Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Glimpse Into Bizarro America and Martin's Seven Kingdoms Coming to the Small Screen

I DVR'd the Republican YouTube debate last night and watched it this morning while crunching my toast. Watching the debate was an odd experience, but only in retrospect. Afterwards I thought, "Wow. One half of those guys are out of their minds, and the other half are trying to seem crazy to get that all-important Crazy vote." But while I was in the midst of watching it, the craziness of what they were saying seemed obvious but irrelevant -- I was watching for the sheer enjoyment of the back and forth of men vying for supremacy in the fight of their political lives; I was watching like an unattached campaign consultant, happy for the candidates when they had good moments, even a little sad for the candidates who fumbled or never hit their stride. Yeah, I know. It was kind of weird.

I was talking about the debate with my wife this evening, and she shook her head and said, "I don't know how you can watch that stuff. I'd be screaming at the TV." And I'm not even sure why listening to these goofs didn't piss me off. Maybe I'm thinking that the Republicans don't have a serious shot at the White House in '08, and therefore no matter what they say on-stage, all these things will ultimately decide is which candidate is going to go down in flames saying what? And I really hope I'm not deluding myself. Surely, after what will by then have been 8 years of Bush, (8 years!) surely the country won't look to yet another Republican to take up where W. left off and lead the country. Surely not. (Yeah, I do sound deluded, don't I?)

Anyway, the debate. It was a good one, I thought, as Republican debates go. Lots of interesting back and forth, and even some genuine emotion from Romney-bot 2000 when Giuliani tried to call him out on his alleged use of undocumented workers at the governor's mansion. (They both came off looking bad after that exchange.) But what I came away from the event with was a frightening snapshot of just how weird the average Republican is. In the YouTube debates, people from all over the country send in their questions via YouTube, CNN plays them, and the candidate specifically asked answers them. I won't pretend that a handful of YouTube questions from voters (of which some were Democrats, which I don't think CNN should have done -- weren't there enough questions sent in by Republicans?) gives a true or useful picture of Republican America, but the white Floridian response to some of the answers the candidates gave does, I think, serve as an accurate gauge as to where the nation's conservatives currently reside.

And that place is Weirdsville.

It's a place where just owning handguns aren't good enough, but fully automatic assault rifles will do in a pinch. It's a place where benefits to illegal immigrants soak up almost all of their tax dollars, where terrorists loiter in every mall, where surrendering one's privacy is a small price to pay for protection from those aforementioned terrorists. It's also a place where life begins at conception and where gay men and women decide sometime in their 20's that they're going to a.) live a life of sin and b.) devote the rest of their time on Earth to taunting Christians. In other words, it's an awful and paranoid place to live, and it bothers me that half of the people that vote (or are allowed to vote) prefer to live there rather then in the real world in which I live.

For instance, during the panel-wide exchange on illegal immigration, the audience booed anyone who dared to suggest that deporting 13 million Mexicans back across the border wasn't a good idea (McCain), and cheered vociferously anyone who hinted that the first days of their administration would see convoys of Army trucks filled with Mexicans headed to Juarez (Tancredo, everyone else). After the debate, pundits spoke euphemistically about moments like that, saying immigration is "the issue Republican voters are most passionate about", and it's the "number one issue in the Republican primary", but what was clear from the debate is that, on this issue, the GOP thinks less like a political party and more like a lynch mob. Passion is one thing, rage is another. And counterintuitively, it is precisely this far-right anti-immigration constituency of the GOP that not only stands in the way of anything being done on the issue, but makes sure no one in their own party can have a sane discussion about the issue. I think some otherwise smart GOP candidates are having to dumb themselves way way down for voters in this primary and will thus make themselves completely laughable as general election candidates.

Anyway. Enough about the creepy half of America. Here's some good news.

