Hamilton and Other Founding Fathers

So I saw Hamilton last night. And yes, there is a reason it won every Tony it could possibly win. And yes, I’m so glad I spent the money and bought a ticket.

Because it’s L.A. and just getting anywhere is always a challenge I left the house at four o’clock to drive to the Universal City Metro Station to catch the Red Line to Hollywood and Vine. I bought a tap card, loaded on some credit and headed to the trains. The station at Universal is very modern and a bit SciFi in its look, but it was nothing as compared with the Hollywood & Vine station. As you can see from the photo this is a visual love letter to the movies.

Metro Station

The station exit is literally across the street from the Pantage’s Theater. A bit of personal trivia. My dad and Rodney Pantages were business partners so when I was a little girl I used to go and watch movies for free at the Pantage’s back when it was still a movie theater. Back then it was dingy and a bit run down. Not like today when it has been lovingly restored to its former Art Deco magnificence.

I had arrived very early so I went off to have dinner at the Running Goose restaurant. The meal was lovely. The restaurant is in a tiny building that is mostly open to the air with an herb garden out back. I had their tostada appetizers and make the mistake of having two — one with corn, the other with carrot. There were great, but it meant I couldn’t finish my main course of short ribs and pumpkin dumplings in a rich red sauce. And of course since I hadn’t driven it meant I had no place to stash the leftovers so I had to abandon them.

I walked back to the theater and waited for the doors to open at 7:30. My seat was in the orchestra but back enough that I had a perfect view of the stage. Any closer and the sight line wouldn’t have been as good.

I met two lovely ladies who are readers and aficionados of old Hollywood so we chatted about books and television and show at the Pantages. In between I studied the stage. It’s a single set, movable stairs and old bricks with a hint of dormers and windows. Each scene is set by the chorus and dancers moving chairs, stools and tables in and out. Very minimal and very effective because you don’t want anything that takes your attention off the performers.

Then it was time and the show began. First, this is not a traditional musical. It reminds me far more of opera in that virtually everything is either sung or rapped. I think there were maybe four words that were actually spoken. The audience also didn’t behave like a typical audience. There were loud, enthusiastic reactions to the arrival on stage of certain characters and to certain lines. One in particular got a big cheer when Hamilton and Lafayette shake hands and say “Immigrants we get the job done!” The cheers shook the roof and it was great.

The show covers decades in two hours and it’s an amazing tour de force. Most of us who write for the screen wish there was a way to cover that much time in a movie, but it often falls flat. Films tend to be immediate covering only a few days or weeks, sometimes only a few hours and they can lose their narrative drive when they try to cover too much time. Hamilton does it brilliantly.

The young men performing Burr and Washington were phenomenal. I had a bit of trouble understanding the young man singing Hamilton in the first act as his diction wasn’t as crisp as the other two. It got much better in the second act. I also think the second act is stronger than the first act. But perhaps that’s because of my background in Constitutional Law so I found all of the exchanges fascinating. There must have been a staggering amount of research done by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

There is a nice bit of comedic respite provided by King George, and I loved the way the costumes helped sell the passage of time. We went seamlessly from 18th century panniers to empire style dresses. (Yes, that word choice was deliberate.) I learned something too — about the fate of Hamilton’s son and the accomplishments of Hamilton’s wife Eliza after her husband’s death.

This is an important piece of art. It’s an important celebration of the men and women who created a new nation out of dreams and hard headed analysis of how to craft those dreams into reality. The use of a racially diverse cast highlighted for me the irony (and horror) of a country conceived in liberty that held a million people in bondage at the time of its founding.

I’m going to buy the soundtrack so I can really listen to the dialogue which is far more consequential then the usual musical comedy fare of croon, june, moon. Not that I don’t love those other style of musical. I’m a huge Broadway fan, but like I said, Hamilton is important.

If you get a chance — See it.

Perfection the Enemy of Drama

I am a naif in the ways of Amazon so today a good friend, Sage Walker, was guiding me through how to look up Amazon rankings, etc. As you all know I don’t read reviews. If they are positive you get a swelled head. If they are bad it just makes you feel shitty and helpless because at that point your book is published and there’s not a damn thing you can do to fix whatever the reviewer (or random person on Amazon or Goodreads) thought was wrong with the book.

But as I was discovering where to find one’s ranking (and I’ll never do that again) a review happened to catch my eye. Apparently this person was really, really upset with the second book in my space opera series IN EVIL TIMES because my protagonists, Tracy and Mercedes, proved to be rather flawed. They are both products of their culture, buying into and propping up a really terrible political structure, and both of them treat the second class citizens in my universe i.e. the aliens badly. This person also was very upset about how the Solar League was just terrible. Yes, that was deliberate. I wanted to talk about issues of gender, class, and xenophobia. I didn’t want the Star Trek Federation, but I also didn’t want Nazi Germany. I wanted a more nuanced society so readers could perhaps think about parallels to our current world.

But this person’s reaction got me to thinking about perfect protagonists and utopian settings. I had dealt with both when I was working on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and let me tell you it made it damn hard to come up with compelling stories, and it made for ultimately boring stories and dull characters. At one point The Powers That Be pulled in the writing staff to complain about how the conflict for the scripts was being generated outside of the crew of the Enterprise. Our response among ourselves was “yeah, no shit, Sherlock” because we had been given the directive that the crew of the Enterprise were perfect, they had no flaws and they didn’t want anything because in the 24th century all want had been removed. With those strictures on the stories it was no wonder we had to generate conflict outside of the Enterprise.

