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How the Web Has Turned Us All Into Mini-Eberts

Roger Ebert passed away yesterday at the age of 70. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a more influential or well-known critic, and I mean critic of anything, not just film. He was the first person to receive a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism, back in 1975, and only 4 other people have received that reward since. He had fought with cancer for 11 years prior to his death, losing a large portion of his jaw and his ability to speak due to surgery complications in 2006.

Photo of Roger Ebert from this 2010 Esquire profile.

Photo of Roger Ebert from this 2010 Esquire profile.

I’m probably a bit older that most of the readership of this blog, so I’m sorry if I sound too much like an old fart in this post. For people college age and younger, I don’t know if there’s much of a sense of who he was or why so many people are eulogizing him.

I watched his show At the Movies only a few times as a kid. I probably knew him better from parody than from reality. (Animaniacs and The Critic come to mind. What can I say? I really like cartoons.) The parodies always depicted Ebert (or Ebert-like characters) as an impossible-to-please curmudgeon who enjoyed tearing things down more than appreciating them.

If you’ve read any of his writings, you know that’s pretty far from reality. More than any other critic I’m aware of, he tended to evaluate movies as emotional experiences. Sure, he could tear something down, and did so with some brutally hilarious put-downs, but it always came from an honest place. A bit of dialogue from the movie Ratatouille, between a young chef and a food critic, comes to mind:

LINGUINI: You’re thin for someone who likes food.

ANTON EGO: I don’t “like” food… I LOVE it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.

Analyzing something with a critical eye doesn’t mean you don’t like it. Rather, it means you care enough about it that you want to pick it apart.

That’s a good part of Ebert’s legacy. He became synonymous with the word “critic” in the popular conception by writing conversationally and intelligently. He was an easy person to disagree with, in that I could read a review of his, completely disagree with every conclusion, but still find it full of smart, intelligent, and valid points. Now that the web has given each of us a potential audience of strangers, we should all aspire to that same level of discourse.

That potential audience really a fantastic thing. It’s allowed criticism to become more of a two-way street, not confined to late-night TV or an article buried in the Style section of the newspaper. There are hundreds of great websites where like-minded people can find each other to intelligently and analytically discuss whatever form of art they care about. Just remember, while you and all the other aspiring Eberts are going back and forth over the merits and demerits of a particular movie, that the people who disagree with you have just as much right to be in the conversation as those who agree.

Sad News: Jurassic Park Proven Scientifically Impossible

The triceratops scene from Jurassic Park, with a tear added to the dinosaur's faceI have news that’s incredibly disappointing to my younger self, age 3 to 9. Sadly, we’ll never be able to build a real-life Jurassic Park, because the half-life of DNA strands only lasts 521 years.

While it’s been generally assumed that DNA would break down after a long enough period, proving it would require large samples of theoretically DNA-rich material. A group of Australian scientists found the right test materials in bones of the now-extinct moa, an emu-like bird  from New Zealand that looked a little something like this:

The extinct bird, the moa

These bones were hundreds or thousands of years old, not millions, but it gave the scientists enough information to conclude that it takes 521 years after cell death for the bonds that hold together DNA to dissolve completely. Even under perfect conditions (for example, protected inside mosquitos preserved in amber like in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie), there is no way the DNA would remain intact after the 6.8 million years that separate us from dinosaurs. The team’s best estimate for the oldest potentially readable DNA under perfect conditions is 1.5 million.

So no Cloneosaurus in our future. Though with that 521 year half-life bearing down on us, we still might be able to make a cloned Christopher Columbus if we hurry.

The Remake of Red Dawn Is the Opposite of a Zombie Movie

A still image from the upcoming film Red Dawn (2012)

Here’s a guaranteed recipe for angry comments: I’m going to review a movie that hasn’t been released yet. On your marks, enraged fans!

This fall, we’ll see a remake of the 1984 action movie Red Dawn, about a Soviet occupation of the U.S. Obviously, the Cold War is long over and nobody’s scared of ze Russians anymore, so the update will be recasting the invading force as North Koreans. Please see the chart below:

USSR population circa 1984: approximately 275 million

North Korean population 2012: approximately 24.5 million

You know, typically you want to make a sequel or remake more dramatic. This is a bigger letdown than following The Mighty Ducks 2, where the titular hockey team competes in the Junior Olympics, with The Mighty Ducks 3, where the team plays junior varsity for a prep school.

So why remake this movie in the first place? Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth explains:

“The tone is going to be very intense, very much keeping in mind the post-9/11 world that we’re in. As ‘Red Dawn’ scared the heck out of people in 1984, we feel that the world is kind of already filled with a lot of paranoia and unease, so why not scare the hell out of people again?”

