Sunday, June 30, 2013

How to use Hunger Games to teach your teen stuff

Does this picture break the 4th Wall for you?
I could name a hundred films I'd rather discuss with teenagers. But those aren't films most teenagers would freely choose to watch. This is. At least where female teens and tweens are concerned. And smart teen males will want to be knowledgeable about the films girls like to see if they're eager to make friends with girls. Dragging dates to Fast & Furious XXXV will not do the trick unless you're dating Danica Patrick...

Hunger Games is good discussion fodder because it's very, very popular; it's part of a trilogy of books and a coming tetralogy of films; and it has enough good points to build on (along with bad points to deal with).

How you approach it depends on the teen, of course. There are people who respond to any attempt at discussion with idiocies like "Why do you have to analyze everything? Why can't you just enjoy it?" People who say this may not be stupid (though that is a distinct possibility). They may be intellectually insecure or lazy, and trying to conceal this in an application of "offense is the best defense."

If the kid is young enough you can make a post-viewing discussion a precondition for letting them see "Hunger Games." If they're older...well, you may just have a dud on your hands. Sorry about that.

I do know people who consider any discussion of works of art a waste of time because they think the purpose of most art is frivolous--killing time, frothy entertainment. This can be worked with, though it's still hard. But let's get back to "Hunger Games" in particular.

Since I'm talking about talking about this film, now I'm going to include spoilers freely. Don't go on until you've seen it unless you don't care. Forewarned...

==========MANY SPOILERS FOLLOW ===========

There are two equally valid ways to talk about a movie like "Hunger Games:" as a film, and as philosophy--that is, as a reflection on life.

As a film, "Hunger Games" is an example of how you can tackle turning a book into a film--and in particular how you can make a film that coheres as a movie while at the same time leading to more films in the series (every TV series faces this challenge).

Practically speaking, a film can't be any longer than "Hunger Games" is. So what does your teen think of the choices the film makes in what to include from the book and what to leave out? If your teen thinks something left out should have been left in--such as, say, Rue's developing relationship with Catniss during the training period--what should be left out in order to make room for that?

Then, considering what is the same in book and movie, what about the fact that Catniss winds up not having to kill anyone we like, or anyone defenseless whether we like them or not? She does have to make a tough decision when it comes to, in effect, being ordered to kill Peeta. But that's it. This is an example of a plot designed to look tough that actually is not so tough. What if she'd had to choose between killing Rue or Peeta? It could have easily worked out that way.

Ask your teen what she would have done at each crucial decision point in Catniss's story. You can also see whether she caught the fact that Catniss doesn't love Peeta? She likes him, she's grateful to him for his acts of kindness earlier in their lives. But gratitude ain't love.

Also, it seems like Catniss hadn't been teaching Primrose how to hunt. Why not? Would your teen have made that choice? If your teen had been in Primrose's position, would she have asked Catniss to teach her? [I'm only talking about the movie here.]

Taking a step back, is this future society plausible? For example, if the Capitol City denizens are so decadent, who are the highly disciplined military/police forces? They aren't lounging around decadently. The Roman Empire wound up hiring "barbarians" for their military--who wound up taking over eventually. A college-bound teen might want to explore this to see what are the parallels between real empires like the Roman one and the world of Hunger Games.

And what about the scientists, engineers and technicians needed to maintain a very, very advanced technological infrastructure? That all takes discipline and hard work, not dilettantish decadence. Where are these people?

And, like, what are those killer dogs made of? CGI can't bite people. That's tech way beyond anything we can imagine.

A lot of teens, fed on a rich diet of CGI-stuffed scifi/action movies, may not realize what's science and what's fiction. Your teen should realize that those lethal out-of-thin-air dogs represented tech waaay beyond most other stuff in the film. That doesn't make it invalid to use; but you should realize the difference, and so should your teen.

Which brings us to using Hunger Games to help your teen learn about the art of movies. You can talk about casting, screenwriting, cinematography, lighting, sound, music, editing, CGI, direction, mise en scene--even to technical details like scene transitions (cuts, wipes, fade out/fade in). And you can talk about the Fourth Wall (that divides the audience from the "stage"). And about POV (Point of View).

