This is the time of year when the movie studios are bringing out their big guns -- the movies they think have a chance of doing well at the Oscars.
Fortunately, we've now passed that stupid season of October, when the studios try to enthrall us with constant horror movies.
Outside of the theaters, there's nothing horrible about October. In places that have autumn, it's the time when we cool off from summer, when the world turns red and golden, when our thoughts turn to the season of Thanksgiving.
Halloween isn't such a big deal anymore, now that children aren't free to roam their neighborhoods without parents. It's just institutionalized begging, and while we try to delight our visitors with their favorite candies (Twix, every year, scientifically determined by letting them pick their own candy from our eclectic candy basket; Twix always disappears first, by a mile), we also avoid scaring them because our favorite candy-mendicants are the little ones, and there's no pleasure in making four-year-olds recoil in fear.
Why, then, because of this downgraded diabetes-inducing "holiday" do we have to put up with movie trailers, in the theaters and on our television sets at home, that try to scare us? When I go to see a good and intelligent movie, why, during October, do I have to sit through stupid, sickening trailers that go "boo!"?
I've actually had some dreadful things happen in my life, and I don't need to have the "thrill" of mindless murder and supernatural horror thrust on me against my will as "entertainment." Run your trailers on computer media mostly viewed by fear-nought teenagers who choose to see scary things because they don't know that death is real and not a game-over, restart scenario.
(For that matter, keep your Thor trailers to yourselves, too. Not the fault of the actors, but there has been no stupider comic-book franchise than the Norse mythological branch of the Marvel family. Spider-man and Thor and the Hulk in the same universe? Puh-leeeeze.)
But now October is over, and the studios settle down to lay out their Oscar bait ... and their big Christmas movies. We've already seen the arrival of Victoria and Abdul, which is too nuanced and grown-up to vie for Best Picture, but which will certainly put Judi Dench in contention in the Best Acress category.
Being a contrarian, however, I tend to take a look back at films that came out earlier in the year, so I don't forget the good films that were dumped into the theaters back in January and February.
When a studio loses faith in a movie, they fulfil their own predictions by releasing them in a time slot where, no matter how the audience loves them, will be forgotten come Oscar time the following year.
We all confuse the release dates of movies. For instance, I didn't see Hacksaw Ridge -- an award-winning 2016 film -- until well into 2017. I had to look it up to see that it isn't eligible for awards this year -- and to mourn that it didn't win, since it was an achievement in storytelling that surpassed, in my opinion, even my beloved La La Land and matched the best sci-fi movie ever, Arrival, which wasn't even nominated.
(Just to make things even more confusing, remember that the 2017 Academy Awards were already bestowed on the films that came out in 2016; this year's films will be honored in the 2018 Academy Awards. Is that clear now? Of course not.)
It's actually kind of rare when the movie I most love and admire in any given year is even nominated for an Oscar. As I read the pundits' Oscar predictions, I always end up shaking my head and muttering, They think that was the best picture this year?
No doubt most people would respond similarly to my picks. For instance, my favorite comedy this year has to be the Anna Kendrick vehicle Table 19, a brilliant ensemble story about the wedding guests assigned to the worst table at the reception.
It grossed about twenty dollars, which means my wife and I may have been the only people to see it. (Actually, it grossed $3,614,896 in the U.S., with only a million and a half added for worldwide earnings. Since the estimated budget was almost exactly the same as the worldwide gross earnings, it qualifies as a mild flop.)
Look, comedy is hard. Romantic comedy, spectacularly difficult. And even when you do it exactly right, there's no guarantee it will catch on with a large audience. Sure: You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, An Affair to Remember, Love Actually -- there are rom-coms that slay at the box office and remain alive in our culture for generations. But contenders for such a position seem to come along every five years or so, on average -- which means that the career of Meg Ryan paired with Tom Hanks really skewed the averages.
If you stream Table 19, will you agree with me? Try it and see.
Looking at the top one hundred films at the box office so far this year, there are some very popular films that deserve to be among our favorites. My wife liked Wonder Woman even more than I did -- and I liked it a lot. But it's not likely to be a nominee for best picture this year. Ditto with Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which Tom Holland vies with Andrew Garfield as the best Spider-Man among the three stars of the endlessly rebooting film series. (And Toby Maguire wasn't bad, either.)
But come on, is anybody going to predict any of this year's comic-book films as a likely Oscar winner? Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was also splendid, but it was a sequel, which makes two kisses of death.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting close to the trilogy that began with the powerful Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the surprisingly good Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. War is the best of the three, and the performances of the actors playing the leading apes were superb.
Will any of the ape-actors be nominated? No, because CGI confuses unsophisticated actors who don't realize that ignoring Andy Serkis and others because of the computerized enhancements to their performance is like ignoring the late John Hurt's brilliant performance as John Merrick in Elephant Man because his face was almost entirely concealed within a massive makeup job.
American Made is actually going to be in contention -- will Tom Cruise be nominated? -- and it certainly makes my top-ten list for 2017, but ... ultimately, the script has too many lies, none of which made the movie better, because the lies mostly centered on making the "hero" seem to be seduced into his criminal acts by the CIA, whereas in fact he was a full-fledged criminal before the CIA ever engaged him.
I know, truth shouldn't matter, but to me it does. If you claim your movie is based, however loosely, on real events, and then you distort those events in order to point the finger of blame where it doesn't really belong is, in my opinion, the artistic equivalent of perjury.
The Hitman's Bodyguard has zero chance of getting any nominations, but it was an ingenious story well told, and it's higher in my top-ten list than American Made.
Like the much-maligned Twister some twenty years ago and San Andreas last year, it's viewed as a cynical Hollywood project. But, as with those better-than-they-had-to-be movies, good writing and terrific performances make Hitman's Bodyguard a film that I think will be watchable long after many a critics' darling is revealed to be tedious self-indulgence or a cynical Oscar-chaser.
American Assassin is, if anything, even better. Though it participates fully in the thriller genre, it's a smart, deep, thoughtful movie that was simply too popular (because the audience isn't stupid) for anybody in the Academy to take pride in "discovering" it at awards time.
Home Again, the Reese Witherspoon non-rom-com about a woman who stumbles into an affair with a much younger man and brings him and his two friends into her home to transform her life and her family, deserves much more attention than it will get. Even though a genuinely funny and moving comedy is a rare and precious thing, the ignorant Academy will probably reward the kind of overacted, overwritten, pretentious film that too often wins.
And there are films I have high hopes for, like Goodbye Christopher Robin, which hasn't yet reached Greensboro. It may blow away everything on my list; or it may be a gentle, well-intentioned failure with an outstanding cast. No shame in that.
Until this past weekend, though, my favorite for the best movie of 2017 was Baby Driver. This mob-tied storyline, written and directed by Edgar Wright, shows the ethereally innocent Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver with extraordinary gifts linked to a mix tape he always plays. It is an unforgettably meaningful and moving film, and Elgort has the privilege of acting opposite the ineffably good-and-evil Kevin Spacey.
I didn't think any movie would be strong enough, good enough, deep enough to shove Baby Driver out of my top spot for the year.
The film I regard as the best of 2017 so far came out a couple of weekends ago. It's a sequel to Blade Runner, a sci-fi classic from 1982 based on Philip K. Dick's equally classic novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I don't know whether to be delighted or disgusted when a sci-fi novel is made into a brilliant movie -- Why couldn't mine have been? asks the daemon Envy, whom I keep trying to exorcise -- but now, thirty-five years later, Blade Runner gets an even better sequel.
Yeah, yeah, I know. There are plenty of fans for whom the original Blade Runner has a semi-deified status. Sorry about your religion, folks. But along with a rich, smart, and convoluted plot, Blade Runner 2049 is not the ordinary kind of sequel.
Like Godfather II, it takes the events of its predecessor and then makes a run at exploring even more of the moral implications of that storyline. Ryan Gosling, in his best performance to date, plays a replicant nicknamed "K" whose job is hunting down older-model replicants who need to be killed to make the world safe for slavery, a morally ambiguous goal even if you don't think of replicants as people -- which the film absolutely demands that we do.
Blade Runner 2049 shows us K's complicated relationship with Joi (Ana de Armas), a holographic version of Alexa or Siri -- but one who behaves and makes moral choices as if she has a soul, and a genuine commitment to and love for K.
Robin Wright plays a real human, Joshi, K's boss, who takes her job seriously but also takes K seriously, too. Her performance is in many ways the spine of this movie.
From the promos we always knew that Gosling would come upon Harrison Ford, reprising his role as the (much older) Rick Deckard. Blade Runner was the film in which Harrison Ford first got to show his real acting chops (beyond a teasing insouciance), and it's fitting that his performance in the sequel shows how much deeper and more nuanced his skill set has become in the intervening years. Gosling and Ford together are an acting team that completely works.
Jared Leto is excellent as the chillingly amoral megaboss who is trying to protect and improve the "product" he creates, and as his majordomo and assassin, Luv, Sylvia Hoeks is absolutely chilling.
