30 June 2008

WALL·E

WALL·E (2008)
Directed by Andrew Stanton. Robotic sound effects by Ben Burtt.

Pixar once again shows everybody else how you do it. If I were a competing computer animation studio, I would consider getting a legal injunction against Pixar for defaming my product with their quality. Pixar makes everyone else in the racket look like kids trying to use LOGO. (Remember that programming language? I spent a summer in a computer camp learning how to draw a square on my Apple ][+ screen. It was thrilling at the time.)

In fact, Pixar makes most filmmakers, animation or live-action, look slack. They tell great stories, know how to best tell them, and make them look phenomenal.

WALL·E is one of the studio’s best movies. The only film of theirs that I like more is The Incredibles. WALL·E is inarguably Pixar’s greatest visual achievement, creating a fantasy space opera canvas combined with intricate character work. I’m glad that Andrew Stanton didn’t try to realize this project back in 1995 but waited until the technology of CGI could do it justice. Whether showing us an empty planet drowning in trash, or a gleaming spaceship filled with the most incredible array of service robots imaginable, the movie takes computer graphics to yet new heights of imagination.

WALL·E is actually four movies in one:
  • A massive space opera adventure
  • A satire on consumerism and ecological disaster
  • A beautiful love story
  • A slapstick comedy in the style of the classic silent clowns
The filmmakers have put a lot of influences into their CGI blender—Silent Running, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brian Aldiss’s novel Non-Stop, Hollywood musicals, silent comedies, every boy-chases-after-girl tale—and make it all work as enthralling entertainment.

In fact, I don’t want to talk too much about WALL·E because I want you to see it for yourself. It isn’t a movie loaded with plot twists that I might “spoil” for you, but every moment I mention will be one more moment you won’t get the thrill of experiencing on your own.

So I’ll shut up now.

Go see the dang film.

(Yes, the correct official writing of the title is WALL·E, all caps with an interpunct dot before the “E”. If you can’t make the interpunct dot with your keyboard, a hyphen will work. Did I ever mention I’m a stickler when it comes to writing out movie titles? I like to be official.)

23 June 2008

Napalm and silly putty in lieu of flowers are to be sent...

I wake up this morning to my radio telling me that George Carlin is dead.

The day has to get better after that.

I don’t have much to say here, since trying to say something profound about a man who just poured genius—profane genius—off his tongue whenever he opened his mouth is a useless task. All the obituaries for him are going to be sad because of how shallow they’ll seem. Face it, the only person who could write a decent obit for George Carlin is George Carlin, and he’s otherwise occupied with being dead.

And I want to remind everyone that George Carlin is dead. He didn’t “pass away,” or “leave us,” or any of the other phrases that he couldn’t stand that try to soften up death. He’s dead. He died. He didn’t even “join the choir invisible.” He just died. (Want to be specific? Okay, heart attack. He died from a heart attack.)

And the world is now a far less funny place.

At least we still have Lewis Black.

20 June 2008

Kant vs. Kinsella

An experiment in libro-spatial relationships, inspired by LibraryThing.

In my recent discussion about my obsession with LibraryThing, I put special emphasis on the “UnSuggester,” which searches for books least likely to live in the same individual’s library. LibraryThing listed as an example in their sidebar: “If you like The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, then you won’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella.”

This intrigued me. What might happen if these examples of matter and anti-matter were brought into close proximity? Would the rules of space and time warp? Would an unstable mixture result in an explosion, making all those nearby turn into rampaging green monsters who speak in third person whenever they grew angry? Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria?

I was willing to risk all those things for the sake an answering this deep and disturbing question. So I ventured to the bookstore next door to locate the two books and book them side by side.

Unfortunately, Confessions of a Shopaholic was not on the shelves. I had seen it there last week, when I hatched the idea of trying this experiment, which means someone bought the only copy during the last week. Someone bought Confessions of a Shopaholic, but nobody bought Critique of Pure Reason. It is best that you do not think about the implications.

But I chose a decent substitute: Shopaholic Ties the Knot by Sophie Kinsella. Perhaps the effect won’t be so strong, but it will suffice.

I placed the two books side-by-side on a display shelf. Before anything could happen, I snapped this photo as proof that, yes, I did attempt this dangerous stunt:

Moments later…

I won’t torment you with the details. At least no one was seriously hurt. Fiery chunks of copies of Elements of the Philosophy of Right flew across the store and collided with exploding shards of The Devil Wears Prada, and almost claimed the lives of a family of five, but that was as bad as it got. I got out the back way without anyone noticing that I had caused it all.

