Tuesday Review: Going Solo, or Don’t Judge a Movie by its Box Office

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It’s taken me a month, but I finally made it to the theater to see Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The box office numbers say it’s a flop.

Since its premiere May 24, Solo has pulled in just over $200 million in domestic box office. As any number of sources note, by Star Wars’s standards that’s a flop. Over the course of a month, by comparison, Star Wars: The Last Jedi raked in close to $600 million in its first month and standalone Rogue One more than $440 million.

Solo’s lack of box office success threatens to halt production of more standalone features, which is disappointing to hear. And since generating low numbers from its opening weekend, almost everyone has tried to figure out why.

Was it too close in release with Last Jedi? Have we just gotten bored and oversaturated with Star Wars? Or is it just a really bad movie?

To answer that last question first: No. It’s a good movie. Just what you want out of any heist movie: action at a 12 parsec pace, adventure, betrayals and reversals of fortune.

Moreover, it deals with two of the best characters in the Star Wars universe (those on film, at least): Han Solo and Chewbacca. It’s an origin story, of Han’s life of crime on Corellia, of how he meets Chewie, of how he wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian and how he becomes the space pirate with a heart of gold destined to meet a young naïve Jedi-wannabe named Skywalker and a space princess named Leia.

These things make the movie delightful. That and the performances are good. Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo is as charming as predecessor Harrison Ford, and ably matches some of Ford’s quirks that made Solo Solo. That isn’t to say Ehrenreich’s performance is all imitation. He’s clearly got talent of his own.

As does Donald Glover as Lando. Actually, I would say Glover outcharms even Billy Dee Williams, and that’s hard to do. Glover makes Lando his own.

With good performances, and a storyline that has a decent payoff — it’s a popcorn movie, not an Academy Award performance, good escapism — why has it failed at the box office?

Maybe we have gotten a bit oversaturated with Star Wars? Last Jedi ended its theatrical run in April and was soon out on video and streaming. We had Rogue One behind it and The Force Awakens not all that far away.

That does seem like a lot of Star Wars. Still, Han Solo is an iconic figure in the Star Wars canon, and the Star Wars fandom never seems to get enough of the franchise. We haven’t since A New Hope premiered. We read comics and novels, bought action figures and couldn’t wait for the next film. We watched animated spinoffs and even, if we’re old enough, that classically bad Christmas special that put our heroes on TV screens.

Maybe there’s something in the fandom that’s killed the charm of the movies. Way back in 1999 when the first prequel film The Phantom Menace came out it seemed the fandom complained the most. The movie didn’t meet the expectation of their fannish imaginations.

Of course, there were agreeable complaints: the ridiculous introduction of midichlorians as a signal of someone strong in the Force and having Jedi potential; and poor Jar Jar Binks was just a bad character — a forced comic relief in a film that took itself too seriously.

Which was the real problem with the prequels: they took themselves too seriously. They were trying to be political thrillers telling the story of the rise of the Empire and Darth Vader’s beginnings. A great premise, but slowly done in each (Revenge of the Sith picks up the pace some, however) and when watched on TV, where you can pause the video to go pee, they seem better; they have a TV-series-binge-watched pace. They just weren’t well done movies.

But the complaints from fandom didn’t seem to care about the prequels as movies. What fandom seemed most concerned about was their lost childhoods, their sad nostalgia for Star Wars and what it meant to them.

Later films were hit by certain segments of fandom and seemed to reflect our current political division between left and right: There were a lot of complaints — mostly by white males — about The Force Awakens and Rogue One having female protagonists and a black stormtrooper and black leaders of the rebellion. Somehow, this made Star Wars a PC leftist conspiracy that not only took our childhoods away but made us lock-step into some conspiratorial leftist agenda, as if Princess Leia and Lando Calrissian never existed.

Such ridiculousness extended out of the movie theaters and into pages of a new Star Wars canon: writer Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars novel Aftermath was attacked not on whether it’s a good novel or not, but because Wendig introduced gay characters into the Star Wars universe.

I wonder how these people felt about the innuendo between Calrissian and droid L3-37 in Solo?

(There’s a bigger issue here about the outrageousness of what’s happening in science-fiction fandom in general and the certain set of fans who seem to want to make people miserable and, for me, to step back some away from what seemed a pleasant community; this sort of thing seems too common in all sorts of fandoms: football fans are getting overwrought about kneeling and the anthem, for instance. Maybe in another post all this is worth addressing.)

