Watching Pandemics—in Film

One of the things we’re doing to pass the time is winding down the day with a “good” pandemic flick. So far, we’re only gotten through two. I’ll update this post as we get through more. Spoiler alert: I’ll be careful not to give too much away, but can’t guarantee a no-spoiler review.

First up was The Andromeda Strain (1971, IMDB score: 7.2). Two films and one miniseries have been based on this early novel by Michael Crichton, and this is generally considered the best of them. If nothing else, it’s the one that adheres closest to the book.

In today’s every-film-is-a-blockbuster world, one tends to forget that, due to technical, economic, and other constraints, films were often extremely poorly paced, chaotic, and somewhat boring. There’s almost no background score for the film, and what’s there is entirely forgettable. Though the sterile technique is relatively good in this, it’s far from perfect; science is only so-so. Performances are decent, and one item of note is that this is probably the last time in film that a supermodel prototype was not used for a female scientist. It also reminded us that people used to smoke.

Outbreak (1995, IMDB score: 6.6) Horrible sterile technique, mostly poor science (although some good basic virology) and an entire military branch that refuses to obey orders. Excellent makeup for disease effects. (Bonus: Ebola-type viruses cause one’s hair to lose its curl as the disease progresses. Who knew?) Dustin Hoffman and cast provide credible performances while behaving incredibly, although the basic scenario is plausible. There’s a conspiracy-driven sub plot that doesn’t quite fit. Hoffman seems schizoid when it comes to protecting the world from an Ebola-type outbreak. He’s determined to cure it, but becomes positively reckless in his investigation.

Starting today or tomorrow, we’ll tackle The Hot Zone, a National Geographic miniseries based on Richard Preston’s excellent novel of the same name. (2019, IMDB score: 7.3). We’ll see!

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?

Quite often I think about a Charlie Brown special I saw when I was in my mid-teens, in 1983. It’s designed to continue the story of the film, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!), and commemorates some of the events of World War I and World War II.

Linus quotes John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. I find it nearly as moving as the recitation of Luke 2 in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Periodically, I’ve searched Amazon, hoping that this had been released on DVD or better (the only consumer release was on VHS video). It’s finally coming this fall, as part of Peanuts: The EMMY Honored Collection (DVD)!

Sadly, the as-I-recall-excellent Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!! is still, apparently, only available on used VHS.

Nope, Nothing Familiar Here

On the left is Psycho, with his nanosuit in strength mode, from the Crysis game. On the right is a movie poster from Green Lantern. See any similarities?

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Crysis Nanosuit has been copied in film. [cough]GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra[/cough].

To Boldly Go: Star Trek Online

A couple of weeks ago marked a watershed moment in MMORPGs: Star Trek Online wrapped up its mostly-open-beta program, and went live with its early-access-for-preorders launch. Delighted with the quality of the game, we sprung for a lifetime membership, which is approximately as costly as paying per-month for a year and a half. (I wish World of WarCraft would offer such a deal.)

The boys and I have been hooked. (Isaac, the weasel, has remained several levels ahead of me, and is about to get a promotion that will give him access to even better ships.) The game features space exploration and combat, and ground exploration and combat. The missions are described as “episodes,” and, like the plots of a television series, often require following unexpected developments and changing tasks as the plot unfolds across planetary surfaces and space. Each player captains his or her own starship, outfitting it with weapons, equipment that gives bonuses, and senior officers who also provide special abilities. I’ve attached a couple of screen shots of the gorgeously-rendered space exploration scenes below. The planets are beautiful, often including moving cloud layers that partly cover the ground below, as well as appropriate atmospheric illumination by the planet’s star, depending on one’s location in orbit.

The USS Naomi, approaching a planet within the Delta Volaris sector.
The USS Naomi, approaching a planet within the Delta Volaris sector.

(My first ship is named the USS Nichelle.)

The USS Naomi, exploring a system in the Delta Volaris sector.
The USS Naomi, exploring a system in the Delta Volaris sector.

Ground locations are often also highly detailed, with a wide variety of plants and terrain. Some of the outdoor ground locations (there are also caves, and starbase and other complex interiors) sometimes seem very reminiscent of the ToS set locations, although generally with more detail than the show’s budget allowed.

Combat and exploration are both integral to the game. Combat is far more skill-intensive than most MMORPGs, particularly as one commands an “away team” to whom orders must be given, and as space combat works in three dimensions and often against multiple enemies. Some missions automatically draft the cooperation of other players, and nearly everything can be accomplished by choice as a teamwork exercise. Like the best MMOs available, there are also large PVP combat areas where players can earn even more rewards.

The game is still in early release, and is apparently only going to get better, but it still shows some weaknesses of an early release with higher-than-expected levels of demand on its servers, and some frustratingly common bugs, such as the game locking up.

Overall, though, our romps through the Star Trek universe have been delightful, with much future enjoyment anticipated.

Addendum, Stardate 201002.18: I am fully convinced that this game was worth every penny. Even my beloved World of WarCraft has never captured me with this intensity.

Beaming out after an away mission.
Beaming out after an away mission.

Rescuing diplomats taken hostage; the end of a truly well-crafted mission series.
Rescuing diplomats taken hostage; the end of a truly well-crafted mission series.

Beautiful environments abound: This is Regulus.
Beautiful environments abound: This is Regulus.

Scanning with my tricorder. What could be better?
Scanning with my tricorder. What could be better?

Approaching Starbase 114.
Approaching Starbase 114.

Merrimack High School’s Award-Winning Star Wars Parody

We were at Merrimack High School this morning for a meeting regarding some testing Isaac had done over the past couple of weeks. It was just after morning announcements, and as we went to our meeting, the music from Star Wars could be heard coming from every room.

I caught enough of the description playing with an apparent news report to later learn that Merrimack High School had worked with New Hampshire-based filmmaker Jeff Capone to produce a Star Wars parody entitled Star Sports, that won for the Best Parody in the Fan Movie Challenge presented by Lucasfilm and Atom at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International.

Star Sports – Theatrical Trailer

Space: Video

In 2029, the 900-foot asteroid Apophis, will miss Earth by only about 18,000 miles. To put that in contrast, the moon is an average of 238,857 miles away, center-to-center, or about 234,000 miles surface-to-surface. (The moon, of course, has a slightly elliptical orbit, so that’s just an average.) If that doesn’t set up the right mental image, take a look at the animation below, from an article on Wired Science.

Below you’ll see some beautiful video compiled from the STS-129 mission launch. (STS stands for space transportation system, and is the designation for NASA’s own Space Shuttle.

STS-129 Ascent Video Highlights from mike interbartolo on Vimeo.

STS-129 video highlights as compiled by the SE&I imagery team here at JSC from all of the ground, air, ET and SRB assets.

Star Trek XI

I’ll describe Star Trek Zero in one word, the same word I uttered repeatedly throughout the film: Wow!

enterprise_console_n_and_i
Lieutenant Wilcox, USS Reliant, with an unidentified Orion Slave Girl.

Last night at 9:50 we went to Hooksett Cinemagic to see the film in digital iMax (yes, that’s iMax with digital video … quite an experience, as we’d seen with Monsters vs. Aliens a few weeks ago). A bunch of people from church were also there (including, of course, the Dunn family all in costume). However, the iMax was having projector problems. So, we got to see Trek in digital, and have free passes to return to the iMax whenever we like.

Without offering any spoilers, I’ll just say that J.J. Abrams lived up to the storytelling and adventure I expected. There are elements of things we’ve seen before in Star Trek storytelling (indeed, it would be hard to find something that hadn’t been tried over the years), but rarely are they executed with such fine attention to drama, detail, and humor.

NaNi Reviews Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

We all trekked off to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on Saturday, including Naomi.*

Here’s her review:

Indiana Jones was amazing. Sam [Shia LeBeouf, playing Mutt Williams, whom she recognizes as Sam Witwicky from Transformers] was old! He had a mustache and beard, and I was, like, “What the heck?”

We asked NaNi if she had a favorite part, and she explained, “No; I loved all of it.”


Naomi can’t wait to review this upcoming release from Disney-Pixar.


(*Yes, I know you wouldn’t take your 4-year-old to see a possibly frightening movie, but she really wanted to go, even after knowing it might be scary. So we did take her, after instructing her on how to close her eyes and snuggle up with Mom if there was anything she found scary on screen, and that we would not be taking her out to the lobby. She did need to close her eyes once or twice, but it was David—age 9—who was the most frightened, but only in one part, and he used the same technique to deal with it.

Hey, she’s our kid, and has been raised on a steady diet of appropriate action-adventure, fantasy, and sci-fi films, such as Star Wars, Superman, The Lord of the Rings, and Barbie Swan Lake. Get over it.)

Skvid Number One

Skvid = SKit on VIDeo

Last week our pastor asked me to put together a video skit to help illustrate a sermon in a series of lessons on stewardship: What happens when we overwhelm ourselves with choices and activities? Of course, it also illustrates beautifully the quirkiness of the Wilcox family.

I did the video in Windows Movie Maker, a free download for Windows XP. I had to overcome a quirk that kept locking the software up, discovering that previewing clips in the preview window wouldn’t work correctly, unless I dragged the clips to the timeline first. I can’t explain that, but wish I’d found the answer hours earlier. Movie Maker isn’t bad, but I need something that will let me treat the audio track from the video separately, as well as add more audio layers.

The film was shot entirely out of sequence, in order to meet the availability schedule of the actors (my kids), over the course of a very busy Saturday. The Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back clip was created by shooting our own HDTV, the quickest way I could think of to get the piece I needed.

Background music includes Ella Fitzgerald’s, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and the title theme from Back to the Future.

Overall, it’s a tad too long at just over 6 minutes (the goal was 5 minutes), and I never got around to including any video transitions. I may tweak it a bit in the next few days, especially if I try out a more advanced software package, and hope to get it down to 4 to 4.5 minutes. I recall seeing George Lucas talking about an old filmmaker adage, “Films are never finished, just abandoned,” and how he had the technology (and money) to keep going back to his films to finish them the way he wanted.

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