Category: Reviews

The Anti-PC Message of Cobra Kai

  I may be prone to hyperbole, but in this case, I may be understating my position. Cobra Kai is one of the most entertaining sequels I have seen and certainly the best thing on YouTube.  This could be nostalgia speaking since I came of age in the 1980s and Karate Kid was certainly a formative movie of my teen years. This show does things that I thought could not be done in this day and age and it certainly goes places I did not think the left-leaning proclivities of YouTube would allow.  The show is positively anti-PC so much so that it staggers the imagination. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some scenes that hint that next season the new Karate Kid (Xolo Maridueña) and the other Cobra Kai students will use their new foundself-confidencee for evil. What do you expect. These kids have been bullied by PC culture and told they can’t fight back against their oppressors all their lives. They say this over and over again to Sensei Lawrence as he berates them for being pussies.
This is where the show shines. The character of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) doesn’t care or even know about the changes to the world since 1984. It is a running joke throughout the show that he has bascally withdrawn from the world since he lost to Daniel. He was just going through the motions without really being awake all that time. For instance, he doesn’t know what Facebook is. This gives us a character who we can relate to our younger more innocent selves. Johnny doesn’t have thirty years of progressive political correctness weighing him down. When the nerds and losers from the High School join his dojo he treats them the way that kids were treated in 1984. He berates them for being soft, he makes fun of their deformities of self and character.  Sensei Lawrence is not giving out trophies for self esteem…he is telling these kids about the real world and in the real world they either win or they are losers. There are no safe spaces. If you have a problem you have to overcome that problem. If you have a deformity you fix it or get people to see you in a different way. Flip the script. You are responsible for yourself. This is the most powerful message of this show and it is a message kids today need. This is what elevates Cobra Kai to the next level. A positive, dare I say it, anti-progressive message shines out of all this.

There are other things in this show that set it apart from almost anything else out there and I urge anyone reading this to take the time and watch this. You won’t regret it.

Movie Review: Marjorie Prime

A most welcome trend of late has been the rise of the “art-house” science fiction film, and although such movies have been with us for a long time (nearly every French New Wave director made at least one science fiction film), the success of Shane Carruth’s Primer in 2004 has really spurred their production ever since. Typically, such movies are independently-made, often from outside the United States, and are aimed specifically at a usually older film-going demographic that prefers movies that take their time to reveal themselves and do so mostly through dialogue instead of action. Marjorie Prime is one of the best recent movies of this type, ably demonstrating the ability of genre cinema to craft stories as sophisticated and character-driven as its written equivalent.

In the near future, Marjorie (Lois Smith), an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, makes use of an innovative technology to keep the memory of her late husband Walter (Jon Hamm) alive, a hologram AI that replicates his physical likeness perfectly. But the “Prime” program requires that the user generate the hologram’s identity through mutual discussion, and with Marjorie’s memories and conversational skills disintegrating, Walter Prime’s remains incomplete. Marjorie’s daughter Tess (Geena Davis) resents the intrusion of the holographic stranger into the family dynamic; as she laments, her mother treats the artificial intelligence better and with more compassion and respect than she did her own daughter, although she doesn’t seem to notice that she herself is replicating her mother’s possessive and insensitive behavior. Tess’s husband Jon (Tim Robbins) is more sympathetic towards her mother’s plight, and tries to assist in filling in for Walter the gaps that Marjorie can’t close. When Marjorie finally dies, Tess continues the cycle when she purchases a hologram of her mother (the “Marjorie Prime” of the title) to come to terms with both her grief and anger, a cycle that, it is clear, will continue down the family line.

Although based on a play, the movie shares some thematic affinities with Michael Almereyda’s earlier science fiction screenplays for Steve DeJarnatt’s cult item Cherry 2000 and Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World. Like DeJarnatt’s film, it is about artificial simulacra being used by people unable to have the intimate relationships they yearn for, and it shares with the Wenders movie the premise of the invention of a sophisticated electronic recording format to preserve memories, in both instances it being our impressions of individuals and events and not their actual representation. In all three movies, a new technology designed specifically to cure loneliness and repair heartbreak instead has the unintended consequence of compelling its users to further isolate themselves emotionally from others. This also brings to mind some of Theodore Sturgeon’s most personal and heartfelt stories, such as “Slow Sculpture” and especially “When You Care, When You Love,” also about a woman trying to restore life to her deceased lover through replication technology (cloning, in this case). If the film’s themes are most reminiscent of Sturgeon, then the execution brings to mind Alfred Bester’s method of storytelling; many in the audience said afterwards they found the film’s strange dialogue patterns more puzzling or disconcerting than effective, although of course their effectiveness lies in precisely in the way they discomfit the viewer. The jagged dialogue exchanges between human characters and holograms is actually more reflective of how people actually talk in conversation than most movie dialogue, which is driven instead by our expectations of what constitutes an ideal conservation. The vocalized pauses and awkward exchanges suggest that our conversations with artificial intelligence will ultimately be not that much different than those with people nowadays…even those we love.

A movie such as this is driven not just by the dialogue itself but by its delivery, and fortunately the cast is for the most part more than up to the challenge. I was fortunate enough to catch a special screening where Lois Smith herself was in attendance, and she invests the role with the same thoughtfulness and sensitivity that has characterized her other work throughout her brilliant career. Just as Marjorie must take steps in recreate her husband fully, Smith reveals the character to us gradually and in bits and pieces, reflecting not just the slow loss of her own cognitive abilities but her active struggle to hold on to her own identity as well as her memories of others. Even though Smith has surprisingly little screen time, she nonetheless appropriately succeeds in leaving an indelible imprint and her character’s presence is felt even when absent; it’s no wonder there has been Oscar talk for her performance. Smith is ably supported by the excellent performances of both Geena Davis and especially Tim Robbins. In my review of Arrival, I mentioned my Whitaker-Robbins rule, which maintains that any science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can’t be any good. Twice now within this year, that law has been broken. Although Robbins gave the worst performances of his career in Howard the Duck and Mission to Mars, he gives one of his finest in this particular science fiction film, probably his best work since his Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River. The sole weak performance is by Jon Hamm, who uses the same boring monotone delivery he used in The Congress. Although his mechanical performance may seem appropriate for the hologram Walter, he also throws in exaggerated facial expressions that are more annoying than effective, and it also doesn’t help that Hamm humanizes his delivery only slightly in flashbacks to the “real” Walter.

The movie has other flaws. Despite the relatively short running time, it moves quite slowly and feels longer than it actually is. Both the three-act structure and limited sets and locations make its stage origins obvious, and Almereyda’s direction doesn’t always help us to forget this. And as mentioned earlier, some people I have spoken to have said that the unusual dialogue patterns were too confusing and disconcerting, but I regard this not as a flaw but as a device to establish the film’s science fiction premise and credentials. There is very little visually to define this as a typical science fiction film, no futuristic sets  or obvious special effects, but as when reading a story in the genre, we pick up that it belongs to it by paying attention to what the characters say. Marjorie Prime is the type of movie more likely to appeal to science fiction readers than those fans who are primarily spectators.

