Recent reading & viewing

No Country for Old Men — I gave up on The Road about thirty pages in, but figured McCarthy deserved a second chance, so I grabbed this at the Detroit airport and read it on the flight home. I’d describe it as two-thirds of a good, but not great, novel.

My standards for literary greatness are somewhat ill-defined, but one of the things I look for is a story that I couldn’t have written, or, more exactly, that could only have been written by its actual author. Examples from the nearest bookshelf include John Crowley’s Little, Big, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, and any randomly chosen Margo Lanagan short story. Cormac McCarthy, by contrast, seems like he’d be easy to mimic; the hardest part would be remembering which apostrophes to omit and which to keep (“dont,” “readin,” “dumbern,” but “let’s,” “they’d,” “I’m”).

Which is OK. I don’t need great; good is good enough, especially for airplane reading. But then we get to the other problem, which is that the ending doesn’t work. Brief plot summary: A hunter named Moss stumbles across the aftermath of a shootout between drug smugglers and finds a leather case full of hundred dollar bills. He takes the money and is soon on the run; chief among his pursuers is Chigurh, who’s like the Operative from Serenity, only Mexican. There’s also a sheriff named Bell whose main function is to bear witness to the carnage left in Chigurh’s wake and opine, in more eloquent language than I will use here, that he is too old for this shit. In the end, after much chasing around, Moss dies, Chigurh lives, and Bell retires. This is a reasonable conclusion, except for the way it happens—Moss, whose head we’ve been inside of for much of the novel, dies “offstage.” One paragraph he’s walking up the steps to a motel room. Two paragraphs later Sheriff Bell is arriving at the murder scene. Some paragraphs after that, Chigurh, who’s not the killer (another Mexican got to Moss first), sneaks in to retrieve the money. The novel then continues for another seventy pages or so, failing—to my satisfaction at least—to explain the omission of the final showdown between Moss and Chigurh that the first two hundred or so pages had seemed to promise.

I’m curious, now, to see how the movie handles things (please don’t spoil it for me); I suspect the ending will be different.

House, M.D. Since ER overstayed its welcome I’ve been leery of medical dramas, and I’ve never liked CSI, so you can see why I’d have skipped a show that promised to combine medical drama with CSI-style mystery solving. Lucky thing, ’cause now that I’ve belatedly discovered how great House is, I can watch the first four seasons commercial-free on DVD. Man that Hugh Laurie is good.

Charlie Jade This is an SF series set and filmed in South Africa. I found out about it at Norwescon a couple years ago, when I was slated to appear on a Sunday morning panel with the actor Jeffrey Pierce and the producer Robert Wertheimer; when only two audience members showed up, we sat around a table and just chatted for an hour. The series is currently airing in the U.S. on the SciFi channel, but they’re only showing each episode once, at an awkward time (5 PM Pacific on Fridays) and with zero promotion; I missed the pilot but caught the second episode, and was interested enough that I want to see the whole thing. Scarecrow Video has the first ten episodes on Region 7 PAL-DVD (I’ve got a Chinese DVD player that can handle this), but that’s only the first half of the first season; if it holds up, I’ll have to see if there’s a Canadian or British DVD shop that can hook me up with the rest.

Wall-E Saw it over the holiday. It’s as good as you’ve heard. Don’t wait for the DVD.

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Iron Man

Lisa and I went to see this yesterday. We both really enjoyed it, although owing to her crush on Robert Downey, Jr., I think Lisa enjoyed it a bit more. Robocop is still my favorite film in this particular subgenre, but Iron Man comes in a very close second.

Things I loved:

Robert Downey, Jr. — He really does make the picture, even if you’re more sexually attracted to the power armor. Watching him play the bad boy with the heart of gold, I totally get why women and directors keep giving him extra chances.

Gwyneth Paltrow — Her performance is arguably even more impressive than Downey’s, because she had a lot less character to work with. Like ironymaiden, I appreciated that the filmmakers avoided the usual damsel-in-distress cliches. And yeah, I liked the dress.

Jeff Bridges — Another great acting job. As a bald, bearded man named “Stane,” it was obvious he’d turn out to be a bad guy, but I didn’t mind not being surprised.

Robert Downey’s mechanical lab assistants — The one with the fire extinguisher is the Best Robo-Pet Ever.

Things I wasn’t as crazy about:

Shaun Toub’s noble native sacrificing himself to save Our Hero — My single biggest disappointment with the story. He was an interesting character, and I wanted to see him make it back to Malibu and become the world’s first Afghani superhero sidekick. I know his death was meant to help R.D., Jr. see the error of his ways, but I think he’d have been even more effective as a constant, living reminder of all the innocents killed by Stark’s weaponry.

Terrence Howard as the black sidekick with absolutely nothing to do — …instead of which, we get this guy, staring wistfully at the spare Iron Man suit and saying “Next time… ” Come on, folks, you had a $200 million budget and four screenwriters; either come up with something for this time, or drop the character entirely and give me more of Gwyneth in the dress. It doesn’t count as affirmative action if he’s boring.

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Things I am learning about Barrow, Alaska from watching 30 Days of Night

1. The people who live there are really careless with their cellphones.

2. The airport shuts down for a month in the dead of winter, and alcohol is banned.

3. The police response to finding the local IT guy’s head stuck on a pole is to drive around warning people to “stay in your homes and load your guns,” but not explain why.

Bonus factoid: Marijuana grow lamps are effective against vampires. This is due not only to the ultraviolet rays, but to the magical way the lamps’ wattage increases when they are aimed at the undead.

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And the award for questionable career move of the year goes to…

Last night Lisa and I watched my fellow Stuyvesant alumnus Lucy Liu in Rise: Blood Hunter. Liu plays a reporter who is murdered while investigating a vampire cult; she wakes up in the morgue and decides to seek revenge. Along for the ride are Michael Chiklis, playing a burnout alcoholic cop whose daughter was killed by the same vampires, Carla Gugino as a bisexual vampire with a crush on Liu, and Mako in a Renfield role.

I was hoping for Blade– or at least Near Dark-caliber vampire camp. Alas, no. Not since Mercy have I seen such a fine crop of actors so badly debased. They all deserve medals for professionalism—Liu and Chiklis in particular do the best they can with material no amount of acting talent could salvage—but damn… What were you folks thinking getting involved in this travesty at all?

In Liu’s case I sort of get it: it’s a lead role, she’s an Asian-American actress in her late thirties, and beggars can’t be choosers. But Michael Chiklis? What’s that about?

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Talking to movie people

Lately I’ve been taking phone calls from various film-making-type people who are interested in Bad Monkeys. From past experience I know better than to get too excited before there’s an offer on the table, but it is fun to be courted, and to hear various producers, directors, and screenwriters give their takes on how the story could be adapted. Also, the game of “Who would you cast to play so-and-so?” is a lot more interesting when the participants actually know the actor in question.

And it’s a minor thing, but I’ve been struck, yet again, by what a difference the Internet makes. Used to be, if you were on a conference call and you threw out a name or a film title that somebody didn’t recognize, you had to stop and fill them in. Now, though, often the only clue that someone’s unfamiliar with a reference is the faint flurry of keystrokes as they access IMDb.

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I saw Children of Men last night…

…and the best way to sum up my reaction is, it’s given me a new appreciation of Æon Flux.

The characters are uniformly flat. Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the woman on whose miraculous pregnancy the story supposedly turns, is little more than a big-bellied MacGuffin. Julianne Moore is around just long enough to make you wonder why she bothered to do this movie. Chiwetel Ejiofor shows us what a charmless, underwritten version of Firefly‘s Operative might be like. Michael Caine, phoning in his role as an aging British hippie, repeats the phrase “Pull my finger!” until a merciful gunman puts him out of our misery. As for Clive Owen, about the best I can say is that he broods real pretty.

And then there’s the plot. Instead of exploring the potentially interesting implications of its premise—a world with near-zero human fertility rates—C.o.M. expends most of its creative energy on yet another cautionary tale about declining civil liberties in the West. Look, I’m as concerned about freedom in the post-9/11 world as anyone, but this is getting really tedious—not the theme itself, but the utterly safe and predictable way in which films like this deal with it. Couldn’t we please have a fresh angle? How about an SF movie set in Saudi Arabia, with a pregnant Shi’a human rights advocate on the run from the religious police?

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An inconvenient lack of footnotes

During Seattle’s recent mini-heat wave, my wife Lisa and I decided to hide out in an air-conditioned movie theater. One of the films we saw was the Al Gore global-warming movie, An Inconvenient Truth. We both agreed it was one of the most slicky produced campaign ads we’d ever seen.

I was less impressed by the environmental message. Although Gore makes a superficially compelling case, his presentation raised a number of red flags as well.

An example of the kind of thing that bugged me: one of the nastier potential consequences of global warming is that it could melt the Greenland ice cap, which would raise sea level by around 20 feet. Gore uses computer-generated maps to show how this would put large portions of Florida, the Netherlands, the San Francisco Bay area, the Yangtze River Valley, and Manhattan underwater. Then he asks the audience to imagine the hundreds of millions of people currently living in those regions being turned into “refugees.”

Scary, if true: it’s the Hurricane Katrina disaster, multiplied a thousandfold. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that Gore didn’t provide a timetable for when the flood waters were likely to arrive. Gore does give dates for some other global-warming related disasters—like the complete disappearance of the Arctic ice cap in summer, slated to happen as early as 2050—and the clear implication is that the drowning of Manhattan will happen Very Soon, too. But he doesn’t actually say that.

So when we got home from the theater, I went on Google and found this report, which suggests that the complete melting of Greenland’s ice sheet would take between 500 and 1000 years. In the nearer term, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that over the next century, sea level will rise, not 20 feet, but somewhere between 4 and 30 inches, with runoff from the Greenland ice sheet contributing, at most, 3½ inches.

Of course even a 30-inch rise in sea level would cause big problems. But it’s nowhere near as bad as 20 feet—it wouldn’t create all those refugees, and it wouldn’t allow Gore to evoke, as he does, the image of the World Trade Center Memorial being underwater. Likewise, telling people that the worst effects of global warming won’t be felt for centuries would undermine the sense of urgency he’s trying to instill.

I had some other questions, so I decided to visit Gore’s website to take a closer look at his evidence. But when I went to the section of the site marked The Science, all I found was a brief recap of the claims made in the film, with no links or citations to the supporting data. Next I checked Gore’s book. It was only a little better: although most of the charts and graphs do have captions listing sources, the text is unfootnoted, and the references often so vague—”Scientists now believe…,” “Two recent studies confirm…”–that it would be difficult if not impossible to verify the cites.

This combination of exaggeration and poor documentation seems like a really bad strategy to me. It creates a ready weapon for skeptics, who will rightly ask why you are shading the truth you claim to love, and it also sets you up for a backlash when the promised apocalypse doesn’t materialize (a thousand Tuesdays have come and gone since I first saw Soylent Green, and I haven’t had to resort to cannibalism even once yet).

P.S. We also saw The Da Vinci Code. I agree with the critics who found it mediocre, but still enjoyed it more than X-Men 3 (not that that’s a hard film to top). It also reminded me of a really good story in the same genre that didn’t enjoy a fraction of D. V. Code‘s success: Wilton Barnhardt’s 1993 novel Gospel (currently out of print, but findable in Amazon’s used book section). No albino monk in that one, but it’s a great read, definitely worth the trouble of tracking down.

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