About JC

Planetary Scientist and Asst. Professor of Physics at University of Central Florida; Movie Buff; Trekkie; Jethro Tull fanatic; part-time actor, piano player, writer; and full-time husband and father.

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.

To Rome with Love

Woody Allen continues his magical tour of Europe’s great cities with To Rome with Love. As much a love letter to Rome as Midnight in Paris was to the French capital, To Rome with Love is a pastiche of short stories in contrast to Midnight‘s centralized plot. But they are all delightful in their own ways, showcasing various traditional (some might say stereotypical) aspects of Roman (or more likely, Italian) culture while simultaneously allowing Allen to take some shots at contemporary culture.

In one vignette, Roberto Begnini plays a middle-class family man with a daily life defined by routine. One day, without explanation, he is the subject of intense and adoring media scrutiny. The banal events of his existence are breathlessly reported on by TV reporters who hound him from his home to his work and every outing. As his fame grows he becomes a celebrity because he is a celebrity. Begnini is perfect in the role.

Ellen Page plays a self-absorbed actress and seductress who wreaks havoc on the relationship of her best friend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), with Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), in Allen’s latest take on traveling to the past (see, for example, his trip to his childhood home in Annie Hall and, of course, Midnight in Paris). In this story, Alec Baldwin relives his amorous adventures as a young architecture student in Rome.

In another, a young Italian couple from the country is tempted by the thrills of the big city (he by Penelope Cruz, she by an Italian movie star). Allen returns to the screen himself as Jerry, the father of a woman engaged to an idealistic Italian lawyer whose father happens to have an amazing operatic singing voice. Jerry, a retired music producer, overhears the father (an undertaker) singing in the shower and tries to convince him to sing in public. Jerry’s wife, Phyllis (the pitch-perfect Judy Davis), is a psychologist, on hand to explain to the audience Jerry’s need to re-establish his relevance from retirement. (The person he’s trying to use to catapult him back into the music scene is an undertaker, no less. Get it?) That’s not the only pedantic moment in the movie, but they did not detract from it for me. Allen loves dialogue. His characters love to talk about what is going on their lives, and sometimes that means they end up explaining the obvious to us schmucks in the movie theater.

There are plenty of delightful moments in To Rome with Love, and if you like Woody Allen movies, this one, while not a masterpiece, will be a fun time spent with a familiar old friend. (And you might also check out these two videos (here and here) starring my talented daughter.)

Dancing Matt and Me

I organized a scientific workshop in Paris in June 2008 on Saturn’s rings. It was one year after I had moved to the University of Central Florida, and I had seven business trips scheduled that summer as I worked to establish myself in my new position as an Assistant Professor of Physics. The meeting was kind of a big deal for me.

I had a non-stop flight from Orlando to Frankfurt where I had a couple of hours to make my connection to Paris. My practice, at the time, was to take an Ambien sleeping pill on Eastbound trans-Atlantic flights. Ambien is rapidly metabolized, so they would usually get me 3-4 hours of sleep on the flight without leaving me hungover when the plane landed. On this particular flight, however, I woke up after only an hour or two violently sick to my stomach. There’s nothing quite like the realization that you have to be bowing down at the porcelain throne 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean heading away from home. On my second trip to the airplane lavatory I awoke to find myself on the floor of the plane with a pair of concerned flight attendants leaning over me and hypothesizing that I was drunk. My quick rush into the lavatory to puke may not have helped my case that I was sick but sober. After an ambulance ride from the plane to the airport infirmary, the most painful IV insertion I’ve ever had, and a later connecting flight to Paris, I made it to my meeting sporting only a few odd facial cuts from my fall and a perhaps somewhat worse-than-normal case of jetlag.

In my hotel room in Paris, 24 hours after passing out in an Airbus.

It was a rough trip, but the next day the meeting was off and running. That night the local organizers had arranged for a group dinner at a nice restaurant. There, my colleague Mark Showalter told me that I should watch a video on the internet. Not wanting to spoil anything about the experience, he just told me to search for “where the hell is matt” and watch.

Back in my tiny, dark hotel room that night I watched Matt Harding and Melissa Nixon’s wonderful 2008 Dancing video. (All his videos are available on his website.) Like many others, I found myself deeply and inexplicably moved. I am grateful to Mark for not telling me anything about the videos. They should be seen without preconception. If you have somehow not seen any of Matt’s videos, I recommend watching the 2006, 2008, and 2012 videos in that order on his website. His blog (also at that site) and his book about the making of the first two videos, are a great read.