However, when the mess dies down and the mall is re-built, I think I’ll try this with The Birth of Tragedy and Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend.

18 June 2008

Dancing photo (Hey, a wheat penny!)

Via her new website (smart and sharp job, too), my dance partner Laurel has posted this photo of us dancing at a March show with her improv group. It came out very well, especially considering how fast we were moving at the time. Some people who looked at it remarked that it appears as if I am about to flip her over; actually, I appear to be on the verge of doing “elbow pop,” which will send her back out in front of me while she does an inside turn. My own comment was that it looks like I should be saying, “hey look, a buffalo-head nickle on the sidewalk!”

Stan Winston 1946–2008

This came as a shock to me: Stan Winston, famed visual effects man and creature-creator, died Sunday at age 62.

The name “Stan Winston” is inextricably linked with cinema of the fantastic. This master of practical effects and animatronics could make a significant claim as the first carrier of the Ray Harryhausen legacy of creating the beasts that live in our cinematic dreams. He crafted the metal skeleton Terminator, the robotic dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the Predator, the alien queen in Aliens, the rocket pack penguins in Batman Returns, and most recently worked on Iron Man. If you wanted imaginative, quality practical effects in Hollywood, everybody knew that you went to Stan Winston. He was the Man.

The world of special effects is a bit less special now.

17 June 2008

All together now: HULK SMASH!

The Incredible Hulk is a lean, mean, green fighting machine. It’s everything you want from a Hulk movie. Everything that Ang Lee didn’t give you five years ago.

Confession: I didn’t hate 2003’s Hulk the way that most people seem to (aside from the standard dissenters who proclaim it a misunderstood masterpiece), and I admire that Lee was trying to take comic book material with the same seriousness he applied to his more Oscar-ready efforts. But it is a very misguided film that strives for Greek tragedy and Freudian psychology, but misses that fun that should drive this sort of comic book tale. It only clicks during a middle stretch of the Hulk’s rampage, and slogs through an unnecessary sense of importance during the rest. Hulk need drama yes, but Hulk also need smash!

And director Lous Letterrier’s ‘take 2’ on the material smashes a bunch. It rollicks through the under two-hour running time and entertains the hell out of its audience. It isn’t a brilliant masterwork, and not at the level of Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2 in the annals of superhero movies, but I left that theater with a grin on my face and the desire to hop around screaming “Hulk smash!” That’s success, and what all summer films should hope for.

The Incredible Hulk restarts the franchise, and the only reference it seems to make to Ang Lee’s film is that Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) starts the story hiding in South America. A rapid montage under the credits, inspired from the 1970s TV show, re-imagines the Hulk’s origins. It’s fast, but it’s all we need: the Hulk is part of the cultural landscape, so a dose of backstory, and off we go.

The plot that follows is no-frills, and also takes a large inspiration from the TV show, which viewed the story as a take on The Fugitive. Banner searches for a way to cure himself, but he’s on the run from the relentless General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt), who wants the secrets in Banner’s body for the military. Banner hooks back up with his love, Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), the general’s daughter, in his quest. Now the following sequence repeats: military tracks Banner, surrounds him, Banner “Hulks out,” mayhem. The movie is strung together around three such sequences. But Letterrier has this thing moving so fast and so enjoyably, pointing this out doesn’t function as a criticism. Letterier provides different visual styles for each of the scenes. The first one is lensed like a horror movie, with the Hulk appearing in a slow reveal. The big confrontation on a college campus puts the Hulk in an open element and really lets us see how he moves and fights. The last scene is the “smack-down” between the Hulk and super-powered adversary the Abomination, and it plays out in a Harlem street and New York concrete canyons, a place where the Hulk can use two halves of a police car as boxing gloves and literally interpret the phrase “pound into the pavement.”

Tim Roth as the Abomination’s human form, Emil Blonksy, is the movie’s dramatic secret weapon. With a very straightforward plot elsewhere, Blonksy’s character arc of a scrappy solider past his prime who turns obsessed with the Hulk’s power is a great plot back-up. Roth appears to be having the time of his life in the part as well. Also living it up is Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns, super-villain-to-be, who starts his transition into the Leader at the conclusion.

However, the trio of Norton/Tyler/Hurt is a bit disappointing. Norton is one the best actors working today, but his Banner feels superficial and under-explored. Tyler is gorgeous, but a bit frail and young for the part. And Hurt looks a touch bored—Sam Elliott nailed this part in the first movie, and he’s the one thing from Ang Lee’s version that I would have transported over to this one.

Now for the geek-love section: the cameos and hints. Stan Lee, of course, makes a short appearance. Bill Bixby appears via a TV broadcast of The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Lou Ferrigno plays a security guard, and Ed Norton tells him “you are the man!” Ferrigno also voices the Hulk’s few lines—but they’re damned memorable lines. Yes, you already knew that Robert Downey Jr. would pop in as Tony Stark and give more hints about the developing Avengers movie.

But most important for me are the many references to Captain America. The Super-Solider program responsible for creating Cap in World War II forms the background of the experiment that created the Hulk and eventually turns Blonsky into the big bad A-Bom. After decades of waiting, Captain America is finally stirring at the bottom of the Atlantic, and we’re going to see him on the big screen in a big budget blockbuster!

But not until 2011.

Groan.

13 June 2008

LibraryThing is my excuse

I was writing this great post about LibraryThing, an online book cataloging service, when the cable on my computer came loose and the power failed. Now I’ve lost it, and it’s near impossible to get back into re-writing something that just vanished. The willpower goes away, futility seeps in. You know what I’m talking about: you lost an important college paper to a computer crash once too. You know you did, even if you’ve blacked it out of your memory. And if you went to college before the computer revolution, you know your roommate vomited all over your only copy of your important Early Modern Europe term paper. Or something like that. Sorry, but I really can’t envision “data crashes” from the pre-Apple II+/PC era. Child of the Motherboard, I’m sorry. (I still cannot believe that the great pulp writers banged out their stories at a furious pace on Underwoods and Smith-Corollas, completely unable to revise without extensive re-typing. Those boys and girls and Street & Smith days were superhuman, I tell you. Giants walked the Earth.)

Uh, what was talking about? Oh yeah, a lost post. Sigh, I need to re-type it, or maybe I’ll take a different approach to the same material to make it feel fresh to me. I realize this means nothing to you, but when I look back over these posts months later, I like to remember just what the hell it was I was thinking when I set fingers to keyboard.

The original excuse for the vanished post was an excuse: Sorry I haven’t posted much this month. For you see, I’ve been writing a lot. Good work, some of it draft, much of it extensive notes and ideas. But really, my Internet posting dropped because the free time I usually give over to composing long rambles was eaten up by this gorgeous monster called LibraryThing. It started two weekends ago, when I was chatting with a woman in my local bookstore. She was in town for a publishers’ meeting, and she informed me of the wonderful service that LibraryThing provides to bibliophiles. So I looked up the URL, tried it . . . and there went my free time for the next fortnight.

A true bibliophile finds the cataloging of his/her books an ecstatic experience. My physical library is disorganized (although not really messy) since it has to inhabit a small apartment. The books seek out space on the shelves/tabletops/floor wherever they can can fit. Larger organization is impossible, only micro categorizing, such as keeping all my Woolrich books in one area. But plugging the volumes into LibraryThing gives me a virtual shelf where I can choose to re-order my books at a whim and see them lined up according to whatever principle I need at the time. All the science-fiction books I own that I haven’t read? Two clicks of the mouse. And of those books, which are the most recent I purchased? Another click. How about books that won the Hugo Award? And so on . . . the “tag” function is wonderful.

LibraryThing is also a social networking site. I don’t have much interest in the forums—I don’t participate much in forums in general—but the ability to see other people’s libraries that are amazingly similar to mine offers up a new world of possible reading suggestions. There are many ways to get automated suggestions. The “Recommendations” lists pulls up the books most likely to appear in other people’s libraries similar to yours, and you can click on an individual books and see what other volumes owners of that book most frequently share. Users can also make specific suggestions tied to a book. Only a few minutes on LibraryThing, and I was already scribbling down a shopping list for my next trip to the bookstore.

Finally, there’s humor to found in these virtual stacks. Using the “UnSuggester,” which reverses the algorithm that offers recommendations to show the books least likely to appear in libraries similar to yours, you can find the sort of books you know you’ll never read. The comparisons are often hysterical. LibraryThing’s best example, posted as a sidebar: “Like The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant? Then you won’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella.” Yeah, no doubt. (I don’t own The Critique of Pure Reason, but I read it for a high school class. Didn’t like it. But I’m certain I wouldn’t like Confessions of a Shopaholic, since many other Sophie Kinsella books pop up on my personal “UnSuggester.” My top “unsuggested” book right now is Shopaholic Ties the Knot by Kinsella, followed by Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge. A wise algorithm, this UnSuggester.)

Hey, I think this blog post came out better the second time! The joy of revising fresh…

09 June 2008

Indiana Jones and the Resurrected Tie-Ins

Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi
by Rob MacGregor (Bantam, 1991)

The release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has encouraged Lucas Books and Bantam to re-release their series of Indiana Jones novels that started in 1991 and ran to twelve volumes. This piqued my interest, since some of the plot descriptions sounded intriguing. Indiana Jones novels seem like an ideal way to create retro-pulp adventure in the mood of Adventure, Argosy, and Blue Book, the top adventure magazine titles of the 1920s and ’30—with a touch of Weird Tales thrown in. Plus, I have an on-again off-again affair with the media tie-in/pastiche novel. I always wonder if I might one day get some work doing a tie-in, so I occasionally give them a look to see what they’re like.

This trail of thinking lead me this week to read the first of the Indiana Jones novels, 1991’s Indiana Jones and the Peril at Delphi by Rob MacGregor, who wrote a total of six novels in the series and also the novelization of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The novel series follows a chronology that starts in this book in 1922, when Indy enters his third year of graduate school at the Sorbonne and veers from linguistics to archaeology. The young student takes up an offer from his gorgeous archaeology teacher, Miss Dorian Belecamus, to travel to the Greek city of Delphi to investigate a tablet recently revealed in an earthquake. Delphi is the site of the famous oracle of Greek history, and after Indy and Dorian arrive at the site, they find that strange vapors are rising from the crevice in the temple ruins—possibly the same mephitic vapors that the Delphic oracle breathed before she went into a trance and uttered obscure prophecies. But there’s even more bubbling up, and Indy suspects that Dorian has other motives, which have a connection to a coming visit to Delphi from the King of Greece and a cabal of believers who await the reappearance of the Oracle. Things become more complex when Indy discovers a bizarre rock in the vapor-emitting crevice that may be the source of the oracle’s power.

Cool, right? Alas, my hopes of pulp mania, or even a simulacrum of the film series, ended up as mephitic vapors soon dispersed. The book starts with a sluggish series of “prologue” chapters about Indy’s involvement in an undergrad prank in Chicago which has little to do with what follows except to introduce two characters who will pop up much later, Professor Ted Conrad and Indy’s jazz-loving friend Jack Shannon. A leap in time takes us to Indy at the Sorbonne and his uncharacteristic infatuation with Ms. Belecamus. “Uncharacteristic” activity happens a lot with this Indy; maybe MacGregor is trying to paint a different portrait of our hero because he’s much younger, but little of the rough humor and charm I associate with Indiana Jones from the movies comes through. In general, the sly humor of the movies is missing. So is the action: except for a car careening through Athens at the conclusion, there are few thrills. Most of the book has the characters stomping around Delphi trying to push their vague agendas and wondering if the vapors have any power. The pulp rush never happens. The whole enterprise feels like a mild young adult thriller with some education excursions (and MacGregor tosses in quite a few history tidbits, both about the 1920s and ancient Greece) than a grand adventure from those beautiful cheap paper magazine of the pulp era.

06 June 2008

Anti-Matter Muppet Takes Manhattan: The Giant Claw

The Giant Claw (1957)
Directed by Fred F. Sears. Starring Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Edgar Barrier, Morris Ankrum, Robert Shayne.

I originally called this post: “Anti-matter Muppet Takes Manhattan.” In a moment, the reasons why.

The Giant Claw is a legendary film among ‘50s science-fiction enthusiasts and crap film cineastes, and I count myself as a member of both groups. (Actually, anyone who is a member of one group is a member of the other; it’s a natural synergy and probably the basis of a dull thesis paper that somebody, somewhere, is writing at this very moment.) However, for many years copies of The Giant Claw were hard to come by, and I had never seen anything of it aside from the hilarious images posted to numerous websites. These pictures of the titular menace of The Giant Claw showed me what a feat of weirdness was in store for me when I at last got hold of it. The release of the film in the Icons of Horror: Sam Katzman DVD collection at last brought the terror of an enormous anti-matter goony bird into my apartment. (Katzman was Columbia’s B-picture producing maven.)

02 June 2008

Return of the Sword review

I have another review posted up at Black Gate. This one is for a recent sword-and-sorcery anthology, The Return of the Sword from Flashing Swords Press.