Silence Your Cell Phones—World War Z Is about to Begin


Cover of "World War Z: An Oral History of...

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What is it about zombies that makes them so worth watching? I can’t prove this, but I have a hunch . . . nothing does.

With nothing to do but watch the world come to an end, and no one to do it with, I went to see World War Z. How could I have forgotten what the ‘Z’ stands for? I had just come from a hamburger and an excess of fries at the local 5 Guys when I got to the theater. It looked like I was at least ten minutes late. I told the ticket agent (isn’t that a fancy title?) that I was there to see World War Z, if, but only if, it hadn’t started yet. I wasn’t sure he could sort out the bi-conditional “if and only if,” but this kid must have a keen mind for logic. He told me I had nine minutes; they were still showing previews. I asked if the theater was full. “There are eleven people,” he said. I wondered, Is that good or bad? I guess for a Tuesday night, that’s pretty good.

I paid for my ticket and met my old friend Ken, the guy who takes my ticket when I walk in. I always ask Ken what he thinks of the movie I’m about to see. I’ve learned to trust Ken’s judgment. This time Ken said, “I’m not much into zombie movies, but in this one they look pretty good.” That’s when I realized what I had gotten myself into. That’s when it hit me that World War Z is about zombies . . . and the world, of course. I felt stupid. What else could the ‘Z’ stand for? But I might be forgiven. Check out the movie poster. Doesn’t it bring to mind the Zorro series, this time with a faint hint of apocalyptic doom?

Usually, I don’t wait in line to see a zombie movie. In fact, if you’ll pardon the allusion, I generally avoid them like the plague. But I had paid for a ticket. And Ken had said about this movie that the zombies “look pretty good.” I had to satisfy my curiosity. What do good-looking zombies look like? Is this a movie my wife would approve of?

For those who haven’t seen the movie, here’s a spoiler alert: Ken must have meant something else by zombies that “look pretty good.”

For the record, the zombies I know (remember, I’m a university professor) don’t look or act anything like the ones in this movie. My zombies are rather subdued, almost motionless. If you tripped over them in a dark alley, you still might not know they were there. By comparison, I must say, the zombies in this movie are pretty amped up. And you certainly would never want to meet them in a dark alley. (I wonder what it would be like if these zombies and my zombies were to meet?)

I did learn something from this movie, apart from the intended message narrated at the end. If an encounter with a zombie doesn’t make your teeth chatter, hearing his teeth chatter will make you laugh. That’s how it affected 9 out of 11 people in the theater. (Silly me, there were other times when I could not restrain a mild chuckle, even when no one else appeared to be in such good humor.)

I have an obligation to tell you there are things about this movie that simply aren’t believable.

  • Israel’s Mossad figures out before anyone else in the world how to protect themselves from zombies, but they don’t know the effect that loud, screechy microphones would have on them? Come on, people! The Mossad are better than that.
  • Can you really hear the teeth of a zombie chatter through plexiglass that is so substantial that even the zombie can’t break through it? Give me a break!
  • Are we supposed to believe that an envoy from the United Nations is the best candidate for staving off the complete annihilation of humanity? I’d trust any neighbor in my cup-de-sac over the U.N. boys and girls. (Remember Benghazi and Susan Rice?)

These things just don’t add up. Fortunately, the movie’s realism is salvaged by the general plot: Savage zombies ravage the world, quickly turning the un-undead into the undead, and there’s a bona fide solution to the problem that is discovered by Brad Pitt—and just in time.

That’s the reassuring message of the film.

Or not.

But I can’t spoil the movie for you by revealing what the narrator says at the end.

If that doesn’t get you to go see this movie, then I guess nothing will.

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What’s to Like about “Inglourious Basterds”?


I didn’t see Inglourious Basterds in the theater. It sat in my Amazon Video on Demand queue until last night.

I know it was a popular nominee for various Academy Awards recently. But I haven’t read any reviews and I’m not sure I ever saw a trailer. That’s all for the good. I didn’t know what to expect, and that surely made seeing the movie a better experience. Read more of this post

Best Movies Set in Venice


rialto_1Ever been to Venice? Ever get a hankering to be there, like, right now? Sometimes that happens to me. Today it happened to one of my daughters.

Last night I saw the new Star Trek movie. Not to ruin the plot or anything, but you find out (sort of) how the transporter technology was devised by Scotty. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to just beam yourself to a nostalgic place for a day? “Southern California too boring for you? How about Venice? Beam me up, Scotty!”

Unfortunately, there isn’t an iPhone application for that. I checked. (Apple, are you listening?) But there is another option, another way to “take you there,” and that is to select a movie that is set in Venice.

200px-ItalianjobSo tonight we’ll be watching The Italian Job. It’ll bring back pleasant memories of our leisurely time strolling the Piazza San Marco, shopping the Rialto Bridge, and taking in the half-believable vista of the Grand Canal.

Or not.

“The Italian Job is hardly a film to slow your heartbeat.” Agreed. So our recollection of Venice will be accompanied by a high level of manufactured adrenalin. Anything wrong with that?

