My 2020 Reading Stacks #2: The Horror and Heroism of “Becoming Superman”

Becoming Superman!

A highly recommended read, from the introduction by onetime Babylon 5 writer Neil Gaiman to all those other pages not written by Gaiman.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year, each and every squarebound work of qualifying length that I’ve read gets a capsule review apiece. I refrain from devoting entries to full-length book reviews because 999 times out of 1000 I’m finishing a given work decades after the rest of the world is already done and moved on from it. As time permits and the finished books pile up, I’ll be charting my full list of books, graphic novels, and trade collections in a staggered, exclusive manner here, for all that’s worth to the outside world. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text. Novels and non-pictographic nonfiction will still pop up here and there, albeit in an outnumbered capacity…

And now, we rejoin reading time already in progress…though this time with a single memoir that hit me on numerous levels.

7. J. Michael Straczynski, Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood. The sub-subtitle on the cover of the celebrated writer’s 2019 autobiography pulls no punches and tells no lies: With Stops Along the Way at Murder, Madness, Mayhem, Movie Stars, Cults, Slums, Sociopaths, and War Crimes. Those diverse, potentially lurid topics are by no means a complete list. He left more than a few surprises between the covers, where they await discovery as each is torn out of his family’s deep, dark closets and brought to light.

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Old Guy with a PS3: Year 5 Results

Borderlands Handsome Jack!

One day I’ll have to murder Handsome Jack after he turns into an intergalactic madman, but in our shared past he’s just tipped me $22 for saving his life. What a guy.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover, at the beginning of 2016:

As a kid, I frequented video arcades regularly. As a parent, my son and I spent a good decade playing games together on his various systems. When he graduated and moved away to college, he took all his systems with him, leaving me with only my old Nintendo that won’t play cartridges unless you keep the Game Genie firmly inserted, and an Atari Plug-‘n’-Play Controller I got for Christmas a few years ago that interested me for about two weeks. On Black Friday 2014, I decided I wanted back in the 21st century gaming mode and picked up a used PS3.

Naturally I started off a generation behind the rest of the civilized world, but I didn’t care. After fifteen months without, holding a controller felt abnormal and rusty for the first few weeks. Once I got used to it again and figured out how to disable the “Digital Clear Motion Plus” feature on my TV, I could shake the dust off my trigger fingers, choose the games I wanted to play, sprint or meander through them at whatever pace I saw fit, and try some different universes beyond Final Fantasy and our other longtime mainstays. The following is a rundown of my first year’s worth of solo PS3 adventures…

…and it’s been a minor MCC annual tradition ever since. Last year’s entry covered a banner year in which I made time during my limited gaming sessions (three times a week at most, 90-120 minutes/sesh) to plow through five different games, winning four of them and infuriated at the other one. In 2019, I managed…um, not many. Very, very not-many. But I have excuses!

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“Ad Astra” Per Verba Omnium

Ad Astra!

If his space soliloquies mend just one broken father/son relationship out there, then they were worth it. Did they, though?

In the grand, 21st-century tradition of Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and First Man comes another tale of an A-lister shot into space with a massive budget both in-story and in reality. Honorable mention goes to Duncan Jones’ Moon, which had to make do with a fraction of the cash but was more relatable than at least two of those tentpoles.

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Our Dark Summertime Binge: Seven “Black Mirror” Shards

Black Mirror!

Toby Kebbell watching his own lifelong YouTube channel inside his artificial second eyelids in a Black Mirror oldie.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: with weeks to go till vacation and no pressing obligations, my wife Anne and I have been bingeing a few different shows together, while I’ve done some additional grim watching on the side. Certainly not through careful planning on our part, each of the shows has had their own depressing and/or tragic aspects. As I wrote at the time, Veronica Mars season 4 fit right in once we finished the finale. The second season (part 1) of Hulu’s Light as a Feather broadened its scope and tightened up its ensemble interplay, but still had Death lurking around every corner. The Netflix documelodrama The Last Czars was a downbeat bummer in its subject matter as well as its various letdowns.

