Monday, June 28, 2010


Don't suppose anyone needs a freelance writer or editor? Because I've got a little unexpected free time, job-wise, and I wouldn't mind a paying gig. Just curious.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

My Bottom Five Candidates for the Big Bad of the Big Bang

I realize that British fans may now make fun of me, since this post is two days late and they, unlike me, have already seen "The Big Bang". But Moffat has done such a good job in avoiding spoilers for who the mysterious villain is for Series Five, I don't feel like I'm going to overlook a ludicrously obvious candidate. Speculation abounds, but nobody really seemed to know prior to broadcast. (Which is, of course, over in the UK. No spoilers in the comments sections, please!)

So this isn't my guesses as to who it is--it's my desperate hopes for who it isn't.

1. Davros. Please, please, please, please, please don't let it be Davros! It doesn't make any sense, it'd come totally out of left field, and Davros has just been used as the season-ending villain (and that came totally out of left field, too.) Anyone would be better than Davros, anyone at all.

2. The Dream Lord. Or the Valeyard, or Zagreus, or any iteration of the "evil Doctor" theme. I just don't think there's much that's interesting about the idea of a villain who's just "the Doctor, only bad", and I'm hoping we won't see that as the menace behind everything that's happened this year.

3. The Master. And speaking of "the Doctor, only bad", John Simm's Master is too self-consciously manic, too overwritten, and was just used in the last big "season finale" special. I'm ready to give the Master a nice long rest and a bit of a rethink before we see him again.

4. Rassilon. I really liked Timothy Dalton's performance, and it would fit the plan that we've seen so far, but as with the Master, didn't he just show up?

5. Amy/River. "Evil companion" isn't doing much more for me than "evil Doctor", plus I like those characters and want them back next season. (Oh, and "evil Rory" would also be on that list, as amusing as the idea would be.)

There we go--soon enough, we'll see whether Moffat disappointed me!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Personal Favorites: Messiah of Evil

"Messiah of Evil" isn't one of those movies that gets talked about a lot, even by cult movie enthusiasts. Made by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who would later go on to infamy by making "Howard the Duck"), it was released in 1971 to a sort of general disinterest. Which is a shame, because it's a surprisingly creepy and chilling little movie whose atmosphere of dread lingers long after you've finished watching it.

The plot concerns a young woman named Arletty (who's narrating the entire thing from inside an insane asylum) who moves to the tiny town of Point Dune to find out what happened to her father. He was a painter who lived in Point Dune, but he's gone missing, leaving behind only a cryptic diary that hints at bizarre occult rituals and hideous physical transformations. Arletty moves into his old house, and winds up giving crash space to Thom, a folklorist who came to Point Dune to investigate tales of a "dark stranger" who visited the town a hundred years ago, and to Thom's two friends/girlfriends/hey-look-it's-the-Seventies, Toni and Joanne. Arletty finds herself attracted to Thom, but isn't sure she wants to get involved in the complex dynamics of his relationships.

As time passes and the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the stranger approaches, the townsfolk become increasingly creepy and murderous. Joanne and Toni both die two of the best deaths in horror-movie history (Joanne finds out that supermarkets at midnight are exactly as eerie and unnerving as you'd expect, while Toni goes to see a movie in a deserted theater, and is so engrossed in the film she doesn't even notice it slowly fill up with the transformed townspeople. By the time she does...) Arletty slowly succumbs to the same process that changed her father, and although she hasn't yet become insane and murderous, she knows it's just a matter of time.

Finally, things come to a head as the townspeople attack. Arletty and Thom are surrounded, and are forced to swim for it, but then Thom is pulled under. Arletty gives up and swims back to Point Dune, just in time for the dark stranger to return from his home underneath the waves and claim her as his bride. Afterwards, she is allowed to live and to spread her tale of the coming evil, but only because the messiah knows nobody will believe her...

The thing that makes the movie special is the way it understates. Key plot points are only hinted at, giving the film a dream-like atmosphere of paranoia and mystery that stays with you long after the credits. The dark stranger's face is never glimpsed...but he looks tantalizingly similar to Thom, and only appears after Thom is pulled under the waves. The transformation of the townspeople is different enough from typical horror-movie zombies/vampires/werewolves to be haunting. And the use of familiar settings to accentuate the horror is absolutely brilliant (one character is murdered under the neon lights of a 24-hour gas station.)

This one's worth checking out, with the understanding that it's not going to give you the answers a conventional horror film might. It's Lovecraftian without actually being a Lovecraft adaptation, which alone should be enough to entice some people into watching it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Insanometer: Casino Royale

Someday, I pray someone will make a movie about the making of the 1967 Bond spoof "Casino Royale". Because while the movie itself is wildly uneven at best, the story of how it was made is an epic tale of clashing egos, dueling directors, and Hollywood excess that is absolutely riveting. For those of you who don't know, producer Charles K. Feldman managed to get the film rights to the Bond novel before the series of books became a wildly successful series of movies. He tried to make a deal with the people at EON Productions, but when that fell through, he decided to produce the film as a Bond spoof (since he couldn't get things like the theme music, Connery as Bond, the Bond logo, et cetera.)

