motivation. (RIP, Ben Urich)

The Narrative:

Comic Vine called Jessica “A brilliant PI who is always two steps ahead of Kilgrave” but she couldn’t figure out her own neighbor was tailing her for weeks? Didn’t think to look in Hope’s purse?  I don’t think she’s a terrible detective, but there is no evidence to suggest she’s brilliant, either. I just hate this kind of fanboy bullshit.  “I love this character, so she has to be the best.” My impression is that she’s good enough to make a living at it, and that she leans heavily on her powers. Not that that’s necessarily a dig.  You use what you’ve got, and she’s got perseverance and a willingness to do the legwork on top of that.

(On a side note, while I love the character, I don’t think Veronica Mars was especially brilliant either. She was as successful as she was because she was underestimated because of her age, or she was plying her skills against other teenagers, who don’t have as much experience as adults. But she leveraged what she had to make it work. Usually. )

The protagonist-centered morality:  I really do hate protagonist-centered morality. Everyone’s virtue neatly corresponds to how much they like Jessica.

Trust me, I’m a PC: The virtue of other characters can easily be measured by how readily they trust Jessica. Night Nurse, I’m looking at you. Those cops three feet away are looking for you? Sure, I’ll help you escape, person I just met.

A subset of this is how characters friendly to the protagonists readily accept the reality of mind control, saying, in suspiciously similar phrasing, that hey, aliens/invulnerable skin exist, so why not mind control. I think the implication of the similar phrasing is that this only conclusion a reasonable person can reach, that if one impossible thing exists, all impossible things must exist. Any other response is just being arbitrarily skeptical or obstinate.

I don’t think the conclusion is self-evident. It’s reasonable to consider the possibility, but accepting it unconditionally is just as ridiculous as dismissing it out of hand.  It’s a minor thing, but I found it very annoying.

The dialogue:

“Go to hell.” “Already been there…”

No. Never say that again. That is the worst, most boring, predictable line, and it’s delivered badly. That’s like plagiarism on an academic paper. It’s an immediate failing grade right there.

At this point I was extending the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were going something very subtle here, and maybe the tough gal act was supposed to seem unconvincing, because her experiences had left her an empty shell and her bravado was a façade painted blood bright over rotten wood.

As I watched more, I rejected that hypothesis. Krysten Ritter is just kind of a lousy actor, and the dialogue is occasionally just atrocious.

Also, when the real housewife of New York City blames Jessica for getting her mom killed in the Chitauri invasion, she calls Jessica a freak. I wanted to insert a supercut of every time someone calls a superhero a freak, but, while I’m certain such a thing exists, because it’s such a lazy cliché that pops up in every movie, I was unable to find it. So here’s a screenshot.

What takes the cake is the scene in the diner. It's the worst kind of too clever by half bullshit that sounds like it was written at a You Too can write like Joss Whedon weekend workshop

I'm furious that you lied to me and covered up my brother's murder...but not so mad that I can't engage in a twee little bit of wordplay

It’s all about me: At one point, when Jessica is giving Malcolm his tough love detox, she tells him “He did this to you to get at me.”

That’s accurate in the context of the story, but man, it’s the dream of every narcissist to have it be true when she says it really is all about her. Characters in a story don’t make choices, the author makes choices for them. The creators of the show contrive to put them in a situation, so that they can tell the story they want to tell.  The authors here have conspired to give us a story where their glib, boring, unlikable anti-hero is the only one that matters. (It’s also worth noting that almost every major failure comes from another character not doing what she says. Jessica Jones can never fail; she can only be failed.)

The story is contrived so that she must always have the moral high ground. 

I guess I'll make the observation, because no one on the show will, that Jessica and Hogarth each sought to keep Kilgrave alive so they could manipulate him to serve their own ends. Jessica's goals are more altruistic than Hogarth's, but that doesn't change the fact that they're doing exactly the same thing.

