Monday, July 7, 2014

The Last Ship (television pilot)

We're a few weeks late, but we finally watched the pilot of The Last Ship last night (some spoilers for the pilot ahead). The premise is that a naval warship has been sent on a long-duration, radio-silence training mission to the far north, and is also carrying two research scientists who are ostensibly studying arctic birds. When the "training" is extended, coincidentally right after the lead scientist demands more time for her research and they're attacked by Russian helicopters, the captain in turn demands an explanation.
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Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Review of Houston

I am going to review Houston.

I was going to review the Houston Ballet’s mixed repertoire performance titled “Modern Masters”, which I saw twice and which was fabulous, but I’m still a little timid about reviewing ballet and opera because I don’t actually know that much about them, so I’m always second-guessing my opinions. I need to get over that. In the meantime, though, it occurred to me that I have a lot to say about Houston, as we’ve been living here for a little over ten years now. So I’m going to pretend this is a review of Houston, with, um, a lot of long-winded background thrown in. I understand completely if you want to skip all this!

(One more ballet aside – we’ll see if I’ve learned anything – I think Katherine Precourt is likely to be the next female dancer promoted to principal, and that James Gotesky is the male dancer to watch. His technical and artistic growth has been a pleasure to watch over the last several years. And may I say that I hope Houston Ballet never lets Artistic Director Stanton Welch leave? Hold him hostage if necessary!)

Ballet photos property of Houston Ballet; Katherine Precourt and Simon Ball, and James Gotesky.

Before Houston, we lived in upstate New York for seven years while my husband got his Ph.D. It was gorgeous there, especially in the autumn, and we were happy enough, although more than ready for him to finish the degree and get on with his career. I’d suspected that we’d end up in Houston because NASA was the logical place for him, and then we found out he’d gotten a one-year post-doc fellowship here. I’d assumed we would keep renting, but everyone in Houston advised us to just go ahead and buy a house because the mortgage would be cheaper than renting (plus we had some pets that might have made it hard to rent). We came out in August to look for houses, and I remember that as the plane landed, the pilot came on to tell us it was “only” about 105 degrees outside. I remember turning to my husband and saying “You’ve brought us to hell.”

As it turns out, house-hunting moves quickly in Texas. I was accustomed to east coast real estate; I knew from friends and families that you might make an offer and hope to close within three months or so. Since we planned to move in December, we thought house-hunting in August made sense. Our real estate agent, when she found out we weren’t coming until December, told us to come back in mid-October, because people here want to close in 30 days. All well and good, but my husband would be deep in his dissertation revisions by then and wouldn’t be able to come back with me. So I got to (make that “had to”) choose our first house all by myself. Fortunately, my mom was kind enough to come along to offer a second opinion and moral support.

I still love our house. Houses are cheap here. If we were living on the east coast today, we probably still wouldn’t have a house.

So, Paul and I had an agreement that we would try out Houston for that first year. If, towards the end of that year, we liked it here well enough, we would try to see whether he could get his post-doc renewed.

After our first three months in Houston, I told Paul that we didn’t need to wait the year, because I was planning to stay with or without him. OK, that was an exaggeration -- I wouldn’t really have let him leave without me. But I knew very quickly that I wanted to stay here. Fortunately, he got his post-doc renewed for a second year and then a third, which is the maximum. Then he was allowed to stay at NASA if he could provide his own salary through grant money, so he did that for a few years. Then he became an American citizen (he was born in England and grew up in Canada), and then he was hired as a civil servant. So here we are ten years later.

I probably should eventually talk about Houston, though, shouldn’t I? Here are the reasons I love living here:

• Inexpensive housing compared to everywhere else we’ve lived. Our house is honestly a little bigger than two people need, but I don't mind because we’ve filled it with books. Plus it has an open floor plan downstairs which is great for giving parties.

• Cost-of-living in general. Not everything is cheaper here, but lots of things are. I laugh when Houstonians complain about property taxes, because I find them quite low – and we don’t have state income tax here either.

