Friday, May 29, 2015

The Red Light Incivility

An excursion to the post office this morning generated angry shouts and fingered gestures from the driver in back of me when I failed to accelerate through a yellow light but instead stopped just as it turned red. His car actually shook from his interior motions and pounding of his dashboard. It certainly wasn’t my intent to enrage anyone. It was my intent to avoid either an accident or a ticket. However, I must admit to a certain degree of satisfaction that the other driver’s rage apparently was causing him so much distress. Uncivil of me.

Scarcely a day goes by without an article on the “incivility crisis” in America. They turn up both in left and right wing publications though naturally each tends to list the misdeeds of the other ideological group as examples. It goes far beyond politics though. According to a Weber Shandwick poll, 65% of Americans think incivility is a “major problem” that has worsened in the past decade, whether driving, shopping, working, or, of course, posting online. That doesn’t prevent 59% from admitting in a KRC Research survey to being uncivil themselves.

I’ve breathed the atmospheres of enough decades to have some basis for comparison, and it is my general sense that there really has been a trend toward more casual rudeness, but that the trend has been not nearly so significant as the change in our experience of it, particularly online. Without social media, we previously didn’t have the opportunity to experience as much casual cruelty from so many different people in so short a time. Often it is dressed up as candor. Tennessee Williams: “All cruel people describe themselves as paragons of frankness.” For anyone in the public eye, abuse arrives in a cascade. Sarah Jessica Parker recently said she does not read anything posted online about her because of “random cruelty.” Let’s be clear that rudeness is cruelty. It may not be physical abuse, but it generates pain nonetheless either by intent or by carelessness, usually the former.

In the wild, aggression is necessary for survival. We didn’t rid our instinct for it by moving from the wild to the suburbs. Aggression directed outward easily crosses the line into sadism and directed inward crosses into masochism. According to Freud both arise out of the death instinct. Nietzsche tied aggression to the Will to Power. Envy is particularly effective at bringing out the worst in us. All social animals make social comparisons and jockey for relative position; if we can’t raise ourselves up we are tempted to take others down. Researcher Hidehiko Takahashi found by means of fMRI scans that envy activates the same portions of the anterior cortex that are triggered by physical pain; conversely the pleasure centers light up when the envied folk face trouble. We are prewired for schadenfreude. Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

To say it is normal to have such feelings, however, is not to say we need act in accordance with them. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued that restraining our destructiveness was necessarily a cause of individual unhappiness but was the price of civilization. We don’t have to look far to see what happens when people fail to make that trade-off. Freud himself wasn’t too confident about the long-term prospects: “The fateful question of the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent the cultural process developed in it will succeed in mastering the derangements of communal life caused by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction.” He had hopes for the more constructive set of instincts associated with Eros. They do sound like more fun. To what extent common incivility and petty cruelty – as opposed to outright criminality – thwarts them is open to debate, but they probably don’t help.

I feel the temptation, though, to go for another drive. This time I think I’ll stop for two red lights.


Placebo: Every You, Every Me opening track to Cruel Intentions (1999)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Beyond the Sales

Memorial Day Weekend, the “unofficial start of summer,” is here. It did not start out as an automobile sales promotion. It began back in 1868 as Decoration Day. The decoration Congress had in mind was flowers for the graves of Civil War dead. By convention, the decorations expanded over the years to include the graves of casualties from later wars, the graves of former service members who were not war casualties, and, eventually, any and all civilian graves as well. Some of this still goes on, but not as much as in the past. People used to visit and decorate cemeteries more often than they commonly do today, not least because more of one’s family tended to be there – and at younger ages. May 30 still was Decoration Day when I was a kid, though the term “Memorial Day” was informally in use, too. Congress officially changed the name to Memorial Day in 1967 and in 1971 specified it would fall on a Monday. Auto sales aside, the primary focus continues to be on the deceased who had served in the military, but others among the departed are not excluded.

I’ve never been big on visiting cemeteries, even though I personally know an alarming number of the permanent residents at the nearby one on Hilltop Road. My mom (d. 2001) always told me, “Give your flowers to people while they’re alive. They don’t know it later.” It always struck me as sound advice. However, if gravesite visits or decorations make some of the living feel better, there surely is no harm in it for them.

On Memorial Days for the past couple of decades there has been an especial emphasis on remembrances of the GI Generation, alias Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” The GI Generation is diminishing rapidly, constituting less than 1% of the current US population, but they are the Boomers’ parents, and the Boomers still vie with Millennials for being the largest generation in raw numbers; Millennials definitively will surpass Boomers this year thanks to attrition among our aging ranks. So, while we don’t wield as much clout as we did in the 1960s when Boomers were 40% (!) of the population, we still wield a lot, and at present we are very nostalgic about our parents and their contemporaries.

There is irony in this. In the 1960s we were extraordinarily rude to our folks, prompting talk about an unbridgeable “Generation Gap,” which sounds like a geological feature. True, a generation gap exists in every era. In 1935 a 69-year-old HG Wells wrote, “Always, as long as I can remember, there have been a dispute and invidious comparisons between the old and the young.” Nonetheless, we widened it more than usual, blaming our parents for all the faults in society as though they had invented racism, militarism, sexism, and poverty. In fact they were responsible (with the help of the Silent Generation, b. 1929-45) for rolling back all four far more than we ever were able to do when we picked up the reins; if they didn’t go further, it was because they started so much further back. Our attitudes flip-flopped in the 1990s when we began to lose our parents in substantial numbers. Suddenly we got all mushy and started calling them the “Greatest Generation” and all the rest of it. We’ve been at it ever since. Perhaps we’re hoping the Millennials will do the same for us in another decade or two. I wouldn’t count on it.

Also, once we surpassed the age our parents were when we were at our rudest, it dawned on us that they had had youths of which we knew little. We’d always thought of them as middle-aged or older. They were young, of course, and they were pretty wild. The 1940s were a far more revolutionary decade in cultural mores than the 1960s – a fact that was obscured for us by the strange socially conservative reaction that took hold in the 1950s. The teen pregnancy rate, for example, was higher in 1940 than it is today, and the divorce rate of the 1940s wasn’t equaled again until 1973. Women poured into factories and the professions. The music was better. And, of course, there was the War – the one war in which we’re sure we were on the right side. During the war the GI Generation turned long-distance romance into an art form, sometimes literally in the form of bomber nose art.

Following my mom’s dictum, I won’t be putting any flowers over at Hilltop this weekend. Instead, I’ll post some pics of my parents being young in the 1940s. It’s a part of their lives I never knew, but their long distance romance turned out to be a fortuitous one for me. All the photos are from 1945 when they were 19 and 17.

On the 5 Inch

Liberty Ship "Mary Ashley Townsend"



Mom's Locket

Vamping it up for the locker pic

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Open Conspirators

100 years isn’t so very long. Anyone past the age of 30 knows how fast a decade goes past, and it’s only 10 of those. Yet it is long enough to replace the entire population of Earth barring a few centenarians. The oldest verified lifespan ever, Jeanne Calment (1875-1997), was 122, so let’s allow 130 years to eliminate every last straggler; claims for higher ages crop up, but so far have been unconvincing. The movers and shakers of the culture turn over much more frequently than that – for most practical purposes 50 years, but 80 at a stretch since not many people accomplish anything beyond their own education much before age 20 or beyond their own survival much after 90. True, there are exceptional child and teen prodigies as well as nonagenarian overachievers (e.g. Henry Kissinger), but there is a vanishingly small chance of the same person being both.

