Thursday, September 18, 2014

Third Age Thursday

"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. It can be a dangerous place, but it's our last, best hope for peace. This is the story of the last of the Babylon stations. The year is 2258. The name of the place is Babylon 5." - Jeffrey Sinclair

Welcome to a new feature here on UnfetteredBrilliance - "Third Age Thursday!" I had so much fun creating the "Walter White Wednesday" posts for the Wanna Cook? project that I decided to continue those weekly posts for the new project, which is gearing up now. Yep, Ensley and I are co-writing again - you can check out his blog here; he's got plans for weekly book-related posts, too - and this time, we're tackling Babylon 5, an American science fiction series that  deserves a book-length treatment to deal with all its incarnations.  See, Babylon 5 not only had five full-length television seasons, there were movies, spin-offs, canonical novels, short stories, and comics - and no one has ever collected material on all of it in one place. On top of that, Babylon 5 is the starting point for any discussion of the "long arc" on television - a fully-realized story spread out over these various media that was planned from the jump(gate). There has been a lot of information collected about the show over the years - it's been just over 20 years since the first episode was aired in January of 1994 - but assembling it all in one place (and with a word count!) hasn't been done, although the online Lurker's Guide does a yeoman's job.

We know this is a huge project and we know that Babylon 5 fans are passionate and we're bound to skim something that is near and dear to some fan's heart in the effort to cover everything (and keep to that pesky word count; our publisher wants one book, not a multi-volume set!) - but we promise to do it justice. After all, we're fans, too!

So please, follow the progress of Dreams Given Form: An Unofficial Guide to Babylon 5 by linking to these posts, following us on Twitter and using other forms of social media - and tell us what you want included! We've got our ideas (and our dreams regarding interviews!) but that doesn't mean we don't want to hear yours. The finished manuscript is due in a year (Sept. 1, 2015) with publication sometime in 2016 - we'll keep you informed as things progress.

Check back next Thursday!


Monday, September 15, 2014

Something Old, Something New . . .

I haven't done one of these in quite a while - here, I'm going to take a brief look at four movies that fit into the "Bridal Package" - something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

The "something old" really goes with the Bridal Package - it is James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, which I just used with the introduction to film class last week. I just love this movie for all sorts of reasons! One of those reasons is practical - Bride is short (75 mins.), so it can easily be shown in class without interruption. My class, who has already digested Metropolis and Dark City, seemed to really enjoy Whale's mix of dread, humor, and science-as-black-magic. There's so much to love in this movie that you really ought to treat yourself if you haven't seen it.

The "something new" is a realization that hit me while grading the latest stack of film responses from my class. For years, scholars have been howling in the wilderness that media images matter, so it matters that girls see female characters being active participants in stories rather than passive "women in refrigerators." By the same token (snicker!), it matters that people of color see themselves on screen, that disabled people see themselves on screen, etc., etc. Media images are tremendously powerful and the greatly shape how we view the world. Reading this most recent batch of papers, it occurred to me -

  • it's working. 

Really, it's working. My students (okay, too small a sampling to be statistically significant, but let me have this one, okay?) see passive female characters as the exception, as a remnant of the "old school." They expect women to be active, smart, and involved. Oh, there's still work to be done, no doubt about that, but all God's children said "amen."

The "something borrowed" is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Borrowed from the rental stack.) I re-watched this just last night over a supper of delicious, juicy homemade burgers and I had this driving desire to go get an apple pie for dessert. Cap2 is astonishingly good, not just as a superhero movie, but as a movie. Period. Full stop. Done in the style of a 70s spy thriller, Cap2 asks us some uncomfortable questions about security v. freedom, personal responsibility, and trust. Oddly enough, sitting quietly for a few minutes after the credits rolled was a great way to ponder the ways the world has changed since the events of 9/11, which continue to reverberate in our lives, whether or not we admit it.

. . . .and the "something blue" is the new release Dolphin Tale 2. (Blue for the water - see how this works?) You know, this actually is exactly as advertised - a heartwarming, sincere story. The power Winter the amputee dolphin has to connect with damaged humans and show them (and us) what is possible is well worth seeing. No darkness, no gritty "Sophie's Choices" to be made, heck - not even a villain. (The government agent who wants to remove Winter from the aquarium wants to do it because dolphins are social animals and need to be paired up with another dolphin; they do very poorly in captivity alone.)

So there you have it! Four films worth exploring all in a single column!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 116

As I wind down "Walter White Wednesday" as a regular feature here (don't worry; like Walt, it'll never truly go away), I'm trying to go out with a bang, so let me remind you again that Ensley F. Guffey and I are scheduled to do another signing down at the South Carolina coast - come see us at the North Myrtle Beach Books-A-Million on Saturday, September 13 beginning at 2 pm! Come out and say "hey," share a few Funyuns with us, trade Breaking Bad tales - heck, there may even be a taste of the blue for you if you know the lyrics to Badfinger's "Baby Blue"! Tell your friends and spread the word!

Also, don't forget that the "binge broadcast" is still going on every Sunday night on AMC - tune in beginning at 5 pm. For the hardcore fan, AMC has thoughtfully provided companion material!

Still can't get enough? Then you need tickets to the first Breaking Bad Fest which is being held in (where else?) Albuquerque, Duke City, ABQ itself! Click here for details - the guest list keeps growing!

And just to help you with the "Baby Blue" challenge . . . 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Moving Like Clockwork

With my regular "Walter White Wednesday" feature winding down as the Next Big Project (Mark this space! Coming mid-September!) gets running, I decided to shift gears for this post and discuss my ongoing film class, which involves both challenges and triumphs.

This class - a basic Introduction to Film course - came about suddenly. Very suddenly. So many monkey wrenches were thrown into the mix that it started to resemble an elimination challenge from Top Chef, only with film instead of quinoa. Take the class off-campus to a local high school as part of a Broadcast Technology track. Compress the class into six weeks. Ditch any kind of textbook. Have wonky Internet connections. Not sure how many students there will be, but we'll keep it under thirty. And the kids will probably be set up to use the college's educational platform by the end of Week 2, which is one-third of the way through the class.


How in the name of D.W. Griffith was I going to pull this one off? I mean, this was crazy. Nuts. Insane. Bonkers.

Fortunately, cooler heads than mine prevailed. Breathe, and pull focus. Take another look, sharpen the view, and see what's there. So after some re-vamping of an existing syllabus (that felt a lot like slashing-and-burning), I had a Plan and part of the Plan was to build in some flexibility. High schools run differently than colleges and sometimes they forget to tell me stuff, so my class will be cut short some days, or I'll have extra time that I didn't know about, so I don't get to the school on time.

Flexibility and a sense of humor will get you far in this life, Grasshopper. I just wish I could remember that more.

At any rate, they've (turned out to be a tiny group of bright, eager students, so much yay! there) learned some basic terms by now and have seen their first film. For that, I selected Fritz Lang's Metropolis because I don't have time to fool around. I gave them a little background and let the film do the rest. Perhaps they're being polite (I doubt it), but they really seemed to enjoy the challenges of watching a full-length silent picture. Yes, they had a few issues with the exaggerated acting style and some of the jumpy scene cuts (I use a restored version, but it's still not completely complete, so there are a few jarring edits). And - far more importantly to me - they picked up on the themes with minimal prodding from me.

We'll see where this goes. Tomorrow, they start Proyas' Dark City, which I think will be an excellent counterpoint to Lang's elegant Expressionism. Ah, neo-noir, with your hard-boiled detectives, throaty torch singers, cars that go on forever, and languid cigarette smoke. You're a tough style to sell, but when you're beautiful, you're show-stopping.

And, in both, so many clocks! What could they mean?

Hmm.  I'll have to wait for my students to tell me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 115

Since Breaking Bad concluded its run with the incredible "Felina" last September, Monday night's broadcast of the Primetime Emmy Awards was the show's final chance to take home some of the golden girls. Typically, Breaking Bad did not disappoint. Having already won a Creative Arts Emmy Award for outstanding editing for "Felina" (yay for Skip MacDonald, who also worked on Buffy back in the day), Breaking Bad took home Emmy Awards for Best Drama Series (the second in a row), Best Lead Actor in a Drama (Bryan Cranston, winning his fifth!), Best Supporting Actress in a Drama (Anna Gunn, taking home her second in a row), Best Supporting Actor in a Drama (Aaron Paul, taking home his third), and Outstanding Writing (Moira Walley-Beckett for the amazing "Ozymandias"). Vince Gilligan did not receive the Best Directing award, which I think is a shame - do they think "Felina" directed itself? Still, it's unseemly to complain with those results. (And yes, Walt, we know. You won. Really, you did.)

AMC continues the "binge broadcast" every Sunday night beginning at 5 pm and going until 1 am - check that out if you can handle that much depravity in an evening! AMC has thoughtfully provided companion material for binge watchers!

Speaking of companion material, Ensley F. Guffey and I are scheduled to do another signing down at the South Carolina coast - come see us at the North Myrtle Beach Books-A-Million on Saturday, September 13 beginning at 2 pm! We'd love to see you, talk Breaking Bad and even give you a taste of the blue! Tell your friends and spread the word!

And, since Ensley already posted the hysterical "pawn shop" skit with Cranston and Paul (click here for that post), let's take a moment to remember how things could have ended . . .

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Life in Black and White

It's extremely unusual these days for a wide-release movie to be filmed in black and white. (Oh, sure, the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist was [and it was a silent film, to boot], but that was a case of the exception proving the rule.) But just this week I've seen two new releases that are primarily filmed* in B&W, with radically different results. So let's take a look at Sin City 2 and The Giver, which actually have more similarities than you might think at first glance.\

Sin City 2 is the prequel/sequel to 2005's Sin City, which first brought Frank Miller's stark B&W neo-noir graphic novels to the screen. While Miller is listed as a director (along with Quentin Tarentino), the film is primarily Robert Rodriguez's effort. Stunning in its faithfulness to the original source material, audiences flocked to the first Sin City, for nothing like this had been seen.

But nine years have passed. Sin City 2 was stuck in pre-production hell for a while and the finished film suffers as a result. Several roles had to be recast - Brittany Murphy (Shellie) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute) had both passed away, and scheduling conflicts necessitated a few other changes, including substituting Josh Brolin for Clive Owen in the role of Dwight. Sin City 2 is based on four Miller stories - two of which were written for the film - and that may have been a mistake. (Again, the film is both a prequel and a sequel - if you go, just enjoy the ride and don't try to figure out how "B" could happen when "A" happened in the first film.) Sin City 2 feels stitched together; possibly the result of trying to cover too many stories. Then again, I understand the temptation with a cast this strong. Mickey Rourke is back as stone-cold killer Marv and Powers Boothe chews the scenery as the sociopathic senator Roark (no relation, I'm sure). Jessica Alba's Nancy seems tacked on to the story - I much prefer Miho in this film, but I always had a weakness for that character, anyway. The breakout performance here is undoubtedly Eva Green's Ava, the "Dame to Kill For" of the subtitle, although a strong case could also be made for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Visually, Sin City 2 is gorgeous. The stark black and white is shot through with pops of vivid color - red lips, a blue silk coat, emerald eyes, and so on, but some of the most memorable shots involve the black and white - look for Nancy curling up in satin sheets - and cigarette smoke hasn't been this sexy in years. The problem is, even as lush as it is, we've seen this before - and the stories are so-so. Ultra-violent in that Miller style (if you haven't read his "Dark Knight" work, do yourself a favor and seek it out), Sin City 2 is stylish and slick, but ultimately, not all that much to get excited about. I saw it in 3D, which just didn't add a lick to the experience. Rental.

The Giver is also shot primarily in B&W, but for other reasons. In Sin City 2, the B&W is a deliberate attempt to harken back to the noir feel of the graphic novels, while in The Giver it serves a narrative purpose - the people living in the "Communities" can't see color. Well, most of them, anyway. It's a very peaceful society; quite the opposite of Miller's (Ba)sin City, but it's just as corrupt at the core. Based on Lois Lowry's best-selling and Newberry Award -winning young adult dystopian novel, The Giver centers around some very basic questions - is safety worth sacrificing emotion? Is it a sacrifice if you don't know any other option is out there? How much control over your life should be entrust to others? Valuable questions to examine, but the film falls flat. It departs substantially from the novel in a few key places and a dream cast is basically left with not much to do. Seriously - Meryl Streep [18 Oscar nominations with 3 wins for Kramer v. Kramer, Sophie's Choice and The Iron Ladyand Jeff Bridges [six Oscar nominations with 1 win for Crazy Heart] should be an embarrassment of riches. Bridges gets to sink his teeth into his role, Streep doesn't, and Katie Holmes shouldn't view this exactly as her triumphant return to the big screen. On the plus side, The Giver is a good vehicle for Brenton Thwaites (Jonas) who is breaking into American films. His last role was as Prince Phillip in Maleficent, where he didn't have much to do. Here, he gets to show off his chops and Thwaites comes out of this standing tall.  Keep your eye on him. The Giver isn't bad - in fact, there are some very touching bits that I daresay the target audience will cling to and there was one montage about "receiving strength" that nearly had me tear up. It's just not that good, either. Read the book instead. Rental.

*I suppose it's not quite accurate to use the term "filmed" since most movies nowadays aren't shot on film stock anymore, but rather on digital media. Still, the old term dies hard and I'm so glad the term "talkie" never really caught on.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 114

Can they do it again this year?
The Emmy Awards are coming soon! For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Emmys are being broadcast on a Monday night, so make your plans for Monday, August 25 and tune in to NBC to find out if Breaking Bad has a big night - remember, the show is nominated for a whopping 16 of the golden girls!

Ensley and I have been busy talking up Breaking Bad and having a whale of a good time doing it. This past Saturday, we were part of Barnes & Noble's "Get Pop-Cultured" event and we had a wonderful time at the Winston-Salem, NC location talking to fans and swapping stories. Ensley wrote up the event over on his blog and he also talked about our guest spot on CultureSmash as well as our initial "The Ten Percent" column on the site.

We're also gearing up to start drafting Dreams Given Form, our exciting new project for ECW that will have us delving into All Things Babylon 5 for the next year-plus.

Therefore, I think you'll understand if Walter White Wednesday starts to wind down a bit. Oh, I'll still post about Breaking Bad - you can count on that! But I'm going to take a week off, then write about the Emmy results, and then it may be time to let Walter White rest in peace, if he can.

But we've still got Saul!  Have you seen the teaser?  Although Better Call Saul won't air until February of 2015, already I'm getting excited!  How'd Jimmy McGill turn into Saul Goodman? Oh, there's a story to be told!

See you after the Emmys!