Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A little bit of my soul asplodes...

So, I have chronicled how Wonder Wife and I have been dipping from the well of disaster mivies on Netflix with Exploding Sun and Ring of Fire, and we tried again last night with CAT. 8 starring the often very good Matthew Modine. The quality curve dipped downward sharply.

A secret government project to harness solar energy and use it to alter the Earth's magnetosphere to combat global warming gets weaponized in an even secreter government project. The initial test of the weapon goes awry and spits some solar energy back into the sun. For some reason, this causes solar flares, falling satellites, and eventually a coronal mass ejection so colossal that it will strike Earth, cause a Category 8 event - the destruction of planet.

The film's title conceit encapsulates how bad it is. It is announced in the White House situation room as the threat rises from a Category 5 (major loss of life disaster) to 6 (breakdown of fabric of society and technological infrastructure) to 7 (loss of all human life) and so on, but we never feel it. The global catastrophe is presented by people reading reading emails and a few wide matte shots of cities. That's it. Even the local disaster (the film is centered in Boston) takes place off-screen and only the aftermath is shown. This is the most boring disaster film since The Swarm in 1978, which had South American killer bees destroy a nuclear power plant and the audience didn't get to see it explode.

Modine sleepwalks through his role as a disgraced solar physicist who can somehow deduce a solar flare from a small earthquake and spotty cell phone coverage and who is the only one with the know-how to Put Things Right (because he developed the program before it was weaponized and he left it because he is a bit of a peacenik). He seems to convey only one attitude, whether dealing with his ex-wife's new husband, his daughter's boyfriend, or the end of life on earth: mild annoyance, with a bit of peevishness thrown in. The rest of the cast might have been recruited from a high school drama society, for all the emotion and authenticity that they invest their roles with.

After an exciting stint sitting in a cell for a good third of the movie and some pulse-pounding cable-attaching (really, that's the climactic set piece), the scientist and the boyfriend save the world. But is it over? The daughter's heirloom compass is going crazy and the Secretary of Defense, angry that the scientist has saved the world and made him look bad, has the scientist kidnaped by special ops guys. Looks like we'll have to watch the second half of this mini-series to find out how the story ends!

I am trying to convince Wonder Wife that that's not going happen. This movie was beyond enjoyably bad and well into life is too short to watch bad Matthew Modine pictures territory.

I think I'm done.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Six of one: Walaka buys comics

So, the night I went to see the Ant-Man movie started at a comic shop in my area, and I thought I would actually buy some new comics in honor of the event. Actually, I had my eye in finding the new Prez, but I was in an expansive mood and picked up a half-dozen titles, looking for number ones. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Ant-Man Annual: I bought an Ant-Man special about a year or so ago, I believe, but I could not lay my hands on it for this post. If I recall correctly, in that one Janet Pym was dead, and Hank Pym had taken on the Wasp persona, and he teamed up with the Eric O'Grady Ant-Man, and it ended at a Women's Shelter Pym was funding (that for some reason allowed O'Grady to volunteer there!). In this one, it seems that Pym is dead, and in flashback he teams up with the Scott Lang Ant-Man, and Janet is alive, and in the end Scott quits being Ant-Man to let a new guy take on the job. Scott Lang seems to be acting a lot like Eric O'Grady in this - I thought he was more the rough-around-the-edges, heart-of-gold type, but I missed most of the Lang era. Anyway, other than totally confusing me on continuity, this was a mediocre, pedestrian comic in both art and story.

Convergence Blue Beetle #2: This was a mistake, as I thought I was buying #1, but it probably didn't make a difference. Other than the joy of seeing the Charlton versions of Blue Beetle, Captain Atom (in his multicolored outfit), and the Question, this was another bland offering. I guess in The Convergence Event a bunch of cities from various continuities are jumbled together and the heroes from each city have to fight the heroes from the other cities to see which city survives? Do I have that right? Because it sounds a lot like the little I have seen of Marvel's Battleworld, in which it seems a lot of different continuities are jumbled together and the heroes and villains are fighting each other. Plus Dr. Doom. Anyway, in this comic, the Hub City heroes sort-of defeat and sort-of cooperate with some version of the Legion of Super-heroes that I have never seen before to resolve their combat to the satisfaction of the Looming Bad Guy. But Question fritzes Brainiac 5's brain just by asking a metaphorical, um, question - does that work? And Ted Kord is smart enough to have the Bug teleport? Nice cover, though.

