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.

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Oddball characters and dark, disturbing small-town murder mysteries aren’t that uncommon in television these days, but they felt groundbreaking in 1990. I haven’t watched the new episodes on Showtime this year, but the David Lynch/Mark Frost originals are something special.

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 eight 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.

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. 

Thursday, August 24, 2017

5 Actors That Could Be the Next Joker

For any of you that don’t follow my writing or social media very closely, I recently published some Joker fan fiction based on today’s political climate called Everything Burns. It was a fun exercise and a way to pay homage to the only superhero I’ve ever really loved. Imagine my surprise when big official Joker news was announced the day I released my final chapter.

Martin Scorsese, famous director of films including Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed plans to make a new Joker film. Scorsese is renowned for gritty crime stories featuring tight screenwriting and stellar casts. Sadly, he only plans to produce the movie. Todd Phillips of Hangover fame is slated to direct. That might not be all bad. Phillips most recent effort was the underrated War Dogs. Worse though is that the pair plan to make an origin film. This could mean ruining some of the Joker’s mystique and almost certainly means they’ll cast a young actor to play the part.

I hope they change their minds. I don’t want to see a 20-something Joker. I don’t want to know how he got started on his life of crime or where he got those horrific scars. The scariest villains are the ones we don’t know much about. Don’t believe me? Recall Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy then picture Jake Lloyd podracing or Hayden Christensen whining about getting sand in his shorts. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I suggest they rethink their plan and come up with a story about an older, meaner Joker instead. Maybe something that takes place in Arkham Asylum. I’d love to see a Joker film in the vein of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. I don’t think anyone can top Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, but who best to take on the challenge? Jared Leto wasn’t terrible in Suicide Squad, but I’m thinking someone else of Oscar caliber be given a shot. Here are five potentials.

Brad Pitt

We need an actor that can sell a lot of tickets while simultaneously losing his self in the role. An actor we can’t take our eyes off of as he comes completely unhinged. We could do a lot worse than three-time acting Oscar nominee Brad Pitt. He’s played crazy in films such as 12 Monkeys and Fight Club and you don’t get much grittier performances than his work in Inglourious Basterds, Fury, Killing Them Softly, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Johnny Depp

Crazy, you say? There aren’t many actors that do crazy better than Johnny Depp. Jack Sparrow, Sweeney Todd, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Whitey Bulger… you get the idea. Depp can actually be too over-the-top if you let him, but I think the chance to work with Scorsese might bring out the very best in Depp, another three-time Oscar nominee.

Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin comes with some baggage and a reputation of sometimes being hard to work with, but he has an amazing body of work. Yet another three-time Oscar nominee, you know him from 8MM, Gladiator, Walk the Line, The Master, and Her. He brings a particular brand of intensity and menace that would translate well into the role of Batman’s most dangerous enemy.

Leonardo DiCaprio

With a long-time working relationship with Scorsese that already includes five films and a sixth currently in production, DiCaprio seems like one of the most obvious choices. This Best Actor Oscar winner and four-time nominee has starred in many critically acclaimed and successful films including Titanic, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, Inception, and The Revenant. Despite his good looks he’s been known to disappear into roles and would provide a unique take on such an iconic character.

Daniel Day Lewis

Older than my other candidates, he’s also the most accomplished of the bunch. He recently announced his retirement from acting, but if anyone could bring him back, it’s Scorsese. Lewis has won the Best Actor Oscar three times and been nominated for it twice more including for Gangs of New York. I can’t think of someone that could play Joker better and if you’re not sure, go watch There Will Be Blood. Lewis is as dark, intimidating and mean as they come. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Hollywood Needs Books

Photo Credit: HBO

If you follow my Twitter feed, you know I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan. For my money, it’s one of the 10 best TV shows ever made.* That said, the past two seasons, as fun as they are, illustrate a common problem with the very best long running dramas television has to offer. Shows of this type are almost always improved when they’re based on source material. TV provides a visual medium that modern audiences demand, but books remain the best way to tell detailed stories.

GoT is based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series by author George R.R. Martin. Martin has written five of a planned seven books. Two seasons ago, the show surpassed his novels and had to strike out on its own, finishing Martin’s story with nothing more than his notes. The lack of Martin’s guiding prose is obvious. Episodes are more action packed but character development has suffered and plots are much less intricate or logical.

Screen Rant recently published an excellent article that details some of these gaps. This phenomenon isn’t unique. Another of my favorite shows, Dexter provides an equally obvious example. The crime series ran from 2006 to 2013 on Showtime and is based on a book by Jeff Lindsay. The first two seasons are excellent and completely hooked me but as the seasons wore on and moved further away from the source material, they got more and more far-fetched. By the final season, I basically watched out of spite. I hated what they’d done to the main characters and just wanted to know how they would end it. For the record, the ending was lousy.

Source material forms the basis of many other great TV shows. American Gods and Black Sails from Starz, and Walking Dead from AMC are a few more examples. Movies are no exception either. Blade Runner, The Godfather, Fight Club, L.A. Confidential, and The Shawshank Redemption are just a few of many great movies based on novels or short stories.

So what does all of this mean to long-suffering authors like me (and some of you) that are just trying to find an audience? It means even if there are less readers out there than we’d like, TV and film have tremendous reach and often look to prose for inspiration. Hollywood needs books so keep on writing. 

* Hmm, I smell a new blog topic!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Daniel Craig’s Best Non-Bond Roles

Photo Credit: 007.com

It was announced yesterday that despite his very public complaints about continuing on as James Bond after 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig will do exactly that in the 25th Bond film slated to open in 2019. I have mixed emotions about the decision. Craig has been fantastic in the role, but an actor that doesn’t want to do a movie rarely turns in his best performance. Add to the mix that Christopher Nolen has voiced an interest in directing a Bond film if he could cast Tom Hardy as the lead and I’m kind of leaning toward that new direction. We’ll see how this one goes.

In the meantime, I thought I’d write a bit about Craig’s best non-Bond film roles. Like his predecessors, Craig has been typecast but like the best of those earlier Bonds, Sean Connery, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had a few other juicy roles anyway. Here are his best.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)
Okay, the premise of the film, an alien invasion of the old West, turned out to better than the film itself, but it was still entertaining. Outlaw Craig plays opposite Harrison Ford’s grumpy Civil War veteran who team up to defeat the aliens and protect the good townsfolk of Absolution.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
While not as good as the original Swedish version of this book adaptation, Craig does a nice job of putting his own stamp on reporter Mikael Blomkvist as he works a cold case with the coolest and most vicious of computer hackers, Lisbeth Salander.

Munich (2005)
Now we’re getting to the really good stuff. Munich is a Stephen Spielberg film based on the Black September aftermath and the Mossad assassins who were assigned to avenge those terrible murders. What could have been a straight-forward action movie is much more and Craig is one of the best in a stellar cast.

Road to Perdition (2002)
True, Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, and Jude Law are the real stars of this film, but Daniel Craig’s portrayal of spoiled, treacherous Mafia son Connor Rooney helped establish him as a star-in-the-making. He held his own against those cinematic heavyweights and showed audiences how murderous and evil he can be when asked to play a well-written bad guy.

Layer Cake (2004)
Finally, this is the role that probably did the most to get Craig the part of James Bond. Starring alongside a great cast including the aforementioned Bond-in-waiting Tom Hardy, Craig plays a young drug dealer that realizes he’s in over his head with a back-stabbing boss, an intimidating potential new mentor, an assassin on his trail, and a sexy new girlfriend who might be the most trouble of them all. This film is smart, stylish, and proved to be a perfect showcase for what Craig can do as a man of action surrounded by others that would do him harm.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Books as Testicle Salve

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Admit it. You clicked the link to read this post because of the word “testicle”. It’s okay. It’s a funny word. It’s a funny-looking part of the anatomy. However I didn’t just use it in the title to get your attention. It really does relate to the topic I want to write about.

Life has a way of kicking you in the balls (figuratively if not literally) on a fairly routine basis. You receive an unexpected bill you don’t know how you’re going to pay. You make plans to do something special and they fall through at the last minute. You get in a fight with your significant other over something dumb. You get passed over for a promotion at work… It happens to everyone.

They say time heals all wounds and I suppose that’s at least mostly true, but time takes time doesn’t it? Patience is a virtue in short supply. I find what helps at least soothe those wounds in the short term is distraction. If you aren’t thinking about the fact you’re going to be eating Ramen noodles for the next two weeks in order to pay for that radiator leak or that your boss has the communication skills of a stutterer with Tourette’s and the honesty of Donald Trump, then you’re less likely to suffer from those unpleasant realities.

Some people choose bad distractions. Tequila is one of my favorite vices, but drinking it to forget… not a good idea. What I’ve found to be a great distraction is a good book. TV shows are too short and typically too stupid to keep me entertained. Movies are much better, but also not cheap if you’re going to the theater and they’re only two hours a pop. Video games are fun but I’ve found they hold less of my attention than they did when I was younger. A good book… we’re talking days of distraction for less than 10 bucks. A good book sucks you in. It expands your imagination. It takes you away from whatever you have to deal with in the real world and lets you explore an entirely different reality.

I recently took a hard figurative shot to the nuts in my own life. Keeping my nose in a book has helped distract my mind from the ache. For any of you that don’t read regularly, I encourage you to pick up a book that piques your interest and try again. For all of those of you that do read regularly, you know what I’m talking about. Life sometimes lets you down. I’ve found that good books never do.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Do’s and Don’ts of Visiting Costa Rica

The blog is getting a little dusty so I thought I’d write some Do’s and Don’ts based on our recent 10-day family trip to Costa Rica. If you’ve never visited, I recommend it. If you have been there, feel free to add your own Do's and Don’ts in the Comment section below.

Do: Hire a driver
Costa Rican jungle roads have more S-turns than King George VI trying to say Mississippi. Add to it that they’re loaded with water-filled pot-holes, rarely have any signage, lines, or guardrails, and you’re looking at a Toonces the Driving Cat scenario if you’re not careful.

San Jose rush hour. Good times.

Don’t: Expect the bajillion motorbike drivers to follow a single traffic law
Half the population of San Jose rides some form of motorcycle and the sole reason seems to be that they’re immune to all laws. They weave in and out of standstill traffic, they run red lights; they steal kids’ lunch money… I didn’t actually see that last one, but I wouldn’t put it past them.

Do: Bring plenty of lightweight clothing
It’s hot. Like, REALLY hot.

Don’t: Forget an umbrella during rainy season
The rainy season lasts from early May to late November and it rains every afternoon/evening during these months. Lightning took out the electricity multiple times while we were there and it apparently killed seven cows.

Extra Don’t: Bring cows.

The Arenal Volcano 

Do: Visit the Arenal Volcano and hot springs
The volcano and its surrounding landscapes are beautiful. The Springs resort in particular is a great place to stay nearby, but keep your eyes open for deals. The standard run-rate for a room there isn’t cheap.

Don’t: Order margaritas - anywhere
Costa Ricans apparently don’t drink tequila. You won’t find a decent bottle at any restaurant, hotel, or bar. It’s Don Julio, Jose Cuervo, or worse.

San Jose graffiti

Do: Take lots of pictures
You’ll see plenty of amazing jungle landscapes, gorgeous sunsets, and if you explore San Jose, cool graffiti. You’ll want to capture those memories.

Don’t: Post tons of those pictures on your blog
As much as you love all those pics you snapped, a little goes a long way when sharing those photos with others. Show some restraint. I only shared three!