Friday, July 19, 2024

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

"Weird Al" Yankovic is back with a new song. He's been mostly quiet on the new music front for a decade now, which is kinda hard to fathom considering how reliable his output has been since releasing "My Bologna" back in 1979. Fittingly, "Polkamania!" is one of his pop hit/polka mashups that have become highlights of his albums starting with "Polkas on 45" on In 3-D from 1984. I'm hardly an authority on all things Al, but I do believe this is the first time one of his polka medleys has come out as a single. If you're not familiar with the formula, Al takes a verse from a popular song then sets it to a polka arrangement--it's not unlike what Postmodern Jukebox does, albeit without the polka. The accompanying video itself is a masterpiece of surreal dada excess. Muppet Al dancing with muppet yetis is an image I'll not soon forget.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Now Playing: Ixtahuele Pagan Rites
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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Acolyte episode 8

Osha and Mae face Qimir in episode 8 of The Acolyte
The Acolyte is a new series streaming on Disney+. It is set in the Star Wars universe and occurs 100 years before the fall of the Jedi and subsequent rise of the Empire.

What happened: Osha, still wearing the Cortosis helmet we saw her put on back at the end of episode 6, has a powerful Force vision of Mae killing Jedi Sol without a weapon. She's determined to stop Mae, so strikes a deal with Qimir to go together, as he doesn't know where Mae and Sol are and Osha doesn't have a ship. As they depart, a gaunt, skeletal figure watches them depart from Qimir's cave. Sol has taken Mae to Brendok, where everything went wrong 16 years prior and sends a signal to Vernestra on Coruscant. But Sol hasn't actually told Mae anything before Mae breaks out of her restraints, stealing an escape ship (not an escape pod, because this thing has flight controls). Sol chases after her through the rings surrounding Brendok but annoying tracking groundhog Bazil sabotages Sol's ship sending both him and Mae to hard landings on the planet. On Coruscant, Vernestra is confronted by Senator Rayencourt, who mistrusts the Jedi because they're so powerful and fears what damage a single rogue Jedi could do. Verenestra admits she's conducting a murder investigation but insists she's "very close" to bringing in the killer. She then receives Sol's signal and grimly gathers as many Jedi as she can without raising alarm and rushes off in pursuit. Back on Brendok, Sol searches for Mae but encounters Qimir instead. They fight. Having faced Qimir before and seen his tricks, Sol is able to gradually wear down his adversary. Elsewhere, Mae finds Osha, but when Mae tells Osha that Sol has lied to her all these years Osha lashes out with anger and a pretty intense fight develops between the girls. Vernestra's ship arrives and Mae uses the distraction to get away from Osha. Sol destroys Qimir's lightsaber and appears ready to kill him when Mae arrives. Mae challenges Sol, who openly admits he killed Mother Aniseya but insists he did it for the good of the girls. Osha hears his confession, and enraged, Force chokes Sol to death. The girls flee but Qimir, no longer wearing his Cortosis after the fight, is sensed by Vernestra, who recognizes him. The Jedi pour into the ruined Witch fortress and find Sol dead. The girls stop to rest and hug and bond under the bunta tree from the first episode. As they're talking, Qimir arrives and warns them that if he can find them this quickly the Jedi can't be far behind. At first the girls are going to tell everything to the Jedi but Qimir points out that Mother Aniseya was killed in part because she created them through a vergence in the Force, an incredibly powerful and threatening ability. Osha's unlocked Dark Side power would be equally threatening, even without the whole Force vergence to consider. Osha offers to train with Qimir if he'll let Mae go. Qimir agrees and uses the Force to wipe Mae's memories so the Jedi can't use her to track them. Mae is captured and taken to Coruscant where Verenestra tells Mae--and the Senate inquiry--that Sol's guilt over killing Mother Aniseya drove him mad and he is the one responsible for killing Indara, Torbin and Kelnacca. After, she goes to meet with Master Yoda.

Disturbances in the Force: This episode, as far as I can tell, has no title. Which makes no sense, but then again that's on par for this episode. All the pacing issues I complained about in the earlier episodes are magnified tenfold here. During their fight in the ruins, it becomes very clear that Mae and Osha, wearing white and black, respectively, have switched positions. By that I mean Mae is on the path of redemption and Osha is falling headling toward the Dark Side. The vision Osha had was not one of Mae killing Sol but of herself--and the "sisters" are the same person inhabiting two different bodies, she couldn't tell the difference. It's an interesting idea, but that was the finale! After Osha succumbs to the Dark Side (for very good reasons I might add) and strangles Sol, there is no more story. That's it. Hard stop. Yet The Acolyte drags things out for 15 more minutes. Everyting that comes after completely deflates the emotional climax and Osha's character arc. She essentially killed her father for crying out loud! As for Sol, he shows zero remorse for his actions 16 year prior. He's still insisting he was in the right, unrepentant, unredeemed. Then, after his death, Vernestra compounds the problem by doing the same damn thing by lying to Mae and the Senate and (presumably) the Jedi Council. Why? I'm thinking Qimir is a former padawan of hers, but its not clear. None of the motivations are. I mean, Bazil sabotaging Sol's ship came from out of nowhere, had no logical basis. Bazil has become a blunt force plot device. On Brendok, after finding Sol's body, Vernestra orders the other Jedi to set up a wide perimeter but in the next scene they're all following Bazil in pursuit of Mae. Huh? Osha's decision to go with Qimir and leave Mae was also baffling weird. The girls had just reunited after thinking each other dead for 16 years and now, not only will they separate, but they're erasing all of Mae's memories as well? That seems like a solution in search of a problems. Why not take Mae with them and sort things out later? Qimir's ship kinda sorta gave the impression of being only a two-seater earlier in the episode, but in prior episodes it appeared a lot bigger than that. But so what? The episode should've ended 15 minutes earlier! Everything that comes after that only serves to set up a potential season 2. It's flabby and wasted and bad writing. The Yoda cameo at the end was wasted, and honestly, kinda pissed me off. One of the things I liked best about this series is that it didn't use previous Star Wars shows and movies as a crutch, with endless parades of cameos and references. We didn't need Yoda. Nor did we need Darth Pagueis. What purpose did he serve? It was a weird, unnecessary reveal that would've made a much bigger impact in season 2, with an episode building up to it rather than an in-passing cameo. Yes, there's still the question of who trained Qimir if Plagueis isn't shown, but so what? That's a good thing. The Acolyte diffuses that mystery for no substantive reason. Fine, I'll grant that Plagueis ties in to the whole Anakin "virgin birth" angle through the twins and the Force vergence. Again, so what? What does his fleeting appearance accomplish here that it couldn't do better in a potential future show? As it stands, Plagueis is even less impactful here than Maul was tacked onto the end of the by-the-numbers Solo film. A Maul cameo couldn't elevate that otherwise competent film, so why should be much-less know Plagueis have any greater impact with the far more uneven Acolyte? Short answer: He doesn't.

At several points during the battles in the fortress, the Witches are chanting. Were there actual survivors? Were there spirits there? Was it an echo of the past? Was it a mere stylistic choice? I dunno. Not everything has to be spelled out, but this episode spells out so many random things that it's hard to know what's important and what's not.

Look, this show was never going to live up to Rashomon. That's a given. I was rooting for it because it was giving us something different for Star Wars. But its missteps are relentless. None of the Jedi we've gotten to know to any extent--apart from Yord the jerk and Jecki the padawan, who are both dead--are really admirable. The Jedi we see stubbornly refuse to learn from their mistakes. I get that this show is sowing the seeds that lead to the fall of the order, but damn, folks, give us some examples of the "heroes" as hostile Senator Rayencourt calls them. This show is brimming over with ideas that are poorly realized, sloppily executed and implemented by half-measures. I want it to be better than it is. It should be better than it is. It showed flashes of brilliance throughout, but then reverted to hand-waving and plot coupons to move the story along, or not. For all its flaws, I still like The Acolyte better than the nonsensical Obi-Wan series or The Book of Boba Fett (how can anyone manage to make Boba Fett boring!?). I like the ideas. I love the fact they're trying to give us something different. The actors involved gave it their all. But this is a clear case of reach far exceeding grasp. Maybe the next time Disney+ greenlights a Star Wars series, they focus on telling a complete story rather than worrying about setting up a potential season 2. But that sloppiness in the final could just as well prevent a season 2 from ever becoming a reality.

Now Playing: The Kinks Kinda Kinks
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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Reading Playboy for the articles: August 1966

Playboy August 1966
My wife, Lisa, has acquired a large collection of vintage Playboy magazines. I'm flipping through those issues that catch my attention and offering my thoughts on the non-photographic content that filled its pages. You know, the articles.

Highlights: For once, I'm not starting out by citing the interview (don't worry, I'll get to it shortly) but rather the letter column. In response to reader complaints about the U.S. Postal Service prosecuting individuals over obscenity statues (not involving Playboy subscriptions, I should clarify, but rather a superintendent of schools in South Texas, who was arrested for exchanging dirty letter with adult pen pals across the country) the magazine contacted Senate Majority Leader Everett Dirksen and several others, whose attention prompted a detailed letter from H.B. Montague, chief inspector of the Post Office. Printed by Playboy in its entirety, disavowing any improper or unethical attempts to prosecute folks using obscenity statutes and taking offense at the idea the Post Office might entrap someone:

Only an employee opening dead mail by authority of the Postmaster General, or a person holding a search warrant authorized by law may open any letter or parcel of the first class which is in the custody of the Department.
Which is reassuring, until the next sentence, which reads, "Evidence reaches the hands of postal inspectors through many legal channels." Playboy instigated some investigative journalism and revealed that Montague was not entirely honest in his letter to the inquiring senators:

But our own investigation of the case has uncovered an important fact not mentioned in the newspaper acount: It wasn't necessary for the incriminating letter to be "intercepted," because of circumstances that do the Post Office Department no more credit than if a postal inspector actually had tampered with the superintendent's mail prior to delivery. It appears that the pair of passionate pen pals with whom Mr. Morgan had been corresponding were actually a "front" for postal authorities from the outset--established for the specific purpose of entrapping unsuspecting citizens into violations of the postal obscenity law.
One could look at recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, along with the platforms of certain political parties in the U.S. and conclude that we, as a society, are not that far from backsliding into this type of intrusive government presence in our daily lives. Remember, SCOTUS ruled not so long ago that there is no such thing as a right to privacy.

And on that happy note, Playboy's interview subject for this issue was billionaire H.L. Hunt, someone I suspect would happily approve of those aforementioned SCOTUS rulings. I'd never heard of him before. A quick check of The Google informs me he was the father of Lamar Hunt, who I had heard of--the late Dallas businessman helped found the AFL and was owner of the Dallas Texans before moving the team to Kansas City where it rebranded as the Chiefs. Okay, that gives a little context. What else should I know about the elder Hunt? Well, he started out dirt poor, got lucky with some oil lease speculation and became a billionaire in short order. He was also an arch-conservative absolutely steeped with anti-Communist fervor, making him a prototype for the Koch brothers long before those two were born. He's also folksy and maddeningly evasive with his answers. The interview jumps around so I don't feel sharing a single excerpt would do it justice. Let's start with his thoughts on charity:

Playboy: You once said that you wanted to use your wealth "for the greater benefit of mankind." Do you feel that you have?

Hunt: I have never been very sanctimonious along those lines. And so I doubt that I said that, because I feel that people who have wealth should not throw their money around; to do so makes good propaganda for the Communists. When someone who has a reputation for having a lot of money spends it foolishly, the Communists can use that as an argument against private enterprise, capitalism and the incentive system.

Playboy: Is it foolish to spend your money for the benefit of mankind?

Hunt: People who have wealth should use it wisely, in a way that will do society the most good. They should be careful that in making supposedly charitable gifts their money will not be used to destroy or impair the American system and promote atheism.
Let's next consider Hunt's views on politics:

Playboy: How would you label yourself politically?

Hunt: I am a registered Democrat who often votes Republican.

Playboy: What would you call yourself--a middle-of-the-roader? A conservative?

Hunt: A constructive.

Playboy: What's that?

Hunt: A constructive is simply someone who is trying to do the best that can be done in public affairs and elsewhere.

Playboy: You really don't consider yourself a conservative? Most people do.

Hunt: Not a particle. The word "conservative" puts a weight around the necks of the liberty side.

Playboy: What do you mean by liberty?

Hunt: Freedom for the individual to do whatever he likes consistent with organized society and good taste. Now about the word "conservative"--I think it's an unfortunate word. It denotes mossback, reactionary and old-fogyism.

Later, Hunt goes on at length how he was a strong supporter of Gen. Douglas MacArthur for president and how disappointing it was when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower became president. Hunt claimed Eisenhower was in the mold of Harry Truman and F.D.R.--the latter of whom Hunt condemned for taking the U.S. into World War II after promising not to involve the country in the conflict during his 1940 presidential campaign:

Playboy: In view of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, do you think Roosevelt can be taken to task for violating a pledge to the mothers of America?

Hunt: This is a big subject that would require much more time than we have to discuss it.
Yes, that's certainly evasive, and just one of many examples peppering the article. I had a growing suspicion that Hunt harbored no objections to the fascist regimes in Germany, Italy and Japan for the simple reason that they weren't Communist. Let's move on to the Civil Rights movement:

Hunt: Many Negro teachers prefer to teach in Negro schools, and many Negro students prefer to attend Negro schools.

Playboy: Nationwide demonstrations to integrate schools would seem to indicate that the majority feel otherwise. How do you feel about demonstrations?

Hunt: Demonstrations are not the proper way to enact laws. They should not be incited by agitators seeking power and votes.

Playboy: Don't you think Negroes should have the vote?

Hunt: I favor suffrage for all 21 years and older.

Playboy: Even for illiterates?

Hunt: Yes. No one was barred in the mythical country Alpaca. [Note: Alpaca is a political utopian novel Hunt published in 1960]

Playboy: Do you regard Martin Luther King as an "agitator seeking power and votes"?

Hunt: I share J. Edgar Hoover's opinion of him.

Playboy: Are you saying that you agree with Hoover that King is "the biggest liar in the United States"?

Hunt: I cannot detect that King has any regard for the truth, religion, sincerity, peace, morality or the best interest of the Negro people.
I cannot help but think the late Mr. Hunt would feel right at home in today's political environment, expounding upon the dangers of socialism (the fall of the Soviet Union and capitalism-takeover of the People's Republic of China would not so much as give him pause) while excoriating Black Lives Matter and other demonstration movements as wholly inappropriate. As the saying goes, history doesn't repeat itself but it certainly rhymes.

H.L. Hunt interview, Playboy August 1966

Other thoughts: Have you heard of steam-engine time? That refers to the phenomenon of multiple inventors around the world, with no connection, independently invented a version the steam-engine at roughly the same time. The reasons for this are complex, but essentially coming down to technology and culture reaching the point where inventing such a thing is not only physically possible but there's also a societal demand for it that makes such a thing almost inevitable. With that in mind, I have to wonder if 1966 is Japanese motorbike time judging from the ads in this issue. Granted, there are only two, from Honda and Suzuki, but they're stylish and splashy enough to make these small and relatively inexpensive imported motorcycles appealing, trendy transportation options for the Playboy reader. The Japanese motorcycle craze may have started in earnest with the Beach Boys' "Little Honda" two years earlier, but these ads reframe them as a legitimate option for adults, albeit with different approaches. Honda's ad features five different photographs of a wedding with the bride and groom departing on a red Honda. I mean, is there anything more suggestive of "this is grown-up business, not kids' stuff?" The Suzuki ad, on the other hand, features a single photo of a groovy dude in dark shades straddling his cycle with three different women draped over him. The ad is shot voyeuristically through out-of-focus tree leaves in the foreground, suggesting that this guy pulled over to chat with one of the ladies and the other two were so attracted to him and his bike that they swooped in. Rather than the "this motorcycle is for adults" message of the Honda ad, Suzuki goes for the "this motorcycle is for players" messaging. Interestingly enough, neither ad uses the word motorcycle in its copy.

"The Death of God" is an opinion piece by Reverend William Hamilton (1924-2013) billed as a "Christian atheist." For background, he and co-author Thomas Altizer published Radical Theology and the Death of God nine months prior. That, coupled with the Time magazine article "Is God dead?" later in the year sparked outrage and furor that I still see occasional references to, even if those are largely disconnected from the 1966 source of the whole "God is dead" concept. The 1960s really were a crucible from new thinking and radical ideas that challenged the status quo. Many reacted with outright hostility. Like the Civil Rights movement, a lot of had been fomenting for decades prior but erupted into the public consciousness and refused to cede ground in the mid-1960s. We certainly live in tumultuous times in the 2020s but despite ongoing tensions and strife nothing quite matches the absolute sea change in societal attitudes and norms as what went down in the 1960s:

I am a Christian theologian by profession: I have recently been involved in the death-of-God fuss, and I am, as well, committed to the death of God as a theological and human event.

