Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Last Thoughts for 2016

What a year it's been! There seem to have been more losses in the film world (not to mention the "real world") than are either usual or warranted. For Babylon 5 fans, the loss of Jerry Doyle hit especially hard, and the fact that he and Garibaldi had so many similarities is a cause for great sadness.

I know that I have not been a faithful correspondent this year and I vow to do better in 2017. This year was just cram-packed with things that took me away from this blog, which is - in the final analysis - a labor of love, rather than a paying gig. And bills (like pipers) must be paid. That being said, Rogue One and Moana - I loved you both and you deserved full write-ups.

However, 2016 also brought the delayed-by-cancer completion of Dreams Given Form. Ensley and I are in the copy-editing phase, having sent off the publication catalog blurb. We still have work to do, but we are firmly in the final stages and Dreams Given Form will be given form in 2017! And really - I cannot say enough good things about ECW's support for this project. There are some publishing houses who would've reacted to my diagnosis by saying, "That's awful! So you can't make the contract deadline. Hmm - well, you get better and we're passing on the book." ECW never wavered in their support and I hope the book sells truckloads to reward them for their loyalty. (Do what you can on that, won't you?)

In the final week of 2016, I hope to see both Fences and Hidden Figures. And how great was it to come out of a store after making a candy cane run to have someone holler at me from a parked car, "Fences. Yeah, Fences. Worth seeing?" When I said I hadn't seen it yet - Meet Me at the Movies doesn't get advance screenings - he cheerfully asked, "Okay, then. What about Rogue One?"

Movies bring people together. So please - watch us on TV19! New episodes every Friday and you can watch us anywhere in the world through streaming! Just go to clevelandcc.edu and select CTV19 at the top of your screen. That'll take you to all the fabulous TV19 shows that stream - we're the first one on the left!

And Merry Christmas to you all! May 2017 be wondrous to all of us!


Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Stunner of a Film

In the last several weeks, I've seen a number of films, but haven't gotten around to writing them up. Well, that'll happen sometimes. Suffice it to say that most of what I've seen (from Dr. Strange to Edge of Seventeen) has been okay, but nothing that totally made me glad I'd seen it on the big screen. Other critics have mooned over these while I just -- didn't. Maybe it's end-of-semester doldrums; I don't know.

But there was an exception. Hacksaw Ridge. If you are old enough (do NOT take children to this - it's a "hard R" for graphic war violence, on the Saving Private Ryan opening scene level), go see this, then immediately put it on your "must buy" list.

Heaven knows, I've got my problems with Mel Gibson (one movie I've recently seen and loved was Peter Weir's Gallipoli, which stars a shockingly young Gibson), both in his on and off screen efforts. Let's limit this to onscreen - the man likes violence and has a penchant for lovingly filming horrific violence being done to his characters (Braveheart, I'm looking at you. You, too, Passion of the Christ). What lets him do this is the fact that he knows how to tell a story effectively and in Hacksaw Ridge, he's in top form.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the slightly fictionalized story of Desmond Doss (played so very well by Andrew Garfield), a Seventh-Day Adventist who enlisted during WW2 to become a medic. Due to his faith, he refused to so much as touch a gun, which made basic training very, very difficult. During the lengthy hellscape that was the Battle of Okinawa, Doss showed his courage time and time again as he rescued dozens of wounded men from certain death. In fact, some of his story is left out because the actual facts seem too incredible to believe - I encourage you to click here for the details comparing the movie to "real life." For his efforts, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, which they do not give out for perfect attendance.

In short, Doss held tight to his belief that it was both wrong to kill and imperative that he serve his country during wartime. How to balance those two competing beliefs makes for a compelling story.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Odds and Ends

So sorry! After finishing the draft, I took a little time off from the blog, then there were edits and other work-related tasks, then the house was overtaken by the Dread Specter of Minor Illness. Not content with hosting that jackass, I managed to catch poison ivy while hiking on a gorgeous late October day, then scratched it to a state of infection. Party at my place - I've got steroids and  antibiotics! Woo-hoo!

Rather than detail everything I've watched in the last month, let me just hit a few highlights. There will be more to add to this, since I'm confined to the house for a few days with this low-grade plague which means "movie time" for me.

When they announced a remake of The Magnificent Seven, I wasn't so sure and I was right to be skeptical. Look, it's a decent enough little Western, but geez. Do yourself a real favor and get your hands on Kurosawa's 1954 masterwork Seven Samurai (Toshiro Mifune is a knockout) and watch that. Then get the original Magnificent Seven (Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, among many, many others) from 1960 and watch that. Now don't bother with the remake.

The key to the two source films is how they view the peasant/farmers. The age of the samurai/ gunslinger is passing, but those who work the earth will continue and endure. They might not get the glory, but they win. That core is missing from the remake, which is all action/adventure (and plot holes you could stampede cattle through), but really - there's no heart there. (Which is a shame when you have Ethan Hawke playing a dandy with the unforgettable Cajun name of "Goodnight Robicheaux.") Also, it sometimes shocks me how much more progressive Kurosawa could be with female characters sixty years ago.

Speaking of classics, I indulged in the Bette Davis melodrama Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte which is a must-see for lovers of Southern Gothic. Crumbling mansion, eccentric-to-the-point-of-crazy rich recluse, Spanish moss, grisly murder - AND Olivia de Havilland! We just don't make 'em like this anymore.

For Halloween, I finally saw What We Do in the Shadows, a 2014 New Zealand movie that can best be described as Interview with the Vampire meets The Real World. If you're in the mood for a vampire movie that is far more canny and fun than it has any right to be, this one's for you. Watch the trailer below for a taste.

OK - I should be getting back to a far more regular schedule - thanks for the break!






Monday, October 3, 2016

Third Age Thursday - BIG NEWS!

Okay, okay - so it's not Thursday. There was NO WAY I was going to wait!

For you see, I have exciting news that I cannot keep to myself - the manuscript draft for Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Babylon 5 Universe is done! Done! DONE!!!! As in, the final bits were sent to our editor today! As in, so recently that my final Post-It notes and flags are still stuck to the edge of my desk where I put them as I finished with each portion they were marking in the final few days of drafting.

Whew.

Now, there's still work to be done that will take a minimum of several months. We've been sending each "chunk" to our editor as we finished it, so a good portion has already gone through the initial edits, but remember that Dreams Given Form is an ambitious piece of work that brings together everything that has been designated as canonical for Babylon 5 - the episodes, the movies, Crusade, the novels, the comics, and the short stories, as well as some "extras." (I drew the line at action figures . . .) That made for a crazy amount of work, even with wonderful materials such as The Lurker's Guide and Terry Jones' exhaustive chronology, which was so detailed it was adopted by the production company to keep timelines straight. (I swear, the implications of "War without End" on later works nearly drove me to tears a couple of times and Terry saved my bacon.)

Plus, this project came to a screeching halt when I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (think "junior auxiliary breast cancer") until I completed radiation treatment and got my strength and energy levels back. (Imagine a disease in which voluntarily subjecting yourself to radiation sickness is the best scenario and you'll understand why research and writing fell low on the list.) So publication was delayed, but it's all in the editing stage now!

We weren't able to reach one goal - we wanted to get the rights to reprint the six canonical short stories since they've never been collected in one place, but Warner Brothers has no interest in that, which is their prerogative as the copyright holder. Still, we include summaries, analysis, and highlights from each of those in Dreams Given Form. Also, we still have a few interview requests out there and we have our fingers crossed, but those chips will fall where they may.

We'll start conversations with our publisher, ECW Press, about cover design and possible sites to promote the book, which will be available in 2017 - we'll announce specific details when we know more.

For now, though, I think Ensley and I have some serious celebrating to do, because right now, everybody's cute. And in purple, I'm stunning.

<*>








Monday, September 26, 2016

Biopics!

The "biopic" is an interesting product in the supermarket of film genres. For a biopic (that sounds snazzier than "biographical picture") to be successful, you need a subject who is ultimately likeable, has obstacles to overcome, and is some kind of positive role model. Society doesn't want us to glorify real life bad guys, so we usually either get fictional gangsters or, if they are "real life" bad guys, crime must not pay in the end.

The problem is one of balance. You don't want a purely goody-two-shoes subject, because we want to see our heroes have some kind of flaw that they must struggle to overcome. That makes them somehow easier to relate to. So you get any number of musical geniuses (examples include Johnny Cash, James Brown, and Ray Charles) who put the people who love them through hell before having some sort of epiphany. You also want there to be a struggle of some kind - maybe the subject has to overcome racism (Jackie Robinson, MLK), homophobia (Harvey Milk), mental illness (Howard Hughes) or systemic injustice (N.W.A.).

In the case of Sully, you get Tom Hanks as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger who managed to successfully bring a stricken Airbus down on the frigid Hudson River following multiple bird strikes which took out both of the jet's engines. There was no - repeat, NO - loss of life. Now, my father spent his career as a pilot, first with the Navy, then with Piedmont Airlines, and I remember clearly his admiration for Sully. (The airline Sully flew for was USAirways, which gobbled up Piedmont.) This was not just a difficult thing to do, it was impossible. And yet Sully managed it. The problem with Sully isn't that the story is far-fetched, it's that it isn't "fetched" enough. The moviemakers tried to gin up the drama by making the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") members investigating the crash into the bad guys and it is entirely unnecessary. Events are also compressed to the point of being crushed - NTSB investigations take months and are very painstaking. In Sully, you can be excused for thinking that everything was done in about three weeks. Still, an interesting film, even if it has been "Hollywooded." Clint Eastwood directs, and does an admirable job, if you discount the final song over the credits, which just seems jarring.

Then you have Nina, a biopic starring Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone, a reluctant jazz star who only took to singing to pay for her classical piano studies. From the little western NC town of Tryon, Nina Simone was, for a time in the 60s, more famous for her civil rights stances than her music, and she was plenty famous for her music! Simone's voice was beyond distinctive and I was very much looking forward to this film.

It's a travesty. Awful. Wrong. Misses every single, solitary point. And I will admit that I did something I very rarely do, which is not finish it. The main relationship in the film never existed and Zoe Saldana plays the role in blackface. In 2016. If you must know more details of the problems in this fish wrapper of a movie, click here.

So instead, I watched What Happened, Miss Simone? which is a gorgeous documentary about Nina Simone. The title comes from an essay written by Maya Angelou and that only brushes the tip of the iceberg of what is extraordinary about this performer you've probably never heard of. Do yourself a favor and see this as soon as you can. Nina Simone was complicated, brilliant, self-destructive, used and a user. You won't necessarily like her all the time, but her music came from a place of truth, anger, joy, and tremendous beauty.



Someone else who you won't like all the time is Lyndon Baines Johnson, the "accidental president" who stepped into the Oval Office following the assassination of JFK. Kennedy was the golden boy, all youth and good looks and carefully-constructed image. LBJ, on the other hand, was the old Texas warhorse who had been carefully accumulating markers on Capitol Hill. Suddenly, this rough-edged politician was thrust into the glare of the spotlight and needed to make good on Kennedy's high-flying promises, which included the Civil Rights Act. Maybe only LBJ, with his decades of maneuvering, glad-handing, and not-so-subtle pressure, could have delivered on that, but he went far beyond it. The Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Head Start - these are but a few of the "Great Society" programs that LBJ championed and, in so doing, transformed America. The escalation of Vietnam marred his legacy, however. Those events occur after the time period covered in All the Way, the film based on the Tony Award-winning play starring Bryan Cranston, tells the story of the first year of the LBJ presidency, going from that dread day in Dallas to LBJ's election a year later. It's powerful moviemaking and well worth seeing. LBJ could be a cast-iron sonofabitch, but politics at that level isn't for the meek. A magnificent supporting cast makes this a must-see, especially during this election cycle.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Outline Contains the Heart

Sorry - due to a number of converging deadlines, the poor blog has been left unattended for longer than it should have been. Rest assured that I've been writing posts in my head; they just haven't made it to the page!

I'm so far behind that I'm going to break this into two posts. Today, I'll touch on two films that I've seen recently that are well worth seeking out and in a day or two, I'll catch you up on some biopics/documentaries.

 Now that we understand the outline (see what I did there?), let's talk about Kubo and the Two Strings, which you are going to seek out immediately. Kubo comes from the fine folk at Laika, a studio dedicated to producing fine stop-motion animation. Since this particular form of animation is so incredibly time-consuming, Laika has produced only a handful of films in its ten-year existence - Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and now Kubo. While all the films have had their high points, in Kubo, everything comes together. The animation is first-rate and the story - well. Kubo's tale begins, "If you must blink - do it now." It's a story about stories - those we tell others, those we tell ourselves, and those we create to explain things. Featuring Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew McConaughey, Kubo is an astonishing film and certainly the highlight of my summer.

Skip Suicide Squad, which can't figure out which of half a dozen stories it wants to tell, and seek out this absolute gem about family, loss, and the power of tales.

Tom Hanks is a movie star. There's no doubt about that - attaching his name to a project carries a certain cachet and his projects tend to be box office gold. A Hologram for the King is an anomaly, for it's a teensy independent film that you're going to have to dig a little to find (let me help with that - check your local library!Hologram is worth seeking out just to see the outline of what could have been a fantastic film. Based on a Dave Eggers novel, Hologram tells the story of Alan Clay, a down-on-his-luck salesman who is barely a step above Arthur Miller's Willy Loman. Things aren't going well for Alan - his marriage is dissolving, his career is floundering, leading his daughter to take a semester off from college until her tuition can be worked out, and everything is riding on this sale of high-tech to the Saudi king, who is in no hurry at all to meet with him and his team, who are stuck in a drafty tent in the desert just waiting. And waiting. And waiting. This fish-out-of-water tale is not without its flaws, but it has a certain charm, as well. This is due in part to Hanks' own abilities as an actor, but also to those in smaller roles, such as Alexander Black as Yousef, a free-lance cab driver who shows Alan the topsy-turviness of Saudi society, which boasts lavish wealth along with a regime so repressive women are not allowed to drive and are subject to intense social backlash just for being in a room alone with a man. Outstanding in portraying the down-the-rabbit-hole situations that leads to is Sarita Choudhury as Zahra, a Saudi doctor who shares some of the sorrowful circumstances enveloping Alan. Neither of these are Saudi actors, which seems to be a shame. Then again - it is a repressive regime. This is a quiet film, which might explain its lack of box office appeal. American audiences often don't like "quiet" much. Give it a try, won't you?

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Darkness Among Us

Taking a break from late-summer movies to re-visit a classic in this post - Fritz Lang's M. That's right, just one letter - M. Originally released in 1931 (and quickly banned by the Nazis once they took power in 1933), M is often hailed as both the first police procedural film and the first "serial killer" film. (So, for everyone who thinks old films have to be dusty and boring - you have just revealed yourself as someone who hasn't seen M. Go take care of that, won't you?) It's the film that made Peter Lorre, who until M was known as a comic actor, an overnight global star, albeit one associated with snivelling weasels of characters. Yes, it's in black-and-white and the dialogue is in German, so you have to read subtitles. Rise to the challenge - you won't regret it.

Fritz Lang's story of the hunt for a sadistic child killer is both less graphic and more creepy than many horror films made today. In 1931, filmmakers were still figuring out what film could do and in this, Lang's first "talkie," Lang uses sound to great effect. While only about two-thirds of the film has sound, that absence makes the other one-third otherworldly as we move abruptly from sound to silence. The identity of the murderer is never really in doubt - M is all about the fear engendered by a seemingly-ordinary fellow who has some sort of evil inside him that compels him to kill the most innocent among us. Stand-up citizens become hyper-alert, forming an impromptu mob when an elderly man is seen talking with a young girl on the street. The exhausted police force is willing to strong-arm citizens (both stand-up and otherwise) to uncover the monster preying on Berlin's children. The criminal underworld is outraged that they are being lumped in with an inhuman killing machine. Only the killer goes about his day, cheerfully whistling "In the Hall of the Mountain King" from Grieg's Peer Gynt. (By the way, the "stunt whistling" is done by Lang himself and this marked the first time a musical theme was used to identify a particular character - a trick used by opera for years.) M also asks two questions that have been around at least since Euripides' Medea - are those who kill children evil, or merely sick? And, in any event, what's to be done with them?


M is genuinely astonishing. Small details carry so much visual weight - the empty place set at the kitchen table, the detritus of the criminals' hasty scurrying-away from the office building in which the murderer has sought shelter, the dark shadows that hide the criminals' kangaroo court, The similarities between the police and the criminal underground as made obvious, both in common camera set-ups used by both and by shared character traits. (And smoking. Lots and lots of smoking.) Oh, and there actually was a sort of Beggars' Guild in Berlin at the time.

Part of what makes M such a standout film is the fact that it doesn't let us off the hook. Parents know there's a murderer on the loose, yet many children still wander around alone. Then parents are willing to rip an innocent man limb from limb without any sort of police presence. At its heart, M's lesson is that we're all responsible for each other - a lesson the Nazis rising to power in the waning days of the Weimar Republic, roundly ignored.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Summer Barrels Onward!

 Continuing the summer movies-as-escape season, DC's latest, Suicide Squad, has been released. I admit, I had high hopes for this one and it certainly is a fine way to get out of the oppressive Carolina heat-&-humidity for two hours, but aside from that, I fear it has little to recommend it. The movie was plagued by rumors of a bad case of "too many cooks in the kitchen" - after the phenomenal success of Deadpool, cast members were rushed back to film some additional scenes to "make it funnier" since, after the less-than-stellar audience reaction to Batman v Superman, DC was desperate to avoid a third straight critical flop.

The film had a big opening weekend, but I predict it fades faster than a firework. The movie's a mess and I'm not sure who to blame. The tone is all over the place, character development is limited to each character getting one pick from the toybox of "tragic character backstories," and could Harley Quinn please wear shoes that are a little more practical for what she's doing? (The booty shorts are altogether another issue - Margot Robbie deserves better and she's going to have a tough, tough time being treated as a "serious" actress while she's taking roles like this. Harley, as I recall her, has considerably more agency and moxie than this lovesick psychopath.) The soundtrack is fantastic, but the way the songs are used makes the movie feel more like a video - there's flash and dash, but there's no there there. And yes, Jared Leto does a nice Joker, but (spoiler!) he's in the film for about ten minutes. It was just disappointing and it could have been so much more.

So why wasn't it? I think it boils down to DC trying to do in six months what Marvel took six years to do. They're too impatient to do a slow, careful build, so you wind up with a hot mess like this. And not all the Marvel movies have been over-the-back-fence home runs, either, but when you're trying to work with an ensemble, it helps to introduce them and give them traits (plural) instead of cardboard dialogue and one note to play. DC wanted this to be their Guardians of the Galaxy. It isn't.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Bad Moms more than I expected to. This one's a rental, but a fun one. There's an unexpected streak of sweet running through this admittedly-raunchy comedy about a mom driven too far by the expectations put on her by her kids, other moms, her work, and her (slacker) husband to be all things to all people, all the time. When Amy (Mila Kunis) erupts, it's cathartic. Everyone who's ever felt overworked and underappreciated will see themselves in this film and if you're a mom, it'll take on a poignant level of "oh God, it's funny 'cause it's true!" Certainly not a documentary, Bad Moms has sympathy for those women who keep the world turning, one car-pool at a time. The filmed is helped by a strong cast (Kathryn Hahn is amazing!) and Christina Applegate as the mom who has it all together and heads up the middle school bake sale like a SEAL Black Ops mission, is worth the price of admission. Jada Pinkett-Smith, however, is criminally underused as a mere "yes, boss" character. Be sure to stay through the credits - there are some wonderful, unscripted bits there with the moms of the main cast.

Lastly, if you're not watching Netflix's Stranger Things, start tonight! This eight-episode thriller-mystery is one of the best things I've seen in months and - if you grew up in the 80s, you're going to especially love the nods to your childhood. The events in this movie simply couldn't happen today because no one is going to allow their kids to roam that free anymore. Monsters in the woods aside, that's kind of a shame. (Plus, science teachers just aren't as cool anymore. I blame Walter White. Click here for more information!Stranger Things will make you consider hanging your Christmas lights early this year, then maybe sitting down with a plateful of Eggos. Winona Ryder, please come back - all is forgiven!


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!

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.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Gods & Critters

So I recently took a bullet for the team and saw Gods of Egypt. "Meet Me at the Movies" is a show I enjoy doing and sure - I don't always like every film I see. But this - oh, the carnage! It was enough to make me wonder just what crimes I had committed in a prior life that caused me to suffer through this one. Perhaps I am a victim of the mummy's curse; I don't know. But this film is simply bad. As in MST3K or Rifftrax bad. The mythology is beyond muddled, the idea to have the gods be 1.5 times the height of humans is just off-putting, and the costumes are silly (especially those inflicted upon the women).

Gods of Egypt isn't even campy fun. (And with Geoffrey Rush as Ra, it could have been.) Chadwick Boseman as Thoth wants to have fun with it - and the man did play James Brown, so he can work a spangled costume - but the movie reins itself in when it should go full-on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Perhaps if it didn't try to strike a balance of snark and grandeur or maybe if it reveled in the sheer ridiculousness of itself - but no. The best - the absolute best - thing I can say is that this film is what you could suppose the love child of Transformers, Part Whatever and Clash of the Titans might be. (But without a kraken, so really - there's no point. There almost is, when you see giant scarab beetles pulling a chariot, but -- no.)

"Release the Kraken!" (2010)

Honestly, this film is just a mess. Director Alex Proyas proved with The Crow and Dark City that he can wrangle large, improbable stories (and he uses Rufus Sewell from Dark City in this trainwreck, but hopefully, people will forget that), but this one just got away from him.

There's no reason to see this.

However, Zootopia restored my faith, and not just because it features the vocal talents of Alan Tudyk (as a real-life weasel) and allows Kristen Bell to actually play a slothZootopia could've just been a cute little tale of unlikely partners, but instead, I found myself seeing a touch more deeply into this one.

At its core, Zootopia deals with predators and prey. Animals have progressed to a point where everybody gets along (there's a hilarious school skit that opens the film to explain this - it's right up there with Scout-as-a-ham in Mockingbird), only maybe not everyone likes that idea. Hatred and fear do a great job of dividing folks, as we're seeing in the current run-up to the elections in this country. And yes, we can learn a few things from an ambitious bunny and a misunderstood fox. Go see this one - take the kids, and have a talk afterwards.

Also - be on the lookout for the Breaking Bad joke tucked away in the underground lab scene.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Comedy in 3 Styles

February is a strange month. Often, it's the dumping ground for films that studios can't quite figure out what to do with. There's usually a romantic-and/or-intended-to-be-sexy-and-risque film around Valentine's Day (last year, that was the godawful 50 Shades of Grey [no, I won't even link to my own rant about it; that's how bad it is] and, oddly enough, a niche filled by Fox's Deadpool this year), but little else of note.

Then there's this year. I've seen three films lately and they were all decent-to-superior comedies. Two were quirky, which probably explains their banishment to the February doldrums, but seek all of these out.

Buffy Bennet in Action
First up, Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Yes, I know. It sounds ridiculous and it is. But this is a film that knows it's silly and revels in it. When Seth Grahame-Smith added zombies to Jane Austen's Regency comedy of manners, it was unprecedented (it has since spawned a rather bizarre subgenre of classic-meets-monster mashups). Bringing in zombies and ninja training to whist parties int he English countryside, you get Empire-waisted gowns concealing thigh dagger sheaths and a rarefied drawing room discussion of the superiority of Chinese over Japanese martial arts training. It's a fun romp, with some dazzling action sequences. And I especially enjoyed catching that Elizabeth, Austen's independent heroine with the rapier wit, has a name that is also the derivation of Buffy. Yes - Buffy Bennet was fighting the undead centuries ago! In short, a fun, although violent, parody that's worth a rental.

Ah, the Coen brothers. Those quirky talents behind Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and O Brother Where Art Thou? are back in the theaters with Hail, Caesar!, a film that is a lace-edged valentine to the studio pictures of the 1950s. If you're a fan of Turner Classic Movies, you'll howl through this one. If you're not into old movies, well - here's your chance to learn. Channing Tatum doing Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh on cafe tables is worth the price of admission alone, but you also get Scarlett Johansson as a foul-mouthed Esther Williams, and the astonishing Alden Ehrenreich as a singing cowboy who can do his own stunts who is inexplicably moved onto the set of A Place in the Sun. Oh, and there's Tilda Swinton as twin gossip columnists and George Clooney as Baird Whitlock, a handsome, thick-as-a-plank leading man starring in the studio's prestige not-at-all Ben-Hur movie. And Communists - all at the studio featured in Barton Fink, Capitol Pictures. The plot revolves around Josh Brolin, who is playing a studio "fixer" named Eddie Mannix (that was the name of the actual fixer at MGM, by the way) who is going about his day, putting out fires here and there while dealing with his Catholic faith. Faith is a strong element in this film - there's a hysterical segment as Eddie tries to get the official "OK to see" from a variety of clergymen (look for Robert Picardo playing a rabbi in that one) and there's a very subtle subtext about "working in the pictures" as being its own form of faith. Really, even if you don't get all the references, this is a must-see. In that regard, it's a bit like O Brother which takes on layers and layers of meaning once you know it's the Coen take on the ultimate road movie, The Odyssey, but is still enjoyable even if you don't catch all of that.

Then there's Deadpool. For quite a while now, I've been a "make mine Marvel and by that I mean Disney" girl when it comes to Marvel characters. Deadpool was a risk and a big one. But Fox did this one right. Ryan Reynolds is perfectly - PERFECTLY - cast as the wisecracking, nearly amoral "Merc with a Mouth" and Morena Baccarin is wonderful as the always blonde-tipped Vanessa (who will become Copycat and that's going to be interesting), who is bold, brassy, and a match for her true love in terms of raunch. Make no mistake on that score - Deadpool is rated "R" and deserves it whole-heartedly. Please do not take children to this movie unless you're willing to explain any number of sexual references and your kids can handle some graphic, up-close gore to boot. The supporting cast is marvelous and truly - they've done something special with this one. From the cheeky opening credits to the breaking of the fourth wall to the winking at the lack of X-Men in the Westchester mansion (and I hereby nominate this version of Negasonic Teenage Warhead for "Best New X-Man" and this version of Colossus should get special mention for sheer thickness of accent), this film is wonderful for those who like such things. I'm not even a Deadpool fan and I loved it an insane amount.

So - comedy of manners, parody of Golden Age Hollywood, or cartoon raunch. Whatever is your pleasure, it's at the local cineplex. Go now!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Creepy Dolls & Scary Reality


Since last I posted, we came through "Winter Storm Jonas," which wasn't too bad here, but was devastating up in the DC/Crabtown/Philly/Big Apple region. Here, we got enough snow and sleet (mostly sleet) to shut down for a few days. Naturally, Ensley and I spent a large chunk of that time watching movies (for more details, go to the other blog, which is located here). Being off the roads meant we weren't watching new releases but were indulging our wide-ranging tastes through streaming options. We like documentaries - the truly scary stuff tends to be in reality, rather than from Eli Roth's twisted imagination - so we watched Going Clear, which is a fascinating exposé about the development and practices of the Church of Scientology. We also watched a documentary on rough poet Charles Bukowski, which I highly recommend. Since the roads were still icy, we also watched Galaxy Quest, which turned out to be an oddly-touching classic that I had somehow missed and we wrapped up the snowstorm with David Lean's winter epic Doctor Zhivago. (Sure, you think we had snow - watch a Russian winter!)



After the storm was over, we watched one more documentary that I think you should put on your list. Terms & Conditions May Apply takes an unblinking look behind those agreements on iTunes, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other websites that we mindlessly click on so we can use the services. What you learn will surprise, and possibly amaze, you. The amount of personal data that we willingly give up is astonishing and this film just might bring back the lost art of letter-writing, since it's a whole lot harder to read someone's "snail mail" than it is to mine their data.

We certainly had fun with all of that - winter weather is fine as long as you don't lose electricity - but it was time to get back to the theater. For fun, we decided to skip the Oscar contenders and take in The Boy. While this jump scare movie isn't getting the reviews and box office it deserves, we were both glad to go. The Boy is a solid genre picture - there's nothing particularly new here, but what is in the film is well-done. It's the sort of easily-watched-and-then-move-on-from popcorn flick that Hollywood used to produce by the dozen. Now everything needs to be a blockbuster. Fortunately, there's still a place for popcorn flicks.

Briefly, Greta (Lauren Cohan, best known as "Maggie" on The Walking Dead) is a young American woman fleeing a bad relationship. She takes a job as a nanny to an 8-year-old boy in the English countryside and is surprised to discover that her young charge is a life-sized porcelain doll whose "parents" treat as a real boy. (Shades of Pinocchio!) There's a long list of rules she needs to follow and once they have those covered, off they go for their first vacation in years. Naturally, strange things begin to happen. Is the doll haunted? Or is Greta going insane in this isolated manor house? The Boy is a fun jump-scare romp and one in which the heroine (almost) never does anything that is deeply stupid. (Beware attics and basements in creepy houses, but you know that, right?) The film actually has a couple of interesting things to say about loss, grief, and its power to play tricks on us, but the film itself is a rental, not a big screen item.

And a gentle reminder - you ARE watching "Meet Me at the Movies" on C19TV, right? Or on streaming? New shows every Friday! Just go to the college's website (clevelandcc.edu) and select C19TV at the top of the screen - we're the first show on the top row! (Or use the quick link here!) You can even set up a Livestream account so you never, ever miss a show! How's that for service??


Monday, January 18, 2016

Making Money Off Villainy

A belated Happy New Year to you all! With the holidays and then the flurry of activity to get a new semester ready to launch at my college, I've fallen a bit behind, so let me catch up here.

The day after Christmas, my partner-in-crime and I drove an hour to see the "roadshow" version of Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. Like other Tarantino films, this one is both breathtakingly violent and coarsely profane. And yet . . .

I'd never seen a "roadshow version" of a film. These used to be done for big studio productions back in the glory days of Technicolor. Usually released slightly before the "regular" release, roadshows featured extra footage, an overture, an intermission, and often a souvenir program. Tarantino brought all that to the table, along with actual film prints. In fact, it took my eyes a minute of two to adjust to the slight flicker before my brain registered, "Oh, right. Film."

About this film, let me just say - it's not going to be everyone's blood-soaked cup of tea. However, for all of Tarantino's bluster and flaws, he knows how to compose a beautiful shot. The score for Hateful is by the justifiably legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who made a name for himself scoring Westerns, including a number of Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars. Morricone also composed the score for John Carpenter's 1982 examination of aliens, Antarctica, and paranoia, The Thing. Tarantino included a bit from The Thing's score, which is appropriate, given that Hateful can easily be read as an homage to The Thing and not just because both films star Kurt Russell. Both films involve wide open, hostile spaces and a group of people trapped together in a small space with killers among them. But who? Everyone has a story and few of them are nice ones. At the heart of Hateful is the idea that there are no good guys and no one is what they appear to be. While the film isn't doing gangbusters at the theater, I think it's well worth finding. I've heard it described as "slow paced" in the beginning, but I disagree. Tarantino knows what he's doing here and the slow burn is a deliberate, and wise, choice. On one level, Hateful is all about getting the bounty for bringing in criminals of one sort or another. The film plays with many myths of the American West, including the notion that violence can regenerate a society and that man can re-invent himself out yonder. Find this film and settle in for a spectacular ride.

Adam McKay's The Big Short is a different sort of villainous tale. In this one, there are still no "good guys," although there are people who are horrified at the prospect of the collapse of the American housing market. Not horrified enough to not make boodles of money off of it, but horrified nevertheless. If you ever thought that the 2007 meltdown just came out of nowhere - go see The Big Short. There were signs all over the place that the market had been built on sand, but no one cared. The economy contracted to the point of teetering on collapse, millions lost their homes because they didn't understand the terms of their loans or (worse) their landlord didn't, and not a single one of the big fish who ruined pension funds, retirement accounts, and individuals went to jail for their actions in perpetuating a massive fraud on the American public. If that doesn't make you mad, see it again.