Oct 1 2017

Fear is scary. As scary as It


It felt like Stand By Me meets The Goonies with the scare ramped up. Stephen King knows how to write round kid characters who come off as appropriately immature and inexperienced, yet complex, thinking people. The director and actors communicated the members of the “Loser’s Club” as human beings experiencing fear, grief, and anger in a way that made their stories matter. Each one is dealing with situations that make them feel vulnerable and powerless. And these feelings are in the heart of fear whether or not that fear culminates in a confrontation with Pennywise the scary clown.

Pennywise is creepy, no doubt, and I think if I were afraid of clowns this movie might have been scarier to me. According to an article in The Smithsonian, Dickens is responsible for the sinister clown character, though his was more tragic than frightening. The fact that John Wayne Gacy was a clown cemented the the killer clown persona in the public imagination. That clown doll in Poltergeist gave rise to the evil clown trope in film. For those not suffering from coulrophobia, here’s Variety‘s pictorial list of the 20 Creepiest Clowns.

I found fear itself to be the most compellingly scary part of the movie. Flight, fight, or freeze are the typical responses to fear. Each member of the “Loser’s Club” responds in some combination of these. Bill and Beverly have faced bigger tragedies in their lives that diminish Pennywise’s capacity to frighten them merely by being a scary clown. They are the fighters. Richie is smart and funny and big on self-preservation. Stan is a skeptic. He has to be convinced any of this is real, and once he’s convinced, like Richie, he’s a runner. Eddie’s mom has turned him into a hypochondriac. He freezes. Then runs.  Ben, the poet and scholar of the club, manages his fear through understanding. He researches the history and tries to understand the facts.  Mike wants answers too. Encounters with Pennywise and Henry Bowers, the bully who torments “The Losers” brings Mike into the club. While Ben and Mike’s first choice might be to run, the more they learn the greater they feel a responsibility to fight.

The mystery surrounding Pennywise’s motives and powers heightens their fear. When something we can understand comes after us, that’s scary, but finding oneself in the crosshairs of something we cannot comprehend is terrifying. The way that Pennywise knows each of their fears and plays on them, the way he predicts their responses and lays individual traps for each of them is a big part of the what makes Pennywise so frightening. Pennywise strategically isolates each of them from the group and then confronts them with their greatest fear. Pennywise feeds on their fear but also uses fear like a net to ensnare his victims.

Pennywise tries to separate and isolate them, but love and loyalty draws them together and saves their lives. “Fear not” might be one of the most powerful messages in Jesus’ teaching. “Love your friends” is another. Life is less scary when you aren’t alone. Fear is less powerful when somebody is holding your hand and watching your back.

Movies like It are lots more fun when you aren’t watching them alone. I recommend seeing It in the theater. Maybe you’ll get lucky and sit near someone like me who involuntarily startles at cheap jump scares. A lot of critics didn’t like the jump scares but it’s part of the fun of the horror genre as far as I’m concerned.


Jun 29 2014

X Men: Days of Future Past



X-Men: Days of Future Past  has some continuity problems, but I enjoyed it. Good fight scenes. Good character development. Great casting.  The X-Men saga deals with themes like good and evil, control and power, and intentions and consequences. Days of Future Past provides a 20/20 hindsight on how these themes have played out in earlier X-Men movies. There was a lot going on in the plot that may be lost on those who haven’t seen at least some of the previous X-Men movies.

Time travel movies like this usually hinge on the idea that certain events drive change in history. A perfect storm of creativity, innovation, discovery, and technology bring about leaps in learning, communication, and industry such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age. Perfect storms of ambition, animosity, and greed, along with natural disasters, have historically pushed nations, and at times the entire world, into war or economic depression. Days of Future Past brings us to that culminating moment in X-world when the government, reacting to the perceived threat they present, build big robots and send them out to kill all the mutants. Continue reading

May 18 2014

Why Godzilla almost did it for me



I guess I like my monsters served with a little cheese and humor.

