Sunday, February 27, 2011

Upcoming Comic Book Movies, Part II

Last time I covered Thor, X-Men First Class, and Green Lantern. Of the following three films, one will be released this year and the other two will be released next year.

Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22, 2011)
Here's another superhero whose comics I haven't read. The character first appeared in 1941 as the subject of scientific experiments intended to produce a super-soldier. Captain America fought the Nazis using his enhanced abilities, his primary nemesis being the head of Germany's terrorist operations, the Red Skull. Although the character showed up in comics after World War II, comics in the '60s retconned the character, saying that the original Captain America was frozen in the North Atlantic in 1945 trying to thwart one villain's plan; subsequent Captains simply used his code name. The original was brought into the modern age when he was thawed by the superhero team known as the Avengers.

Prior Marvel movies have already made references to the upcoming Captain America movie or have hinted that it was going to be made. Like Thor, it was a foregone conclusion that Captain America would be made after Nick Fury's appearance at the end of Iron Man. After all, Captain America leads the Avengers in the comics. The villain in The Incredible Hulk (2008) was injected with a super-soldier serum that enhanced his strength, speed, and healing. This serum was presumably based on the one used to make Captain America. And Iron Man 2 implied that Tony Stark's father, Howard Stark, was involved with Captain America by showing a partially completed model of Captain America's shield in Stark's workshop.

Trailers and promotional materials show that Captain America will follow the original 1940s comics and will be set during World War II. Per the comics, the villain will be Red Skull. It has also been said that Howard Stark will appear in the film and will be responsible for producing the Captain's uniform out of advanced materials. Given that The Avengers is planned to be released in 2012, I'm assuming that Captain America will find himself frozen by the end of the film.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (February 17, 2012)
Although I collected a variety of comics when I was young, many of them focused on the darker characters like Ghost Rider. I owned quite a few reprints of the original series from the 1970s, when Johnny Blaze was the titular character, as well as issues from 1990s, which featured Danny Ketch as the hero. The 2007 film Ghost Rider mixed Johnny Blaze's backstory with several elements from the later series (particularly Danny Ketch's appearance and powers). Although I enjoyed the first movie, I thought that it was plagued by some silliness (no, this is not necessarily a required element of comic book films).

In 2012 Ghost Rider will be getting a sequel... kind of. Once again Nicholas Cage will be playing Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider, but interviews with Cage and the movie's producer suggest that Spirit of Vengeance may be somewhat of a reboot. Early plot summaries state that the movie will take place in Europe where a self-exiled Johnny Blaze is the only one who can save a boy named Danny (Ketch?) from being possessed by the Devil.

The Amazing Spider-Man (July 3, 2012)
It had long been assumed that the Spider-Man franchise directed by Sam Raimi would be continued with Spider-Man 4 and that a Spider-Man 5 and Spider-Man 6 would follow. However, in January 2010 it was announced that Spider-Man 4 would be canceled and that the series would be rebooted in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man.

The new movie will reintroduce the origin of Spider-Man and will focus on Peter Parker's experiences as a high school student trying to maintain his superhero alter ego. The Lizard is expected to be one of the villains as is Nels Van Adder as the "Proto-Goblin". Given the involvement of the creator of the Ultimate Spider-Man series (which was itself a reboot of the venerable Amazing Spider-Man), some have speculated that the film reboot will be based on the newer comic books.

Nerds such as myself may have noticed a few things from the early promotional images of The Amazing Spider-Man. First, the Spider-Man costume has been changed slightly from the comic books and the previous movies. Most noticeable is the fact that the gloves of the costume have blue palms and that the blue patches on the sleeves are more extensive. The images also show that Spider-Man will be using mechanical webshooters, as he did in the comics, rather than being able to produce webbing biologically, as was depicted in Raimi's films.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Upcoming Comic Book Movies, Part I

I actively collected comic books between the ages of 10 and 12. At the time, the idea that I would be seeing those same comic books depicted on the big screen would have been laughable. Then, the only mainstream modern comic book movies were based on characters owned by DC Comics, specifically the Superman movies (1978-1987) and Tim Burton's Batman movies (1989-1992). Given the special effects available at the time, it was prohibitively expensive to film most comic books. However, with the CGI effects pioneered by movies like Terminator 2 (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), the door was open for effectively any comic character. In 2000, Marvel Comics got into the big-budget superhero movie business with X-Men. A couple years later they followed up that success with Spider-Man (2002). Not to be left behind, DC Comics rebooted both their Batman and Superman franchises with Batman Begins (2005) and Superman Returns (2006), respectively. Some of these comic book-based films (e.g., X2: X-Men United (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Dark Knight (2008)) have not only been financially successful, but critically successful, as well.

Since then, comic book movies have become a major part of each movie season, with many of the most highly anticipated films being based on comic book superheroes. This year and the next are no exception, as a relatively large number of comic book-based films are scheduled for release in 2011 and 2012. The following are a few upcoming movies that I'm looking forward to:

Thor (May 6, 2011)
I've never read an issue of the Thor comic books, although I do know that the character is based on the Norse god of the same name. In addition to having the expected god-like resilience, Thor is given a variety of powers and abilities by his mystical hammer. The character is one of the primary members of the superhero team known as the Avengers.

With the introduction of Nick Fury and the Avengers program during the post-credit sequence of Iron Man, I knew it would be only a matter of time before they released movies of the other Avengers. This upcoming movie was explicitly foreshadowed by the post-credits scene in Iron Man 2 when S.H.I.E.L.D. agents find Thor's hammer in a crater. The film will focus on the character's exile to Earth due to his reckless actions and his discovery of what it takes to be a true hero. I was relatively indifferent to Thor until I saw the first full trailers. Now I'm looking forward to it.

X-Men: First Class (June 3, 2011)
By the time I started collecting comics, Uncanny X-Men was already more than twenty years old. The hundreds of issues built upon one another, making it nearly impossible for me to understand what was going on when I tried to start reading the series. Between years of prior stories and the additional series based on the X-Men that were eventually started (X-Men; a.k.a. X-Men: Legacy, Astonishing X-Men, X-Treme X-Men, X-Men: First Class, etc.), I don't know who could possibly keep all those storylines straight. Fortunately, the X-Men movies have simplified and compressed the overall plot into a manageable form.

Up until recently, fans had been expecting the release of X-Men Origins: Magneto. This would have served as a prequel treatment of the primary villain in the X-Men films. If that film had been successful, an additional film based on the comic book series X-Men: First Class was to be produced. However, it was decided instead to roll Magneto's story into First Class, which would be a prequel to the three X-Men movies (four if you count X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

As explained in X-Men, Magneto and Charles Xavier had once been friends and allies back when the team of mutants that would be known as the X-Men was being formed. First Class will take place during the Cuban Missile Crisis and will show, appropriately enough, the "first class" of mutant superheroes. Early synopses of the plot suggest that it will also show the split between Magneto and Xavier and the founding of Magneto's own group: the Brotherhood of Mutants.

Green Lantern (June 17, 2011)
With the exception of Superman and Batman, I was never really a fan of the DC Comics characters. However, I was familiar with some of the more famous characters like Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Green Lantern. Although I've never read an issue of Green Lantern, the trailer for the upcoming film is good enough that I'll give it a chance.

In the comics and in the movie, the Green Lantern is a member of the Green Lantern Corps; an intergalactic brotherhood of beings who are given superpowers by the use of special rings. They use these powers to protect peace and justice throughout the Universe. The movie follows a test pilot named Hal Jordan, who becomes the first human to possess a power ring.

Next time: super soldiers, demon-spawned heroes, and arachnids...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Granddad and the Skyraider

I've already mentioned that I did some traveling this week. Well, last night I got back from California. I had made the unexpected trip due to the death of my granddad, whose memorial service was on Tuesday (it was only a few hours after that service that the PA unnecessarily panicked my wife). Between Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, we had known for a while that my granddad wouldn't last much longer, although he had already defied the doctors' predictions by several months.

I haven't called California home in over ten years (effectively my whole adult life), so I wasn't able to get to know my granddad as well as I would have liked. He wasn't a very talkative person, although he could tell the best stories when you asked him. Around the time I started to consider going into engineering, I found out that he was a member of the last generation of professionals that could call themselves engineers based on experience and on-the-job training rather than on a degree (I know plenty of people who hold engineering degrees that I would only reluctantly call "engineers"). My granddad had received much of his early training while serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, where he repaired the electrical systems of AD Skyraiders on the USS Boxer (CVA-21). He eventually went on to become a highly respected "resident genius" at a company that specialized in chemical machining of aerospace and nautical components.

Although he was only in the Navy for a few years, it's his stories from that time that I most remember. My favorite story involved a Skyraider whose engine broke free when the plane crash-landed. The engine caught fire and hurtled down the deck, where my granddad found himself right in its path. He said that he "nonchalantly" headed towards a safety bunker just to find it full of pilots who were supposed to have gone below decks after landing. He crammed himself in and held the door closed while the engine passed just close enough for him to feel the heat from the fire.

Ever since I heard these stories, I've loved the Skyraider; an extremely successful medium attack aircraft. The plane saw service from the late 1940s to the early 1970s and was one of the last piston-engined combat aircraft. A few years ago I had the chance to see a flying AD-4N Skyraider and an A-1E Skyraider at an airshow put on by the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg, Idaho. The most memorable moment of the show was its finale in which the missing man formation was performed by the museum's three P-51 Mustangs and its AD-4N Skyraider. The Skyraider represented the missing man as it pulled out of formation. I'm going to guess that the AD-4N was used for that purpose since it was the odd airplane in a group consisting mostly of P-51s. Now that moment seems very appropriate to me personally.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Funny Webcomic

While browsing the online comic strip xkcd, which calls itself "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" (basically a nerd's webcomic), I came across the following:

For those who don't get this comic, why are you reading this blog? I'm kidding, of course. I'm sure we all remember the climax of the original Star Wars when Luke Skywalker is flying his X-wing down the Death Star trench while being chased by Darth Vader. He's trying to fire proton torpedoes down a small exhaust port and is relying on his targeting computer to get the torpedoes in. Earlier, most of the Rebel pilots had expressed doubt that even a computer could hit such a small target. This was seemingly confirmed when Red Leader was able to reach the port and fire off his torpedoes, but they only impacted the surface.

While concentrating on his computer, Luke hears the voice of the recently deceased Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to "let go". Luke turns off his computer (which elicits a panicked comment from the control station) and relies on the Force to guide the torpedoes in. The comic is suggesting a slightly different reason why Luke had to turn off his computer.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Snake Oil Redux

I'd like to start by saying that we generally like our pediatricians' office. The doctors we've seen are amiable, good with kids, and competent. I doubt this little incident will cause us to change offices. However, after this recent event, I think we'll think twice before trusting the opinion of a certain PA (physician assistant).

Our youngest daughter, who recently turned three, has been suffering from the same flu that I had gotten just a few weeks ago. She seemed to get it about a day after Son of Atomic Spud did, but it hit her a lot harder. After a few days her cough and fever seemed to get a little better just before getting worse again. And for several days she had woken up repeatedly during the night and complained of headaches. These seemed to be worse at night and in the morning but got a little better during the day, although she would continue to complain about them occasionally. Of course, since she's only three she can't really describe what's wrong with her.

Now, with my recent experience with the flu and the following infection, I suspected that our daughter also had a secondary infection. So yesterday (Tuesday) my wife took our daughter to the pediatricians' office and saw the PA (the office was too busy for her to see a doctor). I was out of town at the time, as I mentioned in a previous post, and ended up getting a call from my very distraught wife. It seems that the utterly unthinking PA had actually said to my wife that the nighttime headaches concerned her because they can be a symptom of a brain tumor and that, had there not been signs of an ear infection (the probable cause of the headaches), she would have recommended that our daughter have a cranial CT scan. She further said that if the headaches didn't go away with antibiotics within a couple days that she should still have the scan. However, she gave the option of having the scan done as soon as possible.

Honestly, what in the world would possess this woman to actually say such a thing to a child's mother? What possible outcome other than panic could she have possibly expected? Why didn't she simply say "if the headaches aren't gone in a couple days, give us a call"? Why would she even utter aloud the absolute scariest thing a parent can hear, even if she did amend it with, 'but it's probably an infection'? Why would she make such a thoughtless and terrifying statement to a toddler's parent?

Since I've lived with headaches all my life, I've done more research on the topic than the average person. Thus, I know that nighttime headaches can have a variety of causes, the majority of headaches do not indicate a tumor, and headaches are usually not the first or only symptom of a brain tumor. Additionally, the probability that a tumor-related headache would start at exactly the same time as a flu and a secondary infection must be vanishingly remote. Several websites suggested that a sinus infection in toddlers might cause them to wake up with headaches because sinus pressure increases when one is lying down. Given our daughter's symptoms, why would "brain tumor" pop into the PA's head before "sinus infection"?

With the PA's statement about tumors outweighing her tepid assurances and my layman's understanding of the subject, we decided to have the scan done right away. We therefore accepted the PA's offer to make an appointment the very next morning. Today (Wednesday) found my wife sitting next to the phone all morning. At 11 AM, expecting to have heard something about the appointment by then, she called the doctors' office. The nurse apologized, saying that she had intended to make the appointment shortly after the office opened (8 AM), but that they'd been swamped and she hadn't made the call yet. I can't help but to emphasize this point: the PA at their office verbally expressed that one our daughter's symptoms is sometimes an indication of a brain tumor (and in so doing terrified the child's poor mother), offered to make a an appointment for a CT scan first thing the next morning, and then the nurse failed to make the five minute call because she was swamped with kids with fevers and sniffles. Did anyone at this office understand that an offhanded statement by a member of their staff drove their clients into a panic and now their apparent unwillingness to act with alacrity was making the situation worse?

Fortunately for our sanity, they were able to make a 3 PM appointment for our daughter. Apparently she became upset upon arriving in the radiology office because it was not the kid-friendly place she was used to, but a sweet grandmotherly woman helped to calm her down. They were able to do the scan right away and our little three year old held still enough for them to complete it in a single pass. My worry was that she would panic and squirm and they would have to expose her to X-rays again and again to get the images. I'm not afraid of the amount of radiation produced by a typical medical procedure, but I do respect it.

So in the end we irradiated our daughter's brain to eliminate the possibility that her headaches were caused by something serious. Approximately 150 millirem later (which is about 15 times as much radiation as I've received during the past five years working as an engineer in the nuclear industry) and hundreds of dollars later, we found that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her head. I'm still not sure if my relief outweighs my anger that our family was put through this ordeal. And I take an extremely dim view of people who make my wife cry.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cell Phone Etiquette

Long distance traveling always reminds me of why I avoid going out in public. Yesterday I spent about four hours in two airports and couldn't help but to think of the starship passengers in WALL-E. I noted the following during the time in which I was completely unable to concentrate on my Star Trek novel:
1) Out of dozens of people around me, I saw only five who actually had books with them. I was the only one trying to read mine. One person was reading a magazine while chatting with a friend.
2) Approximately 20% of all airline passengers were staring at their feature-overloaded phones. Many of those phones were beeping or otherwise making noise.
3) Approximately 10% of all airline passengers were talking on their cellphones.
4) All airline passengers talking on their cellphones were holding very loud (and inevitably inane) conversations.
And I do mean loud. I often carry my mp3 player with me, which is equipped with noise canceling earbuds. These earbuds are good enough that I can mow the lawn while wearing them and still listen to music at a volume only a couple notches above my usual setting (I usually keep it between 4 and 6 out of a maximum of 20). I shouldn't have been able to clearly hear the cellphone conversation of a person sitting ten feet away while I was wearing noise canceling earbuds.

I'm always looking for new ways to isolate myself from the world

Without fail, every time I got a few pages into my book someone would decide that they absolutely had to talk to someone about absolutely nothing at all. This made it practically impossible to read my book since I stopped being able to concentrate on reading in noisy environments while in college (apparently college brained my damage). The cellphone yakkers completely overpowered the earbuds.

So, as a public service the Atomic Spud would like to remind all loud cellphone talkers of the following:

Telephones transmit sound over long distances:
The point of a telephone is to allow people to talk to each other despite the fact that they are separated by a significant distance. Thanks to Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, you don't need to yell to be heard far away.

Cellphone microphones have improved over the years:
The microphones on modern cellphones are designed to pick up and amplify the sender's voice while isolating it from the surrounding noise. I have found that I can be heard perfectly well while talking at a level just above a whisper and cupping my hand over my mouth and the microphone.

You're holding a conversation at a very high volume while sitting immediately next to perfect strangers. We may not be able to hear the other guy, but we can certainly hear you. Dozens of unwilling people you don't know are now privy to aspects of your life that you would never have shared with them directly.
To the gentleman in the Salt Lake City airport: I don't care that Walmart didn't have any snowshoes that fit you because you have hammer toes. To the woman with the heavy smoker's voice in Denver: I don't care what your girlfriends say about each other. To the teenagers at both airports: what you accuse your parents of thinking is true; nothing you have to say is important.

Have people always been this way or is this a new phenomenon? Honestly, if you want to broadcast your life to the whole world, post it on Facebook or a blog so the rest of us can choose whether we want to listen in or not.

Thank heavens they still don't allow people to talk on their cellphones during the flight.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Mythbusters Go to Washington

As I said earlier, I watch every episode of Mythbusters. But I didn't claim to do it in a timely manner. I DVR them and watch them in clusters months after their original air date. Today I finally watched the highly anticipated "President's Challenge" episode that aired on December 8, 2010.

Even at the White House Jamie wears the exact same outfit

I had misgivings when I first heard that President Obama was going to be on Mythbusters. I just don't care for him as our president. There's hardly a policy decision that Obama has made that I've agreed with, his political and social views are almost completely antithetical to mine, and he's driven away our allies while trying to appease our enemies. However, President Obama and the Mythbusters had enough class to leave all politics out of the show. Obama's appearance was as President of the United States rather than as politician Barack Obama.

Despite my personal opinions about the President, I think it's remarkable that in a few short years Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, and the others behind Mythbusters have turned a show with such a goofy premise into an entertaining yet reasonably educational program that has earned such high-level attention. I had never before seen a non-fiction series that was able to capture the interest of kids, adults, blue-collar workers, engineers, U.S. presidents, etc.

I will have to take one political potshot; of all the things that Obama could have asked the Mythbusters to do, he asked them to revisit a myth that they've busted on two separate occasions. Obama asked the Mythbusters to attempt the Archimedes Solar Death Ray myth again. This historical myth claims that Greek genius Archimedes devised a weapon that used bronze shields to focus the sun's rays on invading Roman ships during the Siege of Syracuse (214-212 BC). Supposedly the ships started to catch fire, forcing the Romans to retreat. The Mythbusters had tested the myth in 2004, trying to set fire to a boat using a large circular array of mirrors. In 2006 they tried it again using an even larger array of mirrors. Although the ship did smolder, the legend was still deemed "busted" since the array was too large to keep focused on a moving ship and because weather conditions had to be just right for it to work. With the 2010 Presidential Challenge, the Mythbusters tested the myth again with 500 high school students focusing mirrors on the wooden boat's more flammable sail. Again they failed to confirm the legend.

So here's my partisan political jab: it seems appropriate that President Barack Obama would have the Mythbusters revisit a twice-busted myth. After all, Obama is the one who keeps trying to use Keynesian theories to fix America's economic problems. Like Archimedes' death ray, Keynesian economics have failed time and again, most notably during the Great Depression and the period of stagflation in the 1970s. The 2009 Stimulus act was simply one more in a long line failures attributable to Keynesian economic philosophy. Like the Mythbusters, Obama and other believers in Keynes' flawed ideas need to take to heart this bit of wisdom from W.C. Fields: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a [dang] fool about it."

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Fall of Hyperion

Given the complexity of Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, the following review would probably make more sense after reading my review of Hyperion and my oddly popular post on the Shrike.

The first thing I noticed upon starting the book was that I disagree with several reviewers; Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion shouldn't necessarily form a single book. My copy does indeed bind both books together, but it's been out of print for a long time.

Hyperion is told as a space opera version of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. As I mentioned in my review of Hyperion, the first novel is composed of the pilgrims' stories of how they ended up on the Shrike pilgrimage. With each story the reader better understands the nature of the Hegemony and the mysterious creature known as the Shrike. Also revealed is the basic relationship that humanity has with the highly evolved artificial intelligences (AIs) that form the TechnoCore. Once slaves to humanity, the AIs of the Core declared independence centuries before the opening of Hyperion, declaring themselves as allies and friends to the Hegemony of Man instead. At least that's what the AIs claim. There are factions within the Core that see humanity as a parasite and a distraction from their goal of developing an Ultimate Intelligence; effectively a deus ex machina.

The first book ends on a cliffhanger, which is why some reviewers believe that the story shouldn't have been divided between two novels. However, The Fall of Hyperion is narrated very differently and has a broader focus than the preceding book. The viewpoint character is a "cybrid"; a being whose body is fully human but whose intelligence is an AI that is shared between its body and the Core. This particular cybrid, a replica of the 19th century poet John Keats, has the ability to dream events happening elsewhere. It is through these dreams that we find out what's happening to the pilgrims featured in the first novel.

Although the pilgrims' experiences continue to be an important part of the story, much of the novel's focus is on the organization of Hegemony itself, the conflict between the factions within the Core, and the invasion by the Ousters. Introduced in Hyperion, the Ousters are groups of humanity that chose to live between the stars because they refused to be dependent on the Core's technology. They particularly abhor the Core-controlled farcaster teleportation system that makes the Hegemony's WorldWeb possible.

Many of the mysteries and apparent contradictions introduced in the first novel are explained in this book. After the buildup that the Shrike received in Hyperion I had been certain that it would be impossible for Dan Simmons to reveal its origin and purpose without disappointing the reader. Not only was I not disappointed, but the truth behind the creature turned out to be even more interesting than I thought it could be. Even after we know what the Shrike is, the creature loses none of its menace.

The Fall of Hyperion is even more epic in its scope than Hyperion. The story is about nothing less than the destruction of worlds, the clash of gods, and the fate of humanity. Despite this, Simmons gives us a great cast of complex, believable characters. I love a story with a noble protagonist and Simmons' books gives us several. My favorite example of this occurs when one of the pilgrims, Colonel Kassad (who is equipped with a combat suit from humanity's far-future), is seriously injured while fighting the Shrike through time and space. However, when he finds the Shrike approaching two other pilgrims, he heads back into combat. Moneta, a woman from that same far-future, warns him about his decision:
"If you fight again," she said, her voice soft and urgent in his ear, "the Shrike will kill you."
"They're my friends," said Kassad. His FORCE gear and torn armor lay where Moneta had thrown it hours earlier. He searched the Monolith until he found his assault rifle and a bandolier of grenades, saw the rifle was still functional, checked charges and clicked off safeties, left the Monolith, and stepped forward at double time to intercept the Shrike.
I have a soft spot for characters who choose to face certain death because of loyalty and friendship.

Having now read two of Simmons' books, I'd like to comment on how much I like his prose. His writing is perfectly balanced between the bare-bones simplicity of an Orson Scott Card and the over-abundant descriptiveness of a Greg Bear. While I enjoy Card's writing, I feel that Bear's approach meanders too much from the plot and the characters. Although the worlds that Simmons has created, Hyperion's Valley of the Time Tombs, and the Shrike are all lovingly detailed, it's never to the point of distraction. Thanks to the grand scale of his stories and his writing style, I will definitely be seeking out more of Simmons' novels, especially the final two books of the Hyperion saga: Endymion and The Rise of Endymion.

A final word on my complaints about the first book. The Fall of Hyperion also contains some strong language and sexuality, although not nearly as much as in the first book. I'm glad that Simmons doesn't employ these elements gratuitously but rather as character traits or plot points that didn't often come into play in the second novel. Although I prefer that an author avoids such things altogether, it's worse when he or she distributes foul language or sex liberally throughout his or her writing, regardless of its relevance to the story.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Superhero Scores

I'm a sucker for a good superhero score. A good superhero score should be distinguishable from a mere action movie soundtrack. The hero should have an appropriate, easily identified musical theme that describes his or her character. If the hero is tragic or dark, (e.g., Batman, Wolverine, Ghost Rider) his theme should reflect it. If the hero is powerful or inspiring (e.g., Superman, Spider-Man), you should be able to tell from his theme. And it always helps if the villain has a strong theme as well.

Up until a few years ago superhero movie scores seemed to be dominated by a few composers; most notably John Williams (Superman (1978)) and Danny Elfman (Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Hulk (2003)). However, in recent years a number of decent to excellent composers have contributed to the growing body of superhero scores. One of my favorites is John Ottman (X-Men 2 (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Superman Returns (2006), Astro Boy (2009)), who has become increasingly well-known for his superhero music. Even Hans Zimmer has gotten into the game. Zimmer was already popular for numerous film scores before he composed the music to Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) with James Newton Howard.

While surfing for mp3 albums, I came across the music of Christopher Drake. Drake has scored a number of direct-to-video animated movies based on DC characters. This includes the film Batman: Under the Red Hood, which I've mentioned before, and Superman Batman: Public Enemies. These movies may have gone directly to DVD, but there was no scrimping on the soundtracks; they could easily have accompanied any big budget summer film.

Batman: Under the Red Hood:
The score is exciting, energetic, and fits the movie well. Despite the fact that Red Hood is similar in tone to The Dark Knight, Drake didn't borrow from the popular film's music. Nor did he produce another 'variation on a theme by Elfman' like the music used in Batman: The Animated Series. His music is unique but perfectly appropriate for the character and story.

What really sets Drake's music apart from Zimmer's and Howard's Batman scores is a memorable theme for the titular character. Don't get me wrong, The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movie soundtracks, but does anyone really remember Batman's theme from Batman Begins or The Dark Knight? Believe it or not it's the same in both movies, but it's not particularly catchy. In fact, the Joker and Two-Face both had more memorable themes than the hero did. For Red Hood Drake was given the unenviable task of writing a new theme for one of the best known comic book characters; a task which he did very well.

Superman Batman: Public Enemies:
Unfortunately, I haven't seen this movie yet, so I don't know how well the music fits the movie, nor can I identify repeated musical cues with any particular character. However, as a standalone work this is another fantastic score. Like Red Hood, Public Enemies has an energetic and driving theme. Although Drake didn't use Batman's theme from Red Hood, there are several cues that could easily fit the character. Superman seems to be represented by a soaring theme with choral accompaniment (John Ottman used a similar approach in Superman Returns). Once again Drake resisted the temptation to replicate the well-known musical themes of popular comic book characters and instead wrote his own music. Fortunately his music works very well for the characters.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Not a Nerd? I Beg to Differ

This December my wife (i.e., "Bride of Atomic Spud") and I will have been married for 10 years. For these ten years, and for the preceding four years of our courtship (which were interrupted by my freshman year at BYU and the two years I was on an LDS mission in Mexico), I've been trying to convince my wife of the self-evident truth that she is a nerd. However, she maintains that she's merely lived with a nerd so long that she's familiar with our behavior and interests. I really don't believe the "when in Rome" defense holds up to scrutiny since her nerdy propensities are simply too deeply ingrained. Below I present the evidence:

1) Recognition of nerd arcana:
The other day I told her that I wanted her to watch a trailer. I didn't tell her what the movie was but she got it within the first few seconds:

Immediately upon seeing the wheelchair she said, "Oh, it's an X-men movie." Who else but a nerd would instantly recognize Professor Xavier's wheelchair?

She also notices Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy jokes (e.g., the appearance of "42" on shows like Big Bang Theory) and recognizes Star Wars and Star Trek references.

2) Interest in nerdy television shows:
One of my wife's favorite shows on TV is Eureka. She has also enjoyed marathons of shows like Firefly, Star Trek: Enterprise, Heroes, and Big Bang Theory. Like I said before, she does indeed understand just about every reference and joke in Big Bang Theory. The only "normal" show she really watches is House and even that could be considered to be nerdy in the medical sense.

3) Interest in science fiction and fantasy movies:
I've mentioned before that my wife keeps watching chick flicks and keeps ending up disappointed. However, a list of relatively recent movies that she actually enjoyed includes X-Men Origins: Wolverine (she especially liked the climatic destruction of a nuclear plant's cooling tower), Star Trek (the death of Captain Kirk's father actually made her cry), Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and The Dark Knight (the finale elicited a "wow" from her). I really can't remember the last chick flick she actually enjoyed, let alone one that got a "wow" from her.

[Update: 6/1/12]
And I can't go without mentioning how much she liked the other Avengers-related movies: Captain America, Thor, and especially The Avengers itself. I hadn't seen her that excited for a movie in years. Well, I guess she was extremely excited to see The Hunger Games, but that's a dystopian sci-fi story about a post-apocalyptic death sport, so it doesn't really support her claims of not being a nerd.

4) Interest in science fiction and fantasy literature:
She read the entire Space Odyssey series while in high school. Last year she read my copy of World War Z before I did and enjoyed it. She has a hard time getting through Jane Austen's books but devours Orson Scott Card's novels. Like chick flicks, my wife has a hard time getting through chick lit but burns through science fiction and fantasy novels like there's no tomorrow.

A partial list of books that she's recently read and enjoyed includes I Am Number Four (a sci-fi novel with superpowered aliens living among humans), Hunger: A Gone Novel (a sci-fi story where juveniles try to survive in a world where all adults have mysteriously disappeared), and Pathfinder (yet another sci-fi book where one character has the ability to see the paths of any living thing and another character can change the flow of time). She's read more dystopian future novels than I ever have.

5) Computers and electronics
She was surfing the 'Net at the age of six, back when it consisted entirely of bulletin boards. She even still remembers the DOS commands. Her pride and joy in junior high was her calculator watch. In 2009 the gift she most wanted for her birthday/Christmas was a laptop. She envies my new Casio Atomic Solar watch and is disappointed that they don't seem to make a watch with identical features in a more feminine design. Although I theoretically like the idea, she's the one who's pushing to get the 55" 3D television with all the fancy features.

6) Interest in nerdy academic subjects:
My wife was a mathematics enthusiast in school. She loved arithmetic and algebra and took calculus in high school (few students took calculus in our high school). Nowadays she handles all our finances and maintains an extensive spreadsheet detailing where all our money goes. It's accurate to the cent.

She was a member of our high school academic league (a kind of group Jeopardy!), of which I was the team captain. In fact, it was through the team that we really got to know each other. Today we have more than a dozen versions of Trivial Pursuit (she does remarkably well on the Star Wars version).

7) And the biggest indicator of all...
She married me. No woman who is willing to marry such a nerd can ever deny being one herself. And the fact that she allows me to influence our only son just clinches it:

People Love Monsters

During October of last year I posted a blog entry for a monster or type of monster for each day of the month. At the time it was just something fun to do in preparation for Halloween. Strangely enough, these monster posts have become my most popular blog entries thanks to Google.

It seems that Google's image searching feature has linked to pictures of monsters found in my blog posts. According to Blogger's stats, seven of my top ten most viewed entries are from my 31 Monsters of October series. Apparently the Shrike from the Hyperion saga is the most popular; I've had 267 pageviews of that post alone. Since the Shrike is one of the coolest monsters ever created by a science fiction author, I can't say I'm surprised.

Although I'd rather that people visit my blog because they're more interested in what I have to say than in the kinds of pictures I use in my posts, I'll take whatever visitors I can get. Who knows, maybe I'll pick up a few followers. After all, I found some of my favorite blogs completely by accident while looking for some random article or picture.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Current Favorite TV Shows, Part II

Mythbusters (2003 - Present)
"High explosives and electricity, WOOO!"

This is probably the best show ever aired on the Discovery Channel. The series pits a cast of special effects experts against various myths to determine whether they can confirm the myth, deem it plausible, or bust it. Their methodology is simple; attempt to recreate the myth or, if the myth can't be recreated under the claimed circumstances, recreate the effect of the myth. This often involves high explosives, rockets, or high caliber guns.

I've watched this show since the first episode when Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman were the only hosts. They usually did only a couple myths a week, with nearly all of them being based on urban legends. Although the show was good, in the early seasons they tended to spend too much time on details and conflicts between Adam and Jamie (the two have very different personalities). Later seasons included three additional mythbusters (usually Tory Belleci, Kari Byron, and Grant Imahara) and expanded the types of myths to include historical claims, common expressions, viral videos, and movie scenes. Watching the Mythbusters is now father-daughter bonding time since all three of my girls love the show.

During the first couple seasons I was convinced that the show would run out of myths to cover. Clearly I was wrong since the more recent seasons pack more myths per episode than ever before. And although the program has steadily increased in budget and popularity, the series' science content has actually gone up over time. The hosts have gradually improved their application of the scientific method and significant technical or physical explanations now accompany many of the myths.

The Simpsons (1989 - Present)
Homer: "Wanna bite of my doughnut?"
Lisa: "No, thanks. Do you have any fruit?"
Homer: "This has purple stuff inside. Purple is a fruit."

The Simpsons doesn't really need any introduction. America's favorite dysfunctional family has been on TV for years, and I've been watching them ever since their first episode. The show's writers are always well-versed in current pop culture in order to lampoon it, although this sometimes emphasize the fact that the Simpsons themselves have never aged in the show's 20+ years.

Unfortunately, I missed most episodes between 2005 and 2008 due to a drastic change in my schedule (I had finished school and had started working) and because the show had become increasingly political. I have no problems with a show that uses political humor as long as it's fair about it. The Simpsons had made fun of both ends of the political spectrum up until Bush's second term, at which point the series veered left and I lost interest. Thanks to The Simpsons Movie and a 2008 episode that finally went back to the tradition of mocking both political parties, I started watching the show again.

Although I continue to enjoy the series, I have to admit that the writers' attempts to keep the show current have become distracting. This is most obvious when we're reminded of events like Homer and Marge's courtship. Although flashbacks have clearly depicted the two as having dated in high school in the '70s, recent seasons that flashback to their high school years seem to be set closer to the late '80s.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 - Present)
Commander Cody: "Looks like General Skywalker's already engaged the enemy."
Obi-Wan: "That's nothing out of the ordinary, especially since I gave him a direct order not to."

Although its theatrically released feature received mixed reviews, the series itself has become very popular with Star Wars fans. The Clone Wars details events that occurred between Star Wars: Episode II and Star Wars: Episode III, with much of the focus being on the adventures of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Anakin's apprentice, Ahsoka Tano. Additionally, several clones are given personalities and receive special attention.

One of the strengths of the series is its variety. Episodes cover large-scale battles, Jedi duels, political debates, bounty hunters, etc. The most recent episodes have even covered the nature of Anakin's role as "the Chosen One" and what the prophecy might mean (at least it's clearer in The Clone Wars than it ever was in any of the films). This is another show that my daughters love to watch with me.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Current Favorite TV Shows, Part I

Despite having several hundred channels to choose from, very few television shows have caught my attention in recent years. I just don't have the patience to channel surf like I used to when I was growing up. And I refuse to watch live television. My wife and I spend most of our free time on the Internet and have little tolerance for TV commercials or being at the mercy of a channel's schedule. In fact, there are only six TV shows that I actually follow and I only watch them recorded on DVR or through Netflix. I'll discuss three of them here and three more in a following post.

Big Bang Theory (2007 - Present)
"What part of an inverse tangent approaching an asymptote don't you understand?"

This is a very funny sitcom about the lives of four geeks. Although obviously exaggerated for comedic effect, they are the most accurately portrayed nerds I've ever seen on screen. These aren't the stereotypical (and unrealistic) nerds shown on TV for so many years; I actually know or have known people very similar to each of the four. Despite having genius level IQs and PhDs, they're actually depicted as having realistic hobbies such as collecting comic books and playing video games.

I found out about this series after several of my coworkers decided I had certain traits in common with Sheldon, who has an obsessive compulsive personality. With that recommendation, my wife and I started watching the show on DVD through Netflix. I have since been forced to admit that my coworkers were right, especially when I find Sheldon saying things (which the writers intend to be humorous) that I've said and thought for years.

Eureka (2006 - Present)
"Oh, death ray. Why don’t you just say death ray?"

Our viewpoint character in this series, Sheriff Jack Carter, is in charge of keeping order in the small town of Eureka. The true nature of the town is supposedly a closely-guarded secret; Eureka is home to some of the most brilliant minds in the world and is the location of Global Dynamics; a heavily funded facility for advanced research. Since these projects tend to go awry on a regular basis, Sheriff Carter tends to be very busy.

Due to SyFy's budget limitations, Eureka is limited to an average of 13 episodes per season. All 13 are aired during the summer months with very few, if any, reruns in between new episodes. The show has always had a strong element of humor, but the first few seasons also had darker elements involving the relatively gruesome deaths of scientists and a murderous conspiracy. However, the more recent seasons seem to have lightened up and depend more on character interaction and comedy. Eureka has also taken advantage of its science fiction premise to regularly shake up the plot. The last season used a time travel incident to change several characters' roles, introduce new characters, and change several relationships.

Futurama (1999 - 2003, 2008 - Present)
"These old doomsday devices are dangerously unstable. I'll rest easier not knowing where they are."

Pizza delivery boy Philip J. Fry is accidentally frozen in the year 1999 and is thawed out in 2999. In an attempt to start his life over in the future he gets a job with the package delivery service, Planet Express. The company is owned by his distant relative, Professor Farnsworth, who uses the profits from the company to fund his insane experiments. Among Fry's coworkers are an alien doctor, a robot, and the delivery ship's cyclops pilot.

I first found this show early on in its run while flipping through channels. I recognized the animation as being similar to that of The Simpsons (Matt Groening created both series) but had never heard of Futurama. Unfortunately the show was not well promoted by Fox and it was eventually canceled. However, DVD sales of Futurama were profitable enough that the show was revived on Comedy Central. Unlike The Simpons, Futurama never stopped being funny to me.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Orson Scott Card On Bias in Popular Entertainment

Ever since I read his sci-fi novel Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card has been one of my favorite authors. Not only can he tell a good story (focusing almost exclusively on science fiction and fantasy), but he's also an excellent writer of non-fiction commentary. Card has a near-weekly column, Uncle Orson Reviews Everything in a Greensboro, NC paper called The Rhinoceros Times.

Recently Card has commented on a new TV show called Harry's Law, which is written by longtime TV series writer David E. Kelley. After watching the first episode of the show, Card had this to say about Kelley:
We just aren't sure David E. Kelley can write a watchable series any more.

He's like a born-again Christian who has to make all his episodes bear witness to the faith - only Kelley's religion is the hatred of all things Republican.
Card can only conclude that Kelley isn't actually trying to persuade anyone to agree with his politics: "The message couldn't be clearer: We don't want you ugly people who are different from me and my cool friends to sully this show by watching it."

What's interesting is that Orson Scott Card isn't a Republican. He's a registered Democrat with centrist views and little patience for extremism from either side. However, he believes that the far Left is currently the dominant force in American culture and is therefore the more destructive of the extreme ends of the political spectrum.

Being fair-minded, and liking the actors cast in Harry's Law, Card and his family gave the show one more shot. Unfortunately the second episode also featured leftist propaganda:
In the series' second episode, Harry (Kathy Bates) is defending an old woman who robbed a liquor store at gunpoint. Her defense is that she was starving and had no alternative.

Excuse me? Has Kelley ever been to Cincinnati (where the story supposedly takes place)? Does he think there's no welfare available to the poor? Between state welfare programs and local non-government organizations, does he really believe that the only choice of poor people is to rob stores at gunpoint?

It is simply asinine that Kelley's puppet prosecutor did not point out all the welfare sources that could have kept this woman fed - without her having to resort to armed robbery.
In Card's view (a view that I share), the writer is "flat-out lying about America - or else he has lost any kind of contact with reality". Kelley isn't describing modern America, he's describing Dickensian England. Card goes even further, suggesting that Kelley's story actually undermines his own political views:
In a way, Kelley and his ilk are confessing something rather awful. The Left has had control of American government and the power elite for decades. If it's all still as bad as ever, then that would suggest that all the money we've poured into the Leftist agenda has been utterly wasted. Where did it go, if it has accomplished nothing, as Kelley and his fellow deniers-of-America-as-it-is claim?
The American-bashing of the liberal elite doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. They tell us that America is just as racist as ever, yet this supposedly racist country elected a black president. They want us to think that the poor are starving in the streets, but the Left has been enacting financially ruinous welfare programs since the 1930s. We're told by the left-leaning media and the Democratic party that the Right has created an atmosphere of political hatred, yet they conveniently forget the vile things said about George W. Bush and other Republicans/conservatives.

I see only three options: either the Left a) regularly misrepresents America, b) is utterly inept at implementing its own agenda despite having significant power and influence for decades, or c) its programs are completely ineffective despite throwing huge amounts of taxpayer dollars at a myriad of pet causes. I suspect it's a mixture of the three.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Cold Day In Eastern Idaho

Although I was raised in Southern California, I don't generally mind the cold of Eastern Idaho. There are some days, though, that even Idaho natives don't tolerate very well.

As I've said before, I walk about a mile to my bus stop each morning. Although last night's wind chill warning gave me the idea that I was going to be in for an unpleasant walk, I still wasn't ready for it.

I felt the cold through a long-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved flannel shirt, and my coat. The skin on my legs was numb within five minutes. My eyes were watering and the tears were freezing on my eyelashes. I had to take off my glasses since my breath was creating frost on the lenses. This is what happens when the temperature is -10°F with a wind chill of -20°F.

It's still better than California's obscene cost of living.


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