Category Archives: Reviews

1997: The year they made Contact

20 years ago, I watched Contact in the theater with my family[1]. Tonight, I watched it again, with S.

To me, it held up well as a movie. All the characters were believable, and the science and the effects were well within the normal parameters of suspension of disbelief.

What struck me[2] was how hopeful a movie it was, that our better natures would win out, that our endless curiosity would take us places we’ve never imagined.

[Note that spoilers follow]

It’s always interesting the things you remember 20 years later. “Why not make two, at twice the price?” The destruction scene. The prime numbers sounding so ominously alien from the aether. The speaking through her father. The 18 hours of static[3].

Interestingly, I had remembered that 18 hours of static as being the vindication at the end of the movie, that she was not crazy, that something had indeed happened, but I had forgotten how much it was covered up.

The one (gaping) plot hole I had missed the first time around was the absence of study and testing before a human was sent through the machine. If you look at the history of the Apollo program, you see that it was preceded by Mercury and Gemini, with dozens of sequential missions, each testing new parts, to make sure that each part of the system and plan were well-enough understood to ensure successful missions. The idea that they would build a half-trillion-dollar system in Contact and not fully study it (especially if it’s generating strange EM radiation) before sending a human through it ‘strains credulity’. Even the EM it’s radiating would be a fantastic discovery for humans.

But I can understand how they would cut out things to make a move that was watchable, and which was able to spend its time focusing on the humans in the story.

The alternative view of events that the NSA directory was trying to convince people of at the end of the movie was reminiscent (for me) of the big con[4] at the end of ‘Watchmen’, albeit at the opposite end of the hope-fear axis.

Apparently, like Bladerunner, the ending was supposed to keep your doubt alive as to whether the events she experienced had actually happened. To me, it didn’t, as 18 hours of static (and whatever metallurgical data they could get from the sphere) would be enough to prove the story.

I laughed, I cried, I am full of hope. A new year dawns. Time to use that hope to build something meaningful, starting with some words.

[1]We immediately followed it with Men In Black. I’ll leave it to you to enjoy this juxtaposition.

[2]If you’d read or watched any Carl Sagan, this would probably not be surprising. “The sky calls to us. If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.”

[3]I had remembered it as 18 minutes.

[4]In ‘Contact’, it was posited that a billionaire had faked first contact to inspire humans to push themselves outwards. In ‘Watchmen’ (the graphic novel[5]), Adrian Veidt fakes an alien invasion to scare humans into working together against a common foe.

[5]’Watchmen’ the movie simplified the plot to have Doctor Manhattan be the scapegoat. this lead to a much tighter movie, but slightly less appropriate for my analogy, however much he played with space and time.

Enterprise: Broken Bow

So, we finally watched the pilot (Broken Bow) for Star Trek: Enterprise.

I thought it was pretty good. (I’ll try to keep this as spoilers-low as possible.)

The pacing felt good, through the action scenes, I was actually (figuratively) on the edge of my seat, genuinely tense about what would happen to the characters.

I feel like they captured the feeling of exploring into a completely unknown and dangerous galaxy, that any moment, they could be overwhelmed by an alien force, if they should do the wrong thing.

It was also a really interesting choice having the Vulcans being almost reluctant parent allies. Not quite adversaries, not quite obstacles, but always watching and judging…

It’s also interesting to see the first real human/vulcan team start to really learn to work together. To see the first tentative steps towards actual friendship…Two peoples who know they’re better together, but are still learning to trust each other well enough to actually find the synergy they know is there somewhere.

I had been worried about the T’Pol & co. ‘Decontamination Chamber’ scenes, that they would be pure fan service, uninteresting/unrelated to the show. Instead, they were a very odd, fascinating confrontation between the Id (Tucker) and the Superego (T’Pol). I’m not sure exactly how well the scene worked, but it was fascinatingly brave, having two characters who have to rub decontamination gel on each other, a very intimate act, while having an intense emotional argument about Human/Vulcan relations going back decades and discussing the future of the Human species. As the canonical Superego would say: ‘Fascinating’.

Perhaps the most jarring parts of the episode was the slightly too wordy exposition, setting out the political and historical landscape of the early Federation, especially the Human/Vulcan conflict.

At the same time, the Klingon-Human first contact was handled well, with the imperfect universal translator adding a nice touch.

Scott Bakula was a good choice for captain (although the cast felt a little white male focused, with little differentiation between them, even compared with TOS or TNG.) He genuinely seemed a little more afraid, pushing through with more bravado than even Kirk. But perhaps that’s because he didn’t have his Spock yet. Some reviews described him as somewhat of a ‘pirate’, but that hasn’t come out yet.

