Archive for the ‘Films’ Category


Summer Wars

January 9, 2011

Have you ever done math so hard that your nose bled? Summer Wars, a Japanese animated film, is about a young boy who goes on vacation to meet his friend’s family and finds himself accidentally enabling an evil AI to overtake the internet. This boy, Kenji Koiso, is a math prodigy, and, as with most young geniuses, is shy and nervous around girls. He receives a message on his cell phone that is a string of digits. He manages to decrypt it in a single night, thinking it is an amusing puzzle. In so doing, he inadvertently allows an AI to take over not only his account, but a variety of other online functions. To take back the internet from this AI before disaster hits, Kenji must use pure math to decrypt numerical sequences at break-neck pace, hence causing a nosebleed.

The internet in Summer Wars, called Oz, is basically an ultra facebook on which people store all their information, conduct their business, and run their jobs. This means that not only is credit card information on the internet, but also launch codes to nuclear missiles and global positioning systems for satellites. So, if a hacker with bad intentions were to access this site, he could disrupt all aspects of life, from traffic signals to medical information to defense. Which of course happens.



Oz is a wildly colorful, neon pastel-on-white wonderland of wacky animal avatars. The entire space is reminiscent of Takashi Murakami‘s work, blending cuteness, commercialism, and manga to create a coherent alternate reality. In it any function that one would ever conceive to do online can be done. This includes martial arts sparring, which ends up being a venue for attempting to take down the evil AI that overtakes people’s accounts. A note about this AI: it was created at “a robotics school in Pittsburgh,” and bought by the US government. It was never meant to be evil, it just got out of hand.

Luckily, by visiting his friend’s family’s house in the countryside, Kenji coincidentally is in the same house with the creator of the AI and the coolest fighting rabbit avatar owner that Oz has to offer. Said owner is about 11 years old, but can type really quickly.

The film does not entirely center around Oz, it mainly centers around the family, which has come together to celebrate the 90th birthday of its matriarch. The family consists of men who are vocal but passive, and women who are assertive, yet spend much of their time and energy in the kitchen. While the women remain unaware of the imminent devise of the Earth, the men find a way to get a supercomputer into their house, and play video games in such a way as to save the world.

This outside world, although visually not as fantastic as Oz, is nonetheless more compelling for its ability to



contain stories, conflict, depth and food. The film does not explore people’s actual lives getting taken over by the internet, but rather their virtual lives, namely, the information over which they have power. All the numbers and codes with which a person is associated, from his bank account to, say, the access codes to the city sewer authority computers, if one is the head of the sewer authority, are all kept in Oz. Although a person’s identity can’t be overtaken, his function can be assumed and abused. The repercussions reverberate in the actual world. This abuse is made visual by having the AI, whose avatar is a tattooed warrior, knock around the pieces of graphs, topple dominoes with points of data, and rearrange plates containing the commands to traffic signals. Luckily, there are young math geniuses and computer gurus to save the day.

Summer Wars is playing at the Harris Theater through January 19th.


Tiny Furniture

January 5, 2011

Tiny Furniture

The worst thing that can happen to a person after graduating college is to have to enter the adult world. Luckily, this is not always necessary. One can always move back in with her mother, provided that her mother is really cool, lives in New York City, and is rarely home. It also helps when mom has a stocked wine cabinet and a freezer full of frozen appetizers.

Tiny Furniture stars Lena Dunham as Aura, a young woman who has just graduated college in Ohio and has returned to New York with no idea what she is going to do with her future. She stays with her mother for a few weeks as a stop-gap measure before her friend moves to town and they can get an apartment. But living with her mother is the perfect opportunity for her to “figure things out,” meaning hang out with fascinating yet unsavory people. Her best friend from when she was a young child, Charlotte, lives in the neighborhood, and they quickly develop the sort of obsessive friendship that causes Charlotte to be jealous of all Aura’s other friends. Aura also falls in with the two types of men all women should avoid, egoists and men who quote Nietzsche.

Wrong guy type 1

Wrong guy type 1

Charlotte helps Aura get a job as a day hostess at a restaurant, a job that entails taking reservations and flirting with the chef. This chef is the sort of guy that high school girls fall in love with. He is intense and interesting when you’re around, but he doesn’t actually care about you. He is likely using you for your drug connections, as a back-up if his girlfriend dumps him, or just someone to kill time with at work. He makes plans and breaks them. Instead of seeing him as the egoist he is, Aura spends her time analyzing and justifying his every word and action.

