Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”

July 17th, 2014

Earlier this week I did a video broadcast with PeaceBang and NYT religion reporter Michael Paulson about religion themes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which Mr. Improbable and I saw this weekend. Boy, the reading glasses were a mistake! But I had never done a Google hangout before, and wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings. We do give away most of the plot–elements that aren’t implicitly contained in the title, that is–so watch with caution.

More discussion after the jump

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Little Spa of Horrors does it again

September 14th, 2011

I’ve written before about how my gym — my wonderful, body-accepting, diverse, empowering women’s only gym — has a tendency to show inappropriate movies, like “Life is Beautiful” or “127 Hours.”

They outdid themselves this morning with a 1997 made-for-television movie called “… First Do No Harm,” starring Meryl Streep as the mother of a boy with severe epilepsy who is being failed by the medical establishment, as incarnated in Allison Janney. Meryl rages, Meryl begs for the experimental drugs, Allison deep-freezes, Meryl’s boy screams and convulses and goes into iatrogenic fits of rage and punches his father in the mouth. When the boy’s violence and the doctor’s remoteness hit a simultaneous peak, she can’t be reached to authorize a sedative while he goes on a self- and other-harming binge through the pediatric ward. A nurse (played by an African-American actress who clearly specializes in wrangling hysterical white people) has to put the boy in a cage while he shrieks and cries, “Mommy! Take me out of here!” and Meryl suffers.

And this was after the scene where Meryl and her weathered but handsome working-class husband had to explain to the two older and non-neurologically-compromised children why the bank just called and what “foreclosure” means.

When the nurse was caging the screaming child and firmly ordering Meryl to leave him and go home, the woman on the elliptical next to me started slowing down. I took my earbuds out and nodded to the screen and said, “This is awful!” She took her earbuds out and said, in a shaking voice, “My son just started school this year. I hate dropping him off.”

I handed her a fashion magazine and suggested she look at that instead. Maybe they’re designed to make you hate your body, but that’s got to be better than seeing your worst maternal nightmares dramatized by the most intense actresses of your generation, right?

Of apes and Alzheimer’s

August 8th, 2011

Mr. Improbable and I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last night, and enjoyed it greatly. For one thing, it does a marvelous job of allowing viewers to fulfill their fantasies of what they would do if they had the strength and flexibility of a chimpanzee. If you’ve ever daydreamed during a staff meeting of leaping aboard the conference table, ululating, pounding your chest, crashing through the windows and heading for the hills — and I know I’m not the only one, people — this is your movie.

It’s also, once you get past the science fiction and special effects, a fairly poignant look at life in the sandwich generation. The human protagonist, biochemist Will Rodman (yes, I know) lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. When Will’s research on a cure for Alzheimer’s is halted, he winds up adopting a baby chimp from the drug trials.

Of course, it’s Will’s experiments that ultimately lead to the rise of the apes (as well as the most hilariously blunt and effective elevator pitch in the history of venture capital, when Will, riding the lift with his boss, announces, “I injected my father with it. It works.”). But Will, despite the phallic determination of his name, is no ego-driven mad scientist. He is motivated by love more than money, power, or even knowledge: he wants his beloved father, a classical pianist and Shakespeare scholar, back. And he wants to protect his adopted “child,” Caesar. In the meantime, it would be nice if he could get his boss off his back, and find time to romance his live-in girlfriend.

Sound familiar? Will is pressed from every direction, and criticized no matter what he does. Look at James Franco’s face when the home-health aide angrily tells him his father should be in a facility. When the veterinarian points out that Caesar won’t stay a juvenile forever. He knows. He is doing his damnedest as a caretaker, and he knows he is failing. He’s not the son, the father, the lover, the scientist he wants to be. Every choice entails a sacrifice — not only the big choices, like “do I inject my father with the experimental drug,” but the little ones, like “do I look my lover in the eye when she is talking, or do I scan the room to make sure Dad and Caesar aren’t in trouble?” And he makes wrong choices, and decisions with all kinds of unintended consequences.

And he loses his father anyway, despite his best efforts, like all of us do.

And his “child” gets involved with drugs, and radical politics, and finds a group of friends that Will can’t relate to. Maybe it was his fault for being too involved with his father, and his career. Maybe it was inevitable.

