Supernatural–The Complete First Season (Review)

A DVD box set with the foreground of the cover portraying two men, one holding a bladed weapon and the other with a shotgun, and the background portraying an automobile and stormy sky.

Television networks are a strange thing in every country. In some countries, there’s only a handful of stations and most of the popular ones are funded directly or indirectly by the government ( See Canada and England for examples). Here in America, our “Big Four” networks are owned by huge media conglomerates while our government-funded station (PBS) is confined to, a breakout hit here or there, largely a niche audience.

And then there’s the “Fifth Network”: an independent network that sets itself up on local stations to compete with the “Big Four” and then usually doesn’t succeed, outside of one or two big hits. That used to be both the WB (which gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville) and UPN (which had Star Trek: Voyager and Everybody Hates Chris), but now that’s the CW, the network formed when those other two merged a few years ago. It consistently trends toward the bottom ratings-wise, but it has its moments of victory.

I bring all this up to emphasize that Supernatural, the long-running horror procedural show currently in its eighth season on the CW, because of the fact that it doesn’t have as much money as a show on one of the other networks, really can’t be judged the same way. Of course, you can still judge it aesthetically, but the fact that it doesn’t have a huge budget like, say, Lost, must be acknowledged.

So how is it as a show? Well, having just finished the complete first season on Netflix, I’d say..well, pretty good. It’s not a groundbreaking show, but it’s entertaining.

Here’s the plot: Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) is a senior at Stanford, preparing to apply to law school and living with his wonderful girlfriend Jessica. On Halloween, someone breaks into their house. Sam grapples with the intruder, only to discover it’s his older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles), who he hasn’t spoken to in years. “Dad’s on a hunting trip,” Dean says, “and he hasn’t been home in a few days.” Although a little reluctant, Sam eventually agrees to help Dean track their dad down, but only for the weekend, as he has a law school interview on Monday.

So what sort of hunting trip is it? Well, after they get away from Jessica, Dean plays Sam a voicemail from their dad, John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), which contains audio of a woman saying, “I can never go home.” If that sounds creepy to you, then you’ve figured out that this woman’s voice is, in fact, the voice of a ghost, and what the Winchesters “hunt” are paranormal forces–ghosts, demons, and what have you.

Why? Well, as we see in a flashback at the beginning of the first episode, when Dean was four years old and Sam six months, at the family home in Lawrence, Kansas, their mother was pinned to the ceiling and burned alive by a mysterious shadowy figure. Because of that, John quit his job and devoted his life–and the boys’–to destroying the paranormal, with the end goal of tracking down the creature who murdered his wife and killing it.

For the most part, the first season is a procedural: Sam and Dean roll into a town somewhere in America, using coordinates and clues from John’s journal,  to fight a monster, kill it, and save any people they meet along the way, then ride out in their sweet 1967 Chevy Impala.

Yeah, that’s a pretty sweet ride. There’s also a lot of classic rock on the soundtrack, which really is unlike a lot of TV.

Anyway, with a premise like that, two observations come to mind: 1. The first is that this is a show that could have easily aired decades ago, in the age of Night Gallery or The Outer Limits or Starsky & Hutch…and that’s a good thing. It’s the sort of “on the road” show that TV period doesn’t have much anymore in the age of serialized drama. Granted, this has elements of serialization, too, but for the most part, it’s a throwback show.

Observation No. 2: With basically no supporting cast, the two leads of a show like this have to have good chemistry and they do in spades. Ackles and Padalecki actually LOOK like siblings and they behave like them too, constantly sniping or bickering with each other in the middle of some crazy event. For example, in the episode “Hell House,” while investigating a string of deaths connected to a supposedly haunted house in Texas, Dean starts a prank war with Sam that carries on throughout the episode; before the big fight at the end, Dean has to tear a beer bottle that Sam put superglue on off of his hand. To give another example, in the finale, when breaking into an apartment building dressed as firemen, Dean remarks, “Always wanted to be a fireman when I grew up.” “You never told me that!” Sam exclaims.

Little moments like those and the warm bond Ackles and Padalecki have really reinforces that they could be brothers. But they each have strong characteristics of their own: Sam is the earnest hero who actually has more darkness than he’d like to admit, while Dean acts the part of the charismatic funnyman but really has a strong sense of compassion underneath it all.

Really, the only recurring character besides the brothers in this season is their dad, John. To my knowledge, I haven’t really seen Morgan in anything, but he’s a hardworking character actor and he has talent, something that pays off well in his multiple appearances, which happen more and more frequently as events go on. Morgan plays John with the intensity of a man haunted by death and with one true desire: to take revenge for everything he’s lost. It could come off cheesy in the wrong hands, but Morgan plays it close to the chest and very well at that.

The show was created by Eric Kripke, who left after five seasons to, among other things, helm the highly-rated but highly-hated NBC series Revolution.  Rather than end after his departure, however, because Ackles and Padalecki were under contract still, the show kept going and is now in its eighth season, will be getting a ninth and possibly a tenth, which means that this, the last surviving show from the WB (the show ran there for its first season, then moved to the CW), will potentially be around for as long as Smallville. But because Kripke is no longer there, my friend who introduced me to the show only considers the first five seasons “canonical”–he refers to the show now as Supernatural: The Search For More Money–and I’m sure there’s some portion of the fandom that thinks that too.

But I digress. While on the whole, I prefer the show’s largely anthology-based format, I do enjoy when it delves into serialization, because the anthology format can get a little stale at times. Also, some episodes have a slower pace than others. And the special effects–again, this is a show that originated on a “Fifth Network,” so it doesn’t have too much money–are a bit silly at times. But for the most part, the atmosphere and tone of the show offsets these things and usually makes it work to its advantage.

So, in the end, is Supernatural groundbreaking television? No, but it’s not bad either. Honestly, it’s just entertaining and fun. It’s really the first time I’ve ever enjoyed–and more importantly, never been bored by–this sort of lower-budget genre series that proliferates on the CW as well as places like SyFy; I find myself entertained by every episode. So I’ll keep watching and let you know if it gets any better from here.

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Django Unchained–Home Video Review

After The Avengers, Django Unchained was my favorite film of 2012.  A big-budget Western, set in the pre-Civil War South, about a freed slave shooting white criminals dead as a bounty hunter, directed by the genius who brought us Pulp Fiction? Come on, who WOULDN’T be up for that?

I saw this movie the day after Christmas; it was the first Quentin Tarantino movie I’d ever seen in theatres and I was simply blown away. I actually really like Westerns, and Tarantino’s postmodern sensibilities and dynamic scriptwriting reinforced what I like about the genre: yes, every Western is written according to a formula, but it’s a formula that works, and Tarantino puts in enough twists and turns to make it his own.

So when preorders for the 2-disc Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack went up on Amazon, how could I resist?

It arrived last week, I watched it with some people on Saturday and it was great. For one thing, watching it with other people reinforced for me that Tarantino draws you into his movies not just with the random outbursts of violence, but also his dialogue, characters and plotting.

And what a plot we have here: In 1858 in Texas, two slavers and their convoy of five slaves are stopped by the colorful Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Woltz, in an amazing performance that won him a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar) who asks which of the slaves can help him identify three wanted criminals/former plantation hands he is chasing. When Django (Jamie Foxx) says he can identify them, Schultz “buys” him–by shooting one of the slavers and the horse of one of the others; it’s OK, they’re both criminals–and they locate the other criminals. Upon learning that Django wants to free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was taken from him when they were sold separately, Schultz resolves to help him and trains him in the ways of bounty hunting. Come spring, they head for the debauched plantation of Candyland and its owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, who is the creepiest he’ll probably ever be) and Samuel L. Jackson (who is a revelation) as the head house slave Steven.

The Blu-Ray, in all its 1080p glory, is gorgeous and looks remarkable on a HDTV. The bigger the screen, the better it looks; Tarantino is a guy who makes movies for the movie screen and this is evidence. I haven’t watched the special features yet, but I cannot wait to.

Interestingly, 2012 was also the 20th anniversary of Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, and the 15th of what many consider his breakthrough, Pulp Fiction. Because of that, and because of this movie, all of Tarantino’s movies were transferred onto Blu-Ray with his supervision and blessing. I got Pulp Fiction for $4 on Blu-Ray that way and I can’t wait to see what else I can pick up.

But Django, as I said, is a brilliant movie. You don’t have to like or even have seen a Western in order to get what Tarantino is doing here. The bottom line is, one of America’s greatest filmmakers has made what might be his best movie yet. Check it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Star Trek Saturdays #20

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #20!!!

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This week’s episode is “The Alternative Factor” and while it drags in quite a few places, it’s still an enjoyable episode.

We open with the Enterprise completing a routine survey of an uninhabited planet when suddenly, the ship is thrown into chaos. Everything is shaken up and all within sensor range seems, as Spock records later, on the verge of “winking out” of existence. After things come back to normal, the instruments detect a life form on the surface of the planet. Kirk, instantly suspicious, beams down with Spock and a security team to the planet’s surface, where they encounter a strange man (Robert Brown) who screams at them hysterically about how “We can still stop him!” and then falls off of a rock.

