Wednesday, May 27, 2009

MOVIES- Terminator: Salvation

A Review.

It’s really a shame that since Cameron left the franchise each TERMINATOR movie has gotten steadily worse than the last. I don’t know how much potential the series really ever had. The second movie was arguably better than the first but only because it was a remake of the first with an appropriate budget. The set pieces didn’t change much (Arnold steals somebody’s clothes, gets a motorcycle to look cool riding around on, has a number of car chases where somebody chases a car on foot, somebody drives a truck through stuff, various vehicles blow up real good, some cyborg gets alternately fried and frozen) and while the first was inventive, the second was impressive. Then Cameron figured that continuing to do the same movie over and over wasn’t really the way he wanted his career to go. Other, less talented people didn’t feel the same way. The third movie had desperation written all over it. “Lets give John Connor a love interest!” “Howsabout we have a girl terminator this time?” “Don’t forget the truck chase, it’s tradition!” But at least the third movie tried to add a little to the mythos with the surprise (yawn) ending of having the war start while emo John Connor and his squeeze (a totally wasted Claire Danes) twiddle their thumbs at the bottom of a bomb shelter.

The fourth movie couldn’t even be bothered to do that. Instead it’s just a lot of blowing things up and running around fighting a war that is surprisingly little seen. I actually caught myself nodding off in the theater! All the set pieces are there, even a completely stupid scene where John Connor hijacks an automated motorcycle sentry by using a trick that was old when they used it in 1920s westerns, and then pulls something off the top of it and drives away on it. Did nobody wonder why an autonomous motorcycle would have controls to allow a human to use it? But they didn’t seem to put any thought into anything else in the movie, so why start there? The storyline consists of pulling bits and pieces off the first two movies and reshooting them. Even little bits of business like a terminator driving a truck with a broken windshield and pushing it out so that he can see the road. And if you are looking for a war movie where a rag tag group of freedom fighters squares off against a horde of artificially intelligent killing machines, rent the ANIMATRIX and watch THE SECOND RENAISSANCE parts 1 and 2. It’s much better and actually had some thought put into it.

Director McG and writers John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris don’t limit themselves to only stealing from the first two Terminator movies and old westerns, they also lift from the Abyss and even include a giant Transformer that appears to be made of junk and can’t shoot worth a damn. Christian Bale also steals his performance from a block of wood, never managing to evoke any sympathy or charisma for his character. Not that there is much chance for that to happen in the script. The one thing that the filmmakers didn’t bother to steal was Cameron’s attempt to put a human face on the conflict. There are no character defining moments like the love story in the first movie or the boy gets mechanical killing machine surrogate father subplot in the second. Even when there are places where such relationships might grow they are announced and then discarded. (Mostly because they don’t make sense. Tell me, are you honestly going to fall in love with somebody right away and then remain faithful to your feelings when you find out he’s a robot designed to kill you? Talk about abusive relationships!) The result is that the movie has as much soul as Skynet itself. With no characters to care about and nothing interesting in the plot it seems more like spending two hours at a combined gun show/Nascar race than a movie.

It seems obvious why the movie is called TERMINATOR: SALVATION. It’s nothing but an attempt to salvage a dying franchise. Obviously nobody gave a damn about making a movie, just putting the corpse of the previous movies on life support until they could harvest the organs. And they are so sure there is still money to suck out this cadaver that it even ends with a flock of helicopters flying into the sunset and a John Connor voiceover that basically says, “Tune in next time for more thrilling adventures.” Too bad nobody connected to the film bothered to give anyone any reason to see this movie or the inevitable sequels they have planned. Almost everything J.J. Abrams did right in his reboot of Star Trek, McG ignores in this retread. It’s dead, Jim.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MOVIES- Star Trek lives

(Might be spoilers here, but not of plot points.)

So, I finally saw Star Trek at the 10:20 PM show at the local cinema. I was surprised by a number of things, not the least of which was that it was almost a private showing. I saw Watchmen twice the first week (one digital and one IMAX) and the theater was packed both times even though both were matinees. Last night there were only two other people in the theater. I did pick the last showing on a Monday night to avoid the crowds, I just didn’t expect to be that successful.

It’s gonna be hard to discuss this movie without giving anything away that might ruin it for anyone. But the novelty of having a Star Trek movie that actually has the potential to surprise anyone is so unique that it’s worth preserving. Episodic television is perhaps the most formulaic and cliché prone form of entertainment in history. So usually TV shows rely on soap opera or the likability of the cast to attract viewers. The problem with doing that with SF is that it has not traditionally been character driven, instead depending on strangeness to draw an audience. Shows like Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 have tried to overcome that by placing more emphasis on character and striving to have plotlines that actually change the status quo over the course of the seasons. But back in the 60s the constraints of television were to rigid for the latter, even though Star Trek was perhaps the first genre series to attempt the former. When Roddenbury, and perhaps even more importantly, Gene Coon, established the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate as action-intellect-emotion (or id-superego-ego for you Freudians) it was one of the first times in SF TV or movies that the characters were anything other than their job descriptions. Sure, it was two-dimensional, but in a format where one-dimensional was the norm it was still a whole lot better.

Which isn’t to say that the show wasn’t full of cliches. We all know better. You could write a book on all the plot devices ST beat to death- Kirk’s cosmic libido, Spock’s raised eyebrow, driving computers mad with illogic, planets that parallel earth in every aspect but one, last minute technological solutions as a literal deus ex machina, beam me up, I’m a doctor not a -, fascinating, godlike alien menaces, people in other people’s bodies, time travel, the list goes on and on. OTOH, for every cliché they made famous it seems there was a new (for TV in those days) idea somewhere too. Multi-cultural crewmembers, women in positions of power, a military that was more diplomatic corps than fighting corps, continuing setting SF with aspects of the anthology series’ morality plays, aliens that weren’t monsters but instead just thought differently than we did, a non-imperialist philosophy of non-interference, heck, even the idea of taking it all seriously was different. It’s hard to imagine it now, but ST’s main competition was LOST IN SPACE! LOST IN for God’s sake SPACE! A “space family Robinson” with kids and a pet mad scientist and robot comedy team, marooned on a planet made from cardboard rocks that was visited every week by a space aliens which ranged from pirates to sentient rutabagas. And the ratings were neck and neck!