Feldman's reworked film involved a baccarat expert impersonating James Bond in order to trick Le Chiffre into competing against him, and getting into difficulties when he had to act as a suave superspy instead of the bookish mathematician he really was. The screenplay was finished, the film was cast, shooting began...and it turned out that stars Orson Welles and Peter Sellers could not stand each other. It was hatred at first sight. Sellers either quit or was fired (accounts differ as to which) with the film only half-finished.

Feldman's solution was, to say the least, unique. He hired several other directors, had them film comic vignettes featuring random actors as Bond, and then put together a framing sequence where David Niven, the "original" Bond, put together a complex scheme to confuse SMERSH by setting loose hordes of fake Bonds!

The result is a movie that perfectly encapsulates the experience of watching AMC when you have a high fever. You'll be watching a scene, and it doesn't make any sense to you, and then without any warning or transition it'll become some other scene with totally different characters and you're not sure how any of it fits together, and you don't remember falling asleep but you figure you must have because you don't recognize anything that's going on and none of it connects with anything else and then it ends in something that you're absolutely sure has to be one of those nightmares you get when you're not quite sick enough to go to the hospital, but very very close. It's a movie that has to be seen to be believed, and even then I'm not quite sure I didn't dream it. I can't even actually summarize the plot, because it doesn't follow any kind of linear logic. On the Insanometer, this one is a perfect ten, and I'm strongly resisting the temptation to give it an eleven.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Dysfunctional-Relationship Tree

I cannot express how much I dislike "The Giving Tree".

Everyone's familiar with this one, right? The one with the kid who keeps coming back to the tree that loves him, demanding more and more from it as he grows older until by the end of the book, he's reduced it to a pathetic stump of dead wood...but it's just fine as far as the tree is concerned, because that means it can give him a nice place to sit.

I love Shel Silverstein, but man...dude had issues. I mean, we're talking "my wife was secretly sleeping with my brother while embezzling from my company funds and framing me for possession of kiddie porn" issues with relationships, judging by that story. It views love as nothing more than an endless, voracious cycle of selfishness, where one party is capricious and oblivious to the depths of the sacrifices made by the other, while the other is a doormat for abuse.

If "The Giving Tree" were reflective of real love, there would be a forest at the end of that story. Because that's what real love does. It makes you bloom.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Merit Pay for Teachers Is a Bad Idea

Everyone knows that our nation's public schools are in a state of crisis. (Everyone also knows that the public school their individual child goes to is doing a good job, but they assume that there must be a problem with all the others because they keep hearing about "the crisis in our nation's public schools". But that's a whole other post.) But nobody seems to know what to do about it. One of the most popular suggestions involves "merit pay increases" for teachers whose students do well in school.

First and foremost, this is fundamentally wrong-headed. It betrays a lot of the unintentional biases of the people complaining about our nation's education that they think it can be solved by incentive pay; they're assuming that teachers don't really care about the kids, so long as they get a good paycheck out of the deal, and that they only way to motivate them is with a few extra bucks if they make the kid smarter. News flash to everyone involved: Nobody becomes a teacher for the money. The job is thankless enough that you only do it if you really, genuinely like educating kids.

Second, this rests on a false assumption; namely, that teachers can control the learning ability of their students. A host of other factors, from parental involvement to socio-economic background to plain old innate intelligence, helps or hinders a child's education. Doling out merit pay to teachers would be like giving incentive pay to someone for assembling a machine within a certain time frame, then pointing them to a pile of random car parts and saying, "Get to it."

And third, this violates one of the most fundamental and basic rules of doling out money, which is "Never put incentive pay in the hands of someone who controls the conditions of it being released." As mentioned, teachers don't make a ton of money. Telling them that they can have extra cash if they're lenient graders or give the children unethical amounts of assistance on standardized tests is putting a lot of temptation in the way of people who might be in some serious need of money. While most teachers don't do the job for the money, it's Rule Number One: Don't put temptation in people's way, or they might just take it.

Of course, you could take the time, effort, and expense to enforce ethical guidelines and make sure teachers can't cheat...but honestly, you could also just hire more teachers, since the clearest correlation has always been between class size and academic success. But since the whole "crisis" is a thinly-disguised attempt to get rid of the teachers' union to begin with, it's not likely that anyone will propose a solution that involves hiring extra ones.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Next Week on Documentaries for Sharks: Human Abductions?

Many sharks believe "human abduction" to be a myth. But we here at the Documentaries for Sharks channel have heard chilling eyewitness testimony that the accounts of sharks being abducted by human beings are terrifyingly real. One shark, Keiko, described her horrific experience.

"I was eating," she said, "when suddenly I felt an agonizing pain in my mouth, and a sensation of impossible lightness. It was as though I was being drawn upwards; no matter how I struggled, I couldn't dive. Then suddenly, the water simply vanished--I could see it all around me, but I was trapped in a strange, perfectly square area of pure air. They had taken me to their mothership.

"They placed a tube in my mouth so I could breathe, and began to examine me. One of them probed my reproductive organs, while another drew blood from me. Then they implanted a piece of their strange alien technology on my fin." Chillingly, examinations show this alien device to be very real. Is it a clever hoax...or evidence that human beings are real, too? Shark scientists have long hypothesized about a race that can survive in outer air, and the strange (but delicious) bodies discovered over the years have given us much cause to speculate about the biology and culture of such a species. But this is the clearest proof so far.

"Then just as suddenly as the water had vanished, it returned," Keiko finished. "The humans retreated to their mothership and allowed me to swim away. Even the pain in my mouth was gone. I don't know if I'll ever feel the same way, though." Perhaps none of us will, Keiko. Perhaps none of us will.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Birds of Prey #1, And Everything That's Wrong With DC

Recently, after a post I made on about the similarities between 90s comics and modern comics, someone commented, "You know, if you don't like these comics, you can just stop reading them." Which is amusing to me because fundamentally, I don't. I haven't picked up a DC book since before Final Crisis, and I haven't picked up a Marvel book since World War Hulk. (This would be the current, mainstream "Marvel/DC Universe" comics; I still pick up trades and compilations of out-of-continuity material or older stuff from time to time.) It's just that really, if you are curious about finding out what's going on at the Big Two, it's remarkably easy to keep informed without ever buying a book. (And I'm not talking about pirating, here. Just the news and reviews alone will let you know the basic plot beats of the major crossovers, and let's face it--the selling point of most crossovers is "What's going to happen?", not "Isn't this spectacularly well-written?") I don't have to give DC my money to find out that Blackest Night sucked, and I'm much happier not doing so.

But all that changed last week, when I finally broke down and bought a copy of Birds of Prey #1. It wasn't that I'm a huge Gail Simone fan, although I have liked her writing ever since the days of "You'll All Be Sorry!" It wasn't that I was a huge BoP fan, although I've got quite a few collections of the series...especially the Gail Simone run. Those two things were enticing, but not enough to get me to dive back into comics for the first time in well over a year. No, the thing that sealed the deal was the return of Hawk and Dove.

I make no secret of it--I'm a huge Hawk and Dove fan. The Karl and Barbara Kesel series was the very first DC comic I ever collected, and I still adore it to pieces to this day. The dialogue was sharp and witty, the plots moved swiftly, and I loved that it did things like create all-new villains (while also rehabilitating some obscure ones like Copperhead and Velvet Tiger.) Finding out that they had revived the characters and were using them in a book I already liked with a writer I already liked made a "hmmm..." into an "Oooooh!"

But it took them nineteen years to get to that point. Because in '91, immediately after the cancellation of their series, first Dove died, then Hawk turned evil, then they created a new Hawk and Dove, then those two fell into instant comics obscurity, then Hawk died, then Dove came back, then they created a new Hawk, then the old Hawk came back as a zombie and killed the new Hawk, and finally after all that they used Blackest Night to sweep the whole damn mess under the rug and bring back Hawk and Dove as the team I remembered. And what did I do? I went out and bought a comic book solely because they guest-starred in it. (And it was very good, thanks. Gail Simone clearly has the same kind of fond memories of the Kesel series that I do, and portrayed them very faithfully.)

But the point is, DC missed out on nineteen years of sales because they decided that they could boost the circulation of Armageddon 2001 #2 if they killed off one hero and had another do a heel turn. Instead of growing a well-rounded, diverse set of supporting characters who could boost sales of a book and eventually break out from B-list to A-list status, they have decided on a slash-and-burn strategy of managing their intellectual properties. Obviously, in the case of Hawk and Dove, they've repented. But what about all the people who might pick up a copy of the new Ray Palmer Atom comic because they really like Ryan Choi and he's a regular secondary character? What about the people who liked Holly Granger as Hawk, and would have bought a comic with her in it? What about the Elongated Man fans, the Tempest fans, the Azrael fans, the people who will support their favorite character even if they don't have their own book?

Killing off characters isn't just bleak, unpleasant storytelling that's shock purely for shock's sake. It's also a dumb business decision. While Birds of Prey itself is demonstrating what DC could be doing right, it's also demonstrating exactly what everywhere else in DC is doing wrong.