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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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Acolyte episode 2: Revenge/Justice

Assasin Mae, The Acolyte episode 2
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: Assasin Mae shows up on the planet Olega to kill another Jedi, Master Torbin. Mae infiltrates the local Jedi temple and avoids contact with several run-of-the-mill knights, which hints that her vendetta is personal and limited in scope. She discovers Torbin deep in a Force-induced trance called the Barash Vow, having not spoken to anyone for a decade. Mae's attempted assassination on him does not go well, his passive Force defense blocking her every attack. Frustrated, Mae flees as the temple goes on alert. She rendezvous at a local apothecary shop that Qimir, her... suppoort staff? accomplice? lover? ...has taken over, presumably by killing the owner. Mae is intent on killing Torbin without a weapon in order to gain favor with her Sith(?) master, but asks Qimir to mix up an exotic poison for her. Sol, Osha, Yord and Jecki arrive hunting for Mae after learning of the failed attack on Torbin. Mae returns to the temple just ahead of them, and confronts Torbin. She offers him the poison, saying his choice is to either take it and earn her forgiveness or confess his crimes at the Jedi temple on Coruscant. Torbin breaks his trance, asks for forgiveness before taking the poison and insists, "We thought we were doing the right thing." At that moment, Osha sees a Force vision of Mae as a child and breaks away from the group to follow. The vision leads her to Torbin, now quite dead. As Osha is examining the body she is discovered by temple Jedi along with Sol and Jecki. The local Jedi understandably freak out, accusing her of murder, and it looks for all the world like we're in for another "wrong place, wrong time" misunderstanding that will end up with her entire party on the run as fugitives. But no, Yord steps out of the shadows and says he was following her the entire time (because he absolutely doesn't trust her) and that Osha absolutely did not kill Torbin. Osha recognizes the poison as being unique to her homeworld, so they stake out the local apothecary, determine that Qimir is not the normal proprietor, and send Osha in disguised as Mae to pump him for information. Osha, despite being quick-witted and self-assured up to this point, fumbles and stammers her way through the deception, barely making it a full minute before Qimir figures she's not Mae. Then the real Mae shows up, discovers Osha isn't deal like she thought, gets cornered by Yord and Sol before kicking up a Force-powered sandstorm to escape. But not before Osha intentionally misses hitting her with a few blaster shots. The Jedi Council orders Sol & co. to return to Coruscant as viewers learn that Mae is now going after Kelnacca, a Wookiee Jedi living on the Planet Khofar.

Disturbances in the Force: The weird pacing issues continue, as does the weird red herrings. The most obvious of these is setting up Osha to be falsely accused of killing Torbin, but literally moments after that is put on the table Yord completely deflates it. I like the idea of the Jedi who trusts Osha least of all being put in the position of grudgingly vouching for her, but the entire exchange went by so fast that it barely registered. I'm honestly not sure what that accomplished, because in dramatic terms the blink-and-you-miss-it reversal carried no narrative weight. The only thing it did for me was give me a twinge that they may be setting up Yord as a love interest for Osha, which, if so, is almost certain to be handled abruptly with fists of ham.

In hindsight, one thing I now realize I forgot to mention last episode is that when Indara fights Mae and believes she recognizes her, Indara actually believes she is facing Osha, as at this point everyone believes Mae died more than a decade before. We also learn that Mae is absolutely honest when saying she has unfinished business with the Jedi--her vendetta is limited two four from that long-ago incident: Indara and Torbin, both now dead, Sol and Kelnacca (who will presumably be dead by the end of episode 3). The narrative is less info-dumpy this time around and more linear, with less confusion imposed upon the viewer. I like it that Mae is showing self-doubt and vulnerability in addition to determination. I like that she has defeated two Jedi now who were both far more powerful and accomplished than she by outthinking them. It's also interesting that Mae is completely surprised to learn that Osha is alive. There's some harping on the mantra that Mae and Osha are two parts of one whole, and I'm wondering how that will (literally) manifest itself. Osha has almost no conscious control of the Force but is regularly experiencing passive visions that lead her to the right place at the right time. Mae, on the other hand, had pretty impressive physical control over the Force, using it skillfully in combat despite never having undergone Jedi training (Sith training remains an open question). Yet Mae seems completely disconnected from the "knowledge and defense" aspect of the Force. Yet she continues to outthink her more skilled opponents to escape time and again. There was a moment during the sandstorm that I expected Mae to turn up in the ship overing above to take Jecki hostage or something similar to effect her escape. That didn't happen, so either that's yet another red herring whizzing past or I've gotten to the point of reading too much into this show. I still haven't quite figured out Jecki's purpose in this narrative.

