Is Bill Nye really helping science?

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So, Netflix Canada has started showing Bill Nye Saves the World, a science series designed for adult audiences, and in the first two episodes, he has tackled issues such as climate change and alternative remedies. The premise of the show is that Nye will use the scientific method to debunk the myths.

In theory, I am all for this approach. Unfortunately, the entire show is theory. In two episodes, I have seen nothing of a scientific method.

Episode 1: We’re going to heat a liquid to show you that heat causes things to expand. We’re going to tell you that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that things get hot because the gas traps heat energy. The rest of the episode is mostly just people yelling about how silly deniers are.

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Bill Nye, the gimmick guy

Episode 2: Magnetic patches don’t cure disease because there is nothing to magnetically attract in the body. Oh, and this is how clinical trials work. But we’re not going to test magnetic patches in a clinical trial because we don’t have to. There was one scientific experiment to show that Milk of Magnesia neutralizes acid while a Whole Foods purchased stomach remedy did nothing to neutralize acid. Thing is, there is more to upset stomach than acid neutralization, and we don’t know the mechanism of action of a lot of FDA-approved medications. The rest of the episode was Nye yelling “that’s stupid” (not literally).

Despite his self-proclaimed mission, Nye seems to be playing into the hands of the anti-science faction by trying to cram complicated subjects into 30-minute windows of reality-style television that is more Jerry Springer than Mr. Science.

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Ridiculing the other side with unsupported taunts and name-calling is NOT good science. Shoddy, make-shift experiments that don’t actually prove your point are NOT good science.

If you say claims have not been supported by scientific evidence or clinical trial, then run those studies to prove the claims aren’t true. THAT is good science. But it is lousy television.

So, Bill Nye; are you a television personality or a science advocate?

If you remain the latter, then cut the bullshit and get back to the method.

If you are the former, then take off the lab coat, and I’ll go back to Thomas Dolby.

 

Criminal should be more Self/less

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Ryan Reynolds is a hot commodity in Hollywood, these days. Unlike so many starlets, however, they want him more for his brains than his body…quite literally.

Or at least that’s the only way I can explain why twice within a year they have tried to scramble his brains: first with that of Sir Ben Kingsley, and more recently with Kevin Costner’s.

In Criminal—recently released to Netflix (trailer)—Reynolds is CIA agent Bill Pope trying to protect a hacker called the Dutchman (Michael Pitt) who has managed to wormhole his way into the American defense system, enabling him to launch missiles at will. But before he can bring his man in, Pope is captured by the evil rich anarchist Xavier Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) who tortures Pope to find the Dutchman.

When his CIA handlers, led by Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman), find Pope dead, they enlist the help of neuroscientist Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) to essentially transfer Pope’s memories into the world’s most cold-blooded killer Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner), a man completely devoid of conscience.

(Did these people not see Young Frankenstein?)

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Give a psychopath super-spy skills and knowledge? What could go wrong?

As expected, shit goes to pieces and the hunt is on—by the CIA, Heimdahl and even the Russians—for both Jerico and the Dutchman.

Despite being an action-thriller with plenty of gore—Jerico kills and maims indiscriminately—Criminal ultimately asks philosophical questions about who we are, how we got that way and can we be redeemed.

As the movie progresses, we witness the influence of Pope’s good-guy neurological engrams on the social and moral chaos of monster Jerico. Something is wrong, Jerico explains as he grasps his head; something is seriously interrupting his thoughts and actions.

In a humorous moment, Jerico learns he is experiencing something the rest of the world calls emotions, possibly for the first time in his life. He is unimpressed.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Given the stellar cast, which also includes Gal Gadot as Pope’s grieving and confused wife, the performances are mostly passable, especially given the woodenness of the dialogue—the screenplay was written by Douglas Cook and David Weisberg, who previously penned The Rock and Double Jeopardy. This is an action film, so we shouldn’t really expect much.