Looking for Group #1: This book aims to join the "D&D adventurers who are self-aware they're in a game" genre of comics that is done so well by The Order of the Stick. It's not a bad effort - the characters are mildly engaging, if a bit predictable, and the story is more complex that might be expected. The art is fun to look at, but the biggest flaw in the work is that the sequencing of the panels is herky-jerky or incoherent much of the time: what happens in the gutter winds up being unclear or indecipherable, and that ruins much of the flow of the story. The artist's reach just exceeds his grasp - he's really trying to cram a lot of characterization, plot, and sight gags onto every page, but the seams really do show.  And there's only so many D&D jokes, really.

Martian Manhunter #1 and #2: Got it for J'onn versus Superman, shown here on the cover for #2. I feel totally cheated. I wade through 21 pages of some rescue action seasoned with angst, some gangly green guy named Mr. Biscuits, a cat burglar from the UAE, and some nasty White Martians in issue one, and then some more of the same in issue 2 before we get to telepathic-illusion J'onn v. the JLA. But when Superman shows up, J'onn disappears (dies?) in a burst of white light. Is Mr. Biscuits the new Martian Manhunter? This comic couldn't make me care about my favorite character. Here's a palate cleanser.

Prez  #1: I really think that writers need to think about starting in media res a lot more. I had high hopes for this comic, as it came highly recommended, and there's a lot to like about it. Its vision of America twenty years hence provides a great backdrop for some cutting social commentary - besides the usual targets, there's a real edge to some of the elements. The art is wonderful to look at and carries the narrative through a variety of modes. The main character - The Girl who Would be Prez - is delightful. But the issue ends before the election is decided, so, the cover notwithstanding, we never get to actually see the Prez in this issue. I'll be back for #2 (first time I have said that in long time!) but I do feel a little disappointed.

Where Monsters Dwell #1 thru #3: Okay, take an old-school Marvel title and make it the brand for new stuff: Nice. Do a modern (read: dickish) update on an old, obscure character - in this case, the Phantom Eagle: check. Biplanes versus dinosaurs: always cool. Gorgeous artwork: always a plus. Narrative that subtly explores gender and power politics by setting the story in a female-dominated society: uhhh... if you've seen the 1974 Gene Roddenberry TV-movie Genesis II (with Alex Cord and Mariette Hartley), you've got it covered.

Friday, July 24, 2015

It was a small world, after all

So, Wonder Wife and I once again went to the mini-series well for our cancelled-show fix. This time it was Ascension, a 2014 Syfy network six-parter. Note: SPOILERS AHEAD but really, you don't care, because you're not going to watch it.

The style of the show is very much Mad Men meets The Right Stuff.  We're dropped in media res onto a generation ship. Ascension is a spacecraft secretly launched during the Kennedy administration (when everyone was distracted by the Gemini program) in order to preserve the human race in the face of atomic Armageddon. It will take100 years to get to the nearest star-sytem, Proxima Centauri and carries a complement of 600 scheming, bickering, feeding, copulating, reproducing souls -and at least one Lena Horne album. The captain is John Glenn type who's lost his moral compass; his wife is the head of the stewardesses, who trade in sexual favors and secrets like jet-set geishas. We meet the captain's XO, who is a "decker"- someone from the lower-class lower decks, and there's a noble young decker, a faithless wife of the head cop, a plucky young girl, and a weird little girl. All kinds of shenanigans ensue, as you can likely imagine, in sets that look like the spaceship was built from parts of the 1964 New York World's Fair and with styles to match. And that's all in the first episode.

In the second episode (or second half of the first episode, depending on how you count), we get the Big Reveal. (If you really think you're going to watch this, drop down to the last paragraph.) What we find out is that the Ascension spacecraft never left Earth - it is one giant set hidden in a building, with projected star fields outside the windows and hidden cameras all throughout the ship. Some Shadowy Government Outfit operating on a black budget has been running an experiment on the crew for 51 years  - observing them, learning from their innovations, and waiting for Something Extraordinary to happen. Over the next five segments we jump back and forth between the ship and real world, where the folks running the experiment are (of course) Having a Falling Out.

