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!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Return of Third Age Posts!

"The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace. It failed. But, in the Year of the Shadow War, it became something greater: our last, best hope... for victory. The year is 2260. The place: Babylon 5." -- Susan Ivanova

Well - THAT break was longer than I ever wanted it to be! "Third Age Thursday" was supposed to be a weekly post about Babylon 5, and particularly about the progress being made on Dreams Given Form, the companion guide to the show I'm co-authoring with Ensley F. Guffey. We tag-teamed on Wanna Cook?, a similar guide to Breaking Bad which was released in 2014 (available at fine booksellers everywhere!) and enjoyed the experience enough to look around for another project that would let us work together and settled on this one. And all was wonderful.

Until . . .

I won't say the Shadows ambushed us, but I had a health scare that put the entire project back a year while I recovered and poor Ensley did his best to soldier on until I could take up my share of the load. But we're both back and in fine fighting form!

In fact, we just turned in the draft manuscript for Season 3. (Wow - I just love that season!) Seasons 1 and 2 have already had their first turn through the Great Machine of Editing, so we're back on schedule. Well, we're back on our new schedule, at any rate. ECW Press (our publisher) has been exceptionally kind to us and we're looking forward to moving forward with this sizable project.

Keep in mind Dreams Given Form isn't limited to the five seasons of Babylon 5. No, sirree! We're covering that, sure, but we're also providing material on the official novels, movies, comics, and other canonical sources. It's a big project and one of our biggest challenges is figuring out how to do the universe of Babylon 5 justice without the book becoming a multi-volume set.

At any rate, today is a rare day off from watching, annotating, drafting, and screaming (that often accompanies the drafting stage for me) but I'm back at it tomorrow and I realized that I hadn't posted about the project in far - FAR - too long.

We're here. We're fans. And we're writing!


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

I Saw the Light

The story of Hank Williams Sr. is interesting - he's widely considered one of the most influential American singer-songwriters of the 20th century despite his near-inability to either read or notate music. He had 35 Top 10 singles, and 11 of those reached the Number One position. All this happened in a remarkably short time, as Williams died at the far-too-young age of 29. He had great troubles in his personal life, beset by alcoholism (Roy Acuff once warned Williams of the dangers of his drinking, telling him that he had "a million-dollar talent, boy, but a ten-cent brain"), drug abuse (he self-medicated to deal with the severe, chronic back pain caused by his spina bifida), womanizing, and a host of other issues. His son would grow up to become Hank Williams, Jr. (better known as "Bocephus") and the third of that line is making quite a name for himself as well. Then there's Jett Williams, who was shuffled around like a marked card. Really, add mournful Spanish moss to this family and you've got a textbook definition of Southern Gothic.

All of this should make for a great, compelling movie. Yet it doesn't.

I Saw the Light boasts an amazing performance from Tom Hiddleston, who does his own, quite credible, singing, yet the film itself never manages to soar. Instead, it bumps along in a series of vignettes about increasingly-unlikable people. Audrey, his first wife, is played by Elizabeth Olsen as a spotlight-seeking shrew. Lillie, his mother, is played by the enormously-talented actress Cherry Jones, who never gets to to much beyond be overly protective of her boy.

The film focuses on the last six years of Williams' life, a time in which Williams was prolific, yet spinning madly out of control. His dream is to appear on the Grand Ole Opry ("the show that made country music famous"), yet he lacks the discipline to stay there, preferring to tomcat around and drink until the editing of this film could possibly make sense. I know that's harsh, but the structure of this film keeps any sort of tension or interest from building - scenes start and end without any rhyme or reason and new scenes begin without context. It's as if you're experiencing an alcoholic blackout - things happen and then something else happens, and you're pretty sure something happened in the middle, but damned if you can figure out what it was and no one's telling you.

Hiddleston is truly amazing, but he just can't save this. Rent it if you want to, but there's no shame in passing this one by.

In the meantime, listen to Hank. He's worth it.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Moral Courage & Dark Tones

Recently, I got hold of a copy of Trumbo, a film I had wanted to see during Oscar season (the film garnered Bryan Cranston a "Best Actor" nomination), but one that unfortunately didn't come around here. Dalton Trumbo is a fascinating man - one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to "name names" when called before the notoriously un-American House of Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo went to prison for his silence, convicted of contempt of Congress. His writing abilities had given his family a comfortable life and, with his name on the blacklist (and firmly kept there by Hedda Hopper, here played by Helen Mirren in a dazzling collection of hats), his ability to support his family was seriously jeopardized. He resorted to working for fourth-rate studios, but couldn't overcome his inclination to write good movies, even under a series of pseudonyms.

It's a feel good picture, but in its well-meaning desire to show the pressure public figures were under to name names, it stumbles badly in making Edward G. Robinson (played here by Michael Stuhlbarg) a stool pigeon, something that he definitely was not in real life. Trumbo does a nice job in helping its audience feel the moral courage it took - not only for Papa Trumbo, but his entire family - to stand for their principles, which included the idea of economic justice. Yes, Dalton worked hard for that family farm and he didn't want to give it away. But was it so radical to say that the grips and script girls should earn enough to support their families? Make no mistake - Trumbo was a Communist, but he had no plans to overthrow the American government by anything other than the ballot box. He joined the Communist Party in 1943, when America was allied with the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi tyranny - and he was in no way unusual. Many, many Americans joined the Communist Party during the Great Depression through the Second World War. It was only after the war that the Soviet Union became our dreaded enemy and our government got all nutty about "Reds" in Hollywood. The film in no way makes Trumbo a saint - his worries about earning a living make him very difficult to live with - and the film takes some liberties and amalgamates some characters, but it is well worth watching.

Excellent performances here by Cranston and John Goodman as the King of Garbage Films add some levity to the material. (In fact, he's responsible for my favorite non-Dalton scene, which is excerpted below - I promise, it just gets better as the scene continues!) A special shout-out goes to Dean O'Gorman who plays a very young Kirk Douglas, the man who had a great deal to do with ending the blacklist by insisting that Trumbo receive actual credit for his rewrite of Spartacus. Sadly, the two Oscars Trumbo won for his screenwriting were for work done under other names. Perhaps you've heard of them - 1953's Roman Holiday and 1956's The Brave One. Trumbo was also the author of Johnny Got His Gun, one of the early winners of the National Book Award. (In 1971, he both wrote the screenplay and directed the movie version of this novel.)

Seek this one out - and enjoy watching John Goodman as Frank King decline to fire Trumbo, not for high-falutin' political idealism, but for far earthier reasons:

Also up this week is Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Zack Snyder attempts to do too much. He's trying valiantly to set up a Justice League movie and a standalone Wonder Woman film, and he seems to lose his way. I've objected to Snyder's handling of Superman before - his vision of the character is too dark and moody for my taste and I think a PG-13 superhero film featuring these iconic characters needs to remember that its target audience will feature many younger folks who aren't up on post-modern cinema theory. The film is ponderous and dark and the pacing seems off. 

Mind you, for all the grief Ben Affleck took when he was cast as Batman, I don't think he deserves the scorn that is being heaped upon his head. He's got some plywood dialogue to work with that really should have been script-doctored into smoothness ("Do you bleed? You will!" is cringe-worthy as is the use of a bathroom sink as a blunt weapon) but Affleck tries gamely. Often, character motivation is lacking in this film but after seeing Bruce Wayne trying to save ordinary people during the Battle of Metropolis, you understand at least some of his desire to stop Superman. (Also, I never knew that Gotham was apparently the Oakland to Metropolis' San Francisco. The things I learn.) For me, Gal Gadot is the standout as Wonder Woman, although her role is deliberately kept small. (Fantastic costuming throughout the film for her, too.) Diane Lane reprises her role as Martha Kent (she's also the sensible matriarch in Trumbo, by the way) and Holly Hunter plays a Kentucky senator who knows how to wrestle a pig.

I continue to be puzzled by Henry Cavill's Superman - this is one grim Man of Steel who can be pulled off-task all too quickly by threatening Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams, who deserves better). And really - the fact that both Supes and Batman have mothers named "Martha" is what bonds them? (And while the Bechdel Test is not a measure of a movie's quality, this film fails to pass it, despite having four large-ish female roles.) Also, Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor is just twitchy. Want to see how to do a thoroughly psychotic character? Tee up Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of Kingpin in Netflix's Season 1 of Daredevil.

Many will disagree with me, but I found this film disappointing. It's too dark, the plot meanders all over the place, and certain key events just don't make a lick of sense, quite possibly because of editing that seems reminiscent of William Burroughs' technique of razoring lines of his poetry and then putting them together randomly. For me, Dadaism is interesting to gaze at, but it's not especially entertaining for several hours at a go. But hey - try it here!

Far from being the worst movie ever, SvB is certainly a rental.