Sunday, April 21, 2013

TMNT "Random" Reviews: "Curse of the Evil Eye"

Fred Wolf Episode #10
Written by Martin Pasko
Directed by Bill Wolf
Original Air Date: October 31st, 1988

--All right, now for something different. No, really: it's obvious by now that I'm writing about my favourite FW Baxter Stockman episodes first, but it's just what I felt like doing. I'll get to FW Splinter and the 4Kids series eventually, which I will discuss the absolute best version of Baxter Stockman.

--While FW Baxter Stockman is one of my favourite characters in the series, I'm content with his role as the simpering henchman. I don't want him to be a more competent or stronger villain, but like him the way he is. It would be different if that role was overdone, but as a brief thing, it works for me.

--However, I still enjoy this episode because of its novelty, and because Baxter is happy for a little bit. It's about him having that One Good Day, in which, even before he has the title Macguffin, he's surprisingly shrewd, successful and focused. It's fun exactly because it's different, while not being completely out of character.

--This also relates to a point I made before: that there's a difference between enjoying a character as a trainwreck, and enjoying a character as a trainwreck while having some emotional attachment to them, when you might give a damn about what happens to them. The main Fred Wolf villains are very funny, but Baxter is the only one I like as a character.

--The evens of this episode are also not a redundant cycle of betrayals like, Starscream from the original Transformers cartoon, but only happens once and so is not overdone, not straining the credibility too much. It's like the rest of Baxter's character, which benefits from a constantly changing role and a low amount of screen time.

--…by the way, I spell it "Eye of Sarnath" because that's the way the Archie comics did it. I'm not gonna fight anybody over this, even though I know the fandom does.

--I love that in a series with advanced technology, Baxter has to wear an old-fashioned diving suit to go pick up the Eye's last fragment. And Shredder with the rain slicker over his costume is always hilarious.

--I know it's possible to disagree, but I always felt, "And I recovered it!" was one of those lines that shows Baxter still has an arrogant side, however briefly it surfaces. Of course, we get a lot of evidence for it in this episode, either way.

---I don't know why, but I don't think seeing the Shredder without his mask is a big deal. In the limited world of TV animation, it's always notable when a character changes even a little from their standard look, but I guess I'm too used to the Shredder without a mask after watching the series so much as a child.

--This is part of what I mean by One Good Day: Baxter is quick with the camera in his glasses, and with the weird costume-destroying ray gun, which conveniently sics the nearby greedy dockworkers on the Turtles, and it's all startlingly competent.

--You know, even though it depends on the series suddenly remembering the Turtles are supposed to be in hiding / subversives / fugitives…for some reason.

--Bonus dragon! Though, it must be a really cheap Chinese restaurant if it has a European dragon on the logo. Whose design was completely recycled for a monster in "Leonardo versus Tempestra".

--Jeez, those weird dubbed-in screams. Fans call it the "girly grunt" when a Turtles' exclamation comes out as a whispery feminine gasp, and I'm curious as to how animation ends up making such a flub.

--Of course, the episode spends a lot of time messing around with other junk before Baxter gets the Eye, and most of it I don't mind, but god, do I hate Blodgett, just like I dislike all the other nerdy, nebbish guys in the series except for Baxter himself.

--I mean, there's pathetic nerd, and then there's pathetic nerd, you know? I'm glad no one ever brought Blodgett back, but why pad out the plot and delay the climax with a one-shot character?

--So the dragon starts to fall because the two Turtles are weighing it down. Physics? And dragons? Please. Once you've got a dragon moving around, you might as well stop pretending that physics matter at all.

--I laugh at Shredder slipping and falling into the pool on the abandoned cruise ship (?). If he wasn't a comical villain, he'd have nothing going for him.

--The self-help tape Blodgett has is pretty insufferable only because Blodgett himself is, but I like that it's authorship is attributed to Walter Kubiak, the producer in the series, and that it's making fun of something for adults, which I've been trained to appreciate in my cartoons, due to being a child of the nineties.

---Though how the fuck can Blodgett hear his headphones through the helmet?

--Oh, Splinter, just stating the obvious as your charges prepare to go out once more. Times like this where I can almost break my nostalgic attachment to FW Splinter, in realizing his wisdom is not all it's cracked up to be. And then the feeling passes, though I still suspect if it wasn't for nostalgia, Baxter, not Splinter, would be my favourite.