The wrong guy type 2

Wrong guy type 2

Meanwhile, a young video maker she met at a party is staying with her. He has a hit youtube channel, where he stars in videos in which he rides a toy horse and quotes Nietzsche. She met him at a party, invited him to see a movie, and found out that he was broke. So of course she invited him to stay in her mom’s house with her while her mom was away. He, too, is using her for her hospitality. And he’s the sort of bad guest who complains and makes suggestions. When the cool mom returns home, her greatest gripe is that this man who is staying in her house is not even sleeping with Aura.

Throughout the movie, Aura seems to become more childish, and relies more and more on her mother. She convinces herself that her mother needs her, so she decides to stay in her mom’s home rather than get her own place. Meanwhile, her sister writes bad poetry that wins awards, and makes cutting yet true observations about Aura’s lifestyle. Aura doesn’t seem to find herself like she had wanted, but to lose herself in a sea of people who have conflicting expectations of her. She makes poor decisions about who to please and how to please them. She tells Charlotte how everyone in Ohio was so sweet and serene, how they baked for fun, but how they didn’t ‘get it.’ It seems that her years away from cruel, self-absorbed people has caused her to remain naïve and easily manipulated. Yet, she is funny, observant and lovable, and ultimately relatable.

Tiny Furniture is playing at the Regent Square Theater through January 13th.



September 22, 2010

The 1992 film Orlando, based on the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf, is playing at the Harris theater through the 23rd.

In the film, Orlando, at the time a young man and lover of the old queen, is told by Queen Elizabeth I to stay young forever. He does so, and, in the process, has a variety of the sort of intense and short lived relationships of a young man. As a man, Orlando feels that his passion for a woman is reason for him to possess her. The women in his life tend to disagree, leaving him heartbroken. He falls not only for women, but also for poetry. When he turns to poetry as an outlet for his youthful intensity, he discovers that his feelings, though intense and universal, are trite and laughable when translated into rhymes. There is a certain ennui associated with immortality, and a sense of endlessly waiting for the future, which is said to be brighter and grander than the base and tedious present.

Orlando as a manOrlando becomes an ambassador to Constantinople, and, despite the city’s intrigue and beauty, remains seemingly unphased, even when nearly killed in a conflagration. It is in Constantinople that, after sleeping for 11 days, Orlando wakes up as a woman. She takes this in stride, perhaps due to her having lived such an unnaturally long life already. Of course, the simple fact of being a woman changes her relationship with society. She is at risk of losing her home, an isolated castle in the British countryside, and is proposed to by men who claim that marrying them would be the best way to avoid insolvency and homelessness. At the time in history when she became a woman, it was illegal for a woman to own property, so marriage to a wealthy woman was a business opportunity for the men of her day.

Orlando as a womanOrlando wasn’t just a woman, she was a beautiful woman, and beauty comes with its own set of problems. Men adored her, and wanted to possess her for that reason, much like she had wanted to do when she was a he. Beauty also involves the maintenance of beauty, which in Victorian England involved a staff of cosmetic and clothing engineers. Being a woman wasn’t a simple fact, it was a process.

When we discuss women’s history, we see a progression toward freedom and self-determination, with each generation gaining more ground, yet each stage in the process being lived by different women. The joy of Orlando is that the gradual liberation of women is experienced by the same woman over hundreds of years. She seems to be waiting for the time when she can be treated as an equal to men, when she can retake her home, raise children, and dress herself without an entourage of handmaidens.

This time does eventually come, and toward the end of the movie we see Orlando driving, which, in 1928 when the book was written, was a symbol of liberation for women. The movie ends in the 1990’s, rather than the 1920’s, but brings to modernity the elegance and calm that run throughout the entire movie.


