2019年8月30日 星期五

"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)


"Sarko glanced at Colt, then went on, 'General, it's only a matter of time before laser weapons make manned aircraft obsolete.  They'll shoot down anything in the sky with the speed of light.  What we've seen here today is just the beginning - the equivalent of the first fliers of World War I shooting at each other with revolvers.'"

...and this:

"It wasn't until the twentieth century that a new understanding of light replaced the wave theory.  But the wave theory was extremely valuable.  It explained not only light but many other things as well."

A couple of Ben Bova's other books have been reviewed here already.  Check his name in the sidebar if you're interested in reading more.  I'll also be reviewing another of his novels, Orion, in the near future.  His biographical details aside, he's one of the better-researched science fiction authors.

This book is really two books, or rather a story followed by a lengthy essay.  The story, "Out of the Sun," is a Cold War thriller following a scientist as he tries to discover the cause of several plane crashes.  It's not a very scientific science fiction story, and most of the action hinges on whether a certain kind of laser can or cannot damage a certain kind of metal.  It also feels like something that belongs more to the 60s than to 1984, the year in which this story was supposedly written.  I have the feeling that Bova dusted it off for later publication, and that it took form much earlier.

Weirdly enough, the second half of this book is an essay titled "The Amazing Laser," detailing the history of the laser from Galileo to the mid 80s.  It's a well-written tour of developments in that field, even though it seems to have been written in support of Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative.

Yet I can't help but wonder - how many people felt tricked by this book?  The front and back covers say nothing about the essay, and if you weren't looking carefully you'd also miss the minuscule mention of it on the title page.  How many people were expecting ray guns and rocket ships, only to find themselves confronted by discussions of electromagnetism and stimulated emission?  I'm guessing a lot of readers opted out of the second half, likely feeling deceived by the publisher.

If you're working your way through Bova's bibliography, you'll certainly end up reading this one.  If not, I wouldn't bother.  The concepts employed in the story have been done better elsewhere, and the essay covers material presented more effectively in any number of textbooks.

Related Entries:

"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)

2019年8月29日 星期四

"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)

"Manny blasted me with my first experience of a surge of psychic fear.  I couldn't mistake that, either."

James B. Johnson wrote the majority of his books from 1981 to 1991.  From what I gather from both Wikipedia and the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, he was never well known in the world of science fiction.  His approach to the genre - at least as it's encapsulated on those sites - also doesn't strike me as particularly inventive or stylistically accomplished.  If Mindhopper is taken as representative of his fiction as a whole, the works of Theodore Sturgeon were a big influence on him.

In Mindhopper a young boy develops the ability to converse with certain people telepathically, and various individuals seek to use this ability to create a faster-than-light propulsion system.  The book's plot revolves around an older man's struggle to keep the young boy safe.  It's fairly violent, but at the same time very coy when it comes to sexual matters.

In stylistic terms this novel is somewhat amateurish, but then again it represented an early work by an author new to the genre, and perhaps he got better later on.  Mindhopper is written in the first person, and this storytelling device makes for some confusion in one of the book's closing chapters, where the protagonist is describing events he wasn't able to witness.  A lot of the profanity in this book struck me as somewhat juvenile, and at times the author either explains too much or too little, depending on how "scientific" the passage is.  His choice of words in certain contexts is also baffling, with many paragraphs marred by unnecessary sentences or extraneous clauses.

One could also ask the question: is this really science fiction?  As works of fiction go, there's very little science to be found in the pages of Mindhopper.  Sure, there are discussions of cars and there are discussions of car racing.  But the author's understanding of how the brain works is/was obviously rudimentary, even accounting for the time in which he wrote the book.  And as for descriptions/explanations of how telepathy ties into faster-than-light travel, he doesn't even bother.

Yet its amateurishness aside, I'd have to say that Mindhopper is a fairly consistent book.  It's not good by any stretch of the imagination, and it owes a lot to Sturgeon's More Than Human, but I've read much worse "science" fiction, and this novel isn't long enough to wear out its welcome.

Related Entries:

"Coyote" by Allen Steel (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)

2019年8月25日 星期日

"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)

"The sudden roar of engines from the opposite side of the camp draws Jorge's attention.  He looks up from the tent stake he's driving into the soft ground just in time to see the Wallace - rechristened the Mayflower - ascending into the afternoon sky on its VTOL jets.  A hot blast rips across the meadow; everywhere around him, colonists pause in their labors to cup their hands over their ears and watch the shuttle as it lifts off for its final rendezvous with the Alabama."

Allen Steel lives, surprisingly enough, in Massachusetts.  He's won the Hugo for one of his short stories and has written dozens of books.

