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Portland Film Festival

Portland film fest

Saturday afternoon I attended a panel on Science Fiction, Film, and Technology. The panel boasted a pretty good line up, including Daniel H. Wilson of Robopocalypse fame. I enjoyed the discussion. Though I was struck by the thought that I may have spent too much time reading and thinking about this stuff. Wh? Well, during the course of listening to the flow of the conversation I would conceive a thought, a reference, a quote, etc. Within the next thirty seconds to a minute, one of the panelists would vocalize that exact thought. Perhaps I’ve spent too long marinating in the sci-fi pond, or perhaps it is growing stagnant.

One of the points politely contended was if the sort of films marketed as science fiction are truly science fiction. Or are they simply films of a different genre supplied with sci-fi trappings. An interesting question. Another question, that I don’t recall being addressed iis how interested would an audience be in a film that legitimately delved into hard sci-fi, the sort of technologically driven story written by scientists and engineers with a penchant for fiction, like the OG writers from the Golden Age of science fiction. A few films do tackle sociologically driven stories. But I believe those are easier to translate to compelling film.

The final question, delivered via Twitter, asked the panelists what their favorite science fiction story was, in any medium: film, novel, short story, etc. Now that is a broad question. I don’t think I could answer it. I cordially dislike most such arbitrary quantifications. Must I have a favorite? Cannot I enjoy multiple items equally? And of course one must separate ‘favorite’ from ‘greatest’, yet another arbitrary decision. Also the question eliminates categories. I don’t like requiring to pit novels against short stories, or short stories against film, or televisions shows against novels, etc. I suppose I should toss out some ideas. Dune, I could contend, is the greatest science fiction novel. But is it my favorite? I’d probably go with an old short story, something from RAH, or Fredric Brown. Or perhaps one of Jack Vance’s short novels. How to choose? Can’t do it. Same with film. I think Inception is a terrific science fiction film. But is it my favorite? Which would I rather watch again? Inception, or something like Robocop, or Predator, or The Terminator, Aliens, or hell, even Starship Troopers?

What do you think? Any favorites?

Knights of Badassdom, Film Review

Courtesy of my local library, yesterday I watched “Knights of Badassdom.” I’ll say at the outset that I had low expectations. Unfortunately, I hadn’t set them low enough.

“Knights of Badassdom” is the story of a LARP gone horribly wrong. For the uninitiated, LARP stands for ‘Live Action Roleplaying.’ It is tabletop roleplaying – e.g., Dungeons and Dragons –  removed from the table, taken outside and mashed up with amateur improv. It isn’t a pastime I have any experience with. Nor, frankly, do I have any interest in it. I believe it was Jerry Holkins of “Penny Arcade” fame who said “not everything is for you.” Sums it up, I think. Those that dig LARP, dig LARP. That it isn’t for me shouldn’t mean a damn thing to the aficianados.

I remember reading “Dream Park” as a kid and thinking how cool the concept sounded of taking on fantastical adventures in person. It doesn’t appeal to me as an adult. I don’t think I could get past the amusement park aspect, the self-consciousness of acting a part.  I’ve watched a few Society for Creative Anachronism combats. As a form of fencing, a regulated combat sport, I can appreciate the draw. But the rest of the in-character theatrics doesn’t move me. I don’t think I’d be able to get past the artificiality of it. Sitting at a table with a few friends and rolling dice is about as far as I can go with adult make believe. I’m just playing a game then, not pretending it goes any further than sheets of notebook paper and a map. And even that I’ve not had an opportunity to indulge in for too long.

The point is, I approached this film as an outsider. How an actual LARPer might view this take on his weekend fun, I don’t know.

So, on to the film. It is a mashup film, a nerd comedy crossed with a horror film. Nothing wrong with the concept. Cross-genre entertainments can yield fun results. Here though, the experiment failed. The horror is played for laughs, along the lines of “Army of Darkness” and the gore and special effects are of comparable quality. That is, deliberately campy, the scares so cheesy that they are obviously not intended to be taken seriously. While that worked for “Army of Darkness” it fell flat here.

The actors gave it their all. In fact the acting was fine across the board. And that is about all the praise I can bestow. Steve Zahn and Peter Dinklage are both excellent, but they can only do so much with the flat, caricatures they were given to play.

The hero’s journey is predictable, the love interest unlikely. I suppose the film was intended as some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy. I don’t know. I do know that I’ve seen better films exploring the sub-culture that is LARPing. “Role Models” for instance. Maybe some of the laughs were mean, but I found the film largely sympathetic to both LARPers and LARPing. And unlike “Knights of Badassdom” the jokes are actually funny. Even the no-budget “Unicorn City” provided a more interesting story and deeper characterization.

So, “Knights of Badassdom.” Can’t recommend it.

Firefly

I’ve been re-watching “Firefly.” Again, though I think it’s been about three years since my last viewing. I’ve got two episodes left, if you don’t count the film “Serenity” as an episode. Repeated consumption of any work of fiction begins to magnify its flaws. But “Firefly” still holds up despite the niggling inconsistencies and the choices obviously dictated by budgetary considerations.

