Return to the Interwebs

For a variety of reasons, most of which are either too depressing or too boring to recount, this blog has been stagnant (and even unaccessible) for a while. I’ve got a new hosting service now, and to celebrate here are a couple of movies I’ve created with the UCF Center for Distributed Learning and two amazing students, Tracy Becker and Meghan Keough. This one explains the geometry of lunar and solar eclipses, and this one explains the orbit and phases of the Moon. More to come!

Star Trek Into Darkness

Bottom line first: on things that truly matter, this movie mostly gets it right. I will see it again and add it to my Blu-Ray collection. However, on a number of other mostly minor matters, from nerdy technical quibbles to relatively inconsequential plot points, there are a lot of problems. Spoiler alert: I won’t avoid divulging key plot elements in this review, so if you have not seen Star Trek Into Darkness but plan to, you will enjoy it more if you don’t read this first.

The 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise with the film of the same name was, to put it bluntly, a radical reboot: all of the prior Star Trek franchise, from the original series through 10 movies and three sequel TV series, was erased from our imagined future and replaced by a blank slate future, free for a new telling of the stories of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise. It is worth remembering that the timeline alteration of the 2009 Star Trek was, throughout all incarnations of Star Trek, the worst possible thing that could happen. Loved ones were sacrificed in order to preserve history. This is all to say that the reboot took an extreme step to get that perfectly clean slate. It is therefore a bit unimaginative, after all that work, for the creative crew behind the second movie of the new franchise to rely on a villain from the second movie of the original franchise: Khan Noonian Singh. The plot of this movie, however, is fresh and original (enough so that it is essentially inconsequential that the villain is nominally the same as the villain from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and the original series episode Space Seed).

If Star Trek 2009 was about getting Kirk into the Captain’s chair, Star Trek Into Darkness is about making him worthy of the position. Kirk’s mentor and father figure, Admiral Christopher Pike, is one of many victims of a terrorist attack and mass assassination by Khan (given, for no apparent reason, the pseudonym John Harrison). Kirk is given orders by Admiral Marcus to kill Khan who has fled to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos. Kirk is hungry for revenge. Spock, who had his own issues with vengeance in the last movie, urges Kirk to find the moral good inside himself and apprehend Harrison to stand trial instead. That Kirk heeds this advice, and ultimately gives a very Kirk-like speech about resisting our primal urges for revenge and instead pursuing the paths of our better selves redeems the minor flaws of the movie. The central theme of Star Trek has always been that humanity can better itself: that within our species is the potential to become something much better than we are. The struggle to put our less noble natures aside and strive for betterment is at the heart of many episodes and movies. It is why Shatner’s Kirk kept breaking the Prime Directive and breaking the calm of static societies, and why Data kept striving to be more human. There is more than a glimmer of that flame in Kirk’s climactic speech in Star Trek Into Darkness exhorting Starfleet to reject the allure of militarism and instead turn toward the promise of the Star Trek motto: “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before”. It also recollects another defining trait of the original TV series, which was to offer some commentary on the political landscape of the time. The original series featured episodes touching on the issues of the escalating war in Vietnam, racial struggles within the United States, and the cold war. Kirk’s speech urging us to reject revenge in the face of Khan’s brutal terrorist attack is too late to stop our own wars of revenge, but the message of Star Trek has always been that it is never too late start being better.

The problems with the movie are much more superficial. Director J. J. Abrams and company have what can only be described as a willful disregard for any notion of time and distance. In both of the new movies, the Enterprise warps between the Earth and distant worlds in less time than it takes Khan to get from London to San Francisco. At that rate, the ship’s five year mission of exploration could be wrapped up in a week. The phrase “we’re the only ship within reach” has no more meaning. The forbiddingly dangerous alien world of Kronos is reached in minutes. It takes the crew more time to navigate their own ship on foot than to cross all of Federation space. Abrams’ fixation on keeping the pace of the action rapid results in every single warp trip taken in his two movies ending (after a few minutes of travel) with an unplanned crash out of warp speed, but always at the doorstep of their intended destination. Racing home from Kronos, the Enterprise gets crashed out of warp before anyone is even talking about approaching Earth, and then we discover that they are actually at the Moon’s distance from the Earth. This is like racing from the Earth’s Moon (a quarter of a million miles away) to your house and getting stopped by accident when you are 1 inch from the front door. The same thing happened on the way to Vulcan in the 2009 movie and on the way to Kronos in this one. Abrams’ need for speed is matched only by his inability to imagine hand-to-hand combat that does not take place on a precarious flying platform.

In addition to achieving some sense of scale of space, I hope the next movie gives us a better sense of place in the starship Enterprise. Star Trek (2009) used a beer brewery as a poor substitute for Engineering. This sequel seems to have two or three engine rooms: the original brewery (which looks very much like a brewery) and a couple of more spiffy sets. But unlike past versions of the ship, we get no sense of how any one room connects to any other or where anyone is within the ship or who is at risk (or, frankly, how anyone survives) when huge sections of the ship are destroyed.

More annoying than these technical quibbles is the scene that introduces us to Harrison/Khan. His motivation is to rescue his 72 crew members (stuck in suspended animation and prisoner of the evil faction within Starfleet). For some reason, although he has superhuman strength and (presumably, though we see little sign of it) intellect, he’s incapable of setting off a bomb by himself and instead engages in a bizarre and totally unbelievable barter with the father of a dying girl that culminates with him setting off a bomb perhaps by dropping a dissolving ring into a drink in a bar. Maybe? Followed by Kirk wondering what is in that strange bag cameras caught Khan with. When we see it, it is all completely mysterious, something we expect will be explained later. But at the end of the movie we realize that not only is there no explanation offered, but there is no plausible explanation that could have been offered. It is tempting to attribute this to co-writer Damon Lindelof whose writing resumé includes other gratuitous but ultimately non-sensical scenes (all of Lost (created by Abrams) and much of Prometheus). Khan’s blood is needed to save Kirk at the end, and somehow this means they cannot kill Khan. Not only does this not make sense, but it would have been much more powerful storytelling had they spared Khan out of morality rather than selfish interest.

The cast does a good job. They seem comfortable with their characters, though only Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy feels like he’s the same character as the original version. Quinto’s Spock is less playful than Nimoy’s, Pine’s Kirk is, believe it or not, less cerebral than Shatner’s, and Simon Pegg’s Scotty is less cool than James Doohan’s. But they are not lesser characters, just different, and it’s better that they make them their own than try to replicate someone else’s performance. While Lieutenant Uhura (Zoë Saldana) has (happily) a much-expanded role compared to Nichelle Nichols’ original Uhura on TV, neither she nor guest star Alice Eve as Carol Marcus is given much to do. Eve strikes a pose in her underwear and talks back to her father, but Star Trek Into Darkness is a step backwards from the show of the sixties in terms of diversity. It’s very much a white male action flick. Even Khan, who is Indian, is now transformed into a white Brit (Benedict Cumberbatch). This cannot be explained by the reboot since Khan predates the time alteration of the 2009 movie.

But, true to the spirit of Star Trek, there is hope for the future. The ship is now about to begin its mission of exploration with a crew that has learned to trust each other. Unlike the title of this new movie, they are now poised to go forward, out of the darkness.

Moonrise Kingdom

I’ll start right off by saying I haven’t liked Wes Anderson‘s movies, but I did enjoy Moonrise Kingdom. While it has all the stylistic hallmarks of Anderson’s earlier movies, most of which I find grating and somewhat precious, Moonrise Kingdom has a charming story with enough likable characters that even I enjoyed it.

I wrote the two sentences above in August 2012, not coincidentally when the school year started. There is a correlation between the start of classes and my complete distraction from finishing the review!

Life of Pi

Movies based on books have the advantage of a built-in fan base and the curse of the expectations of those same people. Those expectations are almost guaranteed not to be met. It’s simply not possible to capture all of a novel in two hours. The vision of the director and screenwriter is necessarily an abstraction of the original book, and that vision is not generally going to be the vision you had when you read the book. So to the extent it’s possible, it’s best not to compare the two forms and to try to approach the movie as an independent work of art that, on reflection, happens to have a lot in common with that book you read once. That said, I will now happily relate that I liked the movie Life of Pi more than the book.