Because drama is ultimately about conflict. As William Faulkner said “the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.” We read because stories help us process our own experiences and hopes and fears.

We’re inspired by the courage of these fictional characters, we mourn when Beth dies in Little Women, wonder if we would have the courage and honor to save a wrongly accused man from prison at the cost of our own freedom as Valjean does in Les Misérables, cheer when Sam goes from faithful servant to ultimately the real hero of The Lord of the Rings, and I’m sure people can think of a thousand more examples from literature that have transported us, terrified us, or made us laugh or cry or shiver in wonder.

But if the characters in novels never suffer from doubt or fear or jealousy or despair then they won’t seem real and we can’t identify with them. I can’t help but feel that books in which the good guys are very, very good and the bad guys are very, very bad are ultimately empty calories.

A book works on a number of different levels. There’s the plot — the stuff that happens. There’s the theme — why the stuff that happens matters. And there is the protagonist’s personal journey, how they grow and change and perhaps fail, but even in the failing they (and the reader) have learned something. Joseph Cambell wrote about this in his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces which has now been reduced to a rather trite formula in Hollywood, but Cambell wasn’t wrong. A protagonist’s journey is vitally important if a book is going to rise above being a simple bagatelle — momentarily enjoyed but quickly forgotten.

I had one interviewer tell me that they thought I was “courageous” for making my hero, Tracy, at times unpleasant. I was startled by that. I had thought he was a man shaped by his society and his upbringing but comes to question as events puncture those assumptions. I guess I feel that reading shouldn’t be like a warm bath. A good story should make us uncomfortable, make us question, think about how we would react in a given situation, and see that just as a character can begin to heed the better angels of their nature maybe there is hope that we can do the same.

Star Trek: Discovery

I hoped but I feared.  Then I watched and my fears were realized.  While Star Trek: Discovery looks beautiful I found the teasing first episode to be disappointing.  Not horrible just not good.  A friend of mine who also works in the industry had the perfect word that incapsulated all my problems with the show.

It’s lazy.

 

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The writing is lazy with terrible on the nose and obvious dialogue.  And because the dialogue is poor it leads to poor performances.  Michelle Yeoh is lovely, but Sonequa Martin-Green is put in a dreadful position with how she is written.  How can I support and root for a woman who takes such crazy actions against her beloved commanding officer?  Against everything that Star Trek was supposed to represent?

Yes the cast is diverse and we have two women in command and that’s cool, but not when they present one woman as a hysteric.  Burnham’s supposed to have been raised by Vulcans, but you’d never get that from her behavior.  And of course she is Sarek’s adopted daughter.  Another lazy choice.  Look, I love Sarek, but I didn’t need him in this show and it just felt like a cynical attempt to mollify the old fan base.

They have once again taken another step to make the Klingon’s even more alien.  While I can applaud that idea as a science fiction novelist the writer/producer thinks it was a terrible decision.  The actors look like the are doing battle with their costumes and their make up particularly those teeth.  The appliances make it almost impossible for them to emote, and for god’s sake fire up that universal translator.  The use of this guttural version of Klingon through the entire show became tedious as hell especially when our Klingon leader looked like he was just mouthing sounds that he had laboriously memorized but didn’t understand.

The direction was flat and dull.  Too much time was spent on pointless scenes.  Like that teaser which seemed designed only to provide a squee when the footprints form the Star Fleet logo.  I guess it was supposed to show the close relationship between the Captain and Number One, but first what they hell were both of them doing on a planet together with no one else along and in a clearly hostile environment.  I try not to be too literal with TV and movies that was an utter Oh Come On moment for me.  That and the damn torches on the Klingon ship.  Both knocked me right out of the show.  The long lead up to Michael Burnham’s spacesuit flight.

A reviewer for Ars Technica gave a breathless review calling the show gorgeous and fascinating.  As I read her review I thought she was straining to add meaning that simply wasn’t on the screen.  I wish I had seen the show she was watching, but I just didn’t.  As one of my bosses, Ira Behr taught me — “If it ain’t on the page it won’t be on the screen, and if it ain’t on the screen it ain’t there.”

When I was a little girl and the Enterprise flew across our TV screen (the first color television in our neighborhood.  All the neighbor kids came over to watch Star Trek at our house for that reason) I fell in love.  It was my dreams made manifest, but more than that I met people who became my family — Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu.  Trek has always been about family despite differences in gender, race, species, national background.  This new show gave me no family.  It gave me a woman who had found to be the antithesis of what I think Trek represented, one weird alien who talked about cows and a terrific captain who is apparently going to die so we lose not only the only really interesting character, but a great actress.

Television is at its core about company.  We invite these people into our homes.  In the old days it used to be once a week.  Now we binge and spend hours at a time with them so they better be people with whom we wish to spend time, people we can like.  The only person I saw last night that I want to see again was Captain Philippa Georgiou and apparently I’m not going to get to.

