Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Delightful

Review: Here Comes the Boom

Normally I would not see the latest from the esteemed filmmakers operating in the orbit of Adam Sandler. It’s hard to resent their success—they’re good at what they do and they appear to have fun with it—but it’s also hard to see how the lowbrow vomit comedies (vomedies?) for which they are known are supposed to appeal to people who have successfully passed grade eight. But a few months ago, I saw the trailer for Here Comes the Boom, the latest Kevin James movie, and it was hilarious. The scatology was dialled down to bearable levels, the physical comedy was ramped up, and the premise and tone were just too good to be true. Whether or not it turned out to be good, the movie demanded to be seen.

Well, it’s out now, and Here Comes the Boom is probably the funniest movie this year. Kevin James is Scott Voss, a bored, defeated biology teacher at a high school in a poor area of Boston. He makes friends with Marty (Henry Winkler), the school’s music teacher and the only person who seems capable of getting the students excited about anything. Marty is an eccentric. He conducts with a pencil, swinging his arms around in a grandiose parody of a 4/4 beat pattern. He is wildly enthusiastic about everything he does, and can’t understand why no one else feels the same. Such people make good music teachers.

Marty is one of Robertson Davies’s “cultured madmen”, the kind of teacher who is the most important influence in a student’s school career. The school’s orchestra is a motley collection of strings and brass, a massive woodwind section (including saxes) and piano (because why not?). Despite the group’s unusual makeup and battered instruments (bought at cut-rate prices and refurbished by Marty himself), he pulls the students together and makes them sound pretty good.

But the school is running out of money, and they are cutting extracurricular activities, including the music program. In order to save Marty’s job, they need $48000 by the end of the year. Scott, seeing all the good that Marty does for the students, tries to help Marty out by moonlighting, but his brother’s painting company is struggling and he can’t make enough money teaching citizenship classes to make a meaningful contribution. Through one of the students in his night class, Niko, a trainer at an upscale gym, Scott learns that UFC fighters can earn as much as $10000 a fight even if they lose. He cuts a deal with Niko to exchange civics lessons for fighting lessons, and makes his debut in an ultra-low-rent MMA promotion.

This is an inspired premise for a “save our school” movie. As far as the rest of the world is aware, this absurdist fantasy where the MMA-fighting teacher can honestly say he’s serving the students better than the school administration is not too far from what schooling is actually like in the US. I’ve seen those textbooks. The filmmakers touched a nerve at just the right moment, and they went for broke on the satire, speaking in complete earnest and holding nothing back.

Kevin James has a certain sloppy loveable charm, like a very restrained Jack Black. Henry Winkler does a perfect nebbishy band teacher—it’s hard to believe this man was once the Fonz. Several MMA fighters have bit parts as themselves or as characters, and they were good sports. The stunt fighting is stomach-twisting. Gary Valentine is funny as Scott’s many-childed brother, and Salma Hayek livens up a role that only exists so the movie can have a love interest and cheescake shots.

Adam Sandler movies (Here Comes was produced by his company, though his name does not appear in the credits; this belongs to the genre of “Adam Sandler movies” regardless of his actual involvement) are vulgar and often too disgusting to be worth the trouble. But they’ve always had a good heart, even at their stupidest. With Here Comes the Boom, they have surpassed themselves by hewing to their unique aesthetic while making a movie that is still watchable even outside the middle school classroom. Even, perhaps especially, if you don’t think you’ll like it, Here Comes the Boom comes highly recommended.

Review: A Canticle For Leibowitz

Religion is a rare thing in SF. The genre grew up alongside the modern atheist movement, so God or gods almost never appear in any positive portrayal outside of inexplicably Nebula-winning short stories about Mormon space whale rape. This is a shame because it’s led to a very homogenized set of views on religion among SF authors and fans, roughly those dictated by people like Richard Dawkins. It’s not that I disagree with these views, exactly, but they lack nuance and sophistication. If explicitly religious SF was a more common thing, I think everyone would benefit—religious folks from gaining a voice, and others from having their views challenged and clarified.

I read Walter M. Miller Jr.’s short story “A Canticle for Leibowitz” a few months ago in an FSF anthology. Its quietly pious tone was refreshing, and it was funny as hell to boot. Miller expanded the short into a novel in 1960, incorporating another story from the same universe and a third incomplete work to create a post-apocalyptic epic spanning centuries.

In the beginning, the Earth has been made desolate by nuclear holocaust. In the aftermath of the war, roving mobs hunted down scientists and world leaders. They burn books and eventually turn their wrath on anyone who is literate, erasing gigantic swaths of knowledge from human memory. An obscure pre-Deluge technician named Isaac Edawrd Leibowitz founds a monastic order to preserve and copy the scraps of scientific knowledge that remain.

Centuries later, a novice of the Albertian Order of Blessed Leibowitz is visited in the desert by an apparition that may or may not be the Beatus himself. The old man leads the novice to a buried fallout shelter, where some of Leibowitz’s papers are preserved in an old toolbox. This incident prompts vigorous interest in the work of the Order and a renewal of the canonization process for Leibowitz.

The monk makes an illuminated copy of one of the blueprints he found. When the Vatican finally declares Leibowitz a saint, many years later, he brings the copy and the original relic with him on a pilgrimage to New Rome. On the way he is waylaid by bandits and the copy—but not the original—is stolen. So far this is all in keeping with the 1955 short story. Miller rejiggers the ending of this section and calls it part 1, “Fiat Homo”. The next two parts deal with the reinvention of electric lighting (“Fiat Lux”) and a second nuclear war between spacefaring civilizations (“Fiat Voluntas Tua”).

Miller manages to say his piece while avoiding the common pitfalls of this type of story, at least for a while. Part 2’s Thon Taddeo is no Hollywood-style Santa-slaying atheist, but neither is he an Ayn Rand hero. The various priests and abbots are dogmatists but not cruel ones, and they have some sense about morality and leadership that one can only wish was possessed by actual Catholic clergy. Miller presses his point without compromise but also without self-righteousness. He acquits himself well, at first. But toward the end it starts to come apart. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

This book’s premise is contingent on something that I don’t fully accept as true. I have always found claims to the effect that men and women are inherently different in temperament to be somewhat dubious. It offends my sensibilities; it feels like giving in to the bad comedians. We are socialized differently, and there are some biological differences that affect how people interact. But surely at bottom, in the mind, who you really are isn’t male or female, right? Surely the differences are just superficial.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a thought experiment on this very subject. Suppose, it says, there was a world of people biologically very similar to humans as we know them (in a panspermic universe), with only one difference: most of the time, they are asexual. At the end of a 26-day cycle, they go into a phase called “kemmer”, during which they become sexually aroused. When they meet a partner, their sexual organs reconfigure and one of them becomes male, the other female. This happens at random; most of them have no tendency one way or the other and the ones who do are considered strange deviants. The same person can give birth to some children and father others.

Gethen, the world on which they live, has winters harsher than anywhere on Earth. Roads are often impassable, and the snow can get several metres high. The Gethenians are a slow-moving people who lack much in the way of large-scale coordination. They have nation-states, but there is no war as such, only skirmishes along the borders: frequent but extremely small-scale. The people are generous. There is an understanding that travellers will be taken in, fed, and sheltered no matter where they stop. Descent is reckoned matrilineally, because the parent who gave birth to the child is understood to have a deeper and more important connection to them.

The plot, where someone who might as well be an ordinary Earthling circa 1969 attempts to convince the planet’s people to join the interplanetry Ekumen, is an excuse for exploring the all-important experiment. Each new detail complicates things further, and there is a tremendous interplay of ideas between the Gethenians’ sexual characteristics, their political arrangements, and their response to their climate. The implication is that the lack of dualistic gender roles is in large part responsible for their extreme differences from other planets, but in the end you never can tell exactly what causes what; the nature of these variables is that they are not isolable. Left Hand is a gem of old-school sci-fi worldbuilding. It’s short, but it encompasses a whole lot.

Review: FSF 30-Year Retrospective

I talk a lot about science fiction (though not, apparently, as much as I thought I did), but I’ve got some pretty serious gaps in my knowledge of the genre. For example, I’ve never read anything full-length by Heinlein. To get educated, I picked up The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: A 30 Year Retrospective at a used bookstore based solely on the names on the cover—authors I had heard of, and figured I should probably get around to reading. It was meant to be a fast, low-investment read so I could get educated, as it were, in the classics of SF.

It turned out to be an outstandingly solid and representative collection that far surpassed expectations. FSF‘s focus on literary quality and humour over strict scientific accuracy means that the stories have aged well, even the more straight-ahead science fiction ones. These are mixed with humour, horror, and fantasy—with a few poems and cartoons thrown in for good measure—to render a wide and fairly deep picture of the genre as it developed in the pages of FSF during the mid-20th century. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Cabin in the Woods

I came into The Cabin in the Woods blind, without having seen the trailer or even the poster. All I had was the title, the fact that Joss Whedon cowrote the script, and a recommendation that consisted of nothing more than “see this movie” and hints that it would contain something unexpected. That was all I needed.

Before introducing our laboriously telegraphed slasher plot, the movie opens showing a team of wisecracking scientists in an underground facility speaking cryptically about the “scenario” they’re running. Then we meet our principals: Dana, the obvious final girl who’s into economics and Soviet history, Jules, the dumb pre-med blonde, Curt and Holden, both football players, and Marty, the paranoid stoner. They’re going to spend a weekend of bacchanalia and debauchery in an isolated cabin owned by Curt’s cousin. As they leave in their RV, the camera pulls back to reveal an operative on a nearby rooftop watching them.

