Saturday, March 21, 2009

Going Mental

There are two types of artificial intelligence. The first, which has great potential, involves computer-driven machines which can learn a series of movements, a pattern of behaviors, and start to react to recognized stimuli. Japan has been developing robotic dogs, cats and office helpers. The robotic fish pictured below is being used by British scientists to monitor pollution in the coastal waters off northern Spain.

Based in Eagle, Idaho, the designers and engineers of UGOBE have captured the imagination of consumers with their Pleo. According to their website:
"UGOBE™'s multidisciplinary team has blended engineering, life sciences, philosophy, and artistic design and developed a unique set of core technologies. The company's unique products, known as Life Forms, intend to blur the line between technology and life. By integrating three disciplines -- organic articulation with sensory response and autonomous behaviors -- UGOBE aims to revolutionize robotics and transform inanimate objects into lifelike creatures. Inspired by its dream, the group coined the word 'UGOBE', which translates to: "You! Go and be!" a creative reworking of Descarte's "Cogito ergo sum"-"I think, therefore I am."

The company's vision is to inspire mystery and awe in people, provide extended novelty and entertainment, and ride the edge between popular culture and science fiction. In a private R&D facility, UGOBE works to re-create known species, engineer beneficial hybrids, and transform previously inanimate objects into lifelike creatures using its Life OS platform. UGOBE is in the business of developing unique propriety and patent-pending technologies. UGOBE innovations are leading to real world applications and are related to work being done at MIT, CMU and a host of other universities, as well as technical and biological science companies around the world.

The following clip shows what happened when a visitor to Sea World placed his toy Pleo (which is modeled after a camarasaurus) alongside the viewing panels of several of the aquatic park's water tanks.

Extrasensory perception and interspecies telepathy have a solid niche in the entertainment industry. Whether one prefers to watch Uri Geller demonstrate his skill at bending spoons or be entertained by Johnny Carson in a skit featuring Carnac the Magnificent, there can be no denying their audience appeal.

Psychics have often tried to help police detectives find where a body is buried. In Noel Coward's classic Blithe Spirit, Madame Arcati makes contact with the deceased first wife of Charles Condomine. In the movie Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg performed a similar role as a would-be clairvoyant whose powers proved stronger than she knew.

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Mentalism takes center stage in The Great Buck Howard as John Malkovich portrays an aging mentalist trying to make a comeback. The problem is Buck Howard, who may have made 61 appearances with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, has become a relic of an entertainment industry that used to be. “I was a magician when I was three years old, but I evolved out of that," he explains. "Not that I have anything against magicians -- as long as they’re dead.”

Watching Buck Howard greet his hosts in one small town after another is like watching a silent screen star who made the mistake of speaking, a vaudevillian who is no longer in demand, or Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. The crowds are no longer there.

When young Troy Gabel (Colin Hanks) drops out of law school and signs on to become Buck Howard's gofer, he has no idea what he's getting himself into. All he knows is that he doesn't want to follow the career path his father (played by the actor's real-life father, Tom Hanks) would prefer. As Buck and Troy continue to work small-town venues with dwindling audiences, they are hosted by one set after another of starstruck provincials.  

Determined to breathe new life into his act, Buck has been promising to unveil a special new trick which, he feels, is guaranteed to resurrect his career. Unfortunately, when he arrives in Cincnnati, the New York publicist he hired has sent an underling named Valerie to handle the details. There is no national press at hand and, to make matters worse, Buck Howard has fallen into the starstruck clutches of a well-meaning brother and sister team played with great relish by Debra Monk and Steve Zahn. The woman (Monk) has decided to skip Howard's standard introduction and seize the opportunity to sing before a captive audience. Her brother (Zahn), is driving the hired limousine without paying too much attention to the road.

Colin Hanks and Steve Zahn

Just as Buck Howard is about to put nearly 800 people to sleep, the local news teams receive frantic calls on their cell phones and pack up and leave when word arrives that Jerry Springer (the former Mayor of Cincnnati) has been in an accident. After the media has left, Troy and Valerie (Emily Blunt) are stunned to realize that Buck's trick actually worked.

Furious at being upstaged by someone in a car accident, Howard has a prima donna meltdown, lashes out at Troy and Valerie (who have obviously been paying more attention to each other than to their star), awakens the sleeping crowd and then has a heart attack.

Colin Hanks, John Malkovich, and Ricky Jay

When Troy visits Buck in the hospital, they are both shocked to discover the local media talking about Buck's tour de force as a mentalist. Subsequent appearances on late night talk shows lead to a new act in Las Vegas but, alas, Vegas isn't the town it once was. The new producer's attempts to add some glitz to Buck's act backfire. Whereas Howard's greatest trick had always been to let the audience hide the cash payment of his fee (promising that if he couldn't find it when he returned to the auditorium, the local presenter could keep the money), for the first time in his career Buck fails to locate the money.

While Sean McGinly's film is crafted with great skill, the foundation upon which it rests is a very sentimental love affair with the mystique of the entertainment industry.  In many ways, the character of Buck Howard is modeled on The Amazing Kreskin. Malkovich has himself a field day with the role while Hanks and Blunt offer strong support (with a great comic turn by Steve Zahn).

Whether personified by Ricky Jay (as Buck's long-time manager, who looks as if they pried him away from his table at the Friars' Club), or the numerous cameos from celebrities like Martha Stewart, Gary Coleman, Tom Arnold, George Takei, Conan O'Brien, and Jon Stewart, it's obvious that everyone -- especially the great Buck Howard -- is head over heels in love with the magic that is show business. Here's the trailer:

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Unfortunately, there is another kind of artificial intelligence which has absolutely nothing to do with computers, machines, or mentalism. It is the subpar intelligence of people whose desperate narcissism and self-destructive instincts allow them to ignore their fundamental lack of talent and think they are blessed with superior brains. Having convinced themselves that they're smarter than everyone else, these are the people who believe they can talk a good game (even though they can barely fart on cue).

Imagine a play which opens with a young film director named Ethan (Chris Yule) masturbating while watching Friday Night Lights in the hope that if he watches it, he will cum. He's even thinking of proposing to his girlfriend, Gabby (Erin Carter) as a way of rewarding her for her attempt to get a Hollywood producer to buy his film, Barking Spiders (you can watch its hilarious trailer here.)

Now imagine Ethan's idiot brother Tex (Justin Lamb), an egotistical moron whose artistic goal is to make a film named Fisting Spielberg. Their living room is dominated by the poster for Where Rats Go To Die, a film made by a Quentin Tarantino-like Hollywood hotshot named Julian Quintara (Calum Grant).

Chris Yule and Justin Lamb

Imagine what would happen if you combined the most horrific elements of Ruthless People and The King of Comedy with the amorality of Eating Raoul and Sweeney Todd. Add to the mix a healthy amount of blood, vomit, Viagra, and crack cocaine and you end up with Matt Pelfrey's stunning new drama about a desperate  trio of Hollywood low-lifes which recently had its world premiere at the Exit Theater. 

As directed with great skill by Laley Lippard, Killing My Lobster's production of Pure Shock Value makes Speed-The-Plow look like the work of a rank amateur. Scathingly amoral, viciously selfish, and leaving no pill unswallowed, Pelfrey's fetid imagination makes David Mamet look like a total pussy.

Whether you prefer fratricide, necrophilia, or a young woman's horrified realization that, by blowing a teenaged intern who was still enrolled at Hollywood High she committed an act of pedophilia, this play lives up to its title: Pure Shock Value. It also contains the best running sight gag ever seen onstage involving an erection that simply won't quit. 

Just when it looks like their lives couldn't get any worse, these three losers find a barely conscious homeless man in their back yard. Upon dragging his body into their living room (which strangely enough does look like a place where rats would go to die), they discover that he is none other than their hero, filmmaker Julian Quintara.

Erin Carter and Justin Lamb

What follows is comic madness, utter depravity, and a horrific pattern of things going from bad to worse. After these losers finally manage to rouse Quintara, tie him up, and show him the only existing print of Barking Spiders, they keep pushing him for praise until he utters the worst possible compliment.  Quintara tells them that they obviously have a "huge talent" (Hollywood code words for utter failure). Desperate souls will stop at nothing. Let me assure you that -- as much as you want to see this play -- the demented finale to Pure Shock Value will probably never be seen on the stage of a Shubert Theater.

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