For the Sake of Purity

I just learned something today.  I’ve always believed that lifelong learning is important, so I try to find new things to try, or new activities to do, or new ways of doing things.  When I bought my house, I had never installed a refrigerator icemaker before (and I still haven’t) nor had I hooked up one from scratch.  The closest I came was connecting the existing water feed line to the back of the fridge’s connection port.

When I bought my house three months ago, the previous owner offered to leave her refrigerator behind, because she thought it would be too much of a hassle to move it, and because when it was installed, the people installing it got the doors out of alignment, and the icemaker/water dispenser didn’t work.

I accepted it, because I needed a fridge, and I figured I might be able to fix it.  So, one day I set my troubleshooting skills to work diagnosing the water problem.  Turns out that whoever installed it connected a spike tap on the water feed improperly, so not enough water was getting through.  I replaced the spike tap with a push-on tap and lo and behold, water flowed.  I have water dispensed through the door and I had full-sized ice cubes being made.  I was very happy.

Now, there was no water filter installed in the fridge (I suspect for two reasons: one: they are very expensive, and two: she thought it was broken) so I researched the proper manufacturer’s filter for that model.  They are $55 a pop.  Generic in-line filters are like $11.  I decided to install an inline filter.  Once I did, I followed the instructions to flush the line with a gallon of water.  After I did that, I ran my hand around the filter to make sure there were no leaks.  Thankfully there were none, but I did make a surprising discovery.  The water filter was very hot.

I was perplexed.  Why did it get hot?  Was it perhaps an exothermic reaction between the water and the filter element?  Did I install it incorrectly and it was backflowing?  No, the answer was much simpler.

The idiot who installed the spike tap wrong installed it on the friggin hot water line!

&^#&*@^

I feel like Lando Calrissian finding out the hyperdrive wasn’t fixed properly.  “It’s not my fault!”

So now I must decide it I want to spend the money moving the tap to the proper line, or let it go.  It only gets hot if it runs a lot of water through the pipe, and a glass of water or tray of ice here or there doesn’t do that.

I’ll probably move it, if only because it will nag at the back of my mind until I do.  “It’s wrong.  Fix it!”

So, I learned that just because some “professional” does an install doesn’t mean they did it correctly.  Or even close to correctly.  Or even on the same planet as correctly.  I mean seriously.  Faulty tap AND on the wrong line?

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Saving the Best for Last

After more than ten years and twenty-one movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a capstone with the release of Avengers: Endgame. While many movie franchises have met with varying levels of success over the years, none have been as successful as the MCU. Warner Bros. misstep with the Justice League is a perfect example. Even the 007 series pales by comparison to the storytelling and cinematics exhibited in the Marvel series of movies. Avengers: Endgame is a perfect knot tying together all the threads that had been woven by the preceding films. It is not to be missed.endgame

When last we saw our intrepid heroes, they were licking their wounds from their ignominious defeat at the hands of galactic bad guy Thanos, played by Josh Brolin. The dedicated viewer will remember that at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos had reduced half of all life in the universe to dust, including some of our favorite heroes. Endgame starts by showing us how that snap of the fingers affected the one avenger that did not take part in the Infinity War, Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner. We then get caught up on how life has marched on for the survivors, including newcomer, Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson. Under the direction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the surviving Avengers try to figure out a way to reverse the disaster but are unable to do so.

Meanwhile, in another Galaxy, Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) are drifting lost in space in a damaged ship without power. Just as things look bleakest for the pair, fortune smiles on them.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) drifts without direction in the tendrils of the Quantum Realm until a bizarre happenstance returns him to our dimension, where he finds himself alone and unaware of what happened in his absence.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Earth, Thor is dealing with his failure in typical Asgardian fashion.

Meanwhile…well, you get the idea.

There are a lot of plotlines going into this movie, and the filmmakers do their level best to stitch them all together into a cohesive continuity. They succeed. The pacing is just right to allow for proper character and plot development and the cuts are just enough to keep the viewers interest without leaving them confused by the many plotlines. This is no easy feat and was only achieved by the film’s 3-hour runtime.

Yes. That’s THREE HOURS.

It seems unlikely they film makers could have delivered a story that was as satisfying in less time. While some might say the film drags in some places, it is a nice respite from the insane level of action that is going on the rest of the time.

Avengers: Endgame is a perfect capstone for the franchise. The viewer will leave this film satisfied that, if they never made another MCU movie, it would be okay. This story is finished. Anything that follows this movie is a whole different story. Endgame will be met with gasps, laughs, tears, and cheers, plus one scene that leaves the entire theater in utter stunned silence. The typical Marvel humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the script and the performances are spot-on consistent with the characters that have become beloved by fans. Of course, the special effects are top notch, even the Hulk’s effects, while new, are quite realistic.

