Sunday, December 14, 2014

Citizen Screwed

Today's film, Laura Poitras's Citizenfour.

Citizenfour  is a documentary about Edward Snowden's release of classified information relating to massive electronic surveillance of foreign nationals and US citizens by the National Security Agency. Snowden's information was given to the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who released the information in a series of articles in June of 2013. The initial articles talked about the NSA's illegal surveillance of American Citizens' cell phone data; subsequent articles revealed an almost unfathomably vast capturing of electronic data from phones and internet.

Snowden was a data analyst on contract for the Virginia-based defense intelligence company Booz Allen Hamilton, and he had top security clearances. His work revealed what he saw as a shocking and illegal overreach of US intelligence gathering, and he made the decision to leak the information to the press. Upon the release of his identity, the US Government quickly leveled three felony charges of espionage and theft of government property, and Snowden fled an extradition order in Hong Kong and is currently in temporary asylum in Russia.

As we might have expected, the government agencies involved first denied categorically that the intelligence was being collected and then, after Snowden's revelations, denied any wrongdoing and went after the messenger. Investigations were promptly launched not to see who authorized the illegal overreaches, but to apprehend who was responsible for the leak. President Obama himself, who campaigned in 2008 on returning the rule of law to government activity, criticized Snowden's actions and denied that there was an ongoing surveillance of American citizens (apparently tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone was OK), and the charges against Snowden still stand. The governments of several other nations--among them, Great Britain, Germany, and Sweden--were shown to have been complicit with the NSA in spying on their own citizens, and a couple have threatened harsh legal action to any news outlet that prints the information.

Not surprisingly, what one thinks of Edward Snowden depends on one's politics. Conservatives tend to see him as a traitor who is undermining our attempts to keep ourselves safe, and liberals see him as a whistleblower who is uncovering a pit of lawless rot in our government. My own views will be already clear, but I confess I was a little of two minds before seeing the film. Intelligence is always, it seems, a cat-and-mouse game, with increasing ingenuity in uncovering secrets being matched by ever-increasing secrecy. Neither side is likely to stand still--nor would it seem prudent to do so. It's easy to imagine how the internet and electronic communications can enable terrorists and those bent on malfeasance to coordinate in secret and to work up plans that traditional law enforcement may not be equipped to handle. And I also think that the ability to do harm is not tantamount to actually doing harm. The US government, for example, has had the ability to obliterate its own population with nuclear weapons for decades, but we trust that it will not do so. (Certainly, we don't seem to devote any energy to opposing this possibility.) Likewise--though perhaps it's not equivalent--the collecting of all available data about a person is not the same thing as using that data against them. It certainly opens up the possibility of using that data thus. Snowden argues that knowing your government is looking over your shoulder at every moment inhibits your ability to speak freely. But only, I might argue, if that collected personal data is ever used against citizens.

But on the contrary, I have to believe that the whole process needs to be unambiguously subject to the rule of law. Our legal system should be up to the task of regulating these processes--just as I believe that those accused of terrorism should be able to face our legal system and not be held and worked over outside the protections of the rule of law. Certainly, having the government do whatever it wants without telling anybody--or while lying baldly to its citizens--is not the solution.

What I was not really aware of before Citizenfour was the scope and scale of the NSA's intelligence-gathering activities. Most people can imagine a set of circumstances that they feel warrant increased governmental scrutiny of a person or a group, but I suspect most regular, law-abiding citizens also have an expectation of privacy. Citizenfour makes it pretty clear that there's no such thing in the modern world as privacy between a government and its citizens. Certainly not in the US. I did not expect this--which probably shows how cursory was my review of this story as it was breaking 18 months ago.

I believe Snowden's claim that he was motivated by patriotism and a sense of moral outrage. What could he possibly gain by his disclosures, especially when weighed against what he would almost certainly have to pay for them? He makes it very clear in these interviews that he's aware of how the US government will respond to his leaks, and he says he's quite willing to go to jail if that's how the story unfolds. He subsequently spent 40 days in the Moscow airport awaiting a more permanent disposition, and even now his status is temporary. My understanding is that no other governments are willing to anger the US by offering Snowden asylum (our relations with Russia already suck, so they're not risking much by putting him up).

In any case, Citizenfour does not take sides nor draw any conclusions for us. It really just documents the events as they unfold, with Snowden and Glenn Greenwald in a hotel room in Hong Kong discussing what is in Snowden's trove and how it should be released. It really comes off more as John Le Carré novel than a bland documentary. This despite there being almost no production niceties; we just move scene to scene with occasional text cards. It's a very lean offering, but compelling just the same.

Regardless of what one thinks of Edward Snowden--and if you're like me you maybe understand less than you think you do--I urge anyone to see Citizenfour. It chronicles an actual historical event, and it gives us a great deal to think about--and debate.

Grade: A

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Drama On The Installment Plan

I’ve been listening this week to the podcast Serial.

Lauded as a The Next Big Thing in a recent NYT article, Serial, from the producers of Public Radio’s This American Life, is a collection of podcasts chronicling a present-day investigation by the podcast team of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American high school girl from Baltimore. She disappeared after school one day and her body was later found in a shallow grave in a remote park outside Baltimore. She had been strangled. Lee’s former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was charged and convicted of the murder and is currently serving a life sentence in a Maryland state prison. The podcast team, led by host and co-producer Sarah Koenig, goes back through all the materials and transcripts and they conduct extensive interviews with friends and relatives and associates of the people involved, including extensive phone interviews of Syed himself. (Syed has never wavered from his claim that he had nothing to do with Lee’s murder.)

I’m unclear what motivated Koenig (or whosever idea Serial was) to dig into this presumably solved case, but it makes for strangely compelling listening. This is, of course, why the Times article singled it out (along with the growing popularity of audiobooks and The Starling Project, an Audible-sponsored full-cast “audio novel” by author Jeffery Deaver), and maybe that fact alone is Serial’s raison d’etre. Part police procedural, part whodunit, part character study, Serial covers the case in chapters of varying lengths, each focusing on one aspect of the case and constituting an individual podcast: general overview; the nature of the relationship between Lee and Syed; the unfolding of the murder events; the State’s case against Syed; the holes in the case, etc. These things are written and produced more or less as the investigation proceeds, so that we as listeners are essentially making the discoveries along with the producers. Syed may be exonerated (and his conviction overturned, presumably) or his guilt may be confirmed in a more convincing fashion, or perhaps some other option (?); but we’ll take the journey together, as it were

I’m just over halfway through the series (10 of the planned 12 podcasts are available), but I see already that Series will continue into a second season, though with a different story. This template can be applied to a large number of previous investigations.

I’m quite sucked in, but the concept does raise some concerns. First, why this murder and why now? Partly, it seems they found the “right” case for the format, both in its overview and because of the characters involved. As I say, it’s a compelling story. But making a radio drama because a particular case seems properly lurid or has the right characters or is otherwise suitable for radio seems inherently problematic. They’re not just telling a story; they’re potentially changing an outcome. Do the producers seek to exonerate the accused / convicted? (It kinda seems so.) If so, why? And is it the place of a radio show to do this? While host Koenig doesn’t overtly pull for Syed, it does seem like she’s seeking actively to find the flaws in the State’s case and in how that case was prosecuted. Syed himself—in a detail that seems seminal to this whole undertaking—is articulate and unflappable, but a little difficult to pin down: smooth-talking, seemingly very disarming and self-effacing, he has the hyper-awareness of psychological details and motivations that one sees with those who have spent years in therapy. He knows every objection to every detail of his case, as perhaps befits having had 15 years in prison to think about it. He’s an intriguing centerpiece. But is this case more in need of ironing out than other cases which might not have made for good radio play?

It also seems problematic that the team’s “investigation” essentially seeks to duplicate much of our police and legal processes. The implication is that the police and legal procedures are not adequate and we can do better. And maybe they can. But I can see there might be resistance to a gang of amateurs going over, very publicly and with a fine-toothed comb, the work of a group of professionals—from police to detectives to forensic people to judges and lawyers. We might expect these people to be less-than eager to have their work questioned, and not surprisingly neither of the two detectives on the case nor any of the attorneys involved agreed to be interviewed for the story. (FWIW, at this point they have not uncovered any evident malfeasance or incompetence on anyone’s part.) One of the two detectives did state off the record about Syed, “He’s the guy. Without question he’s the guy.”

