Monthly Archives: December 2016

Rogue One Fills in the Gaps of the Star Wars Universe, But Rarely Comes into its Own


A New Hope
, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the sacred texts of the Star Wars universe. Every bit of Star Wars that has emerged in the wake of those first three films – sequels, prequels, midquels, comics, T.V. shows, holiday specials, video games, trading cards, action figures, and commemorative plates – is indebted to the franchise’s holy trinity. And each of them no matter what their claim to originality or expansion, echoes, references, and yes, even rhymes with those instigating incidents. For as wide and wooly as the famed galaxy far far away has become over the years, the creators and collaborators who work in Star Wars are forever filling in the gaps left by those all-important lodestones of the franchise.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the peak of this gap-filling mentality brought to bear. The film is inextricably tied to Episode IV, taking great pains to connect the events depicted in this movie with those of its hallowed predecessor, even when it gets in the way of telling Rogue One’s own story. Because of that, Rogue One comes off more like pandering than as a novel extension of the Star Wars universe. It’s a film desperate to remind you of what comes next in the timeline, without regard for whether any of the harbingers it presents genuinely add anything to the story being told here and now or the story we already know.

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A Decade Before the Mall of America Did, Children’s Television Had a Black Santa Claus, and the World Didn’t End


Watch enough Star Wars in the lead up to the franchise’s recent resurgence, and you get to know the menace of James Earl Jones’s voice. His deep timbre and stentorian tones bring authority and fear when he gives orders to underlings or threatens a band of rebels. But that same big baritone, the same pitch that gives Jones gravitas when voicing the heavy, gives him a certain mirth and a tone of loving paternal authority when voicing Santa Claus.

This is the revelation that Recess, an animated show for kids, uncovered when casting Jones as the jolly old elf himself in the show’s 1998 Christmas special. Recess ran from 1997-2001 and was produced under the Disney umbrella (just as Jones’s Vader eventually would be). Part of ABC’s One Saturday Morning block, the show was an embryonic version of Community, centered on six distinct but close-knit friends, navigating the colorful and outsized ecosystem of their elementary school, where character stories and genre pastiches abound.

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The Walking Dead: The Division and Reunion in “Hearts Still Beating”


Since at least the middle of the show’s fourth season, The Walking Dead’s M.O. has been to divide and conquer. As the show’s cast of characters has grown, more and more often its episodes focus on just a handful of individuals, typically separated from the rest of the group. That makes the series’s season premieres and season finales (or mid-season finales), where everyone joins back together, feel almost like crossover episodes.

But it also makes them feel like reunions. The time apart for these characters doesn’t just give us a thrill when they link up once more, but makes us miss their interactions and shows us the value of their cooperation, and even their mere shared presence, through its absence. That fits the theme of “Hearts Still Beating,” which shows any number of survivors attempting to solve the season’s big problems on their own, trying to carry the entire load on their backs, only to realize that what they hope to achieve can only be accomplished by working together. “Hearts Still Beating” is not a great episode of The Walking Dead, but in this vein, it works for what show’s going for.

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The Walking Dead: “Sing Me a Song” Asks Whether Negan is a Hero or a Villian in his Own Mind


There’s an old saw that says the best villains are the ones who believe they’re the hero of the story. “Sing Me a Song” leaves the viewer wondering if that’s true for Negan in an episode that spends even more time acquainting the audience with him and his fiefdom. There are moments when it seems like Negan truly believes he’s doing good, bringing the progress and security of civilization back to an untamed world. There are others when it seems like he simply enjoying himself within his own twisted version of Disneyland. It’s unclear which of those things he really believes, or if he’s even aware of the distinction. But that ambiguity helps make him The Walking Dead’s most interesting villain yet.

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South Park Tries to Forget in its Season Finale: “The End of Serialization As We Know It”


“The End of Serialization As We Know It,” the finale of South Park’s ambitious twentieth season, closes with a speech about wiping the entire Internet clean and offering everyone a chance to start over. Troll Trace, the catalyst for the latest looming global catastrophe to confront this surprisingly consequential Colorado town, had threatened to expose anything and everything that anyone has ever said or done online. The town’s hard fought victory against the website guaranteed that risk of exposure, and the ensuing chaos, wouldn’t come to pass. With the threat extinguished, everyone can have a new start, a renewed chance to go on without all the baggage they’ve accumulated from years of surfing and posting and perhaps even trolling.

That sentiment echoes two articles, both of which are a few years old, but feel even more relevant now than when they were written. The first is a New York Times editorial entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It talks about the then-nascent emergence of social media and the way that the rise of what, in the salad days of 2010, was referred to as “Web 2.0” was poised to change things. The emergence of user-generated content as the engine of the Internet meant that more and more of lives was being preserved for the foreseeable future. Everything we posted threatened to become inescapable, destined to follow us and prevent us from living down our worst moments. The second is a satirical video from The Onion that presents the same idea in a much more succinct and amusing fashion, entitled simply: “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook.”

They, and this episode of South Park, are getting at the same idea — that even though the Internet is an incredible tool that has changed the world, helping to democratize everything from art, to business, and even to politics, there are downsides to the digital lives we lead today. The way that so much of how we consume our media, how we work, and how we interact with the world, is filtered through our digital devices means not only that we’re easier to rile up, but that so much of what we do is captured forever, waiting to rear its ugly head and expose our weaker moments to everyone. That’s the central threat at the core of the show’s season finale.

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The Walking Dead: Tara Makes a Hard Moral Choice in “Swear”


I’m not sure I could tell you much about Tara prior to this episode. I knew that she came to the main group via The Governor. I remembered that she was among those who met up with Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene after the prison fell. I recalled that she was dating Denise. But otherwise, like so many of the show’s secondary characters, I’m hard pressed to think of any way in which she’s been fleshed out enough for her to really register for me.

Until now.

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Doctor Strange Both Subverts and Affirms the Usual Marvel Movie Complaints

CAUTION: This article contains major spoilers for Doctor Strange.

There’s a recurring set of complaints about the “samey-ness” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The argument comes in several forms. One common strain posits that every Marvel movie simply follows a predetermined formula, involving some McGuffin (lately, an infinity stone), an undercooked villain, and an inevitable third act action sequence that sets everything right. Another contends that the MCU films lack distinct authorial voices and break down to a house-mandated style. And one recurring grouse, even among fans, focuses on the way Marvel Studios films are shot and lit and even color-corrected.

There’s a grain of truth to each of these critiques, but as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanatacist Podcast, I find them all largely unavailing. For one thing, even the studio’s first set of films, released prior to the game-changing Avengers team up (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) have vastly different vibes and tell markedly different types of stories. From a Shakespearean-influenced high fantasy romp, to a 1940s throwback adventure, to a military-heavy fugitive narrative, to a more traditional hero’s origin story, the Marvel movies have come in different flavors from the very beginning.

What’s more, while there are common themes of redemption and certain recurring motifs common to many superhero films in the MCU, there’s also a focus on character that has served to distinguish Marvel’s films from one another independently of the antagonists or plot obstacles in a given film. As others have pointed out, Marvel Studios has found great success by focusing on the development of its heroes (and those close to them) making their personal journeys the driving force behind these films, rather than the newest set of villains or big plot development that have driven other franchises. And, over the course of fourteen movies, plenty of entries in the MCU series of films have subverted the tropes that the series’s critics accuse it of slavishly adhering to.

Doctor Strange acts as both a confirmation and a rebuke to these arguments. It features some of the MCU’s most dazzling visuals and breaks with some of the franchise’s biggest conventions. And yet, at the same time, it feels like a recapitulation of many of the same types of stories and beats that other Marvel Studios films have employed in the past.

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