Monday, June 30, 2008

Feedburner Killed, Blooger News, Fractional Teachers and Whole Babies

I killed that Feed Burner widget.

It gave me something like 3 hits total in the past several months. I never saw anything on it that looked interesting, either.

There was some hyperventilating on the right-wing sites that Google was shutting down Blogger.com (Google + Blogger = Blooger?) sites that expressed a negative opinion about Presidential nominee Barack Hussein Obama. Turns out it was some Obama activists.

The 'net has always operate on the honor system, which is why blaggards have always thrived on the 'net. Since some political philosophies abhor (deny, really) the notion of objective reality, this means a lot of sites are trashed by political operatives. There's something akin to the "tragedy of the commons" at work.

I imagine, though, that this is at work in all civilizations. Each corrupt part working to serve its own perceived ends, either minimizing in their minds the damage done or rationalizing it as "everyone does it" , all believing that they, themselves, share no responsibility for the downfall of society.

That said, the wingnuts do need to dial it back a bit. Google's leftist leanings and justification for China notwithstanding, the idea that they'd lock down opinion sites for being such while claiming it was due to spam is a little far-fetched. Google was just the gun, 'twas the moonbats what pulled the trigger.

Meanwhile, it turns out that American kids are bad in math because their teachers are bad in math (Malkin). No big surprise. That was going on when I was a kid, though it was well hidden: Not being able to do math or write a sentence with proper grammar was a source of humiliation.

It may turn out that shame does serve a useful purpose after all.

Meanwhile, it's filtered down to my level that the seventeen girls who got pregnant in Gloucester made their pact after getting pregnant, and the pact was to help each other get through school. If true, it doesn't mean that there's no problem, just that the problem is different from the one initially expected. (I do love all the speculation about why it would be done deliberately; are those things null and void if they all turn out to be accidental? And, seriously, where on the bell curve does the population sit?)

We live in interesting times.

More on Full Frontal Male Nudity

Besides the pointy breast thing and the review of Traci Lords bio whorishly titled "Traci, I Love You", the other big hit I get is on full frontal male nudity (FFMN for short).

To which I can only say: What the hell is wrong with you pervs?

FFMN is for comedy purposes, and it has to be an organic thing. One simply shouldn't be trolling the internet looking for it!

I'm s'prised I have to explain this to you people.

What kind of blog do you think this is?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hats Off, Gentlemen! A Genius!

I haven't blogged anything about George Carlin's demise because, really, where do I get off? Arguably the greatest comedian of a generation, and easily the most professional stand-up since the days of Vaudeville.

I mean, he did (by my count) 12 HBO specials in the past 30 years, with virtually all new material every special. 12-18 hours may not seem like a lot, but find a comedian who's done more. And Carlin's TV credits go back over ten years further, and I'm pretty sure that was after a decade or more of uncredited work.

The dude was polished. Even if you didn't like the material, his style was undeniable.

And yet, it can be hard to watch a lot of those shows. The older he got, the angrier he got. The gentler parts of his routines vanished over the years.

I suppose some would argue that his political statements were what made him "important", insofar as he was, but it seems to me he was at his most brilliant in his whimsical and absurd moments. And when he summed something up about human experience, like the stuff/shit routine and "Everyone driving slower than you is an asshole. Everyone driving faster is a maniac" bit. When he brought us together, in other words.

His political statements--well, to be fair, his most overtly political statements were deliberately crude and dismissive. He saw himself as above those things.

But his socio-political "arguments", if you want to call them that, were crude in the sense of being at the level of an angry 13-year-old. The perfect role for him was as Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smith's Dogma, since the "arguments" in that movie are pretty much at the same place. (And I love that movie, but much like a Carlin routine, it's best when it's making with the funny, and very weak when the philosophy comes out.)

Even then, though, his delivery was brilliant. And if you agreed with him (see clap humor), his show was great. He was better--and more subversive--than both, because he phrased things in such a way that you often wanted to agree with him.

Another funny thing about Carlin was that, while liberals are often accused of loving Mankind and hating people, Carlin seemed to hate Mankind and love people. That is, his schtick--particularly in the last years--was geared toward how horrible Man was, yet in describing his travels he had nothing but praise for the people he met (cf. Michael Moore).

Regardless of your political orientation, it's hard to deny the man's craftsmanship and dedication. The only comparable figure I can think of is the late Johnny Carson--and he was on hundreds of times a year for decades, and never had any forbidden words to fall back on.

I won't say "Rest In Peace" because that would've just pissed him off. And I sure won't make any comments about heaven. I'll just say, "Hey, how's death working out for you?"

Shame he can't answer. I'm sure it'd be hilarious.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Conversations From The Living Room, Part I

[Robocop is on.]

"Paul Verhoeven loves him some co-ed locker rooms."

"Oh, did he do that...you know...that movie...I want to say A Bug's Life..."

"You mean Starship Troopers?"

"Yeah! That one!"

"Yeah, he did."

Pizza & Programmers

In an article over at CIO, Esther Schindler wonders about the magic of pizza (and a few other food items) in getting programmers to work overtime. There are some noteworthy things about this.
  1. I should probably be reading CIO more.
  2. Esther, who's an old pal of mine, is both seriously cute, and seriously technical.
  3. Actually related to the article: Programmers and other IT geeks love what they do.
Right now, what do I do? I design and code software for various purposes, and build special purpose Set-Top Boxes for people (like TiVo on steroids).

If I had all the money in the world, what would I do? Deisgn and code software for various purposes, and build even cooler STBs for people. I'd probably work the content angle harder, too--besides super-powered media devices, people need ways to get unfettered content--and that takes a lot of money, or at least more than I have. (For example, I could build or buy a cable network. That kind of money.)

But the point is, I'd be doing almost exactly the same thing that I'm doing now. It's like Office Space: "What would you do if you had a million bucks? Apart from two chicks at the same time." I'd need about two million, I think, what with the family to support, but maybe with the investment stuff I've learned I could get by on less. (Heh. Get by on less than a million? Can't be done!)

I know programmers better than other classes of Information Technology types, and I've never known one worth a damn that didn't spent considerable amounts of their free time working on other (non-work) projects.

To give you a personal example, I was heavily into music in my teens and early 20s (as many of us are), and played guitar, keyboards, etc. I also wrote a program that allowed me to create musical scores. This was before there were many of these, sure, but even now, I might pick up one of the modern tools and dislike something about it, and my reaction would be to write my own. That's what programming geeks do.

I waxed a bit on D&D in an earlier post this week: I can't tell you how many D&D related programs I wrote in my youth, other than "a lot".

In my martial arts years, I wrote a program to manage tournaments. It was awesome. Anyone who's ever been to a karate tournament in particular, and probably most sporting events, knows how poorly organized they are. My sensei told me to slow things up because I was moving people through so fast, there wasn't enough time to sell them concessions (which is a big revenue generator at tournaments).

This really isn't all that unusual among craftsmen. I have a friend who's a master woodworker. He might go to Ikea to pick up a lawn chair, if he really doesn't care about it. But most likely, he's gonna build what he wants, exactly as he wants it, to exactly suit his needs. That's what he does.

So, back to the pizza point: Basically, we're going to be coding because that's what we love to do. But we don't like to be taken advantage of any more than anyone else, though we're probably less aware of it. Little, consistent gestures, such as pizza, sodas, snacks, oddball breaks--other stuff I outline in my CIO article--all tend to reflect an appreciation.

There's an ego issue, too. We all have war stories. Overtime is part of the culture, and if you're being productive, is its own kind of bliss. Think not of teamsters for whom overtime is an excuse to bump the paycheck, think of Michelangelo slaving over the Sistine Chapel. I once stayed at a job, ooh, eight months longer than I knew I should have because I wanted to finish the project.

There was huge, huge stress in my life as a result. I ended up out of work right about the time the tech bubble burst. Hell, I ended up in court as a result. But I'd been nursing some ideas about--well, something really, really technical--and had designed all kinds of theories around this thing, and I was just so, so close to testing them out.

This led to some of the worst times in my life and yet, if I had to do it all over again, I might just.
I ended up proving to my satisfaction the feasibility and limitations of the ideas, and developed a system that was gratifyingly high-performance and low-cost. (Smarter now, I hope, I'd probably just ditch the whole situation and applied the theories elsewhere.)

Note Google's extremely clever "free day". A job where I'm encouraged to pursue some wild hare? Oh, yeah!

So, it's not a really big mystery. It's just the threshold for getting geeks to work overtime is lower. You can get a lot of mileage handing out cash, and raises and bonuses (bonii!) sure don't hurt, but pizza can make the office a nicer place to be, without necessitating budgetary oversight, etc.

Two things execs don't understand about geeks: 1) What they do or can do, so they often just completely misuse them; 2) That they love doing it, and really need oversight the other way. (At Melissa & Doug's toy company, for example, they pretty much make you go home at six, I'm told.)

I've made the comparison before to musicians--you can almost always get musicians to work for free food--and it's apt. Although, of course, musicians are more likely to actually be starving.

Futurama: The Beast With A Billion Backs

Along with the new Cinematic Titanic, Matt Groening, David X. Cohen and company have released the second of the Futurama movies this week.

Massively disappointing.

I had trouble staying awake.

It's gorgeous, aside from a few weird animation artifacts (out-of-synch dialog, e.g.) and the premise is reasonably amusing: The tear in the universe created in the previous movie Bender's Big Score has allowed a large, tentacly universe-monster to invade us.

The opening is great, too, featuring a "Steamboat Willie"-style rendition of the cast, and there are a lot of amusing ideas. But I didn't laugh. None of us laughed. I got a couple chuckles. And it seemed like it went on and on and on.

Also, one of the characters is killed and we all knew they'd bring him back, which they did in a not particularly interesting way. One of the funniest gags was the recycled Bender "dropping" bricks joke. There was no music, which is okay, but...where were the jokes? I mean, yeah, there's the smelloscope, the Wernstrom rivalry, the squishy Kif, etc., but we've seen these gags many times before, and they only elicit smiles at this point.

Also, while one could argue that the last movie was overly sentimental, this one involved the population of the universe falling in love with a creepy tentacle being (voiced by David Cross), which is sort of alienating. So, no yuks and no emotional attachment = boredom.

Sigh. Ah, well, time to re-watch The Doomsday Machine.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cinematic Titanic Sinks Again! The Doomsday Machine

Update and bump: See the comments for more information on Rifftrax, which I may have misrepresented in my description. Conor from RT sets me straight.

So, I finally
got the DVD for the latest Cinematic Titanic experiment. I so wanted to go to the live show which was playing at the Ford Theater here, but the tickets sold out lightning fast. With any luck, the fact that they're recording nearby will mean that they have more live shows in the area.

What's especially cool about this one, delayed though it be, is the sense I got that the CT crew was actually listening to me. Well, not just me. (Hey, why not just me? I'm the god! I'M THE GOD!!!) But I suspect some others had similar complaints and they responded.

To wit: The show opens with the five cast members (Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu and Mary Jo Pehl) silhouetted, as before, but now with their picture underneath briefly as they speak. It's a little thing, but it helps.

The sound mixing is awesome. That whole problem with MST3K, where you had to crank up your TV just to hear the movie and the riffing, then got blasted by a commercial--okay, you don't get blasted on the MST3K DVDs, but there's still a lot of noise--that's just plain gone. I don't know if I mentioned it last time, but this time was even clearer, if that's possible.

And Mary Jo Pehl just comes alive on this feature. I was somewhat concerned on the first episode. She didn't seem to have much riffing time. In this one, she scores more than a few good shots.

Finally, there's a backstory of some sort. There was just a teaser for it this time, but it seems as though our five heroes have been snatched by future people (in the future!) and are watching bad movies to...uh...save the earth or the space-time continuum, or somesuch. This provides a pretty good setup for a "Thunderdome" joke--and, by the way, forced perspective works wonders when you're dealing with silhouettes--and will, I think provide more opportunities for insanity in the future.

I mean, as fun as the movie riffing is, one of the problems that occurred during the original show is that the movies are so bad, you literally start hoping for some sort of break. And with no commercials, the only breaks here are when they stop the movie to discuss something.

That aspect, by the way, of stopping the movie to discuss things worked way better this time.

This movie was one of those movies. Not all of it. It starts out deliriously goofy. The opening scene is, I'm sure, from a completely different movie (a Japanese spy flick?), and then, about 10-15 minutes before where a good movie would have had its climax, it once again goes to a completely different movie.

What actually happened was that the movie was filmed in the late '60s, ran out of money, and then resumed shooting five years later, with none of the original actors. I'm not making this up. The movie just grinds to an absolute, merciless halt. The riffing is inspired, but it's still hard to watch.

One of the all time greatest MST3K episodes was based on Manos: The Hands of Fate, which was similarly hard to watch. I had to see it several times before the pain stopped and I could learn to laugh--and love--again.

This kind of raises an issue I have maintained for years: That it's equally easy (if not easier) to riff on good movies. Riffing on Citizen Kane, for example, would be hilarious. I think Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy, and some of the other MST3K guys do that on Rifftrax. (They've got Alien, 300 and The Sixth Sense, for example, up there.) I've never used Rifftrax because it seems too complicated and it's got "digitial rights management" (DRM). Yeah, just what I need: A computer to tell me I don't have the right to watch what I've just paid for.

Also, confronted with quality movies being riffed on suddenly doesn't seem as interesting in practice as it sounded in theory. I don't know why.

In any event, there's the sheer joy of the low-budget film watching. The cardboard tombstones, the lizards being shoved into tiny models, or, in the case of this movie, the high-school gymnasium converted to serve as the inside of a very small spaceship. Said spaceship itself taking the form of five different models during the movie.

Rambling aside, this is a strong episode. It opens fast and funny, has some callbacks to familiar friends ("Don't ever look at me!!"), works well with the new set (like Josh reacting to being "splashed" with water, or walking off the set to be replaced with a completely different actor), and just plain feels right. The real problem they're going to have is keeping up with my expectations.

And CT assures me it won't be four months till the next one, so, yeah: Life is sweet.

Return of the Pointy Breasts

Given that the #1 source of hits on this site persist in being the pictures of Faith Domergue and Janet Leigh--poor Carole Landis can't get no love--and the phrase "pointy breasts" or "pointed breasts", I thought I would continue into this fascinating anthropological phenomenon.

Submitted for your approval: Clare Grant

Clare Grant is a relatively little known actress whose website pictures focus on her beautiful and haunting eyes. You can see a particularly breathtaking shot at this photographer's site which hints at...well, the conical glands that are the focus of so much internet interest.

But we don't have to guess (and a Google image with safe-search off will reveal) because the lovely Ms. Grant appears more or less starkers in the second season "Masters of Horror" episode, "Valerie on the Stairs". (You can find those pix on the web if you're so inclined as well.)

One of the things the MoH series does well is bring back that kind-of-erotic-but-mostly-creepy nudity that made VCRs so popular in the '80s. Ms. Grant's loveliness is contrasted with her demon-sex-scenes in the Clive Barker tale of writers' imaginations gone amok. It's an okay episode of the generally less interesting second season, but it's made infinitely more watchable by this young actress.

EDIT: Shortly before I posted this, someone actually did surf here for the Carole Landis picture! But Leigh and Domergue are battling out for the majority of the hits. (I refuse to make the obvious rhyme here.)

Genghis: The Wonder Years

So the second foreign-language Oscar nominee (for last year) rolled around to the local movie house, the Russian flick Mongol, based on the life and times of all around party animal Temujin, better known as Genghis Khan.

KHAAAAAAAAAAAN!

Sorry. Where was I? This is actually more like the first movie in a new superhero franchise, or "The Motorcycle Diaries" for the Oriental set. It shows Temujin from his troubled childhood--where many try to kill him and he is often alone on the Mongolian Steppes--right up to the point where he unites the hordes.

Now, some object to this film on the basis that ol' Genghis was a ruthless warlord. But I don't recall the same objections to "Alexander". Hell, the French are fond of flattering portrayals of Napoleon, and he was much more ruthless and a far worse ruler in his short time than the Khans were.

But we don't hear much about that. Let's face it, the Mongols conquered a whole bunch of people, and raped if the modern DNA evidence is to be believed, and quite a few people haven't gotten over that. So where Alexander, Caesar or even Xerxes or Darius may be portrayed in a positive light, we're not likely to ever here anything nice about Temujin.

Or, weren't until now.

This movie shows the Khan as a semi-reluctant leader, or at least one who was more interested in hanging out with his wife and kids than leading an army, and who unified the hordes to impose some order on the increasingly lawless Mongols.

Sure, why not? All mythical leaders do that, one way or the other.

He's a tough bastard, we're shown that. At the same time, he's curiously attached to his wife, whose attitude is, shall we say, mercenary when it comes to protecting him. Attached? He's downright progressive vis a vis her relations with other men.

It's an interesting angle, and the movie is full of such angles, along with magnificent cinematography, fine acting and a gorgeous cast (particularly Khulan Chullun, who plays Temujin's wife, Borte, and might actually be Mongolian). The action scenes are well done and well shot, meeting with The Boy's approval, but be forewarned, this isn't really a movie about Temujin's conquests. (Two other movies are planned to cover that.)

What that means it that the two hour running time has some lags and some repetitious feeling. Temujin is captured more than Robin. There's a lot of schlepping, like one of the Lord of the Rings movies, only it often seems even more aimless. The narrative has the Khan alone for most of his early life, without followers or much status. A lot is done to emphasize that.

