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Friday, December 18, 2009

Total Recall: James Cameron Movies

We take a look at the career of the visionary director of Avatar.

James Cameron

He got his start as a miniature model maker at Roger Corman Studios, and promptly went on to establish himself as one of the biggest directors in Hollywood -- both in terms of his staggering box office grosses ($3.5 billion worldwide and counting) and his seemingly limitless appetite for epic storytelling. Like a lot of filmmakers, James Cameron's imagination has often outpaced the available technology -- but unlike most of his peers, when confronted with those limits, he simply spurs the invention of new technology to get around them. Cameron's latest effort, Avatar, required the development of a whole new 3-D camera, and rode the bleeding edge of CGI's outer limits. After years of buildup, Avatar is finally here -- but before we witness what's being hyped as the future of filmmaking, why don't we look back at James Cameron's past?


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9. Piranha II: The Spawning

Say what you will about low-budget horror movies, but they've proven themselves to be a strangely fertile breeding ground for future stars -- from Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun to Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th and Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, countless young Hollywood professionals have paid their rent by toughing it out in a low-budget slasher. Few success stories have had humbler beginnings than James Cameron's, however -- the Roger Corman graduate was promoted from special effects on Piranha II after the original director took a hike. To Cameron's chagrin, the promotion was largely ceremonial; he ultimately wasn't even allowed to see his own footage, and according to legend, he broke into the studio's editing facility to try and create his own cut of the film. Though it's tempting to wonder what a Piranha II director's cut would look like, it's hard to imagine any amount of editing making an appreciable difference in the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction; Empire's Kim Newman offered one of the kindest reviews, gently dismissing it after the fact as "for curious completists only." To his credit, Cameron has shown a sense of humor about the whole thing, referring to Piranha II as "the finest flying killer fish horror/comedy ever made."


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8. True Lies

Cameron closed out a decade as one of America's preeminent action directors with True Lies, a reunion with Arnold Schwarzenegger (who starred as double life-leading secret agent Harry Tasker) and Brad Fiedel (who provided the score, as he had for the Terminator films). The death knell had sounded for the big, dumb 1980s action movie with 1992's prophetically titled The Last Action Hero -- which, fittingly, also starred Schwarzenegger -- but Cameron helped revitalize the genre with a light, funny, fast-moving thrill ride that boasted likable performances from not only its well-muscled star, but a crackerjack supporting cast that included Jamie Lee Curtis, Bill Paxton, and Tom Arnold at his funniest. (Yeah, yeah, we know -- insert your favorite Tom Arnold insult here.) Though it was heavily criticized for being misogynist and racist, True Lies combined with Speed to make the summer of 1994 feel a little like the 1980s never ended, and took Cameron's reign as a Hollywood action king to its logical conclusion. Three years later, he'd resurface with the ultimate chick flick of the decade -- but in the meantime, he was still earning the begrudging praise of critics like the Globe and Mail's Rick Groen, who wrote, "However high your ranking on the culture scale, I defy you to watch this and leave the theatre without a whistled 'Wow' followed by a grudging 'That's entertainment.'"


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7. Ghosts of the Abyss

What originally drew James Cameron to Titanic wasn't the chance to tell the story of the most famous shipwreck in American history -- it was the opportunity to take a diving tour of the real-life wreckage. And since Cameron never does anything small, the end result was not just another movie, but a 3-D documentary -- Disney's first! -- filmed with specially created cameras and beefed up with nifty CGI that let the audience see what the ship might have looked like during its seafaring days. Presented in IMAX 3-D, Ghosts of the Abyss functioned as a sort of delayed footnote to Titanic, albeit one with plenty of the sort of gee-whiz special effects Cameron would eventually use to create Avatar -- and for some critics, that footnote was even more compelling than the main article. As Jeff Vice of Salt Lake City's Deseret News wrote, "When James Cameron got a second chance to make a Titanic movie, he actually managed to make a better one."


