Monday, July 28, 2014

World’s Oldest Teenager

In an idle moment a couple days ago I took one of those online What age are you really? quizzes and came up with the ludicrous answer of 19. Yet, after the guffaws subsided, I wondered if there was a sense in which it wasn’t off by much – and in the wrong direction.

I have met some people who underwent radical conversion in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or later such as a former “wild child” turned ultra-conservative and a criminal/hooligan turned upright ethical watchdog. But these are the exceptions. Most people fundamentally are what they are by the time they graduate high school. On the occasions I meet old friends and acquaintances from high school or college, I am always struck by how little they have changed. Oh, they may be hard to recognize physically. They’ve gotten greyer (and/or balder) and portlier. They have life experience and (usually) some job-related or academic expertise. They’ve had to deal with serious troubles and losses. They may be married with kids – even grandchildren. Yet, as a matter of basic personality, they are the same goofballs I knew in 1970. In that regard, very few present any surprises.

I’m not one of the exceptions. I’m older, seasoned, better read, and, I hope, wiser – though the latter may be self-delusional ego-balm. The fellow looking back at me in the mirror is a stranger. Nonetheless, my own basic sense of self hasn’t altered substantially since I was 17. There were episodes in the years since then that seemed at the time to be permanently life-altering and perspective-altering, but they proved to be ephemeral digressions. I think anyone encountering me for the first time since graduation would be unsurprised by anything beyond the cosmetic.

What brought all this to mind was not just the quiz but the movie Nebraska, which I watched at home in mixed-age company. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a retiree in Billings Montana who is convinced that he has won one of those publisher’s sweepstakes and strives to take his letter to the corporate HQ in Lincoln Nebraska to collect. The letter says “You have won $1,000,000”; the small print clause beginning with “if” eludes him. Woody does not have dementia but he definitely has let age catch up with him. We get the sense, though, that even 50 or 60 years earlier he was the sort of person inclined to believe what people told him. Along the way he stops in the small town where he grew up and where most of his family still lives. His family and friends are as old as he is, of course, yet the same issues and rivalries as ever persist. I give the movie a thumbs up.

My co-watchers at first were put off by the film, not for any flaw in the in the script or production but for the frightening depiction of an age that we all (if we live so long) will attain. They warmed to the movie by midpoint – it is funny in its own way – but still were unsettled by it. I didn’t know any of them when they were 17, but it is my guess they would have reacted the same way then. The flick didn’t bother me, but perhaps that is my own failure of imagination at work: I've always found it hard enough to conceive of myself at my present age never mind two decades beyond it. That was true at 17, too; 37 was too ridiculously distant for me to consider seriously then. As for 20 years from now...well, actuarial tables offer no reason to be optimistic about being here 20 years from now. Against the harsh reality of mortality a teen state of mind is a valuable buffer. I’m in no hurry to dispose of it. However, while fitting into a state of mind is one thing, I'm afraid fitting into my old school blazer might be an insurmountable obstacle.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

10 Flicks for Insomniacs

The winter of 2013/14 was so dreadful in these parts that I do not expend my summer days on movies. Summer nights are another matter. I’m not one to party frequently – or generally to use “party” as a verb. While not altogether a stranger to night life, on most evenings I’m happy within my own walls. On those nights at home when midnight looms, sleep is not at hand, and I’ve read enough for a while, the DVD player beckons. Five recent films have spun in there in the past couple of weeks; I’ve continued my lately acquired practice of double-featuring each with an older film the first one brought to mind. Reviews follow.

Carrie (2013)
The first Stephen King novel I ever read was the first one he ever published: Carrie, the MS for which reportedly was fished out of the trash can by Stephen’s wife Tabitha. Carrie is an awkward teenage girl and a social outcast in high school. She has psychokinetic powers and a mother who is just plain psycho. Carrie’s mother considers her daughter’s abilities to be satanic, and both keep the powers a secret. Carrie controls her powers fairly well until prom night when a prank – which would have been bad enough had it gone right – goes horribly wrong. After that, she’s not the only one to have a bad prom night.

The book prompted me to see the 1976 movie with Sissy Spacek in the title role. The film deservedly is a cult favorite. Spacek and Piper Laurie (as Carrie’s mom) won Academy Awards for their roles. Carrie since has been a Broadway musical, an off-Broadway farce, and a TV movie intended as a pilot. (The planned series wasn’t picked up.) In 2013 a remake was released starring Chloe Grace Moretz. Chloe frequently plays characters who aren’t quite normal, including a werewolf (Dark Shadows), a vampire (Let Me In), and a superhero (Kick-Ass).

