Monday, November 30, 2015

Spotlight (a movie review post)

It might be early, especially since I haven't finished seeing all the potential best picture nominees, but I'm going to go on record with Spotlight being my pick for best picture this year. Looking at lists of other potential nominees, I'm just not seeing any that I believe will have what it takes to be a better movie. That's not to say that some other movie might not win, because, hey, Eddie Redmayne got best actor last year for sitting in a chair and drooling. (Yes, I'm still upset about that.)

So, just to be clear, Spotlight is not about what it's about. I think the perception or, at least, the easy way of saying it is to say that Spotlight is about the scandal in Boston over the abuse of mostly young boys by priests in the Catholic church. That is the easy way to say it, but the movie isn't really about that. It's the story of the reporters who broke the story about the abuse going on within the Catholic church.

In part, it's about how hard it is to sit on information while you dig for even more information. It's about what it's like to think you have one story, the story of one man abusing his power, to find out that what you have is a much larger story, the story of a whole institution supporting that abuse by that man and many others just to avoid embarrassment. What do you do when you fins out what is already a horrific story goes so far beyond that?

One of the telling things for me is that the actual reporters involved in breaking the story are saying that this movie really nails what happened. They're saying that this movie, more than any other, really gets at the heart of what it's like to be a reporter and to investigate a story.

The acting is amazing. I'd like to say that Mark Ruffalo, as Mike Rezendes, stole the show, but he really doesn't. Which is not to say that Ruffalo puts in a performance that is less than to be expected, because he doesn't. Ruffalo is superb. It's just that all of the actors are performing at that same level. So, in the scene were Rezendes loses it at Robby, Michael Keaton shines just as brightly as Ruffalo.

Stanley Tucci, an actor who never seems to get as much credit as he deserves (I mean, compare this role to his role as Caesar Flickerman), is perfect: understated and intense. Liev Schrieber is commanding. John Slattery is conflicted; you never know which way he's going to go as things unfold, and that's a huge credit to the actor, as he did all of that non-verbally. You can see, almost feel, his conflict as the depth of the scandal unfolds. And Rachel McAdams, an actress I've never really had a care for one way or the other, has demanded respect from me.

All things Marvel aside, if you can only see one movie this year, this is the one it should be. As an overall film, nothing has had better performances from an entire cast, and no other movie has dealt with a topic like this. And the movie does that well. It could have been just about hammering the Catholic church; it could have stayed at that level and focused on how horrible the church is for allowing that kind of abuse to go on for, at least, decades, but, by showing us the story through the eyes of the reporters, it rises above that. It becomes something human and personal. We don't have to see the horror to know the horror (unlike, say, 12 Years a Slave, which felt the need to show us all the brutality in explicit detail). As such, Spotlight is more subtle and, by way of that, more powerful.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Fatal Tree (a book review post)

As I think I've mentioned before, Stephen Lawhead is one of my favorite (living) authors. He's one of the few authors whose books I will just pick up automatically when they're released. The problem with Lawhead, though, is that he frequesntly has a problem with endings, especially endings of series. The Fatal Tree proves to be one of those ending failures, and it's unfortunate that such a strong story had to end with a face plant.

The first problem with the book is, as it turns out, the conflict is "cosmic" in nature. As revealed at the end of the previous book, The Shadow Lamp, the end of the universe is coming. As I mentioned in my review of The Shadow Lamp, this is an issue because it changes the focus of the series. We believe during the first three books and most of the way through the fourth that conflict is with Burleigh, but, suddenly, no, although Burleigh is a bad guy, he is not the bad guy. He is not the antagonist.

In fact, there is no real antagonist, not at that point, just an event that previously happened that, now, needs to be prevented. Remember the part in one of my previous reviews where I said this isn't a time travel story? Well, it's still not, but they still have to figure out a way to prevent something from happening that already happened. Except they don't really know that.