--Why's Shredder's faceplate drawn as a bandanna in that scene?

--Anyway, Baxter's actions in "Curse of the Evil Eye" are not the result of a mind corrupted by being near absolute power. The only thing the Eye might do give Baxter the courage to act, since Baxter is a weak person who only attacks others when he has a plot device to hide behind, but he definitely has an evil side that we have seen before.

--I love the way that Baxter just hovers at the window, watching Blodgett, for no reason whatsoever. His line, "Because you're an idiot, that's why!" cracks me up every time, mostly because of the irony.

--As does that bizarre as hell gun Baxter's got, which produces a formally-dressed man's arm and leg to smack Blodgett around. Pure poetry!

--Of course, as I've said before, FW Baxter is smart, but he's also very, very stupid in some ways, including not bothering to think about the possibility of the Eye not working on gold, and abandoning the Sarnathometer where anybody could get it. Though in the latter case, his dumbassery saved his life. 

--He's such a blonde, in other words.

--On the other hand, how can you expect to have anybody keep up with all these new contrived rules?

--His actions are also not simply about paying the Shredder back for mistreatment, but about achieving the lost recognition he thinks he deserves, the acknowledgement of his "genius". It shows that this is a villainous character, regardless.

--He and 4Kids Baxter really are alike, up to and including referring to themselves in third person when they really get off on a tear. I still believe the resemblance is coincidental, however.

--Baxter still looks hysterical with that helmet on, and that means all's right with the world.

(I also can't help but think of G1 Galvatron…both beloved characters with shrill voices and questionable sanity.)

--Well, self-proclaimed "genius" or not, Baxter sure isn't imaginative when it comes to creating his evil headquarters.

--At first I thought the creature dubbed "Cement Man" by the video games was some kind of pizza dough monster. Because of this series…can you imagine why I thought that?

--Baxter's monsters remind me of the Inhumanoids, though not nearly as cool. D'Compose versus the Turtles would sure have been something.

--Oh, and the lighting monster was also recycled for "Leonardo Versus Tempestra".

--And fucking Blodgett grabs the Sarnathometer. Yeah.

--"Traitorous vermin." Hah. Ha. Haha.

--Both Shredder and Blodgett trying to grab the helmet at the same time is just hilarious.

--But then, Baxter's luck runs out (due to his own oversight). I love the way that Shredder gets his helmet back—he pounces on Baxter, seems to poke him in the forehead (complete with a "Poit!" sound), and the helmet just pops off, while Baxter seems to faint.

--Of course, any villain, even a goofy one like FW Shredder, would either kill Baxter or fire him after this, and there's no way to explain why the Shredder didn't do it, especially when he obliquely threatened to.

--And no, I don't believe trying to kill Baxter in "Enter the Fly" was the direct result of this incident. With something like this, the consequences would be immediate, or none at all. The events in the latter episode depend entirely on the events in that same episode.

-- Splinter just pops their confining bubble. Easy.

-- More delightfully silly visuals: Shredder on a magic carpet, stone monsters…

--More contrivances: Donatello suddenly figures out the Eye and the Sarnathometer will cause an explosion when together. April just happens to know where to get some gold shields. Sheesh

--I love that they reference the possibility of Shredder's death, even obliquely.

--Still more Blodgett, and this time they're aggrandizing him and keeping him around till the end of the episode. I don't know…where they planning to make him a regular, or did they just need to pad out the script?

--So, this episode is one of my favourites. If there had been more like it, it would have been less special, but as it is, it takes FW Baxter in a different direction that manages to make perfect sense for him and still be funny. It's a good end to a Macguffin hunt, and it also aired in the U.S. on Halloween.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Silverbolt and Blackarachnia: Over a Decade Later

I've been rewatching the second and third seasons of Beast Wars lately: not that season one is bad, but this is just how things have worked out. The series is at the point where I can view most of it was a gauzy, comfortable nostalgia. It never reached its full potential, but it was still a show that I'll enjoy for many more years.


Except I still have a...a thing against Silverbolt and Blackarachnia's relationship. It took me a while to define what that thing was, and then to understand why the writers didn't have the same problem. My feelings on the subject haven't changed, so I feel like talking about it today.