All in all, I found episode 2 a definite improvement over episode 1 (which wasn't great, but wasn't bad, either). I've learned there are dudebros pissing and moaning and review bombing this series all over the interwebz, to which I roll my eyes. We're getting a freaking Wookie Jedi in episode 3, folks! Had I gotten to see The Acolyte 30 years ago I'd have lost my damn mind. It's not as good as Andor or even Mandalorian, but I'm enjoying it more than Fett and Ahsoka, and enjoying the new things they're doing without tying everything back to the Skywalker family. So it's got that going for it.

Now Playing: Jefferson Airplane The Worst of Jefferson Airplane
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, June 07, 2024

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I still remember the first time I ever heard Crowded House--it was late 1986, and I was in my room and the distinctive, elegiac guitar opening coming out of the clock radio beside my bed instantly grabbed my full attention. It absolutely sounded like something I'd heard long before but couldn't quite remember. I was convinced for many months thereafter that this was a great cover of some obscure song nobody else but me remembered. Considering the song's popularity despite being the fourth single from the album, I'd guess it had a similar impact on other folks as well. I followed the band until it broke up in 1996 and that was that. What I didn't know is that Crowded House subsequently reformed and released new music on multiple occasions since then. I now know this because the group just released "The Howl," which is a catchy, well-crafted song that sounds like it'd fit right in on any of the albums from the 80s and 90s. It's also got a trippy video featuring some first-class drone camera work. Definitely worth checking out.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Huey Lewis and the News.

Now Playing: Dave Brubeck The Essential Dave Brubeck
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Acolyte episode 1: Lost/Found

Jedia Master Indara battles an assasin in The Acolyte episode 1
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: A Force-using assassin confronts Jedia Master Indara on Ueda. The assassin insists she's there on unfinished business. Indara believes she recognizes the assassin and is surprised by this. After some dramatic Force-enhanced martial arts, the assassin (although clearly outmatched) kills the Jedi by using endangered bystanders as a distraction. Sometime thereafter Jedi Yord arrives at a Nemodian cargo vessel and arrests Osha, a meknek (repair tehnician) on the ship, for Indara's murder. Yord and Osha know each other. Not only does Osha match the description of the killer and had no alibi for the previous day, it turns out that she departed the Jedi order as a Padawan under murky terms six years prior and had a strained relationship with Indara. Shipped to Coruscant on a prison ship, Osha is caught up in a prisoner escape. Left behind when all the escape pods are stolen by fleeing prisoners, she rides the damaged prison ship to a crash landing on the froze world of Carlac. While stranded there, Osha has a Force vision that leads her to believe her twin sister, Mae, thought to have died in a tragic fire as a child, is actually alive. On Coruscant, Jedi Sol, Osha's former master, is sent to hunt for his former Padawan along with his current Padawan, Jecki, and Yord. Osha tries to flee but is cornered, where she tells Sol that Mae is still alive. The episode ends with Mae reporting to her boss, a mysterious figure with a red lightsaber.

