Friday’s Top Five

Here’s the countdown:

5. Say Hello to the Aliens!

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Thanks to a fantastical machine that would leave its namesake believing in witchcraft, NASA’s Kepler space telescope has pinpointed more than 1,200 new planets in the universe. It’s been estimated there are BILLIONS of planets (I think it was Carl Sagan who said that). So far we’ve only found a few of these billions (and by found, I mean hypothesized based on such magic as the wobbling of light from distant stars). Now we’ve verified a whole lot more. Can’t wait for the day when we actually visit these planets. Well considering I won’t live that long (and neither will you) I’ll just have to settle for exploring via sci-fi. (The dude in the photo is Johannes Kepler, a 17th century German astronomer. NASA stole his name for their pet project. Not sure why.).

4. Throat-biting Rick Grimes

This one’s a throwback. It’s from a few years ago, but it’s a classic. The Walking Dead is a seductive show. It’s a soap opera disguised as a horror show, a soap opera about power, not love. And no one pulls off the melodrama quite like Rick Grimes. The Georgia cop turned reluctant survivalist is a strange hero. On one hand, he’s fearless and crafty, willing to do whatever it takes to keep his makeshift family alive. On the other hand, he’s a melancholy head case (he was getting phone calls from his dead wife!) who is prone to drama. And this scene, where Rick bites the neck out of a man (human, not zombie) is either the pinnacle or the low point of Rickness. But in all fairness, his son was about to get raped. I’m on team Rick here, and that’s why throat-biting Rick Grimes is my spirit animal. No one does tortured crazy like Rick.

3. Music Not Meant for the Masses

I recently stumbled upon John Grant after spending some time descending into a YouTube rabbit hole (something about Prince and Sinead O’Connor…). Grant was being interviewed in Icelandic, then he launching into song with Sinead as his backup singer(!). It turns out this lumberjack-looking American is actually the love child of Karen Carpenter raised by the caretaker of a sanatarium. Not really, but that’s what his voice sounds like. He’s an odd duck unafraid to put his oddities on full display. So as obsessive I get, I’ve been listening to him over and over (along with Gojira, Grimes, Tame Impala, and FKA Twigs – don’t ask). Queen of Denmark is one of my favorites. And apparently Sinead too, since she covered it.

2. May

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It’s not my favorite month of the year – that would be my birthday month of February. May is a close second, this year especially. Our winter sucked. We got barely any snow, and I only went snowboarding five times. The conditions were…well, sucky. A bad day of snowboarding is still better than any other day, but I expected better. If the winter was too warm, then spring has been too cold — damp, London rainy chill. . That’s all changing now that May is here. It’s turning beautiful : blue skies, sunshine, warmth on the skin. May would have won the week, but it can’t top snow…

1. Jon Snow Has Had Enough of Your Shit, Night’s Watch

Oh, Game of Thrones. Like The Walking Dead, you’re another soap opera disguised as a beautifully written and acted drama with cinematic production values. After you killed off the hero, and then the hero’s wife and son at THE WORST WEDDING EVER, I realized you would never give me the justice I craved. Sure, you killed off the bad seed inbred golden boy Joffrey, but his vile mother Cersei is still alive. Last you killed Jon Snow, he of the resting bitch face and high moral character. Of course he would die, he’s a Stark after all. But in one of the worst kept secrets in GoT fandom, Jon Snow was resurrected by Melisandre (who should never take off that necklace). Finally we had some justice. That alone would be enough to earn the number one spot, but then we got to see Jon preside over the hanging of his murderers, including that surly teenager Ollie. I cheered when the brat’s eyes bulged and his face turned purple. the scene ended with Jon Snow taking off his ugly feather coat off and quitting the Night’s Watch. If you’re going to quit, do it Jon Snow style.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch this movie: The Babadook

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Horror movies are our modern-day fairy tales. They use dark imagery to highlight our blackest fears in order to help us manage them. For a horror movie to work well, it must tap into one of these universal fears or struggles, otherwise, the movie ends up being an incoherent, gloopy mess.

The Babadook, a strange little Australian horror flick, had me confused at first. It’s the story of single mother Amelia raising a difficult son, Samuel, who is about to turn seven. Samuel is rambunctious and annoying as hell, going on and on about having to protect his harried mother from invisible monsters ad generally getting into trouble. Watching Samuel in action made me never want to have children. During these first minutes of the film, his antics left me wondering what the hell this supposed horror movie was supposed to be about.

