Friday, December 24, 2010

MOVIES- TRON LEGACY part two

So, enough about a 28 year old move. What does the new TRON have to offer?

Well, it does succeed where the old TRON failed. It is a visual spectacle to anyone sitting in the audience. But unfortunately it fails where the original succeeded.

Where the original tried to be a good, old fashioned good guys vs. bad guys romp, the new movie strives for profundity and fails miserably. As a headline on fark.com said: "Tron Legacy Director Says He Aimed for Bold Concept- Made Tron Legacy Instead." The religious allegories take center stage instead of the passing wave the first film gave them. Flynn has become a holy man, a zen Lebowsky, trapped in a world of his own creation. This creator has two sons- his artificial progeny Clu, who has fallen from grace and decided to make the world perfect through fascism, and his human son, Sam, who holds the capacity for salvation of this microcosmic world and is transfigured into a simple program who is yet so much more. Like Satan, Clu is the ruler of this fallen world. He walks to and fro, back and forth in the earth, but his mouth doesn't work quite right and his face looks kind of freaky.

And there's the second problem for TRON redux. While AVATAR may have jumped the uncanny valley in a single bound, TRON LEGACY falls to it's death in the chasm. You might believe Clu as a soulless program, but you're never for a minute fooled into thinking he's the embodiment of a young Jeff Bridges. In TRON Bridges was funny, exciting, and droll. His face was expressive and (dare I say it) animated. Clu looks just a little bit more like a young Jeff Bridges than Jason in the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies looked like William Shatner (look it up). I never quite got away from the idea that it was somebody wearing a young Jeff Bridges latex mask. Or that rather than CGI that they had just given Bridges whole face Botox injections. It's a great idea, but everything is in the execution. And whoever thought audiences would be taken up in all this pseudo-religious claptrap or taken in by the digital youthening of the leads should be executed.

And then there's THE MATRIX.

You see, just over a decade ago they made a sequel to TRON. It was called THE MATRIX. It was about a computer uprising, where a programmer was trapped in a computer generated world, and had god-like powers. It came at a time when computers were becoming commonplace, when a worldwide network of them had entered the zeitgeist, and when pseudo-religious claptrap was becoming mainstream. THE MATRIX was the right movie at the right time to catch the imagination of the general public. And it had visually spectacular special effects. Neo fought using Kung-Fu, not day-glo frisbees. Neo lived in a completely realized computer world indistinguishable from reality, not a black light Salvadore Dali painting. Neo fought for the salvation of mankind from a monolithic, inhuman, oppressive, totalitarian state; not to prevent a bunch of 8-bit programs in an antiquated CRAY mainframe from getting into our cell phones and iPads.

And where THE MATRIX and its sequels tried to actually present some of the philosophical questions inherent in the story- mind-body dualism, determinism, messianic complexes, systems of control, whether consciousness is an emergent or intrinsic property, the nature of reality, subjectivism vs. objectivism- TRON LEGACY doesn't even give lip service to any of the ideas contained in its scenario. The closest we get to a philosophical idea is when Flynn says, "The only way to win is not to play." A bon mot so deep and insightful that they lifted it directly from another movie released around the same time as the original TRON- WARGAMES. The world Flynn built in his antiquated mainframe is a molecule deep at best. Shiny, but without substance.

And in addition to not giving the story even the depth of the original TRON, let alone THE MATRIX, they also seem to have borrowed a lot of the look of the film as well. TL's virtual world is a place where the sun never shines, where the sky is filled with roiling clouds all the time, and even interior rooms are dimly lit. It's like the "real world" from the MATRIX only with better urban renewal. The only place in the Mainframe that's brightly lit is Flynn's villa, and it resembles, more than anything else, the hotel room from the end of 2001. That's what passes for a visual metaphor in this movie.

I think that it's pretty clear that the people who made this movie knew they had been beaten to the punch.

And even the one part of the movie that was almost sure to add some depth, that it's in 3-D, didn't come off well for me. A lot of folks online have praised the 3-D effects as adding to the story. I didn't see it that way. Having the parts of the movie set in the real world in 2-D (mostly) and the parts in the computer in 3-D was a neat idea- WHEN THEY DID IT WITH COLOR IN THE WIZARD OF OZ 70 YEARS AGO! Taking a darkly lit movie and darkening it further with 3D, missing the fact that depth of field is compromised in a dark environment anyway, and still missing the fact that out of focus foregrounds and backgrounds are a way to have 2D cameras simulate depth and don't work in 3D films because in a real place your eye is able to focus on whatever it looks at automatically, whether near or far, just adds further to the feeling that nobody associated with the movie really gave a damn about anything except OOHHH LIGHTCYCLES.

The filmmakers must have known this was a problem. Before the movie started they had a disclaimer (here I quote from memory, so it may not be entirely accurate): "There are parts of this movie that were shot in 2-D and parts that were shot in 3-D. We realize this is going to be weird and disorienting to the audience so we're asking you to keep your glasses on and just go with it. Let's face it, we don't really know what we're doing. And that Cameron dude came along last year and changed all the rules and how were we supposed to know that was going to happen after we were two years into production? Anyway, we fucked up. Just go with it, like we said. You've already paid for the ticket so what have you got to lose? And by doing this little disclaimer where we claim that we meant to do it all along, we can say that it isn't us, it's you if you spend most of the movie wondering why things look shitty."

Now, don't get me wrong. I got a thrill out of seeing the old Lightcycles updated. I enjoyed seeing programs on the game grid shattered into cubes. I liked the new Solar Sailor, the dogfight with the virtual AT-10, the new lightcycles defying gravity and acting like, well, REAL motorcycles (except for the gravity defying part). I'm as much a victim of geekstalgia as anybody. And there were a couple of nice things about the movie. Olivia Wilde is pretty. And I'm a sucker for bowl haircuts. Michael Sheen was entertaining as Ziggy Stardust (the Merovingian? Oh yeah, Zuse), the bar owner. It's nice to see him getting work impersonating Brits besides Tony Blair. Garrett Hedlund is fine in a pretty flat role, although he keeps morphing from looking like Trip from Star Trek: Enterprise when shot straight on to Jon Stewart when shot in profile. Unfortunately Jeff Bridges, who was the standout performance in the original and who I like in just about everything, sleepwalks through the whole thing. Maybe he's overdosed on the Botox they gave him for the Clu scenes.

So what's left to say? TRON LEGACY isn't a bad movie if all you want is eye candy, lots of shiny vehicles going fast, and attractive people dressed up in funny costumes saying things between trips in other shiny vehicles going fast. And there isn't anything wrong with that. But if you are looking for anything more, it just ain't there.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MOVIES- TRON LEGACY part one





Well, the Gfriend and I went to see TRON LEGACY on its opening weekend. But first we watched an HDNet showing of the original I'd been saving for about six months on my TIVO to set the mood. Here are my reflections on both movies in two parts.

The original TRON was groundbreaking for its time. The first movie to make use of what has now become ubiquitous computer generated special effects. Other than that, it was groundbreaking for Disney. It may be hard to remember, but in the early 1980s Disney was a company flirting with bankruptcy. It was considered passe and outdated. It's animation department was in shambles. (Don Bluth had left the company in 1979 out of disgust for their death spiral, and taken most of the good animators with him. The same year TRON came out, Bluth would release THE SECRET OF HIMH, a movie closer to the animated Disney classics like SNOW WHITE and DUMBO than anything the company had been able to manage in decades.) The company's stock was in the cellar. And the smart money was that Disney wasn't long for solvency. Their big post-STAR WARS SF attempt, THE BLACK HOLE, was just that- a black hole- at the box office and TRON was an act of desperation to cash in on the burgeoning video game market.