To start, the issue is not that these are Transformers with genders, having a romantic relationship. Transformers are already so heavily anthropomorphized that to complain about the presence of female Transformers, and of romance, is ridiculous. Everything is done in the service of making these characters more relatable, no matter how little sense it might make, and female Transformers make no less sense than noses or bipedalism

No, I actually like the idea that Beast Wars has a primary romance and that it causes character development. Both of these things are, on their own, net gains, and the writers do produce some heartfelt, moving moments. The major problem is that Silverbolt and Blackarachnia's relationship depends on the sudden casting of a female villain as a victim, and as someone who doesn't know her own mind until a man tells her different.

I still cringe watching episodes from "Bad Spark" onward, where Blackarachnia tries to insist she is really a Predacon despite Silverbolt constantly badgering her to admit she is a Maximal inside, due to actions he interprets as showing an inner goodness. Blackarachnia eventually becomes a full Maximal in mind and allegiance despite her initial resistance, and such a set-up is pretty painful to watch, especially when at the end, she's literally given no choice.

The third season episodes "Proving Grounds" and "Crossing the Rubicon" are together the most significant of all these episodes. "Proving Grounds" is an interesting character piece, in which Blackarachnia storms off because she believes the Maximals are going to force a restoration of her Maximal programming, but in the end is told she was allowed to remain a Predacon if she wishes, a state which Blackarachnia has asserted as part of her personal identity.

And then, in the next episode, "Crossing the Rubicon", the experiment that Blackarachnia has been building up towards backfires and she is in danger of dying. The only course of action is to remove the Predacon shell program, transforming her into a Maximal.

Naturally, the disconnect between the themes of these two episodes goes unmentioned, and by creating essentially a life-or-death situation in "Crossing the Rubicon", the writers erase all potential objections. They create a practical as well as moral need for Blackarachnia to become a full Maximal, and Blackarachnia's only objection is a small, slight expression of insecurity, because she is not one to risk her life for pride, and has accepted her fate.

Still, it tastes bad.

It tastes bad because the entire arc suggests that however passionate Blackarachnia was about retaining her identity, she was absolutely wrong, and Silverbolt was absolutely right. "Proving Grounds" makes it all worse, because everything in that episode suggests Blackarachnia will be allowed to retain her Predacon identity if she wishes, and that this kind of self-determination is a positive thing to promote.

But because of what happens afterwards, the series poured all that emotion into a character's choice and just took it away, or maybe it intended the character to have been wrong about her most treasured belief, all of it undermining the notion of Blackarachnia as an independent character.

I think the reasoning is that since Beast Wars is a series of simple and clear morality, there is no room for a reprogrammed Maximal who considers being a Predacon to be important to her identity. Despite the qualities it's lauded for, Beast Wars is still a series of absolute good versus absolute evil.

In this view, it's okay for Silverbolt to pressure Blackarachnia to admit his truth, because he is trying to push her to the side that is absolutely Right. It is for Blackarachnia's own good, even if she simply doesn't know it. It is all done with the best and most loving intentions.

But Beast Wars is a work of fiction, and in-story justification can't erase the implications of a piece. Even if the morality of the series is rock-hard, it still looks like a character having their identity flipped around and denied by another one, who is also supposed to be their love interest.

And yes, it is worse because Blackarachnia is a female character, when women in fiction are often denied their choices to reach a "happier" outcome. There are all sorts of Unfortunate Implications involved, and they don't need to be spelled out.

This pairing / story arc also depends on suddenly recasting Blackarachnia as a victim. Doing this to the only female villain has similar sexist implications, but it also requires a sudden radical shift in viewer's perceptions.

Until "Bad Spark", we had oodles of episodes that treated Blackarachnia as a villain like any other, not to be spared by the narrative. Perhaps it would have been too depressing to "out" her as a former Maximal, but this also meant that these new truths about the character just...appeared. We now had to accept Blackarachnia as a victim, when we had been reading her as a villain.

To "ease" viewers in, perhaps, by the second season Tarantulas and Blackarachnia are no longer seen as mutually manipulating and trying to destroy each other. Instead, Tarantulas is frequently seen as victimizing Blackarachnia, with her only struggling to keep ahead instead of giving as good as she gets.

