Thursday, June 28, 2012

Legend of Korra: Skeletons in the Closet/Endgame

The finale of The Legend of Korra presents a world in which magic fights technology, and loses. The show so far has done a great job of combining modernity with mysticism instead of directly setting them up as a contrast. Benders and non-benders compete, but both of them help make the cars and electrical plants that run the city. The war has so far not been an ecological one, although it would have been easy to make descendants of Aang preach about saving the animals. However, nature vs technology comes into play in a few key battles.

General Iroh II says that Amon is “outsmarting” the benders by hiding behind a mask and letting tanks do his work, and it’s true: Korra, “running out of patience”, is doing more smashing than thinking. The pure disparity of a lone hero attempting to face land mines and missile-launching biplanes by herself and without armor makes the first major battle very exciting. Later, though, we see plenty of members of Team Avatar driving robots and cars. Republic City would be happy to use the technology that Hiroshi Sato created. Spirituality is not directly connected to the environment, although exactly what it is connected to becomes a bit blurred by the end.

Just to be clear, this is going to be a spoiler-free review until the cut at the end. There are some burning questions that can be answered without giving much away. Amon’s and Tarlokk’s backstories were predicted by some fans a few weeks ago, but the actual horror of seeing bloodbending in action means that no matter what you’ve heard, the episode still has the chance to shock. The Clone Wars has been said to deal with “adult” scenarios of death and politics, but the death of grunts (or slaves with about as much character development) aren’t nearly as affecting as the bloodbending scenes we see in this episode. The music helps make the finale become at turns tragic and uplifting.

The finale goes quick but covers all the major bases: Asami’s relationship with her father, the fate of the airbenders and Lin Beifong, and, of course, Korra’s confrontation with Amon. She’s accompanied by Mako, the requisite almost-love-interest, and they take turns saving one another.

Naga is the real hero of the day, and her big scenes are where I most clearly thought the creators might be continuing the idea that nature will defeat machinery. Naga seemed pretty indestructible against the Korra-universe version of tanks. It’s a lesson that seems futile in a society undergoing an industrial revolution like our own, though. Nature is not going to win. However, we’ve already established that nature and machinery can work together.

Interpersonal relationships were the other big theme of the finale. There are a couple interesting discussions of the nature of love in these episodes: Asami tells her father that “You don’t feel love any more. You’re too full of hatred [which you think is love]”, referencing her dead mother. It’s a nice insight that immediately paints Hiroshi Sato as an almost sympathetic character, confused by grief until he doesn’t know wrong from right any more. Almost.

When Korra is confronted with a declaration of love of her own, she refuses on the grounds of having too many other things to think about. She says “I can’t.” There’s too much going on. Love must be set aside, like it was, temporarily, for Aang. Tenzin says it “needs time”, but he really means that she will only later be able to deal with her larger problems. Depending on your reading of the ending this could be depression, pragmatism, or a sign that the moment just wasn’t right.

The final sentiment of the episode is “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” At first this struck me as a very simple and clear way of expressing that it’s okay to fail sometimes. However, as the ending went on, I felt that it was a bit of a hollow sentiment for people who...aren’t the Avatar. The ending went by very quickly, and while it is widely known that the creators weren’t sure whether they would have another season to play with, I would have liked the wrap-to to be a little less neat. It reminded me very much of the ending of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first season of Korra was very well-done and deserves a re-watch with the revelations of the finale in mind. The ending, though, felt like a fairy tale instead of the story of an industrial revolution.

Head below the big bold warning for a few notes on spoilers.

In the long wait until next season, Nickelodeon will be re-airing the episodes along with creator commentary. They also have a Legend of Korra game available on their website.

- spoilers -

I’m not happy with the Korra/Mako outcome being portrayed as so positive, leaving as it does both Asami and Bolin feeling betrayed. Either Mako has been hiding his feelings for most of the season, or he’s always been impressed by Korra, and although I do think there’s a thin line between effectual love and hero-worship, his actions toward Asami don’t make me feel especially positive toward him. Korra wants him, but I’m not sure this relationship is going to last. This season was wrapped up pretty neatly, but I feel like that relationship is one of the issues that will be explored in the next.

