Monthly Archives: February 2012

A post is only as strong as its weakest link

Clearing out a few bookmarks:
•Should it be a crime to lie about winning the medal of honor? Or is criminalizing lying a dangerous step?
Echidne and Roy Edroso weigh in on Santorum’s claim that Obama wanting everyone to get a college degree is snobbery. As Edroso points out, it would be wonderful if Santorum and others who’ve made similar arguments had a plan to revive the blue-collar, high-school-is-good-enough jobs America used to have, but they don’t have anything but bullshit.
•When Repubs in 2008 started calling Obama a communist and a socialist, I joked that if those classic attacks didn’t work, the logical step would be to look back to 1776 and call him a Redcoat. Instead, they’re now going further back and calling him a pagan (since I know plenty of religious conservatives consider anyone with different politics must be unChristian by definition, they may even be sincere). The Wild Hunt argues that in point of fact, we’re as much or more a pagan nation than a Christian one.
•Digby points out that dreams of sane Republican candidates arising in the near future are only dreams.
•I’m not a fan of Berenstein Bears, but I never had Charles Krauthammer’s urge to drown the mother bear.
•In the debates over Obama’s fondness for compromise, one standard argument by his supporters is that the bully pulpit can’t actually force Congress to do anything. As Rick Perlstein discusses, it can shift the terms of the debate and improve things for the long term.
•One reason Republicans keep refusing to compromise: They know their base is steadily dwindling to a minority.
•Slacktivist remembers a brush with the Catholic pedophile cover-up. Here he provides links to several foreclosure-fraud stories.
•Well if the government insists on giving money to welfare cheats, let’s at least humiliate them! As Edroso points out, you can’t buy cigarettes with food stamp benefit cards, but I’m sure it’s not like anyone in 2012 would make up negative stories about how everyone on welfare is ripping off hard-working Americans, is it? (yes, that was sarcasm).
•As usual, the Republican response to criticism of their social-issues, anti-woman agenda is that they can’t understand why the media focuses on it.
•Meanwhile, in Poland, the Catholic Church has approved a line of sex toys, and one priest asserts that nonprocreative oral sex can be spiritual and beautiful. Go Polish Catholics!
•NBC takes a briefing from a retired general and military contractor who assures them Iran is on the brink of getting the bomb and war will happen within three months (Glenn Greenwald is skeptical). Except, of course, our own government doesn’t believe this.
•Megan McArdle, the woman who believes that poverty is entirely the fault of the poor, also believes life is really hard for rich people who drop from $300,000 to $120,000—in fact, it’s much worse for them than the unemployed.

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Two down

There have been times when the paucity of SF/fantasy-oriented TV would have kept me watching Grimm and Alcatraz as long as they lasted. 2012, when I can simply fill the void by Netflixing extra Rocky and Bullwinkle or Vampire Diaries, is not one of those times.
After half a season of Grimm and a half-dozen episodes of Alcatraz, I remain mildly curious about whatever the big agendas on the show are: The mystery threat terrifying the vessen leader in the former, who’s behind the time-travel in the latter. But hints and teases are no compensation when the A-storyline each week is dull (I went into other problems with hinting here)
Grimm is the story of Nick, a cop who discovers he’s also a “grimm,” one of a race/brotherhood/clan who hunt the vessen, shapeshifters who live among and prey upon humans (his main ability is that he can see their were-face). There are several things I like about the show, such as the occasional conflict between Nick’s duty as a cop and his role as a Grimm, and the fact that (unlike Slayers on Buffy or Hunters on Supernatural), the vessen are absolutely terrified of Nick: Grimm are the things vessen mothers threaten their kids with when they don’t eat their vegetables, so to speak.
But in practice, the plotline every week amounts to a stock cop show where the villain happens to be a werewolf (with a couple of exceptions such as Tarantella). The most recent episode was more fantastical, but equally stock, an underground fight club where vessen engage in death matches. That idea’s only been used on let’s see, Angel, Smallville, Torchwood and Justice League Unlimited.
Alcatraz has an interesting premise: The legendary San Francisco prison closed because everyone on it disappeared in 1963, and nobody knew why. In 2012, the protagonists learn why: Something or someone transported the cons into the present, where they’ve been set loose to kill again.
Despite the flashbacks in each episode showing that something very sinister was going on in Alcatraz back in ’63, the main gotta-catch-‘em-all plotline doesn’t look any different from what we’d see if the cons had broken out of Joliet or Folsom: There’s nothing that indicates their activities fit into some larger scheme. And despite the show warning us they’re the worst of the worst, the ones we’ve seen so far aren’t exactly the Legion of Doom. Murderous, sure, but not any more dangerous, evil or clever than you find on any other TV show.
I have a slight regret that the overall season arc may turn out to be so brilliant that I’ll wish I’d kept watching (even though Netflix is always an option).
But I think I’ll manage to sleep tonight just the same.

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Casablanca: Three good scenes, no bad ones

That was Warner Brothers producer Hal Wallis’s definition of a great movie—at least three good scenes and no bad ones—according to Roger Ebert’s audio commentary on TYG’s special edition of Casablanca.
I think it’s a good standard for a successful story: Have three good things and no bad ones (the number is arbitrary—I’m not suggesting this as some binding rule). Or at least not bad enough to sink your story.
It’s not necessarily scenes. It could be say, vivid descriptions, a good plot and a memorable character. A horrifying monster, good writing and a clever ending. Throw in any good stuff and don’t have any obvious problems.
Casablanca, as Ebert points out, does have problems. It isn’t perfect. The plot hinges on the letters of transit Rick (Humphrey Bogart) has hidden, yet when the time comes to leave Casablanca, there’s no security checkpoint to pass and nobody to show them to. The letters are a McGuffin because nobody holding them can be stopped while in French territory, but Rick admits to Louie (Claude Rains) that the Nazis won’t let legalities stop them from holding someone.
Despite that it works because of the strong characters, strong actors, great dialogue and the good scenes (I’d nominate the flashback to Paris, the Marsellaise and the climax at the airport as the best, but there are several others). But I don’t think that’s a sign print writers can get away with the same.
It’s not so much the shift in media, though that matters (as Orson Scott Card, no amount of describing a character can give them the presence of Bogart or the beauty of Ingrid Bergman). It’s that I always assume Murphy’s Law is in operation. The fact that I’ve seen published novels with flat characters, cliched plots, draggy talky sequences doesn’t mean I can get away with any of that. Much as I’d like to ignore a couple of the problems my beta-readers brought up going over Impossible Takes a Little Longer (the hard-to-fix ones, of course), if it bothers them—even though they gave the book as a whole thumbs up—it needs to be fixed (problems I honestly don’t think are problems may be another matter, but that’s another topic). I want it to have several good things and no seriously flawed ones.
Here’s looking at you, kid.

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Santorum again

As you may know, Santorum told the public last week that when he read a famous quote of JFK’s it made him sick to his stomach.
The quote? “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”
The sickness? Santorum takes this as a statement that people of faith should be barred from the public square, which he finds outrageous. Which is no surprise: The conviction Christians can’t pray publicly or express religious arguments in public is an axiom of right-wing thought, even though it’s untrue.
JFK himself was a man of faith, that was the point: He was reassuring Protestant Americans that he wasn’t going to be a shill for the Vatican, forcing them to conform to papist doctrine. As Digby points out, Catholicism 50 years ago was like Islam in the eyes of so many people today: An unAmerican faith that wanted to crush righteous American Protestants under its heel.
I suppose one good thing about this is that Santorum doesn’t even seem aware of this: His attitude that a government run according to church doctrine is a good thing presupposes that it won’t be turned against Catholics. That says a lot about how far we’ve come since JFK; while I know plenty of people who still think the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon, it’s much more of a fringe opinion. That’s a good thing.
The downside of that is that one reason Catholicism is no longer a terrifying menace is that conservatives have redefined it, like Christianity in general to mean a religious version of the Republican party platform (as discussed here). If Santorum were criticizing the war in Iraq (as John Paul II did) or calling for a living wage for all workers, I’m sure Repubs would be shrieking about how he’s not a real Catholic (just look at the reaction to John Kerry).
Still, while I loathe Santorum’s views the more he opens his mouth, it’s oddly comforting that he feels as free to support theocracy as all the Protestant Repubs.
Bonus Internet action:
Slacktivist on Santorum’s Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition.
•Tom Tomorrow predicts the next step for Republicans.
•Roy Edroso shows us Tomorrow’s not far off the mark, surveying how shocked, shocked and appalled rightbloggers are at the way liberals defend women’s slutty behavior.

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Books (well, one book)

THE PLUTONIUM FILES: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War by Eileen Welsome is a grimly detailed reminder that movie mad scientists aren’t as implausible as some SF critics insist. Welsome recounts American scientists’ and doctors’ efforts to understand the effects of radioactive material by such varied methods as injecting terminally ill patients with plutonium, sprinkling radioactive material on orphans’ breakfast cereal and recruiting everyone from convicts to pregnant women as guinea pigs for radiation experiments without telling them what they were actually facing (not to mention forcing soldiers closer and closer to ground zero at test sites to determine the effects). While the broad outline wasn’t news to me (I remember when this story broke back in the early 1990s), the explicit details are quite bloodcurdling as Cold War security needs, pressure, classism (a lot of it reminds me of the eugenicists in Better For All the World in the underlying disdain for the poor) and ambition (“If they said no, you didn’t get to do your project, so it was easier not to tell them.”) combined to drive doctors to violate both AMA principles and AEC guidelines (Welsome guts the “Standards were different then” by showing that the AMA required informed consent as early as 1946, though one doctor is probably right that nobody took this seriously). The closest thing to a hero is Clinton-era Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary, who ripped the lid off a lot of this, though subsequent attempts to provide financial redress or a serious government investigation foundered (“The commission’s report asserted there had been wrongdoing but refused to blame any individual involved in the experiments.”). Probably the scariest book I’ll read this year.

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More Movies

THE WOLF MAN (1941) has Lon Chaney returning to father Claude Rains’ ancestral English mansion only to end up turning werewolf after an encounter with accursed gypsy Bela Lugosi. The cast is much stronger than I realized watching as a pre-teen—Ralph Bellamy as the local cop, Evelyn Ankers as a pretty girl, Warren Williamas as the town doctor, Maria Ouspenskaya as Lugosi’s mother and Curt Siodmak writing the script. The film’s plot oddities (Lugosi is a full wolf but Chaney becomes a bipedal wolfman) may be because it underwent a heavy rewrite two weeks before shooting: The original concept had been that we’d never know for sure whether Chaney’s change was real or hallucinatory (which explains all the psychobabble from Williams). Stylistically closer to Ghost of Frankenstein‘s talky drama than the Gothic sweep of Frankenstein and Dracula, but good nonetheless, with Chaney giving one of his two best performances (Of Mice and Men being the other). “The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own.”
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943) was the sequel to both The Wolfman and Ghost of Frankenstein, as graverobbers unwittingly open Lon Chaney’s crypt under a full moon (Bad Idea!), after which Chaney sets off with Ouspenskaya in hopes Frankenstein’s research will provide a way for him to die forever—instead of which, he winds up in a climactic clash with the Creature (Bela Lugosi). Noteworthy as the point in the series where resurrecting the creature became a non-family enterprise (Chaney’s psychiatrist is the first of several non-Frankensteins reactivating the monster) and as the first in a long history of Monster Battles Monster films (though I don’t doubt we’d have seen most of the later ones anyway). Also of note is that this blurs the past continuity so that everyone refers to Cedric Hardwicke as if he were the Creature’s creator. Entertaining, if nothing more; Ilona Massey plays Frankenstein’s daughter and Lionel Atwill is the local mayor. “I’ve got to see Frankenstein’s creature at it’s full power!”
A couple of films from a local horror festival … (next year TYG and I hope to see the whole sequence)
THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS (2012) is from the same HPL fan group that did a silent CALL OF CTHULHU a few years back, this time creating a 1930s-style thriller (pretty well, since TYG assumed it was a genuine oldie until she saw CGI in the credits). Due to the limits of the original story (concerning weird aliens establishing a beachhead in Vermont) this has to be a much less faithful adaptation: That said, not bad, though it could have been a lot better (adapting more of Akeley’s initial letters would have been more effective I think).“The gate isn’t for them to leave—it’s to bring more of them here.”
ABSENTIA (2012) has a woman reassuring herself that those visions of her seven-years-gone husband are a perfectly natural emotional reaction to finally declaring him dead, and that her sister’s Strange Hallucinations of sinister creatures keeping him and other people prisoner in a nearby footpath tunnel are just signs she’s gone back on drugs … right? A nicely done creeper. “Did you see her eyes?”

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Movies

STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1981) was directed by Michael Laughlin as the first of a “Strange” trilogy (but so far only the 1984 Strange Invaders has been made) wherein a small 1960s town tries to figure out the reason for a series of brutal murders while the town teenagers—completely coincidentally, of course—are participating in sinister neurological experiments at a nearby lab …Better than I found Strange Invaders, but not by much. “In time, I shall empty out our prisons.”
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Ghost Protocol (2011) has the IMF team disavowed after they’re linked to a Russian nihilist’s plan to wipe out humanity and start the world over (the villain reminds me of the Renegade Detente-Rejecting Communist movies used to provide Soviet adversaries when Cold War politics shifted), which leads to Tom Cruise climbing the world’s tallest skyscraper, running from Russian intelligence and crashing a party in Mumbai. I’m a little annoyed they never explained the opening scam (how exactly did Cobalt know they were there to frame them?), but entertaining in its own right (though TYG was pretty much convulsing over the technical errors in the computer scenes). With Simon Pegg as the supporting tech geek. “If it’s red, you’re dead.”
THEM! (1954) has LAPD cop James Whitmore investigating a mysterious string of death and destruction that turns out to be the result of ants mutated to giant size by radiation. And when they wipe out the nest, it turns out a fertile queen has already flown to Los Angeles … A landmark for its desert setting, the giant-insect menace and a scientist named Pat (thereby shocking Whitmore and James Arness when it turns out “Pat” is a woman, a gimmick used in several more films). Quite aside from its influence, this is a first rate thriller, well worth watching. “There’s enough formic acid in him to have killed 20 men.”
IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) follows faithfully in the style of Them!—mysterious incidents leading to the discovery of a giant monster (octopus this time), then the struggle to destroy it—but it’s much weaker: The cast (including Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue) isn’t as strong, the opening incidents aren’t as eerie and this takes far too long to get to the monster. Ray Harryhausen’s spectacular octopus attack on the Golden Gate Bridge is impressive, nonetheless. “That haystack may be a lot smaller than we thought.”
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) is what convinces son Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) to replace the Monster’s defective brain with a new, improved model in the dullest episode of the series. While I give them points for actually making use of the Defective Brain in the plot (although the monster’s affection for a small girl rather undermines the argument that he’s innately murderous) the results is a flat, talky drama, with Lon Chaney as a stiff Monster (even more generic a hulking brute than the creature in Son of Frankenstein). They’re also flexible on the Frankenstein legend: Nobody in town seems to connect Ludwig F. with any sort of monstrousness (or his father’s infamy) but the Torch-Wielding Mob at the climax attacks him as if he’d been monster-making for years (similar blurring would follow in later films). With Bela Lugosi as Ygor (despite dying in the previous film), Lionell Atwill as Ludwig’s evil assistant and Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers as young lovers. “Better death than a life like this.”
TOKYO JOE (1949) has Tokyo night club owner Humphrey Bogart return to Japan after World War II and reclaim his ex-wife, only to find his charter-aircraft business has entangled him with a Black Dragon scheme to take over Japan for Communism. The Black Dragon would have made this worth mentioning in Screen Enemies of the American Way (ditto Bogart’s argument that Communism is just an updated version of Japanese feudalism) if I’d known about it, even though it’s clear the evil Japanese are a minority; in contrast to WW II-era films which portrayed Japanese as fanatical fiends, this resembles the WW II movie Germany (a good country oppressed by an evil ideology). “I hold all the cards—and look at the hand I have.”

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