Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

Category: 3WA (page 2 of 11)

Weekly Word Working Assignment

3WA 2018 #1: VAST – Visual Audio Sensory Theater

Last year’s project was tracked via a simple text file which I updated whenever I picked something off the list to become a particular entry. This year’s project involves a spreadsheet.

I know, right?

Sometimes the hardest part of a project is deciding where to begin. So I looked at the sorted-by-release-date list of albums in the spreadsheet, and right smack in the middle of the chronology (used to sequence the ten-minute sampler mix a couple weeks back) I found the perfect starting point.

What is it?

Visual Audio Sensory Theater is the debut album by a musical entity named with the acronym of that phrase, VAST. It arrived in late April of 1998, consists of a dozen tracks, and both is and isn’t indicative of where the band would go in the future.

How does it sound?

Like this:

Why this pick?

Back in the “wild west” days of the burgeoning Internet I dabbled in downloading of MP3s. (Don’t worry: I’m an honest respectable consumer of media now.) Among the tracks I found online were the first couple songs off of this record. I was hooked. On my next visit to the local record store, still a frequent part of my routine back then, I picked up this CD and listened to it all the way through, over and over during the subsequent weeks. There’s a sound to this thing that makes my brain fizz in just the right way. Maybe it’s the collision between grungy guitars and Gregorian-monk-style chanting loops. I’m no musicologist; all I know is “I like it, a lot.”

(Yes, the “Gregorian chant” thing was… a thing back in the ’90s.)

Which songs are the highlights?

The lead-off pair, “Here” and “Touched,” are a strong one-two punch. Midway through the album you get “I’m Dying,” which is my all-time favorite VAST track, followed by the lovely and quieter “Flames.” Everything afterward is good, with the untitled track right before the end marking another notable high point.

Which songs don’t work so well?

I’m not a lyrics guy for the most part, so now’s a good time to point out that most of what works for me about a piece of music is its overall sound rather than the meaning of the words. Unless the song’s an actual ballad with literal meaning I’m not going to get the point of the poetry.

With that said, what loses me about “Dirty Hole” and “Pretty When You Cry” can be guessed from the titles. They’re not bad songs for what I normally get from music, I just don’t enjoy listening to them all that much because the lyrical content is just distracting enough to dull the effect. Oh hey, if there’s a “parental advisory” sticker on the record in the store, it’s probably for “Pretty When You Cry.”

Not that I mind F-bombs in particular. Fair warning though, I figure.

Which album did you almost pick in favor of this one?

Nude was a very strong contender. It’s a couple albums down the line, after the record-label-mandated attempt at commercial success which was Music For People, so it exudes both the confidence of a successful musical act and the desire to push boundaries of a musical act which doesn’t want to be crammed into a particular box.

In the end, though, I had to go with the debut album. Why? Because I love it the most. Out of twelve songs, ten of them are four-star or better in my rating system. (More on that, shortly.)

With that said, please don’t take me for the sort of person who believes that a musician or band is at their best right at first and everything afterward is a disappointment. I hope to put such a notion to rest in the weeks to come.

Any final thoughts?

Not about the record itself, but about my rating system. I dithered for weeks on the decision not to include a full track listing with star ratings. It seemed redundant, given I already cover the high- and low-lights in the write-up. I will occasionally refer to my ratings for one song or another as we go, however, so I still need to at least talk about the system just a bit.

Here goes, a slightly reworded and reordered version of what I wrote most of a decade ago

  • Five stars? This song rocks my socks, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks of it. My love is pure and knows no bounds.
  • Four stars? Oooh, I like this song! I probably play it fairly often when I’m doing a listening session with headphones, and my random playlist in MediaMonkey is programmed to pick up anything four stars or higher to keep me pumped up while I work.
  • Three stars? Not great, not bad. This song is probably best used as background music.
  • Two stars? This is not a song I would go out of my way to listen to. I might even go out of my way to avoid doing so. I may or may not skip it when listening to the album all the way through.
  • One star? Please don’t play this song ever again. I hate mopping up the blood coming out of my ears. The only reason this track hasn’t been deleted is because I cringe at the thought of an incomplete record living in my library. (It’s not rational, I know this.)

