Reflecting on Super Megafest 2011

17-Nov-12 11:41 PM by
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Every year's weekend before Thanksgiving is host to the Super Megafest, an annual convention of sci-fi, comics, wrestling, and nostalgia. I have recently returned from my sixth consecutive attendance at the event — but what about the fifth?

I report on every Super Megafest for Showbits, but the past few years I've taken procrastination to new heights. Before I can in good conscience relate my experiences at the 2012 convention, here I must finally reflect on the 2011 show.

The headliners of 2011 were two stars well-known to science fiction and fantasy fans: Sean Astin and Sir Patrick Stewart. I had the opportunity and pleasure to first visit their tables, where I paid handsomely for their autographs, then attend their free Q&A sessions. In that former one-on-one encounter, the two actors could not have been more different in their receptions.

Sean AstinAstin had a table in the common area, where no one minded the queue moving slowly, as it was the product of the actor taking his time to recognize each fan as an individual. He'd shake their hands, listen to their comments, and respond with stories. In my case, I told him how, in my sporadic career as an educator, I had a high school student who wrote a paper about his family movie starring Sean Astin. Goonies? Rudy? Lord of the Rings? Nope — Slipstream, a 2005 science fiction time-travel movie that got panned by critics. When I told Astin about this paper, his eyebrows shot up to accompany a disbelieving "Really??" He then quickly harrumphed and, trying to take more pride in his work, offered a casual, interested "Really!" Astin then suggested that Slipstream was the basis for Jake Gyllenhaal's more successful Source Code, though I consider the connection between the two films tenuous at best.

Sir Patrick StewartBy contrast, Sir Stewart gave me almost nothing to relate here. Rather than wait three hours in line for his autograph, I paid for a pricey "speed pass" that got me to the head of the queue. When I was finally face-to-face with Captain Picard himself, I held out my hand, as I did with every other actor I'd met that weekend. Stewart seemed intent on putting his John Hancock on my purchased 8×10" glossy, so thinking he hadn't noticed my gesture, I asked, "May I shake your hand?" "No, sorry," he replied. Fair enough; many stars are concerned about being introduced to too many fans and their germs. I offered as an alternative: "How about a fist bump?". "No, sorry." I persisted: "Elbow bump?" At this point, his handler stepped in: "Sir Patrick has arthritis." Both gentlemen then looked to the side at the next person in line, making it clear that my time had expired. It was an impersonal experience and a real letdown: The Next Generation was my first exposure to Star Trek and defined me and my life. I never even got to say "Thank you".

Despite the discrepancy in personal encounters, both actors proved entertaining in their Q&A sessions, in which neither had to deal with fans on an individual basis. With this being Stewart's first New England convention, he reflected on the first such con he ever attended after gaining fame as Jean-Luc Picard. He said that when he stepped on the stage and the crowd went wild, "In that moment, I knew what it felt like to be Sting." Stewart has rarely turned that fame to the silver screen, though, commenting that his movie career had been limited to Robin Hood: Men In Tights (a slight exaggeration) — but that he'd recently asked his agent to actively solicit movie options. Why not just retire completely? Because in 71 years of life, 54 of them spent acting, Stewart has found that "Actors are some of the most inspiring, respectful, generous people I know." Stewart went on to talk about his gardening — he'd recently produced 24 dozen cases of apple juice, a dozen cases of pear juice, and 16 pounds of damson jam — and about taking risks, The Inner Light, William Shatner, his workout routine, and more. (He also mentioned handing out diplomas at a college and shaking 800 hands… but he couldn't shake mine?)

Sean Astin, better known to some as Samwise Gamgee, was equally entertaining, sharing the stage with Sala Baker, who played Sauron in Lord of the Rings. The two recounted how the trilogy's cast were joined in a real-life fellowship through the art of tattoo. He laughed when the film's star found the experience painful: "I'm ten years older than Elijah [Woods]; he's a punk kid." As it turned out, Astin didn't have so easy a time with it, either.

In a turn of events, Astin even took a photo of ME! You can see me in the right rear in the red sweater.

I told Astin how unusual it is to have a career that spans so many decades and genres. Demonstrating the humility of any great man, Astin seemed even more amazed than I did. As many Hollywood veterans will tell you, nepotism is alive and well, and Astin couldn't help but be recognized during auditions due to his lineage, mother Patty Duke and adoptive father John Astin. A father of three daughters of his own (with the oldest playing his on-screen daughter in The Return of the King), Astin is glad to have a filmography in which each of them can find something to relate to, especially as they near the ages at which he began his career.

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Looking Back on the Future of Star Trek

14-Mar-09 2:43 PM by
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This week, the Star Trek franchise turned exactly 42.5 years old. Despite being a not particularly noteworthy milestone, I used the occasion to finally watch the show's 40th anniversary special. The special, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, aired on the History Channel in February 2007 and will be included in next month's release of TOS Season 1 on Blu-Ray. Though the primary purpose of the documentary is to showcase the then-recently-concluded Christie's auction of thousands of Star Trek props, it also features several stars of the franchise's first four shows reflecting on their roles. I found the most striking observation came from Kate Mulgrew: "I don't know a lot of doctors and lawyers who watch doctors and lawyers shows — but almost every scientist I've ever known loved Star Trek." It's a sentiment consistent with the need to have shows like Star Trek on the air.

