Friday, June 12, 2015

McFarland, U.S.A.

by Al Kessel

Disney makes a LOT of true life movies. Movies about real stories that inspire, uplift and just make you feel good. Sometimes though, they put one out that REALLY delivers on all of those things. McFarland, USA is one of those movies that delivers, and in a big way!

A little synopsis before I go much farther: McFarland USA is the story of Jim White, a high school teacher and (at first) football coach. Seems Mr. White can't hold on to a teaching job long enough to get tenure - he's passion and no-nonsense attitude tend to get him...well, replaced, often. It's 1986-87, and now Mr. White is making one last move (hopefully) to a small town in Southern California called McFarland. A VERY small town, with a very large and rich Latino culture.
Kevin Costner as Jim White
As Coach White attempts to fit in as a football coach, he butts heads with the head coach and winds up being asked to step down from the assistant coaches position. However, as he's watching some of the mis-assigned players, he notices something: they're fast. VERY fast. So he hatches a plan to create a cross-country running team and pits his runners against some of California's best. Of course, it's not an easy task at first. He encounters a great many obstacles - teens who need to prioritize family needs above the needs of an ambitious track coach. Of course, there's a GREAT deal more to this movie, but you get the picture. We URGE you to see it for yourself.

McFarland Cross-Country's 1st Competition
Like I said, this movie is based on a true story. A very inspirational story of underdogs triumphing over tremendous obstacles. Underdogs who refuse to quit, even in the face of very bad odds. A veritable David and Goliath story. This heartwarming drama follows (very) novice runners in a predominantly Latino high school, who learn as much from their new coach as he does from them. In true Disney fashion, McFarland, USA tells the story through both sets of eyes, and everyone learns about the power of family, commitment and compromise. 

Academy Award Winner Kevin Costner (Dances With
Maria Bello and Kevin Costner
Wolves, The Untouchables) stars as Coach Jim White and does a fantastic job of bringing White's passion for his team to the screen. Maria Bello (Prisoners, Duets), plays Cheryl White, Jim's wife, Morgan Saylor (Homeland) plays Julie White, their teenaged daughter, and Carlos Pratts (Paranormal Activity) plays team captain Tommy Valles. The cast all seemed to mesh together quite well, and it's kind of easy to visualize them as the actual people they portray. 

Carlos Pratts as Tommy Valles
When we first heard about McFarland, USA, I'll admit I didn't think it would be very good. Yeah...another sports movie about underdogs...but, about RUNNING?! I'm VERY pleased to admit that I was wrong. Very wrong. McFarland, USA is one of the more underrated movies of the year, and (in our opinion) well worth a watch. Of course, some facts were changed a bit for the movie, but the overall theme of the story, and the actual event outcomes remained the same. It really is a 'feel good' movie. In fact, you could even call it the Rocky for runners! :) 

McFarland, USA is available on Digital HD, Blu-Ray + Digital HD and DVD. Bonus Features include:

  • Digital HD, Blu-Ray and Digital HD combo:
    • McFarland Reflections (a nice featurette that takes us on a visit to the real town of McFarland)
    • "Juntos" Music Video
    • Inspiring McFarland (meet the REAL 1987 McFarland team)
    • Deleted and Extended Scenes
  • DVD
    • "Juntos" Music Video
    • Inspiring McFarland
Although the movie is long, (129 minutes), it moves pretty fast and there's really no 'filler' scenes. Throughout the movie, we felt like we got to know the characters well enough to actually care about them. But, that's kind of what Disney does best, right?
The real Jim White and his winning team
All in all, McFarland, USA is a surprise hit, and a truly heartwarming, inspiring film. Joyce and I both loved it a great deal, and, on the 're-watch' meter, it's a definite YEP! We BOTH give McFarland, USA TWO thumbs up!! 

We'd love to know YOUR thoughts on the movie. How about sending us your review/thoughts to 

 - Al 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

2015 Phoenix ComiCon

by Al Kessel

WAY back in the dark ages of 1970, comic store owner Richard Alf and publisher Ken Krueger organized a three day celebration of comic books they called San Diego's Golden State Comic-Con. What started in a basement with a mere 300 people attending has turned in to a world wide phenomenon with hundreds of thousands of attendees dressing up to look like their favorite comic book/sci-fi/fantasy character.

Ok, enough of the history lesson. Over the weekend of May 28-31, 2015, Phoenix, Arizona played host to the 14th annual Phoenix Comicon, and Joyce and I were lucky enough to get our hot little hands on a couple of media credentials for this wild, crazy and geeky extravaganza!  Let me tell ya' was a different kind of experience for us.

