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.

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.