In this book he follows a group of conspirators as they hijack a spaceship bound for another solar system.  The leaders of the conspiracy are intent on rescuing several intellectual dissidents from the clutches of an authoritarian government.  More than 200 (Sol) years later, they find themselves confronted by the challenge of colonizing a new world with limited resources at their disposal.

The first part of this novel is good.  It sets up its characters well and the author has a good grasp of the science involved.  I found the overall theme of the book ("The South will rise again!") gratingly obvious, but the author does a nice job of setting the characters on their journey.

But after the conspirators/colonists arrive on Coyote, this novel really loses a lot of its momentum.  It's here that the fact that this book was cobbled together from several short stories becomes increasingly plain, and certain details are unnecessarily repeated between different parts of the book.  A better editor would have eliminated these unnecessary details, but apparently the person in charge of editing Coyote couldn't be bothered to do so.

Where this novel really drops the ball is the ending.  I can't go into too much detail without giving this ending away, but let's just say that the colonists are faced with a very real, very technologically superior threat which they overcome in the most ridiculous way.  It's as if the author got to that point, decided he was tired of writing, and then tried to wrap up a 400+ page book in the most half-assed manner possible.  There are SO many questions left unanswered in the last section, and the colonists' ability to outwit their rivals defies understanding.

In stylistic terms Allen Steele is a good writer, but the plot of this book needs a lot of work.

Related Entries:

"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)
"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)

2019年8月17日 星期六

"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)

"...The sun never really came out that day.  They had all gotten used to the amazing crystal blue skies of Los Angeles with hardly any gasoline engines pouring pollution into the air.  That day the sky was black."

This is the second of John Varley's books that I've read.  The first one, The John Varley Reader, was also reviewed here a while back.  Suffice it to say he's a lower-tier science fiction author who's lived in various locations throughout the U.S.

In Slow Apocalypse the world's oil supply vanishes under mysterious circumstances.  Without oil, governments worldwide are left to struggle through the inevitable economic catastrophes that are the result of this oil shortage, and individuals forewarned of the difficulties find themselves with an advantage over those taken by surprise.  One such person is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.  His family's struggles against shortages, starvation, fire and a general state of lawlessness are the subject of this book.

Speaking as someone who enjoyed Varley's short story collection, I'd have to say that I was disappointed by this novel.  It's certainly well written and shows a professional hand, but it lacks tension, and is way longer than it has any right to be.  Shorten this thing by a hundred pages, eliminate the unnecessary details, and you'd be approaching a much better book.

And more than anything, raise the stakes.  What this book really needed was a greater sense of peril, or perhaps a sense of dread for what's to come.  As it is I never really felt like any of the characters were in serious danger.  Instead, the plot of this novel just lumbers along - in almost sociological fashion - without any sense of risk or of the random nature of larger events.  As readers, we know that society is regressing, we know that living conditions are correspondingly difficult, but this doesn't add up to the kind of suspense that any good book should have.

The characters in this book are also far too reasonable given their circumstances.  When confronted with the collapse of their society they seem unnaturally detached, almost as if they know the outcome of things beforehand.  It's FAR from certain that everything will be alright, and it's FAR from certain that they'll survive until the following day.  And yet they carry on as if everything will only be slightly worse tomorrow.  No tempers are lost.  No harsh words are spoken.  After a few hundred pages of their measured responses, they really defy understanding.

I will say this, however.  "Slow Apocalypse" as a title was at least half right.  This book is SLOW, so slow I had to force myself through the second half.  The "Apocalypse" part may be inaccurate, but yeah, he was right on with the "Slow."

Related Entries:

"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)
"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)
"Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement (1954)

2019年8月13日 星期二

The Other Movie Oscars: The Late 1970s

Please keep in mind three things:

1. I'm only choosing Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress.  Let's be honest and say that these are the only three categories most people care about.

2. I'm only choosing from the movies reviewed in my "Some Other Movies From..." entries.  This means that some of the movies I choose might actually be award-winners from that year.

3. The movies reviewed in my "Some Other Movies From..." entries were chosen because I hadn't seen them before, and/or because of their relative obscurity.  To put an even finer point on it, they were chosen half willfully and half randomly.  I tend to pick 7 or 8 movies featuring people I'm familiar with, and 7 or 8 movies featuring people unknown to me.

