The worst thing about this whole debt ceiling thing

July 31, 2011

I am pretty apolitical.  Politics and politicians don’t impress me, and haven’t for a very long time.  As I see it:

On the one hand, you have President Obama and the Democrats who are trying to defend entitlements and eliminate tax cuts on the richest X% of the population.  Oh yeah, they definitely need that debt ceiling raised.

The Republicans are trying to make some cuts, preserve the tax cuts to the richest X% of the population.  The too want that debt ceiling raised.

Then there is the third party … the “Tea Party Republicans”.  They want deep cuts to get the country out of debt trouble.  They want traditional liberal entitlements cut.  They want those Bush-era tax cuts to remain in place.  From what I can tell, they would rather risk the economy (America’s and potentially some part of the world’s economy) to take a major hit in the process.  That debt ceiling is not very important.

So we have a deal in place … the debt ceiling will be raised, the government won’t default, we still may lose our credit rating, the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue what is running our country.

Who do we hold responsible for this?

There’s the problem.  The Democrats will blame the Republicans and Tea Party for being inflexible.  The Republicans will blame the Democrats and Tea Party for being inflexible.  The Tea Party … you see the pattern.

But what about those of us left in the middle who are members of none of the above?  Is this as simple as “vote all of the bastards out and start over”?

Keep in mind, it was exactly that attitude that led to our third party gaining the power it has.  In the end, the bigger mess could be:  all of them were right, and all of them were wrong.

 It is clear as day:  we need to reign in spending.  The days of “cut a few hundred million from the Interior Department” and “2 billion from NASA” are long gone.  That has always been window dressing.  There do need to be deep cuts to where the money really can be cut … that would be Social Security, Medicare, and the like.

More than that, there is every indication that those Bush-era tax cuts may have been good short term ideas, but are hurting the economy big time in the long term.  They need to be severely reduced.  Democrats aren’t going to like this.

On the flip side, there needs to be a restoration of faith in the U.S. government.  That is, that our government will act in a responsible way.  This means compromise, and negotiation.  Oh, there will always be the need to get on TV, and pound your chest like a sexually frustrated ape in the middle of the forest … it makes for great theater, and politics is theater.

So, we need great change, and at the same time we need a return to normalcy.  So far as I can tell, no one is out there saying we should do this.

And there is the problem.

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Why teachers cheat?

July 31, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/philadelphia-english-teacher-explains-why-she-helped-students-160244016.html

A Philadelphia teacher (anonymously posting) has come forward to discuss why some teachers help their students cheat on standardized tests.  This certainly proves two things about the Atlanta cheating scandal:

1.  As anyone has susptected, Atlanta is not in any way an isolated case.

2.  The Atlanta folks got caught because they aren’t too smart.  At least some of the cheating that goes on is virtually impossible to detect by simply analyzing the scantron forms.

The moment you take virtually anyone, and tell them “your job depends on X”, they tend to make “X” happen.  What if “X” can’t or won’t happen?  People tend to find a way.  Everyone who is not a politician or one of their truest believers realizes that in a given population (like the United States) there are going to be certain sub-populations (call them schools) that for a number of reasons won’t do well on a standardized test.  You can change how you teach.  You can make it student centered, teacher centered, you can move teachers around, make classrooms smaller, larger, build new schools … because none of these things get to the societal heart of the problem, it won’ t happen.  Hence, people in just about any profession will cheat.

Before we go further, I am not an apologist here.  I am not going to say this is right.  Teachers, as a group, I think are a pretty fair and honest group, but I also don’t think they are much fairer or more honest than any other group.  Perhaps as a consequence of their choice, people who are really hard core teachers may have a more black-and-white sense of fairness, and might be less likely to cheat, but I don’t think that permeates the entire profession, just as that doesn’t permeate any other profession.  Still, when it comes to cheating, it can’t be tolerated in the profession … if students get the feeling that this is acceptable, then they can allow themselves to believe it is OK.  It is not.