Host Sarah Koenig (L) and producer Dana Chivvis.

The whole enterprise feels like it’s playing with fire, which I suppose is part of its allure. The investigation bubbles along with the background assumption that something new may be uncovered or some mistake revealed. The status quo—Syed in jail—may be overturned. But there is also the possibility, throbbing constantly in the background like a dull headache, that Syed for all his charms and self-deprecation is a player of the first order and is hoodwinking the podcast team. The team are aware of this, of course, and they talk about it. This prospect of helping to free someone who might be a monster gives moment to the whole undertaking. Serial is an entertainment that plays with people’s lives and their peace of mind.

I’ve never been a regular listener of This American Life. It's a bit too self-consciously quirky for my taste, too much an exercise in style. I especially rankle at their use of music. It’s like they have a special CD of slinky lounge music that is used for all transitions. Serial sounds very much like TAM—-the first Serial episode was played as a segment on TAM. And their use of a "theme song" is a bit grating. But that's small potatoes. Koenig is great as a host; she has a winning, candid manner and a voice for radio, and it’s all very well written. The little glimpses behind the production scene—recorded conversations between producers in the car, for example, or Koenig’s recorded phone interviews—give Serial a documentary feel. 

Loving crime fiction as I do, this foray into crime non-fiction is welcome. I'm intrigued to see how the season winds up, and what they come up with next.

Stay tuned.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Wait. What Just Happened?

Here’s another in my very popular line of posts under the category of “Stuff Everybody Else Figured Out In Their Formative Years But About Which I’m Only Now In My Dotage Deciding What The Hell I Think."

So lately I’ve been immersed in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga. I began, at the behest of friends, with the TV series, and found it engaging enough that I decided to sample the books (in audio format) and see if they’re worth the trouble. (They certainly are.) We could easily head off on a tangent here about books vs movies / TV. But there’s something else on my mind at present.

I’m not sure how the women in my life would categorize me (to say nothing of strangers I might meet), but I have long thought of myself as a feminist. Partly this is because I rankle (“in my deepest integrity,” Christopher Hitchens would say) at the injustice of male privilege and outright chauvinism that is everywhere in our culture—an imbalance that keeps more than half the population of our small planet at a permanent and institutionalized disadvantage; and partly it’s because my experiences in life have convinced me that, however much there is a role for men and women to play, the female is simply the superior sex. They create life; they nurture others; they bring humanity to every action and decision; they are verbal and collaborative. Not all women are all these things, of course; and not all men stand in opposition to these things. But I’m just convinced that a world of all men would be a bleak and violent place (and often is), and a world of all women would be delightful. So there.

I raise the issue of feminism because I’m grappling with some fundamental questions about justice and the writing of fiction.

Several years back, I was very taken with Steig Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. (For the 12 people in this country who have not read the stories, they involve an antisocial young woman who must overcome a vast institutional injustice, and she does so with, shall we say, a virtuoso talent for vengeance.) I saw the films and then read the books and then saw the films again and then listened to the audiobooks and, finally, saw the films once or twice more. It’s not that I think the stories constitute a morality tale, but I reacted strongly to the character of Lisbeth Salander. And I felt the books had an essentially feminist bent: a strong, brilliant if traumatized woman manages to overcome every kind of obstacle to find self-actualization. She must rely on her friends—especially a male journalist who takes her under his wing—but her triumph is her own, and as her hurdles are high her triumph is spectacular.

My wife’s take—and her feminist credibility obviously trumps mine—was very different (though it bears noting that her take on artistic matters is very often different from mine; in movies and books and music we like quite different things.) She contends that it’s not feminism for a woman to suffer sexual abuse and oppression as a storytelling element; no feminist would choose this story arc for fiction, and in any case it’s not a story she has any interest in reading, no matter how it turns out.

