Friday, December 30, 2011

Eddie Izzard: Executive Transvestite

Bonjour! Hola! Tak! Da! Ciao! I would like to thank Kalpar for allowing the British Empire to lay claim to his arsenal. We were initially preparing to come over and steal it with a cunning use of flags what with the arsenal being necessary for strategic sheep purposes and all. I am Carvan, her Majesty's representative to the arsenal and will attempt to make the bloody thing less Prussian and a little more "men running about in women's clothing and doing silly things." I think it's part of the citizenship requirement for the UK at this stage. Think about it. Hugh Laurie wore a dress:

Dr. House trying to avoid Cuddy, or Hugh Laurie proving his Britishness? You decide!

The Monty Python crew regularly wore dresses:

Pictured above: Why I am British.

Sir Ian McKellen:

Gandalf, bitches.

And of course, the Queen wears a dress.

Freddy Mercury: The one true Queen of England

Point made.

Speaking of men running about in women's clothing and doing silly things, that sounds like a perfect segue into our topic for the day! What luck! One of the foremost men to advance the whole women's clothing/silliness front is the English comedian Eddie Izzard. Those of you who are already familiar with him might have picked up on some of the homages dropped in the introduction, and those of you who did not pick up on those should watch the following clip. (Parental Advisory warning: being a Brit, and having a sense of maturity about the appropriateness of language, Eddie has no qualm about dropping the f-bomb in the middle of his routine and frequently does so. Suck it up Yanks.)

Right. Let's get on with it then.

Eddie Izzard is a self described action-executive transvestite; this is of course in comparison to the "f****** weirdo transvestites" like J. Edgar Hoover. Usually at the beginning of his routine he addresses the fact that he will be doing the entire act in drag, and makes a few self-referential jokes about it to put the audience at ease before getting into his routine proper. He also makes the distinction between transvestites and drag queens as well, identifying himself as a male lesbian rather than a drag queen, and pointing out that most transvestites fancy women rather than men. So if you ever get into a conversation about transvestites for some reason (you're at a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening?) and someone makes the assertion that transvestites are necessarily gay, you can correct them in good faith. When they ask how you know this, you can tell them that your information comes from an executive transvestite and is therefore reliable. Should they continue to press you for information, you should probably stop talking because you are disturbing the people around you who are trying to shout obscenities at the screen and you're just being plain rude having a conversation in the middle of that.

Frank N. Furter is not amused.

As a comedian, Eddie Izzard attempts to tackle real-estate that a lot of people seemed to have left fallow. He tends to focus on material based in history, religion, British/American relations in general and tangents which just get absolutely absurd. His humor tends to focus more on wit, wordplay and weferences, rather than making jokes about stereotypes or necessarily relying on crude humor. Occasionally Eddie even turns his comedy into legitimate social commentary.

Not quite like this though. That would be silly

However, while his choice of material does lead Eddie down the path of being somewhat high-brow or a little too esoteric, Eddie talks about these things in a very fluid style and conversational tone which I think allows most people to understand him well enough, even if some of the content flies over their heads. While his style borders on rambling at times, and he occasionally derails himself in his routines, Eddie eventually finds his way back to the main thread of his routine without missing much of a beat. And even if a joke falls flat or doesn't get the reaction he seemed to expect of it, Eddie turns his own gaff into a joke as well; this usually takes the form of Eddie writing on his hand and quipping "Never do that bit again" or "Lost everyone. No one understands that." His style and wit allows for his stand up to become very quotable in conversation without having to go into a whole set to get to the joke. So you too can seem either witty in your own right to people who are unfamiliar with his routines, or clever enough to quote him to people who do know him. Win win!

I think one of the things that I very much admire about Eddie Izzard is how comfortable he is with himself and his identity. For one thing, openly being a transvestite takes some amount of courage. When I mentioned before that Eddie begins many of his routines with jokes about his being in women's clothing, he is never self-deprecating as if he feels the need to apologize for the fact he is up there in heels and make-up. He is who he is and accepts that. Admirable I think. Additionally, the writing-on-the-hand bit when he makes a mistake or bad joke during a routine is an excellent way I think of graciously accepting the situation rather than becoming flustered for not having a joke kill every time. He simply has an aura of confidence about himself that I find to be rather praiseworthy and makes me enjoy him all the more.