When a movie is done right the first time, the only excuse to make it again, beyond the obvious commercial one, is to introduce the tale to a new generation. The main risk is making a version substantially worse than the first one. The 2013 version survives this risk. It isn’t so much as a smidgeon better than the 1976 Carrie at any point, but it isn’t substantially worse. Essentially, it is the same movie with a few updates to technology such as cell phones. Of the two I’d still pick 1976, but if you are with one of those people apt to complain “I don’t like old movies,” you won’t go seriously wrong watching this one instead.

Firestarter (1984)
There are lots of movies about characters with psychic abilities. Scanners is an obvious pick, but I went with Firestarter since it also is based on a Stephen King novel. This film has a marvelous cast including Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, and Drew Barrymore while still in her cute kid phase. Otherwise, though, it is weaker in every way than either Carrie. A young couple volunteer for medical experiments intended to enhance psychic abilities. They work. They have a daughter Charlie (Drew) who is able to start fires with her mind; she can do it intentionally, but it also happens when she is upset. Managers of the secret government facility called The Shop want her for study and future use. The mother is murdered by unknown assailants, though the dad (who also has some abilities) blames the government and flees to keep Charlie out of its hands. Easier said than done. But then, so is holding onto them once The Shop catches them. The movie is not terrible; it’s just nothing special. This is the fate of most Stephen King adaptations.


Kaboom (2010)
As I’ve mentioned on other occasions (see last year’s review: Plus Six by Juno ), Juno Temple has been fortunate in the scripts that have come her way. Films in which she has a major role always are at least interesting. In this highly sexual flick by Gregg Araki, Smith (Thomas Dekker) is a bisexual college student with a thing for his straight roommate Thor and for a young woman named London (Juno Temple). A lot of the characters are sexually flexible, which seems to be a point important to Araki. London specifically discusses Kinsey’s sliding scale in such matters. (Though the film is not rated, it isn’t really graphic – my unofficial rating is just an R.) Strange things start to happen around Smith. An enigmatic note identifies him as the “chosen son.” He has disturbing encounters with men in animal masks. Then a murder mystery leads Smith to question the story told to him by his mother about his father’s death. He grows to believe his father is alive, is a leader of some bizarre secret cult, and is planning a global catastrophe. Araki is more than a little self-indulgent in this film, but that’s allowed: it’s his film. Don’t expect this ever to be a cult classic, but it has its pleasures for the type of viewer likely to choose it in the first place.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)
The intro to the movie tells us “World War IV lasted five days. Politicians had finally solved the problem of urban blight.” In this post-apocalyptic world a young Don Johnson travels the wasteland with his trusty companion, a sentient dog who communicates with him telepathically. They encounter a woman who informs them of an advanced underground cultish society that needs healthy genetic input from the surface. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Based on a Harlan Ellison novella, this cult film is sardonically funny from the beginning to the end when Don’s character must make a choice regarding his dog.


To Rome with Love (2013)
To Rome with Love consists of four stories that cross paths but do not intertwine. One is a meet-the-in-laws tale involving a mortician who has a great singing voice in the shower, but only in the shower; Woody’s character therefore stages an opera with the lead always in a shower. In another, newlyweds from a small Italian town are out of their depth in Rome; while apart, each gives into temptations but the lapses prove beneficial to them. In a third story, an average middle class Roman (Roberto Benigni) finds he is famous for no real reason and despite the lack of any special talent – as so many reality show stars are these days. The oddest tale is that of John (Alec Baldwin) who had lived in Rome 30 years earlier. John meets a young man called Jack (which, of course, is a nickname for John) on a lane near his old residence. It soon becomes apparent that John is really just in reverie; he is imagining meeting his younger self at a bittersweet moment in his life. John magically drifts in and out of scenes, offering advice and warnings to Jack regarding the visiting actress friend (Ellen Page) of his girlfriend Sally. The warnings go unheeded, as they must; we can’t change our pasts.

Woody Allen has directed a number of truly marvelous movies. Accordingly, critics are often unkind to him when he isn’t at the top of his game. But Woody Allen at the middle of his game is still pretty good, and To Rome with Love is pretty good.

We’re Not Married (1952)
Some *spoilers* follow. In this pleasant ensemble flick, a newly accredited Justice of the Peace failed to realize that his authority to marry people didn't start until January 1. So, six ceremonies he officiated prior to then had no legal standing. When the error is discovered by state officials, notices go out to the six couples informing them that they are not legally married. Some cuts of this movie show only five couples, leaving out the Walter Brennan segment.

