Worldcon Thoughts

I’ve just returned from my first WorldCon (Renovation in Reno, NV). Had a blast and expect to be recovering for many days. Not only was I shy on red blood cells for the oxygen levels at that altitude, there was just far too much to do!

Some of the highlights were:

  • Hearing a live commentary by George R. R. Martin for his episode, “The Pointy End,” from this past season of Game of Thrones. I owe a review of that series but only finished watching it the day before we left.
  • A panel on creating consistent magic systems with wonderful participants (Tim Powers, Pat Rothfuss, LE Modesette, Jo Walton, and others). It really was a great discussion and only served to convince me more of the burning intelligence of those around me in this genre.
  • Discussing e-publishing with and seeing the new formats and efforts of Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.
  • Tim Powers’ Guest of Honor speech was just fall-down funny as well as a great reminder of what we do as writers and why we are all such fans of the genre (both SF and Fantasy).
  • Attending the Hugos (see below)

I wish I could have done so much more while I was there, but there were too many people to see and too many panels to attend! And far too many of both to list, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoy my old friends, meeting new friends, and talking shop, politics, single-malt whiskey, life not to mention just having fun for a weekend.

In truth, I had two main goals for Worldcon. The first goal was to get yelled out by all my friends and associates for not producing any fiction for the last two years. I got that, and a lot of encouragement, for which I am both chagrined and grateful.

The other goal was to see the Hugos as many friends were nominated and two were emceeing. The Jay Lake and Ken Scholes hosted Hugos were as silly and fun as I know they wanted it to be. Bad puns and singing abounded. The presentations were often amusing and meaningful as well, but the acceptances themselves were worth the time. In part, this was because friend and multi-talented artist Mary Robinette Kowal won a Hugo for her short story, “For Want of a Nail.” If you haven’t found her work yet, do. While she writes in many styles, her novel, “Shades of Milk and Honey,” totally changed my mind about a whole chunk of literature. Or, better put, if Jane Austin wrote like Mary, I’d love Jane Austin. In the past, you’d never have heard those words out of my mouth about our Ms. Austin.

See the recorded Hugo ceremony stream at: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/16783348.

Overall, I’m exhausted and still excited to have survived my first Worldcon and 26+ hours of driving cross-country. Beautiful country, I will add, but it would have been more convenient if it was a bit smaller! I had a great time with many friends I’ve not seen in a while and I got to enjoy a con from the audience for a change, which I’ve not done in a long time. Sometimes it is fun to just be entertained and taught rather than having to sit up in front of the audience.

And now, back to digging out and recovering. Next, getting my butt back in the writer’s seat and finishing some of the work that has lay fallow for too long as well as sowing some new work from the sparks in my head!

Priest

What a shame that such a promising property fell so bloody (pun intended) flat. You knew you were in trouble when after a quick prelude scene, we were thrust in to an, admittedly well done, animated sequence that explains the world and how they got to where they were. People, if you cannot build that into your script, you’ve already shown me you can’t write nor tell a story. Even if this is based on a graphic novel, there are better ways to impart information.

However, even if I give them a pass on the opening, the rest of the premise is pretty absurd, as explained and the directing and acting are wooden. The f/x don’t even rise to something worth seeing in most cases. I’m particularly disappointed in Urban’s character. I don’t think it was his performance … both he and Maggie Q made Paul Bettany look like a walking corpse… but the script and direction left him practically twirling a mustache and cackling.

Overall, I could see the bones of a great and fun film. Unfortunately, it didn’t materialize in just about any way. If you just have to see it, do. This is really a strong 2-stars/anemic 3-stars. I didn’t spit at the screen when done, but I didn’t feel particularly satisfied either. However, the lack of box-office success in this case was well deserved.

Let Me In

This American remake of a Swedish adaptation of a book is, as you can tell, rather removed from its original source. And with each degree of remove, the story has been diluted. Despite that, I really have to give credit to Matt Reeves for keeping the feel and look, down to the colors, locations, character-types, of the original film. I wish he’d kept more of the original plot, but I suspect the US distributors balked.

