The Origin Key Launch Event

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Russell Newquist and Susan McPhail

My first novel was published and we threw a party! Here’s a gigantic THANK YOU to Terranova’s Italian Restaurant, family, friends, and everyone who came out and helped make it a fun event!

On Friday, August 12 we were at Terranova’s Italian Restaurant in Huntsville enjoying fantastic food, signing books, and giving away prizes. Russell Newquist of Silver Empire Publishing was there with me, getting to know some local sci-fi/fantasy fans.

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Cecilia Della Pella was excited to be one of the first in line to buy a copy of The Origin Key. Later in the evening she won one of the drawings and received a lovely writer’s journal. Other winners went home with copies of the book, an Amazon.com gift card, or a journal.

The winner of the grand prize—a copy of The Origin Key, a copy of Between the Wall and the Fire, a writer’s journal, an Amazon.com gift card, and a signed poster of The Origin Key cover art was Terranova’s own Stephen Johnson!

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If you weren’t able to join us at Terranova’s, don’t worry! You can get The Origin Key in either paperback or e-book format on Amazon.com. Want a signed copy? Look for me at the Southern Author’s Expo at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library downtown branch on September 10. Start your holiday shopping early and get a personalized copy of my sword-and-science fantasy adventure novel for all the readers on your gift list.

OriginKeyCover_lo-resThe Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure like no other. Prince Rasteem, a third-century Persian warrior, discovers an obscure culture that uses something more powerful and dangerous than magic: twenty-first century technology.

 

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End of Watch

Image_square_webby Susan

2012, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez. Written and directed by David Ayer.

Who are you willing to take a bullet for? Why? The action is an adrenaline-inducing rush while the relationship between Taylor and Zavala is the emotional core demanding that you care about these LAPD officers as they put their lives in danger day after day after day for the public good.

Here’s the thing about End of Watch: you might think it’s just another buddy/cop movie, maybe even a really good one. After you’ve seen it, you understand that it is so much more. Like writer/director David Ayer keeps saying, it’s really about the relationship between the two guys who happen to be police officer partners. Personally I kept thinking that for officers in a city like LA, particularly in the kind of neighborhoods they patrol in the movie, their experience is more like being soldiers at the front lines of an ongoing, never-ending war with crime. The intense violence and nearly wall-to-wall profanity will be highly offensive to some, but it’s all real to the time and place and characters. Ayer is showing us truth and unfortunately those things are part of it.

As we witness the special and unique bond between brothers and sisters in arms we get to know how much they are risking on a personal level and yet they don’t consider themselves to be heroes. It’s all just a day’s work for them that ranges from ludicrous to gruesome to deadly. They will take a bullet for each other, each would lay down his life to protect the other. Each feels responsible for the other’s safety. There are many vivid and intense moments in this film; I heard people gasping in shock in the theater long before the end.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena are 100% believable as cops (as are all the other actors). Their five months of training for the roles did more than prepare them to play the parts, it helped transform them into cops for 22 days of filming. This is not just another cop movie, or just another gritty action movie, or just another buddy movie. This is a movie about what it’s really like for hard working family men and women to heroically protect and serve the public in a very dangerous place.

The movie feels amazingly real thanks to the documentary style in which it was filmed. To tell the kind of story David Ayer wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it, this was the only way it could have been filmed. Using a handheld/documentary style of filming gives it a sense of realism that is vastly different from the way movies are normally shot. Ayer gives us a perspective that puts the viewer right in the action as if you are on a ride-along with those two officers. I didn’t find it to be distracting or overly shaky or annoying like a lot of “found-footage” movies have been. When the style of filming switched to a more traditional point of view, it was so seamless I was not even aware of it at the time. It was later as I was thinking about my experience of watching the movie that I realized there were some scenes that had not been supposedly captured with phone cameras or surveillance videos or as part of their job. Ayer shows some particular genius in being able to craft this movie to achieve that goal.

Yes, there are lots of things about this movie that are Oscar-worthy. Two of them are the performances by Gyllenhaal and Pena. Go see it. And after you do, the next time you see a police officer, thank him or her for their service. It’s the absolute least you can do.

A full bucket of popcorn!A full bucket of popcorn!A full bucket of popcorn!

Rating: THREE Buckets of popcorn, a large soda, box of Milk Duds, bag of peanut M&Ms, large nachos with extra cheese, plus a couple of hot dogs. Then reload and go back and see it again.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1

Image_square_webby Susan

2011, Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Lautner. Directed by Bill Condon. From the book by Stephenie Meyer.

I think it was about four years ago, more or less, when I started hearing about a book entitled Twilight. It was enthusiastically described to me as a story about a family of vampires and the human girl who is attracted to one of them. “Oh, vampires, right. That’s a theme that finds renewed popularity every few years,” I said.

“But these vampires are different! They are good, and only drink the blood of animals, and try to coexist peacefully with humans, but they have to keep it a secret that they are vampires.”

“Yeah… I guess that’s fairly different. What’s the latest on the next Harry Potter movie?” I was, and still am, a devoted fan of the Boy Wizard. Of course, the Harry Potter movies were magnificent but the books are stupendously better than the movies.

Ignoring my attempt to change the subject, the TwiHard continued. “And they SPARKLE in the sunshine! And they are practically the only GOOD vampires in the world! They’re really, really old but they still look like teenagers because they don’t age after becoming a vampire so they go to high school over and over again. And this one guy – the really cute one – can read minds.”

They never age so they keep going to high school for eternity? Now that’s a living hell on earth, for sure, I thought. Wait a minute – “They sparkle in the sunshine? And actually enjoy being in high school forever?” Something about the weirdness of sparkly teenage vampires had captured my attention, so I borrowed the book to find out what the big deal was all about. I have to admit that it was a very interesting read, a totally new take on the old vampire theme. The only problem for me was all the angsty teenagery stuff that dragged on interminably. I know the target age group for the Twilight books is tweens and teens, but the first couple of Harry Potter books were for children and they were simply enchanting.

So I shouldn’t be trying to compare apples to oranges. What Twilight has in common with Harry Potter is that they are both a series of books that have been made into movies. Twilight must be evaluated on its own merits, such as they are. After reading the first book, I was ready to dive into the next one. And then the third and the fourth. Native American legends of shapeshifters, sparkly vampires, teenage love triangles, ancient evil vampire Mafioso, the lure of eternal love – these elements were cleverly interspersed with the angsty teenagery stuff in a way that made me want to know how the story would unfold. I think it could have unfolded quite nicely with about half the pages it took to fill each book, but that would have entailed losing most, if not all, of the angsty teenagery stuff that apparently is a big selling point with the books’ target demographic. (I can’t help it if I find it increasingly difficult to get in touch with my inner fourteen-year-old. I am much more comfortable with my inner twenty-four-year-old.)

I have read all four books in the original series and have also seen each of the movies. I admit that it was as much out of curiosity about how the story would be presented in film as anything else that prompted me to see the movies. I further admit that the Twilight movies, collectively, were not a bad translation of book to screen. If anything, the necessity of paring down the story to its essential elements for a movie was an improvement. The angsty teenagery stuff is still there, but not overwhelmingly so.

Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 1 is the first half of the fourth book. In this installment we are treated to a wedding, a honeymoon, an impossible conception, dissension and mutiny within the ranks of the shapeshifters, a birth, a death, and a re-birth as Bella says good-bye to her family, her humanity, her heartbeat, and any desire for a great salad ever again. Some of the material as presented in the book seems so corny it was difficult to imagine how it could be Hollywoodized without coming across as silly at best and just plain stupid at worst. Kudos to Bill Condon and his cast for pulling off the near-impossible and delivering a beautifully filmed movie that stays true to the book without devolving into an oversimplified, maudlin mess of angsty teenagery absurdities.

What I liked best about this movie: the intentional and appropriate humor interspersed throughout. What I was most annoyed by in this movie: the tendency to present scenes with the Cullens posed as if in a static tableau where they collectively looked either “concerned” or “anxious” or perhaps “bored.” The one thing in this movie I would most love to have a logical, or at least plausible, explanation for: if vampires have no bodily fluids, how did Bella get pregnant?

I had read the book, I knew what to expect, and I was still entertained by what I saw on the screen. I’m very happy for all of my diehard TwiHard friends who waited in line to see it at midnight when it first opened, and have seen it several more times already. They are extremely pleased with the movie, noting that the wedding scenes were perfectly gorgeous, the honeymoon scenes were perfectly romantic, and the pregnancy/birth scenes were perfectly gross and intense. The only complaint I have heard so far is that Taylor Lautner did not have sufficient bare-chested scenes. Now let’s please have the final movie – Breaking Dawn Part 2 – so we can move on to the next huge moneymaking book-series-turned-into-movies craze.

Rating: Double Serving plus a pound of Red Twizzlers

Anonymous

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Rhys Ifans, Vanessa Redgrave, and David Thewlis. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by John Orloff.

William Shakespeare may not have written all those plays and sonnets and what-not that have his name on them? I have to admit I never gave it much thought. Apparently, others have.

I am a big fan of several Roland Emmerich films, namely: Stargate, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 10,000 BC, 2012. Every time I start listing Roland Emmerich movies, I almost forget about The Patriot, which is not all that surprising as it doesn’t seem to fit in the longer list of sci-fi/fantasy/doomsday features. So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed on the coming attractions last summer that Anonymous was directed by Mr. Emmerich. In one way it makes perfect sense – recreating Elizabethan England in glorious detail with CGI must be a little bit similar to creating alien invasions or bringing herds of woolly mammoths to life. But how does anyone go about making an entertaining movie that postulates William Shakespeare was a fraud? I mean, isn’t that the kind of thing you find on “Preposterous Stories and Conspiracy Theories” on cable TV?

The previews looked pretty interesting and my curiosity was piqued; if old Will Shakespeare didn’t write all those works attributed to him, who could it have been? Besides, I would enjoy seeing that time and place brought realistically to the big screen. So I made plans to see it with two friends, one of whom was adamantly insistent that it would be a terrible travesty, a blasphemous defamation to even suggest that Shakespeare’s works were not his own. I agreed that it was a pretty far-fetched theory, but it could make for an interesting movie nonetheless.

The movie was not only very good, it was riveting. It’s a political thriller centered around the issue of succession – who would assume the throne after Elizabeth I? The intricate complexities of court intrigue were at times a bit difficult to follow (the extent of my knowledge of that period of history comes more from seeing a handful of episodes of The Tudors and the occasional History Channel special than any real scholarly pursuit) but I managed to not get lost. The issue of succession was so critical to so many rich and powerful people that some would not stop at murder to gain the outcome most favorable to them. What does any of this have to do with who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Manipulation of the popular media for political purposes! For an illiterate populace, seeing stage plays was frequently more than just mere entertainment; it was a means of communicating ideas about the current political climate and information about people in power. Emmerich’s Anonymous suggests that the true author of the works in question used certain plays with specific themes to make statements about corruption in high places and to rouse the citizenry to action.

My skeptical movie companion was unswayed by the end of the movie and is still a devout believer in William Shakespeare being the true author. She thinks the movie was horrible. I disagree – not about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works, that’s absurd! I think it was a pretty good movie with great performances. Don’t think of it as revisionist history, think of it as an alternate reality. Either way, we still have those wonderful plays and sonnets and what-not that were written by a real genius.

Three boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Triple Serving 

In Time

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol.

Let me start by saying that I have a weakness for thought-provoking science fiction movies that are well executed.

Imagine a world where someone has figured out how to capture, add to, and delete from the remaining time of any individual’s natural lifespan. There is no money; anything that can be bought or sold is traded in terms of time – a few minutes for a cup of coffee, a couple of hours for a bus ride, decades for a car. Generations of genetic engineering means no one physically ages past 25 but once you turn 25, you have only one year of free life left.

The poor work every minute they can as soon as that clock starts ticking down to replenish their lifespan time. Most live at a basic subsistence level with barely more than 24 hours left to them at any given point in a day, so they run everywhere they go performing tasks as quickly as possible. They cannot afford the luxury of simply taking a few minutes to enjoy their family or savor a peaceful moment. Conversely, the wealthy have accumulated so much time they can live for hundreds of years – and never look a day over 25. It’s a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer because the rich control the price of everything the poor need to buy.

Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one of the hardworking poor. So far he has managed to survive 3 years beyond his 25th birthday when he suddenly becomes the beneficiary of a gift he didn’t ask for; a century of time from a man who had tired of being one of the idle rich and wanted to die. At first Will wants a taste of what he’s never had; a glimpse of how the 1% live and the opportunity to experience it for himself. It isn’t long, though, before Will is identified as an imposter in the wrong time zone. Having all that time makes him a threat to the system that allows the very wealthy to live forever and keeps the poor too busy with basic survival to question why the system works the way it does.

