Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category


Cinéma nerdité

November 13, 2011

Since I don’t watch much TV, only recently did I get around to checking out The Big Bang Theory, the sitcom about romantically challenged physics nerds. It seemed fine but not unusually clever or interesting; in fact, it made me wonder whether I could write a biologist version that would be almost good. Check out this hypothetical scene, for example….

* * * * * * * * * *

[Scene: a lab. STEVE is pipetting at his bench. PAUL walks by.]

PAUL: Hey, Steve!

STEVE: Hi, Paul. How’s it going?

PAUL: I just had a breakthrough! You know that beta-galactosidase paper I’ve been working on?

STEVE: Yeah….

PAUL: Well, just before submitting it to the journal, I had to go through it and replace every instance of the word “beta-galactosidase” with “beta-gal,” you know, for succinctness. And as I was doing this, it occurred to me that that’s exactly what I need in my life right now — a beta gal!”

STEVE: What?!?

PAUL: You know, a beta gal! Beta as in beta testing, gal as in girl — or woman or lady or whatever they’re called these days. A girlfriend … whom I can take for a test drive!

STEVE: Well, sure. But I think you’re mistaking a ridiculous pun for actual insight. Maybe you should spend less time in here, theorizing, and more time interacting with real women in the real world.

PAUL: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying! Now I know what kind of woman I should be looking for!

STEVE: And what kind of woman is that?

PAUL: Well, you know how beta-gal expression in the presence of X-gal turns cells blue? And you know how women with punk hair sort of excite me? There’s got to be a blue-haired woman out there who’s perfect for me! Either that, or … in the type of assay I’m doing now, beta-gal converts ONPG into a yellow product, so it’s possible that I should be looking for someone who’s blonde. But, you know, blonde or blue, or some combination of the two….

STEVE: On second thought, maybe you should just stay here and think about this some more. I’m not sure you’re ready for, um, peer review.

[Timer beeps from across the room.]

PAUL: Oops, time to stop my reaction. Talk to you later, Steve!

[PAUL walks away briskly as STEVE looks toward him with befuddlement.]

* * * * * * * * * *

Apparently I’m not the only one who wishes there was more bio-themed romantic comedy in the world. Valerie Weiss, who has a Ph.D. in biophysics, has just released a trailer for her forthcoming film Losing Control.

I look forward to seeing the full film, which is due to be released on Valentine’s Day.


Is it a bad idea to let a 4-year-old watch Police Academy 3?

November 19, 2010

Well, yeah, OF COURSE it’s a bad idea. We’re talking about a movie whose “good guys” include an officer who shoots at anything that moves and a cadet whose interaction with his father consists mostly of reciprocal punches to the head. But sometimes the Internet makes it a bit too easy for weary parents to cave in to their kids’ requests. Phil wanted to watch a movie about policemen, I did a Netflix search, and the next thing I know, we’re watching Bubba Smith hurl luggage across the lawn.

At least I didn’t let him watch Police Academy 7. That one is REALLY bad.


E.T. revisited

August 23, 2009

“He’s got DNA! He’s got DNA! But he doesn’t have four nucleotides like we do; he has six!”

This is a line from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was shown last night as a Fremont Outdoor Movie sponsored by The Coho Team of Windermere Agents to support Solid Ground.

I didn’t recall E.T. as being a movie with much to say about science, but it actually explores the topic in some depth. For starters, did you know that E.T. was a botanist? That reviving-the-flowers trick wasn’t magic; it was the subject of his dissertation!

During much of the movie, human scientists seem to be cast as enemies of E.T. and the people who care about him. In school, Elliott’s biology teacher introduces a frog dissection exercise with dry disinterest, and Elliott seems downright heroic when he frees the frogs (and then kisses the prettiest girl in the class). Meanwhile, the government scientists who capture and experiment upon E.T. are shown in perpetual darkness, with dark and foreboding music to match.

But then E.T. dies (or seems to), and the scientists take off their helmets and we can finally see their faces and the disappointment and pain that is written on them. We realize that these people are not evil after all; they cared about E.T. and tried hard to save him, however ineffective their methods may have been.

Yes, it turns out that the human scientists are much like E.T.: frightening and easily misunderstood until you get a good close look at them. This isn’t exactly a philosophical breakthrough, but it’s a more nuanced view of scientists than you get in most films, where they are often portrayed as brilliant heroes or as megalomaniacal villians.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to my underground lair and put the finishing touches on my battalion of cyborg zombie warriors.


The toddler from outer space

February 3, 2009

In a good science fiction movie, the usual laws of science may not apply, but the world is not completely nonsensical; it is still governed by certain rules. We may not always understand them or approve of them, but they are there just the same.

As I see it, watching a toddler is sort of like watching a science fiction movie. The rules of toddler behavior can be hard to grasp and even harder to accept, but at least there are some rules, a fact that I find comforting.

My latest video of Phil, while not necessarily as entertaining as some others in the collection, nicely illustrates this aspect of toddlerhood. Phil’s actions in the video are, to an adult observer, ridiculous, but they aren’t random. He operates according to a protocol — one that he uses before every bath, I might add. Whether this seems cute or annoying to me depends on the day.

I guess some nights you’re in the mood for a sci-fi film and some nights you aren’t.


Things that I find funny, even if nobody else does

July 19, 2007

1. In Michel Gondry’s movie The Science of Sleep, the protagonist Stephane spends many of his nights imagining himself as the host of something called “Stephane TV,” a sort of cable-access program about relationships, music, art, and everything else that interests Stephane. I had a similar dream last night except that, my imagination being inferior to Stephane’s, I was the host of a low-budget radio show. I said many things that seemed incredibly witty at the time, none of which I can recall except for this, delivered in my best public-radio voice: “If you’d like a transcript of today’s broadcast, here’s what to do: record it on a cassette tape or CD, then play it back later and type everything that you hear.”

2. You know those one-sentence summaries of movies that appear in TV listings? I love those. All films, no matter how thrilling or profound, sound equally prosaic. E.T.? “A group of Earth children help a stranded alien botanist return home.” The Godfather? “The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.” (Quotes courtesy of IMDB, the Internet Movie Database.) Imagine my delight, then, when I recently discovered that many of my son’s books come with their own one-sentence synopses. Madeline? “The smallest and naughtiest of the twelve little charges of Miss Clavel wakes up one night with an attack of appendicitis.” The Mitten? “Several animals sleep snugly in Nicki’s lost mitten until the bear sneezes.” Good stuff!

3. Aside from children’s books, the main thing I read these days is journal articles. Convention dictates that these articles be as flavorless as possible, so I had to smile today when I saw the following: “Orotidine monophosphate decarboxylase (ODCase, EC is among the most proficient enzymes known…. ODCase accomplishes the decarboxylation of OMP without the help of any cofactors and metal ions. This is a remarkable achievement in light of the fact that ODCase (from yeast) exhibits extraordinary rate enhancement of over 17 orders of magnitude compared to the uncatalyzed decarboxylation of orotidine monophosphate in water and at neutral pH, at 25 degrees C. ODCase is among those few special enzymes that have developed a very high level of sophistication in catalyzing decarboxylation….” (Reference: Poduch et al., Journal of Medicinal Chemistry 49: 4937-45, 2006.) If the epitaph on my tombstone is half as glowing as that, I’ll have lived well.


Have you read the entire poem, Mr. Keating?

June 3, 2007

Although Liz and I watch only one TV program — House — our lack of cable TV service makes it hard to keep up with that show. Until recently, we relied on my brother-in-law to “TiVo” it, and we’d watch it on evenings when we invited ourselves over for dinner. Then my sister gave me an iTunes gift card for my birthday, which allowed us to reduce the frequency of our “militant yet lazy houseguest” visits by downloading episodes onto our computer.

This past week, we made it through our entire backlog of old episodes. Now what? We decided to sample some earlier work of House cast member Robert Sean Leonard — specifically the movie Dead Poets Society. I really liked it overall, which made me all the more upset that protagonist John Keating (played by Robin Williams) is guilty of one of my pet peeves: quoting the final lines of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as if completely oblivious to the overall meaning of the poem.

Maybe I’m being overprotective of Frost’s words, since I grew up in Vermont, which claims him as one of its own (though New Hampshire and Massachusetts might disagree). But really, if you make a film about an inspiring teacher with a profound understanding of poetry, and if the erudite instructor, in urging his students to find their own voice, offers up a few stirring lines of poetry in support of that notion, is it too much to ask that he recite an excerpt whose sentiment is not completely undercut by the poem from which it comes?

If you are considering using the last two or three lines of “The Road Not Taken” as part of your email signature or home page or yearbook profile or graduation speech, please read and think about the whole poem — all 20 lines, reprinted below — before heading down that particular road.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.