Monday, March 19, 2018

"Annihilation": Gals with Guns

Here there be spoilers. 
Sometimes the audiences are smarter than the critics. Though science fiction is not my favorite genre, I went to see Annihilation because a family member went to high school with Tessa Thompson, a rising star who plays one of the five brainy, gutsy women (Natalie Portman leads the pack) at the center of the drama. Tessa was always a charmer, and I wanted to check out what she was up to. Then there was the fact that the writer and director of Annihilation, Alex Garland, had earlier given us Ex Machina, an eerily effective thriller about all-too-human robots. And the critics I read made Annihilation sound both visually stunning and intellectually fascinating: a cerebral mind-game with art-film overtones (think Russia’s Andrei Tarkovsky). 

Don’t believe everything you read. I saw the film on a Saturday night in a nearly empty theatre, an indication of the public’s general disdain for the blather that Annihilation puts forth as challenging futuristic ideas. Yes, it’s potentially of interest that, within the mysterious force-field known as “the shimmer,” the DNA of various species (including the human) recombines to form new beings. But I never got the sense that anyone had bothered to think through the implications of this concept. Questions abound. Like -- why is the fate of each member of Portman’s all-female team of scientists and general bad-asses so different? Why – spoiler alert -- is Portman the only one of the five who makes it through to the end of the movie? I’ve tried to logic this out, and come up with the only possible conclusion: Portman’s character survives, in a shell-shocked but still fundamentally human state, because she’s the star of the movie.

Over the years, when working with writers and directors, I’ve clung to a basic principle when it comes to screenplays: you’ve got to know the rules of your world. Even if – especially if -- you’re dealing in fantasy or science fiction, the filmmakers need to grasp the parameters of what they’re creating. Not that the audience must be force-fed every crumb of information: we viewers often have to do some mental work in order to be rewarded with an understanding of what’s going on.  The trouble is that in Annihilation I didn’t feel anyone had a full grasp of the world the film sets in motion. You can only get so far why saying that the universe is a mysterious place. 

Here’s an example of the vagueness that had me so frustrated: lots of screen-time is devoted to hints about Portman’s marriage to a soldier (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing on a mysterious mission, but then resurfaces under strange conditions. Late in the film we discover that she’s had a passionate affair with another man, and that she suspects that Isaac suspects. OK, but how does this tie into anything? Personally, I think her romantic complications are just the filmmakers’ excuse to throw another sex scene into the mix. 

Then there are her comrades in arms, Tessa Thompson among them. Their backstories are summed up in a sentence or so, full of hints about past traumas. But, frankly, these women seem to have no interior lives. Nor, really, does Portman. Why the heck did she serve several tours of duty in the military (developing weaponry expertise) before becoming a professor of biology? Call me a Roger Corman-style cynic, but I think the all-female cadre of scientists on this mission is just an excuse for enticing scenes of Gals with Guns. 

Intellectual mind-games? How about intellectual claptrap? Watching this movie pretty much annihilated me.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Stephen Hawking: To Infinity and Beyond

Not long ago, in an event sponsored by the City of Pasadena, I heard the late Stephen Hawking speak. Or, to be precise, he was present in the hall, and his voicebox was doing the speaking. I don’t remember anything he said, but I know he was charming and funny. And I’ll never forget the sense of awe that filled the room as he was escorted up the aisle. We all knew we were in the presence of a very special being.

Why was Stephen Hawking such a memorable figure? Surely it wasn’t because of his scientific achievements, which most mere mortals could barely understand. I suspect we loved him because he gave off a sense that man—even a man with a fragile and rapidly degrading body—could accomplish anything he chose. Despite the indignities of early-onset ALS, Hawking managed to live a life of achievement, making scientific breakthroughs, writing a best-selling book, and taking part in scholarly debates about the nature of the universe. He also had a full emotional life, which included two marriages and three children. And he was able to enjoy the perks of global celebrity, including humorous guest-star appearances on Star Trek, The Simpsons, and The Big Bang Theory. So what if he wasn’t a good candidate for Dancing With the Stars? In terms of public acclaim, he had it all.