SPOILER:

I think the Temporal Cold War arc was introduced well, but I could see how it could get old hat if it becomes too commonplace.

Walking into the Rigel X Trade Complex felt like a very Star Trek experience. I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why, but something about the atmosphere of the music (or the visuals!) was very Star Trek.

END SPOILER

Interestingly, this episode also featured the first in canon definition of a specific warp speed[1], when Archer says: “Neptune and back in six minutes”, when describing warp four point five.

(Neptune being around 4.5 billion km from Earth, that puts warp 4.5 as 9e12m/360s, or 83.3c. This is only slightly different from the TNG technical manual, which places warp 4 at 102c, which can be explained by the need to avoid using warp drive while close to gravity wells.)

I also greatly enjoyed the ‘mad scientist’ Doctor Phlox and his menagerie.

Overall, a good episode (and I believe lived up the ‘best Star Trek pilot’ that they were shooting for). It was more dramatic than usual Star Trek, probably more emotionally raw, but it worked well to keep the audience engaged, by having heightened emotion even while arguing important points of philosophy, almost like the best of the lightsaber battles.

4.5 stars, some of the best Star Trek I’ve seen. Even the opening credits, and their message of humans hopefully striving, made me cry[2].

[1]“Warp 6.” “Aye sir, full impulse.” doesn’t count.

[2]Interestingly, very similar to the “Cineplex – 100 Years of Movies” trailer.

The Art and Words of Comics

What do you look for when you’re reading a comic? The words? The art? Both? Does one interfere with the other?

I was talking with S recently, and I was extolling the virtues of Casey and Andy[1], one of my favourite web comics. S mentioned that she had tried to read it multiple times (often at my behest), but had been unable to get into it because of the art[3].

For me, I had briefly noticed the bad art very early on in the run, but the ideas he played with, especially with non-standard comic framing were more than worth it. (And it didn’t really bother me much at all.)

Thinking about it, I realized that the webcomics I like are generally very simple art-wise. I’m not sure if I actively prefer webcomics with worse art, but I may prefer those with simpler art. Some of the ones I read most often:

Questionable Content (mature themes, sometimes nsfw)
Order of the Stick
XKCD

have very simple art, perhaps well done (I think), but very simple lines and drawing.

Some of my other favourites are still simple, but (I think) most would say that they are reasonable artists:

Freefall
Prequel Adventure
SSDD (sometimes nsfw)

I’ve stopped reading:
Dr. McNinja
Goblins (often disturbing cartoon violence)

perhaps because of the more complex/busy art. I know I stopped reading Goblins because I find the art a little too gory/uncanny valley/disquieting.

I also enjoy:

Cyanide & Happiness (Trigger warnings)
asdfmovie (NSFW/warning/etc.)

But they are both incredibly simple art. Cyanide & Happiness is probably the worst art of any on this list, but I enjoy it because of the humour.

Among the graphic novels I’ve enjoyed are:

Transmetropolitan (nsfw, probably triggers in there too)
Watchmen (natch) (movie was rated R)
Ex Machina (some adult themes)

I feel that all of these, their art enhances the story. In Transmet, it really brings the world alive, and it works that you have a really busy future city, where everything is happening all the time. You also get important information about Spider’s personality and how he treats people. Watchmen is just a work of beauty woven on so many levels, and I like the vibrant colours of Ex Machina. I feel that something more realistic would almost detract, bring things closer to the uncanny valley, perhaps.

Interestingly, I have a perhaps similar reaction to music, that when I’m listening to a piece of music, I can really only listen to the music part of it, the words I can almost never hear, except when they are very clearly in the foreground, and/or I’ve heard them many times before. This may be related to being an instrumentalist in my previous life.

tl;dr: I like the words of web comics. I like it when the art is simple, or when the art if more complex and is cast in a supporting role to the story. Art more than that can detract (for me, at least) from the words, which (in comics) are my favourite part.

[1]This comic is perhaps one of his more bizarre comics, but I think a fair example of his artistic style/talent. He mentioned in his AMA[2] that “I realized I hated doing the artwork. I just liked telling jokes to people and the art was a necessity for it. That was the main reason I stopped making the comic.”

[2]Also, you probably know him as Andy Weir, the guy who wrote ‘The Martian‘.

[3]You can see a takedown of his drawing of a different comic called ‘Cheshire Crossing’ here.

“I Want To Be Her!”

Today, we went to see the new Ghostbusters movie.