If there were a downside, it is that some of the characters don’t get as much screen time as might be preferred. But given that it took three hours to give them that much, any more would require breaking Endgame into two separate films. That would not have been as satisfying. That said, every character that has been introduced in the MCU in any film seems to make an appearance in this movie, even if it is just a few seconds of screen time. Still, any more and it might have been too much. No, Avengers: Endgame is just fine the way it is. Go see it.

 

 

 

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That New Car Smell

As happens with cars, my Mustang is in the shop right now.  At three years old, she has performed well with only a few minor glitches over the years.  The puddle lamps had to be replaced in the first month, the Sync module had to be replaced in the first year, and this year the hood needed a paint job to correct a factory defect.  Even with all that, the car has performed very well for me.  I remember when she was brand new, she had that “new car smell” that makes driving a new car a complete sensory experience.  Now, three years down the road, that smell has faded amid all the fast food, sweat, washings, vacuumings, and other daily minutia.  I am pretty meticulous about maintenance, so I get the regular oil changes and rotate the tires when needed.  Even with all that, Sally developed a rattle last month that was bothering me, so I took her in to the shop to have her checked out.  It was worrisome because the factory warranty has expired and I did not opt for the extended warranty, despite the repeated pleadings of the robo-callers.

Fortunately, the problem is covered and is being repaired.  Something about the tie-rods needing to be replaced.  When I first took her in, the attendant said the mechanic needed to work on it wasn’t working that day and that I should bring it in during the week.  I have to work during the week, and being a new employee, I didn’t want to take time off work to do it.  She scheduled an appointment to bring it in on a Saturday.  Great!

The day of the appointment, it was raining, so when I showed up, the service manager said they couldn’t diagnose it in the rain and I would have to leave it.  Fortunately, they said I could have a loaner.  Great!

They put me in a white 2019 Ford Escape.  I had owned an Escape before back when it still looked like an SUV, and this one looks more like a crossover.  Not my favorite style.  This Escape is a base model; no bells or whistles.  Four-cylinder with no satellite radio, no back up sensors, no sun roof, no navigation, and no automatic temperature control; all the things I love about Sally.  But when I got in, it had one thing.  It had that one quality that gives even undesirable cars a certain appeal.  Every time I get in, I take a deep breath of it and let it fill my nose with that new car smell.  So, while I have been driving a car I wouldn’t buy, I have enjoyed getting to experience that new car feeling while Sally is being fixed.

It is amazing how you get used to the features of a car that you don’t even realise until you don’t have them anymore.  I almost backed into a car in a parking lot because I was waiting for the back up sensors to beep.  I almost froze on the way to work because the car didn’t automatically adjust the environmental controls for the temperature.  I got stuck in traffic because there was no navigation telling me about an accident ahead on the freeway.  But even with these shortcomings, I am enjoying driving the loaner.  You just can’t beat that new car smell.  If only there was a way for older cars to get it back.

 

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Not So Marvelous

Captain Marvel PosterDisney has officially kicked off Marvel’s phase 4 of the MCU with the release of Captain Marvel in cinemas Thursday. The much-hyped film, touted as the new standard bearer for the Marvel franchise, features Marvel’s first female super hero to get her own title. As such, many feminists have joined a chorus touting the film as a feminist anthem without the benefit of actually watching the movie. This follows the hype of Black Panther as offering the first black super hero to get his own movie. Even before Captain Marvel was released, the movie was being bashed online by one group while being vociferously defended by another. It is unfortunate that Captain Marvel does not fair well by the comparison.

The film tells the story of Carol Danvers, an air force pilot who rankles at being denied the opportunity to be a combat pilot because she is a woman, taking a female scientist (Annette Benning) on a flight in an experimental aircraft and encountering unexpected problems. The film starts with our heroine fighting along side a noble band of warrior heroes already introduced in the MCU as the Kree. Vers—as she is called by the Kree—has an aggressive, emotional fighting style that frustrates her mentor played by Jude Law. She also has powers and abilities that no other Kree seems to possess, and she has no memory beyond six years prior. Through the course of her adventures, she uncovers the secret of her prior life and how she came to the Kree and how she obtained her awesome powers.

The Kree are engaged in a long-fought war with a race known as the Skrull; shape-changing aliens who can assume any identity down to the DNA. The war reaches Earth, where Vers encounters agents of SHIELD Fury and Coulson, who help Vers unravel the mystery of her origin and the secret behind the war.

The movie is full of CGI special effects, as all Disney movies seem to be these days. The age-regression on Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson are superb. They don’t look a day over 35. The fight sequences are fantastic and visually stunning, as are the Skrull transformation effects.

The story is set in 1995 (Vers crashes into a Blockbuster Video store loaded with VHS tapes) and has a lot of popular cultural Easter eggs for those who like searching for them. There is no discussion of or reference to any other super heroes or mutants, though at the end of the film, we see Fury typing the first draft of his “Avengers Initiative.” It makes no reference to Thanos, but it does include Ronin, who we first met in Guardians of the Galaxy. The first post credits scene does tie back to the events in Infinity War as Captain America and Black Widow are trying to see who Fury was texting right before he disintegrated. This is the only tie in to the greater MCU story arc, which was a bit disappointing.

