Incoherent Interstellar

interstellar-black-hole

Don’t look for plot points in Black Holes!

Christopher Nolan has made some excellent commercially successful films like Inception, The Dark Knight, and Mememto. When word got out that he was working on a serious science fiction film expectations got out of hand. Those of us old enough to remember the first screenings of 2001 thought maybe, just maybe, we might see something comparable to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Well I am sorry to report that Interstellar is no 2001; it’s not even a Blade Runner or Nolan’s own Inception. Interstellar is a giant, moderately entertaining, incoherent mess.

Much has been made of Kip Thorne’s involvement with Interstellar. The Black Hole depicted in Interstellar is based on General Relativity calculations. Apparently the CGI animators uncovered something unexpected in how a spinning Black Hole drags light around it. We are told the Black Hole in Interstellar is the most technically accurate ever seen in the movies. Unfortunately, it’s the only technically accurate part of the whole damn movie.

There is no point going over the boners in Interstellar. They are numerous, annoying, glaring, and embarrassing. If you must torture yourself the Bad Astronomer has catalogued Intersellar’s most egregious violations. Now I know what you’re thinking. John, it’s a freaking sci-fi movie, lighten up! You’re going on like a character on the Big Bang Theory.

My answer to such ankle biters is simple.  Science fiction is as an Art Form.  An art form has two equal components: art and form!  Art, without form, is usually effete garbage, and form, without art, is an income tax return. Greatness only emerges when the two are in perfect balance. The first step in achieving balance is honoring the basic elements of the form.  So what are the basic elements of the serious science fiction form?

I’ve gone over this before but clearly you weren’t paying attention. Serious science fiction differs from fantasy in the way it treats reality. Serious science fiction is allowed a few departures from physical reality. You can assume wormholes connect different parts of the universe and that it’s possible to safely traverse them but that’s it cowboy!  Outside of wormholes it’s physics as usual! This is the science part in science fiction. Great science fiction strictly follows this mandate. Take 2001, the exemplar of how this is done, anything non-obelisk related in 2001, including HAL 9000, is completely and absolutely plausible. The obelisk is the singular departure from reality in 2001.

Interstellar bombs because it often departs from physical reality for the basest of reasons: advancing a clunky nap inducing plot. I cannot abide such transgressions. It’s like watching a prima donna ballerina stop in the middle of Swan Lake, drop her tutu, and take a dump on stage. Now prima donna dumps may be entertaining but they’re not ballet. Similarly, Interstellar has its good parts but it’s not serious science fiction. In my opinion Interstellar is a bigger disappointment than Transcendence and it makes we wonder if anyone in Hollyweird is capable of making serious science fiction these days.

Review: Finding Vivian Maier

I suffer from SLAM (Spouse that Likes Art-house Movies).  I’m sure you’re familiar with this common affliction. It strikes when you want to see Spider-Man 2 but, because you dearly love your spouse, you settle on some “uplifting work of art” that can only be seen in a cramped, look around the pretentious fathead ahead in front of you, dingy art-house cinema. SLAM suffers get a break in St. Louis; there are only two art-house cinemas and their usual yard-sale like fare is dull even by art-house standards. But, as any yard-sale addict will tell you, there are diamonds in the debris and Finding Vivian Maier is a gem.

vivian-maier-small

Vivian Maier 1956. Vivian enjoyed self-portraits and mirrors. This is not vanity. All photographers fall prey to self-reflections. I am certainly guilty.

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about a great street photographer, Vivian Maier (1926 –2009) that you have probably never heard of. I had never heard of her and I’m a keen amateur photographer with a nagging interest in the history and technology of photography. I’ve read all three of Ansel Adams classic camera books, plowed through many giant histories of photography, and endured as many Photoshop and image restoration tomes as I can stomach.  I’m not an artist; I’m a technisté! A technisté is someone who has technical artistic skills but is not phony enough to be an artiste. Vivian Maier is an anti-technisté. She’s a true photographic artist that showed astonishingly low levels of interest in the craft and technology of photography.