To my mind—and friends disagree—the deepest performance is offered by the coldest, most heartless character Jerico, much as the same could be said for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Michael Fassbender’s robot David in Prometheus. In a very dark turn, Costner embues his merciless killer with dark humour and ultimately, as Pope’s neural influences and memories kick in, a confused heart that many of us can understand.

Assuming you can leave your credulity in a drawer, the story is minimal but passable. That an action film makes any attempt to ask lofty questions is laudable.

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Largely wasted stellar cast who spent movie doing exactly this

Unfortunately, as I alluded at the start, Criminal suffers in comparison with another brain transfer film: Self/less, released in 2015 and also starring Ryan Reynolds (trailer).

In that film, Kingsley plays billionaire industrialist Damian Hale at the end of his life but desperate for more time. Meeting with a neuroscientist who essentially offers him immortality, Hale arranges his own “death” and has his neurological patterns transferred to Reynold’s brain, assuming a new identity as Edward Kidner. Reynold’s character volunteered for the experiment to raise money to rescue his daughter from life-threatening disease.

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Requisite internal conflict moment

Again, chaos ensues as Reynold’s memories invade Kidner’s consciousness, and the neuroscientist and his mob race to capture their subject, destroying everything in their path to maintain their secret.

Like Criminal, Self/less asks questions about what defines our identity. But it delves even deeper, going into questions about one’s right to an identity and the ultimate costs of consuming another’s. And for all characters, it is a story about sacrifice.

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Dead husband finds grieving widow and daughter

Given this backdrop, Criminal might have been seen as a better movie if only for what it tried to do. But on the heels of Self/less, it simply looks like a pale imitation that made a valiant, if ultimately doomed, attempt at significance.

Ironically, it reflected its own plot.

See also:

MovieReview360 w/ Shannon Leahy (YouTube)

Criminal (RogerEbert.com)

Criminal: Film Review (The Hollywood Reporter)

Kevin Costner steals the show in far-fetched but entertaining crime thriller (Deadline)

Self/less (RogerEbert.com)

Colin Quinn kills w/ The New York Story

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I can only assume that Colin Quinn spends the hours before his comedy shows scarfing down industrial-scale oxygen tanks. This has to be true, if only to explain how he can spend an hour hilariously recounting the history of New York City without ever inhaling…although perhaps projectile vomiting the Big Apple’s history is more accurate.

Ask pretty much anyone who knows me and you will learn that I am a comedy snob. It takes a lot to make me chuckle, let alone laugh out loud.

I not only laughed out loud at Colin Quinn’s latest Netflix special The New York Story (trailer), I actually clapped while laughing out loud at several observations…and this was from my futon, not sitting with a theatre audience.

And before the laughter from one bit reached its crescendo (forget fading), you were already two bits behind, such was the ferocity with which Quinn delivered his perspectives of New York.

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The first two thirds of the show were the best, as Quinn explained and contextualized the arrival of each ethnic group to the city as a way of explaining why the attitudes of New Yorkers are unlike those of any other city in the world.

The last third, where Quinn took shots at political correctness and white guilt, was less funny but still had its share of laughs. This was the part of the show that seemed more like every other show I have seen that touches on race and ethnic relations.

But it is when Quinn becomes the people he describes, taking on mannerisms and recalling each culture’s absurdities, that he is at his best. His is less the vocal mimicry of a Russell Peters and more a distillation of their essence.

And his portrayals were made all the more engaging by the stage itself, which was decorated with settings familiar to New Yorkers—a deli counter, the docks, a front stoop, a corner bodega, an Irish bar—Quinn inhabiting each as he told the story of another group’s arrival in the city.

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Quinn’s special was directed by long-time friend Jerry Seinfeld

This choreography makes The New York Story more a one-man stage play than a stand-up comedy routine. Not surprising, given the show first got its legs in a run off-Broadway.

