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Flock of Dodos

Randy Olson earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University in 1984 as an environmental ecologist, primarily in reef ecology. In the late 90s, he decided to go into film making, and caught a lot of attention for 2006’s “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution - Intelligent Design Debate”.

Okay, so it’s a documentary about the ‘debate’ between ID and Evolution from a guy who, quite simply, firmly knows that Evolution takes place. It’s probably stands up to logical rigor as well as Michael Moore on a treadmill, right?

I’ll admit a bit of bias, in that I find the ‘debate’ around Evolution ridiculous, but Olson gives the ID people ample time to try to convince him of their world view in his movie. Probably close to 75% of the movie centers around discussions with ID proponents, and they generally are glad, and quick, to show how little they truly understand about modern evolutionary theory.

I’ll be getting to that part in a bit, but I will say that Olson, for his part, doesn’t let the evolutionary biologists off free and clear. He paints an, unfortunately somewhat accurate, portrait of the modern evolutionary biologist as a older, white male, who is completely incapable of expressing their work in reasonable terms, and who tends to become belligerent when presented with someone who doesn’t accept a well-understood (by those who’ve read any of the literature, at least) scientific fact like evolution.

In fact, both sides of the argument fail to provide a rigorous platform with which to convince people of their cause. The ID proponents use ridiculous comparisons and poor science to push their agenda, while the scientific establishment has tried to pretend these people don’t exist in the modern age. Sadly, these people do exist, and so do people who honestly believe that the Earth is flat.

The core argument that the ID proponents put forward is that Darwinian Evolution can’t explain everything. Which is certainly true. But then, Darwin didn’t really try all that hard to describe how common descent began, and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published 150 years ago (next month, actually). To suggest, as ID proponents surreptitiously do, that evolutionary theory hasn’t progressed in 15 decades, is ridiculous. In fact, the biological community no longer believes with one of the core ideas presented in “Origin”, that the primary driver of evolution was ‘survival of the fittest’. Certainly that’s viewed as a driver, but not as the most important one.

The, there is Michael Behe, a well respected biochemist, who is basically responsible for the modern face of Intelligent Design. I’ve seen Behe speak, the video from the talk being available online. Behe is, as one might expect, the consummate Intelligent Design proponent. He mentions that he’s a professor at Lehigh University, but that his department clearly states that they disagree with him on the issue of Intelligent Design, regarding it as unscientific.

It’s not so much that he mentions this, but how he mentions it that’s offensive. He says it, to suggest that he is somehow being persecuted by his peers, when really, if he was being truly persecuted, he wouldn’t likely even be on the faculty at Lehigh anymore. All his department has done is said that, while they respect Behe, and his science, they don’t believe the Intelligent Design is science, and don’t want his affiliation with Lehigh to lend credibility to it.

Why doesn’t the Biology Faculty at Lehigh University believe that Intelligent Design is Science? Because it isn’t. Science is defined as follows:

  1. The collective discipline of study or learning acquired through the scientific method; the sum of knowledge gained from such methods and discipline.
  2. A particular discipline or branch of learning, especially one dealing with measurable or systematic principles rather than intuition or natural ability.

Intelligent Design fails to live up to either of these definitions. The most trumpeted principle used by ID proponents, irreducible complexity, states that some systems are too complex to have been arrived at via gradual evolution, and small steps and changes over time. Behe’s favorite example of this one, is that of a flagella, specifically the protein ‘motor’ that drives the filament. Admittedly, this is a complex mechanism, one that, to my knowledge, Science is currently unable to explain the origin of. However, that doesn’t make irreducible complexity a scientific principle.

Science, and the scientific method, are based around asking questions. Even after Darwin wrote “Origin”, there were a lot of things he didn’t understand. Darwin didn’t know the mechanism by which traits were passed from parents to offspring, but we’ve answered that question, because someone formed some intuition that they could then measure and test via ‘systematic principles’. Irreducible Complexity says “I don’t know how this happened, so clearly, it must have been implanted by some sort of designer.” That’s not science. That’s anti-science, and a classic application of the logical falacy of ‘argumentum ad ignorantiam’.