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6. Titanic

Yes, it's over three hours long, and yes, royalties from its soundtrack will keep future generations of Celine Dion's family comfortably ensconced in gated communities for centuries to come -- but don't believe the post-backlash conventional wisdom that says James Cameron's Titanic is a watery, overlong mess that only sentimental saps ever really liked. That's just the backlash talking, and for proof, just look at the staggering $1.8 billion it grossed -- Titanic was one of the last truly unifying pop culture phenomena, the Thriller of 1990s films. (Which sort of makes Billy Zane the filmic equivalent of "The Girl Is Mine," but we digress.) Such great rewards didn't come without equally impressive risks; at the time, Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, and its astronomical $200 million budget, coupled with post-production delays that bumped the film's release date back by almost six months, had many people predicting a Heaven's Gate-style disaster. The rest, as they say, was history; commercial kudos aside, Titanic won 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and made Cameron enough money to keep him from working another day in his life. It was so unavoidably huge that it's easy to understand why it became hip to dismiss the (first) movie that gave us Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as young lovers on the brink of certain doom, but its 82 percent Tomatometer doesn't lie -- and neither did Andrew L. Urban of Urban Cinefile when he wrote, "You will walk out of Titanic not talking about budget or running time, but of its enormous emotive power, big as the engines of the ship itself, determined as its giant propellers to gouge into your heart, and as lasting as the love story that propels it."


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5. Aliens of the Deep

Two years after taking audiences on a deep sea expedition with Ghosts of the Abyss, Cameron dove even further for Aliens of the Deep. As with Ghosts, he used 3-D technology to take audiences on his journey -- but this time, instead of exploring a sunken ship, he ventured to the hydrothermal vents of the Mid-Ocean Range, where an otherworldly ecosystem (hence the film's title) supports a variety of unusual organisms. Part of a three-dimensional holding pattern between madly hyped tentpole features? Perhaps. But as David Hiltbrand of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, "The experience is so immediate and immersive that you actually feel as if you are swimming with the krill."




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4. The Abyss

Cameron had to spearhead the invention of a new type of 3-D camera before he could get Avatar off the ground, but he was no stranger to breaking the limits of technology to bring his vision to life: 1989's underwater epic The Abyss required the construction of the world's biggest tank of filtered fresh water, as well as newly designed watertight cameras and bleeding-edge special effects work from Industrial Light & Magic. It also required a lot of patience on the part of its cast (including Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris, both of whom suffered emotional breakdowns during the grueling six-month shoot) and crew (including Cameron himself, who spent hours at a time under 50 feet of water) -- and the studio had its own cross to bear, enduring millions of dollars in cost overruns and weeks of delays. In the end, The Abyss wasn't as profitable as Cameron's other epics, only bringing in around $90 million against a $70 million budget, but critics were generally kind, particularly to the longer version that eventually surfaced on home video (Widgett Walls of Needcoffee.com called the theatrical release "an abomination" and wrote, "For God's sake, make sure you have the director's cut"). And perhaps more importantly, all that mucking around with wet stuff helped prepare Cameron for a certain movie about an ocean liner hitting an iceberg.


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3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

More often than not, if it takes seven years to put together the sequel to a hit movie, disappointment is just around the corner. In the case of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, however, the prolonged delay worked to everyone's advantage: James Cameron, a relative newcomer when The Terminator was filmed, had spent the intervening years turning himself into one of Hollywood's biggest directors, and one of the few filmmakers with enough clout to secure the $102 million budget necessary to pay for both Arnold Schwarzenegger and the super-cool special effects that turned Robert Patrick into a puddle of molten metal. It was money well spent, as T2's eventual $519 million worldwide gross proved; in fact, despite its slightly lower Tomatometer rating, many fans believe the second Terminator is superior to the original. If you enjoy movies and shows like ABC's Lost, in which white-knuckle action and impossibly trippy sci-fi storylines somehow manage to coexist, thank James Cameron for Terminator 2, because this is one of the best examples of how to do it right. In the words of Newsweek's David Ansen, "For all its state-of-the-art pyrotechnics and breathtaking thrills, this bruisingly exciting movie never loses sight of its humanity. That's its point, and its pride."