• The arts. They’re amazing here, and we’ve barely even scratched the surface. We’ve had season tickets to the Houston Ballet for about seven years now, and to the Houston Grand Opera for about three years. Some years we’ve gotten mini-packages to the Houston Symphony as well. I’m not an expert, but I think these are world-class companies. My only regret is that the Houston Ballet doesn’t get the amount of recognition I think it deserves – while the house gets pretty full for classics such as Swan Lake, the mixed rep performances are woefully underattended, which is too bad because they’re often more dynamic and creative than the traditional ballets. For those who prefer musicals, there’s TUTS, or Theater Under the Stars, which hosts the traveling Broadway shows. There are tons of other theaters, plus free outdoor performances by the ballet, opera, symphony, and all sorts of other groups.

Another thing about the arts is that here, they don’t take long to get to. If it’s not rush hour, we can be at the ballet or opera within 25-30 minutes of leaving our house. This is opposed to where I grew up in New Jersey, where going in to New York City for any performance was an all-day, incredibly expensive affair, consisting of car to train to taxi to dinner to (possibly another taxi to) theater to taxi to train to car.

• The diversity. When we told friends we were moving to Texas, many of them said hopefully, “To Austin, right? I’ve heard Austin is really cool….” “No,” we had to tell them. “Houston.” But it turns out Houston is pretty cool too. We were worried that we’d be surrounded by nothing but the famous Texas conservatism, but we needn’t have worried, because it turned out that many of the people in the circles we move in are either imports, or they come from Houston or Texas but did not automatically accept the conservatism they grew up with. The younger NASA crowd (by which I mean the post-Apollo-era folks), the library crowd (that’s my day job field), and the science fiction crowd (the field to which I aspire) – none of these groups are dominated by a conservative mindset.

Plus our mayor, Annise Parker, is the first openly lesbian mayor of any major U.S. city. How cool is that? She’s pretty popular here. She just married her long-time partner, too, in the wake of certain recent court decisions. Gay rights are extremely important to me, so I’m glad to live in a part of Texas that’s comparatively progressive in that area.

There’s also cultural diversity. A lot of different cultural groups hold annual festivals to showcase their heritage, and when I ride the light rail or am at work in the Medical Center, I'm pleased to see many cultural backgrounds represented.

• Restaurants. I wouldn’t consider us to be foodies by any stretch of the imagination, but we do like nice restaurants. Actually, some of the best food we’ve found is at the ballet and opera, where Elegant Events by Michael provides catered Prix fixe dinners on performance nights. But we have a favorite sushi restaurant, and there’s lots of Italian, and you can generally find everything in between. Actually, this is one area in which we haven’t explored nearly enough, but then it can be an expensive hobby. We haven’t explored the food truck scene yet either. We need to do something about that.

• The job market. This isn’t meant to diminish the plight of many people I know who have been laid off in the last few years, but I do think the situation is better in Houston than elsewhere. Amazingly, I was able to line up a librarian job in Houston before we even left the state of New York, and I’ve been fortunate enough not to face layoffs in my line of work. And I can also say this about my various employers: they’ve all been very understanding and generous when it comes to hurricane evacuations. They do not expect us to stick around if we need to get ourselves somewhere more safe.

The downsides:

• The three H’s: heat, humidity, and hurricanes. We expected the heat and humidity. We did not expect that our neighborhood would become a mandatory evacuation zone twice in our first ten years here. The first time was Hurricane Rita, which was a nightmare. It was such a short time after the Katrina disaster in New Orleans that almost the entire city of Houston tried to leave. We were fortunate in that we had friends in Ft. Worth willing to take us and our animal menagerie in, but it took us 20 straight hours (for what’s normally a 4.5 hour drive) in two cars with freaked out animals in 100+ degree heat and not knowing if we could refuel at any point. I hope never to experience that again. Fortunately, Houston learned from the experience, and our Hurricane Ike evacuation took only 10 hours, plus we felt more confident we could get help and fuel if needed. We did need a new roof after Ike, though….

