Friday, October 31, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Week 10

Saturday: 240 minutes.

Sunday: 140 minutes.

Interesting note: The scale says I've lost five pounds in the last four (three?) weeks. It's not necessarily significant, particularly, since I can have a five pound variation either way in any given day depending on how much or how little I eat. Five pounds a month is about the amount projected by the inventor of the concept. (OK, 57 pounds a year which is four-and-three-quarters pounds a month, but are we going to split hairs here?)

The only thing I've added is a little stretch at 100 minute intervals, so perhaps there is a metabolic change going on.

Monday: 365 minutes.

Tuesday: 340 minutes.

Wednesday: 260 minutes.

Thursday: 360 minutes.

Looks like I'll be hitting the 30 hour mark pretty easily. That's good. It's weird, but I've had this interesting shift of pains through the weeks, I presume as different muscles get stronger and take the load off the improper ones. My back is better (though I'm still tight as a drum). Now it's more outer thighs, lower calves and a bit around the joints. Except for a slight feeling of overwork on the ball of the right foot, the various "wrong" pains have all gone away.

The last couple of weeks, I've slowed down to .5 mph again. I do that because I know my tendency is to crank it up a bit and suffer a little. (Years of karate training.) The fact that I've had to build up to this level suggests that I was way farther out of shape them most of the people who have done this. Or maybe that they're hiding this sort of stuff. But, seriously, I was on the way to making myself an invalid, I think.

Friday: 221 minutes. Trick 'r treatin cuts into the 'millin'. The kids had fun, though. The Boy went out with his pal and came back about 90 minutes later with 20 pounds of candy. Times like this he hates being diabetic.

Weekly total: 1926 minutes. Unless I did the math wrong, that puts me three minutes over week eight, my record to date. And that week I did one eight hour day. I'm actually not sure what to make of it. My legs feel a bit weak this week, though I had no problem escorting The Flower on her second round of treating. I felt close to a leg cramp, though.

At the same time, the 30+ hour mark is good, I think. And doing a bit every day seems smarter and more effective than stuffing in the super long days. Still guessing at this part.

Saw V: I Want To Play A Game (but I get to be the shoe)

We went to Saw V last night--would've gone sooner but we went with a buddy of mine and his wife, who are difficult to schedule.

The Saw series, at its best, is a creative vehicle for a series of suspenseful situations. The violence done is primarily to make the consequences that much more dire and the suspense therefore greater. (I mean, you may be in suspense whether you're going to get a piece of cake at the office party, but the consequences are not dire enough for most of us for this to be a compelling situation. Office Space notwithstanding.)

They've done a pretty good job retconning the series, which was obviously meant to be a one-off. (You don't make your villain fatally ill if you plan to continue forward.) The elaborateness of the set-up suggests more work than a terminally ill man could do. Actually, I'd imagine it would take a team of set designers.

What this means is that, here in the fifth installment, we're actually going through all four previous movies to show how things were done. This is less compelling, actually, than previous movies showing random people placed in life-threatening situations. The part of the movie that actually involves five random people struggling for survival is the better part of the movie, and shows that the formula itself can work.

Except for the first scene and the last two scenes, it's not really that gory. The first scene is overdone, gore-wise, I think to make sure you know that you're in a Saw movie. The penultimate scene involves voluntary blood donation of the sort that has made the movie series famous. The ultimate scene is actually quite short, but effectively shocking.

Overall, not bad. For the fifth film in what has been a pretty good film series, well-nigh miraculous. Costas Mandylor is no Tobin Bell, though, and the movie's attempt to convince us that he's been around for all five movies (he hasn't, just since the third one) is not entirely successful.

I managed to differentiate Mandylor from Scott Paterson, though despite this being Paterson's second Saw movie, and me having watched "Gilmore Girls" for several seasons, I didn't recognize him as diner owner Luke. (I'm bad at that; I just mistook Lon Chaney Jr for Leo Gordon, and there's 15 years between them.)

And my heart (and other body parts) is warmed to see Betsy Russell back as Mrs. Ex-Jigsaw. Betsy Russell was a heart-throb for those of us who watched movies like Avenging Angel or Private School rather than Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Betsy--what an awesome first name for an '80s actress!--gets filmed in harsh light with bad makeup, but she's still a knockout. She retired in the late '80s/early '90s to take care of her kids, so perhaps we'll be seeing more of her in the future.

The real problem with sequels, of course, is that they tend to dilute the strength of the original concept. Jigsaw's motivation comes from his terminal illness, and then (starting in the third movie) his tragic family history. Shawnee Smith's character made a poor substitute for John, since her motivation was entirely self-centered. Costas Mandylor's character seems even weaker, though I suppose they can retcon that in in the next sequels, but those things always have a bolted-on feeling.

Plus, come on: Tobin Bell is one of the most distinctive character actors working, and is marvellously compelling in this role, a sort of modern "mad scientist" type. Mandylor is too conventionally good looking. (I believe they used his voice in the last tape.)

But, eh, I'll be there next Halloween.

HPLolCat

Happy Halloween.

Psycho II: Electric Boogaloo

There was a list linked from IMDB to "under-rated horror movies" but, as always, such things are dubious. It started, for example, with Suspiria, Dario Argento's classic-for-horror-snobs. Suspiria has some great moments, don't get me wrong, but it's also an uneven mess of a film. And it's far from under-rated. (The argument went something like "These kids today haven't seen it, so it's under-rated." Meh.)

I give them credit for including Arachnophobia. I've always felt it was a comedy, but if they say people are scared by it, who am I to argue?

Psycho 2 is under-rated. It's actually a fairly decent movie that mostly suffers because it doesn't even touch the hem of the original. But it plays that way: It's not Gus Van Sant trying to remake the original, it's a very smart, knowing ripoff. It knows it's a rip-off, and it knows you know, and invites you to have fun anyway.

A dark comedy with little twitches and quirks that make the Psycho fan smile, if he's not too uptight.

Not to get maudlin again, but I'm drawn to certain tragedies among the cast. The beautiful Meg Tilly (whom I loved from her performance in One Dark Night) was sexually abused as a child. Perkins, of course, died of AIDS complications while his wife died on Flight 11. Cancer got director Richard Franklin, who did the underrated Road Games with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis prior to this.

Writer Tom Holland's career is dead. (Rim-shot.) Nah, he created Fright Night and the Child's Play series (which ultimately would star Meg's sister Jennifer). Last seen directing a tepid episode of "Masters of Horror" called "We All Scream for Ice Scream".

As I say, if you're not too uptight, it's worth checking out.

It Took An Hour To Write...

I thought it would take an hour to read. (Apologies to Philip J. Fry.)

So, Saturday begins the NaNoWriMo. I've got cold feet, of course, but I'm going through with it.

My initial plan was to release whatever I wrote in a day, but I'm a little nervous about releasing unedited, unproofed copy to the world. (I've always taken Strunk & White to heart about having pity on the poor reader.)

So, I'll leave it to the...what, four of you? Every day? By chapter? End of the month?

You make the call.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

New Link To Horror Comix Site

S. Weasel (already in my sidebar, and quite possibly in my trousers--one never knows with weasels) used an graphic for her run-in with customs. Apparently, there are arcane rules about air guns in Pifferdous Albuyin (or whatever he calls England) and even though she hadn't actually gone afoul of those rules, that was of no interest to the bureaucrat running the show.

That led me to a site where pre-code horror comics are uploaded daily. It's called The Horrors Of It All, and looks pretty cool.

I've often noted how each adult generation is just sure the youth are going to hell, and what they latch on to as "proof", and how different things were when they did more or less the same crap as kids. Horror comics--those innocuous, occasionally campy, crudely drawn, four color books were targeted in the '50s.

What the big publishers (like DC) managed to do, of course, was drive the smaller publisher (like EC) out of business by setting up a "code" and controlling it. The movie industry set up a similar barrier in the Hays Code and (to a lesser extent these days) the MPAA>

One of the things that cracks me up about the socialist/communist/radical left types is how they talk about big corporations not wanting to be regulated by the government. But of course, big corporations LOVE big government because it absolutely strangles any smaller competition: And the little guys with the ideas are the ones that kill.

And since they can influence the government, the more power it has, the more power they have.

I mean, if you want to join me on the radical fringe, you can just fight every expansion of government power you run across. I haven't worked out how that fight should go, exactly. But it needs to be an idea out there with a real champion.