And there you have it. Thoughts? Suggestions? Invective? Fawning adoration? Bring it on.


3WA 2017 #52: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Here we are. This is it. The last one of its kind, the final Weekly Word Working Assignment of 2017. I had to pick a high point to go out on and they don’t get much higher than this, one of the greatest televised animated stories of all time.

He never, ever tires of this trick.

What is it?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a three-season, 61-episode animated series produced by and aired on the Nickelodeon cable television network. It spawned comic books, video games, a sequel series (The Legend of Korra), and… I’ve been told there was a live-action movie adaptation but let’s ignore that for now. (Or forever, really.)

What kind of story is it?

A powerful young boy hides away from the terrible things happening in his world, inadvertently entering suspended animation for an entire century. He’s found and awakened by a pair of siblings, and thus begins an epic journey of danger, excitement, wonderment, intrigue, personal growth, and basically saving the world.

Siblings being siblings.

Why do you like it?

Much like its similar-in-length closest contender for “the show I want this year’s project to go out on,” Fullmetal Alchemist, this show has it all. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll jump for joy, you’ll fear for the lives and sanity of these kids who have chosen to take on an seemingly impossible series of tasks. I mean, you will if you’re anything like me, which is admittedly up for debate.

Let’s dig in.

Do you like characters who interact in believable ways? Good. Do you like characters who face their demons, own up to their failings, and try to do better? Good. Do you like clever banter? Oh, excellent. No, seriously, do you like laugh-out-loud bits of witty dialog? Rock on.

Speaking of rocks, here are two entertaining earthbenders.

Do you like well-designed, interesting, properly lived-in worlds for the characters to inhabit? Good. Do you like the idea of a consistent set of martial arts disciplines applied to an ostensibly “magic” powers system? Sweet. Do you like complex backstories and exploration of moral shadings beyond simply Good Guys Versus Bad Guys? Okay then.

Speaking of martial arts, do you like inventive combat sequences and creative uses of the powers established? Great!

Do you like sprawling epics told from the perspectives of different key players over the course of several years? You’re in luck.

Do you think you can avoid crying over a lost, lonely, flying bison? You may think you can. You can’t. Trust me.

I could go on. I really, really could.

It’s always about honor with you, isn’t it kiddo?

Let’s go on.

I’ve railed against the trend toward “grimdark” storytelling from time to time. Grimdark is what you get when your readership decides that “mature, realistic, and sophisticated” means “put your characters through hell,” then writers and publishers answer that demand. I get why people like that sort of thing, I really do. I admire, for instance, the storytelling craftsmanship which went into Joe Abercrombie’s “The First Law” trilogy. The ending nearly made me throw the last book right at the wall, but it is a masterpiece. I can’t argue that.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is not grimdark. It’s exactly the kind of tale I like best. It mixes a found-family aesthetic with a strong story arc where the good guys learn to work together to defeat the bad guys, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. It’s a satisfying heroic story. But it’s not simplistic! All of these kids, and they are kids, are flawed in various ways. They’re nowhere near ready at first and they’re only mostly-kind-of ready at the end. To paraphrase the opening narration, they have a lot to learn before they’re ready to save the world.

One of the best things I like about this show? It gives you so many opportunities to cheer when a character does something really, really awesome. And it’s earned, because what makes most of the moments awesome is a combination of training and effort paying off, and the character choosing in that moment to do the right thing with their abilities. The further the show gets into its main plot arc, the more chances you get to pump your fist in the air and shout, “YES!”

Of course, sometimes the antagonists pull off truly stunning displays of wicked prowess as well, just to keep things interesting…

What might one not like about it?