The musings of 80 years ago or 100 years ago – once again, not so far back – are often a curious mix of the still relevant and the obsolete, but the still relevant most commonly dominates. The modern industrial economy was well-established a century ago as were the general cultural and intellectual trends that continue to this day. Watching a movie from the ‘10s, ‘20s, and (especially) ‘30s, one is struck by how easily one could step into that world. However, there is a difference in tone that pervades works of the era. It is very evident in two books I read earlier this week, both originally from 1928: The Open Conspiracy by HG Wells, and the classic Propaganda by Edward Bernays. Both are notably more honest than books with similar themes today.

Starting with the title, it is hard to imagine a book better designed to confirm the worst fears of conspiracy theorists than The Open Conspiracy. “See, I told you so!” will be their inevitable shout. Yet, the book needs to be seen in context. World War I had been such a colossal calamity that it convinced many people including HG that the world could not go on as before with its old national and religious rivalries. Without a new social order, the ongoing advance in the science and technology of war threatened civilization itself. All the while, that same science and tech held a potential for a new egalitarian prosperity. It’s hard to fault HG’s assessment of the situation. It is his response that many will find problematical.

HG sees the solution in the evolution of a broadly socialist global governance and New World Order. This won’t be doctrinaire Marxism, which is so 19th century, “But as soon as the Socialist or Communist can be got to realize that his repudiation of private monopolization is not a complete programme but just a preliminary principle, he is ripe for the ampler concepts of the modern outlook.” HG foresees governance and economic organization on a scientific basis, run by the minority of enlightened folk with the capacity for such governance. “It [the Open Conspiracy] does not want to destroy existing controls but either to supersede or amalgamate them into a common world directorate.” The duties of these future social-scientist/directors will include eugenics, an intellectual fad in Wells’ day: “There is a clear hope that, later, directed breeding will come within his scope,” he tells us. The primary strategy of the Open Conspiracy is to spread the mores and values consistent with this new society through education, re-education, and persuasion; change in the correct direction necessarily will follow. Whether one finds HG’s Conspiracy appealing or appalling, it is at least…well…Open.

It is no surprise that Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) quotes HG Wells at one point in his classic book Propaganda, which describes the tools that every persuader and re-educator needs. Bernays doesn’t use the term “propaganda” in its common pejorative sense, but in its technical neutral sense, independent of whether the propagated information is true, false, helpful, or harmful. He had plenty of first-hand experience with propaganda in his work for governments and businesses, making especial use of what we nowadays would call “cool by association.” For example, he organized Torch of Liberty Brigade marches that helped popularize cigarettes among women by associating them with suffragists. He pioneered the modern PR news release, framing releases so news media would treat advertising as legitimate news. He saw the possibilities of new media and of inherent messages in them: “The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today.” He was well aware that truth wasn’t a central tenet of the toolkit: “But even supposing a certain propaganda is untrue or dishonest, we cannot on that account reject the methods of propaganda as such.” Bernays had no qualms about any of it. On the contrary. He saw the work of the few manipulating the many as essential and beneficial:

“Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Of course, where a free (or relatively free) press exists, propaganda comes from opposing directions. This can disrupt that smoothly functioning society. He recognizes this too, but concludes nonetheless, “Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help bring order out of chaos.”

Maybe so, but one issue Bernays does not address is the risk of propagandists being taken in by their own propaganda, an all too common eventuality with dire consequences in his own day and serious ones in our own. A nephew of Sig should have recognized the danger. Perhaps he did, but for reasons of “spin” passed over it.

Overall, both books are stunningly candid. Whatever one thinks of their messages, that was and is their value.


The Offspring: Conspiracy of One

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Pics Picks



Five more midnight movie reviews:

Home Sweet Hell (2015)
I’ve always liked Katherine Heigl. Her TV roles have been hard to fault. While in the teen soap Roswell she was the favorite alien of every straight teenage boy. Later, she had broad appeal as Dr. Izzie Stevens in Grey’s Anatomy. I wish I could say as much for her movies. Oh, she was adorable way back in 1994 in My Father the Hero, but since then her films have ranged from dreadful to “eh.” A few were commercially successful, e.g. Knocked Up and The Ugly Truth, but, strangely, these were among the most dreadful ones. The best of the bunch might have been Bride of Chucky, which pretty much says it all. So, I suppose it is almost a compliment to say that Home Sweet Hell is nearer than most to “eh.” “Almost” means it’s not.

