A Bus Station in St. Louis (TheByteWeek Issue 19)

Catching a greyhound might not have been the smartest idea I’ve ever had

The cast couldn’t have been more diverse if they were arranged by the most liberal of Hollywood agents. The setting couldn’t have been more cliche if it was choreographed by a jaded screenwriter. The plot couldn’t have been more bare-bones if it was concocted from the mind of a blockbuster director itching for his first short at the coveted drama genre that so fuels the minds of critics and film buffs alike.

Granted, any critic would have seen through the film’s attempt at being progressive, if only because a bus station in St. Louis doesn’t necessarily lend itself to what is typically considered high-brow literature. A more cynical reader might even suggest that the film allows itself to revel in stereotypes simply to serve the diverse cast of characters that it features.

In this bus station in St. Louis, on a dreary, dark, dismal, and wet Saturday afternoon, we find ourselves in the presence of the usual suspects. An older black grandmother from Chicago. A middle-aged, wannabe politico itching for his chance at the big leagues. A woman caught in a sordid love affair with a man across the border. A backpacker. A daughter. A woman suffering from an undisclosed mental illness. A recent university graduate heading home after a vacation. Oh, and the ex-con 11 days out of prison – if his angry ramblings are to be believed.

The setting: a departure terminal separated from a main concourse by the invisible barrier created by an open doorway. On one side, friends and family wave goodbye. On the other, friends and family board and disembark, looking ahead to the possibilities, but looking back at the lives they leave behind.

The conflict: A bus that’s two hours late. Correction – a bus that’s four hours late. And then, a bus that never shows up, and an alternate route on an unreliable charter through four different cities, two countries, and at least five chances for everything to fall to ruin.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that this was the scene of a drama.

On Saturday, May 7, 2016, I tried to catch a Greyhound bus from St. Louis to Chicago to Detroit to Toronto. Contrary to what the route might suggest, the trip was divided between two separate buses. One bus from St. Louis to Chicago, and one bus from Chicago to Toronto.

The St. Louis-Chicago bus was scheduled to leave at 2 p.m. local time. After six hours on the road, the bus would promptly reach the Windy City at 8 p.m. Following three-and-a-half hours of layover, the Chicago-Detroit-Toronto bus would depart at 11:30 p.m. All in all, the trip would take approximately 22 hours, and I’d be back in Toronto on Sunday, May 8, 2016, at approximately 11:30 a.m.

Except the bus to Chicago didn’t show up on time.

Which wasn’t a problem for me, the woman caught in the love affair, the daughter, and the older black woman native to Chicago. For the daughter, Sarah, and the woman, Shawna, a late bus meant arriving home in Chicago later than planned. Certainly, this would be an inconvenience, but nothing that couldn’t be rectified with some well-earned sleep.

For the lover, Emma, and the recent graduate, me, a late bus to Chicago meant less time spent waiting in a concourse late at night. In fact, when I was told that my bus was two-hours-late, I smiled, because I knew that I wouldn’t have to wait as long for my bus to leave to Toronto.

Dear reader, know that it is not the man who sells his flock that is smart, but the man who waits to count his profits after the transaction.

At 4 p.m., our group was told that the bus hadn’t yet left for St. Louis. Understandably, our smattering of souls grew anxious. The ex-con in particular decided to remind the audience that he’d only recently been released after serving a three-year sentence. When it finally got to be time for him to complain to Greyhound’s customer service personnel, he adjusted his story and suggested that he was actually in for five years. Suffice it to say, no one challenged the man for fear that his tales might not be bloated boasting after all.

At 4:15 p.m., the group slowly moved towards a counter staffed by a man who can be no older than 25. The 25-year-old is young, but his face was weary. He carried himself with the worldliness of a leathery hippo who was clearly too old for this s**t.

The line grew in length as everyone settled into a state of active dissociation. As it turned out, the bus to Chicago wasn’t the only vehicle with a minor problem. The bus to Indianapolis, for example, did arrive, but it left without four of its payed passengers. In comparison, the bus to New York also decided to endorse a different candidate for the nomination.

Don’t even get me started on the bus to Little Rock.

When I finally made my way to the front of the line, Trevor – the 25-year-old leathery hippo – listened to my concerns.

“Listen, man, I need to get to Toronto by tomorrow,” I explained, calmly.

“Oh, yeah, I don’t think I can do that,” he began, alerting himself to the despair growing in my heart. “But let me see what I can do to get you back.”

Eventually, he presented me with my options:

“I can get you from here to Columbus, to Cleveland, to Buffalo, to Toronto,” Trevor said. “And you need to make up your mind fast.”

Four cities, four layovers, four different buses, one hour layover in each city.

At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure how precisely screwed I’d have been had I taken the ticket, but I’m certain now, and I was certain then, that Greyhound – in their infinite wisdom – would have been unable to efficiently get me back home within the promised 25-hour time-frame that Trevor outlined.

Call me cynical, but if they had managed to bungle something as simple as St. Louis to Chicago, I didn’t trust them to be able to safely get me to Toronto via Columbus, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

There was nothing else that Trevor could do for me, so I took the adjusted ticket. As I walked past Emma, and Shawna, and Sarah, and the ex-con – who is named Gilbert, of all things – they told me the stories that they hadn’t shared when we were just fellow passengers.

Emma’s from California. She was going to a small-town in Ontario to see her boyfriend who she lives with for six months of the year. She’s got two adult kids from a different relationship. She’s happy with her boyfriend. Emma had been travelling from California for the past week, because Greyhound had managed to offend Emma in no less than five cities in the past seven days. She was forced to wait 24 hours for a new ticket once; St. Louis ended up being the second time that she’d spent the night in an unfamiliar bus terminal.

Stanley, the wannabe politico, didn’t tell me where he was from, but I could smell that he hadn’t showered in three days. He’d been subsisting off a diet of terminal junk food and the scant Internet that he’d been able to scrounge off of the terminals that gave him their Wi-Fi passwords. Unsurprisingly, his 11-inch MacBook Air carried a full charge.

Shawna didn’t have much of a story. She’s a nurse. She’s got grandchildren. She’s got children in Alabama who she visited. Now it was time for her to get back home – time for her to get back to work. Granted, she liked Alabama, though Alabama hadn’t seemed to like her very much.

I must mention that, before I met Shawna, she was carrying a polite conversation with a well-connected businessman. I say well-connected because his cellphone was charging through a power outlet, while his smart-watch charged through his tablet. I know the conversation between the businessman and Shawna was polite, because I was eavesdropping. At one point, the businessman had even asked Shawna how she felt about her church.

“Quite satisfied with my religious service provider, thank you kindly” Shawna replied.

An hour after I’d met Shawna – an hour into the delay – she told a 17-year-old to pull his pants up, or else she’d “whoop his ass so hard he wouldn’t need to pull them up.”

The 17-year-old smiled politely, and promptly pulled his pants up. Clearly, he didn’t want to find out how Shawna planned on fulfilling her end of the bargain either.

I digress.

I got my ticket, my new friends told me their stories, and I promptly called my mother for help. 15-minutes-later, I’d been booked on a flight from St. Louis to Minneapolis Toronto for 9 a.m. the next morning. Because we booked the flight almost half-a-day before departure, the ticket only cost $200. My Greyhound ticket cost $120.

The next morning, I woke up early, got to the airport at 6 a.m., checked in, checked in my bag, got breakfast, waited at the gate for an hour-and-a-half, and took off on time. I reached Minneapolis for the layover, waited three hours for the flight to Toronto, and took off again, on time. I reached Toronto – tired, of course – at 5 p.m. that day. All in all, the ticket was well worth the $200.

You truly must believe me when I say that I love buses. Buses make sense to me. They’re extended limousines, piled high on big, powerful wheels that carry rectangular prisms filled with people of the world, all over the world.

Buses are efficient – they go where cars don’t and they go where planes often won’t. With effort, time, and a driver’s license, almost anyone can travel almost anywhere in a car. But with money, time, and patience, anyone can truly travel anywhere in a bus.