It started life as a kids show, and as such it spends some of its runtime being a bit cutesy and ham-handed with the Aesop endings on occasion. A bit like another slow-burn show with an epic story arc, Babylon 5, the first season has its share of clunky episodes. Yes, this is another of those “just stick with it” situations.

To a certain extent, the baddest of the bad guys are basically bad because they’re bad and want more power. The motivations of several major antagonists are… lacking complexity. Luckily the best of the antagonists, while still simple in motive, are supremely fun to watch nonetheless.

And thus Team Azula is formed.

Other thoughts about it?

One character who seems like an ineffectual buffoon early on will end up making you bawl your eyes out at one point, in an otherwise quiet moment of reflection.

One character who seems like the token “normal” early on will end up being seen as one of the primary threats by one of the most adept antagonists, for good reason.

A strong theme which runs through the show is the idea of overcoming challenges and limitations. Sometimes this means genuine actual handicaps, such as the boy stuck in a wheelchair (who wants to fly) and the blind little rich girl (who wants to… well, you’ll meet her in the second season). It also often means self-imposed limitations, such as self-doubt and self-deception. A lot of it isn’t terribly subtle, since it’s ostensibly a kids show, but that’s not a bad thing really. There are worse lessons to weave into your magic-martial-arts adventure story than “try to do better, and help others however you can.” Right?

You will wish there’d been even more episodes showcasing these ladies.

You will take away from this any number of quotable quotes. “That’s rough, buddy.” “Boomerang! You always do come back!” “The Boulder’s over his conflicted feelings.” “You’re awfully cute, but unfortunately for you, you’re made of meat.” “Meh, if you’ve seen nothing once, you’ve seen it a thousand times.” “My cabbages!”

It’s been argued that A:TLA is as close as an American-produced animation project can get to being anime without actually being made by a Japanese studio. I don’t know if I’d go that far, because “anime” becomes a heavily loaded word once you start trying to pin down what it is and isn’t in a conversation. (I keep it simple, personally: Anime is animation made in Japan.) With that said, I think the show has as much of the Wuxia tradition in its DNA as it does of anime.

Oh hey, that Legend of Korra thing. I think it’s worth seeing, but that’s a very… qualified… recommendation. In short: It starts well, devolves into utterly unnecessary love triangles and similar terrible interpersonal crap, goes through a grim and maudlin stretch, then finishes very strongly. Korra (the character, the next Avatar after Aang) exhibits a profound inability to select healthy mentoring figures for most of the show’s run. It ends well enough that I’m mostly willing to forgive a lot of its failings, but I can’t give a 100% enthusiastic endorsement. Make of that what you will.

And yes, I couldn’t limit myself to the standard four screenshots this time. Go out with a bang, right? Right.

Where can I watch it?

Amazon Video and Google Play are among the streaming options, albeit for a price. Or you can pick up the DVD boxed sets.


3WA 2017 #51: Robotech

I had something else queued up in this slot for almost the entire year. It wasn’t a show I was wild about. I needed a 51st entry (the final one, number 52, is a doozy and has been in that slot for months) and went with something I figured would do well enough. I liked it, I guess? That was enough?

Then I realized I’d be doing a disservice to the project’s goals to gloss over one of my formative fandoms, the show that started it all. I’m supposed to be writing about animation which brought me joy. So, here we are.

What is it?

Robotech is an 85-episode long mish-mash of three different Japanese shows, cobbled together into something resembling a cohesive narrative structure. It spun off toys, books, and various other projects but for our purposes we’re talking about that original rambling glorious groundbreaking mess of a show.

And here’s your giant-robot warning, right up front!

What kind of story is it?

In the late 1990s, an alien spaceship crash-lands on an island in the Pacific Ocean. It is the harbinger of a series of alien invasions, each kicking off a war over a precious but mysterious substance called “protoculture.” The humans ultimately prevail in each of these wars. The cost, however, is tremendous time and time again.