I know I criticized bringing in Sarek as too much of a call back to the older shows, but there is one thing that I think was the show runners having amnesia about the old show.  Yes the costumes worn by the women of original Trek were sexist as hell, but this show is set ten years before Kirk and Spock.  So where are those uniforms?  Was the Federation aware of the need to outfit all crew members in sensible clothing, and then Trump became the president of the United Federation of Planets and suddenly we have micro mini-skirts?  I think you have to be very careful as you are picking and choosing among which bits of canon to use and which to ignore and this one again left me head scratching.  It might have been better to place this in JJ Abram’s alternate Trek universe to explain these odd differences.

The Arstechnica  review states “It’s not so much that the future feels darker in Discovery. The future just feels more realistically complicated. We’re not trying to make the galaxy a better place anymore, kids. We’re in the real world.”  If that’s what I had seen I might be plunking down money for CBS All Access, but I didn’t.  And I think CBS and the show runners missed the show that could have done that.  I have always wanted to see a Trek show about the people who don’t fit in, who chafe under Federation rule, but aren’t militant assholes like the Klingons and Romulans or flesh and blood creatures trying to turn into robots, the Vulcans, or crass capitalists like the Ferengi.  I want Harry Mudd.  I want the people living in the cracks, trying to make a buck, pull off a con, and try to avoid the judgmental eye of Star Fleet.  That’s the real world too and I think it would have been fun to write and more fun to watch.

Maybe someday Star Trek will get that broomstick out of its ass and we’ll have that show.

Don’t Become What We Oppose

I know this is probably going to earn me blowback, but I’m becoming increasingly concerned over the behavior of the Antifa protestors. Home grown Nazis and white supremacists are praying that some Antifa member kills someone. For god’s sake don’t give them that cover or the satisfaction.
 
I understand that Antifa members placed themselves between vulnerable members of the clergy in Charlottesville and rampaging Nazis and supremacists, and acting as a blockade is fine, but attacking and beating these goons gives fuel to the argument that there is no difference between the fascists and the anti-fascists.
 
MLK set the standard for how Americans can protest, march, resist. Let’s honor him and the brave civil rights activists who marched at his side and not descend to the level of those we oppose.

Airplane Movies

I thought I take a break from organizing photos and trying to capture the wonder of my trip, and talk about the two movies I watched during the long flight back to Los Angeles.  And yes, there will be SPOILERS so please nobody have a MELTDOWN OVER THE SPOILERS.

 

As most of my readers know I love Tom Hiddleston.  His range from Loki to Jonathan Pine in the brilliant miniseries The Night Manager is extraordinary.  So I wanted to see KONG: SKULL ISLAND because he was in it.   I had missed it in the theaters but was able to catch it on my flight.  Was it big dumb fun?  Well, sort of, and it did have some things going for it apart from Tom.  There was the interesting choice to set it at the end of the Vietnam war, there was the charming performance by John C. Reilly as the stranded WWII pilot.  There were a couple of interesting soldiers but most of the group were just numbnuts and monster fodder.  I found Samuel Jackson to just be a cliche which was a shame because I really enjoy watching him.  I ended up fast forwarding through a lot of the “Blow ’em up real good” scenes.

I try not to get too bogged down in minutia with these kind of movies, but there were moments where the character motivations really had me scratching my head.  The John Goodman character.  Apparently he knew this was Monster Island and that the Hollow Earth gibberish was true.  (Let us for the sake of this movie assume it was true), but he had them drop bombs to break holes into the hollow earth… so… the monsters could…. get out?  So he could… prove…something… something.. (to quote Jim Wright) gazpacho????   Bottom line — I got nothin’.  Tom was handsome and square jawed and rational and brave — in short another cliche, but at least a pretty one and there was at least an attempt to give him some kind of backstory beyond Heroic Guy with the lighter his daddy had given him before he flew off to fight Nazis.  We had the obligatory spunky girl — at least she was a war photographer.  Then there was Sam Jackson being more concerned with Kong then with the other Big Ass Monsters that were killing his team.  Why?

I did like the end where the stranded pilot goes home and meets his son and finds his wife still waiting.  As much as I love Reilly I found myself wondering what it would have been like if the pilot who survived on the island was the Japanese pilot rather than the American.  I think that would have been a more interesting choice.

Now GHOST IN THE SHELL.  This movie got a lot of hate over cultural appropriation because of the choice to cast Scarlett Johansson rather than an Asian actress and truthfully I’m not sure why they made that choice.  Because they thought she was a bigger draw?  I think anybody who loved the underlying material would have gone to see the movie so why piss them off with this casting choice?  That being said that wasn’t the only problem with the movie.  The biggest issue for me was the first 20 minutes of that script that featured some of the most pedantic, plodding, on-the-nose dialog I  have ever heard.  Hey, Hollywood Execs I have a tip for you.  The viewers who go to see science fiction films are pretty damn sophisticated about science fiction tech.  They really don’t need to be spoon fed about how they made a robot body and put a human brain inside.  Hell this has been old hat in the field going way back to the lovely story The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey.

I didn’t think enough time was spent on the villain/tragic victim of the piece.  I wanted a bit more about his relationship with the Major.  I actually did find the idea that the estranged daughter returns to her mother at then end to be somewhat affecting even though I know it was a sop to try and ease the outrage over the casting decision.  Maybe because it had some resonance for me.  I thought the movie looked cool but it did have a let’s rip off Blade Runner vibe to it.  I was expecting some really interesting fight scenes, but they ended up being muddy and rather opaque.  Maybe because of the small screen on an airplane, but I really was hoping to see some great martial arts work.

