Saturday, July 28, 2012
Thursday, July 26, 2012
It's burdensome, it's frequently inefficient, it gets things wrong as often as it gets them right. Decent people are correct to wonder why they have to be saddled with the irritations of being governed. But intelligent people all know the reason for government: not everyone is decent. Some people are unreasonably selfish, some are careless or negligent, and some are just plain evil.
We have government because we have those people.
And if there's something about government that you don't like, your first step in rectifying the matter is to acknowledge that government is the natural solution for the existence of people who refuse to regulate themselves. "Let's get rid of government" ultimately equates to "Let's allow all the bad self-regulators to ruin everything for everyone." Once you acknowledge that some level of regulation is necessary, all interested parties can then make their case for whether particular regulations are useful and proper or intrusive and counterproductive. But if you just go around complaining that the problem is "too much government," what you're really doing is giving those faulty self-regulators cover to clear away regulations they don't like along with the ones that you don't like.
The problem is never "government" -- it is always specific pieces of legislation, specific executive-branch policies, or specific judicial decisions. If you try to deal with the problem of "government" instead of trying to deal with those specifics, you're inviting people with a fondness for abuse of power to walk all over you.
Friday, July 6, 2012
Sunday, May 6, 2012
I also spent large chunks of the movie admiring Joss Whedon's abilities as a screenwriter -- including the way he managed to (1) include the old Marvel trope of heroes constantly getting into fights with each other while (2) avoiding the film super-hero trope of people being needlessly stupid to advance the plot. The characters sometimes react (or over-react) impulsively based on their emotions, but whenever they're given time to think, they use their brains effectively. The dialogue was razor sharp in virtually every scene, and also included moments of genuine emotion and character development that came across as fresh and new, in spite of the fact that these characters have appeared in thousands of comic-book issues over the last 50 years. Whedon understands the fundamental pathos of Bruce Banner, the absolute conviction of Steve Rogers, the constant tension between Tony Stark's self-absorption, personal drive, and sense of conscience. He also gets the fact that (another spoiler) Natasha Romanov is such a good spy that she can allow herself to be manipulated in a way that manipulates the person who is manipulating her. And he knows that the relationship between Loki and Thor is an archetype of familial love too strong to be broken regardless of the depths of betrayal to which one of the brothers might sink.
But here is where the writer's curse arrives for me. What Joss Whedon understands about Hawkeye is ... that Hawkeye can shoot arrows really well.
You know, it's not every super-hero movie that manages to present a compelling version of even a single super-hero. In "The Avengers," Joss Whedon pulls off five out of six -- or six out of seven if you count Nick Fury. Or maybe even 9 out of 10 if you count various SHIELD agents and Pepper Potts.
But I still end up stuck on the fact that I wasn't satisfied with Hawkeye.
And what is it that dissatisfies me?
Hawkeye didn't get the chance to be The Hero.
The fact of the matter is, for me, Hawkeye IS the Avengers. In the stretch of the comic that I read from the late '70s into the '80s, Hawkeye was pretty much the only Avenger who stayed in the roster the whole time. At various points, he was the leader of the team, if only because his dogged insistence on sticking to the group gave him seniority. Here was a guy who really was just a guy. No super-soldier serum, no suit of invincible armor, no magical hammer, no gamma-ray-induced strength. He had a few gizmo arrows, his brains, a whole lot of skill, and an absolute, never-quit determination.
Hawkeye was the ultimate Avenger.
So what happens to him in this movie? (FYI: here come the biggest spoilers of the post.) He gets zapped into being Loki's puppet for most of the film, and then in the final action he gets to play about the least important role of any team member. He's not unimportant -- he just doesn't get to shine as brightly as most of the others.
And that's a shame, because if he'd been given a chance to redeem himself from Loki's puppeteering, the climax of the film could have had a lot more emotional resonance.