This is also to ignore the outright lies that ID proponents will tell in order to push their agenda. The focusing on the term ‘theory of evolution’, even though in Science and Mathematics, something can only earn the title ‘Theory’, when it has passed scientific rigor to the point where it is universally accepted. The lies which talk about Ernst Haeckel’s embryo drawings as if they were still being used in modern teaching. In the movie, Olson takes an embryology text book on the bookshelf of the gentleman he’s talking to who is making this claim about Haeckel’s embryos, and they can’t even find a mention of Haeckel in the book.

Intelligent Design has to assume that science has stood still for the century or more, because it’s the only way the are able to put together a wide breadth of arguments into the failures (or more accurately, misunderstandings) of evolutionary theory.

What people need to understand is that science doesn’t exclude the existence of God, or a Creator. It simply doesn’t presuppose such existence. It seems to me that because they don’t make that presupposition, because a scientific universe could exist without some sort of divine outer influence, many people believe that it completely precludes the possibility of divinity. And certainly there are some vocal members of the scientific community who routinely mock the faithful, but for most in the community, the existence of God simply isn’t relevant to the work that their doing.

Ultimately, part of the reason ID has gained so much traction is that it’s simply better marketed, in part because the scientific community felt they didn’t need to defend themselves against it’s claims. We need to support groups, like the National Center for Science Education, who seek to defend the teaching of science from the illogical attacks from Intelligent Design, and other fundamentally religious arguments. They are under funded compared to their opposition, however, but you can join for as little as $30 per year, a perfectly reasonable amount to try to change science education in this country for the better.

Gran Torino

Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino is a film that deserved some recognition at these upcoming 81st Academy Awards.

Instead, what ended up being one of the most emotionally charged, and powerful dramas of 2008 got snubbed. That’s really, really, too bad.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much from the Trailer for this film. It came across as a movie about a man with nothing to lose who decides to take on the gangs who plague his neighborhood.

There is some truth to that assessment. But to say that is to say that Cyrano De Bergerac is a play about a funny looking man who helps a coworker woo a beautiful, intelligent woman.

It completely misses the point.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood plays an old man named Walter Kowalski. A man who served in Korea, before returning the midwest to work in a Ford factory and care for his family in a suburb of Detroit. Fast forward to the start of the film, and Walter’s wife has passed, his sons are grown and resentful, and his community has been overrun by minorities, including a large asian population. Walt is an old racist, and his distrust of his asian neighbors has led to him having strained relationships with everyone around him.

Shortly after the funeral, the young Hmong boy next door attempts to steal Walt’s 1971 Gran Torino as part of an induction into a local gang the boy is being forced into. Walt stops him, and is forced by the boy’s mother to take the boy in to work for him to pay off his debt. In the process, Walter begins to become fond of the boy, and his family.

While Walter becomes fond, his own existence as a racist old man doesn’t really change. He still refers to the Hmong neighbors constantly as “gooks” or “zipper heads”. What’s really fascinating about it, is that while Walt’s incredibly grating personality never abates, we get to watch while the Hmong neighbors accept Walt as he is, racial slurs and all, and he realizes that they are perfectly good people themselves. And while all this is happening, Walt’s own family pulls themselves further and further away from him.

All the while, Walt is having conversations with the local Catholic Priest, played by Christopher Carley, who had promised Walt’s wife that he’d get the old man to take confession. Father Janovich’s conversation with Walt delve deep into the issues of morality and guilt. Faith and redemption.

In the end, the film never apologizes for Walt. While Walt does grow as a person over the course of the film, his surface remains rough. It’s good to watch Walt’s relationship with the Hmong, whom he’d initially resented for taking over his neighborhood, as he realizes that they aren’t the kind of people he remembered from Korea (which is not to say that Korean’s are somehow evil, only that a Korean Veteran would likely view them as such). And, to come to grips with his own past.

