31 Aug

Five Reasons to See Logan Lucky

Lisa and I took a break yesterday and saw Logan Lucky. Afterward, we read reviews and talked about the film.

On the whole, I’ll say it was worth seeing, though I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to like it. I think it has some specific flaws, and I don’t think it really ever quite decides what it wants to be. I mean, sure, it’s Oceans 7/11, but … well … for me, it didn’t quite reach the pedals there. It was closer to Oceans (Double Knot) 7, but I digress.

If I let myself get unwound I can build up a healthy argument for how it could have been better/different (yes, I’m a writer, why do you ask?).

Still, I think you should see it. Why is that, you ask?

Well, here you go:

Reason 1) Daniel Craig: Yeah, he’s clearly having fun here, and it’s rare to see an actor who is really having fun.
Reason 2) Silliness: Yeah, the plot is stupid. And yeah, the people are stupid, too…at least the males are (I mean, essentially even the “smart” guys here are a few watts short of a full charge, but it works okay). But on the whole the film is entertaining scene-to-scene. A perfectly fine way to spend a couple hours even if you might forget it in a few months (except for Craig, anyway).
Reason 3) Channing Tatum’s Heist Model: Talk about your on-the-cheap planning tool. Humorous. Ultimately, the movie has several chuckles to it.
Reason 4) The Indie Track: Steven Soderbergh essentially made this himself. It’s a good enough effort and, being an indie publisher, I like supporting indie kinds of things.
Reason 5) Daniel Craig: Okay, I know he was #1, but I labeled this as Five Reasons, and really there’s only four. But Craig is so fun that it’s worth giving him a second slot. Craig is to Logan Lucky as Clooney is to Oceans. He’s fully committed to the character, and plays it as much with a wink to himself as anything else. He integrates into the seams of the film and manages to be the pulse of the thing. He’s super competent in the one place he needs to be competent, and (unlike most of the characters), he pulls off a rough hillbilly “cool under pressure” in the moments where he’s out of his water.

So, yeah, if you’re debating, I say go ahead. If nothing else, it goes great with popcorn.

14 Apr

Big Little Lies

So, Lisa and I binge watched HBO’s Big Little Lies the past couple days. It’s a good story. You should watch it too, if you haven’t already. But beyond that, it’s an interesting piece to me specifically for the fact that it addresses plot out of order (well, that and the fact that it utilizes a totally kick-ass soundtrack that includes, among other things, remarkable use of Janis Joplin [and the Big Brother and the Holding Company’s] “Ball and Chain” and a cover of “You can’t Always Get What You Want” from Ituana, which if I remember to do it I’ll embed at the end of this little piece). In all seriousness, every piece of music this series uses is so perfectly matched to the story that it’s almost worth multiple views for this alone.

Anyway, regarding out of order (and doing my best to not give any spoilers beyond what happens very, very early in the story…I hate spoilers):

Not having read the book, I came into it essentially blind.

The story opens with a crime scene and the first episode is highly populated with snippets of interviews. It says this is a mystery, a crime story, a whodunit. And in the end, that is, of course, true. Played according to Hoyle, the next steps would be to bring the investigators in, and watch their struggle as they attempted to wrestle the truth from the suspects. The suspects would play off each other. Deviousness would ensue.

But instead, Big Little Lies goes a different direction, dropping into deep flashback to give us the lives of four women dealing with four different kinds of problems and four different family situation. No, strike that, what at first seems to be four women is actually five. The primary thrust of the story is told in that flashback, and rather than a true “whodunit” the story is a “howdidithappen.”

To a greater degree this annoyed me at the beginning.

I’m used to my mysteries being about the interaction of the investigators. I was more annoyed as the beginning of part two, when it became obvious what the structure was going to be. But by the middle of that episode I stepped back and started watching what the story was really about, and the fact is that this isn’t really a crime story at all. Of course, there’s a crime, and, of course there’s an investigation, but…well…to go further would break my rule on spoilers I think, so I’ll leave it there except to say that the structure works quite well for the story itself.

In fact, having now seen the series, I’m interested in reading the book itself to see how closely it’s followed. I assume fairly closely. In reality, I don’t know that the story could be told in any other fashion.

As a general note, and in regard to the series itself, I should say that I loved the cast of women in particular (the men were a tad predictable, but then, I suppose maybe that’s my male pattern stupidity raising up to pretend we’re not really that simple when in reality we might well be). Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley had the strongest roles (to me), and played them about as well as can be played. Zoe Kravitz is almost impossible not to watch, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern are award-winning actors, and it shows. The child actors are all pretty remarkable, too.

