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Arrivals and Fast Runners

29 Nov

Moviedom has a lot of stock characters – the debonair spy, the macho soldier, and the female linguist to name a few.  Wait, the female linguist – is that a thing?   It is now – the movie is Arrival based on Ted Chiang’s The Story of Your Life and we found it amazing that the picture got made at all.  This is a movie with lots of ideas, and it doesn’t treat the audience as if they were idiots.  That’s a recipe for box office poison, right?  We don’t think so;  we first tried to see the film the day after Thanksgiving, only to find the show sold out.  (We came back the next day.)

Amy Adams is Louise Banks, who’s recruited by the US to figure out a way to communicate with some aliens after a whole bunch of space ships appear at various sites around the globe.  Louise is befriended by Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a physicist who’s also trying to figure out how to communicate with the new kids in town.

The heptapods (the aliens) are non-humanoid and their spoken language cannot be rendered by the human larynx.  A better avenue is offered by their written language, Heptapod B, which is unrelated to the spoken language.  It’s as if sentences were shapes, and you had to know how you were going to end a sentence when you started writing it, or at least that’s how we understood it.

The film (not so much Chiang’s story) amps up the tension, stressing the fear and xenophobia that comes with the arrival of the heptapods.  China becomes bellicose, with the Russians and the US not far behind. Intercut throughout the film are scenes of Louise and her daughter, the significance of which is revealed later on in the story.

As per usual, we find ourselves reluctant to reveal much else – the fun of watching a movie is diminished if some loudmouth like us tells you everything that’s going to happen. This is the holiday season, with lots of movies coming out over the next several weeks. This one is worth your time.


There goes the neighborhood


We’ve always wondered what it would be like to watch a movie about native people with no white people in it.  After all, Westerns that feature Indians are always about the interactions between the two groups, mostly told from the vantage point of the whites.  What if there were only native people in the film?

The Fast Runner (available on video – your library may have a copy) answers this question by retelling an Inuit folk tale.  So what is it like to watch a film about native people that’s not about their encounters with Europeans?  The answer is, really cool. The film is so intriguing that we plan to watch it again just to get the nuances we missed on the first viewing.



Trumpe l’oeil

15 Mar

We just got an idea for a sci-fi screenplay. Being the layabouts that we are though, we know we’ll never get off our lazy duffs to write it. We’ll pitch it to you and maybe you can do something with it.

It’s a dirty story of a dirty man and his clinging wife doesn’t understa – wait, that one’s been done…

No, actually, this one takes place in the not-too-distant future. A guy is running for President. He’s rich, he says racist things, and he’s a bit of a bully. He actually encourages his supporters to use violence at his rallies. (Remember is a sci-fi dystopian future-type story, so if the scenario we’re describing seems really far-fetched, just remember, this is fiction.) The guy is not as wealthy as he makes himself out to be – he has bankruptcies in his past and the book he’s written is not the best-selling book of all time, despite his assertions that it is. Our character has an overweening ego and always uses superlatives to describe himself.

By now, you’re probably saying, “Wait we know who this guy is – it’s the bad guy from Steven King’s ‘The Dead Zone.'” OK, we’ll admit, there may be similarities between King’s villain and ours, but we’re trying to go in a different direction with our story – it’s sort of a Dead-Zone-meets-Citizen-Kane-meets-Philip K. Dick mashup.


Dead-Zone-meets-Citizen-Kane-meets-Philip K. Dick

In our screenplay, we drop hints that the guy is an alien, with an orange-hued visage to suggest he just might be from some other planet or perhaps another dimension. We’ll also suggest his other-worldliness by the hypnotic effect he has on his followers. No matter how outrageous his statements, his followers praise him for his “straight talk” and for “telling it like it is.” They even raise their arms in a gesture reminiscent of the Hitler salute. OK, we know we’re now straining credibility to its breaking point, but stay with us.

To cut to the chase, the guy keeps winning primary after primary, racking up impressive wins without anyone understanding how he’s doing it. After a rancorous convention, he wins his party’s nomination. In debates with our anti-hero, his opponent makes reasoned arguments, only to see them fall flat. With a combination of bluster, bullying, and low humor, our dystopian candidate wins every debate.

