Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sherlock, "A Scandal in Belgravia": Spoiler-free Review

The differences between head and heart are dissected in “A Study in Belgravia,” the Sherlock series 2 episode premiering last night at the BFI. As Mark Gatiss noted then and other reviewers have picked up in their commentaries, the episode illustrates Sherlock and love, rather than Sherlock in love. Make no mistake, however, love is very much in evidence, whether between Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson, or John, or Mycroft. Even narcissistic love and dangerous love become part of the equation once Irene Adler is introduced.

Indeed, the entire screening last night was one big love fest between those who make Sherlock such an incredible entertainment and those who merely sit back and applaud madly. Probably I am the 400th or so person since the screening ended to do so (but not in person—I was shy, or via Twitter—I was afraid of being retweeted for posterity if I gushed awkwardly), but let me add my congratulations to the entire creative team of Sherlock. Specifically, a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Moffat, Mr. Gatiss, Mr. Cumberbatch, Ms. Pulver, and moderator Ms. Moran, who graced the audience during the screening and the stage for the Q&A. Thank you for sharing Sherlock, and last evening, with us.

The biggest “awwww” moment of the night for me didn’t come from the episode itself, although certainly there are many lovely “character” moments within the episode. Mr. Cumberbatch had promised the first query from the audience to a young boy, Oliver, who carefully read his question. He wanted advice to become a consulting detective. Mr. Cumberbatch thoughtfully and seriously gave Oliver some very good tips, a “real answer,” as Mr. Gatiss put it. Now if only Sherlock could learn to be so gracious and sincere.

It’s further testament to the series’ writing and Mr. Cumberbatch’s talent that we enjoy watching Sherlock in part because he hasn’t mastered empathy and kindness for kindness’ sake quite yet—but he’s slightly more socialized in this version, no doubt thanks to his nontraditional family. The relationships in “A Scandal in Belgravia” are richer, deeper, sometimes contentious, but also more genuine and honest. Although John has the capacity to rein in Sherlock’s more egregious behavior, he (or even Lestrade) lets him get away with quite a bit. That Sherlock seems to better understand when his actions are a bit “not good”—and chooses to make amends or just go with his antisocial impulse—adds another dimension to the character.

“Richer” and “multilayered” are perhaps the best spoiler-free words to describe all aspects of this episode. The plot spins at a rapid pace, but not at the expense of character. The story begins where we last left Sherlock, John, and Moriarty, but the scene goes where we least expect it. (I was afraid the cliffhanger would be left unresolved, but resolved it was--in quite a delicious way that, once again, adds new insights into character.) Canon is never sacrificed, even when the writers wink at the audience or give a nod to fandom. The story surprised me, which is quite an accomplishment for a tale that has been around more than a century. Yes, the basic story structure is recognizable, and those who know canon should be pleased with the many references to the original. However, the twists to plot and character make this version a pleasure in unexpected ways. "A Scandal in Belgravia" is new and inventive, as is the way it is told.

Although cinematography is spectacular and engaging throughout the episode, some transitions between scenes are so creative that they momentarily took my attention from the plot. They are not disruptive but so imaginative that they made me see the connections between scenes in an entirely new way. From someone who watches as much television as I do, that is a rare compliment.

The soundtrack is equally memorable. Sometimes it includes a specific, easily recognized sound effect; more often, the evocative music supports and elevates visuals but is enjoyable on its own. I’m looking forward to playing the soundtrack when it becomes available (soon, I hope).

Of course, what would Sherlock be without Martin Freeman as John or Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock? They are superbly cast. Their characters define "couple" in an entirely new way that goes beyond the often-suggested labels of partners, friends, colleagues, or lovers. Who they are defies a convenient category and makes the series stand apart from other dramas. In "A Scandal in Belgravia" Mark Gatiss is given much more to play as Mycroft, and he becomes more frightening but more endearing as we begin to understand his motivations. And what would Sherlock and John do without Mrs. Hudson? Una Stubbs is given more to do in this episode and helps us understand Mrs. Hudson's role within the family dynamic of 221 Baker Street.

If the first series was a lovely gift waiting to be opened and admirable for its outer beauty, “A Scandal in Belgravia” shows us what’s truly inside once we peel off the packaging. All the familiar elements audiences loved about the first series are more complex, and thus more intriguing and meaningful, once we can take a closer look. (You may sometimes want to take a closer look in slo-mo or with pause.) Moffat and Gatiss know how to layer and tease, which is why a revelation is well worth the wait.

As an American making the trip primarily to see Sherlock (and I wasn’t the only way-out-of-towner in this global audience), I can only hope the entire series remains spoiler free until I can watch it at home—unless some kindhearted Brit will adopt me in the new year, for about three weeks. I promise not to watch and tell. Was the BFI premiere worth the trip? Definitely, and not only because I can taunt my friends back home. Will Sherlock be worth the wait, even if that’s until May 2012 or later? Yes. Its quality is amazing for “just television”—think three new films. Its writing dazzles (but may require more than one viewing to catch every word of Sherlock’s rapid-fire dialogue). Its cast is note perfect, from new characters to the well established.

