Monday, February 28, 2011

The Hurt Locker

Finally got around to watching last year’s Best Picture. And yes, after Saturday night’s viewing I agree with that accolade. Also with the tagline on the DVD box, “A Near-Perfect Movie.” If you like this kinda stuff, I think you’ll love the film. Even if you don’t, I recommend a watch, if only to get some kind of feeling – however Hollywood – of what our boys are doing over there.

Yes, I watched it with a grain of salt. I realize that war movies, everything from The Sands of Iwo Jima to Saving Private Ryan, are not a hundred-percent typical of what true war is like. (I personally do not know what true war is like, and, God willing, I or my family never will.) Images and scenes are amped up and thrown into a pressure cooker to keep your palms sweating and your buttocks on the edge of your seat. I understand that, and I agree with that, because, after all, we’re shelling out money to have some entertainment, however slap-in-your-face macabre and gritty it may be.

From what I’ve read, The Hurt Locker follows that pattern. Yeah, a lot of it doesn’t make sense to vets, and the soldiers portrayed don’t exactly logically behave as their real-life counterparts. But I also read that it is the most realistic portrayal of the Iraqi war experience to date. Another bonus is you don’t get the Liberal Sucker Punch * anywhere. I kept expecting it; this is, after all, a movie about the Iraq War. George Bush’s War. I kept expected the Oliver Stone treatment. You know, some American soldiers would rape an Iraqi girl, or massacre some doe-eyed innocent bystanders, but unless I’ve gone completely blind, I didn’t see any of that. For that I’m grateful, and for that I’m recommending the film. Yeah, some of our soldiers are represented as gung-ho crazy or psychologically fragile, but hey, it is a Hollywood film after all.

The biggest take-away I took away from the film is no laughing matter. Not at all. And that is this: that there is Evil in this world. Capital-E Evil. Despicable, vile, disgusting, anti-human, anti-life, monstrous evil in this world, and a good portion of it resides in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. There are men, women, and, almost incomprehensibly but nevertheless true, children, who want to kill me and you. Who want me and every member of my family – and yours – dead.

That is one reason why I agree with Bush’s aphorism that we must fight them there or fight them here. We all may disagree with tactics, I hope we don’t disagree on that basic proposition. Though I know that there are those who don’t believe this Hurt Locker take-away. Did you hear of the Columbia students booing and heckling the Iraqi war vet who dared vocalize this sentiment on their campus?

Anyway, superb movie. Well worth the investment in your time. (Of course, there is plenty of graphic violence, so watch only if you have the stomach for it. And several scenes pull at the heartstrings.)

* Visit the blog Big Hollywood for your daily dose of Liberal Sucker Punches in today’s film.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Hopper Oscars

Best Drama: The Town

Best Comedy: Date Night (it was a weak year for comedies for me)

Best SF: Predators (ditto for science fiction)

Best Horror: Splice

Best Actor: Adrien Brody’s voice in Predators

Best Actress: Mila Jovovich, Resident Evil: Afterlife (bet you didn’t see that one coming)

Best Supporting Actor: P Diddy, Get Him to the Greek

Best Supporting Actress: The possessed girl in The Last Exorcist was really creepy, plus she performed all those contortions herself …

Best Fight: Any time Steve Carrell and Zach Galifianakis share a scene in Dinner for Schmucks

Best Special Effects: Inception

Best Makeup: Michael Cera’s moustache in Youth in Revolt

Best Original Idea: Kick-Ass

Most Repulsive Idea: Kick-Ass

Best Surprise: (tie) What you realize at the end of The Book of Eli and Lawrence Fishburne’s character in Predators

Best Documentary: Rush – Behind the Lighted Stage (Hey! I’m a fan!)

Confession: Perhaps I’m not the best man to judge these things. The only 2010 flicks I have seen are – Inception, Toy Story 3, Youth in Revolt, The Book of Eli, The Crazies, Hot Tub Time Machine, Clash of the Titans, Date Night, Kick-Ass, Iron Man 2, Get Him to the Greek, Splice, Predators, Dinner for Schmucks, The Expendables, The Last Exorcism, Resident Evil: Afterlife, The Town. That’s 18 out of approximately 340 movies released in 2010 (or a little more than 5 percent). So there.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Capsule Thoughts

As I lie there in this capsule, looking at the switches, buttons, and readouts, during the countdown I think, “Just think, this thing was built by the lowest bidder.”

- Astronaut Walter Schirra, fifth American in space and the only man to fly in all of America’s three space programs (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo). Also grew up in the town I went to high school, a town where there is now a street and a small park named after him.

No reason for posting. Just something I came across a few days ago and chuckled over.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Return to the Center

In eleven or so entertaining minutes you can make the journey I made over the course of four or five years. Maybe longer. I became a true Christian in 1992, but allowed sloth and hedonism to stunt my growth for another decade. Then I did a lot of reading in the Catholic blogosphere, and transformed from a dittohead into someone who (at least, in theory) tries to keep the teachings of the Mother Church as the lens to view and respond to the world. In this video, I was a lot like that guy on the right side of the screen, though thanks to a combination of many things * I’ve readjusted my center to the True Center.

Well, at least in theory.

* such as, in no particular order: my heart/lung surgeries, reading Mark Shea’s blog, the George W. Bush presidency, the birth of my two daughters, attending daily mass c. 2004 to 2008, the final two years of my employment, my ensuing involuntary unemployment, seeing The Passion of the Christ alone in the theaters, and a whole slew of other minor events

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Missionaries

© 1972 by D. G. Compton

[minor spoilers, beware …]

Okay, I hate doing this. I have to admit that there is a science fiction book that I did not like.

A few years ago I bought this gigantic omnibus of little three or four sentence reviews of something like a thousand SF books, from the classics of the Golden Age all the way up to the mid-80s or so. Unfortunately, that book got destroyed in the Great Basement Flood of ’09. Fortunately, I spent a good month or so reading through it just after I bought it and compiled a list of 280 must-reads that eventually became the Acquisitions List I take with me when hunting used books in the wild.

The Missionaries was on that list.

The set-up is worth the price alone. What’s not fascinating about a book that tells the story of alien missionaries landing on earth to witness their otherworldly spirituality? Like that hapless moth to the flame I was drawn. I bought it at the tail end of summer and bumped it up on the reading list, eagerly anticipating the tale as well as what that alien religion might be.

I was disappointed on both points.

Yet there were two other items that led me to not liking the novel. First, I was expecting something on a macro level, a world-changing clash of two (or multiple) Great and Transforming Ideas. I imagined an epic, with newscasters and generals and writers and artists and, of course, priests and perhaps rabbis and imams, duking it out with what would have to have been an inhuman (in all senses of the word) belief system bent on changing us fundamentally. Not in a good way, or, possibly even more terrifyingly, not in a bad way. But, no, the story is told on an annoying micro level, with only a half-dozen or so characters, with most of the “action” taking place in a tiny English village.

