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Review: John Carter (of Mars)

I wrote this three weeks ago and then forgot to take the file to Chicago, duhh. I assume everybody’s seen the film by now, but I’m not sure what else to do with the review but post it.


carterswoola.jpgSaw John Carter with a few geek friends, all of them (but me) EEs. It got lousy reviews for the most part, but I was intrigued by the idea of a quarter-billion dollar pulp novel. Because I know what pulp novels are (and because I read A Princess of Mars when I was 15 or so) I was by no means disappointed. Guys, it’s a pulp novel. This means that it’s either about cleavage or else bashing your enemies to a pulp.

Disney made this one, so the cleavage is minimal, and the pulping quite bloodless. The costuming and CGI creations, on the other hand, were breathtaking in a sort of half-Spartacus, half-Steampunk way that we don’t see very often. (I really can’t think of another example, though the very uneven 1961 George Pal film Atlantis, the Lost Continent comes close.) Much of the film was shot on location on an alien planet called Utah. The rest came out of whole CGI cloth.

And that, my friends was worth seeing. The tusked, four-armed native Martians called Tharks looked absolutely real, right down to the eyes. They fidgeted, they pouted, they even wept, and they did not all look alike. It is a credit to the production quality and attention to detail that in other films the Tharks might be consider monsters; here they were more or less the bad boys you stayed away from in high school or (very) occasionally befriended. There actually weren’t a lot of monsters, once you discount the Tharks as ugly but mostly human dumbasses. One of them, however, was my favorite living thing in the whole film: Carter’s six-legged Martian dog sidekick Woola (technically a calot) who might accurately be described as Jabba the Mutt.

I liked the human characters a lot less. After all, I’ve already seen Spartacus. Carter himself (Taylor Kitsch) was forgettable beefcake. The bald guys were unconvincing, and reminded me of mysterious, hair-challenged heavies in a multitude of bad media pieces all the way back to Ming the Merciless. The princess-scientist Deja Thoris had remarkably durable eye makeup considering the roughousing she engages in. Then again, so did Sophia Loren in the underappreciated 1957 big gun epic The Pride and the Passion. (So, in fact, do most movie heroines who aren’t ugly by design.) The Zodangans and the denizens of the city of Helium (what was Burroughs thinking?) were toga-epic extras, who brought all the passion of plum pudding to their parts.

I twitched every time I heard someone say, “…then Helium falls.” Hey, if Helium falls, why do we fill blimps with it?

The steampunkish walking city of Zodanga was a nice touch, explaining as it does why Mars appears to have long lines spanning its deserts. That’s just Zodanga tracks, and Zodanga has a lot of legs. Nonetheless, it’s a very big item, and if you’re not so dumb as to just sit and wait for it to step on you, I’d guess it’s fairly easy to outrun.

Unfortunately, the one big thing that bothered me immensely in the film was key to the plot: Carter’s Supermannish ability to jump a hundred feet straight up, supposedly because of the lower gravity on Mars. Sorry, no. Mars’s gravity is 3/8 that of Earth, so a 200-pound ruffian would still weigh 75 pounds. I might believe fifteen feet straight up, or 60 feet in a horizontal long jump with a good running start. And if Carter can, the slender and apparently muscular Tharks should be able to. Not so.

That’s my main complaint, apart from the fact it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. I’ll freely admit that I didn’t care. John Carter is about spectacle; fights among improbable flying machines, goofy aliens, and endless startling things purchased by the compound interest of Moore’s Law. Don’t expect it to make sense. (Alas, don’t expect it to make much money, either.) Resist the temptation to crack helium jokes. (If Deja Thoris is a Princess of Helium, why doesn’t she have a squeaky voice?) Just turn your brain off and enjoy the scenery.

Guiltily recommended.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Everyone’s talking about a recent Copyright Office ruling that jailbreaking of smartphones is no longer illegal, but few have mentioned that several other significant exceptions to the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions have been issued in the same ruling. Most interesting to me are limitations on ebook DRM where they prevent audio interpretation of texts from working.
  • Could Popular Electronics be returning? Let us pray. (And thanks to Don Lancaster for the link.)
  • Carol and I have begun avoiding movies in 3D. They give her headaches and they make me seasick. I thought it was just us being weird, but there’s some evidence that 3D isn’t the crowdpleaser that everybody (especially in Hollywood) thinks it is. Here’s some explanation.
  • And even the 2D movies we’ve seen recently seem excessively loud. We may not be imagining things.
  • A new dual-core Android-based tablet by an otherwise unknown German firm is really calling to me. We may not see this one here for awhile (if ever) but if it’s evidence of an evolutionary explosion in Android tablets, I’m good with that. Ours will arrive eventually.
  • I’ve always been taken aback by the near-psychotic venom with which certain people treat an informal, likeable little font called Comic Sans. Scan the Internet and you’ll get a sense for what I mean. From ten steps back it looks like a tribal identity thing: You must slander Comic Sans to prove that you’re a member of the tribe, especially if you’re insecure about your membership. Secure people just keep their mouths shut and use something else.
  • The little red guy running with a hatchet (see my entry for June 27, 2010) appears to be the logo of Psychopathic Records, not the Insane Clown Posse band itself, granting that the label was founded by the Insane Clowns and is probably owned by them. (Thanks to Ricky C on LiveJournal for the tipoff.)
  • I solved another band logo question with the help of Google’s new output format for their Images search. Carol and I saw a band logo that resembled a bright red ballet dancer, apparently headless. I typed “red dancer band logo” into Images and there it was, an emblem of the Dave Matthews Band. I’m starting to like the new Google Images search output because it allows me to scan more images at once, rather than page repeatedly through a more limited matrix. This isn’t always useful, but I’m guessing it’s useful more often than not.
  • Bicyclists in NYC seem to be preparing early for the coming Ice Age.

Review: Despicable Me

gru.jpgOne reason I let my subscription to National Catholic Reporter lapse in 2001 was that they reviewed Shrek. C’mon: Space I would prefer to see covering Catholic issues like Papal authority and women’s ordination was spent reviewing cartoon movies of no religious significance. Worse yet, the reviewer just didn’t get it. He was furious that Shrek was obviously skewering Disney-style storytelling and assumed that it was indicative of laziness. Dude, that was the idea.

I thought of that review last night when we left the theater after seeing Despicable Me. Shrek changed cartoon movies forever by its wholesale embrace of sly cultural references that shoot right past the kids but make the adults chuckle. A bush that looks like Shirley Bassey? How many eight-year-olds have ever even heard of Shirley Bassey? I was half an hour into Despicable Me when I realized what was wrong: No cultural references. An entire genre of humor was simply missing from the film. (Ok, two turned up later on, but given their rarity I won’t spoil either here.)

After recalibrating myself away from the Shrek humor setting, I managed to enjoy the film a great deal more. What we have here is still a sort of sendup, but a much subtler one: of the whole idea of comic-book supervillains. Somewhere looking suspiciously like San Francisco, in an oversized Gothic bungalow, lives Gru the supervillain. He steals things, and competes for supervillain cool points with other supervillains who also steal things. The stakes have been ratcheting up lately, and a younger supervillain across town manages to steal the Great Pyramid of Giza and hide it in his backyard by painting it blue with little white clouds. The glove has been thrown, and vaguely middle-aged Gru knows he is being shown up by an upstart punk in a warm-up suit. Hence his audacious plot to re-seize the high (low?) ground: Steal the Moon! What could be bigger than that?

Everything else builds upon this remarkably silly premise, and the kids all around us in the theater laughed almost continuously. Gru himself is beautifully done, if a little derivative at times. To me he suggested Gomez Adams, especially given the décor of his house, which is replete with iron maidens, cannons, and Viking flails. (Others have pointed out a certain resemblance to the food critic in Ratatouille.) His nerdy younger rival supervillain, Vector, is a lot more high-tech and was clearly intended to channel Bill Gates. Gru has a backstory: He craves his indifferent mother’s approval, and has always wanted to go to the Moon. How could he not be a little bit nuts?

Deep under his suburban backyard, Gru has a supervillain hideout and research facility where hundreds of little yellow guys do his heavy lifting and (once the bank won’t offer any additional R&D loans) fund his supervillainy. He calls them Minions, and they have both of the essential characteristics of minor cartoon movie characters: They are very cute, and eminently injection-moldable. (They reminded me of squeaky dog toys. But when you have four dogs, a lot of things remind you of squeaky dog toys.)

The real story begins when Gru adopts three orphan girls as part of a plot to steal a reducer-ray from Vector. Although he finds the idea of small children barely tolerable, little girls are like puppies: Once you have them for awhile, it’s very hard to give them up. The girls work their magic on Gru and against his will slowly redeem him from supervillainy.

The rest of the action is silly sight gags, Minion antics, and humor targeted squarely at eight-year-olds. The voices (primarily Steve Carell, Jason Segal, and Julie Andrews) were skillfully deployed. I felt that the script could have done a lot more with the rich visual vocabulary offered by the animation, but I’m a writer and I’m hard on movie scripts, especially when I get the sense that the scriptwriters assumed that superb animation would carry the story.

Still, the kids loved it, and that’s who it was for. Cynics looking for snarky humor will cringe at the sweetness displayed toward the end, and the (mostly extinct) cynical side of me wondered if the sweetness was tacked on simply for commercial reasons. Doesn’t matter; it’s not a major classic and shouldn’t be compared to things like The Incredibles or Shrek. My inner eight-year-old loved it. (And as soon as I can find one, Dash will be chewing on a squeaky Minion.)

Recommended.

Odd Lots

  • It happens all the time, but it’s rare that we actually watch it happen: a comet falling into the Sun. (It’s unclear to me what the brief tiny streaks are, since SOHO is a spacecraft and the image was not taken through Earth’s atmosphere, where meteors would look like that. Meteors in the solar atmosphere?)
  • The SOHO spacecraft may also be shedding some light on why the recent solar minimum was so deep.
  • We’ve identified what may be a much better proxy for ancient climate: clam shells. Unlike tree growth rings, which may be affected by several factors like rainfall, sunlight, soil chemistry, and so on, clam shell growth (and the mix of isolotopes, particularly oxygen) seem very closely correlated to the temperature of the water in which the clam lived out its life.
  • Intel’s Nehalen-based Gulftown CPU has been officially announced, with six 3.33 GHz cores and 32 nm traces connecting a boggling 1.2 billion transistors. They’re calling it the Core I7-980X Extreme Edition, and it fits the LGA 1366 socket, which implies than it can be swapped in as an upgrade. (No confirmation on that yet.) You may be able to get an overclocked desktop system running all six cores at 4.3 GHz by April. And if that’s not enough cores for you (four is way more than enough for me, if this past year’s experience is any guide) we’ll be seeing the eight-core Nehalen-EX (with 2.3 billion transistors) later this year, nominally for the server market.
  • I know, I know, AMD has its Magny-Cours 12-core Opteron server CPU, but the cores only run at 1.7 GHz–and more to the point, exist on two separate side-by-side six-core dies, which may be cheating a little. I’m sure they’re very good chips, but sheesh! We still don’t know how to do parallelism in general terms. Even AMD is puzzled, so they launched a contest titled, “What would you do with 48 cores?”
  • And if you don’t believe me, open Windows Task Manager, click the Performance tab, and watch all your cores but one do nothing. To paraphrase George Carlin: What do cores do on their day off? They can’t just lay around…that’s their job!
  • Frank Glover put me on to an interesting hand-drawn animated movie that I hope to see fairly soon, if I can find anywhere playing it. (Distribution in the US is inexplicably a problem for them.) The Secret of Kells is about the Book of Kells, and (more intriguingly) is drawn in the style of medieval manuscript illumination. It took a few seconds watching the trailer to catch on, but eventually I had the feeling that I was watching manuscript illuminations come to life. Damned cool.
  • And 229 years ago today, Sir Frederick William Herschel first spotted Uranus.

Review: Planet 51

Planet51.jpgThere’s concept, and there’s execution. You need both to make a truly terrific work of fiction, whether on film or in text. I had high expectations for Planet 51, and the concept did not disappoint me: A loopy twist on the classic alien monster movies of the 1950s…except that this time, we’re the aliens, landing on a planet full of…1950s aliens.

Or, let’s say, 1950s aliens living in an alien analog of 1950s small-town America. As with the 2005 animated film Robots, there’s an alien analog to just about everything Earthish: Malt shops, bowling alleys, poodle skirts, backyard barbecues, and hovering alien ’59 Caddies. There are 50’s alien monster movies, and 50s paranoia, here directed against…aliens. Somewhere off in the desert is a mythic alien Secret Base a la Men In Black, where dozens of captured robotic space probes from Earth are kept under glass domes. Into the thick of all this lands a souped-up Lunar Excursion Module containing an oafish, self-involved square-jawed astronaut, who is surprised that Planet 51 is inhabited, and is as terrified of its innocuous green noseless inhabitants as they are of him. His arrival triggers the awakening of a 6-wheeled robotic rover named Rover, which handily dismantles the dome under which he’s been stored, and then goes looking for his master, NASA Capt. Chuck Baker.

Is that a great concept or what? Alas, for all the great ideas and great artwork, somehow it doesn’t completely gel. Much could be done with an astronaut who realizes (as Chuck Baker eventually does) that he’s simply baggage strapped into a completely automated spacecraft, and that it’s not about him. Too bad that nothing is; Baker is drawn as an idiot, but somehow isn’t even true to that time-honored Hollywood template. Is he an astronaut, a lounge lizard, or a motivational speaker? (I got the impression that the scriptwriters couldn’t quite agree on who or what he was.) The alien characters are fun because they’re just barefoot green 50s suburbanites (the women all have built-in high heels) doing 50s things, and even listening to 50s music. It’s a stretch, but this is a cartoon movie, and for the most part the alien side of things works. Teen alien Lem debates with his comic-store geek friend Skiff about the existence of, well, aliens. (I.e., humans.) Skiff is sure that we’re out here; Lem can’t take any of it seriously, at least until he has to hide Capt. Baker in his bedroom. Lem pines over alien girl Neera, whose growing sensitivity to social issues prompts her to hang out with a group of protesters led by a long-haired, guitar toting alien hippie jerk named Glar. (Bzzzzzt! Hippies had not yet evolved in 1959, and the friction between the two cultures suggest something more like 1965 than 1959.) Once knowledge of Baker’s landing escapes the boundaries of sleepy alien town Glipforg, the alien army converges on the town, under cool, sunglassed Patton-archetyped General Grawl, and acts pretty much like the US Army acts in all those 50s alien monster movies.

rover1.jpgThe film is carried largely by the brilliant little robot Rover, who acts like a very bright dog with a power screwdriver, and gets most of the good sight gags and physical humor, including a surreal riff on “Singin’ in the Rain,” as it rains…rocks. (Rover’s job is to pick up rocks, like any good interplanetary probe. Alien rain is thus a species of nirvana for him.)

There are some good laughs here, though not as many as I wanted. The mandatory cultural references come thick and fast, some of them so subtle that if you blink you’ll miss them. The big negative is that Baker’s character is almost entirely wasted, even as a comedic figure. I also think some of the potty humor was over the line, or at least it would have been when I was a 12-year-old.