It is hard to know just exactly why the furor started last fall. I had been defending the death of God, off and on for years, on C.B.S. television programs, coast to coast, as the saying goes. But this was in the decent obscurity of the Sunday-morning cultural ghetto, and no one really listens to the words people say on television anyhow. What matters is if you are sincere, like Hugh Downs. A book or two came out in 1963, and in 1964 and 1965 a few articles began to appear indicating a common interest in doing Christianity without God. Ther or four of us seemed to be working similar lines, and critics--both fearful and interested--began to call us a movement, and we looked around and decided that perhaps they were right. This was the first decisive alteration in Protestant theology to take place since the communications explosion of the early Fifties, and no one was prepared for the rapidity of information passing when the snowball really started to pick up momentum.
Not that I'm an expert by any measure, but suffice to say theology, as a discipline, has evolved a bit since 1966. But Hamilton was as significant thought leader in his time and shows that religion or theology or whatever you want to call it has never been monolithic. His influence still carries on to this day.

Knight n Squire ad from August 1966 Playboy
The British Invasion began in earnest in early 1964 with the arrival of Beatlemania in the U.S. and by the end of the year ushered in a parade of hits by the Rolling Stones, the Hollies, the Zombies and (my personal favorite) the Kinks. One might have assumed the fervor surrounding the Beatles would've subsided by 1966, but it hadn't. In August 1966 (the same month as this Playboy issue, the band put out Revolver, which was more overtly steeped with counterculture, Eastern influences and other elements foreign to the U.S. mainstream. But their mop-top image persisted to a degree and retailers such as Las Vegas-based Knight 'n Squire capitalized on this with ad "Authentic Look-Alike Beatle MOD" and a checklist of slacks, shirts and turtlenecks guaranteed to make the wearer a hip member of the Mod scene. Is it any wonder that the Kinks would release the satirical "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" that same year? I think not.

This issue we also get "On the Secret Service of His Majesty the Queen" by Sol Weinstein, the conclusion of another James Bond parody. I have to report that I find this installment as unfunny as my previous encounters with agent Oy Oy Seven. I'll just accept the fact that I'm not the target audience and move on. But before we go, here's a glimpse of Bond seducing a flight attendant... er, stewardess on a commercial Air India flight:

With the unruffled efficiency of a trained servant of the air, she stripped Bond's Levi Strauss one-piece sky-diver jump suit from his lithe, hard body and allowed a bronze, muscular arm to draw her head against his chest.

"My name is Israel, O solicitious daughter of the Ganges," he said through cyanotic lips.

"Indira," she breathed. "Indira."

"Look baby," he snapped. "I know where. I've done this before."

"No, Mr. Bond--Indira--it's my name."
Two gems from the "Playboy After Hours" column I must share. First up, a musical observation:

Atop the hit parade in Jackson, Mississippi, as we go to press, is an inspiration ballad entitled Jesus Is God's Atomic Bomb.
Folks, I am not making this up. This was a for-true gospel song recorded by the Swan Silvertone Singers released in 1947. Why it achieved popularity in Jackson nearly two decades later is anyone's guess. Listen to it yourself:

The other item of note has to do with TV's Batman series, which burst upon the scene in 1966 to become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon:

Like many of television's Top Ten shows, Batman seems destined to become an international hit when it goes into syndication overseas, dutifully dubbed with a dozen tongues. The elemental language of "BIF!" "BAM!" "POW!" is probably universal, but we suspect that the series may lose something in translation--though perhaps in name only. In Germany, for example, the caped crusader would strike terror in the hearts of criminals everywhere as the redoubtable Fledermaus-Mensch. Somewhat more mellifluously, he would be known to French fans as the debonair Chauve-souris-Homme, to Italian high-camp followers as the picaresque Pipistrello-Uomo and to Chinese viewers as the sage Bien-fu-jen. However, in Lithuania--predictably enough--he'd be almost unpronounceably named Shikshnosparnis-Zhmogus. But our super-hero's mouth-filling moniker on Polish TV would be the musical challenge of the lot: Nietoperz-Czlowick. Let's see Neal Hefti, composer of The Batman Theme, put that to music.
Finally, as a kid growing up in the 70s and early 80s, pretty much every second pair of pants I wore were corduroy. Seriously, they were ubiquitous. Then, suddenly, they were gone. I haven't seen a pair in decades, much less worn any. The interwebs assure me that corduroy is having a comeback moment in 2024, but I have not seen it. If cords are indeed the trendy new thing, maybe this guy can step up and help newcomers get hip to the concept of wale-count. Remember, folks, the "W" is silent.

Now Playing: Michael Kamen The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
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Monday, July 15, 2024

Projectile politics

An assassin tried to kill Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, during a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday, July 13. Trump suvived the attempt. Bystanders in the crowd were not so fortunate. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories and gallows humor spread like wildfire, aided, perhaps, by this being the first assassination attempt on a U.S. presidential candidate to take place during the internet era and broadcast live. I make no claim to being a great political mind, although I do have opinions and am not shy about sharing them. That's not what I want to discuss today. Instead, I'm offering a list of names and invite the reader to ponder what they share in common:

  • Richard Lawrence
  • John Wilkes Booth
  • Charles J. Guiteau
  • Leon Czolgosz
  • John Schrank
  • Carl Weiss
  • Lee Harvey Oswald
  • James Earl Ray
  • Sirhan Sirhan
  • John Hinkley Jr.
  • Thomas Matthew Crooks
The answer? Regardless of motivation or intent, none of these people are remembered as heroes.

Now Playing: Baja Marimba Band The Best of the Baja Marimba Band
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Friday, July 12, 2024

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I've seen complaints that modern music is too vulgar, that it's offensive and too many artists confuse crudeness for creativity. Shamefacedly, I realize I've contributed to the problem plenty of times in the past with my Friday Night Videos feature. I am sorry. So very, deeply sorry for any offense I may have caused. To make it up to everyone, today I'm sharing the sophisticated classical musical stylings of perhaps the greatest composer ever to live, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Here is his heartfelt vocal composition, "Leck mir den Arsch," as performed by the amazingly talented Johanna von der Deken, Yu Horiuchi and Hyung-ki Joo.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... R.E.M..

Now Playing: Arthur Lyman Leis of Jazz
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, July 11, 2024

The Acolyte episode 7: Choice

The Acolyte episode 7, Jedi battle Brendok witches
The Acolyte is a new series streaming on Disney+. It is set in the Star Wars universe and occurs 100 years before the fall of the Jedi and subsequent rise of the Empire.