Countdown to Zero

August 7, 2010

Quick quiz:

  1. How many nations have nuclear weapons?
  2. How much highly enriched uranium has been stolen?
  3. What was the access code to the minute man missile launch site?
  4. If the order were given for the currently online nuclear weapons to be fired, how long would it take for 500,000 people to die?                        (Answers at end)

In observation of the 65th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the film Countdown to Zero is currently playing at the Harris Theater. The film is a documentary about the current status of nuclear weapons around the world today and consists of three main parts: it describes how easily nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of nongovernmental terrorist organizations, how the weapons still on ready-alert since the cold war could easily fire by accident or miscalculation, and how many nations around the world are developing, or have recently developed, nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

countdown to zeroThe message of the film is that the common sense of the people, the majority of whom want to see nonproliferation and the dismantling of nuclear weapons, should be heeded. The film describes the dangers of nuclear proliferation and non-disarmament using facts about accidents, miscalculations, the commonplace occurrence of theft of highly enriched uranium. Interviewees in the documentary include Mikhail Gorbachev, Valerie Plame, and Jimmy Carter. Historical footage of Robert Oppenheimer, Ronald Reagan, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before the showing on Friday night, Dr. Dan Fein spoke about nuclear proliferation. He referred to the US as the “avatar of nuclear militarism,” and cited that nuclear weapons are often seen as “the poor man’s deterrent against imperialism.” Indeed, in the film, Kim Il Jung is cited as saying that North Korea was not invaded by the United States on account of her nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto once stated, “we’ll eat grass, but we’ll make a nuclear bomb.” (On a side note, it has been much in the press that Pakistan, in theory a United States ally, has been providing weapons and training to the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

minute man missileThe film also discusses MAD, mutual assured destruction. This situation is known in mathematics as the prisoner’s dilemma, a situation where, when everyone works in what he sees to be his best interest, the worst possible situation for everyone comes to pass. When nations choose to build nuclear weapons as a deterrent to being invaded, or to having similar weapons used on them, then every nation eventually has nuclear weapons. And then we’re all in big trouble. Whether on purpose or by accident, an existent nuclear weapon is one that could be activated.

Because the probability of a nuclear accident is above zero, the inevitability of a nuclear accident is ensured. Given infinite time, that which can happen will happen. The questions then become: how probable is a nuclear accident, and how much time will nuclear weapons be around? As for the first question, there have already been a series of near-nuclear accidents, including planes taking off unknowingly carrying nuclear missiles, and the subsequent accidental dropping of nuclear missiles, once with five of six safety mechanisms malfunctioning. (That particular one fell in the Carolinas.) A number of planes and submarines carrying missiles have crashed and sunk in the oceans, the weapons of which have never been recovered. So, let’s go ahead and say the probability is not astronomically small. To reduce an accident, it is thus necessary to reduce the amount of time nuclear weapons are around, i.e, they should be dismantled.

The showing on Friday was sponsored by Remembering Hiroshima 2010, who promoted the signing of START, a disarmament treaty that is up for renewal. Before the film, Jo Schlesinger described the organization and its mission. She also invited Jasiri X to perform, and he wrote a piece especially for the occasion. The song was a conversation between a mother and her son taking place on the morning of August 6th, 1945 in Hiroshima, the son questioning what was happening and why. Before he performed, he stated that he wanted to “humanize individuals.” We often speak of war in the abstract, as I have done for this article, and don’t look at what war means for the individual people who are the victims of it. I highly recommend his work, which can be viewed at

Countdown to Zero will be playing through August twelfth at the Harris Theater.

Answers to quiz:

  1. 9 nations, with a combined total of over 23,000 nuclear weapons on Earth.
  2. It is unknown how much has been stolen. In all cases that uranium has been confiscated from thieves, it was originally unknown that the uranium had gone missing.
  3. 0000000000 – All employees at the facility were aware of this code.
  4. Half an hour.


July 12, 2010

Who manufactures the weapons used in Darfur? Who makes the bullets?

According to Amnesty International, the majority of weapons flowing into Darfur come from China and Russia. Data from 2005 show that Sudan imported $83 million worth of arms, ammunition, aircraft, helicopters, and parts from China. AviChina, a corporation tat specializes in aircraft, has provided Sudan with aircraft and helicopters. China Aviation Industry Corporation I’s subsidiary Beijing Aviation Science and Technology Co. (BASC) sends flight simulators for K-8S jets to Sudan.

In 2005, Sudan imported $33 million worth of aircraft equipment and helicopters from Russia. Belarus signed a military cooperation protocol with Sudan in 2006 and has continued to send armored personnel carriers, 122mm guns, and howitzers. Sudan does have a domestic arms production industry, but much of their arms are made from parts imported from abroad.

One vehicle of war in Sudan is the Land Rover, a vehicle made by the UK company called Land Rover, which is a subsidiary of Ford Motors. Executives at Ford Motors claim that, upon becoming aware of the uses for which their rovers are being used, they have stopped exporting them.

