Saturday, December 29, 2007

Happy Birthday Stan

I'm late in posting this but Stan turned 85 on Dec. 28th. I've said it before but it's worth repeating - Stan was the most important influence in comics in my lifetime. He took a medium that had been relegated to children and redefined it as something that would appeal to adults. Along the way he (along with Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby) created properties currently worth billions.

Not many people in the world have had such an effect on their profession.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Defending Star Wars

I've been reading Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics by Tom Rogers. Much if it is pretty good but I think that he is pretty hard on Star Wars. When ranking Wars vs Trek, he gives Trek the better grade, saving his worst grades for Star Wars. The thing is that there are major flaws in his figuring.

Rogers devotes a section to why it will not work for a large space ship (such as a star destroyer) to shoot a smaller ship (such as an X-Wing fighter). He points out that in WWII, a battleship could shoot a kamikaze or dive bomber and, if they hit it far enough out,  the plane would fall into the ocean. On the other hand, if you shoot apart a fighter in space then the parts will continue on and hit your spaceship.

I have a lot of problems with this entire section. The first one is that shooting down a plane seldom causes it to break apart. More likely you will damage control surfaces or cause a wing to lose so much lift that the plane goes out of control. Or you might kill the pilot. I mention this because Rogers makes similar complaints about movies.

My second problem is the mechanics of space warfare. You are dealing with three dimensions and vastly different relative speeds. A battleship cannot take evasive action because of a combination of its mass and the physics of moving through water. Ships can really only move in one direction because of water resistance. Spaceships have no such constraints and could conceivably change course much faster. Not that you see this happen in Star Wars. You do see it in Star Trek but they do it wrong, swooping like an airplane.

Anyway, chances are that the ship being attacked is under power and therefore accelerating. That means that the fighter must aim for where the spaceship will be. There are two ways of doing this. The fighter can do one short, strong burn (acceleration) or a longer, slower one. If you shoot a fighter while it is accelerating then it will fall short.

Rogers ignores this and seems to be going from the assumption that the fighter is not under power and will strike the larger craft through inertia. I will confine myself to that assumption. So you shoot a fighter and it bursts apart. Will the pieces continue straight on? This is not likely if it exploded. In space, every action  has an equal reaction. If a ship is hit with a projectile or it blows up for some reason then its trajectory will be altered.  At long distances it doesn't take much deflection to make a projectile miss its target (the book has a section on this).

Let's assume that you didn't use a projectile to shoot the fighter, you used a laser or other energy weapon that carved the fighter up into pieces without any impact. What happens next?

Rogers' assumption is that the pieces of the fighter will do as much damage as the fighter as a whole. This is an unfounded assumption. By slicing up the fighter you have converted it from a slug into a load of shot. While the two have the same mass, they do not have equal penetrating power.

Mythbusters proved this once with a frozen chicken. The myth involved testing the impact resistance of windshields of high-speed trains. The French borrowed an air cannon that can launch a chicken at high speeds but none of their windshields could withstand the impact. They asked what they were doing wrong. The answer was "first thaw the bird". The Mythbusters were testing to see if a frozen bird had more penetrating power than an unfrozen one.

This took several tests. At one point they used a high-speed camera and determined that both birds expended all of their kinetic energy int he same amount of time so they must have the same penetrating power. Fans objected and they ended up gluing multiple panes of glass together and shooting the bird at that. The unfrozen bird penetrated several sheets but the frozen one went through all of the sheets of glass. The conclusion - a frozen bird penetrates better.

The same will be true for a fighter that is structurally intact versus one that is in pieces.

But none of this really has much to do with Star Wars. Rogers singles out Star Wars as a bad example without specifying which scene offends him. I can think of four extended space battles (two in the original Star Wars, one in Return of the Jedi, and one in Revenge of the Sith). In three of them the target is too large to be seriously affected by the impact of a fighter. The object is to keep the fighters from delivering their payload.

The very first space battle is the only one where a collision would be disastrous. This is fought between the escaping Millennium Falcon and some tie fighters. The tie fighters are making strafing runs and the Falcon is dodging which invalidates the entire argument.

So why pick on Star Wars anyway? It has more to do with reputation than what you actually see on the screen. Trek had advisers who were supposed to keep things honest and sometimes wrote entire episodes around some obscure theory of physics. You can do that when you have hundreds of hours of programming. Star Wars is limited to a half dozen movies (I'm not going to count the games, books and other spin-offs for either).

In fact, one of the most accurate accounts of how physics actually work in a space battle is in a Star Wars novel - The New Jedi Order: Destiny's Way by Walter Jon Williams. Williams also wrote the Dread Empire's Fall trilogy which has the physics of large-scale space battles as a main plot point. I recommend this to anyone who wants to know how it will really be done (assuming that space battles ever happen).

Monday, December 24, 2007


There are only two memorable Christmas plots - It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Both have been adapted endlessly (so endlessly that the Muppets have done both). I though I would run through some of my favorite versions of Christmas Carol.

For a straight-out telling of the book, the 1984 version with George C. Scott is the best. I've never been a big fan of Scott but he hit just the right mix in this version. The costumes and sets look just right for the 1840s, also. After this version, the newer one with Patrick Stewart seems a bit flat.

The first version I ever saw was the Mr. McGoo version and it is still an effective version.

The Muppet version loses some of the depth while adding comic relief in the form of Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens and Rizzo the Rat as himself. Still, it is a fun version.

Bill Murray's Scrooged is a fun updating of the story.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Jar Jar

Someone left a comment on my entry about George Lucas's influences asking about where Jar Jar Binks came from. I can make some observations and guesses about this.

First, Jar Jar's function was comic relief. This function was handled by C3P0 and R2D2 in the other movies but their roles were closer to cameo appearances in Phantom Menace. The movie followed the same basic formula as the previous three movies. Since they had comic relief characters, Phantom Menace had to, also. It is generally conceded that the droids were inspired by a pair of characters from The Hidden Fortress. Lucas himself has cited this film as a major influence on Star Wars.

Note - this contradicts Lucas's insistence that Star Wars was based on classical story-telling traditions. For the life of me, I cannot think of any comic relief characters in any of the classics.

So, Lucas needed someone who would lighten things up. What other influences can we find?

It might be heresy to say this, but Jar Jar was not the first local character with a funny speech pattern and a habit for getting into things in the series. That honor goes to Yoda. When we first met him, Yoda was playing at being a simple local. This also goes back to Japanese tradition where the teacher first appears to be a simple old man. But there is a depth to Yoda that Jar Jar does not have.

There is a long tradition in American fiction of the hero having a native side-kick. This character often speaks in stilted English. The Lone Ranger's side-kick Tonto is a perfect example. While Tono was not played for laughs, he did get into more than his share of trouble.

The comic strip hero the Spirit had Ebony as his side-kick. Ebony started as a short adult but morphed into a youth. He was drawn as an exaggerated black man with thick lips and he talked in what other characters described as a "minstrel show" accent.

Adventure movies often had characters typifying a stereotype. For example, King Kong has Charlie the Chinese cook. The title character Gunga Din played this part for much of the movie. The actor Sabu spent much of his career playing this sort of character.

Lucas would have been familiar with all of this. Remember, his original stated purpose with Star Wars (and Indiana Jones) was to recreate the adventure movies and serials from the 1930s when the comic native side-kick was stock-in-trade.

When Phantom Menace came out, many people noticed the similarity between Jar Jar and the racist characterizations of the past. It didn't help that Jar Jar talked like a cross between stereotype Chinese and African characters.

Lucas got the message. In Attack of the Clones, Jar Jar's role was reduced to the dupe of the future Emperor. By Revenge of the Sith he was down to a cameo role.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Is LoTR Trivial

Golden Compass writer Phillip Pullman says that the Lord of the Rings is trivial. Is there anything to this?

Granting that Pullman's books are about the death of god or the end of religion or something like that, this is a non-trivial subject. In contrast, LotR appears to be about melting a piece of jewelry in order to maintain the status quo.

I use the word "appears" because there is a lot more to it. The major theme is self-sacrifice. Frodo sacrifices himself in order to save the Shire. In an early draft, Tolkien had Bingo (the original name for Frodo) say that while he was leaving the Shire because of the ring, he would have had to go anyway since he was out of money and hoped to pick some up on the way like Bilbo did. Tolkien marked this out with a note that Bingo still had plenty of money. He didn't have to leave because of money, he chose to leave because of the ring.

Along the way Frodo is surprised by Sam's optimism. Sam has been saving food for the trip back. Frodo never thought that far ahead. He probably thought that he would die while accomplishing his quest (Gollum died in his place by accident).

But Frodo didn't return whole. His only visible injury was the loss of a finger but he had deeper injuries. The wounds he got from the Witchking and Sheelob never completely healed and he was sick twice a year on the anniversary of being wounded.

Worse, he had a piece of Sauron's soul tempting him for years. He was no longer wholly mortal and had to leave for the Undying Lands, normally reserved for the elves.

The elf lords faced the same choice. In helping Frodo they knew that they were bringing about the end of their time in Middle Earth. The alternatives were no better - submit to Sauron or take the ring and become an equally dark lord.

There is a subtext of temptation. Boromir succumbed to temptation but so did Frodo. The quest only succeeded because of Gollum.

Plus we see the passing of the physical embodiment of a demon-figure in the defeat of Sauron.

Is that substantive enough?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass and Religion

There has been a lot of talk about the Golden Compass's anti-religion message. After seeing the movie, I think that the controversy was over nothing. The anti-religion message just isn't there.

Yes, the villains are all in a group called the Magersterium but you have to be told that this is an analog for the Catholic Church. It isn't presented like a church. We don't see any services. There might be priests but they aren't identifiable as such. There are no churches pointed out, just a headquarters.

The word "heresy" is tossed around a few times but that's about it.

For a universe created by an atheist, it is a strange sort of atheism. Everyone has a visible soul. There are witches, prophecies, talking bears and other magic.

I will not deny that the author, Phillip Pullman, is a outspoken atheist. The anti-religious angle might be a lot stronger in the books but this is not the book, it is the movie and it has to be judged on its own.

A few years ago the complaint was that groups were trying to suppress The Passion of the Christ without knowing what it contained. Now the same people who complained are doing the same thing to a different movie.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Mighty Thor

It's been a while since I've written about comic books. With Thor back in publication, I thought I would take a look at his history.

Thor started as one of Marvel's second wave of heroes. By this point Stan was using a cookie-cutter approach to new heroes. Look at Thor, Iron Man, and Daredevil. All three had a supporting cast that was limited to their co-workers. Each was secretly in love with his secretary (or nurse). Each had a personal defect that kept him from declaring his love (bad heart, blindness, or, in Thor's case, a bad leg). As a hero, each one also had a built-in weakness that allowed any run-of-the-mill villain to be a challenge. Iron Man constantly ran out of power. Daredevil kept having things affect his radar sense. Thor had to keep hold of his hammer.

It is also interesting to note that the classic Avengers - Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, the Wasp, and Captain America) were all regular people who gained powers through technology or magic (except Cap who didn't have any powers). Contrast this with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, or Spider-Man who always had their powers.

According to Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan wanted to create a Superman-style character but wanted him to be original. He solved this with a hammer. It also gave an easy substitute for kryptonite. Stan was overloaded at the time so he assigned the writing duties to his brother Larry Lieber. Larry was a competent but uninspired writer. Thor fought a wide variety of creatures including lava men, stone men, the Radioactive Man, and a guy from the future. Stories almost always included Thor losing his hammer and turning back to Don Blake.

As I mentioned, the supporting cast was limited to one person - Jane Foster, Blake's nurse.

Then something unusual happened. Up in Asgard, Loki escaped from centuries of imprisonment and went to Earth to confront his old enemy Thor. Loki never seemed to question why a human doctor was also Thor.

Not long after Stan took over writing. This is just a guess but I assume that Larry turned in a complete script. Stan was too busy for that so he usually had a story conference with the artist. They would come up with a basic plot but it was up to the artist to decide on the pacing and other aspects of the story. The artist for Thor was Jack Kirby whose imagination was infinite.

Between them, Stan and Jack overhauled the book. The whole Asgardian pantheon was added as the supporting cast. A Tales of Asgard backup feature was added featuring a young Thor. The class of villain that Thor was fighting became much better and he almost never lost his hammer. A number of Marvel mainstays were introduced including the High Evolutionary, Ego the Living Planet, and the Recorder.

Fans started wondering about Don Blake and Thor. What happened to the real Thor? By this point Blake couldn't confess his love for Jane because he was Thor and Odin objected. Why? If Blake was just a mortal and any worthy person who had the cane could become Thor then was was the problem.

Eventually it was explained - Blake was Thor and had always been Thor. Odin wanted to teach Thor humility and had made him think he was a mortal. Not long after Thor broke up with Jane and Sif was introduced as a replacement.

From that point on Blake became a minor character, mainly appearing when someone needed surgery.

All good things come to an end. Kirby left Marvel for DC. The strip continued on with Stan and John Buscema. The stories were still good but no memorable characters were introduced. A couple of years later Stan moved and Gerry Conway took over.

The strip quickly stagnated. Roy Thomas brought a little life into in in the late 1970s, first with Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods which turned out to be a false start. Later he adapted the Ring cycle. This was brought to a conclusion in a story arc that included the Odin Sword, the Destroyer, and the Celestials.

Jane Foster appeared again and merged with Sif for a while before separating again.

The strip really took off again in 1982 when Walt Simonson took over. He was a fan of the original sagas and brought Thor back to his Norse roots. Most of the supporting characters were revamped. Some villains like the Executioner and the Enchantress were rehabilitated. He also created Beta Ray Bill who became an alien version of Thor. Ragnarok came again.

When Simonson left the strip quickly stagnated again. The Powers that Be decided that Thor had to have a mortal identity (Under Simonson, Thor disguised himself as a mortal construction worker). Thor was merged with Eric Masterson, an architect and single father. Naturally, being a part-time god messed up Masterson's life.

There was a spate of replacement heroes. Thor's version of this had the real Thor's identity submerged so that only Eric Masterson existed. Eventually Thor was restored and Masterson given his own strip as Thunderstrike.

There was a short-lived group called the Thor Corps consisting of Thunderstrike, Beta Ray Bill, and a different Thor from the future. The real Thor was not included.

The restored Thor got off to a bad start. He wet crazy and almost destroyed the universe.

The strip faltered again. This time it was given a new direction - Thor became mortal. In a three-issue story arc, he lost most of his powers but was able to triumph with the help of the Enchantress. His powers were only restored for a short time before he lost them again. He went into the hero business literally with the Enchantress charging for his services. While this plotline was promising, many other Marvel titles had wondered. Tony Stark was a teenager, the Torch had married a Skrull, etc. Marvel "killed" them all - actually sending them to an alternate world in Franklin Richards' mind.

The heroes returned with new creative crews. Thor found that the Asgardians had vanished and he was merged with yet another mortal - this time a paramedic named Jake Olsen.

The strip slowly reestablished itself. Jake was given a supporting cast including Jane Foster who was now a doctor. He acquired a side-kick named Tarene who assumed the form of a female Thor-in-training. She even had her own supporting cast.

Then the strip embarked on a long-term story arc. First Odin died leaving the Odin Force to Thor. Thor decided that humanity would benefit by closer contact with the gods and brought Asgard into our dimension. After solving humanity's ills, Thor took over the Earth. The plot skipped forward a few decades to Earth under the Asgardians' rule. It should be no surprise that it had a dark side.

Eventually Thor came to his senses and changed time so that Asgard never conquered the world.

This was followed by the Asgard Disassembled arc in which Ragnarok came - again. With the Asgardians dead, Thor killed off a set of super gods known as Those Who Sit in Shadows. Finally he entered the sleep of the gods and wort of died.

Now he's back. Surprisingly, so is his Don Blake identity. The last couple of issues have been a bit formulaic with Thor visiting a disaster area to find a missing Asgardian. Still, the stories are intense. Issue 3 featured the fight we've been been waiting for - Thor vs Iron Man. Tony Stark cloned Thor during the Civil Wars and Thor was upset so he broke Stark's armor.

Where will this lead? Only time will tell.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Heroes - Chapter 2

Prior to the airing of the chapter 2 wrap-up, the producer of Heroes apologized to the fans for a lack-luster season. I wish that the Lost producers had that much honesty.

They took their time tying things together and it resulted in a rushed wrap-up. Too much time was spent on romance - Claire, Hiro, Sylar and Peter all got a love interest, and none of them turned out well. Two of them are in other times (what does happen when someone leaves you in an alternate future that no longer exists?).

It would have been more interesting if they had left Adam's intentions up in the air more. After all, the Company has been playing around with the viruses and could easily have been responsible for releasing it. All doubts about who wanted what were settled last week when we saw the COmpany stop Adam from releasing the virus 30 years ago.

I was never that fond of Niki so I won't miss her much. It would have been nice to have learned about her sister. They dropped some hints that she had actually merged with her twin instead of just becoming a split personality.

A bit of realism - Monica discovered that muscle memory doesn't help a tiny girl over come big guys with guns. It was an ignominious end to her story arc.

I know that the episode was rewritten at the last minute in order to wrap things up before the writer's strike shut down production. The fact that they had to do this shows how disjointed the wrap-up was going to be.

Here's hoping that the writers settle soon.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Numb3rs & Comics

This entry is a week late but the 11/23 episode of the CBS show Numb3rs revolved around comic books and a convention. The writers knew their material.

For those who never saw it (this was my first time), the show is about a pair of brothers. One is a typical FBI agent. The other one is a math genius who uses game theory, auction theory, etc. to help solve the crime.

In this case, a comic book investor announced that he had discovered the rarest of comic books - an ashcan edition of a 30+ year old favorite. Ashcan editions are cheap, black and white copies often printed on smaller than usual paper. They are only produced for copyright purposes and often the entire print run is thrown away (hence the name).

No sooner was the comic unveiled then a masked gunman appeared, shot a guard, and stole the comic. Later, dozens of fake copies of the comic appeared.

The show touched on several issues dear to the comic collector's heart. One was benefits for the creators. In this case, there was a possibility that the rare comic had been stolen from the creator's personal collection. He wanted to leave it to his wife to provide for her retirement after he died. This echoes a campaign in the 1970s and early 1980s for DC to provide benefits to Superman's creators.