1) Young golddigger Zsa Zsa Gabor is not content with 50% community property, so she sets up her aging but doting millionaire husband Louis Calhern by sending a woman accomplice to his room. Because of this supposed “adultery,” she and her lawyer demand pretty much everything in a divorce settlement. Then the letter arrives. 2) Marilyn Monroe is a married mom and also a “Mrs. Mississippi” beauty pageant contestant. David Wayne accepts her ambition but doesn’t really like being a stay-at-home dad while she does the pageants. When the letter arrives he realizes she is ineligible for the “Mrs.” contests, so he hopes her pageant days are over. Instead, she realizes she can compete in the contests for single women, which are where the big fame and money are anyway. 3) Paul Douglas and Eve Arden have a dull relationship. They ran out of conversation long ago. Paul dreams of how great it would be to be single. Yet in the end he doesn’t show Eve the letter. 4) In the rural backwoods, Walter Brennan flatters a married woman into regularly feeding him her great cooking. She can’t read, so when the letter arrives, Walter Brennan tells her it is junk mail, lest it precipitate events that disrupt his meals. 5) Eddie Bracken is being shipped off to Korea when he learns that he and his pregnant wife (Mitzi Gaynor) aren’t married. Can they jump through the legal hoops and avoid the MPs to tie the knot in time? 6) Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers have a smash hit radio talk-show. They give advice and hawk home products by pretending to be the perfect couple. In fact, they hate each other. When the letter arrives they have to decide whether to make the good business decision (get married again legally) or the good emotional decision (split).

Like Woody’s movie, this isn’t great but it’s pretty good. Usually, that is all we ask.


Under the Skin (2013)
This sci-fi film takes a minimalist approach to exposition. We simply witness a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) picking up lonely men in Scotland and leading them to a gruesome liquid fate in which they are removed from their skin and otherwise reduced to pulp. We deduce (and eventually see) that she is wearing some young woman’s skin. A man on a motorcycle also apparently is wearing the skin of a victim. We guess they are part (perhaps the vanguard) of some alien invasion. [In the book, human meat is a delicacy for the aliens, but this is not mentioned in the film.] Scarlett begins to empathize with her intended victims, however, which leads to trouble for her. The film is an interesting experiment, but it is not for those who like neat answers.

The Hidden (1987)
The hidden alien has a long history in scifi, turning up in movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). One of the lesser-seen ones is The Hidden. An intelligent alien parasite with a crude taste for human sensual pleasures (sports cars and hardcore rock-n-roll among them) infests one human body after another, including at one point Claudia Christian. The creature uses each for a crime spree, changing bodies when the current one gets too damaged (often by police gunfire). The creature is pursued by another alien who has infested the body of FBI agent Kyle MacLachlan. The second critter seeks out the aid of local police. It’s a surprisingly effective flick with good actors and a solid script.


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Part comedy, part love story, part period piece, part murder mystery, and part fantasy, The Grand Budapest Hotel has the quirky tone for which Wes Anderson is known. In a double flashback, Zero Moustafa, who had been a lobby boy between the world wars at the Grand Budapest Hotel, tells the adventurous tale of how he came to own the establishment and win the girl (Saoirse Ronan) despite fascists and scheming would-be heirs. Further explanation won’t really help the reader. It’s best just to see it.

Hotel Imperial (1939)
The First World War had been such a traumatic and pointless slaughter that the public mood in the West was firmly pacifistic right up to September 1, 1939. Films of the era overwhelmingly reflect this. Hotel Imperial is no exception.

Unlike the Western Front in WWI which for years was locked in place in trench lines, the Eastern Front was fluid, drifting back and forth as one side and then the other would launch an offensive that gained ground but ultimately stalled. In this wonderful movie, the Hotel Imperial is located on a patch of ground that trades hands repeatedly between the Austrians and the Russians. The managers of the hotel couldn’t care less who wins; they simply want to avoid seeing the place ransacked, and so greet the officers of whichever army arrives at the door as friends and liberators. In this establishment arrives Anna Warschaska who gets a job as a maid; she hopes to get revenge on the Austrian officer over whom she believes her sister committed suicide. But all is not as it seems. There are Russian spies, Austrian spies, and a flaky artistic Russian officer who wants Anna to pose for him. Through it all, in importance the personal outweighs the political to all of the characters – and to us. (Trivia: Ray Milland nearly died during filming when thrown from a horse; he was unconscious for a full day and hospitalized for weeks.)

This version is a remake of a 1927 silent film that also is well regarded by critics, though as of yet I haven’t seen it.


So there we have the latest batch. Who says insomnia is a bad thing?

Some of the pre-release promotion for the 2013 Carrie was decidedly prankish

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Not Seen and Not Heard

On the 3.5 miles from my house to my office this morning (yes, I go there on Sundays) I weaved around no fewer than twenty bicyclists, the bulk of them in a single pack. Their profusion on local roads is to be expected on Saturdays and Sundays whenever the weather is better than dreadful. As usual, all were adults. As I mentioned in a recent blog on hitchhiking, kids on bikes have all but vanished from the roads. It is notoriously harder to notice an absence than a presence (e.g. Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark), but for some reason the bikes prompted me to notice one today. Where are the kids? Not just on bikes, but anywhere? It is summer vacation.