Before I go any further, there may be spoilers below, and you should go see this movie. S loved it. For me, it was worth it just for the bad-ass ghost fighting, for Kate McKinnon stealing every scene, for the closing credits. Just go see it. (Also, Market Square on Front is a great theatre.)

The review that best captures the feeling for me, I saw on facebook shortly before we saw the movie, and I quote part of it here:


I’m almost 30 and last night was the first time I saw a movie where a woman fucking did a thing and was funny without crying into a pint of ice cream and was badass without being a pinup and all I could think was… I really didn’t know that was an option. I really didn’t know you could save the world without looking like you’re trying to pose for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition at the same time. I have never, in 30 years, seen a major movie that didn’t reinforce the message that how I look is more important than what I do.

The Atlantic talks about how the new movie is a product of its time, just like the old movie:


In that sense, though, Ghostbusters is engaging in one of the most valuable aspects of the culture’s current reboot mania: It is serving, in its very re-ness, of evidence of all that has changed, for better or for worse, since 1984. In the years since the original Ghostbusters premiered, 9/11 happened. The web happened. CGI improved. Feminism got normalized, and then commercialized.

Here, believing in ghosts makes one not iconoclastic, as it did for the men of the original, but potentially that most loaded of gendered epithets—“crazy.”

The film is, in many ways, a study on what would have happened if the original Ghostbusters had been female. They are treated totally differently, routinely called ‘crazy’, even at the end of the movie, the powers that be want to keep them swept under the carpet.

Chris Hemsworth was fantastic as Kevin. I think he should do more comedy.

Kate McKinnon’s fight sequence near the end of the movie was to die for. If they don’t make her a superhero movie, there is no justice in this world. She also stole just about every scene that she was in.

A new movie for the kids of today, a new product of its time. Go see it (and stay all the way to the end!)

I Miss Grand Admiral Thrawn

So, I’m re-reading the Timothy Zahn ‘Heir to the Empire’ trilogy, and I was once again struck by how good it felt to be reading a Star Wars book where there was a real, believable villain who actually knew how to plan and was actually a threat.

This article probably says it best: that Thrawn was a complex and charismatic enough character that you could actually see threatening the New Republic, and able to conquer the galaxy on his own merits.

The new Kylo Ren & sundry associated characters just don’t seem anywhere near as competent. (Just so needlessly destructive.) You have the feeling that Thrawn would conquer them in the matter of weeks. [sigh.] Anyways, here’s hoping that the new Star Wars movies have people on both sides (or even multiple sides?!?) who have reasonable motivations and who are each striving from a place of competence.

Wikipedia Humour

My favourite page on Wikipedia is the description of the ‘Lamest Edit Wars’

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Lamest_edit_wars

Wikipedia is a treasure trove of (very) dry humour about often very controversial topics. Normally, if you’re in a conversation about a controversial topic, you can step out, but not an encyclopedia, which is expected to have words on everything.

You can see the workshopping that must have gone into it. I wonder if there are ways to detect the most workshopped phrases? To detect the ‘most controversial*’ parts of Wikipedia? (Although parsing the revision history may give you this.)

“Both frequencies coexist today (Japan uses both) with no great technical reason to prefer one over the other[1] and no apparent desire for complete worldwide standardization.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utility_frequency

If you enjoyed the humour above, you may also enjoy (hattip to AM):

https://github.com/bup/bup#things-that-are-stupid-for-now-but-which-well-fix-later

And my favourite subreddit of them all:
https://www.reddit.com/r/notinteresting

It is truly sublime, including such gems as:
“checking the radiator pipe cover”

radiator

*It turns out that Wikipedia has a list of these (of course it does): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_controversial_issues
This is different from controversies about Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Wikipedia_controversies
There are even articles in reputable news sources written about this: http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/24/tech/web/controversial-wikipedia-pages/ And research papers: http://arxiv.org/vc/arxiv/papers/1305/1305.5566v1.pdf

TNG: What Might Have Been

So, we were watching the TNG episode ‘Reunion’ http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Reunion_%28episode%29, and it got us thinking about what TNG might have been.

K’Ehleyr was such a big and interesting and *alive* character. Imagine if she had been a cast regular. The place she seemed to fit best in our mind was replacing Riker as the Enterprise First Officer.