We then cut to Election Night. Things are going well for our anti-protagonist as several states fall into his column. It looks like he’ll soon be slouching toward Washington to be inaugurated. His supporters are ecstatic! It’s then that the CIA (those wonderful folks who brought you MK Ultra) make their move, sticking a hypodermic in the almost-President-Elect’s derriere and spiriting him away in a black limo.

We then see the CIA guys head for a shadowy underground location with scientists in lab coats and armed, burly MPs at every door. Using the latest in Virtual Reality technology, they construct a scenario where our anti-hero sees himself in front of adoring masses who hang on his every word. We see subjective shots where he tells them that a neighboring country has just acquiesced to his demand that they pay for the large wall that has just been completed on his decree. The crowd cheers. The almost -prexy is blissful. The scientists will keep him in this state for at least eight years

Meanwhile back at the ranch, our would-be dictator’s followers undergo a shocking reversal. It’s as if the mind-link connecting them to their hero has somehow been severed. With the polls still open, they head to the polls en masse, and to the surprise of  the pundits, vote against their erstwhile idol! The country is saved! (well, not really saved, as the opponent is not all that great, but much better than our orange-hued alien.)

OK, that’s the gist of the thing. Some of it might need punching up and you can change the ending if it’s too cliche. Again, this is so far-fetched as to be laughable – American voters certainly aren’t as naive as we suggest, but suspension of disbelief is at the heart of the movie-going experience.

Star Wars: The Force Rehashes

30 Dec

Note: Not wishing to ruin anyone’s fun, we have not revealed any major plot twists in this post, but we have spilled the beans on some minor plot points.

The latest Star Wars offering is on track to make a gazillion dollars on top of the gazillion dollars it’s already raked in. We’ve always found the
series entertaining but we were never die-hard fans. (We skipped the two that precede the current flick.) Not using superlatives to describe Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems akin to being lukewarm about Mom and apple pie, but we must confess that we found the film diverting but not exceptional.

SW:TFA (or SW:WTF if your prefer) has the added rush of including Han Solo, General Leia (not just a princess anymore), Luke Skywalker, and of course, Chewbacca, C3PO, and R2D2. In this go-round, R2D2’s been in a funk since Master Luke went away and (like Timothy Leary’s opposite) refuses to turn on. (We think that he’s really in a snit because a smaller, cuter robot named BB-8 has stolen his thunder.)


We think you might be jealous,  R2.

How do you top what has gone before?  Well, you apparently do that by rehashing the first film with a young woman named Rey in lieu of Master Luke. No Darth Vader? No problem – invent a new bad guy named Kylo Ren or Rilo Kiley or something like that and give him a light sword that goes up to 11.

The bad guys in the first Star Wars film had a nasty weapon called the Death Star. In the new one, the bad guys have a nasty weapon that’s kinda sorta like the Death Star only different, a sort of non-Death-Star Death Star.

Of course, there are some new characters too, the aforementioned Rey, and a Stormtrooper-turned-good-guy named FN-2187 (one can imagine the writers being at an impasse over what to call the character, and one exclaiming “Call him effin’ 2187 for all I care!”) who is later called Finn.

This picture’s got all the stuff that you expect from the series – the Millennium Falcon flying sideways through narrow chasms, lots of whoosh noises, s**t that blows up, the whole nine yards. However, it struck us that the series has become an endless cycle, like the same Wacky Races cartoon run over and over again. The Rebels are oppressed, they defeat the Empire and celebrate their victory. The Empire strikes back, the rebels defeat the Empire and celebrate their victory, in an endless cycle of samsara. We asked our son-in-law whether George Lucas had any involvement in SW:TFA, to which he replied “Not even a little bit.” We can understand why – after all this back and forth, a profound ennui has set in.

Confessional Hit Men

23 Jun

St. Augustine is said to have prayed “Lord, make me pure, but not yet!” John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man would likely relate to that statement; there seems to be quite a gap between his realization that his professional life is an amoral one and his abandonment of that life.

