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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
01/20/12 -- Vol. 30, No. 30, Whole Number 1685
Table of Contents
Philcon 2011 Convention Mini-Report (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
My Philcon 2011 convention mini-report (without panel descriptions) is available at:
Old TV Horror and SF Shows (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
I see that the fabulous archive.org and youTube sites have episodes of some rare and interesting old TV horror shows.
13 DEMON STREET: A Swedish produced horror series hosted by Lon Chaney, Jr. Until now I have never been able to see episodes.
WAY OUT: This was a bizarre and creative TV horror show adapting stories by Roald Dahl.
You can also find episodes of the old classic Science Fiction Theatre--I believe this was the first adult science fiction series on TV--at:
Omnipotence (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We live in a frustrating Universe. Einstein claimed God does not play dice with the universe. It turns out He does but He reserves the right to play with loaded dice. [-mrl]
UNHAPPY FEET (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
It was a sad holiday season for a lot of people at the at the Dr. D Studios. For those who are uninformed, Dr. D Studio is a digital production studio whose big project last year was a digital animation film to be released at holiday time. That film is HAPPY FEET TWO. The staff of 700 had labored mightily under the assumption that the world was waiting to see a sequel to the animated dancing penguin film HAPPY FEET (2006). The first film returned $384,300,000 from a movie with a budget of $100,000,000. That is a reasonable return. It was released mid-November 2006, so it got holiday crowds. There were enough people who either liked the film or were curious about it or wanted a film that it was safe to show to the kids while the parents holiday shopped. It probably seemed like the right time of year to release a film set in ice and snow. Anyway, after the success the decision was made to make a sequel and release it for another holiday season.
So a sequel, HAPPY FEET TWO was made, released five years and two days later. And in its first week it made about $30,000,000. For the benefit of the uninitiated that is a disastrously tiny return for a feature film these days. After one week in the theaters the management of Dr. D announced that they would downsize from a staff of 700 to a staff of 100. Six hundred people would not have a happy holiday. I got a chance to see the film free for awards consideration (my assessment: fat chance), but I see in the film a lot of reasons for the bad turnout. (Hey, isn't hindsight easy!) If one looks at the publicity it really appears as if the filmmakers were expecting a big hit. I think that looking at the film it should have been obvious that it just would not grab audience.
I am not going to review the film, but I have some suggestions where it went wrong. Hopefully it can be a lesson for other animated film producers. I am not singling out this film so much as using it as an example of what makes the difference between a good and a bad animated feature.
This film was pure formula filmmaking. They have an image that is intended to be a grabber. You have enough penguins to fill several football fields dancing in perfect unison. Now when you see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall you have twenty women on a stage dancing in unison. That must take a lot of practice. In the "Happy Feet" films you have a whole lot more dancers dancing in perfect synchronization. That does not take any practice at all. These are computer-generated images. They all dance in unison for the same reason that all (first-generation) photocopies of a book page all look about the same. If as a viewer you saw the effect in the first film, it has little value here. Lesson 1: Give the audience something new, not just more of the same.
This film is a continual homage to singing and dancing. I don't know about other people but when I was a kid the singing and dancing in a film did very little for me. I wanted a story. I wanted to move ahead with the plot. Even before my time in the "Road to ..." movies when Bing Crosby was crooning, Bob Hope would stick his head in an tell the kids they could go to the snack bar. There was some truth to that, certainly for me. I would rather go get candy than listing to Bing Crosby croon. I cannot speak for others but on the Mickey Mouse Club, I disliked the musical cartoons. Even today in HAPPY FEET TWO I am mostly just waiting for the songs to get over. The music is not even original. The musical track was assembled from pop songs rather than composed. That saves a lot of effort, but at a heavy cost. If you are using pop songs you are not giving the audience anything new. (I will say the little piece from "Madama Butterfly" was welcome among all the pop songs.) Lesson 2: Know who your audience is and whether they want the kind of music you are using. It is a good idea to write your own score so it fits the moods of the film.
A score would have been a good place to spend their funding. Instead, I think a lot of it went to paycheck for big celebrities doing the voices. I guess I enjoy hearing a voice and saying to myself I know whose voice that is. Maybe I play a guessing game trying to identify where I have heard a voice before, but it does little to enhance the film. This film had Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Hugo Weaving, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Hank Azaria, and Anthony LaPaglia doing voices. That soaked up a lot of budget, kept unemployed a lot of talented but little-known actors, and did little to enhance the film. Who remembers what Hugo Weaving's voice? Lesson 3: Have at most three familiar voices and be sure the audience will recognize those voices.
