11.15.2017

Television: The Orville, "Majority Rule"

You remember that episode of ST:TNG where Wesley is sentenced to death while visiting a foreign planet because he didn't Keep Off the Grass? Yeah, this is that episode.

Except instead an inept away team goes looking for a couple missing anthropologists on a planet where everything is determined by popular vote. Literally. Everyone wears a badge with a green "up" arrow and a red "down" arrow and basically goes through life being defined by how many Likes and Dislikes they have. As a person. And apparently there is a threshold wherein, if you reach a certain number of down votes, you are "corrected" by basically having your brain scrambled.

How could this ever go wrong?

Look, Star Trek (the chassis upon which The Orville is constructed) has a long, strong history of social commentary. And it's never been particularly subtle. So this isn't either. But . . . While I'm moderately entertained, I'm wondering what it says—either about me or the show—that I only watch The Orville when I'm looking for mindless entertainment. Like, at least it's entertaining, I guess? But some of the novelty is wearing off for me, and I find myself looking elsewhere while the episodes stack up on my DVR.

Besides the on-the-noseness of it all, I'm annoyed that every reference made is to 20th and 21st century television and culture. They watch Seinfeld, they talk about American Idol and mention Justin Bieber. REALLY? Did culture just stop when and where we now live and that's all the future has to go on? They have NOTHING ELSE? Nothing older, nothing more current? I suppose that would require the writing team to, you know, actually come up with stuff rather than grab the low-hanging fruit.

Maybe that's what I'm really railing against here. Laziness. They don't have the cleverness to be more subtle or to build a world populated by new cultural references. Well, sure, they give the Krill a religion, and they gave Bortus' people a poet, but apparently humans stopped short at Taylor Swift and have been coasting on that for hundreds of years.

Sigh. Whatever. It's an okay show. I'll keep in on my DVR for the rare occasions I may actually feel like watching it.

11.12.2017

Movies: Murder on the Orient Express

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Holy S*** How Many People Are In This Movie
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Written By: Michael Green (screenplay) from the novel by Agatha Christie
20th Century Fox, 2017
PG-13; 114 minutes
4.25 stars (out of 5)


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The obligatory history: I read my first Hercule Poirot book when I was thirteen years old. It was, in fact, Murder on the Orient Express. I remember this distinctly because I was nearly finished with the book when Dad called me down to take me to Lethal Weapon 2 (my first R-rated movie in the cinema). Mom was out of town, and Dad always gave me more credit for being able to tolerate things like violence and language. I'd loved the first Lethal Weapon when I'd seen . . . either the VHS tape or TV edit? So of course I wanted to see the next one.

I digress. Let's say that Murder on the Orient Express drove me to read many more Poirot novels. It was also the first Agatha Christie book I shared with my now 12-year-old son. And so I hold it very close to my heart. And my son and I were very excited to see the movie.

This is a lovely movie. In particular, the skies and the way the train is framed in certain shots—just gorgeous. I also enjoyed the subtle humor at certain moments. Wit, really. So quick and brief I think many in the cinema missed the jokes entirely.

There are flaws, however. MOTOE has a huge cast. This is not unusual for Poirot novels, or a certain genre of mysteries in general. After all, the more people involved, the harder it is for the reader to figure out the solution to the crime. But when condensing things to the screen, the number of characters can be confusing, and no one gets full development. Backstories zip by. For someone who has read the book, this may not be a problem. (It wasn't for me or my son.) But I would think anyone unfamiliar with the story might be a bit confused.

My only other quibble is the insertion of a backstory for Poirot—a lost love named Katherine. WHY???? Was it done to make Poirot more sympathetic somehow? It really added nothing to the story and actually detracted from the established character for me. This need to make Poirot into something he never was in the novel: a brilliant mind grieving for what has been lost or denied him. They also make him fastidious to the point of near OCD. Like, yes, Poirot has very high standards, but this is beyond what I remember from the books. And while it contributes to his character's "eye for details" it is also somewhat played for laughs. If Poirot has a problem—like, actual OCD—that's not funny.

The movie does deviate from the novel on a number of points, but overall it is very enjoyable. One hopes they'll do another. Though—again, just to quibble—to namecheck Death on the Nile as though to set it up as the next film is ridiculous. That murder occurs while Poirot is present, not before. He's in Egypt when Linnet is murdered is what I mean. Poirot wouldn't be getting information about the murder before he's even gone to Egypt. That's just dumb.

Well, whatever. I'd watch it anyway, so I guess my fuss is for naught. Here's hoping it gets a green light.

11.11.2017

Movies: The Big Sick

I'd been hearing about this movie on various podcasts for a while, but I'd never been in the right mood or frame of mind to watch it. Until last night.

There's a certain kind of movie—almost always indie or small studio pics—that bill themselves as "comedy" but aren't really that funny. I think they're using an older definition of "comedy," the one that says things end happy rather than sad. In other words, if it's not an all-out tragedy, it's a comedy. Kind of. Like, if you have to pick between the two masks, this movie is the laughing one more than the crying one, right?

Still, while it definitely has its funny moments, this isn't, you know, what some people think of as comedy. It tends toward melodrama. It's what some call "dramedy." And that's fine, but it's not the same as a comedy.

All this may make it sound like I didn't like the movie. But I did! I actually liked it quite a lot. It's one of the few I've seen that lives up to all the hype I've heard. Kumail Nanjiani is incredibly personable (both in this movie and in interviews); it's impossible not to like him, even when he's being a jerk in the film. You honestly want him to do well. You cringe for him when [mild spoiler] his comedy set bombs. You feel for him when he finds himself caught between his family and the girl he's fallen in love with. His interactions with everyone—his family, his girlfriend's family, his fellow comedians—it's all so natural and unaffected, very enjoyable to watch.

Okay, so for those who don't know, the movie is about Kumail falling in love with a girl named Emily. Meanwhile, his Pakistani family keeps trying to set him up with a good Muslim girl to marry. When Emily finds out Kumail hasn't even told his family about her, and when he can't commit to a future with her, she breaks up with him. Next thing Kumail knows, he's receiving a call to say Emily is in the hospital. He goes there and meets her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, both in fabulous form). Hilarity doesn't exactly ensue, though there are definite pulses of it.

If anything, the character of Emily is the weak link. Maybe because she's in a coma for a big chunk of the movie, but honestly, when she was awake I found her a tad annoying. I didn't 100% buy the attraction between her and Kumail. But that's a small thing in the overall scheme. That may sound strange considering this is, in some aspect, a romantic movie. And I think if Emily had been conscious for the entire film, it wouldn't have worked because her shrillness would have ruined things. But as things stand, it's livable.

In short, this is a really cute movie. It's drama punctuated with laughter. There's a little bit of tragedy, too. The whole thing is a stew, really—a tasty one.

11.06.2017

Free Story Today!

You can read my brand new story for free for a very limited time. Click here (US link).

11.05.2017

Movies: The Beguiled

I usually really enjoy moody period dramas, and I had high hopes for this one. What I guess I'd forgotten is that, of the few Sofia Coppola movies I've seen, I haven't much enjoyed any of them. And The Beguiled is very much a Sofia Coppola movie despite being based on a novel.

The story is very simple. In 1864 Virginia, a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by a houseful of women—Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her charges, the remaining pupils of her girls' school. A man in their midst upsets the placid setting. That's pretty much the story, really. The women become beguiled by the strange man.

One of the major problems with this movie, besides the fact that it is glacially paced and not a whole lot happens, is that none of the characters are given thorough development. A few get more than others, but overall the young ladies feel somewhat interchangeable. And where tension should be building, it just never does. We all know that, in the words of Bartok the Bat, "this can only end in tears," but we don't really feel any dread.

The movie is beautiful to look at, mind. It's gorgeously shot. And I do honestly believe the actors did the best they could with the material they were given. It was a valiant effort.

But the bottom line is that the movie was slow and pretty boring. I'm somewhat curious about the novel now; I only found out about the whitewashing scandal after looking stuff up for this post. So I do wonder about ways the book is different. I feel there could definitely be more depth of character in a novel than was portrayed on the screen. Some books just don't translate to film very well. (Then again, apparently the Clint Eastwood version of this movie is much better. Not that I'm keen to try it again so soon. Not beguiled enough for that.)

11.04.2017

Movies: Thor: Ragnarok

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Written By: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Marvel, 2017
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)


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A couple of caveats: (1) the sound in our cinema kept going out, which may have influenced my overall sense of the film, even though they did fix it and rewind the scenes for us; (2) I've literally just come home from this movie, which means that I'm on that bit of a film high that one sometimes gets. I considered giving this movie just a 4/5 for a few things, but the fact is, despite the niggling issues, it was highly entertaining. And that's all it's really required to be, right?

