Beyond the event itself

In the coming weeks there are two major events that will grip the nation for a Sunday night. The Super Bowl and the Academy Awards are two of the biggest viewing events that have moved beyond the realm of actually viewing the event.

While I’m not much of a sports fan, I’m well aware of the pull that the Super Bowl has on many people. It has long since transcended the level of any other sporting event that I know of, at least for the purposes of American audiences. No one just watches the Super Bowl. No one just wants to know the score of the Super Bowl. Anyone who is going to be involved in it is going to have to be part of a Super Bowl party; they have to be obsessing over the scores; they have been building an obsession for weeks now. At some point people picked a team, and now that team is life. I don’t really understand it, but it sure is motivating for people. And hey, you can even see some great, positive things coming out of this competitive Fandemonium.

The Super Bowl has even become an event for the things that interrupt the action. The Super Bowl commercials get more inspection than some aspects of the game. The halftime show is a huge event in it’s own right. This is clearly more than just a football game.

The Oscars have developed into a similarly transcendent event, although there are some differences. For me, the Oscars act as a sort of finale to the entire awards season. Most of the other awards don’t really carry the same weight as the Oscars. Sometimes you can use the other awards as a gauge for what might win an Oscar. It lets you start cheering for a film, or performer, or song, or whatever you’re in to. But the thing I’ve always noticed, is that the Oscars are it. Even if a film you loved didn’t win a Golden Globe or a People’s Choice, if it wins the Oscar, you feel like you made the right call when you singled it out (I’m personally rooting for the film “Ida” for Foreign Language and Cinematography). The other awards are almost like playoffs for the Oscars, but you could still have a hardcore dark horse win it all.

Also like the Super Bowl, the Oscars lend themselves to a type of party/ceremonial/celebration experience. There is a reason they have plenty of “pre-game” for the Oscars on the red carpet. I mean, I sometimes really hate the people that are talking to the celebrities, but it’s all part of the program.

In some ways, it is almost sad that these two more-than-just-events have to happen relatively close together. It makes the rest of the year (at least years without the Olympics) feel a little bit void of transcendent cultural participation.

Beyond the event itself

Rediscovering Reading for Pleasure

Maybe just a quickie this week.

In recent weeks I’ve been learning how to read for fun again. Honestly, it’s probably been a few years since pleasure reading was a genuine part of my life. As with most college students, reading became something of a chore. After graduation, it has taken some time to get back into the mood of reading without deadlines and exams.

Of course, reading has always been a thing I enjoyed. Even when I was taking college courses, I would occasionally develop an obsession with a book for a few weeks. And then it would be back to the grind and no pleasure reading for another six months.

These days I’m working on reading for pleasure again. It’s odd that I almost have to force myself to do it. The main way I do this is by stacking up a lot of books on my night stand and not removing them until they are read. It gives a great sense of accomplishment to put a book back on the shelf.

An odd outcome of this is that I get to assess my personal library. Everyone probably has a different approach to the personal library. There are probably even some folks today who don’t even want to own a single hardcopy. I guess to each his or her own. I come from a family that loves the physical library. We probably keep a few too many books. At this point in my life, I don’t know exactly what my library will look like, but I’ll probably be keeping fewer books than my parents. My current reading project is giving me a bit of a fresh perspective on my collection. My new plan is to only keep books that I have read or would actually read. In the long run I hope this means I actually will have read everything in my collection, but that could really be a pipe dream.

How about you? What’s your policy for book reading and collecting?

Rediscovering Reading for Pleasure

The New Age of Superhero Live-Action Media

The new year is a great time to assess what has been working in the world and what changes are facing us in the future. It’s also a nice chance to make some predictions about what is coming. My interests lean towards comic books, so my musings have taken me down that path. You want to know what I realized? Superheroes in the live-action popular media are seriously changing gears…and I am loving it.

If you’ve seen a superhero movie or TV show in the last few (let’s say 10) years, then you’ve probably seen a “grim and gritty reboot” of something. While that was a great tactic to get people to embrace the superhero genre of entertainment in a big way, it hasn’t necessarily been a perfect reflection of the roots of the superheroes. There are more than a few things that have frankly sucked about the “grim and gritty.” I don’t really want to dwell on it, but I’ll list a few: black leather costumes are lame (Superheroes tend to wear the colors. Fact!), not every superpower is viewed as a cruddy curse, the human race isn’t necessarily without a moral center, sometimes people can be in actual romantic relationships that work.