In the most recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, fantasy author George R.R. Martin says that he's sold the rights to his Song of Ice and Fire series of books to HBO. Their plan is to film each book as one season of a television series. Current hotshot screenwriter David Benioff (who scripted "Troy"among other things) turned in a script for the pilot just before the strike, so it sounds like post-strike, HBO's poised to get things going in a hurry with this project. Which is good news whether you've read the books or not, or even if you're into fantasy or not, because the first book in the series, "A Game of Thrones" is an inarguably fun, brilliantly-plotted novel with a searing shock ending that transcends the genre-heading its usually given. I think with this (and some other yet-to-be-produced half-hour comedies I've been hearing about) HBO may be sowing the seeds for a post-Sopranos comeback. Here's hoping.

And finally, the New York Times released their annual list of the Ten Best Books of the Year. I haven't read a one of them, but for me there was only one surprise: Jeffrey Toobin's book about the Supreme Court entitled "The Nine." I read his book about the Clinton impeachment, and while it was informative and well-researched, he managed to make a tawdry, page-turner of a story into something dull. I don't know if it's just that the Book Review editors like Toobin's point of view or perhaps Toobin's improved as a writer since then, but whatever the case, this book's inclusion on the list was a surprise.

All right. Now you may navigate to another webpage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Watchmen" and "Indy 4" Photo Updates posted up two sets of some pretty cool photos today. Each set answers a question. The first question is: Are the filmmakers behind the upcoming "Watchmen" movie on the right track to make a brilliant adaptation of Alan Moore's landmark graphic novel?

Answer: Yes. The evidence below.

These photos seem to confirm a few things that weren't set in stone. Judging by the first photo of the newsstand, Zach Snyder, the director of the film, will be devoting some time to the Tales from the Crypt-style seafaring comic that serves as a kind of story within the story in "Watchmen." This device worked well in the comic, but there was some question as to whether it would work in a film. I'd heard Snyder was going to try, and these photos certainly point in that direction. If anyone can pull it off, I think Snyder's the guy. Also the weird alternate reality in which "Watchmen" is set will remain in the film, which is cool. I wonder if we'll get a Nixon cameo as we do in the original.

Second question: Is Harrison Ford too old to play Indiana Jones for a fourth time?

Answer: Yes, but somehow he makes old and grizzled Indy just as cool and interesting as he was in those other movies -- perhaps even more so. These photos put to rest any concerns I had with the movie. But Shia Lebeouf . . . (sigh). He tries so hard, doesn't he?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

"The Mist" Dissected

Well, hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. I went to my in-laws' house for turkey, football and the Flying Schnauzer Show, and then went to my folks' house for a couple hours to say happy birthday to my brother who turned 25 on Thanksgiving Day. All in all, good times.

The day before, the wife and I went to the movies to take in not only the much and long-anticipated "The Mist", but also the much and long-anticipated "No Country for Old Men." I don't know when next the stars will align to provide so perfect a day of moviegoing, but my guess it will either be many years or never. 98% of "The Mist" was great, and 100% of "No Country" was genius. Let's get into it.

1.) "The Mist." I reread the original King novella a month ago to reacquaint myself with the story before the movie came out. I hadn't read it for years, but predictably it holds up. Aside from giving the movie a definitive ending and a few other odds and ends, Darabont's "Mist" is a beat for beat retelling of its source material, which, as Darabont knows well, is the best way to approach King's best material. (Not so much something like "Dreamcatcher." William Goldman who adapted that novel, would have done well to rework the hell out of that novel.)

Thomas Jane plays David Drayton, a movie poster artist in the mold of Drew Struzan, the king of hand-painted movie posters. ("In the mold of" is actually kind of weak, actually, as the film opens with Drayton putting the finishing touches on a movie poster painted by Drew Struzan. Drayton kind of IS Struzan.) A weird storm blows across the lake and damages Drayton's lakehouse, sending him, his young son and his jurist neighbor (played by the always interesting Andre Braugher) to the grocery store the following morning for some supplies. They aren't there for 10 minutes before Darabont-movie stalwart Jeffrey Demunn bursts into the store with a bloody nose and shouts, "There's something in the mist!" For the characters, hell is on the way. For the audience, the fun's about to start.