The last ten minutes of the film were some of the most powerful minutes I’ve seen in a movie in years. I firmly believe that Eastwood should have received at least a nomination for this film, and I’m somewhat disappointed it was overlooked. Gran Torino was absolutely worth the price of admission, and I definitely suggest going to see it.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

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Hearing about a new Indiana Jones movie all those months ago, I was caught up in a strange mix of excitement and anticipating disappointment. Indiana Jones is the absolute best Pulp Adventure movies that have been made in recent history. Pulp had it’s heyday, but even in the 80s, when Indy was King, it was a fading art. Since The Last Crusade, we’ve seen basically nothing in the way of good Pulp movies.

Sure there was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but while a good time, the movie simply lacked the charm (or is that a respectful lack thereof?) of Indiana Jones. Henry “Indiana” Jones Junior is the ideal everyman. Strong, athletic, educated, eloquent, clever, and cunning. And yet he’s not unstoppable. Indy gets beat up. He loses. He makes mistakes. He’s a hero because he doesn’t give up, and through his perseverance he always manages to come out ahead.

Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an excellent movie, with which Lucas and Spielberg have tried to lay the foundation for many more movies. Harrison Ford, who is himself nearly two decades older than he was in The Last Crusade, which works since the story takes place at least 15 years after said movie.

The plot is pure Indy. Indy begins the movie captured by the KGB, since the movie is set in 1957, the Nazi’s just aren’t a relevant enemy anymore, and they go to Warehouse 51, the mysterious Government Warehouse where we saw them stashing the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders. Indy helps the Russians uncover a mysterious crate, which contains a highly metallic humanoid shape in a weird casing. Indy attempts to stop the Russians, but his friend turns on him and Indy is forced to let it go, though not without a great fight.

Due to a run-in with the J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, Indy ends up losing his job at the University, and prepares to head off to Europe to teach, only to be stopped by a young man named Mutt Williams, who seems to know Dr. Harold Oxley, a character Indy apparently knew around the time of Raiders, but who has never appeared in Film before.

Mutt, played by Shia LeBouf, convinces Indy to go to South America to try to save Oxley and Mutt’s mother, who happens to be Marion from Raider’s. That’s right, Indy finally gets reunited with the love of his life. Not surprisingly, Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son. That’s right, Shia LeBouf has been selected to take up the Fedora and the Bullwhip, in continuation of the storyline. I’m still not sure how I feel about that, but I did enjoy the Mutt character, and I know that I’ll see a movie centered around Mutt, if one is made.

As he has since 1981, Indiana Jones embodies the Pulp genre. There are big fights, strange enemies, and impossible challenges that our hero manages to overcome. It’s a good ride, and definitely worth the price of admission. I wasn’t a big fan of the climax of the movie, and the resolution, as I felt it stepped well outside what I felt was Indy’s penumbra, but I wasn’t irritated enough to not enjoy the movie.

So, if you’re looking for a big blockbuster to spend some time on, you could do a lot worse than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. For those comic book fans, Dark Horse comics is printing a comic version of the story in two parts, or the Trade Paperback was released with issue one, so if you prefer that, you can get it at your local comic shop. It follows the same basic story, but the telling is a bit different, and it looks to be like a good read.

Transformers

Catherine decided we needed to go see Transformers last night at the second run theater.  I wasn't completely opposed. I wasn't a huge Transformers fan back when I was young, don't really know why.  I've never much liked Michael Bay's directing, either.  Armageddon was okay, but that was probably in spite of the direction.  Still, I wanted to see it, and I'm glad I did so when I wasn't paying $7 a head to do it.

Still, it was a Transformers movie, and that means there are certain things you can expect.  Fights between building-scale robots, the Decepticons having stupid names and hiding in weapons of war, the Autobots going out of their way to defend the innocent.  Optimus Prime being honorable to a fault, Megatron being bent on dominating the universe, Optimus Prime never backing down from a fight that he's always going to lose, and the Autobots willingness to sacrifice everything in order to defeat the Decepticons.

Unfortunately, it was also pretty standard Hollywood fare, meaning that there was a list of other things to expect.  At least one "Bush is dumb" joke would be made, Parents would be seen as a foolish nuisance, though the male lead is kind of a dork the love interest will be a supermodel who is able to see past their differences, the Black soldier will be the first to die, and we probably won't have any reason to care about that.

Overall, the movie was decent.  If you went in looking for Giant Robots fighting each other, and Robots transforming into things that are familiar to us, you could definitely expect that.  In my opinion, the fights were kind of a cop out, though, as the film would usually only show glimpses of the fight.  Sure there were a lot of glimpses, but it's almost as if the fights were trying to be put into the background.  Plus, the one death in the movie, Jazz, doesn't even have a good fight to go along with it.  Megatron just tears him in half.  Again, not that we have any reason to care about that.  Jazz had spoken jive maybe twice, and I think he was deliberately kept in the background most of the time.

Plus, despite Optimus Prime's willingness to sacrifice himself to destroy the life-giving box that Megatron so desired, he ends up not having to, as somehow the Hero manages to use to box to destroy Megatron.  I know a lot of people my age still remember the death of Optimus Prime in the 1980s movie to be a powerful moment.  I'm still split about whether or not I think Optimus Prime should have died in this movie.  Had he, Megatron probably would have destroyed the Earth, but Optimus Prime would have died a death that truly meant something, in stoppping the flow of the Decepticons across the universe.

In the end, this movie was just more Hollywood fare.  The Heroes triumph without any meaningful losses, no great sacrifice is required for victory, and all the good guys live happily ever after.  The movie was fun to watch, but I don't think it's anything more than a renter.  Watch it once and set it aside, and get the original Transformers Movie, where Heroes are truly Heroes.

Stranger Than Fiction

I’m not a big fan of Will Ferrel. Never have been. He’s schtick has always been acting like a fucking idiot. That said, I love this movie, and Will Ferrel does an excellent job with the character of Harold Crick.

Harold Crick is an auditor for the IRS. And he’s just an interesting man as that makes him sound. Until one day he begins hearing a narrator, who is telling the story of his life, including his inevitable death. See, Author Kay Eiffel doesn’t write Comedies. In her stories, the protagonist must die. And such it is with Harold Crick. However, Harold’s death can’t be just any death, it needs to be special, and so Kay has been fretting for close to 10 years on how to kill Harold Crick.

Faced with death, Harold chooses to live the life he always wanted. He goes after the girl, he learns things he always meant to. He turns his life into something with meaning, something that defines him more than just his work. He decides that he wants to live, not because he fears death, but he finally enjoys living. So he seeks out Ms. Eiffel. Once meeting her, and she realizes that she’s about to kill a real person, and not only about to, but may have killed others in the past through her writing, she presents him with the book, including the outlined, but as-yet-untyped ending.

This movie is about Literature. It’s about characters, and it’s about how people respond to the circumstances of their lives. Harold realizes that he’s a character in a book, but somehow he still has free will, he still chooses his own path. The question is one of Fate. Can Harold avoid the fate that Kay Eiffel has written for him? It’s an interesting question. One which the movie only partly addresses, because this movie isn’t about escaping fate. It’s about the Hero accepting that which is inevitable, and walking into the fire knowing beyond a doubt that they are doing absolutely the right thing.

This is a beautiful film. It’s well shot, it’s well timed, and it flows very well. I would argue that it is artistically one of the finest films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s entertaining, and interesting, and wonderful. I highly recommend this wonderful little story about the unexpected Heroes in everyday people.

Serenity (2005)

I’ve talked about Firefly on this blog before, and I have a character, with several pages of backstory, I created for a Trad Games Firefly game posted on my website. So, it would be pretty easy to say that I’m a fairly hardcore browncoat. Even if I wasn’t, I would have been damn pleased to see Serenity.

The core cast is the same as in the Television series, and the writing is the same caliber it always was. They updated the look a little, and Serenity isn’t quite as dark as she was back in the Firefly days. The animation is even a little better.

It’s hard for me to talk about Firefly/Serenity without sounding like a retarded fanboy. Basically, Firefly is the most original and entertaining Science Fiction to hit the media in a very long time. Even if you’re not really into SciFi, Serenity’s characters and events are intriguing enough to make for an excellent show. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

5/5

Saved!

Saved! is the story of a Baptist Christian School in the Northeast US. It tells of a girl by the name of Mary who become pregnant while trying to save her Homosexual boyfriend, Dean. Clearly, something this bad happening while doing the work of God is going to have horrible effects on a person who has been “born again [their] entire life.”