Disturbances in the Force: Talk about bait-and-switch. All of the promotional materials in the lead-up to this show heavily featured Carrie-Ann Moss as a Jedi, and she was unceremoniously killed off five minutes in. I'm sure we'll see more of her in flashbacks, but the move feels like a cheap stunt. Yes, it shows none of the main characters are safe from harm, but viewers know none of these characters yet. The Force-Fu martial arts fight was fun and something we'd not seem in Star Wars until now, but Moss' presence here just draws attention to how similar the fight choreography is to the Matrix films. There are more red herrings--when we first see Osha, immediately following Indara's death, some of the first dialog brings up the fact that her crewmates don't know where she was earlier on her day off. Of course we assume she's a deep-cover assassin as Amandla Stenberg plays both Osha and Mae. As viewers, we figure out pretty quickly that Osha cannot be the killer--her personality isn't a front and even though she's a former Padawan, her use of the Force is limited at best--a far cry from the skills of Mae. This misdirection comes and goes fairly quickly, which leaves me scratching my head. If it's a genuine red herring I'd expect the episode to string the audience along longer, but instead the show's like "Ha ha! Fooled you again!" and then moving on. I get that this is supposed to be a mystery, and reversals and red herrings are staples of the genre, but it's so slight and incidental it's almost like a stutter-step. There's another scene where Sol explains to Jecki that Osha's sister died in a fire long before, that he watched her die. Yet as soon as Osha say's Mae's alive, Sol is like, "Yeah, that makes sense." I have a growing feeling that any dialog or character development may be rendered meaningless in the very next scene. This show gives me whiplash from scene to scene.

That may seem like I hate this show. No, I'm actually enjoying it with some reservations. There is behind-the scenes intrigue, with reference to the Jedi's political opponents using Indara's death against them. The characters are entertaining. Yord is a pompous ass who in High Republic Jedi regalia and uses rules as a blunt force instrument. What's great is that the other characters don't seem to like him much more than the viewers. Jecki is an eager-to-please Padawan who is also by-the-book, but not to the extreme of Yord. And Sol is a veteran Jedi haunted by regret. Osha is the plucky heroine out of her depth and unable to use the Force to get her out of scrapes. Mae is the ruthless killer on a mission of vengeance who can use the Force quite well, even though she's not particularly powerful compared to Jedi. The "twins separated at birth" shtick was well-worn before Star Wars used it the first time with Luke and Leia, but I'm willing to give it a chance.

Another nice touch is that none of the ships look familiar. Likewise for the droids. The clothing, too--especially the formal Jedi robes that are more pompous and elegant than the monk robes seen in other films and series. The Force-Fu fights were fun even if I wish they'd have drawn less attention to the fact they are completely derivative of The Matrix. I love the idea of a Force-trained assassin defeating more powerful Jedi through trickery. I'm not enamoured with the idea of a Sith pulling the strings--why does it have to be Jedi vs. Sith again? But judging by Trinity's early exit and the other red herrings in this episode, that could be a misdirection as well.

This is the first of the live action Star Wars series to have an infodump text crawl at the opening. Well, the text didn't actually crawl, it just sat there. But you know what I mean.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Southern Fried Cthulhu

Southern Fried Cthulhu kickstarter project
Some loyal readers may recall that I am ostensibly a fiction writer. That's easy to forget considering the fact that I am in the habit of posting about anything but fiction here. The fault lies with me, as I am undisciplined as a writer but make up for it by being easily distracted. Caveats and disclaimers out of the way, I am here to announce that a story of mine, "Bad Tamales," is slated to appear in the forthcoming anthology, Southern Fried Cthulhu. There is just one catch--the anthology is currently engaged in a Kickstarter campaign and won't see publication until said campaign successfully concludes. If you are so inclined, you may support said campaign (and secure your own copies of the anthology) at this link:

The South is Weird!

Hey there, Monster Kids! I'm back with another anthology of monstrous delights, but this time, I wanted to try something a little different. In addition to the monsters both giant and classic, there's another class of beasties that has always fascinated me:

The eldritch horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) is arguably one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century, and his tales of the Cthulhu Mythos--a kind of shared universe filled with alien gods and inscrutable entities that defy human logic, whose very existence drives men to madness--have inspired generations of writers, artists, game designers, and filmmakers. Even if you've never read a Lovecraft story, you've seen his stylistic influences in everything from the Alien designs of H.R. Geiger to the films of Guillermo del Toro. Lovecraft has had a huge influence on not only horror but science fiction.

I know he has been a huge influence on me, and I have been known to spin a Lovecraftian yarn or two. Which is where this anthology comes in.

The Concept

H.P. Lovecraft. His fiction conjures images of sleepy New England villages, ivy-covered walls, and fragile academics paying the ultimate price for gaining forbidden knowledge from eldritch tomes.

But what would happen if Lovecraft’s elder things ventured down south? What would they make of Waffle Houses, monster trucks, and trailer parks? What dark secrets might be lurking under the kudzu?

