HawkArtScience: Hawksaloft.com blog

(Archive: At the Movies)

31 October 2009, Saturday
Hollywood Halloween, my way...

Forget the usual scary fare in the cineplex and on the SyFy network tonight, I've got a couple of fun selections for this one-day holiday season. These are two small films, art house movies, just near-perfect little pleasures for your viewing pleasure. In both, the masks worn are not so obvious as they would be in the Friday, the 13th style horror/slasher fest (yes, that reads slash slasher). But in the end, for that moment in time, all is revealed.

Good old real life can be pretty scary in the hands of a couple of accomplished directors. Every Halloween season I watch Mumford (1999), written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, 1981). Kasdan assembles a wonderful cast to portray life in a small town just a bit outside of Silicon Valley. While he's not the one wearing the mask, Ted Danson is very scary and very funny in his one scene (he's equally memorable in Body Heat, which pre-dates his days on Cheers).

For the second part of this twinbill, I recommend Woody Allen's Match Point (2005). The first of his London films with his new muse, Scarlett Johansson. Allen asks is luck more important that skill and hard work? A professional tennis player, now an instructor amongst the upper crust, finds out. He also figures out how to hide a shotgun in with his tennis whites. Enjoy.

8 December 2009, Tuesday
The Cove (2009)


The Cove is available on DVD today — Netflix, Redbox, Amazon, et.al. Along with Precious, The Cove won the Audience Award at Sundance... that's a big deal. With the buzz coming out of Sundance, I was watching and waiting for its run at the Cinemapolis theater in Ithaca this Fall.

This is one of those stories that tells itself, but still needs to be told: from the '60s TV show Flipper, to the Seaworld industry, to a small city in Japan with its hidden cove. Any story with a hidden cove has something to hide, here it's not a dirty little bay of secrets, but atrocities beneath the surface of our Disney world. Ric O'Barry, former dolphin trainer, feels guilty for setting these events in motion, and he could be right, so he's a man on a mission. Find it and see it soon. For a twin bill...

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) is a complexly woven documentary about a messy international situation on Tanzania's Lake Victoria and in order to make sense of this nightmare, the documentarians had to be better filmmakers than those who made The Cove. This one enters Errol Morris territory (The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War). A great documentary is better than any work of fiction... they are telling true stories where the main characters play themselves, unknowing and/or unwittingly, therein lies additional risk and reward. I saw this at the IFC Center in NYC and it's a depressing good time at the movies.

On an up note, Jared Diamond has an op-ed in the Sunday NYTimes. If you aren't familiar with him, here's a quick read for an introduction.

21 January 2010, Thursday
At the Movies: Avatar

I don't think Avatar is the best picture of 2009, in spite of its success at the Golden Globes last Sunday evening, but it is going to be the most influential one going forward in this young decade. It's the special effects from the vision of James Cameron — The Terminator (1984 & 1991), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), and Titanic (1997) — that make Avatar so important to Hollywood as digital 3-D is the next big thing. It's a nice story too, and story is most important to Cameron: the story goes he left some break-out special effects on the cutting room floor rather than sacrifice the storyline while making The Abyss in the late 80s.

Like with George Lucas, it can be said that all of Cameron's stories have been told before, he has just seriously-updated the tale. Hey, I thought Titanic was easily the best film of its year (and, in the day, I saw over a hundred first-run movies/year). It is all about the storytelling which —on the screen, both big and small —includes the storyteller's visual ideas. Roger Ebert called out critics of Titanic for mocking the simple story and well-known ending with something like, "look, we know the story in many movies going in, and in this one: the ship sails; the ship sinks... but that's not the whole story."

The storyline for Avatar is not chock full of twists and turns, if you go to the movies with some frequency and/or have a Joseph Campbell-sense of our best myths, but it is nicely told... and then there are the special effects. It is at this point that I recommend you plan to do something INDOORS (I will only say that once a year, and maybe not that often). Go see Avatar, in Real-D, ASAP.