I suppose the answer is that they are at prearranged activities that no adults but parents and guardians see. Take my own immediate cul-de-sac neighborhood. Altogether, 36 homes ultimately share a single exit onto the main road. I’d venture to guess 30 are occupied by families with kids. During the school year at least that many soccer vans carrying them pour out of the driveways in the morning en route to the schools. But in the summer I never see any signs of them. Not walking, not on bikes, and not playing Frisbee in the yards. I should point out that I live in about as safe a town as any in North America. It is well to obey the traffic laws here because the local police have little else to do but enforce them. Yet, family homes apparently are in lockdown.

This is such a divergence from my own childhood and adolescence in this very same town. I fully realize that the 1960s are as far back in time as the 1910s were in the 1960s, and I fully know how ancient the 1910s seemed to me in the 1960s. Nonetheless the change since then is startling. In the summer in the ‘60s the whole town was crawling with kids. In droves they were in parks, at the shopping center, in playgrounds, on the downtown sidewalks on foot, and on the back roads on bicycles – all unsupervised and with no cell phones. I was one of them. Families were larger then on average, but thanks to ongoing construction there are about twice as many households in town today, so there must be at least as many kids. They are just invisible. At age 10, I was likely to walk down the road and bang on a neighbor’s door to ask “Can Bobby come out and play?” We’d then disappear into the woods for hours. (Maybe ADD was less prevalent then because we tuckered ourselves out.) Such a thing today might get a parent cited by Social Services for having allowed it. Today, playdates are scheduled and activities organized – and supervision is the rule.

I often hear “It is a different world” as an explanation for the change. I think this means that the world is a more dangerous place today. Yet it really isn’t. All the crime stats say the opposite: violent crime has declined dramatically. There undeniably are predators out there, as we hear repeatedly in grim detail on the news. The overwhelming majority of them, however, are not strangers but people known and trusted by parents. Random predators on the street are rare, but I certainly can understand a parent’s fear of them. Sadly, though, such people seem to find ways around precautions.

Nonetheless, we prefer extreme precautions for ourselves and we require them of others. We arrest a dad  for making his son walk a mile home from school. (I walked a mile home from grammar school every day as a matter of course.) We arrest a working mom in South Carolina for letting her daughter play “alone” with 40 other kids and their parents in a park.

Is our modern hyper-protectiveness justified? Is it a belated adjustment to a more realistic assessment of a hazardous world full of evil people? Were my parents (and all my friends’ parents) shockingly negligent? Maybe. But I’m not so sure. 

Marianne could be arrested for the deeds in this song: women cited for eating doughnuts in playground-

Monday, July 14, 2014

Celluloid Rebels

Movies about rebels, mutineers, and revolutionaries remain ever popular, whether the characters are lifted from history, fiction, or comic books: Mutiny on the Bounty, The Hunger Games, Aeon Flux, and so on. The perspective and sympathies of movies – even when they are the work of directors notable for rather statist views – are typically with the rebels. There is a sound Freudian basis for this beyond any political one; we all experience and can empathize with youth rebellion against adult (parental) authority. Long past the time when we are youths, we still prefer that perspective – at least when watching movies – even if in truth we have become the authority. It’s doubtful a Star Wars movie championing Imperial heroes blasting the despicable rebels would do a good box office.

Nonetheless, occasionally filmmakers try twists on the simple uprising-against-the-evil-tyrant theme. A few such movies involving rebellion of one kind or another recently have wafted across my TV screen. I double-featured each with an older film that the first one brought to mind – sometimes by only a tenuous connection. Mini-reviews follow.

The Trotsky (2009)
Some *spoilers* follow for this unusual and remarkable high school movie. Leon Bronstein is the 17-y.o. son of David Bronstein, a prosperous family-business owner in Montreal. Leon has convinced himself that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky and that his life will parallel that of the original. He has a recurring dream (with variations) based on the step sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Leon tries to organize the workers in his father’s business thereby causing them to miss a deadline. When his father asks him what this has accomplished, Leon answers, “Progress.” Exasperated, David removes Leon from private school and sends him to the public Montreal West high school for his senior year.

When school starts, Leon sets out to organize the students into a union to negotiate with the school board; he argues that the teachers have a union so the students should too. It helps his cause that the principal is an authoritarian named Berkoff, who is easy to dislike. However, Leon still faces the obstacle of student apathy. This is Canada, after all, and his First World fellow students don’t really have a lot of gripes; they think school “sucks” as most students do everywhere, but they are far from oppressed. They enjoy the costume dance with the theme of “social justice” that was chosen by Leon. (Leon, intolerant of alternate interpretations of justice, expels from the dance one student dressed as Ayn Rand.) However, the students don’t take Leon’s union plans very seriously.

Meantime in a side plot Leon meets and pursues a 27-year-old named Alexandra (Nadza), telling her they are destined to be married. Trotsky’s first wife Aleksandra was a decade older than he, so you can see Leon’s argument.