What happened: Flashback to 16 years prior. The Jedi, under Indara's leadership, are investigating the planet Brendok. A century earlier, a survey charted it as a barren, lifeless rock. This raised questions as it was now teeming with complex life. The Jedi suspected a Force vergence, which is a kind of nexus of concentrated Force that could've given rise to life. Indara's padawan, Torbin, is cranky and bored and wants to return to Coruscant. Sol is a cocky know-it-all and wookie Kelnacca is inscruitable because there are no captions when he speaks. While surveying an uncharted region, Sol happens upon Osha and Mae. He follows them back to the Witch's fortress, which is an abandoned mining base, and is alarmed at the Force Witches training them for combat. He rushes back to Indara, certain the girls are being abused at best, prepped for human sacrifice at worst. Indara reluctantly agrees to check out the situation. Once at the Witches' fortress, Indara wants to go in alone--all four Jedi marching in there would be seen as a threat--but Sol argues it's too dangerous otherwise. Mae completes the ascension ceremony but the Jedi interrupt before Osha can. The Witches react as badly as Indara feared. Mother Aniseya enters Torbin's mind, learns how badly he wants to return to Coruscant, and uses that to get him to submit to her control. This alarms the Jedi but the stalemate is diffused with an agreement to let the Jedi test Mae and Osha for Force sensitivity. It turns out the Jedi (apart from Sol) have little interest in this but it was a gambit to buy time to wait for instructions from the Jedi Council. Mae fails the test on purpose, but as Indara and Sol ask her questions the ambiguous answers she gives seem to confirm Sol's fears the girls are being prepared as human sacrifices. Osha, on the other hand, passes the tests easily after Sol coaches and prods her extensively. Torbin takes blood samples and the girls' M-count (midi-chlorians make a return appearance!) is not only exceptionally high, it's identical in a way that's impossible even in identical twins. The girls are literally one person in two bodies. Sol and Indara suspect the Witches somehow used the Force vergence to create the girls. The Jedi Council's guidance then arrives and is quite ambiguous: Stop bothering the locals and leave them be. This doesn't sit well with Torbin, who sees the twins as proof of the Force vergence and his ticket back to Coruscant. Perhaps still experiencing aftereffects of Mother Aniseya's mind control, Torbin jumps on a speederbike and rushes off to abduct the girls. Sol ostensibly gives chase but when he finally catches up with Torbin at the fortress, he decides kidnapping it a pretty good strategy. He and Torbin scale the fortress' walls and confont Mother Aniseya and Koril. The Witches are pissed the Jedi are back as uninvited guests. Insults and threats are exchanged and when Mother Aniseya suddenly turns into smoke, Sol stabs her with his lightsaber, killing her dead. As she lays dying, Aniseya tells Sol that she had decided to let Osha join the Jedi, which does not reflect well on Sol's conduct. Koril is understandably enraged, attacking the Jedi. Indara flies the Jedi ship close to the fortress and sends Kelnacca to help Sol and Torbin. The Witches, acting as a group in another chamber, promptly mind-control Kelnacca and the wookie Jedi beats the ever-loving tar out of Sol and Torbin. They're only saved by the timely arrival of Indara, who places her hand over Kelnacca and uses the Force to breaks the mind-control, apparently (?) killing the entire coven in the process. Elsewhere, Mae, angered that Osha plans to leave, locks her in her room then attempts to burn Osha's beloved journal. Mae fumbles the lamp, however, dropping it and setting the whole damn place on fire. Mae runs for help only to discover the Jedi have pretty much wiped out the coven. She flees and enecounters the escaped Osha on a bridge as the entire fortress is collapsing around them. The bridge buckles but Sol arrives and used the Force to keep it from falling. Realizing it is too heavy for him, he lets Mae fall to her apparent death while rescuing Osha. Back on the ship, with Osha unconscious, Indara is not happy to say the least, but she puts the kibosh on Sol's plan to turn himself in to the Jedi High Council. Indara points out that he committed every crime out of the belief Osha needed him and deserved to become a Jedi, and that if he were imprisoned, or defrocked, or whatever happens to naughty Jedi, Osha would be completely abandoned. She's older than children the Jedi usually take in, so nobody would accept her as a padawan. Indara dictates their story will be that the coven perished in the fire Mae started, and the group reluctantly agrees just as Osha wakes up and asks about her family.

Disturbances in the Force: Well, we finally got the much anticipated second flashback episode. It was... adequate. Honestly, it fell far short of Rashomon, but I suppose that was inevitable. In Kurosawa's film, the viewer is shown multiple viewpoints of the same incident, and each perspective is different--sometimes contradictally so. In this episode, nothing is shown that contradicts what was shown in the episode 3 flashback--instead, it shares scenes that were intentionally withheld from that episode. Whereas the previous flashback is predominantly from the perspective of the Witches, this time out it's primarily from that of the Jedi. As a basic fill-in-the-blanks narrative it works, but its not terribly sophisticated. What I'd have preferred were two very different takes on the flashback, sharing the same events but mutually exclusive in the way they were perceived, with the audience left to determine which take to believe (or, really, which moments from each were likely true and which were distorted by inherent bias). But that may well have been too arthouse for Disney+. Instead, we learn that Sol is impulsively self-righteous, absolutely convinced that the conclusions he leaps to are absolutely correct and justify repeated insubordination without though of consequences. We learn Torbin is a whiny, impuslive, homesick brat. In retrospect, I'm glad he drank the poison. We learn Indara is a wise and powerful Jedi master who tried her damnedist to avoid conflict and failed only when everyone conspired against her. And Kelnacca... well, we don't learn much about the wookie other than he's a kickass fighter, even when mind controlled. The episode title, "Choices," is a little too on-the-nose, as a cascade of bad choices (mostly by Sol) brought about this shitshow on Brendok. Even they had the best of intentions, and Indara makes every effort to diffuse the situation, there's no way around the fact that the Jedi fucked up big time and many lives were lost. As has been pointed out elsewhere online, in Revenge of the Sith there was no law against actually being Sith. And presumably during the High Republic, there's no laws against being Force Witches. Jedi religious prejudices came into play, and anyone that views or manipulates the Force differently than the Jedi are automatically suspect, and very probably evil. I actually like the way The Acolyte handles this, as it goes unspoken yet is not entirely subtle and makes an effective point against sectarian strife that has plagued humanity for millennia.

Unfortunately, while the episode is tense and has engagingn action, it has its dumb moments. At almost any point the carnage could've been avoided if the characters simply talked to each other rather than posturing. The Witches remain a cipher, powerful equals to the Jedi one moment and then easiy defeated the next. My big question from episode 3 remains unanswered: How the hell does a STONE fortress--a mining outpost at that--catch fire and rapidly burn from a simple dropped lamp? Notre Dame Cathedral didn't burn as fast and that entire thing was made of wood! Indara defeating the entire coven seems more like a plot contrivance than plausible, as does the death of the coven (although I remain unclear of Koril's fate). The deeper purpose of Mae and Osha's existence remains murky, as does the ascension ritual and the goals of the coven, actually. I'm not confident we'll ever get any answers on that front.

One thing I suspect going forward is that Osha and Mae will switch places. This flashback is essentially Sol's confession to Mae, which she won't like but will provide understanding and closure of sorts for her. On the other hand, Osha learning that Sol needlessly killed her beloved Mother Aniseya and then lied about it for the past 16 years is not going to improve her already shaky relationship with the Jedi. She's more than halfway been seduced to the Dark Side by Qimir already. And speaking of Qimir, I'm not sure we'll get much in the way of an origin for him in episode 8. At this point there are too many dangling plot threads for everything to be tied up neatly in the one remaining episode. Which means the answers I'm looking for won't be coming forth unless The Acolyte is picked up for a second season. At the rate they're going, Mae and Osha may be the only characters who survive to see another eight episodes--I would not bet on Sol making it out of the finale alive, and Qimir better not get complacent, either.

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Monday, July 08, 2024

The Acolyte episode 6: Teach/Corrupt

The Acolyte is a new series streaming on Disney+. It is set in the Star Wars universe and occurs 100 years before the fall of the Jedi and subsequent rise of the Empire.

What happened: Osha awakens in a cave on an unknown planet. Cautiously, she follows Qimir down to a rocky seashore where he strips naked and bathes in a sheltered lagoon. In the distance, across a narrow channel, is a spaceship on a rocky island. Osha grabs his lightsaber and he returns to shore as they exchange banter. Qimir wants Osha to willingly become his new apprentice. Osha threatens to kill him, but won't, because he is unarmed. Qimir mocks her for still following the Jedi code. Back in the cave, he explains his armor is made out of Cortosis, a rare metal useful in a fight against lightsabers. He explains the helmet also doubles as a senory deprivation device, allowing the wearer to be better attuned to the force so the senses don't betray them. Osha says she'll never fall to the Dark Side of the Force but nevertheless puts on the helmet. Back on Khofar, Sol and Mae-disguised-as-Osha take off only to discover their ship is all kinds of glitchy and can't jump to hyperspace. Sol tries to get off a distress signal but it is garbled (the signal is received on Coruscant, and Vernestra, while worried about a Senate inquiry, gathers a rescue team and immediately takes off). Mae almost stabs Sol in the back before Sol tasks her with repairing the ship as Mae is a meknek. Bazil, the alien badger/bloodhound, knows Mae is an imposter but rather than warn Sol, he reactivates the remains of Osha's palm droid Pip who squirts ink at Mae before getting reset to factory settings. Mae, pretending to be Osha, bitches to Sol about how bad he treated her as a padawan before Sol, tired of her shit, stuns her and ties her down. When she awakens, he says he thought for years about what he would say to her so she's damn well going to listen. Sol jumps to hyperspace just as Vernestra arrives. She and her party find allteh dead Jedi on the planet and realize they're dealing with a fallen Jedi... or worse.

Disturbances in the Force: After the intensity of the previous episode, this one reverts to a slow burn which would be fine except that nothing happens. This episode is slow and everything that happens is so slowly drawn out to fill the runtime that I kept checking my watch to see how much longer was left. With Sol and Mae, there was a kind of does-he-know-or-doesn't-he vibe going on that was pretty pointless. Sol kept giving Mae tech assignments she wasn't capable of managing yet somehow bluffed her way through even as Sol wallowed in regret for all the lives lost on Khofar. That tedium could've been nipped in the bud had Bazil just gone straight to Sol and told him Mae was posing as Osha, but instead he decides on some Home Alone-esque pratfall boobytraps that annoy Mae but accomplish little else. I've yet to figure out the relevance of Verenstra's subplot beyond documenting the various ass-kickings the Jedi are receiving. The Qimir/Osha doalogue/negotiations are the most compelling element in this episode but even those are drawn out. To a degree they are evocative of Yoda's sandbagging of Luke early on Dagobah, but only slightly. Mostly the exchange consists of Osha following Qimir around, saying, "I'll never be your Dark Side apprentice!" and Qimir responding, "Fine. Go then. The ship's over there. Keys are in the ignition." Yes Osha refuses the easy out, continuting to bluster and posture while getting fitted for a black Sith suit and red lightsaber.

