Tag Archives: summer

In The Nick of Time

It is not often that modern Hollywood makes a movie that forces one to think about the message and engages the audience on a deeper level than thrillers, action fare, or kids’ movies usually achieve. This weekend, Hollywood gave movie goers Arrival starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, and this movie is a fantastic respite from the mindless violence of Jack Reacher, the non-stop action of Doctor Strange, or the brainless giggles of Trolls. Arrival engages the viewer on several levels, each one dependant on the next. The characters are deep, complex beings and how they interact drives a lot of the plot of this mind-bending story. It was a relief to see something on the big screen that forced me to engage more neurons than a film has required since I saw Tree Of Life. This movie is a must see if for no other reason than that.

Twelve alien space ships, shaped like kidney beans, appear suddenly around the world. When there is no communication either from the ship or from the government, people begin to riot. There are no laser battles, no fighter chases and no last minute escapes in this story. The ships just sit there. The world governments try in vain to figure out how to talk to the visitors. Finally, when all else fails, they bring in Louis Banks, a well-respected academic specializing in linguistics. But America is not the only government trying to communicate and Louise and her team must crack the code before other governments decide on a less diplomatic solution.

Amy Adams plays Dr. Banks, the linguist recruited by the government to try to communicate with aliens whose ships mysteriously appeared over twelve locations around the globe. Jeremy Renner is a physicist who runs the lab in which Louise works and Whitaker is Colonel Weber, the officer heading the Montana alien site. Adams is a gem in almost every role she plays. She can seamlessly go from a live action Disney Princess in Enchanted to a whistle-blowing nun in Doubt to Lois Lane in Man of Steel to an emotionally vulnerable linguist and take the viewer along with no questions. Jeremy Renner is a likeable rouge in almost every role he plays. He has a quiet, understated command to his presence that makes one feel comfortable around him and he plays that effectively in his role here. Forest Whitaker is both the benevolent leader and the bureaucratic nemesis for the two doctors who try to figure out the alien language before fear leads to violence.

The only part of the film that might bring viewers some consternation is the very hook of the film: Temporal Mechanics. This story weaves its narrative in a deceptively linear story telling fashion, while back-handedly telling the other story of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the revelations of the film and was not too stunned to appreciate the creative way the writers and directors tried to slip one by on me. It is not often that I am surprised by a plot twist, so I really appreciate when I encounter one I didn’t see coming. Be advised, though, that the auditorium was so stunned by this one that when the credits started rolling, no one moved for several moments.

Technically speaking, Arrival is not the state of the art. In fact, photorealistic CGI has gotten so commonplace that it is expected to be good. The aliens, one of the more interesting non-humanoid designs I have seen, look as real as made-up aliens can be expected to look. Where the film excels, at least to me, is the language they developed for the aliens. Perhaps it is the literary nerd in me, but I was totally in with Louise as she tried to figure out how the aliens used a three-dimensional form of writing to communicate. Whoever came up with that, should win a technical Oscar.

Arrival is not the typical fast-paced, action-laden Hollywood blockbuster. Nor is it the emotionally draining, pull-at-your-heartstrings drama. This film is an intellectual journey into the human condition. It informs the viewer while revealing a piece of humanity and entertains all at the same time. I cannot say enough how much I enjoyed this film, simply because it made me think. If you’re looking for mindless escapist fare, this film will give you a headache. If you want to think about what you’re seeing, run, don’t walk to the theater today and see Arrival.

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Apocalypse Brings X-Men Back to the Beginning

The X-Men was one of the first comic book franchises to really break big in terms of public popularity. Oh, sure, Superman and Batman had their followings in the 70’s and the 90’s, but that was largely the fan-boy response and not indicative of the general movie-going public. But with Marvel selling the rights to Spider-man and the X-men, the comic book movie really came into its own. The X-men has been so hugely successful as a franchise that despite a lack of continuity between the titles and different actors being cast in the same roles across titles, people still follow it. It was even parodied in the Spring’s big hero surprise hit Deadpool, who commented on James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart both playing Professor X.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

This weekend’s X-Men Apocalypse is the best of the X-Men series thus far. Brian Singer brings the best of all the previous X-Men titles together for what amounts to a reboot of the franchise; bringing the characters from the first movie and the first class while setting up for a continuation of the story beyond this title. The only actor that remains the same from the first X-Men movie is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, who really has only a cameo in this movie. The characters of Jean Grey and Scott Summers, Phoenix and Cyclops, are recast as younger versions of themselves with Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones) as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott. Nightcrawler, Jubilee, Storm, and Angel are back with new actors while Charles, Magneto, Beast, Havoc, Mystique, and Quicksilver all make reappearances. One new mutant to the party is Psy-lock, played by Olivia Munn, one of the older mutants in the story.

Speaking of old mutants, what could very well be the first mutant in existence makes his appearance as the film’s titular character: Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac. Inadvertently awakened from a multi-millennial sleep by the overzealous CIA agent Moira McTaggart, Apocalypse sets about reclaiming his rightful place as the world’s ruler by finding the four most powerful mutants and augmenting their powers to help him enslave humanity. He finds Storm, Angel, Psylock and Magneto as his four horsemen. When Mystique learns of his existence and Magneto’s involvement, she enlists the X-Men to help foil the plan. The problem is that there are no X-Men. Charles has avoided training mutants to use their powers for combat ever since the assassination attempt on the President in “Days of Future Past.” Now Charles and Mystique must gather a bunch of young mutants with tenuous control over their abilities, and defeat five of the most powerful beings on the planet.

The film follows the industry trend of being precipitously long. As with the other superhero movies this year, it clocks in at two and a half hours long. It also tries to cram several sub plots in among the three main plots, and it can get confusing for the uninitiated. With so many characters interacting and integral to the plot, it is a challenge to weave a story that is not too complicated to follow. Fortunately, Singer manages the feat, if only just barely. There are one or two scenes where the viewer might be left wondering, “why did she do that?”

Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner, better known as Sansa Stark, was cast as the younger Jean Grey. While many fan boys may think that Famke Janssen will always be THE Jean grey, Turner turns in a respectable performance, though she struggled with losing her English accent in a few scenes. While Jennifer Lawrence is probably the strong female hero in this story, Turner holds her own all through the film culminating the final conflict. She offers a different take on the character making Jean the pretty girl next door mutant, rather than Janssen’s exotically beautiful and worldly mutant.

Of all of the sub plots, one that has stuck around since “First Class” is Magneto’s flip flopping good and bad guy. In First Class, he is one of the first team of mutants to work with Charles, in fact it is the foundation of their lifelong relationship. His anger at the disparity in the treatment of mutants at the hands of humans always gets in the way of him doing the right thing. This film is no exception. After suffering a tragedy, Magneto is all about making humans pay, despite the pleas from Mystique and Charles. In this, Magneto is following his comic book origins of fighting against the X-Men as often as he fights alongside them.

We also finally get to see Professor Xavier bald again. It was looking for a while that only Patrick Stewart’s Xavier was going to be follicularly challenged as James McAvoy has a full head of think hair. McAvoy’s Xavier has always been more emotional and reactive than Stewart’s more mature Xavier, but now we see the effect of years of fighting and learning beginning to show up as McAvoy’s Xavier grows into the Xavier we know from Stewart. In the final scenes, it could be either actor playing the role as the more mature Xavier is finally realized.

One of the aspects of movie versions of comic book is that film designers tend to avoid the costumes depicted in the print comics. This could be for many reasons, not the least of which is that comic artists tend to draw over-sexualized costumes, particularly for the female heroes, also, spandex looks cheesy in real life and it is difficult to picture anyone taking a hero seriously while wearing skin-tight spandex in day-glo colors. Most of the comic stars have had their costumes re-imagined in a tactical ballistic nylon or Kevlar mesh and sporting darker colors. In many cases, they have no costume at all, they just wear street clothes. In this film, however, we get a nod to the comic costumes. In the final scene, the new team of X-Men enters the “danger room” to train and finally wear costumes that more closely reflect the comic book.

While this is no “Captain America: Civil War”—the best comic book movie yet—this is easily the best X-men movie thus far and while I would love to see it integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the Avengers and Spiderman, it seems that 20th Century Fox is finally getting the X-Men right.

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The Right Tool for the Job

Pick one thing and be the best at it. I’ve heard that mantra my whole life. For a Jack-of-all trades guy like myself, this idea is somewhat foreign. I’ve always subscribed to the belief that it is important to be good at many different things; to have plenty of tools in the toolbox, as it were. This weekend, however, I figured out what one thing I am best at: procrastination.

When I bought the house, I had great plans for a woodshop in the garage. My Uncle Harris had one, my granddad had one and I wanted one. Never mind that my knowledge of wood working was fundamental at best, honed to a dull edge in middle school shop class. At least I learned how to use the tools of a wood shop. Being the Jack-of-all-trades guy that I am, I knew I could build a workshop and I could make any number of creations. I had dreams of building a crib for my grandkids (the youngest is 9 years past crib age now), a book stand, book cases and storage solutions for my wife’s craft center. All I needed was to finish the workstation that would serve as a router table, a table saw guide and a stand for a scroll saw. I had it envisioned, I had it planned, and all I had to do was build it. If you build it, it will work…or something like that. Right?

Anyway, I bought the tools I would need: a combo router, a scroll saw, a table saw, a circular saw, several clamps and a few other tools that any respectable wood shop needs. I bought lumber. I bought hardware. I bought a shop vac. I have even used these tools from time to time. I was well on my way to having that dream workshop, but there was one thing that kept me from realizing my dream. Well, several things to be honest, but I blame it all on this one: The Heat. I live in Texas and in the summer, my garage gets unbearably hot. Even in the winter, it can get uncomfortable out there. If only I lived in a more temperate clime. I kept putting off finishing the project because of the heat (and TV, and vacations, and a good book, and homework, and…well you get the idea).

I started on that book stand several years ago, but I needed a router table to do the kind of joinery I wanted for it. Being someone who often shoots too high, I wanted to build the router table myself so it would do all the things I envisioned. I started that project, but it ran aground in the heat so both projects languished on my work bench all these years. There they sat, buried under tools and materials so deep that archaeologists could define the time by counting the layers. Then, as if out of nowhere, my wife foiled my procrastination plans.

She gave me a honey do! The true enemy of the procrastinator. Only the elite of the elite procrastinators can withstand the withering gaze of a wife with a honey do.

Michelle has been wanting to do more improvements to the bathrooms since we changed the flooring last year. New faucets, new light fixtures and new toilet paper holders were straightforward projects, but she also wanted to update the mirrors. Since the sheet glass mirror was glued to the wall, Michelle thought that if we (read I) were to frame the mirror it would make it look so much better.

My new router table on top of my unfinished homemade router table.

My new router table on top of my unfinished homemade router table.

This meant, of course, buying molding and cutting it to fit the glass. In order to get the look I wanted, it meant cutting the wood to wrap around the edge of the glass. This meant the tools I needed were my router and router table. Since I knew finishing the router table would take too long and take more money, I just bit the bullet and bought a Craftsman router table and set it atop the table I had been building. It worked. I trimmed the wood I needed to trim. Of course, by that I mean that it only took trimming four of the four corner pieces before I mastered the technique. I get good at it just when I don’t need to do it anymore. Anyway, the mirror project is almost done, only needing the lengths of the molding to be cut and the pieces glued to the mirror. The cutting job really needs a chop saw, rather than the table saw I currently have. Maybe I should go get a nice chop saw to round out my woodshop.

A good procrastinator can put things off indefinitely; an elite procrastinator can go forever doing nothing. I have put many things off, especially things I have no interest in doing. I do have many interests though. This is my procrastination’s undoing; getting me interested in new tools. Lure me from my recliner with the promise of a new router table or a new chop saw and I’m working on projects. At least until I get tired of the heat again. OK, so maybe I’m not the best at procrastination, but I am pretty darn good at it.

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What’s On the Tube?

Summer brings great opportunities for family togetherness from vacations to the beach, or trips to foreign lands or even just relaxing around the house gardening and doing crafts. Many people take this opportunity to break out of the hum-drum routine that defines the rest of the year by going to the theater, concerts or movie house to catch one of the summer blockbusters. The reason for all this activity is simple: There’s nothing good on TV.

For decades, the networks have released new episodes of existing shows and premiered new original programming in the fall; typically around the end of August to mid September. The shows would continue to air new episodes every week until Spring; usually around May. Oh, they would air a rerun or two during the holidays if the competition with another network was too great, but in that time—20-25 weeks—there were new episodes most weeks. In fact, in the 60’s, some shows were one two or three times a week.

A prime time television series ran approximately 16 episodes in a season over that 20-25 week fall/winter span. The time slot remained assigned to that show over the summer, but the series reran the episodes from that prior season for those who missed them and of course, to make more money from commercial breaks to offset the cost of production and licensing.

Today, things have changed. It seems there is no season anymore. Shows air episodes whenever the network chooses, and that appears—for the most part—quite random. Some networks run shows on different nights of the week—even airing two separate new episodes the same week. Some shows will just skip a couple of weeks and the network will air other shows instead; not always new shows either. It is getting to the point where a person can no longer plan on regular viewing of their favorite show.

Some shows are filming fewer episodes as well, as few as 13 episodes in a season instead of 16. “Game of Thrones,” a new series on HBO, only aired 9 episodes in its premiere season and announced that the next season won’t air for another year. “True Blood” made fans wait for more than a year for the season premiere of its fourth season.

Networks have long had to balance the cost of producing shows against the revenues generated from selling commercial airtime. For each hour-long show that airs, only 40-42 minutes is actually allocated for the show; the rest of the time is for commercials. The production costs can get quite cumbersome, with some shows costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode once actors and writers and producers and directors and crew salaries are factored in with effects, set design and construction and special effects costs. Networks, looking to maximize profits, are looking for cheaper shows to air. This is where ‘Reality TV’ came into being. Shows like “Survivor”, “American Idol,” and too many others to list here fill the program guide. No name-brand actors, no scripts, no special effects means cheaper production and, if the show is popular, they can get just as much ad revenue. This means more profit and that is the defining factor in network executive’s heads.

The cable networks are in a slightly better position than the broadcast networks in that since the premium networks are subscription based, they know how much money is coming in ahead of time and can budget for it. This is why shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Pillars of the Earth” are so well done with cinematic production values. That coupled with the fact that there is no FCC censorship issues that networks contend with allows the cable channels to offer more titillating fare with sexual themes and nudity to draw in viewers that may otherwise not watch.

But here again, the cable networks do not subscribe to a season model. They debut a show whenever they want to, and end it the same way; even if it is only a 9 episode “season” like “Game of Thrones”. NBCUniversal, which owns the SYFY network, has been adopting the “half-season” model. Airing only 6-8 episodes at a time then taking a 3-6 month hiatus before debuting new episodes. This tactic seems particularly stupid because, in those 3-6 months, viewer loyalty wanes. The fan favorites “Heroes” and “V” fell victim to this programming dilemma.

Unfortunately, with the increase of reality programming like “Wipeout”, “The Voice”, “Amazing Race,” etc. and the decrease in scripted original shows such as “Law & Order” or “Smallville,” the complete lack of originality in the few shows that are produced like “The Vampire Diaries,” it is getting more common to hear people lament about what’s on the TV. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we all need to get out more and spend more time with our families, take in a play or go to the symphony. That way, people can look forward to saying “there’s nothing good on TV.”

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