Category: pop culture

PITB Reviews: Lost In Space (Netflix)

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Netflix’s reboot of Lost In Space.

Would it hew closely to the brightly-colored 1960s original in all its cheesy glory? Would it aim for a darker tone, as so many television series do these days? Would it be a low-effort nostalgia cash-in like so many ill-advised reboots of the past decade? And would the series, which was slated to keep things PG, have enough going on to appeal to adults as well as kids?

With Netflix delivering the third and final season last month, my verdict is in: Lost In Space is the rare worthy reboot, a visually spectacular retelling of the original that tweaks and modernizes the details in all the right places. There’s a generous amount of adventure, quiet character moments, and an overarching theme about the importance of family. Over the course of the story, the latter group that widens to include not only the Robinsons but also their closest friends who brave the cosmic dangers alongside them.

Speaking of danger, the original show’s most-used catchphrase — the robot’s “Danger, Will Robinson!” — will be familiar to almost anyone, even those of us who were born in the decades after the show went off the air. It’s become part of the pop cultural fabric.

In the original Lost In Space the Robot is a human-engineered tin can, a 1960s retrofuturistic vision of what sentient machines might look like that was dreamed up at a time when servers occupied entire rooms and a computer’s output came in the form of punch cards.

Lost In Space: Original and reboot Robot

In the reboot, the Robot is an alien intelligence: a towering, six-limbed, digitigrade machine with an inscrutable face and serrated claws. Where the 1960s Robot was risible, the reboot Robot is terrifying in its default form — until a brave Will Robinson, who encounters it after crash landing on an unnamed planet, helps the dying machine repair itself.

He does so as a raging fire engulfs the forest around them, reasoning that he can’t escape, but perhaps the robot can.

The curious Robot, awash with gratitude, immediately rescues Will and, on safe ground, studies the boy for a moment before rearranging itself into an androform shape to mirror Will. From that point on, boy and Robot become inseparable.

Lost In Space: Will Robinson and the Robot
The Robot and Will Robinson form a mysterious bond, with the machine becoming fiercely protective of the boy.

It’s Robot who gets the Robinson family out of trouble in the first episode and many times over subsequent installments, earning the trust and eventually the love of the Robinson family, their friend, mechanic Don West (Ignacio Serricchio), and the mercurial Dr. Smith (Parker Posey).

It’s a credit to the writers and visual effects team that the series appeals to kids as well as adults. I watched the first episode with my eight-year-old niece, who’s younger than the target audience. She was absorbed in the story, her attention beginning to wane only during moments of expository dialogue.

The series is probably better suited for kids at 11 or 12 years old, as there are some relatively heady science fiction concepts and subsequent episodes range from PG to PG-13ish.

There’s no sex, the relatively little violence happens off camera, and the narrative regularly stresses the importance of family. Will, his sisters Penny and Judy, and the Robinson parents all rely on each other to meet challenges. There are, however, adult themes like divorce and near-death experiences, and occasional bad language which never gets more profane than Dr. Smith derisively calling Don West out on his “bullshit” in one episode.

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Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) play important parts in the narrative and bring different skills to the table.

The show takes off right away and delivers excitement and mystery, but it takes a little while to find its rhythm, with early episodes following a “crisis of the hour” format more suited to episodic television. The writers were clearly trying to convey the power of the united Robinson family, and how each member brings different skills and ways of thinking to the table, but the show is at its best when storylines work in service to the overarching narrative.

Mom Maureen is a brilliant engineer who designed the colony starship Resolute and its Jupiter landers. Dad John Robinson is a former Navy SEAL, a man of action who encourages his children to make bold choices. Eldest daughter Judy Robinson is a young medical doctor who, despite her obvious talent, often feels she has something to prove. Her younger sister, Penny, is the least scientifically-minded member of the family. Penny’s better with people, serving as a peacemaker and scribe who documents the Robinson family’s adventures.

Last but not least, young Will Robinson is a dreamer who marvels at alien worlds and distant stars, and takes after his mom in scientific aptitude. He becomes something of a legend among the colonists for his inexplicable bond with Robot, who is extremely protective of the boy.

