Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history

11-Jul-14 10:56 AM by
Filed under Reviews, Television; 2 comments.

In the fifteen years since I cancelled my cable service, the television landscape has changed: "reality TV" was invented, medical and legal procedural dramas boomed, and HDTV became the norm. So it was interesting to watch and review the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire for Computerworld. Not being an AMC subscriber, I bought a season pass for the first four episodes on Amazon Instant Video and paid for the fifth episode individually.

It's hard to judge any show by its early episodes — I doubt any of the various Star Trek series would've lasted long by that metric. So I tried to keep my critical eye at bay for the first few episodes, which was not easy. The three main characters — Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) — are trying to develop one of the first IBM clones of 1983, but their subterfuge and machinations, with both corporations and each other. I roll my eyes at such drama for the same reason that I stopped watching soap operas. MacMillian, who physically reminds me of a cross between John Cusack and Andy Garcia, is a vile businessman who oozes deceit and smarm. He's a character you love to hate.

Halt and Catch Fire

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillian. What a jerk.

But there are some really nice moments of character development, too. Clark, the show's Steve Wozniak-like character, struggles to realize his dream of creating the ultimate computer and will hitch his wagon to whoever can help him get there. At the same time, he's trying to be a good husband and father, though his family clearly isn't his priority.

Overall, I've enjoyed watching the first five episodes and will likely continue watching the series as time permits. For more details, read my full review on Computerworld.com, "Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history".

Centennial Special Effects

31-Aug-09 2:39 PM by
Filed under Films; Comments Off on Centennial Special Effects

Relatively new to YouTube is this review of the evolution of special effects. Though I once interviewed ILM's John Knoll on this very topic, our discussion went back only as far as 1982 and the release of TRON. The following montage includes that film, but it more ambitiously covers not just the last quarter, but the entire century:

It's stupefying to consider the mechanics behind what accounted for "special effects" at the dawn of the cinematic medium. I was 24 when I first saw Claude Rains as The Invisible Man, which impressed me immensely. As I wrote in the Showbits of that era: "What baffles my young mind is, how did they do special effects like that before the advent of computers? There were scenes that showed uninhabited apparel moving about a room, beds making themselves, etc. A couple of theories involving dummies or strings played through my mind, but ultimately, none seemed feasible. What sort of 'tricks of the camera' existed back then?"

Eric Shepherd responded: "Back then, effects like that were done by retouching each frame of film by hand. Generally it would be done by painting over the stuff you're not supposed to see to blend into the background. These days, of course, it's done by painting the 'invisible' person blue or green, and/or putting them in a skintight body suit of those colors, and then replacing those colors using the background from a still or from video shot without the actor present in the frame."

Although technology has greatly redefined studios' workflows and options, I would say the greatest change that audiences can see in special effects is not in complexity, but in subtlety. It used to be easy and obvious to distinguish authentic from accentuated; now we can see entire sequences and characters without realizing any of it has been fabricated.

I won't debate whether or not such effects are a deception that precludes legitimate acting, but I do wonder about their limited application. Judging from the above video, it seems the genre that makes the most extensive use of special effects are science fiction and fantasy. That's not altogether surprising, but I wonder why we don't see it more often in, say, comedies. Is there something inherently unfunny about CGI?

Looking Back on the Future of Star Trek

14-Mar-09 2:43 PM by
Filed under Star Trek, Trailers; Comments Off on Looking Back on the Future of Star Trek

This week, the Star Trek franchise turned exactly 42.5 years old. Despite being a not particularly noteworthy milestone, I used the occasion to finally watch the show's 40th anniversary special. The special, hosted by Leonard Nimoy, aired on the History Channel in February 2007 and will be included in next month's release of TOS Season 1 on Blu-Ray. Though the primary purpose of the documentary is to showcase the then-recently-concluded Christie's auction of thousands of Star Trek props, it also features several stars of the franchise's first four shows reflecting on their roles. I found the most striking observation came from Kate Mulgrew: "I don't know a lot of doctors and lawyers who watch doctors and lawyers shows — but almost every scientist I've ever known loved Star Trek." It's a sentiment consistent with the need to have shows like Star Trek on the air.

The franchise's 726 episodes and ten movies are condensed into this other 40th anniversary tribute, which for some reason was uploaded to YouTube just last week. The video — set to one of my favorite instrumental pieces, the orchestral suite from "The Inner Light" — is a brief visual tour of the entire history of Star Trek's two-hundred-year history. Considering how many characters there are to fit into the montage's seven-minute length, you'll forgive the editor if he transitions from one character to the next a bit too swiftly.

I was moved by how familiar I found each of these characters, and how glad I was to see them again. But then, I shouldn't be surprised: Star Trek was on the air consistently for 18 years, making it a constant companion for roughly two-thirds of my life. You could argue it was just a TV show (in which case I wonder what you're doing reading this blog), but every day without a Trek seems dark, as the program represents a hope for humanity.

With the cancellation of Enterprise, television has been without a Star Trek for four years. Now we stand on the cusp of a new Star Trek film — the first one in seven years, the longest span between any two Star Trek movies ever. This movie has the potential to reenergize the franchise and bring it back not only to the public consciousness, but to the television screen. It will be a long time before we can effectively measure the film's success and impact — but it will be only two months before we will have the full feature to judge, and not just this trailer:

(Hat tip to Dayton Ward)

The Best of the Best

24-Jun-07 12:18 PM by
Filed under Films; 2 comments.

Just as they did ten years ago, the American Film Institute has announced their list of "The Top 100 Movies of All Time". CNN.com reports:

The top-100 were chosen from ballots sent to 1,500 filmmakers, actors, writers, critics and others in Hollywood from a list of 400 nominated movies, 43 of which came from the decade since the first list was compiled.

Of those newer films, only four made the top-100: 2001's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (No. 50), 1998's Saving Private Ryan (No. 71), 1997's Titanic (No. 83) and 1999's The Sixth Sense (No. 89).

Older films that did not make the cut on the 1998 list broke into the top-100 this time, led by Buster Keaton's 1927 silent comedy The General at No. 18. Others included 1916's Intolerance (No. 49), 1975's Nashville (No. 59), 1960's Spartacus (No. 81), 1989's Do the Right Thing (No. 96) and 1995's Toy Story (No. 99).

Films that dropped out of the top-100 this time included 1965's Doctor Zhivago, which had been No. 39 on the 1998 list; 1984's Amadeus, which had been No. 53; 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which had been No. 64; 1990's Dances With Wolves, which had been No. 75; and 1927's The Jazz Singer, which had been No. 90.

I agree with many of the changes — Saving Private Ryan is an important film about the reality of war, while Close Encounters has not aged well, resulting in a boring morass. But there are so many such "best of" lists that to consider any one, even the AFI's, as definitive would be foolhardy. In this instance, where are films such as Days of Wine and Roses, Fail-Safe, The Empire Strikes Back, The Matrix, Lost in Translation, and Groundhog Day? The absence of these stark, gritty, comical, and/or memorable films from the AFI's list is noticeable. Of course, any list limited to only a hundred films will not be comprehensive, which is why the AFI has so many other lists: Groundhog Day was #34 on their Top 100 Laughs list, and The Matrix was #66 of the Top 100 Thrills list.

Regardless of the Top 100's subjective accuracy, it is still a useful barometer of Hollywood's milestones and their impact on American culture. To that end, it is intriguing to measure your own cultural literacy against what the AFI deems noteworthy. I've seen half of the top ten films, and nearly a third of the total list. (Trivia: The average year of release of the 100 films is 1963; the average year of release of the 30 films I've seen is 1972. Both years precede my own personal release.) Considering the vast number of films I've seen and researched, such a low number may be a surprise. I compensate by priding myself not only with the knowledge of more esoteric films (everyone's seen #3, Casablanca — what about that experience would make me unique? — but I have seen #80, The Apartment), but also in knowing that many people have seen fewer than thirty of the top hundred films. (One Showbits contributor shocked me with his familiarity of only a tenth of the list!) Still, there is much work to be done.

What films do you think should be on the list and aren't? How many of the AFI's choices have you seen? Which ones haven't you seen that you want to?

The Circle Is Now Complete

25-May-07 9:18 AM by
Filed under Star Wars; 4 comments.

At last, this is the day we've all been counting down to: the 30th anniversary of Star Wars. On May 25th, 1977, A New Hope debuted, forever changing the scape of film and American culture.

I don't remember Star Wars having ever been in the news this much — not even when the prequels were coming out. With the commemorative stamps coming out today, documentaries being filmed, and specials on television airing soon, it seems everyone has their minds on a galaxy far, far away. Here are some of the best Star Wars spotlights for you to observe today: