‘Paper Towns’ and what YA movies have to say about Love

o-PAPER-TOWNS-facebook“Best! Teen! Road movie! Ever!”

Whispered just loud enough to be heard over the end-credit music now blaring merrily from the vicinity of the movie theater screen, my 20-something son Andy succinctly puts his indelible stamp of approval on Paper Towns, the latest film adaptation of a book by Young Adult (YA) novelist John Green. The movie, an enjoyably offbeat love story, of sorts, involves a nerdy high school senior named Quentin (Nat Wolff), who hits the road with a robust van-full of friends, to follow clues possibly left behind by the hero’s mysterious love object, Margo (Cara Delevingne), who might not actually have intended Quentin to pursue her when she suddenly dropped out of school and skipped town.

The film was good. Very good, actually.

Personally, I have observed that YA novels are yielding some of the best and freshest literature of the current age. Furthermore, the movies made from these books (everything from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to last year’s The Fault in Our Stars, also by John Green) are often, but not always, filled with impressively accurate depictions of teenagers, be they young cancer survivors in love, hormonal combatants in a futuristic gladiator spectacle, or a poor geeky guy in love with a girl who may or may not be the love of his life but who has awesome eyebrows.

Andy agrees.

Not about the eyebrows, a subject on which he expressed no opinion. But he doesagree that YA novels often make the best movies. Actually, Andy’s views do not figure into this column beyond his original statement, which handed me a great opening line with which to launch a series of my own personal thoughts on the allure of “teen road movies,” which, come to think of it, there actually aren’t very many.

Beyond Paper Towns, I can think of only two others—The Sure Thing, a 1985 comedy starring John Cusack, and the 1979 Diane Lane debut A Little Romance. Like Paper TownsThe Sure Thing follows a teenager driving cross-country in a quest for a girl, though in the Cusack film, he just wants to get laid. In Paper Towns, the quest is all about true love, and the lengths to which our hero goes to find it, with the help of some charmingly faithful friends who are eager to help their lovesick buddy win the heart of the mysterious runaway with a penchant for leaving cryptic clues.

littleromanceIn A Little Romance, two 13-year-olds in Paris—one American, the other French—travel by car, train and gondola in order to kiss beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, believing local legends saying that any two people who kiss under the bridge at sunset will love each other forever.

I haven’t thought of that movie in years, but I remember the first time I saw it because I saw it with a girl named Pinky.

More on her later.

In these films, the protagonist is often inspired by fictional stories of romance and adventure, inspired to their quest for love because … well, that’s what fictional guys do.  Since seeing Paper Towns with Andy—a somewhat hilarious father-son bonding experience, given that the theater was otherwise packed with females, most of them teens, and only one other male, who appeared to be a on first date—I have been thinking about the films that inspired my own beliefs about love and life, back when I was a senior in high school.

images-1One such film was American Graffiti—which might qualify as a road movie, given that so much of it takes place in cars—a movie about the early ’60s that was released in the early ’70s, but managed to capture the strange blend of innocence and cynicism that teens often feel when hovering on the precipice of adulthood.

Like the heroes of the aforementioned films, Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt is on a quest to find a particular girl, the elusive Blonde in the White T-Bird. After spying her driving down the street one long night, frustrated with the choices his life seems to be offering him, Curt falls instantly in love, convinced that the girl in the T-Bird holds the answers he’s found nowhere else.

I see a pattern here.

SPOILER ALERT! In all of the films mentioned above, the nerdy guy never actually ends up with the girl. Or not for long, anyway. In most of those films, the most the hero gets is one kiss; then it’s goodbye, sorry, you’re not my type—but in a good way. And in American Graffiti, Curt never manages to do more than talk to the Blonde in the White T-Bird for two minutes on a pay phone.american_graffiti_suzanne_somers

I identified with Curt, having become similarly smitten with the aforementioned Pinky. She drove a Toyota, not a T-Bird. We lived in a Los Angeles suburb, not Modesto. My clumsy but highly creative pursuit of her was assisted, just like in Paper Towns, by a band of friends with nothing else to do. In high YA fashion, they helped me send Pinky on a Lord of the Rings-style treasure hunt that concluded with me rescuing her, knight-in-shining-armor-style, from a band of sword-fighting orcs and Ringwraiths.

Talk about being inspired by fiction.

That story, for what it’s worth, was the basis of my 2012 play Pinky, which I have recently learned is set to be staged in Marin County in the fall of 2016.

But where was I? Oh, right. Fiction. The thing is, as a one-time teen myself, I can see that my ideas of the world were partially derived from whatever I saw in front of me—and I saw a whole lot of movies. In half of them, true love always wins out. In the others, love crashes and burns in a flaming ball of teenage angst and bad timing.

Like in Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

2672860128_fa3f21269bI saw that one at a drive-in movie when I was 8.

From Romeo and Juliet I learned that Olivia Hussey was the most beautiful girl in the world, and that love, even when it crashes and burns, is more or less worth the trouble—because it’s love.

Which, more-or-less, is what Quentin and his friends finally learn in Paper Towns, even if the happy ending they eventually arrive at requires a somewhat different definition of “happy” than the one they all learned at the movies.

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Young Cinema fan Starts Conversation about Faith and Film

Films: "Contact" (1997) Starring Jodie Foster

“The problem with faith-based films is they kind of don’t play fair.”

This remark comes not from a film critic, or social activist, or anti-religious pundit, but from a teenage girl with blonde hair, engaged in a conversation about film at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.

Last week, I was talking to a bunch of kids as part of the California Film Institute’s (CFI) annual Summerfilm youth program, a presentation of CFI’s ongoing educational efforts.

Each year, I talk to the students—usually between 15 and 30 teens recruited from around Marin County—sharing inside information about being a film writer, and the history of criticism as an art form.

Eventually the kids always ask me to list my favorite or least favorite films, or to explain why I might take issue with some particular genre of film. Last Thursday morning, in answer to that last question, I admitted that I find slasher films—particularly of the Saw and Hostel variety—along with faith-based films like God’s Not Dead and Christian Mingle, are not to my taste, primarily because they are so focused on a narrow audience desperate to see images and messages that move them, that they often settle for a kind of artless mediocrity.

0I did list a title or two in each genre that I believed were exceptions to that rule, and as I was finishing, the aforementioned young woman, sitting in the second row, raised her hand to tell me her opinion of God’s Not Dead, a 2013 film in which an atheist college professor (played by outspoken Christian actor Kevin Sorbo, of Hercules fame) challenges his students to prove that God is not, as he insists, dead.

“My problem with the movie,” she says, “is that it cheats. It’s not fair, because it makes all the believers seem wonderful, and the non-believers seem like really bad, awful people. That’s not the way it is in the world. So it makes its case, but it makes it based on a lie.”

Somebody hire this girl, because she’s a film critic waiting to happen.

After the workshop, I got to thinking about this exchange, and started asking myself a few questions. She’s right, that many faith-based films use broadly sketched stereotypes to represent non-believers, but of course, mainstream movies have been turning believers into comic foils and stereotypical villains for as long as there have been movies.

Eventually, I remembered one movie that worked miracles in turning all of these stereotypes back on each other: Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 science fiction brainteaser Contact.

When the film—starring Jodie Foster in one of her best performances—first came out, I took Dr. Eugenie Scott to see it, and now, with these thoughts fresh in my mind, I went and pulled out the recording I made of our conversation.

Scott is a physical anthropologist with a resumé full of distinguished teaching appointments, and at that time was the executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a nonprofit watchdog group headquartered in the East Bay. Since 1981, the NCSE has monitored creation/evolution skirmishes in public schools. Scott, who now serves the NCSE on an advisory level, was a 1991 recipient of the Public Education in Science Award, given out by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

She is, by all definitions of the word, a non-believer.

And that label is part of what made me want to revisit the conversation.

“You know what I think?” Scott asked, early in the discussion. “I think we non-believers need to find a term other than ‘spiritual’ to describe many of our profound experiences. I wish we could find a word that means awe and wonder and excitement and love, without the supernatural twist that ‘spiritual’ has.”

We spent a bit of time dissecting Contact, a remarkably powerful drama based on the 1984 novel by the late scientist Carl Sagan. The film concerns a worldwide clash of values and ideas, mainly between science and religion, that occurs after radio signals from space are detected and identified as an invitation from an alien race. Foster plays the scientist who discovers the message, a practical woman and dedicated seeker of answers, whose intense empiricism becomes an issue when she volunteers to be the first emissary to the solar system from which the signals originated.

In one key scene, Foster is asked by an international selection committee if she is a ‘spiritual person,’ by which they mean, does she believe in God? She doesn’t, and, squirming uncomfortably, it is clear that she doesn’t like the ambiguity of the word spiritual.

“It must have been terribly awkward,” Dr. Scott continued in her analysis of the scene. “I can certainly identify with her. How do I talk about something that is non-material yet is also non-supernatural? How do I talk about the awe that descends on me when I go to the top of a mountain? Or when I hear the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, and the hair goes up on the back of my neck?

“I don’t think those feelings are supernatural, but they’re not exactly material either. So I wish I could come up with a term—one that wasn’t clunky—to express that. ‘Non-material non-supernaturalist’ doesn’t exactly fall trippingly from the tongue, now does it?”

In movies like Contact and God’s Not Dead, whenever a character identifies himself or herself as an atheist or a believer in God, you can see the hackles rising on the characters who hold a different view.

Scott, for what it’s worth, suggested during the conversation that she prefers “agnostic” to “atheist,” as she is first and foremost a scientist.

“I would agree with good old Thomas Henry Huxley,” she continued, “who said, ‘The only reasonable attitude for a scientist to take would be agnosticism, because you really cannot know if God exists, so you shouldn’t be an atheist.’

“For a scientist, ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer,” she added. “You don’t accept the first explanation that comes along. Somebody shows up and says, ‘Aunt Rosie can find water with a forked stick. She’s found it five times in the last 10 years.’

“OK. Is there another explanation? To me the best thing we can do in our society—in terms of teaching people to think—is to get children trained immediately to say, ‘Is there a better explanation?’ And of these explanations, which is the better supported when I go to nature and look for the support?”

I recalled another remark Scott made, but had to skip to the end of the tape to find it. But I did, and my thanks to the young woman in the second row whose remarks sent me in search of it.

“I saw a bumper sticker the other day,” Scott said. “It read, ‘Thank God for Evolution.’ I can appreciate that. I wish we had more people with that kind of sense of humor. It would make my job a whole lot easier.”

Therapist Myra Bernecker analyzes the preteen mindset of ‘Inside Out’

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Some movies, and certain post-film conversations, aren’t easily forgotten. Twenty-four hours after my talk with Dr. Myra Gueco Bernecker—whose private therapy practice in San Francisco aims to build up healthy emotional lives in children and adults—the movie we discussed is still very much on her mind.

“Dear David! I had a few more thoughts,” Bernecker writes in an email the day after our cinematic question-and-answer session. Among her additional thoughts is the change of one answer from ‘Yes,’ to ‘Maybe.’

That’s awesome. After all, the whole point of the movie—Pixar’s psychologically savvy mega-hit Inside Out—is that change, though often unexpected and fraught with danger, is good.

A highly imaginative look at the inner world of a preteen girl named Riley, the movie follows the 11-year-old as her calm and happy emotional state is thrown into major upheaval when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. In the beautifully animated film—written and directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen—Riley’s emotions are represented as colorful little oddly-shaped people: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Each emotion gets to take a turn at the console, a kind of one-feeling-at-a-time switchboard in Riley’s head—aka “Headquarters”—though Joy (voice of Amy Poehler) is accustomed to making most of the big decisions. That’s a system that’s about to change big-time when Sadness (voice of Phyllis Smith) suddenly can’t resist putting her melancholy touch on everything, shifting Riley’s experience of the world from sunny to serious.

Early in my conversation with Bernecker, at a coffee-and-pastry emporium near her office, I ask if she thought that Riley’s preadolescent angst would have happened even if the family had stayed back in Minnesota.

“Oh, I think so, yes,” Bernecker says, sipping a cup of tea. “It’s pretty normal. Between six and 11 is called the ‘latency age,’ where inner conflicts are pushed way down below the surface, and people on the outside don’t see them very much.

“But then, along come the preteens,” she continues, “and suddenly all of those things that have been successfully pushed down below the surface, whoosh! They suddenly come to the surface. So I think Riley’s emotional ups and downs would probably have happened, even if she’d stayed in Minnesota.”

“Some critics,” I mention, “have called foul at the movie’s rather simplistic suggestion that before adolescence, the normal emotional state of all kids is joy and happiness. I guess there is the concern that kids who are feeling anything other than happy all the time might see this, and worry that there is something wrong with them. But some kids have good reason to feel sadness, or anger, or fear, don’t they?”

Unknown-2“Yes, I agree, that was a bit simplistic,” Bernecker says with a nod, “but between six and 11—if there is a happy home, stable parents and nothing too stressful in the kids’ lives—things usually are pretty good. Joy, in that kind of environment, probably wouldbe the primary state of things. We get the idea that the move to San Francisco is the single biggest change she’s ever experienced.

“Another kid, with a different situation at home,” she adds, “might have a different system going on in their head.”

When asked what she thought of the metaphor of little people fighting for control of the buttons in our brains as a description of emotional processes, Bernecker smiles.

“I liked it,” she says. “I think it’s an accurate way of displaying the struggle and inner turmoil that happens, and the unrest people may experience, when facing something significantly stressful. Riley’s emotions are out of control, because nothing is normal, so the feelings that were once so balanced, working so nicely together, suddenly don’t know how to work together anymore. To me, it’s a perfect way of showing what happens during adolescence.”

Eventually, in the film, we see that the feelings in Riley’s head have replaced the console with another, bigger console, where there is room for all of them to work side by side, presumably allowing Riley to feel more than one emotion at a time.