So, back to Solo. Perhaps what killed it at the box office was expectations: We wanted something more that nothing outside of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back could really ever give — we wanted, in a moment of sentimental existentialism, our childhoods back and the magic of our imaginations that were sparked by those movies.

But age and experience give us diminishing returns. Short of reverse evolution, we can’t go back to that time no matter how much we long for it. We might get a twinge of it watching children watching it for the first time. Star Wars was magical when we first saw it, however, because we allowed it to spark our imaginations, because we were open to it then.

If we expect the same from Solo or even from watching A New Hope again, it’s going to ruin the experience. Of course, there are still moments in the earlier movies that can touch even the cynic. The Empire Strikes Back seems to have the most for me — Han’s “I know” when Leia tells him she loves him as he’s about to get frozen in carbonite (he’s always the confident, composed, cool guy we want to be in the face of danger) and of course the revelation of revelations: Vader being Luke’s father, the cliffhanger leaving you hoping in Return of the Jedi it was all just a bullshit Force trick and Luke isn’t really, is he?

Of course, Disney’s expectations were high, too, weren’t they? Star Wars makes big bank no matter what, right? Solo will always be the disappointing prodigal among Star Wars movies by that standard, won’t it? Judging a movie by its box office is like judging the book by its cover: what really matters is inside.

My only real quibble with Solo is a fanboy quibble (spoiler alert): the Darth Maul cameo appearance at the end. How was that possible? We saw Maul die in Phantom Menace, didn’t we? We know as fans there can be only two Sith lords and Vader and the Emperor are out there building the Death Star. That’s implied in Solo. Solo is, after all, at the end of the movie about to fly off to Tatooine to work for Jabba, right?

That cameo had me working out timelines in my head after I left the theater. Was this a soap-opera trick? An alternate timeline? Maybe the next film is Better Call Maul?

Unless you’re versed in Star Wars lore beyond the movie —or have Google — you won’t know Maul in other media survives his death plunge on Naboo and is revived, well, like a favorite soap opera villain.

Still, that doesn’t ruin the movie.

So, go see Solo knowing that it’s not necessarily going to capture any more magic than you already have in your imagination. Know it’s a heist movie as good as any: there’s a train robbery, flying cars and space Kraken — even Baby Driver doesn’t have space Kraken and it’s still a fun heist movie. And, also, don’t be disappointed that Emilia Clarke doesn’t get naked. The Khaleesi still looks good as Solo’s love interest.

Or maybe Disney should make another Star Wars standalone in which Clarke is always naked? Jason Mamoa could make a cameo as Darth Aquaman. Talk about box-office numbers.

—Todd

 

 

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Free Fiction Friday: The Watchers

A pastiche of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this vignette evolved from a walk I took around my neighborhood. I kept seeing all these blue glass lawn ornaments, most of which were globes. Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. My imagination took off from there. It’s appeared once before on this blog and recently in the North Texas Speculative Fiction Writers group’s anthology From Planet Texas, With Love and Aliens.

The Watchers: A Vignette of Alien Invasion

In the early part of the twenty-first century there were people who believed we were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s; those people were dismissed as loons, quacks who went out to New Mexico and watched for the Grays to emerge from Area 51.

At the time, I thought such people were at the very least misinformed, pretty damn weird, and probably sold jars of lime Gatorade to tourists believing they were buying alien urine. So it goes.

In my late forties I decided to begin taking a morning constitutional on the advice from the books of health gurus—to some these gurus are quacks as well—and on one of these walks, on a crisp cloudless October morning, in a quaint middle-class neighborhood west of my flat, I passed by a nice red-brick house of a family I knew only slightly, when I heard a slight rustling from their hedges.

I stopped and listened, thinking it was only a squirrel or a bird, or perhaps a lizard. But the sunlight dappling through the shade tree in the front yard revealed something else—an azure sparkle through the leaves. At first I dismissed it as perhaps some piece of trash, a beer can perhaps, caught in the leaves.

Later, after we knew the truth of the matter, some who saw the pictures I took with my camera phone said they heard hissing in the night sky. Others heard nothing, but reported a mass of comets shooting through the sky, an unusual enough phenomenon little reported by the media, which was too busy analyzing Kanye West’s decision to go into fashion design.