The franchise's 726 episodes and ten movies are condensed into this other 40th anniversary tribute, which for some reason was uploaded to YouTube just last week. The video — set to one of my favorite instrumental pieces, the orchestral suite from "The Inner Light" — is a brief visual tour of the entire history of Star Trek's two-hundred-year history. Considering how many characters there are to fit into the montage's seven-minute length, you'll forgive the editor if he transitions from one character to the next a bit too swiftly.

I was moved by how familiar I found each of these characters, and how glad I was to see them again. But then, I shouldn't be surprised: Star Trek was on the air consistently for 18 years, making it a constant companion for roughly two-thirds of my life. You could argue it was just a TV show (in which case I wonder what you're doing reading this blog), but every day without a Trek seems dark, as the program represents a hope for humanity.

With the cancellation of Enterprise, television has been without a Star Trek for four years. Now we stand on the cusp of a new Star Trek film — the first one in seven years, the longest span between any two Star Trek movies ever. This movie has the potential to reenergize the franchise and bring it back not only to the public consciousness, but to the television screen. It will be a long time before we can effectively measure the film's success and impact — but it will be only two months before we will have the full feature to judge, and not just this trailer:

(Hat tip to Dayton Ward)

TNG at 20: To Everything, There Is a Season

23-Sep-07 11:41 PM by
Filed under Star Trek; 1 comment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first Star Trek to enjoy a full, cancellation-free run. This October 2nd, its 176 episodes will be available in a new box set (watch the trailer, read the press release). Though $40/season is a fair deal, $278.89, after shipping, is still no small amount of change. And, as Trek Nation has been recently reminding us with their retro reviews, some entire seasons of TNG have not aged well.

There are many ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. Various fan collectives offer thematically-related content, so if you like time travel or Q, you're bound to be satisfied — unless you dwell on what these packages miss, such as "Future's End". For my money, The Jean-Luc Picard Collection is the best value, as I prefer episodes that offer not an anomaly of the week, but significant, focused character development. "Tapestry", "Darmok", and "The Inner Light" are worth their weight in latinum, and with the former two both coming from season five, perhaps that is the series' best season. Other fifth-season episodes "I, Borg", "The Perfect Mate" (another Picard episode, and one which first unites Patrick Stewart with Famke Janssen, prior to their X-Men team-up), Spock's return in the two-part "Unification", and the first half of "Time's Arrow" supports this theory.

But only with the new, complete DVD collection can you get all the above along with gems like "The Best of Both Worlds", "Yesterday's Enterprise", and "Relics" — so if you have money to burn, take the good with the bad and splurge on all seven seasons (plus exclusive features and documentaries). But if you don't, then what season (or fan collective) do you recommend, and for what episodes?


Also in the TNG at 20 series:

It's Better in the Original Klingon

06-Jun-07 12:06 PM by
Filed under Films, On Stage; 1 comment.

Courtesy TrekToday.com comes the news that Patrick Stewart will star in a modern-day filmed adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. Captain Picard in Las Vegas reciting William Shakespeare?… Well, two out of three ain't bad.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Bard — he almost kept me from graduating from high school — but I find his works more palatable when correlated with my preferred media of musical and film. Engaging in five community theater productions a year, I enjoyed my most recent experience participating in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate — a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. (But I've not seen the more modern, less musical adaptation of his classic tale, that being Ten Things I Hate About You.)

I extended this penchant for connections and adaptations a few years ago, when I took a remedial college course on Shakespeare and his work. The professor offered us a number of topics on which to write our term paper, but none of them were about Hamlet. Having learned the prince's famous monologue from watching Johnny Carson, I noticed three movies take their titles from the soliloquy: To Be or Not to Be; What Dreams May Come; and The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek VI). I focused on one and produced a paper comparing Hamlet to Jack Benny's role in his 1942 comedy (not Mel Brooks' 1983 remake). The paper, entitled "Your Country or Your Life", was fun to write and even more fun to present — with selected clips from the film — at a regional Shakespeare conference.

So I guess my qualm isn't with the material, but with the presentation. Put it in a more popular, easily consumable format, and I'll happily bear witness to the staying power of the Bard. But as originally written? Give me The Complete Works of Shakespeare (abridged) anyday.

Heroes in a Half Shell

09-Apr-07 3:44 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 6 comments.

I've seen my first movie of 2007 — and that film is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The star of the film is definitely the titular heroes. Though the plot makes Michaelangelo and Donatello extraneous, this bummer is balanced by Raphael, always my favorite reptile, taking the spotlight alongside Leonardo in a battle that is more emotional than physical. The evil Shredder is dead, and without an opposing force to galvanize the turtles, they've drifted apart. When Leonardo returns after a year's pilgramage, he finds a cooler reception than he expected. Old friends April O'Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Casey Jones must help the turtles unite against the machinations of Max Winters (Patrick Stewart). There are some great action sequences, but not as great as the character development — who'd expect that from giant turtles? — and some effective mirroring between the turtle's internal strife and that of the villains — something that Star Trek: Nemesis tried, and failed, to do well.

The directorial team approached this film in a way that lends it both strength and weakness. In the former area, TMNT cuts right to the chase. I've not read any TMNT comic books in the last 15 years; I've not seen the new cartoon or played the video games; I never even got around to seeing the third live-action film. But having grown up with the original cartoon and seeing the first two films, I felt like this latest animated installment was a direct sequel to that older franchise. The film does not dawdle with prelude: there's no flashbacks, setting up, or other time-wasting plot devices. If you don't know how the ninja turtles came to be, or why they listen to a wise old rat, by the end of the movie, you still won't know. Anything that's important can be gleaned.

The downside to this approach is that there is little that makes this film uniquely TMNT. It's a fun martial arts/sci-fi/action film, but I felt like their were too many elements that could've been transplanted into other setting (like Disney's Gargoyles). Not even the classic TMNT theme song is present.

I previously expressed my concern for the animation style, and I agree the humans were a bit too inhuman. But the dark style fit the turtles perfectly. Not once during the film did I think to myself, "This is a CGI cartoon." Its computer-generated nature didn't occur to me, though I think that is reflective more of the prevalance of the medium than of the improved quality (which is admittedly impressive).

Overall, a better film than I was expecting — and with a convenient hook for a sequel. For now, check out the online featurette (may contain spoilers).

Domo Arigato

02-Feb-07 4:41 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 6 comments.

In seeking meaningful animated films, I was recommend to watch Howl's Moving Castle, a movie about a young wizard named Howl who roams the countryside in a quadruped mansion. When a storegirl is unprovokingly cursed to be four times her age, she seeks Howl's help in breaking the curse. Hilarity ensues.

I found much to enjoy about this film. Despite aging literally overnight, Sophie adapts to the role of a crotchety oldtimer amusingly well. More so than her and Howl's central performances, though, the supporting characters steal the show. A bouncing, mute scarecrow nicknamed Turniphead always lends a helping hand, imbuing himself with more personality than many spiky-haired protagonists. But it's Billy Crystal as a Muppet-like, hearthbound fire demon who's far more enjoyable than any of his screen brethren. His quirky, animated expressions, enthusiastic exclamations, and near-constant bemoaning of his situation are very much in character.

Howl wasn't a great film, though — just average… which still makes it one of the best anime I've ever seen. Yes, this film, published in America by Disney, is a product of Japanese animation and the eccentricity that is its hallmark. I'm sure I'll receive many a rotten tomato for this admission (sorry Arc — Alissa), but I've just never been able to penetrate or comprehend the genre.

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Mock Turtle Soup

17-Jan-07 2:06 PM by
Filed under Films, Television; 4 comments.

New trailer for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is up.

I grew up in the Eighties, which this decade of the Naughties is desperate to emulate, with its revivals of He-Man, G. I. Joe, and TMNT. While I think it's great that today's kids have access to the quality programming that taught so many of my peers to venerate Saturday morning, it's also challenging to see these elements of my youth being reinvented in less-than-faithful ways.

In this instance, the TMNT movie doesn't look half bad. I've never seen the new animated series, so I don't know how this CGI film compares to it — but the movie seems to retain the combination of action and comedy that made the original show so captivating. (The tendency among my peers is to see the entertainment from their childhood mature along with them — but if it's a dark TMNT you want, go back to the original comic books.)

I'm worried about the animation style, though. The models all seem too comical, almost Pixar-ish, which I don't feel behooves what they're trying to do. Though "ninja turtles" is far from a plausible concept, I think the absurdity of the situation would be better served by realistic representations. Let the animation be the straight man; otherwise, the over-the-top actions and situations are likely to be dismissed as cartoonish. Juxtaposition — know what I mean?

"I've got a lot of fond memories of that dog"

30-Dec-06 10:37 AM by
Filed under Celebrities, Films; 8 comments.

My friend Dain informs me of this San Francisco Chronicle article suggesting that George Lucas plans to shoot the fourth Indiana Jones movie in 2007, with a spring/summer 2008 opening.

I'm unsure the working subtitle "The Ravages of Time" isn't meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Check out this picture of Harrison Ford:

Harrison Ford

He hardly looks any longer like the action hero we remember. Of course, if they could smooth out Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan's wrinkles for X-Men 3, then who knows where that Pandora's Box will end.  What do you think: is it time for Indy to pass on the torch? If so, will this be a "Son of Indy" tale? Should Sean Connery return to represent three generations of archaeologists? When should the story take place — 20 years after the last one?