Monday, January 25, 2016

Revenant: The Long Crawl of Hugh Jass

Leonardo DiCaprio stars with Tom Hardy and hallucinates about his dead wife.

But this time, there are bears.

My first real exposure to the movie was in the lobby of a movie theater. My wife and I had come in separate cars, and while I as waiting for her to arrive, I watched the trailer for Joy a million times( and I guess Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro are their own repertory company now or something?) and I also saw this poster with DiCaprio's giant bearded head on it, but didn't think anything of it beyond the fact that I felt he looked at awful lot like Heath Ledger up there.

It was only later after a friend mentioned it that I became interested, because that's when I learned the story was about Hugh Glass. The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass is Roger Zelazny's fictionalized account of Glass's journey after he (Glass, not Zelazny) was mauled for a bear and left for dead.  It exists as both a short story, The Long Crawl, as well as a novel, Wilderness. Long Crawl is a better title for a story, but Wilderness is the better story.

Unfortunately, this movie is not an adaptation of Long Crawl, but of another fictionalized account. As Chris DeVito observes here, it's a less subtle interpretation.

But enough rambling.
  • The direction and the cinematography here are just astounding. Alejandro Iñárritu's direction is breathtaking. I don't have the superlatives to describe it. It's gorgeously shot, amazingly framed and rendered to the smallest detail. 
  • The bear attack is visceral. I can't think of anything I've ever seen onscreen that compares.
Too late, Hugh realized he had fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. Never bring a knife to a bear fight.
  • Tom Hardy was brilliant.
  • DeCaprio grew a beard.

Hardy, as Fitzgerald, was simultaneously the best and worst thing about the movie. He looks positively haunted when he suspects Glass might be coming back for him.

The character he is given to play is the most one-note villain imaginable. As DeVito observed earlier, he's a brutal, sadistic bully with no redeeming qualities. He urges the party to abandon Glass for his own convenience, tries to kill Glass when they're alone, kills Glass's son when he's interrupted, then goes on to rape his dog, copy his homework, and pee in his Cheerios, one presumes.

He's a terrible villain, but a fascinating character. 

I didn't like DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, though. He really gives it his all, but all the method acting in the world won't give him the presence that size confers,

"Hugh, what are you doing to that horse?"
 "A man gets powerful lonely out here."

I'm hearing talk of an Oscar for his performance, and while he hasn't given a bad performance since his stint on Growing Pains, this is hardly his best, either.

The Native Americans came off a bit too much like noble savages, and another reviewer pointed out that of the two women in the film, one gets killed and the other gets raped.

I try to not complain too much about liberties being taken with adaptations of true stories, but I do think the changes made to the story, with Hardy's character being a straight-up villain, make it less compelling that what actually happened. (Only Audie Murphy can get away with making a true story more boring.)  The true story is a Man versus Nature story, and introducing a revenge plotline dilutes what made it unique.

It was beautiful to watch, but also, not infrequently, it was kind of boring, too.  There was no tension. In this kind of movie, you know the protagonist is going to get his revenge. The question is how, and I just didn't care enough. I might watch the actions scenes again, but don't think I'd want to watch the whole thing from start to finish.

I thought they smelled bad on the outside.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Goal of True Education

Jen went to Washington state over the summer, and, on the way to the airport to pick her up, Lily and I stopped at Wawa to grab some of the vanilla cream soda for the ride back, because Jen really likes it. While we were checking out, Lily told the clerk "I like your shirt." The clerk responded that she liked Lily's shirt. I said, "Awwww...nobody likes my shirt" and we all laughed.

While we were walking to the car, Lily said "I like daddy because he makes people laugh." I said that I try to, and just like anything else, you can be choose to be nice or be mean when making a joke. Further, I told her that she probably made the lady happy when she complimented the shirt. That's something she always tries to do. Somehow, she got it in her head that service employees have terrible jobs (which is not incorrect, but it's an understanding that eludes a lot of adults), and she always tries to be very nice to them, and offer them a specific compliment when interacting with them. The kid's got a ton of issues, but this isn't one of them.

