Friday, December 12, 2014

7 Quick Takes vol. 47

Hosted by This Ain't the Lyceum

1. Since I'm tired and cranky, this week's 7 Quick Takes are going to be even quicker than normal, consisting mostly of wry comments that have occurred to me over the week and which I subsequently wrote down.

2. I hate those vocal phone menus. You know the thing: Creepily Cheerful Computer Voice: "Hello! Welcom to ATT! Please state what you are calling about...I'm sorry. I did not understand that. Please state what you are calling about."
Apparently, the idea is "Let's make sure the caller is as irritated and angry as possible before we let him talk with our staff."

3. Mulicultural demonstrations (i.e. those stupid 'long list of holidays' greetings) only say that you personally couldn't care less about any of these religions and would prefer if no one else did either. It's vapidity with a smile.

4. Nowadays when someone identifies as a 'non-conformist' they usually mean "I would have been a non-conformist if I had lived four or five decades ago."

5. Ever hear the injunction "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"? I suppose that after you've done that, you'd logically then have to comfort the afflicted who used to be comfortable and afflict the comfortable who used to be afflicted. It seems to me we could skip a step.

6. Since everyone's commenting on the new Star Wars trailer, here's my summary: The girl on the awkward speeder-thing is really cute, I think that 'cross-beam lightsaber' is cool (lightsabers were never a practical weapon, people; just roll with it), and whatever else it can't possibly be worse than the prequels. In sum, looks like it could be good.
       Aside: is it weird that I now think of Mark Hamill primarily as the voice of the Joker rather than as Luke Skywalker? As in "Oh, yeah; the guy who voiced the Joker was also in Star Wars."

7.  Quote of the Week:
(the other characters are rebuking Lee for resorting to violence)
Bill: “I see your point, but may I remind you that I’M BRUCE F***ING LEE!?”
-Rifftrax: Fists of Fury

Thursday, December 11, 2014

TCM Remembers

I always love TCM's in memoriam films, and this year's especially good.

Lots of great performers passed this year.

Friday, December 5, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 46

1.     Whew! Lot happened in the last couple weeks. Went down to Florida with the family to attend a friend’s wedding. It was a very long trip, but a lot of fun (the drive was broken up by visits to my aunt in Atlanta), and the first time my immediate family has all been together in the same place for several years. Also, my 3 year old niece completely dominated the dance floor at the reception and didn’t quit until sometime after I’d gone to bed (I’m not really the dancing type). She needed a couple days to recover from her several hours of non-stop dancing (no, seriously; that’s not an exaggeration).

2.     For the ride home I brought my audio copy of Hard Magic to listen to in the car. My parents seem to have enjoyed it, though perhaps not as much as I’d hoped they would. My mom in particular was a little put off by the violence and language (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was actually the less gory of the two series I’ve read by Correia. Guy likes his blood). But on the whole, it was a success.

3.     On the subject of violence, the gore in Correia’s books always struck me as being less disturbing than the violence in, say, the Odd Thomas series. There’s more of it, but it’s played with a lighter touch so I don’t find it as cringe-inducing. Maybe it’s because of the surrounding context (pulpy adventure story vs. spiritually-aware horror-comedy), or because there’s kind of a boyishly gleeful tone in Correia that would be inappropriate in Koontz. Cheerfully over-the-top is more palatable than deliberately horrifying, even when the former has more actual violence than the latter (see also: Evil Dead 2). So, a gun-fight involving dozens of people who then turn into horrifically shambling zombies is less stomach-churning than killing two or three people. It all depends on what tone you’re aiming for.

4.     Well, I did it; I made 52,000 words before the end of November. Go me! The book is still nowhere near finished, unfortunately (I’m a little hazy on how the whole middle section should play out), but at least I made the word count. My plan is to work on it some more this weekend and then maybe start posting either next Friday or the following one. If nothing else, that should motivate me to keep working at it.

5.     Last night was Rifftrax Live: Santa Claus. Santa Claus is a Mexican Christmas film that they’d previously riffed on MST3k (though using a heavily-edited copy). It tells the story of how Santa delivers presents to all the good boys and girls of the world (read: maybe four or five houses in Mexico City) while engaging in a battle of wits with Lucifer’s right-hand devil, Pitch, who intends to foil Santa’s gift-giving so that he (Pitch) can rule the world. Santa is aided by the magical items given him by Merlin the wizard and the god Vulcan and by the quick-thinking of his young second-in-command, Pedro, who monitors his journey from Santa’s crystal palace floating in space above the North Pole. Meanwhile, poor little Lupita desperately wants a doll of her very own and engages in a struggle for her soul against the temptations of Pitch, who tries to get her to steal a doll instead of waiting for Santa to bring her one.
I did not make any of that up; it’s all actually in the film. And I didn’t even mention the three bad little boys who plot to kidnap Santa and make him their slave, or the fact that Santa’s sleigh and reindeer is a giant wind-up toy that laughs evilly when he starts it, or that instead of elves Santa employs children representing a dozen different nationalities to labor in his sweatshop, or the nightmare sequence involving giant, dancing, two-faced dolls, or…well, you get the idea. The movie is ridiculously bizarre, and would be pretty hilarious even without Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but they pretty much knocked the riffing out of the park. The sequence of Santa taking off had me gasping. Then there was “Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Paradise Lost” and “Did Daddy really expect to find work at 4 AM on Christmas morning?” and “Meanwhile, the other demons are causing a terrible famine in Africa.” So, yeah; it was a painfully hilarious experience.

6.     A Thought: There has been, to my knowledge, one non-isolated society in history (Okinawa) that voluntarily disarmed. The result was first that it was annexed by two empires at the same time and second that it developed one of the most effective styles of hand-to-hand combat in history.
                  The moral: If you beat your sword in a ploughshare, sooner or later you’ll have to learn to fight with plowshares. 

7.     Concluding Quote:
(as the main character explains how all the information he’s telling the audience can be found at the library)
Mike: “Most of these shorts should just be titled ‘Go Get a Book.’”
-Rifftrax: Get that Job

Friday, November 21, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 45

Today hosted by This Ain't the Lyceum

1.     The fact that most friend and family blogs have been all-but silent lately has made me feel better about my own lack of blogging discipline. Alas; my friend E.G. Norton (a very intelligent and talented writer whom you should totally check out) has zombified her blog and started writing again, which means I can’t hide behind peer pressure any longer. Okay, that actually had nothing to do with my actually having posts lately, but it was a chance to give her a shout-out.

2.     Anyway, I’m feeling much better this week than I was last week. This may not be unrelated to the fact that I’ve started a 54 day Rosary novena. It’s really wonderful how that soothes the soul and calms the mind.

3.     This week I watched The Tale of Despereaux on Netflix. It was really surprisingly bad. I love the premise, and there are a lot of good ideas in it, but the script kind of sucks: the story doesn’t flow well, key character decisions have no discernable motivation, relationships are given no real weight or set-up, some characters show up, have no impact on the story whatsoever, and then drop out, and the timeline of the climax makes no sense: one series of events seems to take, at most, a couple minutes, while a parallel series must take more like a half hour at minimum. And then there’s the fact that the titular hero really has very little impact on his own story: most of the plot is moved along by the rat, Roscuro, who is both a more active and more engaging character (and probably has more screen time).  A more accurate title would have been The Tale of Roscuro, in which Despereaux Played Some  Part that we Haven’t Quite Figured Out Yet. It’s sad, because I really wanted to like the movie and expected to like it: a swashbuckling mouse who strives to live the ideals of chivalry is a really great idea! It was the execution that fell almost completely flat. It made me interested in reading the book, because I can’t imagine the book was this heavily flawed.
Final Rating: 2/5 (and believe me, that hurts me more than you).

4.     Writing away at my Nanowrimo book: I’m up to 32,000+ words now, and am making plans to spend an unhealthy amount of time writing this weekend. The trouble is, I’ve still got one or two major plot hurdles to get over before the end, which I haven’t quite come up with a strategy for. Basically…well, I need to have my hero learn something that I’m specifically setting up that no one could possibly know, and give him a reason to do something of which there is no immediately apparent need, and which will lead to complications, but not make it look like the hero’s fault. Okay, never mind all that. The point is, it’s moving fairly well.

5.     Earlier this week I was reading an article discussing the works of H.P. Lovecraft and, well, my brain started working (as it sometimes does) on the composition of the name and produced a whole series of ‘Lovecraft’ jokes. My favorite of which ended up on my Facebook page today:

Blizzard Entertainment presents "World of Lovecraft."
Most unfortunately, it has nothing to do with either the author or his works.
It's also been banned in 32 different countries.
6.     It’s about this point that I start to run out of 7 Quick Take ideas. I’m a fairly private person, so I discard most potential subjects about my own life. That, and most of the time I don’t really have much to say about them. But saying that has gotten me to my ending quote! So hah!

7.     Quote of the Week:
“All human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘Wait and Hope’”
-Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

/Craft -> Love

P.S. I apologize to anyone coming here from This Ain't the Lyceum who saw the 'Crafting Love' subtitle and expected something heartwarming. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cinderella is Coming

                  Last night I found the first trailer for Disney’s new adaptation of Cinderella. Okay, it’s actually a live-action adaptation of their animated adaptation of Cinderella (because that worked out so well with 101 Dalmatians, but I digress). And it was less a trailer and more “Cinderella: the two-minute version,” in that it was basically a complete summary of the whole story. Though on the other hand it’s not like you can really have spoilers for a tale everyone knows.
                  Anyway, the point is that for the first time in a good long while, it looks like we’re getting an honest to goodness fairy tale on the big screen! Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’ve seen one of those since Brave in 2012, which I believe was the first since Tangled in 2010 (and no, Frozen doesn’t count since, whatever else may be said in its favor, it is not a fairy tale). To me, that in itself is enough to peak my interest, as I love fairy tales and am sick unto death of revisionist crap like, say, Maleficent, (“Surely they’re not going to try to turn f***ing Maleficent into a heroine are they? Are they?! Oh, my God, they ARE!”).
The emphasis they seem to be placing on Cinderella’s ‘goodness’ is especially exciting, since that seems to me an element of the story that all-too often gets downplayed in adaptations. Obviously, we know she’s secretly beautiful, but it’s much more important that she’s also extremely kind; the moral being that goodness, even when hidden by ill-fortune and the cruelty of others, will eventually be discovered and appreciated (like most European fairy tales, it’s a very Christian story).
                  Oh, and though I am vaguely amused at the fact that she seems to be in everything these days, I have to say that casting Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother was an inspired choice.

                  So, there you have it; baring news that they’ve gratuitously screwed it up somehow (i.e. “The prince is actually a cad, and Cinderella falls in love with the lady-in-waiting!”), I think this is going on my ‘will see’ list. Hopefully, this will herald the coming of more ‘straight’ fairy tale adaptations and fewer ‘twice-told tales’ (I keep imagining a version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the boy who sees through the farce is the narrow-minded villain trying to squelch the emperor’s efforts to get in touch with his inner nudist. Then at the climax the whole town shows up naked in solidarity and the boy, reimagined as the minister or something, is shamed into exile). 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Small Gems: Treasure Planet

Note: I call this film a ‘small gem’ because it’s relatively obscure, older, or just doesn’t seem to warrant a full review, but which I nonetheless found interesting or impressive enough to talk about.

                The other day, purely out of curiosity and a few haltingly promising reports, I watched Disney’s mega-flop Treasure Planet. It was really rather shockingly good. I mean, I wouldn’t call it one of the top ten Disney animated films of all time, but it’s a solid story, an actually pretty faithful adaptation of Stevenson’s book, and boasts some of the most spectacular animation of any Disney film that I can remember.
                The set up is more or less the same as the book: ambitious young Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given a treasure map by dying pirate Billy Bones (Patrick McGoohan in his final performance before his death), which he uses to charter a ship to seek the treasure of the legendary Captain Flint. During the voyage, he has a job as a cabin boy under the watchful eye of the ship’s cook, Mr. Silver (Brian Murray), with whom he strikes up an unexpected friendship, despite the fact that Bones had warned him to beware of a man exactly matching Silver’s description. Little does he know, however, that Silver is in fact a pirate, as is most of the crew, and that he is planning to lead a mutiny to take the treasure for himself.
                The twist, though, is that the action has been reset from the 18th century to the far future, and instead of wooden ships and iron men, you have galleys that sail among the stars and a whole galaxy worth of aliens serving as the crew (Jim and his mother are the only straight-up humans we meet). Whereas in the book Silver was a one-legged man, here he’s a cyborg with mechanical arm, leg, and eye. Instead of his talking parrot, Captain Flint (named for the legendary pirate), he has a shape-shifting little blob called Morph (“from Proteus 3:” nice reference). And where the book featured a journey to a mysterious island, the film is a trip to a strange planet where Flint has stashed “the loot of a thousand worlds.”
                The result of this clash of past and future is a breathtaking, almost surreal exercise in style and imagination. There isn’t the slightest effort at scientific accuracy, and that’s for the best because then we wouldn’t have had the image of 18th century sailing ships drifting among the stars or riding a long-boat into the tail of a comet like it was a restless sea, or the ship weathering a supernova and black hole at the same time (I think the very existence of that scene probably made Stephen Hawking cry, but it was totally worth it). The film doesn’t even bother to address the question of how anyone is breathing in space. Accuracy isn’t the point; style is, and the film delivers that in spades. It’s a triumph of visual imagination set free from any constraints or concerns about possibility.
Not only that, but the animation is unlike any I’ve seen before or since: a combination of computer and hand-drawn animation that allows for startling camera-movements and intricate detail that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Early on there’s a moment where the characters run up the stairs and through a door, and the camera follows them through the space and you suddenly realize that that scene would have been impossible with traditional animation. It’s a small taste of things to come.
                Really, the film is worth seeing just for the visuals. But how about the story? Surprisingly enough, they get it pretty much exactly right. Even as they soften it slightly (particularly Silver’s character) and render it a bit more topically specific, they still manage to convey the two key things that made the book a classic: namely, the unabashed adventurism and the complex relationship between Jim and Silver.
                It’s the latter that gives the story its heart. Here Silver becomes a kind of surrogate father to Jim, whose own father had abandoned him and his mother years before (the film is rather startlingly blunt about this point, and the subsequent negative effect it had on Jim’s maturity). This, of course, will make things complicated for both of them when Silver leads his mutiny.
                In the meantime, though, Silver sets about teaching Jim to be a man: making him learn responsibility and hard work, pricking his ego, passing on knowledge, and building him up where he needs it. It’s a really lovely relationship, and the film takes the time to let it grow and mature, so that when the betrayal comes, we feel it all the more and are genuinely interested in how each character will react.
                I was a little surprised to find how well the film follows the book, up to including classic scenes like Jim overhearing Silver’s plans while hiding in the apple barrel, the siege between the mutineers and the loyal crew that ends unexpectedly, and Jim’s lethal confrontation with an especially nasty one of the pirates (though, this being a Disney animated feature, Jim does not, alas, ‘blow his brains out’). Of course, the apples in this case are some bizarre purple substance, the siege involves laser weaponry, and the nasty pirate is a spider-crab-type deal.
