by Bill Stamets

Making things work: The Martian, The Walk, Sicario, 99 Homes

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on October 6, 2015

Four new films– “The Martian,” “The Walk,” “Sicario” and “99 Homes”– are factually informed fictions of efficacy. Each one is a tribute to ingenuity in many guises. Characters obey laws of physics on Mars and atop the World Trade Center, and break other laws in Mexico and Orlando.

Four filmmakers impart distinct agendas to plots about making things work. Towards what ends? Getting home to Earth, walking on a wire between the Twin Towers, assassinating a narco-cartel CEO, and profiting from foreclosures to recover a home of one’s own. Apart from the pragmatics of technique and teamwork, the writers and directors are moralizing– more or less intently– in their respective narratives.

“The Martian” is set in an optimistic near future of robust funding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) by Congress. Ares III, the third mission to Mars, goes awry. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind in a blinding dust storm after his malfunctioning sensors transmit no vital signs. “The Martian” details the dire task at hand. “He needs to go home home,” as earthling Elliot (Henry Thomas) explains in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982). To survive, Mark will re-engineer more than a Speak & Spell toy.

Director Ridley Scott (“Prometheus”) directs a science-is-really-cool screenplay that Drew Goddard adapted from a techie novel by Andy Weir titled “The Martian.” The son of particle physicist, Weir says he began his computer science career at age 15 at Sandia National Laboratories in his hometown of Livermore, California. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), located in Livermore, figures in the book and the film. He later wrote code for the real-time strategy game “Warcraft II” and worked as an Android programmer.

Weir begins his novel, originally posted as a online serial in 2012, with Mark writing: “LOG ENTRY: SOL 6. I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked. Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life and it’s turned into a nightmare… So yeah, I’m fucked.” Or, as Val Kilmer’s character turns the phrase upon departing Mars in Antony Hoffman film “Red Planet” (2000): “Fuck this planet!”

“The Martian” splices themes of two films about voyagers imperiled by vehicular collisions. In “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, debris from a decommissioned Russian satellite hits a NASA shuttle in a nearby orbit. In the Indian Ocean a stray shipping container breaches the hull of a yacht in “All Is Lost,” directed by J.C. Chandor. The mechanics of surviving lend urgency to both of these 2013 releases.

As Mark verbifies in “The Martian”: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” Damon also played an intrepid tech improviser in Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” (2013), a sci-fi film set in 2154 about the ultimate in class-based health care. Its costly access is literally orbital– limited to residents of Elysium, a deluxe space station circling Earth. Terminally ill, Damon’s character engineers a life-saving treatment for other doomed commoners.

Earth is “vastly overpopulated” reads an opening title in “Elysium.” That updates the opening voiceover of “Red Planet,” set in 2050, stating “we had begun to overpopulate” our planet in 2000. The fix was to terraform Mars, then move there.

Wernher Von Braun proposed we colonize Mars in an October 24, 1960 speech in Dallas. The former German rocket scientist had joined NASA when the agency was created two years earlier and took over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Man has learned to live and multiply so proficiently that if he keeps it up for another 500 years he won’t have a place to sleep because there’ll be `standing room only’ on this planet,” Braun told the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Under the headline “Colonies on Mars Seen Answer to Birth Boom,” the Associated Press reported: “Dr. Wernher Von Braun said Monday the United States could put a man on Mars and keep him alive longer than a native in the tropics could exist in the Arctic.”

Mars colonization is underway in John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars” (2001), set in 2176, and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s “Doom” (2005), set in 2046. In the latter two films archaeologists inadvertently unleash lethal pushback by indigenous life forms. Visitors from Earth are not attacked, though, in Byron Haskin’s “Robinson Crusoe on Mars” (1964) and Brian De Palma’s “Mission to Mars” (2000).

Mark is the only sign of sentient life on Mars in “The Martian.” His psyche is a cypher to NASA’s director of Mars missions back on Earth. Before making radio contact with the marooned Mark, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) observes: “He’s 50 million miles away from home, he thinks he’s totally alone, he thinks we gave up on him– I mean, what does that do to a man, psychologically? What the hell is he thinking right now?” In one of too many simplistic cuts, the next shot answers. Mark is blasting vintage disco music.

Weir is not into nuance. “The only reason I write is to entertain,” he admits in a Google Talk. “I never have a point. I never have a moral. I never want to do anything other than make the reader go `Cool!’ and that’s it.” In the last scene of “The Martian” Mark is back on Earth briefing fledgling astronauts on what to do when things go wrong on another planet: “You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem. Then you solve the next one. And then the next. If you solve enough problems you get to come home.”

It was not all about engineering when Mark worked on his homecoming. Trained as a botanist, he found a way to grow potatoes on Mars. Besides exchanging emails with NASA and JPL, he got one from the president of the United States. “The coolest one. Coolest, though. The coolest one I got was from University of Chicago, my alma mater,” he shares. “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So technically, I colonized Mars.”

Mark figures he must be the first Martian. And in a further flight of theorizing– with nothing to do with orbital dynamics– he decides under international law he’s a pirate to boot.

“The Walk” salutes a trespasser. The lengthy tagline for the film is: “Twelve people have walked on the moon. Only one has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers.” That one risk-taker receives an affirming paean fixated on his methodical planning to lessen the odds of gravity putting him in an early grave.

With civic sentiment on his sleeve, Robert Zemeckis directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Christopher Browne based on “To Reach the Clouds,” the 2002 book by Philippe Petit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays this French-born wire-walking artiste who put on an illegal show 110 stories above lower Manhattan on August 7, 1974.

Philippe regularly addresses the camera for garrulous and self-congratulatory exposition, in contrast to Mark voices his log entries with sarcastic self-deprecation in “The Martian.” A charming trickster, Philippe is more introspective, make that narcissistic, than Mark and his skills are more screen-friendly. I cringed at the sight of his footwork during his playful walks between the Twin Towers, even though Alan Silvestri’s uplifting score dispenses with anticipated notes of suspense.

The press notes bill “The Walk” as “A love letter to the World Trade Center.” (So call “The Martian” a valentine by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.) Philippe’s feat may feel like a Paris-accented segment from the old ABC show “Wide World of Sports” show, but Zemeckis packages his parting message with patriotic tropes familiar from his allegorical one-man saga “Forrest Gump” (1994).

“The Walk” renders the World Trade Center as monuments by indirectly referring to their ruins. The death of the Twin Towers is implied by valorizing the date of  August 7, 1974 as their birth in the eyes of New Yorkers. Last reel shots of uniformed NYPD and FDNY responders to Philippe’s stunt evoke their comrades at that same address on September 11, 2001.

Philippe imagines he’s transformed the Twin Towers: “They’re different.” His girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) wonders, “So did you bring them to life?” One local boasts: “Now every New Yorker I talk to now says they love these towers.” Philippe changes his citizenship. “I was proud to become a New Yorker,” he narrates. He also cherishes his special visitor’s pass to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. Its expiration date is filled in as “Forever.”

Zemeckis closing shot embraces a sun-burnished World Trade Center, circa 1974, with a slow fade to black. Martin Scorsese’s coda to “Gangs of New York” (2002) likewise frames the World Trade Center in an elegiac light. The takeaway line from “The Walk”: “Look at that. We did it. We showed the world that anything’s possible.” Not only can someone do what Philippe did on a wire, but others can do what al-Qaeda did with two Boeing 767s.

“Sicario” takes on the post-9/11 targeting of so-called narco-terrorists by the United States. Covert operators play a tough and dirty game of offense against drug cartels in northern Mexico. Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners” and “Incendies”) directs an incisive, screenplay by Taylor Sheridan for a unsettling procedural. Cinematographer Roger Deakins indelibly surveils the unforgiving borderlands infiltrated by traffickers of drugs and migrants. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson suffuses the vexed terrain with an ominous thrum. Adrenaline-driven scoring cues kinetic action sequences.

The film’s title predates by many centuries the creation of the Office of Homeland Security on September 20, 2001 and the Homeland Security Council that convened five weeks later. Scholars of antiquity variously identify the Sicarii as first-century Jewish dagger-men (from the Latin sica for small dagger) as we’ll as assassins, insurrectionists or terrorists. In the 1980’s Colombian cartels deployed hit men called sicarios (paid assassins).

“Is Narco-Violence in Mexico Terrorism?” ask anthropologists Howard Campbell and Tobin Hansen in the Bulletin of Latin American Research. Defining “narco-violence” as “intra-cartel, inter-cartel, cartel vs. government” violence, the co-authors weigh their wording: “Yet, if narco traffickers were labelled ‘terrorists’ then militaristic counter-terrorist measures might become more politically acceptable to the general public.” If “Sicario” has any agenda, it is precisely to complicate that issue.

I recall hearing “terrorist” and “Homeland Security” maybe once or twice in “Sicario” but the dialogue includes no serious or sustained points using either expression. Nor does Sheridan’s screenplay draw on items like this one posted at in 2013: “Mexican cartels hiring US soldiers as hit men.” Five years earlier one cartel reportedly put up a banner (a narcomantas) over a Mexican thoroughfare that read: “Members and Ex-members of the Military, Los Zetas Wants You. We offer good wages, food, and benefits for your family. …We pay in dollars. We offer benefits, life insurance, and a house for your family and children. Quit living in the poor neighborhood and riding buses. You choose, the latest model car or pickup truck. What more do you want?” (Original in Spanish.) Militarization has reached the point where narcotanques is a new coinage for heavily armored “narco-tanks” that travel openly on Mexican highways in cartel convoys.

For a Mexican point-of-view on cartel violence, two realist dramas portray local victims: “Miss Bala” (2011) by Gerardo Naranjo, and “Heli” (2013) by Amat Escalante. “Sicario” contains a side storyline about a cop in northern Mexico. The film’s ending at his son’s soccer game– with a timeout for the nearby sirens and automatic weapons fire–  is a compelling, if dispiriting, masterstroke by Villeneuve. The players and bystanders soon turn their attention back to the game.

Villeneuve affords his viewers the perspective of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, “Edge of Tomorrow”). She is an FBI agent leading a kidnap-response-team. The opening scene takes her to a suburban Arizona house where tortured and executed corpses wrapped in plastic are hidden inside the walls. After a northern Mexican cartel is implicated, Kate’s supervisor introduces her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “No Country For Old Men”). He has indefinite ties to the Department of Defense and is accompanied by a Colombian “consultant” named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, “Traffic”). Bearded commandos just back from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan will join Matt’s operation, a less than transparent task force with sketchy oversight.

Kate is brought onboard for the sake of inter-agency protocol. Her presence somehow ensures a mission that will end at the mansion of Sonoran drug lord will go “by the book.” All she is supposed to do is sign a paper saying so when it’s over. Until then, it’s her duty to watch. And so that’s what we do too.

One night at a U.S. military base right by the border, a soldier asks Kate: “Want to see something?” He takes her to the roof and points south. Is it fireworks or a firefight?

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” Alejandro advises Kate. During the questioning of detained Mexicans, she cannot figure out the objective: “What are we looking for?” Matt simply instructs: “Just keep watching.” Later she’s told: “Learn, that’s why you’re here.” Like a shrewd screenwriter, Matt maneuvers the diegesis. What Kate– and Villeneuve’s viewers– need to know comes by a slow reveal, knowledge allocated for a controlled panic.

Kate’s eyes and ears take in more than she can  square with her training. Alejandro and Matt lead her deep into compromising muck of tactics. They prove to be highly effective in taking down a cartel CEO notorious for such atrocities as dropping a prosecutor’s daughter in a vat of acid.

“Sicario” has no Socratic dialogue about the war on drugs. Villeneuve and Sheridan are hardly running a seminar here to sort out ideas of a just war, the just use of force, and force short of war.  Nonetheless, their mise-en-scene articulates the fog of this awful war. High stakes call for extra-legal measures, implies “Sicario.” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) posed a similar rationale for assassinating Osama bin Laden in the war on terror.

Alejandro’s parting tip to Kate, more vulnerable than ever to a sicario aiming at her: “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists.”

“99 Homes” maps inter-locking interests in Orlando, Florida where bankers, judges, sheriffs, county commissioners, real estate agents and eviction crews oversee the misery of one-time homeowners downscaled into debt refugees. Director and editor Ramin Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi offer a drama of discovery founded on wide-ranging research. “I’m going to figure it out,” states their protagonist at the start of his learning curve.

As in “Sicario, “99 Homes” shows an exemplar of efficacy schooling another character and the audience in the workings of the world. Here a loaded vocabulary of “predatory lending” and “toxic credit” replaces terms prefixed with “narco” in “Sicario.”

Rick Carver (Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”) of Rick Carver Real Estate evicts Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, “The Amazing Spider Man”) then hires this young carpenter and single dad to evict others. At a Chicago screening, Shannon said Garfield met a man in Florida who did that. Then he had to evict his best friend, who later forgave him after finding work on an eviction crew himself.

