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.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Monsters vs. Connecticut

Irritated disclaimer: Blogger doesn't make it very easy to add text formatting, so I've decided just to insert boldfacing in a few of the places where I use it and skip italicizing altogether. I wish they'd just allow me to copy and paste RTF, the way LiveJournal does (, but for now my readers here get to settle for 2nd best.

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SASS*: Money doesn’t guarantee quality, but this week it’s the way to bet.

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

This Week’s SF&F Movies

Monsters vs. Aliens (PG, 1:34) — 7

(in both 2-D and 3-D at Eastgate, Point, Star, and Sundance; in Imax 3-D at Star)

This is a lot of low-key fun, as a small group of pretty easy-going “monsters” are released from decades of secret imprisonment by the government and, evidently bearing their erstwhile captors no ill will, help the US (“the only country where flying saucers ever seem to land”) fend off an invasion from an evil alien overlord. The invasion comes in 2 stages: 1st a gigantic robotic probe that our heroes battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, and 2nd the archfiend Gallaxhar himself and his army of not very perceptive clones. A 4-eyed squid descendant, he’s the sole survivor of his late planet, but he assures Susan, the 49’11”-tall woman, that she needn’t feel sorry for him, since he destroyed it himself.

You might think that a woman of that height would dominate every scene she’s in, but animation isn’t limited in scale, and the folx at Dreamworks weren’t just thinking big, they were thinking HUGE! Susan isn’t even the largest of Earth’s monsters; that would be the 350’-tall childlike Insectosaurus.

You might also think it would be a challenge to make the monsters (especially Dr. Cockroach and the slimy Missing Link) engaging and endearing, but Pixar showed the way back in 2001 with Monsters Inc., and this production is up to those standards in terms of both personality and technology. And the dimwitted but good-natured BOB the Blob is just a hoot.

The whole thing is played for chuckles, and they come at a nice, easy pace, not forced or frenetic. There are some good visual gags, too, including the president’s big red coffee-dispensing button on the wall of the war room and BOB’s romance with the lime Jell-O™.

I saw it in 3-D (tho not in Imax 3-D) and thot it enhanced the experience.

The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13, 1:42) — 3

Ho-hum. Another formulaic tormented-spirit movie.

Years ago the house hosted seances conducted by the local mortician. Mysterious things happened. Dark doings were covered up. Spirits of the recently deceased were never released to their eternal destinies. They continue to hang around and annoy the house’s new occupants, who have problems enuf of their own without the added irritations. While the restless dead seek release, and are capable of manipulating all sorts of things in the real world (including carving arcane symbols on the body of a sleeping teenager who doesn’t seem to notice a problem until he wakes up), none of them ever seems to tumble to the idea of picking up a lipstick and writing a simple message on the bathroom mirror like “Hey, look behind the fireplace.”.

Virginia Madsen has stooped to this. How sad.

Shot in some house in Winnipeg. Should’ve been shot at conception in Hollywood. If you are the 1,433rd person to see it, congratulations, your ticket purchase means that Gold Circle Films has covered its production costs, which means we’ll keep getting more of these.

Ruminations on “Progress”

Voice Acting

Remember Jodi Benson? No? She was the star of the best SF&F movie of 1989 (20 years ago) — better than Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Back to the Future Part 2, or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — and I bet you remember who starred in those flix, don’t you?

Still not ringing any bells? She was Ariel in The Little Mermaid. But, of course, since it was animated, you didn’t actually see her, you only heard her. Her name didn’t appear on the poster or in the newspaper or TV ads. She was a voice actor, along with Christopher Daniel Barnes (Eric), Pat Carroll (Ursula), Paddi Edwards (Flotsam and Jetsam), Jason Marin (Flounder), Kenneth Mars (Triton), Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian), and Edie McClurg (Carlotta). ST:DS9 fans will perhaps recognize the name of Rene Auberjonois (Louis the Chef) from his role as Odo.

Probably the best voice actor ever in Hollywood was Marni Nixon, who did the singing for the soundtracks of countless musicals on behalf of actresses who could lip-synch but not otherwise match the crystal soprano that Nixon made to seem effortless. She had a tiny little on-screen role as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music, but otherwise did her work out of sight.

