Life Imitates Art Imitating Life

Red line trainThis is nuts. On Thursday, an MBTA Red Line train in Boston took off without its driver (who had stepped out of the cab to throw a switch under the car). The train ran through three stations inbound from Braintree, with no one at the controls, until dispatchers cut the power to the third rail and brought it to a coasting stop.

Reports emerging from the investigation indicate that the driver had not properly set the brakes before exiting the car, and further had tied off the “dead man” lever that controls the train’s movements. (This has not yet been officially confirmed, so we’re going here by reports from The Boston Globe.)

This could be a remarkable instance of life imitating art, said art having already imitated life.

UnstoppableIn the 2010 movie Unstoppable, a runaway freight train endangers an entire city, due to its load of toxic chemicals and the sharp curve it is thundering toward. Only the heroic actions of engineer Denzel Washington and conductor Chris Pine save the day. The cause of the runaway: a dunderhead engineer* getting out of his locomotive to throw a switch without properly setting the brakes, and (I forget exactly how) leaving the controls in such a position that they start the train rolling under power.

That movie, in turn, was inspired by a real-life incident in which a freight train in Ohio, carrying dangerous cargo, rumbled along without anyone in the cab for 66 miles before finally being brought under control in much the same way as in Unstoppable.

It would be very hard to make this stuff up and have anyone believe you.

*In the film, the engineer was clearly a dunderhead. I’m not suggesting that the driver of the T train was. That’s for the investigation to decide.

James Horner, 1953 – 2015

Another heartbreaking loss for film and music lovers. Composer James Horner died in a small plane crash north of Santa Barbara last Monday. He was 61.

James Horner was right up there with John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith in my pantheon of beloved composers. I first fell in love with his music with the scores for two of the best classic Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. Just as the second movie built on the first, so too did the music, adding depth and texture to the themes introduced in Khan. There was a nautical flavor to the themes, evoking the wonder and peril of deep space like nothing else I had heard.

His credits included Aliens, Titanic, Avatar, Apollo 13, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, and countless other films. He was by all accounts a man of extraordinary generosity.

James Cameron, in a tribute in Hollywood Reporter, recalls beginning work with Horner on the score for Titanic:

I asked if he could write some melodies. I believe that a great score really consists of something you can whistle. If that melody gets embedded in your mind, it takes the score to a different level. I drove over to his house and he sat at the piano and said, “I see this as the main theme for the ship.” He played it once through and I was crying. Then he played Rose’s theme and I was crying again. They were so bittersweet and emotionally resonant. He hadn’t orchestrated a thing, and I knew it was going to be one of cinema’s great scores. No matter how the movie turned out, and no one knew at that point — it could have been a dog — I knew it would be a great score. He thought he had done only five percent of the work, but I knew he had cracked the heart and soul.

Of all of them, though, his haunting score for The Search for Spock is the most memorable to me, and one I’ve listened to countless times while writing.

Farewell, James Horner. May you continue to fill the heavens with your splendid music!

2014 in Review, Personally Speaking, Part 2

I got a little sidetracked, but I want to finish my wrap of our last revolution around the sun, so I can move confidently into the future. Here are some of my thoughts on the arts for last year.

Some great films came out in 2014, and I even saw some of them. Here are some highlights for me:

Interstellar — A visual spectacular, with great acting, great emotional punch, and a storyline that’s interesting if not entirely successful. A thoughtful movie that trips here and there, but is well worth the ride. If you haven’t seen it, try to get to it on a big screen.

Mockingjay, Pt. 1 — Thoroughly engrossing, with great characters and excellent fidelity to the book. I was prepared for a disappointing “transitional” movie, laying the groundwork for the final installment, but it really delivered. Shortly before seeing the movie, I saw Jennifer Lawrence interviewed by Stephen Colbert, and she looked exactly like a young woman of her age—giggly, nervous, a little unsure of herself. Onscreen and in character, she is a dynamo, absolutely remarkable.

Maleficent — I didn’t see this in the theater, but caught it on Netflix. Surprisingly powerful and entertaining.

Big Hero Six — Another surprise. I expected to enjoy it, but in fact was quite taken by its charm, sweetness, and emotion.

Snowpiercer — Strange and powerful, and more than a little surrealistic. Does not stand up to logical scrutiny in the least, but I don’t think it was intended to. I was glad I saw it, but I’m not sure if I’ll want to see it again.

Guardians of the Galaxy — I already wrote about this, extolling its wit and humor. Suffice it to say that I loved Rocket and Groot, and rate this my favorite movie of the year.