Then The Babadook shifted, subtly and brilliantly. I can’t remember what the exact moment was — most likely it was a small series of moments that built up until the change was undeniable. And I realized what the heart of this particular horror was: Amelia was burdened with grief for her husband who died while she was in labor en route to the hospital. Those invisible monster Samuel was always fighting was real — it was his mother’s suppressed grief, grief which kept her removed from her own life, and her son’s as well.

babadook 2.jpgOf course that’s not what literally happened in The Babadook. It’s a horror movie, after all. A monster called the Babadook possessed Amelia, causing all sorts of cringeworthy madness and mayhem. Kudos to the writer and director for capturing truly horrific moments, from a cockroach infestation to a nasty bit of self dentistry.

But while the outward plot — a monster invades a house and must be defeated — was well handled, the meaning behind it all was what elevated this movie. Parts of it hit mighty close for me. I know what it’s like to be a child in a situation where you have no control, where you feel like you’re being tossed around in a storm, burdened by someone else’s unresolved pain, and this movie, through Samuel, captured that experience.

Even the resolution nailed it. Horror movies are notoriously difficult to resolve. Often the killer comes back, again and again, or some thoroughly unbelievable event wraps up the story, killing all believability. The Babadook managed to avoid these pitfalls, while also keeping true to the horror at the heart of the story — the failure of a woman to mourn the death of her husband, and the wreckage bequeathed to her son.

Bye, Bowie

I don’t get emotional over celebrity deaths. Of course I feel empathy, but despite the familiarity of their faces, celebrities are strangers.

BowieBut for some reason, the death of David Bowie feels different.

When I was a kid I watched MTV constantly. Cable was new back then. There were few choices. But MTV — I couldn’t get enough. And David Bowie was one of the pioneers of music video. Let’s Dance and China Girl played nearly every hour. They were fun, and there was something about Bowie that was just cool: he knew who he was and he was at ease with himself.

The older I got the more I learned about Bowie’s previous incarnations — Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke — and I grew to not only respect his talent and innovation, but also appreciate his strong sense of self. David Bowie was a chameleon. He was an iconoclast. He charted his own path.

I’ve never been one for a traditional life, despite how I appear, and my life so far has been one of forging (and re-forging) my own identity, apart from others’ and their expectations. In David Bowie I saw another human who invented and re-invented himself as he saw fit. In David Bowie I saw that such a thing was possible.

In these days after his death I’ve heard people say they loved him because he made being a misfit acceptable. I never felt like a misfit. I never saw that in Bowie either. What I saw was someone who was self-made. Maybe Bowie’s greatest talent was that he could be many things to many people while still remaining true to himself.

All men and women must die, and now Bowie has too. It makes me sad to think of this loss, our loss. But I’m glad for his existence and the example he gave to many of us.

Goodbye, Clara Oswald

FINALLY! A sign-off for a Doctor Who companion that was both fully satisfying and organic.

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While the return of Doctor Who to television a decade ago has been an overwhelming success, turning the BBC sci-fi show into a worldwide phenomenon, it’s had its share of problems in terms of storytelling. One of those problems is its reliance on convoluted plotting, red herrings, and Maguffins. They abound. I’ve learned to look past them.

Another problem is structural, and nearly impossible to overcome. It’s rooted in the very premise of doctor Who: a time-traveling alien with the capability to regenerate (and live an extremely long life) is accompanied by a naive Earthling (usually young, female, and pretty) as they streak across time and space in search of adventures. During these adventures, the companion has her mind expanded to the vastness of space and time, while the Doctor learns about compassion and humanity.

But the power imbalance can get distracting, and it rarely ends well for the companion.

ROSE–Rose Tyler ended up exiled in a parallel universe

–Martha Jones ditched the Doctor when she realized her love would never be returned

–Donna Noble had her memories of her time with the Doctor erased in order to save her life

–Amy Pond (and her husband Rory) were trapped in early 20th century America

But then came Clara Oswald (played by Jenna Coleman), the impossible girl, who ended up doing the impossible.

CLARA 1When Clara first appeared I didn’t know what to make of her. She was part of an EXTREMELY convoluted plot line that had her being split into a ton of different Claras and seeded throughout his timeline to save him from disaster at key moments. Uh, okay.

So, she was basically a plot device, not her own character. during that storyline I never got a clear picture of Clara as a unique person. Compare her to Rose Tyler, a working-class shop girl who confounded the prejudices against her, or Martha Jones, a smart and dedicated physician. Donna Noble was a tenacious smart-ass who grew spectacularly during her brief stint as companion. And Amy Pond constantly struggled with her childhood attachment and abandonment issues that revolved around the Doctor.

But Clara? Not much going on there after that initial storyline ran its course. Once the “recovered” Clara returned, we were left with a character who was just sort of there. She was cheery and a little sassy, and thank God she didn’t have a crush on the Doctor. But that was pretty much it.

