Monday, November 30, 2015

Roger Ebert: Life Itself

"My blog became my voice, my outlet...
in a way I couldn't have dreamed of."
-Roger Ebert, Life Itself-

And Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic is of course my voice as your blog may be yours.

Ebert's first blog entry was April 2008. "Most people choose to write a blog I needed to," he noted. This blog is likely a bit of both for me.

I paid tribute to writer/critic Roger Ebert (1942-2013) when he passed here. Only recently did I take the opportunity to finally see Life Itself (2014), a film adaptation of his 2011 memoir that paints a beautiful portrait of various points in this man's wonderful journey.

As a young adult I would seek out Siskel and Ebert's elusive show. As an aspiring writer of pop culture myself I hung on every analytical and critical word shared between these two men, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, with each and every review. Honestly, I think if they compiled a DVD Box set of that series today from start to finish I would likely watch it and enjoy it and enjoy the evolution of these two very different critics.

If only people could argue and disagree as these two writers once did as a tormenting bloodsport. That discourse is either missing or has evolved from the balcony that sat these two giants graced into something much worse thanks to social media. In fact maybe these two obstinate critics represented the seeds of what the political discourse in America would become today. They were a sign of things to come and we loved it.

Life Itself reminded me how much I missed these two men and how they filled such a special part of my developing years.

Life Itself is also a reminder of our humanity. That we are thinkers. And we are writers. We are lovers of life itself. But we are flawed and that makes us beautiful.

Life Itself made me consider life itself too, our mortality. Like actor Tom Baker, Roger Ebert inevitably came to terms with such a reality and that is touched upon in the film.

I wonder if I too will one day accept my fate or fear it?

I remember in my thirties feeling an everso slight pain in my foot when I got up from bed one morning. I pulled the blankets back, swept my feet out onto the floor. I stood. I felt pain penetrate the invincibility of my youth.

I always remember that moment as the beginning. It seems every year of my life since there is some aching physical aspect of my gradual breakdown there to remind me of my mortality.

Do we get to the point where the culmination of these pains is so great we begin to accept the relief of passing into the loving arms of the after life?

I have this window in my home and there is always something beautiful to notice when I look out that window. The way the sun hits a tree. The moisture set against the light. The reflection of the moon. The falling rain. Leaves floating into the yard. There is always something to appreciate.

So until that day comes I will treasure this gift of life itself until my last breath and I'm grateful for every day of it just like Roger.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Office Battles(tars)

"It's practically a shot for shot remake."
-Jim Halpert on the similarities between the two versions of Battlestar Galactica-
We all have them. Office battles or battles about Battlestars.

A recent water cooler conversation turned into a discussion over quality science fiction on film. Prometheus (2012). District 9 (2009). Blade Runner (1982) were amongst the topics. Riddick (2013) too, but unworthy of the nomination.

My kids periodically go off on television binges. The Office (2005-2013) was a popular favorite last year. Parks And Recreation (2009-2015) this year. And now we're back to The Office. And why not? It is a brilliant series that never gets old.

These scenes are so meant for the sci-fi geeks that adore The Office. You have to love these moments.

Jim Halpert makes every effort to lure Dwight Schrute into failing a bet that he spends personal time whilst at the office.

Dwight refuses to admit he spends much of his time at the office on personal business.

Jim tries to get him to bite. And there's nothing like a good running discussion on Glen A Larson's Battlestar Galactica Classic (1978-1979) versus Ronald D. Moore's reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) to get the juices flowing.

Throw in other random sci-fi and fantasy talk and Dwight is beside himself positively bursting at the seams to correct misinformation about sci-fi and fantasy like any self-respecting geek.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Knights Of Sidonia S1 Ep2: Oblivion

Stop the blogging presses.

My initial viewing Knights Of Sidonia (2014-2015) arrived via Netflix and it was nothing short of an anime revelation. It was a meticulously crafted sci-fi anime that immersed the viewer in a credibly developed universe. The moment the final episode of its twelve episode first season ended I could not wait to purchase it on Blu-Ray. Viewing it in high definition on a TV much larger than my iPad has created yet another, new, entirely thrilling viewing experience of the series. It's as if every artistic detail and every frame of its story moments is better crafted than I remember it.

