Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Step Show

Last week we had the fellow who created paintings of food that were so realistic it was hard to tell them apart from photographs. But check out this artist in France who makes gigantic designs in the snow -- by walking.

Simon Beck says that problems with his feet mean he can't run for exercise anymore, but he can walk. So with special snowshoes, he tramps specially-designed paths in the snow that, when seen from above, make fascinating geometric designs and -- of course -- snowflakes. Sometimes he has to change the design if overnight snowfall obscures the work he did the previous day.

And I thought I was doing good time management by listening to sermons on my iPod when I'm on the elliptical...

From the Rental Vault (2008 & 2009): Red Cliff

Realistically, if you want to know that the Oscars are lame all you have to do is watch the show. But if you'd like some more proof, watch John Woo's two-part masterpiece Red Cliff and realize that since its different parts were released in two separate years, there are two successive Best Motion Picture winners that didn't really earn their honors.

Thanks to the vagaries of the Academy nominating system, five (or recently, ten) of the movies released in the United States compete for the top award, but only five out of the every movie from everywhere else not released in English will compete for the Best Foreign Language Film. None of those movies are considered for Best Picture and none of the actors make the acting award categories. A piece on CNN's international site a couple of years ago noted that the omissions are even more apparent if we focus on solely Asian movies. If you don't want to read it all, I can sum it up in one sentence: Akira Kurosawa only has two Oscars, and one was for "lifetime achievement." In other words, ol' Oscar omits most of the movies released in the world in a given year, and that means that Slumdog Millionaire -- certainly a pretty good movie -- and The Hurt Locker -- which was above average -- went home with John Woo's statues.

Woo made his name directing high-octane crime movies in Hong Kong, essentially establishing a genre of his own that one movie writer called "Heroic Bloodshed." The lead characters may be criminals whose consciences instill in them a code of ethics that puts them afoul of less ethical conspirators or bosses, or they may be law enforcement faced with similar problems. Sometimes characters on both sides of the law will find common cause in their shared honor, but the price of their honor may be very high, in terms of personal sacrifice and violence. Woo moved to the U.S. in 1993 and continued to direct, but found the top-heavy control system of Hollywood moviemaking harder to deal with. His U.S. movies have not had the success of his Hong Kong and Taiwan-based productions.

Red Cliff was Woo's return to Chinese-language moviemaking and his first historical epic -- in Woo fashion, he dove headfirst into the deep end. The Battle of Red Cliffs (or the Battle of Chibi) was a decisive battle in 208-209 AD that moved China from the Han Dynasty period to the era of the Three Kingdoms. A fictionalized telling of the story is a part of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Chinese culture's most important classic novels.

Prime Minister Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi) has manipulated the weak emperor into declaring war on two southern provinces, led by warlords Liu Bei (You Yong) and Sun Quan (Chang Chen). Cao Cao's armies defeat Liu Bei, but Liu manages to retreat with most of his soldiers and many refugees. They seek an alliance with Sun Quan to rally and throw Cao Cao back to his lands in the north. Strategist Zhuge Lang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) meets first with Sun Quan but realizes he will need to persuade the viceroy Zhou Yu (Tony Leung) to his cause in order to convince the young and uncertain ruler. Even united, the two southern armies are outnumbered by the massive land and naval forces at Cao Cao's command, and they must use every bit of wit, cleverness and heart at their command as they make their stand at the Red Cliffs along the Yangtze River.

Reading that, you may wonder how Woo could make a four and a half hour movie from it. Some of the expansive story comes from the director's fictionalizing of the battle, introducing elements and characters who may not have actually existed. But the bulk roots in Woo's refusal to create characters without dimension and his expertise at adding those layers. The rousing speech before a battle is kind of standard in these stories but Woo puts his in the mouth of the villainous Cao Cao as he rallies his sick troops. They respond, even though what we know of Cao Cao makes us wonder if he even meant the words he said.

Woo also takes as much time as he needs to show us things we need to know, rather than tell us. Zhuge Lang and Zhou Yu develop a deep and respectful friendly rivalry that begins with a shared love of music. Rather than have the pair talk about that, Woo shows it, starting from a scene where both play the guqin, an ancient Chinese musical instrument that can produce sounds not unlike a slide guitar. As two Chinese nobles go down to the crossroads sixteen and a half centuries before Robert Johnson, they play in both complement and competition to each other and we see that these two men will be rivals as well as friends.

We know Zhou Yu is on the side of right when we see one of his generals bow to a peasant whose stock was stolen by soldiers as the property is returned. He and his allies see their power as their way to protect those who have little else to protect them, while Cao Cao sees it as a way to gain what he wants. The more powerful army will have to struggle to overcome the arrogance of its commander and the obstacles it creates.

All of this happens thanks to an excellent cast, with the stalwart Leung and and wry Kaneshiro as standouts. Their top-notch work, combined with the nuance of Zhang Fengyi's Cao Cao and the grace notes of other cast members with smaller but no less vital roles mean that Red Cliff's acting takes no back seat to its action, which is as usual superbly conceived and visualized by Woo.

Red Cliff isn't perfect -- there's some excess in the number of great fighting heroes who serve under Liu Bei and that means we get a couple more battle sequences than it really needs. But those missteps are rare and they don't erase the impression that we're watching two of the best movies of 2008 and 2009 -- whether Oscar saw them or not.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

And the Winner Is...I Dunno!

The good folks at Public Policy Polling have determined that a bunch of us dislike California, but we love Hawaii.

In an opinion poll, 44% of the respondents disliked California while only 27% liked it. But 54% liked Hawaii, as opposed to only 10% who disliked it -- and you've got me on what those ten percent would like, since everything I've heard about Hawaii except for the cost of living says it's a pretty nice place.

We Americans are a pretty easy-going bunch on our countrymen and women, as there were only five states in the whole survey with a net unfavorable rating -- the aforementioned California, Illinois, New Jersey, Mississippi and Utah. In fairness, Utah's scored a 24 percent like and a 27 percent dislike, so the margin's pretty close. What about the other 49 percent? Well, they had no opinion. A link on the story will take you to the online full survey results where you can see that.

My own fine state of Oklahoma is viewed mostly favorably by those who have an opinion -- 40% like us, 16% dislike us. But 43% don't think about us one way or the other, and I imagine that, had I been among the respondents, most of my answers would have been the polling equivalent of a shrug.

I think favorably of states where I know people, but that really means I think favorably of the people I know. I have family and friends in Illinois, so I think favorably of Illinois, despite the fact that the drive from St. Louis to Chicago is the longest five hours in the known universe and the state has a host of economic problems that would make some aspects of living there not nearly as much fun as my own abode. I've got family in and a favorable view of Oregon, too, even though they won't let you pump your own gas and most of the parts of the state that I've ever visited were damp, cramped and on a hill and the whole town of Portland looks like it just donated blood.

But I'm glad most people liked us, although I'm curious about where that 16 percent came from. The most logical suspect is Texas, but Texas' 25 million people make up only about 8 percent of the total U.S. population so there's a missing eight percent in there.

Unless they voted twice? Those sneaky Texans...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sunken, Treasure

The U.S.S. Seawolf is one bad piece of equipment. Ultra quiet, armed to the teeth, and able to stealthily trail and track almost any other seagoing vessel you could name, the nuclear submarine is one of the prides of the United States Navy.

Too bad author Patrick Robinson decided to abandon it a third of the way into his 2000 naval thriller U.S.S. Seawolf and switch to a by-the-numbers covert action operation weighed down by a confusing list of characters, inexplicable and wrong-headed actions by supposedly veteran military personnel and periodic tantrum-throwing by Robinson's series star, Admiral Arnold Morgan.

The Seawolf has been ordered to shadow a new Chinese submarine that has been built using stolen U.S. technology. Without good information on the sub, it's possible that Chinese missiles could be launched within reach of Los Angeles or other vital points on the California coastline. The sub's crack crew dares the waters almost within sight of the Chinese coast during a time of high Sino-American tension and military gamesmanship with Taiwan. A fatal error means the Seawolf and her crew are captured, and Chinese authorities plan on stripping Seawolf of her secrets and torturing the crew, if need be, in order to get the information they want. Morgan, now the National Security Advisor, develops a plan for a special operations team to land, rescue the crew and make sure Seawolf is destroyed so the Chinese can gain no information from her.

As mentioned above, Robinson has written several books featuring Morgan as his lead character, and although he's not one of the sailors he is the driver of the main part of the book's action: The rescue and sabotage mission. He's a bigoted, vulgar opinionated bully -- all qualities that he will probably need in order to make sure the mission succeeds. But Robinson manages to run all those same qualities into the ground before Morgan makes his fourth or fifth appearance, and the author's desire to smack the Clinton administration's laxity with military secrets gets tired just as quickly. His moves to rehabilitate Reagan-era policy implementers who signed off on things like the arms-for-hostages trade at the center of the Iran-Contra affair didn't even make a whole lot of sense in 2000.

In the end, Morgan is something like Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan becomes -- the only intelligent man in the room, the only one who sees the Real Threat and has the Guts To Do Something About It. Robinson has a lighter touch than Clancy and manages to include humor in his story, which is something that has eluded Clancy for most of his career. But he trades that off with some implausible conduct on the part of some of his military protagonists that just derails important storyline developments.

And not to mention, as noted above, that he wrote a submarine book named after a submarine and he spends two-thirds of it nowhere near the submarine. That's just bonkers.

That Toddlin' Town

A new study by political scientists at the University of Illinois-Chicago claims to show Chi-town is the most corrupt city in the United States and has been so, more or less, for quite some time.

The first recorded conviction of a Chicago alderman for corruption happened in 1869 -- he accepted a bribe to rig a city contract. Since 1973, 31 aldermen have been convicted of corruption and about 100 different people have served as Chicago aldermen. This means that over the last 40 years, almost a third of Chicago aldermen have been convicted of corruption or, in Chicago terms, "gotten sloppy."

Illinois will become the first state to have the distinction of having back-to-back ex-governors serving time simultaneously. George Ryan (1999-2003) is doing a stretch for a 2006 conviction for his role in a scheme that handed out truck licenses to people whose qualifications consisted of a donation to the Ryan campaign fund. His successor, Rod Blagojevich, will report to lockdown in March to serve his conviction for using the Illinois governor's power to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy as his own sort of fund-raising tool. Ryan and Blagojevich along with two others make four of Illinois' last seven governors who were convicted of some kind of bribery or corruption charge.

The City Council corruption has some "only in Chicago" themes. Eighteenth Ward alderman William Carothers was convicted in 1983; his son Isaac served the 29th Ward and in 2010 was convicted on similar charges. Some wards have had several aldermen convicted at different times; the same zoning scheme got 23rd Ward aldermen Joseph Potempa and his successor Frank Kuta convicted in 1973.

The link comes via a story on NewGeography.com here, in which the writer suggests that one of the problems academic folk often have when they study or theorize about political systems is a belief that all politicians within those systems are people "that rise above petty self interest to promote the common good." This would make politicians unlike any other group of people since Australopithecus afarensis decided their hands worked better grabbing than walking.

Although folks studying politics in Chicago don't have the luxury of presuming a uniformly noble class of public servants -- they're studying politics in Chicago, after all -- one would hope they don't measure only by that yardstick. I may frequently refer to politicians as of lower than average intelligence and of greater than average greed, primarily because the consequences of their errors ripple a lot more widely than most folks' do. But the truth is that they are much like every group: A few good, a few bad and many many more who are a mixture of the two.

Plus, when we voters make our choices based on which candidates promise us the most goodies for free (or at least at someone else's expense), can we really claim to be all that separate from their corruption?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Unspoiled

Science fiction author Harry Turtledove found he had a terminally ill fan who would probably pass away before the author finished his current alternate history series The War That Came Early, about a version of World War II that began in 1938 when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, rather than with the 1939 invasion of Poland that happened in the real world.

So Turtledove sent the fan a copy of the next book in the series, due out in July, and promised to tell him how the series ends. Not only is that a cool thing to do, it's also kind of refreshing to hear an author admit he or she knows how things will end, rather than that kind of weasely conceit that some writers use to dodge that question, like "I don't know how it ends because the characters haven't said yet," or "I'll know when I get there" or some such. Bravo, Mr. Turtledove.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2005): Death Trance

Bear with me. Way back in 1984, Walter Hill directed an odd sort of movie called Streets of Fire. He called it a "rock and roll fable" and used the license implied by the word "fable" to mix elements of 1950s and 1980s culture in ways they never existed in real life. I've no idea if Death Trance director Yuji Shimomura ever saw Streets of Fire, but he owes a lot of his movie to the concept of mixing modern mythologies together to create something with parts of each.

A man named Grave (Tak Sagakuchi) steals a mystic coffin from some monks because he believes it will grant his wish to fight against the most powerful warrior in the world. He drags it after him around the countryside, fending off those who try to steal it and accompanied by a strange little girl. The monks send one of their few survivors, Ryuen (Takamasa Sugi) to retrieve the coffin, because what will actually happen when it's opened is that the Goddess of Destruction will emerge and destroy the world. A wandering fighter named Sid (Kentaro Seagal -- yes, he's Steven Seagal's son) also seeks the coffin because of his belief in its wish-granting power. Different dream spirits appear to the different men during the movie as well, communicating their own strange messages.

Although the characters mostly dress like they lived in feudal Japan and most of the fighting is done with swords, we also have a variety of guns employed against opponents, including a rocket launcher. One group of marauders owns a motorcycle. Sid sports a pompadour-mohawk hairdo that would have looked just fine in a Bow Wow Wow video, but the strange young girl accompanying the coffin wears traditional Japanese dress. The way the characters slip in and out of old-fashioned stylized dialogue into more modern speech patterns is amusing, and everyone does look like they're enjoying themselves. But that's probably limited to their side of the screen. 

Death Trance is three-fifths martial arts movie, one-fifth Mad Max and one-fifth A Canticle for Liebowitz, dropped into Quentin Tarentino's blender and served up with some dynamite cinematography, haunting images and first-rate fight choreography. But like Tarentino's own hyperbolic mix of movie genres, Kill Bill (vols. 1 and 2), it is at the same time almost wholly a stylistic exercise only lightly seasoned with real story. Characters, ideas and themes both visual and plot-related appear and disappear without much warning or reason.

Some of that's probably on Shimomura's tab. Death Trance is his first movie as a director. He was previously the action sequence director on the move Versus (also starring Sagakuchi) and the video game Devil May Cry 3. He may have been too used to having a movie's primary director carry the storytelling part of the job and simply not recognize when that hasn't been done. Watch Death Trance and you'll probably wow at some of the way it looks and moves (as well as sounds -- Japanese metal band Dir En Grey gives it a soundtrack pretty much unique among martial arts movies that rely on swordfighting scenes). But you'll probably forget pretty quickly what story or idea tied any of those images together, since it was lightweight at best and more than likely nonexistent.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Do the Math, Get an F -- Note, That Is...

For a long time (about 40 years, in fact), nobody but those involved really knew just what that great opening chord was in the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night." They could duplicate the Beatles' instruments and read the written sheet music but could never make it sound like it did when John, Paul, George and Ringo kicked off their story of a working fellow who felt very rewarded by the time he was able to spend with his lady love. Even when different Beatles would say what they played or film of the song played live was analyzed, the results didn't seem to match the sound from the record.

Leave it to a mathematician to figure it out. Jason Brown, a professor of mathematics at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, put the chord through what's called "Fourier analysis" in order to find what musical notes are being played. Fourier analysis, of course, shows how mathematical functions may be represented by the sums of simpler trigonometric functions (didn't you know that?)

What that means is that a mathematician doing a Fourier decomposition of a math function breaks it down into simpler functions that can be added together to make the function he or she had to start with. At least one kind of Fourier analysis involves something called a "sinusoid," which sounds like the kind of thing in a SyFy Original Movie somewhere and makes me think that math got a lot more interesting after I stopped being able to understand it. I would imagine that the sinusoids are either:
  • A form of viral infection spread by aliens to disorient our communications in prepation for their invasion: "Do, Mibter Prebident! You bust bissen to be! I saib de abiens are inbading!"
  • Elite, deadly warriors enslaved by the master villain who can devastate anything in their path: "Let's see how the humans cope with the Sneeze of Devastation! Attack, my sinusoids!"
  • A heretofore undiscovered hibernating species of dinosaur awakened by an unscrupulous billionaire whose company was illegally fracking to obtain natural gas from a pristine wildlife reserve. Although their rampage will devastate the fracking rig and cause many deaths -- including, of course, the unscrupulous billionaire sometime during the last few minutes of the movie -- a handsome, unconventional scientist and a beautiful park ranger (or vice-versa) will discover a way to corral them and prevent the all-out bombing assault ordered by the closed-minded military leader. "No, general! You don't have to destroy them! We can contain them now that we know they eat through their noses!"
Actually, "sinusoids" are sine wave functions. You see them as the wavy lines on oscilloscopes used as props in some of those very SyFy Original Movies, in fact.

Anyway, Dr. Brown ran his Fourier analysis of the sounds in the chord, since music and mathematics are closely linked, and determined that another George, producer George Martin, had played a certain chord on the piano that added an "F" note to the mix, which created the unique opening sound of "A Hard Day's Night."

Many of the comments on the story suggest Dr. Brown is way off and that everyone has always known what the chord is. Rumors that those people have since disappeared, with the only known clue a suspicious sniffle heard just before they vanished, have yet to be disproven.

Rule the Galaxy?

This blog post on Forbes.com is fun, using the original trilogy of Star Wars movies as a tag to discuss ways not to be in leadership. Although I hadn't broken them down that way before, I confess I'd always suspected that Force-choking failed workers to death was not a way to build a strong organization. Even if it is tempting sometimes, and in my line of work prefacing such actions with "I find your lack of faith...disturbing" is even more tempting sometimes.

And since Mr. Knapp, the writer, is talking about the leadership mistakes of the Galactic Empire and not the actual moviemaking itself, he doesn't have to address the nearly fatal error of rewriting a key scene in your original movie to suit your own whims and later claiming it was always that way when everyone with a pair of eyes and no few of those without knew it wasn't.

Ahem. Sorry. Won't happen again. My ranting, I mean. Heaven alone knows what idiocy George Lucas will pull next. And sometimes I wonder if they do.

(H/T Jonathan Last)

From the Rental Vault (1959): These Thousand Hills

Ah, marketing! Reading the poster, you would note that A.B. Guthrie, the author of the book from which These Thousand Hills is taken, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Of course, he won that prize for The Way West, a book he wrote just before he wrote These Thousand Hills, but it's the thought that counts. As well as the fire...power...drama!

Anyway, These Thousand Hills stars Don Murray as "Lat" Evans, a drifting cowboy who joins a cattle drive headed into Wyoming. He makes friends with Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) and impresses the drive boss with his willingness to take on the hard work of bronc-busting new horses for the extra pay the job commands. As Lat explains to Tom one night, he grew up very very poor and he intends to change his circumstances as quickly as he can manage. He has managed to convince Tom to come with him to spend a winter in the high mountains trapping wolves for their hides, which command a good price. But Tom is unhappy with the isolation and the cruelty of killing hungry wolves with poisoned meat, so he leaves. Lat is soon injured and when he is returned to town, he finds himself in the care of Callie (Lee Remick), a dance hall girl with whom he has shared some deep secrets of his past. Unhappy because of his forced inactivity and the loss of his wolf pelts, Lat casts around for a way to get money to buy a ranch he feels will be his ticket to respectability and success. Those qualities will require a new set of companions, so he winds up cutting his ties to Tom and Callie in favor of local banking baron Marshal Conrad (Albert Dekker) and his niece Joyce (Patricia Owens) -- a decision that may end up costing him far more than money.

The story is interesting, offering a little commentary on how poverty may not confer nobility of character -- the beggar can be as greedy as the banker and just as unpalatable to be around when in the throes of his preferred vice. Therein lies the problem for Hills. Lat's greed and ambition are so blatant and all-consuming that even though we know his choices are likely to harm him, he's such an obnoxious slimeball we want it to happen. In the movies, as often in life, redemption comes at some price and the coin may be loss, tragedy or pain. After about an hour of watching Lat whine and connive, I didn't care if the story brought redemption for him or not, but I was sure eager for him to be hit with some loss, tragedy and pain. That ain't a great place for a movie to take the viewer vis-á-vis its protagonist.

Remick, Owens, Whitman, Dekker and the villainous Jehu (Richard Egan) are all adequate or better in their different roles, but they all have to play off Murray and his unlikeability sours pretty much everything else about the movie. That unlikeability does sort of help make a point mentioned above, that poverty as well as extreme wealth can create the ugliness of greed, but it doesn't seem like the kind of path screenwriter Alfred Hayes and director Richard Fleischer might have wanted to take to get there.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I Say! Say What?

This is interesting.

Every now and again, we wonder when we Americans started sounding like Americans instead of like English folks. People who move here from other places learn to speak English and within a generation or two most traces of their old country's accent or speech patterns are gone. That goes for folks from England as well, because even though we both speak English, we speak it differently than they do, and not just in vocabulary terms.

Obviously, we've only been able to record speech for the last hundred years or so, which means we don't know when our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers stopped speaking the King's (or Queen's) English and started speakin' 'Mercan English. But it seems that one of the real differences in accents came not from changes over here, but back over in the Merry Olde digs.

According to the article, both British English and American English for a large part of our shared history were "rhotic," which means we both pronounced the "r" sound in words like "hard." Our "general American" accent -- the way most newscasters and folks from the midwest speak -- is still rhotic, but in the 19th century non-rhotic pronunciation took hold in England as a way of denoting the speaker's culture and breeding. In other words, the educated folks and the people who wanted to imitate them said "hahd," while the general low-life no-accounts (say hello, my Irish ancestors) kept saying "hard."

It sort of spread over the ocean, as the cultured classes in the former colonies also adopted non-rhotic pronunciations. Remnants of our non-rhotic accents can be seen in the drawl of the Southeast U.S. and the clipped tones of the Bostonian and other New Englanders, although each of those has its own regional intonations. The influx of non-English speakers had their own influences on our pronunciations, which gave different regions their own accents rather unlike anything that ever bloomed amidst the tea and crumpets (Siddown, Brooklyn).

None of which, of course, explains the Valley Girl.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1956): Seven Men From Now

John Wayne first optioned the screenplay for Seven Men From Now for his Batjac Productions with the idea of starring as the lead in this relatively small Western, but he was locked into doing The Searchers at the time with John Ford, so he suggested Western veteran Randolph Scott. Although Scott is pretty much as identifiable with Westerns as Wayne, he was a lot less overpowering on screen -- just about everything Wayne was in from this time through the end of his career was a "John Wayne picture" -- and that gives Seven a different depth than it might have had otherwise. Plus, we got Wayne's outstanding performance in The Searchers, so it's a win all around.

Scott plays Ben Stride, a former sheriff who is on the hunt for seven men who robbed a bank and in so doing, shot and killed his wife. He does not intend to arrest them, of course. As he searches, he encounters John and Annie Greer (Walter Reed and Gail Russell), a couple headed to California in a covered wagon. Their wagon is stuck and with Stride's help, they get moving and decide to ride together to the next town. Stride thinks he will find word of the robbers there and the Greers intend to make their way west from it.

But before they reach the town, they meet Bill Masters and Clete (Lee Marvin and Don Barry), two men who have had a foot on either side of the law before. In fact, Stride sent Masters to jail twice when he was still serving as sheriff. Although neither man was involved in the robbery, they are on the trail of those who were so they can recover the stolen money themselves. Masters takes a fancy to Annie Greer and tries to work his way around her husband and Stride, but Stride blocks his schemes and evicts the pair from their little caravan.

Scott is his usual stalwart self, here a man driven by grief and vengeance but still holding to his code out of pride. Some hints are made of a supposed attraction between Stride and Annie Greer, but Scott's 58 years set against her 31 make that not very credible and not very interesting.

Far more interesting is the character arc of John Greer, who begins a weak man and discovers his own surprising strength along the way. Also much more interesting is Lee Marvin, who had been moving up in his size of role and importance of billing. His verbal fencing with Stride and others is several cuts above the usual bad-guy patter in these kinds of movies and he brings a lot more depth to Masters than you'd expect from a movie like Seven Men. A shootout inside a tumbled heap of rocks, crazy-quilt with tunnels, crannies, shadows and hidey-holes also adds a different flavor to the tension than the standard oater fare.

Seven Men was one of more than 40 movies for Marvin and 60 for Scott, and one of about 20 for Russell, who died of alcohol-related liver damage just five years later. It probably doesn't hit the top of the list for any of them, but it's definitely in the better half for all three. It may be a small story without a lot of lasting impact, but as a snapshot of how Westerns could be small movies as well as huge, expansive ones, it's worth a viewer's time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Worth a Thousand Words (And Took a Thousand Hours)

I'm not sure of the point of art like this -- hyperrealistic pictures of food, packaged and otherwise -- but I can definitely appreciate how much time and dedication it took to create the works. Take a gander at what a committed fellow can do with acrylic paint.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Godspeed, John Glenn

Today marks the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's 1962 three-orbit spaceflight, an acheivement that made him the first American to circle the globe in space. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had already flown an orbital mission nearly 10 months earlier.

Glenn marked the anniversary with by chatting with astronauts on board the International Space Station. Now 90, the former U.S. senator is one of only two surviving members of the U.S.'s first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven. The other, Scott Carpenter, is the one who wished Glenn "Godspeed" before his launch. Glenn returned to space aboard a space shuttle flight in 1998, becoming the oldest person ever to fly in space at 77 years of age.

Glenn was joined in the panel discussion at Ohio State University by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who joked that the astronaut sometimes pesters him about making a flight to the space station. Right, Chuck -- if he wants a ride to the space station, you're not on the list of people to ask, remember? Glenn has a better shot by asking one of the taikonauts aboard a Shenzou capsule for a ride than he does trying to live long enough for the next NASA manned launch.

Either way, it's nice to see NASA mark Glenn's achievement and to see Glenn able to participate in observing it and discussing its impact. Continued wishes of good health and life, Senator Glenn.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Mermaid Problem

Work at a reservoir in Zimbabwe has come to a halt because the workers are leery of the mermaids that apparently live there.

At first I thought that King Triton might need to get after Ariel again, but then I read a quote from the water resources minister about how the vexing problem might be fixed. The only solution, it seems, is to brew traditional beer and carry out rites to appease the spirits. Thus, I believe the workers may have an ulterior motive.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1950): The Furies

Although we tend to view the overall status of women as more advanced today than it might have been in the middle part of the last century, I dare you to watch Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies and either a) imagine any modern actress in the role of Vance Jeffords or b) imagine any agent surviving after suggesting to someone like Stanwyck (or Bette Davis, or Lauren Bacall, or Maureen O'Hara, etc.) a role in some of today's "romantic comedies."

Vance is the daughter of T. C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), a rancher in the 1870s Southwest who has built what amounts to an empire, centered on his immense ranch, "The Furies." She is quite obviously his favorite, as he sees his son Clay (John Bromfield) as ineffective and weak. A widower, T. C. has left the ranch to Vance to run while he wheels an deals around the countryside and into California. Some of his wheelings and dealings have brought the ranch close to financial ruin, but T. C. promises Vance it will be hers to run. He keeps that promise even when Vance falls in love with Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), the ne'er-do-well son of an enemy that T. C. himself killed. But it's T. C.'s own romance with Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) that threatens to drive the final wedge between them and will lead to betrayal, violence and worse.

Both Huston in his final role and Stanwyck create larger-than-life characters who help fuel the murky moral mix and Shakespearean atmosphere of The Furies. Both willful, full of hubris and unwilling to show any vulnerability, their struggle of competing pride won't let them bend an inch whether they are allies or opponents. The collateral damage in the misery and lives of others doesn't slow them in the slightest. Corey is good but he can never quite convince that he's on the same level as these two giants, which leaves a little bit of a hole in his scenes in the story. Stanwyck manages to carry him well enough that his somewhat pale-by-comparison character doesn't jar the story too much. Judith Anderson's strong presence helps strengthen her short but pivotal time onscreen as the woman who threatens Vance's place in her father's business and his life.

But in the end The Furies belongs to Huston and Stanwyck. Director Anthony Mann alternates his wide-open shots of southwestern scrubland with closed rooms and shadowed woods but largely lets the pair be the twin turbines driving his movie. As T. C., Huston is at first enough of a lovable rogue and so exuberant that it's a shock when we see that his willingness to take the lives of innocents to get his revenge on someone else entirely. The same pride that made him successful has also made him evil, and he will seem smaller-than-life now for the rest of the movie.

Mann went on to direct several successful movies with Jimmy Stewart, including several Westerns such as Bend in the River and The Man From Laramie that helped bring a great deal of dimension and character depth that the genre didn't always produce. But probably not until 1961 did he again have a leading lady who demonstrated the kind of screen command as Stanwyck, when Sophia Loren co-starred with Charlton Heston in El Cid. Such actresses were not common even in Hollywood's studio prime, and as mentioned above they seem to be an even more endangered species today.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Booze Saves Lives?

Well, it can if you're a fruit fly larva, anyway.

Fruit flies eat different kinds of fungi from rotting fruit -- which shows that they have a great marketing department in snagging the name "fruit fly" instead of other possibilities -- and in so doing they sometimes consume the fermented products that accompany said fruit. You wouldn't think they have enough of a brain to get much of a buzz on about this, and it is possible for them to take in too much alcohol-saturated food and poison themselves. So why would they have a preference for fermented rotting fruit instead of non-fermenting rotting fruit?

Seems as though a nasty breed of wasp will lay its eggs in fruit fly larvae and then wasp larvae will grow inside their insectoid cousins by feeding on their innards. The fruit fly larvae will die in a manner not dissimilar to the folks unlucky enough to encounter the title character in the Alien movies, although not quite as spectacularly. But alcohol works its own brand of nastiness on the wasp larvae, in a fatal and very grotesque fashion that more or less involves the li'l wasper's innards becoming its outards in a, shall we say, highly moving manner.

So first off, the wasps are less likely to lay their eggs amongst fruit flies that are partying it up at the local saloon (suggested name: Fermento's Hideaway). After all, you don't want to leave your offspring hanging around with a lot of drunks. Secondly, fruit flies infected with wasp larvae show a preference for alcohol-tainted food because it tends to kill off the little parasites before they consume their hosts from the inside.

And there you have it. Booze can in fact save your life, if you have a brain the size of a fruit fly's anyway. I've never tried this myself, although in the days in which I imbibed, I recall visiting more than one place where one ordered strong drinks as the best way to ensure that one's glass was relatively germ-free.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Righting Wrongs

Kudos to conservative columnist Cal Thomas and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for behaving like grownups after Thomas said something dumb in front of a camera.

Thomas made a lame and cruel joke -- about Maddow's existence being an argument for her parents' use of contraception -- in a panel discussion that was being recorded. Maddow responded with graciousness, although she also managed to tint it with political commentary, but that's her job. Thomas properly apologized. Maddow accepted the apology and the invitation to break bread.

Bravo to both, and what should be a clarion call to whomever runs MSNBC that Maddow is the only host they have who seems to know how to live out the idea of tolerance that their whole lineup shouts about every night. And also that she rather than Schultz, Sharpton, Matthews or O'Donnell should be the model for their on-air personnel and their lead face because she is in fact an actual liberal instead of a closed-minded leftist.

Of course, if they did that her ratings might go up. And if her ratings went up, I imagine Roger Ailes, a man who is firmly committed to the ideology "WWNW?" or "What Would Nielsen Watch?" might have someone give Ms. Maddow's agent a call come contract time.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wrong From the Right Side

So the spin cycle, having run through and eliminated GOP candidates both potentially interesting (Perry) and flat-out ridiculous (Cain), is now left with the semi-anointed front runner Mitt Romney, two men too weird to elect and too stubborn to quit (Gingrich and Paul) and former Pennsylvania Representative Rick Santorum.

Since the chatterati figures they will have to deal with Mr. Romney during the general election and they know they've trained news consumers to get bored quickly, they are now forced to pay attention to Mr. Santorum and elevate him as the "not Romney" of the moment. This has produced some interesting information about Mr. Santorum, who portrays himself as a conservative fellow and is, naturally, painted by media coverage to have done everything but pledged to repeal the 19th Amendment.

In an interview with the website CaffeinatedThoughts.com (shown here at Think Progress), Mr. Santorum says that one of the things he would do as president would be to talk about "the dangers of contraception in this country, the sexual libertine idea." He says that a number of our social ills stem from the decoupling of sexual activity from its procreative purpose. Obviously, sites which disagree with Mr. Santorum's politics have jumped all over this as a tool to paint him as an ignorant, dangerous medieval-minded boob.

But no few conservative sites have downchecked Mr. Santorum for remarks like these. Ace of Spades, a recent winner at the Conservative Political Action Committee blog awards, suggests that such a statement is the same kind of "I know better than you" arrogance conservatives don't like from those on the left. Ace, AoS site contributor Drew and Washington Examiner writer Gene Healy, among others, point out that this kind of talk is an excellent way to help re-elect President Obama. As Healy says, "If you like what the feds did to the housing market, wait till you see what they can do for your marriage."

If Mr. Santorum were elected, these and other writers wonder how much attention he would pay to far more pressing problems faced by our nation, such as debt in the trillions and entitlement programs that will go bankrupt long before I have enough gray hair to qualify for them. Even if he wanted to address those problems, would his political opponents or a controversy-hungry 24/7 media beast ever turn away from a possible President Santorum's "pelvic policy preferences" long enough to focus on that work? Of course they would. You remember how GOP leaders and news media all agreed in 1998 to hold off on the Monica Lewinsky matter and let President Clinton run the country.

But aside from the practical issues, the problem with this kind of idea is that society-shaping isn't the president's job. It's not any elected official's job, for that matter, although New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg seems to have a hard time remembering that in the middle of banning salt and fat use and driving restaurants out of business. Society-shaping is not the government's job at all.

Aside from his linkage of the problem to contraception, I probably agree more than disagree with Mr. Santorum about the negative effects of libertinism on our society. It's promoted men who beget children rather than father them, poverty among single women forced to figure out how to both care for children and get a job and Hugh Hefner's delusion that he's anything other than a creepy old man. I agree our society needs to think about how its sexual mores affect people in ways it has left heretofore unconsidered. But initiating such a conversation ain't the Prez's gig.

Technically, I guess, it's mine -- not just as a member of the clergy, but as a member of that society. The job of the president and other elected officials is to run the government and try to spend my money and yours in the least ridiculous way possible (Hint: Boosting tax writeoffs for people who make more than $170,000 a year doesn't qualify). Your job and mine is to try to create a society that respects and values each other and takes care of folks who can't manage to take care of themselves. Conservatives like Mr. Santorum can't legislate the first and liberals can't legislate the second -- at least not very well in either case. The most they can do is supplement those attitudes among people while we as a society try to inculcate them.

Am I suggesting that old-fashioned private agencies and groups, like charities, churches and secular helping agencies could do better than a majority of similar programs run by the government? I'm not certain -- in fact, in some cases I think they probably wouldn't -- but I do believe those cases are much fewer than a lot of folks on left and right seem to believe. And that the people who also run things like the post office and the department of motor vehicles should at the very least re-submit their résumés to show why we should entrust them with our health, the safety of our children and caring for the poor, among other things.

Once they manage to figure out a way to stop stealing from our great-grandchildren to fund our own lifestyles and pay back what they've already taken, then maybe I'll believe they're grown-up enough to talk about sex and what kinds of ingredients the cook at my restaurant should be using.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Movie Business

 -- When your movie stars real Navy Seals, how do you get your cast to show up to the premiere? By parachute, of course.

-- Kind of a headache-inducer, watching all the James Bond movie intros at once on the same screen. But neat for comparison purposes. Which one's number one? Well, that's a matter of individual opinion, but I think we'd have to agree nobody does it better.

-- Unknown but large amount of money made from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 goes to rich man Moore. Unknown but large amount of money goes to rich producers. Bupkis goes to Ray Bradbury, whose title gets ripped off by the mendacious Moore.

-- There is no opinion so bizarre and contrary to all possible reason that you can't find some fool who'll argue it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1998 & 2009): The Storm Riders and The Storm Warriors

The United States is not the only place where moviemakers have turned to comic books to find tales of adventure, honor, triumph over adversity and depictions of how people have faced some of the most difficult questions about what it means to be human. The Chinese-language comic Fung Wan (Wind and Cloud) has spawned two wuxia, or martial arts movies, in Hong Kong cinema, although they came 11 years apart. 

The Storm Riders was released in 1998. It tells the story of two boys -- Nie Feng (or Wind in English) and Bu Jingyun (or Cloud) -- each orphaned when the evil Xiang Ba (Lord Conquer) seeks out the most powerful apprentices he can find to cement his dominion. Both, along with Qin Shuang (Frost), grow to become mighty warriors and masters of supernatural fighting skills, serving Lord Conquer whom they believe to be a benevolent teacher. But when Lord Conquer learns his destiny may also fall at the hands of the pair prior to his climactic battle with Jian Sheng (Sword Saint), he devises a way to divide, trick and defeat them. Wind and Cloud must overcome tragedies and personal demons, past and present, to defeat Lord Conquer and avenge their losses.

In 2009, co-stars Aaron Kwok and Ekin Cheng reunited in the same roles for The Storm Warriors, a story taken from another arc of the same comic. In the sequel, their home has been invaded by the Japanese warlord Jue Wushen (Lord Godless), who has poisoned and imprisoned all of the martial arts masters who might oppose him. Cloud has allowed himself to be captured to try to protect his friend Chu Chu and the great master Wuming (Nameless). Although with Wind's help he, Nameless and Chu Chu escape Lord Godless, they are weakened and realize they cannot fight the warlord while he wears his invincible armor. They seek Lord Wicked for training in the evil martial arts to become powerful enough to defeat Godless, yet Lord Wicked will teach only Wind. Cloud, he says, is too ruthless. Wind may have a chance to return from the evil ways if he learns them, but Cloud could not. Nameless also trains Cloud to fight Lord Godless, who seeks the Dragon Bone from the imprisoned Chinese emperor. The heroes will confront him, but even if they defeat the warlord, will Wind be able to shed the influence of evil that has almost consumed him?

It's all very comic-booky -- unless your name is Richard Dawkins, there's no way someone named "Lord Godless" is anything other than a villain -- but there are some wonderful reflections on relationships, destiny, the cost of evil, self-sacrifice, nobility and more contained within both stories. Riders special effects are obviously dated but still not bad, and Warriors takes full advantage of blue-screen filming to fully realize a world of myth and legend with human beings at its center. But both movies drown their interesting ideas and decent performances with overlong fight and training sequences and storyline elements that go nowhere. In Riders, Lord Conquer's battle with Sword Saint takes up several minutes of screen time but just delays the villain's confrontation with Wind and Cloud. In Warriors, the quest for the Dragon Bone fuels much of Lord Godless' evil acts but once it's found it's more or less forgotten.

Of the two, Warriors probably spends the most time wandering around without doing much -- the visuals are spectacular but it seems like directors Danny and Oxide Pang got so enthused about what they could do with modern CGI that they forgot to infuse their scenery with story. Riders lingers too long and could drop a plot thread or two as well, but it doesn't feel quite as padded.

The best comic books are written by people steeped deep in the themes of the great literature and art of their societies, both Western and Eastern. They use that knowledge to fuel what seem to be simple stories that appeal to a wide audience because they touch on those great themes. Sometimes those become not just great comic book movies but great movies period. And sometimes they're muddied by moviemakers who could have done better by investing more in transmission of the thought behind the material they're adapting and a little less in recreating the look or the feel of it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Swing Low?

Sometimes scientists get to have fun while they work.

Raymond Goldstein of the University of Cambridge, along with some colleagues, was contacted by a multinational corporation that made things like soaps and shampoos to see if there was a physical explanation for the shape of the ponytail in human hair. Turns out to have been a rather complicated process, as the team had to account for the variations that might be caused by the characteristics of some 100,000 individual strands of hair. Goldstein said:
“Somehow...a bunch of balding, middle-aged men sitting around a table came up with the idea that the ponytail was the embodiment of all this interesting physics.”
The different factors were combined to create the "Rapunzel number" of a human head of hair that predicted what a ponytail made of that hair would do regarding shape and movement and such.

As far as I can tell from the story, neither the presence of Chantilly lace nor a pretty face is a determining factor in calculating the Rapunzel number. For an alternative finding, see Bopper, B., "Making the World Go 'Round: The Effects of the Ponytail (Hanging Down) on Personal Behavior and Spending Habits."

(ETA: Another take on this project may be found here)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Time Expires?

Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, writing at Grantland, offer a scenario in which the brain injuries sustained by football players bring about more or less of an end to the sport.

According to Cowen and Grier, the end would more likely come from economic pressure rather than any kind of government regulation. Insurance companies would simply stop writing coverage for first high school and then college programs if medical science proves a linkage between normal football play and significant brain damage. Before that, the cost of such coverage would force smaller colleges and most school districts out of the market, unable to afford increasingly high premiums.

It's certainly food for thought. The idea that football is too big for that kind of thing to happen, they point out, is not supported by history. The first half of the 20th century featured the marquee sports of baseball, boxing and horse racing, and only one of three has maintained anything like its former status.

Read the article for a fuller explanation of the possible endgame for football, as well as some of the economic impact that kind of passing might have.

From the Rental Vault (1954): River of No Return

Considering that two-thirds of the top three people responsible for this movie -- co-star Marilyn Monroe and director Otto Preminger -- didn't want to do it, it's surprising that River of No Return works as well as it does.

Although she liked the idea of working with Robert Mitchum, Monroe wasn't impressed with the story and didn't see it as good use of her high visibility and talents. She thought it a pretty ordinary Western. Preminger, for his part, was assigned the movie because of his contract with 20th Century Fox and disliked that arrangement so much he bought out the remainder of the contact after he finished River. Monroe's disdain, her acting coach's clashes with the director and Mitchum's drinking didn't help workplace harmony much.

Preminger does take full advantage of the then-new CinemaScope technology to showcase the magnificent northwest Canadian scenery that stands in for the Northwest Territories of the U.S. in 1875. Matt Calder (Mitchum) is homesteading there and has sent for his son Mark (Tommy Rettig), who had been staying with relatives after his mother died. Mitchum had not seen the boy since he was very young (the reason is an important plot point). He meets him at a mining camp where Mark's guardian had been supposed to deliver him, and where Mark has been taken in temporarily by saloon singer Kay Weston (Monroe). Matt and Mark depart for their farm, but a couple of days later they meet Kay again, as she and her fiancé Harry are trying to float down the river to the claims office and file a gold mine claim Harry won in a poker game. Matt tells them they won't make it so Harry steals his rifle and horse for the quicker overland journey, injuring Matt in the process. Kay stays to tend him, believing Harry will return soon. But the homestead is attacked by Indians, and Kay, Matt and Mark must flee down the dangerous river on the raft.

Preminger's success had come in character-driven noir movies, so some of his action sequences didn't match their counterparts in other mid-50s Westerns. He tended instead to focus on the story between the two leads and between them and Rettig, who played 10-year-old Mark. Despite Monroe and Preminger's later derision for their work here, it's actually pretty good. It's a simple story but it works, probably because Mitchum was a great actor, Monroe was a better actress than her image every really let her be and Rettig a great foil for them both. De-glammed and spending most of the movie in jeans, some of the focus could move off Monroe's sex symbol image and onto her performance. Mitchum's tough-guy with a past as well as a code of behavior is familiar territory for him but one he does better than most before or since. Preminger's stagy fight scenes also help turn our attention to the characters instead of the expected Western set pieces. Much of the raft action looks impossibly fake to a CGI-trained audience, so perhaps we're not as distracted by its relatively low-key appearance as a 1954 audience was.

It's possible that some of the love shown River these days has to do with watching icons Monroe and Mitchum and less to do with the movie they made, but both were icons at the time and still turned in solid performances instead of just showing up. Whatever the reason, River of No Return enjoys a better reputation now than it did in its day, and that's not a bad thing at all.

(PS -- Monroe sang her own songs in the movie, and Mitchum sang the opening title track. Both did quite well. What might have been, had they lived in an age of YouTube.)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gulfed

The best thing about state legislatures is that the people who win those contests often don't have to have polished off all of their rough edges, since they're working with a much smaller electoral base.

So you get dunderheads like Mississippi Democrat Steve Holland, who introduced a bill in his state's House of Representatives that would rename the Gulf of Mexico to the "Gulf of America." You might think I would make fun of Rep. Holland's narrow, jingostic provincialism, but not exactly.

Rep. Holland says his bill was a joke, a satirical way to criticize the several immigration-related bills that will be heard by Mississippi lawmakers this session. He wasn't serious about the renaming; he just wanted to introduce a bill he thought was as wrong-headed as the bills he didn't like in order to make a point.

I haven't read any of the other measures so I don't know anything about them -- a majority of these kinds of bills tend to be exercises in one-upsmanship pandering that masquerade as crackdowns on illegal immigration but one or more of the Mississippi ones may be different. Thoughtful legislation or not, there are legitimate cases that can be made against these other bills. There is room for satirizing or mocking them as well.

But because this satirical gesture was performed by an elected lawmaker using the actual legislative machinery of a state government, it is a dunderheaded move. There are costs -- printing and copying if nothing else -- associated with proposing legislation. Some Hispanic organizations that heard of the proposed law but weren't acquainted with Rep. Holland's merry wit criticized it in press releases and statements. Many of the people who heard the critiques won't hear the "oops!" when the organizations walk back their words upon finding out the whole thing is a joke.

And should Rep. Holland rise to speak against the bills to which he objects, perhaps then marshaling facts, figures, history, logic and reason to make his case, he will have already ceded to his opponents substantial ammunition for their arguments against him. Since he doesn't always take his role as a representative seriously, why should anyone else?

Joke's on you, Mr. Representative.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Goldilocks Weather

The house across the street from the church is home to a large white dog whose color, build, and demeanor during last year's blizzards give the impression he was born for gray, blustery chilly days like today.

The sight of him sprawled on his back up against his fence, tongue out and sleeping like he was on the most tropical of beaches, seen today as I drove back from lunch, supports that idea.

I'm glad he likes it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Birthday (Episode LXXX)!

Five-time Academy Award-winning composer John Williams, the man without whom Superman would have been average, the lost Ark would have stayed lost and Darth Vader would have been a guy in black longjohns who couldn't catch his breath, turns 80 years old today.

Not only did Williams compose the music for some of the most iconic blockbusters of movie history -- in addition to Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars as mentioned above he scored several Harry Potter movies, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. -- he also wrote for some of the most important movies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries such as Schindler's List, created the theme music for four separate Olympic games, conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra for 13 years and wrote concertos for clarinet and cello which were performed by world-famous artists of both instruments such as Yo-Yo Ma.

You could make a good argument that Williams' music went a long way in helping the Star Wars movies succeed. Harrison Ford, Alec Guiness and James Earl Jones aside, the original trilogy was not blessed by great actors in its leading roles (I've heard some people say that the acting talent displayed by Anakin Skywalker portrayer Hayden Christiansen is the most convincing proof imaginable that he is the father of Luke Skywalker, played with equal skill by Mark Hamill). Nor did George "Hold me, Ani" Lucas give them the greatest words to say.

But surrounded by and supported by Williams' evocative and brilliant music, they managed to carry us a long time ago to a galaxy far away. Watch the Return of the Jedi scene where Darth Vader finally passes, finally seeing his son "through (his) own eyes." Hamill's blank-faced mooning doesn't sadden us at that death, but the bare piano chords of The Imperial March in the front over the muted sounds of a collapsing Death Star do. Hayden Christiansen's leaden attempts at fury over his mother's death in Revenge of the Sith are more pitiful than enraged, but as that same Imperial March begins to creep forward into the Anakin's Theme Williams composed first for The Phantom Menace we can believe we're watching the Dark Side start to lay its claim on Anakin's soul.

Well, that may be more analysis than a couple of blockbuster popcorn flicks need, so let's just close by wishing the astounding Mr. Williams a happy 80th and prepare to sing "Happy Birthday to You."

Accompanied by a 100-piece orchestra, of course.

From the Rental Vault (1968): Ice Station Zebra

Movies like last summer's X-Men: First Class and some others have been trading on a kind of "Cold War nostalgia" for the days when the United States and Soviet Union faced off against each other on a worldwide front. Although the wrong steps could have led to a nuclear conflict that might very well have wiped out the human race, there seems something oddly reassuring about a era in which the enemy was identifiable and known instead of the shadowy threat posed by today's terrorists.

Ironically, maybe the apocalyptic quality of such a confrontation was its own hope -- Sting could ask if "the Russians love(d) their children too," with the expectation that if the answer was "yes," then they wouldn't actually start Armageddon. He's less optimistic about the terrorists. I kind of agree; asking them the same question is more moot. They probably do love their children, but they don't care much for anybody else's and since their fight isn't nearly as likely to lead to global destruction there's less of a check on their malice.

This kind of nostalgia may explain why Cold War faceoffs like Ice Station Zebra can be so much fun -- that, and we don't actually live under their kind of threat anymore. The 1968 movie from John Sturges was based on a 1963 novel by Alister MacLean and stars Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, Rock Hudson and Patrick McGoohan.

Hudson is Commander James Ferraday, captain of the nuclear sub U.S.S. Tigerfish. He's ordered on a rescue mission to save scientists trapped at the weather research outpost Ice Station Zebra, which has sent distress calls after a fire wiped out most of the buildings and supplies. But he's also hauling "Mr. Jones," a mysterious man played by Patrick McGoohan who has an authority over the Tigerfish and the mission that sits poorly with Ferraday. Midway on the journey, they stop to take on Boris Vaslov, a Russian colleague of Jones played by Borgnine, and Marine Captain Leslie Anders, played by Brown.

The Tigerfish makes its way under the Arctic icepack to the last known location of the floe-anchored weather station to start its rescue. Sabotage makes Ferraday suspicious, and he trusts neither Jones nor Vaslov. Jones, for his part, doesn't trust Anders.  Anders doesn't trust Vaslov or Jones and doesn't think much of the second-in-command of his Marine detachment. Locating the base only uncovers more problems and prompts a tense standoff with Soviet paratroopers that could be a spark to turn the Cold War hot.

The first half of the movie takes place aboard the Tigerfish and Sturges does an excellent job of maintaining and building tension using its cramped conditions. Top-level underwater photography adds to the mix; the eerie waters beneath the ice look like an alien landscape and those shots emphasize the isolation of the sub and her crew. The cast are all fitting familiar roles: Hudson's square-jawed authority suits Ferraday, McGoohan's own icy cynicism sketches most all we need to understand about Jones, Brown's no-nonsense tough-guy matches Anders' hardcase leader and Borgnine's grinning clownishness may or may not cover up something more than we see on Vaslov's surface.

The second half (literally -- Zebra is two and a half hours long and has an actual intermission) is set largely on the ice surface on the trek to the station and exploring its burned remains. Absent some of the detail of submarine operations it's a little less engaging than the first, but the wider field of play offers more expansive action as each man's agenda moves toward its conclusion.

Zebra was a hit at the box office but not critically acclaimed. It does well with tension and authenticity and features some witty back and forth among the different leads but doesn't offer any breakout acting in its familiar story. But it's still an engaging submarine picture and serviceable thriller, in addition to being a whole lot of fun as mentioned above. Had the idea of the summer blockbuster been around in 1968, it would have fit nicely into the genre and easily been among the better ones onscreen.

(Those interested in some actual Cold-War era submarine spy work are encouraged to check out Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story Of American Submarine Espionage, a 1998 book by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew featuring stories of some of those activities.)

Dumb Ol' History

Slate blogger Matt Yglesias proves why no effort spent ignoring him is wasted:
The Grand Old Days of American journalism were characterized first and foremost by severely curtailed competition. There were three television networks, and outside of New York each city had basically one newspaper.
Heck, even a couple of backwater burgs like my own Oklahoma City and Tulsa had at least two newspapers apiece. Other cities had morning vs. afternoon papers and some had several at each slot. Slate lists Mr. Yglesias as its "business and economics correspondent." That either 1) explains why he doesn't know anything about history or 2) relieves you of the need to pay any attention to his business and economics coverage, given said ignorance of history.

(H/T Jonathan Last)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unexpected?

Guns 'N' Roses frontman (and only remaining original band member) Axl Rose turns 50 today.

Didn't see that coming.

One Dickens of a Tweet

I have a cordial disagreement with some of my younger ministerial colleagues about Twitter. I think that, on its best day, it's a useless distraction that cramps thought, erodes language and promotes superficial reactions instead of reflection. They think that I'm old, stodgy and outdated, which gives me hope since I thought I was a curmudgeon and a grump.

On the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth, writers for The Mirror imagined what his great novels would have been like if he had tried to shoehorn them into the shallow straitjacket of a 140-character Tweet. Someone might note that the hypothetical Tweets do convey the meaning of the novels.

Of course, to know whether that's true or not, you have to have read the novels first. Dickens' famous short story A Christmas Carol is just shy of 29,000 words and probably would have needed around a thousand Tweets to be sent in its entirety (I'm figuring an average of 5 characters a word -- counterbalancing the frequency of short words like "a" and "the" with the many long words that enamored Victorian writers like ol' Chuck). Great Expectations, at 184,000 words, might have required as many as 6,500. Either way, those are some tired thumbs; at least with a book you can use the rest of your fingers and even set it down on something.

Monday, February 6, 2012

From the Rental Vault (1966): The Hills Run Red

Although Italian moviemakers had been creating American Western movies for some time, Sergio Leone along with Clint Eastwood defined the "spaghetti Western" genre with his "Man With No Name" trilogy in the mid-1960s. Those three, especially the pair's first collaboration in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, featured several of the Italian interpretation's key features: characters pushed past both archetype and stereotype straight into mythical icon status, stories in which heroes had a little villain in them and some villains showed a human side and situations that bypassed grand schemes and themes for low-level grifters, cowboys and crooks. Quentin Tarantino often travels this path today.

Leone's success inspired several other high-profile Italian directors to try their hand at the American west, including the award-winning director and screenwriter Carlo Lizzani. Working as "Lee W. Beaver," he helmed two Westerns, including The Hills Run Red. Bandits Jerry Brewster and Ken Siegel have stolen several hundred thousand dollars from a government office and try to flee. In order to make sure Siegel gets away, Brewster draws pursuing cavalrymen after him and is caught. He serves five years and on release heads for his home, where he hopes to find his wife and son waiting for him. But they are gone, and it turns out Siegel broke his promise to care for them and has used the robbery's take to finance his ranching operations. With his lieutenant Mendez, he is slowly bullying and cowing the other ranchers so he can control the whole territory.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly worked because even though its characters were absolutely nothing new to the Western story, the three actors playing them -- Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach -- had the skill and charisma to make them larger than life. The Hills Run Red has Thomas Hunter, who displays less charisma than his saddle. The alpha baddie Siegel, played by Italian character actor Nando Gazzolo, is even duller. On the other hand, Dan Duryea as the wanderer Winny Getz and Henry Silva as the jovial psychopath Mendez light up whatever screen time they have -- I can't imagine I'm the first person who watched this movie who wishes they'd been the leads instead of Thomas and Gazzolo.

Hills starts to have some interesting things to say about revenge and its cost, but loses that thread when Brewster gets to town and starts to work with the townspeople against Siegel. The story itself starts lurching around from one implausibility to another and winds up just filling space in between an interesting opening third and the final gunfight. It's not the worst spaghetti Western to ever cross the Atlantic, but viewing it is more for the completist than the casual movie fan.

(PS -- If you do decide to rent or watch The Hills Run Red, specify the 1966 Western. There is a 2009 horror movie that goes by the same name, and judging by its IMDb entry it's the same exercise in anencephaly that keeps being released over and over again for people who can be entertained by senseless gory slaughter.)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Super Bowl - A - Ganza

The game gets an A or at the very least a solid B+; close contest unlike many of the over-by-the-third-quarter contests that have sometimes happened. If this is going to be the last football game we see until August, it's a fine way to go out.

The halftime show is a B- or maybe a C. Madonna pretty much had to pull out "Vogue," since it's her most recent ubiquitous hit -- much of her career-establishing work from the mid-80s might not even be known to a 2012 audience. And there's something a little pathetic about a woman north of 50 singing "Like a Virgin." "Like a Prayer" was a good choice because of the ability to work in a choir, which adds to the spectacle. Although the Material One still knows how to command a stage, she had said she was nursing a bum leg and that may have slowed her down. She gets a downgrade for trying some moves that probably should have been written out if her leg was indeed that much of a hindrance. The show itself gets a downgrade from the inexplicable presence of Nikki Minaj, Cee-Lo Green and M.I.A. The presence of an "electro-pop" duo that calls itself LMFAO was apparently a satirical jab at the entire idea of a halftime show since they are demonstrably without talent, charisma or reason for being on my TV screen.

The commercials? For a long time we have been told that Super Bowl commercials are something special and it may be that the hype has oversold the quality. A lot of them were cute, but the idea of watching them over and over and over again? Probably not. Once the joke's been told, it's not all that funny the second time. The Budweiser hockey spot was nice and was one of the two commercials I noticed really draw people's attention. I was actually watching a lot of the game at a restaurant and the only other commercial that actually caused conversation to drop and draw people's eyes to the screen was Clint Eastwood's "Halftime in America" commercial for Chrysler. I'm pretty sure that had more to do with Clint's imposing presence and gravelly voice than with a car company that, along with General Motors, caused almost $24 billion to vanish from the public coffers over the last three years. Other than that, I liked the commercials for John Carter and The Avengers, probably because I really want to see those movies.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

From the Rental Vault (2005): The Legend of the Shadowless Sword

Most of us today know about the division of the Korean peninsula into two separate countries -- the Western-allied democratic South and the oppressive totalitarian North. But over its history, the nation that became Korea grew from a number of other states, some of which spread out into the region we know as Manchuria. One such kingdom was the nation of Balhae, which was conquered in 926 by the Khitan people and divided between the Liao Dynasty empire of eastern and northern China and the Goryeo nation in the south -- the people who would one day give the nation of Korea its name. The Legend of the Shadowless Sword (in Korean, Mu-yeong-gum) is a 2005 movie that tells the fictionalized story of Balhae's last king and his resistance to the Khitan conquest.

Gun Hwa-pyung, the commander of the Killer Blade Army, is tracking down all of the members of the Balhae royal family to either capture or exterminate them. His own desire for vengeance has pretty much left out the "either capture or" part of that mission, though, and now the hidden prince Dae Jeong-hyun is the only survivor. The great warrior woman Yeon So-ha is dispatched to find him and bring him to where the Balhae army is encamped, to be their leader.

She finds him, but he's living by selling stolen goods and has little desire to risk his life as a prince or king. Survival is his primary goal. Yeon So-ha convinces him to accompany her -- mostly because the Killer Blade Army has tracked him down and Mae Yung-ok, its lieutenant, has only been prevented from killing him by Yeon's skill with her "shadowless sword."

As they flee from their pursuers, So-ha's loyalty and devotion begin to crack Dae's cynicism and remind him of his own heroic past. She in turn learns that a king feels responsible for his subjects and the best rulers are the ones who as willing to risk themselves for their people as their people might be to risk themselves for their ruler. Drawing on the strength of the idea that their shared military experience and near-mystical weaponry is to be used for protection, they eventually face off against Gun and Mae, who see those same things only as ways to kill and destroy.

Korean action star Shin Hyun-jun takes on what is for him the unfamiliar role as a villain as the vengeance-obsessed murderous Gun. He plays the commander as stoic and quiet, lending his outbursts of violence an even greater impact by contrast. As Prince Dae, Lee Seo Jin makes a believable journey from cynical fence looking out for his own hide to a noble leader who accepts his duties. Yoon So Yi, only 20 when Sword was being made, carries some of the heaviest load of both action and drama and does so quite well. She expresses So-ha's deadliness, naïveté and no-nonsense attitude towards her duties with equal skill. 

Sword is a wire-fighting movie, meaning the characters leap impossible distances and hang in the air long enough to perform impossible feats. The technique can look silly sometimes, but director Kim Young-jun and the effects department for Sword use it sparingly and make the super-human feats more like the qualities of characters in a folk tale than some kind of mystic art.

It's only available in a subtitled version rather than a dubbed one, which can make following it more work than one might be used to. But it's a great story, well-acted and worth that extra effort for those who like their action movies to give the neurons a workout as well.

Friday, February 3, 2012

It's Not Easy, Being Green

Former comedienne Roseanne Barr has announced she is officially seeking the Green Party nomination for president. In response to one of the items on the party's questionnaire, she said this:

"I will barnstorm American living rooms..."

Madam, this is the United States of America. We consider it unseemly to threaten people in order to obtain their votes.

From the Rental Vault (1968): The Scalphunters

Folks who watch a lot of movies know that sometimes, any hack can make a watchable genre picture. When the genre is something as well-known and features as many automatic sequences as the Western, that can go double. But the best directors, writers and actors use genre pictures not only to tell their stories but to provoke thought about something bigger.

Director Sidney Pollack and stars Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis do just that with the 1968 movie that earned Davis a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor, The Scalphunters.

Lancaster is Joe Bass, a fur trapper who finds himself outnumbered by a Kiowa war band and forced to "trade" his winter's work for the escaped slave Joseph Lee, played by Davis. Bass trails the Indians with an eye towards getting his furs back, but before he can make his move the band is ambushed by scalphunters -- raiders who slaughter Indians for the bounties the U.S. government has placed on their scalps. The raiders, led by Telly Savalas as Jim Howie, make off with Bass's furs. Now he is on their trail, accompanied by Joseph Lee, tracking them as they reunite with their camp and Howie's girl Kate (Shelley Winters). Bass and Lee uneasily coexist until Lee is taken into the raider camp.

Scalphunters was probably a tough movie to market -- it's certainly a Western, but it's not particularly reverent towards the genre. Protagonist Bass is stubborn and needlessly cruel to Lee. Winters may be The Girl for this movie, but she was nearing 50 when it was made and doesn't bring many of that role's traditional softening touches to the screen. The story's filled with comedic touches and high-energy banter between Lancaster and Davis, but the laughter has a lot of burred edges to it and often bites harder than it smiles.

These factors make William Norton's adaptation of the Edward Friend novel pretty much a dead-on bullseye for Lancaster and Davis. As Bass, the former's detached cynicism brings every bit of bitterness he can muster to the stubborn illiterate trapper. Davis's Lee is a man of natural dignity, gifted with an education by proxy (he had been owned by a very educated family in Louisiana before his escape) far beyond any of the people around him that society has designated as his betters simply based on skin color. Most of the time Lee is untouched by their slighting, knowing himself to be a better man no matter what their attitudes towards him are, but every so often he shows the pain the thousand little indignities cause him and his self-disgust at how easily he assents to it. When he discovers he can in fact assert himself as a man who might rule his own destiny, his joy and wonder are themselves wonderful to see. Davis's own dignity, precision elocution and regal bearing convey just as much of Lee's character as his words.

The Scalphunters is a movie with a couple of things to say, but Pollack and his cast were canny enough to show them to the audience instead of preaching them. That sets it more than a few rungs above a lot of its contemporaries and makes it good viewing even if some of its ideas and part of its message are less of a novelty to us in 2012 than they were in 1968.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Beware the Groundhog!

Today being Groundhog Day, large sections of news media folks, national and local, will pay far too much attention to how a rodent responds to the presence or absence of sunlight upon his actions (If you have liberal political persuasions, press "1" to make that sentence a Newt Gingrich joke. If you have conservative political persuasions, press "2" to make it an Eric Holder joke).

Actually, we will note whether or not the groundhogs see their shadows, which is supposed to indicate how much longer we will have to put up with winter. A nice lady at Mental Floss wrote up a fun history of Groundhog Day, including the possible religious origins and the connection to other holidays and observances marked at this time of the year.

The most interesting thing to me was that we rely on the groundhog for his weather forecasting skills -- ill-advisedly, it seems, as premier groundhog Punxsatawney Phil has only a 39% accuracy rating -- because Dutch immigrants to Pennsylvania brought with them the German tradition of basing weather predictions on an animal response to sunlight on Candlemas. But the German tradition focused on a badger. The eastern United States being badger-bereft at that time, the groundhog was brought in off the bench.

Animal scientists have not commented on whether or not the substitution and subsequent loss of fame and positive regard could be at the root of the generally surly badger disposition we see today.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Stale Legislative Pi

This article at io9.com is a fun exploration of an attempt in the late 19th century to get the Indiana legislature to declare the value of pi to be 3.2 It's pretty entertaining and has a little bit of educational stuff going on as well -- the man who pushed for the legislation had apparently developed a mathematical method of doing something called "squaring the circle," but it required pi to be 3.2 exactly instead of the infinitely extending fraction we know it to be, starting with 3.14159 and going on from there.

"Squaring the circle" is a way of referring to a specific geometrical problem: Using just a compass and a straightedge, construct a square that has exactly the same area as a given circle. The problem is that a square's area can be determined with a very basic formula: s2, where s is the length of the side of the square. No matter what number s is, simple multiplication gives the area of the square made up of four lines of that length.

But in order to figure the area of the circle, you have to use pi or π, as it's usually written. The formula is area = πr2, with r being the radius of the circle -- the distance from the midpoint to the edge. In order to make the area of the square equal the area of the circle, you have to create an equation between them, and that equation runs into problems because π doesn't repeat and doesn't stop. Dr. Edwin Goodman, a physician who believed God had revealed to him the fact that π should be 3.2, set that number and apparently used it to develop a solution to the squaring the circle problem that had plagued mathematicians for centuries.

The thing that most interested me was that the Indiana legislature took up the matter based almost entirely on Dr. Goodwin's say-so. The Indiana House passed it unanimously even though many members -- including the representative who introduced the bill -- freely admitted they had no idea what it was talking about. Before the Indiana Senate took up the matter, an actual professor of mathematics cornered a few of them and coached them on how to speak out against Goodwin's idea. The Senate voted against the bill, even though those who opposed it also were clear they didn't really know what it was talking about and were more concerned with the fact that its subject wasn't a proper one for the legislature's time and people in big cities were making fun of them.

In other words, we have a bill that J. Random Eccentric manages to talk his state legislator into introducing even though that legislator has no idea what it's about or what impact it might have. Because it seems harmless, an entire house of legislators passes it. Then in the other house, another guy coaches legislators what to say about the bill even though they also don't know what they're talking about and they vote based on what they're coached to say and what their public image looks like.

The more things change...

The Best That Might Have Been?

An internet meme I've seen crop up over the last couple of months has been the re-imagination of movie posters to show some ways that famous movies might have looked if they had been made in different times. What stars would have been cast? What would the promotional art look like? How would a movie's central concepts have been expressed in terms of different marketing schemes? Some of them have been well-done and some of them not so much, but the ones here look very realistic. I'd probably want to see some of those movies even though I hadn't any wish to see them as they actually existed.

Oh, What a Relief It Is!

I had earlier said that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich presented me with a problem.

Although he would be an awful president and I would really rather not vote for him under most any circumstances you might care to name, he was not so completely rotten that I could in good conscience skip casting a ballot altogether, as I would have if the Republicans nominated Rep. Ron Paul (currently on leave from playing Arlo Givens on Justified) or former corporate CEO Herman Cain (currently enjoying the ignoring he should have been receiving all along).

By robo-calling Holocaust survivors in Florida with claims that rival Mitt Romney, while the governor of Massachusetts, vetoed kosher meals in nursing homes, Mr. Gingrich has removed any qualms I may have had that he would merit a vote. In fact if I had time, I would change my voter registration to Republican long enough to vote against him before switching back to independent.

Should the bizarre become the new normal and Mr. Gingrich receive the GOP nomination, I will join the half of my fellow Americans who go to the polls on election day. But my presidential ballot will remain blank.