In order to motivate the students and to force a negotiation about a student union, Leon takes Berkoff hostage in his office by tying him to his chair with the help of two masked students whom Leon then tells to leave. Leon isn’t armed and no one – including the police – is concerned that this will escalate into serious violence, but the press shows up at the school along with a crowd of students with signs supporting Leon and the union. Even Nadza is impressed. So, grudgingly, is Leon’s father. In the end, it takes no more than a hand-on-shoulder to arrest Leon, and prosecutors drop charges so long as he never again attends school in Quebec. Acting as though school in Ontario were exile in Siberia, he tells Nadza, “You only have to get banished someplace arctic once. I have to do it all over again with my second wife.”

Leon is exceptionally successful at forcing his prophesy about himself to come true through sheer perseverance. He clearly isn’t normal, but who else but abnormal people do extraordinary things?

If… (1968)
This movie almost never plays on broadcast or cable TV in the US. In fact I’ve never once seen it listed, though I suppose it must air sometimes. After all, Total Film rated it the 16th greatest British movie of all time, which makes it hard to ignore completely. The reason for its usual absence from the airwaves surely is school violence, for which some viewers are certain to claim this is an incitement. While that is not an argument with legal force on these shores (the 1st Amendment still protects a little), it is an argument that commercial broadcasters are disinclined to have with their customers. I first saw If… in the theater in 1968, at which time I was a student at a private school of a much more lackadaisical type than the one in the movie. I re-watched it on DVD just last week. While I think “16th” is too high a rating, I do like the film. In fact, I like it better now than in 1968 when some elements of it confused me.

For students in an upper crust English boarding school, belonging to the privileged class is no picnic. It is more like attending the Marine boot camp in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The boys are indoctrinated on a code of conduct (not to be confused with a code of ethics), duties, tradition, religion, sports, and war. Discipline, order, and school traditions are enforced by Sixth Form boys, and the enforcement is all the more fanatical and sadistic for that. Graduates of the school presumably emerge ready to take on Kipling’s burden; I’d want to go conquer someone after experiencing that school, too. Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) and a few of his friends are not happy as students there. They try to endure through fantasy, alcohol, and sex (both hetero- and homosexual), but ultimately opt for submachine guns which they find in a WWII-era storeroom. The revolt is anti-authoritarian, but not otherwise ideological in the usual left/right sense.


Snowpiercer (2013)
This scifi action/adventure flick by South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, has been doing solid business overseas for almost a year, but, due to a dispute over editing between the director and the American distributor, it is on US theater screens only now, and weirdly is simultaneously available on pay-per-view TV. The director’s cut remains intact in the US release. Some *spoilers* follow.

Snowpiercer is set after a scheme to combat global warming goes badly wrong and initiates a new ice age instead. Survivors of the catastrophe live on a self-sustaining train designed by an eccentric billionaire named Wilford (Ed Harris) who had anticipated events; the train can pierce the snow and ice on tracks that span the world. Outside the train, everyone is told, no one can survive. A rigid class system is enforced on the train with the slums and prison cars in the rear and the first class passengers up front. Curtis (Chris Evans) assisted by “security expert” Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) leads a revolt in the rear cars and battles forward through the cars to face Wilford in the engine. There he learns that Wilford himself has engineered the class tension and the revolt, as he had earlier revolts, as a way of controlling population and providing social distraction. The aging Wilford wants Curtis to be his successor in the engine. Human behavior, however, is not as easy to engineer as a train engine.

As with most scifi, some generous suspension of disbelief is necessary, but, if you simply accept the silly premise, the film is surprisingly enjoyable. The fx and action are good, and the characters are well-motivated.

The Bounty (1984)
I remember the muttering when this movie came out: “Why do we need another movie about this ship?” After all, there already were two major films (plus a couple of lesser-seen ones) about it: the classic 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton and the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. Accordingly, The Bounty was a disappointment at the box office. Bligh (Anthony Hopkins) in this version is not a power-loving tyrant. He presses the crew too hard on the return trip, but that is only because they, including Fletcher Christian (Mel Gibson), have been corrupted and literally demoralized during their stay on Tahiti, and he is having trouble handling them. It is not surprising that he, as an 18th century naval officer, would respond by increasing discipline. Fletcher Christian joins the mutiny more for personal reasons (primarily his Tahitian wife Mauatua) than for moral ones, and he regrets the decision. So, the answer to the muttered question is that director Roger Donaldson had something new to say: he mischievously upends the previous treatments with this interestingly conservative point of view.


The Machine (2013)
Self-aware machines have been a staple of scifi for decades. Some are cutesy (Number 5 in Short Circuit), some crazy (HAL 9000), and some deadly (the various terminators). There has been a rash of them lately, perhaps due to a suspicion that a real one might be arriving soon.

