Friday, January 29, 2010

Lies: Based On A True Story

Real life is fascinating, and real-life drama is gut-wrenching. We don't watch the news to find out what's going on in the world around us, but to witness real-life dramatic events unfolding. Hollywood likes to cash-in on this by giving us movies based on or inspired by actual events.

The problem is that real life, while fascinating and gut-wrenching tends to linger in the dull bits longer than we'd like. A filmmaker's job is to make the best film possible, and sacrificing a few facts on the alter of public appeal is to be expected. What's not expected is the degree to which movies lie to us. An extreme example would be Fargo, which purports to be based on a true story, but is in fact almost completely fabricated.

Or take Braveheart, Mel Gibson's gritty biopic of the Scottish folk hero William Wallace. The list of historical inaccuracies is long and detailed, but I'll give you some highlights. Some are mundane: Kilts didn't enter Scottish fashion until about 500 years after the movie takes place. Wallace was far wealthier than depicted in the film. His lover's name, according to legend, was "Marion", not "Murron". Some are a bit more important: Wallace did not invent schiltrons. The Battle of Stirling Bridge actually took place on (as the name implies) a bridge. And it's utterly impossible for Wallace to have cuckolded Edward II, since he died some six years before Edward married. And lastly, there's the downright baffling: the exclusion of Andrew de Morray, the sacking of York (which never happened), and exclusion of the Battle of Bannockburn, or the fact that the nickname "Braveheart" was actually given to Robert the Bruce.

Even documentaries lie to us. Michael Moore, who popularized the documentary as a political and dramatic medium in the 90's, is renowned for playing fast-and-loose with the facts. His first film, Roger & Me alters the sequence of events to make his argument seem stronger. One scene famously depicts Moore being ignored at a shareholders meeting, when in fact he spliced footage from the meeting together with footage of himself on a sound stage. The opening of Bowling For Columbine was almost completely staged--the bank that gives away guns never keeps guns on the premises (the "vault" mentioned in the film was some 300 miles away) and only did so for the film because they had been misled about the subject of the movie. It's a small wonder that Moore's question "don't you think it's kind of dangerous handing out guns at a bank?" isn't answered--the shot immediately cuts off.

None of this is all that surprising. Arguably it's not even wrong (in Moore's case, you can make the argument that he suspends momentary truth in search of a greater truth--I don't buy it, but you can make that argument). The problem is that so much of our knowledge of the world comes by way of our televisions. How much has COPS informed our understanding of crime? Or how badly have the CSI offshoots distorted our understanding of what a crime lab does?

If we don't understand that world, how can we live in it responsibly? And if we're constantly being misled about the way it works, how can we ever hope to understand it?

Not to be a realism junkie, but some things are more important than entertainment value.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Don't Show This Post To The MPAA

This should not be nearly as funny as it is.

But I found that if you tack the word "genitalia" to the end of a movie title, you get sometimes funny, occasionally hilarious results. There are the obvious ones like You've Got Mail Genitalia or the nonsense stuff like Braveheart Genitalia. But a random sampling of films at flickchart yielded the following:

  • Mars Attacks Genitalia
  • Almost Famous Genitalia
  • Shaun of the Dead Genitalia
  • Men In Black Genitalia
  • Sleepy Hollow Genitalia
  • Ocean's 13 Genitalia
  • Saw Genitalia
  • The Forgotten Genitalia
  • Superbad Genitalia
  • Observe and Report Genitalia
  • The Forty-Year-Old Virgin Genitalia

And perhaps my favorite of all: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone Genitalia.

Endless fun.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Some Courts Are More Supreme Than Others

By now you've not doubt heard about the Supreme Court's ruling that campaign contributions from corporations can no longer be limited. The ruling was that limiting campaign contributions constitutes a violation of the first amendment on the grounds that a corporation is a person and money is speech.

No, really.

The whole point of the first amendment is to protect (amongst other things) freedom of speech for all people. Now the whole point of a corporation is to make a profit and provide a liability shield for its members. In fact, a corporation can be found in violation of its charter if it performs actions that negatively affect its profitability.

Therefore, in certain cases, a corporation may actually be breaking the law if it doesn't spend enough on campaign contributions to sway the outcome of an election away from the good of the people in its own self-interest. This legal necessity arises because of an amendment that is supposed to protect people.

Does this strike you as paradoxical? It does me! But I have a theory about paradoxes. A paradox is, by definition, something that can't exist in the real world, so when they arise out of our models of the world, it means that there is something broken about the model. The Greek philosopher Zeno introduces mathematical paradoxes that wouldn't be solved until the time of Newton, but in the end, even with these famous paradoxes, it turned out that the model used to describe the world was simply inadequate.

In the case here, the obvious flaw is the notion of corporate personhood. A corporation is treated as a legal person, and has been for over a hundred years. I think this idea needs to go, partly because it's antiquated, but on more broad ethical grounds.

Namely, if a corporation is a liability shield, why does it get all the freedoms of a person. Why should it get the same freedom but less responsibility?

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The T-Rex Is A Lie

It's bothersome how much we count on movies for our knowledge of the world. Consider the velociraptor. You, I, and everyone we know got their understanding of the velociraptor from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. And we conceive of them this way: they're about as tall as a man, vicious, and incredibly smart.

It may surprise you then, as it did me, to learn that raptors were actually about two feet tall, feathered, and stupid.

Some of this knowledge was speculation on Crichton's part, some of it simply was not known--when the book was published it was still believed that raptors were featherless, but the knowledge of their feathers was available before the movie was made. And at no point was anything that height ever called a velociraptor.

The liberties taken with the T-Rex also demonstrate a bit of artistic license. The notion that a creature that side could move at 30 mph on land, bipedal, is pretty laughable, especially one whose vision is based on movement (which isn't true, but it was a plot point). Besides, the thing has no arms, so if it were to trip at that speed, it would die. It would just die. It's skull would be caved in, and it would cease to be. They knew this when making the movie--they had to engage in some trickery with the animation to make it appear to move as fast as it did, because they could not pull it off believably with their digital model.

Now, on the one hand, Jurassic Park is science fiction. At no point were we ever to take it as fact, regardless of the reality that people base their dino-understanding on that film. But any other action film is just as bad with the misinformation. The way certain medical devices work (defibrilators, for example), the ability of a human to walk away from a car wreck or a gunshot wound--all of these are stretched thin by our entertainment media, to the point that our knowledge of these things is completely off base.

This has a feedback loop effect, since our perception then goes on to effect further entertainment media. We come to expect in any movie that a spy agency will announce its presence by giving you a litany of information about yourself--despite the fact that it is illegal for American agencies to spy on Americans (wiretaps notwithstanding--things have changed in the past few years). Or consider this: in every movie with sword fighting, why does the sword make a metal-on-metal sound when it is pulled out of a leather sheath?

Because it would sound strange to us if it didn't, right?

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Maybe They'll Make A Blue Statue

So Avatar is the big winner from the Golden Globes and looks to be a big contender for the Oscars.

Le sigh.

It's not that Avatar wasn't good. It's that Avatar wasn't great. It was spectacular, in that it was comprised almost entirely of spectacle, and it's a shoe-in for the would-be do-gooders, because it is to the environment what Crash was to racism (that is, an underwhelming movie about a severely dated issue).

So, I guess it's bound to win. In a way, I'm kind of glad that I don't so much follow the Oscars anymore.

It's not that they're meaningless, it's just that they're extremely light-weight. Although, against my better judgments, I'm starting to kind of want to see it in 3D. I have yet to see a live-action movie in 3D, and there are some technical issues that I'd like to get a better, ahem, focus on.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

You Killed My Childhood, Prepare To Die

So Robert Zemeckis is working on a 3-D CGI version of Yellow Submarine, a movie that under no circumstances ever needs to be re-made.

Zemeckis, who apparently went to the George Lucas school of modern film-making, has decided that a classic acid-trip of a film by a group that is now, literally, half-dead, needs to get the same dead-eye treatment that he gave to beloved classics The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. While it's good to see him branching away from holiday movies... Yellow Submarine? Really?

Abby is doubly traumatized, because she grew up watching the original cartoon, and she was a pretty big fan of the Muppets' take on A Christmas Carol. In short, she fears that Robert Zemeckis' goal is to go through her entire childhood and ruin it frame by frame. Over dinner the other night, we joked about what his next film should be, if his aim is truly to destroy her sense of nostalgia. I suggested The Neverending Story and Abby's little heart broke right into her sandwich.

She looked like I'd just eaten a puppy in front of her.

Of course, the scary thing about TNS is that it's ripe for updating, and the idea of remaking it in 3D CGI is just plausible enough to makes it all the more frightening to her.

So, Mr. Zemeckis, if you're reading this (...and I suspect that he is), my wife is a frighteningly vengeful woman, and your long-term life expectancy would benefit from never remaking The Neverending Story. And while we're making ultimatums, for me, keep your goddamn hands off The Princess Bride.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

When Nostalgia Backfires

This is all true, by the way.

So, back in early 2006 I decided to look up an old friend from grade school. I don't know what it was that compelled me, I might have just been feeling a wave of nostalgia. And it's not like I had any romantic inclinations towards this girl, but I had this urge to reconnect.

So I Googled her and found some site that gave an e-mail address for her or something. Anyway, I wrote her up and said "Hi, you may not remember me, but we used to be friends and I was hoping to reconnect," etc, etc, etc. And she wrote back that very same day--I was thrilled to hear back. And then I felt somewhat deflated when I opened the response and read the following:

Wdup, Kurt!

You don't have to remind me of who you are... I contacted you several months ago in the same way, remember???

Well, I hadn't remembered. But it was starting to suddenly come back to me. I hope, when I die, that I'm remembered as being friendly and smart, despite being horribly, horribly absent-minded.

Guess this means I'm getting old.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

So I lopped off all of my hair over the weekend, taking it down from shoulder-length to less than an inch. I then had to trim my beard (because it was longer than my hair) and I decided to go back to contacts for a while.

I do this sort of thing every now and then. I'll get a picture up on Facebook by the end of the week.

But yesterday/today I had fun surprising friends and coworkers with the new 'do. They keep asking me when was the last time I had short hair. But here's the funny thing: I had short hair when I started this job (not this short, but not a whole lot longer). I then went a year without cutting it, but it was only about an inch, inch-and-a-half on top when I was hired, and nobody remembers that.

People don't believe me. I had one coworker tell me that she couldn't have even imagined what I would look like with short hair, despite the fact that she had seen me like that.

But it's the old boiling-a-frog metaphor--people don't notice gradual change. They see me with long hair, they don't remember me ever changing it, their brain assumes that it's always been long (even if they consciously know differently). Maybe that's the reason I like to make drastic changes from time to time--so they'll be noticeable.

Or maybe I just like that I get to be the center of attention for a day.

Who's to say?

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Movies I've Seen Recently

Rather give unpaid reviews (not that I expect to be a paid critic, but because I have a great deal of respect for paid critics), lately I've been giving loose impressions of films I've seen rather than actual reviews. I don't know if there's a real difference there, but I like to think there is.

Well, since my back has been out of commission, I've done lots of movie-watching, and not a whole lot of blogging. So here are my brief impressions on several flicks I've seen in the last couple of weeks.

Julie & Julia - I was pleasantly surprised by this novelty dual-character study. It's well acted, thick with snarky and snooty wit, and it works almost exclusively because the actors hired to portray married couples have such a rich chemistry together. Also, Meryl's Julia Child is spot-on.

Jennifer's Body - The whole is definitely less than the sum of its parts... there are several amusing vignettes all strung together into a resounding "meh" of a film that almost sort of works. I never wanted to turn it off, but I'm glad it's behind me now.

Paranormal Activity - It's a genuinely creepy film that illustrates better than anything else how much fear truly resides in the imagination. Kind of a Blair-Witch-but-done-better sort of thing. Watched both the theatrical and alternate endings... not sure which I prefer.

Avatar - Big and fun and 'splody, but yeah, it's Pocahontas with smurfs. It doesn't quite live up to the hype, but it's still a fun ride.

Up In The Air - Re-affirms everything I've grown to love about George Clooney and Jason Reitman. An open and honest exploration of things that trouble real people.

Sherlock Holmes - Downey is great, Law is great, and it's nice to see Ritchie not sucking. The film overstays its welcome by about fifteen minutes and I would have appreciated more resolution and less setting up for the inevitable sequel, but I had fun.

The Quick and the Dead - Okay, this is a fifteen-year-old Western that my wife insisted I watch. It's an interesting story, albeit it has all the grace and subtlety of... well, of a fifteen-year-old.