But it doesn't work. The same Blackarachnia we are now meant to see as being abused by Tarantulas was the one we spent the first season perceiving as a villain that was evil with impunity. Of course characters have multiple aspects, but these aspects are gradually revealed, building up on what we already know. But for so long, we've only seen Blackarachnia as that one thing, and it's very hard to suspend disbelief.

On Silverbolt's side, several things. The first is that he severely compromises Maximal security in order to get near Blackarachnia via gifts, for the purpose of trying to convince her of her inner goodness. Despite the potential for disaster, Silverbolt suffer for it, except for one briefing with Optimus (a great scene, of course, but it has few repercussions). He turns out to be right about Blackarachnia, and she doesn't put this technology to disastrous use as she initially intended, so all his actions somehow become justifiable.

Furthermore, the narrative that you can change a person by love is seen as so damaging to women that it's ridiculous to see it slip by in a situation where the genders are reversed. The way that Silverbolt tries to justify Blackarachnia shooting him in aggravation is, while funny, a little on the disturbing side, especially when he's proven correct, in a sense. She really was trying to get rid of him without killing him.

Secondly, Silverbolt does not have to change, nor is he pressured to question himself and his identity. He does not even have to question his views of Maximals and Predacons, for the Predacon he loves ends up becoming a Maximal as he wanted, rather than their learning to suss out their differences.

Stories where a character gets everything they want and reaps no consequences for their actions are boring, ugly things, and Silverbolt should at least have had to sacrifice something if Blackarachnia had to. It could be argued that only Blackarachnia was in need of changing, but it still would be possible to do something to make it less one-sided.

I know I don't "get" the absolute morality of Beast Wars, but if you ignore the bedrock assertion that all Predacons are Evil (Dinobot discovered his inner Maximal, remember?), there's no reason given as to why Blackarachnia needs to become a Maximal in form as well as allegiance. If she remained a Predacon but totally opened to her feelings for Silverbolt, at least he would have had to sacrifice a bit of his sanctimony.

Yes, the series shows that after her transformation, Blackarachnia is far more lighthearted and more open about loving Silverbolt. But there was no reason why it had to be written that way. Some kind of emotional compromise would have made the story less-one sided, and the ending wouldn't have been so predictable and unsettling.

All these issues could be wiped away if it's assumed that because Blackarachnia was "meant" to be a Maximal and was only transformed by Predacons, she must be returned to a Maximal state at all costs, with her personal identification as a Predacon being a delusion.

But she was brought online as a Predacon, and one's existing sense of personal identity trumps what they might potentially have been. Blackarachnia's own words about identifying as a Predacon are enough to justify the retention of the identity. What a character actually feels and believes trumps any "what-ifs", and should also trump a narrative of black-and-white morality.

So, while I enjoy romance and character development, the transformation of Blackarachnia was handled too poorly, required too much suspension of disbelief and too much glossing over of her personal convictions. It's the story of a character who didn't know her mind about anything, and another character who had to sacrifice nothing to get what he wanted.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

TMNT "Random" Reviews: "Return of the Shredder"

Fred Wolf Episode #6
Written by David Wise, Patty Howeth (story) and Christy Marx (teleplay)
Directed by Bill Wolf
Original Air Date: October 1st, 1988

--Well, everybody, it's the start of a new season. The results are usually seen as a huge step down from the quality of the first season / pilot, and strongly disliked for it. Others wish the old cartoon would have kept the tone of season one forever.

--But I'm not upset about this. Yes, the animation took a hit, and the tone is now softer and the battles less intense, but it's not a huge difference and I'm not invested in the idea that the first season is flawless, or that it was necessarily the ideal for the old cartoon. I see where other fans are coming from, but don't feel that big a sting from the downgrade.

--A lot of people give Leonardo shit for having "no personality", but it often seems to be a case of, "This character is disciplined and stoic, and therefore he has no personality because 'having a personality' means being vivacious". His arguing with Mikey over the best sickening pizza toppings to buy is showing a personality, that he's more stoic and disciplined.

--But yes, I know that this argument is also made because FW Leo spent a lot of time stating the obvious. That, is easier to understand.

--I can also buy the lady mistaking the Turtles for alligators: I have relatives who care that little about distinguishing between animals.

--What's interesting is that the season begins with a departure from the status quo that everyone remembers from their childhoods, and the one that existed for the majority of the series. Shredder gets sent back to Earth with nothing because he begs Krang for the ride, and then has to further beg Krang for whatever he gets, while Bebop and Rocksteady hang around and play Beavis and Butt-head from the Technodrome.

--This state would have gotten old in a different way than the common formula did, and it works best as a temporary thing. Such a formula doesn't use the villains to their full potential: in order to do that, all the villains would need to be together, and using all the same toys.

--Furthermore, kids would have gotten bored with the visual drabness of Shredder just hanging out on Earth. But it is hilarious, and because I forgot this period in the s how's history existed, I "rediscovered" it as a new, novel thing. So, you know, I like the temporary departure, but just understand the potential problems with it.

--Shredder begging like a cuss to get more of his stupid weapons is great. We get some great jokes and lines, and I love watching it. Old married couple, indeed.

--The only problem is that the big criminal operations that Shredder had in season one are totally forgotten. For me it's more a problem of continuity than a problem of making Shredder look wimpier. I'm just not that invested in the idea that he should be a "better" villain. Being funny is where FW Shredder's strength is, and I would tweak some of the writing faults but not abandon the goofy angle entirely.

-- I don't like any of the Channel 6 crew as characters, but giving April a life outside the Turtles, providing her with friends and co-workers to make sure she is not totally defined by the Turtles, is important. A good series tries to develop the lives of its secondary and tertiary characters.

--But ordinary human characters probably bore most kids, I realize this. I just can't let go of this idea that there are storytelling principles that transcend target age and tone, which is why I'd make a terrible writer for children.

--Irma is my least favourite of all the Channel 6 characters. I know I've said it all before, but: I expected a funny, fellow nerd-girl and got animated Cathy instead, whose characters flaws are not comedic flaws but just things she is "supposed" to do because she's a female character. And she's not nerdy, just gawky in an annoying way. Irma's only saving graces are her few moments of wry cynicism, which she doesn't have enough of.

--Burne is the least aggravating of the three characters. His J. Jonah Jameson-like hate of the Turtles being revealed as just a way to impress his trophy girlfriend save them from being a transparent rip-off of JJJ. But when the series keeps going with this angle, it doesn't work.

--There's still some continuity with Splinter's transformation going on. I'm going to review some Splinter episodes eventually, and I enjoy the series having story arcs while they last. Having them doesn't compromise the humour and the light tone of the series, and I miss 'em a little.

--Though I like seeing the Shredder get screwed over, I'll admit that it was a mistake to whittle down his fighting prowess as the series goes on. A villain should have the advantage over the heroes, and the Shredder could still have this and remain a funny, stupid character. Nobody needs to go all-out.

--A lot of people are probably excited by Peter Cullen's various voice cameos in this episode, with Smash being the longest one, though I think he also played "Napoleon" and one of the Shredder's would-be muggers. I never liked Optimus Prime, and none of his other roles have really gotten under my skin, so it's lost on me except as a spot-the-VA game.

--The Crooked Ninja Turtle Gang is one of those gags that don't seem self-aware. Not everything in this show is ironic, and plenty of its clichés are used earnestly, for the purposes of plot. That the Shredder continues to think of them as his pawns doesn't mean the whole thing was intended as a satire. I don't think it is.

--Besides all that I mentioned above, another thing that distinguishes the first half of season two is that human Baxter Stockman is the Shredder's current sidekick. I had completely forgotten he hung around in human form for that long, and Baxter has really grown on me, with (as far as White Baxter goes,) his insane human version being my favourite, even if he's the most cliché in comparison to the ordinary Baxter and Baxterfly.

--This is the best episode for human FW Baxter as he usually is: the mad, simpering henchman. While there are funny moments in the rest of his episodes, and "Curse of the Evil Eye" is in a class all by itself, the gonzo
visuals of the insane asylum and the Ultimate Rat Catcher, and equal displays of malevolence and spinelessness make "Return of the Shredder" stand out on that level.

--From what I can make out on my DVD, the insane asylum is called, "Sunny Dale Home of the Bewildered". I love the absurd way it's visualized: giant green recliners and bright yellow padding, with a guy in full Napoleon costume.