Ava (Caity Lotz) is designed as a war machine for the Ministry of Defense amid a new Cold War. She is supposed to simulate consciousness, but isn’t actually supposed to have it. She does, of course. This bothers the head of the research facility. He doesn’t want war machines to have their own minds, so demands that her capabilities be scaled back. Rather than let Ava’s mind be degraded, her primary designer collaborates with her to rebel and escape. Individual rights, it seems, come into play whenever a being can understand what they are. Ava is aware that she is the future, and that fully biological people are not, but she doesn’t intend murderously to speed up the process, terminator-style.

The Machine is more than a little flawed, but given the limited budget it’s not a bad effort. Many big-budget robot flicks don’t measure up to it.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
A decade before SkyNet became a gleam in James Cameron’s eye, the supercomputer Colossus is given control of the US nuclear stockpile. When it merges with Guardian, the Soviet version of the same system, the two together stage a successful revolt. Under threat of nuclear annihilation, humans have little choice but to obey orders. Oddly enough, Colossus isn’t being self-serving. By its lights it is following its programmed directives: protecting humanity, which is plainly incapable of governing itself. It announces: “The human millennium will be a fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Doctor Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man. We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for humankind as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple.”


Tank Girl (1995)
Based on the cult comic books of the same name, this movie during its theatrical release did not do as well commercially as expected. I can see why, but it does have its moments.

A comet has boiled away earth’s surface fresh water. Everything subsurface is claimed by the tyrannical monopoly Water & Power which regards any unauthorized pumping of water anywhere as theft. Water & Power is run by Malcolm McDowell, this time playing the authoritarian villain rather than the rebel. Rebecca (Lori Petti) runs afoul of W&P and is condemned to forced labor. She escapes with a young Naomi Watts when they accompany an armed W&P force that is attacked by Rippers. Rippers are underground-dwelling genetically engineered human-kangaroo hybrids, original bred as soldiers. They accept no authority and are commonly lethal. Commandeering W&P military equipment abandoned after the attack, the two become Tank Girl and Jet Girl. Tank Girl makes a pact with a band of Rippers led by T-Saint (Ice-T), and together they attack Water & Power HQ.

If you don’t expect too much of this movie and can get past the ridiculous Ripper make-up, you can have some fun with it.

Why Worry? (1923)
Millionaire hypochondriac Harold Van Pelham (Harold Lloyd) travels to the tropical Latin nation of Paradiso for his health. His associates back at the country club speculate that his doctor told him to go there just to be rid of him. Accompanying Harold is his private nurse (Jobyna Ralston), a young woman who has a thing for him though he is too self-absorbed to notice. Meantime, in Paradiso a criminal American adventurer named Jim Blake, using a local dandy named Herculeo as a front man, is staging a Revolution for fun and profit. The rebels easily rout the government forces in the town where Harold plans to recover from his imaginary illnesses.

Upon his arrival, Harold is mistaken for a representative of banking interests, who oppose Blake’s activities, and he is arrested by the rebels. Harold escapes with the help of a giant cellmate Colosso (Johan Aasen) who befriends Harold for removing a painful tooth. Though pure happenstance has involved him in the fight, Harold with the aid of Colosso thwarts the Revolution, gets past his hypochondria, and notices his nurse.

This movie is not intended to be deep – and it isn’t – but it is funny. Sometimes in movies and in life we ask for nothing more revolutionary than that.

Tank Girl: the completely unnecessary song and dance number

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Distracted Living

People found it as hard to be alone with their own thoughts two millennia ago as they do now. Otherwise, Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations would not have felt the need to advise them to do it. He even suggested a topic for those thoughts: “Constantly contemplate the whole of time and the whole of substance, and consider that all individual things as to substance are a grain of a fig, and as to time, the turning of a gimlet.” Contemplations about how small and brief our existence is in the grand scheme of things are precisely the thoughts that folks typically try to avoid. They come most easily in moments of solitude, but Marcus tells us we can create our own solitude if need be, “for it is in your power to retire into yourself whenever you choose.”

It is within our power, but it is seldom our choice. We seek out distractions instead, never mind the persistent disdain of philosophers for them.  Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662): “All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” Some misfortunes really come from elsewhere, I think, but it is true that an inability to sit quietly is a bad sign; if you can’t be happy alone, your happiness with others is bound to be fragile. I’ll add one more Frenchman’s snarky but sound observation. Jean-Paul Sartre: “If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company.”

Just how much do most of us want to avoid undisturbed contemplation? According to research headed by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia, a lot. Many of us actually prefer physical pain. He and his collaborators asked subjects to sit alone in a room for 6 to 15 minutes — no magazines, no crossword puzzles, no smart phone, no artificial distractions of any kind. The majority hated it. The researchers then added a wrinkle. Subjects again were asked to sit alone for 15 minutes, but they had the option of pressing a button that would deliver a painful electric shock. One fourth of the women and two thirds of the men deliberately shocked themselves – in one case 190 times – just for the diversion.

Why is solitary quietude so unpleasant for so many? Wilson doesn’t claim to know but offers the “scanner hypothesis” as a possibility: if our ancestors on the savanna needed constantly to scan outward for predators as a matter of survival, we might have evolved a hardwired prejudice against extended introspection. Freud was more inclined to credit a person’s internal conflicts for discomfort with his or her own thoughts. Ernest Becker (Denial of Death) credited death anxiety, i.e. unwelcome thoughts about mortality. Whatever the reason, outside of Wilson’s lab it is easier than ever to distract ourselves, so we do just that. For many of us, a single task is not distraction enough, so we tap into electronic media. Joggers channel music from their iPods into their miniature earphones. Pedestrians (and, unfortunately, many drivers) text on their phones. Accustomed to a constant stream of data, Millennials left to themselves in a room are likely to have several distractions running simultaneously: TV, iPod, laptop, Kindle, smart phone, and more.

I’ve no objection to electronic diversions per se. I certainly employ them – usually just one at a time, but that’s only because I’m not a good multitasker. Yet, there is something to be said for putting all of that aside occasionally. Not just philosophers but people in general really know this, even if we resist doing it. That is why since ancient times there have been special retreats for the purpose of enforcing solitude upon ourselves. As Marcus reminds us, however, we don’t need a special place. Like Becker, Marcus Aurelius thought and wrote a lot about mortality. Unlike Becker, he seemed at peace with it, which is good since he died at age 58 (probably from smallpox) while with the troops near the German frontier. He even joked about it: “There is no man so fortunate that there shall not be by him when he is dying some who are pleased with what is going to happen.” He said not to concern oneself about it.

It’s pretty sound advice. If we take it and the rest of Marcus’ advice to heart and then happen to find ourselves in Timothy Wilson’s lab, perhaps we’ll leave that button alone – or at least press it fewer than 190 times.

Nonetheless, this button I’d push 191 times

Thursday, July 3, 2014

5 by 5

DVDs of new-ish films find their way into my player from time to time, usually on the sleepless nights that occur once a week or so. Late evening caffeine is usually responsible. Often they bring to mind older films collecting dust on my shelves. Lately, I’ve taken to plucking them off the shelves to make ad hoc double features. Some mini-reviews of recent spins and their B-features follow.

Grabbers (2012)
I’m usually willing to give a monster movie a chance. (See May 21 blog.) Good fx are always appreciated in such films: Jurassic Park was the game-changer in this regard. However, with a good script, or at least an enjoyable one, they are not essential, while with a poor script they are not enough (e.g. Jurassic Park III). So, I’m as apt to like a cheap indie film as a would-be blockbuster, since the quality of writing is remarkably unrelated to the available budget. Grabbers is a great example of a movie with a very limited budget that nonetheless is marvelously full of humor, rampaging beasts, and fun.

The “grabbers” are tentacled sea creatures with a taste for blood, and they’re willing to crawl up onto land to get some. I’m sure this sounds familiar. Very few of the premises for scifi flicks are truly original. The premise for this one can be traced to The Sea Raiders, a short story published by H.G. Wells in 1896, but don’t pass it by on that account. The treatment is playful and the characters have real definition. The critters have a weakness, as they must in order for the contest with humans to be sporting: they find alcohol-tainted blood to be poisonous. Bad luck, then, that they show up in Ireland.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Grabbers couldn’t help but bring to mind this movie which I much enjoyed as a kid. It is in my Ray Harryhausen set, so into the DVD player it went.

A giant octopus living in the deep ocean trenches has been irradiated by atomic bomb tests. This makes it unable to catch its normal prey which are able to sense the radiation, so it rises to the surface where the pickings are easier. It works its way along the Pacific coast of North America and eventually lays its suckers on San Francisco.

Usually the movies I liked as a kid I still like as an adult, but truthfully this one doesn’t hold up as well. The stop action fx are good, and, thanks to more credible lead characters, the movie is still better than this year’s Godzilla which also tears up SF, but that isn’t a big endorsement. Despite being only 79 minutes long, It Came from Beneath the Sea moves too slowly. It’s not downright bad, and it has some nostalgia value for me, but I’m reluctant to recommend it to anyone but an aficionado of ‘50s scifi.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
The sequel to The Hunger Games doesn’t stand alone in the way that, for example, The Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy can stand alone. There is no good reason for anyone who didn’t see the first Hunger Games to see this one. But that said, returning viewers shouldn’t be disappointed. Catching Fire moves the story along nicely. In this film, the “tributes” who are tasked with hunting each other in the Games turn on the oppressive government instead. The metaphor for youth rebellion against adult authority tickles one’s inner teenager, and the more literal nod to anarchy pleases the inner rebel. However, this is an intermediate movie so the viewer necessarily is left hanging in the end. The third of the series will be in theaters this fall, and the fourth in 2015. 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
This is the granddaddy of movies about hunting humans for sport. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray (the year before she was King Kong’s squeeze) are shipwrecked on the private island of erudite big game hunter Count Zaroff. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Zaroff makes an interesting villain because his actions are informed by a distinct world-view, which in Zaroff’s case is a might-is-right amoral philosophy. He sets Joel and Fay loose in the jungle in order to hunt them as trophies. This movie has been mimicked and parodied many times. The original is still the one to see.

