Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Visiting Italy

I'm going to completely ignore the advice I shared in my Costa Rica post last year and include a ton of pics in this post about my recent trip to Italy. You don't want to hear me rattle on about the beautiful vistas of rolling hills, the charming vineyards, or the amazing centuries' old architecture when I can show you instead. You also don't want me to embarrass myself explaining how my blood was positively buzzing after I walked through a gallery of hundreds of pieces of Renaissance art to stand in front of a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci himself. Just know this, 10 days isn't nearly enough to explore everything Italy has to offer. I wish I could have stayed for another month.

The Hills of Tuscany

The View from Montecatini Alto

The De'lemmi Tower

Night in the Village of Montecatini Alto

Fiorentina Soccer

A Lion Statue guarding the walls of Lucca

The Charming City of Lucca

Tuscan Vineyard

Tuscan Winery


The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Dining in Pisa

The Art of Pisa

The Streets of Pisa

Atop of Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Fallen Angel of Pisa

The Florence Cathedral 

The Art of Florence

The Art of Florence

View of Florence from Inside the Uffizi Gallery

Leonardo Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi

Friday, March 16, 2018

Album Review: Stone Temple Pilots

You’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger Scott Weiland fan than me, but I’ll be the first to admit that Stone Temple Pilots has always been more than just a vehicle for their former charismatic front man. If you have any doubts, take a listen to any of his solo discs or his final album before his untimely death with his band The Wildabouts. Scott rocked but he needed talented musicians to help him craft good songs. So that leads us to post-Weiland Stone Temple Pilots and what they’ve been up to since they kicked Scott out of the band for his substance abuse problems in early 2013.

Later that year they cut High Rise, a solid 5-song EP with singer Chester Bennington, but Bennington left the band two years later to focus on his primary gig with the band Linkin Park. Sadly, Weiland died less than a month later followed by Bennington’s suicide in 2017. After an exhaustive public search for a new lead singer including a three-song demo sent by yours truly, they released a self-titled album today with new vocalist and former X Factor contestant, Jeff Gutt.

Is it any good? It doesn’t come close to matching the band’s best music on their first two albums Core (1992) and Purple (1994) or the two albums Weiland made with Velvet Revolver, but it’s easily better than STP’s comeback album in 2010 and doesn’t feel out-of-place beside their third disc Tiny Music... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop (1996), their 1999 effort No. 4, or Shangri-La Dee Da from 2001.

Brothers Dean and Robert DeLeo along with Eric Kretz still sound fantastic on guitar, bass, and drums. They haven’t lost a beat over the years and still know how to come up with a great hook. Gutt’s lyrics on this debut don’t quite measure up to the best that Weiland penned, but his voice is excellent. He’s got his own sound without being jarringly different from what we got accustomed to from Weiland leading the band.   

The album opens solidly with the rocker “Middle of Nowhere” then really kicks into gear with the third track and first single, “Meadow”. From there, standout tracks include the ballad “The Art of Letting Go”, a rollicking song reminiscent of The Door’s classic “Roadhouse Blues” entitled “Never Enough”, and the country-rocker that closes out the disc, “Reds & Blues”.

All told, Stone Temple Pilots (2018) holds its own in the band’s 8-disc discography and is a welcome comeback for a band that’s suffered more than its share of heartbreak. Let’s hope Jeff Gutt sticks around for several albums to come.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Last Jedi vs. Logan

Photo Credit: Fandango

WARNING. This post is chock full of spoilers. If you haven’t seen The Last Jedi or Logan and have any plans to do so, abort now. I repeat. ABORT!

OK, for those of you still with me... I watched both The Last Jedi and Logan last week, the former at the theater and the latter via DVR. I consider myself a big-time fan of the Star Wars series and a reasonably enthusiastic fan of the X-Men series. I’ve seen all the films multiple times. I can carry on just about as geeky a conversation about these universes and characters as you’d want to have so I feel fairly comfortable stating that I’m confused. X-Men’s dedicated fanbase seemed almost universal in their praise of Logan. Most of what I see online from rabid Star Wars fans is disappointment in The Last Jedi. This makes no sense.

