ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms


Books and Movies and Musings12 Aug 2007

I’d all but forgotten about the 5 novels by Susan Cooper called the “Dark is Rising” series. Written in the 70s, they’re young-adult fantasy about a boy who discovers that he is the last of a race of mystical beings called the “Old Ones” and is thrust into the great battle between good and evil going on behind the scenes of the “ordinary” world. I read them when I was a kid. They probably went a long way to shape my taste in fantasy.

I recently discovered that a film version will be released in October.

Here’s the awful awful trailer:

They’ve taken a moody and eerie and deliberately-paced book turned it into, well, Harry Potter. At least HP has a soundtrack that isn’t generic pop-rock.

It could be have been a fantastic film, but instead it’ll probably a boy-wizard knock-off. The only potential upside I can think of is the casting of Christopher “Last of the Timelords” Eccleston as the mysterious agent of evil called “The Rider”.

I’ve seen enough movies that I think I’ve figured out how Hollywood works.

Nobody makes any fantasy films for a while. Then, a decent director decides to adapt a famous trilogy about hobbits and wizards, and makes it a real labour of love. It’s well received and makes a bajillion dollars. The bajillion dollars gets Hollywood’s attention.

Meanwhile, a series of books about a boy wizard with unkempt hair and a goofy scar makes a bajillion dollars (that’s a bajillion publishing dollars, which is a smaller amount than a bajillion movie dollars, but still significant), so Hollywood makes a movie adaptation. They do a decent job, but the source material is pretty “hollywood” to begin with so it’s hard to go too far wrong.

At this point, the flood-gates open. Unfortunately, instead of thinking “Hmm, a bunch of fantasy novels were well adapted to film and people liked them, lets find some more novels and make apt film versions”, they think “Fantasy is hot! Lets make 10 more movies exactly like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter! Find some IP to license!”

And along comes Narnia (which I didn’t actually see, but still felt free to comment on), and now, along comes the Dark is Rising. The book is like Harry Potter in that it’s about a boy with magical powers, but the similarities end there. The movie version, however….

Just once I’d like to see a fantasy film that relies on atmosphere and mood instead of flashy visual effects. The Dark is Rising is the ideal basis for such a film. Bah, so much wasted potential.

Meanwhile, the success of “Transformers” (It’s been reported to me that there are people who think Transformers is the best movie they’ve ever seen…), is spawning some more “cartoon giant robot” movies.

That’s right, Voltron is coming to the big screen.

Movies13 Jul 2007

At least until the sequel.

I’ve just seen Transformers. It gave me a headache. Bleh.

Movies29 Apr 2007

We went to see Hot Fuzz the other night. It’s a British movie about a London policeman who is so good, he makes the rest of the force look bad, and they quickly reassign him to a sleepy town in the country. But, just as he’s resigned himself to a quiet life in the with a cadre of bumbling village policemen, a series of suspicious accidents lead him to believe not all is as it seems in the so-called “perfect village”.

It’s pretty goofy, but works quite well, with the main character basically functioning as a straight-man for all the comedy around him. My only complaint is that it became increasingly surreal as it went along, which actually weakened it. In the early going it’s easy to believe that the main character really is a straight-laced London cop trying to confront the quirkiness that surrounds him, but as things spiral off into craziness, the movie loses some of the energy that made it compelling, and it just becomes silly.

Still, it’s got plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the jokes come pretty rapid-fire at times. It was pretty entertaining.

Movies and News30 Jan 2007

Last Monday I saw “Volver“, a tale of murder and restaurant management set in Spain. Oh, and the main character, played by Penelope Cruz, is visited by the ghost of her dead mother, who pretends to be an illegal immigrant and frequently hides under the bed.

I’ve made it sound a bit silly but it actually isn’t. The director (Pedro Almodóvar, for anyone who knows Spanish cinema) did a great job of making it feel very natural, despite the supernatural stuff going on.

It’s really good. Definitely the best movie I’ve seen in a while. Shengrong decided to tag along at the last minute and really liked it as well, and our tastes are partially divergent, so it’d probably appeal to a lot of people.

My only minor complaint was that the subtitles went by quickly. I guess the Spanish talk too fast.

The film also lead me to some new music. At one point in the film, Penelope Cruz “sings” a song called “Volver” (which means, “To Return”), and the voice you hear is that of Estella Morente, who, I gather from the interweb, is an up-and-coming flamenco star. I bought an album of her’s from iTunes and am enjoying it a lot.

Speaking of returning, “Volver” might be the last movie for me for a while. I ordinarily attend the Monday night screenings put on by the local film co-op, but my TA duties this term put me in the computer lab on Monday and Wednesday nights. I’m helping to teach Matlab programming to a bunch of first-year engineering students. I’ve never done Matlab before. Amusingly, I found out I was supposed to be in the lab a couple hours before the one on last Wednesday night, so I had to “learn by doing”. But, programming is programming, and fortunately the other TAs have used Matlab before so if I get stumped by a question I can ask them. Fun times.

Movies17 Jan 2007

Over the last few days I’ve taken in Children of Men and For your Consideration.

The premise of Children of Men is that, a few years from now, all women have become infertile and no babies are born. Fast forward to 2027, and the world society has largely collapsed as people come to grips with the inevitable extinction of our species. (It was at this point that Shengrong, recalling the title, began keeping an eye out for pregnant men).

The story centers on an illegal immigrant in totalitarian Britain who has somehow managed to become pregnant. She quickly becomes a pawn in a political struggle between the government and a terrorist group called the “Fishes”. Her unlikely protector is a weary former activist who is charged with getting her to the coast where a boat is waiting to take her to some better place. The movie is quite gripping and contains a lot of memorable images from a dystopian world. We both quite liked it.

For Your Consideration is a Christopher Guest film (Spinal Tap, Best in Show, etc) about a bunch of has-been, not-yet-to-be, and clueless actors and film-makers trying to make a family drama called “Home for Purim”. Purim, I learned, is a Jewish holiday. Don’t worry, the title of the film-within-a-film gets changed to “Home for Thanksgiving” after the studio directors ask for “less Jewish-ness”.

“Award shows are the backbone of this industry”.
“This is an industry known for having no backbone.”

For Your Consideration was funny but a little tedious. There is a natural human tendency to become enthralled with one’s own image in the mirror. Sadly, this reflection isn’t really a novelty to the rest of us – we see your ugly mug every day, after all. I think there is a bit of that going on in this film, Guest and co. are too busy staring at themselves (Actors, filmmakers, Hollywood) to make it interesting for the rest of us. In fairness, I should say that I think Hollywood is difficult to satirize since it is very extreme to begin with.

Movies21 Nov 2006

I don’t know much about Khazikstan. A quick look in wikipedia tells me that it’s the 9th largest country by landmass, and has an adult literacy rate higher than the US of A This, one realizes, as one watches “Borat! Cultural Leanings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan“, is more than most Americans know.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or perhaps in a “backward central Asian country”, you’ve probably heard about this movie. A British comedian toured the “US and A” completely in character as the titular Kazakh journalist, leading people to believe that he is making a documentary. The result is a portrait of America through the eyes of a racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic dolt, who, it must be said, fits in rather well with the locals at times.

Based on the premise, this movie could have been great: the potential for satire is amazing here.

So what did I think? It was hilarious. But, that’s all. It wasn’t clever, like a Monty Python sketch that makes you repeat it in your mind over and over. It didn’t have much of a larger social point to make like most good satire. Perhaps I am just so jaded that homophobic rodeo cowboys, sexist college kids and uptight New Yorkers seem run-of-the-mill. Even the creationism failed to excite me (Borat goes to a religious revival and makes friends with “Mr. Jesus”). At least this lack of punch is counter-balanced by Borat’s endless crazy antics that go way over the top time and time again.

I left the theatre actually wishing Borat had broken character a little here and there. I wanted to know more about how they fooled people into thinking he was really from Kazakhstan. I wanted to know who was “in” on the joke and who wasn’t. I want to know if Borat and his “producer” were simply talking in gibbersih when they spoke to each other. And, most of all, I wanted to know how Borat managed to stay out of jail, considering some of the crazy stunts he pulled.

Movies and Musings14 Nov 2006

I saw A Scanner Darkly last night. For those who don’t know, it’s an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian story of drug addiction in near-future California. It has a fairly interesting plot: the main character is an undercover narcotics agent assigned to spy on himself.

The most striking thing about the movie is the rather bold decision to use rotoscope animation: the movie was short as a live-action film, and then traced over frame by frame by animators. When I saw the trailer I thought at first that the animation was purely a gimmick, but they made very good use of it – most obviously in the camouflage suits worn by the undercover narcotics agents and in the drug-induced hallucinations experienced by the various characters – but also with some subtle effects accompanying the protagonist’s descent into madness, like constantly shifting objects and a skewed sense of perspective.

The movie was a lot better than it could have been. Worth seeing.

As I walked home from the film in the dark, my thoughts turned to other dystopian scenarios. I realized that if global warming were to radically warm the Canadian climate, we would still have the same long days and short nights in the “winter” time, since the length of the day, is, of course, caused by the axis of the earth’s rotation. For some reason, it’s comforting to think that there are limits to the environmental changes we humans can cause.

To a new kind of darkness: have you seen the Man in Black’s last music video? It’s fantastic.

Movies03 Oct 2006

I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” last night, and it left me feeling doubly depressed, first because we’re all doomed due to global warming, and secondly because I couldn’t help but imagine what the world might be like if Al Gore had been president of the United States for the past 6 years instead of Bush.

The movie is largely footage of Gore giving his “slide show” on Global Warming, with which he’s been touring the globe for the last few years (I find it difficult to imagine GWB preparing and giving a talk wherein he skillfully navigates scientific and moral arguments for something he’s passionate about). I won’t bother to take you through the argument here except to note that there’s a pretty tight correlation between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and global temperature over the last 600 million years, and that carbon levels are currently higher now than they’ve ever been (and are climbing). He investigates several of the effects of this: from the melting polar ice cap (to the point where Polar Bears have been drowning) to increase in hurricanes and floods and droughts, to the possible breakup of western Antarctica that would cause global sea level to rise 20 feet and displace a few hundred million people.

My only real complaint was that after laying out the problem, his proposed solutions (walk more, use energy efficient appliances, etc) seem rather futile. Admittedly, he does note that to address this issue properly will require “political will”. He also takes issue with the common assertion that “We can have the economy or the environment, but not both”, which one often hears from those with a vested interest in staying rich.

Reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon in which a businessman addressing some corporate board-room says, “The bad news is, the world is about to end. The good news is, the period right before the end will contain huge profits!”.

See it if you get the chance. The showing I went to was sold out.

Movies03 Aug 2006

I recently watched Richard Dawkins’ BBC documentary on religion, “The Root of All Evil?” (And on a completely unrelated note, there sure is a lot of copyrighted material posted on YouTube. I’m sure that site is one lawsuit away from the end of its glory days. Oh well, it’s fun while it lasts).

I’m a bit of a Dawkins fan, even though he’s a) kind of a jerk, and b) the one time I mentioned his name to an actual biologist I was rewarded with a string of profanity, but I found his documentary to be rather uninspiring. It covers a lot of the same ground he’s been over (more effectively) in his writings, and includes a lot of interviews where Dawkins scowls at various people of faith who mostly try to humour him. I was left thinking “Come on Richard, these people are just people, leave ‘em alone” (though at one point he interviewed an American preacher who defended the murder of abortion doctors, so maybe I’m just desensitized after all the time I’ve spent reading about this stuff online…). It’s difficult to get worked up over something as common-place as religious belief. You’re sort of left saying things like, “Well, of course the middle east is a mess, but that’s the way it’s always been, so what?”.

The main thrust of the documentary is that religion makes people believe irrational (and untrue) things, and this is dangerous. Maybe so, but I felt he didn’t make his case as strongly as he could have. He didn’t examine any one issue in enough depth for me. If you want to learn about mega churches, for example, you’d be better off reading the good piece Harper’s did on the very same Church visited in the documentary. If you want to learn about Dawkins views on religious schools, you can read his own words. And so on. I felt the documentary was a bit weak.

Although he addressed the “big 3″ Abrahamic religions, Dawkins focused mainly on Christianity and Judaism, with (if I recall) just one interview with a follower of Islam. I found this a bit strange. In fact, I almost wonder if he had to tread carefully in order to get his piece on the air. I’m almost sure he wouldn’t have put the question mark at the end of the title unless he had too.

Anyhow, it’s still worth a look if you get a chance to see it. Here’s the bit about mega churches.

Edit: Or, perhaps I’m wrong on this. According to wikipedia, Dawkins didn’t want to call it “The Root of All Evil?” but the BBC wanted to “create controversy”.

Movies27 Jun 2006

I just saw The Lake House. I actually enjoyed myself. It’s not going on my top 10 list or anything, and Keanu is definitely as stiff as a plastic action figure, but it was rather more interesting than the standard Hollywood romance/drama fare.

Some critics seemed to think that the movie was “convoluted” or “hard to follow”, but it isn’t at all. The big “mystery” wasn’t really much of a mystery.

The thing that made it interesting was the creeping sense of fantasy. You could either take the movie literally (Yes, that mailbox really *does* let you talk to people two years in the future), or interpret it as a big fantasy in the mind of Sandra Bullock’s character – a reading I found to be much more appealing.

“The Lake House” raises an interesting question: if your fantasy lover is better than your real life lover (and why wouldn’t he be? You can give him whatever qualities you want: if you’d like a tall and handsome brooding architect living in your dream home, that’s exactly what you’ll get), should you give the real-life boy a chance or just live in the fantasy?

The other bit of intellectual satisfaction I got from this movie was playing the “I wonder if I can figure out how the writers are going to tie all this up” game. They threw enough curves that I wasn’t entirely sure how it would all end.

One other little complaint: the titular house is fairly nice but they don’t really make enough of it in the film: it’s more of a device to help the plot – it could have played a larger role in the fantasy.

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