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What Happened? [26 Sep 2014|02:11pm]
[ mood | impressed ]

Last week, saw the rather astounding 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles on Netflix Instant. It stars Steve McQueen as a sailor on a U.S. Gunboat in China in 1926. He's a man of few words, but of the strong conviction that he (and people in general) should be left alone to pursue excellence at whatever they're good at. For him it's keeping a big steam engine running, but he has as much respect for people like missionary Candice Bergen who try educate the next generation.

I was expecting this to be a big-screen exotic technocolor adventure, and the visuals and music correspond to this. But the actual story is a serious subversion, with the boat, a holdover from the Spanish empire that America overthrew and replaced, carrying out "fly the flag" missions that are not only arguably unnecessary but potentially producing the anti-Western sentiment they are supposed to guard against.

The anti-Westernism isn't all of one kind either, though they do tend to dovetail under stress. The film draws lines between Chinese warlords, gangsters, labor chiefs, western-educated nationalists and mysterious communists, but only to see the lines erased when a crisis or opportunity turns them all against our little boat. And when the boat fights back, the sort of scenes which a generation earlier (or later) might have been pure thrills become tragedies of people acting courageously at cross-purposes.

It's very long (over three hours) and deals with a lot of minutia (especially about the running of the ship and its steam engine) that might put off some, but the rewards that come from this were staggering to me. When McQueen tries to explain the engine to a Chinese peasant he's chosen as his assistant, it nicely points out not only that the peasant has no frame of reference to really understand it, but that even forty years later the viewers don't really have one either. Even that early machinery had reached the point where it was basically magic to anyone not versed in it.

Performances are good all over. McQueen quiet, Bergen sympathetic, Richard Crenna (the Captain) his usual mixture of arrogant and possibly wise, and the recently late Sir Richard Attenborough being very Simon Pegg-like as a tragicomic fellow sailor who wants to make a life with a Chinese woman.

And then the ending, wow. I went in expecting Treasure Island and ended up with a mix of Apocalypse Now and Last Man On Earth. Interesting how some parts of Hollywood tried to ignore "the 60s" pretty much up to the 70s, while this one picked apart the lessons of Vietnam as they were happening, while still using the old visual language.

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Holo Emmisary, Batman [24 Sep 2014|03:23pm]
[ mood | contemplative ]

The latest in my crazy Star Trek: Deep Space 9 theories...

(the last was that the whole show was an ups-and-downs romance between Bajor and the Federation)

This one is that the main crew of DS9 are to the holosuites what the Prophets (aka Wormhole Aliens) are to Bajor & the alpha quadrant as a whole.

Both groups...

1) Have wide-spanning powers to direct, alter, and escape the more "limited" reality.

2) See the universe as much vaster than can be perceived by the denizens of that reality.

3) Find the issues considered important by such denizens to be, for the most part, unimportant, even while attempting to sympathize with them.

4) Have brought into being an individual (Vic Fontaine & Benjamin Sisko) who, while still very much OF their more limited world, are capable of seeing beyond it and getting involved in the happenings of the larger reality.

5) Are induced to intervene in the events of that limited reality explicitly in order to save that individual and keep their "story" from ending.

That last part was the genesis of this whole theory: that the same qualities that caused the crew to "waste time" helping Vic in "Badda-Bing Badda-Bang" caused the Prophets to intervene and save everyone from The Dominion in "Sacrifice Of Angels".

Taking it further, and looking at the way the Prophets treat Kira & Jake in "The Reckoning", it seems like what the crew thinks of as the great Prophet vs. Pah Wraith war might just be a game to them, and that in shutting the game down Winn is acting sort of like Moriarty or a ReBoot character in shutting down the "fun" the players were having.

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A Liar's Apocalypse [23 Sep 2014|06:32pm]
[ mood | impressed ]

Recently I watched some things (Amazing Spider-Man 2 & Sin City 2) which everyone said would be bad, and turned out to be pretty bad. I'm glad I saw both and they have their moments, but they fell so far short of what they could have been (given the talent involved) that I can't recommend them.

I say this partly in order to show that I'm not being contrarian in liking two other things people don't say a lot of good things about: A Liar's Autobiography and Caprica.

LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a multi-director animated film about late tall Monty Pythoner Graham Chapman. It features narration from Chapman himself by repurposing a recording he made for an audio book (similar to what was done for the Robert Evans bio The Kid Stays In the Picture). Various sections of Chapman's life are done in various styles, with arbitrary but sometimes clever devices linking them together (somewhat like the links between disparate sketches in an episode of Flying Circus).

Non-Graham voices from his stories are dubbed-in by the surviving Pythons (including Carol Cleveland) and others, sometimes as themselves. It all seems like a formula for a stunning piece of work, and the reason it got disappointed reviews is probably that it's merely funny and sweet rather than earth-shaking. But it brings across a nice, multi-faceted picture of someone who seems much more gentle (yet hedonistic) than the strident, authoritarian figure of the sketches & movies. And shows an insightful (if abstract) look at what it was like to be a somewhat successful, somewhat out, 70% gay (he arrives at this scientifically) actor in the 1970s.