These films serve the same purpose. Both these movies kill off the old characters you love in order to usher in younger characters as our new heroes. As Yoda states, “We are what they grow beyond.”
Logan establishes very early on that every single mutant we’ve seen in any of the previous films is dead except our beloved Wolverine and Professor Xavier along with lesser known sidekick, Caliban. Every. Single. One. Magneto, Mystique, Storm, Cyclops, Jean Gray, Rogue, Beast, Angel... DEAD! It then goes on to kill Caliban, followed by Xavier, and ending with Wolverine six feet under. That’s right, even the title character is X’d out. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I sort of get it. Logan is No Country for Old X-Men. It’s Unforgiven X. It’s a dark, dystopian western that feels appropriate given the shit-stained world we currently live in under Herr Trump. But director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman turned our favorite good guys into sad, old, weakened fugitives then killed them all. And as an audience, we thanked him for it. So why the hate for Rian Johnson?

2015’s The Force Awakens already took out Han Solo like a punk, skewered on a lightsaber by his long-lost Sith-emo son. In The Last Jedi, director Rian Johnson gives Jedi-turned-wizened hermit Luke Skywalker a heroic death. He steps out of his self-imposed retirement to become “the spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down.” He literally stands alone against the entire First Order and sacrifices himself to save all the good guys including his sister General Leia and all the new characters that are meant to carry the Star Wars torch. Fans hate him for it. Why?

Sure, floating-thru-space-Leia was bad CGI and desperately needed some brief explanation of how the Hell that was possible. Yes, Admiral Akbar’s untimely demise deserved more than one sentence of exposition. And I'll give you, a space-chase scene built around the idea that the fully powered bad guys would just sit around waiting for the good guys to run out of fuel was silly, but was every beat of Logan well thought out? Xavier owned a massive school with its own super-jet and mega-satellite. Now he lives in a rusted shed and Wolverine works as a chauffeur?

It seems to me that both these films were engaging, well made movies tasked with a morbid purpose. If you loved one, I don’t know why you don’t love the other.

Monday, December 18, 2017

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things from 2017

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Another year is ending and I remain an un-agented writer screaming sci-fi and horror into the void. But hey, it’s Christmas time and being dark and brooding feels inappropriate even for a guy like me. So let’s talk about what went right this year. You won’t find any raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens in this post, but there were several things that brought me joy.

Who else loves you no matter how much time you spend banging away at your computer keyboard? My wife who keeps me as sane as I’m likely to get, my kids who shine light into my life every day, and my parents and sister who’ve put up with me for more than four decades now... you’re the best.

Blade Runner 2049, The Last Jedi, Coco, Wonder, Get Out, Atomic Blonde... every year delivers at least a half dozen highly entertaining films and 2017 was no exception. If you missed any of these gems, I highly recommend you catch them while you enjoy some well-earned time off this holiday season.

As is my wont, I didn’t catch a whole lot of different shows on the small screen in 2017, but I did love Game of Thrones, Westworld, American Gods, Silicon Valley, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Stranger Things. The short seasons always leave me wanting more, but that’s certainly better than the old days of being disappointed by throw-away filler episodes. I’m looking at you Miami Vice!

Sadly, I can’t say I read many new releases this year. I’m looking forward to delving into The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh, A Conjuring of Light by V. E. Schwab, and Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King, but my overloaded bookshelves demand I wait for the paperback editions to come out. In the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed some older titles including The Peripheral and Pattern Recognition, both by William Gibson, and Revival by Stephen King.

Yep, when you’re living in a country with political leaders like we’ve got, alcohol is a must. I indulged in my usual favorites of Herradura and Cazadores tequila, Grey Goose and Ketel One vodka, and Tanqueray Gin, but I also discovered Milagro and Casamigos tequilas. If you feel the need to get your drink on, these are the brands I recommend.

I kicked the year off celebrating in Savannah, Georgia. We hit the beach in Fort Walton and Navarre, Florida for Spring Break. I thoroughly enjoyed a week and a half in Costa Rica over the summer then followed that up with a long weekend in Nashville. The older I get, the more I learn the value of experience over material objects. See the world while you can!

Sure, traveling the world is great, but so is coming home to a fantastic house. We moved into our new digs in June and I couldn’t be more pleased. The kids love their school, we have friendly neighbors, and this house is actually big enough to throw parties in. Did I mention I like to drink?

And finally, one my favorite things remains my readers. You may still be small in number, but you’re a huge inspiration. You keep me writing even when the demons of doubt come sniffing around in the form of Amazon sales reports and rejection letters. I’ll keep writing stories as long as you keep reading them!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Top 10 Animated Films of All Time

Photo Credit: Disney/Pixar

I took the family to see Disney Pixar’s latest film, Coco, last night and I was blown away. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater and it immediately got me thinking, was this the greatest animated film ever made? Given how many fantastic animated films have been produced over just the past 25 years, that’s a tall order. I decided to sit down and really sort through them. What are the absolute best animated films ever made? Here are my picks from number 10 to number 1.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Director Tim Burton has made a half dozen or more movies I love, but come Halloween, this is always the one to watch. Jack Skellington is the king of our scariest holiday, but when he gets it in his fleshless head that Christmas looks like it’s more fun, problems ensue.