The film is somewhat long, running at 124 minutes, but seems longer. Despite the incredible, gratuitous action sequences, the film does drag in spots. The plot is straightforward, if somewhat predictable and offers no insight on the deeper motivations of the main characters. Why the villain does what he does is never discussed. What is the primary motivation for the Kree war? Why did the Kree keep Carol Danvers on Hala and more important, why conscript her into their army? These could have been great story arcs to explore and made a more compelling movie than the string of action sequences the film provides.

There are also some continuity errors.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we learn that Fury lost his eye infiltrating a terrorist camp to save Alexander Pierce’s (Robert Redford )daughter.  In Captain Marvel, there is an alternative history.  Also, the Tesseract appears in this film, with no explanation of how it got there, when last we saw it (timeline-wise) it was lost in the arctic.

Brie Larson’s portrayal of Carol Danvers is problematic. Larson is a fine actress; her Oscar win for “The Room” is a testament to that. Carol Danvers is a great character in the comic books, full of heroism and faults like the pantheon of Marvel heroes before her. But we don’t see Larson really bringing Danvers to life. She isn’t given the opportunity to explore the frailties that drive Danvers to excel as a hero. Also, Captain Marvel is so powerful in the film that an even a space armada cannot slow her down. She never doubts herself or her role in what is happening to her and around her. There just isn’t any emotion from her at all. I don’t think it’s Larson’s fault. I think it is the staff of writers and directors that all had their fingers in this pie that was trying to please fan boys and feminists too much that they failed to satisfy either. This is why both groups are fighting online so much.

Hopefully, Endgame will give Captain Marvel more material to work with and allow the viewers to see more of the humanity of what is right now the most powerful hero in the MCU. Having said all that, Captain Marvel is an entertaining film. While not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, it has the occasional chuckle. It plays out like a comic book, which, considering the source material, is a good thing. But it could have and should have been so much better. It falls in the middle of my ranking of MCU titles.

 

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The Top of Texas

The air is dry, the wind is brisk and the Spring sun has just started its march across the clear blue sky. Even early in the morning, the trail head is bustling with activity as hikers of all ages rally around the sign-in board, each eager to begin their trek along the many varied trails that make up Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Each trail comes with its own challenges and offers its own encounters with nature—from the various types of foliage, to the diverse geology to the myriad animal life—and these people seem eager to encounter it all. They are dressed differently; some wear shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops, others are sporting the latest high tech moisture-wicking spandex, and still others are in blue jeans with hiking boots. Some have back packs, others have hydration systems and a few are only carrying small bottles of water. Each will have their own encounter with the mountain, which is what beings them all to this remote part of West Texas.

Interstate 10 west of San Antonio is often thought of as a flat, straight, boring highway, devoid of scenery. Nothing could be further from the truth. The road weaves and turns and bounces amid rolling hills, flat-topped mesas and meandering valleys all the way to El Paso. In fact, West Texas is home to the few real mountains in the state and the tallest peak is located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Located about an hour and a half east of El Paso near the New Mexico border just west of the Texas Panhandle, the park enjoys a steady flow of guests looking to visit the Top of Texas.

The park is an hour from the nearest town that offers hotels, restaurants or retail shopping, so visitors must remember to bring everything they will need for their trip with them. Guadalupe Mountains is part of the National Park Service, which held its centennial celebration in 2016 and has enjoyed a marked increase in attendance at all the national parks, according to Elizabeth Jackson, Chief of Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Education and Public Information Officer. “Certainly all the parks have had a good boost,” she said. “Largely our tourism increase has been [from] New Mexico and Texas,” she said of the visitors to Guadalupe Mountains. The park service debuted a program last year dubbed “Find Your Park,” which she said accounts for the dramatic uptick in attendance.

Enjoying everything the park has to offer requires more than one day, but the nearest hotel is a half hour away in White’s City or an hour away in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The park offers a few primitive camping sites near the trail head and several more in the back country as well as a couple of RV pads, but no hookups. The wind coming through the mountains requires a particular attention to detail in setting up a camp site, lest it get blown down. The sites fill up quickly and the park does not take reservations except for large groups, so arriving early is helpful. Open fires are prohibited, but propane or butane stove are allowed for cooking at the camp sites.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers several different hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Each offers a full experience with the ecosystem, introducing the hiker to plant and animal life as they walk along the trail. The McKittrick Canyon trail is one of the most popular hikes, taking visitors into a valley full of spectacular sights. Tim and Philip Long are brothers from the Houston area and both hiked the trail. “I’ve been wanting to come here for years,” Tim said. “I’ve been to Big Bend quite a bit but I’ve never been here. I’d heard about these mountains and I’ve heard about McKittrick Canyon.”