You must understand my point: In the almost 200,000 years that humans have managed to survive on this blue marble we call home, the idea of a mechanized mode of transportation capable of efficiently carrying 10 to 50 people from place to place remains, to me, one of the most incredible inventions ever conceived.

I, however, am no blind devotee to busing and buses. I recognize, as well we all should, that buses have a tendency to fail. They break down. They’re routinely late. Obviously, without a trained driver, a bus is nothing more than a home for the patient and the willing. Granted, a bus makes a cozy place to take a long nap, but there’s no force on Earth that would rationally suggest that a bus makes a comfortable place to live.

I digress.

I love buses, and I love busing. In fact, I’d be so bold as to suggest that I love all public transportation as a whole. Personalized forms of travel are largely elitist. Even ignoring the environmental reasons to avoid a car in favour of a bicycle, the bicycle itself is still emblematic of the great divide between those who have and those who have not – between those who can and those who simply can’t. Case in point: I rode in a train, plane, and bus well before I learned how to ride my bike – reductio ad absurdum, notwithstanding.

I can afford to travel on my high horse, however, because I have choice. I have agency. I chose to take a Greyhound bus because it was cheaper and because I like driving through America. When the bus failed me – and when circumstances seemed like they were going to fail me again – I made a single phonecall and did what I should have done from the start. For me, the choice to take a bus wasn’t based off of a need to save money – a circumstantial obligation to decide between travel and dinner. Instead, it was based off of a desire to have things my way. The moment that circumstances changed, I was able to pivot and successfully find my bearings.

In short, I had a choice.

Emma, Stanley, Rachel, Shawna, and definitely Gilbert did not have that choice. They were forced into their circumstances because their circumstances presented unavoidable options that were ultimately found to be lacking.

My “friends” at the bus station couldn’t take a plane to where they needed to go. They couldn’t call their friends or family, exhausted and on the verge of tears, to bail them out. Quite the contrary, the bus was the only way that they were able to travel from their places-of-origin to their respective destinations. The bus, quite simply, was their only choice.

The dramatic part of me believes that they’re still in St. Louis to this day – waiting for a bus that will never come. The pragmatic part of me recognizes that they no doubt navigated through their other options. Megabus, for example, is a carrier that travels through St. Louis. In fact, the Megabus from St. Louis to Chicago – a ticket that only cost $24, instead of the $84 that Shawna had paid – not only arrived on-time, but it departed on-time too.

The moral to this story is obviously one of choice and privilege. Be grateful for what you have, and never forget those who find themselves in circumstances more arduous than your own.

It’s either that, or never take a Greyhound when you can take a Megabus instead.

Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Book Four: Balance] (TheByteScene Review)

Date: May 13, 2015

TheByteDaily

Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Book Four: Balance] (TheByteScene Review)

4 Spectacular-seasons-of-Television out of 4

I’d like to begin my review for the final season of The Legend of Korra by stating precisely how much I’ve enjoyed this series’ writing, characters, plot, animation, music, and direction. After two years, four seasons, and 52 episodes, it’s been an absolute pleasure to be able to be a part of Michael Dante DiMartino’s and Bryan Konietzko’s vision of their world. Thanks to the talented work of Janet Varney, David Faustino, P.J. Byrne, Sychelle Gabriel, J.K. Simmons, and Mindy Sterling, characters like Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, and Lin not only came to life onscreen, they felt like real people. The efforts of Jeremy Zuckerman to give the world of Avatar a musical voice was not only successful, but it sets the standard for success, and I hope that future showrunners give their composers the kind of freedom that Konietzko and DiMartino gave Zuckerman.

In Book Four: Balance, Konietzko and DiMartino bring their story of Korra to a stunning, moving, and deeply human conclusion. Their character writing – as well as their decision to out Korra as a bisexual woman – will surely resonate in the annals of television history. When I say that there hasn’t been a show like The Legend of Korra in a long time, I also mean to say that I hope the future of animated television will look to Korra as a benchmark of subtlety, grace, and animated splendour.

However, my swelling praise comes with a single rejoinder: for as much as history will study The Legend of Korra as an example of television-done-right, historians will also study Nickelodeon as an example of television-networking done wrong.

When Nickelodeon announced The Legend of Korra‘s third season, they did so with the least pomp and circumstance that comes to recent memory. Ignoring the fact that four episodes were leaked online well before Nickelodeon had even announced an air-date for the third season, Nickelodeon’s announcing of a 13-episode season merely one week before it was to air was simultaneously beguiling and astonishing.

I failed to mention my extreme disappointment in Nickelodeon during my review of Korra‘s third season for the simple reason that I believed the series’ troubles to be over. Not content with forcing the show online after choosing to air two episodes weekly, Nickelodeon set up further barriers for Konietzko and DiMartino by slashing their fourth season budget. As a result of Nickelodeon’s actions, Balance – a 13-episode season – really featured 12 episodes and a clip-show.

Nickelodeon has, for reasons that grasp comprehension, obstructed, impeded, held back, and disadvantaged one of the finest offerings of children’s entertainment and animation. I will say this, however: I do not review The Legend of Korra as a great show despite its disadvantages – nor do I believe that it is a great show in spite of its disadvantages. Even with its enormous mishandling on the part of its studio, this is a show that has repeatedly surpassed and subverted expectations time and time again.

The notion of subverting expectations is key to deconstructing exactly why The Legend of Korra is such a spectacular work of art.

The distinctions between television and cinema are so obvious and so vast that it is often difficult to realize that the only real difference between the big and small screens is the fact that TV has more time to tell a story. Ignoring marketing, securing an audience, financing a budget, and even attracting talented artists, the simple difference between television and film is a difference in runtime.

Moviegoers have two – possibly three – hours to grow close to characters, actions, plots, and situations. In comparison, fans of television have weeks – often literal seasons – to analyze, discuss, nitpick, and watch their favourite televised moments over and over again. TV creators – more so than filmmakers – are tasked with creating individual stories that grasp their audiences’ attentions, while simultaneously combining into a logical, cohesive, and comprehensible whole.

When I first watched The Legend of Korra‘s first season, I did so with a group of Avatar-fascinated friends who made an active point of discussing theories and speculating about where the show will go next. We came up with ideas and possibilities, we used our almost encyclopedic knowledge of Avatar lore to interact with our viewing of Korra’s story. In short, we tried to figure out what would happen next.

Time and again, Konietzko and DiMartino subverted our expectations. Not only did they do things we never thought of, they took the paths of least and most resistance almost simultaneously. Their narrative choices forced us to reconsider our original theories to the point that it’s safe to say that I was completely wrong about Amon’s identity.

Balance takes place three years after the conclusion of Korra’s story with Zaheer and The Red Lotus. It’s been three long years since she’s seen her friends – and since Mako, Bolin, Asami, and Tenzin have interacted with their Avatar. The world has changed, kingdoms have fallen, and new enemies lie on the horizon. What remains, however, is the single, undeniable conclusion that this is a story about a girl coming to terms with her identity and place in the world.

The Legend of Korra is a story about a girl, whereas The Last Airbender was a story about a universe. What Balance emphasizes, more so than any other season of Korra, is that this is a story about Korra first and the Avatar second.

When we first see Korra, almost a full 20 minutes into Balance‘s first episode, we see her battered, bruised, and broken. Her emotional journey – though filled with experience – is far from complete and certainly far from over. First, we spend time with the rest of Team Avatar, and then we meet our Avatar in a state of complete incoherence. Through episodes like Korra Alone and The Calling, we learn about Korra’s struggles in a way the series has never truly addressed. Instead of seeing her as an omnipotent leader – or a foolhardy, arrogant showoff – we see her as a person struggling with understanding her notion of herself.

Korra’s story has always been about identity – about coming to terms with the past and using it to inform the present – but the show has often focused on other characters precisely because Korra’s chosen identity is often unlikeable. Balance brings Korra’s emotional journey to an end by reconnecting the audience with the character. Simply put, Balance makes us like Korra again. We see her humanized, de-powered, unable to act, emotionally vulnerable, and damaged, and this allows us to see her as a single, imperfect person.

Balance further introduces the perfect foil to Korra in the metalbending, would-be conqueror Kuvira. Through no large amount of subtlety, Konietzko and DiMartino paint Kuvira as the perfect antithesis to Korra. Whereas Korra is uncertain of her fate, Kuvira commands her future. Whereas Korra is unable to lay claim to her sense of self, Kuvira is determined in her purpose and person. Whereas Korra is now humble, Kuvira stands as a deity to her people. The Yin-Yang dynamic that has always informed the Avatar world’s heroes and villains continues through Korra and Kuvira in an obvious – yet never overdone – way.

In a way, Balance is The Legend of Korra‘s least ambitious season yet. When compared to the loud, proud, and bombastic third season, Change, Balance stands as an almost quiet, laid-back epilogue to Korra’s story. In fact, the epilogue-like nature of Balance speaks to an interpretation of this season not as the end of Korra’s story, but the beginning of unseen adventures in the world of Avatar as a whole.

Make no mistake, Balance features dynamic animation, big action scenes, and loud moments – the two part finale, Day of the Colossus and The Last Stand feature a giant made of platinum – but it is a character-driven, emotionally-tense season of television. More so than any other season of Avatar, Balance is about people instead of actions. The notion that television has a longer time to tell story comes into play, and the idea that Balance serves as an epilogue gives its audience plenty of time to say goodbye to the characters and world that they have spent almost nine years with.

I’ve attempted to put off writing this review simply because I don’t want it to be over, but I realize that all great things do not come to an end once we finish experiencing them. Surely, the only thing more powerful than experiencing something great is remembering something great.

I will take a moment to address the series’ final scene.

A relationship between Korra and Asami has officially been confirmed by both Konietzko and DiMartino, and I have few opinions on the matter. I will say this, however: there are people who care very much about the notion that two women can not only love one another romantically, but that they can do so while also feeling romantically attracted to men. Accepting bisexuality is the next great sexual hurdle that our culture will need to overcome, and The Legend of Korra‘s decision to acknowledge even a remote possibility that heteronormativity and homonormativity are not humanity’s only options for sexual preference is bold.

Then again, no one should really be surprised that The Legend of Korra is sensational after all these years.

As always, this has been your Admin; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-SC(EK)

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (TheByteScene Review)

Date: December 26, 2014

TheByteDaily

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

1.5 Unnecessary-Sequels out of 4

Peter Jackson’s third Hobbit film, and his final entry into Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe, is nothing if not consistent. At a lean 144 minutes, the film is the shortest Jackson-produced, Tolkien-based feature; it is beautifully constructed, with stunning visuals, colours, and sounds. However, its plot is almost nonexistent, its characters quickly grow stale and boring, and its stunted pacing leaves much to be desired. As the final film to a 13-year franchise that has produced some of film’s greatest scenes, strongest writing, and most compelling moments, The Battle of Five Armies is a disappointing feature that plays more like a two-hour-long video-game cut-scene than a film with any real cinematic heft.

Picking up mere moments after The Desolation of Smaug‘s breath-taking cliffhanger, The Battle of Five Armies signals the end of its first half hour – and the Smaug story arc – by delivering the conclusion to last year’s Hobbit film. Infuriating is the manner in which Smaug’s highly anticipated destruction of Laketown – featured in much of the film’s promotional material – feels like an afterthought in this film. Instead, Jackson and his creative team seem more interested in staging the film’s eponymous battle. Undeniably beautiful as the battle truly is, the large chunk of screen-time afforded to the conflict between the Elves, Dwarves, Men, and two armies of Orcs is completely wasted on what amounts to nothing more than theconcludingsetpiece to an otherwise unnecessarily lengthy franchise.

On the topic of endings, The Battle of Five Armies is not the satisfying cinematic conclusion that Jackson and the film’s marketing team would lead audiences to believe. Arrows wiz by, Dwarves violently bludgeon Orcs, and alliances are forged, torn apart, and reforged, but the entire affair plays out as if screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro had planned out setpieces first, and literature last. Delivering the film’s emotional heft is left to Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield – the Dwarf prince who has spent the entire Hobbit franchise struggling to reunite with his ancestral home. In this film, the Dwarves summarily reclaim the Lonely Mountain, and audiences are left wondering what the point of it all was – if there is a point at all.

Armitage’s Thorin spends most of this film suffering from dragon sickness – a psyche-altering affliction that results from overexposure to gold and wealth. Thorin becomes greedy to an unmitigated degree, and while this examination of greed is brief, it’s presence infuriatingly hints at a stronger, more compelling film lurking beneath a surface blanketed by violence and too much CGI. As the Dwarf king stumbles and skulks about his castle – starving for the Arkenstone that solidifies his leadership as Dwarf king – we’re painted a portrait of a damaged man searching for purpose. Thorin has spent his entire life fighting for his home – now that he has it all, his body and mind begin craving desires that he can’t possibly nourish.

A particularly powerful scene, in which Thorin’s psychological well-being is mirrored in his setting, is skillfully captured by Jackson’s camera, which twists and turns as Thorin sinks into a golden floor. Another moving scene occurs at the film’s climax: cold, snowy wind blows atop an Orc-infested hill as a stealthy team of Dwarves climb to begin their assault. As the wind blows, the audience feels a mix of dread and excitement. We know that this is the final battleground for many of the characters we’ve connected with over the past three films, and Jackson deftly reminds us of the great stakes in play with a simple windy preface.

Peter Jackson has always been a director capable of delivering moving, powerful, and human moments. Though his films are largely characterized by their grand staging and awesome battles, his real skill as a director – as an artist – is in conveying great emotional depth in small, simple scenes. The Battle of Five Armies, however, is not a movie concerned with emotional weight. It is, quite literally, nothing more than the final, epic battle found at the conclusion of every great action film – fantasy or otherwise.

Some fans of Jackson’s Tolkien films might find solace in the occasional brief mentions of the rest of the series. As Lord of the Rings veteran Billy Boyd plays out the credits with “The Last Goodbye,” we’re reminded that The Hobbit serves as the literary precursor to The Lord of the Rings. However, fans of cinema – and fans of Tolkien’s work – will be greatly disappointed in what is a spectacularly mediocre conclusion to an otherwise enjoyable trilogy of films.

If it at all appears that my true disappointment lies in the fact The Hobbit was split up into three movies – instead of the more logical two – allow me to dispel any uncertainty. The Hobbit should have been split up into two movies, instead of three. There is simply not nearly enough material for three films and, as Jackson showed in An Unexpected Journey, including every minor detail from the source material is not only blatant pandering, it stretches and bloats a film to the point of boredom. There’s a reason that almost every adaptation of Tolkien’s novel is split into two parts – An Unexpected Journey and There, and Back Again. Tolkien’s novel is not a lengthy literary legend; it’s a satisfying children’s book that touches on themes of home, family, compassion, and charity. If not children’s fiction, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a succinct introduction to the world of Middle-earth.

Watching The Battle of Five Armies, I considered a possible universe in which The Hobbit was shortened to two films – or even to a single, cohesive, compact movie. Perhaps Thorin says it best: “If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.”

As always, this has been your Admin, the Blogger; comment, subscribe, criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-SC(EK)

Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Book Three] (TheByteScene Review)

Date: December 21, 2014

TheByteDaily

Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Book Three] (TheByteScene Review)

3.5 Reconnected-Earthly-Tethers out of 4

The idea that sequels never truly live up to the quality of their originals is not an idea purely founded in angry message boards. With a few rare exceptions, sequel films, prequel novels, and remake TV shows are almost never as good as the originals that spawned them. Part of this has to do with the risk assumed by creators, and part of this has to do with audience nostalgia, but the fact remains that it’s nearly impossible to capture the pure vivid emotion that results from viewing something great for the first time. Something amazing – something truly original – is difficult to recreate, simply because the mere act of recreation results in a diluted end product seeking only to appease fans or make money.