Anyway, if you like character-driven stories with a hint of danger, crime and mystery, you’ll love “Big Little Lies.” And if you’re a writer wanting to see how to play with time inside your work you’ll find value in watching it even if that kind of work isn’t your usual cup of tea.

04 Sep

Sunspring … extreme SF, all the way down

A little bit ago, I wrote an entry that I titled “The Rules They Are A Changin’, in which I discussed some “sky is falling’ kind of thoughts about what happens to the economy when AI do almost all the work. The piece got a comment or two, both on the site and on the Facebook feed it went into. The comments were similar to what I hear when I talk to people about this: “Yes, Ron,” the comments all start, “but a computer will never be able to fully replace a human’s thinking. It will never be able to make art!”

This, of course, ignores the fact that they already are making art, oftentimes indistinguishable from that which humans do today, oftentimes … er… distinguishable?

In the later category one might include Sunspring, a fascinating 9-minute short SF film that was made off a screenplay written by an AI that had been feed a whole bunch of SF screenplays, and then prompted to write one of its own. I should note that the film was written and released well before my little note—but I’ve only now ran into it, so I’m only now talking about it. I’ll link to the film at the end of this blurb. You should watch it. It’s intensely interesting for all its aspects, both good and bad. It’s meta. SFnal in concept and content in a strangely delicious way (delicious to me, anyway, your mileage will certainly vary).

In other words, it’s a weird film. The kind of thing a college kid who’s a fan of Phil Dick and David Bowie might write while on an acid trip. But it’s also oddly beautiful, as I suppose such things can be. As with all screenplays, it is infused with the human aspect of the actors, so the entire product is not AI/CGI, but then this kind of fits part of the questions I asked in the piece I first wrote. What happens to us when the AI starts to write screenplays that are “better” than what we can write? or at least “similar enough” to what we can write to make them more attractive to the marketplace?

Do we become merely interpreters?

At least until AI constructs can learn to act?


And let’s be clear, Sunspring is in no way an indicator that human screenplay writers are on the precipice of getting run out of business tomorrow.

But in two years? Five? Ten?

Who knows? But, yes, friends, I do think the rules really a changin’.

Regardless, here’s a really interesting foray into the idea that a computer can already come up with in 2016.

18 Feb

The Horror Genre & Toni Morrison

As result of a workshop we’ll be going to soon, Brigid and I were recently talking about the horror genre, and some of the difficulties it has. Specifically, we were talking story structure, and how the key to the genre is handling the root of the terror–the “monster” as it were. I posited in that discussion that stories in the genre were often not traditional stories when it comes to their structure, that stories in the horror genre were often written primarily just to reveal the depths of the big bad thing rather than to tell a tale, and that once this big bad thing was revealed the “story” was done and the “validation” began.

I should say that I am no expert on the genre. I’m not deeply read in it, and I’m 100% certain that you can find examples of great horror being written today. But I think it’s fair to say that the great horror being written today has a lot of undertow to fight against.

Brigid, for her part agreed in general to my view, saying something like: “Once the monster is revealed, I get a lot less scared.”

Against this conversation comes a great piece written by Grady Hendrix at Tor.com regarding Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the horror field‘s reluctance to embrace it.

It’s a good read for the insider and the fan alike. And it’s something worth thinking about from all directions. I was particularly taken with the juxtaposition of the genre’s present state of playing with its tropes as a foundation vs. Morrison’s focus on the individual and the sense of terror that springs from the things we do. I’m not suggesting one thing is better than the other–though I’ll admit I personally enjoy reading stories written from Morrison’s viewpoint better than the other. But I do think there is value in understanding the difference between the two. Morrison’s viewpoint is probably harder to write, and it’s certainly harder to read (meaning it makes one become introspective in the process of consuming it rather than be more of an outside observer).

I also appreciate that Hendrix spends a moment looking at the content and the social viewpoint of something like Morrison’s work in that its content forces us to look at things that we don’t always want to look at. This is a quandary.

It’s actually a quandary that we’re seeing in the area of comic books as they transform from the printed form onto the big screen. Comics were once a field for big morality tales, in reality. Pulpy at times, of course, but they were plays on good and evil, and individual responsibility, and the cost of being a good person vs. the shame of evil. The art in these things was often glorious, sometimes not. But the stories were huge. Today it seems to me that the entertainment value of a comic is more related to the effects one can put on the screen than the stories themselves. A related area is that the social conversations around comic films are focused more on inclusion regarding casting (which I fully agree with), rather than on inclusion regarding the portrayal of cultures in fuller ways. Perhaps that will be next. I don’t know. But it seems to me that comic book movies are really just playing with the tropes of comic books rather than focusing on things that made them (for me) great.

Anyway, I digress.

If you have interest in genre, or interest in Toni Morrison’s work, I suggest you read Hendrix’s thoughts. Definitely worth the time.

25 Jul

Life Itself

We went to go see “Life Itself,” the new documentary on Roger Ebert. It is a beautiful film, and both Lisa and I strongly recommend it.

I think there are people in this world who are just remarkably different in ways that are hard to fully comprehend. Roger Ebert was one of those kinds of guys, and this movie opens the door just far enough to let you see exactly what a maestro of life he really was.

When I was younger he was a marker. He and Gene Siskel made movies interesting. But as I grew older and started to understand what it took for a pair of people to talk like he (and Siskel did), I think things changed. In the last 15-20 years he moved into a different category. He had a voice, a position that he could always make me see. When Lisa and I would see a film, the first thing we did when we got home was to read Ebert’s views. Most of the time he added depth to things that helped us appreciate the work that goes into the craft of filmmaking, or helped us understand the film’s place in the history of theater, or … well … he always added something of value.

Lisa and I took a brief walk this evening after the film, and I told her that I always thought Siskel and Ebert were fun to watch because it was the rare case of getting to watch two people who actually know what they are talking about discuss the world they care about. I’ll stand by that. Of course, some of the best moments of “Life Itself” come in the form of conversation with the two of them.

Then came the last years of his life, and his use of the net is ways that others couldn’t.

He lived a notable life that is worth remembering, and that alone would be enough to make me suggest you see the film. But I think the heart of Roger Ebert’s story is formed of his relationship to Chaz (his wife) and his relationship to his work. I won’t say more than that, except to say that I think Roger Ebert was a remarkable person, and the film seems, to me, to be worthy of the man and the life he lived.

10 Nov

Ender’s Game: Meh-

Lisa and I saw Ender’s Game this afternoon, and unfortunately didn’t find it particularly worthy. This book is pretty much hallowed ground among both Lisa and I, but Lisa clearly vlaues it even more. She reads it fairly often, and had re-read it again last week just to prepare.

For me, well, the word I used while walking out of the theater was “disjointed.” It’s okay, I guess. I mean, you can follow the story and get the gist of the messages behind the original piece. But, if ever a story existed for the 12-hour mini-series construct, perhaps this is it. The story gets told, but the heart and soul of it seems spread terribly thin–for instance, the mind-game that gets so much exploration in the book is kind of hand-waved at until the very end. I have to admit that I had a moment where I struggled with the juxtaposition between the fundamental relationship between Ender and his enemy, and the now well documented social views of OSC.

I’m sure that didn’t help my enjoyment.

Lisa, though … man. I can’t remember leaving a theater with her ever being so mad. She did not like the changes. She did not like the brief story arcs. She did not like that the story shied away from having Ender actually kill two other kids (choosing, instead, to have Ender just beat them up). And it goes on from there.

So, I give it a “meh.” and Lisa gives it a “hated it.” So I’m going to give Ender’s Game a final grade of meh-.

Should you go?

Sure. Why not? But, as Lisa posted on he FB page, it might serve you better to just skip it and read the book instead.

07 Oct

Roger Would Have Loved It

I forgot Roger Ebert died,” Lisa said Saturday night. “I think I’m going to cry.”

We had just gotten back from seeing Gravity at the IMAX 3D theater up in Indy, and we were beginning our traditional pass at reading reviews–something we always do after seeing a film. It’s been quite a while since our last movie, so I assume Lisa was just on auto-pilot.

I completely agree with her feelings. I suddenly felt bad about Ebert’s passing when she mentioned him. Yes, it would have been great to read Ebert’s commentary on Gravity. But that’s not why I missed Roger Ebert that evening. In fact, to say I missed him is not quite right. I felt something totally different about Roger Ebert and Gravity. What I felt the most–what made me the most bittersweet–was the idea that Ebert didn’t get the chance to see this film, which I’m absolutely positive he would have adored.

Everyone is buzzing about the cinematography and the 3D, and they should. I’m 100% certain an Ebert review would have included glowing praise for it–it’s the first time I’ve ever seen 3D used where it wasn’t intrusive (admittedly I see only the occasional 3D film … I must say, though, that the 3D previews were laughably funny to me–especially those for the Hobbit as they all reminded me of those old viewfinders that we had as kids back in the late 60s and early 70s).