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

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The story is at its heart a lament for the end of the mechanical age and a critical examination of the superficiality and commercialism that typified that period of history. The story is broken into four parts the first two each contain a separate song. The first song is sung by the protagonist and the second by his companion Mrs. Davis. The second two parts concern the marriage of the protagonist (Tom) and his companion and the last part their eventual divorce. The characters both celebrate the passing of the age but at the same time fear the unknown age coming. Mrs. Davis states that, “I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort” (Barthelme).

It is important to note that God makes several appearances throughout the story. Fist he is a meter reader who checks on how much electrify is being used then again he appears to enjoy the destruction he is causing in the wake of a global flood. The story can be seen as an elaborate lament of the death of spirituality. Electricity has been discovered to be spiritual Grace. Man has rendered through science the control over the spiritual. The fact that God is destroying the world once again by flooding it could represent the falseness of God’s promise to man.  These religious metaphors continue into the songs. Our protagonist sings a song about Ralph. Ralph is a beautiful character perfect yet tragically flawed. He is most certainly the embodiment of the Anti-Christ the perfect salesman. He is even described as having hoofed feet and he is “coming” for us all.

Mrs. Davis’ song is no less religious in nature. She sings about a character named Maude. Maude is certainly a stand in for the biblical character of Eve. She is described as being under a church dome and yearning the first “yearn”. Obviously this is an allusion to the temptation of Eve by Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Maude also named all the tools in the world while I could probably make a sexual reference here it certainly seems she was around at the beginning if she was the one who had the job of naming things much as God gave Adam the job of naming the animals. In the end they both decide they must move on into the new age even if it will be uncomfortable. This seems to place the story into the context of Adam and Eve. Here are two characters who are forced out of their comfortable existence into one of uncertainty and possible strife.

In the second half of the story God is now seen as hiding. First behind a tree (the Tree of Knowledge perhaps) then behind a table (shades of the last supper).  God is more separate from Tom and Mrs. Davis further from them than he had been in the first two sections of the story. Tom tries to speak with God and his thoughts are very prayer like, but God disappears and Tom assumes it is to read the meters again. Here again is an absent God who does not hear our prayers. The story ends with the divorce of Tom and Mrs. Davis. They have a child and then go their own way each following Ralph (commercialism) or Maude (knowledge) but not God. God is manning the generators and ensuring light and grace at the end of the age.

The story illustrates the death of religion in the mechanical age and the rise of commercialism and scientific progress. Man follows that which is rational to him and wrestles the irrational such as the supernatural into rational concepts. Even though we do these things we still seem to need to see the world in terms of irrational belief. The marriage is certainly a study in irrationality. The rules make little sense but we engage in marriage because we still have a sense of magic and spirituality that even the mechanical age has not taken from us.
 

 

Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.

Movie Review: Arrival

Movie Review: Arrival

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WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD

There’s a point early on in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival  where a team of scientists and soldiers, entering the alien vessel for the first time, hike through a tunnel until they reach  the seeming end of it. One character tosses a Glo-Stick up in the air….and it continues to fall upwards. It is at this point that we realize we have entered, to quote Walter Pidgeon’s Professor Morbius in Forbidden Planet (like Amy Adam’s character, a professor of languages ), a completely new set of scientific values. Villeneuve’s film may seem on the surface to be just another alien-first-contact movie but it’s actually something much more interesting and unique. It’s a true rarity, a film adaptation of a quite recent, highly-acclaimed science fiction short story that manages to do its source material justice. While not the masterpiece some are hailing it as being, it’s still a triumph on the part of its director and cast that stands with Interstellar as one of the best and most thought-provoking big-budget science fiction films of the past decade.

The film is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Nebula-winning short story “The Story of Your Life” (1998), and while it belongs to the tradition of such classics as Murray Leinster’s “First Contact” and especially H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual” which also deal with characters trying to learn alien languages and systems of communication, it’s also kin to Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao and Ian Watson’s The Embedding and The Martian Inca. Like those novels, Chiang’s story is about how language  determines our thinking and perceptions, both individually and socially, and draws upon the Whorf-Sapir model of linguistics (long since discredited but still obviously irresistible to authors) for inspiration.  It also belongs to a special subset of science fiction stories that have been  called “lateral thinking” tales. In this particular variation of the science fiction “puzzle” story, the solution is found not primarily through the use of the scientific method or application of scientific knowledge as it is in the typical hard science story, but by thinking outside the box, finding means outside conventional logic or reasoning that are not immediately obvious to the characters or the reader. This type of story was popularized by A.E. Van Vogt (The World of Null-A and “A Can of Paint”)  and Henry Kuttner (“Mimsy Were the Borogoves” and The Fairy Chessmen) during the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction, and remains popular to this day in written SF, although less so with its cinematic equivalent (a notable exception being  Vincenzo Natali’s Cube). Chiang’s story is very much along the lines of more recent variations on the lateral thinking tale such as Greg Bear’s “Tangents” and Charles Sheffield’s “Georgia On My Mind” (which also intersperses the protagonist’s memories of a deceased loved one within the main storyline), where the lateral thinking process is not merely a plot device, but has a profound influence on the development of the characters themselves, and with the author’s own writing style.

Both the short story and the film adaptation center around the experiences of the lead character, Dr. Louise Banks, in trying to decipher the language of the Heptapods, the first intelligent extraterrestrial species to make contact with Earth. In Chiang’s original story, this investigative process is interspersed with the main character’s seeming reminiscences of her daughter’s birth, life, and tragic early death, disconcertingly made in the future tense as if in anticipation of the inevitable, and as if she was addressing her daughter herself. We learn in the end that in discovering how the Heptapod’s system of thought and communication is structurally based on Fermat’s Principle of Least Action in Optics (that a beam of light or any other form of electromagnetic wave will traverse two points through the shortest distance possible), Dr. Banks has not only been able to learn their language but has had her own cognitive sense of time affected as well: the “memories” of her daughter are really flash-forwards (as in the Robert Sawyer novel and subsequent TV adaptation of the same name) she has been experiencing during her studies. Chiang provides a solution to the sort of quandary put forth by Terry Carr in his classic short story “The Dance of the Changer and the Three,” which suggests that the alien psyche will forever be inaccessible to human minds: Chiang proposes that modifications in our own cognitive architecture will enable communication and mutual understanding between us and the alien.  Moreover, such cognitive modifications will also assist us in coming to terms with our own relationships and limitations, a similar outcome to another Robert Sawyer novel, Factoring Humanity.