I confess I rankled at this reaction, not least because I was so taken by the character of Lisbeth Salander. Her triumph and the brilliance and toughness with which she achieved it were thrilling to me. She did not strike me as Everywoman (thank goodness her story is not Everywoman’s story), but as a creation of fiction she seems a brilliant stroke. The idea that her character was perpetuating an essentially subversive story was not something I felt ready to accept. I’m not sure I accept it even now. But I’ve started to wonder.

Fast forward a few years and here I am watching / reading The Game of Thrones. The other night I found myself in a discussion about the series (in which I am currently deeply engrossed) with Susan and a psychologist friend of hers, and I was a little surprised (and felt a little dim) to find these same themes bubbling to the surface again. The feminist in me—such as it is—thrills and exults at the brilliant and fierce and accomplished and resourceful (and, yes, sometimes devious) women in this saga: Daenerys Targaryen; Cersei Lannister; Catelyn Stark; Arya Stark; Margaery Tyrell; Olenna Tyrell; Melisandre, The Red Queen; Brienne of Tarth. But more of the characters in the story are men; and almost without exception the female characters are under the thumb of dominant men. In several cases circumstances transpire such that the woman in question rules absolutely, but much more often at least part of the character’s strength involves her asserting her will against the restrictive male who stands in her way.

George R. R. Martin’s world of Westeros is loosely based on the England of Medieval times. It is a world of kingdoms, of knights and lords and ladies and squires and handmaidens and swordplay and jousting. It’s a male-dominated world, much, I suppose, as the England of Medieval times was male-dominated (so far as determining who was allowed to exercise power). And perhaps some of my confusion stems from my having jumped into the series without first questioning many of the premises that stand at the foundation of the story. Maybe as a man I don’t rankle automatically at the gender imbalance as a woman might—or, I fear, as perhaps I should (though in my defense I often rankle at this imbalance when I read history).

Susan’s friend said that she made it through the first episode of the first season of Game of Thrones where Daenerys is sold for a bride by her brother like a piece of chattel to a barbarian ruler and is raped on her wedding night. She refused to watch another minute of a series that used this as a storytelling device, and even sent the man who suggested the series to her (on a date) packing, permanently.


I readily confess that I found the scenes of Daenerys’s wedding and wedding night most discomfiting and distressing. I get not the slightest thrill or feeling of satisfaction to see a woman dominated—quite the contrary (though attempted domination that is thwarted is usually a satisfying turn of events, regardless of the sexes involved). These scenes seem much more calculated, to my eyes, to be off-putting than titillating (though other elements of the same storyline DID seem so intended), but I also confess that it never struck me to consider whether such a storyline was perhaps more than distasteful, that perhaps such things should not be allowed, or tolerated, in an entertainment. Is this just the blindness of male privilege? (If the gender roles were reversed they would CERTAINLY get the world’s attention.)

A couple counter-arguments come to mind (though even to me they sound a mite defensive). First, we cannot have victory without a test. There is no triumph without our having had to overcome. (The analogy I raised when my wife and I discussed Dragon Tattoo was that Harry Potter’s story would not really work if he did not have powerful interests bent on oppressing or killing him.) This is an essential part of what makes Lisbeth Salander’s story so thrilling: she is up against an army of powerful men bent on keeping her down and she bests them all. This does not of course begin to dictate that the trial should be sexual oppression, and the fact that this kind of trial may make a compelling palette for a character study is no argument at all.  And I sympathize absolutely with the charge that women have been saddled with sexual oppression and violence since before we were even human. Susan’s friend is a counselor who deals with sexual abuse on a daily basis. “This isn’t an engaging story, this is an unacceptable aspect of everyday life,” she says.

This kind of leads to my second (very feeble) objection. This imbalanced dynamic—men ruling, women supporting and exerting influence obliquely—is no more than reality for just about all of human history. Does that fact make it acceptable to steep an epic fictional story in the same injustice? Or, knowing now that this imbalance is deeply and fundamentally wrong—as I truly believe it is—does that knowledge invalidate this milieu for our fictional entertainment?