After what amounts to a really long pilot episode has run its course and we have had plenty of sex and double-crossing, we wind up with several murders, both on the ship and within the spooks; a fairly prominent character in a coma; an Ascension crew person loose in the real world; a crewman beginning to suspect everything is not all as it seems; somebody teleported to what appears to be Proxima Centauri, a girl with ESP powers who makes Carrie look like an amateur; and the only character in the whole show to exhibit any moral courage shot dead through the eye, another victim of the Vast Conspiracy. What the what?

Ascension was not picked up as an ongoing series. Syfy said that had "so much high profile development in the works" that there wasn't room at the table for Ascension; I think that really it was the result of the show trying to do too many things too soon and not doing any of them well, along with the lack of any character for the audience to care about. Ascension really failed to get off the ground.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Persephone's spouse gets a visitor

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So, everybody's talking about Pluto, now that the New Horizons spacecraft has gotten close enough to get great pictures like this one. More and more details about surface features are streaming in every day as the decade-old technology in the ship gathers, processes, and transmits information. Once again, the runt of the solar system captures the public's imagination gets some love.

We at WalakaNet have worked the Pluto beat before: in 2006 when the whole deplanetization controversy reached its peak and was resolved, and in 2008 when the International Astronomical Union threw Pluto a bone. Really, we knew so little about the planet that in the recent past astronomical politics comprised most of the coverage. Now that we are actually doing some scientific exploration in Pluto's neighborhood, big-timers like Stephen Colbert are covering the show:

Colbert gives Neil deGrasse Tyson some well-deserved flack for his role in Pluto's demotion - it's a credit to Tyson's charisma that his popularity is so great even with that stain on his record. And as James Thurber said, you could look it up:
Pluto's orbit is so elongated that it crosses the orbit of another planet. Now that's... you've got no business doing that if you want to call yourself a planet. Come on, now! There's something especially transgressive about that. ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson
Transgressive, Neil? You don't know from transgressive.  Let poet Fatimah Asghar explain it to you:
Pluto Shits on the Universe
By Fatimah Asghar

On February 7, 1979, Pluto crossed over Neptune’s orbit and became the eighth planet from the sun for twenty years. A study in 1988 determined that Pluto’s path of orbit could never be accurately predicted. Labeled as “chaotic,” Pluto was later discredited from planet status in 2006.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops.
My bad. Your graph said I was supposed
to make a nice little loop around the sun.


I chaos like a motherfucker. Ain’t no one can
chart me. All the other planets, they think
I’m annoying. They think I’m an escaped
moon, running free.

Fuck your moon. Fuck your solar system.
Fuck your time. Your year? Your year ain’t
shit but a day to me. I could spend your
whole year turning the winds in my bed. Thinking
about rings and how Jupiter should just pussy
on up and marry me by now. Your day?

That’s an asswipe. A sniffle. Your whole day
is barely the start of my sunset.

My name means hell, bitch. I am hell, bitch. All the cold
you have yet to feel. Chaos like a motherfucker.
And you tried to order me. Called me ninth.
Somewhere in the mess of graphs and math and compass
you tried to make me follow rules. Rules? Fuck your
rules. Neptune, that bitch slow. And I deserve all the sun
I can get, and all the blue-gold sky I want around me.

It is February 7th, 1979 and my skin is more
copper than any sky will ever be. More metal.
Neptune is bitch-sobbing in my rearview,
and I got my running shoes on and all this sky that’s all mine.

Fuck your order. Fuck your time. I realigned the cosmos.
I chaosed all the hell you have yet to feel. Now all your kids
in the classrooms, they confused. All their clocks:
wrong. They don’t even know what the fuck to do.
They gotta memorize new songs and shit. And the other
planets, I fucked their orbits. I shook the sky. Chaos like
a motherfucker.

It is February 7th, 1979. The sky is blue-gold:
the freedom of possibility.

Today, I broke your solar system. Oops. My bad.
But bygones are bygones and this is a big moment for NASA: a chance to add to our knowledge of the solar system and an opportunity to recapture public backing for space exploration. All the hullabaloo and fun has a serious underpinning that we would do well to remember - and support.

New Horizons has actually completed its Plutonian investigation by now - it has sped past the furthest suburb of the Sol system and it heading out through the Kuiper Belt in the general direction of Sagittarius. It's cold and lonely out there: thanks, little rocketship, for helping out a little planet.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

5 x 5 Movie Review: Ant-Man

1. So, I gotta say: I thought this was going to be the one where Marvel tripped, but it's not. My movie-going buddy said he liked it better than the latest Avengers movie, and truth to tell, I probably did too, and I didn't expect to like it very much at all. I liked that it was a smaller movie (no pun intended) in the sense that the scope of the conflict was much more contained and focused. It's not a great film, but Rudd is engaging and funny, the effects are fun, and like all Marvel movies it gets the job done.

