29 January 2013

Dear My Body: Y U NO SLEEP?

In addition to depression and anxiety, I've fought insomnia since my youth. At times, it's been helpful. I think of the all-nighters I pulled in college, for instance. Mostly, though, it's just irritating. I managed four consecutive nights last week where I was able to turn in around 10 at night and actually sleep through the night until at least 6:00 in the morning.

My insomnia issue hasn't been helped over the last several years by the frequent Prednisone tapers I've had to take to treat Crohn's flares. Again, I try not to badmouth Prednisone too much because it's the only thing that's consistently helped me with my guts but every now and again even I get frustrated with its side effects. I've not had Prednisone in a couple of weeks now so it should be out of my system at present but I've taken so much of it over the years that I'm certain it's done irreversible damage to my already precarious ability to sleep.

I watched the season premiere of Dallas last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. I'd forgotten how much fun a soap opera can be and there's never been a finer one than Dallas. It was bittersweet watching Larry Hagman in one of his final performances as J.R. Ewing. It was a reminder how terrific he was in that role, and how much I've always enjoyed rooting for that conniving s.o.b. We've seen so many J.R.-like characters over the years, but rarely have any of the actors playing them been as willing as Hagman to appear to be having fun. J.R. isn't a guy who schemes all the time because he's greedy. He does it because it's his nature and he enjoys it. There's something Taoist about the guy, really.

I debated going to bed then, but then I decided to finally re-watch A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I've not seen it since it opened in theaters in 2001, and I've been meaning to revisit it for a while now. That wrapped up around 1:30 and I went to bed. There, I promptly tossed and turned for another hour or so before finally deciding to get back up. We've had another change in weather here; it's been warming up the last few days but also it's been raining and all that's played havoc with the barometric pressure...which, in turn, has made me physically miserable. I got out of bed and took a pain pill and a sleeping pill, hoping to get to sleep. Instead, I wound up writing a very lengthy review in my Letterboxd diary of A.I. I can't even say how coherent it is, but you're welcome to read it for yourself and tell me.

I'm finally starting to feel that drowsy, warm buzz from the pills so I'm gonna try again to get some sleep. I just looked around and all four cats are snoozing. More and more these days, I find myself envying them.

22 January 2013

Are Talking Points More Valuable Than Your Friends?

I'm terribly close to quitting Facebook. I've had it with the political stuff. If you can't respect me, I'm going to delete you. I mean it!!!
This is a typical Facebook status update lately. What has been driving so many people to the point of either deleting friends or leaving the social media website entirely? Guns.

Certainly, ever since the godawful mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School our TV, radio, magazines and websites have been inundated with escalating hostility from the talking heads and inflamed citizens alike. We expect when we tune in to cable talk shows or log onto particular websites to encounter unmitigated rhetoric and to be demonized for dissenting with whatever the opposition viewpoint is. I think most of us expect to know one or two outspoken relatives and friends who will pitch a fit about such issues, but by and large the average person treats most of these kinds of discussions as white noise.

Except that now, that white noise has spilled over into our sanctuary. Where we once went to Facebook to sift through "I bet you don't love God enough to share this post" statuses to find kitten videos has now become the front line in the philosophical war over gun violence. There's a certain etiquette to Facebook that you don't attack someone that your friend knows if you don't know them, too. The prevailing, unwritten rule has been that you don't want to cause problems for your mutual friend. Even that, though, has become frequently suspended of late. Facebook users have been compelled lately to intervene and mediate disputes between their own acquaintances. More often, the plea has been for everyone to be respectful of their other friends, but at least twice lately I've personally seen a friend issue a warning to a specific party rather than a general call for mutual civility.

There is an old saying that "All politics is local." We're seeing that in a new context now that technology has made it possible for us to debate in real time with people across the world. That locality is not geographic (though it can be), but rather a philosophical nearness. That is, we're now exposed to rhetoric that targets our own values directly in a way that we didn't used to be.

I experienced this a few years ago during the initial debates over the Affordable Health Care Act ("Obamacare"). For a lot of people, that debate was white noise about laws and bill paying, etc. It existed in a sort of abstract way for most Americans, who are healthy. The more rabid opponents of Obamacare, though, didn't just complain about the President's proposals. They went after unhealthy Americans like myself, resenting us for having the selfish temerity to become unhealthy in the first place. Most famously, there was the CNN debate in 2010 in which Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul about a hypothetical uninsured patient and the crowd cheered at the prospect of letting that patient die rather than be treated. I took that very personally, because that was me. I was uninsured when I was sent to the emergency room with my first bowel obstruction in 2005. That was how I learned I had Crohn's disease.