Lost In Space: The Resolute
The Resolute is attacked en route to Alpha Centauri, forcing its passengers to flee to their Jupiter “lifeboats” and make emergency landings on a nearby planet.

Of course there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell if the Robinsons and the other colonists simply made it to the idyllic colony at Alpha Centauri without incident. It turns out the colonists fled the Resolute — and crash landed on an inhospitable planet — because Robot’s brethren attacked the ship.

Although the viewers are shown the act of kindness that sparks the bond between Will and Robot, the other colonists aren’t as trusting once they realize Will’s seven-foot-tall protector came from the same place as the murderous machines that attacked the Resolute. Dr. Smith also has her own designs on the mysterious Robot, and the Resolute’s crew has been hiding a secret from its passengers that will come back to haunt them.

Can the colonists survive on a dangerous world without the resources they need? Will they ever reach Alpha Centauri?

Why did the robots attack the colony ship? What do they want from humans? And who made them?

Those are the questions at the heart of the mystery, but the characters can’t hope to answer them if they’re stranded on a hostile alien world.

Netflix spared no expense with Lost In Space and the writers clearly had a complete vision for the story, wrapping it up in just three seasons over the course of 28 roughly hour-long episodes. (The first two seasons had 10 episodes each, while the final season had only eight.)

In a sea of Netflix content, Lost In Space stands out as one of the streaming giant’s best original shows, especially for fans of science fiction and parents looking for a show they can watch with their kids.

Buddy’s Verdict: Four Paws out of Five paws45

Big Buddy’s Verdict: Recommended

Lost In Space: The Robinsons
Will Robinson, front, with Dr. Smith, Judy, Robot, Penny and Maureen Robinson.

Buddy’s Festivus Special: A Festivus For the Rest of Us!

“I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and you’re gonna hear about it!”

Those words have begun the tradition of Festivus, from its inception in the household of Frank and Estelle Costanza in the 1960s to the Festivian celebrations that have spread to all corners of the globe since the holiday was popularized in a 1997 episode of Seinfeld. (The Library of Congress even has a page about it.)

Festivus is celebrated today, December 23.

As Frank Costanza once explained to Cosmo Kramer:

Frank: Many Christmases ago, I went to buy a doll for my son. I reached for the last one they had, but so did another man. As I rained blows upon him, I realized there had to be another way.
Kramer: What happened to the doll?
Frank: It was destroyed. But out of that a new holiday was born. A Festivus for the rest of us!
Kramer: That must have been some kind of doll.
Frank: She was.

Festivus!

Traditional Festivus celebrations begin with family and friends sitting down at the dinner table, but instead of saying grace and expressing thanks for the meal, the presence of loved ones and health, there’s an Airing of Grievances. In the words of Frank: “At the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year!”

In the spirit of tradition, we turn to Buddy to kick off our Festivian festivities:

The Airing of Grievances

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Buddy: ‘Thank you. I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!

Big Buddy! This is, what, the fourth Christmas in a row that I’ve asked for a Roomba? And yet if I went and snooped through your little stash of Christmas presents, would I find a Roomba? I don’t think so!

And that’s not even the worst part. You let me go without turkey for four weeks this year! Four weeks! Oh I know the excuses. ‘There’s a shortage! The country has big time logistical issues. There aren’t enough truck drivers. Transport ships are sitting off shore, waiting to dock. Store shelves are bare.’ You know what? None of those things are my problem! How could you let me go without turkey for so long?

PITB readers! I got a lot of problems with you people too, and you’re gonna hear about them! How could you allow Big Buddy to write so many posts about other cats and other things? This is my blog. The topic is supposed to be Buddy. Yet you all “lol” and “roflmao” when he writes stories about other cats. Unacceptable! And you made fun of my roar, calling it a kitten meow! I’ll have you know I strike fear into the hearts of cats and dogs alike with my roar!’

The Festivus Pole

The Festivus Pole
Frank Costanza, pictured with Cosmo Kramer, holds the Festivus Pole as he informs his son George and Jerry Seinfeld of the upcoming Festivus dinner.

