Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Space, Pets, Giants, and Ghosts

I've been doing a fair amount of plate-spinning lately, so this post will be a bit of a mixed bag. Those who dare, venture onward!

First off, the Babylon 5 project has entered the Crusade phase. We've finished with the movies, some of which are pretty good and a couple of which, well - a couple of which aren't so great, and we've moved into the short-lived spinoff, which certainly has some behind-the-scenes drama. At any rate, we leave for vacation Friday and are under strict orders from our lovely editor to not work on vacation, so my goal is to have all of Crusade annotated before we skedaddle. We got a little behind here since we also needed to prepare our panels for the local Comic Con. Our first panel was on Babylon 5 and we were pleased at the enthusiasm of the audience. Hopefully, that event will happen again and we'll have even more to discuss!

Second, if you enjoyed Breaking Bad (you know I did; Ensley and I wrote a book about it!), check for deep discounts on Amazon and buy yourself Showtime's Ray DonovanCurrently in Season 4, this show about a Irish Southie transplanted to sunny L.A. where he works as a "fixer" to clean up the messes of the rich and famous while his own family's complications pile up is one of the best things I've seen in a while. I'm late to the party on this one, but I expect to enjoy Liev Schreiber and the amazing cast of Ray Donovan for quite a while. (About the cast - it's beyond amazing! When you can get Elliott Gould and James Woods in supporting roles - well, you run with that!) Mind you, it's dark and violent and profane and certainly not for the kiddies, so please keep that in mind.

OK - movie news and thoughts. Sorry these are so short this go-round, but needs must.

The Secret Life of Pets - get there early; there's a short. Much like what Pixar does, Illumination Entertainment put a cartoon (this one features the Minions) in before the movie itself. I saw this in a theater teeming with children who seemed to eat up this adventurous tale of dogs roaming the city while their owners are away. Good vocal talent, and one lovely scene that's a nod to Busby Berkeley 1930s musicals. Plus Kevin Hart as a homicidal bunny and Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet as an extremely unkempt Newfoundland. Fast-paced and funny, but not an automatic classic.

The BFG is getting creamed at the box office and that's a shame. It's a solid picture, with a breakout performance by Ruby Barnhill as Sophie (named for author Roald Dahl's granddaughter). Penelope Wilton (you saw her in Shaun of the Dead and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, plus she's Harriet Jones in the rebooted Dr. Who) is the Queen of England, complete with corgis and is having a wonderful time. Mark Rylance, fresh off his Oscar win for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, voices the BFG.

The detail that went into creating this one is astonishing - three differently-sized sets? - and the end result is visually stunning. I think the pace might just be too languid for most audiences, especially if they're expecting the frenetic pace of Dory and Pets. Also, this is not a kids' film that has much in it for adults. (That's the trick Pixar has perfected, you know.) Further, Dahl never had a problem addressing the darker side of things and Disney didn't quite know how to market that. It's a beautiful, sweet movie and everything turns out all right in the end - it deserves a bigger audience than it's getting.

Lastly, let's talk Ghostbusters. It's beyond a pity; it's a crying shame that in 2016, there's a small segment of men who are so scared of women that they deliberately run down a film, hoping to make it tank at the box office. But ever since this reboot was announced, that's been happening. Leslie Jones, who is PHENOMENAL in this film, has been driven off Twitter by racist, hateful squawking from men who have enough trouble with women, but add race into it and I'm surprised their pinheads didn't just 'splode. So let me attempt to be fair here.

It's a good movie. I wasn't sure about a reboot, as I like the original one tremendously. But there are enough original jokes in here, with enough nods to the original, to make it worth your while. You get cameos from all the original Ghostbusters (yes, even Egon), as well as Annie Potts and (yes!) Sigourney Weaver - even the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man shows up. There's a bonus if you stay all the way to the end, so make plans to do that. While Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are funny, Jones and Kate McKinnon nearly steal the show. The only reason they don't is due to Chris Hemsworth, who plays Kevin, a lovable, brainless lunk whose multiple eccentricities manage to be charming. Did I love all of it? Nope - especially not the re-worked theme song, but there's plenty here to keep you entertained through your popcorn.

OK. That's it until August. Enjoy these dog days of summer and try hard to pass them in a nice, air-conditioned theater!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

"Based on a True Story"

Recently, I've been up to my chin in Season 5 of Babylon 5 for the upcoming Dreams Given Form project. Season 5 is now drafted and will be off to our intrepid editor in the next day or two - Ensley and I always write, then breathe, and then check each other's drafts before we send the first draft off to our editor. Since Season 5 serves as the denouement in the structure of JMS' television novel, it's quieter in places than earlier seasons (and truth be told, there's one storyline I'm not a gigantic fan of, but I'll grudgingly agree that it's there for a solid reason). But it also contains some gut-punches of episodes. So it's been quite a ride. The movies and Crusade are next for me.

But we've had a little down time, and we used it to (of course!) check out movies for the C19TV show we host Meet Me at the Movies. (We're available through streaming, remember! Click here for details!) On top of spending a few mindless evening devouring Rifftrax on Hulu - with their help, I finally made it all the way through the genuinely godawful Plan 9 from Outer Space and we also caught the extraordinary weird early films Maniac and the so-inaccurate-it's-hilarious Reefer Madness - we also caught two first-run films that seem to have nothing in common and then I realized that they both purport to be based on true stories.

And aside from that, Free State of Jones and The Conjuring 2 have nothing - NOTHING - in common. To begin with, I liked Free State.

Set in Mississippi during the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period, Free State is the story of Newton Knight, a dirt farmer conscripted into serving as a medic for the Confederacy. The problem is that Knight sees the entire conflict as "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Like a massive number of Southern soldiers, Knight owns no slaves and doesn't much care for the laws passed by the Confederacy that allowed rich men who did to ride out the war well away from the front lines. He eventually deserts and goes home to his farm, where he discovers that the poor farmers he grew up with are barely scraping by, since most of their crops, hogs, and other livestock are being "requisitioned" by the Confederacy to feed the troops. Few men remain behind, so it's women and thin children being starved and scared. Unable to live quietly - deserters aren't popular with any army - Knight eventually becomes the de facto commander of an army of deserters who might not exactly be Union sympathizers, but they surely hate the Confederacy's high-handedness. That's an attitude that only grows after the war ends and things remain bad, bad, bad.

There's a bit of the "white savior" problem in Free State, and Matthew McConaughey's Knight is terribly enlightened for his time. Then again, I've often said, "Don't get your history from movies." You can easily fact-check Free State (try here or here, for example!) So, take it with a grain of salt. But I quite enjoyed it - even the storyline of the 1948 case of Davis Knight that's interspersed in the film kept my interest. Race is a problem in this country and it has been for a long, long time. That doesn't mean it must always be that way, but Free State gives you an inkling of just how high those walls we're trying to tear down were originally built.

The Conjuring 2, on the other hand, claims to be based on the "true story" of Ed and Lorraine Warren ghost-hunting in England. Similar to the first film - and Annabelle, which tells the story of a creepy haunted doll (the real one is a Raggedy Ann doll, which you just can't make scary) - such claims are hogwash. The Warrens are hucksters and flim-flam artists of the first order and the liberties taken with this film continue that trend. Their Website is laughably bad - misspellings and other errors that I would never let a student get by with adorn its pages, which look to have been designed in the mid-90s. While I'll admit to being open to the idea that some places/things are certainly creepy and that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," the Warrens are distilled nonsense. (Plus, there's no actual "conjuring," a problem I had with the first movie as well.)

Whatever, scary movies don't have to be true. What really got me about Conjuring 2 was how well it reinforces the notion that horror movies tend to be incredibly conservative in their messages. Think about it - the girl who enjoys sex usually gets killed first (and often in a way that can be read as a substitute for penetration), and the virgin is usually the one to survive. In this film, so much comes down to "single motherhood is bad." (As is showing skin - Lorraine Warren's nightgowns and other costumes are practically Victorian.) The film has some worthy jump scares, but I'm still unsure why it's rated R. Language isn't terrible, no nudity, and no graphic violence. Plenty scary for young ones, though, so be careful on that front.

To sum up - Babylon 5 continues to impress, Rifftrax will cure what ails ya, Free State of Jones will make you re-think a few assumptions about the Civil War, and Conjuring 2 will make you re-think keeping that chair that came with the house.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Under the Sea

The ever-reliable Pixar has released the follow up to 2003's wildly successful Finding Nemo and I'm glad to announce that it's well worth the overpriced popcorn bucket. Finding Dory has Nemo and his daddy Marlin, but focuses the story on Dory, the blue tang fish with a short-term memory problem. (That element, by the way, is played beautifully. Dory isn't quirky; she's disabled by her condition and she's learned a vast array of coping mechanisms that would be excellent conversation-starters with kids.)

It's Pixar (Disney; doesn't the Mouse own everything yet?), so I don't need to tell you that the film is almost unearthly in its beauty. The underwater world gives the artists so much to play with - color, the play of light on plants and sand, wave and water ripples, shafts of sunlight that cut through the top few feet of water, and animals galore. But what's always set Pixar aside for me is not just the beauty of their work; it's the strength of their stories. While Finding Dory isn't Up, which for me continues to be the high-water mark of Pixar's films, it's a solid movie.

Some of that has to do with the vocal talent. In addition to Ellen DeGeneres reprising her role as Dory, you have Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy as Dory's long-lost parents, Albert Brooks as the long-suffering Marlin and Idris Elba as a quite rude sea lion. Modern Family is well represented with Ty Burrell playing a echolocation-challenged beluga whale and Ed O'Neill nearly steals the show as an octopus who desperately wants to get to Cleveland. Oh, and Sigourney Weaver as herself. Go - you'll understand.

Finding Dory is one of those rare gems - a kids' movie that looks great and has enough going on to keep the interest of the adults in the crowd as well.

You could do far worse for summer!

But please - no matter how much your children like the movie, don't buy a blue tang as a pet. Or a clownfish, for that matter. Leave Nemo and Dory to the salt water they belong in.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Catching Up!

As many of you know, my secret identity is that of a mild-mannered community college instructor. A full semester load for me is 5 classes in each of the fall and spring semesters, plus two in the abbreviated summer session. That's a lot of teaching, reading, and grading and things get odd around midterm week and finals week. All of that is to explain my recent state of radio silence. I should be more active now that spring is over and summer is ready to launch, but be kind - the Babylon 5 book project has a summer deadline for the complete manuscript to get to our intrepid editor, so the summer is not exactly a time of restful ease.

Not complaining, mind you - just trying to explain How Things Are at the moment.

So let me first catch you up on the Babylon 5 progress. We got a slight extension of Season 4 due to my extreme exam insanity, and that should be in within the next ten days. And wow - do I LOVE Season 4! So much comes full circle. And Susan Ivanova is my spirit animal for this - I think she's been waiting a very long time to say this . . .

On a much quieter note, I recently watched two Academy Award-nominated films that I had missed. (Living in a small town, many don't quite make it here.) Both Carol and Brooklyn are set in the 1950s, but in very different worlds. Carol is taken from The Price of Salt, which is a Patricia Highsmith novel (she of the "Mr. Ripley" series). It deals with a relationship that is wildly out of balance, yet we cheer for things to somehow work out. Amazing performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, with strong support from Sarah Paulson, taking a break from wowing audiences on Tim Minear's American Horror Story. It's a slow-building movie so you must permit it to take its time, but it's certainly worth the ride.

Brooklyn is, quite simply, lovely. Saoirse Ronan is a young Irish girl who leaves home behind to come to America in the 1950s. At that time, Brooklyn was predominantly Irish but it's still an intimidating city for a young country lass. Eilis is all alone, although she has a decent rooming house (all girls, dinner on the table at six, and certainly no shenanigans!) and a job in a fancy department store. As she becomes more comfortable in this world, her wardrobe changes to brighter, more confident colors. She falls in love with a Nice Boy (with a hysterical little brother!), but is torn between her old life and her new one. Truly a wonderful movie and one I'll watch again.

And, of course, there's Captain America: Civil War. So much has been written about this already, and I'm so late to the party that I'll just say this - great popcorn fun. There are some mighty big plot holes in this and I'm still convinced that Tony Stark's genius is not excuse for him behaving like a jackass so much of the time, but the Russo Bros. did a fine job here. It's basically the Avengers movie I wish Age of Ultron had been. So yes, it's more Avengers than Cap, but hey - Hawkeye gets some good lines. Go. Enjoy.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Of Greeks and Space - A (Partial) Third Age Post

Lennier:  It was the year of fire, 
Zack:      The year of destruction, 
G'Kar:    The year we took back what was ours.
Lyta:        It was the year of rebirth, 
Vir:          The year of great sadness, 
Marcus:   The year of pain . . . 
Delenn:    And the year of joy.
Londo:     It was a new age.
Stephen:   It was the end of history.
Susan:      It was the year everything changed.

Quick update on Dreams Given Form - we turned in the draft for Season 3, so we're now deep in Season 4. Ah, Season 4! Cartagia, Lorien, war, betrayal, tenderness, and hope. Ensley and I have said for years (long before we started this project with ECW Press) that JMS follows Freytag's Pyramid throughout B5, with each season roughly correlating to one element of the pyramid (which is really a triangle, but whatever. 19th century Germany). That puts Season 4 in the role of "falling action" following the climatic Season 3. In no way does that mean that Season 4 is a snoozer - quite the opposite. As the result of decisions made in the climax (Z'ha'dum, anyone?) events - quite LARGE events - happen. I love Season 4 for a fierce passion and I'm looking forward to this part of the project. 

In movie news, last weekend I took my parents to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Let me set the stage here a bit. Mom and Dad don't go to movies - it can be a hassle for them, their hearing isn't what once it was, and many movies just aren't made with them in mind. So when I mentioned this one and they both agreed to go - great jumping frog of Calaveras County! Off we went and I asked the manager what sort of captioning devices they have available for the hearing impaired. (Side note - always ask about this if you or someone you are with could benefit from such a thing. Movie theaters are places of public accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and they should have something to help their patrons. This manager, in fact, was delighted that someone had asked! Theaters have to spend money to make these things available, but many folks don't even know about them.) Dad got rigged up with this nifty doo-hickey that fit in the cupholder and had a little rectangular screen on a flexible arm that he could adjust to suit his eye level. The screen projected the closed captions for the film and he could easily see the image on the big screen.

As to the movie itself - you know, I can't be fair about this one. I adored the first one (2002, directed by Joel Zwick) and they may well have taken too long to get the second one together. But they re-assembled the key cast (a near miracle, considering how large an ensemble piece it is) and, while some of the jokes may seem a bit forced, I loved seeing this movie with my parents. I loved seeing them see the movie. I loved being able to go out with them to a movie. So yeah - I'm biased on this one.

It's a sweet movie - very Capra-esque in its optimism and zaniness (think about the whimsical family in You Can't Take It with You). Unfortunately, we live in a highly cynical age where that sort of thing is routinely dismissed as corny fluff. Get over it. Let yourself go and have an hour and a half of fun and unplug the sardonic circuits for a bit. 

And take someone who doesn't get out to the movies much. You won't regret it!

Yes, Windex got in on the action! If you've seen the first movie, don't worry - your favorite VERY multi-purpose cleaner is back!