The movie won me over, but it's not for the impatient, and could use 20 minutes trimmed off. So far, I'm inclined to believe the Academy went the right way giving the Oscar to Die Falscher. But I will be looking forward to the second installment.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Kung Fu Panda Express

The Flower wanted to see Kung Fu Panda and, though The Boy had resisted it, he came along with us. We had dinner out first which is always fun. I'm not sure why, except that my kids are very polite and also really enjoy it, but it's just a blast to take them out. The Flower didn't even eat anything, but she colored the menu and did the word search.

The movie itself? Well, Dreamworks is about the only studio that can hold a candle to Pixar in terms of animation quality. They're also real hit-and-mostly-miss as far as story goes. (Sorry, but while I've enjoyed the Shrek movies, they're horribly clich├ęd and don't really stand the test of time. They're too busy being hip.) KFP is similarly shallow--though not as tragically hip--but with some excellent choices made that buoy it up well past the usual kiddie fare.

The artwork is truly exquisite. There's a wonderful blend of more typical CGI with a heavy eastern influence. Mulan did this well, too, but it's more in-your-face here. And it works, even though this is a light comedy film, there's no attempt to convey "wackiness" with the artwork.

The story concerns a panda named Po, who works with his father (a duck!) in their ancestral noodle house, but dreams of being a kung fu master. Not just a kung fu master but the kung fu master, revered by the Fighting Five. (Of course, rather than just adhere to certain fighting styles, the Fighting Five actually are the animals of those styles: tiger, crane, mantis, monkey and snake.)

Predictably, he is the kung fu master and just as predictably, he struggles through training until he blah blah blah. You know the drill. Not really the point. Every one of these movies (like this year's Forbidden Kingdom) has to have a transformation scene where the hapless would-be kung-fu-er finds his strength in some (hopefully meaningful) way, and this movie's approach is quite amusing and clever.

As is the whole movie. Jack Black is eminently likable, as usual, and the jokes and action were good enough to keep The Flower from too much fidgeting.

I, of course, spent the whole movie going..."Who is that?" I identified Dustin Hoffman (the master, some kind lemur-like creature) and Seth Rogen (as the Mantis) right away. Oh, and James Hong, the 50+ year veteran of TV and film, of whom everyone says "who?" when I say his name, but "Oh! That guy!" when I mention that he was on "Kung Fu" or in Big Trouble In Little China, or any of literally hundreds of other shows and movies. Wayne Knight and Michael Clarke Duncan were instantly recognizable as well.

Ian McShane ("Deadwood", the evil tiger in this movie), I couldn't place my finger on. David Cross (who was the Crane) drove me nuts, as his voice is very familiar, and I'm a big fan of "Mr Show". I don't even recognize women's voices, honestly. Dunno why, but I didn't place Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu or Laura Kightlinger at all. (OK, Kightlinger doesn't have a lot of lines but I used to watch her on "Stand Up Stand Up" in the '90s all the time.)

Anyway, with the exception of Black--and Hoffman does all right, though he's soooo restrained and it carries through--everyone else is disposable and feels like they got their parts out of a grab bag. (Isn't that what they do now? Put a bunch of celebs' names into a hat and say, "Who shall we pick for this role?") Don't get me wrong, they all do well, but they all could've been scrambled and put in different roles, too.

But not the Jables. Don't believe me? Check out Along Came Polly sometime. Philp Seymour Hoffman is basically doing Jack Black. And while PSH is a fine actor--well, that's what he is. Jack Black has star quality: Whether or not he can act is a separate issue, and PSH doubtless has the greater range, but if you're going to be a disgusting slob, as in Along Came Polly, you better bring the charisma, too. They oughtta reshoot that movie and digitally put Black in there.

Similarly, this part requires a completely sincere expression of highly nerdy enthusiasm that is more lovable than off-putting, and JB is one of the few guys who seems to actually have that in him. A complete unselfconsciousness. He throws a role to his Tenacious D bandmate Kyle Gass and maybe had something to do with David Cross being in the show, since Mr. Show was a big part of JB's climb to glory.

But I digress. Ultimately, this was a funny, fast-paced and beautiful flick I won't mind watching again. (That's the greatest thing animated film producers can do for parents: Make movies that don't make you want to stab your eyes out on multiple viewings.) Unlike Dreamworks' other stuff, I think this one may hold up.

Even The Boy enjoyed it, and thought they struck the right balance between too serious and too silly.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"So, what else is on your mind?

Besides 100 proof women,
90 proof whiskey
and 14 karat gold?"

"Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph."

That's Burt Lancaster responding to Lee Marvin in Richard Brooks' The Professionals.

This movie came up on one of Trooper York's "Best Westerns" threads, and it's underrated on IMDB with a 7.3.

TCM is doing a "tough guys" thing tonight. Previous was Seven Samurai, next up is The Dirty Dozen.

Lee Marvin really wasn't someone I thought much of growing up, probably because we seemed to forget how to make the sorts of movies he was good in. (Delta Force and The Dirty Dozen sequel, e.g.)

This is such a man's man's movie, that there are only two women and both are built like brick houses. Claudia Cardinale, of course, who smokes, smoulders and pouts so well, you almost don't notice she has an awful heavy Italian accent for a Mexican girl, and Marie Gomez, who does a great job as the girl who never says no. She was nominated for a Golden Globe as "Most Promising Newcomer" but her career never took off.

I guess 'cause of the glut of gorgeous large-breasted hispanic women in Hollywood in the '60s and '70s.

(The Boy thinks it was too slow. The action parts were great but too far in-between.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Who is the tall dark stranger there?

Maverick is his name.

(h/t Ace of Spades.)

I'm not voting for McCain. McCain/Feingold cinched that for me, and it didn't help that later McCain said he'd take corruption-free politics over the First Amendment (as if that weren't paradoxical).

Also, the Reps need to be spanked hard. Spanked until all the old-school pork-eating, we-had-ten-years-to-reform-things-but-preferred-lining-our-pockets, let's-do-something-about-nothing neurotic, psychoitic pig-headed politicians (apologies to John Lennon) fall are shook loose.

I've been hearing the various partisans on Althouse talk with complete certainty about which is bigger: The pissed off Dems or the the pissed off Reps, and I don't know. Someone over there said it was liberating to not like either candidate. I suppose that's true, but since I've yet to really like a serious Presidential candidate, I don't find it all that free.

Victory!

I've got THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE! courtesy of EZTakes.

Took about an hour once they got their act together. Gonna burn it and watch it tonight!

Yee-haw!

Peer Pressure

Seventeen Gloucester High students are expecting, and nearly half of them said they made a pact to get pregnant, according to an explosive Time magazine report published online yesterday.

The shocking revelation came as 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears, former star of Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” gave birth to a baby girl.

Mmmmm. Yeah, that's good education! (h/t "Red Eye".)



Thursday, June 19, 2008

EZTakes: Not So Easy?

I've managed to create an account over at EZTakes after a couple of hours of being shut out.

But the new Cinematic Titanic project isn't available "temporarily".

C'mon guys! Surely you saw this coming!

Rejected Film Category #1: Best Head

You know, you'd think you could make a pretty good category out of "best disembodied, talking head", but if you have to struggle to come up with ten films to fit the category, it's not that good.

I came up with: They Saved Hitler's Brain, The Thing That Couldn't Die, The Brain That Wouldn't Die and Re-Animator. I'm on the fence as to whether Wizard of Oz would count (I think not, since it's not a real head), and also disinclined to count Jason X and Alien, which both feature severed talking heads, but robotic heads. Oh, an Hayao Miyazaki uses a lot of floating heads, but that's animation and they're spirits so I don't count those either.

Re-Animator wins this hands down, as the severed head is not just talky, it's in control of its own destiny, and is a pervert.

Second place goes to They Saved Hitler's Brain, just because they don't just save his brain, they save his entire head, and a darling head it is. It sneers, glowers, wiggles its moustache, and also seems entirely in control of its own destiny, which is pretty impressive for, you know, a head in a jar.

On the TV show "Futurama", they have guest stars (and generate other plot devices) by storing everyone's head in a jar. All the US Presidents, for example, are in jars. The entire cast of the original "Star Trek" (and John Frakes of TNG) are in jars, Pamela Anderson's head is in a jar, Claudia Schiffer, Lucy Liu, Al Gore, etc.

On the commentary for the DVD, someone asks him where he got the idea and he said something to the effect that "it's a common sci-fi device."

If it's so common, I ask, where are all the disembodied head movies? The only actual head-in-a-jar movie I can think of is They Saved Hitler's Brain, and I never once read any SF with that as a premise.

Anyway, Trooper York is already hard at work, I suspect, creating more good movie categories.

We shall see who walks away from this battle with his head in a jar.

Cinematicus Interrupticus

Cinematic Titanic episode 2 is out: The Doomsday Machine!

I'm going to try downloading it this time rather than getting the DVD mailed. In my household, it's just more sensible to have digital versions of everything.

Right now the EZTakes service is clogged with traffic--from CT, I would wager.

Stay tuned!

First they came for the nazis...

And I did nothing,
because Nazis are assholes.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…”

I stumbled across this post from Althouse--the premise of which I agree with--but which contained the above quote: “Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…” My response was:

What? No! The Golden Era of Science-Fiction was steeped in optimism. It was gritty sometimes, and foresaw many unpleasant ends, but the underlying principle was a faith in technology to help man conquer time, death, etc. You could debate the roots of SF, that Verne and Wells and Gernsback were more agnostic but that’s more complicated. They’re certainly not dystopic in the modern sense.

Movie sci-fi was much the same way until post-”2001: A Space Odyssey” (which itself is far from dystopic). Yes, there were alien menaces, but they were conquered by heroic man and his gigantic human brain. Dystopia became fashionable in the ’70s and “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max”/”Road Warrior” had the advantage of being stylish and cheap to evoke, especially the latter.


The change in attitude was so drastic, that by the '80s series "Star Trek: The Next Generation", an exasperated Gene Roddenberry had to write--well, let me quote Ed Driscoll:

Almost 20 years ago, I remember buying an early version of the guide handed out to writers on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s. In order to prevent another round of episodes where Evil Computers Run Amok and the heroic captain of the Enterprise must destroy them, Roddenberry inserted a passage that reminded his writers that the crew of the Enterprise aren't Luddites: technology is what got them into space and keeps them there, so avoid writing anti-technology screeds.

Ed has his ideas about what caused this, but it's interesting to note that the series didn't stop with the anti-technology and humans-are-evil memes to its ending day. I seem to recall one of the last episodes being about how warp-drive technology caused damage to the physical universe.

Conceptually, this is as amusing as global warming, raised to an infinite power. (Space, it seems, is really, really big. Damaging it would seem to be problematic.)

A late Ray Bradbury story, "The Toynbee Convector" is actually a perfect analog to what science-fiction (at least during the Golden Age) was meant to do. Basically, John Campbell and a bunch of writers felt that the only thing they could do to keep Man from destroying himself was turn his attention outward, to the conquest of the nature and the universe.

Some dystopia is, of course, quite good. The classics (Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) are good reading, for example, based on some fairly sound observations. E.g., what we now call "Political Correctness" was identified by Bradbury decades ago, though he mistook the form it would take. (He also describes iPods and cell phones pretty well, though they seem so much more sinister when he did it!) 1984 stabs at a similar totalitarian control, from the angle of a Soviet-style state. And Brave New World is not entirely unimaginable, though horribly, I could see it evolving at a social level. (Not just people all wanting to have super-babies, but people wanting their children to be just like them--including having all their limitations.)

But, as I've mentioned, I'm particularly hard on dystopic visions, particularly post-Apocalyptic ones. I found Haldeman's recent book to be interesting, for example, but he leveraged some heavy-ass technology to explain his world. A good dystopia has you wondering about human nature. A bad one has giggling or thinking maybe the author has an axe to grind, like Handmaid's Tale. A good one extrapolates reasonably from observable human characteristics (the desire to no be offended nor to give offense, as in Fahrenheit 451, a bad one works backward from some creepy setting and makes a statement about Man's general bad-ness, as in Children of Men, where the end portrayed doesn't follow logically from the bad circumstance.)

But I digress. One of the reasons dystopia is so common is that it's easy. It's the science fiction equivalent of "clap humor". Make a dystopic future where religious fanatics have taken over, or men are oppressing women, and you'll get readers believing you're soooo profound and have such a good grasp of things.

In any event, the perversion of science-fiction into a shopping list of all the ways we might fail is just that: a perversion.

"Clap Humor"

I use this term all the time but I guess it's not really that common, or obvious in meaning.

"Clap humor" is an ostensible joke that isn't really funny, but which expresses a sentiment with which the audience agrees. They laugh, but they mostly clap. Stand-up comedians will do lame local humor, knowing that people will clap out of recognition. Over the years that I've watched him, I've seen David Letterman do essentially the same fat jokes about Oprah, Roseanne Barr and Rosie O' Donnell. Or, you can take any political joke and substitute today's politician with the original:

A man died and went to heaven. As he stood in front of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he saw a huge wall of clocks behind him. He asked, "What are all those clocks?" St. Peter answered, "Those are Lie-Clocks. Everyone on Earth has a Lie-Clock. Every time you lie, the hands on the clock will move." "Oh" said the man. "And whose clock is that one?" "That's Mother Teresa's. The hand have never moved, indicating that she never told a lie." "Incredible" said the man. "And whose clock is that one?" St. Peter responded, "That's Abraham Lincoln's clock. The hands have moved twice, telling us that Abe told only two lies in his entire life." "Where's [whoever]'s clock?" asked the man. "[Whoever]'s clock is in Jesus' office. He's using it as a ceiling fan.

Other ones include such classics as "He said he killed the pig" and "God doesn't think he's [blank]".

The thing about "clap humor" is that it's easy. You just set yourself up with a particular audience and rely on their agreement to get half your job done. It is, to some degree, a fair tool in the comic's toolbox, but it gets old fast, and you have to not care about alienating people.

Categories for 10 Best Lists

I was going over the "10 best" categories on AFI and thinking it would be more interesting to list "10 best" categories in a more narrow sense.

For instance, they list Back to the Future as one of the ten best sci-fi movies, but to paraphrase Woody Allen, how do you compare that movie with Star Wars?

"Time-travel comedy" would be a better category. Star Wars would be "space opera". Annie Hall--the movie that Allen was talking about when rejecting the Oscars in '77--isn't easily comparable to Philadelphia Story. Allen's films are more "New York Fetish" or "neurotic comedy", almost a sub-genre unto themselves.

Of course, movies can be in multiple categories. Beauty and the Beast is under "best animation" on the AFI list but, really, the animation is kind of rough in spots. As "romantic musical" it works much better.

You also need to distinguish between "good" and "historically important", as well. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is historically important, perhaps one of the most important films in history, as it showed that an animated feature was both possible and potentially profitable. But is it good?

I think it holds up pretty well, but I think very little in the original Disney canon--and I've seen them all many, many times--holds up as well as Pixar's output. Actually, even from the new Disney canon, I'd probably only put The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and half of Aladdin (the half written before Howard Ashman died) in there. I find The Lion King pretty bland.

In the upcoming days, I'll try to compose some "ten best" lists (maybe not ten, actually, depending on the genre), that I think might be more fun.

And One More For The Road

It's a quarter to three
There's no one in the place except you and me
So, set 'em up Joe
I've got a little story you oughtta know

We're drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
Make it one for my baby
and one more for the road

I got the routine
So put another nickel in the machine
I'm feelin so bad
I wish you'd make the music dreamy and sad

Could tell you a lot
But you've got to be true to your code
Make it one for your baby
and one more for the road

You'd never know it
But buddy, I'm kind of poet
And I've gotta lotta things to say
And when I'm gloomy
You simply gotta listen to me
Until it's talked away

Well, that's how it goes
And Joe, I know you're anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you don't my bending your ear

The torch that I've found
Must be drowned or it soon might explode
Make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

AFI Top Ten

So, AFI divided up the world of movies into ten categories, and picked the ten best movies in each category.

Yeah, who cares, right? This sorta thing is fun if to dismantle. The problem is that the categories are far too broad. Leading Lord of the Rings to be lumped in with Miracle on 34th Street. 'cause, you know, they're both fantasy.

No horror genre, with three appearances by horrors in the sci-fi category, no thriller or suspense category, no musicals, romantic comedy only (no screwball, farce, etc.), no superhero category (though that'd be a gimme for movies made in the past 10 years, which no critic wants to be seen lauding), no action, etc. etc. etc.

Well, it's all in fun, right? It would be interesting to see someone put some real work into studying genres and coming up with some insights. Things you might not know about famous movies:
  • Hitch regarded Psycho as a comedy.
  • Independence Day, while looking like a sci-fi action thriller, really follows the a lot of the tropes of the '70s disaster movie, and deliberately so. (This is also true of Mars Attacks!)
  • Joe Bob Briggs argues convincingly that Die Hard borrows heavily from the horror genre.
  • Sci-fi can be a very non-descriptive label: Alien is structurally really a slasher flick, Outland is very transparently High Noon, Blade Runner is really a noir detective story, Star Wars is a samuari picture (The Hidden Fortress, specifically), etc.
Just off the top of my head.

Classification can actually be pretty enlightening by making you think about genre conventions and how clever filmmakers can work against your expectations by showing you the trappings for one thing and having a different mechanic going on underneath.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Don't Be Cool.

Trooper York mentioned how embarrassing youthful passions can be in my D&D post, referencing his own comics comments in the Hulk/Marvel comics thread. Which reminded me in turn of advice given by one of my favorite people ever: Don't be cool.

The guy who "gave me my start" in becoming a professional tech writer was Jeff Duntemann, who's been blogging since before it was called blogging. Blogging is as natural a format for him as it is unnatural for me.