Later, as the kids enter a mountain tunnel, we see an eagle collide with an invisible forcefield around the area and burn up. At this point it becomes clear that we’re in for some unconventional shenanigans in the same vein as Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. [Small spoilers behind the cut.] Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sonic Generations

The meta-story of the Sonic series hardly needs elaboration by this point. Sonic and Mario were big competitors in the early nineties; when 3D came about, Nintendo made Mario 64 and Sega made Sonic Adventure. Enough said. The Sonic games of the last twelve years have not been good by any reasonable standard, but they haven’t been wholly bad, either.

The switch to 3D was rocky, but some of the levels were excellent. Some very strange character and gameplay decisions were made—the name of Big the Cat springs to mind—but damn it, some of them worked—for instance, Tails’s robot suit, which was completely out of left field but elevated him from a useless sidekick into a character you might actually want to use. And the music—aggressively shitty turn-of-the-millenium pseudo-punk, but so catchy I still remember it after at least five years without hearing it.

They were pretty bad, but the badness was the result of marketing, mostly. The mechanical issues could have been solved within a generation if all the trappings weren’t so offensive. Rescuing them is not a matter of scrapping everything and starting over, but of digging out the good bits and rebuilding around them. Which is what Sonic Generations does. The levels of Adventure and Adventure 2 are updated, and the mechanics are rebuilt from scratch. The result is one of the most fun games I’ve played in a long time. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men

David Foster Wallace is not who you think. He’s the product of a university MFA program. He writes astoundingly long, weird novels with long, weird footnotes. He’s been published and praised in places like The New Yorker. His author photos look like this:

These bits of knowledge may trigger our book-choosing heuristics, setting off alarm bells and driving us away. The truth is, at a glance Wallace looks for all the world like your typical True Artist, trading in the beret for a bandana. The type who tries to be incomprehensible. Whose work is “challenging” in the sense that it turns art into a vulgar guessing game. Who writes dull and pointless novels aimed at no one in particular, and enthusiastically received by their audience.

But look a little closer, and you’ll learn that the bandana is because of his problem with heavy perspiration. Wallace was apparently a timid, nervous, deeply self-conscious and uncomfortable man, not the kind of smug artiste it’s so easy to imagine. His work, which often looks deliberately incomprehensible and coy, on closer inspection has a heartfelt sincerity and a kind of vague unity, and the reason it seems so opaque is that he’s trying to grasp at something slippery and hard to pin down—as he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College, “the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Infamous

Back in the day, we used to go to my cousin’s house. The four of us would crowd around the TV in his basement and play video games. This was early in the 6th generation; we were Gamecube people through and through, but my cousin had a Playstation. We played through some of the best games of that period–Jak and Daxter, Crash Bandicoot, Okage: Shadow King. It was a lot of fun. Most of the time I wasn’t even playing–I’m terrible at most games, so it would have been hour after hour of watching Crash fall headlong into a bottomless pit. Still, it was a great time even if you were just watching.

Lately I’ve been catching up on what’s been happening in the gaming world over the last few years. You see, I’ve been really busy and, while I could have made time for gaming if I really wanted, the latest generation feels like it’s missing something. So I haven’t really kept up to date, aside from regularly watching Zero Punctuation. In the last little while, I’ve had some free time, so I played Heavy Rain and am now working through Infamous. When I started the game, I was skeptical. It looked just like the rest of the games that have been coming out lately, the ones that look like a blander version of real life.

At one in the morning, hours after I started, I was jumping from rooftop to rooftop taking potshots at civilians with my electric superpowers when I realized what it is I’ve been missing all these years: fun. That’s right, F-U-N, fun. The Playstation and Xbox games aren’t good enough to be taken seriously, but they try anyway. Wii games are frustrating and dull. But Infamous takes me back to the days when games were allowed to be fun. I thought they didn’t make them like this anymore. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Glengarry Glen Ross

David Mamet is an irritating blowhard in his non-fiction and, if you believe the things he says about himself, personally rather an asshole. But give the man his credit–he can put together a slick production. Glengarry Glen Ross is his brainchild, originally written for the stage, where it won the Pulitzer Prize. It was adapted into a movie in 1992 with an all-star cast–Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and Jonathan Pryce. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Vor Game

At the end of the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, two con-men played by Steve Martin and Michael Caine, realize that another con has pulled an elaborate trick on them by posing as their mark and making off with fifty-thousand pounds and all of Steve Martin’s clothes. As they talk things over at Caine’s French villa, the conwoman returns with a crowd of rich investors and tells them a story about “Chips O’Toole”, the rich Australian landowner. Caine, after only a moment of bewildered hesitation, draws his face into a goofy smile and replies, “G’Day! How’s it going, sport?” It’s one of my favourite movie scenes ever.

Reading one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan novels is like that scene, over and over again. Read the rest of this entry »