Tuesday's Science (NY)Times lead with an Avatar review/essay by Carol Yoon. Her NYT contributions are always interesting and, recently, she's the author of Naming Nature, about the past, present, and future of taxonomy (see Science, straight up archive: right column).

When watching a Hollywood movie that has robed itself in the themes and paraphernalia of science, a scientist expects to feel anything from annoyance to infuriation at facts misconstrued or processes misrepresented. What a scientist does not expect is to enter into a state of ecstatic wonderment, to have the urge to leap up and shout: “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!”

So it is time for all the biologists who have not yet done so to shut their laptops and run from their laboratories directly to the movie theaters, put on 3-D glasses and watch the film “Avatar.” In fact, anyone who loves a biologist or may want to be one, or better yet, anyone who hates a biologist — and certainly everyone who has ever sneered at a tree-hugger — should do the same. Because the director James Cameron’s otherworldly tale of romance and battle, aliens and armadas, has somehow managed to do what no other film has done. It has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world. [...]

But rather than having us giggling at a tribble or worrying over the safety of the children when a T. rex attacks, Mr. Cameron somehow has the audience seeing organisms in the tropical-forest-gone-mad of the planet Pandora just the way a biologist sees them. With each glance, we are reminded of organisms we already know, while marveling over the new and trying quickly to put this novelty into some kind of sensible place in the mind.

The whole thing is a nice read, but I'm going to take strong exception with Yoon that her viewing this film in 2-D was a perfectly fine way to view Pandora and what James Cameron had in mind. (Cue the Na'vi language translator module here), "No, no, no, and OMG no." Real-D makes this a movie-going experience not to be had any other way. Anything less than that is: not it. Avatar is also available at an IMAX theater, maybe nearby or maybe not, but I have no latent urge to see it there based on the experience I had at the well-calibrated local cineplex.

Before the film there's Real-D's intro to their technology — like the old theater surround sound promo made to use every bell and whistle the sound system could muster— here the Real-D logo ball appears spinning in high definition out in the middle of the theater. Previews of the next Toy Story, in 3-D, plus a couple of other Summer (insert "blockbuster" here) movies will prime you for "Our Feature Presentation," because during Avatar, there will come a moment when you will have the urge to brush small bits of falling debris off your shoulder (I kid you not). This is not on the menu if you save two bucks and see the red-headed 2-D version. Once you've seen it, you'll instantly know when someone else talking about Avatar, hasn't.

25 January 2010, Monday
At the Movies: Up in the Air

Up in the Air is a commercial flight. And if you're not a frequent flier, movie-wise, this is the one film you should see for 2009 (in cinema-terms, '09 is not over until the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says it is, and that's with the broadcast of the Oscars, on the evening of Sunday, March 7th). If Up in the Air is not around at the moment, oh wait for it. It will be coming back to a theater near you when its nomination for Best Picture is announced February 2nd.

For the experienced movie-goer, this is one of the best films of the year, although you'll see certain events coming a mile away and know that everything is prearranged to work out for all involved — this is a studio ride after all, so the twists and turns will be comfortable ones. But George Clooney and Vera Farmiga are paired like food with wine for delicious banter by director Jason Reitman — Juno (2007) and Thank You for Smoking (2005) — and that makes most top ten lists in any year. The movie is based on a book that's about ten years old, but you'd never know it... as the waves of corporate lay offs come in cycles.

At its most rotten, the tale is about business euphemisms concocted to dehumanize an already cold-hearted enterprise. Only Donald Trump comes right out and says, "You're fired!" (because, that's a TV show). In the world of corporate cutters, Ryan Bingham and young Cornell MBA grad Natalie Keener (Clooney, and newcomer Anna Kendrick), turn termination into a faux positive experience in order to blunt anyone making a scene. It's efficiency.