The interwebs inform me that Cortosis is a metal previously only seen in the Expanded Universe novels. It is very rare and has the unique property of absorbing the energy of lightsabers, thereby short circuiting them for a brief period. This isn't made terribly clear in the show. I'm guessing it'll have a greater role in the narrative come episode 8, but might just be a throwaway reference to get fans of the Expanded Universe excited. I dunno. On Khofar, Verenstra's team determines the battle was found against someone very powerful in the Force, but erratic, unfocused. That, coupled with Qimir's behavior with Osha is further indication that he's not Sith but rather mostly self-trained. Once the Jedi suss out his tricks and surprises I suspect he'd be toast. He dropped hints that he's a former padawan, but this show continues to refuse to give straight answers even when logic dictates that's what should happen. Once again, we're on the verge of finding out whatever it was that Sol did that was so terrible when the scene fades to black. That's not a cliffhanger. That's not drama. That's shitty writing, hiding the truth from the viewers through contrivance. Look, I get that reset episodes exist for a reason but this one contained about 10 minutes worth of plot that was stretched out over 40 minutes. When you're working with the kind of budgets they have for the Star Wars TV series, maybe devote a little more of that budget toward adding substance to these reset episodes because the audience and characters deserve better.

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Friday, July 05, 2024

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I remember very clearly hearing R.E.M.'s first hit single, "The One I Love," my senior year of high school. I wasn't that impressed. Yes, it was a decent enough song and I didn't dislike it, but nothing about it moved me to further investigate this R.E.M. band I'd that I'd heard was quite popular among college audiences. In the ensuing years I've become a fan of the band, and Document, which spawned "The One I Love," has some absolute gems on it that I think far surpass this particular song. But even though it's not my favorite of the group's, whenever I hear it I can't help but smile. Funny how that works, isn't it?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Kinky Friedman.

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Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Reading Playboy for the articles: October 1965

Playboy October 1965
My wife, Lisa, has acquired a large collection of vintage Playboy magazines. I'm flipping through those issues that catch my attention and offering my thoughts on the non-photographic content that filled its pages. You know, the articles.

Highlights: I have completely accepted the fact by now that the featured interview is invariably the highlight of each issue. If the interview is wanting, then the issue is sub-par. That's just physics, people. I don't make the rules. If you have a problem with that, take it up with Isaac Newton. So, with that out of the way, this month's interview is a humdinger: Madalyn Murray. She wasn't Madalyn Murray O'Hare yet, mind you. To be honest, I had no idea she was such a public figure in 1965. Growing up, I'd always assumed she was more a product of the 1970s. Full disclosure here: I've never much liked her. Part of that comes from growing up Catholic, and to say Murray and the Catholic Church didn't get along is the understatement of the century. But as I grew older, I realized I agreed with her on many issues and that she served a useful purpose in U.S. society. That didn't result in my liking her more than I had previously. Every time I heard her speak, she came across to me as a narcissistic asshole... and that was before I learned she was a holocaust denier. Her abduction and murder was absolutely bizarre and I'd never wish that on anybody, but I find it more than surreal that with all the death threats she received over the years her eventual murder had nothing whatsoever to do with her atheistic views.

This interview is anything but boring. In fact, it's exhausting. She fires off half a dozen answers to a question and skips on to a third topic before the interviewer has framed the second question. She's supremely self-confident, arrognat even, but knows how to tell a story. The interview is at times infuriating, harrowing and alarming--particularly when she describes police brutality that echoes modern incidents. The following doesn't get into that, but was a pretty controversial view at the time. It's less so now but there are plenty of folks who'd like to change that.

Playboy: What is the proper remale role, in your opinion?

Murray: Well, as a militant feminist, I believe in complete equality with men: intellectual, professional, economic, social and sexual: they're all equally essential, and they're all equally lacking in American society today.

Playboy: According to many sociologists, American women have never enjoyed greater freedom and equality, sexually and otherwise, than they do today.

Murray: Let's distinguish between freedom and equality. The modern American woman may be more liberated sexually than her mother was, but I don't think she enjoys a bit more sexual equality. The American male continues to use her sexually for one thing: a means to the end of his own ejaculation. It doesn't seem to occur to him that she might be a worth-while enin in herself, or to see to it that she has a proper sexual release. And, to him, sex appeal is directly proportional to the immensity of a woman's tits. I'm not saying all American men are this way, but nine out of ten are breast-fixated, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am cretins who just don't give a damn about anyone's gratification but their own.

If you're talking about intellectual and social equality for women, we're not muchbetter off. We're just beginning to break the ice. America is still very much a male-dominated society. Most American men feel threatened sexually unless they're taller than the female, more intellectual, better educated, better paid and higher placed statusiwse in the business world. They got to be the authority, the final word. They say they're looking for a girl just like the girl who married dear old dad, but what they really want, and usually get, is an empty-headed little chick who's very young and very physical--and very submissive. Well, I just can't see either a man or a woman in a dependency position, because from that sort of relationship flows a feeling of superiority on one side and inferiority on the other, and that's a form of slow poison. As I see it, men wouldn't want somebody inferior to them unless they felt inadequate themselves. They're intimidated by a mature woman.

Playboy: Like yourself?

Murray: Yes, as a matter of fact. I think I actually frighten men. I think I scare the hell out of them time after time. It's going to take a pretty big man to tame this shrew. I need somebody who can at least stand up to me and slug it out, toe to toe. I don't mean a physical battle> I mean a man who would lay me, and when he was done, I'd say: "Oh, brother, I'd been laid."
I once interviewed author Harlan Ellison and afterward described the experience as tossing out a question and then hanging on for dear life. Reading Murray's interview wasn't exactly the same, but it did give me some flashbacks. And having read the entire interview, I still don't like her very much although I must confess a degree of respect.

Madalyn Murray interview, Playboy October 1965

Plastic Man and the Spirit from October 1965 issue of Playboy
Other thoughts: Given my history as a fan and one-time aspirant to write comics, there is exactly zero chance that Jules Feiffer's article "The Great Comic-Book Heroes" wouldn't pique my interest. Relegated and lowbrow kid stuff for ages, seeing piece on comics in the grown-up, oh-so-stylish-and sophisticated pages of Playboy came as a shock, I can assure you.

Perhaps by expectations were too high, but I came away from this piece underwhelmed. Nobody is going to confuse this article with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Beggars can't be choosers, I suppose. What we get is an abridged history of comic books and super-heroes, related through Feiffer's nostalgia for the form. He begins with a list of now-obscure newspaper strips before moving on to more familiar titles, such as "Flash Gordon," "Terry and the Pirates" and "Prince Valiant." Reaching the era of actual comic books, we learn he's a fan of Batman. Although Superman initially gets more ink, Feiffer always comes back to Batman. The golden age greats are dutifully name checked: Captain America, Sub-Mariner, the Flash, the Spectre, etc. Captain Marvel's brief reign as the most popular of super-heroes only to be undone by relentless lawsuits by DC is touched on, and other comics outliers of the era, such as Plastic Man and the Spirit. The most interesting aspect of the piece is his throwing cold water on the idea that the super-heroes' young sidekicks lured kid readers in as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy:

Though I may have pirated the super-heroes, I never went near their boy companions. If the theory behind Robin the Boy Wonder, Roy the Superboy, The Sandman's Sandy, The Shield's Rusty, The Human Torch's Toro, The Green Arrow's Speedy, and Captain America's Bucky was to give young readers a character with whom to identify, if failed dismally in my case. The super grownups were the ones I identified with. They were versions of me in the future. There was still time to prepare. But Robin the Boy Wonder was my own age. One need only look at him to see he could fight better, swing from a rope better, play ball better, eat better andlive better; for while I lived in the east Bronx, Robin lived in a mansion, and while I was trying, somehow, to please my mother and getting it all wrong, Robin was rescuing Batman and getting the gold medals. He didn't even have to live with his mother.
I mean, when Feiffer writes about comics, you have to pay attention. He was probably the most widely read editorial cartoonist in the U.S. at one point, and won a Pulitzer in 1986. But ultimately, despite his obvious depth of knowledge, this piece is merely nostalgic rather than insightful. That's a pity, but maybe the world wasn't ready to think of comics as a legitimate art form in 1965.

