Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dark Shadows

50 years ago Dark Shadows started it's run. I didn't watch it back then, of course. It wasn't aimed at 11 year old boys. It was a soap opera trying to take advantage of the 60s craze for Gothic romances. These were all the thing at the time. Every paperback shelf had a section of Gothic Romance novels. All of them had the same basic plot - a simplified version of Jane Eyre. The covers all had a young woman running with a castle or large house in the background. The plots were always about a young working woman, often a governess, coming into a new environment. There would be a mystery with some spooky overtones and the man she was interested in was always implicated. By the end she'd solve the mystery but be in danger and he'd save her and they'd fall in love.

Dark Shadows had all of those elements. But it wasn't enough. After a few months of sluggish ratings, they decided to change the show from suggesting the supernatural to embracing it. First they added some ghosts then a human phoenix. That went well enough that they decided to add a vampire. That's when they struck gold.

I started watching it after it changed time slots and was no longer running during school hours. My mother suggested it because "it was popular with the college kids".

When I started watching it, they were wrapping up one of the time travel plots and introducing a cult called the Leviathans. There were also Lovecraftian elements involving a creature who was s inhuman that the sight of him drove people insane. Barnabas had already been cured of being a vampire, Quentin of being a werewolf, Angelique had retired from witchcraft and Victoria Winters had left the show.

The Leviathans' creature started as a baby but grew up fast. His eventual human form was named Jeb Hawks. There were two other groups. One was headed by Barnabas and was trying to stop the Leviathans. The third group was the innocent bystanders. This group kept getting smaller. All the Leviathans had to do was show someone a magic box and they gained a convert.

I was rooting for Jeb and his group. He was younger and Caroline was in love with him. Caroline was pretty and had hair so perfect it looked like a special effect. Jeb couldn't be too bad if a hot chick like Caroline was with him (after seeing all of the episodes I discovered that the monsters always fell for Caroline).

I was following the show but not really hooked until Barnabas tried to steal the magic box. A bat was hidden in it. It bit him and transformed him into a vampire.

That's when I got hooked. Jonathan Frid's version of a vampire was, and still is, unique. More than anything, he reminded me of a drug addict. Except when he gave in, people died.

Eventually Jeb turned against the Leviathans but was destroyed himself.

Barnabas went into a parallel universe only to be chained in his coffin for weeks while Frid and the main cast filmed House of Dark Shadows. Eventually Barnabas was freed and returned to his own universe only to have a vision of the future in which the Collins family was destroyed. Returning to their own time, Barnabus and Dr. Julia Hoffman, his constant companion, tried to stop the destruction. They failed but got another chance when Julia traveled into the past. They finally succeeded and returned to find the Collins family alive and happy.

The final plot took place in the past and in the parallel dimension. For the only time in the show's run, Frid played a different character - Bramwell, Barnabas's son. By then the show was running out of ideas and ratings had dropped.

In the late 1970s some of the episodes were run late at night.

In the mid-1980s, the show was resurrected on PBS and shown in its entirety. I watched it religiously and finally saw all of the parts I missed.

In addition to its TV run, Dark Shadows spun off two low-budget movies with the original cast, a revival in the early 1990s and a high-budget movie in the 2000s.

I credit most of the show's success to Jonathan Frid. Frid was an excellent actor but he admitted that he was slow to learn his lines and he was a constant presence in the show. His performances were always tinged with some panic that he'd mess up a line (he often stumbled over his lines). Since Barnabas was always hiding something, his added an edge to his character. At the same time, Frid was excellent at being the tragic hero, trying to make up for his personal failings by helping others. The rest of the cast was also strong and the writing, while corny, was engaging. And it was unique among soap operas that you had to keep watching it because periodically everything changed.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Plot holes that aren't

Fans love to pick holes in plots. "Why didn't they do this?" they ask. Here are two perceived plot holes that don't actually exist.

Lord of the Rings - Why didn't the fly on the eagles to Mount Doom?

The eagles kept showing up and saving the day. So why not use them to bypass most of the plot and go directly from Rivendale to Mount Doom?

First, there is a difference between the book and the movies. In the book, Gandolf had no way of calling the eagles. They had to notice you, usually because they were investigating unusual events like big battles or fires or because you were in a high place long enough for them to pass by. Keeping in mind that the Ring-bearer was trying to keep a low profile, none of that worked. In fact, the sorts of things that attracted the eagles were likely to attract hostile notice first.