Wreck-It-Ralph (2012)
Being a 1980s video-game nerd, this movie had me based on the premise alone. Ralph is tired of being the arcade-game bad guy so he sets off to prove he’s hero material but gets much more than he bargained for. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman make this one a real treat.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
You won’t find many princess movies on my list, but this one is the exception. Tiana is no damsel in distress. She’s resourceful, she’s determined, and she’s got to make a man of selfish Prince Naveen if they have any shot at beating one of my favorite Disney villains, voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier.

The Incredibles (2004)
What do super heroes do when the world thinks it doesn’t need them anymore? Director Brad Bird proves an animated action movie can be just as exciting as a live one when it’s armed with a great script and a cast featuring the likes of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)
When you’re little, the monsters hiding in the closet can seem awfully scary, but what if they’re really cute and cuddly once you get to know them? Billy Crystal and John Goodman are perfect together as monster protagonists who just want to help a little girl get home without losing their jobs in the scare factory.

Inside Out (2015)
Growing up is hard and few films more poignantly depict the emotions involved than this story of a young girl forced to move from the Midwest to San Francisco and leave the familiarities of her childhood behind.

Up (2009)
The opening 10 minutes of this film are heart-breakingly beautiful. You won’t find better animated story telling. From the unconventional main character to the iconic image of a house being lifted into the sky by a massive bunch of balloons, this film will stay with you a long time.

Wall-E (2008)
For a film that features a robot protagonist incapable of saying more than two words, Wall-E has a whole lot to say about man and the destructive path he’s on with both the world and the bodies we live in. Not only is this one of Disney Pixar’s best films, it might be their most important.

Toy Story 3 (2010)
I could have picked any of the three films in this series for my list, but I think the last one is the best of the bunch. Tom Hanks and co. are pure magic and this one packs more emotional punch than any other film on this list save one...

Coco (2017)
Yep, Coco is my new favorite of all time. The script and the animation are unmatched. Making it through this movie without tearing up is the new Voight-Kampff test (hey, shout-out to my fellow sci-fi nerds!). You can’t do it. Go see it while it’s in the theaters this Thanksgiving holiday.

Because I love so many animated films, here are a dozen Honorable Mentions: Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994),Toy Story (1995), South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut (1999), Toy Story 2 (1999), Shrek (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), Ratatouille (2007), Frozen (2013), Book of Life (2014), Big Hero 6 (2014), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049

Hollywood churns out large amounts of crap every year. There’s no secret as to why. Crap sells. Just look at the Transformers franchise. Or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Or the Avengers. You don’t need a good script, talented actors, or beautiful cinematography to sell tickets. You just need plenty of explosions, silly costumes, and fast-food toy tie-ins.

Given the paragraph above I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Blade Runner 2049’s opening weekend was only $32M on a budget of $150M. I’m just disappointed. The film deserves a lot better. In an era of unnecessary reboots and sequels, this movie proves to be an exception. Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Even people that aren’t familiar with the 1982 cult-classic that spawned this follow-up will enjoy Blade Runner 2049. It’s sci-fi for smart people. It’s a film that makes you think while also acting as amazing eye candy. Yet fewer people paid to see it this past weekend than paid to see much lesser recent sequels like Kingsman: The Golden Circle or Annabelle: Creation.

Like the original Blade Runner, this movie asks some interesting questions. Does where we come from define us? If you’re human in virtually every aspect other than the nature of your birth, does that difference give someone the right to own you? Is our species’ prioritization of profit over planet doomed to destroy us?

Director Denis Villeneuve deftly took the reins from Ridley Scott and with the help of cinematographer Roger Deakins and screenwriter Hampton Fancher has created a worthy successor to what I consider the greatest sci-fi film ever made.

I won’t give away any of the plot, but the cast including Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, and the original blade runner, Harrison Ford are all excellent. Hans Zimmer’s score retains the flavor of Vangelis’ fantastic work from 1982, and if Roger Deakins isn’t nominated for an Oscar for his camera work, there is no justice come awards season.

I saw the movie in IMAX and I’m glad I did. Yes, the tickets aren’t cheap, but this is one of those films that’s so chock full of stuff to look at, the bigger the screen, the better.  With the amount of critical praise it’s receiving and a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 89, maybe Blade Runner 2049 will prove to be a slow burn. I hope so. It’s the type of movie I’d like to see Hollywood make more of.  It deserves a bigger audience.

If you enjoyed films like the original Blade Runner, Interstellar, Moon, Gattaca, or Villeneuve’s other recent sci-fi effort, Arrival, go see this one. It’s 2 hours 43 minutes well spent. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

All-Time Top 10 TV Dramas

Photo Credit: Pixabay

My recent post concerning Game of Thrones and other TV shows based on book source material got me thinking about my all-time favorite TV dramas. I should start by admitting, I’m not a big TV guy. I love films. I’ve watched well over 1000 of them. TV shows… I’m way choosier. For me, scripted television generally falls into one of three categories: Formulaic cop or lawyer dramas, dumb comedies, or a very few well-written, interesting series. It’s difficult for a show to catch my attention. Lost, 24, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Walking Dead – Either I watched one episode and wasn’t impressed (The Wire and 24) or I’ve never seen it at all. Those shows have tons of fans and therefore must have some entertainment value, but this is my list and they didn’t even qualify for consideration. Flame on if you must. Here are my Top 10.

True Detective (2014-2015)
The second season has no business on this list, but the first is one of the most stunning achievements in television history. Those eight hours of television are so amazing they leapfrog all but nine shows in my book. Nic Pizzolatto created two of the best characters and one of the most riveting storylines ever to hit the small screen. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s performances are masterpieces.

Oz (1997-2003)
HBO’s first drama remains one of its best. This gritty, violent look inside a fictional prison provided plenty of memorable characters and entertaining friction as inmates forged and broke alliances while struggling to survive.

Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
This is the second best gangster show ever made. I didn't catch this one when it came out, but I binge-watched it recently on Amazon Prime and I was smitten. It's a stellar Prohibition-era drama that boasts a great cast lead by Steve Buscemi and a script that never fails to entertain over its five-season run.

Rome (2005-2007)
This series ended at least one season too soon and the second season felt rushed as a result, but it was still a pleasure to watch. Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson showed us the rise and fall of Julius Caesar through the eyes of two relatively minor fictional characters and Ciaran Hinds was excellent as the doomed founder of history’s most famous Empire.

Westworld (2016-)
Only one season of this show is under HBO’s belt so far, but what a season it was! With an intriguing premise, a fantastic cast, and really solid plotting, every episode was a blast to watch. Even with the departure of Anthony Hopkins’ character Robert Ford, I can’t wait to see what happens next. Now that Maeve, Dolores, Bernard, and the remainder of the theme-park robot crew are self-aware, just how far will they go to achieve independence?

The X-Files (1993-)
I tuned out after FBI paranormal investigator Fox Mulder departed in the latter seasons, but the first seven seasons produced a ton of great episodes and the new revival episodes that came out last year were fun as well. Leads David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson have great chemistry and the writing was usually top notch.

Dexter (2006-2013)
I’ve written before about my distaste for the final season, but when a show finds you rooting for a serial killer every week, you know it’s doing something right. The first two seasons of this eight-season program were incredible and Season 4 was a standout as well. It’s by far the best thing Showtime has ever produced.

The Sopranos (1999-2007)
For several years, this modern gangster drama held my top spot and it still hasn’t fallen far. For six seasons, lead actor James Gandolfini and cast let us inside the dangerous and strangely often mundane lives of New Jersey’s mafia. Whether Tony Soprano was putting out a hit on a rival or trying to get his son to do his homework, he was always fun to watch.

Deadwood (2004-2006)
This show simply featured the finest writing television has ever seen. It’s as if Shakespeare briefly returned in order to do a western. Thanks to an apparently huge budget, it only lasted three seasons, but it left an indelible impression on me and many others. Supposedly there’s a feature film in the works to wrap up all of the storylines that the show left open. You can bet I’ll be in line for a ticket if it ever gets made and released.

Game of Thrones (2011-)
The penultimate season just wrapped up last night and it’s going to be a long winter (and then some) before we get to watch how everything turns out in Season 8’s six big episodes, but GoT has already cemented its place as the best show television has ever seen. Based on an incomplete series of books by author George R.R. Martin, this epic fantasy tale spans multiple generations and hundreds of characters in a world of intricately twisted plots and histories. Many of us are already suffering withdrawals and it’s been less than 24 hours since we got our latest dose of Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Cersei, Sansa, Arya, and the rest of the Westerosi gang. If you’re one of the few people in the world that haven’t gotten addicted to this show yet, catch the reruns ASAP.