Old Movie Review: Men in Black

Short Comment on the Movie Men in Black.

By William Olkowski, PHD 7.20.12

I saw this as a spoof on the genre of save the world by superheroes. Here the world is saved by what must be a sort of secret police. That’s so odd that its worth some attention. After all, the way to take over a society is through the secret police. Every dictator knows this. And one of the ways I think about what is common, accepted or dominant at a time in society is probably the opposite of what is actually happening.

I saw the movie twice because I liked the animations and because of the role cockroaches and pest control played. I am always interested in how insects are used in film. But in general, insects are objects of fear in most cases. I don’t see them solely in that way. For example, some can be objects of beauty. But there are a small important minority that , others threaten by their bites and stings, and others are competitors for our foods and destroy our artifacts including houses. The beauty part in dramas is usually left out.

Normally what is dramatized is a tired view of the most common forms of life: the bad part. Why do people go to the movies to experience fear? The news is enough for me. Further, to degrade those who fight for justice and try to save humanity from its coming disasters against factionary problems is to deflect the real work and direction of how we are to avoid the triple threats of: world wide temperature increases, nuclear accidents and war, and the widespread global contamination of the planet from “Cides” of all sorts, the worst of which are GMO organisms because they pollute the genetic banks of all species.

This sort of deflection is a common practice as our current GOP and political Theater confirms. I wonder to whom such dramas like the Men in Black are directed? Maybe its 14 year old boys like those who fell for Star Wars with its upgraded WWII dog fights as the key feature.

But humor in all its forms can be a needed distraction for some. Me, I am naturally distracted by my inner thoughts and need to practice focus and examine my thoughts regularly to see what is slipping through my net of perceptions. Men in Black filled the bill for me once upon a brief time. But some of the themes are old, tired, and over worn, plus a waste of time.

Movie Review: 9 Special Darwin Movies

By William Olkowski, PHD

Permission to copy and distribute granted with citation.Reading Time: ca. 15 minutes.

Content: Biographical Historical Recreations of Darwin’s Time, His Enemies, Friends and Why He Wrote and Studied, Explanations of How Evolution Works, Examples and Fossil Evidence for Lines of Evolution, Genetic Information Update, Past and Expected Extinctions and Asteroid Threats

Movies Reviewed:

  1. Creation – Lionsgate, BBC – 108 minutes.
  2. Darwin’s Darkest Hour – National Geographic.
  3. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – PBS – 120 mins.
  4. What Darwin Never Knew – PBS, 112 mins.
  5. The Genius of Charles Darwin – 2 Discs by Athena.
  6. Darwin’s Secret Notebooks – National Geographic Channel.
  7. Great Transformations and Extinction. – PBS, 2 hrs.
  8. Inherit the Wind – with Spencer Tracey 90 min.
  9. Darwin’s Voice

Who was Darwin?

Richard Dawkins, in the “Genius of Charles Darwin”, calls him one of the greatest scientists of all time.  2009, was the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work: “On the Origin of Species”. He thus joins scientist greats like Galileo, Einstein and Newton, who created theories which changed the world, always in opposition to existing beliefs.  These beliefs are primarily held by the religious people, who actively resist learning about new scientific ideas.  This opposition continues today.  But for those who are curious, these movies are most fantastic, full of evidence with pictures to explain the significance of new information.  It’s like a biology lesson without the school, and boring teacher who only has a blackboard.

Darwin is the greater scientist, as his idea explains how life arose and changed into its myriad forms.  Evolution explains the living experiences of all life, particularly our relationship to the entire Biosphere and the Ecosystem we call Earth.  This is a colossal concept.  He thus, could be argued to be above the others in scope. The biggest ideas also are predictive, and here Darwin’s idea about how species change and are selected – capsulated in a single word: Evolution predicted many subsequently found evidence.

His idea is sometimes grossly simplified as “Survival of the Fittest”, commonly bastardized by some excessively wealthy business types, thinking themselves “fittest” as they have great power from their wealth.  And then there are the religious types who repeatedly oppose the idea of evolution as an explanation of the origin of life vs. special creation by a god, or THE GOD.  Neither group is even close to the truth.

Theory, Framework, Fact, and Observations – The process of Science is driven by Discoveries and Individuals. 

Science is the best discovery and thought process known so far to explain natural phenomena.  Scientific knowledge develops by assembly of observations, facts (repeatable observations), theories and laws through elaboration of paradigms.  All these are written and communicated to others for verification and possible challenge.  Through this process of communication and verification science progresses.

A paradigm is a working shared mental framework used by scientists to elaborate explanations of natural phenomena.  A similar older term was Zeitgeist, but a micro-zeitgeist is closer to the term paradigm as we use it today.  Zeitgeist, from German, means “spirit of the times”, an indication of the extant cultural framework that drives discovery and makes a home for it when it is found.  A framework is a mental construct which directs exploration of phenomena (see Kuhn, The structure of Scientific Revolutions), primarily by assembly of theories and usually at the cutting edge of knowledge.

Darwin’s idea is also sometimes erroneously called “The Theory of Natural Selection”.  This can suggest that the idea is still tentative and has not enough evidence to support it.  The common use of the term “theory” implies an idea that is suggestive or tentative, not the truth.

A theory in a scientific sense means an idea, or more precisely a framework which explain the relationships between a great mass of facts.  The framework could be any model, illustration, formula, or statement.  Theory and framework overlap in conceptual-semantic space.  A fact is any observation that can be observed by a great many independent observers.  Once an observation is confirmed it is regarded as a confirmed fact as repeatability is a necessary and essential aspect of a fact.  A theory explains facts, can predict other facts, and can elaborate hypothesizes for testing.