Unlike the gaudy decorations of Christmas, the quintessential Festivus decoration is a simple aluminum pole with a high strength-to-weight ratio. It must not be embellished. Said Frank Costanza: “I find tinsel distracting.”

Festivus poles are wonderful decorations for households with cats. Your cat will love attacking it and knocking it over. For even more fun, wrap sisal rope around the pole to provide your cat with another vertical scratcher.

The Feats of Strength

After the traditional Festivus meal and Airing of Grievances comes the denouement of the holiday: The Feats of Strength. Festivus is not officially over until the head of the household is pinned in a wrestling match.

According to FestivusWeb, to avoid injury it’s acceptable — even encouraged — to celebrate with lower-stakes feats of strength, including arm wrestling, board games, a dance off or beer pong.

Buddy has never been defeated in the Feats of Strength, which means Festivus never really ends here. Few guests are willing to put themselves on the wrong end of Buddy’s claws.

Festivus Gift-Giving

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Festivus is an intentionally non-commercial holiday. However, Buddy reluctantly accepts gifts of turkey, Roombas, catnip, toys and boxes. For your two-legged friends, a donation to The Human Fund is a perfect Festivus gift! The Human Fund™: Money for People.

Happy Festivus!

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PITB Reviews: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Movie: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Director: Will Sharpe
Genre: Biopic, drama
Medium: Amazon Original (streaming and in theaters)

Louis Wain was an artist in the employ of The Illustrated London News, one of the most popular newspapers in Victorian England, when advances in photography and printing made it possible for newspapers to regularly include photographs in their pages.

Demoted from staff illustrator to contributor, Wain’s professional skills seemed destined for obsolescence when he and his wife, Emily, returned to their cottage one rainy afternoon in 1886 and heard the distressed mews of a kitten. They found an adorable tuxedo cat soaked and shivering in their garden, brought him inside and were instantly smitten.

They named the baby Peter, and in the months that followed Wain made the growing kitten the subject of most of his idle drawings, sketching him in various situations and with increasingly anthropomorphic features. Wain’s cat sketches were only intended for his wife, but when Sir William Ingram, editor at The Illustrated News, saw the whimsical cat drawings he commissioned Wain to fill two pages with cats as a special feature for the paper’s Christmas edition.

Wain’s cats were a huge hit with readers, marking the beginning of a second, much more successful career as a pet portraitist and one of Victorian England’s most beloved artists. Wain gave his cats human expressions, had them do human things, and put them in contemporary clothing to the delight of newspaper readers and, later, book publishers who sold many thousands of copies of illustrated books featuring nothing but Wain’s anthropomorphic cats.

Louis Wain
A pair of young female cats play with cat dolls.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain weaves a narrative from its subject’s professional life and his lesser-known private life. A polymath, philosopher, amateur boxer and author of some particular ideas about cats and electricity, Wain (played by the always-excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) was an eccentric and not particularly happy with his life until his family hired Emily Richardson (Claire Foy) as governess — a home teacher — for Wain’s younger sisters.

Despite the fact that Emily was a decade his senior and such relationships were looked down upon in Victorian England, Wain and Emily married, made it clear they didn’t care what others thought about them, and learned to enjoy life in each other’s company. With the addition of little Peter, the Wains were a happy family.

Louis Wain did not, however, have an easy life. Three years into their blissful marriage, Emily was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Her illness, the subsequent mental deterioration of one of Wain’s younger sisters, and Wain’s own eventual struggles with mental illness cast long shadows over his outlook and his work.

Louis Wain's Annuals
Wain’s cat drawings were so popular, they were sold in stand-alone books in addition to filling the pages of widely-read publications in Victorian England.

Today, psychologists, art critics and scholars of the man’s career still debate whether — and to what degree — his mental state was reflected in his artwork as his cats took on increasingly psychedelic and abstract qualities. What began as simple kitten sketches morphed into whimsical scenes of expressive cats and eventually trippy images that wouldn’t have looked out of place as album art in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Did Wain truly suffer from severe mental illness, or was he a casualty of a society that banished its “undesirables” to asylums and “lunatic houses”? Was Wain on the autism spectrum? Did the increasingly psychedelic bent of his drawings stem from medications he was given at a time when mental illness was poorly understood and poorly treated?