Tolkien had no problem leaving Gandolf on top of Orthanc until the eagles noticed him but it wasn't dramatic enough a rescue for a movie. Accordingly, Gandolf was able to capture a moth and send it to the eagles for help. So he did have a way to summon the eagles to carry the ring-bearer. Was it a good idea?

Consider that the ring wraiths were mounted on flying creatures. It was clearly stated that some birds acted as eyes for Sauron and Sauruman. Also, in the book, Sauron was using the silmaril from Minas Morgul to see the outside world. In the movie he was a giant eye, able to see great distances. So the odds of being able to slip into Mordor by air and remain unseen were poor. Once spotted, the eagles would be at a huge disadvantage against flying ring wraiths armed with poisoned arrows to say nothing of their mounts.

Taking the eagles would have been easier but much riskier. No plot hole here.

The Little Mermaid - Why didn't she write Eric a note?

 The Sea Witch took away Ariel's voice and gave her three days to make Erin call in love with her. She could have sped the whole process up if she'd written him a note saying "I'm the woman who saved you and whose voice enchanted you."

Except, this is the same Ariel who didn't know what a fork was, She's supposed to know how to use pen and paper (neither exists underwater)? And, assuming she does know how to write, why would she use an alphabet Eric understands?

Yes, Ariel did sign an agreement. That proves that she can sign her name or make her mark using a magic stylus and scroll. Eric had neither.

And yes, we saw her sign her name. That's not as conclusive as you might think. Illiterate people make their mark. This is usually some pictogram that is meaningful to them and known as their mark. As a princess, Ariel would have had such a mark and used it for contracts and such. We saw that as her name for the same reason that Belle's French village spoke English - so the audience would know what's going on. Don't use dramatic license to prove a plot hole.

Finally, even if Ariel had managed to write a note to Eric, would he have believed her? He had fallen in love with a voice and here's someone with no voice at all claiming to be the person he loves. Eric would have good cause to be skeptical. And even if he believed her, would he love her or just pity her for losing the thing he loved?

That's a pretty weak plot hole. You might as well ask why she didn't text him? 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

The WikiGnome's Futile Struggle

Bryan Henderson, working under the name Giraffedata holds the record for editing the most articles in Wikipedia. Unlike most editors, he only edits one thing. He is fighting the use of the words "comprised of". He has corrected this over 47,000 times! He has also written a long screed explaining why this usage should not be allowed. This boils down to the complaint that it is non-standard usage and recommended against by style manuals. He is basically fighting a rear-guard action against the way that language evolves. This can be seen in the Free Dictionary:

The traditional rule states that the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. In strict usage: The Union comprises 50 states. Fifty states compose (or make up) the Union. Even though careful writers often maintain this distinction, comprise is increasingly used in place of compose, especially in the passive: The Union is comprised of 50 states. Our surveys show that opposition to this usage is abating. In the 1960s, 53 percent of the Usage Panel found this usage unacceptable; in 1996, only 35 percent objected. 

Clearly, Henderson is fighting a losing battle. English, like all living languages, changes over time. Words acquire new meanings or shift in how they are used. There is a great example of this given by 15th century writer, William Caxton. He was often criticized for not using "homely" words. In discussing the problems with choosing the proper words for a translation he told of some northern merchants who went to get some food on the Kentish side of the Thames: 

And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel

 For those who don't read Middle English, the merchant asked for eggs but the goodwife said that she couldn't speak French. The merchant said that he couldn't speak French either but that he wanted eggs. Someone else pointed out that the local word was "eyren" which the goodwife understood.

One can imagine a 15th century of Henderson tut-tutting anyone using "egg".
In a living language, words usage shifts constantly. The only real guide is how a word or phrase is currently being used. Style guides usually represent the training edge of acceptable usage.

Henderson inadvertently is providing ammunition that "comprised of" is now standard usage. He has documented 47,000 uses of it within a single source. That means that around 1% of Wikipedia entries have used it. That's a fairly high percentage, especially given that Wikipedia entries are made by people with a higher education than the background population. 

