Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 14, 2011
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Source Code, Hanna, Spam, and Port 80
Winter is over! Two weekends in a row, a movie opened that was worth seeing. It's been a long
drought, but it's finally raining.
Source Code seems, at first glance, to be a cross between Inception (all kinds of fake-science
mumbo-jumbo that lets the characters do cool-but-impossible things) and Groundhog Day (keep
going back to the same moment in time and do it over till you get it right).
Heck, that's probably how it was pitched to the studios. Except that Inception hadn't opened.
So they probably said, "It's 'Groundhog Day meets The Matrix.' 'Nuff said!"
The studio gave the go-ahead, and they were right. Because the script by Ben Ripley is very,
The science in the script is beyond stupid, of course, but that's because it deals with computers,
and Hollywood writers figure that nobody in the audience actually knows how computers work,
so you can do any stupid thing and it will work.
Tron: I rest my case.
But really. "Source code" has a specific meaning in computer programming. It's the set of
comprehensible, editable statements that programmers actually write; it is then compiled into
machine code that the computer can understand. In other words, the computer never actually
looks at the source code, it looks at the machine-language translation.
So the poor actors have to make completely idiotic statements about "source code" which cannot
possibly have anything to do with the absurd virtual time travel stuff that the story depends on.
It goes beyond terminology, though. Even if it were true that eight minutes' worth of a dead
person's memory persisted, that doesn't mean that even a fraction of a second of it could actually
be accessed by a computer. And even if it could, that doesn't mean that a person whose mind
was accessing a dead person's mind could possibly get any data that the dead person did not
know at the time of death.
So let's face it. Source Code depends on such deeply impossible stupidity that it makes you
want to cry.
And it doesn't matter. Because the science stuff is all mumbo-jumbo anyway. We sci-fi writers
do this all the time. Faster-than-light or lightspeed travel; space warps; time travel -- aw, come
on. We know its bogus. We do it anyway because we love the stories.
And why do we love them? Because, just like ancient myths about the gods and heroes, in these
stories people can do fantastical things that are wonderful to conceive of.
So Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a soldier who is in combat one moment and the next
moment finds himself sitting across from a total stranger named Christina Warren (Michelle
Monaghan) on a passenger train heading into Chicago.
He doesn't know her, but she knows him. No, wrong -- she knows another guy but keeps
calling Colter by his name. And when he checks in a mirror and looks at his i.d., he is the other
guy. Then the train blows up.
He's not dead. He's inside what seems to be the cockpit of something, and a woman is talking to
him through a porthole. Or a computer screen. And she's talking about this train and how he
has to go back and find the bomb.
Oh! I'm going to save the train by finding the bomb!
No, Colter. You can't save the train. It already blew up. Everyone on the train died. That's the
only reason we can send you back: They're already dead. But by finding the bomb, maybe you
can help us find the bomber, because we think he has a dirty bomb that he's going to use to make
a mess of Chicago.
No, says Colter. I'm falling in love with this woman and I'm going to save her.
Maybe in some alternate universe, but not this one!
OK, that's the whole setup. Like most sci-fi stories, it sounds dumb when you just tell it like
that. But when you have a masterful writer of relationships and characters -- as Ripley seems to
be -- you can end up with something quite wonderful. A human story that first intrigues you,
then moves you.
For a moment, at the end, it looks like Source Code is giving us an Inception ending: Nanner,
nanner, we're not telling you how it actually turned out.
Then they repent of such folly and let us see the end, and then make us "believe" it -- that is,
accept that it "really" happened within the context of the fake universe the story takes place in.
OK, look, just trust me on this: As long as you switch of the part of your brain that monitors
whether movies have anything to do with the real world, chances are you'll like this movie.
There are those who think that Vera Farmiga, who plays the woman who talks to Colter Stevens
when he's back in that compartment in the science lab, isn't given much to work with in the way
Those who think that are half-right. She isn't given much, because the story's not about her, the
story's on the train. But she's given a little to work with, because Ripley's a good writer. And
she's Vera Farmiga, who did such a brilliant job of holding together Up in the Air a couple of
years ago, so she takes that little bit and turns it into Something. Farmiga has the chops to be a
great actress. Now somebody get her the roles!
