Wednesday, December 31, 2014

End of Year, 2014

Dear friends and family:

Well, initially I told Jennifer she was insane when she said, “Dan, it’s about time to write that holiday letter.”
“Balderdash!” I cried! “I just finished the last one about ten minutes ago!”  Then I looked at the clock, and lo and behold it said “end of November” (it’s a very good clock) and I realized it was in fact time for the 2014 Holiday Letter!
To be fair, it has in fact been a pretty intense year in many good ways.  It has been a year of change, and a year of birth, and a year of discovery.  Before this begins to sound like the opening narration to “Babylon 5” I should get into the specifics.
In April, after 21 years of service, I left my beloved United States Army behind.  About that same time I listened to my Career Counselor who said “we will help you find a job” and got a job as a Career Counselor.  It’s not what I plan to do the rest of my days, but it has been a nice transition job allowing me to stay close to what I know while exploring new things.  If anyone does however have some good opportunities in the state of Washington, please let me know.
The most important news of the year though comes not from retirement nor the State of Washington, but rather New Mexico and my First Born.  Indeed, my Son Zachary who was married last year has welcomed HIS first born, Jade Serenity Foster.  She is the most perfect creature in all of God’s creation, and I am both so glad and incredibly envious my Jennifer got to be there for Jade’s birth.  She brought me lots of pictures though and we have enjoyed Skyping with Zack, Toni, and Jade.  It may be all Dick Tracy style video conferencing, but I am most certainly looking forward to the chance to bounce that little girl on my knee while watching Star Trek in person.  Grandpa’s going to buy that girl her first set of pointy ears..
Speaking of Jennifer, despite my retirement from the Army, she has maintained her role as person who keeps the rest of us out of jail while becoming more Northwestern by the minute.  This year she took on Mushroom hunting—which can apparently be done without a license—and insofar Hannah and I have experienced neither bad trip nor death from the fungus fed us.  She has gotten lost in the woods at least once while tracking her wily prey, but so far she has always made it home so we can eat the mushrooms instead of them eating her.  She has also been busy keeping our beehives we started this year running, though a strong wind and lot of rain freed a couple of hives from our care.  Or drowned them, but I prefer to think the queen took her minions to dryer climates.  If you live south of us and see a swarm go by, tell them we miss them and they are always welcome home.
And as we discuss critters leaving the hive, this may be the last Christmas our dear daughter Hannah spends at home.  She is preparing to venture out at the beginning of the year to explore the wilds of the world.  What that yet entails we shall see, but she is ready to see the world, and Jennifer and I are ready to convert her room, so in the end it’s a win—win, right?  We will miss her though, and like the bees, should see decide to fly home, we would certainly find her a place.  In a box behind the back fence.  I kid!
Then of course there are the four legged children.  Eightball has become accustomed to the fact he is one of two dogs, but every now and then he mentions something to be about not needing Luna around.  Luna has in fact not only shed her timidity following her rescue, she is now a pretty seriously demanding, diva-like, greedy, pain in the butt.  As a 14 pound little Italian Greyhound should be.  Patches the Evil Cat® is still with us at age 17, sustained we are sure on spite and the distinct pleasure she gets from making me change her cat box.  I gripe about that cat, but I will miss her when she is gone…until of course she starts haunting me, mewling all night from beyond the grave.
So that is the state of the Fosters this year, having transitioned, but still in transition as well.  I suppose in the end that is really everyone, right?  We wish you all a Happy Holiday, Merry Christmas, and Wonderful New Year, until the next letter…
…about ten minutes from now.

Love to you all,

Daniel, Jennifer, Hannah, Eightball, Luna, and Patches the Evil Cat®

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Seattle Star Trek Convention 2014

Sporting the NX-01 Cover-all; don't be jealous.

This weekend I went to my first pure Star Trek convention since 2005.  I’ve hit a few ComiCons of various size in that time, but not a good old Trek convention in a while.  So how was it?