So, anyway, the look of the film is remarkable. But for me that’s the fringe.

Gravity, you see, is an absolutely amazing film that proves to me all the things I think about movies and storytelling are true. These are things like they are best when they are short (90 minutes), and it’s okay to be a little schmaltzy if you’ve earned the right to do so first. Things like they are best when they are smart, and they are best when the villain doesn’t give an inch and in fact (in this case when the villain is the vacuum of space and a rogue mass of debris) is just doing her business. They are best when the have a purpose, a message, and preferably a message about how we might best view the human condition.

There are reviewers who I’ve seen call this movie a piece of science fiction, but Ebert would have seen through that. It’s not science fiction, he would have said. It’s a contemporary story set in the real environment of space, perhaps the first of its kind (I say that now given only my background, but Ebert would know for sure, and if it wasn’t the first of its kind he would refer me to a few others–the guy knew his films). As I noted in the bit I linked, Ebert was a Skiffy guy, a geek, a follower of old-time monster movies and science fiction double features. He would see this for what it is–a victory for the world of science fiction, and story that feels like science fiction but really is not much different than any other action feature set on the Earth. It’s only speculative bits are the stretching of a few pieces of logic needed to kinda make the thing work.

Yes, I missed Roger Ebert at that moment, too. I missed reading his review. But mostly, I’m left with only one piece of sadness about the whole thing, and that’s the feeling that I really wish Roger Ebert had gotten to see Gravity because I am certain he would have loved it.

06 Jul

My Thoughts on 42

Thursday Lisa and I went to see “42,” which is (as I told Lisa afterwards) probably the worst movie I’ve ever really enjoyed. What this means, I guess, is that the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier is so powerful on its own that you almost can’t make it uninteresting. But the story’s presentation is clunky at times, and several of the facts and historical details included are just flat-out wrong–which is pretty annoying, especially since getting them right wouldn’t have hurt the story a bit (or, as I will argue, would have helped it considerably).

Things like the beaning of Jackie Robinson–which did not happen (Robinson was hit, but not beaned in 1947)–and historical oddities like the Dodgers wearing home whites when Robinson later homers off the same pitcher later in the season, even though the game was played in Pittsburgh and they should have been wearing gray. Yeah, the last is petty, I know, but it’s hard to believe the movie makers can get these things wrong. Or things like how, in doing ten minutes of research, you can find out other such simple things–like the fact that the pitcher in question (Fritz Ostermueller) was left-handed, but was portrayed in the film as throwing right-handed.

Yes, it’s just a detail as far as the story is concerned–the handedness of the pitcher doesn’t really matter, right? But still, how hard would it have been to get that right, and where are the lobbyists for left-handed people? I mean, this really can’t stand, can it? That’s lefty discrimination. [healthy grin]

For me the lack of historical factualism in this kind of a film detracts from the power of the story because it tells me the filmmakers didn’t feel the story alone was enough. The bean ball inclusion was particularly aggravating. For me it shows a lack of respect for what Robinson really did. I do not need a trumped-up beaning to understand the vitriol that Robinson faced in 1947. I see no need to sensationalize the process he went through with a fake timeline that included a beaning that did not happen (Robinson was apparently beaned in 1949, two years later– by a Pittsburgh pitcher who was not Ostermueller, BTW. But this story was about 1947). The truth is that Ostermueller hit Robinson on the arm in 1947, and that it rallied the team to Robinson’s side. At best, all you could say is that the pitch was thrown at Jackie’s head, and that Robinson shielded himself with his arm. There was no reason to portray the pitch as a bean ball–except for the fact that a bean ball feels more spiteful.

But it gets worse. Let’s look at the opportunity loss, at what the film leaves out in deference to the bean ball.

By focusing on one bean ball, the film essentially misses the true nature of major league pitchers aggressiveness toward Jackie Robinson. Instead of one bean ball, the filmmakers could have shown a montage of the four times Jackie Robinson was hit by a pitch in the first month of his career (the one by Ostermueller being the last of the four). If they wanted to portray how hard major league pitchers were gunning for Robinson, they could have pointed out the no other player on the Dodgers got hit more than five times in the entire year. Instead, they opted for a passing reference by Branch Rickey that Jackie Robinson was “leading the league in being hit by pitches” while he schooled Pee Wee Reese on what it means to get threatened.

I suppose it could be noted that Robinson was hit nine times that year, and came in second in HBP to the St. Louis Cardinals’ Whitey Kurowski’s 10. This means Robinson was hit only five times the rest of the season–still a lot, but on the edge of normal for a guy who crowded the plate.

