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.

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.

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?

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!


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.

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.