Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Things That I Love: The Legend of Korra

When it comes to television series, I'm almost always late for the party.  I tend to hop on board the love train after one or two seasons have passed, when the show is safely critically acclaimed and therefore worth investing my time.

Such was the case with Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra.  I learned about Avatar at the same time as its much-maligned film version, and thought little more about it.  But after Doug Walker from That Guy With the Glasses did a review of the film/series, I became intrigued enough to check it out.  While Avatar was not readily available,* Korra was.  And oh my God, after one episode, I was in love.

A little context: since childhood, I have been an absolute nut for great animation.  Until I was 10 or 11, I was convinced that I would become an animator, and spent my afternoons doodling comical dogs and dragons on large sheets of paper.  Disney was the default style, though other animation houses always challenged.  Still, my world really expanded in my 20s, when I was introduced to anime.  The fluid, realistic movements; the mature, complex story lines; the complete willingness to be dark -- really dark.  Though staples like Neon Genesis Evangelion and the creepy Akira intrigued me, the anime that really caught my fancy was Serial Experiments Lain (the likely subject of my next post).

Both The Legend of Korra and Avatar are basically anime.  Yes, they are both created by Americans and yes, the characters' lip movements actually match their words, but otherwise, they follow all of the anime conventions.  Of the two, Korra seems more committed to the anime approach, with the characters looking as though they stepped out of Cowboy Bebop, and their faces constantly going off-model when they get agitated.

You mentioned the Mako!  Never mention the Mako!

But What Is The Legend of Korra About?

Spoilers for Avatar and Korra ahead!

In the Avatar/Korra universe, the world is divided into four nations: the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads.  Each nation has people capable of "bending" an element, or manipulating it to that person's will.  In the Earth Kingdom it's earth, in the Fire Nation it's fire... you get the idea.  However, just one person can master all four elements -- the Avatar.  The Avatar is kind of like the Dalai Lama: a spiritual being who is reincarnated over the generations.  In the Avatar/Korra universe, the Avatar is reincarnated in a cycle among the four nations: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water.  The Avatar's task is to maintain "balance" among the nations.

In Avatar, Aang was born to the Air Nomads.  After running away from his destiny and accidentally getting frozen for 100 years or so, Aang learned that the world was now at war, with the Fire Nation colonizing the other nations and seeking to wipe out their benders.  Aang had to learn how to bend fire, water, and earth, and joined with his friends to successfully defeat Fire Lord Ozai.

Fast forward 70 years.  Aang would go on to mate with his friend and longtime crush, Katara, and have three children, the youngest of whom was Tenzin, an air bender.  Aang also got together with his friend, Fire Lord Zuko, and helped society jump forward a couple of centuries in technology.  Instead of the largely feudal and pre-industrial society of Avatar, the Korra universe seems to borrow heavily from the early 20th Century.  The roads are filled with "Sato mobiles," radio is popular, and news reels reminiscent of the ones that ran during Saturday matinees recount previous episodes.  Oh, and in the 70 years since Aang's victory over Lord Ozai, he managed to establish a city the size of New York called Republic City.

Aang would die at the age of 66, and the Avatar cycle would shift to the Water Tribe.  Korra, a Southern Water Tribesman, becomes the new Avatar, showing her abilities at the startlingly early age of four.  Then, instead of traveling the world to learn from bending masters, she is kept cloistered at the South Pole by the Order of the White Lotus, while her masters come to her.  All except Tenzin, who must attend to troublesome issues in Republic City, where he is a council member.  So Korra decides to leave the Southern Water Tribe and stay with him on Air Temple Island, across the bay from the city.

Of course Tenzin resists at first, but ultimately gives in.  Of course Korra sticks out like a sore thumb in the Big City.  And of course she has a love interest, and even a love triangle, which gets impressively complicated despite Season One being only 12 episodes long.  Yet despite these conventions, the show gets so much right.

Why Korra Works

Animation.  There are many things that make The Legend of Korra a fantastic show.  The most obvious is the damn gorgeous animation, which is a step above the original series, and above every other series that I can think of.  That includes animated shows legendary for their visuals, like Batman: The Animated Series.  Computer animation and hand drawings appear seamlessly woven together, and the movements are always fluid.  (Though that may be less the case in Season Two.  More on that later.)  The character designs are graceful, and Republic City has appealing touches that make it appear like a cross between 1920s New York and medieval Japan.

Given how complex many of the character movements are, that's saying quite a lot.  Korra does not shy away from lengthy, intricate fight scenes, such as during the "pro-bending" tournaments where benders battle in a ring for a championship.


But it's not just that the animation is amazing during major action scenes.  It also captures tense moments very effectively.  Scenes where Korra or other characters are getting blood bended are so intense, so gripping, that you just can't look away.  It reminds me of Serial Experiments Lain, where another monster sought to control the main character with the jerk of his hand and a scary, intense gaze.

Characters.  The characters are also compelling for the most part.  Some fans may be justified in griping that the Korra characters are not as deep and compelling as the Avatar characters, but that may be because Avatar spanned 61 episodes while Korra, so far, has aired 15.  Yet even within the 15, we have met several compelling characters.

There's Asami Sato, who initially seems destined to be Season One's "rich bitch" villain, until she learns that her father is evil and gives up the only life she has ever known to fight on the side of right, never once complaining.  Not even after her boyfriend dumps her for Korra.  Tenzin and his family are also fascinating, with the stern Tenzin being one of the world's last air benders, always feeling the weight of the Air Nomad culture on his shoulders.  Lin Beifong is another favorite; the daughter of a character from Avatar, she initially seems like a jerk, but later reveals herself to be a jerk who is also a badass, willing to sacrifice herself to get others out of harm's way.  Mako and Bolin, two pro-bending brothers whom Korra befriends, have potential.  It would have been nice if Mako could have gotten a bit more development before he became Korra's boyfriend, or if Bolin were less dumbed-down in the later episodes.  But their childhood spent in the streets is a rich storyline yet to be fully tapped.

Then there is Korra.  In Season One, I thought that she struck just the right balance between arrogant and vulnerable, self-righteous and comical.  She is an Avatar who has known all her life that she is THE Chosen One, as opposed to past Avatars who learned when they were 16.  It's amazing that she's as grounded as she is.  Korra is ready to go to war, but unlike Aang, she doesn't have a Fire Lord Ozai to bring down.  Instead, her obstacles are subtler, requiring her to use skills that are not her strong points.  In Season Two, she seems a little more dour, but I'm hoping that lifts as the season progresses.

Storylines/Themes.  It is too early to weigh in on Season Two, but Season One was unafraid to tackle the scenario of what to do when there is no Big Bad to fight.  What is the Avatar's purpose in a "peaceful" society, where there is no black and white, only gray?  Where the ones who were the heroes (benders) may now be the oppressors?  Many fans have rightly noted that the series creators do not explore this theme as much as they could have.  However, even if Season One is only 75 percent successful, that is still one hell of a 75 percent.

When Korra first comes to Republic City, she learns about an Equalist movement headed by a mysterious figure called Amon.  The Equalists resent the benders' power and control, and given that benders not only head the city's power structure, but also spread fear through organized crime rings, it's not hard to see why.  Yet the Equalists come across as fringe characters until Bolin gets kidnapped and taken to Amon's "revelation," where Amon demonstrates that he can deprive benders of their abilities -- permanently.  From there, Korra must overcome her greatest fear -- that she will lose her Avatar powers and be reduced to nothing -- and bring down Amon.

Not only is that a compelling storyline, but it also features several twists that no amount of trope knowledge can prepare you for.  For instance, it's easy to surmise that Councilman Tarrlok of the Northern Water Tribe is a shifty slime ball with some connection to Amon.  However, I was not prepared for what that connection was, or his character changes along the way.  

If anything, the ambitions of this storyline makes it unfortunate that Season One has only 12 episodes, and that each of Korra's planned four seasons are self-contained.  This storyline could easily have flowed into the second season.  There could have been more time spent outlining the power imbalance between benders and non-benders, and especially Korra's life choices after she is temporarily deprived of her bending powers.  Instead, her bending powers are restored roughly 10 seconds after she gets in touch with her past lives, and everyone is saved!