Mind you, it’s also a story about fighter-robot pilots and the women they exasperate. It’s also a story about aliens learning to deal with human emotions in that awfully cliché fashion you get from stories made in the 1980s.

There are some other stories in there as well but that pretty much sums it up for the most part.

Why do you like it?

I can’t even pretend to be objective about this one, sorry. Let me explain:

Hillsboro, Oregon, in the early 1980s. Mom and Sis and I lived in a little apartment across Cornell Road from the middle school I attended. Every morning, without fail, I’d watch Robotech until the end credits just barely started. Then I’d quickly turn off the TV, grab my bag, sprint across the road to school and arrive just in time for classes to start. This was my routine for months on end.

I lived and breathed this show during one of my formative years. Funny thing? My current workplace is just down the street from where that old apartment used to be. I can even grab lunches at the same Burger King if I want to. Let me tell you, starting my current job was deeply surreal to me at first.

So I could say that it’s the space opera aspects which appeal to me most, and that would be true. (At its heart, it’s a helluva space opera!) I could say that my weakness for a good old-fashioned love story (albeit in cartoon form) stems from this show, and that would be reasonably accurate. I could say that I’m a sucker for gee-whiz improbable futuristic techno-gadgetry, and that would certainly factor into things.

Sad Girls In Snow: The Early Years. Eat your heart out, Kanon!

But let’s be real: This is a nostalgia pick, pure and simple. I loved this show. Few things since have jammed themselves so deeply into my psyche; Babylon 5 is comparable and may be the only thing to surpass Robotech in my heart of hearts. Blame it on my youth, maybe.

What might one not like about it?

And here’s where I beat up on a show I love.

For starters, it’s a hot mess assembled by writers and voice actors of varying talent out of three entirely unrelated animated properties in an attempt to sell toys. The bulk of the show consists of most of an actual anime classic, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and thanks to (or in spite of) the various efforts of the American team, a lot of what made Macross a household name in its home country survives the translation. Somehow. But it’s still a mess, with the overarching story requiring some odd re-purposing of existing elements.

You may find yourself thinking, “Didn’t she have blue hair as a baby?”

If you decide to give Robotech a try, remember that it’s early 1980s television animation, 4:3 aspect ratio, and not all of it has aged particularly well. And as with a lot of cartoons aimed at American kids over the entire history of television, the voice acting may be… off-putting at times.

Oh, and there’s the fact that some of our erstwhile heroes need a clue-by-foor to the skull on a fairly regular basis. The closer someone is to being in the lead role, the more likely they have some serious behavioral issues to work out as well as being utterly useless when it comes to romantic entanglements. I mean, that’s not unusual in a lot of similar adventure shows but it bears mentioning anyway. (I’m looking at you, Rick Clueless-As-Hell Hunter.)

Other thoughts about it?

I’m led to understand thanks to my research for this entry (I’d forgotten bits and pieces over the years) that the novelizations are no longer particularly considered canon due to a couple of subsequent projects that saw the light of day after a while. I don’t care, you can have them when you pry them from my cold dead hands, etc, etc. (I imagine this is how some Star Wars fans feel about the expanded novelization universe after the slate was officially wiped clean going into this latest round of films.) There are novels covering the aired material, then another series of novels working from the basis of what was supposed to be a sequel series (The Sentinels), and a couple other entirely original novels to wrap up the timeline. I won’t go so far as to suggest they’re great works of art. Like my love for the show itself, my feelings about the novels defy rational thought. Still, I consider them as doing solid work elevating the source material to really well-portrayed space opera and recommend them as fun, light reading whether or not you decide to watch the show itself.

Minmei might have been “the” idol, but Yellow Dancer got two of the best songs. (“Look Up! The Sky Is Falling” and “Lonely Soldier Boy”)

The central figure in the creation of both Robotech and the old Streamline Pictures studio which imported a number of anime movies and series is the late Carl Macek, a man for whom both thanks and blame are deserved in abundance. Without his efforts, anime fandom in the USA might have taken a lot longer to gain momentum. On the other hand, it’s generally recognized that most of the properties that he and his teams imported were mangled badly in the translation process. All these years later it’s mostly just a side note in history, I suppose.