"Business is our business" is certainly the model for environmental organizations as there are more lawyers and MBAs than biologists working in "conservation" these days. Leading public programs for adults, I developed several bridges between science and the non-scientist, knowing that participants were well-educated, but just not in the sciences. In reverse, this term-turning works well with scientists who might want to communicate with those outside their "species."

The first of these I worked up was the use of the term professional hawk (or owl, etc.) to put other species on equal footing with humans without getting into all the animal rights philosophy and boring folks into a intellectual stupor. It came from the old warning issued to kids back in the day of Superman, when the newscaster would say, "Now kids, don't try this at home." Usually prefaced by this is a professional actor, stuntman, driver, etc. (even today, car ads on TV have small print stating, "professional driver, on a closed course" so they are not libel for consumers thinking they should test the demonstrated suspension and braking systems on their neighborhood roadways). Also I used it to make hawks whole... and not just a sum of their parts. This over-sciencing of other species, mechanizes the organic, and prevents our reconnecting. From the tagline "don't try this at home," I naturally migrated over to "these are professional hawks... this is what they do for a living."

Cutting to the chase in any discussion with an everyday business term is a way in, that I've found people relate to quickly. It's a starting point, that uses humor to relieve the tension of making a scientific point. Before Seinfeld Science and Woolly Bear Science, I used Tobacco Science, Real Estate Science and Creationist Science to put a harsh light on non-scientific thinking.

With the rise of the MBA and introduction of business practices into all manner of the environmental field, I've added a few new terms. Here are three anyway.

Waiting for the migration of a species that is thought to be coming fits here. But sometimes it comes and other times, not. An occlusion — East-West running line of precipition — can hold up a flight. Most record-flights are due to birds being on back-order... late, and backed up. On the other hand, Broadwings might go way around a tropical storm arcing along the coast, and the expected movement doesn't happen where anticipated. In the Spring, an expansive snowfield can delay, but not for more than a week, the migration of adult Red-Shouldered Hawks in late March. A versatile term, back-ordered can apply to cyclic species or those whose numbers seem to be down this year, maybe a poor breeding season: like Roughlegs, due to the extensive wet and cold Summer up North.

Real Estate Science offers that we're not really destroying habitat as the animals will be moved elsewhere... and besides, we've named a lane after each critter or natural system that used to be here... Kestrel Lane, Fern Hollow Road. I've played around with this term related it to extralimitals, like Cave Swallows too. I'm going to work on this one some more, for others.

Instead of saying, "You're fired"... from the biota (extirpated from a region or even extinct), we try to employ business euphemisms and even develop methodologies to dampen down the news and worse, ignore or lie about it to avoid responsibility for our actions/greed (we used to call our efforts "stewardship"... when we owned up to our actions). Now that's all an inconvenience and bad for business — the financial side, not the scientific. So I use down-sizing to point out a decline in a species population, and now, with Up in the Air, this kind of termination terminology is even trendy and clearer.

1 February 2010, Monday
At the Movies: Inglourious Basterds

While Quentin Tarantino might well have been referring to himself, as his band of Nazi-hunters in the title of his 2009 release Inglourious Basterds, the Counter Culture hawkwatcher-types easily identify with this label... want the shirt and the hat, in black (of course).

But first, the movie. Inglourious Basterds was the best film I saw in 2009! Ranks right up there on most critics' lists and is a certain Oscar best picture nominee (in the expanded field of ten). Combine that with the best film IMO of the decade just concluded: Q's Kill Bill Vols 1&2, and you get the picture. Basterds is a WWII film about these hunters that get the ultimate prey in their sights and make the kill.

Okay, he's rewritten a little history, but Tarantino does what moviemakers do all the time. Adjust things. As Roger Ebert says, the last thing you want see up front when a movies starts is, "Based on a true story." Read: "Well, we found out while making this film, the truth can be kind of dull, let us now show you just how uninteresting."