Here is hoping that one of the future seasons will pick up that dangling thread.  I would love to see some sort of inverse of the Amon storyline: say Asami decides to save her father's company not by taking away benders' powers, but by creating gloves that give non-benders bender-like powers.  How would the bending elite react then?

Other Points, Questions, and Quibbles

Kolin For-evah!  Count me among those who think that Korra is better matched with Bolin than Mako.  Their personalities are more in sync, and while Bolin has moments of cowardliness, I suspect he would have an easier time being honest with her than Mako does.  Too bad the show's creators decided to turn him into a sideshow clown.

Where Is Season Two Headed?  One good thing about this series is that it's hard to predict.  Yes, it appears that Korra's uncle Unalaq, the chief of the Northern Water Tribe, is a cold, calculating baddie, but it was easy to think that of Tarrlok as well.  (What is it with guys from the Northern Water Tribe?)  While he might be a bad guy, I suspect we'll learn that he's not the Big Bad.

Spoiler

....

....

Eska is!

...


...

Just kidding.

What Is Korra's Overarching Goal?  Avatar's journey was pretty clearly defined: a peaceful monk who just wanted to be normal must fulfill his destiny by battling the greatest evil on earth and restoring balance to the world.  According to the creators, Korra's goal to become more spiritual... which seems rather vaguely defined.  In practice, it could be awesome, but I have no idea how they'll portray that for four seasons.

How Does Blood Bending Take Benders' Powers?  So Amon is a powerful blood bender.  But while blood bending paralyzes and causes pain, it isn't clear how it permanently removes bending power.  If just blood bending is enough, wouldn't that make any water bender powerful enough to erase another bender's powers?  So much for needing the Avatar to giveth and taketh powers away.

Conclusion

While Korra has its imperfections, it is a great series on the whole, and I eagerly await each new episode.   
   

* Meaning that I could not access the show without paying money.  Since then, I have found legitimate websites that showcase the Avatar episodes for free, and have been slowly working my way through the first season.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Brief Update to Let You Know I'm Alive

This will probably be my shortest update yet.  I know that I usually have a post up by Monday or Tuesday at the latest, but I have been slammed with work this week.  It has been spilling out every which way, and it is all I can do to stay on top of it.  I should have something up by the coming weekend, and I think it will be really good.  So I'll check back in then.

In the meantime, feel free to speculate about Downton Abbey Season Four!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Hairspray

Hairspray (2007) is another movie that was on the border between Right and Wrong.  However, unlike Across the Universe, I feel a bit more confident saying that Hairspray falls on the Wrong side.

Hairspray began as a movie -- a quirky non-musical from 1988 starring Ricki Lake.  From there, it became a Broadway stage musical, and then that stage musical became a movie.  Obviously it's not unusual for movies to be remade, but for a remake to come out less than 20 years after the original?  But then, that's the trend these days for movies to be remade every 10 years or so, though it usually involves a superhero franchise.

The story focuses on an overweight teenager named Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky in the Ricki Lake role) living in Baltimore with her two parents.  Tracy and her friend, Penny Pingleton, devote their lives to The Corny Collins Show, a local American bandstand that features teenagers dancing to the latest music -- of 1962.  The date and the location are significant because in 1962, Baltimore was still racially segregated.  The Corny Collins Show cast is all white, except for one Tuesday a month called Negro Day.

When a rare opportunity to join the show comes up, Tracy auditions, despite the objections of her mother (John Travolta... yes).  The manager of the station, Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer), rejects Tracy for being overweight and supporting an integrated cast, but Corny Collins ends up hiring her.  Tracy becomes a big sensation and overshadows another cast mate, Velma's daughter, Amber.  Velma plots to bring Tracy down, especially after Tracy shows no signs of giving up on integration.  Amber's boyfriend, Link, takes a romantic interest in Tracy.

Meanwhile, on a trip to detention, Tracy meets several local black students, who teach her their dance moves.  The best dancer, Seaweed, eventually takes Tracy to his home, where they learn that Velma pressured The Corny Collins Show to cancel Negro Day.  Tracy then encourages a march on the station, which is led by Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), and chaos ensues.

I won't give away the entire plot, but you can see that it's more than simply "heavy girl fulfills her dream of becoming a dance star."  There is a lot to like about Hairspray, which I will detail below.  However, whether a movie is Right or Wrong depends upon whether it meets the goals that it sets out for itself.  I don't think it does.  While the movie is fat positive and interracial, it is also hypocritical in ways that it likely never intended, and the good parts are not good enough to make up for it.

The Good

1.  Nikki Blonsky as Tracy.  The movie could have been a disaster without the sparkly presence of (then) newcomer, Nikki Blonsky.  She sets the general tone and makes everything that happens seem natural.  She's so bubbly adorable that you can't see anything wrong with a garbage man letting her sit on top of his truck instead of in the cab, because it just isn't that type of movie.  She even made me like Baltimore, which is an impressive feat, given how I felt after the most recent Super Bowl...



2.  Nice Message.  It's rare when movies have one positive message, let alone two.  First, Hairspray refreshingly chose to portray an overweight protagonist without ever (1) mocking her appearance or (2) subjecting her to "hilarious" fat person antics, like stuffing her face or tripping over her feet constantly.  Second, just when you think the movie is only going to be about a fat girl finding acceptance, it shines a spotlight on the harms of racial segregation.  If anything, the message of racial equality is Hairspray's main message, with the fat positive one being secondary.
   
3.  Nice Vibe.  In many respects, Hairspray gives off more fun and happy energy than Mamma Mia!, and with arguably less effort.  So many characters are nice and positive and well meaning, and the bad guys (Velma and Amber) inevitably get theirs.  Overall, the movie has a positive "You can do it!" vibe that is rare and rather refreshing.    

The Bad

1.  Not As Fat Positive As It Thinks It Is.  You know how I said that Hairspray allowed Blonsky's Tracy to carry on with dignity?  That's probably because the goofy fat jokes have instead been directed toward her mother, Edna.  Or "mother," because Edna is played by a man in a fat suit, John Travolta.  I get that the man in drag thing is a tradition that dates back to the original movie, for reasons that likely made sense then.  The problem is that Travolta plays the role so straight, I wonder why they didn't just cast a woman.  Yes, man in drag in a fat suit is quirky, but from what I gather, this movie has already stripped away a lot of the original movie's quirkiness, so what's one more thing?  There is something warped about watching an overweight, middle-aged woman discover her beauty when the woman is really a man in a fat suit.  As if I didn't find John Travolta creepy enough.  I guess it's too much for a movie to give dignity to two overweight women.

2.  White Savior Trope.  Just because Tracy is overweight and adorable does not mean she's immune to a trope that too many white characters fall into: the white savior.  While both Tracy and the movie have noble aims, the movie makes the mistake of having Tracy speak for the black characters, rather than having them be full characters in their own right.  The most distinct black character is Motormouth Maybelle, but only because it's Queen Latifah, always called upon to be the source of dignity and world-weary cynicism.  Yet even she largely reacts to Tracy -- "Wow, white girl, what a great idea!  Marching to protest injustice!"  At one point, it seems as though racial harmony depends upon getting Tracy to The Corny Collins Show in time for the Miss Teenage Hairspray contest.  This may be the fault of the original movie, but it doesn't make it less frustrating.

3.  Unmemorable Songs.  Like Dreamgirls, Hairspray has songs that are good enough to get the job done, but nothing truly great.  ("And I Am Telling You" is a "known" song, but not a great one.)  At some point after "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs," the songs started to bleed into another, one long monotonous string of bee-bopping and doo-opping.  And speaking of "Miss Baltimore Crabs," who told Michelle Pfeiffer that she could sing?  She can sing passably, but her voice is thin and grating, making "Miss Baltimore Crabs" easily the most irritating song of the bunch.  Or maybe I'm still bitter that she was the voice of Tzipporah, a black character in The Prince of Egypt.  By contrast, the song that is arguably best is the finale song, "You Can't Stop the Beat," as seen below.

4.  Just Generally Generic.  A musical from quirky source material could have been truly special, but instead it's just... okay.  Apart from Tracy, Edna, and Velma, the characters are pretty bland.  Penny, Seaweed, Little Inez, Corny Collins, even Tracy's father, played by Christopher Walken, don't leave a big impression.  (ETA: Forgot to mention that one exception was the wonderful Allison Janney as Penny's moralizing mom.  So underused.)  Paired with bland music, it makes a movie that starts with giddy energy feel dull and tired (though it picks up again right before the end).  