We didn’t know anything about Perkins before we read this book, and from what we gather, his other work is about the teachings of shamans he met in South America. Perkins seems to be sort of a latter-day Carlos Castenada without the drugs. In Confessions, Perkins explains that an economic hit man (EHM) is one who travels to Indonesia, or Panama, or wherever and persuades officials of that country to accept development projects with inflated growth projections. The terms of the contract stipulate that American firms do the work, so the boys from Bechtel or Halliburton, or Perkins’ (now defunct) employer Chas. T. Main come in and make lots of money. If the debtor county struggles under the weight of the debt that they’re saddled with, no problem – the creditor nation (the US) can trade that for favorable United Nations votes, or access to the debtor’s natural resources, or to force the nation to allow American military bases.

Perkins seems to be a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy (or in Greg Palast’s assessment, a guy that you hate then come to love  Some think him a complete nut job who made up everything in the book while others laud him for mending his ways and telling it like it is.

As per usual, we’re on the fence.  We don’t quite know what to make of Perkins’ tale of being brought into the shadowy EHM world by an attractive woman named Claudine Martin, who then vanishes without a trace.  This story seems far-fetched, but to us, its not the main point of the book, so we don’t ultimately care how he got into the biz. What strikes us are the parts of the book that don’t seem far-fetched. Call us conspiracy freaks if you wish, but  Perkins’ accounts of ‘corporatocracy’,  collusion between the US government and corporate interests in various places around the globe don’t seem all that hard to believe.  (Given the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and Allende in Chile, to name just two examples, many of the book’s assertions seem quite plausible.)

We’re not sorry we read the book, but it’s not as substantial as we had hoped.  Perkins also shades the truth at times to make himself appear in a better light.  After he leaves the EHM life, he lands a lucrative position as an expert witness for a nuclear power company.  He writes: “Unfortunately, the longer I studied the issue, the more I began to doubt the validity of my own arguments.  The literature was constantly changing at that time, reflecting a growth in research, and the evidence increasingly indicated that many alternative forms of energy were technically superior and more economical than nuclear power.” Perkins doesn’t state the exact time frame, but this seems to be in the early 80s.  The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred in 1979, making this claim seem a mite disingenuous.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have (but probably didn’t)  opined “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing that they like.”  That reflects our feelings.  We generally liked the book, but many who suspect Perkins of being an unreliable narrator have a valid point.

silhouette of a man

Confess, hit man!

Interstellar Redux

28 Dec

In our last post, we talked about the film Interstellar, but we ended up critiquing our own critique. Sure, we said some glib things, but we really didn’t get to the heart of the thing.  One of the ways we judge a movie is whether it ‘lives’ in our minds.  If we forget a movie right after the end credits roll, we know that the movie was not very good.  If we find ourselves thinking about a movie days after seeing it, we know that the film has engaged us, even if we didn’t find it completely satisfying.

Interstellar is that kind of movie for us – we knew there we’re problems with the picture, but we nevertheless found ourselves thinking about it.  We’d seen the film with our daughter ( and several days ago she noted “You know, I’m still not sure how I feel about the movie,” mirroring our own thoughts.  At the time we’d written it off as a picture with lofty ambitions, but one that director Christopher Nolan had allowed to get away from him.  It now occurs to us that perhaps that is what inevitably happens when directors take on such sweeping subjects.

2001 is one of our all-time favorite movies – dissin’ 2001 to us is fightin’ words.  Nevertheless, we can see why many find it perplexing and even annoying – the “light show” can seem disconnected from what has gone before and some viewers may feel that the astronaut’s transformation at the end comes out of left field.  For many, 2001 ultimately fails to deliver the goods.

Though some movie goers may find the Interstellar’s third act uplifting,  others may feel as perplexed as some of 2001’s viewers did. Though we didn’t feel perplexed, we think that films that try to show us the infinite come up against the limits of the human mind, not to mention the limits of special effects technology, as impressive as the latter has become over the last decade.  In other words, we think it’s really hard to blow people’s minds in film, ’cause to really blow their minds you’d have to show ’em something beyond your ability to show on screen and beyond your capacity to imagine it.

Then again, maybe all ya need is a good car chase scene …

Maybe a car chase is all ya need ...