So it’s a horror movie? Huh. I guess I can see the reasoning there. The original combined the fears of a Cold War U.S. with the power fantasy of average people standing up to an outside threat. So the remake taps into the post-9/11 fears of… uh… parachuting enemies troops clearly marked in military fatigues.

Mr. Ellsworth, you can’t just assume something is “post-9/11″ because you wrote it after 2001. And similarly, you can’t assume that something will be scary just because it was scary once. Context is everything. The fears of 2012 are not the same as the fears of 1984. You want this movie to work, you need to update it more than just changing the nationality of the bad dudes.

Consider how popular zombies are at the moment (to steal my list from an earlier post:  The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days LaterResident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies). Why are zombies so appealing, especially right now? As with all things zombie related, it’s best to ask Night of the Living Dead creator George Romero:

I also have always liked the “monster within” idea. I like the zombies being us. Zombies are the blue-collar monsters.

Every single zombie story has two defining features:

  1. The horde. A single zombie is rarely much of a threat. They’re (usually) slow and dumb. The typical threat comes from an incredible number of zombies. The heroes are always outnumbered. It’s them against the world.
  2. The transformation. At least one of the heroes will always be turned into a zombie. The only thing more important to the heroes than surviving is not becoming one of the zombies. And anyone can become a zombie.

Take a look at these two defining features. Then take a look at the sudden explosion of popularity of zombie movies. Then you can start to understand how well Romero’s “monster within” fits in with modern day fears. We’re not in a Cold War anymore. Our fears are no longer about a powerful, heavily armed “other.” Our “post-9/11″ fears are rooted in insidious threats. We’re afraid of the things we take for granted being turned against us. Jet planes were transformed into missiles: that’s the essence of post-9/11 fear. Being invaded isn’t in the national consciousness. Being corrupted is.

That’s what Red Dawn is: the anti-zombie movie. That and a surefire flop.

A Better Title for Cloud Atlas

Yesterday, the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas hit the web. If you haven’t read it, don’t expect the trailer to do anything but completely baffle you.

At the same time, I get an email from the editor of the always hilarious Better Book Titles, which slaps different (better) titles on the covers of classic literature, asking if he could use a submission I sent in a year ago.

Alternate title for Cloud Atlas: The Kevin Bacon Game

At this point, you’ve either chuckled lightly or said, “What the hell is he talking about?”

Don’t Click On Stories About the Aurora Theater Shooter

I’m going to keep this article short, because there isn’t much to say about it, really. By now you’ve all certainly read about the horrifying incident in Colorado at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. A dozen people lost their lives and many more were injured.

Currently, the front page of just about every news site is littered with images of the shooter’s face. I can’t remember his name. Normally I wouldn’t use that as an excuse, but in this case, I’m making a point of not looking it up.

I expect a lot more stories to show up over the next weeks and months, psychoanalyzing him and reporting any weird or theatric behavior by him. I don’t see a purpose to it. Why give him an audience?

I plan to avoid these stories as much as possible. I’ll certainly read about the tragedy itself. And I’ll certainly read about the victims. Especially now that we know there was real self-sacrifice and heroism among them. But I don’t want to contribute anything toward making the shooter any level of celebrity. I don’t want to dignify his name or face by knowing them.

Amazon Now Making Movies: Promises Original Stories, Instead Gives Us ‘Zombies Vs. Gladiators’

Amazon is launching a film studio. The idea is to make it in the same sort of egalitarian spirit as what they’ve done for self-publishing. Anyone can submit a script and if something really stands out, Amazon will greenlight it. The writer will make a flat salary of $200K if the film is made, but that number triples if the film is decently profitable. Like self-publishing, this promises a revolutionary world without the traditional gatekeepers, where anyone can get any story out to the world without going through the traditional channels, and where content creators can have greater ownership over their works. Of course, also like self-publishing, critics will argue that by making so much content available, there will be no way to truly separate the wheat from the chaff, and the only things that get noticed will be the ones driven by cynical marketing tactics rather than with true creativity.

Well, Amazon decided to prove its critics right by greenlighting a film called Zombies Vs. Gladiators. So I guess I’ll be (indirectly) talking about zombies for the second blog post in a row.

The whole story is equal parts promising and embarrassing. To be honest, I actually like the idea behind Amazon Studios. I really do. Amazon has proven itself capable of gathering and utilizing creative talent, by developing systems where writers truly feel that they are being rewarded for their work. If it worked for books, why not make it work for film? The promise of the Amazon Studios is fantastic. It’s common knowledge that Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, to such an extent that half-baked ideas will be bought and sometimes even filmed before a script is finished, just so a studio can fill a hole in their release calendar. The best thing about Amazon’s idea is that puts all the weight on the script, at least in theory. That promises more creativity, more risks, and more originality, again, in theory.

