Going back in time…

One of my favorite podcasts, is the Geologic Podcast, a weekly hour-long show hosted by George Hrab, who has assumed a degree of leadership in the skeptical community, primarily due to his relationship with the James Randi Educational Foundation, on top of being a successful musician.

Anyone who has a degree of familiarity with slavic languages, would likely recognize the name Hrab as being Ukrainian. (As are many names that begin either Hr or Hl). In fact, both of his parents were born in Ukraine and emigrated to the United States in the 1940’s. They didn’t know each other in the “old country” but they met here in the US, got married, and raised their children here.

A couple of weeks ago on the podcast, George (or “Geo” as he likes to be called) announced that his parents were going on a trip to Eastern Europe to visit the towns where they were born. These towns, thanks to shifting national borders in the past 60 years or so, are now both located in Poland.

In the most recent episode of the podcast, Geo interviews his mom about the trip. Without going into any details about what was discussed, I found it fascinating, moving, and, well, intensely personal.

My paternal grandparents emigrated to the United States (a generation before Geo’s parents) from a town that was “a day’s horse ride from Kiev” whose name escapes me at the moment. I remember talking to my grandmother about how she carried her infant daughter across a frozen lake to get out of the country.

On my mom’s side, my grandmother was also born in Russia somewhere as well. The story we all heard growing up, was that she was born on the boat on the way over to America, but we have a document dated 1923 in which her parents, her brothers and sisters became naturalized citizens. It listed my grandmother as being 20 years old at the time. Knowing that it takes approximately five years to become a citizen, that means that my grandmother lived at least the first thirteen or fourteen years of her life in Russia.

So, when I was an exchange student in 1993 in Russia, I tried to track down people with whom I might have some kind of relationship.

This is entirely speculation on my part. But there is a very real possibility that, on Monday, November 1, 1993, at approximately noon (Moscow time), I stood alone, in a light snowfall before the grave of a distant relative of mine. Specifically, the grave bore the name Аврам Гольдман (Avram Goldman), who died about three months before my father was born. Under Jewish tradition, newborn children are named for the recently deceased, and this was my father’s Jewish name.

For reference, at that same moment, quite literally half a world away, River Phoenix died.

That was the closest I came to finding anything of my heritage while I was there. And even in not knowing anything with any certainty about what I found, standing before a small grave a few rows away from the grave of Anton Chekhov, I was overcome with emotion then.

I can only imagine the emotions that Geo’s parents went through a couple of weeks ago…..


What’s the deal with John 3:16?

I was reading the CNN Religion blog entry on Religious companies other than Chick-Fil-A and couldn’t help but notice that “John 3:16” is cited as a part of the packaging for two different companies on this list.

I find this interesting, since, so much has been written about this one biblical verse. (A quick search on Amazon yields more than 36,000 matches just in their books department.)

It is a common criticism of all religions, that they all answer questions that only they ask. The only people who ask how to get into heaven, are those who are taught that heaven is a place where you want to go. There’s an ancient African myth — I don’t know all the details — where heaven is a place where someone is sent as a punishment for a year. He gets pelted with rain when it rains, the sun burns his hair, and (I love this) the stars spend all of their time criticizing him for his shortcomings.

(David Fletcher of the Reasonable Doubts show is somewhat of an expert on this topic… He talks about it in a recent episode.)

This answering of questions that only the religion asks, is not unique to “western” religions by any means. If the Christian or Muslim asks how to get into heaven, the Hindu will ask how to be reincarnated into a better caste.

The way I see it, the New Testament as a whole covers two very high-level topics:
1. the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, complete with parables, sermons, and general directives as to how to live a good life. Love thy neighbor, let him who is without sin cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, and so on…
2. the divinity of Jesus, his death, the opening up of heaven and end-times prophesies.

John 3:16 is one of the quintessential lines about the death of Jesus, an attempt to justify a tale filled with horrific violence that is, quite frankly, the stuff of nightmares. (And that’s true even for those who haven’t seen a particular movie from a few years ago. I’ve hit on this particular item before when I reviewed that movie.

I have often cited the lesson of the parable of the prodigal son as an example of a great lesson about human nature and being honest with ourselves. This is the part of Christianity that, quite frankly, needs to be accentuated. Be good, be honest with yourself, be a better person than your enemies, and at least try to help people more than you hurt them.

But all of the talk of Jesus’s death, spending three days in hell before being resurrected and going up to heaven strikes me as disingenuous. There are far too many gods born of a virgin who died and spent three days in some underworld before ascending into paradise. And, to be blunt, any focus on this aspect of the greater story does little more than detract from the good stuff.

As a biblical passage, someone started showing up at football games holding up a sign that read, simply, “John 3:16” back in the 70s. He never hurt anyone unless you count people who were sitting behind him and couldn’t see through his sign. But of all biblical passages, I should think that this line has one of the least amount of importance in terms of actually living a good life.

