…and he caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. Then he put the ring on his finger.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a masterpiece. The Hobbit trilogy should not have existed. Now Peter Jackson is taking another drink from the well, making a new movie called The Hunt for Gollum. Did I say “movie,” singular? My mistake: it’s going to be at least two movies, and who knows how much bloat they’ll experience before the end. One paragraph in the article triggered my gag reflex.

Fans and critics on social media immediately speculated about the new film’s plot, given that Gollum appeared to die at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Appeared? May Shelob suck out your guts and spit them into a sewage pit, APPEARED? It was a key moment when Gollum fell into the lava burbling in Mt Doom. Please don’t even hint that there’s a possibility that some mindless, greedy studio executive might resurrect him. A prequel, maybe?

It doesn’t matter. I absolutely refuse to ever watch this cash grab. I’m not even tempted. The Hobbit was an adequate lesson.

I’m adding Infested to my must-see list of spider movies

On the recommendation of catherwood on Discord, I had to watch this movie last night, Infested.

Eight tarsal claws up! Unless you’re arachnophobic, in which case you don’t want to get anywhere near this.

It’s pretty much the same plot as Arachnophobia: venomous spider is brought back to a city (Paris, in this case), it escapes, breeds, area is overrun with swarms of deadly spiders that require extreme measures to eradicate. The difference is that Infested has a much larger horror-fantasy element: the spiders spawn impossibly rapidly — like, catch one, next moment it erupts into a horde of tiny spiders — and the spiders grow at an impossible rate to an impossible size, so that within a day you’ve got millions of spiders, some the size of large dogs. I’ve measure spider growth rates, and generally we’re talking a few tenths of a millimeter per week, so my rational brain rejected much of the premise, but my irrational brain that tuned in to a horror movie about monster spiders was saying, “YES! Eat all the people!”

It also has a sympathetic protagonist who loves small invertebrates while hustling to keep his friends and family out of poverty, and huge host of victims living in a Parisian apartment building. There had to be a lot of them to fuel the explosion of arachnid biomass!

Sadly, it looks like the only place to catch it right now is on Shudder, but it’s worth it for the entertainment value.

Now, though, no more entertainment. I have to go sequester myself to work through a mountain of end-of-semester papers. If only I could solve that problem with a lot of precisely placed explosives…

I am stumped by the logistics

I honestly tried to give this Netflix movie, Rebel Moon: the Scargiver, a chance. I made it about halfway before giving up in boredom.

It’s a sci-fi fantasy story about a rag-tag group of deadly warriors defeating an empire…prosaic enough so far. But what totally killed it for me, besides the deadly dull characters and ridiculous stakes, was the logistics. There is the gigantic, ultra-powerful galactic empire, you see, and the local governor sends this gigantic starship crewed entirely by psycho Nazis, to collect…grain. That’s the macguffin here, bags of grain. This grain is the output of a small village of maybe 30 vaguely North European farmers who harvest it over the course of less than a week, so we’re not even talking about megatonnes of vital foodstuff to feed a planet or two. Nope, just a bunch of sacks of grain that the farmers can pile into a single building in their village.

An immense starship appears, so large that it looms over the village while hanging in low orbit, and then the stupid slow-mo fighting with swords and clubs and farm implements and a few rifles against a robotic army of multi-barreled tanks and armies of space nazis and I see from the synopses that the peasants win.

None of this makes any sense, but there are two movies in this series and a third threatened. There are also going to be “director’s cut” versions of this thing released, as if it deserves further attention. This is garbage of Hugo Gernsback quality, illiterate hackery. How does Zack Snyder get away with it?

You know, the first thing a good science fiction movie should have is a competent, compelling writer generating the ideas behind its premise and execution. I guess since Star Wars got away with neglecting that component, though, nobody thinks it’s necessary any more.

Astroturfing the airwaves

If you listen to the radio, you should know by now that most radio stations are computer-controlled jukeboxes stuffed with demographically determined collections of popular songs — and often not even that. Wealthy people buy them up and then program them to play the music they think you ought to hear, whether you want to or not, one of their worst angles is deciding that you, yes you, need to listen to more Christian Rock. No, no, not me, I turn that stuff off the instant I hear it, usually with a sulfurous curse.

There’s a company called the Educational Media Foundation (EMF). They’ve been buying up radio stations and converting them to the same boring format everywhere.

