What’s Space Opera, Doc? How “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” fits into the subgenre

Since people first looked up at the stars, they dreamed of traveling amongst them. Not knowing what they were or what it all meant, there was always a sense of longing to explore the glittering abyss of space. And as imaginations raced, they were quickened and informed by advances in science and an understanding of the world around us. Soon, science fiction was born, and within that a subcategory of these fanciful tales of epic battles and ships piloting the galaxy; it was called “space opera,” and it’s the basis for some of pop culture’s most sustaining works of the 20th century. “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series and Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” works all explored different facets of the wonders held in the cosmos. As people prepare to re-enter the cosmic fray with the latest massive space opera, James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” it seems a fitting time to look at what a space opera is and how a centuries-old subgenre is still captivating audiences’ imaginations.

For all of its pervasive appearances throughout the years, the definition of space opera is an oddly elusive one. It certainly is a subset of science fiction, taking place in a reality closely related to our own, albeit with interplanetary travel and usually alien species interacting in some ways. The term was first coined back in 1941, a play on the derisive parlance “horse opera” used for melodramatic westerns. However, space opera stories appeared as early as 1854, depicting people navigating strange new worlds with unheard of technology and encountering different life forms in an adventure with space travel as the backdrop.

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Blu Tuesday: La La Land and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“La La Land”

Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was my favorite film of 2014, so the bar was set pretty high for his next project, a loving homage to the big, bold and colorful musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age featuring two of today’s brightest stars. Thankfully, “La La Land” is every bit as enchanting as you’ve heard. Though it doesn’t have the most original story, the movie gets by on the strength of its delightful musical numbers and the irresistible charm of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who radiate the kind of old-school glamour that feeds into the film’s nostalgic spirit. For a movie about chasing your dreams in a town known for crushing them, “La La Land” is surprisingly optimistic until its bittersweet end, providing the kind of Technicolor escapism that the world needs more of these days.

Extras include an audio commentary by writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, over an hour of behind-the-scenes featurettes (including a look at filming some of the musical sequences) and much more. FINAL VERDICT: BUY

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Midwestern Mayhem: Why the “Fargo” TV series is vital and brilliant

William S. Burroughs once wrote, “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.” It’s a bold, if apocryphal, reading of the undercurrents of the country but not without its merits. The United States has always promoted and touted the greatest ideals for humanistic liberty and morality in the history of the world. However, that rhetoric is at odds with the practical reality of a country divided by prejudice, greed, self-interest and ultimately craven violence. The dichotomy between the ideal and the actual creates a moral spectrum on which people fall depending on their own beliefs and actions, and it’s also the main theme of the best television show currently airing in the U.S.

Based on the incredible 1996 film “Fargo” by the Coen brothers, FX’s TV series of the same name uses that movie (and indeed the entire Coen filmography) as a jumping off point to deliver some of the best mixture of dark comedy, horrific violence and complicated characterization since “Breaking Bad” went off the air. Spearheaded by executive producer Noah Hawley and his team of writers and directors, the show has used the same snowy setting of the Coen Brothers’ movie over the course of two seasons (and another currently airing) to examine what happens when the chaotic and the orderly clash, and how people gravitate to one side or another in the midst of a moral maelstrom. By taking on such a weighty topic, usually only as a theme or undercurrent, Hawley and company deliver a fascinating and unique look into a world slightly removed from our own but nonetheless existing as a funhouse mirror of the country’s own muddled soul.

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Movie Review: “Free Fire”

Starring
Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor
Director
Ben Wheatley

“Free Fire” is the idea that hits someone 12 hours deep into a Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie movie marathon. “You know what would be cool? It’s like paintball, but with real guns.” And to be fair, that is an interesting framing device, but when everything that follows has been done several times before, the device loses its charm rather quickly. This would explain why the film felt like the longest 85-minute film ever made. It’s interesting, but maddening, thanks in large part to a threadbare story structure, underwritten dialogue and next to no character development.

The story is set in Boston in the late ‘70s, where Ord (Armie Hammer) is serving as an intermediary in a weapons deal between career criminal Frank (Michael Smiley) and gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) in an abandoned warehouse. The guns that Vernon brings to the deal are not the ones that Frank’s main man Chris (Cillian Murphy) requested, making a tense negotiation worse, but the deal blows up when Vernon’s driver Harry (Jack Reynor) shoots Frank’s junkie son-in-law Stevo (Sam Riley) in retaliation for something that happened the night before. Everyone runs for cover and the battle lines drawn, but they’re all trapped in the warehouse with no easy way out. To further complicate matters, two snipers begin shooting at both parties from the rafters, at which point everyone realizes that they’ve been double crossed by someone on the main floor.

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Blu Tuesday: Split and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.

“Split”

Contrary to what some people have suggested, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film isn’t much of a comeback at all. Instead, it’s yet another case of the premise being better than the final product. A psychological thriller that’s largely devoid of actual thrills, “Split” owes much of its success to James McAvoy, who gets a chance to flex his acting muscles as a man with 23 distinct personalities. Though we only see a handful of them in action, each one is so unique (from their voices to their mannerisms) that it’s amazing to watch as McAvoy jumps back and forth between them, sometimes in the same scene. Unfortunately, Shyamalan’s inability to get out of his own way prevents “Split” from fulfilling its full potential, despite a killer last-minute twist that will excite fans of his early work.

Extras include a making-of featurette, profiles on actor James McAvoy and writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, an alternate ending and deleted scenes. FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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