That health care debate was very difficult for me, and for many of my Crohnies. The message to us from our own relatives and friends was, "It sucks that you have to live at the mercy of insurers and all that, but screw you. I care more about my political principles." It hurt. It hurt a lot. At best, it made me feel misunderstood but mostly it made me feel completely marginalized. I wasn't worth more than a talking point to people I'd known and cared about for years. Whether anyone making me feel that saw it that way or even realized it, of course, I can't say. I don't believe anyone ever intended to make me feel that way. It did strain several of my relationships, though I'm happy to say they've since been renewed and all is well.

As I watch this gun violence issue run roughshod over Facebook, I can't help but wonder how that process will play out for those who are experiencing now what I went through with Obamacare. Will they make peace later? Or will it haunt them that the people who have inundated their walls with infographics have chosen fealty to their talking points at the expense of their friendships?

To be clear: The choice is not between one's principles and one's friends. No reasonable person expects their friends to live in strict accordance with their own principles. The choice before us today, as it ever has been, is between respecting those friendships despite the disagreements and choosing one's talking (shouting) points over actual human beings. Do what you want, but remember that there is no scorekeeper at the end of all this who will give you a merit badge for not compromising.

17 January 2013

January 2013 Errata

It feels like I haven't blogged in ages. Part of that is because I've moved my movie reviewing to my Letterboxd diary, where it's more readily organized than it is here. Part of it is because I've been lethargic and borderline narcoleptic for the last two weeks. Part of it is also because I really just haven't had much to say. Here's a catch-all rundown of things that weren't big enough to warrant their own blog posts.

My Novel
Amazon and CreateSpace are running a publishing competition right now. I've entered the latest draft of my 2011 NaNoWriMo novel in it. It took until last week, but I finally came up with a title for it. I'll know on 13 February whether I'm one of the 400 to advance to Round 2, or if I'm one of the 9600 whose pitches weren't sufficiently compelling. I feel fairly confident about the novel itself, but not the pitch. We'll see.

National/International News
There's been no shortage of discussion about gun violence, rape culture and the debt ceiling. I've already said pretty much everything I have to say about those topics. If I should have an epiphany of some kind I'll be sure to share it but until further notice, I'm against gun violence and rape and I'm against using the debt ceiling as an excuse to sabotage our government from within. In short, I'm a typical leftist lemming.

Movies
Yesterday, I went shopping. Best Buy has their Upgrade & Save promotion going on again, where you take them any DVD (except, of course, burned ones or porn) and they give you a $5 coupon good toward any Blu-ray Disc $9.99 or more. I took in a pair of DVDs and got Glory (on sale from $14.99 to $9.99 - $5 Upgrade & Save coupon = $4.99) and The Sting Universal 100th Anniversary edition Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack ($14.99 - $5 U&S coupon = $9.99). My baby brother surprised me at Christmas with a $25 Best Buy gift card so these cost me nothing out of pocket. I'm gonna go back before the promotion ends and trade in a couple of more DVDs.

I also went to the Village 8 to see Argo. I reviewed it in my Letterboxd diary, but the short version is that I thought it was terrific. It entered my Flickchart at #75. Rarely have I been so emotionally invested in a modern-era movie. The last was Slumdog Millionaire. The odd thing is that this was the third time since October that I've been to the Village 8. My last visit before that was in July, 2008 to see The Spy Who Loved Me. I grew up going to the Village 8. It's the second-run theater in Louisville, which means it's the cheap theater. We didn't go to a lot of movies growing up; more than a lot of other kids I knew, but a lot less than I think the average family probably saw. We had the benefit that my mom was from Louisville and liked to take us out there to go window shopping in a mall or to see a movie and then play at a park; that kind of day-killing stuff.

My doctor, whom I absolutely adore, has been transferred to a different office just a block away from the Village 8 so I'm going to try to make a point to catch a show there whenever I go see her. It's $3 and literally just a block away. I'd be a fool after spending the time and gas to go see her not to go see a movie there, too. Plus, there's no shortage of new-release movies I kinda wanted to see but missed for one reason or other.