“I think it might give a sense of relief to children,” Bernecker remarks, “to know that you can, and probably should, feel more than one emotion at a time. That’s a healthy thing to encourage.”

In Inside Out, Riley can’t shake the thought that life would be better if Mom and Dad had never hauled her to California, where people eat pizza with broccoli on it. After our conversation, Bernecker, likewise, can’t shake the thought that she might have added some necessary context to one of the points she made.

“When you asked if I thought that Riley would still go through what she did,” she writes in her email, “even if she didn’t make the move, I said, ‘Yes.’ But I’ve thought more about that, and I retract my ‘yes,’ and now answer your question with, ‘It depends.’

“Given Riley’s stable upbringing and secure attachment to her parents,” she continues, “it’s possible that she may not have experienced preadolescence with such intensity, and a brand new, bigger ‘console’ at Headquarters would likely not be necessary, yet. Without the move, her imbalancing and restructuring process could take place later in her teen years or even young adult years. The inner turmoil—mood swings, et cetera—is a sign that the restructuring process is underway.

“I think this movie is applicable to all ages,” Bernecker writes, “in that restructuring can happen at any age. When a big psychosocial stressor occurs—i.e., a move, breakup, divorce, death, lost job, et cetera—depending on one’s inner and outer resources and other factors, it can be devastating. That loss can stir up past losses, if unresolved, and can or will require a new, bigger console at Headquarters.”

Just as there’s always room for more than one emotion at the controls, there’s always room for one more thought from the doctor. Before our conversation concluded, Bernecker left me with this final thought.

“There is an inner life that happens in children,” she says, “in all of us actually, that not everyone sees or pays attention to. In the movie, I thought Riley was showing hints of sadness from the beginning, right below the surface. But she was hiding it. And that’s the point of the movie, and why it’s so good.

“Just because we see one thing on the outside,” she concludes, “doesn’t mean that’s all that’s happening on the inside.”

Will Durst finds hope in ‘Tomorrowland’

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“Well I don’t care what the critics say—I think it’s a great message!”

So confesses Will Durst, exiting the San Rafael movie theater where we’ve just watched the upbeat, epic action movie Tomorrowland, Disney’s optimistic answer to the end-of-the-world gloom and doom of Mad MaxSan Andreas and Age of Ultron.

Wait a minute.

Age of Ultron was a Disney movie, wasn’t it?

Never mind.

“You know what? I liked Tomorrowland a lot!” continues Durst, the San Francisco-based comic, author and political satirist known for finding a silver lining of humor in even the worst of situations. “I like the whole ‘hope’ thing in the movie. Stop with the doom and gloom already. I think the movie is totally right. I think all of these apocalyptic-nightmare-dystopia movies are a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s nice to have something that challenges that a little.”

Tomorrowland, directed by Brad Bird (The Iron GiantThe Incredibles) is nothing if not a challenge to the norm—not that it doesn’t offer a bit of sobering future shock on its way to suggesting a possible redemption. The movie is inspired, in part, by the utopian dreams of Walt Disney, who concocted the original Tomorrowland attractions at Disneyland and went on to dream up the futuristic Epcot Center at Disney World. It follows a brilliant teenager named Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), who hears warnings of global warming and nuclear proliferation and asks, “What are we doing to fix it?” When she finds a mysterious pin showing her a glimpse of a big, bright, beautiful city full of rocket packs and hovering busses, she heads out in search of the reclusive inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney), who might know how to take her there.

Unfortunately, she eventually learns, the world is going to end in 58 days, and nobody cares enough to change it. Critics have called the movie “half-baked” and “simplistic,” even accusing it of having lapses in logic. But criticizing a film like Tomorrowland for a few logical failures is a bit like finding plot problems in Aesop’s Fables.

“This fable has plot problems!” Durst says, taking on the haughty tone of some anti-Aesop pundit. “If frogs could talk, would the frogs not be more interested in locating a sustainable food source than engaging in existential discussions on the nature of humankind?’ These frogs have clear logic issues!”

Despite its Aesop-like nature, Tomorrowland does carry plenty of action, with killer robots, spaceships, flying contraptions, laser beams, explosions, implosions, inter-dimensional travel and an awesome battle in a store full of Star Wars kitsch and Lost in Space collectibles.

“The thing is,” Durst says, once we’ve settled down with our biodegradable coffee cups filled with fair trade beverages, “the world really might be coming to an end if we don’t do something about it. And we really do love movies about the apocalypse. In Tomorrowland, the one guy says that when we were given a vision of the future we were heading for, we turned it into movies and video games. And he’s right. Even Stephen Hawking says that if we create real Artificial Intelligence (AI) it could be very bad, but instead of abandoning it, the corporations plow ahead with AI and the rest of us watch movies in which the robots take over the world.”