Imagine if, instead of Hulk being the one to take Loki down, Hawkeye appears on the balcony of Stark Tower, an arrow pointed straight at Loki's heart. Loki just laughs and says, "We've already seen how pitifully inadequate your little arrows are against me." He sends a bolt of energy to blast Hawkeye -- but it goes right through the archer, revealing him to be a hologram projected by a gizmo arrow lodged in the balcony railing. At the same moment, the real Hawkeye shoots Loki from behind, badly injuring him and making him drop his scepter. Now the Hulk can show up and prevent Loki from retrieving the scepter, and with Loki out of the way, Hawkeye (not the Black Widow) can be the one to close the portal. For good measure, you could have the energy shield around the Tesseract send nasty tendrils of energy up Hawkeye's arms while he's shutting it down, giving us a very clear understanding of how much grit it takes to pull the action off.
That ending redeems Hawkeye and also gives Loki an ironic comeuppance for his earlier bragging about always being able to trick Thor with illusions. It does require you to find something else for the Black Widow to do during the finale, but come on. She's the Black Widow, and she's already run away with the movie at several points earlier on, so that shouldn't be too big a deal.
Because I'm a writer, I can't help but see these things and think about them and then be frustrated at the fact that the actual screenwriter didn't think of them. It's all the more frustrating because I think of Joss Whedon as a much better writer than I am, and if I could come up with this stuff, why couldn't he?
The writer's curse.
Even so, "The Avengers" was a pretty damn fine film. Go see it, if you haven't already!
Sunday, April 15, 2012
GIANT SPOILER ALERT! UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU READ THIS POST BEFORE SEEING "THE CABIN IN THE WOODS"!!!
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Dr. Seuss's original story was a heart-wrenching tragedy whose single ray of hope depended on the reader's willingness to commit to the cause Seuss put forward. The only reason to change its apocalyptic ending would be a steely-eyed desire to rake in a bigger box-office take. Next up from the filmmakers: a version of "The Giving Tree" with an up-tempo song number for the ending.
On the other hand, "In Time" had moments of formulaic action-flick sloppiness, but created a solidly imagined future society and delivered compelling performances and a harder-hitting element of social commentary.
Monday, March 12, 2012
John Carter: The What-If-I-Hadn’t-Read-The-Books Review
Despite being based on one of my most beloved childhood reading experiences, John Carter is a movie, not a book, and well deserves to be judged on its own merits rather than on its merits as an interpretation. With that in mind, I decided to write two reviews: one taking the movie for what it is, and another comparing it to what it isn’t. Here’s the first of those reviews.
(Minor spoilers ahead.)
When Hollywood makes science fiction and fantasy action-adventure films, it very often plays things safe. Science usually gets short shrift, and complex or unconventional concepts are usually avoided. Aliens may look very different from human beings, but they usually have cultures little different from our own, or else lack culture entirely and are simply malevolent invaders. Plots tend to be straightforward and spelled out in the clearest possible terms.
In one way or another, Disney’s adaptation of John Carter violates almost all of those expectations. It’s a science fiction film, set on an alien planet – yet it’s also a period piece that takes place in the 1800s. It makes liberal use of flashbacks – in fact, because the bulk of the story is a flashback in the form of a manuscript being read by young Edgar Rice Burroughs, it has flashbacks within a flashback. It introduces but does not clearly explain several weird pieces of Martian (Barsoomian) technology, expecting the audience to put two and two together.
This is not to suggest that it’s some kind of brainy, highly intellectualized film. But it is a film that differs markedly from typical Hollywood fare in a number of ways.
The film opens with narration explaining some of the political dynamics on Mars, and introduces the principal villain, Sab Than, as he’s granted a weapon of unusual power by several figures whose motives are ambiguous, but don’t seem good. We then cut to Earth in 1881, where John Carter sends Edgar Rice Burroughs a telegram and then appears to die under mysterious circumstances. Burroughs is given an odd manuscript as part of his inheritance, and when he opens it, the story proper begins.