Understandably, fans of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender were cautiously optimistic when Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino announced plans to return to the universe they created. The story of Aang ended so neatly, and the central conflicts had been resolved so compactly, that it was difficult to imagine any possibility of expansion. However, Konietzko and DiMartino proved both fans and critics wrong when The Legend of Korra debuted to resounding fanfare and praise. Not only did it manage to capture the Asian-influenced, literary greatness of the original, it managed to present a story filled with narrative complexity, driven by compelling characters. Korra, at the very least, was interesting, and her legend was captivating enough that fans were more than satisfied with its continued production.

The Legend of Korra, up until the moment season three debuted, was not as impressive as The Last Airbender, however. From a purely objective perspective, the vast world-building, character development, and plot progression found in Korra’s legend very rarely reached the levels of excitement and intrigue produced by Aang’s world and its story. Speaking from a fan’s perspective – a perspective filled with subjectivity, and nostalgia – The Legend of Korra could barely hold a candle to the legend of Aang. With an often lacklustre second season that barely held itself together, and with an expansive and complicated mythology that required time and effort to appreciate, Korra’s second season almost threw her off the throne created by Aang.

This brief history lesson in the world of Avatar is necessary, because it succinctly presents the complex set of emotions that results from producing a powerful form of literature. Make no mistake, The Legend of Korra is, and should be, held up to the quality of The Last Airbender. It is inappropriate to call spin-offs mediocre without comparing them to their peers – Korra is consistently one of the strongest shows on television, and that includes its second season – but it is completely appropriate to call spin-offs weaker than their originals when they truly are weaker than their originals.

It seems, at this point, that I have complaints about Korra’s third book – about her second chance at producing affect in her audience. It seems that I didn’t enjoy the story, or its characters, and I’m about to tarnish the series.

Simply put, I must state that Book Three: Change is perhaps the greatest season of television produced by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. More than meeting the quality of its predecessors, Change attains a level of complexity, intrigue, and compelling narrative structure that has not been seen, and most likely will not be seen, by fans of television, literature, and Avatar for an exceptionally long time.

The story picks up approximately two weeks after the universe-altering Harmonic Convergence that shifted balance in Book Two. While the world slowly adapts to Korra’s decision to keep the Spirit Portals open, and spirits and mortal creatures now freely interact, there’s a prevailing air of uncertainty in the world. In more ways than one, this season is about change, as well as the universe’s tendency to throw us into complicated situations that are often beyond our control. As the Avatar – the bridge between both worlds – the full brunt of insuring harmony has been placed squarely on Korra’s shoulders, and the season’s opening moments quickly tells its audience that people are not happy. The world needs its Avatar now more than ever, and sadly, the general public seems entirely displeased with both its elected officials, and its unelected protector.

Korra’s chief personality trait has always been her hotheadedness. In short, Korra has a short fuse, and though her growth has been evident in the past, it’s obvious that her inability to truly fulfil her duties is baring down on her. After all, she’s the Avatar, and it shouldn’t be so difficult to help spirits and mortals. This notion that Korra is not fit to be Avatar actually conceals a deep underlying problem within the world Konietzko and DiMartino have written thus far: Does the world really need an Avatar? It’s a question that was presented early on in Book One: Air, and it was a question that sometimes appeared in Book Two: Spirits, but if there is a central theme past change, in Book Three, it’s the notion that the world no longer needs its great spiritual leader.

This theme of necessity and spiritual pragmatism interacts with Change‘s universe, where mortals are having a rough time getting used to their spirit brethren. More importantly, this theme of necessity ties in with Korra’s constant struggle to understand herself. After all, if the world doesn’t want the Avatar, then the world doesn’t want Korra, and her entire existence is pointless.

As if an existential crisis isn’t enough to deal with, new Airbenders have begun popping up all over the world, most likely a result of the change brought on by Harmonic Convergence. The rising of the new Air Nation plays into Book Three‘s central conceit. Using the airbenders – who are in dire need of direction and training – Team Avatar uses the opportunity to get out of Republic City and help Korra focus on her Avatar duties. However, the new airbenders are especially important to Korra’s airbending master, and Avatar Aang’s son, Tenzin, who’s eyes well up at the possibility of seeing his father’s dream of a world filled with airbenders come to fruition.

Tenzin’s scenes – where he interacts with new airbender recruits in both an enlisting and education sense – are a delight to watch, and J.K. Simmons lends his natural exasperation to a character who simply can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be an airbender. In Rebirth, the season’s second episode, Tenzin tries and fails numerous times to convince would-be citizens of the Air Nation to fulfil their spiritual obligations and their humanitarian duties. It comes to no surprise, much heartbreak, and a little delight when doors slam in his face because he’s either too pushy or too ignorant to realize how difficult it can be to sacrifice one’s entire life to fulfil someone else’s dream.

Tenzin’s character arc also heavily features his eldest daughter, Jinora, coming to her own. In the past season, Jinora served as Korra’s guide through the Spirit World, and her involvement in bringing down Unalaq was essential to the survival of the entire planet. A talented airbender, and a strong spiritual leader, Jinora’s arc is tightly bound to the Air Nation’s fate. Jinora wants the tattoos bestowed upon airbending masters, and though she deserves them, Tenzin’s love for his daughter blinds him to the truth that one airbending master – one leader – is not enough to guide an entire nation of people.

Leaders in the world of Avatar are a funny bunch. In the past, audiences have watched dictators grow before their eyes, mad geniuses free entire cities, and reluctant Firelords rise to the occasion, but Korra introduces one more archetype into the foray: Earth Queen Hou-Ting. Konietzko and DiMartino have never shied away from using history as a blueprint for characters – Phoenix King Ozai seemed like the lovechild of Hitler, Mussolini, and Genghis Khan – and Queen Hou-Ting is no different. Heavily based on Empress Dowager Cixi of the Manchu Yehenara clan, Hou-Ting is a seemingly benign despot intent on overtaxing her citizens to death. When a bandit cries out to Korra, “You’re fighting for the wrong side,” in The Earth Queen, we can tell that he’s not wrong.

Queen Hou-Ting, however, is not Book Three‘s central antagonist – she’s more of a political adversary whose decision to wrongfully imprison airbenders to serve the Earth Kingdom rubs Team Avatar the wrong way. This decision is not one without precedent – citizens of a nation are legally bound to protect their nation when conscription is enforced, and airbenders from the Earth Kingdom are still legally citizens of the Earth Kingdom. It’s this kind of political manoeuvring that enables Konietzko and DiMartino a chance to present the true villains in a more relatable light.

The Red Lotus, led by new airbender Zaheer is an anarchist sect that branched away from the Order of the White Lotus when White Lotus members chose to bring their secret society into the light. Comprised of members all over the world, the Red Lotus is the closest thing to a terrorist organization that the Avatar world has ever introduced. What truly makes them so compelling as villains is their ideological devotion to the notions of anarchy.

There are two ways to make compelling villains: have them overpower the protagonist so we care about the redemptive journey, or have them connect with the protagonist, so we’re left unsure of our own moral convictions. Zaheer falls into both categories; a two-week-old airbender with immense knowledge of airbender poetry, form, and culture, his ideological viewpoint is the logical extension of Air Nomad philosophy, and his anarchist beliefs force the audience to confront the truth: The world would be better if we didn’t have so many powerful people messing it up. Zaheer isn’t wrong when he says that world leaders are an outdated notion, and he’s not wrong when he says that we’d all be better if we could make decisions for ourselves.

Voiced by Henry Rollins, who presents a performance devoid of major emotion, Zaheer is an ideological and physical force to be reckoned with. Fascinating is the way the other Red Lotus members treat him as their leader; as a short man with a fierce physical bend, and a set of powers roughly two-weeks-old, the fact that a dangerous waterbender, a powerful lavabender, and a combustionbender treat him as their leader is indicative of deep character complexity. This ability to convey depth of character – the skill to tell audiences a lot by saying very little – is exactly the kind of writing that Konietzko and DiMartino are renowned for. It’s exactly the kind of writing that made The Last Airbender so great – that, and the martial arts sequences.