Any how, this all crosses over nicely The Boy's brush with Johnny Law. Isn't it interesting how all the anti-second amendment right folk talk all the time about how the Founding Fathers couldn't possibly have imagined the devastating weapons available today? We know from history that private citizens owned the weapons that were used to fight America's early wars, including cannons and even frigates.

But even allowing that argument, on what basis should the government be allowed to restrict ownership of what are basically primitive weapons, like knives? Or shurikens! Shurikens are expressly not allowed by law!

The excuse usually given relates to gang violence. And we all know how respectful gangs are of the law, and how effective these laws are at curbing gang violence.

See, this is the main problem with government: Just because something is stupid, and everybody knows it's gone to hell, doesn't mean you can stop doing the stupid thing.

Ignorance of Law

Is, famously, no excuse.

Just for giggles, I looked up some California weapon possession laws. Here is, I think, the relevant section.

Got that memorized?

Wouldn't want to get into trouble with the law now, would you?

Going To See Saw

Saw V that is. (The roman numeral makes it all classy and stuff.)

I'll post a review shortly after.

UPDATE: Pretty good. Overall less gory, with some notable exceptions. Relied a lot on reference to previous four movies. Full review later.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Somebody Calls The Cops

The Boy got hassled by the cops today for carrying knives.

In fairness, the cops were cool enough about it. LAPD is pretty professional and they don't generally want to stir up trouble. The Sheriff's department would probably have hauled him in. (Apparently minors can't carry knives. And one of his knives is illegal to take out of the house or somesuch.)

That said, they view an armed populace as a threat. The Boy has never so much as taken his knives out, but he feels more secure when he's carrying them, and plus, he just likes weapons. Always has. When he was three, we got him this book. He knows more about weapons than most people. The state doesn't find this an acceptable interest, second amendment notwithstanding. (The Founding Fathers surely couldn't have envisioned a world with knives!)

He has, of course, never used a weapon in actual combat, never brandished a weapon in a threatening manner, in fact never taken his weapons out in public, as far as I know. (No, wait, just once, when an adult asked to see one of his knives.)

So, how did the cops decide to roust him? Well, somebody in the homeschooling group must've seen one of his knives on his pants and called the police. Nice.

As I've pointed out, homeschoolers tend to be polarized between right- and left-wing.

But (as I've also pointed out), when dealing with leftists, it's easier just to shut up and pretend to agree. So, with apologies to Robert Conquest, any group not explicitly right-wing is going to end up seeming left-wing.

So, the mailing list ends up being peppered with (I'm not making this up) a compassionate communication workshop, a drum circle, "soul-centered" classes and of course all the (apparently mandatory) environmental and recycling crap.

This is all fine. My kids don't have to do anything I don't want. But I can imagine what side of the political spectrum this person came from.

But I find this incident ironic for two reasons:

1. Someone who has rejected the state in a pretty fundamental way went to the cops rather than talking face-to-face.

2. The Boy was upset enough that he didn't feel like taking his fencing class which is part of the same group. (Because foils and rapiers are not dangerous weapons, apparently.)

UPDATE: That may have been a hasty conclusion. It's possible, even probable perhaps, that it wasn't a homeschooler but a rec center employee. That would fit. Still sucks, but makes more sense.

John Wayne Halloween Sayings

Just one of the wacky phrases the maelstrom is apparently known for.

Barbarian sex and cowboy sex are big, too.

And the What Not To Wear Review. (Thanks, again, Troop.)

The Knott's Halloween Haunt actually has been very popular, making me think I should probably blog about more local stuff.

The treadmill stuff has slacked off, maybe because I'm not writing a daily post on it. But, as I said, I'm not a "lifestyle" person and seriously, one could become a serious bore talking about it all the time. The idea, after all, is that it should vanish. It sort of becomes like your chair, and who wants to read a blog about a chair?

Oh. And what's up with "Tony Curtis Plastic Surgery"? People looking for information on what plastic surgery Tony Curtis has had? That comes from a post where I mentioned Tony Curtis and knox added that he looked weird now. People, I have no inside information on this. Just say no, that's my motto.

OK, Saw V on Thursday. Changeling, Rock 'n' Rolla, Zack and Miri Make A Porno and probably Madagascar 2 are up in the next week or so.

Saturday starts the nanowrimo, too.

My cup runneth over.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Free Lunch

Via Simply Skimming, CodeWeavers is giving away it's CrossOver software free to celebrate sub-$3/gallon gas. CrossOver allows you to run Windows software from Linux and Mac.

This is a savvy move: We use WINE here but it's been difficult to get going. I've looked at the CodeWeavers software seriously before, but I try to avoid anything that requires administration. (For me, it's not the cost of the software that deters me so much as it is keeping track of licenses.)

That doesn't mean I couldn't get hooked, however. Check it out!

Conversations from the Living Room, Part 8: Esprit d'escalier to the Nth Degree

"OK, so, E.T. is part of a super-advanced race of aliens, right?"
...
"He's been left behind for, like, three hours, and he's eating candy off the ground."
...
"I mean, that's how they catch him!"

Monday, October 27, 2008

Why Psycho Is Great and Death Proof Sucks, A Simple Explanation

This is going to be a bit spoily, as well as a bit pissy, so, you know, caveat emptor, cave canem and all that. But it comes from a place of love.

Grindhouse was a disappointment to me, for two reasons: Primarily, I wanted these to be great movies. Sleazy, but great. And they were the former, but not the latter. Secondarily, because they weren't great, we're unlikely to get any more, and there's no reason that the Grindhouse concept should itself suffer because QT & RR got a little full of themselves.

The primary sin of both films is overlongness. But Death Proof has another sin: We spend extensive time with the first set of characters, who are abruptly killed off.

Ah, but wait, some have compared Death Proof to Psycho, which does the same thing with Janet Leigh. Alfred Hitchcock gives us some 30 minutes of Marion only to abruptly end her existence. So, why is it okay for Hitch to do and not QT? Heh.

Ultimately, it's because the viewer cares about Marion and not one of Death Proof's five female characters is sympathetic. Hell, they're not particularly believable as characters, but you're almost rooting for Stuntman Mike by the time he kills the first set. Finally, you think, something's going to happen.

Then it's all over and, O! God, the movie laps itself! Like Manos: The Hands of Fate, we start over again with four new, tiresome girls, and Kurt Russell's only presence is his back in the background during that soporific Vanishing Point dialogue. (And, as it turns out, revolving the camera around people with boring dialogue does not, in fact, make the dialogue more interesting. Actually, that scene is appreciately less annoying muted.)

Stuntman Mike is a little different from Norman Bates' pathetic self. Hitch deftly switches our loyalty from the flawed but likable Leigh to the highly flawed yet still somehow sympathetic Perkins. At some level you wish he could just be left alone --well, some place where there's no victims for him to stir-fry.

In contrast, by the second half of Death Proof, you're eagerly rooting for Stuntman Mike to kill his second batch--not because he's a sympathetic character, but because these women are insufferable and they just won't shut up.

Kurt Russell is great in this film, but he's more a Freddy Krueger than a Norman Bates. He's likable in the sense that he removes the great annoyances that are the film's characters.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Now we're talking APOCALYPSE! Actually, whether The Hitchhiker's Guide counts as "post-apocalyptic" is highly debatable, since the Earth is completely destroyed in the first chapter.

But over the course of five books, Earth is destroyed, rebuilt, redestroyed, visited on different timelines, and finally completely and utterly removed from existence entirely (though not enough so, apparently, to stop publishers from wanting to make a sixth book).

What's more, it's unique as a post-apocalyptic book in the sense that Arthur Dent is basically caught in a highly civilized post-apocalyptic life. He seldom seems on the verge of starving, on the one hand, though there are numerous direct and bureaucratic attempts on his life.

He's constantly looking for some sort of normalcy and stability and insignificance, yet he is fated to a life of weirdness and randomity and, yes, significance. He is destined to live an interesting life, in the literary and Chinese sense. Which, perhaps, we all are.

It's hard to overstate the effect this book had on my writing style. Really. Really terrible, actually. Not that it's bad when Douglas Adams writes that way, though if you read all five books, you'll find fewer and fewer of the literary flourishes that make the first book so funny. It's a highly affected style but it's a little like riffing your own movie.