I've gone by myself to see a handful of movies over the years. I love it. Somehow, even the chatter from other people seems less distracting when I'm by myself. I just get lost in the movie, oblivious to those around me. Sometimes I've found that who I saw a movie with has colored how I felt about it, and that's true for seeing a movie by myself as well. Argo was magnificent. I thoroughly enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I saw in December also at the Village 8. Several years ago, I saw Gone Fishin' at the Oldham 8. It was mediocre and boring, but I'm almost certain I enjoyed it more by myself than I would have had I seen it with someone else. I don't know why that is, but I believe it to be true.

Speaking of movies, I've racked up some Movie Cash lately. The day after Christmas, Target advertised Finding Nemo on Blu-ray for $12.99. I was able to get Walmart to price-match that, and it included Movie Cash to see Monsters, Inc. in 3D. I've always loved the animation and the premise of that one, but the story itself bores me. Still, since it was paid for by the Movie Cash, I saw it on New Year's Eve just the same. That door chase scene was amazing!

Walmart had an assortment of Warner Bros. Blu-ray Discs priced at $7.88 that included $7.50 Movie Cash to see "any" Warner Bros. movie in theaters through 13 February. I bought The Shining, one of my friends's favorite movie - and one I still haven't seen - and used the movie cash to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at the Oldham 8, which has recently been purchased by Regal Theaters. Fun fact: One of the chains Regal owns is United Artists. One of the five original founders of UA was D.W. Griffith, who was from LaGrange, KY - my hometown, and where the Oldham 8 is.

Disney Movie Rewards also just offered $10 Movie Cash to see any Disney movie in theaters as a reward. I had enough points in my account that I was able to redeem for the maximum allotment of four, meaning that I get to see Oz, the Great and Powerful for free in March. Disney is also releasing Marvel movies these days, and I think I'll get to use my Movie Cash to see Iron Man 3 in May and Thor: The Dark Shadows in November. If not, I'll find something else to see. No worries.

There's also a Movie Cash promo from General Mills right now. Buy two boxes, get a code for a Movie Cash ticket valued up to $12. Between a coupon my grandmother had and a sale Kroger was running, I was able to buy two boxes of Fiber One for $6.58 with tax - little more than half the value of the ticket, which I'm going to use in full in two weeks to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at Cinemark Tinseltown in their XD auditorium ($12.50). I should go back for some more cereal, not that I can eat the damn stuff. My mom can, though!

My Health
Speaking of my stupid Crohn's-infest guts, I've had a minor flare that came on just after New Year's Day. I went on a Prednisone taper, came off it for nearly a week and just last night felt it start all over again. Obnoxious, but not particularly alarming or anything. Several of my Crohnies have had a far worse run of things lately, which saddens me. I always feel helpless when I hear of what they're facing, no matter how often it happens. 2012 was a great year for me emotionally and on the Crohn's front, but it was absolutely wretched to a lot of my friends and pals. I'd appreciate if 2013 would be kinder to them.

Christmas
I finally took down my Christmas tree earlier today. I've been meaning to do that for a couple of weeks now, but I've spent most of that time either in bed or the bathroom. When I have been out of bed, I've scarcely had the energy to do much more than pop in a DVD and flake out on the futon. It's finally down and back in storage now, though I just realized I overlooked the lovely Christmas cards I received this year. I haven't exchanged Christmas cards with anyone in several years, but I found I rather enjoyed sending and receiving them this past Christmas. It's something I think I'll do again this year. It's kind of neat to get a Christmas card mailed to you from across the globe!

101 Things in 1001 Days
It occurs to me that I've not done a single thing on my 101 Things in 1001 Days Challenge list in quite some time. I haven't even finished writing up 101 things to do, which is funny because "Finish writing 101 things to do" is actually one of the things I do have on my list. If I ever regain any energy, I'll look into trying to do something on the list, or at least add some things to it.

