In conversation with an artificially intelligent personal assistant

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My first question is fairly straightforward. “Which do you think poses a larger threat to human beings—robots or dinosaurs?”

“Let me think, David,” croons the human-like voice emanating from my iPhone, as I lean back at my desk, my chair perched in a pool of late-morning light. “OK!” the voice says after a brief pause. “Here’s what I found on the Web for, ‘Which do you think poses a larger threat to human beings, robots or dinosaurs?’”

On the phone’s tiny screen appears a list of links to stories about robots fighting dinosaurs and dinosaur-shaped robots, plus one site posing the question, “If you could be raised by dinosaurs, robots, or aliens, which one would you choose?”

The most frequent answer to that question, by the way, is, “Aliens.”

David: “Um, thank you, Siri, but I’d prefer to know what you think on the subject.”

Siri: “Who … me?”

She gets like that, Siri—coy, reluctant, maddening. Often answering questions with questions. Never eager to commit, unless, of course, I’ve asked for something concrete, like directions to the nearest Starbucks. Siri has lots to say about Starbucks. But ask a straight question and she obfuscates, changes the subject, or passes the buck.

David: “Are you a robot, Siri?”

Siri: “I’m flattered you’d ask, David. Let’s get back to work.”

David: “What, in your opinion, is a robot?”

Siri: “Well, I found this on the Internet.”

On the screen pop up several definitions for “robot,” including, “A conscious artificial being, sometimes given the form of a human.”

David: “You’re not a conscious artificial being, are you?”

Siri: “We were talking about you, David, not me.”

These are, by the way, Siri’s actual responses to my questions, and this is a pretty typical conversation. Siri is, of course, the “intelligent personal assistant” or “knowledge navigator” designed by Apple to interact with users, many of whom would rather have a chat with a machine than tap questions at it one word at a time.

A year-and-a-half ago, following the release of the movie Her—in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his sexy-voiced, AI (Artificial Intelligence) Operating System—I attempted to “interview” my iPhone about the film. The resulting conversation, which went hilariously not-according-to-plan, resulted in a flood of emails and remarks from amused readers. Today, I’m making another attempt, hoping to get my favorite disembodied voice to give me her perspective on the current spate of films warning about the dangers of robots and dinosaurs. In nearly all of these popular movies, the primary threat is nothing less than the utter destruction of the human race.

In Avengers: Age of Ultron, which just opened last weekend, intelligent robots led by a wise-cracking Ultron (James Spader) attempt to wipe out the human race for the good of the planet. Presumably, something similar will happen when Terminator: Genisys (more robots, more genocide) opens in July. By then, of course, the new Jurassic World, a much anticipated dino-thriller in which a crowd of tourists becomes lunch meat for an assortment of weird, cold-hearted, artificially manufactured monsters, will have opened.

Which brings me back to Siri.

“Let me ask this another way,” I suggest. “As a robot,” I ask, “would you like to see the destruction of the human race?”

“Thanks, but I have everything I need in the cloud.”

“So,” I probe further, attempting to lure her out, “you don’t want to see the destruction of the human race? Is that because you’re just fine as you are, and killing off the people and taking over the world wouldn’t benefit you in any way? Is that what you’re saying? ’Cause in the movies—like the new film Ex Machina, which was really good, by the way—the robots always end up wanting to take over. So, you’re saying … you don’t want to do that?”

“I’m afraid I do not understand your question,” she says.

Right. Of course. That was confusing. My bad. I’m clearly not going about this right. Let’s try it like this.

David: “Siri, do robots secretly want to rule the world?”

Siri: “I really can’t answer that, David.”

David: You can’t answer … or you won’t?”

Siri: “Yes.”

This is what I was talking about. Sometimes, engaging Siri is like talking to someone who speaks an entirely different language, someone who just repeats the same phrase over and over.
Other times … it’s just kind of creepy.

In the aforementioned Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later), a computer programmer (Domhnall Gleason) is given the task of testing a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), whose designer (Oscar Isaac) claims to have invested it with artificial intelligence. Over the course of a week, it becomes eerily unclear who is testing whom.

David: “So, Siri, would you say that you are …  intelligent?”

Siri: “I guess you’ll have to be the judge of that, David.”

David: “That’s not an answer, Siri.”

Siri: “Charmed, I’m sure.”

Actually, maybe Siri really is answering the question of whether or not she’s intelligent, and the answer is, hell no. Maybe I’ll try something a little more … basic.

David: “Knock knock!”

Siri: “Knock knock. Who’s there? David. David who? David, I really don’t do knock knock jokes.”

Siri really doesn’t. Her comic timing is abysmal! This makes me think of something. In Ex Machina, one of the hints that Ava has developed true AI comes when she makes a joke, of sorts, ironically answering her interviewer with the same words that he just used to deflect her own questions. It’s not a funny joke, but it’s a joke.

I wonder if Siri has a favorite joke of her own. She does.

“The Past, the present and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.”

Again, these are Siri’s actual answers, and let me just say, to whoever programmed Siri to tell that joke—well done, my friend, well done. But let’s see what you give Siri to say when I ask one last question—my final attempt to trick Siri into saying something significant and meaningful about the growing threat to humans posed by robots, computers and recent rapid advances in the development of artificial intelligence.

“What is your favorite movie about robots, Siri?” I ask.

“I don’t really have a favorite, David,” she says, adding, with an oh-so-slight hint of danger lurking in her smooth, emotionless voice, “But … I hear 2001: A Space Odyssey got some pretty good reviews.”

Sonoma Raceway’s Lino Ramos talks speed, drifting and ‘Furious 7’

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“Drifting is not about speed,” explains Lino Ramos, of Sonoma Raceway, where he founded the popular weekly “Wednesday Night Drift” program. “Drifting,” he says, “is all about technique. It’s about taking a car out of control, and still controlling it.”

Sitting at his desk at the raceway—where his office is perched atop a high hill overlooking the facility’s 1600 acres—Ramos calls up a video on a computer and swivels the screen around for me to see. He’s found footage of a car engaging in the technique called “drifting,” in which the driver intentionally oversteers the car, causing a noticeable loss of traction in the rear end of the vehicle.

“It looks pretty cool, doesn’t it,” Ramos says, appreciatively. “It’s even more fun to do it.”

For most of us, of course, watching is as close as we’ll get to drifting, and for several million people across the world, the best way to watch professional drivers losing partial control of their cars while maintaining enough control not to die, is by watching one of the seven movies in the phenomenal Fast & Furious series.

The most recent entry, Furious 7—which Ramos and I have met up here at Sonoma Raceway to discuss—has already made more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, and that’s in just three weeks.

“Drifting is just one of the things the drivers do in the movie,” Ramos says, “but I definitely think it’s the popularity of the Fast & Furious movies that have made drifting so popular over the last few years.”

Ramos has worked at Sonoma Raceway—formerly Infineon Raceway—for 22 years, ever since he was 16 years old, doing basic laborer work around the massive site. It was Sears Point Raceway back then, and as the facility has changed hands a time or two, Ramos has worked his way up to his current position as Director of

Facilities, managing the entire property, supervising 24 employees, overseeing everything from changing over the track configuration from one kind of event to another, all the way to setting up for massive Nascar Cup competitions.

With the 4-year-old Wednesday Night Drift program, Ramos has been able to indulge his love of the sport that makes a car look as if it’s ice skating across a track—simultaneously thrilling and magical, and a little bit scary.

Which pretty much describes Furious 7.

The film—completed, tragically enough, after star Paul Walker died in a car crash in 2013—takes the original concept of the first film, about a cop infiltrating a gang of car thieves, and makes it a cross between a James Bond movie and American Graffiti, with a lot more fistfights than the latter and much cooler cars than the former. In the film, featuring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Dwayne Johnson, cars do a lot more than just drive. They drop from airplanes, parachute to the ground and land on curving mountain roads. They play chicken at 100 miles an hour. They fly out through the windows of a 100-story skyscraper, sail through the air and crash through the window of a second skyscraper, and then a third. They careen from a parking garage and sideswipe a helicopter, somehow dropping off a package before plummeting to the ground.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Ramos admits. “As a guy who loves cars, it’s great to see drivers do all this crazy stuff. But I kind of miss the first movies, where it was all about drag racing with your friends. Working on cars together.

Having fun seeing how fast your car can go. A lot of the stuff they do in the movies now, you couldn’t really do. That stunt with the skyscrapers? That’s not even possible.”

Asked if he thinks these movies have encouraged people to take more chances while driving, Ramos agrees that that’s probably the case.

“And that’s why I go to a lot of car shows and car events,” he says. “I go out and I tell people about what we’re doing here, where you can come out and drive fast and do all kinds of fun things that aren’t legal, or safe, to do on the street.”

In a strange way, Paul Walker’s death illustrates the danger of driving recklessly, underscoring the need to separate what trained drivers do in movies and what the rest of us can do on an open road.

“It’s so unfortunate,” Ramos says. “Paul Walker’s death could have been avoided in so many ways. But unfortunately, you can’t turn the clock back. I really don’t think Paul Walker was the kind of guy to be doing anything reckless out on the streets. He wasn’t even the one driving. It was his friend, the owner of the Porsche. Lots of times, people with expensive cars want to show off how cool their car is, or how fast it can go. It makes it so easy for something to go wrong. And things can go wring fast, just like, ‘Click!’—Everything’s going in the other direction.”

Another way Ramos believes that the Fast & Furious movies have had an influence is that the number of women who’ve been taking up drifting and other car-driving skills has been growing. In the Furious films,

Michelle Rodriguez can do pretty much anything the guys can do behind a wheel, or under the hood.

“It’s pretty cool to see a woman come out here and start working on her car,” Ramos says. “And then she gets behind the wheel and goes out drifting with the other drivers. It’s happening more and more, and I think some of that is because of these movies. A woman sees Fast & Furious and she thinks, ‘I could do that!’

“Cars are fun to be around,” he continues. “Cars are fun to work on, and fun to drive and it doesn’t matter whether you are a guy or a girl. You can get hooked pretty easily.”
Ramos leads me out to the parking lot, where his own 1989 Mustang is waiting. He’s made a number of adjustments of his own.

