Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 7

Episode 7: Time to Make... My Move

Obligatory Plot Summary: The Dousan Gelfling Rek'yr drops Rian's group off within sight (distant sight) of the Circle of the Suns, a distant mesa jutting up from the Crystal Sea. Rian's group has to outrace a sandstorm to reach it, and only survive because stone golem Lore carries them up the steep cliff walls. At the top, they find the Heretic and Wanderer, a Skeksis and Mystic, living together. They're both absolutely bonkers, and through an equally bonkers puppet show, explain how they're two halves of the same being and were exiled for suggesting Skeksis and Mystics should get along and work together to figure out a way to rejoin into a single being. The Heretic reveals that he created Lore, and removes the magical crystal, reverting the golem to an inert pile of boulders. The pair inform Rian that to defeat the Skeksis, he needs to retrieve the Dual Gglaive, a magical sword hidden in the Caves of Grot. Speaking of the Caves of Grot, the Skeksis Emperor promises the Arathim Ascendancy (giant hive-mind spiders referred to as Spitters) they can return to their ancestral home in the Caves of Grot if they defeat the Stonewood clan's Gelfling army. The Spitters promise to do more than that. Elsewhere, Hunter (remember him?) captures Rek'yr and his crew, demanding to know where Rian is. Rek'yr resists the torture, but one of his crew panics and tells Hunter that Rian is at the Circle of the Suns. At Stone-in-the-Wood, Aughra shows up to try and talk Maudra Fara out of a frontal assault on the Skeksis. Fara rejects Aughra's counsel, and the next thing we know, Princess Tavra (captured by the Skeksis several episodes back) shows up, wrapped in a cloak. She throws open the cloak and hundreds of tiny Spitters swarm the Gelfling army, latching onto the sides of their faces and mind-controlling them. Completely overwhelmed, the zombie Gelfling army marches off to the Skeksis dungeons. Back at the Circle of the Suns, Hunter shows up abruptly and kicks everyone's ass. Hup brandishes his spoon and charges Hunter, who declares the Podling "cute" before flinging him with bone-crunching force against a distant wall. At the last moment, Archer, the Mystic counterpart to Hunter, shows up and peppers the Skeksis with arrows. Gravely wounded, Hunter grabs Princess Brea and flees.

Musings: There's a lot to unpack here. More plot is crammed into this episode than almost the rest of the episodes combined. The return of Hunter is welcomed, as things always pick up when he's around, as long as he's a puppet and not CGI. Archer shooting him, and apparently shooting to kill, or at least severely wound, was a striking sequence even if expected. Archer, of course, suffered every wound he inflicted on Hunter, and if the Skeksis dies, so does the Mystic. Speaking of, the origin story the Heretic and Wanderer share is not the one from the movie. In the original film, the alien urSkeks cracked the Crystal of Truth in a misguided attempt to rid themselves of evil elements in their nature. In this telling, they were doing nothing of the sort, but rather experimenting on the Crystal itself when things went blooey. That's... significant, to say the least. In light of that, the urSkeks, and Skeksis and Mystics after them, are very much a metaphor for invasive species, which can arrive and utterly disrupt an ecosystem causing the extinction of many species. And disrupt they do--in promising the Caves of Grot to the Arathim, the Emperor intends for the Spitters to destroy the Grottan tribe, then subsequently die themselves as the Darkening--the corruption spreading out from the Crystal--has taken root in the Caves of Grot and are tainting all life there. And while I'm on the subject of Grottans, Deet's casual mention that she has two fathers serves the simultaneous purpose of conveying that homosexuality is an unremarkable reality on Thra, whilst simultaneously causing the heads of "Think of the children!" bigots to explode worldwide. The things I really didn't like about this episode were 1) Gelflings didn't create any of the magic that Princess Brea discovered in and around the throne room. Lore, and everything else, was planted there by the Heretic, 2) the introduction of the magical weapon that can save the good guys from the unstoppable evil. I mean, even the name, "Dual Glaive" evokes memories of the similarly-named Glaive from the 1980s fantasy movie Krull. As it came out not long after the original Dark Crystal I'm certain the name isn't a coincidence. So next episode we're going to get a quest for the Grail... or whatever. What started out as a clever, funny and inventive episode fell back into serious fantasy cliche territory very, very hard. This series continues its bipolar tendencies, as it goes from soaring heights to deep, deep pits of drek at the drop of a hat. I would sincerely appreciate some consistency.