Returning to the Enterprise with him, Kirk learns that the strange phenomenon they experienced earlier nearly completely drained the ship’s dilithium crystals. Even worse, Starfleet contacts them with a Code Factor 1 message, signalling the possibility of invasion. An unnamed commodore appears on screen–incidentally, this is the first time someone from Starfleet communicates with the crew in real time–and informs him that the phenomenon was felt at the exact same time in all quadrants of the galaxy and behind. Kirk requests help, but the commodore denies it, saying he is withdrawing all Starfleet ships within 100 parsecs of their position. “So we’re bait,” Kirk concludes somewhat bitterly.

Kirk then heads to sickbay, where the man–who is called Lazarus–is recovering. He tells Kirk that he has been pursuing a “thing”–not a man, but a monster–across the cosmos for destroying his entire civilization. Kirk then beams Lazarus and himself down to the planet, where Spock informs him that there is no other creature present on the planet. Kirk grabs Lazarus and demands the truth. Suddenly, Lazarus begins spasming and the strange phenomenon occurs again.

Later, Kirk is informed by McCoy that a cut on Lazarus’ head, visible when he came in, has disappeared. But after finding Lazarus, who has escaped sickbay and spasmed again, with the cut still visibly there, Kirk doubts McCoy. But just who is Lazarus, and why does he keep spasming at the same time the phenomenon occurs? And what of this mysterious “thing” he’s been pursuing?

This episode does have its moments, but they’re undone by some rather odd scripting. Gerd Oswald returns again as director and does much better work here than in “The Conscience of The King,” in part because he’s called to do some really cool visual effects. As realized by the effects team, we get some neat 2001-esque stuff, such as a nebula-like thing that’s superimposed over the screen every time the phenomenon occurs to a very trippy image of two men fighting in a space that looks like a photographic negative.

File:Alternative warp, remastered.jpg

Such nifty effects–which are made even cooler in the remastered version, where that still is taken from–and a very neat sense of pacing helps make up for the relative crumminess of Don Ingalls’ script. As my roommate pointed out, the big discovery about Lazarus comes about not through fact, but through pure conjecture between Kirk and Spock. To his credit, Oswald frames this conjecture with some nice gravitas and mounting close-up shots of the two men going back and forth, but it’s still conjecture.

Brown does a fine job as Lazarus, even if that job is mostly screaming and hysteria. He’s good at it and, later on, when the full truth about Lazarus is revealed, he handles things with gusto. According to Memory Alpha, John Drew Barrymore (yes, that one) was originally supposed to be Lazarus, but he simply didn’t show up to filming. Maybe, as Ed Harris groused in his recap of this episode for The Agony Booth, “he read the script.” Anyway, this resulted in Brown hurriedly being cast, then dragged on set, as well as a grievance filed against Barrymore by the production crew that cost him work for six months. One wonders what Barrymore would have done in this part, but Brown does just fine.

For some strange reason, Sulu and Scotty don’t appear in this episode.  Even more puzzling, a key bit of action occurs in Engineering, but it happens on a new set, rather than the one we’ve seen previously. Like I said, some odd choices are made, and Ingalls’ script has some rather crummy beats, but Oswald and the actors keep things better than they should be. So I’d still recommend this.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

Why I Love Superman

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So yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1. In celebration, Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good polled, tabulated and ranked the 75 greatest Superman stories of all time. It’s a great list and got me thinking just why I love this character more than any other superhero.

But first, some backstory. I wasn’t always an active Superman fan. I was aware of the character from an early age, as I think most are. One of my earliest memories is watching the 1940s cartoon where he fights a giant ape at the circus. I remember enjoying the ’90s cartoon and Lois and Clark enormously as a kid. And I’m proud to say I own an original copy of Superman #80, the climax of the “The Death of Superman” storyline. As a matter of fact, the very first trade paperback I ever bought was The Return of Superman, which contains that issue.

But it wasn’t until I got serious about comic collecting in high school that I realized it. My pile of trade paperbacks had gotten so large that I knew some stuff needed to be moved or else risk destroying my shelf.

I looked and noticed I had about six or seven Superman trades. “Huh,” I thought to myself. “I guess this means I’m a Superman fan.” Not too long after that, I watched the first Christopher Reeve film and fireworks went off in my head. Now here, I thought, is a superhero!

When DC rebooted their whole universe in 2011, I was ecstatic. At last, I had a chance to get in on the Man of Steel from the ground up. I’ve bought every issue of the new Superman and Action Comics that’s come out and I love them.