The saga's pedigree is a little odd, too. It started, I believe, as a radio show, that got turned into a book and a sequel, that got turned into a miniseries, that got turned into a text-based adventure game, that got turned into some more books, and a big Hollywood movie.

Outside of the first two books, which make a nice set by themselves, Restaurant at the End of the Universe rounding out the shenanigans in Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy in a relatively satisfying way, the original BBC miniseries is worth watching. It's not a great series in terms of hilarity, but elements of it are just perfect: Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, David Dixon as Ford Prefect, the graphics for the guide, and the user of Peter Jones as the voice of the book. Oh, and the theme music, which apparently is "Journey of the Sorceror" by The Eagles, of all things.

The recent movie is relatively weak as well, though it has a good cast and a bit of nice set design.

In any event, you know you're having a bad week when it starts with your home planet being destroyed.

Until next Monday, mutants, stay radiated!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Spaced

We've been watching the millenial Channel 4 show, Spaced this week, which seems to be the series that really established the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg team that would go on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. (I've written about Hot Fuzz before here, regarding its take on male friendship.)

In a lot of ways, "Spaced" is a very traditional comedy with a very traditional situation. Tim Bisley (Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson) play two 20-somethings in need of a place to stay. They find the perfect place, with one catch: They have to pretend to be a "professional couple".

This setup is actually used for almost none of the stories that follow, but unlike most sitcoms, Tim and Daisy are constantly forgetting that they're supposed to be a couple, and once they've warmed up to the creepy landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin), they find themselves mid-sentence saying something that makes no sense.

"Spaced" features a lot of the cuts, setups and rhythms found in the two movies, and is rife with references to cinema, television, video games and comics. It's a credit to the show that I probably got about half the references and still found it hilarious. (The references to television are particularly British, and I only know a handful.)

A lot of what makes it work, of course, is the melodramatic camera work and use of movie tropes (camera angles, zooms, flashbacks) in situations that are either inappropriate or that don't pay off as expected.

For example, Nick Frost plays Pegg's best moustachioed friend Mike, whose great desire for life is to be in the military, but who can't get in because of...the incident...that happened long ago when Mike and Tim were kids. Several times, they mention this, and look skyward, as the camera drifts up to a flashback of the two of them as children, sitting in a tree, Mike still with his moustache.

And then they're interrupted, and the flashback ends. We do sort of find out later on what happened, but it doesn't really make sense. We just know it was Tim's fault.

The show's American parallel is probably "Arrested Development", though it's far less sleazy (from what I recall of AD), and far geekier. There's some of the whimsy of "Northern Exposure", and you could even compare it to "Friends", except that it feels a lot less plastic, for all the contrived-ness in its setup and style.

Rounding out the cast is Mark Heap as Brian, the tortured artist who lives downstairs and Katy Carmichael as Twist, Daisy's bubbleheaded friend "in the fashion business" (she works at a dry cleaners).

These six characters pretty much carry the show, though there are no throwaways: The guy who stole Tim's girl, the bike messenger "Wheels", Brian's mum, and Marsha's tempestuous never-actually-seen-but-always-heard teenage daughter--they're all vividly drawn.

Despite the wildness--which actually doesn't seem all that wild ten years later--the show hangs together by its character development. So much so that, toward the end of the second series, the penultimate show is actually pretty serious. We were worried that the show was going to end on a downbeat.

Having come to the show backwards, as it were, through the two movies, Jessica Hynes was the unknown element. She co-wrote the shows along with Pegg, and moved on to--well, to have a mess of kids, and to do movies. (She plays Simon's ex-girlfriend in Shaun of the Dead, the one who is also leading a crew of characters to safety, though in the completely opposite direction.) Turns out she's quite a force.

To reference "Friends" again, I remember in the first season of that show, when it took off all crazy-like, the actors talking about the length of the series, and how sad it would be for them to be in their 40s, still doing the same setup of having roommates and no steady job and no family. Ultimatey, they did go for 10 years, and it was sort of sad. (Or so it seemed to me, I only watched the first season.)

"Spaced" ran for fourteen episodes, encompassing a year or two of the characters' lives, and by the end, there's some concern that they all need to move on. (This is the sort of serious moment.) There's even a speech where Tim talks to Daisy about how lucky they are to have been able to prolong their childhoods--though it was wisely cut out of the actual show.

But basically, here's a show about 20-something geeks, written, directed and performed by 20-something geeks. And you might have to be, or have been, a 20-something geek in the '90s to appreciate it. And there's almost no way they could have gone on too long with it, or get it back together now for a third season, as they all approach 40.

In fact, in both Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, the characters are in my opinion a little old for the roles. But we're lucky to have this moment in time crystallized in DVD form, and for the creators to have gone on to do even more cool stuff.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Phrases That Should Never Begin Movie Synopses, Part I

Keanu Reeves stars as a scientist....

(Chain Reaction)

Just Ourselves And All Eternity

Trooper York shows a different side over on his blog.

I suppose it's a cliché that we become increasingly aware of our mortality as we age. I remember lying in bed at the age of five and feeling my mortality acutely, a feeling that used to visit me periodically, and now sits beside me like a municipal road repair crew with all the time in the world.

And I remember having my car spin out on the 101 at 50 mph--I remembered to turn into the skid--and thinking, "So, this is it. This is how I die." An entirely different experience of mortality, akin to being tossed about by strong waves at the beach: You already made the choice that set you on that path and now it's out of your hands.

And when I feel a mysterious pain, or I notice some loss of vision or agility, the Man With The Scythe is there, looking at his watch. But again, that's a different experience. Troop talks about that a bit.

Another experience of mortality comes from thinking about my children. I don't really think of death as being able to hurt me directly, as odd as that may sound. Death pretty much ends those concerns. But my death would harm my family, which creates an entirely different concern.

Ah, but the sort of mortality Troop mostly talks about is that of the missing person. They don't even need to be dead, just gone from your life. Change itself is a reminder of a the sort of mortality that is inescapable.

You'll never be that person again. You'll never know those people you knew. The family that raised you is long gone, and you're filling that role with a new generation.

I'm sure that's behind the static concept of Heaven that a lot of people have. They remember a moment from childhood, with their mom or their grandmother, or some other person filling a role relative to themselves, and they remember a particular feeling that they identify as being perfect. (Richard Matheson actually manages to create a concept of Heaven in What Dreams May Come that allows both for change and a Heaven where you meet up with your dog.)

On the other hand, maybe this is why you be wary of late night walks in the cold autumn air while listening to classic rock radio stations.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Week 9

Saturday: 100 minutes.

I expected to get in more. It was a frustrating morning in a lot of ways.

Sunday: Looking like zero. They key to the treadmill has vanished. I've rounded up the usual suspects to no avail.

Monday: 150 minutes. The key turned up neatly tucked away in a small box for a computer fan. Courtesy the Barbarienne, no doubt.

Tuesday: 360 minutes. Only ten hours or so this week so far. I'd have to do 7-8 hours per day the rest of the week to do as much as I did last week. I'll be lucky to break 30, really.

Wednesday: 243 minutes.

Thursday: 377 minutes. Only twenty hours so far, and I have a dental appointment tomorrow. Hmmph. This week's been hard, too. My legs are tired for some reason.

Friday: 350 minutes.

I'll tally later tonight.

Weekly Total: 1480 minutes. Not quite 25 hours. About what I did back in week 6, going every day. So I guess there's been an increase there. When I am on the treadmill it is easier and I can go longer.

On The Criticism of Art

I once pissed off the entire WRITERS forum on Compuserve by comparing the output of art critics to bowel movements.

I was young, and a lot more honest back then.

Althouse's thread on Ebert made me think of this incident, which was rather hard for me at the time, since I liked the people there, even if an inordinate number of them seemed to work writing reviews for porno. It was in that general area I "met" Mike Resnick and Diana Gabaldon. (They were in LITFORUM, as I recall, which WRITERS was split off from.)

Basically, a guy came in asking about why art critics are reviled, and my observation was that it was warranted. I was surprised at how lonely it got real fast. For me, it goes without saying that criticism, as a rule, is parasitic. Most people, I think, feel this way. I think because it's mostly true.

What I got wrong, in retrospect, was thinking that criticism can't be better than the thing it's criticizing. That's at least arguable, though I still think this Twain takedown of James Fenimore Cooper is pretty pissy. (Then again, I've never read Cooper.) On the other hand, this Richard Jeni bit on Jaws IV is hysterical.