I really liked the reveal of Korra’s airbending, where the only type of bending she never used before is the one that still works. it makes sense that a body naturally primed for bending would take whatever means it had left.

I really wanted Amon to stay scarred: that could have been from something besides firebenders. But scars in this style of animation do tend to look like paint anyway. (I’m looking at you, Zuko.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Catherine Taber Talks The Clone Wars

When asked to name female characters in the Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia and Padmé Amidala come to mind first. Padmé is the heroine of the prequel trilogy,  whether she’s wielding a blaster in combat or addressing a senate. Her death may have been contested, but before Episode 3 she got a lot of chances to shine alongside the Jedi and clones who accompany her through the war. The woman who brings her to life for The Clone Wars is Catherine Taber, who may also be familiar to Star Wars fans as the scrappy Twi’lek Mission Vao from Knights of the Old Republic, or Princess Leia in The Force Unleashed I & II, and most recently as Vette in The Old Republic. I got to talk to Taber about her wishes for season five, her interactions with fans, and more.

Megan: What has been your favorite part of season four?

Catherine Taber: I’ve really enjoyed Ahsoka and Padmé this season.

M: One of my favorite episodes is “Assassin”, which features a lot of development between Ahsoka and Padmé. How would you describe their relationship?

CT: I love that one. They have a kind of big sister relationship. Padme feels like there are things that she could teach Ahsoka but they’re not in a mother-daughter way, more like “I went through that a couple of years ago”. Like an older sister.

M: You got to hang out with Ashley Eckstein at Disney Star Wars Weekends this year.

CT: I did. She just sent me my Leia Her Universe hoodie, which is super exciting. I collected Star Wars t-shirts before, and felt like I’d hit my limit. There wasn’t much else out there. So she came around for all of us female fans at exactly the right time, when not only did I need more t-shirts personally, but so many more women were really becoming involved in the sci-fi world in general. They’ve always been there; there’s always been a presence, but there’s more and more. You used to go to Comic-Con and just see dudes for miles, and now it’s pretty even.

M: When you said “before”. Was that before you started working on The Clone Wars?

CT: I actually had been to Comic-Con before, as a fan. One year before we were announced on The Clone Wars I was doing autographs for my previous Star Wars project, Knights of the Old Republic.

M: I was so excited when I found out that you played Mission, because I love that character.

CT: That was literally my first voiceover job ever, so that was really exciting.

M: That is really exciting. She’s like Han Solo in little blue form.

CT: That’s really funny that you say that, because I modeled her after Han Solo in the audition. When I auditioned I didn’t know for sure that Zaalbar was a Wookiee. They don’t tell you that. I thought Zaalbar is my sidekick, so is he a big dog? And then I found out he was a Wookiee and I thought yes, that’s so awesome. So she’s definitely modeled after Han Solo. She’s also Scoundrel class, so that’s perfect.

M: Have you played Knights of the Old Republic?

CT: I haven’t played the whole thing on my own. I love to play all the games that I’m in - and some others that I’m not - but I can’t get consumed, otherwise I would probably not have a life. [laughs]

M: There is always that balance.

CT: I like to check out as much as I can without getting into one of those situations where I haven’t left the house in five days. [laughs]

M: I think it’s great that you come from a fan perspective. You can see it all from the acting side but then also bring a love of Star Wars to your performance.

CT: Yes. When I auditioned for Mission Vao, I found out later that they were having trouble casting that role. I think that my love for Star Wars and knowledge of Star Wars helped me to become one of the characters. The thing about acting in sci-fi is that it really helps if you love the material so that you’re not being patronizing towards that material. You’re not over-the-top. You have to believe that you’re in space and fighting this battle. If you don’t, it’s easier for it to come off as phony.