As may be expected, there are some significant changes made in expanding Chiang’s story to meet the needs of a nearly two-hour long feature film. One of the most important is that the heptapods do not have the two distinct spoken and written languages as in the original story, but instead are given a single language based on inky circular patterns they emit from their tentacles. Restricting the aliens to the use of visual representation both allows for a more cinematic treatment of the story’s ideas and helps to simplify the depiction of the translation process. It also, strangely enough, makes them less alien, and more like earth’s own highly intelligent cephalopods- octopi, squid and cuttlefish- who also communicate through visual cues, in their case color and pattern changes on the surface of their body (see Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Shining Ones” which anticipated many findings about this fascinating behavior).  Yet they remain tantalizingly alien thanks to Villeneuve’s direction, which keeps us at arm’s length from the creatures and instead makes us part of the puzzle the human characters have before them. Villeneuve’s technique of cutting away between wide shots of the aliens and tight close-ups of Adams and Renner places no doubt where he thinks the film’s emphasis should be, and quite correctly, as even in science fiction, the characters need to take precedence. Some have criticized Villeneuve’s for being too low-key in his approach and deliberate in his pacing, as well as for the film’s visual scheme. Villeneuve and cinematographer Bradford Young have deliberately shot the film in a washed-out tone heavy on shades of gray and deep blue, and even the aliens themselves (who closely resemble the descriptions in Chiang’s story, albeit larger and without the ring of eyes) are mostly featureless entities, being  elephant-hide covered crosses between the aliens featured in Dagora, the Space Monster and Gamera Vs. Viras who are usually obscured by the  thick fog of their own atmosphere.  I disagree with those who have considered this particular directorial choice to be a flaw;  by intentionally drawing back stylistically, Villeneuve is able to better convey the clinical detachment of the main character and successfully build the film towards her final revelations. Whereas most movies about first contact are about the immense and immediate shock and awe of learning we are not alone, Arrival is about the awkward moment after the first meeting when mistakes are made and conversation and empathy develop. If it sounds like I’m talking more about relationships between people than first contact with an alien race, it’s because the movie draws upon these similarities as well.

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Inevitably, comparisons have been made between Villeneuve’s film and both  Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the story has even deeper cinematic roots, owing a lot to such early films as The Thing From Another World (disputes between the military and scientists, as well between scientists themselves, on how to approach the alien), The Man From Planet X (the use of geometry to communicate with extraterrestrials) and especially It Came From Outer Space, the first movie to feature non-humanoid aliens and being specifically about how miscommunication and misunderstanding result in fear and apprehension.  Arrival perhaps owes even more to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass television serials and their subsequent film adaptations, for their sober, intelligent, decidedly low-key treatment of its themes and premise as well for its ideas themselves. Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is also a likely thematic influence, dealing as it does with the inability of humans to fully understand alien ways of thinking, and drawing connections between the main protagonist’s drive to understand and the personal tragedy and failed relationships in his/her life (Tarkovsky’s film has also been similarly criticized for its slowness and obscurity).  The use of flash-forwards also brings to mind the elliptical editing of Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, probably the saddest of all alien visitation movies. At least Arrival offers some hope in the midst of its sadness, whereas the Roeg film ends on an unremittingly despairing and pessimistic note; certainly, Villeneuve and Chiang offer a more optimistic perspective on not just human nature than Roeg and Tevis (contrast the way aliens are treated by Earth scientists in both films!), but on the consequences of first contact for all parties involved.

Of course, no film is perfect, and there are some minor flaws in Arrival. For this viewer, the biggest disappointment is that the physics aspect of the short story which provided it with a solid hard-science basis has been largely marginalized despite the fact that the character of the physicist itself has been expanded. In his afterword to the story’s publication in the collection of the same name, Chiang states that it developed specifically out of his fascination with principles of least action in physics,  so the minimization of this facet of the story is particularly ironic. Forrest Whitaker’s military man remains woefully underdeveloped, although this is the first movie I’ve seen to break with the Whitaker-Robbins Rule (a heuristic I came up with years ago: no science fiction film featuring Forrest Whitaker or Tim Robbins can be any good).  Although the film takes the bold move of criticizing both the dictatorial socialist governments of China and Venezuela, the finale seems to be yet another instance of studios bending over not to offend the PRC censors.  Lastly, the title is not just generic and unimaginative, but is almost identical to that of the excellent, much-underrated The Arrival from twenty years ago, which will likely cause confusion along the lines of the 2005 and 1995 films both named Crash.

These are minor quibbles with what is nonetheless one of the most intellectually stimulating and provocative science fiction film to come from a major studio of late. It has already engaged critics into thoughtful analyses (one of the most interesting being Kyle Smith’s interpretation of the film as a pro-life allegory ) and will undoubtedly be the subject of many an academic paper in years to come, maybe even a volume or two dedicated to the movie itself. And it certainly allays any fears about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel currently being directed by Villeneuve.

 

Movie Review: THE CONGRESS

Movie Review: THE CONGRESS

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At one point early in THE CONGRESS, the agent (Harvey Kietel) for the lead character tells a studio head “No science fiction films. They’re all stupid and my client doesn’t do stupid stuff.” We laugh knowingly because at its very best, science fiction is the most intelligent and provocative of genres, and THE CONGRESS is a noble attempt to make a science fiction film that appeals to art-house audiences, something that has become more popular as of late (see also UPSTREAM COLOR and I ORIGINS). There are, in fact, two potentially very good science fiction films lying at its heart, but it seems torn over deciding which one it should be.

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Written and directed by Ari Folman (WALTZ WITH BASHEAR), THE CONGRESS is ostensibly adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, who notoriously disliked every film adaptation of his work for not being exactly like the original stories. It’s a safe bet he wouldn’t have approved of this one as well. Robin Wright, the talented and well-respected actress best known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE but who has been less visible than she should be as of late, plays Robin Wright, a talented and well-respected actress best-known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, but who has been less visible than she should be as of late. To pay for the medical bills of her son, who is gradually losing both his sight and hearing, she agrees to a unique deal from Miramount Studios (gee, now there’s an original name!): they will digitally scan her likeness and voice into a computer-generated likeness that the studio will be able insert as they wish into any movie or advertisement of their choice. So far, so good. It’s a well-worn premise that has been used in such films as Michael Crichton’s LOOKER and Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE, as well as Connie Willis’ novel Remake and the unproduced Rene Daalder-Rem Koolhass script HOLLYWOOD TOWER (intended for Russ Meyer!), but the film shows signs of going in a fresh new direction. Instead, it goes straight off the beaten path as we jump twenty years later, with Wright slated to attend The Futurist Congress of the title, and science fictional focus is itself redirected towards a new designer drug that can affect external as well as internal reality. That premise was used repeatedly by Philip K. Dick in such novels as Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, so it’s appropriate that the film shift to the rotoscoped animation that Richard Linklater also used in his adaptation of Dick’s A SCANNER DARKLY. Although striking, the animation is unfortunately also unimaginative and unappealing, resembling a garish cross between Max Fleischer and Peter Bagge, and the story during this segment is largely left to endless talk between Wright and another inhabitant of The Congress (boringly voiced by Jon Hamm) that tries to explain what is going on and pound away the film’s themes.

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Can I recommend THE CONGRESS? Not really, especially if I was to judge it on how the audience I attended with reacted: at least two people walked out and the woman behind me growled that she hated it as the lights went up. Most critics, on the other hand, seem to have enjoyed it while admitting confusion. From my own personal perspective, I admired what the film was trying to do, and that the two main science fiction “hooks” of the film are used in an attempt to do what the genre does best, examining how innovations in technology affect both societies and personal lives. On the other hand, it seems to me that writer-director Folman is juggling with too many balls in the air; good science fiction sticks with a premise and extrapolates it to the end, or tries to find a way to successfully make connections between them, and this hasn’t happened here. In the end, we are just left with familiar bromides about fantasy-vs.-reality, and how the media and celebrity culture sell illusions, none of which are particularly profound or original.