I’ve been selective about which new shows I add to my docket. I’ve skipped many a popular show over the years, which means I stay ostracized from all the best online discussion groups. Among those I’d been procrastinating till now was Black Mirror. The base concept of “Twilight Zone, but cutting-edge and extra nihilistic plus F-bombs” wasn’t an easy sell for me. Also, I heard about that first episode. My son, aghast at the repressed memory of it resurfacing, recommended I skip it and just watch the rest. The suggestion was wise and tempting.

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“Men in Black International”: In Praise of Pawny

Pawny!

Pawny gives his film debut one thumb way up!

I had no intention of seeing Men in Black International, but a funny thing happened while waiting for it to show up on basic cable three times a week.

Ever since the Blade Runner 2049 debacle, I’ve curtailed my visits to the theater closest to our house and spent most of my moviegoing dollars in the next town over. Last week I received an email from their frequent-watching club, despairing that I’ve only been there twice so far in 2019 and, as incentive to pretty please come back we miss you omg we’re dying over here, they loaded a free movie pass onto my card. That was unexpected, but nice of them…though the pass had a one-week expiration date and this week’s lineup was four movies I’ve already seen and written about, one R-rated comedy that was not quite tempting enough, and lots of dross in varying amounts of CG.

After fifteen minutes of severe overthinking, I cleared my head, blinked a few times, and lined up for the one with Thor and Valkyrie in it.

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“The Predator”: Battle of the Bass Fishermen from Beyond

The Predator!

“Rest assured I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.”

No one in their right mind walks into a Predator flick expecting cinema genius. They’ve never known the respect that the Alien series originally garnered among sci-fi-horror fans, which may explain why viewers are swiftly enraged whenever an Alien sequel is terrible, but merely shrug and move on when another Predator drops and flops. The series to date, ranked for newcomers:

  1. The original, From The Director Of Die Hard, still my favorite Schwarzenegger movie
  2. Predators, in which renowned character actors are stalked and slaughtered for morbid fun
  3. Alien Vs. Predator, because director Paul W. S. Anderson guarantees at least one great action scene per film, which is all we got
  4. Predator 2, which defies any attempts at remembrance
  5. Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem, the closest I’ve ever come in the past ten years to stopping a movie halfway through because it was That Bad

In a similar vein, fans of Shane Black films know what they’re getting — sarcastic tough dudes spouting quotable quips while firing very loud weapons at henchmen and everything around them explodes, and sometimes there’s as many as one (1) actress holding her own in their midst while rolling her eyes a lot. They’re effortless steel coaster rides, but always easy to nitpick later for hours if you dwell on them for more than three minutes. The original Lethal Weapon remains Black’s most cogent potboiler to date, but if you’ve seen such films as The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or the thoroughly idiotic yet sometimes compelling Iron Man 3, you know what I mean.

Like Reese’s with chocolate and peanut butter, someone at Twentieth Century Fox wondered what would happen if they did the same with Shane Black and The Predator. Why not throw them in the same vat and watch what happens?

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“Pacific Rim: Uprising”: Mecha-Lecha-High? Mecha-High-Nee-NOPE

Pacific Rim Uprising!

Blue Man Group: The Metal Years.

Much as I’d love for John Boyega to be successful in everything he touches, I felt sheepish about my issues with Detroit and hoped I wouldn’t have to harp on him again too soon. Then I rushed out to see Pacific Rim: Uprising in its second week of release, and realized…well, uh, here we go again. It’s still better than at least three of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, but that’s…well, I wouldn’t call that a “low bar” so much as it’s me whispering to Boyega and director Steven DeKnight that I won’t tattletale if they want to walk around the climbing wall and skip the bar as a courtesy.

I try not to hold MCC to too many inflexible rules, but one of the few remaining is that every film I see in theaters gets its own entry. Now that Uprising‘s home video release is coming up this month, maybe it’s past time to hold myself accountable for that promise and face down this long-delayed entry, no matter how fruitless it may end up.

(Look, I’m not a great self-promoter. Anyone who’s been here long enough know this. We persevere together anyway.)

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“Annihilation”: It Tampered in God’s Domain

Annihilation!

“I don’t care what the kids like these days. Trying to watch this movie on a 2-inch screen is the worst.”

It’s been years since we’ve seen a major studio act so sheepishly about a film of their own doing as Paramount Pictures has with Annihilation, the strikingly “intellectual” new brainchild from writer/director Alex Garland, whose past successes include science fiction head-trips like Sunshine and the Oscar-winning Ex Machina. Paramount’s last-minute no-confidence vote has denied it an international theatrical release in favor of dumping it on overseas Netflix. Paramount’s official page for the film provides only the trailer embedded via YouTube and a link to the film’s “official site“…which just redirects to a Facebook page. I’m accustomed to short films and indie projects setting up shop on Facebook, but it’s disappointing for a corporation of Paramount’s size to limit their own product to such a minuscule online footprint. Apparently they were holding out hope that Garland might rewrite and reshoot to add some super awesome monster fights.

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Oscar Quest 2018: “The Shape of Water”

Shape of Water!

Real talk: there are so many fish in the sea that fish puns are way too easy, so I’m resisting the urge to see if I can string together ten of them in a roe.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

This time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present. As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover the other seven in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.

Onward to nominee #6: Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the monster movie that’s been winning hearts and votes in many other competitions throughout this awards season. If you loved his previous creature features like Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Mimic, or the best Blade film, chances are you won’t be disappointed here. Not guaranteed, but quite probable.

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“Blade Runner 2049” and the Importance of Theatrical Competence

Blade Runner 2049!

All things considered, such a beautiful film made it extremely hard to choose just one moment for our lead photo.

When I was 10 the original Blade Runner was the first R-rated film I ever saw in theaters. Mom had a strict policy against them till I was a teenager, but made the first exception while we were on vacation visiting family who wanted to see it. I’d already read and enjoyed the Marvel Comics adaptation by Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson, and did Mom the unspoken favor of asking her to lead me to the bathroom as soon as I knew Joanna Cassidy’s nude scene was coming. It was the least I could do in return for the opportunity to see revolutionary science fiction cinema unfold before my eyes.

Other kids had the first two Star Wars films, neither of which I saw till adulthood. I had Blade Runner. I never needed or expected a sequel. Not every story needs to be a never-ending saga. 35 years later, here we are anyway.

That was the intro I wrote before I saw Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 on its second weekend of release, capturing my trepidation in advance regardless of whether it blew me away or offended me with corporate greed. I’m sad to say that evening was an unpleasant experience.

It wasn’t the movie’s fault. It was Regal Cinemas’.

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“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”: Big in China!

Valerian!

The Green Goblin and the Enchantress compare notes on the misery of comic-book movies gone horribly wrong.

One of the biggest flops at the American box office this summer may have itself a happy ending after all. Despite US receipts of $40 million against a reported budget of $177 million, the nearly forgotten sci-fi hodgepodge Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is now finding more receptive audiences overseas, where their audiences apparently have different popcorn-flick standards from ours. Or maybe their trailers were cooler. Or maybe their voices were dubbed into other languages by superior actors. Maybe you haven’t really seen director Luc Besson’s eye-popping fiasco unless you’ve watched it in Cantonese bombastically recited by Hong Kong’s greatest Shakespearean thespians.

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My 2016 at the Movies, Part 2 of 2: The Year’s Least Worst

Ghostbusters!

Not perfect, but still 100 times better than Sucker Punch.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: In 2016 I made 19 trips to the theater to see films made that same year (well, 20 to be honest — I saw one of them twice). In Part 1 we ranked the bottom nine. And now, the countdown concludes:

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“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”: the Non-Spoiler Entry

Rogue One!

“Hello, I am K-2SO. I am fluent in over eight million forms of telling you where you can stick your commands.”

Still hiding out from rampant internet spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?