Her story, as one lady in the film noted, is more interesting than her work. Nobody had heard of Vivian before 2007. She isn’t mentioned in giant histories of photography published before 2007 so it’s not surprising I missed her. She worked most of her life as a nanny. She didn’t hang around with other photographers and she apparently never made a serious effort to show her photographs. Even stranger, she rarely printed her pictures and shot thousands of frames that she never developed. She must have been content to look at her negatives if even that. This astounds me!  I cannot tell if I have a good shot until I “develop” it.  For most of her long life she snapped away in the background and it’s likely that her astonishing body of work would have vanished if John Maloof hadn’t bought a lot of her negatives at an auction in 2007.

For Vivian the act of capture sufficed and what wonderful captures they are. Her work is being exhibited around the world. I will certainly be looking out for the next show coming my way. You can see some of her pictures here and, for those of you that care, Finding Vivian Maier is much better than Spider-Man 2.

What’s the opposite of Transcendence?

johnny-depp-transcendenceSerious science fiction is a demanding cinematic genre; that’s why you see so little of it!  Most of what passes for science fiction is out-and-out comic fantasy. In the last year only three marginally serious science fiction films made it to wide release:  Catching Fire, Divergent and Transcendence.  Sadly, they’re all pretty awful and Transcendence is the biggest letdown of the three. Here’s why.

Transcendence is another riff on real AI.  Even though we live in a world of talking cell phones and computer Jeopardy champions a sizeable cohort of AI deniers claim machines will never think.  The best answer I’ve heard to this came from a young woman who noted that, “I am a machine and I think.”  Well I am thinking machine too and until there are serious scientific or mathematical arguments demonstrating that minds cannot, even in principle, be simulated by computations, assuming intelligence is algorithmic remains our best working hypothesis. Transcendence gets all this right. None of the characters in Transcendence go on about whether real AI is possible. Even the fearful anti-AI faction takes it as a given; it’s what they are afraid of.

If intelligence is algorithmic then it follows that we are nothing more than programs trapped in messy hardware. Separating hardware and software is one of the glories of our age.  We take it for granted that if we change the software we change the machine. The other day I killed off my old WinXP laptop and then resurrected it as a Mint Linux device. The hardware is the same but the machine is very different. We cannot do this with brains — yet.  The software that makes you, you, is regrettably entwined with the hardware that runs you. Nature has evolved better intellectual property protection than a division of parasitic IP lawyers. One of the great challenges of our age is breaking down nature’s intellectual property protection and reading out the software in brains. Transcendence also gets all this right. The best part of the film involves uploading a dying Will Caster, (Johnny Depp), into a bank of quantum computers. [1]

Up until Will goes live on his quantum cores Transcendence is a fine film. I kept pinching myself thinking: they’re not screwing it up or dumbing it down. This might be great.  Then my hopes were crushed. Before Will went all quantum supercomputery he gave a TED’ish talk pointing out that when real AI arrives it will have more raw intellectual capacity than all human brains combined.  When transcendent beings emerge in stories the plot often goes straight to pot. This is not a new artistic problem. It’s so common in science fiction that I even have a name for it: the superior being problem.

Depicting superior beings poses fundamental problems for feeble brained naked ape authors. Look at what a moron God is in the first few books of the Bible. Scores of fine science fiction novels have been trashed by trying to imagine what truly superior beings would think and do. The only approach that works is oblique. You can suggest the workings of superior minds. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a classic example of doing this right, but for reasons that escape me, many authors take on the inner life of superior minds only to show their own rather mediocre ones. Transcendence didn’t even make an honest effort to deal with the superior being problem: what a disappointment. Instead of enjoying new ideas I spent the rest of Transcendence wondering why our transcendent protagonist was such a dolt. Not really the transcendent experience I was looking for.

[1] The jury is out on the feasibility of practical quantum computers. If quantum computers can be made to work they will solve certain classes of problems faster than conventional machines but, and this is a big but, they will not expand the notion of what’s computable. It’s rather amazing that what’s computable has not expanded since Turning’s great theorems of the 1930’s.

Oz the Gratuitous and Purile

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This is not the Oz you’re looking for!