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One very good reason to watch THE CONGRESS is for the performance by Robin Wright, one of our most consummate professionals as well as an extremely fine actress. Some may wonder what the big deal is about an actress “playing herself,” but as with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, the lead performer is not really playing herself, but a character in a world parallel to our own that happens to share some strong similarities, and it’s a much more challenging and difficult part than one might think. Wright, as always, is up to the task. We again laugh when the studio head berates Wright for her bad choices, as the real-life actress is well known for having made excellent decisions with both her parts and how she has played them. This time, it’s the movie that’s indecisive.

Movie Review: Zombeavers

Movie Review: Zombeavers

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ZOMBEAVERS follows a direct line of descent from such 1950s films as THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, although I doubt that the makers of this movie have seen them unless they are also fans of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Instead, it’s more likely that they were inspired by the tributes to such films made by those who grew up with them, such as Ron Underwood’s TREMORS, Fred Dekker’s NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and especially, Joe Dante’s oeuvre, particularly PIRANHA, THE HOWLING and the GREMLINS films, which affectionately satirized low budget science fiction and horror films of an earlier era while at the same time working effectively in their own right. Unfortunately, the end result is much more like ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES: instead of a good-bad movie, what we have here is simply a bad movie that is nowhere nearly as entertaining as its progenitors and predecessors.

I can summarize the plot in probably less time than it will take you to read it. Some stupid truckers somewhere in upstate New York accidentally dump some barrels of toxic waste into a nearby river into a nearby river that float into a beaver lodge. Some stupid teen girls show up to vacation in a cabin nearby (with only a few stupid redneck neighbors living around them), go for a swim, and notice that the beaver dam has green marks on it. Beaver urine must be green, think stupid girls. Stupid boyfriends of stupid girls then make their entrance with some stupid false scares. And then…BEAVER ATTACK! Stupid characters behave in a stupid fashion to send-up stupidity of entire genre! And did you know if you’re stupid enough to get bitten by a zombie beaver, you turn into a really stupid-looking werebeaver? Oh, the stupidity!

I’ll admit that I enjoyed the opening credits sequence to the film, but for the most part, ZOMBEAVERS is on the level of one of Troma’s better productions, which is not very good at all. As you can imagine by the title, a lot of time in ZOMBEAVERS is spent on smutty sex jokes and uncomfortably leering shots of the young actresses (although only one appears nude or topless). When not doing so, it indulges in other sophomoric forms of humor instead of the genuine wit that has been the basis of the best genre parodies, which isn’t surprising considering all the characters have pond silt for brains. Sure, it’s all tongue in cheek, but when a major plot point is that one of the girls can’t tell it’s her own best friend cheating with her boyfriend in an Instagram picture, it doesn’t help to generate sympathy for anyone involved. All the performances are overly broad, and except for a decent shot making use of the multiplane effect, the direction lacks energy and imagination and frequently seem to be at odds with the script, not knowing whether to play it straight or to go for all-out laughs. For instance, there’s plenty of great humor potential in one scene where the beavers start popping out of the floor and the “heroes” starting smacking them in a grotesque game of Whack-a-Mole, but the staging totally botches any comic effect. Halfway through, the movie seems to forget it’s a comedy, as if it expects the absurdity of its premise to carry it. Instead, it just winds up being….well…stupid. Even though it’s all a put-on, I nonetheless felt ripped-off by the crude special effects. Fanboys who go on and on about how practical effects are always better than CGI should watch this, if only to be properly shamed into silence.

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While watching ZOMBEAVERS, I found myself reflecting more on both THE KILLER SHREWS and ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES, and found myself respecting both those movies and the people who made them more than ever. No, they weren’t great films, but they were sincerely made, with a degree of effort to make something reasonably entertaining and competently done, and they do genuinely work in their own small way. ZOMBEAVERS is the type of film made with the intention of counting the money made from it and seeing if there’s enough to make a good movie next time.

I LOATHED LUCY

I LOATHED LUCY

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Quick, what does this remind you of? Lucy is a naïve American college student living in Hong Kong, emotionally fragile and seemingly none too bright, who has made the wrong sort of boyfriend, the sort who “innocently” asks you to deliver a briefcase to some fellows who “just happen” to be some big-time Asian drug dealers. And they don’t just take the briefcase, no siree, they brutalize the poor woman before cutting her open and implanting its contents-bags filled with a new synthetic drug based on hormones secreted by pregnant women-into her stomach, with the goal of using her as an unwilling drug mule into the United States. Another beating ruptures one of the bags, causing the drugs to leak and get absorbed into her system. The next time the creeps come to interrogate her, they’re face-to-face with a new woman, as the drugs have not only caused Lucy to undergo a radical personality change, but to enhance everyone of her physical abilities. After giving her captors back what they gave her (and then some) the now intellectually enhanced, emotionally as well as physically resilient Lucy goes on a mission to stop the remaining smugglers and gain the rest of the drug, which she needs to survive and to achieve her full potential. To learn how to do that, she also searches for Dr. Samuel Norman, a neurobiologist (I think; the film never makes his specialty clear) to help understand her powers, which include continually augmenting cognitive and sensory powers and the ability to change her hair and eye color to disguise herself, as well as to adapt herself to any confrontational situation she finds herself in.

Longtime readers of this blog will no doubt have already surmised that yes, what we have here is yet another adaptation of Stanley Weinbaum’s “The Adaptive Ultimate”, albeit uncredited and possibly accidental (far be it for me to fall victim to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that too many other fans succumb to). Alas, Luc Besson’s film is not only not an improvement on the Weinbaum story, it’s not an improvement on the TV adaptations either, and a reminder, as if it is needed, that no matter how slick the production values or eye-boggling the visuals may be, it doesn’t matter if one doesn’t have a decent script. If anything, it’s a textbook example of everything that has gone wrong with SF cinema since the advent of Star Wars, and it’s sad to see so much fine talent and promising ideas squandered on a such an unsatisfying final product. The filmmaker’s consensus over the past thirty years has apparently been that science fiction can only be smuggled into cinemas under the guise of the action film, and that the more special effects, the better. Maybe they are right; it is after all, not only what sells best to the general public, but attracts the attention of fanboys and -girls who eat this sort of product up uncritically without realizing that it has been done before, and better, not just by an older generation of filmmakers but by the writers of classic science fiction stories that have been cannibalized for inspiration.

Nearly every other review of Lucy has already mentioned that the notion that we only use five or ten percent of our brain that the movie uses as a story springboard and is repeatedly hammered home in the film’s trailer is a complete myth (although the other glaring scientific errors, particularly the film’s misreading of the process of evolution as teleological instead of mechanistic, have managed to avoid their scrutiny). Nonetheless, it’s quite an appropriate myth for this film to rely on, for here is a prime example of a movie that fails completely to utilize potentially intelligent and thought-provoking material to their full capacity. In addition to the Weinbaum story, science fiction fans will also be reminded of Greg Bear’s Blood Music (information theory and biological computation plays an important role late in the film) and the works of Olaf Stapledon, especially towards the end.. and I emphasize, towards the end. When Lucy is at the point of achieving her full biological potential and explains what she now knows and understands with her enhanced perceptual and cognitive abilities, it’s a potentially fascinating but all-too brief moment, and we’re too numbed by the hour and a half of violence and banality that has preceded it to really care. Throughout the film I wanted to know, what is this character really undergoing? What does it really feel like to undergo this radical process of neurological and physiological transformation? Apart from a phone conversation Lucy has with her mother in which she starts telling her about all the memories that are flooding back to her since her birth, down to the last detail, we frustratingly remain distant from this potentially intriguing character, and cannot get involved with either her or her situation. In its place we get plenty of action and fight scenes that are extremely bloody and brutal but never exciting or suspenseful; because Lucy becomes seemingly invincible so early on in the movie, the outcome of every such scene is never in doubt. In fact, our purported heroine winds up being so cold-blooded and indiscriminate in her killings that it becomes difficult to generate any sympathy for her at all.

The performances from the leads don’t help, which is rather shocking considering how reliable these actors usually are. Scarlett Johansson has become something of a regular in science fiction cinema of late, and although I did not see either Her or Under the Skin, I am told she was excellent in both. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few weak performances I’ve seen from her. Although exuding confidence, Johansson in unconvincing in her attempts to convey the emotional and psychological metamorphosis that she is supposed to be undergoing, and fails to generate much sympathy for her plight. I had mentioned earlier in my review of the Science Fiction Theater adaptation of “The Adaptive Ultimate” that one of the strengths of that episode was the excellent performance of Joan Vohs, who despite the great physical and personality changes her character underwent nonetheless convinced us completely she was still the same person. Johansson, on the other hand, seems to transform into a completely different person than the one we initially see at the beginning of the film, with too abrupt a transition and no shadings present. One moment she’s an ordinary, quite dull woman, make-up free and blubbering with fear, shedding more tears than the audience for The Fault in Our Stars in the neighboring auditorium, the next moment she has metamorphosed into the kick-ass-but-gorgeous chick that has become such a genre cliché, distinguished from the rest of the pack by her Buster Keaton-style stony-faced look and hushed-tone delivery that’s apparently supposed to convey higher intelligence. Johansson’s Lucy remains a cipher, someone who we are frustratingly incapable of connecting with, possibly because the actress herself failed to connect with the character. Morgan Freeman meanwhile seems weary as Dr. Norman, as if he is tired of being continually handed these Authoritative Voices of Authentic Wisdom parts that seem Xeroxed specifically for him. And he probably is; years before he achieved global stardom and acclaim, he was already complaining that he was being handed too many “good guy” parts despite his villainous turn in Street Smart (and his superb performance as a vile sadistic pimp in that sleeper is absolutely blood-chilling). The other performances are literally disposable, just there to move the plot along or to add to the film’s body count.

While the actors are more underwhelming than they usually are, the direction by Luc Besson is, as almost always is the case with him, way overdone. I did enjoy his The Fifth Element, which was a Nouvelle Vague French science fiction comic come to life; it may have been a mess, but it was an imaginative and entertaining one, and Besson’s style was appropriate to that particular brand of speculative fiction. With a premise such as that featured in Lucy, one expects a more subtle and thoughtful handling of the material than what Besson is known for; it’s bad enough to see it get dumbed down into a typical action film, but Besson also seemingly tries to compensate for the loss of intelligent material by hammering away all remaining subtlety in what remains. I’m reminded of Charly, the film adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ classic novel Flowers for Algernon, in which both the immensely touching original story and Cliff Robertson’s beautifully conceived performance are almost buried by wrong-headed, stylistically faddish directorial impositions. Besson over-directs everything, not just the numerous action scenes (the best being a car chase in the middle of Paris) but the more quiet scenes that are supposed to help develop the characters or give us a chance to contemplate the film’s ideas. There are warning signs early on in Lucy’s opening conversation with her boyfriend that things are going to be rough sledding: when he remarks that Lucy was also the name of the first woman, there’s a quick cut to a shot of an Australopithecus woman. When he hands her the drugs, the scene is intercut with a shot of a white lab rat approaching some cheese in a trap. Is your head hurting from the sledgehammer blows yet? Wait until Freeman delivers his lecture. His ruminations on evolution are accompanied by swiftly-edited nature montages in the style of Koyannisqatsi, with one sequence of animal-copulation garnering much unintentional chuckles from the audience. When Besson needs to show us that Lucy can now read Chinese, he doesn’t merely superimpose English letters over Chinese words, or even just have her simply glance and let us read Johansson’s expression so that we simply and subtly now know that she now understands their meaning. No the Chinese letters have to fly off the screen, and morph into English, because we’re too stupid to get it otherwise. It’s somewhat more effective when Lucy is able to witness the processes of chlorophyll action in a nearby tree or when she hugs her friend, and immediately diagnoses a heretofore undetected malady, but when she’s able to see the electromagnetic lines of force emanating from cellphones, perceiving each individual waveband in a different color, it looks like a glossy commercial (“Can You See Me Now?”), and it’s utterly ludicrous when she’s able to reach out and physically touch them (note: “lines of force” are a mathematical object, not something tangible).

90% of all science fiction is crud, or so said Theodore Sturgeon all those years ago. That’s another percentage estimate which is doubtful; movies like Lucy suggest it’s even higher.

Dissecting Divergent

Dissecting Divergent

 

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Entertaining yet not quite fulfilling, intelligent but underdeveloped, and having provoked an extremely broad range of critical reaction without any clear consensus, Divergent certainly lives up to its title in terms of both its internal contradictions and audience reception. It’s enjoyable enough to merit a viewing and it provides an intriguing fictional society and setting that feels genuinely lived-in. Additionally, the social factions that form the crux of the story’s plot and themes are quite interesting in the way they represent contemporary social and ideological divisions as well as moral virtues. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the individual characters in the film, however likeable some of the actors playing them are, and the movie leaves too many questions about its themes and setting frustratingly unanswered. Hopefully, these will be addressed in the inevitable sequels; as it is, many of the repetitive action scenes and fight sequences could have been pared down to provide some much-needed exposition and to explore the underdeveloped but promising themes.

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Although Divergent‘s core premise of contemporary ideologies and occupational groups having become biologically distinct in the future may seem novel to viewers and readers unfamiliar with the history of science fiction, the film, like last year’s Elysium, is just playing with themes first introduced by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine. Unfortunately, like too many other fictional dystopias that also bear massive debts to that particular novel, including such films as Logan’s Run and Zardoz, it seemingly has not learned one of the most important lessons taught by Wells: explaining how a fictional future world came to be, and how the social and biological distinctions between its groups emerged. At least in George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the hows and whys of a society’s emergence as well as its contradictions and implausibilities were easily hand-waved away because what was important was the author’s allegorical concerns and their intent of projecting and amplifying modern-day socio-political trends. The makers of Divergent don’t seem concerned with such questions, and we go hungry trying to figure them out. We never learn what exactly was the disaster that isolated Chicago from the rest of the world, or how this particular caste system arose. Clearly it has not been in genetic isolation long enough to have evolved naturally, but if the society was genetically engineered, who did it and why? Presumably, the Erudites or their ancestors had a hand in it, but then why didn’t they put themselves in a leadership position in the first place? Why go to the trouble of engineering a race (although contemporary notions of race and ethnicity are irrelevant in this future) as potentially dangerous as the Dauntless? And most pressing of all, why would a community as supposedly intelligent as the Erudites come up with a scheme for seizing control as needlessly complicated and open to failure as that in the film, one which is even more senseless when you consider the destructive effects it would have on such a hermeneutically-sealed community? I have been lent the first book in the series, and hopefully, these questions of mine will be answered as I read through it.

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Despite the inevitable comparisons to the Hunger Games series and other works of “young adult” fiction that frequently are given a “privileged” position above the science fiction shelves in bookstores and libraries, I was reminded much more of Robert A. Heinlein while watching the film. Not only are there obvious echoes of Heinlein’s own juvenile novels, but of such key works as Beyond This Horizon, “Gulf,” and even Orphans of the Sky. Oddly enough, I was also reminded of “The Roads Must Roll,” with its critiques of functionalism and over-specialization. Heinlein’s famous dictum that “specialization is for insects” is certainly applicable to this movie, since the film criticizes the notion that people can easily be set into neat categories based on their social or cognitive competence, and champions not just individuals like Tris who try to rise above such attempts at pigeonholing, but views well-roundness as a virtue in of itself. Each faction is shown to have a certain flaw that comes as a result of over-specialization, Candors are blunt to the point of often being insulting, Erudites tend to be intrusive in their search for knowledge, and the Abnegation conceal the truth. The Dauntless, of course, tend to be overly violent as a consequence of their lack of fear. Ideally, the film seems to be saying, an individual should strive towards all the best virtues represented by each faction while playing down the flaws, not only so that they will be able to achieve universal competence, but learn how to treat people properly and be truly civilized. As one character says (and I paraphrase from memory) “I want to be brave, selfless, intelligent and honest and kind.” In addition to the critique of social categorization, the contrast between the mental traits of the factions sets up interesting possibilities to explore the nature of openness and secrecy in both social and interpersonal relationships, but these possibilities frustratingly go nowhere. The filmmakers could have learned well from Heinlein how to properly balance both thoughtfulness and entertainment, as the potentially fascinating themes dissipate in the last third in the morass of action and fight scenes. Heinlein also provided readers with similar action and excitement, of course, but it was never at the expense of the story’s themes or overall intelligence, and those who insist that good science fiction follow such rules will not be pleased with the direction the movie takes.

 

Some reviewers have regarded Divergent strictly from perceived allegorical elements, as being a commentary on high school cliques and social pressures. This would make the film essentially a reversal of the 1976 cult classic Massacre at Central High, itself a political allegory that used high schools and their students to comment on the nature of political violence and ideological conflict, and there are some surprising similarities. In Rene Daalder’s film (a personal favorite of mine), a trio of fearless bullies dominate their high school through the abusive use of their physical superiority and spend their leisure time indulging in such daredevil pursuits as hang gliding, high diving, and surfing. It’s much like a society where the Dauntless have the upper hand. The students they bully and lord over also, oddly enough, have parallels to the factions in Divergent, representing as they do different social types and political ideologies: there are elitist intellectuals, impoverished agrarians, the voiceless oppressed , even the equivalent of Candors in the form of Robert Carradine’s bohemian anarchist, the school’s only voice of honest political dissidence, who speaks out against the bullying in the form of graffiti on the walls and lockers. A Divergent arrives in the form of rebellious, working-class hero David (Derrel Maury) who stirs up trouble by encouraging the other students to stand up for themselves and fight back. When the bullies retaliate by crippling him, he then turns to full-blown murder, killing each of the thugs to fulfill his dreams of social liberation. But the newly-liberated students prove to be just as bad as those before them, intent on creating new systems of oppression based on their own ideologies, which sets the disillusioned David off on a second murder spree. It’s a fascinating, very well done film, one which is open to multiple readings and interpretations (like several others, I regard it as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s rise to power) and it is well worth one’s time.

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The makers of Divergent would have done well to have watched Daalder’s film as well if there was indeed allegorical intent at work, as the potentially fascinating themes and representations in their movie wind up being buried or swept aside by in favor of the cliches and conventions of the action film. Although Massacre at Central High,  successfully delivers all the violence promised in its title, it is never gratuitous but always done in the name of thematic relevance. Every death has emotional impact, no matter how unsympathetic the character, since the film went to the trouble of developing them beyond their symbolic value. This helps hit home the film’s messages about the stupidity of using violence to solve social problems, and that you can’t stop a bully by becoming an even bigger bully. In the film version of Divergent at least, the characters fail to get developed beyond their being representatives of various factions, and even at that, the fact that the factions themselves are insufficiently developed other than the Dauntless and the Abnegation (in particular, the Amity practically disappear from the film after the prologue). On the other hand, for an example of a contemporary filmmaker who understands very well how to make a cinematic allegory, Christopher Nolan has done an outstanding job of doing so with the Dark Knight trilogy.

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Although I’ve made my own criticisms, some of the other negative comments directed against the film have struck me as unfair and more revealing of the prejudices of the reviewers themselves than the actual film. Some have assailed the film as being anti-intellectual, even outright anti-science, for casting the Erudites as the main bad guys, making much of author Veronica Roth’s Christian beliefs (not unlike the Mormon-phobia that frequently accompanies critiques of Stephenie Meyer) in doing so. It’s an argument I don’t buy, since not only is it unclear if all or just some of the Erudites are in on the conspiracy, but the other factions are also shown to be just as flawed, especially when other members of Dauntless emerge as cold-blooded killers. In particular, both Jai Courtney’s Eric and Miles Teller’s Peter are shown to be thoroughly nasty and cruel individuals who are impossible to like, and it’s equally impossible to sympathize with the “might makes right” attitude they espouse. If anything, the film is trying to be critical not of intelligence or even ambition itself, but the impulsive desire to control others, as well as monomania as a social pathology. Still others have made much of how Kate Winslet’s coldly-calculating, power-hungry villain has seemingly been made up to look like Hillary Clinton. While the physical resemblances may be a coincidence, when it comes to the personality similarities, well, the truth sometimes hurts.

 

Shailene Woodley had previously co-starred with fellow Divergent cast member Miles Teller in one of 2013’s best films, The Spectacular Now.  In that winning little sleeper, her adolescent science fiction fan develops a romantic relationship with Teller’s booze-swilling young slacker-in-training, gradually coaxing him into maturity. Her character in that film would have likely enjoyed the book Divergent and maybe even might have liked the film adaptation, but two-thirds of the way through, she would have probably wished she was reading something by Wells or Heinlein instead.

Movie Review: Science At Work

Movie Review: Science At Work

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The late, great Frederick Pohl opened Chasing Science, his wonderful memoir of scientific tourism, with an account of his visits to America’s national laboratories. Although the majority work under heavy security there is one lab, as Pohl notes, that always welcomes visitors with open arms: Fermilab in DuPage County, Illinois. It is there that the Top Quark was discovered, solidifying the Standard Model and establishing it firmly as the touchstone of modern physics, and it remained the country’s leading particle physics facility until the recent shutdown of the Tevatron accelerator. Even so, it remains a major research center as well as a popular tourist attraction in the greater Chicago area, and the recent documentary Science at Work provides a virtual tour of the lab for those of us who have wanted to but never had a chance to pay a visit.

 

As its title implies, Science at Work is a film about scientists on the job, chronicling a full work week at Fermilab spotlighting a new project on each day, usually emphasizing one scientist in particular who will serve as sort of a tour guide on the journey. Many of the segments open with the scientists at home, saying goodbye to their children, or bringing them to the lab, either to its day care center or as part of a “Bring Your Sons and Daughters To Work” day. Some drive to work, others ride their bikes. All come off as warm, friendly and gregarious, the type of people you’d love to have as your neighbor; the filmmakers have done an excellent job of choosing their interview subjects. These are precisely the people needed to communicate science to a Middle-American audience, but whose voices have been largely muted until now. One gets the sense that while Fermilab might be in Chicago’s backyard, its values are still those of DuPage and the surrounding counties (Naperville, the largest city in the area, was once named one of the most conservative cities in the country), with a deeply-ingrained sense of hard work, fair play and entrepreneurship incorporated into the scientific ethos. As one researcher puts it, when you’re employed at Fermilab, you become part of a family, and that familial atmosphere really comes through to the film’s credit.

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Fermilab was founded and designed in part by its first director, Wyoming native Robert R. Wilson, who incorporated much of his home state into the lab’s prairie terrain; it is as well-known for its herds of buffalo as it is for its scientific work. Appropriately enough for a lab founded by a native of the tiny community of Frontier, Wyoming, Fermilab’s research focuses on what it describes as three fundamental Frontiers of Particle Physics. As eloquently explained in the documentary by senior scientist Herman White and cosmologist Craig Hogan, these are the Cosmic Frontier, which studies naturally-occurring particle interactions to gain a better understanding of dark energy and dark matter, among other phenomena; the Energy Frontier, which involves colliding and accelerating particles at high energies to generate new particles and recreate the early state of the universe under controlled conditions; and finally the Intensity Frontier, which probes matter and subatomic processes with intense muon and neutrino beams (a method developed by the lab’s second director, Leon Lederman, for which he won the Nobel Prize). Each Frontier gets spotlighted by the film, with physicists actively engaged in each project explaining the science behind them. Particularly entertaining is Intensity Frontier physicist Bonnie Fleming’s explanation of neutrino flavor-changing which uses ice cream as a metaphor, complete with Sesame Street-style animation. The eloquence and down-to-earth style of the interview subjects combined with the film’s incorporation of simple animation and graphics go a long way in making the complexity of particle physics accessible to the novice viewer, and if the subject matter is overly simplified, it will at least make most viewers curious enough to learn more about it.

 

 

Although an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary, Science at Work is also a flawed film, and the main flaw is reflected in the title. Near the end, one scientist cheerfully remarks that contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to be a genius to be a scientist, just a hard worker and rigorous thinker. Unfortunately, this process of hard work and rigorous thought isn’t really visible on screen. We see them explain it, and we see snippets of the scientists at the job, but we never really get a feeling as to how much effort, mental and physical, that the scientists must put into their work. Nor, for that matter, are all the frustrations that arise from experiments not working, machinery breaking down, mismeasurements, and all the rest documented, although they surely must have occurred during filming! Although we put so much emphasis on getting young people interested in science and in choosing STEM careers, if we aren’t also realistic and depict the hard work and long hours, as well as the particular frustrations of such a career, we are only being unfair to them. Additionally, even though we are told that a majority of those who work at Fermilab are actually not scientists but engineers, machinists, and others who keep the equipment running and in order, and although we see them briefly, we never actually hear from them. They are as much part of the endeavor of discovery as the scientists themselves and it would have been nice to have heard their voices as well. In a longer film-the documentary runs a mere forty-two minutes-there might have been space for them but time and money are as much a bugbear for documentary film as they are for its narrative counterpart.

 

A more personal quibble is that we don’t get enough of Fermilab itself in the film. Robert Wilson, a gifted architect and sculptor as well as a great scientist, was determined to make sure his lab stood out from the drab dreariness of most government buildings, and although it would be the famously gregarious second director Leon Lederman who would make the lab a public attraction, the attractiveness of the lab with its futuristic buildings and modernist sculptures dotting the landscape, was Wilson’s idea. There’s a beautiful shot early on of one of the scientists bicycling through one Wilson’s sculptures, appropriately called Broken Symmetry, and the movie could have used more images like this, but instead, we frustratingly mostly only see bits and pieces of the lab’s layout and design instead of witnessing it in full. A sequence where a tabletop model of the lab is used to explain the main collider ring winds up being almost comical, like a parody of a scene in a James Bond film where the villain explains his master plan, and only amplifies the frustration of not seeing exteriors of the device up-close and personal.

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A just-released documentary called Particle Fever has been receiving much Internet buzz as well as widespread critical acclaim. Dealing with the hunt for the Higgs Boson conducted at CERN and the lives of the scientists involved in the search, it sounds like the type of film I’m always anxious to see, but alas, isn’t opening anywhere near me. Fortunately, thanks to YouTube, I was able to instead watch Science at Work. Just as Fermilab and its achievements shouldn’t be forgotten in the shadow of the Higgs, this dearly made, relatively short film shouldn’t be overlooked with all the hype surrounding Particle Fever and in spite of its flaws, it merits a viewing in order to get to know the people who are furthering our understanding of the universe. Even if it is too cursory to provide a thorough exploration of the lab, it at least encourages our appreciation of those explorers who work within it, and will leave you wanting to learn more. And wanting to learn more is what being a scientist is all about.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Joanna Ploeger, friend, scholar and mentor.

 

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

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Some movies bend the rules or try to break them. This movie stretches them, squeezes them, then shapes them until it has formed its own set of narrative and visual rules. It is a film that could only be made in France, and even then, only by Michel Gondry. Of course it has cinematic antecedents of its own, almost all Gallic in origin as well; it feels at times that we are watching a three-way collaboration between the great talents of Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jacques Tati. All the same, it belongs to that unique cinematic niche Gondry occupies, one that fellow countryman Jean-Paul Jeunet, frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman and fellow acclaimed music video director and Kaufman cohort Spike Jonze inhabit as well, a distinctively modern cinema of the surreal. But Gondry bests all of them in his ability to take advantage of the full range of imaginative opportunities offered by contemporary cinema. He reminds me of the great Czech animator and director Karel Zeman in his ability and readiness to make use of as many available special effects techniques as possible, and to use them as imaginatively and creatively as he can. And Zeman himself was profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of George Melies, so once again, we return to France.

