Thursday, December 28, 2006

Which Scrooge is the Best?

I know that Christmas is over but I'm doing this one anyway. I spent Christmas Day watching the George C. Scott version of a Christmas Carol. I really think that this is the best although there are some close runners-up.

During the 1970s CBS had an annual tradition of showing the musical version "Scrooge". When they announced a new, non-musical version people asked, "Why?" Aside form it being the first serious remake in a generation, the real answer comes from watching it. It is really good. I was never a fan of Scott but I really liked him as Scrooge. Many other cast members were also fairly distinguished. The script is very true to Dickens with many of the lines being copied straight.

There are some other versions that deserve mention. I always enjoyed the Mr. McGoo version and it holds up surprisingly well. The Muppet version was very enjoyable and Bill Murray did a good job of updating the role for the 1980s.

I don't care a bit for the 1938 or the 191 versions and I was disappointed by the Patrick Stewart one.

There are innumerable other versions. This is one of the two most overused plots for Christmas specials (the other is It's a Wonderful Life). Interestingly, both involve time-travel and alternate worlds. As a twist, in Blackadder's Christmas Carol, Blackadder starts as the nicest man in England and changes when he sees his past and future. In the WKRP version, Mr. Carlson, the station manager, has visions after eating some questionable brownies. Other version are more strained.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

My New Sansa

Instead of talking about media, I'm going to review a media player. I got a Sansa media player for my birthday last week. This is not my first MP3 player but it has a number of differences from the others I have owned.

The biggest difference between this and the other MP3 players I own is how songs are organized. The others either put songs in the order they are copied to the device or in alphabetic order. The Sansa ignores all of this and reads the MP3 tags. This surprised me the first time I ripped a CD, copied it, and played it. I was expecting the tracks to be in alphabetic order. Instead the Sansa recognized that they were all from the same album and played them in order by track.

While a great improvement over other MP3 players, this does have a downside. Not all of my MP3s have full tags, especially ones I had recorded from LPs. I had to use an extra program to fill in the tag information. Many of my MP3s came from free downloads from the old and other sites. Most of these do not have genre filled in.

All of this is mainly a one-time chore. Once the MP3 tags are filled in they stay filled in.

Beyond that, the Sansa is a good player. It is flash memory-based so it does not have the huge capacity that the iPods or the Zune have. At the same time, it is cheaper and smaller. Mine is the low-end 2-gig model which is more music than I normally listen to in a month.  I can always move songs back and forth between the Sansa and my PC. For those who need it, it can go up to 8 gig plus additional memory can be added through a micro-SD slot in the side.

I loaded it with a gig of Christmas music, plugged it into a set of amplified speakers and played it most of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Then I removed all of that music and loaded my normal selections.

Sound quality is very good. The controls are fairly simple to figure out. I haven't bothered to look at the manual for this yet. I played with a friend's iPod last summer and had a more trouble figuring it out.

The Sansa has a small, color display. This normally goes dark after a few seconds of inactivity. It comes back on when any control is touched and shows the song, artist, the amount of time elapsed and remaining on the song, battery charge, and which song out of how many this is.

You can also use the display to show photographs and movies. These come out pretty tiny and this is not the first use I would make for the Sansa.

Like most MP3 players, you have to have a PC to use it. Unlike most of them, there are no special drivers to attach. You plug it in and it shows as a drive. You then use the Windows Explorer to copy files to and from it. Pictures and movies require a special converter. It also has a different connect mode in case you are using music protected by Windows DRM (Digital Rights Management). In this case you use the Windows Media Player to move music back and forth. I have not tried this.

In fact, DRM is why I went with the Sansa in the first place. The iPod uses DRM that ties it to a particular computer and essentially takes over your music collection. The Zune does something similar. Also, the iPod has a dark side - the batteries die and are hard to replace. The Sansa makes the batteries easy to get to.

The earbuds that came with the Sansa sound fine but hurt my ears after a while. I switched to a pair of Koss ones that I already had. The Koss earbuds go partway into the ear and sound great. On the other hand, the stock earbuds are better if you are going to spend most of your time wearing them. With the stock ones I can hear other people and carry conversations. With the Koss I have to pull out at least one.

The Sansa can receive and record FM radio. It can also record voice. I tried this during an Irish session and was surprised at how good the quality was - much better than other digital recorders I have used. This is recorded in .wav format.

All told, the Sansa is a good device.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Fantastic Four II

I saw the trailer for the new Fantastic Four movie, Fantastic Four, the Rise of the Silver Surfer. It was really good. I was smiling all through it at how cool the Surfer looked. The trailer had more excitement than the entire first movie combined.

BTW, the trailer can only be seen with Night at the Museum which is really funny and much better than the critics will admit.

Monday, December 18, 2006

LoTR Extended vs Theatrical Releases

THe cable channel TNT has been showing the Lord of the Rings the last two weekends. As it happens, I've been watching the extended versions. While I have seen both versions before, I have not seen them so close together so I was struck by how different the extended editions are.

Most DVDs contain deleted scenes but these are normally shown separately, without context. It is up to you to figure out how they would have been incorporated into the original movie. The Extended Edition of the Fellowship of the Ring changed this. Peter Jackson re-edited it and had it re-scored. The result was a move that could have been a theatrical release very similar to the director's cuts that are sometimes made.

Now, in the Fellowship of the Ring, it didn't make that much difference. We saw a longer opening with some background on Hobbits and a few other scenes that added depth but slowed the pace of the movie.

The Two Towers was a little different. Most of what was added was fun but optional. We saw Merry and Pippin spending the night at Treebeard's place and drinking his special Ent brew. Later we saw them stumbling on Sauruman's larder. More important, we saw what really happened to Sauruman's army of orcs - they were killed by an army of trees from Fangorn forest.

But these are nothing compared to the Return of the King. That movie was judged too long for theatrical release so some important scenes were cut for time. This was obvious in two places in the final version. In one, Gandolf and company go to confront Sauruman but then leave. Much later, Aragorn leads his commanders to the gates of Mordor. The gates open and he runs back to his army. Obviously something happened here.

In the Extended version we see the confrontation with Sauruman and the Mouth of Sauron.

A lot more is there in the Extended version. A number of connecting scenes are restored. Battles are longer. In at least one place, the order of events is changed.

In the theatrical version, the orcs are breaking into Minas Tirath. The orc general is ordering his troops to kill anyone they meet. Then horns blow and the Riders of Rohan appear. Back in Minas Tirath, Pippin finds Gandalf an fetches him to save Faramir.

In the extended version, the orcs are breaking into Minas Tirith and the general is instructing his troops. Pippin fetches Gandalf. On their way to save Faramir they are confronted by the Witchking. He breaks Gandalf's staff but is distracted by the horns. We see the general turn then we see the Riders of Rohan.

BTW, Gandalf goes through a lot of staffs. Sauruman takes the first one. The second is lost in Moria. The Witchking breaks the third. When Gandalf saves Faramir he has to snatch a guard's pike.

There are also scenes showing Aragorn and company attacking the revers and curing the people who were sickened by the Nazgul.

In all, after seeing the Extended Edition of the Return of the King I have trouble enjoying the original version.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Not-So Funny Pages

The comic section is going be a bit less comic next year. Fox Trot is cutting back to Sunday-only and For Better or Worse is rumored to be ending later in the year.

There aren't that many strips that are consistently good and these two are in a short list at the top.

A few other strips continue to be funny. Zits and Sherman's Lagoon are the most consistent. Get Fuzzy and Agnes are uneven but stand-outs when they score (which is more often than not). Stone Soup can get a laugh.

Then there are the strips that used to be funny. Doonesbury was really funny when it started in the early 1970s but turned into a liberal rant before the end of Nixon's administration. It's hard to believe but Garfield was really funny when it started. For the last decade or two it has been the laziest strip in comics. The repeated jokes about boredom mirror the content of the strip.

Dilbert continues to be amusing but narrowed its focus to office humor a few years ago. When it first started it was broader and funnier.

Then there is Funky Winkerbean. This started out as a kids-in-high school strip with formulaic jokes. Many jokes were repeated in different forms. Often a week was devoted to inanimate objects such as the school rock, a school wall, or the last leaf of autumn. Then, following Doonesbury, it suddenly jumped ahead a few years. The regular cast was now older and had jobs. It became a continuity strip, often covering uncomfortable territory. The title character got married then divorced and developed a drinking problem. Other characters married and coped with problems such as cancer. One character is slowly dying. It's not that much fun any longer.

Then there is the strange case of 9 Chickweed Lane. For years it was about a Juliette, a university professor who lived with her mother and daughter, Edda. Other characters included Milo, the daughter's nerdy friend and the staff of the Catholic school where Edda and Milo went. Then, two years ago, everything changed. Edda and Milo moved to New York and started making out. Juliette stopped teaching, bought a farm, and married her long-time boy-friend. Unlike Funky Winkerbean, the tone of the comic never changed.

For an object lesson there is Bloom County. One of the best strips of the 1980s (it won a Pulitzer Prize) Berk Breathed, the creator became tired of doing it and replaced it with a Sunday-only strip called Outland. This started out completely new except for one or two characters from Bloom County but eventually morphed back to the original. Then it quit. More recently, Breathed felt that he missed having a voice so he revived it again, this time as "Opus" but still Sunday-only.

I can't canvass the comic strip without mentioning Peanuts. Currently, at least in my paper, they are reprinting strips from the late 1950s. Many of these have lost their punch. Things have changed over the last half-decade. The last weekly and Sunday strips were memorable because they carried on the tradition of bitter-sweet comedy that was Peanuts' trademark.