In this self-styled comedy Mona (Heigl) has goals – specific goals that she pastes in a scrapbook. They all have to do with meeting or exceeding the standards of an affluent suburban lifestyle. She and her hapless husband Don (Patrick Wilson) own a furniture store; the capital for the business and for their kids’ private school came from Mona’s well-to-do parents. Mona lets Don run the store. More accurately she requires him to do so since she needs to focus on her goals; she schedules everything in her life including (six times per year) sex with Don. Don hires an attractive and spontaneous young salesperson named Dusty (Jordana Brewster) who has no trouble seducing Don. She also has no trouble blackmailing Don by claiming she is pregnant and threatening to tell Mona. Don decides the least bad option is to come clean with Mona himself. Mona coolly decides they should kill Dusty so they can stay on track toward their goals. Are you feeling the humor yet? Me neither. Dusty has accomplices so other murders ensue.

I have no trouble with dark humor. Two of my favorite authors are Robert Bloch (Psycho) and Jeff Lindsay (the Dexter novels). I like Arsenic and Old Lace, Heathers, Serial Mom, and To Die For. I even like Psychos in Love in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. This film, though, is neither sufficiently dark nor sufficiently humorous. It is, at best, “eh.”

“Eh” doesn’t cut it. Thumbs down.

Miss Meadows (2014)
Overly proper female killers must be in vogue. We have another one in the substitute teacher Miss Meadows (Katie Holmes). Due to a childhood trauma she has become a vigilante. Imagine Death Wish if Paul Kersey were Mary Poppins. No don’t. That makes this movie sound too good. There is little suspense and (oddly) not enough action, even in the climactic scene. The pacing is sluggish and the romance with the cop unconvincing.

Another “eh.” Thumbs down.

The Babadook (2014)
Amelia is a struggling single mother of Samuel, a boy who is by the kindest description difficult. The last thing she needs is a scary entity messing with her head. She gets one anyway.

Suspend disbelief for a moment. What if there really were a type of existence on different principles than the usual ones? What if some entity exists on another plane that only partly intersects ours? Suppose a creature of this sort thereby has limited (not zero, but limited) ability to interact with ordinary matter directly, so it must get most of what it wants by influencing the behavior of people, primarily by scaring them. Though this movie doesn’t try to explain what the Babadook is, what I just described fits the bill. As you might imagine, police and others don’t find Amelia credible when she tries to explain her predicament, and it doesn’t help that her son’s behavioral problems seem to provide a better explanation for any disruptions in her household. She can’t even run away, not just for financial reasons but because the entity has latched onto her personally, at one point manifesting itself while she is driving, with unfortunate results.

This low-budget Australian film is well-written, well-acted, and unconventional. If you like your horror movies with copious blood and gore, this isn’t the right movie. If you regard eeriness and suspense more highly, it is. Thumbs up.

Everly (2014)
Everly (Salma Hayek) while wearing lingerie shoots and bashes bad guys in an apartment. That’s pretty much the whole movie. There is the barest excuse for an explanation: she is a prostitute who has ratted out her yakuza boss, so her boss wants her dead. A parade of would-be killers try, but somehow Hayek proves to be an amazing expert at any and all weaponry and at hand-to-hand combat, so the bodies pile up. Unlike the similarly violent Kill Bill!, which had character backstories that were intriguing even if silly, this movie offers little else but the violence. It quickly grows numbingly repetitive. Thumbs Down.