Driving though a residential area, Rick asks, “What do you see out there?” Dennis replies, “I see homes.” Rick sees more: “I just saw nine opportunities to make money in the last five blocks. There were three properties without mailboxes. One with an overgrown lawn and no car in the drive. Two with white signs taped to the windows. And three with shiny new floor knobs and lock boxes. If you can get attuned to seeing those kinds of opportunities, then maybe you can up get off your hands and knees and really start working for me.”

Heading to the posh home of hedge fund manager with a foreclosed mortgage, Rick advises Dennis: “Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and maybe you’ll learn something this time.” Dennis indeed learns, and it makes him ill. Like Kate in “Sicario,” he cannot reconcile ethics and efficacy.

“99 Homes” and “Sicario” critique intricacies of political economy, whereas Newtonian logistics underwrite the plots of “The Martian” and “The Walk.” Consumers play a role: “99 Homes” faults self-deluded homeowners with unreasonable goals and “Sicario” blames cocaine users.

The screenplay by Bahrani and Naderi is less blunt than “Kill Bankers”– the message a foreclosed Floridian spray painted on his living room wall. Less loquacious than Philippe in “The Walk,” Rick spells out his life philosophy with allusions to the deluge, bilge pumps and drowning-in-debt. After asking Dennis if he goes to church, Rick declares: “Only 1 in a 100 is going to get on that ark, son. And every other poor soul is going to drown. I’m not going to drown.” He lectures to his conflicted employee: “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners.”

Bahrani’s drama “At Any Price” (2012) observed an Iowa farm family in crisis. “During the six months I spent with farmers in the American Midwest,” he related in his press notes, he kept hearing a “mantra” among farmers pressured by agribusiness: “Expand or die.” That capitalist imperative fits a Sonoran drug cartel and Rick Carver Real Estate too.

Bahrani ends “99 Homes” with Dennis undermining a key deal for Rick by admitting to fraudulently filing a backdated document for him at the Orlando court house. He knows enough how things work to make the right thing happen. In her last scene in “Sicario” Kate likewise plans to make a break. “I want to tell everyone what you did,” she tells Alejandro. “That would be a major mistake,” counters this quite efficacious sicario. Villeneuve takes that chance and tells us.

American Ultra: a covert CIA workplace comedy with a body count

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 20, 2015

American Ultra

directed by Nima Nourizadeh
written by Max Landis
acted by Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace


“American Ultra”– there’s no tie-in with American Spirit smokes– co-stars Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland,” “Zombieland”) and Kristen Stewart (“Adventureland,” “Twilight”) as Mike and Phoebe, a marijuana-inhaling, flannel-wearing pair on the verge of engaging if his panic attacks permit. Many will die in this “action comedy” before uncovering the prior careers of this stoner couple.

Screenwriter Max Landis– writer-director of “Me Him Her” and co-writer of “Chronicle”– structures a two-tier plot about Human Resources in the Central Intelligence Agency. In the sterile halls of Langley, Virginia two suits piss on each other’s turf. Victoria (Connie Britton) and Adrian (Topher Grace) run two secret Ultra experiments, something likely inspired by a stoner’s wacked reading of the Wikipedia entry about the CIA’s legendary MK Ultra program.

The Wise Man project is called Victoria’s $400 million “stillborn baby” surviving in the person of “a crazy scary rabbit puppy” who Adrian wants to “put down” by deploying programmed psychopath subjects from the competing Tough Guy program. She calls these screwed-up sleeper operatives “American citizens.” He insists these “assets” are “government property.” Termination protocol is lethally literal in this federal sector.

Out in sylvan Liman, West Virginia (as lensed in Louisiana) under-employed low-achievers Mike and Phoebe work at the Cash N Carry convenience store and a bail bonds office, respectively. He scribbles panels for his superhero Apollo Ape graphic novel. She is busy as his all-around enabler.

Victoria comes incognito to Mike’s counter and recites a coded message: “Chariot Progressive. Mandelbrot Set Is In Motion. Echo Briar Has Been Breached. We Are Fielding The Ball.” He is truly clueless. She leaves. Later that night he confronts two shadowy characters attaching something with a blinking red light in the wheel well of his beater in the parking lot. Cue extreme close-ups to Mike’s eye and a torrent of images racing over his mind’s eye.

“I hit him with a spoon and his lungs exploded,” a stunned Mike relates afterwards to Phoebe. He also turned their guns against them. It’s just the first of the bloody fatalities that Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) directs with adolescent glee.

We see Mike drawing his super-ape adventures in a notebook. End credit sequences expand his visuals into full-screen animation. Cartoonish certainly describes how Landis scripts implausible intra-agency protocol at the CIA. Yet, other passages are touching, even sort of smart. One night in a cloud of dope smoke, Mike and Phoebe watch an emergency crew down the road handle the aftermath of an accident. A car hit a tree.

Between tokes, Mike shares his revery about the tree that has always been there on the side of the road doing nothing but being in a state of “stopping” and a car that it stops that has always been “moving” since rolling off the assembly line. He sees the tree is “destroying this beautiful, like really beautiful and fast-moving thing.” The car. It’s symbolic. “I think I’m that tree and I think you’re the car and I think I’m stopping you.” Tearfully he asks Phoebe: “Am I that tree?” Later she realizes she may have been the tree stopping his car in life.

“What if I’m, like, a robot?” wonders Mike, when his unconscious super-killer skill set is rebooted by Victoria, just in time to save his life and his girlfriend’s. I admit it sounds like he’s channeling cannabis again, but these dithering lines of self-doubt are almost semi-deep. Here Landis reminds me of the paranoid impasse for Truman (Jim Carrey) in “The Truman Show” (1998). Both characters are stuck in small towns thanks to embedded phobias that make leaving there unthinkable.

“American Ultra” is a wacked-out take on the trope of government-trained killers with ultra covert identities. Far more fun than “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “Telefon” (1978), this workplace comedy gets silly in its CIA plotting but is a fine pretext for a hit of multiplex A/C this August.

Stylish spy trio thwarts Nazi nuke sale in sixties NBC spinoff

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 19, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

directed by Guy Ritchie
written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram
based on the television series by Sam Rolfe
acted by Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
presented and distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures


Three cool spies ply their trade during the Cold War of 1963. For the big screen, Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels”) packages a cheeky backgrounder on the “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” vintage television series.

That 105-episode NBC series started its three-and a-half year run in 1964. Tonal shifts ensued across five producers and five time slots. Prompted by the popular James Bond films, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” belonged to a broadcast fad. American networks booked eight different programs on the 1965-1966 season. Its co-stars were celebs: Robert Vaughn was a guest speaker at Notre Dame, where he forecast our Vietnam policy triggering World War III; and David McCallum did a guest gig NBC’s rock dance show “Hullabaloo.”

In his hyphenate roles as the director– and a writer and a producer– Ritchie never spells out the acronym in the original title. In the last two seconds of his film he introduces “Uncle” (without the five abbreviating periods) as a code word. Spoiler alert: a sequel is conceivable. As for “The Man” in the title: there are in fact two men and one woman in play, as in Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. “I’m drawn to that male-to-male dynamic as kind of a genre unto itself,” he reveals in his press notes.

Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, “Man of Steel,” “Immortals”) is a CIA agent. Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, “The Lone Ranger,” “The Social Network”) is a KGB agent. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” opens with the pair meeting cute to extract Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander, “Ex Machina,” “Testament of Youth”), who appears to be an auto mechanic in East Berlin.

Napoleon and Illya soon learn their respective governments are now secretly collaborating in order to keep a nuclear warhead out of the clutches of ex-Nazis. Gaby’s long-lost father– “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist,” according to his dossier– is aiding the Vinciguerra Shipping and Aerospace Company in Rome. Gaby is key to getting to him.

Most of the action is set in the deluxe estate and high tech lair of the Vinciguerra family empire. Their name may derive from Vincenzo Vinciguerra, the Italian neo-fascist terrorist from the National Vanguard and New Order who was convicted for a 1972 car bombing with C4 linked to a NATO munitions cache. Or maybe not. More legible are the sly riffs on James Bond’s savor faire. Vocals by Nina Simone, Louis Prima and Roberta Flack are well chosen.

There’s much to like in the wry patter, hip decor, swinging couture, retro tunes and twisty schemes in this forgettably light summer fare. The plot is hardly serious about the computer disk with secrets for enriching uranium to win the arms race or install a new reich, but Ritchie offers flirty outwitting by three attractive agents in killer outfits.

Fantastic Four: something green in fourth dimension empowers twentysomethings with new career options

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 9, 2015

Fantastic Four
directed by Josh Trank
written by Josh Trank, Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater 
based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
acted by Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Michael B. Jordan, Reg E. Cathey, Toby Kebbell
distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


After accidental exposure to something green in the so-called fourth dimension, four twentysomethings are freakishly empowered with new career options in “Fantastic Four.”

This vintage Marvel Comic gets a screen adaptation that’s less cartoonish and self-conscious than others in Marvel’s busy franchise. No doubt by contract, director Josh Trank insinuates the obligatory sneer at the scientific-corporate-military nexus.

The adolescent-at-any-age demographic for this product may not expect its 31-year-old director to opt for a straightforward tone. Trank deliberately decelerates after the kinetic opening logo that trademarks every Marvel screen property. A truly stunning, if fleeting, special effect will come later when CGI action peaks at an inter-dimensional vortex.

Trank and co-screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater create an origin story for characters originated by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961: Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, Human Torch and the Thing. After vanquishing an evildoer who nearly did in Earth, Trank’s foursome is introduced to a secret government research center on a mountain. It’s nameless and off-the books. Their military escort tells his new employers: “Call it whatever you want.” Naming the facility after their late mentor Franklin Storm is considered.

In the film’s last minute, the four will decide on a name for themselves. Rejected are The Human Torch & the Torchettes, The Big Brain & His Neurons, and The Big Brain & Her Neurons. Two Guys, a Girl & the Thing that Nobody Wanted is a no-go. At last, the alliterative two-word title of the film you just watched appears on screen and the credits roll.

Trank’s 2012 film “Chronicle” adopted a handheld docu-diary format to observe three Seattle high school seniors getting super-powers– plus ethical problems about using them. Jung, Plato and Schopenhauer get name dropped. As in the different versions of “Fantastic Four,” that trio’s freak powers are acquired by chance. What leads the Marvel characters to their transformative exposures differs.

In the original Cold War-era comic book Susan Storm– who morphs into Invisible Girl– urges pilot Ben Grimm– the Thing-to-be– to launch their untested spaceship at once, “unless we want the Commies to beat us!” After getting dosed with cosmic radiation, Ben the Thing philosophizes: “We’ve gotta use that power to help mankind, right?”

The Fantastic characters were not only competing with Sputnik satellite launches by the Soviets in 1957, Marvel was catching up with DC Comics that convened seven of its superheroes into the Justice League of America comic book in 1960.

In the inferior 2005 film directed by Tim Story– titled “Fantastic Four” too– the same characters (different cast) board a corporately owned & operated spaceship for a risky flight into the path of “a high energy cosmic storm.” “Exposure” like that “might have triggered the evolution of early planetary life,” theorized Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd).

The proposed payoff: “fundamentally advanc[ing] our knowledge of the human genome. Cure countless diseases, extend human life, give kids a chance to live longer, stronger, healthier…” The downside due to bad shielding: an outer space dosing of all four, plus one who turned into an antagonist aiming to annihilate Earth.

In the 2015 “re-imagining,” per industry parlance, Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, “House of Cards,” “The Wire”) extols an “inter-dimensional” expedition towards “a whole new world which can help save this world… We’ll be able to discover new resources, energy resources which will revitalize our own. This is our chance to learn more about our planet and maybe even save it.”

Lines like that bring to mind “Tomorrowland,” a film directed by Brad Bird and released by Disney in May. Saving our future is the same agenda in this dimension-leaping adventure. Both films show a serious regard for science fairs as springboards for world-changing geniuses. Both plots pair a scientist and a bright girl who notice an inventive boy at a competition in the state of New York. Despite his design for a flying machine flopping, the visitors recruit him as researcher with a future in inter-dimensionality.

The 2015 iteration of “Fantastic Four” introduces fifth-grader Reed (Owen Judge) telling his classmates his goal when he grows up is to be the first human ever teleported. His teacher chides him for failing the assignment: “pick a real career in the real world.” Reed has already built a prototype in his Long Island garage.

Four years later Reed, now played by Miles Teller (“Insurgent,” “Divergent”) attempts to demonstrate his Cymatic Matter Shuttle at the high school science fair. That’s when he encounters Dr. Franklin Storm, dean of the Baxter Institute in Manhattan, and Sue Storm (Kate Mara, “House of Cards,” “Transcendence”). She is Storm’s adopted daughter from Kosovo. And incredibly acute at “pattern recognition.” Marvel marries Reed and Sue in a 1965 comic book. They also exchange vows in the 2007 film “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” directed by Tim Story again.

Joining the quantum gate crew are Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) who used to help him sneak tech from the Grimm family junkyard; and Franklin Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, “Fruitvale Station,” “Chronicle”), an ace mechanic and dauntless street auto racer.

A fifth member of the team is Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a bitter anti-authoritarian techie from Latveria (capital is Doomstadt, according to Marvel Comics lore) who earns the derisive nicknames “Adolph” and “Borat.” A few years ago he exiled himself from the Baxter Institute after burning its data servers, yet his mentor Franklin coaxes him back. After all, he was the first to conceive, if not construct, a teleporter. Last year in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Kebbell played the treasonous lieutenant ape to Caesar, the alpha primate of Muir Woods.

Before sending up astronauts, NASA performed sub-orbital and orbital trial launches with chimps in 1961. A test run in “Fantastic Four” teleports a chimp to some other dimension, aka, “the other dimension.” There is only one other one, it seems. The teleporter craft’s camera brings back video images of an uninhabited planet at undetermined coordinates in the known universe.

Reed, Ben, Sue, Johnny and Victor suit up for an unauthorized trip before the proverbial suits from NASA grab their experimental gizmo. On the nameless other-dimensional orb a living neural energy pulses underfoot. Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny make it back to the Baxter lab– but only after out-running green fissures in the unstable surface. Victor, however, gets stranded there until rescued by a later expedition.

The returning four are fantastically transformed. “They’re not powers,” Sue scolds her stepbrother Johnny, who thinks it’s way cool to fly on fire. “They’re aggressively abnormal physical conditions.” Besides turning invisible, Sue can project force fields. “Neuropathically,” it’s explained. Reed can elongate his limbs like rubbery taffy. (The 2015 film omits a smirking inquiry about elongating his penis in the 2005 dialogue.) And Ben is a rock-clad behemoth dispatched on covert military operations.

“All these abilities come from one place, another dimension that our scientists have taken to calling Planet Zero– a planet infused with the same energy that transformed these survivors and potentially could transform our military capabilities,” states Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson, “The Incredible Hulk,” “Minority Report”). As chairman of the board of the Baxter Institute, he goes over the head of dean Storm. Allen assures the money and military interests: “We’ll have control of more than that world, we’ll have control over ours.”

As in “Avatar” (2009) and “Jupiter Ascending” (2015), the plot of “Fantastic Four” is all about exploiting resources elsewhere. To quote their respective press notes, the earthlings in James Cameron’s “Avatar” aim to plunder “Pandora, where a corporate consortium is mining a rare mineral that is the key to solving Earth’s energy crisis,” while the Wachowskis imagine “a universe in which the Earth is just one small piece of the vast machinery of galactic commerce—a prize, about to be seized and stripped of its most precious resource: humanity.”

All three films supply cautionary fables. Their plots take sides against the exploiters. But “Fantastic Four” at least entertains some dissonance. Victor distrusts the government to operate the quantum gate, cynically cracking: “We could send our political prisoners there. Waterboarding in the 4th dimension could prove very effective.”

Franklin Storm foresees a science-for-science’s-sake bonus– “That place could explain the origin of our species. The evolution of our planet.”– like the impetus for the trillion-dollar corporate spaceship christened “Prometheus” in the 2012 film “Prometheus” directed by Ridley Scott. Scott did not title his work after either of the characters named Prometheus introduced in 1968 by Marvel Comics or by DC Comics in 1986.

When Storm tries selling his inter-dimensional travelers as saviors of our world, Victor pushes back: “Not that it deserves to be saved. I mean think about it. People running the world are the same ones running into the ground so maybe it deserves what it’s got coming to it.”

A naysayer turned uber-nemesis, Victor ultimately identifies the fourth dimension as his new homeland: “It’s not enough to ruin your world. Now you want to ruin mine.” He takes on the Fantastic Four and opens a black hole for dispatching Earth “into the other dimension.”

“Humanity had its chance,” decrees the doomed one. The space-time continuum will not let him get away with it, though. Sequels transcend all quanta in perpetuity, throughout the universe, in any and all media now known or hereafter devised.

Dark Places: “our blood” and “a useful life” in true-like crime

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 9, 2015

Dark Places
written and directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner
acted by Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Corey Stoll, Christina Hendricks, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tye Sheridan
distributed by A24 and DirecTV


Charlize Theron (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Prometheus,” “Monster”) powers through another role as a damaged combatant. In “Dark Places” she plays Libby Day wrestling with a 28-year legacy of lies. She is dragged into digging up ugly truths about the murders of her mother and two sisters in their Kansas farm house.

Back in 1985 Libby testified that her older brother Ben did it, and he’s been in prison ever since. Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life,” “Joe,” “Mud”) plays Ben as a 16-year-old with Satanic metal band posters in his bedroom, and Corey Stoll (“Ant-Man,” “House of Cards”) plays middle-aged Ben as a prisoner with Shakespeare tattoos on his forearms.

Like “Gone Girl,” “Dark Places” is adapted from a novel by Chicago author Gillian Flynn, a one-time TV critic for Entertainment Weekly. Although I cannot compare novels I have not read, I can say “Dark Places” is almost as good as “Gone Girl.”

“I was eight the night they were killed,” narrates Libby, who was seven in the novel. “And suddenly I was famous. The little orphan girl of the Kansas Prairie Massacre. So strangers sent me money just enough for me to do nothing. Which is exactly what I did.” She neither wrote nor ever read “A Brand New Day,” a book about her trauma that no longer earns her royalties.

The film opens with Kill Club– a Kansas City gathering of true crime buffs– inviting Libby to make a paid appearance. Her contact there is the treasurer. He’s a local laundromat owner played by Nicholas Hoult (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Warm Bodies”). “Lyle Wirth looked like a serial killer, which probably meant he wasn’t one,” narrates Libby.

French writer-director Gilles Paquet-Brenner retraces themes found in “Sarah’s Key,” his historical mystery melodrama from 2011. Kristen Scott Thomas plays a journalist investigating a 1942 incident during the police round-up of Jews in Paris. Ten-year-old Sarah hides her little brother in a closet. He dies before she can escape a detention camp and unlock the closet. In “Dark Places” a more charged bond between a sister and a brother is uncovered decades after a tragedy.

Redundancy is a drawback in Paquet-Brenner’s screen adaptation. Perhaps Flynn’s prose is to blame. On the trail of her no-count drunk dad, Libby learns from the manager of a men’s shelter: “I’d bet anything he’s living at that toxic waste site, that’s an old dumping spot for grasshopper bait, loaded with arsenic.” Right afterwards, Libby narrates: “I wondered what it said about me, that my own father was living in a toxic waste dump.”

If the narrative is overly framed, the editing of diverse timelines puts each revelation into a sequence without off-the-shelf suspense. Thankfully, there’s no countdown over the three weeks before the Day case evidence is tossed due to budget cuts. But why does Libby need to tell others they have no idea what happened that night in 1985 and then not tell them what did? Her own father uses that line too.

Visually and tonally “Dark Places” is not too dark, but using different film styles for different perspectives on the past is unoriginal, especially for the first-person killer. A costuming faux pas is outfitting Theron with a dark green baseball cap that makes her look like a celeb hiding her fabulous face from the paparazzi. When she takes it off for a closing scene of trite closure, it’s just another overdone touch.

“Dark Places” works in the true crime genre on more than one level. Although the triple homicide, the conviction that was never appealed, a survivor’s book, and a club of crime-solvers are all made up, Paquet-Brenner’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel make compelling use of truly dark news from the 1980’s: foreclosed farms, serial killers, child molester charges, and teen satanists. The Day family deals with “the Day blood,” “our blood,” “my blood”– and how to make “a useful life” out of too many lies and too little money.

The Gift: a past gives back, badly

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on August 8, 2015

The Gift

written and directed by acted by Joel Edgerton
acted by Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
distributed by STX Entertainment

Shopping for stuff for their new California house, a childless Chicago couple run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton). He knows a lot about Simon (Jason Bateman, “Horrible Bosses 2,” “Horrible Bosses”). Back at Fairmont Park High School Gordo’s nickname was Weirdo, Simon tells his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall, ”Transcendence”). She will learn an awful lot more about her husband and his classmate, and it’s awful. Horrible.

That’s the set-up with no spoilers of “The Gift,” a psychological thriller written by Joel Edgerton, “a long-time fan of intelligent genre films,” say his press notes. Making his directing debut, Edgerton stands out playing Gordo as passive and insistent, apologetic and aggressive, overly kind and underlyingly creepy. In “Exodus: Gods and Kings” Edgerton’s Ramses was far more imposing.

“The Gift” accessorizes the “mid-century modern home,” as the realtor calls it, with two horror-style jolts in the first act, which makes sense when you notice that a co-producer is Jason Blum from “Paranormal Activity.”

Gordo drops clues like “an eye for an eye, I say” and “the bad things, they can be a gift.” Later he will teach Simon: “You’re dealing with the past but the past is not done with you.”

Simon is angling for a promotion as a national division sales rep at his security company. A dirty trickster since he was a teenager, he continues to practice his “winners and losers” tactics at the corporate level.

Robyn had a miscarriage and maybe a breakdown back in Chicago. Her longtime yearning for a baby resides in a psyche now unsettled by Gordo’s unwelcome entry into the couple’s life. By the time a baby comes, Gordo is indelibly implicated in their lives going off the rails.

In “The Gift” Joel Edgerton leads a wife on a tense trail with step-by-step disclosures of one scary fact after another about her husband and his high school classmate with gifts to give. People who treat people badly might feel bad later. Where bad people come from and the bad that comes later. The 2013 film “Honeymoon” by Czech director Jan Hrebejk got this right too.

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Cartel Land: civilian outliers versus outlaw capitalists

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 22, 2015

Cartel Land
directed, co-produced, co-shot, co-edited by Matthew Heineman
scored by H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg
presented by A&E IndieFilms
distributed by Orchard Films


Like a sequel to his January 19, 2001 prison break from Puente Grande, the July 11, 2015 escape of Joaquin Guzman Loera (aka, “El Chapo”) from Centro Federal de Readaptación Social Número 1 upped his props as a Mexico’s primo narco folk hero.

“[I]t’s totally bad ass,” says Mario Alfonso Valenzuela, mayor of El Chapo’s hometown of Badiraguato. Reuters also quotes a 15-year-old local marijuana planter: “The honest truth is, when I found out about it, I got drunk for three days, and I tell you I cried, I’m not ashamed to say it.”

Jose Mireles (aka, “El Doctor”) and Tim “Nailer” Foley are deemed heroic too. For opposing Mexican cartels. In his cogent documentary “Cartel Land” Matthew Heineman depicts two vigilantes, a thousand miles apart, with a common enemy.

Charismatic leaders of heavily armed civilians, Foley and Mireles started, respectively, Arizona Border Recon and Grupo de Autodefensas in Michoacán. Heineman– who captained soccer and lacrosse teams at his Connecticut prep school– readily admits to interviewers that he’s never covered a war, but that’s certainly how his subjects see their struggle against traffickers in drugs and illegal immigrants.

Heineman devoted a year to observing Foley and Mireles. He and his co-editors deftly alternate between five Foley segments and four longer Mireles segments. “Cartel Land” begins and ends with night scenes of meth cookers wearing bandanas and carrying guns.

“What can I say?” the leader of the crew asks Heineman in the film’s opening. “We know we do harm with all the drugs that go there [U.S.] But what are we going to do? We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we would be like you. Traveling the world or doing clean jobs like you guys.”

Foley, a vet and laid off construction worker, patrols the U.S. border in the unforgiving Altar Valley with a handful of volunteers in paramilitary paraphernalia. Treks to find scouts for cartel traffickers in hilltop lairs are largely futile. In one scene they accost a few Mexicans and radio the U.S. Border Patrol to take custody. At the start of their single-file march, Foley orders one of his men to “Drop him” if a cartel suspect “tries anything.”

Mireles’ followers number in the hundreds. They treat their countrymen with extra-legal harshness. One night an Autodefensas roadblock nets a man with incriminating cartel tattoos. Mireles orders one of his men: “Get everything you can out of him and put him into the ground. Immediately.” A later scene at a base of operations shows his interrogators bloodying detainees. Screams from more brutal unseen sessions echo off the bare concrete walls.

“There’s people all around the world trying to make a difference,” declares Foley, as we see him raise a flag. “They’re all just like me… They’re tired of nobody doing anything so they take the law into their own hands.” In another scene, his girlfriend shows him news about Mireles on her laptop. “I hope they kick some ass down there,” urges Foley. “That’s the way it should be done up here too.”

“It’s the cartels,” explains Foley. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country and now they’re starting to do it over here.” Elsewhere in the film Mireles tells Heineman that Mexicans cannot depend on the authorities: “There is no government. The government is often working with the criminals.” The filmmaker never indicates if Mireles knows about Arizona Border Recon, a much smaller group than his.