The person who unveiled the comic was a collector, not a fan. All he cared about was the value of his collection. Fans hate this sort because they run up the price of back issues, keeping them out of the hands of people who want to read them.

The math angles included looking at how much ink seeped into the paper on the theory that forgers write slower, allowing more time for the ink to sink in, and an analysis of the forgeries which turned out to have a mathematical code buried in them.

The comic creator was played by Christopher Lloyd who has played an animated character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The guy who played "Henry" in Eureka was also in it but I forget his name.

I preferred the comic convention episode of Psych (which I never blogged about) but this one was good for network TV. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

How to get your on-line fix

I got a comment asking for the best way to get comics on-line. Good question. I don't have a definite answer, just alternatives.

First, the Kindle doesn't do comic books. It is text-only. The same is true for Sony's reader.

The iPhone has wireless connectivity but it is slow and the display is pretty small. Also, you are still very limited on what you can store internally.

There are some PDAs running a version of Windows. Many of these support WiFi and some support wireless. They still have tiny screens.

If you search around you can get a laptop for the same price as the Kindle and it will have a color display. Most laptops sold now have WiFi.  This also gives you the option of downloading comics from the web for later reading or getting one of the CD-ROM collections. I have the X-Men CDROM. It has each issue in a separate Adobe file, complete with ads and the letters page (old Marvel letters pages were great). This is not the friendliest format but it would take days to read everything. Of course, current comics are not included and only a few titles have been released this way.

If money is no object then get a tablet PC and a wireless card. I have a wireless card for my work PC and response is pretty good.

On the low-end, new PCs are coming out to compete with the One Laptop Per Child. These have a small display but are cheap and durable and come with built-in WiFi.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Amazon's Kindle

Amazon announced a new e-book called the Kindle. E-book readers are nothing new. The idea is simple enough - build a small, light device that can display text and use it to store and read books. Science Fiction author Ben Bova wrote a humorous novel called "cyberbooks" around the idea in 1989.

So far the concept has fallen flat for a few reasons.

1) The reader is not good enough.
2) The e-books have DRM tying them to the reader.
3) Cost.

The technology on the readers has advanced. The current ones including Kindle are supposed to be very readable in good light, even sunlight. They are not backlit, though, so they cannot be read in poor lighting conditions.

The DRM continues to be an issue. Kindle promises that you will always be able to retrieve your book from them. Don't count on it. A couple of video download sites reneged or had technical problems on files that were only a year or two old. Further, they might well change the format forcing you to upgrade your reader. Microsoft does that every time they release a new version of Office.

But the real issue is cost. These things are expensive. The Kindle is $400. For that you get the ability to buy books, newspapers, and blogs over wireless (not Wi-Fi). The nearest competitor requires that you sync with a PC but still costs around $300.Keep in mind that you can buy a usable laptop PC for $400. For that much money you can buy a One Laptop Per Child PC for yourself and donate one to a 3rd world child. And you get a color display. Or you could buy an iPod Touch with money left over.

Then there is the cost of the book itself. The paperback I'm currently reading cost $7. If I bought it through Amazon for the Kindle it would cost $10. Presumably I'm supposed to compare the price to a hardback which would cost more. On the other hand, with a hardback I have a real, solid book. I can read it again or lend it to someone else. I'll bet that you can't lend an e-book.

The paperback is a better comparison, anyway. Most novels sold are paperbacks. They are cheaper to produce, ship, and store. They can be carried with you and they don't cost so much that you mind giving getting rid of them when you finish reading them.

E-books are even cheaper and easier to produce and ship. There are no overruns and no reason to do second printings. The publisher produces as many as there is demand.

So why don't they cost less?

The short answer is greed. The long answer is that publishers don't want to come up with a new business model. They prefer running the one they have now into the ground.

The music industry is being forced to change its business model because it is so easy to rip a CD into an MP3 file. If books could be scanned as easily we would already be seeing real choices.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ira Levin

The writer Ira Levin just died. While not a prolific writer, he was influential. His novel Rosemary's Baby started a national fascination with the occult that lasted more than a decade. The Stepford Wives triggered protests by feminists that anyone would suggest that some men might be dissatisfied with Woman's Lib. The Boys From Brazil was the first that many people heard about cloning.

All of these were fairly light novels - quick reads. They almost read like movie adaptations.

In my opinion, his best novel was one of his more obscure ones - This Perfect Day.

This is a dysfunctional Utopian novel, something like Brave New World but with a background closer to 1984. It features a world from the John Lenin song Imagine. There is only one country and it is run by dispassionate computers. The population has been cross-bred until there is a single race of people with brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes. Everyone dresses alike, eats the same thing, and even has a similar life expectancy. Religion has been condensed into a single belief with four prophets. The title comes from the chant, "Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei led us to this perfect day."

Like Brave New World, this world is not kind to outsiders. In this case, it is the few people with recessive genes. Having green eyes or pale hair or large breasts makes you an outcast.

It is a cautionary take on what the world would be like if political correctness took over completely.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

War Movies

There has been a spate of recent war movies and they have all tanked at the box office. The most recent one, Lions for Lambs, opened at number 4 with around $6.7 million despite big names like Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford who also directed.

There has been a lot of speculation about this. Is it because Iraq (and Afghanistan) are too fresh? Is it because these are really political movies about the war? Is it because these movies amount to anti-American rants from spoiled Hollywood celebrities?

All of these are undoubtedly factors but they overlook the performance of war movies in general over the last few years. Last night I watched Valiant, a British CGI movie about carrier pigeons during WWII. It was not a great movie but it was entertaining and child-friendly. It did very poor business in the US. A bit over a year ago Fly Boys was released. This was a traditional war movie about WWI fliers. It was really good but it spun out at the box office.

In he Summer of 2005 The Great Raid was released. It was a movie about the rescue of POWs during WWII. This didn't make any money, either. (Side note - the last surviving combat veteran from WWII was one of those rescued in the real-life event.)

My conclusion is that war movies just aren't very popular right now.

There are different types of war movies. The original ones were retelling battles from WWII. During WWII they were meant to inspire the audience to help with the war effort and to make them feel more in touch with
the war itself. After WWII ended there was a big market for any movie with a war tie-in. After all, a huge portion of the population had served in the war. Those who were not veterans were likely related to a vet. It was the shared experience of a generation.

A much smaller portion of the population went to Viet Nam. Between that and the war's unpopularity there were few war movies about Viet Nam until the war was over. These were mainly anti-war movies.

The conflicts in-between have been too short and too limited to count as a generational defining point. I doubt that most people even remember the invasion of Grenada. The same is true for the first Gulf War - it happened fast with little American sacrifice.

Today it is impossible to imagine a pro-Iraq war being made. Hollywood hates the war and the president so all that comes out is anti-war. Even that doesn't seem to be any good so there is nothing to attract audiences. At the same time, most people are against the war according to polls but they don't feel strongly enough to take to the streets. Recent protests keep getting smaller and smaller. That doesn't leave much of an audience for bad anti-war movies.

Happy Veterans' Day.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The TV Season so far

Sweeps month has started. How is the TV season holding up?

Heroes is doing ok. It got off to a better start than in the first season. Still, it is lacking direction. Last year the characters seemed to cross paths more. Also, we knew that the big goal was to stop New York from blowing up. From the last few minutes of the most recent episode we might have the same sort of plot arc developing except with a plague. If so, it took long enough to tell us. Also, the mechanism - a character teleporting into the future and finding a devastated New York - seems a bit familiar.

On either end of Heroes we have Chuck and Journeyman. Chuck is ok although it seems like it could be better. By next season they will need to come up with a new premise. The current one - a nerd has a lot of secret files in his head and two rival spies are undercover with him at a Best Buy-type store - will only work for so long. Following Heroes we have Journeyman. I watched a couple of episodes but they left me cold. They seem to be taking their time explaining the premise but neither the plots nor the characters are engaging enough to make me keep watching long enough to find out what's going on.

I can say the same thing for the Bionic Woman. The show is going in two different directions at once. On the one hand they are trying for gritty realism with a woman who suddenly gains super powers and the limits that they have. On the other hand, the powers themselves are way into science fiction. They would have been better served by keeping to the original show's bionics rather than using nanites. The treatment doesn't interest me much.

I've only seen one episode of Reaper. It seems like a cross between Chuck and Pushing Daisies and would seem a lot fresher if neither of the others was on. It has its moments.

I've only seen a couple of episodes of the vampire detective show Moonlight. The premise has been done before and the writing is really bad. In the pilot I knew who the killer was within a minute of when they introduced him - not because of any clues, he was the obvious suspect's assistant and the hack writers wanted a twist.

There aren't many "regular" shows I watch. Boston Legal is one of the few. It seems a bit off. Shatner's character was always the highlight of the show but they toned him down this season. He is still over-the-top but not by much. The same thing happened to the rest of the characters. They've all been toned down.

Pushing Daisies continues to be the best show on. After five episodes they moved beyond the initial premise into weird crimes. With strong but subtle continuity and a narrator tying everything together, the best description would be Tim Burton meets Arrested Development.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pushing Daisies

This is easily the best new show on TV. The premise is a bit strange. A pie-maker solves murders on the side by bringing people back to life with a touch, asking them how they died, then returning them to death with a second touch. Once they have been touched a second time they are dead for good.

Also, if he doesn't touch them the second time within 60 seconds then something else dies.