                One of the marks of a faithful adaptation, I think, is that you can trace how certain elements were changed for the new medium: thus doomed first-mate Mr. Arrow (a dissipated drunk in the book) is here changed to a stalwart type to better emphasize the evil character of the pirates, the captain has been turned female (and feline) to lend a bit more diversity to the cast (and though I generally find this sort of thing annoying, I think it works out very well here, largely thanks to Emma Thompson’s excellent voice work), and an action-packed climax has been added, putting Jim in center stage. All this is a way of saying that you can see them following the book and making adjustments as they go along, rather than simply taking ideas or situations piecemeal as many Disney adaptations do. As a matter of fact, an argument could be made that this is Disney’s most faithful animated adaptation ever (oddly enough). I would have to check on that, but none of the others spring immediately to mind as a serious contender for the title. The mere fact that you can see how it follows the storyline of the book puts it in very narrow company (this isn’t necessarily a criticism of other Disney films, by the way, but it must be admitted that, for better or for worse, they tend to play very fast and loose with source material).
In a way, it reminds me of The Great Mouse Detective, in that it serves as a crackling good adaptation precisely by being an oblique adaptation (for Great Mouse Detective it was the Sherlock Holmes mythos, through the intervening medium of a series of children’s books): that is, an adaptation that takes the core structure of the story, but changes some key factor. Here it’s the setting: the high seas in the age of piracy become the heavens in the far future. This actually can be a very helpful tool: it allows the creators to exercise their imagination in transplanting the tale rather than altering it. ‘Straight’ adaptations sometimes fall flat by either being route and unimaginative, or by adding so many interpretive spins and additions that they break the story. Here, by simply moving Treasure Island into space, the filmmakers are able to exercise their creativity to the full while still allowing Stevenson’s classic to shine through.  
                There are, of course, drawbacks. Some things aren’t really established properly, such as why Jim is assigned duty as cabin boy when he’s one of the men who chartered the expedition in the first place. Though I enjoy ‘cute imitation’ humor probably more than most, I must admit that Morph feels oddly out of place, design wise: he’s too cute and, well, cartoonish (shades of the snowman from Frozen). The book’s character of Ben Gunn, the half-mad marooned sailor Jim meets on the island, has been translated into BEN; a damaged robot left behind on the planet. Like the book’s Ben, BEN has been driven near-mad by isolation, which in his case translates to erratic, loud behavior and a fondness for giving out hugs. Personally, I thought he was pretty funny, but judging by other reviews most people find him almost unbearably annoying. Let’s call it your mileage may vary.
                One thing I especially appreciated was that the film allowed the male characters to be actually heroic and, well, masculine. Yes, yes, I know the tradition is to praise films where the female characters are allowed to be heroic, but let’s face it; that’s all-but a given these days. Much less common is a movie where the men are allowed to actually act like men. That is, we expect our young hero to save the day, but we don’t necessarily expect him to make tough moral choices or learn the value of hard work. We expect badassery from the super-competent cat-like captain voiced by Emma Thompson, but we don’t expect cool-headed heroism from the comic-relief dog-faced doctor voiced by David Hyde Pierce. We expect our main antagonist to have way-cool weaponry and the ability to cow a spider-crab monster into submission, but we don’t really expect him to be a source of simple virtue and common wisdom.
                So, in the end, I’m not saying Treasure Planet is a great film, like Beauty and the Beast or Sleeping Beauty. But it’s a good one; on a par with The Great Mouse Detective or Lilo and Stitch: one of that small, motley crew of off-beat, inventive, non-formula films that showed Disney trying its wings, stretching its muscles, and attempting to do something different with its animated features. Give it a try!
Final Rating: 4/5