Actually, the major issue with this book is that the catastrophic event that was only discovered as a possibility at the end of book four is just suddenly happening. It's like if you were making tea: You put your water in your tea kettle, you turn on the burner on the stove, you set the kettle on the burner... You expect to need to have to wait for the water to heat up before you can make your tea, right? But not in this book. Instead, as soon as you set the kettle down, not only does the water start to boil, it explodes into steam. The sudden shift from trying to find the skin map to the universe could be in danger to THE UNIVERSE IS IMPLODING RIGHT NOW! was unenjoyable to say the least.

And, then, what do you do about the universe imploding? Absolutely nothing, that's what. It's kind of like standing in front of a tsunami and trying to stop it by holding up your hands. But Kit and his gang (because Kit has somehow become the leader) decide they're going to stop it. So they spend a lot of time talking about it and doing not much and never figure anything out.

The other issue, from a plot stand point, is the tree. The fatal tree. The fatal tree that, really, has nothing to do with anything. It's just there. There's a whole book, basically, devoted to this tree, and it doesn't really mean anything or have to do with anything. That was annoying.

Then there's Burleigh...

So, look, Lawhead writes Christian-themed books. I get that. As a Christian, I appreciate his general subtle application of Christianity into his stories. But not this time. Because Burleigh, as it turns out, isn't really our bad guy, he needs to have a conversion experience, which would be fine, except... Except that Lawhead spends chapters and chapters dealing with Burleigh and his descent into self-loathing so that he can finally come to understand that he's powerless on his own and does, yes, need God. This is all handled more like someone with an addiction needing to hit bottom to know that he needs help rather than someone coming to understand that it's grace that is needed. Also, it goes on way too long. In detail. It's tiring.

Basically, I was very dissatisfied with the book and how it ended the series. Too many things happen for no real reason other than that the author needed them to happen so he made them happen. There's no explanation or rational or anything. I'm sorry, but you don't write a whole book about a tree that just happened to be there and has no other purpose than that it happened to be there. Also, you don't have the "heroes" essentially save the universe on accident, even if that's what they wanted to do. I can't say the series, overall, was a waste of time (because books two, three and four were really very good), but I might have been more satisfied if I had never read this one and just wondered what happened.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Senate Spy" (Ep. 2.4)

-- A true heart should never be doubted.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

This is an episode with, kind of, a deliberately misleading title. I'm not going to explain that more than to say it; if you want to know what I mean, you should watch the episode. It's a stand alone, so you can get away with that even if you haven't been watching the series.

However, it isn't the story that interests me about this episode, though the story is fine. Good even. No, what interests me is the continued exploration of Anakin and his attachment issues.

I suppose it might not be entirely clear why the Jedi are not allowed to have attachments, at least from the prospective of the movies. I mean, it's never stated why Jedi are not supposed to own things or form romantic entanglements or, well, have children. Because it seems like having Jedi have children would be the thing to do if you wanted more Jedi children, right? So the underlying reason for the "no attachments" rule is never given. Anywhere. But The Clone Wars gives us plenty of examples, through Anakin, of the issues that arise from having attachments, everything from disobeying orders to retrieve some personal object, to making some one person a priority over completing a mission, to, well, jealousy.

And that's the real issue: Attachments open the Jedi to the negative emotions that lead to the Dark Side of the Force. And that's what's explored in this episode: Anakin's jealousy over a previous lover of Padme's.

So, yeah, the story of the "Senate Spy" is fine. It's good. But it's Anakin's jealousy and his anger and attempt to control Padme's actions because of those things that make the story of real interest.

And, actually, importance.

It's these episodes where we can see Anakin's slide to the Dark Side and that it wasn't some sudden change during Revenge of the Sith.

Also, we get to see, again, a glimmer of Obi-Wan's suspicions about Anakin and Padme, which is good. I mean, it's good that we get to see that he had suspicions, because it's a bit much to believe that Obi-Wan, of all people, had no idea what was going on.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Children of the Force" (Ep. 2.3)

-- The first step to correcting a mistake is patience.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

We all know that Palpatine used Order 66 to wipe out the Jedi, but that doesn't answer the question of how Force users became, basically, extinct (as far as we know) across the galaxy within a generation. Sure, you could say that without the Jedi and the Temple that Force-sensitive children simply grew up without ever harnessing their abilities, and, to some extent, I'm sure that's true. However, in this episode we see that Darth Sidious' plan is much more insidious.

