Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!!

This is always a great time of year to thank God that you're not a pilgrim. Just kidding, pilgrims. But seriously, this is a great time of year to think about what you should be thankful for. We live in the greatest, most free, most productive country in the world. We are surrounded by genuinely good people who believe in community, charity, and fair play, and millions of people work tirelessly to make everything a little bit better every day. Who can beat that?

Besides that though, we should all be thankful for our friends and family and for the chance to make their lives better as they've made ours better. It's a great time to remind them that you love them, isn't it?

Personally, I'm thankful for my wonderful parents and my great sister, my incredible wife, and my amazing kids. I'm thankful to be alive. I'm thankful that I get to see and experience everything this world has to offer. I'm thankful for e-meeting all of you. And I'm thankful that we can experience things like joy and happiness and contentment.

So what are you thankful for?

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Thoughts on Ghostbusters III

by ScottDS

If there’s one question that seems to be on the minds of geeks everywhere, it’s “So when are we going to get another Ghostbusters?” followed by “Wait, do we really need another one?” It took five years to release a second film and we’re now 25 years later. The wheels seem to be in motion, albeit in super slow motion. But is it too late? Should sleeping terror dogs lie?

[long sigh] Okay, here it is. In the 90s, Dan Aykroyd (“the heart of the ghostbusters”) wrote a draft for a third film that involved a parallel version of Manhattan dubbed “Manhellton.” From what I recall, Hell was overcrowded and only the boys in beige could stop the incoming tide of undead. Pretty neat idea, and some of it was used in the 2009 video game. This movie would also involve a younger team of ghostbusters and names like Will Smith and Chris Farley were bandied about. The studio was interested, but Bill Murray was not. (This is going to be a running theme here!) Having expressed his disappointment at how Ghostbusters II came out, and with sequels in general, Murray said he’d only do it if he could be a ghost. To this day, the enigmatic Murray has been nothing but reticent: never saying “yes,” usually saying “no,” sometimes offering a cautious “maybe.” This hasn’t stopped Aykroyd, who’s been talking up a third film for the last decade and a half. (Not to mention Aykroyd doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making sequels without important co-stars!)

This entire time, Ivan Reitman was still attached as producer/director. A few years ago, he was developing a script with two writers from The Office (yay!) who also wrote Year One (boo!). Meanwhile, Murray was still waffling, Aykroyd was still promising release dates, Reitman decided he wouldn’t direct it after all, and even semi-retired Rick Moranis said he’d do it if the material was good. And then Harold Ramis, who had been collaborating on and off with Aykroyd, passed away. At this point, people rightfully asked, “Is it time to shut it down?” For the studio, the answer was an emphatic “No!” As of this writing, Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and The Heat, has signed on to direct and is developing a script with writer Katie Dippold (The Heat, Parks and Recreation). It’s said to be a remake, featuring an all-female group of busters.

[longer sigh] This is… not a... hoooorrible idea... Feig loves the movies and doesn’t want to stomp all over them, which is why they’re doing it as a remake instead… but then why call it Ghostbusters? (That was a rhetorical question!) Or better yet, why couldn’t they simply have another group in another part of New York City that just happens to be all-female? Every sequel idea that’s out there seems to include the Ghostbusters as a large corporation, so it’s only logical that there would be other offices. As for the female thing, despite Feig’s comments, I think it comes across as a gimmick. It’ll inspire a thousand think pieces from the bloggers of the world and it’ll be the only thing people talk about. And it’s not as if their gender will be relevant. We’ll still get a smooth-talker, and a brain, and so on. Or maybe I’m wrong and the fact that they’re all female will be relevant to the plot, but wouldn’t that undercut the entire idea? The gender shouldn’t matter at all, hence my use of the “gimmick” label. Yes, women can be funny, and maybe if we stop asking the question, it’ll go away! And I understand the need for representation, but then why make them all female? How about a mix? And I’m sorry but there’s no story they could write that will satisfy everyone who’s angling for the all-female thing. “This movie is too feminist!” “This movie isn’t feminist enough!”

The story? I have no idea. Feig wants to make something scary but there’s definitely a template at work. Will we simply get another underdog story with a love interest and a powerful force trying to break through to our world and a climax involving a large, walking object? Given that this is a remake, it seems highly likely. And how do you redesign iconic props and vehicles? The designers of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films have done a decent job in my opinion, though more tech-oriented fans have completely excoriated them. Will the new proton pack look like something from the Apple Store, or will they continue with the homemade, jury-rigged look that made the first film so relatable? (It was a going into business story after all!)

As for actors, it’s anybody’s guess. I’ve seen a lot of names mentioned: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Emma Stone, Rebel Wilson, etc. I have no wish list but only one request: get great actors who can do comedy. Don’t get comedians who happen to be good actors. I don’t want to see Melissa McCarthy doing the uncouth slob thing again. I don’t want Tina Fey playing just another version of Liz Lemon. And I don’t want to see Aubrey Plaza do… that thing she seems to do 90% of the time. You know what? I’d love to see someone like Cate Blanchett in something like this! Or Amy Adams! That’s the other thing… will the film feature actual adults, or 20-somethings… you know, for the millennials?!

My other thoughts are just nitpicking. The previous films are great-looking films, lensed by award-winning cinematographers. Will the new film have a distinctive look, or will it look like every other sterile, overly-bright comedy out there today? And the music… who will be the lucky musician to contribute an original theme song? (Anybody but Kanye!) Bear McCreary has my vote to do the music score. He was a protégé of the late Elmer Bernstein, who scored the first film (and almost every other classic 80s comedy) and his geek credentials are second to none. And in an effort to up the ante and compete with the superhero films, will the ending involve the leveling of the city in an orgy of CGI? Or just one building? (If there was any film where the makers could indulge in old-school techniques like cloud tank photography, this would be it!)

If I were president of Hollywood, I’d use a story I read about five years ago on an architecture blog. The writer came up with an idea involving NYNEX, the old New England telephone company (the “X” even stood for the unknown future, or the “uneXpected”). What if the ancient cables and trunk lines were actually the embedded nervous system of a fallen angel? The film would end with a climactic confrontation at the old AT&T Long Lines Building, a Brutalist-style structure at 33 Thomas Street. Pretty cool! But I’m not the president of Hollywood, just a geek.

I write this not to bitch, but to ponder. There are only a handful of franchises that I’m passionate about and this is one of them. And yeah, if they screw it up, we’ll still have the untouched originals (not even Star Wars fans can say that!). I remain cautiously neutral. What say you?
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lorax Teaches The Wrong Lessons

I had the misfortune of watching The Lorax (2012) the other day. In particular, I found myself shaking my head at the lessons it imparts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still annoyed me. What lessons? Read on...

Throughout my life, I’ve discovered something interesting about the human race: we are a bell curve in all things. I’ve seen this over and over in every field I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it in early adopter rates, grade distribution, IQ distribution, and even advertising theories on how to influence the public. It’s everywhere. And where it has been most interesting to me is in the discovery that the human race can be broken into three groups when it comes to societal benefit, for lack of a better phrase. The theory works like this:
● 10% of the human population are good people who drive humanity for the better. The most obvious example of these people are inventors, artists, writers, and others who provide things that enrich or improve other people’s lives. But this category isn’t limited to those people. It also includes people who start businesses, early adapters, the rare teachers who inspire their students, and even just average people who become mentors to others and make the world a better place. Big or small makes no difference, these are just people who make things better.

● At the other end, 10% of the human population are malicious people who do bad things. Interestingly, only some of these people realize that they are villains. The majority of these people think of themselves as the good 10%, even though their instincts are malicious and their actions and ideas are highly destructive. You can see an example of this, believe it or not, with Hitler. If you ever see interviews of his staff, you will be shocked to learn that Hitler genuinely thought he was the good guy. You see this sometimes with serial killers too, who think they are doing God’s work, with busy-bodies who delude themselves that their desires to control others come from their “deep sense of caring” about others, and with people who just get off on causing problems.

● The other 80% of the human population are essentially sheep. They do what they are told by the people they recognize as authority figures. Interestingly, however, these people often think of themselves as independent thinkers who “make up their own minds,” and they react very poorly to any suggestion to the contrary, even though they never actually think for themselves... as an aside, these people are the reason so much advertising simultaneously combines the ideas of keeping up with the Jones while ridiculously claiming that buying certain mass-produced products is only for “people who think for themselves.” Disturbingly, these people have a hard time spotting the difference between the good and bad 10%ers and will just as slavishly follow a vicious negative 10%er as they would a good 10%er if they come to see them as the authority.
So what does this have to do with The Lorax? Well, The Lorax very clearly demonstrates these groups and how they work. Unfortunately, it presents the wrong lessons in doing so.

The Lorax is the story of a 12 year old Ted Wiggins. Wiggins lives in a walled city made of plastic and metal. It contains no trees. The reason it doesn’t have trees is that the mayor, Aloysius O’Hare, sells bottled oxygen. He knows that trees provide oxygen for free, so he works hard to make sure there are none in the city. What destroyed the trees originally was a man called Once-ler. He was an entrepreneur who cut down the trees to make his product. In so doing, he ignored the objections of the Lorax, which was a being who protects the trees. Once-ler didn’t intend to cut down all the trees and he came to realize his mistake, but he did it nevertheless... all except for one seed. He gives that seed to Ted, who tries to plant it.
As Ted tries to plant the seed, the mayor tries to stop him. The mayor even warns the people that what Ted is trying to do is dangerous because trees produce sap and other pollutants. Upon hearing this, the public turns on Ted and essentially forms a lynch mob. But then Ted denies the charge and one of the locals decides that Ted is right. He states his support for Ted. Suddenly, the mob declares Ted to be right and turns on the mayor. The story ends happily.

Here’s are the problems.

First, this film clearly breaks into the three groups. Ted is a good 10%er who wants to make the world better. He sees a way to improve it and sets out to do so. The mayor is a bad 10%er. He knows he’s the villain and he thinks nothing of using evil means to get what he wants, which is profit and control. Once-ler is also a bad 10%er, though he is one who doesn’t understand his own evil. He thought he was the good guy, making use of the trees in a way he thought was responsible to produce a product that people wanted and employ people who needed jobs. It was only later that he learned his mistake. Finally, the public are exactly what the 80% are like: fickle, stupid, and mindless followers of whomever they see as the authority figure in their lives.

It is interesting to see a film break down these groups so clearly. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know what to do from there. Thus, for example, rather than pointing out that Once-ler is a villain, it essentially sells him as a victim. It shows him suffering at “the mistake” he made and being imprisoned for what he has done. It also let’s him protest over and over that he never intended to kill all the trees, without ever requiring him to explain why he ignored the obvious warning signs and took no care to prevent the problem that was so obvious. In effect, it removes his villainy and makes him a helpless victim of a mistake and thereby forgives his villainy without true remorse or even understanding. This teaches the wrong lesson as it eliminates the element of personal responsibility so long as you had good intentions. But good intentions are not and should never be considered an inoculant to criminal or evil or immoral or stupid behavior.
Compounding this, the film then sells the audience the standard comfortable view of evil through the mayor. Essentially, the film tells the audience that evil is easy to spot because it knows it is evil and it knows that it’s actions are wrong. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to teach. Basically, rather than teaching kids that you need to watch all of your actions regardless of your intent, lest you act in an evil or rotten manner, the film sends the message: “Don’t worry, evil is obvious and unless you set out to be evil, you’ll be fine.”

Finally, you have the 80%ers. This is the truly obnoxious message. These people mindlessly followed the mayor for years. Once someone pointed out his crime, they absolutely failed to rationally assess the claim and to decide if they had been mistaken in supporting him. Instead, they turned into a lynch mob, determined to silence the dissident. This failure should have been highlighted in a major way to the audience. But the film didn’t do that. To the contrary, it excused the 80% by having them switch sides moments later when the worker announced that he had decided to back Ted.
But this represents yet another horrible lesson. Whether Ted was right or not, the 80%ers undertook no independent investigation. They never thought through what he said, looked at his claim or even demanded answers. They simply switched sides because they felt the herd had changed horses when the workman announced his decision to switch his support. This is a horrible lesson. The 80%ers need to be taught to conduct an actual analysis, not merely to follow whomever they see as the most authoritative person at the time. For all they know, Ted is an even bigger villain or fool and they are about to make things much worse. They don’t know because they never stopped to investigate. And the film rewarded this kind of false reasoning by letting audience know that Ted is right. Essentially, the message remains: just make sure you follow the nicer guy, when it should be to truly think for yourself for once. That’s how Hitlers get made, because evil, which is never bounded by reality or reason, makes much better promises.

This is my problem with this film. The film correctly identifies these groups but then acts as a sedative to calm the 80% into thinking that evil will be easy to spot and fixing evil is as easy as watching to see whom the crowd prefers. These are ridiculous messages to send.

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