We do our best for those we love, and we pray to God that our best efforts won’t somehow make things dreadfully, dreadfully worse.

And we hope we’re praying to a God who looks like us.

Beginnings and endings

May 11th, 2011

Roger Ebert Jim Emerson has a brilliant post up here about what conventions signal to us that a story (particularly, a movie) is beginning or ending.* Particularly, he’s interested in asking what ending conventions small children would inherently understand, prompted by this blog post.

I’m loving Dr. Bordwell’s post, which begins with this anecdote:

I was watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” some years ago with a friend’s three-year-old daughter. Molly hadn’t seen the movie before, and she watched it in a fascinated silence. At the end, Snow White and the prince leave the dwarfs and ride off into the distance.

At this point Molly cried, “More!”

This surprised me. How could she know, on her first pass, that the story was ending?

My dissertation was on the psychology of narrative. That’s an awfully broad topic, ranging from how people tell stories of their own lives to how they understand genre conventions used in filmmaking, playwriting, and other narrative arts. As I was just starting to play with these ideas, one of my biggest “aha” moments came at a showing of “The Mummy.” (Some of my smartest ideas are inspired by some of my stupidest experiences.) The audience was extremely diverse in age, ethnicity, and apparent social class. Halfway through the movie the projectionist switched a reel. And at the exact same moment, everyone in the audience registered that the story had stopped making sense. There wasn’t an obvious visual cue; one scene cut to another as might happen ordinarily. It was the story that stopped working, and everyone knew it. You almost never see an entire roomful of people “get it” at the same moment. Certainly “If X then Y” logic never works that way. But story logic … story logic is different.

*Commenter Unmana points out that this is Jim Emerson, not Roger Ebert. Apologies and thanks!

Best movie title ever

February 7th, 2011

Redundancy Theater Playhouse presents:

From the director of “Tortured to Agony” and “Murdered to Death.”

Out of Egypt

February 1st, 2011

As I mentioned, one of my cousins and his wife are living in Cairo. They’re out safely now. Two of his brothers, in particular, were helpful in getting them out and finding places for them to stay. The rest of the siblings (there are a lot of cousins from that family) helped pass news along through Facebook. It was both touching and impressive to watch all of this play out online — the next time I’m confronted by Facebook haters, this story will be Exhibit A for why the technology can an exceptionally good way to keep in touch. The story also reminded me, in a smaller though infinitely more immediate way, of a post I wrote back in 2007, after I’d watched “Hotel Rwanda.” I said, in part,

One thing that has stuck with me since seeing the movie, however, is that Paul Rusesabagina, the movie’s hero, who in the movie and in life managed to save some twelve hundred Tutsis and moderate Hutus from slaughter–was able to do this, in large part, because he had good manners. Mr. Rusesabagina is no action hero, and no idealist, either. He is a man who knows how to finesse a situation. How to figure out quickly what motivates people, and use that knowledge to negotiate with them. How to bank favors against an uncertain future. How to restrain himself in the face of provocation. How to maintain dignity and grace, and extend that possibility to others.

Most of us, I hope, will never be faced with a crisis the likes of which Mr. Rusesabagina faced. But what he did should help us remember that the small skills of manners, self-restraint, intuition, empathy are not frills, moral accessories, to be put on when we are feeling the luxuries of time and emotional energy. They are essential tools that can save lives, literally and figuratively.

Non-gory Halloween movies

October 29th, 2010

Here’s a question to start off the weekend: What are some good movies in the spirit of Halloween — existentially disturbing, playfully gruesome, liminal, gothic, circus-like — that are not upsettingly bloody or gory? I don’t mind that sort of thing, myself, but it’s not the preferred flavor for many folks, no matter what time of year it is. I’m thinking of movies that can be enjoyed by adults, though they don’t necessarily have to be for adults.

A few that come to mind …
“Never Let Me Go,” which is currently in theaters and is not the vampire one, that’s “Let Me In,” not to be confused with “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Rent Is Too Damn High.” “Never Let Me Go” is utterly harmless on the surface and devastating to think about.

“Nightmare Before Christmas”
“City of Lost Children”

… what else would you recommend, readers? Movies that horrify, enchant, disturb, without graphic violence?

Movies and women’s work

September 5th, 2010

Yes, I know I said I wasn’t going to post, but …

In honor of Labor Day, Salon has a great slideshow of 10 movies “that really understand work.” It’s a great list, but where are the women? Granted, first place goes to Ellen Ripley of “Alien,” but come on; it’s also the only science fiction film on the list, and the role of Ripley was originally written for a man. What about women who are office temps, hotel maids, waitresses, factory workers, stay-at-home mothers, sex workers, soldiers, day care providers, nurses?

What movies would you say get work right, and show women doing it?

Yet more dry, classic comedy

August 19th, 2010

If you’ve been enjoying the Parker and Saki references of late — their succinct wit, their keen social observations — you might also enjoy the classic movie “The Man in the White Suit”:

Alec Guinness delivers one of his most beloved performances in this smart satirical comedy that pits a mild-mannered but single-minded inventor against the forces of Britain’s textile industry. Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is a brilliant if under appreciated research chemist on a quest to bring progress to mankind by inventing a new kind of fabric that never gets dirty and never wears out. When he finally succeeds, he is hailed a genius. But both textile manufacturers and labor unions soon come to realize that his miracle cloth could destroy their industry, and resort to desperate measures to make sure his invention never gets to market.

“Man in the White Suit” is going to kick off Coolidge Corner’s “Science on Screen” series on September 6, and will feature a post-show talkback featuring Mr. Improbable himself. Check out the theater’s description- — they’ve got a great page, including a trailer from the film — and perhaps I’ll see you there, yes?


April 6th, 2010

Mr. Improbable and I had a mildly bad day yesterday (no point going into details) and were definitely in the mood for some escapist entertainment last night. We found it on Hulu, in this gloriously overwrought Gothic melodrama based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel:


My favorite bit of dialogue was:

“You’ve been drinking!”
“Only at the springs of love!”

It makes me really sad that I’ve quit drinking now, because I probably won’t be accused of having been drinking, and I want to, so I can say that.

Which actually, now that I think about it, does get at something. We’ve often talked about the “witty comeback” and its shortcomings.* Well-meaning people don’t deserve to be the recipient of a nasty crack; ill-meaning people ought to be confronted more directly; the generally clueless (non-neurotypical folks, or people from cultures with different privacy/conversational norms) won’t be helped to understand boundaries by a sarcastic comment that may well confuse them more.

But the surreal, as opposed to snarky comeback, can work, if it lets the other person in on the joke. Look at all the beautifully surreal responses my friends’ wonderful relative came up with for the question of how she lost her arm. The surreal response can let the other person know, “Whatever question you just asked me isn’t the story of my life. But I’m comfortable that you asked, and I’m not mad at you. However, I’m not going to talk about it, so let’s change the subject.”

Isn’t the writing process magical? When I started this post I never thought I’d get from “My Cousin Rachel” to the witty-retort topic! How about that.

*If you go back to that post, you’ll notice I never responded to Chris’s criticism. That’s because every time I tried to, I started laughing too hard. I am fairly sure the shades of Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde would be on my side on this one.

Celebrity lookalikes, Oscar winners edition

March 12th, 2010

Asner-schmasner, tell me this guy wasn’t the real inspiration for the lead character in Pixar’s “Up”:


Carl Fredricksen had a way better idea for what to do with his house than refinance his mortgage, though!


Quote of the week

January 8th, 2010

Forsooth! Three thousand years of history,
Traditions beauteous from Moses on:
Thou speakest damnèd truth, and speakest well,
I am a man to live in bygone past!

–Sir Walter of Poland, “Two Gentlemen of Lebowski,” by Adam Bertocci.

Other double features

November 9th, 2009

I mentioned below that “Project Grizzly” and “Grizzly Man” would be an excellent double feature, especially if you were in the mood to watch movies about bears and the men who love them too much. What are some good double features you’d recommend for Netflix Night at home?

Mr. Improbable and I once watched “Galaxy Quest” and “Trekkies” back to back, which is a terrific combination: if you haven’t heard of it, “Trekkies” is a documentary about Star Trek fans. (“Galaxy Quest,” of course, is a spoof on Star Trek and Trek fandom.)

“Rushmore” and “Election” came out around the same time, and I saw those as a double feature in the theater: two quirky comedies about high school politics.

The nights are getting longer. Time to curl up on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn or a cup of hot chocolate and watch some flicks. What double features do you like?

Sam Raimi and dream logic

October 5th, 2009

Mr. Improbable and I finally got around to seeing “Drag Me to Hell,” inappropriately enough the night after Rosh Hashanah, but hey, that’s the only time the Brattle was showing it. I am a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series, especially “Evil Dead II.” “Drag Me to Hell” had been heralded as a return on Mr. Raimi’s part to his ultraviolent, comedic, schlock-horror roots, so of course I had to go. (Don’t you bash on my lowbrow tastes — Roger Ebert liked it.)

“Hell” is the story of Christine, a young loan officer (you can tell they really, really wanted Jenna Fischer from “The Office” for this role) who denies an ancient Gypsy woman, Sylvia Ganush, a mortgage extension, and is subsequently cursed. The curse is delivered after an extended fight scene between Pam Christine and Mrs. Ganush in a parking garage. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a self-defense graduate, and I had to appreciate how Christine immediately went into action, fighting with total vigor, commitment, and ingenuity. If I’m ever attacked, I hope my training kicks in like that.

Which it might not, instantly, because in most situations, there’s a moment of disbelief. Most people without serious training — and I don’t mean the kind I got, I mean the kind soldiers get — have a moment of shock when another person aggresses, whether the form of that aggression is a racist joke, a subway grope, or a mugging. Then you sort of “come to” and start fighting, or running, or arguing, or (in the case of the subway grope) grabbing the guy’s hand, holding it up, and saying loudly “Who does this hand belong to? I found it on my butt.” In my life, I’ve only known one person who could go instantly from Suzy Creamcheese to wailing ninja banshee if she had to. Most of us get stopped in our tracks, at least for a crucial few seconds.

Especially — and this is where the “dream logic” part of the headline comes in — if you’re being attacked by a one-eyed Gypsy woman who looks about 110 years old. This is one of the things I love about Sam Raimi’s movies: his characters never pause to think about the sheer improbability of the situations they are in. They just cowboy up and do what needs to be done. Fine, my hand is possessed and trying to beat me to death. Chainsaw time! (The particularly awesome thing is that not only is Ash willing to accept that his hand is trying to kill him, but that it is laughing at him.)

This is how dream logic works. When I was a professor at Emmanuel College, I got to do some work with the distinguished, and very wonderful, J. Allan Hobson on dreams. One of his theories/discoveries is that when we are dreaming, we solve problems pretty much the same way we do when we are awake, with one exception: we don’t question the bizarre. In short, if I were dreaming that my hand were smashing dishes on my head while giggling hysterically, I wouldn’t say, “Hey, wait a minute, it’s not physiologically possible for a hand to manipulate itself in contradiction to the desires of my brain, nor, for that matter, does it have a mouth.” I would, instead, accept the situation as a given and use whatever problem-solving mechanisms come to me most naturally in everyday life.

Have you ever had this experience in a dream? I know I have, although I can’t always remember the details. I do remember a recent dream in which I offered someone sudafed. I am never without sudafed and aspirin in my purse, and will offer them at the drop of a hat to anyone who appears under the weather, so I thought it was really funny that I carry ‘em with me into dreamland as well. Yes, even in the depths of my unconscious mind, I am still a hypochondriac yenta. Good to know.

Now, here’s the cool thing: if you can train your mind to recognize the bizarreness of dream scenarios, but not let that wake you up, you can take control and do lucid dreaming. I’ve managed this once or twice, and let me tell you, lucid dreaming is fun. You can fly or do anything at all!

Have you ever lucid-dreamed? Have you ever solved a problem in a dream in exactly the same way you would have in real life? Have you ever been cursed by an ancient Gypsy woman? Discuss.

Random thoughts on “The Breakfast Club”

August 12th, 2009

Baby Boomer though he is, Mr. Improbable very quickly figured out exactly how upset I was at the unexpected news of John Hughes’s death, and knew that the right answer when I peeked my tear-streaked face into the room where he was reading and said, “Can we rent ‘The Breakfast Club’ tonight” was “Good idea!”

I was worried that he wouldn’t like it. I was worried that I wouldn’t like it. I hadn’t seen it since it came out in 1985, my senior year, and, well, when a movie like that comes out in your senior year, you can hardly be objective at the time, can you? And we have had our generational differences, in terms of humor and movies before. (All right, I’ll tell you, but I don’t care what you say, he’s a wonderful husband and I’m not leaving him: Mr. Improbable does not think “Spinal Tap” is funny. I know, I know. I don’t get it either.)

About five minutes in, he was nodding his head and saying, “This isn’t so different from when I was in school” and when they all started whistling the theme from “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” he burst out laughing and said, “This is a good movie!”

I was so relieved.

A few things that struck me, on what is almost the film’s 25th anniversary:

Anthony Michael Hall has a gun in his locker and they give him Saturday detention?! Wow. How pre-Columbine. That, I think, more than anything, dates the film. (And the similar issues about lack of security, smoke alarms, etc. in the school.)

I don’t think Judd Nelson’s character would be played quite as homophobic today. Would an angry, abused, working-class kid like John Bender probably be homophobic, assuming he weren’t gay himself? Probably. But John Bender is the least real of all the characters. He’s a wish-fulfillment archetype, the bad boy with the sensitive insides and remarkable verbal dexterity. The character everyone wants to either be or do. And I don’t think, if you were making such a perfect sensitive criminal today, that you’d make him a verbal gay-basher. It’s nice to think we’ve made some progress.

There would, however, probably be just as much slut-shaming and rape innuendos if the movie were made today. Along with a whiny rant from the Anthony Michael Hall character about how “nice guys” can’t get a date. I wonder if we’ve made quite as much progress in that regard. (Here‘s a good take on John Hughes’s sexual and class politics.)

Speaking of Anthony Michael Hall, about halfway through the movie, Mr. Improbable said, “He’s Milo.” He is so right. You don’t have to know Milo personally to get this: just imagine the sneaky, sideways moves of a submissive but mistrustful dog. Some actors do get inspiration from animals’ body language, and I wonder if Mr. Hall figured out some of his physical work from watching a dog like Milo, the kind of dog who will rarely fight for his rights but will always look out for his interests. In the dog park, keeping an eye out for the bigger dogs, or trying to abscond with a bit of forbidden food. (I mentioned this to a friend of mine who knows and loves Milo well, and she snorted and replied tartly, “Well, that’s what high school is–a big, badly supervised dog park.”)

I had the hugest crush on Judd Nelson as John Bender in high school–hey, there’s no shame in admitting that–but he really did have the weirdest face ever at that age. There was absolutely nothing about him that looked like a young man. All of his features were either those of a pretty girl, or an old Jewish zayde. But on him, it looked good.

I recall hating the Emilio Estevez/Ally Sheedy hookup when I was a teenager, but it works for me now: the compulsive conformist and the compulsive non-conformist, neither acting out of any sense of authenticity, neither making real choices. Maybe they’ll give each other strength. She needs the confidence to know she can play by the rules of “normal” when she chooses. He needs the confidence to know he doesn’t have to unless he wants to. Plus, this bit:

Allison: He can’t think for himself.
Andrew: She’s right.

… is a masterpiece of timing and brevity. They don’t seem like strangers in that moment, but like a long-married couple that has the comedy routines–and a deep awareness of how the relationship itself transcends those routines–down to an art and science.

I suspect my own high school neuroses played into my underestimation of both the character of Andrew and the superb job by Emilio Estevez. (Ya think?) Wow, he was good. Has Mr. Estevez done anything comparable since then? A look at IMDB doesn’t make me optimistic (though it reminds me I do need to rent “Repo Man.”) What happened?

Oh, and another “times have changed” moment–Andrew’s shamed, straightforward acknowledgement that taping another, very hairy, boy’s butt together is torture, when our government and major newspapers seem to have a difficult time being similarly honest about waterboarding.

And speaking of IMDB–this may be corrected by the time the post goes up, but when I wrote this they had listed Judd Nelson as Andrew and Emilio Estevez as John. Which was exactly the same mistake I’d made when I first saw it. Because, you know, John was all swarthy and stuff. But 1) I didn’t exactly grow up in the kind of hotbed of diversity that would lead me to grasp that people with Latino names may also sport blond hair, and 2) the damn movie’s been out for 25 years! What’s your excuse, IMDB?

Mr. Improbable kept mentioning that he wanted the principal to be more of a real character, and I kept disagreeing, because I’d forgotten the scene between the principal and the janitor. “Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.” “I wouldn’t count on it.” Wow. Yes, maybe the adults should have gotten a little more screen time.

Or maybe I just think that because I am one now.