Does Hunger Games ever break the Fourth Wall, intentionally or otherwise (it's intentional when the actor turns to the audience and addresses them directly; it's unintentional when the shadow of a boom mike drifts into view). What's Hunger Games' POV? Are we seeing everything through Catniss's eyes? (we aren't--but where and when are we not, and is that a good idea here?).

What about the last fight on top of the Cornocopia, when the Evil Boy makes a little existential speech about knowing he's dying, regretting the fact that his whole life has been about training to be a killer, but thinking he might as well kill once more? Why did the screenwriter include that little speech? Why? Did it complicate things for Catniss, who has trouble killing anyway? Does it tell us more about this society? Does it make the Evil Boy a little sympathetic, and is that a good thing?

Look at the credits at the end with your teen. See if she knows what the different jobs are. Look up the ones you don't recognize on Wikipedia or suchlike. Who's a Best Boy? A Key Grip? A Second Unit director? See what locations were used.

Some say casting is 80% of a movie. What would the film have been like if they'd used someone besides Jennifer Lawrence as Catniss? I heard Chloe Grace Moretz wanted the part. Would she have been too young? She's one of the most athletic young female stars in Hollywood, though of course Lawrence is no slouch. But she's also, like, half a foot shorter. Would that have made a difference?

It's not like Hunger Games is a towering masterpiece of a movie. But it isn't terrible either. And assuming it's one of your teen's favorite movies, you can use it as a gateway to thinking about society, real world morality, the future, and filmmaking.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Now that a new generation knows how great Joss Whedon is from The Avengers, it's time to introduce them to Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You do not want Buffy looking at you this way.

The challenge today is how to spread the word to those who still don't know how great this show is.

The trouble with showing them the two-episode Pilot first is that it's not as artful as the show gets later on, and it's shot in 16mm (grainy) on a shoestring budget. They do amazing things to work around the budget limitations (such as using placement of different colored lighting and key lights to create the sensation of depth to overcome the "flatness" of 16mm film stock), but production values soar later on. And people care about production values, even though few even know what the term means.

The trouble with showing them anything else is that the show is so serialized that showing people anything later necessarily involves spoilers--and having to explain a lot of things that would otherwise fly over their head. You'll have to make a judgment call about what would suit your friend best.

For the art film crowd, "The Body" is the obvious choice. That's also good for someone who isn't a big fantasy/scifi fan, since there's so little of the supernatural in the episode. For an Avengers fan, maybe "Hush," which is a tour de force of screenwriting after all. For a Twilight fan, maybe "Buffy vs. Dracula" would be both appropriate and something of an antidote. For a Glee fan, the Buffy musical episode "Once More with Feeling" is the obvious choice.

I like lots of current shows, especially Orphan Black and--though it may be losing a bit of its mojo--Dr. Who, and even my favorite guilty pleasure, Vampire Diaries. But Buffy had Whedon and Gellar. Whedon has never had a vessel as perfect for him as Sarah Michelle Gellar (though Avengers' Black Widow/Scarlett Johansson is a solid second, deserving of her own backstory film), and Gellar sure hasn't had another writer/director like Whedon--she's done nothin' but clunkers since. The two together in Buffy was and remains a uniquely fruitful collaboration.

show is. A new generation of fans may come in from the success of Whedon's The Avengers. But what episode to show them first?

Why don't I watch Glee any more?

It got preachy. Now it seems to spend most of its time trying to convince the kind of people who'd never watch it that everyone should be judged by the content of their character, not their color/gender orientation/medical condition/weight/home life etc. etc. etc.

The problem is that the kind of people who do watch Glee already agree. So they're preaching to the choir, with anti-stereotypes that have become as stereotypical as the stereotypes they're combatting. The Crippled Guy; The Sensitive Gay Guy; The Girl With Downs Syndrome; The Fat Girl; The Asian Couple; the Black Guy and so forth.

They don't come across as individuals, but rather as representatives of some category of humanity that the writers think have gotten a raw deal.