Speaking as a member of the profession, a lot of teachers look at the illogic of what is happening with standardized tests, and feel that our government and fellow citizens have dumped a lot of hatred on us.  I think when you start looking at society as the enemy, it becomes easier to justify in your mind that it is OK to cut corners, because, screw society.

The most disheartening thing, however, is the very last part of the article:

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says that the emphasis on tests does not encourage cheating. In fact, he sees it as the only way to ensure schools are adequately teaching their students.

As noted above, putting the emphasis on anything that holds a person’s livelihood in the blanace is going to encourage cutting corners.  But that last part “this is the only way” is bullocks!  If this statement from our Secretary of Education is what he said, then I call him out as a liar or ignorant.

All we need to look at is across the pond at the United Kingdom’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (aka Ofsted).  Ofsted is how I would approach judging schools … that is have actual real human beings who know something about education visit the actual schools and actually look around at what students and teachers do on a daily basis.  Then they assess the school.  Each school has different clientele, and each school has different things to work on.  Even the UK saw there were issues with this, and revised it back in 2006.  That’s good!  By the way … you might be saying that this flies in the face of test data being important.  Ofsted in fact uses some test data, but only as a part of the evaluation.  Further … Ofsted looks at ALL schools … not just public schools.  I find it of great irony that many of the people who are screaming and yelling for more and more oversight in public schools would very easily send their kids to pivate schools which have no oversight at all.

Education is a human enterprise, and Bill Gates not withstanding, it should remain as such.  That also means it will be necessarily flawed.  That’s also a part of education:  learning to deal with flawed systems, and how to keep improving them.

This will only happen when it becomes politically supportable to realize that a majority of our broken schools are in areas of higher minority concentration and rural areas, where there are socioeconomic issues that need to be examined, in addition to attitudes about what constitutes education.

I want to conclude by again stating:  I do not condone, nor do I support teacher cheating.  My school, in fact, was placed under an informal investigation by the ETS in regards to some testing irregularities as it applied to one particular students population.  This year, in addition to larger class sizes, and an increase in students whose elementary/middle school education came from beyond our regular feeder schools (which tend to be good), our school was visited by ETS investigators on the day of our testing … observed everything including at least one case where one person pulled out a tape measure to measure hte distance between desks.  Despite this, our school posted a 24.5 average ACT score;  the second highest in our school’s history, and an increase from the previous year.  24.5 is probably in the top 10 in our state among public high schools … and we are still labeled a “failing” school by the federal government.


Review – Captain America: The First Avenger

July 29, 2011

Spoilers abound … if you haven’t seen it and you want to see it, don’t read it!

 

When I was growing up, my father traveled a lot for a living, and as was the style back then, when he did a lot of driving, he carried a CB.  It was also custom (kind of like the internet) to adopt a handle (which I guess today we would call an avatar).  His was “Captain America”.  I remember giving him a sticker to put on his CB.

This super hero is an interesting one for the fact that it not only remains popular, but that it has survived at all:  a cahracter that began as a nationalistic propaganda figure had to undergo major evolution to make it past the Vietnam era, and in fact the comic has had many shut downs and restarts because of waxing and waning popularity.

The film opens at a crash site in some Arctic wasteland.  Some men open the wreck, and get into it …. snow and ice, but some searching turns up an object frozen in ice:  a large disc with red and blue concentric circles, and a big white star in the middle.

In 1942 Norway, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), the head of the Nazi’s top secret scientific research group (HYDRA) has discovered a tesseract, a cube that grants as unlimited power source to the finder.  Schmidt and his chief engineer now have an energy source to power a number of amazing weapons they have been secretly developing.

Back in America, we meet the short, scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).  Rogers is again rejected for military service, while his friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan)  is getting read y to ship out.  The two head over to the World of Tomorrow Fair where they catch resident genius Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) showing off his not-quite-perfected anti gravity devices.  Much like his son Tony will be, he is a ham and a womanizer.  Rogers sees a sign for enlistment, and tries again to get in.  Bucky tries to talk him out of it … he realizes that there is real danger, and Rogers should be grateful to be staying home.  The two argue, but Rogers wants to try again anyway.