Daybreakers - This was actually an incredibly fun (and gorey) take on the vampire stories that have been romanticized to death by Twilight and True Blood. Vampires have taken over and are now facing overpopulation. Very inventive and well-executed with some good ideas, good splatter, and a handful of decent scares.

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Eddie Izzard

Ten years ago, at a New Year's Eve party (yes, that New Year's Eve party), I watched about a half hour of Eddie Izzard's Dressed to Kill comedy special on HBO.

I was completely enamored.

His blend of absurd and surreal story-telling and editorializing was the funniest thing I'd seen in a good long well. So I found out what it was and scoured HBO looking for show-times, which I could never find. Ultimately, I was able to buy a crappy VHS tape of the show off eBay, and it jittered and sputtered, but the humor was intact.

I finally ended up with a copy of the DVD a few years ago, and it has been through many viewings in the ol' DVD player. My friends have all seen it, and we frequently make references to it: "Fuh-lag", or "Hookah, hookah, hookah... lobster" or "Cake or death?" or "Ciao"... etc...

So Saturday we went to see Mr. Izzard at the Fox for a stop on his "Stripped Too: The Big Intimacy" tour. It started around 8:15 and wrapped up at around a quarter to 11, with about a twenty-five minute intermission in the middle. He started with how Apples are better than PC's, went straight into how there is no god.

A man after my own heart, in other words.

From there the jokes just got weirder and weirder, culminating with Buzz Aldren on the moon where he met God, a giant squid, the squirrel that survived Noah's Ark (after the lions and tigers ate the rest), and a jazz quartet consisting of a chicken, a donkey, a frog, and a Persian cat, managed by a velocirapter.

Highlights included the aforementioned "Jazz chicken", "Charles Darwin's Great Expectations, about an amoeba named Pip", a whole bit on velociraptors, how to sing opera, and perhaps the best line of the show: "Go amuse yourself with sponges."

Good times,

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Soy What?

This May will mark the 10 year anniversary of my conversion to vegetarianism. That's a long time without meat (excepting the occasional sushimi or crab rangoon). At a couple of points in there, I dabbled in veganism, but it never took--I love my eggs and cheese to much. But one interesting artifact of that trek was me losing my taste for milk and developing a taste for soy milk.

And I recommend this to anyone. Because soy milk will last for months and months in the fridge.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Insert Star Wars Joke Here

So if you haven't seen the 7 -minute amateur lightsaber duel, you should watch it now-ish. I can think of no better testament to the way technology has changed the world in the last decade than this video. Ten years ago it would have been prohibitively expensive for amateur film-makers to produce. Today, it exists purely as a demo reel for the film-makers.

If you've done any reading on DIY film production, the go-to example is Robert Rodriguez's The Mariachi, which was made in 1992 for $7,000, shot on film, and is not nearly as well-known as its sequel, Desperado. That Rodriguez was able to make a film for that little was nothing short of miraculous--for comparison, look at Kevin Smith's 1994 debut Clerks, which cost $32,000 to produce and had lower production values.

Nowadays, you can get everything you "need" to make a film for under $3,000, you can post your resume online with free hosting via YouTube, and use the same equipment over and over again until you run out of hard disk space.

Right now we're seeing a growth of "middle-class musicians", artists who make a modest living making music without the aid of a label or professional production. We're just now starting to see something similar in film, and frankly, I'm excited to see where it might go.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

News To You

So I heard a rumor that Microsoft is hoping to pay news sites to de-list themselves from Google with hopes that Bing can become the go-to for news queries.

Yes, Microsoft, that'll work. While you're embracing dying technologies, let me see if I can interest you in a little idea I like to call "Pager Search".

Call me,

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Monday, January 4, 2010

...And We're Back

Back sprain in a not-quite-healed-but-much-more-manageable state, meaning that I can sit at a computer for reasonable lengths again. And just in time for me to go back to work, too.

At any rate, this means that the blogging will continue. So, Happy New Year, everyone. Depending on how you index your arrays, we are in the first or last year of the decade, and I think we're all pretty set on making sure 2010 kicks 2009 right in the ass. My first resolution: stop blogging on weekends.

Seriously, five posts a week is plenty.

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