Perhaps on a second or third viewing I’ll have some quibbles as I dissect the episode further. During this first screening, however, I (and the rest of the audience), more than anyone portrayed on screen, fell in love. Maybe that’s what “A Scandal in Belgravia” really is all about.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In the Silence in NOLA

Between conference sessions and far too many tasty meals, I snapped dozens of photos, mostly in the Quarter but a few in a local cemetery or park. Although the city is full of sound, and sometimes fury, I prefer the silence of early morning or late afternoon, when the clouds are cottony and the statues speak to those who want to hear them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Still Waiting for a Miracle: Final Thoughts About Torchwood: Miracle Day

Miracle Day presents some interesting story ideas that aren't developed to a satisfying conclusion. It is a collection of widely dispersed brilliant scenes in search of a cohesive miniseries.













Like the 10 episodes of Miracle Day, my comments—written in the hours after I watched “The Blood Line” but posted after the episode’s U.K. broadcast—span a wide range of topics and may seem largely disjointed. As a Torchwood fan since the first season and a Captain Jack fan since 2005, I realize that my reactions are biased and not those of the target audience, those new to Torchwood. Aiming for new viewers is understandably necessary for Starz in particular to gain ratings and subscribers, but that strategy left me dissatisfied with Miracle Day’s plot and character development. I was unhappy with some plot developments in Children of Earth, but I still watch the excellent Day 1 again and again and share Children of Earth with students in my university classes. I won’t do either with Miracle Day, despite some wonderfully written and acted individual scenes.

What I liked:

1.The Redemption of Jack

Jack Harkness will never be a traditional hero, but he becomes far less of a dark hero with his redemption by the end of Miracle Day. Scenes illustrating the redemption of Jack portray him with Christ-like imagery (in “Immortal Sins” and “The Blood Line”), which is always going to be controversial, given everything Jack has done in his many lives. Jack has served the Torchwood story as a savior/sacrifice many times, and the theme of betrayal, both implicit and explicit, is especially strong in his character’s depiction in Miracle Day. Although not everyone may like to see Jack forgiven, much less redeemed, for some pretty dark actions, I like the idea that at least Jack has been emotionally and psychologically (perhaps “spiritually”) healed and can now move on. Angsty, guilt-ridden Jack is necessary at times, but he’s no fun. Yet this is the Jack that new viewers first come to know, without knowing exactly why he feels the occasional need to mention Ianto or the Doctor. He seems like a fallen leader, but new viewers haven't seen--and don't get to see--Jack as a leader in this miniseries. Maybe the Jack that older fans (like me) enjoyed in previous stories will now be able to return.

2. “Immortal Sins”

“Immortal Sins”—my favorite episode—brings back loving, tender Jack, as well as naughty rogue Jack, who seems more con man than Torchwood operative in this backstory. He poignantly tries to find a companion of his own. Perhaps this impulse reflects his desire to become as “good” as he (then) thinks the Doctor is. This episode shows Jack as he is meant to be—controversial, dangerous, even betrayed. He is not and should never be a typical hero character. He probably should never lead Torchwood. He should be an elusive rogue who beguiles us with his capacity to love but horrifies as well as intrigues us with his dark side, which is why "Immortal Sins" is my top episode in Miracle Day.

3. Especially the car scene in “Immortal Sins”

Jack’s and Gwen’s confrontation is probably the only Miracle Day scene I’ll replay far too many times. Gwen tells Jack, “At the end, I finally understand you.” So did I, Gwen, and that alone was worth Miracle Day. Well written, well acted, tightly paced, this scene has everything—friendship, love, betrayal, and manipulation, along with bondage!

4. Jack’s immortality

Captain Jack regains his immortality and, hope springs eternal, he will live in Doctor Who or Torchwood stories, whether canon or fanon, for a long time to come. Jack is one of the best characters to come along in SF, especially when he can work as a free agent or with an entourage of likable, diverse, equally dysfunctional characters. His role as a consultant who occasionally drops the Doctor’s name into a conversation isn’t nearly as interesting, but what’s the point of immortality if you don’t have the time to learn from your missteps and do something different next time?

5. Rhys and Andy

These characters had some fantastic moments that proved the actors who play them can do far more than they have been previously given. Whether playfully painting a wall, reining in Gwen’s desire to run off with Torchwood, or begging for more time with his dying father-in-law, Kai Owen’s Rhys is marvelous. His humor and deft touch lighten scenes appropriately and provide that proverbial breath of fresh air amid the heavy drama. Rhys’ compassion in the charnel (ware)house provides the right gravitas and dignity to a scene that could have been just about another death. Kudos to Tom Price, too. I especially applaud a scene in “The Blood Line” in which Andy holds the hand of a friendless, dying girl so that she isn't alone in her final moments. Price used his body language and expression to convey all that Andy felt, giving the scene depth and emphasizing that the power of a human connection doesn’t always require a lot of exposition.