Studio Mir, thankfully, returns to create the animation for Book Three, and their return also brings back the incredible fight choreography that the series has been known for. Bending finally feels real again, thanks greatly to amazing cinematography and directing by Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, Ian Graham, and Melchior Zwyer, as well as music and sound editing that makes bending sound possible. Furthermore, locations look large and expansive, colours blend together to form backgrounds akin to paintings, and the use of lighting to highlight, showcase, hide, and subdue is spectacular. This is a masterfully created series, and the Earth kingdom’s browns and greens, and Republic City’s blues, reds, greens, and yellows are made impressive and interesting because of a studio willing to make the extra effort required to draw the most out of a palette.

More importantly, characters look like real people, instead of drawn figures moving their bodies. When Korra speaks, her eyes light up, her eyebrows move, her lips purse, her face contorts. When Jinora bends, her body strikes, her frame dances. Even Zaheer – whose entire schtick seems to be that he’s calm and collected all the time – seems menacing, imposing, and even threatening when lighting changes the shadows on his face and the camera moves from long shot to medium shot to close-up to wide-angle and back again.

Avatar The Last Airbender was a show about a universe; it’s entire premise was that a powerful cosmic and spiritual force had to save the world from an evil mortal exerting his twisted will over others. In contrast, The Legend of Korra is a show about a person – really, a show about people. Not to belabour the point, but the show’s title reflects the idea that this is Korra’s story – not her world’s, but her own. Regardless of where she goes, who she meets, or what she sees, this is a story about Korra’s fears, apprehensions, successes, and failures. Unlike Book One and Book Two, however, Book Three spends significant time on other characters, as well as other stories. Audiences learn about Mako and Bolin’s Earth Kingdom family, we learn about Jinora’s struggle for identity, and we finally learn the history behind Lin Beifong’s scar.

Lin’s arc, in particular, is brought into extreme focus when Team Avatar travels to Zaofu, a city created by Toph Beifong and led by Suyin Beifong, Lin’s younger half-sister. There’s a reason Lin is so tightly wound, and it all has to do with Toph’s extremely hands-off parenting style and Suyin’s lackadaisical attitude during their youth. As an overarching plot point that serves to characterize a popular character, there’s little reason why Konietzko and DiMartino should have presented Zao Fu. Instead, the decision to focus on the development of someone other than Korra is deeply tied to the series’ – and the franchise’s – focus on world-building.

Over the course of 13 tightly-packed episodes, Konietzko and DiMartino deliver an expansive story about an entire world, and what makes much of this season so exciting is the wide playing field the creators have afforded themselves. Make no mistake, this is Korra’s story, and her involvement in the plot is still integral, but by exploring other characters – like Suyin and Lin – the creators manage to produce a character-driven story about an entire world. This is important because it removes the narrative burden off of a single central character – Korra – and places the burden of intrigue on other equally compelling individuals. This isn’t to say that The Legend of Korra needs to be a copy of Game of Thrones to succeed, but in a fictional world that practically begs to be expanded, world-building is one of the most beneficial facets to explore.

After Book Two, I was cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of Book Three. For the first time since Avatar the Last Airbender, however, I’m genuinely excited to see what comes next, and I look forward to being a part of Korra’s story next season when it comes to the stunning conclusion I’m sure is in store.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (TheByteScene Review)

Date: August 22, 2014

TheByteDaily

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2 Rather-Mediocre-Spider-Men out of 4

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is by no means a good movie. Tonally unaware, lacking in appropriate definitions of pacing, featuring a convoluted plot, and clearly created to set up future films in the franchise, director Marc Webb’s latest feature plods along in a heavily populated sea of better comic-book movies.

Interesting is that Marc Webb has failed at learning from the mistakes made by Sam Raimi in his take on the character in Spider-Man 3. Raimi’s film was criticized for an unnecessarily lengthy run-time, a cast of poorly developed characters, and a convoluted plot that fails at telling a compelling story. There are parallels to be drawn between the two films, and there are lessons to be learned for future filmmakers. What upsets me, as is common with these kinds of movies, is that beneath the mess of overproduced CGI and a soundtrack loaded with blaring dubstep lies something good, perhaps even something great.

In the sequel to Marc Webb’s original The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker is still trying to juggle his life between normalcy and crime-fighting. Returning to the role is Andrew Garfield, whose Parker is less maladjusted chemistry-geek and more average-everyday-teenager. His nemeses in this film are a cavalry led by Paul Giamatti, Jamie Foxx, and Dane DeHaan as classic villains Rhino, Electro, and Green Goblin. Also returning are Emma Stone, as love-interest Gwen Stacy, and Sally Field, as aunt and maternal-figure May Parker. The cast is talented, and it’s clear that every actor tries as hard as humanly possible to inject relevance and emotion into otherwise one-dimensional characters.

However, despite herculean efforts, there is nothing any of these respected and compelling actors can do to save an excessive script. Worst of all is Giamatti’s role as Russian mobster-turned supervillain Aleksei Sytsevich. So gloriously over-the-top is the performance that Giamatti constantly seems to be one linguistic step away from asking Spider-Man if he ordered a plate of pirozhki.

Penned by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinker, the film’s script is tonally unaware to an almost comical degree. The truth is, there are three stories being told here.

The first is of a couple struggling to stay together despite being torn apart by uncontrollable circumstances. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and he has a duty to protect the people of New York; Gwen Stacy is a scientific genius fresh out of high-school being recruited as an Oxford Scholar. Their lives are destined for separate futures.

The second is of a lonely electrical engineer whose desire to be recognized drives him to insanity. Max Dillon (played by Jamie Foxx) works for leading corporate empire OsCorp, and while his superiors recognize his skills, they fail to give him credit for his work. One day saved by Spider-Man, Dillon develops an obsession with the hero, and goes mad once he is transformed into the blue-skinned living battery Electro.

The third, and arguably most interesting story, is that of two boys angry at their fathers for deserting them during their youth. Harry Osborn (played by Dane DeHaan) is the son of dying corporate emperor Norman, and heir to the OsCorp throne. Norman’s illness is hereditary, and in an attempt to save himself (and his son), he sends Harry to boarding school while he attempts to find a cure. Peter Parker is the son of former OsCorp researcher Richard. Richard discovered OsCorp’s dirty secrets, and in an attempt to save his son, he vanishes, leaving the boy with Aunt May and Uncle Ben.

Disappointing is the film’s decision to try to expand and tell each of these stories simultaneously. Alone, there is material enough for three or four separate movies. Together, the multiple plots take away from each other, leaving the audience unable to focus on any individual conflict. It’s not that Marc Webb is a bad director – the fact that individual scenes draw in the audience and stimulate us is proof of Webb’s talent. The problem is that the film is unable to successfully unify its themes of loss, love, hope, and redemption.

Between Peter, Harry, Gwen, and Max is a venerable who’s who of troubled geniuses, but because they exist in a script unable to figure itself out, their stories are unsubstantial.

A glaring tonal imbalance is equally evident in the film’s score. With music scored by Hans Zimmer, Marc Webb, Pharrel Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, and David A. Steward, it appears that the only unity The Amazing Spider-Man 2 can muster is in disharmony. The movie sometimes feels like a comicbook movie, sometimes feels like a romantic-comedy, and sometimes feels like a Skrillex-music video.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 made a lot of mistakes and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 repeats almost every single one of those inconsistencies. Important to recognize is that Marc Webb has not created a bad movie. What he has created is an incoherent mess that is often entertaining and always infuriating. I mentioned earlier that the film clearly sets up future movies in the franchise. Sony has already announced that there are scripts in the works to expand on characters from the Spider-Man universe. I genuinely hope that the filmmakers attached with those projects learn from the mistakes made by The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Avid Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

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Guardians of the Galaxy (TheByteScene Review)

Date: August 9th, 2014

TheByteDaily

Guardians of the Galaxy

3 True-Sci-Fi-Epics out of 4

At this point in cinematic history, it should come as absolutely no surprise that the latest addition to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is a hit. In fact, there was little doubt that director James Gunn would succeed at translating the cosmic comic book team to the cinema screen. Certainly, any doubt that Guardians of the Galaxy would succeed only truly came from the cinema elite and nervous fans worried that Marvel’s string of successes would somehow end with this latest feature.