In broader terms, whereas I have thought for several years that Quinn is funny—in particular, I miss his panel show Tough Crowd—I think he has really hit his stride in the last couple. What this special did for New York City, his last special Unconstitutional did for American politics, and with just as much humour and wisdom.

Perhaps, however, it is less that Colin Quinn is just now hitting his stride, and more that I have finally reached a place where I can appreciate him and his humours more fully.

Either way, I am glad we have reached this place and I hope we stay here for a while.

 

See also:

In The New York Story, Colin Quinn looks to stereotypes for wisdom—and finds some (A.V. Club)

Immigrants put the new in The New York Story for Colin Quinn’s newest Netflix triumph (Decider)

“Fury” and futility – a review

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Rarely am I stumped by a movie. Usually, I like the film, it is okay or it is bad.

But every now and again, a movie makes me work at an opinion. David Ayer’s Fury is one of those films, the 2014 film being released this week on Netflix.

Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña, Fury tells the story of an American tank crew in the last year of World War II, pushing deep into Germany but heavily outgunned by German Tiger tanks.

And there is my challenge with this film. I have now explained the entire movie to you, because there is no real point to the plot.

It is seriously as though a camera crew showed up on a battle site one day and followed a tank crew for a few days as it wound its way through various other battles into the belly of the Nazi beast.

Thus, I cannot really tell if this movie is an amazingly stunning metaphor for the futility of war—there is no glory here—or if it was just a badly penned film.

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Ideals clash with reality

To be fair to Ayer, who not only wrote, but also directed and produced this film, there is a human interest side to this story as the war-weary, battle-hardened tank crew is joined by doe-eyed recruit Norman  Ellison (Logan Lerman) who just days earlier was a typist for the military bureaucracy.

Thus, as the tank—the titular Fury—lurches from battle to battle, we witness the corruption of a pure heart by atrocities committed not only by the enemy, but by his fellow soldiers. And we see the toll this corruption takes on the boy’s tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who personally starts that downhill process.

But again, to what purpose?

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War taints even the most peaceful moments

Almost all war films seem to be based on men fighting toward a higher purpose, whether it is a battle that turns the tide of the war—e.g., Sands of Iwo Jima; Tora, Tora, Tora—or a moment of humanity amidst chaos—e.g., Saving Private Ryan—or men fighting for sanity within that chaos—e.g., Good Morning, Vietnam; Catch 22; Apocalypse, Now.

For me, Fury had no such pretense.

Yes, the Americans are the “good” guys and the Germans were the “bad” guys, but neither side in this film was any nobler than its counterpart. Within the confines of this movie, this was carnage and hatred purely for the sake of same.

As to the film itself; all of the actors did an admirable job, wearing the carnage of war on their faces and in their souls. Brad Pitt at his harshest expressed an internal dignity if not nobility. Shia LaBeouf was restrained. And Michael Peña really didn’t have much to do.

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Truthfully, this film might have been stronger as a silent movie, as it was the facial expressions and battle scenes that told this story. The dialogue offered little to the visceral impact of this film (emotions are drained pretty early).

Beautifully shot, this is a grisly film and not for the faint of heart or stomach. Bullets and bombs don’t just pierce a body; they rip it wide open. The fallen remain fallen, to be ground into the mud by jeep tires and tank treads.

For all of these reasons—and it was a slow burn for me—I am coming down on the side of Fury being the embodiment of the ultimate futility and barbarism of war.

In this movie, even if you saved the person of Private Ryan or Ellison, the soul is long gone.

Remember

A good choice for Remembrance Day, highlighting purposeless sacrifice

Man vs Snake – a review

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I like pinball. I played Pong when it first came out. And I can count on one hand the number of video games I have played in my life…including Pong (others involve Star Wars or strip poker).

Thus, when I was asked by a friend to review the documentary Man vs. Snake: A Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler—recently released on Netflix—I seriously questioned our friendship.

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If Centipede and Pac-Man had a child

For the uninitiated, like me, Nibbler looks like the bastard love-child of Centipede and Pac-Man, and essentially involves an ever-lengthening snake that courses around obstacles gobbling energy packets while trying not to bite its own tail. In short, a joy-sticker’s wet dream and yet a game from the heyday of arcades that few knew existed.

What set this game apart from the others, however, was that its scoreboard included nine digits, so a score of one billion was possible. Yeah, this set my spine tingling as well.

The man in question is actually four men.

Back in the early 80s, teenage Tim McVey—not the terrorist, the documentary points out—played two days on one quarter and broke the billion-point barrier, under the watchful eye of local oddball and arcade owner Walter Day. Woohoo!! And for years, that was the end of the story; McVey’s singular claim to fame.

Until an Italian man claimed to have broken McVey’s record as a boy, holding the unofficial record for 25 years. Day refused to acknowledge the record. McVey refused to acknowledge the record. But to clear the slate, McVey determined to break the Italian’s score and make the whole argument moot.

And this is where the meat of the documentary takes place…McVey’s desperate attempt to reclaim his title, and quickly coming to grips with the fact (and joy-stick) that his body is not what it was as a teenager.

Oh, and the fourth man is Canadian gamer Dwayne Richard, who kind of joins McVey’s journey as sparring partner.

As documentaries go, this one is pretty well constructed. It has a strong narrative stream in the redemption story and the sparring that becomes a bit more personal. It has strong personalities in the four men and their support networks.

Unfortunately, it was too reminiscent of my own late teens/early 20s watching friends play Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc. Boring.

It was like the movie 127 Hours, but with your hand stuck on a joy-stick rather than under a boulder.

Intellectually, I get the various stories here…the archetypes. But I cared not a single whit as to whether these guys broke the records, and therefore never invested in the players emotionally. They were simply too abstract and surreal for me to care, and the stakes were meaningless.

Note: The documentarians did a very good job of highlighting these eccentricities while being respectful of the people.

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Game competitions have changed in 20 years

I understand that the video game world has completely changed in the last decade to become very much an international spectator sport. Nibbler is very much NOT of that era.

But if you want to watch a handful of middle-aged men obsess over an arcade console for 90 minutes or so, this might just be a documentary for you.

Mascots more a misscots

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After opening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Christopher Guest’s latest mockumentary Mascots was released to Netflix this past week. As a fan of his many earlier efforts—from This Is Spinal Tap to A Mighty Wind—I greatly looked forward to his take on the surreal world of sports mascots.

Unfortunately, this might have been a mistake, as the bar set by those movies was pretty high.

Mascots revolves around the struggles of five teams competing for the Gold Fluffy, the highest achievement of the Professional Mascots Association. One team is a feuding couple, trying to maintain a brave face while on-camera, but killing each other behind the scenes. A second subplot involves a son trying to live up to his father’s and grandfather’s legacies in a hedgehog costume.

Then there is an aging dancer who sees this as her last chance to go all the way, as well as a solo act simply trying to up his game, and an Irish bad boy whose story never really fleshes out.

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Pretty much sums up some of the stories in this film

As these five subplots buzz around, we also get to see behind the curtain as competition organizers try to hold everything together while vying for a broadcast contract with a fourth-tier cable company, and two former champs feud while trying to judge the contest.

Still with me?

Now, throw in a few more secondary characters and cameos, and you have an ensemble of about 25 characters pushing for air time.

Now as confusing and thin as this might seem, Guest has been able to make it work before in pieces like A Mighty Wind and Best in Show, using many of the same amazing actors: Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, etc.

Unfortunately, things don’t seem to gel as nicely in Mascots, and the whole film seems to lack the heart of the earlier efforts. I mean, how do you compete with the simple love-story of Mitch & Mickey?