Laggies (2014)
Laggies is aimed primarily at twentysomething Millennials disturbed by the all too rapid approach of age 30. Millennials have a reputation for lagging behind previous generations at adopting an adult lifestyle. Since neither Boomers nor Xers were very quick off the mark, that is saying something. Generational generalizations of this sort by their nature are unfair. All age-groups contain a mix of early-achievers, late-bloomers, perennial Peter Pans, and the pre-maturely middle-aged. Yet, the numbers do tell us something. The median age at which Millennials get drivers licenses, finish college, get full-time jobs, get married (if they ever do), and buy property really is higher, and no one is more aware of it than Millennials themselves.

Megan (Keira Knightley) is in her late 20s and has a degree as a therapist, but she works for her father by holding a street sign. Her relationship to her parents is more like that of a college freshman just back from the dorm than like anything more adult. She lives noncommittally with her boyfriend Anthony whose maturity isn’t noticeably higher than hers. She still hangs out with her old high school friends. One is married and pregnant while another is soon to be married, yet they aren’t exactly mature either; they are shallow and seem to regard marriage the way they would dates to the prom. Then Anthony proposes to Megan. She accepts but has major reservations. Her reservations are as much about the step toward adulthood as about Anthony.

Megan encounters some high school kids outside a liquor store. She finds she has more in common with them than with her own circle of friends. Megan tells Anthony she will be away at a career conference but instead stays with Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), one of the teens. Annika’s single dad is not happy to discover a grown woman staying over with his teen daughter.

In a sense this is a coming-of-age story, but it is Megan’s story, not Annika’s, and thus it comes about a decade late by past reckonings. The ending is far far too facile, but it doesn’t altogether ruin what went before, especially the interesting friendship between Annika and Megan.

Lynn Shelton’s film is flawed and, like the lead character, insufficiently ambitious. But it is good enough for a Thumbs Up.

Laggies trailer

Monday, May 11, 2015

Missing at Trackside

Not even a dedicated roller derby fan can see EVERY home game. Well, I guess one could, but that would be a little creepy. I prefer my creepiness to emerge independently from the inside. Anyway, last Saturday was a double-header in Morristown. I wasn’t there, but congrats to the Jersey Shore Roller Girls for a win over the home Jerzey Derby Brigade and to the home Corporal Punishers for a win over the Central Jersey Roller Vixens. I’ll be back at trackside another night.

Another Derby

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Gore Motivation


My first awareness of Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was in the summer of 1966. Though neither of my parents attended college, my mom was an eclectic reader. Jumbled in no discernible order on the bookshelves at home during my teen years was the oddest variety of books including Sigmund Freud, Harold Robbins, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacqueline Susann, Jules Verne, and Gore Vidal. I don’t know why one day at age 13 I picked out of this hodgepodge Dark Green Bright Red, one of Vidal’s youthful (1950) novels. Perhaps it was just because, unlike most of his later works, the book is short. It is possible I wanted to read something but didn’t want to get carried away with anything requiring a real commitment – a disposition that has been common enough for me in matters other than literature too. The novel about a Central American revolution intrigued me at once.

Over the next few years I sought out other novels by Vidal, all the while ignoring much of my assigned reading in school. Julian, his historical novel about the last pagan emperor of Rome, was the clincher. With Julian he became and has remained my favorite 20th century author. Fortunately for me, he was a prolific writer not only of novels but of short fiction, plays, reviews, commentary, screenplays, and essays. I like them all. I would like them for the prose alone, but they also are thoughtful and drily funny. With regard to his commentary, I often found myself on the other side of the political fence (not on social issues), but he invariably knew where the fence was, which is valuable in itself.

I don’t read many biographies of writers. In my experience, very few good authors are remotely as interesting as their books, even – perhaps especially – when they deliberately make their lives theatrical, e.g. Hemingway and Mailer. Besides, Vidal wrote at length about himself. Nonetheless, a couple of weeks ago on a whim I picked up Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw. Mewshaw is a novelist and journalist two decades Vidal’s junior. He became friends with Gore and his long-time companion Howard Austen in Rome during the 1970s, and remained friends with them for the remainder of their lives. In Sympathy he tells us what that was like. 


I rather wish I hadn’t read it, because the depiction isn’t pretty. To be sure, the book has plenty of anecdotes about Gore of the sort a book like this should have and it is generally well written, but it chronicles a sad and not very graceful decline from middle age to old age. The last three decades of the 20th century were enormously productive for Gore. He churned out essays, screenplays, and truly impressive novels (Burr, Creation, Lincoln, Smithsonian Institution, et al.) with as much talent and energy as ever while working the lecture and talk show circuit and taking the time to run for US Senate. He hobnobbed with the elite, including Nancy Reagan of all people, while preaching populism. Yet, depression, personal loss, and vast quantities of alcohol exacted ever more severe tolls with the passing years. Mewshaw quotes Gore as saying he preferred to “sink myself into whiskey where one’s sense of time is so altered that one feels in the moment immortality – a long luminous present which, not drinking, becomes a fast-moving express train named…Nothing.” By the 21st century he frequently needed a wheelchair. In his public appearances, his former witty humor gave way to cantankerous scolding. He became deeply suspicious of people around him. But then, as he liked to say, “Anyone who isn’t paranoid isn’t in full possession of the facts.” Then he was gone.

After Mewshaw, something more cheerful was in order. I recalled that there was one novel Gore wrote during his peak years that I thus far had neglected to read, the relatively obscure Two Sisters. As of yesterday, the omission has been corrected. Written shortly before he met Mewshaw, Two Sisters is an idiosyncratic but marvelous book that gives us the full Vidal range in a compact package. It is a screenplay inside a memoir inside a novel masquerading as a memoir. Gore, appearing in the novel as himself, is asked by another author to read a memoir by a deceased mutual friend; the memoir includes a spec screenplay titled Two Sisters of Ephesus. The layered structure of Two Sisters allows Gore to digress into mordantly funny commentary on culture and movies while remaining on plot.

Two Sisters is a playful novel. Yet, at age 45 Gore plainly was experiencing middle-age angst, as so many of us do at that time of life. Contemplation of mortality is central to the book and to each of its subparts. In the screenplay the characters seek a sort of immortality through notoriety, in one case by burning the Temple of Diana which was a structure noted throughout the Mediterranean world. Gore cites the same desire in himself to beat death through his own work: “But then the artist’s desire to outwit death through perpetual fame is a common one, and no less powerful a drive for its naiveté.” That might not appear to be a cheery message, yet somehow it made me happier.

Though Gore already was a heavy drinker by 1970, the quantity and quality of his literary output appears not to have suffered. At one point in Two Sisters he says, “I have known or known about most of the American writers of my time and I can think of only three who are not – or were not once – alcoholics.” Hmmm, would my own fiction benefit were I to consume more whiskey? Maybe. But I’m not sure it’s worth it.

Whiskey Bar

Sunday, May 3, 2015

55 and 678 Inch Screenings (or Size Matters)

Having returned to my pattern of following one movie with an older one which the first brought to mind, I’ve observed the following movies flicker on large and small screens in the past month. Tangentially, I’m curious to see how the different business strategies work out for the two movie theaters which, being the closest to my house, I most commonly frequent, including for two of the films below. Bow Tie Cinema in Succasunna offers low prices (by today’s standards) and standard seating, while AMC in Morristown offers spacious leather recliner seats but higher prices. The two theaters don’t always show the same films (only AMC offered Ex Machina), but when they do I personally pick price over seats. Not everyone does the same though.