Knights Of Sidonia certainly had, if not detractors, those who did not make declarations of love for the series when it first arrived. Your dear writer here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic cannot for his life understand why. Love for this series must be declared to the world. And I continue to do my small part here for fans of science fiction.

We continue with our detailed inspection of Knights Of Sidonia, Season One, with Episode 2, Oblivion.

The entry picks up right where Episode 1, Commencement left off here. The series primer is here. While on a mission outside of Sidonia, a team of eight novice pilots unexpectedly encounters an enemy Gauna while on a mining mission. Eiko Yamano is abruptly and viciously attacked nearly killing her or so it appeared.

Her death and extraction from the Guardian unit is displayed in full detail in Oblivion. She would be the first death by a Gauna in a century.

You may recall Guardian pilot Yamano was rather curt and cool in her retorts and relationships with her squad mates during Commencement. Her sizzling temper made for an interesting character yet she would last just two episodes. Her character is explored in flashback while the team is under assault by the Gauna in Oblivion until we reach her actual demise.

With the Guana shapeshifting into a likeness of Yamano how will Nagate and the others respond? The Gauna appears to prey on human empathy by generating a human likeness. How will Nagate, alleged to be a superior pilot in the legendary Mark 17 Tsugumori, handle his first exposure to real live adversity outside of a training module?

It is revealed that despite her prickly nature Yamano is still cared for by her squad mates. It is noted that an unwritten tradition is for pilots to shake hands and touch before a mission or bad things could happen. Yamano scoffs at the suggestion as mere "superstition." Yamano walls off from others. Her personality is guarded. Her character traits reminisce of those found in Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) though ephemeral. She lacks maturity in her confidence.

In the flashback as pilots prepare for their away mission, Izana Shinatose explains the "Skin Suit" uniform to Nagate. Once a pilot is in the suit, and since there is no facilties for those uncomfortable moments, a kind of living biological urethra catheter inside the suit enters the privates. It snakes its way into your privates to handle the release of bodily fluids. A humorous moment reveals the initial discomfort to every pilot as the catheter connects to the body.

As the team is thrust into space toward its ice-finding mission, more character reveals are offered regarding Yamano. Though outwardly tough she is privately proud and knowingly beloved by her community and her family for becoming a Guardian pilot.

Knights Of Sidonia does a beautiful job of weaving those character moments in with such unexpected grace and ease. The approach delivers a much more significant emotional impact and depth of character. In this case, despite knowing little of her before her death in Commencement, we are quickly making a connection to the Yamano character essentially posthumously and we feel the loss to be even greater than was initially believed it would be because Oblivion takes proper steps to invest in its now deceased character. The flashback approach to Yamano's death is an interesting avenue seldom explored.

The end result of Oblivion is that we connect with the short-tempered Yamano only to witness her gruesome, untimely death. As a result we feel her loss more than we had anticipated.

As the cadets essentially fight for their lives it is clear they would have little chance to defeat the Gauna in their Gardes without a Kabizashi. The Kabizashi is the essential spear-like weapon necessary to defeating the Gauna.

Instrumentation at command and control in Sidonia indicates Nagate has suffered vertebrae damage and is in cardiopulmonary arrest.

Captain Kobayashi requests all units to fall back away from the Gauna. Captain Kobayashi employs the use of the Heavy Mass Cannon of Sidonia---a not too obvious homage to the Wave Motion Gun in Starblazers. It is a powerful weapon and device. It is believed its effectiveness will keep the Gauna at bay and from reaching Sidonia. The mission is protect Sidonia and protect all that is left of humankind.

Captain Kobayashi makes the tough command decisions. Any efforts to rescue Nagate and the Mark 17 Tsugumori are called off to clear a path for the cannon fire.

A cannon arm extends from the side of starship Sidonia and fires. It is a thrilling sight and spectacle.

Moments before impact efforts are made exclusively by Izana Shinatose. The Gauna takes human shape mimicking Yamano of whom it devoured. It prepares to strike Nagate and Tsugumori with its tentacles.