Jeff is kind of an alpha nerd. He's not just into tech stuff, he's into life. He's always thinking, building, pursuing, etc. Somewhere on his site is some advice. It's not this, I don't think, but more general advice to young people which includes the aforementioned "Don't be cool." In this case, "cool" meaning "detached, uninterested, un-excitable".

The phrase resonated with me because when I grew up there was some sort of continuum which ranged from "spaz" to "cool". The more excited or enthusiastic or passionate you were about something, the more you were on the "spaz" side--and the more worthy of shunning as a result.

But being a dilettante is easy. People go through life being dilettantes, never seeing the value in a deep, immersive passion.

There is a time for "cool", of course. If the jet you're flying has gone into a tailspin or your house is on fire, being dispassionate can help you operate in a rational fashion.

And maybe the clue is in there somewhere: We admire those who are calm in a crisis, and extrapolate that as though
life were a crisis.

And I suppose there's no Limbo any more, either.

No, this isn't a religious post. But, content warning: It is highly nerdy. Up there with the rare computer programming post I make. But moreso.

The new rules for Dungeons and Dragons came out. I played D&D during my second decade of life, stopping not really because it wasn't fun but because I was busy and the people I played with all went off to college. For a guy like me, fascinated with mythology, lover of gaming and gaming systems, and a prolific writer and cartographer, D&D was an excellent outlet.

Now, truth be told, the original D&D (or Advanced D&D, as it was called, to distinguish itself both from its roots and its cheaper, less time-intensive, and less parent frightening sibling) was not what you would call a great gaming system. Even calling it good is stretching it a bit.

It was, however, good enough. And it was the first to make a splash (and the only one to really make a splash outside of the gaming nerd circle). So it is that D&D is the gold standard by which role-playing games are compared.

A few years ago, Wizards of the Coast took over from the colossally poorly run TSR, and produced a new set of rules, the third edition. In a fit of nostalgic interest, I picked up those books and examined them for what they changed. (Also, I knew The Boy would take to it. Playing D&D was a prime motivator in getting him to learn to read.)

Now, about eight years after the third edition was released, Wizards has released a fourth edition, even more streamlined from the third.

This is not a bad thing, really. One of the things that makes D&D so impossibly nerdy is the stacks of rules and stats one has to manage. The new set of books is somewhat thinner, with much bigger, clearer print, and lots of boldface type. (Partly reflecting the aging of gamers, perhaps? The Golden Age of D&D was 30 years ago, eyes must certainly be failing.)

But here's what prompted this post: AD&D from the start had the concept of alignment. Alignment was the ethical and moral orientation of the beings in the universe. Good and evil, for example, was along one axis. Law and chaos were along the other. Also, you could be neutral along one or both axes. (If you're counting at home, that makes nine alignments.) These were not abstract concepts in the game: There were gods and forces akin to gravity that were associated with these alignments. Changing alignment was a cataclysmic event that could occur due to misbehavior, treachery or magic. It'd be like changing your blood type.

As I've read commentary over the years, "alignment" was always much maligned. Real people, of course, don't have alignments. They have points-of-view. They have goals in conflict with another.

But, what makes fantasy fun, is that there is evil, you can spot it pretty easily, and you don't have to feel guilty about kicking it's ass. Really: Humanize orcs, and Lord of the Rings becomes impossibly jingoistic.

In D&D the system was highly nuanced without being particularly burdensome, and resulted in a most unusual cosmology: The Outer Planes (like Heaven and Hell, essentially) consisted of sixteen different universes populated by beings of a particular alignment. Besides Heaven and Hell, for good and evil, there were such colorful places as Arcadia, representing Lawful Neutral, and populated by ant-like beings of supreme order, Mechanus (also Lawful Neutral), populated by geometrically-shaped creatures known as Modrons, who lived in an impossibly ordered society, or Limbo, the plane of Chaotic Neutral, so unstable as to be populated only by the insane.

These made good potential plot hooks. An entire fantasy realm based on these Outer Planes was created called "Planescape". One of the great computer RPGs of all time was based on it. That game showed that even in the highly artificial structure of a fantasy "afterlife", you could ask interesting philosophical questions. (After all, you couldn't really be killed. You were already dead! Where would you go? Detroit?)

Startlingly, the fourth edition halves the number of alignments, allowing only Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned (that's the half-alignment--it's not even Neutral), Evil and Chaotic Evil. This is sort of the gaming equivalent to the Catholic Church removing Limbo. In fact, it does perchance remove Limbo, since there is no Chaotic Neutral anymore.

Now, maybe it doesn't remove anything. After all, even in previous versions there were more Outer Planes than official D&D alignments (like Neutral Good, but with Lawful tendencies), so there's no saying for sure that those have been removed from the D&D cosmology, and perhaps the streamlining helps in the gameplay. (I'm not far enough along in the rules to tell.)

I can't believe I actually wrote this and am about to post it publicly. I don't even play D&D any more (except a small message board game at kingdomrpg.com). But it was a compelling idea. Check out the Wiki page, where they list the alignments of other fictional characters (some of which I would disagree with). It's up there with "Who would win in a fight against Superman and Batman?" for nerd discussions.

OK, now back to The Movies....

From Sniglet to Smugwit

Via Norm Geras' blog, apparently Rich Hall--whom I honestly didn't know was still alive, much less actually working--has a new series about, um, well, I'm not entirely sure, but seems to be a sitcom about deciding to adopt an Old West ethos in modern day England.

Of course, a lot of us who hear this think, "Yeah, England could use a little rugged individualism about now." That could be biting satire--hell, it could be set in the U.S.A., much less centered around England and Wales. But apparently, no. Quoth Hall:

We're at war with Iraq because some bible-thumping, tongue-tied, pretzel-choking f-ckwit of a president actually convinced enough people he was some kind of Gary Cooper hero come to bring justice against evil folks.

Well, we're not really at war with Iraq any more, and haven't been for a long time. And not to point out the obvious, but, y'know, he actually did bring justice against some evil folks.

He's no Gary Cooper, alas, though sometimes he reminds me of the recalcitrant Mr. Deeds. More often, he's Marhsal Will Kane.

Rich Hall's celebrity, at least in America, is almost entirely centered around the "sniglet", defined as "words that aren't in the dictionary, but which should be". This was a mildly amusing concept that took hold enough in the '80s for Hall to slap his name on a bunch of books which, it must be confessed, were composed largely of contributions sent to him. (I'm pretty sure that's the case, and there's nothing wrong with that. Just pointin' it out.)

But, hey, editing a book like that's gotta be nearly as hard as flying a jet or running the nation.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stan Winston: RIP

Special Effects pioneer Stan Winston faded to black on Sunday at the age of 62.

Along with Rick Baker, he basically defined the pre-CGI makeup/small-scale SFX era of the '80s and '90s.

If you saw either of these guys' names on a movie, there was going to be something interesting to look at. Highlights of Stan's career included the startling gore in the little known Dead & Buried (Jack Albertson's last film?), the disturbing ghost-rape movie The Entity and the unforgettable SFX bonanzas The Thing and Aliens.

His little horror flick Pumpkinhead is under-rated.

He looked a bit older than 62 which bodes ill for those of us who do seem prematurely aged.

RIP, buddy, or at least come back as a convincing zombie.

Troop Gets His Blog On

Trooper York has started his blog up again.

He's got a distinctive voice and blogging locale: A women's clothing store in Brooklyn. You know there's gonna be good stuff going; he's local color defined. He's the kind of guy who can make me think life in NYC might be fun in the right neighborhood. (And while, yeah, I'm in L.A., remember that this area of L.A. was nearly rural--horses and orange groves--when I grew up here, and my inclination is to move further out as development moves in to urbanize.)

Anyway, pop on over and help him get into a groove!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Incredibly, New Hulk Gets It Right

Sometimes I feel like an Ang Lee apologist and I'm not really sure why. Sense and Sensibility was a great film, but it was material that was distinctly suited to Lee's style. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while beautifully shot and quiet poetic was, let's face it, overlong and even rather dull at times. His Hulk movie is a spectacular failure, worth re-watching just to try to figure out why it completely fails to engage.

Sorta like Kubrick, I've figured that you have to be in the right mood to enjoy a Lee film. I haven't really been in the mood since Hulk. Can't say I've been in the mood for another Hulk movie, either.

But you sort of instinctively know that a movie directed by Louis Leterrier (of the Transporter series) is going to be a lot more watchable, just as you surely know that some critics are going to review it negatively because Lee is a darling of the critic set.

Rest assured, however, that this new movie is not just a little better, it's a lot better.

It starts by ignoring the first film completely. The set-up is done in the opening credits, so the movie starts with Bruce Banner on the run in Brazil, trying to find a cure. The first action sequence is actually a foot race with Banner (played by Ed Norton) running from a military squad sent to capture him.

When Banner finally transforms, it takes place in shadows and we never get a clear view of The Hulk. Smart move. The first film's CGI was a definite weak spot, with the Hulk appearing almost weightless and never really feeling integrated with the live portion of the scene.