Quickly and efficiently, the narrative establishes Carter as an intense, capable, and determined man, hinting that tragic experiences in the Civil War have hardened him into a cynic and even a bit of a hermit. When army officers in the Arizona territory try to impress him into service to fight Apaches, he escapes and ends up cornered in a cave, where he encounters a piece of Martian technology that transports him across space to a war-torn planet.
So far, the movie has given us Mars, then 19th Century New York, then the Wild West and now Mars again, all in the space of about 15 minutes. While some viewers may be disoriented, no one can accuse the film of being predictable or tame in its opening. And with the action moving to Mars, we almost immediately get a new set of surprises.
One of these is a bit silly: a prolonged sequence in which Carter has to figure out how to walk in the lower Martian gravity, which is played for humor and didn’t strike me as all that well visualized. But once he gets his outlandish leaps under control, he has his first alien encounter, stumbling across a hatchery of the green Martian Tharks, and then being surrounded by the Tharks themselves.
In the Tharks, this movie does what science fiction films almost never do. It presents aliens who have their own set of cultural values and mores. Viewers who don’t look closely may consider the Tharks just another savage warrior race along the lines of the Klingons, prizing combat and bravery and daring deeds. But the movie goes beyond those tropes, showing Thark customs of child-rearing and family, legal proceedings and punishments, and attitudes toward entertainment, animals, and religion. We see only bits and pieces of these subjects, as this is an action film, not a cultural documentary. But enough small details are there to make the Tharks feel real and distinct, and despite this being Disney, many of the details are brutal and stark.
Next into the mix comes Dejah Thoris, beautiful and brilliant princess of Helium, who arrives at the Thark encampment as she flees Sab Than. Dejah is the whole package, as proficient with a sword as with all the knowledge of Barsoomian science and as brave as she is gorgeous. The film does a fine job of showing us who Dejah is, and if there’s a complaint to be made about her it’s that the relationship that develops between her and John Carter is such a foregone conclusion. Carter is the greatest fighter on the planet, and Dejah is its most beautiful woman, so of course they’re going to end up together. It would have been nice to see the results build up in the form of personal chemistry between Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, but the screenplay and the direction don’t really give them many opportunities to achieve a mutual smolder.
Together, John Carter and Dejah Thoris escape the Tharks and pursue the mysterious source of Sab Than’s power – Carter because he wants to return to Earth and Dejah because she wants to save her people. Naturally, they end up falling for one another, and eventually Carter must decide between returning to Earth to the hollow existence he was living before, or interceding in the age-old wars of Mars in order to save Dejah Thoris and her people. You can undoubtedly guess how that’s going to go, but there’s some great spectacle to be had in watching it unfold – including a truly magnificent scene that intercuts the best action sequence of the movie with the most emotional moment of the whole film, in which John Carter’s backstory is at last fully revealed.
The film is not perfect by any means – at least one of the plot twists is a baffling head-scratcher that really tested my suspension of disbelief. But for the most part, the fantastic nature of the visuals, the setting, and the story held together in a way that made all the preposterous elements enjoyable.
In the end, we return to Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs, where there’s a very fun and satisfying twist to close out the framing narrative. The good guys triumph, the bad guys get their just desserts, and the nefarious manipulators who gave Sab Than his weapon escape with much of their mystery intact, presumably to make more trouble in the eventual sequels.
So: on its own, as a 21st century action adventure flick, John Carter gets three and a half or four stars from me. Not the very top of its genre, but interesting and unusual and well worth seeing.
John Carter: The No-Series-of-Books-Made-a-Bigger-Impression-on-My-Childhood-Than-This-One Review
I don’t know how many times I’ve read the John Carter books. I’m guessing I devoured the entire eleven-book series at least two or three times in my youth, and I got through the first five or six books a couple of years ago and then reread the first one just last week. So these books have been a vivid part of my mental landscape for my entire adult life, and almost any film adaptation was guaranteed to fall short for me.