Anyhow, I started on my way once more, but then the rustling in the hedges erupted again. I stopped and turned and watched. Something was rising steadily above the leaves and limbs. I brought my camera into focus.

A glowing blue globe peeked from over the edge of the hedge. I trembled but felt compelled to approached, almost as if the Thing were laying some kind of Jedi-mindtrick on me.

The Thing rose silently. There were no visible means of propulsion. Clearly, a technology superior to any on Earth—as far a we know (who, after all, really knows just what the frak is going on at Area 51).

I moved closer. It hovered in place over the hedge. I saw no massive hole, no sign of impact whatsoever. It made no threatening moves, no sound, but I knew better. I knew from sci-fi flicks that nothing good could come of this.

I knew the invasion was on, and at the moment, was its only witness on this too quiet street . . .

 

 

Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Current News: Cats, Freelance and Staying Focused/Interested in Writing

I’ve inherited a cat. I’ve never owned a cat and hadn’t really planned on getting one, but Callie the Calico became part of my  life just a little more than a month ago after a friend’s death.20180430_201537

Now, I wonder why I haven’t had a cat before, though I know next to nothing about them, other than they apparently evolved some 6-7 million years ago in the Middle East and were worshiped as gods.

Callie seems to be a good companion so far, and I’m glad I was able to adopt her. It’s probably good for writers to have cats and clearly there are some famous literary cats, like Hemingway’s six-toed feral cats that  roam his Key West estate.

***

Since February I’ve had a regular freelance gig writing advertorials for local newspapers. These have been fun and a nice source of side/supplemental income. At the same time they’ve juiced  my journalism jones again.

I guess I’m like James Bond, never say never, again. I was convinced I was done with journalism last September, at least daily newspaper journalism, and maybe that part of my writing life — at least full time — is done. It’s hard to tell.

The renewed interest in journalism has also led me to reading some great nonfiction again, including Mary Roach’s Grunt, about which I’ll write more in another post.

Reading nonfiction and writing a form of it, though, has put me in the mood to write more of it and that’s why I’ve been blogging more lately. I hope you’ve enjoyed the output.

***

This freelance gig and a renewed interest in journalism and nonfiction, though, has also distracted me from working on the second draft of a novel, a second draft I had fully expected to have finished by now.

Getting distracted by different forms of writing seems a constant for me. At times all I want to write is fiction or a specific genre of fiction such as science fiction or mystery.
Then I get occupied with wanting to write more nonfiction.

Do you experience this as a writer? Does your interest in a form jump around?

But, besides my mind jumping around from fiction to nonfiction, I’ve lost interest in the second draft, lost interest in the novel itself. In one way, this is a bit discouraging. I really wanted to see this thing to the end. But will I? I’m feeling doubtful about this.

Then again, it was about this time last year I was growing tired of the first draft and was ready to chuck in all in the trash bin.

So, maybe, I’ll push through and complete it. Maybe, what I need is some distraction like blog posts to push through the block. To keep writing.

—Todd

Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd

Last Chance for ‘Arc of the Cosmos’

This is the last week you will be able to get the first edition of my short story ebook The Arc of the Cosmos. It’s only $1.99. Justarcofthecosmoscovertg (1) click the link for literary pleasure.

And don’t worry, there will be a new edition in the future.

Also, for those of you who have bought an edition, thank you for the support. And, buy another copy.

Best,

Todd

 

 

 

‘About Jake’ published at Bewildering Stories

Good morning readers. I’ve been saving this one up for more than a month. My first piece of speculative fiction, “About Jake,” to be published is up at Bewildering Stories.brown_marble

Although, it’s a non-paying market, I’m proud of this piece, given that it’s a first. Also, the editors at Bewildering Stories worked with me, suggesting rewrites that pretty much required major surgery on the piece. The practice of it was well worth the challenge of the rewrite. Their suggestions made me sharpen the focus on the story, especially the ending, which caused me no end of fits.

For the editorial assistance alone, I will recommend this market to other writers.

Also, want to thank the crew at North Texas Speculative Fiction Workshop for the critiques that helped me see through the rewrites.

Well, that’s enough chit-chat for now. Until next time, thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy the story.