Never fear! We here at Midlife Crisis Crossover know your fears. I didn’t give in to them, but I know them. In fact, unlike my approach to The Force Awakens, I refused to go on internet sabbatical and instead stuck to my usual browsing routines. I decided I would leave myself at the mercy of the living, breathing organism that is the Internet community-at-large and let them decide how much of the movie would be spoiled for me in advance. To their credit, only three major and three minor reveals occurred before I finally had the chance to catch the movie Sunday afternoon. I had holidays, family, and adulting that needed to be tended to before I could indulge.

Now that I have, that doesn’t mean I have to ruin it for anyone else. Thus I’ve split my thoughts into two entries. First up: the light summary of impressions from my first showing, written in a manner that hopefully doesn’t compromise your own first screening.

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Brief Thoughts Before “Arrival” Departs

Arrival!

“Okay, two words. First word…two syllables. Sounds like…’bosker’?”

Props to director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer (whose last film was this summer’s Lights Out) for picking up Christopher Nolan’s baton in composing a critically acclaimed non-superhero non-toyetic non-franchise non-reboot non-cheesy science fiction film in 2016 on a modest budget without a Top-40 soundtrack and without the studio announcing plans for the next three increasingly cash-grabby sequels before the Monday after opening weekend. For triple extra credit, next time I dare someone to try doing the same without well-known actors in the lead roles.

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Wizard World Chicago 2016 Photos, Part 4: Star Wars and Sci-Fi Cosplay!

Palpatine for Emperor!

“Vote for me and I vow there shall be a grand inquisition regarding the contents of Mon Mothma’s email inbox!”

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

It’s that time of year again! Anne and I spent this weekend at Wizard World Chicago in scenic Rosemont, IL, where we generally had a blast surrounded by fellow fans of comics and genre TV/movies even though parts of it resemble hard work and our feet feel battle-damaged after three days of endless walking, standing, lining up, shuffling forward in cattle-call formation, and scurrying toward exciting people and things.

In this episode: Star Wars cosplay! Always a popular choice, especially now that The Force Awakens gave fans several dozen more characters to choose from, though they’re really only basing costumes on three or four of them at best. Also, we welcome envoys from other science fiction universes who insist there’s more to life than lightsabers and cutesy, merchandisable aliens.

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“Star Trek Beyond” The Space Fast & the Space Furious

Star Trek Beyond!

New character Jaylah (Sofia Boutella from Kingsman: The Secret Service) promises she’s not a rebooted character, her name isn’t Ms. Khan, and she isn’t a radically reimagined Mugatu.

Thirteenth time’s nearly the charm for the long-running film series, which needed to make up for the ground lost by JJ Abrams’ 2013 superfluous Wrath of Khan remake. This time around the Powers That Be went with a different style of director — Justin Lin, mastermind behind four Fast and the Furious entries, including the one where nearly all the heroes teamed up and became the AAA Avengers with their very own Fast and Furious Cinematic Speedway. Lin knows a little about diving into established universes, and a lot about spectacularly timed whiz-bang action sequences. I assumed sight unseen that Star Trek Beyond would therefore have some of the best starship battle sequences in all of Trekdom (or at least it had better), but would he be capable of the kind of cerebral depth that the old-time fans demand from their Enterprise crew?

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My 2015 at the Movies, Part 2 of 2: The Year’s Least Worst

Ultron!

2015’s movie theme: The Year of Trying to Bury Your Father.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Once again it’s National List Month, when all of Hollywood runs down to Hallmark and buys “For Your Consideration” cards to mail out to their fifty thousand closest friends. Meanwhile on the internet, where no one sends us free stuff to buy our love, we dedicated theater-goers are forced to make up our own minds, revisit our opinions, and vote with our bullet points. I saw twenty-six films in theaters in 2015, but five were Best Picture nominees released in 2014 and therefore disqualified from this list, even though two of them amazed me, because I’m an unreasonable stickler about dates…

And now, on with the countdown:

Right this way for our picks of the year’s best films!

Speed-Conventioning Challenge #3: Starbase Indy 2015

Christmas T-Rex!