M: How much are you influenced by Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Padmé in terms of the voice that you use for her?

CT: The great thing about our director Dave [Filoni] was that when we first started he said, “This is your Padmé. You don’t have to worry about being Natalie or anybody else who played her previously.” Prior to auditioning, I re-watched the movies and Natalie’s performance to see the character again and do my research. I also used the Database on the internet to find out more about Padmé’s history, and who she is and who she was. I did research as an actress in the same way that I would if I was taking on a role that had been played by somebody else. Which happens a lot, especially if you’re talking about plays or films based on works of literature. If you’re doing Ophelia, somebody’s played Ophelia before. You don’t go back and try to be the last actress; you try to be true to the character. Padmé as played by Natalie, with the direct influence of George Lucas, was very true to who she was. In that sense, we tried to adhere to that. But I definitely try to make her my own, and Dave has been cool about that. We wanted to make sure that because we had the luxury of filling in some of Padmé’s life that you don’t get to see in the movies, we wanted to be sure that we showed her as the strong, brave, female full of integrity that she is.

M: One of my favorite episodes this season was “Shadow Warrior”, where Padmé has a big role in choosing Anakin’s fate.

CT: That was really interesting. People were trying to figure out what they would do in that situation. I really think that Padmé would try to do what was right for the greater good, but that’s a tough one when it involves someone that you love. I do think that she’s pretty good at putting herself and her own feelings second and putting the greater good first, which you definitely can’t say for all of the characters in Star Wars.

M: Do you think that Padmé’s decision was at all affected by her fear of the marriage being discovered?

CT: No, I really don’t. I think that at the end of the day she cares so much about doing the right thing and having integrity that she is harder on herself than normal people would be, and probably goes in the opposite direction. Makes decisions less for self-interest. I think that it was just about doing what was right.

M: In The Clone Wars, we get to see things Padmé hasn’t done in the movies. Is there anything else that you’d like to see her do before Episode 3 rolls around?

CT: In general, my favorite stuff is the development of relationships with her, and with Anakin, and with Obi-Wan. The more that we can show of that to get us to where we end up [in Episode 3] is what I would like to see. Not to mention I love working with Matt and James Arnold Taylor, so, that doesn’t hurt.

M: Do you typically get to record with them, or do you work separately?

CT: We almost always record together. Occasionally if someone is out of town working on a project then they don’t get to record at the same time, but there have been times even where Matt was off doing a movie where we would temp some of the dialogue, but we might still come back together when he was back in town and record some of the scenes that were really important, just to really make sure that relationship was still there, with the chemistry between the two characters. I think Dave and the writers and editors have really done a great job of bringing that out on our show.

M: It’s nice to be able to see episodes focused on the big three: Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Padmé.

CT: I have to say, even as a fan and not just for me, the Padmé, Anakin, and Obi-Wan episodes are my favorite to watch. I love Rex and Ahsoka, who we’ve had on our show from the beginning, and the clones. And I love the ones that have the characters we started with and the old-school Padmé-Obi-Wan-Anakin relationships. It reminds me of why I love the movies so much. It’s also about the humor that comes with those: I absolutely adore action, but I also think that action is best when it’s supported by a good story and good characters.

M: What characters from the show are your favorites outside of the main three?

CT: Yoda is my favorite overall character in the Star Wars universe. I wish that I had had someone like Yoda in my life, teaching me. My parents probably have a little Yoda in them. [laughs] That may be why I like him. But to have someone reinforcing the idea of “do or do not”: what a great message that is! What Yoda says when he’s teaching Luke is some of what drew me to Star Wars in general. Yoda’s my favorite, and Tom Kane, who does our Yoda, is himself such a wise, lovable man. I wish there was some more of Yoda. There’s fun stuff coming up.

I also love Ventress. Nika [Futterman] does such a great job, and it’s great to have a female villain. Although of course we’ve seen some other sides of Ventress, which has been very interesting to explore.