Interesting is that, unlike the remainder of the MCU’s source material, this iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy is only 6 years old. While the original Guardians were first introduced in 1969, the team containing the characters Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon, Drax the Destroyer, Groot, and Gamora (including a rotating selection of other characters) was first introduced in 2008 as a reboot of the original 1969 team. Make no mistake, however, the idea that Marvel was interested in introducing a cinematic iteration of the team was never a sign of studio arrogance. As new and obscure as the characters may be, I find it very difficult to believe that Marvel would allow one of their properties under their direct control to perform poorly.

Whereas Sony and Fox have been fighting their hardest to maintain some control over their respective franchises with varying results, Marvel Studios has yet to truly produce what anyone can call a bad movie. Even their lowest rated and poorest earning films have still been at par with almost all of the best produced cinematic superhero offerings. What I’ve come to realize about the so-called “Marvel Method,” and what I hope other studios like DC hope to learn, is that the best superhero movies aren’t truly superhero movies. Instead, they’re genre films that simply happen to feature superheros at their core. Utilizing a more recent example, Captain American: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World succeeded because they worked within the confines of their respective genres (a spy-thriller and a fantasy film respectively) while also featuring an already popular series of characters.

Keeping in mind that the best comic books have been stories that just so happen to feature an already established cast of characters, Marvel Studios seems to have realized that making a good movie is all about focusing on the importance of writing, characterization, editing, and cinematography. There was a time when superhero movies were, at best, attempts to satisfy fans who wanted to see their favourite characters on film and were, at worst, cash grabs made by studios trying to push comic books. In today’s cinematic age, thanks largely in part to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhero movies are nothing more than well-made genre films.

In this same vein of cinematic purity, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy succeeds because of its adherence to the qualities of great science fiction and its decision to subvert the boring tropes that bog down weak sci-fi features. Characters whiz about in deep space amid a gorgeous landscape of stars and galaxies and planetary conflict set to an epic score undercut by hilariously anachronistic pop music. Characters are diverse and well-written with their own unique quirks and idiosyncrasies. There are multiple spaceship battles utilizing a variety of cool advanced technology. Most importantly, there’s a clear distinction between traditional effects, make-up, and CGI that makes even the most impossible visuals seem possible and real.

The main cast of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, and Vin Diesel as the voice of a talking tree, share a cohesive and familiar chemistry. Furthermore, the underlying themes of their friendship – wanting to do more with their unimportant lives – is surprisingly mature given the fact that Bradley Cooper voices a genetically enhanced raccoon and Vin Diesel’s only line is “I am Groot.” Cameos by Benicio del Toro (as Taneleer Tivan The Collector), Josh Brolin (as intergalactic warlord Thanos), and Glen Close further appease fans of the original source material.

Heroes aside, however, I was disappointed by the film’s cast of villains. Lee Pace stars as the film’s main antagonist, Ronan the Accuser – a warhammer wielding radical hellbent on the destruction of an entire galaxy – and I was left underwhelmed by the character. Compared to the broad scope portrayed by the film’s cast of heroes, Ronan is relatively flat and one-note. Secondary antagonists like Nebula (played by Karen Gillan) and Korath (played by Djimon Hounsou) are equally dull.

Cinematography by Ben Davis allows the film’s more poignant moments to shine, whereas action and grandiose scale are perfectly encapsulated in every subsequent scene. Director James Gunn has his tongue placed firmly in his cheek as the film finds the perfect balance between earnestness and not taking itself seriously in any capacity. Each sequence feels like Gunn is inviting the audience into his absurd, surreal vision of a very real galaxy.

Impossible to avoid mentioning are the film’s stunning colour palette – which should be used as a recruitment effort by NASA to convince people that space is awesome – and the film’s song selection – a collection of songs that score every scene with humour and emotion. Praise must be given to Tyler Bates, whose musical efforts deserve to be studied.

My only real complaints with the film are its forced efforts to tie-in the already established Marvel Cinematic Universe. Guardians of the Galaxy is undoubtedly part of the expansive MCU, and because of this fact, Thanos, the Infinity Stones, and the Nova Corps are introduced simply because future Marvel films require the set-up. Allow me to speak as a fan for a brief moment. Thanos was introduced as the man-behind-the-curtain in 2012’s The Avengers. It’s been two years, and moviegoers and fans alike have been waiting for the culmination of his grand plan, yet his reveal in this film is nothing more than an uninspired cameo. What should have been a grand reveal is admittedly rather weak.

Ignoring my complaints, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fantasticsci-fi feature that stars a talented cast clearly in tune with each other and their director. It’s well written, well shot, well edited, and contains an absolutely amazing soundtrack.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Avid Blogger; comment, subcribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

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Avatar: The Legend of Korra [Season Two] (TheByteScene Review)

Date: July 1st, 2014

TheByteDaily

The Legend of Korra (Book Two: Spirits)

3 Dichotomous-Comparisons-Of-Good-And-Evil out of 4

Within the universe of Nickelodeon’s Avatar, everything is about maintaining balance. For every action, there’s an opposite reaction, and for every success there’s an accompanying failure. With the end of Book One, Korra had brought balance to the world, having completed her story arc while simultaneously connecting with her spiritual side and learning how to airbend.

The problem with the conclusion of Book One, however, is that Korra’s story was, for all intents and purposes, complete. The great evil had been vanquished, the great personal struggle had been overcome, and all was right in the world. To top it all off, series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko even wrapped up Korra’s romantic tribulations by bringing her together with Republic City firebender Mako.

Book One was never intended to be the beginning of a grand story. Quite the contrary, with The Legend of Korra‘s now first season, Michael and Bryan’s original intentions were to create a 12-episode miniseries for fans of their original show. It was a chance to tell a quick story about the next avatar and expand their creation’s universe, certainly not a chance to extend the franchise with four new seasons. With the revelation that Nickelodeon had picked up the series for three more seasons, all of the personal struggle Korra overcame with Amon and the Equalists had to be erased to make room for more character growth and more obstacles to bypass.

Spirits therefore, is troublesome as a season specifically because it serves as a character and partial series reboot, tying in Book One’s accomplishments while wiping Korra’s personality slate clean. At the conclusion of Book One, Korra had gained insight and maturity. At the beginning of Book Two, however, Korra is back to her snarky, arrogant self. She ignores Tenzin’s advice, clashes with Mako, abuses her avatar powers, and proves to be a general annoyance to audiences who have already witnessed her evolution.

By all accounts, Korra is now a full-fledged avatar, having mastered all four elements and gaining control over the omnipotent Avatar State. As far as anyone is concerned, her journey is complete, and any other adventures are merely extensions of her responsibilities as the avatar.

The first half of Book Two, therefore, attempts to present audiences with a compelling reason to continue watching Korra’s journeys as avatar. To do so, the show uses spirits and the spirit world as one more lesson Korra must master in order to truly call her journey complete, introducing the character of Unalaq (Korra’s uncle) and the concept of dark spirits.

I prefer to look at Book Two as consisting of two halves. The first half, comprised of the first six episodes, is the weaker portion of the season. The animation is weaker, the plot struggles to find a meaningful foothold, characters are all but rebooted to their Book One selves, and the lack of a compelling villain makes watching the show feel like a bother.

Many of my major complaints with the first half of Book Two have to do with the weak animation. For visual mediums, two components are paramount: Visuals and Writing. Weak writing can be forgiven in favour of marvelous visuals, and weak visuals can be forgiven if the writing is entertaining and compelling. Sadly, the writing and animation of the first six episodes in Book Two are mediocre at best.

The decision to switch from Korean Studio Mir to Japanese Studio Pierot proved to be a major misstep on the part of the showrunners. Though the series’ painting-like backgrounds remained, characters are static and lifeless. Furthermore, action sequences driven by kinetic movement are boring and lacking in vitality.

Issues with the first half of Book Two extend beyond visual quality. In terms of writing, because Michael and Bryan were busy setting up mythology and plot-threads for the second half of Book Two (and by extension, the rest of the series) the first six episodes are all posturing and no payoff.