Part of the plan is to wipe out those children before they ever have a chance to grow up and potentially become a threat. Palpatine doesn't, after all, mess around.

However, the true horror is not that he wants to wipe out the young Force-sensitives, it's that he wants to bend all of them to the Dark Side and use them as a network of spies and assassins.

This whole plot provides background for the long time fan favorite Expanded Universe character Mara Jade.
As far as a I know, Jade is not currently a canon character (you can see my discussion of Star Wars canon here), but there has been talk that she is going to be included somewhere in the new canon and, possibly, the new movies. At any rate, she was a Force-sensitive child who was molded by the Emperor to be his prime assassin, such that she was called the Emperor's Hand,

So there you go. A bit of Expanded Universe history to tie into The Clone Wars.

"What could possibly have happened since I last spoke with you?"

Monday, November 16, 2015

We Went to the Opera! (a local color post)

This is a view from the very top of the balcony down to the stage during the intermission and set change. Yes, it is a long way down.
(Sorry, this is the only picture that came out well enough to post it. There just wasn't enough light to get good shots.)

We went to the opera, my wife and I. Twice, actually (and have a third trip coming up next week). When I say we went to the opera, I don't mean that we went to just some opera performance, I mean that we went to the San Francisco Opera. It's the second largest opera company in the States, so it's not some two-bit production. As we learned last time, the full stage area (including backstage) is more than 10 times the size of our house!

Yeah, that's not small. Our house is, but that stage is still pretty ginormous.

There's a lot I could say about the two trips, too much, now, for one post. For instance, we had car picnics on the way down both times so that we could make it on time. Finger foods, good finger foods, like bits of cheese and apple and olives and tri-tip. My wife fed me (and herself), and I drove, and we talked and had a lot of fun. The second trip, we were also invited to a wine and cheese tasting before the performance with a talk from the chorus master. That's the guy who teaches the chorus their parts. He's been there at the San Francisco Opera for quite a long time.

I could also tell you about the completely rude guy with OWDS who interrupted the presenter during the pre-show presentation about the opera. It was actually the dude (and, yes, he was an old, rich, white dude) and two women, and all three of them had flaming cases of OWDS, though the dude had it the worst. I suppose, though, the San Francisco Opera is a common meeting ground of people with OWDS. That guy really deserves his own post, although I probably won't actually get around to doing that.

There's a short review of the first opera we saw below. I'll do a different post for the other show.

Before I get to that, though, I want to make one specific general opera comment:
The problem with opera is that it is often just people standing and singing. As my wife says, it's difficult to do a lot of movement when you're trying to sing, especially the kind of singing that opera singers do. And, yet, this is not a problem for all opera performers. And, I think, it probably didn't used to be a thing at all. Opera, once upon a time, was performance for the common man. It was the equivalent of going to the movies. I'm pretty sure that opera used to be much more lively and performative, but gentrification has made it much more accepted to just stand and sing.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Gaetano Donizetti

This opera suffered much from the stand-and-sing issue, especially among the male performers. Mostly, they didn't even bother to summon up any facial expressions. Nicolas Teste as Raimondo was the worst. He was about as flat as a piece of paper. He's one of the main characters and, yet, he often felt like he belonged in the chorus, because he had about as much animation as them. He could certainly sing, but there was no emotion in it, and he rarely moved at all. Nadine Sierra, the female lead, however, was the exact opposite. She was expressive and animated. A performer in all senses of the word. She made the show worth watching, especially how creepy she was in the post-murder scene where she goes off the deep end. Sierra is what more opera performers should aspire to. Opera is not just singing; it's also acting.

The issue with this particular production of this opera was the director. His interpretation of it was to "modernize" it, which would be fine... if he had actually done that. What he actually did, though, was to produce the same period piece that it's supposed to be (with the women wearing big period dresses and all of that and the whole thing in a castle-ish setting) except that the men get to wear suits and some of them wave guns around. It creates a horrible muddle. It did not give the "near future" vibe it was supposed to give at all. Not even close.