The opening – that is, the opening intended by the series’ creators – is strong. But for me “Firefly” doesn’t really hit its stride until episode 5 “Safe,” its sweet spot being the run from “Our Mrs. Reynolds” through “Ariel.” I’m looking forward to the final episode, “Objects in Space” which is every bit as good as “Our Mrs. Reynolds” or “Jaynestown.”

The show strikes a very particular chord with a lot of viewers. I think it is partially the expression of freedom through travel, depicted in contrast to the grubby stuck-to-the-land experiences of the settlers on the pioneer planets and the nine-to-five drudgery of the core world inhabitants. But I think the deeper appeal is the comradery, the sense of kinship or close friendship the series shows intermittently between conflicts. This appears primarily in galley, with the crew sitting around the dining table. Those are the scenes I think I derive the most pleasure from.

Mr. Whedon and company created a masterpiece. Whether it would have sustained its quality over multiple seasons or would have suffered the diminishing returns most shows seem to is unanswerable. But I’m grateful for what we got. A flawed gem, true. But shiny.

Forced Hiatus from Popular Culture

I understand it’s been a good year for movies. I read glowing reviews and happy Facebook chatter about the recent crop of comic book films and the return of everyone’s favorite city-stomping behemoth.

I certainly hope they hold up on the small screen because that’s the only way I’m going to see them – months or perhaps years after their release. And when I say small screen I mean one of two screens: either my big screen television or the much more modest dimensions of my Acer Chromebook.

It isn’t that I do not want to see any of these movies in the theater. But my priority is my 6-month old daughter. Going to the theater is simply not an option. I can wait for the Blu-ray to reach the Red Box and rent the film for the night. That seldom works as well as one might hope. A two hour block of time, uninterrupted by an infant’s needs, is difficult to achieve. And if she is sleeping the volume must, of course, be minimized. The usual result of a rental is that my lovely wife and I watch twenty, perhaps thirty minutes of the movie, then turn it off for the night. We may – or may not – be able to finish it the next day before I need to return it.

So most of last year’s fare that is on my to-see list remains on the list.

My other source for film is Neflix. I am up late every night, writing and attending to Victoria’s last feeding and changing of the day. After getting in my word count I usually have time to watch a third or even half of a movie. Now, Neflix tends to provide streaming movies later than they are available for rental. And the selection is curtailed. But patience eventually brings many films I’ve hoped to watch to the small screen – to the very small screen. Hence my hope that the current crop of effects-driven spectaculars hold up on my – compact – viewing area.

And now Comcast has ceased providing free streaming of HBO shows. So no more “Game of Thrones” until the library gets in this season’s DVD set.

First World problems, right? I’ve plenty of books and a near endless supply of older films or television series at my beck. I’m hardly hurting for entertainment. Just don’t expect me to contribute to any conversations about the latest and greatest. I haven’t seen it.

Films of Consequence

I’m not sure the current generation will display the same tendency. But back in the early days of cable, back in the time of chunky VCRs and laser disc players, adolescents would view the same film over and over. At least I did as an adolescent. I imagine that was largely a function of limited viewing options. The number of cable channels was limited. HBO and Showtime would run the same selections through multiple times per day. Video rentals cost money and picking one was a crapshoot, so spending money on a tried and tested flick made sense. You might grab a couple of new films for the weekend but you’d always include and insurance pick, something you knew you liked.

It seems likely that with the sheer volume of options – streaming video, hundreds of cable channels, Red Box rentals – that variety and novelty will discourage tweens’ and teens’ multiple viewings of the same picture.

Musketeers

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109798/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

I caught a French flick called “Revenge of the Musketeers” the other night. I watch a lot of Netflix late at night while feeding my little bobblehead of a daughter. Some viewing choices are better than others. This one was pretty good. It got me to thinking about Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and how that tale has enriched the entertainment I enjoy.

“Revenge of the Musketeers” (or “La fille de d’Artagnan”) is a 1994 movie starring Sophie Marceau. Marceau, I believe, was once a Bond girl in one the Brosnan era James Bond outings.  If you don’t mind reading subtitles, I recommend checking out “Revenge of the Musketeers.” It is nicely photographed and well-acted, reminiscent (deliberately so, I assume) of the terrific Richard Lester “Musketeer” films. It employs similar styles of humor and the scenes, acting, and fight choreography are evocative of the earlier films. My guess is that the actors quite consciously played their roles as older versions of Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, and Frank Finlay. In fact, in one scene, Ms. Marceau (playing d’Artagnan’s daughter Eloise) wears a dress that appeared to me identical to one worn by Raquel Welch as Constance.

The Hobbit part II – what was that?

I’m going to grouse about “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug.” Sorry, but I have to vent a bit after dropping twenty-four bucks for a couple of tickets to see this bloated zeppelin-wreck of a film.

