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Sunday, September 21, 2014

Six Weeks of Halloween 2014: Week 1 - The Remade
My most favoritest time of the year has arrived, carrying with it leaf piles, mutilated pumpkins, decorative skeletons, fake cobwebs, and other oxymoronic traditions that are nominally ghastly but suddenly become socially acceptable. To celebrate the season, I always embark on a six week long horror movie marathon. Why six weeks? Because that's, like, two weeks better than four (the typical Halloween marathon length).

We kick things off this week with what I'm calling "The Remade". Mostly because that sounds cool and almost represents a horror movie title of its own, but in reality, I watched three classic horror movies from the 1950s that were remade in the 1970s and 1980s. Remakes have a somewhat spotty reputation amongst film nerds in general, and horror dorks in particular. The recent spate of Platinum Dunes (amongst others) remakes of beloved horror movies seems to be driving the current distaste, mostly with good reason. Remakes from other eras are perhaps not as universally reviled. For my part, I find it difficult to get too worked up about this sort of thing, especially since I've realized that a remake is generally accompanied by a corresponding release of a remastered, high-quality edition of the original movie. So yes, the Black Christmas remake wasn't great, but the original got a fantastic DVD release, so it's hard to complain. Similarly, this year's forthcoming The Town That Dreaded Sundown remake is welcome, if only because the original will suddenly come back in print and be widely available too (in this case, the remake shows some promise too, especially since they chose a relatively obscure movie to remake). In any case, movies from the 50s that were remade in the 80s actually worked reasonably well for the remakes (not covered in this post, but could/should be: The Fly, whose remake is superb). But it's still interesting to go back and revisit the remade, as I did this weekend:
  • G.I. Joe - S01E28 - The Germ (TV Episode)
  • Phantoms (trailer)
  • The Blob (1988 trailer)
  • The Blob (1958) - A small meteorite containing a small, blob-like substance that eats everything it comes in contact with, growing as it goes. I don't know this is the first movie where something falls from the sky and some old dude finds it and pokes it with a stick, only to be consumed by whatever, but it's certainly the quintessential example of the trope. This is actually a local movie, filmed in a bunch of Philly suburbs like Downingtown, and the famous movie theater and diner are still around in Phoenixville, where they have an annual "Blobfest" and re-enact running from the theater screaming. As a film, it concerns itself greatly with the no-one believes the teenager angle.
    You meddling kids!
    You meddling kids!
    More metaphorically, it's pretty clearly filled with Cold War symbolism, right up to the solution where they drop the blob off in the arctic, literally freezing the problem. I'm sure someone has a global warming polemic in store fore the inevitable next remake. As it is, the 1988 remake turned the threat from outer space aliens to a secret government project. And while the special effects are genuinely creepy and gory, there's something mean spirited about the remake that doesn't really jive with me. Which is a shame, because as these things go, the blob itself is a rather fantastic and genuinely alien concept. The original is entertaining enough, though it has some weird tonal issues (like, for instance, the absurdly silly theme song that plays over the beginning of the film). The remake overcorrects into making it a really unpleasant affair. Of course, it's been done over and over again in pop culture, including Dean Koontz's novel Phantoms (which is a gazillion times better than the movie adaptation and puts a different spin on a blob-like creature) and more goofy fare, like the episode of G.I. Joe linked above. In the end, this was an interesting enough watch, and worth the stretch for students of the genre. **1/2
  • Who Goes There? by John Campbell (Short Story)
  • Zombie Zombie (Stop Motion Short)
  • The Thing (1982 trailer)
  • The Thing from Another World (1951) - Very loosely based on John Campbell's short story, Who Goes There?, this movie follows a group of scientists and Air Force personnel as they discover a downed spaceship and its alien inhabitant frozen in the ice. Eventually he thaws out, and hijinks ensue. It turns out that I'd never seen this before, which is surprising. It's played more like a straight creature feature, and as those things go, it's actually pretty good. A little talky at times, but there are some great shots, especially when the monster shows up (and they do a good job keeping him hidden in the early proceedings).
    The Thing
    However, it doesn't really leverage the "alien impostor" element of the story at all, which was surprising. This is a pretty clear case where John Carpenter's 1982 remake is superior in almost every way. Not only is it a better adaptation of the original story, but it just works all around. Unlike the mean-spirited nature of The Blob remake, this one strikes a good balance, even while maintaining spectacular creature effects and gore. That being said, the 1951 film is very different, and has its own charms. The Cold War symbolism is probably toned down a bit here, but it's clearly there, and that's unsurprising given the nature of the 1950s! The 2011 prequel is a little perfunctory and forgettable, but it's reasonably effective for what it is. In terms of influence, the original short story has certainly been referenced and homaged repeatedly throughout the years, such as the X-Files episode "Ice". The original movie is worth a watch for fans, but you'd probably be better served reading the original Campbell story. **1/2
  • The Puppet Masters (trailer)
  • Slither (trailer)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 trailer)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - I was surprised to find that this was my favorite of the three movies I watched this weekend. A small town is slowly being replaced by emotionless copies of residents. It turns out that they are grown in pods from outer space. More Cold War and Communism symbolism here, and it's funny, because it's based on what is, by all accounts, a second rate novel that was preceded by much better received stories by Heinlein (The Puppet Masters) and Bradbury. And yet, Invasion is the one that clearly caught the zeitgeist and has proven to be very influential, inspiring countless remakes and homages.
    Not a Pod Person
    Not a Pod Person
    I'll lay this success at the feet of journeyman director Don Siegel, who was famous for accepting junk material and elevating it to something interesting or even great. So while perhaps not as action packed as the other two films, this one nevertheless manages to be the most involving thing I saw this weekend. I wouldn't call it completely transcendent, and the ending certainly seems abrupt and a little strange, but I can see why it has garnered so much love over the years, and it's well worth a watch. I actually have not seen the 1978 remake (except for that one clip we all know about), but I'll probably revisit sometime during this 6WH. ***
So things have gotten off to an interesting start. Thematically, we've got a lot of Cold War fears being represented here, lots of alien menaces, communists are everywhere and they're going to take us over, don't you know? In addition, there's a lot of "No one will believe me about the crazy conspiracy" tropes. I'll have to see if these sorts of themes persist through other 50s movies, or if I just lucked out.

I have no idea what next week's theme will be, but rest assured, it probably won't be as quaint as the 1950s conception of horror. Also, just want to give a shoutout to the brainchild of the Six Weeks of Halloween, Kernunrex, who is of course going to put me to shame in terms of the number of movies he watches and quality of commentary he posts, so be sure to check him out. Also, Bonehead XL has already begun his marathon and will surely outpace me as well.
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2014 at 08:17 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, September 14, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 17
Since we've come dangerously close to decorative gourd season, motherfuckers, I figure I should knock out a few reviews before the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon begins in earnest. There's going to be some overlap here with the most recent book queue, but a few other books I've read recently as well.
  • Afterparty by Daryl Gregory - I bought this one blind, based solely on a quick recommendation by my friend Chandra. I wish I'd looked at the blurb though, as this book has my deck stacked against it. I really don't like stories that center around drug use. There are a few that have worked, but more often than not, I find myself frustrated and annoyed. There are some interesting bits here, and in theory, it could have worked for me, but it never really connected. In the future, there's been a smart drug revolution, with people able to quickly and easily design new drugs and print them out on a "chemjet". When a new drug called Numinous starts making the rounds, Lyda Rose recognizes it as something she worked on earlier in her career and tries to find out who is making this stuff again. The drug provides a sort of spiritual euphoria, but those who take too much start to hallucinate their own personal guardian angel (or similar figure from your chosen belief system) and that hallucination never goes away. Alas, the SFnal elements are basically window dressing, an excuse to whine about religion or wallow in self-pity and guilt. The world isn't quite a dystopia, I guess, but we only really see the worst elements of it. This would not be a fatal issue, except that I really couldn't stand Lyda as a protagonist. She's clearly had a rough go at it, so I can see where she's coming from, I just didn't find her methods particularly effective or worth following in this much detail. If it weren't for her paranoid friend Ollie, perhaps the only competent character in the book (despite the continual reminder that her paranoia often gets the better of her), this book would have really been miserable. It does get better as it goes on and the ending works well enough, but it's not really my thing and I found the whole thing rather depressing...
  • A Darkling Sea by James Cambias - This story takes place at the bottom of a deep, ice-covered ocean on the planet Ilmatar. A human research party is there to observe the natives - blind lobster-like creatures that congregate around deep sea vents for sustenance and use sonar for navigation. However, the humans are prohibited from actually contacting the Ilmatarans by a peace treaty with a third race, the Sholen, who want to limit humanity's expansion into the galaxy. When an unfortunate accident results in a human death, the Sholen kick up some diplomatic fuss in order to get the humans to leave, eventually resorting to force... and the Ilmatarans are caught in the middle. I enjoyed this novel greatly. Cambias has created a well balanced set of conflicts here, with sympathy extending to nearly all players. The Sholen, while clearly antagonistic, are not mere carboard cutouts. They have their own motivations and biases that would be amusing if the situation here wasn't so dire. The Ilmatarans' society is logically thought out given their environment, and their motivations are well established. You could argue that both alien races are a little too human-like in their thinking, but I think they cleared the bar on that (they aren't the Tines or Primes, but they're decent). Thematically, the book covers some interesting ground without ever feeling particularly preachy or manipulative. For instance, the whole thing is pretty thorough takedown of the rather silly Star Trek conceit of the "Prime Directive" (which basically forbids Starfleet personnel from interacting with developing alien races), but that emerges naturally from the story, rather than as a lecture. Overall, this is one of my favorite SF books of the year so far, and is an early possibility for a Hugo nomination next year.
  • Grave Peril by Jim Butcher - The third book in the Dresden Files and while it's an improvement over the second installment (which I did not particularly enjoy), it's still not quite the fun modern fantasy adventure I keep thinking it will deliver. I have this sneaking suspicion that I'll probably come back to this series again at some point when I'm looking for something kinda trashy, and I've heard the series gets better as it goes on... This installment covers how Harry deals with a particular uprising of ghosts and spirits, as well as a sneaky Vampire power grab. There's plenty to like here, and there are a bunch of memorable episodes, but then a lot of this falls a bit flat. The primary side characters include Harry's continually damseled girlfriend Susan and his sorta partner in crime, Michael. I feel like both of them kinda came out of nowhere, though it's been a while, so maybe they made brief appearances earlier in the series (I'm pretty sure Susand did, actually). Murphy seems like a great character, but she's sidelined for most of this book. Dresden's stepmother makes many appearances and represents another thing that feels like it came out of nowhere. Fortunately, the bulk of the story is reasonably well done. As per usual, the magic stuff tends to get out of hand and Dresden seemingly endures wayy too much physical damage to be effective, but that's par for the course in this series. In the end, I had a fine time with this, even if it didn't really knock my socks off.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir - You know that scene in Apollo 13 where the NASA team dumps a bunch of parts on the table and tries to make a square filter fit into a round hole, using only the equipment available in the space capsule? Yeah, this book is 350 pages of that, only the astronaut in question is alone and stranded on Mars. And he's got a lot more resources and equipment available to him. Still, this is a fascinating chronicle of how he survives in the hostile environment of Mars. Author Andy Weir cuts no corners, and painstakingly explains how each little bit works. Even more impressive, he makes all of the science approachable and even exciting. He also manages to insert a fair amount of humor into the proceedings, which helps greatly. This isn't particularly a great character piece, but the challenges facing the character and the problem solving that goes into resolving issues more than makes up for any deficiencies in that area. There are no villains here, only a harrowing fight for survival. This is ultimately one of the most impressive pieces of Hard SF I've read in a long time. Not quite as diamond-hard as Greg Egan, but the accessibility and humor make this a gazillion times more approachable and entertaining (if not quite as mind-blowing). You could perhaps argue that the level of detail goes a little overboard, but it was music to this systems analyst's ears. If this winds up being eligible for the Hugo awards next year, it will almost certainly garner my vote. Highly recommended for those not scared by science (and really, if you're scared by science, why are you reading science fiction!?)
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for the Six Weeks of Halloween, starting next Sunday. Up first, I think, will be what I'm calling The Remade (three 50s classics that have been remade).
Posted by Mark on September 14, 2014 at 06:27 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Book Queue
It's hard to believe that my last published book queue was over a year ago, though I guess you could say that the Hugo Award nominees were a de facto queue early on in the year. Now that the Hugos are over, I've moved on to some other things. At first I wanted some palate cleansers, but once I realized that my supporting membership this year enables me to nominate and vote on next year's awards, I'm back on the hunt for new and interesting SF. Recommendations are welcome, but I have already compiled a pretty lengthy list (a few of which, I've already started...), so let's see what's coming up:
  • A Darkling Sea by James Cambias - I actually just finished this very well executed deep-sea first contact story (basically), so I won't say much more except that I'm pretty sure I'll be nominating this for the award. I'm also pretty sure it won't get enough votes, but a man can hope.
  • Lock In by John Scalzi - I just started this book recently and am about a quarter of the way through it. It's a sorta near future detective story, with robots and the like. I'm being deliberately vague about it, but so far, so good. As of right now, it's not a lock for my nominating vote, but it will almost surely be nominated next year. Scalzi's a popular guy and this book has been getting good reviews.
  • The Martian by Andy Weir - I have also started this book, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, and it might be my favorite book of the year so far. Unfortunately, it's Hugo eligibility is questionable. Weir self-published the novel in 2012, but it was so well received that he got a more traditional publishing deal, which republished the book in 2014. The rules seem pretty clear that this was eligible in 2013... but then, I also know that Scalzi's Old Man's War was self-published on his website several years prior to its being nominated for a Hugo, so perhaps there is hope. Regardless, this is one of the more audacious hard-SF efforts I've read in a while, and yet it remains accessible and even funny. Highly recommended, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I will try to review these suckers when I finish them.
  • A Sword Into Darkness by Thomas A. Mays - A military SF book by a formal naval officer, I've heard good things. Another self-published book, I'm almost certain this will not be nominated, but I also haven't read it yet, so I guess we'll find out. It does sound like it's right up my alley though.
  • Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future - A collection of stories inspired by the optimism of golden age SF, this is a project driven by Neal Stephenson (so you know I'm all over it), but includes stories from lots of other folks (including, I might add, the aforementioned James Cambias). Hopefully this will be good fodder for the short fiction categories.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin - There's apparently some buzz for this one because Liu Cixin is China's most popular SF author, and this is the first time his work has been published in English. Translated words don't tend to do well at the Hugos though, so I guess we'll see. I know very little about it, but I'm willing to give it a shot based purely on buzz...
  • World of Fire by James Lovegrove - The first in a series of books where the main character is troubleshooter dropped into various situations where the local authorities are stumped. The SFnal catch is that this guy's original bodied died, and he's continually being downloaded into other bodies on various planets. Or something like that. I'm not expecting Hugo quality stuff here, just some entertaining, fun space-opera type stuff.
  • Ancillary Sword by Anne Leckie - The sequel to this year's awards monster (it won the Hugo and every other award in its path), if this is actually published this year (it's not available for presale yet, even though it's due in October), it's a shoe-in for another nomination (unless, I guess, it's really bad).
There are, of course, plenty of other interesting books coming out that I may want to check out, but this seems like a promising start...
Posted by Mark on September 10, 2014 at 08:52 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Wheel of Time: The Great Hunt
When Robert Jordan's entire Wheel of Time series was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award this year, I knew I wouldn't have time to read all of the books. While you might think that's due to laziness, it should be noted that the series consists of 14 books, 10,000+ pages, and 4.4+ million words. According to my Goodreads stats, I'm averaging something like 12,000 pages a year, and given the fact that I only had a few months before votes were due, it was basically impossible. Fortunately for me, I didn't particularly care for the first book in the series, The Eye of the World, so reading the entire series became unnecessary. That being said, the publisher, Tor books, was exceedingly generous in making the entire text available in the voters packet, so I thought I'd give the series another chance before voting. I got about halfway through the second book, The Great Hunt, before I had to cast my votes for the Hugo, and I felt good about my ballot. I finished the book not long after, and I must say, it's a big improvement over the first book, even as it suffers from many of the same issues.

The story picks up where we left off, with our heroic band of misfits taking refuge in a town, waiting for a bunch of Aes Sedai to consult on the happenings of the first book. Nynaeve and Egwene plan to accompany them to train as Aes Sedai, while the rest plan to return home. Our nominal protagonist, Rand al'Thor, has definitively been identified as "The Dragon Reborn" (basically a "Chosen One" type of situation), and is thus developing some major trust issues. Not long after the arrival of the Aes Sedai, the city is attacked by Darkfriends, and two powerful artifacts are stolen, including the cursed dagger which is magically linked to Mat, so it seems that our three farmboys are headed off with a large search party to retrieve the stolen treasures. Meanwhile, foreign invaders called the Seanchan have begun to encroach on the border, and there are all sorts of other weird happenings throughout the world.

There are a lot of similarities to the first book here. There's an ancient, powerful artifact that is in danger, there's a bunch of epic journeys, tangential episodic adventures, hearty stews (of course), our band of heroes is separated, and eventually reunited - you know, high fantasy tropes galore. The difference between this book and the previous is that each element here is better done and more memorable. It's still bloated and sloppy, but at least there's some more interesting stuff that's happening. It helps that we already have a pretty good handle on the cast of characters, despite a few new ones, so little time is wasted rehashing what we already know.

The episodic stuff actually works reasonably well. For example, at one point Rand, Loial, and Thurin (the latter being a new character) are separated from the search party and find themselves in a town called Cairhien, where they play something called "The Great Game", an intrigue-charged game of politics and maneuver amongst the various factions of the city (I'm guessing the name here is historically based). For various reasons, Rand appears to be a Lord to the city, so he is expected to play. His instinct is to simply ignore various invites and overtures, but it turns out that this is taken to mean that he is even more important than he appears. His inaction is interpreted to be a rather extreme action. And so on.