Later, we do get clearer views of The Hulk and--well, it's CGI, so whaddayawant? But major flaws have been corrected: The Hulk looks to have some real mass, he's not day-glo green, and he's not cute. This keeps the bottom from dropping out on you while you watch it. Even the final battle, which has two CGI characters battling it out in NYC works fairly well, considering.

The story is brisk and clear: Banner is trying to cure his condition, on the run from evil General Ross (played by William Hurt) who just happens to be the father of his girlfriend (Liv Tyler). Meanwhile, mercenary soldier Blonsky (Tim Roth) covets The Hulk's incredible powers, and mad scientist-ish Samuel Stearns (Tim Blake Nelson) might be able to cure--or cause--said powers.

Good, solid comic book fun with a good, solid cast. Hurt's performance doesn't quite measure up to Bridges' in Iron Man, though I did have a similar experience of identifying him by his voice rather than appearance. (He doesn't look so different but it's out of type.) Similarly I've heard some unfavorable comparisons between Tyler and the original film's Jennifer Connelly. I don't envy any actress having to follow Connelly but Tyler has a sort of plaintive look that fits pretty well.

Norton's kind of a sad sack, too, so that works out. Roth is a little scrawny for a super-villain, but they sort of work the fact that he's playing a guy almost ten years younger into the plot. And he does the ambition-driven villain thing well. Tim Blake Nelson turns in a great performance as the mad-scientist-ish guy (though he'll forever be Delmar to me), and he's set up to be a super-villain in a later film.

To top it all off, the action is really pretty good. The Boy approved, and he's a hard-ass about this stuff. The bullets look like they hurt even if they don't harm The Hulk. The movie doesn't gloss over the fact that The Hulk is killing, though it doesn't dwell on it either.

And it doesn't get over serious.

Is it perfect? Well, there's a weird anti-military thing going on, which is just a common '50s and '60s trope. The anti-science thing is a little weirder: Stearns wants to use Banner's blood to create a disease-free world, and Banner's so determined to not have it be used as a weapon, he rejects the notion outright. (How is it that super-scientists are so unprepared for the consequences of their actions? )

This touches on a tangential point that is more stylistic than anything else. I've never read The Hulk (I was a DC kid) but I sort of thought the point was that Banner had a terrible temper. It's an intriguing super-hero concept and a great power-fantasy, best epitomized by Ben Stiller's performance as "Mr. Furious" in Mystery Men. (We all like to think our rage is powerful when mostly we just look goofy.)

The struggle between this flaw and the power it gives him should create a more involving dichotomy. To the film's credit, it's central to Banner's motivations but it doesn't really resonate. And, in fairness, I'm told the film was cut way down, which I can appreciate, and in the end it's nit-picking.

We got a good, fun, funny, and fast-paced Hulk flick. That's something to be grateful for.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wii Boy

The Boy is diabetic. The doctors insist, but have no tests to prove, that it's type I. We think he's type II, because he's had the symptoms all his life. (Nobody ever connected the symptoms to Diabetes until he nearly went into a coma but he had them as an infant, even.)

In the weeks prior to setting out the Wii Fit board, he was having trouble controlling his blood sugar. It was consistently hitting the 200s (when normal is in the 70-150 range).

A few days of doing the Wii Fit and it dropped down below 70. He's had to lower his insulin. The only problem I see is that it won't last. The games are fun--and he's highly competitive--but he'll lose interest once he's mastered them.

We have a pool coming, too--the Boy loves to swim--and with luck he'll stay engaged with a physical activity and be able to get off the insulin altogether.

250 Years of Crimes and Punishments

S. Weasel dug up this awesome website of criminal proceedings from The Old Bailey.

Murder and buggery, indeed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Art: Liberal and Conservative

A post at Althouse has spurred a discussion over liberal vs. conservative art.

Art, of course, is neither liberal nor conservative, though it can be used to convey a message that may be politically defined. The more direct that message is, generally the more art used to convey it suffers. Even a master propagandist, like Leni Reifenstahl or Michael Moore, is subject to violating the reality of the viewers.

Reifenstahl got away with it because of the limited information popularly known about what the Nazis were up to. Similarly, Moore could portray Iraq as a kite-flying paradise in one movie and get away with it since most of have never been to Iraq, but he had a harder time selling the worker's paradise of "universal state-provided health care" because too many people live in countries that actually have universal state-provided health care. Or, in the case of the USA, have been to the DMV.

But the more you have to alter or cherry-pick your reality, the more your art will suffer, which is why conservatives often reject Hollywood TV shows and movies as laughable, and why the slew of Iraq-based Evil America movies that have been released in the last couple years have been so disastrous.

Here's a quote:

Trevor Jackson mentions success.

In the '60s, facing increasing competition from television, movie box office receipts dropped. Big spectacles were risky, and so movies were increasingly made on low budgets and were what you might today call "vanity projects".

Lotsa film critics adore this period.

The beginning of the end came in 1975 with Jaws, with 1977's Star Wars being the nail in the coffin. "Waitaminute!" studio execs cried, "We can make movies that people will actually go see? And more than once?"

And movies were ever thus changed--some film critics maintain that they were ruined.

Success-wise, "conservative" beats the tar out of "liberal" at the box office.

Even Trevor mentions Rocky, Rambo, Red Dawn, and other big hits. IMDB's all time USA Box Office list is not scaled for inflation, so it's deceptively weighted toward modern movies, but you won't find much in the way of moral ambiguity in the top 100. (Itself an interesting discussion: What are the morally ambiguous films on that list? Chicago at 130, I haven't seen, but from what I've heard is murky.)

While liberals apparently believe in the ideal human, they don't like movies about them, unless they're actively doing liberal stuff. If they're confronting evil in a non-approved way, the narrative is "simplistic".
. . .

I should add that I, personally, find that period of cinema (late '50s to late '70s) unwatchable along a bell curve. Ugly to look at, ugly music, ugly themes and ugly characters.

At least the Expressionist knew art design and pioneered film technique.

Trevor clarified to mean that "success" was an accurate reflection of the truth. I figured he didn't mean, you know, actual success. No, seriously, there is a difference between artistic and popular success, with the greatest artists knowing how to back off the artistic just enough to reach the popular.

But what Trevor says about truth isn't much different from what I'm saying. I added:
By your own definition, then, the only art that could be successful is art that agrees with you.

Do you see that? You judge "success" by accuracy of reflection of truth (as do I, in one sense, though I'm willing to ignore a whole lot of liberal distortions if the technique is good), but we're talking about truth as you see it.

Worse, in many cases, if not yours specifically, we're talking about "truth" as one has been indoctrinated to believe in, not what one has observed. Hence, "Crazy stripper makes wild accusation" becomes "Four rich white men rape poor black woman."

The problem being that if you have a narrative in life--any narrative at all--you're no longer observing what's actually there. As a result, however good your technique is, your output suffers to the extent that your audience is able to observe the real truth.

For example, if you make a movie about Che Guevara, you leave out his unfortunate tendency to mass murder and his general incompetence. The Motorcycle Diaries is a better movie than The Lost City, but only if you don't know (or just accept as a fairy tale) the real history of Che. The need to omit data that doesn't conform is so severe that Soderbergh's 4 1/2 hour Che movie allegedly skips around those little details.

Compare with Lean's Gandhi, itself overlong and omitting data. Is it okay to leave out Gandhi's flaws but not Che's? I would probably say yes, since Gandhi's flaws were secondary to what he accomplished, where Che's flaws--that unfortunate incompetence and tendency toward mass murder--were, in fact, a big part of what he accomplished.

Trevor Jackson's basic thesis is here:

My contention is that it's easier to create complex characters if you have a view of people that seems to be shared by those who support liberal policies.

The hilarity of this should be apparent to anyone who has heard the left completely demonize--without nuance or subtlety--the Bush administration of the past eight years. Bush and Cheney and Rove aren't just wrong, they're the embodiment of evil. I disagree with the administration on almost everything, but I think they're good people. (Indeed, I think that's part of the problem: They feel compelled to do something about things that should be left alone.)

Anyway, there's a (not accidental) confusion of terminologies at work, with modern leftists hijacking the word "liberal" and "conservative" being a mushy amalgam of often contradictory values.

If you're classically liberal, you have to believe that Man is inherently capable of good, of responsible self-governance, and of better self-governance than an elite body (be it king or oligarchy). We're all (mostly) pretty well indoctrinated not to believe that any more.

Distinct from the classically liberal, modern left-wingers operate on the notion that Man is selfish, and that the only good, responsible folks are those who agree with left-wing policies. This amounts to a polar opposite of the above. And it requires one to ignore a great deal of available evidence. Also it causes them to create ridiculous caricatures of their political opponents as should be obvious watching any number of movies and TV shows.

This category includes environmentalists, collectivists, and some "New Age" groups, and a not insignificant portion of Hollywood.

Modern conservatives can fall into the previously mentioned "classical liberal" philosophy. This means that they have a fairly nuanced view of Man as both good and flawed. Most great narrative art probably falls into this category, from Shakespeare to Dickens to, say, JK Rowling. But it requires the recognition of evil, else you have no Iago, no Bill Sikes, no Valdemort.

The difference between the flawed and the evil usually being that the evil attempt to exploit the flawed to destroy them. But the distinction is usually clear: Scrooge, for all his faults, is no Sikes. (I've never met a Valdemort, but I have met Iago, who may be the most real portrayal of evil in literature.)

This is because it's observably true that people are flawed, some are much less so than others, and some are (for all intents and purposes) evil. Therefore, if you're writing about what you've observed and not trying to tie it to some particular policy notion, it's probably not going to violate classical liberal notions. (This distinguishes, say, a Capra from a modern hack trying to influence policy: As evil as Potter was, there was always a Bailey there to act as a foil.)

Of course, some other conservatives are in the "don't care" category: Man may be good or do good or be evil or do evil, but as long as the rules are clear and strictly enforced, it's nobody's business. But it's hard to imagine this type being narrative-based artists. Ayn Rand, maybe?

Then there's the dreaded Religious Right (or some hardcore section thereof), who are currently Republicans, but not really conservative. They share many of the characteristics of left-wingers: They believe that Man is only redeemed by adherence to their particular philosophy, and they tend to caricature their opponents as wanting to wreak havoc on the world.

But, as The Passion of the Christ shows, even a highly religious movie doesn't have to be preachy.

In my observation, politics and even personal flaws (of the artist) has little to do with the art itself, and when those things do creep in, they tend to taint and detract from the final output. (If you can sit through it, Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda? is basically a core dump of his aberrations.) Charlie Wilson's War, for example, completely omits any mention of Reagan, to the point where it's a little weird. The Constant Gardener is an incomprehensible mess where the message of "Big Pharm is bad" completely destroys what might have been a good movie. Even my beloved Cinematic Titanic's The Oozing Skull suffers from a pointless and unimaginative "Bush is stupid" joke. (Actually, the same is true of the MST3K movie: The weakest part is a reference to John Sununu.)

But the great artist, in composing his work, is not Democrat or Republican or Socialist or Communist or Libertarian, but a pure and watchful eye, a master of technique, a communer with the audience, and in the moment of creation, empty of himself.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Harder Day on the Planet

In Loudon Wainwright's song Hard Day on the Planet, he ends his litany of planetary problems with ways in which he is well off:

I got clothes on my back
And shoes on my feet
A roof over my head
And something to eat

My kids are all healthy
And my folks are alive
You know, it's amazing, but sometimes
I think I'll survive

I first heard the song in early '90s--it seems to have been written about the time Bush threw up on the Japanese Prime Minsiter (the dollar went down/and the President's sick), when Wainwright was about 45. Over the years, I've heard him play it:

My kids are all healthy
And my mom's still alive

And the latest time I've heard it:

My kids are all healthy
And Bob Hope's still alive

(Haven't heard it recently, obviously.) I've been listening to LW3's music so long that I'm finally starting to catch up with it.

Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality

I am precisely the wrong sort of person to gauge the relative merits of the new Indiana Jones movie relative to the others. (Also, Star Wars.) When I saw the first movie, I was enjoying it, I was having a good time, and then Harrison Ford rode a submarine across the Atlantic.

I realized later that with Indy (and Star Wars), Lucas and Spielberg were trying to recapture the magic of the serials of their youth. Those serials, of course, blew rotten monkey chunks. Even Fritz Lang's seminal, incomplete serial "The Spiders" isn't very good. And my beloved Flash Gordon serials, while they hold up relatively well, are still pretty high camp.

So, I hated the original Ark (just like I hated the first Star Wars) and then later re-adjusted my view based on a new understanding that these were, essentially, kiddie flicks. Different standards applied. So I enjoyed the heck out of Temple of Doom--and people hated that one. I thought Last Crusade was okay, but mostly for Sean Connery. (The same thing happened to me with the second set of Star Wars. I liked Phantom Menace the best--I've actually written in defense of Jar Jar Binks!--and the other two hardly at all. Though I admit to a real feeling of relief at the end of Sith. It's over! I don't have to see any more!)

So, dragged to #4 in the Indy films, my feeling was that it was...so-so. It's buoyed considerably by the return of Karen Allen to the series, and Shia Le Beouf really isn't bad in his amusing parodic Marlon Brando style. Without a doubt, Ford's age impacts your viewing. I mean, he wasn't really a young man (nearly 40!) for the first film, but at 65, you wanna chide the villains for punching a senior citizen.

Also, if you're 25 and run hunched over, it looks like you're avoiding attacks. If you're 65 and run hunched over, it looks like you need a walker.

Anyway, the killer for me with these films is that there's never any jeopardy to the hero. Now, in point of fact, there can't be too much actual danger to the hero--that's against the formula. Nobody wants to see Indy (or Superman or Spiderman or Luke Skywalker) die. But a skillful approach makes you forget that. There are moments in Raiders--right up to the submarine ride--where you get the impression that something bad could happen to Indy.

This movie opens up with Indy surviving an atomic blast at ground zero by hiding in a (fake, even!) refrigerator. I realized about the time that the party goes over the first (of three) waterfalls, that I didn't feel any suspense because not only was it obvious the characters were not imperiled, the characters acted like they knew they were not imperiled.

Superman is (dramatically speaking) one of the most difficult characters to write for, if you keep true to his roots. He's literally invulnerable, and his morals are flawless. But comic writers and the Salkinds and Donner in the '70s, have managed more-or-less, off-and-on.

Part of Indy's appeal is that he's not Superman, but check it: In the waterfall scene, it's not just he who goes over increasingly larger waterfalls, it's him, Shia LeBeouf (OK, Shia's filled out, looking buff), the 57 year old Karen Allen, and the 68-year-old-probably-playing-older John Hurt. And they all emerge without a scratch.

The score holds up pretty well.

I didn't hate it. I was only bored in a few parts. Probably less than the beloved Crusade. Way more than Doom which (if memory serves) at least had a lot of unexpected stunts.

But I'm getting a "Worst. Indy. Ever." vibe off of people who really dug the first three (or at least #1 and #3) so I'm not the person to ask.

As I noted up front.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why I Don't Bother With Slashdot Much Anymore

Stuff like this. (Via Insty.)

Even when Slashdot was dominated by highly technical people, the level of discourse--unless it was hardcore geeky--wasn't necessarily very high at all. It's worse now.

The global warming conversations should be enshrined for future generations as examples of how smart people can justify believing whatever they need to (as if doctoral theses weren't enough example).

Interestingly enough, all the top level comments are left-wing. Someone commented once that the lack of apparent dissent regarding leftist ideals had to do more with "not wanting to argue" and "worrying about retribution" than actual agreement.

Meanwhile, solar scientists worry about a (potential) impending ice age.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Son of Rambow

In a forehead slapping moment half-way through Son of Rambow, a character pulls out a cell-phone the size of a toaster, and I realized it took place in 1983. Seriously, up until that moment, I had sort of vaguely wondered what time period it was supposed to take place in, with a sort of half-conscious amusement at these kids dressing like Boy George and drinking Coke while eating Pop Rocks.

The anchor for the film is a Brit show called "Screen Test", which I think went off the air in '84, so that would've been a clew for them. (There was an unrelated game show in the US in the mid-'70s called "Don Adams' Screen Test" but who remembers that?)

Anyway, the story concerns a young Christian boy, Will, (a Mennonite?) who takes up with Simpson-esque troublemaker Lee Carter to film a short for the show "Screen Test". Since the only video Will has ever seen is "First Blood", he wants to make their film The Son of Rambow. This results in a number of amusing montages, and a strange new popularity among the kids at school for Will.

It's a cute coming-of-age film, without the resonance of a classic like Stand By Me,
though with some oddities. For example, Will is supposed to belong to this Christian group but none of its morality seems to have touched him at all. He lies and steals fairly casually. This doesn't really fit in with what I've seen with kids raised in similar faiths. There is some question as to how long they've been members of the church, though. In any case, it raises the question but doesn't really answer it.

Still, the ending seems to work well, and the ride is pleasant; I was actually a bit surprised it didn't last longer at the theater, but that may have been because of the influx of summer films. It may re-emerge in the fall.

Refuseniks

So, The Boy and I ended up doing a double-feature last week of two movies that weren't going to be around after the Friday turnover. The first movie we saw was the documentary on Soviet Jews who were denied egress to Israel. The "Refuseniks".

This is a classic case of a documentary with really outstanding material in an unfocused presentation.

The basic premise is solid: Jews--highly discriminated against in the Workers' Paradise--tried to get out of the USSR and to Israel after WWII. As soon as you applied to leave, however, you were fired from your job. At the same time, you were not necessarily allowed to leave.

Both the anti-semitism and the "refusenik" stuff was largely ignored by the western Jewish establishment until some desperate Jews attempted unsuccessfully to hijack a plane, even though a grass roots movement had been brewing for years.