Despite the fact that I knew that going into it, John Carter contained three major sources of disappointment to me and many minor ones.
(Major spoilers ahead.)
Let me be clear that I am not criticizing the film simply because it departs from the books. Everyone on Mars is telepathic in the novels, a fact that makes no sense and that Edgar Rice Burroughs conveniently forgets over and over again when it’s necessary for his good guys or bad guys to get away with lying. In a similar vein, on the literary Barsoom, no one is subject to the aging process. Dejah Thoris’ age is never mentioned, but for all we know, she’s 300 years old when John Carter meets her. Her father and grandfather are still around, and don’t look any older than she does. The movie ditches these elements entirely, and also adds a radically different backstory for John Carter that provides him with a personal growth story arc entirely lacking from the books – I thought those were all good moves.
But there are certain elements in the books that surely deserved to carry over into the movie – things which fundamentally alter the meaning of the story if omitted or altered. The three big ones are:
1) Extraordinary heroic honor. All of our heroes in the novels are cut from a striking cloth. In A Princess of Mars, Helium is indeed besieged by Zodanga. But it does not happen because Sab Than gains a super-weapon; it happens because Sab Than demands to marry Dejah Thoris, and the entire population of Helium would rather die than submit their princess to such a fate. Far from pushing his daughter toward a union she detests, the Tardos Mors of the novels is ready to sacrifice his whole people on principle, and they are willing to go along because that is the nature of their honor-bound culture. And Dejah Thoris, rather than fleeing the situation as she does in the film, agrees to marry Sab Than because she would rather give up her own happiness than allow her people’s honor to destroy them. Furthermore, while providing her with accomplishments as a scientist and prowess as a warrior, the film completely ignores Dejah Thoris’ leadership qualities from the books, where she is physically weak and unimposing, yet still possesses the bravery and diplomatic gifts to almost win over the entire Thark horde through the force of her personality. Even Tars Tarkas is greatly lessened in the movie. Instead of starting off as a lesser chief and eventually triumphing over the hideous Tal Hajus, he starts off in charge and is deposed by Tal, who ends up being defeated by John Carter in a rather anticlimactic fashion instead of the rich moment of justice that occurs in the book.
2) Bold statements against racism, superstition, and abuses of political power. In the books, the red men of Mars are explicitly a blended race, mixed long ago from pure-blooded white, black and yellow Martians. The principle villains of the first three books are either cynical opportunists like Sab Than or racial purists and religious fanatics who have worked for millennia in secret conspiracies to control and manipulate everyone else. Considering the time in which it was written, the series is astonishingly progressive, laying bare the absolute foolishness of racism and dogmatism, and showing clearly the price societies can pay for following malevolent leaders. But there’s very little sense of any socially conscious message in John Carter at all. Certainly, some of this follows naturally as a consequence of the great strides we’ve made since Burroughs’ day. Yet we have not defeated these evils even a hundred years after Burroughs took up his pen against them, and it’s sad to see the movie sidestep still-relevant issues. Burroughs managed to include these themes without the least bit of preachiness; I would have thought Andrew Stanton and John Lassetter capable of following his lead.
3) True Love. In A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs asks us to buy into what Disney has spent decades putting onto celluloid: love as an overwhelming, instantaneous, wondrous and electrifying phenomenon that, once it takes hold, becomes the entire focus of a person’s life, a miracle with the power to change the world. The romantic relationship that evolves onscreen in John Carter is a pale shadow of that, shying away from the naïve but heartfelt emotional idealism of the book and not really replacing it with anything more mature or believable. It works perfectly fine as formula romance, but left me wanting something so much greater.
Granted, the film does an excellent job translating many of the visuals from the books into motion. The Tharks and their animals are terrific (although Woola the calot was a bit too cutely designed for my tastes), the ruined cities are spot-on, the airships are cool looking, and the battles and arena scenes really capture Burroughs’ visceral savagery.