But hey, it was good (if not completely clean) fun. I have a special fondness for Rover, because he was pretty much how I imagined a character in one of my published stories: a clever and lonely Mars probe also named Rover. (See “Bathtub Mary” in my collection Souls in Silicon.) Burger King actually has a Planet 51 tie-in going on right now, and if I could force myself to eat at Burger King I could get a Rover toy for my bookshelf. (I’ve done worse for less, so we’ll see…)

Cautiously recommended.

Hell Hath No Power Like a Bad Haircut

lookslikeagolem.png

I guess anybody in a Buster Brown ‘do starts to look like the Golem after awhile.

Review: Hellboy II

Not much would make me want to be 12 again. Halloween 1964 was great good fun (and on a Saturday!) but soon afterward, life started to get mighty weird. Ordinary girls who lived in ordinary houses and had ordinary names (like Terry, Laura, and Kathy—not a Samantha in the bunch!) became mysterious, mythic creatures who in defiance of my own will drew my fascination away from the trappings of a comfortable grade-school life, like flying kites, raiding the neighbors’ garbage on Wednesdays for broken radios and TVs, and…monster movies.

Monster movies were a big part of late grade-school culture in 1964. Cheesewad classics like The Crawling Eye and Curse of the Demon had scared the crap out of me when I was in third grade, but by the time I was 12 the experience was drifting in a new direction. The monsters were becoming less scary than ridiculous. And…we laughed. I think that boys discover bravery by laughing at the things that used to frighten them. (Some of us laughed at girls; most of us eventually called a truce and married them.)

Being home alone for the nonce (and it’s getting to be a lot of nonce, sigh) I rented a monster movie a few nights back and sat down to find the 12-year-old in myself, if there’s any of him left. The movie is Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and boy, if all monster movies were like that, I might be willing to go through puberty again. (Wait. No, strike that. Forget it. Never. Sheesh.)

I tepidly enjoyed my first viewing of the original 2004 Hellboy, and my admiration has grown after seeing it a few more times. In 2004 I didn’t recognize it for what it was: A ’60s monster movie with much better monsters—plus a monster we could identify with. Sympathetic monsters as a concept are not new. King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) pitted the anthropoid against the sauropod, and expected us to root for our nearer cousin. (This did not stop some of us from identifying with Godzilla.) Hellboy II, however, perfects this approach by completely understanding its audience and giving them absolutely everything they could want.

Hellboy‘s high concept is that of a toddler demon accidentally dragged into our dimension by a group of occultist Nazis in 1944. Hellboy, known to his buds as “Red,” is a poster child for the nurture side of the nature/nurture debate. Although nominally a son of Satan, he is raised with high standards in a secret military base by kindly Professor Bruttenholm (John Hurt) and keeps his horns ground down to stubs so they don’t skewer anybody accidentally. Sixty years later, Hellboy has a job for a paranormal Men-In-Black-ish agency, hunting evil occult-ish thingies with a revolver as big around as my thigh. As the 2008 film opens, Hellboy has an annoying new boss—a pompous German ghost who lives in a deep-sea diving suit—and the same hot girlfriend, the incendiary Liz (Selma Blair) who becomes a Johnny Storm-ish human torch whenever she gets annoyed. Hellboy annoys her at times, but he’s a hell boy, after all, and fire does nothing to him. The intellectual and C3PO-ish gill-man Abe Sapiens returns, carrying around Ghostbusters-ish paranormal thingie detectors and sounding befuddled.

The plot is conventional action-film fare: An evil albino kung-fu-ish elf named Prince Nuada wants all three parts of an ancient gold crown that would give him control over an army of 4,900 Tik-Tok-ish clockwork warriors, and mayhem ensues. I think most of us are a little tired of deranged albinos, I’m guessing real albinos most of all. It was purely gratuitous albinism, after all; Nuada could have been purple for all the difference it would have made. We 12-year-olds don’t care what color the monsters are. We just want to see their asses kicked, and imagine ourselves doing the kicking.

And that’s where Hellboy II excels: It knows what 12-year-old boys want, and ladles it on with a trowel. Guillermo Del Toro created the single most marvelous collection of monsters in film history, and has them all wandering around in the hollow portions of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Troll Market is nothing but monsters, and our good-guy freakos Hellboy and Abe don’t get a second look there, as they search for Nuada, belch, have repartee, get in fights, and generally wreck things. The humor is gross but nonsexual, the violence comic book-ish and not especially bloody, and through it all is an un-subtle invitation to 12-year-old boys to take it all in and…laugh.

The real secret is that Hellboy himself is a boy—just like us. He wants attention (he gets in trouble by posing for photos and signing autographs) and resents the constant implication that he’s freaky and unattractive. His life is a sort of prepubescent nirvana: He’s snotty and rude but heroic, as boys always like to imagine themselves. He’s got the biggest damned handgun I’ve ever seen. And he gets paid to make a mess.

The film has some weak spots where it goes too far toward the comic: Hellboy and Abe drink too much beer at one point and start singing “I Can’t Smile Without You” with Barry Manilow on the CD player. That aside, it’s a wonderfully effective montage of chases and fight scenes, with a weird Celtic steampunk-ish setting for the climactic battle against the Golden Army. It’s certainly derivative; in fact, it borrows from everything in sight, and may in fact be the most ish-ish film I’ve ever seen. But that didn’t keep it from being a great deal of fun. After it was done, I could only think: Well, I’ve taken care of the monsters. Now I just have to figure out girls.

Wait! Mission accomplished. The nice part about being 12 is that you’re not 13 yet. And the really great part about being 56 is that you’ve already been 13.

Highly recommended.

Odd Lots

  • Do not fail to read Bruce Schneier's latest short item in Wired, which is his simple demolition of David Brin's peculiar “transparent society” concept, which I first read of in his so-so novel Earth (1990) and thought was BS even then. Having no secrets doesn't help where the differential of power between two parties is high. This seems pretty obvious to me; I do not understand why Brin gets points for this “no secrets” notion of his.
  • Some of the worst horror films (as well as SF films and some westerns) can be streamed without charge here. Where else can you find “Attack of the Giant Leeches” or “Killer Shrews,” both of which I recall seeing on Channel 7 at 4 PM on Thursdays back 1965-ish. Even at age 12 I could roll my eyes and say, “Those aren't giant shrews. Those are dogs in bad shrew costumes.” But hey, that's what makes a B-movie a B-movie, right?
  • It may be clever, but can a gun this small really be deadly? (That is, assuming you don't aim it up your left nostril…)
  • This is freaking amazing: Images of a landslide on Mars, taken while it's happening. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Jim Strickland pointed out a pneumatic tennis-ball based antenna launcher. We always used slingshots back in the day, and I have a Greenlee Cablecaster that was designed for dragging CAT5 over suspended ceilings via fishline, but something about the ball shooter is very appealing.
  • Glover Wright is bringing back Science Fiction Quarterly as an online pub, and it looks promising. I recall reading a few ancient issues of the original SF Quarterly pulps from the late 50s and was pleased, though the world and I were, um, at least thirty years younger then. The first issue will be out in March.
  • Gripe of the week: The keycap letters on my expensive Avant Stellar keyboard are decals, and they are already wearing off. It's only been a year. What's this thing going to look like after another ten?
  • Speaking of keyboards: I need a wireless keyboard for use while sitting on the couch and running photos or video clips on our big TV. The SX270 is under the TV in plain view of the couch. The keyboard needs to have an integral pointing device. (I prefer things like IBM's TrackPoint nipple to the ubiquitous scratchpad.) Anybody got any suggestions?