At the beginning of the movie, Mary’s life is great (except for the Dean-being-Gay thing): she’s a member of the Christian Jewels (a ‘Girl Gang’ for Jesus), great friends with Hilary-Faye (the most righteous girl in school), and about to graduate from American Eagles (the aforementioned Baptist school). After becoming pregnant, she begins to feel that perhaps her faith failed her, and she spends the rest of the film trying to deal with her waning faith.

This was a very entertaining film. Some great one-liners from Once-Great-Child-Star Macaulay Culkin and Susan Sorandon’s daughter, make for a highly entertaining show. Of course, you can’t do a movie about religion without having some sort of a message. The message ends up being one about tolerance for differences between people, which many highly religious people seem to lack.

Overall, a very good film, I’d say one worth purchasing. 9/10

Collateral (2004)

This was a really great thriller. Tom Cruise plays a hit-man by the name of Vincent, who recruits Taxi Driver Max (Jamie Foxx) in helping him make his round. Max wasn’t supposed to know what Vincent was really up to. However, in Vincent’s first hit of the night, Max gets drawn into something he couldn’t have been prepared for. In the end, Vincent pushes Max into not wanting to be pushed around anymore, as Max is drawn into a fight not only for his own life, but also for the life of the last target Vincent has.

I’ve rarely been terribly impressed with either Cruise or Foxx, however, both were able to portray their characters believably, and in an entertaining fashion. The plot was interesting, and Mann kept the story enticing with quite a few sub-climaxes to keep the movie at a powerful pitch.

In all this was a well built film, and was worth the price of admission.

4.5/5

The Village

If you’re thinking of visiting M. Knight Shyamalan”s “The Village”, I’d suggest waiting until it’s cheaper. For those of you who haven’t been following the buzz on this film, it centers around the 19th century New England village of Covington. The Village is only a few decades old, founded by the eight elders of this village. When the built the village, they made a pact with the creatures that live in the woods that surround their village, that they would stay out of the woods, if the creatures stay out of the Village.

The creatures haven’t entered the Village in many years, but the noises from the woods serve as a constant reminder not to enter. A local retarded boy is discovered to have entered on multiple occasions, and Lucius (Joauqin Pheonix), decides that since he was safe due to his innocence, Lucius may be able to travel through the woods to visit the towns to get medicine to help the people of the Village. The elders are unwilling to give Lucius permission, however.

With the generic plot summary aside, this movie was a huge letdown. The dialouge felt pretty lousy, and due to this the acting was amazingly bad. Due to how forced everything was, it was almost impossible to get drawn into the story. In addition, the ‘twist’ the Shyamalan is known for was really uninteresting, and almost cliched. It wasn’t necessarily given away until it was meant to be, but it wasn’t really a surprise either.

Since I don’t want to give away the secret to this film, I’ll leave my review at this point. The acting was lousy, the script was worse, and the story wasn”t very intriguing. The environments looked good, and the cinematography was alright.

2/5 - I wouldn’t suggest you watch this film in the theater.

Requiem for a Dream

Requiem is a very interesting film. Alex had been bugging Paul and I about watching this for a while. Apparently, this is his old pothead roommate’s favorite movie. While I woudln’t go that far, Requiem is a very interesting look into drug addiction, and how it can affect anyone.

Honestly, it’s kind of a hard film to watch. It begins with the son stealing his mothers television, so he can pawn it for money to go buy Heroin. In an interesting use of the seasons as a story-telling device, as the Summer begins, things start going really well for the son and mother. He’s making money selling heroin on the street, she’s excited because she thinks she’s going to be on television. Mom starts losing weight, dying her hair, trying to make herself look young again.

But the seasons turn. Summer can’t last forever, and things end up falling apart for all the characters. As Winter begins they all just look forward to summmer by remembering how great the summer was.

There have been few films that gave what I believe is an accurate representation of Drug Addiction. True, not everyone who does drugs will have the problems with addiction detailed in the film, but many will. The movie was well shot, the acting was good, and it was a film that inspired some thought. Far from a favorite film of mine, but I’d suggest watching it.

4/5