I have downloaded and watched the 2008 and 2012 videos many times, and I know I will watch them many more. The songs for both are excellent. The music is both soulful and exuberant. I am, somehow, ridiculously, reassured about the human race each time I watch them. They make me want to hug someone. My attempts to share the love with others have had less than stellar outcomes. People I’ve shown the videos to, despite my prior admonitions to keep quiet and just enjoy the 5 minutes, nevertheless usually seem only superficially involved. They laugh at some of the funnier clips and comment on some of the more exotic locations, but only rarely do they seem to be affected by the totality of the video. I conclude that my presence is the problem. Not that it’s me in particular. I think any intermediary or third party may be enough to keep inhibitions high enough to prevent the childlike emotional reaction I have to these videos. So if you have not seen them, or even if you have, watch them alone, when you have a few minutes to spare. Individually, each video is a miniature masterpiece. The three together form an internet viral trilogy that not only spans the world, but somehow, in under 15 minutes, tells a more compelling story about human growth and relationships than most of what we see in theaters.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel gets a lot of mileage from the sheer cuteness of its aging English actors. Hot on the heels of the very successful BBC series Downton Abbey, Hotel features two of that series’ stars in roles that share much with their television characters. Maggie Smith plays Muriel, a disdainful and snobbish woman in need of hip replacement surgery, and Penelope Wilton plays Jean, the killjoy wife of a submissive retiree with meager savings. She and her husband Douglas (played delightfully, as always, by Bill Nighy) and Muriel and several other elderly Brits find themselves, for various reasons, traveling to the newly opened eponymous hotel in India. Muriel is compelled to go there by the promise of more rapid surgery while Jean and Douglas simply can’t afford a decent retirement in England. Evelyn (Judi Dench), recently widowed and also under financial strain, makes the trip for adventure’s sake, while Madge has her hopes set on winning the heart of a wealthy widower. Tom Wilkinson plays a solicitor who abruptly quits his practice to go to India on a personal quest that is revealed as the movie unfolds.

There’s a bit of a Fantasy Island vibe as these very different individuals with very different motives are thrown together in a very foreign environment. (Yes, there’s something very “very” about this movie.) It is not giving away much to say that some find what they are looking for and others do not. In spite of the large number of principal characters, the movie does not feel fragmented or episodic because their stories do intertwine with each other. Also linking them is the struggle of the hotel’s young owner, played by Dev Patel, who is struggling to raise the finances to resurrect his father’s abandoned hotel (which is certainly “Exotic,” but not really “Best” in any category) and to manage a romance against his mother’s wishes. It’s a very (there it is again) enjoyable visit with some charmingly funny and well, very British, people.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World begins with the grim news that humanity’s last hope for survival, a mission to intercept a 70-mile-wide asteroid on a collision course with Earth, has failed. The asteroid will hit the Earth in three weeks. Allow me an astronomical aside at this point. An impactor that large, roughly 10 times larger and 1000 times more energetic than the dinosaur-killer of 65 million years ago, would absolutely spell not just the end of civilization but of almost all life on Earth. A global firestorm would do the bulk of the damage, followed by starvation of pretty much everything else. Some tiny creatures would likely survive in some deeply buried or protected habitat. Perhaps worms at the ocean floor and bacteria in the oceans or underground would survive. But we would not. An impactor of that size would have to be a cometary (icy) object from the outer solar system as all asteroids that size have been discovered and none poses any potential threat of impact for the immediate future.

As soon as Dodge (Steve Carrell) and his wife hear this news over their car radio, his wife gives him one horrified look, then turns and dashes from the car and runs away without another glance back. It’s a perfect introduction to what the movie is about. His wife is more terrified of spending her last days with Dodge than she is, it seems, about only having three weeks to live. Not that Dodge is a bad guy. He’s a sweetly ordinary and unambitious insurance salesman who finds himself suddently alone at the brink of extinction. Chance throws him together with his neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), and they head off in search of Dodge’s high school sweetheart. She is not the one that got away, he tells Penny, but “the first one that got away.” Your heart has to go out to the guy.

The backdrop to their road trip is the broad range of reactions to the impending end of the world. The screenplay by Lorene Scafaria (who also directed) does a nice job of showing the full spectrum, from hard-core drug use at parties and orgies, to riots, to the policeman who unwaveringly follows the letter of the law. Assassins offer their services to people who want to die an unpredictable death. Others line up to be baptised in the ocean. A newscaster continues reporting the disintegration of society until the last day.

Penny is impulsive, quirky and emotional. Dodge, unlike his name, is steady. I felt an academic interest in seeing how different people reacted to their situation. The end of the world brings an entirely new level to the question of “what is important” beyond the more familiar terrain of movies about people with terminal illnesses. We all know (or at least have a strong suspicion) that we may one day die, but we expect that life and the human experiment will continue. For me, the hope that I have played some role in furthering that experiment, is a big part of what keeps me going. And chocolate. But if the experiment ends with me, what do I do? I found I did not want to give this hypothetical very much consideration.

Cassini Resumes Observations of Saturn’s Rings

After spending more than a year orbiting Saturn in the planet’s equatorial plane, the Cassini spacecraft has embarked on the “IN-1” series of inclined orbits that will give us excellent views of Saturn’s rings. The observations I analyze are stellar occultations in which we measure the brightness of a star as the rings pass in front of it. Our first IN-1 ring stellar occs are coming up June 28-29. Our occultations in the Cassini Solstice Mission (that runs through the planet’s northern summer solstice) are all unique in some particular geometric or scientific aspect. In some, the path of the star relative to the ring particles will slow to a relative crawl, allowing us to sample the structure of the rings at the scale of individual ring particles (~ 1 meter). We will also be observing Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, jointly with the Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS). It is one of the few stars that both VIMS and the instrument I work with (UVIS) can see since we look at very different wavelengths. This will enable us to confirm small, unusual features that we discover as well as provide information on the population of the smallest particles in the rings. In the meantime, there are excellent images of the rings and the rest of the Saturn system available here, including my famous ultraviolet image of the rings in the Cassini Images Hall of Fame.

Prometheus

Sigh. Prometheus is, at first blush, a fairly standard sci-fi thriller (with superior visual effects) that only seems to disappoint perhaps because of the outsized expectations attached to it. But then the more you think about it, the less it disappoints for not being very scary, and the more it disappoints because it’s filled with a lot of nonsense. Alien and Aliens were gripping, thrilling, scary, and engrossing in large part because they were so simple and focused. They were about escaping with your life. Everyone in the movie wanted to do it, and everyone in the audience was on board. We would do (or at least we hope we would) everything that Ellen Ripley and her shipmates did to kill the monsters and get back home. This makes us emotionally invested in the characters and makes all the camera tricks, scary music, and terrifying alien beasties really, really – well – scary. One thing I learned from Prometheus is that when the heroes in a scary movie do really dumb things I don’t care as much when they get eviscerated. If I had a nickel for every time one scientist told another scientist (quite sensibly) “don’t touch that” in this movie and the guy went ahead and touched it anyway I’d have close to a quarter. Guess what happens when they touch the thing they oh-so-obviously shouldn’t be touching. Sigh.

Okay, so what is really going on in this movie? Well first the stuff that doesn’t require a spoiler alert. A giant bald albino disintegrates himself into a waterfall somewhere, releasing his DNA into a river. Then two young archaeologists in love discover a cave painting of a giant pointing at six dots in the sky and a trillionaire finances a deep-space mission with the young archaeologists on board to go see what’s up on one of those six dots. Their theory, as well as that of the trillionaire who paid for the Prometheus expedition, is that this race of ancient astronauts are the genetic engineers of humans. One character, at least, is as astonished by this claim as I was. He asks Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (the archaeologists) if they have any evidence to support throwing out “two hundred years of Darwinism”. Let’s put aside for the moment that it’s not 200 years of “Darwinism” (which makes the theory of evolution sound like a cult) but rather 3.8 billion years of accumulated detailed forensic evidence showing that all life on Earth is related to each other and is 3.8 billion years old, not 40,000 years old (the posited time that the alien “Engineers” created humans). Putting that aside, Shaw’s answer to this question is even more disturbing. She has no evidence. “It is what I choose to believe,” she says. The last time I checked the only place where belief trumps reality is Fox News.

How does this all fit in with killer aliens? It doesn’t, really. The screenplay by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (who cut his nonsense-writing chops on Lost and wrote the upcoming Star Trek sequel, sigh) makes a connection, but it is forced. In one brief bit of exposition the captain of Prometheus (who, along with almost everyone else on the ship apparently signed up to go on a deep-space mission for many years without having any idea what the mission was) explains why they are being attacked by aliens instead of having deep philosophical discussions with our genetic engineers. It’s an alien movie that has been shoe-horned into a sappy story about human origins that cloaks hokey pseudo-science (Erich Von Däniken, anyone?) with the trappings of science. It’s a poor fit. While there are some nasty-looking aliens and one excellent sequence in which Shaw has to operate on herself, most of the time we’re distracted from being scared by wondering why there are killer aliens on the planet of our creators, why everyone keeps touching the oozing black goo, and why anyone thought it would be a good idea to turn a space monster thriller into whatever it is this is.