Who will be the Marni Nixons of today and tomoro? Sadly, apparently nobody. Check out the cast for Monsters vs. Aliens: Reese Witherspoon (Susan), Seth Rogen (BOB), Hugh Laurie (Dr. Cockroach), Will Arnett (Missing Link), Kiefer Sutherland (Gen. Warren Monger), Rainn Wilson (Gallaxhar), Stephen Colbert (Pres. Hathaway), and Paul Rudd, Jeffrey Tambor, Amy Poehler, and Renee Zellweger in minor roles.

Do all the big-name actors pull in a bigger audience? They’d have to, to justify their paychecks. It’s not as if the theaters charge more per ticket for their presence. But then why soft-pedal their participation? Just as 20 years ago, you don’t see their names on the posters or in the ads. Are people more likely to go to see a movie because of who’s in it, if they can’t actually see the actors acting?

I think it’s sad to see voice acting apparently dying out as a career opportunity in Hollywood. Try as I might, I can’t hear anything better about Witherspoon’s voice than Benson’s. Unless you’ve got an actor with a truly unusual voice (like Paul Rubens, Jennifer Tilly, or Gilbert Gottfried) and you want the voice to stand out, why not give the job to someone who won’t charge premium bux for participating? What’s wrong with letting the non-megastars make an honest living, too?


There was justification for the actual voice of Al Jolson being delivered in The Jazz Singer. There was justification for the screen lighting up in Technicolor as Dorothy arrived in Oz. There was justification for the triple-wide Cinerama screen conveying the emptiness of interplanetary space in 2001: A Space Odyssey.**

I find myself straining to find a comparable justification for 3-D. Yes, it makes for a more enjoyable experience overall. It was 1 of 2 factors (the other being the fact that I’m a total slut for human space exploration) that saved last year’s Fly Me to the Moon from an utter bottom-feeder rating. And it made Monsters vs. Aliens more real-seeming, tho in a different way than chancing the “uncanny valley”, where animation approaches verisimilitude while falling disturbingly, creepily short of it (as in 2004’s The Polar Express).

But the earlier advances in the film-going experience didn’t require you to bring more than a standard-issue set of eyes and ears to the theater. Sound and color didn’t even require more money.*** Cinerama did, which may explain why it was never more than a niche phenomenon and showed only a bit more staying power than William Castle’s “Percepto” effect for The Tingler.

So, how’s 3-D going to shape up? To experience it, you need a set of special glasses. These have improved considerably thru the years and now fit comfortably over my regular glasses. The ones they dispense at the Imax theaters have very large lenses, which I appreciate. The ones I got at Point Cinema to view Monsters vs. Aliens had smaller lenses then my hornrims, which I found a bit restrictive at 1st but stopped noticing fairly quickly.

By some accounts, this is 8th generation 3-D tech, and they seem to have worked out most of the bugs. The headaches and nausea that some viewers reported in the past have apparently been vanquished. Color fringes, poor focus, and dual-image projections mismatched either in space or in time have been subjugated digitally. They’ve learned to amp up the projector lighting to compensate for the reduced luminance getting thru the 3-D glasses.

People who pay attention to this kind of thing have been impressed. Time magazine featured Jeffrey Katzenberg (the “K” in Dreamworks SKG), James Cameron, and Steven Spielberg and name-dropped Peter Jackson in its article “Are 3-D Movies Ready for Their Closeup?” ( But that was by techno-geek Josh Quittner, who loves technology for its own sake. Not a week later, Time’s resident movie critic, Richard Corliss, expressed his doubts in “3D or Not 3D: That Is the Question” ( Like Quittner, he too liked the tech; like me, he thot it added to the movie-going experience.

But, again like me, he questioned whether people would, in any large numbers, be willing to pay a couple of bux extra and have to fiddle with prosthetics to get the benefits.

I emerge from the analysis a tad more sanguine than Corliss, for several reasons. 1st off, to repeat, it really is a more engaging experience, which is why I recommend seeing Monsters vs. Aliens in that format.

2nd, I’ve often praised the geniuses at Pixar for understanding that the best animation tech in the world (which is what they’ve got) must always be subsidiary to telling a good story. The rest of the practitioners of 3-D seem to have finally learned that lesson as well. They no longer have yo-yos or spears or tomahawks stabbing out of the screen at your eyeballs just to show you they can. If it isn’t integral to the story, it’s not worth doing.

3rd, this isn’t going to become something universal, the way sound and color are. It’ll continue to be deployed where the creative folx think it’ll be most effective, the same way that split screens, time lapse, overlapping dialog, and aerial views have always been used for artistic effect.

4th, it’ll be something that sets the theater-going experience apart from DVD rentals or on-line viewing, which aren’t (yet) capable of doing 3-D. It’ll make theater-going a special occasion, much as it used to be.

As always, if you have a crappy story, no amount of 3-D or other gimmickry will cover up its failings. Story always comes 1st. But, if you’ve got a good enuf story and want to juice it up a bit, 3-D does that and, if judiciously deployed, will find an audience willing to pay extra and keep coming back for more.

Just spare us the yo-yos.

*short attention span synopsis
**No, Larry, no matter what you say, I wasn’t there for the 1st 2.
***Indeed, theaters that didn’t have to engage a piano player for every performance may have been able to get by more cheaply with the advent of talkies.

= = = = = =
Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Knowing Witch Mountain

SASS*: Nothing to see here; move along.

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

This Week’s SF&F Movies

Race to Witch Mountain (PG, 1:38) — 4
(opened last week)

Dwayne Johnson plays Jack Bruno, Las Vegas cabbie, and Carla Gugino is Dr. Alex Friedman, UFO expert. Perhaps you saw the preview in which Bruno and Friedman are crawling thru a tubular tunnel and she admits to a bit of claustrophobia. Just then Bruno reaches an opening into a deep vertical shaft and asks “How are you with heights?”. It was a good scene, with a bit of low-key but contextually appropriate humor that the former Rock has learned to deliver effectively, making him a big, strapping brute of a guy that you feel comfortable with. But that scene isn’t in the film itself. Instead, we see the aftermath, in which Friedman is still a bit freaked out, for no apparent reason.

The rest of the movie was like that, too. People seemed to be doing things with no credible motives. The 2 adults flee from no fewer than 4 sets of pursuers exhibiting varying degrees of hostility (The Government, a space-alien cross between Predator and Inspector Javert, Bruno’s former mob boss Mr. Wolf and his henchthugs, and the LVPD). They do so to protect 2 teenage Swedish, I mean space, aliens who are here to retrieve the mcguffin, um, recording device that will prevent their planet from launching a hostile takeover, uh, invasion. The gal of the pair, Sara, is played by AnnaSophia Robb. We know from her performance in Bridge to Terabithia (2007, 9**) that she can be a tremendously appealing young actress, but here she gets to do stuff like pointing her finger and monotonically saying “Go that way, Jack Bruno.”. The boy, Seth, is played by Alexander Ludwig, a cipher.

The government’s head alien tracker warns Bruno that the kids are not what they seem to be. Anyone who’s ever seen a science-fiction movie (which apparently includes precisely zero of any characters who are actually in an SF movie) can only begin to imagine what might lurk beneath those placid blond exteriors, but this proves singularly untroubling for Bruno, leading right up to the snuggle-bunny ending (Disney, y’know), which was likewise not well set up by any of the preceding events.

The scenes set at a UFO convention make good sport of fannish stereotypes, which some people might find offensive but I choose to treat as endearing. And I loved the sly humor that they did leave in the script, wherein Bruno asks the kids “Do you know how to fly this [flying saucer]?”, they respond “How do you think we got here?”, and he replies “Well, you crashed!”. More of that, from another couple of passes thru the typer, would have earned this one an upgrade.

Knowing (PG-13, 2:01) — 4

Harrison Ford is clearly the most famous actor with a long history of SF&F films, but Tom Cruise had a nice little run of his own (Vanilla Sky, 2001, 7; Minority Report, 2002, 8; War of the Worlds, 2005, 5). We’ll pass quietly over Keanu Reeves. Brendan Fraser has made a career, if not exactly a name, in the genre. And now we need to acknowledge that Nicolas Cage is lending his considerable screen cred to our favorite kind of flix. The question going into this TEOTWAWKI epic is whether it would be a splendid effort like Next (2007, 8) or a disappointment like Ghost Rider (2007, 5). Alas, it’s a fuddled testimonial to Calvinism’s doctrine of predestination.

50 years ago, kids in suburban Massachusetts did a bunch of drawings intended for their new elementary school’s time capsule — except for 1 odd little girl, who just filled her paper with endless digits. Cut to 2009, where that paper winds up in the hands of little Caleb Koestler, son of widowed and cynical MIT professor John Koestler (Cage). Among the plethora of digits is the string “911012996”. Now, you might think that it was the “911” that captured Koestler’s attention, but no; he writes the string on a whiteboard and then spends some time mulling where to put the slash marks. The “2996” is, of course, the death toll on that fateful day, and Koestler soon discovers the dates and fatality counts of many other disasters in the previous half century — plus 3 that are slotted for the next couple of days. Every such entry is also trailed by a string of other digits, and the genii at MIT are unable to figure out at 1st what they mean. (Of my 1st 2 instantaneous hypotheses — location and junk DNA — the more obvious proved correct.) But it’s asinine for a fellow prof to liken the predictions to numerology (as in The Number 23) or suggest that maybe Koestler is following in the delusional footsteps of John Nash (brilliantly depicted in A Beautiful Mind) when the numbers are so clearly related to real, and supposedly unpredictable, events.

Koestler tries to prevent the predicted disasters, but to no avail. Evidently it’s all been written down in the Big Book in the Sky eons ago, and mere mortals are powerless before destiny. It goes on like this, getting progressively gloomier, until we arrive at an improbable ending that makes The Day the Earth Stood Still look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

The acting and effects are quite convincing while you’re in the theater, the kids are cute, and the dialog (under the circumstances) is realistic, so the flik isn’t an absolute dog.

Still in Theaters

Bedtime Stories — 6
Coraline — 8 (in 3-D at Star and Sundance)
Twilight — 7
Watchmen — 9 (in Imax at Star)

Mark Your Calendars

Mar. 27: The Haunting in Connecticut (OK, maybe don’t mark this one)
Mar. 27: Monsters vs. Aliens
Apr. 8: Dragonball: Evolution
Apr. 17: 17 Again
Apr. 24 (maybe): Mutant Chronicles
May 1: Battle for Terra
May 1: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
May 8: Star Trek
May 21: Terminator Salvation
May 22: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
May 29: Drag Me to Hell
May 29: Up
June 5: Land of the Lost
June 12: Moon
June 19: Year 1
June 24: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
July 1: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
July 17: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
July 24: G-Force (not the Packers, they’re guinea pigs)
July 31: They Came from Upstairs
Aug. 7: Shorts (kids discover magic rocks)
Aug. 14: District 9
Aug. 14: The Time Traveler’s Wife (adapted? from the novel)
Aug. 28: Final (hah!) Destination: Death Trip 3D
Sep. 4: Game
Sep. 4: Pandorum
Sep. 9: 9 (Get it? 9/9/09! Do not confuse with “Nine”, a musical remake of “8 1/2”)
Sep. 18: Jennifer’s Body (demonic castration paranoia from Diablo Cody)
Sep. 18: Splice
Sep. 23: Astro Boy
Sep. 25: The Crazies
Sep. 25: Surrogates
Sep. 25: This Side of the Truth
Oct. 9: Zombieland
Oct. 16: Where the Wild Things Are
Oct. 30: The Box
Nov. 6: The Wolf Man
Nov. 13: 2012
Dec. 11: The Lovely Bones
Not Sayin’: The Road
Maybe Next Year: Timecrimes

*short attention span synopsis
**best SF&F film of the 21st Century so far

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Other Tournament

Isthmus Letters
101 King St.
Madison WI 53703

2009 Mar. 18


That's the only word that describes my reaction to Jason Joyce's article "Psst ... Wanna See Some Prep Hoops?" in your March 13 issue. In a publication that bills itself as Madison's weekly newspaper, Joyce was touting sectional games in the state boys' high-school basketball tournament as far away as Milwaukee, Oshkosh, and Green Bay. Only the fleeting appearance of the adjective "boys" suggested that there might be a different kind of tournament.