The twist is that he found his childhood love in the morgue and let her live. (A second twist is that years before he brought his mother back to life and her father died to balance it.)

What really sets the show apart is the presentation. It has the best narration since Arrested Development. Many of the sets are brightly lit with primary colors giving it the same feel as Tim Burton's Big Fish.

Then there are the murders. They are as off-beat as the rest of the show. In the second episode a man was killed by a crash test dummy.

Then there is the sexual tension between the leads. They are strongly attracted to each other but cannot touch directly.

The big question is if they can keep it up. Often shows like this start out string but can't live up to the pilot. By the time they are canceled it is a mercy killing. At three episodes in, they haven't slacked off yet which is pretty promising.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Windows vs Mac

Last week I wrote about the iPhone and issues that I see with owning one. I noticed a recent column in ZDNews about why Windows users in general  don't switch to the Mac. This in turn leads to an earlier column on the same subject on a pro-Apple site. I thought I would add in my own observations. Unlike the columns I mentioned, I am not a Mac user. I have used a Mac a few times. The most I have done was some trouble-shooting on why a Mac wasn't connecting to the Internet properly (it was using the wrong name-server and I had to open a unix prompt to figure it out). I will also note that I have extensive Unix and Linux background. Basically, this is why someone who is not afraid of new operating systems does not switch.

Let's get the big reason out first - money. I've priced at Macs. They start at around $1,100. I can get a perfectly usable PC for half that. I realize that I can get a Mac mini for a lot less and hook up my own peripherals. It's still a lot of money since a comparably-priced PC will include everything.

Mac users can argue that their boxes are better built, will do more, etc. I don't care. A BMW owner could make the same points without getting me to buy a new, more expensive car.

This dovetails into the second big factor - OS/10 may be great but Windows XP is good enough. I can do everything I want a PC to do on XP. some things may be easier or work better on the Mac but it is not enough difference to switch.

There are hidden costs to making the switch. If I buy a new PC I can usually run all of my old software. If I buy an Apple I have to get new software. Some products don't have an Apple version. There are replacements but this could get expensive quickly. I have a lot of graphics software (all legal). Some I bought. Some I got free through special offers. I am sure I would lose a lot of it if I switched to Mac. Yes, thee is boot-camp. I could buy a version of Windows and run it on the Mac. All of my software would work but I'd be left with an expensive Windows PC. I think I could run it in a virtual session at a performance penalty and I'd probably still have to buy Windows.

A different hidden cost - hardware upgrades. I've gone through several PCs and I usually stretch their life by upgrading the disk, memory and possibly the video. I'm not sure how possible this is with the Mac.

Apple's ads don't help their case. They have several that imply that PCs can only be used for business. One in particular has the Mac guy showing off his digital pictures while the PC guy shows a spreadsheet graphing how much fun he had. This ad was so over the top wrong that my wife even complained about it. This raises the question - if I know that Apple is lying in some ads, why should I believe the other ads? Even without that, the PC guy is more likable than the Mac guy.

Then there is the whole cult of Steve thing. I have it on good authority that Steve Jobs is a jerk to work for. He is a control freak. usually this only affects people at Apple but sometimes this bleeds into the product. Look at the fights over the iPhone. You may buy it but Apple thinks that they still own it. Back when they introduced the Mac, around 25 years ago, they tried to control it the same way. You violated your warranty just by plugging in a hard disk or printer that someone besides Apple made. More recently they've done it with music. Music you buy on iTunes will only play on an iPod. Apple will not license anyone else. Real Media made a way to convert files to Real's format without removing copy restrictions. Apple had a fit because people could then play music they bought from Apple on players from someone else.

It seems like buying an Apple includes a commitment to join the Cult of Steve. This includes putting up with the stuff I just mentioned and more. There also seems to be a requirement to evangelize. All of that is a lot more commitment than I want to put into an operating system.

So, why would I want to switch? Graphics? Yes, they are nice. Vista is better and Linux has some snazzy effects that will run on low-end hardware. There are a lot fewer viruses for the Mac but that isn't a big issue for me. I have good anti-virus software and I know what not to run. If I was really worried, I could move to Linux and keep my existing hardware.

Bottom line - I'd be paying money to be cool. That just isn't me.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Whose iPod is It?

I lost my Sansa MP3 player while on vacation. I was seriously considering until Christmas to replace it and asking for an iPod Touch but Apple's recent antics with the iPhone have scared me away. While I understand why they did some of their actions their attitude still leaves me cold.

First there is the "iBricking" of the iPhone. A recent firmware upgrade disables iPhones that have been "unlocked" from AT&T. I can sort of understand this. They got a great deal from AT&T. Apple gets a portion of AT&T's monthly charge for the life of the contract. The update might not have even been Apple's idea. Someone from AT&T might have called Steve Jobs and reminded him that it was supposed to be impossible to switch from AT&T. There might even be a penalty clause in their contract.

But there are reports that there are flaws in the update and some phones that were never unlocked are also nonfunctional. That's not good.

Then there is Apple's undisguised greed. They started out by charging a lot more for the phone than they planned to sell it for. Why? Because they knew they have a devoted core that would buy it at any price. Once they worked through that core they lowered the price down to the real one.

This also shows up in the way they handled ringtones. Apple wants you to pay twice for each ringtone. First, you have to buy it from iTunes, then you have to pay to have it converted to a ringtone. Some people figured out how to get around this but the steps are too technical for most people. Regardless, Apple has changed the firmware around a few times to lock people into Apple ringtones. I can't image why they would bother except for the possibility of losing a few dollars licensing.

Beyond all of this, there is the insistence that every aspect of the iPhone should be controlled by Apple through iTunes. The phones have at least 8 gig but none of it can be accessed by the user. You cannot run third party applications on it. There are ways around this and Apple disabled them with the last update, also.

Supposedly the embargo on 3rd party software and storage is part of the AT&T contract. They didn't want a virus getting into the phone system. I might buy that if it were not for the iPod Touch.

In theory the iPod Touch is an iPhone without the phone part. I'm not sure if it is also missing the camera, Apple's web site mainly talks about the new features (the ability to buy music at Starbucks). So you might think that Apple would run more things on the stand-alone iPod than on the iPhone, right? Wrong. Some features are missing. At minimum you cannot update your calendar. Also, these are the only two units in the iPod line that will not let you use as a general purpose USB drive.

What I would like is a music player that lets me store files locally and access the web. The iPod only does some of this and I suspect that I would get frustrated before I got my money's worth.

In the meantime I picked up a Sansa Express. It's tiny - arounf 25% longer than a USB drive. It has all of the features of the bigger one except the screen for pictures and movies. Since I mainly use it for music, that's fine. It doesn't have the scroll wheel so navigation is a bit slower but otherwise it works just the same. One nice touch - it has a built-in USB plug and a short extension in case it doesn't fit. Like the other Sansas, I can use the Media Player to synchronize music or just copy and paste.

There is a reason that Sansa jumped to the #2 slot in MP3 players in a year. They don't have the cult appeal of Apple, they just work.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Vampires on TV

CBS has a new show about a vampire detective. How original. This has almost become a genre. Here are some previous shows with a similar premise:

Forever Knight
Nick Knight has been a vampire for 800 years and regretted it for most of that time. In the 20th century he decided to help people by becoming a policeman. The show started as a 1989 movie called Nick Knight staring Rick Springfield. In 1992 it was picked up as a series under the new name and with a new cast.

The show swiped a lot of its format from the better Highlander. As Nick investigated crimes in the present he would remember something from his past that had some bearing on the current case.

As a vampire, Nick could fly (usually implied by a shaky camera), had supernatural strength and could hypnotize people. He was immortal but had to avoid the sun. He got his blood supply from a pretty coroner who was trying to cure him.

Despite the main character, the show was primarily a detective show, not a vampire show.

A spin-off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel was a vampire who, after more than a century of depravity, had been cursed by having his soul returned. Feeling regret for all of his past sins, he sought redemption by helping people. He ended up founding a detective agency with some friends.

The show ran for five seasons on WB. It changed focus a few times. A principal character was killed off half-way through the first season and replaced with another Buffy alumni. Other characters came and went.

Unlike Forever Knight, Angel's premise was saving the world from the supernatural and an evil law firm.

As a vampire, Angel was immortal and had supernatural strength. He had to keep out of the sun or burst into flames. He drank animal blood.

Blood Ties
This series is still running on Lifetime TV with the first season starting last March. It is based on a series of books by Tanya Huff featuring a private detective, Vicki Nelson who keeps running into supernatural cases and enlists the vampire Henry Fitzroy to help her.

Henry was strong and fast and fell asleep during the day. The sun could kill him. He got his blood supply from willing donors. In the book he was bi-sexual but in the TV series he is hetro and little is said about his source of blood. Henry is the illegitimate son of Henry VIII.

The focus of the series is solving supernatural crimes. Henry's main motivation for getting involved is his relationship with Vicki.

That brings us to Nightlife.
The vampire is a private detective. We don't learn why in the pilot. He is 90 years old and immortal. He get blood from a contact in the coroner's office. The sun makes him feel ill. He can move quickly and can identify people by scent.

The focus seems to be a detective show featuring a vampire. This brings up full circle back to Forever Knight which also started on CBS.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A look Back at Heroes

The second season of Heroes starts tonight. While this became one of the best shows on TV last season, it got off to a rocky start. I'm hoping that they don't repeat that this year.