Maybe a car chase is all ya need …

A feller looks at Interstellar

15 Dec

We finally got around to seeing Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s big budgeted sci-fi picture.  In our humble opinion, it’s a lot like 2001: A Space Odyssey, only longer. OK, we’re being flip – the film is quite different from 2001 in many ways, and yet, there are parallels.  Both films deal with a trans-dimensional duct / wormhole near a planet in our solar system. Both have a character who thinks that the mission is too important to allow the others to jeopardize it, and both deal with the paradoxes of travel in space/time (although 2001 handles the latter much more obliquely than Interstellar does.)

The situation on Earth in Interstellar is a mixed bag.  On the positive side, there is apparently no more war, as armies are a thing of the past. It’s not all Shangri-La though; the U.S. (and presumably the rest of the planet) has become one big dust bowl.  Instead of heading to California in like the Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath”,  NASA decides to push out toward the stars in search of a new planet for us humans to trash. Indeed, they’ve already sent a team of astronauts through the wormhole, though no one has apparently heard from those folks in 10 years.

Interstellar takes the viewer to the stars, but getting there is not half the fun. The film is a bit of a slog at times, clocking in at 169 minutes. The picture left us a bit frustrated, as it tackles some pretty heady ideas, but left us wanting more, although we weren’t quite sure what that something was.  Nonetheless, the film boasts impressive visuals, and  Matthew McConaughey carries the picture quite well.  It also manages to dishes out a few surprises along the way. To us, however, it never quite achieved the escape velocity we were hoping for.

Interstellar still

Latter day Joads

Babbittry and a Guy from the Sky

17 Sep

Our spouse picked up a couple paperback books that had been sitting on the ‘free’ table of the local college and presented them to us, thinking we’d actually read them. What the heck, we did. One was Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922). The other was Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968).

Babbitt was a best seller in 1922, and it’s the book from which we derive the word ‘babbittry’ (sometimes spelled ‘babbitry’) which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means ‘a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.’ Yep, that’s that main character, George Babbitt alright. George is the Nietzschean herd man, careful not to form an opinion without first checking with his next door neighbor and the members of the Booster’s club.

We read that Lewis had planned for the novel comprise a twenty-four hour period in the life of his character. He apparently abandoned this approach, so that only the first four chapters follow this structure. These early chapters are slow-going and Lewis often tells us rather than shows us his characters’ traits. For example, an early passage informs us “She [Babbitt’s wife, Myra] was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one save perhaps Tinka, her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”

Babbitt would not be an interesting character if he did not have a crisis of faith, which comes when his best friend commits a shocking crime. Babbitt then goes off the rails a bit, flirting with infidelity, and even more disquieting to his friends, begins to form opinions counter to common dogma. Hearing his friends discussing a labor strike, Babbitt pipes up “Oh rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn’t notice any bombs.” This seemingly mild statement and other similar statements endanger his standing in the fictional town of Zenith.

Though not tightly plotted, the novel is often funny, and despite a slow start, it kept us interested. It’s satirical snapshot of America before the Great Depression.

Give it a look

Give it a look

Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time, on the other hand, deals with life in the future, as least the future from the point of view of 1968, when the book was published. On December 25, 1998, Vornan-19 descends from the sky naked, traveling at several thousand feet per second. He lands in Rome, proclaiming himself a visitor from the year 2999 and administering an electric shock to the policeman who tries to clothe him. Vornan-19 is nothing if not randy; he almost immediately inquires as to the location of the nearest ‘house of intercourse.’

The book is narrated by Leo Garfield, a physicist specializing in sending sub-atomic particles into the past. Leo is the mentor of Jack Bryant, a brilliant student who quits physics just as he’s on the verge of discovering a means of totally liberating the atom using neither fission nor fusion. Jack marries a woman named Shirley and hangs out in the Arizona desert, where Leo is frequent guest.

A lot of the story revolves around the question of whether the bisexual Vornan-19 is a visitor from 2999 or a hoaxer. Leo alternately believes him to be a fraud and the genuine article. He eventually joins a team of scientists (and rather poorly behaved ones at that) who show Vornan-19 around the US. The government is using the supposed man from the future as a counterweight to the nihilistic doomsday cult that has arisen in advance of the millennium.

The novel has been derided as a rip-off of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, but although both deal with the theme of an interloper who transforms a culture, we don’t think that Silverberg is ripping off Heinlein.