Anyway, I’ve been slow to register the objection, and not much faster processing my dissonance. And the Game of Thrones saga is not clarifying things for me. I love the female characters in GOT (and many of the male ones). I love them for their strength and resourcefulness, for their essential decency and wisdom, for their responses to the crises that define the story; I love them for all the reasons I love women in real life. And I love them, in part, because they are usually so much better people than the men around whom they must maneuver. I just can't come to grips with how much of what I love in the story rests on the unsavory--or worse.

I’ve heard it claimed (as a kind of cliche) that women were the real rulers in history, that a woman’s skill was in getting a man to change his course without realizing that it wasn’t his idea in the first place. That’s a pretty offensive idea when we look at millennia of oppression and violence under which women have suffered, and it sounds an awful lot like some chauvinist pig trying to salve his dimly-throbbing conscience. But perhaps there's the tiniest kernel of truth in the claim. The king may have had the final say, and that fact may be injustice itself; but it’s also certainly true that throughout history women have influenced their partners. Influenced them and more, in some cases. The cliche might be both wrong and true.

And so I’m back where I started. My purpose here is certainly not to recant or otherwise scuttle my feminism, but only to grapple with whether I think it’s OK to tell a story that has an element of sexism at its core. And I honestly don’t know. I can see that I might find these elements offensive and unacceptable if I were not already hoodwinked by the grand sweep and narrative skill of the story. But that’s not a very strong endorsement. George R. R. Martin’s skill stands quite apart from these questions, as millions of readers and watchers will attest; but millions of people also love the work of, say, Joss Whedon, and he oppresses and celebrates and punishes his sexes rather more equally.

I've come to believe very strongly in the last 20 years that the more women we have in positions of power and authority, the better will be the society that results. And this leads me to wonder whether even the feminist fiction I love isn't perhaps a male version of feminism.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Nostalgia Whore Strikes Again

Other pictures here.

Years ago I built a house in the woods in central Minnesota. Well, I undertook a range of tasks to that end, though a lot of key pieces of the process—framing, concrete work, siding, roofing—were done by others. Anyway, that’s a long time ago; the house by now has belonged to others for much longer than I owned it.

But one of the things I learned from that time came from the many weekends my then-wife and I spent clearing the lot before the proper house building began. The building site was a wooded 1.3 acre lot on a small lake, a typical Northern Minnesota plot of ground. And this is one of the things I learned: the forest contains much more dead stuff than you think from a casual look. We needed to clean up the lot and clear some trees for the house and driveway. In the end I estimated that fully 1/3 of the stuff on our lot (and on the surrounding lots) was dead and in some stage of decay; another 1/3 was past its prime and in the process of dying; and the final third was alive and growing and thriving. This was not at all what I felt intuitively, even though I had grown up in exactly this environment and had spent a fair amount of time in the woods (admittedly, riding dirt bikes or bicycles and not, as my brother had done, studying the forest or its animals).

This isn’t really what’s on my mind, but I’m reminded of this time almost 30 years ago by my current situation.

After giving up our crash pad apartment in Louisville last year, I now have no place to stay when I'm on reserve. With increasing seniority, I can generally avoid reserve nowadays--as a group we found ourselves on reserve so rarely that after a dozen years we let the crash pad go as an unnecessary expense. But I can't always avoid it, so where to stay? One solution is to look for a cheap hotel. $70 is a pretty good nightly rate for a nearly-new Holiday Inn near the airport, but I had to spend a full two weeks on reserve in June and I felt I should look for something even cheaper. The solution: the FORMER Holiday Inn, which is now in private hands. Cost: $55. Cool. (My hope is that I'd be assigned flying for most of this time, and would not spend two weeks sitting in a hotel at my own expense. As it happened, of course, I was called only once during this period to fly, and then just a mid-day out-and-back. So I had to pony up for the whole two weeks.)

A cheap hotel is nice for the wallet, but the savings have to come from something. And after a few days here I’m reminded of my time clearing deadfall on my wooded Minnesota lot. While the new Holiday Inn is a single building of, say, 200 rooms, the old place is considerably larger. The unavoidable sense is that Holiday Inn abandoned the old place when its upkeep became problematic, and evidence of the maintenance free-fall is everywhere.

I have a particular soft spot for the decayed and abandoned, and infrastructure stuff in particular exercises a perverse hold on me. I love old buildings waiting for the wrecking ball, unused railroad tracks, abandoned stretches of roadway, the things that correspond to the 1/3 of the forest that’s dead and decaying. And everybody is aware of (and many of us are infatuated with) the new and growing, new construction and development with its attendant anticipation and promise.

But what of that middle third, that segment that is past its prime and headed rapidly downhill? Well, that’s this hotel. If I have an unaccountable love for the decaying, then this should be my kind of place.

I’m guessing the place has 600 rooms [460, I learned later]. It’s billed as a “conference center,” though I can’t imagine too many conferences wanting anything to do with it. The hotel is split into two large buildings separated by a roadway. There is an enclosed, elevated footbridge that connects the two buildings. Evidently one building existed first, and the second was added in a burst of deluded grandeur (or was built as a rival hotel and then incorporated). Both buildings are now quite tired. I’ve only stayed in one of the buildings, the newer one as it turns out. The original building dates from the 50s or 60s, and the newer one from a decade or so later. The main office and a couple of mostly-closed restaurants and the pool are located in the other building; my building has a number of public rooms as well, but they're rarely used. My building especially seems quite isolated (tonight mine is the only car in the parking lot on this side).

I’ve stayed here now on three or four occasions. One of the things that first struck me is the large meeting room in this building that is covered by a glass dome. Nothing special there, except that the entire dome is now covered by a huge tarpaulin. I’m guessing this room used to be the building’s swimming pool, but first it was filled in and made a convention hall, and then the roof, when it began to leak, was just covered over. A couple weeks ago there was a big gathering in there and it seemed a little… spooky. What is supposed to bring a flood of natural light instead brings a kind of black hole effect.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and other little signs of decay are everywhere. I went to walk across the elevated footbridge yesterday, and I found it’s been sealed off--though ventilation windows along its plexiglass-domed length are tilted open. It's a concrete walkway covered by an arched plexiglass top like a long covered wagon. Doors have been haphazardly installed on both ends, held shut on my end with a couple of long wood screws pushed through the door into the jamb. Both sides' walkway entrances are via staircases that lead to nothing else, and one walks up the steps--the hallways and carpets now unused and filthy--to find blocked passages. No signs indicate that the walkway is there, or that it's closed. Elsewhere the carpets—there’s a lot of carpeting—are stained and puckered and threadbare in places. All the doors have numerous coats of paint on them, walls have holes from missing fixtures, wallpaper seams have begun to separate, the elevators are slow and show signs of years of hard use. Everything smells a little damp. My building is mostly empty—looking at it at night, one sees just a couple lights burning among its eight stories. Most guests are in the other building, though even that is sparsely-populated. Hard to see a workable business model in all this.

It's not that the place is ready for the wrecking ball: that would augment the tragedy, as it's certainly still a legitimately functional facility. But the vector is undeniable. The parking lots are heaved and veined with cracks sprouting all manner of weeds, and there's clearly losing battle being waged against entropy to keep the outsides looking fresh. Maintenance crews dance either side of a line between things needing paint and things looking like they've been painted too often. And the facility isn't generating anything like the money needed to fix any of it.

I can’t help wondering what it is to stand watch over a decaying relic like this. There is an occasional maintenance person in the halls or roaming the grounds in a golf cart; yesterday there was someone working on one of the two elevators in this building. There is a "Sales and Catering" office in my building, the only managerial presence on this side. The office is mostly empty, though lights are on during business hours. I've talked to a manager on occasion (usually about ensuring a special “pilot rate” they offer) and I have to wonder: what is it like to spend one’s working years managing a thing on the downslope, a thing which is not long for the world? I can’t help thinking that a bad storm that goes thru and breaks a bunch of windows, or a flooding of the nearby creek would be all it would take to seal the fate of the place. (Interestingly, the original building is built on a drainage creek, and there's a flood wall not around the building, but separating it from the rest of the world. A flood would take the building but save everything else. One must drive one's car in and out of huge, swinging steel flood gates, silently waiting for the next apocalyptic spring thaw.)