Second, there really was very little science fiction in the story.

The initial encounter with the Missionaries was done very well. Done off-page, like real good classic horror movies have early encounters with the monsters done off-screen. The revealed results were effectively … odd, I guess, “creepy” being too strong a word.

My main problem was with the main characters the Missionaries meet: a dysfunctional family consisting of an older, incapacitated military man, his berated wife, and their biker rebel-wannabe son. For the life of me I could not get out of my skull a properly English Archie and Edith Bunker and a moody Easy Rider Peter Fonda. All they did was bicker, bicker, bicker, and misunderstand each other. Before, during, and after their lives are affected by these alien Bible salesmen. And – gosh! They really don’t give much thought, or seem properly stunned, that their house guests are extraterrestrials! That would get in the way of belittling each other, I suppose.

The new Good Ol’ Time Religion from the Stars is nothing other than the Law of Attraction, that pseudocrap so prevalent in modern-day self-help (cf. The Secret), with that whole master-mind mind-meld stuff I’ve seen in both Napoleon Hill’s works and Stephen King’s Tommyknockers. I was hooked for half-a-page when it was named – “ustiliath” – and I found that attractive. (Why the lack of capitalization? Isn’t it an entity? No, it’s a “life-force”. Oh … okay.) But soon every time the Missionaries would expound upon ustiliath (which, I have to say, was maddeningly infrequent), I was hearing Deepak Chopra’s voice in my head.

There were some tantalizing hints of SF in the story, such as the fact the Missionaries had a ship in orbit, and had to “copy” or “imprint” the first humans they encounter to appear human. But nothing is followed-up on, nothing is shown or explained. There are dark allusions to the aliens’ ulterior motives, but that vein ain’t mined. Yes, the Missionaries are able to cause heart attacks in those who threaten them, but that’s done in an off-hand, ho-hum way. For such omnipotent beings, they are dispatched at the end of the story fairly routinely. And for such enlightened beings, they gripe and grouse endlessly among themselves about their purpose, their methods, their tactics.

I read somewhere that the whole tale is to be taken as a critique of man-made religions and of the faults of the missionary mindset as a whole. Perhaps. Perhaps I am too literal in my expectations. After all, it is well-known and accepted that the best SF really isn’t about the future, or the aliens, or the gadgets – it’s about us, here and now. Still, though, those social critiques disguised as SF need engaging SF in them; and the more engaging, the more effective the critique. Yet I can see where those who hold this view come from, and I’ll bump up the grade of the novel in recognition of this.

Overall, though, a disappointing read for me. I found it tough to get through, especially as all these thoughts solidified about a quarter into the novel. Sometimes these things can redeem themselves at the end. In the case of The Missionaries, though, not so much.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2 + 2 = 5

For large values of 2.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Don't Say Man, Man!

Here’s something I noticed lately of our media culture. You can’t say the word “man.” Even when dealing with an exclusive group of men, you can’t refer to them as a group of “men.” They have to be referred to as a group of “people,” even if there isn’t a single woman among them.

For instance, I was surfing the TV cable guide last night when I came across a show for one of the History channels. There’s a teevee show called “Picturing the Presidents.” Sounded like something I might want to DVR for the little ones, so I clicked on the INFO button and this is what displayed:

At the National Portrait Gallery’s America’s Presidents exhibit, visitors get up close and personal with the people who shaped the country’s history.

Ahhh! There’s that word, people, that I hate so much.

Why couldn’t it have said, “visitors get up close and personal with the men who shaped the country’s history”? Is that sexist? All our presidents, and all our vice presidents, have been men. Yes, there have been two female candidates for vice president, but neither was elected to office and has not shaped the country’s history. Unless you count what Sarah Palin is currently doing as a pundit, but what she’s doing she’s not doing in an official governmental capacity.

This reminds me of a book I once browsed through detailing the lives and legends behind the Apostles. That’s another exclusively male group, right? Well, the inside jacket began (and I have to paraphrase), “During his public ministry, Christ chose twelve people who would later change the world …”

Are women so fragile that if they read a description of a group of twelve men as a group of twelve men they will run screaming from the room?

Perhaps soon we shall start seeing Major League Baseball teams having nine people on the field? Or maybe we’ll learn that Pope Benedict XVI is the 265th person to hold the papacy?

Why the antagonism towards that simple three-letter word? Isn’t this just foolish?

Monday, February 21, 2011


This is nice:

Any location on earth can now be labeled to absurd precision by a pair of coordinates.

Naturally, all this is a matter of convention. Australian aborigines map their land by songlines. Australia, for them, is not a one-to-one correspondence between points in the land and pairs of numbers, the coordinates of those points. Rather, their land is a set of highly twisted, multiply intersecting lines, along each of which runs a specific song. Each song relates a story that happened along that path, usually a myth involving humanized animals, contorted fables full of emotional meaning.

At once, the songlines create a complex tangle, so that a point cannot be just a unique pair of numbers; rather, it matters not only where you are (according to our conception) but also where you came from, and ultimately the whole of your previous an future path. What for us is a single point may for aborigines spawn an infinite variety of identities, because that point may be part of many different intersecting songlines. Unavoidably, this creates a sense of property and ownership that does not fit into our culture. Individuals inherit songlines, not areas of land. One cannot build a GPS that operates in songline space.

- Joao Magueijo, Faster than the Speed of Light, pg. 22

One reason, I think, I find this appealing is that it kinda unifies the two hemispheres of the brain, the left and the right, the logical, analytical, scientific with the intuitive, dreamy, artistic. More precisely, I think it allows the right to participate in what is traditionally, for those of us in the West, a left-hemisphere activity.

Anyway, I’m more than tempted to incorporate a slightly different version of this into my fantasy novel, which at this stage is still only a three-page outline. But I’m really jonesing to sit down and write it, if I can only squeeze out an extra hour a day to do so.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Suggestion For Climatologists

“There will be no heavy duties,” Wolfgang Pauli told the physicist who was to serve as his assistant. “Your job is, every time I say something, contradict me with the strongest arguments.”

- Barbara Lovett Cline, quoted in Mad About Physics: Braintwisters, Paradoxes, and Curiosities, pg. 43.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Over the past six weeks the wife and I have been DVRing, of all things, a lot of John Wayne movies. Neither one of us have seen many of his westerns; I think the only ones I’ve seen are The Shootist, Hondo, The Seekers, and Stagecoach. Maybe one or two others that escape memory. But since TCM has been playing him so much over the past couple of weeks, we DVR ’em, and watch ’em when there’s nothing else on and we have a whole evening in front of us.