Justin Timberlake is very good as Will Salas and Amanda Seyfried does a nice job in her role as the rich girl who may be just bored enough to seek out a little adventure. The way the plot unfolds is pretty standard as a nice young man gets caught up in a situation not of his making and must survive by his wits while he drags a pretty girl along with him. What elevates this movie above just another formulaic ho-hum predictable thriller wannabe is the idea that time has replaced money and everything – from the food you eat to the clothes you wear to the apartment you rent – is valued in time. (This is a very entertaining and original sci-fi movie, but not superior to Source Code. If you missed Source Code in a theater, see it on disc! Director Duncan Jones delivered a Hitchcockian thriller with a mind-blowing premise that will have an observant viewer pondering possible alternative outcomes for a very long time.)

The creepiest aspect of In Time is that there is not a single person who looks older than 25. Everyone appears to be young and healthy as if the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon has grown to encompass the entire globe. But this is no Shangri-La where peace and harmony are valued above all else; when money doesn’t exist, what do greedy people seek to accumulate? What will they do when a Robin Hood-style champion of the people starts taking time from the rich and giving it to the poor? After seeing this movie you won’t be able to use the phrase “living on borrowed time” without thinking about an entirely different meaning.

Three boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Triple Serving 

Real Steel

by CosmicTwin3

 

2011, Hugh Jackman, Evageline Lilly, Dakota Goyo. Directed by Shawn Levy.

When you see this movie I dare you not to think about the iconic plastic robot boxers that baby-boomers go into fits of nostalgia about. You know the ones – Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. “You knocked his block off!” The plastic “athletes” were operated by plastic controllers consisting of joysticks equipped with thumb-operated plastic plunger buttons at the base of the plastic platform. Each of their boxing matches lasted an average of about 5 seconds. Every time I ever played with one of these things as a child it seemed that one of the plastic boxers was at a serious disadvantage due to a faulty spring in his neck which caused his head to pop up a nanosecond after the other robot came within a whisker of hitting him. In a primitive way it was a foreshadowing of the dawn of video games where the player controlled all the action on a TV screen with a joystick and/or buttons and winning was more about thumb speed and dexterity than anything else.

Fast forward a few decades into the not-so-distant future and imagine that the concept of surrogate boxers has evolved into a system where sophisticated robotic opponents controlled by master video game players pound each other to pieces – literally. No human fighters are at risk of injury but the desire to see anthropomorphic machines bob, weave, throw punches, and take a beating is every bit as entertaining and possibly even more lucrative than when humans squared off against each other in the boxing ring. The World Robot Boxing league features championship fights in dazzling state-of-the-art arenas and there is also a thriving underground of down-and-out has-beens who fight local favorites for rent money while bookies make a killing.

Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is a down-and-out has-been former boxer who takes his well-worn yet serviceable boxing robot to local small-town venues making barely enough money to survive one day at a time. Always wagering against impossible odds, he has gotten himself into so much debt that numerous threats have been made against his life. After a spectacular defeat that leaves him with no robot and no options, he learns that he is to be the sole caretaker of the son he hasn’t seen or been in contact with in 10 years. Charlie, prepared to quickly sign over custody of the boy to a loving aunt, sees an opportunity to make some fast cash and then abandon him yet again. But Max, his son, has a different idea.

While the two search through a scrap heap for enough spare parts to bolt together a fighter, Max stumbles upon a discarded, outdated robot that he drags home. Charlie insists that the bot is too small and underpowered to fight effectively, but Max, every bit as stubborn as his father, is determined to prove otherwise. The pair embark on a journey that starts with the robot exhibiting some surprising talent that, with a little luck and a lot of heart, just may take them to the pinnacle of success. Along the way the two get to know each other, the pretty lady in Charlie’s life gets to impart her special words of wisdom, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

This film can be described as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots meets Transformers meets Rocky Balboa, but that would be selling it short. Thanks mainly to Hugh Jackman as the cynical underdog who never quite reached his full potential as a boxer, the story unfolds in a refreshing, stylish, exciting, and engaging way. The special effects are spectacular, as we have come to expect, and the human element is not missing here as it was from Transfomers; in this one the robots mirror the personalities of their owner/operators, so we come to see them as a team. Real Steel is tried-and-true action-packed family entertainment that is highly imaginative, exceptionally well-acted, and well worth seeing on the big screen.