4. For fun I'm adding another category, something memorable from a film belonging to a given year.


Best Picture: The China Syndrome
Best Actor: Al Pacino, ...And Justice for All
Best Actress: Jane Fonda, The China Syndrome
Most Memorably Bad Movie: Beyond the Poseidon Adventure


Best Picture: Blue Collar
Best Actor: Dustin Hoffman, Straight Time
Best Actress: Geraldine Chaplin, Remember My Name
Most Popular Movie That Future Generations Will Fail To Understand: Convoy


Best Picture: Sorcerer
Best Actor: James Coburn, Cross of Iron
Best Actress: Shelley Duvall, 3 Women
Most Under-the-Radar Horror Movie: The Car


Best Picture: Gator (weird year for movies)
Best Actor: Cliff Robertson, Obsession
Best Actress: Lauren Bacall, The Shootist
So Bad It's Classic: The Food of the Gods


Best Picture: Night Moves
Best Actor: Gene Hackman, Night Moves
Best Actress: Melanie Griffith, Night Moves
Sexiest Actress: Laura Gemser, Black Emanuelle

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 1978
Some Other Movies From 1976
Some Other Movies From 1975
Some Other Movies From 1977

Some Other Movies From 1978

The last one!  For now at least.  With this entry I've watched and reviewed at least 15 movies from every year I've been alive.  It hasn't always been easy, it hasn't always been entertaining, but I suppose I've learned a lot.

In case you're curious, I began this quest in September 2017, with the Some Other Movies From 1980 entry.  From there I worked forward through the even years to 2018, and from 2018 I worked backward through the odd years to 1975.  From 1975 I worked forward through 1976 and 1978.  44 years altogether, making for at least 660 movies and at least 990 hours.  No wonder it took me so long!

In 1978 I turned three.  You'd think my mom would've kept me out of the local movie theater, but I have a clear memory of seeing Superman in a drive-in that year.  The first movie I ever saw?  Quite possibly.

The top 5 movies of 1978 were Grease, Superman, Animal House, Every Which Way But Loose and Heaven Can Wait.  I never liked Grease (sorry, just not into musicals), but I still like the rest of these movies very much.

Other good movies of that year were Hooper, The Deer Hunter, Halloween, Coming Home, Dawn of the Dead, Thank God It's Friday (I know it's ridiculous but I love it), Up in Smoke, Days of Heaven (my favorite Terrence Malick movie), Force 10 from Navarone, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Worst movie?  I really couldn't find one from this year.  As I searched through Wikipedia I realized that I haven't seen that many movies from 1978, and that all of those I'd seen (except for Grease) I liked very much.

Does this mean 1978 was a great year for movies?  Or just that I've only seen the highlights?  I suppose we'll discover the answer together below.


1. Blue Collar

Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto star in this look at life in an auto assembly plant.  This was Paul Schrader's first outing as director, and I'd have to say it's both an unqualified success and Richard Pryor's best movie.  

Fun Fact: Pryor, Keitel and Kotto despised each other.  Their disagreements almost derailed the entire production.

2. The Fury

ESP, telekinesis, pyrokinesis... the late 70s was a good time to film a "powers of the mind" movie.  In The Fury - just like in The Medusa Touch (below) - a young man harbors an extraordinary ability.  This young man happens to be Kirk Douglas' son, who was abducted by a shady government agency.  Brian De Palma (yep, he directed this one, too) builds up a wonderful sense of dread in this movie, and Amy Irving is great in the lead role.

Fun Fact #1: Darryl Hannah is in this if you look real hard.

Fun Fact #2: I love both movies, but this one anticipated David Cronenberg's Scanners by several years.

3. Coma

I still think this was one of the best things Michael Crichton was ever involved in.  Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas were also excellent as the leads.  It's on the slow side, but it's grounded in enough details to make it seem plausible.  In Coma a doctor uncovers a conspiracy involving a medical institute, and it gets more and more paranoid from there.

Fun Fact #1: Bujold's friend is played by Lois Chiles, who would appear as Holly Goodhead in Moonraker the following year.

Fun Fact #2: This was Ed Harris' first movie.  He has a few lines in the pathology room.

4. Straight Time

In the 70s people put a lot of money into pay phones.  You see a lot of that in Blue Collar.  You also see a lot of it in Straight Time.

In Straight Time Dustin Hoffman stars as an ex-con trying to make it on the outside after doing six years for burglary.  It's a great movie and also very overlooked.

Sadly Forgotten

1. F.I.S.T.

Sylvester Stallone stars as a labor organizer in the 1930s.  For me this movie was the first instance of Stallone exhibiting the star power that would make him famous.  Sure, Rocky appeared two years before, but in this movie you can see him trying on a completely different persona, and speaking dialogue that Rocky Balboa would have struggled with.  In F.I.S.T. director Norman Jewison was also really on to something, and it's a shame some of the critics at the time couldn't see past Stallone's most recent success.

I'd recommend breaking it into two sittings though.  It's pretty long.

Some Good Ones

1. Remember My Name

Geraldine Chaplin had such a circuitous (torturous?) career in Hollywood.  Her famous father, years of obscurity, and then a role playing her own grandmother in 1992's Chaplin.

In Remember My Name Chaplin plays a woman stalking her ex-husband.  Casting Anthony Perkins as the object of her obsession was also a nice touch.  This movie feels like it could have been filmed yesterday.

Fun Fact: Alfre Woodard and Jeff Goldblum were in this, back when nobody knew who they were.

2. An Unmarried Woman

Was this the height of Jill Clayburgh's career?  Sure feels like it, but I'm not sure.  I liked her a lot in Semi-Tough, even if she was wasted on Silver Streak.

In this movie she plays a formerly married woman newly on the market.  Her relationship with her daughter is a little weird, but the performances are good and Clayburgh does a good job of holding the movie together.  In my opinion it's not nearly as good as Remember My Name (above), but it tells an interesting story nonetheless.

3. The Medusa Touch

It wastes too much time dancing around its subject matter, but The Medusa Touch is still an interesting study of a man who may or may not have the power to kill people with his mind.  Richard Burton steals every scene he's in, and even if it's laborious it has the same kind of creepiness - the same worry over causality - that made The Omen and The Exorcist such hits.

4. The Driver

Ryan O'Neal stars as the titular driver, with Bruce Dern as a cop out to nab him.  It's a solid action movie that does exactly what it sets out to do.  On a Movie Manliness Scale of 1 to 10, 10 being Clint Eastwood's second-to-last speech in Unforgiven, this movie's a 9.5.

5. Jaws 2

The great Roy Scheider was still on board for this one, even if Spielberg, Shaw and Dreyfuss had already abandoned ship.  Of course it's not as good as the first movie, of course it gets silly at times, but it's an enjoyable two hours.

Fun Fact: The guy who directed this film also did Supergirl.

Deja Vu

1. The Boys in Company C

Fucking Hollywood has tricked me yet again.  Lee Ermey is in this, playing the same role he played in Full Metal Jacket.  Seriously.  Nine years earlier.  So when you hear them talk about how Ermey was some kind of "surprise find" with regard to the casting for Kubrick's Vietnam film, don't listen - they'd already been down this road with him long before.

Kubrick, Stone, De Palma and Coppola aren't behind the wheel for this one, so of course it lacks that kind of polish, but The Boys in Company C covers a lot of territory familiar from later 80s Vietnam War classics - and it was there first.  It even anticipates American Gangster by a few decades.

This movie, by the way, would make a good double feature with Coming Home, which was released the same year.

Sad but True: Nominating Andrew Stevens for a Golden Globe - as good as he is in this movie - was bullshit.  Stan Shaw, who plays Tyrone Washington, was the one who deserved that kind of recognition.

Weirdly Historic

1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin 少林三十六房

You might recognize the star of this movie, Gordon Liu, from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies.  The actor who plays the villain was also the "human balloon" in John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China.  A lot of the bigger Hong Kong stars made transitions to Hollywood later on.

And forgive me if I ramble a bit here, but I live in Taiwan and have studied its history for years.  The "tartars" spoken of in the beginning are Ching Dynasty officials, sent to Canton Province to consolidate that dynasty's hold on the southern parts of China.  The heroes of this movie are Ming loyalists hoping to restore the "native" (ethnically Chinese) Ming Dynasty to power, which was displaced by the Ching.  Many ethnic Chinese regarded the Ching as northern barbarians.

The good guys in this movie, the Ming loyalists, are attempting to establish communications with the court of Jeng Cheng-gong, a pirate-turned-feudal lord who had forced the Dutch out of Taiwan.  Jeng Cheng-gong's stated goal was the restoration of the Ming Dynasty in China, and this goal made him a likely ally for the heroes in the movie.  In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin the good guys win in the short term, but in the long term the Ching would rule for hundreds of years.  The Ching would endure to become China's last dynasty, which would collapse in the early 1900s after years of civil war and the depredations of foreign powers.

And then, kung fu.  Gordon Liu has to get revenge, right?  Those rascals killed his dad after all.  He escapes to a Shaolin temple where he learns kung fu, and you can probably guess what happens after that.

The Shaolin (or Shiao Lin or Xiao Lin) temples were in essence subversive religious organizations, and the Ching Dynasty had a lot of trouble with those.  The most famous example is the Boxer Rebellion, but the Taiping Rebellion could be another example.  Even now the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has issues with this type of organization, as seen in their persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.