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Friday, November 08, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

After a few days of nearly perfect weather, the skies have turned overcast and gloomy, and everything's damp and cold. This calls for the bossa nova/samba/tropical rock fusion of Jorge Ben's "País Tropical." Alas, the weather forecast promises it's going to get colder before it gets warmer. Maybe next week I'll go with the Beach Boys...

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Oingo Boingo.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 6

Episode 6: By Gelfling Hand...

Obligatory Plot Summary: The Chamberlain arrives at Stone-in-the-Wood and demands the Gelflings serve his needs. Instead, they hide and throw rocks in open defiance. Terrified, the Chamberlain flees. Rian and his party catch up with the Skeksis coach conveying the "volunteers" as well as Brea, Deet and Hup to the Castle of the Crystal. The rescue doesn't go that well until the stone golem, Lore, arrives and starts ripping the coach apart. The Skeksis flee in terror. Rian convinces the freed Paladins of the Skeksis' evil. They then spread out across the land to warn all the Gelfling tribes. Despite the panic of the Skeksis seen thus far, things go differently at the Castle of the Crystal. Despite overwhelming numbers, the Gelfling guards' rebellion against the Skeksis is crushed off-camera. All the Gelflings, including Princess Tavra, are imprisoned in the dungeon. Many of them are drained of their essences. The Chamberlain arrives warning of the Stonewood tribe's open rebellion. Rather than fear, the Skeksis celebrate not having to pretend to be benevolent rulers anymore. Aughra meets with the Archer about Hunter. The Archer tells her he cannot kill his counterpart, but Aughra responds he must find a way. In Ha'rar, Princess Seladon burns her mother's body as a traitor (apparently, cremation is a huge insult in Gelfling circles) then summons the Maudras from the other tribes to crown her the new All-Maudra. The others point out that any of the Maudras may be chosen All-Maudra, and Fara of Stonewood challenges for the title. Seladon initially accepts the challenge, but later reneges, forging a new, Skeksis-inspired crown and declaring herself All-Maudra. Fara and the Drenchen Maudra flee, while the remaining Maudras bow to Seladon. Elsewhere, at the edge of a great desert called the Crystal Sea, Rian and the rest pause to rest and mourn their lost friends and family. Their songs attract the attention of a Dousan Gelfling tribesman, Rek'yr, arriving the next morning on the back of a giant, flying manta ray. He agrees to transport Rian, Deet, Brea, Hup and Lore not exactly to the Circle of the Suns (which is their goal), because that place is supposed to be cursed/haunted/a bad place to be, but at least within shouting distance of it. The others in their group depart to organize resistance against the Skeksis. Ominously, Hunter shows up as the party departs.

Musings: Okay, I thought some of the sets inside the Castle of the Crystal looked familiar, and now I'm certain of it. Some of the passageways in this episode are definitely Moya's corridors from Farscape redressed. I don't mean the actual sets from that science fiction series--it was filmed in Australia, after all, and the sets were broken down after the show was prematurely cancelled following season four. But the passages are of the same odd teardrop shape, which leads me to believe they pulled the original blueprints and adapted the design for a more fantasy-leaning setting. Which doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things, but I notice details like that. Like most episodes thus far, this one's a mixed bag for me. The Skeksis seem inept and hapless early in the episode, to the point where one wonders why the Gelflings haven't risen up and slaughtered them before now. Then we turn around and have the castle guard uprising put down without the Skeksis so much as breaking a sweat. This inconsistency is maddening. We saw the Chamberlain suffer pain from simple rocks being thrown at him earlier. We've seen a Skeksis stabbed back in episode 2 when Rian and Gurjin were captured, and while the wound wasn't fatal, the Skeksis was clearly in distress. Yet here we have an entire detachment of highly trained Gelfling warriors defeated without much effort? It's inconsistencies like this that keep throwing me out of the show. If the Skeksis are so powerful, they shouldn't be driven off by thrown rocks. Likewise, if the Gelfling warriors are legit, then the Skeksis should've suffered serious wounds putting down the rebellion. This show seems to exist in binary: Everything that happens is either all or nothing.