Fortunately, they did keep the most beautiful aspect of this story intact. In all its incarnations, while primarily psychological horror, it manages a great deal of blood and guts as well. It doesn’t pull punches. The world is populated with miserable people quietly getting by in less-than-wonderful circumstances. The restraint of all of the directing and acting gives the explosive moments all the more impact.

Our heroine, Chloe Moretz, with whom I’ve been impressed since Kick-Ass, is on the road to a very promising acting career. She is supported by a cadre of talent (Richard Jenkins and Elias Koteas to name a couple). While the young boy is the center of this story, it is a thankless role, particularly in this version; it exists solely for the rest of the story to hang on. Some people just play that role in life. Kodi Smit-McPhee does a fine job, but I recall the Swedish version providing the character a bit more meat and sympathy. Smit-McPhee’s character is frustratingly naive and dense at times; I really don’t recall that being so much the case in the original film. It provides a slightly different story, and not uninteresting, but just not quite as intensely creepy for me.

Ultimately, I’d say read the book. If you are willing to “read” a movie, see Let the Right One In in the original Swedish. If you want it in English, you will enjoy this latest adaptation of the adaptation, but you will sacrifice a lot of the darker and more interesting aspects that made the other interpretations of the story so powerful. Whichever you choose, choose one. Definitely a horror and suspense classic and very different from your typical fare.

The Big Night

15 years ago Stanley Tucci wrote a script, assembled an amazing cast of actors, and co-directed this indie film about two brothers finding out what’s important in life.

This is a highly intimate and casually-paced film, full of cultural themes and wonderful food. Yes, I’m a sucker for a good food movie, what can I say? The relationships that drive the plot are both subtle and complex but also very grounded and quiet. This is not a film with tightly scripted conclusions or big surprises. It is about people finding themselves in the 1950’s… with a large dash of very dry humor to season the mix.

The cast is a collection of folks you won’t see anywhere else and that alone is a reason to sit at the table. Ultimately, whether this film sates you or not will be highly personal but the journey to the end is fun and engaging and it one I can recommend.

Mars Needs Moms

There was only really one reason this ended up in queue: Seth Green. And, sadly, all he was only used for was mo cap… the character voice wasn’t him at all; they brought in a different actor. Talk about a waste of talent. To list all the ways this movie went wrong and became one of the biggest flops of all time at the boxoffice would be to waste pixels. But let me go through a couple anyway because I just can’t resist.

Primarily, the movie had no audience focus. It really couldn’t decide if it was for 8 year olds or the parents and didn’t ride that line in a good old-fashioned Bugs Bunny way. The adult references were decidedly boomer and utterly foreign to the kids… but not in a way that really enhanced the story since it was the ideals that were driving the plot. The plot itself was generally insulting and silly and the science was lousy beyond words. OK, it was based on a kid’s book, but in translation to screen, it really coulda used some work.

The animation itself is actually really impressive and, for the first time, one of the characters eyes didn’t go dead during pauses in action. Mind you, it was only the supporting character played by Dan Fogler, but I finally realized something about mo cap movies… when they enlarge the eyes in anime-like style, they fail. Folger’s character had normally proportioned… or even slightly beady eyes. They stayed alive. Or, probabaly more accurately, I couldn’t see them go dead. The character, for all its outlandishness, lived. On the other hand, the main characer constantly fell into that scary state of souless staring that this technology is famous for. Cusack’s character was even worse in this way as her whole face was just leaden. I did evilly muse if it was a by-product of botoxing of Hollywood, but honestly, if you think about her acting style, she’s always had a fairly flat affect unless she’s pushing the boundaries. Her voice work and movement were both good.

Basically, skip the film unless you’ve an interest purely in the technology.