M: She’s been one of my favorite characters because you can never quite tell what side she’s on.

CT: Yeah, and that’s probably more true to life for most people. They have that gray area, and also there are reasons for why they end up as who they are. I think that our show is really cool in that you can look at Vader and then see Anakin. It’s so interesting to think of how he ends up and the reasons why. They’re not as black and white as you would think if you just took Vader at face value and thought ‘oh, he’s just evil’. You start to understand how people sometimes get to that place.

M: On the topic of Yoda, have you read Sean Stewart’s “Dark Rendezvous”?

CT: I haven’t. I have a whole lot of the books on my shelf that I haven’t gotten to.

M: Have you read other Star Wars books?

CT: I read the Zahn books, and then I have a whole bunch of books with Jaina.

M: I’d heard from Tricia at Fangirlblog that you’d want to play Jaina if there was a chance.

CT: Yeah, I do! I don’t know if it’s gonna happen but I just keep hoping. It would be so much fun to play mother, daughter, and granddaughter. I wanna do that one live-action. That would be really cool.

M: Do you enjoy events like Star Wars Weekends and San Diego Comic-Con?

CT: Being someone who lives in Los Angeles and experiences Hollywood, I see that it’s like Hollywood descending on San Diego for a few days. It’s overwhelming in its size and scope - and crowds! Luckily, because it’s sci-fi fans, everybody’s pretty nice. I can’t imagine another genre where you could have that many people together and it go that well than at Comic-Con, and that says a lot for our fans.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Mass Effect 3 DLC Aims To Patch Up Ending

A free DLC for Mass Effect 3 will be released next Tuesday. It's called simply the Extended Cut, although everyone knows it as "that one that's supposed to fix the ending". BioWare has stated that the DLC will contain new content to expand upon and explain, but not drastically change, the game's final chapter. Rumors have been floating around as to which voice actors at which secret meeting may be involved. According to the BioWare blog, the end will clarify some plot points as well as expand upon Commander Shepard's decisions. Basically, they're saying they're going to do what fans want them to do: give Shepard more choices that actually impact the story, and explain what happened to the other characters after.

Due to a combination of factors, it is unlikely I'll be in the same county as my XBox on Tuesday. Even the prospect of barreling through one of my current saves to get to the end sounds like a slog: Mass Effect 3 is an even darker game on the second runthrough, and I doubt the Extended Cut changes the essential factors of the ending that make it so.

Regardless, I'll have more details when they're available, and feel free to comment below with your opinions on the endings or the Extended Cut.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Reviews on Knights Archive

Over the last week or so I've begun an internet alliance with Knights Archive, a site for Star Wars books and television reviews. The debut performance is Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, so check out some words about that enigmatic (and awesome) book over there. I'll be sure to keep Blog Full of Words updated on what I'm doing for the Archive as I review some of the earlier Star Wars novels.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I’ve Never Hit A Girl In My Life: The Ladies of Red vs Blue

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that these two images are from the same web series.

Also that, although you wouldn’t know it from the identical body shapes of the characters, the one in black is a woman.

These screencaps are from Red vs Blue, fan video taken to the greatest extreme. It began in 2003 because the three-person team who would become known as RoosterTeeth needed actual content for a placeholder website. Their idea was to do a comedic machinima - videos filmed “inside” video games. In this case, the game was “Halo: Combat Evolved”.

The show came to the attention of Bungie, then-owner of the Halo franchise, through Dell employees and other fans who spread the word to a large audience. It doesn’t hurt that the very first shot of the series used a camera pan Bungie had to ask RoosterTeeth how to do. Red vs Blue was pushing at the walls of a seemingly static medium, using the shooter game Halo as an art form. The many people who go into producing an episode in 2012 make it their job to know as much about “Halo physics” as possible, from what weapons are available in what maps to the textures on the walls. RoosterTeeth, now a company with over thirty employees, houses its own mini animation studio, with motion capture and completely original art contributing to the episodes.