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

My first reaction when I heard that Marvel was making a movie about the Guardians of the Galaxy was "Why?" It has never been a popular group. Then I saw the first trailer and changed my mind. It looked much better than I expected.

To be honest, I had th same reaction when they announced the first Iron Man movie. The character had been run into the ground multiple times and I'd stopped being interested in him years before. Then I saw the trailer with Robert Downey jr and I was hooked.

I'm not sure the Guardians is as good a movie as the first Iron Man. The following year the president of the Motion Picture Academy admitted that Iron Man should have gotten a nomination for best picture. I doubt if anyone will make such an admission about the Guardians. Never the less, the movie is a whole lot of fun, right up there with Captain America, the Winter Soldier as one of the most enjoyable movies of the year.

Who would have thought it when the Guardians first came out in 1969? They only lasted one issue. Actually, they were given  one-shot try-out. The team at the time was a band of aliens fighting a resistance movement in the 31st century against the lizard-like Badoon. Each member was from a race that had adapted to a harsh planet, similar to DC's Legion of Superheros. One was massively built to withstand the gravity of Jupiter, another was a crystal being from Pluto. They were joined by Vance Astro, a 1,000 year-old astronaut who had traveled to Alpha Centauri in suspended animation only to find a welcoming committee who had used faster than light drive to get there before him. Along the way Astro developed telekenesis. Astro also picked up a native companion named Yondu who could control arrows by whistling.

The group was not forgotten. A few years later Howard the Duck creator, Steve Gerber, revived the characters and managed to get them their own book. It didn't last long nor was it very good. Gerber used Astro's character as a proxy to point out all the flaws in 20th century Americans/ Astro was always wrong and Yondo, the Native American stand-in, was right by virtue of being raised close to the land (or something like that).

The team was revived again in the early 1990s as a look at te future of the Marvel Universe. It lost its preachyness and was fairy enjoyable.

Except for the character of Yondo, none of the original team made it to the movie (and Yondo was drastically changed). Instead the movie was based on a revival from the 2000s. This time the team was similar to the one in the movie and took place in the modern word instead of the far future.

The director said that the Guardians was Phase 2 of the Marvel Universe. The movie certainly lived up to that promise. Previous Marvel movies were fairly self-contained. The Avengers were all from the Lee/Kirby age. In contrast, the Guardians has characters created by dozens of people. This article points out a few of them.

The biggest influence was Jim Starlin. He created Gamora, Drax, Thanos, and the Infinity stones. The Kree in general and Ronan in particular were Lee/Kirby creations. Kirby also created the giant alien we see destroying a planet. The Nova Corps came from the character Nova who was sort of a knock-off Green Lantern (alien soldier crashes on earth and gives his powers to a deserving human). Star Lord was another one-shot who was revived and retconned a few times. Rocket started as a throw-away character from the Hulk inspired by the Beatles song Rocky Raccoon. The Collector was an early Avengers villain. Andromeda was an Avengers villain during a period when Thanos was dead (Thanos and death have a complicated relationship).

I could go on at length and that's just what I caught from a single viewing. The movie is like Starlord's mix tape, the most awesome parts of the Marvel Universe.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Hobbit - good and bad

A lot of people are complaining about the adaptation of The Hobbit. I think that many of the changes are justifiable.

First, this is not a straight adaptation of The Hobbit and I don't think that most ticket-buyers want that. This is an adaptation of all of Tolkien's writings. He alluded to numerous events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These are all shown.

In the book, Gandolf leaves the group half-way through. Dramatically, this was done to give Bilbo a chance to take over as the leader of the group. Without Gandolf, it is up to Bilbo to save the Dwarves from spiders and elves and to confront the dragon and eventually end the war.

When they meet Gandolf again he mentions that he was in an even bigger battle to the south. This was expanded in the Lord of the Rings where Gandolf discovered that the Necromancer they battled with was actually Sauron returned.

This sets things up for The Lord of the Rings which had not been thought of when The Hobbit was written.
The movies were made in reverse order so we know what is going to happen. A straight adaptation of The Hobbit would ignore this foreknowledge and disappoint the ticket-buying audience expecting a similar spectacle to the first set of movies.

Other points have been changed for dramatic impact or to fix plot holes. In the book, the dwarves have no plan for dealing with the dragon and there is no explanation of why they need a burglar. In the movie the idea is to recover the Arkenstone in order to rally the dwarf armies and kill the dragon.