Conclusion

Hairspray wants to be fun and happy, yet deep and meaningful, and ends up being just... all right.  It has enough positive qualities to make it worth watching, but not enough to be memorable.  If anything, it makes me more interested in checking out the original.



Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENT, Across the Universe, Rock of Ages

Movie Musicals That Got It Right:  DreamgirlsLes Miserables, ChicagoMamma Mia!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Happy One-Year Bloggiversary!

Even though I officially began the Wild Blog in the West on February 20, 2012, I published my first real blog post on September 1, 2012... one year ago.

I had never kept a blog before.  I had done lots of ghost writing for other blogs, but the style of writing was very different.  I also wrote recaps for reality shows several years ago, but that was different -- a set subject matter, defined parameters.  What would I do with a blog?  How often would I update it?  What if I ran out of things to talk about?

Thankfully, the fears that I would run out of things to say never came to pass.  If anything, the number of topics has expanded over the months -- the only thing that's contracted is time.  This blog has given me space to be a massive fangirl about things like Les Miserables, the musical, or to rant about things I hate, like leaf blowers.  Despite the fact that the Wild Blog in the West has no major theme or niche, the number of page views for August 2013 was 20 times greater than for September 2012.

Here's to hoping for another great year with more readers and other interesting topics!  What are some things to anticipate?

1.  More About My Novel.  Yes, that's the main reason you come here, right?  I'll continue to give periodic updates about my progress and feature more chapters.  I mentioned that someone in a high place at a publishing company was reading my novel draft; the good news is that she finished it and liked it, and recommended it to the Historical editor.  The bad news is, again, from what I've seen, that publishing company deals with books that are very different from mine, so (1) that makes it highly likely to be rejected and (2) even if it is accepted, would that be a good thing?

Even after my complaints about prejudice against long novels -- which I still think are valid -- I've pruned about 32,000 words from its maximum length.  It's still "too long," but perhaps more acceptably so.  I managed to prune without getting rid of anything significant -- just one chapter that didn't have much to do with the story and which harmed the flow.  It reads a lot sharper, I will admit.  However, I don't think I can cut anything more without having to break apart the story, which I really don't want to do.  Next step: hammer out an awesome query letter and hop on the querying bus.

2.  Movie Musicals.  I've done a number of movie musical reviews by now, with the focus on live-action movie musicals made in the past 15 years or so.  Still in the pipeline: Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, and yes, Moulin Rouge.  After that, the bench starts to get a little thin.  If I can't find any other significant movie musicals from recent years, I'll start working my way backward.  I haven't touched animated musicals because they're so ubiquitous -- really, the main form in which we see musicals now (because it requires such a suspension of disbelief when people in movies sing *eye roll*).  But if I decide to feature them, I might do it in a unique way, like "least expected animated musical" or something of the like.

3.  Downton Abbey.  Downton Abbey will be back... unfortunately not until January because PBS is too greedy for ratings to let it go head to head with network shows.  (Hmm, never thought I would write that sentence.)  Though I suspect I know what will happen beforehand, since I live in the United States, I will be good and hold off on the recaps until January.

4.  Other Series.  I haven't ruled out recapping other series, whether in TV, movie, book, or other form.  The question is finding series that haven't been recapped to death.  The first one that comes to mind is the Hunger Games trilogy, not because that hasn't been reviewed to death, but because I still think Mockingjay has received a bum rap and would like to delve into it further.  I also might focus on past series rather than current, ones that are high-quality, but haven't received the accolades that they should.  One that comes to mind is Big Love, but I don't know whether to commit to it.

5.  Unpopular Opinions.  Yep, I'll always have those. *wink*  Though they might not always be socially critical, just opinions that cut against the grain.

6.  To AdSense or Not to AdSense?  In the near future, I might include AdSense ads on my blog.  I'm not even quite sure what it involves -- pointing and clicking on ad links?  Well, you have the choice to do so or not.

7.  Wildcard!  As in, I don't really know some of the things that might be in store.  I could get inspired.

Anyway, thanks so much to all of you who have read, and who keep coming back to read more.  It's been a great experience so far, and may there be many great years to come.