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Simply calling Mood Indigo a fantasy film is insufficient; whereas Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was seriocomic science fiction romance with fantasy trappings, Mood Indigo is a seriocomic romantic fantasy with science fiction trappings. Gondry’s film intersects genres and synthesizes them to the needs of its themes and storyline, creating a world of its own in the process. It exists in a universe with its own laws that seems to occupy the present day and obviously has a connection with the known historical past, but much of the imagery seems borrowed from the artwork of European science fiction magazines and comic books. Tiny robotic  doorbells scurry across floors, the police ride giant tank-like vehicles that resemble Imperial Snow Walkers designed by Robida, and lovers ride over the clouds in a Jetsons-like sky car manipulated by a crane. A TV chef personally crawls out of the screen to offer cooking lessons and the finished meals seem to be alive, the legs of dancers elongate like those of Reed Richards and they all float in the air in a crowded ballroom, and a mouse (actually an actor in a costume that seems to have been left over from a children’s TV show) that lives in a tiny simulacrum of the protagonist’s own home  behaves like a silent Greek chorus. These are but a few of the wonders that we witness in just the first half hour; the entire film is full of visual invention in every corner of each frame, and the effort put in by Gondry and his crew completely pays off. There is a tendency among modern viewers to grouse about the so-called lack of “realism” in special effects but what they really mean is that think that they should fulfill their expectations of what they consider to be realistic. Our expectations of realism are turned upside-down in Mood Indigo because we never know what to expect; it’s a universe where seemingly anything goes and there’s a new surprise in every scene.

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There is a plot, and I suppose I should discuss it as well. It is less in danger of being overwhelmed by the special effects than being overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of the exceptional cast Gondry has assembled. Romain Duris is Colin, a member of the discreetly charming bourgeoisie, living off a hefty inheritance in a spacious apartment that seems to have been rented from above Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His best friend is the intellectual Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a disciple of pop philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, although his closest confidante is Nicholas (the marvelous Omar Sy, fresh off his triumphant turn in Les Intouchables), his lawyer and live-in chef. Colin spends his idle hours tinkering, his latest invention being a cross between a piano and an automated bartender that mixes drinks according to the notes you play. Colin’s life seems to be perfect, but he finally realizes something is missing in it when Chick announces he is engaged to the lovely Alise (Aissa Maiga); he also needs love in his life as well. He finds it when Nicholas introduces him to the equally lovely Chloe (Audrey Tautou, as beguiling as she was in Amelie, but this time more mature and a touch more sophisticated). They are soon married, but on their honeymoon, the petal of a water lily wafts through an open window. Chloe inhales it, and soon, the flower starts to grow within her lung, imperiling her. Colin is forced to actually go to work for the first time in his life as her health care costs escalate, and he takes a variety of very odd jobs. And as Chloe’s health breaks down, so do the relationships between the various characters.

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Many in the audience where I first saw the film (at the Windsor International Film Festival) were disappointed with the way the film changed direction from the bright, giddy opening act to a more serious, but no less visually audacious middle before reaching a somber conclusion. It did not proceed in the direction that they thought it should, and I assume they would have wished that if, it had at least not retained the cheery ambiance of the first half hour, to have at least tried to revive it towards the end. I’m reminded of the classic Black Orpheus (which despite being made on location in Brazil and having all its dialogue spoken in Portuguese, was made by a French director and production company), which opens with the dazzling and colorful images of the Carnival in Rio, and ends in tragedy for all amidst the squalor and desolation of the “real” city. But there is reason to Gondry’s rhythm. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was about our memories of love, Mood Indigo is about our actual experience of it, and Gondry is not using cinematic tricks and special effects simply as an excuse to show off, but to visualize the actual feelings and emotional states of his characters as they proceed through the entire arc of their relationships. It makes sense that the movie opens in vibrant color, only to have it fade gradually as the running time elapses, much as love itself, no matter how intense or genuine, abates over time. Mood Indigo may take place in a surreal world of fantastic imagery, but it deals with genuine emotions and situations that are part of most people’s real-world lives to begin with. It is a movie about genuine love and commitment, both romantic and platonic, the prices we pay and the risks we take for it, and tragedy, pain and loss are all very much a part of the entire experience. Under these circumstances, I cannot blame my fellow audience members for not liking the outcome of the film; how often do our own romances and relationships manage to completely meet our expectations as well?

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As I said earlier, this is a movie that could only be made in France, and beyond what it has to say about human emotions, it has also something profound to say about French society. Even amidst all the special effects and set decorations imposed on it, the real Paris is always visible and right beneath it, and the film aims to strip social illusions about real life in the city and nation even as it generates visual ones. The true turning point of the film is not when the water lily enters Chloe’s lungs but at the wedding ceremony, when the minister (a hilarious turn by Vincent Rottiers) pompously and solemnly declares at the end of the vows “let us hope they live a life free of work and ill health” (or words to that effect). It is at that point we learn that the real world and its concerns are a part of this universe as well, and the characters will have to deal with them. It is difficult for me, as an outsider, to say exactly what political and social messages the film might be trying to convey, although I’ll do my best at interpreting them. It is tempting for me to say that it is criticizing a French society that has become so dependent on a social safety net that its members are at a loss when they need to find work, but it is more likely that it is critical of a mixed-model health care system that fails to intervene for its most vulnerable citizens, and that there can be no freedom in wealth without security. The depiction of the relationship between the three male leads also has social relevance. Although Colin regards Chick as his best friend, he should really regard the loyal and dutiful Nicholas as being such, especially as the movie progresses and Chick starts to become so obsessed with his favorite philosopher that he forgets he even has friends to begin with. Nicholas, meanwhile, never wavers in his concerns for his friends even when he becomes helpless in aiding them, literally aging years in one day from all his efforts. While some of the movie’s social commentary is open to debate, it is indisputable that the film is critical of the lack of gratitude the upper and middle classes have towards working people and public servants. Considering their efforts on their behalf, the very least they deserve is their friendship.

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I have not read the original novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based, so I cannot say if any social commentary in it has been carried over,  but Gondry has made the bold move of allowing the language of the novel to mold cinematic reality. It is an approach to cinema that very much recalls how French philosophes have approached the subject of language and social reality, and appropriately, both the French intelligentsia and the peculiar celebrity culture surrounding them also comes under critical examination. Although clearly the name “Jean-Sol Partre” is supposed to invoke Jean-Paul Sartre, as portrayed by Phillipe Torrenton, he more closely resembles a cyborg version of Michel Foucault, and his “philosophy” is little more than crackpot gibberish that nonetheless has a very hypnotic draw on his audiences, making him come off as a cross between Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek. As Richard Weaver reminded us, ideas have consequences, even if they make no sense, and the consequences result in tragedy not just for the philosopher’s adherents but the philosopher himself.

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Mood Indigo was my third-favorite film among those I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival (after Gabrielle and The Great Beauty), and hopefully, it will soon get the wide North American release it deserves. It will also hopefully be more representative of what Gondry has in store for us in the future than The Green Hornet, which will instead be remembered as a mere aberration in his career, his own personal 1941 or Land of the Pharaohs. With Mood Indigo, Gondry definitively establishes himself as one of our best and most imaginative directors, someone who combines style and substance to create a cinema that is distinctly his own.