Incidentally dear readers, should your interest be piqued enough to seek out Eddie Izzard, YouTube is an excellent resource to find what you might enjoy. Dress to Kill and Glorious are excellent places to start and much of what is on YouTube comes from those sets. Also, iTunes has an interview with Eddie Izzard (called Live from London: Eddie Izzard) under the podcast section. It is very much worth a listen, and had a lot of the same wordplay and absurdism Eddie has in his stand-up routines while also getting to know him a little as a person as well. Also, the podcast is free, so that's nice too.

Hope you've enjoyed the inaugural British post in the arsenal and I look forward to our next meeting. Until then, God Save the Queen.

Seriously. No one can replace this man.

- Carvan

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fullmetal Alchemist: A Retrospective

I've been a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist for a very long time, originally picking up the series back in the summer of 2007. Granted I was coming in towards the middle of the American release of the series, but I've watched the series develop over these four years and reach its final run. I will say that I am sad to see the series end, however I think that's ultimately a good thing because it hasn't outstayed its welcome and has told the story it set out to tell. I highly recommend this series for anyone who likes sci-fi and is curious about anime and manga.

Let me begin by explaining manga and anime for the uninitiated. Manga is the Japanese term for what we would call comic books, however there are some significant differences. Manga is published entirely in black and white and most series release a chapter each week. The chapters from different series that have come out that week are published in a weekly anthology magazine which generally publishes stories in the same genre. Broadly speaking the Japanese divide manga into four genres: shonen, comics for pre-teen and teenage boys, shojo, comics for pre-teen and teenage girls, seinen, comics aimed at male adult audiences, and josei, comics aimed at female adult audiences. Thus a weekly anthology will probably publish a bunch of shonen titles, but not have much else. After their initial release in magazines, the chapters of a series are collected into volumes called tankobon, much like trade paperbacks of American comics, which is how I personally get my manga. Some series have a short run with as few as four volumes, while some longer-running series have close to sixty volumes. At twenty-seven volumes Fullmetal Alchemist definitely has significant length, and if you want to buy the books it represents a considerable investment, but I think it could not have told the story it tells as well as it did with less volumes.

That being said, like some comic book series, manga gets adapted to TV which is called anime. Pretty self-explanatory. Usually an anime adaptation will pretty closely follow the manga, however there are sometimes significant differences. It is very common for a manga series to get an anime adaptation before it has even begun to delve into its plot. Thus an anime adaptation can have the same characters as the manga but end up with a very different plot. A prime example of these differences is in the two anime adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist, the first one called Fullmetal Alchemist and the second one called Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I want to talk about those a little more, but I'll save that for the meat of the review. Right now it is sufficient to say the first series came out in the middle of FMA's publication run and as such takes a very different turn with its plot about halfway through, while Brotherhood follows the storyline of the manga.

Fullmetal Achemist, by Hiromu Arakawa, is set in a world very much like early 20th century Europe, with steam trains, developing automobiles, and forays into telephone and radio technologies. Even culturally speaking There is, however, a very important difference. This world has unlocked the secrets of alchemy, which enables people to transmute matter from one form into another. This does not mean that an alchemist cannot do everything, though. Perhaps most importantly on a day-to-day basis you have to obey the conservation of matter, however there are of course other rules. The series follows two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, who are both highly skilled alchemists and attempted the forbidden practice of human transmutation. Unfortunately their transmutation went terribly wrong, and Ed lost his right arm and left leg. Al...Al disappeared entirely. Ed was able to bind Al's soul to a suit of armor, but what happened to his real body is still a mystery. Determined to regain their original bodies, the Elric brothers set out to find the philosopher's stone but in so doing discover a far more sinister conspiracy regarding their home country.

If there is one thing I absolutely love about Fullmetal Alchemist as a series is that the story arc is absolutely fantastic. We get to watch as Ed and Al, not to mention the rest of the cast, develop as characters throughout the entire story arc. Characters that initially appear shallow and one-note, such as Major Alexander Louis Armstrong,  reveal hidden depths and their own personal motivations. Furthermore a majority of the characters serve an distinct purpose in the story and help to move the plot along. Many of the characters we have met along the journey come back in the final chapters and kick an insane amount of ass. I do have to admit that a lot of people die in this series, and while some are far more heart-wrenching than others I don't think any of them are meaningless. I guarantee you will come away loving at least one of the characters in this series and won't forget the many other members of the cast.

As for the overall plot regarding the philosopher's stone and the Elric brothers' quest, we get the basics of the story in the very first chapters and watch it become deeper and more complex as the series progresses. Important hints about the final chapters are seeded in the earlier chapters and gives Fullmetal Alchemist an excellent re-read value. Now, Fullmetal Alchemist has plenty of kickass action sequences, but don't think that it's just a bunch of hot-blooded brawlers getting into fights. Arakawa blends thought-provoking moments of serious reflection seamlessly into the story and makes us think about friendship, family, and what it means to be human. Based on its story and characters I think both teenagers and adults will appreciate Fullmetal Alchemist.

Now, as I have mentioned there are two animated adaptations of Fullmetal Alchemist, Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, both of which are available on Netflix. (At least with streaming, I don't know about DVD delivery.) While I have not really watched either of these series, my associate Mr. Carvan has and he strongly recommends going with the Brotherhood adaptation. As Mr. Carvan has said, while the  Fullmetal Alchemist follows the plot of the manga it remains very strong, not to mention makes the deaths of certain characters incredibly heart-wrenching. If there's one thing it does better than Brotherhood it's pulling on the heart strings. However when the anime begins to deviate from the manga it seems to loose inertia. Characters other than the Elrics fall out of focus and even the brothers seem to be wandering around without a goal. This isn't to say a lot of people didn't enjoy the first animated series, but in Carvan's opinion Brotherhood is the better of the two.

If you're going to pick up the series I have to warn you that buying the manga can become prohibitively expensive. Twenty seven volumes at ten dollars a volume adds up to a significant chunk of change. However, if you're willing to lay down that much money it is well-worth the investment. For those of you who don't have such a large budget I recommend streaming the series from Netflix or seeing if your local library has the manga or DVDs of the anime. Again, with the anime it's probably best to go with Brotherhood which has the same plotline as the manga. I encourage all of my readers who have not picked up Fullmetal Alchemist to look into this series. 

- Kalpar

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day Special: Wild Carvan Appears!

Okay, so I know that this isn't my usual update schedule, but as a special Christmas present to all of you, I'm introducing Carvan. Carvan is a good friend I've known for about eight years now and has helped me with numerous zombie uprisings, vampire hunts and the Robot Uprising of 2017. Wait, no, that hasn't happened yet, forget I said that. Anyway, when he's not pretending he's British, Carvan does nerd things like watch anime and play video games. Also he plays a bard in a Pathfinder campaign so we'll probably make fun of him for that. Well, not that I hate bards. They're just not really my playing style is all. Granted as much as I like melee-oriented classes there's the whole linear fighters, quadratic wizards problem. I just sort of look for excuses to make fun of Carvan. Like his preference for elves. Or liking vampires. Really any reason to make fun of him. Where was I? Oh yes.

Anyway, Carvan will be dropping in from time to time to provide guest reviews or gems of insight from his particular brand of insanity. Hopefully you'll come to like him as much as I have over the years, even if I don't understand his motives at times.

Oh and seriously, that Robot Uprising thing? Nothing to worry about, just forget I mentioned it. Definitely no need to start stockpiling supplies. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Special: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

This week, right before Christmas, I want to take some time to talk about one of my favorite Christmas stories. As I have said before on I Smell Sheep, I freaking love the Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett and like all series that have lasted for twenty-odd years, Discworld has its own Christmas special, titled Hogfather. This book is largely responsible for re-igniting my love of Christmas and giving new meaning to the holiday for me. Now I will talk a little bit about the plot because while the plot is fantastic, it's not what makes me love this book. The Disc has a holiday called Hogswatch which, due to the nature of the universe, bears a resemblance to our Christmas. However the Hogfather, the Disc's equivalent to Father Christmas (or Santa Claus to us Yanks) has gone missing. Now it's up to Death, yes that Death, to fill in for the Hogfather otherwise the sun will not rise. While Death's out making the deliveries, it's up to his granddaughter Susan to find out what happened to the Hogfather. And what are the Eater of Socks and Oh God of Hangovers doing at Unseen University? It's a fantastic adventure and fine example of Sir PTerry's work.

I feel like I love this book more for the message it contains rather than the fantastic plot. You know, let me go ahead and find the quote, PTerry says it best in a conversation between Death and Susan. (Death speaks in all-caps by the way.)

    "Tooth Fairies? Hogfathers? Little - "
    "So we can believe the big ones?"
    "They're not the same at all!"
   "Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point - "

I feel like this is one of the best messages Sir PTerry has ever put in one of his book. The myths of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny aren't just elaborate lies created by adults to distract children. They serve the distinct purpose of getting children used to believing in something so when they get older they can believe in things greater than themselves. True, to an extent it's fanciful thinking, but I think it's a great message that anyone can get behind for the Christmas season.

Now, there is, of course, the novel, but if you want to experience Hogfather with family or friends, there is a film version of the book produced by the BBC. I should warn you ahead of time that the film version is about three hours long and has a pause halfway through so you might want to take a break at that point. That being said, I am glad the BBC took as much time as they did for Hogfather because they give the book its full justice and did a really good job translating it to film. If you're an old Discworld fan or are looking for a new holiday tradition, Hogfather is an excellent decision.

As a final thought, I want to quote the dedication to Hogfather, "To Everyone Who Hoped It Might Be True." Merry Christmas.

- Kalpar 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda

So a long time ago, in the early 2000's there was a TV show called Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, or more simply referred to as Andromeda. Now, you're probably thinking to yourself, "But Kalpar! Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, died in 1991! Did the Canadians use dark magic to summon the ghost of Gene Roddenberry?" That's...that's oddly astute of you dear reader. Well, basically the TV show was based on two ideas that Gene Roddenberry had before he died: the idea of a living ship and the idea of a man somehow being transported beyond his time to a world he doesn't know. With the help of Roddenberry's wife, Majel Roddenberry, writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe managed to create the first season of Andromeda.

Now you're probably wondering what Andromeda is all about. To begin, in the distant future humanity is part of an intergalactic government known as the Systems Commonwealth. Recently the Systems Commonwealth has come under assault from a race called the Magog, which...basically eats everything and moves on. Pretty scary stuff. The Commonwealth has managed to sign a treaty with the Magog, but not everyone is happy with this arrangement, most notably the Nietzscheans, a group of genetically altered humans. The Nietzscheans secretly plan a rebellion and manage to topple the Commonwealth.

In the middle of this is Captain Dylan Hunt, officer in the High Guard (the Commonwealth's military) and commander of the heavy cruiser Andromeda Ascendant. Betrayed by his Nietzschean First Officer, Gaheris Rhade, Dylan Hunt and the Andromeda are trapped on the event horizon of a black hole and enter a state of suspended animation. Dylan and the Andromeda are finally rescued by a salvage team....three hundred years later. The Systems Commonwealth is a distant memory, the Nietzscheans and Magog have ravaged known space, and technology has started to regress. Faced with this nightmarish future, Captain Hunt decides to reforge the Systems Commonwealth and bring back the light of civilization.

Now, I watched Andromeda when it first came out in the early 2000's but only had a vague memory of the earlier seasons so I decided to go back and re-watch the first three seasons. (Right now I'm working on season three, but I have a friend who got further so I'll be relying on some of his advice for this.) The first season introduces us to Dylan and the Andromeda, and we follow Dylan as he discovers the world he knew perished three hundred years ago. The first few episodes show Dylan discovering how the universe has changed and coming to terms with the Fall of the Commonwealth. Captain Hunt eventually begins his quest to reestablish the Commonwealth and wins over the members of the salvage crew that rescued him. The second season of Andromeda is where things start to get weird. Robert Hewitt Wolfe, the leading mind and chief writer for Andromeda had creative differences with the other members of the team. Eventually Wolfe left the show mid-season two which heralded several shifts in the show's direction. At the end of season two, Captain Hunt manages to get fifty planets to sign the new Commonwealth Charter which forms a new Commonwealth government. This is where things start getting weird. From what I've seen so far of season three, the Commonwealth, the government that Dylan helped established, suddenly has become obsessed with being a thorn in Dylan's side. The Andromeda gets a crew of redshirts...which disappear at times, leaving the command crew to solve problems. And then suddenly reappear. To quote Wikipedia, an ostensibly neutral source, "Also in Season 3 the characters often react in ways which are contrary to their established personalities. Many of the plots and story structures appear strained and inconsistent." I have a better memory of season four and five since they're more recent, but I don't feel the need to go re-watch those seasons. To summarize, things get weird, Dylan becomes Space Jesus or something, and the series ends.

To be honest, if you're going to watch Andromeda at all I'd stick with the first two seasons. There are plenty of interesting ideas, a unique universe, and a compelling plot. The third season is just....frustrating and the last two seasons are practically a different show. There probably were people who liked the later seasons, but I'm not one of them.

Finally, before I bring this rambling post to an end, I'm going to introduce you to the crew of the Andromeda. I'm going to stick with the crew of the first season and a half. (Rev Bem left the show mid-season two because the actor developed an allergy to the make-up.) I'll go through the characters from left to right on the picture to the left.

  • Trance Gemini : Initially we know very little about Trance, just that she's purple, she loves plants, and there's more to her than meets the eye. Despite her cheerful and bubbly personality, Trance can be tough when the bullets fly. Oh, and don't pull her tail. 
  • Seamus Zelazny Harper : A genius engineer from the slums of Earth, Harper is in love with Andromeda, in more ways than one. (It makes sense, trust me.) Although small because of his upbringing on Earth, Seamus is a veritable magician with machines and is pretty scrappy in a fight. 
  • Captain Beka Valentine : Captain of the salvage and freighter ship the Eureka Maru, Beka is probably the greatest pilot in the known worlds. She's also had an unconventional upbringing, growing up with her smuggler father on the Maru. Although initially driven by her desire to make a profit, Beka eventually becomes the biggest supporter of the Commonwealth after Dylan himself. 
  • Captain Dylan Hunt: A High Guard captain and commander of the Andromeda Ascendant, Dylan is literally a man out of time. Faced with a universe that's gone to the dogs, Dylan could easily become a dictator with his ship, but instead he decides to rebuild the democracy that once encompassed three galaxies and always remain true to the ideals of the Systems Commonwealth.
  • Tyr Anasazi : The last survivor of the extinct Kodiak Pride of the Nietzscheans, Tyr is interested in what benefits Tyr. Well, and revenge against the Nietzscheans who betrayed his pride. That'd be nice too. As ruthless as he is, Tyr is a really cool character, constantly trying to outwit Dylan and take his ship which leads to some really great episodes. 
  • Rommie : Rommie is a unique character because she actually is the ship. Remember how I said one of Roddenberry's ideas was a living ship? Well the Andromeda Ascendant has an Artificial Intelligence, called Andromeda, which is a character in her own right. Well, more like three characters. There's the ship's central AI, called Andromeda and appears on the various monitors throughout the ship, and hologram Andromeda who mediates between the central AI and the android. Finally there's the android, commonly referred to as Rommie, who has the ship's AI within her, but develops as a unique character throughout the series. An interesting theme as the series progresses is how Rommie the android has developed beyond the personality of the ship's central AI.
  • Rev Bem : A magog who has sworn to not take another sentient being's life, Reverend Bem is a priest of the Way, a mixture of ideas from all the major religions on Earth and has spread after the Fall of the Commonwealth. Despite his fierce appearance, Bem is a gentle soul who serves as a counselor for the other crew members. 
Hopefully I haven't bored you to death with my little talk about Andromeda, and if you can find it I encourage watching the first two seasons. I wouldn't recommend past that, but there are some who might like it. Hopefully see you next Thursday.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Introduction to the Arsenal

Hello, dear readers and welcome to Kalpar's Arsenal. A few of you may already be familiar with me as the editor-in-chief and sometime writer for the blog I Smell Sheep, and believe me, I'm still doing that. However if you've ever visited the flock over at I Smell Sheep you might have noticed the entire blog is a little heavy on the vampires and the romances. Which is fine, you know, if you're Katie or Sharon and like that sort of thing. To state the blatantly obvious, I don't like those sorts of things. So while Katie and Sharon are drooling over the latest alpha male with impossibly perfect abs that came their way, I need to be doing awesome things. Like fighting the followers of Chaos in the name of the Emperor. Or punching Nazis on Mars with Theodore Roosevelt. You know, that sort of thing.

Basically the goals of the arsenal are threefold:
  1. Provide a place for me to write my posts that wouldn't necessarily fit in with the other posts at I Smell Sheep.
  2. Provide an easy place for people to find my awesome hilarity without having to dig through countless romance novel reviews. 
  3. Give me an incentive to write on a regular basis, providing usual posts every Thursday for my two readers. 
Hopefully this blog will provide me a means to grow as a writer, especially by making me meet a self-imposed deadline every Thursday. Also I shall hopefully bring funny or at least interesting opinions to my readers, however few they may be. Anyway, pull up a chair, open a beverage, and welcome to the Arsenal.