This truth for me is much stronger than the trumped up beaning. The truth is that for a month or more, National League pitchers had declared open season on throwing at black hitters, and that there was only one target that fit the bill. A trumped up beaning says there was this one man with isolated hatred. The truth says that there was a simmering resentment across all of baseball that was as deep as the game itself. The truth is that after that first month, that trial by fire, the league settled down. The truth is that Jackie Robinson got hit by a barrage of baseballs for a month and did nothing but get up and trot to first base, and that by those actions he beat the world. The truth appears to be that after the fourth time, his teammates saw a glimpse of the truth and rallied around him.


I admit that I came into the theater expecting to see a framework laid out that defined exactly what the social structure of the country was at the time. I expected to see segregation at its worst, I expected to see the death threats, the FBI, and the social upheaval that this was playing out against. Much of that is in the movie, but some is barely realized, and the rest is done in such an overt, one-note fashion that is seems to reduce the force of the blow (if that makes sense).

Despite all that, I left the theater happy that I had seen it, and happy that it exists. I liked 42. Jackie Robinson’s story is too important to forget, perhaps especially now that the problems the world faces are not so overt. Perhaps that’s why I left the theater thinking “42” is the worst movie I’ve ever enjoyed.

01 Jun

When I Miss Roger Ebert the Most

I’m pleased to note this morning that Interstellar Fiction has published my short story “Out of the Fire.” You can find the entire story free on their site.


I’m also pleased to note that yesterday I completed the first draft of the short story that had been eluding me for the past week or two. For the moment I’ve titled it “The Flying Problem,” though that may change as I go back through it and make it real.


Lisa and I finally got around to seeing Thor last night, then read the reviews. We liked the movie well enough for what it was, and Lisa had the obligatory OMG moment when Chris Hemsworth somehow lost his shirt. But the part I want to talk about is the reviews. Actually, I don’t even really mean the reviews themselves, but the act of reading the reviews.

You see, I miss Roger Ebert.

For years, Lisa and I have made a ritualistic process of ignoring reviews before seeing a movie, then racing home and reading James Berardinelli and Roger Ebert’s views on what we had just seen. We liked them both, and when I read the pair I felt like I had a proper cross-hatching of the work. These guys are pros, who are rooting for the work to be good, and who can judge things for what they are aspiring to be rather than just say what they were thinking. Ebert was a better technician and story guy, and he was a better pure writer. But Berardinelli is also a guy who gets it.

After seeing Thor, Lisa said “Ebert didn’t like it.”

This caught me off guard. I hadn’t considered that the film came out before Ebert passed. And so I went to Rotten Tomatoes and I read James Berardinelli’s review, and then I read Ebert (because that’s the order, you know? JB, then RE. Never the other way around. Berardenelli is great, but you leave the anchor spot to Ebert). Even better, Lisa pushed me to read Ebert’s rebuttal to comic fans who railed against his opinion. Ebert was in his full won’t-back-down Ebertness, and best, he was at his full-load geekiest, too. Ebert, you see, was one of us. He was a skiffy, comic, fantasy nerd at heart. He loved this stuff. He just didn’t like Thor because (let’s face it) it isn’t a terribly inspiring comic movie. It’s simple fun, pure entertainment on a scene-by-scene basis with a story line that is both linear and slight. But hey, that’s okay.


All I really want to say is that these are the times I miss Roger Ebert the most. Sure, I read his blog some, and I remember his TV time, especially with Gene Siskel, of course. But Roger Ebert, to me, was about the merging of the film world with the written word.

Seeing as I need to actually do some work on my fiction this morning, I leave you with this last bit of Ebert, perhaps his most famous review–the last half of which is one of those pieces of work that makes it an instant classic.

19 May


We went to see “The Great Gatsby” today. I thought it was an interesting film that was worth seeing despite the fact that it fell flat in a lot of ways. In other words, I can see why it’s drawn mixed reviews.

What I liked:

1) The story is, of course, really solid. And, since the movie was pretty true to the book … well, you get it.
2) I always enjoy watching Baz Luhrmann’s work. Even when it doesn’t work,it’s interesting.

What I didn’t like:

1) The execution of the plot is clunky.
2) Though he makes an okay Gatsby, I admit I don’t get why Leo D is getting Oscar buzz for this. He’s done a gazillion roles better than this one. Perhaps that’s the reason he’s getting raves now. It happens, you know? Award politics can be more than a bit freaky.
3) The acting as a whole is not remarkable.
4) Several of Lurhmann’s attempts at grand slams end up missing by a bit.