Ultimately, then, John Carter was to me a film that got the basic look and feel and tone of the books more or less right, but somehow missed the most profound substance of the series. I think I would still give it about three stars as a sincere effort. But when the source material hands you five stars worth of ideas, making a three-star picture isn’t exactly a triumph.
Still, I would encourage anyone interested in entertaining pulp adventure stories to go see this movie, and to take my grudging attitude toward it more as a recommendation for the books than a true chastisement of the film.
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Friday, February 10, 2012
Friday, February 3, 2012
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Friday, January 27, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
What you are is God's gift to you
What you make of yourself is your gift to God
Though I'm not traditionally religious, I found this to be a terrific thought. Why? Because it seems to discard dogmatic notions of religious duty and moral obligation in favor of a simple principle: the value of giving.
My optometrist gave me a new prescription, and in a few days, I hope to be seeing the world in a more unified image, one which will not give me splitting headaches. I don't know that I gave her much of anything back, other than saying, "Thank you." I didn't even let her know that I liked the quote on her wall. (To tell the truth, I was somewhat nervous she might tell me the double vision meant I had a brain cloud.)
But perhaps by sharing it here, I'm giving something forward, and perhaps when I go back to get my new lenses next week, I'll remember to tell her about that as well.
Perhaps, too, I'll figure out some small way in which I can make more of myself.
Monday, January 23, 2012
Saturday, January 21, 2012
Friday, January 20, 2012
“That story is false!” he expostulated righteously, thinking, I never told the housekeeper they were transvestites!
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Monday, January 16, 2012
Sunday, January 15, 2012
Friday, January 13, 2012
Thursday, January 12, 2012
Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Six weeks ago, Betsy wrote this in her online journal: "It seems that Mom was a bit optimistic in promising an update. I'm sorry if that's worried anyone." She went on to describe a rough week recovering from her latest surgery, and then went on from there to describe how pleased she had been to spend Thanksgiving with her family, and how much she had to be thankful for.
That's the kind of person Betsy was. Having been terminal for almost a year, with death now staring her very plainly in the face, her first concern was still for the people around her. She felt bad that her lag in communicating might have caused anyone to be anxious. So she rectified the situation by bringing us up to date on her surgery, and how they'd tunneled through her jugular as part of it -- and then she made sure to close by letting us all know how blessed and lucky she felt.
I was glad to see that her mother, in posting the awful but entirely expected news, said that Betsy had died, not that she had "passed." I'm pretty sure that no matter how peacefully Betsy went, she did not "pass," but was taken from us. If she managed to avoid kicking and screaming at the time, it was because she did not want to traumatize those who were present.
My life is a greater thing for having included her. I hope that when my own end comes, I can provide even half the example of strength and courage that she did.
Safe travels, Betsy. If there is anything beyond this life, I know that right now you are exploring it with eyes full of wonder, an intellect as great as any I ever encountered, and a heart of compassion.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
My new endeavor is Page 82 Reviews, a wonderful site that I intend to use to become a prolific book reviewer, despite my complete lack of time to read lots of books.
My gimmick is that I'm only going to review page 82 out of any given book. I figure, if it's a really good book, then even a page chosen more or less at random ought to be worth reading. And conversely, if it's a terrible book, one page should tell me all I need to know.
Whatever's going on in a book, it ought to be in full swing by page 82, right?
Anyway, head on over to check out my review of page 82 of The Fellowship of the Rings. Then use the voting buttons to say whether you think it's a great page 82 or not.
What could be simpler?
