Go Speed Racer Go

In the last nine days, I’ve actually seen the live-action Speed Racer movie twice, once on IMAX , and once on a regular screen. This probably seems rather odd, given how universally the movie has been reviled by critics. I had kind of wanted to see the movie before it came out, just to see how a campy cartoon was adapted to live action, but the lackluster critical review meant nobody really wanted to see it with me.

Then I read this review by Kazu Kibuishi, a comic creator I’m a fan of, and it convinced me to get off my ass and track down a theatre still showing it. As you may have gathered, I am so glad that I did, because it was actually — surprisingly, mind-bogglingly — a really good movie.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a movie for everyone. Visually, it looks like a live-action cartoon — not a mix of actors and animation, but rather a fairly sound extrapolation of what a cartoon would look like if suddenly real. The movie also retains a lot of the campiness and goofy comic relief of the original cartoon, right down to the kid sidekick with a pet chimp.

And that’s about all that most of the negative reviews seem to mention. A few have even gone so far as to say there is no story, or to dismiss it as simplistic, or for little kids only, and it leaves me wondering whether those reviewers saw the same movie that I did.

I, for one, question whether younger kids would actually be able to follow the story — I can see kids easily enjoying the car racing, but the seamlessly fluid incorporation of flashback and flash-forward into the narrative as a means of establishing character motivation and background that so enthralled me might just be confusing to them. Perhaps that was the case for a lot of critics as well.

Now, when I talk about how flashback and flash-forward are incorporated seamlessly, I mean just that — at no point does the narrative ever stop to fill in back-story; rather, it is blended in in real-time, in a way I’ve never seen before. And it works so well . I was utterly captivated by how they used this to tell the story. (The kickin’ 70s-style muscial score by Michale Giacchino also provided boundless enjoyment, incorporating themes from the original cartoon and fitting the mood of the movie perfectly. It’s the first movie score I’ve bought in a long time.)

This being a Wachowski movie, the action sequences are naturally over-the-top, but it works in this context as it also retains an element of goofy charm. They aren’t flawless — some of the action in the final car race isn’t as comprehensible as I’d like — but they provide a lot of intensity and fun.

The last thing I should mention, oddly enough, is the cast. Emile Hirsch plays a solid lead, with John Goodman, Susan Sarandon, and Christina Ricci providing excellent support. (Christina Ricci looked surprisingly natural as a cartoon character… actually, that’s not so surprising.) The characterization is not necessarily all that complex (is is based off of a cartoon, after all), but they all pull it off well, and nail their characters and relationships. Solid casting all around. There are even a few cameo appearances by Richard Roundtree .

Overall, this was probably one of the most pure movie experiences I’ve ever had — everything worked so well together to pull this movie off, that I can’t even quibble about the the bits that, from an objective point of view, I wouldn’t like *cough*kid brother with chimp*cough*. I was more satisfied coming out of Speed Racer than I have been by a movie in a long time. So, if you think you wouldn’t find the visuals off-putting, and can deal with the campiness and comic relief, I strongly urge you to see this movie. I brought my girlfriend the second time I saw it, and she liked it, so I know I’m not delusional. And I know I’ll be getting the DVD as soon as it’s released.

In Which I Reveal My Lego Fetish

My Lego fetish is not sexual — I promise.

Lego was one of my favourite toys as a child, and I still enjoy it to this day. Compared to other Lego aficionados out there, my appreciation is pretty insignificant. Nevertheless, I was totally blown away by the awesomeness of this Lego creation by Nathan Todd. (Be sure to look at some of the different views — the detail is fantastic.)

Entrance to the Caves, by Nathan Todd

Check out Star Trek — The Motion Picture (Pon Farr Edition)

I came across this video today, which needs to be listened to to be enjoyed, but should not, perhaps, be listened to at work or in another public space. (There are no inappropriate visuals, so in public with headphones is perfectly okay.)

I think this can be enjoyed even if you don’t know much about Star Trek.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Pon Farr Edition) from Darth Mojo on Vimeo.

Thoughts on Iron Man (The Movie, Not the Comic)

Marvel’s Iron Man movie opened last Friday, and I happened to see it then. I’ll give you a short review up front: it’s a really good superhero movie, and you should go see it if that’s the sort of thing you like.

The Iron Man character is from what I consider a second-tier of superheroes — heroes that are popular and well-known in the comics world, but not necessarily by the general public. The first-tier heroes are icons — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk — almost everyone will have heard of these heroes, even if they’ve never read the comics.

I don’t bring this up to lower your opinion of a movie based on Iron Man. He is, after all, in good company — I consider the X-Men second tier as well, and they had a couple of good movies. (However, let us not speak of the Punisher, Daredevil, or Elektra.) And being a first-tier character does nothing to ensure a good movie or TV show, either. (See all of the above, at some point in their history.)

