Houdini and Doyle

Last night I watched a couple of episodes of Houdini and Doyle. I couldn’t get the first episode, so I don’t know how it was all set up, but the premise is that Harry Houdini, who is in England for some reason, has teamed up with Arthur Conan Doyle and one of the UK’s first policewomen to solve a series of mysteries. Doyle tends to be credulous and Houdini skeptical about paranormal explanations, and the paranormal account consistently proves to be wrong. The title characters are true to their real-life personalities as I understand them, and they even look like the real Houdini and Doyle. (Just coincidentally, Michael Weston, who plays Houdini, reminds me of Rand Paul.)

In one episode, a villager sees a bright light and then a distant crash. He and his wife approach; he’s accosted by beings whom he takes for aliens, and when he regains consciousness his wife is missing. His neighbors treat him as the prime suspect. This time, breaking the pattern, it’s Houdini who’s more inclined to believe the alien explanation. What really happened gives the story a nice touch.
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Regal Cinemas’ hypocrisy

You can’t go into a movie at a Regal Cinemas theater without submitting to a stranger’s going through your bags and possibly stealing some stuff, after you stand in line for half an hour. The ostensible reason for this is to reduce the risk of being shot. A more plausible explanation is that they want to keep people from bringing in outside snacks and are appealing to fear.

movie scene of man pouring liquorThe explanation that Regal is trying to eliminate the tiniest risks looks dubious when you notice that they serve alcohol. I’ve done some rough calculations from Internet statistics, which are too loose for me to bother you with, and it looks to me as if there’s about 2 chances in a billion of getting fatally shot in a movie theater, and 20 in a billion of dying in a traffic accident going to or coming home from the movie. Different assumptions could shift the results by an order of magnitude or more, so I’m not claiming you’re more likely to be killed in a traffic accident, but I’m willing to say the risks are roughly comparable. If Regal were really interested in eliminating risks on that scale, it wouldn’t increase them by serving alcohol. However, serving alcohol and searching customers are consistent policies if revenue enhancement is their policy — and if they believe they won’t drive away vast numbers of customers by violating their privacy.

I rarely go to first-run movies anyway, so it doesn’t affect my behavior much. I can’t boycott what I wouldn’t attend in the first place. Most of the movies I’ve attended in the past couple of years have been silent movies with live accompaniment. The excessive sound levels, long runs of ads, annoying audience behavior, and high concession prices are already reason enough for me to choose other entertainment. Obviously a lot of people think otherwise, and that’s their choice. We’ll see if their choices change when Regal treats them like dirt.

The Twilight Zone

My latest Netflix binge is The Twilight Zone, which I think is the best TV show ever. Here I’m talking about the original; I haven’t seen enough of the revivals to form an opinion on them. Rod Serling says in the introduction, “You are about to enter another dimension: a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.” He isn’t kidding; almost every episode has something to make you think.

A frequent theme is second chances. If you could go back to your own past, could you recover something you’ve lost or avoid the mistakes you made? In some stories the characters end up no better than before, but in others they learn something. Other episodes are about the consequences of getting what you wish for.

Twilight Zone imageThe episodes tell us something about the times. People are smoking everywhere. A genie grants a couple’s wish for a million dollars, but the IRS promptly takes over $900,000 of it. Some episodes reflect the belief that the primitive computers of circa 1960 were capable of superhuman knowledge or soon would be. “From Agnes, with Love” is intentionally humorous in its portrayal of a programmer’s relationship with a computer, but it’s become unintentionally funnier over the decades.

Some of my favorite episodes:

“The Invaders” pits a woman, played by Agnes Moorehead, against tiny aliens who have landed on her roof. Never mind that they look as if the prop department bought them at a toy store. The tension doesn’t let up, and the courage which she shows is impressive. There is no dialogue until near the end, when … If you’ve seen it, you know, and if you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you.

“The Quality of Mercy” is set on a Pacific island near the end of World War II, and it makes a bold anti-war statement.

“The Last Night of a Jockey” is an impressive one-man, one-room play starring Mickey Rooney, and an example of the “be careful what you wish for” episodes.

A small number of episodes are clunkers. I’ll be happy never to see certain other episodes again, such as “It’s a Good Life” and “Queen of the Nile,” not because they’re badly done in any way, but because I just don’t like nightmares.

For some reason, Netflix has seasons 1, 2, 3, and 5, but not 4.

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Grimm reality

Grimm is the only TV series I watch every episode of, and that largely for social reasons. It has its good points but also some really disturbing ones, and like some other shows I’ve sampled, really excessive amounts of violence. Generally I look at fantasy shows through a fan filter, not worrying much about how implausible they are. But it’s also a cop show, and it’s harder to separate that from reality when the cops are doing things that couldn’t be justified in real life.

David Giuntoli as Nick Burkhardt (IMDB)For those who don’t know it, here’s a quick explanation of the premise. There are beings who resemble creatures from folk tales when in their true form, but who can pass for human. They’re called Wesen, which is German for “beings.” Most are harmless but some do very nasty things. A few people, called “Grimms,” can see them for what they are and have a special ability to fight them. Nick Burkhardt, a detective for the Portland, Oregon police, is a Grimm. There are huge numbers of Wesen in Portland and, as far as we can tell, everywhere else. Traditionally, Grimms and Wesen have been deadly enemies, but Nick is trying to change this. In the police department, just four people know about this situation; one of them is Nick’s boss, who is a half-Wesen. A group in Europe called the Royal Families wants to maintain old traditions and really hates Nick.

For a while the show was making some positive points about the relationship between the police and a minority group. Most Wesen really distrust Grimms, with good historical reasons. Sometimes Nick is able to break through the distrust. But in the last few episodes of the fourth season the conflict with the Royals gets more intense, and Nick has a man abducted and then kills him in a duel. The man he kills really deserves it, naturally, and Nick has a strong personal reason for what he does. Still, it’s first-degree murder under the law.

Let’s look at this through the reality filter. An unknown subspecies of humans is living among us, including enough bad ones that almost every week one of them commits a murder in Portland. Nick and his circle have taken it on themselves to keep this a secret, even though it’s costing lives. If they were just private citizens, this would be their choice; the Wesen have kept their existence secret for centuries, and revealing their existence would be bad for them. When the police cover up the existence of creatures who commit crimes, though, it’s a very different matter. They try to keep Wesen cases from going to trial, or they conceal important parts of the story from the court. By the end of the fourth season, Nick and his associates have engaged in a big secret raid and committed extra-judicial killings. There’s no justification for police operating this way.

Maybe the fifth season will offer some reflection on what’s happened and a change in course. I’m afraid, though, that the show’s producers just think that showing cops killing people and getting away with it boosts ratings. Maybe they think that the people who watch Grimm are the ones who think the Ferguson and Baltimore cops can do no wrong. If so, I think they’ve seriously misjudged the audience.

I’m thinking of working this premise up into an article for sale. Please comment on any points you think I could make better.

The Croods

Poster for The Croods Today I picked The Croods on Netflix, figuring I’d watch twenty minutes or so of a silly caveman comedy to pass the time. I wasn’t expecting the wonderful, philosophical movie it is. It’s about ideas vs. stagnation, exploration vs. safety at all costs, thought vs. brute force, light vs. darkness. At the same time it presents a fantasy prehistoric world that doesn’t even try for scientific accuracy, lots of action, and some stunning scenes.

A couple of favorite lines of mine:

“That wasn’t living! That was just not dying! There’s a difference!”

“No more dark. No more hiding. No more caves. What’s the point of all this? To follow the light.”

It was the perfect antidote and answer to Earth Hour.

On firing people for their ideas

Phil Robertson is a jerk. Putting him on “hiatus,” whether that means outright firing or a suspension till things cool off, isn’t a violation of his Constitutional rights. Unlike Sarah Palin, I don’t admire him at all. But our principles are tested by how we respond to people we don’t like. Should employers fire people for public remarks them make outside work?

A Washington Post article provides some useful background for those who, like me, had never watched Duck Dynasty or heard of Phil Robertson. His remarks about gays have gotten the most publicity, but I personally take the most offense at his attack on the entire non-Christian world:

All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.

“Nazis, no Jesus” is completely false. Hitler was a Catholic and was never excommunicated. The large majority of the Christian churches in Germany, with the conspicuous and brave exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, supported the Nazis. Nazi antisemitism had its roots in Christian condemnation of the Jews for “rejecting” Jesus, a condemnation which is consistent with Robertson’s view.

If those remarks are characteristic of Robertson, he’s not a very appealing person. But he could still be a good actor, a friendly person, perhaps even someone who gets along with people whose religion he despises. I don’t know, and I’d want answers to these questions if I were the one making a firing decision. This isn’t a legal issue of free speech, but an issue of tolerance and the spirit of free speech.

If employers commonly fired employees for things they said outside work, this country would be a very different place. Even with complete freedom of speech under law, people would be afraid to say anything controversial in public. Sometimes they are, but usually we can express our views without serious risk of losing our jobs as long as our words don’t directly impact our employers.

Perhaps TV actors are a different case, though. Their public image is a big part of the value they offer. If Robertson’s remarks made Duck Dynasty‘s ratings drop, A&E might have to get rid of him, just as a business decision. In this case, though, it’s possible that A&E has hurt itself worse by suspending Robertson and antagonizing conservatives. A more important problem is that those decisions lead to suppressing unpopular ideas, not necessarily bad ones. It’s been said that Hollywood people were afraid to criticize Obama’s proposal to bomb Syria because they’d be smeared as “anti-black.” If that could cost them work, their silence is understandable.

Robertson said some stupid things, and A&E had the right to suspend or fire him, but it would have been better simply to answer his irrational words with rational ones. You can’t chant that as a slogan, though.

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The Desolation of Smaug (spoilers)

First, the good: The dragon was impressive.

For the rest, Tolkien’s story collapsed under the weight of Peter Jackson’s treatment. Nothing from the book made it into the movie unmangled. The changes in the first movie strengthened Bilbo’s character, and on balance I liked them. Here almost all the changes are for the worse. The wonderful scene in which the dwarves arrive at Beorn’s door a couple at a time is gone, replaced by Beorn in bear form pursuing them into the house. There’s a love triangle that was apparently added just to include a female character and let Orlando Bloom play Legolas again. And there are orcs everywhere, even in Laketown.

One point I’ll grant is that Bard’s character is better fleshed out; in the book we’re barely introduced to him before he kills the dragon. Here he’s part Han Solo, part Robin Hood, and he has a family.

I’d hoped that Jackson would do something good with Gandalf’s expedition to Dol Guldur, which is mentioned but not presented in The Hobbit. Sauron makes an impressive appearance, but in the end it’s more of the recipe of adding orcs to everything.

Many parts of the book are problematic in a movie for adults, but there could have been better fixes. The dwarves’ escape in barrels always bothered me, because they should have suffocated if the barrels were watertight. In the movie they’re open, so they should make useless boats, especially in rushing water.

I’m not at all impressed.

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Grimm (spoilers for Dec. 6 episode)

The December 6 episode of Grimm, “Stories We Tell Our Young,” has a number of good themes. It deals with a child who sometimes undergoes physical changes and becomes violent. In investigating this, Nick first thinks he’s dealing with some kind of Wesen (prounounced “vessen” — that’s the least of the atrocities the show commits on the German language). A priest thinks that the kid is demonically possessed and attempts an exorcism. The Wesen Council knows of a history of such cases and calls them “Grausen,” a German word meaning horror. It considers assassination necessary.

It turns out that the child is suffering from a non-supernatural brain parasite. Nick stops the would-be assassin and explains this to him; he’s convinced enough to abandon his quest. In resolving a seemingly supernatural event with a natural explanation, and in showing how people (including Wesen) can react to what they don’t understand by trying to destroy it, the show makes good points. (The Wesen are cryptids but still natural beings in the show’s terms.)

On the negative side, the story is resolved with a ridiculous cure for a previously unknown disease based on wild guesses, and the parasites flee out the kid’s nose. It reminded me of the miracle cures in so many Star Trek episodes. I suspect the writers had trouble wrapping this one up; TV shows can do horrible things to adults, but they get complaints if children die. Still, it was a very good episode for the way it dealt with the conflict between the Grimms and the Wesen, among the Wesen themselves, and between different ways of dealing with an unknown threat.

This helped to make up for the previous episode, in which Nick threatened to kill two witnesses if they didn’t talk. They were naiads who would die if kept out of water for too long, and Nick knew it as he said they’d be held until they gave him the information he wanted.

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A Kickstarter campaign worth backing

Today I came across a Kickstarter campaign to produce a movie about “The Amazing Randi,” called An Honest Liar. As with any campaign, I did a little checking about its legitimacy. It gets a mention on the CSICOP website, which is a strong positive. Randi has done some excellent work to expose paranormal hoaxes, and I’ve made a pledge to the campaign. $148K is a lot of money, but I’m hoping they’ll reach the goal. Please consider supporting it and letting people know about it.

The video is worth watching in any case. I learned things about him I hadn’t known before from it.

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Les Miserables

This is a movie I’ve waited a quarter of a century to see. I saw it three times when it opened in Boston, from the second balcony. Since then the music has acquired layers of meaning for me. The cat songs I improvised for Johann. The housewarming song I wrote for Debbie Ohi the day before she moved in, to the tune of “One Day More.” While hearing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” I was in a castle in Germany for the moment, hearing a different set of words, mourning a different person.

Inevitably it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, but it was 80 to 90 percent.

At first I had trouble getting used to the close perspective. Aside from my second-balcony experience, the musical is a flyover of a large and complex novel with large amounts of historical background; characters literally stepped from one scene into another on a turntable stage. Seeing the characters so close seemed wrong, and at times the movie tried for an excessive level of realism (e.g., the “galleys” in the opening scene). It particularly bothered me that some of the sung lines were turned into speech. Either this decreased as the movie continued or I got used to it.

The American version of the musical was left almost entirely intact. (Note for Joey Shoji: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is included.) I don’t recall the convent scene; if it was added for the movie, it was a good touch, improving the continuity and keeping a bit of an important part of the book. (The US and UK versions had some significant differences, and the French one was very different, so bits may have come from any of them.) One change that seriously annoyed me was Javert’s drawing a sword on Jean Valjean at Fantine’s deathbed; I was overdosed on swordplay from The Hobbit and many other movies, and it meant that Valjean had to flee instead of overpowering Javert. In that scene, the amount of overlapping between Valjean’s and Javert’s words was greatly decreased, making them easier to understand but reducing the musical tension.

Hugh Jackman did an excellent job of holding the movie together as Jean Valjean. I very much liked Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Daniel Huttlestone was great as Gavroche, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens when the pup grows up. According to IMDB, this is his first movie, but he has some stage background. Russell Crowe, who played Javert, provided fine singing but wooden acting. There was a nice bit by a French officer who looked as if he really hoped for a peaceful resolution at the barricade before ordering his forces to fire.

Setting up the Thénardiers as comedy relief in the musical never went well with me; they’re deeply nasty characters in the novel. Sacha Baron Cohen makes things even worse in the movie by trying to play Johnny Depp. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine left me cold, though I can’t really say why.

I sniffled a lot. It wasn’t the perfect realization of what I would have liked to see, but it was close.