Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Again

The Annual Christmas Diatribe
Today was my last day of work before our company's holiday shutdown. Apparently it was realized years ago that too many employees take vacation during the week between Christmas and New Year's for the facility to be effective. The shutdown consists of three paid holidays (Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Year's) with four mandatory vacation days in between.

While being mostly alone in the office and left to my own thoughts, I started thinking about what I should write for my annual "Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas" screed. I was going to mention that Happy Holidays is an exclusive rather than an inclusive phrase. That is, it isn't truly a greeting for an amalgamation of holidays but rather a counterfeit that's clearly intended to replace "Merry Christmas". For example, I've often noticed that Menorahs (which are explicitly religious symbols, as opposed to the Christmas tree) and "Happy Hanukkah" are allowed to stand proudly (which they should), while the very word Christmas has become verboten (many a city's official Christmas tree has instead been given the absurd title of "Holiday Tree").

I was even going to bring up how the attempt to phase out the word "Christmas" seems downright Orwellian. In George Orwell's 1984, the Party attempts to control citizens' thoughts through "Newspeak"; a language that supposedly seeks to eliminate "unnecessary" words but is actually intended to abolish "incorrect" concepts from the people's vocabulary and encourage "correct" (i.e., Party-approved) thinking.

Lo and behold, it turns out that I already wrote this diatribe last year:
However, a lot of us don't see the proliferation of "Happy Holidays" as an inclusive practice, but as one that has been deliberately and successfully pushed by certain culturally and politically influential entities to be exclusive of Christianity or any of its outward trappings. It represents one of the earliest and most subtle attempts of the militantly secular (and often explicitly anti-Christian) to strip Christmas of its meaning and origin. Note that no other widely celebrated holiday is considered so unacceptable by the purveyors of political correctness that it is being stripped of its name in a manner that would make Orwell's Ministry of Truth proud.
Well, on to the next topic then.

Elf on the Shelf is Creepy
My wife, a big Pinterest fan, recently introduced me to the concept of the Elf on the Shelf. Apparently the idea is that a family keeps an elf doll in their home during the days leading up to Christmas. This doll is Santa's own little informant and tells the jolly fat man whether or not the children should be on the naughty or nice list.

The official site for Elf on the Shelf says that the elves like to play games with the family, often by hiding in different places throughout the house. Some of the more creative people on Pinterest have also added mischief and pranks to their elf's repertoire.

Although this seemed interesting at first, it got weirder as I thought about it. First of all, the idea of having one of Santa's agents spying on you is a bit too "Big Brother" for me (speaking of Orwellian...). "Dear St. Nick: I'd like to skip the presents this year and keep my privacy. Please call off your spy."

Second of all, look how creepy this elf is:

Oops, wrong elf. I bet he would keep the kids in line, though.

"I can see into your soul"

Sure, it looks cute at first. But imagine this creepy little thing scurrying around your house. It could be watching you at this very moment... and judging you.

I'm sorry, but the magical and/or possessed doll is a horror staple. (Do we all remember the Twilight Zone's Talky Tina? "My name is Talky Tina and I don't think I like you.") And how does this elf doll become magical? According to the website:
The tradition begins when Santa sends his scout elves out to Elf Adoption Centers. Waiting for their families to bring them home, these patient elves hibernate until their family reads The Elf on the Shelf, gives their elf a very special name, and registers their adoption online. Once named, each scout elf will receive its Christmas magic and become a part of the family’s Christmas each and every year.
So, you have to read the book, name the elf, and register its adoption online for it to get its Christmas magic? Again, the stories I'm familiar with have taught me that reading a book to bestow life on something never turns out well, although The Elf on the Shelf doesn't seem like the typical eldritch tome of forbidden lore needed for this kind of thing. Now maybe if it was called The Necronomicon of St. Nicholas and was bound in human skin... Anyway, giving it a name makes sense, since that's often part of bringing an unnatural horror to life, but why do you also have to register the adoption online to finish the process? I really can't see online registration as being the key to unlocking magical powers. And why would you deliberately grant magical powers to a being whose sole purpose is to spy on you?

The whole thing just seems wrong to me. However, if Bride of Atomic Spud decides to get one next year, you better believe that I'll take advantage of all its inherent creepiness and our children will know true terror... uh, I mean the magic of a new Christmas tradition.

A Christmas tradition... of terror.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

[Note: Once again, the review of this 70+ year old movie contains spoilers]

Son of Frankenstein represents the third of Universal Studio's Frankenstein films and the final appearance of Boris Karloff as the Creature. In the first film, Frankenstein (1931), we saw the creation of the monster by Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in his laboratory in an abandoned medieval watchtower and the Creature's subsequent rampage. The Creature is believed to be killed at the end of the first movie as the windmill he escapes to is burned down by a torch wielding mob. The first sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), begins while the wreckage of the windmill is still smoking. The Creature, which survived the fire when he fell into a cistern below the windmill, immediately begins a second, much more subdued rampage. Eventually, Frankenstein's creation gains a friend in the form of a blind hermit. The Creature learns to talk and, at the prompting of would-be monster maker Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), demands that Frankenstein build him a companion. The monster-making is a success while the matchmaking is not. After telling his creator to leave and save himself, the Creature declares "we belong dead!" before throwing a switch that overloads Frankenstein's equipment and destroys the tower. This of course kills the Creature...

Well, actually it doesn't. And, to top it off, in this second sequel the Creature is no longer capable of speech. These are the biggest qualms I have with Son of Frankenstein. As much as I disliked the first half of The Bride of Frankenstein, once the monster learns to talk the film takes a sharp turn and becomes the film it should have been. The final scene of the first sequel is absolutely perfect and is a highpoint of classic cinema. Then Son of Frankenstein comes along and undoes all the good stuff. The only thing carried over from The Bride of Frankenstein is the exploded tower located within easy walking distance of Castle Frankenstein... wait, what? In the previous movies the Frankenstein family had a nice home in town. Henry Frankenstein deliberately chose the watchtower as the site of his laboratory for its remoteness. Why do they suddenly have an ancestral castle on the same grounds as the ruined tower? This latter inconsistency doesn't bother me as much as the fact that Son of Frankenstein effectively ignores all the plot and character development of the preceding film, but it is a bit distracting.

Anyway, the movie begins with a meeting of the town council of Frankenstein (the town is apparently named after the barons' family now). The councilors are concerned about the fact that Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of the deceased Henry Frankenstein, will soon arrive with his family to claim Castle Frankenstein. The townsfolk haven't forgotten about the death and horror that Henry's creation brought to their village and the name Frankenstein is now a curse among them. When the young baron and his family get off the train, they're given a cold welcome by the locals. Frankenstein attempts a lame apology, but it's obvious that he admires his father's work.

It was at this point that I realized that, deliberately or not, The Bride of Frankenstein's awkward attempt to shift the era in which the story takes place works to Son of Frankenstein's advantage. The original film appeared to be set in the year in which it was filmed (i.e., the early '30s) while the first sequel moved the story back to what seemed to be the late 1800s. The events of Frankenstein delayed the wedding of Henry Frankenstein and Elizabeth until immediately before the creation of the Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein. However, the protagonist of the second sequel is Wolf von Frankenstein; the adult son of Henry Frankenstein who is married and has a young son of his own. The clothing and automobiles indicate that this sequel takes place in the '30s, which could only be the case if the events of The Bride of Frankenstein were indeed meant to occur decades before the movie was filmed.

Also interested in Wolf von Frankenstein's arrival is Ygor (Bela Lugosi). As I mentioned in my review of Frankenstein, the only hunchback present during the creation of the first monster was Fritz, who was killed shortly thereafter. Ygor had also been in the grave robbing business until he was convicted and hanged for it. Although the hanging broke his neck and he was pronounced dead, the now-deformed Ygor eventually revived. Since he was hanged as sentenced, and since he had been declared dead, the authorities decided that he should simply be considered dead. Rejected, Ygor began to lurk around the then-abandoned Castle Frankenstein and the ruined watchtower, moving at will throughout the buildings thanks to a series of secret passages. He continues to hide on the grounds even after the Frankensteins move into the castle.

As a medical doctor and as the scientist's son, Wolf von Frankenstein can't help but to be fascinated by Henry Frankenstein's work. However, he has no serious intention to continue his father's legacy; a fact the townsfolk don't believe for a moment. The kindly Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) begins to visit the castle, ostensibly to offer the family his protection in case they have troubles with the villagers. This is at least partially motivated by the fact that six prominent citizens of the town have died recently under mysterious circumstances; the townsfolk blame the supposedly dead monster. However, Krogh eventually makes it clear that there will be no monster-making on his watch. Frankenstein, still eager to defend his father's reputation, challenges the Inspector to list a single confirmed atrocity committed by the Creature. This proves to be a mistake; the Inspector is missing his right arm due to an unfortunate childhood encounter with the monster.