The original Wizard of Oz, the one we have all seen many times, is on a very short list of nearly perfect movies. Everything about the 1939 film is superb in excess. It’s as fun to watch today as it was over seventy years ago and you cannot honestly say that about many films. Because Oz is such a towering film classic it has overshadowed all cinematic attempts to reenter and reimagine Frank L. Baum’s world. Without exception every Oz wanna-be, and there have been many, suck like motivated gay prostitutes. Perhaps if we hadn’t seen the original, Oz the Great and Powerful, might be judged a “good” film, but we have and this overblown homage underscores, yet again, the magnificence of the 1939 Oz. I have some advice for Baum fans. If you want to reimagine his world — read his damn books! Believe it or not the book, The Wizard of Oz, is as good, if not better than the film classic. As for film makers — just stop it! Oz is close to sacred ground; if you’re not a Kubrick-level cinematic genius, and very few of you are, all you’re going to do is embarrass yourself and induce Dorothy nostalgia in your audience.

Watching Oz the Great and Powerful (OGP) has its own minor schizophrenic charms. On the good witch side OGP is another stunning special effects extravaganza. 21st century movies are now in a weird place; if you can imagine it you can render it on the screen. If the ancient Greeks had a god of special movie effects it’s unlikely he could top your average contemporary big budget — tiny brain — movie. For decades producers and directors have strived to out-effect each other and they’ve finally ended up in a place Sophocles would recognize. Real improvements in modern movies can come from only one place: better stories! It was the telling of the story that distinguished the 1939 Oz. They took brilliant source material and merged it with equally brilliant songs. This is incredibly difficult and rarely achieved. In OGP’s case they didn’t even try. The suits that ruin Disney these days have a reputation for phoning stories in. With OGP they’ve out John Carter’ed themselves. I believe a bad Oz witch went all premenstrual on the screen writers. How else can you explain the transformation of classic source material into the Phantom Menace of Oz?

King Hobbit Kong

The pre-Hobbit hum was not harmonious. It started with the interminable legal battle over who would direct the Hobbit and how to split any spoils. After Peter Jackson’s cinematic Lord of the Rings triumph people assumed he would be The Hobbit guy but an envious and embittered clique of Tolkien’s heirs felt the weren’t getting enough for their stuff and filed suit demanding more. For some reason the spoiled progeny of the famous and accomplished think they’re entitled to feed on their glorious ancestor’s corpse — oops estate — forever. We’ve seen enough of this in the US with the idiot Kennedy clan: none of whom I would trust to drive or fly me anywhere. Even white-bread, holier than thou Canada, cannot shake this affliction. Look at Justin Trudeau — living on his father’s fame and full of it right up to his naturally curly eyebrows. Go back far enough and we all have glorious ancestors; unfortunately, this entitles us to precisely squat which, in a just universe, would constitute the sum total of royalties due to the current parasitic Tolkien generation.

Once the legalities settled and Jackson got control of the project ominous stories started swirling about “changes” to The Hobbit. One particularly disturbing rumor had Legolas making an appearance. Funny, I’ve read the Hobbit twice and missed him in the book! Whenever people start “improving classics” I get very wary. I’m sure the Hobbit screen writers are very smart and capable but they haven’t written a literary classic. If Legolas shows his pointy little ears in The Hobbit they should put bags over their heads and go into hiding for their own safety.

After the legalities and plot rumors the technology of The Hobbit made news. The Hobbit was shot at 48 frames per second: twice the standard rate. This was allegedly done to improve 3D projection. The biggest complaint about 3D movies, other than that they are 3D movies, is that they’re dim and fuzzy. Why this surprises anyone astonishes me. Hey, I’ve got an idea, let’s watch our three hundred million dollar movie through cheap, dark, optically flawed, polarized, throw-away plastic glasses. What could go wrong? The stupidity of hollyweirdos is boundless but what do you expect from Obama worshippers. It’s been claimed that 48 frames per seconds allows 3D projectors to present 24 frames per second to each eye and increase projection brightness, compensating for the those cheap dark glasses, without introducing an annoying flicker that plagues lower frame rates. We shall soon see if this is the case or just more Hollywood bullshit. Still, it would have been nice to test this technology on standard cinematic crap before subjecting classics to it.

