Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) lives a routine existence. That same existence can be stilted by his tendency to “zone out” while having fantasies about work and a young woman he finds attractive. But one day, his job and any opportunity to see the young woman—even from a distance—are threatened. How will Walter Mitty react?

Walter processes the negatives for Life magazine, but finds out the print magazine will be cancelled: this will be the last issue. All he has to do is process negative #25 from the adventure photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) for the last cover. But that negative is missing. What will he do?

As it turns out, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), the woman he finds attractive, is in the billing department and might help him find O’Connell’s most recent address. He begins a series of natural conversations with her, and we’re cheered he seems to be retreating into his fantasies less often—but he still has a superhero/villain one involving the guy who will fire him if he doesn’t find the negative. With Cheryl’s help, Walter figures out O’Connell might be in Greenland.

Cheryl suggests Walter go find out. It’s not clear if she’s serious or not. But Walter has everything on the line—the negative, the need to give Life a good sendoff, his job, gaining a good standing in Cheryl’s eyes. He sets out.

What follows is an odyssey a routine person could never dream of. It involves flying with a drunken helicopter pilot, skateboarding in Iceland, and climbing high mountains. The scenery is breathtaking, and Walter’s ability to push himself beyond his wildest hopes and fears is something to cheer. Will he find the negative, keep his job, and impress Cheryl?

Ben Stiller puts in a picture-perfect performance as an everyman who hurtles out of his comfort zone, experiencing highs and lows in parts of the world he knew nothing of. Kristen Wiig is likable (which Stiller said was a quality they needed in that role), so we don’t tire of seeing her in the real scenes and in Walter’s improbable fantasies. And Sean Penn looks unmovable as a mountain as he waits for the perfect shot.

photo by Jiyang Chen 

Ben Stiller has somehow become a master director. He knows how to put together thrilling spectacles, showcasing them from a human perspective. Usually he’s been viewed as an actor who is so stupid, people laugh at him. But that was his comic genius: as long as people laughed, he succeeded. Now he’s put together a magnificent paean to the human spirit, and as this interview details, to the older art of moviemaking. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Captain Picard’s Christmas Song

Make sure you’re not holding a hot beverage when you listen to this. 

Brought to you by people who have way too much time on their hands. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Horror Story: Gift of the Magi

Happy St. Stephen’s Day.  

Have you ever wondered what the song Good King Wenceslas has to do with Christmas? The answer is: nothing. St. Stephen’s Day is December 26, and Good King Wenceslas is a St. Stephen’s Day song, so it gets sung this time of the year.

On to the horror. 

public domain 

One of the most terrible stories I was told at school as a child was The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry. It seems this couple was very poor, but at least the husband had a gold watch that had been handed down from his grandfather. And the wife had beautiful brown hair that went past her knees.

In a desperate attempt to get enough money to buy her husband a Christmas present, the wife sold her hair. That’s right, she sold her hair. Then she used the money to buy a platinum chain for her husband’s watch. 

Meanwhile, the husband had sold his gold watch to buy a set of jeweled combs for her hair.

So on Christmas day, they had a chain for a watch they no longer had, and combs for hair that no longer existed.

All the adults thought this was a beautiful story. I think the girls thought it romantic.

I was horrified by this sequence of events that culminated in an ironic twist of fate.

So Merry Christmas to you, O. Henry, you sicko.

photo by Jane Art

Friday, December 20, 2013

Lindsay Lohan Dream

Late on the evening of 8/2/13, I watched a number of previews, including a ten-minute clip of a Lindsay Lohan movie. The boyfriend in the movie had an image of her on his smartphone, naked (the review I had read of the movie did not warn of any nudity). The clip ended before any large-screen nudity.

photo by Christopher Macsurak 

That night I had an odd dream. I went to a new mall with tall windows to one side that allowed in tinted sunlight. The Sbarro there was so new, they didn’t have their menu up. A woman there suggested an $11.00 combo lunch which I ordered, then regretted paying too much for it. Before my lunch was ready, I looked at my smart phone. A number of images of Lindsay Lohan played on it every few seconds—none of them nude, but artistically suggesting she could be. I realized my watching the preview last night had allowed an app to be placed on my phone, making the images play. I was getting a little embarrassed because people were nearby in the Sbarro area, but I could not find any way to remove the app.

At some point I realized this was a dream and willed myself to wake up. I clicked the night light on the head of my bed, but it didn’t come on. I realized the power had gone out. I grabbed my clock, which is battery powered, but had a hard time seeing what time it was. After repeated efforts to tell the time, I woke up.

The entire experience had been a dream, including my waking up and deciding the power was out. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jury Duty – A nun, a security guard, and a writer walk into a jury room

So I was on jury duty for the past two days. Here’s a hint: bring plenty to read and/or a laptop. It mainly consists of sitting around, waiting to see if you’ll be called in to be part of a jury pool. But first, let’s look at the scenery. First a friendly picture, then a scary one.

The tunnel also handles light rail
which accounts for the tracks

A Metro bus went from near my home all the way into the Seattle underground bus tunnel, where there was a stop right below the courthouse. After climbing the stairs (or using the elevator) one emerged with the King County Courthouse less than half a block away. That was handy today, since it was raining.

Now look at the structure below. Does it look like a huge rectangular block is connecting two tall buildings? You’re right. It’s a skybridge, but with no windows. It goes from the courthouse on the right, beyond the building on the left, and ends at the County Jail one building beyond. This is like Con Air, but without the planes. Prisoners can be frogmarched back and forth without using squad cars. This saves time, since downtown traffic can be bad, but it also prevents the prisoners from escaping during laborious loading and unloading from vehicles. If something bad happens in the skybridge, massive steel doors can be slammed shut, trapping the prisoner inside.

Why so serious?

If this doesn’t make you imagine interesting scenes, maybe you shouldn’t try being a writer.

Here’s Seattle City Hall, about a block from the Courthouse. It really looks beautiful during sunny weather, and sometimes they have people selling fresh produce—an offshoot of the famous Pike’s Place Market. Alas, it’s December, so the only noteworthy thing was me taking pictures.

Just beyond it is the Columbia Tower. It’s the tallest building in the state of Washington. It has numerous little restaurants on the first floor, so if you do jury duty in Seattle, I highly recommend it for a fast lunch. I had a nice turkey pot pie at JJ’s Gourmet Burgers.

I call it the Dark Tower
Guess why

So on to jury duty itself. Something like a hundred and forty of us waited around to see if we would be called to a jury pool. The waiting can take hours at a time, so I got a start on a new novel on my laptop (I won’t reveal the title yet). Then forty of us get called in to a jury pool. The lawyers take turns asking us questions to see if we’re biased.

On the way in, the potential juror in front of me recognized someone who happened to be sitting on a bench outside the courtroom. They were so jovial about being in the Courthouse I thought, “Oh great, they’re fellow criminals.” But after he sat down to the right of me in the jury pool, it turned out he was a security guard. They can be asked in a lot to be witnesses to altercations, so his friend waiting outside the court was probably also in security. I felt better.

As the lawyers tried to weed out biased people, they asked questions that didn’t apply to me, such as whether any of us had ever been shot at, would we use a gun in self defense, whether we had bad experiences with police officers. You can probably guess at some of the arguments they were preparing for trial by these questions.

A woman behind me said in a soft voice that she could not imagine using a gun under any circumstances, even if someone was shooting at her. Based on short bios we had filled out on ourselves, the defense lawyer asked her if she was a nun. I wondered what he meant, then he went on to say that he had trouble recognizing her as a nun, since she wasn’t wearing a habit. This was somewhat ironic, since I had watched the stage musical version of The Sound of Music last week and had just ordered the soundtrack.

Based on the answers to the questions, each attorney is allowed to excuse a certain amount of jurors, each hoping to end up with a jury beneficial to his side of the case. Enough people before me were excused that I ended up in the top twelve. Then, even though I replied to none of these general questions, the prosecuting attorney decided to excuse me from jury duty. That puzzled me until I guessed that he wanted the security guard to be on the jury, thinking he would be more likely to convict the defendant. I didn’t see him afterwards in the jury waiting room, so I think he stayed on and became part of the jury for the trial. 

As a last note, in the waiting room for potential jurors, I saw what I thought was a whiteboard for people to write on. It turned out to be some sort of art. If you see some rectangles on the lower left and some blotches of color in the upper right, you’re correct.

I still don’t see why I can’t write on it

There was another piece of art that was simply a photo of a door slightly ajar. Really, that was all there was to it. I wanted to take a picture of it, but since it’s near the entrance to the ladies’ room, I thought would get accused of being a pervert trying to take pictures of women inside. In that case I would have stayed longer in the King County Courthouse, but not as a juror. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Book Review of The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

Imagine the Cold War was actually a hot war between the West and the Eastern block, with millions of casualties on each side. Then imagine the Soviet Union collapsing under those circumstances. That’s the premise of  Jack Campbell’s The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight, only on a scale of entire star systems. The fellow on the cover looks sufficiently Russian to let us know whose view this story will be from. 

Artur Drakon, commander of the ground forces for his planet, knows he has no choice but to throw off the remnants of the old empire if he is to survive. Being more decent than most commanders of the old order, he has cultivated highly competent people under him who are fiercely loyal, and they charge into action against the agents of the old order who have enslaved them for so long. 

Aiding him in the space around their planet is Gwen Iceni, commander of the pitifully small flotilla of ships that has to guard them from being reconquered. The stakes are high: if a ship of the old empire gets through, it would not hesitate to bomb the civilian population of the planet from orbit.

What makes Tarnished Knight unique is the paranoia among all the characters, inculcated by years of participating in a system where backstabbing and innuendo were the means of moving up. When Drakon does Iceni a favor, she wonders if he’s trying to get her off guard so he can claim total control of the planet. And if Iceni does Drakon a favor, he wonders if that’s a prelude to bombing the planet herself.

This is the most fun with Drakon’s immediate subordinates, Morgan and Malin. Morgan is a deadly woman who is almost out of control, wanting to kill anyone who might be a threat. Malin is no less deadly but more even-keeled. They first appear in the story as they playfully threaten to shoot or stab each other. Things come to a head when Malin shoots an agent who attacks Morgan, barely missing her. Instead of being grateful, Morgan assumes Malin was trying to use the confusion of battle to kill her but flubbed it, and they do not turn their backs on each other for the rest of the novel.

Those of you familiar with Campbell’s Fleet series know that its main character Geary is a man of incredible honor. The good guys in this series are less so, trying to pragmatically do the things necessary to free their people. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Marvel’s Agents of Shield: Alice in Wonderland Again

In case you haven’t seen it yet, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is on Tuesday nights at 8:00 on ABC. They have fun, rollicking adventures in plots that mostly hold together. (The 11/26 episode wasn’t that great, but oh well.)  Agent Coulson survived his death scene in The Avengers (or did he?), and he’s gathered a unique team to fight the good fight. But is it unique? Haven’t we seen these characters over and over again, starting with an old children’s story? 

In order to write, you have to learn to take apart stories to see what makes them tick, at least in terms of plot and characters. (Don’t do this with a story that you love. That would be akin to dissecting a pet.) As I once did to the movie Inception (see my entry here), I can take apart Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and see the characters are based on Alice in Wonderland

The main character is Skye (Chloe Bennet). She’s the new member of the team, and she was forced to join against her will at first. She tries to be the conscience of the team, and she constantly questions whether things should be done the way they always have, and even takes matters into her own hands to change things.

Skye is obviously Alice, the girl who fell down a rabbit hole and found herself in Wonderland against her will.  She often disapproves of the wild behavior she sees around her and tries to correct things based on her proper schoolgirl upbringing. 

Next is Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). He is eminently wise and often enigmatic. He is definitely in charge and will often put Skye in her place when she asks too many questions. (He also has a heart of gold, but that’s not part of the Alice character.) 

Coulson is the caterpillar. The caterpillar knows much more than Alice, as he looks down on her from the height of the mushroom. His famous saying about the left side and the right are not explained because he doesn’t see the need to. 

Then we have Grant Ward. The other members of the team regard him as crazy. Whether he casually plans to break into a secure installation or dives out of a plane to save a teammate, he acts without hesitation and without a lot of forethought. 

Ward’s comparison is easy. He is the mad hatter.  Of course, Ward’s craziness is in terms of his actions while the hatter’s is in terms of his speech, but this is the obligatory crazy person. 

Melinda May (Ming-Na) does not even start as a member of the team. She’s hidden herself down in the part of SHIELD where the files are. She is even more enigmatic than Coulson is. She often communicates by giving a sideways look, or in one scene when Coulson is pouring out his uncertainties to her, by not changing expression. 

May is the Cheshire cat. The cat can often vanish, just as May hid herself in the filing area. And the cat’s famous smile morphs into May’s unchanging expression. As long as the character is known for a facial cue, it doesn’t matter if it’s a broad expression or a lack of one. 

Fitz and Simmons are the science team. They are so inseparable, they are sometimes called “FitzSimmons.” They often agree with each other on the necessary course of action, leaving the rest of the team trying to catch up with their tech talk. 

Fitz and Simmons are obviously Tweedledee and Tweedledum. (Although they are from Through the Looking Glass, not Wonderland.) Twins, they are inseparable and known for their combative attitude. They also give a mathematical riddle.  

What about the white queen demanding “Off with their heads,” some will ask. So far, the show has had a couple of evil women working for Centipede, and we’ll see if the second one becomes a continuing character.

Still unconvinced? Rent Resident Evil sometime and listen to the commentary track. Michelle Rodriguez tells how each of their characters corresponded to ones in Alice in Wonderland

As I explained to a middle grade teacher of English and literature, the characters used by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland are archetypes. She asked me where Lewis Carroll got them from. I shrugged. 


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