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I was content to just enjoy the ride. Jenna Coleman is a good actor and she’s great to look at. Plus, when Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor ended, Peter Capaldi brought a prickly edge to the time-traveling alien that translated to his relationship with Clara. At least that was entertaining.

But, after this season’s three part ending, I realize how much of Clara’s development I’ve missed. In hindsight it’s obvious just who Clara was (who she’s always been), and how her character has developed in the most subtle of ways.

CLARA

It turns out Clara wasn’t a cipher. She was someone who was becoming the Doctor’s equal. And she did this through her own initiative and force of will.

The hints were there all along. Clara would pretend to be the Doctor, or she would remind the Doctor of what course to take. She was a quick learner, and she never assumed herself to be anything other than his equal. She was not lovestruck nor awestruck. She was no-nonsense. She was clever.

In the first episode of the season-ending three-parter, everyone assumed (myself included) that she was maybe too clever. Maybe she was deluded in her assumptions that she knew as much as the Doctor, when her brilliant scheme to save her friend ended up getting herself killed. The Doctor is always teetering on oblivion. He always defies the odds. Clara succumbed to them.

And so she was dead. That in itself would have been a fitting end to Clara. It would have been a dark lesson in hubris. That Clara embraced her death made it even more moving. And at that point, she would have joined the other companions who paid a steep price for the thrill of being at the Doctor’s side.

But, this being Doctor Who, that’s not how her story ended.

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When the Doctor pulled Clara from her time stream in the moment before death I was shocked. It seemed impossible, almost like cheating. But it worked.

If there’s one thing that Doctor Who does well it’s characterization. Doctor Who is a man outrunning tragedy. He has awesome powers and a will to do good, but he’s burdened by churning loss. He loves humans most of all, but humans have too short a life span. He gets close to people, he loses them. With Clara, he was determined to save her, and he did.

But Clara, when she’s pulled form her time stream, isn’t happy with him. She chose her fate and the Doctor unchose it for her. Her speech admonishing the Doctor was one of the most moving parts of her whole storyline.

When the Doctor hatched yet another plan to save her, he stole a spare TARDIS and took a device that would wipe her memory of the Doctor (similar to what happened to Donna Noble) in order to hide and protect her. But Clara caught wind and attempted to reprogram the device to wipe the Doctor’s memory of Clara instead. In another great monologue, Clara told the Doctor that her memories were hers, and it was not his right to wipe hers away, even if it might keep her safe. Neither Clara nor the Doctor were sure whose memory the device would erase, but they both agreed to chance it. In the end, it was the Doctor who ended up forgetting just who Clara Oswald had been.

Clara, on the other hand, had a TARDIS at her disposal, and the woman who always considered herself to be the Doctor’s equal, was now essentially immortal, and she had all of time and space at her disposal.

Wow. In the end, Clara Oswald was every bit the impossible girl.

Clara

 

 

What’s the single scariest moment on screen?

Horror/suspense fans out there, I’m talking to you.

Admit it. We love watching scary edge-of-your-seat movies for the same reason we love roller coasters: that rush of adrenaline, that supreme thrill that gushes through your body when fear jumps right out at you. I know I do.

Lord knows there are way too many chilling, thrilling moments on TV and in the movies (mostly movies) to catalog them all, but Flavorwire has taken the brave and controversial step of compiling the top 12. And they’ve done a solid job.

Among the better choices (and the ones that definitely made me jump the first time I saw them):

–The reveal of the demon-eyed urchin in Rosemary’s Baby

–The gut-busting birth of the baby alien in Alien

–And the final scene at the grave in Carrie

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All great choices. All iconic images. But for me, one of the most terrifying moments came in a movie that was hyped, if not overhyped, when it first came out. 1999s The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring budget. It was the first movie (or at least the most prominent) to be filmed and marketed as “found footage.” Sure, now it’s a cliche, but back then it was a novelty. And what got me about it was that so much of the movie took place in darkness and shadows. When we finally saw the big bad (or at least some version of it) at the end, though still grainy and dark, it was a shock. I definitely jumped out of my seat.

So for me, believe it or not, the low-budget nearly forgotten flick The Blair Witch Project gets my vote for scariest on-screen moment.

Blair Witch

The trouble with daleks

Confession here: as much as I love Doctor Who, the series has one glaring weakness, one that I’ve been able to overlook, mostly — its villains.

Capaldi

Before I get started on my rant, I’ll talk about what I love about BBC’s half century old sci-fi classic. Doctor Who is playful and thrilling and joyful. Its set-up, with an ever changing cast of Doctors (via regeneration) and revolving companions, keep the series fresh. I love the humanity of the alien Doctor, the creative plot twists (which often stretch the limits of believability), and all the fun timey-wimey stuff.