But because they took it seriously, it’s hard not to say that ST was the most influential SF in history. Computers you could talk to, Space “Shuttles”, communicators that look like cell phones (or vice versa), medical equipment built right into beds, there’s a lot of our world in that crazy old television show. And perhaps that’s a lot of the problem. The new things in ST became cliches as well. Until just about all that was left after six TV series and ten movies were the cliches. So Paramount gave the franchise over to J.J. Abrams for a restart.

If you’ve read the reviews you know that they have been almost universally positive. Rotten Tomatoes has a composite score or 95%. There’s no basis for comparison between this and previous ST movies since the tomatometer only goes back to 2002 and the only other ST movie is Nemesis (at a deserved 35%). But considering first weekend grosses and all the praise, this looks to be the most successful movie in the history of the series, beating out ST IV- So Long and Thanks for All the Whales.

The problem is that the movie doesn’t really deserve it. It isn’t a great movie. Hell, it isn’t even the best movie of the series. I suspect that a lot of the praise is the result of closet fans, who had grown so tired of the cliches that they just couldn’t go there again, being relieved that they could come back through the door and keep their self-respect. Not that the movie is bad. For a Star Trek movie it’s in the top three. And not that Abrams didn’t do a hell of a job walking the tightrope he had in front of him. Most of the roads taken by other reboots in the last years weren’t really open to him. Had he stunt-cast Spock as a woman or shown us a dark, gritty, morally ambiguous Federation I have no doubt that he would have been burned at the next ComiCon as a heretic. More than that, he would have made something that wasn’t Star Trek. Trek was never really science fiction; it was space opera- Roddenberry’s western in space. It took itself seriously but never too seriously. It wasn’t afraid to have a little fun on the way to places no one had ever gone before. Abrams greatest success may be that he kept that lightheartedness intact.

Abrams ST isn’t so much a reboot (though it is that in a literal sense which is one of the most clever things about it) as it is a remake. And ironically for the prodigal fans who think they can now return to the fold, all the cliches are still there. ALL the cliches. But it’s OK because they are all turned just enough to make them seem fresh again. The whole movie is an odd combination of familiarity and disorientation. You’ve seen it all before, but you have no idea what’s going to happen next. Once again, for the first time, there’s a sense that you can be surprised by what’s about to happen and it allows you to actually give a damn again. And that’s what’s been missing from Trek for a long time.

So it’s still Star Trek. Ah, but therein lies the rub. It still has all the old gotchas plus a couple of new ones. Star Trek has always been something you had to take at face value. If you start asking questions like “Doesn’t transwarp teleportation make spaceships obsolete?” or “Howcum Checkov knows more about using the transporter than the transporter crew?” you start to treat it as a real movie rather than as Star Trek. Just as I suspect a lot of the praise if born of relief that it’s not a failure, I suspect that as soon as the shine starts to wear off a lot of fans are going to go back to that age-old tradition of picking the nits. I’ve always felt that was one of the enjoyable things about ST. It wasn’t afraid to make fun of itself so it invited the fans to poke a little fun at it as well. So, in that spirit, a few other questions and observations that occurred to me.

Again, doesn't transwarp teleport make spaceships obsolete?

And why do the innerds of every spaceship look like a water treatment plant or metal refinery?

Why levitate spacecraft over the Iowa plains when you could, I dunno, build them in orbit? It's a cool shot but doesn't make much sense. Plus, the enterprise would have to be built out of neutronium to support it’s own weight in a gravity well.

Just how big are these spacecraft anyway? The Kelvin had 800 crewmembers on board? Then how many does the Enterprise hold? It’s the new flagship, so you’d imagine it was bigger. No wonder everybody runs everywhere in the corridors. Thing’s probably a half mile long.

And what’s with the magical technology like "Red Matter" that creates quantum black holes. Set the doubletalk generators to kill. I also have a problem with the inertial dampeners on the transporters. If you can’t account for gains and losses of potential and kinetic energy then a lot of crewmembers are going to materialize only to fly off the pad and hit the opposite wall of the room like a water balloon dropped from the Sears Tower. Somehow you can beam from a planet to a ship going hundreds of times the speed of light without a problem but when you beam up someone who is falling you can take away just enough of their kinetic energy to keep them from being killed hitting the floor but not enough to keep them from hitting the floor altogether.

Why does everybody know more about transporter technology than the transporter crew? Checkov (Checkov, for pity's sake) has to leave the helm to show the transporter experts how it's done. OTOH, I can live with Scotty reinventing transporter technology from a character point. He always was a whiz with those things (like the way he saved himself so he could do a guest shot on TNG) but Checkov?

Sulu can't remember to take off the parking break!

Gravity sucks, inverse square law be dammed. And the final escape is a silly as TOS Kirk driving computers insane with bad syllogisms every three months. I’m not going to say how they did it but it was stupid and implausible in every way.