Disney's desperation led them to Steve Lisberger, someone outside their corporate plantation, who had the skills and "nerd cred" to undertake such a radical departure. Unfortunately, TRON wasn't the blockbuster Disney was hoping for and a couple of years later a hostile takeover attempt by financier Saul Steinberg would cause Roy Disney to enlist Jeffery Katsenberg to run the company. The rest is, shall we say, history. Katsenberg led the company back from the edge of corporate ruin to its current megacorp status.

But as a movie, TRON wasn't that bad. It didn't catch the popular imagination, probably because it was a little too esoteric for early 80s audiences to grasp. The whole idea of being sucked into a computer was a little too cutting edge for a population thats closest interaction with a computer had been a trip to the local arcade and whos most sophisticated computing device was an Atari 2600 or a PONG game. Added to this were all the "in" jokes in the script. TRON is, in fact, a command in Basic, the predominant programming language for home computers at the time. (Please realize, this is two full years before the first Macintosh- the first computer with a mouse!- was released by Apple. The same year that the original IBM PC was widely distributed, and when over 80% of the tiny market for home computers was pretty evenly divided between Radio Shack's TRS-80 and the Apple IIC. Owning a computer in 1982 was like owning a HAM radio rig, except there were more HAM radio rigs.) It meant TRace ON and was a command to debug a program you had written. Invaluable in a time when most of the programs you ran you had to write yourself.

The movie is full of such "in" jokes that audiences didn't get. "Bring in the logic probe" (it looked like the very logic probe I sold in my Radio Shack store at the time), "grid bugs" (bugs in a program were unknown to most people), I-O towers (input-output busses), laser digitization (scanners were unheard of, let alone 3-D scanners), users (Lisberger says that one of the Disney execs thought this was vaguely dirty), and even bits (Flynn's, and Clu's, sidekick was a visualization of the basic nomenclature of binary systems- it's either positive (YES) or negative (NO), 1's and 0's, get it?). And my all-time favorite, "Cummon you skuzzy data, be in there." (SCSI, pronounced 'skuzzy', was an early hard disk interface.) Too much of the movie was simply way too geeky for the audience.

But the movie itself is a great deal of fun. Jeff Bridges shows the kind of natural likeability in front of the camera that would serve him well for the next 30 years. His lines really aren't much: "That's a big door." "It's all in the wrist." "Hey, it's the big Master Control Program everybody's been talking about!" "You don't look anything like your pictures." "Does she still leave her clothes all over the floor?" "How you gonna run the universe if you can't solve a few insolvable problems?" But Bridges delivery makes them shine and is the reason some of them became standards in GeekSpeek.

The rest of the cast isn't really given much to do. David Warner somehow stands out as Dillenger/Sark, and has a few ironically funny moments (such as when he suddenly turns his smile on for Alan during their confrontation in the office). Bruce Boxleitner displays his typical cardboard hero character (which he pulled out of mothballs as John Sheridan on four seasons of Babylon 5) but here it's OK because he's playing an uninspired programmer and a soulless program. He does get one unintentional laugh however with his 'ol west delivery of the line, "The name... of my user." And Barnard Hughes is here because it was some sort of rule at the Disney Studios back then that Barnard Hughes had to be in EVERY FRIGGING MOVIE DISNEY MADE.


Walt Disney's Common Law Same Sex Marriage Partner



But the real reason to see TRON was the visual spectacle. It was the era of the Special Effects Movie and people went to the theater to be dazzled. Unfortunately, it was five years after George Lucas started this trend and two years after THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. So bedazzlement was beginning to get a little old. And while TRON had a new way of putting impossible pictures on the screen, CGI wasn't really ready for prime time and the result looked like animation in a time when animation was almost a dirty word. Lucas and Spielberg had been delivering never-before-seen movie magic for years, using decades old techniques. And although 1982 was the debut year for the technology, with TRON, THE LAST STARFIGHTER, and the Genesis effect in STAR TREK II, CGI wouldn't begin to challenge conventional special effects technology until TERMINATOR II, and wouldn't draw crowds into theaters for the sheer spectacle until JURRASIC PARK. In fact, the technology was still so primitive that it couldn't even be used to paint in the glowing lines on the costumes- they had to be rotoscoped by hand! (The computers they used were about as powerful as the one in your watch and nowhere near as sophisticated as the one in your phone.) In contrast to the visual alacrity of TRON, Ridley Scott's BLADERUNNER came out the same year. And Douglas Trumbull's special effects on that film set new standards for veracity.




But one thing that TRON and BLADERUNNER shared was visual designer Syd Mead. At that time Mead was perhaps one of the busiest artists in Hollywood. It seems that almost no big budget SF movie made back then didn't employ Mead to design vehicles. And while Lucas didn't hire Mead to design for EMPIRE, he wasn't above stealing the design for the Imperial Snow Walkers from a painting Mead had done years before.








The other designer TRON used was the incredible artist Jean Giraud, who went by the pseudonym Mobius. Giraud was known predominantly to American audiences through his work in Heavy Metal magazine. But at the same time he was one of the most respected international comic artists, famous in Europe and Asia for his Blueberry westerns as much as his groundbreaking SF work. Mobius' more organic and complex style would be reflected in, of all things, the costuming of the programs inhabiting the computer world. Sark's helmet is a particularly iconic Mobius design.


Alas, TRON didn't do too well at the box office. Steve Lisberger would say afterward that it was because they didn't make the MCP evil enough, but I disagree. There was never any ambiguity in the good vs. evil story of TRON. After all, didn't they show Flynn's doppelganger Clu being derezzed in the first few minutes, and Bernard Hughes crucified and tortured near the end? No, I think the failure of TRON was due to the reasons stated above: special effects that were only special if you understood how unique they were, a story that didn't connect with an audience that didn't understand the implications of the new technology they were just beginning to sample, and Disney's faltering reputation for making childish entertainments with nothing to offer adults. Add that to a religious allegory in a time when religious allegories were out of fashion, and you have a movie simply too far ahead of it's time.

But what of TRON LEGACY?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

MUSIC- Old Man's War (Toy Matinee)

Got together with an old friend from high school, that I hadn't seen for 30 years in-between, for the second time a couple of weeks ago. The uncanny thing the first time we re-met was that we were able to pick right up where we left off. The weird thing this time was that in the interviening years we had developed so many similar tastes. Perhaps it's no so strange. After all, we'd been together through our formative years. Why wouldn't we follow paraelle paths in the years later? But the thing is- we've had different carreers, different love lives, different interests. I traveled all over the world, he stayed close to home. I was prone to small groups of close friends, he was more outgoing and social. I developed odd ideas about the world that sometimes it seems only I subscribe to, he is funny, charming, and relatable. Even my girlfriend thought he was more immediately accessable than I am (she was privy to most of our last get-together) and she's every bit as odd as I am. (In fact, I often think of her as the female version of me since we are so much alike. And realize that when she annoys me it's just Karma paying me back for how much I must have annoyed everyone around me for all these years.)
But the thing we seem to have paraelled more than anything else was our taste in music. Perhaps that isn't surprising. We were both musicians in high school. We loved going to concerts (rock, classical, big band, marching band, whatever...). But I was surprised to hear that he didn't like Steely Dan so much in high school but came to appreciate their music in later years (just as I had). So I turned him onto a song from another band that I love who makes music just as pop and yet as complex as Steely Dan did.