Still, it was an enjoyable experience. overall. The singing was, as to be expected, amazing, and, actually, Nadine Sierra was good enough on her own to make the show worth watching even with the other issues of this production.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Steve Jobs (a movie review post)

There's nothing about this movie that made me want to go see it. Steve Jobs was an asshole and, despite what may have been brilliance, I have no respect for the man. It doesn't take much, really, to just not be an asshole. And, despite thinking that Fassbender has been a fine Magneto, I have not thought much of him as an actor. If you need someone who can brood, Fassbender is a good go-to guy. No, the only reason I went to see this movie is because it has delusions of Oscar-hood.

That said, I came away pleasantly surprised. Not that it changes my opinion on Jobs, which is what it felt to me like what the movie was trying to do. It's very much a "See, he was just misunderstood" kind of movie. It's hard to misunderstand when someone is, rather purposefully, being an asshole.

But the movie was pretty good!

That the movie is good is completely based on the strength of the acting. Fassbender surprised me. As I said, I've never been overly impressed (or even slightly impressed) with him, so it was good to find out that he can do more than just brood and be angry. He had a strong performance in this. Then, Kate Winslet was even better.

Now, I like Kate Winslet. A lot. She's undervalued. I didn't even recognize her at first in her role as Joanna Hoffman. So, as good as Fassbender was, Winslet was better. Fassbender had to carry the movie, but I'm not sure he could have done it without someone good in the role of Hoffman. Winslet certainly made Fassbender's job much easier.

And without a doubt, there was no better person than Seth Rogen for the role of Wozniak. There's not really anything more to be said about that.

The movie is set around three major product launches in Jobs' career. I found that particular structure for the movie to be interesting while watching it. However, upon reflection, I've decided that it actually hampers the movie. The reason that it hampers the movie is that it is, in fact, a movie. The structure is such that everything that happens is through dialogue. We don't actually see any of the action of the story other than Jobs walking around and talking to people. As soon it was over, I felt like I'd been to a play -- and plays are fine; I like plays -- but, when I go to a movie, I want to see a movie, not a play.

So I'm glad I went to see it, because the acting was excellent but, if I had it to choose over, I wouldn't go see this in the theater. There's no compelling reason to do so.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Cargo of Doom" (Ep. 2.2)

-- Overconfidence is the most dangerous form of carelessness.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Anakin and Ahsoka are hot on the heels of Cad Bane after his theft of a holocron from the Jedi Temple. Not hot enough, though, to keep him from capturing a Jedi with a special memory crystal and, then, torture him to death trying to get him to open the stolen holocron. This, of course, does not make the Jedi happy. And Bane still needs a Jedi to open the holocron.

This episode, again, highlights Bane's ability to use others to further his own ends, this time an entire Trade Federation fleet. It also shows us just how important it is to the Jedi to get the holocron back, as they send their own fleet to take Bane out. Basically, they've sent out a fleet to recover a book.

We get to see both Anakin and Bane displaying innovative ideas to solve problems, like Anakin deciding to use tanks (ground tanks) as ship-to-ship assault vehicles because his fleet was prepared for a ground assault. And Bane... well, that would be telling.

It's Anakin's issues with attachment that are most noteworthy, though, as he not only allows Bane to escape with the holocron but opens it for him as well. Possibly, a Jedi with a clearer mind and one more committed to the Jedi way would not have succumbed to Bane's demands. That's actually an interesting question, though: What is the worth of one life in comparison to the potential harm of many? Do you save the one or stop what is only a possibility of death for many?

"If by success you mean I won, then yes."

Monday, November 9, 2015

We Went Away

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the espresso machine I got my wife for her birthday; well, that's not all of what we did for her birthday. I also took her away for a night.

No! Now wait a minute. This is a more significant event than you're crediting it for. Let me explain something:

My wife and I got married about 17 years ago. After we got married, we went on a honeymoon. Well, we went to a music festival, which she calls our honeymoon, though it's never felt like what I think of when I think about what a honeymoon should be like. However, it was just the two of us. That was the last time the two of us went away together, just the two of us. This overnight away from the kids for her birthday was a pretty big deal.