While the “grim and gritty” hasn’t been the absolute rule, it has been pretty prevalent. At least until the things that came out this year. I would call 2014 the beginning of a transition to a completely different age of superhero live-action movies and TV shows. 2015 is going to be the final test of it, and is probably going to cement a new trend. The new trend is this: superhero genre can legitimately jump straight out of the comic book and there is not more need to apologize.

In case you missed it, let’s review a few things that happened this last year, and what is coming up (admittedly, this is largely spearheaded by Marvel): ‘Captain America: the Winter Soldier’ just says “Yeah, this guy has a cybernetic arm and spent years frozen and has no real negative physical effects” (not to mention a guy saved his consciousness prior to death on 1970s era computers…), ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ says “Yup, talking raccoon” and we all bought into it, ‘The Flash’ features a superhero who actually loves being a superhero (what a novel concept), coming up in 2015 we will actually see the film ‘Ant-Man’ (seriously) with a man who shrinks in size and legitimately rides on the back of a winged ant. If you think those aren’t surprising turns in the realm of superhero films, then somehow you forgot about the first five years of the superhero movie wave.

This is a great path for things to take. While I’ve been glad to see any attention paid to the superhero genre, I’ve been sad for years that so few films have been fun. Thoughts? Do you think the “grim and gritty” was the way to go? Are you unhappy with the new “fun” offerings? Comment Below.

The New Age of Superhero Live-Action Media

‘Star Wars VII’ and “Jurassic World” — trailers, teasers, music, and mystery

In case you don’t use social media of any sort, or you have no friends (yet somehow you choose to read this blog?), you should be well aware that two major franchises have released trailers (or teasers) for upcoming movies. Our own Amanda Taylor did a wonderful write-up about her reaction and feelings towards the “Jurassic World” trailer, which you can watch on her post. Today the internet collectively tried to tell everyone who was online that the teaser trailer for ‘Star Wars VII’ (yes, that’s how I’ll be referring to it) had been released, with the net result of me having to scroll down at least six full mouse-scroller-things to see anything that wasn’t that trailer. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

If you are like some of my friends to claimed to have lost control of certain bodily functions from seeing the trailer, stop reading, go wipe, and then come back.

While I am immensely excited for the release of both of these films, and even more excited now that I have seen these trailers, I cannot bring myself to rave and post and repost the way some other people do. I want it to be clear that I am a fan, I am a geek, I know the lore, I will watch the movies multiple times; I just don’t work myself into an all-caps, social media frenzy like some other people. I’m looking at these things a little more quietly.

One thing I frequently ask myself is why these trailers exist, why they are made the way they are, and what the heck is a “teaser trailer” good for. So lets talk about the trailers and teasers for a moment.

Ostensibly I would say that the point of a trailer is to help build anticipation for a film. A teaser trailer is somehow meant to build anticipation for trailer? Anticipation is actually a very important element in the enjoyment of something. I’m totally on board with that notion. But the execution of that can be handled many different ways. In a TED Talk dealing with optimism bias and other cognitive stuff, Tali Sharot explains how anticipation can increase enjoyment (around 5:30). Basically, people would pay more money to have something great happen (in this case, a kiss from an attractive celebrity) in a few days, rather than immediately. In the test, people paid the most money for 3 days of anticipation. This is also why people like friday, even though they work, over Sunday, when they don’t work; The anticipation of weekend is preferred over ending it.

I don’t know how that translates exactly into anticipating movies. But I do know that these two trailer came out the same week and the movies are six months apart. So clearly someone had differing opinions about how much time to give people to think about things. I think it would be an interesting experiment to release no trailer until one week before the release, but that’s probably not an idea that will catch on…

This might be a good time to deal with the nostalgia factor that come into these trailers. Both films are building off an existing franchise. Both franchises have a ton of impact with huge demographics of people. And both have certain kinds of iconography that they use to tap into the nostalgia that many, if not most, people who saw these trailers can feel.

‘Jurassic World’ built on the basic premise of the original film, the fear of uncontrollable and powerful nature. It also built on some powerful imagery: walking alongside dinosaurs in grand, sweeping shots, approaching the island, the lab with the dino eggs, etc. It tied into the feelings of fear that many people had watching the original films (raptors are still scary). And finally, it played a portion of a fantastic theme written by John Williams.

‘Star Wars VII’ built on imagery like the desert planet, storm troopers, the Millennium Falcon, and the lightsaber. It did not do as much for building the story, or the emotions (at least for me). But it did play a portion of a fantastic theme written by John Williams.

I’m going to go ahead and throw this out there: ‘Jurassic World,’ I think, did better with the music, especially drawing me in for nostalgia. If you want more about the music in movie trailers, read this recent post by Kate Darowski.

Another element of these trailers is how much they are willing to show you. J.J. Abrams (who is directing ‘Star Wars VII’) is a big fan of mystery. He almost never reveals too much. Also, he often doesn’t reveal quite enough for some people. But the mystery is part of what drives him. And I think that is evident in the trailer for ‘Star Wars VII.’ I have tons of questions after watching it: who’s the first guy we see, why’s he in Stormtrooper armor, who’s the girl, why does her vehicle look so lame, who’s the guy in the forest (this one was followed by ‘Holy, that lightsaber looks so cool!’), why are those X-wings flying so low, who’s in the Falcon, and who’s shooting at the Falcon?

‘Jurassic World’ didn’t go in for so much mystery. But they didn’t show the super-dino, so they get points for not spoiling it too much.

I was going to write a bit about why people feel so much need to share the trailers on social media, what kind of social gain there is in being the first one to have seen it, etc. but that really belongs in a post about midnight showings (which I also don’t get excited for).

In the end, what it really comes down to is how effective were each of these trailers in promoting their respective films and building anticipation. Admittedly, I know that I will have the chance to see ‘Jurassic World’ six months sooner, but I’m not as excited for it as I am for ‘Star Wars VII.’ The trailer for ‘Jurassic World’ made me want to watch ‘Jurassic Park’ (and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ but that’s not the point). The trailer for ‘Star Wars VII’ made me want to see ‘Star Wars VII,’ but it also made me want to not know anything about the story going in, so we’ll see how that goes when they release a full trailer and start telling us about the plot.

‘Star Wars VII’ and “Jurassic World” — trailers, teasers, music, and mystery

A ‘Thrilling Adventure’ every week

There are some works of creative genius that just demand to be respected. That’s how I feel about “The Thrilling Adventure Hour.” It is a perfect example of synergetic success between writers, actors, musicians, and fans. If you are unfamiliar with this fantastic enterprise, you should get to know it soon. You can explore the main website for the stage production (which I have never attended in person), or you can listen to an episode of the podcast (which I always listen to…repeatedly…).

Here’s the basic story of this unorthodox entertainment: Ben Acker and Ben Blacker are writers who spent time in Hollywood trying to get solid writing jobs. It never exactly happened. But they did get some great writing done, and sometimes they even had readings of their scripts. One of those readings ultimately turned into a stage reading in a bar. To give it some flair, it became an “old-time radio” sort of production. It’s been a number of years since that all started and they now have 189 episodes of one of the best podcasts available to the public.

What makes this show so great? Everything. Can I be more specific? Yes. This show is just so much darn fun to listen to. You want to hear solid comedic actors do voices spanning various locations and time periods? You got it. You wanna hear Nathan Fillion guest star in a space western? You bet. You like the idea of a cute couple who love each other and hate everyone else (except liquor)? Get ready to hear a lot of it. You like good music, vintage storytelling, hilarious subtext, and works of fiction that get better with repeat listening? Look no further.

Let me list a few of the things you might hear if you choose to tune in:

  • “Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars” The space western mentioned earlier
  • “Beyond Belief” A supernatural, fast-talking, comedic booze-fest (the creators call this “Nick and Nora Charles with ghosts,” which is not a reference I understand…)
  • “Captain Laserbeam” The super heroic tale with more wordplay than crime-fighting
  • “Amelia Earhart: Fearless Flier” The adventures of the time traveling lady-pilot
  • “Jefferson Reid: Ace American” Nathan Fillion being the all-American WWII hero you wish he played on TV
  • “Down in Moonshine Holler” The tale of a man learning the hobo way of life, all to win the heart of the hobo princess
  • “Desdemona Hughes: Diva Detective” An aging actress, master of disguise using her professional chops to solve crimes

If you’re looking for a little more than pure entertainment value, then consider it an exercise in learning how to tell good stories and make great characters. If you want to know how to write brilliant stuff, listen to this show. If you want to study good acting (especially voice acting), check it out. If you want to learn a bit about the inner workings of entertainment, you can get that too. This stuff is smart. That’s probably the best thing I can say about it.

A ‘Thrilling Adventure’ every week

Knee-deep in ‘Gotham’

I’ve been withholding my public assessment of “Gotham” until I was sure it was going to be consistent. I’m now satisfied with its performance enough to say that it is by far my favorite new show of the season.

Comic books and superheroes are sort of my thing. It’s not super easy to make me happy with adaptations of the good stuff. I tend not to agree with most of my friends (usually more casually interested in the superhero genre) about what is the greatest superhero movie. I sometimes get a bit particular. Gotham gives me what I want in the ancillary Batman universe.

Here are some things that make me watch it every week (and it is the only show I watch the same night it airs):

  • The set work is meticulous. Every set looks nice and there is enough tucked into the background to make the world feel real. Look at the (one-room) set for Wayne manor: the paintings are telling a story about the mythic roots of the Dark Knight; the uncomfortable decor is the only place Bruce is comfortable now; it’s way to mature for a 10-year-old, but that is part of his identity. And that’s only one set! Don’t get me started on the police station, Gordon’s apartment, the streets, the club, or the offices.
  • The show has chosen to intentionally disguise the time period. Depending on the episode you might see technology that fits into the 2000s (maybe) or you might only see things that fit in the 70s. Cell phones exist, but no one checks a smart phone. Twitter and Facebook are not things in Gotham city. The cars are could all be seen as setting the show in the 80s, or everyone likes classic, timeless, square-edged cars. The fashions could be from any number of eras (at least Bullock is the only one going for the fedora and trench coat ensemble). Firearms go from shotguns to revolvers to modern automatics. Computers exist, but tend to stay off-screen.
  • The actors get to play honest-to-goodness characters, which has got to be a blast. These are myths in the modern day. Every role is like being Hercules, Achilles, or Helen of Troy. Once again, shout out to Bullock, he’s becoming everyone’s favorite. But everyone seems to be taking the chance to play a role that is larger than life.
  • The Penguin. Yes, Robin Lord Taylor (what a name for an actor) gets his very own bullet point. I’ve never once been creeped out by the Penguin until this show. And he creeps me out every time he’s on screen. Give that guy an Emmy nod.

I guess I could be fair and try listing out a few cons for the show, but, frankly, I don’t even want to. I just enjoy the show more than almost anything else on TV. Admittedly, this is not necessarily great television. It’s certainly not ‘The West Wing.’ But I always enjoy it. Honestly, I think this is the world where Batman lives. It’s like seeing live action precursors to “Batman: The Animated Series,” which is one of the absolute definitive depictions of the caped crusader in my book.

If you disagree about my take on “Gotham,” sound off in the comments. I’ll stand by my gut response to the show.

Knee-deep in ‘Gotham’

Can it be worth the wait?

We currently live in a world of rapid response entertainment. Binge viewing has become a whole big thing thanks to Netflix and DVR. Movies often feel the need to constantly tease the sequel (or related film in a shared universe). Movie trailers have become a whole different sort of situation when it comes to building viewer anticipation.

Novels, on the other hand, have tended to have a lesser presence in the constant bombardment of entertainment that assaults our minds. With a notable exception of the Harry Potter novels, I have never lined up for a late-night release of a novel. In general, I don’t even feel a sense of anticipation for novels. But when it comes to a really great novels, sometimes you have to wait patiently for the good stuff.

Not everyone is a Brandon Sanderson, churning out a few tens of thousands of pages at a time (seriously, look at his list of publications, the guy is a writing machine). I have a personal favorite, and I will wait however long it takes for the next book he writes. I just hope it happens before I get old…

Patrick Rothfuss is my current favorite novelist. Every word he puts on paper is amazing. I don’t know how he does it. Every time I read his stuff, I look at the last thing I’ve written and I force myself to resist the urge to scrap it all. I just wish he would write more often.

His two books so far form the first and second acts of a trilogy. Published four years apart, the third should be due anytime in the next year or two (please!). The first book, “the Name of the Wind,” is maybe the best book I’ve ever read. Yeah, I said it. If you haven’t read it, check it out. But be sure to read the book; don’t listen to it on tape. You have to let the words enter your eyes. I’ve read it and listened to it, and while I enjoy the audiobook, it has significantly less charm than the written word.

When I read the sequel, “the Wise Man’s Fear,” I basically turned into a novel reading junkie for a week. I was hooked, and it was bad. The book was an even 1,000 pages, and I tore through that in eight days, despite being a full-time student and part-time radio producer. My college roommate was surprisingly understanding of my lamp being on until three or four in the morning. It’s a good thing I wasn’t reading it during midterms…I don’t know where my priorities would have been.

In some ways, I think that all-consuming addiction is part of the beauty of a good novel. If the writer has the gift, nothing will stop you from utterly descending into the world they have invited you to build in your mind. It’s amazing. Do you have a book that kept you up for hours and days? Share your favorites in the comments section.

Can it be worth the wait?