And indeed there was! Not 3 miles away from Isthmus World Headquarters, there was a dandy occurring at the Dane County Coliseum (known to corporatists as the Alliant Energy Center), featuring *gasp* girls. I suppose it was easy to overlook in spite of its proximity and low ticket price ($8 per game), since it only involved, y'know, girls and was, after all, only for the state championship.

Sure, there's no way that Joyce could have known in advance that it would turn out to be the best girls'  tournament in the 25+ years I've been attending them. The bare statistic of the championship games in the 4 divisions being decided by a grand total of only 10 points doesn't even hint at the terrific games leading up to Saturday's finales. Too bad your readers didn't get any hints, either, like some clue from Isthmus that the event was happening.

I find it almost beyond belief that, 37 years after the adoption of Title IX and a third of a century into the girls' tournament, they still can't get any respect in the state's capital city.

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Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.

Monday, March 09, 2009

They're NOT "Martyrs", Dammit!

2009 March 9

Letters to the Editor

Re: The Making of a Mumbai Terrorist,8599,1883334,00.html

You’ve done it again.

By referring to thugs like Mohammad Amir Ajmal Qasab and his ilk as “martyrs”, you do to the English language what they did to the innocent commuters in Victoria Terminus.

A true martyr is a victim, not a perpetrator. A true martyr wants to live, not to die. A true martyr is helpless to prevent his fate, not someone who could walk away at any time. A true martyr is on the receiving end of an unjust, repressive, intolerant regime, not someone who’s trying to create one. Most true martyrs suffer long, agonizing deaths, not the quick, painless ones favored by suicide bombers.

Most salient of all, a true martyr dies alone; he doesn’t take scores of helpless, unthreatening men, women, and children with him.

You have a clear-cut alternative available. There is undoubtedly some word that these butchers use to refer to themselves. You could simply cite that word in the original Arabic, rather than continue to use your mistranslation of it to sully the memory of real martyrs (for whom we should feel sorrow, sympathy, and respect) by lumping them together with these deranged criminals (for whom we should feel nothing but contempt and loathing).

Friday, March 06, 2009


SASS*: Quis custodies custodiet? You should.

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

Watchmen (R, 2:37, Imax at Star) — 9

Books are not movies. They cannot, for example, set a scene at a glance.

Movies are not books. They cannot, for example, do introspection in an instant.

Neither form has proved adept at pre-digesting expository lumps.

Either form, at its best, can amaze, inspire, thrill, or move us.

It’s a challenge to adapt either medium to the other. Steven Gould’s marvelous novel Jumper became a wretched film of the same name. Conversely, about the best you can say of any novelization from a script (even one in the hands of a highly competent author) is “It was workmanlike.”. Not that a good cross-medium adaptation can’t be done at all, just that the odds are stacked against it. So many things have to come together just right that it’s like lightning striking twice in the same place.

The shining exception to this rule is, of course, The Lord of the Rings, an acknowledged literary masterpiece that could have been just horribly, horribly botched as a movie. But it had the good fortune to fall into the hands of friends, and the result was a masterpiece in its own right. (Bless you, Peter Jackson. And uncountable thanks to New Line Cinema, which literally bet the studio on you.)

Adding to the normal problems of adaptation are the added challenges associated with science fiction and fantasy. These genres get no respect in either realm.

Consider what it takes to win praise from literary critics. If you crank out a novel about an angst-ridden Jewish writer who lives in New York City, you’re almost automatically on the short list for that year’s top prizes in fiction. (That may have something to do with literary criticism being dominated by angst-ridden Jewish writers who live in New York City.) Skiffy? Fantasy? Forget it! Not “deep” enuf. About the sole SF&F work to crack this inner circle was Michael Chabon’s wondrously written Pulitzer Prize–winning alternative history, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which happened to be about angst-ridden Jewish comic-book writers who lived in New York City. (It probably helped that one of them turned out to be gay.)

Hollywood is just as dismissive of the genre, tho it’s more of a love-hate relationship here. After all, 80 of the top 100 box-office movies of all time have been either science fiction or fantasy. Money, sure; keep it rolling in! But respect? A different story altogether. Look at 2008’s crop of terrific comic-book films. What would it take for any of them to get an Oscar nomination? Would they have had to kill to get one? No; that’s an exaggeration. You do have to die, tho. Clearly, from the movie industry’s perspective, SF&F flix are like the good-time gal you hang out with as much as possible, not the one you take home to mom.

