Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Screamers" Philip K Dick, "The Second Variety"

I am no fan of horror movies. Having witnessed death and murder in close quarters in the South Bronx and on 9/11 I have no desire to see it simulated as entertainment. So I missed the 1995 sci-fi horror-thriller Screamers the first time around. Yet even the mere commercials gave me at least two nightmares that I can remember, based merely on the movies' premise, that of miniature self-replicating killing machines as the ultimate reductio ad essentiam of war. That premise haunted me as it has fascinated others, like the writers of the Terminator series and the creators of the Replicators from Stargate SG-1.

It's a great premise. It bespeaks an ecological sophistication you don't find in most science fiction that varies between the mindlessly loud shoot-em-up physicalism of Michael Bay and the reality-is-whatever-you-wish-it-to-be mysticism of Solaris and every bad Star Trek incarnation you've ever seen. Or the Matrix series, which combines both in what Stan Marsh might call an apotheosis of poop. Screamers has none of that slick nonsense .

Screamers shows both mindless violence and effortless fantasy to be dead ends. It uses plot, suspense, and character to show the importance of values pursued through effort toward a rational end. It is a high-budget B-movie which, due to its writing, achieves the status of Art with a capital "A". Some will complain it is not high art, but any work worth seeing twice meets that definition in my book.

Peter Weller, the veteran character actor of Robocop and Naked Lunch, plays the hard-boiled hero Joe Hendricksson, a military man who has, by the pretense of cynicism, just managed to maintain his hold on his compartmentalized humanity. He knows that his is a world of shit. But he chooses to listen to Mozart, not Lady Gaga. Offered the opportunity of peace in a war with no dignity he takes it. But he utteres no platitudes and expects no miracles. All he demands from his charges is common sense, if not actual competence.

Hendricksson goes on a quest to negotiate peace with the enemies of his commanders, even if his commanders and his enemies both turn out no longer to exist. Just as the offer of peace negotiations from the enemy turns out to be a ruse, so do the refugees from war Hendricksson meets on the way to his barren destination. The apparent "refugees" are not victims, but disguised and deadly weapons of war. And his would-be negotiating parties are dead. I won't spoil the climax, which includes two of the standard cliches of science fiction, the conflicted robot and the "or ist it?" ending, by giving any details. But they are cliches because they work, and they work fine here. If you like edgy drama that doesn't insult your intelligence, I think this is one B-movie that will leave you thoroughly satisfied.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Hexaflexagons

This is a wonderful little video about a construction from folded paper called a hexaflexagon. Watch and see its odd and entertaining properties. Here's a link to Wikipedia's article on the flexagons which you should consult after watching the video.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cousins (1989)

I absolutely hate this kind of formulaic love triangle movie. I rented it only because I find Isabella Rossellini irresistable. But I actually ended up really enjoying it. Unfortunately, Sean Young, whom I also enjoy, seemed over-medicated. But the characters were largely sympathetic, the one-offs and running gags were funny, the photography was quite good, and the story was engaging enough that I might have enjoyed it even if it hadn't starred Ingrid Bergman's daughter.

Given the subject matter it was a really wholesome movie, with only one gratuitous scene, the son Mitch's movie project, which is brief and serves a point. It's not a movie I would watch a second time. But if you are a fan of Rossellini or liked My Big Fat Greek Wedding this is worth checking out. By the way, if you keep wondering where it was filmed, the sets were located in and around Vancouver, Canada.

Based on the French film Cousin, Cousine, stars Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini, Lloyd Bridges, Sean Young, Joel Schumacher Director, 1989, 113 Minutes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

America in Color 1930's & 1940's

In 2006, the Library of Congress held an exhibition called Bound for Glory: America in Color. It displayed color photos, many of them of striking quality, taken by the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information. Not only are the pictures fascinating as history and satisfying as art, for those of us born in later decades they will help put to rest the nagging suspicion that the era was a poorly Photoshopped black-and-white hoax. These are real people, places, and things.



Check out a generous sampling of the photographs here, courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"Madagascar" BBC and Animal Planet

David Attenborough is virtually synonymous with top-notch natural history documentaries. His ten part series beginning with Life on Earth set the standard for wildlife programming, and he has continued to surpass himself with recent series such as The Blue Planet, and Planet Earth. His most recently released miniseries, Madagascar, stands alone as one of his best. This 150 minute series aired in three parts on the BBC and is apparently airing in two two-hour specials on Animal Planet, although getting actual details of the broadcast schedule has been difficult. In any case, the first part aired on Animal Planet was simply stunning, and I recommend that you set your DVR or DVD or VHS to record the episode when it airs next. You can also purchase the show in DVD and HD Blue Ray at Amazon.



While one expects quality nature programming from Attenborough and the BBC, what makes this documentary exceptional is the subject matter, which is both fascinating and rarely filmed. Madagascar is unique given both its position, at the southern end of the inhabited world, and given that it is an island that has been separated from the African and Indian continents (between which it was sandwiched in the age of the dinosaurs) for some 60 million years.

Two groups of animals for which Madagascar is famous, the chameleons, and the Lemurs, which are unique to the island, feature prominently in the documentary. But the island abounds with unique reptiles, birds and amphibians.



And its mammals, like the elegant fossa, not a cat, but an oversized mongoose, and the spectral aye-aye, a primate version of the woodpecker (below), are unique.



Particularly fascinating is the yellow-and-black striped tenrec, which looks like a porcupine or a hedgehog, but which is actually more closely related the the elephant and the aardvark.



Never filmed before, this animal is not only protected by its detachable spines, it can also, by shrugging muscles on its shoulders, rub its quills together to produce a chirp in the manner of a cricket.

Even if you are familiar with lemurs and chameleons (have you seen the inchworm-sized dwarf chameleon, and the pygmy lemur, a relic of our oldest primate relatives?) this documentary will wow you with its colorful animals and fantasy landscapes. But dont take my word for it. Watch the trailer:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

As Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day

By Christopher Courtley


At a high point in the movie Star Trek Generations, the character Doctor Tolian Soran, played by Malcolm McDowell, declaims that "time is the fire in which we burn". Even though that film was mostly forgettable, that one phrase stuck with me for a long time, until one day I discovered that it was a quote from a poem by an obscure New York poet who deserves to be remembered. The line in question comes from the poem "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz of Brooklyn.

Here is an excerpt:

Calmly we walk through this April's day,
Metropolitan poetry here and there,
In the park sit pauper and rentier,
The screaming children, the motor-car
Fugitive about us, running away,
Between the worker and the millionaire
Number provides all distances,
It is Nineteen Thirty-Seven now,
Many great dears are taken away,
What will become of you and me
(This is the school in which we learn...)
Besides the photo and the memory?
(...that time is the fire in which we burn.)

The poem, the full text of which can be found here, expresses the poet's observation of how we blithely and obliquely go about our lives in the shadow of the knowledge that everything ends, even in spring, as all life around us blooms, similarly heedless of the presence of the cold spectre of death. In this way it reminds me of the great Austrian composer Franz Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen.

It seems oddly fitting that the man who wrote this powerful and haunting poem has given his name to a phenomenon known as the Delmore Effect, which "is the tendency of most people to set much more explicit goals for low priority domains than for their most important ambitions." The reason he was given the dubious distinction of having this tendency named after him is cited by an editorial in the University of Chicago press as being "that an extended essay or book on Joyce was one of [his] long entertained projects and that he never accomplished the project precisely because he thought of it as crucial."

Delmore Schwartz is such a good poet and also such an obscure one, that I am seriously considering adopting him at Poets.org. In the meantime I will do my part to reduce his obscurity in other ways, however small. With that in mind, here is a simple still-image video I've created and uploaded to YouTube of myself reading one of Schwartz' last and greatest poems:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who has died and made me God?

What resources do I bring
To the choice of everything?
Is there magic in my ring?
Who has died and made me king?
Overtaught and underawed -
Where's the carrot? Where the rod?
Nothing's given, or outlawed.
Who has died and made me God?
On whose shoulders do I stand?
Who is reaching for my hand?
Am I armoured, or unmanned,
As I walk the wonderland?