Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Not to Direct a Movie

To say that I dislike Michael Bay movies is an understatement. It's not the special effects focused monstrosities and the scripts that read like something that would only take half a dozen monkeys with three type writers a few hours to knock out, it's that I think that he's never managed to put together a coherent action sequence. What should be the centerpiece of his movies, the thing he's supposed to be known for, is essentially visual gibberish with shots spliced together in what might as well be random sequence.

So when it was announced that he was directing Transformers I resolved myself to ignoring it. When I was much younger I liked the cartoon but I am not filled with nostalgia for it like many of my contemporaries. Unfortunately for me Transformers was announced as the next film for Rifftrax so I finally watched it.

It was worse than I feared.

No longer is Bay's lack of visual continuity fairly limited to action sequences, but now even the most basic of scenes just don't make any sense.

Take this scene as an example of the shoddy work. Our giant robot heroes accidently knock out power to the house they're hiding behind:

This makes the home owners get flashlights and investigate in the dark:

The giant robots are forced to hide behind the house which when it cuts to them is fully lit:

And then just to confirm that he has no clue what he's doing Bay cuts back to an interior shot where the house is blacked out again:

That's a Film Editing 101 mistake. It's not just some bit of background that he's overlooked (which would be bad but a bit more understandable), but a plot element. It's part of the scene that the house doesn't have power to suddenly have all the lights on again in some shots is just gross incompetence.

This is far from the only example of this kind of lazy work in the movie but it is one of the more obvious and stunning. More standard of Bay's work is this example from the sequence at the beginning of the movie where one lone robot attacks a military base. It tears open a bunker and begins standing still to access the computer and since this is a movie the data its examining is rapidly flashing on a computer screen:

In the very next set of shots it has apparently stopped and attacking again since there are explosions and people running. Did it stop? Apparently since we are informed of this later in the film, but we don't see it. There's no transition between ignoring the humans and attacking again. That's bad film making. Continuing that shot is this sequence where somehow the one lone robot which is about the size of a tank has somehow thrown three tanks at the same time:

Any possible explanation as to how it managed this (Joined by friends? Has a weapon that blasts tanks hundreds of yards through the air?) has to be provided by the viewer. Bay threw the shot in because it "looks cool" but it makes no sense in context.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Transformers. I could pick on the absolutely bizarre script or the fact that the human characters act less real than the CGI robots but that's like shooting fish in a barrel with Michael Bay movies. I just hope I can avoid watching his next one...

Friday, November 9, 2007

On Strike...

What do you mean I don't get paid?

Okay, really I find something of worth in both sides of the current Hollywood writer's strike. Writers need some kind of set up in place for physical media free distribution like downloads and on-demand access but the studios don't have a real clue what the value of those distribution methods is yet. The studios make optimistic guesses for their investors which makes the writers ask for a fairly high share which really isn't there. But there could be something there tomorrow and the writers don't want to get stuck out in the cold like they have in other media changes in the past.

The obvious solution is to set up a graduated scale of residuals on those downloads but this is an industry where dishonesty in reporting on what a particular project made is a basic fact of life. It makes things complicated for negotiations. Still I guess it gives me time to catch up on watching stuff I missed...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Hugo Awards Early 60's Recap

I'm halfway through the 1960's with the Hugo winning novels and the shift to a more "literary" science fiction is immediately clear. We're not quite to the New Wave yet but you can sense it building under the surface in novels like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Man in the High Castle. Even Canticle for Leibowitz shows some of the boundary breaking in my mind, though it broke in almost a completely opposite direction than where most of the rest of science fiction was heading.

Nuclear war is now a major reoccurring theme. You could see it starting at the end of the 1950's but in this block of novels Starship Troopers features nuclear armaments, it's at the heart of Canticle, and it is threateningly close in Castle and Way Station. In typing this it has occurred to me that some of Way Station's conflict may be intended to reflect the Cuban Missile Crisis which would have occurred about the time it was being written. As the cold war drags on the nuclear threat will fade into the background but it's still fresh and raw here.

One thing that strikes me is how earthbound these novels are as Starship Troopers is the only novel with a really traditional "outer space" setting. It strikes me as odd that in an era when space exploration was making regular headlines (positive ones, too!) that science fiction fans turned away from that. Was there a sense of "been there, done that"? Too much space in the real world making fiction go another direction?

The science fiction this time around seems more sociological than physical. Troopers had its merit based citizenship, Canticle examined the relationship between religion and society, Stranger was about an outsider looking back in on humanity, and Castle had an different version of history. The changes in the society were standing alone in these novels rather than being built on an external change. Compare that to A Case of Conscience where Blish uses aliens to drive his plot about religion or The Demolished Man which featured the changes caused by the development of telepathy. Canticle is the only one where you might make a case that technology has driven the change (in this case the nuclear bomb) but I think that the themes of Canticle stand apart from the post-nuclear war setting.