The scene between Archer and Aughra was interesting. This is the first time the duality of the Skeksis/Mystics is alluded to. Although those of us who've seen the movie have already figured out that Archer and Hunter are a single being, split, Star Trek-style by at transporter accident into separate physical forms, it's nice to see that fact coming into play in this narrative. The scene with Rian, Deet, Brea and Hup in mourning was nice. Lore is interesting, as the stone golem has imprinted on Deet. I'm wondering if this will come into play in the future. Rian and Deet make goo-goo eyes at each other briefly, and I had a huge problem with this. Rian lost Mira just a few days before, and watched as the Chamberlain drank down the last of her essence. To have him in a budding romance with Deet in episode 6 is just icky. The Dousan are interesting additions to the series. As aerial nomads, I wonder how the Skeksis would be able to conquer them. Curiously, Rian shares that they're the only Gelfling tribe forbidden from serving as guards at the Castle of the Crystal. I wonder if there's payoff for that in the future, or if it's just a throw-away line. The flying manta ray is cool. Although it's a muppet, it's still composited into the scene and that use of CGI remains distracting. It's not as bad as the landstriders roaming in the distance (the landstriders compositing bothers me more than it should) but is still an issue. Seladon has also dropped any pretense of being a nuanced, complex character. She's a power-mad villain at this point, which still doesn't jibe with the more complex character she was initially presented as, but I've come to expect these inconsistencies.

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Friday, November 01, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Halloween has passed, but it reminded me of that Oingo Boingo song--no, not that one, the other one: "Dead Man's Party." Looking up the video, I was surprised to learn it came out as part of the Back to School soundtrack, you remember, that goofy Rodney Dangerfield film from 1988. I guess Oingo Boingo was all about movie soundtracks in those those days. I guess the movie bug bit them following Forbidden Zone.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Steve Winwood.

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I tend to forget how big Steve Winwood got in the late 80s. I mean, sure, Arc of a Diver is a well-regarded album, but even so, Winwood was still regarded as that guy from Traffic. Then Back in the High Life arrived, with it's first single, "Higher Love." Can you say monster hit? You couldn't get away from this song. Fortunately, it's a good song, although nowhere near my favorite of Winwood's output. I guess radio was ready for an extended period of Winwood sounds, but just didn't know it yet.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Rush.

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Monday, October 21, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 5