It depends on what you see in the illustrations. For a man so revered by the public, Wain was remarkably casual about his output — a quality Cumberbatch displays admirably throughout the film — and he didn’t bother to date his drawings. He was prolific, completing many hundreds of cat images throughout his career, in addition to the journalistic images and livestock renderings of his early career, when he was a newspaperman.

Louis Wain's Cats
Wain’s cat illustrations took on more psychedelic qualities as the years passed.

What is absolutely clear is that Wain saw something in cats that others didn’t see until he showed it to them with his pencils. He was credited with a major shift in attitude toward cats and the normalization of keeping cats as pets rather than as mousers. Although cats enjoyed companion animal status in various other cultures earlier in human history, the idea of keeping a feline as a pet was novel in Victorian England.

The shift in public attitude was treated humorously — as much of the subject matter is — by the film, with a bewildered Wain accepting the presidency of the Cat Society of England at a fete in his honor, then explaining his theory that tabby markings were the result of electricity flowing through fur.

The subject of electricity comes up again and again in the film, bringing to mind Tesla and another famous British eccentric, Alan Turing, who was also played by Cumberbatch in the 2014 biopic The Imitation Game. Not coincidentally, both movies show that service to crown and country mattered little when British eccentrics were deemed too odd to tolerate. Like Wain, Turing — a war hero who famously cracked the legendary German Enigma cryptography machine — found himself on the wrong side of the UK’s mental institutions when he was convicted of indecency in 1952 after admitting to police, during an interview in an unrelated investigation, that he’d once had a relationship with another man.

Turing was subsequently placed on synthetic estrogen and drugs prescribed to “cure” his mental condition, which had the opposite effect: Turing, a shadow of his former self, his genius blunted by chemicals, committed suicide by eating an apple he’d laced with cyanide in 1954.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain finds humor in both the light and dark moments of its subject’s life, and it’s a credit to the film’s writers, director and actors that lighthearted moments don’t spoil the more serious narrative themes. For his part, Wain was a man who endured a lot of suffering in his life, and if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that no matter what life throws at us, spending time with cats makes things more bearable.

Stray’s Feline Protagonist Is Picture Perfect

Determined to get inside an apartment, the ginger tabby leaps onto the ledge of an air conditioner unit, then onto the roof, where he drags a piece of debris to the edge, swipes it off and watches it shatter a skylight.

Boom. Kitty door created!

The scene isn’t part of a Youtube video or a documentary about smart cats, it’s a gameplay sequence from the upcoming Stray, a game in which the protagonist is a lost cat who’s been separated from his family and dropped into an eerie, near-future Hong Kong.

The overlap (or Reuleaux triangle) in a Venn diagram of gamers and cat-lovers is pretty sizable, and for that enthusiastic cross-section, there’s no game more highly anticipated than Stray.

Stray
Our hero gets his sustenance from bowls, needs to pause for a scratch every once in a while, and likes to rub against the legs of friendly characters he meets.

Previously we’d seen a short trailer and still screenshots, and now a video from the developers shows off more than four minutes of glorious game footage following the feline protagonist as he explores Hong Kong’s streets, back alleys and noodle shops.

The developers are clearly cat lovers: The kitty hero of Stray moves with the grace, energy and caution of a real domestic feline, and the game forces players to tackle obstacles and challenges the way a cat would. The protagonist cat gains access to a vent shaft, for example, by swiping a coffee mug into fan blades to get them to stop spinning. In another scene, the cat is startled, jumps a full pace back and lands on all fours in a way only cats can.

Everything from gait to reactions is perfectly cat-like. In the opening moments, our kitty hero is clearly injured, nursing one of his back legs as he hobbles down an alley. In a later scene he bats curiously at a drone the way a house cat would with a new toy.

