July 28, 2009

On Comic-Con, or "a finer world"

As I was making my way through the teeming, costumed, merchandise-clutching masses on the exhibit floor at the 40th annual San Diego International Comic Book Convention, better known as Comic-Con, I caught site of something that I'll not soon forget.

A young man in a wheelchair was wearing a t-shirt that said "I'm too sexy for my legs".

Ironically enough, three days earlier, I had the privilege of seeing the very first advanced footage of James Cameron's new film, "Avatar".

In "Avatar", humans are exploring and prospecting on the distant planet Pandora, which has an amazingly beautiful and completely alien habitat that is totally inhospitable to humans. To that end, eschewing traditional environment suits, the humans collect DNA from the indigenous inhabitants and genetically engineer alien/human hybrid bodies into which the human explorers can download their consciousnesses, giving them free reign on the planet. The protagonist, played by Sam Worthington of "Terminator: Salvation", is a paraplegic who becomes the hero of the story once he's freed from the limitations of his wheelchair-bound human form and gains the incredible abilities of his 10 foot tall blue skinned avatar.

Now, not only is "Avatar" a story about a man who is transported to another world as another self, but it's a 3-D film that lets the audience experience the planet Pandora as if it were a living, breathing, glowing, lush environment around them.

Moreover, the reason why it's taken Cameron 14 years to bring this movie to screen is that he's spent that time perfecting what he's called "performance capture", where, instead of just translating the general body movements of an actor to a CG character, they can actually translate the slightest facial nuances of an actor, capturing the emotion inherent in the performance. So, when I see a blue-skinned CG native girl yelling at the stupid humans screwing up her planet, I know just by looking at her face that it was Zoe Saldana on the performance capture stage.

But beyond that, Cameron took it to the next level by building a platform that actually renders the computer-generated landscape and creatures of Pandora for viewing THROUGH THE CAMERA, so that Cameron and his cinematographer can actually SEE Pandora and their actors as Pandora natives in the environment AS THEY'RE SHOOTING.

In short, he's made it possible to actually shoot on location on a planet that doesn't exist.

THIS is the essence of Comic-Con.

I once heard a man say that a reasonable man bends to meet the world, while an unreasonable man insists that the world bend to meet him. Therefore, all progress comes from the unreasonable man.

Those of us who proudly call ourselves geeks are very unreasonable.

Geeks like Jules Verne first dared to dream of poking the Moon in the eye with a rocket, and people laughed at the absurdity.

40 years ago this month, a man planted an American flag on that very same Moon and established a pinnacle of human achievement.

Geeks like Gene Roddenberry insisted on a world where all ethnicities worked together towards a common good and a man could ask a machine a question and expect an answer with complete sanity.

There's a little device on the other side of this room that, after it's finished recharging, I can make diverge every public document about that astronaut just by saying the words "Neil Armstrong" to it.

Geeks like Bob Layton imagined a world where an alcoholic can overcome his addiction and become a superhero.

Next year, Robert Downey Jr. will channel his own struggle with substances into a performance about that very same character in a way that will dazzle, amaze, and, perhaps, in some small measure, give hope to those who struggle in the dark.

We geeks know that just because we may not be the most popular or the most beautiful or the most politically astute or the most financially or athletically gifted, we trump each and every one of those people in faith, passion, belief, and imagination.

And there is nothing in this world, literally nothing that exists, that was not something that someone dreamed of first.

The costumed, fictional, GG-generated and otherwise genre based characters we celebrate at Comic-Con are simply representatives of the qualities we hold most dear, be it Batman's focused determination or Tron's rage against the machine or Green Lantern's fearlessness in the face of the blackest of nights.

And Comic-Con is probably the only place in the world where an entire city can be full of wonder for 5 days straight. Where Green Arrow can share a beer with Luke Skywalker. Where new worlds are revealed moment by moment, be it on a giant movie screen, or through a video game, or just within the pages of an indie comic book.

Part of me worries that all of the non-geeks who come to Comic-Con because they think it can help them make a few more bucks are a bit like the human interlopers on Pandora. But, in the end, if they want to thrive in our world, just like on Pandora, they have to wear our skin, too.

And who knows, maybe they'll take a little bit of that blue skin back with them for the Muggles.

Personally, I can't wait to go back.

Born in the USA

I have, on occasion, been known to indulge in conspiracy theories.

For instance, there's a part of me that still believes that John Kerry struck some kind of deal born of Skull & Bones to basically throw the 2004 election for George Bush. After all, he fought like a hellcat to destroy Howard Dean, robocalls & all, but declined from using similar tactics against the 43rd president.

So, yes, I do buy into some conspiracy theories. But I find the recent Birther phenomenon so amusing for two reasons:

1. for it to be true, you have to assume the complicity of The State of Hawaii, at least two major Hawaiian newspapers, the Federal Election Commission, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and basically the entire Republican political apparatus. And that various elements had been upholding this conspiracy for nearly 50 years (that, or they went back and planted false evidence in the record, 1984-style). To which, I would respond, why? If Sarah Palin had some serious doubt about Obama's citizenship, do you think she would have waited a second to use that in a campaign speech? She was damn near calling the man a terrorist because he'd been in some guy's house. Which gets to the larger issue of most conspiracy theories, namely the presumption that all of the important famous people are out to punk the rest of the world so they can.... do what, exactly? "Control us"? I mean, really, if all of these players were interested in fabricating Obama's birth, wouldn't they have come up with a better cover story.

2. To borrow a line from Rush Limbaugh, the Birther movement is totally about race. The guy who's credited with originally trying to discredit Obama's nationality is a dude who once ran for congress on the promise that he would "exterminate Jew Power in America". The woman who shouted down that congressman in his town hall meeting about the birther stuff ended her tirade with "I want my country back!", because, of course, this can't really be America if a Black man is now president. Lou Dobbs teased the notion that Obama might even be an illegal immigrant. The fact is, these people are looking for anything that would just undo the last election, because that election proves that the majority of America thinks they're a bunch of crackpots.

Barack Obama is an American.

And he's your President.

Suck it up.

July 24, 2009

REVIEW: Ninja Assassin

It's funny: the thought of an American pop star becoming an action movie hero (e.g. Justin Timberlake as Green Lantern) seems just patently ridiculous to most. And yet, here's a Korean pop star who calls himself Rain seems perfectly plausible as the baddest, bloodiest, most hard core Ninja assassin on the planet.

I wonder if I'd feel the same if his music was on continuous rotation on MTV?


Because Ninja Assassin is, far and away, the best martial arts movie I've seen in a big theater.... probably since The Matrix.

Which makes sense, since it's produced by The Wachowski Brothers and directed by their protege, James McTeigue.

The film follows Rain as Raizo, an orphan raised from near birth to be a merciless killer, as he cuts a bloody swath of revenge across Berlin, while an intrepid Interpol researcher (played by Naomi Harris, who opts for the soft & vulnerable play instead of her 28 Days Later she-warrior mode) is trying to uncover the ancient secret of a clan of mythical ninjas who may be responsible for countless political killings over the years. It intercuts between Raizo's youth in the brutal orphanage/ninja factory and the modern ninja war that literally spills out onto the streets of modern Berlin.

Honestly, I couldn't tell you where the actual stunt work and wire work ends and the CGI begins in most places, because the choreography is just seamless, frenetic, and breathtaking.

Oh, and did I mention that the alternate title for this film should be "Buckets of Blood"? When the director introduced the film at last night's extra secret exclusive screening at Comic-Con 2009, he made a point of telling the audience that they shouldn't fear the gore. Yeah, it's pretty violent. Like, half-a-head lopped off in the first 3 minutes violent.

But it's definitely worth it. Beyond the fact that it's action packed, as a viewer, I totally bought all of the emotional relationships in the film that make the action matter. You care who lives or dies, who's betrayed and who outsmarts.

In short, it's bloody f'n good. If you're like me and grew up on a steady Saturday afternoon diet of Bruce Li, the Shaw Brothers, and the like, do yourself a favor and check it out when it's released in November.

July 08, 2009

How to stop Michael Bay from stealing your childhood

Now, it may surprise you to know, given my recent post defending Michael Bay against his detractors, that I have NOT, in fact, chosen to pay my money to actually see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to head out to one of my favorite theaters in town, The Arclight, and, in addition to Transformers, they were showing a really smart little TRUE sci-fi film (i.e. a film based around actual science instead of fantasy) called "Moon", starring Sam Rockwell and directed by David Bowie's son, Duncan Jones.

The theater was also showing what looks to be a really juicy Iraq War film called "The Hurt Locker".

So, that was my choice that day: Transformers, Moon, or The Hurt Locker. Since I was really in the mood for something engaging, both emotionally and mentally, based on my current expectations of Bay and the reactions to the film from critics, I was pretty sure that Transformers was not that movie.

I took an informal poll among my online friends and got really intense lobbying for both Moon AND Hurt Locker. I mean, someone sent me a message from a car that a mutual friend heard about my choice and INSISTED that I had to see Hurt Locker.

In the end, because one of my buddies wanted me to wait to see Hurt Locker with him, I opted to see my original choice, Moon.

Which was a smashing film. Loved it. Absolutely no complains.

Why am I telling this story?

To illustrate that there's no reason for me to be angry or to hate Michael Bay. I suspect his movie might disappoint me, so I stayed away. Other people clearly seem to love it with a near cult-like passion (as evidenced by the reaction Roger Ebert got to his scathing review of Transformers). Good for them.

I think the trick is, we have to learn to resist the mind control.

If it's a small movie that could live or die a quick and humiliating death based on poor box office performance, go see it opening weekend if you can. If it's a movie that you're particularly passionate about (i.e. The Dark Knight or Star Trek, for me), of course, go the opening weekend to see it with the best crowd possible.

But if it's a monstrously huge release that you're not especially invested in, the studio will be OK if you wait until the 2nd weekend. Hear the buzz from actual moviegoers. When people say "it's mindless and has lots of explosions & Megan Fox", and if C4 & a hot girl are all you need for your $14, go for it.

I happen to be a fan of C4, so I'll probably still see Transformers at some point. I'm dying to see how they introduce Devastator and I'm pretty much a sucker for anything involving Ancient Egypt.

If, however, you want a quality film, and you see Transformers, and you find yourself disappointed, don't get mad at Bay. You should have known better.

July 07, 2009

For Michael Jackson, or "walking on air"

When I was on the student council in elementary school, I'd somehow convinced the faculty advisor, Mrs. Wilson, that we should have a dance for the students.

Yes, I was probably 9 or 10 years old at the time. And, yes, that's crazy. Moving on.

I'm not even sure what BS story I made up to convince Mrs. Wilson to let a bunch of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders have a party in the gym on the school's dime. It's not like she was the cool teacher that everybody liked. People hated and feared that woman, and rightly so. She was pretty doggone scary. But she bought it. There were some heavy restrictions put on the dancing, and, in her mind, the big pay off was the unveiling of this god awful paper mache giraffe that was supposed to be the school mascot, but we still pulled it off.

But the REAL highlight of the party was the dance contest.

Or, more specifically, the Michael Jackson dance-alike contest.

One of my best buddies at the time, David, won, even though he had some pretty stiff competition, including a kid who made the bold choice of not dancing like Michael but dancing like one of the slow-motion pop-locking zombies from "Thriller".

David was an active participant in the "Michael Jackson jacket" arms race.

Because, even in elementary school in the early 80's, every kid could tell you the difference between the "Beat It" jacket versus the "Thriller" jacket. And God help you if your mother bought you one made out of "pleather" (i.e. plastic leather). EVERY kid was desperate to get one or all of these jackets.

I remember going to a cookout at my aunt's house after my brother & I had gone to see "Ghostbusters", and my younger cousin was debuting his own take on Michael's moves. My dad dubbed it "The Pain Face".

I remember when my best friend Tito had a birthday party at his house, and the centerpiece of the entire thing was that his family had a video tape of the entire "Thriller" music video, and we'd all sit around and watch it again, and again, and again.

I could do this all day long.

As I said in a previous blog, Michael was magic. Pure and simple.

And magic matters.

It really, really does. Magic is there to remind us that there is MORE.

That WE, as human beings on this planet in this moment in time, are all MORE. MORE than any of us can ever possibly imagine.

That a child in a poor, hard-driving family in a dying industrial city could reach out across four decades and literally touch the souls of hundreds of millions of people in a way that each and every one of them are personally mourning him today as if he was a member of their family.....


People crave magic.

The World? Not so much.

(OK, this is where I'm going to get in trouble).

I can't help but think about Jesus.

Because here was a man who didn't just heal through entertainment, but someone who, if we believe the stories, made the lame walk, made the blind see, feed thousands with next to nothing. But he, too, was still dragged through the streets, tortured, and murdered by the state as crowds cheered and soldiers gambled over his clothes.

I'm not saying Michael was, somehow, the 2nd Coming, or that he was executed.

But The World, or those in power, cannot allow people to believe in magic. If you know that you're MORE, you can't be convinced to bow down and genuflect to the political or financial or military prowess of another man.

Power hates magic.

Which is why, even on this day of mourning, we have people calling him names and spitting on his legacy.

Which is so sad. Because, if those people could actually open their hearts enough to hear the music, maybe they'd remember that they, themselves, are also MORE than a title or a weapon or a dollar bill.

I'm grateful for living at a time where I could witness magic.

Michael Jackson has stepped back into eternity.

Thanks for the visit, MJ. And bless you.

July 02, 2009

Goldman Drinks Your Milkshake

Right around this time last year, I blogged about oil speculators and their willing enablers in the government, based on a report from "Countdown with Keith Olberman".

I got a surprising amount of pushback, and, after seeing a report in the New York Times that offered similar pushback (i.e. "it's not the speculators, it's peak oil that's the real problem"), I had second thoughts.

Well, clearly, Matt Taibbi, the political writer for Rolling Stone and a regular on "Real Time with Bill Maher", has more time & access to do way more due diligence than me. He goes several steps further than Keith: not only does he blame the speculators for last summer's oil spike, and not only does he name the venerable old financial concern Goldman Sachs as one of the biggest offenders.

He points to a larger conspiracy of culture: there's no sneering Moriarty at the center of it all behind the scenes, but the corporate culture of greed at the firm is so pervasive that just about everybody who works there and then takes a job in government later appears to act in the best interests of Goldman to the detriment of the public.

And when I say "detriment to the public", I mean "bankrupting pensions" and "instigating food riots" detriment.

Moreover, he holds Goldman largely responsible for most of the economic bubbles we've seen since thr 1929 stock market crash, and in virtually every case, they make huge amounts of money for their employees and get a slap on the wrist from a compliant government.

And what's the latest Goldman Sachs-backed bubble scam, according to Matt Taibbi?

Two words: "Cap" and "Trade".

The article is superlong, but man, is it worth it. And, if it's true, REALLY f'n scary.

Read this scanned copy at this link:
Zero Hedge: Goldman Sachs: "Engineering Every Major Market Manipulation Since The Great Depression"