Review: Thank God King Arthur will survive ‘King Arthur’

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword poster

The latest take on the King Arthur legends opened in US theatres May 8.

The legends of King Arthur and the Round Table are possibly the most abused of the West’s mythic texts, more than the Greek myths, and certainly more than venerated texts, such as the Bible. It’s amazing they’ve survived almost 1,500 years of telling and retelling by most of Western Europe’s cultures, aristocratic Victorian poets and painters, and in the last century or so, Hollywood producers.

I’m certain they’ll survive King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but the tradition never had it so hard.

Fans of the Arthurian legends—Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the world of Camelot—have waited a long time for a fresh version of the story. The last big attempt of note, King Arthur, was released in 2004. This year’s effort, directed by Guy Ritchie, whose last hit was the action-adventure retelling of the Sherlock Holmes novels, brought together stars Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, Jude Law as Vortigern, and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as “The Mage,” a follower of Merlin, the famed sorcerer and Druid priest.

Except for the names and a few popular themes, you’d hardly recognize the narrative from your reading of The Once and Future King or children’s books on King Arthur. Vortigern, Arthur’s uncle, usurps the throne of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. The boy escapes an assassination attempt and is raised in a brothel. He grows into the leader of a gang that protects the brothel and extorts money from whomever crosses him. When Excalibur appears at the bottom of a bay embedded in a stone, Vertigorn fears a threat to his power, and (taking a lesson from King Herod of the New Testament) orders all men of the right age to attempt pulling it out so he can kill him. Continue reading

Star Wars: Rogue One has a peculiar relationship with death

Grand Moff Tarkin - Peter Cushing

Star Wars: Rogue One created a digital Peter Cushing to reprise his role at Grand Moff Tarkin.

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

The movie Star Wars: Rogue One is a fun way to pass a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, especially if you’re a kid without much exposure to the Star Wars franchise. For anyone who has a bit more experience with the series, or who thinks much about storytelling, the movie can leave you scratching your head.

For one thing, viewers who know the characters and the plots starting with the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) release in 1977 will spend much of their time puzzling out the way in which the plot line of Rogue One fits with the series arc. The screenplay by a multitude of writers does a good job of meshing with the rest of the Star Wars’ canon.

You can also spend a lot of cycles looking for the two dozen or so nuggets from other Star Wars films. In the process, you might lose a line of pithy dialog or miss a well-photographed shot. These “Where’s Waldo?” moments can be fun, or they can take you out of the total immersion that makes good storytelling an almost out-of-body experience. Continue reading

Aliens, linguistics, and disruptive storytelling make Arrival must-see sci-fi

Arrival movie poster

Arrival uses disruptive storytelling techniques effectively.

We rarely think about our relationship with time. Life is just one damned thing after another. One word follows another. Cause and effect follow the arrow of history. What if you had a different relationship with time, one in which you perceived past, present and future happening at once, so that you know the future in the same instant you know the present and the past?

Science fiction writer Ted Chiang explores the idea in a 1999 short story, “Story of Your Life.” In 2016, Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve adapted the story for the motion picture Arrival, which arrived in theaters November 11. Both stories are told through the eyes of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist brought in by the military to translate the language of aliens visiting the earth. The film builds on the short story, adding some Hollywood pizzazz and a different ending. Fortunately, the additions don’t obscure the main point; our daily experience of time is only one of many possibilities.

In both narratives, a new kind of language “rewires” Banks’ brain, and the writer and director use non-linear storytelling as a way to demonstrate Banks’ transformative encounter. Non-linear stories don’t follow most people’s experience of events in time, that is, one thing following another as you walk a path through life. Sometimes called “disruptive narratives,” these stories jump around in time, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If handled poorly, non-linear stories leave readers confused and disoriented. Handled well, they seem more like paintings, best encountered as a whole. Continue reading

Poll: Will you see Arrival or Rogue One over Christmas weekend?

Rogue One and Arrival image

Left: Felicity Jones stars at Jyn Erso in Star Wars: Rogue One. Right: Amy Adams plays Louise Banks in Arrival.

Do you like to take family and friends to a movie over Christmas? Science fiction fans have two great choices: Star Wars: Rogue One and Arrival. Rogue One, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise, stars Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. Arrival, a first contact story, stars Amy Adams as Louise Banks.

You can’t always get what you want, even on Christmas, and what if you had to choose? So I’ve got a poll for you. Nope, you can’t see both movies, you have to pick one.