The Pioneer Gets All the Arrows

We were travelling when the 150th anniversary occurred and so we are now playing catch up on the celebration these movies represent.  The idea of Evolution by Natural Selection was a mental framework that explained how species arose and were transformed. As such it challenged the existing Zeitgeist – The idea of Special Creation (in 6000 BP) by a Divine Being, an idea left over from centuries when we humans were developing.  Evolution challenged the religious power holders at that time in England.  These power holders were an educated minority who were mostly ministers or priests of the Church of England (established by King Henry the 8th).  These were essentially the only people who were educated at that time (ca. 1850).  This power minority resisted change, innovation, and any challenge to their control of thought and the behavior of their “flocks”.  They are exposed in all their pomposity in both movies: the Creation and Darwin’s Darkest Hour.

These power people were the perennial people who live in fear of loss.  In the highly stratified British Society, like ours is heading toward today, there are those who were continually fearful of the ostracism by the clergy.  Ostracism seems to be a long term fear generator, which is understandable as we are social creatures.  This is particularly so if someone came up with a different worldview.  In the old days the power elites burned disbelievers. All power blocks operate this way, i.e., to resist change.  The lowest form of human control is fear.  Religions are based in large part on fear.  Fear of death created the idea of an afterlife, for example.  Positive incentives work 180 degrees differently and are to be encouraged.

The process of innovation can be graduated into the following four steps: 1) Denial, 2) Resistance, 3) Grudging Acceptance, 4) Boredom.

What’s Evolution?

Evolution, as explained by Darwin has two key aspects: variation and selection.  There are forces that produce variation in all individuals (e.g., mutation, biochemical disturbances, epigenetic factors, toxicants, etc.).  At the same time the forces of selection – like physical catastrophes, competitors, symbionts, sex, and natural enemies, all together determine whose genes and which genes are propagated.

Since most life is sexual to varying degrees, all gene propagation is by cooperating individuals, basically a fusing of female and a male cells.  Of course some mating is not cooperative.  Rape, for example, is still way too common.  And there are hermaphroditic forms which are self fertile and there are many species that use asexual reproduction (about 10% – see Zuk, Riddled with Life, p. 96).  We are related to all other life forms as each has its own genetic histories which demonstrate just how closely we are related to each other.

This means we are only a part of the Tree of Life, not the chosen species with a god given right to subdue the rest of the Biosphere and Ecosystem.  This theme is debated in historically recreated scenes in a number of these movies so they capture a slice of history along with some of the most important ideas invented so far.  We are living things and these Laws of Evolution – variation and selection – work on us at all times as with all other life forms.  And that is a most intereesting thing.

The Movies:

Creation, Darwin’s Darkest Hour and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

For drama see these most human presentations about

Darwin, his relationships with his wife, children, friends and family.  In Creation, we have a historical fiction production with some great scenes, including many nature stories and animations relevant to Darwin’s ideas.  Here the drama about his loss of Annie, his favorite child is paramount.

The second movie “Darwin’s Darkest Hour” overlaps the first but plays up his wife’s part in his decision making and writing.  I found this too fabricated as I do not think Emma interacted with him concerning the ideas he created.   She was very religious and this did play a part in Darwin’s delay in publication, but she seems to be working in the movie on this Evolution theory with him at many times, which seems too much.

The two movies are both very well done, with good actors, including children.  Both movies seemed to play to the human aspects so as to depict Darwin as a breathing human, not the Satan the religious right has fabricated.  Shots of Darwin’s house, his study and desk and grounds are most interesting.

The third movie, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

We liked this movie the best because it highlights his brother’s relationship (and some bits about his paternal family – a long line of atheists?) which the other two biographical movies seem to skip over.  It mixes biography via historical recreations which are livened by his brother’s comic, significant statements and coaching.  Also, there seems to be a bit of movie license as this movie does not build up the drama, for example, on Annie leaving the house for the last time as do the other two.  Which portrays most accurately?

This movie explains how and why his idea is and was dangerous – to the existing order and power structure with its religious opposition to facts and observations.  The power elites work hard to ignore facts and observations.  But this stance seems illogical at least, for belief and evolution are not in conflict per se and Darwin made efforts to avoid such conflicts, and never published about them.  Huxley’s role in Creation is accurate and most critical as is borne out by other biographical reports I have seen myself.

Certain religions and subsets of Christianity are certainly opposed to Darwin’s idea and that was and is where the danger lay.  Disbelief in Evolution certainly goes against the whole thrust of biological sciences and from where I sit this is the most dangerous thing.  Being opposed to even consideration of evolution means all such believers miss out on the wonders of creation and its shortcomings which we all must work to correct.  Clearly this religious denial against rational thought is bad because we are not created perfect nor is any other life form.  We are riddled with morphological and physiological defects medicine aims to correct, which is a humane movement based on science.  And to denie evidence means decision making is made on illusory thoughts.

What Darwin Never Knew – PBS, 112 mins.

In a word: genetics.  Darwin never knew about genetics which makes his ideas even more astounding! Consider, for example, the discoveries over the last 50 years, especially the last 10 years in DNA science, in the forensic field alone.  Over 250 wrongly accused death row inmates have been freed with DNA evidence showing they were not the cause of their crime.  Forensic science aside, the growth of DNA knowledge has been astounding, opening up potential areas for new gene therapies of great potential importance.

This movie is one of the most intelligent professional arguments for Evolution available. It is highly and visually instructive.  Now we know that DNA occurs in all living things and these molecules determine our structures and biochemistry.  On our 26 pairs of chromosomes are about 20-25,000 genes which are small proteinaceous compounds linked to a ribose (a 5 carbon sugar) helical base that create the proteins from which we are formed.  Now we know there are body shaping genes that turn on switch genes at the right time during embryogenesis, which turn on protein generating genes.

Now there are speculations that future medicine will manipulate our genetic base. Will this genetic mixing experiment produce benefits and stability before we destroy our life support system?  Maybe, maybe, or more likely it will be two steps forward and one back.  With my skeptical hat on it maybe more than one step back. All genetic changes are permanent and lasting generations.  And we can’t predict the weather 2 weeks out.  I would wait and see as the audacity of thinking we know better than evolution deserves some careful review.  Considering how fast and what a threat GMO crops are to the genetic diversity of plants alone makes me shudder.  But there are defects in our genetic makeup that are worth finding good substitutes for example, type I diabetes, and that would be great.

Great Transformations and Extinctions! – PBS, 2 hrs

This is the most informative of all the movies.  It is larger in scope and it updates recent evidence from archeology, and paleoanthropology.  4.6 billion Years (BYA) ago the first life arose.  Animal life followed about 600 MYA, mammals arose 200 million YA and all human history is only over the last 50 thousand years ago.  These facts go against the fundamentalist figure of origin of all life at 6,000 years ago.  This calculation was made by a bishop in the 19th century before Darwin, and most surprisingly is touted today in opposition to scientific fact.  It’s like two worlds in collision, one fact filled, the other illusion filled.

All life started in water.  Fish crawled out of water and crawled on the land.  First creatures evolved into reptiles, then birds, then mammals.  All these have 4 limbs, all are descended from a common ancestor,

370 million years ago (MYA).  Fossils found in PA give clues to this transformation.  Rocks from the geological period called the Devonian, south of the equator indicate a tropical zone at that time.   A key fossil of a small shoulder bone was found from a tetrapod in a stream bed.  It was one of first four legged fossil animals discovered.  This and other fossils indicate that legs were developed in water and then the animal left the water.  Textbooks were wrong, they hypothesized legs developed after the fish came onto land.  Science is self correcting, not like religion.

Scarcity of tetrapod fossils limited understanding this transition but a note about a small fossil tetrapod found in Greenland suggested possibilities for finding the missing link between fish and land vertebrates.  After 4 years of excavations, a complete skeleton was found.  It had gills, fish like tail, ends of arms were petal shaped, and had the first fossil hands found on earth.  Tetrapods did not need to develop limbs after coming out on land. They had them in the sea.  Such is the nature of the evidence supporting the idea of evolution.

An example of how science corrects itself is part of the story.  Consider that Darwin claimed whales, (which are mammals like us with living young), had reverted back to the oceans after living on the land.  This involved the loss of legs and arms, which converted to fins.  This idea about returning to the sea after living on land was a supposition by Darwin, but now the fossils to back up the idea are available after quite a search.  The search turned up some details of importance in tracing just how we arose from the oceans, as well as confirming Darwin’s guess that the ocean-going mammals reverted to the sea after living on the land.

For example, the Valley of the Whales in Africa is loaded with whale fossils over 40 million years old.  One fossil, called Bassilasaures had legs, derived from a wolf like animal who lived along an ancient sea.  Since that discovery, the list of transitional whale fossils has grown.  One can observe in these fossils a gradual migration of nostrils to the top of the head.  Whales do not swim like fish which swim side to side.  Dolphins like whales move their spines up and down.  This is derived from a land animal.  So there are whole groups of current marine mammals that returned to the oceans.  This overall process illustrates a pattern observed in many other fossil progressions which is simplified as “tinkering” – using the old developments in today’s animals, with gradual variations.

More notes to incorporate

Search for the genetic evidence for Evolution took more than a century.  A big part of the story involves the humble fruit fly commonly observed attacking spoiled bananas.  Fruit flies are idea animals for genetic studies because they are easy to culture, have high reproductive rates with many generations in a year, can be observed in small cages and under the stereoscope, a common tool in most biological labs.  Mike Levine played a key role in some of the most important steps in developing our knowledge of how development is guided by genes.  The embryos show how animals evolve by gene switches, special genes which turn on other genes which build proteins which form most of the cellular machinery.  The embryo is assembled, it turns out, by a sequence of cellular assemblies orchestrated by what are now called switch genes.  For this discovery he got a Noble Prize.

In his words: One night the work paid off: a moment saw a gene turned on in a band in an early embryo – a master switch to the thorax. This was the first body switch gene discovered. So, single genes acted like architects, but if on in the wrong place a freak – illustrating that there are genes to evolve body parts!

The Fantastic Burgess Shale Fossils

60,000 fossils from the Burgess shale in Colorado are the most amazing fossils collections ever found (for further info, pictures and recreation of the environment from that time see http://paleobiology.si.edu/burgess/).

A trilobite is an existing arthropod that models extinct arthropods, related to insects, spiders, and crabs.  These large arthropods can be still be found on the east coast (USA) just surviving, the populations being greatly reduced from just a hundred years ago by wasteful harvesting.  The range of fossils from the Burgess shale is tremendous, but most of the forms represented are now extinct, the trilobite is an exception.  It’s more like a living fossil (Gould discusses the Burgess Shale Fossils further in the Panda’s Thumb).

A Burgess fossil called picae was possibly the earliest vertebrate.  It is a small slug like critter with a nerve cord running the length of its body.  We have a nerve cord similar to this creature. Other Burgess fossils were very odd illustrating the vast creative power of evolution and the vast scope of extinctions.  All the basic body plans are represented in these fossils collections: radial, symmetrical, and segmented.  Evolution tinkers with the genetic materials not the bodies directly.

Embryos hold clues to how animals evolve.  Ontogeny reproduces phylogeny as an overview.  For example, human embryos have slits where gills occurred before, and most importantly, an underlying structure of repeating segments.  In the early 1900’s scientists working with fruit fly cultures observed some flies developed with legs in the wrong places.  Such developmental errors are examples of the process of variation Darwin used in his thinking.  These variations were produced in the lab using radiation and poisons to damage the genetic DNA which produced such errors in morphology that are relatively easy to study.  The fruit fly studies gave early geneticists one of their most favorite laboratory tools to discover how genes worked.

