Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Yup, I'm a nerd

Final score, 6 out of 7, and 22 seconds left on the clock:

Aquaman Left Spyware on My Hard Drive

I used to love You Don't Know Jack on WebTV--even if nobody ever wanted to play with me. (Can I help it if I have quick reflexes?) I'm glad Jellyvision is still producing content, but they really need to find a better delivery/distribution method. No RSS feed? Banner ads? That is so Web 1.0.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Doom and Doomer

I made the mistake of watching Doom last night, the movie based on the video game... And ye gods, was it awful. I mean, ever since I saw the trailer last year, I was expecting the worst, and still my expectations of badness were exceeded.

Which is not to say there weren't some good ideas buried beneath all the schlock. I appreciate that the screenwriters actually tried to do something interesting with the story, and that The Rock was willing to tweak his macho screen persona in the service of a few plot twists--but none of those evanescent gleams of creativity was enough to salvage the experience.

To add insult to injury, the FPS sequence was an absolute joke. It was embarrassing to watch. I've seen better sequences, with more tension, in amusement park rides--in Looney Tunes, for crying out loud!

And then the third act turns into a bad kung fu movie. I'm not even kidding. Just stay away.

Ever since Aliens, people have been ripping off James Cameron's kick-ass Space Marines in movies, TV, and video games--including, whaddyaknow, DOOM. It's pretty clear that the filmmakers here didn't understand anything about the game and why it became such a phenomenon. It wasn't about team tactics or technobabble; it was about you, the player, fighting off hordes of inexplicable monsters all by yourself. Alone, with limited weapons and resources, while dodging demons that throw fucking fireballs at you.

The movie attempts to recreate some of that ducking-through-the-corridors suspense, but it's just not the same when you've got teams of two men moving in cover formation. And heavy metal. Did I mention the annoying heavy metal music, which is no substitute for the actual adrenaline rush of surprise?

We shall speak of this no more. Some good movies I've seen lately:

The Holiday - fluffy, inoffensive, enjoyably sentimental. Kate Winslet and Jack Black make a cute couple, and apparently Eli Wallach is now the go-to guy for Hollywood nostalgia.

Stranger Than Fiction - offbeat and friendly. Loved Emma Thompson, and was pleasantly surprised by Will Ferrell's restraint. Not as remarkably mind-blowing as Being John Malkovich or even Adaptation, but arresting on a different level.

Casino Royale - as everyone says: liked Daniel Craig, thought the film was a bit long--especially what my wife called the "Harlequin romance" sequence in the middle. And Eva Green's character, so promising when introduced, fizzles at the end.

And on DVD:

Crash - good? Yes. Best Picture? Shrug.

The Break-Up - which I rented only because there's a cappella in it (including ex-Bob Gunnar Madsen and members of Chicago group Vocal Chaos). Otherwise, nothing special.

House of Games - David Mamet's directorial debut. Good stuff, but I saw through the con from a mile away, and the dialogue was more stilted than usual--yes, even for him.

D and I will do our traditional day-at-the-movies over the Xmas break, but first, we've still got the second season of House to finish off...


Monday, December 04, 2006

"Ghosts of Earth"

My third story published at 365 tomorrows! Read it now, then discuss amongst yourselves.

I wrote this just before Halloween, and it has nothing to do with that similarly titled John Carpenter movie. I am thinking about expanding it into a longer story, possibly even re-using the premise for next year's NaNoWriMo, but I really have no idea where I'd go with it-- how do you write dialogue when all your characters are incorporeal minds who can interact directly at the speed of thought? That's crazy!

Speaking of Halloween, D and I finally saw Monster House over the weekend, and it was very good-- much better than I had expected from the trailers, which made it seem like yet another empty-headed, FX-heavy animated romp. Next time I'll pay more attention to the "Produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg" credit. Those two aren't perfect storytellers (see What Lies Beneath and the E.T. 20th anniversary edition), but they've got good instincts and hit more than they miss. Also, the motion-capture animation actually looked decent here-- much better than the unrelentingly creepy Polar Express-- which gives me hope for next year's Beowulf.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hiking? If nothing else, bring a whistle.

A couple, both around 30 years of age, were recently found after getting lost in a local state park and spending 5 days there. My wife was struck by the story and pointed it out to me because the park they got lost in was Castle Rock State Park, a spot favored by local rock climbers, and a park we've frequently visited.

I'm definitely happy the couple was found, but I was extremely bothered by the article. The quote that bothered me the most:

"They deserve a lot of credit,'' Freeman [leader of one of the search and rescue teams] said, "because they had the most important piece of equipment out there when you are lost, and that is the determination that they were going to get found.''

They didn't have the most important equipment -- in fact, they hadn't prepared at all. I think comments like this ignore the fact that when you are hiking in an unfamiliar area, you need to be prepared, even when it's a casual walk in the woods. They got rescued but this easily could have been a tragedy because they were so incredibly unprepared in an area that was brand-new to them.

Arnaud Stehle was dressed in a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. His wife, Maria, was dressed in t-shirt and pants. They carried no water, no extra clothing, no emergency whistle, no headlamp or small flashlight. Their clothing indicates that they didn't know evening temperatures, and they didn't get a sense for when sunset occurs. (They got lost because after the sun set, they became disoriented -- something definitely scary.)

Thankfully, they DID tell friends where they were going -- that alone probably saved their lives. But please folks, if you carry nothing else when you're hiking, carry an emergency whistle. It's tiny, weighs nothing in your pocket, and costs $4.50 at REI. The one I've linked to is the Mini Fox 40 but any whistle which is: 1) loud, 2) pea-less (doesn't have that little ball in the whistle which if frozen or wet will sometimes stop the whistle from working), and 3) made of high-impact plastic will work. My wife keeps one clipped on her backpack whereever she goes and when we hike, we each carry one in the possibility that we get separated. Really, it's the cheapest insurance you can carry. Knowing morse code for SOS (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot) will help but just blowing the whistle will carry your signal further than yelling plus when weak from exposure, lack of food, etc. you can still whistle while yelling becomes extremely difficult.

There are lots of other things that one can carry -- space blankets, waterproof matches, compasses, signal mirrors, extra food and water, warmer layers, mini headlamps, light raingear, etc. etc. -- but it's understandable on a casual walk through the woods, much of it may be onerous.

Just bring the whistle -- please. It could save your life.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Studio 60 Antidote?

I've wanted to like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the latest Aaron Sorkin TV show. I loved the West Wing and Sports Night, both Aaron Sorkin-written shows. I'm a huge fan of Matthew Perry (from Friends fame) and Bradley Whitford (from West Wing fame). And I'm plugging away at the Studio 60 episodes, devotedly watching them, but I just can't get hooked on it. It has a moment here and there, but everything feels so uninvolved. It doesn't pull me in -- it feels somehow... disconnected.

This sentiment is nothing new -- a lot of popular press has echoed similar opinions of failed expectations. So I found myself wondering in the shower (where all good thinking happens) why Studio 60 has struggled, especially when the West Wing was such a hit.

I realized two things:

Studio 60 lacks a dramatic timing. Sorkin's shows share the same fast paced, on-your-toes dialogue but his other shows have stopped that back-and-forth at key times to make a dramatic point or let a serious event sink in with the audience. In the most recent episode ("B-12" where the cast all gets sick from flu), there are several moments where the characters were at a point where their characters could have been drawn out more seriously but it gets interrupted by classic Sorkin devices -- a witty allusion, a back-and-forth joke establishing palsiness, or the characters move and the camera moves with them. In short, the show is paced too fast. It needs to slow down and spend time with some of the heavier, more serious sides. In B-12, there's a moment where a current event in the show echoes a character's personal tragedy. The moment the show spends letting that sink in with the audience is one of the first times in the show I've felt a tug that lasted after the show.

Maybe more importantly, the subjects of those moments don't ring true enough with the audience. Which leads into the second reason...

Studio 60 deals with an environment/world in which heroes are difficult to find and make. In ER, doctors save lives. In West Wing, politicians sacrifice politically smart moves to make decisions which pave the way for thousands of people. In crime dramas, detectives protect people. And sometimes these heroes fail and that failure becomes additionally tragic because these heroes tried so hard. In Studio 60, writers and producers can... make good comedy? Be true to their muses in spite of studio pressure? It just doesn't make for as dramatic triumphs and tragedies. Even the trumphs ring hollow after a while. The skits we see in Studio 60 are high-minded and intellectual -- making them even the triumphs questionable.
The losses on the line for our characters are equally shallow. Short of Jordan McDeere's job being on the line all the time, there's little that our characters risk or lose during the shows. Sure, Matt might write a show that wasn't up to his standards, more people might discover that Danny had a drug problem, and ultimately the show might be cancelled, but we don't get the sense that they are dealing with important risks -- risks that we identify with. Maybe it's because they're dealing with risks that don't affect us directly enough.

In short, it seems like Studio 60 lacks exactly what its genre is: drama. While I certainly hope we don't arrive at "In a special episode of Studio 60", I do hope it can connect with its audiences and create us some heroes we will be addicted to.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I'm a winner!

A NaNoWriMo winner, anyway. National Novel Writing Month doesn't end for another two days, but I'm done. I passed the requisite 50,000-word mark on Saturday, and I needed just a little more time to figure out how to properly end my story.

If you'd like to check out the crappy first draft, here it is: Waypoint Kangaroo, a robust tale of interplanetary intrigue in which seafood makes a brief appearance.

The funny thing is, I didn't understand until last week what I was actually writing about. As accomplished TV writer Jane Espenson points out, any script can be broken down into two loglines (brief descriptions): "what it's about" and "what it's REALLY about." The first one tells you the literal events that take place in the story. The second tells you the reason for writing that particular story.

In my case, the literal events are an obvious allegory for 9/11, and writing this story was very therapeutic. The reason for writing this story, however, is less temporal; it's about family and finding your place in the world. The second draft should reflect that better.


Just Like Elvis

Full disclosure: I am, in general, not a fan of hip-hop, rap, or R&B. Every now and then a song will come along that I enjoy, but overall, those particular musical genres don't appeal to me.

It is, then, perhaps not surprising that I should find whiter-than-white covers of classic rap songs more amusing than others might.

(Why am I writing like this? Because I just watched several hours of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry being veddy British in Jeeves and Wooster. Good stuff, what!)

I discovered Jonathan Coulton earlier this month, thanks to Dr. Demento opening a recent show with Coulton's cover of "Baby Got Back" (requires Flash). And today, after perusing The Torontoist's much-blogged-about article on cover songs, I found Nina Gordon's acoustic "Straight Out of Compton" (2.1MB mp3). Both are brilliant. Note, however, that the latter contains explicit lyrics and frequent droppings of "the F-bomb," and the former trades in graphic euphemisms for a myriad of sexual acts. You may not wish to "pump up the volume" on these tunes while in the company of young children or co-workers.

(The other reason I'm writing like this is because I'm currently reading John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise. He is insane-- but in a good way, and thus we prefer to call him "mad.")

Speaking of the royal "we," I simply must link to John Rogers' agent's account of the Royal Premiere of Casino Royale (a.k.a. James Bond 21). If you've seen the movie, you can probably guess the central, er, nugget of his anecdote.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Netflix in da House

As I was re-sorting my Netflix movies just now, I noticed something interesting. Here are the four titles I have checked out:

House, M.D.: Season 1: Disc 6
House of Games
Monster House

I guess my subconscious is trying to tell me something about my current addiction.

So I did the obvious thing: put Crash up front so we'd watch it next, and bumped House of Mirth up to the top of my queue. Why fight it?

Of course, it might be a while before we watch any movies, since both D and I are deep in the midst of NaNoWriMo. Today is the halfway point, and I'm doing pretty well, as you can see. But it's far from over.

My biggest problem now is writing myself out of a corner-- I thought it'd be fun to try a closed-room murder mystery, but it turns out that those are pretty tricky, and I've resorted to making shit up just to get past it so I can move on to the real reason I wanted to write this particular story. I won't spoil it for you, but let's just say it involves huge spaceships moving really really fast. And who doesn't love that?


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Every Topic In The Universe Except Chickens

As detailed in Dinosaur Comics, this may be the only way to save Wikipedia!

Plus it's a fun excuse to say "Fictional Jimbo Wales" over and over again.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Happy Election Day!

I don't care how you vote today; I just want you to get out there and stuff those ballot boxes! Uh, that didn't come out quite right.

I also love John Rogers' metaphor of the current administration as a questionable hook-up:
We get it. Bush didn't seem at all crazy when you met him at the club. And sure you dabbled in faith-based stuff, and maybe his foreign policy was a little naive, but come on -- sexy, sexy tax cuts.

But then things got out of control, and kinkier and kinkier and next thing you know you're in a war with no occupation planning and no exit strategy and being told that's okay and back off...

But let's not get distracted. Point is -- questionable hook-ups. We, as ordinary citizens, all know how we get out of this: you stop returning the crazy person's calls. We promise never to bring it up when drinking...

Don't return their calls [today]. It'll suck for a while, and they may bomb Iran to get your attention, and you'll get lots of screaming and crying about how they're the only ones who love you and can protect you from Osama and the gays, but you dig in, man up, come over and watch a few baseball games,and ride it out. You'll probably have to hang tough through 2008, when they have that fake rehab "No baby, I'm okay now, come with me to group" bullshit going on. Don't fall for it. Cra. zy.

--Kung Fu Monkey: I Still Miss Republicans

Monday, November 06, 2006

Lame Argument of the Day (Not Mine)

At the "Pete Rates the Propositions" site, the eponymous author sets forth a Semi-Biennial Lecture on Bonds, which basically says "don't worry about interest rates or repayment" and concludes thusly:
There is one last reason to vote for a bond measure. In addition to being formal requests for permission to take out loans, bond measures are also looked upon as referenda on the merits of the proposed projects. If a bond measure fails, legislators are likely to believe that the public feels the project is not worthy of receiving state funding. By voting no, you may have meant, “Yes on the project but no on the bonds,” but your message to Sacramento will read, “No on the project.” So if you vote down a bond measure just because you don't like bonds, you may well have killed forever the project the bonds were to have funded.

To which my wife says, "Pete can suck my dick!" I'm inclined to agree.

Of course, she also points out that Californians have never met a bond measure they didn't like, so most of this year's propositions will likely pass anyway. But it's a sad illustration of the worst kind of liberalism: social responsibility without fiscal responsibility.

I don't have a strong closing, so I'll just stop here. Don't forget to vote.


Child's Play 2006

If you're looking for a way to take the edge off your liberal guilt this holiday season, look no further than Child's Play, a charity organized by the Penny Arcade guys to benefit sick children in five countries-- and, as a bonus, combat the public perception that gamers (and video games) are good for nothing.

In their own words: "We collect no administrative fees [my link -ed.] or other charges, 100% of all gifts and donations go directly to our partner hospitals, to help make life a little brighter for a sick child... When gamers give back, it makes a difference!"

Can't handle the pressure of actually selecting which games or toys to donate? You can also make a monetary contribution via PayPal.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Yellow Rose of Democracy

Here's your head-trip for the day: the last song in the They Might Be Giants Podcast 9A is an anthem for the Democratic Party, sung by a men's chorus to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

I'm sure I don't have to spell out the irony for you.

The recording quality sounds like something from the early 20th century, so I don't feel bad about transcribing the lyrics here:
Oh, the Democratic Party
is for you and you and you
it works for all the people
and not for just a few

For(?) the barman in the city
for the big man and the small
oh, the Democratic Party
is the only one for all

From the north and south
from east and west we come
Singing the donkey's(?) serenade
c'mon and beat that drum

We'll march along together
and on Election Day
we're voting Democratic
'cause we're voting for the U.S.A.!


PayPal attacked, literally

Just found out that a bomb exploded at PayPal (now owned by eBay) in San Jose last night. No one was injured. I normally wouldn't post local news, but I have friends who work there. I know they're safe, and I hope they're not too traumatized.

This also seems like a good time to point out that most "terrorist" attacks in the U.S. are carried out by white, conservative, native-born citizens. Racial profiling is a bad idea because it doesn't work.

I can't understand what makes a man hate another man. Help me understand! Actually, on second thought, I don't want to understand. I just want to identify and incarcerate those people. Stop checking passports and start checking credit records.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Joke of the Day

From a co-worker...
A passenger in a taxi leaned over to ask the driver a question and tapped him on the shoulder. The driver screamed, lost control of the cab, nearly hit a bus, drove up over the curb, and stopped just inches from a large plate glass window.

For a few moments everything was silent in the cab, and then the still shaking driver said, "I'm sorry but you scared the daylights out of me."

The frightened passenger apologized to the driver and said he didn't realize a mere tap on the shoulder could frighten him so much.

The driver replied, "No, no, I'm sorry, it's entirely my fault. Today is my first day driving a cab. I've been driving a hearse for the last 25 years."

Happy Halloween!


Sunday, October 29, 2006


Read my new short story at 365 tomorrows:


I know a lot of people who have birthdays in October: Jeff (currently overseas), Suzie (Loren's wife), my wife D, and myself, just to name a few. Today, the 29th, is my mother-in-law's birthday. And our friend Cary says his sister and his grandmother have the same birthday as D. Spooky!


P.S. Yes, I know it's very difficult to OD on ibuprofen. All I can say is, them astronauts is mighty clever.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pancake, sausage, stick. Any questions?

Jon Stewart must love days like this, when the show practically writes itself.

And yes, folks, that's a real product: Jimmy Dean Pancake and Sausage on a Stick.

The only question you need to ask yourself is, "Do I want the 14-pack or the 18-pack?" Unless you're south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in which case you'll be asking: "Pan-fried, or deep-fried?" But we all know there's really only one answer to that question.


Thursday, October 19, 2006


Someday I'll look back on this and laugh. Right now I'm just embarrassed.

But I choose to look at it this way: the story was worth 39¢ and an envelope to them.

Earlier this month, I submitted three stories to three different magazines, and forgot to include an SASE with, or write "DISPOSABLE" on, any of the manuscripts. Yeah. 'cause I'm smart like that. And by the way, none of the stories was really very good-- I found them in my old computer files while I was prepping for NaNoWriMo and decided, what the hell, I might as well start collecting rejection slips now. And I have!

As D pointed out, my other mistake with this particular story might have been dropping the F-bomb far too liberally, starting in the second paragraph.* Respectable magazines generally don't like to print too much of that sort of thing. Good to know.

I suspect the other two manuscripts aren't coming back. They won't fit in a #10 envelope, and it's too much trouble for editors to deal with a clueless n00b like me. (in Napoleon Dynamite voice) Idiot! It's probably just as well-- I can and should write better stories now. Just gotta get into the habit of actually finishing them and then sending them out into the world to seek their fortune.

Hey, did I mention that "Antique" was published on the flash-fiction web site 365 tomorrows? That didn't suck.


* She asked me: "Were you listening to the Penny Arcade podcast when you wrote this?" But no, it was years before I ever met those hooligans, so I can't claim them as a bad influence.

House is the new Law & Order

D and I have recently become addicted to House, the Fox show about the grumpy gimpy doc who solves medical mysteries. I was first intrigued by the frequent references to it on TV writer Jane Espenson's blog, and when she kept pointing out the title character's similarities to Sherlock Holmes-- well, that was an easy sell.

Structurally, the show is very similar to Law & Order Classic: a cold open featuring the victim succumbing to his or her ailment, followed by four acts of misdiagnoses and treatments-- which slowly reveal more about the nature of the illness-- and often a B-plot featuring supporting characters, before the resolution in the fifth act.

Formulaic, yes, but that's part of what makes it so satisfying. I love watching intelligent, competent people solve difficult problems. And unlike L&O, the personalities and personal histories of the individual characters actually figure into the stories. You might think this means I also like the L&O spinoffs, especially Criminal Intent, but you'd be wrong. TV shows must strike a delicate balance between plot, character, and tone, and many contemporary cop dramas just don't do it for me. (BBC's Life on Mars is a different story. Literally.)

House is on a brief hiatus right now, but we're burning our way through the first season on DVD. Love that Netflix!


Saturday, October 14, 2006


Read my short story at 365 tomorrows, the daily flash fiction site:


It's less than 500 words, so it won't take you long. Then, if you have anything to say, feel free to share it on the forums.

This is my first officially submitted-and-published work of fiction, and it feels pretty damn good to see that title: "ANTIQUE by Curtis C. Chen." I could definitely get used to this.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tales of the Brin-y Deep

Today, I picked up a library copy of Tomorrow Happens and read the first story, a prequel to the Uplift Universe novels. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that dolphins are involved.

The title of the story?


Smoke me a kipper, I'll be back for breakfast.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

But which one is the superhero?

Last night, I attended a Neil Gaiman event (my third in two days, but that's another story) at Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park. During the Q&A, someone asked how Neil's Jewish heritage and upbringing had affected his writing, if at all. He said he wasn't sure, but told a good joke about a rabbi and his driver.

Later, as I watched Neil brushing his mop of dark hair back, it occurred to me-- Jewish? Storyteller? Likes to wear black clothes and sunglasses? Wry sense of humor? And the face, fully revealed in that brief moment, seemed awfully similar to another one I'd seen elsewhere...

A Google image search this morning provided the photographic evidence, confirming my suspicions.

Neil Gaiman

Richard Lewis

I mean, think about it. Have you ever seen the two of them together at the same time?


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Flying toasters are so 1989

I think I've figured out why I don't like the new Battlestar Galactica. As Kevin Smith said on Ebert & Roeper, "it's more drama than sci-fi [sic]." In fact, it's fantasy, but doesn't want to admit it. And that bugs me.

George Lucas got a free pass with his preface: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far away" (basically "Once upon a time"); but the producers of "BSG" have set their show in a universe where our Earth apparently exists, yet they never attempt to explain why-- well, I'll let The Flick Filosopher speak to this point:
Hey, wait: American accent? Aren't these people supposed to be on the other side of the galaxy or whatever, separated from the humans of Earth long before there was an America? What gives?

This may be the worst thing about this new Galactica: It looks like the society of the part of Earth we call the industrialized West, maybe a few years into the future, and where everyone dresses really sharp, like Armani did all the costumes. The captain of a civilian spaceplane, for instance, gives welcome-aboard and if-you-look-out-the-left-window speeches that are a stunning instance of pangalactic synchronicity. I mean, c'mon: The French think we're insane because we refrigerate our cheese, and let's not even get into how alien the Japanese are, and yet these people on the other side of the Crab Nebula would fit in right next door?
The original Galactica at least laid out its premise in the opening voiceover, and as cheesy and ridiculous as the "ancient astronauts" hokum was even then, it was enough. And they committed to that premise, with the wacky Egyptian flight helmets and made-up slang. It was clear where they were coming from and what they expected the audience to believe; I didn't have to wonder why expressions like "scot free" and "laughingstock" (both uttered by Ellen Tigh in "Resistance") would even exist in a world with completely different cultural histories. I just don't buy it.

Which brings us to the names: the BSG writers toss around names like "Apollo" and "Troy," names that are familiar in our real-world mythology, but use them haphazardly, without any connection or resonance. Why name someone "Apollo" if you're not going to explain or exploit the significance of the name? Why waste such a rich opportunity for establishing character?

This kind of thing works if you're using those references for effect, as in the satire of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the book, not the ghodawful movie). But BSG does nothing with these references; they just sit there, like interchangeable serial numbers, only used to label things, not to imbue meaning.

I mean, you wouldn't give the Lee Adama character a middle name of "Harvey." Because that's just too loaded (so to speak). The closest they came to actually getting leverage out of a name was establishing that a character who turns out to be a Cylon came from a city named Troy-- Trojan horse, get it?-- but there are so many other missed opportunities, it breaks my heart. They barely even acknowledge the original series, almost as if they're ashamed of it. So then why re-use the name, the premise, the characters, the structure?

Look, I'm not saying it's a bad show. It's just not for me.

Back in 1991, there was a brilliant episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled "Darmok." The featured aliens, the Tamarians, spoke entirely in metaphors. If you didn't know their stories, if you didn't know who Darmok and Jalad were and what happened at Tenagra, you couldn't communicate with them.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with the new BSG. It doesn't build on the established power of its names, or tweak their existing mythological connections to any effect; it simply uses them because they happen to sound cool. Because they sound like they should mean something. But they don't.

It's not for me.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Countdown to NaNoWriMo

Less than one month before the fun starts! I've got my premise, main characters, basic outline, and the cold open. I've worked out the flow of a few scenes and one of the major set pieces. I still need to nail down some of the math and science (yes, it's going be one of those novels), but I'm feeling pretty good about it right now.

Working title: Waypoint Kangaroo. I'll come up with something better. Maybe.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Banned Books

Check out Google Book Search: Celebrate Your Freedom to Read, released to coincide with Banned Books Week (September 23-30). I dream of one day writing something audacious enough to provoke such strong reactions from my readers.

I wouldn't say that all art has to be "challenging," but I think the most interesting art defies expectations in some way. It doesn't have to be surprising, like a twist ending to a story, but it should be revelatory, even if subtly.

Speaking of books... I just finished reading the late Octavia E. Butler's Mind of my Mind, which was published in 1977. It's pretty sparse as far as novels go, and a lot of things go unspoken but are clearly set-ups for future stories in the Patternist series. Recommended.


Still Speaking of TV

(At Bryan's request, I've reformatted the quoted email sections for readability.)

Deadwood is great, but very particular. You may want to give it a
couple more episodes.

Karin was firmer in her "no" vote than I. We had a couple of problems with
it. First, and perhaps this is just me getting old, but I found it very
difficult to understand what the characters were saying. I had to keep
rewinding scene after scene which just made watching the episode more work
than fun. Maybe the sampler disc we were viewing contained a bad copy of the
pilot, but the picture looked great and we didn't have the sound problem
with the other pilots on the disc. Perhaps the fault lies with the sound
crew for the show.

Yeah, we still have that problem sometimes-- it's not a technical issue, it's just the way the dialogue is written. I actually like it; it's almost Shakespearean in its vocabulary and rhythms, and the juxtaposition with the filthy environment is central to the show, IMHO. And speaking of filth...

The second problem we had with the show was its anachronistic use of foul
language. I'm no prude and I like fucking foul language as much as the next
guy, but even in the rough-and-tumble old west I doubt there was much use of
bodily-function-oriented foul language. My understanding is that the foul
language of choice back then was sacrilegious since that was more taboo at
the time. In later years, as sacrilegious language began to lose its edge,
bodily-function language became more in vogue. In addition, the use of foul
language seemed over-frequent and gratuitous. I could just picture HBO execs
telling the writers to add in more foul language and nudity (and spectacular
gore) so they could demonstrate the difference in content between
premium-cable and free-network fare. Again, it isn't so much the subject
matter (language, nudity, gore) I mind as much as its unnecessary use. If
the show contained frequent and unnecessary references to ping-pong I would
have had a similar objection.

I get that. I couldn't watch NYPD Blue because of the ridiculuous camera work, which would jerk around constantly and for no reason, even during static scenes. I know it was supposed to artificially increase tension, and didn't otherwise affect the quality of the writing or acting, but it irritated me so much that I couldn't watch it at all.

So maybe Deadwood just isn't for you. I will say that not all the characters are uniformly foul-mouthed, and later episodes are more judicious in their use of certain... phrases. If you're a Veronica Mars fan, you may want to rent the episodes "Bullock Returns To The Camp" and "Suffer The Little Children" to see Kirsten Bell in a very different role. (And if you're not a Veronica Mars fan, that's another good show you should check out.)

After reading about all the new shows, there wasn't a single one I felt
excited about seeing. The best I could muster was a half-hearted stirring to
maybe give one or two a try. True, I was reading about them in TV Guide,
which I subscribed to when it changed formats and within a few issues
decided THAT was a big mistake. That magazine has become SO fluffy and
breathless I can barely stand wading through it to get information about
what's coming up. I'm letting my subscription run out. If only I could find
a source of serious and discerning editorial opinion about TV shows!
Entertainment Weekly sometimes hits the mark, but I usually can't get past
its smart-alecky hipster tone.

I usually flip through EW and read the few articles I care about in each issue. I don't mind the snarkiness too much.

I listen to the KFOG podcast, on which TV critic Tim Goodman shows up a few times a month-- it's fun because he discusses things with other people, and generally knows what he's talking about. It's a short segment and thus not very in-depth, but has pointed me to interesting things. The podcast is clearly labeled so you can just listen to Tim Goodman's segments:


Of course, if you don't like Tim Goodman, that's probably not for you either. :)


Thursday, September 21, 2006

Speaking of TV

(At Bryan's request, I've reformatted the quoted email sections for readability.)

Speaking of TV, what are you guys watching these days? DeeAnn and I
just got addicted to "House", and are trying to make the last season
of "Deadwood" last for a while...

Well, believe it or not, you two got us totally hooked on another series:
Battlestar Galactica. After you gave us the season 1 DVDs, I went out and
got the mini-series. I'd seen it before and liked it, but hadn't thought
much about it since. I liked the mini-series much more the second time. I
think the first time I saw it I couldn't see past the original show
(embarrassed to say I'm a fan). The second time I judged the mini-series
solely on its own merits. By the end of the first episode of the 1st season,
I was hooked, Karin about half a season later. We've since bought and
watched season 2.0 and 2.5.

Now that we've seen all the episodes of Battlestar, we're casting about for
a new show to watch. What we really want is another drama series like
Battlestar, Lost, Buffy/Angel, or Babylon 5, with long story arcs,
feature-film-like production values, and ideally (but not necessarily) in
the science-fiction genre. Suggestions? We picked up this DVD that has the
pilots for four HBO series. It has Entourage, Deadwood, Big Love, and Rome.
We've watched Entourage and Deadwood, but weren't impressed enough with
either one to buy the 1st season DVDs. We've watched a few of the new series
(Justice, Eureka, Psych), but so far they've all been duds.

Deadwood is great, but very particular. You may want to give it a couple more episodes. It's available from Netflix:


Rome is absolutely amazing-- like "I, Claudius," but grittier. Season 2 starts in November, and season 1 is on DVD.

Carnivale only lasted 2 seasons on HBO, but it was fantastic in every sense of the word. If you haven't seen it, I think it's exactly what you're looking for. On DVD now.

I really liked "Murder One," the ABC series from the 1990s. It was billed as "a novel for television," and I think that might have put off a lot of people who weren't ready to commit up front. The first season was great, except for the deus-ex-machina ending. The second season wasn't quite as engrossing, but still good.

Of the new shows, "Studio 60" looks pretty good based on the pilot and its pedigree. It's written by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote "Sports Night" and the first few seasons of "The West Wing." I personally love all his stuff; he and Joss Whedon are probably the only two creators I'd follow anywhere.

I have high hopes and low expectations for "Heroes."

I'm sure "Shark" will be entertaining, if only because of James Woods. "Smith" and "Jericho" both sound interesting, but I'm reserving judgment until I see a few episodes.

We watched a few episodes of "Blade: The Series," which seemed to have an interesting premise and set-up (warring vampire clans), but I think we've pretty much given up on it at this point.

I've even been looking at some British drama serials to see if there's
something we might like. I found this page:
http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/tv/100/list/genre.php?gid=2 so I'm
considering some of those. Have you ever seen any of the Quatermass stuff?
Is it worth watching? I think I saw 'Five Million Years To Earth'
(Quatermass and the Pit, the movie) once when I was a kid and was terrified
by it.

I've never seen the Quatermass series, but I liked the movie too. :)

I've heard good things about "The Sandbaggers," a British spy series from the 1970s.

I've been watching "Hex" on BBC America, and it's not bad-- I haven't seen every episode, and it sometimes takes itself too seriously, but the end of the first season had some spiffy, almost Whedonesque plot twists.

I really like "Life on Mars," also on BBC America-- it's kind of like Quantum Leap meets The Streets of San Francisco, but set in Manchester, England. Unfortunately, they cut down the episodes to fit the 1-hour broadcast time slot, and it's often very obvious. This is especially annoying since they don't trim other shows like "Footballers Wives." I'm probably just going to get the UK DVDs, which are also widescreen. :)

Hope this helps!


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Punchline

"For a moment there, I really planned to drive up to a drug store, buy a 4 oz container of personal lubricant, empty it out, wash it and refill it with toothpaste."
-- Neil Gaiman, Terrorism and my toothpaste

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bruce Schneier Facts: something for everyone

The math geek in me likes these random facts about the renowned, nay, mythical security expert:

#24: Bruce Schneier once found three distinct natural number divisors of a prime number.

#51: When Bruce Schneier does modulo arithmetic, there are no remainders. Ever.

The puzzler in me loves these:

#40: A vigenere cipher with the Key "BRUCESCHNEIER" is in fact unbreakable.

#61: When Bruce Schneier uses double ROT13 encryption, the ciphertext is totally unbreakable.

And the writer in me thinks these are classic:

#33: Bruce Schneier writes his books and essays by generating random alphanumeric text of an appropriate length and then decrypting it.

#27: Most people use passwords. Some people use passphrases. Bruce Schneier uses an epic passpoem, detailing the life and works of seven mythical Norse heroes.

Absurdity. It's not just for breakfast any more.

(Thanks to John Rogers for the pointer, and Chuck Norris Facts for inspiring the spinoff.)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Two Million Dollar Comma

$2.13 million, actually. See if you can spot the offending punctuation below:
Page 7 of the contract states: The agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
Think you've got it? Go read the Globe and Mail story and see if you're right!

I will also take this opportunity to shill for Lynne Truss' book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

Dreams, Forgetting, Capitalism, Game

Lest you think Loren has staged some kind of coup d'état around here, I'm posting this quick thought.

A few nights ago, I had the first dream I could remember in a long time. It was more disjointed than usual, and also more topical-- there were elements from my current work life in there, plus people I know and news of the day (via The Daily Show, of course).

To summarize: in the dream, I had to go on a business trip to Iraq (because, y'know, they love the web apps over there), and before I left, I went out with some friends and wanted to sing a karaoke song for my wife. Only I couldn't remember the title of the song, even though it was a well-known Elvis tune and I'd sung it just a few days ago in real life. I kept trying to think of the song title in the dream, but then it was morning, and when I walked outside it was into a street of ruins and rubble. I think a car picked me up at some point, and there was something about missing my flight and not really wanting to go to Iraq, but after that my memory gets hazy.

The recurring motif seemed to be forgetting things, which has been bothering me of late during preparations for The Game. We collect a lot of data and supplies, but we're so busy that we don't always keep them organized. So we end up losing track of things that become important later. I don't know why this bothers me so much, but it always has-- I don't like losing things or misplacing things. It's one of those irrational, emotional responses, probably born out of various things I witnessed or experienced as a child. I blame my parents.

Last year, one of my friends sold off most of his considerable DVD movie collection. This was partly to pay the rent, but also to unencumber himself:
It has been said that a thing only has the power you give it. Recently, I have been realizing that I have given far too much power to the things in my life, allowing them to weigh me down and prevent necessary change. So I have decided to take back that power by selling off pretty much everything I own that is not irreplaceable.
There's a sort of innate tension in all of us, I think, between "having stuff" (as George Carlin might put it) and "having something to lose."

On one hand, it's good to have nice things, useful things, and to own them so nobody else messes with them (cf. the tragedy of the commons). Ownership is a powerful concept.

On the other hand, owning something means that you have to protect it from would-be thieves. And you might envy the lifestyle of those criminals, perhaps even glamorize it in popular dramas, thinking that there is always more stuff in the "hoard" of accumulated human artifacts that you're free to borrow as needed, because the fat cats you steal from are too rich for their own good anyway.

But the latter notion is false. Without the people who work to build a civilization, there is nothing for the thieves to steal. You can't have rustlers without something to rustle. And maybe the system is imperfect and unfair, but deciding whether you're going to exploit it, repair it, or ignore it says a lot about your character.

My point is, I don't feel silly for being somewhat attached to certain things. I recognize that they can be replaced, and collecting wealth is not my purpose in life, but it's part of my life.

In the end, the only real value is sentimental value. There are things that we would do for love that we would never do for money.

The Game, for example.

Back to it.

Hoodwinked (into wasting a couple hours)

When the movie Hoodwinked first opened, it seemed intriguing. A very different animation style, very smart and clever bits in the trailers - I was curious.

We watched it recently, and it's startling that a movie could have so many low points.

Even more surprising are the comments at movie forums like IMDB -- people either loved this movie or hated this movie with very few on the fence. As I read the comments, I found myself more firmly entrenched. The proponents of the movie generally talked about how the directors/producers/writers were unencumbered by studio demands and thus were able to create a more focused, undiluted movie. I don't think an undiluted movie is a good movie -- it's just a focused, bad movie.

Yes, it was clever to look at the same story from 4 different first-person perspectives. Yes, the characters are all very different from each other. But the movie (even the 4 perspective angle) was gimmick after gimmick after gimmick. And none of the gimmicks really contributed to emotionally moving the audience. It just ended up being meaningless complications and an overcomplicated plot that placed the movie out of the reach of children and out of the patience of adults.

My biggest criticism: we can't feel what the characters are feeling so we can't participate in the movie. And it's that participation that hooks us: that constantly building terror in The Shining, things spinning completely out of control in Very Bad Things, nostalgia for the lost era of Route 66 in Cars, sense of utter confusion and fear in Memento, feeling like the world is wide open as Marlin hitches a ride with surfer-talk sea turtles in Finding Nemo, experiencing the quiet moments of triumph in shows like ER and The West Wing, the driving despair of making the wrong decision and not being take back last words in Spiderman, the list goes on and on. It's seeing a scene, reading a quote from the movie, or hearing the music and being pulled immediately back to all those emotions that make a movie great.

And those moments don't exist in Hoodwinked. Yes, it's a cartoon and a cartoon with talking animals so some argue how it can really make us relate. But other cartoons have succeeded where this one failed. We don't feel for Red because Hoodwinked doesn't show us that she wants out of the forest -- it just tells us through one half-expressed song. (For comparison, when Ariel in The Little Mermaid is willing to sacrifice her greatest asset to break out of her world, the audience understands because the story has made the audience feel her need.)

Perhaps the only bright spot in this painful movie is the the over-caffeinated squirrel Twitchy. So if you have to watch this movie, watch it for Twitchy.

Equal opportunity foodie

I love food like I love music -- there is no forbidden. Just as I love country and 80's love songs, I also love baloney on white bread and Jack-in-the-Box's 99-cent chicken sandwiches. And just as I like exploring the edgy music of friends with far more eclectic tastes, I also love to find new tastes even if they're considered haute cuisine. (I have a prejudice against haute-anything.)

I thought of this because my wife and I just had an amazing meal. We were out shopping until 9:30 pm, so it was too late to cook anything extremely extensive but I was determined to use our new gas grill. She bought me a gas grill for my birthday because we wanted to be able to grill on a moment's notice, and isn't 9:30 pm on weeknight the perfect time to prove a gas grill's advantage over the trusty charcoal one I'd been using all these years?

So we took an extra steak we had left over from the weekend, rubbed salt and pepper into it and threw it on the grill. Then we took a brandywine tomato from our garden, sliced it, dusted it with sea salt (a surprise gift from a friend over the weekend) and fresh cracked pepper, and drizzled olive oil (a tiny sample bottle that we got as advertising shwag at some fair) over it. A second brandywine got the same treatment with the additional of shredded basil, also from our garden, and some mozzarella. Both awesome.

Borrowing a funny combination my brother showed me while he lived on a farm, we also had fresh, raw radishes and buttered bread. A bite of buttered bread, followed by a bite of pungent, earthy radish. I hadn't had that since I had it with my brother more than 7 years ago, but it brought me back.

And the finishing touch? Orange salad! Non-dairy cool whip, orange Jell-O powder, cottage cheese, and mandarin oranges from a can.

It's times like this I wish I could just grow and cook food as my day job.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cars, a different opinion

After seeing the movie Cars tonight, I was dying to come back and blog about it. I can't say I was completely surprised that CKL already wrote about it, but I was glad to see that we differ. (What fun would it be to read the same thoughts twice?)

It's ironic: when the teasers for Cars hit the theatres, I felt everything CKL did about the movie. All of Pixar's previous movies were about characters that looked like people or were at least living creatures. Toys (that resembled people or animals), people, insects (that we know form societies), even monsters (which have always been living). But cars?? It seemed like too much a stretch; it would be too forced and I would always see them as these talking, moving gimmicks -- not as characters. And without being able to see them as characters, I wouldn't feel what they feel. Without that identification, it was going to be tough to really get engaged.

The full-fledged trailers came out, and still, I thumbs-downed it. Lots of flash and race cars. But without people, or things that resembled people enough, just wasn't interesting. At the end of the day, my favorite movies have always been about interesting interactions between people. (Friends with Money was a recent favorite even though the plot doesn't really go anywhere, and it's definitely low on flash.)

I went to go see it tonight because it was getting some good reviews, both from critics and friends. Even as I was sitting down in my reclining theatre seat, I remembered thinking, "I should have waited for the DVD because not only am I lukewarm on it, it has neither action nor sweeping landscapes which make the theatre experience worth it."

I was wrong on all counts.

The story is not tremendously novel. It's been repeated many times before -- hotshot lead character learns there's more to life than their selfish, ladder-climbing plans; and it takes a slower, simpler perspective to reach that Great Realization. But two things from Cars left a lasting impression on me:

1) Beauty. Pixar went all out in this one. The beginning race track scenes spit the energy and excitement of a race and and there are some shots where it approaches real life. Later, some shots of open scenery are just astounding. The movie theatre is definitely the place to appreciate this. They also must have spent a lot of time on how the cars move because the movement makes them seem like people. (*Slight spoiler alert* There's a key scene between Jake and Sally half-way through the movie when Jake says thank you to Sally for the first time (for allowing him to stay at the motel instead of the impound), that makes you forget they are cars.)

And that brings me to the key strength in Cars...

2) Character identification. Aided heavily by natural movement, Cars also shows off lots of effective dialogue interplay. It took me a quarter of the movie, but half an hour in, I started to think of these cars as people talking to one another. So when the story progresses, I did feel the same sense of discovery, pain, disappointment, longing that each of these characters did.

It was such a complete experience that I kept feeling like something was missing from all of our cars in the theatre parking lot after the movie. With monsters, insects, toys, this might not be so challenging, but the fact that they did this with cars is what made this one of the best movies I've seen recently.

Some postscript notes:

  • I won't deny that logically, much doesn't work out in the Cars world. CKL is right -- in a world where no one has hands (only tires), why do gas pumps have handles? But given the strength in what I find core in movies, that became much less glaring to me.
  • I recently saw The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Movies like that typically make me want to drive/race afterwards (to my wife's consternation). but it didn't. What did? Jake and Sally's ride through the desert in Cars!
  • In retrospect, the plot of this movie follows the plot of Doc Hollywood almost exactly.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"Ninjas, Superman, all that stuff."

In the same vein as Strong Bad Emails, here's "Ask a Ninja":

It's also a nice demonstration of how expressive you can be with only half a face. Phooey on those who deride masked superhero, space alien, or other makeup-heavy performances-- they're totally effective if the actor knows what he's doing.

Conversely, there are times when less is more. I saw Superman Returns last night, and it's good. Very good. I'll have to see it again, quite possibly in IMAX 3-D, before deciding whether to upgrade it to great.

But it is completely and aggressively old school. This is a patient, thoughtful epic, not designed for the short-attention-span theatre-jumper or the adrenaline junkie. There is action, and it is breathtaking, but the point-- the purpose-- of this film is not spectacle. It was a much more personal story than I expected, which threw me for a loop initially, but it all works.

Ignore the critics. This movie is not for them. For example, Roger Ebert complains in his review that Superman Returns isn't enough fun, calling it "glum" and "lackluster." Before I say anything else, let me remind you that this is the man who gave "thumbs up" to both Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

I'm just saying.

Anyway, Ebert goes so far as to say:
Now about Lois' kid... he just stares with big, solemn eyes, like one of those self-sufficient little brats you can't get to talk. It would have been fun to [make him] a bright, sassy child, like one of the Spy Kids, and make him a part of the plot.

...totally missing the point of that character, and perhaps the point of the whole movie.

(Aside: I've noticed that Ebert has become very inconsistent in his reviews, sometimes dinging movies not on their actual merits, but because he wanted to see a different story built on the same premise, but at other times giving movies a pass because he thinks the intended audience would find them entertaining.)

Director Bryan Singer had a tough job. He had to answer the question: what is special about a Superman movie? With the character appearing in so many other fictions already-- especially comic books and television-- what story can you tell on the big screen that couldn't be as effective in any other medium?

His answer-- a good one, by the way-- was to use the minimal continuity of the Superman movies to his advantage. Unlike the comics, there isn't a sprawling, soap-opera-like history to keep track of. There aren't a hundred other superheroes and villians running around that he should interact with. It's all about getting back to basics, and Singer gets it right.

I'm now hoping for a Superman/Batman movie. Sure, it would cost half a billion dollars to make, but I guarantee it would earn back every penny. Go ahead, Warner Brothers, prove me wrong!

Monday, June 26, 2006


Question: What do Jane Espenson and I have in common?

Answer: We both forgot about the application deadline for the Disney Writing Fellowship.

Okay, so I didn't actually forget. My write-a-screenplay-over-Memorial-Day-weekend plan didn't quite work out, due in part to other fun things that came up during those three days, but due in larger part to my realization-- while breaking down my story that Saturday-- that I didn't quite have enough material for a 90-page script, and not all the pieces fit together very well. Basically, I need to do some more work on it, and I don't have time right now.

We're running a Game on September 9th, and between now and then, The Game takes precedence over everything else. It's like Leo McGarry said in "Five Votes Down":
This is the most important thing I'll ever do, Jenny. I have to do it well... It is more important than my marriage right now. These few years, while I'm doing this, yes, it's more important than my marriage.
Damn, I miss Aaron Sorkin. I'm really, really looking forward to his new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And I don't care if 30 Rock is supposed to be more "real" because of SNL alum Tina Fey's involvement. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't want my fiction to be real. That's what nonfiction is for. That's what the actual real world (not MTV's Real World) is for.

Anyway, back to The Game. Because we got a significantly bigger Game Control this time than for any of our previous events, we thought we'd have an easier time putting it all together. Not so. For one thing, we're trying a lot of new things that require more logistical coordination, and DeeAnn usually handles all that, but she's been much busier with work this year. And it turns out that it's not the number of people you have on GC that counts, it's how independently motivated those people are. Finally, having more people also increases the difficulty of coordinating effort when different moving parts need to fit together, figuratively speaking.

Have I mentioned that I hate wikis? The problem is, every other "groupware" option is worse. Sigh.

But we're going to get it done. (Ready for the flood of clichés?) Failure is not an option! If we don't have The Game we want, we're going to go with The Game we have! Come hell or high water! FOR SCOTLAND!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

An infinite number of monkeys?

I've read this twice-- no, three times now-- and I keep thinking it's got to be a joke. From Microsoft's job listings for MSN Search:

Hand crafted results
When all else fails, and the ranking algorithms do not pass the confidence threshold, we fall back to delivering handcrafted results. Working on a team of approximately 132 other handcrafters in 26 worldwide markets, you will receive a user query, use all the available search engines to quickly scour the web for results, pick the top 10 results for this query, and send it on to the user. Successful handcrafters can typically find top 10 results for a real-time user’s query in less than 3.8 seconds. This is an opportunity to truly connect with customers, because the queries that get routed to you are precisely the ones that the engine cannot answer well. We will have adequate staffing to allow generous coffee and bathroom breaks.
If you are an expert at using at least 3 different search engines, well versed with American English/colloquial usage, and can type at > 149 words/minute as measured by the Simia-Lico* method – come join us and delight users real-time!

No, really. See for yourself: http://search.msn.com/s/jobs/openings/search%20jobs.htm

And that's not a hidden link. Here's the trail:

Maybe someone forgot to take down an April Fool's prank? Or did some unusually subtle hackers get into the system? This can't be a serious job listing, can it?

Then again, this is the company that thought Bob was a good idea.

* From the Latin for "monkey-value?" -ed.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Movie Reviews: X3, Over the Hedge, Cars

It's been a while since I blathered on about movies. Here's a braindump:

Possibly the best thing about X-Men: The Last Stand was that D and I went with Loren and Suzie, good friends whom we hadn't seen in a while. Loren called us, out of the blue, on the Saturday before Memorial Day and asked if we wanted to go (he knows of my affinity for the comical books). We'd been planning to see it on Monday, but this was a much better offer.

The movie itself wasn't quite up to snuff. I can understand how it pleased those who were just looking for a big, loud spectacle, or drooling Marvel fanboys who get excited at the mere mention of the name of their favorite character, but it just wasn't enough for me. Too many ideas, not enough done with any of them.

And is it just me, or were the digitally de-aged Xavier and Magneto in the opening scene deeply creepy to look at? It looked like an intern had gone crazy with the "smudge" tool in Photoshop. Boy ain't right.

The other good thing was that we saw a better movie on Monday instead: Over the Hedge, very loosely based on the comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis. I wasn't sure what to expect going into it, but was pleasantly surprised by the screenplay-- the story, albeit predictable, has some nice satirical elements, and every character gets his or her moment.

I'd also wager that most of the computer animators were huge action movie fans. The third-act finale is action-packed and completely satisfying, more so because it pays off a number of gags established earlier in the film that seem to be throwaway at the time. It definitely shows when filmmakers care about their story and their characters.

But sometimes, even with a good story, things just don't click for other reasons. We saw Cars this past weekend, and our friend Carol was quite distressed at the meager Saturday night crowd. For me, it was surprising how poorly the movie connected with me-- I wouldn't say it was a flop, but it's probably Pixar's weakest product so far. And more than any of their previous films, this one is clearly a product.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm is because I'm not a typical American consumer: I don't depend on my choice of automobile for some kind of personal identity or affirmation, and I don't feel that I need to go into debt for a new vehicle every few years. The movie seems to take that kind of emotional bond as a given-- of course you'll love a talking car!-- but the fact that the filmmakers didn't even try to earn that emotion put me off for most of the film.

Also, the premise is the polar opposite of every other Pixar movie to date. They've always done movies set in the real world, with a single make-believe premise: toys that have their own lives when people aren't playing with them, real monsters that scare children at night, etc. But Cars turns that structure on its head, by positing a world where there are no people, only sentient vehicles (V'ger's homeworld?), and slapping real-world elements on top of that-- a familiar skin on an alien body. It didn't work for me, because why would a world with no humans have vehicles and accessories that are clearly designed for human use?

Yes, maybe I am a nitpicker. But there were just too many places where a joke was stretched too thin, where they were clearly fishing for a laugh, where there was no justification in the world of the movie for certain things. If you keep breaking the fourth wall, you can't expect to keep me engaged in the story, with my disbelief suspended. (The Shrek movies are also guilty of this, but they usually don't overdo it.) Not to mention that car racing is apparently even more boring than baseball.

All that said, I would still recommend the movie. It's charming in its own right, and even though it doesn't have the soul of Toy Story or The Incredibles, its heart is still in the right place. It just wasn't for me.

But if you go, do stay through the end credits-- my favorite part was the sequence at the drive-in. Hey, if you're going to feature inside jokes, why not go for the whole nine yards?

And I can only hope that next year's Transformers movie (being produced by Disney rival DreamWorks) will make some sly reference to Cars in their marketing. "Sure, your cars can talk, but can they... transform?"

Meanwhile, this is what I'm really looking forward to this summer:

Monday, June 05, 2006

Palms Down

Rant of the day: In the context of The Game, PDAs are nothing but trouble.

I have never played a Game which used PDAs in which there wasn't some sort of technical failure which required Game Control to reset, reboot, or re-install software on the device. In addition to being a roadblock, this also takes us out of the game world-- breaking the fourth wall, if you will-- and reduces our confidence in the omnipotence of GC.

A secondary effect is that it's easier to "back-solve" clues (i.e., reverse engineer the solution message) if you can just keep entering random guesses into the PDA. Team Snout played Paparazzi over the weekend, and on several occasions we were able to guess the solution to a clue after having decoded less than half of the actual message data. But in the grand scheme of things, this isn't a huge issue-- if you've figured out the solving method and started decoding the final message, shaving a few seconds by guessing isn't going to make a huge difference to anyone.

On the bright side, the Paparazzi Game was very well put together overall; especially impressive, given that this was a first-time GC. They didn't attempt a story, but all the clues and most locations were well tied to the theme. Highlights in the latter category included a limo ride to Ruby Skye, dinner at a very familiar Chevys, and a beautiful sunset seen from Treasure Island.

Some of my favorite clues solved to longer, riddle-type messages, for which the answer word or phrase served as input to the PDA. I guess I respected the fact that it was harder to guess the solution if you didn't have the complete question as a prompt-- kind of like a game show contestant buzzing in before the host has finished reading the trivia question, and missing an important detail. ("Who is the President of the United States... married to?")

And here's their grand-finale video clue:

It's funny. I'm not really competitive as a Game player-- I'm in it to have fun. But as GC, I feel much more of a drive to compare favorably with other event-runners. Maybe it's because we have an audience; maybe it's because I have more of an affinity for creation than recreation; maybe I feel it's a better measure of my abilities. Failing to excel during a single weekend can be attributed to any number of incidental factors. Failing to produce a good outcome after six to nine months of planning is, to me, much worse.

Anyone can be a hero in the middle of a disaster. It takes a different set of skills and expertise to build something that will resist catastrophe in the first place.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Heal me, Zombie Jesus!

"Not every joke worth doing is worth driving into the ground. This is one of the hardest lessons I've had to learn."
- Jane Espenson

You'll Go Blind

Hasbro is advertising a new Super Soaker toy called the "Oozinator," which, in addition to water, expels "globs of gooey bio-ooze." Their words.

If you can't figure out what's wrong with this picture, treasure your innocence.

Jeffrey Rowland politely labels it "insanely inappropriate", but petey doesn't mince words: "Child pornography addicts, it's your birthday."

I watched the video, not knowing what disturbing images lay therein, but I'm warning you to stay away. SAVE YOURSELF!

The horror... the horror...

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Chain of Links

From my Google Personalized Home Page (get your own at http://www.google.com/ig)...

To Kung Fu Monkey: Electoral College 2...

To Maps and cartograms of the 2004 US presidential election results...

To Images of the social and economic world...

To Worldmapper.

And the word of the day is "cartogram," which means "a funny-looking map emphasizing statistical rather than geographical data."

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Look Ma, No Gravity!

Video from my Zero-G flight on May 6th:


I'm the one with the water bottle and the green octopus, and yes, I do find out, on the second-to-last parabola, why NASA calls their plane "the Vomit Comet." Hey, I paided mah money, an' I wants th' full experience.

Motion sickness aside, it was amazing. Being truly weightless feels like nothing else in the world-- as it should, I suppose. And I can't wait until I can be in zero-gee for more than thirty seconds at a time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Post-Film Discussion #1123: The Da Vinci Code

(upon exiting the theatre)
CKL: So, what did you think of the movie?
D: I have two words for it: National. Treasure.
CKL: Hmm. Or perhaps "Inter-National Treasure"!
D: Perhaps. I have two more words: Bull. Shit.

Referring, of course, to the egregious historical inaccuracies and outright fiction perpetrated by author Dan Brown and company.

Being an atheist, I don't really care about or believe the film's central premise: that settling the question of Jesus Christ's divinity with empirical evidence would destroy Christianity, in particular the Catholic Church. (This is the same problem I had with Stigmata, which also posits the existence of long-lost Gospels which have been covered up by The Man.)

The question also seems like something that's more likely to be debated in academia, as demonstrated by the lengthy expository scene wherein Ian McKellen's character lays out all the author-fabricated evidence for this crackpot theory. You call this archaeology?

Anyway. This really should have been Audrey Tautou's movie, since her character, Sophie Neveu, has the most interesting story arc. As D pointed out later, Kevin Smith had already covered pretty much this same territory, religious controversy-wise, with Dogma. Linda Fiorentino's character in that movie was on the same journey as Sophie, but Bethany actually got to be the hero. After the car chase in the first act, I was hoping that Sophie would continue to kick ass, but I guess Tom Hanks has a better agent. And a couple of Oscars.

But if there's a sequel, it should totally be called The Da Vinci Code II: Never Say Neveu Again.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

On Writing: Film vs. TV

Thinking some more about the Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program, I browsed over to screenwriter John Rogers' blog, Kung Fu Monkey, and re-read his post on Writing: Plot and Story. Therein he articulates what I'd been trying to say before, about why I feel more drawn to screenplays than teleplays:
[I]n film, a plot's something you move your characters through to change them. In TV, generally, your characters inhabit the plot, but don't really change. (this is evolving, but slowly). The goal of TV characters -- and I'm not even going to try to dive into the meta-osity of this -- tends to be to resume the status quo.
I want to write about life-changing experiences. I want to write stories wherein the characters (and, we hope, the audience) learn something. As I was jotting down notes for a screenplay idea yesterday, I wrote myself a note: what is the moral of the story?

I guess I know what I'm going to write now. Thanks, Kung Fu Monkey!

Captioned Photos of the Week

Misty wears the cheese. The cheese does not wear her.

(What do you mean, you don't get it?)

The Fellowship of the Zing

Damn you, Jane Espenson. Damn you and your always-entertaining blog, whence I learned of the Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program. It has stirred my latent dreams of being a professional screenwriter, and will surely consume a good portion of my free time until the June 23rd application deadline.

It's also pointed out just how little mainstream television I actually watch. The fellowship requires applications to submit either an original screenplay or an original teleplay based on a current prime-time TV series. They specifically forbid movie sequels and original TV pilots. I'm sure this is for business reasons, but it does make for two completely different writing exercises.

The only time I've even thought about writing for a TV series was back in 2003, when I imagined what the 9/11 episode of Sports Night might have been, if the show had stayed on the air that long. I'm more drawn to writing screenplays for some reason-- maybe I feel there's greater freedom to play with character and structure, and maybe that's an incorrect impression, but there it is. I wasn't even that excited about writing for Star Trek back when they accepted spec scripts from anyone.

Maybe I'm like Ray Bradbury, who was invited to write for the original Star Trek but declined, saying that he couldn't write for characters that he hadn't created. (I admit that anecdote may be apocryphal, but it's telling.) Maybe I'm just too demanding. Maybe I'm just like my father-- too bold. Maybe you're just like my mother?


Anyway, I discussed this with my lovely wife last night, and we ran down the short list of TV shows we watch, and there wasn't much. Our favorite is Gilmore Girls, but I'm not sure I could write in that particular style. Same for My Name Is Earl. We're about half a season behind on Lost, and I'm not sure a spec script would do the show justice, since it couldn't actually move anything forward.

Let's not even talk about Smallville. I just watched it again for the first time in months ("Fragile", in case you're wondering), and Christ, I feel like I'd need a lobotomy to be able to write such plodding, transparent dialogue.

I guess I'm not the type of obsessive fan who endlessly analyzes his or her favorite series for the smallest detail. Or maybe there just isn't a series on the air right now that connects with me in that way. Or perhaps there is, and I'm just not watching it because I've got too much other stuff to do.

We'll see if I come up with an idea in the next week or so. I want to leave enough time for rewriting, which means pounding out a first draft over Memorial Day weekend. Hooray for deadlines!

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Weather Man

D's comment after we watched The Weather Man last night was that it was basically the same story as Our Time is Up, one of the Oscar-nominated shorts from 2005, but not done as well. I mostly agree. The performances were good, and most of the situations were believable, but the film overall was a bit meandering, and lacked any sense of real epiphany or catharsis.

Call me sentimental, but I live for the "What have we learned, Charlie Brown?" moment. I live for the St. Crispin's Day speech, the Agatha Christie denouement, and every other episode of Buffy. I want the time I've invested in my fiction to have a meaningful payoff.

In other news, The Best of Dinosaur Comics: 2003-2005 AD has been living on our nightstand for the past few weeks, and I've been enjoying a few strips every night before bed. AND LOVING IT. Last night I read " being able to transform a compliment about a fact you know into a compliment about yourself is another perk", which, though undoubtedly without legal foundation, was more thought-provoking than most copyright law discussions by EFF or similar activist groups.

This was particularly salient because when I loaded the Weather Man disc into our DVD player, the first thing it auto-played was an obnoxious anti-piracy propaganda film. Bleah.

For more of T-Rex's musings on copyright law, check out these other Dinosaur Comics:

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Run, Tommy, Run!

There's one shot in Mission: Impossible III that seems to go on forever. It's Tom Cruise running along a crowded Shanghai street, and the camera tracks him as he runs. And runs. And runs. And runs some more.

The shot probably only lasts ten or fifteen seconds, but it seems to go on forever. Why does the camera linger on this particular tracking shot, with no zooming, cutting, or other changes? I have no idea. It contributes nothing to the story, and actually drains the tension from what should have been a taut, nail-biting suspense sequence.

Perhaps Cruise, who also co-produced the movie, wanted to show off his virile athletic ability. Oh, Tom. Have you never read The House of Mirth, wherein Wharton tells us that "no insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity"? Which reminds me, I should rent that movie-- I was always curious about Gillian Anderson's performance.

Anyway. D and I both thought this sequel had been dumbed down quite a bit from the first two movies, which is a shame; the original Mission: Impossible TV series was all about outsmarting the bad guys and following the various twists and turns of the con, but the film franchise has fallen into an action movie rut. Seriously, if the cast and crew hadn't included so many heavy hitters, I might have mistaken MI3 for a made-for-cable movie, or even (horrors!) a direct-to-video release. Which is not to say that it was bad; it was entertaining enough, but solidly mediocre, with no real surprises and more than a few plot holes.

Favorite inside joke: the end credits give special thanks to the Hanso Foundation, one of the MacGuffins from director J.J. Abram's TV series Lost.

Best part of tonight's movie outing: seeing the new Superman Returns trailer. Bryan Singer is my hero.