Monday, November 28, 2011

I Atent Dead

I just haven't felt a whole lot like writing these last couple of weeks. Not in an "I'm depressed and miserable and sunk into my dark squalor of the soul" sort of way, just in a "writing feels too much like work and I'm taking a break" sort of way.

Then I remembered that the last time I did this, I started a blog to make myself write to a schedule so I wouldn't get into the habit of not writing. And oh yeah, this was it. So it's back to blogging, even if I don't feel like it. Today, we discuss being stupid.

Exhibit A: Governor Sam Brownback. For those of you who haven't heard, he's the governor of Kansas, and he apparently has given his staff orders to monitor Twitter and Facebook for mentions of his name. So when an 18-year-old girl on her way back from a school trip to the state capitol made a joke on Twitter about telling the governor that he "sucked", they went to the high school principal and read him the riot act. And he, being fully willing to pass the pain downward, summoned the girl in question to his office and berated her in an attempt to browbeat her into writing a letter of apology. The girl, to her infinite credit, refused.

(Well, okay, not to her infinite credit. After all, she is trying to make it a point of principle that she should be allowed to tell someone they suck so long as she meant it as a joke. Hopefully, she has learned a valuable lesson: You can never be sure that the person you're saying bad things about won't hear it. Never say anything to anyone that you'd be ashamed to say to their face.)

But the point is not about bullying, or about abuse of political power. The point is, and the reason why the governor (or, strictly speaking, his staff--he's apologized and disavowed the act, if you want to be charitable and assume he's telling the truth) was stupid, was because nobody would have heard about this if he hadn't said anything. Teenage girl saying "the governor sucks"? Tweeted to sixty people, most of whom forgot it two minutes later. Teenage girl being forced to write letter of apology to thin-skinned, tinpot dictator of a governor who has a paranoid obsession with social media? That's the kind of thing that's in the news for days, nationwide. What he did wasn't just an abuse of power, it was counter-productive.

It's like Harlan Ellison said, when talking about the man who rejected his screenplay for 'I, Robot'. "Every new director asked to see the script I wrote," Ellison said, "and he said, 'We're not making that script, he said I had the brains of an artichoke!' Which just goes to prove me right. After all, I wasn't spreading it around town."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Evil Toy Monkey--The Series!

One of my favorite MST3K movies is "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders". I actually like it, even on a level above and beyond finding the riffing funny. The reason for this has a lot to do, strangely enough, with the decision to re-use footage from another movie to pad out the film.

For those of you who haven't seen the movie, it's the adventures of Merlin in the modern day; he decides to travel to the present and open up a store that sells enchanted tchotchkes in an effort to bring back belief in magic and restore the prestige of wizards. (Which actually sounds vaguely creepy, but...) The movie is clearly an old TV pilot that was repurposed as a movie after it didn't go to series, and the plot abruptly shifts halfway through to focus on a cursed toy stolen from Merlin's shop that he's trying to recover. (There's also a framing sequence that pads the film out further, which has Ernest Borgnine as a retired screenwriter telling the story to his grandkid.)

The thing is, only the first half is an old TV pilot. The second half is a heavily edited version of an existing movie, called "The Devil's Gift", about a cursed toy that slowly grows in power and threatens the life of a father and son. They cut the film down heavily, edited in some footage of Merlin looking for the toy (one of those little cymbal-playing monkeys, which does, in all fairness, look really damned creepy--every time it claps its cymbals, something dies.)

But the reason I like it is that in "The Devil's Gift", the story ends with the toy monkey just straight up killing everyone. At the end, after the hero (the dad) thinks he's gotten rid of the monkey for good, Grandma finds it and brings it home and it blows up the house with everyone inside it. Brutal, miserable, joyless, bleak, unsatisfying ending...but "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders" changes it. In this version, Merlin shows up at the last second, stops the toy, and saves everyone. He takes it back to his shop, scolding it with the words, "I'll deal with you later," like he's dealing with a naughty pet.

I love this idea. I love the idea of Merlin actually going into the unhappy ending of another movie and stopping the main characters from dying. It feels like what a true hero should be doing, far moreso than the first half of the movie (the actual pilot, where Merlin delivers the comeuppance to an obnoxious reporter by luring him into dabbling with magic.) I think that they should do this with more old movies.

Hence my idea for the regular "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders" series. Every week, they take an existing horror movie (like, say, "Night of the Living Dead") and recut it, adding in scenes of the Evil Toy Monkey being responsible for everything and Merlin wandering around looking for it. (Picture Barbara looking at the stuff on the mantelpiece, and then they cut to the Evil Toy Monkey.) And of course, at the end, when things were at their worst, Merlin would show up, grab the Evil Toy Monkey, and everyone would be saved! (Cut to shots of random zombies outside the farmhouse collapsing as the spell is broken.) And every week, Merlin would take the Evil Toy Monkey back to the shop, saying, "I'll deal with you later."

...or I could just be out of my ever-loving mind...