Not long after settling into the castle, Frankenstein investigates the ruins of his father's laboratory. He notes, among other things, that a pit of boiling sulfur was exposed when the watchtower exploded (plot point!). Also noteworthy is the presence of the skulking Ygor, who has need of the services of a Frankenstein with a medical degree. He takes the young baron into the underground chamber where Frankenstein's father and grandfather are buried. Ygor leads him to the back of the chamber where his sick friend lies. I'll give you three guesses as to who Ygor's friend is.

That's right; Ygor's friend is the not quite dead Creature. The monster had survived the watchtower's explosion and had remained on the premises for years until Ygor found him. He had recently fallen into a coma after having been struck by lightning. The statement that the Creature had been "hunting" at the time of the accident, Ygor's suspicious behavior, and the fact that Ygor is played by Bela Lugosi, indicate that their relationship may not be based on a simple need for mutual companionship.

Eager to learn more about the "miracle" that his father achieved, Frankenstein uses a tarp as a makeshift roof and begins to study the comatose monster in his father's old laboratory with the aide of his faithful butler and lab assistant, Benson (Edgar Norton). Even while unconscious, the Creature's blood pressure is three times higher than normal, his heart rate is incredibly high, and the two bullets in his chest seem to have little effect on him. The Creature's physiology proves to be superhuman at the cellular level, as well. Eventually, Frankenstein attempts to jump start the monster with a jolt of electricity. When this fails to revive the Creature, Frankenstein declares that nothing more can be done.

When Inspector Krogh visits again, Frankenstein is clearly nervous and chooses his words carefully; no, he's not been making monsters in his father's laboratory (it's technically true since he's actually trying to wake up a preexisting monster). A visit from Frankenstein's son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan), offers the baron an excuse for breaking off an uncomfortable line of questioning... well, at least until Peter starts talking about the giant that visited him in his room. The giant seemed friendly enough so the boy gave him a picture book. Frankenstein, visibly disturbed, excuses himself and claims that he has to get back to an experiment (which is technically true, I guess).

The doctor arrives in an empty laboratory where the comatose monster is noticeably absent. Frankenstein pockets a knife and is starting to prepare some sort of chemical concoction (a poison or a tranquilizer maybe?) when the Creature arrives. The monster is clearly confused and disturbed. He half-heartedly begins to strangle his creator's son until Ygor arrives and calls the monster off. Frankenstein, realizing that the Creature obeys only Ygor, tells him to keep the monster in the tower until the doctor can find some way to fix his mental derangement. In Ygor's estimation, however, the monster's current condition is perfectly acceptable.

As the astute viewer may have guessed, Ygor has been using his influence over the monster to exact his revenge on the jury that sentenced him to be hanged. Six are already dead and two more are scheduled to meet Ygor's friend. The townsfolk begin to get restless when those two are finally killed. To make matters worse, Benson disappeared after visiting the watchtower and hasn't been seen since the night of the most recent murders. While Frankenstein confronts Ygor about the dead jurors, Inspector Krogh manages to question Peter while his father is away. Peter tells the Inspector that the giant visited him again and gave him a watch. The dedication inside the watch cover shows that it belongs to the missing butler.

Before Frankenstein can send his wife and son off to Brussels (supposedly for nothing more than an innocent vacation), a mob gathers at the gates of Castle Frankenstein. Inspector Krogh makes yet another visit and delivers the news that the mob has agreed to disperse if Frankenstein is arrested. The Inspector allows himself to be delayed in his duty, knowing that Frankenstein is not directly involved in the murders but suspecting that the doctor knows a lot more than he claims. Frankenstein declares that Ygor is somehow involved and vows to throw him off his lands. While the baron rushes off, the Inspector finds the secret passageway in Peter's room that has allowed the Creature to visit the boy. Within the passage is Benson's dead body.

Ygor attacks Frankenstein the moment he enters the watchtower. The doctor came prepared, though, and the man who survived the gallows doesn't survive the bullets put into his chest (or maybe he does; Ygor returns in the third sequel). Almost as soon as Frankenstein leaves, the Creature arrives to find his friend dead and cries out in despair. While destroying the laboratory in anger, he happens to see the picture book Peter gave him earlier. His thoughts turning to revenge, the Creature uses the secret passage to enter Peter's room and kidnap him.

The Creature takes Peter to the watchtower and very nearly throws him into the boiling sulfur pit. However, as the only living being that has shown him any kindness, the monster finds that he can't bring himself to kill the boy. When Krogh shows up, the Creature becomes violent and attacks the Inspector. He manages to rip off Krogh's fake arm and gets a few bullets in the chest in return. The hot lead fails to slow the monster. Frankenstein has more success when he grabs hold of a rope and swings himself into the Creature, knocking him off balance and causing him to fall into the boiling pit. Thus the Creature is finally destroyed... or not (Lon Chaney Jr. replaces Boris Karloff in the role when the Creature returns in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)).

With the apparent destruction of the monster (you'd think they'd realize by now that a monster isn't really dead if there isn't a body), Wolf von Frankenstein finally restores the family name by granting the castle and its grounds to the town.

I'm torn on this movie. Unlike its predecessor, it's consistently good. I much prefer Basil Rathbone's Wolf von Frankenstein to Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein, Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh makes for a good secondary hero, and I enjoyed every minute that Bela Lugosi was on the screen. Even though Boris Karloff's creature can be a murderous brute, he still manages to earn some sympathy. The film doesn't even inflict any odious comic relief characters on us (I still hate the damage that Minnie did to the first sequel). And yet I can't stand that everything good about The Bride of Frankenstein has been undone or ignored.

Without explanation, all the Creature's character development from the previous movie has been wiped away, relegating him to the role of superhuman menace that he had in the original film. The confused mute that we see in Son of Frankenstein might as well have just crawled out of the ruins of Frankenstein's burning windmill. Only the shattered remains of the watchtower laboratory remind us that a despairing Creature once proclaimed "we belong dead!" before trying to end his and the Bride's unnatural lives. I was genuinely disappointed to realize that the Creature may have survived to see another film, but we had lost the powerful character Boris Karloff gave us in the The Bride of Frankenstein.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

[This review contains mild spoilers since the movie's huge box office numbers suggest that I might be one of the last people to have seen it.]

After having depleted the Earth and effectively destroyed its biosphere, humanity has spread to the stars in search of natural resources. By the year 2154 the Resources Development Administration (RDA) has begun to heavily mine Pandora, a rain forest-covered moon orbiting the gas giant Polyphemus. The mineral that most interests RDA is unobtanium; an extremely rare element with vaguely defined properties. (The more common spelling of this frequently recurring fictitious element is "unobtainium".)

Unfortunately for RDA, Pandora is also inhabited by a sentient species called the Na'vi, a clan of which lives inside an enormous tree (simply called "Hometree" by the natives) that grows over some of the richest deposits of unobtanium. Irreconcilable differences between the Na'vi and humanity have led to the failure of all previous attempts to negotiate with the large blue natives. Dialogue early in the film suggests that the trigger-happy security force lead by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is to blame for much of the difficulty.

In a final attempt to relocate the natives relatively peacefully, RDA has brought in a group of scientists to carry out the Avatar Program. An avatar is an artificially grown Na'vi-human hybrid that is controlled remotely by the human whose DNA was used in its production. During the connection, the operator essentially becomes the avatar while remaining completely oblivious to his or her human body that remains in the operator's booth. The use of avatars not only allows the scientists to more easily explore the moon (the fauna is highly dangerous and the atmosphere is unbreathable for humans), but it also facilitates interaction between humans and Na'vi. The head of the Avatar Project, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) briefly ran a school among the aliens that succeeded in teaching English to a surprising number of them. Although the avatars are very similar to the Na'vi, they're different enough that the aliens readily recognize the "dreamwalkers" (the use of human-style clothing doesn't exactly make for great camouflage, either). Augustine's time among the aliens has earned her some of their trust, but most see the avatars as unnatural, soulless creatures.

Our protagonist is paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who lost the use of his legs in the line of duty. Unlike his fellow avatar operators, who are scientists that have studied Na'vi language and culture extensively, Jake was chosen merely because his scientist twin-brother was murdered shortly before he was to leave for Pandora. Jake may not be a highly trained scientist, but the fact that his DNA is identical to that of his brother means that his avatar won't go to waste.