Toy Matinee

Toy Matinee made only one album. Like Steely Dan it was the brainchild of a pair of musical geniuses: Kevin Gilbert and Patrick Leonard. Unfortunately, Gilbert died before a second album could be made. Their music was a combination of pop, progressive, jazz, and fusion, that dealt with political and intellectual subjects (the first album contains songs such as Remember My Name about Vaclav Havel and Turn It On Salvadore about Salvadore Dali) while being filled with great gituar and keyboard riffs, lush productions, lyrical complexity, and catchy pop melodies. I found them when a radio station started playing this tune while I was in college.

Enamored with the Steely Dan combination of great musicianship, provocative lyrics, layered production, and catchy pop hooks, I sought out the album and in the interviening 20 years it has become the most played album in my life. It simply never seems to get old as I find new newance in the melody/countermelody, rythmic changes, key changes, and catchy tunes. Other standouts from the album include:
Turn It On Salvadore


wow, just...wow. The first lyric references everything from UN CHIEN ANDALOU (drag the bound priest across the floor) to "death and a Gala Premere". Gala was, by the way, the love of Salvador Dali's life and the muse for most of his great works of art. It has nothing to do with a gala premere with the "a" having a long a sound.
This is just scratching the surface of why these guys made ART while most pop bands make SHIT.
Let's go back to the definition of ART: (well, at least my definition of ART, but I have yet to find a better one. If you know one, please clue me in.) Art is that which is complexly satisfying. Art is something that touches the brain and the heart. Art is something that makes you want to learn something while it makes you FEEL something. If you feel something visceral (if you get a chill, it sturs your loins, it frightens you, it moves you) while it makes you want to know something (it stirs your curiosity) then you have found a work of art.
Toy Matinee does that for me.

But, like so many artists, they didn't stick around on this world too long. Next time I'll talk about their successor: Third Matinee

In the meantime, go buy their album...

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

PERSONAL- The Social Network Part 2


This is another personal post and I apologize. Looking back, I've posted more personal stuff this year than in the entire history of the blog until now. I've also posted less than any other year. It's just been that kind of year.

So anyway (ahem) after seeing THE SOCIAL NETWORK I decided to open a Facebook page. Sunday morning, 3AM. Put out feelers for two old friends from high school who I hadn't seen since.

And boom.

After 30 years of carefully hiding my tracks on the Net, now it's like the walls of my house have turned transparent. And, no, that's not a typo- 30 years. I tell some of the younger people that I was on the net before the web existed, and they laugh. But it's true. I first went online in... well... a long time ago. Back in the antediluvian days of text only. I was old when Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet by pushing the button on the first webserver (a neXT if you remember that computer brand) in 1990. I was old when Apple introduced the first Macintosh. I was old when the first IBM PC was introduced.

Hell, I'm just old.

And now, for two weeks, I've been on Facebook. A newbie again for the first time in a long time, coming late to a technology that everybody else is already using. It's unnerving for me.

So I did what I imagine everybody does. I started looking up people from high school.
And what the heck- I found some!

Hell, I even met up with one the other day and got caught up.

But I'm still not sure what it's all about.

So I asked a friend who is much younger but far more experienced than I in these matters (a self professed Facebook Whore- a term I immediately fell in love with) because I figured that since she's hella smart she could give me the key. And she gave me the key.

Or what I think is the key.

It's for gossip.

Which means that I'm probably the last person Facebook is aimed at. I never know the gossip going around. I'm completely out of the loop. In fact, my neighbors could be sacrificing small animals to Chthlu next door and, unless they made too much noise,
I wouldn't have a clue. And this is a social space where I don't know the rules. Do you friend a 19 year old girl who you work with, or is it as creepy as it feels? Do you just friend everybody you know, like a fisherman with a net (bad joke, bad) and see what you catch? If you die with the most friends on Facebook, do you win?

I just don't know. And I HATE not knowing things.

But, what the hell. I'm going to give it a try. And perhaps that means that the blog can return to it's usual content of lame jokes, indecipherable movie reviews, weird links, obscure science articles, and general crap that nobody reads anyway.

Or maybe I'll just become a Facebook Whore.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

MOVIES- The Social Network, Facebook Part I

So I finally got a chance to catch the late showing of THE SOCIAL NETWORK a couple of weeks ago and it was everything I hoped it would be but not anything more. Of course, it's the story of the founding and the founder of Facebook, and the legal battles that resulted from that. Of course, it's a time capsule for later generations to understand the early years of digital communication and ubiquitous connectivity and connectedness. Of course, it's a history movie about history so recent that the memory is still green, like WWII movies made in the 1940's. Of course, it's David Fincher's first directorial endevour since Benjamin Button and allows him to use what he learned by aging Brad Pitt from old-man infanthood to baby dotage in order to cast two people and one face as a set of twins. Of course, it's Aaron Sorkin's return to docudrama in his first screenplay since CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR as he continues to mine recent history for a chance to improve recent history in the retelling.

Of course, it's a damn good movie, as its 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes attests.
But is it a great movie? Does it make the transition to being art? Does it enlighten the human condition and make you think about the world and your place in it? Does it provoke discussion and provide insight into the vagaries of life?

Maybe a little. But honestly? Nah, not really.

It's just a damn good movie in a time when damn good movies are becoming more rare than untainted waters in the Gulf of Mexico. A damn fine movie In a time when most television has devolved into endless variations on watching the antics of indigenous troglodytes near the coast of New Jersey; watching people competing on endless game shows that involve either eating bugs or overcoming pointless challenges for the chance to stab each other in the back; watching endless crime procedurals where every room is lit like a disco and characters use fantasy science to arrive at unlikely solutions to unlikely crimes- all the while acting with the subtlety of a 19th century melodrama; or watching mindless sit-coms where various stereotypes are the basis for both the situation and the comedy (nerds are nerdy, bachelors are depraved, fat people are desperate, fathers are stupid, entertainers are neurotic, businessmen are dolts, and low level employees in telephone centers work in India). A damn original movie in a time when most movies have devolved into endless sequels, endless explosions, endless appeals to childhood nostalgia, endless stoner comedies about luckless losers, endless comic book adaptations (possibly an offshoot of the two former categories), and endless sit-coms made for the big screen with big names. Let’s face it. We live in a time when the original is so unusual that a one-off movie with no hope of a sequel or prequel, about something with even a passing resemblance to a reality bigger than what you could find by simply camping out in the parking lot of your local trailer park, winds up being both the most successful and most critically acclaimed movie of the year.

But credit where credit is due... Eighteen months ago, when the idea first was reviled on the internet that a movie about Facebook was going into production, the response was almost uniformly negative. "A movie about a web site?" "How can you make a movie about a web site?" "It's just Hollywood cashing-in on something it doesn't understand." And then Fincher and Sorkin remind us that it's execution and not subject that makes art. And that two talented men can tell a more interesting story about a web site than a horde of untalented ones can about the end of the world.

Of course, I have to start with Aaron Sorkin, the writer. With the disclaimer that I've been an unabashed fan for a long time. Sorkin writes of a fantasy world I wish I lived in. A Narnia where hella-smart people talk in rapid-fire repartee completely unafraid of being terribly clever or devilishly witty. It's a world where the smart-asses have taken over. Sorkin is fully aware of this as in the very first scene one of the characters says to the protagonist that talking to him is like being on a stair-master. Actually, it's more like the verbal equivalent of watching a ping pong match played with bazookas. IMDB reports that it took Jessie Eisenberg 99 takes to finish the scene. Such is the challenge for even excellent actors to reproduce Sorkin's dialogue, and they aren't even making it up as they go along.