I have two young children. As anyone with kids can attest, there are times when they deserve some degree of punishment. Depending upon the severity of the “sin”, punishment can range from time-outs, not getting dinner, no TV, being sent to their room, making them do things they don’t want to do, or maybe even (in rare circumstances) spanking. One thing that’s undoubtedly true, though, is that my children only get punished for their own transgressions. While I’m sure this isn’t a universal truth, I do not punish my children with anything more than a time-out or help to clean up a mess if there is any doubt whatsoever who is responsible for doing whatever happened.

(My sister often complains about having gotten punished for getting into a cookie jar on top of the refrigerator in an incident I no longer remember, but either my brother or I climbed up on a chair to get to the cookie jar. She was the only one tall enough at the time to reach the jar. I’m not going to repeat that same mistake.)

So literally allowing your child to be tortured and killed — out of “love” no less — because of the transgressions of other people (including complete strangers) strikes me as an outrageous punishment. At the very least, it is not justice.

Feel free to disagree with me on this point, but if you do, I can promise you one thing: you’re not going to sell me on the value of your religion if you think John 3:16 has even a modicum of importance in how to live your life.

Rube Goldberg Endings

Even though all of the Little Fivers are currently on hiatus, I am the moderator of the Top Five Horror list. Before it went on vacation, I had a lot of fun with this list, and hope to have fun again once we resume.

One of the topics I came up with last year, was Signs It’s Time to Retire the Final Destination Series.

For those who don’t know or aren’t familiar with the original movie Final Destination, I thought it was a fascinating twist on the “teenage slasher” genre of horror movies. It starts with a high school class getting on an airplane for a class trip to Paris. Once they board the plane, one of the kids on the plane has a premonition that the plane would blow up mid-air and he starts to panic. That kid, and several others get off the plane before it takes off.

The plane then takes off and blows up exactly as the premonition demonstrated. After that, death itself comes after all of the people who had gotten off. What makes this fun, is that each death occurs as a function of a series of rube goldberg style machinations that, at least in theory, could actually happen as a consequence of random chance and are at least partially the fault of the individual victims.

The sense of palpable fear as the premonition takes place make it a remarkable feat for filmmaking. And the movie was apparently popular enough to warrant a total of four sequels, each of which begins with someone having a premonition of disaster and takes action to save him- or herself and some people who would have died in the disaster. When Final Destination 5 came out last year, I figured it was time to do that horror list I mentioned above. Truth be told, though, I hadn’t seen the movie until last night, when I watched it after having DVR’ed it a couple of weeks ago.

I have to give the movie a degree of credit. With each of the previous movies, you could tell who was going to be next to die, even though it wasn’t necessarily clear exactly what the cause of death was going to be.

The individual death scenes in this movie are the cinematic equivalent of a garden path sentence. You know who’s going to die and they plant certain “gimmes” within the scene that could somehow contribute to the death, and then kill the character off in a way you still don’t expect.

Prime example: one of the guys goes into a massage parlor and gets a bunch of needles placed in him as a form of acupressure. The table he’s on collapses and some of the needles get pushed too far into his body and, in the process, he gets covered in massage oil. Then some candles fall over and you’re expecting him to be burned to death by the candle flames coming in contact with his oiled skin. Nope. He gets far enough away from the flames by backing into a wall, dislodging a buddha statue on a shelf, which falls down on his head, killing him instantly.

I guess a movie series like this kind of has to do things like that in order to maintain a degree of freshness, even if the opening sequences concern scenarios that are less and less likely to occur. (In order as the five movies presented themselves: plane crash, massive pile-up on a highway, freak roller coaster accident, massive crash at an auto race, and, finally (?) collapse of a suspension bridge.

And I’ve got to admit, the way the movie actually ended was something I truly didn’t see coming. I thought it was a brilliant ending; the fifth movie may actually be the best movie since the original.

It had some truly disgusting scenes in it (especially for someone like me who’s a bit squeamish about things to do with people’s eyes…) But it really was a much better sequel than most “fifth installments” might otherwise be. Especially for what’s essentially a slasher movie.

Ranking the Pixar Movies

A couple of weeks ago, the movie Brave came out in the theatres, and I took my kids to see it over opening weekend. They both loved it, as did I.

Rotten Tomatoes gives it mostly positive reviews, but, honestly, I’m surprised it’s not more highly rated. Although I don’t consider it the best feature length movie produced by Pixar Animation Studios, it’s pretty high up there.

At least, that was my gut reaction upon seeing the movie. Since I’ve seen all thirteen movies that Pixar has put out, I figured it only fair to actually try and rank them from best to worst. I’m sure some people will disagree with my placement of some movies on this list, but hey… Let’s have some fun with this, shall we. So here’s my list, in order from best to worst Pixar movies:

1. The Incredibles. Brilliant story, amazing plot, and animation that truly blows you away. It’s one of the most exciting cinematic rides I’ve gone on, animated movie or not…

2. Cars. You don’t need to be a fan of racing to appreciate this story (and I’m not). It’s simultaneously a parable about the fleeting nature of fame and popularity, combined with a cinematic exploration of Charles Kuralt’s arguments about how the Interstate Highway System enables you to drive across America without seeing any of it.