Episode 5: She Knows All the Secrets

Obligatory Plot Summary: Hunter has Rian tied up and is ready to slice the Gelfling up to claim his hunting trophy when the Chamberlain abruptly shows up to talk him out of it. Instead, the Chamberlain takes possession of Rian to return the Gelfling to the castle himself, all in a bid to regain favor with the Emperor. The All-Maudra, who had earlier dismissed rumors of an unnatural blight corrupting Gelfling lands, is shown a landstrider corrupted by the Darkening. This jars the All-Maudra, who begins questioning her recent (and arrogant) decisions. Rather than allow her guard to kill the afflicted creature, the All-Maudra orders its release, commending its fate to Thra. Princess Seladon squabbles with Princess Brea, arguing the magical stone creature, Lore, is dangerous and unnatural, as is the hidden chamber beneath the throne room. The All-Maudra arrives, and although skeptical, agrees to enter the chamber with Brea, mindful of her recent errors in judgment. Deet, disguised as Ha'rar nobility to gain an audience with the All-Maudra, arrives with Hup, carrying her warning of the Darkening. The disguise doesn't fool Seladon for a moment. Deet offers to prove her story by Dreamfasting with Seladon. In the Skeksis coach, Rian and the Chamberlain argue about the ethics of the Skeksis harvesting Gelflings. In exasperation, the Chamberlain stops the coach and offers Rian his freedom. If Rian flees, the Chamberlain warns, rebellion and war will follow, and the Skeksis will kill all Gelflings. If Rian stays and war is averted, the majority of Gelflings will live out their lives happily, oblivious of the grim fate of some of their number. Rian, swayed by the Chamberlain's arguments, agrees to stay. A short while later, Naia and Gurjin (freed by Naia from the Skeksis dungeons) attack the coach with the goal of freeing Rian. The Chamberlain's arguments apparently forgotten, Rian, Gurjin and Naia disconnect the giant rolling pillbug things from the coach and ride off to freedom as the Chamberlain crashes in humiliation. At the Sanctuary tree, Aughra has been stomping and fussing and demanding to hear the Song of Thra, with no success. Aughra then realizes she must listen, humbly, to be able to hear Thra. The song comes to her and she begins to chant and dance in ritualistic fashion. Across Thra, Rian shares what he's seen of the Skeksis with Gurjin and Naia through Dreamfasting, while in Ha'rar, Brea and the All-Maudra do the same, as do Deet and Seladon. They're all brought together simultaneously in a dreamspace version of the Castle of the Crystal, where Aughra tells them all the full extent of the Skeksis plans. Rian shares the death of Mira, and they all agree the Skeksis mus be fought before Gelflings are wiped out--all except Seladon, who argues what they speak is blasphemy. Aughra casts her out of dreamspace. The remaining rebels lay out their plans, then return to the real world. Seladon rushes to the two Skeksis gathering the "volunteers" and tells them the All-Maudra plots to betray them. The All-Maudra confronts the Skeksis, intent on saving the seven volunteers, and warns them that Gelflings will no longer cooperate. The Skeksis promptly kill the All-Maudra. Seladon claims the title of All-Maudra for herself, and brands Brea, Deet and Hup as traitors. She orders the late-arriving guards to capture the trio and lock them up with the volunteers for transport to the Castle of the Crystal.

Musings: When I say this one was all over the place, I'm not kidding. It contains the absolute best scene of the series thus far, as well as the worst. Throughout the series, the Chamberlain has been presented as the greatest equivocator ever, a devious twister of words who is able to confess to the worst of sins and end up being praised for his nobility. The trouble is, the writing of his dialogue has been sophomoric at best, middle-school reverse psychology at worst. Convincing, he is not. And yet, when he justifies the Skeksis actions to Rian in the coach, he's almost convincing. Not because of the strength of his argument, mind you, but because the Chamberlain seems genuinely concerned with averting bloodshed and suffering. He doesn't regard Gelflings as anything more than livestock, but he sincerely wants said livestock to be treated ethically until the time comes for them to be melted by the Dark Crystal and turned into essence for the enjoyment of Skeksis. And Rian is seemingly won over by this, and rejects the Chamberlain's offer to walk free. That is, until Gurjin and Naia show up, at which point Rian's like, "Up yours, Skeksis! I'm outta here!" It makes not one lick of sense. That escape scene renders the previous scene utterly pointless, a time-filler to pad out the episode. It utterly muddles Rian's motivation and undermines his actions. Why the hell did Rian stay? There's no sense of any plan or motivation on his part, other than to follow the dictates of the script. As for the escape itself, ugh. Yes, it was a clever action sequence on paper, but in reality, it went on twice as long as it should have. Action stretched out too long becomes boring, doubly so when all the Chamberlain had to do to foil the escape was halt the coach. Instead, he flails around inside the coach for several minutes, screaming occasional threats, as the Gelflings fumble around before stealing the giant pill-bugs in the most anti-climactic climax ever. You know, had Rian taken the Chamberlain up of his offer to go free, only to have the Chamberlain renege at the last moment (revealing him to be a liar) the escape sequence would've made sense and at least given Rian some little shred of pride. But no, it was just mindless.