First, a bit of backstory to set the stage:

It’s often been said that the original Star Trek was based around a ‘Freudian Trio’ of the Ego (Kirk), the Superego (Spock), and the Id (McCoy).
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FreudianTrio

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for TNG was that humans would have evolved to no longer ‘need’ the interpersonal bickering which characterized the Spock/McCoy interaction. Some say that this led to ‘too safe’ personal interactions amongst the crew, with the only sources of conflict being Worf’s conservatism, Riker’s devil’s advocate, and the management/engineering interaction* between Picard and Geordi.

This made the writers need to look outside the main cast for sources of conflict. This generally worked well, but wasn’t Wesley’s best performance in the series when he played the sulky teenager being called on the carpet by Picard?

All this is a long winded way of saying that it could have been a very different series with a more varied and emotionally expressive cast.

Back to Susie Plakson as K’Ehleyr as First Officer. You would have a very different take on the ‘Freudian Trio’, with the calm and rational emotional readings from Troi, and the more aggressive emotions from K’Ehleyr, with Picard bringing it all together. There’s a beautiful scene with K’Ehleyr and Troi talking just after K’ehleyr has broken a glass table in anger. So much interesting emotional depth to discover and explore!

Also, you’d have the fun dynamic between K’Ehleyr and Worf, with her as his superior officer, much more interesting than the never-really-explored-outside-of-the-book-Imzadi relationship between Riker and Troi.

But alas, TNG was a product of its time and executives. Riker with his daddy issues (which are important, and he carried the part well) must have spoken to those casting, and it must have not just been because he had the second highest rank on the ship that he got second billing, above all the ‘supporting cast’.

Also, the two women who were most like what we’re suggesting for K’Ehleyr were both written out of the show after the first season, both because they wanted more from their parts on the show. Denise Crosby left to pursue feature films, and Gates McFadden was pushed out because she was insisting on more substantive parts for her character.

It wouldn’t be until Kira Nerys that we would have a character close to what could have been with K’Ehleyr. Maybe in a Mirror Universe someday…

*It’s actually really fun to watch this, especially in the early episodes, where they have a number of classic ‘management/engineering’ conversations, including such gems as ‘I don’t want you to use the word impossible’.

Other interesting notes:

Apparently, ‘Wesley Crusher’ was almost ‘Lesley Crusher’: http://trekmovie.com/2010/08/26/1987-paramount-memo-reveals-actors-auditioning-for-star-trek-tng-cast/

Pages 293-7
http://www.amazon.com/The-Continuing-Mission-Star-Trek/dp/0671025597#reader_0671025597
Interesting notes include the fact that each of the actors had to pass personal interviews with the studio execs, that Marina Sirtis and Denise Crosby were originally cast in the opposite parts, and that Gene had to be convinced at length to choose Patrick Stewart.

The Spoilers Become More Awake

Earlier, I talked a little about fear and redemption in The Force Awakens:

The Spoilers Awaken

This post is more a bunch of scattered thoughts…

The movie was all about Han Solo, and that was a good thing. Harrison Ford has really matured as an actor (I should see how he is in American Graffiti), where you see the gravitas, which smoothed out the ‘scruffy-haired nerf-herder*’

There’s probably something about having actors of varying ages and maturity levels, and how it smooths things out. (Even though the young actors in this movie are more skilled (or better directed), they still have the very young energy, attractiveness, and rushing intensity, all of which can do better with guidance…)

‘Droids’ is an excellent example of good ‘in universe’ lingo**.

Seeing the characters old and the death of Han Solo was not just the passing of the torch to the next generation of Star Wars, but also perhaps a passing of the torch to us, that it’s time for us to step up (similar to when Jack Layton died)…

Leia’s dress with a New Republic neck was a nice touch.

Some people have said that Leia was not the most convincing actor, but her acting worked fine for me. Her scenes with Han were very touching, along with the scene near the end with Rey. I also found her convincing as a general, who ‘went back to what she knew the best’, and seemed to fit well in that role.

In a galaxy with hyperdrive and even reasonable astronomy and astrogation, how could you not tell where a sector was, if there was a map of it that included 5-10% of the galaxy? Even with 300 billion stars in a galaxy, you wouldn’t need very many to be narrow down a sector, if the map had any reasonable level of accuracy…

So much regret for time past with problems remaining unresolved…Like Tron:Legacy…

Good use of X-wing quad lasers in ground combat against stormtroopers (apparently they added an under-blaster-cannon in the updated model for the movie), similar to R2-D2’s method for dealing with Joruus C’boath (even a jedi master cannot deflect startfighter-sized weapons, and/or they cannot predict what droids will do). Also, I liked the new X-wing colours. Apparently the shape is slightly different, but I didn’t notice that. http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/T-65B_X-wing_starfighter#Behind_the_scenes

It was very fitting that the new death star reformed back into a sun…

The art department had many scenes of groups of aliens, just doing their thing, ‘world building’ as S says.