And while on the subject of the actors, and the challenge of delivering Sorkin's machine gun words and ideas in a way that makes it seem they are your own, Jessie Eisenberg was an amazing piece of casting for the lead. With this role he cements his place as the thinking man's Micheal Cera- sensitive, dweeby, unlucky-at-love but a little (or a lot) smarter than the average bear. It's been fun to watch Eisenberg's ascension from the Could-have-easily-been-played-by-Cera character in ADVENTURELAND, to the Strangely-contemplative-and-empirical zombie-hunter in ZOMBIELAND, now to the Smartest-guy-in-any-room founder of facebook. However, unlike Cera, Eisenberg doesn’t play the same character in each role.

The other stand-out is, of course, David Fincher. Fincher has a real gift for telling complex stories in a way that is accessible to everyone, while at the same time adding those little visual surprises that remind you he used to make music videos. Scenes like the sculling race in London, that looks like a tilt-shift photograph, hearken back to Edward Norton’s Ikea catalog apartment in Fight Club. But as in Zodiac or Benjamin Button, Norton keeps enough of a lid on his penchant for visual fireworks that it doesn’t become a distraction. Which is a good thing since the multiple time frames and slight tinge of Roshomon-like storytelling might become confusing to audiences who didn’t already know the story.

And I have to take a moment to mention the supporting cast, who are each as perfect as the leads. Andrew Garfield as Edwardo Savarin, Mark Zuckerberg's co-founder, gives a pitch-perfect performance that somehow reminds one of a young Richard Benjamin. And Armie Hammer gets two roles which he pulls off so well that I didn't realize it was only one guy. (Trivia break: Armie Hammer is the great-grandson of Armond Hammer, famous for his baking soda fortune and having parents with a particularly silly sense of humor in naming their son. A sense of humor that seems to be genetic since Armie is also Armond.)

But, for all this talent and wizardry, somehow the end result is still just a very good and not a great movie. If there’s a moral it’s that if you are smart and lucky enough to create something original that might make you rich there will be plenty of people to try to take it away from you. (Just ask Preston Tucker and Leo Farnsworth). If there’s a philosophical question it’s how having an idea is different than actually creating something. (Just ask Jeremy, a character on Sorkin’s television series SPORTSNIGHT who once said “My grandfather invented the clipboard.” “Really,” someone asks. “Well,” Jeremy replies, “he did often complain that he didn’t have a portable writing surface.” If there’s a social more exposed it’s the idea that the rich have a casually nonchalant expectation that they should be the ones that profit from anything they are associated with without having to do any of the work and at the expense of their social inferiors. (Just ask, hell, anybody).

So, while THE SOCIAL NETWORK doesn’t really have anything profound to say, it says what it does have to say in such an entertaining way that it’s well worth a look.

And yah, my own fannish love for everyone associated with it aside, it's a great movie.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fan Films- Batman

I'll never see Batman again the same way since I met my best friend fifteen years ago. He is BATMAN. He's the God damned Batman! It's funny. I was always Superman. Bigger, stronger, smarter, and more alienated than my contemporaries growing up. He was smarter, more disciplined, more touched by tragedy.

This is for him. The best Batman fan film since Batman: Dead End (do a Google search, it's worth it).

And contribute to the charity the film is pimping. It's a pretty good cause. If you want to be a hero.


CITY OF SCARS
Uploaded by Batinthesun. - Full seasons and entire episodes online.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Music- Lessons

Ever since I was a small child I've wondered if everything in a world is just a projection to see how I would react to it. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. The only subjective reality is what you perceive and everything else is just your interpretation of it. It's Plato's metaphor of the cave.

On of the things that has kept me from dismissing this viewpoint is the wild coincidence that music I like sometimes comes back to slap me in the face with what it's saying years after I've forgotten about it. I couldn't have known it was going to teach me something when I fell in love with it but there it is, years later, reminding me that it said something I would need to hear years before I needed to hear it.

Let me tell you a little story. When I was in college I fell in love with a woman. Our relationship progressed and eventually I was ready to move in with her. At that point she suddenly became distant and I learned it was because she (without being honest enough to just tell me outright) had gotten back together with an old boyfriend.

I was heart-broken. I had never been jilted by a lover, let alone cuckolded! Yet, after much crying and soul-searching, I picked myself up and continued with my life. She disappeared and I finished school. One of my last clinical projects was to spend two weeks at a state mental hospital in McClenny, Fl. When I returned home and returned to work my charge nurse (who was also my roomate) took me outside during a break and told me that she had called while I was gone. Over the next few weeks she called several times.

But I began to piece together some things that didn't make sense. She said that she wasn't with the man she had left me for, yet she was living in his mother's house. She only called me from work and wouldn't give me her home phone number. She was vague about what she was doing and what was going on in her life. Eventually I came right out and asked her. "Are you still living with -----?" Yes, she was. I told her that I wasn't interested in playing the same role in her relationship with him that he had in ours and she was welcome never to call me again.

I thought that was the end of it.

Until three months later when she showed up on my doorstep.

Sure, I should have known better. God knows all my friends told me she was nothing but trouble (more unanimity than I had ever known them to show before). But, what can I say. I was young. I was a romantic. I thought that what we had was true love.

In short, I was stupid.

I was in love.

So, a year later, we got married.

Over the next twenty years I supported her and her three children. Paid for her to go to college (she flunked out). Set her up in her own Real Estate Business (she never sold a house). Begged her not to ruin her children through a combination of enablement and bad parenting (her daughter was arrested for the first time at 10 years old for shoplifting and spent the majority of her teen aged years in reform school). Bought her the first new car she had ever owned. Bought her the first house she ever owned. Tried to be the best husband and father to her children I could be.

And the whole while begged her to stop being emotionally unavailable and stop belittling me at all times.

Then one day while I was at work I got a phone call. "I just wanted to know that you were alright." "Yeah, sure. See you tonight."

Except when I got home that night what I found was that she had taken everything she wanted from the house, emptied out our bank accounts (including the profits from a house we had just sold in Colorado), and told me that she was leaving with a message on my voice mail.

Still, I let her go. Two months later I called my step-son and told him that I was filing for divorce, he ought to tell his mother. I hadn't heard from her. I didn't know where she was. I just didn't think it was right to divorce her without at least letting her know.

A week later she was naked on my living room rug.

Yeah. I know. I'm usually a very logical person. My only excuse is that I was deeply, passionately, head-over-heels in love with this woman the whole twenty years I was with her. In spite of being used and abused, cheated on, lied to, and stolen from, none of it changed the way I felt about her.

Over the next three years I tried to reconsile with her. Even when I found out that she was cheating on me again. Even when she lied to me about it. The bottom line was that I wasn't ready to quit making excuses for the way she acted.

Eventually she did one thing too many and I had to admit that I was just being stubborn. She wasn't ever worth what I invested in her and I had to finally admit that she was just what she was- not what I wanted her to be.

Since then things had gotten a lot better. I've fallen in love with a woman who is everything any man would want. She's beautiful, tall, willowy, caring, financially secure, and 16 years my junior. She's put up with a lot of shit that she doesn't deserve from the damage done by my last relationship and yet she seems to love me for who I am and not be afraid to show it.

But about music teaching you things you don't know you need to learn yet. Here's a song I liked long before I met my ex-wife that perfectly taught me a lesson I didn't know I needed to learn for a long time.