On the surface, EMF’s broadcasts are glaringly apolitical. They opt instead for their trite brand of Christian rock, all teed off by the same, small cast of nationally syndicated, Anywhere-USA DJs who smile through everything from squeaky-clean jokes about the drink sizes at Starbucks to prayers asking God to watch over those who have donated to the organization. But behind its politically neutral facade, the organization — and the CCM industry more broadly — appears to be an inherently conservative project. Many right-wing Christian culture bearers have long believed in the “Breitbart Doctrine” — the idea that, to change politics, you must first change culture — and have fought for decades to build a parallel popular culture free of sharp edges, hard questions, or representations of lives that veer from the straight and narrow. The world of CCM, in turn, “reflects the values of the religious right,” says religious-studies historian and author of God Gave Rock and Roll to You: A History of Contemporary Christian Music Leah Payne, by providing “suburban families with safe Christian listening experiences in the car.” And while EMF stations may not have the “attention-getting, rage-inducing content” of an explicitly political outlet like Fox News, she says, “K-LOVE is the softer side of that conservatism.”

Today, the organization’s nationwide network of radio stations plays mostly white, male artists. Though it professes to broadcast “Christian music,” it largely steers clear of genres like religious rap or gospel, as well as any Christian rock that grapples too heavily with doubt or hardship. Christian artists who have wavered in their faith have quietly been dropped from EMF’s playlists; several queer Christian artists have lost work and airtime on CCM radio after coming out.

As a Christian radio station, you know they also have all the profit-making tricks down pat. Like churches, they’ve scammed the government into thinking they’re non-profit.

As the company built its broadcast network, one business decision proved to be peculiarly prescient: the choice to incorporate as a “not-for-profit” entity. Not only did that status let it avoid paying tax, it also gave EMF several legs up in the radio world. It allowed the organization to take advantage of long-held FCC policies intended to keep the radio dial from being sold to the highest bidder, such as waiving application costs and other fees for nonprofits due to their inherently “limited funding.” EMF also made use of a federal policy that let new nonprofit stations opt out of the requirement of having a local broadcast studio. Furthermore, EMF could legally get donations from listeners — a revenue stream commercial stations don’t have at their disposal. For EMF, “it was just a matter of expansion,” says Todd Urick, a radio engineer and community-radio advocate in Los Angeles County. By the early 2000s, the nonprofit had well over 50 radio stations and was bringing in around $25 million in donations annually.

You’ve probably all heard Contemporary Christian Music, but hopefully not much. It has a recognizable formula, fortunately, so it’s pretty easy to spot it as you’re flipping around the radio dial. When I hear a chorus with a long drawn-out “HIIIIIIM” I know it’s time to kill the channel, but there are other cues.

But in the CCM industry, getting that immediately recognizable sound — however derided — has been a science. “You just can’t be too heavy,” says Grace Semler Baldridge, an independent Christian artist who performs as Semler and who has topped both the iTunes Christian albums and song charts. In addition to her own crop of frankly honest songs about her faith, she’s done session work and built relationships with artists in the CCM industry. There, she immediately became aware of a few soft rules of the genre.

First, she says, there’s a just-right spot when it comes to beats per minute — not too fast, not too slow. After BPMs, there are “JPMs,” or “Jesuses per minute.” While there’s no hard-and-fast rule on the required number of JPMs, more tends to be better — and a reference to “Him,” “God,” “Father,” etc., counts, Semler says. Choruses should be rife with repetition so that listeners can sing along by the second round. The guitar must be warm but just a bit bright, with a touch of drive and a long-tail reverb that hangs in the air. Most important, there’s the delay, which nearly doubles the guitars’ slow strums and picked melodies — a technique that Reverb.com’s “The Gear, Tones, and Techniques of Modern Worship Guitar” guide says was pulled directly from U2’s the Edge.

Ick. There are a few radio stations in my area that fit that description.

Personally, I like KUMM, the student run college station here in town, but it has a very limited range, you can hear it in Morris and practically nowhere else. You go on a quick trip to any of the neighboring towns, and it’s going to drop out. It’s also quirky and weird, with all kinds of odd student conversations and unusual musical choices. It’s kind of the antithesis of EMF.

We also have a classic rock station, 97.3 The Kangaroo (it has an odd Australian theme, sort of, with promos read off by a woman with an Australian accent, and really really bad canned jokey commentary). They play music from the 70s-90s, and that’s the only appeal. It also has an automated playlist, no real DJs, no actual connection to the area, and forget about local news.

But that’s where radio has been going: getting bought up by millionaires who then feed the public flavorless noise without a speck of personality…unless you’re in a metropolitan area, where there is way too much obnoxious personality by way of the “Morning Zoo.” I turn that crap off too.

On long trips I play podcasts and my preferred music on my phone, over the car speakers. Radio is mostly dead.

Dune 2

It was time to venture to the movie theater to see Dune 2 last night.

It was gloriously visually beautiful, and morally complex. I had a grand time. I do have a few reservations, and they’re based more on the source material than the movie.

On the way to the theater, my wife (not a big SF fan) asked how she could tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. I answered that you’ll have no problem spotting the evil antagonists in the movie, and that is definitely true. The Harkonnens reek of cartoonish villainy throughout. It’s a whole family of slimy psychopaths, they look like it, they act like it, if we had Smell-O-Vision, they’d stink like it.

What’s trickier is that the ‘good guys’ are all gray and ambiguous, with nasty qualities that are the key conflict in the story. It’s more than rebels vs. the evil empire, it’s the protagonist wrestling throughout with his choices that will enable the darkness in his own side. The movie made one major change from the book that I appreciated: Chani was the voice of reason against fanaticism, and made the underlying conflict clear. I was definitely on Team Chani, although I also felt like Team Paul had his choices stripped from him and he had little else he could do.

Now if only we had some opposition to Team Eugenics (the Bene Gesserit) somewhere in the movie. The idea of genetic determinism was unquestioned and was simply an assumption.

Do go see it, it’s well worth the experience.

There’s talk that there may be a third Dune yet to come, which worries me a bit. There are studio executives dreaming of a franchise now, I’m sure of it, but I have to warn them that that is a path destined to lead them into madness and chaos. The sequels are weird, man. Heed Chani and shun the way towards fanaticism and corporate jihad.

Ooh, just saw this summary of the Dune series. I agree with it. I should have stopped with Dune Messiah, years ago.

Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 1: A surfeit of colons

I saw this dog’s breakfast of a movie last night. Hated it.

  • It’s got a macguffin, a cruciform key that somehow will give the person who uses it control of an AI that can crack all of the intelligence agencies in the world. It does nothing in this movie. It’s just a small metal object that everyone has to chase, endlessly.
  • It has the most boring villain ever. A handsome man named Gabriel who, apparently at the behest of the AI, appears to stand handsomely in the middle of the action, doing pretty much nothing, except it turns out he’s a great knife-fighter in one scene.

  • There are car chases. They’re pointless exercises in chasing — they’re only motivated by the fact that someone has the macguffin, and someone else wants it. You want car chases? Go watch Baby Driver, which does them well and integrates them into the story.

  • There is a fight scene on top of a runaway train. Of course there is.

  • Ving Rhames is the stereotypical movie hacker. He doesn’t do anything but make portentous statements and announce that he’s going to hack a computer. He wiggles his fingers magically. Don’t worry, no one involved in writing this movie understands computers or hacking or AI.

  • Oh my god, the writing. It’s terrible. For instance, there’s a scene where a room full of intelligence bureaucrats who are reciting a summary of the problem. The thing is, it’s a series of sentences, and the individuals go around the room with each one saying one sentence in turn. People don’t talk that way. There are multiple scenes where the dialog is clumsy and unrealistic.

  • There is a stupid scene where Simon Pegg is sent on a side-quest to neutralize a tiny nuclear bomb. It turns out to be a puzzle game, with riddles. It’s like something you’d find in a video game. And then it turns out to be a fake bomb. The whole scene could have been cut without affecting the movie at all, except that they needed to give Pegg something to do.

  • The masks. I hate the fucking stupid masks, and the obligatory scene where a character pulls off a thick rubbery latex mask to reveal that he was some other character. Masks can’t do that, they’ll fool no one, but it’s a thing in these movies.

  • Tom Cruise, running. Running, running, running. He never arrives at a fight out of breath, though.

  • There are stunts done for the sake of being stunts. The stupid mask machine burnt out, so Tom Cruise can’t just disguise himself and walk onto a train, he instead chooses to jump off a mountain in a motorcycle and parachute into the moving train. Yeah, much more subtle and sneaky. No one will notice.

  • It is two hours and forty three minutes long, and it’s just part one.

  • In the next movie, they already have the macguffin part one, so macguffin part two will be a sunken submarine beneath the arctic ice cap, where the AI exists. I don’t care.

The best thing about Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 1 is that it cured me of any desire to see Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part 2. Too late. It’s going to make a derailed train car falling off a cliff full of money.

The Christmas movie I deserved

The semester is winding down to its last week, which means that I’m suddenly embraced by a mountain of tedious administrative work. I posted an online exam on Saturday, which I’ll have to grade on Tuesday; the students all submitted their final lab report, which I have to get graded by Wednesday; I’m giving a practice lab final tomorrow, and the real thing later this week, which I have to finish grading by the weekend; I have another exam to give in my intro class on Thursday; I’ve got some term papers to stamp with an official final grade; I get to sit through another round of phone interviews for a chemistry position tomorrow night; and then I have two finals to give and grade next week. Did I forget anything? Probably.

Anyway, I wrapped up one pile of work yesterday, and decided I could justify a little celebration. I could see a movie. A Christmas movie! That’ll cheer me up.

The Christmas movie playing in town is Violent Night. It wasn’t exactly the light holiday fare I expected.