• Flat real estate market in many areas. Houses don’t just start cheap, they stay cheap, meaning that you can live in a house for ten years and be lucky to sell it for a smidge more than what you paid, and that only if you put some real effort into it. There are some trendy areas of Houston where your house will appreciate noticeably, but the Clear lake area isn’t one of them. I’m OK with this, but it probably would mean we’d have difficulty buying a house anywhere else in the country if we had to move.

• The traffic. Ye gods, the traffic. While house-hunting, we knew that Paul would work at NASA but didn’t know where in Houston I would end up. We figured at least one of us should have an easy commute, so we settled in the Clear Lake area. I’ve since worked all over Houston, and am currently at Medical Center. I feel fortunate that I can take public transportation, because I think it’s the right thing to do, it’s cheaper than driving and parking, and it’s slightly less stressful than driving myself through rush hour. But it takes forever. I’m still spending a daily total 2.25 to 2.5 hours per day commuting, and that’s after much experimenting to find the shortest route. Driving my own car would take less time, but would add to the stress and expense.

• Politics. Well, it is still Texas. Let’s put it this way: when we arrived here, we were in Tom DeLay’s district. ’Nuff said.

• Lack of ice hockey. OK, I admit this isn’t a problem for most people, but when you’re married to a Canadian, and learned to love hockey yourself while attending the University of North Dakota, you’re going to miss live hockey. We did have the minor league Houston Aeros, but they moved to Iowa last year. Rumor has it that the NBA Rockets owner didn’t really care to share his arena with the hockey team. We do have major league football, baseball, basketball, and soccer. It boggles my mind that we now have no professional hockey, not even minor league, when we’re in the fourth largest city in the United States.

• Lack of natural beauty. There are certain areas around Houston where you can drive for miles and see nothing but refineries, and then you hit the stretches with nothing but car dealerships and strip malls…. We haven’t explored the hill country yet, but I think you have a get a ways from Houston before you start seeing a lot of pretty scenery. The second half of the drive from Houston to Austin is quite nice, but Houston itself is not a place I would move to I wanted to be inspired by the landscape.

• Terrible driving. Not even the police can be bothered to use turn signals around here. I have gone through traffic lights when they’re dark, dark yellow (mainly because I knew I'd get rear-ended if I stopped) and had four cars continue to turn left behind me.

I'm sure that the minute I post this, I'm going to think of something else to say about Houston, but for now, let me end by saying the good far outweighs the bad. I'll end with one more thing I love about Houston: the skyline. I've gotten to see it from almost every possible angle, and it makes me feel happy and optimistic every time I see it.

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Sci-Fi Shorts at Worldfest-Houston 2014

This weekend I attended a very small sliver of the Worldfest-Houston Independent International Film Festival. I only became aware of this event late last week, so I didn’t have time to plan much, but I was able to get to the Sunday matinee screening of five “sci-fi shorts.” Mainly I wanted to see “I Remember the Future”, a short film based on Michael Burstein’s Nebula-nominated short story of the same title.

The session was introduced by one of the festival organizers, who said (if I recall correctly) that some 1400 films had been entered into the festival. There are so many that the festival cannot even screen all of the winners in the various categories.

This Sci-Fi Shorts session consisted of five films:

Anamnesis– Written and directed by Ben Goodger; 24:45 minutes.

Of the five films we saw, this one had the most beautiful cinematography. It never hurts filming on the Scottish coast, but scenery aside, there was some really beautiful camera work and imagery. In this story, a young scientist is experimenting with a memory retrieval technique that lets him relive the day his girlfriend died, because right up until her death, it was the most perfect day. Unsurprisingly, he becomes addicted to the memory. He begins to notice small changes in each iteration, and begins to wonder if he might change things on a larger scale.