At first I was a little worried: it seemed so small.  Despite it having a really stellar guest list, the vendor room could not have had more than a dozen vendors.  It was in Bellvue and not downtown Seattle, so a smaller venue.  There were really only three rooms at the center in use.

And yet, this was one of my best con experiences in years.

While walking through the admittedly small vendor room, someone called out, “now that’s an outfit I know!”  It was Anthony Montgomery. 

I was apparently eating an invisible apple.
We had a long chat about his new comic (Miles Away, as see above), and I got him to sign my “Star Trek: Star Charts” map of the NX-01’s first year.  He also made sure I was following him on Twitter @MrAMontgomery.  Ha!  I already was. Then he shows the book to the guy at the table next to him and it’s a surprise guest: Herbert Jefferson, the original Boomer from Battlestar Galactica.  Though non-Trek, he was a welcome surprise guest!

I expected a quick chat and then an autograph, but on and off throughout the day Jennifer and I spent about an hour talking to Herb about various programs he supports to help Veterans.  It came up that I do career counseling for people getting out of the Military, and had myself just retired, and we were off.  Let me quickly pitch a group he is working with,  Great initiatives to support Vets and their families and lots of Congressional lobbying, please take a moment and check them out.  He also showed me pictures of him with  Congressional Medal of Honor recipient George Sakato (and shared some of Mr. Sakato’s great stories!) and with the original Red Tails, some of the Tuskegee Airmen.  All through the day we saw Herb, and he was a delight each time.

Popping into the presentations, we caught Jeri Ryan.  As you all may know, Voyager is not my favorite of the Treks, but Ms. Ryan proved to be very entertaining and engaging and someone who was obviously there for the fans.  It was a real pleasure to listen to her, and frankly, television does not do her justice. 

Then came John Billingsley, Star Trek: Enterprise’s Doctor Phlox.  The man was a mile a minute laugh riot whose answers to fans’ questions were nearly stream of consciousness and utterly hilarious.  He had apparently hosted karaoke the night before and I was sorry I had missed it.

This is him and my wife's thumb.

Of course there were the fans.  More than a few cosplayers, but all and all a different crowd that a comic or pop-culture convention.  It reminded me that despite Trek’s great success over the years, the Trekkie can still be a bit of a minority in the now very broad world of fandom.  These fans seemed more matter of fact than the crowds I see at the big shows.  There was not the “I’m here to show you how much I love this thing” feel, but rather a “isn’t it cool we’re all here to love it together.”  I saw cosplayers from every Trek from TOS to AOS (though I think I may have been the only ST:E outfit), and it was a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.  Just a great experience. 

The geek world has become so accepted in recent years, but maybe it lost something in becoming so mainstream.  There may be a sense of camaraderie we’ve lost along the way.

This con though, it was there.  It was family, it was close, it was sharing.

It was why I go to cons in the first place.  I hope I can find more shows like this one.
The amazingly fortunate author with his incredibly tolerant wife.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What does this even mean?

I’m starting this one with only a vague idea of where it’s going, so if it goes off the rails you have been warned.  I realized the other day that this blog had pretty much become a movie/TV review blog, and though those were things I had always talked about, they were not supposed to become the primary content.  So I wanted to kind of examine how that happened, and it brought a couple of things to mind.

I want to enjoy my internet experience.  There was a time I enjoyed an argument more than the spokesman for “Lucky Charms” after five Jamesons shots and three pints of Guinness.  I’ve really gotten over that.  I do still seriously love a discussion, contrasting two points of view and comparing their relative merits, but that’s become something of a lost art.  There’s no back and forth in real time on the internet, and nine times out of ten any discussion ends in name-calling, unfriending, or some pitiful excuse for “evidence” that I or my opponent are simply too tired to try and disprove.  Besides, it’s the internet; whatever your opinion you will find some source to back you up or to cite.  And that will be a “good” source because it says what I wanted it to.  That’s called “confirmation bias” and I assure you I am every bit as guilty as anyone at whom I could poke fingers. 

So, tired of fighting, my internet presence has devolved into little more than pop culture talking.  Even that becomes tough as a) there’s a googleplex of folks like me wanting to share their little movie reviews or carefully sculpted snark and b) there will be as much venom from some Trekkies about JJ movies as there will from an anti-vax Hippie mom or a Climate Change Denier.  It’s all about the righteous indignation now, and again I fall victim, not only as someone who just does a Google search for some Nacelle Porn (that’s a Trek fan who want to see Starships by the way, not pornography) and ends up on rants about magic blood (hey sport, try actually listening to the dialog about serums and such, mmkay?) but as someone who begins to give into my own Righteous Indignation (is he going to save anyone?  He’s fucking Superman, right?) on  variety of subjects (hey Facebook, where’s my timeline control?), and I then sound like the web equivalent of Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” growling about getting off my lawn. Such ire stirs not only my use of parenthesis, but also triggers immense run-on sentences, the likes of which would make Tolstoy proud.

I even find myself getting so angry about others’ Righteous Indignation, that I have to question MY Righteous Indignation as being just as misguided as theirs.  Is my disdain for act III of “Man of Steel” any different than another’s disdain for “Star Trek Into Darkness”?  Will I be judged for wanting a “Dredd” sequel far more than any “Pacific Rim” sequel?  How much am I pissing off right and left believing in both the efficacy of vaccines AND the reality of Climate Change?  Why do I care if you care if I believe in God AND evolution? 

In short, I have begun to measure every post I make anywhere on the net—here, FB, Tumblr, Twitter, heck even Goodreads—against how willing I am to pick a fight over saying what I think.  What I think, no matter how benign I feel it is, is going to offend someone.  Perhaps this wasn’t the norm when an audience consisted of the at-most-ten people who might be in a room with you, but now dozens or hundreds may see something, and want to respond to MY Righteous Indignation with their own.  That has come to really put me off on sharing opinions on anything important.

The thing is, I really do enjoy a lot of the content people share on various social media.  Shows, music, interesting well written opinions on social issues, history, or world events; I even occasionally see really nicely done arguments on political opinions I don’t agree with.  They make me think instead of react, and I enjoy that a lot.  It is usually closely followed by hyperbole, ad hominem attacks, and indignation and I don’t enjoy that at all.  Want a good reason for aliens to nuke our planet from orbit?  Watch the discussion comments at the bottom of ANY news article. 

It just seems to me there is a lot in the world to be angry about and want to change without looking for those things everywhere you go.

So, end result for me is a diminished web presence.  I don’t offer my screams to the cacophony on things that matter, but will rant about things that in the end are pretty inconsequential (looking at YOU, last episode of “How I Met Your Mother”!).  Yet sometimes I do want to say something, to counter an opinion, or to provide my perspective.  The internet though has sucked out my will to defend that opinion beyond what I say the first time online.  Yes, that’s hypocritical, yes I am the pot calling the kettle black when I say I want to speak and not hear back.  And therefore, I don’t speak. 

I need to find better ways to direct that energy.

UPDATE:  Ain't THIS some shit.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Official Black Owl Review of Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla.”

Before we get rolling here, I need to talk a bit about my history with the character of Godzilla; if you don’t believe Godzilla is in fact a character, just click that little ‘x’ in the upper corner and go away, because you don’t need this review.  Godzilla is iconic and indeed a character in his eponymous series of films.  Some of those films, both Japanese and American, have spanned the spectrum from greatness to garbage.

I first discovered Godzilla watching either late night or Sunday afternoon creature features on network television. (Sorry youngsters, back when I was a kid we had three networks, PBS, and radio.  No web video, no interwebz, and not even videotape.)  This was primarily the sixties and seventies film version that was more than a little tongue in cheek, but treated Godzilla with a certain respect and reverence.  The characters treated Godzilla not as a monster, but as a protective force as if he was a manifestation of the Japanese spirit itself.  I didn’t understand.

Then, in the late 70s we got the Godzilla cartoon.  I watched it religiously (along with ‘Battle of the Planets’) and despite Godzuky, added it to my repertoire of appreciating giant monsters.  C’mon, I still sing the theme song, as horrible as the whole thing was. 

Then, in the mid 80s I was Saved.  I want to thank my old and dear friend Will Schwartz who was far more familiar with Japanese pop culture than I was.  When “Godzilla 1985” came out he was sad they had to put Raymond Burr into it.  I mentioned that the 1954 Godzilla had the former Perry Mason as well.  And then he showed me the truth.

Will had a bootleg of the original 1954 “Gojira” from Japan.  No Raymond Burr, just a masterpiece of mid-twentieth century cinema.  I certainly didn’t know that the scenes featuring Burr were edited in to make the movie “palatable” for an American audience, and was not a melodramatic farce about a ridiculous monster.  I learned though that “Gojira” was a solemn examination of mankind’s effects on the world around us, and how nature fights back.  The 1954 “Gojira” was then a parable for nuclear largess (mind you, actually intercut with documentary footage of Hiroshima) and now still stands as an allegory for mankind’s false assumption that we run nature.  Later Will showed me the unedited Japanese version of “Godzilla 1984” (released a year earlier in Japan) and though I will always have a nostalgia for the 60s-70s films, they reflected camp like the 70s’s Bond films as they strayed from “Doctor No” and “From Russian With Love.” 
“Godzilla 1984” started what is known as the “Heisei” series.  For the first time there was a continuity to the series, and the serious feel of 1954 was back.  Indeed, 1984 was set as a direct sequel to 1954 erasing the folly of the rest.  Heisei carries through seven films into 1995 truly creating a mythology and reverence around Godzilla, as if he were a Shinto God of nature indifference to the suffering of man because he—and Japan—would prevail.  In ’95 we get “Godzilla Vs. Destroyah” and ostensibly an end to Godzilla in Japan as Toho sold the rights to Sony Tristar to begin an American series.

Along came Matthew Broderick and Roland Emmerich.  The less said the better.

Toho reclaimed the character with the “Millennium” series but each of these were single stories, adherent only to 1954, but mostly worth a look.  They do get goofier as they go, and it seemed my beloved Gojira was lost again.

And now we have Gareth Edwards. 

I saw his low budget movie “Monsters” and was actually pretty impressed.  He made the phenomenon of giant monsters real to the world he created, and showed how some humans would adapt and others try to force the issue, and I will look you in the eye right now and tell you, I believe “Monsters” with its half-million dollar budget is at least 20 times the movie the $190 million “Pacific Rim” was.  It earned Edwards the right to again try to bring Godzilla to American screens.  It got me in a theater the first week the movie was out. 

And damn am I glad I was.  The short form, spoiler-fee version here is that the 2014 American “Godzilla” is a really good film, and honors its source material better than many of the Japanese films.  It isn’t perfect but it does some truly great things and I think it proves Gareth Edwards is remarkably talented.  I can’t wait to see more from him.  Not perfect, but truly TRULY Godzilla and the King of the Monsters.

From here on out, spoilers will flutter about like Mothra after the Luminous Fairies have sung Mosura no uta. 

I won’t go into story specifics but I will talk about the things that really impressed me with this film.  First and foremost, it is the utter adoration, worship, and respect Edwards gives Godzilla.  Like the Millennium films this movie hints that it is in fact a sequel to the 1954 “Gojira” and that awakened by our use of nuclear power, Godzilla has roamed the seas.  The reason is natural balance.  Godzilla exists as the alpha predator left over from a world ruled by radioactive monsters.  When they absorbed the deadliest of said radiation, the kaiju were forced into the bowels of the Earth to feed from the core’s radiation.  Life as we know it could then evolve and think we were the top of the food chain.  When we re-introduce nuclear power and radiation in such intense forms, nature responds, putting the apex predator in place for the inevitable return to the surface of kaiju who will feed on that radiation.  Godzilla is not a monster, he is a force of nature, an instrument of the universe keeping the planet from being overrun by creatures that would again strip and destroy the surface environment.  He is the coyote to the rabbit, the owl to the mouse.  As Blue Oyster Cult would say, man’s folly has allowed creatures that should be contained to potentially flourish; the control system is Godzilla.  This indifferent reptilian deity inexorably marching toward his foe does not care if a few human die; they are just another small part of the ecosystem, they will replenish their numbers.  The system must be saved.  This Godzilla is the manifestation of natural balance, and in that something of a nature deity.  There’s the reverence inherent to the original character, and it is here in spades. 

Secondly, I love the fact this movie never stops the story so we can then cut away to cutscenes of disaster porn.  The battles between Godzilla and the Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are rendered beautifully and epic, but they are never separate from the human perception thereof.  We see it only through those characters who are there and who must survive as nature burns and roils around them.  The last few summers have made me pretty weary of cities getting destroyed (looking at YOU Man of Steel!), yet I never felt fatigue here because the human element was not lost.

I hear complaints about the humans being flat.  Eh, to a degree, but it is not that the humans are flat as characters, it is that they are ineffectual.  The human characters do virtually nothing to affect the outcome of the monsters’ brawling.   That is not an accident of bad writing, it’s the point of the film.  When nature, as a tsunami, climate change, a tornado, or a 400 foot tall kaiju unleashes its energy we are spectators, and our resistance is futile.   The allegory of what we have unleashed and our inability to re-cork that bottle are in full force here, and for me to great effect.  Ford Brody is a cliché because he is every man, he is the best of us; he is completely useless and humbled before nature.

The fourth thing I truly love about this film is the fact this CGI Godzilla is motion capture.  That gives this model weight and flow the iguana-like ‘Zilla from ’98 never had.  It is stunning on film and manages to completely show us Godzilla in a realistic fashion while somehow conveying the natural motion of a man in a suit without making us watch a man stomp through model buildings.  Nicely done.

So, what keeps this film from being the best thing I have seen in decades?  Well, it is the humans.  Not the portrayal per se, but the contrivance that our everyman happens to be at every major event, he happens to find his wife and son at the most dramatic moments, and the three of them happen to live all the way through.  It’s the same gripe I had about the end of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” when Tom Cruise makes it to his wife’s house, and the older son made it too.  It’s the Spielberg ending, when the passing of any member of this family (aside from the gone too soon Bryan Cranston) would have better delivered on the message.  It’s not a deal breaker for me, and I did enjoy and do recommend the film, but more personal consequence would have sat better with me. 

I mention Spielberg, and his influence on Edwards is apparent.  Aside form the double wammy nod of the lead character’s name, we get some famous scenes replayed here: The helicopter in the jungle from “Jurassic Park;” the boat from “Jaws” heading out into the bay; the quarantine zone from “Close Encounters” used to cover up what’s REALLY going on, right down to Bryan Cranston pulling a Richard Dreyfuss and removing his mask to prove the government is lying.  Those moments play well though, to better effect than the same homages paid by JJ Abrams in “Super 8,” a movie I did enjoy. 

“Godzilla” is a victory for the character of Godzilla though, who gets his props here.  It is also a victory for Edwards.  Going from no-budget to huge budget did not stagger him the way it did Neill Blomkamp who followed the amazing “District 9” with the amazingly dull “Elysium.”  I don’t know that “Godzilla” is a better movie than “Monsters” but it certainly is not a sophomore slump, and I am really looking forward to what else Edwards will bring to us.

Once you’ve delivered a God, where do you go from there?

And now, for your viewing pleasure, Shyporn tells us everything you need to know about Godzilla and his friends. (Safe for work)