We now know much more about vertebrate evolution, from fossils and archeological discoveries.  We now know that primates changed to two legged walking which modified the skeleton.  It is possible to assemble skeletons showing comparative spine changes as it comes out of the skull, a wider pelvis to help walking upright, and a narrowed birth canal, which causes untold amounts of suffering and death.  Yet this sequence shows how we changed into a modern biped.  Knuckle walking is observable in chimps, and other primates, but not humans.  This view shows how evolution tinkers with its gene library, constantly changing and testing new combinations in living things.  There is no perfect design and the evolutionary process is the best explanation we have so far as to how we came about with all our good and bad features.

Evolution is simpler than you thought, works with packets of info in new ways and new combinations.  Commonality among animals all from a common ancestors, all of these branches have the genes, at the base also has the same set of genes.  Nobel Prize in 1995, universal set of genes which build all our structures, i.e., building embryos.

Our bodies have the same set of genes that all other life uses– we are not exceptions.  The process that created us took millions of years: – an ancestor left the trees and walked on two legs, over 4 MYA.  This was at a time when the African continent was changing from forest to savannah due to climate change.  Being able to walk on two legs opened new food sources available at greater distances.  Freeing the forelimbs away fromknuckle walking means our ancestors could carry things in their hands over long distances, which could have opened trading possibilities.  The impact of this change on our brain development is not discussed in any detail but one can assume this also occurred.  Over time this led to a larger brain creating a branch to H. sapiens.

Extinctions

The second part of this disc concerns extinctions, something we all need to know about as this threat seems more eminent than annihilation through nuclear war, although that should not be considered a subject to ignore at any future time.   To date there is evidence indicating 4 million years of extinctions – five have been traced out in the geological record.

Extinctions create new forms of life by eliminating competitors. A great example comes 65 MYA when an asteroid hit the earth just off the Yucatan peninsula where the submerged crater is still visible from the air.   This 65 MYA asteroid was larger than Mt. Everest.  It was the  5th known extinction called the “KT” event.  It eliminated the dinosaurs, giving rise to the mammals which survived and radiated, getting larger and more diverse (first small then larger).  They seemed to survive because they tunneled in the earth.  The new recovering planet was now without the dinosaurs, and made our existence possible.

Box 1: Excerpt from NASA newsletter, 9.19.11 concerning the origin of the asteroid that hit the earth 65 MYA.

While scientists are confident a large asteroid crashed into Earth approximately 65 million years ago, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs and some other life forms on our planet, they do not know exactly where the asteroid came from or how it made its way to Earth. A 2007 study using visible-light data from ground-based telescopes first suggested the remnant of a huge asteroid, known as Baptistina, as a possible suspect. …

“As a result of the WISE science team’s investigation, the demise of the dinosaurs remains in the cold case files,” said Lindley Johnson, program executive for the Near Earth Object (NEO) Observation Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The original calculations with visible light estimated the size and reflectivity of the Baptistina family members, leading to estimates of their age, but we now know those estimates were off. With infrared light, WISE was able to get a more accurate estimate, which throws the timing of the Baptistina theory into question.” 

WISE surveyed the entire celestial sky twice in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. The asteroid-hunting portion of the mission, called NEOWISE, used the data to catalogue more than 157,000 asteroids in the main belt and discovered more than 33,000 new ones.

After such massive extinctions Evolution then recreates a new balance.  Now we are causing a new extinction catastrophe.  Our most severe test is in the future.  Today we are at 6 billion and growing.  We are causing 100 times the rate of extinctions experienced in the past, albeit much slower than an asteroid hit, from habitat destruction primarily.

But it’s a race between whether we will produce our own extinction or will it be caused by an asteroid, nuclear war or climate change, when is also up for grabs, too.  An extinction produced by an asteroid or comet is not far fetched.  This will probably eliminate human life well before our sun collapses.  NASA is orbiting a satellite searching system to plot the expected paths of the biggest asteroids.  I applaud this effort compared to the search for extraterrestrial life, which seems impractical.  Besides we are not taking care of the life we know about here on Earth, which we have not even documented adequately.

An Old Movie: Inherit The Wind, An Historical Recreation of the Scopes Trial

A historical recreation with Spencer Tracey as the defending trial lawyer for Scopes.  Spencer Tracey portrays the famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow losses to a jury of locals.  For more about Darrow see the play about his life: Clarence Darrow: from Netflix:  1974 NR 80 minutes

David W. Rintels’s acclaimed stage play, based on the biography by Irving Stone, springs to life in this one-man show that originally aired on network television, starring Oscar winner Henry Fonda in the title role. Relayed mainly through monologue, the action chronicles crusading attorney Clarence Darrow’s most famous public trials, including the Scopes “monkey” trial and his controversial defense of child murderers Leopold and Loeb.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:  Scopes Trial Summary

Tennessee v. Scopes

Court Criminal Court of Tennessee
Full case name The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes
Date decided July 21, 1925
Citation(s) None
Judge(s) sitting John T. Raulston

Case history

Subsequent action(s) Scopes v. State (1926)

The Scopes Trial—formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and informally known as the Scopes Monkey Trial—was a landmark American legal case in 1925 in which high school biology teacher, John Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act which made it unlawful to teach evolution.[1]

Scopes was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality and he was never brought back to trial. The trial drew intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to the small town of Dayton, to cover the big-name lawyers representing each side. William Jennings Bryan, three time presidential candidate for the Democrats, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. The trial saw modernists, who said religion was consistent with evolution, against fundamentalists who said the word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all human knowledge. The trial was thus both a theological contest, and a trial on the veracity of modern science regarding the creation-evolution controversy. The teaching of evolution expanded, as fundamentalist efforts to use state laws to reverse the trend had failed in the court of public opinion.[2]

The Genius of Charles Darwin – 2 Discs by Athena

These discs mostly cover Richard Dawkins’s ideas about evolution, the most famous of which is the selfish gene idea.  This means that genes run things and they are only trying to perpetuate themselves through the phenotype.  Sounds logical until one tries to connect the gene(s) to phenotypic manifestations precisely.  I would love to see such a linkage.  Maybe Dawkins knows this and I just need to study his writings and statements further.