And finally there is Calvin and Hobbes. It was always funny and it ended too soon.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

CGI - Is the Free Ride Over?

There is an AP story going around that CGI movies are no longer as popular as they were (Sorry - no link, I read it in dead tree format.). It points out that none of this year's CGI releases earned as much as Shrek 2 or the Incredibles. It goes on to say that the novelty of CGI is gone.

There are two problems with this and they both relate back to the fact that you cannot force people to go to a bad movie.

First, with the exception of Pirates II, no movie released so far this year has made as much as Shrek 2 or The Incredibles. It has been an off year for movies. Of the movies that have been released, 16 count as CGI. Of those, three are in the top ten for the year and five are in the year's top 20. Further, with $100 million earned in its first two weekends, Happy Feet is likely to join the top 10.

Cars is the solid number two movie for the year so Pixar is still doing quite well.

What about the other 13 CGI movies released this year? Some of them did well, some did not. Too many seem to be recycling the same furry animal plot. The CGI releases that did well tended to be original. Either they featured animals in a different plot (Ice Age 2, Happy Feet, Over the Hedge) or they did a better job with a tired plot (Open Season).

The rest of this year's CGI movies prove what John Lassiter of Pixar always maintained - It's not enough to be CGI, you have to make a good movie.

Yes, Toy Story benefited from the novelty of being the first CGI movie. It's also a good movie, worth watching several times. I watched the Incredibles again last Summer and was struck by how good it is.

Even Antz which is usually forgotten when talking about early CGI movies was entertaining.

On the other hand, the Ant Bully looks like a retread of Antz.

CGI does have one thing going for it. Adults, especially teenagers, stay away from hand-animated cartoons. There was a period in the late 1980s through the early 1990s when Disney escaped this stigma but a lack of creativity ended this phase and it never really spread past Disney.

Pixar could have settled into this rut and taken all of CGI with it. Prior to the Incredibles, their movies tended to be oriented more to kids. Dreamworks saved them from this. Shrek was aimed at adults and established the genre as adult-friendly. Ice Age also deals with rather adult themes.

But, CGI movies do stand out. People are unlikely to go to two in one weekend so a glut can hurt even well-produced ones like Monster House (which also suffers from a slow start).

So studios that rushed into CGI expecting a guaranteed return will be disappointed but the good ones will continue to do well.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Happy Feet

From the ads, you would think that the new CGI movie Happy Feet was nothing but dancing penguins. The reviews give the impression that it is mainly plot. The actual movie is half-way in between. It has plenty of song and dance routines but there is also a lot of plot.

The plot itself is pretty familiar. It's pretty much the same as Rudolph - a character is dorn different, his father is ashamed and encourages him to hide his differences. When he reaches adolescence he is excluded and finally expelled. Eventually he returns to save the day with his special talent.

That said, Happy Feet is a much more satisfying version of the plot. The setup is that Emperor penguins find a mate by signing their "soul song". The trouble is that Mumble, the main character, can't sing. In fact, he's so bad he disrupts everyone else.

What Mumble does do, is dance. He was born with "happy feet". But he is the only penguin to do the soft shoe (claw?). The elders are wary.

Then there are the aliens who abduct animals, probe them, and release them with strange things attached to them.

The movie does graft in an ecological message but it's pretty weak (don't fish).

Where the movie really stands out is the quality of the CGI. The animals look photo-realistic. Even the few humans seem to be on the right side of the uncanny valley.

All told, this should be a good contender for best animated movie of the year.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lost by the Network

After tonight, Lost will vanish from ABC for three months, appearing in February and running for an uninterrupted 17 weeks. If you add together the six episodes from the Fall (including tonight's) and the 17 in the spring, you see part of why the show seemed to be in reruns so often. With 23 episodes total trying to fill 52 weeks, something has to give. If you also figure in that they only ran the last few episodes once, you see why fans grew upset with ABC over the number of reruns.

ABC heard the complaints but got the wrong message. They now have an policy that says that only new episodes of Lost will be played. If you missed it or there are details you forgot, tough. You can buy the DVD or download it and play it on your PC.

This is not my ideal way of handling Lost. With heavy continuity and foreshadowing, some episodes gain from being shown more than once. The complaint comes when they show more reruns than new episodes or show an episode for the third time.

I am aware that Lost reruns do not have the same ratings as new episodes but they were never handled right.

My ideal season would be to run new episodes from late September or early October through mid-December with a possible break at Thanksgiving. After some preemptions for holiday specials, bowl games, etc. they would start up again in mid-January and show the rest of the season. Then they would play the season again, in order with the season-ending cliff-hanger playing just before the new season starts.

NBC gets it - at least so far. They have run Heroes unbroken since September. This is important with shows featuring heavy continuity like Lost and Heroes. If you play a half dozen episodes followed by eight reruns, people lose track of what is going on. It hurts the show.

On the other hand, if you have huge gaps between episodes then people lose interest.

I hope that ABC doesn't end up hurting Lost.

Something else that may hurt Lost is the focus on Kate, Sawyer, and Jack. Kate was edgy in the first season as the sweet-faced fugitive. That went nowhere in the second season. Sawyer is best as a supporting character. he is too annoying to be a lead, week after week.

So far we have not learned much about the Others. we learned more about them before the opening credits in the first episode of the season than we have learned since. In the meantime, the more interesting characters have gone starved for screen time.

Then there is the clumsy introduction of the new castaways. They were just suddenly there. We are supposed to think that they were always there, we just overlooked. them. This would be fine if they had emerged from some crowd scenes. Instead, they are hanging around with a small group of regulars. The producers could have spent less time on Sawyer and more time introducing the new folks.

Tonight's episode is supposed to change everything. We will see.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Who Conned Who?

The finale to the mini-season of Lost wasn't what we could have hoped for. Nothing was resolved and most of it concentrated on the love-triangle of Jack, Kate, and Sawyer.

Even though it was a Kate episode (she got the flash-back), Jack's plotline was the important one.

Previously Ben had explained that he had a plan to make Jack want to help him. That plan went out the widow when Jack saw someone's X-rays and got Ben to admit that they were his. The question is, how much of what happened next was planned by Jack?

Ben and the Others showed that they could out-con Sawyer, but Jack has conned Sawyer, also.

First, Jack needled Ben, telling him how he would die, and letting him know that there was not enough time for Ben's clever plan to work anyway since Ben's tumor would be inoperable within a week.

If Jack was thinking ahead, he knew that the next step would be to bring Kate. This didn't go as planned since it was obvious that she was attached to Sawyer. Ben tried to take advantage of this by letting Jack "accidentally" see Kate and Sawyer together on a monitor. With no ties to the island, Jack was more likely to do the operation. Jack seemed to take the bait and agreed.

As we found out, Jack had his own plans and had not given up on Kate.

Then there are the unknowns. Jack does not know that they are on a smaller island. Ben didn't know that Pickett would decide to kill Sawyer as soon as Ben was unconscious.

There are also some knowns and almost-knowns. Kate knows that Alex managed to get to the smaller island. She may be able to use this. Jack knows that some of the Others want Ben dead.

And Locke got a message from above in the form of Eko's Jesus stick being dropped on his head and then seeing what appears to be a relevant passage written on it.

It's going to be a long 13 weeks.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Goodbye Mr. Eko

The monster in the forest has been in Lost since the pilot but we don't know much about it. When we first saw it, it killed the last survivor of the flight crew. Later it blew trees out of the ground and nearly pulled Locke into a hole. Somewhere along the line we saw it as a tendril of smoke.

We still don't know what it is but we got a much better look at in in the last episode of Lost. Mr. Eko appeared to be delirious, seeing his dead brother and other figures from his past. This has happened before. In the very second episode, Jack followed the ghost of his father to the water supply in the caves. Hurley was visited by an imaginary friend. Kate saw a horse. Locke not only saw the dead Boone as his spirit guide, he also saw Eko's brother in an earlier episode. There are probably more examples I am forgetting (not counting the backwards-speaking Walt).

We have been writing these off as visions or hallucinations but what if there is more to them? What if they are caused by the smoke monster? There are indications that there were more to these apparitions than seemed. Kate's horse was seen by Sawyer. Locke and Eko shared a vision. In Locke's vision, Boone seemed to know more about what was going on than Locke possibly could.

Then there was the fire. How could a vision set Eko's shelter on fire?

Of course the tip-off came when "Yemi" said that he was not Eko's brother. Then the smoke monster appeared and smashed Eko against a tree.

So far we have seen the smoke monster in three forms - a small, quick swirl of black dust, a tendril of thick black smoke, and now a huge, monstrous cloud.

During the first season we assumed that the cloud was related to the others. That no longer seems true.

As for Eko, the episode was about his refusal to confess his sins and his insistence that doing was was needed was no sin. The implication was that the monster killed him for not confessing.  It could as easily be that the monster was planning to kill him regardless and was offering him a chance at last rites.

We know that Eko will confess and do penance when he thinks that he has done wrong. After killing three others, he was silent for 30 days (10 each) as penance and he confessed to Henry Gale (Ben) in the vault.

With Eko dead and Jack on a different island, Locke is now the undisputed leader. He seems to be better at it than Jack was. Jack didn't keep anyone in the loop and everyone was complaining during the second season. Not long after they discovered the bunker, Jack refused to tell Charlie  about it but Locke willingly told him everything.

People seem happy about the changes, at least the new couple does.

Also, Locke has his island mojo going again. He is a man with a purpose.