Two boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Double Serving with a full box of Milk Duds

Trollhunter

by CosmicTwin3

2010, Norwegian with English subtitles. Directed by André Øvredal, stars Otto Jespersen, Robert Stoltenberg and Knut Nærum. Original title: Trolljegeren.

“Why problem make when you no problem have you don’t want to make?” The ultimate government cover up?

Filmed with hand-held and sometimes shaky cameras, this is the story of three college students who set out to do a bit of investigative journalism and end up discovering a terrifying truth. Does that remind you of some other movie – The Blair Witch Project, perhaps? I’m wondering when Blair Witch became a genre all its own when I wasn’t looking. No matter – back to the review…

It seems there is a wild bear problem and the three intrepid students are determined to get to the bottom of it. When they arrive to interview the government-sanctioned and licensed legal bear hunters, there is some controversy about a mysterious hunter with questionable credentials. Who is this guy and why is he so weird? Recognizing a potentially interesting story when they see one (or perhaps just hoping for something less mundane than bear hunting) the trio begins stalking the mystery man to find out just what he’s up to. His beat up old camper and bizarrely outfitted truck offer no explanation for his nocturnal forays into the wild.

The kids are persistent and refuse to give up their pursuit of The Truth, whatever that may be. When they follow the mysterious hunter into the woods one dark night, they find out the awful, horrific reality as they come face-to-face with – a troll. Trolls are big, mean, and scary. Really big, really mean, and really scary. The three students, appropriately freaked out, get a crash course in troll-ology from the Trollhunter. Turns out that not only is he the only government-sanctioned and licensed trollhunter in Norway, it is a super-secret, classified job because the government denies the existence of trolls. When one gets out of hand, the trollhunter is sent to kill the rogue monster and wipe out all traces of its existence. The government then provides a more or less plausible explanation, complete with manufactured evidence. It’s a nasty business – literally – with ravenous randomly rampaging trolls exploding or turning to stone, depending on various factors.

How can all the various types of trolls – and there are many – be kept out of sight and limited to remote areas? More importantly, what has happened to cause a “troll outbreak” that has made the lone trollhunter exhausted, irritable, and more frustrated than usual about the red tape and paperwork associated with his government job? Can the three neophyte journalists keep up with all the action and remain unscathed? Why does it matter if any of them is Christian? What begins as a freaky adventure with a “You’re not going to believe this!” quality gradually develops into a harrowing struggle for survival. Along the way we are treated to some truly inspired storytelling and absolutely mind-boggling special effects that elevate what might otherwise be just another B-grade monster movie to an absorbing visual spectacle.

The filming style is a direct descendant of Blair Witch, but is neither as annoying nor tedious as that one was because the shaky camerawork is not done to excess. The moments of absurdity and humor sprinkled into the mix feel completely natural, as does the crew’s initial bewilderment and then growing terror. Woven into the narrative are some priceless references to fairy tale images of trolls, particularly a sequence involving a bridge and some goats. I’m sure I must have missed some Norwegian culture-specific in-jokes, but I don’t care. The realism of the CGI trolls is reason enough to recommend this one, but the story is also original and well told. Come for the trolls, get a kick out of the whole package.

The rights to this movie have been bought by Hollywood and an American remake is in the works. I don’t know how they could improve on the original, but I confess that I would like to see it without having to read subtitles. I don’t ordinarily mind subtitles, but this time it detracted a tiny bit from the total absorption in the movie I could have experienced otherwise. Also, it would have been even better in a theater instead of at home on Blu-ray, but we must make do with what is available. If the remake doesn’t go overboard on the special effects, keeps the action in Norway where it belongs, and delivers just as fresh and entertaining performances from the main characters, it could have potential. My advice is to see the Norwegian version first. Then you’ll have a leg up on all those poor unfortunates who won’t realize that the American version is an imitation of an original.

Two boxes of popcornCosmic Twins rating: Double Serving (plus a handful of M&Ms)