First the good stuff. Five cities were wrecked in fine style by well-imagined, well-executed prehistoric beasts. Lots of things blew up. There were some awesome clash of the scaly titans scenes near the end. Godzilla had wonderful sound effects, good graphics, and an exciting 3-D visual experience that made this a fun monster movie.

When I voiced my disappointment with the characters and plot the outcry from my family was, “What did you expect!?” Ok, ok, I get it. I know what Godzilla is supposed to be, but most world-threatened-by-____________(aliens, monsters, nature-gone-wild, military-experiments-gone bad, etc.) films  include some sort of clear, on-going conflict between major human players.

Godzilla was sort of the anti-Pacific Rim, last summer’s soap-meets-monsters blockbuster. Where Pacific Rim went too far, Godzilla didn’t give me enough. Nice round characters with clear goals and motives perform their roles earnestly and seriously. This is probably what you’d want in real life, but I felt like the film needed some human antagonists.

Even when the main antagonist is a monster it helps to have characters dealing with fear or guilt or displaying some hubris or ambition. The closest to conflict Godzilla came was a difference of opinion as to the best way to eradicate the monsters. Admiral Stenz was way too reasonable and professional. Dr. Serizawa (who, by-the-way, should have been close to 70 years old if his father was at Hiroshima) and Vivienne Graham made their recommendations and didn’t put up much of a fight. The young Brody family were all loving, brave and supportive.

The most interesting conflict played mostly off camera with backstory on Joe Brody. Introducing a conspiracy theory then killing off the theorist took away a lot of opportunities for entertainment and conflict. It might have been cheesier, but it would have been more entertaining for me to keep him around. Godzilla rushes through the coverup without giving the conspirators faces, except for Serizawa and Graham who are way too nice; a conspiracy theory needs a General Donald McClintock (Outbreak) or Albert Nimziki (Independence Day).  

Godzilla focuses almost exclusively on military response to the monster problem, which helped its length and focus, but I missed the disaster management piece that is usually part this type of movie. No Theirry Umutoni (World War Z) or Mike Roark (Volcano) to coordinate the response, no President Morgan Freeman agonizing over necessary sacrifices (Deep Impact). Last year’s World War Z used specific characters and scenarios to represent the conflicting complexities federal and local governments, the military, the press, hospitals, etc. might face in dealing with a mega-monstrous disaster. Godzilla included rushed scenes of nameless, faceless players. The best scene related to this was the baller bus driver on the Golden Gate.

The Mutos/Godzilla conflict reminded me of Jurassic Park. The part of the Velociraptors was played by the Mutos while Godzilla performed the T-Rex’s exterminator function. I did love the scene with the Mutos’ egg sac but, I didn’t find the Mutos as interesting as the Velociraptors. Godzilla himself was lots more fun but didn’t get as much screen time as the Mutos. I would have enjoyed seeing more of him.

Finally, having Godzilla tromping through San Francisco’s Chinatown made me long to have Hank Hill pop up and ask “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” Godzilla was originally imagined in Japan as a symbol of nuclear weapons and a metaphor for the United States so there was a certain irony in assigning the nuclear role to the Mutos. Whatever the thinking there, it didn’t matter much. It was still a bitching monster fight.

Mar 19 2014

The giving and receiving of grace in Nebraska


Director Alexander Payne says he shot Nebraska in black and white because “this modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white.” Modest and austere is a good description of the settings and characters in Nebraska. The word I think of is “real.” It was so real that filming it in black and white actually helped distance me from the stark reality of aging portrayed in the film.

The film begins with Woody, an elderly man in early stages of dementia shuffling down the road with one of those “you may be a winner” promotional letters, determined to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Since he can’t drive anymore, he’s just going to walk. 76-year-old Bruce Dern plays Woody with authenticity and understatement. Woody isn’t a joke or a villain. He’s an average small-town retiree who is frequently grumpy, drinks too much, and has typical relationship issues with his wife and grown sons. Aging hasn’t made him this way, he’s always been this way. With aging the filters deteriorate so that we become more obviously the people we already are.