Friday, November 14, 2014

7 Quick Takes Vol. 44

1.     This was a pretty rough week for me. Amplifying my usual ‘moods’ was the fact that our beloved family dog, Smuckers, took a turn for the worse over the weekend and finally departed this life on Tuesday evening at the age of 14. The knowledge of what was coming, and the shadow of that loss has pretty much hung over me all week, making every individual frustration and depression that much worse. I’m feeling a bit better now, now that it’s over, but still sad.

2.     To take my mind off my depression, I’ve been writing like a fool. Unfortunately, I only just realized that I’m a little behind schedule: the halfway point of the 15th is tomorrow, and I’m just shy of 19,000 words, while I should be topping 25,000 by tomorrow night. I’ll have to put in some extra effort to make up the deficit. In any case, I’m enjoying the effort of writing this story very much and am pretty pleased at how it’s coming along so far.

3.     I had a good deal of amusement this week over what might just be the single stupidest example of the “secret history of Jesus and Mary Magdalene” trope I’ve ever seen (by the way, why is it always her? It’s not like there aren’t any other female disciples to choose from). Supposedly, researchers in the British Museum discovered an ancient document that tells how Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had two children, thus (how do they always put it?) “raising intriguing questions about the all-male priesthood” and “adding to our knowledge of a more authentic form of Christianity.”
                  So, what is this document? Well, it’s written in code, you see. Jesus is called ‘Joseph,’ and Mary is called ‘Asenath.’ Yes, just like the Old Testament figures, Joseph son of Jacob and his briefly-mentioned wife, Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Yes, on the surface it seems like it’s just a pious retelling of the story in Genesis, describing how Asenath converted to belief in the one true God, thus making her a fitting spouse for one of the great patriarchs of the Bible, and yes, that’s how everyone who has ever read it in the past century and a half that it has been published and available to the public has understood it, but obviously it’s really a secret history about Jesus and Mary encoded to shield the authors from the wrath of the all-powerful Church of the first and second centuries, and we know that because…
Because shut up, that’s why!

4.     Whenever one of those “the Hidden Truth of Christianity” things pop up, I’m reminded of this issue of Hark! A Vagrant (which is very funny and often very clever, for those interested):

5.     So, I saw Big Hero Six last weekend and liked it a good deal. I’d rank it below both Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, but it was much better than Frozen. I think I’m going to have to go see it again, because it wasn’t quite what I was expecting and I have the feeling I’ll enjoy it even more on a second viewing (rather like my reaction to Brave). Flaw-wise, my main problem was that the four friends were underdeveloped and didn’t really have much to do in the story; I think the film could have stood to be maybe ten or fifteen minutes longer just to flesh them out a bit. I felt rather like I was watching one episode of an ensemble TV show (i.e. Teen Titans), where one select individual or pair out of the group is the focus of this story, because you know they’ll have time to develop the others in subsequent episodes. I really hope there’s a sequel that delves more into the supporting cast. On the other hand, they do a good job of sketching the characters in shorthand and the six heroes really do come off as close and loyal friends who have each other’s backs and are intimately familiar with each other’s quirks. Most importantly, the central relationship between Hiro and the robot Baymax was well-developed, touching, and really made the film. Plus, Baymax is probably the funniest and most endearing sidekick in recent memory. The story is tight and flows well, and the theme is clear, honest, and well-realized, giving the movie a solid moral core. It’s funny, sweet, has an immensely likeable cast of heroes, and is just a whole lot of fun. My rating: 4/5. 

6.     You know, I complain about my job fairly often (probably more often than I should), but I do want to make it clear that the job isn’t really the problem. In fact, this is probably the best job of its type that I could hope for: people are decent to work with, boss is decent, I mostly get left alone and no micromanaged, times flexible, etc. The problem is that I am not a good person to do this job. I have a natural resentment to being forced to take an interest in things I don’t care about, and I can’t think of anything this company does that interests me in the slightest, let alone the things I’m obliged to handle. Add to that…well, put it this way; have you ever had one of those old, crappy computers where sometimes when you click on something the computer just sits there, and you’re not sure whether it’s processing the command, didn’t register the command, or has frozen solid and will need to be restarted? A large chunk of my job basically feels like that.

7.     And our traditional end quote:
(on a ‘sawing the woman in half’ trick)
Alfred Hitchcock: “All I can say is that the saw worked perfectly, but the wand didn’t.”
-Alfred Hitchcock Presents