MST3K and Cinematic Titanic could be seen as film criticism, though, as I've said, Citizen Kane would be a great movie to riff on, as Mike Nelson's RiffTrax demonstrates. Art relies on certain conventions that are not logical, comprehensive or literal, and so it's easy to make fun of. (This applies to paintings and sculpture, as well as music, literature and movies.)

But now, I suppose, we must confront The Big H: Hypocrisy. For example, this is pretty pissy. How many reviews of stuff, some of it in the category of "art", have I done just here on this blog? The linked tag shows about 20 items, going back to late August. (I guess I haven't been very good at tagging stuff.) I'm hypocriting at about 2-3 items a week, here.

Or am I?

When I review something, I'm trying to make it very idiosyncratic. I'm not on some lofty plane contrasting Gone Baby Gone with Proust's Rememberance of Things Past. I'm not really concerned about Art-with-a-capital-A. (I learned in my music study days that such concerns tend to be constipating.)

What I try to do when I review anything, even a non-fiction work, is give you, the reader, an idea of where I'm at. Everything is viewed and evaluated from a particular point-of-view. Unlike science, where it's required to eliminate the baggage that might come from that point-of-view, in art, the baggage is required.

You're being presented with a series of images and words designed to create an emotional effect. Without the baggage that is your language, culture, upbringing, aesthetic, sensibility and so on, any work of art is going to fail to resonate. (Indeed, where does the resonance come from if not sympathetic strings of your own experience?)

For non-fiction, it's a little simpler. If a book on how to make ice cream is 90% on how to calve and raise a particular kind of cow whose milk is especially good for ice cream, and I'm sitting in my one room apartmen tin the city, with the Alta Dena carton in my lap, I'm probably gonna be a little pissed. But it's important you know that's where I am.

And, in the end, even the guy who writes the bad book or makes the bad movie has done more than I have in my review. No matter how good the review (and the critical ones are the best, right?), making the art--however bad--is harder, braver and more worthy of respect.

Now, I think it's perfectly respectable to walk out of a movie after eight minutes if, like Ebert--who I kind-of think is an idiot, adrift between what he knows he's supposed to think versus what he actually thinks--you can make a shopping list of reasons why.

That list in his first review is brutal, perhaps, but probably fair: Moviemakers are required to present us with a minimum of technique to get us to stay in the chair. You can't really violate all the rules with amateurism and shoddy craftsmanship and expect people to invest their time. The idea that even a critic is obliged to sit there subject to an insult of this caliber is pointless torture.

And you may (and should!) apply this bit of reasoning to my nanowrimo effort. Or any of my other efforts, if you can find them.

Kinda Cool: 10,000 visits

Some time in the past couple of days, I passed the 10,000 visitor mark.

As I noted in June, when I passed the 5K, it might only take about 4-5 months to get to 10K, and, hey, I was right. Woo. Hoo.

It'd be cool if I could pass 15K by the end of the year. A bit of a stretch, though at the current rates.

Still, thanks for dropping by and, uh, tip your waitress and try the veal.

Blogging may fall off during the nanowrimo. But you should be able to read that, if you're so inclined.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Simply Skimming Reinvention

reader_iam has turned her blog into more a "catch" for stories of the day, peppered with some short quips and observations. (She doesn't call it a blog, but she's actually just gone from a not-quite Althouse-style "essay blog", like this one, to an aggregate style, like Instapundit.)

Check it out. She's got that marvellous ability to say something...piquant in a sentence or two. (Still don't like the commenting software, tho'.)

Body of Uneven Movies

Ridley Scott is probably one of our great directors; it's rather a shame he doesn't make better movies. That's a terrible thing to say, isn't it? But I think I stand by it. Going to one of his movies is a complete crap shoot. I think, on the one hand, it's because he doesn't like to be pigeonholed, which is the mark of great, uneven directors.

He can do Alien and Blade Runner, then follow it up with Legend and Someone To Watch Over Me. He can take a cheesy sword & sandals pic like Gladiator and turn it into Oscar gold, follow it up with an almost banal Hannibal, and then produce an intense experience like Black Hawk Down.

So, I avoided seeing American Gangster in the theater last year. In fact, the last film I saw of his in the theater was Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of unfocused Crusade tale.

This year, he's made his Iraq War picture, Body of Lies, but it's only tangentially about said war, so I thought I'd give the old Brit a shot. Aaaaaand...well, it feels a lot like Kingdom of Heaven.

Basically, the story is that Middle East loving spy Leonardo di Caprio is trying to collect intel on terrorists. Russell Crowe is back home trying to pull the strings. Innocent people get killed in pursuit of the bad guys, who also get killed. Although the loutish, ham-fisted Crowe is fond of reminding di Caprio that there are no innocents in...well, where? Terrorist crowds? The Middle East? Crowe never elaborates on this theory.

Which, actually, puts you up the whole movie. Leo the American understands and loves the Middle East. I suppose that's part of what makes him the good guy: He wants to live there, not the USA. Crowe is dedicated but not very aware or sensitive: A typical American. His eagerness to get the bad guys results in decisions that ultimately could lose the bad guys.

I mean, seriously: While di Caprio is getting his ass blown off in Syria or Jordan or wherever, Crowe is talking to him while dropping his kids off at school or putting them to bed or watching them play soccer.

Ah, well, I guess Brits can be ham-fisted, too.

Ultimately the movie is a little slow, a little unfocused--though at least everything ultimately ties together, unlike the sprawling Kingdom of Heaven--and unwilling to commit to itself either as an action film or spy film.

It's not really a political film, either. Crowe opens with a speech that respects the jihadists as serious enemies, but overestimates their inexhaustibility--or so it seems in a world where Iraq is safer than Detroit. His speech feels like a parody.

Then, later on, di Caprio is challenged by his Iranian girlfriend's sister over the war. She sounded very real to me: certainly a lot of Middle Easterners feel the US doesn't appreciate their circumstances, and doesn't belong there. Leo's response, however, felt way too left wing for a guy on the ground. He basically places blame for all the bad in Iraq on the USA--and apologizes!--while never once mentioning Saddam and his genocide and torture, Al Qaeda in Iraq, or anything positive.

You know, why's he doing it, if that's the way he feels? (Actually, now that I think about it, do average Iranians actually object to the war in Iraq? Saddam was a pain in their collective ass for a decade.)

But that's about it for politics. What Crowe and di Caprio really are arguing about are procedural differences, not philosophies. They agree, at least, that the jihadists are bad guys.

Anyway, the weirdest part of this is that di Caprio's character is almost bizarrely naive. This is part of the "dumb ol' America" narrative, but he's constantly doing things that don't make sense: He promises sanctuary for a jihadist who gets cold feet when selected for martyrdom; he gets involved with an Iranian girl and then is surprised when she becomes a target; most incredibly, he sets up an innocent man as a bigwig terrorst, and then is shocked (shocked!) to find that the innocent man becomes a target for other terrorists.

This last is particularly incredible because the whole point in setting up the guy as the terrorist was to draw out the real terrorist, who's known to have a huge ego.

I'm making it sound worse than it is, just by noting all the things that, were it a better action movie, you'd just ignore.

With Gladiator, Scott just went full out and made a very high-class melodramatic sword & sandals epic. I mean, it's way better than those old Steve Reeves movies, but not all that different. The underlying message is a rather general one about human nature, and it taps nicely into all that Golden Bough crap.

Kingdom of Heaven had similar problems. For whatever reason, he seemed unwilling to commit to the genre there, and here we see it again. (Screenwriter William Monahan wrote the screenplay for both films.)

Also, di Caprio and Crowe are curiously unconvincing. Crowe's body language--he's an increasingly doughy desk jocky--works, but his accent and speech pattern didn't sell me. Leo sports a southern accent as well, and he really didn't seem plausible as the hard-bitten field agent.

I could be wrong on this; I'm not an astute judge of acting ability. I can see really bad and really good. But usually, if I notice, that's a bad sign. And I noticed. Mark Strong, who plays the head of Jordanian Intelligence, on the other hand, was very effective, evoking a sort of younger Andy Garcia--that wonderful mix of charm and menace that makes you not want to get on his bad side, but know you're probably going to anyway.

The other thing that didn't work for me was the sound mixing. The music was at the same level as the dialogue sometimes. Add in the foley, and parts of the movie were nigh incomprehensible. (Maybe this was the theater, but I recall having this problem in Ridley and Tony Scott movies before.)

I guess the real problem with this movie is that when you go see a Ridley Scott movie, you want to see something remarkable. Alien defined a decade of horror. Blade Runner gave us a completely different kind of science-fiction alternative to Star Wars. While not a great movie Thelma and Louise was a cultural moment. Hell, Legend is an almost unwatchable mess--at least the US cut is, I haven't seen the director's cut, and one could make the same claim ("mess") about Blade Runner--but it's a memorable unwatchable mess.

What's this movie got? The trademark giant video panel that sees everything in the world. The Scott brothers love that thing.

Body of Lies is just going to go on to the heap of largely forgettable Iraq war movies, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Converstaions From The Living Room 7: PoMo Math

The Boy: "Two plus two is five."
The Flower: "No, it's not! Two plus two is four!"
The Boy: "Don't stereotype numbers. Two plus two can be whatever it wants to be."

It's Hard Being Right All The Time

As the global warming house of cards tumbles, it's time to revisit my views on oil.

Like the real estate bubble, which I was vigorously assuring people would pop (I mean honestly, anyone who can afford to pay $750,000 for a house is pulling down six-figures minimum, and not that many households are doing that), I've also stated that as soon as we start sinking money into alternative fuels, the price of oil will drop to the point where those fuels are not financially feasible.

Behold!
According to this, oil is below $70 per barrel. The most feasible of the alternatives I've read about is shale oil. (Still oil, but in crunchy form.) According to this, shale costs more than $60 per barrel, though I've seen estimates that it can be brought in slightly cheaper.

Russia's slap-happy waking bear dreams aside, I would suggest that oil can't be kept higher than the price that encourages alternatives. I mean, obviously, if you have magic car-moving goo for $90 barrel then oil can't go higher than that, or people will buy MCMG.

But also, the higher the price of a barrel, the more the alternatives can cost, and therefore the greater the interest in providing those alternatives.

Simple, eh?

Oil producers are simply motivated: They want as much money as they can get for what they have for as long as possible. By reducing output, they raise the prices and extend the longevity of their supply. But people will simply use less, on the one hand, and look for alternatives on the other.

The oilmen know this and act accordingly.

Eventually, I'm sure, we'll get to that better form of fuel. But it'll probably be something we don't even see now, maybe taking advantage of physics we don't even understand yet, say, at the quark or sub-quark level.

That would be cool. In the mean time, enjoy your oil. How low will it go? Think it might go back to sub-$50? Sub-$20?

That, I cannot say. I do like to point out that the peak oil people assured us it could only go up from here, much like the global warming people.

I'm petty that way.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Tall (but not Dark) Stranger

If I've not been enamored of Western movies, it's even fairer to say I'm nigh totally ignorant on Western novels. ("Read about a...cowboy?")

This will probably lead to hilarity in my upcoming novel. But to be honest, I've never been good with genre conventions. I tried writing Romance novels in my youth, but my model was more a mixture of literature (like Jane Austen) and '40s-style romcoms. I really wanted to establish the female character and her life before introducing the love interest.

So, when someone says, "Oh, this movie is based on a Louis L'amour story," the only thing it means to me is that I know who the guy is and that he wrote a metric buttload of Westerns.

Which brings us to The Tall Stranger with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. Mr. McCrea, whom I hilariously confuse with Joel Grey, plays Ned Bannon, a guy beaten, robbed and left for dead, until picked up by a wagon train.

The wagon train is heading west for Californ-eye-aye but being led astray by the unctuous Mort Harper (George Neise). He's leading them into Bishop's Valley, which is already owned and operated by Bannon's half-brother, Hardy Bishop (Barry Kelly). Harper's plan is to stir up some trouble, with the help of his sleazy Mexican sidekick, Zarata (Michael Ansara).

In the ensuing battle with the settlers, Harper figures Bishop will be weak enough to be completely wiped out by Harper's own band of desperados. It's up to Bannon to unravel the mystery and save the day.

The Syrian born Ansara is quite the television marvel, actually. He's played Mexicans, American Indians, Non-American Indians, Hittites, Klingons, Babylonians in history and a technomage on "Babylon 5". He played Mr. Freeze in the campy '60s "Batman" series--but also in the '90s art-deco style cartoon, and on the video game.

He got to utter the phrase "Only a fool fights in a burning building" in "Star Trek" and then was one of three actors to reprise the same character in "Star Trek: Deep Space 9". (The other two being the also great Bill Campbell and John Colicos.)

No lightweight, as Walter Sobcheck would say.

He also had three guest shots on "I Dream of Jeannie" and was actually married for 15 years to Barbara Eden during the salad days (late '50s through early '70s). Tragically, Ansara stopped working in 2001, the same year their son died of an accidental heroin overdose.

I don't know that that's why he stopped--he was nearly 80 after all--but I do know it's hard for me to look at this picture (IMDB) without tearing up.

Anyway, this isn't what you'd call a great Western but I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed it. I found myself both really engaged and highly reassured. When the bad guys framed the good guy and things were looking bleak, I still knew that everything was going to turn out all right.

The beauty of the Western, as a genre, is that you always know who the good guys are, and they're really good. They'll be tough.They might even be harsh, because the world is harsh and the sooner you face up to that, the better. But they have a code, and it's going to be a combination of protecting the weak while building them up to be strong, and meting out rough (but fair) justice.

The bad guys are going to be villanous. Snakes who hide their intentions and manipulate people to their own ends. They might not be complete cowards, but they'll exploit any weakness and show little respect for some important aspect of common decency and society.

In the end the good guy will win, however great the cost, and (generally speaking) the truth will be known about the villany of the bad guys.

I take comfort in that.

A commenter over on Althouse was saying that his mother, who had been in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation in WWII had a distinct preference for escapist fantasy to historical tragedy, and made a point I think is probably pretty valid: When times are tough, we want escapism at the movies. When times are good, we enjoy the risk-taking and even tragedy of stories set in hard times.

Of course, the West was tough--tougher than most of us can appreciate--but the Western offers a kind of moral clarity and straightforwardness that a lot of people seem to enjoy muddying up in real life.

In other words, I don't doubt that part of my enjoyment of this movie had to do with the election and recent financial crisis. But, whatever the reason, I liked it.

Drive Them SUVs, People!

Via Instawhatsit, a roundup of climate change heresy at Fabius Maximus.

He entitles it "Good news", but it's only good news if it counters the flow of stupidity. The fact that the data contradicts the global warming model--well, what will happen is that we'll get a lot of quiet on the topic. You may have noticed less of a "global warming" drumbeat lately.

It'll get quieter while the socialists latch on to the "free market failure" idea. Presuming they don't destroy the economy, when things get better, they'll go back to the environmental football.

The other reason it's not good news is that we could really use the planet to be a few degrees warmer. A huge chunk of Canada and Russia could be turned into arable farmland with a 5-10 degree hike. (Maybe not even that much.)

Plus, a lot of people are cold. And they like to put their cold feet on my warm belly or back. This has to stop.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Manic Monday Apocalypso: I Am Legend

Omega Man, part of the Charlton Heston apocalyptic trilogy (along with Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes) was a regular fixture on TV when I was a kid. (Apes was, too, but not Soylent Green which, I suppose, is the weakest of the three.)

Of course, probably around the time I was 11-12 I had familiarized myself with the name of Richard Matheson, the author of "I Am Legend", the story on which the movie was based. Not too long ago, I saw the Vincent Price version--the original movie take, which is rather talky and low-budget. And then a week or so ago, I saw the big budget Will Smith movie which, like most of Mr. Smiths' movies, relies heavily on his own charm to keep it watchable.

So I figured it was high time to read the book and ordered it up off one of Amazon's sellers that uses their shipping. (That's great because not only do you get a low price, you don't have to pay for shipping if you have Amazon's $79/year shipping deal.) It's a novella, 150 pages long, and perhaps surprisingly, a very introspective work. (Not that surprising, though: Matheson has always had a talent for getting inside of his characters heads extensively without dragging the action down.)

The story concerns Robert Neville, the last man on earth. Vampires have taken over the world and Neville is, for some reason, immune. He spends his nights barricaded inside his house while the vampires taunt him outside. He spends his days trying to figure out what these vampires are--or killing them in their sleep.

The book is a combination of Neville's grieving, his attempts to put this vampirism into a comprehensible form. When the book opens, we discover that the vampires: can't come out in the day, are allergic to garlic, are repulsed by mirrors and holy symbols, and can only be killed with a stake through the heart.

Neville's transformation from grief-stricken husband and father to remorseless killing machine is interesting and, unlike the movie versions, you're left wanting more at the end of the 150 pages.

Of the three movies, each captures a different part of the story. The first one, the Vincent Price Last Man on Earth, captures the sort-of claustrophobia of the story: Not of space, but of mobility. (Wherever Neville goes, he has to be back well before dark.) But it doesn't deliver on the intensity.

Charlton Heston's Neville in Omega Man best captures the feel of being the only normal one in an abnormal world. This is paralleled with the counter-culture movement, of course, and so can feel pretty dated on modern viewings.

The latest I Am Legend, the first to use the real title, is more conventionally an action film with the prequesite explosion ending required of summer blockbusters. Smith does the grieving father well, and a captures a little bit of the book Neville's sociopathy.

But Smith is, in a big sense, the problem with the new version: No one's going to waste an opportunity by putting him in a faithful adapation of the original story. Ultimately, "I Am Legend" is a horror story and trucks in that genre's nihilism. What makes for a great ending on pulp isn't necessasrily going to work on celluloid--and certainly isn't going to be a crowd-pleaser.

Thus we have extremely inhuman vampires--animalistic vampires, really, and while we're at it, we won't call them vampires at all. (The novella's distinction between types of vampires--central to its story--is non-existent.) Any humanity has to be removed, or we might lose sympathy for Smith.

As I pointed out in my Dark Knight review, a lot of the best Batman stories were low-key mysteries, but there was zero chance of WB releasing a movie that reflected on that aspect of the Caped Crusader. "I Am Legend" is probably a victim of its own success in that regard, too: Nobody wants to see it as the brooding intimate horror that it is, so we'll probably never see a really faithful adaptation.

Matheson is said (by various sources) to have helped with the first screenplay, or not, and the third screenplay (though he has no credit). Worse than not being faithful, however, is that all the changes serve to make the whole thing a blander experience, particularly in the most recent iteration. The monsters look generic, however well done the CGI is. And the ending is a perversion of the story, the very thing that gives it its punch is gone.

But then, we always have the story to read.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Taylon Doon and Appaloosa

Watching Ed Harris' character in Appaloosa was interesting. There were a lot of similarities between his Cole and my own Taylon Doon. (Note the slight spelling change. I've always been pronouncing it that way and had violated my "Berlitz" rule.)

Cole is a polite man, even a friendly man, but besides being a stone-cold killer, he's completely guileless. He's so straightforward that even light teasing prompts him to be the crap out of someone who doesn't really deserve it.

That's sort of how I envisioned Taylon, but I see a character arc for him that requires him to be a little less sensitive to his intellectual limitations. In fact, he's born of political guile, after a fashion. The way I have the story worked out in my had, that happens before Chapter 1, though.

Chapter 1 begins (barring some change) with the narrator's first encounter with Taylon.

The NaNoWriMo begins in less than two weeks, so we'll see how it goes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kiss Me Deadly

I'm not really familiar with Mickey Spillane's work, being more a Hammett or Chandler guy myself. I rather liked the short-lived '80s series with Stacey Keach, but since I'd heard good things about this particular film--and I knew about the "whatsit" from somewhere (maybe the '80s cult classic Repo Man)--I queued it up and gave it a view.

It's...well, it's solid enough as a detective noir film, but Bezzerides script is subversive and Aldrich's direction plays that aspect of it up. So, Ralph Meeker's Hammer isn't just tough, he's sadistic and misogynistic. Life isn't just hard, it's cruel and isolating.

Bleah.

Part of the charm of the hard-boiled detective is that he's a good man, but he knows that a white hat will get him killed. He's not a sucker for dames but he's got a code. He'll think nothing of getting rough, but it has to achieve something.

So, the great photography, nuanced performances (Cloris Leachman in her first film role!) and intriguing story are marred by this misanthropic world view.

I didn't enjoy it as much as I would have liked, therefore.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Week 8

Saturday: 270 minutes. A lot for a Saturday. What up wid dat?

Sunday: 70 minutes.

Monday: 100 minutes

Tuesday: 480 minutes

Wednesday: 373 minutes

I haven't really been keeping track of my weekly time this week, but I think I'll beat last week pretty easily.

Thursday: 390 minutes

So, I'm up to 1,683 which passes last week already. Good, I guess.

Friday: 240 minutes.

A little over 32 hours--a big jump from last week and pretty close to my target of 35 hours. I may end up going lighter next week because I have to tighten up the Sole, The Flower's got a performance or two I need to see, I've got a day in the office, and a lot of away-from-the-desk work to do.

Plus, "at the desk" usually means either working (good) or reading up on the day's events (bad, depressing).

The Fall of the Fall of the House of Usher

During the first After Dark Horror Fest, I dropped out after movie five, The Abandoned.

This was the one movie that got a release (albeit a limited one), the one they felt was most worth the risk of distribution costs. And it was the one that, within the first five minutes, I knew was exactly the sort of film I hate.

I call them "House of Usher" films, and they're a specific genre that roughly follow the pattern of Poe's story.

Basically, it's when the characters are doomed, typically by a supernatural force, and nothing they can do will change the outcome.

It's a lazy writer's genre. The Blair Witch Project was like that, though I didn't hate that as much as most. (Nobody would've noticed that movie without the William Castle-like ad campaign, though.) But it doesn't matter that they lost the map or followed the stream--good or bad, they're doomed. And, really, if you're paying attention, you know this very early on. (It's actually a lot like a slasher flick, only generally with a very static feel.)

But there's a fine line. Quarantine doesn't count, in my book, because mostly it's the characters' failure to apprehend their situation that causes the problem. Everything follows logically from their actions (which are not, themselves, logical).

The "Usher" movie refuses to reward the characters for any logical or effective action. The deck is stacked against them from the get-go and the exercise borders on the sadistic. Fatalism, despair and nihilism are the primary themes. The only kind of hope is false.

Ultimately, of course, this is a matter of taste. I just don't like that sort of thing. I also don't like the self-destruction genre that the movie critics are so fond of. (See Leaving Las Vegas and Under The Volcano.) This is almost a sub-genre of the "Usher"-type movies, except the forces aren't supernatural, they're psychological. (Although it's a question of taste, I'm perfectly willing to entertain the notion that people who like the self-destruction genre have serious emotional issues.)

Many movies straddle that line, of course. Cube is an example of a movie where the characters might survive, even though the forces working on them are virtually supernatural and all powerful. (And I think one or two do survive, or at least potentially survive and the movie leaves it ambiguous.)

Somewhat ironically, The House of Usher itself is not an "Usher" movie, really. The lead character is really the non-Usher guy, and he's not doomed. Richard Matheson wrote a story focused on the young man wooing the young Usher woman, and it's not even clear that she's doomed in his story.

'60s and '70s horror is rife with examples of this kind of movie, because nihilism was very trendy back then. The infamous Manos: The Hands of Fate feels like that kind of movie, but maybe only because the movie spends about 20 minutes doing nothing but driving.

Many of the current Asian horrors have that feel, but sometimes they get around it by making a convincing ploy for hope. The Ring, for example: Is there hope? There seems to be, though it's a rather dark one. That one worked because the actions taken by the lead to discover the truth have an impact, just not the expected one. The Grudge, on the other hand--well, once you're in the house, you're just plain screwed.

Curioiusly, one of my favorite of the After Dark films, the Japanese Rinne (Reincarnation) could probably fit into the Usher category. It basically concerns a young woman who's on a movie set making a movie about a decades-old massacre, and through some unknown force, everyone on the set was actually part of the massacre, and have been reborn. As people start dying, there's a definite Usher feel, but we are at least engaged in the mystery.

Rinne violates Blake's rule of filmed reincarnation, which is that audiences will reject movies about people who die and come back as completely different looking characters (see What Dreams May Come, Dead Again). Although it's a perfectly sensible idea of how such a thing might work, movie audiences identify character too strongly with physical presence for it work.

I found it to be an engaging mystery, since there's a mystery: Which of the people working on the movie is the new incarnation of the murderer? So, for me, this works, even if it does fit into my hated Usher category.

You can read the original Poe story online here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Q is for Quarantine

A few months ago I mocked an article lamenting the state of the horror movie, and pointing to the Spanish-language films The Orphanage and Rec as showing the way to--oh, hell, I don't even know what the guy was going on about.

But here we are seven months later and we have the American remake of Rec called Quarantine.

It's not bad.

Viewing it touched on a lot of themes that have been bubbling in my head since I've been computer-free at night.

  • A thread over at the Althouse had people singing the praises of watching movies at home, which (with the brood here) I can't relate to. And particularly not with horror movies, and even comedies. The audience was particularly chatty and laughy during this, which undermines my point a little.
  • There's a certain type of film I call "House of Usher" films: A sort of film where the ending is a foregone conclusion due to circumstances that occurred before the movie started. Ironically Corman's House of Usher isn't one of those films. Neither is Quarantine, even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
  • Horror movies try to do something very, very difficult. It's hard to be scared by a movie these days, and it's even hard to be horrified. We're all a little too "meta". As a result, a successful horror scene often results in laughter. (The famous "head-spider" scene in John Carpenter's The Thing, for example.) In Quarantine, there's a scene where the camera is used as an actual weapon.
I'll go a bit more into some of these ideas in a later post.

Quarantine is a good balance of terror and horror, with suspense connecting the scenes. The actors are not super-famous (there's Dexter's sister in lead--you see her getting killed in the commercials and on the movie poster, hence no real question of how this movie turns out, even before the movie starts, and there's the wattle-fetish guy from "Ally McBeal") which works in the movie's favor.

So, some firemen go to investigate a problem at a small L.A. apartment building and find tenants suffering from a mysterious disease. But when they try to get out, they can't.

Where most horror movies have the victims hoping to hold out until help arrives, in this move help arrives--and makes everything far, far worse. The idea is that the CDC has locked everyone in to contain the disease, and they've got SWAT to kill anyone who tries to escape.

How's that for a kick in the krotch?

One of the reasons this is not an "Usher" movie is that it's perfectly reasonable that the people could survive the situation, but they do a whole lot of stupid things. Like everyone sits together in the lobby with the infected. It might be understandable why the CDC would kill the outgoing phones, but it's less comprehensible why they cut the incoming cable and the power.

Also, I'm not clear on why they wouldn't try to route everyone out of the house, one at a time, since there's still a chance of escape of the disease if nothing else. I think you'd route everyone out and then burn the place down, if you were worried. Or maybe chemical bomb it. (I wonder what the actual CDC protocols are, come to think of it.)

Anyhoo. We got the standard trapped-inside-a-house deal with a little Blair Witch thrown in: We only get to see the events that transpire because Dexter's sister (heh, okay, her name is Jennifer Carpenter in real life) is a documentarian doing a story on firemen who tags along with her cameraman, expecting a routine call.

The camera is less shaky than usual, thankfully, but if you get the nausea or carsickness, you're not going to like the end at all. The camera, sensibly but annoyingly, gets shakier and shakier as the movie goes on.

This partly obscures the fact that this is a pretty tired premise used for most zombie movies, and you're really just dealing with that.

Nonetheless, it's well done. I was a little confused as to whether I was supposed to be rooting for these guys. "Yay! Get out and...infect everyone?" Isn't that the premise of the second and third Resident Evil movies?

Getting away from the fact that most horror movies are Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians", right?

I was looking for the demon baby but there really isn't one. The thing that looks like it is not a baby at all but the most recognizable guy in the movie: Doug Jones, whose miming talents (as seen in The Fantastic Four, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy I and especially II) are making him very recognizable indeed, for a guy who seldom says anything. (Kind of like how Ray Park's karate moves were so recognizable after The Phantom Menace and Sleepy Hollow.)

Anyway, it worked for me and The Boy also approved. But I don't know if it will survive the transition to small screen.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Semi-Hiatus

Laptop's in the repair shop so I'm out of commission 'less I'm on the treadmill.

Did eight hours today at .7 mph. Pretty much non-stop. I'm a little sore.

I should be back tomorrow when I get my laptop back.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Converstaions From The Living Room 6: Yeah, Who Can't Relate To That

"Why are you naked?"
"I don't know!"

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Gas-s-s-s

There are many endings.

On the one hand, it's arguable that I've never seen Gas-s-s-s because I've only ever seen it on commercial TV, and the last time was decades ago. The opening cartoon suggests something to a child that the movie itself doesn't deliver.

On the other hand, it's arguable that no one has ever seen Gas-s-s-s. Roger Corman ran off to Europe to shoot another film while this was in editing, and lambasted AIP for their editing it down to incomprehensible hash. (I want to blame Sam Arkoff, but I can't really remember who Corman held responsible.) It was the end of the road for Corman and AIP, and curiously, the end of the road for Roger Corman as a director as well.

The movie takes the Boomer motto of "Don't trust anyone over 30" and puts it into practice. In the opening credits an accident releases a gas upon the world which kills everyone over the age of 25. (Being in the credits allows us to overlook the question of what sort of accident could spread a gas across the entire face of the planet.) Also, the nature of the apocalypse is fleeting, with way too many people being around, acting normal in some scenes.

Anyway, this was doubtless meant in the dark vein of black comedies like Little Shop of Horrors, but it's after the experimentation that Corman did for The Trip, and full of the psychedelic imagery and cuts that just annoy the crap out of sober people.

Corman, for all his reputation as an exploitation guy, didn't pander in this film. Instead of some sort of utopia that his audience might have enjoyed, the world of Gas-s-s-s is more like Lord of the Flies. There's cynicism and disillusionment and nihilism, and it ends up feeling more like a world where the adults are simply being ignored rather than dead.

Apocalyptically speaking, stories that center around wiping out a particular demographic are seldom as interesting as they should be.

This movie was also a begining, being the first filmed effort of George Armitrage. Armitrage would go on to do a couple of "nurse" movies for Corman, but his writing career probably peaked with the HBO story of the battle between Leno and Letterman, The Late Shift, and his directing career certainly peaked with Grosse Pointe Blank.

There were a handful of new, future celebs in the show as well, with Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams riding across country.

In retrospect, I wonder if Corman didn't deliberately produce a junk movie because he wanted an excuse to break away from AIP, and to get out of the directing game. It'd be interesting to see a "director's cut".

It's not something you'd want to watch in the expectations of a coherent narrative.

Appaloosa

There's a scene in Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood talks about how, rather than straight gunfights in the street, assassins were more likely to shoot their target coming out of the outhouse. In Ed Harris' new movie Appaloosa, Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen kidnap Jeremy Irons after his morning, em, activities.

Cowboy movies in the past 30 years are sort of like Baroque music after Bach died. It's all been done by guys who were better at it than the modern generation, so most oaters feel warmed over and weak.

Happily, Appaloosa works and feels fresh.

Harris directs and plays Virgil Cole, a hard-nosed Have Gun Will Travel type whose sidekick Everett Hitch (Mortensen) guards his back and occasionally reins him in when he's gone too far. There's some serious good chemistry here.

Cole is straightforward and somewhat thick who only seems to be uncomfortable when made aware of his limitations, and at the same time spends time reading Emerson and asking Hitch what various words mean. Hitch is eminently practical, and respectful of Cole's abilities, almost acting as an apologist.

Cole and Hitch are hired to protect a town from the villainous Randall Bragg (Irons) who has just offed the previous sheriff's department--though he was smart enough to hide the bodies and deny it, making it impossible to bring him in.

An uneasy peace exists between Cole, Hitch and the town and Bragg and his men, who live outside of town. The peace is unsettled by a witness to the murders and, even more, the arrival of Allison French (played by Renee Zelwegger).

French dresses nicely, and plays piano (laughably badly, though no one seems to notice or care), and quickly latches on to Cole. Before you know it, though, she's making moves on Hitch. And it doesn't stop there.

As it turns out, French is one of the more interesting female characters in Westerns history. And Cole's response is equally interesting and pragmatic. This does not turn into a rather tired love triangle.

In fact, the whole movie is a bunch of interesting events framed by typical Western set-ups, but not in a contrived way either. In other words, it doesn't seem so much like they were trying to tell a story that was just contrary to Western genre clichés, but rather had a story to tell that simply hadn't been told before.

The place where a typical Western would end left about 15-20 minutes of the film; that is the action-y climax left a bunch of situations unresolved that ultimately come to a head later.