There’s a whole bunch of sex in the novel (it was written in the 60s after all), and the ending is a little weak, but we nonetheless found the book entertaining (the ending of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is weak too, and that novel is still beloved.) Despite being written over 45 years ago, it holds up rather well. It’s not top-drawer, but it’s not a bad read.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Punch Out

2 Aug

We admit that at times we’re a little slow on the uptake, but it just occurred to us that in just about any film where the characters go into space, somebody dies.  Whether it’s our atavistic fear of the unknown, the fact that there is no atmosphere out there, or some other reason, as a culture we’ve got it into our heads that if you go into space, your chances of buying the farm are pretty good.

Don't worry, Keir, you'll live

Don’t worry, Keir, you’ll live

Here’s a sampling of films from the past several decades that feature space travel:

Film                                              Who Dies
Forbidden Planet                     Walter Pidgeon, Krell civilization
2001: A Space Odyssey         Gary Lockwood,  guys in hibernation
Silent Running                           Everybody except the cute robots
Star Wars                                     Everybody on the planet Alderan
Serenity                                        A whole bunch of people
Prometheus                                 Everybody except Noomie Rapace
Gravity                                          Scientist guy and George Clooney

Honorable mention from TV: Any guy who dons a red shirt on Star Trek

OK, maybe we’re making too much of this.  After all, lots of characters get killed off in detective stories, spy films, action movies, and horror flicks. Fair enough, but in those genres, it goes with the territory.  Space travel, we were told as children, was going to be wondrous, awe-inspiring, and fantastic.  Sure, it’s dangerous, but space was the place where we were going to forget about our nationalities, form multi-cultural teams of astronauts, and explore in mutual harmony. Why so much death, then?

The reason may have to do with the fact that conflict and death are the building blocks of drama, and stuff is supposed to happen in movies.  The ‘light show’ in 2001 is groovy, but it’s Hal bumping off Keir Dullea’s crewmates that’s the central conflict of the picture. OK, we get it, but we’d also like to point out that Apollo 13, a fact-based film that we go into knowing the outcome, is a picture that nevertheless manages to be gripping and suspenseful and nobody dies.

As with most of our posts, we don’t really know where we’re going with this. We just think that too many people are getting killed off in space movies, and we want it to stop, dammit.

Dog Psychics and Stigmata

24 Jun

Recently, a woman at work told us that she had taken her high-strung canine to a dog psychic.  We’re not clear as to what the psychic’s observations were, but it got us thinking about psychic phenomena and religious experience.

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re wusses.  We adopt a pose of being coldly scientific, but we’re on the fence.  We’re not religious, but we have a not-so-secret desire to experience the numinous. It was this desire that impelled us some years back to see a stigmatic. An e-mail we’d received stated that this individual would be at such-and-such a church on such-and-such a date. After work, we drove the better part of a hundred miles to check it out for ourselves.

We got there, and from what we recall, the scene seemed like a religious Woodstock. We were instructed to let people with illnesses approach first.  As there were many people there, and as we were in good health, it was clear that this was going to be a long night.  We seated ourselves at the very back and settled in. Several hours passed, and it was finally time to approach the stigmatic. We’d seen photos of the columnist Mike Royko, and this chap looked vaguely like him. He embraced us with his bandaged hands and boomed “God love ya, buddy!” (Note: we think he had bandaged hands, but we’re not sure – we’re recalling this from memory.)  And that was that.

In the days that followed we tried to objectively observe any changes in ourselves and there were none.  Well, one actually. For about a week after the experience, we discovered that we’d lost the ability to judge anyone harshly.  Reading a newspaper article about the latest thing that Dick Cheney (a politician we disliked) had said, we found that the anger we normally experienced on reading his pronouncements just wasn’t there; all we could manage was to wonder what would make a person say the things that Cheney said. We figured it wouldn’t last and it didn’t; after about a week, we were our same ol’ judgmental selves again.

We’re not drawing any conclusions one way or the other, merely reporting. We’re neither scientists nor seers.  We’re just some guy.


Dick, why’d ya say those things?






Happy New Year!

31 Dec
Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, from all of us at De Jungle!