For all you non-sci-fi fans, I’ve got an “other” choice. Be sure to say what you plan to see. Have fun!

Review: Doctor Strange: It’s All Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch actor

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange dominates the eponymous film.

I’ll be honest. Movies based on comic books don’t interest me. The only reason I went to see Doctor Strange over the weekend was Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve become a major fan after his performances in the latest BBC version of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and his movies, particularly The Imitation Game, in which he played mathematician Alan Turing, and as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Doctor Strange was another chance to see him in action.

My wife, a teacher who works with autistic children, pointed out rightly that Cumberbatch has a knack for playing individuals with personalities on either end of the bell curve. Armchair diagnosticians might argue he plays characters who are “on the spectrum,” as “average” people say, sometimes with a mocking laugh. Holmes, Turing, and Assange are all high-functioning, extremely intelligent people with trouble connecting emotionally to others. They aren’t mentally ill, just so different they make others around them uncomfortable. Continue reading

Why parents should take their kids to see the new Star Wars

jar-jar_binks_card

Parents should pass Star Wars traditions to their children.

Star War: The Force Awakens has taken in $1 billion in ticket sales, and I’m betting a large share comes from parents taking their kids to see the blockbuster. It’s more than mom and/or dad looking for ways to occupy the young’ns on a long holiday weekend. What was once a triennial or quadrennial ritual reserved for sci-fi and fantasy geeks has become a sharing-time moment, not too far from parents and kids watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown together every Halloween.

My two daughters and I took in the latest Star Wars epic on Christmas night, after spending the afternoon with their grandmother and waiving goodbye to their mother, who was off to California on family business. The offspring are both in college, but all their friends had obligations on Christmas night, so I jumped at the chance to share my passion for the Star Wars story. For as long as they were able to mimic Dad saying “Luke, I am your father,” I’d tell the story of waiting for two hours in 1977 to buy a ticket outside a Seattle theatre for the original Star Wars movie, then wait another two hours to see the picture, and finding myself completely captivated by it. I bought the books, listened over and over to the recording (on vinyl) of the John Williams score, and waited like a bridegroom for the second, third, and so on installments of the franchise. Continue reading

Mad Max: Fury Road sputters, despite its feminist cred

Mad Max Fury Road image

Mad Max: Fury Road has feminist overtones, but it’s not enough to give the story depth. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

My college-age daughter Emily and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road over the weekend and we left the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the George Miller action thriller a 98 percent rating. Competitor Metacritic rates it 89 percent. I know three people who probably wouldn’t recommend it: myself, my daughter, and a retired firefighter friend who knows what really happens when cars blow up, flinging bodies in all directions.

I wanted to see MM:FR mostly because I liked the second Mad Max picture, subtitled The Road Warrior, but not the original Mad Max, which I found tedious. I also saw Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but I wasn’t all that impressed. Thirty years after Thunderdome, I hoped Miller had brought maturity to the franchise with MM:FR, but I ended up wondering if it was worth the price of the tickets. Continue reading

The new emerging hierarchy of publishing legitimacy

Unexpected still

A still from Kris Swanberg’s film Unexpected. Has she reached the top of a legitimacy pyramid?

A new hierarchy of legitimacy is emerging among independent writers and authors. It’s a direct consequence of the self-publishing revolution, and the growing realization that the most they can expect is satisfaction with seeing their dream in print without riches or fame. A similar hierarchy has already emerged among filmmakers, and I’d bet musicians as well. The facts crystallized for me in an interview of independent filmmaker Kris Swanberg, who premiered her film Unexpected at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

I made the movie to be seen in a theater. I would love for that to happen. It’s important to me. And I think it legitimizes the film, and I also think that it — it finds a new — a theater-going audience that doesn’t necessarily buy things on [video-on-demand].

In other words, the hierarchy for Swanberg is theaters in general, perhaps art houses in particular, followed by video-on-demand, e.g, Netflix or Amazon Prime, and then direct to DVD, which still exists. If given a choice between a traditional distribution deal and self-distribution via video-on-demand, Swanberg would pick the former, because it conveys the status and artistic validation that VOD cannot.