Sully arrives at Pandora after spending the multi-year trip in cryosleep. Augustine thinks Sully is another dumb gunslinger while Colonel Quaritch sees him as someone who can get inside Na'vi society and serve as an intelligence source. It's revealed that RDA intends to bulldoze Hometree relatively soon in order to get to the unobtanium desposit. The RDA administrator, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and Colonel Quaritch want Sully to convince the aliens to leave the tree willingly, but the bulldozers will be coming whether they leave or not.

Although Augustine gives Sully the dirty job as the team's bodyguard, the ex-marine is just happy to be able to walk again through his avatar. During his first mission, though, Sully is separated from his group when he's chased by a predator. He eventually loses the creature but becomes thoroughly lost himself. While wandering in the jungle, a female native sees him from a distance and begins to draw her bow. The only thing that prevents her from killing him is a feathered type of seed that lands on the tip of her arrow. She begins to follow him at a discreet distance.

That night, Sully's avatar is attacked by hyena-like predators. Just as he's about to be overwhelmed, the female Na'vi, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), comes to his rescue. Sully tries to thank her, but Neytiri is disgusted that Sully's clumsiness brought the predators to him and made it necessary to kill them. Sully insists on following her anyway, which Neytiri tries to prevent until Sully becomes surrounded by the odd seeds. The seeds turn out to be from a sacred tree and their presence is taken as an omen by Neytiri. She takes Sully to meet her clan (she just so happens to be the daughter of the chieftain) where she is ordered to teach him the ways of the Na'vi to see if the human's "insanity" can be cured.

Sully starts to sympathize with the Na'vi and falls in love with Neytiri. He also learns that the Na'vi's worship of a nature goddess they call Eywa isn't merely native mythology; all plant and animal life on Pandora is neurologically linked, with the moon's trees acting as a type of neural network. Eywa is effectively the collective consciousness of the world's biosphere. Thus enlightened, Sully eventually proves his worthiness to the clan and is adopted into it. When the bulldozers finally come, Sully attempts to disable them and ends up making an enemy of Colonel Quaritch. Sully is allowed one more chance to inhabit his avatar in order to attempt some last minute negotiations with the clan, but his subsequent failure gets him branded as a traitor by both the humans and the aliens. As Hometree burns, Sully's avatar is left unconscious on the forest floor and his human body is thrown in the brig. A daring rescue puts Sully back in a hidden avatar operator's booth. When the Na'vi's trust is regained, Sully organizes a resistance to his former employers.

Let's go over the good stuff first:
For starters, Avatar doesn't commit the unpardonable movie sin; i.e., it isn't boring. I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit. James Cameron and Weta Digital are justly credited with creating one of the most visually impressive films ever, with nearly flawless CGI and motion capture effects. Pandora's animal and plant life look amazing while the design of the human technology is impressive in its own way. As soon as I saw the RDA's Amplified Mobility Platform walkers (which look like they stepped straight out of Warhammer 40,000), I immediately wanted one. (Note to filmmakers: if you make your villains' weapons cooler than your heroes', the audience might want to identify with the bad guys.)

Certain sci-fi elements are also interesting. The Na'vi's faith in Eywa and their worship of trees are obviously meant to be analogous to the various beliefs, whether literal or figurative, of a variety of ancient religions and of many environmentalists. I don't share those beliefs, but I'm a sucker for any concept wrapped in a good sci-fi package. Once the mythology is stripped away and it's revealed that Pandora's biosphere is linked in a way that Earth's never was, even I can understand the Na'vi's tree hugger mentality. Hidden in what appears to be a long braid, each member of the Na'vi has an exposed nerve bundle that corresponds to similar bundles on Pandora's other animals. When these bundles come into contact, the Na'vi and the animals form a mental bond. The bundles can even be used to link with Pandora's trees. One particular tree, the Tree of Souls, contains the memories of generations of Na'vi, which the living natives can access.

Obviously the Na'vi refuse to allow the humans to harm the trees because they're an essential part of the moon's linked biosphere. This is particularly true of Hometree since it's a major node in the network. Later in the film it's implied that the world's high degree of biological interconnectivity has given rise to a real intelligence that the natives know as Eywa. And just as the bodies of terrestrial creatures can muster antibodies to protect themselves from infection, Eywa is apparently able to direct the various life forms of which it's composed to defend against the human invaders.

Now for the film's weaknesses:
Avatar certainly has a lot of eye candy and several interesting ideas for sci-fi buffs. Unfortunately, like the Star Wars prequels, a lot of effort went into the visuals and general ideas and not quite as much into the plot or the characters. When I saw the first trailers I thought, "Oh, so Cameron made Dances with Wolves... In Space!" Now that I've seen the movie I realize that my first impression was pretty accurate. For all its sci-fi window dressing, the story of Avatar has already been done and has been done better. The movie is predictable to the point of absurdity. This problem is most eloquently summarized by Eric D. Snider: "Once the basics have been established and the story starts moving, you could stop the film at any point, guess what’s going to happen next, and be right almost every time."

Much of Avatar's predictability stems from the fact that Cameron infused the film with ham-fisted anti-imperialist and anti-business messages. My problem is not necessarily that the movie has a leftward slant (conservatives have to get used to that), but that Cameron chose to present his heroes and villains in a comically stereotypical way.

The good guys are obviously the Na'vi. While the aliens' biology is interesting, their culture is not. They may look like giant blue aliens, but they're essentially a generic and idealized race of Native Americans... in space! At least the Native Americans in Dances with Wolves (1990) were portrayed as real people; much of that movie revolves around the conflict between the Sioux and Pawnee tribes. In Avatar there appears to be no rivalry between the various tribes of Na'vi. All was peace and love among the Na'vi until the eeevil humans arrived.

And then there are the villains. Our first view of the RDA complex might as well have had SYMBOLISM flashing in big letters across the screen. The drab facility has huge refinery-style smokestacks belching smoke and flame into Pandora's blue sky. This scene makes little sense given that it's set in the year 2154 when humanity has the capability of interstellar travel. Is RDA actually supposed to be using fossil fuels? If so, why are the emissions of this 22nd century facility worse than those of modern facilities? Is RDA supposed to be like one of those ridiculous villains from the Captain Planet cartoon series who deliberately pollutes?

Then we see how RDA is organized, with Selfridge acting as the nominal administrator while the head of security, Colonel Quaritch, serves as the de facto authority. RDA might as well be called "Military-Industrial Complex, Inc." Both Selfridge and Quaritch are callous individuals who care little for the natives' lives, let alone their land rights. Selfridge actually calls the Na'vi "fly-bitten savages", although he occasionally has the decency to look uncomfortable with the thought of killing them outright if they don't relocate. Quaritch, on the other hand, is downright eager to send his army directly into Hometree. If Avatar had been made during the golden age of film, the climax would have seen Neytiri tied up and about to be run over by a slow moving bulldozer while a fiendishly chuckling Colonel twirled his long black mustache.

James Cameron completely stacks the deck by giving us utterly irredeemable two-dimensional villains. The movie tries to convince us that Sully's change of allegiance is a hard decision, but it's an obvious choice for anybody with a hint of conscience. Cameron's Na'vi are the noblest of beings while RDA's administrators are motivated by pure, unadulterated greed. I have to wonder if Cameron or the makers of tripe like Captain Planet really believe that businessmen and corporations are so cartoonishly evil. Does Cameron even know where the plastic, metal, silicon, and electricity that make his movies possible come from? It's the height of hypocrisy for someone like Cameron to praise a culture such as the Na'vi's and deride the modern lifestyle when he owns an 8,272 square foot mansion. That's a mighty big glass house to be throwing stones in.

What Cameron's story really needs is moral complexity as well as a true dilemma for the protagonist. Sci-fi and Fantasy writer Orson Scott Card excels at this. While his novels often have bad guys, Card always portrays them as human beings who do bad things rather than as caricatures that the reader is expected to reflexively hate. At the same time, his heroes have realistic flaws or weaknesses. Often the conflict between Card's characters or societies stem from misunderstandings or unfortunate circumstances rather than from evil intentions or actions.

Avatar could have been so much better if RDA's personnel weren't so comically evil and the conflict between the Na'vi and the humans were more realistic. A much more nuanced version could have gone something like this:

RDA has established itself on Pandora in order to mine unobtanium. Earth is a dying world and the rare energy-producing mineral may very well be its final hope. In this version, however, money is an incentive but not the primary motive; Administrator Selfridge is proud of his role in trying to save mankind. Unfortunately, his concern for his own species has made him insensitive to the rights of the Na'vi and the health of Pandora. Recent communications with Earth suggest that circumstances there are worsening. RDA's schedule has thus been shortened since any unobtanium will require nearly seven years' worth of travel to reach Earth. 'Desperate times call for desperate measures' has become the administrator's motto.