T-Rex snaps at Christmas wreath, mistaking it for low-hanging tree-dwelling prey. In the far background by the green-screen you can just barely, accidentally make out actor Chris Nowland, one of those “been in lots of things” kind of guys.

On this weekend in 1988, the inaugural Starbase Indy introduced Indianapolis to the amazing world of Star Trek conventions, though it later expanded its dominion into other sci-fi TV shows. Setting aside several years skipped during turbulent times, SBI is one of the most persistent fan-run geek conventions in Indianapolis. It’s a fraction the size of Gen Con, Wizard World, and our other regular cons, but we’ve attended SBI more times than we have any other con. The smaller scale allows for shorter lines and less suffocating crowds, while still attracting talented guests from shows well-liked by geeks like us. With 2015 marking SBI’s twentieth iteration, the con is a regular highlight of our average Thanksgiving weekend, usually more satisfying and ethically defensible than Black Friday. (You can click through to the “Starbase Indy” tag for select photos from previous years.)

This year we nearly didn’t attend. The guest list was largely composed of actors from shows we’ve never watched (Alien Nation, Stargate SG-1) or shows I gave up on (Once Upon a Time). One guest, Admiral Nechayev from Star Trek the Next Generation, we saw at Wizard World Chicago 2010. Complicating matters further, we agreed to host Thanksgiving this year and spent much more time than expected over the past two days with visiting family members from near and far. We had a few obstacles with Starbase Indy, but money wasn’t one of them. Our energy levels weren’t at their peak today, we only had about two hours to devote to it, and the ultimate to-do list we prepared in advance could fit on a single Post-It.

But they invited one Deep Space Nine actor we were thrilled to meet at last, there were a few vendors we thought deserved money in exchange for goods and services, and I rather liked the idea of viewing our one-day ticket expenditure as a sort of donation on behalf of keeping Starbase Indy alive, even if we arguably didn’t get what other ordinary humans would call “our money’s worth”. We got exactly what we came for. We’re fine with that. Our funds will nonetheless go toward meeting costs for this year’s con and, we hope, help ensure Starbase’s continuing future. Yay geek causes!

Right this way for what we did and who we met, including a fellow WordPress blogger!

“The Martian”: My Own Planet Idaho

Martian Potatoes!

1000 potato, 2000 potato, 3000 potato, 4! Here a potato, there a potato! Potatoes, potatoes galore!

My son and I went to see The Martian two weekends ago, partly because we were both interested and partly to make up for how we “celebrated” his 21st birthday back in August by seeing Fantastic Four. I felt I owed him a do-over (and then some), and I’m glad Ridley Scott’s uplifting vision of Matt Damon, interstellar potato engineer, more than compensated for our last cinema visit.

America’s #1 film for four straight weeks doesn’t need any input from me, but one of Midlife Crisis Crossover’s myriad uses for me is to catalog my movie-going experiences. If I saw it in theaters, it gets an entry sooner or later. And thus it is written.

Alternate titles for this entry include:

“Red Planet, Green Thumb”
“The Astronaut Farmer”
“The Distant Gardener”
“Spuds Mechanics”
“The Tuber Whisperer”
“Old MacGyver Had a Farm”
“Mars Needs Ketchup”
“The Low-G All-Carb Diet”
“Taters Gonna Tate”
“Healthy, Wealthy and Fries”

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The Only “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” Shot-by-Shot Trailer Analysis You’ll Need

The Force Awakens!

John Boyega. Daisy Ridley. STAR WARS. Canon. Cope.

In the past 24 hours eight hundred million other internet users have posted their thoughts on the all-new Official Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer that premiered Monday night during ESPN’s Monday Night Football and was released online seconds later for those of us who don’t do sports. Hardcore fans have devoted every hour since then freezing every frame, enhancing every pixel, scrutinizing every living being or moving object, collating the data, and sharing results in hopes of extrapolating the plots of the next six Star Wars films, or at least guessing which toys they’ll buy next.

Now…it’s my turn.

Right this way for the greatest film study that matters only to me ever!

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