That may not be relevant or useful information to you until I say that I found the book both fascinating and irritating, especially its long survey of world religions by way of introduction to the protagonist, Pi Patel. The movie is framed by an older Pi recounting his story, shown in flashback, to a writer. Director Ang Lee creates a beautiful and mystical world. Pi’s family in India owned a zoo, and we are introduced to it with a series of stunning shots of colorful animals that I almost wished would not end. The beauty of the movie continues, but the peaceful nature comes to an abrupt end when the freighter that is carrying Pi and his family and all their animals to a new home in Canada sinks in a storm in the Pacific ocean. Pi shares a lifeboat with a tiger on a magical journey across the ocean. Lee’s Oscar win for Best Direction is well-deserved.

Professor Stress

CNBC.com posted a list of 10 least stressful jobs for 2013, and topping the list is “University Professor” with this laughable analysis:

And the winner of Least Stressful Job of 2013 is … university professor!

(Cue the commencement music.)

Professor is a newcomer to the list this year, and it shot straight to the top.

“If you look at the criteria for stressful jobs, things like working under deadlines, physical demands of the job, environmental conditions hazards, is your life at risk, are you responsible for the life of someone else, they rank like ‘zero’ on pretty much all of them!” Lee said.

Plus, they’re in total control. They teach as many classes as they want and what they want to teach. They tell the students what to do and reign over the classroom. They are the managers of their own stress level.

The most stressful thing about being a professor?

“Interacting with other professors!” Lee said.

The Lee being quoted is Tony Lee of CareerCast.com. The most absurd statement above is about the lack of deadlines. My life as a professor is spent swimming in a sea of deadlines. I have also yet to meet a professor who teaches “as many classes as they want,” and they certainly don’t get to teach “what they want to teach.” Some professors, myself included, actually do like to teach, so that is a plus. But professors are told what they must teach. I may be in the minority of professors in the next category, but I am far from alone: we have significant environmental hazards in our laboratories and we are in fact responsible for the lives of those who work there. Serious accidents are a real threat. I am also responsible for securing funding for people in my research group so that they may stay gainfully employed and, in the case of graduate students, complete their studies. Now, I love my job and wouldn’t trade it for any other. But the one thing I don’t like about it is how stressful it is. For a more extensive rebuttal of the argument, see this blog post.

Skyfall

Skyfall is not just another James Bond movie, which is simultaneously its greatest strength and biggest weakness. Daniel Craig returns as 007 in a movie set up to be something of a reboot to the franchise. John Cleese (73) is out as Q, replaced by a twenty-something who hands Bond a nice pistol but no exploding pens or submarine car. “That’s so old school” is the message, and the question the movie confronts is whether Bond himself, as a character, and Craig, the actor, are also past their prime. Sam Mendes, known for thoughtful character dramas (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road), directs with a stylish touch. A nighttime chase through a glass-walled skyrise is eerily illuminated by reflections from the neon lights outside. Bond’s encounter with this movie’s arch-villain (Silva, played by Javier Bardem, now synonymous with creepy) takes place on an abandoned asian island that has a post-apocalyptic glare. In order to reset, so to speak, Bond the movie has a fair amount of narrative ground to cover if it is also going to have a battle between Bond and Silva to save the world. This stretches the running time to well over two hours. Silva’s motives are more personal, as it turns out, than world domination, so while the action circles the globe, it ultimately is a character drama where old wounds (Bond’s, M’s (Judi Dench), and Silva’s) are exposed to either kill or be healed.

Flight

The title of Flight refers more to Denzel Washington‘s alcoholic character’s approach to life than it does to the harrowing airplane crash that opens the movie. Captain Whip Whitaker controls his drunkenness with cocaine. High on both alcohol and cocaine on that flight from Orlando to Atlanta, he calmly deals with a broken elevator jack screw that is forcing the plane into a dive by inverting it to stabilize the descent and then crash-landing in a field, saving almost everyone on board. That was the easy part. Navigating his post-crash life is far more difficult as he struggles with his addictions and the investigation into the crash and his state of sobriety. This is a movie about one man’s fight with alcoholism, or rather his journey to learn to face his alcoholism. It is well-made and well-acted. Washington is convincing enough that we even start to believe that he has things under control when, of course, as an addict, he is almost completely powerless. And while this movie is far from the misery-fest that was Leaving Las Vegas, to watch it is to spend a couple of hours with an alcoholic.

Lincoln

The story of the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States gets a very personal telling in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The movie is at its best when it takes us into the gritty arguments in Lincoln’s cabinet and the often heavy-handed lobbying and arm-twisting of wavering congressmen to vote for the amendment. Daniel Day Lewis disappears into the role (when does he not?) or Abraham Lincoln who was determined to pass the Amendment through the House of Representatives (it had previously been passed by the Senate) before the end of the Civil War. He feared that, should the war end first, a status quo of slavery in the south would continue since the Emancipation Proclamation had less firm legal footing than a Constitutional Amendment. Tommy Lee Jones is also excellent as Representative Thaddeus Stevens who harangues his colleagues and has to control his own fiery temperament to insure passage of the amendment. His story would make an interesting movie in its own right. The machinery of democracy was dirty and corrupt, but also noble and effective. On a few occasions the film lapses into “THIS IS HISTORY” mode, with soaring music and low camera angles, hitting us over the head a bit with the significance of the events, but that is a relatively minor quibble. One can sympathize with Spielberg for that indulgence when making a movie about Lincoln that is not at all a biopic but rather a story focused on one pivotal event in his life.

The Faith of an Atheist

Here’s the thing. I’ve wanted to write a book, but the internet provides a great mechanism for writing shorter pieces. That is how this blog was originally born. Since my career cup has been running over, I’ve had less time to post reviews, science articles, and other observations here. But when I had more time I did write an autobiographical essay, and with the advent of e-readers I’ve finally updated it and packaged it, and now here it is for Kindle at Amazon.

The Dark Knight Rises

Usually a sequel in a comic book superhero movie series can be safely seen and comprehended without knowing much about the earlier movies in the series. (It’s worth pausing to note that there even is a “usually” for this genre. How did we get to the point where each year there are several comic book movie sequels coming out?) The Dark Knight trilogy from director Christopher Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan which concludes with The Dark Knight Rises, is a grand spectacle like its two predecessors. Rises is weighed down by a surprising amount of references to storyline foundations laid in the first installment, Batman Begins, as well as the problem of extricating Batman from the mess he got himself into at the end of the second installment, The Dark Knight. Of course, Batman rising from that mess is part of the point of this movie, but then there is the not-inconsequential storytelling task of creating a new villain and a new catastrophe and dealing with that as well. Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is thrown in for good measure. None of this is necessarily a problem. I liked the movie and the series, and it feels complete and unified. But for those of us who saw the earlier movies only once when they were made (2005 and 2008), it means that a fair amount of time watching Rises is spent with furrowed brow recalling just what Liam Neeson’s character said in the opening scenes of that movie seven years ago.

The villain this time around is an anarchist named Bane (Tom Hardy) who sports a mask over his nose and mouth making him look sort of like a giant robotic bee and sound sort of like gravel going through a kitchen disposal. Maybe this was to make Batman’s raspy growl seem more understandable by comparison. Bane and his formidable crew of thugs manage to isolate the city of Gotham (Manhattan in every way but the official name) and hold everyone there hostage through threat of annihilation with a nuclear bomb. That’s a pretty grand set up, I have to admit. But there’s not far you can go with it if the bad guys aren’t actually interested in getting anything for their hostages and instead just want to blow things up. Neither is it the most convincing or compelling of motives for the villains, and this is what I see as the main weakness of all three movies. I can’t really buy into these destructive anarchists being so patient and, frankly, well-organized to pull off some pretty impressive feats of mass-destruction just because they hate civilization (and therefore organization) so much.

That criticism aside, though, Rises has an epic sense of good versus evil and order versus chaos. Michael Caine is a treat as the long-suffering faithful servant Alfred to Christian Bale‘s moody and, frankly, unappreciative Bruce Wayne. Anne Hathaway‘s Selina (catwoman) lends a bit of complexity to an otherwise black and white tale, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds a welcome bit of normalcy to the proceedings. We are not forced to hear Selina utter “meow,” nor does Batman bother too much about keeping his identity secret from those who are going to figure it out anyway. The Dark Knight trilogy is certainly a serious and artfully assembled comic book adaptation that has more in common with an epic war movie than it does with Spiderman (in any of its incarnations) or, for that matter, the earlier Batman movies launched by Tim Burton.