The Age of Adaline (2015)
Agelessness is a fantasy as old as the first mirror. In this movie it is also a hook for hokey romance and sentiment – yet Adaline gets away with being hokey. I’ve mentioned before that modern cynicism doesn’t jibe very well with romance in the movies. Nowadays we prefer to take romance out of everyday life before we’re willing to credit it. Christopher Orr in an Atlantic article said much the same thing: “The premises grow more and more esoteric: She’s a hooker. He’s a stalker. She’s in a coma. He’s telepathic. She’s a mermaid. He’s a zombie. She’s pregnant. He’s the president.” In the case of Silver Linings Playbook, they’re crazy; this allows us to say, “Ah, that explains it.” Setting a movie far enough in the past works too, apparently on the assumption that people looked at things differently then. Effectively that is what The Age of Adaline does. Adaline retains 1930s/40s sensibilities even though much of the film is set in the present day.

Adaline has a freak accident in 1937 at the age of 29. As time goes by she eventually realizes she isn’t aging. Her permanent youth comes at a cost. Whenever her appearance mismatches her official age too obviously, she has to change her ID and start over, leaving friends and family behind. They, of course, age and die while she doesn’t. There are good performances by Blake Lively and Harrison Ford. The sentimentality works fairly well despite (or because of) the contrivance. Thumbs Up.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
There is no shortage of films about extended youth: In Time, Peter Pan, Tuck Everlasting, and for that matter almost every vampire movie.  I opted for the most obvious. This stylish adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel contains enough of the author’s verbiage and wit to be entertaining, and we get to see a young Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane. In late Victorian London, Dorian (Hurd Hatfield) is a handsome – “pretty” might be a better word – young man who is corrupted by the clever immoralist philosophy of Lord Henry. But whereas Lord Henry is an intellectual armchair immoralist, Dorian chooses to act on his impulses. The wages of sin do not show on Dorian’s own face, but on his portrait; the portrait ages while he does not. Today, a similar film likely would display graphically the lead character’s depraved acts. Here we merely get obscure hints as to the bulk of them, though we do see mistreatment of Sybil and a murder. Although the 1945 critic for The New York Times chuckled at the “mawkish pomposity of the film,” modern critics generally have been kinder. I rather like it, though be aware that it paces more leisurely than most contemporary flicks. Thumbs Up.

**** **** **** ****


Ex Machina (2015)
Nathan, an eccentric tech genius, invites Caleb, an employee, to visit him at his isolated home/research facility. Caleb learns he is there to run a Turing test on an AI robot named Ava. Nathan wants to know if Ava (Alicia Vikander) is conscious or if she only simulates consciousness. We soon suspect Ava of running a test of her own on Caleb. She wants out of the facility – not least because Nathan might deactivate her – and Caleb might be open to manipulation.

Ex Machina has a well written script that questions the nature of consciousness and ethics. Is the fact that Ava is manipulating Caleb for her own ends proof of consciousness? What are Nathan’s obligations to Ava, if any, if she is conscious, and what are hers to him and to Caleb, if any? The performances are good, with Oscar Isaac doing an exceptional job as Nathan. Anyone who ever has met an eccentric genius will recognize Nathan. The fx are good without overwhelming the script. Thumbs Up.

Bicentennial Man (1999)
Based on the novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, Bicentennial Man is another instance of swathing sentiment in the esoteric in order to make it acceptable, this time in circuitry.

Andrew (Robin Williams) is a household robot for the Martin family. Through some glitch, Andrew shows evidence of conscious behavior. Before long his consciousness is indisputable, and eventually he asks for his freedom. Over decades his upgrades, many of them of his own design, bridge the gap between the biological and mechanical – his artificial organs will work as replacement parts in humans, which blurs the distinction between humans and robots. The generations of Martins age and die, but Andrew loves and begins to romance one young Martin woman. (Tangential note: Apparently in anticipation of such a real eventuality, Calvin Klein has trademarked “Technosexual.”) Andrew’s final upgrade makes him mortal, which doesn’t seem like a good bargain to me, but he is cool with it. The film is family friendly with all the good and ill that entails. Thumbs Up, but only slightly.