Walk of Shame (2014)
The people who should walk in shame are those who had anything to do with this movie. A newscaster (Elizabeth Banks) on a local Los Angeles station is passed over for promotion to a network, so she goes out drinking with the girls. She wakes up hung over and tarted-up in a strange apartment with the bartender from the club. A message on her cell phone informs her that she is being reconsidered after all, but she needs to be at her best for a final interview. The bulk of the movie then consists of a series of misadventures with police, perverts, and drug dealers as she tries to get to her interview. This sounds contrived, but not necessarily terrible, right? Trust me, it’s terrible.

After Hours (1985)
In this early little gem from Martin Scorsese, Griffin Dunne is a mild word processor in Manhattan. He meets a pretty but flaky Rosanna Arquette in an uptown cafĂ©. She lives in Soho with an artist named Kiki. He agrees to meet up with her late at night at her apartment in order to buy some of Kiki’s art. He has just enough money left, he thinks, to return by subway, but unknown to him the subway had upped its fare that day, leaving him stranded downtown in the middle of the night. (ATMs still were uncommon in 1985, and Soho was not upscale then.) As he struggles to get home, multiple misadventures hold him back. They include the suicide of Arquette’s character along with flirtations with various women and one man, but Houston Street might as well be a wall as the hours tick by. Griffin is harassed, harried, mistaken for a thief, and abducted when all he wants to do is go home. This is a dark comedy with a great ensemble cast; it proves that a struggle to get from one part of town to another can be a winning plot device with the right script.

Thirteen (2003)
Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed (one of the teens who stars in the movie), Thirteen is a parent’s nightmare. It’s an effective film, but it makes me glad I’m childless. 13-year-old Tracy lives with her single mom Monica who has alcohol issues, struggles financially, and indulges in cocaine with a boyfriend whom it is much too kind to call a loser.  Clearly, Monica is not in a good position to lecture her daughter when Tracy acquires a troubled friend Evie who introduces her to shoplifting, substance abuse, self-harm, and underage sex. Not that she tries much. Monica seems willfully to avoid noticing the obvious warning signs, such as Tracy wearing clothes she can’t possibly afford. It’s a tale of a teen trying to grow up too fast but only succeeding in growing desperate.

The Major and the Minor (1942)
If you think that in 1942 Ginger Rogers would be unconvincing as a 12-year-old, you agree with the train conductor in the movie. Susan (Ginger) gives up trying to make it in New York, but doesn’t have the train fare to get back to Iowa. So, she tries to pass for age 12 to get the half-fare. She evades the suspicious conductor by ducking into the cabin of Major Kirby (Ray Milland), an instructor at a military school. Kirby buys her 12-year-old act and treats her avuncularly. When Kirby’s fiancĂ© (the daughter of his commanding officer) meets him at the train early and sees Susan, she storms out. So, Major Kirby takes Susan, still pretending to be 12, to the military school to prove that he wasn’t cheating but just helping out a kid. The explanation works, but on campus Susan has to fend off the attentions of the young teen cadets who are intent on practicing maneuvers. Mixing sophistication with innocence in a very 1940s way, this classic comedy reveals the difference in expectations of tweens/teens between then and now. It also shows our change in expectations regarding adults. Today, you would not get out of trouble by explaining that the girl in your cabin was 12.

Sightseers (2012)
In this enjoyable dark comedy, seemingly ordinary Chris takes his seemingly ordinary girlfriend Tina on a caravan holiday to the north of England. It’s an opportunity to show her his hobby, which is murder. She tries to share his interest by committing murders of her own, but trouble ensues when he doesn’t think she does it right. Can the two resolve their issues and find happiness? Can one of them?
Psychos in Love (1987)
Filmed for $75,000 – effectively 0 even in 1987 – this cult movie sports two psychotic killers who find each other. Not only do both like to kill but they discover that they both detest grapes! True love ensues, along with copious gore and self-referential humor. This is definitely not for everyone, but if your silly streak extends to other horror parody comedies (e.g. Student Bodies), you might chuckle at this, too.

What’s Next
I don’t know, but I rather like the double-feature experience. Perhaps I’ll make a habit of it.

Psychos in Love find love

Another 5 by 5