The Importance Of Sleep

How important is it that we get a 40 winks at night?  A recent study of “astronauts” who were on a simulated mission to Mars gives us some guidance on that question.

Mars is far away, and a trip there would require astronauts to be cooped up aboard their spaceship for months, without natural day-night cycles.  The Mars500 project sought to test what the effect of such an extended time in space might be, so it selected astronauts using standard criteria, isolated them, and communicated with them solely through time lagged communications that approximated the delay in communications between Earth and a spaceship on its way to Mars.  During the 17-month simulation, tests of the astronauts were conducted — and the results now being published show how crucial sleep patterns and the daylight cycle really are.

One crew member went from a 24-hour day cycle to a 25-hour day cycle, which meant he was awake and asleep at odd hours in comparison to the rest of his crew mates — and therefore became isolated.  Other crew members began to sleep more and more, and yet another crew member became chronically sleep-deprived and struggled with performance tests as a result.  In short, if a real mission to Mars were underway, sleep issues — and their resulting mental health impact — would have been a significant problem for crew performance and cohesion.  Researchers will be looking at whether a lighting scheme that better approximates our normal daylight-night rhythms might help.

Anyone who has done much travel — or watched Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation — knows how tough the effects of jet lag can be.  Imagine if you had to deal with sleep deprivation for months, stuck with the same people in an unchanging environment, without ever seeing daylight.

Now, get some sleep!

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A Quick Billion Dollars For The Avengers

It’s obvious that The Avengers has struck a chord with me, and with movie audiences generally.  Only three weeks after its release, it has racked up an impressive $1 billion in box-office receipts.

Imagine — $1 billion.  Even by today’s standards, that is a huge amount of money.  What is it about this  movie that has made it so appealing to so many people?  (Russell, who is here for an all-too-brief short visit, is going to see it tonight, and I’m betting he’ll enjoy himself, too.)

It’s important not to overthink these things.  The Avengers is a very good summer movie.  There will always be an audience for movies that feature good-looking women and men in skin-tight suits.  There are worse things than watching Scarlett Johannson fight bad guys in a sleek black outfit.  And there also will always be people who want to see bad guys beaten by heroes, and do so through some impressive explosions and serious ass-kicking.  When the Hulk gets to throw around a stuffed shirt evil god like a rag doll, you can’t help but cheer.

I also think, though, that the success of escapist fare — which is what The Avengers is — often turns on the mood of the general populace.  Things are tough right now.  In Europe, governments are toppling and currencies are failing.  In America, the recession lingers, and lingers.  Unresolved threats can be found on just about every continent.  In short, the world is especially fertile territory for an escapist film right now.  We’d all rather watch Iron Man save the world through one selfless act than focus on those long-term problems that never seem to get solved.

The Avengers Tear Up Cleveland (Cont.)

The Avengers movie opens this weekend.  As I reported last summer, it was filmed, in part, in Cleveland, so I’m hoping it does well.

This trailer makes the movie look like must-viewing.  Samuel L. Jackson in an eye patch?  Awesome.  Robert Downey, Jr. reprising Iron Man, and getting into the obligatory, caused-by-a-mutual misunderstanding fight with Thor so we can see how evenly matched their powers are?  Even more awesome.  Scarlett Johansson in a tight-fitting black jumpsuit, looking to take out some dangerous supernatural foe with just a pistol?  Double awesome!  And a giant airborne slug-like creature tearing buildings to shreds in pursuit of Iron Man?  Most awesome of all.

Nothing says summer is here like a mindless action movie, and The Avengers will fit that bill nicely.  I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for a little summer.

Review: Iron Man 2

I didn’t realize how devoted Iron Man’s fan base is. When I saw the first showing at midnight on Thursday, the theater was packed with boisterous fans who chanted “OH – IO” and “Iron Man rules!”, and who booed the trailer for the upcoming Twilight sequel.

Their excitement was rewarded. Iron Man 2 isn’t as high-quality as the original, but its pretty damn good for a sequel. Not The Dark Knight good, but good.

The formula is pretty much the same as the first film: some good action scenes with top-notch special effects that show off Iron Man’s suit, with lots of funny one-liners in-between. Tony Stark has a few arrogant freak-outs, and he flirts with Gwyneth Paltrow. He builds a few incredible machines in spurts of brilliance.

Technically, the movie breaks my rule against seeing formulaic sequels, but it’s made so skillfully that it gets a pass.

Well, the movie isn’t exactly the same as the first, because there are additions to the cast, but none of them struck me as memorable or original. Scarlett Johansson plays some sort of martial arts expert who works for some sort of organization that’s helping Iron Man out for some reason, but she’s basically just there to add star power and to look good in a leather body suit. Sam Rockwell plays the weaselly C.E.O. of a competitor of Stark Industries. Samuel L. Jackson is a guy in the same whatever organization as Scarlett Johansson. They give him a few good Samuel L. Jackson one-liners of the Snakes on a Plane variety, but he doesn’t do much else. Garry Shandling makes a humorous appearance as the “asshole dissenting Republican senator” stereotype, parodied so aptly by South Park.

I went to this movie to see Mickey Rourke, who plays a Russian fellow who feels cheated by Tony Stark for some reason (the movie doesn’t dwell much on its plot). I really liked Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler, as well as a lot of the work he did in the eighties, before his boxing career morphed his face and changed his brand as an actor. Unfortunately, his character doesn’t do much apart from being angry all the time and having a thick Russian accent. The final fight scene between him and Iron Man was a definite let-down. In fact, [spoiler ahead], he ends up getting killed in the same “cross the streams!” situation used in Ghostbusters. I guess the movie’s screenwriters were too exhausted to come up with anything good after thinking up all of Stark’s witticisms.

That’s understandable. Tony Stark seems to have become even wittier since the actions of the first film; you might call this an action-comedy along the lines of Ghostbusters. In real life, someone whose main form of communication is wisecracks would be unbearable, but Tony Stark comes off as funny and sympathetic and exciting thanks to Robert Downey Jr.’s confident, understated performance – like Bill Murray’s in Ghostbusters.

The Iron Man suit is as cool as ever, and we get to see a silver one operated by Don Cheadle, who plays some general or whatever who talks to Iron Man a lot. Mickey Rourke’s character builds a cool suit of his own, which has whips of electricity coming from his arms that can cut through a car. Sam Rockwell’s company builds these flying robots that are kinda cool, but basically the equivalent of those disposable putties on Power Rangers. There are some great action scenes, such as when Rourke confronts Iron Man at a race track.

Iron Man 2‘s strengths make it so entertaining that you hardly notice the flaws. It’s a worthy successor to the original film. Hell, even Die Hard had its cheesy moments (John McClane: “This is a nice computer.” Security Guard: “Yeah. If you take a leak, it’ll even help you find your zipper.”). When I left the theater I wasn’t thinking about the cliched showdown; I was thinking about Tony Stark’s quips and the image of Iron Man flying solo in the night sky above L.A.