Overhearing the argument is Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who decides to give Rogers a chance.  He is recruited into a special forces group, where he meets British intelligence officer Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones).  Erskine is convinced that Rogers is the man he needs, and proves it to Col. Phillips.  Rogers is then told that he will be given a special Super-Soldier treatment.  Erskine tells him that he had been forced to give an unperfected formula to Schmidt, and it had left him horribly disfigured.  He is also told that the formul amplisfies the overall feelings of the subject … which in Schmidt’s case just made him more deranged, and that Rogers is the natural choice because he has compassion.

The experiment works, but a Nazi assassin manages to kill Dr. Erskine.  Rogers chases him down, but the assassin kills himself after revealing he works for HYDRA .  Col. Phillips shuts the project down … as promising as Rogers is, he is still only one man, and what he needs is an army.  One of the senators who witnesed the experiment arranges for Rogers to be promoted, and is sent to work with the USO, donning the classic red, white, and blue uniform and performing at bond rallies and in propoganda films as the fictional “Captain America”.  He gains a great following.

The following does not traslte well when he makes it to Italy where the real soldiers resent him as a clown who gets the glory without the danger.  Agent Carter tracks him down, and he learns that Bucky and many of his men disappeared in a nearby mission.  Carter and Stark help Rogers penetrate enemy lines to get to the HYDRA base.  He manages to free Bucky and other American soldiers, but not before meeting Schmidt, who reveals to him the horrible disfigurement he suffered from Erskine’s formula.  Which also explains his nickname:  The Red Skull!

Rogers returns home a hero, and Col. Phillips is now convinced that Rogers can help the war effort with a team.  Stark gives him a new shield to replace the costume shield he had been carrying … a shield of vibranium that absorbs nearly all energy directed at it.  Rogers enlists Bucky’s group of soldiers, and begins leading them on an ass-kicking blitz across Europe to attack HYDRA bases.  The Skull grows impatient with failure!

Rogers then leads the team against a train which has the Skull’s top engineer.  In the process of capturing the engineer, Bucky is killed, and Rogers enters into mourning, something that he is helped out of as he falls in love with Carter.

When the engineers divulges the location of the Skull’s last base, Rogers and the team attack.  The Skull manages to get away in a flying wing like plane preparing to drop high energy bombs on America’s major cities.  Rogers and the Skull duke it out, and the Skull “disappears into the cosmos”, after he accidentally comes int contact with the tesseract cube.  Rogers doesn’t know how to stop the plane, so he opts to crash it to save the USA!

Rogers awakes in a hospital, and is greeted by a woman, while a baseball game plays in the background.  Rogers recognizes the game as one he had attended in 1941, and immediately overpowers guards to escape.  He escapes into modern day New York, where Nick Fury, Head of S.H.I.E.L.D apologizes for the deception, and welcomes him to the 21st century.

After the credits, we see Rogers obliterating a punching bag.  Fury arrives as Rogers asks if there is a mission.  Fury tells him that there is one, and the scene segues into a trailer for The Avengers.

It is a good film, but there is one major issue.  First the good things:

I thought the handling of the ultra-nationalistic pro-USA propoganda of that time period was handled perfectly.  It is carefully couched as being a part of the era, and not something that is being preached.  As a matter of fact, there is a scene where Erskine tells young Rogers of the Nazi takeover of Germany, and a few things he says are applicable to the United State of today.  The costuming is right on, and special kudos to the music which has a 1940s sound.  Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid) even came in to write a “Captain America” song for the war bond rally scences.  The performances all around are good, even if they do gloss over a 60+ year old colonel running a unit seemingly co-run by a foreign national.