Nagate miraculously bounces back from cardiopulmonary arrest and is resuscitated.

It is one of those thrilling last second recoveries reminiscent of Shinji Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Episode 2, The Beast. Nagate jumps back to life within the Tsugumori. Despite these echo-like moments Knights Of Sidonia is very much its own animal.

Short of breath, Nagate circles the Gauna, now resembling a mutant form of Yamano made of a kind of pink sludge. Shinatose looks on fearful of Nagate's position. Nagate is ordered to fall back with the others, but he launches two missiles into the Gauna's head. Despite Nagate's impressive efforts he is ordered to remove himself with just seconds remaining before impact. With no Kabizashi with which to destroy the Guana Nagate persists using a high vibration blade and an array of Gatling machine gun fire (30%) from the arms of his Tsugumori. At the last second he clasps hands with Shinatose and exits the area via immediate Clasp Formation.

The group exits at high speed literally passing the Heavy Mass Cannon's fire. There is a direct hit on the asteroid and the Gauna. It breaks apart and the creature is forced to fall away from the exploding moon.

Captain Kobayashi declares a battle won but not the war. "We merely pushed it back." This is just the beginning of a new phase in the war. The enemy is not destroyed merely stalled.

Kobayashi reports to the elder committee or Immortal Council, believed to control Sidonia. They report that the Gauna cluster is three light years away from Sidonia---a level 3 alert sector. The first segment of Oblivion ends with Kobayashi affirming "We cannot avoid this."

The midway break.
100 Sights Of Sidonia: Sublevel Unstable Gravity Area.
100 Sights of Sidonia: Vicinity of The Higgs Torch Inspection Hole.

Old radicals are allowed to spew their hatred of the powers that be even in, all things being relative to space, this small place called Sidonia. The sequence reminds us of the unrest in America and the world today toward government institutions and institutions in general by radicals today.

Kobayashi, wearing her public face, a mask, speaks to Sidonia's forces---her pilots. It is with "unconditional force" that the Gauna must be faced. There is no communication with this alien nor a capability to bridge that communication gap.

As a result of the Gauna's arrival, the first in 100 years, and the death of Yamano, there are murmurings among the other pilots suggesting Nagate is cursed or having a bad luck effect.

Shinatose assures Nagate to ignore the negative stirrings amongst the people of Sidonia. Some cadets inquire with Shinatose of the Gauna's strength. Many have never experienced such a creature. Unfortunately the rule of these missions is that events remain classified. Information, after the fact, must not be shared. Obviously morale is a great concern. Additionally, one couldn't possibly describe the horrors of such an experience in mere words with their pilot colleagues. Everything happens so fast and is truly horror in space.

Things slow down a bit to explore the mythology surrounding Knights Of Sidonia. At a round room conference the question is asked when humans began to photosynthesize. The process began "a few hundred years ago" as a result of the loss of humanity's food factory during the Fourth Gauna War. Genetic manipulation was an effort to survive the crisis. As a result, food intake is required just once a week. Jokes are made regarding Nagate at his expense since he is genetically unaltered and unable to photosynthesize.

And Nagate is by no means the kind of shrinking violet of a Shinji Ikari (Evangelion), but he is slightly awkward socially, but given his circumstances and his upbringing in the bowels of Sidonia this stands to reason. As noted in Commencement, Nagate spent considerable time in the lower levels with only his grandfather as company. Human contact was likely minimal at best.

A man informs the awkward Nagate he should be wearing his gravity belt at all times bringing focus upon some of Sidonia's tech. One hundred years ago many died when the artificial gravity system within Sidonia failed. We are given a window into their necessity as Nagate connects his belt to a metal safety railing on a wall. These are located throughout the city in the event of an emergency. The series offers good explanation for Nagate's ignorance. Previous tragedies occurred before he was born and he has been essentially in isolation for many years. These very simple moments work wonders in offering us character exploration as well as mythology-building related to Sidonia and its universe. These are highlights of the series as much as the action sequences.