03 January 2013

"Batman: The Animated Series" Volume Four

Batman: The Animated Series Volume Four
From The New Batman Adventures
Starring the voice talents of Kevin Conroy as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Tara Charendoff as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon, Matthew Valencia as Robin/Tim Drake, Efram Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred, Loren Lester as Nightwing/Dick Grayson
Date of Release:
MSRP: $44.95
24 episodes/521 minutes
Volume One | Volume Two | Volume Three

As with Volume Three, there was a viewing order consideration to be had here. There was a crossover event uniting Batman and Superman against The Joker and Lex Luthor, originally aired as a single feature called The Batman/Superman Movie and subsequently re-aired in The New Superman Adventures in three parts as "World's Finest." That's how the event is featured in Superman: The Animated Series Volume Two, but the original cut was given its own standalone DVD release and I have that. It aired after the first two episodes presented on Volume Four, but I decided in the interest of convenience to watch The Batman/Superman Movie before delving into Volume Four. As with Batman & Mr. Freeze in SubZero, I've reviewed the standalone film in my Letterboxd diary.

In 1997, Batman was revamped and brought from Fox to the WB Network. There, the series was rebranded for the second time, combined with Superman for The New Batman/Superman Adventures. Each hour long block of programming consisted of one Batman episode and one Superman, with reruns drawing on previous incarnations of the series as well as newly produced episodes.

All characters were redesigned, down to the Batmobile. Dick Grayson became Nightwing, Barbara Gordon was brought into the Batcave as a full-time member of the Bat-team, and Tim Drake joined as the new Robin. Some of the voice cast changed. Most notably, Tara Charendoff replaced Melissa Gilbert as Barbara Gordon, Jeffrey Combs became the new Scarecrow and Brooks Garner succeeded Aron Kincaid as Killer Croc.

The WB Network was much freer about some kinds of content than Fox had been; we see blood in these episodes, for instance. "My God!" is a commonly heard expression of shock, rather than the "My word!" or similar substitute. The new storytelling freedom produced some of the finest episodes of the entire canon, though curiously it also includes some of the worst. "Joker's Millions" reduces the The Joker from a ruthless psychopath to the victim of a prank that would have been bad even in an Eddie Murphy movie.

Even that's more tolerable than "Critters", in which a farmer with massive, anthropomorphic animals terrorizes Gotham City. Several of the middle-of-the-road episodes are also bogged down by skewing toward traditional Saturday morning cartoon humor and gags. Roughly half of The New Batman Adventures is a far cry from the straight, grim melodrama of the earlier Batman: The Animated Series.

The half that's good, though, is outstanding. Here are the highlights:

"Holiday Knights" is an anthology episode, adapted from The Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1 comic book. That comic sold through almost immediately when it was originally published, and it was the last issue I had to find to complete my run of the original volume of The Batman Adventures. Fortunately for me, a friend snagged us each a copy at a comic shop he visited on vacation.

There are three segments here. In the first, Poison Ivy uses her controlling kiss power on Bruce Wayne, who is then compelled to take her and Harley Quinn shopping. It's slapstick, but it's fun. In the second story, Detectives Bullock and Montoya stake out a shopping mall that's been harangued by a rash of thefts. The culprit is revealed as Clayface, who is ultimately stopped by Batgirl. The final act has The Joker make a New Year's resolution to go an entire year without killing anyone...prompting him to try really hard to kill as many as he can before the ball drops. Batman and his new Robin, of course, intervene. There's a great coda to the episode of Batman meeting Commissioner Gordon at a cafe for a cup of coffee that puts this one over the top.

Speaking of the new Robin, it's unclear why his origin story is presented after "Holiday Knights", but at least it's the second episode of the collection: "Sins of the Father". Tim Drake had just come on the scene when I began reading Batman comics in 1989, so he's always been "my" Robin. His animated incarnation has a story that's an amalgamation of Tim's and his predecessor's (Jason Todd). It's not as captivating as Dick Grayson's origin ("Robin's Reckoning"), but seeing the look on Tim's face when he pieces together that his father has been killed and that he's now an orphan is still a very moving image. We feel better this time, though, because we know that he's already found a home.

Tim's finest episode is "Growing Pains", in which he meets a street urchin with amnesia. We learn that she's a part of Clayface that separated from him and became sentient on its own, and that he's spent months searching for her. Try as he might, Tim cannot protect her and has to watch in helpless horror as she's reabsorbed into Clayface. The first half of the episode is one of the better mysteries of the series, and the finale is one of its most compelling tragedies.