The show managed to ride the popularity of last year's X-Men release. The premise is pretty similar - people suddenly discover that they have super powers. In the X-Men they are mutants. In Heroes, they are "heroes".

The first few episodes were pretty grim and the characters were unlikeable. We had an arrogant politician, his bitchy mother, and his wimpy brother. There was an internet stripper who killed people in grisly ways. There was a junkie who painted disturbing visions of the future There was a serial killer who cut people's heads off and skooped out their brains. And there was a cheerleader who was apparently trying to kill herself and failing. The gore factor was the highest in any regular show I can remember. This reached a peak when Claire, the cheerleader, woke up in the morgue after an autopsy had cut open her chest (it was also the least convincing effect since the latex appliance didn't bent right when she sat up).

The main redeeming feature was Hiro - a Japanese office worker who discovered that he could affect time and space. After turning a clock back one second, he decided that he had a duty to help the world. Soon after, he traveled to New York's future and saw a major explosion. He quickly made it his mission to prevent the blast, dragging his co-worker along.

Ironically, Hiro has yet to accomplish any of his missions. He did not save the cheerleader, Peter did. He didn't stop the explosion, Nathan did. He hurt but didn't kill Sylar. He didn't even save a doomed waitress although he did make her last months more pleasant.

Several of the character's story threads never jelled. The telepathic cop started out as a major character but faded into the background. His main contribution was to show that making a loser telepathic doesn't change the fact that he's a loser. The same is true for Nikki and her family. One month she's hiding bodies, the next she's hunting her husband and child, then she's in jail, then she's a hired assassin, then she's trying to get her son back.

On the other hand, Peter became much more interesting as the show progressed. Besides Hiro, he is the only one who tries to help others with his gifts. Unlike Hiro, he did save the cheerleader.

The producers say that they listened to fan complaints and will address them in the new season. Story arcs will be shorter and fewer characters will be appearing per episode allowing more time for the characters who do appear. I hope that they got the right message. Lost claims to have heard viewer complaints about reruns but they got it wrong. We didn't want the show taken off the air except for new episodes, we just wanted more new episodes in a row.

We will see how Heroes does in season two.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Talk Like a Pirate Day

Sept. 19 is Talk Like a Pirate Day. I'll use this as an excuse to comment on the Summer movies, one last time. The top three were Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, and Pirates 3 in that order - domestically. Internationally, they switch. Pirates came in at number one. Granted it's box office was $50 million less than Pirates 2 but that doesn't seem very important when the total take is around $950 million vs around $1 billion for the previous release.

I'm mainly bringing this up because various critics called Pirates a disappointment because its domestic take was down quite a bit. This was meant as a reflection on both movies. Since the overall take was up, that means that overseas ticket sales made up the difference.

Consider that a shot over the bow to the critics.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The iFiasco

I know a couple of people with iPhones. One of them stood in line on opening day to get it.

They are proud of their gadgets. They show them off. They pull up YouTube videos or take your picture and show how they can link it to your phone number so it will show when you call. Sometimes they even make phone calls with the things.

I was never interested. At $600, I could buy a new PC and a new MP3 player and possibly have money left over for a low-end digital camera. None of those would obligate me to sign up for an expensive phone service (and pay a cancellation fee for my current service).

The iPhone owners didn't care about any of these things. They had their toys. But some discontent bubbled out out out the masses of iPhone owners. It turns out that the iPhone is a lousy phone. My dedicated phone is small, the battery lasts all day, and I can operate it one-handed. For commonly called numbers I can turn it on with my thumb, hit a button with my middle finger and tell the phone who I want to call and it will dial for me. With the iPhone, you have to use both hands and go through several motions.

Then there is AT&T. Their Internet service is dead slow, possibly too slow to be usable for many web pages. Their reputation took a major hit when it got out how poor their coverage is. Some states don't have any coverage to speak of. Others do but suffer from dropped calls (a columnist at Huffington complained that his conversations always ended with "Hello?" "Hello?")

Some people were buying the iPhone just to use as a wi-fi Internet device. I thought that it might be useful like that but the price was still much too high.

It turns out that a lot of people think like I do. Apple just introduced an iPod that is an iPhone without the phone part and it is only $300. That's still a lot of money to me but it is no longer out of the question.

It also appears that sales must have spiked then dropped fast because Apple dropped the price by $200. The phone that cost you $600 in June now costs $400. That has a lot of loyal Apple customers upset.

Everyone knows that technology changes. What is on the market today will either be cheaper next year or replaced by something more powerful. People accept that and factor in the cost of waiting when deciding to buy. The thing is, people expect these drops to take a year or more, not a few weeks. Apple has always charges a premium price but this time they admitted that the price was in the gouging range.

Keep in mind that Apple could sell the iPhone below cost and still come out ahead. They get a cut from AT&T's monthly bill so you continue to pay Apple as long as you keep your phone contract.

Apple set the original price too high. They want to attract the people who are not willing to pay $600 for a poor phone with a great interface.

There is no graceful way out of this. It only took a day for them to announce that current customers would get a $100 credit. Considering their margins, that probably will cost them at most $50 per phone. That's not very generous. And the group they offended includes the hard-core Apple fans. It's a wonder that their stock only dropped a little.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Summer Review

The Summer movie season is over. The results are interesting.

Revenge of the threes. Six movies were the third installment of a series. Half of these ( Spider-Man, Shrek,and Pirates) broke $300 million. Of these, none were the best example of the series and none made as much money as the second installment but they still brought in just under a billion dollars in the US alone. Strangely, only Pirates has been singled out as a disappointment even though all three made the current top 10 box office with their second release and the box office of the three is within 10% of each other. Also, Pirates was the only one of the three that had a better third movie than the second.

Of the other 3rds, Bourne might break $200 million. Ocean's 13 only brought in $118 million - not bad but not what they were hoping for. The same is true for Rush Hour 3 at $118 million which is still pretty good for a 50-something action hero.

Along the same lines, Harry Potter 5 failed to break $300 million despite massive publicity from the book release and a solid movie but, at $280 million, the franchise hasn't run out of gas.

Source material. All of the top movies were adapted from some other medium but this year is surprising for the sources. We have Spider-Man (comic book), Shrek (children's book), Pirates (amusement park ride), Transformers (toy/comic book/tv show), and Harry Potter (children's book) before we get to the first original production - Ratatoille. The next two after that are Bourne (spy novel) and the Simpsons (cartoon) before adult films Knocked Up and Live Free or Die Hard . Clearly the days when studios had to release a violent R-rated movie in order to score big at the box office are over. Only one of these was rated R although most of the rest were PG13.

Disappointments. Ocean's 13 made money but didn't live up to expectations. Audiences didn't want to see remakes of the first movie. Evan Almighty did even worse, not quite breaking $100 million. No surprise here since the original had a different cast and premise and was a chick-flick/date movie. Evan had a completely different cast (the star was a bit-player in the original) and premise. It was aimed at families and Christians. Sicko was probably the biggest disappointment. It only brought in $23 million and failed to make national health care the topic of the year.

Overlooked. Ratatoille might break $200 million but it made less than Cars which made less than The Incredibles which made less than Finding Nemo. Ratatoille deserves better. Stardust has only brought in around $27 million. It is much better than that - one of the best movies of the year.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


We finally had a chance to see Stardust this weekend. I would rate this as the summer's most overlooked movie and possibly its best (although I still rank Ratatouille pretty high).

The plot is complex. We have Tristan who is trying to win Victoria by fetching a fallen star for her. It turns out the fallen star fell in a magic kingdom where stars look like people, but with some unusual properties.

There is a trio of witches who want the star for some of these properties. There is also a quartet of princes (down from seven) who are fighting over who will inherit the kingdom.

The paths of all of these characters cross repeatedly.

The plot twists aren't that hard to see coming. I saw one of the biggest coming two hours before it happened. This doesn't matter. It's not the destination, it's the journey and this one is a lot of fun.

My prediction is that 20 years from now, this is the movie coming out in special collector's edition, not any of the big blockbusters of the Summer. This is the one that will attain cult status.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Best and Worst of Time on TVq

I saw a local newspaper column yesterday complain about this being TV's dead month. It may be if you limit yourself to network TV. Most of the good shows have been retired for the Summer and the replacements aren't any good.

Basic cable, on the other hand, is at its best. There's at least one good thing on every weeknight.

History Detectives. I'm cheating a bit here since this is PBS instead of cable. The show takes four experts from Antique Roadshow. Each of them investigates an item with an interesting story to see if the story is true.

Eureka. The adventures of a sheriff in a small town, but, unlike Mayberry, this in the smartest town in the country full of people doing top secret and dangerous work for the government. THings go wrong regularly and the sheriff has to figure out how to clean it up, often saving the town or the world in the process.

Mythbusters. Still going strong.

Who Wants to be a Superhero? The best reality/game show on TV. It's goofy enough to work as a parody of Survivor but the contestants are so likable you hate to see anyone eliminated (except the bald guy - you don't back-talk to Stan Lee).

Dr. Who. More fun than the original series (that one's tough) with great production values but still enough cheese to be enjoyable.
Flash Gordon. I missed the pilot so this one is still a question
Monk. The best detective show since Columbo. The show has been on the decline, concentrating more on putting Monk in uncomfortable situations than in having a real mystery.
Psych. The second best detective show since Columbo. A fake psychic and his buddy Gus solve crimes while pretending that the answers just come to them.

No wonder network TV is having trouble. They no longer have a monopoly on quality programming.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Who Wants To Be A Superhero?

The second season of Who Wants to be a Superhero started last week. The show is off to a good start. To me, this is the perfect reality show. The people are not in it for the money - there isn't any. They are not making alliances or practicing politics. Most important - they are being judged on their character.

One woman slipped and fell during a test. She was distraught. Later, Stan Lee singled her out for praise. Yes, she slipped, but she got right back up again.

This show is tricky. The tests are seldom what they seem and often they are not even announced.

At the same time, the whole show has a silliness to it that keeps it from getting grim. You just can't take most of these heroes seriously. Heck - one of them is dressed as a french maid.

Monday, July 23, 2007

RIP Birdman

The Cartoon Channel killed Birdman last night.

The character began in the 1960s when superheroes ruled Saturday morning. Space Ghost was Hanna-Barberra's first realistic superhero. He was a big success and the next year saw nothing but superheroes. Space Ghost was in the future so they flipped it and gave us Mightor, a caveman with a club that could project energy beams. There was Shazam, a genie who fought evil sorcerers; the Herculoids a group of super-powered animals who fought off invading aliens; Atom Ant, an insect-sized hero; the Incredibles, a super-powered rock band; Frankenstein Jr, a super-powered robot; the Galaxy Trio; Underdog; Mighty Mouse; and Birdman.

Unlike other heroes, Birdman used wings to fly. He was solar-powered, able to project energy beams and force fields. He received assignments from a James Bond-inspired character with a tuxedo and an eyepatch who went by the code name Falcon 7. Birdman also had an intelligent eagle helper and both a Birdboy and a Birdgirl.

None of these series lasted to the following year. They were all canceled after an outcry about violence on TV.

Years later Space Ghost reappeared as a talk show host. Two of his villains were with him, one as the musician and the other as the producer/director. The show was a hit and launched Cartoon Chanel's Adult Swim. Birdman popped up a couple of times as a down-on-his-luck hero who needed a job.

Years later Birdman got his own show. This time he was Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. He worked for Phil Ken Seben (Falcon 7). He handled cases for the rest of the Hanna-Barberra universe. Boo Boo Bear was arrested as the Unibooboo Bomber. Fred Flintstone was a mob boss. It was often (but not always) brilliant.

But all good things come to an end and they gave him a great send-off. First, because of a technicality, he had to re-try all of his cases at once. Then he had to revert to being a superhero to fight a major villain.

Then he got run over by a bus.

Good bye, Harvey. I'll miss you.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


Disney hyped the new Pixar release so hard that we were in no hurry to see Ratatouille so we waited until the 4th of July. In fact, we almost went to see Pirates again.

The quick take on Ratatouille is that Pixar has the animation Oscar in the bag. This is the best animated movie to come out in years - possibly the best since director Brad Bird's Incredibles.

You've seen the previews (if not the movie) so I don't have to say much about the premise. A gifted rat named Remy wants to cook. He joins forces with a low-level employee of Gusteau's, a formerly five star restaurant that now only has three stars.

The action scenes are amazing as is the animation. CGI has moved a long way past Toy Story. The movie captures the best of traditional animation and CGI.

While most of Pixar's movies have humans in some capacity, this is only Pixar's second movie to feature humans (and Brad Bird directed both). Hopefully this is will be a trend in the future. Too many CGI movies feature talking animals because it is easier.

One interesting conceit in Ratatouille, the rats can talk to themselves and understand humans but humans cannot understand rats. When humans are present, the movie uses rat sounds. Last year's Happy Feet did something similar.

Pixar's dedication to their art is impressive. They studied with real chefs and all of the food looks like what it is supposed to be. Watching the movie is guaranteed to make you hungry.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

PotC Inspirations

I was watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I was struck by the number of images from this movie that were repeated in last year's Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest. Both feature a ship that resembles a fish and can move beneath the ocean. Both Davy Jones and Nemo have a large organ in their cabin which they play for consolation. Both movies feature an attack by a giant squid. We even see the mouth of each.

Surprisingly, both movies have cannibals and a scene with the cannibals chasing the hero across a beach.

20,000 Leagues was a big Disney hit when it came out in 1954 and inspired one of the rides at Disneyland so it is not surprising that the writers worked some of it in.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Fantastic Four II

I finally had a chance to see Fantastic Four II, the Rise of the Silver Surfer. I was a bit disappointed. After thinking about it, I realized that the premise of the movie was problematic.

In the comic, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wanted to do something special for the 50th issue. They came up with the idea of someone who eats planets (Galactus). The way that they did the comic was to have a story conference where they came up with a general plot. Jack would come up with the detail plot and do the art. Stan would then add the dialog.

When Jack turned in the first of the three-part story it had an extra character. "Who's this?" Stan asked. "I figured that someone this powerful needed a herald," Jack answered. Stan named him the Silver Surfer.

The story started with the FF returning from the Inhuman's city. The sky suddenly filled with fire, causing mass panic. The fire disappeared and Reed locked himself in his lab. Next, the sky was filled with boulders. Sue burst in on Reed and found that he was with the Watcher, an advanced being whose purpose was to watch and record the development of the human race. The Watcher had caused the phenomena in order to hide the Earth from the Silver Surfer.

It didn't work. The Surfer threaded his way through the rocks, landed on the Baxter Building, and signaled Galactus. A moment later the Thing knocked him across town.

Galactus landed at the source of the signal and began setting up his planet-eating apparatus. The FF tried to stop him but they were like insects to him - he used cosmic ant spray on them.

In the meantime, the Surfer fell through Alicia's skylight. In a brief conversation, she awakened the Surfer's humanity and he left to challenge Galactus.

While this was going on, the Watcher sent the Torch to Galactus's home to retrieve the Ultimate Nullifier.

The Surfer lost but before Galactus could kill him, Reed threatened Galactus with the Nullifier. Appalled at the thought of such a weapon in the hands of a human, Galactus agreed to spare the Earth in exchange for the Nullifier. As he left, he imprisoned the Surfer on Earth.

When they adapted the movie, they decided to shift the focus. Galactus is more of a cameo than a major character. The movie is about the Surfer.

That meant that they had to pad the plot. What took around four pages in the comic had to be stretched out.

Spoilers ahead - you've been warned.

The Surfer caused a number of sink holes. This was never really explained. It was suggested that Galactus used them but they were really there as a plot device. They gave the Surfer something to do between his arrival and Galactus's.

The wedding didn't really add much, either. Again, it filled time.

Doom stealing the Surfer's powers was an ok plot point. It gave the FF a chance to bond with the Surfer and it was one of the few things in the movie that came from the comic.

I wanted to see an actual fight between the FF and the Surfer. The closest we got was the Torch chasing the Surfer. I thought that we would see a fight in London but instead we got a lame rescue.

I can see why they had the Torch fight Doom using all of their powers. It got around the problem of non-flying characters trying to keep up.

Things I didn't like:
  • Doom - his whole characterization.
  • Sue acting like an airhead over the wedding. In the first movie they tried to convince us that she has multiple degrees. Ha!
  • In the comics, Johny could be hot-headed but he was never a greedy jerk. I realize that they were setting up for him to redeem himself at the end but it didn't really work out.
  • I don't understand the General's treatment of Reed. They came to him then pushed him out. Doom did little except show a home-movie but he got access to the board.
  • Galactus as a god-like being is a lot more impressive than as a really big, hungry cloud.

Regardless, it was still better than the first movie. It is too bad that this series has been hampered by bad writing. In the 1960s, this was the premier comic book and one of the biggest influences on the industry since Superman. Now, my daughter's reaction is "It was kind of cheesy but I thought that's how the comic book is."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Hulk Vanish!

It's been a while since I said much about comic books so I'm going to talk a bit about the Hulk.

This character has probably gone through more re-inventions than any other. In the short run of his original comic book he started out as a cross between Frankenstein, the Wolfman (or maybe Dracula) and Mr. Hyde. At night he turned into something that looked a bit like Frankenstein's monster but had the personality of Hyde.

Because Marvel used a cheap printing process back then, the Hulk's gray didn't reproduce well so he was green by his second issue. THen he went from fairly smart but mean to nearly brainless and under the mental control of Rick Jones. Then he got Bruce Banner's intelligence and became almost a normal hero - something would happen and Banner would run to his gamma ray machine and turn into the Hulk. But something happened and the transformation stopped being reliable. And all of that was on only a half dozen or so issues.

Hulk moved into the back of Tales of Adventure as the back-up for Giant-Man (and later for the Sub Mariner). By this point he changed into a dumb Hulk when angry and changed back when he calmed down. This went on for a couple of years until Banner got shot in the head. Rick snatched the body and managed to trigger the change back to the Hulk. With a bullet in his brain, the Hulk had Banner's personality again but if he changed back he would die. A few months later the Leader dissolved the bullet but gave him such a high dosage of gamma rays that he was permanently the Hulk. Until a few years later when a radioactive pool turned him back into Banner.

Exposure to a radioactive missing link caused a one-time change to Banner with the Hulk's personality.