I felt that this was very well done, and would have changed only two minor things. The memory recreation was apparently caused or enabled by a meteorite with a slick oily black substance that seemed to be alive. This wasn’t really explored, which I was fine with, but our attention was directed there numerous times. The tar-like substance reminded me of the sentient tar pit that killed Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the way the substance kept bubbling up looked almost muppet-like, for lack of a better term. It’s the only thing that threw me out of the film because it wasn’t integrated into the storyline, and it didn’t have the same polished feel as everything other element. The other extremely minor issue was the pacing. Any time you repeat a scene or imagery several times (which of course makes sense in a story about memory), you risk making the viewer impatient if they decide you've done it one too many times. This had one or even two repeats more than I felt I needed. It certainly wasn’t egregious, but I felt that it kept the film from being as perfect as it might otherwise have been.

Here I’ve written a long paragraph about two minor criticisms, and not nearly enough about how good the film actually was. It was very good. Emotionally powerful, thought-provoking, well-acted, and beautifully filmed.

The Sound of Trains – Written and directed by Travis Champagne and Jordan Bradley; 13 minutes.

This one didn’t quite work for me. Daniel Baldwin plays a rural loner who discovers green slime on his hand while chopping wood, then receives a mysterious visit from two black-suited strangers who warn him that he must not reveal what he’s seen (except he hasn’t really seen anything), or they will return for him.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) He then doesn’t tell anyone what he’s seen, and they return for him anyway.

My problem with this film is that there is nothing fresh or original about the alien abduction scenario, and there’s that huge hole in the plot logic. The main character never tells anyone that something odd happened to him. Heck, he never even sees anyone he can tell. We’re given no reason to care about the character. Also, while I thought grizzly Daniel Baldwin looked and acted the part perfectly, the actors playing the two visitors were trying so hard to be cryptic and mysterious that it was almost funny when it wasn’t meant to be.

Agent Killer: Origins – Written and directed by Cesar Encalada; 15 minutes.

For this film, I could see that the cast and crew put a lot of love and work into it, but there were a variety of problems. Some of these can be explained, I think, by viewing this not as a film but as the prologue to a video game. If that is the intention, some of these problems are certainly understandable. But as a film, it views as though it came from young artists who have spent their lives playing video games without actually reading stories or learning about sophisticated storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I think a lot of video games have incredible storytelling, but those are the games that go way beyond creating a flashy world and a somewhat contrived background for a single hero (or possibly anti-hero) character. Also, although I feel a little petty bringing it up, multiple grammatical errors in the on-screen opening text, well, they just can’t be allowed to happen. Even the film’s program book description has a problem, describing the Colosius as “a humanitarian xenophobic alien race that has conquered Earth and enslaved humans.” I have to assume they meant humanoid, not humanitarian.

That aside, the film has some impressive special effects. The main character wakes up in some kind of lab or tech facility, knowing that he has to fight his way out. He dispatches a bunch of guards and eventually comes face-to-face with a real adversary, who delivers a lot of trite dialog in an overly dramatic fashion. The fight scene was fairly well choreographed with some nice special effects, particularly the glowing movement under the skin when the two fighters were under stress. Unfortunately, however, much of the fighting sequences came across as derivative of the Matrix movies, particularly when the (not-main-character-so-presumably) bad guy pauses in the middle of the fight to crack his neck to either side a la Agent Smith.

(SPOILERS AHEAD) Eventually the main character fights his way out in spite of being stabbed, and ends up on a beach watching spaceships (again, good effects) fly over, then ruminating on what his role in this world should be. This ending voice over goes on for much too long, making clichéd statements and asking clichéd questions.

