Thursday, October 16, 2014

Third Age Thursday 5

"It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night."   - Jeffrey Sinclair

Welcome back to Third Age Thursdayan ongoing feature here at Unfettered Brilliance! Along with Ensley, who's posting the wonderfully-named "Tuesdays with Mollari" over on his blog (click here for the latest!), these posts are written to keep you up to date on the writing and publication of Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5. Please feel free to comment, re-post, tweet, plus-one, pin, and use all sorts of other ways to pass along the news that a comprehensive Babylon 5 book is in the works with publication ETA sometime in 2016. And remember that you can always search through these posts to find all the "Third Age" posts by using the search feature on the right. Just use "Babylon 5" or "Third Age" as your search term.

For this "Third Age Thursday," I wanted to talk about conflict. Sure, we hate it in our everyday lives (well, most of us do), but without it, drama gets pretty darned dull. As I've been known to tell my film and theatre students, "Yes, we like calm in our personal lives, but I'm not paying out good money to watch people get along." So a key way in to any piece of drama is to figure out the "versus" of the piece - whether that's "Man v. Shark" (Jaws), "Luke v. Darth Vader" (Return of the Jedi), "Frodo v. All the Hordes of Mordor" (LotR). You get the idea.

There's no worry about running out of conflicts on Babylon 5. While there are many, many, MANY conflicts we can discuss here, let's just take a teensy glimpse at one of the core conflicts that will play out over five seasons. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to direct your attention to the Council Chamber, where you can view two ambassadors, both working for the benefit of their people and hating each other with a fiery passion, G'Kar of Narn (played by the late Andreas Katsulas) and Londo Mollari of the Centauri Republic (played by Peter Jurasik).

The Narns had been slaves of the Centauri Republic for many years and many Centauri still view the Narn race as primitive, barbaric, and less-than. As far as the Narn are concerned, the Centauri are a race of bloated, privileged, cruel people who can never be trusted. As the story of Babylon 5 slowly unfolds, viewers see that there is much more to this two incredible characters, who are gradually revealed to be foils to one another. In fact, their stories are so intertwined that it's impossible to imagine the show without this anchoring conflict.

JMS saw this all-important relationship as being central to the story of Babylon 5 as well. He's claimed that he would look at the filming schedule to be sure that he was present for scenes that involved both of these two intense characters, knowing that he'd be certain to see something extraordinary.

Yes, there are many other conflicts that are worth talking about on Babylon 5, but this is where it all starts.





Sunday, October 12, 2014

Families Are Tough

Before I go any further, let me say how great it is to have the late summer doldrums over with! Seriously, both of these are good, solid films that deserve to be seen. For some reason, the studios prefer to release their "prestige" pictures in the last quarter of the year - this probably has to do with the perceived short attention span of awards voters, but October is when you start seeing the "good stuff for grown ups."

In his novel Anna Karenina, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote that "all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It may well be a universal truth, as opposed to something that Tolstoy had specific insight into by dint of his Russian-ness. At any rate, Tolstoy's principle is on display in two new releases - Gone Girl, which deals with the husband/wife relationship, and The Judge, which deals with the father/son relationship.

So - Gone Girl. I have to admit that I was supposed to read the novel for my book club quite a while back, but it was during an incredibly hectic time and this one slipped by me. Therefore, I stayed spoiler free and cannot comment on how the movie compares to the book, although I was pleased to see that the author, Gillian Flynn, was responsible for the screenplay. Directed by David Fincher (of Se7en, Fight Club, and The Social Network, among others), this film is stylish and slippery. If you've ever wondered what the literary critic folks mean when they talk about an "unreliable narrator," watch this film - both Amy Dunne and her husband Nick are telling only partial stories. Not that the media does any better here, content instead to go for the sensational sound bite rather than digging for anything resembling facts. There's much in here about distrust, psychopathy, and our willingness to rush to judgment on flimsy circumstantial evidence. Strong performances all the way around, with Ben Affleck reminding viewers that his strengths aren't just as a director and the astonishing Rosamund Pike leaving me breathless more than once. It's also worth mentioning that Tyler Perry is actually capable of more subtlety than his drag role of Medea and Neil Patrick Harris has a quiet menace that you don't necessarily expect from his Barney role on How I Met Your Mother. Truly - every aspect of this film is worthy of praise, from the casting of small roles to the deconstructed industrial soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. All that said, I saw a group of seven teenage girls walk out part way through, no doubt expecting a romantic thriller rather than an exploration of infidelity and psychopathy. Be warned. 

Meanwhile, in The Judge the focus is on the fractured relationship between a brash son (Robert Downey Jr.) and his prickly, upright father (Robert Duvall). Downey's Hank is the middle son, with his older brother (Vincent D'Onofrio) staying behind in Small Town, Indiana (not its real name, but seriously - the town is a John Mellencamp song) following the crushing loss of his own dreams to help take care of his younger, mentally challenged brother (played with remarkable grace by classically trained actor Jeremy Strong). While the plot and characters could easily have become a quickly-sketched cliche, the actors here rise above that to create a film that shows tenderness and depth. Hank's an ass, but he's a really good lawyer. His father was unyielding and intractable, and his own stubborn adherence to his personal code creates massive problems for those who, despite their better judgment, love him. I really think Vera Farmiga as Hank's old flame should be singled out for praise - it would have been simple to make her a rapidly-drawn cartoon, but she approaches the role with flair and verve. I may have enjoyed this one more due to my own training as an attorney - I saw some of the legal issues and problems before some others in the theater did - but I still think The Judge is well worth seeing. 



Thursday, October 9, 2014

Third Age Thursday 4

"It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night."   - Jeffrey Sinclair

Welcome back to Third Age Thursdayan ongoing feature here at Unfettered Brilliance! Along with Ensley, who's posting the wonderfully-named "Tuesdays with Mollari" over on his blogthese posts are written to keep you up to date on the writing and publication of Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5. Please feel free to comment, re-post, tweet, plus-one, pin, and use all sorts of other ways to pass along the news that a comprehensive Babylon 5 book is in the works with publication ETA sometime in 2016. And remember that you can always search through these posts to find all the "Third Age" posts by using the search feature on the right. Just use "Babylon 5" or "Third Age" as your search term.

At this stage of the project, I'm still in Season 1. What I wasn't really expecting was to enjoy it so much! Let's face it, most shows struggle a bit in the first season to find their footing - the actors are still getting comfortable with each other, the writers are figuring out who can deliver deadpan lines and who is better at purple prose, design folks are still working the fine details (Londo's hair, for example, gave JMS fits throughout Season 1). In Babylon 5 almost all the seeds that would sprout such fantastic stories are planted by midway in the first season and are lovingly tended. Case in point - the introduction of Morden in episode 13, "Signs and Portents." The answer to the question "What do you want?" matters a great deal in this universe - and the answers change. (Plus, I love that Morden was a lowly C&C tech in "The Gathering." No, it's not significant, but it's one of those cool details that I just love.


These characters, while not all human, are human in the sense of being relatable. They have flaws and foibles - look at Garibaldi's struggle to maintain sobriety in "Survivors." They can show remarkable kindness and compassion - honestly, if Londo's line in "The War Prayer" about "tight shoes" doesn't get to you, check yourself for gills. You might not be human. Does everything totally work? No, of course not. The character of Catherine Sakai (played by Julia Nickson) never really worked for me and the computer generated effects look clunky by today's standards. So what? It is often said that the best science fiction explores the Big Questions - what values we hold, how we make the big decisions that affect our lives and how we live those lives in the first place. It also considers how we react to injustice, to love, to loss, and to fear. In short, the best science fiction explores what it means to be human. In that, JMS succeeded marvelously - and he did it for five seasons, plus a host of television movies, spin-offs, novels, comics, and even a cookbook!

That's right - a cookbook.

<*>

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Third Age Thursday 3

 "It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night." 
- Jeffrey Sinclair

Welcome back to Third Age Thursday, an ongoing feature here at Unfettered Brilliance! Along with Ensley, who's posting the wonderfully-named "Tuesdays with Mollari" over on his blog (click here for the latest!), these posts are written to keep you up to date on the writing and publication of Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5. Please feel free to comment, re-post, tweet, plus-one, pin, and all sorts of other ways to pass along the news that a comprehensive Babylon 5 book is in the works! And remember that you can always search through these posts to find all the "Third Age" posts by using the search feature on the right. Just use "Babylon 5" or "Third Age" as your search term.

In this post, I want to talk about an issue that doesn't come up all that much on network television even now, twenty years after the initial broadcast of Babylon 5 - major characters who suffer from mental illness. We've come a long way from being expected to believe that a cop can blithely shoot any number of bad guys and still be just jim-dandy to have on the job, and that's a good thing. I don't think taking a life should be depicted as being easy, even if the situation and circumstances leave the character with little choice. I want to see a character who's gone through something so difficult to wrestle with it, not to simply take a long weekend in Vegas and be back at work whistling "Dixie."

Babylon 5 got that right.


Just look at Season 1 - Jeffrey Sinclair, who is shown to be a capable commander, a competent administrator, and a skilled fighter, struggles with the aftermath of the Earth-Minbari War. While I'm not flat-out saying that Sinclair suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") brought on by his experiences in that horrific conflict, others have been quite willing to go in that direction. However, it is undeniable that he certainly shows symptoms that are consistent with that diagnosis* and that is the centerpiece of the Season 1 episode "And the Sky Full of Stars." In that episode, we see Sinclair as a man haunted by his actions, even the ones he's not entirely sure he took. His mind is presented as fragmented and disjointed, a far cry from the pulled-together multitasker that is his public persona. Viewers have known from "The Gathering" that Sinclair has "a hole in [his] mind," and maybe those enigmatic words shouldn't have been dismissed as the ravings of a lone madman. However, we don't see Sinclair repeatedly wrestling with these demons and being laid low by them - as the writer of the linked piece puts it, Sinclair has "PTSD in a can."


For Michael O'Hare, who played the role of Commander Sinclair with authority and sensitivity, this was not the case. For years, speculation swirled around his abrupt departure after Season 1, but not much was spoken about the issue over the years. Then, in 2012 - and far too soon - O'Hare passed away and JMS felt free to speak about the issue, thereby putting some rumors to rest and, in the process, making me admire both men that much more.


You see, O'Hare knew Sinclair all too well. O'Hare suffered from paranoia and delusions that rendered working nearly impossible - there was a point in which O'Hare was combing through newspapers looking for secret messages that had been planted there for him. JMS considered shutting down production of Babylon 5 to give O'Hare the time necessary to seek treatment - maybe there was a combination of medications and other treatments that could push the monsters back under the bed - but O'Hare wouldn't have it. Shutting down production meant that dozens of people - from actors to grips to caterers - would lose their jobs. He'd find a way to tough it out. And that's what he did, by the skin of his teeth and the clawing of his nails. JMS worked with him (and his family) for a solid year, then brought him back to finish his arc. Once that was done, JMS swore he'd keep O'Hare's secret to his grave, but O'Hare interrupted him and said:


"No. You don't have to. Keep it 'til my grave. Because if anything ever happens to me, I want people to know . . . because people need to know if there's a problem in their family, if this can happen to an actor, a star of a show, the commander of a station, it can happen to anyone and it's not a scandalous thing; it can be dealt with."


And it was - for a time. O'Hare married, started a family, and began working again. But at some point, for reasons that remain unclear, O'Hare went off his medication and disappeared. He emerged in a halfway house and continued to struggle with his mental illness until his death in 2012.


Compared to the real story, Sinclair had a walk in the park.


<*>



* As does Chief of Security Michael Garibaldi, but that's a separate discussion.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Of Trolls & Vampires

On the "new" side of things, I went to see Laika's latest, The Boxtrolls. Sigh. It's another entry in the "meh" parade, although a very pretty one. This makes me sad, as I really, really wanted to like this movie. Laika is the studio behind Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012), both of which were visually ground-breaking and told strong stories. Here, the visuals remain truly stunning, but the story isn't what it could (and should) be. It's cute and cute is fine when one is talking about kittens and babies. But for movies, I want more. The elements are there - Boxtrolls has some sophisticated jokes (especially two of the henchmen who find themselves wondering about the good guy/bad guy binary) to leaven the gross-out jokes about cheese consumption and the story has some nods towards class structures, privilege, rank, how we treat the different among us, and how quick we are to believe the worst stories we hear - but it never quite jells, which is a crying shame. A wonderfully talented voice cast (including Ben Kingsley, Nick Frost, and a tiny role for Simon Pegg) helps, but overall Boxtrolls is a rental, not a must-see.

You know what is a must see? (That's a segueway for you!) The granddaddy of all vampire films, F.W. Murnau's 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu. Seriously - this is a must-see for any film buff. Despite some changes to the names of characters and setting, Nosferatu is widely considered to be the first adaptation of Stoker's Dracula. The Stoker family certainly thought it was, as they sued the bejeezus out of the production company for copyright infringement. They won the lawsuit and all copies of the film were ordered to be destroyed, but fortunately, pirated copies remained. This is the film that Lauren Bacall insisted her granddaughter watch after dragging Bacall to see Twilight. Ensley and I are leading a viewing-and-discussion of Nosferatu as part of Cleveland Community College's upcoming month-long celebration of All Things Spooky (okay, not the actual name, but you get the idea). We'll show Nosferatu in the Rose Library at 5 pm on Tuesday, October 7 with discussion to follow. Come on out and see a silent movie so terrifying that it was banned in Sweden until 1972! (Really. It was.) Hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Third Age Thursday 2

Main Cast - Season 1
"It was the dawn of the third age of mankind, ten years after the Earth-Minbari War. The Babylon Project was a dream given form. Its goal: to prevent another war by creating a place where humans and aliens could work out their differences peacefully. It's a port of call, home away from home for diplomats, hustlers, entrepreneurs, and wanderers. Humans and aliens wrapped in two million, five hundred thousand tons of spinning metal, all alone in the night." - Jeffrey Sinclair

Welcome back to Third Age Thursday, an ongoing feature here at UnfetteredBrilliance! Along with Ensley, who's posting the wonderfully-named "Tuesdays with Mollari" over on his blog (click here for the latest!), these posts are written to keep you up to date on the writing and publication of Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Universe of Babylon 5. Please feel free to comment, re-post, tweet, plus-one, pin, and all sorts of other ways to pass along the news that a comprehensive Babylon 5 book is in the works! And remember that you can always search through these posts to find all the "Third Age" posts by using the search feature on the right. Just use "Babylon 5" or "Third Age" as your search term. 

Last week, I talked a little about the "why" of the project and this week, I want to talk a little about what I'm finding as I go through Season 1 for the project.

Creator J. Michael Straczynski (from here on out, just "JMS" to save time) envisioned Babylon 5 as a novel in television form, with each season being a part of the traditional novel structure. This makes Season 1 the exposition. In a novel, this is the portion where the writer sets up the chessboard, letting the reader know who, what, when, where, and why. Themes and motifs that the writer plans to explore are planted here and revisited as the novel unfolds. The problem JMS faced was that - well, no one saw television as being suitable to tell those sorts of stories. He stuck to his guns, though and television is better for it. Londo's prophetic dream of events twenty years in the future, the spooky Psi Corps, the key questions of "Who are you?" and "What do you want?" - all are introduced in the first half dozen episodes.

Before a show airs, a sample episode - a "pilot" - is produced to give executives a taste of the overall vision. For Babylon 5, it's especially interesting to compare "The Gathering" which can be viewed as the prettied-up-for-broadcast pilot to "Midnight on the Firing Line" which is the first episode that actually aired. Much is the same, but wow! are there some differences, including some casting changes. (In and of itself, not that unusual - the pilot episode for Whedon's Buffy, for example, looks much rougher by comparison. Then again, that's a pilot that remains unaired, so the effects weren't cleaned up. You almost expect them to hold up a sign that says, "Put vampire-dust-poof here." Oh, and Willow is played not by Alyson Hannigan, but by another actress named Riff Regan.) JMS was clever here - changes were necessary from the pilot to "Midnight," but roles (the chief medical officer and and Sinclair's second-in-command) weren't simply recast. Instead, the roles themselves change and we learn in "Midnight" that Dr. Benjamin Kyle (played by Johnny Sekka) and Laurel Takashima (played by Tamlyn Tomita) had both left the station for posts on Earth, which paved the way for Dr. Franklin and Susan Ivanova, who would become key players in the Bablyon 5 universe.

Oh, and the minor role of a technician named Guerra - well, there's a face we'll be seeing again.

Such careful planning. It's that attention to tiny details that sets Babylon 5 apart from the herd. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Twists & Turns

I saw two new releases this weekend - This Is Where I Leave You and The Maze Runner. I have to say, I had high hopes for both and, for me, neither quite reached their potential.

This Is Where I Leave You boasts a dream cast of actors who have shown they have the chops to quickly pivot from comedy to drama to back again - Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, and Jane Fonda all have talent to spare, and Adam Driver (who plays the youngest, screw-up son in this - shall we say, "colorful" - family) has shown great promise. Directed by Shawn Levy of the surprisingly heartwarming Real Steel and the Night at the Museum movies and drawing on the well-received novel written by Jonathan Tropper, this movie about the emotional homecoming of a family following the death of the father just doesn't quite achieve anything lasting. As I watched this family try painfully to reach beyond childhood slights, hurts, and regrets, I was pulling for them - I wanted to care; but by skipping over the everyday "how we got here" parts and only focusing on the highlights, much was lost. It's not a bad movie, but somehow it feels hollow. It's a shame, as parts of it are laugh-out-loud funny and other parts are touching, but the sum just doesn't equal the parts on this one.

The Maze Runner has a different set of twists and turns. Here, instead of dealing with the maze of the human heart, it's far more literal. Boys find themselves in "the Glade," an oasis of green surrounded by very tall walls that lead to an impenetrable maze. At night, the opening to the maze closes, the maze re-arranges itself, and scary critters stalk the maze, eager to mindlessly attack and kill any unfortunate enough to be caught in the labyrinth at night. Once a month, a freight elevator deposits a load of supplies and a new boy, absent any memories of life outside, into the Glade. Over the course of three years, the boys haven't gone feral in the manner of Lord of the Flies; they've actually built up a workable society. Then comes Thomas. It's an interesting premise but the plot holes are wide enough to drive a supply truck through, which is disappointing. There are young actors in here who deserve better material instead, they got a cheap set-up. The Maze Runner is based on (surprise!) a series of young adult novels that Hollywood licked its chops to option, hoping for a built-in franchise and the entire two hour movie is exposition. And yes, environmental dystopia is the theme and the filmmakers cheat with too much handheld camera work and night filming. Oh, it's fun enough, provided you don't think too hard about the plot.

Honestly, this week - two swings and two misses.