I've mentioned before how big a deal James Bond was in this era. The movies were a huge cultural event and Ian Fleming serialized new Bond novels in Playboy before they reached bookstore shelves. There is not a new James Bond story in this issue. Rather, we get the fiction parody Loxfinger by Sol Weinstein. I can't say I'm a fan. A quick check of The Google tells me that Weinstein wrote several parody novels featuring Israel Bond, secret agent for the fledgling state of Israel. The Google tells me these were well-received at the time. I dunno--to me it just comes off as ham-fisted and a bit cringe:

In that service he was known as Oy Oy Seven, a status which gave him license to kill. Not only was an Oy Oy holder licensed to kill, but he was also empowered to hold a memorial service over the victim. Bond thought of M, the head of the Secret Service, the only person to home he had ever given his total love and trust: M, who had bestowed the Oy Oy rank upon him. But now, Bond reflected as he gazed into the menacing O of the Olivetti, the sallow-complexioned, wiry Levantine type in the bellhop's uniform who held it had that license to kill. And he would use it.

From a corner of a glazed eye, Bond caught the girl's face. No longe was it the sweetly obedient face of the lissome Priental Bond had picked up a few hours ago. Its lips were now curled into a contemptuous sneer.

Of course! She was part of the cabal. He'd been had/ As if she'd overheard his rueful thought, she responded with an insolent, "How big swinger rike his rittle Oriental praymate now?" And she spat into his face.
Maybe it'd read funnier had I grown up in the northeast and had more direct exposure and interaction with Jewish culture, but I doubt it. Austin Powers, it ain't. Heck, it's not even Spy Hard.

Sol Weinstein's Loxfinger from October 1965 issue of Playboy

A big appeal of these old back issues are the fashion and style elements of the time. "Duplex Digs: A Baronial Bilevel for a Busy Bachelor" in Arizona is a prime example of this. From the groovy tulip table to the floating "Brady Bunch" staircase to the sunken conversation pit to the amazing stonework walls, this mod space had pretty much everything going for it. Alas, we can be certain that if the entire building hasn't been demolished, the entire space was "updated" in the 1980s with plain white walls and popcorn ceilings--and they likely topped off these sins by painting the stonework. The only flaw I find in the brief writeup is that the amazing custom fireplace only gets a passing mention. That thing is wow!

Mid century modern bachelor pad from October 1965 issue of Playboy

I found this cartoon by Gahan Wilson funny as heck. I recognized his style and have seen his work all my life. A quick check of his bio shows that apart from regularly publishing illustrations in Playboy, National Lampoon, Collier's and The New Yorker he was also a contributor to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which I was a subscriber to for many years, so I've likely got some of his work boxed up somewhere). He also sold a story of Harlan Ellison for Again, Dangerous Visions and designed the bust of H.P. Lovecraft originally used for the World Fantasy Award until 2015. He died in 2019. It seems we moved in some of the same circles, albeit a couple generations apart.

Vampire sprinkling salt on the neck of his next victim by Gahan Wilson in October 1965 issue of Playboy

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Friday, June 28, 2024

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Kinky Friedman died yesterday. Born out of the 1970s Outlaw Country/Cosmic Cowboy scene, the man forged his own path through life and was invariably provocative while doing so. Whenever he came upon a sacred cow he'd have a barbecue and invite his friend over to party. He even ran for governor a while back, which I remember with mixed feelings. To say he was a unique human being would be a gross understatment, and his music, while never a staple on commercial radio, isn't likely to be forgotten. Case in point: one of his signature songs, "They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Crowded House.

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Thursday, June 27, 2024

The Acolyte episode 5: Night

Creepy Sith guy from Acolyte episode 5
The Acolyte is a new series streaming on Disney+. It is set in the Star Wars universe and occurs 100 years before the fall of the Jedi and subsequent rise of the Empire.

What happened: Osha wakes up in the forest. She stumbles back from whence she was flung and comes across a dead Jedi. She heads toward the sound of fighting. There's losts of fighting. The apparent Sith has beskar-style armor that deflects lightsabers and some sort of Force trick that causes the Jedi lightsabers to malfunction and deactivate for extended periods. One by one, the Jedi go down. Yord is wounded on the leg and knocked out of the fight. The Sith is about to kill him when Osha blasts him with a stun gun... which does absolutely nothing other than piss him off and attract his attention. He chases Osha. Back at the wookie hut, Mae watches the fight unfold with growing alarm. She knows the Sith is out to get her and it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Jedi can't do squat to protect her. She grabs Kelnacca's lightsaber and tries to flee, only to be intercepted by Jecki. After an extended battle by the two Force-apprentices, Jecki bests Mae and cuffs her. Nearby, the Sith catches up to Osha, Yord and Sol intervene to save her. Sol orders Yord to get Osha to the ship. The Sith fights Sol for a bit before going after Mae. Jecki and Sol battle him in a pretty intense running lightsaber battle until Jecki unmasks him. It is, no surprise, Qimir from the previous episodes, although he is decidedly less goofy and much more menacing this time around. Yord and Osha make it as far as the isopod forest before Osha gets a Force premonition that they must go back or everyone will die. Yord reluctantly goes along with it, and they use lights to attract the flying isopods to follow them. In the surprisingly brutal fight that follows Jecki is stabbed three times in the chest by Qimir, killing her very dead, and Yord has his neck snapped. Sol, knocked unconscious, and Mae are next on the list but Osha puts her handheld robot, Pip, in flashlight mode and slaps it on Qimir's back, attracting the isopods who carry him off into the night. Mae and Osha have a reunion, but Mae wants them to run off together while Osha tries to arrest her for the murder of Jedi. They fight and Mae kicks Osha's ass, knocks her out and steals Osha's identity, returning to the ship with Sol. Qimir returns to the battlefield having fought off the isopods and claims Osha as his new apprentice.

Disturbances in the Force: Wow, where to begin. This episode has got to be the most brutal incarnation of Star Wars ever. Luke getting his hand chopped off? Han Solo frozen in carbonite? Sorry, Empire, that's only good enough for second place. As expected, the other Jedi on the task force--who got a grand total of zero character development--were killed off almost as fast as the task force that tried to arrest Chancellor Palpatine. I saw that coming. They telegraphed it from a lightyear away. What I didnot see coming was the death of Jecki. Look, hers was a character that could've been Ahsoka-circa-Clone Wars-pilot annoying. But she wasn't. Of all the characters, she got the most development and had several nice bonding moments with Osha. If anyone was to survive, it was her. And Yord, geeze, he was the noble jerk type who the story seemed to be flirting with as an atagonistic love interest for Osha. Both of those characters contributed to a friend insisting this series was being written as a YA adventure. Nope, that was more misdirection. This harkens back to episode 1, where Indara was unceremoniously killed off in the first five minutes. Literally nobody is safe.

This was easily the best episode of the series up to this point. It was one long fight, or rather series of fights, and each fight had its own plot of sorts, whith a beginning, middle and end. The action was clear and well-choreographed. When Osha woke up far from the fighting I was afraid the show was going to cop out on the cliffhanger and only show the aftermath. Nope, that was more misdirection. Qimir went from being the annoying/goofy sidekick to probably the most menacing Star Wars villains since Darth Vader first set foot on Princess Leia's blockade runner back in the very first film. His helmet is simple and nightmarish--a far better use of a mask that Kylo Ren's pretentious silver-and-black fetishwear. And Qimir's mixture of anger, determination and taunting... very well done. When he taunts Mae "Didn't you know it was me?" he might as well have been taunting the audience. When he says he wore the mask to hide his identity, but since everyone has now seen his face everyone must die--it doesn't sound like a threat or bragging, but rather a statement of fact. Sith or not, this is not a bad guy to trifle with.

That said, the episode is not without flaws. The isopods are attracted to light--we've seen them specifically go after lightsabers--but they don't rush the battlefield until Osha turns on flashlight Pip, despite plenty of flashing sabers up to that point. The nameless Jedi are so much canon fodder and taken out far too easily. That's a well-worn cliche (not just in Star Wars I'd be happy to never see again). Speaking of cliches, at one point Sol is about to execute a disarmed Qimir, but Osha talks him out of it because "Jedi don't kill unarmed people" or somesuch and naturally Qimir gets free and kills more of their party. At least Osha didn't chop Sol's arm off in the process. Qimir is pretty badass and ruthless as a fighter, but I'm not 100% on board with him being a Sith. Something seems off, and we still don't know why he's got a beef with these particular Jedi. Both Mae and Qimir give little mini-sermons on how terrible Sol is and that if Mae knew what he'd done she'd want him and the other Jedi dead as well, but neither get around to actually saying what this terrible crime is. There's such a teasing buildup here that I can't help but think it'll be a disappointment if we ever do find out what it was.

Finally, I'm not sure what Mae's plan is--kill Sol when he's not looking or merely use him as an escape vector? Bazil, the alien woodchuck scout/tracker, returned to the ship sniffing the air pretty hard, so even if Sol is thick and doesn't pick up on Mae's switcheroo, she'll likely be outed by Bazil sooner rather than later. As for Osha, Qimir seemed amused at finding her left behind and it's pretty clear he recognized her for who she is. The main cast just got a lot smaller, so unless they hit us with another flashback episode (which I still think is coming in episode 7, but again, this show confounds expectations) I think we're going to start getting some realtime revelations with episode 6.

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Chicken Ranch anniversary: Dolph Briscoe (1923-2010)

On this date in 2010, Dolph Briscoe, the 41st governor of Texas, died. Briscoe, a long-time Uvalde rancher, is generally remembered fondly from his terms as governor for being a decent guy. But his administration did earn some dubious distinctions. Briscoe was the last Texas governor to serve a two-year term and the first to serve a four-year term. He undermined two efforts to rewrite Texas' abysmal constitution (which remains a trainwreck to this day). Briscoe once appointed a dead man to the State Health Advisory Commission, and if what I've heard is true, called a press conference in the aftermath to reassure the press and public that he hadn't lost his grip on sanity.

But what most people remember him for--and which doesn't appear in most official biographies--is that he is the governor who ordered the closure of the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange. Ironically, Briscoe had no actual legal authority to order the Chicken Ranch (or any other brothel, for that matter) closed. But he did, hoping nobody would call his bluff. Fayette County Jim Flournoy certainly knew the governor had no authority to do so, but acquiesced to Briscoe and effectively ended a surreal two-week media circus that captured the attention of Texas as well as the rest of the country.

Governor Briscoe died after ignoring multiple interview requests from me. Way to sidestep this writer, Dolph!

Pantego Books
While I have your attention, I'd like to share that I will be at Pantego Books in Arlington (actually Dalworthington Gardens) on July 27 of this year for a 7-9 p.m. book signing of "Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch." This is only my third signing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area since 2016, so any of you local folks wanting to catch me in-person, here's your chance! Independent bookstores are the lifeblood of a community and I love to support them every chance I get. I'd love to get a good turnout for Pantego, even if you're just going to stop in to say hello. Shop local!

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Monday, June 24, 2024

The Acolyte episode 4: Day

Jedi with their lightsabers face a threat in The Acolyte
The Acolyte is a new series streaming on Disney+. It is set in the Star Wars universe and occurs 100 years before the fall of the Jedi and subsequent rise of the Empire.

What happened: Flashback episode over, we find Osha on Coruscant pondering the fact that her long-lost sister is still alive and apparently a deadly assassin killing off Jedi. She wants nothing to do with confronting Mae and bringing her in--she hesitated in firing on her twin in episode 2, allowing her escape, and has guilt for that but isn't sure she wouldn't hesitate again if the situation arose. Padawan Jecki, for her part, is sympathetic and supportive and the two have a nice bonding moment. As for the Jedi, Vernestra, the green-skinned authority figure, is less interested in Mae than discovering who trained her. She wants to keep the situation secret from the Jedi Council, as the council would report it to the Senate which would subsequently cause political problems. Vernestra puts together a Jedi task force to intercept Mae on the planet Khofar before she can kill the Wookie Jedi, Kelnacca. Jedi Sol believes Mae still has good in her, but would never surrender to random Jedi (and that random Jedi may be all to willing to kill the assassin and be done with her). He convinces Vernestra to allow him, along with Jedi Yord, Jecki and Osha to accompany the task force. Then he has to convince Osha to go along (which he eventually does). All told, seven lightsaber-wielders, plus Osha and Bazil, a short, humanoid badger-looking "tracker" arrive on Khofar in hopes of capturing Mae. As Kelnacca disappeared into the dense forest a year prior, the group is dependent on Bazil to locate the missing wookie. Elsewhere in the forest, Mae and her handler, Qimir, close in on their wookie target. Qimir is an annoying chatterbox, asking how she plans to kill the wookie without using a weapon to prevent her master from being displeased. Mae comes to believe the instruction is to be interpreted as killing an unarmed Jedi, at which point she insists she needs to rest before facing Kelnacca. Qimir wanders off. Meanwhile, the Jedi party has lost track of Bazil and are picking up "wrong" feelings from the forest. Osha touches a large blister on a tree, which turns out to be a giant winged isopod-looking thing that attacks. Sol kills it with his lightsaber, and Osha is grief-stricken. She touched it because she sensed it through the Force which led to its death. Jecki tries to comfort her. At that point, the party hears Mae screaming. Qimir hears her to, and rushes to her aid only to be caught up in a snare trap she'd set. She tells Qimir she's been thinking, and the only thing that matters to her is that her sister Osha is alive. She's not going to kill Kelnacca, intends to turn herself in to the Jedi and tell them everything she knows about her master. Qimir warns her that the master will kill her, but she believes she'll be safe with the Jedi, even if they imprison her. As Mae makes her way to Kelnacca's residence, Bazil finds her and begins screaming to alert the others. Mae enters Kelnacca's home only to find him already dead, killed by what appear to be lightsaber slashes. This frightens Mae. The Jedi surround the house and demand Mae give herself up. Osha hangs back, and a dark, menacing shape descends behind her. Osha turns around to face a presumed Sith Lord in a serial killer mask. After studying her briefly, the Sith ignites his red lightsaber and flicks her aside with the Force. The other Jedi, alarmed, charge him, but the Sith easily blows them back with a Force blast.

Disturbances in the Force: This, friends and neighbors, is the type of episode I've always described as "arranging the pieces on the chess board." It exists solely to set up the next part of the story arc, bringing in scattered characters so they may interact in interesting ways. When they're done, these types of episodes can be great for character development and often inject much-needed humor. Conversely, they can be boring slogs. This one falls in the middle of the spectrum. It offers nice moments with Osha and Jecki, and a bit of a moment with Osha and Yord as well. Sol continues to be hanuted by the past, but the best moments are reserved for Mae, who decides she really doesn't want to be a Dark Side assassin after all. For a series that's all about reversals and keeping the audience guessing, this one was a surprise. Mae has been shown as mostly a hardass throughout, and where Star Wars is concerned, if a Dark Sider is to have a change of heart, it's going to come in the last act of the last film (see Darth Vader, Kylo Ren). That Mae makes her decision through thoughtful, private deliberation without facing a live-or-death situation in the finale (which still may come, mind you) is refreshing. Unfortunately, when Mae discovers Kelnacca's corpse, she's placed in the exact same situation as Osha was with Torbin's death in episode 2--although there's no Yord lurking in the shadows this time to exonerate her. The awkward confrontation between Mae and the Jedi is delayed by the timely arrival of the Sith. Speaking of which... I went back and checked my review of episode 2, but alas, I did not voice my suspicion at the time that Qimir is actually the guy in the creepy ax murderer mask. I mean, that's a "no duh" prediction at this point as the Sith doesn't show up until Mae conveniently confesses to Qimir that she's done with the whole Dark Side thing. From square one, Qimir has known a little bit too much about everything and everyone, not to mention constantly goading Mae along the dark path that she's on. With all the red herrings this show has tossed out Qimir could totally turn out to be the bootlicking lackey he's been portrayed as thus far, but my gut's telling me that ain't so. My gut's also telling me that the four new Jedi that accompanied Sol, Yord and Jecki to Khofar ain't gonna survive the coming duel. They may as well be wearing red Starfleet uniforms. I expect episode 5 to be action-packed after the slow burn we've been given much of this series, but I also say the chance of our getting another Rashomon-style flashback episode instead is no less than 40%, because if nothing else is clear by now, the showrunners are messing with the audience's expectations.

I want to take a moment and give a shout-out to the designers who came up with the forest setting of Khofar. It does indeed feel alien, something unlike anything we've seen in Star Wars previously. This is neither Endor forest or Dagobah swamp, and I sincerely appreciate that. In fact, with the exception of Coruscant, none of these worlds and settings are retreads of places we've previously seen. Thank the maker we're not returing to Tattooine for the umpteenth time!

From what I gather, a number of people on the interwebz are upset by the fact that the episode ended in a cliffhanger, considering this to be a somehow unfair method of storytelling that cheats the audience. Friends and neighbors, let me set the Wayback machine to 1980 and refer you to a little cinematic feature film called The Empire Strikes Back, That film ended with a hell of a more dramatic cliffhanger, and we had to wait three years for a resolution. With The Acolyte episode 4, you've only got to wait a week before you can jump back on the old interwebz to complain about how episode 5 ruined Star Wars in new and altogether different ways than it did seven days prior.

What I do find fault with, however, is Kelnacca's off-camera death. While guilt may have prompted Kelnacca to let Mae kill him as a form of atonement (which I doubt, but let's roll with it) there is zero reason why he'd let a Sith do the same. Yet Kelnacca is killed, apparently without a fight, slumped over in his chair. What gives? This is another nasty bit of bait-and-switch from the showrunners, promising us a wookie Jedi much like Revenge of the Sith and Solo promised a lot of wookie combat action then relegated said action to a brief aside. Even given the Sith ability to muddy the Force and confuse Jedi, I see no way a Sith, or Sith wannabe, or Dathomar Witch, or whatever could completely sneak up on Kelnacca and take him unawares. Could they kill him? Even easily? Sure, I can see that as the Jedi of the High Republic aren't really trained for dueling. But to die slumped in a chair? Come on! The audience (and wookies!) deserves better than that. Though I will say that the depictions of the coven's symbols from episode 1 adorning the walls of Kelnacca's living space raises intriguing questions.

At barely 30 minutes long, this is the shortest episode of the series to date. Not only that, it feels short. Although I failed to voice my prediction that Qimir is the Sith figure behind the scenes, I'll make no mistake with my one thought from this episode: Osha and Mae triumph at a crucial moment (whether for dark or light purposes) by joining together to manipulate the Force, as their coven had instructed them years before.

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Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Acolyte episode 3: Destiny

Night Sisters from The Acolyte
The Acolyte is a new series streaming on Disney+. It is set in the Star Wars universe and occurs 100 years before the fall of the Jedi and subsequent rise of the Empire.

What happened: Sixteen years before episodes 1 and 2, twins Osha and Mae are children on the planet Brendok--the only children on the planet, we come to learn. Osha is communing with nature under the beautiful but deadly bunta tree where Mae finds her and scolds her for leaving the fortress where they live. Osha is reluctant to participate in their upcoming Ascension ceremony. Mae is angered by this. The girls return to their home and are confronted by Koril, a Zabrak with horns growing from her head (Darth Maul's species), who is a stern parental figure to the girls (we later learn she carried the twins to term). Mother Aniseya then arrives, and is another parental figure, but one more forgiving and kind. She and Koril share some type of intimate relationship, possibly romantic, and lead a coven of witches that are evocative of the Dark Side-weilding Night Sisters of Dathomir who played a significant role in the Clone Wars animated series. Aniseya teaches the girls a view of the Force that prioritizes collective action and cooperation in manipulating it, emphasizing that two or more working together can have much more effective results than one working solo--a metaphore for the coven as well. Mae goes through with the Ascension ceremony, becoming a full member of the coven, but as Osha is about to reluctantly participate, a party of Jedi show up and essentially demand to test the girls for their potential as Jedi. Aniseya and Koril are concerned the Jedi will discover the twins were "created" by Aniseya, so order the girls to intentionally fail the Jedi tests. Mae happily fails but Mae, enamoured by the Jedi and wanting to see the galaxy, passes, and admits she and her sister were told to fail. Aniseya is not happy, but appears to consent to Osha departing with the Jedi. Mae is less understanding, and locks Osha in her room while setting it on fire in an attempt to kill her sister. Osha escapes through a vent only to discover the entire coven dead within the fortress. As the fire spreads, Jedi Sol shows up to rescue her. He tries to reach Mae as well, but Mae apparently falls to her death. As the Jedi depart the planet, Osha insists they need to return for Mae. Sol, clearly distressed, tells Osha that Mae is dead and there is nobody left to return for. Mae, however, is waiting for Osha beneath the bunta tree from the opening of the episode.

Disturbances in the Force: I watched this episode more than a week ago before departing for a trip to the East Coast, and had not seen the online "controversy" about this episode prior to my return. Two objections seem to dominate: that Jedi are literally stealing children and that the Force does not operate the way depicted by the coven. First, "abducting children" strikes me as pretty much how the Jedi operate, as in Phantom Menace Qui-Gon Jinn expended a tremendous amount of effort to gain custody of Anakin Skywalker but pretty much zero effort to rescue his mother, Shimi, from slavery. That's pretty dark. And as Qui-Gon has since been portrayed as the one Jedi most attuned to the Force, I have little inclination to write that episode off as an isolated incident. As for the coven's novel manipulation of the Force, I don't see how this depiction is problematic in any way. The Night Sisters of Dathomir clearly accessed the Force through use of what we would consider spells, far outside the skill set of the Jedi. Look, Nikolai Tesla knew more about electricity in his time than any other human, but he didn't understand the inverse square law would preclude his scheme to ever provide free energy through the air worldwide, and he outright dismissed atomic theory, which we now know is 100% responsible for the phenomenon of electricity. Tesla did not believe in electrons. Tesla was wrong about the nature of electricity on the most fundamental of levels, but that did not stop him from being a brilliant researcher and inventor where electricity is concerned. The Force simply is. The Force does not care about rules or ritual. It is a made up concept that was wonderfully vague in the original films, became overtly technical in the prequel trilogy (the midi-chlorian meter makes a subtle return this episode) but remains an elastic concept that is not rigid in the sense of a D20 rules system. The Jedi understand the Force, from a certain point of view. The coven understands the Force, from a certain point of view. If an isolated religious sect accesses the Force from a different point of view than the Jedi, more power to 'em.

Now that I've addressed what other people think about this episode, what about what I think about it? This series continues to keep me off-balance and guessing. We all knew there would be a flashback episode, but the way these narratives usually work, it would arrive around episode 6 in an 8-episode series, revealing all the backstory before the story climaxes. Not so this time, which makes me think we have another flashback--possibly two--lying in wait before all is said and done. What we have here is a science fiction version of Rashomon that is busy messing with the viewers' collective heads. The coven is clearly intended to remind fans of the Night Sisters of Dathomir and the inclusion of the Maul-like Koril is priming the viewer to view the coven as evil, beholden to the Dark Side. But the viewers see nothing overtly evil from any of the coven, rather, they've a collective society of women who appear to care for each other and the children while remaining suspicious of outsiders for fear of persecution. They're literally a stand-in for every nascent religious sect that has ever existed in human society, fearful of the Jedi in power throwing them to the lions (or rancor, or sarlaac, or whatever space beastie you may prefer). The Jedi come off as arrogant and high-handed, but this is from the perspective of the coven. A future flashback may well show the Jedi acting in good faith, believing Evil Is Afoot. Finally, the final events during Osha's escape make little sense taken at face value. From a critical writerly perspective, the stone fortress should not have rapidly caught fire and said fire should not have spread as quickly as it did unless the coven did something incredibly stupid, such as building their fortress out of coal. Then we see the coven dead, presumably slaughtered by the Jedi, but the Jedi are not actually shown doing this. Mae is depicted with overt Dark Side inclinations, but her future self, while skilled as a Force-using assassin is certainly incapable of wiping out her own coven (and mothers!) as a child, no matter how angry and unhinged. Finally, the Jedi--especially Sol--seem shaken by the events, that things went horribly sideways was not the intended outcome for them or the children. This is reenforced by the guilt we've seen from these same people in the first two episodes.

My prediction, for what it's worth, is that this coven is an outcast sect that is no longer affiliated with the Witches of Dathomir, that seek to balance the Light and Dark sides of the Force to live in harmony (or some analog thereof) and aren't the evil cult we're obviously supposed to take them for. The Jedi, for their part, are acting with high ideals and best intentions, but misunderstand the situation and their attempts to make things better actually make things worse. On top of that, attempts to rectify those errors further compound the problem. Lost in all of this is the Sith-esque figure briefly seen in the first episode who trained Mae as an assassin. I expect this shadowy figure is manipulating both sides against the middle, seeking to inflict loss on the hated Jedi while simultaneously wiping out a sect of witches who pose a potential threat to the Sith power in some way.

There's so much misdirection in this series thus far that taking anything at face value is a risk I'm not willing to take. This show certainly isn't on the artistic level of Rashomon but I appreciate the ambition. I appreciate the fact this show is trying to do something novel within the Star Wars universe. That's no guarantee The Acolyte will stick the landing, but anyone writing this show off as "destroying" Star Wars or dismissing it as "the worst ever" are seriously jumping the gun.

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