(BTW, the last nasty thing she did to me was just last week when I realized that my mortgage company had stopped sending me statements for the last few months. When I called them about it they informed me that she had changed the address on the account to her P.O. Box! I called her and asked why she would do such a thing and, in typical form, she told me the bald-faced lie that she had never done any such thing. Yeah. That's it. Now my bank is lying on her to make her look bad! It's completely conincidence that she used to work for that bank and knows their services inside out.

They say that one possible definition of a sociopath is that they don't see anything wrong with lying to you and can't figure out why you would see anything wrong with them lying to you either.)


MORE MUSIC- Jim Croce

Following my post about Michael Hedges, I want to introduce you to another dead poet and songwriter. I fell in love with Jim Croce when I was just a child, not nearly old enough to know how profound his lyrics were.

Here's one song that proves my point...



And any man who has given everything for a woman and hung on the cross to pay for every sin of her old lovers knows what this song is about.



But my fave has to be this story-song about a man on the road who still pines for a lost love who threw him over for his best friend.



But Croche wasn't all about unrequited love or broken romances. He wrote some of the most sublime love songs ever penned. Such as this...



And there were things that were just for fun...



Enjoy!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

SABBATH MEDITATIONS- Michael Hedges

I did a search of the blog this AM while in church (church for me is a sedate Sunday morning where I can contemplate the universe and lie in bed with a beautiful woman- I dare you to say your services are more spiritual or enlightening) and found that, in spite of his music being a real part of my spirituality, Michael Hedges had not been featured.

If an extraterrestrial came to earth and found a guitar, he might play it like Micheal Hedges did. I use the past tense because this genius (and he was exactly that, in spite of the term being sullied by calling every pop-culture flavor-of-the-month a genius when they obviously don't have enough brain to wet a napkin) died almost thirteen years ago at a tragically young age. Anyway, you've probably never heard a guitar played as well, or in this way. You've probably never heard lyrics more poetic or pointed. And you've positively never seen a more original performer or musician. In a world where the latest 13 year old girl gets to be another pop sensation because she's going through puberty a little early and can almost carry a tune, listen to this and weep for all the REAL artists crushed by the people who tell you what to like.

(You may recognize Micheal's style from the scene in AUGUST RUSH where August finds a guitar and starts playing it without ever having seen one played.)

The first track is one of his most mainstream. Yet sublime...

WOMAN OF THE WORLD


The second is the title track off his album AERIAL BOUNDRIES, which is considered one of the greatest acoustical albums of all time.



The third is just... well, you haven't heard anything like it. It's an instrument that's unfamiliar and a way of playing that you've never heard. It's a true Martian guitar piece.

This is a song he wrote for a movie soundtrack about a mountain climber named Naiomi on something called the Symphony Harp Guitar. Close your eyes and be thrilled that it's only one man and one guitar that makes this music.

Enjoy (something beautiful and unique)...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TELEVISION- Daily Show of Facial Hair

The only daily television show that I watch is The Daily Show. I don't TIVO (yes, DirecTV, it's as generic as Kleenex) any stripped sit-coms. I don't watch any daily news (on television- I have this internet thing on my computer). I don't follow any soap-operas (a lower form of entertainment than the Grand Guignol, IMHO). But I do watch the Daily Show.

And since the last hiatus (not counting the 08092010 repeat that I watched a little while ago) Jon Stewart has sported a goatee for the last two weeks. Now, a lot of men his age have decided that particular type of facial hair is a fashion statement. It hides a lack of chin (not his problem) without being as silly as drawing a jawline on your face with a full, but carefully cropped, beard might. It has kind of a Robin Hood swashbuckling connotation to it. And it allows men a chance to change their looks in a major way.

(I remember the Star Trek- The Next Generation episode in which Beverly Crusher, sitting at a poker table with Worf and Riker states that she things beards are an "affectation" on men. There were a few sublime moments in ST-TNG, and this one rates right up there with the one where, after losing the love of Ashley Judd, Wesley Crusher says to Guinan, "I'll never feel this way about anyone else." And Guinan replies "No, you won't. But you will love other people as much, just differently." For Beverly Crusher to say men affect beards (which they grow naturally) while she was wearing enough eye-shadow and rouge to choke all her pores to death is the essence of why men can't take women seriously.)

So, I'm instituting the "Jon Stewart's Beard Death Watch." Personally, I think he looks like an anorexic, Jewish, Colonal Sanders. But I hope he continues this particular "affectation" long enough to bring it back into style.

*Obligatory note- I've worn a goatee since I was able to grow one because I was influenced by DC Comics Green Arrow character as a little boy. The fact that the only man I work with, a new graduate from college in his forties- and who just came to work with us, also sports one is some kind of synchronicity.

I'm finding out that he's also Hella smart and has a bodacious wife.

What are the chances?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

TECHNOLOGY- Smart Phones that are really smart

So I’ve finally pulled the trigger on a new phone. Usually I hate getting a new phone. After my parents divorced we didn’t have a phone and I never developed the habit of chatting. At best I see a phone as a necessary appliance and frequently I don’t even take my cell phone with me when I go out- a horrifying idea to many of the people I work with. I don’t text (duh, I have a phone in my hand) and if I want to take a picture I’ll use a real camera, not the shitty one in my phone.
But I do like computers. And the internet. For an information junkie like me the internet is the greatest creation in history. An endless supply of reading material on any subject that might kindle my curiosity. Carrying a small computer with internet access with me everywhere- now that excites me. But I’ve been waiting to see what was going to happen with smart phones and debating whether to get an iPad (lack of FLASH and your overbearing attempts to control how I use the devices I would buy from you ruined that, Mr. Jobs). But hearing that ATT was going to a tiered system for charging for data and rumors that Verizon might do the same forced my hand.
So I’m waiting for my phone to be delivered and I’m rumbling around looking at the kind of apps that are available for the Droid and I find one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

Google Goggles!

(The video is too big for my space so just double-click to open it in a new window (tab).)

Friday, July 30, 2010

POLITICS- Obama's War on Privacy

Just another reminder to any of you still naive enough to think that there is really any difference in the political parties, or that either of them are interested in freedom, civil liberties, or privacy. The Obama administration is asking that the FBI have access to your browser history, email history, and even when you send and receive email without having to get a court order! So much for the Democrats protecting civil liberties. Orwell's book is a tired analogy, but that doesn't mean that it isn't frighteningly prophetic or perfectly apt. Bit by bit the government is nibbling away at any privacy you might have left. Doesn't matter if it's the Republicans or Democrats in office, the government is in the business of growing like a malignancy and metastasizing into every part of your life.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

POLITICS- Palin's neologism

So, Sarah Palin has “created” a new word. Jeebus! How stupid is this country going to get? Palin didn’t create a new word- SHE’S JUST TOO FUCKING STUPID TO LEARN THE OLD ONES! Refudiate isn’t a word. It’s a retarded contraction of refute and repudiate. I used to have a friend who said “flustrated”. I finally had to tell her that it wasn’t a word. “How do you know?” she asked me. Well, I said, Because it isn’t in the dictionary! Q.E.D. Even Sarah Palin’s stupid ass must have heard of a dictionary. It’s a big book where we keep a list of all the words, how to spell them, and what they mean.

But then it gets better. After being called out on using a non-existent word she tweets this:
"'Refudiate,' 'misunderestimate,' "wee wee'd up.' English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it. Refudiate it."