Superman was also the focus of some of my earliest published writing. Long before I started this humble blog, I wrote two pieces for the world’s biggest Superman fansite, the Superman Homepage. It was a wonderful learning experience and I love the community on that site (my user name is TomCon, fyi).

So happy birthday, Superman. You’ve been an inspiration to legions and hopefully will be for the next 75 years and more. I cannot wait for your new film and I’ll keep finding more to read watch and learn about you. Thanks for doing the right thing because it’s the right thing every time.

Y’know, I never have sat down and watched Smallville

Trailing Behind

Get it? Get the title joke? Well, you will.

Anyway, so yesterday, a couple of new trailers for arguably two of the biggest releases of the summer came out, and I am RIDICULOUSLY excited by what I see in both of them.

First, a brand new, full trailer for the new Superman movie, Man of Steel, was released. It’s the most indicative of what we’re actually going to get from this movie–offering much more information than any previous teaser or TV spot has given us–and I cannot friggin’ wait. (Hattip Moviebob)

So here, we finally see Michael Shannon’s Zod speak as well as get a clear sense of really all our major players. Amy Adams is playing Lois as a flinty tough-as-nails type ala Teri Hatcher (Lois and Clark) and Joan Alexander (The Adventures of Superman radio show); Russell Crowe has definitely honed his Marlon Brando impression for Jor-El (which is a good thing!); Kevin Costner has channeled all his humbleness into Jonathan Kent and Henry Cavill…oh man, I don’t know what anyone was doubting. He seems like the exact sort of Superman we need in the 21st Century; his voice, bearing and posture borrow from the best of George Reeves, Christopher Reeve and even the animated versions. The new costume looks awesome and the fact that they bothered to use the classic “zoom in on rocks levitating around the hero’s fist as he powers up” bit (a classic trope in action anime) shows that director Zach Snyder is committed to giving a new generation a Superman on their terms. Color me excited.

Moviebob is upset about the whole “why-the-S” explanation at the end, but I’m fine with it. As long as it’s not too pedantic.

Also released yesterday was the final trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie similarly shrouded in mystery and misdirection. (thanks to The Mary Sue)

Oof. Probably the heaviest stuff we’ve seen yet–London getting destroyed, the Enterprise crashing down to Earth–and being accosted by a larger-class Federation ship it seems–and Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison being his most glowering and menacing yet. This seems like it’ll be a sleek thriller ala Trek style and, after the last film so wonderfully made one of the better action movies of the past decade while still bringing core Trek back, that seems like a nice thing to do.

What I didn’t really remember until I saw it here, and I had to look at screencaps from the last film on Memory Alpha to be sure, is that in new Trek, the uniforms have a scale-pattern quality to them; kinda neat, as it highlights how movable and breathable the fabric has to be for Starfleet officers in all situations.

So yeah, two awesome movies will help make this an exciting summer. I cannot wait.

 

 

 

Star Trek Saturdays #19

Its time for Star Trek Saturdays #19!

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This week’s episode is “Arena” and it thrills from start to finish, introduces the Gorn, and is a remarkably tense hour of television.

We open with Kirk and McCoy excited to beam down to the Federation outpost on the planet Cestus III. They’re excited because the outpost’s commander, Commodore Travers, is famous for his hospitality and has a legendary personal chef with him due to his rank. They receive a message from Travers in the transporter room asking them to bring down their tactical teams. Kirk agrees and they beam down only to discover that the entire outpost has been utterly destroyed.

Snapping to command, Kirk orders Spock to begin searching for survivors. He locates an outpost officer, near to death, but then Spock detects strange nonhuman lifeforms. Almost instantly, they get attacked, a redshirt dies, then the others begin being bombarded by disruptor shells, turning the graveyard of the outpost into a battlefield.

Meanwhile, in orbit, the Enterprise also comes under attack by an enemy ship just out of their visual range. They struggle with that, engaging defensive screens, while on the ground, Kirk eventually locates a grenade launcher in the ruins of the armory and targets it at their attackers, eventually forcing them and their ship to step down.

Back on the Enterprise, Kirk comes to the conclusion that Travers’ invite and his voice were both faked, an attempt to lure the Enterprise there to destroy it and thus eliminate any Federation presence in this sector. He orders the helm to follow the enemy ship at all costs in order to destroy it.

Spock disagrees, saying they should hold off out of respect for sentient life, but Kirk will have none of it. He turns cold and he snaps, yelling that a massacre has been committed, and justice must be served. They pursue the ship, going faster and faster, eventually passing a nearby solar system. They eventually reach Warp 8 when Sulu notices that the other ship is slowing down. Ecstatic, Kirk has the ship close in for the kill, when suddenly, they’re stopped too, with no explanation.

The viewscreen is then taken over by what looks like a fancy kaleidoscope which pulsates and (in the voice of Vic Morrin) declares, “We are the Metrons.” It explains that, as both ships entered their space with violent intent, their respective captains must be forced to fight to the death. The winner will leave with him and his ship intact; the loser will be destroyed.

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Kirk is then vanished off of the Enterprise, and arrives on a desert landscape. (It is, in fact, according to the production notes, the California desert.) He hears a strange rasping and turns around to see the captain of the other ship, a creature identified by the Metron as…

…a Gorn.

What follows is one of the most iconic episodes in Trek history and it simply rocks from start to finish. The first 15 minutes are basically a short war film, with the actors sliding into the part of combatants against an unseen force effortlessly. Due to an explosion on the set of this episode, Shatner and Nimoy, as well as the late DeForest Kelley, all suffer from tinnitus.

Speaking of Shatner, this is his episode without question, and he owns every minute of it. From his icy ruthlessness at hunting the Gorn to what happens when he’s dropped on a battlefield, he is remarkable. Simply stunning.

Also awesome: the various stuntmen inside the Gorn suit and whoever provides his voice (a translation device plays a part in the plot). That’s tough work, but they sell this rubber suit. And of course, I can’t help but praise Perrin as the voice of the Metron. Perrin was a versatile radio/TV actor, best known for being the iconic Control Voice on the original The Outer Limits, and he turns in a great vocal performance here.

Gene L. Coon’s script for this episode has an interesting backstory: he wrote the script, but it was realized after the original draft was completed that an original story also called “Arena” with a very similar story had been published by Fredric Brown in 1944 in Astounding Science Fiction. Consequently, Coon combined elements of that story, giving Brown a based-by credit, with the completed draft. The result is a tense, taut script full of clever twists and turns that never lets up with the action in a good way. Combine that with smart, engaging direction by Joseph Pevney and you’ve got one hell of an hour of television. Can’t recommend it enough.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

 

 

 

 

 

An Evening with Andrew Bird!!!

So Calvin College is currently in the middle of the 10th biennial Festival of Faith and Music, a 3-day conference highlighting both academic approaches to music and the diversity of American music.

We have speakers like Chuck Klosterman and Daniel White Hodge, as well as concerts from performers like Welcome Wagon, but above all else, I am excited the most to see Andrew Bird, my favorite musician of all time.

File:Andrew-Bird.jpg (Credit: Wikipedia)

For the unfamiliar, Bird is a Chicago-born singer/songwriter whose decades-long career spans from jazz to folk to rock and everything in between. His abilities on guitar, glockenspiel and especially violin, as well as his singing and whistling, set him apart from everyone else in the indie music culture.

His lyrics are cryptic on first listen sometimes but on repeats you start to maybe get a glimpse of what he means and draw your own conclusion. They’re great for inspiring one’s own imaginative flights of fancy.

Here are some of his songs that I really like. Check them out and I will update this post later with my thoughts on the concert.

UPDATE: The concert was…well, everything I ever suspected an Andrew Bird show would be from watching his live performances: it was euphoric, intimate yet sprawling, and transcendant. It’s probably the only concert I will ever go to in my life where I can sing along to just about every song.

I say just about because Bird showed off a couple of new songs, one of which was called “Alaski at Night” and featured in its refrain, “Come back to Chicago/The city of light.” So yeah, Paris has to give up that title now apparently.

Bird was also surprisingly open and honest with the audience, even working the crowd like a stand-up comedian at times. When introducing the song “Something Biblical,” which has the refrain “Take your apples from the earth/And your fingerlings from the sky,” he explained its origins have to do with the fact that potatoes, in French, are referred to as “apples of the earth.” Noting the inverse, Bird said he then changed potato to “fingerlings” because “‘Potatoes’ is an inherently unlyrical word.”

Bird played most of the show himself, alternating from wailing on his violin to plucking it like a guitar to strumming along on guitar, all the while accompanied by his famous barrage of looping pedals, which warped and layered sounds in all sorts of crazy ways. Then, he was joined for a four-song set by Mason Jar Music, the famous Brooklyn-audio-visual/musical collective who are here to perform with indie folk artist Josh Garrels tomorrow night.  They were joyous together in their electrified rural sound, and the energy and goodwill spread to the audience.

I felt transcendent and elated, folks. I was enraptured tonight. It was a glorious, beautiful feeling and I shall never ever forget it.