The new costumes are kinda ugly. The new Enterprise is kinda ugly. The new bridge is kinda ugly. I know they had to put their artistic stamp on the look of the movie, I just don’t agree with some of the aesthetic choices. One of the things that set the original series apart was the design. The Enterprise wasn’t really like any other spaceship before it and had the kind of clean simplicity of design that has survived near infinite variation for over 40 years. This one looks like just another fan drawn variation for variation’s sake. Likewise the new bridge is a mess. The pleasing design and simplicity of the round, split level design and the strong lines and shapes have been replaced with a crowded mess. Why is there somebody in a phone booth over Kirk’s right shoulder? Is the thing actually round or what, you can’t really tell. And what the heck are those red gee-gaws on the helm? They look like the taillights of a 1950s Buick.

And did they actually put a big picture window in the front of the bridge? Even if it doubles as a viewscreen, a window?

Bottom line? It's a good Star Trek movie. Go see it. But don't expect it to be a great movie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

POLITICS- Dejon Mustard

Cummon. Is this the best the party of William Buckley can do nowadays? You’ve convinced the majority of Americans that you are completely incompetent. Are you not willing to stop until you’ve convinced everyone but your idiotic followers that you have gone full retard? You never go full retard! But there is no way else to interpret this

“On the May 7 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show, Steyn said of Obama's condiment selection: "He's amazing, Obama. This coverage -- he's a regular guy. He eats a hamburger with Dijon mustard -- Dijon mustard. John Kerry couldn't get away with that stuff, but he makes it seem like just like a regular thing to do. Now there's -- I see that some of the left-wing commentators are saying, 'Why are people making a fuss about the Dijon mustard?' but that's just an example of the way Obama is able to enlighten us."

[I pause here to say that (a) no left-wing commentator that I am aware of has said this and (b) how fucking stupid do you have to be to think that you can be "enlightened" by mustard? But this answer to the latter is obviously "as stupid as this guy".]

Later in the program, Steyn stated: "I deeply resent Barack Obama crashing in as the Grey Poupon spokesperson, because that has been the lifesaver for non-American voiceover artists in this country for years -- getting the gig doing the Grey Poupon voiceover." He added: "[I]f you can't outsource Grey Poupon to foreigners, what can you outsource? And instead now he's apparently the big Grey Poupon spokesperson, putting it all -- putting it all over his hamburger. Barack Obama -- that was -- what was that? That was yesterday, Barack Obama had a hamburger. I don't know what he may do today to prove -- to pass for human."

So Obama isn’t human because he likes mustard that isn’t pure yellow- like Rush Limbaugh and his stooges- (Dijon mustard- the commie!) rather than ketchup on his burger! Is there any evidence that the right wing wants to tell you what you can and can’t do on the most intimate level than this? Submit! Only we know what is the proper condiment to have on your food. If you thought freedom was having the government tell you how to worship the creator, who you could love and marry, what words you could say, and look at the books you took out of the library, how you used your credit card, what conversations you're having on the phone, and what you should write in e-mails wasn’t enough, now the rich, fat, white guys who have made a living telling you that rich, fat, white guys aren’t the problem have decided what the proper garnish is for your hamburger.

Really? Tell me Rush, am I holding my dick the right way when I take a piss? I’m sure you hold yours with tweezers but somehow I can't seem to manage that. Perhaps that’s why I don’t think I should be interested in WHAT FUCKING CONDIMENT PEOPLE USE ON THEIR FOOD!

All this talk about personal freedom and tyranny and all these shitheads want to do is tell everybody else how to live. It's the same thing with gay marrage. There is a simple reason I don't care if gay people want to get married. I’M NOT A HOMOSEXUAL. In fact, the only way I can imagine being interested in gay men, in any way other than to thank them for taking themselves out of the competition for women I might want, is to be friends with them because they are decent human beings. I’ve got news for you Rush and all you right wingers who think you ought to be telling everybody else how they can live their lives- self-confident people DON’T CARE! I asked a gay friend several years ago why so many men were so threatened by homosexuality. His answer, without a microsecond of hesitation, was that they were fighting their own impulses to take it in the keister. Truthfully, I couldn’t understand that anymore than I could understand hating gay people for their sexual preferences. It actually doesn’t come up in casual conversation with even intimate friends. “So, Bob, you’ve been married for 15 years. Do you do it doggy style or what?” just hasn’t been a conversation I’ve ever been a party to. In fact, I’ve only discussed my sexual preferences with a sexual partner, and then only in bed (or on the couch, or the floor, or the woods, or in the car, or…well- you get the idea). If you really think sex is something sublime and sacred and intimate then you don’t discuss it in casual conversation. And if you think it isn't anything but a pleasurable pastime you don’t need to be talking about God in the same sentence unless you are screaming his name in the midst of the act. OK, Rush (and Hannity and all the other anacephalics at FOX who are going through withdrawal because they have quit being taken seriously because of all the inane shit like this that they've said over the last decade) I understand that you are still plumbing the depths of the stupidest redneck element of the American population. The kind of people who will turn out to protest a tax hike on people making over a quarter of a million dollars a year even though they just got a tax break and would have to think for a few seconds before they could tell you how many zeros a quarter of a million has (and the answer, from the teabagger’s turnout, seems to be less that .005. I wanted so badly to take my videocamera and ask the local protest of mentally and mathematically challenged sheeple how many of them made over $250.000 annually and whether they realized that they had already gotten a tax cut from Obama, but unfortunately I had to work.)

But anyway, back to the important point- which mustard is the most patriotic? Personally, I like Dejon mustard. In fact, I like the brown mustard that has horseradish in it. So obviously I must be a socialist-fascist-terrorist. Nothing else would make sense. It can’t just be that I like a little spice on my burger. My burger has to be a symptom of deeper hatred of America. Yeah, that’s it. My taste buds must hate America. And I wasn’t even aware of it! Thank you for pointing out that my taste buds are traitors and that you are marginally smarter than they are. Not as smart as my dog, but a little, little bit smarter than the papilla on my tongue.

Imagine how many votes you could get if you were as smart as the neurons in my big toe!

I don't want to be accused of advocating violence but truthfully, if you have been taken in by the right wing rhetoric for the last few years, do the species a favor and take one of those guns you love so much an put it in your mouth. After you pull the trigger you will have done the best thing for mankind that you have probably ever done. You will have raised the average IQ by a small, but measurable percentage. I know you love to think, talk, and post about how liberals are stupid but it's not them that's buying the bullshit. The saving grace of being a moron is that you get to think you are as smart as everyone else because you aren't smart enough to tell the difference. And while the kind of mustard you like isn't indicative of anything but the kind of mustard you like, thinking it might be, even for a minute, is sure an indicator of teh stupid. God, it even sounds like a National Enquirer article- "The Kind of Mustard You Like Reveals Your Personality!".

Think about the gun in the mouth thing. If you think liking Dejon mustard is a political statement then the taste of hard, blue gunmetal is the only solution.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog shows Mamma Mia How It Should Be Done

So who says they can’t make a 46 minute superhero musical that is cool and rocks? Well, I guess nobody ever said that, now that I think of it. But IF “they” had said it, “they” would have been WRONG.

Yah, I know. This is old. It was first released almost 10 months ago, which is about five and a half years in dog time and roughly that much in internet time as well. (Its funny, until the internet the only people who worried about being the first to check out new media were high school and college age kids. Grown-ups were busy with unimportant stuff like career and family and knew that if you saw a movie or read a book you could talk about it with other people who had enjoyed it for months, if not years afterward. Now everybody is texting and twittering and the discussion space on the net has shrunk to only a few days. The result is that everybody now has the attention span of a 12 year old.) In those ten months the film paid for itself (almost a quarter of a million dollars- in case you thought you could be an internet video sensation without big name stars or a sizable wad of cash and without being hit in the nuts in a new and entertaining way), and won a Hugo and a slew of other awards (including being #4 on Time Magazine's list of best television in spite of never being closer to a television than your computer monitor- new media, who knew?). Neil Patrick Harris is a known singer, having been in numerous Broadway shows such as CABERET and RENT, but if you are only familiar with his TV appearances you might be surprised at his vocal power. Other surprises are Nathan Fillion’s (from Firefly) ability to sing and the smaller part of Moist played by Simon Helberg who plays Wallowitz on the sitcom THE BIG BANG THEORY (and who here portrays a supervillan with the most useless power since Marvel Comics’ Black Hole in Howard the Duck, who had the rallying cry “The Black Hole SUCKS!”). It also features Felicia Day, an excellent singer who has those kind of accessible good looks that geeks go nuts for. And Judd and Zack Weadon, brothers of Joss Weadon and masterminds of this madness, as the Cowboy henchmen singers singing one of the best lyrics ever written:

The Evil League of Evil
is watching so beware,
the grade that you receive’ll
be the last we swear,
so make the Bad Horse gleeful
or he'll make you his mare...

Not since Slim Shady rhymed orINges with syrINges has there been a more inventive rhyme than “evil” and “receive will”.

Anyway, to the folks who read this blog (all two of you) I encourage you to see this if you already haven’t (and if you are reading this blog you probably haven’t because looking to me for what’s new on the web is like asking your grandmother about sex- she might not know the newest positions but she has a pretty good idea about what works and what doesn’t). We strive for quality, not novelty.

And because NBC has decided, for reasons only bureaucratic managers could understand, not to allow SNL to be embedded, you have to click on this link. Even if you don’t like people pretending to play musical instruments you should stay for the punchline.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

MOVIES- The Wrestler

During the last winter I watched quite a few movies, but didn’t write much about them. And during the springing of spring I’ve been too busy with a new work schedule and enjoying time in my 350Z convertible tanning bed to do much writing either. (One recent trip started as an expedition to invesigate the mysteriously named town of Ozone, TN and wound up instead encompassing parts of TN, KY, and VA before arriving home long after dark. All that meandering and I never wound up actually making it to Ozone. In spite of a desire to walk into the local café and address the people there by saying, “Ozonians! Take me to your leader!” in my best Darth Vader voice.)

But time on the night shift, the release of the Best Picture nominees on Blu-Ray, and almost two weeks of rain have allowed for some rumination. As always, my reviews are not so much reviews as examinations and, as usual, are long after the fact.

One of the most affecting films I’ve seen lately is THE WRESTLER, the story of an end-of-the-road entertainer who acheved fame in the 1980s in what would eventually be referred to as “sports entertainment”. Mickey Rourke, in a title role it’s hard not to say he was meant to play, was nominated for an Oscar for his work in this film. If his performance wasn’t such as tour de force it could easily have been obscured by the parallels with his own career, but that doesn’t seem to happen because he is so powerful and perfectly cast. Instead his acting seems informed by the similarities of his career and the story of this aging has-been. Rourke gives an understated, sympathetic, touching, and brave performance here. And did I leave out believable? I shouldn’t have. I haven’t seen Sean Penn’s turn as Harvey Milk yet, but if it’s better than this it should go down as one of the greatest pieces of acting in the history of cinema because here Mickey Rourke so completely vanishes into his character that you sometimes forget you are watching a movie. As I’ve said, such a self referential role should have you constantly thinking of the path that must have led from the handsome, stylish rogue who seduced Kim Basenger in 9 ½ WEEKS to the battered, worn, down on his luck non-fighter who fills the screen in this movie. It’s a tribute to pure acting that you don’t.