The main-ish focus of this movie is on a couple who were 17 years "Refuseniks" and how they finally got free.

I wish I could tell you more about this couple but we didn't really learn that much about them. I don't know how they survived those 17 years. Apparently some lower level work was available, but I don't know if that's how they did it, or if they had benefactors of some sort, or what.

There were all kinds of interesting bits of data in this, but nothing too cohesive. (Other than "Life in the USSR was bad, mm-kay?") They particular dropped the ball when discussing why the American Jewish community--the establishment, not the grass-roots--was so unwilling to do or say anything. It took a hijacking to get their attention.

The guy representing the community made a really stupid, self-serving statement that it was because the Soviet Jews, by risking their lives, had proven they were really serious about getting out, and that up till then they couldn't do it alone. "Yes, we were just waiting here, silently, almost as if in complete approval, until we couldn't pretend it wasn't happening any more."

My wild-ass guess would be that Jews in this country have always been fairly positive toward socialism in its various forms, and that that particular intellectual vanity trumped their concern for fellow Jews. But that's just my WAG. We never get told.

The movie suffers at a result. Despite all the historical highs and lows it touches on, there's never any real focus to the two hours, and it gets a little hard to sit through after about 90 minutes. Worth watching, but maybe worth breaking up in to several viewing periods.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Wii Fits, or "Hey, you, fat, ugly American, eat some rice once in a while."

Back in the Atari 800 days--prior to the smash hit console 2600--there was a game called "Star Raiders". It was essentially a real-time version of the old "Star Trek" game invented back in the '60s, and it pitted you (in first person view) against some blocky "Zylon" warriors. What was interesting was that when people played it, they tended to lean left or lean right along with jiggling the joystick the way they wanted to move.

It was, in its own way, a uniquely immersive game.

I never owned an Atari 800; we went with Apple ][s. In fact, the last time I owned a console, it was a Channel F. I lost a lot of interest in owning gaming consoles when I found I could make my own games. Also, computer gaming, while it converges with console gaming in many respects, mostly appeals to me in the areas where the two are disparate. (Adventure and strategy games and quirky little classics like Nethack.)

Generally, when I pick up a console controller (I gifted The Boy with an N64 and PS2 over the years), I find it foreign. Lots of buttons. And for a lot of games, if you want to be good at them, you're mastering some arbitrary set of control sequences. But the Wii appealed to me instantly.

Now, I'm really what's known as a "hardcore gamer", even though I don't have much time these days to play. I've got over 300 games, easily, mostly acquired in last 15 years, but with a few from going back to the early '80s. Except for sports simulations, of which I own very few, you can find just about every major game made in the past decade on my shelves.
I've even played some of them!

Despite all this, the Wii appealed to me instantly. Even though the games are trivial, it's a million times more fun to mimic all the goofy activities than just smashing buttons. (And there are some wonderfully goofy activities in, say, Wario Smooth Moves.) Also, it drives a lot of the hardcore gamers completely nuts to have this device--this
non-gamer's device!--absolutely crush the XBox 360 and PS3. (That produces a special smile for someone who's had to listen to the "Are computer games dying?" nonsense for the past 20 years.)

So, we acquired a Wii Fit a few weeks ago and finally had the chance to put it out yesterday and give it a try.

Fun. Guaranteed to drive the poor hardcore console folk nuts. "It's a gimmick!" they cry. "People will buy it and forget about it!" "You should go outside to be active!" The last being particularly amusing coming from someone who probably hasn't seen the sun since it actually
was heating up the earth untowardly.

However, this simple device plays on the same simple premise that the wiimote exploits: Mimicking the action of what you're doing is far more entertaining than button mashing. As such, simple games like "Hula Hoop", "Ski Jump", hell, "Running" becomes entertaining.

And unlike the wiimote, some pretty demanding requirements are made. As friendly as Wii Sports and other early games were, Wii Fit does not hesitate in calling you fat, clumsy and, probably, funny looking.

It's a little shocking to have a game call you "obese" or even "overweight". It's using the highly flawed BMI standard, of course, but I imagine more than a few folks walking (or
not walking) around with a few more pounds than they'd like to admit were offended by the news. (If you're actually in shape, you're unlikely to care what the machine says.)

If you fail its balance test, it asks if you fall down a lot while walking.

It gives you a "Wii Fitness Age", probably much older than you actually are.

Now, if you're familiar with the Nintendo DS "Brain Age" product--or just think about it for a moment--you'll realize that the first time through (or first several times), you're learning how to make the board respond. This tends to give you a nice apparent improvement spike at the front.

I didn't really "get" the balance test, so I tested at 55 one day and 35 the next. I'm not even sure why I did so much better on day 2. I actually gained 3 pounds according to the scale (though some of that might have been clothes and time of day). Eventually, though, it all settles down and becomes a reasonably interesting and amusing metric.

You do have to put up with your Wii looking all fat and sweaty, though, especially if
you are fat sweaty.

I've heard some parents worry about the Wii's effect on their kids' self-esteem. My kids (all in the "normal" range) just looked at the machine like it was crazy when it said something stupid. But they had fun playing the games--even The Boy, who has a hardcore gamer's disdain for the Wii in general.

When he got on the board, he pretty much killed in every event. Apparently his balance is near perfect. Who knew? He even worked up a sweat. He did maintain that he preferred to make a jackass out of himself in private. Yeah, one does look as though one is having fits during some of the activities. Heh. It's good to lighten up.

Anyway, to my mind, the board underscores how much there is still to be done with the whole concept of getting gamers up. For example, on a tightrope game, I couldn't help but be struck by the similarity to the old Crazy Climber game which, itself, was kind of a blast because of the way the controls mimicked the hand movements of the climber.

Tell me that wouldn't be awesome to act out.

Hell, a lot of classic games would be more fun. Say, Pacman! The running game in Wii Fit has you stick the wiimote in your pocket and not even use the board. Running around a maze, eating pellets, alternately running from and chasing ghosts: That'd have to be more fun. And it'd doubtless change the PacMan championships. The tightrope game also had a kind of Mario feel. I never played Mario, but I would if I could
be Mario.

By the way, that's why I don't do many sports games or Tomb Raider. Watching a bunch of characters (even animated characters) run around makes me want to do the same. (We've always wanted to put a Lara Croft-style obstacle course in the back yard.) I'd rather play football, however badly, then watch it. (I also don't watch much TV sports for similar reasons.)

So, keep it coming, I say. Nintendo--at least partly responsible for turning the world into couch potatoes in the first place--could turn us all away from the couch potato lifestyle.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Strangers In A Familiar Land

Update for Ace of Spadesers: Thanks for clicking through and thanks to Ace for the link. You can click on the poorly maintained "reviews" keyword below to see some other bits of criticism I've written (mostly movies, some books, the occasional game). I do quite a bit of horror, so you might look at that and also post-apocalypse stuff is big. Still, some prefer the pointy breasts (start at the bottom of that link if you want to see how it all got started). Also, there's a little slice-of-life series called Conversations from the Living Room. Thanks for stopping by!


I am adding
the following annotation to my will:

Should I die in mysterious and violent circumstances, please do not allow them to portray me as a jackass in the horror movie portrayal of my final hours.

We went to The Strangers today which was "inspired by true events". Since the entire movie takes place virtually without any interaction with anyone with any insight into what could have happened, what we have is a broad imaginary reconstruction between two real bookends, as we've seen before, many, many times.

Actually, in this case, the story is entirely fictitious, except that some people, somewhere, at some time, have been terrorized during home invasions.

That said, this a pretty good entry in the home invasion genre.

Now, the home invasion picture is usually an unpleasant affair: A gang of thugs invades some poor middle class (usually; occasionally wealthy people are the target) and the next 60 minutes are spent torturing and humiliating the poor bastards. Sometimes, at the end of the movie, a woman is offered a chance at revenge.

Nasty business, where the only suspense comes from wondering what horrid thing will happen next. (The quintessential such movie is Wes Craven's execrable Last House on the Left.)

In The Strangers, however, the villains break a lot of rules. While no actual home invasion would miss these rules, the action is the better for it. Instead of subduing them, the three psychos terrorize them for the bulk of the movie.

Some good starts, nice atmosphere, creepy moments, even if it all feels sort of familiar.

So, what about the stupid parts? Well, at one point, the victims have a fully operable shotgun with lots of shells. At that point, you know, it should've been game over. The characters' behavior wasn't unbelievable, but it was stupid.

The other dumb thing is that, after the bad guys have demonstrated an ability to show up inside the house and move through it silently--whenever they feel like!--the man goes off to do something and tells the woman to stay behind, and he takes the gun with him! This one is a little less believable.

Overall, a watchable flick. Though it did strike me while watching it that horror movies, in particular, are far more effective in the theater. The lead couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) do a good job, and the movie comes in at a brisk 80 minutes or so.

So good work to Brian Bertino. But don't let them make a movie like this about me.

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