Finally, if all of the above wasn’t enough, The Hobbit, by far the shortest of the famous Tolkien books, is being split into two, maybe three films, with the first installment running around three freaking hours. Wasn’t Jackson the guy that took a short, tight, beloved film classic, the original King Kong, and blew it up into a gigantic, tedious, overwrought, hemorrhoid inducing bore that was gutted in less than ten seconds by Robot Chicken! Yes the pre-Hobbit hum was not harmonious so I wasn’t expecting much when I plopped my discerning ass in my cinema seat and braced for The Hobbit.

Then three hours passed.

So what’s the verdict? I’ll try to do this without profanity. First a few warnings:

  1. If you have read and enjoyed The Lord of the Rings but haven’t read the Hobbit do not see this film until you have read the book! The book will not spoil the film but the film will spoil the book.
  2. If you’re a parent, looking to entertain your sucrose saturated children over the holidays, and you take them to The Hobbit, before they get a chance to read the book, you might as well go whole hog and tell them, there’s no Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny does not lay hardboiled colored eggs, the Tooth Fairy is mom and dad and little children don’t go to an imaginary heaven when they die; they’re just dead.

With that out-of-the-way I will publicly confess to enjoying the film labeled “The Hobbit.” Yes, my worst fears materialized on an epic scale. This is not, “The Hobbit,” but rather Hobbit inspired. So many artistic liberties were taken that I predict a rash of Hobbit, or not Hobbit, critiques will flood the intertubes. The story unfolds with a leaden, worst camping trip ever, pace and even the best scene in the movie, when Bilbo wins his riddle contest with Gollum and makes off with “the precious” ring is tedious. The famous time riddle comes across as a mood-lighting lighting aside and is so far removed from the brilliance of the book that it would have been better to just omit it, but you could say the same for at least half the scenes in this movie.

As I left the cinema surrounded by subdued teenagers, many of whom where commenting on how, “that wasn’t like the book,” I wondered who is this film for? Then it hit me. This is for the fantasy role-playing video game crowd. Many kids spend days immersed in these games. They’re used to laconic meandering pointless plot lines. This demographic will find the Hobbit tight, on plot, and will delight in the impressive special effects. Smaug does have beautiful eyes and I really enjoyed the wood trolls. I would have positively loved this film if the trolls had eaten the dwarves on the spot and then followed it up with a celebrity chef panel discussion. Maybe we’ll get lucky in Hobbit 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, ….

You've burnt the plot and added ingredients that the recipe didn't call for. This isn't Hobbit stew and you call yourself a chef.

You’ve burnt the plot and added ingredients that the recipe didn’t call for. This isn’t Hobbit stew and you call yourself a chef.

Ooh Promethean Tentacles

Prometheus

Hey let’s wander around in the dark and feed vagina snakes.

Prometheus breaks the first rule of movies: don’t make your audience think! Any movie that violates this taboo gets exactly what it deserves and Prometheus is begging for it.

Let’s get the good stuff out-of-the-way. Prometheus looks great. It throws up one fabulous tableau after another. To all the set designers, CGI programmers and other visual artists that worked on Prometheus take a bow; you did a superb job. I am not kidding when I say this would be a better film if you simply turned off the brain numbing sound track and soaked in the sights. Unfortunately the sound track is left on letting us in on the shallow thoughts of the too stupid to live protagonists.

I won’t dissect Prometheus’s numerous Promethean logical affronts. The blogosphere has already boiled and rendered that beast. Google the phrase “Prometheus too stupid to live”; the deluge of scorn will restore your faith in mankind.  I could join in the script-savaging but I’m a kind, loving and compassionate man. I like science fiction. I want science fiction screen writers to succeed but the poor lost souls need help. Here are three “rules” that might have saved Prometheus.

1. Any “number” that appears in a science fiction movie must be real.

Numbers incite analysis and analysis plops you right back into reality which is not a good place for any movie especially science fiction. Prometheus violates this rule early on.

When the spaceship Prometheus arrived at its multiple-star-grouping destination the film makes a point of informing us that it’s 3.27 x 1014 kilometers from Earth. My little cinema bound brain went to work. A light year is roughly 1013 kilometers thus Prometheus was about thirty light years from Earth.  I’d turned my cell phone off to watch the movie so I didn’t check the Hipparchus star catalogue but I’m pretty sure there are no large visible multiple star groupings that close to Earth.  It’s possible a grouping of nearby brown dwarfs has escaped detection but then the color balance of the giant planet the spaceship was approaching was all wrong.

Flashing bogus numbers distracts and infuriates audiences. If you must insert numbers in your scripts make sure they are 100% scientifically credible.

2. Do not populate your spaceship with suicidal dolts.

It’s hard to relate to complete brain-dead tools. About halfway through Prometheus I realized the only creatures acting sensibly were the tentacle waving predatory aliens.  They were busy going about their prey stalking ways. I can only imagine what they thought.

“Hey Sam,” alien vagina snakes call themselves Sam, “can you believe this fool wants to pet me. I bet his esophagus is going to be really tasty.”

“Uh, I don’t know Sam; something that stupid couldn’t survive in the wild unless it was highly toxic.”

“Yeah, you may be right but I’m going take a chance and stuff myself down his pie hole anyway.”

Nobody mourns the death of imbeciles. Sympathetic characters should have at least room temperature IQs.

3. Never show superior beings.

Good science fiction works best in the imagination of its audience.  Nurturing a sense of mystery, awe and wonder is what this genre is all about.  Showing too much kills the imagination and frankly my imagination took a few sniper rounds to the head when a “superior engineer” turned out to be bald, ripped, roid-raging bodybuilder that was as stupid as every other character in this film.

If the Prometheus of myth was as reckless as this “engineer” then Zeus did us a solid when he chained his dumb ass to that rock.

Evil Queens are getting Hotter

There’s not a lot of good news out there. Our currencies are being sodomized by economic imbeciles. High unemployment has demoralized the masses and forced lobotomized bureaucrats to get off their entitled asses and redefine it. The suck—oops stock—market has returned SFO for a decade. CO2 levels are rising. The seas are not subsiding; they didn’t get The One’s memo. Goons are getting nukes. Species are going extinct. The freaking LA Kings are two up in the Stanley Cup finals and, Mohammed in a transvestite musical, the Kardashians are still on TV. In this bleak, soul suffocating, Obamalypse we must take solace from any quarter and I’ve found one; evil queens are getting hotter!

Regina

Regina, (Lana Parrilla), Once Upon a Time’s Wicked Queen.

This positive trend surfaced with TV’s Once Upon a Time: a rare, well written, series that ripped familiar fairy tale characters out of children’s books and deposited them in Storybrooke: a small fictional town in Maine. All of our favorite characters are present: Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, Rumplestiltskin and, outclassing them all, Regina, Snow White’s poison apple wielding nemesis the Wicked Queen played by Lana Parrilla. Regina is no hook nosed NPR feminist hag. This wicked queen is a high-caliber alpha cougar. Frankly, I envy her victims. Please Regina; make me your next man-toy.

An even hotter queen is Ravenna, another incarnation of Snow White’s mortal enemy, from Snow White and the Huntsman. Huntsman is a dark straight up high-tech rendering of Snow White’s tale. The movie is competent but is afraid of veering off well-trodden material. I found it flat and predictable. Great movies astonish, good movies surprise, ordinary movies entertain and bad movies are lauded by liberal film critics.

Ravenna's spa

Ravenna, (Charlize Theron), in her spa.

Huntsman is ordinary but has its charms. The best character is Charlize Theron’s wicked queen Ravenna. Ravenna has an endearing nasty bitch habit. She must periodically slurp up the life force of attractive young women to stay “the fairest of them all.” Think of it as extreme celebrity Botox. You may object to Ravenna’s ravishing methods but you cannot argue with the results. This wicked queen is setting new standards for maximum babe bad.

As a mainly manly man I thank the FSM for Regina and Ravenna. Evil queening: it’s not for obese dykes anymore.