The conversation turned to Maya Angelou, and I paraphrased her quote that goes along the lines of "People will forget what you did, and what you said, but they'll never forget how you made them feel", and I told her that she should be proud, because she always tries to make people good about themselves.

Then Lily said, "I don't want to be racist, but...what color is her skin?"

"She has brown skin."

"Oh, that's so nice! Brown people finally get a poet of their own." She was in the back seat, so she couldn't see me wince at that.  I didn't feel like unwrapping her unconsciously condescending middle class white views at that time, but that's another topic to discuss at some point in the future. "We should learn about her in Black History Month!"

It was as painful as the well-intentioned but incredibly tone deaf tribute to Martin Luther King from Marvel Comics in the 1980s.

Sweet Christmas! I'd bet my tiara on it!

I told her her that it's not racist to note physical differences among people, but that the problem arises that when we ascribe traits to people based on their appearances. Then she started worrying that she was racist towards pretty blondes, because they're always the villains in Disney shows. That gave way to feeling guilty for not cutting her hair and donating it to locks of love, because "Those kids need it more than I do!"Now, race is really a fiction, biologically it's trivial, and anthropologists are fond of saying that there are more differences within than between racial groups, but, just the same, it's a persistent and pernicious illusion that affects all aspects of our society.
We read a book today called Grace for President, about a little girl who works her butt off in a race for class president, only narrowly beating the boy who expected to coast to victory. We discussed the concept of institutional bias. The boy in the story didn't do anything overtly sexist, but just the same, he exploited the advantages provided by his gender. 

I'm reminded of the words of Baba Dioum, who said, "In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught." Lily's problem here does not arise from a lack of empathy, but rather a lack of understanding. She has led something of a sheltered life, but as Dr. King says in the quote I borrowed for the title of this post, The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education." Hopefully, we can help her find that education.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Doctor Who: If I ran the zoo

I started this post at the beginning of the most recent season of Doctor Who, but I put it aside. Now, with Moffat retiring as showrunner, I feel compelled to return to it, in order to make my case for the position.

At the time, I was talking with some friends about how to go about fixing Doctor Who, after they complained about a recent episode. (“Hey, Arya Stark was on Doctor Who this weekend! It was...somewhat watchable. :/”)

Josh's Friend: “It wasn't a terrible episode but for one thing it gave us yet another ‘most dangerous warrior race in the galaxy’ which gets defeated in a manner that wouldn't fool a kindergartner. I want it to feel less corny and disposable. Ever since Tennant left, I feel like it's been foundering and it almost never pulls me in and makes me feel something. I want concrete emotional reactions like it used to, and like I do with other shows. TV in general has been getting better than ever and yet this particular show feels like it's headed in the opposite direction. It's more about special effects than characters or something. It's hard to explain.:

Josh's other friend: “I don't really connect with the characters or care about them. It's villain of the week or special effects instead.”

Now, mind you, this is my plan to make a show I’d enjoy, not how to make the show a commercial success. I find the Big Bang Theory unwatchable, but it’s been one of the most popular shows on television for a decade now.

I contend that Steven Moffat turned Doctor Who into the Big Bang Theory.

I'll outline my plan to fix Doctor Who if I were the autocratic showrunner with an unlimited budget, with a general outline in the first post, and then with the specific way I would follow that outline in the posts that will follow.

Josh’s three point plan:

  1.  Write for adults.
  2.  Have a better class of villain
  3.  Have a sense of scale.

Write for adults

Don’t write for the dumbest person in the room. Don’t write for the lowest common denominator.

Unsurprisingly, I blame Steven Moffat for everything that’s wrong with the show. Whenever he’s criticized on just about anything, he falls back on the excuse that Doctor Who is just a kid’s show. And yet, Day of the Doctor had a lot more genocide and dick joke than I remembered from Sesame Street.

The show right now combines the worst elements of children and adult programming. The writing is for the kids, and the humor is for the adults, because Moffat loves his sex jokes.

