Monday, February 1, 2016

An Over-Abundance of TV Content

How much longer before the Gilded Age of TV bubble bursts? There is so much quality television content and not enough hours in the day to watch it all.

Right now my viewing list includes the reboot of The X-Files, In the Badlands, Supergirl, and a bunch more.  All tap into different levels of escapist pleasure.

With so many viewing options (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, pay channels, broadcast channels), it's hard to keep up, and many critics are starting to wonder how much longer this cornucopia of riches can be sustained before it implodes under its own weight.

I'll do my best to review new programming that I come across, but often by the time I have to write and share my thoughts, it feels like old news to me.

If there's anything you recommend I watch that might have dropped by the wayside amid all the clutter of TV shows on the air, let me know and I'll do my best to take a look.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Praising Ex Machina

It's good to see the movie Ex Machina earn some praise as it won a Critics Choice Award, joining the British Independent Film Awards it already received. It's been given a number of nominations in other ceremonies (the Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA, the Producers Guild of America Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Costume Designers Guild Awards, etc.). It's even been nominated for a few Oscars (Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects), but it was shut out of the big categories in the upcoming Academy Awards. It's such a fantastic film and deserves more accolades than it has already garnered.

Alex Garland makes an impressive directorial debut. He also wrote the thought-provoking script, adding to his resume of fine science fiction, which includes the novel The Beach and the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. Combined with the beautiful cinematography by Rob Hardy, Ex Machina is a stunning visual experience from the gorgeous secluded island landscapes to the modern facility where most of the story takes place. The special effects are top notch and not overwhelming, packing a punch when needed.

The pacing and mise en scene would make Stanley Kubrick proud as the plot points slowly but intriguingly unfold, building up to an exciting but not overdone climax. If you've enjoyed cinema classics that explored themes of artificial intelligence, you'll love this new take on the genre. I wouldn't hesitate adding Ex Machina to the same level of achievement as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The script is good, but the performances are what elevate this to a higher level. The cast is riveting. If you enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you'll recognize Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb and Oscar Isaac as Nathan. Both are strong and solid, bringing equal measures of empathy and menace to their roles. Sonoya Mizuno as Kyoko makes the most of every minute of screen time, even though she has no dialogue at all.  The scene-stealer throughout the movie is Alicia Vikander as Ava. Her choices are subtle, yet powerful.

Ex Machina raises questions and then offers a satisfying ending.  If you missed it in theaters, catch it on-demand or through various streaming services.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Best MacGuffin

However one chooses to spell it, a MacGuffin (or McGuffin) is a plot-forwarding object. Legendary auteur Alfred Hitchcock is credited with coining the nonsense word to refer to anything in a story that serves no other purpose than to propel the characters along to the climax of the tale. In his own films, Hitchcock used as MacGuffins a coded message in The Lady Vanishes, radioactive material in vintage wine bottles in Notorious, a spare key to an apartment in Dial M for Murder, a necklace in Vertigo, and microfilm in North by Northwest, just to name a few. What they actually meant was of less importance than the fact that the characters needed them.

My choice for the greatest MacGuffin in cinema history is the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That would arguably make it the greatest MacGuffin in literary history too, since it's based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novels, but I'd give the literary crown to the Holy Grail, which so many writers throughout history have used to drive a story forward without the need to explain why it's needed -- "It's the Holy Grail, man, who cares 'Why?' Let the quest begin!" Plus, virtually every MacGuffin serves as a pseudo-Grail anyway.

Like that mythic cup, the description of what it actually does is often left vague (maybe it's eternal youth like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, maybe it's the answer to some conspiratorial mystery like in The Da Vinci Code). It's primary purpose is to be found or defended at all cost. It's actual practical functionality is secondary.

The Lord of the Rings has a near-perfect mythic narrative structure.  What exactly the One Ring does is never fully explained, nor does it matter.  We know from The Hobbit and later chronological instances that it makes the wearer invisible. That alone doesn't seem enough to make it so sought after and the crux of the major conflicts to come. We learn that it was forged by Sauron in the heart of Mount Doom, and its power is enormous. What exactly is that power? We're told that other power rings exist, and the bearer of the One Ring can control them all. Bottomline, it's a MacGuffin.