You know what? I like them. Even the wife does, and westerns are even less her cup of tea than mine. There’s something friendly and wholesome about a John Wayne western, even the ones that are not necessarily trying to be friendly and wholeseome. Perhaps “friendly” and “wholesome” are not the best words to convey what I’m trying to say. Even when playing a grumpy curmudgeon, Wayne has a warmth to him. You know where you stand with him. He’s plays by the unwritten rules of the west, and expects you to play by them too. Else suffer the consequences.

Like most examples of pure originality in art, John Wayne has become a cliché, but a comfortable one. Yeah, we do bad Duke imitations as we watch him on the screen. Yeah, we good-naturedly make fun of his swagger, his ballooning weight, his delivery as if he’s repeating his lines for the very first time. But you know what? He’s fun to watch and always a magnetic presence on the screen.

Anyway, here’s what we’ve seen the past month or so, and the grade I humbly give them, based solely on my enjoyment of the film, since I consider myself unqualified in the art of the western film to critique them properly:

El Dorado A
True Grit A
Fort Apache B+
The Undefeated B–

Very much interested in renting the True Grit remake when it comes out in a few months. I sense a possible compare-and-contrast post on The Hopper this spring.

Of the four films mentioned in the first paragraph, I like The Shootist a lot, primarily, I guess, because of its stoic heroic meditation on mortality. The Seekers I thought to be somewhat overrated critically, though perhaps I just need to see it again with a discerning eye. The other two I plan to DVR again the next time I see them on TMC. Pilgrim.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Cycle of Fire

© 1957 by Hal Clement

Grade: B

For aficionados of written science fiction, Hal Clement has the reputation of being the hardest of the hard SF writers. Titanium hard. That means not only do we get a fantastic story set in some future, we get it with lots and lots and lots of technical detail. Technical detail that is, as a rule, true science, hard science, as opposed to, I suppose, the author making up his facts as he goes along (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).

Now, Clement’s 1954 novel Mission of Gravity is renowned for being his crown jewel of hard SF. That’s been on my list to scope out for many years. However, I ran across his 1999 novel Half Life down in a used book shop in South Carolina seven or eight years ago. I bought it and eagerly jumped into it – and was immediately disappointed. I hated the book, and I don’t hate many books. One dimensional inconsequential characters, boring plot paced at an insufferably slow speed, people talking about lots of stuff without doing lots of stuff. I quit sixty or seventy pages in and filed Clement and his work away under “meh.”

So, I found Cycle of Fire a couple of months ago and bought it, primarily due to its relatively short length (185 pages) and one fact revealed on the back cover: the alien protagonist knows the exact day, date, and hour of his death – and finds his human companion’s uncertainty of his appointed time unacceptable.

I finished the novel in five or six hours. It’s a fairly schizophrenic work. The first two-thirds are firmly in the Robinson Crusoe tradition, two stranded castaways (a man and an alien in this case) exploring their world, fighting to survive in a harsh climate. Then, for the final third of the novel, mankind swoops down and puts the entire situation – planet, people, and plot – under the microscope.

If you’re into Science and have a head for it, I’d recommend this book. What’ll Clement and his characters expound upon?

First off, orbital mechanics. The story’s planet, Abyormen, orbits a dual-sun system in the Pleiades cluster. There’s red giant Theer and smaller, blue Arren. The complexities of this result in a planet whose climate changes every 850 years or so – it becomes completely inhospitably hot to the indigenous intelligent population. Days, seasons, and even the definition of “year” is called into question. It’s initially quite confusing, but over the pages Clement chisels out the dynamics of this strange world.

There’s planetary geology. The story begins in the desert and moves towards the shore of a great ocean. There are volcanoes, some natural, and others, strangely and wonderfully, artificial. And we also travel to the ice-locked polar caps.

There are lots of facts and discussion of gliders – the main source of transportation on Abyormen. The technology’s described, as is flight dynamics. I found this interesting, and though Clement’s writing is generally dry, our protagonists’ glider flight was easy and fun to visualize, maybe as exciting as Clement gets.

There’s plenty of archaeology in the discovery and exploration of a vast, abandoned alien city. It’s partially submerged in the creeping ocean, yet somehow has rudimentary electricity running inside the buildings. And what, exactly, are those inverted star-shaped depressions set into the floor of all the rooms in all the buildings?

Biology. Ultimately, the meat of the novel. Abyormen is home to two symbiotic intelligent species. Symbiotic both physiologically as well as psychologically. This is where most of the surprises come from, and what that final third of the story focuses on. There is a discovery that is simultaneously delicious and repulsive that makes the whole thing worth reading, in my opinion. And that discovery comes only after oodles of detail concerning the biologies and cultures of both societies have been brought to light.

Despite the clinical nature of his writing, there is a touching moment in the final pages that has to do with that back page blurb that made me first purchase the book. I found it touching, which, I expect, may be unusual in a Clement book. But I’ll have to seek out that Mission of Gravity novel now, just to make sure.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keine Sorge!

Darum sage ich euch: Sorget nicht für euer Leben, was ihr essen und trinken werdet, auch nicht für euren Leib, was ihr anziehen werdet. Ist nicht das Leben mehr denn Speise? und der Leib mehr denn die Kleidung?

Sehet die Vögel unter dem Himmel an: sie säen nicht, sie ernten nicht, sie sammeln nicht in die Scheunen; und euer himmlischer Vater nährt sie doch. Seid ihr denn nicht viel mehr denn sie?

Wer ist aber unter euch, der seiner Länge eine Elle zusetzen möge, ob er gleich darum sorget?

Und warum sorget ihr für die Kleidung? Schaut die Lilien auf dem Felde, wie sie wachsen: sie arbeiten nicht, auch spinnen sie nicht.

Ich sage euch, dass auch Salomo in aller seiner Herrlichkeit nicht bekleidet gewesen ist wie derselben eins.

So denn Gott das Gras auf dem Felde also kleidet, das doch heute steht und morgen in den Ofen geworfen wird: sollte er das nicht viel mehr euch tun, o ihr Kleingläubigen?

Darum sollt ihr nicht sorgen und sagen: Was werden wir essen, was werden wir trinken, womit werden wir uns kleiden?

Nach solchem allem trachten die Heiden. Denn euer himmlischer Vater weiss, dass ihr des alles bedürfet.

Trachtet am ersten nach dem Reich Gottes und nach seiner Gerechtigkeit, so wird euch solches alles zufallen.

Darum sorgt nicht für den andern Morgen; denn der morgende Tag wird für das Seine sorgen. Es ist genug, dass ein jeglicher Tag seine eigene Plage habe.

… My second-favorite Bible passage, oh so personally relevant to me now. Rendered in my third-favorite language.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Multi-dimensional Volumes

Want an example of the type of useless miscellanea that keeps me up at night until I’m forced to get out of bed and spend an hour or two surfing the web for an answer?


What is the volume of a k-dimensional sphere?

I found it, believe it or not. You can find anything on the internet.

For even-k dimensions, the answer is …

For odd-k dimensions, the answer is …

Just don’t expect me to prove them. If I try to, there’s a very good chance my brain will percolate into an oatmeal-like substance and leak out my nostrils and ear canals.

However, I got to thinking: what is volume, exactly? Isn’t it a three-dimensional extension of two-dimension area, which itself is a two-dimensional extension of one-dimensional length? So is volume of a k-dimensional object here just a semantic shortcut? No matter what the extended dimension, we’ll still call it “volume”? I can live with that. But what does “volume of a k-dimensional object” mean? I know we can’t visualize objects greater than three dimensions, but can we understand what volume of a k-dimensional object is without necessarily visualizing it?

Imagine a box on a table. You slide it across the five or six foot length of the table over a period of sixty seconds. Step back and think about what you just observed. If you can hold the image of that box at every single interval over those five or six feet, the path the box took in its continuous entirety, then you are visualizing four dimensions. Visualizing the interior of that box over the sixty-second path it took gives you a representation of four-dimensional volume.

But how about when k is ten, eleven, twelve, or ninety or a million?

Oatmeal time!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trees and Forests

This will be my last “Tolkienna” entry for a while, I think. I did finish The Return of the King nearly three weeks ago, and already have two-and-a-half SF paperbacks under my belt since. But I’d like to conclude with a contrast of my experiences with two readings of Tolkien separated by nearly thirty years.

The phrase that popped into my mind a few weeks back was that “tree-forest” analogy thingie. During my first reading of Tolkien, as a boy in the summer of 1981, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. This last, second reading over five weeks from December 2010 to January 2011, I couldn’t see the trees for the forest.

What does this mean?

Back in ’81 I was taken in and fascinated with the characters of The Lord of the Rings. The four hobbits, Gandalf, and Aragorn primarily, and very much so with the evil critters that abounded, Shelob and the individual orcs in particular. I would spend hours with those Tolkien dictionaries seeking out back-stories and individual histories. I had those Tolkien calendars with the illustrative art work. These characters were very real to me.

The vast tapestry of geography and history which these characters moved upon, that was foggy and beyond my adolescent mind. The scope just dwarfed me; I was content to be drawn into a very exciting, somewhat scary, big-stakes adventure.

Thirty years later, I have a much fuller appreciation of the world of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. Kinda like having a college degree compared to a middle school education, I suppose, if I had to quantify it somehow. Those Tolkien dictionaries helped fill in a lot of blanks over the years, as did two full readings of The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin, read this past summer. Also, for better or worse, I saw all of the three Ring movies as each was released in the theaters.

So, in my second reading I was more interested in making sense of Tolkien’s geopolitical chessboard. It was reading at a much higher altitude. While I did enjoy returning to my beloved characters (especially, this time around, the Elves), my focus was more on how they influenced – and were influenced by – the great currents of History.

Two more differences, interrelated, of the two readings came to mind: speed and focus. The first time around, it took me three months to read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings. Of course my reading skills were not as developed as they are now. But I also had so much more free time, time to myself, time left alone, where I could afford a leisurely stroll through Middle-earth. This allowed me, I think, to drop fully into that world, to be immersed in this strange and appealing ocean, to actually walk the fields of the Shire, the tunnels of Moria, the paths of Lothlorien and Fangorn, the stinking and terrible crevasses leading to Shelob’s lair. The first reading was so much more vivid to me.

The second reading was quite different. More scholarly, I suppose, if you allow me the conceit of attaching the word “scholarly” as an adjective to my reading. This last effort took five frenzied weeks, reading whenever I could squeeze a half-hour or an hour alone and unbothered, else reading late at night battling my eyelids to keep them raised. I found myself unable to detach completely into Middle-earth. This is also a function of age, too, as I firmly believe age (as well as stress and other various life responsibilities) affects this imaginative transmigratory ability. Because I was unable to visualize so completely the minutiae of detail of the Rings as I was able to do at age 13, I got more out of the background than the foreground. For instance, this second reading gave me a much more complete understanding of Aragorn’s role as a uniter … as the King … a role which escaped me the first time round.

But this is not to imply a hard-and-fast dichotomy to my two readings. In both cases I did see both forest and individual tree; only the percentage of which flip-flopped in my readings. Another, and perhaps better, analogy I can think of is that of reading poetry. Jorge Luis Borges writes a lot about this, and this second reading of Tolkien cemented it for me. The first time you read a poem, there’s a certain delight you receive from the meter, the rhymes, the images the words convey, and the surprise at the ending. You don’t receive that same pleasure with a second reading. However, you receive something different: a better understanding of what the author was trying to convey. That in itself is a pleasure, if the work affected you from the very beginning.

The Lord of the Rings is still in my top handful of books I ever read, one of my desert island books. I will read it again, the question is only at what stage of my life I will next visit these lands.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Watched Christopher Nolan’s exegesis on dreams, Inception, with the wife Saturday night. I recognize that he’s an incredible writer-slash-director, and I enjoyed his previous work, starting with Memento right up to The Dark Knight. But for some reason I find his films to be ordeals. Word was that Inception is kinda confusing and very, very long, and I’m here to confirm both caveats as true. The funny thing is, though, I liked it.

You have to send off the logical part of your brain with a $20 bill to see Dinner With Schmucks or something similar while you watch Inception. What I immediately noticed twenty minutes in is that all the characters helpfully exposit lots and lots of rules about the dreamworld to us in the audience. Which is okay, because that sets up the parameters of the film, and I kinda knew what to expect ninety minutes later, major twists and such. And being a huge SF fan, I recognize and appreciate that you can bend the rules all you want in the service of a good tale – as long as you explain them to the audience and stay true to them.

The confusing part, which wasn’t so much confusing as arbitrary (again, ain’t necessarily a bad thing), is that most of the movie takes place as dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams. It takes a while to get used to this, but that’s okay, because you have something like a hundred and fifty minutes to acclimatize yourself to Nolan’s rules for Dreams. I was confused the first twenty minutes, but by the forty-five minute mark I think I had it figured out.

Everyone’s perfectly cast, and the actors are all good. Liked Leo and his sidekick as well as the Asian industrialist. Plot-wise, it was clear and concise: instead of stealing info via dreams as part of corporate espionage, Leo and crew are hired to plant some info as part of corporate espionage. If I had one beef to single out, it would be the seemingly incessant submachine gunfire, car crashes, and snowmobile chases throughout the film. I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed I flipped a taxi while blasting an M-16 out my shattered windshield. (Though I have been shot a few times …)

Though mildly headache-inducing, I realize that Nolan probably had to put all the fireworks in to satisfy the suits. I’ll give this a pass, though, because the dream-time special effects are phenomenal. There’s no obvious and hokey CGI, and I really dug the Escher-quality of the Land of Nod – truly it was awe-inspiring and riveting. I read somewhere that there is over 500 special effects shots in the film, but wherever possible Nolan worked with real, live FX before resorting to computers.

Inception is one of those movies you need to watch a second time. That’s one of my first comments once the credits rolled. Since the movie was ordeal-ish for me, I won’t re-watch it again for a couple of months. But I will re-watch it. The final scene leaves itself open to interpretation – is he dreaming or not? – and I loved it. I liked the open-ended-ness of it all, like the final scene of the final episode of the Sopranos. Similarly, I have my opinion and I can convince you of it.

Ultimately, the scales tipped in favor of the movie. I give it a B +.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Planet of the Grapes

Re-reading Pierre Boulle’s book brought to mind my third attempt at writing my own novel. I was twelve years old, if I’m remembering correctly. This time the fire lasted until I had a complete page, single-spaced, front and back, hand-written.

This was during my family’s famous two-week vacation down at Lavalette, New Jersey. About a dozen of us – my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles – rented a tiny cottage three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. Days were spent on the beach, nights barbecuing and going into Seaside Heights for ice cream and to play the games on the boardwalk. I won a prize for the first time ever on those spinning wheels – Billy Joel’s The Stranger and Glass Houses. My brother and I would rent those dual bicycle buggies every afternoon and pedal endlessly up and down the streets adjacent to the beach.

This was also the time I struggled unsuccessfully through The Silmarillion, and successfully through The Spinner. I must have read Boulle’s book earlier that spring because it was on my mind, particularly writing a story based on a pun on the title.

Or maybe my prime inspiration was a very popular joke going around the grammar school at the time:

What’s purple, dangerous, and lives in a bush?

A grape with a machine gun.

Now, I remember setting up shop on the picnic table in the tiny backyard one evening, pencil and paper at hand. I hadn’t decided whether everyone was going to be a grape – good guys as well as bad guys – but I knew at least the bad guys were going to be grapes. Little grapes, or maybe larger, like the size of basketballs, but with little white hands, arms and legs. Their faces would be on the round part of the body. Now I’m envisioning either those M&M animorphic characters, or possibly the California Raisins, though I think my Planet of the Grapes predates both by seven or eight years.

Was the Charlton Heston figure a man, macho like Chuck, or were the human astronauts to be represented as grapish? Hmmm. I figured that would come when I got there.

So I spent maybe an hour or so scratching out my setting on the lined notebook paper, tongue probably hanging out the corner of my mouth. I recall describing the plush jungle world where the grapes lived. Suddenly – movement! A grape, armed to the bone, comes crashing out of the brush, and stumbles upon a strange spacecraft. It’s the crashed pod that brought our hero(es) to this nightmare world, where Grapes rule and mankind suffers under their cruel leash.

And that’s all I got, forgotten now to the ages. One handwritten page, maybe three hundred words. Forgotten to the ages, as is my first attempt at novel-writing, Star Rats, and its follow-up, my parody of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Oh well. Perhaps as a reward in the Great Hereafter I may be allowed a glimpse at what I wrote over three decades ago.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Planet of the Apes

© 1963 by Pierre Boulle
Translation by Xan Fielding

If you’re a man my age (early-forties), I guarantee you spent hours and hours and hours as a little kid watching the four Planet of the Apes movies. You may also have had the Planet of the Apes dolls – excuse me, action figures – and spent countless afternoons playing with them. Me and my brother had them all. Taylor, Cornelius, Dr. Zaius, the gorilla warrior, probably even Zira the female chimpanzee. We even had a Planet of the Apes fortress complete with catapults, wagons and bamboo-style prisons. One of my 1970s Christmases was basically a Planet of the Apes extravaganza.

I also read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes way back then. This was the source novel for the Ape phenomenon from the early 70s. Despite the pics of Chuck Heston or miscellaneous apes from Tim Burton’s 2001 “re-imaging” on the cover, the novel is different from what you may be familiar with from teevee. I hardly remembered the book I read over thirty years ago – save for the twist ending, a twist which is different from Heston writhing before the half-buried Statue of Liberty in the first movie. So I wanted to re-read it. Another factor initiating a second visit was the fact that Boulle also wrote The Bridge over the River Kwai. Perhaps I was in for a rare treat that my juvenile brain could not appreciate all those years ago.

Verdict: It was okay. A surprisingly quick read, I finished the 268-page paperback in about three hours. A “B” grade popped into my mind immediately on completion. Also this thought – I understood how it was a revolutionary novel at the time of publication, a “satire” of varying degrees of subtlety, but I also have to say this is one of the rare occasions where the movie version is “better” than it’s source novel.

Honestly, it’s probably been thirty years or more since I first saw the original Charlton Heston film adaptation in its entirety, so forgive any little bit of haziness I may have. I was a little apprehensive about this review because the most natural thing would be to compare and contrast the novel with the film, but that’s just something I can’t do. But I can tell you some broad differences, and give my thoughts on the novel.

Generally, the book and movie tell the same story. Human astronauts land on an earthlike planet, discover simians are the ruling species, protagonists get captured, are revealed to be intelligent, must prove it, and then must get out because it’s too dangerous to ape society. Both contain the destroyed landing craft, the hunting of humans in the field by the gorillas, caged protagonists, the revelation of human intelligence. Cornelius, Zira, and Dr. Zaius are in both. The endings are different, however, and the book contains not one but two pretty shocking surprises in the final pages. Yeah, I was able to anticipate them, but I was looking for them. And though they don’t pack the visual impact of that half-buried Statue of Liberty, they still made a reading of the book worthwhile.

The apes in the book were more advanced. They had aircraft and surgery with anaesthesia and were launching Sputniks. Their dress and manners were more a mirror of 20th century human society than comes across in the more primitive culture of the movie. They do speak a different language which our hero has to learn – that always bugged me in the movies, how Heston didn’t think twice that all the apes spoke English. And I like how Boulle keeps the reader guessing as to whether this planet is Earth in the future or not. I didn’t find the answer out until the last chapter or so.

Boulle considered the novel a satire, and it’s all there. I was sickened by the cruelty of the ape scientists experimenting on the semi-intelligent indigenous humans. The doctrinaire orangutan scientific establishment mocks the lock-step of our contemporary scientific community. The brutal scenes of gorillas hunting men, women, and children makes me regret even more the two pheasants and two rabbits I shot as a teen. And perhaps this is why I gut-feel the movie better than the novel. The movie created a realistic ape society for action, shock and surprise, and only then satire, whereas part of my brain kept reminding me as I read the book that the ape society so much like ours existed only to critique our humanity.

As a final note: the novel was originally written in French. So instead of our hero being a macho American astronaut named Taylor, he’s a Frenchman named Ulysse Merou. That conjures up a whole different set of images, doesn’t it? But I’m willing to give the novel a pass here; I actually kinda dig that name. Plus, Apes is written with “France” as “home.” So, for example, when Earth is approached we see first the cloud-enshrouded globe, then the Euro-African land mass, then Europe, and then, finally, France. Another neat point: The translation I read was done by someone named Xan Fielding. Don’t know anything about that person, but I absolutely love that name. Might make it into some of my fiction down the road …

Friday, February 11, 2011

Toy Story

Let’s raise a glass to the toy I wanted but did not buy.

The SuperScope was a simple toy. Primarily it was an elongated white cardboard box, three inches by three inches and three feet long. At each end was a cut-out and an angled mirror. See where I’m going with this? You look in one end and you can see around a corner or over a wall from the safe distance of a yard away.

I always envisioned myself in World War II combat fatigues, belt of grenades, M1 rifle, canteen, and my SuperScope. Scrambling through the wreckage of some shelled-out European city, peering over crumbled walls, scouting out the German position. Or else hacking my way through the jungles of southeast Asia, hunkering down behind some forgotten and nameless mud hill, scanning the fields below me for Japs. My SuperScope would provide endless hours of imaginative fantasy.

I was in a store with my mother that summer – 1976? 1977? – and remember she held it up to my face. I looked in the end and saw her face three feet above me. But no, I said I didn’t want it, I wanted something else. Probably something stupid like a paddle-ball game or a water pistol or a pack of Star Wars cards. Whatever I got in place of the SuperScope, it played no role whatsoever in my life. But I never quite forgot the toy I didn’t buy.

Perhaps I can buy it for the little ones. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. And the three of us can fight the Nazis in the comfort of my living room.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Humility Plus

Just a simple announcement:


There is no one more humble than me!

No one, ya hear?

Look upon my humility and tremble you fools!


No one can compare his humility to me – for my humility will rock you all!

You think you’re more humble than me? Huh? Do ya? Well, I got news for you:


And don’t get me started on how devout I am!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

1 = 99

Here’s an oldie you may have come across once or twice in your mathematical travels.

Can you prove that 1 = 99?

Sure you can.

But, to prove this obvious erroneous statement, you need to start with one that’s equally considered erroneous.

Consider the statement 2 + 2 = 5. Humor me for a moment, and forget the obvious falsehood of that conclusion. In fact, I want you to use it as your starting point.

There! Now prove 1 = 99.

Starting point:

2 + 2 = 5


4 = 5

Subtract 4 from each side:

4 – 4 = 5 – 4


0 = 1

Multiply each side by 98

0 x 98 = 1 x 98


0 = 98

Add 1 to each side:

1 = 99

There! Q. E. D!

Obviously, you can prove 1 = any number n when you begin with 2 + 2 = 5 (or any such similar erroneous equation resulting in 0 = 1). Just multiply the 0 = 1 by (n – 1) and then add 1 to the result.

Just one more reason, I guess, to make sure you teach Little Johnny how to do his sums in grade school.

Also, doesn’t your stomach feel a little queasy manipulating all these incorrect equations?


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tolkien’s Christian Symbolism

I think you need to be willfully blind not to acknowledge the Christian symbolism Tolkien sprinkles throughout The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he wrote in a letter admitting that he was quite conscious of this fact, particularly writing the second draft of the work.

Here’s a list of over twenty instances of Christian (and especially Catholic) symbols and metaphors one can find in Tolkien’s legendarium. Some are obvious, some are, admittedly, a stretch. None are exact one-to-one representations. To the best of my knowledge Tolkien has not specifically endorsed any of these interpretations.

So take this list for what it’s worth. It may enhance your reading or understanding of Tolkien, but it is far from being essential to the enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion. If you like, you can read the equal signs below as “may symbolize”.

Ilúvatar = God

The Ainur / Valar = the choirs of Angels

The Flame Imperishable = the Holy Spirit

Manwë, Lord of the Valar = St. Michael the Archangel

Galadriel, Varda / Elbereth = the Blessed Virgin Mary

A Elbereth Gilthoniel = Prayer akin to the Hail Mary or the St. Michael Prayer

Melkor / Morgoth = Lucifer / Satan

Mordor = Hell

The Ring = Sin

The carrying of the Ring = the carrying of the Cross

Lembas = the Eucharist

The way through Mordor to Mt. Doom = the Via Dolorosa

The Fellowship of the Ring = the Church

Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King = Gandalf (Prophet), Frodo (Priest), Aragorn (King)

Christ as healer = Aragorn, healing the wounded at Minas Tirith

Christ descending into Hell = Aragorn traveling the Paths of the Dead

The self-sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ is mirrored with that of Gandalf.

Sam = St. John, seen especially in his loyalty to Frodo / Christ

Radagast the Brown = St. Francis of Assisi

Faramir turning to the West in a moment of silence before dinner = the saying of Grace before a meal

Gondor and Arnor reunited = the Holy Roman Empire

The Shire functions economically and politically as a system very close to Chesterton’s distributism

Aulë stayed from destroying the Dwarves, his creation, by Ilúvatar = Abraham called and halted from sacrificing Isaac

Most, but by far not all, of these symbols were taken from Bradley J. Birzer’s excellent J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth. Birzer’s book is a thoroughly researched and extraordinarily footnoted thesis on Christian symbolism in Tolkien’s work. I completely recommend it as essential for anyone interested in this subject.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowl Recap

Just some thoughts …

* Had a lot of food with my cheese yesterday. Seriously, I ingested a whole bag of pop chips, a plateful of nachoes, eight fairly sizable chicken wings (each, like, half the size of my fist), a half-pint of cookie dough ice cream, and a liter-and-a-half of Diet Coke. Good thing, my heart says, the Super Bowl comes once a year.

* Didn’t O’Reilly seem uncharacteristically nervous during his live interview with Obama before the game? I liked how he shot down Obama’s talking points with respectful disdain.

* Aguilera’s “Star Spangled Banner”: the epitome of style over substance, as I just heard editorialized on the radio. Man do I hate this type of singing, with all the runs and riffs and breathy, throaty vocal stops. One of the reason I hate those American Idol auditions (the ones that are “good”, that is).

* Game was paradoxically great and dull at the same time. Great, I suppose, because of the Steelers second-half comeback, but dull because no one had a stellar, stand-out performance. The big plays weren’t really “big”, just kinda slightly larger than normal, if you know what I’m saying. Still, we were saying with 2:30 left in the game that Pittsburgh was going to win it.

* Hey, I predicted here the Packers would win, 27-24, and the final was 31-25. Called the winning team and off only by 5 points! That’s pretty darn good for an amateur like myself. Let me pat my back a moment!