What follows is an intensely satisfying amalgam of 50's B-movie and and 70's disaster movie, all shot to reflect our current dark and fearful era. What is happening outside is, of course, crazy and implausible: in rural Maine, a secret military venture called the Arrowhead Project has managed to breach the barrier between the dimensions unleashing an all-encompassing mist into our world, filled with an assortment of of tentacled ghoulies and nasty flying bug-things. With the basic premise thusly laid out, it's the movie's job to make the implausible seem as real as, well, a trip to the grocery store. I think Darabont succeeds, but it's a high-wire act, with most of the balancing work being done by the actors. For me, part of the tension in the film comes from worrying whether or not the film was going to suddenly fall flat on its face because the director asked too much of its actors. Part of this is certainly a function of how fast Darabont shot this movie, and how far out of his directorial comfort zone he went to shoot "The Mist", which was filmed in a cinema verite style. Happily, everyone's up to the job, including Marcia Gay Harden as Ms. Carmody, the Old Testament-spouting shrew who turns out to be as dangerous as the beasties on the other side of the plate glass. I was worried about her being too over-the-top after seeing the trailer, but the way the script lets her transform from deluded zealot to full-bore inciter of religious violence is deftly executed.

The only problem I had with "The Mist", is the definitive ending Darabont added to the film.


The novella originally had no hard ending. In a recent NYTimes article, King said, “I thought of ending ‘The Mist’ by having [the surviving characters] come out in the sunlight,” Mr. King said recently. “But I choked at that, and instead I wrote the kind of ending my mother used to hate. She called them Alfred Hitchcock endings: You make up the ending yourself.”

The new Darabontian ending, however, gets the Stephen King seal of approval. "After he read the screenplay, Mr. King sent [Darabont] an e-mail message saying that he would have ended the story this way himself if only he’d thought of it."

I have to say that I think King circa the late seventies had it closer to right then his 2007-self. So here it is; the new ending to "The Mist."


David Drayton, his son, the pretty lady from the store, and two old folks make good their escape from the grocery store in Drayton's SUV. After many miles and many ghastly visions, they run out of gas. Drayton has a gun and four bullets. They are not within sight of a gas station. They can't go hunting for fuel because the beasties will quickly descend and hand out excruciatingly painful deaths to everyone. After an appropriate number of beats, Darabont cuts to a wide shot of the SUV. Four shots ring out. Everyone but Drayton is dead, shot by Drayton. Drayton is beyond inconsolable. He steps out into the mist and goads the creatures to come and tear him apart. None appear. Then: strange noises from the mist, getting closer. Drayton prepares for the end. And then a tank rolls out of the fog, followed by yet more tanks and soldiers wearing gas masks. Drayton watches as the soldiers use flamethrowers to burn the nests and webs left behind by the mist creatures as the mist begins to dissipate. Drayton falls to his knees and screams "no!" as the camera booms up and the film ends.

I think all of us horror nerds and Stephen King geeks who, every now and again, attempt something creative themselves, struggle with two warring impulses. On one hand, we want to do stuff that's excellent, that everyone will like and hail as worthy contributions to the culture. But there is also that impulse to say to hell with all those effete snobs who turn their noses up at horror, who dismiss all horror novels as "penny dreadfuls", all horror movies as "populist trash", the impulse that gives the artist permission to do pure, no-frills, no apologies horror. And by that I mean all the gratuitous gore, cheap thrills, and homage to earlier (and not always good) works by the late greats that "true horror" signifies. Sometimes these warring impulses work together to create something that is both excellent and also true to the conventions of the genre. But sometimes these warring impulses result in moments in a movie or novel or comic, that embrace, gleefully, pure bad taste, and are, in fact, bad. I think this new ending is an example of the latter. With this new ending Darabont makes a movie that works as a straight horror movie, an examination of the perils of group-think, and a parable of our current post-9/11 era into an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone."

It's funny because in writing about this ending, I find myself of two minds about it: the part of me that reads and enjoys so-called "literary fiction" scoffs at Darabont's ham-fisted ending. But the King-apologist, low-brow horror advocate, "Sicuani" part of me thinks that, in its way, Darabont's ending works. As a comment on humanity, Drayton's "mercy killing" of his son and the other three expands upon and deepens the broader indictment Darabont levels at humankind in the rest of the film. With this ending Darabont asserts that human beings are instinctually violent creatures, and that when faced with bad options, humans will always resort to violence, even against the people they love.

But, to completely strain any continuing interest in this post, I have to go on to say that my objections to this ending go beyond the borderline-silly way it was shot (did Drayton really have to scream "No!" into the heavens? Did the camera really have to boom up?), and to how well this ending fits conforms to the "rules" of the movie that Darabont himself laid out.


Case in point. As the column of tanks roll by in the final scene, an open-air personnel carrier rolls by with glum-faced civilians riding in back. We recognize one of them as a woman who was the first to leave the grocery store after the mist had rolled in. She'd left her children unsupervised at home and couldn't bear to leave them to face the mist by themselves. She goes out and vanishes into the mist. But when she is revealed to the audience at the end as a survivor, accompanied by her two children who she clearly succeeded in saving, something feels off. The mist is teeming with creatures of all different species, all of them capable of taking human life. Time and time again, within seconds of a person stepping out of the grocery store into the mist, the mist-creatures swarm and devour that person. Within seconds. But here's this woman who not only survived her walk out of the parking lot, but survived the walk all the way back to her house? And then whatever journey she and her kids had to make to get to the military people? It breaks the rules.

But even more than this, the appearance of Order in the form of an organized military response, and the dissipation of the mist does not seem to jibe with the rest of the film.

In the scene directly preceding the end scene, Drayton and his cohorts watch in awe as a mist-monster as tall as a skyscraper lumbers across the road. (Incidentally, this was the scene I was most looking forward to in the film and Darabont and Co. nailed it.) But the unspoken implication of this behemoth's appearance is that the mist is no temporary calamity. The mist is the true End of the World. After something like that has walked the Earth, how are people supposed to return to their normal lives? If something as fundamentally wrong as that creature can exist on the same plane as regular Joes like Drayton, then the quotidian reality Drayton had known all his life was now a thing of the past. Along with the grandeur of the scene, I loved this moment in the novella because it was King placing a period at the end of humanity. Which is why I don't think King would have chosen Darabont's ending "if only he'd thought of it." It didn't fit with the story he'd written.

And so, in my view, the dissipation of the fog contradicts the implication of the behemoth and is, in this respect, a false ending. Though I greatly respect Darabont for going so dark with the ending, I think sacrificed a more "true" ending in order to make the parable aspects of "The Mist" more timely. By showing the audience that Drayton badly overreacted to the threat of the mist-creatures, Darabont is saying that the U.S. is similarly overreacting to the real, but not life-threatening threat posed by international terrorism. I agree with his point, but I don't think making it was necessary to the film, nor do I think making that point justified his breaking so many of his own rules.

This is going to sound goofy, but the new ending aside, "The Mist" is awesome. Definitely a new Top 5 Stephen King adaptation and an eventual DVD purchase for me. Though the ending is, in my view, wrong-headed, this fact shouldn't disqualify the rest of the movie, which is great fun to watch and, dare I say, thoughtful and disturbing. George Saunders wrote an essay on one of his favorite books, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", and called it one of the best books over written. But, he went on to write, the ending is absolutely terrible, and inarguably so. I don't think "The Mist" is one of the best films ever made, but, like "Huckleberry Finn", I also don't think the bad ending is reason enough for anyone to throw the baby out with the bathwater. So check it out before it slips out of theaters, which, judging by "The Mist"'s middling performance at the box office over the weekend, may be sooner than is merited.

I'll get to "No Country for Old Men" another day. I don't think anyone reading this needs me to provide them with reasons to see this one anyway.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A New "Ghostbusters" Game. Let the Cats and Dogs Living Together Commence

There are lots of important things happening in the world right now that deserve comment, like the taser death/execution of a Polish immigrant in Canada this week, for example, or the Democratic debate last week or the one last night, or the righteousness of the ongoing no-end-in-sight WGA strike, but instead of talking about any of those, today I'm posting up about a video game. These are, after all, inanities.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is some game footage of an in-development "Ghostbusters" video game. Word from on high is that the four stars and most of the supporting cast (including William Atherton, A.K.A. "Peck") are all on-board; they're going to do all the voice work, and Ramis and Aykroyd will do scripting duties as they did with the two films. Should be a lot of fun. In addition to being obsessed with the film when I was a kid (and still am), I played the 8-bit Nintendo "Ghostbusters" game into the ground, sitting in front of the TV while the entire computerized "Ghostbusters" theme played during the "Press Start" screen out of, you know, respect for the movie. And there was hours of driving my white EctoMobile rectangle up and down the streets of New York (which were rendered as gray bars with dotted white lines cutting through the middle). So with that in mind, getting a chance to one day play a next-gen "Ghostbusters" game is like a gift from the Geek gods (as well as the Cheap Childhood Nostalgia demigods). The game play looks awesome.

Anyway, enjoy your weekend.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Twin Musical Tesla Coils Playing the Super Mario Bros. Theme

I don't really get all the science behind it, but anything that manages to make me geek out on both Super Mario Bros. and The Prestige, is worth a blog post.

This is the text that came with the link: Twin Solid State Musical Tesla coils playing Mario Bros theme song at the 2007 Lightning on the Lawn Teslathon sponsored by DC Cox (Resonance Research Corp) in Baraboo WI. The music that you hear is coming from the sparks that these two identical high power solid state Tesla coils are generating. There are no speakers involved. The Tesla coils stand 7 feet tall and are each capable of putting out over 12 foot of spark. They are spaced about 18 feet apart. The coils are controlled over a fiber optic link by a single laptop computer. Each coil is assigned to a midi channel which it responds to by playing notes that are programed into the computer software.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Yet Another Democratic Betrayal

There hasn't been a whole lot to get pissed about in recent days. Or else I haven't really been paying attention, which I fully concede is a possibility. But I did pay attention to this, which broke on CNN a few minutes ago. Senators Chuck Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California are both voting "Yea" on the confirmation of Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey. The reason this is infuriating is because Mukasey won't say under oath (or not under oath as the case may be) that waterboarding is torture. Apparently in Schumer and Feinstein's book, that's A-OK.

Right about now, I'm thinking I don't what the hell's going on with Congressional Democrats.

Mukasey almost fooled everyone during his hearings. But near the end some smart Democrat asked Mukasey whether Mukasey considered waterboarding torture. Mukasey ducked and weaved but eventually said he didn't know, which means he doesn't care really whether the U.S. does it at all. (BTW: If you ever want to suss out whether or not someone's a fascist, ask them what they think about the U.S. using waterboarding during interrogations.) So here we have revealed yet another toadying water-carrier for an out-of-control and patently illegal Bush administration in the same tradition as Alberto "Fredo" Gonzales, and the Democratic-controlled Senate is going to pass the guy.

Accompanying Schumer's announcement of his plans to stab the ideals of American liberty in the back by continuing our current torture regime, Schumer said this:
"This is an extremely difficult decision," Schumer said in a statement, adding that Mukasey "is not my ideal choice."
My heart really goes out to you, Schumer. Who needs a Republican-controlled Congress when Bush has you, Chuck?