There are surprises and twists that I dare not compromise, and yet even if you guess the biggest twist early on, as my wife, true to form, did, it doesn't change the fact that this is a magnificent film about the search for a lost or missing father, about the sacrifices we make for children, about the importance of knowing the truth about our own past, and about the discovery of what matters enough to die for.
Ryan Gosling is the master of the wry martyr -- the character who sacrifices to help others, but ends up losing or missing, without bitterness, what he most values. The camera swims in his eyes, finding depths in his stillness; this may be a skill or it may be a trick of genetics, but it makes him eligible to play the deepest, most tragic roles.
I'm not actually a fan of Hamlet, but Gosling's characters always seem to carry the spirit of Hamlet inside them -- it was there in his performance in La La Land, and even in his much lighter role in Crazy, Stupid, Love, a movie in which he does the impossible: he steals scenes from Steve Carell, from whom no actor has ever been able to steal a scene.
Now, Hollywood, I dare you. Find a way to top Blade Runner 2049 and Baby Driver so something else takes over the top spot on my list of the year's best films.
We already know all about towels. High-end hotels compete to offer us towels so thick and plush, so soft and absorbent that we want to go home and burn all the towels in our linen closet. We all know that the best towels are thick thick thick, with a deep pile that makes our carpets jealous. And, of course, the key to everything is pure long-fiber cotton.
But this year on Kickstarter I took a chance on a startup that actually thought they could redefine quality in a towel. They start with "100% supima cotton," perhaps the best of the long-fiber cottons around.
Instead of competing for towel thickness, however, the open weave of the towel makes it feel thinner than any towel I've ever used.
Far from being threadbare, however, it is the opposite: you're getting as much absorbent cotton as ever, but unlike those thick, plush traditional towels, the Onsen towel dries almost immediately.
I don't know about you, but I reuse towels for about a week before submitting them to the washer and dryer. Every washing weakens and thins down a plush towel, so you want to hang it and let it dry between uses. After all, if you only use the towel to dry a very wet but very clean body, how dirty can it get?
I've found that thick towels have a hard time getting dry between uses. And whatever moisture is left in the towel when you next use it means a loss in absorbency. An already wet or moist towel isn't going to be very good at drying you off.
After several weeks of use, I can affirm that the Onsen towel practically slurps all water from my corpus after a shower, and yet, because its surface area is so much larger than plush towels, it's bone dry even if my next shower is less than twelve hours later.
In our climate, with humidity averaging above 70 percent (80s in the morning, 50s in the afternoon), it takes time for the air to absorb moisture. But the more damp surface you offer to the air, the more quickly the air can suck it all up.
That's the theory behind the Onsen towel, and it works. I used to have to dry myself with a hair blower after toweling off, because I still felt damp pretty much everywhere. Haven't touched the hair dryer since I got my Onsen towels.
They're not cheap. But they're worth it, in my opinion. However, your first impression will be of how light and thin these towels feel. The surprise is that they do a better job of drying you even so.
Now, if your comfort requires the feel of thickness, it may be that you'll want to go back to your previous plush towels -- my wife has done so. But I plan never to go back. Somebody finally created the best of all possible towels, in my opinion, and whatever quirks they have in their feel and handling, I quickly got used to them and now prefer them to all others.
The thick, gorgeous towels at the Hotel Monaco in Salt Lake City, where I stayed a couple of weekends ago, were actually disappointing to me. There was nothing wrong with their towels, by ordinary standards. They just weren't my Onsens.
You can see them for yourself at OnsenTowel.com. This minimalist website makes you look harder than you should have to in order to get detailed information -- like prices. (Pass your mouse over the name of the product and the price sometimes appears underneath.) From the $80 bath sheet and $50 bath towel to the $18 hand towel and the $10 face cloth, I think they're worth every penny.
And if you buy more than $95 worth at the website, shipping is free.
Another crowdfunded project I backed was a tiny smartphone. From Unihertz, the Jelly phone has kind of a cutesy name, but it's a serious mobile phone. It looks like it's the size of the smallest flip-phone, but this is no clamshell design. Its tiny touch screen is right there in the open, and, based on Android, it runs all the apps you can load onto it.
However, everything is so small that I make more text-entry errors than usual. This is particularly frustrating when you're entering passwords to get into your pre-existing apps. My fingers aren't particularly thick, either. I am, however, old, so maybe I'm not aiming my fingers as well as I should.
Here's the thing: My beautiful new Galaxy Note 8 is the best smartphone I've ever owned. But it feels so heavy, compared to the Jelly, that I think of it as my ball and chain. It isn't -- it's actually amazingly light for its size -- but if I'm going to be doing a lot of walking, and not a lot of game-playing, texting, or email-handling, I leave the Galaxy Note 8 behind and drop my Jelly in my pocket. It's like I have no phone at all -- except when I need to call somebody.