* I can’t comment on the half-time show as I know nothing of the Black Eyed Peas or their songs, other than what my 6- and 2-year-olds sing and dance to. Did notice some technical issues, though (mic levels off, part of a ramp not lit up, etc).

* Commercial by and large were a disappointment this year.

* That being said, I did like three: (1) The Bud Light commercial where the hyper home decorator guy redoes the couples kitchen by only placing a bucket of Bud Light on the counter. (2) The one where the superrich are breaking out of their “prison of luxury.” (3) The guy that has to zip around trashing everyone’s PC, laptop, and iPhone because he accidentally hit “Reply All.”

* But the majority of commercials just turned me off. The Doritos commercials were repulsive. The Pepsi commercials were violent – lots of cans being thrown at heads and groins. And why does every single commercial have to feature a man who’s an unshaved doofus? Is that the way corporate marketing departments see us? And let’s have a moratorium on the slapstick schtick. It just ain’t funny anymore.

* My wife feels very strongly, and I agree, I think, that the game should start earlier than 6:30. Like, 3 o’clock. If nothing else, for the little ones. I hear the argument all the time about the World Series, that there should be at least one day game, because fathers can’t introduce their sons to the thrill of it all when the games last three hours past the child’s bedtime. So, I kinda weakly agree. Earlier game good. Late game bad.

* Overall, we had a good time. Our friend left a little depressed that her team lost. As a condolence I can only say that they were in it until the last minute of the game, and that the Steelers have been in the Big Game 8 times, more than any other NFL team, and have a winning percentage of 75%. Not bad, not bad at all. We’ll see them in the playoffs next year, and maybe again in the Super Bowl.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl

All right, I should never do this, but I’m going to give a prediction for today’s game. I’m always wrong about these things, but here goes:

Green Bay 27, Pittsburgh 24

Okay, everyone says it’s gonna be a close game. Both teams have their strengths and weaknesses, and each one’s strength and weakness is different from the other’s. That should make for a nailbiter. From the analysis I’ve listened to, I agree; it all makes sense.

That’s the conventional wisdom. If it’s a blow-out it will probably be Pittsburgh’s doing. I can’t see Green Bay running up the score and not having one of the league’s best clutch quarterbacks leading his team right down the field and into the end zone. But Green Bay is on fire, Aaron Rodgers especially. So that’s why I’m giving the slight edge to them today.

But I will be wrong; that’s the only sure bet here.

The problem is, here at the LE household, we have a guest from Pittsburgh (!) staying with us. My wife’s best friend. And she brought her Terrible Towels, her Steelers jersey, some big yellow-and-black Steelers cookies for the little ones, and Steeler medallions for them to wear.

I really have no stake in the game either way, really. Well, maybe just a little bit. The Steelers did knock out New York two weeks ago. Plus, Big Ben is a bit of a womanizing jerk, if only half of all those reports over the years about him are accurate. And, Pittsburgh was in it two years ago, and I kinda like to see the underdogs win in these big games.

So, I’m about 55-45 leaning towards Green Bay today. Which makes our houseguest view this as an act of utter betrayal.

What can I say? I have to be true to my gut. Even when it’s wrong 99 percent of the time.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Koan

At the risk of sounding much like a fool (which I undoubtedly am, I recognize), let me tell you briefly about my koan.

This famous koan was given to me in 1999 in a very unique way by a well-known Zen master. I struggled with it for, well, truth be told, only a few hours before giving up. It pops into my mind every now and then, and I have been tempted to cheat, but I won’t, because one day I will solve it.

A flag was fluttering in the breeze before the gate of the temple of the Sixth Patriarch in China. One of the disciples, a man deeply engaged in Zen training, cried: “See how the flag moves today!” Another beside him retorted, “No, today the wind is moving.”

“No, it’s the flag. Can’t you see it actually moving?”

“Not at all, it’s the wind. Don’t you understand that’s the active principle?”

And it developed into a serious dispute. Let me now ask you to try a question. In this case, what is it that is moving?

Well, the Sixth Patriarch happened to come out, and he told them: “It is not the flag that is moving and not the wind that is moving. It is the mind of the two noble monks.”

This incident has become one of the classical problems for Zen study, and is called the Case of the Sixth Patriarch and the Wind and the Flag. It is a knotty point. Though the flag be there, if there is no wind it does not move. And though the wind be there, if there is no flag, it does not move. Then again, though the flag be there and the wind be there, if there is no observing mind, there is nothing to be called movement.

Before the gate there were doubtless cryptomeria and pine trees, but they were not having an argument. There were farmers and woodmen working quietly without minding, and they were not quarreling. As it happened, in front of the two monks who were moving their minds, the flag was moving.

But it won’t do to stop at that and rush away with the idea: “Why yes, of course, it’s just the mind that is moving.” Even though the two monks do not agitate their minds, the flag without mind is moving. So further, it is not the flag which moves, it is not the wind which moves, it is not even the mind of the two monks. Then what is it that is moving? Let those whose karma has brought here ponder it and penetrate to the truth.

I was very interested in Zen in the 90s and read and thought much on the subject. Coincidentally, I was also very much into physics, and studied it for three semesters and a summer session at Seton Hall. I do believe, as many do, that they are related somewhere at their buried roots, intertwined perhaps, several feet under the ground which we experience as everyday reality.

For the longest time the seventh paragraph waved out to me. “There’s a clue here – this is not simply a handful of sentences to embellish the tale.” But honestly, I don’t know, and I lack the intellectual energy at this moment to contribute any substantial thoughts. (And I recognize that “substantial thoughts” may be exactly what the koan is trying to eliminate, or at least bypass.) I could google the koan and find some answers, but that would be meaningless. If you know the “answer,” please don’t share it, but if you have some “insights” I would not mind reading them.

I sure wish this is something I brought up at those campfire drinking sessions twenty years ago …

Friday, February 4, 2011

Time For New Glasses, Or ...


I think I'm reading too much Tolkien and Tolkien criticism lately. While driving my daughter to the local park to do a school project, I was scanning the street signs going by and mistook Sherman Ave for Saruman Ave.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

On the Border

Hey, are you familiar with that old Eagles song “On the Border”? I had an epiphany a few months ago that just came back to mind last night. I think that song would make an awesome opening theme song for one of those TBS or TNT or whatever cable shows. You know, one of those “characters welcome” teevee shows that are allowed to be a little extra violent and deviant because they reside on the higher channels of your television remote.

I dig the “on the border” theme and all the images that that conjures up. And the final line in the chorus about “turning water into wine” fits nicely with my messianic complex. Still, though, it’s kinda silly when you listen to it and realize it’s about a bunch of hippies trying to be all defiant, shaking their fists to the powers that be, to Nixon, to “the Man.” But I like it regardless, more than ever now especially that said hippies have become “the Man.”

