Saturday, September 24, 2011

They're Back!

Remember these guys?  They're the science ants who have been shooting particles down a tunnel that would be the envy of any hive in the world.

They're the physicists of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, and they just sent some sub-atomic neutrinos, emanating from their particle accelerator outside Geneva, to a cavern underneath Gran Sasso in Italy — a distance of 454 miles — at a speed about 60 nanoseconds faster than it would take a light beam to travel the same distance. That amounts to a speed greater than light by about 25 parts in a million.

Not much of a difference, but if the speed holds up, it will confine Einstein's theory of relativity to a world without neutrinos.

I've been expecting something like that to happen.

I went to a Catholic high school run by the Christian Brothers, and thought I was getting a good education, until I competed to get into Rice University with kids who'd had a real education in math.  There were questions on the exam I couldn't even read, let alone answer.  Probably the only person in the world with as low an opinion of Catholic education as mine is Pierce Brosnan, who also went to a Christian Brothers school.

When I started college, I was still struggling with math.  I took Calculus three times.  First time I made a B, so I took it over and made a C.  I gave my daughter a copy of that college transcript last year so she'll never have to worry about what I think about her math grades.

I dropped out of college my senior year, bummed around until I got drafted, and spent some time in and out of the Army in Germany.  Along the way, I met one of the most important people in my life, a guy named Joe Farina, who went through advanced training with me in San Antonio.  Farina was working for Lockheed at NASA and doing a six-month hitch in the Reserves.  At the end of our training, he went back to Houston and I shipped out for Germany.  We corresponded while I was in the Army, and, when I returned to Galveston from Europe, we spent the summer hanging out at the beach and the Galvez Hotel pool.  That summer, he taught me the fundamental concepts of math I should have learned when I was a kid.

Farina worked with a guy named George who had a theory about Einstein's equations I found fascinating.  According to George, the reason those electrons couldn't go faster than the speed of light wasn't that they got denser the way Einstein said.  It was because they started to wobble.

So I was thinking about George yesterday when I heard about those super-fast neutrinos.  Thinking maybe those neutrinos fly straight.  But mainly I was thinking about Joe Farina and about how in just a couple of months one guy could undo 4 years of harm caused by a bunch of incompetent educators.  I owe him more than he will ever know.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

This Certainly Explains A Lot

From the Yahoo! Contributor Network
Reasons content may be declined for Up-front Payment:
Content on the particular topic does not typically perform well online.

Such topics include:

■  Yahoo! Contributor Network tutorials
■  Humor
■  Creative writing (including memoirs, poetry, short stories, or any form of fiction)
■  Movie, music, television, or video game reviews
■  Opinion/editorial pieces
■  Recipes
Well, at least I've never written a Contributor Network tutorial.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Forward Looking Infrared has been around a long time. I first saw it in use over 30 years ago, cruising along the Rio Grande in an INS helicopter. FLIR has given U.S. troops the ability to see at night without being seen. It has completely altered the nature of modern warfare. It's incredible stuff. It reduces the human beings at the receiving end of a weapon to mere targets on a screen. If it's true, as I was told growing up in Texas, that distant is polite, FLIR makes killing about as polite as it gets.

I read recently that some researches believe playing kill-or-be-killed war games improves cognition. According to Daphne Bavelier, an assistant professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester, people who play fast-paced games "have better vision, better attention and better cognition." Bavelier was a presenter at a symposium on the educational uses of video and computer games.

I'm constantly running into reports that suggest video game players make the best surgeons, pilots and CAD monkeys.

I guess that depends on the individual. My first video game was Doom, and after playing it for a month or so, I developed tunnel vision that lasted for weeks after I stopped playing the game. It was like walking around, looking at the world through a tube about the size of a coffee can.

Last year, Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker that some of the CIA agents who fly the lethal drones over Afghanistan wear flight suits at work. Mayer's October 2009 article, The Predator War, explores the risks of using predator drones as our weapon of choice in the war on terror.

The New Yorker, October 26, 2009

I don't doubt that video games are educational and have real potential for making work more fun.