Seladon, too, is problematic. She's presented in previous episodes as bitchy and self-important, but also wholly devoted to her mother, the All-Maudra, and duty. That's not exactly nuanced character, but it is multilayered and a far cry from a mustache-twirling villain. Unfortunately, as soon as the Skeksis are identified as a threat, Seladon becomes... I don't know, a religious fanatic? She doesn't act out of concern for the best interests of the Gelfling subjects (which could've been an interesting take, Seladon as reluctant collaborator to try and save as many Gelflings as possible) but rather out of heretofore-unseen blind devotion to the Skeksis. She blames Brea for her mother's death, seizes power immediately, condemns her sister to certain death and comes off as gloating over her mother's corpse. That's... jarring. Seladon's motivation just isn't there. In all previous scenes, she doesn't come off as power-hungry. If anything, being first in line for the throne is viewed as both a duty and a burden, and she expresses a degree of envy toward her sisters, who don't face either.

The best scene, though, almost makes up for all the bad. Almost. When Aughra is dancing and the scattered Gelflings are Dreamfasting, the rhythm and the sounds and the cuts between each of the scenes is rhythmic and dazzling and transcendent. Katherine Smee is the puppeteer controlling Aughra, and in many cases, wearing the Aughra puppet/prosthetics. Her dancing motion is at once fluid and jerky, otherworldly and tribal. Without her performance here, this scene tying together disparate characters and locales would not work. This is an ambitious sequence. Not just technically ambitious--this series is chock-full of technical wonder. No, this is ambitious from an editing and directoral perspective, conveying the world-changing significance of this moment without any comprehensible dialog, evoking an emotional response, that elusive "sensawunda" out of latex figures pretending to be real. There's some real wow there.

And then they go and spoil it all by immediately killing the All-Maudra as soon as she realizes the error of her ways and turns on the Skeksis. Not only is she the second authority figure to die immediately upon realizing the truth about the Skeksis, she does so in the stupidest way possible. She confronts the Skeksis--who she knows beyond a shadow of a doubt casually kill Gelflings and consume their essence at the drop of a hat--without any of her royal guard, her paladins, but also does so knowing Seladon has warned the Skeksis in advance. That's idiot plot territory right there, when situations unfold the way they do only because characters act like idiots. I hate that. Here's the thing many writers in Hollywood are quick to forget: It is entirely possible to do everything right, to make no mistakes, and still lose. Show the All-Maudra being smart and clever, mobilizing the paladins, recognizing the Skeksis for both the tactical and existential threat they are, and still failing! It's stupid when the lone sleuth confronts the crooked cop in an abandoned warehouse, announcing that they've discovered said cop has been a hitman for the mob with 567 murders to his credit and the sleuth is now going to tell everyone the truth--just as soon as they can get back to civilization, because their cell phone's dead, their car has a flat and they didn't tell anyone where they were going in the first place. It's infuriating when humans do it, and it's infuriating when Gelflings do it. The end.

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Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance episode 4