And, if these 2 establishments look down their snoots at SF&F generally, they are even more contemptuous of comic books. Even when comics are collated into more substantial form (in an appeal to “weightiness”) and recategorized as “graphic novels” (in a desperate attempt to evade “comicness”), they start out with a strike against them due solely to their roots. Maus, Watchmen, Fun House, Persepolis. I’m not out of fingers on my 1st hand yet, and I can’t think of any others that ever got taken seriously. It’s like the sad old story about women and black people struggling to make it in America: Due to mindless bigotry, you have to be twice as good to get half as far.

I suspect that part of the explanation for this lack of respect lies in the 1-dimensional axis along which standard fiction gets evaluated. At one end of the spectrum lies Plot; at the other, Characterization. English classes, film schools, and lit crit all go on endlessly about the proper balance between these 2 poles. I submit that, like A. Square in Flatland, they are oblivious to an entire additional dimension. A thoro analysis requires us to expand that 1-dimensional axis into a 2-dimensional triangle by adding a 3rd vertex, Setting.

“It had begun misting as she stepped out of the cab in front of the Waldorf-Astoria.” 1 sentence into your novel, and your readers already know a wealth of information about your world. Had it been a movie, the establishing shot would have burned Setting into their brains even more quickly. Because the familiar is handled so readily in mimetic fiction, it’s taken for granted by the critics and scholars.

SF&F, tho, have a larger burden to shoulder. For them, Setting is on a par with Plot and Characterization as something that must be dealt with. It’s necessary to create a whole different world for these genres, and doing so takes pages and frames that can’t be devoted to the other 2 vertices of the triangle. Thus, to a standard 1-dimensional critique, the genre seems to skimp on the elements that mainstream critics are predisposed to look for.

SF&F fans, of course, are accustomed to letting their eyes roam across the whole triangle of creative space. That’s why they can find delight in, say, the works of Arthur C. Clarke, which revel in new worlds built or discovered by cardboard-cutout characters. Doing right by Setting makes up somewhat for sins of Plot and Characterization. But only in the cloistered ghetto of SF&F, not in the great outer world.

You might think that graphic novels would be an ideal bridge between books and movies. After all, they partake of the time-decoupled, info-dense, and cerebral (both senses) aspects of the novel as well as of the immediacy, activity, and audio-visuality of film. As such, it would seem to be a shorter jump in either direction from the half-way point of the graphic novel. So far, however, what little jumping has occurred seems to have gone almost exclusively from graphic novels to films, and not many of those.

Which brings me, at last, to the specifics of Watchmen, based on a 12-issue comic-book series done in 1985 and 1986 by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (illustrator). It was called “unfilmable” by no less than Terry Gilliam (who knew 1st-hand that 12 Monkeys and Ice Pirates were filmable), based on his having tried and failed to do the job. It was one of the featured attractions in the 2001 edition of David Hughes’s The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.

Like many devotees of the original, I was both anticipating and dreading the movie version. Would it be like Lord of the Rings or Jumper?

Well, it is quite faithful to the original. This alone has drawn both praise and condemnation from mainstream film critics. It did have to leave out significant material to come in under 3 hours. The running subplot between the young black kid cadging pirate comics from the crabby old white guy running the newsstand? Gone. Vaporized like the characters. Gone also any opportunity to wonder why, in a world with real, live costumed crime-fighters, comic books feature pirates instead of superheroes. Too nuanced. Indeed, while Watchmen has 10 times the subtlety of any other superhero movie, it still can’t do justice to the original. Perhaps nothing could have. A novelization would probably have fallen short in a different way.

But look at traps avoided. It’s stupendously common in movies to have 1 or 2 lead actors carrying most of the load. The “star”, the “hero and heroine”, the “protagonist” — all staples of cinematic convention, and a tempting lure for director Zack Snyder. But no, he stuck to the ensemble nature of the original. More heroic heroes, more villainous villains? No. Shades of gray all around. Long, drawn-out, semi-aerial fight scenes choreographed by Hong Kong martial-arts masters? Nope: Short, brutal, and to the point. And screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse trust the audience to be smart enuf to figure out for itself why Ozymandias can simultaneously be “the smartest man on Earth” (and presumptively the geekiest) and a better fighter than a trio of heroes who had just taken out a cell block full of rioting prisoners.