It should be exactly the other way around, stories aimed at adults, but enjoyable for kids, even if they don’t grasp the story on the same level.

Part of this is foregoing cheap laughs about how the most super-intelligent being in all creation is utterly baffled by common human customs.

Better Class of Villain

I'm not impressed with easily bested villains, and Doctor Who has entirely too many. I think RTD did a lot of stuff right during his tenure, but raising the stake with each finale was the wrong way to go. (They threatened the universe last time and now they're threatening ALL THE UNIVERSES!!)The Cybermen kind of work for me as adversaries. They're a bunch of goofy second-rate metal jobbers, and nobody really thinks they’re going to take over the universe, but sure, I’ll believe a story where they menace an isolated research base. Maybe they even succeed, and that’s an important component. We know the Daleks aren’t going to destroy the universe, because that would mean that there would be no show. But it’s not the end of the show if the baddies kill all the photogenic scientists in a given locale. So, we’re going to lower the stakes once in a while and let the baddies win.

The Master is a lot of fun, but he's practically self-foiling.

He's regenerated again, the cad

(And always has been, if you want to be honest.)

 I don’t think I’d use him. I think he peaked with Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords.

I really enjoyed the Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure audio story. It was structured like the old GI Joe five part stories, where Cobra needed to collect so many plot coupons from exotic locations in order to assemble the MacGuffin, and since the goal is something other than "kill the hero", they're permitted to succeed.

This story had a similar structure. In each episode, the adversary (spoilers, "Timothy Yardvale" is actually the Valeyard in disguise) gets the better of the Doctor. And in the final segment, the Doctor is only able to thwart the Valeyard’s plan of universal domination at the cost of his own life.

And side note, Time Lords: I like the idea of the Doctor having peers. My preferred interpretation of the Time Lords are the godlike aliens of the Troughton era and not the hidebound fuddy duddies of Tom Baker’s run or the omnicidal warmongers of latter day Who.

A sense of scale

A big problem with Dr. Who is that the writers seldom have any idea of the scale of the universe. While we're fixing things, we're going to make the Daleks something scary. No more gimmicks. No more forehead penis Dalek puppet people.

I want Daleks that drop from orbit and obliterate London with their impact. I want to see them rise from the crater they made ten seconds after they hit and slice the Eiffel Tower in half from that location with something out of a God Warrior's attack run.


One Dalek should be a threat to every living thing on that land mass, three or more are an extinction level event.

Fuck Daleks that repeat their orders five times and flail impotently when someone sticks a hat over their eyestalk. If you say they're dangerous, prove it.

Josh’s Roadmap

I really like the structure of Veronica Mars/iZombie, where things get worse for the characters every episode, and the only victories they get are hard-won and small and temporary. Veronica Mars is, at its heart, noir, and Doctor Who, is about optimism, which is about as un-noir as you can get, but bear with me throughout this post, because I'm going somewhere.

I think that a season structured along these lines would do the show a world of good. For the first couple episodes, we establish the Doctor’s new home away from home. His UNIT HQ or Coal Hill school. A real community. The Doctor is a part of it, but not the center of it. He likes the people there and they like him. Say it’s an idyllic colony somewhere peaceful. Maybe have some of the popular characters from previous seasons. Have one or two stories set here in the early part of the season, but make this the place where the Doctor goes between adventures.

In episode five or six (assuming a thirteen episode season), show some rot at the core. Let’s go with Daleks.

The audience gets the reveal, but the Doctor doesn’t know yet. They’ve infiltrated the city. I’m tired of false utopias in sci-fi, so let’s say this really was a great place to live until the Daleks got there.

Have another few episodes without them, then bring them to the fore at episode eight. Make their goal something other than killing the Doctor. Let them succeed. Sometime he blunts their efforts (at great cost) and they only achieve a partial success, but every engagement moves them closer to victory.

