Friday, February 23, 2018

Movie Review: "Annihilation"

Let's start with the obvious: it's great to see a sci-fi/action movie with women in the lead roles. Sure, Gal Gadot and Charlize Theron kicked butt in "Wonder Woman" and "Atomic Blonde" last year, but there wasn't much science in those plots. There have been female cast members in sci-fi movies like Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher in the "Star Wars" series, but they weren't the stars. I think you have to go back to Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the "Alien" series to find a female lead character in this genre.

"Annihilation" stars not one, but five women -- Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson -- as scientists sent in to investigate a weird phenomenon called The Shimmer. It started when something landed from the sky at the base of a lighthouse three years ago. It's been slowly growing ever since and it's on the verge of enveloping large cities. The military has sent several missions inside The Shimmer to try to figure out what the hell's going on, but no one has ever come back.

Portman's character, Lena, is an Army veteran who now teaches cell biology at Johns Hopkins. Her husband, played by Oscar Isaac, disappeared on a mission a year ago, and was presumed dead -- but he suddenly shows up at their house, which leads to her being drafted to join the new excursion. Don't worry about the back-story, as it will be revealed in flashback throughout "Annihilation."

I won't give away too much of what happens inside The Shimmer, other than to say it feels a little bit like a female version of "Predator." There are several jump-scares caused by scary creatures, and a couple of gross scenes of things the women discover en route. There's an old expression that says it's not the destination, it's the voyage, and that's certainly true in "Annihilation." The surreal ending doesn't really pay off what we've been promised during the adventure, but it will definitely kick off discussions after you leave the theater.

Aside from the so-so ending, there's also a flashback sequence to Lena having an affair with someone who has nothing to do with The Shimmer plot. It's a useless distraction that director Alex Garland should have cut.

I was not a fan of Garland's previous movie, "Ex Machina" (listen to my review here), but I was more impressed by his work on "Annihilation." The visuals are stunning, as if Garland had re-watched the last ten minutes of Stanley Kubrick's classic "2001: A Space Odyssey" and set out to update it with modern CGI technology. The sound design is even better -- you can feel it in your bones -- including the music by James Newton Howard. Garland also got good performances out of his leading women, especially Portman.

I didn't love "Annihilation," but I liked it enough to give it a 7 out of 10.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rebuttals To Gun Lovers In Denial

I haven't had much to say about the mass murder last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, because I didn't think I could offer anything different than what lots of other people have already said. But today I have several rebuttals to the gun-lovers who refuse to admit that it's the weapons that are the problem.

They say that simply owning a gun -- even an assault weapon -- doesn't mean someone is going to kill large numbers of people. It's true that only a very small minority of them will, but the same is true for the violent video games and movies that are again being blamed for turning young people into cold-blooded killers. Yet, despite the fact that they are sold in even larger numbers than guns, only a tiny percentage of people who enjoy that type of entertainment have opened fire on other humans -- and when they did, it was with a gun, not a video game console. I've never heard of anyone being killed by an attack with a Playstation controller.

Another argument you hear from NRA-types is that the Second Amendment is absolute (if you ignore the vagueness of the word "militia," of course). They'll tell you that if you're an American, you can buy as many guns as you want, with no restrictions, because it's in the Bill Of Rights. But apparently their logic only applies to that amendment. We also have a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech, but it's certainly not absolute. In all my years in the radio business, there were words I was not allowed to say on the air because of government restrictions. In your workplace, there are consequences to calling the boss an asshole to her face. In a court of law, the judge won't permit you to stand up in the gallery and start reading "The Instant Pot Cookbook" out loud. We have reasonable restrictions on our constitutionally-guaranteed speech, so why can't we have them on guns?

Then there's this argument: if we ban people from buying certain types of weapons, the "bad guys" will still get their hands on them, so why bother? To that, I'd ask why have laws making murder illegal? After all, some "bad guys" will still commit murder, regardless of the law, so why bother? The answer is simple supply and demand: having fewer of those military-style weapons available will make their use less likely.

That's the goal -- reducing the possibility of these mass murders occurring. Think of protecting the stuff in your house. You lock the door on your house when no one's home in order to deter a burglar from getting in. Since they could simply break a window to gain access, the deadbolt doesn't keep them completely out, but it makes them think twice about stealing your things. Similarly, a ban on assault weapons, coupled with universal background checks, will lessen the chances of someone using one to ring up such a high body count in a school, or a post office, or a church.