Episode 4: The First Thing I Remember Is Fire

Obligatory Plot Summary: In need of more essence, the Skeksis decide to demand a tribute of seven warriors from each Gelfling tribe to fight the threat of the Arathim (Spitters), large spider-like creatures who have waged war on Gelflings and Skeksis before. The Chamberlain's caution is blamed for Rian's continued evasion of capture, and the threat of Gelfling rebellion grows. Chamberlain is exiled from the Emperor's table, and in retaliation the Chamberlain summons the Hunter, a free-roaming, predatory Skeksis and sets him on Rian's trail. Back in Ha'rar, Princess Brea follows the stairs beneath the throne to a hidden chamber beneath. Each of the Gelfling clans is represented in the chamber by a stone carving with an inset for a glowing medallion. Brea attempts to solve the chamber's riddle by placing the medallion on each carving in turn, in order of the various clans' hierarchical rank. When this fails, Brea realizes that the hierarchy is artificial, that all Gelfling clans/tribes are equal. This turns out to be the solution to the riddle, and a pile of boulders in the chamber assembles itself into a bizarre stone giant identified as Lore. Aughra, frustrated by her failure with the Skeksis as well as her failure to hear the Song of Thra, encounters the Archer, a roaming Mystic who speaks in riddles but ultimately directs her to the Sanctuary Tree to re-learn the Song of Thra. Rian is finally cornered in a Podling village by Princess Tavra, as well as Gurjin's sister Naia and her friend Kylan. Each believes Rian's a murderer and want to turn him in for their own ends. Rian begs them to dreamfast with him, and shows the lone remaining vial of Mira's essence. Because of the Skeksis warning that Rian's madness is passed along by Dreamfasting, they are reluctant to do so, but finally agree. As they are dreamfasting, Ordon, Rian's father, arrives and joins the dreamfast circle as well. All are horrified by the truth and vow to help Rian. The group separates with different missions. Rian and Ordon are ambushed by the Hunter, and it's immediately apparent the Gelfling warriors are overmatched. After hatching a quick plan with Rian as bait, the Gelflings lure the Hunter to a patch of ravenous gobbles (think quicksand with teeth). Ordon sacrifices himself by knocking Hunter into the gobbles. Hunter is too powerful for even the gobbles, however, and emerges (worse for the wear) to capture Rian and head back to the Castle of the Crystal with his prize.

Musings: Holy cow, this was a pretty kick-ass episode! Hunter is an insane, bad-ass Skeksis, a welcome addition to this world and significantly different from the courtly Skeksis we're familiar with, although no less menacing. I was surprised he survived the gobbles, as the Skeksis had not been shown as all that powerful prior to this. Alas, the battle between Hunter, Ordon and Rian isn't terribly satisfying. First of all, the CIG Hunter, slithering through the trees, wasn't good. It didn't make him seem threatening, it was jarring. CGI Hunter did not move in the same way as muppet Hunter at all. It was unnecessary and arguably accomplished nothing beyond inflating the budget and throwing me out of the moment. The actual battle falls into the trope of building an opponent up so that when they're easily defeated, viewers will be wowed by the power of the victor. Rian and particularly Ordon have been positioned as good, potentially great (Ordon) Gelfling warriors. We've seen Skeksis being stabbed, tortured, hurt and bleeding. Hunter's fight with the Gelflings makes the Gelflings look inept and hapless. That's a cheat. For comparison, consider Empire Strikes Back--during the climactic lightsabre duel, viewers are left with no doubt that Luke was woefully overmatched by Darth Vader, but the film still went through considerable effort to show that Luke was not hapless or inept. Vader was just that much stronger. In this battle, apart from the trick with the gobbles (which is more of a ruse than actual combat prowess) the Gelflings might as well be fighting Hunter with Podling Hup's spoon. I know there are budget considerations, but this falls more to the inconsistencies in the script, which have been my problem since episode one. I'm also troubled by the fact that Ordon, the first Gelfling with any authority, is killed off almost as soon as he learns the truth. I understand the narrative needed a death for the Hunter battle to attain a certain gravity, but Ordon's came off as too quick, too convenient.

We also are introduced to Hunter's Mystic counterpart, the Archer, who strikes me as a lot more talkative than most Mystics. I love the physical design of the Mystics and want to see more. Curiously, despite almost unquestioning devotion to their Skeksis overlords, Gelflings, by and large, seem to automatically default to trusting one another. The Skeksis/Gelfling relationship is best described as Gods/worshippers, so this is an interesting development. More interesting is Brea's activation of Lore. Here, we're treated to much more metaphysical magic manifestation. All I can ask here is where did the Gelflings get all of this bad-ass magical power, and why don't they seem to have access to it anymore? Lore is a great creation, weirdly asymmetrical in design. The construct (a stone golem would be the closest analog in established mythologies, I suppose) has what is essentially a phonograph cylinder on its arm, which rotates and produces a recorded message when Lore's other arm, ending in a stone hook, touches it. I mean, this is some gonzo crazy inventive creativity at work here. Between Lore and the Hunter, this episode has the most freshness and vitality of any thus far. Something's actually happening, and the series feels downright vibrant.

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