Fright Night

Fright Night is not horror; it’s suspense with a dash of romantic (and bro-mantic) comedy under a layer of vampiric gore.  It’s definitely not an original concept for the genre (see Buffy) or even for the plot itself (see the original 80’s Fright Night – this is a remake), but it does bring a freshness to the Bella-saturated genre.
It’s impossible to ignore Colin Ferrell’s importance in his role of Jerry, the vampire-next-door.  Colin seems to be perfectly at ease playing a physical, sexual predator and alpha male.

The scene that defines this is framed in the door to Charley’s kitchen, when vampire Jerry asks innocently for a beer, and Charley – very suspicious that extending an offer to enter his house would mean his death – dances around in conversation with him.  Not for long, though, as Jerry is no fool and sees through his feigned ignorance of the rules of the vampire.  At that moment, still in the course of the “innocent” conversation, Jerry switches to thinly-veiled threats against his mom and, especially, his “ripe” young girlfriend.  It’s a moment of threat and grudging respect between the two, and a challenge from Jerry to Charley as a man.

The quick payoff to that is a harrowing, silent invasion of Jerry’s home by Charley – to rescue the neighborhood tease from being a caged, living blood source.  The tension is wonderfully built up as a successful rescue until the two final shots of the scene, one of Jerry cluing the audience in that he’s been playing with Charley, and the final devastating reveal.

Fright Night is a rewatchable, fun romp.


Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (3D)

My wife kept suggesting a trip to see the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace during its 3D run over the past few weeks. At first, I thought she was just suggesting it because she knows my love of Star Wars, but it has begun to dawn on me that she is a genuine fan. (This may seem unusual to not know about your spouse, but my opinions and dedication to the universe are pronounced. When combined with our tendency to do things for the other out of desire to make that person happy, it is sometimes difficult to know what is a genuine preference or just a willing deferral for the sake of the spouse's happiness. It's wonderfully complicated.) So, we finally made it to a showing Sunday afternoon on a blissfully relaxing three-day weekend.

What I found was a film that surprised me. I found it to be well-paced, moving, interesting, visually stunning, and above all, fun. I don't mean this in an analytical Lucas-apologist sense -- I think I actually surprised myself with how much I appreciated and enjoyed the film when it was just me and my wife and no one around to have to defend it against.

R2D2's entrance remains pitch-perfect and (almost) evoking tears in my eyes. Were it not for the pluck, ingenuity, and courage of the astrometric droid under the most dire and consequential of circumstances, the story of Darth Vader ends right there in the flight from Naboo. The four adult leads -- Portman, McGregor, McDiarmid, and Neeson -- all bring skills and gravitas to their nuanced roles. Ian McDiarmid's performances as the (future) Emperor are legendary. McGregor infuses the role of Obi-Wan with an arrogance and youthful disdain ("Why do I suspect we've picked up yet another pathetic life form?") that makes his transition to leader and mentor more striking in the subsequent films. Natalie Portman portrays her dual roles with convincing separation. And Neeson, a physically imposing actor, cuts a wide swath as the zen-like rogue Master and doomed purveyor of the Chosen One to the Jedi forefront.

And speaking of the chosen one, Jake Lloyd's Anakin was just fine as an excitable, all-too-self-aware young slave boy who shows a chilling Vader-esque calm in tracking down pod racers in the Boona Ev course. In the final space battle, he's cool under pressure, even for a child well-aware that he could get killed at any instant. Perhaps it is those slave-honed nerves that came from being forced into life-and-death situations in Pod races by Watto that allow him to disconnect from his fears (or even use his fear as focus?) and give his dark side the ultimate edge in the race for his soul.

The Republic's effective ignorance of slaves within its own boundaries is a jarring subplot that is ignored by *all* our heroes in this story. Both Qui-Gon and Padme (Amidala) express regret that they are not here to free slaves. What they imply is they have their own larger issues going on, and they can't interfere with the way things are. Perhaps the will of the Force, the midichlorians themselves created Anakin to bring this balance. And the way he'll be most effective is being tutored about real life-and-death and how beings are *really* treated here, by his original mentor, Watto.  Is Watto the real chosen mentor of the midichorians?  I love that this film still reveals new angles that I hadn’t seen before.

In his archetype friend, Jar Jar, amply supplies some extra humor in the breaks between the action. Consider the scene with the robots in Watto's shop, near-pod mishap with his hand, and the Bongo line in response to Qui-Gon's calm assurances ("Wensa you thinkin' we in trouble???"). Each of these made me chuckle reflexively. Combined with the almost slap-stick action he exhibits in the final battle on the plains, he's really a remarkable character.

And just one note about the epic lightsaber battle -- Obi-Wan's hopping preface before his aggressive final duel with Darth Maul always gets me going.

Final note: I found the audience experience to be the best I've had in recent memory. The theater was not sparse, yet the usual annoyances (cell phone texting, chatter) were conspicuously absent for the entirety of the film. Even a spattering of (enthusiastic) applause at the end. I guess I was expecting some idiots in the audience who would not be able to restrain some derision for Jake Lloyd or Jar Jar, but then again, perhaps the notion of giving more money to George would keep the angry away.

In short, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (in 3D) was an unexpectedly joyous experience.  Even more so 13 years later.

PS: The 3D enhancement was nicely done and unobtrusive.  Frankly, I’m partial to Blu-Ray crispness over 3D, but nothing trumps the big screen.


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

  The Believing Brain is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.  The science behind just what makes us believe in the supernatural, the odd, the elusive, is a fascinating read that makes sense to someone who struggled his entire life with the amazing pull of the supernatural.

Beliefs themselves are not borne of hard, logical, empirical data:

“Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends upon the beliefs we hold at any given time…
“The brain is a belief engine. From sensory data flowing in through the senses the brain naturally begins to look for and find patterns, and then infuses those patterns with meaning. The first process I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless data. The second process I call agenticity: the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency. We can’t help it. Our brains evolved to connect the dots of our world into meaningful patterns that explain why things happen. These meaningful patterns become beliefs, and these beliefs shape our understanding of reality.”

But why we are be built this way?  It’s an evolutionary survival trait:

“In other words, we tend to find meaningful patterns whether they are there or not, and there is a perfectly good reason to do so. In this sense, patternicities such as superstition and magical thinking are not so much errors in cognition as they are natural processes of a learning brain. We can no more eliminate superstitious learning than we can eliminate all learning. Although true pattern recognition helps us survive, false pattern recognition does not necessarily get us killed, and so the patternicity phenomenon endured the winnowing process of natural selection. Because we must make associations in order to survive and reproduce, natural selection favored all association-making strategies, even those that resulted in false positives. With this evolutionary perspective we can now understand that people believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe nonweird things.”

How hard is it to control the body?  The sense of free will itself is very likely an illusion:

“Add to this processing time the other two-tenths of a second to act on the choice, and it means that a full half second passes between our brain’s intention to do something and our awareness of the actual act of doing it. The neural activity that precedes the intention to act is inaccessible to our conscious mind, so we experience a sense of free will. But it is an illusion, caused by the fact that we cannot identify the cause of the awareness of our intention to act.”

Even if you want to change, there are other factors that discourage change:

“On top of this, our brains place a judgment value upon beliefs. There are good evolutionary reasons for why we form beliefs and judge them as good or bad that I will discuss in the chapter on political beliefs, but suffice it to say here that our evolved tribal tendencies lead us to form coalitions with fellow like-minded members of our group and to demonize others who hold differing beliefs. Thus, when we hear about the beliefs of others that differ from our own, we are naturally inclined to dismiss or dismantle their beliefs as nonsense, evil, or both. This propensity makes it even more difficult to change our minds in the teeth of new evidence…
“Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist, which is affected in part by education but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social change.”

Even if you have a science degree:

“The problem we face is that superstition and belief in magic are millions of years old whereas science, with its methods of controlling for intervening variables to circumvent false positives, is only a few hundred years old. Anecdotal thinking comes naturally, science requires training. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful anecdotes in the form of testimonials.”

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do with my own belief system.  And I can vouch for the following:

“Rarer still, there are those who, upon carefully weighing the evidence for and against a position they already hold, or one they have yet to form a belief about, compute the odds and make a steely-eyed emotionless decision and never look back. Such belief reversals are so rare in religion and politics as to generate headlines if it is someone prominent, such as a cleric who changes religions or renounces his or her faith, or a politician who changes parties or goes independent. It happens, but it is as rare as a black swan.”

In short, beliefs are created and then rationalized, often as an evolutionary survival mechanism, but hardly ever with the conscious mind.  Quitting those instincts has societal as well as mental hurdles, and even when you’re convinced you are following the logical path, it’s hard to ignore your ancestor’s genetic coding.  Read and enjoy.