The most recent seasons of Red vs Blue also excel in a way I wouldn’t have guessed from the previous ones: the female characters. Each has a myriad of motivations, a unique personality (as do the males, who might get their own post) and contributes to the plot significantly.

The earlier seasons, not so much. The first introduced was Tex, a popular character who gets some of the best fight choreography in the series. At first she fulfilled the role of the tough woman whose strength surprises the other (male) characters in part because it isn’t expected from her gender. Many jokes equated her strength and argumentative attitude with masculinity.

Sistertalkingtowash.pnhg.PNGThe second female to be introduced is a sibling of another character, and referred to universally as Sister. Sister is a source of many of the sexual jokes in the fifth season, and her gender is called into question in order to facilitate that type of humor. Red vs Blue’s comedic tone means that commentary on gender is often tongue-in-cheek or intended to be parodic, and Sister takes this aspect to an extreme. Like a lot in this series, the goal of her dialogue seems to be to shock viewers. 

In later seasons, though, such as the left-hand screenshot at the top of the page, the ensemble as a whole becomes less parodic and more important. The second half of the series is darker and introduces a second ensemble of super-soldiers called Freelancers. Every female character on their team is tough, and each has a distinct personality. Everybody in the Freelancer program is named after a state; the girls get South (Dakota), CT (Connecticut), and Carolina.

CT presents so many warring concepts in the first scene in which she speaks that it took some time for me to decide what I thought of her. Loyalty to a cause, suspicion of one she doesn’t believe in, fear of failure, anger, sadness, defiance, and a sidestep out of the limelight that will prove to be character-defining all come into play in under three minutes of dialogue. She’s helped along by actress Samantha Ireland, sounding close to tears. It helps that CT is one of the more mysterious characters of seasons nine and ten, and a link to the popular earlier seasons. Her motives and what exactly she’s up to are partially unknown, but those first three minutes offer up enough to keep fans wondering. Her appearance is also unique: in a cast of women with colorful makeup and dramatically colored hair, CT is sand-colored and drab, with a round face that makes the viewer understand where she’s coming from when she says she doesn’t want to be thought of as a child. She’s become one of my favorite characters ever (of all time) as fans and the show itself have shown her make tough choices and carefully measure out how much emotion to show while making them.

South is the forth Freelancer introduced in the show, making them initially an equal-opportunity bunch in terms of gender. The first female Freelancer we met was the firebrand Texas, but South is a vulnerable younger sister when we first encounter her. She becomes the reluctant protege to a more grizzled and jaded traveler, and can serve as a stand-in for the viewer who doesn’t quite know how the organization names that get thrown around work yet. But South is more than a vehicle for some smooth expository dialogue: she is one of many Freelancer characters who struggle with the competitive nature of their program, and her introduction compared to the others is a study in personality types.

On the other hand, Carolina’s dialogue disappointed me at first. Her drill sergeant directness and unquestioning loyalty seemed too simple, her fighting style and dramatic face show too few imperfections. Fans helped me to see that Carolina’s confidence is explained in her actions, though: her drive to be number one is backed by the fear of losing, and it’s that same drive to succeed (and avenge her failures) that can be seen in her entire story arc. It’s hard to talk about her without treading on spoileriffic ground, but Carolina ties together more parts of the story than a first-time viewer would imagine. She’s also at the center of some of the most exciting and innovative fight scenes to come out of the series.
Official fanart by Luke McKay

There's an odd sort of equality in everybody in this series being up for the same sort of laughs. Being a girl is mocked, being a guy is mocked, and mistaking one for the other is mocked a lot. The title of this post comes from one character's assertion that he's too chivalrous to hit a girl, and another insisting that it doesn't matter because she's too good a fighter to get hit. The exact line is "You need to try harder.": everybody, no matter their gender, is up for some war because everybody in this story is tough, and ready to throw themselves into a fray...unless their characterization dictates they're lazy, or selfish, or don't believe in the cause. Red vs Blue has a wide spectrum of well-established characters who have grown, in ten seasons,  into men and women with complex (sometimes labyrinthine) backstories. The Freelancer women in the back half of the series are notable in science fiction because they're not singled out. Nobody finds it unusual that Carolina is the leader: she got there because she was the best. There are angry female characters and angry male characters, kind women and kind men.