Before I begin kvetching, praise where praise is due. The sets are gorgeous. In small doses the fight scenes are well staged and fun to watch. And Benedict Cumberbatch voices a truly menacing Smaug.

Summer Movies

Apparently there are a number of science fiction and superhero movies out this year, a number of them purportedly even good.  I say apparently since – with the exception of Iron Man 3 – I haven’t seen any of them.  I don’t get to the theater often.  When I do it is usually to a second-run theater that serves food and beer.  My wife enjoys animated films, the sort marketed to children but with sly winks and nods to the adults in the audience.  And I like the well-written ones too.  So that’s what we usually see when we do get to the second-run theaters.

I tend not to see the big-budget releases until they get released as rentals.  And, honestly, a big screen television and a Blu-ray player doesn’t badly diminish the film watching experience.  Plus I can watch in the comfort of my own home, pause when I need to see a man about a horse, and I don’t have to pay through the nose if I want a snack.

But these big films don’t hit the rental market quickly, except for the box-office duds.  So, I’m going to have to wait.  And that means avoiding spoilers.  I understand there was some sort of kerfluffle regarding Superman.  I’m scrupulously avoiding details, I want to experience it without any preconceived notions.

So what shall I look forward to?  What did you enjoy at the cinema this year?

Captain Jean-Luc Picard – Science Fiction’s Greatest Villain

The captain of the Enterprise D, Jean-Luc Picard. James T. Kirk’s antithesis. A scholar, a diplomat, a man of culture.

And the perpetrator of monstrous crimes. Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader – pikers. Their villainy amounts to little more than a string of misdemeanors compared to the enormity of Captain Picard’s genocidal activities.

Count 1. Picard is a mass murderer on a galactic scale. After the Enterprise captured a lone Borg drone, Star Fleet had the opportunity to introduce a virus that would wipe out the Borg menace. Picard – on his own authority, without consulting with his superiors – ordered otherwise. The Borg subsequently murdered billions of sentients. Thats the big number with a ‘B.’ Billions. Picard would claim he couldn’t have expected that. A laughably weak defense. The Borg actions were eminently foreseeable. Picard’s failure to introduce the virus was reckless, negligent. All of those fictional billions deaths can be laid at his feet.

Count 2. Picard is also a prospective murderer on a vast scale. In the rather forgettable “Trek’”outing “Insurrection” the good captain was faced with an ethical dilemma that shouldn’t have stumped even a frosh philosophy major for more than five minutes. A colony of 600 or so were squatting on the secret of immortality. Star Fleet wanted to relocate them. Picard made the determination that the potential health and longevity of untold numbers of humans were trumped by a rather recent land claim of 600 people. Get that – he made the decision. Were I a Federation citizen facing my looming mortality I think I might be a bit irked that I wasn’t consulted, that Captain Picard personally eliminated the option of my continued existence. Thanks ever so much.

Verdict: Guilty on both counts.

Disagree? Go ahead and lay into me for impugning the good captain. And let’s face it, he could be a pretty cool character and Patrick Stewart was terrific in the role.

Book to Film Adaptations: or Oh, Peter Jackson, No!*

So ‘they’ are making a movie out of one of your favorite books/series. The excitement! The anticipation! The trepidation. What if ‘they’ screw if up/

Face it: ‘they’ are going to screw it up. There is no way on this Crom-forsaken earth that what ends up on the screen beneath the proscenium arch is going to match what appeared on the screen in the theater of your mind. Ain’t gonna happen. Some of it ‘they’ might pull off acceptably, even spectacularly. Funny thing is, that bit you thought looked exactly as you imagined it is a bit another viewer thought was an abomination that would have the author on a turbo-charged rotisserie in his grave (or put him in the grave early if he’s still an air-breather.) Everyone has an opinion. (I mean, seriously, have you seen the internet? Think of an opinion, the most outlandish possible position anyone could conceivably hold on a topic. Got one? OK, now make it just a little bit worse. Somewhere on a message board forum someone has expressed that exact opinion.)

The trick is managing expectations. I certainly experience disappointment, disbelief at liberties taken, scenes invented, characters changed. I’m not holding myself up as the acme of placid objectivity. Far from it. But it helps me enjoy the film as discrete work if I sit down knowing that at some point a gratuitous fight scene, created out of whole-cloth, will occur (or Frodo, tricked by Gollum on the border of Mordor, will order Sam to go home) because the writer/director felt the narrative required dramatic tension at that point.

My advice? Roll with it. Eat some popcorn. Appreciate the cinematography. You can read the book again later.

How do writers feel about the film versions of their work? I imagine there are as many different reactions as there are writers. I’ve had some (very minor) practical experience with adaptation of my own work. A short story of mine, “Trustworthy,” was produced as a student film. You can check it out HERE.  I’d have to say that overall I was pleased with it. I could understand certain changes necessary to convey on film what is provided in text by exposition. I might have made different choices here or there but I’ve no complaints.

What about you? What is your favorite/least favorite film adaptation. Have you had something you’ve written adapted into a different medium?

* Hat tip to John Ringo.