6. The beach scene in "The New World"

It's fast and furious. It has rocket launchers, massive explosions, Rhossili Bay, Captain Jack driving a getaway jeep, and the happiest baby ever! It's over the top, unbelievable, and exciting! It's--dare I say--fun! Yeah, I'd be smirking, too, Jack/John. I had as much fun watching it as you did filming it.

What I disliked:

1. Episodes’ loss of focus (and loss of characters)

As another of my favorite BBC-depicted characters, Sherlock, complains, “Bored. Bored. BORED.” I metaphorically shot the wall during many scenes. I often couldn't see the point, even in retrospect, of individual scenes or characters as I pieced together clues about the miracle (and this I confess as a LOST fan familiar with clue gathering). So much of the time I just didn’t care, or when I cared, I tried not to care too much because, as the Ninth Doctor often said, “everything dies.” Everything, everyone, everywhere—in Miracle Day, the only new characters I liked, Esther Drummond and Vera Juarez, perish, leaving me with fewer people to root for. I really thought Esther was going to make it to the final credits, but no. She couldn’t survive the last 10 minutes. I became desensitized to character death to the point that nothing shocked me, and the number of explosions, shootings, and immolations just became, frankly, boring.

2. The story’s unrealized potential

I mourn the missed opportunities of what could have been 1) an interesting medical drama with SF overtones (even if no aliens were involved), 2) a creepy apocalyptic tale of what happens to an immortalized world, or 3) a Captain Jack story in which his past, yet again, returns to haunt not only him but everyone he touches. Pick one. Any of the three had a good deal of potential that could have been developed in 10 or fewer hours. Also, I’d have liked to have seen more done with the Soulless or the Blessing, two visually interesting and potentially thought-provoking concepts. All those global questions worth serious consideration that were raised in the first few episodes vanished as the plot went on, and on, and on. Although the many plot threads did become more clearly interwoven during the final episodes concerning the families and the Blessing, I’m still trying to unravel a few knots and stitch together some ragged holes.

3. An unclear series identity

Torchwood needs to decide what it wants to be now that it’s reportedly all grown up. I still observed lots of growing pains, resulting in episodes with wildly uneven tone from scene to scene. The final scenes with the Blessing in “The Blood Line” didn’t bother me much. After all, they return Torchwood to the familiar highly dramatic, a bit over the top climax, with some very human touches--typically entertaining, old-style Torchwood denouement. What did bother me was the slapstick humor used in "Rendition"'s scene of Jack’s poisoning, a tonal anomaly in the rather serious first episodes that tried to establish the urgency of the "miracle." Dark humor is one thing. Hysterically ripping up cables to make an antidote is another (as is re-using Jack’s Nostrovite makeup to make us realize how ill he is).

4. “Immortal Sins” as a stand-alone episode

“Immortal Sins” is, for better or worse, a stand-alone episode. As much as I enjoyed the concepts and much of their execution (although I got the point during Jack’s first execution and didn’t need to see quite so much blood), I was troubled that “Immortal Sins” doesn’t easily mesh with other episodes. It does lead to the Blessing and revelations about the miracle, but the episode takes the scenic route to clues. However, this episode was the most compelling to watch, simply because Jack is a compelling character who can carry an episode on his own. Too often in Miracle Day he was sidelined as a backseat driver or advisor. Unfortunately, I can’t even show this episode as part of a class discussion about Jack as an SF character—like the BBC, I would have to cut scenes and probably receive many complaints about graphic content. I like to watch Starz in my living room, but watching it in a classroom of teenagers would be difficult, personally and professionally.

5. Talking heads

Explication, explication, EXPLICATION. Although Miracle Day’s story resulted in 10 drawn-out episodes, the plot alternately meanders among or skips over important on-screen developments, which then are explicated by a talking head. A rousing speech here or there is expected and, if done well, applauded. Most often, however, show me instead of talk to me about it.

6. Rex

Rex Matheson is the new Jack Harkness. Miracle Day spent far too much time comparing Jack with Rex and developing the latter as an American CIA version of the former. It doesn’t work nearly as well as the writers thought it should. Jack is unique, even if he now has begat another immortal who might, I fear, be poised to take his place in future Torchwood stories (as he has in one of the recently published novels). With the ascension of Rex as an American immortal agent, comfortable with the existence of aliens on earth but better versed in crime-fighting methods, Captain Jack is unnecessary to new Torchwood—at least from a writer’s perspective. No matter how talented Mekhi Phifer is or how much later episodes tried to soften Rex’s abrasive personality, I only have eyes for one immortal—and it’s not Rex.