So there are my thoughts on the brain candy movies.  Now if you want to see something great go rent THE NIGHT MANAGER.  You won’t be sorry.

 

 

 

Stockholm

I would like to have had more then a day in Tallinn, but it does rank right up there of cities to which I would like to return.  But Stockholm — I adored this city.  Everywhere I looked there were beautiful views.  I snapped this as I walked along the river on my way to dinner on my first night.

As I walked past the imposing town hall (A copy of a Renaissance Italian palace) I read that this was the site of the Nobel prize ceremony.  And immediately I began to see scenes for the next Edge book.  I already had a fight sequence planned for Tallinn so now I had another piece of the puzzle for this next and final book.  The weather was lovely and the wind off the water carried a delightful chill.  Lining the edges of the river were all manner of boats.  Some of them were mere shells that didn’t look like they had left their mooring for decades.  Since I’m a desert rat and know nothing about boats and water I asked Stephen a few days later who explained that the mooring was probably very valuable so you hung onto it even if you only had a dingy.

I had flown to Stockholm and spent my first day walking to a laundry to wash clothes.  Even well out of the tourist areas there was a charm to the city that I found irresistible.  The next day my friends arrived via ferry and we set out to go exploring.  Our primary focus was the Vasa museum (Yes, we decided to give the Abba museum a miss.)  I love ships.  Over a decade of playing Privateers and Gentleman with Walter Jon as our game master has given me a broad appreciation so I was eager to see this salvaged ship.  Here’s the amazing thing — over 95 percent of the ship is original.  The lack of shipworms in the waters off the coast of Sweden and the cold water helped protect the ship until it could be raised in 1961.  Apart from a bit of red on the tongue of a lion the colorful paint is gone, but the beautiful sculptures remain.  Here is a shot I took of the stern castle.

The Vasa sank on her maiden voyage.  And it wasn’t like she was heading off to war or a voyage of exploration.  The ship was being moved to a different shipyard to try and address the fact she was horribly unstable.  Why was she unstable?  Because they built her exactly to the king’s specifications, and the king knew squat about shipbuilding.  He just wanted something Huuuge and impressive (remind you of anybody today?)  The master builder knew the ship was too high and too narrow, but nobody argues with the king so they built it as indicated.  I wondered why they didn’t just fudge the numbers and tell the king they had done as he asked — I figured he wouldn’t know the difference — but I suppose people of that era, 1628, actually did accept all that divine right of kings business.  So a gust of wind dame through the hills, hit the Vasa and she heeled over.  The open gun ports were below the water line, water poured in and the ship sank.  Here is a model of the ship in her glory.

I grabbed another picture of the elaborate tower structures to either side of the stern and the captain’s cabin.  I’d never seen anything like that on the British ships of the 18th century that I’ve toured.  I admit the character I played in P&G had a yearning for a ship that magnificent but with a broader keel.

We spent hours in the museum, but were very glad we had gone early since the crowds at noon were overwhelming.  We headed out and caught a tram back to the city.  We passed this lovely park with these beautiful gates.

The next day we went exploring the royal palace, the armory, and the old city.  It wasn’t quite as spectacular as Tallinn, but it was pretty amazing, and once you got off the main tourist street it was clear that people actually lived in the lovely old buildings.  It was in one of the little squares that would open up unexpectedly that I found this statue of St. George and the Dragon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I loved the armory.  There was a cavalry officers uniform that I desperately wanted, and horse accoutrements that I believe would meet Vento’s approval.  The two jeweled items are aigrettes for a horse’s forehead and this was a saddle pad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They also kept losing a lot of kings in battle.  In one case they preserved the king’s beloved horse Streiff – which was ridden by Gustav II Adolf when he was killed at the Battle of Lützen in 1632.  Yes, that is the actual horse.  This seems to be a thing in Scandinavia.  There was another stuffed horse in the royal stables in Copenhagen.

 

It was also in Stockholm that I had the best meal of my trip.  A friend made a reservation at a traditional Swedish restaurant and I had this tender and flavorful beef dish with onion and horseradish, and, of course, potatoes.  One of the other guests gave me a taste of her blood pudding with lingonberries and it was delicious.

There is a tradition of charming little horse figurines in Sweden and I picked up a couple.  One is Vento and the other my late lamented Steppi.  I also grabbed a lovely Nordic sweater that I will only be able to wear in New Mexico since there is no winter in California.

 

I’m out of time — I need to head to the barn soon.  So next time — on to Copenhagen.

Scandinavian Journeys

I decided to write a blog post rather than the more ephemeral Facebook post.  I’ll go back and grab Helsinki, but right now I want to talk about Stockholm and my first day in Copenhagen.  So far Stockholm still has my heart over both Helsinki and Copenhagen.

Copenhagen is a lovely city, but despite the colorful older buildings lining the broad boulevards it has a very modern feel.  Stockholm’s Old City and the walk along the river past City Hall was more charming.  Not as old as Taillin, but people were living there so it didn’t have the feel of a Disney set despite the main street filled with shops and restaurants and tourists.

 

Once you got off onto the side streets you discovered charming little squares with sculptures such as this St. George & the Dragon. 