On the plus side of this film: lots of comedy and more of the Loki-as-pseudo-hero that we all sort of seem to want. We know Loki is a villain, but we like him so much we want him to win a little, and I feel the franchise is trying to do that for us. It's a very difficult line to walk, though. We don't want him to, you know, go the way of Drax and become base comic relief. We want him to stay smart and wily, and we want him and Thor not to get too close and happy because that won't work either. Anyway, this film balances very carefully on that line, though it does teeter a bit toward Loki as goofy. We're going to want to nudge that a bit in the other direction in the next film. Loki should be darker than this is all I'm saying.

The story in a nutshell: Thor heads home to Asgard after attempting to stop Ragnarok from happening only to find Loki pretending to be Odin. So then they go find Odin (in Norway, cuz where else would he be?), and—stop reading if you don't want to know—Odin dies, which means Thor's and Loki's older sister Hela is released from her prison. Being the oldest, she assumes the throne of Asgard. She's also the goddess of death so, you know, things in Asgard go to Hel . . . a . . .

Meanwhile, the part the trailers all showed: Thor gets captured by a scraper (Thompson) who brings The Grandmaster (Goldblum) fighters for his big Tournament of Champions or whatever it was called. Thor's goal: get away and go save Asgard.

This movie is crowded with cameos and clever casting, and it mostly works. At the same time, it does pull viewers out of the moment sometimes.

My main problem with Thor: Ragnarok is that it tries to subvert expectations and yet the audience is too smart for it. An example: Bruce Banner jumps off a spaceship to face a threat. We're supposed to expect him to land as the Hulk. But he just falls face first and then, moments later, emerges as the Hulk. It's a funny moment but not as much of a cute surprise as I think the writers and filmmakers thought it would be. We as viewers are ahead of the story, and that's not always a good thing. We know Skurge (Urban) is going to have to make a choice, and we know what the choice is going to be and how it's going to end for him. What I'm saying is, this movie hits all the beats, and they're fun ones, but they're also super predictable. The story ends up tied in a neat little bow, and that's weirdly unsatisfying.

Still, this is a largely lighthearted chapter in the ongoing Marvel thread. (Too lighthearted perhaps given the gravitas that the ending needs but lacks.) It seems someone took notes from Guardian of the Galaxy's success and decided to lean in—but not as far in as GOTG Vol. 2, which was a smidge too far. Thor: Ragnarok knows not to take itself too seriously, which is a good thing. As I said, it's highly entertaining, which is all it really needs to be. If the next one could maybe be a little bit more clever or subversive or something, though, I'd appreciate it.

11.03.2017

Story: "Professor Moriarty & the Demented Detective"

Now available on Amazon. You can even read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

What if the famously evil Professor Moriarty wasn't as evil as Holmes made him out to be? Hear his side in this new short story that revisits the Reichenbach Falls.

11.01.2017

IWSG Reminder

If you stumbled across this blog in search of my IWSG entry, well, you're digging in the wrong place. Hop over to PepperWords for my post.

Books: Fairy Tales and Folklore Re-imagined

You can now preorder the anthology I contributed to:

Click for link

No, I'm not sure why they put a hyphen there, either, but whatever. The book comes out on 11/10.

10.31.2017

Television: Stranger Things 2

I'm not going to go into detail because I don't want to spoil it for anyone. So I'm going to be pretty general in my statements here.

I've often written about how difficult it is to maintain great quality in sequels, particularly when the first installment was brilliant and somewhat unexpected. When you set the bar that high—and therefore people's expectations as well—it becomes hard to clear it. But Stranger Things 2 does, I think, the best it possibly could to meet the stellar quality of its first season.

That's not to say it's perfect. But you can see they took care not to coast on their good reputation. Real work went into this.

Encapsulated so as not to spoil it for anyone: ST2 returns to Hawkins, and the Upside Down is sort of . . . leaking? The gate sealing it off is weakening. Problems ensue.

I did think it was interesting that, in order to make Steve not appear to be quite so much of a jerk, they simply introduced an ever bigger jerk character. Everything is relative, I suppose. We all exist somewhere on a jerk scale of one kind or another in this world.

There is real tension in this season, too, and some honest-to-goodness horror. Sure, some of it plays like Jurassic Park, but I like JP, so . . .

Did I enjoy it as much as the first season? Not quite. But again, some of that goes back to the first season being a novelty, an unexpected good fortune. I think ST2 is a worthy successor. That's really all we could ask for, or even hope for. It's easy for shows (*cough*Sherlock*cough*) to be pleased with themselves after a brilliant start and just know that people will watch no matter what. It takes commitment to the story, the characters, the actors, and the audience to continue to deliver quality work. For that much, I'm grateful to the Duffer Brothers and their team for putting in the effort.

10.30.2017

Weinstein et al

I'm going to make what many will consider a distasteful analogy. But you've heard the saying in airports and at train stations: "See something? Say something."

I've been fortunate, I suppose, never to have brushed up against Weinstein back when I was navigating a young and hopeful career in "the industry." But for those who have worked with him—and especially you men, but in some cases also women—did you ever see anything? Hear anything? Did your spidey senses ever tingle? If so, and you did nothing . . . If you brushed it off . . . Then you are complicit.

Because it is rather like the airport or the train station. If you see something and don't speak up and that plane goes down or that train derails—that's a little bit on you. And your lack of action impacts the people on the plane or train, and all their loved ones. That selfish little piece of you that stayed silent—that helped the terrorists.

Yeah, I said terrorists. Because there is a war of terror against women, and sometimes also against men. Against homosexuals and people of color and just any minority group, really. This is true in the world, and Hollywood is a microcosm of it.

After the Weinstein story broke, more allegations began to spill about others in the industry. I'm going to make another analogy here. Say you have a lush forest. It's been standing for a long time. But then one of the biggest trees has a disease. "We need to take down that tree," the park rangers say. And then they discover the disease has actually spread to a lot of the trees. Now the rangers hesitate. That's a lot of trees to cut down. It won't leave much forest. What will people do for shade? What will animals do for homes? But that disease isn't going to go away. If you leave those trees, the disease will just spread to newer, younger trees.

You've got to cut them down. Better yet, pull them by the roots so they don't regrow. Then replant with hardier stock. It will leave a very young forest, but a healthier one.

For those of you who don't follow, the casting couch mentality in Hollywood needs to be yanked up and tossed out. A new way of thinking and behaving needs to take its place. That's scary, to overhaul an industry that's used to doing things a certain way. The people on top don't want a shift of power. Of course they don't. They're the tall trees that get all the sun. But some of them are diseased and need to go. It's that simple and that difficult at the same time. A lot of hard work ahead, but the forest and the world will be better for it.

10.23.2017

Movies: The Princess Bride

At the risk of being incredibly unpopular, I have to say . . . I only kind of like this movie.

The Princess Bride came out when I was 11. I didn't see it then. I've watched it maybe twice in my life, the first time while I was an undergraduate. Maybe it was the hype (everyone always saying how wonderful this movie was), or maybe it was the venue (someone's apartment; I was with a church group), but it just didn't enthrall me. It failed to charm me the way it seems to have charmed so many others. I didn't find it funny or clever or, well, much of anything.

I didn't hate it. I just didn't love it much either.

Later my husband sat me down to watch it again in the belief that I'd somehow just not fully absorbed it properly. But I had the same feeling the second time. He adores The Princess Bride. I . . . don't.

I only bring it up because I'm behind on my podcast listening and just got around to Pop Culture Happy Hour discussing the 30-year anniversary of the film. They gushed as per expectations, in particular over Cary Elwes, whom I've never found attractive, so he really doesn't do anything to boost the movie for me. I find a lot of the famous quotes just plain annoying, but that might be from repetition.

I've never read the book either. Maybe I'd like it more?

Sigh. I think, really, I'm mostly indifferent to The Princess Bride. I couldn't invest in any of the characters, and I didn't feel any chemistry between the leads. I did like the bits with Peter Falk and Fred Savage, if that counts for anything. ::shrug::

10.17.2017

Television: The Orville, "Krill"

Aren't krill the thing whales eat? Like, something in the sea? I'm too lazy to go look it up because it's not that important to me, but it's what I think of every time I hear "krill." Even if I did look it up, and even if it isn't true, I'd still think it.

Anyway. This episode. We learn Bortus can eat almost anything, I guess? But the bulk of the story is Ed and Gordon masquerading as Krill so as to learn more about their culture—specifically their holy book—in the hopes of finding common ground and forging peace.

I have some basic, logistical issues. For one, Ed and Gordon spend time talking about how they don't know any Krill names and so don't know what fake names to use while in disguise. Okay, so... They've been briefed on the fact that the Krill are very religious and that their belief system tells them they are better than all other forms of life and therefore it is okay to kill other species and take their planets and resources. They know this much about the Krill but no names? Not even the name of the Krill god (which turns out to be Avis)? Can they read Krill? If so, how did they learn, and if not, how will they read the snaps of the holy book Ed is supposed to take? There just doesn't seem to be a lot of internal logic about the way humans and Krill interact since the Krill are always aggressive. Surely the Union has captured Krill before and learned a few things? I dunno. It's really unclear.