The funny thing is that Rourke isn’t the only comeback in this movie. Marisa Tomei was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. My first guess would have been that the Academy was finally through punishing her for her win as Best Supporting Actress for MY COUSIN VINNY, but truthfully I think it’s more that the work she does here is also so powerful that they simply couldn’t ignore it. Not only is she the sexiest woman in a movie last year, in spite of being long past Hollywood’s typical ‘Use By’ date for female actors, but she is charming, funny, and nearly naked a great deal of the time. Sure, she’s beautiful. Sure, she’s aged far better than most of the women of her generation. Sure, she was gifted to start with. But here she not only proves her chops as an actor, but also throws shit in the plastic faces of so many other cowardly women who have succumbed to the fear of aging and allowed themselves to be mutilated into walking characatures. As a man who once talked his wife out of having bags of goo shoved into her chest because he felt that changing her amazing natural beauty could only be vandalism, all I can say is- You Go, Girl.

But I can’t help but feel that in the hands of a less gifted director this would have still come out as a superficial melodrama. Luckily Darren Aronofsky was up to the task. I liked his feature film debut, PI, but thought that it was rather contrived. The visual style and techno editing style were interesting, and perfectly in tune with this rather disjointed narrative but I didn’t find it moving. Likewise, in THE FOUNTAIN he also indulged himself in a directorial vision that was appropriate but almost too clever for it’s own good. But here he shows that appropriateness was always his intention, rather than just showing off by drawing attention to himself. Here he approaches a film from 180 degrees the other direction. Oh, the artifice is still there. But as he moves the camera in an almost documentarian fashion, following the characters through their arcs as he frequently follows them literally, shooting their backs as they walk from place to place, he accents the realism of the performances and script by carrying that realism forward almost subliminally. The cinematography is harsh, the set dressing is exquisite, and the camera never draws attention to itself. For instance, in one scene he shows Randy (The Ram) Robinson at a convention of Professional Wrestling greats held in a VFW hall. The folding tables are set in a semi-circle to allow the adoring fans access. Numerous over-the-hill wrestling ex-greats sit behind stacks of posters, tee-shirts, and VHS tapes to eek a few more dollars from their dying legacies. As Rourke’s character scans the room and realizes how many of the other “celebrities” are in wheelchairs, or are damaged, or are just plain old, the camera takes his POV to show the audience what he sees. The effect is subtle, but profound. A master stroke from a director who isn’t as interested in drawing attention to himself as he is in telling a story and drawing the viewer into an alternate reality. Shots like this one fill the movie. Randy working behind the counter at the deli in the grocery store. Randy alone in his trailer. Randy at the strip club. Randy being uncomfortable in the second hand clothing store. Aronofsky never takes you out of the lead characters mind for a moment. And as a result, he leads you to that character’s fate as if it was your own. Before this movie I was afraid that Aronofsky was too impressed with his own intelligence for his own good. Now I see that he’s just too smart for his own good. But you’ll see me in the front row on opening night of his next movie. Hellishly smart directors might not be mainstream successes but they get my business every time.

So if you are the kind of moviegoer who likes things dumbed down to rating movies by the direction of thumbs, or the number of stars, or some other kind of arbitrary graph, well, you probably aren’t the kind of movie buff that would ever come to this site. But if you want to see masterful performances, stories that are more involved with the human condition than explosions, or great experiences and tales told in a way that only film can tell them- see THE WRESTLER and marvel at how involving these things can be when everyone involved is at the absolute top of their game.

And if you want to know what it will be like when you approach the half century mark and your life is losing the shine of youth but you still have to live in a world where youth is valued over wisdom and the young still grapple with lessons life has long since taught you, see THE WRESTLER.

And if you think that life is over after the kids have grown up and you realize that you never been an astronaut or discovered the cure for cancer and so your life was wasted, see THE WRESTLER.

And if you are young and think none of those things could ever happen to you, see THE WRESTLER.

And if you find yourself in Hollywood Video and just want to see a great movie, see THE WRESTLER.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

MOVIES- The Spirit is Weak

I had looked forward to the Spirit movie last year but I was ill for the week it was in theaters so I didn’t get a chance to see it. I wasn’t a great fan of the original material but I respect Eisner’s contribution to the art of sequential narrative (comic books to people who never read the Comics Journal) and had been a fan of Frank Miller’s work since Daredevil. If you carefully parse the tenses and voices in that last sentence you’ll get a pretty good idea of where I stand on this movie.

No spoilers this time because there is simply nothing to spoil. I doubt that Miller will be given a chance to make more movies after this one, but if he does we have a director that rivals Ed Wood in creative potential. And this movie should be seen for the same reasons that one watches Wood’s movies- the joy of indulging yourself in a bad movie for the joy of watching it crash and burn. The same guilty joy one gets from rubbernecking at a car wreck on the highway. In fact, the setting where the Spirit meets the Octopus is so reminiscent of the graveyard set in Plan 9 From Outer Space that one wonders if Miller isn’t in some stage of his career where he is attempting to deconstruct his own work. Dark Knight Returns Again (or whatever it was called) and All-Star Batman and Robin are compelling evidence that’s what is going on. It’s just a shame that, in the process of pissing down his own leg, he wound up pissing on Will Eisner, one of the truly great comic artists of all time. And one of the few who was able to continue growing as an artist and keep himself from being eaten by his own style, unlike such comic greats as Neal Adams, Gil Kane, and Miller himself.

For the fan of Miller or Eisner or comic history, the movie does have some interesting bits. Firstly, Miller has completely abandoned Eisner’s style and substituted his own. Secondly, Miller has taken the idea of using his comic work as a storyboard, an idea used well in Sin City and 300, to its ultimate conclusion. Third, Miller has given us the ultimate realization of what comic book writing is like when displaced into another medium. And lastly, Miller has given us a stronger argument against the “cinematic comic” than Alan Moore did in Watchmen, and done it from the other side. All of these are fascinating glimpses into the connection between comics and movies, although it is debatable how many of them Miller was actually trying to accomplish.

This movie is not Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Not any more than the movie called Issac Asimov’s I, Robot was actually anything like Asimov’s robot stories. There are characters who have the same names as the ones in Eisner’s work (though Ebony is mercifully absent) and the situation is superficially the same. But Eisner’s lighthearted tone isn’t there. The only evidence of his work is the influence it made on Miller. What is abundantly evident is the style of Miller’s later negative space, black-and-white work. The visual style is also straight out of Sin City as well. Gone are the flowing prose, bright colors and wry humor of Eisner’s work, replaced by “Frank Miller’s The Spirit”. Eisner’s work was truly cinematic. Panel sizes didn’t change much, but perspective did- here they don’t. Movement was translated to the static page by moving the POV of the camera rather than invoking movement through the frame- here it doesn’t. And even the trademark Spirit logo, which took on a different architectural aspect in every story, is reduced to a vaguely three-dimensional font supported by bricks. Eisner’s art is forced through the strainer of Miller’s latter day simplicity and the result is that all the blood is drained out of it, leaving only the bare bones and little meat behind.

Frank Miller’s The Spirit is basically a moving fumetti. Not only does it use the black-and-white-with-a-single-spot-color style of the Sin City comic, but it is basically filmed in static shots. When the camera does move it’s usually a horizontal pan, lengthening the frame in the same way Miller’s work often uses grossly wide or tall panels to evoke movement. The result is that if you take a still frame from each camera set up you basically have the storyboards with nothing missing. All the Miller clichés are there- women with their asses stuck out and one breast in profile, silhouette cityscapes with a wooden water tower on every building (sometimes two or three on a single rooftop), faces that scowl up through knitted eyebrows, characters standing in front of static impressionist backgrounds doing nothing. The movie includes every Millerism but the kitchen sink (no, wait, the Spirit actually throws a kitchen sink at the Octopus in one scene, and if there was any evidence of subtlety in the entire movie I’d think it was a nod to Kitchen Sink Publishers, who reprinted the Spirit comics in the 1980’s, but there isn’t so I don’t).

As much as the movie looks like a parody of a Miller comic, the script sounds like a parody of Miller’s comic writing. The opening monologue where the Spirit waxes moronic about his love affair with his city (“She gives me everything I need.”) is so full of purple prose that it rivals the infamous line from All-Star Batman and Robin- “I’m the goddammed Batman!” You can get away with this kind of shit in a comic book where the whole thing requires an exaggerated sense of willing disbelief. After all, the words are often, for instance, coming out of the mouth of an alien who flies around under his own power wearing a bright blue skintight suit with big red boots and a bath towel around his neck. But try to read even good comic book dialogue out loud and it quickly becomes obvious that, as the actors in Star Wars said about Lucas’ script, “You can type this stuff but you can’t say it.” Miller fills every mouth with words that can only be considered as camp but never allows anyone to put their tongue in their cheek while they are saying it. Camp is hard to do because if the audience doesn’t get it, it just looks stupid. Luc Besson did it almost perfectly in The Fifth Element (and a lot of folks still didn’t get it), Mike Hodges did pretty well by turning Flash Gordon into a gay pride parade, and even in THE SPIRIT the film comes close toward the end. But I’m afraid that by that time most people have lost the thread. The woman I saw it with turned it off after the first half hour, and she’s sat through some pretty weird movies in her day. It doesn’t help that the look of the film is so close to the movie Sin City, with it’s over the top film noir. Perhaps if Miller really wanted to do more lighthearted camp he might have stayed closer to Eisner’s look and color palate. As it is, it just comes off as bad.

So Miller’s SPIRIT winds up, in some ironic way, being the fourth movie in a quatralogy of movies in the last year that have basically encapsulated the path of comics over the last forty years. Iron Man was the best iteration of a Stan Lee’s Marvel of the 1960s- a path set forth by Sam Rami with the Spider-Man movies but made lean and mean by comic novices Farveau and Downey. The Dark Knight carried the torch into the 70s making the Batman of the movies as real and gritty as possible as the one envisioned by O’Neil and Adams. Watchmen went further (perhaps further than movie audiences were willing to go) by translating the greatest superhero comic into an equally ambiguous tale of superheroes and why they would have to be damaged and psychotic in the real world. And now Frank Miller takes the oldest comic creation of them all, one who was the first to combine cinematic techniques with comic sensibilities, and makes Moore’s point in Watchmen from the other side. With Watchmen, Alan Moore set out to make a comic that used every comic book trick to the effect of completing a work of narrative that could, in essence, never be translated to the screen. In THE SPIRIT Miller takes every comic book cliché that he has popularized over the last thirty years and translates them to the screen intact. And in the process he reveals them for the superficial and unrealistic tricks that they actually are. It’s all there- the exaggerated poses, the static shots, the silly dialogue, the unrealistic plot, the retarded prose, the pointless violence, the elevation of style over substance. It isn’t as worthless as badly done comic book movies. You don’t want to run from the theater screaming as you might with the Schumacher Batman movies, or WANTED, or DAREDEVIL, but you still have the idea that the director has no reverence for either format: comics or cinema.

I’m struck with cynicism about Frank Miller’s directorial debut. The same way I was at Neal Adams redrawing and recoloring of his classic Batman comics for their hardcover release. It’s just an artist wanting to get paid for his previous work by shitting on that work with no thought for the people who loved that work back when they first did it. It’s also the work of an artist who has given up any artistic principles. Who has been co-opted by the business interests so completely that they have decided that being paid is more important than their fans or their legacy. At least Adams wiped his ass on his own drawings. Miller has decided to do his paperwork on the legacy of another artist who isn’t around to defend his artistic vision anymore. And unlike the National Lampoon replacing the face of the Mona Lisa with a chimp for comic effect, Miller has decided that, like a visit to the monkey house, anyone who still has any reverence for the classics of his media deserves to have his shit flung at them. He’s deficated on his greatest triumph twice with DKR and All-Star Batman, and now he’s branched out to leave a steaming pile on Will Eisner.

We get it, Frank. You hate yourself and the very work that made you famous. You wish you had done something else with your life than entertaining 12 year olds. And you think those 12 year olds deserve to be punished for ever making you famous in the first place. Be an artist. Or just go away. Don’t try to get even with them for ever being childish enough to like your work. Take all that self-loathing and become a hermit. Don’t shit on our childhood the way you shit on your life’s work. The way Walt Disney had to show himself as a fascist bigot and capitalist swine because he couldn’t stand the wholesome facade he had built his fortune on. We get it. You hate yourself for being successful in a medium you hate. But Will Eisner never got to that point. He continued to break new ground with works like THE CITY until the day he died. For you to drag his good name down with you and the love your fans have for your early work is a shame.

Shame on you, Frank Miller. And shame on me for saying that everyone should see THE SPIRIT. If nothing else, to see what happens if you have dreams of being an artist and succumb to the self-loathing that drives artists to create. THE SPIRIT is a cautionary tale of what happens when a once ground-breaking creator is devoured by his creation and his own demons. He becomes a caricature of himself.

SCIENCE- RELIGION- Science and Religion in the Crosshairs

I’ve wound up in another of the endless debates that infect the internet like kudzu, on whether or not there is a God and whether or not He speaks with his children through religion. It makes sense that this, perhaps the oldest debate humanity has engaged in, would be a recurrent theme on the newest and freest of the ways man has invented to communicate. After all, the first thing that archeologists look for when probing the earliest origins of man is how he dealt with the dead. It seems that man existed for thousands of years in recognizable form before he started to develop civilization and that fledgling civilization had several interesting changes from the way people lived before. Man started to draw images on cave walls (the development of language), he started to live in larger groups (society as opposed to tribalism), he started to control his environment (the control of fire), and he started to have some sort of religion (ritual disposal of the dead).

The interesting thing about all these developments was that man had been around in recognizable form for about 100 thousand years before they came about. And then, about 70 thousand years ago, they all sprouted in a relatively quick fashion. This is what prompted Arthur C. Clarke to hit upon the idea for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something- God, monolith, inspiration, a particularly compelling meme- changed mankind from a hairless ape to the creature that would cover the earth in an unprecedentedly short time. Something about us changed. We went from being just another animal to being human. With all the questions, abilities, and contradictions that entails.

And the basis of that seems to have been religion.

Nowadays many people want to denigrate religion. They say that belief in the unknown and unknowable is a throwback to superstition. They may be right. It took thousands of years after the development of religion to come up with the very idea of science, then called ‘natural philosophy’. As far as we can tell, it was the Ionians who first hit upon the idea that the world could be understood without resorting to supernatural explanations, but through observation and reason. It wasn’t something they hit upon through sheer intellectual abstraction, but was a direct result of their landing on a particularly barren Greek isle and having to develop a maritime economy to be able to feed themselves. Contact with varied cultures and mores led them to develop a rather practical and open-minded worldview. And the result of that was that they came up with the first philosophy based on observation and measurement rather than basing their society on charisma and heredity. For perhaps the first time in human development, capitalism, trade, and personal merit started to drive human development rather than heredity, strength, and tradition. The Ionians developed the first vestiges of the scientific method- though without the experimental rigor we associate with it. Nevertheless, their society affected the other Greek islands through their success and trade. It wasn’t long until Greece was the center of human knowledge. The Greeks seemed to be able to deal with the inherent dichotomy between belief in higher powers (gods to you and me) and the exploration of natural phenomena, perhaps largely because they dealt with nature the same way we deal with religion- everybody pulls a theory out of their ass and then everybody else judges it on how good it sounds to them. Remarkably, they found out some pretty groovy stuff about the physical world in spite of their disdain for testing their hypotheses’ through experimentation. Pythagoras developed geometry and music theory, Aristostenes not only deduced that the earth was round but calculated its circumference with astounding accuracy, and the Greeks in whole gave us the first reality based philosophy to understand the universe around us. They also invented democracy, and served as the basis for the Roman Empire- our own psychic progenitors, for those who think that only things in the US have any worth.

But lately religion has been falling out of vogue. The advancement of certain religious viewpoints and the political power they have gathered in the US, has made apparent the shortcomings in any world view that doesn’t take into account observable reality. The percentage of people who call themselves atheists has almost doubled in the last twenty years. But while I find myself firmly on the side of those who espouse objective observation over emotional fantasy, my contrairian roots cause me to remind our more vocal advocates of reality that there are limits to human knowledge and the thoughtful person has to admit that the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is still in doubt.

All BELIEF SYSTEMS seem uninformed at best and silly at worst to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to them. Some say that religious belief isn’t an intellectual endeavor, yet a believer would say that a belief system based on the intellect alone was obviously limited. Science is a great way to find out things, but any physicist will tell you that there are hundreds of “constants” in physics that seem arbitrary. Yet unless they were set at the precise values they have, the universe as we know it would simply not exist. Values for the gravitational constant, the four primeval forces, the weight of sub-atomic particles, and dozens of other “givens” in the universe have to be precisely set for the universe to support the formation of stars, let alone life complex enough to ask such questions as “Why do stars form in the first place?” And there is no theoretical basis for any of these ‘constants’ to have the values that they have, either in Einsteinium, quantum, or string theory. Lee Smolin has come up with a theory that universes evolve and every singularity (black holes to the layman) is the genesis for another roll of the cosmic dice, and the anthropic principle implies that we might just be the outcome of one stable configuration of such chance. Hell, even without the exotic thinking of physicists, mere astronomers postulate such imaginary concepts as ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ to explain why our observations have only uncovered about 1/20 of what seems to be the entire universe. And they aren’t looking at things like the Copenhagen Interpretation or the multiple dimensions inherent in string theory.

The bottom line is that we are intelligent and rational (sometimes, at our best) but we have no guarantee that we can understand the universe we can observe. As Einstein said, the most amazing thing about the universe is that we can understand it at all. To assume that we might understand it is no more arrogant than to assume that the creator (if, indeed, the universe is an artifact) might want to communicate with us on some level. Perhaps Buddha was closest to the truth when he said that contemplation of such questions is a waste of time since you will never know the answers in this life. But that isn’t satisfying. We are curious creatures. We WANT answers. And in spite of the fact that the chances that the universe would exist in the way it does (1 x 10 exp233 according to Smolin- a chance against the universe existing that is greater than the total number of sub-atomic particles in the universe) we think that our brains (containing neuron connections somewhere on the order of 10 exp66- still greater than the number of atoms in the universe, but woefully simple nonetheless) can find answers to these questions. Science has claimed preeminance over spirituality since we started making fire with flint rather than simply gathering it from the lightening strikes provided by the ‘gods’. But we still know so little that either side is basically incapable of explaining either why the universe exists or even why we want to know.

Tiger gotta hunt, bird gotta fly, man gotta ask: why, why, why?
Tiger gotta sleep, bird gotta land, man gotta say: I understand.
Kurt Vonnegut

Friday, May 1, 2009

NSFW- It's the First of May...and You Know What That Means

I am an unabashed fan of Jonathan Coulton! I discovered him a few years ago, bought everything he's ever done, even wrote him a fan email (how embarrassing) which he replied to very nicely. There have been lots of humorous songwriters but few are able to combine musical variety, musicianship, laugh out loud funny, and thought provoking poignancy the way Coulton does (only another John, John Prine, comes immediately to mind). Check out his site if you haven't already and lighten your Paypal or credit card account for the lousy $70 he wants for everything. He'll let you listen to almost everything for free, but be a mensch and buy it. You'll be glad you did and you'll have the added bonus of supporting a genuine artist who decided to give up the cubical jungle in favor of pursuing his dreams. You'll also remind the RIAA that hell is way to good for them and that the people who love music and the people who create it don't need them anymore.

If there is anything that resembles tradition on this blog then posting about Jon every May Day is certainly going to be it. This was the first song of his I ever heard. It's not my favorite, it's not even the one that really turned me on to him. But it is sweet and funny and not a little irreverent. Like almost everything he does.

(Second new tag of the day. (WTF being the first.) And I really mean it. If you are offended by single syllable synonyms for sex then don't click the video. )

WhyThatFrown- Four Horsemen to Run in KY Derby

Well, again I’ve been away from the blog for awhile. Accelerating workloads and new challenges in the “real” world have limited my online musings to the occasional trollfight on HairyFishNuts or an email to Chez over at Deus Ex Malcontent, or comment my own brand of snarky self-indulgent blather on the excellent Science Avenger’s blog, and reading Badtux and Matt Taibbi (but not commenting much).

FWIW, if you don’t read everything Taibbi writes you are missing the most cogent, funniest, most insightful writing since Hunter Thompson was whoring for Matt’s current main employer, the Rolling Stone. Writing the truth in a time when satire is reality is the perfect job for someone of Taibbi’s talent and missing him is nothing short of criminal.

But while logging on to update myself about the fall of civilization, circa the start of the third millennium of the Common Era, I had to make a few brief comments about the world outside the window.

I’ve been saying to friends and astonished acquaintances for the last several years that the fundamentalists might be right about one thing- we seem to be heading to a confluence of catastrophes that cause one to wonder whether the four horsemen are racing in this years Kentucky Derby. Eight years of Republican rule have solidified the opinion that I arrived at during the Regan years (and to be honest about the whole trajectory, my first wife was a Regan delegate from TN at the 1980 convention- we both had it bad- and I’ve never really given up my Libertarian leanings) that while the small-government, free-market, personal liberty platform of the GOP is attractive, all the thugs are actually good for when they get power is starting wars and wrecking the economy in an orgy of unbridled avarice. I’d bet that had you polled thoughtful people whether or not we would ever elect a president less honest than Nixon, less charming than Regan, and less competent than Bush I they would have said that even the American electorate couldn’t manage that. Then we went and elected Dubya TWICE. And what did he do? Started not one, but two wars, with ambition to house them under the big tent of a never ending state of warfare that would have made Orwell vomit in his own mouth, and wrecked not only the domestic economy but did it in such a way that he brought the world economy to the brink. While at the same time denying the biggest environmental crisis in the history of human civilization because it would have hurt the bottom line of his domestic and foreign oil buddies. Thus presiding over the rapid loss of the ice caps with an idiotic Alfred E. Newman “What, me worry?” grin. And in the process wiped his ass on the constitution, tapped American’s phones, read our emails, studied our library and credit card records, castrated Habeas Corpus, and…

Well, I digress.

So the end times Derby watch goes on. War has taken and early lead into the first turn, with Famine being ridden by the spectre of climate change hot on his heels. But wait, there’s a dark horse coming up from the rear.

Pestilence is coming on strong. Being ridden by a jockey named Swine Flu. This new contender may not be able to hold this pace until the backstretch, but the betting windows are still open and the odds are changing. The World Health Organization just placed a sizable bet on him coming from behind.

While it’s a sad thing to watch the end of the world, I have to say that there’s a part of me that understands some of that apocalyptic fervor that grabs the fundamentalist. If you’re going to the Derby this weekend, or just an interested spectator of the human race, remember that the most exciting place to sit is the front row near the finish line.