Source Code: Not a great movie, but a pretty darn good one. Worth going to the theater for.
Then this past weekend a movie opened that I had heard absolutely nothing about: Hanna. The
premise: A 16-year-old girl was raised in isolation in the woods near the Arctic Circle. It was
her father raising her, because her mother was assassinated when Hanna was two years old. And
he spent every moment of her life training her to be a brilliant, capable killer.
So she is deeply educated in a very limited range of subjects, and completely naive in other
ways. At age 16, she decides -- and he lets her decide -- that it's time to join the rest of the
world and accomplish the mission she was raised for: to kill the person who killed her mother.
But no, it's not a vengeance story, or not just a vengeance story. The thing is, the murderer of
her mother will do anything to finish the job and kill Hanna and her father, as soon as they
reenter the world. So the only way Hanna can possibly have any kind of life is if she kills this
I'm not going to tell you even a speck of the rest of the plot because it's so wonderful to learn
things when Hanna learns them. The science in this movie is way more plausible than the
"science" in Source Code, but that's not what makes this a better movie.
1. The script is even better. Seth Lochhead and David Farr put together a story that is filled
with suspense, humor, deadly action, and human compassion.
2. Saoirse (SEER-shuh) Ronan, who plays Hanna, is not just an ethereal and other-worldly
beauty. Her face and eyes are always full of exactly the right emotion and intensity; her lines are
spoken perfectly. She can act. She's going to be a huge star, and she deserves it. If this weren't
an action flick, she'd be in line for an Oscar nomination already.
3. Director Joe Wright brings the sensibility of his moody creation of period in Pride and
Prejudice to this decidedly contemporary film. He never makes the audience notice the camera
work. Each shot feels like the only possible view to yield the perfect blend of clarity and
My 17-year-old especially noticed a brief scene between Hanna and a friend who are conversing
late at night under a blanket. The camera is so close it feels like we're under the blanket, too,
sharing in the moment of intimate friendship. Yet I didn't even notice the camera technique; I
simply experienced the moment.
Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett and Jessica Barden and Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng and
Tom Hollander and -- oh, I give up. The whole cast is brilliant and they're doing their best
work in this film. Nobody overacts or juices things up; everybody is completely real and they
rely on the story to work our emotions.
The result is an astonishingly powerful film. No jagged handheld camera, no confusion of quick
cuts to give us the illusion of energy and action, as in the Bourne movies. Nothing stands
between us and a moving, powerful story of love and sacrifice, survival and injustice. At the
end, I wasn't thinking "what a cool sci-fi movie" (though it was) or even "what a great action
flick" (though it was). I was thinking: "All the sacrifices -- were they worth it? I think so. I
think that's what you do for children in danger."
In other words, it was not the art that I was thinking about, it was the story -- what happened
And that, my friends, is what separates great art from pretention. If it leaves you thinking about
its artistry, then it's not good art -- it's just a peephole through the fence they build around a
Good art brings you inside -- no barriers -- and lets you live inside the story so it becomes part
of your memory.
See Hanna. Really. It may be about a kid, but it's a grown-up film. The first this year.
Back when I was in college, a friend of mine was having a Halloween party at a house she
shared with several roommates. She called me up and asked me to help her play a prank.
"Come over and scratch at our screens, moan, turn the doorknob -- give them a scare!"
I was a theatre student. This was a performance. And nobody had invited me to any Halloween
parties, so this was as close to a party as I was going to get.
So my roommate and I went over there, on schedule, and started doing what she had requested.
We could hear the panicked voices inside the house. It was working! None of them dared to
open the door or even look outside to realize it was just me and my roommate.
We figured that we'd struck the right note of terror and that my friend, the hostess of the party,
would now calm everybody down by saying that she had arranged it. So my roommate and I ran
around the house and knocked on the door of another friend who lived in the other half of the
duplex. (Yes, we knew everybody in the building.)
Then we heard a man's voice outside and there was a stern knock on the door. Our friend
shoved us into a closet under the stairs and then answered the door. It was a policeman. The
hostess of the party had called the cops because of an intruder, and the cop had seen my car
parked nearby and had run the license plate. He was looking for me.
The friend who was concealing us explained the whole situation and then chewed out the
hostess. "You had no right to call the cops! You asked him to do that stuff!"