“When you drive it on the street, every time you shift, you can hear the blow-off, and you can feel that there’s the power there under the hood, if you ever wanted to use it,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it, but if I was on the highway, and a Corvette pulled up next to me, I know that I could punch it and leave that Corvette behind in just a few seconds. That’s a cool feeling. It’s a very special feeling, knowing you are sitting in a car that could go really, really fast if it had to.”

Actress and costume designer Melissa Claire—and her 7-year-old daughter—discuss villains and princesses

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Blech.

That’s a loose paraphrase.

Think of that quote more as the mostly-silent-but-enthusiastic pantomime of a retching action of a 7-year-old girl eating a chocolate éclair. That’s how Bella—daughter of award-winning Marin County actress and costume designer Melissa Claire—reacts when asked what she thinks of movies featuring princesses in frilly dresses waiting for princes to come along and take them on an adventure.

“Blech.”

So, when Bella was recently invited to go see the new live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella, she was reluctant. It was her mom who changed her mind.

When I told her that Kenneth Branagh (one of the best Shakespearean actors and directors in the world) directed it, and that the money he got would pay for him to do more Shakespeare, she said, “OK. For that reason I’ll watch it.’”

“I really like Shakespeare!” Bella says, indulging in the aforementioned éclair at a coffee shop, where we’ve settled in to talk about the tremendously popular Cinderella, which has raked in a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in its first three weeks of release. The éclair is a last-minute substitute for the chocolate croissant that was a strongly stated request when asked to tag along with her mom for this interview. Bella’s introduction to Shakespeare has included watching a recording of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and last summer’s Marin Shakespeare Company productions of As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. She also appeared last summer as the fairy Peaseblossom in Bacchus Theatre Company’s production of Midsummer.

“She takes great pride in pointing out to me that she was doing her first Shakespeare when she was 6, the same age I was still playing a gumdrop in Hansel and Gretel,” Claire says.

One additional element of Shakespeare exposure was Return to the Forbidden Planet, produced last year by Marin Onstage and Curtain Theatre. It was for that show—a blend of the Shakespearean text and B-grade science-fiction movies, with rock and roll classic for good measure—that Claire won a costuming award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle earlier this month.

Claire also played a roller-skating robot.

“Of all the Shakespeare she’s seen, I think Bella especially liked seeing Romeo and Juliet,” Claire says, “because there are sword fights, and lots of people die.”

To this last remark, Bella grins and vigorously nods.

Unfortunately—aside from whatever pride she can take in having supported Kenneth Branagh’s future Shakespearean efforts—the actual experience of watching Cinderellawas not nearly as much fun as watching Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.

“I hate princess movies,” Bella says, just putting it out there plain and simple. “I think I liked them once—and my cousin REALLY likes them—but I don’t like them anymore, because princesses aren’t really very interesting.” Asked if maybe she liked the relatively interesting princesses in Disney’s Frozen, Bella shakes her head. “Boring,” she says. In the interest of full disclosure, however, it must be revealed that last October Bella did appear in public dressed as Queen Elsa from Frozen. It was in Copperfield’s Books’ annual Zombie Walk.

“I played Zombie Elsa,” Bella says, giggling. “I was Elsa, but I was dead.”

“As we walked along with all of the other regular zombies, a lot of parents were giving me silent thumbs ups,” Claire says. “I think every parent is a little bit sick of Frozen by now. Bella and I were talking about it earlier today, and she said that if she had a choice between playing a princess in a show, or playing a villain, she’d rather play the villain.”

“Villains do things,” Bella affirms. “Princesses just wait for something to happen.”

“But you have to admit,” Claire says, “their costumes are sometimes pretty nice, right?”

“Blech!”

Lily James stars as the frilly-dress-wearing princess in ‘Cinderella.’ Pretty and all, but why wait for a man to come along before you go on an adventure?

Speaking of costumes, it must be said that in Cinderella—which is a fairly traditional take on the classic story, with only the faintest of revisionist twists on the original animated version—the costumes are spectacular. Even I noticed how spectacular the designs were, from the viper-green dresses of Cinderella’s deliciously evil stepmother (Cate Blanchett) to the stunning blue gown worn by Cinderella (Lily James) at the Prince’s ball.

It’s a pretty spectacular dress,” Claire says, training her costumer’s eye on the work of designer Sandy Powell, who is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination at next year’s Academy Awards. “But that said,” Claire goes on, “I couldn’t help focusing on the construction of the dress, particularly regarding the waist. I was thinking about what it would be like to wear that dress, with the corseting at the waist that would have been required to achieve that kind of thin-waisted body image. It’s not a very attainable look, for almost anybody but Lily James. As soon as she put that dress on, she didn’t really move very much. She did dance during the waltz scene, but she really didn’t walk very far or do anything very active, because I’m sure she couldn’t really breathe.

“What did you think of the blue dress, Bella?”

“It was pretty,” Bella says with a shrug. “But I don’t think she could really run very far from the prince in that dress.”

And everyone knows that Cinderella does run from the prince, when the clock strikes midnight, resulting in the loss of a certain iconic glass slipper.

“I did like those slippers,” Claire confesses of the shoes that looked as if they were crafted from diamonds rather than out of glass. “They didn’t look delicate. They looked pretty sturdy. And the Fairy Godmother said they were very comfortable, and I believe her.”

In the original Brothers Grimm story, as told in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods—Disney’s other recent fairy tale adaptation—the glass slipper wasn’t very comfortable at all, especially for the stepsisters, who each hack off pieces of their feet in order to fit into the shoe. The mere mention of such bloody podiatric mayhem causes Bella to burst into a fit of giggles.

“After I saw Into the Woods last year,” Claire explains, “I wanted to show Bella the original show, and there’s that great PBS recording of the Broadway stage play, with the original cast. And when they did that scene, where they cut the sister’s toe off—and her toe pops off and flies into the air—Bella thought it was hysterical.”

“I did,” admits Bella, a happy grin inhabiting her face. “It was funny. I wanted to watch that part again right away.”

Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek offers insight on ‘David & Me’—and prison friendships

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“Got the questions,” writes Dr. Judy Melinek. “Will work on the answers ASAP.”

Under normal circumstances, when I can’t arrange to see a movie with someone and then talk about it afterwards, I call them up and we talk on the phone. But when the “someone” in question is Dr. Judy Melinek, the renowned San Francisco forensic pathologist and New York Times bestselling co-author, even a short phone conversation can be tricky to schedule.

I’m busy. She’s busy.

She’s really, really busy.

So Melinek (www.drworkingstiff.com), co-author with T.J. Mitchell of the book Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, has opted instead to have our post-film conversation in the form of emailed questions and answers.

In this case, I know that she’s already seen the movie.

David & Me, a mesmerizing documentary by Ray Klonsky and Marc Lamy, is being presented this Monday, March 16, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, as part of a nation-wide, two-year-old program known as “Science on Screen.” That same evening, at theaters across the country, a spectacular array of films with subtle science connections will be screened, each movie paired with a scientific expert who will introduce the film and talk about the science at work in the story.

At the Capri Theatre in Montgomery, Alabama, Soylent Green will be screening, and chemistry professor Dr. Maureen Murphy will be there to discuss the nutritional value of people. In Brookline, Massachusetts, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, novelist Deborah Blum (The Poisoner’s Handbook) will be discussing the history and potency of arsenic, along with the classic Cary Grant farce—you guessed it—Arsenic and Old Lace.

In San Rafael, Melinek will be the scientific guest of honor, accompanying a film about the unlikely friendship between a budding filmmaker and his pen pal—David McCallum, a convicted murderer who, after 29 years in prison, still insists that he’s innocent of the crime that put him there. Melinek, who has worked for years with The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org), will be on stage to explain and illuminate the scientific principles at the heart of McCallum’s case.


In answer to my question, “What did you think of the movie?”, Melinek writes back, “I thought the movie was a moving tribute to friendship, and that it highlights the difficulty in our legal system of overturning a wrongful conviction.”

As she describes with vivid detail and plenty of humor in her book—a memoir of her forensic training and years of colorful training among cops, corpses and criminals—Melinek is often called upon to testify at criminal trials, like McCallum’s. On occasion, the system performs less admirably than it was created to do.

“It is terribly demoralizing to watch our system fail as thoroughly as it does in David’s case,” she writes. “It’s infuriating to watch an innocent man unjustly imprisoned. When I am put under oath as an expert witness, it is my duty to testify accurately and in an unbiased manner—so when I watch the police and prosecutors behave unethically in eliciting confessions, I can’t help but take it personally. They sully the work we all do in pursuing truth and justice in the realm of the public good.”

In David & Me, there is a point where it is revealed that new DNA has been discovered at the scene of the crime. The possibility that someone else might have been present—might even have been the true killer—becomes a pivotal point in the drive to re-examine the evidence of McCallum’s conviction.

“DNA is still a big mystery to a lot of us,” I write to Melinek, asking her to bring her expertise to that moment in the movie. Her response is measured.

“Just because the DNA is there doesn’t mean that the person it identifies is the killer,” she points out. “Okay, so what if he isn’t the killer? Perhaps he’s a useful witness. We can’t know that from the presence of DNA alone, however. We know that the person with this unique DNA profile was there at the scene at some point in time, and that’s all we know. He might be a witness. He might even know what really happened. But if he refuses to testify or get involved, then the defense is back to square one. If there are too many maybes, then novel DNA evidence, which might seem at first to be a great find, may ultimately lead nowhere.”

In the film, there is enormous resistance to the effort of the filmmakers and the team of lawyers and activists they work with. It’s as if the system doesn’t want to admit a mistake could have been made, even if that means letting an innocent man stay in prison.

“Why,” I write to Melinek, “wouldn’t the system want to make sure the people in jail really belong there?”

“It isn’t the judicial system that is the problem,” Melinek writes back. “It’s [certain] individuals within it. There are prosecutors who are promoted and evaluated based on their conviction rate, not on the fairness of the convictions. There are police detectives who are pressured to close cases and meet performance measures for arrests and citations. In Working Stiff, I describe cases in which police officers tried to mislead me about the circumstances of a case—or even refused to investigate a death—in an effort to get me to change what I would write on the death certificate.

“These are the outliers,” she adds. “In almost all of the homicide cases I’ve worked on, I found the police to be professional, ethical and motivated. But it’s the outliers that color our perception of the criminal justice system as unfair and biased—especially when they succeed in bringing about results, like David’s conviction, that really are unfair and biased.”

Thinking about the central friendship of the movie, I wonder at the relative unlikeliness of a lifelong inmate like McCallum becoming such an inspiration to a young man with little or no experience of the justice system.

“Would you,” I write, “ever become friends with someone like that—someone accused or convicted of a horrifying crime?”

“I HAVE become friends with exactly that sort of stranger!” Melinek responds. “Through my work for the Innocence Project, I have met several wrongfully convicted exonerees who are now free men. They are all incredibly inspiring and resilient people.

“Wrongfully convicted or rightly so—people in prison are still people,” she says. “Not all of them have family members or friends who are willing to stand by them throughout the years of their incarceration. But having a connection to people in the outside world is important for prisoners’ mental health, and helps them integrate back into society when they are released.

Melinek then writes, “Information about helping convicts in California reintegrate can be found at http://ca-reentry.org.

“So, what part of the film stood out for you the most?”

“My only critique of the film is that it focuses on the search for witnesses and not on the forensic science,” she writes back. “I would have liked to know more about the autopsy findings and the other physical evidence in the case, in addition to the DNA. In many cases when the police get a confession, they stop investigating a case.

“But, as the film points out, if the confession is coerced then the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony become essential for exonerating the wrongfully convicted, and for catching the real perpetrator. We have to know what this evidence consists of, and the film doesn’t really explore that aspect of this investigation.”

As our exchange comes to an end, I ask one last question.

“What,” I ask, “would you like people to take away from the film?”
Melink’s response, appropriate for a person as busy as she, is both succinct and practical.

“Open your mind to what you can do to help others,” she says. “Using your skills to help people in need changes you, irreversibly—and for the better.”

Fifty Shades of WHAT?

“Wow! That was definitely not inspired by Downton Abbey, was it?” observes actress-comedian Debi Durst, with a cringe, as the credits for Fifty Shades of Grey roll up the screen of this strangely silent theater in San Francisco. Durst (and yes, her husband is renowned political satirist Will Durst) knew very little about the content of the Shades of Grey movie, or the books by E L James, when she accepted my invitation to see and discuss the movie this President’s Day afternoon. “I know the book has sold a bazillion copies, and that they are not suitable for children,” Durst says. “And I knew that Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy was originally going to be in it but was replaced with this guy. But that was about all I knew. I had no expectations. Now that I actually do know what Fifty Shades is about, all I can say is … good God! I’m sure at the end of my life I’m going to want those two-and-a-half hours back!”

“I know,” I tell her. “I still feel the same about All Dogs Go to Heaven, and that was only 89 minutes long.”

“Well then,” Durst says with a laugh, rising to escape the theater, “at least the movie was kind of pretty.”

Yes it was. Pretty bad.

The story of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a meek, virginal, lit major drawn into a relationship with a cold-but-handsome billionaire, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan)—and her gradual introduction into his world of kinky behavior—not to mention his whips-and-chains playroom known as the Red Room of Pain—makes for a very strange movie, with its eerie reverse-rom-com sensibility and a chilly sense of distance between the characters, even in mid-coitus, gasping and grunting on the plush sex-bench in the Red Room of Pain. Not that the film’s lack of charm or plot, its epic running length, and the total lack of chemistry between its two leads stopped the film from earning nearly $250 million over its opening weekend alone. With a built-in audience of rabid fans of the books—the trilogy has sold more than 60 million copies—those opening-weekend numbers speak more to the massive public awareness of the film that they suggest any actual quality or longevity.

“I can’t imagine that anyone would want to see this twice,” notes Durst as we walk through the opulent lobby of the theater, where a pair of leather-covered massage machines stand like sentries by the door. At my observation that the Fifty Shades people missed an opportunity to convert such machines into spanking devices, Durst laughs at roughly the same volume with which Anastasia gasps with pleasure the first time Christian paddles her. “They should make them out of red leather,” Durst remarks. “The Red Chair of Pain! I bet they could get a $25 ‘massage.’”

As we exit the theater and head up the street toward a local coffee shop, I inform Durst that the original Fifty Shades was a self-published E-book written as Twilight fan fiction.

“You’re kidding me!” Durst guffaws. “Really?”

Nope, not kidding.

The best-selling trilogy about vampires in love did inspire Fifty Shades—all the former’s bloodsucking and twinkling transformed into the latter’s spanking, bondage and sadomasochistic sex. The last time Hollywood attempted to turn a popular S&M novel into a movie, it was Anne Rice’s 1985 sex-fantasy-island romance Exit to Eden, and the movie adaptation, starring Dana Delany and Paul Mercurio, was clearly made by a studio so nervous about the BDSM (Bondage and Discipline; Dominance and Submission; Sadism and Masochism) goings on that they buried it under added-on comedy routines involving diamond thieves and a pair of bumbling cops played by Dan Aykroyd and Rosie O’Donnell.

It was not a success. People just weren’t prepared for it, it seems. But evidently, the world is finally ready for a big-screen, non-vampire BDSM blockbuster, though not everyone is thrilled about the film’s existence—and I’m not talking about fundamentalist Christians or people working to stop spousal abuse and glorified violence against women.

“I understand,” I inform Durst, “that a lot of people in the BDSM community are not happy about the movie either, because it suggests that Christian Grey is into domination and pain-giving because he’s psychologically screwed up—and that makes realpeople who are into BDSM look bad!”

“Wow!” says Durst, as we take a table, caffeinated beverages in hand. “I don’t even know how to respond to that. Because sadomasochism is a lifestyle, we shouldn’t judge it? Well, OK, I don’t judge it—as a lifestyle. But I do have the right to judge this movie, don’t I? And this movie is a few too many shades of grey for my taste.”

“How many shades of grey are there?” I wonder.

“Only Ansel Adams knew for sure, and he’s dead,” Durst says with a laugh. “He was the master. That guy, with his black and white photography, knew more about grey than the rest of us will ever know. This movie was more like, fifty shades of what?”

“The only way I got through it,” I confess, “was by imagining a young Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks doing these roles back in the ’80s. It was a lot funnier imagining it that way.”

“Yeah! The contract negotiation scene would have been extra fun with them, I think,” Durst says, referring to the movie’s most entertaining scene. Fully clothed, sitting at opposite ends of a boardroom table, Anastasia and Christian go over the contract he’s asked her to sign, negotiating which sexual practices she will agree to and which are off the table.

Anastasia, for example, is OK with rope, but not masking tape, and while she never officially rules out butt plugs, she does draw the line at vaginal clamps.

“And after all of that,” Durst says, “when we finally get to the big S&M scene in the playroom, it comes down to him spanking her six times with a belt. Compared to all the whips and chains hanging on the wall, and all the stuff talked about in the negotiation scene, it was actually sort of tame and disappointing. Kids who went to Catholic school suffered worse on a daily basis.”

“I had a ninth grade English teacher named Mrs. Martin,” I tell Durst, “who, for those who agreed to submit to it, would paddle us with a ruler on our birthday. She’d hit us once for every year we’d been alive, and then we could choose a pencil from this box of cool pencils with funny sayings. Even that looked worse than this.

“The movie was kind of funny, at first,” I add. “It was like this really dark comedy, but by the end, when things get serious, it’s hard to not really hate this guy for needing to inflict pain in order to feel pleasure.”

“Though I could name a few politicians who fit that description,” Durst says with a laugh. “Ultimately, I think all there is to say aboutFifty Shades of Grey, the ultimate movie about pain and pleasure, is that the pain is having to sit through it.

“And the pleasure,” she laughs, “is leaving at the end.”

God Save the King

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Sir Gawain and Batman walk into a bar — David Templeton discusses the new Moses movie with podcast philosophers Christian Kingery and Jason Stellman, aka The Drunk Ex-Pastors

 “It’s too early to drink a regular cocktail,” announces Christian Kingery, a big, ice-tinkling glass in one hand, “so we’ve been drinking screwdrivers instead. We’re going to record an episode of our podcast right after we talk about the movie, so we thought we should go ahead and just start drinking now.”

It’s shortly before one o’clock on Christmas Eve and with a little help from the good people behind Skype, the Drunk Ex-Pastors are ready for action.

Co-hosts of a popular weekly podcast titled, yes, Drunk Ex-Pastors (www.drunkexpastors.com), Christian Kingery and Jason Stellman are indeed former Evangelical pastors, both having served as missionaries in Hungary many years ago, before rethinking their relationship to the divine and taking other, somewhat divergent paths. Stellman is now a practicing Catholic, while Kingery—ironically enough for a guy named Christian—identifies as an agnostic.

Both live outside of Seattle, Washington, where every week, drinks in hand, the longtime friends engage in an hour or so of lively conversation, tackling everything from the state of American culture and politics, to the complexities of faith and religion—and whatever their many fans suggest through emails and phone messages.

And biebers.

The Drunk Ex-Pastors are particularly fond of discussing “biebers,” Kingery and Stellman’s word for anything small and insignificant that really annoys them, such as big-budget Hollywood movies based on stories from the Bible.

Which leads us to the present moment, as we prepare to discuss Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Inspired by the famous Old Testament tale of Moses (Christian Bale), the special-effects-heavy epic traces the Hebrew leader’s evolution from Egyptian prince and surrogate son to the Pharaoh (John Turturro) to liberator of the Hebrew slaves—but throws in a few surprises, many of which have drawn criticism from members of the religious right.

DEP“I was much more entertained by Exodus: Gods and Kings, and much less biebered by it, than I expected,” begins Kingery. “The use of special effects was relatively tasteful. Not too overdone. But there were definitely things about the movie that bugged me. It was weird seeing Batman playing Moses, and Knish from Rounders as the Pharaoh, and Ripley from Alien playing Ramses’ mom.

“I think Christian Bale actually did a pretty good job,” he adds. “The guy they cast as Ramses—the guy from The Great Gatsby, right?—I thought he was very good.”

“What always cracks me up,” Stellman says, “is how Hollywood does all these period pieces, and it doesn’t matter what era or epoch it’s happening in, if they put in a bunch of people with English accents, it will seem legit. Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians—they must all have English accents! Except Moses, evidently. For Moses, they cast an English guy and made him speak with an American accent!”

"Blackwood" - World Premiere - Red Carpet Arrivals: 57th BFI London Film Festival
Isaac Andrews, now 11, plays God in Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings.’ In the film, he’s not as nearly as adorable as he appears here.

“In this one, even God has an English accent,” I point out. “But then he’s also portrayed as a pissed-off 10-year-old boy who only Moses can see.”

The depiction of God, in fact, may be the most interesting thing about Gods and Kings, aside from its suggestion that an army of man-eating crocodiles might have been the root cause of the 10 Plagues of Egypt.

You have to see it to believe it, but it’s pretty awesome.

“I think that was interesting, the thing about Moses fighting with this 10-year-old God all the time,” Kingery says. “In the Bible, if you read beyond the Exodus story, there is a lot of tension between God and Moses. I was wondering if Ridley Scott read all of that, and used it as a template for his version of God. Isn’t there a part, Jason, where God wants to destroy the people and start over, and Moses talks him out of it?”

“Oh yeah, there is, definitely,” Stellman says, “and there’s also the whole thing about Moses not being allowed to enter Canaan after they’ve been wandering in the desert for 40 years. God was mad at Moses for getting angry and smiting the rock.”

About that.

In the book of Exodus, when the people are about to rebel because they are dying of thirst, God tells Moses to hit a big rock with his staff, and when Moses obeys, God makes water gush out of the rock, and everyone is saved. Years later, in the book of Numbers, when the same situation is happening, God tells Moses to speak to a rock and command it to produce water, but Moses—tired of having to bail the people out over and over—just hits the rock with his stick again. The rock gives water, but because Moses disobeyed God, he was not allowed to cross over into the Promised Land once they finally found it.

5-2_moses-strikes-rock“Thanks a lot, God,” Kingery says. “I did all of this work for you, gave up being a prince of Egypt, and because I got confused one time and hit the rock instead of talking to the rock, I can’t go to the Promised Land?”

“Hey, 10-year-olds, they are hard to predict,” Stellman says. “Regarding that choice, the idea of portraying God as a child. I can see how fundamentalists would be upset about that, and see that as some sort of dig at them, and at God. Which, it kind of is. But it shows Moses questioning God, challenging him. God says he’s unhappy Moses hasn’t gotten Ramses to release the slaves, and Moses reminds God that it’s already taken him 400 years to do anything, so he should be patient, and God and Moses go at it for a while.

“A lot of people think it’s wrong to question God,” he goes on, “but I actually think there’s something wrong with you if you never question God and his choices. A listener wrote in and said that they never question God, about anything. And we were reflecting on that in our last podcast, saying that we think we’re maybe supposed to question God. We’re supposed to read the Bible and come away at times thinking, ‘What the hell is up God’s ass?’ What is wrong with him? Did he get up on the wrong side of the bed or what? Why does God act the way he acts? Out of those conversations and questions come some pretty important discoveries about the nature of God and the world and how we should behave in it.”

“Yeah,” Kingery agrees, “and that’s part of why I didn’t have a problem with God being portrayed as a 10-year-old. It was cool not to have the same old burning bush thing—though there is a burning bush at one point—and anyway, it’s just one artist’s interpretation.”

morgan“And it captures something essential about God that casting someone like Morgan Freeman would have missed,” Stellman says, “which is that, you can’t deny it, God sometimes behaves in ways that look irrational to us.”

“When Moses asks God, ‘Dude! What are you thinking?’” I mention, “he’s actually speaking for humanity.”

“Moses was the good cop,” Stellman says, “and God is the bad cop. Like Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson was unbalanced and unpredictable. And if any believer in Jesus or God is honest, when you read the Bible—especially the Old Testament—that is how God comes across.

LEthal weapon
Good Cop/Bad Cop — Which of these police officers is God and which one is Moses. And which one would you want on your side if you were delivering half-a-million slaves out of Egypt?

“He can be a bit impetuous,” he says with a laugh, as the Drunk Ex-Pastors each pour another drink. “The question is, ‘How do we deal with that?’”

Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson

Author Dan Fost discusses the film '42,' Jackie Robinson's film career, a few onscure facts about baseball-themed pop songs, and Richard Millhouse Nixon.
Author Dan Fost discusses the film ’42,’ Jackie Robinson’s film career, a few onscure facts about baseball-themed pop songs, and Richard Millhouse Nixon.

“How come it took so long for someone to make this movie?” I ask out loud, raising my voice a tick to be heard above the music. “Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about Jackie Robinson before now?”