Highly recommended, on its own terms. It's probably a little more Python-centered than it might have been (or than the source book is) but given the effort the Pythons put in to make it happen I find this forgivable. It's on Netflix Instant now and I imagine other places.

CAPRICA is the prequel to the Battlestar Galactica reboot. I'd watched the pilot for this two-halves-of-one-season show and was curious rather than fascinated about what followed, but have now finally watched the rest.

It all takes place about 50 years before the tv series, well before the first Cylon war that is an old memory by then. It deals with the genesis of the Cylons as an artificial intelligence project that becomes very personal for a brilliant, arrogant designer (Eric Stoltz) when his artificial creations and his daughter become wrapped up together in a teeming mix of potentially violent machinery, religious fundamentalism, and social resentment.

On the plus side, the show like BSG hits a lot of interesting political bases, even if it doesn't explore them thoroughly. The "monotheist" groups that oppose the principles of their polytheistic society refresh old questions like whether being intolerant towards a corrupt old system is bad, and whether being tolerant of an intolerant new one is good. Plus you have BSG's great use of tone and muted design to make it all seem almost real, and yet not so real as to be mundane.

It does have problems though. There's a good deal of Lost-ism, whereby characters play musical chairs between the various factions (two at the beginning, at least four by the end). Sometimes, as in the case of the splintering of the monotheist group (and their very Kai Winn-esque leader played by Meg Tilly), this makes the later parts more interesting than the beginning setup, but in others it seems more like arbitrary piece-pushing just to create interesting situations and dialogs rather than follow the characters.

But otoh the dialogs ARE interesting, and you have offbeat personalities like Patton Oswalt as a John Stewart-like commentator to keep everyone on their toes. It may not do many things that no one has done before, but what it does it does with style and impact.

It also ends prematurely, but at least has a little coda at season end to indicate where things would have gone and give a good idea of the various characters' fates. And given that it's a very "ripe for apocalypse" world, anyone who made it that far was probably prepared for bad things to happen to them all anyway.

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And the way you look tonight. [08 Sep 2014|09:52am]
Random all-consuming theory for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (which people may well have come up with before), on the occasion of starting to listen to Trek.fm's DS9 podcast "The Orb"...

DS9 is a love story. They start out thrown together by circumstance and good intentions, somewhat wary and yet mutually fascinated. Adversity then causes them to get close perhaps too fast, they get engaged but then break it off. After that they grow a bit separately, come to appreciate each other's struggles and help against each other's enemies. And being a nuanced love story rather than a rom com, it ends with the the little touches showing them clearly fated to be together rather than the cheap capper of their actual wedding.

The two parties of this love story, as you may have guessed, are Bajor and The Federation.

The B plot is sort of a blended family story, like a more serious version of The Brady Bunch. The heads of the two groups of kids are Kira & Sisko, who start out adversarial but, although like Marcia & Greg they never hook up (except in glorified fan-fic like the mirror universe and Very Brady Sequel), they become more and more aware of being two heads of a single loving unit. (If only Brady Bunch had ended with Greg going off to college and Marcia comforting Bobby as they look out the window...)

(Also, from the first episode to the last, they alternate possession of the room at the top that all the kids want.)
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On Choosing The Chosen One [19 Aug 2014|01:15pm]
[ mood | contemplative ]

Was thinking about the distressingly popular YA trope of the Chosen One (hereinafter C1).

Now, there have always been C1 stories and there always will. They can be good, and in certain areas like High Fantasy they're practically expected. But that's no reason why you can't have non-C1 fantasy stories or why it should be encouraged to spread to every other genre.

The reason why I care about such a thing is that C1 stories are self-limiting. While they can impart important lessons about living up to your potential, they limit a lot of other concepts such as egalitarianism, self-improvement, and judging people by their actual merits rather than their position, lineage, or what some authority says about them.

Harry Potter gets a lot of blame for re-igniting the C1 trope. As is so often the case with trope-starters, HP's approach really isn't bad (certainly not compared to its imitators). The later books make it clear that Harry's chosen one status is only partly prophetic; it's also the creation of Harry himself and of his nemesis Voldemort (who made the telling choice of assuming half-blooded Harry was the threat rather than equally prophecy-satisfying pure-blooded Neville). And the lesson of the last book is that creating a C1 requires not just good performance by the candidate but also a lot of behind-the-scenes work by the likes of Dumbledore to set up the right situations.

This actually takes me unexpectedly to Dune. While the Adaptations Of Dune make it into a straight C1 work ("He IS the Kwisatz Haderach!") the book itself is much more about the above-mentioned back office work required to make a universe in which a C1 can appear. And with the sequels, arguably the Chosen One chooses not to be Chosen anymore.

(Also in that category could be Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but I have not read the book and the movie severely frustrated me.)

One way in which a C1 narrative can be interesting is as a giant clockwork. If the C1 is truly destined to do some unlikely thing, there can be an intellectual thrill in just seeing how circumstances bring that thing about. The existing Star Wars movies, taken as a whole, could be this. There really isn't a lot of tension about whether Luke is going to go dark (never thought he would) or Anakin is going to stay light (again pretty telegraphed), but it can be interesting to see how, if you think of Anakin as being the C1 destined to bring balance to the forrce, he does it by (twice) prioritizing love over loyalty, first destroying the Jedi (except himself) for Padme, and then the Sith (including himself) for Luke.