Sudan is not the only place where weapons are deadly. Indeed, there is no place where there are casualty-free weapons. The nature and purpose of a weapon are to quickly and messily dispossess a person of his existence. Apparently, existence dispossession is a growing market. Hundreds of companies manufacture firearms, ammunition, powder, and accessories for weapons.

The question remains: how can weapons manufacturing be stopped without violence? This question is addressed by the surreal artistic genius Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the maker of Amelie and City of Lost Children, in his film Micmacs. He takes on the horror of weapons manufacturers with beauty, humor, and imagination.

Micmacs is about Bazil, a man whose father was killed by a land-mine and whose livelihood was lost after being shot in the head. He is kindly adopted by a band of salvagers with circus talents who help in his quest to take down the manufacturers of the weapons that destroyed his life. By setting two executives against each other, and by playing off their fears, paranoia, and own evil behaviors, Bazil and his friends are able to destroy them without violence of malice.

Micmacs is playing through Thursday the 22nd at the Regent Square Theater.

References: Sudan: arms continuing to fuel serious human rights violations in Darfur; Amnesty International;


Survival of the Dead

June 17, 2010

Most monsters are essentially predators. They aren’t necessarily evil, just hungry, and humans have the bad luck of being their food. This type of monster resonated with humanity’s sense of cruelty and evil for much if its existence, when predation was a viable threat. However, in our wacky modern world, we need a new type of monster. A lion, a dragon, a Grendal just won’t cut it. We need a monster that represents the greatest threat to humanity, namely, mass stupidity. We need zombies.

survival of the deadWhy are zombies so awesome?  They aren’t just plain evil for the sake of evil; they’re mindless evil. They are the creatures whose unreflective bloodlust poisons and destroys everything. They are monsters whose creepiness comes from their incessantly continuing in the same direction, slowly plodding down a path of destruction. They are the shell of humanity around a rotting core. They are acting as they’re programmed to, without thought or reflection.

They are monsters that go to the mall.

survival of the deadNo one has explored these themes better than Pittsburgh’s local filmmaker George Romero, whose Survival of the Dead will be playing at the Harris Theatre. His films explore two aspects of zombies, first, what the zombies themselves represent, and second, what happens to the human survivors during zombie outbreaks. His films comment on phenomena from social class (the zombie outbreak beginning in a slum, but only being reported on by the press once it had reached the middle class), to social cohesion (people forming factions, suffering from internecine warfare when they could otherwise team together to deal with larger problems, such as zombies).

And there is something satisfying about watching a zombie take a heavy hit to the body, lose a limb or two, stutter a little to regain his footing, then continue blundering along.

Survival of the Dead will be playing at the Harris Theater from June 18 to June 24.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

June 14, 2010

Note: The following post is intended for a female audience. It is explicit and graphic.

According to a 1998 Department of Justice Report, 1 out of 6 women are the victim of rape or attempted rape. The National Victim Center found that 83.8 percent of women who were raped were under the age of 25, 61.6 % were under 18, and 30% were under 10. One thing that the statistics do not show is how many women were repeatedly raped by the same person. Quite often, a woman is the target of abuse on a daily basis for weeks, months, or years.

Although The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a murder mystery, it is really about rape. There are many ways to deal with victimization, but, no matter what you do in reality, you will most likely have violent revenge fantasies. Years later, you have a family, children, you feel safe and happy. But then at night, you’re lying there imaging that you had gouged out his eyes, had cut his stomach open, filled it with rocks, and pushed him off a cliff. You wish you could have tattooed ‘sadist’ on his chest. Mostly you imagine stabbing him repeatedly. There are certain places where no one may ever touch you, not even your husband or wife. When they ask why, you just say, ‘because.’

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is therapeutic because, in it, the characters enact revenge. They kill, beat, and tattoo their tormentors. Jhonen Vasquez once said that our violent fantasies prevent us from committing violence. They are our healthy escape. Yet we never feel quite right telling people, ‘I spent an hour today imagining new ways to tear a trachea.’ So we just don’t talk about our violent fantasies; we let them stew.

For many women this film will be a relief. And there is enough going on in the film that, after it’s over and you go to the local pub to discuss it, you can talk about the clues, the suspense, the main character’s clothing, and not have to mention that what you saw is aligned with the world of dark, paranoid fantasies that we all silently share.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be playing at the Harris Theater June 14th through June 17th.