The establishing shots were really well done (you should do Comic Book Boot Camp http://comicbookbootcamp.com/).

The force continues to be weak in dealing with droids…The light side of the force more often appears with empathy, so they they can use that to interact with droids

A very tech-savvy force user…Anakin, perhaps Luke, for sure Rey…Either a force ability, or something about growing up on desert planets. If it’s a force ability, interesting that it allows much easier repairs and jury rigging, but not sensing or understanding the motivations of droids.

A small complaint about Cineplex showing spoilers in the opening ‘pre-movie games’

Also, the imperials just sound better with English accents.

Interesting the ‘order’ vs. ‘freedom’ contrast between ‘The First Order’ and ‘The Resistance’.

*Similar to how the last few vestiges of Garath the thief were the only differences between Belgarath the Sorceror and Aldur…

**The counterexample I always use is ‘Argonians’ and ‘Kajhit’ in Oblivion, where no matter how racist the character, they always used the official names, which I always found jarring and unrealistic.

The Spoilers Awaken

This is my second post on The Force Awakens, this time with spoilers… (If you don’t want spoilers, you should go to the other post here: http://nayrb.org/~blog/?p=553)

From Anakin to Luke to Kylo Ren, the Star Wars movies are about the failed teaching of apprentices. It felt very poignant seeing the older Mark Hamil, with a beard, almost an echo of Alec Guinness’ haunted eyes. This suggests that movies VIII and IX may be the story of Luke Skywalker’s redemption as much as they may be Kylo Ren’s (in the same way that IV was Obi-Wan Kenobi’s redemption).

At the same time, it still feels like Luke ran away, at least it seems that way not knowing what has happened in the intervening time… Even if one of his students ran away and fell to the dark side, why would he not try again? What would make him flee that responsibility so resoundingly? Was it because he let his sister and best friends’ son fall to the dark side and kill all of his students?

Obi-Wan had more of an excuse, as the entire empire was after him, if he had stuck his head up, they would have sent out squads to kill him. But he had his redemption when he faced his fear/failed student.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” -Yoda

So much fear on both their parts…You could say that the fear of Obi-Wan and Luke of their failed teaching and students led to much of the conflict in all seven movies so far…Who will break the cycle, to help adolescents actually grow up properly? (Or is this an endless part of the human condition?)

(It could also be, like Ty Templeton taught us in Comic Book Boot Camp http://comicbookbootcamp.com/, how you want to torture your heroes, to give them more depth, to give them more complex motivations, and in Star Wars, it’s often mistakes they’ve made in the past that they want to redeem.)

Speaking of redemption, it made Han Solo a much more interesting character to have him needing redemption for his perceived failures with his son. Also, this may be me projecting or reading things in, but it felt like there was some Harrison Ford wanting redemption for his terrible acting in the original trilogy. (Just after I wrote that, I read an article talking about how he re-wrote much of Han’s terrible dialogue to be more in tune with the character, and apparently also wanted Han Solo to die at the end of Jedi, to give the movie a ‘bottom’. So maybe it was the drama of Han Solo that he was trying to redeem, to finally give him some gravitas.) (Also, given how much he apparently put into the part, I feel bad complaining about his acting…Maybe it’s just that many actors are not that good at that age, or that directing has improved (or that George Lucas was much better at the art and setting than at script writing or directing actors*), or that he was being compared to Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing.)

Either way, fear and redemption is the catch phrase of Star Wars. Comment below!

*Apparently, Harrison Ford also contributed a lot to his character in American Graffiti, which was successful for George Lucas in part because he set the scene well with the setting and music from the period.

No Spoilers Awaken

Well, we just saw The Force Awakens, and it was really good. I think I can say ‘great’, possibly the best of all of them.

I’ve promised no spoilers for this review, so I’ll be focusing on other aspects.

First, the music was seamless and brilliant. It carried the mood superbly, through all of the lonely scenes, the poignant scenes, the battle scenes that Star Wars is known for.

Second, the movie felt really tight. It was paced well, it felt like it moved all the way through, that all the scenes needed to be there.

There were many sendups, but they weren’t jarring, they felt natural to the characters saying them (like the conversations about aging in The Undiscovered Country).

It felt very true to the feel of the Star Wars universe, while at the same time, being a great movie.

Also, I feel like Harrison Ford was much better, like he’s grown into himself.

In short, go see this film.