Yes. Like every other arrogant imbecile in the world, rather than owning up to a mistake she just argues that she meant to do it all along. And she compares herself to Shakespeare! FUCKING SHAKESPEARE! A new high in arrogant stupidity!
Got a flash for you Sarah, people may use words like “refudiate”, “misunderestimate”, and “wee wee’d up” (WTF?) but people with “brains” and “education” or who aren’t “fucking morons” will still make fun of them for it.

And you.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

CHRISTMAS IN MAY- the third time around

Hello. Back from the longest hiatus yet, I return like Santa Clause, bearing gifts for SINSOFMEMPHISTO’s THIRD ANNUAL CHRISTMAS IN MAY!!!

And just like every other May 1st, we kick things off with a rendition of Jonathan Coulton’s FIRST OF MAY. Although to follow his advice in my Confederate home today looks like it’s going to mean braving the fast approaching tornadoes we frequently have around this time of the year.

Nevertheless, here it is, Jonathan Coulton’s FIRST OF MAY with an added W(orld)O(f)W(arcraft) bonus. And a tag of one of my all time favorite Coulton songs NOT ABOUT YOU.

(And yah, NSFW.)



Tomorrow we remember a few past Christmas in May presents to mark their passing. What’s Christmas without a little depression?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

POLITICS- Those Seven Deadly Words

As I’ve said before, in my opinion most of what comprises the political debate in this country is simply a smoke screen to hide the fact that the government and the rich have gone into the business of stealing the citizens blind while we argue over trivialities. Well, here’s a story that encapsulates much of the silliness in our culture (wars). Seems the FCC got schooled the other day when a trio of appellate court judges heard arguments in a case challenging the current rules for what can be broadcast on television. Of course we aren’t talking about showing images of violent brutality, grotesque dismemberment, or graphic sexual congress, we’re talking about somebody saying a dirty word during a live TV broadcast. This has been going on for the last few years, with the FCC all over the highway trying to decide if it can make a little scratch by fining broadcasters if some musician says “fuck” during a show giving out awards for music in which it is perhaps the most common lyric. Or even if some poor interviewee says “shit” about having just watched his house and family blown away in a hurricane during a news telecast.

The judges rightfully pointed out that there are worse things of television than impolite language already. That we seem to be letting little old ladies of both sexes and the most bluenosed self-righteous hypocrites in the country muzzle everyone else. And that the whole thing boils down to the FIRST FUCKING AMMENDMENT! (Ahem… excuse me.)

I’ve always been amused by our obsession with collections of sounds- most especially those nasty old Saxon words that most of us don’t even remember the origin of. And I’ve always been puzzled by the basic dishonesty inherent in getting all bent out of shape over the things that are the most common in human existence. Somehow we can talk about alcoholism, wife-beating, racism, war, famine, and Pat Robertson on television, but the two things every single adult in the world does as often as possible are off limits. As Red Foxx once joked, “I say shit and fuck because- people do. You don’t shit? Fuck! You don’t fuck? SHIT!”

I’m not offended by much. I don’t understand it and, frankly, I think it’s usually passive aggressive bullshit. I’m certainly not offended by any particular collection of phonemes, even if I might be offended by what they signify. That’s the crazy thing in all this juvenile “dirty words” hogwash. Some mental midget is offended by the SOUNDS. (No offence intended to little people- a term I personally find more degrading than midget.) If you don’t have problems with the act of defecating or making love, why do you care what sounds you use to identify them? And if you do have a problem with either act, then you have far bigger problems with what’s between your ears than you do with what’s entering them from the outside.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Top Twenty Movies of the Decade

The Top 20 (Fantastic) Movies of the Decade

IMDB published their list of the top grossing SF and Fantasy movies of the decade a few weeks ago and I thought they might be worth a look. For some reason I can’t imagine they have omitted THE DARK KNIGHT and SPIDER-MAN. And AVATAR came out just after the list did so it isn’t included even though it would sit at the top already. In case you don’t have IMDB Pro- here’s the list (with short commentary or links to longer previous reviews).

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen-
Haven’t seen it. Probably will.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith-
The best of the prequels even if everybody in the world already knew the ending. Jon Stewart interviewed George Lucas on The Daily Show the other day and Lucas is sticking by his guns that the difference between the original trilogy and the prequels is mainly that the fans of the originals aren’t 12 years old anymore. I hate to say it, but I think he’s right. I took my teenaged daughter to the re-release of the originals in the 90’s and she was totally underwhelmed. Part of that, I think, was that she had grown up seeing so many movies that used the same tricks, often better. And part of it was that she’s a GIRL (never really SW’s main audience). As they say, the golden age of science fiction is twelve. I think the last Indiana Jones movie got a lot of grief for the same reason. I didn’t think it was any sillier than the others, it just could have never lived up to the memories the audience had of the originals. All in all, EPISODE III isn’t as bad as the first one, but truthfully, none of these movies are great works of art. Arguably they aren’t even great works of pulp adventure. But this one isn’t too bad if you don’t expect anything more from it than that.

Transformers-
What saved this movie is that it struck the right note of being funny and lighthearted without making fun of itself. Why it and the sequel are so far up this list is a mystery for all time, however.

Iron Man-
Three words: Robert Downey Jr. Full review here

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones-
If not for Jar-Jar and Mannequin Skywalker in the first one, this would be the worst Star Wars movie of all time. As it is, it’s only half as bad because it only has one of them. True, Mannequin is being played by a different actor, but the “acting” he does is so wooden it’s easy to think that it’s the same person years later. Isn’t helped by the dialog in the romance scenes, which has been given so much hate over the years that there’s no need for me to pile on. This movie’s place on this list is proof that you can slap the name Star Wars on just about anything and it will sell.

The Matrix Reloaded-
The reason this movie is here and not the third one (REVOLUTIONS) is because everybody loved THE MATRIX and couldn’t wait for the sequel. After seeing this, they just didn’t care anymore. Personally I think it was a missed opportunity that could have easily been fixed by combining both the sequels into one 2-hour movie. I was impressed that the Wachowski brothers tried to take their concepts a little deeper, most filmmakers would have been happy to just have Neo and friends have new adventures in Matrixland, but the movie winds up being boring because it’s too long. The audience leaves every fight and chase more exhausted than the characters doing the fighting and chasing. Fortunately the ANIMATRIX collection exists as the true sequel.

Star Trek-
There are three attempted reboots (not counting the Star Wars prequels as a reboot attempt) on this list and of the three this is the only one that works. And the funny thing is that it’s because it’s not really Star Trek. Oh, the set pieces are all there, the Enterprise, the characters we love, the rousing space opera, but ST was never about running around and blowing shit up and this is. Still, it was a welcome change from the snoozefest that Trek became at the end. Where Lucas sucked all the fun and humor out of Star Wars, Abrams put it all back into Star Trek. I just hope that JJ Abrams and Co. can overcome the urge to redo Khan for the sequel. Isn’t ripping off that plotline once already enough? Full (kinda) review here.

I Am Legend-
Where Will Smith’s other foray into literary SF this decade decided to throw the source material away to ill effect, here staying closer to Richard Matheson’s book pays off. In fact, the weakest part of the whole thing is that they changed the ending and thus eviscerated the whole subtext. Luckily the original ending is on the supplemental materials included with the Blu-Ray, so you can see more of what the writer intended.

X-Men: The Last Stand-
Another movie that would have been better served by staying closer to the original material. Too ambitious, too scattered, and too many mutants. Wolverine pared down the cast and at least tried to have a story, so maybe they learned their lesson.

