Marvel’s long-awaited ‘Black Widow’ is intense, entertaining

At last, “Black Widow,” the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has come to theaters and streaming. People either love it or hate it, based on reviews and social media comments I’ve seen so far.

With Black Widow, we seem to have reached a weird place in the franchise: There seems to be a higher expectation for this movie than for previous Marvel films. I want to say it’s because its release was delayed so long, or because of the events of “Endgame,” because we are expecting a changing of the guard. Unfortunately, I suspect most of the criticism lies with the gender of its superhero. Some people are trashing on it – perhaps without even realizing it – simply because the main character is a woman.

Granted, it has some silly and unrealistic moments, but what Marvel film doesn’t? Even “Guardians of the Galaxy” (which is perfect in almost every way!) has a few ridiculous, over-the-top characters (hello Ronan the Accuser) that are too cartoony even for a comic book movie.

Even though “Captain Marvel” (and “Wonder Woman”) have proven that female superhero movies can be successful, there still seems to be a higher bar. Maybe because I am a woman, I loved “Black Widow” and didn’t expect the plot to surpass that of other Marvel entries in order for it to be deemed acceptable. Was it perfect? No. But it was entertaining, intense, unpredictable, funny, and moving.

(The remainder of this post contains SPOILERS! Continue reading at your own risk!)

One social media comment I read said the movie sucked because of the “Scooby Doo” masks, a criticism which doesn’t really make sense to me, considering that the mask tech used in “Black Widow” was used in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and I don’t recall anyone throwing that baby out with the bathwater.

Anyway.

The film begins with a seemingly happy (and seemingly American) family: a mom and dad and their young daughters, one of which is the title character. We quickly find that all is not as it seems. The parents are Russian spies and the children aren’t theirs – they belong to the “Red Room,” Soviet villain Dreykov’s training ground for his “widows” – young girls who are brainwashed and trained to be assassins.

A nightmarish montage of images of traumatized little girls, interspersed with cartoons and news clippings, is accompanied by a slow cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” We already know that Natasha has been sterilized, and we’ve seen flashbacks of her upbringing, so we can imagine what is happening to these children, which somehow makes it creepier than if they’d shown us.

The film then jumps around a bit from past to present – well, not present, but a time after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” and also takes us all over the world. It’s a bit jarring and difficult to keep up at first, but the story hits its stride after taking us on a chase that lasts only a little bit too long (but it’s a spy movie so I’ll allow it), and we get to see the connection between the two “sisters,” now grown and kicking butt.

One of the funniest scenes is when Yelena makes fun of Natasha’s poses – the sexy superhero landing and hair flip we’ve all seen many times. Florence Pugh is a talented actress, and is great in this role. The movie only gets better when Russian spy dad Alexei, aka Red Guardian, comes back into the picture. The casting for the role of Alexei is one of those choices that can make or break a character, and luckily for us, fan fave David Harbour from “Stranger Things” was perfect. And of course, award-winning actress Rachel Weisz is always wonderful.

Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the witty dialogue and the theme of family are the film’s strong suits and are more meaningful than any stunts and special effects, and make up for the somewhat absurd plot: Good guys fight henchmen (or henchwomen) for a substance (or in the case of “Guardians,” an Infinity stone), in attempt to render madman villain powerless.

These movies are at their best when they are packing an emotional punch. Yelena telling her long-ago “family” how she feels about them was heart-wrenching, and I teared up when she and Alexei sang “American Pie,” a favorite song from her childhood (even if a bit heavy-handed in its symbolism).

One of the relationships in the film, between Natasha and her “fixer” Rick Mason, failed to launch. Mason’s portrayer, O-T Fagbenle, explained in an interview that there was originally a more intimate scene between them, in which, he says, “Scarlett and I lay down in bed together. We had quite an intimate conversation, but they cut it from the movie.”

He doesn’t say why it was cut, and it could be any number of reasons, but I think they were worried it would tarnish Natasha’s reputation. I can’t imagine they were trying to keep it kid-friendly, considering some of the other scenes. (It is rated PG-13.)

To be fair, the MCU isn’t exactly bursting with romance. There are very few kisses in the entire franchise. But almost every male character has had a girlfriend or wife. I know Natasha can’t have kids, but she could still have a man, if she wanted one, and if the writers would let her have one. Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, didn’t get a love interest either.

I think when the director is a woman, there’s an attempt to make the female superhero less of a sex symbol, less objectified, which is great; she’s a strong independent woman who doesn’t need a man? Or was it more “we don’t want her in bed with a man because that makes her seem slutty”?

Wanda and Vision are allowed to kiss – they are MARRIED. Also he is a robot.

I guess it’s OK for a woman superhero to have a boyfriend if he’s not really a boy but actually a robot. (If your boyfriend is a Hulk, it’s probably not going to work out.)

It’s possible director Cate Shortland cut the scene simply because she didn’t want a love story competing with the main plot and I can respect that, even if (or especially if?) the main plot involves treating women like objects.

I’m not sure why I’m hung up on this cut scene. Maybe because it would have been nice for Natasha to have something of her own. As much as I love (and honestly, prefer) Flo and am excited to see her continue Black Widow’s legacy going forward, Natasha seems almost relegated to a supporting player in her own movie.

Although she was never my favorite Avenger (probably because she hasn’t gotten an interesting story until now), I still felt it wasn’t fair for her to be the one sacrificed in “Endgame” since the implication was that since Clint was married and had kids and she didn’t, his life was somehow more valuable than hers. I also feel it wasn’t fair that it took this long for her to get her own movie, when most of the other original Avengers have each had three. But it’s here now, so I won’t belabor that point.

The film fits nicely into the MCU, sandwiched between the wars, Civil and Infinity. Fans will enjoy finding the Easter eggs. One of the more meaningful ones is Yelena’s vest that she gives to Natasha. It is this vest we see her wearing in “Infinity War.” Marvel is really great with this sort of attention to continuity and detail; it shows they are always looking ahead, which bodes well for the future of the MCU. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

Photos: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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Avengers Campus is cool but not 4.5-hour-wait cool

My daughter loves the Marvel movies. She has seen all of them multiple times, and has watched the “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” series multiple times too. When I found out the Avengers Campus at California Adventure would open during Disney’s limited capacity and California resident only rules, I (foolishly) believed it would be a good time to go, before all the crowds show up on June 15. Well, as you can tell by the headline, we had to wait more than four hours in a standby line just to enter the new “land” at California Adventure, and even though it was pretty cool, it was decidedly not worth waiting in line for four and a half hours.

Because we bought park hopper tickets, we left the park to switch over to Disneyland after we were done at Avengers Campus, so we didn’t have time to see anything else at California Adventure. Having bitched about that, I will say that the Avengers Campus was the reason we went to California Adventure, and we got to see what we came to see so I shouldn’t complain. (But that hasn’t ever stopped me before.)

There is another way to get into the Avengers Campus more quickly – be one of the lucky few to acquire boarding passes for the new Spider-Man ride, “Web Slingers.” You can get those boarding passes only through the Disneyland app, and you have to have the “fastest finger” – I logged on and was poised to hit the JOIN button at 7 a.m. and noon (the only times you can get passes) and the slots were full within seconds. So we didn’t get to bypass the line, and of course we didn’t get to try the Web Slingers ride either.

Once we made it in, we got in line for the Campus’ other main attraction, the “Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!” This attraction opened in 2017, replacing the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.

Because of social distancing rules, the line was outdoors. I think the coolest part of this ride is actually the “museum” indoors, but we sort of had to run through that part. I took a couple photos; among other artifacts, we recognized the astronaut dog in Tivan’s collection from the film. The ride itself is not a roller coaster – instead, it repeatedly drops you 130 feet at 39 mph. (The GotG ride is the tall building behind the Quinjet in the top photo.)

We were looking forward to having lunch at the Pym Test Kitchen but sadly, the mobile ordering for the new restaurant was unavailable by the time we entered the Campus. (It looked really cool though and I was happy to see a lot of vegetarian selections on their menu.) There is also a bar, a shawarma kiosk, and a dessert kiosk, where my daughter had a green churro – I mean a “Sweet Spiral Ration.” (I have celiac, so no Terran Treats for me, but she said it was good.)

We loved the gift shop next to the Guardians ride. They had some great GotG merch and we did make a few purchases there since the Guardians are our favorite. They even play the GotG soundtracks in there which made it that much more fun.

The other gift shops were just OK – the Spider-Man themed gift shop, Web Suppliers, was very small and only sold Spidey stuff, and there was also a kiosk that sold miscellaneous Avengers stuff. I see a fourth Avengers gift shop listed online but we didn’t see it. (I guess it’s possible that we missed it. Somehow?)

We spent just under two hours inside the campus, and saw several costumed characters but did not stand in line to be photographed with them. (We were done with lines by then.) The characters we saw were Loki, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Captain America, Black Panther, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp, Doctor Strange (more on that in a minute), and three Dora Milaje who put on a show. That was pretty cool.

Spider-Man also does acrobatics on the rooftops (the one that flies through the air is an animatronic Spidey), and there’s a Black Widow and Black Panther stunt show but we didn’t see that. We also did not see the “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Dance-Off!” I guess the Guardians had the day off when we were there because we didn’t see any.

So there’s another cool area inside the campus called the Ancient Sanctum and I didn’t realize that Doctor Strange would be performing a show there or we would have lingered a bit longer. By the time we caught a glimpse of him, the small area was already packed with people – but they don’t tell you when the next show will be and we didn’t stay long enough to find out.

We went to the park on Monday, June 7, so it’s possible that by the time you read this, they will have a different (hopefully better) method of letting visitors into the campus. I naively assumed we would be able to get in after a short wait even though we didn’t get a boarding pass, because we arrived about an hour early to the park. But a lot of people arrived even earlier. Live and learn.

By the way, we brought my sister and nephew, who aren’t Marvel-obsessed like us, so they opted to forgo the Avengers wait and instead enjoy California Adventure’s other offerings. You would think that because so many were there for Avengers, the rest of the park would be a breeze – especially as the Disney parks were (supposedly) at limited capacity – but they waited in line for 45 minutes to get hot dogs, only to be told they had run out of hot dogs. So it wasnt exactly smooth sailing in the rest of the park.

Also worth noting is that due to social distancing rules, there were no trams running to and from the parking lot, and the parades were cancelled.

My recommendation for Avengers Campus is to go after the crowds have died down a little, and also check it out in the evening if you can – the pictures I’ve seen of the Campus all lit up at night look really awesome.

Galaxy’s Edge

The Star Wars themed land at Disneyland opened in 2019 but we had not seen it yet because our last visit to Disneyland was seven years ago. Galaxy’s Edge is larger than the Avengers Campus – 14 acres to Avengers’ six – and the fact that we did not have to wait in a long line to see Galaxy’s Edge automatically made it that much better. Ha!

Because the same system for the Web Slingers ride is in place for the Rise of the Resistance ride, we didn’t get to go on that either. Boo. But we did go on the Millennium Falcon ride (which is more or less the same attraction as Star Tours – a nausea-inducing motion ride). The area also has costumed characters. We saw a Rey, a Kylo Ren, and some stormtroopers. The shops are very cute and I definitely got the feeling I had been transported to a galaxy far, far away.

For me, costliness and crowds are deterrents to more regular visits to the Magic Kingdom, and it may be another seven years before we return. But the weather was nice (I don’t love the heat so overcast is what I deem nice), the company was good, and it was a pleasant enough diversion on a summer day in Southern California.

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Check out Netflix’s ‘The Old Guard’ and ‘Warrior Nun’

(Contains spoilers.)

When I was in my teens and twenties I was somewhat obsessed with vampires. I loved “The Lost Boys” (which is getting a musical prequel – no I’m not kidding) and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. Vampires fit into my goth aesthetic* but also the idea of immortality and what it would be like to never age or die is an intriguing concept all by itself.

It’s why I love Matt Haig’s novel “How to Stop Time” about a 400-year-old man who looks like he’s 40. It’s interesting to imagine what kind of perspective you would have if you were centuries old, but still living as a young(ish) person. And of course you would wonder, Why me?

In “The Old Guard,” Andromache of Scythia (Charlize Theron) faces similar questions. She and her fellow immortals are mercenaries, but in modern times, they have a harder time keeping a low profile. U.S. Marine Nile (KiKi Layne) is the “new guard” to Andy’s old.

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Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Chiwetel Ejiofor also star in “The Old Guard,” which was adapted from a comic book by Greg Rucka, and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees”).

Prince-Bythewood is the first black woman to make a comic book film, and she’s also working on adaptations of the Black Cat and Silver Sable comics. The film which would have combined the heroines’ stories in one movie called “Silver and Black” has been cancelled (boo!), but the characters are now reportedly getting separate series (yay!). Prince-Bythewood has said that the research and preparation she did for the now-cancelled film, which included getting advice from “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins, helped her with “The Old Guard.”

In Charlize Theron news, her character Furiosa is reportedly being recast in the Mad Max prequel, a decision Theron said was “a little heartbreaking, for sure. I really love that character, and I’m so grateful that I had a small part in creating her.”

Fortunately, we will be seeing Theron again in an “Atomic Blonde” sequel (which will reportedly be a Netflix exclusive) and also (I hope) a sequel to “The Old Guard.”

‘Warrior Nun’

My latest late-night binge is Netflix’s “Warrior Nun.” If you were a fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or even if you weren’t, you may enjoy this comic book adaptation about an order of nun soldiers who fight demons.

Alba Baptista (a Portuguese actress in her first English-speaking role) stars as a quadriplegic orphan who dies but is resurrected when an angel’s halo is placed in her back, giving her the ability to walk again – and also magical demon-hunting abilities.

I know it sounds bizarre and sort of silly – because it is, but it’s crazy and fun. Just go with it.

‘Monster Hunter’

I guess audiences can’t get enough witchers and slayers. Another supposed-to-be summer 2020 blockbuster has been postponed: “Monster Hunter,” a film adaptation of the video game, has been delayed till April 23, 2021. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (“Resident Evil,” “Mortal Kombat”) and starring Milla Jovovich (who is married to Anderson), Tony Jaa, T.I., Ron Perlman, Meagan Good, and Diego Boneta, the movie follows a UN military team who end up in an alternate world where Hunters fight monsters. The soldiers and Hunters work together to keep the monsters from entering the portal to Earth.

In describing the monsters, Anderson said in an interview with Empire, “We’re building them in even more detail than the dinosaurs of Jurassic World. And they look even better. …” OK. But. Does your movie have Star-Lord? Didn’t think so.

Trailers

The trailer for “The One and Only Ivan” is here, and it looks like the plot may be a little different from the book, but I’m still looking forward to seeing it. It’s coming to Disney+ on Aug. 14.

HBO Max released a trailer for all their new stuff, including a cool-looking new Ridley Scott show called “Raised by Wolves.” (Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.)

There’s also a release date (Aug. 6) and a trailer for the new animated series “Star Trek: Lower Decks.” Check it out below.

Photo credits: “The Old Guard” and “Warrior Nun,” Netflix; “Interview with the Vampire” and “The Middle,” Warner Bros.; “Jurassic World,” Universal Pictures.

* Me in the 1990s, wishing I was a vampire.

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Toss a coin to ‘The Witcher’ – it’s a valley of plenty

Catchy tune aside, Netflix’s new series “The Witcher” is plenty. Plenty of what, you ask? Well, it’s fantasy and horror and comedy and romance and just really binge-worthy and fun.

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“The Witcher” reminds me of Terry Gilliam’s 2005 film “The Brothers Grimm,” starring Heath Ledger and Matt Damon.

It’s one part “Game of Thrones,” one part “Brothers Grimm” (great film with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger), with just a slice of “Xena: The Warrior Princess”-flavored cheese. But calling it cheesy is selling it short, because it’s also funny, thrilling, and addictive.

A lot of people know the characters from the video game, but it was a book series first (a cult favorite in Poland), and despite the fact that I just said it reminds me of three other things, it still feels fresh and clever.

The series follows three stories; the main story of course is about Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher, played by the swoon-worthy Henry Cavill (Superman!) in a silver wig. The other two characters are a powerful mage named Yennefer, played by Anya Chalotra, and Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan).

The “Continent” where the series takes place is a mythical, medieval world similar to Westeros or Middle Earth. There are sorcerers and magic – and monsters. A witcher’s job is to kill monsters and Geralt is a total bad-ass when it comes to killing monsters. There are lots of cool fight scenes. And did I already mention Geralt is really hot?

(Warning: Spoilers below.)

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Henry Cavill is Geralt of Rivia, aka “The Witcher.”

There’s a lot to like about this character. The “white wolf,” as he is sometimes called, is a man of few words, but when he does speak, it’s in a sexy growl. And you’ve got to love a guy who defends the honor of dragons and persecuted women.

But there are lots of ladies on the Continent who aren’t damsels in distress, thank you very much. The bad-ass ladies of “The Witcher” make the series that much better.