Including, of course, an award-winning movie about his life. The Theory of Everything was a 2014 British film, based on Jane Hawking’s memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. The film begins at the University of Cambridge, where a young, slightly nerdy student of astrophysics and a pretty literature major fall in love. As their romance progresses and Stephen plunges into the study of black holes, he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Though the future looks bleak, Stephen and Jane marry and start a family. And so it goes, with the marriage fraying as Stephen’s body disintegrates. Still, everyone behaves fairly nobly, and the ending is what critics have called “triumphant.” The film was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Felicity Jones). In a big year for biographical portraits—including Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper, Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher, and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma—the little-known Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for impersonating Stephen Hawking

Redmayne vividly captures Hawking’s personality, but of course part of the role’s award-bait potential came from the chance it gave the able-bodied young actor to show Hawking’s gradual physical self-destruction. Surely there’s no scientific way to choose a “best” actor or actress, since each of the nominees has taken on a very different sort of role. That being said, Oscar voters often favor those who display the most dramatic physical transformation. Think, for instance, of Daniel Day-Lewis as a cerebral palsy victim in My Left Foot. Think Tom Hanks battling AIDS in Philadelphia and Matthew McConaughey doing the same in Dallas Buyers Club, with both actors losing copious amounts of weight in order to be convincing. Then there are the heavy makeup roles, with actors rewarded for their ability to put forth a convincing characterization from beneath loads of Latex. .This year’s winner, Gary Oldman, was brilliantly transformed into Winston Churchill. His role in Darkest Hour required of him both solid acting chops and hours in the makeup chair. 

I salute Eddie Redmayne’s performance, but Stephen Hawking was one in a billion. Our universe is poorer without him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fear of Flying: How Airplane Movies Evoke High Anxiety

 It started out as a simple flight, a short Sunday afternoon hop from Tucson to L.A.. I was returning home from the Tucson Festival of Books, where I was treated like a celebrity, even to the point of being chauffeured to the airport by a very friendly festival volunteer who offered cookies and good cheer. (Hey, Jude -- thanks for the lift!) When I discovered that my 5 p.m. flight would be delayed by an hour, I took it in stride, even though the news that the plane had not yet left LAX was far from encouraging. Eventually the departure time was changed to 6:15, and then pushed a bit later. But when the passengers arriving from Los Angeles debarked, things started looking up.

It was one of those tiny jets – two seats on either side of the aisle -- that could have been left over from an earlier era. There was some confusion about which roller bags would actually fit in the overhead compartment, and which would have to be checked and then (hopefully) retrieved at the other end. But I was on the plane, and it seemed as though we were about to head for home. And then . . . we weren’t. Slowly, slowly, our mini-jet inched back toward the terminal, without any real explanation from the crew. We were told to sit tight, and to use the one tiny bathroom if we chose. I wended my way to the aft of the plane, and discovered a young couple desperately trying to soothe a toddler who couldn’t be persuaded to go to sleep. 

And then . . . a uniformed airport police officer walked down the aisle, glancing to his left and right. At such a moment it’s easy to feel guilty—what have I done NOW? And, in today’s uncertain political climate, it’s even easier to feel scared. Was there, perhaps, a terrorist aboard, or an out-of-control crazy, or a disgruntled airline employee determined to wreak revenge? To my surprise, two sheepish-looking young women were quietly escorted off the plane. The word was that they’d been drunk and disorderly in the rear of the vehicle, though from my seat I had seen and heard nothing. The remaining passengers looked stunned, and then we all waited for arrival of the refueling truck. After that, things were uneventful, though I felt sorry (but not too sorry) for passengers with tight connections to Paris and Madrid.