The Life of Reilly

A few years back I was told of this taped performance of Charles Nelson Rielly’s one-man show that recapped his life. And what a life it was. It took quite a while for it to become available–and I still cannot find it on disc, though it is now available for streaming. Whether you know who he was or not (Charles Nelson Rielly was a fixture of the early days of television and created some of the most enduring roles on broadway), the story itself is worth the viewing. If you do know him, it serves as a wonderful, final chance to see him in action and learn about how he became who he was.

The stories are at once hysterically funny, darkly disturbing, sad, and shocking. And, as he is a master storyteller, they are woven into a whole. Well, this edit of it is anyway. Therein lies a bit of the rub. The original performances were somewhat free-form and ran well beyond the 84 minutes that are preserved here. You can see where the edits are, and that is a fine since it was a live performance, doing otherwise would be disingenuous to the intent of the show. But it does give a clipped sort of speed to it all and how well it represents the experience of the show is a huge question mark for me. In addition, the way it was filmed was less than perfect for viewing, with tight close-ups of feet and hands at, often, odd times. That was the second rub. But it also provides a view of the stage that the audience didn’t get to see, with stage markings and prop placements, which add to the sense of the magic and the levers involved. Neither issue is enough to ruin the viewing, but I can’t help but be sorry that I didn’t see it live!

The Life of Reilly serves as both homage and epitaph to his life, which makes it all the more blackly comic–something he’d probably appreciate a great deal, though I am fairly certain the edit was committed to tape prior to his death in 2007. I do highly recommend viewing it at least once. If nothing else, it is a window onto an era that continues to affect what we all experience today in the culture around us.

United States of Tara: Season 3

The first two seasons of Tara captured my attention.  Season 3 slapped me around and really took me by the throat. The writing and the cast continue to provide stellar entertainment that somehow never focuses on the situation, but rather stays lasered in on the character. While that seems contradictory, I’ll stand by it. While all the situations are highly charged and intriguing, the choices are very internal and personal; the situations become secondary because the reactions and decisions are laden with backstory. This was no more so the case than with Eddie Izzard’s character. Izzard is brilliant at riding a line of contempt with the world, while genuinely loving it and wanting to be involved. The journey he takes and the foil he provides Collette is great fun to watch. If you haven’t found Izzard’s stand-up routines (in particular: Dressed to Kill and Glorious), do.

So, let’s talk finales. They’re the hardest thing to do for a show. You have years, and in some cases decades, of characters, stories, expectations, and hopes weighing unfairly on the one episode. Do I really have to mention Lost to talk about how wrong it can all go? Some shows have natural ends, some are foisted upon us due to unexpected cancellation or just bad writing.

The final season of Tara managed to stay true to itself through to the end, taking all of its characters through a very dark corridor in order to bring the story to as much of an end as could be expected. That isn’t to suggest it isn’t satisfying, it is. There was no attempt to take the messy lives of the Gregsons and tie it all up with a neat and shiny bow. But neither was their an attempt to raze the ground and destroy them. Coady guided the show to a believable conclusion. I’m sorry to see the show go, but don’t feel cheated by where it left me… and despite the fact that there were only 12 episodes, I really never knew where it was going to end as the season is full of red herrings plot-wise. It will keep you guessing as well as entertained.

Falling Skies

OK, here I go again… a lack of movies in my roster forces me to write about a show still airing its season. However, since I am walking away from it for cause, I don’t feel guilty. And because I expect to be lauding a different show tomorrow when I finish watching its final season, it seemed appropriate to talk about good and bad applications of the evening hours. Mine are limited and when I take back 30 min or an hour so I can do something else, it is worth noting. I’m taking back this hour.

So, why? At the risk of bad punditry, Falling Skies fell flat for me. Despite an intriguing set of mysteries and some nice twists on the alien invasion trope, it started slow and with issues. First, few female characters of strength. The show sort of recovered from that a bit, but still has dang few female soldiers and women kicking-butt. This is the end of the world folks, everyone should be fighting. The whole “I am the man and will protect the women and children” is old-school crap. Second, the lack of grey characters was just bad writing and directing. Again, they managed to get a bit away from that over the first few episodes… but not very far away. There are clear black and white hats in the cast.