On our final full day in Stockholm we returned to the royal palace to tour the armory.  We had seen the crown jewels and the apartments the day before, but the armory was the most interesting for me.  A lot of horse tack and clothing as well as weapons.  I want this cavalry outfit.  I also want these aigrette’s for Vento.  The got on the forehead and the tail, and I think my vain boy would approve.  .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Swedes seemed to lose a lot of kings in combat (as well as one to assassination Gustave III at a masked ball which  became the basis for a Verdi opera Un Ballo in Maschera.  (I sang the page boy Oscar in that one.)  Anyway you get to see Gustav’s blood stained waistcoat and the pistols used by the assassin.  There is also King Gustav II Adolph’s horse he was riding at the time of his death in 1682.  No, not a model of his horse — the actual horse named Streiff.  There was also an elaborate bridle, but check out the vicious curb bit with its incredibly long shank.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also a beautiful 18th century coat with breathtaking embroidery, but it was impossible to capture the sheen and the workmanship through the glass.  There were a couple of 18th century ladies dresses with absolutely absurdly wide panniers.  I really loved the armory, and in the coach exhibit there was a beautiful sleigh.  Because of course there would be a sleigh in a northern kingdom like Sweden.

More on visiting the Vasa museum later.

Dunkirk — A Meditation on the Nature of Heroism

I cannot talk about this film without talking about specific scenes.  SO THERE ARE GOING TO BE SPOILERS!  IF YOU CAN’T STAND SPOILERS DON’T READ THIS!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

 

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I loved this movie.  Of course I am a massive Anglophile.  I’m also a student of World War II.  I wrote a screenplay set during the war that turned into a novel that, sadly, I haven’t been able to sell so this film was catnip for me.  I’m a writer who loves dialog so this was an interesting lesson in how to tell a story with virtually no actual dialog.  My friend Kate Elliot said the film was a tone poem, and I think that is a perfect description.  Nolan allowed the chatter of machine guns, the scream of planes diving and bombs falling and the subsequent explosions as statements.  Most of the characters are not named.  They are presented as humans with whom we can all identify who find themselves in a terrifying place.

About halfway through the film I realized this is a movie about heroism, but real heroism not the fake, plastic version that we’re offered in most summer movie fare.  I love the big Marvel movies (and at least one DC movie), but they present a world in which people with near god-like abilities react to stress and fear and danger with a quip or a growl.  Where a fall from a ten story building is shaken off as the fight continues.  It’s fun, it glossy but it’s not real.  Dunkirk was real because the moments of heroism and basic human decency were so small and yet so significant and powerful.

And nobody starts out brave.  We often see them doing the small and craven thing first.  The young soldier who takes the uniform off a dead man.  Who joins with another soldier to carry a man on a stretcher in an crass attempt to get aboard a medical vessel carrying the wounded of the beach.  Eventually we discover he’s a French soldier who has gone AWOL and is trying to escape with the retreating British.  There is a young Brit who join up with a group who try and take a beached freighter.  His attitude is to hell with everybody else.  I’m getting out of here.  Then when a debate begins about who to force off the ship so it will float on the incoming tide he defends the French soldier when all the other frightened men are trying to throw him off the boat.

It’s the old man (the amazing Mark Rylance)  and his son taking his pleasure boat across the channel because our boys are trapped there.  It’s the young friend who goes along not for any patriotic reason but because his chum is going.  It’s the spitfire pilot who knows he has to take out this German bomber before it can sink another ship.  He’s running out of fuel, but with no drama, no bombastic speech he just taps the fuel gage, sighs and gets on with the business at hand.  He is able to bring his plane down safely on the beach in France knowing he will fall into the hands of the Germans and will be a prisoner for the duration of the war.

There is the frightened soldier who none-the-less stays as a ship is sinking after being struck by a torpedo to open a hatch so some of the men and the nurses below decks can escape.  That was a particularly haunting scene for me.  The battered, frightened young men were in the hold being give bread smeared with jam and tea.  Like little boys in the nursery.  Thinking they were safe and then… disaster.

That same soldier who helps free the trapped men ends up alone on the keel of the capsized ship and is rescued by our elderly man and his son.  The soldier is deeply shell shocked and he tries to force them to turn the boat back, return to Britain.  In the struggle he ends up pushing the young friend down the stairs into the hold where he is badly injured.  Rylance’s character has a choice to make; return to try and save the boy or keep on heading for France.  He makes the hard choice.  As they sail closer and closer to Dunkirk they rescue a pilot who has ditched, numerous men in the water.  Eventually the young friend dies from his head injury.  And when the soldier who pushed him asks how the boy is doing we see Rylance’s son hesitate, then say his friend was fine.  Rylance gives his son the tiniest nods of approval.  Because that was an act of heroism too.  Not to lash out and lay this guilt on an already emotionally devastated man.

The scene where the son lies was a powerful moment for me, but the real gut punch for me was when the son remembers a conversation with his dying friend.  About how the friend had always hoped to get his name in the local paper so the son goes to the paper and has his friend’s picture and an article naming him a hero placed in the paper.

Back in France the unnamed British admiral chooses not to leave on the final boat, but stay “for the French” as he puts it.  Another act of understated quiet heroism.

Much has been made about the way Nolan played with time in the editing of this film and it was great and innovative, but for me the power of this film was in its celebration of the human spirit in small acts of kindness and bravery.