Red vs Blue also contains pervasive foul language, "adult content", bloody violence, not-so-bloody violence, and men pregnant with alien babies. You can find the first episode here.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Things I Like This Week #4

The Internet contains many things. Some of them are likeable.

I was drawn to Chuck Wendig's  terrible minds because a writing magazine warned that people who are easily offended shouldn't visit it. I'm glad I did, since he's got some cool essays on writing, pop media, and female characters. Turns out I actually read his novel Mockingbird some time ago, but was confused what with it not being marked as a sequel.

There's a long-running argument about whether Lara Croft is interesting to feminists or not, but Wendig's essay about the most recent game  argues that she is...because she's doing it wrong. He sums up one of my beliefs about characters: "...can’t we come to her being a strong relatable character not because she’s a woman, not despite the fact she’s a woman, but regardless of it?"

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Clone Wars Season Five Full Trailer Revealed

The full season five trailer, teased earlier this year, is ambitious. Growling electric guitars back clips of rebellions, bounty hunters, and Sith as factions clash. The format in the first couple minutes, a first-person narration briefly explaining the Sith and the Mandalorians, is abandoned later in favor of quick clips. This denies us direct mention of the Jedi and the "insurgency" mentioned in dialogue, but it looks like all four factions will be given a lot of screen time in this season. There are some very cool character and creature designs to look forward to: can you image watching this girl back when it seemed like an impossible feat to make Obi-Wan's hair move?

It looks like Darth Maul is going to be as close to a main villain as The Clone Wars can get without switching to a more episodic format. A clip of the long-awaited Obi-Wan vs. Darth Maul fight features what looks like Pride Rock. Maul's dialogue naming Dooku "that Sith pretender" is great, capturing the economy of words that Maul should really show all the time - let's hope it keeps up. The trailer also brings back some more of of my least favorite things about last year, including Maul insisting that teamwork is a good thing, nonsensical politics, and Lux.

For good and for ill, the trailer can be watched here at EW.  Thanks to Fangirlblog for the tip.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury Dies at Age 91

i09 broke the news about the death of one of science fiction's greatest writers this morning. Ray Bradbury passed away Tuesday night in Los Angeles. He was the author of numerous novels and short stories, including Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles. 

He has been among my favorite writers since I was in middle school. While Fahrenheit 451 and 'All Summer in a Day' were held up as paragons of science fiction, his later work introduced me to a poetic and scintillating prose style that transcends genre. His stories are idea fiction, descriptive fiction, filled with descriptions of dark and decaying faces as well as a warm belief in human endeavor. Bradbury put the wonder in science fiction in a way few others have.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Star Wars: 1313 Revealed

TFN has the scoop on 1313, the new Star Wars game from LucasArts. News about it has traveled very fast, from speculations about what form of media it would turn out to be to the clips revealed in the last few hours. The clips, played on Spike TV, reveal two (white, male, human) protagonists and some snappy dialogue. I'm obviously less happy about the first than the second.

The game is also M-rated, which makes me wonder what sort of taboos are going to be broken in the normally PG Star Wars universe. The EU has been creeping in a more violent direction since Revenge of the Sith's PG-13 and then the Zombies in Space I mean Red Harvest series, but 1313's setting in the underworld of Corscuant makes other kinds of vice just as possible.

I'm reserving judgement on this one. It's either going to be forgettable, a decent action game, or the next Knights of the Old Republic. Since there don't seem to be a sign of any female characters yet there isn't much else for me to talk about besides the fact that the clunky, numeric title isn't my cup of blue milk.