Lots of talking heads in these discs but the real meat of current thinking is clearly presented.  I found it hard to be as generous to the religious believers as Dawkins is, but they get their time here.  But it is clear they are in denial of the evidence and do not face the issue directly.

The second disc is a gallery of Dawkin’s interviews with current leading figures in the Evolution world.

Great stuff but get ready for talking heads.

Darwin’s Secret Notebooks – National Geographic Channel.

This movie retraces the voyage of the , which carried Darwin around the world for 5 years.  In this movie we visit the actual places where Darwin found particular fossils and made important observations, particularly the Galapagos Islands off the West Coast of Peru.

Darwin’s Voice

This is entirely a biography of Charles Darwin.  I discovered this DVD after seeing all of the above on Netflix.  It capsulates the life of Darwin, filling in various gaps in the other films.  It should be seen first, but is less dramatic and drama is what holds one’s interest.  So maybe it’s good to see in down here at the end.

Final Comments

What the religious people think about evolution, if they ever take the time to do so, is up for grabs.  Their view seems mostly about denial, i.e., not believing in a fantastic amount and quality of evidence.  The sorry thing is that anybody who learns about evolution realizes that its coevolutionary character pits living things against each other as host and parasite, predator and prey, cooperators and competitors, etc., so as to create genetic variation and selection.  This means the world as we know it is a vicious place, full of threats that want to take our lives away.  Consequently, any humanist with compassion works against these evolutionary forces.  To deny that these forces exist, one puts their head in the sand, or in “the hands of a nonexistent God or gods.  We humanists protect the weak, use compassion to help those weakened and diseased, work to correct and compensate for evolutions errors, and appreciate the wondrous world evolution created.

There is certainly grandeur in this view of life, but it’s not a perfect world and we need to work to correct evolutions mistakes – rise above the mistakes we inherited.  But our knowledge is weak when it comes to how we as a species can reduce the impact from the threats we know about, to say nothing about what we don’t know about, which I think is the greater problem.

More Movies

Reviews by Bill Olkowski

We have a great life right now. One of the chief features is our ability to look at movies to our hearts’ content.  With the new feature of instant play at Netflix we have entered a new era.  We used to have to wait for the discs to show up and then sometimes they were all stinkers and we would send them all back right away.  Now in between waiting for discs we dip into the instant play lists.  Of course most movies available are stinkers so it takes awhile to find good ones.

There is no life without theater. But it has to be compelling and funny.  Most of what we have selected to look at on Netflix (regular and instant) does not make it past 15 minutes.  And to even start looking we have already screened out 80-95 percent of what is available.

We select mostly from comedies, British movies and actors, dramas that are not dark or about the break up of marriages or other catastrophes, including people dying.  Its not reality we seek, we have too much already.  We see lots of nature films, and a series or two made for TV (but no laugh tracks, which we find insulting).  And all the war documentaries, I have already seen or don’t wish to visit again, we skip.  We skip all political movies, fantasy or reality.  We are now on virtually a permanent vacation from the news.  We search for realistic fantasy for adults that has depictions of transformation, growth (significant), love in all its manifestations, great photography, good stories, well done with great actors.  No animation stories, no ghosts, etc., no junk science, or science fiction, no robots, aliens or monsters, human or otherwise.

Why are the studio types persisting in using death and dying as a feature or theme?  Are we so bereft of grief counseling that we need to relive someone else’s tragedies.  It’s a cheap device to illicit emotions, add that to your disgust list about current films.  So what follows is a recent, sanitized list.  The one movie that stands out even in such a highly selected group is Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works”.  It’s the best thing he has done, even better than “Deconstructing Harry”. This includes his recent movie: “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, which is fun but not full of fun, like “Whatever Works”, which also has a strong social-political-psychological conclusion.

But subjectivism (is that a new word?), is widespread among one’s friends and never more so than in relation to movies.  So here is the latest top 10 (or so): How many do you agree with as being good?  How many can you add?

The streaming capability at PBS.com is just not easy to use or to find full episodes, but many movies there are great.  I could not yet get HULU to work.  We could watch recent episodes of Bones at the bones site but have to put up with advertisements, something we hate.  We also have an aversion to fox productions as we know their political orientation.

The following are our recent selections and for every one recommended we tossed back at least 10.  We can usually tell if it’s about death and destruction, sad stories about weird people, horror and gore, or too sloppy from the write-ups, but the write-ups are only a partial guide.  So we screen movies and mostly stop after a few minutes as we can see they are stupid, silly, poorly done, have bad sound, or other defects.  Also we can’t view foreign now since H cant read captions very fast so they are a waste.  It’s amazing how many bad movies there are.  Comedies are frequently not funny, and watch out for dark comedies.  People dying or suffering from some disease(s) we avoid.  We avoid political stories as too much speculations and not hopeful enough.  We still have hopes for politics but it is dimming rapidly.

So here are some of our recent best and some oldies we loved.

Whatever Works – this is one of a kind.

This is the best movie of the current batch (except Creation –see below which is from another genre).  Whatever Works is the best of Woody Allen’s whole collection.  This includes our previous favorite, his outrageous autobiographically projection “Deconstructing Harry”. He wrote and directed this funny tale and as usual, set it in New York City with people you would expect to meet in the City.  You can see him making fun about our obsession on current mores, but now he tosses in some ideas being developed in physics and new scientific findings about the nature of reality.  Of course our physical sciences have gone over the edge, of just what, remains to be seen.