Episodes like Rebel Spirit and both Civil Wars are heavy on build-up with little delivery, and feel tedious to sit through. It goes without saying that episodes one through six are better when watched a second time, but the expectation that audiences will sit through boring television the first time around is a dangerous risk to take.

Perhaps Book Two’s greatest failing is the lack of a compelling villain in Unalaq. Certainly, he does bad things and hurts people, but his reasons for doing so are difficult to ascertain. I don’t mean that I don’t understand why he does what he does, I mean that I don’t really care that he does anything in the first place. Unalaq is introduced as the spiritual leader of the Northern Water Tribe intent on unifying the Southern Tribe into his control. He’s disappointed with the world’s lack of spirituality, but because spirits and spirituality have always been secondary concepts in the Avatar universe, it’s difficult to truly identify with his concerns. Unalaq becomes one more villain acting simply because he’s evil.

Starting with the masterful Beginnings episodes, both Studio Mir and writing the Avatar series is famous for make a return. Telling the story of the first person to gain the title of Avatar, Beginnings describes how Aladdin-like street rat Wan goes from stealing bread to saving the world. Answering long-standing series questions about the nature of bending, the origins of the Avatar spirit, and the role of Spirits, Beginnings is the best part of Book Two, and perhaps a highlight for the entire Korra series.

Choosing to animate the pair of episodes with an East Asian ink wash painting and woodblock motif, Studio Mir’s returned involvement with Korra serves as a series return to form. Following Beginnings, the remaining episodes in Book Two (and the rest of the series) are animated by Studio Mir. With the Korean studio return dynamic facial expressions, a camera that shakes and stutters with every punch, and characters who don’t feel like static images on a page.

Most importantly, Beginnings serves as the long-awaited explanation for the actions of season villain Unalaq. He plans on opening the gates between the spirit and mortal planes using the power of the ancient dark spirit Vaatu. Once Unalaq’s motivations are made evident, he becomes more than just another bad guy. Yes, it’s the standard fantasy fair of light versus dark, but for a season composed of tedious and seemingly disconnected plot threads, it’s good to know that there is method to the maddening first-half chaos.

Despite my grumblings, the first half of Book Two isn’t without highlights. Howard Hughes-like inventor and businessman extraordinaire Varrick helps keep things interesting even though his involvement in the main plot is minor at most. That being said, Varrick is the secondary plot’s driving force, working with Asami and Bolin to create propaganda against Unalaq. There’s a satisfying undercurrent of duplicity with Varrick, and much of Book Two’s first half is more interesting because of the scenes where characters (and the audience) struggle to identify his alignment.

Also part of the secondary plot, Tenzin’s relationship with his immediate and extended family serve to raise questions of legacy and family in compelling ways. Tenzin’s arguments with his siblings Kya and Bumi bring years of tension and difficulty to the surface while also adding an extra dimension to the character of original series lead Aang. It turns out that Aang wasn’t the greatest father to his three children, and they all blame each other and themselves for not being able to live up to his expectations.

Interesting is how the series tackles the issue of brotherly love. Disregarding the Tenzin family drama, every major villain introduced in the Avatar universe – Ozai from The Last Airbender, Amon from Book One, and now Unalaq – is somehow bound to a brother.

The idea that two brothers could walk down wildly separate paths is at the heart of the balance dichotomy inherent to the Avatar franchise.

Without a doubt, Book Two’s most compelling storylines have very little to do with Korra, whose childlike insistence on barrelling through obstacles instead of rationally thinking about them cause trouble in-world and with the audience. My real gripe with Korra’s character has little to do with the way she was written and everything to do with the reboot Michael and Bryan felt was necessary for the series. Korra’s decision to abandon her airbending and spiritual mentor Tenzin in favour of spiritual guidance from Unalaq, for example, doesn’t make sense within the context of her Book One self.

Indeed, most of Korra’s decisions seem contradictory to the growth she achieved in Book One. I look forward to seeing how Korra’s character will continue to evolve following the conclusion of Spirits, as I have no doubt that her character will bear closer resemblance to the Korra at the conclusion of Book One now that Book Two has ended.

Ironically, despite Book Two’s conclusion bringing on great change for the Korra series, there is now a satisfying return to normalcy in the Avatar world. In a cathartic way, The Legend of Korra has shrugged off the burden associated with being a descendant of The Last Airbender, and with a firm understanding that Korra is not its predecessor, the show has a chance to truly achieve the greatness it deserves. Truthfully, along with the return of Studio Mir, Korra accepting that it will never be The Last Airbender makes me the most excited for Book Three.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Avid Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

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The Hobbit (TheByteScene Review)

Date: January 12th, 2014

TheByteDaily

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

3 Vast-Improvements-Over-The-Original out of 4

Peter Jackson’s first foray with The Hobbitwas an awkward mess of a film. From a purely technical point of view, the movie was fantastic, but it was spectacularly boring with much of the main plot dragging on for far too long. Ironically, the film suffered specifically because of Jackson’s refusal to veer away from J.R.R. Tolkien’s original story. Even some of the most mindless and inane details that were present in Tolkien’s novel managed to find themselves in Jackson’s film, and the production was weaker for it.

Ironically, a feature that so closely followed its source material was the exact argument against perfect book-to-movie adaptations. Jackson proved that a film that follows its source material’s story to the last letter will not only run for an unnecessary amount of time, it will also be boring enough that it’s nearly three hour run time will feel like far more.

Thankfully, viewers and critics alike will be happy to know that The Desolation of Smaug is a fun production and a great movie. The visuals are beautiful, the action is plentiful and well choreographed, the acting is a mix between scene-chewingly absurd and succinctly minimalistic, and Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography yet again brings a fantastic Tolkien feel to New Zealand.

Jackson and his cast of artists let their world speak for itself, succeeding in carrying on the tradition of excellence that the original Lord of the Ringsfilms helped pioneer. Simply put, The Desolation of Smaugis the movie that An Unexpected Journeycould have been if much of the fat was trimmed off.

Picking up a short time after the conclusion of its predecessor, the hobbit Bilbo, the wizard Gandalf, and Thorin Okenshield and his team of dwarves are attempting to outrun the vengeful Azog the Orc, who served as the first film’s primary antagonist. Continuing their journey to reclaim The Lonely Mountain, the heroes split up into two groups, with Gandalf leaving to search for a reemerging evil in Middle Earth.

As with many long-existing franchises with a consistent track record of success, The Hobbitfilms are no longer exercises in film-making. Instead, they represent a shift to a wider universe with more characters, more locations, and new stories to entertain diehard fans and newcomers alike.

I suppose at this point, it’s unsurprising that Peter Jackson is going to make a great movie based on Tolkien’s work.

That The Desolation of Smaugfeatures strong performances by Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lily, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s low baritone (who voices the eponymous fire-breathing dragon Smaug) is just icing on the cake. Additional praise should be given to Stephen Fry who cameos as the Master of Laketown – a fat landlord who rules his city with a tyrannical and well-fed fist. Stephen Fry’s talent should never be called into question, and watching him saunter on screen to act out anything is always a treat.

The much touted 48 frames-per-second visual quality is yet again on display, and the movie is a stunning piece of art to behold. Colours are bolder, and scenes look like paintings, with CG characters and backgrounds almost seamlessly blending in with the rest of the production. Again, it should come as no surprise that special effects created by Weta Digital under the supervision of Jackson and his crew are beautiful.

The truth is that Peter Jackson is clearly a talented filmmaker with a keen eye for fixing his mistakes in order to strengthen his work. My largest concern with An Unexpected Journeywas its monotonously slow pacing, and The Desolation of Smaugliterally fixes this problem with the opening credits. Gone is a long, heavily narrated opening sequence that serves to recap the previous film’s events. Instead, Jackson presents a short cold open, flashes the film’s title, and continues with the story.

Ultimately, all that matters with universe building is the story. As long as the story is interesting and well-paced, everything else simply falls into place. The Desolation of Smaugfulfils this criteria with an effortlessly unfolding story that does away with any concern for plodding exposition. Audiences are treated to an entertaining production that benefits from a strong script, and a cast of artists who care.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-SC(EK)

A Week Without Hot Water; How I Learned to Love the Basic Luxuries (TheByteWeek Issue 18)

Date: November 10th, 2013

TheByteDaily

A Week Without Hot Water; How I Learned to Love the Basic Luxuries (TheByteWeek Issue 18)

The normal human body temperature is 37°C; limits are +/- 0.5°C, but I must make the point that the average healthy body temperature for every single human on the planet is close to 37°C. This internal temperature exists on a very fine razor’s edge and a few degrees Celsius in either direction is often enough to tip the balance and make an individual incredibly uncomfortable. This isn’t to say that the body can’t handle extreme external heat or cold, because it can, but once the body’s internal temperature changes, life becomes uncomfortable.

Thankfully, because of the inconsistent distribution of humans — a species that literally spans the globe — we’ve all become accustomed to varying levels of external comfort. What we should be able to agree on, however, is the idea that hot water — whether for cleaning or otherwise — is intrinsic to our existence. I write to make the point that no human should ever have to exist without hot water for bathing, cooking, or cleaning, and anyone who argues that water doesn’t need to be That hot hasn’t gone a week without hot water.

In developed nations, the average person spends approximately 10 minutes in the shower. Without taking the environmental repercussions into consideration, 10 minutes in a warm shower can be relaxing, calming, and comfortable. It’s enough time to enter dirty and leave clean, and it’s more than enough time to shampoo, condition, use a loofa, and shave. In those ten minutes, the average person sets their water temperature to 40.6°C, which one will notice is 3.6°C higher than the normal body temperature. One will also notice that 40.6°C is the average hot water temperature, and it’s true that the real number might be higher or lower depending on the person.

In those ten minutes, using water set to a temperature of 40.6°C, humans are decadent. We sing, we dance, we rehearse arguments we’re never going to have, and we clean ourselves. The first three minutes in the shower are safe moments. We wash away the day’s tribulations at night, we prepare ourselves for the day in the morning, we stand still and let the healing properties of water help us overcome our fears and insecurities. Minutes 4-10 are dedicated to cleaning and returning to a state of comfortable zen. Then we’re done.

Cold water showers don’t take 10 minutes.

Cold water showers aren’t set to 40.6°C. Cold water temperature is determined by the outside temperature — it’s water that hasn’t been heated by an internal water heater yet. In cold climates, cold water can be close to freezing; Anchorage, Alaska’s average cold water temperature is 3.7°C. That’s 33.3°C less than the normal body temperature, and is a whole 36.9°C less than the average hot water temperature in developed nations.

I found that my body took 2 seconds to realize that the water was cold; it took 15 seconds for the shivering to become uncontrollable. After half a minute I couldn’t stop shaking, and after 45 seconds I lost feeling in my extremities. At a minute I realized that my heart rate was racing and it then occurred to me that my body thought it was under attack. 15 more seconds and the headache kicked in; the cold water, and the fact that blood was rushing back to my chest to allow my heart muscles to continue pumping caused the amount of blood in my brain to drop substantially.

A minute and a half and the headache became a migraine. I’ll pause and mention that warm clothes, warm milk, medicine, and six hours were all it took to get rid of my headache.

During all of the time in the shower, my breathing was erratic due to the shivering, which ironically only made things worse. Breathing is important for maintaining homoeostasis — the body’s natural increases and decreases — and staggered breathing reduces the amount of oxygen we inhale while messing up the amount of carbon dioxide we exhale.

I was effectively choking myself.

Two minutes after I first entered the shower, my face and head muscles were so constricted that I didn’t realize that I’d gotten cold water in my ear. Normally, water enters your ears regularly throughout much of a shower, but the difference between warm and cold water is the effect it can have on your sense of balance. Hot water doesn’t do very much — it’s effects are negligible to the point that it really can be said to not do anything at all. Cold water, contrarily, if run through the ear canal can lead to headaches, infection, loss of balance, vomiting, temporary hearing loss, and permanent deafness.

Our ears do more than listen. Liquid within the ear works alongside our cerebellum to assist in maintaining balance and posture. That liquid exists at 37°C, and if cold water happens to interact with the ear canal, the liquid’s temperature eventually lowers causing a host of problems that begin with falling over and end with deafness.

After two minutes and 15 seconds, I concluded my shower. In that time, I got wet, used soap, cleaned off the soap, nearly asphyxiated, and I gave myself a migraine that lasted six hours that took careful treatment to rid myself of.

This was on the first day.

Ignoring the obvious physiological ramifications, I found I was soft-spoken, quiet, exhausted, easily irritable, and not at all willing to perform any activities other than curling up with a warm blanket in bed.

It’s true that the human body is resilient; it can acclimate to a variety of different conditions, including cold water, without resulting in serious permanent harm. I also admit that hot water is a luxury, but in no way do I believe that it should be anything less than an expected necessity. Ignoring the future fresh water crisis that the world is going to face, hot water should be a given for every single human on the planet.

Not fulfilling this basic requirement — not allowing one’s fellows the basic luxury of hot water — is and should be tantamount to a universal human rights violation. Hot water is undeniably a luxury, but it shouldn’t be.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-SC(EK)

Byzantium (TheByteScene Review)

Date: November 9th, 2013

TheByteDaily

Byzantium

3 Refreshingly-Different-Vampire-Stories out of 4

Our monsters define every aspect of our existence. Countries, and civilizations fall and rise, they may disagree on their approach to conquest and culture, but our monsters will always define our existence as a species. Vampires, goblins, ghouls, ghosts, and werewolves permeate our stories and feature in our darkest nightmares because these horrific creatures each represent a universal part of our collective psyches. What I’m saying is that I’m not surprised that vampires are so popular in western culture right now because they happen to represent a general fear that features in the hearts of many: Sexual freedom.

Neil Jordan’s Byzantium takes this conversation and combines it with the hypermasculine fear of powerful women. What he creates is a complex, interweaving story about two women clinging together against a world of men attempting to seduce, and slaughter them.

Narrated by and starring Gemma Arterton and Saorise Ronan, Byzantium slowly reveals the stories of Clara and Eleanor Webb, a mother-daughter vampire duo on the run from mysterious men in fashionable suits. Having been transformed over two centuries prior, Arterton’s Clara has only ever known one profession; immortality being what it is, Clara’s forced to use the only skills she has to provide for her daughter whose quest for her own freedom makes up the bulk of the film’s premise.

It’s the classic story about a child ready to leave home and an overprotective parent who knows better except death is far more imminent. That Eleanor falls for a dying boy living along the English country-side is blissfully romantic; that Clara rejects the notion of their “Young” love is more motherly than it is tyrannical.

Sean Bobbit’s cinematography allows for a fluid mix between perverse intimacy and obsessive distance. Scenes between Clara, Eleanor, and The Men They Meet are shot to highlight the bullet points in the conversation on smart people who are very good at selling their bodies. One wonders why savvy men and women of the night don’t apply their marketing skills to other aspects of sales. For Clara, the fact is that she’s very good at convincing men to sleep with her, very good at convincing other women to work for her, and has been practising for over 200 years.

Eleanor serves as Clara’s oft ignored compass; Ronan’s knowing, introspective gaze hides centuries-old wisdom behind her innocent demeanour. She’s a storyteller – rewriting and editing her life’s adventures every time she’s forced to move – and we learn about her past through her literature.

For all of the intense action that’s featured in the film, this is a character driven affair. Make no mistake, this isn’t a vampire movie as much as it is a story about a mother and daughter that happen to be vampires. A sweet film that’s intelligently shot, with random instances of violence that shouldn’t turn off viewers as much as make them question aspects of their species. It’s a film about our monsters and why they make us human. That both vampires and humans are portrayed as equally monstrous is a refreshing alternative.

As always, this has been your Admin, the Blogger; comment, subscribe, and criticize, and DO remember! Always look on the BYTE side of life!

-SC(EK)