What about books? That’s a little harder for me to write about, because so much of my reading (on the page or virtual page) was for critique, or for awards voting, or nonfiction that I dipped into but didn’t necessarily read from beginning to end (such as a history of World War II, an account of atomic disasters since the nuclear age began, and profiles of important players in the space program). I started a lot of pieces of fiction that I didn’t finish, sometimes because it didn’t grab me, and sometimes because something else would come along that I needed to read for one reason or another, and then something else, and so I never got back to the first piece. It’s a lousy way to run a railroad, and I want to do better this year. Like read more of the 1001 books I’ve added to my ebook library!

Audiobooks, now—those I’ve been enjoying, because I can read while I’m out walking Captain Jack. I don’t think any of my favorites are new titles, but they’re new to me, and that’s all that matters, right?

Stephen King’s Gunslinger series — Riveting, well told, and with terrific narration. I’ve listened to the first few volumes, and have the next one queued up in Audible for the near future. 

Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio — An award winner some years back. I’d never gotten to it, until last summer, when I listened to the audio version. Terrific, thoughtful storytelling, with an unnerving and scarily believable premise. Get ready for the next stage in our evolution, and the ensuing social chaos.

Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie mysteries — Private eye stories told from the viewpoint of the PI’s dog Chet. Charming and funny, with great narration.

Larry Bond’s Cold Choices — A submarine thriller, told with realism and tension, as the crew of a U.S. nuclear sub risks everything to save the lives of the crew of a crippled Russian sub. This may be for submarine fans only, because of the amount of detail about life on a sub, but I enjoyed it.

A word about the Jack Reacher novels, by Lee Child, which I’ve been enjoying for a few years now in audio. The last few have been disappointing, including this year’s entry, Personal. If you’re thinking of trying a Reacher novel for the first time, I strongly recommend earlier novels, such as Die Trying, Without Fail, or Bad Luck and Trouble. And I can only recommend the audiobooks versions, because that’s the only way I’ve ever read them. 

Doh! How could I forget? (Sometimes when you read friends’ books in draft form, you forget to note when they’re out in the wild.) I don’t actually remember when these hit pixels, but I think of them as having arrived in the last year or so. Writer/artist Chris Howard issued a graphic novel version of his SF novel Salvage. Former Ultimate SF workshopper Lisa Cohen published a YA novel, Derelict. And for some completely silly, completely fun fantasy, it’s hard to beat Craig Shaw Gardner’s Temporary Magic novels, complete with Bob the horse!

And in case you didn’t catch it from my last post, yes, I’m still working on The Reefs of Time, and making progress!

“The Singularity,” at the Science Fiction Theater Company in Boston

posted in: theater and movies 0

I’d never heard of the Science Fiction Theater Company, but a friend who’s not an SF fan emailed me and said I should see The Singularity, because it’s witty and wonderful. So with my wife and daughter I went—and we loved it! The play, by Crystal Jackson, is about Astrid, a woman who’s on her last egg, and who wants a baby so badly she inseminates herself with stolen dark matter and a turkey baster before she loses her chance. It’s hilarious, partly because Astrid is the closest thing to a normal person in the play, and she gets to act the straight man to all the loonies. Kathy-Ann Hart does a wonderful job with the part, as do all the other actors.

Never mind the part about dark matter; it’s just a MacGuffin. Neither the playwright nor the one reviewer I read showed any understanding of what dark matter is. But what the hey, scientists don’t know, either. The title was a mystery to me until the very end—which I should warn you, comes rather abruptly, perhaps a little too abruptly. The reference is not to the transhumanist technological singularity that’s become a central concept in a lot of recent science fiction, but rather to the singularity that might or might not have come before the Big Bang.

Anyway, if you’re in Boston, the show has one more weekend to play. Tickets here.

Rocket Raccoon Rocks in Guardians! Groot, Too!

posted in: theater and movies 0

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy with family and friends on Sunday (in 3D), and then again on Monday (in 2D). If you’re guessing that I liked it, you win! What a great movie! And quite honestly, what made it great were the wise-cracking, machine-gun-toting raccoon and the walking, talking tree. (If you count “I am Groot” as talking.) The other people were excellent, too, and so was the music. And even the reason for the music.

Science fictional ground it does not break. But who cares? You’ll love the characters, and you’ll laugh a lot. And that pretty well covers the price of admission, in my book.

I’m buyin’ this one on Bue-ray.

Godzilla Saves the World—Again!

Speaking of culturally significant shows, Julia and I went to see Godzilla a few nights ago. I cannot claim to be an unbiased reviewer, because I have a long-standing affection for the beast and his signature GRONNNNNNGGGK-K-K! In fact, I can see a couple of Godzilla toys on the shelf from where I sit at my computer right now. But I’m highly sensitive to bad versions of Godzilla, of which the version starring Matthew Broderick was one. (It wasn’t a bad monster movie; it just wasn’t Godzilla.)

Anyway, the new one is pretty good! ‘Zilla comes to the rescue when human attempts to stop some other nasty monsters fail. Although, I have to say, we both felt that Godzilla got shorted a little on screen time in comparison to the MUTOs (the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects), which were ugly, massive buglike things. Also, I have to admit that Godzilla’s motivation in the story was pretty vague. But let’s not get all scientific. Of course you can detonate a large fusion warhead just offshore and not flatten San Francisco! It’s a Godzilla movie!

I must confess to some disappointment in the Godzilla roar, though. This interesting video shows the two sound guys who produced it talk about the three-year job of getting it right. And I have to say… close, but uh-uh. The original, produced by a resin-coated leather glove being dragged down the strings of a bass, and then slowed down, was better, in my opinion.

Here you can see how ‘Zilla has evolved over the years, both in body and sound. I thought they got the sound best in the mid ’60s and ’70s.

R’ha — an SF Short Film

A young, German filmmaker named Kaleb Lechowski, 22, has released an all-CGI short film called R’ha that’s pretty impressive, especially for an amateur effort. Okay, the story’s nothing new, but the visual (and audio) representation are startlingly good. Reportedly, he spent seven months on the computer creating this film with a running time of 6:26. If you’re not at work or in a house with people sleeping, turn up the sound a little.

Apparently the display of film-making talent is generating quite a lot of buzz. More on the story here and here.

The Hobbit: the Movie (Part 1)

posted in: theater and movies 0

It was just like the Lord of the Rings movies, only more so. Allysen and I went to see it in 3D for New Year’s Day evening, and came away agreeing: “The parts that were good were great, and the parts that were bad were really bad.” Basically, it was about an hour too long for the story it told, and if you edited out some of the endless battle scenes and Indiana Jones-like theatrics, you’d have a really good movie.

Here’s my bullet list of the good points:

  • Martin Freeman as Bilbo (he was great)
  • Ian McKellan as Gandalf (of course)
  • Cate Blanchett as Galadriel (better than in LOTR, I thought)
  • New Zealand as Middle Earth (gorgeous)
  • Surprisingly, the added material relating to the evil stirrings in Dol Goldur (I say surprising, because basically Peter Jackson does well when he sticks to Tolkien’s storyline, and generally does badly when he changes it.)
  • The meeting of Bilbo and Gollum (beautifully done)

Here’s my list of where it went wrong:

  • The pacing (way too slow in the setup, where the dwarves show up at Bag End), and simultaneously headlong and tedious in the overlong action/battle scenes
  • Clownish characterization of some of the dwarves, but especially of Radagast the wizard
  • Dwarves that looked like men
  • Dialogue that occasionally slipped out of Middle Earth and into Jaba the Hutt’s den (“Those dwarf scum are my kind of scum!”)
  • Frenetic fight scenes in place of story development
  • Did I mention too many fight scenes?

The 3D experience was less successful for me than it’s been in other movies. It has its moments, but for the first hour or so, I actually felt that it intruded more than it helped, giving a sort of cartoonish quality to some of the characters, especially the dwarves as they appeared in Bilbo’s house. I think I might actually have preferred seeing it in 2D.

All in all, a very mixed bag. Great stuff marred by clumsiness and self-indulgence. On a scale of 1-4 elvish swords, I’d give it two swords and a dagger.

Cloud Atlas

posted in: theater and movies 0

Last weekend we finally made it to the theater and saw Cloud Atlas, about which I’d seen mixed reviews.* I loved it! The story, as you undoubtedly know by now, is a convoluted intertwining of six different stories, set far apart in time and space, but connected by some cosmic synchronicity that’s never made entirely explicit. The main actors play a stunning variety of roles, with virtuoso skill, and sometimes I was only guessing who I was looking at. I was quite satisfied by the ending, despite the many dangling threads. It helps to have not just a tolerance for, but even an appetite for ambiguity and open questions.

Random thoughts:

  • What writer wouldn’t love the scene where Tom Hanks, as an affronted author, throws a prominent critic off a balcony?
  • Hugo Weaving makes a great villain, but I do wish he’d been cast as at least one good guy. Or maybe he was, and I just didn’t recognize him.
  • Halle Berry is stunningly beautiful. (You probably already knew that.)

Though it’s a bladder-busting near-3-hour movie, the time flew by for me. I was never bored, except maybe briefly during chase scenes. (They were perfectly good chase scenes, but you can only watch so many chase scenes in a lifetime and still find them interesting.) I fully intend to see it again in the theater, and will be waiting for a chance to buy the DVD. I might even spring for Blu-ray.

*The two reviews that come closest to matching my own reaction to the movie are this one, from the New York Times, and this, from Roger Ebert

1 2