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2. The Terminator

Talk about your abrupt turnarounds: just a few years after suffering through Piranha II, Cameron convinced Orion Pictures to take a chance on his idea for a sci-fi action film about a time-traveling cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a mission to kill the mother (Linda Hamilton) of a 21st century freedom fighter before she can get it on with her predestined baby daddy (Michael Biehn). Unlike its ever-expanding pack of sequels and spinoffs, 1984's The Terminator was a low-budget affair, going from set to screen for a paltry $6.5 million -- and it promptly turned around and grossed more than $75 million, launching a franchise that has gone on to outlast Cameron's involvement (much to the chagrin of many fans). Even though The Terminator's budgetary constraints occasionally show up onscreen, it's still easy to see why it was so successful -- not only is it one of the most purely entertaining popcorn flicks of the decade, this was the role Schwarzenegger was born to play. "I remain perpetually amazed by how magnificently Cameron keeps the tension up," wrote Antagony & Ecstasy's Tim Brayton, adding, "there is not a single moment that isn't operating at 100 percent."


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1. Aliens

More than a decade before he stood in front of an international audience and proclaimed himself the king of the world, James Cameron demonstrated his healthy reserves of chutzpah by approaching Fox about taking the reins on a sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien. Unlike Piranha II, Cameron's proposed Aliens would be following up a certified classic -- and one that many viewers would have been happy to leave sequel-free. Fox wasn't particularly eager to revisit Alien either, at least initially; first, the studio expressed doubt as to whether there was really an audience for another installment, and then a pay dispute with Sigourney Weaver threatened to derail the whole thing. Even when Aliens started to roll, the obstacles kept coming -- Cameron's difficulties with his uncooperative crew are the stuff of legend -- but by the time the sequel reached audiences and returned more than $130 million on the studio's $18.5 million investment, not to mention seven Academy Award nominations, it was pretty clear Cameron had known what he was doing all along. At 100 percent on the Tomatometer, Aliens has earned plenty of praise from top critics like Walter Goodman of the New York Times, who called it "A flaming, flashing, crashing, crackling blow-'em-up show that keeps you popping from your seat despite your better instincts and the basically conventional scare tactics."


Predator drones use less encryption than your TV, DVDs

Militants have been recording video from US Predator drones in Iraq and Afghanistan using laptops and $30 software, thanks to a total lack of encryption.

What three-letter Internet acronym best fits the bizarre news out of Iraq and Afghanistan that militants there have been intercepting US Predator drone video feeds using laptops and a $30 piece of Russian software: LOL, WTF, or OMG?

Actually, all three are appropriate for something this farcical, horrible, and brain-numbing. The reason that the transmissions could be picked up easily by a cheap satellite recording program? They were broadcast in the clear between the drone and ground control. That's right—no encryption was used.

Perhaps, you might be thinking to yourself in a mental bid to make the military seem competent here, no one could have suspected this would happen. But they did suspect it, because it had been happening for a decade already. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, included this tidbit in its report: "The potential drone vulnerability lies in an unencrypted downlink between the unmanned craft and ground control. The US government has known about the flaw since the US campaign in Bosnia in the 1990s, current and former officials said. But the Pentagon assumed local adversaries wouldn't know how to exploit it, the officials said."

After finding various laptops containing hours of recorded drone footage, the military has at last moved to encrypt the downlink between the drone and ground control, but there are problems. Not with encryption technology, which is robust, but with the fact the military 1) did not use encryption at the beginning and retrofitting is hard, and 2) the Predator's maker uses some proprietary communications gear, so off-the-shelf encryption tools don't all work.

The sad but inevitable comparison has to be drawn here with consumer electronics. Blu-ray discs, which use the AACS control scheme, feature a new DRM scheme of bewildering complexity in an attempt to thwart pirates.

Encryption, Hollywood style

Operating system vendors have built entire "protected path" setups to guard audio and video all the way through the device chain. TVs and monitors now routinely use HDCP copy protection to secure their links over HDMI cables. Game consoles are packed with encryption schemes to prevent copied games from playing. Microsoft even goes out of its way to add encryption when Windows Media Center records unencrypted over-the-air TV content. Even the humble DVD, with its long-since-breached CSS encryption, offers more in the way of encryption.

But US drones, which spy on militants and rain down death from a distance, have none. The mind boggles, as it seems like the situation should be totally reversed: no encryption on legally-purchased content, more encryption on devices designed to watch and kill human beings.

Exclusive Clip From Family Guy's Empire Strikes Back Has A New Lando


We've got the first exclusive clip from Seth MacFarlane's second Family Guy Star Wars spoof. Since Empire Strikes Back is the best of the bunch, MacFarlane is really going to have to bring it... and so far, so good.

The official name for the Empire Strikes back spoof is Something Something Something Dark Side, and it'll be on DVD & Blu-ray 12/22.


Send an email to Meredith, the author of this post, at meredith@io9.com.

The 9 best and funniest “Made for TV” holiday songs

Holiday TV specials are a December staple. It’s the entire reason they made stop-motion claymation. Some specials simply play some old songs and throw a few reindeer, some elves and by the time Santa shows up, they call it a day. But some shows take Christmas a little further by writing and adding their own Christmas carols to already crowded repertoire of silver bells and sleigh rides. To some shows like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” it’s a time to write songs that pull at your heartstrings and make you dig into your soul to find the deeper meaning of the holidays. For others like South Park, it’s a time to finally give fecal matter it’s time to both celebrate and disgust.

All these songs were written specifically for their TV specials and all have a special place in our hearts and holiday playlists. Some more than others…

Patrick Swayze Christmas from Mystery Science Theater 3000

I dare you to find a better Christmas song written about the greatest actor in the film Point Break. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Leave it to one of the funniest shows in TV history to write the funniest, most absurd Christmas songs in history. It has everything–decorating barstools, Santa stealing moonshine, and Roadhouse. And it’s the only Christmas carol that has an action sequence! What a better way celebrate the memory of the beloved Patrick Swayze than to sing this song while decorating your barstools with Guyism’s own Bodhi Christmas ornaments…wait, what? We don’t have anyone to make ornaments? Well, folks, I hope someone get’s you a Ronald Regan Mask and a parachute for Christmas, cause it looks like your on your own.

Lenny and Squiggy – The Jolliest Fatman from Laverne and Shirley

This is an old one that is a bit before my time, but it’s still a classic. It’s from the show “Laverne and Shirley.” I’m guessing most of our readers are too young to remember this show, but Laverne directed the movie “Big.” Still too young to remember that? “A League of Their Own?” Still no? She directed a few episodes of “According to Jim.” Wait, you’re here, so you have taste, so you probably are like everyone else and have never seen that show…Well, I guess just try to enjoy a Christmas song about getting boozed up and passing out on someone’s lawn. Everyone likes that, right? Wrong. The neighbors don’t like that. Keep that in mind.

Alvin and the Chipmunks – Christmas Don’t Be Late from A Chipmunk Christmas

Oh man, now here’s another song that was a staple in many car rides to my Grandma’s house for Christmas. Loved the TV special and much to the chagrin of my parents, I also loved the album. How my family didn’t leave me in the cold, butter wilderness of Maryland’s western mountain range is beyond me. I mean seriously, the entire album sounds like a bunch of eunuchs trapped in a helium factory. I can’t imagine what that was like listen to this for hours and hours on end in a cramped car. Yes I can. I’m doing it right now. “Hurry Christmas, hurry fast…”

You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch from The Grinch That Stole Christmas

You’re mean one, Mr. Grinch. Probably the best book based on a movie that I’ve ever read. Wait, was “Hunt for the Red October” a book? It’s a song that everyone who doesn’t like Christmas gets pinned with. The minute you say something like “Christmas is overrated” or “I hate shopping for your mother” or “I’m the one who set the Christmas tree on fire and I’m gonna do it again next year,” people start calling you “Grinch.” This has become a universal song for holiday curmudgeons and if there is one thing we know about spending time with our families, it’s that the holidays are about ostracizing those who aren’t filled with cheer and the spirit of giving. As in, “Stop calling me Grinch, I’m not a criminal…you’re giving me a complex, Grandma!”

Christmas Time Is Here from A Charlie Brown Christmas

This song is the most depressing of all the Christmas songs ever written and performed. I personally love this song because I am in fact, the real life Charlie Brown. I’m always complaining about being depressed, my therapist always pulls the football out from under me when I try and kick it, I’m the constant cynic, and my head is twice the size of a regular person. This truly is a song for the bitter few who find Christmas to be a bit more depressing than jolly. You have to admit that it stirs up something in your heart and the more I hear it– it becomes is sadly comforting. Like the bottom of a whiskey bottle or a hooker you paid for with someone else’s money.

Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo from South Park

Howdy Ho! The guys who made South Park really outdid themselves with this ditty. It was one of those times where you think, “oh these guys can’t get any worse” and then they come to you with a crooning bowel movement in a Santa hat. Bravo, good sirs. This is setting the bar…well, it’s setting the bar somewhere near the gutter, but honestly, when you are going to go blue, you might as well not even aim for the bowl.

Holly Jolly Christmas from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Sure, going from South Park to Burl Ives isn’t much of a segue, but not many people know that this song was written specifically for this classic Christmas special. I don’t need to say anything here because you know you already love this song.

Christmas Today and The Hanukkah Song from Saturday Night Live

And this is just proof that without Will Ferrell, SNL could trot all the actors they wanted out on stage at Christmas and all you would get was this…one of the most embarrassingly unfunny songs ever recorded.

And while his antics were juvenile and some people think his methods were a bit lowbrow, Mr. Sandler and his guitar coyly belt out what would become one of the greatest SNL segments of all-time.

Auschwitz death camp sign stolen

Arbeit Macht Frei sign
It is the first time the sign has been stolen in the camp's history

The infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the entrance to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland has been stolen, officials there say.

The sign was taken from above the gate overnight. Police are looking for the culprits.

It is the first time the sign, made by prisoners, has been stolen since it was erected in the early 1940s.

More than a million people - 90% of them Jews - were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz during World War II.

"It's a terrible thing," Auschwitz official Pawel Sawicki told the BBC.

"It had to be planned - it's obvious it wasn't someone who just came along to do it," he said.

The missing sign, which is occasionally removed by officials for conservation work, has been replaced by a replica.

During the Holocaust, hundreds and thousands of prisoners passed under the sign, whose words mean "Work Sets You Free", but the vast majority were murdered or worked to death.

26,031,250,000 Pixels Make This the Biggest Photo in the World


It took 172 minutes on a rooftop to shoot 1655 overlapping 21.6 megapixel images and 94 hours to stitch them together. The result is not only a gorgeous 26 gigapixel view of Dresden, Germany, but also the world's biggest photo.

You can click on the image here for a slightly bigger version or follow the link for the super-dee-duper huge original which you can scroll and zoom through for the full effect. [Gigapixel Dresden via SZ Online via Slashdot]


Send an email to Rosa Golijan, the author of this post, at rgolijan@gizmodo.com.

A Pictorial History of US Currency

By: Ross Crooks
From: http://www.mint.com/blog/trends/a-pictorial-history-of-us-currency/

Efforts are currently underway to redesign and rebrand the US dollar but whether or not you think the dollar is just fine as it is or truly believe that it needs to be reinvented for a new generation, you probably are only familiar with the money that’s been in circulation during your lifetime. Here’s a look back at what US currency looked like in earlier times.



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