The underlying story of how the Krill's religion is the cause of all the problems is... troublesome. We're given little to no sense of the Krill as having any good qualities, and this seems tied to their beliefs. True, the Krill children seem more open minded, though they are clearly being indoctrinated. But the subtext here is not very, well, sub. It's pretty heavy handed and paints all beliefs with one brush. The idea that in the future humans will not have religion but will still watch Seinfeld is just dumb. I'm not saying it can't happen, but if they want me to believe it, I want more information. How do they explain the Charlie Brown Christmas special if no one is Christian any more? Or have all things that have any religious "taint" been banned, eliminated? Are we supposed to see ourselves [the humans, the Union] as better than the Krill for having risen above religion? If we do that, aren't we just as bad as the Krill in thinking we are superior?

Oh, but we don't go killing people and taking their stuff, you say. Except in this episode they totally do.

But we do it for the good of... Of what? Our own race and allies? Yup. So do the Krill.

But we do it to protect our own. We don't start fights but we end them. Fair enough. But you're asking me to believe the Krill use their religion as the reason they start fights. Or the excuse. Removing their beliefs wouldn't change their behavior, I don't think. They'd find another reason/excuse to take what they want. We see people with money do that all the time, people with better technology—anyone with the upper hand. Religion doesn't have to be the reason. It can be a reason, but it's almost never the only reason.

I didn't mean for this to turn into a treatise. I myself am not religious, though I grew up in a religious household. I know that strong beliefs can cause problems, but not believing isn't the solution. I think it matters what you emphasize, whether it's the "love thy neighbor" and "judge not lest ye be judged" versus "an eye for an eye" or whatever the verse is that says to kill everyone who doesn't believe the same thing as you. Like, if a majority of the Union converted and worshiped Avis, would the Krill still kill people? Is this really about the belief or is it a racial thing?

Whatever. This episode had some truly tense moments, I'll give it that. And it certainly made me think.

10.12.2017

Wha to Look for in a Small Publisher (Part 2: Contracts)

Click to enlarge

Hey! The next part of my guest post on Dale Cameron Lowry's site is up. This one focuses on what to look for if a small publisher should offer you a contract.

10.10.2017

What to Look For in a Small Publisher

Click to enlarge
I'm over at Dale Cameron Lowry's blog today with some tips about small publishers (should you be thinking of going that route). Part 2 will be posted on Thursday, so stay tuned!

Television: The Orville, "Pria"

I guess I'm still watching this show, which says something in and of itself, right? I still can't decide if I like it though. I don't think I've ever had a show confuse me this much.

A couple years ago there was a Twitter account dedicated to the fictitious story lines of a Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 8. And I kind of think The Orville is pranking us by using some of those story ideas?

Anyway, this episode features Charlize Theron as the titular Pria, a space miner... traveling alone... and found stranded on a comet? Like, doesn't that already seem weird? Sure, she gives a glib story, but wouldn't it be standard procedure to look people up when they come on board? Like, aren't there passports or ID cards or something? You're going to tell me that in the future we don't need ID any more? Not even a retinal scan? I'm calling B.S.

B plot: Gordon trying to teach Isaac about human humor, resulting in a series of practical jokes.

Meanwhile, Kelly (because that's a name that will come back into fashion in a few hundred years) is suspicious of Pria. And maybe a little jealous that Ed (a timeless classic of a name) is practically jumping into a relationship with her. Ed—who tells Pria he's had a hard time trusting after Kelly's adultery—sure is quick to trust this time around. Damn.

As expected (because there wouldn't be a story if it all went well), Pria is not who she claims to be, and stuff happens and then everyone goes home. Except they are home. So everyone stays where they are, I guess. And there's kind of a tiny crack left open to allow Pria to come back in future episodes, kind of like Vash in ST:TNG.

What is The Orville's mission, anyway? Do they just float around waiting until someone needs them? Are they a cosmic coast guard or something? They always seem to be just hanging out (watching old TV shows, evidently) until someone sends a distress signal. The bridge is not a living room. At the very least, I would think most people would be wearing headphones and watching YouTube videos on their personal displays.

And if I have to hear that "jar of pickles" line one more time... We all hate that uncle who says the same damn thing every time, right? We don't want Ed to be that uncle. FIND A DIFFERENT LINE, ED!

I can't even decide about this show. My husband really enjoys it, so I'll probably keep watching by default. I'm not sure, though, if I'd watch if it were just me. I honestly don't know. Except, I have to say: the other night, I remember thinking, "Feels like an Orville kind of night." So maybe The Orville is filling a void in the TV cosmos that I didn't even realize was there.

10.07.2017

Television: Spielberg

Anyone who knows me knows Steven Spielberg has left a great impression on my life. His was the first name I knew in movies. The first movie I can remember seeing in a cinema is Raiders of the Lost Ark (though I spent the film thinking his name was "Petey" and that he was a cowboy because hat). I was only five years old when that movie came out, and there are questions as to whether my parents should have taken me to see it, but whatever. From that moment I was a Steven Spielberg fan.

I didn't know what Spielberg did exactly. But his name was on all the best movies. Whatever he did, I wanted to do it, too. I wanted to make amazing things that people watched.

Spielberg is the reason I have a film degree.

Alas, I haven't made any movies. I've worked on film sets, and I've had one short film made of my stage play, but that's the sum total of my filmography. Still, I can very much appreciate—and envy—Mr. Spielberg's career. I haven't seen all his films, not nearly. Some I will probably never watch. But he's made such a wide variety of movies . . . Kind of like how I write a lot of different genres . . . I can appreciate the desire to keep moving and trying new things and the need to tell new stories, even if deep down they are similar thematically.

So this documentary—which is long at around 2 hours 21 minutes—well, it might as well have been made for me. It's a nice retrospective of Spielberg's career thus far, and besides talking to the man himself and hearing his side, they managed to gather a lot of big names to chime in. I don't think any of it was revelatory. But I think it was interesting and tidy. Well packaged, I'd say.

I guess the one thing is: if you're interested in Spielberg and his work, you probably already know a lot of what Spielberg covers, and if you don't know a lot about him, this documentary may feel a tad dry. Like, my attention wandered a few times. And I'm a devotee. So I don't know what less adoring viewers might think.

In all, I enjoyed it. Nothing exciting, but solid, and a nice perspective on the man and his work.

(Now if he'd just direct The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller...)

10.05.2017

Television: The Orville, "If the Stars Should Appear"

So I can't decide if this show means to be as dumb as it is? Like, is it designed to point out how stupid a lot of Star Trek is/was? Or...???

Look, on the surface this is a clever little story about a world inside a spaceship. The ship itself is adrift and the people on board have forgotten they're on a ship at all. So as the ship drifts towards a star, the Orville crew attempts to save it, but the passengers are living some agrarian lifestyle and praying to a strange god (spoiler: their god turns out to be Liam Neeson, so it's understandable) and most of them are suspicious and not wanting the help.

All in all, it's typical Trek-style fare. But there's something lacking here. Maybe it's that I don't care a lick about any of the main characters. Just none of them appeal to me. Maybe it's that there was practically no B plot in this episode. We open with Bortus and Klyden having a tiff that goes nowhere. Local color? We've had our fill of Bortus and Klyden with the last episode, so maybe we should focus on someone else for a change?

I just feel like this episode idea was a good one, but the execution didn't hold up. Very beat-by-beat, and I never felt any real tension. (Again, possibly because I'm not invested in the characters.) I wanted this to be an episode of Babylon 5. I could totally see this playing out in interesting ways if only the characters were more engaging.

And boy, are they pulling on the strings to get cameos and guest stars. Next week it will be Charlize Theron. This feels like stunt casting, and it feels desperate this early in the show's run. I haven't looked at the ratings, though. Have no idea how well The Orville is doing with viewers.

I don't know. I might keep watching? I'm really on the fence. Maybe the characters will get better? I'm seriously conflicted. But at the very least, it's a show I can turn on when I don't want to do any brain work and I've watched all the House Hunters.

10.01.2017

Movies: The Sound

It's a dumb name for a psychological thriller/horror movie. But whatever.

Rose McGowan plays Kelly Johansen, a woman whose job is to debunk hauntings. She does this through low frequency sounds, I guess? Also: how does she make any money? Do people pay her to come to their houses and do this? She's evidently written a book, and she keeps a blog or Tumblr or something, so maybe that's where the money comes from? I'm just saying, what's the going rate for someone to come to your house and tell you it's not haunted, there's just an airport nearby?

Kelly is smug and borderline unlikable, which is how we know she's going to have to go through something torturous to wipe that smugness right out of her. She gets a message that leads her to an abandoned subway station in Toronto, and she promises her husband (or is he just a boyfriend?) she'll be back in time for that night's party, which sounds (har, see what I did there?) ridiculous considering she's flying to Toronto. I don't know where they are, exactly, so maybe it's a short flight, but still.

In the cab on the way to the subway station, Kelly gets the obligatory phone call from her mother that hints that something strange and/or terrible happened on that day thirty years before. 🙄  So now we know this is definitely going to be a thing.

The cab driver tells Kelly about how he and his friends once broke into the abandoned station, but we don't get to hear what he saw. As for the abandoned station itself, it's apparently ridiculously easy to break into. There's a door leading from the working station to the closed-off one. No tools required, just walk right on in. Again: 🙄

What we get from here on in is fairly standard pseudo-horror stuff with hallucinations, etc. Christopher Lloyd appears as a ghostly maintenance man. Kelly becomes weirdly sleepy and has numerous dreams/hallucinations. Nothing very scary, however, and it's pretty obvious a lot of what she thinks is happening isn't actually happening. Also, how is she getting cell service and Internet down there?

The core of the "horror" (if it can be called that, since none of it is particularly horrific) is a girl named Emily that apparently has something to do with this 30-year anniversary that Kelly's mom called about. Kelly keeps seeing/dreaming of a little girl in a white dress with a doll, and Kelly has the ratty old doll in her duffel . . . I won't give away the ending, but I will say I wasn't wowed—or surprised, for that matter.

For a low-budget, limited-locations production, this one is produced pretty well, and there are a couple of known names starring in it. That's impressive. I just wish someone had given the script itself a bit of a lift. It's murky and soporific and could have used some stronger twists to keep it interesting.

9.30.2017

Movies: The LEGO Ninjago Movie

Voices By: Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen
Directed By: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
Written By: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern, John Whittington (screenplay); 7 other people, except a few are the same people (story)
Warner Bros., 2017
PG; 101 minutes
4.25 stars (out of 5)


_______________________________________________________

So on the LEGO movie spectrum, I liked this one almost as much as The LEGO Movie and quite a bit more than The LEGO Batman Movie.

Dave Franco voices Lloyd Garmadon, son of the world's greatest villain. Lloyd has just turned 16, and he's hated by pretty much everyone simply because his dad is the worst. Of course, Lloyd is secretly one of the Ninjas that defend the city every time Garmadon (Justin Theroux) attacks. It's a sweet gig but Lloyd is naturally conflicted. He longs to have a father-son relationship, but how is that possible when his dad (a) left when he was a baby, and (b) is an evil tyrant?

During a particularly vicious battle between the Ninjas and Garmadon's army, Lloyd takes the nigh unforgivable step of using The Ultimate Weapon. It only makes things worse and hands Garmadon a victory. So Lloyd must go in search of the Ultimate Ultimate Weapon to make things right again.

The story is simplistic and predictable, but there's enough humor to keep things going. Jackie Chan is a natural as the voice of Master Wu, who also happens to be Lloyd's uncle and Garmadon's brother. A live-action frame story featuring Chan as the proprietor of a cluttered shop is also very cute, if stereotypical.

I do feel like there could have been more in-depth introductions to the other Ninjas. I've never watched the television show, so maybe that's something I'm already supposed to be familiar with. And I get that this is a kids' movie and character development isn't necessarily a focus. But it just seems to me that they could have done a wee bit more there. (This may be a bi-product of writing by committee.)

But overall, a cute movie, and my kids really enjoyed it, which was kind of the point. The fact that I liked it as much as I did is a bonus.

9.29.2017

Books: Online or Flatline by Nick Choat

Full disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book via some review group that I assume the author hired to, er, get reviews for his book. The reason I requested a review copy was that I hoped the book would have some insight for me as a self-published author. I mean, being a self-published author is like running a small business in many ways. However, I can't say this book had much for me.

This book is so short it's almost a thick pamphlet. That said, one could praise it for being concise? I will say I enjoy Choat's conversational tone. The book is inviting. Perhaps Choat realizes some people—and this book really seems geared at older businesspeople—are a little afraid of the online world, at least when it comes to marketing. So he tries with his tone to make it all less scary.

That said, this book is very basic, too. It's for extreme beginners. This book is a toe dip, not a jump-in-and-swim. And some of the information is not exactly true. In particular, Choat goes on for a bit about "Google for Business" which isn't a thing as far as I can tell. He writes:
One platform, Google for Business (formerly G+), stands out from this crowd for the simple reason that Google owns the platform. The original G+ struggled to capture social hearts and minds like Facebook. So Google . . . repositioned G+ to be a tool for small businesses instead of a social tool for the masses. Now they call it Google for Business.
He goes on to say that this "Google for Business" works against business owners who don't have a profile with them. As best I can tell, none of this is true. First off, I think Choat may mean Google My Business, which is an online directory that businesses can post a profile on. However, Google+ (or G+) still exists as a social platform as well. And I've never heard of anyone suffering for not having a Google My Business profile. If your SEO is working, you'll come up in search results regardless.

While Choat discusses at length the things he considers necessary for small business success (a Web site being #1, which, duh), most of his examples are anecdotal. There aren't hard numbers here, or even much data to back up his words. He mentions things he's done for his haircut franchise but doesn't say what his results were. Sure, he did some Facebook ads, but can he tell us how many new customers came in from those? Apparently not. When talking about the need to have your business listed in online directories, he writes: "While I don't have hard data, intuitively I believe that 10-20 percent of your digitally acquired new customers will come through these platforms." Intuitively? Does he have a reason for this intuition, or is it a gut feeling?

On the plus side, Choat is correct is telling small-business owners to beware predators who will milk them. Vet any "service providers" and be sure to figure out how much you can do on your own and for yourself. While a lot of what Choat recommends—and he really is only covering the bare basics here—takes time, much of it shouldn't cost any money. Choat is right to tell readers that they should only hire experts (and make sure they're experts!) as a last resort if/when they can't do something themselves.

He's also on point when telling readers to start with one and then build. Don't try to do Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. all at once. Get a Web site set up, then a Facebook page. Let that ride for a while before adding another component. There's nothing more overwhelming than too many social media outlets to manage.

Finally, as an editor I found numerous punctuation problems that distracted me from the text. I also have to marvel at the $12.99 barcode considering the book is only 100 pages long. (Goodreads thinks it's 124, but the copy I received is 104 pages. Maybe I'm missing a few? But my pages are numbered consecutively, so . . .)

In short, this book is a modest stepping stone to a much wider digital world. It's a starting point, but one that beginning online marketers will quickly outgrow. Many readers will soon find themselves in search of broader and more in-depth information. This book is equivalent to water wings; readers may benefit more from a lifejacket.

9.27.2017

Movies: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Starring: Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore . . . Elton John?
Directed By: Matthew Vaughn
Written By: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn (screenplay) from the comic book by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons
20th Century Fox, 2017
R; 141 minutes
3.75 stars (out of 5)


_______________________________________________________

First question: Was there a fire sale on John Denver music for use in film or something? Or is it just that films with any connection to Channing Tatum are required to use John Denver songs now? Because between this one and Logan Lucky, I've heard more John Denver in the past few weeks than I have since that episode of The Muppet Show from when I was a kid. You know the one.

If that weren't weird enough, Elton John is in this movie and you still hear more John Denver than anything else.

Okay, okay, whatever. Let's get to the nuts and bolts.

A disgruntled Kingsman reject attempts to hijack Eggsy's  very sophisticated cab one night, and while Eggsy manages to fend the baddies off, they still get the info they need to incite the rest of the plot. Namely, they discover locations of all Kingsman agents and properties and destroy them all. Only Eggsy and Merlin survive.

There is a Doomsday Protocol for this kind of thing, and that leads our heroes to Kentucky, where they team up with the Statesman operation—a U.S. cousin to the British Kingsman, natch. But while the Kingsman cover is a tailor shop, the Statesman agency makes whiskey.

Julianne Moore plays Poppy, a psycho drug dealer who craves recognition for her work as the most successful "pharmaceutical CEO" in the world. Alas, she's forced to live in the jungles of Cambodia in an HQ that looks more like she runs Johnny Rocket's. She explains this by saying she grew up amid 50's nostalgia and still loves it. Which is why she's also kidnapped Elton John for her personal entertainment.

Questions you didn't even know you wanted answered:

(1) Do they give an explanation for Colin Firth's survival? A: Yes, and while it feels like a bit of a reach, it is in keeping with the world that has been built.

(2) Is Channing Tatum in this movie? A: For about five minutes. Despite what the trailers have led you to believe, we mostly spend time with Pedro Pascal (you know him from Game of Thrones, but in this film he looks like he's going for gold in a Burt Reynolds lookalike contest).

(3) Is it as violent as the first movie? A: Hmm. There are a couple not lovely moments with a meat grinder, but other than that, it's not terrible.

I enjoyed this film, though not nearly as much as the first. Apparently Eggsy is still in a relationship with the princess who let him "do butt stuff" (and her English has improved) . . . I feel like there is a lot of talent that didn't get fully explored in this movie, and I think the overall problem of drug users being in imminent danger of dying if Poppy doesn't distribute the antidote was weak. As in, not very compelling. And then the denouement felt too easy, and Agent Whiskey's motivation was not established early on, and Galahad Sr.'s mental issues get dropped halfway through, etc. Like, just a lot of minor problems that built up to be a distraction for me from my overall pleasure in the film.