You might have noticed that my "likes" are very specific, whereas my "dislikes" are broad generalizations. That difference sums up my Miracle Day viewing experience.

Miracle Day ultimately is an interesting international experiment between two powerhouses with wildly divergent audiences and programming histories. The hypothesis that BBC and Starz can gain a wider market share by pooling resources and redirecting a cult series for a mainstream adult audience still should be tested. Experiments are often inconclusive and should be replicated (but maybe not with a hybrid Torchwood).

Don’t misunderstand me—I believe deep in my geeky, SF-loving heart that Torchwood is a worthwhile concept that could still be developed as a viable cult series that ends up making money and earning critical acclaim. As some fans have mentioned, perhaps Torchwood: US could become a separate series from Torchwood: UK, just as each Being Human or Law & Order has a separate cast and different stories, although each series shares the same original concept with its across-the-pond counterpart.

If, however, future Torchwood episodes are vetoed and Captain Jack and company become free agents, here are some other possible spinoffs I’d watch:

Zombie Torchwood (All the dead come back to life, a kind of Walking Dead in Cardiff)

Romcom Rhys (whether as stay-at-home dad or a single parent is up to Gwen and her devotion to Torchwood)

The A-Files (Andy becomes a combo Mulder-Scully-styled paranormal investigator who balances his newly honed police investigation skills with his love for “spooky-do’s”)

Gwen, Warrior Princess—or Road Warrior (Remember the way she looked in leather, on a bike, against a flaming backdrop?)

(Don't laugh at my suggestions. Just look at the number of prequels and miniseries SyFy has generated since Battlestar Galactica's finale.)

If the former Torchwood “team” remains as divided, by temperament or geography, as they have been in Miracle Day, why not let each character play to his or her strengths?

Let me brainstorm one more spinoff idea: Against all odds, the baby TARDIS on Jack’s desk in the Hub survives, just like Gwen’s contact lenses. As it grows up, the TARDIS calls to Jack, who then returns to Cardiff before the two begin a new series of intergalactic adventures (perhaps quite adult—hey, I saw the potential in “The Doctor’s Wife”). More important, they travel the stars, fight some aliens, make love to others, and eventually pop by a huge anniversary party held in the Doctor’s behalf. Now that’s the kind of Miracle I’m looking for.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Observations of a Comic-Con Newbie

Sitting in the San Diego airport, latte and laptop at hand, I have plenty of time to make sense of the whirlwind four days (and preview night!) that is Comic-Con. Last Monday I stayed the night in Orlando to be on time for the 4:30 a.m. check-in, and until roughly the same time this morning, my life has been a series of long lines, strange and wonderful conversations, and unexpected experiences.

If anything, my Comic-Con experience could be a metaphor for life. It was amazing, but it went by too fast. I learned from creative people, made new friends, and took a few side trips to see the world outside where I was “living.” Sometimes I did everything right and played by the rules but still got screwed over. Sometimes I was in the right place at the right time for a magical experience. I savored excellent meals and gulped junk food. I was exhausted and exhilarated. I didn’t do everything I planned or hoped, but pleasant surprises spiced up the journey. In retrospect, SDCC was more (of everything) than I could have imagined.

When I look back, particularly at Friday, I feel the trip was worth the aggravation of crashed servers, long lines, misinformation, and the occasionally rude fan who felt the need to cut in line or dump my bag in the haste to get a seat. The majority of fans, exhibitors, guests, drivers, guides, and security personnel were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. They chatted amiably and shared tips for a successful convention. They smiled—a lot—and seemed genuinely happy to be there.

The highlights listed next are easy to enumerate by day but are more difficult to explain—the reasons for their significance are personal as only fan experiences can be.

Preview Night:

Doctor Who t-shirt. Check. SDCC comic book exclusives. Check. Beatles taxis. Check. The booth numbers I’d mapped before leaving home came in handy when I wanted to dart down aisles to make purchases.

And then I found the Weta booth.

Daniel Falconer, who designs weapons and armor and has worked on films like The Lord of the Rings and District 9, signed my District 9 book, chatted a few minutes, and even graciously agreed to a future interview. I’ve admired his work for years, and I now admire the man for his friendliness and genuine interest in Weta fans. If I had only talked to him at Comic-Con, I would've deemed the trip a massive success.

But the fun was only beginning. I lasted two hours in the crush/rush of the Preview before calling it a night and taking a shuttle back to the hotel.

Thursday highlights:

• TheOneRing.Net (TORN) panel—old friends, news of The Hobbit, and a strange introduction to some cast members [e.g., Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug/Necromancer) was introduced via a photo of Sherlock and the actor’s reading of Jabberwocky—but then, I forget that not everyone is as enamored of Cumberbatch and familiar with his incredible voice]

• Indie film festival—a series of shorts or animated films, plus a Vuguru panel about web films, my first meeting with Dominic Monaghan and Ray Wise, and an unexpected meet-and-greet after the panel

Wilfred panel—an episode screening followed by cast Q&A, fueling a hilarious and insightful meeting between the actors and fans who are seriously into the series, Jason Gann, and Elijah Wood

Friday highlights:

Torchwood panel—an early morning run to get in a line that still left me 2000 deep in the herd heading to Ballroom 20, but—success!—a seat about halfway back, and a reunion of far-flung, naughty, extroverted “family” on stage or on the floor. But more about John Barrowman and panels later.

• The queue outside Nerd HQ—where I said hello to Elijah Wood and managed a shaky “Hello, fine, thanks” when Dominic Monaghan asked how I was doing as he walked past

• A Conversation with Dominic Monaghan—an intimate, funny, insightful, never-to-be-forgotten hour for the hundred or so fans participating in the conversation, which was streamed to a worldwide audience

• A Conversation with Scott Bakula—another memorable hour capped with a bonus signing session—and a memorable if impromptu duet from Bakula and Zachary Levi—All right, I have to boast that I received a “good question” comment from Monaghan and Bakula, which means a lot to someone who likes to interview actors.

Saturday highlights:

TV Guide panel of “supernaturals”—a decidedly low tech (or no tech, when the clips couldn’t be correctly played) screening of television series, but the actors saved the session by giving their fans just what they wanted—plenty of sexy, irreverent comments that made this panel possibly the bawdiest and funniest of the con

• Toby Whithouse—No one was in line when I showed up a few minutes early for his signing session at the SFX booth! What was wrong with that crowd?! I blame my surprise at being suddenly face to face with one of my favorite writers for my incoherent gushing about Being Human. Usually I’m so much cooler. Seriously.

Sunday highlights:

• Anthony Head—I had hoped to gush about the Doctor Who panel, but I chose 1) to stand in an autograph lottery line that didn’t work out and 2) to meet Anthony Head at the BBC America booth. The latter was an excellent choice; Mr. Head was gracious and funny. He gave each fan his full, unhurried attention. I’m a fan for life.

A few experiences and comments deserve more than a list item; they, perhaps as much as a fan moment with a film maker, writer, or actor, determined the quality of my Comic-Con experience.

John Barrowman and a Tale of Two Panels

During Friday’s Torchwood panel, John Barrowman clearly was in his element, fielding questions with aplomb and double entendres, letting every panelist shine, and generally seeming to have a good time. Although he wasn’t officially the session moderator, that lack of designation was a moot point. Everyone on stage and in the capacity crowd of the extremely large Ballroom 20 only had eyes for John. Eve Myles was hilarious, but even she couldn’t keep up with Mr. Barrowman.

As is his norm during interviews or public appearances, Barrowman thanked his fans for their support. He emphasized his love of playing Captain Jack. He cracked jokes and played to the crowd. He sang, although in Saturday’s panel he seemed to wish he’d chosen something other than “Tomorrow” from Annie. He posed for photos. And he looked like he was having a good time.

To date, I’ve attended two of Barrowman’s concerts (the third coming up this Thanksgiving) and more performances of La Cage than I should admit to seeing. I’ve watched the man interact with fans via webcam and at stage doors. He knows how to relate to fans and make them feel that, although he and they may never say hello face to face, they are important to him. That inclusiveness was a big part of Friday’s Torchwood panel, a session less about cheerleading for Torchwood (although that was certainly its purpose) and more a love fest between Barrowman and his fans.

The vibe was very different at the TV Guide panel. Yes, John Barrowman waved to his fans, many who crowded the second or third row (where I sat) and took hundreds of photos during the session. Yes, he brought sexy back to 5AB and made a teen werewolf blush. And yes, he sang “Happy Birthday” and gave the birthday boy a kiss. But it just wasn’t the same level of energy or enjoyment provided by the Torchwood panel. Barrowman was a team player and applauded others’ series or quips, but the majority of fans in that room wanted to talk only with him. Barrowman participated graciously, but he wasn’t in charge, and the magical “family feeling” of the other panel never materialized. Say what you will about Barrowman, but put him in charge of a group of fans and he can unify a crowd while making each person feel special. That is a rare gift.

Fab Four

I don’t mean to be sexist, but I was most impressed with my encounters with these four men: Dominic Monaghan, Scott Bakula, Anthony Head, and Zachary Levi.

I have wanted to meet Dominic Monaghan since 1998. On July 22, 2011, that meeting materialized and exceeded my fantasies. (Keep your thoughts clean, people.) I sat in the front row for the Vuguru panel, and I learned a lot about film making and web movies. After the panel, the audience was invited to a meet and greet with the panelists—giving me the opportunity for a lengthy discussion with a scriptwriter and shorter but very pleasant conversations with actors. I asked a few questions, told Mr. Monaghan about the way I use DVDs of his performances in my “heroes” classes, and shook his hand. Absolutely brilliant.

On Friday, I attended Monaghan's "conversation" session hosted by the Nerd Machine. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that, when there was silence in the “are there questions?" part of the program, my hand popped up automatically. During a break in the action while the mic went back and forth from me to the handler before it worked, Dominic Monaghan said he remembered me. Let the record show that he actually said we hung out together on Thursday. Somewhere there is a recording of the streamed video to prove it. My fan life is now complete.

I had a similarly wonderful fan encounter during Scott Bakula’s “conversation.” I last met Mr. Bakula in 1996 at a Quantum Leap convention, and both times he has impressed me with his honesty in answering questions (especially about the television industry then and now) and his kindness in talking with each fan.

What impressed me about these actors—and also Anthony Head, who graciously met everyone in the long line snaking around the BBC America booth on Sunday morning—is their complete focus on the (probably inwardly shaking) fan before them. They made each person feel important, unlike the cattle call or the 100-people-per-hour signings becoming more common at fan conventions. Unfortunately, what is construed as good manners in the "real world" is too often rare in the interactions between fans and those being adored. My Comic-Con experience benefited from brief, but very "real" interactions with these actors.

The man behind Nerd HQ is Zachary Levi. He bounced between headquarters next door and Joltin’ Joe’s, where the special fan sessions were held. He made the calls and gathered the talent for a whole schedule of fan events, the proceeds going to charity. Levi’s concept for the off-site mini-convention, his exuberance for fandom, and his shrewd business sense made the Nerd HQ one of the best places to be in San Diego this July.

Life, or Comic-Con, is What You Make It

My Comic-Con experience is unique. Every attendee has his or her stories, successes, and regrets. My clubbing nights are over, but I filled the days with panels, shopping, and exploration. I walked around the Gaslamp Quarter, but I also visited Old Town and the maritime museum. I saw (all but one) of the panels I really wanted to see. I also had the “queue” experience of waiting hours, sometimes in vain, for a panel, but rewarding in the conversations with other fans on line.

I talked with fans shut out of everything, line after line, day after day, although they waited two or more hours per line. I wouldn't want that to be the extent of my Comic-Con. Yes, I lost a few hours of my life in the Doctor Who line and an autograph queue that didn’t work out, but I can now say that’s part of my Comic-Con experience. But my Comic-Con wasn’t defined by long lines. I sometimes chose smaller events or panels that were expected to be less populated but were well worth seeing. I didn’t go to the movie premieres or win big prizes. (I did get lots of freebie pins, a t-shirt, a CD, and a DVD from the sessions, which thrilled me as much as some of the bigger giveaways would have done.) I did have some incredible fan encounters and got to see at least some of San Diego. Epic win.

Will I be back next year? Doubtful, even if I wanted to. I refused to stand in the ticket line four hours or more (the average reported from people who stood in those lines, including one woman who slept outside to be closer to the front). What would I have sacrificed to wait for next year’s ticket—the Torchwood panel or a conversation? Would I risk this year’s opportunities in the hope for next year’s Preview Night (and the chance to fight for space with hundreds of people wanting the same exclusive merchandise)? Nope.

So my first Comic-Con may be my last, even though it surpassed my wildest dreams, and my dreams can get pretty wild (although my partying is pretty tame). For such a large event, I thought it was adequately organized (outside of the Epic Ticket Fail of 2011), and the staff members I encountered were incredibly chipper and helpful.

What did I learn about the Meaning of Comic-Con? Maybe the answer to fan "life" isn't 42, or even Comic-Con, but Zach Levi and Nerd HQ.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Third Star review for Cinematique

Third Star

Starring Tom Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, JJ Feild, Adam Robertson
Directed by Hattie Dalton
Written by Vaughan Sivell
2010 (UK)

Reviewed by Lynnette Porter

As does its predecessor (Africa United) in the From Britain With Love series, Third Star revolves around a group of friends who learn as much about themselves as each other during an often-difficult journey. For terminally ill James, “the walk” is the trip of a lifetime, reuniting him with his closest friends and the place he loves most on earth, Barafundle Bay in South Wales. But each of James’ friends has his own secrets and turmoil to deal with.

What could have been a downer about Death or a self-important lecture about The Meaning of Life instead turns into an often-irreverent exploration of friendship. The film offers some heart-to-heart discussions, but these fireside chats emphasize the friends’ different philosophies and approaches to dealing with their less-than-perfect lives, rather than become mired in emotion. Although their plans on the walk, as in life, go awry, these friends gain strength from each other.

If there is a flaw to Third Star, it is that symbolism sometimes is handled with a heavier hand than necessary to make a point. In one scene, for example, Miles (JJ Feild) discovers his watch has been stolen by a boy dressed as an angel for a local festival. The symbolic scene highlights Miles’ fear of losing the most important people in his life. The angels, quite literally, steal his time with those he loves.

The beautifully raw Welsh coast also may sometimes provide an obvious analogy between Nature and the nature of life and death, but frequent shots of the gorgeous scenery can certainly be forgiven. Third Star lovingly frames Wales’ rocky shores and moody sea.

The performances make the film. Tom Burke’s Davy is a devoted caretaker; JJ Feild’s Miles is the friend who stayed away until almost too late; Adam Robertson’s Bill is a caged free spirit. All are excellent in their roles and provide balance to this story of friendship that transcends death. As James, Benedict Cumberbatch soars. He makes James human—with regrets and fears but also humor and hope.

Quiet, character-driven scenes, often missing from blockbusters, become some of the most memorable in an actor’s repertoire. Catch Cumberbatch in roles like this now; he will be on American moviegoers’ radar after “big” films like War Horse and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy arrive in the U.S. in the next few months. Although the actors in Third Star may have higher profile roles in upcoming blockbusters (JJ Feild is in Captain America, for example), their talent shines in this lovely independent film.

Writer Vaughan Sivell’s filming diary and blogs about the actors and characters ( are well worth reading before you see the film. Both Sivell and director Hattie Dalton interact with the film’s fans on Third Star’s Facebook page, and they and their fans clearly believe in this film. It’s well worth a look to see why Third Star is gaining an international fan following.

Third Star shines as a film about friendship and life. Although its title may suggest its rating, I give it four stars out of five.

Dr. Lynnette Porter writes books about television and film and teaches humanities courses at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review of Africa United (From Britain With Love)

Africa United

Starring Eriya Ndayambaje, Roger Nsengiyumva, Sanyu Joanita Kintu, Yves Dusenge, and Sherrie Silver
Directed by Debs Gardner-Paterson
Written by Rhidian Brook
2010 (U.K.)

Reviewed by Lynnette Porter

A few films in the From Britain With Love series deal with friendship thoroughly tested during a journey, a universal theme perfect for bridging cultural gaps among audiences. In Africa United, the journey begins with two teenaged boys who share a love of football (soccer to us in the U.S.). This shared interest transcends their very different economic and social backgrounds and propels them on a life-affirming journey.

Tryouts are a first step toward their “dream for the team”—a youth football team gathered by FIFA for the World Cup’s opening ceremony. After making a wrong turn, “manager” Dudu Kayenzi and “star” Fabrice Kabera decide to complete the journey from their home country of Rwanda to the World Cup in South Africa.

It sounds like an impossible dream to make the 3000-mile journey, much of it on foot. Indeed, the power of the dream is another theme woven throughout this film. Dudu dreams of soccer saving the world from all its evils; the opening scene shows the 13-year-old turning a condom, plastic bag, and string into a soccer ball while explaining why football is even better than sex. Throughout the film, Dudu weaves a story about the power of football, and his story/dream is told via brightly colored stop-motion segments.

In a continent torn by AIDS and war, this sports analogy makes more than “kid sense.” Whereas affluent Fabrice’s mother sees education as the way for her son to become a doctor in America, Fabrice only wants to excel in football. Street-smart orphan Dudu and his sister face the same choice between sports and education as a way to a better life. Whereas Dudu sees the World Cup as the high point of life, Beatrice longs to become a doctor and prays for books.

Africa United well illustrates the dreams of many young people. During their journey to South Africa, Dudu, Fabrice, and Beatrice gather George and Celeste, who also want to escape their current lives for something better.

This combination road trip and coming-of-age film may not be all that surprising for the themes and conflicts it tackles. However, the African scenery, from broad lakes to lush jungle to rolling hills, provides a stark contrast to the worlds of villages, refugee camps, HIV testing centers, and metropolitan centers. American audiences may not have seen or really thought about the lives of teens like Dudu or Fabrice, Beatrice or Celeste, but Africa United strives to bring together international audiences as much as it unites these broken, brilliant characters.

For many Americans, Africa United will be both heartwarming and eye opening.

My rating out of five stars:

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Picture Paints a Word or Two

I'm a writer, so I couldn't help but notice all the words shouting at me wherever I walked. Most are part of exhibits, statues, or facades, but they all seemed to be cluing me in to some greater meaning. Or maybe I was reading far too much into them. Still, they spoke to me and put my surroundings into a very different context.

(To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill, Their foresight and courage gives us hope.)

(Is life a boon? If so, it must befal that death, whene'er he call must call too soon.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Woman about Town

I love to walk. In London I've strolled nearly every bridge across the Thames and trod the cobbles throughout the central city. Although Westminster is a favorite haunt (as it is with any tourist), I find new-to-me routes through Lambeth and Southwark, Camden and the tiny City of London. Not exactly a wide geographic area, but one with plenty of depth to explore. Here are a few of the many things that caught my eye during a wander.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

All the World’s a Stage

In the last few weeks, I saw so many players on the various stages of London’s many theatres, as well as plays in various stages of their theatrical lives. Here’s a brief playbill of my favorites from the past month:

War Horse

Now at the New London Theatre and long into its London run, War Horse is a revelation. During a backstage tour of the National Theatre, I saw (and surreptitiously touched) a “horse” cut after previews and now retired as a highly prized prop, but nothing prepared me for the framework to come to life on stage. I sat in the front row center (close enough for my leg to brush Albert’s when he sat on the edge of the stage—and close enough to look up into the horses’ amber eyes when the puppeteers trotted by), but every character, whether actor or puppet, was alive and unique. Because I was so close to the action (even getting “gassed” during one battle, but, hey, isn’t smoke supposed to follow beauty? I coped), I felt that War Horse was almost interactive. I was entranced as well as almost literally entrenched in the story. Go. See it.

Much Ado About Nothing

My co-favorite production is Much Ado About Nothing. Two versions are currently running, but my attention was caught by the modernized (at least to the 1980s) play starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate. I saw it twice in previews and had a blast both times. I’d seen Tennant do drama but not comedy—so the physical comedy as well as perfectly punched up dialogue was a special treat. I could watch him dance (in denim miniskirt or uniform) all evening. He’s loose limbed and looking like he’s having fun. I confess that I’m sometimes lukewarm to Tate’s performances. Loved Donna, but other roles…not so much. I adored her physical comedy here, and although some critics on press night dubbed her performance one note, I enjoyed her work. Again, go. See them—if you can get a ticket. I met some people who were very lucky in the seat lottery, but if you plan to be in London this summer, get tickets online now.

From Drama to Musical, Live Performance to Recordings

I caught In a Forest, Dark and Deep before it left London. The two-person play starred Matthew Fox and Olivia Williams. Both were good overall in the performance I saw, but each achieved great moments as the play darkened and deepened. The plot telegraphed some of the “shock” moments; I wasn’t as surprised as I should have been by the dramatic twists. Still, an interesting night at the theatre.

Also in likely its last weeks is Love Never Dies. OK, I’m a Phantom fan (but not even a phantom fan of the sequel). Although the voices are amazing, the book and music merely left me wanting to see Phantom again. A few days after I saw Love Never Dies at the Adelphi, I read where the revised, vastly improved version will soon debut in Australia and then possibly head to New York. I was irked that the “good” version wasn’t the current London musical.

As a researcher/writer, I sometimes fall into exciting opportunities. The National Theatre provided me with two: one directly for academic articles about the recent production of Frankenstein, one a not-so-guilty pleasure. I always tell my students to pick their research topics carefully. Sometimes I really am glad I follow my own advice.

During the National Theatre tour, I learned about the archives. A few questions later and a gracious guide handed me contact info for the archivists. The two staffers who replied to my email scheduled an appointment for me to view the materials currently available for Frankenstein. It’s still too soon to have much in the file, but I was able to view a recording of the National Theatre Live’s tech rehearsal—an incredible opportunity to see an additional performance and one few have seen. So, on a sunny day, I spent six uninterrupted hours watching that recording and then, to my immense delight, I was able to watch the archival recording of After the Dance. (Such a geek—this is why I’m not tan, even if I live in Florida most of the year. Sunny day outdoors or a Frankenstein/After the Dance combo—a no brainer.)

If the original London cast does indeed make it to Broadway in the next year (a rumor persistent about a month ago but nothing new since), I’ll make it a point to be there, too. In case After the Dance doesn’t make the transatlantic crossing, at least I can say I’ve seen it, even if it wasn’t live performance. Wow—it’s impressive. You might look at a description and not be as enthusiastic if you don’t like period pieces (Dance is set in 1938) or Terence Rattigan, but if you get the chance to see the cast from the London revival—go. The lead performances make the play.

When I walk throughout the West End and lack the time and money to see everything that catches my eye, it’s hard to believe that live theatre is an endangered species. But London is a rarity, as is New York or Toronto. I came away convinced that we have to support theatre, locally, nationally, internationally. All the world’s stages need us to play our part and keep theatre alive. That’s a role I can relish. Let’s see—Paul Gross on stage in Toronto and New York and that rumor about Benedict Cumberbatch coming to New York—I’d better start saving now.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Alamo

Recently I visited San Antonio to participate in the Popular Culture Association conference. Although I spent most of the visit indoors at conference sessions--really!--I found myself wandering along the Riverwalk and toward the Alamo more than once.

Here are a few visual reminders of the central historic district and Riverwalk one afternoon and evening in late April. The images are my attempt to capture the past caught within the present, the historic within the commercial, the juxtaposition of life surrounded by an aura of death.

It sounds more profound and artistic than my photos really are.