Currently the tally on my binary grading scale of liked/didn't like is:

Liked: 8
Didn't Like: 2

I liked all five books in this block though I have some hefty complaints about the two Heinlein books (the lectures aren't that interesting in Troopers and the cult at the end of Stranger) and Castle is right on the border for me due to its very disjointed narrative. This will not happen again with the existing winners, though I'll spoil things and say that I think that all three winners so far in the second half of the 2000 block are pretty good.

One final note that may be of interest. There is one author who was nominated twice in this period and lost each time that most people may not expect. In 1960 Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan lost to Starship Troopers and in 1964 his Cat's Cradle lost to Way Station. I'm sure he was crying all the way to the bank.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Review - Way Station

Way Station
by Clifford D. Simak
1964 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

The year is 1964, the world is changing, and science fiction is changing with it. The pulp adventurers that fueled that past decades are fading. The past three Hugo awards went to an experiment in mysticism and writing, a novel that could only be more hippie if it had a peace sign on the cover, and an examination of the roll of religion in preserving knowledge through dark times. And then came Clifford Simak's Way Station.

Way Station is a bit of a throw back. It has more in common with science fiction of the 40's and 50's than it does with the 60's. It's a pastoral novel; there's some conflict but it's minor and dealt with easily. It features what might be the last antagonistic government agent who acts reasonably in these novels (I don't recall any others but there may be one or two). At the same time, Way Station reflects the best of those earlier days of science fiction. It's populated by likable characters and interesting aliens. The story is a hopeful one, that once mankind can find peace the wonders of the universe will be ours.

In the backwoods of Minnesota there is a man, Enoch Wallace, who lives in a small cabin by himself. He leaves his neighbors alone and they leave him alone. His only regular contact is with his postman who he gifts regularly with blocks of exotic wood. Enoch is also a Civil War veteran and does not appear to have aged since the war ended. He had become the manager of a Way Station, a stopping point on a galactic teleportation travel system (apparently teleportation in this case is not instantaneous), and he only ages when he's outside of his cabin. Eventually the fact that he hasn't aged comes to the attention of a government agent who sneaks onto Enoch's farm and disturbs the operation which could have severe consequences for the Earth as it teeters on the brink of another World War. Enoch's estrangement from humanity has to end so that the world can go on.

Most of the book is just details of Enoch caring for the way station. The aliens he meets, the gifts that are exchanged, and the glimpses of worlds beyond that are relayed through the travelers. This is where Simak is at his best and his normal humans simply aren't as interesting as the array of beings that stop for a few hours on Earth before going on to their destination.

Of particular interest to those interested in accurate predictions in science fiction novels is the virtual reality video game that Enoch plays toward the end of novel. It is effectively a first person shooter moved virtual and while it has a lot in common with the shooting galleries that did exist at the time there are elements of interaction that will be very familiar to modern readers.

If I have any complaints it is that some things are just too simple. One of the major conflicts in the book is resolved simply by Enoch asking politely. Other major elements are introduced and resolved within pages. Enoch is separated from humanity throughout the novel but I never get the impression that it is a major hurdle for him to overcome.

Really there isn't much to say about Way Station. Simak didn't lay heavy themes down, set up controversial philosophies, or try to say anything particularly deep about humanity. He just did science fiction is the good, old fashioned mold: an interesting premise, interesting characters, and a story to hang them on. I enjoyed Way Station and I think anyone who enjoys science fiction of the golden age would like it too. We won't see anything like Way Station again in the Hugo winners; it was the last of a dying breed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Real Reason Germany Lost World War 2

I wanted to post a few images of Captain America punching out Nazis in an alternate universe where the Nazis won World War 2 tonight but it turns out that for a guy who spent the bulk of the past sixty-five years punching out Nazis he's apparently never traveled to an alternate universe to do it. The Red Skull never even uses that handy cosmic cube to remake the world in his image. So instead I give you a Nazi directly responsible for the deaths of millions being used as a clown to sell Hostess snacks:

And as an extra bonus for those who like seeing Captain America fight ulta-right-wing enemies here's a shot of him about to beat Henry Kissenger senseless for bombing Cambodia:

Monday, November 5, 2007

Review - The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle
by Phillip K. Dick
1963 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

It seems like the default setting for alternate history is "What if the Axis won World War II?" Just about everyone who has done alternative history has lazily dipped into this pool. Making it popular are the unambiguous bad guys, a somewhat plausible premise (though many writers go way too far with an Axis dominated US), and the wealth of easily obtainable cultural references. At this point I'd be happy if no one does this story again; there's a billion minute, critical events that came together to make the world what it is today and it's creatively lazy to go to such an overworked field.

Still, in 1963 when Phillip K. Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle the idea was still fresh and Dick took a very different direction than most of those who would follow. In The Man in the High Castle the Germans are almost completely off-stage. Events in Germany affect the story and characters comment on them quite a bit but the action is focused on the west coast of the former United States which has been occupied by a Japan that is rapidly growing more distrustful of their war allies.

During this time of building political tension a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is released. It tells of a world where Franklin Roosevelt was not assassinated in 1933 and the US did not remain isolationist until it was too late to save Europe. While the Japanese are content to simply ignore the novel the Germans want the book suppressed.

The Japanese occupational force is very similar to the US occupation of Japan. It's rigidly authoritarian but has a streak of honor in that they want a rebuilt nation as an ally rather than just another puppet. They have taken an interest in Americana and as a result the people under occupation have been making a living by selling off their history.

I can't give much more of the storyline than that since The Man in the High Castle is packed with detail on the setting at the expense of the plot. Characters rarely act as simple exposition spouting author mouthpieces and instead let the back story weave in more naturally. The flip side of that is that the novel meanders around following characters for brief moments before wandering off again without any real narrative arc to the whole thing. It's as though six interrelated short stories (some of them not really complete) were chopped up and mixed together to make the book.

You have Japanese administrator who buys from the antique dealer who's selling works by the counterfeiter who had hired the hidden Jew who is divorced from the traveling woman. Each of these characters have their own separate narrative thread that occasionally intersects with the others. Dick is at his most skillful here but the resolution to most of these plot lines is very unsatisfying as they tended to come to an abrupt stop.

Another aspect of The Man in the High Castle that bothered me was the domination of the I Ching, a type of Chinese fortune telling. Without spoiling things too much, the I Ching has supernatural abilities in the novel which given the general lack of fantastic elements in the rest of the book feels very out of place. Characters consult it regularly and receive perfectly appropriate information. It would be like having a cold war novel where the spies check their horoscopes to determine what they need to do next (and not have it be a plot twist involving planted messages which actually might be pretty clever). I have been told that Dick extended this to use the I Ching to guide plot developments. The fact that a random toss of coins (or sticks depending on his method) determined how the book progressed may be why the plot feels so disjointed and random.

It wouldn't be a Phillip K. Dick story without the question of the nature of reality being raised. There is counterfeit history being sold as genuine to the Japanese to go with the counterfeit history that the reader is holding and the counterfeit history in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Grasshopper's history superficially resembles ours but is in the end dramatically different. On top of all of this, there is a glimpse into our own real history which terrifies one of the characters.

The Man in the High Castle is a fine example of the alternative history genre and Dick's prose managed to carry me along despite the wandering story. For a final judgment let me turn to the book's author, the I Ching:

13. T'ung Jên - Fellowship with Men
Fellowship with Men in the open.
It furthers one to cross the great water.
The perseverance of the superior man furthers.
I think that the I Ching is saying that it's worth putting up with the weak narration for the book's other qualities. Either that or to not read it. One of those two.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Free Game Sunday - Ancient Domains of Mystery

When it comes to Rogue-likes everyone has their favorites. Some like the streamlined Nethack, others prefer the slightly more refined Angband, and others enjoy things even further out on the fringe. My randomly constructed poison of choice is Ancient Domains of Mystery because I enjoy the everything and a few kitchen sinks approach of the game which somehow at the same time never really feels overwhelming.

Perhaps I should qualify that a bit: it never feels overwhelming for a Rogue-like. Rogue for those of you who don't play games that use ASCII characters in the place of graphics is one of the earliest computer RPG's. Essentially it is a randomly built dungeon that the player wanders through beating up bigger and bigger monsters and taking their stuff until the player dies. People have been building on this simple foundation for over twenty-five years adding more and more to the game. From the simple addition of more equipment to additional classes to completely changing the character system, modern Rogue-likes have adapted.

As in most Rogue-likes, you create a character from a Dungeons and Dragons style class system and then toss them down a hole to see if they survive. Odds are they won't. Rogue-likes are unforgiving of mistakes and since you can only save when you quit there's no way to take back a bad move.

The big reason why I like Ancient Domains of Mystery more than others is that the game is very tiered. You can play decently with only knowing a few of the more common keyboard commands. As you start to get deeper into the game, though, you can add your own layers of complexity by learning a few new tricks. You won't be as efficient as you could be at the beginning but you'll be able to jump in and have fun without reading a dry as dust twenty page manual. Also, for a game that uses keyboard commands and ASCII graphics the game has a very elegant interface. Yes, there's up to three functions for every key press but odds are that you won't have to use more than the basic layer as you get used to the game and many functions that are spread out in other Rogue-likes are merged together for simplicity.

The other thing is that there's a lot of depth in Ancient Domains of Mystery. There's twenty classes and ten races to build your character on and there's a lot of variety among them. Very few of them feel redundant, a problem I have with many other games that pile on the options like that. That variety extends to the scope of actions that you may take in the game. There's a lot there to explore.

If you've never played a Rogue-like other than Diablo before then I think Ancient Domains of Mystery is a good place to start. Its simple to get into but rewarding in its scope.