I have to admit I wonder whether this film was screened in part because its creators were local.[*] I'm guessing that it won an award, perhaps in a technical category. Then, when the festival chooses which award winners to screen, I think they might give a slight edge to local talent, which is understandable and nice for us. So I feel a little harsh by commenting on things that perhaps weren’t the qualities meant to be showcased, and because I’m treating this as a film when it really might have been meant as a video game rather than a film prologue. But I only have the film itself to go on. What I do think is great is that the creator and the crew got out there and created something, and put it out there for the world to see. There were some really nice effects, and yes, the universe they created could certainly make a popular video game. I hope they’ll continue to create, because they have some great potential.

I Remember the Future – Written by Zane Pyper, Klayton Stainer, Michael Burstein; directed by Klayton Stainer; 26:32 minutes.

I about fell over when I realized this movie was shot on location in Melbourne, Australia, because I would have thought it was shot in Brooklyn, and that the two main actors were American. I knew this was based on Michael Burstein’s short story of the same title, and I vaguely remembered Michael saying online at some point that someone had approached him about turning the story into a short film, but I’d missed the fact that it was an Australian film student. I'm not sure which surprised me more: the "Australian" part or the "student" part, because I can definitely say that there was nothing “student” about this film.

The main character, Abe (Reg Gorman) is an old man looking backwards over a long career writing science fiction. Now, however, he’s faced with the onset of dementia, just as his somewhat estranged daughter informs him she is moving to the other side of the country. His tense conversations with his daughter are interspersed with his trips down memory lane, as he envisions scenes and characters from the many worlds he created in his novels. I especially liked that the scenes looked the way he would have imagined them when writing for the pulps, rather than the way a young writer might imagine them now. Abe tells his daughter that he’d always felt like he had a connection to the future, that his ideas weren’t his own but that they were somehow real and he’d simply been able to tune into them. This angers his daughter, because she feels it’s no excuse for having been an emotionally absent father.

I have to confess that I haven’t read the original story, for which I’m glad in a way because I got to see the film completely fresh. The story itself is satisfying, especially to writerly types, and this film was made with skill and loving care. One sequence, showing two of Abe’s space-suited characters exploring an ancient abandoned library with paper, is absolutely stunning. (In fact, my husband wondered in what library it was shot, while I said I assumed it was CGI….) The movie was well-acted, and I loved that Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, who played the daughter, had another role as well. (This actress also played the Hybrid in the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica.) I did wish a little bit that the father-daughter relationship wasn’t quite so strained, because it felt a bit like a statement that a writer couldn’t create such rich fictional worlds without being emotionally absent to his or her family. I know better than to assume the author was actually making that statement; that's just how it came through my personal lens. While the conclusion was a little more sentimental than I would normally prefer, it felt right for this story and it resulted in a perfect last line, delivered perfectly.

I Remember the Future is the reason I became aware of the festival in the first place, and the reason I went. This one film was worth making the trip across town for just by itself; the fact that I got to see a couple of other really good short films too was icing on the cake.

Oh, and the closing credits were fabulous! They reminded me of the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies.

Where the Red Fox Lies – written and directed by Jeff Ray; 35:56 minutes.

This was a remarkably accomplished film in every aspect: storytelling, visuals, camera work, acting, effects…. A young woman and her new husband drive to an abandoned ranch looking for her younger sister, who disappeared some time before, and who did not surface for their parents' funeral following a mysterious and horrible accident. The older sister resents that the younger one left her to deal with all of the accident's aftermath. The younger sister is clearly suffering from psychological trauma and is unwilling or unable to discuss what's troubling her. Eventually, the problem becomes apparent to all.

If you read the description of the film you'll know what's going on, but I had the advantage of going in blind, so I got to see the plot revealed at the pace the writer/director intended. I hesitate to put any spoilers here; let me just say that it's a great speculative fiction plot. (I say "speculative fiction" because it blends science fiction and horror, while still remaining a moving personal and emotional drama.)

For the most part I felt this film moved at the appropriate pace, but it did sag a tiny bit for me towards the end, such that I stopped paying attention to reflect that the older sister and her husband were a little slower in figuring things out than they might have been. On the other hand, humans are great at denial, so maybe that's what was going on. There is also a gorgeous montage of scenes at the end that goes on a bit longer than it needs to. But this is a very minor nitpick as far as this film goes.


This was a couple of hours well spent. Three of these five films really impressed me with their storytelling and execution. I definitely plan to do some research and see a lot more of the festival next year. In addition to Sci-Fi Shorts, I'd like to try out the Comedy Shorts, which I have to imagine will be a blast. I hope to get together a good-sized group of friends and science fiction enthusiasts next year – more of us need to know about this.

[* I knew this one was local because the person introducing the program mentioned it. It didn't occur to me until writing this to look the rest up and I now have: The Sound of Trains was also local (Spring, TX), and Where the Red Fox Lies was semi-local (Duncanville, up by Dallas)]
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Monday, November 12, 2012

Star Wars: Scoundrels

I haven’t read a Star Wars book in years, but this one sounded like too much fun to pass up: Star Wars: Scoundrels, a novel by fan favorite author Timothy Zahn that essentially stars Han Solo as Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven. Due out in early January 2013, Scoundrels takes place between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, bringing together Han, Chewie, Lando, and a new cast of characters going after a score so big it will solve Han’s little Jabba problem forever, if only they can pull it off.

As is often the case with con/heist stories, at times the plan is so convoluted that I couldn’t quite tell what was going on, but to be honest that didn’t really bother me. I was impressed with Zahn’s ability to give the eight new characters on Han’s temporary “team” disparate enough personalities that I didn’t need to refer to the dramatis personae list at the front of the book – and that’s in addition to the villains, who are equally distinctive. While it didn’t seem entirely natural to watch Han trusting people, having the patience for the long con, and advising people to get some sleep and turn out the lights on the way to bed, this book somehow works just fine. It also doesn’t hurt to have a Star Wars novel with familiar faces, set in this time period instead of decades later, when apparently almost every character has developed Jedi abilities and has temporarily turned to the Dark Side of the Force. I understand additional “standalone” novels in this timeframe are forthcoming.

Minor spoilers below....

There are some slight missteps that might have been caught in editing (and since I read a galley, maybe they still will be). “Chance cubes” are “chance cubes” except for the one time they’re referred to as dice. There’s a reference to “middle grade children” that throws me out of the Star Wars 'verse and back into suburban America, as well as extensive use of dumbwaiters during the heist. While I can buy that alien cultures might invent convenient “elevators” to move food and supplies from one story of a residential building to another, it seems a bit odd that they would also name theirs after mute food service personnel. There’s even a football metaphor. Who knew that in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, they not only have Earth sports, but 20th century American sports? As said, these lapses are minor, but they do briefly interrupt the mood, and give the effect of slight carelessness.

On the plus side? There are some fun inside jokes, including an entire scene that pays homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a funny paragraph in which Han sums up his role in A New Hope as only he can, and an amusing poke at scriptwriters who like to use turbolifts as the ideal spot for heroes to break free from their captors. Heck, I even enjoyed constructing a little chart that might help a writer deal with Chewie’s dialogue, for which there’s apparently a “no direct translation” rule. We never know what he actually says, only that there is a limited number of iterations in which he growls/rumbles/warbles his agreement/assent/question/objection. (To be fair, I think the “no direct translation” rule is probably the right way to go, but the limitations thereof are still amusing.) I liked the use of “kriffing” – not as good as frakking or frelling, but not bad.

And there’s a direct poke at the “who shot first” question – not that it’s really a question, in my opinion. It doesn’t go quite in the direction I’d have chosen, or as far as I’d like, but it’s still cute, and there’s only so much you can sneak through the approval process, I’m sure.

Overall verdict: if you find the shelves upon shelves of Star Wars books at the bookstore too much to contemplate, with their complicated storylines that sometimes seem to be spinning their wheels, this is the book that will let you get back to basics and have a lot of fun while you're doing it. Besides, who can resist that cover?
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