At the end of the second season Jack worried about a "Locke problem". If he makes it back with the others he will find that it is now a Locke regime.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Can a Comic Book be Good?

Wired's resident "Luddite" is bent out of shape because a graphic novel, American Born Chinese, (which he prefers to call a comic book) has been nominated for a national book award in young people's category. His reasoning?

I have not read this particular "novel" but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here. First, I'll bet for what it is, it's pretty good. Probably damned good. But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

"Nothing personal, you understand," he says:

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

He might have been on solid ground if he had shut up after the second sentence but he just had to go on and say that comics don't deserve equal status.

I will agree that comic books and novels are different. A book leaves a lot more to the imagination but a comic can be much more subtle. The whole "picture is worth a thousand words" concept comes into play here.

As an example, when Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out Marvel did a comic book adaptation. There is one part in the movie where the two leads are sure that stories about a nerve gas leak are false but they see some animals on the ground and put on their masks. The sequence takes around five minutes. In the graphic novel, you see the two of them, you see some animals on the ground, and you see the leads again but this time they have gas masks on. The humor of the movie is captured and enhanced by the comic. In contrast, it loses its punch when written.

I will admit that reading a comic or graphic novel is a different experience than reading a novel but I would not classify one as superior to the other. Some stories work better as words, some work as illustrations,  and some work best when animated.

Should two different forms be judged against each other? It seems unfair but so does the alternative. After Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture, Hollywood created a special category of Oscar for animated movies. While this makes sure that feature-length animated films are represented on Oscar night, it also assures that none of them will be nominated for best picture again.

That is what will happen if graphic novels get their own class of award. So go ahead and judge them against novels. Base it on which moves you the most or leaves the more lasting impression.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lost-blogging Season 3

We are two episodes into the new season. We've learned some things about the "Others". There are still lots of questions.

A big one is what happened to the Dharma Initiative? Someone is still dropping Dharma-branded supplies on the island but the stations have all been abandoned except for the Swan which was long over-due for relief.

The Others are using Dharma supplies and seem to know about most of the stations (why not the Swan?) but they were not using them. They have opened up two stations for special-purpose uses. The Hydra station looks like it was pretty much abandoned before being pressed into service as a jail. The bars are rusty. The Caduceus station was opened for Clair and the baby and closed again after she escaped.

The dock had a sign saying "ferry". At some point, the island must have been a friendlier place. It's been hostile for some time, though. No one gave a warm welcome when Rousseau's ship crashed years before.

Either there is a short-cut between the crash sites or the Others have some means of transportation. It took days of travel to get from one crash site to the other but the Others had people at both sites within hours of the crash.

Forcing Kate to wear Alex's revealing dress and having her wear it while doing heavy labor is a bit creepy.

For a group that calls themselves "the good guys" they are pretty mean. They make a 1930s chain gang seem friendly. Most people would see a plane going down and rush to help the survivors. The Others send people to infiltrate and make lists. Notice that Ben didn't need to explain the lists. Does this mean that they've done this before?

They had Kate and Sawyer working on making a flat, packed section of ground. It could be labor for its own sake but it could also mean that they are building a landing field or starting a building. If it is a building then it is probably something to replace the zoo as a holding facility. Will it be as wired as the zoo with security cameras everywhere?

Sawyer managed a small con. By kissing Kate, he provoked a fight. From that, he found out who is and is not a fighter. This was the first step in an escape plan (second if he can pick locks like Karl (the guy from the monkey cage).

Ben has lived his entire life on the island. The orientation film gave the impression that Dharma started the initiative in the late 60s. Assuming that he is around 40, that fits.

The Others have contact with the real world but it is at a distance. Nearly everything is Dharma-branded. Even the Stephen King novels were on 8 1/2 x 11 instead of bound paperbacks. I wonder if the novels had Dharma watermarks?

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Memorable Mermaid

Disney has released the Little Mermaid on DVD. Looking back at its theatrical release, this movie represented two milestones for Disney.

When Disney first started producing feature-length animated movies, they pulled in a ton of money but costs went up and, by the 1950s, a Disney cartoon was no longer a sure-thing. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was a financial disappointment.

The reaction to the was to cut costs. The animation style became sketchier and the pallet more limited. They started using limited-animation where only parts of a character would be drawn for each frame instead of the entire character. This started a downward spiral where each Disney release was technically inferior to the previous one and the audience kept shrinking. Finally a group of animators quit and started their own studio in order to produce classic animation. The result, "The Secret of Nimh" was a big improvement over anything Disney had done in years.

After owning the animation market for decades, Disney suddenly had competition. In addition, the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" which featured animated figures in a live-action movie proved that Disney was still able to do the old-style animation.

Disney reacted to all of this by ramping up the animation department. While the Rescuers Down Under showed improvement over previous releases, The Little Mermaid was really the first movie released under the revamped Disney. It was a success by every measure. The animation and pallet were as good as anything done at Disney's height. The same was true for the plot and music. The movie was a success in the theaters and a bigger success on VHS. The Disney marketing machine continued to bring out new tie-in products five years after the movie left the theaters. It also inspired a direct-to-VHS sequel and a Saturday morning prequel.

This established the model for nearly every Disney feature-length movie since. Common elements start with adapting a classic plot or character. The lead is an adolescent who finds romance and adventure. There is always friction with a parent-figure although sometimes this happens with the love-interest instead. And there is music.

The formula finally began petering out by The Emperor's New Groove. This started as a musical and part-way into production they cut the musical numbers (it really started as a version of the Prince and the Pauper).

Ironically, The Little Mermaid's other milestone was that it was the last Disney movie that was completely hand-drawn. Starting with Beauty and the Beast, bits of CGI started showing up. Little did they know that in a decade and a half, hand-drawn animation would be completely replaced by CGI.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Fly Boys

When I was in my late teens, I was interested in WWI air combat. I read several biographies of fliers and I could recognize most planes. Given that, I'm in a much better position to appreciate Fly Boys than most critics.

It's really good.

During the early years of the war, several Americans joined the French Army to help against the Germans, partly to repay the help the French gave America during the Revolutionary War. They formed the Lafayette Escadrille, the best known flight group in the war (with Richthofen's Flying Circus a close second).

While the characters in the movie are fictional, the general events are real. Lafayette Escadrille really existed, they did live in a chateau, and they did have a lion as mascot (later they acquired a second lion).

This is not an anti-war movie nor is it a pro-war movie. It is just a war movie. WWI was a bloody war and the war in the air had a high fatality rate. This is reflected in the movie. Every mission has deaths. They are not grizzly, Private Ryan deaths but neither are they glossed over.

The characters are believable. We follow a group as they go from recruits to trainees. We see them shocked after their first taste of combat and we see the survivors become toughened veterans.

The movie also has a side-romance which is the most believable war romance I can remember. At the beginning, neither party can speak the other's language so we watch as they struggle with the language barrier. Also, the woman is just an ordinary woman. She is not a countess or a resistance leader or anything. She is just a French woman caring for a farm and a couple of kids.

I do have a few quibbles. The Germans are all flying red Fokker tri-planes (except for the Black Falcon's black tri-plane). The tri-pane was not that common and there was only one all-red one which was flown by Richthofen himself (except he got most of his kills flying a red Albatross). Also, you clearly see the bullets flying through the air in a straight line. I've seen footage of tracer rounds from WWII and the bullets' path was not anywhere near as straight. I am sure that in both cases, this was a decision by the director to make it easier for the audience to follow the movie.

The trenches and the front in general are also absent except for two scenes, one short and one extended. This was probably a financial decision.

Unfortunately, the movie opened to poor reviews. Critics are not ready to embrace a movie that does not have a strong anti-war message. While this one plays up the uselessness of that war, it is not a message that can be applied to other wars. Too bad because this is one of the best World War One movies made.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The New Trek

Paramont announced that they are going to upgrade the original Star Trek. All shots of models will be replaced with CGI. Scenes set on other planets will have some atmospheric effects digitally added.

So what should we make of this?

I haven't heard much of a reaction yet but I haven't been looking, either. Maybe no one cares any longer.

When the show was originally shot they used the best available effects that they could afford. The writers knew the limitations of the day and the scripts were written with these in mind. For example, the transporter was used because it was more expensive to film a shuttle.

But time marches on and many of the effects now look cheesy. The space station in Trouble With Tribbles is especially bad and sometimes you can see stars through the Enterprise where they didn't mask it properly.

Will new effects improve the show? Probably not. Will they ruin the original Trek? It doesn't matter. A look at history shows why.

In the mid-1990s, George Lucas announced that he was going to upgrade the original Star Wars movies. Most of the changes were limited to the first one. Recently he announced that the original versions are going to be released on DVD.

In the early 1980s, a process called colorization was developed. This let technicians add colors to movies filmed in black and white. There was an uproar. Some directors from the days of black and white made effective use of it and it offended modern purists that their work could be diluted. Of course, many directors simply filmed and had no clue how to use black and white to advance the movie. These movies often look muddy and are helped by colorization.

The first few colorized movies released looked pretty good. They were done in pastels so no one would confuse them with bright Technicolor. As more colorized movies were released it was obvious that leas and less time was spent on the process. The later movies had a very limited pallet - usually brown and either blue or green.

I haven't seen a colorized movie in years. They served their purpose which was to get people to watch old black and white movies, at least a few more times. Now, the black and white versions are back in circulation and the colorized ones are moldering in a vault somewhere.

Come to think of it, New Coke did the same thing at the same time.