But I digress.  Or do I?  Whether I do or whether I don't, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the best - if not the best - kung fu movies I've ever seen, and this fact, weirdly, has little to do with the fight choreography.  It's just a well-crafted action movie that tells an interesting story.

Definitely not Good, but VERY Late 70s

1. FM

Just check out that room full of LPs during the credits.  This, and special "in concert" appearances by Linda Ronstadt AND Jimmy Buffett.  Oh, and I almost forgot the scene in Tower Records - back when they really sold records.

The cast?  Let's just say that some of them were in much better movies, others went on to much better movies, and others didn't really go anywhere at all.  The plot?  As you'd expect it's about an FM radio station.  Something something not wanting to play army jingles something something.

Cleavon Little, by the way, deserved the Oscar for Pretending to Like Songs That No Self-Respecting Black Man Would Ever Like.

Some Bad Ones

1. California Suite

I fucking hate plays.  And this movie feels way too much like a play.  Neil Simon wrote it, Herbert Ross directed it, and even though I like a lot of the cast members it just wasn't working.

People only have certain kinds of conversations in plays.  In real life they say "Fuck you" and disappear for several years.  They're probably right in doing so.

My One Coherent Thought for the Day: Michael Caine was terrible at picking movies.  Great actor, but when he was in a good movie it was almost by accident.  He and Maggie Smith are excellent in this movie, but the rest of this film ruins it.  For every The Man Who Would Be King there's a Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and for every The Dark Knight there's a Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.  I admire his work ethic, but he could have been more selective.

2. Convoy

"Did you ever ride in a truck?  Do you want to?"

Sam Peckinpah sort of directed this.  Kris Kistofferson stars as a trucker, with Ali MacGraw (and a terrible perm) as a woman he meets on the road.  This movie could be seen as the highlight of the late 70s trucker/trucking craze, and yes, CB radios abound.  It was the most commercially successful movie Peckinpah ever directed, and also one of the last.  The first half is solid, but during the second it really wears out its welcome.

Fun Fact: The big afro dude from Car Wash is in this.

Not-So-Fun Fact: As has been discussed elsewhere, Peckinpah was having serious substance abuse issues around this time.  During the filming of Convoy it got so bad that his Cross of Iron star James Coburn was called in to act as second unit director.  Coburn went on to direct most of this movie.

3. Pretty Baby

Susan Sarandon would go on to star in Louis Malle's Atlantic City, a movie I loved, but this one wasn't doing anything for me.  I suppose those involved thought the setting would go some distance toward making this movie interesting, but this story about life in a New Orleans brothel feels very staged.  Brooke Shields' nude scenes in this film (she was 12) have caused some critics to label this "child pornography," and even with that aside I'd have to say that this movie just isn't very good.*

4. I Wanna Hold Your Hand

Robert Zemeckis directed this teen comedy about the Beatles coming to America.  Critics liked it, but it bored the hell out of me.  Reminded me a lot of American Graffiti - another movie I'm not fond of - and I liked this one even less.

Related Entries:

Some Other Movies From 1976
Some Other Movies From 1975
Some Other Movies From 1977
Some Other Movies From 1979

*Maybe I'm going to come off as a prude when I say this, but this was the first movie that actually made me feel dirty for watching it.  This said, that "dirty" feeling probably falls outside the bounds of a critical analysis of this movie, so I'm just including this footnote as a warning.  One of the last scenes in this movie really turned my stomach, and I never want to see anything like that again.

2019年8月10日 星期六

"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)

"He gestured at the screen, and the ball of twine exploded, sending brilliant loops arching out into the darkness in all directions.  'The Keystone is, at the very least, armed with a TOE [Theory of Everything], and aware of both vis [sic] existence, and a canonical body of observations and experimental results - whether vis [sic) own, or 'second hand' - which need to be accounted for.  If we lacked either the information density or organizational schema to explain vis [sic] own existence self-consistently, the whole event would be sub-critical: there'd be no universe implied.  But given a sufficiently rich Aleph, the process won't stop until an entire physical cosmos is created." 

I know, I know.  Let that sink in for a while, and get back to me.  No one's going to get there all at once, and anyone who says they have is probably mistaken.

Greg Egan is an Australian computer programmer and writer of science fiction.  He's somewhat famous for being one of the harder hard science fiction writers out there, and he's won several awards for his books.  One of his other books, Permutation City, has also been reviewed here.

In Distress a journalist is assigned to cover a physics conference in the year 2050.  This particular physics conference has attracted a lot of attention because at least three of its keynote (or should I say keystone?) speakers have claimed to have discovered a Theory of Everything (TOE) which will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.  Little do these speakers know that a fringe group of cosmologists has targeted each and every one of them for assassination, hoping to avert the end of everything.

As novels go it's damn slow, and it just didn't blow my mind the way Permutation City did.  The protagonist is by turns irritating and slow on the uptake, and none of the situations in which he finds himself are remotely interesting.  About halfway through the book I started to actively wish for his death, and the threatened end of the world began to seem like a satisfying way to end this novel.

As much as I loved Permutation City, I think it's in Distress that Greg Egan reveals his weakness as a writer.  He's good with big, sweeping, mind-numbing ideas - the kind of ideas that held center stage in Permutation City - but very weak with regard to creating interesting characters and putting them in dramatic situations.  And instead of going with his strength as a writer, the kind of philosophical/technological/scientific ideas which should have been at the heart of this story, he decided to populate this novel with a host of unlikable and uninteresting people, all loosely joined together by a subplot that would make most people laugh if you explained it to them.

So yeah, this book is boring... but I won't hold it against the author.  If the only thing he'd ever written was Permutation City, that alone would be enough to put him up there with authors like Asimov and Clarke.  I'm also fairly certain that he's written other, better books than Distress.  Every author's allowed his or her occasional duds, and it was just my bad luck to have chosen Distress out of Egan's bibliography.

Related Entries:

"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)
"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)
"Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement (1954)
"R.U.R. and War with the Newts" by Karl Capek (1920 and 1936)

2019年8月6日 星期二

Some Other Movies From 1976

In 1976 I turned one year old.  I doubt my mom took me to any movies because taking infants to movies isn't fun.

The top 5 movies of that year were Rocky, To Fly! (a documentary), A Star is Born, All the President's Men and The OmenRocky and All the President's Men are still awesome, I haven't seen To Fly!, A Star is Born (the one with Streisand) is cheesy fun, and I don't think The Omen has aged well.

Other good movies from that year were The Enforcer, Network, Marathon Man, Taxi Driver (hell yeah), Assault on Precinct 13, Bound for Glory, Carrie (classic), Logan's Run, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

For "worst movie" I'd pick King Kong, which always seemed unintentionally funny to me.  Jessica Lange is of course stunning in it, but some of its plot points don't bear thinking about.

Movie History

1. The Shootist

John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard star in this, John Wayne's last movie.  It lumbers along the way that Wayne himself lumbered along, and while recalling the Westerns of yesteryear it does make some concessions to more "modern" examples of the genre.  All in all a good sendoff for Wayne, who would pass into movie history three years later.

Fun Fact: Ron Howard would direct his first movie, Grand Theft Auto, the following year.

Some Good Ones

1. Gator

I wonder how much of an influence that swamp chase sequence in Live and Let Die had on this movie.  Yeah, Gator is the sequel to White Lightning (which I haven't yet seen), but Live and Let Die came out the same year.

In Gator star and director Burt Reynolds plays a bootlegger sent to catch a local crime boss.  This movie walks a fine line between action and comedy, and does so with Reynold's characteristic aplomb.  You could see this movie as a dress rehearsal for the far more successful Smokey and the Bandit; you could also see it as a labor of love for Reynolds, who in some ways made a very personal statement with this film.

Critics hated it at the time, but I liked it.

Fun Fact: Burt Reynolds' career and Sean Connery's career have intersected at two important points.  After Connery left the 007 franchise, producer Albert R. Broccoli offered the role to Reynolds.  Several years later Reynolds was set to star in the movie Zardoz, but was unable to appear in that movie due to illness.  Sean Connery replaced him in the lead role.

2. Mother, Jugs and Speed

"Two tickets to the Cat Stevens concert tonight!"

Holy shit it's Bill Cosby.  And no, as far as I know Raquel Welch never came forward with those kind of allegations.  Then again it's only been 43 years since this movie's release, so it may be too early to say.

Not only is this movie a lot of fun, not only is it a 70s trivia goldmine, but it's also a movie trivia goldmine as well.  Peter Yates, Bill Cosby, Harvey Keitel (!), Bruce Davison, Larry Hagman, Dick Butkus, the list of associations is endless.  Besides the great cast, this movie is also really well-written and directed.  It's easy to see why it was on TV so much when I was a kid.

Fun Fact #1: Gene Hackman was originally slated to play Mother.  He passed on the role due to exhaustion, and recommended that Bill Cosby take his place.

Fun Fact #2: Writer Tom Manciewicz also wrote several of the James Bond movies.