The 1969 version of The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward, is different in interesting ways. (This was Noël Cowards last movie.) In fact, it’s different in so many ways that seeing the 2003 film, with Mark Wahlberg and Charliz Theron, does nothing to make the 1969 film predictable. Fortunately, there is one great similarity, and that is the role cast for the Mini Coopers used in the heist. The two movies begin and end very differently.

Other options for movies set in Venice include Casino Royale (for it’s ending), A Death in Venice (not a happy film), Everyone Says I Love You (a Woody Allen musical), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (more action and adventure in Venice), Just Married (a romantic comedy), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (yep, the one with Sean Connery as Allan Quartermain), A Little Romance, (a comedy in which a 13-year-old American girl enjoys reading Heidegger!), The Merchant of Venice (Venice in 1596), Moonraker (James Bond movie #11, featuring Venice and a gondola/hovercraft contraption), Othello (take your pick: 1952 with Orson Welles, 1965 with Laurence Olivier, or 1995 with Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh), Pokémon Heroes (the fictional location “Johto” is supposed to be based on Venice), Sharks in Venice (for those who like implausible great white shark movies), Summertime (with Katherine Hepburn and probably the best cinematic exploitation  of Venice), The Thief Lord (co-written by children’s adventure novelist Cornelia Funke), The Venetian Affair (spy thriller starring Robert Vaughn and Elke Sommer, vintage 1967, and hard to find), The Wings of the Dove (“Venice has never been portrayed so beautifully, or romantically,” says Leonard Maltin’s 2007 Movie Guide).

Myself, I’ve seen exactly four of the movies on this list. Wanna’ guess which ones? I’ll send an Amazon gift card for $5 to the first person who gets it right, within 24 hours of this post. I’ll announce the winner—if there is one—at the end of 24 hours. (Setting my mobile phone timer . . . now.)

Good luck!

Oh, and by the way, you also have to explain why you picked the four you did AND tell me your favorite movie with a Venetian setting.

Army of Shadows: A Film Discussion Guide


army_of_shadows_1shThe French film L’Armée des Ombres (“Army of Shadows”) is an adaptation of the 1943 book (same title) by Joseph Kessel, who participated in the French Resistance. Whether you know little or much about the Resistance, if you want a realistic film portrayal of a critical aspect of the Second World War, this is a film to rent or buy. I can’t imagine a more effective vehicle for presenting an insider’s view of the movement.

The film is expertly cast and paced with precision. But the action is subdued, so don’t expect a Jason-Bourne-meets-James-Bond kind of experience. Army of Shadows offers a tight shot of espionage—plotting with limited resources, the paltry odds of success, endless psychological misgivings, and complex interpersonal dynamics.

The movie is filled with tension. But it’s the kind of tension that invites serious consideration of difficult questions:

  • What does it really mean to be courageous?
  • Is it possible to exercise genuine freedom of self-determination in the very moment you are about to be executed by a firing squad?
  • Can a cause be so just that killing an innocent co-belligerent is justified if letting her live could compromise the mission?
  • On what basis can you entrust your life to someone you’ve never met?
  • Should a woman with the skills needed to execute a tactically sophisticated and personally dangerous mission be enlisted if she has a husband and children who know nothing of her activities?
  • Does it ever make sense to engage in a fatal rescue operation if no one will know of your valor?
  • Why does the simple offer of a cigarette enable some men to face certain death with dignity?
  • Was the French Resistance a prudent response to the Nazi occupation of France?

This film churns the emotions and the mind. The Resistance is testimony to the indomitable spirit of human beings guided by commitment to a high ideal. I saw  Army of Shadows soon after seeing the Angelina Jolie film Changling. The similarities are unmistakable. Both are based on actual events. In both cases individuals pursuing righteous causes suffer terrible indignities. In both, success seems humanly impossible. Hope wells up from a secret place and keeps men and women in the game, even when the game is almost certainly lost. These are remarkable parallels, parallels I would have missed if I had not seen the two films in the same week.

As these films end and the credits roll, some viewers will be stuck to their seats with feelings of sadness mixed with cheer. The sadness explains itself. The cheer is unexpected. But the cheer is solidly grounded. It rises in response to the failed heroism of Christine Collins, the mother in Changling, and of Phillipe Gerbier, the head of a Resistance network in L’Armée des Ombres. Because the heroism is real, though it is not rewarded with complete success (or perhaps because it is not rewarded with complete success), our own dignity is affirmed.

I’m ususally content to see a movie once, even a very good movie. But soon I’ll be downloading L’Armée des Ombres from Amazon to my TiVo. This one is worth owning and re-viewing.

Amazon DVD

Amazon DVD

Amazon Video on Demand

Amazon Video on Demand

The Book by Joseph Kessel

The Book by Joseph Kessel

Do You Have Mixed Feelings About ‘Expelled’?


Ben Stein’s movie Expelled opened last weekend. I’ve got a question for those who have seen it and liked some things about it, but are reluctant to give it an unqualified endorsement:

What are its major strengths and its major weaknesses?