Woody’s practical, outspoken wife Kate, his successful son Ross, and non-so-successful son David are real human beings struggling to deal with the effect of aging on family dynamics. Woody’s irrational behavior and unsteady reasoning make it hard for Kate to live with him. She, in turn, keeps calling her sons for help with their dad, which is disruptive to their lives. Like so many families, this family is having to make some dreaded “decisions” about dad, who always before had the autonomy to decide things for himself. It’s a frustrating and painful time for any family whose lived through this. Watching Nebraska is like walking through it with friends or neighbors. The emotions and situations are absolutely spot on.

Younger son David, who is between jobs offers to take his dad to Lincoln in hopes that he’ll stop fixating on the letter once it’s clear he’s not a winner. He also sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with his dad. Their road trip involves a series of little episodes that are sometimes amusing and often frustrating for David. They spend a weekend in Woody’s hometown where old wounds and rivalries are rekindled. Thinking he actually won some sort of sweepstakes, Woody’s relative and old friends embrace Woody as a celebrity and possible benefactor. Kate and Ross join David and Woody for a family reunion and a revealing walk through Woody’s childhood home.

Throughout the movie David begins to understand and appreciate his father as a person rather than seeing him with all the labels attached. Alcoholic. Distant. Grumpy. Inconsiderate. Disappointment. Sucker. Inconvenience. Failure.

Family relationships always have baggage. By the time a parent reaches the point where a child has to step in there might be forty or fifty years worth of baggage. Imagine unforgiven offense, patterns of hurtful behavior, personality flaws, painful memories stuck to the baggage like those vintage labels on suitcases. To a great extent we define ourselves and others by those labels. If we are willing to peel off the labels we’ve placed on others because of past experiences and see who is under there, we actually create margin for change to happen in those relationships.

Nebraska gently nudged me to reminder that healing comes with forgiveness. Perspective happens when we experience someone else’s story as a participant instead of a spectator. Nebraska reveals how simply walking through an experience with another person changes the relationship. The characters don’t experience big character arcs or life-changing epiphanies. In fact, none of the characters change that much from the beginning of the movie to the end, but how they see one another does. In this film I saw a picture of the giving and receiving of grace.






Mar 10 2014

The dark territory of True Detective



True to form the last episode of True Detective called Form and Void features the dark and grisly conclusion to a bleak, dark series about two homicide detectives unraveling a ritual murder in South Louisiana. Errol, the incestuous, Cary-Grant obsessed witch king makes an utterly creepy grindhouse villain. Previous episodes offer up a series of tantalizing possible suspects and co-conspirators, including Cohle himself. The Tuttles come off as redneck Illuminati with a long reach and powerful resources. The story ends with many of these loose ends still flapping, but Cohle and Hart’s journey resolves, and that’s the real heart of the story.

True Detective‘s mysterious King in Yellow references a Robert Chambers story about a play that elicits madness and despair in those who see it. The story Cohle and Hart live as they work their case contains enough bizarre evil to induce similar responses. Cohle’s philosophic nature and nihilistic outlook make him particularly vulnerable to emotional and spiritual damage. Hart’s proclivities run to the more standard tropes TV cops use to cope. He cheats on his wife, drinks too much, and is disconnected from his children. Hart ends up in a place something like despair in which he’s lost his family and left his job after exposure to yet another urban legend horror, the baby in the microwave.

Cohle and Hart’s determination to close the case appears to be part-destiny and part obsession. In spite of a serious rift between them, when Cohle shows Hart the horror inducing videotape of one the victims, he’s in. This tape is used to induce former cop Steve Geraci. While immediate exposure to the tape loosens his tongue, Steve does not seem permanently traumatized by his experience, displaying the same self-interest after they finish with him that he has before. He tells them Sheriff Childress is the one who closed the case. Interviews in previous episodes suggest that Errol might be a Childress and possibly an illegitimate child of one of the Tuttles.

