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.