Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Friday, December 26, 2008

But suppose you really WANTED to see a holiday movie ...

Short-attention-span synopsis: Best film of the holiday season.

Marley & Me (PG, 2:00) — 9

I felt bad having to deliver the news about what a poor crop of SF&F films you have to pick from this holiday season, so let me make it up to you by giving a totally unqualified recommendation for Marley & Me! It's not science fiction. Heck, it's barely fiction at all, since it's drawn from the real-life experiences of newspaper columnist John Grogan, his wife Jen, their kids, and their yellow labrador retriever, Marley, "the worst dog in the world".

I do some database work for the Wisconsin Academy of Graduate Service Dogs, and I have to say that Marley would have washed out of the academy in 15 minutes. He'd be a terrible service dog, but he makes a wonderful friend.

This film is utterly realistic. It never strikes a forced or false note. There are lots of laffs, but they all arise organically out of real life. John and Jen are good, decent people (like virtually all Americans), and they behave naturally, without any visible "acting". It's a little slice of Americana. If a big-budget spectacular like Benjamin Button had been able to muster a quarter of the heart of this modest film, they'd already be rolling Oscar's red carpet up to its front door.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Movies: Xmas Trio

Rating scale: 9 (superlative) to 1 (execrable)
Short story: 9-7, recommended; 6-4, up to you; 3-1, eschew
Ratings intended for: adult SF&F fans

Short-attention-span synopsis: Nothing on the must-see list.

Horrifying self-realization: Heinlein help me, I went to see a Major Motion Picture Event and a Happy Madison Production on the same day, and I'm giving them both the same rating.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (PG-13, 2:47) — 6

This is the MMPE. You can tell because it's nearly 3 hours long, is based on Akshwul Litrachoor (F. Scott Fitzgerald's novella), and stars someone (Mr. Pitt) who is among the dozen people known only by 1st name at supermarket checkout counters everywhere. It's ostensibly about a man who, for no explicable reason, grows older mentally and experientially at the same pace as everyone else while growing younger (from about 70ish) physically. The amazing thing about this is that it's so unamazing. Pitt plays his role in the lowest of keys. For such an unusual person, Benjamin leads a pretty dull and ordinary life. The center of that life, and of the film, is when his middle age overlaps with that of Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and they have upwards of a decade of happiness living together before fate draws them apart again. Huge props to the film for originality and creating a tremendous sense of time and place from 1919 to 2005, but really, nothing in it reached right out and grabbed me. This has not stopped it from being touted for multiple Oscars, so I'm probably in the minority here, but I can't in good conscience tell you "Ya gotta go see it!".

Bedtime Stories (PG, 1:39) — 6

This is the HMP. For those who have been striving heroically to forget ever knowing this, Happy Madison is the production company behind Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison. Yes, it's Adam Sandler's corporate tool for inflicting his obnoxious self on the innocent movie-going public. It is saved from the utter dreadfulness that is Sandler's invariant screen persona (here named Skeeter Bronson, hotel handyman by day and baby-sitting uncle by night) because it also features Keri Russell as Jill Hastings (day-shift baby-sitter), and she cancels him out. (Anyone who's ever seen either of these actors will realize how far out on the opposite end of the charisma seesaw this puts the other.) The rest of the film therefore gets to stand on its own merits, and it's actually pretty funny, as the kids' extemporaneous improvisations on Skeeter's bedtime stories come true (not always literally) the following day. A fabulous supporting cast (including Guy Pearce, Lucy Lawless, Richard Griffiths, Teresa Palmer, and a bug-eyed guinea pig) helps fill in the gaps. Does not aspire to greatness and achieves that objective.

The Spirit (PG-13, 1:42) — 5

A disappointment. It's done by Frank Miller in the same style that worked so well in Sin City, and it's a faithful adaptation of the great comic-book character created by the immortal Will Eisner, so I was really looking forward to it. But it was even more cartoonish live-action adaptation than Dick Tracy or Popeye, and I could never really relate to any of the characters, because they were so garishly overblown. Dead cop Denny Colt (Gabriel Macht) returns (sort of) to the land of the living after getting injected with an experimental drug by The Octopus (Samuel L. Jackson, cashing in all his Hormel stock in one giant blowout), climbing out of his grave, and periodically doing a little do-si-do with the embodiment of Death Herself. He's not completely invulnerable, but he sure can take a lickin' and keep on tickin', which he proceeds to do with style (white-soled Chuckie T's and a blood-red tie in an otherwise unsaturated palette) while trading snappy banter with all the gorgeous ladies on both sides of the law (Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Stana Katic, and more). The extremely muddled plot, with multiple mcguffins, leaves you scratching your head until you figure out that the plot apparently isn't supposed to matter. Occasional comic relief from the many disposable Beagle Boy clones (Louis Lombardi) henching for The Octopus saved this one from dropping down to a 4. Man, what a shame. The Dark Knight demonstrated conclusively that a complex plot could be made lucid and 2D characters could be given a 3rd dimension in the right hands, and I figured Miller of all people could pull it off at least as well as Christopher Nolan. Not this time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Better Inauguration