And then at the end (minor spoilers), I have to assume some time has passed? Impeachment doesn't happen that quickly (as we all know), and I don't think a wedding can be slapped together so fast either. So I can only assume there's a leap in time there somewhere.

That said, the action sequences are well done as ever. Halle Berry does a fine job with a limited role. Too bad there wasn't more Jeff Bridges, but I'd say that even about movies in which Jeff Bridges is the star, so . . .

tl;dr: I had fun. But not as much fun as I expected to have.

9.26.2017

Books: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I heard about this book a while back. (It was published in 2013.) Because I'm contrary by nature, I almost never read books people tell me I "must" read. At least not right away. It's why I didn't read the first Harry Potter book until 2001 or so. And why I didn't read this one until I found it cheap at Half-Price Books.

Fangirl is a pretty simple story. Cath is starting college, and her twin sister Wren (get it? Cath-Wren? Cathrine?) doesn't want to be her roommate. They've shared a room their whole lives and now Cath feels adrift in an unfamiliar world. So she clings to her fan fiction—stories she writes about her favorite literary hero (a magician named Simon Snow, very like Harry Potter). Cath writes slash about Simon and a vampire character named Baz, and apparently is a very popular fanfic author online. Which explains why Cath keeps retreating to that world rather than face her daily life of classes, boys, and a snarky roommate.

Since I was also a well-received fanfic author when I went to college, I really sympathized with Cath in a lot of ways. (Of course, I'm old enough that back then fanfic had to be submitted to zines; you couldn't just post it online and have people flock to you.) But I found a lot of her problems to be superficial, and I also found her a little too naive to believe.

Cases in point (spoilers, sweeties):

  • She didn't see that the guy in her fiction writing class was using her. And then she let him use her.
  • She apparently didn't understand that you can't turn fan fiction in as your writing assignment?
  • As a shut-in (or nearly), she still manages to captivate a cute, too-perfect boy who hangs around her dorm room in the hopes that she'll notice him. Um... No. Boys don't just turn up at your door. If you want a relationship, you have to work for it.
  • Family drama: an alcoholic twin, a dad with mental illness issues, a deadbeat mom who tries to re-insert herself in their lives . . . And yet these all felt somewhat glossed over.
  • A writing teacher who see the spark in her and pursues her because she just knows Cath is destined to be a great writer. Gag me. Cath, who isn't even trying, somehow wins a major writing prize. Again, no. I worked for our college lit mag, and I've worked in publishing, and... Just no. (Especially based on the writing samples in the novel.)

Things I did like:

  • The interstitial bits of actual Simon Snow text versus Cath's fan fiction. (Of course, there is no "actual" Simon Snow text since Simon Snow books aren't a real thing, but it was a cute idea. Maybe too cute? Too gimmicky? I still enjoyed it.)
  • The snarky roommate.
  • The dad.
  • The boyfriend, even though he was too perfect to be believed and they never fought? 😁 (I feel like that one could also go against this book.)

Seriously, though, a lot of the plot lines were so suddenly sewn up without being satisfying. And some felt left open. I guess the mom just disappeared down whatever hole she'd crawled out of. So... Okay.

All this makes it sounds like a dud of a book, but I still gave it four stars on Goodreads. Because I did enjoy it overall. Since the conflicts were superficial and/or not plunged into with any depth (alcoholism and mental illness are heavy stuff, but not here!), Fangirl is a fast read. So it's got that going for it. If you want a book you can skate through relatively easily, this one will do.

9.25.2017

Books: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

I'll admit the cover art drew me in. And then the blurb on the dust jacket flap. Then I read the first two chapters and thought that my 11-year-old son would love the book, too. So I started over and read it aloud to him.

It's not YA, exactly. I didn't find it shelved in YA at the bookstore I was at, and there are some things that maybe parents wouldn't want their kids to read (swears, hints at rape). But I found it fine for my son who is an advanced reader and with whom I can have very open conversations. (He did still cringe at the couple of kissy parts.)

I think it's interesting, too, that I liked Kell but found Lila to be a bit cliché while my son really liked Lila.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me give you a synopsis first.

Kell is a rare kind of magician known as Antari. In fact, there are apparently only two: him and Holland. Meanwhile, there are four Londons: Grey, Red, White, and Black. Only Antari can travel between the Londons and their worlds.

Kell lives in Red London and is property of the royal family there, though they treat him almost as an adopted son. Holland, meanwhile, is owned by the sadistic rulers of White London. Grey London is the London we know; it's almost devoid of magic. At the point of time in this book, George III is king.

Lila is a thief in Grey London, trying to save to buy a ship because she wants to be a pirate. Alas, her adventure comes from another direction when she pickpockets Kell and ends up entangled in his troubles. They make a good team, and yet I couldn't help feeling she was somewhat one note. There are hints that she's more than meets the *ahem* eye, so maybe her character deepens in later books. (This is first in a trilogy.)

I also found the final battle to be a tad weak after all the build up to it.

Still, overall I really liked this book. I'm a tiny bit in love with Kell, and since I can't remember the last time a writer made me fall in love with a character, that's worth something to me. I look forward to the next book.

Television: Star Trek: Discovery, "The Vulcan Hello"

I've only watched the first hour because that's the part that actually aired on, you know, an actual television station. Sorry, but I'm really sick of being asked to subscribe to twenty different streaming services for a show here, a show there. If CBS offered me more interesting stuff, maybe I'd consider it. But for one show? Even if it is a Trek show? ::smh:: No, I'm not paying a premium to watch one goddamn TV show.

That said, the first hour of this show is pretty good. Not sure why everyone needs to work in half light, and it's pretty talky—also has the sin of putting exposition in dialogue, particularly in the scene where we meet Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and Michael (Sonequa Martin-Green), which had me asking aloud, "Wouldn't they have had this briefing before going to the planet?" But whatever.

Michael Burnham (apparently in the future Michael becomes a girl's name) is first officer on Captain Georgiou's ship. Michael was also raised by Vulcans after her parents were killed by Klingons. In fact, she was raised by Sarek, so it's totally weird that Spock has never mentioned her, like, ever. In this case, too, Sarek is played by James Frain's nose. (Sorry, I'm so very sorry, but I just can't not say it whenever I see James Frain. It's just so obviously James Frain that I can't even think of him as Sarek. It's problematic for me.)

Anyway, there hasn't been any interaction between the Federation and the Klingons for 100 years or something, but then there they are: Klingons. And Michael goes to Sarek for advice because Klingons don't bother Vulcans, so she wants to know what Vulcans do to keep Klingons away. Some kind of repellant? Citronella candles?

Turns out Vulcans always fire first. That somehow earned the Klingons' respect and now they leave Vulcans alone.

Alas, Michael is unable to convince her captain that they need to fire on the Klingons. So she assaults her commanding officer instead, which I'm pretty sure is worthy of court martial. Alas, the hour ended and I'm not paying for the subscription, so . . .  ::shrug:: Bummed I didn't even get to see Jason Isaacs, though.

9.24.2017

Television: Anime

I used to watch anime a lot, but it's been a while. Like, 10-15 years. But I started to miss it, and so I re-watched some Shoujo Kakumei Utena and even the first episode of Fushigi Yuugi and began to wonder what else might be out there. Because while I still adore Cardcaptor Sakura, I'm not yet at the point in my life where I just want to relive the good times. I don't want to watch the same shows over again any more than I want to read the same books over and over.

So we got Crunchyroll and began exploring. Sampled a few things we didn't really get into, like Restaurant to Another World, and something about a kid who constantly is forced to choose between two very bad options, and another show in which the students all went to some school to be mages. But we've found some stuff we really like, too.

Aho-Girl is just a ridiculous slice of life show about an idiot girl and the literal boy next door who can't stand her. It's absurd but perfect after a long, stressful day. And the episodes are only about 12 minutes long.

Fastest Finger First is a show about quiz bowl. In fact, in seems designed to teach viewers the very techniques of quiz bowling (we learn as the new quiz bowl members do). I don't know how I feel about that, exactly, but I mostly enjoy the show.


But I think my new favorite is Classroom of the Elite. It's about a government school in which the classes (A, B, C and D) are pitted against one another in an attempt to earn the most points. There's definitely some weird stuff going on, so the show is totally intriguing.

Do you watch anime? If so, do you have recommendations? If not for anime, then manga?

9.23.2017

Television: The Orville, "About a Girl"

So. Bortus (who, let's be honest, is really just a discount Worf) and his mate Klyden have . . . hatched? . . . a baby girl. Thing is, in their culture being female is considered a disability. Women are weaker and inferior intellectually (or so they believe). So Bortus and Klyden want to give their baby a sex-change operation. Which is apparently a thing where they're from. But of course everyone on the ship loses their shit when they hear of this.

Eventually, watching Rankin/Bass' Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer gives Bortus fresh insight. All at once he believes their baby should remain a girl! Seriously, though—I thought in that scene Bortus was playing John and Gordon. Like, that he was pretending to go along with their "plan" to reform his way of thinking. Turns out I gave every single one of these characters too much credit. Or the show's writers. Or, really, everyone involved in any way.