Woody Allen doesn’t act in this one, which I find refreshing, but you can hear him speaking thru the actor Larry David.  Larry plays a misanthropic retired physics professor with a poorly repaired limp from an attempt at suicide.  He had jumped out a window trying to kill himself in despair, and hit an awning on the way down.  He complains about the doctors who could not fix his leg properly.  Right at the start Larry has an aside (one of Woody’s theatrical devices so easily worked into the story, real theater).  The professor is hiding from “a violent unfeeling chaotic world”.  Well, I feel the same way, almost. We have friends.

The fun starts when a young escapee waif from a southern state has landed in NYC.  She talks him into letting her stay the night -for humanitarian reasons.  As you can guess she stays longer and longer and meanwhile learns some basic physics lessons which when translated in her young brain comes out just marvelous.  “What are you worrying about? After all, there’s nothing faster than the speed of light”.  And then there’s Woody’s view of love and relationships stimulated by Larry’s flights out the window.  One special high point for me was when the waif is listening to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, at Larry’s insistence as it is superior to a rock and roll thing she likes, but she acquiesces.  While playing it, a knock on the door confuses the waif for a while, then she goes to the door and finds her mother.  What follows is just so, so funny, you have to see it. She was trying to escape from her mother and the disappointment at her arrival is obvious.

The rest is pure fun as only Allen can produce.  It’s hard to make funny movies and it’s hard for me to understand why some friends don’t like Woody’s marvelous productions.  Am I right? There’s no Oscar for comedy?

Gosford Park – a drama mystery

This Robert Altman production takes place in the 1930’s at a shooting party in the English countryside with a host of great actors.  It’s really a mystery tale with surprises all along the way.  It makes fun of the genre, and it’s also a social commentary on Victorian England’s legacy of double standards, class structure and the sorry state of the upper class and its working poor.  We like it because of how well it tells the tale, interweaving just the right number of subplots.  This is a keeper and we have already seen it 5-6 times.  Get a disc so captions are available.

Who am I this Time?

This older hidden gem with Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken is a delicate romance about two people who meet while acting in a small town theater production of A Street Car Named Desire.  The actors themselves seemed to love the roles and each other.  They were much younger then.

Blue State

This partial documentary with its political clips brings back the Vietnam era and my post election despair of G.W. Bush’s second term election.  The romance starts when a young gal shows up looking for a ride with a democratic political activist who in despair has announced he is leaving for Canada.  Besides a series of funny and a surprise revelation from the girl (with blue streaks in her hair and a nose ring), the view from Canada tells a whole bunch about the US population and political scene, then and even now.

This movie brought back my memories of a time when we only were spending 90 billion per year on a stupid war without real justification.  The vaporous fears then about Communism makes one think about today’s fears and just how much is manufactured by a bloated military and right wing rhetoric, or maybe just the usual fears from the military.

The Upside of Anger

They call it a comic tale of tangled family ties.  Kevin Costner plays a retired baseball player interested in a neighboring woman (and her daughters) whose husband seems to have run off with his secretary.  We just think he made one of his best movies (next to, of course Bull Durham).  Big surprise at the end, which leaves us with a good feeling about how to handle anger.  After watching it again I still don’t know why we like it but there it is.

I’ll Take You There

You must have patience to see the end of this seemingly puzzling set of circumstances.  A highlight for me is the song: they call it the Bastard Song, first line: Don’t let the Bastards get you down.  I am learning the lyrics now. But the moral seems to me to me: given a choice, love the gal who is willing to take a bullet for you.  A delightful story with good acting and interesting people/characters.

The Golden Boys

The romance is about 3 old retired ship captains who draw straws to see which one is to go after a mail order bride.  Their physical circumstances are easy to see as their collective living experience has degraded to desperation.  Wait to you see who shows up to follow up on their ad.  Rip Torn plays the hapless captain, and the gal makes the right choice.  She is certainly no fool.

Groundhog Day

Most of my friends love this movie, the best thing Bill Murray has done by far.  Its philosophical base is unique and plays to my abstinent obsession to do something over and over until I get it right.  Wish I had the time to do exactly that.  We just had to view it again.

Humboldt County

Set in Mary Jane country on the coast of California where the illegal drug is produced by a rag tag bunch of renegades and down-and-outs informally headed by an expatriate college U.C. professor.  The best line in the movie is by a young daughter who referring to the class one drug, says simply “It’s better than alcohol”.  Another axiom: don’t get greedy and grow too much because the Feds will raid you.  When the raid comes everybody runs to the beach where even the local police and park rangers try to smooth over what is almost an embarrassment.  The real problem is the Feds.  But although it’s clear that MJ is not the problem the federals and local brainless police make it out to be there no real presentation of the good aspects of MJ use.  For that see the movie: The Union.

The Extra Man

Its always fun to see Kevin Kline contort on the stage.  And this wild story gives him lots of room and portrays a far-out bachelor’s life.

Outsourced – a romance.

A cross-cultural touching story about one such outsourcing experience.  More of what I would hope the reality to be but one I fear is hardly the case.

Lovely Still

An unusual portrayal, a very touching story that becomes clear at the end.

Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry

This is a beauty and an oldie.  We had some trouble with the sound quality but the spirit of the women – an older Katherine Hepburn – is admiral and much like the actress herself.  It was a bit disconcerting as her head wobbled like a person with Parkinson’s, or someone getting old.  I like it when the oldies express independence of spirit.

My Brilliant Career

Judy Davis stars in this biographical story about a poor young Australian woman around the turn of the 20th century.  She wants to be a writer and becomes one but the cost is love.  Yet one must praise her guts to go against the zeitgeist.  Then it was easier as all women had to get married and that meant children.  For me it is great to see women who have given up that choice in exchange for a career.  I did it but its easier for a man who does not have the genes for race preservation just the need to release sexual tension, but that maybe too severe.