Grabbing Eyeballs

Ah, the teaser, the hook, the opening scene of a book — whatever you want to call it it is absolutely necessary that you have something that grabs a reader’s eyeballs and brain when they casually flip open your book and skim that first page be it at the bookstore or that online sample of an ebook.  Robert Heinlein is reputed to have said that you have one page to convince a buyer to spend his or her hard earned money on your book rather than a six pack of beer so it better be a great first page.

I’ve been putting cards on the board outlining book four — The Currency of War — for the past week.  The first thing that went up was the final scene that ends the book.  The end of act three as it were.  Then I added in the act outs for acts one and two.  I started filling in the scenes that would have to be there in order to get to those act outs.

But the teaser was eluding me.  I tried one from Mercedes point of view.  Nope, that didn’t work.  I tried Tracy.  Nope.  Then Boho.  Nope.  What kept sticking in my head was a scene with one of the alien characters from book three.  Jahan hadn’t been a view point character, but now it seemed like the right choice.

A choice I really didn’t want to accept because then I have to do a lot of work fleshing out Isanjo culture, family life, politics, etc. etc. and that wasn’t where this series was living.  The idea for IMPERIALS started because I began to wonder about a universe where we humans were the evil invading aliens and it all grew from there so I was keeping the focus on the humans, not the subjugated aliens.  Now Jahan kept knocking at the back of my mind and she finally won the argument. 

Another very pragmatic reason to resist character proliferation is that every time you add another view point character your book gets 100 to 150 pages longer.  If you are going to give that character any heft and meaning you need to spend time with them.  What ultimately made me decide to put Jahan on stage was I saw they way to keep her in the mix past the first opening moves.  And considering what my male protagonist has to accomplish she will be a valuable ally.

So the die is cast and I’ve got the first few pages of book four.  Now back to the word mines.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

This is my critique so there may be SPOILERS though I haven’t finished (and may never finish so I’m not sure how much I can actually spoil).  So here goes —
Playing Mass Effect: Andromeda has begun to feel like doing homework. Not fun and like my parents will be really pissed if I don’t get my work done after I spent money for this so I better play some tonight.  
Wondering if it was just me I went looking for some reviews and, my god, they are scathing. Almost every complaint mirror my own. Tiny things first — the navigation is impossibly hard and incredibly annoying. I waste so much time trying to find stuff, and I hate the straight line radar rather than the circular radar screen in the Dragon Age games.  I also end up with so many waypoints that I can’t remove that I’m constantly getting lost.  I think I’m heading for a lost drone, but find out I’ve ended up where there’s a dead body instead.  I know I need to scan the body, but damn it I needed to recover that drone and that’s what I wanted to do.
 
I’ve found all the companions to be really dull.  Apart from Drak and the engineer Gil they are tedious and annoying though Jaal does have a voice like dark velvet. The voice actors are average to mediocre — not something I expect from BioWare who usually have such outstanding voice talent.  I don’t want to romance any of these people.  
The game is filled with boring fetch quests that don’t seem to accomplish much in terms of the larger narrative, and I don’t give a damn about the main storyline.  I don’t believe the people on the Nexus are going to starve if I don’t get all the vaults up and running.  I have no relationship with anyone on the Nexus and I’ve got a cool ship so why should I care?  My sister in a coma has no relevance to me since I’ve never interacted with her from the moment the game begins.  She’s just in a coma.  I seem to have a more personal relationship with the AI.  There’s this big ship eating cloud that wrecked the human arc, but it’s no where as interesting as Tali investigating the death of the sun in Mass Effect 2.  You tell me the Scourge is a construct that suddenly appeared, and bits of Scourge appear on planets and will hurt you even through your armor and shields, but then it just gets dropped.  It seems like the Scourge is the thing that messed up the environment on or colony planets, but that doesn’t appear to be the point of the main quest.  It seems to be the Kett — who are just low budget Reapers in that they change their prisoners so they fight their own kind.  The other major alien race the Angara are barely developed they just seem to be gentle with big eyes and mystical.
Some of the little easter eggs — finding out Zaeed Massani had a son was a momentary buzz but all it did was remind me how much more I liked the first game and how much I miss those characters; Rex and Kaidan and Zaeed and Anderson and Liara and Garrus — always Garrus — etc.
I hate the voice actors for the male and female Ryders and the dialog seems flat.  Maybe that’s due to the delivery, but I don’t find the conversations all that interesting.  My Dragon Age Warden and my Inquisitor and my Shepard became very real for me.  They had lives and backstories and hopes and dreams outside of the game.  Hell I ended up writing a 140 page novella that was my ending for Mass Effect 3 because I was so annoyed with the ending BioWare provided.  That is more than a bit of identification with a character when a professional writer takes time from paying work to give their character a satisfying ending.  Ryder is so dull he’s just a puppet I’m pushing around the screen.
The fact that the animals on every planet are basically the same whether it’s a desert, jungle or snow planet was just lazy and the there is a stultifying sameness to the vaults.  I’ve now opened three of the damn things and it’s the same damn dungeon crawl every time.  The combat is good, but if I just wanted to shoot things I’d play Halo.  I’m playing a biotic this time who has weapons skills, but it’s really hard to figure out how to change my skills.  In the old games it was easy.  I brought up the combat wheel and picked.  Now it’s mapped and I haven’t figured how to switch to say a tech power use rather than biotic.  I hated this change in Inquisition too in that once you’ve mapped the skill you are stuck with it until you stop and remove and remap them.  At least I figured out how to do that in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  I’m still trying to figure it out in Andromeda though truthfully I don’t care enough to try all that hard.
It’s just heartbreaking to see a once great company becoming mediocre.  I had some hope after the debacle of the end of Mass Effect 3 and the mess that was Dragon Age: 2 when  Inquisition seemed to regain their mojo.  I had hoped they would show the same return to form with Andromeda.  Instead this game has left me utterly cold and I think I’m going to give up and either finish my replay of Inquisition, replay the first Mass Effect trilogy which was brilliant apart from the final 15 minutes or download Witcher 3 and start that game.  By the way, I replayed Dragon Age: Origin while I was home in NM and that game is still the gold standard despite the advancements in graphic design and game play — Because The Story Is So Good.
Yeah, whether we’re talking movies or games it doesn’t matter if you’ve got whiz bang effects and big boss fights if the story is shite and you don’t care about the people.
Hey studios both movie and game studios — It’s the Story Stupid.