The actual power is moot, the point is that the bad guy wants it, the world is at risk if he obtains it, and the good guys need to destroy it. The One Ring is especially cool, because possessing it causes the eventual corruption of the user, and we see it tempt and taint characters who come into contact with it -- Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo.  Again the explanations for that corruption are left vague, we just see enough to move the story along, the rest is left to our imagination and suspension of disbelief.  The fine point details are unnecessary.

Movie history is loaded with excellent MacGuffins -- the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz, the jewel-encrusted statuette in The Maltese Falcon, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the Death Star plans in Star Wars, the meaning of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane, the Tesseract in Marvel's The Avengers, the ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Genesis Device in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the soldier in Saving Private Ryan -- but the One Ring rules them all!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Pros and Cons of Nostalgia

I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and one of the major reasons why is nostalgia. Now some people are criticizing the film because they claim it relies too much on nostalgia. (For those of you who still haven't seen the movie, don't worry, this is a spoiler-free essay and not a plot-detailed review.) Although it's true that Episode VII has many references to what happened before in the saga and has familiar story beats, it all worked for me.

In his controversial statements during an interview (for which he later apologized), George Lucas himself said that the new movie suffered from being too "retro." I found this to be ironic, since his early movies American Graffiti and even Star Wars: A New Hope have a retro, nostalgic vibe themselves.  He must have been referring to the negative aspects of nostalgia, not the positive.

When people trash The Force Awakens for being too nostalgic, they're implying that it's lazy storytelling, afraid to venture into new terrain while using the past as a cheap crutch. Some are also claiming that nostalgia is like junk food with its empty calories -- it will give you a quick sugar high, but you'll soon crash. Again I disagree with this critique when it comes to the new Star Wars movie, but it's a valid description of the dark side of nostalgia or "retro storytelling."

The plus side of nostalgia (and to an extant, "fan service," giving the audience what it wants, even if it often takes you out of the natural narrative) is that, when done right, it makes viewers feel good by tapping into positive memories and sensory experiences. Done correctly, as I think J.J. Abrams does in The Force Awakens, the nostalgia buzz endures without a letdown.

The original Star Wars relied on what came before, starting with Episode IV and brilliantly using the past to move the story forward. Lucas freely borrowed from Flash Gordon serials of his youth and other cinematic inspirations to which he paid homage -- his story felt fresh and exciting, but it also had a strong nostalgic vibe. The new film does the same.

The next few Star Wars films will determine if there's more to The Force Awakens than meets the eye (as The Empire Strikes Back did for A New Hope), or provide more evidence for the critics who argue that the emperor indeed has no clothes. Sometimes nostalgia can make the viewer feel empty, depressed, or angry, because it's just a shadow of that original experience. Other times it can be close enough to the real deal that it's hard to tell the difference, which isn't bad at all, because how often can we say that lightning has been caught in the bottle twice?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Movies in January 2016

A new year has begun! What cinema entertainment lies ahead? Westerns are the surprise genre trend.


The Hateful Eight (January 1)
Quentin Tarantino's latest is a Western with an awesome cast.

The Revenant (January 8)
Leonardo DiCaprio plays frontiersman Hugh Glass.

Ride Along 2 (January 15)
Ice Cube and Kevin Hart return in this comedy sequel.

Dirty Grandpa (January 22)
Robert De Niro stars as a perverted former Army general and Zac Efron is his nephew driving him to Florida.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (January 29)
Po (voiced once again by Jack Black) returns for another animated adventure.


13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
Based on true events, an American ambassador is killed during an attack on a U.S. compound in Libya as a security team struggles to deal with the chaos.

The 5th Wave
Chloe Grace Moretz plays the lead, trying to save her brother during an alien invasion, based on the bestselling novel by Rick Yancey.

Band of Robbers
Here's an interesting premise: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are grown men still searching for treasure.

The Benefactor
A philanthropist, played by Richard Gere, meddles in the lives of a newlywed couple.

The Forest
A young woman encounters paranormal forces while searching for her twin sister in the woods of Japan.

Norm of the North
A polar bear from the Arctic and his three lemming friends wind up in New York City in this animated feature.

Here's a tale set in 1985 as a mountain lion threatens a suburban community.


A local policeman in Romania hunts for a fugitive gypsy slave in the early 1800s.

This drama/thriller looks at the aftermath of a violent mugging of a university philosophy professor.

From the mind of writer Charlie Kaufman, here's a brilliant stop-motion animated film.

The Boy
An American nanny is shocked to learn that her British family's "child" is just a doll, but then becomes more shocked as she begins to suspect the doll might actually be alive.

Keanu Reeves is a detective investigating his partner's death, while a woman experiences strange events after witnessing a miracle.

Fifty Shades of Black
Jane Seymour and Marlon Wayans star in this parody of 50 Shades of Grey.

The Finest Hours
Set in 1952 and starring Chris Pine, Eric Bana, Casey Affleck, and others, the Coast Guard tries to save the day when a pair of oil tankers are destroyed in a blizzard.

Ip Man 3
The martial arts master battles a gang trying to take over the city.

Jane Got a Gun
In this Western, Natalie Portman tries to save her outlaw husband.

Lights Out
A woman is haunted by a creature that only appears in the dark.

The Masked Saint
A pastor returns to his former life as a professional wrestler.

Starring Oscar Isaac and Mark Wahlberg, a suicidal artist goes in the desert where he finds a homicidal drifter.

A physicist invents a time machine.

A wheelchair-bound chess master and an officer join forces to fight a dangerous opponent.

Which ones will you be watching?

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book Recommendations -- December 2015

I hope Santa was good to you all this year.  Did you receive any books as gifts? Well, here are some more suggestions!

14th Deadly Sin
by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
The prolific author delivers another collaborative episode of the Women's Murder Club as they try to save San Francisco from an outburst of violence.

5-Minute Star Wars Stories
Eleven action-packed tales take place at various times in the Star Wars saga.

by Chrissy Eubank
The singer is taking the world by storm thanks to her blockbuster new album, so what better time for a quickie biography?

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Phil Szostak
Not only do we see designs from the latest Star Wars film, but we also glimpse tantalizing concept renderings of ideas that were abandoned for the movie.

Ashley Bell
by Dean Koontz
The bestselling author tells the story of a woman who survives a medical death sentence and becomes convinced that she's alive in order to save someone else, and she starts a quest to find that mysterious person.

The Bone Labyrinth
by James Rollins
In this Sigma Force novel, the team must deal with the repercussions when a Neanderthal woman's bones are discovered in a subterranean chapel.

Broadway Revealed: Behind the Theater Curtain
by Stephen Joseph
The photographer shows his panoramic images of the behind the scenes work that goes into creating a Broadway theatrical production.

Curtain Up: Agatha Christie -- A Life in the Theater
by Julius Green
This book examines the mystery writer's work as a playwright.

Escaping Peril
by Tui T. Sutherland
Here's the eighth part in the Wings of Fire dragon series.

The First Hostage
by Joel C. Rosenberg
The President of the United States is missing after a terrorist attack and journalist J.B. Collins tries to find answers.

Five Nights at Freddy's: The Silver Eyes
by Scott Cawthon and Kira Breed-Wrisley
Based on the best-selling horror videogame series, a group of friends return to the pizzeria were murders took place and are confronted by dangerous animatronic mascots.

The Forgotten Soldier
by Brad Taylor
An operative goes rogue so Pike Logan and the TaskForce come to the rescue.

Frank Sinatra: An Extraordinary Life
by Spencer Leigh
Marking the 100th anniversary of his birth, here are exclusive interviews about the life of the beloved singer by those who knew him.

Girl in a Band: A Memoir
Kim Gordon
The founding member of Sonic Youth writes the story of her life.

Grimm Fairy Tales Adult Coloring Book
As the adult coloring book trend continues, I'm surprised that the major comic book companies Marvel and DC haven't capitalized on it by coming out with black-and-white pages of their superheroes for fans to color themselves. The independent comics, however, are jumping on the bandwagon as evidenced by this compilation of illustrations from Zenescope Entertainment series of sexy fairy tales.

The Hateful Eight
by Quentin Tarantino
Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the film director is a talented writer. The screenplay for his most recent movie is available for purchase.

Help! I Have an Audition! Now What?
by Martin King Young
If you're a struggling or aspiring actor looking for auditioning tips, this book is for you.

Herbie Hancock: Possibilities
by Herbie Hancock and Lisa Dickey
The legendary jazz musician reflects on his life.

House of the Rising Sun
by James Lee Burke
The author continues his Holland Family epic, this time about a father and son separated by war as they encounter the Holy Grail.

I Funny TV: A Middle School Story
by Chris Grabenstein and James Patterson
The fourth book in the series finds Jamie Grimm on the verge of television superstardom.

Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir
by Lorna Luft
The daughter of Judy Garland shares stories about her show biz family.

The Music of the Beatles
by Chris Wade
If you're a fan of the greatest band that ever lived, like I am, you'll appreciate this examination of their recordings.

Over the Top and Back: The Autobiography
by Tom Jones
My mom used to love singer Tom Jones. Now he shares the secrets of his success.

Patriot Rising: The Unbroken
by Max Alexander
Civil war and the threat of invasion from Russia and China are the tense settings for this sequel to Patriot Dawn: The Resistance Rises.

Patterns of the Universe: A Coloring Adventure in Math and Beauty
by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss
With so many adult coloring books out there, I'm trying to keep my eye open for unique ones to bring to your attention.  This seems like one of them.

People We Lost in 2015
People Magazine looks at the big names who passed away during the year.

Podcasting Made Easy: A Short Guide to Planning, Scripting, Outlining, and Creating Your First Podcast
by Mike Eiman
Podcasts are all the rage. This step-by-step tutorial shows how to create your own.

The Relic Master
by Christopher Buckley
In this humorous novel set in the 16th century, a relic hunter and his best friend attempt to forge the Shroud of Turin.

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge
by Michael Punke
Here's the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass, whom Leonardo DiCaprio portrays in the new movie adaptation.

The Short Drop
by Matthew FitzSimmons
Conspiracies are uncovered during the investigation of a ten-year missing person case.

Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films
by Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdhury
The Agent 007 movie franchise has been thriving for 50 years.  Here are all the details.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Before the Awakening
by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Phil Noto
This anthology book focuses on the lives of the characters from Star Wars: The Force Awakens before the film takes place.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Incredible Cross-Sections
by Jason Fry and Kemp Remillard
Detailed drawings and text examine the vehicles in the new Star Wars movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- Visual Dictionary
by Pablo Hidalgo
Loaded with illustrations, this is a Star Wars fan's dream book.

The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror
by George Beahm
Stephen King continues to deliver bestsellers, and this book takes an updated look at his body of work.

Sword of Destiny
by Andrzej Sapkowski
Inspired by the videogame The Witcher, a man with magic powers targets monsters that prey on the innocent.

Timeless Beauty: Over 100 Tips, Secrets, and Shortcuts to Looking Great
by Christie Brinkley
The supermodel must drink from the Fountain of Youth. Here she reveals her beauty secrets.

Tom Clancy's Commander in Chief
by Mark Greaney
Tom Clancy may be gone, but his great character Jack Ryan lives on, and the action continues now that Ryan is President.

Vargic's Miscellany of Curious Maps: Mapping the Modern World
by Martin Vargic
The digital artist delivers his witty maps that explore social issues moreso than geography.

The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2016
by Sarah Janssen
Tidbits and facts on almost everything you can imagine are gathered here.

Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane
by Patrick McGilligan
Here's a look at the brilliant filmmaker in his youth.

Your Beauty Mark: The Ultimate Guide to Eccentric Glamour
by Dita Von Teese
The fashion icon shares her beauty tips.

Your Magical Life
by Mike Dooley and Virginia Allyn
Finally here's a nicely illustrated fantasy bedtime story.

Happy reading!