Now, before I go any further, I need to tell you that although I am a self-proclaimed Sci-Fi geek, I've never, ever been to a ComiCon in my life. Ever. I'd always been curious, but never went to one. So, on a whim, we decided to apply for media credentials earlier this year and to our amazement...we were accepted. 

Being our first year and all, we decided to go slowly. With that said, we only covered two days (May 28-29), because of various reasons. So, we decided to take the first day and check in, get our credentials and then just kind of scope things out. Being the first day, things were kind of slow, not a great deal going on, not too many attendees (which was kind of nice really), but still enough to see to give us a taste of what was to come. 

So, after checking in and kind of looking around a bit, the first panel we attended was 'The Dark Side of Doctor Who', which I thought was to be about, you know, the dark side of our favorite Time Lord. And it sort of was...sort of. The panel consisted of five 'Whovian's' (Dwayne Plain, Jesse Canfield, Mack Duncan, Matt Duncan [no relation] and Sean Mushro), all of who are 'experts' in one form or another on Doctor Who. The topic was actually the top 10 darkest episodes of the series according to the panel. Which was still pretty interesting. They covered Doctors from the original run and the newer version. The presenters were actually pretty fun and humorous, and all in all, it was a good way to start our ComiCon experience. 
Doctor Who Panel of Experts...

The next panel we saw (and the last actually on Thursday) was Star Trek: The Ongoing Comic and Book Adventures, hosted by David Williams and Ted House. This was a bit more 'out of my league' as I've never really read any of the Star Trek comics, but have read a few of the older novels, and poor Joyce was completely in the dark. She likes Star Trek, but isn't one for comic books, or sci-fi novels. This panel covered the interconnecting story lines between the comics-movies-series-books, and was really interesting. I even won a comic book! Yep, an IDW Star Trek The Q Gambit issue 6, for answering a trivia question correctly. (Let's see if you can too: In the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness, Kirk, Spock, and Uhura take a shuttle craft down to Qo'nos to look for John Harrison (a.k.a. KHAN). From who did Kirk mention he got the shuttlecraft? I'll put the answer on our Facebook page.) There were some pretty interesting things discussed in this panel, like WHY Khan looked so 'white' in Into Darkness, when he's supposed to be Asian; some backstory on Spock, etc. All in all this was another fun panel. 

Winner of the 12 and Under Brain Eating Contest

After the Star Trek panel, we rushed over to the OTHER side of the world...err, of the Convention Center to sit in on some Zombie action. The Brain Eating Contest to be more accurate. To be honest, we weren't sure WHAT this was about, but we figured it would be a lot of fun. And it was. It was a brain eating contest. Well, maybe not REAL brains, but it did look kind of creepy. There were two rounds to the event: Round One consisted of the qualifier. Contestants had to eat dirt as fast as they could - with their hands behind their backs - and the winner would go on to Round Two. The graveyard dirt was actually mashed up Oreo Cookies with some gummy worms mixed in. Round Two was the actual 'meat' of the competition: BRAINS (or Jello with some red food coloring
Winner of the OVER 12 Brain Eating Contest
mixed in and on). First up were 12 years old and younger, and there were three qualifier rounds for this. Once the three winners were chosen, they went head to head (yeah, pun intended) with the Jello. There were pretty cool prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd, all Walking Dead related. Then came the adults, 13 years old and older. This is where the fun started! Same as before, there were three qualifier rounds with the graveyard dirt. But, when it came to the brain eating...they decided to give the contestants a grown-up portion, which looked to be about 2-3 POUNDS of Jello! As with the young'uns, prizes were awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd, again, Walking Dead related. 

After watching all that brain eating, we decided to grab a quick lunch, so we headed outside. Yeah, Phoenix. Remember? HOT!! It was about 103º. Anyway, out in front of the Convention Center there were a few Food Trucks set up, and boy howdy were they busy! And nothing like I remembered Food Trucks to be. I'm used to the veritable greasy spoon, where they served hot dogs, hamburgers and chips. THESE bad boys are all gourmet now. We decided on a truck called Rock-A-Belly, which served soft tacos...excuse me, GOURMET soft tacos. And honestly, they were awesome. Joyce and I both got the 'CASH' plate, which was shredded chicken (white meat...they only serve white meat), with some really tasty sauce and veggies, with a side of homemade tortilla chips. On a scale of 1-5 (1 being that greasy spoon I mentioned, and 5 being CORN DOG'S!), Joyce and I both gave Rock-A-Belly a 5. Awesome soft tacos for sure. However, the price was a little shocking. $10 each. Which, I suppose isn't all that bad, but when you think you're paying for a taco, you're expecting a little....well, less cost. But well worth it. 
Ariel and Eric from Little Mermaid

After lunch, we strolled around the 'Con' a bit more then called it a day. We wanted to make sure we were fresh for Friday....when the REAL ComiCon started! 