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Not really a fair comparison (Mascots, top; A Mighty Wind, bottom)

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t poignant moments in many of the subplots or that the actual mascot performances during the competition weren’t spectacular. But rather than being more than the sum of its parts, this film was surprisingly less.

This is where I think my expectations are part of the problem.

Viewed through a virgin lens, Mascots is somewhat entertaining and not a bad way to spend 89 minutes. It would make a great appetiser to tease the palate for a main course of the other meatier films. But as a dessert, it is significantly lacking.

Of individual note, Parker Posey’s interpretive dance student is painfully poignant and outrageously funny. Chris O’Dowd’s bad-ass sex fiend is completely wasted, however, and largely amounts to nothing. And I found the bickering couple—Zach Woods and Sarah Baker—completely distasteful, and the longer I saw them, the worse it got.

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Perfectly pathetic (Parker Posey)

Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. were great but underused. Fred Willard was the only character Fred Willard has ever played. And the rest of the core ensemble barely managed more than cameos.

Mascots isn’t bad, but sadly could have been so much better.

 

See also:

Christopher Guest’s ‘Mascots’ fails to really cheer (Associated Press)

Latest from Spinal Tap’s Christopher Guest does not go up to 11 (The Guardian)

Is a Serial Serial Killer a Series Killer?

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Okay. That’s it. I’m raising the red card on an issue I’ve been grumbling about—at least privately—for several years now.

To mix my sports metaphors, I am calling a double dabbling penalty on the television series Bones, which I am just catching up on via Netflix. (Spoilers coming if you’re not up to Season 9.)

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I love procedural programs, and as a certified science geek, I particularly like forensic series such as Bones and CSI. If you want to piss me off really quickly, however, I recommend you start a story line involving a serial killer.

Now that may sound counter-intuitive, but I find most serial killer story lines to be incredibly lazy and highly repetitive. More often than not, the episode structure and format are completely blown apart and rather than being about solving a crime, the episodes devolve into a personal vendetta, where the lead investigator—cop or forensic scientist—goes off the rails and alienates his or her team for a few episodes (or season).

“Don’t you get it? He’s taunting me, testing me, letting me know he’s always one step ahead of me.”

Yes. We know this. So let’s move on and get back to solving crimes (aka puzzles). You know, the reason I watch your ruddy show.

Watching a procedural series turn into a psychological drama is like watching a pretty actor try to take on a meaningful meaty role. It’s typically painful to watch and not what I purchased. You’re reneged on our unspoken agreement.

[NOTE: Dexter is held outside as that always was a series about a serial killer hunting down serial killers.]

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Up until recently, I’d believed that this was just an annoyance I would have to live through. God, how I struggled with Grissom’s Miniature Killer. But Bones just escalated that annoyance to a new level, which is why I raise the red card and call for an ejection…

(Last chance to avoid spoilers.)

…for Bones has used a serial killer to introduce a second serial killer.

Seriously? A serial serial killer?

It’s not bad enough that I had to watch a season or so of Christopher Pelant torment the Jeffersonian team, only to have him torment Bones herself with news that several unsolved murders are connected and that her negligence has allowed a serial killer (The Ghost Killer) to go unchallenged. And all just 24 hours before Pelant is killed by Booth, leaving everyone but Bones questioning if he was just lying to drive her nuts.

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So now, as a fan of the show, I conceivably get to sit through yet another season of the Jeffersonian team getting torn apart by this second serial killer. Can you tell how excited I am?

Remember when Fonzie jumped the shark? Well, Bones just jumped not one, but two (so far only two) serial killers.

As an open note to television writers and showrunners, when you’ve run out of things to say, stop talking. End the series. Take your bows and move on.

I will keep watching Bones, if only because I’m an idiot and have invested 8.5 years of my life to these people. Also, I know there is a significant death coming in early Season 10, not yet on Netflix Canada.

We’ll have to see who outlasts whom, but I know which of us is on life-support.

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