Finally, and this was the unforgivable issue that drove me from the show: the characters are “willful stupid.” Or in laymen’s terms: they were written dumb so the plot could happen. Unforgivable when it happens over and over in the show. The final straw was the 4th episode where it was so clear what was going on and no one, not one person, not even the history prof who could talk ad nauseum about collaborators throughout history, quesitons the information and situation. C’mon. I’d forgive questioning and coming to the wrong conclusion, but not avoiding the obvious all together. People are scum. They’ve established this aspect of humanity with the plots and in historical reference.

I should say that the cast, mostly, is actually fairly good and committed to their roles, even when they’re written foolishly. I think the mysteries and the aliens themselves actually made me curious… just not enough to overcome the issues. The directing even seems very competant, given the material. This really comes down to the writing, in my opinion.

Time is a precious commodity and there is no reason to waste it. I’m not saying a show cannot be just silly and pointless and worth your time. Heck, look at Big Bang Theory or any number of other sitcoms. Brainless fun is as important as thoughtful discourse. We need both. But no one needs to waste time on bad writing.

Season of the Witch

You are really playing with fire when you do a “what if” story that centers on the wonton killing of women during the dark ages. The “what if” here is basically, what if they really were (or some of them were) witches? It is a disturbing suggetion… not that they might be right, but that there might be a defense for the hunting and sadistic killing of women who didn’t do what they were told or who were a little different.

Getting beyond the politcal, and the historically questionable on other counts, story you’d hope that at least the plot and acting would carry the day beyond the challenge they set for themselves. Not so much. There are moments, yes. Some aspects that are even entertaining. But, overall, it is a weak film done on the cheap.

The only surprise for me was getting to see Robert Sheehan in a role other than his Misfits character. While he’s been around a long while, that was my only touch point for him till now.

Frankly, don’t waste your time on this flick. The high points aren’t worth the cost of your evening, even if you’re a Ron Perlman or Nick Cage fan.

Source Code

Who says you can have a popcorn flick that gives you ideas to think about for a few days? Duncan Moon’s second offering in the full-length feature field continues to present audiences with delightfully complex plots that don’t treat the public like idiots. Moon, Moon’s first movie (honest–and if you haven’t seen it, you should) was less satisfying but equally intellectual in its questions. What is new is the driving action and tension he uses to push the film forward despite the conceit of an 8 minute time loop.

I’m very encouraged by his growth as a director and a story teller. I enjoyed both movies, but Moon (the movie) was a slow burn with a rather obvious plot. Source Code makes no bones about the main secrect and, as it unfolds, he acknowledges additional levels before you get annoyed with the story and characters for not coming to the obvious conclusions. The effect becomes one of taking an old idea (let’s face it… this is not a new idea at its base) and really presenting it in an engaging and fresh way.

In an odd way, this feels very much like a filmed play, if you could do stage f/x like this live. It is the intimacy and tight focus that provide that feeling and it works. The script, as well, is well edited and crisp, and avoids re-hashing more than you need to see. The three main players, Gyllenhaal, Farmiga, and Monaghan give us characters we can both relate to and like. Gyllenhaal and Farmiga, in particular, have a depth to their characters that we only get glimpses of, a credit to the writing, but which goes way beyond the story, which is a credit to the actors and director. Monaghan’s character is a litte more ephemeral, but you get a sense of why she is so attractive to Gyllenhaal. Weaker and more cliche were two minor characters, but neither break the spine of the movie for me.

Despite the f/x and action, this wasn’t a huge box office success, but it definitely deserves to be seen and Moon (the man) deserves to be supported and given more work. He could have defaulted to an old story and dressed it up, but he clearly puts effort in to try to do more than thrill your eyes, he wants to stir your brain as well.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…