Since I mentioned a church, I've heard several loudmouths spout the nonsense that all these school shootings are because we took prayer out of schools. That's a cause-and-effect relationship for which there is no actual evidence. It would be like claiming that the teen pregnancy rate in America is at its lowest in 50 years (which it is) because we took prayer out of schools (which it's not). The same goes for our national crime rate. Or the illiteracy rate. Or that people are living longer. The numbers for all of those are better today than they were in 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that teachers and administrators can't force students to recite a prayer in school -- but there's no correlation, so quit claiming there is!

By the way, even as an atheist, I know there was probably a huge amount of prayer going on among the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when the gunman opened fire. Those prayers, and lots of thoughts, did nothing to save the victims, as they never do, but they were certainly being said.

Speaking of those students, I'm quite impressed with how many of them have turned the horror of that day into a social movement. Their voices are being heard, echoed in other cities, and getting the attention of the media (and some politicians). While I wonder if they'd get as much time on camera if they were not from a seriously upscale white neighborhood (e.g. if they were African-American or Latino), they have me thinking that this time the push for more restrictions on guns might be different, a la the #MeToo movement.

In that case, there were women complaining for years about their mistreatment by men in the workplace, but little attention was paid until something snapped in our culture. Then, in mere months, power shifted, stories were believed, and the accused were scorned. Could this be a similar turning point in the gun control debate? It didn't happen after Newton or San Bernardino or Orlando or Las Vegas, but Parkland seems to have ignited something new, a spark that might make the flame burn a little brighter, longer, and stronger.

If it does, students like these will deserve much of the credit. Here are Carly Novell and Delaney Tarr making the case for reforming gun laws on "The Opposition," a Comedy Central production where Jordan Klepper pretends to be a right-wing TV anchor (in a similar manner to Stephen Colbert's old show). Carly and Delaney are terrific spokeswomen for the cause, batting back any of Klepper's snarky questions with their own readily-quotable talking points.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

He's Warmed Up, Let's Go!

I'm not a baseball fan. Yes, I see a few games every year, but only because they're on the TVs in the room while I'm playing poker. In fact, I may be the only person in the St. Louis area who couldn't care less about the Cardinals.

I readily admit I don't know the names of the players, how each team is doing or the nuances and subtleties of the rules and strategies. However, this week, when the commissioner of baseball announced a few changes designed to speed up the pace of play, I wondered why he left out one glaringly obvious choice.

Usually, when a manager is considering bringing in a reliever, he'll get a pitcher (or two) to warm up by throwing a bunch of pitches in the bullpen. Then, when he's finally brought into the game, what's the first thing that happens? Everybody waits while that same pitcher throws even more warm-ups!

This is wasted time. The guy's arm is already stretched out and ready to go.

In no other sport does this take place. If an NFL quarterback is knocked out of the game with an injury, they don't halt the proceedings so the backup can come onto the field and throw a dozen or so practice passes to his wide receivers while they run a buttonhook or a post pattern. No NHL player is given a few circuits of unimpeded practice skating around the rink when he's brought into a game. No NBA game is put on pause while the back-up power forward practices his jump shots and free throws.

Ironically, in the last decade, baseball has put an increased emphasis on pitch count. The thinking, as I understand it, is that you don't want your pitcher to wear out his arm by throwing too much. Seems like the first place you could start reducing that risk is by knocking off the unnecessary warm-up pitches.

Major League Baseball has a serious demographic problem, and pace of play is a major stumbling block to getting young people to embrace the game. In our hurry-up, on-demand world, you don't grow a new generation of fans by telling them to just sit there for a few minutes while nothing interesting happens.

If they wanted that, they'd watch soccer.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

True Diner Story

I told the waitress I didn’t want any bread with my spinach omelet, so what could I have on the side instead of toast? Her reply: “How about an English muffin?” Um, no.

Picture Of The Day

If you've ever been in a frustrating meeting with a client making ridiculous demands and management desperate to please them, you'll relate to this...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Spawn Silliness

My wife and I met 35 years ago this month, and if you want to know the secret to our long-lasting relationship, it's because we still have silly conversations, like this one, where we got off on a tangent about scary movies...

Wife: I don't know if it was "Rosemary's Baby" or "The Omen."
Me: But it was one of those with a kid that's the spawn of Satan?
Wife: Yeah.
Me: How come we never hear a pleasant story about the spawn of a Nobel laureate?
Wife: Because "spawn" is always used in a negative connotation.
Me: What about when salmon swim upstream to spawn?
Wife: Well, sure, "spawn" can be positive when it's a verb -- but as a noun, it's always negative.
Me: Okay, good to know.