It's like the 13th Century Everyman plays, with each character named for a trait--Everyman, Lust, Anger, etc. Hiss the villain, cheer the hero. Bo-ring.

Not to mention how much the show's music represents the tastes of 40-something male homosexuals rather than contemporary high school students. Retro much?

Ellen DeGeneres first came out when she had a sitcom, which she proceeded to destroy by using every episode as a soapbox. But she learned her lesson, and her daytime show is hugely popular. She doesn't hide who she is in the slightest; she just doesn't make it the show's prime focus. The Glee team should go to Ellen for advice.

Glee should focus on the music actual high school students today actually like. Its casting should be based on interesting people rather than didactic propaganda objectives.

Maybe they could get Joss Whedon to give them a plot arc for the next season...he was able to take a hackneyed genre--the superhero action movie--and turn it into something actually interesting (i.e. The Avengers). Together, Ellen and Joss could really turn this show around.

Oh, and drop the NY suplot. Either spin it off or forget it. Personally I'm sooo over Lea Michelle's character. Glee isn't Smash. And now Smash simply isn't. Might be a hint.

Lastly, one thing that could really shake things up would be to do a ballad week and bring in (for just one or two episodes) 13 year old singer Jackie Evancho, who has a voice so beautiful--regardless of age--that many grown people weep when she sings.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Orphan Black--no-spoilers review

If ever a TV show needed a no-spoilers review it's this one. The trouble is, everything's a spoiler when "Orphan Black" is concerned, and the less you know going in, the more fun you'll have with this show's onrushing tidal wave of plot twists and turns.

So--what can I tell you that will let you know whether you want to see this or not without spilling all those beans? Well, I'll try.

1. Don't see this if you need glossy, upbeat Hollywoody science fiction. There isn't a single Dudly Do-Right in the entire cast of characters. Everyone has issues. Everyone has baggage. Problems can't always be solved by sweet reason, Star Trek style. And who's a Good Guy or a Bad Guy isn't always clear, even when you learn just who and what they are. And with some of the more damaged characters, they can't necessarily be fixed--ever. Some things you can't come back from. And problems don't have quick fixes. That is, there's no pandering to your inner 12 year old. This is a show for grown-ups.

There is hope, and character growth, and goodness--but not unmixed, and not come by easily. Think about Egon Schindler of Schindler's List--a womanizer, war profiteer, Nazi collaborator--who also saved over 900 Jews. He'd fit right in here.

2. Don't see this if you have to have a saintly, lovable central character who always does the right thing without hesitation. If you're the kind of person who likes to sit in judgement of others, and who thinks nothing in a person's upbringing/environment can excuse anything wrong they do, skip Orphan Black. There's no black and white morality to be had here.

3. Skip this if you need your science fiction to be 100% scientifically plausible. The basic premise for the show isn't possible in the timeframe of the show (it's set in present-day Toronto). I forgive the show for this--it would have made the show too expensive to produce if it had been set 40 years in the future. And the show is so character-driven that that this flaw is overshadowed by the rest of it anyway.

4. This has moments of sex, violence and bad language that aren't outside the envelope of today's television, but it sure ain't "Little House on the Prairie" or a Hallmark Special either. And the general intensity level is HIGH. A Russian friend of mine thought it was overacted, but she's the kind of person who expects characters to always respond to events optimally--which I see as a holdover of the "Soviet Realism" she was raised on--where every show is expected to function as straightforward moral instruction. This show has a moral center, but it doesn't wear it on its sleeve.

5. See this if you loved the best of Hitchcock's movies--scary, intelligent, suspenseful, sometimes white-knuckly, more fear, less gore. Don't see this if a little gore is too much for you, though. There's a scene of self-surgery that's rather stomach-churning, though it isn't gratuitous. And it's not the only Ewwww! moment in the show. Forewarned is forearmed.

6. See this if you admire great--not good, great--acting. The show's star, 28 year old Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, from Regina, Saskatchewan, won the Critics' Choice award for Best Actress in a TV Drama (the drama being Orphan Black), dumbfounding all the Hollywood Establishment types who perhaps hadn't even heard of this show.