If you want to watch an anime series that is to the original SDF Macross as The Force Awakens is to the original Star Wars film (which is to say, slavishly devoted to the original’s structure while somewhat subverting its tropes), check out Macross Frontier. It’s modern, it has some great music, and I dig the ambiguous, almost polyamorous ending.

Where can I watch it?

As of this writing Netflix offers Robotech for streaming, as does Amazon if you have Prime. Presumably Amazon’s version is “digitally remastered” and so forth.

How can you possibly top this entry in terms of fervor and wordcount?

Just you wait.

3WA: Looking back, looking ahead

The weekly word working assignment is nearing the end of its first year. Overall, how did it go? I consider it a success. I never missed an update, I’m reasonably proud of most of the posts, and there’s a chance (however slim) that I may have led someone to watch something they might have overlooked otherwise.

Fine, fine… my readership amounts to maybe three entire souls. Slim chance, indeed. But capturing an audience wasn’t the primary goal. Forcing myself to get back into the habit of logging into this thing and flexing my writing muscles, that was the primary goal.

The remaining two 3WA posts for 2017 are in the bag. They’ll show up this and next Friday, right on schedule. I made sure to complete them before my mid-month vacation in order to dedicate vacation time to next year’s project prep. I chose a more challenging format, one which requires more work than just sourcing some screenshots.

It’s time to look ahead.

During the year two thousand seventeen, I wrote about fifty-two pieces of animation that brought me some measure of joy. In the year to come I intend to write about fifty-two music albums which bring me some measure of joy. Joy, as we established at the outset, is a key part of this ongoing project. The 3WA concept was born from a deep, desperate need to focus on the good things in life, and if the unrelenting hellshow of 2016 gave rise to this year’s project then what else could I do coming out of 2017 but to bump things up a level?

So, without further ado: Do you have a few minutes? About ten of them, actually? Because right here, right now, you can decide if it’s worth tuning in for 2018’s 3WA series.

Bonus points if you can name more than half the artists (without using search engines to cheat, mind you).

3WA 2017 #50: Kung Fu Panda

It’s our last non-anime of the year. Time flies when you’re having fun writing about fun stuff to watch!

What is it?

Kung Fu Panda is a 3D CGI DreamWorks animated feature film which spawned sequels and a television series.

This guy? Is a certified badass.

What kind of story is it?

It is simultaneously a loving homage to the martial arts movies of yore and a tongue-in-cheek send-up of many of its tropes. It is a typical hero’s journey where the loser, dreamer, nobody of a guy ends up achieving his lifelong wish. It is a culture clash between the heroes who live the warrior lifestyle and the fanboy who idolizes them. It is a fable with a moral at its core.

Look at them. Certified badasses.

That is a lot of things for a ninety minute movie aimed at kids to be all at once, yet it generally succeeds at all of them.

Why do you like it?

Kung Fu Panda is funny, clever, smart, and a visual delight. Like the other DreamWorks computer-animated entry on this year’s list, How To Train Your Dragon, it stands up to repeated viewings and is, in fact, one of those movies where if it’s playing on the TV I find myself just settling in to watch the rest regardless of what part I walked in on. It’s a “popcorn movie,” to be sure, but it’s a very good popcorn movie.

Or dumplings. Maybe it’s a dumpling movie. You decide.

What might one not like about it?

Going into my first viewing I had reservations, mainly because I’m not usually a big fan of Jack Black’s shtick. I found that it doesn’t take long to get past that and just roll with things, but your mileage may vary.

Look at him. Nowhere near being a certified badass.

You might also be disappointed at how little Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan are given to do with their characters by comparison to Angelina Jolie and Dustin Hoffman. It is what it is, I suppose.