This is what will happen with the new Star Trek. The new version will be released with great fanfare but a few years from now the only version seen will be the original.

Friday, September 15, 2006

George Reeves

With last week's release of Hollywoodland, there has been some attention on the career of George Reeves. The story says that he killed himself because he was type-cast and could no longer get work. Is that true? At a remove of fifty years, it is hard to say but there are some problems with that.

First, Reeves was never that popular an actor. I saw one biography list him as just good enough to star in B-grade movies or have bit-parts in A-grade movies. He did not support himself solely as an actor. He also dug septic tanks and wrestled. In fact he took the Superman role because it was the first steady acting job he had landed in a while.

The problem with him moving on wasn't so much that he was identified with the role. It was that he was identified as a TV actor at all. In Hollywood at the time, TV actors were second-class citizens. It was rare for an actor to make the leap from TV to movies and a movie actor who had done TV was on his way down.

It was also a transition period in acting. Reeves was an old-style actor as opposed to the newer method-actors.

Reeves must have know all of this so his lack of success in landing follow-up roles should not have been a surprise. It is possible that he had been fooling himself but there was more to it than simple type-casting.

In a related issue, I saw one reviewer take a swipe at Reeves' acting ability based on Superman.
The movie stops short of asking whether Reeves was much of an actor. He certainly wasn't much in his most famous role, playing Superman and Clark Kent with exactly the same voice and swagger. It took Christopher Reeve to show how well the parts could be played by taking them seriously.

This is unfair for several reasons. It is always unfair comparing a performance on a TV series to a movie. TV shows are under pressure to get the scene shot and move on. Movies can take much longer to get a scene right. This was especially true of the Superman TV show which was often shooting multiple episodes at once, doing as many as scenes from three different episodes in a single day. The characters normally wore the same clothes in every scene to simplify continuity.

More important, the producers decided that, since Clark Kent would be on-screen more than Superman, he had to be like able. They chose to have both characters acted the same. Smallville made a similar choice, making Clark a football star instead of an equipment manager.

When Christopher Reeve was filming Superman, Clark was given a much smaller role. He is role is mainly as a foil for Lois. Superman has more screen time.

The producers of the TV show made a wise choice. The George Reeves version of Clark Kent is someone you would like to work with. His Superman struck just the right tone. The Chris Reeve Superman was always just a little too good to be true. It is enough to rescue Lois. He didn't really need to tell her how safe flying normally is.

Superman returns is little more than someone else doing a Christopher Reeve impression. It has no new insights.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

60s TV

Lara Parker from the 1960s soap opera, Dark Shadows, was in town a couple of weeks ago and I got to see her. During a Q&A session she was asked about the popularity of the show. She replied that she was sure that every adult watching it was watching for the camp value.

I don't think so. Granted the show has a lot of camp when viewed today. The same is true with Star Trek which turned 40 last week. This was not true when the shows were new.

Dark Shadows is best compared with a stage production and it comes off well. It was one of the first shows to make extensive use of blue screen and other photographic tricks. As with a stage production, the viewer has to suspend disbelief and just not notice that someone moved a tombstone or that sunsets in Maine always look the same.

During the same Q&A session she gave a different opinion of the appeal of the show. Jonathan Frid who played Barnabas had a great deal of trouble learning lines quickly. This was made worse because he was in more episodes than anyone else. During filming, Frid often stumbled over lines and always seemed in a near-panic. On film (tape) this gave the character a nervous tension that you could feel. The same thing happened with other actors to some extent. (Note, I have seen Frid performing live, using rehearsed material and he is a riveting actor.)

Parker also pointed out that the show lifted plotlines from the classics. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Dorian Grey, the Lottery, and a Lovecraftian thing all appeared in some form or another. The show also gave a major twist that most of these monsters were sympathetic. You wanted them to survive, not die.

As for Star Trek, it has not aged all that well. Since it is nearly the only show from its generation to still play regularly it is easy to forget how typical most of its weak points were. Everyone overacted on TV, not just Shatner. The fight choreography was done by people who usually did westerns (the staple of TV at the time).

At the time, people seldom died on TV shows. Star Trek was a pioneer in showing that space can be dangerous but they couldn't kill off stars so it usually fell to the extras in red security uniforms to take one for the show.

What made Star Trek unusual was how seriously it took science fiction. Lost in Space premiered the same week but within a couple of months it had gone from a serious show to a campy parody of one.

It was also unusual in taking on issues of the day. Sometime this was heavy-handed and embarrassing (the white/black and the black/white aliens) but more often it was enlightening. It also showed a positive future that was still recognizable. The United Nations grew into the Federation of Planets which was effective, possibly because it had its own fleet of starships. The Cold War was echoed by friction with the Klingons and the Romulans.

Also, unlike the later versions of Trek, Kirk spent most of his time saving people from outside threats. There was more at stake in the average episode of the original series than later ones.

Still, when watching TV's first inter-racial kiss, I find myself wondering if Shatner is about to knock Nichols's wig off.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Snakes IV

Before it premiered, I predicted that Snakes on a Plane would be number eight in its second week. AP has it at six. Yahoo has it at nine. I'll average them together and claim victory.

I suspect that a couple of things hurt it. One is that people were expecting Samuel L. Jackson to spend the movie running around the plane killing snakes, possibly with his bare hands. He doesn't.

Then there is the "ick factor". Lots of people, especially women, will not go near a movie with snakes.

On the other hand, this does not prove anything about Internet buzz. Granted both Snakes and Howard Dean fizzled but Blair Witch was a huge hit based on an Internet campaign.

Sequels and Trillogies

A friend recently saw Pirates II and complained that, since it was continued to the next movie, it was nothing more than a trailer for Pirates III. My wife and I thought that this was a bit unfair and we came up with a list of similar movies. To make this list, a movie must have been a big enough hit to justify two sequels and the sequels must form a continuous story arc. Movies like the Indiana Jones series do not qualify because the sequels have nothing to do with each other. Lord of the Rings was filmed as a trillogy so it doesn't count. Neither do the newer Star Wars since they were planned as a trilogy.

Star Wars (the original three movies)
This is the grand-daddy of the list. The first movie was so big and so open-ended that it cried out for more movies. When they made The Empire Strikes Back they didn't know if it would be a hit or a flop but Lucas took a chance and gave it a cliff-hanger ending anyway. This movie also set a new standard for sequels. Previously it was assumed that a sequel would gross less than the original so production values for the sequel were cut accordingly. This was painfully obvious in the Planet of the Apes movies. Empire, in contrast, had higher production values. and it paid off. While not as popular as the original, it was still one of the most popular movies ever made. This also set the tradition that by the third movie everything has been wrapped up.

Back to the Future
This movie was such a big hit that they went ahead and committed to making two sequels back-to-back with a shortened release date. Unfortunately, the middle movie was the weakest. It took in less than the original and the third took in the least. This was a shame because the third movie is as good as the first although it misses the aspect of visiting your parents generation.

The Matrix
This was the first time the sequel took in more than the original - $171,479,930 for the original and $281,576,461 for the Matrix Reloaded. Unfortunately, Reloaded lacked the charm of the original. Most of the Matrix followed Neo's journey from regular-guy to super-powered messiah. In the second movie there was no room for him grow. For the big fight on a freeway, they had to ship him off to the ends of the earth and leave the fighting to the lesser characters. Like Back to the Future, Reloaded was not good enough to pull people in for the third movie. Unlike back to the Future III, Matrix Revolutions did not have much appeal on its own.

So where does this leave Pirates III? Dead Man's Chest was fun but not as much fun as the first. This might cut into the box office fromthe next one. Or it might not. Pirates II hung onto the top 10 box office list for a long time. It just dropped to number 11 this week and might resurface in the top 10 next week. The original had this sort of staying power, also. I don't think that Matrix Reloaded lasted anywhere near as long. That means that there is a lot of repeat business and good word of mouth. People like the characters, especially Jack Sparrow. That is a hopeful sign for the third movie.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Snakes III

Snakes on a Plane either opened to a weak first place or a close second place, depending on how you count the 10:00 pm Thursday showing. Either way, it only took in $15 million.
Prior to the release, the producers went back and re-shot parts of it to add sex, gore, and language. This seems to have been wasted effort.  wonder if it hurt the movie. Movie producers have been convinced for some time that the late-teen/early 20s crowd will not come to a movie that isn't R rated. It you check to top-grosing movies, te top ten are all PG or PG-13. Number 11, the Passion of the Christ, is R but not for the usual reasons. After that, you have to drop down to nmber 28, the Matrix Reloaded and 29, Meet the Fockers, to find typical R-rated movies. Next is number 46, Beverly Hills Cop and number 50, the Exorcist. Of the top fifty, only those five are R-rated. There are only six in the next fifty.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Snakes II

The first reviews are in. This reviewer thinks that Snakes surpasses the hype. He compares it to Rocky Horror (which is probably the definition of a "so bad it's good" movie).

Snakes on a Plane - the prediction

I'm going to make a prediction about Snakes on a Plane - the movie will suck. Why do I think so?

  • It is being released in mid-August. Traditionally movies released between August and October are second-rate (or worse) and expected to do poorly at the box office.
  • It was not screened for critics before the release date. This often happens when a movie sucks and the studio is hoping to make some money before word gets out.
  • It was not screened at the San Diego Comic Convention. If its appeal was to a specific crowd but not the average movie critic, this would be the place to generate good word of mouth. Instead of showing the movie, they showed ten minutes of clips.
  • The whole concept sounds like something that should be a Sci-Fi Channel original movie, something bookended by Kimodo and Snakehead Terror .