So... in this case he turns the large knob, but he's a great fan of cinema too, and I'm always down for whatever he'd got in mind... I remember seeing his Pulp Fiction in '94: as vivid a memory as if it were yesterday's Merlin.

Like Pulp Fiction, there is action, but there are also his abnormally long and intricate monologues and dialogues that are primo in this one (Q's both writer and director for his signature projects). Visually he knows movies, and knows how to honor the tried and true. In this one, he creates a situation where a number of the characters — good and bad — have all descended a narrow stairway into a cellar pub with no other way out, he has one of this lot comment, "Who would pick such a place, tactically, for a meeting... there's no way out," then he slows down the fuse time with some talk knowing this is a no-win... chaos and body count, to follow. I saw this in a theater, and while it should reappear, the DVD will work for you.

Just standing around at Cape May, with not much going (20 Peregrines, maybe 10 Merlins, and only fifty Cooper's Hawks, etc.), when up the stairs comes a civilian, a big fish from a small pond/hilltop, asking the basterds in the corner where they would go to watch hawks... anywhere he added, then on he goes some more attempting to answer his own question with Texas, Veracruz, exotic door number 3. Silence, with frosting. Then, like a temple bell, "Duluth" from the alpha (Ligouri), and the basterds went all low-tones and nodding while the tourist looked very very puzzled, wondering off.

See, the inglourious basterds want the other thing. Not to be different, necessarily, but out of a need for the thing. Let everyone else go for the warm moist zephyrs and a million hawks, we'll veer North, and find a nook, or better a cranny, and wait for it. Goshawk, adult; Golden on an updraft, close, too close to take the shot; maybe something in a dark morph.

8 February 2010, Monday
At the Movies: Earth movies


The Academy Awards nominations are out and The Cove is already odds-on to win in Best Documentary. A preview and an entry about that little film is online here with some other film notes.

Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival is a wrap and is sort of the opposite of the Oscars, as it gives cinephiles (like me) movies to watch for during the coming year! Grist.org attended to scout out the latest environmental films in show.

In addition to brief write-ups, they've gathered up the previews to give us a hint of the content. Now, be advised, from someone who sees his share of the inspiration and the confusion in the arena of documentaries: they are all over the map, both in locale and in quality. Hopefully though, chosen for Sundance means we at least have one filter applied.

Films like Frozen River (2008), a fictional slice of life from the Mohawk Nation that straddles the St. Lawrence River in NY and Quebec, while not a documentary, has its earthtones and came out of Sundance a year ago with all the proper Buzz, played around and is now on DVD. If you like that one, try and find Powwow Highway (1989). Twenty+ years old and it still works as a contemporary Earth legend, told by a three hundred pound Sioux. Enjoy.

11 March 2010, Thursday
Science, with a soundtrack

Before PBS did a special and before the many storm chaser cable shows became so over produced that they look and sound like an episode of Survivor, there was Twister (1996) — directed by Jan de Bont and written by Michael Crichton — where weather watching appears to come with barbeque, as well it should. The movie also comes with future Oscar winners Helen Hunt and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Of course weather has its own soundtrack, but though this film, here's your motivation to either find science more exciting or add your own soundtrack to hawkwatching. Who would play you in the movie about your hawkwatch? For the soundtrack, does Van Halen still work?

Before Twister, I found the movie adaptation of Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf(1983) to be very cool and true enough in its portrait of a scientist. Like Twister, that one has a good guy and a bad guy, Charles Martin Smith and Brian Dennehy, respectively. In Twister, the bad guys are the storm chasers with "corporate money" and instead of black hats, they have a fleet of glistening black trucks, vans, and SUVs. And, according to Bill Paxton's good guy character, the bad guy has all the toys but none of the instincts inherent in the gifted scientist/naturalist/hawkwatcher. No passion; no soundtrack.