Unknown-1That—in a nutshell—is exactly what Tomorrowland is saying. Durst has been thinking a lot about the end of the world lately. Having struck a chord with his hit one-man-show about the past, Boomeraging: From LSD to OMG—which plays this Friday and Saturday at 8pm at San Rafael’s Belrose Theater—he’s about to launch a brand new solo show titled, Durst Case Scenario, in which he looks at the future.

“The new show is definitely going to touch on the end of the world,” Durst says. “You know there are those Worst Case Scenario books, giving contingency plans on how to escape from grizzly bears or how to escape from quicksand. Well in my new show I’ll explain what to do if you find Vladimir Putin in your hotel room shirtless. So it’s about terrible things, but it’s funny. It’s like if the zombie apocalypse happened, but all the zombies were wearing clown noses.”

Actually, that would be terrifying.

“I’m just glad there were no zombies in Tomorrowland, Durst goes on. “I’m so tired of zombies. And who invented fast zombies? When did that happen? Zombies aren’t supposed to sprint, like in a lot of the new zombie movies. Zombies are supposed to trudge and stumble. I want dim, stupid, meandering zombies. Oh wait! That’s the Tea Party!”

One of the points of the movie is that the end-of-the-world scenarios we play out in our entertainment aren’t just society’s way of examining the things we are afraid of. These movies are our way of preparing for a future we’ve consciously chosen to embrace.

“Sure, ’cause if the end of the world comes, then we’re off the hook,” Durst says with a laugh. “The apocalypse is coming this afternoon? Great! I guess I don’t have to go to work tomorrow. And I can stop recycling while I’m at it! Seriously though, nobody wants a drought in California, right? But is anyone willing to actually change their lives to keep it from coming? Of course not!

“In the movie, the guy says, ‘You have concurrent epidemics of starvation and obesity. How does that happen?’ He’s right. We could fix a lot of our problems right now, but that would hurt the corporations’ bottom line, so we just shrug and move on. Even when we fix one problem, we create another. We’re figuring out how to make machines to turn seawater into drinkable water, which is great, right? So what’s going to happen when we perfect these systems? We are going to suck the oceans dry! Because that’s how we roll.”

The best thing about Tomorrowland, though, is its suggestion that if enough people were inspired by a positive vision of the future, the dreamers and thinkers and artists might band together to find a way to solve our problems in a sustainable, mutually beneficial way.

“I actually think it can happen,” Durst says. “I do. I think we can get out of our own way, and make it hip to be positive, and we can find the people who can save the world. I believe there can be a positive, optimistic tomorrow.

“I just hope,” he adds with a laugh, “the world lasts long enough for tomorrow to happen.”

North Bay geologist Susan Panttaja decodes earthquake epic ‘San Andreas’

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“The absolute best thing about San Andreas was Paul Giamatti,” says North Bay geologist and junior college teacher of earth science Susan Panttaja, “because he was so obviously a really good scientist, and in movies like San Andreas, the scientists are not always very good scientists.”

San Andreas, the city-rattling blockbuster in which the state of California suffers the biggest recorded earthquake in history, might star action hero Dwayne Johnson (aka “The Rock”) as the film’s steady heart and soul, but it’s Paul Giamatti who provides the movie’s brains.

As Cal Tech geophysicist Lawrence Hayes, Giamatti gets to deliver the most intelligent lines, which are pretty much the only intelligent lines in a film that’s riddled with cringe-worthy dialogue but loaded with jaw-dropping special effects. From Los Angeles to San Francisco, every major landmark we’ve seen on postcards is either dented, destroyed or seriously threatened—though why Coit Tower survives when the rest of the city crumbles is never explained.

Perhaps Panttaja can explain it. She has a knack for taking complex scientific principles and decoding them so that even regular folks can understand. It was once said of her during a science hike in the San Andreas Fault Zone at Point Reyes, “She knows what a rock is thinking.” I confess that I was the one who said that. Panttaja, in addition to being brilliant and insightful, also happens to be my wife.

“Part of what makes Paul Giamatti a believable scientist in this movie,” she says, “is the sense he gives at the beginning, before the earthquakes have begun, when he’s displaying that thrill-of-the-hunt thing that scientists have when they are working on a problem. The actual science they were doing—something about electromagnetic pulses as a way to predict earthquakes—that was very reasonable science. And yet, he and his collaborator were so thrilled and excited when they started getting results, and then they took off on this adventure to get more data, to go and look at stuff, which is a lot of what science is. It’s looking at stuff. The joy of the science they were doing was so believable and fun to watch. I’ve seen that a million times.

“A lot of people think scientists are boring and serious,” she adds, “but as a scientist myself, I’d say that one of the best things about science is the excitement of the lab, with all the grad students scurrying around in the cramped little offices, and the incredible joy that happens when you’re pulling the data together and starting to see a pattern, and then you just want to run out and get more data. It feels like the best thing in the world, and I thought it rang really true in this movie.”

Ultimately, Panttaja observes, what’s most moving about Giamatti’s character—“mild spoiler alert ahead”—is that he loses his partner when the quakes start happening, and that loss, pardon the pun, shakes him up pretty badly.

“It happens,” Panttaja says. “Science can be dangerous. Certain scientists do take risks, certain geologists go out and investigate things where there are very real dangers. I think of the scientists who died at Mount St. Helens when it erupted. We do occasionally put ourselves in dangerous places to do what we do.”

Though Panttaja’s current work is rarely more hazardous than her drive on 101 to Santa Rosa Junior College, she did her graduate work in Antarctica, where she scaled mountains, dangled into crevasses and trekked through sub-zero temperatures.

“Geologists do die doing their work,” she acknowledges. “They get injured. But they also work as safely as they can. They are not reckless, but they are trying to figure something out, and sometimes that means you lose a good scientist, as happens in the film. I thought Giamatti’s reaction to that was one of the best things in the movie. And when he recognizes that there’s going to be another quake, having just lost somebody, all of that grief turns to heart, and he starts doing everything he can to save people. His humanity comes out in the movie, beautifully, I think.”

Giamatti, in fact, gets to utter what Panttaja believes is the best, most useful lines in the whole film.

“The truest, realest thing in San Andreas is when Giamatti says, ‘Take cover, and hold on!’” she says with a laugh. “He tells people what to do when an earthquake happens. Take cover. Hold on. I loved that, and he said it with so many levels of emotion. It takes a great actor to say, ‘Take cover and hold on,’ and make it scary, comforting and beautiful all at once. I just love that character so much.

“The rest of the movie,” she goes on, “was kind of ridiculous. Like that huge trench near Bakersfield—that was supposed to be the San Andreas Fault? Really? I don’t think so. That just wouldn’t happen. Were talking about a strike-slip fault. The 1906 quake did have ground shift and separate like that, but for very short distances. We’re not going to see gaping holes in the Earth that run for miles and miles so you can’t drive far enough in either direction to get around it.”

Of course, it does give “The Rock” a chance to steal a plane to fly over the trench on his way to save his daughter from a collapsed building in San Francisco, where Coit Tower is still standing.

“I’m glad the murals in the tower were saved,” Panttaja says, “but I really think Coit Tower would go down; at least it would in an earthquake big enough to cause all that other damage.”

And don’t even get Panttaja started on the tsunami that hits the city in the latter part of the film.

“You need vertical displacement to get a tsunami,” she says. “A strike-slip fault is lateral displacement, not vertical, so a tsunami hitting the city after a quake on the San Andreas Fault—that would never happen.”

That scientific impossibility aside, as disaster movies go, Panttaja confesses that she had a good time with San Andreas.

“I must admit it was lots of fun,” she says, adding that, with sales of earthquake supplies having increased by 300 percent following the release of the movie, “Maybe we need a ridiculous disaster movie every three or four years, just to make people think about what they’d do in an emergency.

“And besides,” Panttaja says with a laugh, “sometimes it’s just good fun, and maybe even a little cathartic, to watch everything fall down and go boom.”

Actor-director David Yen on ‘Fury Road’ and bringing new life to old favorites

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Who is Batman’s sidekick?” asks actor-director David Yen, reading aloud from an “electronic waiter” thingamajig perched on the table at Applebee’s. That’s where we’ve landed after catching a screening of Mad Max: Fury Road, but before we can get our conversation started, Yen has been bemusedly distracted by the iPad-like device that Applebee’s now employs to keep its patrons entertained by trivia questions and games. What amuses Yen most is not the Batman question but the four bird-themed, multiple-choice answers suggested by the machine. Only one of them is Robin.

“Sparrow!” Yen exclaims. “Batman’s sidekick was definitely … Sparrow! Wow! That’s really kind of dumb.”

With that, he turns the thingamabob face-down, we briefly ponder the culinary curiosity of something on the menu called “Churro S’mores,” and finally turn our conversation to Mad Max: Fury Road, a rollicking, action-packed crowd-pleaser of a film that’s partly a sequel to the three Mel Gibson films of the 1980s, and partly a re-energized reboot of the entire franchise, with Tom Hardy now stepping into the leather boots of the iconic post-apocalyptic road warrior.

With almost non-stop excitement and some of the most entertainingly over-the-top stunts and action sequences ever put on film, Fury Road is the definition of a big summer blockbuster.

Yen, being an established company member of Marin County’s annual Mountain Play production, knows a thing or two about really big shows. Taking place annually atop Mt. Tamalpais at the massive 3,000-seat Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre, the Mountain Play is without question the biggest indoor-or-outdoor theatrical endeavor in the Bay Area. This year, the Mountain Play is staging the indelible musical adventure Peter Pan, with a visually inventive approach to the timeless story that, according to Yen—who plays Smee, the affable henchman to the villainous pirate Captain Hook—will be unlike anything a Mountain Play audience has ever seen.

Though Peter Pan has little in common with Mad Max, beyond the fact that both feature extraordinary fantasy worlds full of outrageous characters, swashbuckling action and plenty of danger and excitement, the film got Yen thinking about one unlikely connection between the world of live theater and the recent spate of theatrical reboots.

“I usually have a real hard time with reboots of film series,” he says. “I absolutely despised the new Star Trek movies. Whenever there’s a new superhero reboot or some other new version of an old story, I always think, ‘Is there not enough new material out there that we have to keep doing the same things over and over?’ I know there are good writers out there!”

“Each new rebooted series of movies,” I point out, “seems to reinvent the rules of the story, changing things up and usually trashing what made the original fun to begin with.”

“Exactly!” Yen says. “When I first started seeing previews for this new Mad Max film, I was going, ‘Oh, really? That’s MY Mad Max, and I like him the way I remember him. Don’t you dare mess with my Max!’ But then, after you asked me to see Mad Max with you, I started sort of rethinking my position.

“I do theater,” he continues, “and in a way, isn’t all theater essentially a reboot? I guess world premieres of brand new shows would be the exception, but every time a theater artist takes an existing show and stages it, aren’t they basically rebooting it? A director brings his or her vision to it. They hopefully try to bring something fresh to the show while keeping alive what made it worth doing to begin with. So maybe I can understand all of these movie reboots a little better.”

In Mad Max: Fury Road, the story is picked up by original director George Miller—and what he does is not a reinvention so much as a reinvigoration. Set in another corner of the apocalyptic wasteland established in Mad MaxThe Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, this one drops Max—still a man of very few words—into the clutches of a nightmarish cult overseen by a mutant overlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), against whom he eventually sides with the one-armed warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron). What follows is essentially the longest chase-sequence in movie history, featuring Max and Furiosa on a jury-rigged gas tanker being pursued across a desert by hundreds of bald, deformed “war boys” in cars and trucks and motorcycles.

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“It was a total blast!’ Yen says. “And the best thing is that it wasn’t trying to retell or reinvent the mythology. It was just using a new actor to tell a story that totally fits in with the stories in the other movies.”

In the Peter Pan play that opens on the mountain this weekend, there isn’t nearly the same kind of tinkering, but Yen says that the style of the production will be different than others, starting with director Michael Schwartz’s inspiration to capture the essence of how J.M. Barrie came up with the idea of Peter Pan in the first place.

“It’s pretty unique,” Yen says. “Michael said, ‘Let’s just go back to the lake where J.M. Barrie went with the boys he made up these adventures for.’ There are things you can do in a small theater—things like blackouts—that you can’t do on the mountain at two in the afternoon, so Michael has envisioned this Peter Pan as taking place at a camp in the Adirondacks, with the story popping to life in the imagination as the characters basically build Neverland out of ladders and crazy stuff all around them. It’s all about play and creativity and the limitlessness of the imagination. It’s very, very cool, and very much based in the art of making-believe.”

There are some surprises in the show so big that Yen elects to keep quiet about them.

“They are, after all, ‘surprises,” he says.

We talk for a while about other “alternative visions” brought to classic shows, and how many favorites, especially Shakespeare plays, often are set in post-apocalyptic, Road Warrior-style worlds.

“I even heard of a production of The Pirates of Penzance set in a post-apocalyptic world,” I tell Yen, who responds to this idea with mock, open-mouthed silence, before simply shaking his head.

“Well, I suppose someone could try to do a post-apocalyptic Peter Pan some day,” he says with a laugh, “but this one definitely isn’t that. It’s not a ‘reboot,’ so much as it’s a reimagining. The story’s still there. The songs are all there. And Peter definitely still flies.”

“But there are no mutant gas-pirates on motorcycles?” I ask.

“Definitely not,” Yen says with a laugh. “But … we do have pirates. Lots of pirates!”

But none, we can hope, named Jack Sparrow. Who, come to think of it, would make a great sidekick for Batman.

Anything is possible.

Map-making entrepreneur Barbara Harrison examines probability of ‘Jurassic World’

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“I personally, can barely walk in high heels,” says Barbara Harrison, “let alone run through swamps. Watching cloned dinosaurs romping at a theme park only barely stretched my sense of credibility, but that woman running around through the whole movie in high heels—that definitely defied logic.”