Episodes nine, ten and eleven are open war. We start with a large scale base under siege episode, and escalate from there. It’s the end of Pacific Rim without the happy ending. It’s last book of the Chronicles of Prydain where characters you’ve come to love are killed one after another in doomed last stands, just to buy a little more time for their loved ones to escape. Sometimes they work, usually they don’t. Something like the quote from Babylon 5: The humans, I think, knew they were doomed. But where another race would surrender to despair, the humans fought back with even greater strength. They made the Minbari fight for every inch of space. In my life, I have never seen anything like it. They would weep, they would pray, they would say goodbye to their loved ones and then throw themselves without fear or hesitation at the very face of death itself. Never surrendering. No one who saw them fighting against the inevitable could help but be moved to tears by their courage…their stubborn nobility. When they ran out of ships, they used guns. When they ran out of guns, they used knives and sticks and bare hands. They were magnificent. I only hope, that when it is my time, I may die with half as much dignity as I saw in their eyes at the end. They did this for two years. They never ran out of courage. But in the end…they ran out of time.”

The Doctor builds his deus ex machina machines, but they fail or are countered or anticipated and turned to the advantage of the Daleks at every turn, and the story progresses, the goal of these devices evolves from stopping the Daleks to saving everyone in the colony to merely delaying the extermination of everyone in the colony, the latter in a series of desperate stopgap measures. In the end he’s beaten at his own game. They were just better than he was. He evacuates a handful of survivors to the TARDIS, and then ventures out for one final gambit. End of episode.

Open with a flashback to the city in its heyday. The Doctor in an happier time with people smiling and laughing, at a parade, in a park, beside a stream, next to a distinctive sculpture. After each cut, we flash to the current, ruined location of the memory, often with the charred remains of the survivors lying near.

For the final memory, we see the ruined sculpture, but when we flash forward to the present, the woman in the flashback is there, alive in the TARDIS. She places a hand on a shoulder of the Doctor’s distinctive coat, and speaks to him. Something along the lines of how he did what he could. He doesn’t answer. She speaks again, and this time the camera shows us the Doctor, to reveal an unknown figure, the regenerated Doctor. still wearing the clothing of the old.

To be continued...

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

We're going on a trip in our favorite rocketship

My daughter's teacher assigns a ton of homework. Her reasoning is that she does this to accustom the children to the level of homework they'll get in several years, which strikes me as suspiciously like the plot of one of those time travel paradox stories where the heroes create the very problem they're trying to prevent. In addition, she has a number of other teacher who also assign their own homework.

One of her other teacher assigned her a Little Einsteins coloring page to complete for her homework. That did not seem grade-level appropriate. 

Raising a gifted child is always difficult, because every since kindergarten, we've had to deal with her frustration over already knowing the course material. We wanted her to think that school is a place where you go to learn new things, not a place you go for no other reason than you're forced to. 

Assignments like this make things difficult. And there comes a time when you have say "This is bullshit" and color in the page yourself, so she can get some real homework done.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A trivial pursuit

I’ve always enjoyed trivia. When I mentioned this to a friend some time after high school he said, “Ah, so you’re one of those people who likes to memorize random facts so you can looks smart?” As I got to know him, I realized that the question said a lot more about him than it did about me, and we drifted apart.

But yeah, I do like trivia. It’s fun to share weird facts with your friends. “Hey, did you know that the little blue dude in the flying chair in Akira is in a wheelchair because he had polio?”

When I was younger, I read about the "Internet" and the possibility of connecting to faraway computers, and posting things on BBSs, and just sharing things with people. I didn't know about college radio back then (figure this was early to mid-80s), but that's what I thought it would be, the "Hey, I think this is really neat, and you might not know about it, so I'll share it with you!"

Of course, the real internet is 90% porn and racism, but you can still find that attitude of sincere enthusiasm in some corners. It's part of the reason I value my friendship with my closest friends so much. It's not one-upsmanship disguised as enthusiasm or any of that "I was hating Star Wars before it was cool" bullshit. I don’t want to give the impression that I spend Halloween night in the most sincere pumpkin patch in the world, but I do appreciate honest, earnest enthusiasm as I get older.