And, hey, the kids survived. Basically, we filled their bowls up with food and made sure they had fresh litter and left them alone... oh, wait, that was the cat. Look, our oldest is 19 so, even if he's not quite self-sustaining yet, the three of them survived one night at home alone.

And, hey, my wife said the night away was "magical," and, well, if we'd gotten back and the cat hadn't made it... Well, it would have been worth it to hear her say that.

Yes, I have some pictures. No explanations will be provided, so make of them what you will.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Crimson Peak (a movie review post)

I want to like this movie more than I actually do. I like del Toro. Mostly. Although he may be shifting to a focus that too much relies on visuals over story for me. Or, maybe, he's always been that way but just happened to have better stories for the movies I liked. At any rate, Crimson Peak is visually amazing. But, then, Pacific Rim was visually amazing; dumber than a box of rocks but visually amazing, nonetheless.

Of course, the thing that stands out most is the ghosts. Or, maybe, the house. The house is pretty amazing. But the ghosts are freaky and cool. And, well, there are issues with the house that take away from its "cool" factor.

So, yeah, ghosts... Because it's a Gothic thing, and you have to have something supernatural in Gothic things, right? Evidently. Except for Wuthering Heights. That one gets by on tragedy alone.

I really wanted to do this without spoilers, but I'm finding myself unable to, because I'm going to just go ahead and say this, so... SPOILER ALERT!

The problem with the ghosts is that they are just a sleight-of-hand, which, in-and-of-itself is fine, I like sleight of hand, but the movie pretends to be a ghost story, and it's not that. It's a story with some ghosts in it. There's a huge difference between those two things. These ghosts are no more than props. To say this is a ghost story would be like trying to say that something is a chair story just because there happened to be some chairs in it.

But they do look cool. The ghosts, not the chairs.

Then there's the house, which also looks cool, but there are so many problems with the house that it drags the movie down into stupidity much like the house is sinking into the clay on top of the peak. Because, you know, the clay is so soft that it can't support the weight of the house but
1. we're expected to believe that someone built a house on clay that soft to begin with.
2. we're expected to believe that a mountain made of oozing clay would even exist.
I could go on with issues around the house (like the huge hole in the roof that exists only so that leaves can aesthetically flutter down around the characters (while they are inside) throughout the movie), but let's just stop there and say that the house broke my suspension of disbelief.

Beyond that stuff, the story is pretty formulaic... in a Flowers in the Attic sort of way. The ghost stuff is just there so that you won't see what's actually going on. You expect a supernatural story. Like I said: sleight of hand.

The acting is decent. That's about all that can be said about, though Tom Hiddleston is quite charming, which is good, because that's exactly what he's supposed to be. Jim Beaver is also good as Edith's father, but, really, it's the same sort of role he always plays, so you can't say he was any better than usual. Jessica Chastain was also pretty much as she always is, cold and somewhat aloof. I'm not sure at this point if she's capable of anything other than that. And Wasikowska... well... she's not bad. But she's also not good. She just kind of is. I find her mostly bland.

So, yeah, I want to like this movie. The use of the ghosts is almost very clever, and, again, cool. But the places where logic and sense are sacrificed to what looks cool are just too plentiful. I can't turn my brain off that much. It's not a movie I'll ever willingly watch again because, now that I've seen it, any other viewing will cause me to be irate at all the dumb.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Holocron Heist" (Ep. 2.1)

-- A lesson learned is a lesson earned.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Evidently, one experience with disobeying orders and refusing to retreat during combat was not enough for Ahsoka to learn the lesson, despite how horrible she felt at the loss of her men in "Storm Over Ryloth." But, hey, that's people for you and, apparently, Jedi. This time, though, she gets punished for not listening.

It's really just a set up to get her into the Jedi Temple so that she'll be present for an infiltration by Cad Bane. Bane is working for Darth Sidious this time, which I think shows that Palpatine recognizes talent when he sees it (after Bane pulled one over on him in "Hostage Crisis"). At any rate, it's not a bad set up for what is a new plot thread in the series.