Netflix just released an official timeline of the first season of “The Witcher.” Maybe it’s just me but doesn’t that spoil the fun of figuring it out on your own? Realizing that we were watching three different time periods was a good twist. I admit it was a little confusing, but wasn’t that sort of the point?

Maybe they assume that everyone who was going to watch it has already done so. If you haven’t watched it yet, I recommend you check it out. Just don’t blame me if the bard’s song gets stuck in your head.

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Iron Man, um I mean Robert Downey Jr., will star as the doc who can talk to animals, in “Dolittle,” on Jan. 17.

I guess I’m going to have to suck it up and subscribe to yet another streaming service when “Star Trek: Picard” is released on Jan. 23.

“The New Mutants,” based on the Marvel Comics team, will be out April 3.

The Avengers’ “Black Widow,” Scarlett Johansson, gets her own film on May 1.

The movie I’m most excited for in 2020 is “Wonder Woman 1984.” It will be out June 5.

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Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman 1984.”

The Marvel film “The Eternals,” starring Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjani, Lauren Ridloff, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, Lia McHugh, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan, Gemma Chan, and Kit Harington, will be released Nov. 6.

Sequels to “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool” are in the works, and lots of new shows are coming to TV and streaming services this year as well – too many to name but including “Devs,” “Y: The Last Man,” “Space Force,” “Snowpiercer,” and “WandaVision.” Returning series include “The Boys,” “Stranger Things,” “The Orville,” “Westworld,” and “The Mandalorian.”

Release dates subject to change. 

Credits: “The Witcher,”Netflix;”The Brothers Grimm,” Dimension Films; “Wonder Woman 1984,” Warner Bros. Pictures; “The Boys,” Amazon Prime.

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Lyonne does the time loop in her new series ‘Russian Doll’

What could be worse than dying on your birthday? How about dying on your birthday over and over and over and over? That’s the premise of the Netflix original series “Russian Doll.” The first season of the dark comedy, created by Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland, was released Feb. 1.

Lyonne also stars in the series, as Nadia Vulvokov, a witty but troubled New Yorker who keeps dying and re-living her 36th birthday over and over. I’ve been a Lyonne fan ever since “Slums of Beverly Hills” in 1998 and I also love her in “Orange is the New Black,” so seeing her star in this crazy show is a special treat.

It’s great timing – Groundhog Day was Feb. 2, and it does sort of borrow the reset button from the Bill Murray film, but if we’re talking time loops, it’s really more “Edge of Tomorrow,” as Tom Cruise’s character’s day starts over when he dies, rather than the 6 a.m. automatic restart in “Groundhog Day.”

The difference here is an attempt to explain (with science!) why this is happening to her. Maybe it’s not so much a plot gimmick but an exploration of a scientific theory. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The series’ similarities to other movies don’t matter anyway; all you need to know is that it’s an entrancing and binge-worthy trip down a rabbit hole.

Besides the awesome Lyonne, the show also stars Greta Lee, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Ashley, Rebecca Henderson, and Charlie Barnett. Chloe Sevigny and Dascha Polanco also make guest appearances.

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Rebecca Henderson, Greta Lee, and Charlie Barnett in the trippy time loop series “Russian Doll.”

The Expanse

Amazon Prime will soon be streaming the first three seasons of the epic sci-fi series “The Expanse,” so get over there and catch up before the fourth season comes out later this year. The first season is a little confusing at first but don’t give up! It gets better, a lot better.

The third season will be available to stream on Feb. 8. Seasons 1 and 2 (already available in the U.S.) will become available internationally on Feb. 8 as well.

The series, about a future in which humans have colonized the solar system, is based on the books by James S.A. Corey (the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who also serve as writers and producers on the show).

There’s an amazing ensemble cast, great special effects, political intrigue, plot twists, love, war, laughter, tears. … You get the idea. Just go watch it.

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Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Cas Anvar, and Steven Strait in “The Expanse.”

Chaos Walking

I previously reported that “Chaos Walking” would be out soon, but the film’s studio confirmed recently that the movie will not make its March release date. Bummer! But this gives you time to catch up on your reading – the movie is based on the books by Patrick Ness.

So far I’ve read the first two books in the trilogy, “The Knife of Never Letting Go” and “The Ask and the Answer.” If you’re a fan of “The Hunger Games,” you’ll probably like these too.

The film will star Tom Holland, Daisy Ridley, and Mads Mikkelsen.

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Speaking of books, I highly recommend “Circe,” by Madeline Miller. An epic story based on characters from Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Greek mythology, the tale is told from the viewpoint of the sorceress herself.

Miller’s beautiful writing takes you right into the story, and even at 400 pages, you won’t want to leave when it’s over.

The Titans and the gods and goddesses of Olympus, the demigods and the legends are written so eloquently but are also accessible at the same time. You may think it would be difficult to get into a book about a character whose father is Helios, aka the SUN, and whose aunt is Selene, the moon. But you find yourself thinking things like, “Wow, I never realized the sun is such a jerk. … 

It’s a timely novel, and one which I’d love to see adapted to the big (or small) screen. Fingers crossed.

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Circe was the subject of several paintings by John William Waterhouse. This one is “The Sorceress,” 1913.

Credits: “Russian Doll,” Netflix; “The Expanse,” Alcon Television Group; “Circe,” Little, Brown, and Company. 

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Short & sweet: Anders’ ‘Six Months’ and Saunders’ ‘Fox 8’

Have you ever wondered if the human race was created by aliens? Have you ever wondered what you would do if you were the last person on Earth, or what you would wish for if you found a genie in a bottle? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel through time or predict the future?

Well, Charlie Jane Anders has, and her short stories are imaginative and fun to read. Like her novel “All the Birds in the Sky” (which I reviewed a few months ago), this book of short stories, “Six Months, Three Days, Five Others,” is original, fresh, funny sci-fi.

The last story in the book, a side story to “All the Birds in the Sky,” is about a couple who are given a cat by a stranger who tells them it will give them nine years of good luck. (It took me a while to realize it had some of the same characters from Anders’ novel, but when I did, it was like getting bonus features at the end of a great movie.)

Because it’s so rare for me to find short stories I enjoy, and also rare to find original and accessible, readable sci-fi, I wanted to know more about this author. Anders’ bio is an entertaining read.

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Charlie Jane Anders

The pink-haired author’s Amazon profile says she’s the only person to be “a fictional character in a Star Trek novel and in one of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books.”

She co-edited a book called “She’s Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff,” she organizes Writers With Drinks, and she has put on wacky fund-raising events like a Ballerina Pie Fight. She has won a bunch of awards, including a Hugo for this story collection, and a Nebula for “All the Birds in the Sky.”

Fox 8

Another great book I read recently is George Saunders’ “Fox 8,” a short tale about a fox who learns how to speak the language of “Yumans” by listening at the window of a mother reading bedtime stories to her children.

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 One of Chelsea Cardinal’s sweet illustrations in “Fox 8.” 

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George Saunders

Now you may be wondering, why is this fairy tale-sounding book on a sci-fi blog? And I’ll tell you: Because talking animals aren’t real- they’re fantasy. And I like talking animals. Let’s not get bogged down by technicalities.

It’s a really beautiful book, which is maybe a strange thing to say about a fox who says things like, “Grate Leeder woslike: I have spoken. And something in me woslike: Grate Leeder, bla.”

It is a little bit sad and violent but also funny, and a little bit hopeful too. It’s the first thing I’ve read by the award-winning author (you may have heard of his bestselling novel “Lincoln in the Bardo”), but I’m looking forward to reading more of his books.

These little books would make great last-minute gifts for the (adult) book lover in your life. Merry Christmas!

 

“Six Months, Three Days, Five Others,” Charlie Jane Anders; Tor; October 2017

“Fox 8,” George Saunders; Random House; November 2018

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Deep space drama of ‘Passengers’ too shallow

This review contains spoilers. 

I was intrigued by the premise of this movie: Two people, on a 120 year long journey in space, are awakened from hibernation 90 years before the ship reaches its destination.

I like Jennifer Lawrence and Star-Lord, er, Chris Pratt, and I had heard it was a great story. I also loved director Morten Tyldum’s thriller “Headhunters” (which stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from “Game of Thrones”).

While “Passengers” was entertaining, it seemed that something was missing. It didn’t delve deep enough, for one thing. I wanted more.  More what, I don’t know.  It just felt superficial to me.

(If you didn‘t see “Passengers,” don’t read the rest of this review. It contains SPOILERS.)

passengers

One thing that seems off is the part of the film that begins when Gus (Laurence Fishburne) wakes up. Besides the wrench it throws into the point of the movie being that they’re the only two people awake for the next 90 years, the subsequent action seems like it belongs in another movie entirely.

But even more annoying to me is Lawrence’s character, Aurora. Maybe it’s just me, but she seems snobby, like she thinks Jim is beneath her. More than once, she mentions that under ordinary circumstances, she would never end up with him, but she doesn’t say why. He’s adorable and romantic and sweet. What’s not to love?

I found it odd that it took her so long to bother getting to know Jim. Was she so upset about the prospect of being alone that she didn’t notice she wasn’t alone?

And while I can understand her anger at discovering Jim was the one who woke her, she ceases to be a sympathetic character once she attacks him while he’s sleeping. I know some reviewers couldn’t get past the moral problem of what he did, dooming her to a lifetime aboard the ship, but I was more disturbed by Aurora’s violence.

Was waking her from hibernation so unforgivable? He was ALL ALONE IN OUTER SPACE. Who knows what anyone would do in similar circumstances?

Clearly she does forgive him in the end, when she realizes she doesn’t want to be alone on that ship either. We are supposed to believe she really does love him after all, but the line between love and need is blurry.

Then he tells her she can get in the Autodoc and go back into hibernation and she says “No”? What! That’s all she cared about, and now she doesn’t want that anymore? I’m not buying it. At this point, they seem like they’ve fucked each other over too much to live happily ever after.

My other gripe is a minor one: It’s too clean and shiny. I like my sci-fi gritty, and everything in “Passengers” is too perfect – the ship, yes, but also Lawrence. Her outfits look like ads from a futuristic fitness magazine. And would you still bother to do your hair and makeup every day if the only person who is going to see you is that guy you hate? Me neither.

Photos: Columbia Pictures

New LACMA exhibit a must for Guillermo del Toro fans

One great thing about living near Los Angeles is being close to all the cool exhibits at the museums, and one that I did not want to miss was Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Guillermo del Toro is a science fiction and horror writer, director, and producer whose movies include “Pacific Rim,” “Mimic,” “Crimson Peak,” “Hellboy,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Blade II,” and the Spanish-language films “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” and “Cronos.”

From Guadalajara, Mexico, del Toro now resides in Los Angeles, where he is currently working on a film called “The Shape of Water.” He also is the creator of the FX series “The Strain.”

The collection displayed at LACMA is huge and very impressive. Of course it includes memorabilia from his films – costumes, drawings, notebooks, and props – but it also includes a lot of cool stuff from his collection of art, books, artifacts, and life-sized sculptures of people including Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Harryhausen and several others.

The exhibit is organized by the themes that run through del Toro’s films. The first is “Childhood and Innocence,” and includes props and drawings from “Pan’s Labyrinth” and other items in his collection that pertain to this theme.

Another theme is “Victoriana,” evident in his gothic romance/ghost story “Crimson Peak.” The name of del Toro’s residence Bleak House was taken from a Charles Dickens novel. (And in case you’re wondering, this is a separate house from the one he lives in with his family. This one is just for all his cool toys.)

In the “Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult” section, we learn that del Toro is heavily influenced by the writer H.P. Lovecraft as well as a series he loved as a child called “Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural.”

A room themed “Movies, Comics, Pop Culture” displays del Toro’s collection of comic books and movie memorabilia. He loves Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Buñuel.

Inspired by “Planet of the Apes” (1968), a young del Toro filmed a display of his toy figurines with his father’s Super 8 camera, a pivotal moment: “When I first projected that first Super 8 reel, something happened that was absolutely life changing,” he said.

Del Toro’s self-described “Frankenstein fetish” is evident in the exhibit “Frankenstein and Horror,” an homage to Mary Shelley’s famous monster, as well as other famous movie monsters. “Freaks and Monsters” shows del Toro’s fascination with sideshow “freaks,” and how this influences his work.

There are also areas dedicated to “Death and Afterlife,” lucha libre (Mexican masked wrestling), a recreation of del Toro’s rain room (not to be confused with the other Rain Room at LACMA), and so much more.

 

Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters is at LACMA until Nov. 27, and will travel to Minneapolis and Toronto in 2017. For more information, go to http://www.lacma.org/guillermo-del-toro#about-the-exhibition

Photos by EarthToShawna