"But I changed my mind and called and left a message that I didn't want him to do it after all."
"Well, he didn't get the message because you didn't call till he was already on the way over!"
(This was before cellphones. Heck, we barely had telegraphy back then.)
The cop, we learned later, had entered the house with his gun drawn. What if my roommate and
I had leapt out of the closet with a yell, as we had momentarily contemplated? All because
somebody decided to call the cops on me for doing exactly what she asked me to do.
Skip forward 37 years or so. People are pulling the same stunt all the time and don't even realize
it. It has to do with that report spam button on their email software.
It's getting too easy to call every bit of advertising that arrives in your email inbox "spam." But
spam is unsolicited advertising -- mailings you didn't ask for.
How much of the promotional email you get is from websites where you once bought something
and in the process checked off that little box that said, "Would you like to be notified of sales
events from time to time?"
The moment you did that, the emails you started getting from that site were not spam -- they
were asked for.
Admittedly, some of those websites had that box pre-checked for you, and you may have gotten
on their list without even realizing it. Still: what they send you is not spam. You're a customer.
And you asked them to send you info.
Why does it matter? Because your inbox is filling up. It's hard to find the real emails amid all
the ads. So you do the lazy, irresponsible thing -- you click the spam button on ad after ad.
That's exactly the right thing to do with those viagra and porno emails that you never asked for.
Report them. Because when your server gets enough spam reports about a particular site or
domain name, it bans them. Nothing from that site gets through to anybody.
That's the very reason why it's not just rude, it's vandalism, it's downright mean, when you
click the report spam button on email from legitimate websites that you asked for. You're
calling the cops to report them and they aren't doing anything wrong.
It's as if you painted over a store's showroom window just because you were sick of seeing
Don't you understand that by clicking spam you're giving them a bad reputation? Various
servers will start blocking their emails. And those emails are an important part of doing a
perfectly legitimate business -- one that you once used yourself!
It costs them time and money to get those servers to stop blocking their email, so that the
customers who do want their promotional emails can still get them.
That's why, in every one of those emails that you no longer want, there's a notice down in the
fine print at the bottom that says, "If you no longer want to receive these notices, click here to
Click there! Go to their little whimpery unsubscribe page ("why are you leaving us?") and
confirm that you really want them to stop emailing you.
That's the fair, decent, responsible thing to do. You'll stop getting the emails (within a day or
two, whenever they next do a list cleanup), and they won't get reported for a crime they didn't
Speaking of unwelcome internet items, Time-Warner cable in the Greensboro area now has an
obnoxious new "feature." For the past few weeks, for about ten minutes at a time, several
times a day, we can't get cable access to any website whose address begins with http. That
includes most of the sites we use, including all our email sites.
It isn't just some weird thing at our house -- one of our employees has the same thing happening
at his house, too. This means that Time-Warner's local server is occasionally blocking port 80,
the one most commonly used for http addresses. (We can still get to ftp (port 21), pop3 (port
110), and https (port 443) addresses.)
Guess how much luck we've had explaining this to any of Time-Warner's helpful complaint
numbers. "Several times a day, our access to http addresses gets blocked. We can still access
ftp and pop3, but --"
"Reboot your computer," says the nice Indian woman probably talking to us from Mumbai. She
has no idea what ftp, pop3, and http mean. She's just reading from her troubleshooting card.
"We have done that repeatedly."
"Well, let me try something on this end." What she tries, as far as we know, is taking a few bites
of her curry-on-rice. Then she says, "Is the internet working now?"
"It was working when I called you. I told you, it only gets cut off for ten minutes at a time,
several times a day. This isn't one of those times."
"So you have internet access," she says, in a tone that your boss might use when saying, "So
why are we having this conversation?"
"But five or six times a day, we get cut off from email, from websites where we're doing
business -- we want you to report to your tech people that something in their server has started
blocking port 80 for about ten minutes at a time, several times a day. It started only a couple of
"Very well sir. I will report this." Another bite of curry. "Thank you for choosing Time-Warner."
How long would you keep booking with an airline whose airplanes occasionally lost engine
power for even ten seconds at a time?
OK, I admit it, that's an extreme example. Plus, the FAA is looking out for you. The FCC,
which governs cable, doesn't give a rodent's tush. They're too busy trying to kill conservative
So ... how long would you stay with a phone company that cut off your conversations every now
Oh, wait. That happens with our cellphones all the time.
But we hate it! And when we pay for cable modem service, we're supposedly paying for reliable
I'm sure that this is something Time-Warner doesn't even realize is happening; it may not be
systemwide even here in Greensboro. It may be that at certain times of day, their server simply
blanks out some customers from port 80 access without realizing it.
Yet there's no way to get them to realize that this is a serious problem to those of us who do a lot
of our important business through email and website contact. They won't send a repairman to
my house for a problem that is happening in their computer. Especially one that self-heals in
about ten minutes. There's simply no recourse.
Almost as maddening as our anti-virus/firewall software which installed an update on my
computer this morning. When it was finished, my computer was really safe -- because I not
only couldn't get into the internet, I couldn't even get to the other computers in our home
network. How safe is that!
After messing with it, we found that the software update, instead of retaining all the settings we
had been using, changed everything to "direct internet access," which is the most dangerous
condition you can be in. So it blocked everything.
And when we changed the command that supposedly corrected the setting to "home or small
office network," we got the same problem back again the moment I used another piece of
software to get onto the internet. It turns out that we also had to change the setting in several
There was absolutely nothing in their notice about the update that said, "If this changes your
settings, you need to correct them here and here and here." They "improved" my "security" by
making me and an employee spend a couple of hours fiddling around with unlabeled and
unexplained setting on their software. That was lost time. I ended up turning in this column
So I understand that Time-Warner may have installed some cool new software update on their
local server and they are still trying to figure out why it's blocking port 80. It's a common sort
of error in today's bloated, incompetently written software.
But while it's going on, I'm still paying for internet service that I'm not getting.
I've been working with computers -- and with computer programmers and programming
languages -- since my first Atari 400 back in the late '70s. I have spent hours debugging
programs, trying to find out why they're doing weird unintended things.
But that's the point: I spent those hours. I did the debugging. When I was done, the program ran
Programs and computers were simpler then. But most of the problems today come from the
incoherent, contradictory, chaotic way that software is created, with different teams working on
different parts of a program so that nobody knows quite what anybody else is doing.
One team's subroutine does some operation that another team's subroutine forbids, and neither
one can find a flaw in its own code.
It's as if the first baseman was unable to see or communicate with the shortstop. Each one
throws the ball in the direction he was told to, and every now and then a ball comes to him from
that direction, but he doesn't know when it will happen and the direction is never quite right.
How could you play baseball like that?
That's why they write such lousy programs today. That's why 90 percent of the cool apps I
downloaded onto my Droid-based cellphone screw up something else, until I finally uninstalled
them all -- and am waiting only till the new Blackberry Torch comes out to ditch the Android
operating system completely.
Programmers and corporations that don't test and debug their software sufficiently make our
lives unnecessarily annoying. Computers are brutally simple -- they do what they're told. All
you have to do is make sure you give them precise instructions. When a company repeatedly
fails to do so -- like Microsoft, whose slogan apparently is, "So? Buy Apple, see if we care,"
and Apple, whose slogan seems to be, "We're cool and you're not, so eat it" -- by all rights it
should go out of business.
And don't tell me to get Linux. It won't run the software I depend on.
Which brings me back to Time-Warner. I know it's probably not their fault -- it's the fault of
the company that made some piece of software they just installed or updated.
Yet Time-Warner is charging me for reliable internet service without delivering it, while making
it impossible for me to talk to anybody at their company who understands anything about
computers. (If there is anybody at Time-Warner who understands the software they're using.)
Here's the cool thing. I write a newspaper column. The nice woman in Mumbai couldn't
understand our problem. But now someone in the Time-Warner office who does understand
what port 80 is can read my complaint and, because you're reading it too, maybe something will
If the problem gets fixed now, and we get reliable internet service again, I just hope I remember
to tell you about it.
If I forget to report their good deeds, though, Time-Warner can call one of my employees in
Lagos, Nigeria, to complain about it. They'll be very helpful -- they're all African princes who
just can't get access to their funds without the help of a nice American, so they love to help
Americans every chance they get.