All of this indicates that the studio has no faith in the movie. These are the people who have seen it.

Second prediciton - so many people have heard about the movie that it will have a huge opening weekend then sink to number eight on the box office the following weekend.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Being a Superhero

*Spoiler alert*

I got a real kick out of the second episode of Stan Lee's Who Wants to be a Superhero?. After two episodes the format has become clear. Two potential heroes are eliminated each week. One in an informal setting and one in a formal setting, after dark on the roof with lighted platforms. For each elimination Stan names three heroes who are in trouble, gives them a chance to explain themselves, and makes his choice. There can be only one (Wait a minute - that was Highlander).

Each week one choice is based on informal behaviour and one based on an assigned task. What the heroes haven't really grasped is that the task is a test of character. The winner is not who completes it fastest. Rather, it is who shows heroic character traits in doing it.

The first task was for each hero to change into costume in secret and run to an archway. Several heroes ran as fast as they could and congratulated themselves on "completing the mission", not noticing that there was a lost and crying girl nearby. The ones who passed the test are the ones who stopped to help the girl.

The second task was to help a little old lady who had locked herself out. Each hero had to let her in by going around and entering the back door. Which was guarded by two vicious dogs. The heroes were given protective costumes. The object was to touch the door. They could call "uncle" at any time and give up.

Some of the guys made it through in impressive times. I think that only one of the women managed. They were at a real disadvantage since the dogs outweighed them. A couple of surprises - Iron Defender, the biggest, strongest guy, got pulled down just short of the door and surrendered. Monkey Girl who had failed the first challenge, refused to give up. After ten minutes of attack she wore the dogs down enough that she succeeded. This is someone you want fighting to save you. In contrast, Cell Phone Girl gave up after four seconds because she had a headache and was rightly ejected.

From the beginning Iron Defender was a strange hero. He looks like a comic book character - tall, huge muscles, shaved head, big gun - but he doesn't look or act like a hero. He's an obvious villain. I suspect that the producers figured this all along. He was finally eliminated but was immediately offered a position as Stan's newest super-villain, Dark Defender. This was a laugh-out-loud moment. After all, what's a hero without a villain to fight?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Sci-Fi Channel Scores

The Sci-Fi Channel has premiered a couple of new shows. One, Eureka, is a good-natured drama about a sheriff who is keeping order in a community of quirky super-geniuses. So far they have shown the pilot and one regular episode. This is the type of show that would have shown up on commercial television 15-20 years ago. The critics would have raved. It would have been scheduled for some dumb time like 7:00 Sunday and it would have been cancelled within a dozen episodes. On Sci-Fi it has a good chance of finding an audience.
The other new show, Stan Lee's Who Wants to be a Superhero? is even more fun. It works on two levels. On one hand, it is a great parody of reality shows like The Apprentice where everyone takes themselves to seriously. You just can't take things too seriously when everyone is wearing tights.
On the other hand, it does have a serious side. In the premier, the would-be heroes are rated according to how well they act like heroes. One was thrown off the show off the bat when he let it slip that he was planing to sell hand-made action figures of himself for $300-$500. Several others failed a test when a task had them run past a crying child. A real hero helps others, even if it involves a sacrifice.
Also, this is probably the most screen time Stan has gotten.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Bad Time for Dogs

The current top two movies seem to have it in for dogs.

In the number 1 movie, Pirates, the dog with the keys seems sure to be eaten by cannibals.

Superman Returns is harder on dogs. In an early scene we see Luthor talking a dying woman out of her money. There is an establishing shot of her mansion including her two small dogs. Later Luthor returns to the mansion and we only see one dog chewing on a dog-sized leg bone. Someone asks, "Didn't there used to be two dogs?" Obviously the dogs were abandoned and one ate the other.

Luthor's girl friend carries the little cannibal around with her until the end of the movie when Luthor suggests eating it.

Now, you don't expect much from cannibals and someone who would kill billions for a real estate deal isn't going to worry about a dog but Superman himself joins in on the canine abuse.

Very early in the movie Clark is still getting his bearings after returning to Earth. He is leaning on a fence at Ma Kent's farm and the dog comes up with a ball for him to toss. So what does Superman do? He hurls the ball over the horizon. The dog takes a couple of steps then realizes that its ball is gone for good.

Granted this is nothing compared to eating the dogs but this is plain mean. You expect a lot more from a Christ image.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Superman Returns

All told, I don't think that Superman Returns was a very good movie. I enjoyed Superman, the Motion Picture and Superman II much better. Even Superman III was more enjoyable although the whole Richard Prior bit was a bad idea.
The problem with Superman Returns is that the director, Bryan Singer, was too respectful of the earlier movies. A lot of the structure of the movie and some of the dialog was lifted from the original movie. They even re-used Marlon Brando which added nothing to the movie.
The problem here is that the tone was very different than in the original. It would have worked a lot better to start fresh instead of continuing from movies made in the 1970s.
Then there is the casting. Brandon Routh did OK but he was imitating Christopher Reeve instead of doing his own version. Kate Bosworth continued a recent trend of putting pretty young actresses in roles that call for older, stronger women (along with Batman Begins and Fantastic Four). I never believed for a second that she won a Pultzer. She didn't even seem up to being a real reporter. She came across more as an intern who couldn't afford a sitter for the child she had at 18.
Regardless of the actress, Lois with a child is just weird.
At least Luthor wasn't over-the-top camp. The original movie had a of of good points but Luther wasn't one of them. On the other hand, Luthor's plans to kill billions was over-the-top without camp.
I didn't care for the Superman-as-Christ theme. This was never part of any other Superman adaptation but it was central to Singer's version.
The movie looks great. The flying sequences are pretty convincing although Superman's take-offs seem a bit gentle.
I don't like the new costume. Specifically, I don't like the texture of the suit or the rubber "S". I don't like Superman's trunks changing into speedos and I don't like the way they padded his "package" so it looked like applause excited him.
Bryan Singer plots often have huge holes in them. This was no exception. Just for starters, we have a new shuttle launch and they let reporters onto the plane? Come on.
What with licensing and all, Warner will not lose money on the movie but it's hard to believe that this will revive the franchise.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Remembering the X-Men

The X-Men was the first Marvel comic I read - specifically, X-Men #3 in 1964. I was instantly hooked. The comic appealed to me on many levels. The biggest was the characterization. The team was made up of teenagers who acted like real people. The argued, they clowned around, they tried to impress the girl. There was nothing like it in comics at the time.

There was more. This was the first comic to show superheroes learning to use their powers. The X-Men had a sports-team metaphor. The individual members (Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, and Ice Man) all had limited powers and had to work together. They also needed their coach, Professor X.

In this issue, Professor X detected a new mutant in the area and sent the X-Men out to recruit him. After a few false starts, they identified a side-show strongman with superhuman strength and impenetrable skin going by the name the Blob. They offered the Blob membership but he refused and shortly returned with an army of circus performers who planned on seizing Xavier's mansion and selling off any secrets they found. They quickly overpowered the X-Men but the X-Men regrouped with the help of Professor X and won the rematch.

The comic was done by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby near the top of their game. Stan was the first comic writer to give his characters real personality and all six X-Men (including the Professor) were well-defined from the beginning.

While Kirby is best-remembered as a "cosmic" artist, he was also one of the all-time masters of every-day life. Where the fantastic Four were travelling through time and space, the X-Men were grounded in reality. A couple of issues later they rented a sailing ship to go hunting for Magneto and Kirby rendered the ship in amazing detail. Again, no one else in comics at the time was doing anything like this.

It didn't last. The X-Men graduated (from high school? college?) fairly quickly. The book moved to a monthly schedule instead of bi-monthly and new creative teams took over. The school/sports team aspect was lost as were the contemporary touches such as Beast and Ice Man hanging around a coffee house listening to bad beatnik poetry.

In general the writing and art was uninspired. There were a couple of exceptions.

The first came when Jim Steranko did a short run on the strip in a plot involving Magneto, his "daughter" Polaris, and an island of mutants.

The second high point came when Roy Thomas and Neal Adams teamed up on the strip. Thomas had been writing it for a while but was weighed down by lackluster art. With Adams, they created some of the best comics of the 1960s. One plot-line in particular featured the return of the Sentinels, giant mutant-hunting robots. They captured nearly every known mutant before being defeated by Cyclops who used a logic paradox worthy of Captain Kirk.

Sadly, the comic was cancelled shortly afterwards. If came back as a reprint book for a few years before being revived in the mid-1970s as the New X-Men. Except for Cyclops, the team was replaced with a new team. The new members were older and more experienced and the original teens in school concept was lost for good. There have been attempts at reviving it over the years with spin-offs but these have never been as artistically successful.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

X-Men: the Last Stand

X-Men: the Last Stand blew the Da Vinci Code which is as it should be. Regardless of freedom of speech, it is still rude to make a blockbuster movie with the premise that one of the world's biggest religions was all a lie and that the world's oldest religious organization (the Catholic Church) has been covering this up for 17 centuries.

But I was talking about the X-Men.

Several reviewers felt the new director, Brett Ratner, ruined the franchise. I don't agree. Although good, Bryan Singer's had flaws of their own. The original movie spent so much time with Rogue and Wolverine that the other characters are glossed over. X2 didn't need to spent time introducing the characters but had a confusing plot. The invasion of Xavier's school, while dramatic, had nothing to do with the eventual plot which was to get a mind-controlled Professor X to kill all mutants (then Magneto switched things so that all humans would die instead). The plot about Wolverine's background was sort of tacked on. It just happened that the person who created him decided that mutants should die and used the same headquarters. Nightcrawler's attempted assassination of the President had little to do with the plot except to get it started.