Here's the beginning of a highly pertinent Dec. 22 press release from a prominent atheist organization:

"The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog, and the nation's largest association of atheists and agnostics with more than 13,000 members, has gone one step further than others decrying the selection of Rev. Rick Warren to lead the inaugural invocation.

"The Foundation is asking President-Elect Barack Obama to drop prayer and religious ritual entirely from the official ceremony, and to keep the Presidential oath secular. The Presidential oath or affirmation, as dictated in the U.S. Constitution, Article 2, Section 1, Clause 8, has no reference to a god, or instructions to place a hand on a bible.

"'The First Amendment guarantees all American citizens the free exercise of religion. But the Establishment Clause requires that the President or other elected officials be scrupulous in conscientiously separating personal religious views from their government actions and duties,' write Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents, in a letter to Obama.

"'Wholly aside from the selection of the unsuitable Rev. Warren, the scheduling of prayer by two Christian ministers at the formal Inauguration gives the unavoidable appearance of uniting Christianity and the Presidency,' they wrote President-Elect Obama. The pair point out that choosing two Christian ministers to pray simply signals 'religious orthodoxy,' but that any ministers chosen would by definition alienate or exclude at least some Americans."

Full text at

Just as FFRF took a step beyond the righteously offended LGBT community, I'll take one more step beyond theirs.

Let's not just get rid of all the religious trappings at the inauguration, let's get rid of all the rest of them as well — the parades, the speeches, the fancy dress balls, the posturing and pontificating, the massive crowds, the overtaxed subways and porta-potties, the security nightmares. Chuck 'em all!

We went thru the Revolutionary War to divest ourselves of the monarchy and all the useless ornamentation and mindless ritual that accompany it. I see no need to recreate it in an ostensible democracy.

My ideal inauguration ceremony? Obama shows up in the Oval Office in front of a nationally connected video feed, takes the oath (exactly as specified in the Constitution, without that distasteful "so help me God" at the end), then takes off his suit coat, starts rolling up his sleeves, looks straight into the camera, and says "OK, let's get to work!". We could all be equal participants (well, OK, observers) in a ceremony like that, without any favoritism or squabbles over who's the teacher's pet.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux — 6

Inoffensive, intermittently imaginative, occasionally charming, adequately animated.

Nothing really to argue against seeing this story of a fearless little mouse who lives in the big palace, but there isn't a lot going FOR it, either. Despereaux is plucky short of courageous and cute short of endearing. Since the movie was based on a children's book that's been around since 2003, it's probably unfair to say that the kitchen scenes seem derivative of Ratatouille, the gloom cast over the kingdom looks borrowed from Igor, and the underground rat city could have been lifted from Flushed Away, but it's hard not to think "Gee, haven't I already seen this?".

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Giant Wound in the Economy

I continue to be amazed at the number of stories about the economy — pro or con — that utterly fail to mention the trillion dollars we've squandered in Iraq, placing that gigantic hemorrhage in perspective with regard to why we can't afford stuff any more.

It's one thing to spend money on building stuff. Take cars, for example. Yeah, GM may go under, but at least you've still got your Chevy.

What good is it to spend money on death, destruction, and ill will? After you're done spending it, what do you have to show for it?

Small wonder peaceful nations like China, India, and Brazil are catching up with us, no matter HOW much harder we have to work than they do. They're building up; we're tearing down.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

The most famous line in all of SF cinema is undoubtedly "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!". It came from Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was so well known (better even than "Open the pod bay door, HAL." or "Luke, I am your father.") that 40 years later Sam Raimi had Bruce Campbell use it in Army of Darkness (1992) in full expectation that most of the audience would get the joke.

The 1951 DTESS was adapted by Edmund H. North from the story "Farewell to the Master", by Harry Bates. The score by Bernard Herrmann was the first to use a theremin. The synopsizer for referred to it as "a nearly perfect movie".

At Torcon 3, the 2003 World Science Fiction Convention, fans voted it into 3rd place (tied with Forbidden Planet and behind only Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey) in a ranking of the top SF films of the 20th Century.

The 2008 remake stars Keanu Reeves as Michael Rennie (Klaatu), Jennifer Connelly as Patricia Neal (Helen Benson), Jaden Smith* as Billy Gray (Bobby, here renamed Jacob), John Cleese as Sam Jaffe (Prof. Barnhardt), and Kathy Bates as Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson.

My attitude toward remakes is that they are hardly ever excusable. If you've got the resources to make a movie, why not make a new one? There are only 2 times when I think it's possible to justify a remake:
(1) When the original was so badly done or cheap that it cries out for decent treatment. (For example, I know that many people consider George A. Romero's original (1968) Night of the Living Dead to be a classic, but by any objective analysis, Tom Savini's 1990 remake was far superior.)
(2) When the original wasn't in English and so will go unseen by most Americans. (For example, Vanilla Sky was quite a good remake of the Spanish-language Abre Los Ojos.)

The most egregious example of an unnecessary remake was undoubtedly Gus Van Sant's 1998 shot-for-shot recreation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece Psycho. Why? If Wise's film was nearly perfect, Hitchcock's hit the bullseye.

So why even try to remake a classic? At best, you'll just be a copycat; at worst, you'll invite invidious comparisons to the original.

Such is the case here. Casting Keanu Reeves as an alien who doesn't really understand humanity may have seemed like a smart move at some point, since it makes good use of his natural woodenness and lack of affect. But the whole idea of the story is that living in a human body and interacting with the widow and her ordinary but lovable little boy is supposed to humanize him, a transformation that never occurs believably in the remake (and small wonder, since Jacob keeps trying to convince his stepmom, whom he calls "Helen", to kill the invader).

Still, it remains a hell of a good story, the special effects are well done, and the underlying message — that "shoot first and ask questions later" is a pretty poor 1st-contact strategy — always bears repeating.

I saw it in Imax, but that's mainly because I like to support that format, not because there's anything compelling about it for this particular movie. Either in Imax or in a regular theater, if I'd never seen the original and had to rate this one in a vacuum, it would come out like this:

The Day the Earth Stood Still — 7

But I have seen the original (multiple times), and it's much better (yes, even tho it's in B&W instead of color and uses pathetically primitive SFX). Do your part to stick a dagger into pointless remakes. Skip this one in the theaters and rent the DVD of the 1951 film. You'll be glad you did. And, if enuf people do the same, maybe Hollywood will get the message.

*You may have heard of his folks, Will and Jada.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Traditional Values

What has become of our traditional values?

On the Democratic side, we have Rep. Tim Mahoney (FL) shelling out a hundred grand in hush money, and Rep. William Jefferson (LA) with his fridge full of benjamins, followed by Gov. Rod "Let's Make a Deal" Blagojevich (IL).

Meanwhile, over there in Elephant Land, there's Rep. Mark Foley (FL) with his come-on texting to Congressional pages, Sen. David Vitter (LA) and his cavorting with the DC madam's gals, Sen. Larry Craig (ID) dropping trou in an airport men's restroom, and anti-gay Mayor Jim West (Spokane WA) copping to hanky-panky with boys.

What is the world coming to? Corruption just isn't what it used to be. Why, back in MY day, we could always count on the Republicans to be smelling the greenbacks and the Dems for sniffing booty. Now everything's backwards.

Signs of the apocalypse, indeed.

Thank goodness for Democrat Eliot Spitzer (former NY gov.), a guy with real respect for tradition! No flies on HIM (except for the one he couldn't keep zipped).

Monday, December 01, 2008

"War on the Economy"?

Have you heard the phrase "war on the economy" used to describe what we're going to have to do to recover from the current financial crisis?

I wish people would stop using this disgusting "war" metaphor for any large undertaking. Why not an Apollo Program for the economy, or a Manhattan Project, or a Bicentennial Celebration? Or any of FDR's alphabet agencies, like the WPA or CCC?

What are we trying to do, build or destroy?

At least with regard to the shameful, wasteful, counterproductive War on Drug-Using Americans, we've picked the right metaphor, but I was HOPING that we'd find something a little more evocative of a constructive attitude for our response to the economic crisis.