There are no magic abilities or impossible inventories here: As the player, you can only do things a cat can do in real life, although you’re given a boost later on when a friendly character equips you with a harness on which B12, the above-mentioned drone, can dock. B12 can interact with man-made inventions, understand your cat’s intentions and facilitate rudimentary communication.

If, for example, your kitty character is dehydrated and stops to paw at a vending machine, B12 can send a signal to the machine, order it to dispense a beverage, then open it for the adventurous cat. B12 also helps your catagonist fight off enemies. By flashing a purple light at hostile machines, for example, the little drone can render them harmless and deactivate them.

Ultimately, though, the game designers want you to think in cat terms to make your way through the game world, and that means considering feline physiology when encountering obstacles, and feline psychology when trying to solve puzzles.

Stray
“A new toy?!” Stray’s hero cat is curious as he meets B-12 for the first time.

The project’s lead designers are both industry veterans who decided to strike out on their own by forming an independent studio after years of working for UbiSoft, the game industry giant known for game franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs. Like those games, Stray gives players the opportunity to explore a highly detailed open world.

“Our goal is to create a unique experience playing as a cat. We are inspired everyday by Murtaugh and Riggs, our two cats,” creative director Viv said. “Most of the team are cat owners as well, giving us all a lot of helpful first-hand references. Cats are always so playful, cute and lovingly annoying that it’s an endless stream of gameplay ideas for us.”

Stray_gameplay

For the game’s atmosphere, the creators were inspired by Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, a former military fortress that became a slum in the days of British-ruled Hong Kong, with Chinese triad gangs serving as de facto authorities in the lawless zone. Today, the former Kowloon Walled City is a park.

“It is also a very unique point of view for an adventure game. Exploring the strange world we are building feels really fresh when you’re sneaking under a car, or walking the rooftops with the inhabitants below unaware of your presence. Or if you want them to be aware, you can just meow endlessly to annoy them.”

Stray was originally slated for a late 2021 release, but it’s looking more likely that we won’t see it until the first quarter of 2022. Given the recent history of highly anticipated and rushed projects like Cyberpunk 2077, few gamers would begrudge a development team taking its time and getting things right rather than going into a months-long crunch period to meet a holiday deadline. Good things come to those who wait, especially in the complex world of game development.

Cats and Stand-Up Comedy: “There’s No Purpose To Cats”

Last time we posted a stand-up clip about cats, we watched the hilarious Zoltan Kaszas put a room in stitches with his stories about his cat Jessica, her emphatic rejection of a diet, and Zoltan’s wife’s obsession with special-needs cats.

This time we’re checking in with comic Corey Rodrigues, who explains why cats are better than dogs.

After taking a quick, informal poll asking his audience whether they like cats or dogs, Rodrigues turns to a man near the front, points and asks bluntly: “Why don’t you like cats?”

“There’s no purpose,” the dudebro says, shrugging.

“There’s no purpose, right? There’s no purpose?” Rodrigues says, drawing laughs. “Like the cat’s purpose is to serve him, like ‘I’m here for you, meow!’ What do you mean, no purpose? These are the things people say when you ask them if they like cats.”

With the crazy cat lady trope and American society’s weird insistence that felines are strictly pets for women, there’s a social cost for men who love their cats — and a double standard, since guys who have dogs aren’t considered weird.

“It’s weird if you say you like a cat. If you’re at a bar and someone’s like, ‘Wanna see a picture of my cat?’ you’re like ‘You’re a freak, get away from me!'” Rodrigues says, summing up the reaction he gets. “People will show you their puppy all day, right? But you can’t show a cat at a bar. If a dude pulls out a cat picture at a bar they’re like ‘He’s a creep, get away from that weirdo with three cats on his phone! What’s this dude doing?'”

While dogs are overly earnest, cats “just have personality. You can’t bribe them with treats all the time.”

“You pull a treat out on a cat, the cat’s like ‘Yeah, right! Walk away from it! Put it on the ground and walk away from it! I’ll come back and smell it and decide if it’s safe!’ The dog’s just like ‘Give me that treat!'”