Monday, January 9, 2012
"I Kissed a Girl" gets pigeonholed as a novelty song because it is so catchy, funny, and upbeat. But this isn't just a playful tune about casual, flighty experimentation. It's a celebration of self-recognition: a song about the triumph of internal honesty that happens when one finally admits to and acts on a long-repressed truth. (Curiously, the Katy Perry song of the same title may be about exactly the same thing; it's just that Sobule's truth is a more beautiful, decent, and interesting one than Perry's.) The fleeting, knowing pause between "She took off her overcoat" and the first refrain is one of the most beautiful caesuras in lyrics that I know of. And the guitar solo, roaring and joyous, ought to let anyone with ears know that this song means to say something that goes beyond mere words.
Near the end of the album (and thank heavens it's not the last song) comes "Vrbana Bridge," an exquisitely heartbreaking story about the power of love to change us. If you can listen to this song without wanting to cry, then I congratulate you, because you're apparently invulnerable to any kind of hurt. And yet even in its absolutely rending tragedy, it lights a flame of hope and beauty. Truly one of the most remarkable songs I've ever heard.
Sobule's voice, songwriting, satire, musicianship, and sense of artistry are all beyond compare on this CD. It is astonishing that she is not as wealthy and famous as any female singer today.
Saturday, January 7, 2012
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A good travel book allows you to experience something vicariously -- a place, a time, a people. A well-written memoir gives you a sense of someone, intrigues and entertains you with the personality of the subject, catches you up in the events of a life. A clever humor book buoys your mood with laughter; a sensible self-help book makes you think you might be able to better yourself; an ingenious mystery keeps you guessing what the twist at the very end will be.
A great book transcends all of those accomplishments and turns a mirror upon your soul to make you feel alive with understanding.
The Sourtoe Cocktail Club is a great book.
If you enjoy confessional autobiographies, this is a book for you. If you hate confessional autobiographies but get a kick out of a good adventure story, this is a book for you. If you are fascinated by people, journeys, and exotic locales, if you are in need of a true and heartfelt laugh, if you hunger for the awesome beauty of some spectacular wilderness, if you have ever been a father or a son, or had a father or a son, or needed a father or a son -- if you more than anything want, from your head to your toes, for life to mean something, this is a book for you.
Ron Franscell took a journey and wrote about it. But he didn’t write about it so that you would understand his journey. He wrote about it so that you would understand that your journey is before you.
This book is a true accomplishment -- a rarity, a treasure.
View all my reviews
Friday, January 6, 2012
Thursday, January 5, 2012
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
To my surprise, the other person had just enrolled in the current version of the same class, and was very enthused about the fact that the Traveller simulation assignment was still on the syllabus. The dream ended with me offering to share an old novella I wrote based on my program, only to discover that I'd written a note on the last page of my manuscript that was innocent at the time but seemed highly embarrassing out of context.
As is usual with dreams, none of this seemed the least bit implausible while it was happening. I just thought it was marvelous fortune to run into someone else who enjoyed Traveller. Only with waking retrospect did I feel sorry for the hundreds or thousands of students who must have taken that professor's class over the decades without the benefit of having played Traveller beforehand.
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Monday, January 2, 2012
And I've got to figure out how to best promote the books I've already published and get the next two out as well.
It's shaping up to be a busy year ... I sure hope it turns out the Mayans were wrong, because if I do all this work and then the world ends, I'm going to be ticked!
Sunday, January 1, 2012
Because Christmas comes first, and involves so much decoration, there's an inevitable need to clear out all the Christmas paraphernalia at the end of the holiday season. At our house, that's likely to be today or tomorrow.
But what kind of way is it to start off the new year by packing away all the tidings of joy and goodwill that we just finished celebrating?
Wouldn't it be better to toast the arrival of the new year one week, bask in its implications of change and futurity, and then follow that the next week with the holiday that's all about giving and forgiveness? Wouldn't it be better to pause at the very beginning of the new year in order to recognize the power of redemption and open-heartedness, rather than using the occasion to box up and store the trappings of our spiritual generosity?
Sure, we'd have to change the date of the second-most important holiday of one of our major religions, but it seems like a good idea to me. Maybe I should talk to the Pope.