3. Car Wash

It was never going to win any Academy Awards, but as a "slice of life" movie it works very well.  It also has a sly sense of humor that hasn't aged a bit.  Richard Pryor and George Carlin (R.I.P.) are the most famous people in it, but you might also recognize Bill Duke from Predator.

Fun Fact: Joel Schumacher wrote the screenplay.

4. Voyage of the Damned

Max von Sydow captains a boatload of Jews headed for Cuba as the Second World War heats up.  It's on the long side, but if you've got the patience it builds to a satisfying conclusion.

"Satisfying" in relative terms.  You know it's called Voyage of the Damned, right?

Fun Fact: Laura "Black Emanuelle" Gemser is in this.  Just look over Orson Welles' shoulder as the man enters the casino.

5. (Battle of) Midway

Charlton Heston leads a cast of Hollywood all-stars in this story of the famed military engagement.  Actual footage was used for the battles.  It was a moderate hit, but I feel this movie arrived a bit too late to find its intended audience.  In 1976 Vietnam was still fresh in everyone's memory, and the great WWII spectacles of yesteryear were distinctly out of fashion.

The actress who plays the Japanese girlfriend is TERRIBLE, but her particular subplot would have made for an interesting movie.  A Japanese-American family with pro-Japan sympathies?  A Japanese-American father who considers his family American, but refuses to let his daughter marry an American serviceman on racial grounds?  There are a lot of layers there, and telling this story from their point of view would have offered an interesting perspective on the war.

Just one question though: WHY would the maps used by the Japanese have English on them?  I guess you could say they were taken from Western maps at the time, but the presence of English on those maps seems unlikely.

Fun Fact: Hollywood's going to try this again soon.  2019's Midway should hit theaters this November.

6. Obsession

God damn Cliff Robertson is great in this movie.  He's got this thing going on with his eyes...  Man, I don't even have words for it.

BUT there's a huge problem at the center of this Brian De Palma directed-film, and that problem is the fact that Cliff Robertson doesn't recognize a family member after a 16-year separation.  I'm sorry, but I'm just not buying that.  Other than that huge, gaping hole this movie is brilliant.  The soundtrack is amazing too.

Fun Fact: Screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote a whole other ending for this movie, which was later removed by De Palma over Schrader's objections.

7. Stay Hungry

Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and... Arnold Schwarzenegger!  This was one of Schwarzenegger's earliest film appearances, and the first where his own voice could be heard.  Jeff Bridges stars as a young man trying to escape his family's legacy, with Sally Field as the love interest and Schwarzenegger as - you guessed it - a bodybuilder.  It's an ok movie, but the voiceovers were unnecessary and its tone reflects the pretentious novel it was adapted from.  There's also a REALLY pointless sex scene near the end.

Fun Fact: Continuing with the theme of Robert Englund appearing briefly in every other 70s movie, he's in this one, too.  Oh, and Scatman Crothers, who happens to be in both Silver Streak and The Shootist, is in the cast.

Some Bad Ones

1. The Ritz

A straight man from the Midwest hides out in a gay bathhouse.  Hilarity ensues?  Not quite.  It's almost watchable, but the straight man is too credulous to be believable, and too dumb for this movie to be funny.  Just go watch The Birdcage.  It works a lot better.

2. Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw

Wonder Woman Lynda Carter and a Billy the Kid-type fall in love and drive around a lot.  The guy who plays "Outlaw" is a terrible actor, and Lynda Carter's hotness just can't save it.

Reason for Self-Abuse: If you're a straight guy (like me) who grew up in the 70s, Lynda Carter probably looms large in your sexual imagination.  If you want to see those wondrous bazooms this is the movie for you.

3. Lipstick

Hollywood's never met a good idea it wasn't willing to recycle several times.  Sure, the events of Star 80 actually happened, but years before it Mariel Hemingway had already appeared in Lipstick.

In Lipstick her big sister Margaux stars as a model who crosses paths with an emotionally disturbed man.  Anne Bancroft and Chris Sarandon round out the major cast members.  It's in too much of a hurry to get from point A to point B, and Sarandon, while a decent actor, just isn't able to summon up the kind of manic energy that made Eric Roberts famous.

Fun Fact: Margaux Hemingway was named after a type of wine.  Her sister Mariel was named after a port in Cuba where her famous grandfather liked to fish.

Not-So-Fun Fact: Several members of the Hemingway clan have struggled with mental illness.  There's a documentary, Running From Crazy, about this very thing.

4. Shout at the Devil

It's weird to see Lee Marvin and Roger Moore in a movie together.  In Shout at the Devil scheming Marvin and gentlemanly Moore run afoul of German colonial authorities.  I liked the first hour, but after that this movie just doesn't make any sense.

Note: Action movies cease being lighthearted romps ONCE YOU THROW A BABY INTO A FIRE.  Just a thought.  Make of it what you will.

5. Silver Streak

This is more of a personal thing.  I've just never liked Gene Wilder.  Ditto for the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor combination.  Wilder stars as a man who witnesses a murder during a cross-country train trip, and about halfway through he (predictably) meets up with Pryor.

So Bad They're Good

1. The Cassandra Crossing

Director George P. Cosmatos' third movie.  In The Cassandra Crossing a man carrying a killer virus boards a train in Switzerland, and the WHO must deal with the consequences.  It's one of the more overlooked disaster movies of the 1970s, and features Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Burt Lancaster, Martin Sheen (in one of his more out of the box performances) and O.J. Simpson.  It's pretty silly, and critics hated it at the time, but I think modern viewers will get a kick out of it.

Fun Fact: This was Ava Gardner's second disaster movie of the 70s.  She appeared in Earthquake opposite Charlton Heston two years before.

2. The Food of the Gods

Getting killed by giant wasps would be FUCKED UP.

In The Food of the Gods various forms of animal life become gigantic after they eat some kind of goo.  It's based on part of an H.G. Wells novel, and I'm sure this is the part that makes H.G. Wells turn over in his grave every time someone watches The Food of the Gods.  This movie is wonderfully bad right from the start.

And hey, there's Marjoe Gortner again, last seen in Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw.  Dude was having a good time in 1976.  His acting isn't any better in this one though!

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2019年8月2日 星期五

An Incomplete List of Weird and Ridiculous Things in Flash: The Silver Age Vol. 4 (1966ish)

It was the late 60s, and this stuff was written for kids.  Gardner Fox and John Broome wrote most of it, with the great Carmine Infantino at the drawing board.

1. The Flash can move fast enough to dodge bullets, but if he hits a piece of paper while he's moving at super speed it knocks him out.

2. Captain Boomerang actually tried to shoot Flash into orbit using a boomerang.  And it almost worked.

3. There is "another dimension of space" full of psychic beings, and some of these psychic beings travel to other "dimensions of space" purely for the sake of blowing shit up.

4. The villain Abra Kadabra isn't just able to give his "magic" to other people, Flash is later able to transfer this "magic" into a lamp.

5. Barry Allen's fiance Iris is an idiot who somehow can't figure out that he's the Flash.  Even when Barry disappears and the Flash appears a moment later.  Every.  Freaking.  Time.

6. Captain Cold doesn't just make stuff out of ice.  He can also animate the things he makes and use them to attack the Flash.  The Flash is able to escape these creations by "vibrating faster than light."

7. The Flash is able to travel several times the speed of light and yet no time dilation occurs.

8. When the Flash moves a group of criminals at speeds faster than light they somehow develop telekinetic powers.

9. The Flash takes the criminals' telekinetic powers away by moving several times the speed of light in the other direction.

10. #7-#9 above were all in a single 12-page issue of The Flash.  The writer was really smoking the good stuff when he wrote that one.

11. Flash villain The Shade controls a "dark dimension," populated by "dark animals."  These creatures are able to follow commands and interact with our world, but are exempt from physical law as we know it.

12. Iris's uncle invents a way to make plants larger, with the side effect that they explode soon after.

13. Professor Zoom (a.k.a. Reverse Flash) has created his own "science of ultra-speed" based upon "speeding electrons and other sub-atomic particles to fantastic rates."

14. Certain individuals like the Flash are without any tendency toward criminality.  They are the ubermensch spoken of by Nietzsche.  Their every action is in alignment with Kant's categorical imperative.

15. When a super speedster travels forward or backward in time, they still need to worry about how much time they spend in a past or future era.  Otherwise they'll be... too late?

16. Laws in Central City are created and enacted in an almost arbitrary fashion.  And when the mayor of Central City decides to make super speed illegal, the Flash complies with this law and does not question it.

17. The Flash, although able to move at superhuman speeds, can be imprisoned in a cone of "ultra-radiation."

18. Over time the Flash builds up something called "haywire speed," which makes it impossible for him to control his powers.  This haywire speed must be drained away by giving his super speed to other people.

19. Even though the Flash's real identity is supposed to be secret, he's able to get people hired on at the Flash Museum.  And STILL Iris has no idea that Barry Allen is the Flash, despite the fact that she's an investigative reporter.

20. As a way of averting a "giant planet-wide explosion," Flash and Kid-Flash race longitudinally and latitudinally over the surface of the Earth, covering every inch of it (including the oceans) with some kind of explosion-preventing spray.

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