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The Music of Vince Guaraldi and “Peanuts”

Creating iconic music for a pre-existing property that has garnered legions of fans in another medium can be a daunting challenge for any composer. After all, how do you create an unforgettable sound for a story that has become beloved without the need for sound in the first place?

It’s a process that has been done countless times for all forms of film and television adaptations, and few are as iconic and imbued with such richness of tone and emotion as that of jazz musician Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for the Peanuts television specials, based on the comic strip series by Charles Schultz.

Filled with numerous unforgettable piano jazz tracks and working in perfect harmony with the melancholy plight of lead character Charlie Brown and his colorful cast of friends, Guaraldi’s jazz soundtracks are not only inextricable from the world of Peanuts, but have had a lasting impact on the world of jazz. For many fans and musicians alike, Guaraldi’s Peanuts scores got them hooked on the genre. And even for those who have not invested their time and passion into jazz, the musical world of Charlie Brown is evocative, catchy, and endlessly charming. It’s as if Guaraldi’s simple yet stylish compositions are cut whole cloth from the world of childhood memories and stitched together with the sweet, relatable melancholy of Charlie Brown’s many struggles.

Continue reading “The Music of Vince Guaraldi and “Peanuts””

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Greatest Batman Stories: Beware The Gray Ghost

beware-the-gray-ghost-btasWhat happens when a foundational memory from Bruce Wayne’s past plays into one of his current investigations as Batman? The trail leads him an actor and television hero whose knowledge and support are the only way to crack the case in the classic Batman: The Animated Series episode The Gray Ghost.

When reviewing the series as a whole, the strongest episodes of Batman: The Animated Series typically focus on iconic villains (like Almost Got ‘Im) or do something really out of the ordinary with the plot (like Over the Edge). On the other hand, the weakest episodes most often focus on original villains that are fairly bland and forgettable, which is unfortunately a trend with the first season of the series (like The Underdwellers or Prophecy of Doom). However, Beware the Gray Ghost is one of the few episodes that completely bucks the trend, using one-off original characters to tell a touching and meaningful story that resonates through its real world connections.

At its core, Beware the Gray Ghost is a story about nostalgia and human connection, as well as their positive and negative effects on others. The episode opens with a flashback to young Bruce Wayne watching his favorite television show “The Gray Ghost,” a series about a pulp hero fighting crime, which clearly has parallels to modern Bruce’s adventures as Batman. However, a series of bombings in Gotham City by “The Mad Bomber” has distinct connections to a previous episode of “The Gray Ghost” that also followed The Mad Bomber and his ransom demands. Bruce’s search for the old television episode leads him to Simon Trent, the now-washed up and desperate actor who once played The Gray Ghost.

Continue reading “Greatest Batman Stories: Beware The Gray Ghost”

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The 30 Greatest Antiheroes in Fiction (Part 1 of 2)

The antihero captivates in a way that encapsulates why audiences love both heroes and villains. Their often tragic pasts, murky moral codes, and unconventional story arcs can often enrapture audiences in deeper, more human and relatable ways than traditional heroes while still giving them a reason to root for them to win. From bounty hunters to killers to criminals, antiheroes in films, television, and books are some of the most beloved and memorable characters ever created.

The following 30 characters are the best of the best, representing all sides of the antihero character archetype and showing what makes them truly special. Have your own personal favorites? Let me know in the comments section!

One point of clarification, some antiheroes eventually change into full-fledged heroes. Those that have spent the majority of their time in fiction being heroes are not included here, such as Han Solo. For some of these heroes, read The 50 Greatest Heroes of All Time.

Continue reading “The 30 Greatest Antiheroes in Fiction (Part 1 of 2)”

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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

great-pumpkin-50-anniversaryIt is 50 years to the day that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown debuted on CBS, hitting television screen on October 27, 1966. In the five decades since its debut, Great Pumpkin has remained one of the iconic Charlie Brown stories, and as the third Peanuts animated special ever made, it has remained highly influential on the public perception of Charles Schulz’s comic strip, second only to the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. And with good reason, this is perfect Peanuts storytelling that encapsulates everything special about this one-of-a-kind series.

Like all the great Peanuts specials, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is simple in its narrative style, restrained in its comedic tone, and primarily concerned with the inner lives of its beautiful characters. Set in the days leading up to Halloween and Halloween night itself, the special focuses equally on Linus Van Pelt and Charlie Brown, who each have their struggles surrounding the holiday. For Linus, it’s his often mocked belief in The Great Pumpkin, who he believes visits good boys and girls every Halloween in pumpkin patches to reward their faith. For Charlie, it’s his self-esteem and anxieties surrounding being finally invited to a party on Halloween night. It’s all informed by the classic Peanuts approach of having a sweet message supplied by child voice actors, which can never be completely successfully replicated outside of the franchise.