But the most serious problem is the writing. Characters here were too often cute rather than interesting. The film had a weak plot that did not engage the viewer. Part of the problem was that instead of telling mostly one story, they had a lot of minor characters in little separate stories, none developed enough to be interesting. If the viewer does not really care about what comes next in the film he/she will not be recommending the film to other people. Rare is the film that can succeed if not everything about the film is in service to telling a good story with good characters. UP had people crying in the audience from the strength of the story. If anyone cried in HAPPY FEET TWO, it was children wanting to go home. Lesson 4: Tell a good story with compelling characters. Lesson 5: Tell a good story with compelling characters. Lesson 6: Tell a good story with compelling characters. Lesson 7: Be sure you are following Lesson 5.
I think these are mistakes that other animated films are making. I suppose I am just armchair quarterbacking. But it seems to me I see the same problems in films time and again. [-mrl]
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL still does not have the hang of what made the TV show so good. Instead of an intelligent puzzle for the viewer, it offers mindless excitement in one action stunt from Tom Cruise after another. But given that it is a Tom Cruise vanity piece and a mindless action film, it is one of the best mindless action films of 2011. Considerably better than the previous entries of the "Mission Impossible" series formerly animation director Brad Bird gives us quite a ride in his first live-action film. The film is a mixed bag of elements, but some are very good. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
To start off I object to the "Mission Impossible" films on general principle. There once was an intelligent television program called "Mission Impossible" that told what I call "Mission Impossible" sorts of stories. That is one in which a team of experts are called in to solve a problem. Every one of the team brings a recognizable talent that he or she is expert in. Then each member of the team starts doing his part and so far none of they are doing makes sense. Each team member is doing something mysterious but that probably few other people could do. The game is to figure out how these pieces all fit together. Then the plan is executed and the viewer has one "ah-ha!" experience after another seeing how the pieces fit together. In other words, to fully enjoy one of these stories the viewer has to think. And strangely enough, I am convinced that people like stories that make them think. So the series had a recognizable name and something of a following.
When the Tom Cruise film series started it was "Mission Impossible" in name only. It wanted to exploit the popularity of the TV show without telling its sort of stories. They abandoned doing this kind of think-story and just had a lot of action sequences that the viewer could sit and vacuously watch. The film series was built around Tom Cruise's stunts. The films were designed to show off Tom Cruise doing many of his own stunts and create a series to beat the James Bond films at their own game. What Cruise does is impressive but rarely mysterious. The filmmakers were just not into doing puzzle stories. (Incidentally, one film series that does show that what I call "Mission Impossible" stories are alive and well is the OCEANS 11, 12, and 13 series.)
Instead of challenging the viewer, the "Mission Impossible" films challenge (and show off) Tom Cruise. Cruise is a real-life daredevil doing his own stunts for the camera. As producer of these films, Tom Cruise the actor has little fear that Tom Cruise the producer will tell him some stunt is too dangerous and hence would endanger the production. So the series is not presenting puzzles but high-tone framing for Tom Cruise doing physical stunts for the camera--some admittedly very impressive. And the scripts call for him to be the kind of genius who thinks of a hundred and twenty ways out of every tight spot and immediately knows the best. But one gets tired of seeing Ethan Hunt be the hero of every scene he is in, which is almost all of the film. In this film he does have a team of three other people, and they give him nominal support but nothing impressive. Benji Dunn, played by Simon Pegg, does serve as comic sidekick. But Cruise and his stunts almost always are the main attention. It is impressive what he can do, especially because July 3 of this year will be his 50th birthday. He is starting to look a little old to have his supernatural recuperative powers. I mean, in one scene he can be fed through a meat grinder and formed into patties. But you know he will be recovered and ready for action in the next scene.
The plot of this chapter is complex and pits Cruise's character Ethan Hunt against Kurt "Cobalt" Hendricks (played by Michael Nyqvist, star of the Swedish versions of the "THE GIRL ..." trilogy). Cobalt manages to completely destroy the Impossible Mission Force except for four agents. Those last remnants, led of course by Ethan Hunt, battle Cobalt who it turns out is a very James-Bond-film sort of super-villain. He wants to trigger a nuclear war in some logic-free plot to destroy the world in order to save it.
The screenplay by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec has one advantage over Bond films. Hunt gets out of problems with physical strength and thinking while most of his films Bond depends much too much on luck and coincidence. Also Bond makes his victories seem almost effortless. I will credit this film for having a lot of Hunt's plans just failing leaving him to quickly improvise.
More on the comparison of this film with the Bond films: Both use gadgets a lot, but in the "Mission Impossible" films we do not have something like the Q scene with the expository lump explaining all the gadgets. Instead Cruise just pulls out a gadget and uses it. Also the IMF gadgets are given to failing at the most inopportune moments. But you can always count on Hunt to have another plan that does work. Actually, there is a nice scene where Hunt is asked how he knew one of his quickly hatched plans would work. He responds that he did not know. He just tries something. That is a rare piece of vulnerability from Hunt.
And many of the set piece sequences in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL are more imaginative than one usually finds in Bond films. That said, they are not always realistically executed. In the centerpiece sequence of the film, Ethan Hunt is hanging onto a structure a long, long way above the ground. There should be huge winds, but they are somehow absent. There is a chase in a haboob or sandstorm. Clever idea, but there is no sand in this haboob. The storm is portrayed as a sort of yellow fog. There should be sand and dust everywhere including places it will be very hard to remove it from. There is nothing.
Director Brad Bird had not directed a live-action film before, but he directed the animated THE INCREDIBLES, which worked fine as an animated action adventure. He knows what he is doing. And perhaps the virtues of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL are those that come directly from animated film where characters can easily defy gravity and other laws of physics. In any case, this is actually a fairly good action film if one does not think too much about it. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0638824/
What others are saying: http://tinyurl.com/void-mi3
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
IS THAT A FISH IN YOUR EAR?: TRANSLATION AND THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING by David Bellos (ISBN 978-0-86547-857-2) covers a lot of familiar ground. Bellos's contention is that it is wrong to say that "poetry is what is lost in translation" or that "a translation is no substitute for the original." His complaint about the latter statement seems to be based on a literal meaning of the statement-- as he points out, a translation is *precisely* a substitute for the original. But even he admits that what is usually meant is that a translation is not as good as the original, so why does he spend so much time quibbling over the literal meaning? This is particularly ironic when he spends so much time explaining why literal word-for- word translations are often the worst.
But Bellos also ventures into areas not usually discussed in books about languages and translations. For example, Bellos spends more time than most authors on the question of translating films. One fascinating example of the problems of translation that he discussed was the film THE GREAT ESCAPE. A key moment is when someone trying to pass as German is tricked into speaking English when a German officer speaks English to him. What they say is not important--how they says it is what counts. So a subtitle would have to say "The German is speaking English" and "The Scot responds in English." But if you are *dubbing* the movie, you have a real problem.
Bellos also discusses subtitling, citing accepted rules such as:
According to Bellos, the result is that films for foreign audiences tend to have less dialogue and longer shots. As he says, "Ingmar Bergman made two quite different kinds of films--jolly comedies with lots of words for Swedish consumption, and tight-lipped, moody dramas for the rest of the world."
Bellos does make an egregious mathematical error, though. He gives the number of books translated between all pairs of seven different languages (English, Chinese, Hindi, French, German, Arabic, and Swedish) between 2000 and 2009. He notes that "nearly 80 percent of all translations done in all directions between these seven languages ... are translations from English. ... Translations from English are all over the place; translations into English are as rare as hen's teeth." What he does not give are the number of books actually published in each language. To give an extreme example, if the other six languages each have one hundred books published each year, and English has ten thousand, it would not be surprising that there would be far more translations from English than into it. The total numbers are more even than that, I suspect, but Bellos gives no information on them at all. (All his numbers are based only on books that have been translated.) Instead he makes reference to the number of people who speak the various languages, hardly a meaningful figure in this context.
Coincidentally, the Johnson blog on language (named for Samuel Johnson and written by the staff of "The Economist"), recently dedicated an entry to "true untranslatability".
Johnson begins by summarizing: "Roman Jakobson, a linguist, is credited with the notion that languages differ not so much in what they can express as what they must express. The common trope that language X has no word for Y is usually useless (it usually means language X uses several words instead of one for Y). But languages do differ significantly in what they force speakers to express."
The problem I have is that Johnson's examples also seem more in the category of "needs more words to express" than "cannot be expressed."
For example, Johnson cites the sentence "I am loved." In Spanish and other Latinate languages, Johnson says, the speaker must declare their sex: "You soy amado" or "Yo soy amada." (One comment said that in written Spanish one is starting to see sentences like this rendered as "Yo soy amad@" (unpronouncible, apparently).
However, "Me amada" (or "Me amadan") seems a perfectly viable alternative: "He (or she) loves me" or "They love me". Lest you argue that this is too different, this is a whole series of buttons saying "I am loved" in various languages, and the Russian is "Menya lyubyat"--"They love me."
Then Johnson says that the common Russian verb of motion "requires you to express whether you're going by vehicle or foot, one- direction or multidirectionally, and in the past tense, makes you include an ending for your own gender. So 'I went' would, in one Russian word (khodila, say), express 'I [a female] went [by foot] [and I came back].'" Therefore, Johnson concludes, "I went" is untranslatable into Russian.
I don't know Russian, but I would bet there is some way to express "I went" without most of those specifics. (The gender of the speaker may be the biggest obstacle.) "I was in this place and then I wasn't", for example, seems to mean something very close to "I went".
Someone in the comments gave the example of Chinese relationship words--he can say "elder brother" or "younger brother", but not just "brother". But can he say "male offspring of my parents"?
I will agree that some of the translations might be awkward, but that is not quite the same as untranslatable, so in that I guess I agree with Bellos. [-ecl]
Mark Leeper email@example.com Quote of the Week: Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge. --Mark TwainTweet
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