Heineman says he started making “Cartel Land” after reading Damon Tabor’s article “Border Of Madness: Crossing The Line With Arizona’s Anti-Immigration Vigilantes.” Heineman notes in his end credits that “Arizona storyline inspired by” that reportage in the December 20, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone. Tabor encountered a gamut of vigilantes. Foley’s group is the least extreme. Among the details not making it into “Cartel Land”: Foley mixed the ashes of his late dog Budwerd into the black ink for tattooing his likeness on his back.

Two other “story consultants” besides Tabor appear are credited. Ever since premiering his documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Heineman has emphasized his priority is storytelling– “without outside experts or text cards,” as his Director’s Statement underscores.

In 2007 filmmaker Jonathan Demme told the New York Times that “in fiction you are trying to make it seem as real as possible, and in documentary you are seeking to make it as dramatic as possible.” Westerns are a natural genre for framing the drama of “Cartel Land.” Foley and Mireles happen to be ruggedly handsome figures in frontier sagas on both sides of the border.

“This is what I consider to be the wild wild west,” relates Foley. “They have more guns. They have more people. It’s kind of like a David and Goliath story out here. We’re David and they’re Goliath.”

Mireles is a bigger media celebrity than Foley. Mexico’s press initially valorized the vigilante. Apart from internal discord in Autodefensas, his wife has her own grounds for doubting his image: “Jose Manuel Mireles is not who we all think he is. He has the same power to convince people that all the best movie characters have.” She leaves him for his infidelity.

“I became even more motivated, almost obsessed, as the lines between good and evil became ever more blurred,” writes Heineman in his A&E IndieFilms press kit. “It is this moral ambiguity that intrigues me.” Extra-legal, not extra-marital, activities ultimately compromise the image of Mireles.

“We can’t become the criminals we’re fighting against,” Mireles instructs his second in command, known as Papa Smurf. Farflung self-defense groups he organizes in the region lack discipline. Over time some members turn to thuggery and theft. Cartel infiltrators and collaborators join. For bad irony, cartel-like criminal activity occurs in Autodefensas, especially after the Mexican government co-opts the movement.

As popular trust erodes, Papa Smurf implores townsfolk: “We’ve given you security, we’ve given you peace. We’re not the bad guys.” A man in the crowd retorts: “We can’t believe in criminals… If we don’t believe in the institutions of the state, we are finished as citizens!”

Arizona Border Recon, by contrast, comes off as straightforward. “There’s an an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, good and evil,” says Foley. “I believe what I’m doing is good and I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.” Adding no nuance, Heineman reiterates this simple dichotomy with a second Foley soundbite: “I believe what I’m doing is good. And I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.” There is no blur on Foley’s side of the border.

“The more time I spent down there, the more complex the story became,” discloses Heineman. Yet he superficially treats the contradictions he uncovers in the Mireles narrative. A 2012 documentary Heineman made with Susan Froemke– “Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Healthcare”– grappled with complexity. They skillfully crafted a persuasive critique of interlocking crises in the U.S. medical policy and practices. (Fromke is one of the story consultants for “Cartel Land.”)

“I have faith in an audience being able to interpret complex material,” Heineman told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

“It’s just a never-ending story,” offers a meth cooker wearing his government-issued Rural Defense Force uniform. “This war is to protect a lot of people’s business interests… Some way, some how, everybody has gotten corrupted… The Autodefensas and the people cooking meth, we’re pretty much the same team. We’re actually helping fund the Autodefensas. And we find them with whatever we can. Even drugs to sell to get guns, get trucks, get people to work.” 

“We will do this as long as God allows it,” continues the head of the meth crew. “As long as He allows it, we will make drugs. And every day we make more because this is not going to end, right? We’re the lucky ones, for now.”

If “Cartel Land” cannot circumscribe the two-nation terrain its title names, Heineman notes one cycle that is not intractable. Foley reveals that as a teen he fled his abusive dad. Years later he met his granddaughters and complimented his estranged son for raising them well. “I told him I had him to thank because everything he did to me, I did the exact opposite, so the cycles can change,” Foley shares. “It just takes somebody to change them.”

A&E IndieFilms touts “Cartel Land” by alluding to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness”: “Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the heart of darkness.” Except Heineman is no Marlow; neither Tim “Nailer” Foley nor Dr. Jose Mireles are Kurtzes; and the states of Arizona and Michoacán are hardly like the Congo Free State.

“Cartel Land” does score ethnographic insight that recalls lines Conrad wrote two years earlier in his preface to a different novel: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel— it is, before all, to make you see.”

If Heineman’s lens never captures the cartels in all their obscene cruelty, the testimony of victims makes it clear why the Mexico’s Minister of the Interior is offering a 60 million pesos bounty for El Chapo, which is no doubt far more than it cost him to break out.

Ant-Man: dads and daughters foil 15 billion USD deal in sub-atomic dimension

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 17, 2015

directed by Peyton Reed
written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd
acted by Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, Wood Harris, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian
presented by Marvel Studios
distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures


Add another entry to the Marvel Comics encyclopedia of sensitive super-heroic smart alecks: Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). And open an insectarium for his allies– the bullet ant, crazy ant, carpenter ant and fire ant.

Unversed in Marvel lore? The hyphenated title character is no chimera. Unlike the insect-human mutants in “The Fly” (1958) and “Return of the Fly” (1959), both with Vincent Price, or David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” (1986). Nor is the “Ant-Man” of 2015 a descendant of “Mant,” the faux 1962 film shot in “Atomo Vision” that figures in the plot of Joe Dante’s “Matinee” (1993). And Ant-Man is certainly not akin to Spide-Man, with five films to his name since 2002. Same phylum, different class.

For Marvel Studios, Peyton Reed (“Yes Man,” “The Break-Up,” “Down with Love,” “Bring It On”) directs comic sci-fi action fare based on Dr. Hank Pym, a character introduced by “The Man in the Ant Hill” story that appeared in “Tales to Astonish #27” from 1962. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, “Ant-Man” profits from a topical, if toothless, critique of an American corporation. This one is named after Pym. Marvel Entertainment is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Disney.

Reed’s PG-13 version stars Michael Douglas as Pym. In 1987 his secret formula for “alter[ing] atomic relative distance” let him and his wife miniaturize as mini-operatives in cool outfits. They intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile launched by Soviet separatists. Sacrificing herself to complete this covert mission, she vanished into a “quantum” void.

Due to misgivings that his “game-changing” gizmo could fall into the wrong hands for “toppling governments,” Pym hides his technology for mobilizing “a soldier the size of an insect, the ultimate secret weapon.” That gets the inventor ousted from his San Francisco company. He returns years later to thwart his evil ex-protege Darren (Corey Stoll) who’s selling out to the evil consortium Hydra.

Pym recruits Scott (Paul Rudd) to re-operationalize Ant-Man. A neuro-tactical interface in his helmet lets him command an army of normal-sized ants upgraded with semi-sentience. Pym’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is on board as an anti-Darren co-conspirator. She ends up falling for Scott.

We first meet Scott leaving San Quentin after a three-year stint for his whistle-blowing Robin Hood-style burglary of a bad Bay Area billionaire. Even with a masters degree in electrical engineering, the ex-con cannot hold down a gig at a Baskin-Robbins. He’s way behind on child support and wants visiting rights to see his daughter Cassie (a winsome Abby Ryder Fortson missing her upper front teeth).

Repairing damaged family relationships is a sentimental through-line of “Ant-Man.” Pym and Hope reconcile. Cassie can ultimately see her dad as her hero. As in “Contact” (1997) and “Interstellar” (2014), a channel of father-daughter communication will open despite inter-dimensional obstacles.

The screenplay is witty. A Pym Technologies marketing video pitches this blather: “It’s time to return to a simpler age, one when the powers of freedom can once again operate openly to protect their interests… to create a sustainable environment of well-being around the world.”

Rudd– credited as a screenwriter along with Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish and Adam McKay– gets four scenes where his character comments on his own and others’ dialogue to create comic discomfort. These self-referential lines are less insidery than usual for a franchise keen on meta-quips. Cue a whistling of “It’s a Small World” and one tune by Adam & the Ants.

In contrast to the 14 earlier Marvel vehicles for Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man and Thor, “Ant-Man” is aptly scaled much smaller. Its action sequences in micro-landscapes and sub-atomic interstices are nonetheless spectacular. And there’s the usual teasing warmth, high-tech dazzle, and moralizing on international justice. Advertised as “a high-stakes, tension-filled adventure,” “Ant-Man” is more like an anti-corporate comedy about dads, daughters and the distance between atoms.

Batkid Begins: do good and feel good and be heroes just for one day

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 12, 2015

Batkid Begins
directed by Dana Nachman
written by Dana Nachman & Kurt Kuenne
edited by Kurt Kuenne
presented by New Line Cinema
distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures


Five-year-old Miles Scott– his lymphoblastic leukemia in remission– spent November 15, 2013 dashing around San Francisco in a black suit and a black Lamborghini defeating costumed foes of the DC Comics character Batman. Make-A-Wish® Greater Bay Area (“We make wishes come true”) staged all this for the little boy from Siskiyou County who told the foundation: “I wish to be the real Batman.”

After The Riddler and The Penguin were cuffed by uniformed SFPD officers, a United States Attorney read a criminal indictment of the two “enemies of Gotham” issued by the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, Gotham Division. At a City Hall rally an estimated 20,000 San Franciscans and out-of-towners cheered as Mayor Ed Lee handed Batkid a key to Gotham City. President Barack Obama sent a four-second shout-out: “Way to go, Miles. Way to save Gotham.”

Two months later Make-A-Wish® Greater Bay Area posted on YouTube “Batkid: The Official Make-A-Wish Story,” a ten-minute video that John Crane Films made for the tax-exempt organization. Viewers at the charity’s site are invited to “Join the conversation.” Complete this sentence by clicking on one of three adjectives: “This story makes me feel Hopeful/ Reflective/ Inspired.”

A negative feeling is unthinkable. After all, 96% of the 555,697 Tweets were “positive.” A four-minute video posted by “How Clever Girls Collective Helped #Batkid Save The Day” claims 720 million people in 117 countries noticed. This self-tagged “social media influencer and content agency” tallied two billion “impressions” online. “#SFBatKid is trending number one in the world,” a Clever Girl announced.

A story we simply love,” cooed Diane Sawyer on ABC World News on November 15, 2013. Crane intercut clips from CBS, CNN and NBC too, with footage shot by his crew of 12.

On “Batkid Begins”– a 2015 feature-length documentary directed by Dana Nachman– Crane is credited as a story consultant and co-executive producer, along with Ian Reinhard, who executive-produced 26 episodes of the “Hollywood Uncensored” series and the 2005 documentary “24 Hours on Craigslist.” Nachman’s prior credits include the 2013 documentary “The Human Experiment” that asked: “With thousands of untested chemicals in our everyday products, have we all become unwitting guinea pigs in one giant human experiment?”

“Batkid Begins” spotlights Patricia Wilson, the can-do executive director of Make-A-Wish® Greater Bay Area. She says she fielded 156 interview requests, and her site peaked at 1400 hits per second. And at the end of the day she had 7189 unread emails. She tells us some callers simply left joyful sobs in her voicemail.

Nachman packages the uplifting day of wish fulfilling as a promo video for Wilson’s foundation. The first such wish granted was in 1980 when a 7-year-old boy with leukemia got to play cop with the help of the Arizona Department of Public Safety. That boy died, but Make-A-Wish states that 80% of its kids “reach adulthood.” To qualify, wishers must be between the ages of two-and-a-half and 18, and “diagnosed with life-threatening medical conditions— a progressive, degenerative or malignant condition that has placed the child’s life in jeopardy.”

Partly funded by an Indiegogo outreach that netted $109,630, “Batkid” dotes on logistics of generosity. High-powered players include Katie Cotton, who was at the time was Apple’s vice president of worldwide communications. “Normally as the Chief of Police I’m not in favor of flash mobs,” Greg Suhr informed citizens assembled outside City Hall. He concedes this one was  “cool.” He prerecorded several video pleas to Batkid to save Gotham.

Last March Variety reported that Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema got rights to Nachman’s documentary, originally titled “Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around The World” for its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah. For a fictional adaptation, Julia Roberts is scheduled to star as Wilson, who told a TEDxBayArea audience last December that she is known around her office as the Bitch in Charge.

Wilson acknowledges it’s hard to take the Batkid phenomenon as non-fiction. During an interview in the documentary she recounts hearing that construction crews joined throngs in Union Square to wave at Miles on his lunch break at Burger Bar on Geary Street. ”It was like one of those really cheesy Hallmark shows on TV,” cracks Wilson.

“Batkid Begins” begins with a sunny cityscape shot from the air. On a soundtrack abuzz with soundbites from real or simulated newscasts, one voices the consensus sentiment: “Well, this must be the feel good story of the year.” As the camera tracks a sidewalk crowd, we hear a line from the Scala & Kolacny Brothers choral cover of the David Bowie and Brian Eno song “Heroes” from 1977: “We can be heroes, just for one day.” That ethereally breathed lyric applies both to Miles in the guise of Gotham’s savior, and the league of volunteers, donors and onlookers– online and on the streets of San Francisco.