[As an unrelated aside, Jack Black’s goofy movie School of Rock has one of the greatest socio-political discourses on “the Man” that I have ever encountered.]

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Addition Equals Multiplication

Here's a neat little math problem that involves nothing more than simple straight addition and multiplication. And we're only concerned with whole positive numbers.


Find the only two numbers whose sum is equal to their product.

In math form, a + b = a x b.

Now, find the only three numbers whose sum equals their product.

a + b + c = a x b x c.

Finally, find the only four numbers that do the same thing.

You have 10 minutes to solve everything.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Ring Movies

You should know by now I am a dedicated Lord of the Rings fan. I just finished reading the three books for the second time in my life, the first time being almost thirty years ago when I was a wee lad. That time it took me a whole summer, reading the work in such odd places as up in a tree, on my garage roof, on the hood of my dad’s car, under the dining room table, and by the light of a washing machine. The second time it took me five weeks, read mostly on the comfy couches at my in-law’s down in South Carolina and the mushroom-colored giant’s glove that sits in my living room.

Anyway, Peter Jackson’s trio of movies that brought Tolkien’s vision to the big screen has weighed heavily on my mind throughout this period. How do I address them here? I did see all three, each immediately as it was released, in the theaters. I own only the first one, The Fellowship of the Ring, but I have not watched it in its entirety in at least six years. So they are not exactly fresh in my mind, though certain visuals do stick out in my memory.

Truth is, I am ambivalent toward the films. Thus, I do not want to rewatch them all and review them here at the Hopper, which would be one logical path to take. I think this ambivalence has to do with someone else’s envisioning of something so meaningful to me that there’s a very perceptible danger of it corrupting my fond childhood memories. Plus, I did not feel they adequately conveyed the sheer magic of the world of Middle-earth to such non-initiates, like my wife, for example.

Despite this, though, I do feel the films are a worthwhile watch. I’d grade them all solid-Bs, for what that’s worth. Maybe B-pluses.

So I thought I would simply list what I liked and what I didn’t about the three films. If you’ve seen them you might find yourself agreeing or disagreeing. I present them here in no particular order, starting with the negatives, if only just to get it all off my chest.


* Any of the actors and actresses playing the hobbits. This includes the leads. Not anything against them, per se, it’s just that they are not what I envision a hobbit to be. To me, they need to be more chubby, but not comically so. I don’t think the movie quite got them right.

* The casting of Ian McKellen as Gandalf. Again, not what I envisioned Gandalf to be, but two other points always come to mind here. First, am I the only one who ever noticed that Sir Ian tends to loudly and theatrically overact just about every time he’s on the screen? Perhaps it has something to do with the Method (I’m saying “Method” theatrically out loud as I type this). Also, I think I do have a beef with one of the central and most significant character created by the undeniable devout Catholic Tolkien being played by such an outspoken gay man. Ever see the Jim Carrey “I am a gay man!” skit on In Living Color? This is how I think Sir Ian must live out every moment of his life, on-screen and off.

* To continue in this vein, none of the other major character casting stood out to me as really nailing how I envisioned The Lord of the Rings. (With three major exceptions, noted in the next section!) Gimli, Legolas, Saruman, Boromir, Faramir, all the major Rohan – none matched up with the counterparts I’d been carrying around in my mind for three decades.

* The orcs were really weak. Bland. Vanilla. There is no disguising that they’re just Hollywood stuntmen in lazy Hollywood makeup.

* An unfortunate too-liberal use of CGI during the occasionally over-long battles and, perhaps, Mordor.

* “Sahm!” “Mr Frodo, sir!” “Sahm!” “Mr Frodo, sir!” “Sahm!” “Mr Frodo, sir!” – repeated a hundred or so times.

* Attempting to make Arwen a feminist warrior at the Fords of Rivendell. In the book, she just wasn’t there. A lot are uncomfortable with the fact that there are few strong women characters in the novels. I am not, in this instance. I didn’t like that the filmmakers had to revision the scene to stick a woman there just to stick a woman there. I would have been quite content with Arwen remaining as Arwen, an inspiration of ethereal almost otherworldly beauty.

* Way too much was crammed into The Return of the King. Was the movie 3 ½ hours long, or did it just feel that way? It’s the shortest of Tolkien’s three books, yet it almost doubles the length of either of its predecessors. Poor storytelling through sloppy editing there.


* Three characters were cast accurately: Aragorn, Galadriel, and Arwen. I think Viggo Mortensen captured the sweaty, on-the-go action and nobility of Aragorn and gives the films a strong center worthy of Tolkien. Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler, different as they are from each other, are possibly two of the most beautiful women to grace the planet. As Galadriel and Arwen they imbue their characters with such beauty and strength that no post-modern testosterone-laden kick-a** action movie chick can hold a candle to them.

* The sequence where Galadriel is inadvertently tempted by Frodo’s offer of the Ring was done exceptionally well; to this day it still lives in my mind.

* I really like how the Ents were realized. They almost seemed Harryhausenish on the big screen. And the best part of the Ents was easily that booming tone to their voices.

* The model work, such as Isengard and Barad-Dur, was spot-on, as they say.

* That Eye of Sauron visual perfectly captured the essence of the Lord of the Rings: malevolent, searching, and merciless.

* Most of the background location and scenery, such as that we see of The Shire, Moria, Lothlorien, Gondor, the trek through the Dead Marshes, all rose to the occasion.

* The eerie suspense of Ringwraith pursuit in Fellowship was adequately captured. I vaguely recalled one sighting marred slightly by CGI, but otherwise it was creepily done.

* The balrog brought vividly to life, to me, something Tolkien kept vague in his novel and thus was vague in my mind. In my second reading of The Fellowship that image was the one I saw battling Gandalf on the bridge over the chasm.

* Gollum, too, was done to perfection. He appears on-screen exactly how I always envisioned him, and he talks in the same way I always heard his talk.

* The demise of Gollum is one of the very, very few things that the movie does better than the books.

* The prologue to The Fellowship focusing on the Battle of the Last Alliance and the cutting of the Ring by Isildur off Sauron’s hand was great. Ah, so that’s what the Enemy looked like when he had a body …

* The various monsters – Shelob, the Watcher in the Water, the flying beasts of the Nazgul – these were all very, very well done.

* Speaking of Shelob, I am at a loss whether Tolkien’s prose journey into her lair or Jackson’s visualization of it is more terrifying. I was surprised on the rereading how claustrophobic and sensually frightening those passages where. However, nothing surpasses that terrible surprised and anguished cry of Frodo as he’s stung by the great spider.

* The climactic destruction of Mordor was a good representation of something long vaguely visualized in my mind’s eye.

* The palpable despair of those outnumbered at Helm’s Deep in the prelude to the battle was very, very well done. So well done that even the wife has commented on it over the years, and she’s never read the novels.

So – any thoughts?