Of course, Star Wars is generally accepted to be Space Fantasy rather than science fiction, so a C1 narrative is to be expected if not exactly appreciated. And this is why author David Brin famously critiqued it as elitist, compared to more meritocratic or populist properties such as Star Trek. Now, while I acknowledged Brin's points and let them enrich my way of looking at Star Wars, I didn't really join in his anger. Star Wars, is, after all, a long time ago, not a vision of the future.

But, as with post-Potter YA, once a C1 succeeds it can contaminate other properties if people aren't thinking things through. And that's how we get the new Star Trek movies made by the famously Star Wars-phillic J. J. Abrams and his team. Thanks to them, we know longer assume that James Kirk was just a random Iowa boy who rose through the ranks via hard work and an unconventional approach to tests. No, he's the son of a hero, given repeated boosts and second chances by those who see his father's potential in him and don't really care how many cars he deliberately wrecks along the way. And that no amount of work, brilliance, courage, or experience from any other person should allow them to get in the way of his destiny. This is part of what I & others mean when we say that we ENJOY the JJA Trek films, but feel like they're missing a much greater point.

(In a similar category are the "Amazing" new Spider-Man films, which turn a "this could happen to anyone" origin into a "this was always meant to happen to this guy" one.)

Another way a C1 story can be enriched is by giving the C1 a real choice beyond "save everybody or don't", and it's the exact one Star Wars attempted but didn't quite pull off: given that the C1 is destined to be pivotal, give the C1 a meaningful choice between good and evil, preferably with the outcome in doubt.

The most meticulous working-out of both these choices is in Unbreakable, a film I respect a lot and also enjoy some. Trying to avoid spoilers: one of the characters becomes obsessed with the idea that he has been chosen, and works to uncover another chosen person. The stated reason is in order to make his own chosen status (and the extreme trauma that has gone with it) meaningful, but I see it as also putting them both in a position where they can MAKE a choice, of good or evil, that is even more significant than the choice that was made for them. As in a lot of M.Night works there's some serious stealth-commentary on religion going on.

Another in this category is Brian De Palma's The Fury, which among other things (it's a rich tapestry) is about an adolescent psychic girl aiding in a father's search for his adolescent psychic son. These two characters are repeatedly told they have special gifts (though unlike in Star Wars, new-Trek, and new-Spider-Man they don't run in the family), gifts which might seem to set them on a certain course. But the climax of the film shows that how the teenagers choose to use their gifts is far more important than anyone's idea of what their destiny will be.

I could pile-on many more "typical" examples of C1 films but they all tend to hit me in the same wearying, anti-democratic way, so I've limited it to the ones I've liked or disliked in more varied ways. Would love to see comments about others (or about these).

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Ghosts & Witches & Ambiguity [18 Aug 2014|10:50am]
Had ghosts and witches on my mind and caught a bunch of them on Netflix Instant...

The big find was HAUNTER (2013), one of those movies that seems to exist on the periphery of other movies, something I'm generally a sucker for. In this case, imagine a multiple haunting a la The Shining or Poltergeist, and like in those cases there's a bunch of spooky spirits led by one malevolent one bent on killing a family. This film is what it's like to be one of those first group of spirits (I have wondered what the spooky twin girls got up to when Danny wasn't around, for real). Along the way it mixes in elements of Beetlejuice (how the supernatural can become mundane) and The Others (unlife being a metaphor for family life). It's not as good as any of these (except maybe The Others) and the climax has a lot of arbitrary McGuffin-shuffling, but there are also a lot of good ideas & scares and good work by Abigail Breslin. Oh, and it's a Vincenzo Natali; hadn't even realized.

Also saw THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), which is sort of the downmarket British version of The Haunting (much as House On Haunted Hill was the downmarket American one). Unexceptional, but good if you like that posh-talk-then-scream pseudo-Hammer thing, which I do, although the PG rating left me wanting a bit more.

The antidote to the latter was VIRGIN WITCH (1972), which deviates from Hammer in the opposite direction by basically being soft-core "single X" porn disguised as a horror film. It's not terrible, and the women & settings are certainly attractive, but now we have the internet and the plot twist is only a twist if you've never seen a 1970s "young girl lured into witch coven" movie before. The most shocking thing is probably the lesbi-phobia of a couple of the "good" characters (although it's the sort of film where no one is really good) but I suppose it's a valuable documentation of attitudes at a time where even the subject generally would have been left unspoken.

Also saw ABSENTIA (2011), which is about a woman, whose husband disappeared years earlier, facing a lot of doubts about declaring him dead. At first it seems like it will be straight drama, then horror elements arise, but then by the end it's unclear whether the horror elements are real. The pacing is a little slow, and I could see people finding it very frustrating, but as a lover of ambiguity I found it very satisfying. (One theory the movie plays with seems like something straight out of the Kult role playing game, which is always a plus for me.)