The Musketeer (Wait? What? Aren’t You Missing Several of Them?)

There are going to be spoilers in this post, but if you take my advice you won’t watch this movie so it won’t matter.  But YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED — SPOILERS AHEAD!
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I made the mistake of watching part of The Musketeer while I ate dinner. Oh Lordy (my new favorite phrase thanks to Mr. Comey) what an awful mess. This mess dates from 2001. They should have just remastered and reissued the 1973 Richard Lester version staring Michael York, Oliver Reed, Christopher Lee, etc.
 
So, the new movie. They had to make up a new villain in place of Rochefort who could be even badder! (that’s a term of art) than Rochefort played by Tim Roth who seems to specialize in playing mincing bad guys. And (gasp) he’s the evil baddy who killed D’Artagnan’s mommy and daddy _in front of him_ when he was just a little boy.  Why, oh why does every studio exec thinks there has to be some tragic explanation for a young man wanting to become a musketeer?  Why does everybody had to have an arc?  Dear god with Princess of Mars they kept trying to give John Carter an arc by having him a hopeless coward until he finds courage because of the love of Dejah Thoris.  Or a hopeless alcoholic tormented by memories of the Civil War until he becomes sober because of love of Dejah Thoris, and in John Carter they seemed to settle on his arc being that Carter was a truculent asshole at the beginning of the movie and he becomes somewhat less of an asshole because of the love of Dejah Thoris.
But back to The Musketeer.
 
Athos who is such a powerful figure in the ’73 version and as I recall in the novel as well is just a surly dude who never does much.  Both Artemis and Porthos are scarcely present.  Planchet ended up being the most interesting character.  The actor playing D’Artagnan began life as a male model and I was no impressed.  He also had this sort of valley boy accent and style of delivery which jarred me right out of the movie almost every time he opened his mouth.  It was at the point where he apparently decided to ride his horse to death that I checked out.  Spoiler — the horse makes a miraculous recovery.  Truth is when a horse is forced to run until they literally collapse beneath the rider they almost never get up again.  So yeah, I didn’t stick around for the thrilling conclusion.  I watched my recording of Dr. Who instead.  Much more satisfying.

Is This Where the Brownshirts Show Up?

I can’t believe I’m typing this, but I’m worried we are now entering the Sturmabteilung (brownshirt) phase of the Trump presidency.  There were t shirts worn and sold at Trump rallies that said — Rope, Tree, Journalist, Some Assembly Required.    And now we have what occurred in Montana.  A candidate for congress assaulted a journalist for merely asking a question.  That was appalling but even more appalling and worrisome  is the fact that some on the right are trying to excuse this assault.  Worse the republican controlled House of Representatives will seat this man thus giving tacit approval to an act of violence.
In Putin’s Russia they just kill journalists who investigate the massive corruption of Putin’s oligarchy.  When the president of the United States calls our free press the enemy of the people we mustn’t delude ourselves that it couldn’t happen here.  At least we still have in place legal and judicial norms that would result in the arrest and prosecution of that person, but we are on a dangerous path.
 
And this isn’t limited to just the rightwing. When a professor was sent to the hospital with a concussion after she and Charles Murray, author of the  Bell Curve were attacked at Middlebury College (and trust me, I’m not advocating for the very dubious conclusions drawn in the gentleman’s book)  Bell Curve Author Attacked  everybody — democrat, republican, independent, libertarian, socialist need to step back and say — no.  Not in America.  Not in the country that enshrined only one profession in its founding document — the press.
 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Without a free press to inform a citizenry we are all operating in the dark.  And democracy dies in the dark.
#Resist

When Less Is More

This is going to be a post about GUARDIAN’S OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 so there will be SPOILERS!!!!!  SPOILERS!!!!!  SPOILERS!!!!  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

 

 

I like most of the Marvel movies.  I really liked the first Guardians movie.  I liked Ant Man.  I adored the first two acts of Captain America: The First Avenger.  I liked Thor because of the fascinating family dynamic and charismatic villain.  The first Iron Man film.  Winter Soldier.  Are you starting to see a pattern here?  What I like are movies that don’t lose sight of their characters and their themes in a dizzying kaleidoscope of special effect and CGI battles.

Which meant I had high hopes for the latest Guardians movie.  I had been waiting eagerly for this film.  And when it was all over I felt let down.  I’m not saying the movie was bad.  It wasn’t especially when you consider that the bar had been set so low that it was practically underground by Batman versus Superman and X Men: Apocalypse, but this lacked the authenticity and kindness of the first Guardians movie.