Colonel Quaritch is no longer the mustache twirling villain but a career soldier who follows the civilian authority (in this case, Selfridge) and generally keeps his opinions to himself. Like Selfridge, he understands the importance of the mission to humanity. To him, the Na'vi represent a threat to the success of that mission. He takes no pleasure in the thought of displacing the Na'vi and, having an extensive knowledge of military history, recognizes the parallels between his current assignment and the notorious Trail of Tears. However, human civilization, to which he owes his loyalty, faces an existential crisis. In addition, Quaritch values his men and sees their safety as his responsibility. During his time on Pandora, the Colonel has become embittered by the losses his force has suffered from attacks by Na'vi clans.

The Na'vi of this revised Avatar remain self aware and retain their nature-worshiping culture. However, the film would more fully consider how the Na'vi would be affected by developing on a world where all plant and animal life are interconnected. Eywa, the super-consciousness formed by that interconnectedness, permeates their conscious and subconscious minds. Although capable of speech, so much of the beings' language is dependent on non-verbal communication through Pandora's neural network that to reach a true understanding with humans is nearly impossible. Although they can seemingly speak the same language, and despite RDA's good-faith efforts to communicate with them, humanity is utterly alien to the Na'vi and vice versa. This leads to frequent conflict and has made Selfridge and Quaritch even more desperate.

As RDA's scientists begin to study Pandora through their avatars, they become aware of the presence of the super-consciousness. Jake Sully's brain is more sensitive to Eywa and he begins to better understand the Na'vi's point of view, especially as he spends time with Neytiri. Even more importantly, he understands that RDA's actions could seriously damage Pandora's unique biosphere and, by disrupting the super-consciousness, devastate the Na'vi physiologically as well as culturally. Given the choice between obtaining a mineral that might help humanity, whose irresponsibility landed it in its current situation, and preserving a vibrant culture that still has a future, Sully chooses to side with his adopted species. The humans' desperation results in a large scale conflict with the natives and Sully must fight against his own people to preserve the Na'vi long enough to reach some sort of accord.

I have no idea whether a more balanced take would have been as popular as what Cameron delivered. By the end of Cameron's movie, just about any viewer will find himself cheering on the Na'vi as they kill the human invaders. A version in which even the villains have flawed but understandable motives would make every Na'vi and human death a tragedy. I'm not sure if that would have sold more tickets, but I think it would have made the story a lot more evenhanded and convinced many viewers to think of Avatar as something more than just eye candy.

But I have to admit that I look forward to the sequels.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Movie Review: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

[Note: As with the my previous Frankenstein review, this review will also contain spoilers.]

As is fairly well known, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was written by a young Mary Shelley in the early 1800s. The novel was the result of a competition between Shelley and several friends to see who could write a better horror story. While the 1931 Frankenstein was introduced by a speaker warning the audience of the impending horror, The Bride of Frankenstein begins with a highly fictionalized account of the origin of Shelley's story.

One stormy evening, Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), her husband Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), and the famous Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) find themselves with little to do. Inspired by the storm (and with an atrocious "Scottish" accent), Lord Byron reminisces about the story that Mary had once told about the mad scientist and his monster. As he speaks, key scenes from the original film flash across the screen for the benefit of an audience that, in all likelihood, had not seen Frankenstein for four years. Mary tells Lord Byron that her story isn't yet finished and launches into the second half of her tale.

This opening is just plain odd, and not just because Lord Byron's accent is horribly obnoxious. Since the film begins as the windmill is burning, leaving little time for exposition, I understand that the filmmakers would feel the need to insert a summary of the original movie. However, bringing Mary Shelley herself into the film has bizarre consequences. Shelley and her friends are shown wearing clothing appropriate for members of early 19th century England's upper class. However, American accents notwithstanding, Frankenstein clearly takes place in Germany in the very decade in which the film was made. Except for the traditional clothing worn by villagers preparing for the marriage of Baron Frankenstein's son, the men all wear 1930s style hats and suits. Even Elizabeth's wedding gown is characteristic of '30s fashion. The machinery used to bring the Creature to life are of 20th century manufacture and are well beyond anything Shelley could have dreamed up.

It seems like the filmmakers decided to retcon the series by changing the era in which Frankenstein's sequel takes place. Gone are the '30s hats and coats; now the Bürgermeister (E. E. Clive rather than the original's Lionel Belmore) and the villagers continuously wear traditional German clothing. Later in the film a character uses a device that is obviously a telephone but has to inform Henry Frankenstein, an accomplished scientist, what the device does. Since The Bride of Frankenstein is a direct sequel to Frankenstein and goes as far as to bring back several secondary characters (if not their original actors), this sudden change in setting is disconcerting.

Anyway, our film opens as the windmill is burning. Henry Frankenstein (still Colin Clive) has been thrown from the top of the building and the villagers have placed him on a makeshift stretcher. At the very end of Frankenstein we saw that Henry had been returned to his family home and was recovering. For whatever reason the villagers now believe Henry to be dead or dying (they're not clear on which). It's at this point that we meet Minnie (Una O'Connor), Baron Frankenstein's housekeeper. In my previous review, I said that the role of Odious Comic Relief would be more than adequately filled in this movie. That role goes to Minnie; a shrill, obnoxious, and opinionated old woman whose antics are supposed to be amusing and funny. They are neither. Minnie dominates every scene she's in and annoys every character as much as she annoys the audience. And, for whatever reason, the writers put her in multiple scenes. In fact, I hate this character so much that she's a major reason why I give this film a lower grade than the original.

The Creature makeup was refined to
allow Karloff to be more expressive
As the villagers take Henry back to his home, certain(?) that he's dead, the Bürgermeister tries to herd the peasants back to the village. Although the original film explicitly showed that only the men had gone out to hunt for the Creature, the mob of townsfolk now contains a large number of women. Hans, the drowned girl's father (Reginald Barlow in place of Francis Ford) who effectively started this whole party, refuses to leave until he sees the monster's charred bones. As his distressed wife looks on, Hans climbs into the smoldering ruins just to fall into a water-filled cistern underneath the windmill's foundation. Needless to say, the man finds a Creature that, despite a few burns on its face, is very much alive and very upset. Dad is quickly dispatched. Believing that the grunting figure emerging from the ruins of the windmill is her husband, Hans' wife finds herself helping the Creature out of the wreckage. Mom finds herself in the cistern, too.

Unaware that the Creature is on the loose again, the locals return the young Frankenstein to his home (oddly, the ubiquitous Baron Frankenstein from the first film is nowhere to be found). As his fiancée, Elizabeth (who is now Valerie Hobson, a brunette with long hair, rather than Mae Clarke, a blonde with shorter hair) and his household begins to mourn him, the not quite dead Henry begins to stir. This causes Minnie to go into "comical" hysterics (man, I hate this character). With Elizabeth's help, the scientist begins his long recovery, regretful that he ever played God and brought such a curse on his family and his village. I said last time that Colin Clive's Frankenstein is great when he's in mad scientist mode. Unfortunately, there's nothing quite as dull as a penitent and self-pitying mad scientist. At the same time, Elizabeth's character seems to be on the edge of insanity. Her premonitions from the first movie have become outright hallucinations as she imagines that an ominous specter seeks to claim Henry (this never comes up again, by the way).

Fortunately, after inflicting us with Minnie and damping Frankenstein's enthusiasm for meddling in God's domain, the writers give us Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius was one of Frankenstein's professors until, like Henry, he was shunned for the nature of his work. The doctor has heard of Frankenstein's success in reanimating dead tissue and has come to solicit his aid in his own experiments. Although he insists that his monster-making days are behind him, Henry can't help but to be curious and agrees to see the results of Dr. Pretorius' work.

Dr. Pretorius is the second best thing about The Bride of Frankenstein. Frankenstein gets enthusiastic about his work; Pretorius becomes downright giddy. And while Frankenstein has enough morality left to restrict his activities to a little grave robbing and stealing a slightly used brain from the local university, Dr. Pretorius has no such scruples. He's not just a mad scientist, he's an evil mad scientist. He's probably best characterized by the toast he offers to his potential partnership with Henry Frankenstein: "To a new world of gods and monsters!"