The War of the Worlds-
Of the two literary SF adaptations Spielberg and Cruse did this decade I prefer Minority Report over this one. But this is a pretty good movie hurt first by the fact that Tom Cruse is only able to play Tom Cruse in movies. He isn’t so much an actor (he once was, remember TAPS?) as a special effect. I can’t see him as anything but Tom Cruse. Even in Valkyrie, with the limp and the eye, it’s was just Tom Cruse trying to kill Hitler. So that’s a problem. The second problem is that the source material is so dated. Wells novel was kick-ass over a hundred years ago but the alien invasion thing has been done a thousand times since then and the shock has worn off. In spite of this Spielberg stays pretty close to the original (except for the obligatory kids in danger fetish he has) and more or less pulls it off.

Signs-
This is the one with the aliens and the crop circles by M. Night Shyamalan and Mel Gibson. Is there anything else that needs to be said?

Wall-E-
I didn’t think Pixar could make a better movie than The Incredibles, but somehow they did. One of the best movies of the decade and it should have won an Oscar. Full review here.

X2: X-Men United-
X-Men movies carry their quality rating as their sequel number.

Superman Returns-
One of the movies in the reboot trifecta that stayed too close to the series it was trying to kick-start and failed as a result. Brian Singer didn’t so much make a Superman movie as he made the third movie in the original 1978 Superman movie series. Most people take issue with Lois Lane’s kid, but I could have forgiven that. The real problem for me was Lex Luthor. From his continuing obsession with real estate (That’s the best you can do? Really?! A supervillain that wants to be a land baron? And of an ugly piece of rock in the middle of the ocean? Shit!) to Kevin Spacey’s pseudo-Gene Hackman portrayal (in which none of Hackman’s charm and wit was evident) Luthor came off as a buffoon. Comic books are only as good as their villains and this one wasn’t much of a match for the most powerful superhero of all time.

Monsters vs. Aliens-
Didn’t see it. Probably won’t.

Men in Black II-
Another sequel that was a missed opportunity and got such big box office numbers because people loved it’s predecessor. The first MIB was original, inventive and funny. This one wasn’t, wasn’t, and wasn’t. You’ve got to bring the FUNNY, Barry!

The Day After Tomorrow-
Like comic book movies, disaster porn is another up and coming sub-genre. I expect that just like it did in the ‘70s, disaster movies will blow themselves out in a couple of years.

Jurassic Park III-
Honestly I can’t remember much about the Jurassic Park sequels. But hey, everybody loves dinosaurs, even creationists.

Planet of the Apes-
And the third fumbled reboot. Frankly I never cared much about the original series of movies. The central conceit was kind of silly and there is good reason Pierre Boulle isn’t considered a great SF writer. Still, the original had the benefit of Rod Serling’s scripting and that classic final scene. This one has been hated on a lot but I never really understood why. The plot isn’t any more of a mess than the original, and the ape costumes and acting are (at least) up to the level set in the previous series. (Can you say Tim Roth vanishes into the role when he’s hidden under 40 pounds of make-up?) And anyway, who goes to a Tim Burton movie for the story? You go to see his visual styling. And in that respect, I thought this movie was fine.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine-
This is another movie that wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be. I don’t know what people expected. Sure, it wasn’t SPIDER-MAN II, THE DARK KNIGHT, or THE INCREDIBLES. Hell, it wasn’t even WATCHMEN. But it wasn’t DAREDEVIL or CATWOMAN EITHER.

Now you can take what you want from this collection of movies. John Scalzi takes the idea that almost everything on it is that Hollywood has no originality left.

If you remove remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations out then all you are left with is SIGNS, WALL-E, MONSTERS VS. ALIENS, AND THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. But saying that Hollywood has no originality isn’t really very, uh, original, is it? OTOH, his generalization isn’t without merit. The first thing that leaps out at you is that movies made from comic books have become a serious sub-genre. Eight of the movies are made from comics. (Yeah, Transformers is actually a comic and cartoon made from a line of toys, but if you want to swap out those two for DARK KNIGHT and SPIDER-MAN you are welcome to.) And if you look at the release dates you see that this trend is accelerating. Countering this trend is the fact that only two works of literary SF that were made into movies hit the top twenty. Hell, the X-Men alone beat that! And while these two adaptations are pretty good (not great in either case) the other notable big budget literary adaptation was I, ROBOT, and it was an unmitigated disaster.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My new love has given me a Christmas gift that I just have to share with all of you. This ROCKS!

MOVIES- AVATAR

As far as a movie, AVATAR is a pretty typical James Cameron movie; which is to say that it’s an excellent action movie. Cameron’s gift has always been to make the most outlandish settings simply vibrate with verisimilitude. TERMINATOR had convincing cyborgs. ALIENS had a plausible futuristic alien war. The ABYSS showed us what an underwater drilling rig might be like. TERMINATOR II expanded on the CGI of the ABYSS to go from “solid water” tentacles to “liquid metal” robots that somehow never strained your suspension of disbelief. And TITANIC showed people what it might have been like to actually witness such a disaster.

AVATAR takes this visual veracity two steps further. The first amazing thing about AVATAR is the not at all realistic but completely believable world of Pandora. From the plants and animals to the 10 foot tall blue humanoid natives, the sections of the movie set on this alien world showcase some of the greatest animation ever put to film. So often CGI has a sort of unreality that reminds your hindbrain that you are seeing something that doesn’t exist. Here the plants and animals almost never exhibit the subtly wrong lighting, unnatural physics, or strange blurring that so often telegraphs a CGI sequence. And in the most amazing part of this tour de force of animation, Cameron and his crew of artists leap the uncanny valley in a single bound. If the humanoid creatures of Pandora ever exhibited for a moment the kind of dead-eyed, cadaver-skinned characteristics that have plagued Robert Zemeckis’ last several films, the jig would be up. But they never do. The computer generated world so brims with the feeling of the real that you not only buy into it as being as real as the scenes shot on soundstages, you even buy into such patently absurd ideas as floating mountains, plants with fast twitch reflexes, and dragons. Peter Jackson was able to come close to this level of CGI with the RINGS trilogy and KING KONG, but smartly desaturated his palate to hide some of the weaknesses of the technology. Cameron, on the other hand, gives Pandora a vivid, at times luminous, color palate and sets most of the scenes in bright sunlight. And like his films ABYSS and TERMINATOR II, he creates another evolutionary step in computer special effects. It is truly worth going to see AVATAR just to visit the world of Pandora.

The second step toward making you buy into the movie is the 3D. I don’t really know if it’s a breakthrough in 3D filmmaking. It’s only the second 3D movie I’ve seen (not counting Captain Eo) and the other was BEOWOLF- perhaps the ugliest movie ever made. Personally, I think that 3D is a gimmick that adds little, if anything, to a movie. The technique is better than it was in the 1950s, using polarized glasses rather than red and blue lenses, but the techniques for using that depth is really pretty much the same. Stuff sticks out of the screen or flies toward you or gives you environments that tunnel away from the viewer. Cameron uses the depth to good effect and few shots give you the idea that the considerations making an eye catching 3D shot were more important than the considerations of staging and composition as they relate to the story. About an hour into the thing you forget that you are watching a 3D movie and just start watching a movie. That’s where Cameron creates a new paradigm in 3D moviemaking. He makes you forget about it.

Of course, since it’s a Jim Cameron movie it has all the typical shortcomings of his other movies. The plot isn’t original. I’ve heard it called “Dances With Aliens” and that’s all the plot synopsis you really need. Another problem is Cameron’s tendency to “borrow” ideas from other creators. IO9 has already mentioned the similarities between Pandora and some of the fantasy artwork of artist Roger Dean but I didn’t really understand how much of Dean’s work Cameron had “borrowed” until I saw the movie (I come to find out that this is not lost on Mr. Dean since the front page of his web site now includes this link.) I’d always been skeptical of Harlan Ellison’s claims that Cameron had ripped off the Outer Limits episodes DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND and SOLDIER that he wrote*, but somewhere around the halfway point of AVATAR I actually was taken away from the movie because I got so pissed off at how blatantly Dean had been ripped off. Floating mountains with waterfalls, blue people, biological creatures with mechanical characteristics, mixing spirals with landscapes, gigantic world trees, none of these are original creations of Roger Dean, but when you see the way Cameron visualizes these motifs there is no question that he was familiar with Dean’s art.



And if you aren’t familiar with Roger Dean’s art then you should visit his web site and treat yourself to some of the most lyrical and beautiful fantasy landscape watercolors ever done. Dean became famous during his long association with progressive rock group Yes, for whom he did numerous album covers. He first came to my attention one Sunday when I was listening to that group’s Relayer album. While listening I looked at the album cover and suddenly realized that the three songs on the album related in a very visceral yet completely tangential way to the image I was concentrating on. A limited edition signed print of that painting hangs over my desk downstairs right now. It got me interested in watercolor as a medium in my own art and prompted me to buy his retrospective book Views and his later book Magnetic Storm. Dean’s artwork is sublime and if Cameron is going to be a thief at least he has the good taste to steal from Dean and Ellison.

And while Cameron has made a spectacular 3D movie, he still hasn’t mastered some of the problems of the format. The first thing is that he’s still filming with a normal camera’s depth of field in some shots. This results in objects in the very near foreground being out of focus. In a normal 2D movie this gives the viewer a sense of depth. But in the real world whatever you look at, whether near or far, is in focus. That’s one of the magical things the eye does without us realizing it. When you are watching a 3D movie you should have the same sort of natural ability to look wherever you want on the screen and see things clearly. But sometimes you don’t. This is like early CGI of human movement. Every character walked like a robot because they hadn’t yet figured out that human joints and limbs compressed slightly when they moved. Eventually this problem was realized and appropriate compensations were made. Sooner or later somebody is bound to figure this out and start using some sort of multiplane process in 3D movies.

But you can’t expect James Cameron to get everything right in one fell swoop. He got so much right and made yet another classic film. Isn’t that enough? If you haven’t seen this movie you should go see it tomorrow. I’m going on Wednesday to see it in IMAX 3D so I can take more time drinking in the visual spectacle. That’s what’s so special about this movie. It’s a throwback to STAR WARS and BLADERUNNER, a SF film that wows viewers with the visuals in spite of decades of becoming jaded by one after another films that tried to do it and failed.

* I love, simply LOVE Harlan Ellison. I’ve always had a soft spot for hella smart, smart-assed, take-no-prisoners, agent provocateurs and Ellison has been those things all his life in spades. He’s also a damn fine writer. I personally consider Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman to be the finest short story of the last half of the twentieth century. But Harlan sometimes does go overboard. And when he does he does it like he does everything else- overboard over the top. He threatened Cameron for Terminator II because he seems to think he invented the idea of soldiers from the future coming to our time to fight and cyborg warriors. He didn’t. He also had a famous feud with Gene Roddenberry over changes to his script for the original Star Trek’s most celebrated episode when, in reality, the changes that were made were minimal. In fact, like many artists, he isn’t aware of what his actual strengths are. Harlan isn’t a great inventor of ideas. Truthfully, most of his most famous stories have central ideas that are more archetypal than inspired. He’s written masterful stories about things like: the last few people alive being played with by a sentient supercomputer, a post apocalyptic world inhabited by youth gangs, going back in time to talk with yourself when you were a child, a man who finds out that being irresistible to women isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a fellow who is always late, etc. Hell, I’m no writer but even as a child I fantasized about being visited by my adult self. No, Harlan’s strength isn’t his ideas, it’s his prose. He writes about the same sort of things that other writers of fantastic literature write about, he just puts words together better than most.

Friday, January 1, 2010

REPOST- This I Know

This is a repost from the first day of last year. I had hoped to extend the list but it's the same so I guess I haven't learned anything in the last year.

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I thought I’d start the year with an infodump. Here are some of the aphorisms I’ve picked up or written over the years that have helped me to understand the world. Hopefully you will find something helpful for the New Year.


God is far too fond of irony.

Spirituality is inversely proportional to self-righteousness.

Over the long haul, correctness is proportional to doubt.

Quae nocent docent: Things that injure- teach.

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained as stupidity.

Common sense is not so common.

Never assume that everybody else is like you.

Argue with a fool and there are two fools arguing.

One of the primary purposes of religion is to separate people into us and them. One of the primary purposes of enlightenment is to break down barriers between us and them.

All too often, Christianity isn’t the religion of Jesus; it’s a religion about Jesus.

The opposite of love is fear.

You quit learning the minute you stop thinking that you might not be wrong.

Expecting gratitude when you help someone is ridiculous.

The more you love, the less you care.

The Democratic fallacy is that everybody’s opinion has equal worth.

Everything in the world conspires to keep you from actually being in charge of your own life. Including you.

Lotto is a tax on the mathematically challenged.

The two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

The only thing in the world you can be sure that you can change is your reaction to it.

We are stone-age brains dealing with twenty-first century technology.

The police work for the status quo. They are not employed to protect or serve the citizens.

Human society is an outgrowth of human nature.

One of the earliest things children learn is possessiveness. Lying is another.

Being sure is not the same as being right.

Psychology derives from biology, sociology derives from psychology, thus sociology derives from biology.

You are never in control as much as you think you are.

If you don't believe in luck, flip a coin and prove it.

It is never a bad idea to look for more evidence.

All governments eventually become malignant.

Gender roles were not imposed on either sex. They were inherited from biology.

No matter how wrong an idea is, there will be smart people who believe it, conversely there is no idea so right that it doesn’t have some idiot involved. (The popular expression of the second part of this is “even a broken clock is right twice a day”.

No person can be more than 50% of a relationship. A 50% correct relationship still gets a failing grade.

It may not have been your fault, but thinking that teaches you nothing.

One of the best courses in psychology you’ll ever have is driving in traffic.

Mentally retarded people rarely get angry. Stupid people get angry a lot. Smart people get angry less and control it better.

Democracy isn’t a system for making the best decisions, it’s a system for correcting the worst ones.

By the time they reach adulthood most people have figured out if they aren’t beautiful, athletic, or rich. However, they will go on thinking they are smarter than other people for the rest of their lives.

Insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results.

Class warfare has been being fought since the invention of money but it’s only called that when the poor fight back.

Life is a school. If you don’t learn the right answer to a problem you will keep seeing that problem repeatedly until you do get it right. This is why your cable keeps being turned off.

If you worry more about being respected than you do about respecting others, you’re doing it wrong.

Usually, not always but usually, when people are about to do something they shouldn’t do, they know it.

The golden rule isn’t “do unto others” it’s “love one another”.

We tend to dislike things in other people that we don’t want to admit about ourselves.

Spirituality is about making yourself better, making other people better is their job (not to mention impossible for you to do).

Unwanted help is always “unwanted” first and “help” second.

In college they taught me:
A class in statistics
And that generalizations were bad
These things are mutually exclusive.