But the villains. Yes, I know that Doctor Who has its roots in a children’s series, so the monsters can’t be too monstrous. But none of the monsters have kept me up at night. Especially these sparkly things.

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This latest season opened with a two-parter starring the Doctor’s biggest nemesis, the Daleks, created and controlled by the evil Davros. The episodes were exciting and inventive. We got to watch the Doctor’s  frenemy Missy (aka The Master, another renegade Time Lord) interact with and torment the Doctor’s faithful companion Clara. We glimpsed the Doctor being playful as he rode a tank and thrashed an electric guitar in medieval Britain, and we watched as he rescued a boy from death, a boy who would grow up and become a mass murderer.

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But I can’t get past the ridiculousness of the daleks. They look like inverted, bedazzled garbage cans with a plunger for a hand. Probably because the daleks were created in the 1960s, before such things as half-decent special effects. When Doctor Who was revived in the 2000s, the show was stuck with these ludicrous looking creatures as part of Doctor Who canon. I don’t find the daleks remotely terrifying, and their shrill cries of “exterminate” make me want to laugh.

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As much as I enjoy Doctor Who, the biggest failure of its revival has been the lack of a singular, terrifying enemy. The Silents came close, but they were dispatched. The Weeping Angels were pretty good too, but they only have one trick, which gets old quickly. Instead we’re stuck with the shrill, plunger-wielding daleks, and maybe once in a while, the clunky cybermen.

Here’s hoping the next head writer gives Doctor Who fans the villains we deserve.

Xena reboot: yes or no?

There was a time when genre shows were a rare thing on TV. In the years after The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, genre fans had only a few choices: the super serious X-Files, and the wacky Hercules, with Kevin Sorbo.

XENA

In 1995, the producers of Hercules launched a spinoff: Xena: Warrior Princess. It was like nothing on TV at the time. It starred not one but two action-oriented women, Xena and her trusted sidekick Gabrielle. Lucy Lawless, who went on to become a genre mainstay in both Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus, shot to fame playing the larger-than-life, nearly superhuman warrior. She played the role on two levels: she took it completely seriously, and she was in on the fun.

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But, like all good (and not so good) shows, Xena: Warrior Princess had to end. There are only so many storylines one can write, and Xena pushed it to the limit. It went off the air in 2001 after getting way too complex (I remember a plot line regarding an evil-spawn child of Gabrielle, for instance). By then, though, TV was opening up to shows that involved some element of the mystical or fantastic. Buffy the Vamipre Slayer was a critical hit, and SyFy (then Sci-Fi) was plowing ahead with original programming such as Farscape.

While it was great fun, Xena hasn’t been missed. There are so many choices when it comes to quality genre TV today, and strong female characters are no longer a novelty. Now comes a rumor that the powers that be are prepping for a reboot of Xena. Honestly I’m torn.

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On one hand, the world of Xena is rich one, bursting with mythology that could be spun into entertaining stories. She’s an iconic character, and it would be interesting to see how she’d be portrayed in a reboot. Who could possibly fill Lucy Lawless’s boots?

On the other hand, we have (dare I say it) too many great genre shows out there. I cannot keep up. I have a list of series that I’m itching to watch. But when do I fit them all in? And is it fair to all the amazing writers out there to continually recycle old ideas, rather than bring something new to the screen?

This is a tough call for me. As much as I’d like to see a new Xena (out of curiosity, if nothing else), I wouldn’t want to see my favorites — Buffy, Lost, Farscape — reimagined with a different cast. But I said the same thing when they rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and that turned out to be brilliant.

Robots: our ticket to life on the moon?

If I were a scientist intent on colonizing space, our very own moon wouldn’t be my first choice. But maybe, since it’s the closest of all celestial bodies, it should be. And, maybe the answer to us getting there is robots that would construct homes for us and pave the way for lunar life.

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What’s the proposal? Robots would be dispatched to the moon to set up solar panels in massive craters on the moon that would warm the craters up and make them more habitable for humans. Why craters? I assume they would provide some sort of natural protection from asteroids. And the craters contain ice, a necessity for human life.

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This makes sense. Look at what we’ve been able to do on Mars. We’ve dispatched robots to explore the martian plains, sending back tons of scientific data. We have satellites landing on comets, and probes sending back amazingly detailed images of our sometime ninth planet Pluto.

So why wouldn’t we eventually rely on robotics to construct complete habitats for our descendants?

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The European exploration of North and South America was a deadly and costly venture. There’s little reason to believe that human colonization of space will be any safer. And, as compared to our ancestors, we have little stomach for death. We no longer think it’s acceptable that some people HAVE to die in order for us to ultimately be successful. But, if we can make the transition to off-world homes both easier and safer, then maybe life among the stars will still be within our reach.