Whatever. The result is litigation between Bortus and Klyden. The Orville goes to their home world for a tribunal to hear both sides. [spoilers follow] I guess the lesson is: You can't win them all? Or maybe that some societies (like patriarchal ones, perhaps) aren't going to be swayed by facts and logic? There is no changing some people's minds, no matter how much information you deal them. And some people and cultures will blindly cling to tradition rather than open their eyes.

Meanwhile, despite his defeat, Bortus still loves Klyden and loves their now son. So I guess they're just going to pretend it never happened. [end spoilers]

I have to wonder, though, why being female on the Orville would be a disability. Like, I understand the decision if they lived on their home world, where females are discriminated against. To be clear: I understand the decision, I'm not saying I agree with it. But that discrimination is not likely to happen aboard the Orville, or in any of the situations in which this child is likely to find herself (now himself) amid the Union or whatever. So this is really a matter of cultural preference. Bortus' culture values males, and somehow their baby is more valuable to them if it is male. They claim that, no, they are only trying to make their child's life better, but . . . Their child wasn't going to have a terrible life as a female. And may even have a more difficult life as a male than s/he would have otherwise. Just sayin'.

Now let's look at this episode in context of the three we've thus far seen. Was it better than the first two? Yes. But that was a very low bar. Will I watch more? I might try another one to see if they continue to make progress, but at the same time, I have so many other shows on my viewing list that I'm not 100% sure I'll stick with this one.

9.21.2017

Television: The Orville, "Command Performance"

I figured out part of what bothers me about this show (at least thus far, given it's all of two episodes into its run). The characters are constructed as very plug-and-play. They don't have depth. The whole thing is plot driven, and since the plots are formulaic and cliché, there's really very little to engage me as a viewer.

For one thing, they have already done the Ed-and-Kelly thing to death in less than two hours of show. Like, we get it. And we're already sick of it. STFU. Because you've made us care exactly not at all about you as people or your relationship past or present.

Oh, and look: the cute little prodigy of a security officer struggles when put in command? Bah. Don't care about her or her problems either.

The show is going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to form a connection between the audience and the characters. Instead, it wants us to just take things at face value. "This is a really smart, strong girl." Uh... Okay.... So? You can tell me that, and even show me that, but it won't make me care.

This guy sits on his egg and it hatches and—gasp!—it's a female baby, something that shouldn't exist! Don't care, don't care, don't care. You've barely introduced me to the character, you haven't shown me his relationship with his S.O., and you expect me to give a damn about their baby? Nope.

I usually try to give shows three episodes. I'm not sure I can choke down another one of these however. It's just so stale and has nothing new or interesting to say. Nor is it saying anything we've already heard in a new or interesting way. It feels like empty calories. I've got better things to do and better shows to watch.

9.20.2017

Center Stage

Hey! I'm here to toot my own horn a little and direct you to the author spotlight on SF Benson's site, where yours truly is being featured. 😀  I hope you'll pop over and read about my weirdest stories, the ones hardest to write, and which of my characters reflect me. Leave questions and comments here or there!

9.19.2017

Television: The Magicians, "Unauthorized Magic"

Okay, I know I'm really late to this particular party, but several people have suggested I try this show, so I decided to, uh, try this show. I watched the first episode last night, and . . . I don't know.

The Magicians is about a socially awkward grad student named Quentin who basically gets admitted to the American university equivalent of Hogwarts, I guess? Brakebills. ::shrug:: There is the requisite nerdy girl who, for all her primness, apparently can't find dresses that go past mid-thigh, and she has something against leggings to cover the rest of her. She's also unnecessarily unkind, though I'm sure we'll learn all kinds of things to make her more sympathetic. In this episode we discover her brother Charlie died and no one will tell her what happened to him, so she tries to contact him but it ends badly. Namely, it ends with some guy partially made of giant moths stepping through a mirror. We know he's bad because, well, moths, but also he messes up clocks, freezes everyone (though they're cognizant of being frozen, so it's not really like stopping time), and pulls the dean's eyes out.

Meanwhile, Quentin's overachiever friend from the normal world Julia was rejected from Brakebills and it's messed her up. She's not used to being rejected because she's good at everything and therefore always accepted. It turns out Julia does have a modicum of magical talent, and so a rival group swoops in and admits her into its ranks. It doesn't take much foresight to guess Julia and Quentin are being set up as rivals and/or potential enemies.

I don't know. There's something very pedantic about the whole thing. My understanding is that The Magicians is based on a book (or books), but that it's fairly different from the source material, too? I might need to look into that. As it stands, I don't find Quentin an endearing or compelling central character. And his hair annoys me. It's hard to watch a show with a lead character I don't want to look at, one that is so whiny and irritating.

That said, as you know, I try to give everything at least three episodes. I don't know *when* I'll circle back to this one, but Netflix will at least remind me I watched it. Once upon a time.

9.17.2017

Movies: Baby Driver

As a rule, I generally really enjoy Edgar Wright movies. This one is no exception.

Ansel Elgort plays the titular Baby, whose job is to drive a getaway car for Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby is evidently in Doc's debt and digging his way out via this gig. But of course one is never really "out." So just as Baby is getting his life straight and trying to have a steady girlfriend, he gets pulled back in for one more big job. That goes all to hell. Yes, it's cliché. But still an engaging story. Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx pull nice turns as badass baddies.

Wright has, in my opinion, a wonderful style. For me, watching his films is a treat. His tracking shots, the way he frames things—just very visually interesting and entertaining. But he's not perfect at everything. He's weak when it comes to love stories. I didn't love the one in this film, particularly the early banter between Baby and Deborah in the diner. Wright also tends to have very long third acts that sometimes go on longer than absolutely necessary. I found that, despite all the action going on, my interest began to waver.

[SPOILER BELOW - HIGHLIGHT TO READ CLEARLY]

I understand why the film ends the way it does, with Baby going to prison rather than he and Deborah taking off. I think Wright wanted the definitive, "happy" ending that showed Baby and Deborah free and clear instead of on the run for the rest of their lives. I get that, but I found it not terribly satisfying. I don't know why.

[END SPOILER]

These are minor gripes. On the whole, Baby Driver is highly entertaining, and all the actors do an awesome job. Another winner from Mr. Wright in my book.

9.13.2017

Television: The Orville, "Old Wounds"

Okay, so . . . I'm a fan of Star Trek. Have been since I was a kid. Loved the original movies, made my parents rent the VHS tapes of the original series so I could watch that too. (Remember when not everything was streaming?) The Next Generation was my favorite. My first fan conventions were Trek conventions, which I went to with friends and, on one occasion, with my journalism teacher. So, you know, that's my pedigree. I'm a Trekker or Trekkie or whatever we call ourselves nowadays.

As for The Orville, well, I have seriously mixed feelings.

Seth MacFarlane stars as Ed Mercer. The year is 2417, and apparently over the course of 400 years we've really upped our technology and met a massive number of alien species. Okay, fine, I wouldn't poke at Star Trek for this, so I won't flag The Orville for it either. But I think maybe I no longer have the optimism that I used to, the belief that the human race was "going places." (Besides straight to hell.)

The opening scene is just so standard and cliché that I could hardly stand it. Mercer comes back to his quarters to find his wife in bed with a blue alien. Ugh.

Fast forward a year and he's being offered command of the titular Orville. And—wait for it, cuz you'll be astounded—the ex is his XO. (No, not Kiss Hug. It means "Executive Officer.")

So much of the exposition is in dialogue it's tragic. And the story is so rote it's, well, double tragic. And Mercer's best friend Gordon Mallory, whom he hires as a helmsman, is pretty unlikeable. When he's introduced, he's not too terrible; he comes off as a bit nerdy in a Simon Pegg way. But when he "drives drunk" in the next scene, he gets frat-boy obnoxious and my enjoyment of the show spiraled downward like the stupid shuttle. Exhibiting drinking and driving as "cool" is not a great move.

Part of my problem with the show, too, is that it doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to be. A parody? Straight comedy? Or an actual sci-fi show? There are elements of all these things, and I'm not saying these things can't work together, but as presented they don't appear to be stirred into the same soup. That's a weird metaphor, but I don't know how else to explain it. Sci-fi soup with chunks of comedy? Could be tasty but, as far as this episode goes, the blend isn't quite right.

The Orville is a throwback kind of show, which as far as I can tell is the intention. I'm just not sure how many people will make the time for it, or appreciate where it's coming from, particularly in the current television landscape. We have amazing shows, stuff that is better than movies (as the summer box office shows). In comparison, The Orville might come across as that dented can of off-brand beans at the bottom of the grocery shelf. If the price is right and you're desperate enough, you might buy it?

That said, I'll give it another couple episodes to see if it finds its footing. Many shows start out rough, particularly the sci-fi ones. There's something promising in The Orville, I'm just not sure what yet. Or whether it will live up to that promise.

9.09.2017

Movies: Kong: Skull Island

Even the title sounds more like a video game . . .