**** **** **** ****

April Fools Day (1986)
You know the drill. Eight college friends spend spring break in an isolated island mansion. Of course they can’t get off the island during their stay. Pranks are expected on April Fools Day, but one by one the students meet with foul play. I don’t really need to explain further. The movie repeats all the clichés without irony. The ending, however, does succeed at being just a little different than the usual. If you like this genre, there is no reason not to like this; if you don’t, this film won’t change your mind. Thumbs Sideways.

Teenage Zombies (1960)
The isolated-teens-in-trouble plot has a long pedigree. In this one, the water skiing vacation of teens Reg, Julie, Skip, and Pam turns bad when they come ashore on an island where diabolical scientist Dr. Myra (Katherine Victor) has a research facility. She wants to be able to turn people into zombies because…well, it would just be cool, that’s all. Especially if you’re power-mad. She captures the teens for her experiments. Oh yes, she has a gorilla, and why wouldn’t she? The sheriff is on the case of the missing kids but he is corrupt. This movie is so incredibly awful that it is enormous fun for those of us with a taste for campy bad movies. For the general viewing public though, I can’t in conscience give it anything but a Thumbs Down.

**** **** **** ****

Into the Woods (2014)
Into the Woods intertwines the Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tales into a musical with star performances by the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Lapine's and Sondheim’s Into the Woods was a long-running hit on Broadway. To my mind, musicals work better on stage as live performances than on screen, and this one is no exception. Nonetheless, the Disney production is about as good as one reasonably might hope. The movie takes an odd turn in the third act that might take viewers unfamiliar with the play by surprise. The characters have to face loss, betrayal, second thoughts, and their own moral ambiguity. Jack, for example, is not really such a hero; he is a thief who killed the husband of the giantess who has come to earth seeking revenge. Be aware that this is a musical with some dark elements, not primarily kids’ fare, but Thumbs Up.

The Glass Slipper (1955)
This musical adaptation of Cinderella is the best of the bunch to date in my book. Leslie Caron gives an atypical but utterly appealing interpretation of the role. While her stepmother and stepsisters are evil enough, Ella (taunted with the name Cinderella) herself is a flawed character. She is feisty, suspicious, and hot-tempered. The Prince disguises his identity on their first accidental meeting during which she gets angry and pushes him into a pond. He later invites her to the Ball, but Ella believes he is the son of the palace cook. Ella’s benefactor Mrs. Toquet apparently does have unusual abilities, but she doesn’t display them openly. The movie requires a little patience from the viewer during the extended voice-over set-up at the beginning, but all-in-all it’s a charming film. Thumbs Up.

**** **** **** ****

The Voices (2014)
Ryan Reynolds is Jerry. Jerry by state-mandate must visit his psychiatrist weekly. She insists that he stay on his meds, but he is much happier when he is off them. Without them, the world is bright and colorful. When he is on them, depressive realism sets in: he sees the world as it grimly is. Unsurprisingly, he throws away the medications. Also, when he is med-free his animals talk to him; the cat urges him to indulge his vices and the dog urges him to be good. Jerry’s life seems OK, but then he accidentally kills his date. Fearing his mental status and personal history will cause people to conclude the worst, he dismembers the body in order to hide it, and he puts the head in the fridge. The head talks to him too. The second killing is half-way accidental – she hits her head when she falls during a struggle – but after that only the cat is on his side. Kidnapping the psychiatrist doesn’t help. I enjoyed this dark comedy but a sizeable proportion of viewers surely won’t. Thumbs slightly up.

Dementia 13 (1963)
Even in this very early low-budget film, Francis Ford Coppola is in good directorial form. The Halorans have money, secrets, an unexplained death, a contestable will, motives for murder, and a killer with an axe. Finding/figuring out who did what to whom is much of the fun in this twisted tale, so I’ll leave it at that. Thumbs Up.

Even on the small screen we prefer to delegate romantic sentiments to otherworldly creatures. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike the vampire, spurned by his toothy inamorata, discourses on love in a way uncommon in human characters during the last two decades.