Legolas wasn't invented until The Lord of the Rings but he was already hundreds of years old so he would have been there in The Hobbit. You can argue with the way he was inserted but he really needed to be there.

That's the good. The bad is in the execution. In The Lord of the Rings, most exterior shots were done outdoors with New Zeland acting as a special effect all by itself. In contrast, a lot of The Hobbit was shot in the studio and it shows. Murkwood went from an oppressive forest into a three-dimensional maze.

Many of the action scenes are over the top starting with the dwarves juggling Bilbo's dishes and continuing through the fights between the orcs and the elves and dwarves. These scenes would have more impact if they had been toned down. When a single elf can kill dozens of orcs single-handed without breaking a sweat there is no sense of danger. Compare that with Aragorn's fight against a single orc at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. That was far more exciting.

Monday, October 07, 2013


Gravity belongs to the genre known as "one damn thing after another". Unlike most movies in this genre though, the question is not "what else can go wrong?", it's "How did she stay alive this long?"

The movie takes place in space, specifically high earth orbit. That is a hostile environment with little margin for error. After the Russians destroy som malfunctioning satellites, space becomes outright aggressive with a cloud of debris that the protagonists encounter every 90 minutes.

A great deal of the movie is CGI but you would never know it to look at it. Space lends itself to CGI. Because so much of it is CGI, this is probably the best animated movie ever made.

There is no question that this will get numerous Oscar nominations including best picture, best director, best actress, and best supporting actor. It has a good chance of winning all of those plus several awards for special effects and sound.

If it is nominated in the animated class then Pixar doesn't stand a chance.

Be warned that this movie will probably not hold up on the small screen. You need to see it on a large screen in a blackened room, preferably in 3D.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Face Off season 5

I don't watch many reality show competitions but this is one I love. The show started off interesting and has improved over the seasons.

The basic concept of the show is always the same. A group of makeup artists are given challenges, either as teams or individuals. A panel of judges made up of industry heavy-weights scores the makeups and divides them into Top Picks, Bottom Picks, and safe. They tell the people who did the top picks what they liked then choose a single individual who did the best job. Then they tell the Bottom Picks what they did wrong and select one person (sometimes two) who will be eliminated.

The show also has occasional Spotlight Challenges in which the contestants are given a short deadline and the winner gets immunity. These are often a tie-in to some other movie or show and there are fewer of these as time goes on.

Some things have changed. The first two seasons had a lot of monster makeup and titillation factor. Both seasons had nude body-paint challenges that must have been included to increase viewership. They dropped the body paint and even challenges that involve monsters have beauty makeup.

During the first season it was easy to tell who would be eliminated. Some of the creations were outright failures. Possibly the quality of the entrants has improved. It is still obvious that some contestants are not on the same level but there are few outright disasters.

The first season also had a villain - Frank who was so obnoxious obnoxious that you couldn't wait for him to be eliminated. I don't know if the producers asked him to act that way or if he thought that no one would ever see the show so it didn't matter how he acted. He's back in the 5th season without the attitude and is giving it his best effort.

In the first three seasons they had someone come through to advise the contestants. Sometimes this was a judge but often it was another tie-in with a show or movie. Starting with the 4th season, they have had a single mentor, industry legend John Westmore.

Another subtle change is the lack of drama. In the first two seasons there was back-biting and arguments. Since then everyone seems to get along as an extended family. There have been numerous examples where someone needed help and one or more others would drop their own work to assist. This sort of camaraderie is rare on shows like these.

Women had problems competing in the first two seasons. In the third season two of the three finalists were women (including the winner). In the 5th season, the two strongest competitors have been women.

The 4th season did have one big problem - a lack of drama. Anthony was such a strong competitor that it was obvious he would win. I suspect that the producers asked the judges to be harder on him.

By the 3rd season it was obvious that the judges were scoring based on past work as well as the current entry. One contestant always did the same face (a version of his own). Individually his pieces were all wonderful but the judges insisted that he do something different and he was eliminated when he failed to.

The big hook for the 5th season is that they brought back some of the best from the prior season. Some were huge fan favorites. The inclusion of familiar faces and the level of skill that they have has made this the best season yet.