Poor Nagate can't catch a break when he inadvertently waltzes into a ladies locker area and naked girls greet him with a busted nose and a bloodied face. Great mistake though. Those anime girls are pretty hot.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn't new footage on the Blu-Ray release that I did not see in the Netflix release or if my mind simply fails me. Some of it seems brand new though I suspect it has more to do with experiencing the series on a larger canvas connected to a Blu-Ray system.

Nagate is suffering nightmares of Yamano's assimilation by the Gauna. They are typically hideous and who can blame him for being so scarred emotionally. Anyone would have nightmares after a showdown like the one that began Oblivion.

Nagate sits with Shinatose who tells him they know nothing of the Gauna, where they come from or why they attack? Do frightening hideous monsters always need a reason to destroy and conquer beyond what simply may be nature or instinct? There needn't always be motivation. Sometimes these things operate on sheer instinct like the creature designed for Alien (1979).

According to Shinatose two Gauna nearly destroyed Sidonia during the Fourth Gauna War, but certain annihilation was snatched away by the Tsugumori and the Kabizashi who ultimately saved the starship. Shinatose asks Nagate how he is such an expert pilot of the Tsugumori. He informs her that underground he had a Mark 17 virtual console module for training. Shinatose notes the new Mark 18 models were made by a different company from the Mark 17 units. The designs are likely different as a result of moving from Toha Heavy Industries to Kunato Developments.

Upon a grassy knoll overlooking the city a funeral is noted and Shinatose indicates, once again, the dead are transferred to the Organic Converter Reactor.

The use of scoring from intense numbers to the simple application of a slight piano truly enhances the experience of viewing Knights Of Sidonia. The score by Noriyuki Asakura is a delight.

Captain Kobayashi is informed of the bad news that the previously stalled Gauna has reorganized, reassembled and rebuilt its Ena. It is returning. It's estimated it will make way for Sidonia and reach the city ship in three days.

Nagate visits Lala Hiyama, the bear with prosthetic arm, where he informs her his fracture has healed. While at Hiyama's bar Nagate spots Norio Kunata receiving praise from the TV station for beating back the Gauna and being part of the away mission though he did little but cut and run while Nagate did all he could to fend off the attacking Gauna.

The four most mature Garde pilots are briefed on the impending Gauna attack. They will be asked to face the beast.

Captain Kobayashi visits Nagate now on the mend. A cadet representative, Shizuka Hoshijiro, reports and takes Nagate to his training class. Upon his exit Kobayashi requests that his medical data be deleted.

En route to class, Nagate and Hoshijiro laugh. They are spotted by Shinatose who is struck by the green-eyed monster called jealousy. There is clearly a chemistry between Nagate and Hoshijiro. It is also rather obvious that Shinatose has a great affection for Nagate, but thus far that has not been reciprocated.

The four selected older pilots appear to be going to the class to meet, it is believed to be Norio Kunato, but instead it is Nagate. All of Kunato's fans are stunned and Kunato is no doubt incensed.

A green-haired girl named Yuhata Midorikawa rushes over to Nagate. Earlier she was doing some electronic snooping into Nagate's top secret files. She is indeed enamored and the episode ends with her declaration, "We're gonna be great friends."

Oblivion is the perfect title for the second entry into Knights Of Sidonia's traverse of the vast space that envelops the starship as if underscoring how this small bastion of humanity has been forgotten through space and time or how space has a way of dwarfing one's significance. We can be made to feel insignificant, tiny or inconsequential. Sidonia is like a bastion of the forgotten.

The episode offers a nice balance of action and character drama supported by outstanding animation particularly given Japan's TV-sized budgets.

It's been 1,000 years since the Gauna destroyed the solar system, the Milky Way. But Sidonia survives, travels and journies through space as a seed vessel to ensure humanity endures.

These lengthy digest versions of each episode are intended to give those unfamiliar with Knights Of Sidonia a chance to discover what it offers in some detail given its potential to fall under the mainstream sci-fi radar.

Knights Of Sidonia is so gripping this is one ship we'll be on board with every step of the way.

Up Next: Glory.