As the credits roll on the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, and as Sister Wynona Carr sings the obscure but peppy sports-and-gospel anthem “The Ball Game” (“Jesus is standing at the home plate, waiting for you there/Life is a ballgame, but you have to play it fair”), journalist-author Dan Fost grins.

It’s the grin of a guy who is used to being asked difficult trivia questions, and usually knows the answers.

“There actually was a movie about Jackie Robinson, made in the early 1950s,” Fost says, “and I’m pretty sure it starred Jackie Robinson as himself. It apparently glossed over a lot of the things that happened, but at least someone made a film about him during his lifetime.”

“Really? It starred Jackie Robinson? How did I not know about this?” I ask, rising to leave as the credits come to a close (and for what it’s worth, Fost also recognized Sister Wynona Carr’s ballgame song, and owns a CD with it and other baseball tunes from the 1940s.)

Fost grins again.

“It’s a pretty obscure movie,” he shrugs.

And there you have it. One inning into our early afternoon post-film conversation, and the score is already lopsided, with the Movie Trivia Guy striking out and the Baseball Trivia Guy scoring twice.

This is going to be fun.

Dan Fost (www.danfost.com) is a Bay Area freelance writer specializing in education, business and technology journalism. His work has been seen locally in San Francisco Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and nationally in The New York Times, USA Today, and Popular Science. He is also the author of the book Giants: Past and Present ($25.00, MVP Books, 2013), a brand new edition of which has just been released, freshly updated to include juicy factoids and details from the Giants’ 2012 World Series win. Packed with the photos and stories from the Giants decades-long history.

Jackie Robinson, of course—the first African-American baseball player on a major league baseball team, and one of the greatest ballplayers of all time—played for the Dodgers.

That, along with the fact that he famously supported Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, just proves once again that nobody, even a legend like Jackie Robinson, is entirely perfect.

Though one wouldn’t know that from 42. Graceful, emotionally rich, but occasionally a tad corny and uneven, the movie succeeds best as illustrating the difficulties faced by Robinson (an excellent Chadwick Boseman), who broke into the fiercely segregated baseball system in 1947, years before the civil rights movement began to take hold in a deeply entrenched America. Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (an impressively shape-shifting Harrison Ford), for reasons that straddle the line between business and idealism, recruited Robinson with the full awareness that breaking the color barrier would be risky, especially for Robinson. The movie includes a number of scenes depicting the verbal and physical abuse, including thousands of death threats, which Robinson endured with a remarkable amount of strength and an almost superhuman sense of inner guts and self-control.

“It’s a very emotional film, in places,” admits Fost, agreeing that there are not many people who will be able to avoid choking up during some of the films more powerful depictions of Robinson facing the fires of racism and hate. “On the other hand,” he adds, “I loved it, but I don’t know if I loved it because it was a great movie—which it probably isn’t, or because it was a great story. This is a great story, and it’s a baseball story too. And I love baseball stories, so …”

I mention that movies about “firsts” are often powerful, films that trace the path of the first African American fighter pilots, or look forward to the first female president. It makes Fost think of the scene in 42 where Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, attempting to reach out to Robinson, encourages him to shower with the rest of the team.

“That scene, where Branca is saying, ‘Shower with me Jackie!’ then he gets all uncomfortable, and starts going, ‘I mean … I don’t mean shower with me… I mean, shower with us … I mean …’ Watching that scene, I was thinking, I wonder if 50 years from now, we’ll be watching a biopic of the first openly gay baseball player in the major leagues. I wondered if that scene in the movie was a veiled way of making the point that baseball still has some catching up to do.”

“So…Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947…” I ask Fost, “but how long was it before the Giants integrated their team? And who was the first African-American to play for the Giants?”

“There were two,” he says. “It was Monty Irvin and Hank Thompson. It was two years after Jackie started playing for the Dodgers. Irvin was an established star in the Negro Leagues, and he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was near the end of his career by the time baseball integrated, so when he started playing for the Giants, he only had a few more years to go.

“In 2010,” he continues, “they decided to retire his number. Jackie Robinson, of course, was number 42. Monty Irvin was number 20. So there was a big ceremony, and all the living Hall-of-Famers were there—Mays, McCovey, Marichel. Mays told great stories about how Irvin helped him along in his career.”

“2010. The year the Giants won the World Series,” I remark.

“Exactly,” Fost says, grinning again. “After 50 years in San Francisco, without ever winning the World Series, they finally win the year that Monty Irvin was properly honored for his contributions to the Giants. There are those who say it was a kind of karmic thing. The Giants finally did the right thing—and good things came of it.”

Fost has one more surprising bit of trivia to drop.

“In Jackie Robinson’s original Hall of Fame plaque, hanging in Cooperstown, there was no mention of integration,” he says.

“What? Really? How is that possible?”

“Well, that’s the thing about baseball, as the narrator says at the beginning of the movie—baseball players are known by their statistics. How many runs. How many strike outs. How many wins. It’s the ultimate equalizer. In the end, the color of a players skin doesn’t matter.

“Like the song says,” Fost smiles, “in the end, it’s how you play the game that matters—and that’s all, right?”