I can play many of my games and use many of my apps on the Jelly -- as promised, it's a fully functioning smartphone. But in practical terms, I use it when I need a phone. The other functions are nice to have for backup, in case I need them. But for a lightweight, extremely portable talking machine it's the best portable phone I've used.
Besides the small size and the small screen (but my glasses do a fine job of letting me read emails, texts, and books from my Kindle app), the only other drawback is that in a phone this size, you can't stuff in quite as much battery.
I'm used to being able to play Ticket to Ride or Spider Solitaire on my Galaxy Note 8 and its Samsung predecessors for hours at a time, with plenty of battery left for texting, emails, and phone calls.
With the Jelly, a few apps can drain that battery down at a pretty fast clip.
However, because the small size makes some apps hard to use, it's pretty easy to ration my use of battery life, and I've never had the Jelly go dead on me before I was ready to recharge it anyway.
Just don't leave it overnight without recharging it.
You can find the Jelly at www.unihertz.com. Jelly isn't tied to -- or offered by -- any of the standard mobile phone services, and when I went to my longtime carrier, Verizon, it turned out that their phone protocols don't work with the Jelly.
The helpful sales rep at Verizon told me that AT&T and T-Mobile both used the same protocol as the Jelly.
Perhaps I was spoiled by my experience at Verizon, because I walked in the door and seated at a desk immediately inside was the sales rep who immediately and swiftly helped me with everything I needed.
When I got to AT&T a half-hour before closing, it was a different story. With my usual luck, I arrived when every sales agent was helping somebody with a complicated set of needs, so that after twenty minutes I still had no glimmer of a timeframe. Would someone be able to work with me before they locked up for the night?
It was not encouraging when the only agent who had spoken to me so far finally came to me, not to wait on me, but to ask if I'd like to make an appointment for the next day. "Yes," I said. "At T-Mobile. If AT&T wants to open a new account for me, it'll be tonight."
The funny thing is that places like AT&T and the Apple Store could go a long way toward holding on to customers who are waiting for service if they simply touched bases every five minutes or so, so that we don't feel so forgotten. No, we don't need to make an appointment for another day, because we already left our houses and drove to your isolated store and that was a waste of time if I can't get the thing I came for. Just keep tagging us so we're sure we're still in the game. (The Apple Store is pretty much the worst -- somebody comes and talks to you when you first enter, and then you don't exist until they're ready for you, however long that takes.)
Then again, because I had nothing to do while waiting (except continuing to listen to the audiobook that was playing in my ears), I browsed around and that's when I noticed the Beats By Dre earphones that I reviewed so favorably last week. (All that favorableness still stands after another week of use.)
I knew that my Jelly would be the first of these phones they had seen. It's pretty tricky to open it up, and then you have to lift up the battery to get to the SIM card slots hidden underneath it. You have to know what SIM cards it can use -- they're not all alike -- and you have to know how to listen to the customer -- me.
The usual practice in a mobile phone store is to trade in one phone for another, and therefore to keep the old number and transfer it to the new phone.
It took awhile for them to grasp that I was opening a new account and needed a new number because I had no intention of dropping my Verizon account or my Galaxy Note 8. After all, at this point I didn't even know if the Jelly would work well -- it had not yet been connected to a number or a carrier so I could try it out.
But once I was waited on, by a very knowledgeable agent with excellent technical skills, we got my Jelly up and running in no time -- along with a brand new AT&T account with a new phone number.
So far, my wife is the only living human who has that number. (My great achievement is that, at age 66, I've actually memorized it.) But then, she's pretty much the only living human who calls me at all, so that's OK. It's ridiculous for somebody who gets and makes as few phone calls as I do to have and carry two phones.
Yet carrying the super-light-weight Jelly with me when I walk and hike and wander around is very reassuring. By having it on, I can help the police find my body if I have my second stroke while I'm a couple of miles from home. Or if I have some emergency that does not prevent me from phoning, I can call my wife for a ride. At my age, these are serious concerns.
So the Jelly is my take-everywhere phone, whereas the Galaxy Note 8 moves just a little closer to the category of luggage -- to be taken when I need its capacity, but left behind when all I need is a phone for emergencies and checking in.
One drawback to opening a second account that's with a new carrier: I couldn't use Verizon's delightfully perfect transfer software, and therefore I don't have all my contacts and email addresses and phone numbers in my Jelly. Anybody I call, I have to know their number and enter it, laboriously, by hand.