Nynaeve and Egwene have a couple interesting episodes as well. Their training with the Aes Sedai leads to a lot of additional knowledge about how things work in that weird magical lawyer/mafia hybrid environment. They meet up with Elayne and Min (both characters had bit parts in the first book, and were a welcome addition here), and have a rather disturbing run-in with the Seanchan later in the book (this is one of the more memorable tangents, actually).

There are plenty of other tangents that perhaps don't work as well as the above examples, but for the most part, the characters are growing. Rand is still a little whiny because he doesn't want to be the Chosen One (a fair complaint, to be sure), but he is also nowhere near as passive or blank as he was in the first book. He has spent some time training as a swordsman, and his chosen one powers are starting to add up (even if he's scared that they will eventually make him crazy). Mat is still a bit of a turd, but he's still cursed, so that's to be expected. Perrin makes himself useful, further developing his latent talent to talk to wolves. Nynaeve and Egwene are both learning a lot, and having to deal with some interesting problems. Moraine and Lan get some more background and motivation. Many of the side characters are further developed. A handful of new characters seem to have some interesting stuff to do.

All of this would still feel rather unsatisfying, except that Jordan manages to bring everything together for a big climax towards the end of the book that is genuinely involving and even exciting. Don't get me wrong, it's still bloated and overlong, but there is an actual payoff at the end of this book that is encouraging. When I finished the first book, I wasn't upset or anything and I had enjoyed myself well enough, but I wasn't that interested in exploring more of the series. This book does indicate that such a thing might actually be possible, and so I'm thus marginally more inclined to pick up book 3 at some point. None of this would have changed the way I voted for the Hugos, of course, but it's still encouraging.

From what I understand, the series bogs down for a while in the middle books, but eventually all the pieces are assembled for the final battle, which sounds like it could be an interesting experience. I'm planning on reading a bunch of 2014 books and stories in preparation for next year's Hugo nomination season, but if I read two books a year... I should be finished sometime around 2020. Er, ok, so maybe not. Still, it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility, which is more than I could say after the first book, and you never know. After all, I already have all the books on my Kindle. Ah well, the Wheel turns...
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2014 at 02:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we took a look at a werewolf who was also a cop. This time, we've got a touching tale of a gay yeti and his frat boy lover:
...sexually repressed Frat Boy Adam finds himself kidnapped by a twisted cult and offered as human sacrifice to a homicidal and wildly homosexual Mountain Yeti. But when the misunderstood Yeti spares his life, young Adam soon gives in to his deepest desires and finds love with his new furry friend. As the kinky fun heats up, the outraged cultists set out to put a stop to the shocking man-beast love once and for all!
Yes, it's called Yeti: A Love Story (aka Yeti: A Gay Love Story), and it is, of course, a Troma production (so ultra-low budget and intentionally terrible). Apparently it's part of Troma's Cinema VeriGay collection. It is also available for free, in its entirety, on YouTube, so don't worry about trying to find it. Because I know you were getting worried about its availability (oddly, it seems that many Weird Movies of the Week are hard to find).
Posted by Mark on September 03, 2014 at 06:03 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Link Dump
Assorted and sundry links for your enjoyment on this fine holiday weekend:
  • Selections From H.P. Lovecraft's Brief Tenure as a Whitman's Sampler Copywriter - Luke Burns channels Lovecraft rather well, to humorous effect:
    Peanut Butter Cup

    In 1856, a fisherman from a tiny hamlet on the New England coast made a terrible pact with serpentine beasts from beneath the sea, that he might create the most delicious sweet seen upon the Earth since the days of the great Elder Race. Thus was forged the satanic pact between peanut butter and chocolate that resulted in the mutant offspring you see before you!

    Chocolate Cherry Cordial

    You must not think me mad when I tell you what I found below the thin shell of chocolate used to disguise this bonbon’s true face. Yes! Hidden beneath its rich exterior is a hideously moist cherry cordial! What deranged architect could have engineered this non-Euclidean aberration? I dare not speculate.
    Yum. (via file 770)
  • Breaking Down the Hugos: Careful Like - Justin Landon has the most thorough breakdown of the Hugo Award results, complete with statistical analysis and general commentary.
  • Detecting the Writer - An intriguing post by Doctor Science about the tropes and patterns of mystery novels. The title of the post is derived from this Dorothy Sayers quote:
    The mystery-monger's principal difficulty is that of varying his surprises. "You know my methods, Watson," says the detective, and it is only too painfully true. The beauty of Watson was, of course, that after thirty years he still did not know Holmes's methods; but the average readers is sharper-witted. After reading half a dozen stories by one author, he is sufficiently advanced in Dupin's psychological method to see with the author's eyes. He knows that, when Mr. Austin Freeman drowns somebody in a pond full of water-snails, there will be something odd and localised about those snails; he knows that, when one of Mr. Wills Croft's characters has a cast-iron alibi, that alibi will turn out to have holes in it; he knows that if Father Knox casts suspicion on a Papist, the Papist will turn out to be innocent; instead of detecting the murderer, he is engaged in detecting the writer.
    (Emphasis mine). It probably has a broader application, but anyone who watches any of the gazillion police procedurals out there (Law & Order, CSI, Bones, etc...) will be intimately familiar with what Sayers is talking about. Also of note in this post is the excellent "One Body Test", and something close to my own lament that so many mysteries are so focused on murder. As Doctor Science mentions, "death isn't the only thing worth investigating."
  • The Great Unread - Joseph Luzzi explores that age old question: Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust? To do so, he looks at two Italian classics Alessandro Manzoni's novel The Betrothed, popular in Italy, but not anywhere else, and Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, which is universally beloved and continually referenced all over the world.
    Manzoni's novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God's providential wisdom. Collodi's story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni's legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi's star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni's thoroughly Christian universe a second thought.

    This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work's ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality.
    Interesting stuff.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on August 31, 2014 at 07:53 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It has been a few years since Reamde, so I've been getting a bit antsy of late. Neal Stephenson is my favorite author, and I've long since exhausted reading just about everything he's published. I'm always on the lookout for his latest, and I recently discovered this mysterious book called Seveneves. How very palindromic of him. The blurb, which originally showed up in some random upcoming books PDF, goes something like this:
When the moon blows up, the earth's atmosphere is predicted to go through changes that will eventually lead to a Hard Rain, a meteorite storm that could last for thousands of years, rendering the earth’s surface uninhabitable. In preparation, the nations of the earth send an ark of humans to an International Space Station. But the Station isn’t immune to the galactic catastrophe and many of its people are lost, mostly men. When stability is reached, only seven humans remain, all of them women. Jump forward thirty thousand years. Two peoples exist: those who survived on Earth, living rustic, primitive lives; and those who derived from the Seven Eves of the space station, affluent, sophisticated, organized sects looking to colonize the surface of earth. Stephenson’s next novel is an epic potboiler, with political and military intrigue, and plenty to say about evolution, genetic engineering, and civilization as we know it.
The PDF sez it's due "Winter 2015", but Amazon and Goodreads have it at 4/14/15. Clocking in at 1056 pages, it appears that Stephenson's ways have not changed much.

Now, it's unclear to me if this book is the first of a series that Stephenson hinted at in a BBC interview last September, or if this was an interim book. Based on the description, I think Seveneves will be different.
"They're historical novels that have a lot to do with scientific and technological themes and how those interact with the characters and civilisation during a particular span of history," he says of the new series, refusing to be specific about the exact period.

"It looks like it will start with two back-to-back volumes.

"One of those is largely done and the other will be done early next winter. So I think [they will be released] mid-to-late 2014 perhaps - something like that."
"Something like that", meaning 2015 I guess. Not that I'm complaining, as it looks like we'll be awash in new Stephenson at some point in the near future. In other news, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future comes out on 9/9/14, and it features a bunch of stories inspired by Stephenson, in particular his desire to see more "positive" science fiction (as opposed to the dystopia or misery porn that seems to infect a lot of modern SF). It includes new stories by Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Gregory Benford, Elizabeth Bear, and Bruce Sterling (presumably amongst others). I will most certainly be reading it, and will hopefully be able to glean a few Hugo nominatables!
Posted by Mark on August 27, 2014 at 05:49 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Professor Dewey Finn's Ostentatiously Odd, Schoolastically Scattershot Back-to-School (of Rock?) Movie Quiz
After yet another hiatus, Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as usual, I'd like to play along. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, and Professor Larry Gopnick are also available.

1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you'd most like to see get the HARD DAY'S NIGHT or HEAD treatment

And here I must admit that this sort of movie does little to excite me. I enjoy music, but I don't really know it or obsess over it the way do, for example, with movies and beer. So when you ask for a quasi-fictional movie featuring lots of music performances, I'm not overly enthused, even if you grab some bands that I'm intrigued by. That being said, perhaps a dramatization of The Mars Volta's ouija board fueled shenanigans while touring and making The Bedlam in Goliath would be an interesting watch...

2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates?

This is a close one, both actors I know and like, almost a draw really, but I'll go with Oliver Reed due to slightly more familiarity with his stuff...

3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

The answer, pretty obviously, is convenience. There are plenty of inconvenient bits about streaming media, but that's a topic for the next question, and streaming really is more convenient in many ways. No need to handle physical media, swap discs, walk across the room (the horror!), no worry about scratches/deterioration, no storage space needed, and when something is available, it's available on a whim, right now, ready to watch. Also, one of the bad things about streaming - lack of selection - can also lead to good things, like watching something you would never normally watch, simply because it's available and easy to access...

4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video

Total inconsistency in availability, the lack of a truly comprehensive service, video quality, dependence on the internets, boneheaded DRM swindles, the fact that you never actually own what you're watching, the list is long and distinguished. One thing that never gets brought up: lack of special features or things like audio-commentary. I know only the nerdiest of nerds actually pay attention to commentary tracks, but the flowering of information that occurred during the DVD era was unprecedented and beautiful, and I have a feeling that it will wither away and die as we move towards streaming, which is sad.

5) Favorite Robin Williams performance

This is a surprisingly difficult choice. I'm not big on Williams' big, showy performances, but he still has a pretty impressive catalog of serious stuff or things where his boisterous qualities are more seamlessly integrated. I keep thinking of Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and of course, Dead Poets Society. That will have to do...

6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie

Night Train to Munich, coming in behind The Third Man.

7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema

The marching hammers in Pink Floyd The Wall. In fact, that whole movie, but especially the marching hammers...
Marching Hammers
8) Favorite movie about growing up

This is an impossible one, as the concept is nebulous enough to include all coming-of-age stories, of which there are many. Too many. But I'll give an answer that I'm positive that no one else will give: Real Genius. One of a handful of seminal nerd movies that prefigured the rise of the geek a decade or two later, it still speaks to the geek in me.

9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

I love that Dennis pawns this question off on someone else ("It wasn't me, it was that pervert, Peter Nellhaus!"), and since he will probably never post his answers, he will doubly get away with not looking like a total perv. As for me, my mind is straying more towards surprising nudity that was not unpleasant (with the actual unpleasant surprise being in the next question), and the first thing I thought of was Rosario Dawson's eye opening (and pretty ridiculous) scene in last year's Trance. Simply was not expecting it, and while the movie is completely absurd, I've always been in love with Rosario, so there you have it.

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)

A long while ago, I was marathoning a bunch of ghost movies near Halloween (this is pre-6WH, but I still watched a bunch of horror movies before Halloween every year), and thought hey, this Ghost Story movie is pretty famous, let's give it a shot. And I was totally unprepared for the full frontal male nudity right at the beginning of the movie. It's not just that it was unexpected as that it's very nearly the first thing you see in the movie, and it immediately precedes death. So yeah, it sticks in my mind.

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming

In a theater, it was Guardians of the Galaxy, which I very much enjoyed. On BD, it was Under the Skin just this morning, and I'm not totally sure what to make of it. I liked it well enough, but the overly obtuse approach rarely works completely with me... And on streaming, it was the superb The Silence of the Lambs, which I watched because of a recent Filmspotting SVU episode where they discussed all the Hannibal Lecter movies.

12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie

I have not seen one, let alone two Betrrand Blier movies, so alas, I must take my first mulligan in this quiz...

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?

Googie Withers, mostly just because I really love The Lady Vanishes. Even though she has only a small role, this is more than I can say for Sally Gray, who I'm wholly unfamiliar with...

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie character that you've heeded in real life

When in doubt, run to The Godfather "A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man" or "Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family... Ever" (because it's lonely out there on that rowboat).

15) Favorite movie about learning

So I'm going to disqualify sports or martial arts movies, as training montages, while sometimes about learning, are perhaps too easy of a target. The problem is that you're left with a bunch of inspiration teacher stories, of which there are many. I'll go with Dead Poets Society for obvious reasons, but I'll throw out a lesser known instance that isn't quite as sappy or manipulative The Emperor's Club. Not a perfect movie, but well worth checking out.

16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but, for one reason or another, never made. These could be projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached-- and your "version" of the film might be the one with that lost director, for example (question submitted by Brian Doan, class of 2007)

This is a tough one too! Despite my reservations, I would genuinely like to see Alejandro Jodorowsky's take on Dune, so that's first on the docket. The next immediate choice that came to mind was Stanley Kubrick's version of AI. I actually like Spielberg's version, but I also have no doubt in my mind that Kubrick's vision would have been better. For a different pairing, I'd like to see Ken Russel's take on Dracula paired with David Cronenberg's Frankeinstein, both of which were rumored at one point or another.

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material

It's hard to call it a mismatch, because these are all good movies, but it's hard to believe that Mad Max director George Miller also directed the Babe movies. But since they work, I'll have to go with the default of John Huston directing Annie...