What does all this have to do with movies? It was for me a vivid reminder of why so many film thrillers, past and present, are set on planes. For most of us, flying is mysterious business. We understand it no better than we can grasp how Harry Potter soars into the air in a game of Quidditch. No matter how many times we’ve flown the friendly skies, the enormity of flight can seem a bit overwhelming. So it’s totally credible that things can go, in the blink of an eye, horribly wrong, and that passengers and crew may suddenly find themselves in a life or death situation. Filmmakers have been capitalizing on this fear as far back as 1954’s The High and the Mighty. Whether it’s a storm, a terrorist, an impaired pilot, an attack of food-poisoning, a flock of Canada geese, or snakes on a plane, it’s all too easy to convince the audience that the skies are not so friendly after all.
The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock, though, flew to LAX quite uneventfully. It was only when he touched ground that the trouble began. But that’s another story.

This post is dedicated to the friends, fans, and facilitators of the Tucson Festival of Books. Special kudos to Lynn Wiese Sneyd, Sam Henrie, Jeff Yanc, Michael Mulcahy, Heather Hale, Jude Johnson, and super-fans Cheryl and Howard Toff. My thanks to all. 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Say the Secret Word: Plastics

Big news in the small but star-studded enclave of Malibu, California: the city council has just voted to ban disposable plastic straws, plastic coffee stirrers, and plastic eating utensils from its restaurants. Starting this June, Malibu’s Starbucks and McDonald’s branches will have to find other ways to serve their customers who want to sip a soda or stir Splenda into a venti half-caf 2% extra-foamy latte.  It’s not just that the Malibu celebrity crowd is full of environmental bleeding hearts, though there’s certainly some truth in that. Malibu, of course, is a city with miles of glorious coastline, and the residents know all too well that plastic straws and other non-biodegradable items often end up on beaches. When swept out to sea, they do irreparable harm to fragile ocean creatures. That’s why Malibu has taken the lead, as it did when it was one of the first California cities to ban plastic supermarket bags. 

When I think of plastic spoons, straws, and stirrers, my mind immediately turns to the “just one word” that a man named McGuire promises young Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. The scene is Ben’s coming-home party, where all of his parents’ affluent SoCal friends are gathered to welcome this new college alumnus into adult life. Out by the swimming pool, McGuire intones, like an oracle, the word he’s convinced can be Ben’s Open Sesame into a world of economic satisfaction: Plastics. This immediately became a laugh line, to the point where screenwriter Buck Henry griped that the audience was soon shouting “Plastics!” before Mr. McGuire had even opened his mouth. 

The word “plastics” immediately signified, to the bright young moviegoers who were the first to claim The Graduate as their own, a career based on rampant materialism rather than personal satisfaction. Plastics were exactly what these young graduates did NOT want from their own lives. Like Benjamin Braddock, they hoped their future would be  . . .  different, and they had no wish to be slaves to impulses that were purely capitalistic. What exactly did they want out of life? Peace? Freedom? Love? All of the above? They (or I should rightly say we) weren’t sure, but plastics were nowhere on that list.

But in my research for my new Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How The Graduate Became the Touchstone of a Generation, I’ve discovered that in many ways the makers of plastic have had the last laugh. Jeffrey L. Meikle’s scholarly American Plastic: A Cultural History (1995) admits that “to understand both the resonance of The Graduate and instantaneous emergence of ‘plastic’ as a synonym for fake or phony, one must bear in mind the degree to which plastic never escaped the stigma of the second-rate imitation.” But he also chronicles the ways in which plastic, as a strong and versatile material, seems to have taken over the world we live in. (It’s not all negative. Today, in fact, plastic can give us some truly miraculous assets, like the artificial body parts that can be fabricated by 3-D printers.) 

 My favorite article about the role of plastics in American life was published in Time in 1997. A Time journalist visiting a convention of plastics manufacturers discovered that Mr. McGuire’s advice to Ben was fundamentally sound: “Over the past 30 years, the plastics industry has grown faster that the gross national product.” Nor did those in attendance bear the film any ill-will for dissing their profession. In fact, many of them had first looked into plastics after seeing the film. Said one, appreciatively, “The Graduate was a hell of an advertisement for the industry.”

Mr. McGuire tells Ben the facts of (economic) life