X3 is more tightly written and easier to follow (my wife commented on this). It is also closer to reality although many reviewers missed this aspect.

At the heart of X3 is a vaccine that will "cure" mutants. Ian McKellen saw this as cure for homosexuality and played it accordingly. Chances are fairly good that there will be some sort of cure or genetic test for homosexual behaviour within the next generation so these questions are relevant. Even more relevant are the current issues about cochlear implants and "deaf culture" with some deaf activists insisting that being deaf is not a disability, it is a culture that will be destroyed by widespread use of implants to cure deafness.

Questions about the cure are raised within the movie. To mutants like Storm who can pass for human, there is nothing to cure. The Beast who is blue and furry is not so sure. Rogue who can kill with a touch sees her powers as a curse. Although it doesn't come up, Cyclops felt the same way in the original comics written by Stan Lee and would have jumped at a cure.

This issue is posed in a different way with the resurrection of Jean Grey as Phoenix. Her powers are very strong and uncontrolled. This raises the moral issue - was the Professor right to block Jean's access to the greater portion of her powers when she couldn't control them?

A few other issues are raises. One is if it is ethical to use the vaccine as a weapon. Another is how mutants should treat one of their own who was forcibly given the vaccine.

In the end, Magneto maintains ethical high ground on the vaccine. He refuses to use it.

The movie has a few problems. The final battle has some personal match-offs (Storm vs Callisto, Iceman vs Rusty, and Kitty vs the Juggernaut!) but it also has a lot of Wolverine tearing through faceless mutants with his claws.

I am not pleased with the way that Phoenix is shown. rather than a fiery being of great power and mood swings, she gets quiet and her veins show.

A bigger problem is Storm. Halle Berry demanded more screen time but she doesn't use it to establish Storm as an interesting character.  The comic book character was worshiped as an African god before coming to America and was written with a combination of regalness and cultural naivety. Berry plays her as Halle Berry in a white wig. Worse, in order to make room for Storm, Cyclops is barely in the movie.

Even with these drawbacks, it is still a good movie, certainly better than last Summer's Fantastic Four.

Now we will see what Singer did with Superman.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Nearing the End

With only one two-hour episode left on Lost what did we learn last night?

Much of it was a confirmation of what we had already guessed. The others did snatch Michael. They did make a deal with him to release "Henry" and lead some others into a trap in exchange for Walt. From Miss Clue's questions, we got confirmation that Walt has mental powers including being able to project himself where "he shouldn't be".

A few new questions - Michael was given a list of four people to lure into a trap. Why those four? Previously the others claimed that they were only taking the good ones but how does Sawyer qualify as good? Or even Kate? Henry said that he had come for Locke - was this a lie or did they give up on him?

Michael was clearly acting irrationally (unless you knew about the list). He insisted on taking Hurley who would be low on my list of people to have in a gunfight, but he refused Sayid. Since Jack, Sawyer, and especially Hurley all have better reasons for wanting revenge than Sayid, Michael's argument falls flat on its face. I'm surprised that Sawyer didn't notice it. Jack usually notices these things, also.

The others knew Sawyer's and Hurley's real names. They might have gotten them from the passenger list, remember they had an inside man in the first season. Otherwise it raises the possibility that they were responsible for bringing the airplane to the island and breaking it up. Chilling but it explains how they could have had people ready on the spot to infiltrate the two groups of survivors.

We know that the others don't always dress in worn clothing and, except for "Zeke", the men have neatly trimmed beards instead of long bushy ones - beards about as long as the survivors. Walt confirmed this in his three minutes with his father.

Charlie kicked his habit for good, tossing the last of the statues into the ocean. Was this a sign of personal growth or a side effect of the injection he gave himself?

Did the others send the sailboat or was this another amazing coincidence?

Spoilers - Next week we are supposed to get an answer about why the plane crashed, what the Swan hatch is for and what happens if the button is not pushed (I'm betting that it isn't good). According to one interview, one more cast member will die in the final episode. I'm betting that it is Michael.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Locke and Eko Switch Places

If you aren't up to date on Lost then you are going to see some spoilers.

Last week's episode - when a friend with a gun says "sorry", duck. I wonder how long before someone notices the flashburns on Michael?

This week's episode - When Locke and Eko first met, Eko handed Locke a scrap of film that he had found, hidden in a Bible in an abandoned hatch. Locke saw this as so unlikely, something had to have caused it. Eko's reply was, "Don't confuse coincidence with fate."

Now, the plane containing Eko's brother crashed on the spot marked on Locke's map with a "?". Both Eko and Locke dreamed of Eko's brother telling them to find the station. This does seem to go beyond all coincidence, even for this show.

Eko took this as a sign that the message his brother said in a dream - that the work being performed in the Swan Station is very important - was the truth.

Locke, on the other hand, decided that he has been tricked. He had been doubting since "Henry" said that he hadn't pressed the button and nothing happened. The orientation tape for the new station, the Pearl, indicated that it was all a test to see how the people in the Swan Station would react.

When Locke saw the orientation film for the Swan his first reaction was, "We're going to have to watch this again." After watching the tape for the Pearl Station, Eko asked if he wanted to see it again and Locke said no.

So it appears that Eko will take over the button.

But, are things what Locke thinks they are? There were six TVs in the Pearl station. Only the one for the Swan worked. The tape said "one of the other stations" but did not say which. Since he could see that Swan was being monitored and it fit with pushing the button, Locke assumed that this was the task in the tape. It might not have been.

Pearl has its own camera so somewhere, someone was probably monitoring the people in Pearl as they monitored the people in Swan. This is important. There was a study in the 1980s in which monitors were supposed to ask volunteers questions and give them electrical shocks when they answered wrong. The study was actually about how people react when they can administer pain anonymously. The real subjects were the people giving the shocks, not the people being shocked (even that was a fake).

This might be going on in Pearl. The real study might be how "monitors" will react when they are told to record the actions of people who they think are performing a meaningless task. It might be the people at Pearl who were being studied, not the ones in Swan.

Given everything that we have seen, it is probably better to keep pushing the button for now.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Judging Reality

After my post last week on Texas Ranch House I found this article. It contains a transcript of a call-in show with the show's producer and participants Lisa Cooke and Nacho Quiles. Both Lisa and Nacho confirm what I suspected, that the TV show is not a totally accurate view of reality. Lisa complains that on their first night the cowboys brought them dinner then left them alone to settle in. The show presented it as the Cooke's decision not to eat with the hired help. Nacho complained that he prepared much more variety than was depicted with fresh meat once a week. He also complained that his kitchen was much cleaner than depicted and pointed out that he didn't have the fly problem. (Note - Mrs. Cooke said in the interview that the kitchen was even worse than shown.)

I think that the producers wanted to have a story-line. They wanted to show us how things led to Nacho being fired and to the cowboys quitting. Accordingly, they included lots of cuts of people complaining about Nacho's food and even more cuts showing friction between the Cookes and the cowboys. The Cookes and Maura the maid complained quite a bit about their treatment by the cowboys but we never saw a single instance of this. Since it made the final evaluation, it is hard to imagine that it was all in the Cooke's imagination. So the producers must have cut it to make the cowboys more sympathetic.

Probably Robbie the foreman caused some trouble himself. There was a cult of personality around him because he was the best and most experienced of the cowboys. This led him to make some statements about bringing in Maura. He was upset that Mr. Cooke hired her, feeling that this should have been his decision. When the cowboys left, they said that they felt like they worked for Robbie, not Mr. Cooke. In fact, they did work for the Cookes and Robbie was only their supervisor.

On the other hand, it is hard to let the Cookes off the hook. Mr. Cooke could never gain the same type of respect that Robbie had but an employer gains respect by how he treats his employees. We saw the Cookes being inconsistent and dictatorial.

At one point Cooke called the cowboys together and read them the riot act. According to the narration, this happened immediately after their most successful roundup to date and happened because his wife was mad about drinking and not bringing in the goats. If true then the timing for this talk was incredibly bad. Worse, he didn't try for any buy-in. He didn't lay out the problem - not enough cattle - and ask for a solution. Instead he told them that they were not working hard enough.

Had I been one of the cowboys I would have agree to whatever was said and change nothing about how I worked. While the Cookes insisted that they saw improvement after this, the cowboys insisted that they did not change their behaviour.

The final pay-off was handled very poorly. Some of this was because of the set-up of the show. Everyone knew that they were in their last couple of days. Had this been real, Cooke would have tried to keep on most or all of the cowboys. He might have offered some sort of signing bonus or increased pay for the ones he wanted to keep. Instead he offered them horses at inflated prices and belittled them when they made honest offers.

Then there is how he treated Jared. While I understand 21st century logic about not bargaining with kidnappers, it gave the cowboys the impression that he didn't care about their safety. He was taken in by the Indians - given three new horses plus the one Jared was riding when he thought he was buying four new horses. Since the Indians had sold him Jared's horse, Cooke announced that it was his and Jared was out both the horse and the money. This was the wrong thing to do for several reasons.

First, even in the 1860s, buying a horse that you knew had been stolen from someone else did not give you title to it. It made you a horse thief.

Second, if anyone besides Jared had been involved or if Jared had been riding a different horse then Cooke would not have tried to take recoup his losses at the cowboy's expense. he should have treated it as a cost of doing business. As the evaluators pointed out cattle were replaceable.