I love great stars like Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, who cultivate an onscreen persona and mostly play that throughout their careers. Maslany is a different kind of actor--the kind who can play ANYONE. The kind who can disappear into a role so deeply you forget the actor and only see the character they're playing. She's an actor's actor, like Alec Guinness was. Maslany plays multiple roles in Orphan Black, and in each role she's that person--character, mannerisms, dialect, everything. You're never unclear as to which character you're looking at--including when she's playing one of her characters pretending to be another of her characters.

Acting schools will have their students watch Orphan Black to see how it should be done. James Lipton will be camping on Maslany's doorstep to get her on his Actor's Studio interview show.

The other characters are well-acted too--particularly the young man who plays the central character's brother. I've seen him in interviews and he's nothing like his character. And it's a role that could have been overplayed; instead it's given a nuanced performance by this actor.

7. See it if you like mysteries that gradually answer your questions, without copouts. This isn't like "Lost," where the final resolution of the plot left most viewers going "Seriously?" Not here. You'll have a lot of questions, and you'll get a gradual stream of answers--though many lead to more questions, but those get answered too, and so forth.

8. See this if you prefer serialized shows; don't see this if you insist on episodic shows. That is, the first season of Orphan Black is a 430 minute movie. Don't even think of seeing it any other way. You'll be lost, and not in a good way.

9. See this if you like to pay attention. Don't try to play this while you're doing a crossword puzzle. You'll miss something important.

10. Humor: not much. There are frequent light touches, but mostly it's a drama, and a drama on the white-knuckle side of things. Called it fast-paced is an understatement. My spouse and I returned from our honeymoon in Japan on the last airliner out of Tokyo before they closed the airport due to an incoming typhoon. On our takeoff roll the rain was blowing horizontally. One we were airborne that fully-loaded 747 bounced around as if it was a little Cesna 152. The passengers were audibly gasping in unison every time that huge airplane abruptly dropped a few dozen feet.

Orphan Black moves like that.

As I said, the show is set in the present day. The science fiction aspects are real but don't involve the visual props of most sci-fi--no space ships, no aliens, no time travel, no teleporting, really very little requiring CGI other than what's needed to put Maslany on the screen in several places at one time. I can think of one little thing, but you only see it briefly and I'd have to give you a spoiler to tell you more.

This means that people who don't go for the really futuristic stuff might like this one. On the other hand, those who love the futuristic stuff might question whether this is really sci-fi (it is, though).
I hope I've told you enough to get you to see the pilot--provided none of my cautions are a problem for you. I watch way too much TV for my own good, and I've found myself looking forward to the next episode--and season--more than almost any other show I've seen. Right up there with Game of Thrones, only on a miniscule fraction of the budget. And the fact that it delivers so much bang for the budget impresses me, though strictly speaking I suppose I shouldn't give it credit for that.
If you need to find out what the plot is, read any of the other reviews here. But I urge you not to. See the pilot. Then come back here and read them.

If you want to calibrate your tastes against mine, here are some sci-fi shows I've liked:
Babylon 5
Doctor Who (the reboot, not the old series)
Red Dwarf
Star Trek (and Next Gen but not so much Voyager or Deep Space Nine)

Moviewise I'm reminded a bit of Let Me In/Let the Right One In, even though they aren't science fiction but rather fantasy. But they also have that gritty, realistic quality that's so missing from so much sci-fi/fantasy.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Great singer most Americans have never heard of

Ever heard of Neli Andreeva ( Нели Андреева )? Probably not. She's Bulgarian, known in her homeland as a great singer of both folk music and the Bulgarian equivalent of classical crossover music.

You can buy the album with this beautiful song on it here.

On the Business of Art, using the case of Jackie Evancho's official website

Lately the official fansite of young Classical Crossover singer Jackie Evancho has fallen into
disrepair. The site has been refusing to add new members for nearly two weeks--without explanation. There's no sign that anyone's moderating discussions. Concerts are announced on the artist's FaceBook page, and then may or may not be also announced on the official website. 