I’m hearing more and more writers–and I think I’m in this camp–that view traditional or legacy publishing, especially by the Big Five, as the top of a pyramid of legitimacy. This attitude is in part a function of how difficult it is to get a publishing contract. Agents and editors are pickier than ever as a 300-year-old business model is squeezed harder and the process of finding high-quality books that sell grows more difficult. In contrast, the ease of publishing a book on Amazon or Smashwords carries no long-lasting sense of accomplishment, that is, the feeling that you have arrived somewhere after a painful rite of passage. In traditional publishing, you find a world inhabited by Hemingway or Austen. In independent publishing, you enter a world populated by a million shmoes who’ve strung 90,000 words together into a Word document.

The truth is not quite so black and white. Many indie authors–among them Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe–have achieved artistic immortality, and failed authors published by the trads are legion. Neither am I making a moral or value judgment on either legacy or independent (self) publishing. Writers write for a variety of reasons, and for many, the main reason is public acceptance and recognition of their artistic vision. Traditional publishing offers this, while self-publishing does not, by and large.

In economic terms, the scarcity of traditional publishers and the limited distribution network (bookstores) increases of the social value of what they offer, certainly to writers and possibly to readers. Rational authors would choose self-publishing first because of the far higher royalty rates. Instead, they mail boxes of paper manuscripts to agents and editors on the 1% chance of avoiding the slush pile. As the traditional publishing industry shrinks (the Big Five was the Big Six not long ago), their value as artistic gatekeepers rises. Amazon, Smashwords, and a dozen other platforms are to Simon and Schuster or Penguin Random House as Wal-Mart is to Nieman-Marcus. In the best of all possible worlds, where would you rather your product be sold?

Is fiction about climate change for real?

Still from Interstellar

Climate change is a driving force in Interstellar’s plot. Still courtesy Warner Bros.

The movie Interstellar opens on November 7 and climate change drives the story. Stills and leaked reports about its plot point to an agriculture irreparably damaged by global warming, forcing the protagonist to leave Earth in search of greener pastures. Commentators are lumping Interstellar into the current crop of post-apocalyptic thrillers, which include Hunger Games and Divergent. A few writers and activists are pegging it as “climate fiction,” though others say such genre thinking trivializes a disaster unfolding in real time.

Hollywood embraced global warming as a theme only recently. Young Ones, released on October 9, posits a future with little fresh water, and Into the Storm, which opened August 8, shows a small town devastated by a series of climate-driven super-tornadoes. Science fiction writers, however, have imagined a climate-ravaged world since the early 1960s. One of the most prescient early books is George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, published in 1987. His vision of an Australia flooded by rising seas is echoed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s Bangkok in his 2010 novel The Windup Girl. The Thai capital is kept alive by dikes and gates reminiscent of the Thames Barrier in London. Continue reading

Review: Is ‘Noah’ an allegory for climate change?

Noahs Ark

Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat, by Simon de Myle. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Darren Aronofsky’s enjoyable film Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch, challenges the Children’s Bible imagery of the Great Flood myth by portraying Noah as a borderline cult leader. He loves animals, admonishes his children to take from the earth only what they need, and listens to voices in his head, which he takes to be the Lord telling him to build an enormous ship in the outback. If he lived in the 21st century, his neighbors would complain to city planners about his McMansion-sized boat, and his children would be snatched by Child Protective Services. But in the world of Aronofsky’s fantasy film, and the Bible, he’s a prophet.

What is he prophesying? In the biblical story, he foresees the destruction of mankind by a flood because humanity has turned its back on the Lord, who, above all things, hates to be ignored. But check your Bible at the door; this is not your pastor’s Noah. Aronofsky adds a modern moral message to the story: If humanity fouls its own nest, it’s bound to destroy itself with its ignorance and foolishness. Aronofsky has encouraged this interpretation, citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report in a CNN interview. A few commentators have lumped Noah into the new genre of “climate fiction,” or “clifi,” although it’s the weather that’s unhinged in Noah’s world, not the climate.

The environmental tailspin portrayed in Noah is a reflection of Noah’s descent into madness. He may have been favored by the Lord, and given a chance to escape humanity’s fate while serving the Lord’s purposes, but he realizes that he shares the same human-ness as the terrified masses outside the Ark’s hull. If they are punished, he deserves the same punishment. He’s an isolated man, driven by a vision he barely understands. It’s not even clear why his family follows him, though trust within this tight-knit group is strong. Once Noah sees what he has in common with the damned, he becomes suicidal, and threatens to take his family with him. In Hollywood fashion, the tragedy is averted, but not without a cost. He considers himself a failure, but it’s his fall that saves him.