Casting? Suffice it to say bingo!

On 2nd thot, not quite sufficient. Jackie Earle Haley was beyond perfect as Rorschach.

In the final analysis, I conclude simply that Watchmen inspires ruminations like this one.

We have a winner.

*short attention span synopsis

= = = = = =

Well, you know, Nancy, with all the time we've spent shooting the movie and the sequel, I could have been president for 8 years.

-- Saturday Night Live actor, simulating Ronald Reagan's departure from the White House

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Life Priorities

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” — Socrates

= = = = = =

Every now and again you get a chance to think about what’s truly important to you. Regrettably, these chances will often arrive at moments of crisis, when your thinking tools are probably not at their finest.

Last night, however, I had an opportunity to reflect on my life priorities in a pleasant and relaxed setting. I was attending a lecture by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, sponsored by the Wisconsin Union Directorate as the last installment of their 2008-2009 Distinguished Lecture Series. (And distinguished indeed it is. You can find out about this past season’s events at their website,

The sponsoring committee (entirely student-run) used the occasion to poll the audience about what speakers they’d like to invite for next year’s series. I jotted down the family names of the people on the ballot:

While there are a lot of famous people on that list, you probably don’t recognize all the names; I sure didn’t. But among them are actors, astronauts, comedians, economists, feminists, government officials (current and past), humanitarians, journalists, lawyers, philosophers, politicians, scientists, and writers — a potpourri of intellectuals from across the spectrum — along with a 1-line summary of what they were most likely to talk about.

Choose 5. You’ve got about 10-15 minutes to review the list and pick your faves.

This isn’t a process that lends itself to detailed analysis, but neither are you being pressured into a snap decision. I fairly quickly picked my top 3, then spent some additional minutes dithering over who would get my last 2 votes. This is the list I finally came up with, in alphabetical order:
William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd president of the US
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist
Steven Pinker, evolutionary psycho-linguist
James Randi, magician and debunker of pseudoscience
Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, hosts of Mythbusters

Not until after I’d made my choices did I recognize the pattern. While all of the speakers had considerable allure, and I would gladly have attended a lecture by almost any of them, my favorites were the ones who use the scientific method to describe how the world really works.

I surprised myself a bit with this. Yes, my background is in the sciences, but lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on politics. Thru my association with WisCon, I’ve developed a deep interest in feminist issues. And I’m absolutely addicted to Jon Stewart’s fake-news program on Comedy Central. But I passed up worthies like Fareed Zakaria, bell hooks, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Stewart in favor of the science geeks. (The exception, of course, was Bill Clinton, whose name was the 1st one I circled. I couldn’t really tell you why; I suppose it has something to do with Monica Lewinsky’s comment that “He’s an incredibly charismatic man.”.)

Anyway, this little “out of the blue” exercise gave me a chance to reflect on my priorities in life, and I guess I’m pretty happy with them.

Now I must go renew my subscription to Skeptical Inquirer.

PS: Dennett’s lecture was terrific!

PPS: If George W. Bush had been on the list, I would probably have voted for him, but for entirely different reasons than all the others.

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The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact than a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

-- George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer, 1856-1950

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Street Fighter

SASS*: Wait for Watchmen.

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (PG-13, 1:36) — 3

Always a crapshoot when you base a movie on a video game. Things this one had going for it:
 • Kick-ass female protagonist, Chun-Li, played by ...
 • Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang on Smallville)
 • Respect for the locales and cultures in Hong Kong and Bangkok (some subtitles)

Regrettably, that was about it. The story had some promise but was ruined by terrible writing and the worst individual acting performance I’ve seen in years (Chris Klein as Nash of Interpol).

2 SF&F elements: (1) the good guys could conjure up scintillating globes of force; (2) the bad guy was able to transfer all his goodness into the soul of his unborn dotter. Those 2 accounted for maybe 4 minutes total and weren’t integral to the plot. Otherwise it was mainly whack, bash, kick (none done memorably), and occasionally shoot.

*Short Attention Span Synopsis

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He who lives by fighting with an enemy has an interest in the preservation of the enemy's life.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher