Movies: Straight Outta Compton

I just . . . don't understand why this movie didn't receive more Oscar nominations.

Actually, I do. If the Academy is made up of seventy-something percent old white guys, it's a cinch they get more excited remembering how they blackballed Communists than want to think about L.A. in the 80s and 90s.

The self-congratulatory aspect of the Academy Awards—and the industry in general—leaves a bad taste in my mouth. They're so proud of themselves for what? Making an entirely unnecessary export? I guess they employ a lot of people white men. Good for them, keeping those off the streets.

Anyway. This movie. I know nothing about rap music. I don't listen to it, don't much care for it at all. I mean, at that time I was living in Texas, where most people I knew listened to country music, a few listened to alternative/grunge, and a tinier sliver listened to techno. And I listened to pop and classic rock and Jimmy Buffett. Throughout this movie, my husband kept saying, "Now you must recognize this song!" I didn't. The songs all sounded the same to me, and all sounded a bit like Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away." I'd heard of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Suge Knight, but that's about it. Name recognition. Yet despite all this handicap, I still found Straight Outta Compton compelling.

A movie that encourages me to endure rap? Pretty amazing.

More than that, a movie that brings home what it was like to suffer under the racial ire of the L.A. police—something I could never hope to fully understand, but this film comes as close as possible to making me "get it"? That's impressive. (Though I still can't entirely wrap my brain around how they are so violent towards one another. How is that okay?)

The acting here is really good, too. Again, it left me shaking my head that they didn't get any nominations.

I don't know what else to say. It's a fabulous film. Better than Trumbo or The Big Short, in my opinion. Just goes to show, the Academy is . . . I think it's too close to the industry to be able to see the big picture (no pun intended). It's impossible for the Academy to step back and be any kind of objective. And I know this is all subjective—art is subjective—but in the Oscars' case it's too subjective. It's too influenced by its own self-interest. If that makes any sense.

Bottom line is, the Academy Awards don't mean much. Or shouldn't. It's a peer group slapping each other on the back, and we're supposed to believe that who and what wins matters. But it really doesn't. We can look at past winners and see that it doesn't make a bit of difference, and we can look at omissions like Straight Outta Compton and realize that says more than whoever takes home the trophy. It's the equivalent of prom king and queen—those elected (and their best friends) think it's amazing, the rest of us won't care or remember in a few years and will feel sorry and embarrassed for them when they still talk about being prom court whenever we run into them. "In" versus "out" is so high school, yet the Academy perpetuates exactly that. I think it's time we all move on.


Peter on sale through Monday

My latest novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller is only 99 cents through Leap Day! If you haven't bought it yet, now is the time. Pick it up on Amazon, or check the publisher's site for links to all other formats.


I'm on the radio

Well, not yet, but I will be in a few hours. Please listen! Point and laugh if you like because I won't be able to see or hear you. Show is at 1:00 p.m. PST/4:00 p.m. EST. Click here for the link.


Movies: Steve Jobs and Trumbo

So we watched these as a double-header the other night, and that was possibly a mistake. Both are biopics, but they don't mesh well together, and I think Trumbo suffered by comparison because we watched Steve Jobs first.

I haven't read the Isaacson biography, although I'd like to. The film, however, is very condensed and concise. It begins with the 1984 launch of the Lisa and weaves Jobs' professional ambitions with his personal tangents—namely his denial of Lisa as his daughter and his insistence that the computer was not named for her. The whole movie bounces this way in that it harnesses various major product launches to his relationship with Lisa and her mother. It's actually done very well and would make a good stage play. As someone with only a passing sense of the history of Apple, I found it educational. The film ends with the reveal of the iMac in 1998 while Jobs simultaneously brings Lisa back into his life. This means we don't get Pixar or any of the rest of Jobs' life or work history, but it's a satisfying enough chunk for entertainment purposes.

So after watching that, to turn to something as sprawling as Trumbo . . . Made Trumbo feel long and dull by comparison.

Though Steve Jobs doesn't have a lot of action, the film feels dynamic. In Trumbo, meanwhile, a lot is going on, yet it feels as if nothing is happening at all.

Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter and an admitted Communist at a time when being a Communist was borderline criminal. The House Un-American Activities Commission was investigating Hollywood in the belief that Communist influences were using the industry to distribute propaganda. The result was a bunch of hearings in which some industry people named names and others, like Trumbo, refused to answer questions at all. He was held in contempt and served time then returned to screenwriting but, because he could not get work under his own name, he began writing under myriad pseudonyms.

On paper it sounds like a good movie. Maybe. But in truth there isn't much meat to it. Trumbo's perseverance . . . His steadfast character . . . Because he never wavers, he's not all that interesting to watch. Instead we're served a history lesson, a kind of: Here's a thing that happened. And we all nod and say, "Yeah, that happened. It shouldn't have. Um . . ." While Trumbo's résumé is impressive (Roman Holiday, Spartacus, The Brave One among others), and his punking the system is also kind of cool, none of it makes for particularly compelling viewing.

The real winner here may be actor Michael Stuhlbarg who appears in both Steve Jobs and Trumbo and is one of the best things about each. In Steve Jobs he plays Andy Hertzfeld, hapless underling, and in Trumbo he is Edward G. Robinson. When we saw him in Trumbo, I said, "That's the guy from Steve Jobs!" No one believed me so I looked it up on IMDb to prove myself. (I pride myself on being good with faces.) I thought he did solid work on both counts.

In short, I enjoyed Steve Jobs but didn't like Trumbo as much as I would have hoped, especially after it was recommended to me by so many. I can only conjecture I may have liked Trumbo better if I hadn't watched it right after Steve Jobs. I'll never know for sure. 'Tis the hazard of a double feature.


Movies: Kung Fu Panda 3

Featuring Voices By: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie
Directed By: Steve Martino
Written By: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Dreamworks, 2016
PG; 95 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


The latest installment of this popular animation franchise is as cute as one might expect but lacks the tension needed to propel the plot.

The villain this time is Kai, once a brother-in-arms to Master Oogway until his greed for power rather abruptly tipped him toward the Dark Side (or whatever they have in this particular world). This is a case of the back story needing a bit more attention in order for viewers to feel it; as things stand, we take it on faith that Kai is bad, and we hardly ever see him anyway.

Oh, okay, Kai takes Master Oogway's chi in the first scene of the movie, thus reducing Master Oogway to a jade charm. We know this is not good, but we are given no other consequences except, uh . . . No one wants to be turned into a jade charm?

It's by taking the chi of all the Masters in the spirit realm that Kai is able to return to the mortal realm. Why, exactly, he wants to do that is unclear. To get more chi? To get revenge on the pandas who . . . Didn't give him chi way back when? He's after the Dragon Warrior, whose chi is ostensibly very strong. This will make Kai very strong. And . . . Something. It simply isn't laid out in a way that generates any kind of sense of foreboding. The stakes are not clear.

Meanwhile, Po finds his biological father and visits the hidden panda village and learns what it means to be a panda.

The whole idea behind the movie is somewhat amorphous. It's about finding yourself and being yourself. And about how you're never just one thing but many, collected into one being.

The animation here is beautiful, particularly the stylized spirit world and flashbacks. The humor is on point, but there isn't quite enough. More Mantis + Crane, please! More of Kai would also have been good. He had some truly funny moments, and a little more exposure might have made him seem like more of a threat. The focus on Po was almost too much; the supporting cast was much funnier than he was. And Tigress being adopted by a little panda who called her a "stripy baby" was adorable.

I did enjoy this movie, and so did my kids. But it didn't quite live up to its full potential. By the third film, it begins to feel like they're taking a few shortcuts. They shouldn't. Much as pandas hate stairs, the filmmakers should take the time to climb them.


Movies: Crimson Peak

Not as bad as I thought it would be.

Okay, you can count that as damned by faint praise, but here's the thing: I love Gothic stories. When I first heard about this movie, I was really excited about it. Then I saw some trailers and worried it would be too gory for me (I do suspense but not gore). And then the reviews weren't great, but . . . My love of all things Gothic (yes, okay, and Tom Hiddleston, at whom I would gladly stare for a couple hours regardless of what else was happening on the screen) won out and I decided to give it a try with the reasoning I could always turn it off if it was too bloody.

I made it through.

So. The movie. It features Tom Hiddleston as Loki Sir Thomas Sharpe, baronet, who rather like my six-year-old son just wants to invent things and play around with big machine except


his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, who will always be Murph to me) keeps harshing his mellow by forcing him to marry wealthy women and then kill them.

This time he contrives to marry Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), only daughter of a wealthy merchant in New York. Edith is frowned on by others who think the taint of industry smells bad, so it's quite the upset when the dashing baronet plucks her out of all the furbelows and frills of society. They waltz and everything!

When Edith's father dies is a terrible bathroom accident (this was one scene that was nearly too bloody for me), she ends up with all his money and a new husband. Also a really creepy sister-in-law.

Things go from there. Edith's ability to see ghosts helps her navigate the dangers of her new position. And while it's pretty clear early on what the truth is [highlight here if you want to know: Lucille and Thomas are incestuous lovers], I actually expected a bit more supernatural underpinning, an Elizabeth Bathory kind of thing or something. In the end, I found it rather mundane in comparison.

But I still enjoyed it. More than I expected to anyway. It's true, I suppose, that whenever you have low to no expectations, you can't be disappointed. Only happily surprised. So while this is no bright star in the galaxy of filmmaking, I think it has the potential to be a cult favorite among certain circles. Very small circles. Maybe just me. But that's okay, too.


Television: Limitless, "Fundamentals of Naked Portraiture"

So Brian's body guards Mike and Ike (not their real names) decide they need help, and after going through a number of candidates end up with Spike (also not his real name). Spike is really too devoted to be believed, just utterly gung-ho. It turns out later that he's actually been planted by that guy whose name I can't remember but who Brian once made micro-penis texts about. Basically someone we're not supposed to like or trust. So that by the end of the episode Spike is out on his rear and Mike and Ike realize they are more invested in Brian's wellbeing than they thought.

As for the naked portraiture, well, that has to do with Spike as well. Seems there are no lengths to which he won't go to stay on Brian's good side and complete his mission. So when Brian needs a nude model in order to forge an "unknown" painting by some artist, Spike steps up and strips down.

The main plot had to do with a murder and the theft of what amounts to recordings of the minds of the best and brightest scientists, artists, etc. Finding the murderer/thief involves going on the dark web and enticing a prospective buyer with aforementioned forged painting. It all ends up boiling down to a jilted lover, however, who staged the theft in order to throw off the investigation.

Meanwhile, Rebecca gets closer to the truth about Brian having tampered with evidence (Morra's jacket from the assassination attempt), but the evidence clerk that could identify Brian turns up dead. (Thanks, Mr. Sands?)

Not the strongest episode. Elementary has featured a couple similar plots, so this didn't feel all that original. Nothing new under the sun as they say. I will say the cat-and-mouse of Brian nearly getting caught out by Rebecca added nice tension though. But I hope they don't drag this thing out for too long. You don't stretch an elastic and then just hold it there. It either breaks, or you let it snap. Make it snappy, guys!

Television: American Crime Story, "The Run of His Life"

In which we get the famous white Bronco chase.

I'll say again that I wasn't paying much attention to this when it actually happened. But watching what amounts to a re-enactment makes me wonder: Did the writers pull this from records? Or are they just riffing on what they think it might have been like to be in that Bronco? Like, is the dialogue coming from things that were actually said or . . . mere conjecture?

Rob Thomas tweeted the other day that this show is like "a dark comedy being played straight." And it really is. Or, as I mentioned above, it's almost like watching one long crime re-enactment from one of those Cops shows. There's something so schlocky about it, yet the actors all seem to be in earnest.

I don't know what else to say. It's like a train wreck. I can't keep from watching even though it's so awful. Awful in a good way? I still can't decide.


Podcasts: No Extra Words

This is a short and sweet little podcast that features poems and short pieces by a wide variety of writers. Including me! One of my flash fiction pieces is in today's "Broken Hearts" episode. Please give it a listen.

No, that's not my voice. While I love to read aloud, for whatever reason I find it impossible to read my own words aloud. I hear it all very clearly when I write, but can't seem to speak it. It's an odd hangup of mine. But I hope you'll enjoy it all the same.


Television: The X-Files, "Home Again"

Admittedly, last week's episode was a tough act to follow. To avoid too close comparison, this one eschewed humor and went for gore and sap (an odd combination).

The mystery part involved a "Trash Man" killing anyone involved in a homeless relocation project. That was the gore bit: people getting ripped apart. "Treating people like trash," lectured the artist who had created the Trash Man (who then apparently came to life). He likened it to people who recycle and feel good about themselves about it, when in reality there is still an overflowing landfill somewhere. Out of sight, out of mind. Moving the homeless to a shelter was the same thing, only with people.

Well, okay. That was our Lesson of the Week.

Meanwhile, Scully's mother had a heart attack. She asked for her estranged son Charlie. There was a lot of weepy stuff, and the way this story line tied in with the first was that it left Scully worried that William (her and Mulder's son) felt "thrown away." It was sad and sweet, to be sure, but I do feel they're pounding this nail in further than necessary. We know giving William up was difficult. We know it's a weight Scully (and Mulder) carry. But . . . I dunno. It feels a bit much.

I will say I don't disagree with the LotW. I was thinking about it just the other day, in fact, when our town went out of its way to remind us that throwing away batteries is technically illegal. We're supposed to take them to special disposal sites. And it made me wonder why so many people still throw their batteries out. My conclusion is: because it's easier.

In order to effect change in people's behaviors, you have to do two things. 1. You have to make the consequences big enough to matter. 2. You have to make it easy for people to do what it is you want them to do. Why do more people recycle? Because the city gave us special bins and sorting trash isn't all that hard. If you gave us a special bin for batteries, or at least made the disposal centers numerous and nearby, we'd probably follow the rules and dispose of batteries properly. (I'm using a universal "we" as I do try and follow the rules myself.) Barring that, if the consequences were big enough—if people were relatively sure of being caught, and if there were fines and/or jail time involved—we'd also probably be motivated to behave the way you're asking us to behave.

But this is a tangent. As for The X-Files, it was an okay episode. I know they can't all be goofy. In fact, if they all were, the show wouldn't be as good.


Television: American Crime Story, "From the Ashes of Tragedy"

I can't tell how seriously I'm supposed to take this show. Are the filmmakers in earnest? Are they going for schlock? It seems to be a little of both, and it's confusing.

Okay, so I had just finished my senior year of high school when the murders occurred, and I was only vaguely aware of the whole thing. O.J. Simpson held no particular interest for me because I wasn't a sports fan, so the sensational aspect of the murders and trial were diluted for me. And all my energy was bent toward getting ready to go to uni. The events covered in this series, then, were only so much background noise for me at the time.

I guess what I'm saying is, I walked into watching this without much working knowledge of what had happened. I knew: O.J. Simpson, bloody glove . . . Yeah, that's about it. Oh, and the white Bronco thing, of course. Which I guess a lot of people watched on television when it happened, but I didn't. ::shrug::

Anyway, as for ACS, I . . . guess I like it? But again, I'm really confused by the way they're coming at it. Some of it is so over the top, and yet some of it seems meant to be genuine. Every character, though, comes across as oddly punched up to the point of near caricature as opposed to real people. That's where it begins to feel schlocky and absurd. It's as though as viewers we're meant to ogle rather than sympathize. Maybe even point and laugh. I can't tell.

I'll keep watching and see if things become any clearer.


Television: The X-Files, "Mulder & Scully Meet the Were-Monster"

Let's just let Darrin Morgan write all the things from here on out, shall we?

After returning with a couple somewhat weak episodes, we get this classic, loaded with humor. Mulder is having a crisis of faith over how many things he believed in have been debunked, so when Scully shows him this monster sighting case, his hopes are not high. But the path to the truth proves to Mulder there are more things in heaven and earth . . . (And yes, extra points for the Hamlet, Mr. Morgan.)

I won't go into details; I don't want to ruin it for anyone who might watch. But if the first two episodes turned you off—if, like Mulder, your faith in The X-Files was dampened—this episode should help restore you.

Television: Elementary, "Alma Matters"

A ripped-from-John-Oliver story of how a for-profit educational institution hires felons from its own student rolls to keep the Department of Education from building a case against it.

And a secondary story line in which Holmes discovers his father suspected him of trying to have him killed.

So assassins all around, really.

I've written before about Elementary's skew against the rich and corporate America; in almost every episode, you can look to those institutions as the culprits and be right. This episode goes a bit further by making actual criminals into semi-heroes—a murder it witnessed by the lookout of a burglary crew, and the ex-cons are painted quite sympathetically as they try to dig themselves out of debt incurred while trying to better themselves and their lives. And as I've mentioned before, I'm not saying that isn't a valid point of view for a story; I'm not championing big business or saying people don't deserve second chances. I'm only pointing out that Elementary works from almost exclusively this angle. Which means there is very little mystery to the show. And why am I watching this show if not for the mystery? (Especially since character development, which was so great starting out, has slowed to near nil.)

This thesis is crowned by Sherlock's evil father who is very wealthy and also very shady. There are no good, charitable rich people or CEOs in Elementary's philosophy. Even the "good" ones only do it for the tax break and the publicity.

To sum up: a solid episode but nothing new under the sun.