Music from Another room

A good love story.

Better than Sex

This erotic tale shows two modern people start with casual sex, find it irresistible and rethink their status quo.  Its fun to see two beautiful people enjoying themselves but it’s the commentaries when interviewed and their friend’s comments that are interesting.  Then there is the taxi driver who finds the escapes amusing but plays a big role in their lives.

All Passions Spent

This is a beauty. An older women’s husband dies and she decides to live alone as opposed to what her kids want from her.  A delicate film and uplifting.  Lots of people know what’s good for you and sometimes you just have to decide for yourself and dam the torpedoes.

Dean Spangle

This is an unusual well-acted period piece about Dean Spangley who appears to be either a great wise man or a charlatan.  Coincidence may play a bigger role in life than we would expect, thinking the world is so complex as to defy simple mechanistic explanations.  This movie so skillfully acted that any ideas you care to generate about what is going on may startle you.  It’s great theater with good British actors in British settings.

T.V. Series

Bones

We got sucked into this series, maybe because we are both entomologists and had some experiences with death things.  My old prof, Paul Catts, wrote a forensic entomological manual and gave me a copy before he died.  On our field trips we were always stopping for road kills.  I thought to write some stories about the subject but gave up because I did not want to think about killing people.  The real fun for me in this series is to see the interaction between Bones, the anthropologist scientist and her FBI partner, explained as an intuitive investigator.  Bones, who is a beauty, puts down the religious belief system with style.

Her FBI compadre and she interact – he usually looses because her arguments are so sound – that’s what I think anyway.

He does the dirty work with the criminals and she the dirty work with the bodies and what’s left of them.  They must stink really bad, but with exposure one can acclimated.  Besides its just theater.  There are a great group of support personnel with lots of subplots.  Angela has this great smile that is contagious.  The early forensic worker Zack somehow got taken off the series, but he was great, and for a series of episodes they seem to be trying out different actors to fill his role.  The writing is great, suspenseful and extremely cleaver, sometimes too far out, but always entertaining.  We are waiting for the release of the season 7 discs as we can’t stand the TV streaming with their advertisements.

Bramwell

This is another series we stumbled upon.  The main character is a women doctor who fights the existing dominant arrogant medical male medical people of 1895 London with lots of shots of how bad the society was then.  It’s a love story too and it’s worth seeing just alone for perspective on today’s medical system.  It may be sad today for most people but back then it was bad for everybody and there were no antibiotics, poor analgesics (morphine only), and ugly practices.  Plus lots of stupid people, just like now, but then it was most people.  Now one can find a bit of intelligence here and there, but it takes an effort and constant searching.

Wives and Daughters

Michael Gabon plays the role of a doctor raising a daughter alone in England about 1850.  If things were bad in Bramwell’s time they were worse earlier.  But here the story is about Gabon’s choice of a new wife after his daughter is fully-grown.  It’s about how the two women interact amidst few good choices beyond merely marriage.  Remember women could not vote, own property and divorce was not an option.  And that’s the society we adapted for our own.  Gads!  But the time portrayal is great.

Documentaries

New York and Chicago – both many discs.

These historical series are good reviews even though they are the usual watered down history channel productions.  The pictures they use to show the times are great.  The hyperbole about the cities goes beyond good sense but like everything else one needs to penetrate beyond the superficial to really know what is happening.  The update on the twin towers told me many things I did not know about the towers.  The Chicago series with its great photos of the 1919 World’s Fair and the Haymarket Incident also instructed me about the sorry episodes when the rich ruled thru the police departments in a corrupt democracy.  Something history lessons in High School skip over lightly if they cover it at all.

Blue Gold

This is about the critically important life component called water and how

the political system allows private companies to capture public resources for profit – and how to fight this an ongoing war.  One would hope that the era of thinking that privatization will solve all social problems is over, but don’t believe it.  We are in the midst of a David and Goliath fight for the lifeblood of all living things.  We are David, and corporate systems, particularly international organizations, are Goliath.  Given the disproportionate allocation of resources, particularly legal ones, the biblical analogy is highly apt.  but David slew Goliath, something we have yet to do, or maybe even think about.  How about abolishing the idea that Corporations have the same rights as individuals. We all must die but corporations live on.

The Union

This is a movie many more people will have to see and understand so we could move beyond the current public and legal morass about the Class one drug called Cannabis.  You can hear some of the arguments about why this plant and its products should not be illegal.  But this is not a complete discussion nor presentation, just the film producer’s collection of reasons.  But even those are major.

One reason this stupidity continues to exist is that it does not get enough discussion in the public.  The users do not want to expose themselves.  Plus, all property of a “dealer” or user captured by the law is confiscated.  Who gets this property?  The police get the confiscated property so when you see that the police organizations in CA are against legalization you can understand why.  Here in Santa Barbara the starting salary for an entry level policeman is $80,000.  Note also that the drug lords don’t want legalization because it will reduce the street value of grass.  And why not legalize it and tax it like alcohol, which is way more responsible for more violence and destruction, well beyond what grass is documented or thought to be.  Many police officers are aware of this stupidity but cannot go against the legal system.

Here in SB they are even destroying the systems for distributing legal medical MJ.  I read that 40% of the prison system inmates are drug related and most are MJ related.  At $40,000 per person per year to house, feed and medicate these people no wonder the public coffers are empty.

The Human Family Tree

This scientific documentary tells how we arose in Africa and moved around the world.  The newly discovered genetic information gives a timetable for human movements that is highly reliable and more dense than archeological relics.  We have learned a great deal about early human evolution but most people are not aware of our journey from the apes.  This film helps correct many misconceptions and presents the idea that we are all one family, something no religious group even speaks about – maybe the Unitarians do, but I have not been in a Uni-church in 50 years.  I lump them all into social control systems preaching myths of the past, and without any evidence.