I bring this up because… well, actually, I don’t have a good reason. I thought my observation of this was kind of clever, but it doesn’t really lend itself to an immediate application in this review. A good writer would cut out the preceding paragraphs after realizing this, but I’m more concerned with filling the entry, so they stay.

Oh! Wait, I did, in fact, have a point I was trying to make, and it is this: you don’t need to know anything about Iron Man to see this movie — it starts you from scratch and lays out everything for you. Furthermore, while I’m sure some people saw Spider-Man or Batman movies for the novelty of seeing a familiar character on the big screen, you don’t need that for this movie. Iron Man is worth seeing because it’s a good science-fictiony action movie, that just happens to be based on a comic book property.

Anyway, the general premise of Iron Man (the movie, the comic, the character, whatever) is that Tony Stark, a billionaire weapons designer and playboy, gets captured by terrorists and realizes the suffering his inventions have caused. When they demand that he build them a weapon, he secretly creates a suit of powered armour that allows him to overpower his captors and escape. As a changed man, he goes on to become a superhero.

The movie, however, focuses mostly on Tony as a character, rather than Iron Man as a hero. There are a few gratuitous show-off scenes, but they’re actually character-based, and there is no hero montage where he goes around fighting generic crime. All of the action grows out of his personal demons and character flaws, in a movie that is exceedingly well-paced and well-acted. And — quite surprisingly for a movie about a guy in power armour — there’s nothing that is exceedingly over the top: nothing that threatens to destroy the city, or the world, no insane villains. The characters and their respective motivations drive the plot, and it works really well.

Part of this comes from the strength of the cast. Robert Downey Jr. plays Stark, and enough comments have been made in other media about the parallels between the actor and character that I won’t do the same. Gwyneth Paltrow ably plays his assistant Pepper Potts, who never quite ends up as the love interest or the damsel in distress, which is actually rather refreshing. Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges also put in solid performances, in what may be one of the best-cast superhero movies I’ve seen.

So, the take-away from all of this rambling is that Iron Man is a good superhero movie — possibly the best of the recent crop — and it’s a pretty good action movie in its own right, as well. If you like either of these things, see it.

Little Brother Toronto Book Launch

Cory Doctorowwriter, blogger, and electronic rights activist — launched his latest novel Little Brother to a packed crowd at the Merril Collection in Toronto on the evening of Thursday, 01 May 2008. Conveniently, I was among that crowd, otherwise this would be a very short blog post.

Oddly enough, I first became familiar with Doctorow through a book on writing science fiction that he co-authored with Karl Schroeder nearly ten years ago. (I have a shelf full of writing books — I know they can’t teach me how to write, but I find it interesting to see the process other writers use, and to steal parts of their process to merge into my own. Reading such books also inspires me to get off my ass and write… for a while, at least.) Perhaps odder still, I haven’t actually read any of his novels to date, though I have enjoyed some of his short fiction.

My interest in Doctorow’s work has, to date, been mostly on the political side of things — specifically, his advocacy for electronic freedom. Through his posts on Boing Boing, and articles elsewhere, he put a spotlight on our electronic rights and freedoms, and the significance of that hit me as I worked on my Master’s research in cryptography. All of these things came together and birthed in me the sole political interest I have, in that mishmash of consumer rights, intellectual property, academic freedom, privacy, and electronic rights and freedoms. (I’m not even sure what to call it, as you can tell, but rest assured I’ll be writing more about it in the future.)

So, perhaps it’s fitting that the first Doctorow novel I’ve picked up is Little Brother, which is about many of those things. He described it as “1984 fan fiction” — the premise is that a bunch of teenagers use their technical knowhow to fight back against an oppressive government that goes too far in demonizing its own citizens all in the name of “security”. It’s being marketed as a Young Adult novel, and has some high praise from a lot of prominent authors adorning its cover. Hopefully I’ll get to read it soon myself, and see if all the praise is justified.What I can talk a bit more about now is the launch itself.

As I mentioned, it was rather packed. I arrived just as it was close to starting, and already the seats were mostly filled and people were standing around. The wonderful Bakka-Phoenix Books were there to sell copies, and apparently there were snacks too, though they were lost amid the sea of bodies.

Cory started the event by taking a few questions to warm up and let latecomers trickle in. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the questions seemed to be focussed on his activism rather than his writing, although for this book they are nearly the same subject. His answers were natural and well-spoken, which I suppose is also unsurprising given that such work had been his job for several years.

He then treated us to a reading of a chapter from the novel. (The same chapter is podcast here.) There were some laughs, some over-the-top deliveries, and enough action to make we want to move this book up in my “To Read” pile. He took some more questions at the end, and then there was signing of books. Having other things to do, I left after getting mine signed, but there was a long line behind me, and lots of people hanging out. By my estimation, it was a very successful launch, and another great event in the series on Foresight: Speculative Fiction in Canada.

Panel on Speculative Fiction in Canada

So, it’s been a while since I’ve blogged. This seems to happen regularly, cycles of on-again, off-again productivity. Fortunately, that means that we’re due for a flurry of activity here. For the next week, expect a new post every day as I catch up on some stuff I’d been meaning to write about. With my discussion of movies, I’ll go in reverse chronological order, so that my most recent experiences might be of some use in deciding what to see.

But, before any of that, some thoughts on an event I attended on Monday night. It was the launch event for the Canada Council Heritage Series entitled Foresight: Speculative Fiction in Canada. It consisted of a panel moderated by Michael Skeet, and featuring James Alan Gardner, Karl Schroeder, and Peter Watts. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take notes, so I can’t really offer a play-by-play. It was interesting and entertaining, however.

Given that there was some predefined focus on Canadian speculative fiction, most of the questions presented by the moderator were in that vein, covering the role of environment in Canadian SF, the difference between Canadian and American SF, and the like. Skeet ran a smooth panel, with Gardner, Schroeder, and Watts playing off each other’s answers — or occasionally contradicting each other. It must be said, however, that the best sound bite for the evening goes to Peter Watts’ definitive statement, “The environment is our bitch,” referring to how SF writers use the environment to make their point, not just as a setting.

The panel lasted for about 45 minutes, with a 15 minute question period at the end that had some good questions from the audience. One question I remember asked each panelist what current science is most inspiring to them, and surprisingly (given the differences of the authors involved) they were all interested in recent cognitive neuroscience developments, with Watts and Gardner specifically interested in the link between neuroscience and religion. (Caveat: I may be confusing the specific science name with something else, but I basically mean “brain stuff”.)

Much to my wallet’s dismay, Bakka-Phoenix was there selling books, and so I bought the story collection Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes from Peter Watts and the paperback Vigilant from Gardner. (I didn’t buy anything from Schroeder because I own all of his stuff already.) On the upside, I now have a few additional signed books in my collection.

Anyway, I’m keeping my eye on the schedule for other nearby events in this series from the Toronto Public Library. Naturally, I’ll blog about any other events I take in.

How Not To Produce New SF Media

While reading Lou Anders’ blog, I came across this two-page article by Mark Harris lamenting the lack of originality in science fiction TV and movies. It is an anecdotal argument that is presented, but a compelling one nonetheless, as it cites many recent releases (I Am Legend, Transformers, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens vs. Predator, Star Trek, Philip K. Dick adaptations, etc.) and their origins in properties more than twenty years old.

I don’t think that old properties necessarily mean current iterations are unoriginal (the modern Battlestar Galactica is different from its predecessor in every meaningful way but one — the initial premise), and the trend of remakes is hardly limited to science fiction, but the observation is still valid. However, Harris goes on to suggest that science fiction needs to be saved from its fans, and expresses the following desire: “I wish a great writer or director with no particular affection for the genre would let his imagination loose and see what it yields.” He then cites Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as an example of this working, but conveniently ignores Arthur C. Clarke’s role in that movie and book.

My bigger concern with this wish is the rather myopic view of science fiction as a whole. The suggestion is that science fiction fans producing these media are more interested is worshiping what has gone before than creating something new; I would argue that those people aren’t science fiction fans. For this retreading of old ideas is similar to the reinvention of the wheel that tends to happen when a writer that is not a science fiction writer produces a science fiction novel — however good the novel may be, and however well-written, it tends to be based around ideas and concepts well known to fans of science fiction. (Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake comes to mind here, as mentioned in this review by Robert J. Sawyer; the same is true of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) Even the submission guidelines of science fiction magazines reiterate this point — you have to know what’s out there before you can create something new.

Thus, suggesting that people who have no affection for science fiction are going to be the ones to produce “original” content seems rather counterintuitive. I would suggest that the people best acquainted with science fiction would be the best chance for producing original content. This is certainly true of written SF — while there is a lot of unoriginal and derivative fiction out there, there’s some mind-bending original stuff, too. But that’s only possible when the writer knows the genre well. Leaving the future of the genre in the media to people who have no affection for it, no understanding of it — that is the surest way to reset the genre back to square one and lead us back to the beginning of everything we’ve already seen before. To save science fiction media, more control needs to be given to the creators at the forefront.

That is, in essence, the argument Anders was making in his blog entry, voicing support for the notion put forward by this open letter to the Sci-Fi Channel. And it seems eminently sensible to me, too.

Of course, this is the era of the Internet, so it might not be too much longer before creators can take the forefront themselves. But that’s a topic for another time….