Friday. 9:00 am
So...this was the day I'd REALLY been looking forward to. Four panels, back to back, that I was really amped up for. Now, let me pause a moment here. Joyce and I'd been to the Disney D23 Expo (not with Media Credentials, but as fans), and every panel we attended encouraged the use of video and photography. But (and I was told this was the first year for Phoenix to do this), not at the 'Con'. All the 'premium' panels (movie/TV stars) were held on the third floor, in a HUGE room. But they did NOT allow filming of ANY kind. In fact, if you were caught filming, they'd kick you out of the 'Con'. What's more, as far as the Media Credentials were concerned, they gave us absolutely ZERO privileges. None. There were no roped off sections for us, no reserved seating, no special dispensations on filming for our media outlets. Nothing. In fact, IF we happened to be in a spot that the 'official' ComiCon photographers wanted to be in, we had to move. So, this was the one thing that really irked me. (Soap Box Time) If you're going to give out Media Credentials and ask your event be covered in order to help with marketing, publicity, etc, perhaps you should consider allowing them to, you know, COVER the event?! I mean, how can one cover an event adequately from the back of a room? In the future, I'd like to see those awarded Media Credentials just a LITTLE professional courtesy. 
Jim Beaver
Anyway, I asked nicely and was permitted to take my photos from the stage area, which was awesome. It also allowed me to make a new friend. A professional photographer by the name of Robert Cunningham. This guy had all the coolest photography toys! He had one lens that was about 3 feet long! And he asked me if I wanted to use it on my Nikon! Uh...YEAH! Some of the photos of Jason Isaac that I took were with this lens. So Robert, if you're reading this, thanks man!! Super nice guy.

So, back to the story. The first presentation was from Jim Beaver. You may not recognize the name, but you've most likely seen him. He's been in everything from Deadwood to Breaking Bad to Supernatural. Great guy and a lot of fun. He chatted about his roles, (mostly Supernatural), his philosophy on acting, his relationships with his co-stars and took a lot of questions from the audience. While I enjoyed hearing Jim speak, it was really just the 'warm up' for me.
Barry Bostwick, Patricia Quinn and Nell Campbell

Nell Campbell 

Patricia Quinn

Barry Bostwick
Next up was the 'Celebrating 40 Years of Rocky Horror Picture Show', with three of the stars: Barry Bostwick (Brad), Nell Campbell (Columbia) and Patricia Quinn (Magenta). What a presentation THIS was! All three were very funny and chatted with the audience as if we were old friends. They reminisced about Rocky Horror (both the movie and stage production), about favorite roles from their careers and chatted with members of the audience about the 'Shadow Casts' where fans dress up and put on a performance of the movie while the movie is playing behind them. It was very apparent that all three appreciated the 'love' the audience was giving. 
Jason Isaacs
Although I like Jason Isaacs, I wasn't entirely jazzed about staying to see his talk. Don't get me wrong, I do think he's a VERY talented actor, but by this point, Joyce and I'd been in the room for about three hours and needed a bit of a break. Only problem was that they weren't clearing the room out between presentations, so odds were, if you left, you'd lose  your seat. But we decided to take a chance. After the Rocky Horror presentation, we decided to take a bio break and see what else was going on, then return and (hopefully) get good seats for the next presentation. But, after about 20 minutes we decided to head back in, and just head to the front of the auditorium to see if maybe we could get some primo seats. And we did. I had chatted with one of the event organizers and she let us sit in the front row, off to the right of the stage. That way, I was able to spend a LOT of time at the stage taking photos. And this is when Mr. Cunningham lent me his monster camera lens. We're both (Joyce and I), glad we decided to return, because Isaacs was actually a very interesting person. He chatted a LOT about his role as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, how he truly enjoyed
Jason Isaacs with the MONSTER lens!
working with the 'kids', and even borrowed a Lucius Malfoy cane from someone in the audience, to use as a prop to tell his story about the filming of the end scene with Dobbie (the house elf) in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Seems that for this ending scene, he felt Lucius should have a memorable parting line, and the director agreed and allowed him to ad-lib as he departed. So, as he delivers his line and turns to walk away, he starts
Isaacs and Malfoy's cane
throwing his arm around, kicking at the air and swinging his cane. When asked what he was doing, he said that he kicked Dobbie, smacked him then thumped him with the cane. The director liked it so much, they kept it in the film! So, that ending scene was actually ad-libbed by Jason Isaacs! 