The main problem I had was with the Red Skull.  With possibly the exception of Lex Luthor and the Joker, the Red Skull is the most iconic comic villain there is.  He is certainly the least complicated major villain in the Marvel Universe (he doesn’t care for the Nazis because Hitler is in his way.  While the Joker just looks creepy, the Red Skull is downright menacing.  He’s a Nazi with a big red skull on his shoulders.   The dude means business!  Furthermore, there is the classic concept of Captain America and the Red Skull being brothers of a sort.  They both received their powers from the same “father” (Erskine), and both share the same strengths.  The close match-up between Cap and Skull is what makes this pair so cool.  These two are built for epic battles … I’m talking a fight to the death during a raging lightning storm on the side of a volcano spewing out the blood of the Earth epic!

That’s what we don’t get.  The problem is not Hugo Weaving, who plays the Skull as realitically as can be.  He looks the part and acts the part.  The problem is:  the greatness of this matchup is in comparing Cap’s warmth and compassion (which we get) to the Skull’s sadism.  It’s like someone left that part out of the film.  The Red Skull is certainly no fairy princess, but aside from one scene where he predictably kills a minor subrdinate for not fighting to the last man, all we get is a sense of the intelligence and a bit of the cunning of the Skull.  The dude was an effin’ Nazi!  There could have been 100 ways to show how batshit malevolent this guy was.  Instead, and I can’t tell if the issue was writing or production, the Skull is too formulaic a villain.

Its definitely a film worth seeing, with some nice performances with a good feel for the 1940s.  The story of the weakest becoming the hero is timeless.


Looking ahead to Late 2011-2012 films

July 26, 2011

I am waiting to get a chance to get over to see Captain America: The First Avenger in the next week, and Cowboys & Aliens shortly after.  This has been far from a great movie summer, but hopefully the year will end with a bang:

August 5:  Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I initially predicted doom for this film (the Tim Burton film this is a sequel to wasn’t good, and the other Apes sequels from the 70s that this is loosely based on weren’t very good), yet the trailers have looked atmospheric and interesting.  Then James Franco went out and basically said that the film was bad, and don’t see it.  I am not holding out a lot of hope for this.

August 19:  Fright Night

A cult favorite of the 80’s gets a remake:  teenage boy discovers that his next door neighbor is a vampire … and when the vampire realizes that he has been discovered, the boy’s family and girlfriend are in trouble, and the only person who can help him is a washed up B-movie actor who used to play a vampire killer in the movies.  Anton Yelchin (Checkov in Star Trek) plays the boy, Colin Farrell plays the vampire, and David Tennant (Dr. Who) plays the vampire slayer.  I loved the original with a pre-Married With Children Amanda Bearse as the girlfriend and Chris Sarandon as the vampire … I’m not sure if a remake of a cult classic will hit home … another wait and see film.

September 2:  Apollo 18

No, this isn’t a sequel to Apollo 13, and yes there was no Apollo 18 … or so we were all meant to believe.  This is a Blair Witch Projectesque mockumentary … told as a collection of video from the covered up mission depicting what American astronauts really found on the moon.  The tag line says “There’s a reason we’ve never gone back to the moon” … and as you can tell from the poster it wasn’t economic or a change in Soviet-American relations … it was pretty much aliens.

September 9:   Contagion

Remember Outbreak?  An all-star cast gets together to prevent an outbreak of a horrible disease that will destroy the world?  Its kind of the same thing.  Instead of Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding, Jr, and Donald Sutherland, we get Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne, Bryan Cranston, and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Instead of Wolfgang Peterson directing, we get Steven Soderbergh.  Outbreak wasn’t bad … far from it … and maybe there is hope for this one.

Sepember 23:  Moneyball

In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote a book called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game that focused on the General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, and how he was able to use complex statistical formulas to determine which players he should trade and trade for, often hoodwinking other teams’ general managers who relied on unscientific measures like “gut instinct”, “historic statistics”, and “experience”.  Realize … Beane built a few good teams in Oakland … but its not like he built a single American League champion … let alone a World Series champ.

Now we have the film version of the book.  I can’t fathom this book was made into a film … it is essentially a non-fiction story about statistical analysis … it would be like taking a doctoral thesis on materials science and turning that into a feature length film.

Oh yeah … Billy Beane gets the last laugh, because Brad Pitt is playing Billy!  Playing Art Howe, manager of the A’s:  Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The greatest acting stretch will be Royce Clayton playing MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada (I’m guessing a lot of CGI was involved in this, because Royce Clayton could barely hit .200).  There is actually Oscar buzz about this.  I don’t pretend to get it, but …

October 14:  The Thing

Note to friends:  there is a good chance that any attempt to get in touch with me this week will be futile … I will be in the theater.  There had been talk for the better part of the last 25 years that a remake or sequel of John Carpenter’s gothic masterpiece was in the works … as recently as two years ago, it looked like it might be a SyFy Channel film (thank goodness it wasn’t!)

Instead, we are treated to the prequel:  set in a Norwegian research station in the Antarctic, the team discovers the remains of an alien spacecraft and an occupant that possesses the ability to mimic its vicitms … this time, Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking practical effects are sure to be replaced by some CGI.

November 18:  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

One of John LeCarre’s great classics of Cold War fiction gets a film version, with Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and John Hurt.

November 23:  The Muppets

I haven’t heard much about this film, other than the basic plot that Kermit and Co. are out to save the theater from an oil company.  I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Muppets … stars of a show entrancing to kids and ususally far more sophisticated than most adults gave it credit for … enough to be the most watched television show on the planet by its last season.  This is an institution that must be passed from one generation to the next like baseball, jazz, or the recipe for perfect stuffed pizza.  It has the usual crew of top stars coming out for guest appearances (including the fabled Mickey Rooney), but I’ve got to see Danny Trejo with the puppets!

December 16:  Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back … this time the entirety of the IMF is shut down when they are fingered as the group responsible for bombing the Kremlin … and Hunt is out to prove the U.S.A. is innocent.  Ving Rhames is back as master computer hacker Luther Stickel.

December 16:  The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep has played just about everything … except for a world leader … and she gets to cross that one off the list by playing the highly controversial Conservative Prime Minister of the UK.

December 23:  The Adventures of Tintin

Once upon a time, a young writer/director named George Lucas and a young director named Steven Spielberg got together and gave birth to Indiana Jones … arguably one of the greatest movie serials in history.  This time, it is Spielberg and Peter Jackson, which is an arguably greater pairing, and Peter Jackson is bringing along Andy Serkis to do motion capture work in this story of a boy and his dog searching for lost treasure.

December 23:  The Darkest Hour

Five Americans find themselves trapped in Moscow during an alien invasion.  There’s not much more out on this.

AND … Looking ahead to 2012:

March 30, 2012:  Clash of the Titans 2

Perseus has to rescue Zeus from Ares and Hades.  There is no reason to see waht is likely to be a bad follow up to a bad remake …except that Rosamund Pike is scheduled to play an Amazon.  Let us not judge the film entirely.

May 18:  Battleship

Battleship Poster

Somewhere in a Hollywood production studio, I imagine this took place:

Suit #1:  Wow, that whole Pirates of the Caribbean was a freakin’ gold mine for Disney.  What can we do.

Suit #2:  Well, there aren’t too many amusement park rides that we can base a film on, especially because we don’t own any amusement parks, but there are plenty of games.

Suit #1:  That’s great!  How about “Monopoly, the Movie”?!

Suit #2:  Are you crazy!  In this economy, no one needs to be thinking about businesses bankrupting each other.  Besides, stuffed Uncle Moneybags toys will never sell.

Suit #1:  You’re right:  we need something patriotic … something on the water like that pirates thing so we can have chicks in bikinis …. and something with aliens … aliens always sell.

Suit #2:  I’ve got it!  Let’s buy the film rights to the classic Battleship game, put Liam Neeson in charge of the fleet, and put it under attack by aliens.

Idiot #1:  Brilliant!!  Give yourself a raise!

And you think I’m kidding about this!

May 25:  Men In Black III

Jay has to go back to 1969 to meet with a younger version of Kay;  probably to save the Earth from some alien(s).

June 8:  Prometheus

Long after he became the acclaimed director, Ridley Scott mentioned that one day he would like to go back and revisit the film that made him famous:  Alien.  Fan boys like me have anxiously waited …

… The bad news:  this is not quite a sequel to Alien.  What Scott has revelaed is that this film is set in the same universe as Alien, but he has said little else.  Charlize Theron is in the cast, as is Guy Pearce (The Time Machine).

…waiting a little longer won’ be so bad!

June 22:  Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

The film version of Seth Grahame-Smith’s best seller sees the future 16th president on the war path to avenge his mother and grandfather, the victims of undead blood suckers.  If this film is successful, the others may be following:  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Android Kerenina, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

July 3:  The Amazing Spider-Man

Out: Director Sam Raimi, Toby Maguire, and Kirsten Dunst (as well as the entire character of Mary Jane Watson)

In:  Director Marc Webb, Andrew Garfield as the Wall Crawler, and Gwen Stacey as the love interest.  FINALLY they get around to bringing the Lizard in as the criminal!  The word is that this is a much darker approach to Spider-Man than the Sam Raimi films.

August 3:  Total Recall

Colin Farrell picks up the mantle of Arnold Schwarzenegger in this remake of the classic based on Phillip K. Dick’s We’ll Remember It For You Wholesale.  An intriguing bit of casting puts Bryan Cranston in the role of the villianous Vilos Cohaagen.

December 21:  The Lone Ranger

Once before did they attempt to make a Lone Ranger film in the wake of Clayton Moore the man most famed for wearing the simple mask who became a symbol of justice in the Old West.  The film flopped.  Perhaps enough time has passed to reintroduce one of the great figure of American pulp literature and radio plays!  Armie Hammer is slated to strap on the revolver with silver bullets, and Johnny Depp is rumored to be the front runner to play the ever faithful Tonto.  Cue the William Tell Overture!


Farewell space shuttle …

July 22, 2011

I forgot  to take care of this the other day, but for those who missed it, the space shuttle Atlantis came in for a smooth landing in Florida … the finale of space shuttle mision 135 … the very last for the fleet of shuttles.

The first shuttle flight I remember vividly in April 1981 …I was in band, and we were starting to learn a new piece called Starship One by Jay Chattaway (who would by coincidence go on to be one of the primary composers for Star Trek: The Next Generation a few years later.  I remember the band director talking about how coincidental it was.

I have been a psace enthusiast for a long time, and while there were some Apollo missions still going when I was younger, this was the first manned space travel that I would remember, not to mention the very real science fiction idea that we were going to start using reusable spacecraft.

I also recall that one of the key plans for the shuttle was in construction of an orbital space station … it took a few decades, but the shuttle was critical in building ISS.  I recall my good friend Tom being live in studio as the space expert for WILL-TV in Champaign when the shuttle was used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope … I can only imagine if the telescope had been launched with its problems, and no practical mechanism was in place to fix it.

However … it is hard to believe that Richard Nixon approved the plans for the shuttle.  Here we are in 2011, and the shuttle which was state of the art in 1981 was actually approved in the early 70s from plans that were first drawn up in the late 1960s.  It has been an amazing work horse, but it’s time has come.

Amazingly, most Americans in recent polls want America to maintain leadership in space exploration …. of course they don’t want to pay for it.  It looks to me that the next major step in space will not be a government led affair.

Nontheless, for a moment, we can look back with great nostalgia at what I think has been a successful step forward in the history of technology and exploration.


Texas and Punishment

July 19, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/lookout/60-percent-texans-suspended-high-school-graduation-140117066.html

 

A study out that followed seventh graders in Texas through their senior years has learned that 60% of Texas students have been suspended (in or out of school) or expelled outright before graduation, with 15% of these students disciplined 11 or more times over the course of the six year study, with a noted correlation between the number of times a student is disciplined, and the likelihood they would eventually drop out of school.

I think there are two ways to interpret this:

1.  What the %@(& is going on in Texas that 60% of the students are getting hit with this level of punishment.  This to me says that there is either something seriously wrong with Texas society that so many students are that bad, or there is something wrong with the adults dishing this punishment out …. that is they are using the nuclear warhead to kill the fly.

2.  Why aren’t more states following Texas’ lead.  Perhaps part of the problem is that too many states aren’t on top of discipline enough?  Perhaps this is a model?

 

My thinking is it is more #1 than #2 …. and as for #1, it may be some combination of a screwed up youth society and a screwed up adult society.  This is the same society that executes a lot of people …. which tells me that it isn’t deterring people from doing bad things in Texas.  I wonder how much of this is leaking in to the education system, and I suspect it might be a lot.

Though, in keeping with the rest of American society, it is all the teachers’ fault …


Movie Review: Splice

July 18, 2011

Yeah … this film is already on video.  As happens, when a film comes out during the school year, I tend to not see it unless I have some down time.  This was not one of those years.  It had been on my radar, I missed it, and it is now on cable, so I was able to get back and see it.  If you haven’t seen it, and want to see it, move on.  Spoilers will follow.  Please note:  if you are under the age of 27, you aren’t old enough to see this film.

 

I had really wanted to see Splice because its director, Vincenzo Natali, had also written and directed a phenomenal independent film I saw years ago called Cube, quite possibly the only mathematical horror film ever written (seriously, it helps to understand something about math to fully understand this film).  Apparently, Natali had wanted to do Splice immediately, but lacked the funds for many years.

Clive and Elsa (Adien Brody and Sarah Polly) are genetic engineers, romantically coupled, working on the edge of the field:  they create new organisms to produce particular proteins for medical research.  This isn’t anything wholly new, we do this with bacteria and such now, but Clive and Elsa create actual large organisms.  Their newest creation are some giant slug-like creatures (Fred and Ginger) whom they hope will mate and propagate a species that will create the proteins their company (Nucleic Exchange Research and Development … no seriously, that’s the company!)  The company is excited by this, and everyone is happy, except for Elsa.  Elsa realizes that this is hard often frustrating work to find combinations of genes that will create viable organisms that produce human proteins … something that will be made immensely easier if they could use like …. human DNA.  Her bosses put the kabosh on that … using human DNA would create such a huge backlash that the company would never sell anything.

In classic mad scientist tradition, Elsa and Clive say “screw it”, and go about creating a new life form based on some human DNA (anonymous female donor, Elsa tells Clive).  After frustration, it works.  Clive and Elsa originally just want to grow it until they can start extracting proteins, but Elsa subtlely allows the creature to grow to term.  What comes out of their giant test tube is some thing that looks vaguely human with a cross of other animals.  Clive tries to kill it, but Elsa gets very maternal.  The creature lives.

Clive and Elsa hide the specimen in the basement away from prying eyes, though Clive’s brother finds out, and is nearly killed …. it appears that the specimen has a stinger at the end of its tail that can inject a toxin.  With the company getting ready to ramp up their project to the next level, they decide to move their specimen to their home.

The specimen matures, and starts taking on human female characteristics.  She can’t talk, but begins to spell things out with scrabble pieces … mimicking the “N.E.R.D.” on Elsa’s shirt, which leads her to give the specimen the name “Dren”  Dren starts growing older and growing curious.  She doesn’t care for Clive (who occasionally brings up the “let’s terminate the experiment” idea, while she grows closer to Elsa in a mother-daughter relationship.  One night after a lot of late nights at the lab, Clive and Elsa start getting intimate in the living room, with all of the mixed signals (pleasure, but the appearance of an assault) that this action has, while Dren secretly watches.