For the next several years it seemed like the Hulk had found his niche. He was a dumb but well-meaning guy with a bad temper and a liking for beans. Sometimes he changed back into Banner but it never lasted long. Also, the phrase "The madder the Hulk gets, the stronger he gets," became a major plot point. The Hulk could beat anyone if he got mad enough. In a cross-over, he knocked Superman into orbit. Something had to change.

One day, after a fight with an extra-terrestrial energy being and a trip back to Earth, Banner woke up in the Hulk's body. This was different than before. Usually when the Hulk had Banner's intellegence he still had a different personality. Not this time. He was pure Banner. Banner went back to inventing stuff.

It didn't last. In about a year the Hulk's personality was coming back and Banner withdrew completely. The Hulk became a mindless, savage beast. He was banished to a mystic crossroads int he hope that he could find a new home dimension that he liked.

None of this was well-written and the strip was turned over to John Byrne to jump start.  Byrne split them into two beings - a smart but crippled Banner and a savage but stronger-than-ever Hulk. Banner formed a group of Hulk-busters to hunt down and kill the Hulk. This didn't work out either and the strip was turned over to Peter David who had the longest and best run on the strip to date.

David started out with a clean slate. Banner and the Hulk had been broken apart and put back together. This appeared to cure Banner of being the Hulk but it turned out it only regressed him. He became the gray Hulk at night. For extra fun, Rick Jones turned into a green Hulk for a few issues.

The gray Hulk was smaller and weaker than the green version. He was also smart, or possibly "sly". He was no longer the strongest so he won some of his fights by outsmarting his opponent.

This phase was followed by banner becoming the gray Hulk full-time. Taking the name "Joe Fixit", the Hulk got a job working security for a Las Vegas casino.

Eventually Banner re-emerged and they went back to Banner by day/Hulk by night. Then the green Hulk showed up during the day. Dr. Sampson figured out that banner should be regarded as suffering from a multiple personality disorder with a different physical form for each personality. He managed to merge the personalities into a new being. This new Hulk had all of the green Hulk's strength, Banner's intellegence, and the gray Hulk's slyness. He joined up with a high-tech bunch of demi-gods. This lasted for a few years and is often regarded as the Hulk's best run.

Eventually the demi-gods were broken up and the Hulk went into hiding with his wife Betty. There were several more shorter story arcs before Betty was killed and Peter David left the book.

The Hulk broke back into four versions on a rotating basis. Plus Banner found out he was dying. Eventually he died but, like most Marvel deaths, it didn't take.

Marvel had just killed most of its non-mutant heroes (actually sent them to a pocket universe) then brought them back with a flurry of #1 issues. They decided to start the Hulk over with his own #1 issue and turned it over to John Byrne again. This only lasted a few months.

Apparently one goal at Marvel was to make the character more like the one in the movie (the movie that tanked). Bruce Banner was to be the lead with the Hulk acting as a supporting character. The storyline veered into a long spy plot. Banner was on the run. He had shaved his head as a disguise which proved that skinny white guys look bad with a shaved head. It didn't look good on the Hulk either although this was minor. We only saw the Hulk for a page or two per issue - maybe eight panels at most.

Then the Hulk totally vanished from his own book. Banner was shot with a long-term sedative that prevented him from getting mad enough to hulk-out. New characters were added, shot in the head, then returned months later to explain what had really happened. This went on for months.

Somewhere in this mess I realized that I didn't much care for Banner and I disliked the new supporting cast so I quit reading it.

Years later they resolved the plot, somehow - I don't care how. Peter David came back for three issues then they started the Planet Hulk story arc. The Hulk was sent to a different world because he is too dangerous to stay on Earth. He was supposed to got to a pleasant but unpopulated world but ended up on a desert world. At first he was a gladiator then he led a rebellion. It worked and I started reading the book again.

All good things come to an end. The new story arc - World War Hulk - is off to a terrible start. In the kick-off issue, the Hulk only appeared in one panel in a flashback. The rest of the book was about his cousin, the She-Hulk. Except Iron Man infected her with nanites so she was human except for a page and a half. This looks bad.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What does the opening weekend say about Pirates 3?

Here's a movie critic who finds justification in Pirate's opening weekend.

So when does $114 million lose an argument?
When its predecessor made $135 million in 229 fewer theaters.
We got our share of threes last month, didn't we? First Spider-Man 3, then Shrek the Third, then this thing. Each set a box office record. Spider-Man 3 set the weekend box office record ($151 million), Shrek the Third set the weekend box office record for animated features ($121 million) and Pirates 3 set the weekend box office record for Memorial Day ($153 million). Remove Thursday night's previews and Monday's numbers, however, and you get Pirates' dinkier $114 million total. I know: "dinkier."

Even so, when one of your franchise movies underperforms you have questions to answer.

Box Office Mojo attempted to answer some of them for Pirates 3 . They wrote, "Among major franchises, the norm is for the third movie to gross less than the second." (Except Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3, etc. etc.) The second movie, they wrote, "satiated" demand, and marketing made the third film look like "the same thing audiences experienced just ten months ago."

I.e., "2" performed too well and "3" wasn't marketed well enough. It had nothing to do with the quality of the product.

Here's my thought. Maybe it did have something to do with the quality of the product. Maybe quality matters, just a little. Just enough to not set box office records.

By the way: I'm not referring to the quality of Pirates 3. I'm referring to the quality of Pirates 2.
Before I go any further I will admit that Dead Man's Chest was not as good as Curse of the Black Pearl. That said, it does not account for the drop in box office between the two. Pirates 2 made a billion dollars worldwide. More than 100 million people paid to see it. You don't get numbers like that unless a movie has good word of mouth and a lot of repeat business.

So why didn't World's End do as well or better? There are several reasons that have little to do with relative quality.

First - last year was the year of the pirate. It seemed like every store and catalog had some sort of pirate-related merchandise. Most of it wasn't licensed. They just slapped a skull and crossbones (or crossed swords) on something. By the time Pirates 2 came out it was an event. Disney couldn't do that again so soon. It's been less than a year. The pirate boom is dying out and it is too soon for a new one.

Then there was timing. When Pirates 2 came out, its main competition was a disappointing Superman movie. Pirates 3 had to compete against two other successful franchises.

Then there is the problem of a holiday weekend. It throws off the traditional Friday-Sunday count. People are not as likely to go to movies on Memorial Day weekend.

Oh, and the Thursday night take does count. That's money that the movie would have brought in over the weekend otherwise.

Plus, Pirates 3 beat last year's X-Men 3 handily. That really argues against Lundegaard's point since X-Men 2 was better than X-Men 3.

What really counts is how much the movie brings in total, not what weekend it brings it in. Pirates 3 is approaching a half billion world-wide. It may be that it will not make as much as Dead Man's Chest, that Disney saturated the market by releasing the two too close together. It doesn't prove much overall.

The Children of Hurin

I finally got a copy of the Children of Hurin last week. This is the first new novel by J. R. R. Tolkien since the Lord of the Rings. That said, I want to be clear what this novel is and what it is not.

It is not a light happy work like the Hobbit. It isn't even a serious work like Lord of the Rings. It is high tragedy.

People who have already read the Silmarillion will be familiar with the story since it contains a shorter version. Tolkien's son Christopher wanted a version that is more approachable.

A little background:

The novel takes place thousands of years earlier than the Lord of the Rings during the war between the elves and Morgoth. Morgoth is sort of an evil god. He stole the Silmarils - three gems glowing with a godly light. They were made by the same elf who created the pallantirs in LOTR. The theft of the Silmarils triggered a long war between the elves who had journeyed to the undying lands of the west and Morgoth. Many of the elves returned from the west in pursuit of the gems. Most of the elf kingdoms mentioned are this group. There is also Thingol who rules Doriath along with his wife, Melian who is a maya - sort of a lesser god (Sauron, Gandolf, and the balrog are all maya). Doriath is protected by the Girdle of Melian which prevents anyone from entering the kingdom without permission.

Besides Doriath, the other two great elf kingdoms are Gondolin which is hidden in the mountains and Nargothrond which is hidden underground in the manned of a dwarf kingdom.

Shortly before the novel begins, the human Beren finds his way through the Girdle of Melian and falls in love with Luthien, the daughter of Thingol and Melian. In order to rid himself of Beren, Thingol gives him an impossible task - to bring one of the Silmarils. With much aid from Luthien and others, Beren eventually succeeds. He dies in the effort but is restored to life for a short time at the entreaty of Luthien. She becomes mortal and marries Beren, producing a daughter who is Elrond's grandmother.

The Children begins shortly after Beren and Luthien recover a Silmaril. This leads the elf kings to decide that it might be possible to defeat Morgoth after all. A great battle is held. Morgoth is triumphant and Hurin is taken prisoner. Morgoth tortures him by setting him in a chair where he can see all that takes place. Morgoth then curses Hurin's line.

Most of the book follows Hurin's son, Turin. Turin is sent to live in Doriath where he is welcomed as a kinsman of Beren. His pregnant mother has to stay behind in occupied territory and Turin eventually looses all contact with her. As with Anakin Skywalker, worry over his mother leads to bad things. Turin is always well-meaning and is a great warrior. His fatal flaw is that he constantly underestimates the power of Morgoth. Because of his prowess, he becomes a leader wherever he goes but he is at war with an enemy who cannot be defeated. Worse, Morgoth's curse brings about some tragic coincidences.

