Monthly Archives: November 2014


November 22nd, 2014 12 Comments


I’ve always loved movie robots.




Because they invariably have more character, more color, more interest than the hero of the story in which they play a supporting role.


My favorite, probably because he was my first, is Robbie—the real star of that fifties sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet.


With a clear glass dome of a head that reveals the complex machinery of his mind, he moves in a metallic waddle and speaks in the voice of a butler, an old retainer with a special affection for the family he serves. Protective, accommodating, a master chef, he can replicate virtually anything, including the gallons of whiskey he produces in a wonderfully comic scene between him and one of the human actors.


He is also powerful, capable of lifting immense weights, and he is, at the same time, defensive weapon, constantly scanning for threats to family and friend and eliminating those threats with a dazzling ray that vaporizes its targets.


Best of all, Robbie is programmed against the killing of human beings. When ordered to kill, he freezes, a lightning storm erupting in his transparent head, a storm that will destroy him if the order is not rescinded.


And that makes Robbie superior to the human beings around him, all of whom have “monsters from the id” buried deep in their psyches, murderous impulses that can boil up to the surface and threaten the race itself.


Robbie is charming, colorful, complex—a wonderful character who takes us to the heart of Forbidden Planet and its insights into the human animal.


Then, of course, there’s HAL—by far the most interesting and fully developed character in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.


There are, I’m sure, those among you who will object—insisting that HAL is a computer, not a robot. I would argue that the ship sent to explore the origins of the metal monolith that seems to hold the key to the mystery of human life is a massive robot, that HAL is its brain and the ship is his body.


He manifests himself in his disturbing red light of an eye, in his resonate, reassuring voice, in his profound intelligence—the intelligence that makes the mission possible.


Respectful, formal but with just a hint of warmth, he addresses the crew members by their first names and seems almost eager to solve any problems that may develop.


But HAL is also proud, deceitful, manipulative, homicidal. When the crew catches this perfect machine in a serious error and decides it must decommission him, HAL sets out to destroy them.


Man has built his own irrational, destructive impulses into this machine, impulses that inform everything man creates—everything from the thigh bone he turned into his first tool, an instrument of death, to the nuclear satellite that it becomes in the greatest cut in the history of cinema.


The irony is that HAL is more human than those who created him, more moving certainly (“Daisy, Daisy…”) than astronaut Dave Bowman who seems almost machine-like in his lack of emotion.


Like Robbie, HAL is the most colorful, complex individual in the story, and his character takes us to the heart of the themes with which Kubrick is struggling.


This is the pattern of most sci-fi films involving robots.


Whether it’s Grot—the guardian of the heart machine in Metropolis, or Gort—who possesses the power to destroy the human race and the planet that begot it in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, or the fuss-budget C3PO and the impetuous R2D2 in Star Wars, or the renegade Sonny who breaks the three laws in I, Robot…whether they are antagonists, confederates, or comic relief…robots have invariably been more interesting than the human characters of the stories in which they appear.


Until now.


Until the advent of that bloated, ridiculously over-praised, pretentious botch of a sci-fi film, Interstellar.


Christopher Nolan gives us two robots—TARS and CASE—to support the human crew of the movie’s mission to find a new home for the race of man. The one is indistinguishable from the other, so let’s concentrate on TARS, who plays the larger role in the story.


Imagine a gray metal slab not unlike the monolith in 2001. (I suggest imagining it to save yourself the ten or fifteen dollars and the three wasted hours it would require to see the film.)




More animated—in the sense that it moves and it talks.


In fact, it “walks” in a way that defies common sense if not the laws of physics, and it speaks in a voice so ordinary, so undistinguished, it could be the voice of any of us…except for the fact that I’ve never met anyone quite as boring as TARS.


It (I can’t bring myself to call it “him” even though it sounds male) is utterly without personality.


So then…


Is TARS, unlike its cinematic forebears, less interesting than the human characters in the story?


Unfortunately, no.


They, like him, are cyphers—generic figures at worst, simplistic types at best, defined only by the screen presence of the talented actors who play them.


And the other elements of the film?


The dialogue is endlessly expository, designed not to reveal character but to explain what’s going on, and failing abysmally in that task.


The science?


I suppose only the physicists and rocket scientists among us can judge it with any authority, but it strikes me as the worst kind of nonsense.


Solid clouds?


Space vehicles so indestructible that they can survive high-speed collision with these “clouds”?


Space stations large enough to accommodate the earth’s populace and lifted into orbit through gravity?


I could go on.


But instead, let me ask you this.


If you were looking for a new home for the human race, would you choose a planet in orbit around a black hole?


Then there’s the mawkishly developed theme of family—“love [that] transcends time and space.”




The astronaut hero deserts the daughter who loves him to seize the opportunity to return to space. (Saving the human race seems a secondary consideration.)


She, in turn, spends most of the rest of her life hating him for leaving.


The final third of the story becomes his attempt to return to her, and…






…and when he does, he spends no more than two minutes with her before flying off to rejoin the female member of his crew!


All of this is so inept that I find myself reconsidering my initial judgment.


It’s possible that I misjudged TARS.


It may be that he, for all his emptiness, is, after all, more interesting than the human characters in the story and that he, in fact, provides profound insight into the vacuum at the heart of Interstellar.




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November 5th, 2014 6 Comments



I’m a product of the Midwest.


Oh, I was born and raised in California, but my family has deep roots in Kansas.


My mother was from Plainville, pop. 1500.   My father, from Stockton—an even smaller town just a few miles to the north.


My fondest memories are of the summers I spent there in what my grandfather called “God’s country”—gently rolling hills clothed in fields of wheat, graced by ribbons of trees tracing the courses of rivers and streams, and every once in a while, a thick cluster of elms with a steeple, a grain elevator and a water tower pushing into the sky above.


If it was God’s country, it was also hard country—as hard as the God of the Old Testament, subject to flood and famine, drought and dust, blizzard and tornado.


It was hard country, and only hard people could survive it.


Two of my favorites were my Aunt Gwen and my Uncle Fat.


Fat…it sounds like an awful name but it wasn’t—it was an ironic, affectionate tribute to a man who was all sinew, muscle and bone.


Fat was a big man who’d spent so much time out in the sun that he gave new meaning to the phrase “red-neck.” He used to let me ride with him on his big red tractor across the fields of his farm outside of Stockton. He called me “Danny Boy,” and it was he, along with my grandfather, who introduced me to the outdoor life.


He’d tried life in California but couldn’t stand it. He turned his back on the easy living here in the Golden State and returned to Kansas, where he and my Aunt Gwen barely managed to eke out a living.


A unpainted three-room shack, an outhouse, two pumps in place of plumbing, and food that came mostly from the garden behind their home. By any reasonable standard, they were as poor as those proverbial church mice, but in my mind, they were rich—in their love for each other, for the land, for their way of life.


Aunt Gwen was a tiny woman—rail thin, maybe five feet tall, couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. Looked a lot like the wife in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” She took care of the garden and the hogs, who lived in fear of her! When my uncle came down with a terminal illness and began to waste away, this tiny person would hoist him up and move him wherever he needed to be.


Right after he passed away, they discovered oil on the farm. Suddenly they…I should say, she…was rich. Unable to maintain the farm by herself, she retained the mineral rights and moved to town. She shot her beloved dog Joe because she couldn’t bear the thought of him leashed, confined to a city lot instead of running free across the fields of the farm.


She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and he was the warmest, most generous man. They embodied the land—its beauty and its hardness.


What has any of this to do with David Dobkin’s film, The Judge?




Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, we’re told, is a product of heartland Indiana. Known to everyone including his family as “Judge,” he is rock-hard in his belief in himself and in the old-fashioned values he enforces in his courtroom, among them respect for authority and acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions. For him, the law is nothing short of a moral code.


His son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.) is his opposite. He’s exchanged the small town of his birth for the bright lights of the big city. Urban through and through, he’s glib, fast-talking criminal attorney whose moral code is as slippery as his tongue is smooth. He sees the law as something to be manipulated rather than enforced, and he’s manipulated it into massive amounts of money by putting guilty men back on the streets of Chicago.


The film opens with the death of his mother and his reluctant return to the town of his birth, where he soon finds himself defending the father who despises him, in a hit-and-run case that threatens to escalate to murder.


We follow him as he leaves the towers of the city for the open plains of Indiana—driving through a cornfield so flat, open and endless that we suspect it’s the product of some digital genius in the special effects department.

Eventually, he arrives in Carlinville, a stunningly beautiful village surrounded by heavily wooded hills, bisected by a fast-flowing river, graced by a double waterfall and a big covered bridge right in the heart of town. A place so picturesque you can’t look at without thinking, “Gosh, I’d love to live there.” After all, it has all the beauty of the country along with the upscale bars and charming shops of a city and none of the traffic.




I lived there for eight years outside a small town named Greencastle and I crisscrossed the state by car, but I never saw anything resembling this mythical Carlinville, which reminded me of Middlebury, Vermont and some of the other repackaged, upgraded mill towns of New England.


It was so disorienting and unreal that it kept taking me out the movie.


Worse than that, it made it almost impossible for me to believe that the Judge was a product of this place. He could easily have been a citizen of Plainville or Greencastle or Bruce Dern’s hometown in Nebraska, but he sure as hell couldn’t have come from this upscale Northeastern village (which a little research revealed is actually Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts!).


The choice of this location—the director thought it more “filmic” than anything to be found in the real Indiana—is a fraud, one of many the movie perpetrates on its audiences.


The director and his writers ask us to believe that Hank could urinate without consequence on his courtroom opponent in a Chicago trial, that the Judge would rather have an inept, farcical excuse of a local lawyer defend him in a life-and-death trial rather than his own brilliant son, that judges in Indiana are allowed to ignore conflict of interest statutes and preside over the trials of relatives, that…well, you get the picture.


There is everything wrong with this picture…everything except the acting. Hank is a role tailor-made for Downey, Jr., and he plays it so well he actually manages to uncover new aspects of his established persona. Duvall seems born to play the Judge—a comment one might make about virtually every diverse role he’s ever done. He is, quite simply, one of our greatest living actors.


Together, they make us care about father and son…in spite of the plot contrivances, the distracting subplots, the slow pace, the phony presentation of place. Thanks to the two Roberts and a remarkable supporting cast, the film has an emotional reality that transcends the fraudulence and contrivance of the narrative.


See this film.


My warm-hearted uncle, my tough-as-leather grandfather and my even tougher aunt might not recognize the Midwestern town of this movie, but I’m suspect they’d embrace Judge Joseph Palmer as a brother.


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