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor

This is a tough one because of the sorta nebulous line between actor and character actor, and the fact that character actors tend to be in small, bit parts rather than big showy roles. So I'll throw two out there: Ted Levine's creepy turn as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (just because that's on my mind, though I don't know how much of a character actor Ted Levine really is), and Stephen Tobolowsky's perfect Ned Ryerson ("Needlenose Ned"? "Ned the Head"?) from Groundhog Day. Bing!

19) Favorite chase scene

I'm going to narrow this down a bit and eliminate car chases from the running, as they seem like their own thing. What does this leave us with? For me, The Terminator. The entire movie is really just one big chase scene, but for my money, nothing beats that final chase towards the end of the movie. It's easy to forget just how effective that appearance of the endoskeleton was back in the day.
The Terminator Endoskeleton
We take such things for granted these days, but it was such a big shock, and the design was so brilliantly sinister that I can't quite get over it.

20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like proselytizing about right now

I have two relatively obscure movies that I love that few others have seen: the 1933 polemic Gabriel Over the White House and the intriguing video game documentary Playing Columbine. Of course, part of the reason they're underseen is that they're not very well distributed, though I believe they are now both available on Youtube (you may need to pay). They're both pretty fascinating films, and worthy of a larger audience! Oh, and sorry, I have to include a third one: Gambit, a most excellent heist film starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. It was on Netflix a while back, but then it went off and now you have to buy it (apparently there is a somewhat recent remake, though I can't imagine it being as worthwhile as the original).

21) Favorite movie about high school

Lots of choices here, with The Breakfast Club coming immediately and obviously to mind, and then I thought of Better Off Dead..., which is perhaps slightly more obscure (but not really obscure in any sense).

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance

I hate to go so obvious on you, but come on, The Big Sleep.

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?

So what you're saying is that I need to bone up on my Powell & Pressburger. Yes, another mulligan here, though I have a sneaking suspicion that I've seen these guys in something, nothing is jumping out.

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the upcoming awards season

I'm guessing Scarlett Johanssen won't get much official love for Under the Skin. I think Ralph Fiennes has a much better chance for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but sometimes movies released early get overshadowed later on...

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been a movie star

Well, this is a common answer, but there's a reason for that: Jim Morrison could indeed have made an impact in that 70s movie scene... if he had cleaned himself up, that is...

26) Second favorite Ted Post movie

That would be Hang 'Em High, with Magnum Force pulling in number 1. Beneath the Planet of the Apes has its charms and who knows, if I watched all three of these tomorrow, I might put this in the #2 slot, but I'll stick with my gut on this one.

27) Favorite odd couple

The first one coming to mind is Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run, though there are many others that keep popping in as I write this (Riggs and Murtaugh anyone?) I know this is a movie quiz, but an honorable mention must go to Arya Stark and The Hound on Game of Thrones... a show that has its fair share of odd couples.

28) Flicker or Zeroville?

I know I just cheated by including television in the last question, but hey, this is supposed to be a movie quiz right? I have not read either of these books, but if I were to choose based on the blurbs, I'd go Flicker...

29) Favorite movie about college

Is anyone really answering anything other than Animal House? I could mention Real Genius again if I wanted to be contrarian, but I'll leave it at Animal House.

30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite underappreciated performance

I was kinda stumped on this one (as per usual, the definition of underappreciated is difficult to lock down), but Craig Kennedy posted the perfect answer at SLIFR: "He's not exactly underappreciated, but George C. Scott generally comes after Peter Sellers when people talk about Dr. Strangelove and he shouldn't be. He's spectacular and I wish he'd done more comedy." Damn straight.

31) Favorite movie about parenting

Calling National Lampoon's Vacation a movie about parenting might be a bit of a stretch, but that's what I thought of first, so it's just going to have to do. It's also hilarious.

32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?

Susannah York, mostly because she's Superman's mom. A bit part, to be sure, and I guess Sarah Miles has more artistic cred, but I'm sticking with York on this one.

33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with which you are well familiar

Rocky, even though the logistics of Rocky's jogging path are ridiculous, it really does capture a lot of Philly. I haven't seen it in a long time though, so there are probably much better choices here.

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the contemporary performer who most evokes their presence/stature/talent

George Clooney is almost consciously trying to be Cary Grant, isn't he? And I suppose he's having success at that too.

35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)

It's hard to beat Standley Kubrick, whose entire career was basically a hot streak, even if he wasn't quite that prolific (especially in later years).

And that just about covers it. Already looking forward to the next quiz (which, if recent history is extrapolated, will be sometime in late 2015 - hopefully it will be a much shorter wait)...
Posted by Mark on August 24, 2014 at 08:06 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

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