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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Fandoms that I Am a Fan Of

I enjoy seeing that my friends on Facebook are sci-fi/fantasy fans, and are big fans of Doctor WhoGame of ThronesHarry PotterThe Lord of the RingsBuffy, and Star Trek. But I feel outside of it that I cannot get into most franchises, despite being a sci-fi fan. I can't get into the fandom of a specific world that has multiple movies, several books, or a whole fandom universe. I feel as if I'm not a "real" fan in that way, but I don't have enough interest to be a super-fan. So I tried to think of some exceptions that I do like:
  • The Terminator series. I am a fan of the first two movies, and the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show. I am so-so on the third movie (not great, but moved the story along well and had a pretty epic finale), couldn't stand the fourth movie (just a waste of time to watch), and I don't care about the fifth movie. The story is fascinating to me because of the Judgement Day climax, and Sarah Connor is a complex and interesting character. I never found John very interesting, no matter what age. He was alright as a scrappy kid in the second movie, but I found him dull in adult portrayals.
The portrayals of the cyborgs has been hit or miss. The best ones in my opinion have been the original Terminator, the T-1000, the "good" Terminator in the second movie, and Cameron in the TV show. They all had something memorable about their characters, whether they were a stone-cold killer or a cyborg learning about human emotion. I found them captivating, and the later movies just has dull pretty faces as killers with nothing behind the eyes. Even Robert Patrick as the T-1000 was terrifying to me as a kid because his narrow face and lean frame made him look more robotic and colder. Plus, I like that some of the story's origin comes from a Harlan Ellison story, adapted for a 1960s Outer Limits episode, and James Cameron re-worked it for the original movie.
  • The Indiana Jones series. I am a fan of the first three movies, and the Young Indiana Jones TV show. I've seen parts of the fourth movie, and I pretend it doesn't exist. Harrison Ford is really charming and fascinating as Indiana Jones, and really makes him feel like a real person in the films. You can see him as a character who has seen and done a lot, with this lived-in look in his face and gait, and can completely believe that he's had a lot of history with the other characters.
I am fascinated by cultural history, and enjoy how the films combined real history with mythology, and made it all very believable. The TV show was a great way of teaching children about geography and history, weaving in real historical figures of the early 20th century to interact with a child/teenage Henry "Indiana" Jones. The worst part of that series was the horrible casting for the elderly Jones, who sounded like Grampa Simpson holding people hostage to listen to his long-winded stories from nearly a century ago. The movies and TV show were exciting and fun to watch, and were great tributes to old adventure serials from the 1930s while not feeling outdated or stale at all.
  • Firefly & Serenity. My other friends are into it, too, so I am not alone. I liked Buffy, but never was a huge fan of it. I liked Angel too, but also didn't get into watching it much. I like the rag-tag group on Firefly, of a group of outsiders, rebels, and stragglers who left the Alliance and are just managing to get by. The characters are complex and three-dimensional characters, and each of them contributes something special as a crew member. The show was pretty much magic in a bottle, and I don't want to see a reboot of it, it should stay as it is. Serenity is one of my favorite movies of all time. I loved how it expanded the story beyond the TV show, the excellent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative, the stunning fight sequences, and the cool cinematography. The show has a very special place to me as a fan, and I loved how vital and interesting the characters were. Even if Jayne was a lunk-headed jerk, he still was needed as the muscle and the secret softie on the ship. I can't pick between a favorite character, everyone had something special to them. So it was a great show and movie, and I'm sorry I only heard of it when the film came out.
Besides those things, I can't think of much else I am a fan of for franchise sci-fi. I liked Alien and Aliens, but didn't see the third movie, was mixed on Alien: Resurrection (bad story, great visuals and good cast), and didn't like Prometheus (great visuals, boring story). I am a fan of movie series like RobocopGhostbusters, and Blade. I do consider myself a sci-fi fan, but know that I am not a super-fan or really deep into fandom like many others.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thoughts on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I finished watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last weekend. I was mixed on it. I liked Ellie Kemper a lot in it. She was very charming and likable, and I appreciated how positive, strong, and smart Kimmy was. She overcame a trauma and limited knowledge of the world beyond a middle-school education to be resourceful and mature. The theme song is upbeat, and I love the intro of voices rising as the women rise from the bunker into the "new" world.
The actor who played Titus is very good, he made the character sympathetic and funny and likable. I appreciated how he wasn't just a stereotypical sassy gay sidekick, but had storylines of his own and his own journey to follow. I just found out today that he played Sebastian in the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid, and his rival in an episode in real life played the Genie in the Broadway version of Aladdin.
The show isn't always laugh-out-loud funny, but there are several moments I really liked involving an old Hollywood musical, a Babysitter's Club book, the Spider-Man musical, scenes where the women play make-believe in the bunker, and other moments. The parts I don't like in the show are the racial jokes. I know that the jokes are meant to make the racist look bad, but it bugged me. The depiction of Dong (even if he is better developed later on, it doesn't excuse the initial depiction of him as an immigrant who speaks broken English who is good at math and has a name that sounds like "penis"), the stereotype of Native Americans, and scenes where a Black or Hispanic person speaks mostly to comment on how dumb white people are, tokenizing them in the process. The show is charming and likable, and doesn't need that crap in it. Hopefully the second season won't have as many of those jokes.
I don't want to give much away, but the finale with the cult leader on trial was really good, and it mirrored real-life trials where accused rapists can charm the jury, twist victims' words around , and manipulate the court's opinion in order to get off free. This is a comedy, but I still found it disturbing as how that can really happen.
So, I give the show 7 out of 10 stars. Good acting and storylines, needs work on ridding it off racist humor, and I am interested in the second season.

Thoughts on Parks & Recreation

I am watching the last season of Parks & Recreation, and forgot how much I enjoyed this show. I watched it from season 1-4, then lost interest in it for a reason I cannot remember. I know it just ended, so I am watching the final season on TWC On Demand, and have adored it over again.
I love how the characters are just regular people who are positive and supportive of each other, and of their community, and that they learn to work together and respect one another despite their differences. I like how the characters that don't seem reliable on the outside because of their personas (April the moody slacker, Andy the goofball dummy, Tom the shallow party boy) all have a solid work ethic, take their jobs seriously, and care for others.
I enjoy seeing how the characters evolved over time. April speaks in a deadpan voice, but is caring and loving inside. She gained ambition for her career, and a respectful understanding of others, becoming less cynical from her original "I hate everything" attitude. Ron is very conservative and straight-laced, but has a good heart and respects his colleagues for their character and strengths. Ben gained confidence in himself and got past his old political blunder to be a successful politician. Jerry always had a happy home life that countered the dismissive way he got treated at the office. Andy is goofy, but smarter than he appears. Tom became less self-centered and found a way to balance his lavish interests with care and empathy for others. Donna was always awesome, beautiful, and confident, and she didn't need to be rewarded with finding love and getting married, but it was a bonus for her. I didn't find Ann interesting, so I don't have much to say on her.
And Leslie. Leslie will go down as a classic character in television, truly groundbreaking as a feminist woman who grows from being a small-town boss to possibly a major leader in the country. She is kind, compassionate, tough, bull-headed, and always wants the best for her friends and her town of Pawnee, Indiana. She emphasizes working hard for your dreams, and always finding a way to succeed while working fairly with others, even if they do not share your politics or exact POV. She wasn't a perfect person (she wasn't always a good listener, she was nervous about her relationship with Ben as it jeopardized her job, her stubbornness could turn people off), but she knew when to admit to her own mistakes and do the right thing for others.
A lot of that characterization is from the writers, but I will credit Amy Poehler for giving Leslie her heart and spirit. Poehler is pretty much like Leslie in real life (her Smart Girls at the Party website is an amazing resource to inspire young girls to be smart, ambitious, and creative), and Poehler produced P&R and directed various episodes. I've adored her since the Upright Citizen's Brigade show on Comedy Central, and love seeing how much of an awesome person she is, and how she influenced the character of Leslie so much.
It was a very special show, and I am happy it ran for as long as it did, and that pretty much everyone involved will have successful careers because of it, and that these wonderful characters and stories will live on in reruns for years to come.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Seymour: An Introduction – A Film Review


            Last night, I attended an advance screening of Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about pianist Seymour Bernstein, directed by actor Ethan Hawke. The film is a loving tribute to the emotional power of music, and to a charming and talented man who has dedicated his life to performing and teaching classical piano.

            Bernstein is 88 years old, and has lived in the same New York City apartment for 57 years. His home is modest, yet full of small trinkets and character, like a ceramic Chihuahua by a lamp or cooking pans hanging on the kitchen wall. Bernstein is confidant and funny, a short plump man with a kind face. He teaches advanced students out of his home, and helps them through pushing them in a positive way. He may tease them by saying they played a piece better than he did, or coach them by telling them to not rush ahead of the music and play with emotion and breath.

           Hawke had met Bernstein at a dinner party, and Bernstein had put him at ease while they discussed their anxiety as performers. Bernstein spoke about how he had stopped playing publically in his fifties, because the act of pretending not to have anxiety perpetuated a feeling of going insane. He was tired of stage fright, he was having musical blocks, and it was causing him to have memory slips while performing. He hadn’t performed in 35 years, but through his friendship and mentoring of Hawke, he performs at a private gathering that is a joy to watch.

            The film discusses the ideas of artistic geniuses, and why many noted artistic geniuses are awful people in their personal life, or are “monsters.” Hawke brought up Marlon Brando as a theater example, while Bernstein spoke of Glenn Gould as a neurotic, eccentric mess who was a piano genius.  They spoke of how the interpreter of an artist’s work gets the major credit for a performance, not the artistic work. So that audiences would come away thinking,” Wasn’t Glenn Gould great?” instead of “Wasn’t Chopin great?” Bernstein spoke of the interpreter as self-indulgent, as “in service of something higher than themselves.” It was a fascinating way to look at an interpreter of an artist’s work, and how a incredible performer can get the credit, with the artist’s contributions undermined.

His kindness and patience puts students at ease, and there is a sense of calm while watching the film, a slow, relaxed feeling of listening to beautiful piano music. There are many beautiful and touching quotes throughout the film from Bernstein. On the emotional power of music: “Music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.” On music and its relation to religious worship: “Music is intangible, yet it has penetrating effects . . . most people don’t tap that resource of the God within.” And on the unique interpretations of music: “Every piano is like a person. They are built the same way, but they never come out the same.” Bernstein carries a sense of peace and tranquility with him that is enviable, but admirable at the same time.

The screening, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed with a Q&A with Bernstein and Hawke. Hawke opened up a lot about his own anxieties as an actor, and having self-doubt and disillusionment despite his success over nearly thirty years as an actor (and coming off of a recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Boyhood). He spoke of not having felt anxious as an actor until he was reaching middle-age, and not knowing how to handle his nerves. Bernstein gave helpful advice. “Accept nerves as a natural component of what you’re about to do.” Anxiety is normal for a person, and it fuels them to do better. When they aren’t feeling nervous is when a performer should worry, because they have become complacent.  “Our talents are autonomous,” said Bernstein.  “To persevere in spite of doubts gives us a sense of self worth.” That is good advice for anybody striving for success, not just for performers dealing with anxiety.

Hawke made a good point about making a film about an elderly man in a culture that is obsessed with youth. That has become much more prevalent, with people over age 35 being seen as “so old,” and social media that mocks older people for not knowing current technology or not being as popular as the current youth. By contrast, Bernstein’s simplicity and acceptance of himself is refreshing, and much more thoughtful and interesting to listen to than a much younger person who puts all of their self-absorbed thoughts on social media every few hours. Hawke may have made this film in part of dealing with his own middle-age (he makes reference to having anxiety and changes upon turning 40, and not always understanding his teenage children’s lingo and text-speak), but it is a selfless gesture that he made in directing this documentary about a fascinating and wonderful man. Seymour Bernstein concluded the Q&A with this insightful statement: “when we are searching for our identity, our identity is in whatever talent you possess . . .the person and the artist become one and the same.” His talent and class was a true joy to behold for that evening.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Highlights of European Version of Leon/The Professional

The European version has more scenes of Leon and Matilda going out on their hit jobs, and it's more darkly funny, as well as developing their relationship more closely beyond the scenes in his apartment or the hotel room. The scene where they go on their first job together and he's coaching her as the target looks confused as hell was funny. I could see why Portman's parents had requested some scenes to be cut, as there are moments where Matilda is flirting with Leon and trying to kiss him and he backs off. There is a good scene in a restaurant where they go out to celebrate a successful hit and she's getting drunk on champagne and alternating between acting like a giggly little kid and trying to act like what she thinks a grown, mature lover would be like, which comes off as uncomfortable as you'd think.

It is weird to write about it without it sounding gross, but in context, it made sense. I also really liked a scene that goes into Leon's backstory with an old girlfriend of his from his youth, explaining part of his reason why he is resistant to love and keeps to himself a lot with few friends. It's a great movie, but these extra scenes made it even better for me.

Selma - A Film Review

I saw Selma last month. It was very good. It was very sad, obviously, but the scenes of activists pushing to have voting rights for black citizens of Selma were powerful and heavy to watch. I thought the film portrayed King in a very fair and humanistic way, showing him as a real man and not as an untouchable saint. David Oyelowo was incredible in this. I also really liked the actors who played his fellow activists (even Common, who I didn't think could act before), Carmen Ejogo's stirring performance as Coretta Scott King, and Tim Roth was very good as George Wallace. Oprah Winfrey was also very good in her small but pivotal role, and I was happy to read that her character was based on a real person who fought back against bigotry and lived to be 100 years old.
Afterwards, I looked up some of the civil rights activists who were portrayed in the film, and appreciated the film's rich attention to detail, despite it's controversies over the portrayal of LBJ. I knew about the Selma march, the Birmingham Church bombing, and one of the white activists who died, but didn't know the inner story or more history about the civil rights activists who aren't household names. So this film was very educational to watch.
It is a shame it didn't win Best Picture. I liked Birdman, but didn't think it was the best movie of the year. And it is a shame that it wasn't nominated in the directing and a ting categories. I am happy to see that Ava DuVernay, who had been a big success at Sundance and in the indie world, got people like Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, amidst others, to produce her film and make it seen nationwide, that is awesome for an indie film director. The film will probably be shown in schools for years to come, and that is a very good way to further educate youth on the civil rights movement.

Raves About Christopher Walken in The Prophecy movies

Christopher Walken as Gabriel in The Prophecy and its sequel does some of his best work ever. I know these movies got mixed to bad reviews, but I really like the urban fantasy story of angels warring with each other and humans getting caught in the crossfire. Walken is just great as Gabriel, a dark angel wreaking havoc on earth. Even when he has his trademark Walkenisms (awkward pauses, stuttering, random high voice inflection on words), he still brings menace and intimidation to the role, and makes him both evil and sympathetic at the same time. I think the first two movies are awesome, due to Walken's performance, the dark fantasy elements, and the solid casts.

The Prophecy movies, as they progressed, went from having a talented cast (the first movie had Elias Koteas, Viggo Mortensen, Eric Stoltz, and Virginia Madsen) to a marginally talented cast (the last movie had Kari Wuhrer, Jason London, and Jason Scott Lee). The second movie had Russell Wong, Jennifer Beals, and Brittany Murphy in it, and while they were more b-level, I still thought they were all good in it. I even appreciated how the heroes were racially diverse (Beals' character is Hispanic; Wong's character is an angel, but played by an actor of white European and Chinese descent). Walken just delivered a great performance in these movies, even if they were seen as low-rent dark thrillers about angels warring with each other. He is fantastic.