An engaging, entertaining film. I guess there's no one in it to power a big release but keep your eyes on your local indie theaters. You'll be glad you did.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Movies Spoofed In Airplane!

I've noticed that the modern Airplane!-style movies are pretty much non-stop references to other (often far, far better and even funnier) movies. But Airplane!, while it did reference other movies, didn't rely on other movies.

The Boy hadn't seen it, so we watched it and I wrote down the movie references and compared with IMDB.

Airport, of course, provides the framework. Airport '75 specifically.

Zero Hour! for the plot and love story as well as dialogue between Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty. The brilliance of using Zero Hour! was that it was an obscure 20-year-old movie that people really weren't all that familiar with. Also, the exclamation point!

Jaws for the opening.

Saturday Night Fever's dance scene.

Since You Went Away, though, like Zero Hour! the reference is so generic (a soldier leaving on his train with his girl running alongside) I'm sure few people in the audience made the connection.

From Here To Eternity for the beach makeout scene.

Folgers (?) coffee commercials.

Pinocchio, sort of, when Leslie Nielsen lies to the passengers. Less the movie than the concept of one's nose growing.

"60 minutes" Point/Counterpoint, of course.

Knute Rockne: Win one for the Zipper.

Just doing a quick count on the IMDB "movie connections" page, I see 33 references and spoofs for Airplane! and a whopping 55 for the unbearable Epic Movie. Airplane!'s references include unlikely allegations such as Peter Graves' dialogue with Joey matching Alan Ladd and Brandon De Wilde's in Shane, and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" which consists of one line where Johnny says "Like Mr. Rogers?" Silver Streak and "The Big Valley" are also listed, but I don't see the connection. Most of the rest are airplane-disaster related movies, and I'm doubtful that they're all true.

Allowing for a similar share of crap in the Epic Movie entry, from what I've been able to watch of it, Epic Movie is basically a series of bits where the characters move from one movie to another and there's nothing really holding the whole thing together. In the first ten minutes, you get The Da Vinci Code, Nacho Libre, Snakes on a Plane and the X-Men, to introduce the four characters, withthem all coming together in a Willy Wonka movie. One of the characters is even killed in the Wonka scene, but it doesn't take.

Airplane! allows Zero Hour! to hold its story together and uses a whole bunch of original, non-referential sight gags, especially puns (the turkey in the range) and literalizations (the fecal matter and the ventilation device) and of course the running gags ("What is it?", "I'm not kidding", "I picked the wrong week...").

I don't think it's coincidental that Airplane! has never been surpassed (except arguably for a few episodes of the "Police Squad" show) in the genre it created, not even by the guys who created it. Part of it, especially at the time, was that it was completely unexpected. Even the subsequent Top Secret!--which in some ways I prefer to Airplane!--had to deal with the fact that the genre wasn't new any more.

David Zucker is probably the most successful at doing the same style comedies. I actually didn't like the first Scary Movies, but found myself laughing at the (largely Wayon-free) third, which I attribute to Zucker taking over the reins. And I may be the only one who liked BASEketball but it had an entirely different feel from the others in the genre.

Jerry Zucker found considerable success with his blockbuster Ghost, which wasn't intentionally funny at all, and his Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-remake Rat Race! did all right, too.

Jim Abrahams did the amusing Ruthless People, and the touching First Do No Harm--actually, he's done a lot to make people aware of the ketogenic diet. His last foray into Airplane!-style comedy was the odd Jane Austen's Mafia! He also did the rather successful Hot Shots! movies.

It would be interesting to have the three get back together--I note that David Zucker brought Abrahams in on the Scary Movie 4 screenplay--but I wonder if, 30 years later, they're even the same people who made those original wacky flicks.

Meanwhile, Friedberg and Selzer, who've been making the "[blank] Movie" movies have been squandering the capital of the entire genre, making increasingly unsuccessful and unfunny movies.

It's probably time for a whole new genre.

UPDATE: One thing I left out in my appreciation of Airplane! is Elmer Bernstein's score. Like the rest of the movie, it's played pretty straight, which works better than a lot of goofy Mickey Mouse-ing around would have.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Creating New Worlds

Part of the fun of writing--and a big part of the reason I gravitated to D&D, I'm sure--is the building of new worlds. Tearing down worlds can be fun and interesting, too, and any society is growing and dying at the same time, in different ways.

The USA, right now, shows incredible growth in terms of small business and a growing consciousness of independence, as well as death in its institutions and religious tradition. (In institutional terms, "death" is less about non-existence and more about atrophying in a way that strangles society.) This intricate balletmosh pit is one of the things that draws me to simulations as well.

In writing, however, the interesting part is figuring out how society would emerge given a particular set of conditions. One of my first novels was focused on robots, and how humanity would deal with a world where robots did everything and what sort of humans would interact with this world while at the same time rejecting it. This was done in a hard-boiled detective style--probably overly derivatively so--but Troop might have liked it, because one of the premises I came up with was that human servants (and particularly hookers) would be a tremendous luxury.

I wrote another short story that prefigured The Matrix. Only the way I had it worked out, humans hadn't been enslaved by machines, they had just preferred virtual reality and retired into it. (The Matrix had a better movie plot, for sure. I had the Devil's own time creating drama out of a planet of couch potatoes.)

Since I can't put (metaphorical) pen to paper yet on my Cowboy Barbarian Sex Yogurt Unicorn novel, I've been thinking about the sorts of societies that would exist, given the conditions I've set up for the story.

I don't want to spoil too much so let's look at, say, Deadwood. David Milch went over the top in his portrayal of the town, which was far more civil--and certainly didn't swear like that. (But I realized instantly, and have since confirmed, that the whole point of the swearing was because the actual swearing of the time would have created outright laughs at critical points.)

But the basic premise--what a lawless 19th century city would've looked like, especially with some seriously ethically impaired characters in power--was solid.

I'm looking a lot to the 19th century for the "cowboy" part of the story, and thinking of how morally rigorous the Old West was, at least in places, but also how the morality adapted to the times. For example, most people know that Mormons traditionally allowed polygamy, but few people seem to realize that one of the chief stimuli for it was the limited options a woman had when her husband died.

Another important issue: In the Old West, there was more space than anything. The Cowboy Mythology, like Horror Mythology, relies on isolation. (In Horror it's usually an isolated individual or small group.) The great empires of Europe were densely packed by comparison and had a lot of trade traffic, at least relative to the sparsely populated Old West. And America was less held together in the early years by the circulation of officials and more by the idea of America.

In other situations, the same space would yield what? Fiefdoms, I'd imagine, or small communities much like the little towns of the Old West, but perhaps with walls like medieval Europe (depending on the hostility of the surroundings and the level of technology).

But the technology is the thing, isn't it? Old West communities didn't have walls, unless they were forts. However hostile the Indians and outlaws might have been, it wasn't enough to (in most cases) keep people from settling out in wide open spaces. Guns are probably to thank for that. So what if they didn't have guns?

In D&D, magic is primarily focused on stuff that comes in handy while adventuring. But if magic technology were something that could be developed, and if there were artifacts to be found, the most prized magic would be the stuff that emulates industrial and post-industrial revolution technology: You'd have spells for more crops, disease and wound curing, transportation--well, what in D&D were largely clerical spells. (D&D and other RPGs introduce a kind of mass-market magic without ever really exploring how it changes the world.)

It's not just high fantasy, of course: If we had Superman available to us, wouldn't we use him to help bail out the economy? 10 years until we could get oil? Ha! Superman could get it in 10 days, and he'd know exactly where to drill, thank you X-ray vision!

Now, here's an interesting question for the Economics types: What are the defining circumstances of a situation? In other words, given a universe with a particular set of properties (fecundity and variety of animals, plants, humans; quality and quantity of physical space, materials, technology; nature and depth of philosophies, religions, morals), what creates a particular community?

For example, the Jews were able to do in Israel what the Arabs never cared to or were able to. The new Israelis had nothing other than a mindset--including a sense of ethnic survival risk--that the Arabs didn't, or couldn't have gotten. (The Palestinians even trashed what the Israelis had build when it was turned over to them.)

Or, the Native Americans had two huge continents to roam over, yet settled in only a few places, and evolved a bloody and pessimistic worldview. Or did they have the worldview, and that kept them from settling?

Of course, sometimes I just sit down and write without thinking of any of this kind of crap. But there are still 3 weeks to go. Heh.

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