Science needs a soundtrack, even if it's only in your head. Going out in the field with your own music makes the day and if not in the field per se, then work out your tunes for the drive to and from.

For hawkwatchers, by and large, the birds are chased to the hawkwatch by the storms. For the storm chasers, they are in high speed pursuit and I suppose that makes a movie. Here's some more Twister action and music, with maps (Oooo).

12 March 2010, Friday
Birdemic (preview) & The Cove (strikes back)

[Instructions for watching this preview: It's awful and if you're not a serious film person, who would be compelled to watch, stop watching when you've seen enough, read on below, but come back — for the birds. Once the whole bar has gone gray, drag the timeline out to about "2:00" — the two-minute mark. All raptorholics will want to see THE BIRDS as they menace the innocent bystanders... THE HORROR.]

Birdemic (2010) and The Cove (2009) run the Hollywood gamut, by example, from awful art horror/horrid flick to gritty Oscar-winning documentary. Birdemic claims cinematic affinities with Hitchcock's The Birds, I guess because there are birds in it, but it's really an alleyway offspring of Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), which had moviegoers looking away from the screen in horror too, but for bad acting and pie plate spaceships dangling on wires. Birdemic: Shock and Terror is aiming for art by way of cult status by aiming really low, as no one could make a film this bad without knowing quite a lot about film, film making, etc. At least that's what James Nguyen is hoping. However aim too low and you shoot yourself in the foot, career-wise.
Update 3/26/10: A review/autopsy in the NYTimes has a raptor image, and if you are a movie buff, then the review.

But this post is really about The Cove being the odds-on favorite for Best Documentary and winning the Oscar. You can watch, or re-watch, the preview in my At the Movies archive: it's the second entry down, 8 December 2009. That was the date of its wide-release on DVD. Now there is more...

The makers of The Cove knew they were all at least going to attend the Academy Awards ceremony, as nominees, so they asked themselves: what little guerilla action could we engage in while we're there? Since we're all going to be there anyway. Well, they had heard that if you spent enough money at LA's cutting edge sushi establishments, they might add an interesting item or two to your plate... six hundred dollars later, whale sashimi.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — It is sport among black belt sushi eaters here to see just how daring one’s palate can be. But even among the squid-chomping, roe-eating and uni-nibbling fans, whale is almost unheard of on the plate. It also happens to be illegal.

Yet with video cameras and tiny microphones, the team behind Sunday’s Oscar-winning documentary film “The Cove” orchestrated a Hollywood-meets-Greenpeace-style covert operation to ferret out what the authorities say is illegal whale meat at one of this town’s most highly regarded sushi destinations. Their work, undertaken in large part here last week as the filmmakers gathered for the Academy Awards ceremony, was coordinated with law enforcement officials, who said Monday that they were likely to bring charges against the restaurant, the Hump, for violating federal laws against selling marine mammals.

Our story has a double happy ending. The Cove won the Oscar. And (reading this in a sing-sing voice): Somebody got indicted, somebody got indicted, somebody got indicted.


They've got the urge for going, and
they've got the wings so they can go.

— Joni Mitchell

Hawk•art•science blog
Truth and beauty. Art and science. Entries here will be on that flightline, although I will stray from the hawk-part on occasion, or will I? I aiming this beast at hawkheads and/or the young seasonal revolutionary biologists. It's for the flexible and young-at-heart too.
Comments, questions, excited utterances, and/or exasperated afterthoughts from you, dear reader, are welcome and will receive a reply. — Tom Carrolan
(Image above: "Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009")

Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
The Hawksaloft.com website was launched in 1997, following three years of printed handbills, plus numerous emails, all voicing my alt.hawkwatching ideas in New England. If you've been here before, the original site is archived in all its old-timey graphic glory. To navigate the old way, just click on Psychedelia the Hawk Owl and be transported back in time... trippy. Any bookmarks or links found anywhere online still work.

Not everything that counts can be counted and
not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein