Friday, January 17, 2020

Thus far 1917 is the best movie I've seen out of the 2020 Oscar nominations for Best Picture.

Since American Beauty came out many years ago, I've been a fan of film director Sam Mendes. I also share the opinion of many that Skyfall (a Sam Mendes film) is probably the best one out of the James Bond films. Even if you don't agree with me, I know it's a trophy for Sony Pictures, and it was only recently eclipsed by the Tom Holland Spiderman movies (at the box office). I think Mr. Mendes' secret weapon in filming is he likes to tell intimate stories, and he does so with a delightful and indulgent style that reveals aspects of a thing (the subject matter of the film) that we weren't able to see before, and it just sucks you into the story.

His latest outing on the film stage is 1917, which is a gory and beautiful piece of cinema. 1917 is uncomplicated, in that it's a relatively straight-forward story that shows an exhaustive linear timeline of two soldiers who have a very important task to do. It takes place on and between battlefields that few remember from World War I. I don't even think the names of the soldiers are that important. By watching the film, you become them, running alongside while ever wary from shots directed at you from the dark. By not knowing the main character's name until the very end, it might as well be you, just trying to survive and accomplish a heroic deed before it's too late, and before many lives are lost. The brutality and horror of war is unspared and uncut, which is probably why it got its "R" rating.

Those of you out there who are film buffs might also recognize that 1917 is filmed in one cut. It feels like "one cut" in this instance might be a technical achievement in that the scene unfolds without breaking from beginning to end in one long stream. You are there with the main character through every moment, even his walking, and you can see him respond to situations as needed and be completely overwhelmed by the events that are taking place. This very tight viewpoint takes us down into the trenches and we are now made the pawn in this horrifying game of chess, and see life exactly as it unfolds from the pawn's perspective.

The overall feel of the piece becomes surreal in moments, as horror can shift suddenly to the character becoming aware that he has entered a place of great beauty. There's a hallowness to these scenes, and the absolute chaos of the actual war makes little sense. In one scene, our hero pulls himself from a river, sopping wet and surrounded by falling cherry blossoms from a gorgeous orchard, only to pull himself onto the river bank atop dead bodies of soldiers caught within fallen tree trunks. Exhausted, and beneath these gorgeous trees, he starts crying. And that's when ghostly singing filters through the tree trunks. Someone...in all of this horror...is singing a beautiful song without musical accompaniment. The effect is haunting. You ask yourself, "How can all of this exist within the same place?"

I've seen a few of the Best Picture nominees. The ones I have left are: The Irishman, Ford Vs. Ferrari, Parasite, and Marriage Story. Quentin Tarrantino's film was good, however, among his films I think it ranks as the one I enjoyed the least. I can't see why Once Upon A Time could possibly earn him Best Picture this time around when others he created in prior years were far more deserving and failed at this task. JoJo Rabbit was excellent, however, it didn't cause "shock and awe," which is exactly what 1917 did for me. I do intend to polish up the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars air in February. However, I suspect that I've already seen the Best Picture winner. I guess we'll see. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Dr. Smith is the most fascinating character in the Netflix series Lost in Space and she reminds me a lot of myself.

Netflix's reboot of Lost in Space is a solid show that I enjoy re-watching with friends, and it's one I look forward to seeing new seasons from when they are released. It hasn't been "officially" renewed for season 3, however, the showrunners are already working on it. So this seems to be a good sign that it's coming, and they just haven't gotten around to issuing any press releases about it.

Pretty much pulled from the 1964 version of the series and given a new coat of varnish with updated special effects, the thing that works for me in this show is how they keep the stories very small. The Robinsons are never part of some galactic event like you might see in other science-fiction shows like The Expanse. One season (thus far) tends to explore maybe one or two locations at most. There's usually an Earth-like world to walk around on and have conversations, and there's usually an outer space location that's some kind of spaceship with stunning vistas out the windows and viewscreens. Season Two's setting was mostly this ship called The Resolute and the "alien" elements were a gas giant and a bunch of robots. It's more or less a show about overcoming challenges, so it has that element where you are picturing yourself as a member of the crew trying to figure out (along with them) how to solve a particular challenge. And each crew member is given their moment to shine.

The most interesting crew member of Netflix's reboot (for me) is Dr. Smith. She's the "villain" of the show if there is one, but I really sympathize with her in certain situations because I see a lot of myself in this character. Mostly, she's a selfish person and has no qualms admitting this to people. In her own words, she says, "I love myself. How is that any different than you loving your children? Instead of someone else whom I'm willing to sacrifice anything for, I choose to do that for myself."

When she put it that way, it completely made sense, and I liked it. I know from experience what it means to be consistently devalued by everyone around you in such an abusive chorus that you have little option other than to hate yourself and who you are. I of course turned out much different despite this abuse, because I chose to love myself and see myself as worth the best things in life even if others never shared this philosophy. So I get Dr. Smith...I get her a lot.

And just to be clear, Dr. Smith and I only share some similarities. I would never describe myself as a villain. But I think I'm perfectly honest if I believe (without remorse) that I'm not necessarily a "good" or "virtuous" person. There are plenty of people out there who try to put up a public facade that would convince others that they are "good, just, virtuous, etc." These are the role models of society, and I am so happy that they exist for others to idolize. I am not one of these people, nor do I strive to be. I am a gay atheist, which in some parts of the country is just above slime that pools in the gutter (let's be honest here). And I don't really care that some people view me as scum like that. I get along fine.

Additionally, I obey laws because the consequences of not doing so seem pretty terrible. I also provide help to people when asked, but I also have no problem saying "No," which can make people angry at me. And I'm not the kind of person who believes in self-sacrifice. Giving money away to beggars does nothing for me. It doesn't make me feel good or deserving of heavenly rewards. It just makes me feel like I lost money, and given the importance money has on our society, it actually feels like I made a mistake. That isn't to say that I don't give to charities. I cave into peer pressure like everyone else to avoid looking like the asshole that doesn't chip in for a co-worker who is sick, etc. And I donate to political campaigns occasionally with the idea that hopefully, someone will get elected that can make a positive change. But a hero I am not. That's just not in the cards for me. I'm just trying to survive out here...not trying to be a paragon of light to the masses.

Dr. Smith is very much like this too, and she has some incredible dialogue. She's essentially this somewhat craven and heavily traumatized person who was devalued all of her life, and she knows she can only count on herself to get by. However, she does make choices that I would never make. That being said, she's surrounded by people who (quite honestly) don't have to put in much work to look the part of a hero(by science fiction standards). They have love and support and respect from everyone, are incredibly smart and handsome/pretty, and they stumble into answers (which are caveats to the writing of the show). As a result, they are driven by very strong moral compasses because it works out for them and with a lot of social payoff. I've yet to see a situation that hasn't worked out for them, as they seem to be able to heroically overcome any challenge by just trying a bit harder. I'll speak from experience in my life that "trying harder" didn't work in a lot of situations I got stuck with in life, and I think the same thing can be said of the fictional Dr. Smith, which is why I relate to her on so many levels.

If anything, Dr. Smith just seems like a realistic portrayal of a flawed human being, and it makes the show incredibly interesting. The people around her have no idea what to do with her, because Smith is quite smart and knows how to manipulate people and how to be cunning. These are traits that the Robinsons in particular have no experience with, because (again) they just have to meet everything head-on, give a particular challenge all they've got, and as a result, they power through to a solution that leads to a happy ending.

I hope it gets renewed for a season three, and that the announcement comes soon.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Expanse season four was just one of many gifts us fans of science fiction received in December 2019.

December 2019 was a big gift to people (like me) who enjoy shiny new entertainment options to indulge in while on the couch. In one month we got the conclusion of Star Wars: The Mandalorian, the second season of Lost In Space, the fourth season of The Expanse, and a brand new Star Wars movie (one that author Patrick Dilloway alone has probably said all that needs to be said on it). For what it's worth, I agree with nearly all of his assessment but am mostly still preoccupied with the question: Why is the Force so much more powerful in the last three movies? I probably won't ever get a satisfying answer to that other than "Because it looks great on the big screen." And when it comes to Star Wars properties do we honestly expect anything more? I think the bar for that story (and any stories in that universe) is firmly grounded in visuals and optics. As long as it looks cool, then it belongs in Star Wars, even if nothing ever makes sense beyond the age of 12. So I'll leave that at the door and move onto what I really wanted to talk about in this blog post, which is the fourth season of The Expanse.

Without even knowing the details of the behind-the-scenes negotiations, backroom deals, and how any of "the sausage gets made," I can say that I'm thoroughly impressed with what the influx of Amazon/Jeff Bezos money has done for this franchise. Season 4 felt even more impressive on its surface than any of the prior three seasons, which I loved. Season 4 also made small decisions to cut certain storylines that I felt were extraneous to the plot of the fourth book in the series, Cibola Burn.

For example, much of the book is taken up with the perspective of the botanist from Ganymede named Prax, who proves to be incredibly resourceful in finding solutions to keep a cargo carrier from the Ilus colony from burning up in the atmosphere (when nuclear fusion gets "turned off" in the system in which Ilus lies). It does serve to strengthen that character going forward (in the books). However, by cutting him, the showrunners made clever decisions that weaved plots from short stories, novellas, and book five (called Nemesis Games) into the narrative to tell a more cohesive story that makes sense within the entire arc of The Expanse as a whole.

It also sets up season five to be incredible (and yes it's already been renewed for a fifth season), because it gave us "just enough" of the new big bad of the series, Marco Inaros. Because we are introduced to Marco now, he's more than just Naomi's former lover. We understand him as a true psychopath whose motivations kind of echo what our real-life President Trump says when he shouts, "America first!" In Marco's situation, he's screaming "Belters first!" But what does that really mean? In the universe of The Expanse, it translates to Marco stopping at nothing to ensure that "the Belt" is served very well by his actions. He does not care one inkling for Mars or for Earth, because they are "The Other." If you are familiar with the books, Marco's direct actions result in the deaths of 30 billion people, and that's going to be horrifying and exciting to see how a psychopath stands atop all of those corpses with a belief that he is serving his people in the best way that is possible. How could anyone see him as anything more than the worst monster ever produced by humanity? And, how is this going to affect Naomi, who is Marco's ex and the father of a son she loves very much?

I know that part of the reason The Expanse had to cut sections of book four to weave in these other narratives is also because actors are on contract and they need to get paid and to act in this series. Book Four of The Expanse series does little if nothing to grow the characters of Avasarala, Bobbie, and Clarissa Mau (who got a single cameo in this season, but is exceptionally important in books five and six and seven). To expect them to stick around through a season in which they do nothing might not have flown over well. So the compromises the showrunners made seem to be remarkably intelligent, preserving the core of the story really well (far better than what was done in Game of Thrones), and the whole series continues to be something I savor and revisit often by re-watching with friends who haven't seen any of it. 

My final thoughts on The Expanse might answer the question: Is the transition to Amazon noticeable? From my perspective it feels seamless, even down to the introduction sequence. However, it also feels even more gorgeous and immersive than it has ever been. Up until this season, the stories were smaller. The sets were incredibly detailed, but I think this wasn't hard for SyFy to do because a lot of the action took place in tunnels, in space ships, and in locations on Earth (so they could just film on location somewhere). Season Four takes place on an alien planet, so I know it had to be expensive. And you can see that Amazon cut no corners with the alien ruins (which look cyclopean/Lovecraftian in the same way H.R. Giger's ruins looked in the Alien movies or in the movie, Prometheus). The acting talent is top notch, and the writing is super-tight. The sets (as well) are so detailed and lovely. There is so much to look at in every screen that the show just feels epic in a way that not many shows these days can accomplish. Absolutely nothing looks cheap. So, I'm just gonna say, "Huzzah for Amazon!" 

On my Wednesday blog, I think I'm going to talk about another show I really love called Lost in Space. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Many writers are too desperate for Hollywood love.

I recently finished Old Man's War by John Scalzi. I loved it. So I googled the series to see if there was any news regarding a made for television series, and I discovered Netflix has secured the rights to it, and that they are making it into a movie. John Scalzi (the author) wrote about it on his blog in an announcement that reassured fans that this adaptation of his work would be wonderful. Sure. Only in my opinion, it's going to fall far short. He really needed to tell Netflix, "No" and that it needed to be a ten episode mini-series.

In the book Old Man's War, the main character goes to enlist in an intergalactic army of humans from Earth who are engaged in an ongoing stellar war with various alien species. So in two hours time, we've got to see him enlist, take the space elevator into orbit where he meets several friends who become members of the "Old Fart's Club," bond with them, get transplanted into a new super human body (which he then has to grow comfortable in using), get training on various worlds, meet the Consu (a race of very religious super aliens), fight other species, meet his dead wife's body and have conversations with the personality inhabiting it, and then fight for control of Coral (an Eden-like world taken from them by aliens who eat humans for breakfast and are using Consu technology).

Every single one of the above events impacts the storyline. Even the fighting with other alien species who are not Consu and the alien Rraey (who attack the human colony on Coral) is important, because it not only serves to illustrate the main character's ingenuity in combat, but it also shows that the human race is using only one solution to interacting with the galaxy: going to war. This is an important and nuanced thing...that war is being over-used and that entire civilizations of intelligent aliens are being wiped out because humans need real estate and can't be bothered to use any kind of diplomacy.

It blows my mind that John Scalzi thinks that all of this can be done in a two-hour Netflix movie. And to cut any of that is going to change the story significantly. What we end up getting may be something similar to The Dark Tower movie adaptation (which didn't have the time to be faithful to anything).

And this happening to John Scalzi is not anything new. Look at Terry Brooks and the Shannara series. MTV made huge unnecessary changes to the storyline and shat out a tale that bore only fleeting similarities to the author's content. Yet Brooks went on record to defend the adaptation on his blog. Why? I think he was desperate for some kind of Hollywood love. I think Scalzi is too, which is why he gave a green light for a movie instead of bargaining for a Netflix series of at least 8 episodes.

Writers need to have more backbone and just stand up for their work with a big fat, "No! You can't do this to my work!" George R.R. Martin should have defended Game of Thrones against the showrunners, and said, "No, you cannot shorten the remaining seasons. We need time to show that Daenerys is transitioning to a mad queen or it will all go to hell!" But he didn't, probably because he was just overjoyed that HBO was doing such a good job (and spending so much money) on his work to make it look fantastic (which it did). He probably didn't want to rock the boat, which is understandable. Other writers are guilty of the same thing (of course). Anne Rice should have stood up for her works a couple of decades ago (especially with the awful Queen of the Damned adaptation).

I suppose if there are any writers out there who are reading my words, you might ask yourself what would happen if Hollywood came knocking to adapt your writing for the screen? Would you just let them do whatever they wanted as long as you got paid? Would you stand up for your work even if it meant saying, "No! You cannot do that to my story!" And I guess that some of this rant probably comes from a place of ignorance (on my part). I don't know what it's like to try and get a published work adapted for a screen (and I probably never will as I have no interest in that kind of thing at the moment). But even if this post falls on deaf ears, I want to say that I think many writers are too desperate for Hollywood love, and the world of entertainment would be a better place for all if they would grow a backbone and learn to say, "No!" But then, maybe we wouldn't get any adaptations at all. However, I think it's worth the risk.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Insecure Writer's Support Group asks what started me on my writing journey?

Because last week had the New Year falling on a Wednesday, the Insecure Writer's Support Group is posting today.

The purpose of the Insecure Writer's Support Group is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. It was originally started by author Alex Cavanaugh. If this sounds like something you'd like to participate in, then go HERE and sign up.

I (long ago) started going with the optional question of the month, rather than write a post on some aspect of my writing or my writing progress. So here's the January 8th question of the month:

What started you on your writing journey? Was it a particular book, movie, story, or series? Was it a teacher/ coach/ spouse/ friend/ parent? Did you just "know" suddenly you wanted to write?

I wrote my first "novel" length story in my Junior year at the local high school. My creative writing teacher wanted us to explore our writing, and I was playing a Dungeons and Dragons game with friends after school and believed that it would be fun to have all of our characters star in a story. I was proud of the book, and I did it all on a typewriter, which was the only kind of technology I really had access to in the mid-eighties as computers were not common things to see at that point in time. As a matter of fact, I didn't own my first computer until I was a Junior in college. The dot matrix printer and Word Perfect felt like such luxuries back then. I don't think I ever envisioned an age where I could be typing like I am now into a screen without ever owning any software.

Anyway, I learned then what I know now about myself and my own writings (it hasn't changed over the years). I have a vice when it comes to writing, and that is (simply) that the act of writing is awfully self-centered for me. It's almost a mental and very masturbatory kind of exercise, with my own ego kind of guiding the words to fall on a page toward some self-congratulatory end. I wish that it wasn't this way. I feel like truly great writers can write about anything and can effectively remove themselves from a story to talk about social issues or to highlight changes that society needs to make (by telling a kind of fiction that feels all too real). I'm so happy that there are people who do this on a continual basis. Through their writing, the world becomes a better place.

But in any event, I found a lot of comfort in writing. So yeah...I knew I wanted to write.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

For the November IWSG I'm saying Antarctica is the wierdest thing I've googled in the name of story research.

It's nanowrimo month (I'm not participating), but that also means the calendar has rolled over again. Being Wednesday, I'm going to tackle the Insecure Writer's Support Group's question of the month. If you too would like to participate, then go to this LINK and sign-up. It happens once a month, and was started a long time ago by Alex Cavanaugh.

November 6 question - What's the strangest thing you've ever googled in researching a story? 

It's not really all that strange, but I wanted to find out how people actually get to visit Antarctica. I found out that you can't just go there. If you are in the United States, you need to get the go-ahead from the National Science Foundation (NSF) first.

You see, everyone that goes to Antarctica has to be doing something, or they won't let you go. So (in other words) everyone has a reason for being there as well as having a job to do at the research station. However, your reasons for going can be pretty relaxed. I read a blog where one person was allowed to go because they wanted to write a book of poetry about Antarctica and about penguins or something like that. Their request was accepted, and they were allowed to go for six months, and they had a pretty pleasant experience. Antarctica has a lot more activity than most people realize, from parties and beer pong to people sitting on couches outside and watching television just because they can.

One book I read about the topic had an author who said, "Going to Antarctica is always the trump card in any conversation. If you are at a bar, and some guy is talking about all of his travels, you can play the Antarctica card and instantly 'steal' the spotlight, because everyone always has questions about Antarctica." Anyway, that's probably the weirdest thing I've googled. Pretty tame, right?

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We are getting into "The Holidays" now, so I'm going to winterize my blog until the first Insecure Writer's Support Group post of January 2020. If you are a regular reader, thank you for all your support, and I'll see you in the new year. Have a Happy Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 4, 2019

When I finally got SEE to stream on the Apple TV Plus service it was worth most of the trouble I'd gone to.

This weekend, I got a pleasant surprise. Two years ago, I purchased an iPhone 8 plus and at the time, I purchased the two-year Apple Care. Well with two years of use, being dropped, etc. it kind of wore out quite a bit and wasn't functioning like it should. I took it into the Apple Store here in Salt Lake City, and I used my Apple Care to get an exchange with a brand new iPhone 8 plus for zero dollars. The new phone has been working incredibly well, so I've got no complaints. I would have been completely satisfied with that by itself, but I got a text/notification from Apple that with a brand new phone purchase, I qualified for one year of Apple TV plus for free. So basically, Apple assumed my phone was new, even though it was "technically" an exchange. I was kind of overjoyed, because I don't like subscribing to new streaming services, and this was like a total freebie that came out of nowhere. And it's not one of those, "try this for a week and then we'll start charging you money." No it was a whole year for free.

So the first thing I started to try and watch was the Jason Momoa movie, "See." I thought it would be just a matter of going to a website and trying to watch it, but Apple has got some issues with their technology, meaning they are very cutting edge and unaccepting of older technologies because (in their mind) people should just "get with the program." Sure, I could watch it on my iPhone and my iPad, but I kind of crave something "bigger" if you know what I mean? Those screens are very small.

The first thing I tried to do was cast my phone's screen to my LG OLED Smart TV. This didn't work because my four-year old LG TV doesn't have AirPlay 2 on it. The next thing I tried was seeing if LG had an app I could download from the LG store called "Apple TV." I think the new ones have this app, but there was not one that was downloadable from the LG store for my older t.v. Okay then. What about seeing if I could download an Apple TV app from the Microsoft store for Windows 10? I checked, and that was a no go too.

Next I tried to go to the website tv.apple.com and try to watch it in a browser (which the Apple website said was okay to do). Maybe because it was launch day or some other thing, I couldn't get it to stream in any browser but Firefox (I tried Google Chrome and Edge first). And the stream would periodically crash so that I had to reload it, and then it would never remember where I left off. So I ended up having to fast forward it to the point that I last remembered, watch it for twenty minutes, and then it would crash again. Sigh.

In any event, I made it through two episodes of "See" this way before switching to "Titans" and watching this week's episode with no hitches at all. And as of the writing of this blog post (which is happening on Sunday night), I was able to stream "See" in Google Chrome, so maybe Apple got the issue fixed and just had launch day jitters or something.

The two episodes that I did watch of "See" were an interesting story. It's weird watching a show in which all the actors are supposed to be blind, and I think the most compelling thing about it was to observe how well they get around and even fight while blind. One of the things I don't like about the show are the time jumps. Central to the story are two babies who are born who do have the "power to see" and in order to bring them into the story, they are about twelve years old by the time the second episode ends. That means there's a ton of time that passes in which nothing occurs other than daily life around a village.

This isn't the kind of story that really pulls me in, because I kind of detest big time jumps. It's what turned me off the Starz story of the White Queen, which I found compelling until the story immediately jumped years and years to satisfy certain things in which it wanted to concentrate.

Anyway, I do intend to continue to watch "See," and I'm hoping that a patch comes out to make it easier to view the Apple TV Plus streaming titles. I am reminded though (in my negative experience in using it), how cutting edge Apple tends to be. They are the epitome of a company that uses "planned obsolescence" as a bludgeon by which to browbeat consumers. I just find it dismaying that a television which is still beautiful to me that is now four years old, is purposely being pushed toward obsolescence by app makers who are making things available for everything bought this year...but doing very little for those things purchased in the very recent past. I guess that's just the way capitalism works.

Anyone else watching, "See" with Jason Momoa? The cinematography is gorgeous and there are many visually delightful scenes, which seems at odds with the premise of the story. It kind of reminded me of "Clan of the Cave Bear," only with blind people...which I think is strange now that I think of it. Oh, and no young Daryl Hannah, unless Jason Momoa counts as eye-candy (which he totally does in my book).