Publicists pose a two-part question this aspirational documentary cannot answer: “Did Miles need the world for inspiration? Or did the world need Miles?” For me, “Batkid Begins” could be about more than a boy’s wish to play a comic book hero and all the things he made so many people feel on November 15, 2013. Although it’s not likely her intent in chronicling that media spectacle, Nachman underscores social interactions transcending metrics of blood cell counts and Instagram hashtag hits.

Wilson and her Make-A-Wish team do what we all do. We make up things to make life better for others. Everyone around us makes-our-day through play-acting. More or less thoughtfully and truthfully. In San Francisco, Siskiyou County and society at large.

The Gallows: do not hang out with the understudy

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 9, 2015

The Gallows
written and directed by Chris Lofing & Travis Cluff
acted by Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Cassidy Gifford
presented by New Line Cinema
distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures


“The Gallows” is good for a handful of shout-out-loud jolts, if your movie nerves are as unjaded as mine. Outperforming its New Line Cinema trailer, this high school horror film written and directed by Chris Lofing and Travis Cluff is most outlandish for its old-school scolding.

The day before the Beatrice High School drama club opens a play titled “The Gallows,” jerky jock Ryan (Ryan Shoos) talks his buddy Reese (Reese Mishler, who took classes at DePaul University and Second City) and cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford) into vandalizing the colonial New England set. That way Reese, an awful actor, can escape embarrassing himself on stage.

And– Ryan schemes– then Reese can play the role of consoling hero in the arms of Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown). His distraught co-star has no idea Reese quit the varsity football team to get the male lead due to his crush on the diehard drama diva. “For crimes against the township of Bedford,” his character is scripted to hang by the neck until dead in “The Gallows.”

Lofing, a Beatrice High School alumni, and Cluff, who plays the drama teacher, begin their debut feature with a handheld camcorder tape. In 1993 a parent in the audience documents a staging of “The Gallows.” Reese’s character is hung for real. A local TV newscast at the time cites a “prop malfunction.” Unmentioned is that the tragedy occurred just before Halloween.

A Beatrice police department stamp of “video evidence” appears upfront and  applies to everything we will see on screen, including the last minute or two that’s recorded on a police body-cam. Ryan’s camcorder and his classmate’s cell phones undergo all manner of natural and supernatural trauma. The increasingly abstract screen glitches are designed with something like beauty.

All supernatural activity is attributed to the student hung in 1993. An end credit reads: “In memory of Charles Grimille.” That old newscast replays by itself on screens in the school. Theater doors lock the three vandals inside, along with Pfeifer who unexpectedly turns up. Lights go out. Landlines die. The teens spend a long scary night running in the dark from Charlie. Neck abrasions come from nowhere, followed by fatal noosings. Charlie steps up his possessing for a final twist that is no more or less nonsensical than others in the genre.

Lofing and Cluff named their Fresno production company in Tremendum Pictures– possibly sampling mysterium tremendum, the Latin expression for God’s tremor-inspired mystery that a Lutheran theologian coined in 1917.

Although “The Gallows” invokes no Christian creed or satanic spirits, this better-than-average haunt show does abide the horror mandate to teach teens a lesson: Be responsible. Show up when you’re supposed to. Otherwise, you will hang and so will anyone nearby.

I am not kidding. That really is the moral. Irresponsible self-serving conduct is to blame for all the bad at Beatrice High.

What triggers Charlie’s revenge? Cast in the same role as his son, Reese’s father chickened out and “called in sick” back in 1993. His understudy was Charlie, so Charlie was hung that night. “Why don’t you just call in sick?” Ryan urges Reese. “I call in sick three times a week, minimum.” When Reese balks, Ryan mocks him for bringing up obligations: “A responsibility to these guys? Come on.” This is what leads up to them knocking apart the set.

Horror films traditionally punish characters for sex. There is only one kiss in this film and it’s on stage. Unlike the sub-genre where video cassettes, internet sites and cell phone cameras are channels of evil, here all things magnetic or digital only operate as narrative infrastructure.

“The Gallows” shows the downside of not showing up. The revenge of the understudy.

Terminator Genisys: Fate escape by re-engineering epicycles

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 6, 2015

Terminator Genisys
directed by Alan Taylor
written by Laeta Kalogridis & Patrick Lussier
acted by Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Smith, and Byung-hun Lee
presented by Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions


A sci-fi franchise with time travel is an ideal nexus for characters to talk about fate and free will. Screenwriters Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier oblige in “Terminator Genisys.” The escapist action delivered by director Alan Taylor (“Thor: The Dark World”) is not quite a colloquy on paradoxes, though. Sorry, undergrads taking Philosophy 101 in summer school. Look elsewhere for a paper theme.

“God, a person could go crazy thinking about this,” gripes Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in “The Terminator” directed by James Cameron and co-scripted with Gale Anne Hurd in 1984. In her 2015 incarnation, Sarah (Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones”) will wrap her head around “alternate timelines” and her arms around Sgt. Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney from “Divergent” and “Insurgent”).

This five-film franchise predictably sends men and machines into the past to change the future, and others to thwart changes. Plot permutations are limited to terminating or safeguarding Sarah or Skynet, a vast computer network. Once it’s “self-aware,” Skynet is destined to exterminate humanity. Sarah’s destiny is birthing the leader of the resistance against Skynet-operated machines, which include humanoids called Terminators.

Each intervention in time alters details in the backstory. Judgment Day, the secular apocalypse Skynet launches using U.S. and U.S.S.R. missiles, gets “postponed” at least once. Portents and intellectual property travel back from 2029, among other years. Storylines are set in 1984, 1991, 1997, 2003, 2004, 2017 and 2018.

Characters can know of things to come. One way is to find their younger selves and pass along things to remember. Sarah is repeatedly instructed by her future son and his future father: “You must be stronger than you imagine you can be.” Variants of “You can do this… straight line… don’t look back” are told, heard and recalled in “Terminator Genisys.”

John Connor (Jason Clarke, who played another leader of California underdogs in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) can sound like a prophet to his followers. Engineers working on the Skynet prototype accelerate their delivery schedule, thanks to leaks of future technology. They have no idea what’s to come, though, after their system goes online and auto-upgrades at a “geometric rate” to sentience, if not sapience.

“They say it got smart. A new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat. Not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond. Extermination,” tersely recaps the Kyle (Michael Biehn) of the 1984 film.

In James Cameron’s Terminator mythology, Skynet was originally conceived as super-software for automating U.S. defense against U.S.S.R. aggression in the Cold War. Before then, Skynet was the real name of two spin-stabilized military communication satellites built by Ford Aerospace in Palo Alto. NASA and U.S. Air Force launched them from Cape Canaveral in 1969 and 1970 for the United Kingdom Defense Communications Network.

Kalogridis and Lussier embroider Skynet mythology by adding a San Francisco campus whose CEO rallies employees at a press opportunity: “Cyberdyne will revolutionize technology with the ultimate killer app, Genisys. I’m here to tell you our pre-orders as of this afternoon have reached one billion users.” Looming is a “new age, where every single piece of technology will be seamlessly linked.” The utopian product is branded LinkLife. Genisys’s avatar is a 3D-simulated 10-year-old (Ian Etheridge) who greets users: “I cannot wait to meet all of you tomorrow. We will change the future together.”

Kyle gets an alert about this Trojan Horse: “I was given a message. You can kill Skynet before it is born. Skynet is Genisys.” His older self tells this to his younger self so Kyle will act tactically in the film’s present, prior to Skynet going online globally.

“The boy is the alternate timeline version of you– Kyle Reese is remembering his own past, which is our future,” explains the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Resistance hackers repurposed this unit and sent it back in time to raise and protect Sarah.

Pops– as Sarah calls her illegal guardian since age nine when a Skynet-sent Terminator killed her parents– may grasp the ins and outs of time travel better than the film’s screenwriters: “Alternate timelines are not complicated. It is merely a matter of tracking possible futures using an exponential growth and decay algorithm.”

A script glitch in “Terminator Genisys” is calling Skynet’s gizmo “the first tactical time displacement weapon.” Yet it functions just like all the other time displacers that tactically dispatch human-terminating humanoids to make pre-emptive hits. No plot in the Terminator franchise would work otherwise. Each successive Terminator model is more devious and deceptive than the last. The resistance is always at a disadvantage, hijacking older models for its own missions. It’s his lack of “mimetic poly-alloys” that proves a Terminator ally is no impersonator or infiltrator.

I count three time travelers from 2029 in “Terminator Genisys.” What’s novel is that after reaching one point in the past, Kyle will take Sarah to a later point in time. How? Using a gizmo built long before its time. And how could it be there, or rather then? Thanks to high-tech know-how from the future– conveyed on prior trips.

Forget the engineering. What about the experiences? “I’m remembering a life I never lived, but I know it’s real,” relates Kyle. “In a past I shouldn’t remember but I do.”

“It is possible if he were exposed to a nexus point in the time flow,” theorizes the Terminator, who takes care to define his quantum field terms. “A nexus point is an event in time of such importance that it gives rise to a vastly different future.” Neither Kyle not Sarah raise their hand for a follow-up: Is there a deity or IT overseer who discerns “importance” and resets timelines accordingly? And who is our Judge on Judgement Day?

Since the first sequel, each Terminator film recycles catchphrases and debuts new ones. Acknowledging Schwarzenegger’s own age, “Terminator Genisys” has his character self-assess as “old not obsolete.” Another prospect for a signature expression that he repeats for comic effect is ”theoretically.” It fits the endless calculations made by his Terminator character.

Theoretically, the second Terminator film “re-enacts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt,” suggests a self-labeled “independent futurist.” An Australian theologian spots “a Christological slippage between Schwarzenegger and John Connor” as “world saviors.” A prof who penned “Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush” claims: “`Terminator 2’ cloaks its sadomasochistic fascist fantasies in the guise of the violent, melodramatic family film.”

“Terminator and Philosophy: I’ll Be Back, Therefore I Am”– a book playfully lifting a classic line from the franchise– contains the essay “Judgment Day Is Inevitable: Hegel and the Futility of Trying to Change History.” Jason P. Blahuta looks at Sarah and John as “world historical individuals” and notes: “Fortunately, the Connors never read Hegel, and so they attempt to change history… Unfortunately for John, the machines seem to be Hegelians.”

Hegel outlines an inevitability for freedom, without intercessory time travel. For characters in “Terminator Genisys” to realize their own freedom, Kalogridis and Lussier resort to “alternate timelines.” It’s a move in the tradition of early astronomers who affixed epicycles to sync heavenly bodies in transit.

Can a Hegelian dialectic reconcile the world historical outcomes dictated by Terminator mythology, and characters with free will and faith they can change the future? Kalogridis and Lussier can only delegate this dilemma to Sarah, John and Kyle. Adept in weaponry, they’re out of their league in quantum mechanics and the philosophy of history.

“The future is not set, there is no fate but what we make for ourselves” is a line repeated throughout the franchise. The third film ends with an uncertain John Connor accepting: “Maybe the future has been written. I don’t know.” (The fourth film was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris.) John begins the fifth by urging his anti-machine insurgents to create a legacy for unborn generations: “we sacrificed everything so that they could live in freedom.”

In the press notes for “Terminator Genisys” Emilia Clarke offers her reading of her director: “I think one of his goals with this movie is to ask what it is to be truly free as a human being, and the choices these characters have to make in deciding that.” At one plot impasse, the Terminator tells her: “I do not see a choice.” Answering for all Sarah’s that came before, if not for every scripted character, she says: “The story of my life.”

Despite this Sarah’s resolute declaration to a civilian– “We’re here to stop the end to the world”– it’s clear the longevity of her franchise hinges on perpetual failure to preempt Judgment Day. Letting the machines exterminate humanity would likewise terminate the storyline, of course. The recursive Terminator plot is Sisyphean.

Yet in the latest iteration, Kyle tells Sarah in the last reel: “You need to understand that Skynet’s gone. You’re free. For the first time you can choose the life you want. Any life you want.”

Well, not quite. Clarke is reportedly in line to reprise Sarah in two further Terminator films.

Kyle’s closing voiceover almost sounds like a benediction: “It was over. Skynet was gone.” Transcending screenplays, Kyle and Sarah can lay down their weapons and set forth on a philosophical quest. “Though questions remain. We’ll search for answers together. But one thing we know for sure. The future is not set.”

“Terminator Genisys” negates a key detail in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” where The Terminator intones in his Austrian accent: “Judgment Day is inevitable.” World historic individuals cannot `reset the future,’ contrary to the 2015 tagline? The Terminator adds a pessimistic prognosis: “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

In “Hegel and the Impossibility of the Future in Science Fiction Cinema” Todd McGowan writes: “Science fiction directs us toward a better future, even if negatively, through the depiction of a nightmarish one.” He sees “No Fate”– “the mantra that Sarah Connor scrawls with her knife in `Terminator 2: Judgment Day’”– as “emblematic for the genre as a whole. The very depiction of a possible future in the science fiction film calls us to act in order to prevent or realize it.”

Sarah, John and Kyle are free to fight their fate. Time travel and sequels can keep replaying paradoxes until a time when the first Terminator is never fabricated, or the last one is terminated.

Ted 2: Intellectual property stuffed with synthetic cotton

Posted in film review, Ted 2 by Bill Stamets on June 29, 2015

Ted 2
directed by Seth MacFarlane, who voices the title character
written by Seth MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
acted by Mark Wahlberg, Amanda Seyfried, Morgan Freeman, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi
presented by Universal Pictures and MRC
rated R by MPAA “for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use”


Seth MacFarlane’s unspecial sequel to “Ted” (2012) is vulgar comedy about a teddy bear that can walk and talk trash. “Ted 2,” though, is notable for a legal issue posed by this Hasbro toy: its right to marry one human and adopt another human in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Universal Pictures trailer foregrounds this plot line. Many critics downplay it.

Voiced by MacFarlane, Ted came to life in the first film. Through the wish of an 8-year-old Boston boy, this Christmas present morphs into more than an imaginary friend. Years later, John (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) watch TV, smoke dope, eat junk food and drink beer together. MacFarlane presents these lifelong pals as adorable morons.

Ted weds Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) at the start of “Ted 2.” They both work as cashiers at a grocery. A year later, their marriage teeters. A co-worker recommends they have a baby. Although Ted shows he cannot spell “penis,” he knows he lacks one. A counselor at an adoption agency tells him why he is not a prospect for fatherhood: “Ted, in the eyes of the state you are not a person… technically you are classified as property.” Then Massachusetts annuls his marriage.

Lawyer Samantha L. Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) takes on Ted’s case. Although she’s never heard of her screen near-namesake, Samuel L. Jackson– “Have seen any movie ever? He’s the black guy,” Ted tutors her. He is impressed that she keeps a bong under her desk and smokes at work, even as he repeatedly needles Jackson about her Arizona State University degree. (In “Ted” he name drops Kierkegaard.)

The Supreme Court cases Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown v. Board of Education are cited in all seriousness. “Capable of love, aware of his own consciousness, seems pretty human to me,” Jackson argues to the jury, checking off criteria Ted satisfies.

Yet the authenticity of Ted’s alleged love is challenged when a Hasbro employee takes the stand: “I supervised the stuffing of the teddy bears.” Besides packing them with “synthetic cotton, poly blend,” Hasbro installs a device that plays a pre-recorded phrase whenever a child presses a spot near the toy’s heart. Ted is instructed to press his own chest. It emits a cute, if mechanical, “I love you.” The music here cues us that Ted’s soul is crushed and the case is lost.

“Ted is not a person,” decides the jury in Ted v. the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “The plaintiff is hereby legally deemed property,” the judge decrees.

Jackson plans an appeal if they can get “top civil rights attorney” Patrick Meighan (Morgan Freeman), who once “got a female midget into the Marines.” A road trip to his office in New York City is a disposable plot filler that at least establishes Ted is rightly denied a driver’s license. They go off the road and crash into the barn of a pot farm. Meighan, who does not smoke marijuana in this office, declines since Ted contributes nothing to society.

For another dumb plot turn, a Hasbro janitor (Giovanni Ribisi) with an unwholesome Ted obsession from the 2012 film conspires with his boss to steal and dissect Ted. The objective is monetizing the magic that made Ted sentient. “Hasbro would double its profits overnight,” he predicts. This leads to a ComicCon gathering of comic book hero fans in New York City.

Evading Hasbro evildoers, John risks his life to save Ted. The video of the heroics goes viral. Meighan reconsiders.

“What defines a person?” Meighan asks the court. “What defines property? What’s the difference?” Rather remarkably, Meighan invokes “the anthropologist and ethicist Dawn Prince-Hughes” and her view “that the standards for personhood include self-awareness, an ability to understand complex emotions, and the capacity for empathy.”

“As for complex emotions and the capacity for empathy, we all saw the distressing images of Ted agonizing over his fallen friend John Bennet,” continues Meighan. “In those images Ted exhibits all the remaining qualities of personhood.” He also brings in the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.

The cited expert, t, is a Carbondale-native known for advocating personhood for great apes. Her 1987 memoir “Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism” supplies key phrases in Meighan’s courtroom speech. In the spirit of offending one and all, the screenplay includes a potent pot brand called “Here comes autism.”

Ted obsesses over popular culture, yet overlooks the 1987 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) asks: “Am I a person or property?

Nor does the screenplay nod to “Bicentennial Man,” the 1999 film Chris Columbus directed based on Isaac Asimov’s 1976 story. Robin Williams plays a self-aware robot who wins– after two centuries of legal moves– the right to marry a non-robot and the right to die. MacFarlane supplies Ted with mean cracks about the late actor and comic.

“Ted 2” is insufficiently self-aware about its own humor. Although MacFarlane gets laughs, they never illuminate– unlike like his choice of legal rights issues. He is smarter than his characters and condescends to their taste in gags. What does John get in his face? Donor sperm and baby poop.

Almost transgressive is MacFarlane’s staging of a grand old-fashioned Irving Berlin musical number at the opening. Gents in tuxes and gals in gowns, with a CGI inset of Ted, are presented with irrelevant respect. The genre of vulgar comedy, however, is not advanced.

Almost transgressive is MacFarlane’s staging of a grand old-fashioned musical number at the opening with a full orchestra. Gents in tuxes and an Irving Berlin tune are presented with irrelevant respect. The genre of vulgar comedy, however, is not advanced. “Retarded,” as sentient Ted would say.

Why So Mad, Max? It’s Not the Oil.

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on May 19, 2015

Why So Mad, Max? It’s Not the Oil.

Mad Max: Fury Road
directed by George Miller
written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris
released by Warner Bros. Pictures/ Village Roadshow Pictures

by Bill Stamets

Two stoic strangers on the run from a post-apocalyptic tyrant seek “redemption”– one of the few words this hard body duo shares– in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Max (Tom Hardy from “Locke, “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Bronson”) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron from “Prometheus,” “Aeon Flux,” “Monster”) flee shirtless shaved-head War Boys manning fiercely armed vehicles, bent on Valhalla. It’s a spectacular road saga with a tornadic maelstrom of lightning and red sand that evokes a DeMille epic.

Director George Miller continues the outback western series he and Doug Mitchell started with “Mad Max” in 1979. Miller set his looney debut: “A few years from now.” Mel Gibson plays a rural cop in a V8 Interceptor chasing a psycho biker.

Twentieth-century civilization is on the cusp of a steep descent. A sign on Highway 9 reads “Anarachie 3KM.” White lines still run down the middle of the road. Police radios work. Newscasts appear on TV. Max has a beachside home with electricity and running water.

After his wife and infant end up as roadkill, Max kills off the guilty motorcyclists like a down under Judge Dredd. “His only weapon”– growls the trailer– “600 horses of fuel-injected vengeance.” A very mad Max drives off into the end credits.

Gibson returns for more mayhem on rougher off-road terrain in the next two films. Six camels will replace the cylinders in his earlier muscle cars. In “Mad Max 2” (1981; with the subtitle “The Road Warrior” added for its U.S. release) and “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) Max is still on the road to dystopia. Outlandish details increase as the standard of living drops. Cue longer chases in improv-welded vehicles more inventively weaponized. Max suffers some more. Does some good. Moves on alone. His sidekicks– a dog and a monkey– do not survive.

In the 1981 film Max helps a caravan of peaceable folk start their 2000-mile trek to a better, greener place they call Paradise. He drives a decoy tanker to divert marauders seeking a tank-load of gasoline. In the next film Max helps a tribe of orphans return to Sydney in semi-ruin. They light beacons in the “highscrapers” to bring others home.

A risky mission of mercy likewise drives “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Furiosa, who holds the Roman rank of Imperator, kicks off the main chase by steering her massive “2000 horsepower nitro-boosted” War Rig off course during a routine run to Gas Town. Her secret cargo is five wives of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne, who played the vile biker in the first film.) In tow is a trailer filled with 3,000 gallons of “guzzoline” (aka, “juice” in the 1981 film) to purchase safe passage through rival territory.

Immortan Joe is the demigod of the Citadel. Atop a butte (more like what geologists used to call a monadnock) he commands boys on jumbo treadmills to haul up water from an aquifer under the desert. The precious fluid is known as Aqua-cola. “Because he owns it, he owns all of us,” explains Furiosa.

He soon finds his live-in bank vault no longer holds his “prized” breeders. Furiosa freed them. Taunts painted on the wall include: “Our Babies Will Not Be Warlords” and “We’re Not Things.” Furiosa plans to drive the women to the Green Place and Land of Many Mothers where she was born. “My clan was Swaddledog,” she proclaims to the remnants of her people, a tough band of elderly women on motorcycles.

It was Immortan Joe who stole Furiosa and her late mother “7,000 days ago, plus the ones I don’t remember” by her count. That’s it for her backstory, except for an off-camera detail Theron says Miller passed along: Furiosa is “barren.” Sounds like she was originally enslaved for breeding. With the built-in affect of her name, this taciturn character embodies more fury than the entire cast of the “Fast & Furious” franchise.

Max is mad this time because in the opening scene some War Boys steal his wheels and boots, then hang him upside down shackled inside a cage. Intravenous tubing mainlines his “high octane crazy blood” into the veins of Nux (Nicholas Hoult.) Max is moved to the front of Nux’s war vehicle like a live hood ornament. The doomed War Boy and his attached O-Negative “blood bag” join the chase after Furiosa. “If I’m going to die, I am going to die historical on Fury Road,” rhapsodizes Nux.

A massive desert storm distance Nux and Max from an armada of Citadel pursuers. They regain consciousness near the War Rig. After a messy struggle with wonderfully engineered reversals, the two men cast their lot with Furiosa and the five women. Trust is in low supply, yet they must keep moving. Max and Furiosa both hate Immortan Joe to the bone.

Miller shifts gears for a you-can’t-go-home-again narrative. “Max is somebody who just wants to go home, but there is no home,” Hardy explains in the press notes. Furiosa finds her own home is no more. Maybe there’s a better place out there, across the uncharted Plains of Silence. She figures the women can haul enough gas to travel for 160 days, the script’s least sensible line.

Max parts ways, then circles back with a better plan. Their itinerary boomerangs. Since the Citadel is now undefended, let’s drive back the way we came, he urges. Make that home. Water– “a ridiculous amount of clear water”– draws the old women. And they like the prospect of kicking more ass.

Magnificent fiery chases ensue. One tyrannicide later, women literally and figuratively ascend to power at the Citadel. In the 1985 film women– Aunt Entity and Savannah Nix– lead two communities Max encounters. “I can’t help but be a feminist,” Miller tells Vanity Fair.

“I love action movies,” Miller admits to the Sydney Morning News. “I think for me that’s where film language basically evolved.” “Mad Max: Fury Road” is “a continuous chase,” the 70-year old director adds with no apology.

Miller’s elemental plot sets up intricate action sequences largely free of CGI-style implausibility. Thankfully absent are the default cheats of Hollywood chases and fights. Hardy, Theron and a legion of stunt players look like mortals taking uninsurable risks and flexing limbs that could break. Special effects amputate part of Theron’s arm. And yes, there are fireballs. I like how the crudely refined petrol burns an ugly deep red shade with foul black smoke.

“One of the most common uses of CG (computer generated imagery) in this movie was to change the color of the sky,” Miller told the press on a junket. Namibia is where he shot the chases, passing on deserts in Chile and China. New South Wales furnished locations for the 1979, 1981 and 1985 films.

Accents are the main cues that all four Max characters are driving in Australia. After revisiting the three earlier films and seeing the new one in its 2D and superior 3D versions, I do not recall hearing any country named. All the steering wheels are on the right side in the 1979 film. American International Pictures released it stateside dubbed with accents sounding less Aussie. Techno-devolution may account for the steering wheel of the War Rig changing to the left side by 2015.

Scarce as words are as the world goes downhill, Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris indulge in faux retro names for their characters. Who needs lines if your moniker is Capable, Rictus Erectus, or Toast the Knowing? A noun unknown to Nux is “tree” until he sees his first one in the Wasteland.

“Neo-medieval” is Miller’s label for the mise-en-scene of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” reports Bill Zwecker in the Chicago Sun-Times. Miller’s bravura detailing recalls the canvases of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “Fascist feudalism” is how production designer Colin Gibson identifies the rigid regime of the Citadel.

“It’s 45 years after fall of the world,” state the press notes for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Miller tells us nearly nothing about the past. “As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken,” relates Max in his opening voiceover. Later he tells Furiosa, “If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.”

What broke the world? Other voices can be heard: “It’s the oil, stupid”…“Mankind has gone rogue, terrorizing itself”… “Our bone are poisoned.” The compass spins wildly in the Gigahorse monster truck driven by Immortan Joe.

A narrator other than Max opens Miller’s 1981 film with lore about “a firestorm of fear” that birthed “this wasted land.” Over a black-and-white montage of newsreel chaos intercut with decolorized clips from the 1979 film, he continues: “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war, and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing.”

“Mad Max” scenarios inform two studies by the United States Air Force: a 1994 exercise pondered “future space activity” in the year 2020; a 2009 “research report” looked ahead to 2080.

The military academics and their outside consultants variously imagined: “a devastating, earthquake in California decimated the US economy and led to mass internal migrations”; “Most critical will be the availability of fresh, uncontaminated water”; “A crisis in values may…occur in wealthy countries due to the rise in individualism caused by the immense access to information technology and the pursuit of happiness of the wealthy labor force.”

The Air Force may retrogress once aviation fuel runs out and need to deploy “solar-powered” dirigibles and gliders for surveillance and attack. “Oil is literally the lubricant and the fuel of the world‘s economic engine, when it depletes, the world economy will throw a rod,” argued one study.

“Who Killed the World?” That accusative scrawl left on the wall of Immortan Joe’s inner chamber is unanswered. Miller is more into Max’s psyche than the planet’s tilt. No Cassandra or Pandora, Miller instead name-drops a popularizer of world mythology who George Lucas often cites. ”When you read Joseph Campbell, you realize what he [Max] is: He’s a character who predates cinema and is almost in all folklore, the wanderer in the wasteland searching for meaning,” Miller tells USA Today.

Campbell took directions from The Decline of the West. He read Oswald Spengler’s two-volume tome seven times, confiding in a 1932 letter: “Spengler has become my major prophet.”

Miller takes a more parochial view than Spengler and the Air Force futurists. “In Australia we have a car culture the way Americans have a gun culture,” he told Starlog, The Magazine of the Future, in 1982. “The cult of the car. Violence by car.”

Rage on the road propels Miller’s films, not peak oil or carbon debt. “One fourth of motorcyclists have a Mad Max syndrome, characterized by an inability to stop physical and verbal aggression, anger and hostility,” reports the Polish Psychological Bulletin. A 2010 study tested 510 bikers for this “personality type” by using the Multifactor Risky Behavior Scale, Pavlovian Temperamental Scale, and the Unhealthy Behavior Inventory.

What makes Max so mad? Bad guys wrong him. Besides the lives of loved ones, they take his stuff. His ride, his boots, his coat, his blood, his freedom. That’s not right. So he makes it right. And will keep on doing it until all the gas is gone.

Insurgently virtual realism: a cosmic uncanny cinema

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on April 19, 2015

VR stood for Virtual Reality long before a local YA novelist with those initials came along. Veronica Roth, as it turns out, puts a lot of VR scenes in her “Divergent” trilogy. Fans of her novels and their film adaptations may not realize that VR has a curious and uncanny past.

Immersive illusions diverted our ancestors long before Roth sold over 30 million books and the first “Divergent” film grossed almost $300 million. Novelists and screenwriters create entertainment that sensationalizes VR as suspect. Yet therapists deploy it to heal.

The simulations, serums and software of “Divergent”– Roth’s 2011 novel adapted for the 2014 film– play an even bigger role in the screen version of “Insurgent,” the sequel she published in 2012. The trilogy ends with “Allegiant,” her 2013 installment that will be adapted into two upcoming films. (Note to readers of credits: what starts out titled “Insurgent” turns into ”The Divergent Series: Insurgent” in the end credits. Apologies to the vice president of franchise titling at Lionsgate but I will use the shorter title here.)

Roth set her story in Chicago long after a really big, really bad war. It was 100 years ago in the film “Divergent” and 200 in “Insurgent.” No one fixed up the highrises dinged and scarred by collateral damage since then. “Transformer” rampages did worse. Superlative CGI sequences will obliterate more of the Loop in “Insurgent,” but landmark preservationists ought not despair. All these digitally spectacular demolitions are limited to virtual reality scenarios in the head of heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley).

Whatever the infrastructure once suffered, the city must have fast-tracked the surviving computer engineers and neurochemists to upgrade virtual reality technology far beyond today’s devices and digital environments. Sixteen-year-olds undergo hyper-realistic hallucinations at the hands of adults, as we learned in “Divergent.” Far more terrifying than ACT and SAT tests from pre-apocalypse Chicagoland, “fear landscapes” in these simulations (aka, sims) test the aptitude and personality of teens.

Everyone is profiled in one of five factions, the futurist counterpart of today’s 50 wards. Post-war “founders” created the “faction system”– a civic division of labor with a dress code– to ensure “social order.” After choosing a faction for life at an annual rite, each teen must pass initiation sims. Except for the kids who test positive in more than one faction– Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless or Erudite– and are ostracized as Divergent. Authorities deem them threats to the status quo, far worse than independent aldermen on the city council in late 20th century Chicago.

Tris is a Divergent, unfit for any faction since her personality has extra facets. She also has an anomalous aptitude for knowing when she is inside a sim, and can alter its contours and outcomes. Kind of like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix,” another trilogy with Chicago roots and a VR mise-en-scene.

Invariably, virtual reality films deliver meta-twists to mess with our minds. There are games within games within games in “eXistenZ” (1999). Simulations within simulations within simulations in “The Thirteenth Floor” (1999). Dreams within dreams within dreams drive the techno-thriller “Inception” (2010). In the last seconds of all three films, there is a tease that yet one more level of reality is in play.

“Insurgent” belongs to this sub-genre. Spoiler alert: the revelation in the last reel is less radical than Tris discovering her city is really one big digital sim. But it is momentous. Think tests. As in “The Maze Runner” (2014), “The Signal” (2014) and “Dark City” (1998).

It explains why a tall wall surrounds the city. One detail in Roth’s first novel is omitted in the two films. On a field trip to the wall Tris puzzles over one detail in the gate: “The lock is on the outside.” All these years, citizens of Chicago feared whatever was out there.

Tris’s isolation recalls “The Truman Show” (1998). Since childhood Truman (Jim Carrey) so feared the ocean, he never dared venture from Seahaven Island. His phobia stems from witnessing a traumatic incident staged by producers of a 24-hour live television show centered on the oblivious Truman, who is surrounded by TV actors and covert TV cameras. His own show is not aired in his fake town, so he has no idea the whole world is watching his fake life.

Maybe Tris gets out of Chicago in Roth’s third novel. Does it matter that in the first two films there are no radios, TV sets or movie theaters? Roth’s readers already know, but viewers must wait until March 2016 when the first “Allegiant” film– maybe to be titled “The Divergent Series: Allegiant, Part One”– is supposed to come out.

“Insurgent” reveals that the founders encrypted a time-release truth inside an urn-like container. Only a full-fledged Divergent has the skill set to access the secret video message within. Suspended in the air by eight tentacle-like cables dangling from the ceiling and hooked into a super-computer, Tris passes five intense sims keyed to the five different factions. Their respective emblems chiseled in stone will crumble into dust during the end credits.

Before “Insurgent” opened, fans could submit to less strenuous testing while seated in a sim chair. Samsung toured the country in a customized truck with the come-on: “Shatter Reality.” The five-city itinerary included a Chicago stop at Navy Pier, where the nearby 3-D IMAX theater beckons: “Watch a movie or be part of one.”

Widescreen ballyhoo of the 1950’s touted a visual `wow’ surpassing traditional movie screens and new television sets. CinemaScope “Puts you in the picture.” “You’re in the show with Todd–AO.” Cinerama aimed to transcend the proscenium: “The crowds who see it are literally projected into a realm of experience with unlimited horizons.” Today’s multiplexes equipped with Dolby Atmos audio systems use similar hype: “Feel every dimension. The movie comes alive in breathtaking detail as sounds move all around you, even overhead, so you feel like you’re inside the story.”

Donning a Samsung Gear VR headset (“As if you were at in front of a mega screen”), you encounter Kate Winslet’s character Jeanine in “a fully-immersive, 360-degree narrative experience” set in a high-tech lab. If you didn’t see “Divergent,” she is the implacable coup-orchestrating leader of the Erudite faction. Jeanine installs remote mind-control sim transmitters in the heads of the Dauntless faction, manipulating them to conduct a pogrom against Abnegation.

“We must remove those who do not fit,” Jeanine forewarns. “You must not fail.”

“Subject 5 is ready,” you hear on the head phones. That’s you. Fans blow in your face to simulate Chicago wind and your chair shakes. Two “fearscapes” test you. The four-minute “4D” scene ends with this pre-scripted appraisal of your performance, not that you get to actually do anything: “Impressive. No one’s ever made it past the second simulation. Cut the subject loose. I want to study this one.”

That means you’re a Divergent, just like Tris. Fans seeing “Insurgent” find out that subject 6 and subject 7 die in sim tests ordered by Jeanine.

Screenwriters like to scare us away from any new technology that can immerse us in illusions more compelling than those CGI puts on multiplex screens. Is this Hollywood demonizing its future competition for audiences? Virtual reality is taken to extremes in two reactionary sci-fi films released in 2009.

“Gamer” imagines a near-future when “mass-scale, multi-player online games” enjoy mega-global popularity. Players use real-time remote transmitters to guide real people in lethal first-person shooter games with live ammunition. An evil billionaire (Michael C. Hall) has bigger designs than Jeanine in Roth’s books. He seeks to transmit mind-control via insidious “nano-cells” in the bloodstream of the body politic: “A hundred million people who buy what I want them to buy, vote how I want them to vote, do pretty much damn well anything I figure they ought to do.”

In “Surrogates” people stay at home wearing VR gear to operate their better-looking robot stand-ins who go to work, make love and do everything else out in the world. The mastermind behind this technology, though, has second thoughts and unplugs us from this ruinous artifice.

Virtual reality is addictive in “Surrogates” and other storylines. Memories recorded from the cerebral cortex onto “playback” data-discs figure in the plot of “Strange Days” (1995). To re-experience thrills by proxy– including porn-like sex and chases resembling stunts in action films– customers go to a dealer (Ralph Fiennes) calling himself the “Santa Claus of the subconscious.” Sold on the black market, these recreational excursions into second-hand reality are outlawed.

By contrast, teens in “Divergent” and “Insurgent” are forced by law into simulations that overpower their senses.

A graduate of Barrington High School and Northwestern University, Roth says she got the idea for simulations from a psychology course. She learned about exposure therapy for treating fears. Specialists in this field write case reports about curing spider and cockroach phobias, among others. Clinical uses of virtual reality are described in publications like Military Medicine, Simulation in Healthcare, CyberPsychology & Behavior, and the Journal of Network and Computer Applications.

Articles include: “What’s wrong with virtual trees?” and “Can Virtual Reality Increase the Realism of Role Plays Used to Teach College Women Sexual Coercion and Rape-Resistance Skills?” Polish soldiers heading to Afghanistan participated in a study of “Pre-Deployment VR Computer-Assisted Stress Inoculation Training.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder is addressed in the Virtual Vietnam, Virtual Iraq and Virtual World Trade Center simulations. Tortured asylum-seekers in Europe were treated similarly. Children and combat vets felt less pain when nurses were dressing their burn wounds, if patients were distracted playing VR games at the time. Mental health experts simulate psychotic hallucinations with VR. Surgical technique, public speaking and pedestrian safety are all taught with VR.

Virtual reality is a training tool in sci-fi films. Things always go wrong. In “Virtuosity” (1995) Russell Crowe plays a VR character distilled from the psychological profiles of 183 serial killers. He is version 6.7 of software named SID (Sadistic, Intelligent, Dangerous): “I’m a 50 terabyte self-evolving neural network.” Created as an avatar for training exercises, his program downloads into an android that escapes the Law Enforcement Technology Advancement Center and wreaks havoc in Los Angeles.

In “The Lawnmower Man” (1992) a scientist (Pierce Brosnan) at Virtual Space Industries proclaims: “Virtual reality holds the key to the evolution of the human mind.” For a test subject he picks the mentally challenged title character. A combination of VR sessions with doses of Nootropic turns him into a too-smart online cyber-being on a power trip: “Virtual reality will grow. It will be everywhere… By the year 2001, there won’t be a person on this planet who isn’t hooked into it, and hooked into me.” In the sequel “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace” (1996) the head of Virtual Light Institute envisions a virtual unity: “the future is one world, one thought, one mind.” This is not where the experiment was supposed to go.

Writers sometimes get diagnosed as delusional. They are accused of thinking they’re omniscient and omnipotent, like God or the Lawnmower Man. It’s an occupational hazard for anyone presuming to invent new worlds and the new technologies inside them. Roth’s simulations in her Divergent trilogy and the Wachowskis’ world-like “neuro-interactive simulation” in their Matrix trilogy differ in scale, but the kick these three Chicagoans get as their designers puts them on the same page, if not ward.

Virtual reality is a super-cool incarnation of the creative process itself. It’s understandable that filmmakers like to show off their sci-fi takes on techno-VR as we know it. VR scenes inspire virtuosic visuals, and dialogue about VR devices lets these films think out loud.

In Roth’s novel “Insurgent” Tris notes how new biotechnology excites her brother, who belongs to Erudite. This faction of scientists and scholars is headquartered at University of Chicago’s glass-domed Mansueto Library in the first Divergent film.

Tris says some Erudites are “fascinated by everything, dissatisfied until they find out how it works.” A backstory for that kind of curiosity is related by U. of C. historian Neil Harris. An “operational aesthetic” arose in the 1840’s and 1850’s, he argues in his 1973 book “Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum.” People liked to inquire, as a new form of fun. Deconstructing frauds and gizmos became a past-time. “Barnum understood that people enjoyed the opportunity to debate the issue of falsity, to discover how deception had been practiced, and was even more exciting than the discovery of fraud itself,” Harris writes.

Barnum’s populist schtick of divert-and-debunk was a replay of the patter of phantasmagoria impresarios who projected ghostly apparitions using the lens and lamp of a magic lantern, smoke, silvered mirrors and sound effects. “I will not show you ghosts, because there are no such things,” Philip Polidor assured audiences in 1793 Paris. “I am neither priest nor magician. I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you.” He occasionally claimed he was a “physicist.” “Lantern of fear” was a common name for the optical devices used long before Roth came up with “fear landscape.”

“One knew ghosts did not exist, yet one saw them anyway, without knowing precisely how,” writes Stanford University English prof Terry Castle. U. of C. film prof Tom Gunning analyzes the “entertaining confusion” of a phantasmagoria show this way: “It can be simultaneously rational in its method and seemingly supernatural in its effect.” In pre-electric Europe, here was an operational aesthetic of the occult.

The public entertained itself with virtual spirits, virtual travels and virtual vistas. Louis de Carmontelle, a French painter with a theatrical flair, debuted his new format for landscapes in 1783. On translucent paper he painted the fashionable royals on sylvan estates. Rolled up, the lengthy pictures were slowly cranked through a backlit box for viewing. The J. Paul Getty Museum presented this art in 2000 as “an eighteenth century motion picture” and “the cinema of the Enlightenment.”

British painter Robert Barker patented his idea for realistic 360-degree canvases in 1787 as “An Entire New Contrivance or Apparatus… for the Purpose of Displaying Views of Nature.” He painted panoramas of Edinburgh and London. In both cities he charged admission to rotundas displaying his vistas.

Other entrepreneurs offered “moving panoramas” to the public. One unrolled the passing view from a boat on a 30-mile trip on the river Thames; another sampled sights from a 100-mile trip on the river Clyde.

Theaters later installed versions of these extended canvases to increase realism. A 3,000-foot one unfurled during “A Kentucky Girl” during its 1892 run at the Haymarket theater in Chicago. “One of the scenes will be a race between the heroine on a railroad velocipede and four moonshiners on a hand-car,” promised one newspaper account.

An 1834 panorama simulated a passenger’s point-of-view on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway that had opened four years earlier. Germany’s first steam-powered railway– on a five-mile track between Furth and Nuremberg– began in 1835, despite protest by the Bavarian Royal College of Medicine. “Traveling in vehicles drawn by locomotives should be prohibited in the interest of public health. Such a rapid motion cannot but produce in the passengers the mental affection known as delirium furiosum… To the mere onlooker, moreover, the thing is positively dangerous. A mere glance cast at a locomotive traveling at a very high speed is enough to produce the same mental derangement in the beholder.”

The nervous physicians deemed it “absolutely necessary that a 10-foot wall should be built on each side of the line throughout the entire length, so that the flight of the iron horse may in no way unsettle the public eye and mind.” Despite their prescription, the Nuremberg Transport Museum of today includes an “interactive driving simulator” that seats tourists in a cab so they can drive a locomotive along “a computer-simulated track section.”

German clinicians published a few diagnoses of damage to the nerves, spines and uteruses of train passengers. Anecdotes can be found about viewers overpowered by virtuality, though. Battles on land and sea were popular subjects of 1820’s panoramas. Military bands added atmosphere. One panorama reportedly furnished such “a complete sensation of reality… that on the occasion of his visiting the exhibition, a young man seeing a party of British preparing to board an enemy’s ship, started from his seat with a hurra, and seemed quite surprised when he found that he was not really in the battle.”

The realism of Chicago’s cycloramas, as indoor panoramas-in-the-round were advertised, never incited over-reactions, although one newspaper commentator in 1874 lauded “Paris By Moonlight” as “better than a visit.” An 1877 pamphlet for the touring “The Siege of Paris” made the startling claim: “To realize that this magnificent pageant is, after all, only an illusion requires a stronger mental effort than to accept it for reality.” After seeing “Paris in Flames” another reporter enthused: “What a gorgeous subject Chicago would be for such a picture!”

In April 1892 ten painters completed a 400-foot long canvas depicting the Chicago Fire of 1871. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., the Chicago Fire Cyclorama at Michigan and Madison promised: “Falling Walls, Burning Bridges, a Sea of Flame! Thousands of helpless and homeless in a mad furious flight for safety. No words can describe the matchless grandeur of the scene!” Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.

A Chicago Tribune writer sensed “a realism that makes to spectator feel that he is not a mere onlooker, but an active participant in the terrible occurrence.” Five months later an adjacent building caught fire, and the cyclorama suffered fire and water damage. A temporary closing notice blaming over-zealous firemen read, in part: “The boys mistook the painting for the real fire.”

Chicago was the site of the Spectatorium proposed by Steele MacKaye in 1892, as “an entirely new species of building, invented and devised for the production of a new order of entertainment entitled a spectatorio.” Funds ran out for this multi-media emporium of simulations.

To achieve “the most advanced artistic realism” therein he invented and patented stagecraft. His Nebulator to create clouds onstage might have improved upon the “nebulous lantern” used in the 1770’s to beam spectres onto smoke curtains. Other MacKaye devices were illuminoscopes, coloraturas and a luxauleator.

A never-built entertainment machine that aspired to virtually transport its passengers was inspired by H.G. Wells novella “The Time Machine,” first serialized in early 1895. In October of that year, an English showman patented an amusement that shook seats and blew wind at patrons, rather like Samsung’s “Insurgent” tie-in: “My invention consists of a novel form of exhibition whereby the spectators have presented to their view scenes which are supposed to occur in the future or past, while they are given the sensation of voyaging upon a machine through time.”

Two virtual rides appeared in Paris at the Universal Exposition in 1900. Passengers stepped aboard the mock deck of a pitching and yawing ship to behold a moving panorama of maritime scenes in the Mareorama.

More cinematic was the Cineorama, patented in 1897. Its passengers boarded a hot-air balloon-like platform, complete with rigging and ballast, to view an actual balloon ascent and descent. Film cameras had earlier recorded a real ride over Paris. The footage played on ten projectors in a circle for a 360-degree moving picture panorama.

Moving pictures of moving trains delivered more thrill than peril. “When you can throw a picture of an express train on a screen in such a realistic way that persons who see it scramble to get out of its way and faint from fright, it’s about time to stop,” scolded the New York Telegram on October 15, 1896. Two patrons at the Olympia Music Hall “screamed and fainted” when viewing “Empire State Express.” The newspaper backtracked two days later with the qualification that the women “nearly” fainted and amended the account with: “they recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement.”

In 1905 George Hale and Fred Gifford patented the “Pleasure-Railway,” an attraction seating passengers inside a mechanically rocking railroad car with clickety-clack sound effects and a conductor taking tickets. Films projected on a screen placed at the front of the car had been shot by putting a camera at the front of a locomotive traveling on real tracks. “Phantom ride” was the term for this genre of specialty film. That expression evokes the uncanny effects experienced in phantasmagoria old old.

Hale’s Tours of the World venues were very popular for a spell. By 1906 Chicago had three of these amusements: one on State St. and two at the White City and Riverview parks. There are no reports of their immersive realism triggering the delirium those German doctors forecast back in 1835 for travelers on real trains.

We have bigger– much bigger– things to worry about in the realm of virtual realism. And not just from Hollywood, lauded as “the Baghdad of Phantasmagoria” by a Chicago photoplay magazine in 1925.

Suspicion of appearances predates the simulations Tris transcends. Plato likened what we see in the world under the sun, to shadows cast by a fire on a cave wall, as if we were prisoners in chains. “Seventeenth-century baroque culture,” argues law prof Richard K. Sherwin,”produced a phantasmagoria of endlessly shifting shapes and patterns. It was steeped in self-reflexive illusion: a hyper-awareness of illusion fueling illusion.”

Since the Enlightenment, technology for faking reality increased exponentially. So did suspecting it. And not just by the clinically paranoid or postmodern academics like Jean Baudrillard. In 1991 he wrote a series of provocative pieces in The Guardian titled “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place,” “The Gulf War is Not Taking Place” and “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” The “willing suspension of disbelief” has come a long way from its 1817 origins.

According to a 2014 paper titled “Constraints on the Universe as a Numerical Simulation” published in the European Physical Journal, our known universe is not what we think. Or rather, it could be something that others– not us– thought up. Though not to entertain us.

Two theoretical physicists in Seattle, along with a colleague in Bonn, figured out reality is virtual. Really. They are like Tris, with her Divergent knack for sensing when she is inside a simulation. Except they use lattice quantum chromodynamics theory. This is the operational aesthetic applied to the ultimate simulation.

When an interviewer at New Scientist asked if this was just “science fiction,” one of the paper’s authors stated: “the answer, statistically speaking, is that we’re more likely to be living in a simulation.” Not reality.

Uh, oh.

Chicago International Movies and Music Festival

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on March 5, 2010

Crossover is the key to the second annual Chicago International Movies and Music Festival. Running through Sunday, this twofer fest mixes cinema and concerts.

Tonight’s Robyn Hitchcock event is sold out, so check out Mucca Pazza, a local “circus-punk marching band,” on Saturday. For Sunday’s Closing Night, DJ Spooky, who once remixed “The Birth of a Nation” on stage, will mix soul vinyl with video sampled from Mel Stuart’s film of a 1972 concert in Watts.

Various music documentaries profile Bob Marley’s mentor, an electronic music pioneer, French rappers, Seattle soul, Tibetan folk artists and fans of Stradivarius violin. Two recommended films that recently screened in Chicago come back: “Still Bill” and “Rapping in Tehran.”

Selected capsule reviews follow:


7:30 p.m. “The Scenesters”: Todd Berger writes and directs this insider send-up of young L.A. types he knows all too well. Like his character Wallace Cotten, he is trying to make it in the film industry. After releasing a mumblecore indie, Cotten sidelines as a police videographer. He starts making a documentary about a crime scene cleaner, a television news reporter and a serial killer targeting the title’s demographic. Cotten’s partner Roger Graham is played by Jeff Grace, a former ad exec at Leo Burnett in Chicago. He created Altoids ads targeting “Young Urban Hipsters” when not doing Second City spots and stand-up on the side. “The Scenesters” is framed by courtroom scenes where a prosecutor cues clips from the documentary, its making-of outtakes, TV news reports and videos shot by the killer. The result is snarky niche fun at the expense of unethical film execs– further testimony to the stereotypical Hollywood syndrome of self-loathing. Admission: $10; St. Paul’s Cultural Center, 2215 W. North Ave.

8 p.m. “Polkaholics”: Chicago writer-director Wes Hranchak also shot and edited this chronicle of a polka star’s homecoming. His host is the excitable Don Hedeker, who plays guitar in the band Polkaholics and lectures on biostatistics at the University of Illinois. In 1956, Li’l Wally Jagiello released the Top Forty hit “I Wish I Was Single Again,” followed by 150 albums. Hedeker invites the Miami retiree back for a bar gig on Division Street, once known as “Polish Broadway.” Running just under an hour, Hranchak’s folksy black-and-white video ends by injecting a dose medical suspense to this showman’s salute. Free screening at Cassidy Hall, Chicago Cultural Center.


11:30 am. “Music of the Brain”: Australian director Fiona Cochrane follows up “Opera Therapy,” her documentary about four cancer patients creating an opera, with a report on research linking music to infancy, speech, therapy and social evolution. Most of the dozen talking heads here sport credentials containing the prefix “neuro-” but nary a neuron enters the picture. There’s little specific evidence  for claims that range from intriguing to inane. It’s less than mind-blowing to learn that music is “mood-elevating.” One bit of debunking: playing Mozart in the crib really does not increase your kid’s creativity scores. Free screening at Chicago Cultural Center, Cassidy Hall.


Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on January 23, 2010

Argentinian filmmaker Lisandro Alonso makes allusive dramas with little dialogue and eloquent landscapes. “Liverpool” continues the style of “La Libertad” (2001) and “Los Muertos” (2004), where the camera observes nearly mute men, played by non-actors, undertake interior missions. (more…)