Many members of the site have been complaining vociferously. Particularly since many paid for the premium membership in order to enjoy the perk of being able to get tickets for concerts several days before they go on sale to the general public. 

I get the impression that the artist's parents have decided that the official FaceBook page does just as good a job as the official fansite, and it's free, while they have to pay a hosting company for the official site--a fee based in part of the average number of users. Hence, possibly, the ban on registering new members. 

But a FaceBook page is, while necessary, not sufficient. A major artist needs an official website in order to build the "brand" of that artist.

I posted the following proposal on the official fan site, making the case to this artist--and, really, any other who's shooting for a major presence--to hire an internet presence manager.

Here's my entry:

I don't want Team E (mostly Jackie Evancho's parents)  to invest in the official fansite because they're obligated by the fans' loyalty and support. Or because we're just so darn likeable.

I want them to invest in this site for the sake of Jackie and her brand--her business, in which she's the co-founder, manufacturing manager, and will at some point be the CEO.

That is, putting time and money into Jackie's online presence would be a good BUSINESS decision. Obviously Mike and Lisa have other priorities, both inside and outside the business. That's fine, and their priorities are not our business. But as fans of Jackie who want her brand to thrive, our collective input is valuable, just as many forms of market feedback are valuable to any business that has customers.

Many performers put out as many albums as Jackie has, only to fade away. Many people still respond to us bringing her up by saying "Who?" or, not much better, "Oh yeah...that was the girl who was on AGT a few years ago, wasn't she?" The performers who scale the mountain are both immensely talented AND work hard AND play the game. They can play the game with complete integrity or without, but play it in some way they must.

Here, it should be obvious that part time/volunteer help running the site is not enough to make it functional from a business viewpoint.

And one point I haven't brought up in this thread is that this site is organized around promoting a child performer--the doll, the trinkets paying members get, and even the somewhat heavy-handed parental vibe of the site's management, back when it was being actively managed. All this may be fine for a child performer whose audience is mostly other children, but it was never appropriate for a performer like Jackie who has never actually competed in the "child performer" market, whose audience contains a very small percentage of children, none of whose albums are really child-oriented. Even when she does ostensibly kid-oriented songs (like the themes from the movies for children that she's done) she performs them in a way that's much more likely to garner a wide adult audience than the bubbly upbeat treatments most kids prefer.

All which contributes to why Team E needs someone who works for them full-time to function as their two-way fan interface. Another name for this person could be OPM or Online Presence Manager.

Team E is no longer putting out CDs itself. The team contracted with Sony for that--meaning they hired Sony; they gave up a large percentage of their take from each album sold in order to sell more albums, hoping that the increase in total volume they could only get with a major label would make them more money and build the Jackie Brand more than being a bigger frog in the little puddle of PTAD-type projects.

This is no different. You give up a measure of direct control and a portion of the profit from each product (albums and concerts mostly) in order to build the brand.

Another point I haven't raised before is that when Team E is mostly Jackie's parents, how do you go on vacation? I've known people who went on vacation only to wind up in their hotel room with their laptop and wifi access, doing business while the rest of the family vacated--so to speak--without the missing member.

They need someone who doesn't have to choose between being the parents of the four Evancho children and running the family business day in, day out. The parents can do plenty to pull their oars. Their roles don't have to require them either going at it without letup or neglecting the brand when they go off to be a family.

This is not an argument for buying luxuries on borrowed money--"luxuries" including the small army of sycophants some performers gather around them. Or hiring gofers to do stuff most people can do for themselves easily. Like, you don't need a chauffeur unless you can't drive a car (too young or too many tickets usually).

But the online world is not only complex--it's evolving rapidly. And when your customers ring the planet, it's a world without clear time boundaries. The ideal person to work in this environment is someone without much in the way of outside responsibilities; someone who is extremely extroverted in a high tech sort of way; and someone who really, really, wants to be part of the performing arts world without being a performing artist themselves. This doesn't describe Jackie's parents, nor does it describe anyone who could do this job for years, reliably, for free.

Business is about taking calculated risks, striking the right balance between being overly cautious and being foolhardy.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224
(of course Brutus himself lost big time...)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Can a performer tell a publication which photos to use in an article?

Operatic mezzo Cecelia Bartoli did so with a German publication that was reviewing a concert she'd given. I read about it here. I posted this comment:
It's not Bartoli's management. They just work for her. It's Bartoli herself. And it's evident that she suffers from situational narcissism, a psychological problem that afflicts people in positions of power--in the performing arts, in business, in the military, in politics--who surround themselves with Yes Men, such that no one around them dares to contradict him/her, who hence come to feel that his/her whims should be others' marching orders.

Of course in a free country Bartoli is free to demand whatever she pleases. And others are equally free to accede to those demands or refuse them.

But look at it from the other side. A publication can only continue to exist if it has a reader base who use and trust it. When a publication becomes a shill for its advertisers and/or the people its articles are about, readers cease to trust it, and will then turn to a competing publication that keeps its bargain with its readers to put their interests first. Why should I read a publication that doesn't serve me?

Bartoli demanded that this publication choose between her and its readers, though I doubt she realizes this.

The only way Bartoli could make such demands stick would be if she started her own publication, as Oprah Winfrey did, and applied her ideas of journalism to it. Then we'd see how it does in the free market.

If Bartoli were really smart about cultivating her fan base, she'd do what soprano Jackie Evancho's parents do, putting out Keeks (the visual equivalent of Twitters) of her kicking back before concerts, signing autographs, looking a starfish--candid-looking stuff that humanizes the artist and cultivates a feeling of connection with her.

Evancho isn't sacrificing a bit of privacy, since her people only put out the Keeks they choose to. Yet they make fans feel loved. Instead of fans looking at this news item in question and thinking "So Bartoli's another diva. Talented, but a diva." And then they feel less connection with her. If you want to act like that you'd better be the best in the world at what you do--and have that be acknowledged by everyone else.

No-spoilers review of Star Trek--Into Darkness
It may seem paradoxical to review a summer popcorn blockbuster movie for fans of serious cinema, but even we need our big budget action movie fix now & then. I'm not writing this for diehard Trekkies because they've already seen it and will buy the DVD--just look at all the glowing five-star reviews here.

And for them I'm sure it is a 5-star movie. But I bet most of them haven't seen Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (The Criterion Collection), the mother of all action movies, or Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, or possibly the scariest of all action movies, Das Boot, or the sublime Spirited Away, or...thousands of other great movies.

That said, my spouse and I have seen all the Star Trek TV series and movies--along with Galaxy Quest, the very funny sendup of both Star Trek and its cast and its most avid fans. We've also seen all the Star Wars movies. And TV series like FarScape, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Continuum, Lexx (the most un-Star Trekish of all TV scifi series), Game of Thrones, Vikings, everything Joss Whedon has ever we are big fans of scifi/fantasy stuff.

My spouse & I saw Star Trek/Into Darkness last night at the local cineplex in 2D from ideal seats. And both as Star Trek fans (though not superfans) and as movie buffs, we were underwhelmed. Wasn't bad, wasn't great, wasn't memorable.

A fair comparison would be with Joss Whedon's Marvel's The Avengers. Avengers delivered all the popcorn thrills & chills that STID does, but with much more memorable characters, screenwriting, mise en scene, AND without stealing most of its ideas from other movies.

In a way you'd be best off seeing STID if you hadn't seen any Star Trek movies or TV episodes, because this is big budget fan fiction, full of references, characters, and even plotlines from other movies--mostly Star Trek, but at least one action sequence from Star Wars. I'm not griping about Kirk/Spock/Uhuru/Scotty/Doc being there. I'm griping about the movie rehashing old Star Trek shows instead of giving us something new and worthy of a series reboot.

On the plus side, we get Benedict Cumberbatch, the imposing Brit who stars in BBC's modern day retelling of Sherlock Holmes. When he's onscreen the other characters become kind of transparent (metaphorically speaking). And STID's casting is OK. Chris Pine's Cap'n Kirk certainly inhabits the uniform with the same bravado (and less hamminess) than his predecessor. Good Spock. Zoe Saldana's Lt. Uhuru is an improvement on the original. Less successful were Doc and Scotty.

But the real problem is that experienced Trek viewers have seen this movie before, one way or another. In a country with 310 million people, surely one can cook up an original Star Trek screenplay. Whedon took just as heavy a load of backstory and made an original movie out of it. Abrams has not.

I don't understand why this doesn't bother the Trekkies writing reviews here more than it did. The last straw was weaving the original Star Trek TV show thems music into the thunderous but unmemorable orchestral score for this one, during the closing credits. It was jarringly mismatched to the contemporization of this movie.

Unlike others here, I preferred the first Star Trek series reboot movie with the same main characters. It seemed less derivative and more fresh start-y.

But regardless of whether my spouse and I liked it, should YOU get the DVD and see it?

As I said, if you're a Trekkie completest that's a no-brainer.

If you're a Trekkie-light kinda person like my spouse and me (saw all the previous Trek stuff but don't go to conventions and don't live & breathe it), prrrrobably yes. Just don't get your expectations up too high.

And surprisingly, I think it'll work better on a TV screen than in the theater. I realize this is counterintuitive when it comes to big budget action movies. But JJ Abrams shot it for the TV screen: seems like half the film is count-the-pores extreme close-ups of people's faces. This is fine on a TV screen, which supports close and medium-distance shots best. In the theater--even from our ideal seats--it was sort of invasive. If you're planning on seeing it in a theater, I'd recommend sitting towards the back, contrary to where I'd sit for a movie really designed for the theater.

My favorite scene in Avengers was where Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is talking to Loki when they have him imprisoned. He doesn't realize she's actually interrogating him to find out what he knows that they need to know. The scene is subtle and rests on Johansson's low-keyed but considerable acting talent. I mention this because there's nothing like this in STID. STID puts everything in bright primary colors. Apparently they didn't have a big enough budget for subtlety.

Another recent big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Avatar, was not a film my spouse and I carry around in our hearts like we do truly great movies, but overall it was considerably better than Star Trek Into Darkness. More original screenplay, more interesting visuals, more engaging storyline. Except for Benedict Cumberbatch and his character. He was more memorable than his counterpart in Avatar, I admit. He was also more memorable than his counterpart in Avengers. He really has a compelling presence.

Note that I'm not comparing Star Trek Into Darkness with, say, Let Me In, the wonderful American remake of the similarly named Swedish vampire movie, starring an amazing 12 year old Chloe Grace Moretz. Or with the True Grit remake. You could say both those films have different audiences.

But this film's audience--outside diehard Trekkies--is the same as for Avengers and Avatar and other blockbusters that aren't scifi even. Against them, and outside any commitment you might have to the Star Trek franchise, this is just an OK movie. I don't think the cast is to blame for this. It's the director, who just isn't as good a movie director as Cameron or Whedon.

I have more specific complaints but I promised a no-spoilers review, so those must wait. One hint though: Benedict Cumberbatch's character's name doesn't fit him at all. Seems like a minor point, but get enough of them and they start to add up to breaking the fourth wall. At least all the characters play it straight--no nudge nudge wink wink moments in the film. That would have been the kiss of death.

Lastly, though, the movie ends on a SEQUEL COMING SEQUEL COMING note, so if you're planning on seeing the next in the series you'll need to see this so you know what's going on. Just see it on DVD instead of in the theater, with a computer or smart phone handy to tide you over the slow parts...

(you can also see this in's STID reader review section)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tioga Lake--pristine nature

This is a panorama photo I shot of Tioga Lake, from the campground there, at around 2,950m elevation (about 9,650 ft.). The mountain tops are bare because they're above the treeline. The night sky here is beyond spectacular. This is about a 45 minute drive from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite Park, at a slightly lower elevation.

Which looks like this in the early fall:

2627m elevation (over 8,600 ft.). Nice campground nearby. No showers, though, but you do get flush toilets. And the biggest alpine meadow in North America.