One of the best games I've heard about was used by currency traders. The traders sat in the cockpit of a virtual fighter jet and gunned down stacks of foreign currency with bullets denominated in dollars to exchange dollars for Euros, Francs or Marks. To buy dollars, they loaded up with a foreign currency and gunned down piles of dollars.

You could develop a Madoff version of that game that helped investment advisors gun down their clients fortunes, and, in the advanced version, gun down their clients themselves, saving them the trouble of jumping out of windows.

Professor Bavelier had some good ideas about ways to "harness the positive effects" of first-person shooter games without violence.

"As you know," she said, "most of us females just hate those action video games. You don't have to use shooting. You can use, for example, a princess who has a magic wand and whenever she touches something, it turns into a butterfly and sparkles."

Put that into the targeting system of an Apache helicopter and you might have something.

Personally, I'm looking forward to smart weapons that know when to shoot and when not to.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Web 2.0 has witnessed the rise of citizen journalism and a brand of publishing that reminds me of the wild, wild West, compared to the staid publications of the East Coast with their European sensibilities and, as Norman Mailer put it, their "bloodless, gutless restraint. "

Cyberspace tends to be combative and ideological. And Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, is one of the most combative and ideological publishers on the web. Assange and the leaked documents and videos he has published are now at the red hot center of the battle to control the flow of information over the world wide web. Although Assange is not the first publisher to make government documents available to the public, his publication of gun camera videos and U.S. Department of State cables is massive, both in terms of its sheer volume and in terms of its buzz. And it is the only leak around right now. In my view, there is nothing on WikiLeaks as sensational as the Abu Ghraib photos, and, in fact, nothing as shocking as some of the videos that have been up on YouTube since the start of the Iraq occupation, but Assange has made the leaks personal and part of a private war with the U.S. government. He has given the publication of leaks a human face. He has become the center of attention. That's too bad. Because it may be too hot at the center for Assange.

When I first saw the gun camera video Assange published, I was struck by the fact that the gunship was adhering to General Petraeus' regrettable rules of engagement for Baghdad. The rules should have been stricter, but at least they prevented the gunships from finishing off the wounded the way this gunship did.

This kind of video, depicting the actual murder of a wounded insurgent, has been available on YouTube for years, along with countless home videos put up there -- self-published, if you will -- by American soldiers and Marines, and also by insurgents. Most of the insurgent videos seem to have been removed quietly over the years on the grounds that they violate YouTube's terms of service. I say "quietly" because YouTube, a publisher whose significance dwarfs the personal soap opera of Assange and WikiLeaks, has never identified itself as a publisher with an ax to grind. In fact, YouTube doesn't pretend to be a publisher at all. Putatively, they are simply providing a forum for the free exchange of information. Therein, it seems to me, lies YouTube's safety, if not legally -- and I don't pretend to understand the legal issues around the free flow of information -- at least morally. For YouTube does not notice us -- unless we draw attention to one another. They have adopted at least the appearance of ignorance and neutrality. Assange has not.

Assange has, in fact, made quite a big deal out of knowing exactly what he's publishing. He has probably been led down that path by the establishment press who are very high on "responsibility" and insist on things like verifying sources, redacting classified information, and making a determination about whether the public's right to know outweighs the danger of exposing operators and operations. Having consented to work with the establishment in making those judgments, Assange has exposed himself to the moral, if not the legal, responsibility to get it right.

I suspect that is something Julian Assange is poorly equipped to do.

(Update. 3/24/2019. YouTube removed the video of an American gunship murdering a wounded insurgent.)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Julian Assange A Journalist?

Both sides of the WikiLeaks debate seem determined to misrepresent the issues in the Assange drama by hotly arguing over whether Assange is a journalist or not. Of course he isn’t. Assange is a publisher, and he’s entitled to the same protections — no more and no less – as any other publisher.

File this under topics for further research.

Do journalists have better or worse protections under the U.S. Constitution than publishers have? Are they held to different standards? Do people respect journalists more than they respect publishers? Who raised the issue of whether Assange is a journalist in the first place? Does being perceived as a journalist help or hurt Assange?

And what, if anything, do the charges a Swedish prosecutor — a woman who has a long history of prosecuting sex abuse and child abuse — wants to question Assange about have to do with WikiLeaks? For the record, I don’t think the charges have much to with the WikiLeaks drama at all. Sex shouldn’t be a death-defying act. If Assange did what the two women have accused him of doing — if he exposed them to the risk of AIDS by forcing them to have unprotected sex – he committed a crime under Swedish law. That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to protection as a publisher when he publishes government tapes and documents.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


After years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, examining the conditions of Pfc. Bradley Manning's confinement at Quantico, Va., could be the first step in a process of national reconciliation. President Obama could begin that process now, with a simple act of compassion. He could direct the Department of Defense to find a better way to safeguard Private Manning while he awaits trial. The President will not be able to risk lifting the Prevention of Injury (POI) watch Private Manning is being subjected to, but he can and should make the POI watch more humane.

Sooner or later, Americans do find ways to reconcile their differences. For me, reconciliation after the Vietnam War came with the dedication of Maya Ying Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a sad, retiring monument to the fallen of a sad war. I've always felt the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a more fitting conclusion to the Vietnam War experience than America's victory in the Gulf War, a victory that, according to George H. W. Bush, "kicked the Vietnam syndrome" and, it turns out, restored the confidence America needed to undertake further adventures -- adventures Private Manning is accused of trying to thwart by stealing classified documents.

In the case of Private Manning, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grind to a close, Americans have a chance to start reconciling our differences over at least one aspect of the conduct of those wars: our treatment of prisoners of war and captive "enemies" of all kinds.

We have a chance to kick the torture syndrome.

The Department of Defense's treatment of Private Manning has been opposed by the left for a long time -- especially by Glenn Greenwald and by bloggers at Jane Hamsher's Firedoglake -- but now Private Manning's physical and mental health, and the conditions under which he is being held at Quantico, have begun to concern more Americans. It has become clear that, whatever the reasons, those conditions include sleep deprivation, solitary confinement and intentional humiliation. They are conditions that have been denounced as "stupid" by the Department of State's top spokesman, P.J. Crowley, at the cost of his job.

There is something disturbing about seeing the force of the United States government directed against a single individual, in this case a 23-year-old soldier.

Understandably, the Obama administraton is angry at Private Manning. They believe he leaked embarrassing details about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and about State Department operations around the globe. Just as understandably, they would like him to implicate WikiLeaks -- the site that first published the documents they claim Private Manning stole -- in the theft of the documents. But does that anger and that desire to get at the publishers of the documents justify treating Private Manning in a way that many are beginning to describe as torture?

Facts about Private Manning's life at the brig are hard to come by. It's not clear if Private Manning is still being interrogated, or if he's just waiting for his trial. The military insists that Private Manning is being treated the same as any prisoner in his circumstances would be -- whatever that means -- and President Obama is content to take their word for it. But Private Manning and his lawyer dispute that claim. They say Private Manning is being abused and punished under the guise of protecting him.

Most of the information we have about Private Manning's confinement comes from him and his lawyer, David Coombs, and, to be fair, there are contradictions in their story. On the one hand, Mr. Coombs says Private Manning sleeps naked in a cold cell; on the other hand he says the brig has given Private Manning a blanket he can't tear. And Private Manning admits that, out of frustration with his living conditions, he has become upset, yelled and pulled his hair.

To be even more fair, the military has responded -- in a way -- to criticism from Private Manning's supporters. When Private Manning complained about having to sleep naked and stand inspection every morning in the nude, the brig gave him a rough garment to wear. (But then the Marine guards proceeded to mock and humiliate him by calling the garment a "smock.")

This much is clear. Private Manning has been held in solitary confinement since he arrived at the Quantico brig on July 29, 2010.

For 23 hours a day, Private Manning sits in his cell. The guards check on him every five minutes by asking him if he is "okay." He is required to respond. At night, if the guards can't see him clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or he is curled up, facing the wall, they wake him to make sure he is unharmed, forcing him to choose between sleeping without covers or not sleeping at all. He eats all of his meals in his cell. He is not allowed to exercise in his cell, and he only gets one hour of exercise in a closed room outside of his cell each day.

Considering the torture and abuse of prisoners by the U.S military at Abu Ghraib -- where the guards assisted interrogaters by softening the prisoners up -- it's not unreasonable for people concerned with civil liberties to demand an objective review of the way Private Manning is being treated. And it makes sense to wonder why the military is stonewalling attempts by members of Congress to get access to the brig.

On the other hand, it was the U.S. Military itself that uncovered and publicized the crimes at Abu Ghraib. And no one would dispute that it's reasonable for the military and the Obama administration to make Private Manning's safety during his pre-trial confinement a top priority.

Private Manning, his lawyer, and his supporters all want the military to lift the POI watch Private Bradley is living under. His lawyer cites brig psychiatrists who say there is no mental health reason for keeping Private Bradley under POI. But is such a demand realistic?

Preventing injury to Private Manning is a political issue. Simply put, the President can't afford to take the chance -- no matter how remote -- that Private Manning might come to harm.

There is plenty of reason to believe that someone might try to hurt Private Manning if they got the chance. And, while there may be no good reason to believe he would harm himself, his suicide, if it did happen, would deal a devastating blow to the reputation of the military and the Obama administration. It would undoubtedly lead to investigations, conspiracy theories, and attacks on the administration from all sides.

Political suicides are rare, but there have been enough of them to give President Obama pause. The suicides of the monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon and the Quaker Norman Morrison outside the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., for example, had a profound impact on the Vietnam War.

The risk of an individual throwing his body into a war machine to gum up its works may be something psychiatrists are less qualified to assess than politicians are. The Obama administration has no desire to see the young soldier who embarrassed them by showing that they couldn't protect their secrets embarrass them further by killing himself while in their custody. Forget about lifting that POI watch.

But let's make sure the watch is as humane as it can be.

There is no reason why the conditions of Private Manning's POI watch can't be modified to eliminate sleep deprivation and humiliation. And certainly his jailers can find a safe way to relieve the isolation of Private Manning's solitary confinement, including letting him exercise in his cell and get some sunlight and fresh air.

The brig needs to deliver Private Manning for trial unharmed physically -- and unharmed mentally as well. There is no justification for destroying Private Manning in the course of protecting him. If the idea is to prevent Private Manning from harming himself, shouldn't the military consider the fact that loss, hopelessness and isolation are all on the CDC's list of risk factors for suicide?

If he is convicted, Private Manning, whose motive for taking on the United States government may have been to stop killing and torture, will probably end up in Leavenworth, where, in further irony, he will join William Calley, Hasan Akbar and Charles Graner, a guard convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

Maximum security prisons like Leavenworth subject some dangerous prisoners -- those who have attacked other prisoners or guards, for example -- to solitary confinement with the goal of conditioning them so that they can be returned to the general population. Private Manning, who no one has suggested is a danger to anyone else, will have done that much time in solitary before he ever comes to trial.

All of us, from the left and from the right as well, should demand that President Obama act now. He should direct the military to immediately cooperate with the Congress. He should direct the Department of Defense to devise humane ways to prevent injury to Private Manning while he awaits trial. If the Department of Defense can't do that, he should get them the advice of experts who can.

Wouldn't America be better off if the debate about Private Manning's pre-trial confinement could be shifted from whether he is being tortured to whether the treatment he is getting is a little too kind? Is there a society on earth that doesn't admire empathy, compassion and mercy?

No matter what we believe about America's role in the world, no matter what we believe about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no matter how much or how little damage we believe Private Manning may have done, if we cannot reconcile our differences over something as simple as the pre-trial treatment of Private Manning, a young man whose life is effectively over, we may not be able to reconcile our differences at all.

Bradley Manning Makes The Big Time

The Associated Press is reporting that the Army will move Pfc. Bradley Manning from Quantico to Leavenworth soon. According to the Army, Private Manning will be jailed in the medium security facility at Leavenworth while he awaits trial, because the interview to determine his competency to stand trial has been completed. (Does that mean Army interrogaters have what they need from Manning, or that they've given up on getting him to implicate Julian Assange in the theft of Pentagon and State Department secrets?)

Manning's new cell opens on to a common area where he can mingle with other "pretrial confines."

If Manning is convicted, it will be a short walk to his permanent home. The military's maximum security prison is located at Fort Leavenworth, too. If he graduates to the maximum security block at Leavenworth, Manning will join William Calley, Hasan Akbar and Charles Graner, a guard convicted of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. That prospect may have influenced the information he provided Army investigators.

Or maybe Manning's interrogation is still going on, and the Army wants him to get a good look at where he could end up if he doesn't cooperate.

Either way, Manning's move might mean big trouble for Assange. It is definitely a thumb in the eye for the blogosphere personalities who have been milking Manning's pretrial confinement. They are already complaining about the improvement in Manning's confinement conditions they so desperately sought. Kansas is a long way from Washington, D.C., where most of the "nattering nabobs" hang out.

Bad News For Bradley Manning

I finally got around to watching The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) last weekend, and I think Ellsberg's story is full of bad news for Bradley Manning, the young soldier accused of stealing secret files from the Department of Defense and the State Department.

Since he copied the Pentagon Papers and distributed them to the press in 1971, Ellsberg has continued to be a prominent figure in the chronic anti-war movement that periodically obsesses American Progressives. No question he's sincere. But I can't help thinking he should wear a t-shirt that says something like: Don't try this at home, kids.

Unlike Private Manning, Ellsberg wasn't in the military when he stole the Pentagon Papers from the Rand Corporation. He was a prominent defense analyst, on a first name basis with people like Henry Kissinger and editors and reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Ellsberg was charged with and tried for espionage. He faced life in prison, but he beat the rap. What was his pre-trial confinement like? There wasn't any. After his arrest, Ellsberg was released on his own recognizance.

The very bad news for Private Manning and his supporters is that, while the Supreme Court upheld the right of the New York Times and other newspapers to publish The Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg's acquittal had nothing to do with either the facts of his case or with the Constitution, beyond his right to a fair trial.

Ellsberg was acquitted when his judge declared a mistrial after Nixon blatantly tried to interfere with the trial and the judge concluded Nixon had made it impossible for Ellsberg to get a fair trial anywhere in America. Nixon ticked the judge off, and the judge let Ellsberg go.

The Obama administration is not likely to make that mistake.

Private Manning's conviction by a military court is a foregone conclusion. The only question now is whether or not the military will be able to get Manning to flip on Julian Assange. My guess is that when his trial date approaches and he figures out he's not Ellsberg after all, Manning will cooperate.

The film itself is a strange mishmash of historical and contemporary interviews, news footage and excerpts from the Nixon tapes. My favorite moment is an audio clip of Richard Nixon, urging Kissinger to think outside the box and support a plan to nuke Hanoi.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) is available from Netflix.


I've lost interest in the news.  The world wide web in general has become a collossal bore.  I was already starting to lose interest in the web sites I had developed the habit of visiting every day, when, suddenly, The New York Times fell apart.  Following current events seems so meaningless now, even as a spectator sport.  I feel like I'm bringing the plants and lawn furniture in for the winter, just when I should be putting them outside.  Sigh.

Spring has been a long time coming to the shores of Lake Michigan this year.

Following the YouTube links from It Might As Well Be Spring, I noticed that Dana Andrews was in the film. Andrews made some good films, including Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives. Sometimes I think my obsession with the auteur theory has caused me to underestimate the contribution actors make to films. Maybe they contribute more to the mise en scene than I've given them credit for. I've always thought Andrews would have made a great Phillip Marlowe.

As of this morning, there are 1,223 documentary films available to view instantly on Netflix (and many, many more available by mail.) I can't imagine being able to make a list of 1,223 things worth documenting, but I suppose it only took 1,223 people who were able to raise some cash to make a documentary to produce that body of work. Everybody does a little, nobody does a lot. The last documentary I watched was The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a strange little film I played out of curiosity about the similarities (and differences) between Ellsberg, who was on a first name basis with Henry Kissinger, and Private Bradley Manning.

The government is going to risk holding Private Manning in "medium security" at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, while he awaits trial. The military has concluded that Manning is no longer a danger to himself or anyone else, and that he's not likely to be harmed by guards or other prisoners before he's tried. If the Obama administration is wrong about that, they will have a mess to clean up in the middle of a political campaign. Personally, I hope Manning is no longer in danger because he's cut a deal and given the government Assange.

The first page of the Netflix documentary list includes Modify, an 84 minute film about "branding, piercing, tattooing, tongue splitting and every body modification imaginable." The blurb says Modify has "an original soundtrack featuring more than 20 new musical artists." Might be worth a look for somebody, though probably not for me. I couldn't even sit through Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS the last time I tried to watch it, and they don't even cut anyone for real.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Real Enemy

Forget about Komodo Dragons, The Flu Formerly Known As Swine, Bernie Madoff, Scammers and Spammers, ATT,, Stalling Politicians, Bad Film Makers, Camera-Eating Ponds, Moving Doors, Voles, Shrews and Poppy-Eating Mice.

This is our real enemy. Vexer of gardeners and destroyer of lawns. The fungi known as toadstools. And all my sources of gardening expertise can tell me is: Try to rake them out of your lawn. There is no cure. Nothing to do. Make your peace with them, Billy Glad.

They grow where the previous owner cut down a big tree, ground down the stump, but left the roots in the ground to rot. He planted new grass over the fungi-infested ground and sold the house to me, a charter member of the A-list. I guess word gets around.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

We Ate Their Goddam Eggs

We ate their eggs. We ate them. We little mammals ate them. And we inherited the earth.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee

I've been re-reading Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee this week. Brown's great achievement was to envision a history of the West narrated by the Native Americans who were rubbed out by the advance of "Americans" westward. As those of you who love the book as much as I do know, Brown invites his readers to read the book facing East. When I do that, I immediately lose my sense of being "an American" and see myself as a European, invading and conquering the richest continent on earth. I can't tell you how much I detest seeing myself as a European.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Summer is over.

My arugula and basil went to seed.

My big sunflowers died, like friendships that didn't work out.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Japan 1945

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Toadsuck Ferry

My friend, Ron Weiss, got a job in Arkansas, helping the Arkansas Educational TV station in Conway set up a news and documentary unit. He split his salary with me so we could make some films together. We helped the station pick the equipment and we were supposed to teach a couple of local people how to make documentaries. I don't remember if we got around to that or not.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Megan Fox's Body

Is it hers, or does it belong to Michael Bay?
The latest buzz in fandom is the news that Megan Fox, who -- depending on your feelings about Fox -- either quit Transformers 3 or was fired, has been replaced by Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whitely.
TheWrap's take is that Fox walked off rather than meet director Michael Bay's demand that she put on weight.
Can Huntington-Whitely measure up? You decide.

Victoria's Secret vs. Armani
Fox made the mistake of letting Bay pressure her into gaining weight for Bay's Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and Bay's cinematographer and editor had to shoot and cut their way around Fox's hips. In the few scenes where Bay was forced to shoot and use images of Fox from straight on or from behind, she comes across as bloated and leaden. Bay, who claims he made Fox and Transformers co-star Shea Lebeouf, managed to take one of the freshest physical presences to hit the screen in years, and turn her into his version of an inflatable doll. If all we had was Bay's vision of Fox, the first Transformers would have been Fox's peak. She'd have lit up the screen for a moment like summer lightning and be gone.

Fox in Transformers. Am I superficial?
But, luckily, Megan Fox's young career doesn't depend on the egotistical Bay, who is less a maker of stars than a director who was made by them. The all-star cast of the star vehicle Armageddon made Bay the director of young actors and tennis balls he is today.

Megan Fox's future depends on her performances in the about to premier Jonah Hex, where, though she's in the hands of Jimmy Hayward, an inexperienced director, she stars with Josh Brolin, a solid, intelligent performer, and in the soon to released Passion Play, where she plays opposite Mickey Rourke and Bill Murray.

The question is: Can Fox make the transition from teenager to woman of the world in Jonah Hex?

In Passion Play, Fox plays a winged circus freak who escapes from her cage. Performing for Michael Bay should have given her all the real-world experience she needs to be convincing in the role.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Green Hornet (2011)

He had it all.  Biomimicry, a gas gun that made a wierd sound, a big, fast car, called the Black Beauty, an Asian sidekick and The Flight Of The Bumblebee.  I listened to The Hornet on the radio; read the comic books; watched the movie serial on Saturdays.  Van Williams played the Hornet and Bruce Lee played Kato on TV.  There's a great scene of Lee taking a Green Hornet set apart in the Bruce Lee bio-pic: Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.  So, I had high expectations for The Green Hornet (2011), the Seth Rogen and Jay Chou movie directed by Michel Gondry that opened this weekend.

But, once you get past the twist that the movie is a comedy based on a premise that would have made a good Saturday Night Live skit, there's not much there, unless you think it's fun to play Name That Team and come up with interesting duos that Rogen and Chou remind you of.  I figure Aykroyd and Belushi or Aykroyd and Murray or Aykroyd and just about anyone. 

Rogen was one of the Hornet's writers, and he's probably a better writer than a comedian.  Some of the gags and one-liners in The Green Hornet are laugh-out-loud funny.  But be sure to see the 3D version.  I imagine the film would be incredibly boring in 2D, mainly because The Green Hornet lacks an interesting villian.  Making a fun, comic rendition of a comic book is at least as good an idea as making an exceptionally dark one, but comedy or no, comic book heroes and comic book movies need interesting villains, and The Green Hornet's Chudnofsky falls flat on his face. 

Cameron Diaz is adequate in the Girl Friday role.  Her face is the only image from The Green Hornet that sticks in my memory.  It's as if she's the first real person I've seen in 3D.  Tom Wilkinson does a brilliant turn as the Hornet's dad.

Hollywood badly needs to come up with a new superhero worthy of sequels and prequels, and some blockbuster films to fill the 3D bubble created by Avatar.  The Green Hornet doesn't seem likely to fill either bill.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jonah Hex (2010)

It's easy to be dismissive of Jonah Hex (2010), Jimmy Hayward's box office flop.

The film grossed a meager 5 million bucks the weekend it opened, far behind Toy Story 3, and was universally panned by reviewers -- and not without good reason.

The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2.  But, watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.

Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovitch seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Humbolt, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.

Megan Fox is billed as a star, but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.

Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out.  Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.

Tallulah Black and El Diablo

Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.

The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex.  And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie.  Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films. 

Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book.  Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 90 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.

But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?

Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film.  If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.

The real Jonah Hex

Monday, January 10, 2011

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was released on DVD this week, and cable television is showing Mr. Fox as video on demand, another format that lets viewers pause the film or re-play scenes.

Wes Anderson has crammed so much visual information into every scene of Fantastic Mr. Fox that it's easy to make the case that the DVD or video on demand experience of Mr. Fox is even better than the experience of watching it on the big screen. Watching Mr. Fox in real time, you get the Richard Scarry feel of it, but until you freeze a frame, it's impossible to see all of the detail that's working to make Mr. Fox easily the most original visual experience among last year's films.

There are cave drawings from Altimira on the walls of the foxes' cave; strange books in Bean's kitchen. The long, traveling shot through Badger's Flint-Mine is too rich to take in all at once. The drawings of tunnels and sewers are like treasure maps, and Mrs. Fox's landscapes are wonderfully complex.

Anderson added characters and scenes to Roald Dahl's book to get the story of Mr. Fox up to feature film length. And that, unfortunately, is where Anderson stumbles. For Anderson's story, when all is said and done, disappoints.

In spite of a too familiar scene in which Mr. Fox protests that he loves his son just the way he is, when the young fox finally succeeds it's on his father's terms, not his own. And the other scene required for a PG audience -- Mr. Fox's realization that he's not the center of the universe -- seems contrived and lacking in irony.

But though he stumbles, Anderson does not fall. He finds redemption in the ending of his film, where up is down, in is out, and the happy ending turns out to be more dismal than it seems.  Dahl's animals only end up stuck underground; Anderson's end up stuck in a supermarket.

Anderson's Mr. Fox thinks he's wild, but, in the most poignant moment of the film, Anderson lets us see how domesticated Mr. Fox really is by showing us powerful images of a wild wolf -- the only truly free animal in the film.