Unlike Frankenstein, who has bestowed life on dead tissue, Pretorius has been creating human-like creatures from "seed", similar to the way that one would grow a bacterial culture. Unfortunately, his experiments have merely resulted in doll-sized beings which he keeps in jars. It's Pretorius' conclusion that a combination of the scientists' techniques could successfully produce a race of artificially created human beings.

It was when Pretorius pulled out the little jars that my friend leaned over and said, "this is pretty weird", to which I could only agree. First of all, this whole scene is utterly ridiculous. The tiny people are dressed in various costumes and speak in sped-up cartoonish voices. One little person, who's dressed as a king, keeps trying to sneak into the jar of the person dressed as a queen while a tiny bishop wags his finger in disapproval. Why the former professor believes that his discoveries can improve on Frankenstein's work, or how the ability to reanimate dead tissue will correct Pretorius' failures is completely unexplained at this point. The doctor's gleefully over the top performance is the only thing that prevents this sequence from becoming unbearable.

It's bizarre that this scene exists in the same movie where a hideous and misunderstood monster roams the countryside, desperately seeking companionship. The Creature is now more lonely than angry and his occasional acts of violence occur only in reaction to the locals' attacks on him. That Pretorius' absurd doll-sized failures share a film with the Creature's tragic quest is absolutely mystifying. It's even stranger when we find out how Pretorius contributes to the titular Bride; specifically, he grows a new brain for his and Henry's joint creation. Why couldn't the filmmakers have Pretorius display jars with living organs and explain that he was still unable to reproduce an entire human being? Not only would the tone of the film have remained consistent, but the usefulness of this ability would have been immediately obvious given how hard it was for Frankenstein to find a suitable human brain the first time around. It's frustrating that such an obvious opportunity was missed.

And then, suddenly, the film takes a sharp turn and starts getting good.

While Frankenstein mulls over Pretorius' offer, the monster continues his wanderings. At one point the townsfolk actually succeed in capturing him and chaining him in a dungeon, but he breaks his bonds and escapes. Eventually, attracted by the playing of a violin, he enters the home of a blind hermit (O. P. Heggie). Thus far the Creature has been despised by everyone who's seen him. The hermit, unable to see the Creature's ugliness and just as lonely as he is, believes that God has finally answered his prayers and sent him a companion. He feeds the monster and tends the gunshot wound that the Creature suffered while being hunted. As time passes, the hermit teaches the Creature simple speech and Frankenstein's creation finally knows friendship. Of course this can't last and two villagers passing by the hermit's cottage "save" him from the monster while another angry mob resumes the chase.

While being pursued through a cemetery, the monster hides in a large crypt that is occupied by more than just the dead. Dr. Pretorius and his henchmen Karl (Dwight Frye, who played the hunchbacked Fritz in Frankenstein) and Ludwig (Ted Billings) have taken a page from Henry Frankenstein's playbook and are doing a little grave robbing of their own. In a morbid mood, Pretorius sends his goons away and breaks out a bottle of wine while talking to the bones of the long-deceased woman who will apparently be contributing to the professor's next experiment. When the Creature approaches the tipsy scientist, he's surprised to find the professor happy to see him. Pretorius begins questioning the monster and asks him if he knows who Frankenstein is. The Creature's answer, given in his halting speech, is heartbreaking: "Yes, I know. Made me from dead. I love dead... hate living." The professor promises to create a female companion for the monster, which interests the Creature very much.

When Pretorius visits Henry again to convince him to continue his work, he brings the Creature along to help emphasize his point. Frankenstein is rather surprised to hear his creation firmly tell him to "sit down"; one of the first things we heard Henry say to the monster in the original film. When Pretorius feels like Henry has been adequately intimidated, he commands the Creature to wait outside. When Henry finally refuses to build another monster, he hears screams; the Creature has decided to force his creator's hand by abducting Elizabeth. Left with little choice, Henry returns to the watchtower and, with the help of Pretorius, begins to construct a new creature.

Unlike last time, Henry has a much tighter schedule and is trying to incorporate Pretorius' innovations into the new monster. As he works, the Creature roams the watchtower, anxious to have a friend and companion made especially for him. Henry's short-tempered creation refuses to allow him any rest. When Frankenstein demands to see Elizabeth, he is only allowed to speak to her through "an electrical device"; i.e., the phone that I mentioned earlier. Although it's not entirely clear, it seems that Elizabeth is being kept in a nearby cave or dungeon.

The brain that Pretorius has grown appears to be satisfactory, but the heart isn't strong enough. The professor orders Karl to obtain a new heart, which he gladly does. Henry is amazed by the freshness of the organ, which Karl hesitatingly states was obtained from "an accident victim". As Pretorius well knows, the heart's donor was very much alive when Karl found her. With the organs installed, the body on the table awaits the quickly approaching thunderstorm.

The Bride of Fankenstein's creation scene is just as fantastic as the similar scene in Frankenstein, even after having seen both sequences within an hour and a half of each other. This second scene has introduced the use of large kites launched by Karl and Ludwig to help attract the lighting. While on the roof, the Creature attacks Karl and throws him off the watchtower. I'm not entirely sure why he does this, but it seems appropriate since Karl is a cold-blooded murder that's played by the same guy who played Fritz.

Obviously Frankenstein and Pretorius are successful, and again Frankenstein declares "It's alive!" with nearly as much enthusiasm as before (he might be doing it under duress, but a self respecting mad scientist should always be able to muster at least a little enthusiasm when playing God). Soon the female Creature (Elsa Lanchester, who played Mary Shelley earlier in the film), has been unwrapped and is brought to her feet. Pretorius dramatically calls her "the Bride of Frankenstein" (hey, he said the movie's title!) and the original Creature slowly approaches her. The Creature is sorely disappointed when the Bride finally opens her mouth and screams at his hideousness. The Creature again tries to interact with her by taking her hand and receives the same response. "She hates me," says the monster, in a voice mixed with as much sorrow as anger.

As the situation quickly starts to fall apart, Elizabeth appears at the watchtower door, having escaped her imprisonment off-screen. The Creature, now utterly desperate, rages through the lab and eventually puts his hand on a conspicuous lever. As required by the Mad Scientists' Union, Frankenstein's equipment apparently has a self destruct switch. Henry warns the monster that pulling the lever could kill them all. Realizing that death is almost certainly what the Creature wants, he warns Elizabeth away. Elizabeth refuses to leave without Henry, but Frankenstein won't leave his creations again.

Finally, the Creature makes up his mind and commands his creator and Elizabeth to go and live. Then, looking at Pretorius, he yells "You stay! We belong dead!" A tear falls down the monster's cheek as he pulls the lever. The resulting explosion envelops the Creature, his short-lived companion, and the professor. Henry comforts Elizabeth as they watch the rest of the watchtower collapse.

Although it has a few weaknesses, Frankenstein is consistently good. It starts out with grave robbing, promptly moves on to the creation scene, shows how quickly Frankenstein loses control of the Creature, and then finishes off with the hunt for and apparent destruction of the monster. The Bride of Frankenstein, on the other hand, just doesn't just seem to do a whole lot in its first half other than to show that the Creature survived the fire. We're forced to spend time with annoying characters like Minnie, we see an otherwise acceptable mad scientist like Dr. Pretorius pull out his ridiculous little people in jars, and we get to watch Frankenstein feel sorry for himself (which is the weakest part of the novel, too).

And then, just when The Bride of Frankenstein feels like it's going to be one of the many disappointing sequels to classic monster movies (see my review on the sequels to The Creature from the Black Lagoon) the filmmakers repent of their earlier mistakes and give us a different movie. Minnie effectively disappears into the background, Pretorius' jars are put away and never mentioned again, and Frankenstein gets back into the monster-making business. And the Creature learns to talk.

Boris Karloff does a great job when he plays a mute; he's amazing when his Creature is allowed to speak. In Frankenstein he's threatening, although it's hard not to have at least a little sympathy for him. As soon as he becomes acquainted with friendship from his time with the hermit, and once he learns to talk (albeit with a vocabulary of no more than a few dozen words), the Creature becomes a fascinating and tragic character rather than just a destructive force. Of course, he doesn't lose any of his menace; his first post-windmill interaction with Frankenstein proves that. But, ironically, it's the grotesque reanimated corpse that has the most depth and becomes the most human character in the entire film. Boris Karloff makes the movie and the filmmakers knew it. His name is rightly presented first and in enormous font during the opening credits.

If only the first half of the film was as good as the second.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Movie Review: Frankenstein (1931)

This past week, a friend and I took advantage of the recent Fathom Events/TCM screening of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein at the local multiplex. I had seen both films before, but that was about 15 to 20 years ago when the Sci-Fi Channel actually showed good movies, especially around October. The chance to see the two on the big screen was too good to pass up.