Third, If Cooke had intended all along that the horse was his then he should have informed Jared earlier. As it was, he got Jared's services for a cattle drive under false promises. As word of this spread he would have found it impossible to find new workers.

Finally, everyone was paid at the end of the cattle drive. In order for Mr. Cooke's logic to hold, he would have had to have paid Jared prior to the drive. The impression given was that Jared would take a horse rather than pay at the end of the drive. This means that the horse was still Cooke's property until payday. The fact that he incurred extra expenses in keeping the horse was his problem, not Jared's.

This made Cooke look bad. Mrs. Cooke telling him that he did good made her look worse. Cautions by Mrs. Cooke that the cowboys, especially Jared, were a threat to her daughters made her look even worse and these were scattered through the series. No wonder the cowboys didn't talk to the girls.

Surprisingly, there was little complaining about how hard life was. Maura was the only one to voice such feelings. At one point she even worried that she was losing her identity. One wonders what a woman like that expected? She went into the show thinking that she might be a cowboy and instead was a lowly maid. That has to have been exactly what the producers were looking for - they set her up by casting her in a role she would be uncomfortable in.

Which brings me back to my original question - what is the point of the show?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Reflections of Reality

I've been watching PBS's new reality show, Texas Ranch House. This is the newest in a series of "House" shows. The first, "1900 House" was a British production that was supposed to see if a modern family could live as they did 100 years ago. It was very popular and spawned both English and American follow-ups.

The set-up of the original 1900 House was very artificial. The family was supposed to live as if it was 1900 but they had no outside world to interact with. The husband adapted best. He was allowed to continue with his job as a military recruiter. The kids continued with school. The mother, on the other hand, found herself trapped in the house, worrying about dust bunnies. One insight was that the mother, a very modern woman, could not bear to keep a servant.

For the follow-up, the producers came to America and created a small community on the frontier called "Frontier House". This one featured three families including a newly-wed couple. A lot of the show was about the rivalry between the other two families.

Back in England, they did "Manor House", a recreation of an early 20th century country house complete with servants. Not surprisingly, the people living as lords found it a much easier existence than the servants. In fact, they had a couple of scullery maids quit.

The next American one was "Colonial House". This was their most ambitious. They created an small 1630s settlement complete with governor.

There were a couple of other English ones that I found unwatchable. One was about living in London during the Blitz and the other had something to do with the courting rituals of the upper classes. Both were too entrenched in British culture to play well in America.

Which brings us to the current one.

Since seeing the original shows, I have found out more about what was going on in the background. It turns out that the producers have been influencing the show in order to have a more interesting storyline. For example, in Frontier House, at the beginning a couple of women confessed at the last minute that they had sewn secret pockets into their skirts for cosmetics. It turns out that this was the producers' idea. Much of the rivalry between the two families was stoked by the producers who came through the settlement prior to the filming.

I've talked with people peripherally involved with Colonial House. They said that the producers were interested in the reactions of the people, not the 1630s experience. It showed. In fact, I suspect that several of the participants were cast specifically to produce conflict.

One example is the governor and the minister. The man appointed governor was an ordained Baptist minister in real life. The man appointed to be the minister was a professor of divinity. The producers probably expected religious conflict between these two. Instead, they became very close.

Where there were sparks was between a militant atheist and the colony. I am not sure why someone who refuses to attend a church service would sign up to be part of a 1630s Puritan settlement but I am sure that this is what got her accepted to the show. Plus we got glimpses of her skinny-dipping.

This desire for conflict is common on reality shows. I saw the Mythbusters in a live show over the weekend. They said that during the first two seasons their producer tried to stir up anger between them. American Chopper was a hit and the producers figured that they needed to imitate the conflict in that show.

Which brings us to Texas Ranch House. The social dynamics are similar to Manor House. There are two camps. One gets to tell the other what to do but is totally dependant on them to make the show a success. In this case we have the Ranchers, the Cooke family, and the cowboys. The Cookes employee the cowboys and keep demanding respect. The cowboys feel, with cause, that all of the real decisions come from Mrs. Cooke. Also, Mr. Cooke feels the need to micro-manage and Mrs. Cooke refuses to look at the job the cowboys are doing as a whole. Instead she looks at what they did as it relates to her.

The foreman, Robby, is an experienced cowboy and the other cowboys have a great deal of respect for him. The Cookes feel that this undermines their authority.

Mr. Cooke's mind is easily changed. He will agree with his wife about something, talk with Robby and agree to something else, then change again after being brow-beaten by his wife. This frustrates Robby who feels that once you have said you will do something you have given your word and should not lightly change it. Did the producers know that Mr. Cooke would have so much trouble asserting his authority or did they just get lucky?

Then there is the servant, Maura. She describes herself as having a strong rebellious streak and has competed in equestrian events. So what did the producers do? They cast her in a role where she had to watch others riding constantly and was to answer to everyone. So is anyone surprised that a great deal of conflict centered around her?

So, what's the point of all this? Do the producers stir up conflict to get us to watch in the hopes that we will learn something about history? Or is the historical angle there just to stir up conflict?

Since this is a distorted view of reality, should we just stick to watching Lost?

UPDATE - After watching the final episode, I lost any lingering respect I had for the Cookes. After getting less than he wanted for his cattle and a bad deal with some Indians, he descided to get his own with the cowboys. He offered to sell them horses but his opeing price was twice what he had paid. Worse, he had previously agreed with Jared, one of the cowboys, to sell a horse at a good price. Instead, he informed Jared that the Indians had stolen his horse and it was now Cooke's.

Mr. Cooke should have counted the transaction with the Indians as a cost of doing business instead of trying to recover his losses at the expense of one of the cowboys. Or he could have offered to split the difference with Jared. Worse, when Jared objected to the deal he ended up firing Jared and giving him a half hour to clear off of the ranch. This part was his wife's contribution. Mrs. Cooke suggested that she and her daughters weren't safe around Jared.

Furious at how Jared was treated, the rest of the cowboys quit. When the evaluation team went through a couple of days later the descided that this would have meant that the Cookes would have lost the ranch the following year.

The producers were probably thrilled at how the show ended but it sure turned bitter for the participants.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Civil War

Marvel's summer cross-over event is Civil War. The premise is that the government decided to force superheros to reveal their identities to the government and become supervised government agents. Those who do not will be hunted down and imprisoned. The idea is interesting. In real life this would probably happen. After all, you cannot just buy a gun and start hunting down evil-doers. If you do and you keep your identity concealed, you will probably be hunted down yourself. If you give your identity, you will most likely end up in court at some point.
Bounty hunters are probably the closest thing to super-heroes and even they are operating under some restrictions.
Of course, things are more complicated in the Marvel Universe. Many heroes have special status - they are a foreign head of state, they are from a different world, etc.
But regardless of the issues involved, I have no intention of trying to follow every part. I cannot afford it. According to Wikipedia, there are 74 official Civil War comics including four miniseries and two one-shot comics. In addition, there are seven issues in the "Road to Civil War" series including a one-shot. That's 81 comics at $3 each or $243 for the entire series, assuming that none of the specials cost more than the standard price.
This is why the comic companies love cross-over events. They are trying to get people to buy more comics. That's also why I don't like them. They interrupt normal continuity in favor of marketing.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Graphic Novels

TCS Daily has an article about graphic novels. Among other things, it points out how much comic book readership has fallen. In 1945, half the country read comic books. Now, the top seller moved 140,000 copies. According to a talk by Steve Englehart, when he was writing in the 1970s, he was told that 200,000 sales was the magic number. If a comic sold fewer issues than that it was cancelled. That means that no comic book today is as successful as any 1970s title that wasn't cancelled.

Go back a decade to the height of the Silver Age and Superman and Batman could sell as many as a million copies.

This is one reason that comic cost so much. But then, the cost hurt sales.

According to the article, the solution to all of this is the graphic novel. These have a lower cover price and you get a complete story, something that most comics no longer do. In fact, many plot arcs are obviously produced as a serialized graphic novel.

Book stores are much more open to graphic novels. They don't expire like comics do so they get wider distribution.

Also, "graphic novel" doesn't carry the stigma that "comic book" does.

Is this the salvation of the industry? I don't know. Book stores themselves are being squeezed. Between Walmart and Amazon, traditional book stores have lost a lot of market share.

I will admit that I have re-read a few of my favorite story lines as graphic novels. Just trying to assemble the individual issues can be a pain otherwise.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dr Who

Britain started seeing new episodes of Dr. Who last year but, typically, it took until last month before they showed up in the US on the SciFi channel.

For those who don't know what I am talking about, Dr. Who was a long-running science fiction show on British television. It started in the 1960s and finally wrapped up in the 1990s. The main character is called the Doctor. He is a Time Lord, traveling in time and space with a tardis which looks like a 1960s police call box. The tardis is larger on the inside than the outside and contains living areas, stores of clothing, and all sorts of useful stuff. Unfortunately, it is not very reliable. It often turns up in the wrong year or place.

The original show was able to run so long because the Doctor, who is not human, can regenerate. If you kill him he comes back as a different actor. I think the show went through seven or eight different Doctors during its original run.

The most popular Doctor was Tom Baker. While some Doctors were grouchy, Baker's version was nearly always up-beat. Originally, only the Baker version was broadcast in the US and it was a revelation when fans discovered that there had been three previous Doctors. This turned into a bit of disappointment when fan actually saw the early episodes. While the special effects in the Baker version were cheap, the effects in the 1960s consisted of special lighting. In fact, it took some time before the tardis was even introduced.

After an absence of more than a decade, the Doctor is finally back. Surprisingly in a show that was out of production for so long, it feels just like the old show. The new Doctor, played by Christopher Eccleston, has the same energy that Baker had. The effects are cutting-edge (for television) but still manage a bit of cheesiness.

Then there is the Doctor's new assistant. Like Sherlock Holmes, the Doctor always has to have an assistant to explain things to. This is usually someone from modern-day England and most often a woman. Note - there has never been a hint of sexual tension between the Doctor and his assistants. Even the current one, Rose, is indignant when someone suggests that she and the Doctor have a relationship.

A few things have been updated. The Doctor accidentally brought Rose back a year after they left instead of a few minutes later. She found her mother had been posting "missing" signs and her boyfriend was under suspicion. That never happened in the original.

A recurring set of villains in the original series were the Daleks - a sort of high-tech fire hydrant, These were a bit of a joke. they were supposed to have conquered Earth in the future but they couldn't climb stairs. In the new series, the Doctor found the last Dalek in a collection of alien artifacts. After the Dalek was revived (of course), he showed why his kind was dangerous. He had a force field and could levitate up stairs.

It was always understood that there was some sort of life-form inside the fire hydrant. We finally got to see one after Rose convinced it that it felt good to stand in the sunlight.

Fearing type-casting, Eccleston has already left the series. His replacement and the actress who plays Rose have both been signed through the third season.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Healing and the Hatch - more Lost blogging

We just finished a low-key but important character arc for John Locke. During the first season and half the second season, Locke was normally calm and collected. He had good reason to be. From the flashbacks we found that he had been confined to a wheelchair and led a rather pitiful life. His past was full of abandonment issues. His father betrayed him and the love of his life left him because of his father issues. His had a boring job, supervised by someone half his age. His pleasures came from fantasy - war games and phone sex. He had tried to go on "walkabout" to test himself and been turned down because of his legs.

Then he crashed on the island and found that he could walk. The island became his walkabout. He tested himself and found that he was everything that he had hoped. With noting but a hunting knife, he could kill a wild boar or make a cradle.

He found the hatch which hinted at new mysteries.

Then things got frustrating. Locke and Jack started having problems. Locke found that he couldn't trust Jack and both were taken in by Sawyer.

Then they inherited a prisoner calling himself "Henry Gale". Gale very subtly sewed a few seeds of dissent, asking if it was alright for Locke to make decisions without Jack's approval. Locke got frustrated.

Then came the lock-down. While Locke was trapped, Gale went through the air vents. The alarm went off then everything went back to normal. At first Gale said that he entered the code and pressed the button. Later he said that the hatch was a joke and that the system reset on its own.

This bothered Locke. In addition, he totally lost control of Gale. Rather than being Gale's jailer he now has to ask permission (which can be denied) to see Gale.

There was always the possibility that the hatch is a fake - nothing more than a test to see how long the creators can get someone to press a button. If Gale is to believed (a bad assumption) then the hatch is a fake.

On top of everything else, Locke was hurt and has to use crutches. He almost ended back in the wheelchair.

His walkabout seemed to be nothing more than a trick and he was back where he started. He left the hatch, intending to let the alarm go off and do nothing.

Then he talked with Rose. We learned from her flashback that she had been dying from cancer and was healed by the island. She reminded Locke that they both knew that the island heals. That part is no hoax.

The next time we see Locke his calm is back and he is reconstructing the diagram he saw during the lock-down. He believes again.

Rose and Locke don't know it but the island healed Jin, also. Prior to coming to the island he couldn't father children but now Sun is pregnant and swears that he is the only possibility.

Jack continues to shoot down Kate whenever she gets romantic. She thanked him for taking her along to meet with the Others. He replied that she was there because they didn't want her - they had her and gave her back. She still stole a kiss when they were both trapped in a net.

One of the show's running gags - whenever it looks like these two might start getting physical, something happens. This time Michael reappeared.

As leaders go, Jack is pretty poor. Kate withheld information from him because he kept her out of the loop. Hurley made the same complaint earlier. Add in the friction between Locke and Jack, Sayid working Gale over against Jack's wishes and Jack's failure at organizing an army and Jack's leadership looks pretty poor.

Several people on the island have had visions of one kind or another. Jack's dead father led him to the caves. Boone had a vision of his sister being taken by the monster. Hurley saw an imaginary friend from his time in a mental hospital. Shannon saw Walt talking backwards. The island may heal the body but it is tough on the mind.

Finally, the diagram that Locke saw showed six labeled hatches with a seventh labeled with a question mark. So far we have seen three hatches - Locke's hatch, a long-abandoned one, and a recently abandoned medical hatch. Do the Others know about Locke's hatch? Do they know about all of the other hatches? How are they related? There's enough there to keep the show running for at least another couple of years.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Writing in Slate, Stephen Metcalf offers some reasons why the new King Kong bombed.
Cooper's original isn't simply racist. In fact, the opposite could be argued: Where Ingagi played upon white America's deep fear of racial mixing, King Kong took that race fear and converted it into an allegory for civilization in all its discontents. For Cooper, Kong wasn't a surrogate for black people, with "black" as a virtual synonym for savagery and uncontrollable sexual urges. No, Kong was a symbol—a clunky one, but a symbol nonetheless—for the anti-social alpha male, with all his animal desires and animal jealousies, residing in each of us. Thus Cooper made the death of Kong a tragedy and converted a degrading fear into an ennobling pathos. Now, to the degree this conversion worked, it worked because in 1933 memories of the Victorian world of gentlemen adventurers were still living memories, gorillas had been exhibited only scarcely in the West, and because white people still primally feared black people. Racial and sexual fears may still be depressingly persistent, but they no longer lie so near the surface of American life. Without those fears to play off, Jackson appears lost.
Ignoring the question of how a movie that grossed a half billion dollars world-wide could be called a bomb is Metcalf's analysis of the original accurate? No, not even close. Accodring to Metcalf, the movie only worked because of the period it was released. By that reasoning, the original should bomb today and the remake would be a hit in 1933. We will never know about the latter but the original still resonates today.

I first saw the original around 1974. at that time, I did not fear black people nor did I remember Victorian adventurers but the movie still worked for me. It also worked for Peter jackson who grew up in New Zeland and first saw it in 1969. The parts up to Kong's first appearance are dated and a bit silly but once Kong takes over, the movie is timeless.

Metcalf does have one good point. In the original, the Carl Denham role was directly inspired by the director, Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was an adventurer who made animal pictures. when Denham talks about needing a girl in his pictures or being his own cameraman, he is releating incidents from Cooper's own career. In the original, Denham is larger than life, willing to take chances that often turn out badly. In the remake, Denham is more con-man than director, bringing down anything he touches.

But that's only one problem with the remake. Another problem is the fight with the bugs. It goes on far too long and it doesn't move the plot. A similar scene was cut from the original. Jackson should have taken that advice.

The biggest problem is that the original is not a love story. Ann Darrow feels nothing but fear of Kong. She's still suffering Post Tamatic Shock when Kong is revealed to Broadway. As Kong tears his way through New York we feel shock as his victims pile up. We don't feel much sympathy for Kong himself until he is pitted the against the airplanes - a foe he cannot touch. Instead of trying to save him, Ann escapes to the arms of her human lover.

Note - this was a recurring theme in the classic monster movies. The monster pursued an unwilling heroine, often to him doom. Looked at this way you can see why Kong was so popular. Where Dracula flits arounds as a bat, Frankenstein's Monster lurches, and the mummy shuffles, Kong goes out in public. Not only is Kong unafraid, he kills anything that gets in his way, even an elevated train.

Jackson transformed Kong from a monster in the city to an endangered species trying to get back home. That's why one showing was enough for me.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Ice Age 2

Ice Gae 2: The Meltdown was the #1 movie for the weekend taking in over $70 million. It was the best March opening ever and nearly double what the original movie brought in. In the meantime, what did the critics recomend? Slither which came in at #8 with $3.7 million.

That puts Ice Age as the third biggest animated film opening weekend (it's tied with the Incredibles but ticket prices have gone up since then).

What happened? Probably two factors. The first is that the original movie and Robots were both well-made, entertaining movies. The other factor is that nearly everything else released this year stank. Ice Age was the first movie released this year aimed at the entire family where the movie-goer had an expectation of seeing a good movie.

And it is good. While both Ice Age movies are road films featuring three mismatches animals puncuated with mini-shorts featurig Scrat, the squirrel/rat, the two movies have different plots. They also have diferent supporting casts. This is important. Too often a sequel either puts the stars in a completely different situation or puts them in the same situation along with all the extras.

The original had three animals who didn't really like each other forming a friendship while racing to return a human baby to its tribe before witer set in.

In the new movie, the three are friends who have to excape a valley before it is flooded. Each of the anomals has his own personal growth but the movie doesn't hit you over the head with it. Manny the mamoth has to get over the death of his family. Diego the saber-tooth tiger has to get over his fear of water. Sid the sloth has to earn some respect.

Along the way they are joined by a family of possums, one of whom looks a lot like a momoth. The possums are almost as much fun as Scrat. Almost but not quite. Scrat's quest for the acorn would make Chuck Jones jelous.

The creators, Blue Sky, have shown that they have a vision of their own. Pixar goes for more serious, character-driven plots. Dreamworks does lighter ones with lots of topical references. Blue Sky aims somewhere in between. Their movies are lighter than Pixar's but without the constant topical references. It makes for a nice change of pace.