Yes there was humor though some of it felt forced as it was squeezed between CGI spectacles.  There were a lot of characters and subplots that didn’t seem to go anywhere except to set up the next movie and since I haven’t read all these comics I had no idea of the significance.  Case in point — Yondu being thrown out of the Ravager clubhouse because of Quill.  I’m not sure what it added.  I think we could have had the Ravagers show up for the funeral without that first scene.  Did those batteries Rocket stole ever actually ever pay off?  I think they might have been part of the big kaboom at the end that killed Ego’s planet, but by that point I was sort of numb from all the CGI to be sure.

Just because the technology allows you to design and code these bloated sequences doesn’t mean you should.  Contrast all the computer wizardry in this film with the initial fight sequence in the first film between Gamora and Quill with Rocket and Groot orbiting on the outskirts as they try to capture Quill.  And then there is that the gonzo, totally fun escape from the Nova Corps prison.  Those were joyful, comedic, exciting and interesting sequences in the way a great Jackie Chan fight sequence just leaves you wanting to pump the air and dance.

This second film also hit one of my buttons.  I understand these are superheroes or aliens with strange physiologies, but there is a point where the punishment being meted out to the characters makes me go “Oh Come On.  Every bone in their body is now broken and no, you can’t outrun a massive explosion.”  And in that moment I have been kicked out of the movie and it has failed to transport me out of my own humdrum world and into this cinematic adventure.

I wanted more of Peter talking about growing up without a father.  The whole David Hasselhoff riff was terrific.  I would rather have had one less pointless space battle with the gold people who sounded like a bunch of valley girls and boys and seen more of Ego with Peter’s mom.  Drak seemed schizophrenic vibrating between outburst of wild laughter and making remarks that hit me as more cruel than funny.  There was a moment where Mantis finally touches the pain that Drak carries and it felt like this was a moment that mattered, but then it was gone in the blink of an eye.

Quill comes out pretty well in this installment.  Baby Groot was cute.  I felt like Rocket and Gamora were the most short changed.  The two characters that were far and away the most interesting were Nebula and Yondu.  Their storylines actually addressed issues of loneliness, loss, fathers and sons, sisters, jealousy, rejection, the inability to speak honestly and emotionally to the people in your life.  Throughout the film there were questions about the human condition and the human heart in conflict with itself that had meaning and then another giant CGI action sequence would stomp through and crush them.

 

If you don’t have a story and a theme underlying that story no amount of effects is going to make up the deficit.  People are hungry for stories that tell us something about ourselves, illuminate deeper questions.  If all they get is spectacle they will go away unsatisfied and empty, and the real shame here is that there was a story with heart at the core of this movie that got lost under all the frenetic action.

I’m for Debating Anything

Stephen Hopkins: “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!”  1776 Musical.

This line from the musical 1776 came back to me as I’ve been reading about the uproar over the appearance of Ann Coulter at Berkley and the subsequent cancellation of her speech over outrage from some parties and security concerns on the part of the university.

Look, I despise Ann Coulter.  I think she’s a grifter making money off outraging liberals and delighting conservatives.  Yes, much of what she says is hateful, but I’m with Hopkins on this one.  Hell yeah, let her speak, let her be condemned by her own vile words.  Debate her passionately.  Offer a better alternative.  Bring in a speaker to counter her.  Try to educate people and change their minds.  Demonstrate that her positions are wrong and dangerous in a civil society.  All this has accomplished is to make her a martyr and make liberals seem intolerant instead of the woman who is truly intolerant as evidenced by her statements about immigrants, liberals, environmentalists, feminists, etc.

The general public thinks that the First Amendment applies to all speech.  It doesn’t.  It’s designed to prevent the government from curtailing speech. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (Emphasis added.)

And of course the right is not absolute even if the government isn’t involved.  Everyone has heard the old “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater”, and this is probably the rational for worries over Coulter’s talk — that her appearance would lead to violence.  And those are real and valid concerns, but it’s a hard line to draw.  When does unpleasant speech tip over into hate speech? Is this another instance as with pornography where Justice Stewart wrote in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,” The problem is that people’s sensitivities vary based on their life experiences.  What might merely anger me might be devastating to another individual and vice versa, but law is about setting societal standards not guaranteeing that no one is ever offended or made to feel uncomfortable.

We also have the added dilemma of fake news or alternative facts with which to contend.  It’s hard for truth to be heard when the air is filled with the dust and chaff of untruths.   A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.  But I guess I’m an eternal optimist and I want to think that Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes was right when he wrote in his dissent in Abrams v. United States —

“But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.

That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Are the Ann Coulters and Milo Yiannopouloses and Alex Joneses an imminent threat to country?  That’s what we have to decide.  Overall I think it’s better that we allow them to show their faces, rip away the mask, turn over the rocks to reveal the neo-Nazis and racists that inhabit our country.  I’d rather have them out in the open where I can keep an eye on them, and counter their dangerous beliefs then have them plotting in secret and manipulating behind the scenes.

So let’s bring the gentleman from Rhodes Island another rum (you’ll understand if you’ve seen the play), get one for ourselves and be ready to defend our beliefs and values.

At Last – Wild Cards to Broadway

In case anyone missed it.  Big news on the Wild Cards front.

Wild Cards to Broadway

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