We’ve seen how Lovecraft’s stodgy academics deal with elder things from beyond, but what would a bunch of beer-swilling, gun-toting rednecks think of Shoggoths or Night Gaunts? How would they react to an ancient, eldritch horror gurgling up from the depths of their favorite fishing spot? What would they make of ancient, cyclopean ruins in the middle of a swamp?

Southern Fried Cthulhu will explore the Lovecraftian Mythos with a Southern flair.

Ia, Ia Cthulhu fhtagn, ya'll!

The Stories

I have combed the great South, from a seedy roadside rib joint in Texas to a voodoo trinket shop in New Orleans (also known as my email inbox) to bring you the kookiest, spookiest, sometimes funniest, most sanity-blasting eldritch stories imaginable (and unimaginable). Seriously, I could tell you what's in here, but you would go mad from the cosmic implications of these tales.
Now, I'm not going to spoil anything, but the authors lined up for this thing are pretty impressive. I can tell you that my story is unlike pretty much anything else I've ever written, although I will share that it's set in my fictional Tonkawa County, Texas, which has appeared on occasion in previous short stories by yours truly. If you want to get in on the ground floor of this endeavour, that link again is Heck, I want to read these stories! We appreciate your support!

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Tuesday, June 04, 2024

Reading Playboy for the articles: June 1964

Playboy June 1964
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: Last time out, I learned that an issue without one of the famed Playboy interviews is an issue with a large intellectual hole in it. This time out, I learn that all interviews aren't created equal. That's a shame, because for June 1964 the featured interview should be a Jim-dandy one: Legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Alas, this one just didn't do it for me. The questions and answers came off as rote and offered little insight into the famed director--other than the fact that he doesn't like interviews and had a fairly short temper earlier in his career:

Playboy: You've been criticized not only for barring and even ejecting intruders from your sets, but for outbursts of rage in which, reportedly, you've ripped phones off the walls and thrown chairs through glass control booths. Is there any truth to these accounts?

Bergman: Yes, there is--or rather, was. When I was younger, much younger, like so many young men I was unsure of myself. But I was very ambitious. And when you're unsure, when you're insecure and need to assert yourself, or think you do, you become aggressive in trying to get your own way. Well, that's what happened to me--in a provencial theater where I was a new director. I couldn't behave that way now and hope to keep the respect of my actors and my technicians. When I know the importance of every minute in a working day, when I realize the supreme necessity of establishing a mood of calm and security on the set, do you think I could, or would have any right to, indulge myself that way? A director on a movie set is a little like the captain of a ship: he must be respected in order to be obeyed. I haven't behaved that way at work since I was maybe twenty-five or twenty-six.

Playboy: Yet the stories of temper tantrums continue to circulate in print.

Bergman: Of course they do. Such stunts as ripping out telephones and hurling chairs around make the sort of copy that journalists love to give the editors and their readers. It's more colorful to read about a violent temper than about someone instilling confidence in his actors by talking quietly with themIt's to be expected that people will go on writing--and reading--this sort of nonsense about a man year after year. Do you begin to understand why I don't like to talk to the press?.
And by choosing that passage to excerpt, I suppose I have proven Bergman right nearly 60 years later.

Other thoughts: First off, let me say I absolutely hate the cover designs that use this furry, bourgeoisie rabbit mascot. The character himself looks more than a little creepy and cover designs using him are lazy and uninspired every single time.

With that out of the way, it's time for "Uncle Shelby's Scout Handbook" from Shel Silverstein. I've not mentioned much about Silverstein's illustrated cartoons from previous issues. Although I count myself as a casual fan well aware of the sprawling diversity of his creative output, many of his Playboy cartoons struck me as unfocused and generally weird for weirdness' sake. Not this time. Here, Silverstein serves up four pages of delightfully subversive panels tinged with macabe humor. Would I ever be a Shelby Scout? Never. But I'll happily read about their ill-fated exploits.