Not on Netflix Instant is I AM A GHOST (2013), which I saw at last year's WorldCon in San Antonio (it is on Amazon Instant free to Prime people; I don't have Prime so I just digital-bought it). It's basically a much less flashy, more serious version of Haunter, with almost the whole movie just being the Ghost character dealing with her routines and the strange breaks in them. VERY deliberately paced and again with the ambiguity. Delicious candy for me, possibly not for everyone else.

Addendum: Almost forgot! Also finally saw HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009). The craftsmanship of that film is breathtaking, but it left me a little detached. But in terms of re-creating 1980s horror it is genius. It's now ahead of Drive, Tower Heist, and Donnie Darko in my "most 80s film of the 21st Century" list. (Super 8 would probably be a contender but I haven't seen it yet; any others?) It's advantage is that it captures something that Watchmen also caught but most 80s pastiches miss: that the 80s were 75% the 70s with a gloss on top.
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Served A Summons [11 Aug 2014|02:00pm]
This is a follow up on my new Chromebook: When I first got it, I was somewhat suspicious of myself, afraid I might have let the price tag ($200) and the gee-whiz factor (free 4G internet for life) convince me to buy something I didn't really need, since I had a netbook that was working perfectly well and I live in a city where I'm surrounded by wifi hotspots.

Well, "need" is an overused word but I have definitely benefitted from having it even this short period of time. Today on the train I had a story idea and was able to open it, turn it on (entire startup <5 seconds), open a google doc, type type type for as long as the trip lasted and then close it again. Then when I got to my desktop computer at work I checked my online google drive and there was my new document, without me having consciously done a thing to save or transfer it.

I'm aware there can be problems with cloud-based things (most frightening is a glitched version of a document synching-up and overwriting the good versions) so after checking I immediately used the Download command (what other word processors would call "Saving Your Document") to make an offline copy. But still, pretty cool.

This post also serves historically as the first mention of my new screenplay idea, which I will call "Summons". The idea emerged while watching the whole 15 hours of The Story Of Film on Netflix Instant last week, and actually includes some "formalist" or "filmic" concepts, which is always a good sign when I'm wondering why I would do something as a film rather than a word-story.

Was sort of hoping that series would inspire as well as entertain; so far so good. Highly recommended, by the way, if you have any interest in the philosophy of filmmaking. It starts better than it ends, but TV is the one medium where that's an okay order. A book or movie that starts good but ends badly leaves the sense of great waste. With TV though, it both means you don't have a "suffer through" period where you feel you need to keep going in order to see if it turns good (like most Joss Whedon shows), and also gives the satisfaction of knowing the show would not have benefited from being extended (unlike most Joss Whedon shows).
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New Computer, not same as old computer [04 Aug 2014|10:57am]
I've bought...

...an HP Chromebook for cheap, one of those crazy new computers that runs google's web browser and that's it...except that of course these days a web browser can theoretically do anything. We'll see. So far it's passed my big test of being able to run GoogleDocs while offline (although it comes with a "lifetime" trickle of 4G, so theoretically need almost never BE offline).

This in turn means...

I no longer need my HP netbook, so I'd be happy to let it go for say $40, with a 30-day guarantee.

It's got 1gb RAM, a 140GB hard drive, wifi, ethernet, 10" screen, Windows 7, and NO optical drive (no dvds/cds/etc). It's pretty compact (keyboard is about 80% size) so it's been very good for travel, commuting, etc. The battery no longer does the "12 hours of use" it once did but I can definitely still get multiple hours out of it (especially if I use hibernate rather than sleep when not using it).

Includes power adaptor & 90s apple laptop zipper bag it happens to fit in.

GOOD FOR: typing, browsing, skyping (built-in camera) and I'm sure much else.

NOT SO GOOD FOR: new games with demanding graphics, full-screen HD video, anything that requires inserting a disc (although usb portable optical drives are pretty cheap these days).

So those are my two pieces of business. Hopefully chromebooking will agree with me (although finding out that google doesn't like RTFs is a bumpy start; what's up with that?)
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Doomed To Repeat It [31 Jul 2014|03:16pm]
[ mood | amused ]

from Doug Loves Movies gameshow podcast:

Doug Benson: Give the name of a Harrison Ford...

Sarah Tiana: Indiana Jones!

*Doug pauses.*

Live Audience: OOOOOOooooooo

Sarah Tiana: Um...And The Temple Of Doom!

Doug: Whattayuthink, should we let her get away with that?

Live Audience: *applause*

Doug: Okay, you're still in.


[several minutes later, Doug has to answer the same question]


Doug: Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull

Live Audience: ooooooOOOOOO

Doug: and the KINGDOM of the Crystal Skull!

Sarah: Should we let him get away with that?

Live Audience: *boos*

Doug: It's sounding like a roller-coaster in here.



[even later]

Doug: What did we miss?

Audience: BLADE RUNNER!

"Mark Wahlberg": No way! Turns out that was a robot, he wasn't even IN that.

[Audience cacophony]

"Mark": Oh, sorry. SPOILER ALERT.

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Not so cuckoo, Cuckoo [27 Jun 2014|08:26am]
Just finished Cuckoo's Calling, J.K. Rowling's briefly pseudonymous detective novel in which a broken-down (economically, physically, emotionally) detective is hired to solve the murder of a supermodel who almost everyone assumes jumped from a balcony.

On the whole, I found it less engrossing than A Casual Vacancy (with which it shares a nice titular ambiguity) but also more approachable. Vacancy is an attempt at a microcosm of modern society, and if you're not sucked into the unpleasant character lives there's not much to keep you interested, whereas Cuckoo just tries to spin a yarn (although one with distinct and interlinking characters) and what it loses in profundity it gains in regular plot payoff.

I actually think it would make a better movie/tv-series than Vacancy would, although I'm very curious to see what the upcoming CV mini looks like. With CV, it seems like you'd have to take a lot of time and play it completely naturalistic or use very showy direction to really get into the characters' heads. Whereas with Cuckoo you could pretty much just film the page, plus or minus a few flashbacks.

One interesting twist is that one of the poles of the story is the detective's new temp secretary. The spunky secretary who gives relief to the grasping selfishness of the hard-boiled private eye is an old motif, and this book spends some time exploring where such a person might come from in the modern world, and in addition to the relief provides a more accessible entre into all the crime and fame than the rather peculiar gumshoe would.

Speaking of fame, the murdered woman, whose talent catapult her overnight from a difficult family history to fame and wealth beyond her ability to cope with, invites comparisons with JK herself, although their fields are very different. At the very least, when she poetically describes the fluid mechanics of packs of reporters I got the sense that this is based on a lot of direct observation rather than speculating.

The book took me quite a while to read, serving as the backstop-reading on my tablet when I had nothing else going, but once I hit the halfway mark and the solution began to come together the pages really started to turn and I read pretty continuously. That solution turns out to be a little far-fetched in detail, but JKR does play fair and lay the groundwork. So it's well within the parameters of "possible but not always remotely probable" that I figure are typical of the detective genre, but it's a bit of a let-down after Vacancy, where crazy effects have more natural, seemingly inevitable, causes.
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The Silence Is Rest [30 May 2014|04:43pm]
[ mood | tired ]

The Hamlet video production that I have been mentally working on for more than a decade (and must have been pretty serious about when I did my Hamlet films post almost four years ago) is finally online.

In form it is a six episode web series, clocking in at almost four hours total. There have been many ups and downs, and some parts of the final product are better than others (my favorite is episode four), but this was an experience I wouldn't exchange for anything. Met a lot of great people, used every muscle of every kind I possess.

Whew.

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"We are a team, aren't we?" [23 Apr 2014|11:25am]
[ mood | disappointed ]

Yesterday, I finally made it to the theater to watch Captain America 2. My expectations had been heightened by word-of-mouth, and some plot points had been spoiled by Marvel: Agents Of SHIELD, but despite these obstacles I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's pretty amazing that Cap's two movies are both so good while being so different. The X-Men series can muster two that qualify (I'd nominate XM2 and The Wolverine) but that's out of six. The closest I can think of "two for two" is Star Wars & Empire Strikes Back (which, in case you don't know me, is good company to be in).

I also like its little twists on the action formula. For instance, when Our Hero and his Spunky Female Companion meet a big bruiser and some mooks, the Hero takes on the mooks while the Female goes after the bruiser. Seems like a small thing and it's just for the scene, but it's pretty refreshing. You usually only get that kind of dynamic where you have Badass Fantasy Girl and Infantalized Male Protagonist a la Kick Ass or Man With One Red Shoe.

Meanwhile, it's got one of those rare conspiracy plots that pays off better than the build-up (more on that rarity soon), not only making the movie better but making me re-examine earlier parts of the Marvel series. And you have good returning performances from the actors who should be back without gratuitously bringing back those who should not. Just a good job by everyone.

So feeling positive about recent revered blockbuster sequels, I RedBoxed Hunger Games 2 on the walk home (meanwhile also having an epic cell phone conversation with the absent rollick; ah...rollick).

Before I get into how I feel about the movie, I'll explain a theory I have about conspiracy & confidence movies (I'll just call them "con movies" for short). Most movies pay off as they go: jokes are funny, action is exciting, drama is gripping. They should build on what's gone before to build a greater whole, and it is possible for later developments to tarnish the memory of earlier scenes, but for the most part those scenes stand on their own.

Con movies, on the other hand, work on credit. The moments prior to the full revelation of the Con are borrowing enjoyment from that revelation. If that revelation turns out to be a bust, it can take the whole movie down with it.

Now, history shows that the Con reveal is rarely as good as the build-up, so as a fan of such films I cut them slack. And of course it's all relative. I found the reveal in True Detective (season one, for future readers) disappointing, but all it did really was take it from what looked to be one of my favorite tv seasons of all time to what looks to be one of my favorite tv seasons of the year. Meanwhile in the case of say Ocean's 12, the terrible reveal took it from a film I was sort-of-enjoying into something I never wanted to think about again.

So with that established, here's my take on the Hunger Games series. I enjoyed the first one; I found it highly flawed and the world ridiculously underdeveloped but the central premise of the games was a provocative metaphor that the film played completely straight, with rules to which the film adhered while at the same time teasing out surprising developments. I didn't feel any sense of expectation for the sequel, but I remembered the first quite positively (it helps that it has its worst scenes towards the beginning and the best towards the end; human psychology and all).

So finally, last night I watched the second film. It seemed to be moving in a positive direction. No long shakycam intro setting up the world; nice development of a few repeat characters, and an interesting pack of new ones in the form of the veteran champions. However, even with all this, it seemed like something was off, like I hadn't reached the point where Catniss really got to make decisions that affected her situation, or where her nemesis President Snow showed some sort of coherent plan against her and goodness as we know it.

During this period, the film was, per my theory, drawing a line of credit from its reveal. As with Oceans 12 (although not to the same extent), I was following along in expectation that things would look better in light of the ending.

Well, they instead looked a lot worse.

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So yeah, I liked a film everybody liked, and disliked a film everybody liked. If it's not a useful set of opinions at least it's also not a predictable one.

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Lovecraft Film Festival day 3 [21 Apr 2014|05:37pm]
[ mood | impressed ]

And now belatedly to cover the third day of the Lovecraft fest. It was slightly anticlimactic after the great stuff I'd seen on the previous days (and perhaps things I missed: there were at least two original features films, several revival films, and many panels, readings, keynotes, game demos, and more which I could not fit in).

But it was enjoyable nonetheless.

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Saturday at HP Lovecraft Film Fest 2014 [13 Apr 2014|10:18am]
This is going to go long, so I'm going to start with the last (and best) thing I saw...

THE SUNDERLAND EXPERIMENT starts with a very clever premise, and then takes genius moves from there. A very small town was taken over by alien body snatchers years before, and now the growing (still-human) children are torn between obeying their (part-alien) parents and trying to defy the invaders. Has great echoes of the quiet angst of both 70s sci-fi and 70s coming-of-age films, put together in ways with a lot of current social relevance. Apparently it's getting some kind of distribution so hopefully you will all get to see it, but for now here's the trailer.

This film by itself made traveling to the Fest worth it, and when I think of how I more of less arbitrarily chose to see it (and miss other stuff) when I might easily of have done the reverse makes me re-think every time I've had to make a similar choice. The HPLFF really is TOO chock-full of stuff.

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HP Lovecraft Film Festival Day 1 [12 Apr 2014|11:57am]
I am (1) sick (2) in Portland (3) staying at my kind friends John & Stacy's house and, most relevantly to this post, (4) attending the HP Lovecraft Film Festival, which is as fascinating as always despite me having to do everything in a low-energy way and being tragically rollick-less.

I'll be giving reports on the things I see, which will perhaps be meaningless ululations now but in time might become arcane secrets of untold value to a future seeker who finds them in this impossibly ancient journal.

LORD OF TEARS: New indie film, sort of The Haunting meets The Mothman Prophecies meets the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It takes way too long to get where it's going: a series of twists that seem inevitable by the time they happen, (although that might be the point). Does have some very creepy costume/makeup effects and actually has some really interesting things to say about said the Pixie Dream Girl archetype. Exactly what would be a spoiler, but in the general area that the usual MPDG adventure is kind of an infantilization fantasy. Trailer.

DEAD SHADOWS: New film from France, in which a troubled young man brings his baggage into a zombie/body-snatcher apocalypse. Sort of Donnie Darko meets Sean Of The Dead, with a side of movies like The Signal in which the survivors become at least as morally questionable as the infected. It could also be considered a counterargument to "thugs can be good to have around in times of crisis" works like Attack The Block. All in all pretty interesting and exciting, with some very good integration of disgusting makeup and disturbing CGI. Trailer.

Further updates to come, if the stone man doesn't get me.
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Well Digested In The Scenes [21 Feb 2014|10:23am]
[ mood | productive ]

As I announced in this journal over three years ago, I've long had some notions about how Hamlet should be done.

Well, I've finally got something to show for it other than talk. I'm producing a six episode Hamlet we series, and the first three episodes ("Season One") are now online. You can click here for a YouTube playlist of over two hours of it, or check out hamletseries.com for more options.

The remainder, "Season Two", should be out sometime in April.

Still a lot to do, but for right now I'm taking my victory lap.

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Starships Were Meant To Flyyyyyyy [10 Feb 2014|11:25am]
[ mood | happy ]

Went to Capricon and had an amazing time. Was mostly social, and I did more room-partying than I can remember having done previously. This would be the first time when the "there was a whole 'nother con worth of stuff that I never got to" applied to the night part as well. For instance, there was a movies & popcorn room party showing a lot of fun crazy stuff, but which I never even entered because there was too much else going on.

Daytime I watched a lot more anime than usual, with some good results. The biggest find was The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, an active-female version of such sentimental time travel stories as About Time, Groundhog Day, and Time Traveller's Wife. It starts manic, as so much anime does, but the poignancy builds and builds. Not as much of a tear-jerker as About Time but a hanky might still be a good precaution.

One notable thing about the con was that they (with some help from MuseCon) made the main performance space into a "cafe" with tables & chairs rather than just row seating, and with a steady stream of interesting coffees & pastries available free (including ginger curry scones and cherry banana bread). This added a relaxing homey touch whenever I sat in there for a few minutes, to experience some filk or acapella, or alternately to have some nice live music while eating food from outside (it made a change from the conversational cauldron of the Con Suite).

I also got to navigate a previously untried part of the Metra commuter rail system, which got me to within two miles of the con with minimal trouble. (Normally I would just have hoofed it from there, but given the coldpocalypse I was very glad of a ride from my visiting friend Tina).

And then there was Barfleet, whose five-year mission is to create safe spaces where people can party without fear of exploitation or harassment, and do a damn good job of it. They alone are a good reason to attend any con in the Great Lakes states, and were part of the reason I voted for Detroit's successful bid for this year's NASFIC.

Since I had an actual posse, we were also able to amp up the dancing at other parties that had made a more half-hearted attempt in the musical direction. The troubled Chi-Fi had a "we're still going to happen!" party with a DJ, and there was a cow-themed party with an digital juke-box where anyone could program music, which made a nice second fall-back. The fourth and most random one in the rotation was being thrown by a very effusive dude in a kilt who had thrown a party at WorldCon Reno in 2011. He would open the door whenever it seemed like a lot of people were looking for a party and then close it and party elsewhere when the moment passed. People seemed to know him everywhere, but most of them also loudly echoed my sentiment of "What the HELL are YOU doing HERE?"

One discovery at the latter party: the parody song "Tonight I'm Frakking You" (the cosplay in the video is pretty amazing), which I was lucky enough to discover "backwards", hearing the lyrics first and then only getting the title when the chorus came up. Unfortunately couldn't think of a way to replicate the experience for others. Perhaps it will inspire me to make a Smurfs/BMG/Tobias Funke version called "Tonight I'm F@cking Blue".

Did just a little board gaming with rollick, and she introduced me to the simple but fascinating Big Monster game King Of Tokyo. I also got her to join me at "Trivia For Chocolate", which is something I'd only seen before at WorldCon. Lots of fun; a panel of judges (or in this case just one) read categorized questions and then huck a Hershey's kiss at the first audience member to give the right answer. I was outclassed in a lot of it, but managed to identify that the common name for Amon Sul is Weathertop, that Jack Palance was the actor who played Xenos in Gor, that Lee Meriwether was the other Cat Woman to appear on Star Trek, and one other question I can't remember now. rollick was the first to identify the novels Jerheg and American Gods by their first line. We both could have gotten more but there were a lot of very fast, very smart people in the audience.

Fact: The chocolate of victory is the best chocolate. Even though I'm not usually into Hershey's kisses.

Speaking of which, one thing I learned at Capri is that if a stranger you're dancing with points to her mouth that means she's about to go in for a kiss. Not knowing this, I managed my side of it without knocking teeth or foreheads, and she was off to do the rounds of the dance floor after about four seconds. Apparently her M.O. was to stick around longer the more into the kiss you were, as she spent about a minute with a more enthusiastic guy and later about fifteen minutes making out in a corner PG-13 style with a similarly kiss-happy woman.

(If there's a massive mono outbreak among people whose only common vector was being at CapriCon: mystery solved.)

Other things I could have done but didn't have time for: Settlers Of Catan tournament, karaoke, Little Shop Of Horrors sing-along, readings. And of course informative panels, but history suggests there's little chance of that.

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This was never my story. [31 Jan 2014|04:13pm]
[ mood | impressed ]

Was sick yesterday and at random decided to catch up on my Zack Snyder by watching Sucker Punch and Man Of Steel.

(For free, courtesy of BissTV, but that's a whole 'nother topic.)

SUCKER PUNCH is Snyder's only non-adapted movie, a bizarre coded fantasy about a bunch of girls in a series of bad situations where they must hang together or hang seperately.

One of the first things I thought about was how different it was to watch SP now than to watch it when it came out three years back. Though perhaps it balances out:

CONS OF WATCHING IT NOW:

-No big screen. The film is a visual feast, so big screen might have been good. Otoh, it's cgi-heavy, and cgi often doesn't scale up as well as practical effects do. Still a minor con though.

-Cloud Atlas exists, which makes the nested stories and attempts at a theme seem even more clunky than they would be otherwise. Rather than an original vision, SP almost seems like someone's clueless attempt to make a big-box-office version of CA.

PROS OF WATCHING IT NOW:

-Lowered expectations due to widespread loud revulsion against the film. Not to be underestimated as it puts me in a frame to pick out the good rather than pick apart the bad.

Another disadvantage the film had is a problem with all "fantasy within the movie" films: tenuous stakes. Almost none of the film is what's "really" happening, and even when something IS happening the viewer isn't sure it is, so it's not as easy to care. A good enough fantasy can overcome this (say Mulholland Drive) but it's definitely an obstacle. In this case, it wounds the film early on but I think it is handled pretty well, with just enough reality visible through the coding to give some nice insight into the central chracter (sort of like a female Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys, somehow still featuring the ageless Jena Malone).

However, on balance, I liked it. The vision was unique. The women at the center of the film were appealing characters. The structure was pretty good (although it took about a half-hour to find itself), and the hidden-in-plain sight twist worked well for me. The music (much of which is sung by the main actress) was eclectic and used well. And the way the plot hinges on exotic dancing which you never see (except coded into fantasy violence) really worked for me; in a movie about a fictitious master artist it's almost always a good idea to never let the audience see the art.

So Sucker Punch takes a while to get on-track, and even then is way too broad to even approach being a great whole (there's a scene with John Hamm that's about the most embarrassing case of tell-don't-show I can remember), but it left me with a good feeling on a bad day.

MAN OF STEEL, the Superman re-boot of last year, is arguably a better movie, but I found it to be an infinitely more frustrating one. This is because most of Sucker Punch's flaws were conceptual; it would be hard to solve them without losing the central idea. Whereas Man Of Steel has problems of detail; it felt about two rewrites away from being a really great film.

One thing that particularly torments me is Michael Shannon as Zod, almost the epitome of a wasted performance. That term gets bandied around a lot with admired actors in go-nowhere roles, for instance to Benedict Cumberbatch's Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. But in this case it's worse in a way because there really was a method to the madness. Zod is the way he is, and is always referred to as "General", for a very specific reason that could have been brought up at any time. But the time they chose was 9/10ths of the way through the film, qualifying it for what I call the Portia's death problem.

On top of that you have the fact that while Superman's relations to Earthlings are very well thought out (both by the writers and by him), his clashes with the bad guys are bone-headed (ditto). And the bad guys' plans were even worse ("This enormous machine is necessary to stop us from getting super powers!") And the technological backstory, although cool-looking and full of potential, is overloaded. How many different ships / gates / ultra-important-gizmos were necessary in order to move along a largely emotion-based story that takes place on Earth? (Hint: a lot fewer than there were.)

However, I thought the acting was good, and the effects were nifty, and it seemed that in both this and Sucker Punch Zack Snyder had his heart in the right place. He just maybe needs to questions his instincts a little more before letting them loose.

Speaking of the acting: As soon as Amy Adams got the call from Lawrence Fishburne that the FBI was on the way and she needed to get out of there, I immediately started hoping he would talk her to the ledge and tell her about The Matrix. (Hey, so I guess both of Snyder's latest reminded me of the Wachowskis.)

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Since, then, we both wear masks, either let us both retain them or put them aside together. [21 Jan 2014|05:52pm]
A little over a year ago, I posted about having read The Three Musketeers, and mentioned that I intended to read the follow-up D'Artagnan Romances.

Well now I have, and it's quite an adventure. There are either two or four, one called Twenty Years After, and then another (Ten Years Later) which is sometimes whole and sometimes split up various ways, generally with the sub-titles Vicomte De Bragalonne, Louise de la Valliere, and The Man In The Iron Mask.

Taken together with 3Ms, it's almost 40 years of adventures for our protagonist D'Artagnan ("the new Quixote") and his dynamic cast of friends, enemies, servants, and masters. Never far from the the gritty, money-grubbing life of a 17th century soldier but always near the grand heroic life that he can never quite acknowledge to have never existed. And as the stories progress the one constant is the first and second grinding against each other.

This impact enriches both, or course, with the realities provoking our heroes to greater and greater acts, which in turn inspire otherwise normal people with grand ideas. But it also increasingly harms both until inevitably the legends must be destroyed by the realities, while the dying legends take real people down with them, often the very people they had most inspired.

It definitely has its slow parts and fast parts, and Dumas seems to feel around as he goes along for which plotlines are worthwhile and which aren't. But when he gets in his stride it's both fascinating and thrilling. I would love to see the whole bunch made into a tv or movie series. I would say some form of animation would be the way to go, so we can see the effect of years without defective makeup.

There are so many great moments in the literally thousands of pages (now available free as eBooks!) that a sampling would take over this piece, so perhaps I'll save that for a separate post along the lines of my post-Jane Austen superlatives.

For those who haven't tried them yet: If you liked Three Musketeers, and have curiosity about the 17th Century, give them a try. And if you get bogged down maybe take a breather, skip ahead a chapter or so and try again. (After that you have done your duty, and who can ask more?) If you did not like 3Ms, I'd say don't bother.

For those who have read them, or don't care about spoilers, here's...Collapse )
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Random Thought, Now In Poll Form [25 Oct 2013|10:41am]
[ mood | curious ]

Not even sure what inspired this thought (other than the weather turning chilly, and my belief that thermal dimorphism is one of those things that keeps heterosexual relationships going)...

Poll #1940474 Body Temperature Manipulation Poll

Have you ever deliberately warmed your hands before touching someone in your sexual orientation target group, for amorous reasons? (for instance not wanting a partner or potential partner to flinch when you touch them)

Yes
12(92.3%)
No
1(7.7%)

Have you ever warmed your hands before touching a child, for nurturing reasons? (not wanting them to be distressed)

Yes
7(53.8%)
No
6(46.2%)

Have you ever deliberately cooled your hands before touching someone, for humorous reasons? (trying to get a funny reaction)

Yes
7(53.8%)
No
6(46.2%)

Have you ever cooled your hands before touching someone, for amorous reasons? (could be coldplay, or just because it was uncomfortably warm)

Yes
4(30.8%)
No
9(69.2%)


Very interested in any comments or qualifications, as always.
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