That’s why it’s painfully embarrassing that the first widely reported title in pre-production is freaking Zombies Vs. Gladiators. Here’s the premise (in case the three-word title didn’t make it clear enough):

The story follows a gladiator who must stop a zombie infestation in ancient Rome. (Yahoo! News)

Got it? Good. Didn’t want to lose you there.

It’s ludicrous to me Amazon would lead off this new project with such a ridiculous idea. And, to be honest, I’m not even all that opposed to the story, thin as it may be. I can get behind the premise of Spartacus of the Dead (which, for the record, would be a better title). If nothing else, the idea of fighting off the living dead with only ancient weaponry should make for gory fun. My problem is that leading with this project sets such a terrible premise for the whole studio. The movie represents all the worst laziness of Hollywood (relying on proven concepts instead of new ideas, never taking risks) and all the worst laziness of self-publishing (a dumb-as-dirt title, mixing popular genres to boost discoverability) wrapped up into one package.

If nothing else, please, please, please change the title. The last thing the world needs is another movie titled _____ Vs. _____. Has there ever been a good one?

Are Our Fictional Futures Too Bleak?

Screen shot of Fallout 3

Author Neal Stephenson has decided that we all need to stop being so negative. He complains that modern science fiction — books, movies, etc. — is overstuffed with the apocalyptic and the dystopian. He thinks that what the world really needs is an optimistic vision of the future, one that can give the world’s inventors a little inspiration.

And, well, he’s not wrong. The Hunger Games made dystopian novels a hit among the young adult audience. Thanks to games like Fallout and movies like The Book of Eli (or even The Road Warrior, if you want to go further back), pop culture now has an established visual shorthand for a post-nuclear apocalypse. (See the picture above.) The most recent novels from Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road and Never Let Me Go,  took a more “literary” approach to apocalyptic and distopian fiction, respectively. And how many recent sci-fi stories involve the world falling apart because of  zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Resident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies, just to name a few)?

In fact, there are only two major science fiction universes I can think of that are as positive as Stephenson wants. The first is Star Trek, which has already helped imagine the creation of things like cellphones, flat screens, and bluetooth headsets. The second is Mass Effect, a series of games that are basically the spiritual successor to Star Trek, in that they also imagine a future of more-or-less peaceful interaction between alien races, a UN-like central alliance between powers, and major technological leaps forward (not just in terms of warfare).

If there is a tendency for writers to always lean towards the bleak, I can understand it. After all, everybody loves a scrappy underdog hero. Since science fiction gives its writers the freedom to imagine any universe they want, why not imagine one where the odds are impossibly stacked against the hero? Make the hero face off against an oppressive autocratic government, overpowered alien invaders, swarms of the living dead, or a dying planet. You’ve immediately established the high stakes of this life-or-death universe. You can fill an entire movie or book just following the hero’s fight to survive. Then you can save toppling the government, driving back the aliens, curing the living dead, or rescuing the planet for the sequels.

But I do want to slightly qualify Stephenson’s complaint. I don’t think you necessarily need a bright and shiny vision of the future to help inspire. Inspiration can come from the darkness as well. While McCarthy’s The Road details the day-to-day struggles of a man and his son after an unnamed event has spoiled the planet forever, I actually found the whole thing much less of a downer than, say, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s surreal and gory tale about bounty hunters on the Mexican border. That’s because The Road was primarily focused on the father-son relationship. That sliver of gentleness and hope, however slight, softened the rest of the story. It’s inspiring in its own way, even if it’s not imagining a bright future.

I think Stephenson’s real complaint isn’t so much the lack of optimism, but the lack of imagination. The problem with a glut of zombie stories isn’t that it’s depressing, it’s that it gets to be tiresome. The story can still be worthwhile if it tries to do something different. World War Z works because it takes a worldwide view, seeing how society (rather than a handful of survivors) responds, adjusts, and contains the outbreak. The book uses the idea of a specific genre as a springboard for bigger ideas. It creates a thought experiment and tries to reason out how society would work through it. Even if the book isn’t imagining futuristic advancements per se, it’s still imagining progress of a kind, theorizing how the world would react to a giant-scale viral outbreak.