Look, I'm not really into this kind of movie, but I'll watch Tom Hiddleston in just about anything. (I say "just about" because I did try to watch High-Rise and, ugh, no.) But this movie, well, it was pretty much what one would expect, which means it bored me.

Let's start with an overview. The Monarch company (repped by John Goodman and Corey Hawkins) wants to go to this island that no one goes to because it has a perpetual storm raging around it. Ships and planes get lost out there. But whatever, they talk some senator into funding them and giving them military support. So Samuel L. Jackson and his band of home-bound Vietnam vets get detoured into this gig, and Tom Hiddleston gets hired as a tracker, which apparently is just a living compass, meaning he's supposed to keep people from getting lost? And Brie Larson is there as an "anti-war" photographer, which begs the question why a military operation would hire her? But we all know she's really just there to be the Fay Wray.

You'll notice I'm using the actors' names instead of characters, and that's because this is the kind of movie where there are so many characters that one can't be arsed. It's the kind of movie where, as you watch, you say, "Oh, Samuel L. Jackson is about to..." and "John Goodman is about to bite it." You don't bother with character names. Because you're not into these characters at all. The movie tries—I'll give it that. It tries very hard to make you care about these people. But you just don't.

And Tom, much as I love him, walks around with a pretty vacant expression most of the time. He's probably reminding himself how much money he's making for this, that it will all be worth it in the end, no matter how bad the movie ends up being.

It's not a bad movie. Let me be clear. It's just not great, either.

I take issue with Samuel L. Jackson's role as a caricature with little depth. I take issue with the clunky dialogue. I feel like John C. Reilly's scenes came from some other movie entirely, but okay. ::shrug:: He's, like, the best thing in the movie, so I kinda wanted the John C. Reilly movie instead of all the rest, but whatever.

What's very nice is that this movie is 1 hour and 58 minutes long. It's not some epic length. That felt refreshing. Though I guess it's pretty sad when you count the fact that the movie ends earlier than expected as a bonus.

9.02.2017

Documentary: David Lynch: The Art Life

Love him or hate him, David Lynch is certainly an interesting guy.

A little background so you know where I'm coming from: when I was a pre-teen, I remember liking the movie Dune. (Yes, I said "liked.") My best friend's mom showed it to her daughter and me. The long version. It enthralled me. I bought a poster and hung it in my room. I read the books (well, the first three). But I didn't know who David Lynch was.

Twin Peaks aired my freshman year of high school. I really enjoyed it, too . . . Or the first season, anyway. It's been a long time, but I have the sense that I wasn't as enthusiastic about the second season. At that point I had a scrapbook and would cut out articles about my favorite stars and shows and tape them in. So of course I began seeing the name David Lynch in the Twin Peaks articles. But I never connected him to Dune, never had much curiosity about anything else he might have done.

Then I went to film school.

Enough said, except to add that aside from Dune and Twin Peaks, I can't say I'm much of a fan of Lynch's work. Not my thing. In fact, this third season of Twin Peaks—I walked away from it. It tried my patience too much. I'll probably still watch the finale on Sunday though.

So. This documentary. I actually really enjoyed it. It's very watchable. It's really just Lynch doing art and telling stories that go from his childhood through his grant at AFI to make Eraserhead. It focuses on his art, so there's no delving into his personal life, just sort of a glossing, but there are lots of photos and home videos incorporated.

DL:TAL is really just Lynch talking, and he speaks in a deceptively simple and matter-of-fact way. It's as though all his internal complexities come out in his work, but it's not clear whether that's because he saves them for the work or he literally can't articulate them any other way. A couple of things he says and stories he tells . . . You kind of go, "Oh, well that explains a few things."

I believe art should stand on its own in the absence of its creator. That's the point of art. You shouldn't have to know things about the writer, painter, etc. in order to appreciate the work. BUT. Watching this documentary added depth for me to some of Lynch's work.

At one point Lynch says that, when he was starting out as an artist, he knew his work was crap. But that he had to keep painting and keep painting to find his style or whatever. And as an author, I totally get that. We all start out crap. You have to prime the pump and get all the dirty water out before the good stuff comes up.

Anyway, whether you like Lynch or not . . . If you're even just a little curious about him . . . This is a good one. They don't talk to anyone but Lynch, so it is a bit one-sided, but at the same time, hearing solely from him gives perspective on his work.

9.01.2017

Podcasts: James Bonding part deux

Because apparently today is my day to blog about podcasts.

I've written about James Bonding before, and then it went away for a while and I was sad and sort of shiftless, but now it's back! So go find it on Earwolf or whatever. (I can't be arsed with branding. One day it might matter where my podcasts come from, but today is not that day.)

So why am I mentioning it again, you ask? Well, I just listened to the episode where Matt and Matt and Paul Scheer detail their ideas for a James Bond theme park. And I had some thoughts about that.

  1. The first hotel has got to be called HQ. It's somewhat basic, but that's just the starter hotel. It's the Disneyland Hotel for Bond, nothing fancy, just somewhat themed—the padded leather doors in the M Suite or whatever. Then you can branch out to the upscale hotels like Casino Royale.
  2. When you arrive at the park, you're given a dossier. It's like a daily itinerary or one of those passport type things where you have to get something stamped, you have to get photos of something or find someone.
  3. You are not Bond. You are an agent of some other number, possibly tasked with aiding Bond or finding him.
  4. There is a park-specific villain. Yes, the other villains will also be showcased, but the theme park has its very own story and unique villain. We can't lean on Blofeld for everything.
  5. There are multiple ways to enter the park based on (a) which hotel you're staying in and (b) where in the park you want to go first.
  6. Yes to areas themed by environment. There are too many movies to do a separate area for each, so we'll have to Epcot the place and divide it by location. Bond is a world-hopper, after all.
  7. 007 Land? 007 World?

I think I need to be on this podcast. I think I need Matt & Matt to help me flesh out my next Peter Stoller novel, or really a Jules Maier novel, since he's my Bond character.

Follow James Bonding on Twitter: @JamesBondingPOD

ETA: We just re-watched Skyfall, which is probably my favorite of the Daniel Craig Bond movies (with Casino Royale a close second), and we decided Silva must get his henchmen from calls to Spectre. They have some kind of service, right? "Yes, I need half a dozen men dressed as Met police, oh and a helicopter..."

Podcasts: No Extra Words

Complete with minor demon disguised as cat.
Hey! So I'm on a podcast today, giving a virtual tour of Little London (my home office). Curious minds should click here.

8.26.2017

Books: Handbook for Mortals Controversy

Cross posted from PepperWords.


I won't go into the details—there are plenty of articles all over the 'net that will give you the blow by blow if you want it—but the basic story is this: a new YA novel titled Handbook for Mortals suddenly turned up in the #1 spot of the NYT Bestsellers List. That's not so outrageous, one supposes. Nothing can stay at #1 forever, and The Hate U Give had been there a while. But this was a book and author no one had heard of. It hadn't climbed the list, it just sort of appeared. Like magic.

Some curious parties went sleuthing and discerned that someone—the author, her publisher, maybe the would-be producer of the film version of this book—had gamed the system by calling NYT-reporting bookstores and placing bulk orders for HFM. Never mind that physical copies of the book are not available (or weren't at the time). Apparently whoever was ordering all these books "for an event" wasn't concerned about, you know, not having them. ??? Seems weird. Especially since every order came in at just under the number of books that would have flagged the order as a corporate sale.

The nail in the coffin seems to have come from associates at the bookstores who mentioned being asked whether they were NYT-reporting stores before the mysterious caller(s) placed the order. Way to be subtle, yo.

The author, Lani Sarem, denies any knowledge of such antics. She says they had encouraged stores to order in bulk in advance of upcoming events and conventions. She also says the marketing for the book has been targeted at said conventions, which is why the book wasn't well-known in wider YA circles. In other words, just because no one has heard of her in one circle doesn't mean she can't sell a bunch of books. Because there's more than one circle.

Though, usually, if something is getting traction at conventions and such, I feel like the publishing world keeps track of that too. The publishing community is seldom sideswiped by something or someone in its blind spot.

That said, I got curious. I wondered if maybe HFM was just a really good book, an underground hit rising to the top. So I went and read the free sample on Amazon.

Um . . .

No.

It's really not very good. (That being my personal opinion, of course.) Boy does she love the word "basically." And the author seems keen to hawk her ties to the entertainment industry and all her famous friends. Much of the criticism lodged at Sarem and her book is based on the idea the "marketing" (aka, the buying of a top spot on the NYT list) was designed to launch investor interest in the movie version rather than sell the book at all. Per IMDb, the main character will be played by Sarem herself. Which is probably why the book reads like a bad Mary Sue story.

But here's the truth: publishing isn't a meritocracy. Good books aren't always what sell. Great writers are often buried by popular trash. Someone who takes the time to lovingly craft a story is going to get run over by the writer churning out half-baked manuscripts because these days it's quantity over quality if you want to make any kind of money.