Other thoughts about it?

I haven’t watched the TV show or the third movie, but the second movie is remarkably solid for a sequel. It suffers a bit from cast creep but the story itself is much more compelling and, occasionally, heartbreaking. If you get through the first Kung Fu Panda and want a bit more, check out the next one at the very least.

Where can I watch it?

The usual suspects (Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, etc) will rent you a viewing if you’d like, or of course you can buy a shiny platter version.

3WA 2017 #49: Gunslinger Girl

Previously, we had girls-with-guns up against a secret organization bent on controlling them. What happens when the girls with guns already work for the secret organization?

What is it?

Gunslinger Girl is a 13-episode anime series based on the early volumes of the manga series of the same name. It is succeeded by a follow-up series by another studio with the title of Gunslinger Girl -Il Teatrino-. We’re focusing primarily on the first series here.

What kind of story is it?

In Noir, the fantastical element was the big shadowy secret society behind the plot shenanigans. In Gunslinger Girl, the fantastical element is that our young girls are brainwashed cyborgs. They don’t look it, of course. These cyborg shooters work for a secret arm of a branch of the Italian government, tasked with counter-terrorism activity. As a semi-realistic (keeping in mind, cyborgs) treatment of a grim topic like terrorism in the European theater, this isn’t entirely a cheery kind of show.

Claes is in training. She may be enhanced but she’s not field-ready at this point.

And yet. The actual focus is on the relationships between these cyborg girls themselves, as well as their relationships with their handlers, or “fratello.” (Big brothers, basically.) So you get a lot of “what does it mean to be human,” and how various parties deal with the fact that these girls, while useful, are both disposable tools of the state and doomed young mind-wiped children.

I’m painting a darker picture than the show warrants, perhaps, but it’s worth knowing all this going in. I usually like to leave a lot of details in these write-ups out so the new viewer can experience the joy of discovery. Since almost everything I wrote above is revealed in the first episode, though, I don’t feel like I’m taking anything away. This is a case of properly setting expectations.

Why do you like it?

Two aspects of this show appeal to me.

One, I like when a story takes one fantastical element (the sci-fi cyborg enhancements) and uses it to tell an otherwise matter-of-fact, grounded tale. You have cyborg assassins, what do you do with them when your job is to root out terrorists? Gunslinger Girl answers that question in a realistic enough fashion to be interesting and thought-provoking.

Two, a lot of the downtime between missions is spent exploring the ideas opened up by the cyborg enhancement concept. You’ve made these girls stronger, but the cost is that you have to keep them doped to the gills and worry about implant rejection and so on. There are other drugs used to ensure compliance, which of course raises a whole slew of ethical questions.

Not everyone takes to the supersoldier lifestyle. Take Rico, for instance.

So, yes. For what is ostensibly a girls-with-guns action show, it’s lighter on action overall than one might expect going in. I find it interesting, though.

What might one not like about it?

Did you come into this expecting an action extravaganza? Sorry. Less shooty, more talky. Still, by comparison to Noir, a whole lot less screen time is wasted with repetition and puttering around. By comparison.

The show starts you out with a jawdropping display of violence from Henrietta, so there’s that to look forward to.

Also, while there’s nothing overtly ooky on-screen about the fact that these young girls are emotionally bonded to adult men, there’s an inherent layer of ooky-ness about the whole thing.

Other thoughts about it?

I bought The Delgados’ album Hate thanks to the opening song to this series. I recommend against it.

The follow-up Gunslinger Girl series, Il Treatino, has… let’s call it “lackluster” visual production values and leave it at that. I couldn’t finish watching, though I’m told that it has a better-told story.

The follow-up series follows Triela here, who is arguably the best of the bunch.

Where can I watch it?

As of this writing both series are on Netflix, but I’ll point you to Crunchyroll anyway since they’re less prone to removing shows from their lineup.

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