2. One strong criticism: the mentor/protege - Ant-Man/Yellowjacket dynamic was a little too similar to the protege/mentor - Iron Man/Iron Monger relationship from the first Iron Man movie. Has Marvel made so many movies we're recycling plots already?

3. The shared-universe integration of these movies is really picking up steam. The common knowledge of the Avengers as a force in the world, the "guest appearance" by Falcon, the flashbacks to the early days of SHIELD - all this stuff reinforces the sense of connection. I appreciate that as part of this shared universe, the intelligence community has always been shown as a mixed blessing. From its beginnings as the Strategic Science Reserve, SHIELD is shown to be as much a danger as it is a force for good. This approach has added a layer of complexity to a lot of formulaic stories.

4. Science: the movie hand-waves in much the same way as the comics did why an atomic physicist would also be an expert in telepathic communication with insects. Fake science: I do quibble with Ant-Man being able to shrink to atomic levels; that shtick was always The Atom's territory.

5. As much as I liked Rudd's Scott Lang Ant-Man, I would really liked to have seen the Hank Pym/Janet Van Dyne Ant-Man/Wasp team in action. Marvel could have made it a period piece set in the early sixties and had Wasp is a different outfit (civilian or heroic) in every scene : Mad Men meets superheroes.

Bonus: Go read Will Shetterly's takes on the movie: the spoiler-free one and the spoilery one.

Friday, July 17, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

1. Even though this is part of the Summer Reading Program, I figured it belonged here on He is a Thark because it's technically science fiction. I say technically because I guess it's since in the future and since the ion thruster drive that the Hermes spacecraft uses appears to be more advanced than actual models in service, it gets shoved into that category. But the science in this fiction is so hard that it's practically adamantine: it's really just science-filled-fiction. Delicious crunchy fiction with a thick, chewy science center.

2.  Randall Munroe hit the nail on the head with this summary of the story, but what that leaves out is how downright funny the book is - or rather how funny the main character Mark Watley is, since most of the book is in his voice. The narrative establishes that Watley's coping mechanism is humor, and being stranded on Mars gives him a lot to cope with, so that humor comes through strong, leavening both the tech-talk and the life-and-death drama.

3. Because the movie trailer came out and got so much play just before I started the book, I could only hear Watley in Matt Damon's voice. That's not so bad, really.

4. Writing that contains a lot of detail and concrete description and writing that appears to be demonstrating how and how well the prose could be turned into a film: am I making a distinction without real difference? Some of the scenes - Earthbound episodes, primarily - read a lot like a novelization of a movie - you can almost see the blocking and the cuts. Scenes in offices are written even more visually than descriptions of Watley's activities on Mars. Some of that results from the change of narrative voice (from Watley's diaries to third-person narration) but some of it seems a little calculated.

5. Overall this was a very satisfying read, and only because under the tech-love, the melodrama, and the funny, Weir occasionally gets to a kernel of very real human emotion and experience, and the reader forgets that it is a book or a wannabe movie and gets lost in the people.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Your Earth Asplodes!

So, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Okay, I'm ashamed.

Once again, Wonder Wife and I were seduced by the SE1: EP1 designation on the Netflix offering Ring of Fire. In our defense, I have talked before about our penchant for cancelled one-season sci-fi series, and this apparent volcano story did star Terry O'Quinn (whom I like) from Lost and Michael Vartan from Alias (which Wonder Wife loved). But about 40 minutes in and with no resolution imminent, I checked Netflix on my phone and saw that it was another mini-series shown in two parts, each 88 minutes. What is up with this stuff, anyway?

 At least this one was (a) not quite as bad as Exploding Sun  - but close! - and (b) a bit shorter.

Ring of Fire hits all the right beats for a disaster movie. First, the characters are typically "complex": the plucky eco-activist heroine is the bad-guy oil executive's estranged daughter; the savvy geologist hero has a lurking brain aneurism; the morally-torn drilling engineer lost a child in a mine accident that was the result of his brother's negligence; the drill-site guard and the loud protester went to high school together; and so on. And, in a typical disaster movie plot, all of these characters and threads cross as we advance towards volcanic doom.

That doom is one of the biggest flaws of the film. It's not enough anymore to riff on the Mt. St. Helen's eruption and threaten an entire city or region with annihilation: this movie says that disturbing the pool of magma that the oil company sneakily and mistakenly drills into (hoping to put Saudi Arabia out of business) somehow ignites eruptions in previously dormant volcanoes all across the Pacific Rim, enough to bring about the End of the World (or as the geologist likes to say, an ELE - Extinction Level Event). Do the filmmakers think we wouldn't care enough if it was just a town that was threatened?

Of course, the science is still laughable. If we buy the ELE threat, we also have to buy that it is prevented by releasing a bit of the pressure in the first magma pool through exploding a "sonic bomb" delivered by a re-purposed manned Venus probe vehicle piloted by a geologist instead of, say, a test pilot or astronaut. Okay.

Still and all, it's not that bad. Unlike Exploding Sun, some of the players turn in creditable performances that come close to redeeming the material, although Vartan seems to be phoning it in. I have to single out Agam Darshi for her performance as Audrey, the hero's sidekick: she imbues what could have been a cardboard character with real humanity at every turn. But really, if volcanic hijinks are your thing, check out Dante's Peak, starring James Bond and Sarah Conner.

Spoiler alert: the Earth doesn't explode.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Your sun asplodes!

So,  I imagine it went something like this:

"Guys, we just finished this movie. A spaceship with an experimental drive crashes into the sun and sets off a chain reaction that threatens all life on Earth. We need a killer science-fiction disaster movie title. What do you have for us?"

"The space ship makes the sun explode? How is that even possible?"

"Well, it's an experimental quantum scalar mumble mumble, polarity atomic mumble mumble."

"Cool. Okay - let's call it Exploding Sun!"

"Well, the sun doesn't actually explode -- it kinda gets all stirred up and emits cosmic rays and microwaves and EMPs and mumble mumble."

"So it's more like Cosmic-Ray-Emitting Sun? How about Energetically-Active Sun? Or Sub-Atomically-Excited Sun?"

"Okay then, Exploding Sun it is!


I'm still not quite sure why Wonder Wife and I sat through all of this disaster of a disaster movie. We thought it was a television series, since it was listed on Netflix as SE1:EP1 when we were browsing, but it turns out the film has just been packaged to be shown as either one two-hour movie (on DVD) or a two-part three-hour version (what Netflix has). On any case, after sitting through the first half, we thought we'd watch the second half to see if it got any better (as it couldn't get any worse).

Starring Not-Greg Kinnear, Not-Summer Glau, and Not-Patrick Warburton.

Forget Star Trek technobabble; this movie operates on Flash Gordon levels of scientific accuracy to send its small crew of civilian astronauts (including the First Lady) on the inaugural trip of a space clipper: a nine-hour trip the moon and back. (It's a really fast ship.) While we thought we were going to watch the exploits of this small group of survivors when disaster (naturally) strikes, they are summarily killed to get the plot moving. What we thought was too little time spent on them turns out to be too much time, since their identities never factor into the plot or character development of those left behind in any meaningful way, but only as links to the various scenarios that comprise the film.

The movie seems to have been shot by several units who never worked together or even corresponded via email. Besides the main scientists-vs-sun action featuring our heroic trio above, we have White House situation room shenanigans, a small town coping with disaster, the callous arbitrager stuck in his high-rise, and the plucky medicos of the refugee camp in Afghanistan fighting warlorlds as well as solar flares.

And this really is Julia Ormand stuck in this turkey. 
(I think she filmed all her scenes in two or three days while on vacation in Morocco 
and nobody told her the plot of the actual movie.)

The disaster movie recipe isn't a difficult one to follow, and somehow this movie managed to hit all the beats without creating emotional resonance with any of the characters or any narrative coherence in the plot. It almost seems like a first draft, with seeds of some interesting character development or conflict (an over-zealous White House Chief-of-Staff, a potential polygamous relationship among the three leads, an It Can't Happen Here vibe in the small town) but without more than the slightest realization of those notions. The guy in the high rise seems to have no narrative purpose whatsoever.

But Wonder Wife and I stuck it out to the end, I guess optimistic that something would rise from the morass. It didn't, but at least we saved you the mistake of watching Exploding Sun.

Spoiler alert: the sun doesn't explode.