From the prequels, we see how Order 66 is carried out, and we know that the Sith destroy the Jedi Order and make them "all but extinct," but it still leaves questions. A lot of questions, actually. This episode introduces a plot thread that shows how Sidious plans to fully wipe out the Jedi. Bits of this idea pop in and out of the series all the way through season six.

We also see that the Jedi, just as everyone else, are susceptible to making assumptions that lead them to incorrect conclusions. When they know that there has been an infiltration, they assume that it has to do with accessing their communications and stealing codes to do with the war. It takes them in the wrong direction. It also allows Bane to exploit what he anticipated would be their assumption.

And we get to see just how ruthless Cad Bane is. He sacrifices both of his partners on this mission, but not just sacrifices them; he set them up at the beginning so that he would be able to escape. One of them to its death. Yes, it's only a droid, but you have to remember that droids in the Star Wars universe are sentient. When you compare his callousness to his droid against Anakin's devotion to R2-D2, you can see how devoid of attachments Bane is, something Anakin has issues with.

This is a really good season opener. It's an intact episode, but it opens a lot of possibilities for stories and raises some questions that will be dealt with as the season progresses. This is where we really start exploring some of the background stories and answer questions only hinted at in the movies. As I've said before, if you're a Star Wars fan, this is a series you should be watching.

"They're about to overrun you; you just can't see it."

Monday, November 2, 2015

What Roller Derby Taught Me About Writing

I got to go to one of the practices for the Cinderollas.
I was watching them warm up, and they started doing this thing with a bunch of balls. Not what's in the above pictures, that was something else entirely. No, what I mean is that when everyone was just there skating around (and there were a lot more people than just the ones pictured because there junior team was there, too, along with some other skaters), they threw a couple dozen of those lightweight brightly colored balls for kids out onto the skate floor.

Let me back up a moment:
As I said in my first post about roller derby, I grew up skating and working in the recreation program at my church. We did skating in the gym, and I was often in charge. One of the first and basic rules of skating was balls and skates don't mix. When I was in middle school, one of my best friends broke his leg because he tripped over a basketball while he was skating. Well, perhaps tripped is too light a word. It's not like it was just there on the floor in front of him and he didn't go around it or something. No, it came rolling across the floor and hit his feet. At any rate, the rule was no skates and balls at the same time (not that we always followed that rule, mind you, but that was the rule, nevertheless).

Needless to say, I was surprised that they were tossing all of these balls out onto the skating floor during the derby practice. They were kicking the balls, throwing them at each other, and, generally, having fun with them. Eventually, when they got ready to actually start practice, they gathered up the balls.

About that time, Dirty Carie, the CEO of the Cinderollas (with whom I'm trying to get an interview), came over and asked me if I had any questions. My initial response was, as is always the case, "No, I don't think so," but I immediately changed my mind and asked about the balls, something like, "What's the deal with the balls?"

Her response was very interesting:
We try to get them not to think about their feet and what they're doing with their feet. Newer skaters tend to focus on their feet and think about how they're skating and not pay attention to what's happening around them. Of course, that doesn't work in a match. So, if we give them something fun to do, they are more likely to think about the game and let their feet just do what they need to do. If they get busy playing with the balls, they forget to think about their feet and just skate. The more we can get them to do that, the better they skate.

That's true for a lot of things, especially physical things for which muscle memory can take over. Often, thinking about it, thinking about what you're doing, can just mess you up. I think we frequently call it "trying too hard."

It works for writing, too. Writers often get too focused on the individual words and sentences. They think they have to only have "useful" words or just the right word or that every sentence has to further the story or be perfect or beautiful in some way. They do word counts on specific words and go back and cap that particular word at some arbitrary number of usages. Or other weird things. It's like thinking too hard about what your feet are doing.

Writers need to just tell the story. Don't think about the words or the perfect sentences or any of that and just tell the story. The better you get at telling the story, the more easily the right words and sentences will fall into place. All on their own, really. It's kind of magical that way. Sure, it takes practice and, sometimes, especially at first, thinking about the words helps, but you can't stay in that place. At some point, you have to play with the balls and forget about your feet. Just have fun in the game and tell the story.