There are little things I hate too. Like when Jessica sarcastically thanks Kilgrave’s father for correcting her phrasing (she said Kilgrave ordered the man to kill himself, whereas he tells her that he was compelled to cut his heart out). The thing is, not five minutes earlier, she exploited a loophole in the command given to Trish, who was ordered to put a bullet in her head. Jessica put a bullet in her mouth and satisfied the compulsion.

Sanctimony and hypocrisy, two great tastes that taste great together
And finally, let’s look at the end. It features a lot of what I hate about the show. Anyone facing Jessica experiences a precipitous drop in competence.

Her plan was put together with an attention to detail you'd expect from the underpants gnomes, a million moving parts and a structure that make it collapse if any one item outside her control occurs. These include:
  • Kilgrave’s updgraded powers function in a fashion differently than she assumes they do
  • Someone shoots Trish, who is completely exposed
  • Trish becomes compromised
  • Trish is taken as a hostage (Not quite sure why Trish is part of this plan, frankly)
  • Kilgrave brings a set of bodyguards comparable to the forces he’s fielded every time he’s expected opposition
  • Kilgrave issues contingency commands to his puppets comparable to the ones he’s issued in every previous encounter
  • Kilgrave actually thinks to test his control (“Kill this guy, would you?”) before walking right up to Jessica so she can murder him.
But it all comes together, exactly as planned  and I’m reminded of what Pixar story artist Emma Coats wrote: "Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating."

In the end, Jessica kills Kilgrave. I’m sure it’s cathartic, but under New York law, it’s also first degree murder, as it was preceded by torture. I’m not even saying it was a bad decision. If anyone was too dangerous to live, it was Kilgrave.

It would have better for Hope, Wendy, Ruben et al, had she come to this conclusion somewhat earlier. For Will, too, come to think of it.

The story that would come to define my tastes as an adult was noir, though I didn’t know the word at the time. Jessica Jones uses the trappings of noir, but doesn’t embrace the spirit, where victories are temporary and bittersweet. Nothing illustrates this better than the scene following the murder, when Hogarth, appropriately humbled and back in the fold, and thus, competent again, rope-a-dopes the prosecutor with a torrent of extremely weak flim-flam.  I think I would have been able to accept the show as a flawed, but well-intentioned effort, if not for this.

Is it a bad show, or something I just don’t like?

I’m usually good about making the distinction, but I really don’t know. It seems that the dialogue is more reliant on clichés than is strictly necessary. The metaphors are not subtle. I don’t think Kristen Ritter gave a good performance, but many other people did, though I’m sure at least some of them made the Comics Vine mistake of liking the character and believing the actor gave a good performance. Figure what I consider its failings are 30% things that could be improved and 70% things I just don't like.

How would I fix it?

Fix the dialogue: Get a script doctor to tighten up the writing and get rid of the clichés.

Smarter writing: Kilgrave just gets dumber as the series progresses. A smarter adversary is much scarier, so write him as someone who has been using these powers for years, and knows how to get the most out of them.

Tone down the allegory:  I sense this is a feature, not a bug for the creators of the program, but not everything needs to serve the metaphor.

Chuck the childhood sympathy arc: We know better by they time they get around to this. It doesn’t work in the aftermath of the first episode, and that episode is too good to lose.

Fixing Jessica: You can call her an anti-hero, a Byronic hero or what-have-you, but she’s an asshole. People want to be able to cheer for the assholes. You need look no further than Donald Trump  for proof. A lot of people like seeing someone who is rude being subjected to some sort of disproportionate revenge, but I don’t dig that. If Jessica rips off the arms of the guy who cut you off in traffic, he’s the underdog there, and my sympathy switches to him.

I said at the beginning of the post that I didn’t find Jessica interesting or sympathetic. I could cheer for her if she were likable and boring, and I could cheer for her if she were unlikable but interesting. Obviously, you want to go with the latter, here.  I think that means replacing Ritter with a better actor.