Then came the reason I was even interested in covering the Phoenix ComiCon! Edward James Olmos. I've been a fan of his for a long time, and was thrilled to get the chance to not only hear him speak, but to actually cover it! Once again, we stayed in the room so as to hold on to our great seats. Now, if you don't know who Edward is, you've probably heard of some of the stuff he's been in. He was (most notably)
Edward James Olmos
Commander William Adama in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, his roles in Blade Runner, Miami Vice (the original series) and perhaps his most acclaimed role as Jaime Escalante in the biopic Stand and Deliver. Mr. Olmos took the stage for about 15 minutes solo, and instead of monologuing then opening up the floor for questions, he decided to start taking questions right away, then tell stories as he went along. His passion for acting and for Latino rights was very evident and not in a combative way. He's more about everyone being equal then about raising the level of one over another. He was also very supportive to the few fans who expressed the desire to get into acting and asked for advice. His best advice: 'Don't Quit. Ever' He was also asked about what he did before acting, and he replied with baseball! He wanted to be a baseball player, but soon gave that up in favor of 'rock and roll'. He was even in a fairly successful band, back in the day. He regaled the audience with stories of Jim Morrison (from the Doors), before he was the icon he became, and how he taught Morrison some of his more infamous dance moves. 

Mary McDonnell
After about 15 minutes, he was joined by his Battlestar co-star Mary McDonnell (who played President Roslyn and Adama's love interest) from many, many film and TV appearances, like Dances With Wolves, Independence Day, Donnie Darko, TNT networks Major Crimes and The Closer. Ms. McDonnell was just as entertaining as Mr. Olmos, and it was very easy to see that the two are very close friends. She also took questions from the audience about her roles, her acting career and her
McDonnell posing for me
political beliefs. She's a very opinionated (her word) woman and has the facts and confidence to back up her words. She, as well as Olmos, chatted about the incredible impact that working on Battlestar Galactica had on not only them, but everyone who worked on the show and watched the show. Both actors were very likable and extremely supportive and encouraging of the fans. In fact, several Latino fans told Edward how influential he was to them as a role model, and he was visibly moved by their words. 

After the Olmos/McDonnell presentation, we decided to 'free style' for the rest of the day and just explore the Phoenix ComiCon. We ventured down to the 'lower level' of the Convention Center where the Exhibitor Hall was. THIS is where all the fun happens! All the vendors you could imagine were set up down here, and this is where most of the cosplay action took place. They also had a pretty cool Star Wars area set up, with sets where you could take some fun photos, a Zombie Containment area and lots and lots of Sci-Fi geekery for sale. We met Thor, Groot, Star Lord, quite a few Doctors and T.A.R.D.I.S.'s, Jedi's, Carl (from UP), Spidermen and many more. 
Doctor Who, T.A.R.D.I.S and Doctor Who
All in all, for our first ComiCon ever, it wasn't a bad experience at all. For all the chaos that was happening all around, the folks at the Phoenix ComiCon seemed to have a pretty good handle on everything. Things seemed to run pretty smoothly, and at least we didn't witness any rudeness or rowdy guests. In fact, I honestly have to say that for the most part, everyone there (event hosts and attendees alike) were all very pleasant and cordial. All the cosplay folks were great at posing for pictures and did so in an awesome way. The only thing that we weren't crazy about was the way those of us granted Media Credentials were treated. Like I said earlier, all we were basically, were folks who got in to the event for free. Although in the many emails sent to us prior, we were informed there would be an opportunity to request interviews, nothing ever developed from that. I'm sure that next year, we'll request credentials once again, only next time, we'll request one extra so we can cover as much as possible. So, before I wrap this up, I want to say thanks to the folks who run the Phoenix ComiCon for granting us Media Credentials, and for putting on a pretty great event. With well over 75,000 guests attending the 4 day event, they pulled it off pretty flawlessly. For our first venture into this unique and fun filled world, it wasn't too shabby! 
 Live Long and Prosper

Carl from Up
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