After making arrangements to unveil their evidence should they not come out alive, Cohle and Hart follow their leads to Errol’s house. Earlier the episode treats us to scenes of Errol’s Psycho-Louisiana-style domestic bliss. Cohle and Hart’s journey lead them into the heart of Carcosa where the evil is as thick as hot, humid swamp air. Continue reading

Jan 28 2014

Sherlock unmasked


Season 3 begins with Sherlock and John Watson absorbing big changes in their lives. John finds out his best friend isn’t dead, gets married, finds out he’s going to be a father, and get his old job back. Death, birth, marriage, and career change are major life events. Watson has strong adaptability, perceptiveness, and relationship skills so its no surprise he’s handling it like a Hobbit.

Sherlock is dealing with change as well. His best friend is getting married; he’s picking up his life after a lengthy absence; he’s still dealing with life or death mysteries; and, oh yes, he lied to his best friend and nearly everyone else he knows. He let them think he was dead for two years and must now deal with the effects of that deception on all his relationships, even on Molly and Mycroft, who were in on the deception. In one way Sherlock’s return from the dead simply adds to his public mystique, but the press is focused on “how he did it,” an indication that his controlled image is unraveling further. Sherlock seems to be shedding some of his mystique in order to adjust to change, not only in his circumstances, but in himself. Continue reading

Nov 7 2013

Ender’s game and the uncertainty of perception


Ender’s Game explores reality and assumptions. Ender’s Game explores the consequences that come in attempting to separate the emotional and ethical self from the logical and strategic self. Ender’s choices seem reasonable if his assumptions about the games are true. Characters solve perceived problems using reason and strategy, often putting emotions on hold. The movie made me consider whether emotions are as legitimate a consideration in perception as logic and how perceptions alter reality.

For some reason I want to put Ender’s game in the context of two ideas from physics: the observer effect and the uncertainty principle. The observer effect states that observing a phenomenon alters it. Ender’s point of view, his involvement, the compassion and the creative application of strategy Ender brings to Col. Graff’s game sends its players on a different trajectory and alters the reality they perceive. What is real in a theoretical state is altered every time Ender applies compassion and emotion. In the same way Graff’s paranoia and perceptions concerning the Formics alters the security of earth from their attack.

When Ender views the game through Graff’s eyes something different happens than when he responds based on Valentine’s perceptions or Petra’s. Most of us do not respond to real life situations in a completely dispassionate and logical manner. We factor in our ethics as we lay out our strategies. Our emotions affect the execution of our logically conceived plans.

The uncertainty principle states that increasing the precision in which we measure one quantity (either the position or momentum of a particle) forces the loss of precision in measuring the other. Col. Graff’s games are designed to measure Ender’s strategic capabilities while Maj. Anderson’s explore his emotional state. Major Anderson, a child psychologist charged with evaluating the recruits, has Ender play a game that adapts to his emotional state. Ender alters the game and populates itself with people who matter to him. Reality breaks into the game in a way that Anderson did not plan or expect.

Graff’s game requires Ender to make strategic decisions requiring him to sacrifice people he’s never met. In order to succeed in Graff’s game Ender must separate his emotions from the game and make strategic choices in order to win.  It seems impossible for Ender to meld into a whole self in the games he is playing. The more he is aware of the tension within himself between compassion or strategy, the more difficult it is to achieve a balance.

Perceptions and assumptions also create a reality that may or may not be true. Fear drives the decisions of the International Military in Ender’s Game. Col. Graff fears that the Formics who devastated earth seventy years before will come back and finish it off. Though there has been no activity from the Formics, the defense program continues. The program identifies and recruits children whose gaming abilities indicate talent in military strategy. Those children will be pitted against the Formics in a wargame for the plant.

Ender, like his brother and sister before him is identified. While his brother washed out for being too violent and his sister, for being too compassionate, Ender seems to be the one who is just right. Graff sees this program as earth’s best hope for survival and believes that Ender is the one who will ultimately save the planet from the annihilation he fears. Sacrificing childhood to preserve the planet seems like a logical, perhaps even defensible, strategy if Graff’s assumptions about he future are true.

Who’s perceptions are defining reality and what motives are driving their perceptions? Jesus said that there is no fear in love and that perfect love casts out fear. Fear drives Graff’s perceptions. It alters his version of reality. Even without fear, strategy and perception can only take Ender so far. It is compassion that alters everything and reveals what is real.