 

List of Good Movies

by Bill Olkowski

We have a long list of previous great movies – mostly comedies, but I can’t find it right now.  But since Helga got part of her vision back about 6-8 months ago, we have started to again screen movies for hours on any one day.

There is no life without theater. But it has to be compelling and funny.  Most of what we have selected to look at on Netflix (regular and instant) does not make it past 15 minutes.  And to even start looking we have already screened out 80-95 percent of what is available.

We select mostly from comedies, British movies and actors, dramas that are not dark or about the break up of marriages or other catastrophes, including people dying.  Its not reality we seek, we have too much already.  We see lots of nature films, and a series or two made for TV (but no laugh tracks, which we find insulting).  And all the war documentaries, I have already seen or don’t wish to visit again, we skip.  We skip all political movies, fantasy or reality.  We are now on virtually a permanent vacation from the news.  We search for realistic fantasy for adults that has depictions of transformation, growth (significant), love in all its manifestations, great photography, good stories, well done with great actors.  No animation stories, no ghosts, etc., no junk science, or science fiction, no robots, aliens or monsters, human or otherwise.

Why are the studio types persisting in using death and dying as a feature or theme?  Are we so bereft of grief counseling that we need to relive someone else’s tragedies.  It’s a cheap device to illicit emotions, add that to your disgust list about current films.  So what follows is a recent, sanitized list.  The one movie that stands out even in such a highly selected group is Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works”.  It’s the best thing he has done, even better than “Deconstructing Harry”. This includes his recent movie: “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger”, which is fun but not full of fun, like “Whatever Works”, which also has a strong social-political-psychological conclusion.

But subjectivism (is that a new word?), is widespread among one’s friends and never more so than in relation to movies.  So here is the latest top 10 (or so): How many do you agree with as being good?  How many can you add?

  1. I’ll Take You There – girl gets guy, or vice versa, seemed wild at first then cleared up and finally concluded with an “aha”.  I would select the girl who would take a bullet for me, wouldn’t you? Forget the other(s).  Or is it really the other way round and one can watch how it is done.
  2. The Golden Boys – the acting makes the story run and run, a beauty.  So that’s the way David Carridine and Rip Torn aged.  It’s easier on the men, at least on the exterior.  I didn’t see Mariel Hemingway beneath her glasses and outfit at first, but after a few scenes she shines out.  Retired sea captains want a wife, so they advertise and Mariel shows up, wow!!!  Will she select the right one? Why?  I like it when the romantic plot tells why the couples like each other, and stop pretending it’s so mysterious, its not all pheromones.
  3. Groundhog Day – still gets us after seeing it many many times.  The best thing Bill Murray has ever done.  Never see Andie McDowell anymore, what happened?
  4. Humboldt County – a male transformational drama, set in the context of raising MJ for profit or livelihood, that is the question.  The kid says it succinctly, “its better than beer”).  But alas the federales come when the growing place is beyond enough for a year for a family.  The sad thing is that MJ is illegal.  It’s the temperance movement repeated,  leading to armed criminals and police conflict.
  5. Gosford Park – Another repeat from our earlier list, but as a story and period recreation a great one.  The British class structure is there, as is the sorry place of female servitude in both upper and lower classes.  Another Altman gem.
  6. Dean Spanley – a weird story told well, but touching non-the-less, with good actors, but based on truly a theatrical device, or on an unrealized and undeveloped human ability?
  7. Outsourced – a cross-cultural bit (India-US, corporate world), but strong, and a love story.
  8. Who am I This Time? – a sweet sweet story with two great actors, the young Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon.  And fun too.  Just saw it.
  9. The Extra Man – unusual lifestyles all interesting.  Watching Kevin Klein’s antics is always worth the view.
  10. Passions All Spent – an adult movie without any pornography.  For the older set. Finally, a real story with some passion for life’s true moments.
  11. Lovely Still – a tearjerker we stumbled into and it held our attention.  But watch out.
  12. Trixie – one long series of malaprops, in which Emily Watson tries to use, with expected results, all the fun over a murder mystery and unrequited love story. Emily is the private eye.  Listen carefully and the malaprops start right at the beginning.
  13. Great documentary: Engineering Rome, first disc shows how the Roman army crossed the Danube by building a wooden bridge from locally timbered logs, in something like five days, then after a brief romp in German territory, crosses over and pulls the bridge down.  A clear demonstration of power, without loosing a single soldier.
  14. Series: Downton Abbey is a Brit-recreation of the way it was, always great stuff.  Nothing still beats the Gilmore Girls, by the way.
  15. Great Nature Series – all narrated by David Attenborough, are the best, but there are many (see also Planet Earth).  The skeletal and muscular animations of animals in action are wonderful new additions to the naturalist toolkit, as are night vision cameras, and light weight aerial camera work.  The worldviews of different ecosystems and special wildlife are terrific, but alas no decent discussion of what natural controls and the balance of nature really mean.  The documentary “Evolution” disc 1 is a historical recreation mix with commentary, an unusual way to present a story.  The “Journey of Man” tells the recent human evolution story based on sciences of genetics, anthropology and archeology, a must see.
  16. Colombo – never saw it before but found the 7-season series light fun.  Motive, Means and Opportunity are the keys to all the stories.
  17. Bogie – as a documentary and historical recreation is marvelous, but too bad he had to die of smoking.  Lot’s I did not know about his wife. The only other biopic, that is better, is Chaplin, with a virtuoso performance by Robert Downey.
  18. We started Ken Burns’ series on the West but gave up half way.  The reoccurring theme of how we fucked over the native populations makes me sick to be a human and a US citizen.  How can one cover up the tragedies with bullshit.  We don’t criticize Ken Burns at all, after all he is telling the truth.  It’s just us.
  19. Also,  The Human Family Tree.