After Dren nearly escapes their apartment, they decide to move her out to Elsa’s mom’s old farm.  Upon arrival, Dren breaks away, and they catch up to her learning that she has learned to hunt very effectively.  Dren spends her time in the barn, learning about Elsa’s past, and becoming bored (something she tells the pair with scrabble letters).  We learn that Elsa’s mom died some time ago, and that Elsa had been abused as a child by her strict mother.

Meanwhile, the company’s big day arrives as Clive and Elsa show off Fred and Ginger to the shareholders.   Unfortunately, when Fred and Ginger are released into the same tank, they begin circling each other, produce stingers, and proceed to kill each other in the bloodiest way possible, ending with the tank bursting open and the shareholders drenched in blood.  The company is furious … Clive and Elsa never realized that Ginger had become male, and that instead of being cuddly loving slugs, they became highly competitive slugs bent on killing each other.  Clive and Elsa are told to get the protein isolated through whatever legal means are necessary.

Dren has matured, and is starting to fall in love with Clive.  Clive begins to figure this out, and so does Elsa when Dren stops listening to her …. stinging a cat out of spite when Elsa tries to discipline her.  Elsa knocks Dren out, and surgically removes her stinger and venom gland.  It turns out that venom gland had the protein that Elsa and Clive were looking for, and she turns it over to the company.

When Clive arrives, Dren throws herself at Clive, and the two mate, only to be disturbed by a pissed off Elsa (we learn that Dren’s stinger has grown back).  It is now that Clive confronts Elsa with the truth:  there never was an anonymous donor:  Elsa had been the donor used to create Dren.  The pair being to realize that Dren is becoming too uncontrollable, and that the time has come for termination.  They return to find Dren near death, and bury her, just as their boss arrives with Clive’s brother.  The company detected human genes in the protein sample, in strict contravention of their demands.  Dren suddenly bursts through the dirt, and proceeds to kill Clive’s brother and the boss.  Clive and Elsa run through the woods being hunted by Dren.  Elsa is eventually caught, and raped by Dren’s tail.  Clive arrives and kills Dren, but not before Dren stings him to death.

The film ends back at the company offices.  Elsa is given a check to compensate her, and the company is grateful that, with Elsa’s cooperation, the experiments will proceed.  Elsa stands, and we learn she is pregnant with Dren’s child.

 

This is not the greatest sci-fi film I have ever seen, but let me start off by saying it is one of the creepiest films I have seen in a long time.  It is an unsettling film with a dark mood throughout.  Dren’s makeup and actions are truly one of an animal with some human maturity issues.  She is well performed.

The main problems are inconsistencies in the writing.  At one point, Clive talks about having children, and Elsa seems reluctant (because of her abusive childhood, it is implied), but she is the one who essentially wants to have Dren the whole time (Clive wants the thing dead throughout most of Dren’s early life).  There are strong implications in the film that the child abuse cycle is genetic and not caused by someone’s environment, which is something I find a little dubious.

Further:  it is one thing to try and create something scientifically, but I find it difficult to believe in the way this pair is portrayed that the moment they realized they had created what was essentially a bipedal, immature lethal sea snake, that the first thoughts were not going to be “let’s take her home” or “let’s take her to the farm” …. especially after she demonstrates that she is clearly predatory (Elsa confirms that no predatory genes were used to create her …. oh … except for human genes, because humans NEVER act in a predatory way!).  So rather than looking at Dren’s blood stained face while she proceeds to down the little critter she caught and stung, they just decide to use the Jurassic Park defense (we never put that into the genes … how were we to know that a highly complex, relatively new technology wouldn’t work out the way we expected it to).

There is also the interpretation of this film that it is about parents and kids.  In this case, rather ignorant parents (which I guess all new parents are to some extent) making classic mistakes with their child.

I expect bad logic from directors who have a history of being able to ignore logic, but I expected a bit more out of Natali.  If you are looking for a creepy cautionary tale, you could do much worse than Splice.