The book is full of heroic deeds and great sorrows. Despite the subject matter, it is a quick read. It is 313 pages but they are small with a large font plus there is an introduction and appendix.

People who are looking for another LoTR will be disappointed but anyone who wants to know more about Middle Earth history should enjoy the book.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The real influences on Star Wars

As part of the Star Wars 30th anniversary, the History Channel has been airing a special on Star Wars. Various politicians and celebrities talk about how George Lucas went back to mythic tradition in creating a new mythic structure. This is not new - Lucas has been saying this for years. The thing is, it isn't really true.

I don't argue that many of the themes in Star Wars can be found in myth. My point is that these mythic structures are common to an entire class of literature. I think that Lucas simply drew on the literature of the day and later tried to elevate his movies by pointing out mythic elements.

Lucas himself used to point to other influences, ones that are no longer mentioned. The biggest of these was the Saturday morning serials. Lucas wanted to recreate the serials with high production values. We need look no further than the first few seconds of the original movie to see the influence. The narration scrolling past is straight from the serials. This is also where the structure of the movies comes from. Each of the six movies is divided into three "chapters".

The other acknowledged influence was Japanese culture, especially the films of Akira Kurosawa. The Droids were probably inspired by two supporting characters in The Hidden Fortress.

As for Lucas's other inspirations, most of these came from the paperback racks of any 1960s and 1970s bookstore. The most common plot in science fiction novels at the time had a young man, either through knowledge or heredity, suddenly taken from his boring life. After spending some time with a mentor, he went out to save the world. Along the way he won the love of a woman who would normally be hopelessly above him. Lucas simply gave his own spin on the details and we have the original Star Wars.

Note that there was a radical shift in the characters between the first two movies. In the original, there was clearly a mutual attraction between Luke and Leia. By the second movie Lukas and his writers had redefined the relationship between Luke, Leia, and Vader. To keep things from being creepy, Leia treated Luke as a brother (how about that) and only showed romantic affection for Han.

In the second movie we see more of the Japanese influence. In most Japanese stories, a young man would train to be a samurai by studying under a master. The master would be an old hermit. He might not even be recognized as a master at first. The training was different than we would expect. The student was taught to be a samurai through everyday activities. The movie the Karate Kid is also based on this tradition. In it, the kid learns basic moves by waxing a car and painting a fence.

Lucas made the old hermit into a shrunken muppet. In keeping with the Japanese tradition, we see Luke running through the swamp with Yoda on his back and doing other physical activities but we never see him taught to use the lightsaber.

The big twist in The Empire Strikes Back is Vader's real relationship with Luke. This one is a slight stretch, but a possible influence for that was the master of adventure, Rafael Sabatini. Sabatini wrote dozens of adventure novels, many of them best sellers. The best of these were reprinted and widely distributed in the 1970s. Sabatini pretty much invented swashbuckling adventure and some of his best novels revolved around a hero who finds out at the last chapter that his nemesis is actually his father. It is unlikely that neither Lukas nor Leigh Brackett (who wrote Empire) had never read Sabatini.

For Return of the Jedi, I can find a couple of likely influences. One is Alan Dean Foster. A prominent science fiction writer at the time, he wrote the first authorized Star Wars novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Foster had a recurring theme in his novels - primitive natives overpowering high-tech invaders. The fight between the Storm Troops and the Ewoks was classic Foster.

In a bit of irony, Lucas was his inspiration for Jedi. In the novel (written by Lucas from his screenplay) it was clear that the X-Wing fighters were actually flying through the Death Star. The special effects people at ILM were unable to figure out how to do this so it was changed to an equatorial trench in the movie. By the third movie, Lucas had the budget and technology to go back and redo the fight the way he originally envisioned it. Thus, Jedi featured a battle to eliminate a second Death Star and this time they flew right through it.

So, where does this leave us? I think it is clear that Lucas was adapting genres of popular fiction rather than drawing from myth. As far as the end product goes, it doesn't matter. Prior to Star Wars, no one had done a good job of putting science fiction on the screen in an approachable form.

Just don't try to find deep insight in it.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Thirty Years of the Force

Star Wars turned 30 this weekend.

Wired's Luddite saw it for the first time recently and didn't like it. It is impossible for me to judge the original movie, I've seen it too many times. I know that at the time I loved it as did the rest of the world. The Luddite's reaction is not uncommon for people who did not see it when it was new. This is partly a measure of its success.

Here's a list of everything released in 1977. There are several memorable films. Anne Hall won best picture and influenced fashion for years. Close Encounters cemented Speilberg's reputation as a populist director. Still, Star Wars is the one remembered thirty years later.

I will admit that some of the dialog is bad. We could forgive it then because people expected bad dialog in science fiction movies. The fact that we expect more from science fiction now is part of Star Wars' success.

If you look over the list of movie from the 1970s, you find a few things:

  1. Most science fiction was poorly done. The movies were slow and unapproachable.
  2. Special effects were poor.
  3. Action movies in general were at a low point. Most featured a single anti-hero and a lot of car chased. Examples are Smokey and the Bandit and The Gauntlet.

Star Wars was a throw-back to a style of adventure movie that vanished in the 1960s - a clearly defined fight between good and evil with a lot of action thrown in. To this classic formula it added a level of special effects never seen before.

Star Wars made a lot of money. Studios noticed and tried to copy it. Most attempts in the 1970s and early 1980s flopped. There is a lot more to making a good adventure movie than special effects.

Eventually a new generation of directors figured it out. The current blockbusters, movies like Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean exist because of this.

That's why it is so hard to judge the original Star War now. It no longer stands out. It redefined the adventure movie but many of its successors hold up better.

But, how many of them will be noticed when they turn 30?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Third Time's the Charm

After the disappointing Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third, I was worried about Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I shouldn't have worried. It was much better than Pirates 2.

There is a good reason for this. Spider-Man and Shrek were made as individual movies. The writers and director threw everything they had into the sequel without worrying about holding back for a third movie. Pirates 2 and 3 were made as a package.

The original Pirates had a strong back-story even if it was only hinted at. By the end of the movie, there was no back-story left to draw on. The solution was to use the second movie to create a new back-story to be resolved in the third movie.

The result was that the second Pirates felt light-weight. Plot was replaced with complicated fights and set-pieces. Also, Jack's character never seemed quite right. Depp went through all the right motions but it just didn't quite take. I think that the problem was that we always knew Jack's motivations. He was betraying everyone in an effort to save himself from Davey Jones. This is in contrast to the first movie where he always seemed to be trying to do right by Will and Elizabeth, as long as he ended up with the Black Pearl.

Jack is back to normal in the third movie. Of course, for him normal means off-kilter. At minimum he is occasionally delusional but he is still functional. As in the first movie, he is helping Will and Elizabeth, even if he has ulterior motives.

I'm not sure if this is as good as the original Pirates. I'll probably have to see it again to decide. It is slower at spots and much darker. The body count in the first few minutes is higher than the first two movies added together. Some principals die, also.

By the end of the movie things have been wrapped up pretty well. Depp has allowed as how he would be interested in doing a fourth movie although it will have to be without Knightly or Bloom. Both of them have other projects. That's ok. Will and Elizabeth may have been integral to the trilogy but it wouldn't be a Pirates movie without Jack.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Heroes wrapped up their first season last night with a strong ending. I've been watching it since the beginning and I saw many of the episodes again over the weekend during a marathon on the Sci-Fi channel.

It actually had a shaky start. The people they focused on were not all that pleasant. We had a loser cop who started reading minds, a cab-driver from India who was trying to figure out what happened to his father, a cheerleader who kept trying to kill herself and failing, a junky who painted the future, and an internet stripper with a second personality who tore people apart. There was a lot of blood - especially after they did an autopsy on the cheerleader. The only bright spot in those early episodes was a Japanese office worker who managed to stop a clock for a second.

The show improved a lot. By the second episode we had an idea of what the show (or at least the season) would be about - stopping New York from blowing up.

Other things improved. The gore level dropped. The scary guy in the horn rim glasses warmed. The cheerleader stopped trying to hurt herself. People met each other. Coincidences abounded. Through it all, the Japanese office worker, Hiro, remained the center of the show. He was the one who knew that there was a mission - save the cheerleader, save the world.

After the Christmas break the show shifted into high gear. Some of the less sympathetic characters either moved into the background or became more likable. The cheerleader was saved but we didn't know if the world could be saved.

Interestingly, they dropped a clue that the future could be changed in the second and third episode. In the second episode, Hiro called his friend Ando who said that he had disappeared weeks ago. But Ando accompanied Hiro on his quest starting with the third episode. The future had already been changed.

By the end, the writers were juggling nearly every character as they converged on the Kirby Building (named for Jack Kirby, the creator of the Fantastic Four and other?). Each of them had different motivations and they switched groupings several times. The whole thing was carried off quite well. They even worked in that serial-killer Sylar came to the plaza to stop Peter from blowing up, not to blow up the city himself.

They also left plenty of plotlines dangling for next season. Sylar survived, we now know that there is someone worse than he is out there, and Hiro is in the 17th century.

As endings go, it makes burning a raft or imploding a hatch seem second-rate.