His brother particularly enjoyed the canyon hike. “The canyon is easy,” Philip said. “Beautiful canyon. I heard about McKittrick Canyon before I’d heard about Guadalupe Peak.”

Guadalupe Peak is the draw for many hikers stomping along the trails. At 8,749 feet above sea level, the peak takes hikers up an 8.5 mile round trip trail offering a three thousand foot elevation. Hiking this trail takes on average six to eight hours to complete. Some hikers may struggle with the beginning of the trail, which features a steep incline along rocky, timber-lined steps before leveling out into the forested path. The trail switches back and forth long the entire mountain, taking hikers up and down the trail, across a bridge and over some rocky terrain before reaching the peak. The mountain is composed of different types of minerals from dolomite to limestone to sandstone and the layers are easily visible in the rock faces along the trail. As the trail goes up, the plant life changes from cactus and brush to evergreens, cypress and even deciduous, leafy trees that offer shade along the trail. Three-quarters of the way to the top is the Guadalupe Peak campground, a back-country area with five sites for primitive camping. There are no vehicles allowed on the trail, so camping equipment must be packed in along the three-hour hike.

The last part of the trail brings the hiker to the peak along very rocky terrain. At the top, a large metal monolith is perched on the rocks and several hikers take the opportunity to rest, eat and perhaps take a selfie before descending. Beside the monolith is a metal dry box with a book for hikers to sign to commemorate their trip. Shaila Rubenthaler and her boyfriend took some time at the peak to rest from their efforts to hike the trail. “I think the last part is the harder part,” Shaila mused. “I thought that after the beginning, and going through all those stairs, I was like ‘when we get to the top it’s going to be just perfect’. And then we get to the top and we’re literally like rock climbing. It was harder at the end than at the beginning. But it was worth it.”

Her attitude was shared by 71-year-old Ariel Luna, who came here at the suggestion of a family member. “My nephew came here a couple of weeks ago and he sent a couple of pictures and I said I want to do that. He said, ‘let’s go!'” Ariel even had a baseball cap made to commemorate his hike. “I don’t know if I want to do it again,” he said, adding, “I’m glad I did it.” He found the last part of the hike the most strenuous. “And we’ve still got to go down,” he smiled.

Devil’s Hall is a shorter trail with less elevation, but one that offers a different geological experience. Jackson said that the trail is quite popular. “It’s pretty rocky. Usually older kids go there. We take school groups up there. 4th graders and older. You’re hiking up to see the really cool geologic stair steps. It’s neat.” Andrew Rivera and Anouk Van Nelleftien were part of a group of thirteen students from the University of Texas Odessa cross-country team who decided to hike Devil’s Hall as a team building exercise. “We’re bonding,” Rivera said as the group easily scampered over the rocks on the trail. None of them seemed the least bit fazed by the exertion of the hike, owing to their cross-country training. “I think I’m pretty trained,” Van Nelleftien said before hopping over a large boulder.

If these three trails are the main draw for the park, there are other trails for those looking for less of a workout. For the younger kids, Smith Springs Trail is a 2.3 mile loop. “A good mile and a quarter is paved,” Jackson said, adding that there is also the Frijole Ranch museum as well as other educational offerings. “Sometimes folks do just the short Pinery trail. Some of the more adventurous groups we send to McKittrick. It is a favorite hike by most. You’re hiking deeper into the canyon rather than up.”

Charles Grenade, an Air Force retiree and avid hiker, enjoys hiking the park and offers suggestions for those wanting to hike to the Top of Texas. “Get here early. That’s a long hike to get into there. Bring plenty of water. Sturdy boots…it’s a real rocky trail. A walking stick or trekking poles are very useful.”

Jackson echos those thoughts. “We remind folks, hydration is important. One gallon per day per person. Take enough water.” She adds that it is important to know one’s limits. “You don’t use the same muscles going up that you use going down.”

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a remote, rustic wonder in the state. Even with no resort amenities, the park attracts a steady flow of nature lovers and outdoor activists to it natural beauty.

This article appears in the September, 2018 issue of TexasLiving magazine.

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Enemy of the People

Last week, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta accosted White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders during the scheduled press briefing and insisted that Sanders provide a specific sound bite for the press. The incident was part of a larger issue revolving around the president’s use of the phrase “fake news” and a tweet the media believes he said the media was the enemy of the people. This topic has been all over the internet and discussed at length by the pundits and the professional talking heads ever since, but every time it is discussed, no one mentions the most disturbing issue: that of a “professional journalist” demanding a spokesperson say what he wants to hear.

Journalists are supposed to report the news in an objective manner. In an ideal situation, the reporter’s opinions and ideas are not detectible in a news story that is filled with facts and statements quoted from cited sources. In journalism classes, students are (or at least were) taught to avoid adjectives in news stories so as to avoid slanting the story. The assumption was that members of an informed society would form their own opinions based on objective information, and the free press could best serve the public by providing that objective information. Journalists did write their opinions, but they did so in the Op-Ed pages and in feature profiles; sections of the news dedicated to the opinions of the writers. These sections were clearly marked and labeled as opinion, so the reader could tell the difference between objective reporting and opinion. Yet in recent years, journalists are increasingly interjecting their own ideology and opinions in every story put out on TV, print and online, not just the Op-Ed. The practice is so widespread that it is almost impossible to find a truly objective news story anymore.

This trend seems to be stemming from a degree of self-importance that reporters have adopted in the last couple of decades. The Fourth Estate began to believe in their own importance as the “fourth branch of government” as overseer of the legislative, executive and judicial branches. While it seems that having transparence in government is a good thing and the news did facilitate that transparency, reporters began to shift the focus of their exposés on issues that the reporters felt were significant and they turned a blind eye to issues with which they agreed. One reporter once suggested that the media can make or break a president.

This is kind of putting the cart before the horse. If a president is doing something untoward or illegal, then objective reporting would reveal those transgressions and the people could take appropriate actions. Increasingly, however, it seems the press is trying to portray the activities of politicians as being illegal or immoral in order to sway public opinion against them. Such is the case with the supposed tweet.

President Trump tweeted “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media.”

Members of the media were incensed by this supposed slight and Jim Acosta decided to do something about it by addressing it with Sanders.

Acosta did not ask a question, but made a demand cloaked in a request. “I think it would be a good thing if you were to say right here, at this briefing, that the press, the people who are gathered in this room right now, doing their jobs every day, asking questions of officials like the ones you brought forward earlier, are not the enemy of the people. I think we deserve that.”

Sanders refused to grant is demand and instead leveled a rebuttal wherein she called out times when the press vilified not just the president but her as well. Acosta, not happy at being denied his boon, whined on social media and his network led a charge accusing Sanders of doubling down on the “enemy of the people” statement.

They got it wrong. First, the president didn’t say that the media was the enemy…he specified the fake news media. Granted, that is a bit of a deflection, since all the media is guilty of proliferating fake news, but he never said any network or reporter by name, so Sanders had no reason to make the statement in the first place.

Secondly, Acosta has forgotten his place. He is a reporter who is supposed to cover the news, not make it. His opinion is irrelevant, even if he is butt-hurt by a supposed slight. It was a breach of decorum and civility to even address the issue in that manner. It would be one thing to ask for a clarification about the tweet, but to demand a retraction is too much. Reporters should never command a statement from their interviewees. Ever! That is not reporting. That is commanding. If the media is commanding specific statements from public officials, then they are no longer serving the people, they are directing policy and that is not their role. Dictators demand others adopt their ideals. Anyone who forces their ideas onto others is, in fact, an enemy of the people.

If Acosta and others in the media want to be thought of as a friend of the people, they need to stop alienating the people. Go back to objective reporting, keep themselves out of the story and avoid interjecting their ideals into their reporting. It’s journalism 101, or at least it used to be when journalism was a respectable business.

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Jurassic World Jumps The Shark

More than 25 years ago, the cinema was irrevocably changed as technology was able to bring to the big screen, in startling photo-realism, creatures that had up until then, only been done with small clay models in stop motion, or normal-sized animals superimposed to look more monstrous. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) allowed film maker Stephen Spielberg to bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park and Hollywood has never been the same since. In fact, the film was so groundbreaking it set the standard for special effects that has only been increased in the interim years and it spawned several sequels, including this weekend’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Unfortunately, for its pedigree, Fallen Kingdom suffers by comparison.

The film stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard reprising their roles from the first Jurassic World. Howard is the daughter of film maker Ron Howard who once starred in the 70’s TV series Happy Days, which was an immensely popular series. The show enjoyed its success until season 5 when a character performed a stunt on the show that was so unbelievable it coined the term “Jumped The Shark” to describe a show that goes so far that it exceeds the limits of believability. That family legacy continues here as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom jumps the shark.

Howard and Pratt are tapped to return to Isla Nublar to save the dinosaurs that have been permitted to live on the island after the events in Jurassic World. It seems that the island has a volcano that has become active and threatens to kill all life on the island. It also seems that Pratt’s personal pet raptor, “Blue,” is of particular interest in the survival effort, which is why they need Pratt’s help. Unfortunately, the rescue is not as altruistic as Howard and Pratt are led to believe and dangerous situations ensue.

Where the movie jumps the shark is that aside from the above synopsis there is no real plot to the movie, which means it devolves into nothing more than a series of action sequences loosely tied together by a common narrative. In order to create stimulating visuals, the film makers put characters in increasingly unbelievable situations and have them make decisions that no normal human being would make. It also creates a back story to explain the current situation that runs contrary to established story line from the previous films.