Make the morality less centered on Jessica: Give us characters who have legitimate disagreement on substantive grounds, not straw men. Give us good people who don’t like Jessica.

Finally, let Jessica own her mistakes: Have someone point out that her dad would still be alive if Hope’s freedom hadn’t meant more to Jessica.She went down like a punk when the therapy group stormed her place, and I knew exactly why. The writers had to once again contrive to a scenario where Jessica was not to blame for Kilgrave’s escape. Let’s see her alcoholism played for something other than laughs. Let her mess up, and deal with the consequences for once.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Roger Zelazny Crossword Puzzle

Submitted for your approval, the best Roger Zelazny crossword puzzle on the Internet.

Link to a version solvable in your browser here.

The Clues! (Some are harder than others)


6. This story had some dolphins in it
7. Pen name once used by Zelazny
8. Protagonist in Mana from Heaven
10. Shadowjack's only friend
11. Monastic assassin in Roadmarks
12. Bester novel completed by Zelazny
13. Red’s last name in Roadmarks
14. Zelazny held a black belt in this martial art
17. Zelazny's sentient home computer
20. Title to the unwritten third book in the Changeling series
22. Latin Advice Snuff receives in the Dreamlands
23. Protagonist of 24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai
26. "The ________________ are never defeated," said Kubera, and the girl picked up the block and stared at it for a long time before she named it.
28. Poe inspired collaboration with Fred Saberhagen The _____ Throne
30. Telefactor robot from Home is the _________________
31. Last name of the doctor in He Who Shapes
32. Poem from which a Night in the Lonesome October takes its name
33. City where Roger Zelazny was born
34. Coral’s relationship to Merlin
38. The play that was the subject of Zelazny’s Master Thesis The ___________ Tragedy
41. Protagonist of the Dead Man's Brother
42. The Key That Was Lost
43. Name of Dilvish’s horse
47. Deadboy Donner was written in the style of this author
49. Where Francis Sandow had hung his worlds
51. The Lord of Bats' place of Power
53. The Revenger's Tragedy in spaaaaaaaace! Nine __________ Waiting
54. Part of Rastov's body where Quicklime dwelled
55. Spiritual successor to the Amber Diceless RPG: Lords of _________ and Shadow
56. Nickname for Ichthyform Leviosaurus Levianthus
57. Zelazny's version of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"


1. Death in Donnerjack “All ___________ is but an imitation of my ways.”
2. Artist in Bridge of Ashes
3. Zelazny’s Berserker story ____________ surprised
4. Zelazny's collaborator on Come to me not in Winter's White
5. Demon bound by Baran of the Extra Hand
9. He beats up Gerard in the 4th Amber book
10. The tool Dara wished to use to seize the throne of Chaos
15. This book is about a flare
16. Second Millennial Contest book If at ____ you don’t succeed
18. The creator of the Great Pattern of Amber
19. Corwin’s colors were silver and
21. Zelazny’s first Wild Cards story The __________
24. How Karagee preferred to be addressed
25. Part of the anatomy in which Merlin's head was often stuck
27. The names of the clones in Today we Choose Faces are either references to Black or
29. A steep-sided gully cut by running water in an arid or semiarid region
35. George R.R. Martin adapted this story for television: The Last Defender of ______
36. Murdock's carefree Swinger sedan
37. Zelazny won his final Hugo for this story
39. Video game adapted from what began as a Francis Sandow story
40. Story in which a man lives life backwards
41. Month when the senator was to be assassinated in He Who Shapes
44. The name of Great-Souled Sam that fits in these tiles
45. First name of Jan Michael Vincent’s character in Damnation Alley
46. Counterpart to the Pattern
48. Tribute Anthology for Zelazny, Lord of the
50. The Courts of _______
52. From Wilderness “The _____ soared”
53. The true Buddha in Lord of Light

Friday, December 4, 2015

Boo, Blogger!

I'm not sure why the recent comments and the site search no longer work, but I'm working on fixing them.