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Amazing Race 19, Week Five

And after a second non-elimination leg this season (although arguably, the first one didn't really count as it was immediately followed up by a double-elimination leg) we take the short trip from Phuket to Bangkok. (Which does not make me feel quite as "twelve" as Phuket did, mainly because there are fewer ways to amusingly mispronounce it.) But first, there's some more Phuking to do. The teams set off by taxi to a place that gives elephant rides. Guess what they're doing?

Andy and Tommy, in first, get to the elephant ride, to the Road Block (where one partner has to dive into a pond and look for a package wrapped in burlap), through the Road Block, and back to their taxis all without apparently even seeing another Racer. In fact, they make it to the second Road Block (this leg's twist--each Racer has to do a separate Road Block instead of just one) before all the Racers have set out. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the Doublemint Twins.

The second Road Block is actually quite vicious, despite every team's anticipating it and trying to minimize it. The teams are first told they have to disassemble a Spirit House (a little model of a home with some tiny figurines present) and bring it to get the next clue...and only then told that one of them has to reassemble it, with no model or reference points beyond their own memory and the other models assembled a long taxi ride back the other direction. Andy and Tommy suspect it, but their memory isn't as good as they think it is, and they have to leave the Buddhist temple to get a second look. (And not, as might be suggested by their dialogue throughout the episode, because they are deeply offended by the temerity of foreigners to worship a god other than the One True Christ. Sorry, but evangelicals of any stripe rub me the wrong way.)

Jennifer is a lot nicer when she assembles her Spirit House, and she's also bright enough to borrow their cab driver's cell phone to snap a few pictures of the completed work for reference. I'll admit to some grudging respect for that, even if her brother and her bring out the worst in each other. The other teams show up, one by one, and separate themselves out into "smart enough to take notes" and "about to take an extra taxi ride." (Zac and Lawrence come the closest we've seen this whole race to bickering, as Zac repeatedly mentions that notes would be a good idea and Lawrence brushes him off, only to turn around and suggest that it's not his fault that Zac can't remember where everything goes.)

Meanwhile, several hours after the first team and a full hour after the closest team to them, Liz and Marie set off...and promptly hit a Speed Bump. Which they treat as the best experience of the entire Race, and quite possibly their whole lives to date. They get to shovel elephant manure (which they're actually happy about, so great is their love of pachyderms) and then wash an elephant...and yeah, I might be hardened and cynical, but it is hard to remain cynical in the face of twins cooing over an elephant and talking to it like it was their kitten. Definitely one of the high points of the Race so far.

After that, everyone jumps into buses to go to Bangkok. There is much drama over who gets on which bus and how much they have to spend on taxis, but at this point I will spare you some of the angst and cut to the chase: Nobody's stupid mistakes come back to haunt them because Liz and Marie are way behind, out of money, and relying on the kindness of strangers to limp to the Pit Stop. And they get eliminated. Which is a bit of a shame, as there are teams I liked less, but I wasn't enamored enough of the Doublemint Twins to get upset at their exit. And now there are seven, as we head to Malawi!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Fifteen

"Page 4A," the man said, roughly yanking Lord Raptor's helmet off his head. "Last paragraph of the continuation of the front-page article." We still couldn't see who he was--Lord Raptor's helmet did a pretty good job of concealing people's identities along with protecting them from stun-blasts--but he had a pretty obvious mad-on for Lord Raptor. Which put him on our side.

He put his gun right up to Lord Raptor's cheek, prodding deeply into the flesh. Lord Raptor played it pretty cool, but you could see from his eyes that he was nervous. And he knew better than we did what that thing could do at close range. "'Several locals are missing in the wake of the attack; local authorities are co-operating with the federal government to investigate.' Sorry, but I decided not to wait."

"I don't know who you are," Lord Raptor said, his voice tight with tension, "but you should know you can't possibly get away with this. I have hundreds of men--"

"You can call me John Q. Public, pal. Nobody in particular, nobody someone like you would care about. The kind of guy someone like you steps on and ignores, right? You didn't even think about those people you kidnapped, the kids that might be waiting for them, the families that don't even know if they're alive or dead..." His finger tightened a little on the trigger. "Yeah, you might have hundreds of men. And they're all on the other side of this snazzy glowing wall of yours, aren't they? In here, it's just you and me."

Lord Raptor's eyes darted to the force field, then back to John Q. Public. (Which isn't his real name...I think...but it's what he calls himself, even to the rest of us. Josh has been trying to get him to open up, but he just kinda smiles and says he's fine answering to 'John'.) "Kill me, and they'll slaughter you."

"But you'll be dead," John replied. "I've been watching you for about a week now. Switched places with a guard during your raid on the steelworks in Pittsburgh. You talk big, but I'm pretty sure you don't have a lot you're willing to die for. You surrender now, tell your men to stand down and get the authorities in here, you get to live to try being crazy another day. You try to be a hero, I guarantee you're gonna be a martyr. I'm betting you won't take that trade."

The two of them stared at each other for a long moment. Josh and I looked at each other, then back to them. We weren't about to say anything, because we had no idea what to say or what to do. We were both pretty sure we didn't want anyone killing anyone...well, I was, and knowing what I know now about Josh I think he was, too...but it wasn't like we could do much about it. The tension turned seconds into minutes. Finally, Lord Raptor spoke. "Captain Williams!" he called out.

One of the men outside the field snapped into action. "Sir!" he responded, snapping off a salute.

"Contingency 14-B, I think," Lord Raptor said, as calmly as if he'd been ordering dinner. The captain snapped off a salute, and relayed the order through a comlink. "There, Mister...Public...we've activated Contingency 14-B. Now if you'll kindly put your gun away..."

"Not until I see this place so full of soldiers they can't breathe out too hard without being busted for fraternization, pal," John replied, giving a little jab with the gun to punctuate his sentence.

"I think you misunderstand," Lord Raptor said. He smiled, but it didn't touch his eyes. "Contingency 14-B means that we've put all of the hostages...formerly the laborers...under armed guard. There are currently seventy-two menials in the holding cells that are at hazard--not the full prisoner populace, of course, there are a few prisoners who have turned out to have valuable expertise that I'm not willing to lose--but more, I wager, than you're willing to sacrifice on my behalf."

He paused. "Think of all those sons and daughters, all those husbands and wives you'll have to break the sad news to. And all because you put my death ahead of their lives." He picked up his wine glass, raising it in a mock toast. "Or you can just put the gun down, surrender to my relatively tender mercies, and at least know that you saved seventy-two lives."

John's hand hung in the air for a second, but we could tell he'd already made his decision. He slammed the gun down onto the table without a word.

"There," Lord Raptor said. "Wasn't so hard, was it? Don't get me wrong, I admire your initiative, lad. But I have planned for every contingency. That's why these men follow me, because I know what to do in any eventuality."

That was when the force field switched off. A second later, so did the lights.


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Amazing Race 19, Week Four

Yes, I'm aware that I am significantly behind in my Race recaps. I don't know whether or not I'll be able to catch up, but I thought it over and decided that I would rather have the entire Race three weeks late than have it abruptly cut out midway through. After all, these entries have ages to be there after they cease being relevant as live events, but failure to finish is forever. So with that in mind, let's recap Week Four!

We begin in Jogjakarta again, with the teams heading to Phuket, Thailand. The Race dwells on this for a long time, making a fairly big deal out of the lead two teams' mistakes (they didn't spend enough time researching flights at the airport and wound up an hour behind everyone else instead of maintaining their lead...) But since it turned out that there was a huge Hours of Operation stopping point, the sequence is only really relevant for Lawrence's statement that he "couldn't remember" if he'd ever been to Thailand (either he's a very well-traveled man, or a really ambitious partier) and some really amusing mispronunciations of "Phuket". Yes, I am sometimes mentally twelve years old. Your point?

Frankly, I know that there's a lot of complaints about "bunching" on the Amazing Race, and generally I disagree with them. I think that winning a leg should be enough of a competitive advantage that teams want it, but making it insurmountable takes a lot of the excitement out of the Race. So I'm fine with bunching, in moderation. That said, this was a bunching point that happened after the show had tried to make a lot of drama out of who was going to get to Phuket first, and red herrings in a reality show are a little more obnoxious than usual.

Still, they made up for it with an excellent Detour. One choice involved making an artificial coral reef and placing it in a lagoon, which was difficult but could be completed quickly if the team worked together and knew their way around boats and water, and the other involved setting up beach chairs and umbrellas according to a display set up elsewhere on the beach, which was time-consuming but rewarded patience and attention to detail.

Only three teams, Liz/Marie, Cindy/Ernie and Lawrence/Zac, went straight for the beach chairs. As it turned out, there was a fairly brutal sting to this one; a strong wind sent their umbrellas blowing all over the place. Advantage: Coral!, except that it's also hard to paddle in a strong wind, too. Oh, and there's a strong current to go with that strong wind, which practically disintegrates several teams' coral frames. By the time it's over, only two teams (Andy/Tommy and Jennifer/Justin) have managed to actually succeed in placing their coral; everyone else has moved over to the other leg.

Advantage: Liz/Marie, Cindy/Ernie and Lawrence/Zac! Well, except that Liz and Marie turn out to be really, really bad at sticking beach umbrellas into the ground so they'll stay. Despite getting to the challenge first, they are passed by every single team one after another until they're left to scream at each other, all alone. When the going gets tough, the tough bicker at each other and fail!

From there, the episode loses a certain amount of tension through no fault of the leg design. The teams have to do some actual navigating to get to the Road Block, which is a fairly well done rock climbing challenge (they actually make it about the climbing, not rappeling or using a mechanical climber, so athletic teams have a chance to gain time.) They then have to navigate to the Pit Stop as well, with an actual map! There's quite a bit of excitement over who will wind up in which position...with the unfortunate and clear understanding that the Doublemint Twins will be dead last.

And so they are...but lucky for them, elimination is staved off for at least one more week by Phil and his non-elimination wizardry. They get to move on from Phuket to Bangkok and try to make up some of the ground they lost. (I gotta say, even without the benefit of a couple of weeks of hindsight, it seemed unlikely.)