That’s probably the most important role of science fiction — asking questions and imagining big. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had the “big” idea of a powerful and advanced army being wholly unprepared for Earth’s microbial invaders. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had the “big” idea of establishing a moral code for artificial intelligence. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale imagines technology that can implant memories, then, with a few clever plot twists, illustrates how impossible it could be to tell fiction from reality. I don’t know if I’d call any of these stories “optimistic,” but I think they still accomplish what Stephenson is asking for.

If that’s what he’s saying, then I’m on board 100%. I fully support allowing science fiction to be as open-ended and freely imaginative as it can be.

Taking Advantage of a Great Deal (Just Because It’s a Deal)

A coupon saying "Was 149.00... now 148.99"

There’s a story my fiancée likes to hold against me from when we were first dating. We went into a Blockbuster (which might date this story right off the bat) to pick out a movie. She badly needed to use the bathroom, but figured we’d be in and out of there in a second, and my apartment was right around the corner, so she didn’t say anything. I wandered into the “4 for $20” section, and started browsing for the next half hour. I found three movies I wanted, but for the fourth, I could only find movies I’d pay money to not have to see. Meanwhile, the woman I’d later decide to spend the rest of my life with was doing her best to be patient with my indecisiveness. She said, “Look, just get the three you want and throw away the fourth. It’s still a deal!” But I still kept hunting for a worthy fourth. Finding nothing, I eventually gave up, leaving empty-handed. My poor girlfriend’s bladder was put through that ordeal for nothing.

Did I need those movies? No. Did I really want to see them? Maybe a little. But I wasn’t considering buying 4 for $20 because those were the movies I most wanted to see. I was attracted to it just because it was a deal. On the simplest level, that was it. Four for the price of one, more or less. The idea of saving money appealed to me first. The idea of what the entertainment was appealed second.

That’s something I tend to notice more and more, especially with digital access to books, movies, and games. The easier (and therefore cheaper) it is to get something, the more likely I’ll buy it. There’s less and less entertainment I’ll really go out of my way for. The more I pay attention to where to get the best deals, the more likely I am to just choose something based on whether or not it’s a good deal.

For example, Amazon offers 100 albums for a $5 each, and rotates which albums are available every month. Every month I find myself checking it out. Steam routinely offers huge discounts on downloadable computer games, sometimes as much as 50 or 75 percent. In both cases, I’m not going to buy something I’m not interested in, but I’m more likely to look closely at something that’s discounted, and more likely to make an impulse buy before the sale ends.

Companies like Groupon or LivingSocial work on the same idea. Nobody goes to those sites with a specific purchase in mind. They go so that those sites can suggest some sort of restaurant, activity, or outing. While browsing their deals, people usually aren’t thinking, “I sure hope I find a coupon for Ethiopian food.” People are thinking, “Wow! 50% off lunch at that Ethiopian place. Maybe I should get around to trying that out.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach to entertainment, but sometimes I wonder if I am bogging myself down in the cheap and convenient, at the expense of the stuff I really want to read, watch, play, or do. My list of books I own and still need to read is massive and it tends to grow faster than I can shrink it. But it would be much smaller, and probably of a much higher quality, if I had to pay more for each book I bought. For example, I picked up Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., the other day because, first, it was on sale for 99 cents, and second, because it was the basis for one of my favorite horror movies, The Thing. I honestly don’t have any overwhelming desire to read it, but it seemed like something I’d enjoy having if I ever needed a new book in a pinch. I didn’t buy it because I wanted to read it immediately. I bought it to take advantage of some time down the road (kind of like a Groupon).

I’m still willing to drop everything when something I really want comes along. I didn’t skip out on The Avengers just because I had unwatched movies on my DVR, for example. When the latest George R. R. Martin book came out last year, I had no problem putting aside my current book to read that.

But every once in awhile, convenience starts to feel like a chore. I’ve got an unused Living Social coupon for wine tasting burning a hole in my pocket as I try to figure out some way to work it into my schedule. I’ve got a couple indie games that I picked up on Steam that I still haven’t gotten around to playing for more than an hour. And books? Definitely my biggest weakness in terms of both impulse buys and not knowing when I’m going to work it into my schedule.

Anyways, I’ve got to wrap this post up before it sounds like I’m really complaining about a world full of cheap and accessible entertainment. It’s just that sometimes I need to check myself before I get too caught up in a low price. It’s got to be rough for the truly impulsive.

Racism, The Hunger Games, and Bad Reading Comprehension

Rue from the Hunger Games


I’m sure by now many of you have already heard about the Tumblr page “Hunger Games Tweets.” It’s a collection of tweets by people griping about the casting of a character named Rue. You see, the film cast 13-year old actress Amandla Stenberg (see above). The tweeters targeted by the Tumblr page bemoaned the fact that the film version of Rue just had to be black. Which is confusing, because in the book she is black, in no uncertain terms. She’s described as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” and later, when the reader is introduced to another character named Thresh, we’re told that he “has the same dark skin as Rue.”

Plenty of whatever the online equivalent of ink is has been spent on this story — what it says about race in America, connecting it to Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder, etc. — but I want to focus a little bit more on what the Tumblr creator’s intent was. His blog has said, essentially, that the main problem is not poor reading comprehension. Rather, it’s that readers naturally assume that Rue, a portrait of doe-eyed innocence, must have pale white skin.

For the sake of this column, we’re going to ignore the insane, aggressively racist tweets. That bigoted nonsense isn’t worth anyone’s time. The more interesting ones are subtler. A number of the tweets say that Rue “should have” looked like some other literary characters, like Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood or The Lovely BonesSusie Salmon. Notice the theme? Characters who represent sweetness, naiveté, and innocence (or innocent victimhood) are automatically assigned long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and very pale skin.

If you deconstruct this story even further, it asks interesting questions about how we read and how we imagine. When we’re not prompted with details, how do we fill in the blanks? If a story just begins in media res, with no description of the narrator, what do you assume he or she looks like? Do you picture yourself? Do you picture an “average” person? What does “average” mean? Is it, as this Destructoid article pointed out while criticizing modern video games, a middle-aged white man with brown hair and stubble? Or do just keep you mind blank about the specifics until some details can paint a fuller picture?

I’m not suggesting that defaulting to a white male protagonist is racist and sexist. But I do think it’s worth reflecting upon where our mental casting assumptions come from. It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg question. Are fictional characters assigned certain racial archetypes because that’s what the audience assumes, or does the audience assume certain racial archetypes because that’s what their fictional characters have always looked like?

The Bad (But Fun) Science of John Carter


Source: Walt Disney Studios

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book A Princess of Mars, and in the film adaptation John Carter, out this week, I don’t think it would be a spoiler to say that the story takes a few liberties with science. Turns out Mars isn’t populated by nomadic tribes of green people and the atmosphere is not safe for shirtless men.

In the story, Carter — already a natural warrior — becomes super-powered on the Martian surface because the lower gravity decreases his mass. That’s the justification for him besting Martians in one-on-one combat, bounding across deserts, and, as seen in the above picture, whipping boulders at giant space hippo-gorillas.

So I guess it’s good that none of the sequels take place on Jupiter, because then Carter would be screwed.

The gravity rationale sums up the book and film’s approach to science very nicely. It feels as if Burroughs (and subsequently director Andrew Stanton) paid just enough attention in physics and astronomy to hear something that sounded cool, but didn’t stick around to hear it get ruined by qualifiers.

(Side note: Siegel and Schuster, the creators of Superman, liked Burroughs’ low-gravity-equals-superpowers idea so much that they used it as the original explanation for where Superman gets his strength. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly, just leapt great distances… just like John Carter.)

But even if it seems like the story is taking a half-ass approach to science, that’s not exactly true. It’s just taking an obsolete approach to science, one that didn’t seem completely unreasonable when Burroughs initially wrote about it. Burroughs was inspired largely by the writings of astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent night after night in his Arizona observatory, making educated guesses about what he could see on Mars. He believed that he could see evidence of canals on Mars, which indicated the presence of a civilized life form.

It’s easy to laugh at him for guessing, but keep in mind, Lowell’s book Mars and Its Canals came out in 1904. He couldn’t exactly send a probe up there at that time to verify his speculations. All he had to work with was a telescope, whatever knowledge of mathematics and physics he had, and imagination.

So even though Lowell was not exactly highly regarded by his contemporaries, since he was guilty of imagining way, way too much, his ideas ultimately found a new life in science fiction, a realm that’s much more rewarding to wild speculation.

If you see John Carter this weekend and have trouble accepting some of the more ludicrous science remind yourself of the hundreds of incidences of bad science you see in just about every movie and TV show. Cars that fall off cliffs don’t explode. Silencers on guns don’t reduce a gunshot to a whisper. Lasers don’t fire little bolts that go “PEW! PEW! PEW!” You can accept a handful of ridiculous science as just part of the fun but reserve scorn for the special few that seem to be playing in a universe with completely different rules. (See Armageddon. No I’m sorry… please do NOT see Armageddon.)

So which is more important in your view of science fiction — the science or the fiction?

(If you want to read a few John Carter novels before seeing the film, check out e-book version, which collects the first five books in the series, along with artwork and a glossary, available for $1.99.)


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