Playboy visits Denmark, June 1964
Next up is "Playboy on the Town in Copenhagen." When your magazine promotes itself as the periodical of choice for jet-setters, features on European destinations are pretty much required. There was a piece on Paris in a previous issue I looked at, but Paris seemed a bit too obvious and the accompanying article and photos were less than inspriing. Copenhagen, on the other hand, is both unexpected and looks like a happening place. Nothing against Denmark, but let me see a show of hands of everyone who has "Copenhagen!" on the tip of your tongue when it comes to the European city you most want to visit (or even remember)? This writeup goes a long way to change that. In this photo spread alone we're treated to the top-tier Seven Nations Restaurant, followed by the resort hotel Marienlyst, which boasts the only casino in Denmark (at least, that's the way things stood way back in 1964--I'll wager things have changed, one way or the other, in the ensuing decades since). The chef's kiss, however, is Montmartre, a hip jazz club. I want to be there. Guess what? It still exists! Yeah, I am absolutely visiting the next time I'm in Denmark!

One thing I like about these old issues is the insight they offer into cultural styles of the era, and that holds true here. In "Playboy's Gifts for Dads and Grads" we get a glimpse into what the hot, trendy must-have items are for 1964. Below we see the self-contained stereo unit Claritone for $1,600, which seems pretty pricey even by today's standards, even though there's no denying it's wow factor. Another must-have, pictured on a different page, is a 1964 Ford Mustang convertible with optional white-wall tires for $2,780. If you doubt what a huge cultural impact the Mustang had, skip down to the next image.

Playboy's gifts for dads and grads feature, June 1964 Playboy

The Mustang was such a phenomenon that everyone and their dog tried to ride the coattails of its popularity. Here, a toothpaste company tries to juice sales with a giveaway of 70 pony cars! That's nuts? There's another ad elsewhere in the magazine where a sunglasses company offers a special edition tied to--you guessed it--the Ford Mustang. If I recall correctly, a special production model of the car was rushed to Europe so it could be used in the latest James Bond film, Goldfinger. That's pretty impressive when the Eurocentric Bond franchise goes out of its way to feature a hot rod from Detroit alongside the venerable Aston Martin. And speaking of Bond, teh concluding installment of Ian Fleming's new novel, You Only Live Twice, also appears in this issue. As big a phenomenon as James Bond was in the mid-1960s, I imagine this boosted Playboy's newsstand sales nicely.

Command toothpast Ford Mustang giveaway, Playboy June 1964
This pajama ad strikes me as hilarious. I think they're about to engage in a judo sparring match. A sexy judo sparring match.

Pleetway pajamas ad, Playboy 1964
Being a home bartender myself, it amuses me to see that Angostura Bitters were as indespensible in the 1960s as they are today. This silly ad amuses me, but then again, I'm easily amused.

Angostura Bitters ad, Playboy June1964

On the other hand, I find this ad much less amusing. For those who enjoy the flavor of vodka? Ugh. Vodka exists for people who wish to get blotto but don't want to taste themselves doing so. The bland, inoffensive flavor of 7-Up (or Sprite, or Squirt, or any of the other lemon-lime knockoff soft drinks) confirms this. Fun fact: You know how Coca-cola originally contained cocaine in its recipe? 7-Up did it one better by adding lithium to the beverage. Now you know where the "Up" came from!

7-Up and vodka ad, Playboy June 1964
Now, we get to the cartoons. By 1964 the British invasion was in full swing so California's surf culture was on the wane, which likely meant it had finally penetrated the national consciousness enough for gags like this to make sense to the average reader. Maybe it's just me, but this issue had more illustration work that made me chuckle or smile than any of the previous issues I've reviewed.

Surfing cartoon, Playboy June 1964
And this one, oh my goodness, is there a better example of a mainstream magazine being a half-step behind the times? See, the joke here is that beatniks are dirty, messy, unkempt and generally espresso-swilling, poetry-spouting dregs of counterculture. Trust me, this gag would've brought down the house circa 1958. But in 1964? Seriously? Were beatniks and bongos even still a thing? Psst, Playboy why don'tcha lean in closer so I can tell you all about hippies. Trust me, you're gonna love them... or, at least the whole "free love" aesthetic.

Beatnik cartoon, Playboy June1964
Finally, I leave you gentle readers with this ad. I'm sure you will agree that it is a striking ad. Educational as well--prior to seeing this, I was not aware that gorillas preferred Falstaff beer. Learn something new every day.

Falstaff beer ad with gorilla, June 1964 Playboy
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