--Usually I try to let continuity slide, but Baxter's unknown transition to evil bugs the heck out of me. Not only is he far more nasty, but he shows a solidarity with Shredder that wasn't present before, even when he describes the events of "A Thing About Rats". It's never explained why, and it makes it pointless to start out with him unvillainous.

--And how does Baxter know who Splinter is, anyway? He didn't seem to be around when the Shredder directly talked about him.

--Tiffany and Burne were totally doing it in his office. Yikes.

--I can believe her scream is a sonic death ray, too.

--I freaking love the Ultimate Rat Catcher. It's such an insane design, with random, useless arms everywhere holding junk, crazy jaws, and all that whatever. I wonder if it was ever optioned as a vehicle for Playmates Toys, because it would fit right in with the rest of those ridiculous vehicles.

--But how the fuck did Baxter know where the Turtles' lair was? And of course, nobody remembers afterwards.

--While I still assume that Baxter Stockman wanted to kill rats purely for profit, the old cartoon brings up the exterminator angle again in this episode, and this time Baxter seems genuinely happy at the prospect of some rodent murderin'. It's another inconsistency in his new persona, but it's easier to accept as just a symptom of his inexplicable insanity.

--Pat Fraley's crazy cackling and warbling is inspired, and for some reason I find it humorous instead of wanting to poke out my own eardrums. It's weird.

--While Splinter is often a kidnap victim, he gets redeemed more often than April does, having his moments of respectability and usefulness to counterbalance those kidnappings. She doesn't have enough to really stand against these other moments.

--Shoddy materials on that Ultimate Rat Catcher

--That giant fist-tipped battering ram reminds me of the Dreadful Flying Glove from Yellow Submarine…

--April's arrival really doesn't do much, does it?

--April winking at Splinter is pretty damn odd. And try not to think about the implications of what that means. I know I'm not.

--Overall, I see why this is considered a step down, and why this new status quo didn't last for long. But y'know what? It's still a fun episode, mostly for watching the villains get fucked with.

Animation Appreciation: The Venture Brothers

Geek humour has often been criticized for using pop culture references as a crutch: because there's a ready-made audience that will clap like trained seals at the first nerd reference, some just make the minimum effort at actually telling good jokes.

As a result, pop culture-based humour seems to have acquired a bad rap on its own. It's overused, overdone, masturbatory. But as well as its other virtues, The Venture Brothers manages to create a rich world from its initial mixture of Johnny Quest and superhero send-ups. The parody element never goes away, but it's part of a world that also includes character development, continuity, and one of the blackest senses of humour you've ever seen.

The Venture Brothers isn't really about the titular Brothers, fraternal twin boys who, in the beginning, believe they're like the Hardy Boys or other boy adventurers. Hank and Dean don't realizing how ignorant, stupid, and out-of-the-loop they really are, both with the outside world and what's going on around them. This status quo changes, but they're never the main characters.

No, the real focus of the story is their father, Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, a bitter waste of a scientist who never had any glory days. Many things have screwed him up, and the result is someone how hates the world and struggles to find recognition as a super-scientist. While he does so, Rusty is as awful a father to his boys as his father was to him, but generally doesn't give a crap.

Rounding out "Team Venture" is bodyguard Brock Samson, a stone-cold badass who can destroy anybody with his body and a knife, but nonetheless is a better father to the Venture boys than Rusty ever was.

The antagonist is "The Mighty Monarch", a butterfly-themed villain who shares Rusty's bitterness and craziness and a hate for the other man that is as deep as it is unexplained. His partner is Dr. Girlfriend, later Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, a deep-voiced woman and the brains of the outfit.

The cast is populated with a lot of other characters, parodic and original. One of the strengths of the pop culture side of The Venture Brothers is that characters are not just lifts of characters from other stories, but seem to be composites of various things, along with individual traits that make them richer creations. The references are the foundation of the series, but they are done well.

But the appeal of The Venture Brothers is more than that. Even if it's a very funny series, as it goes on, it builds up enough plot and continuity to be one of those works that demonstrate American animation can tell serialized stories. The Venture Brothers is a just plain great story, one that covers generations of adventurers / fuck-ups. It keeps adding character after character, and most of them are great.

Another thing about The Venture Brothers is how beautifully bleak it is. Yes, it's hilarious, with great one-liners, slapstick, and wit. But the central theme of the series is failure, and most of the humour depends on knowing how crazy, ugly, and hateful most of the cast is, and how many of them are heading for a dead end. In some cases, these things are the character's own fault, while others are caught in the middle—and in other cases, we are unsure. And it is so incredibly hilarious.

The Venture Brothers is a show that feels like a labour of love. It's a series made by people who love popular culture and love storytelling and made a show that brings it all together into something new and amazing. Something that's well-crafted and caustic and doesn't use popular culture as a crutch, but integrates it into a well-made whole. The newest season is coming up, and I can't fucking wait.

Friday, April 5, 2013

One Great Voice

Roger Ebert died yesterday.

I was crushed when I heard it, because it meant that we had lost a wonderful man and a brilliant critic. Ebert had a gift for making his reviews some of the

most entertaining pieces of nonfiction I've ever read: his turns of phrase, his clarity and insight, gave him a distinctive voice that will be impossible to forget. Whether he loved a movie or hated it, whether you agreed or disagreed, you knew it was Ebert's review.

Despite assholes who derided Ebert as a snob for whatever of their favourite genre films he disliked, Ebert was a man who appreciated a good popular film, who didn't look down on genre movies for their content, and knew there were many ways for a film to be a success. Ebert simply knew that a movie's format was no excuse for bad filmmaking.

Ebert also championed animation as a medium, and was pivotal in increasing America's appreciation of the Studio Ghibli films. Without this man's passion for good films, the anime landscape in the US might have been poorer for it. 

And all of us can only hope to face Ebert's physical hardships with such grace and poise as he did. Ebert sounded like a guy that made the most out of life, whatever it was, and it also shined through in his passion for criticism and for the written word.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

TMNT "Random" Reviews: "A Thing About Rats"

Fred Wolf Episode #3
Written by David Wise and Patti Howeth
Directed by Fred Wolf and Vincent Davis
Original Air Date: December 16, 1987

--This episode is one of my favourites, due to my childhood Splinter obsession, and my new liking for Baxter Stockman, which exists be side that attachment to Splinter. It's not the first time I've liked characters who try to kill each other, and this is really small on that scale.

--That being said, I can't remember if I actually saw this episode as a kid, or that I only had the Random House colouring book adaptation, called "Rat Trap", which was one of my favourite things, and still in my box of treasured childhood possessions.

--The continuity as this episode opens is nice, as the Turtles are still focused on restoring Splinter to his human form, though soon he'll decide he is comfortable as a rat. Story arcs are always a good thing, and I wish this series had more of them.

--One thing I like about this episode, as opposed to some later ones, is that even if Splinter and even April are at a disadvantage and end up being rescued by the Turtles, they stand up and fight back before that happens.

--For example, I love the scene of Splinter and April facing down the Mousers in her apartment, respectively armed with just chops and kitchen equipment--they might not win alone, but at least they get up and try. I wish the secondary characters showing more initiative was a consistent thing in this show, but I appreciate it when it happens, here and in some of the Sarnath episodes.

--And Splinter keeps this up for longer, which is why I don't mind it when he gets captured. Even if he is captured often, Splinter is still treated with respect and can stand up for himself. April, on the other hand, often can't, and this makes her a less appealing character.

--Baxter fascinates / annoys me because unlike any other incarnation of the character, he starts off ordinary and unvillainous but later turns evil, and we never know exactly why. It's doubly odd when he might have been raceswapped to avoid having another black villain, but then didn't appear evil at first anyway. In fact, this easily could have been Baxter's first and last appearance in the series.

--As for the question of Baxter's innocence, well, a distinction between knowingly and unknowingly doing evil should be made, but it doesn't mean he gets off scot-free. He gave Shredder the Mousers, and stood back and did nothing, so there's something on his conscience at least, something deserving punishment.

--At the same time, I can't believe that the apartment building collapse was ever "meant" to suggest that a mass death had just taken place, but that the whole thing is an oversight on the writer's part, so I can't put the death of hundreds of people on the little guy's conscience. Just massive property damage.

--I've seen others prefer Baxter's sane and subdued characterization in this episode, but my impression is that it's not really greater self-control that makes him quiet. It's more like he belatedly realizes what he's gotten himself into, but isn't strong enough to walk away, so he freezes up and hopes nobody notices him any more than they need to, and that he can walk away unscathed.  And so much for that!

(I can't help but think of the David Bowie song, "God Knows I'm Good")

-- Steve Murphy's concept art for FW Baxter's first design:

--I like the personality in Baxter's character animation when he first appears: very twitchy and eager as he shows off the Mouser to the potential buyer. He should've gone to Alberta: we would have loved him up there!

(For those who don't know, the province of Alberta has been a rat-free zone for sixty years:$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3441?opendocument )

--When asking "Why does he give his invention to an obvious supervillain?" I think the Shredder in that scene is supposed to be cloaked in shadow, so at least Baxter can't see he's dealing with a villain, but it still doesn't make sense in terms of pure logic.

--However, character-wise it fits with what else we see of White Baxter. Despite his engineering skill, Baxter is both stupid and arrogant, and here he goes with the Shredder because it means somebody thinks he's worth it, reinforcing his own arrogance. "It's about time somebody discovered me!"

--He also leaves his name on the Mousers, which suggests the same thing. Donnie actually calls Baxter an idiot for this, and if someone in this show calls you an idiot, you've really screwed up. Pride mixed with desperation can get some terrible results, and despite his cowardly nature, Baxter does have pride.

(After I while, I noticed that FW Baxter is rarely called by his last name, while the 4Kids version is most often called "Stockman", which might accidentally show the lack of respect the FW version has / earns)

--Anyway, I like it whenever the series comments on the Turtles possibly messing up April's life and routine. It's the kind of wryness I wish the series had more of: a more modern, sharper style of humour that I practically feed on.

This is why I approve of the apartment chaos that goes on, instead of being mad that it makes the Turtles look too childish.

(Also, like me, April loves her giant purses.)

--Hey, maybe it's the wanton destruction of property that's inherent in Mousers that was the real problem, you think?

--I flip-flop on how much I agree with the notion that season 1 was the "ideal" for the original cartoon. Sometimes I like the upgraded goofiness of later episodes, and often season one isn't as refined as others make it out to be.

--The collapse of the apartment building and how everybody laughs it off is one of the worst examples of that second thing, though I imagine that the writers either didn't care, or assumed it was an edited-Dragonball-Z-dub deal, where the rest of the building was "conveniently" empty.

--I can't help but think Baxter's warehouse apartment reminds me of Seth Brundle's, though I'm sure that's not intentional.

--It's really, really hilarious the way Raphael threatens to stab Baxter in the face, and the way the Turtles steal his van like it's no big deal.  It's one of those times when a story doesn't feel the need to prove its heroes are heroic, and just trusts that anything they do is good because of that label.

--Though it could pass as modern, sadistic cartoon humour. I laughed, anyway.

--At the same time, this is one of the few moments where I'll agree that Baxter is being treated poorly without any of that pesky evildoing getting in the way.

--And oh yeah, some continuity errors. Showing the Foot Soliders taking off from the Technodrome instead of the abandoned house. And how did Krang get to that house on his little tripod?

--But I totally believe Krang was desperate enough for a body that he would help the Turtles in order to clear the Shredder's schedule. Dysfunctional marriages….

--Some bits of animation and art in this episode are good, others are bad. It's a really mixed bag. Like, near the end when the Mousers start to look like birds, and the Turtles have feet like the Roadrunner.

--It's a fun one. There's a bunch of good moments all together, and also with some bullshit. Not explosively special, but fun. FW Baxter is probably the least interesting he'll ever be, and is mostly enjoyable in light of how much he'll change, there are some good wry jokes, and it's part of a smaller piece of continuity. I like it.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

All Aplogies

I've still been extremely low on blogging mojo these days, and I don't know why.

Even though I've got things with a little more substance to plan and post, I'm going to try to get the interest back up in my by doing reviews of whatever Ninja Turtles TV show episodes I feel like talking about, in a sort of bullet-point "audio commentary" rather than a proper paragraph-by-paragraph review.

I'll probably be doing a lot of talking about my favourite characters above anybody else, and choosing episodes which focus on Splinter or Baxter, which I'm not that proud of.