This isn't to say you shouldn't take the time to write a good book, get it edited, etc. I'm just pointing out that readers aren't always as picky as the writing community. All writers should be readers, but not all readers are writers, and the readers who aren't writers aren't looking at all the details writers do. Anyone can admire a beautiful house, but a builder is going to look for the nuts and bolts. Or whatever houses have.

I will say, the cover of HFM leaves one to wonder whether artist Gill Del-Mace gave permission to have his work adapted? Per the copyright page, they did at least get permission for some song lyrics.

Do I think HFM tried to game the system? Evidence points that way, but who knows? Maybe there are people really buying and reading the book. It hardly matters now since the NYT revised their list and restored The Hate U Give to the #1 spot. Handbook for Mortals is MIA.

8.22.2017

Movies: Logan Lucky

Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Riley Keough
Directed By: Steven Soderbergh
Written By: Rebecca Blunt (?)
Bleeker Street, 2017
PG-13; 119 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


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An cinema employee called this, "a hick Italian Job," and that about sums it up, I suppose. It lacks the slickness or sophistication of something like Ocean's Eleven, but it's fun in its own way.

Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a down-on-his-luck West Virginian whose brother Clyde (Adam Driver) believes their family is cursed. Clyde is himself a one-handed bartender, having lost his left hand and forearm during two tours in Iraq.

When Jimmy's ex-wife tells him she and her new husband are moving—and taking Jimmy's daughter Sadie with them—Jimmy's determination to be able to stay close prompts him to hatch a plan to rob the motor speedway. With the help of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig doing a fair, if somewhat uneven, job of a Southern accent), Joe's brothers, and their own sister Mellie, Jimmy and Clyde set the heist in motion.

I expected this to be funnier, but it certainly has its moments. The pacing is a little weird, and there are some half-baked subplots that either needed more cooking time or should have been left out of the ingredients list entirely. But on the whole, the movie is enjoyable and serves up more or less exactly what is stated on the menu.

Best scene: Game of Thrones argument. Runner up: Joe Bang explains science.

This isn't one that needs to be seen on the big screen, but it is a fun little film. Too bad it opened opposite The Hitman's Bodyguard because, while I think the two movies are very different, they'd likely have some audience overlap. And THB is certainly the glossier, shinier bit of celluloid. (No, not literally. I know it's all digital now.) So I think more people went for that one than this. Not having seen THB yet, I can't compare, but Logan Lucky is worth consideration.

8.20.2017

The Great American Eclipse 2017

Just in case some of you are idiots—and I hope not, I mean, I don't want to believe that, but better to err on the side of caution—let's be clear:

IT IS NEVER SAFE TO LOOK AT THE SUN

No, not even when it's being eclipsed.

No, not even if you peer through your fingers or a slotted spoon or something.

No, not even if you use a mirror. In fact, that's probably worse.

No, not through a telescope; that's definitely worse. (Unless you have a solar telescope specifically designed for looking at the sun, and no, you don't.)

If you don't have eclipse glasses (and if you do, please verify they're not bogus), there are some ways to make your own viewers. Find a reputable site and follow the instructions. Try here if you're too lazy to look it up yourself.

Please don't be an idiot. Enjoy the eclipse safely.

ETA:



Are you f'ing kidding me? What did I just say???

8.16.2017

I'm going to pause here for something rather serious. There's a lot of news flying around about racism, white supremacists, etc. Let me just say . . . I grew up in the American South. Privileged if not by sex then at least by skin color. If the homosexual kids I went to school with feared for their lives, I never thought about it. If the black kids I went to school with had a more difficult time, I never thought about that either. Same for any Jewish kids, Muslim kids . . . I couldn't even say whether I knew any Jewish or Muslim kids.

THAT'S PRIVILEGE.

Not having to think about things like that. Being blind to the difficulties others may face for whatever reason—skin color, religion, sexual orientation.

I'm not proud of it. I'm sorry that it's taken all this to fully open my understanding. I never wished any of my black, homosexual, or differently religious friends any harm. But my lack of interest—my indifference—may have been harmful in the same way neglect can be.

I can't change who I was, but I can change who I am.

And while I'll never fully comprehend what others live with day to day, I can be here for them.

We must think about it.

About them.

About our friends and neighbors of every color, orientation and creed.

We can't hope for things to just get better somehow. We can't shrug and say, "Well, it's nothing to me."

You feel like your privilege is being threatened? Good. It should be. It's time to really, truly be united. Against hate and ignorance and fear.

8.14.2017

Television: Doctor Who, "Thin Ice"

It's going to take forever for me to get through all the episodes stockpiled on my DVR. Doctor Who just isn't must-watch television for me any more, which kind of makes me sad. It's like I'm trying desperately to care but it's a struggle. There are so many other shows, or even other things to do, that are more appealing.

This episode is a case in point. The Doctor and Bill go to a Frost Fair in London, 1814. (I think it was 1814 anyway. Could be remembering wrong.) There is something large that lives in the Thames and must be fed. There are aristocrats eager to feed it, and the "food" is mainly people of lower classes who are expendable. So . . . social commentary, which is par for the course, but not even very interesting social commentary because it's nothing we haven't heard or seen, nor is it all that original a take. The episode therefore felt very generic.

Meh. This is only the third episode for this season, and while the show is not as bad as it used to be, it's also not as good as it could be. I feel indifferent, which is better than when I felt angry and annoyed, I guess. Then again, when a show can make you feel something, that means you still care. When you cease to feel anything, it means you've stopped caring. Hrm.

8.12.2017

Books (Kind Of): The Adventures of Sel & Am

So I had been doing an exclusive serial story in my author newsletter. But now I'm shuttering that newsletter because I just don't have the time to keep up with it, and of all the social media I do, it really had the lowest ROI. But I don't want to leave readers hanging! So I will be posting The Adventures of Sel & Am on Wattpad. The first part is up nowhttps://www.wattpad.com/story/119342727-the-adventures-of-sel-am (if you are/were a newsletter recipient, you've already read it). More to come.

8.10.2017

Books: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I first became aware of this book during my writing retreat and workshop in France; the agent running the workshop used samples from the book, and those samples were so beautifully written I felt the need to read the whole thing.

The book in its entirety does live up to that first promise. Dual tales are spun: Sarah Grimké, daughter of a wealthy Charleston jurist and plantation owner, and a slave in the Grimké household named Hetty (basket name: Handful). Sarah Grimké was a real person, and Kidd did loads of research then embroidered the story with her lovely prose.

As beautiful as the book is, as well-written as it is, I will admit feeling fatigued toward the end. I sort of wanted it to wrap up already. It's like a movie that goes on just a few minutes too long, you know? Some of that embroidery, some of the lingering on thoughts and moments, was perhaps not all that necessary.

But on the whole I enjoyed it, even if I did skim the last 30 pages. ("Yes, yes, okay, but what happens? Let's just get to that bit.") The bad luck that these two women suffer, both together and singly, at times feels like too much to bear. Still, it's all wrapped in a gorgeous package of beautiful writing, smooth as a hull cutting through calm waters. I admire the craft put into this book, and the research and effort. If a story is a box, this one is artfully carved and gilded. Maybe it didn't need quite so much gold leaf, but it's lovely.

8.06.2017

Movies: The Dark Tower

Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor
Directed By: Nikolaj Arcel
Written By: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel (screenplay), based on the books by Stephen King
Sony Pictures, 2017
PG-13; 95 minutes
3 stars (out of 5)


_______________________________________________________

There's a common trope in YA novels these days—fantasy YA novels, that is—where the main character has a dream, or several dreams, that gives him or her important information. That's where The Dark Tower starts, too. Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has been seeing a psychiatrist because he keeps having nightmares about a man in black and a, er, dark tower. Everyone assumes the dreams are trauma from having lost his father in a fire a year before, but of course like every good YA story the child is right all along and is the true hero.

While watching The Dark Tower, I was reminded of things like the Percy Jackson books. This really is a young adult story, and I wonder if that is why the critics have taken it so badly. They expected (or wanted) something else?

I read The Gunslinger a very, very long time ago and have little memory of it. Never read any of the other books in the series. So I was able to approach the movie as a mostly clean slate and with little to no expectations. My only thought was: Idris Elba is the coolest guy who ever guy'd, and I like Matty McConaughey, so why not?

It's a short movie, and somewhat perfunctory, by which I mean the parts that should have had the most emotional impact failed to fully land their punches. And the "funny" parts could have been played for more laughs. But for what it is, The Dark Tower is . . . ::shrug:: It's fine. McConaughey hams it up a bit, and his jacket has weird sleeves that I found distracting, but eh. Whatever.

My 11-year-old son, though? He came out of the movie really liking it. Which only reinforced my feeling that it was definitely more a YA story than an adult one.

Lots of fun easter eggs for King fans (and I'm sure I didn't even catch all of them). I can at least say I liked it more than Valerian; I did not at any point get bored as Tower moves along at a brisk clip. Part of me wants to say Elba is wasted here, but at the same time he's so perfect as Roland that, even if he is wasted, we benefit from it. And so does the film.

In short, not as bad as everyone seems to think. Or else I just think differently. Wouldn't be the first time.