Barbara Harrison is co-owner of Tom Harrison Maps, a Marin-based company that makes detailed topographical maps of state parks, forests and wilderness areas for use by hikers, backpackers and adventure-seekers, some of whom might jump at the chance to walk among living dinosaurs, like the ones in the new movie Jurassic World, but none of whom would do so in the kind of footwear worn by Bryce Dallas Howard as the executive in charge of the park.

“Also, my husband Tom used to be a park ranger,” Harrison adds, “and we lived on Angel Island for a while. Bringing 20,000 people onto an island the size of the one in Jurassic World—it’s just not possible. There is no way they would have the facility to accommodate all those people and still have room for dinosaurs.

“But that’s just my two cents worth.”

Harrison sees a lot of movies … when she’s not traveling the world. And even then she sometimes takes time to see a film or two. Sometimes serving as spokesperson and media representative for her family’s ever-thriving and popular map company (tomharrisonmaps.com), Harrison nonetheless considers herself retired, leaving lots of time to pursue her cinematic and globe-hopping interests. Call her a professional movie-going hobbyist, with tastes that run the gamut from artsy foreign films—especially those from or about Iran, where she spent part of her childhood—all the way to big Hollywood blockbusters.

Not that she doesn’t have standards. For example, she did not originally plan to see Jurassic World, which has already become the summer’s biggest hit, devouring box offices all over the world.

“I see these previews for films that are either sequels, or remakes of other films,” she explains, “and they’ve all started looking like the same movie. There are explosions, and there are fights, and you can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. So when I saw that Jurassic World was coming, I thought, ‘Another sequel! Do I really want to waste my time with this?’” Then she saw Mad Max: Fury Road, yet another sequel/reboot, which she caught in 3D on the recommendation of friends.

Though she ultimately disliked the film—“I liked the original Mad Max movies much better,” she says—there was a trailer for Jurassic World during the previews, and Harrison was quite taken at how good the 3D dinosaurs looked.

“I sat there with my glasses on going, ‘Wow! That actually looks kind of amazing. And Tom wanted to see it, so I thought, ‘OK, as long as we see it in 3D.’ I like 3D. I especially enjoy animated 3D movies, because they tend to be done in bright colors, which tend to come through even with the 3D glasses on, which often make movies look dark. That didn’t bother me so much with Jurassic World though, because it’s kind of a dark movie. It has a dark theme, and you are sort of in the jungle.

“And those dinosaurs,” she adds. “In 3D, they really do pop off the screen.”

A scary thought, that.

“The thing is, I will see pretty much anything,” she says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t say it was my favorite action movie of the year, but it was enjoyable enough. I have to say though, I’ve noticed lately that there just aren’t as many good movies as there used to be. Even amongst the big summertime action films. So maybe it doesn’t take as much to stand out from the pack as it used to, because the pack is not what it used to be.”

There’s a survival-of-the-fittest, dinosaur vs. dinosaur metaphor in there somewhere, and it’s hard to disagree with Harrison’s summation. For the record, by the way, her actual favorite action film of the year so far is Kingsmen: The Secret Service.

“I thought it was a hoot,” she admits. “And I thought the theme of exploding heads was just hilarious!”

As for Jurassic World, in which the original plans for a theme park have been realized, drawing 20,000 people a day to an island crammed with hotels, rides and a bunch of dinosaurs, Harrison appreciated more than just the 3D photography. She loved the setting, as much of the movie had been filmed in Hawaii.

“We started going in the ’70s, on the cheap,” she says of the Aloha State. “The first time we went we found a place two blocks from the beach for $12 a night. And then, shortly after that they built the military hotel on Waikiki, and we always try to go there if we can get in, because it’s the only green space left in Waikiki, and it’s cheap—compared to other hotels in Waikiki, anyway. Oahu is my favorite island, and some of the scenes in Jurassic World, I noticed, were filmed there, though most of it was filmed on Kauai. I actually liked the movie Aloha, despite its problems, because I just like movies about Hawaii, because it’s fun to see movies about places I’ve been.

“I like Iranian movies for the same reason.”

Harrison attended the American High School in Iran, in the ’60s.

“We just got back from a trip to Iran, the first time I’ve been back since I lived there,” she says. “I love it when I see a movie and get to say to myself, ‘Oooh. I know that place. I’ve been there. It feels like home. That’s a very special feeling.”

Even if there are genetically modified dinosaur clones chasing people through all that familiar scenery?

“Well, if the dinosaurs are in 3D,” Harrison says with a laugh, “then yes, definitely. Even then.”

Just don’t try to teach those dinosaurs to walk in high heels.

The natural world can only take so much abuse.