But I'm a tough guy. I can cope with it.
No, I'm not a tough guy at all, I'm whiny and lazy and I still only have a couple of numbers entered in my phone because my blunt fingers keep missing the exact spot where the digit or letter I'm aiming at is located and I keep giving up because I don't have anything worth saying to anybody, anyway.
But I still recommend this phone -- as a pure phone and as a kind of smartish phone as well. Or a full-fledged smartphone if you have skinny fingers and good aim.
You can get it in black, white, or baby blue (the color of my wife's Fiat); the protective cases come in the same colors. The armbands, for serious runners and walkers, are all black. The phone is $124.99. The cost of connecting to a service provider is up to them, and depends largely on the plan you want to pay for.
The other night I was browsing through late-night offerings, fighting insomnia (but not very hard), when I came across a 2008 Angelina Jolie movie called Wanted.
The premise is that Wesley, an unhappy office worker (James McAvoy), is "recruited" by a Fraternity of assassins because, unbeknownst to him, his father had been one of them and Wesley is assumed to have inherited some of his superhuman abilities.
I started watching in the middle of his training, which was indistinguishable from being tortured on 24. Because McAvoy, Jolie, and character actors Terence Stamp and Morgan Freeman were giving superb performances, I set my TiVo to record the rest of it while I kept channel flipping.
I finished watching it the next day and found that it was quite enjoyable. I had no memory of ever seeing it promoted back in 2008, but apparently it was a modest hit, grossing $341 million worldwide on a budget of $75 million. So maybe you're among the many who already saw it.
I didn't, and so I'm telling other people who, like me, completely missed it nine years ago: This is Angelina Jolie at her butt-kicking best, and we get to see a view of McAvoy that's a lot more interesting than his fair imitation of Patrick Stewart in the more recent flashbacky X-Men movies.
Since he made Wanted long before he was in any of the X-Men sequels, this might well be the first time most of us saw him, or at least knew that we had seen him, since his biggest roles before Wanted were as Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and roles in Becoming Jane and The Last King of Scotland.
After Wanted and before any X-Men movies, his most notable role was as the voice of Gnomeo in Gnomeo & Juliet. At least he was working.
There's a lot of brutality in Wanted. But it's nothing we don't get on TV fairly regularly, so what matters here is the story, the plot twists, the characters and their relationships. From what we see of his prior home life, Wesley probably would have been better off even if his basic training by the Fraternity had killed him.
If the violence doesn't throw you off, and you like cool plot twists and believable reveals, it's worth catching Wanted. None of these actors will ever be this young and vigorous again, because only Tom Cruise is going to live forever with almost no visible aging.
The Christmas season approaches, and we're continuing the tradition of offering some of my books, signed and personalized to your gift recipient, through our Greensboro Barnes & Noble. This spares you and me the need to attend a single book signing on a certain day, and you don't have to wait in any lines longer than the checkout line at the bookstore.
Becky Carignan at Barnes & Noble will even take remote orders, which they will then ship anywhere in the U.S. She'll stop taking out-of-town orders on 11 December, but local orders can be placed as late as 18 December of this year.
Remote buyers will pay the actual shipping costs, but there's no charge to local customers beyond the ordinary price of the book.
We don't offer this with every title -- just a few that Barnes & Noble orders especially for this purpose and keeps on hand until the end of the Christmas buying season.
Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of any particular title:
-- My just-released book, Children of the Fleet, a sequel to Ender's Game.
-- Hardcovers of Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and the new edition of War of Gifts.
-- Hardcovers of the Mithermages trilogy: The Lost Gate, The Gate Thief, and Gatefather.
-- Boxed sets of hardcover or trade paperback editions of the YA trilogy Pathfinder, Ruins, and Visitors. We will remove the shrink-wrap so I can sign all three volumes to the person you specify.
If you're a local customer, just stop in at Barnes & Noble and ask for the book or books you want from this list. They'll charge you for it, take your information about whom it's to be signed to, then hold it till Monday when I come in to sign it. Once it's signed, they'll phone or email you so you can pick it up.
If you're ordering remotely, email the store at email@example.com and let them know the titles you want, the names you want them signed for, and the address to which the books should be shipped after signing. Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you to get credit card information (we don't want you including credit card info in emails!).
This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble only. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.
Remember, the last day to order locally will be Monday, December 18th; the last day for remote orders will be Monday, December 11th.
In addition, signed (but not personalized) copies of many of my books can be ordered directly from my own online bookstore at Hatrack.com -- including my Christmas book Zanna's Gift, which I think may be the best story I ever wrote. Give us a look at http://www.hatrack.com/store/store.cgi
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com