Howard’s Clair, so strong a character in the previous film, is reduced to bit character status in this sequel, not giving her room to grow or any opportunity to show her acting range. She is simply window dressing in this film. Even Pratt’s Owen is left flat as he gallops from scene to scene reacting to the impossible plot points with nothing more than a smirk and a shrug. Jeff Goldblum reprises his character Malcom from the first trilogy, but only inasmuch as he appears to testify before congress so the film can moralize on science run amuck.

The story also introduces a new character, Maisie Lockwood, but then doesn’t do anything with her, other than to put her in danger and in need of rescuing on several occasions, despite having potentially the greatest plot thread of the whole film. One possible explanation is that she is setting up the third film in this second franchise. Unfortunately, if other people agree with this assessment of the movie, it may not spawn a third installment.

The special effects, revolutionary in the first Jurassic Park, are run of the mill here, offering no awe inspiring graphics or breakthrough visuals. In fact, some sequences seem rushed, the overlays are obvious and the physics are problematic. It is as if the producers didn’t bother to research how hot lava really is.

Of course, the movie has to introduce a new variation of a big bad dinosaur as every other film in the franchise has done, but this big bad monster is a bit of a retread and does not engender any real sense of malice or threat beyond that of “Oh My God, It’s a Dinosaur!”

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a poor addition to the Jurassic Park franchise and is unworthy of the name. Even the most ardent dinosaur fans could skip this film and not really miss anything. The producers, in an effort to capitalize on the franchise while feeding a frenzy of mindless action, have taken the story into unbelievable plot points much like Happy Days did in season 5 where Fonzie Jumped the Shark.

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Deadpool’s Second Coming

With the explosion of super heroes raining down on both the big screen and the small screen, it is getting difficult for a title to stand out from the rest. Every season, many films are welcomed with cheers as the heroes win the day. Just three weeks ago, the box office was broken wide open by the reigning king of ensemble super hero movies with Avengers: Infinity War to the stunned silence of fans and one could be forgiven for thinking that was enough daring do for now. One would be wrong. This weekend, another super hero film (don’t call me a hero) debuted with Deadpool 2 to howls of laughter.

Ryan Reynolds lobbied Fox for years to bring the character to the big screen, especially after Fox messed up the character in X-Men part 2 (which Ryan played). Fox was not only not interested, they were so not interested that Ryan had to finance the film himself on a shoestring budget. His efforts paid off in a big way as the first R-rated super hero (stop calling me a hero) movie actually beat box office records and was heralded as a universal fan favorite. It was, in fact, so successful that it garnered studio support for a sequel.

In Deadpool 2 Reynolds resumes the titular role as the “Merc with a Mouth” who routinely breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. He is continuing his career as an assassin for hire and is effectively eliminating all of his targets, save one. His last target manages to get away and comes after our hero (I said stop calling me that) in a tragic way. Deadpool realizes he must make some changes in his life and decides to build a team after he runs afoul of the time travelling mutant known as Cable. Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead return to help build the team. For this film, many more known mutants actually make appearances, a subject of angst for fans of the first film.

Reynolds’ performance is consistent with his acting style of irreverent, irresponsible, immaturity first made famous in Van Wilder and present in almost every film his has headlined. Of course, he seems tailor made for the character and it works in spades. Most of the other characters are CGI or on screen so little their performances are little worth mentioning. Josh Brolin, most recently seen as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, must love green screen acting as, like Thanos, Cable is partially CGI rendered. He brings a humanity to the war weary time traveler who is trying to undo a personal tragedy in the future.

The film runs 2 hours and at no time is the viewer left yawning. Nonstop action keeps attention focused on screen as well as the occasional Easter Egg that fan boys love looking for. The problem is that there are so many occasions of side-splitting laughter it is easy to miss things. It builds on a few sight gags introduced in the first film as well as creating brand new situations.

Deadpool 2 is a fine follow up to the original. It is every bit as funny as its predecessor if not funnier. One thing of note is that Deadpool 2 is the first mutant film to be released since Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, thus bringing all the mutant characters (X-men, Wolverine, Fantastic Four) back into the Marvel fold. That meant they could have included some MCU characters in this film had they so chosen. Evidently since the bulk of filming was completed before the sale, they didn’t feel it necessary to go back and add any MCU Easter Eggs, which is disappointing. The best scene by far is the mid credits sequence wherein Deadpool “fixes” mistakes.

The Super Hero genre is far from tapped out as next month brings Ant Man and the Wasp and next year wraps up the Infinity War story and introduces Captain Marvel (Not to be confused with Shazam coming also). It seems that super heroes will be on screen for the foreseeable future. Get some popcorn and candy and settle in. This is going to be a heroic ride.

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The Hollywood of Texas


Just outside the window of Pocket’s Grille, a large, rustic water tower announces the name of the small Texas town of Smithville much like the giant HOLLYWOOD sign does in California. Inside the restaurant, people sit around enjoying their meals and conversation amid large signs and props from the 1997 movie Hope Floats. One might think that the owner, Troy Streuer, has a mere obsession with the film, but the truth goes deeper than that; the movie saved his business. “I was literally about to close my door. I’d been open like 8 months or so and I wasn’t making it. And all the sudden, Hope Floats starts filming and everything turns around. I have this deep love for [the film] because it somehow got me over the hump.”

The movie, starring Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr. was the first of more than 80 movies, television shows, and commercials that have filmed in Smithville, bringing in a significant revenue stream and putting the town on the tourist map.

It is All in the Name

Adena Lewis, Director of Tourism and Economic Development for Bastrop County and former President of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, credits the town’s mayor for putting Smithville in the limelight. “Because of the smart thinking of Vernon Richards, our mayor at the time, the name of the town, Smithville, was used in the film. [The producers] came to him and asked him if they could repaint the name on the water tower to match the name of the town in Arkansas that was in the script. Vernon said ‘that’s kind of an expensive thing to do. Why don’t you just use the name of our town?’ The location guy said that was entirely too complicated a process. Vernon said ‘why don’t you just give me a dollar.’ The guy reached into his billfold and gave him a dollar and Vernon said ‘you’ve just bought the rights to use the name of the town Smithville in your movie.'”

That thinking became a tradition as more films came to Smithville. “If you walk in the Hall of City Hall, you’ll see framed dollar bills or dollar checks from lots of production companies that have come to Smithville,” Lewis added. “It’s become a tradition to collect a dollar from them in order for them to be in Smithville.”

A Location Destination

Many big productions have since been filmed within the few city blocks of Main Street including Doonby starring John Schneider, Beneath the Darkness with Dennis Quaid, Lost in the Sun featuring Josh Duhamel, and Oscar Winner The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt. More recently, the pilot for the television show Kevin (Probably) Saves The World was filmed in town.

Filmmaker Peter Mackenzie wrote and directed the 2013 movie Doonby and had planned on shooting at Spiderwood studios in nearby Elgin, Texas, when a producer recommended Smithville for location shooting. “I drove down and it was incredible. It was exactly what I’d written. ‘Oh yea, there’s the police station. Oh yeah, there’s the bar.’ It was absolutely perfect as a film set. I knew I was in good company because on the other corner the Coen brothers were doing scouting.” Mackenzie sees the value of the town as a shooting location. “You’ve got this little town itself which is a dream to film in with locations everywhere you look. You have this wonderful countryside all around it.”

April Daniels, the Executive Director of the Smithville Chamber of Commerce, echoes Mackenzie’s thoughts. “Mostly people come here because they want to shoot onsite. They want to shoot our beautiful old main street buildings. They’ll put up new awnings for us or they’ll paint the side of our buildings or paint signs. For Kevin (Probably) Saves The World, they dressed up the windows up and down the street.”

Smithville has a film commission that interfaces with the production companies before and during the filming process. Skeeter Sewart, the film commission’s chairman, volunteers his time to help producers find locations. “What we try to do is when the movie contacts me, I show them around and show them what [the] locations are and then give the heads up as to what fees and permits and everything else is required.”

When a film is on location, it brings in a lot of traffic and business for the town. Sallie Blalock owned the Katy House Bed and Breakfast for 20 years. She recalls when The Tree of Life was shooting, the producers went out of their way to minimize the disturbance of bringing in trailers and finding places to park them. “Terrence Malick did not want to disrupt the town at all so he rented every property that was for sale or rent so they didn’t have to bring in trailers and a lot of equipment.” She appreciates the business that production companies bring. “Valero came and did three or four commercials in town and filled up the bed and breakfast for three days in the middle of the week. You can’t beat that.”

If You Film It, They Will Come

While many of the residents appreciate the film industry for the revenue it brings directly, there is another benefit to having movies shot in town. Lewis recalls when she first joined the Chamber of Commerce she noticed that a lot of people coming into town were coming because of Hope Floats. “I don’t think any film has been as popular in bringing tourists to us as that original [film]. People still come here to get married, see the house.”

Sewart also sees the benefit tourism brings to the town. “They come in, they eat at Pockets, they buy gas. If their car breaks down, they get it fixed. It brings in revenue.”

A True Love Story

To say the town has a love affair with the movies is not just an understatement; the movies have a love affair with the town as well. Streuer has made lasting friendships with many of the production crews, many of whom return for new projects. “I think once you get that reputation of being easy to work with from the government standpoint all the way down to the people, I think that really carries.” When the crew members move on to become producers and directors later in their careers, Streuer states that “they remember Smithville and they come back.”

Peter Mackenzie calls Smithville home as well. “These are close family friends, not just acquaintances. All the actors who were on Doonby have all stayed very close to the people of Smithville. They all consider it as a place where they have a bunch of friends. John Schneider is in love with the place and is always around. Several of the other actors become very much a part of the world in that little town in Texas.”

Sallie Blalock recalls Dennis Quaid helping out the town in its time of need as it recovered from the wildfires of 2011. “Dennis Quaid was in the police station to shoot a scene for Beneath the Darkness when he noticed a barrel in the hall and asked what it was for. The Sherriff said it was for Blue Santa and it was usually full of toys for kids. This was right after we had the wildfires and everybody was tapped out and the barrel was empty.” Quaid brought his band in and held a sold out concert and the proceeds went to help the town with the Blue Santa.

The Challenge for the Future

Unfortunately, the love affair has been a bit strained lately as production companies have begun to opt for locations in other states. Lewis explains that it all comes down to money. “Every year at the legislature, we have to fight to get funding for the Texas Film Commission,” she said. “Texas was a leader for a long time, and now we get competition from Georgia and Louisiana. We’d never paid money to get people to come, we’d just given them a percentage back on what they spent in Texas as an incentive. We used to be the leaders on that and now we’re not.”

Sewart sees the changes as well. “The pilot [for Kevin (Probably) Saves The World] was filmed here. Now they film it in Georgia because the incentives are better. If Kevin was being filmed here, because it’s a series, they’d be here every day. Now I hear they’re just outside of Atlanta.”

Despite the legislative woes, Smithville’s old water tower stands like a beacon, bringing a bit of Hollywood to Texas. Movie makers and lovers from all over the country visit Smithville to catch a bit of Hollywood magic. Working amid the props from that first film, Streuer recognizes the magic of the movie making in his restaurant. Even after 20 years since the film’s debut, Streuer still sees the residual impact from Hope Floats in Smithville. “People still come to see the town and they still come in here.”

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of TexasLiving.

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Thanos Is A Good Guy

The latest big bad on the big screen has to be Thanos, the purple giant of the MCU playing havoc with Earth’s mightiest heroes in this week’s Avengers: Infinity War. The character comes directly from the comic books where he has been a villain for most of Marvel’s cadre of heroes since his inception in February 1973 in Iron Man #55. Thanos’ biography in the comics is varied and random, owing to the fact that he has been written by several writers over the years; each adding to the back story as needed by the story they were writing at the time. Invariably, he is depicted as having little regard for any life other than his own and willing to kill anyone or anything to achieve his goals. This attitude is most commonly characterized as pathologically evil—a label not entirely unearned, but actually not as accurate as one might think. When looking at the MCU version of Thanos within the scope of RPG morality, many would assign the chaotic evil alignment to him, but actually, Thanos falls more accurately in the alignment of extreme Chaotic Good.

In role playing games, there are nine alignments; three variations of each of the two principle categories of good and evil and a neutral alignment smack-dab in the middle. The sub categories are lawful, neutral and chaotic, making the alignments chaotic good, neutral good, lawful good, lawful evil, neutral evil and chaotic neutral and true neutral. Lawful characters act within the confines of established law and societal morality. They do good or evil according the laws under which they operate. Chaotic characters have no regard for the laws of civilization, nor any societal morals or imperatives. Chaotic evil is characterized by a complete disregard for any life and a willingness to kill anyone who would get in the way of whatever goal the character has set. They are only concerned with achieving the goals. While this description fits the Thanos of the comics, the version brought to the big screen differs in one key aspect. For chaotic evil to apply, the goals must be evil or entirely selfish in nature. The big difference between Chaotic Evil and Chaotic good is the motive for the goals. Both alignments have no compunction about killing or destroying, rather they differ on the reason why.

In the film Infinity War, the character is portrayed by actor Josh Brolin, albeit with a CGI facelift and body shape. Through a very nuanced performance, Brolin brings a deeper thread to the Titan’s back story and actually creates a sympathy for his situation. The writers gave Thanos a motive for his nefarious goal of instantaneously wiping out half of the universe’s population with a snap of his infinity-gauntleted fingers. Thanos was raised on Titan, a paradise of peace and prosperity for generations until greed and excess threatened to destroy the planet if things didn’t change. Thanos warned his people that overpopulation and over consumption would destroy them if they didn’t reduce their population by half. They ignored him and continued until his predictions came true. Driven by this tragedy, Thanos then went out with his forces and began culling the population of the universe whether or not they wanted or needed his help. Of course, he met much resistance to his efforts and that is when he realized he needed the infinity gauntlet to achieve his goals of mercifully putting the races out of their misery. His underlings, on the other hand, are more in line with lawful evil as they act out his orders for their own selfish reasons, while spouting Thanos’ desire for mercy.

That need for mercy is how Thanos falls into the alignment of chaotic good. He thinks he is performing an act of mercy for the greater good as he sees it. No one ever said “good” was a universal concept, especially when considering a chaotic alignment. In his perception, he is saving the universe from itself and anything he does to that end is justified, including sending mercenaries to take the stones and kill anyone who would stop them. It is for this reason that he is chaotic good and not chaotic evil.

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