"Over the Edge" is, in my estimation, the single best episode of the entire series and second only to the feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as the best story of the entire canon. We open with Commissioner Gordon leading a raid into the Batcave, hunting Batman and Robin relentlessly. We don't know why, but the gig is up and Gordon is a man obsessed. This episode is chock full of OMG! moments, never breathing or letting us get our bearings.

During an altercation with Scarecrow, Batgirl has been killed - falling from atop a skyscraper directly onto the police car carrying her father, the police commissioner. Her dying word is, "Dad", and when he unmasks his daughter, his rage consumes him. We've seen the police chase Batman before, but never like this. We've never believed they could actually catch him until now.

In the end, of course, we discover that the entire episode has been Batgirl's nightmare, generated by the Scarecrow's fear toxin. Ordinarily, this would cheapen the entire story but the final scene doesn't just rescue "Over the Edge"; it's what puts it over the top. Consumed by guilt at keeping her alter ego secret from her father, Barbara sits down to tell him her secret. Recognizing what she's about to say, he stops her and very coyly insinuates that he already knows...and approves.

Over 22 minutes, "Over the Edge" manages to create an entire nightmare - not for Barbara, but for us. Instead of coldly telling us, "It was just a dream", though, the episode hugs us and tells us that it's okay. For spanning such a range of intense emotions, and for spinning the single most thrilling tale, "Over the Edge" is the best episode of the series.

Conceptually, there's no episode more perfectly suited to appeal to me than "Legends of the Dark Knight", in which kids share with one another different interpretations of who Batman is and what he's like. It's another anthology episode, only this time each segment is an homage to a different incarnation of the Dark Knight. The first sequence is a callback to the goofy 50s work by folks like Dick Sprang, and the 1966 TV series starring Adam West. The second is a straight adaptation of a sequence from Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns in which an aged Batman fights the leader of a gang of mutants in a mud pit. The finale takes place in the "real" world, where the kids are caught by arsonist Firefly and rescued by Batman.

Not only did they create different animation for the Sprang and Miller sequences, but they also brought in different voice actors to complete the effect. It's great fun to see the Sprang homage, and as a longtime fan of The Dark Knight Returns, it was a particular thrill to see that bit. Of course, they've now made an entire direct-to-video adaptation of Dark Knight but in 1997, this mud fight was the most we expected we'd ever see put on the screen. Plus, the casting of Michael Ironside to voice Miller's Batman was genius. (Naming the episode after the anthology series that I love so much didn't escape my attention, either.)

Being a huge fan of Batgirl, it should also come as no surprise that I loved "Girl's Night Out", in which she teams up with Supergirl against Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Livewire. The dynamics of their relationships with one another are fun to watch, from Harley's resentment of Livewire to the gal pal power of Batgirl and Supergirl high-fiving their accomplishment.

As with "Holiday Knights", "Mad Love" is an adaptation of a comic book originally published as a Batman Adventures special issue - written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Bruce Timm. It's the origin story of Harley Quinn, though it's much more tragic than funny despite focusing on Harley and The Joker. There are several truly dramatic moments that are among the most affecting of any episode. Not the least of these is The Joker's therapy session, in which he recounts trying to make his dad laugh...and being beaten for it. Perhaps most chilling of all is when Harley, showing her actual face, drops her silly voice and pleads earnestly for Batman to help her stop The Joker.

The DVD Box Set
By the time of Volume Four, there wasn't much left to say apparently. Disc 1 includes "Interactive Arkham Asylum", in which various creators discuss each of the rogues gallery and how they were created and evolved. Each of the eleven clips runs nearly two minutes, plus there's an introduction so the whole thing is the equivalent in run time to an episode. There's no Play All feature, though, so you have to manually select the clips individually. There's not a lot of eye-opening insight to be found, but it's kind of neat to hear the varying levels of enthusiasm each creator has for the assorted characters.

We also get three commentary tracks. Producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, art director Glen Murakami and storyboard artist James Tucker discuss "Over the Edge", and are joined by director Dan Riba to discuss "Critters" and "Legends of the Dark Knight". Timm explains in his opening remarks on the "Critters" commentary that they selected that episode precisely because it was so reviled by fans. The thinking was that they wanted to pick a "bad" episode but that they had a hard time demeaning the work of others by designating any given episode as such, but that "Critters" was so universally hated that it was a safe choice. It's a great commentary track, actually, and I applaud Timm for having the creative sense to recognize the value in commenting on a bad episode.