The plot is ripped off from other Christmas movies, in particular, Die Hard. A small horde of vicious criminals descend on the mansion of a rich woman who, they’ve learned, has $300 million in cash on hand. Their theft is meticulously planned, right down to infiltrating the squad of military veterans who are supposed to fly to the woman’s rescue if anything nefarious happens to her party. The one thing they didn’t plan for was that one resilient, cunning man would just happen to be in the house when they invaded.

That man is not Bruce Willis, but instead is…Santa Claus. The real deal. The actual mythic figure who happened to be in the house to deliver presents when the terrorists opened fire, scaring his reindeer and sleigh away, leaving him behind to get revenge.

There’s also a little girl in the house who escapes the thieves and starts building booby traps ala Home Alone. One difference: her booby traps straight up murder the bad guy who tries to climb a ladder to get to her, with bowling balls falling on his head and driving a nail into his skull so he falls onto a floor covered with spiky nasty things.

Another unexpected detail — no, not a mere detail, the whole bloody movie — is that Santa arms himself with a sledgehammer and proceeds to smash all the naughty people (he has a list, he checks it, and they’re all listed under “Naughty”) into grisly pulp. Santa can be killed, and is shot multiple times, but he is revived by the family he’s rescuing telling his corpse that they believe. And by burning half a million dollars to keep him warm, which I suppose is a metaphor for something.

It’s a twisted, hyper-violent movie, and maybe the Christmas movie America deserves, if you think we deserve a demented gory trifle like a gift chihuahua gone rabid and feral, there to show you why we can’t have anything nice. This movie is little more than a novelty mashup swathed in blood. It ain’t Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but it is in the same family, updated for the 21st century.

I don’t know whether I liked it or not. Don’t bother asking me.

It was better than, and less bloody than, grading lab reports, though, and also not as evil and degenerate as Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, so I guess I’ll have to give it a tentative thumbs up.

I wouldn’t mind if Marvel movies became a small niche

A few years ago, I was lining up for the superhero blockbusters, too (metaphorically — we don’t have long lines or big crowds at our theater). But since then, I’ve grown tired of them, and this summer when some monster Marvel movie is playing, I say “meh” and skip it. I don’t miss them at all. Watching CGI gets old fast. So this news sounds good to me!

The share of adults who enjoy superhero movies ticked down slightly compared to a year ago, according to a Morning Consult survey released Thursday, a worrisome trend for Disney’s Marvel franchise as its movies experience a rare relative slump at the box office and among critics – and Disney expands its investment in the properties.

The poll found 36% of all respondents enjoy superhero movies, down from 41% last November.

Perhaps most worrisome is the share of self-identified Marvel fans who enjoy the movies also fell, dropping from 87% to 82%.

That’s still a hefty percentage of those polled, so I wouldn’t be worried about Disney’s financial health right now. I also wouldn’t want those things to completely disappear, since some people still enjoy them — I think I’d enjoy them more, too, if I weren’t drowning in a glut of them. I also have to point out that the MCU oppresses workers and is a tyrannical overlord. They’ve pumped out 29 movies since 2008? How? By abusing special effects houses.

To get work, the houses bid on a project; they are all trying to come in right under one another’s bids. With Marvel, the bids will typically come in quite a bit under, and Marvel is happy with that relationship, because it saves it money. But what ends up happening is that all Marvel projects tend to be understaffed. Where I would usually have a team of ten VFX artists on a non-Marvel movie, on one Marvel movie, I got two including myself. So every person is doing more work than they need to.

The other thing with Marvel is it’s famous for asking for lots of changes throughout the process. So you’re already overworked, but then Marvel’s asking for regular changes way in excess of what any other client does. And some of those changes are really major. Maybe a month or two before a movie comes out, Marvel will have us change the entire third act. It has really tight turnaround times. So yeah, it’s just not a great situation all around. One visual-effects house could not finish the number of shots and reshoots Marvel was asking for in time, so Marvel had to give my studio the work. Ever since, that house has effectively been blacklisted from getting Marvel work.

Part of the problem comes from the MCU itself — just the sheer number of movies it has. It sets dates, and it’s very inflexible on those dates; yet it’s quite willing to do reshoots and big changes very close to the dates without shifting them up or down. This is not a new dynamic.

Maybe if they slowed down a bit and paid more attention to quality and thought about good stories that don’t end with muscle-bound thugs getting into a fist fight? You know, that creativity and imagination thing? We’d all benefit.

You know, last night I went to the movies to see Where the Crawdads Sing, and I enjoyed it thoroughly in spite of the patent tear-jerking and some minor implausibilities. One good thing about comic book movies is that they’ve trained us to overlook the screaming impossibilities in a fantasy story to pay attention to the story, which is usually a bit threadbare in those kinds of movies. I’d like to see more movies that don’t OD on the lycra and the kayfabe and resolving problems with fists.

That said, I’m still planning to binge out on The Sandman later this afternoon, once I get some duties done. (Also, I’ll be working on my syllabus while I’m at it.)