3. Brave. If I have any real complaints about the script and plot of this movie, it’s that they could have done more to explore how the characters learn to understand each other. There’s no shortage of movies out there about the sometimes tenuous relationship between mothers and (adolescent) daughters, but this one hits on a lot of the best points about it.

4. Ratatouille. What a truly clever concept! Well-thought out, and one that, it could be argued, doesn’t necessarily have the good guys actually, you know, winning. The food critic’s review at the end of the movie is truly inspiring. It’s also a good parable about balancing responsibilities to yourself, your family, and your career.

5. Up. Sometimes I joke that all computer animated movies these days, no matter what the production company, are attempts to make a statement akin to “Hey! Look at what our animation technology is actually capable of!” And having a house being lifted into the air by who-knows-how-many independently animated helium filled balloons is definitely one of those things that are amazing from a technology perspective. Add a compelling storyline and you’ve got a real winner. A minor plot ding has to go to this movie because, if we’re being generous, there’s still a fifteen year age difference between the two elderly gentlemen who have to fight each other at the end.

6. Monsters, Inc. This is an excellent play on the whole concept of every child’s fear of a monster that hides in their closet. Like with Up, above, the animation of the hair on one of the main characters is a marvel in animation technology. It’s kind of refreshing to see that corporate responsibility issues in the monster world is by and large the same as in the real world.

7. Finding Nemo. A good father-son tale about learning to let go, despite our fears of doing so. The beautiful seascapes and colors in the animation make this a truly breathtaking movie. I have to call out one scene that has a bit of dialogue that not only was unnecessary, but it also was proven wrong with no apology: when Marlin meets up with the sharks and explains that Nemo was taken by some divers, one of the sharks remarks that the diver was “Probably American.” As it turns out, the diver was Australian. It’s an unnecessary line and probably should have been edited out.

8. Toy Story. The grand-daddy of them all, the first ever feature length computer animated movie. While the animation of this movie isn’t as good as just about all other movies put out by Pixar, this movie works as a proof of concept over and above all else. One of the problems I have with this movie is the fact that literally every toy shares in the irrational fear that a child will stop playing with them only on birthdays and gift-giving holidays, ignoring the obvious fact that a child can and will stop playing with a given toy at literally any time.

9. Wall-E. Truly a marvel in animation to the point that it’s almost photorealistic, especially when the only two characters we see are Wall-E and Eve. It makes no apologies for the process by which Wall-E (and almost all of the other robots to a lesser extent) have developed a personality while performing their directives. This movie loses a lot in the ranking because of all thirteen Pixar movies, it probably has the most glaring hole in its plot. Specifically, if 700 years before the time when this movie is set, the president of Buy N Large sent a message back to the Axiom (and all other ships out there, I would assume) not to make any attempts to re-colonize the earth, then how and why did EVE go back to Earth still looking for vegetation samples? If Otto knew that there was a risk, however small, of an EVE probe coming back with something, then shouldn’t he have prevented the probe from going out in the first place? (I also doubt that the Captain would have been able to win any fights with Otto if he had literally never walked before…)

10. A Bug’s Life. This is a good movie, to be sure, but it feels like it tries to cram too much into too small a space. Is it about a pack of traveling flea circus performers? Or the ants’ struggle against the grasshoppers? I like the message about how one person with a dream can change society, but overall, it’s too overwrought and convoluted. One of the arguments between Flik and the performers is particularly forced.

11. Toy Story 3. Despite the amazing animation (especially the furnace at the end), I can’t help but get over the thought that this movie is both an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the original Toy Story while simultaneously pull on our heartstrings more than any other Pixar movie.

12. Toy Story 2. Okay. I might be biased here. This was actually the first Pixar movie I saw, and I can’t begin to express how underwhelmed by this movie I was. I honestly could not empathize with any of the characters as they were portrayed in this movie. It’s almost as if this movie goes out of its way not to be challenging to anything.

13. Cars 2. What a horrible follow-up to such a good movie to begin with.

An interesting thing about this list. I had no trouble putting together my top 5 and I had no real problems coming up with the bottom 2. It’s ranking the six movies in the middle that was quite problematic. Even as I post these words, I get the sense that maybe Toy Story 3 is too low and that Wall-E is too high on the list. (Even though the latter still belongs lower than the former…)

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry entitled “List of Pixar films” contains a grid that outlines all thirteen movies and which can be sorted by rankings both at metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. There is near universal agreement that Cars 2 was the worst of all of the Pixar movies. I’m honestly surprised that Wall-E places as highly as it does on both lists and, for that matter, that Toy Story 3 places higher than the original Toy Story in the Metacritic rankings.

Bring on the disagreements!