While Great Pumpkin may not pack the emotional resonance of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’s informed by a subversive commentary on faith. It’s interesting to see how Linus, the stalwart symbol of wisdom and knowledge in Peanuts, is troubled by something as silly as The Great Pumpkin, which can only be assumed is an orange and round version of the Easter Bunny. While Linus is often the most stable member of the Peanuts gang, his belief in The Great Pumpkin is shown as folly here. But while the other kids mock him, the story itself is never mocking. In fact, Linus’ resolute faith in the Great Pumpkin feels equally admirable and silly.

Continue reading “Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown””

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“Luke Cage” Season 1 Spoiler-Free Review

Powerful, Relevant Themes Weighed Down by Boring Storytelling

marvels-luke-cage-season-oneAfter his debut in 2015’s Netflix series Jessica Jones, iconic Marvel Comics hero Luke Cage stars in his own eponymous show from the streaming service. With a more relevant than ever focus on black lives and community violence, Luke Cage finds itself empowered by resonant themes and simultaneously hampered by some poor storytelling choices.

Set in Harlem, New York, and following the life of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) – a bulletproof and super strong African American man who is trying to make sense of his life and powers – Netflix’s Luke Cage is just as much about one man trying to do what is right as it is about a community being pulled between good and evil. And into this struggle come crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), arms dealer Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), and NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick).

As a whole, Luke Cage is strongest in its themes and characters and often weakest in its narrative and action. From the get go, the series hones in on its most powerful ideas, many of which are encapsulated in the character of Luke himself. From stunning tragedies early on in the show to powerful speeches concerning the value of black lives (Colter’s speech at the end of episode 2 concerning Crispus Attucks is incredibly moving and is possibly the emotional highpoint of the entire season), it’s clear that Luke Cage and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker have many important things to say about today’s society. However, these themes slowly move to the background as the season progresses, switching focus to the main storyline and its action sequences, neither of which are strong enough to suitably replace the powerful metaphors found at the series’ beginning.

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Star Trek at 50: The Enduring Meaning of Gene Roddenberry’s Message

Creator Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Series debuted on NBC on September 8, 1966, making today the official 50th anniversary of this massively influential science fiction franchise. Through soon-to-be seven television series, 13 films, and multiple book, comic book, and video game incarnations, Star Trek has grown to be one of the most important franchises in modern entertainment. But it wasn’t always the case.

Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek took two television pilots to go to series, which is highly uncommon, only for the series to struggle through consistently low ratings and an eventual cancellation after three seasons. But the world of Star Trek was incredibly vibrant, even in its early days, leading to an endlessly devoted fanbase of Trekkies that led to a follow-up animated series and multiple films before reaching its heyday in the 1990s. While the franchise has had rough patches over the years (most recently with the alternate timeline reboot leading to little more than three films in seven years), the heart and soul of the series has kept Star Trek endlessly relevant and constantly fascinating.

Roddenberry’s vision of the future is an ultimately optimistic one. One in which the people of Earth have found permanent peace by moving beyond violence and the discriminating lines of racism and sexism. But that’s not to say that the path to a better future was an easy one or that the people of a far better Earth are perfect. The fictional timeline leading up to the world of Star Trek was marked with numerous devastating wars, including The Eugenics Wars, World War II, and multiple wars with alien races once interstellar travel was established, including battles with both the Kzinti and the Romulans. The path to true progress and a better future was a painful one, making the idealistic future of Star Trek feel all the more real. But once humanity united as a people, a greater future beyond our planet was made possible.

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Every Superman: The Animated Series Episode Ranked, Part 2: #20 – 1

As part of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Superman: The Animated Series, we finish our countdown of every single episode of the cartoon. From the debuts of terrifying villains to humongous intergalactic clashes to team ups with a certain Dark Knight, these 20 episodes are the best stories ever offered by the DC Comics Books series.

For #45 to 21, read Part 1 of Every S:TAS Episode Ranked.

20. New Kids in Town

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There’s not nearly enough time spent in Smallville throughout the course of Superman: The Animated Series, so an entire episode set in Clark’s rural hometown is very welcome. Not only that, but it’s a time travel episode and it introduced the Legion of Super-Heroes! As Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Chameleon Boy chase a Brainiac from the 31st Century into the past, they wind up in Smallville at the time Clark Kent was a teenager. Of course, Brainiac is there to wipe him out of existence. It’s sort of like Back to the Future crossed with Superman, which is a great compliment. And while the Legionnaires themselves are a bit bland, young Clark and the time travel shenanigans make for a fun time.

19. Identity Crisis

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As a villain who is a polar opposite to Superman, Bizarro most often functions as either a joke character or a tragic one. Here, the emphasis is much more on the tragic and the result is far better than any follow-up stories featuring the character. In an attempt to replicate the alien physiology of Superman, Lex Luthor creates an imperfect clone whose biology quickly degrades into the monster known as Bizarro. It’s the twisted logic of Bizarro that makes him both hero and villain, as he cannot tell right from wrong. It all leads to a climactic showdown and a heroic sacrifice that caps off the tale in a most fitting manner.

Continue reading “Every Superman: The Animated Series Episode Ranked, Part 2: #20 – 1”

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Every Superman: The Animated Series Episode Ranked, Part 1: #45 – 21

September 6 marks the 20th anniversary of Superman: The Animated Series, creator Bruce Timm’s follow up cartoon series to Batman: The Animated Series. Premiering in 1996, S:TAS was the second entry in what would soon come to be known as the DC Animated Universe, eventually leading to the revival of B:TAS and the eventual premiere of the Justice League team-up series.

While S:TAS is not as fondly remembered as the Batman cartoon series that preceded it, Timm worked similar magic in this animated interpretation of The Man of Steel. From the character’s classic origins to his escalating battles with the villainous Darkseid and the legions of Apokolips, Superman: The Animated Series sought to bring every classic element of its hero to life faithfully.

Inspired by Max Fleischer’s cartoon serials of the 1940s, Jack Kirby’s 4th World comics, and John Byrne’s 1986 modern reboot of the character, Timm and his Warner Bros. team sought to make Superman: The Animated Series a tribute to both the classic and modern versions of the hero. Over the course of almost four years and 54 episodes, they created one of the best versions of Superman ever seen on screen.

Follow along for a celebratory ranking of every episode of Superman: The Animated Series, with multi-part episodes grouped together, and let us know your favorite episodes in the comment section below!

45. Superman’s Pal

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When Bruce Timm himself proclaims an episode to be the worst thing they ever did on the show, it’s hard to argue with the man. And Superman’s Pal, which focuses on Jimmy Olsen as he deals with overwhelming fame due to being identified as The Man of Steel’s best friend, is shoddy. It doesn’t get any better when Metallo is introduced as a last minute villain, who is defeated by Jimmy splashing battery acid on him. It’s all dumb. Let’s move on.

44. Unity

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S:TAS often found its greatest strengths in relying on well-established characters and pursuing a more classic sensibility in its storytelling. Unity does neither of those and it shows. Starring Supergirl (with Clark conveniently written out of the episode), Unity sees a roaming preacher come to Smallville who is actually a grotesque, tentacle monster who plans to take over the world one person at a time. It’s gross, dark, and weird, but not in a refreshing break from the normal episode sort of way. As such, it turns out to be a misfire in general.

Continue reading “Every Superman: The Animated Series Episode Ranked, Part 1: #45 – 21”

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“Stranger Things” Season 1 Review

Riveting Characters Meet Nostalgic ‘80s Mysteries

stranger-things-netflix-posterNostalgia for the ‘80s and its best loved stories has been running high in the last few years. From reappraisals of movies from the decade to both modern music and filmmaking that emulate the style of the decade, modern pop culture is in the midst of a love affair with the decade.

Into this atmosphere arrives Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-episode television series created by The Duffer Brothers that is not only set in the ‘80s, but takes narrative, character, and reference cues from the decade’s fondly remembered films. A hypnotic synth score recalls the works of John Carpenter while the central quest into the unknown is both scary and charming in a way that was often best captured by films of the ‘80s. But while the pure surge of nostalgia may be the initial draw for many fans, what Stranger Things does even better than lovingly transpose the techniques of the ‘80s is to tell a story that is so good that it does not need its nostalgic elements in order to succeed.

Set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983, the disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) sets off a chain of events that see the boy’s mother, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the boy’s friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), search for answers. Their quests lead them to the discovery of a monster from another dimension, a shady government agency, and a mysterious young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who possesses psychokinetic abilities. Like a blend between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, Stranger Things balances a sense of wonder with a sense of terror while anchoring its many mysteries in fantastic characters.

Continue reading ““Stranger Things” Season 1 Review”