What Does It Take to Hear a Who, and What’s It to Do with Me and You?


horton-hears-a-who_1“A humorous exaggerated imitation of an author, literary work, style, etc.,” is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word “parody.” If you spend an afternoon reading a book like The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, then set off to the theater with your family to see the new film Horton Hears a Who, you may be surprised to find yourself drawing parallels between the movie and the book.

Horton is the naïve, indiscriminate, credulous elephant. He gets it in his head that a speck that has come to rest on a clover is home to a civilization of “humans” who are invisible because they are too small to be seen. Kangaroo, on the other hand, is sensible and stern. She recognizes early on the danger posed to the community by Horton’s fantastic notions. She confronts Horton about his silliness and warns him to cease and desist. But Horton, being an elephant, is too “faithful” to abandon his convictions. And in due course, what began as a harmless idiosyncrasy evolves into a mission that imbues Horton’s life with fresh meaning and purpose.

Kangaroo is beside herself with concern, especially for the children, who—horrors—have begun to use their imaginations. Her motto is, “If you can’t see it, taste it, or feel it, it doesn’t exist.” Horton’s claim—that “the speck” is inhabited by humans who call themselves “Whos”—fails this test.

Or should I say, it almost fails this test? Horton, after all, hears intelligent noises coming from the speck. Eventually he even engages in meaningful conversation with the diminutive mayor of Whoville. So Horton, at least, has empirical evidence for his belief. And that seems to be all that Kangaroo requires.

But that isn’t all that Kangaroo requires. She also stipulates that it’s impossible for there to be anything so small and human. So she is a radical empiricist with an a priori prejudice against the existence of things she can’t see. And her a priori commitment diminishes her ability to hear what Horton can hear. Of course, Horton is equipped with ears that are especially sensitive to very slight auditory data. Since he is unique in this respect, no one really believes him. This despite the fact that he has no special motive to mislead a community of individuals he obviously cares about.

Horton isn’t a complete doofus. He can’t get Kangaroo to listen for what she isn’t willing to hear. So he challenges her prejudice with a thought experiment. “What if our own world is just a speck from the point of view of some greater being?” he asks. Kangaroo is unable to entertain this possibility. She is as absurdly sure of herself as she believes Horton to be.

A major difference between Horton and Kangaroo is that Kangaroo is a demagogue, and most members of her community are lemmings. They may not follow her logic, but they do follow her lead. She adopts the posture of an infallible authority figure and whips up alarm among those who are no more able to think for themselves than Horton is supposed to be.

The mayor of Whoville suffers a similar fate. He’s called a “boob” by a leading member of the town council. This is a painful slap in the face. The mayor’s influence is fanciful. And his explanation for what is happening in Whoville is believed to be delusional. Like Horton, he risks ridicule for what he believes to be true. But that’s not all there is to it.

The mayor fears for his community, which does not recognize the danger that threatens Whoville. Initially, he does not seek to convince the citizens of Whoville. He knows they will not believe that an invisible elephant in the sky is their protector. Still, he takes responsible action on the basis of what he knows, even though he risks humiliation.

Horton Hears a Who is a smart and entertaining film. I doubt that it’s a deliberate parody of the emotionalism exhibited by the “new atheists.” But I can’t help thinking Richard Dawkins will not be happy with it. At least he can’t complain that he was tricked into doing the voice-over for Kangaroo.

horton-hears-a-who-1396

Survival of the Fittest? Richard Dawkins Duped


On Thursday, March 20, I plan to see a screening of the film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. The documentary features Ben Stein, author, cultural commentator, finance guru, and occasional film actor. Last September, Ewen MacAskill reported that the film’s premise is “that scientists sympathetic to intelligent design are penalised by being denied academic posts.” His brief article, published in The Guardian, reports that Richard Dawkins is among those who were interviewed for the film. And now Dawkins is showing a spot of upsetness. His complaint appears to be that he was duped by the producers of the film. “At no time was I given the slightest clue that these people were a creationist front,” said Dawkins. (See Ewen MacAskill, “Dawkins rails at ‘creationist front’ for duping him,” The Guardian [September 28, 2007].)

Ben Stein’s reply is interesting: “I don’t remember a single person asking me what the movie was about.”

A couple years ago I was asked by Penn and Teller to be interviewed for a religious feature they were taping. I knew their reputation, and asked for a sample video of a similar program they had produced. I watched the sample carefully, more than once, and telephoned a few of my friends to get their advice about whether to go ahead with the interview. About half of them said to go for it, while the other half advised against it. I phoned Penn and Teller and thanked them for the invite, but told them that I was not interested in doing the interview. That was that.

I haven’t seen Ben Stein’s film yet. But I can’t work up much sympathy for Dawkins’s consternation, regardless of its quality. Surely he could have inquired a little more fully about the specific nature and aims of this film, before agreeing to be interviewed. There’s a Darwinian explanation for what happened to Richard Dawkins. It’s called “survival of the fittest.”

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