I was pleased with the presentation; TCM had digitally cleaned up the two films, which were projected in HD. I've seen movies made fifty years later that didn't look or sound nearly as good. Although a transmission error caused us to miss the first few minutes of the film (i.e., we didn't see the studio's "warning" about the horror we were about to see), we missed so little of the actual story that I think most of us forgot that it even happened.

[Note: Since Frankenstein is over 80 years old, this review will contain spoilers.]

Frankenstein (1931):
I've written about this film before in the 31 Monsters of October series I did in 2010 (they're still my most popular posts). I hadn't seen the film in years, so the entry has a few minor errors; e.g., I incorrectly believed that the film's Henry Frankenstein was a full-fledged doctor rather than a university student.

The story proper begins with a funeral which is under clandestine observation by a rather unsavory pair (in my opinion, anyone bringing a shovel to a funeral is suspect). After the grave has been filled but before the dirt has even settled, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunch-backed assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) rush out to do some good ol' fashioned grave robbing. (Yes, I said Fritz. There was no Igor character in the novel nor in the Frankenstein films until Bela Lugosi's "Ygor" appeared in Son of Frankenstein (1939).) Later, a second body is pilfered from the gallows. The hanged man's neck had been broken, making the brain useless, so a third trip is made to the local university (the one Frankenstein had attended until the nature of his studies started making his professors uncomfortable). A jumpy Fritz drops the first brain he grabs so he ends up stealing the one right next to it... the one in a jar labeled "Abnormal".

In the meantime, Henry's father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), Henry's fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and their mutual friend, Victor Moritz (John Boles), are worried about the fact that Frankenstein has recently secluded himself in a decrepit watchtower and thinks of nothing but his work. Elizabeth and Victor solicit the help of one of Henry's professors, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), in an attempt to convince Frankenstein to return to his normal life.

The three have terrible timing, though. Not only do they arrive at the watchtower in a thunderstorm, but it happens to be the very night that Frankenstein and Fritz intend to bring their hideous assemblage of dead body parts to life. Henry reluctantly allows his visitors to enter, but tries to convince them to leave. It's only when Moritz refers to Frankenstein's "mad" work that Henry decides to show them exactly how mad he is. Frankenstein's unexpected audience watches as Henry and Fritz start up various machines and electrical devices surrounding a table on which lies a human body covered in a sheet. As the storm reaches its zenith, the table is raised towards the roof and lightning is conducted through the machines and into the corpse. Once lowered to the floor, the body's exposed hand begins to twitch. An ecstatic Frankenstein declares that "It's alive! It's alive!"

Elizabeth and Victor return to Baron Frankenstein and try to allay his fears about his son (while leaving out certain details), while Dr. Waldman and Frankenstein discuss what to do with the Creature (Boris Karloff, obviously), which has been allowed to wander around the watchtower. Waldman warns that it's a monster and declares that it must be destroyed, while Henry maintains that the oversized being is made from the best human tissues and can become like any other human. When Henry admits that the Creature's brain came from Waldman's own university, the professor tells the startled scientist that "The brain that was stolen from my laboratory was a criminal brain."

When the Creature shows that it's terrified of fire, Fritz insists on tormenting it with a torch. The Creature's violent personality is soon revealed when it kills Fritz and attacks Waldman and Frankenstein. After the two are able to inject the monster with tranquilizers, a penitent Frankenstein admits that Waldman is right. The old professor volunteers to dismantle the Creature and insists that Henry return to his loved ones and finally make good on his promise to marry Elizabeth.

So, any guesses on what could possibly happen when a scientist is left alone in an abandoned watchtower with a tranquilized reanimated corpse with a propensity for violence? A reanimated corpse that, according to Waldman's own notes, is gradually developing a resistance to the tranquilizers?

Anyway, as Henry, Elizabeth, and the rest of the village prepare for the wedding, the bride-to-be begins to have horrible premonitions of doom. Although Dr. Waldman's failure to arrive on time has Elizabeth worried, Henry insists that the old professor was never very punctual. Meanwhile, the Creature roams the countryside and the body count begins to rise. While the drowning of a little girl is caused by the Creature's lack of understanding rather than from malice, many deaths result from the villagers' violent reactions to the Creature.

Not long after finding out that Dr. Waldman has been killed, Elizabeth's screams and the Creature's grunting alert Henry that the monster is in his house. The arrival of Henry and Victor causes the monster to run off before he can seriously injure Henry's fiancée. When the little girl's father brings her body to the town's Bürgermeister, the bereaved father, the Bürgermeister, and Frankenstein (whose part in the whole tragedy is unknown to all but Elizabeth and Victor) are assigned to lead three groups of pitchfork- and torch-wielding villagers in a search for the monster.

The three groups eventually converge on the mountains where the Creature confronts Frankenstein, who has become separated from his group. After knocking him out, the monster drags his unconscious creator to a rundown windmill. When the villagers surround the structure, the Creature throws Henry to the ground. Only a passing windmill vane breaks the scientist's fall. The villagers set fire to the building, apparently destroying the Creature.

Although I recognize a lot of its weaknesses, I love this movie. Modern audiences may be a bit less forgiving than I am, though. As I've noticed in many other movies from the '30s, a surprising number of the actors, even some of the more important ones such as Mae Clarke (Elizabeth), give oddly stilted and exaggerated performances. And, as was par for the course during this era, the writers insisted on giving us a comic relief character in the form of Baron Frankenstein. While Kerr's befuddled Baron is occasionally funny, his antics often seem out of place in an otherwise serious film. Fortunately, he never descends to the level of Odious Comic Relief; a position that would be more than adequately filled in The Bride of Frankenstein.

There are a few logical lapses in the film as well. For example, it's never explained how the drowned girl's father knows that she was murdered. He leaves the little girl, who can't swim, to play by the lake. He never sees the Creature and therefore has no reason to suspect that her death was anything but an accident. Additionally, through an unbelievable and unexplained coincidence, the Creature makes a beeline to the Frankenstein home and arrives in time to interrupt the wedding. While the novel's monster threatens Elizabeth shortly after the wedding (okay, "threatens" as in he actually kills her), Mary Shelley's Creature is portrayed as having an above average intelligence and finds his creator's home by following him surreptitiously.

There are other aspects of the film that may turn off modern viewers. These are characteristic of movies from this period and aren't truly the fault of the filmmakers. For starters, like Dracula (1931) and other "talkies" from the very early 1930s, the movie lacks any sort of score. We've become so used to hearing music in the background of our movies that its absence can be off-putting. Also, the climactic search for the Creature occurs on a relatively small mountain set, which adversely affects some of the scene's drama. Unlike some of their foreign counterparts, early American filmmakers rarely risked their expensive equipment by doing location shooting and preferred to stick to indoor sets. By contrast, the German director F. W. Murnau filmed a surprising amount of Nosferatu (1922) on location, much to that film's benefit.

These shortcomings aside, Frankenstein is a great old film. Mae Clarke's Elizabeth or Frederick Kerr's Baron Frankenstein may not be the most engaging characters, but Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein is excellent when he's in full mad scientist mode. Between Clive's acting, director James' Whale dynamic camera, and electrical effects designer Kenneth Strickfaden's equipment, the creation scene is still amazing even 80 years later. Boris Karloff makes the movie; his depiction of the Creature is simultaneously menacing and sympathetic. And his performance is only enhanced by Jack Pierce's famous makeup job. In fact, the makeup has become so iconic that I'd be willing to bet that most modern viewers wouldn't recognize Boris Karloff without it.

Next time: The Atomic Spud meets The Bride of Frankenstein...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Book Review: Nephite Culture and Society: Collected Papers

[This review originally appeared on]

Nephite Culture and Society: Collected Papers by John L. Sorenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This interesting book collects a number of papers by LDS archaeologist John Sorenson. Subjects range from the composition of Lehi's and Nephi's group of travelers to the political structure of the Nephite (and to a lesser extent, Lamanite) civilization throughout its history. Unlike similarly-themed works, these articles are not primarily meant to provide evidence for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Instead, the papers attempt to examine or deduce elements of Nephite culture under the a priori assumption that the Book of Mormon is true. Many LDS readers will nonetheless find the book faith-promoting given that the Book of Mormon provides sufficient detail to allow Sorenson to believably reconstruct the essentials of Nephite culture. The result is a society that appears to parallel those of known ancient civilizations.

All the papers are interesting and the majority of Sorenson's work appears to be adequately supported and well reasoned. However, some of his arguments rely on off-handed statements found in a single verse or on his interpretation of a single phrase. For example, is someone who is described as "Lamanitish" different than someone who is simply a "Lamanite" or does the term "People of the Nephites" imply something that the term "Nephites" doesn't? In another paper which claims that Nephite/Lamanite warfare was highly seasonal, Sorenson must extrapolate approximate dates for numerous battles and events based on a writer saying that a preceding event occurred during some specific month of that particular year. While his reasoning for the dates seems sound, it is less than ideal to base an argument on extrapolated data.

Nephite Culture and Society is a good book and provides a fascinating look into the cultures of Book of Mormon peoples. However, readers must realize that the Book of Mormon wasn't intended to be an anthropological text and therefore lacks explicit information about the very subjects that Sorenson discusses. Thus, it must be understood that several of Sorenson's arguments and conclusions are necessarily speculative.

One more minor criticism: I'm not sure who chose the font for this book, but it's not easy to read. I think the last thing an author wants when he's trying to convince the reader of the validity of his conclusions is for the reader to be distracted by the font.

View all my reviews

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Acid Reflux Saga

I've had problems with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) since I was a teenager. By graduate school it had gotten so bad that I started taking the proton-pump inhibitor (PPI) Prilosec to control it. While it worked well for years, over the past year I began to realize that the daily pill that had controlled my reflux for eight years had started to lose its effectiveness. A little research found that this is relatively common for those who have taken a particular PPI for as long as I have.

I visited my doctor who prescribed a much stronger (and more expensive) PPI called Dexilant. Dexilant worked much of the time, but I'd have periods of one to two weeks where it just didn't seem to be effective. Concerned that the reflux could lead to serious problems like Barrett's esophagus, my doctor recommended that I visit the surgeon who removed my gallbladder earlier this year for further evaluation. The surgeon quickly scheduled me for a series of tests. These were meant to determine how bad my reflux was, what kind of damage it may have caused, and whether or not I was a candidate for a surgical solution. Given how long I've had this problem, it was believed that I might end up having surgery.

Who knew that the tests for evaluating chronic reflux could be so horrible?

The first test was the upper GI endoscopy. This involved putting an endoscope with a camera on the end down my throat to take pictures of the esophagus and the entry to the stomach. They gave me a sedative for this one (thank heavens). The sedative wasn't the same as a general anesthetic, but it might as well have been given how hard it knocked me out.

The finding of the endoscopy was that I had low level esophagitis and a mild hiatal hernia. Since I had taken PPIs for years, it was possible that my reflux was still pretty bad and that the acid hadn't been able to do too much damage yet, so it was on to the next test.

Esophageal Motility and pH Study
Before doing these tests, they made me stop taking any PPIs for a week. If I thought that my medicine was no longer effective before, I was shown how well it was still working during those seven days. It was definitely a long week. When I finally I went to the gastroenterologist's office, I was glad that I was finally going to get the test over with and be able to take Dexilant again.

Then they told me what they were going to do to me. Who knew that a test with such an innocuous name could be so unpleasant?

You've got to be kidding me
I could only laugh when the physician's assistant showed me the enormous probe (okay, its diameter was probably only 1/8", but it sure seemed big) that they were going to put up my nose, down my throat, and into my stomach. Then they were going to pull it out centimeter by centimeter while I swallowed syringes of Gatorade to assess the function of the muscles in my esophagus. The test was expected to take about 20 minutes but could take longer if I inadvertently swallowed at the wrong times.

The assistant made three attempts to insert the probe, but it kept jamming into the back of my throat and getting stuck. I gagged each time and eventually asked the assistant if anyone had ever thrown up on her. She said that no one ever had, but she kept a trash can nearby just in case. She finally called for the doctor to see if he could get the tube in. "I hear we've been torturing you," the doctor told me. "This is the worst test we do without putting you to sleep." The doctor was able to get the probe to make the U-turn in his first attempt and the assistant ran the rest of it in. This was as fun as it sounds.

The probe was so thick that the slightest movement caused gagging. Swallowing wasn't much easier. For the next 20 to 30 minutes the assistant squirted Gatorade into my mouth and had me swallow once each time. After 20 seconds of data collection, she would pull the probe out another centimeter and repeat the process. Normally I'm able to mentally distract myself from a situation (and yes, it is often by thinking of Warhammer 40K). However, I found it hard to think of anything other than the thick catheter that ran up my nose and down my throat and that was being pulled out ever so slowly.

The smile is definitely forced
Once that horrible test was done, I went on to part two. Part two wasn't much better. They were going to stick yet another piece of equipment up my nose and down my throat (this one with a 1/16" diameter). The sensor end of this probe would dangle just above my stomach while the other end would protrude out of my nose and would be attached to a small computer that I could hang from my shoulder. I had to wear this thing for 24 hours, while the computer continuously monitored the pH levels in my esophagus. I was supposed to push a button on the computer each time I had heartburn to indicate when I thought reflux episodes were the strongest.

Like the bigger probe, the pH sensor made it difficult to move my head without gagging. I was supposed to eat during the test period, which wasn't too much fun given that my esophagus had to push all food past the wire. Swallowing had the unfortunate effect of causing the wire to wiggle up and down, which made me gag slightly and irritated my nose. I spent almost the entire day on the Internet trying desperately not to move too much. Obviously sleeping was a challenge. The only positive was that my heartburn was at its worst that day, so at least I felt like I was giving them good data.

After 24 very long hours I went back to the gastroenterologist's office (the receptionists didn't even have to ask why I was there). Before taking the wire out, the assistant checked the computer's data card. As she accessed the card, I had a brief moment of panic when I imagined that the card had become corrupted and that I would have to wear the wire for another 24 hours. Thankfully the card was fine and I was able to go on to my next appointment without the hardware. I was told that the data would be processed and sent to my surgeon within a week.

Barium Swallow
The next thing I knew I was at the radiologist's office and was swallowing a chalky liquid with the consistency of paint. The physician's assistant apologized for the taste of the barium and how much I had to drink, but I assured her that it was a pleasure after having to wear that probe for a day.

I've gotten more radiation exposure from things
like this than I've ever gotten at work
The truth was that drinking the barium wasn't the hard part. The hard part was drinking the ground up Alka-Seltzer beforehand and trying not to belch. The stuff is intended to distend the stomach to allow the fluoroscope (a real-time X-ray machine) to get better images. When the process required me to lay on my stomach, it took a lot of effort to keep the gas down.

The fluoroscope was a pretty neat device that was operated with a joystick. Each time I swallowed a mouthful of barium, the radiologist would follow it down with the fluoroscope's emitter like he was playing an intense (and radiation-emitting) video game. The bed of the machine could rotate from a fully upright position to a prone position and we repeated the process with me standing up, laying on my side, laying on my stomach, etc. Eventually he had me do a variety of exercises meant to produce reflux, which he was able to record.

The barium swallow confirmed what the endoscopy had told us; i.e., that I had a small hiatal hernia. Like the pH data, the radiologist's findings were sent along to my surgeon.

And the Final Verdict Is...
Yesterday I went to the surgeon and he gave me his recommendation based on all the test results. I knew something was awry when he said "You're not giving me much to hang my hat on" and asked if I had stopped taking my reflux medication a week before the pH test. Yes, I said, my heartburn had been horrible the day I had the probe in. Lo and behold, the pH test showed that the acid levels in my esophagus were within normal limits. The esophagitis that the endoscopy had found was minor and simply indicated that I have a small amount of reflux that's relatively normal. The barium swallow confirmed that I have a small hiatal hernia, but those are extremely common and hernias that size don't generally cause a problem.

So why the heartburn? Well, every few months the surgeon sees a patient with an extremely sensitive esophagus. While the reflux they have is within acceptable levels, the pain and discomfort is considerable. Apparently I'm one of those lucky patients. "I'm a surgeon by trade, and I'd love to operate on you," he told me, "but I don't think it would help you." The nearest thing to a solution for this is PPIs since the surgery still permits a small amount of reflux to occur. Since my problem is a sensitive esophagus, I would still get heartburn after the surgery plus I would have all the unfortunate side effects that come with the procedure.

I'm not really sure how I feel about this. I'm glad that I don't need surgery and it's good that my reflux isn't bad enough to really damage my esophagus. On the other hand, I've just been told that my problem won't really go away and that I'm just going to have to be dependent on medicines that may or may not be effective for me anymore.

And it means that I had that %$#& probe up my nose for nothing.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

That's Not a Dinosaur!

Yesterday I was reading one of the How Do Dinosaurs... books to Son of Atomic Spud. (Much to my disappointment, the boy focused on the basketballs and footballs found on nearly each page more than he paid attention to the dinosaurs.) These books are part of a series intended to encourage good behavior in children. Each page features a dinosaur in an everyday situation surrounded by human children and adults; the dinosaur essentially represents a child who likes to pretend that he or she is a dinosaur. Usually the first half of each book shows the dinosaur misbehaving while the second half juxtaposes the proper behavior. This description may make the books sound preachy, but they're actually very well done.

My only real gripe about the books is that they often include prehistoric animals that, although many people seem to think that they're dinosaurs, are not actually dinosaurs. For example, Dimetrodon and various species of pterosaurs often make an appearance, but they simply are not dinosaurs.

Although there are a number of features that distinguish dinosaurs from other prehistoric animals, there are several ways to quickly tell when an animal is not a dinosaur. It's not a dinosaur if:
  • It was a flying animal
  • It was exclusively aquatic
  • It had sprawled legs like a lizard or a crocodile
  • It lived before or after the Mesozoic Era, which consisted of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods
There are a few animals that seem to be most often misidentified as dinosaurs:

Dimetrodon fails the dinosaur test in a number of ways. First of all, this popular sail-backed creature lived during the Permian Period, which was the final geologic period of the Paleozoic Era. Dinosaurs didn't appear until the first period of the following era (i.e., the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era). It's believed that the last Dimetrodon went extinct 40 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the earth.

A less obvious way in which Dimetrodon is not a dinosaur is the fact that its physiology shows it to be a synapsid rather than a sauropsid. Dinosaurs, existing reptiles, and birds are sauropsids while Dimetrodon and mammals are synapsids. In other words, according to current theories of phylogony, Dimetrodon is more closely related to mammals that it is to dinosaurs.

Dimetrodon: The sprawled legs show that it's not a dinosaur

The fastest way to tell that Dimetrodon wasn't a dinosaur is the fact that its legs sprawled out from its body. Thanks to the shape of their hip sockets and femurs, dinosaur legs were erect rather than sprawled to the sides. Remember, if it walked like a crocodile, it's not a dinosaur.

The order Pterosauria includes the well-known genera Pterodactylus and Pteranodon. These flying reptiles lived around the same time as the dinosaurs (i.e., the Triassic Period to the Cretaceous Period). Also, like dinosaurs, the Pterosaurs were part of the Archosaur group. (Modern Archosaurs include crocodilians and birds.) However, Pterosaurs are not classified as dinosaurs, which were exclusively land-dwelling animals. And it's fairly obvious that Pterosaurs didn't have the same upright limbs as dinosaurs.

It's believed that the pterosaurs' and dinosaurs' last common ancestor lived during the Early Triassic, which ended about 245 million years ago. The first dinosaurs seem to have appeared about 230 million years ago during the Middle to Late Triassic, while the first Pterosaurs appeared about 210 million years ago.

Pterosaurs: Flying shows that they're not dinosaurs

Plesiosaurs and Mosasaurs
Like the Pterosaurs, the Plesiosaurs and the Mosasaurs also lived during the time of the dinosaurs. However, since they were specifically adapted to aquatic life, they are not dinosaurs.


While the Mosasaurs don't really resemble dinosaurs and don't seem to be confused with them as often, the fact that the Plesiosaurs aren't dinosaurs might be confusing to some people. In the popular mind, a Plesiosaur like Elasmosaurus looks a lot like a sauropod (e.g., Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus) but with flippers instead of legs.


Despite their physical similarities, it turns out that the relationship between Plesiosaurs and dinosaurs is even more distant than that between the Pterosaurs and dinosaurs. At least the latter two are both Archosaurs. The Plesiosaurs are part of the Sauropterygian group that first appeared around 245 million years ago and developed alongside the Archosauromorpha group (i.e., the group that eventually gave rise to the Archosaurs).

A Plesiosaur: The flippers show it's not a dinosaur

Similarly, the Mosasaurs are only distantly related to dinosaurs. They were part of the Lepidosauromorpha group, of which modern lizards and snakes are a part.

A Mosasaur

Remember, if it walked like a crocodile, flew, or lived only in the water, it's not a dinosaur.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

I've been a huge fan of Christopher Nolan's previous Batman films: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Thus, although the early reviews of The Dark Knight Rises were mostly positive, I was disappointed by a number of reviews that complained that the film was too long, clunky, or that Batman didn't appear on screen enough. Others complained about the film's villain, Bane. Eric Snider, one of my favorite movie critics, gave Rises a B versus the B+ he gave Batman Begins and the A- have gave The Dark Knight. (A B from Snider isn't actually that bad since his ratings don't generally suffer from grade inflation.) Having read several reviews, I went into Rises with slightly lowered expectations, but was pleasantly surprised by the film I saw.

Eight years after the Batman took the blame for Harvey Dent's death, Gotham City seems like a much better place. The resulting Dent Act was used to break organized crime in the city and to deny parole to large swaths of convicted criminals. Crime is at such a low rate that most newspaper headlines are now focused on the so-called "Cat" burglar who has stolen priceless items from members of Gotham's wealthy elite. However, on a much less visible level an inevitable conflict is brewing, much of it instigated by a masked terrorist known only as Bane who is amassing an army in Gotham's sewers.

With Batman gone, Gotham is now patrolled by Gotham's police, who are a lot more respectable than the crooked cops of nearly a decade before. One of these cops is Officer John Blake; an orphan who was inspired by both Bruce Wayne as well as the Batman while in his youth. Blake is a natural detective. He's so natural, in fact, that he deduces Batman's secret identity and realizes that the official explanation for Dent's death is false. Blake knows that something sinister is happening and urges the reclusive billionaire to put on the cape and cowl again. It's not until Bane's operation finally comes to the surface in a brutal takeover of Gotham's stock exchange that the Batman makes his first appearance in eight years.

Batman eventually confronts Bane when Selina Kyle (who is never explicitly called "Catwoman") reluctantly leads him into a trap. The confrontation doesn't go the way that the Caped Crusader expected and the villain is able to set into motion his master plan: to obtain a fusion reactor built by Wayne Enterprises and turn it into a nuclear bomb. Soon Gotham is cut off from the rest of the world when strategic bridges are destroyed. Bane and his army threaten to set off the bomb if the authorities intervene while publicly declaring that their only motive is to return the city to the people (i.e., Occupy Gotham). However, the fact that the bomb is designed to detonate after several months without anyone actually pulling the trigger suggests that fomenting a people's revolution isn't Bane's true purpose.

It's inevitable that The Dark Knight Rises would be compared to The Dark Knight. And given how good the second movie was, the otherwise excellent third movie can only suffer by comparison. The greatest advantage that The Dark Knight had was obviously Heath Ledger's Joker, who set a bar of villainy so high that it would be very difficult for Tom Hardy's Bane to match it. However, the Joker dominated the second film and nearly overshadowed Bruce Wayne/Batman. Like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Rises gives Bruce Wayne the chance to shine and to develop as a character, while also giving us more conventional heroes in the form of Commissioner Gordon and John Blake.

Speaking of Gordon and Blake, one of the greatest strengths of Rises is the fact that the heroes who don't wear capes are able to carry much of the film. As some reviewers have complained, there are relatively long periods of time in The Dark Knight Rises in which Batman is not on screen. I'm not really sure if he gets significantly less time than he did in the previous two movies, though. Either way, when we're not watching emotionally disturbed individuals wearing masks, Nolan and his team spend the time making us care about Gordon and Officer Blake as much as we do for the titular character. By the end, I was cheering for Blake as much as I was for Bruce Wayne. One of the things I liked about The Dark Knight was that it allowed ordinary people to behave heroically (e.g., the ferry scene). Rises continues that trend when a good portion of the Gotham City police face heavily armed terrorists without flinching. Rarely do the cops come out looking this good in a superhero film.

Finally, kudos to Nolan and company for successfully including an additional "villain" (i.e., Selina Kyle) without falling into the same trap as so many other superhero movies (e.g., Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Spider-Man 3). While still a criminal, Catwoman has often sided with Batman in the various incarnations of the character. The latest Catwoman is no exception, but her motivations for helping out the Dark Knight are a bit more credible and her contribution to the hero's efforts is significant. (Her timely arrival in one scene elicited quite a few cheers in our theater.)

While not quite as strong as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises is an excellent movie that is at least as good as Batman Begins. It makes a fine end to Nolan's Batman trilogy.


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