On my drive to and from KY, I pass an abandoned hotel off the freeway in Lafayette, IN. I've been passing the same hotel now for 13 years, and it's been abandoned the whole time. It's amazing how quickly the rot takes over. Over that time the pool house has developed several large holes in its roof, holes that get worse and worse each year. Most of the windows are broken, and the parking lot is sprouting trees through cracks in the pavement. What once looked perhaps temporarily closed is now unquestionably beyond redemption.

I can't help thinking my current abode will soon sing a similar tune.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Westward The Wagons

I usually leave a theater with some kind of preliminary conclusion about a film, but as often as not my initial impressions age and morph and solidify with the passage of a little time. Not always, but certainly with ambitious or complex films. If Christopher Nolan’s latest effort, Interstellar, doesn’t qualify as ambitious or complex (or at least multi-stranded) then I don’t know what would. Certainly I feel well-justified for being unsettled; a couple days later I’m still chewing on what feels like several different films wrapped into one.

The Earth is dying. Set in the very near future, our ecosystem has passed a tipping point such that we are no longer able to grow the food we need to survive. Civilization crumbles as life itself wanes. Our path forward is apparently to find another place to live. Through a kind of convoluted pathway, we find ourselves a fly on the wall aboard one of the missions in search of a new home.

There are about a hundred gebrillion tales that might spring from such a setup. Humankind’s escape from Earth may be one of the easiest wellsprings for a good story, but there’s a lot in that story that seems waaay beyond us. I can’t tell if director Nolan has navigated the thicket wisely or not, but he certainly gets high marks for ambition. (I see from the Wikipedia article that Nolan consulted with physicist Kip Thorne about physical matters, so perhaps he deserves higher marks yet.) That aforementioned convoluted pathway that puts us on a spaceship is one of the several films-in-one; the mission itself and its science is another; what happens on the mission and afterward is another film or two, though these tie the others together. More or less.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a hotshot pilot from the now-defunct NASA space program who presently works the family farm with his late wife’s father (played by John Lithgow) and his two teen-aged children. Their dustbowl lives are consumed by trying to keep the farm alive as the very dirt turns against them, and trying to lead normal lives as normal life is becoming impossible. Cooper has a special bond with his daughter Murphy, a precocious and imaginative child with an interest in science—she is very like her father. When Cooper is called to pilot the Mission To Save Humanity, he leaves not knowing (as great space pioneer Lincoln said) when, or whether ever, he may return. His son is old enough, and far enough along his path of becoming a farmer, to accept this turn of events; but his daughter, who is coming into her own at just this moment and reliant on the guiding hand and love of her father—an extraordinary man who has a crucial role to play in the extraordinary woman who will emerge—cannot make peace with his decision.

That’s a great kickoff, I’d say. But the seeds planted here continue to sprout for the next three hours. A father having to leave his children behind is one of many elements to the story, but this thread has to serve as the emotional sinew between the disparate elements. At the time I wasn’t sure if it was enough, but I find after a night of stewing that there's maybe more sinew there than I thought.

As the trailers confirm, the film is unquestionably beautiful to look at. And it’s just such a huge story that you’re hardly given an idle moment in nearly three hours. So the film succeeds as an entertainment beyond question. But many of these plot elements and developments raise the hackles of my skepticism. There are several bald-faced dei ex machina pushing the story along—each with a freight train’s worth of questions in tow—but we scarcely have time to think on these things before we're carried off by the Next Thing. At times I fear we’re kind of baffled with the bullshit and self-important terminology of pseudo-science gobbledygook, but the flood carries us onward so quickly that we just have to let it go. A little voice in my head reminds me that it’s science-fiction and not an educational film. Enough of the story is essentially plausible for us to accept basic premises; the rest--including the solving of mysteries with bigger mysteries--must be accepted.

It took me about 12 hours to make peace with that precondition, though even the immediate aftertaste was more sweet than sour. And once I made my peace I found the film looming as a magnificent, epic event. It’s a near-future Star Trek movie with a quasi-realistic underpinning. The core cast—McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Mackenzie Foy / Jessica Chastain / Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon—are all fabulous. McConaughey especially is great (which is fortunate, as there’s scarcely a scene without him). And because we have the smaller human interactions that give scale to the larger issue of the end of human life on our planet, there’s something for nearly anybody to relate to.

One other note. Throughout Interstellar, I felt the constant presence of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. We sense it in the interactions between the human astronauts and their humanized computers (think HAL, but without the undertone of menace), and in some of the docking sequences and in the look and feel of the spacecraft. Kubrick kind of blazed the trail for these visual and stylistic things, and we’re still following suit almost 50 years later. But I especially noticed it in Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack, which has to have been deliberate. As I understand it, Kubrick specifically wanted a traditional, classical music soundtrack for 2001, and the dummy tracks that were plugged in during production—Johann Strauss and Shostakovich and Richard Strauss—worked so well that he stuck with existing music rather than pieces composed specifically for the film (György Ligeti’s choral works sound perfect, and perfectly futuristic and jarring, for a space opera). Nolan did not copy that exactly, yet much of the music in Interstellar is of a traditional orchestral nature. And there are moments that clearly tip their hat to Kubrick (I’m thinking of a sustained organ chord specifically that is very Also Sprach Zarathustra).

I wonder if I wouldn’t have much more to say after another viewing or two and the passage of a week. But for now I think Christopher Nolan has made up in ambition and scale and sheer beauty for whatever deficits and overreach his story requires. Unless you specifically don’t like science fiction, I urge you to see it.

(A small spoiler alert.) One of the nagging questions—more a curiosity, really—persisted despite my newfound roll-with-it zen. I don’t think I’m giving much away when I point out that one of our species’s survival strategies is to seed a new colony elsewhere. Indeed, this seems one of the less challenging technical aspects of this story. Embryos (or some proto-human form) are frozen and will be thawed and activated in our new home. And the idea of the loneliness inherent in space exploration is an ongoing theme in the film; a number of explorers have shipped off prior to our story’s unfolding, none of whom have reason to think they’ll ever see another human being again. But I find myself hung up on how a colony grown from seed would progress, on what it would look like. It starts very small--one or two people--and must grow slowly. What of children born in this setting, children who will never have known anything else? The technology and the expertise required to undertake the mission would come to the new colony along with the astronauts and the embryos. But that technology would be gone in, at most, a few hundred years. The factories that built the equipment are light years away; the materials to build new ones or repair the old ones are nowhere to be found. How will the new colonists learn higher mathematics? Robotics? Computer science? Medicine? Or would we start over again at the Stone Age? For the survival of the species, whether we retain all of humanity's collected knowledge is perhaps immaterial. But I can't get past the magnitude of the loss, or how it might be prevented. Alas, that's probably another film.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Blaze of Glory

Yesterday's film was writer / director David Ayer's current effort, Fury.

Set in the waning days of the European chapter of World War 2, Fury follows a tank crew led by Staff Sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) as they make their way across Germany. The film begins with an explanation that our Sherman tanks were known to be inferior to the German Tigers, making for hazardous duty for the crews of this equipment. The story does not concern itself with the larger war nor with any well-known epic battles; rather, we are shown what day-to-day life was like for a small band of men who must work together if they are to survive, and whose survival is the chip placed on the table again and again, day after day. This is their job. "Best job I ever had," they say, only half in jest (since it is a comment that always follows a successful emergence from another battle).

The story is really told through the eyes of new recruit Pvt. Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who in a nightmarish turn has been plucked from his job as a typist and deposited in the Assistant Driver's seat of the Sherman. This is much to the rest of the crew's chagrin, as his inexperience and frank unsuitability for the job--he has never set foot in a tank before--makes for an increased hazard for a crew which is already well past its expiration date. He arrives in camp having no idea whatsoever to expect, and gets a very quick introduction when he is tasked with removing the splattered remains of his forbear from the seat he is shortly to occupy. Collier's crew have survived through a combination of dumb luck and the capability of the men--and through Collier's very adept leadership (we are left wondering at such talent and ability confined to the insular world of the six-man crew, this world being but one unit like a grain of sand in the desert of an immense undertaking where life and death become statistics around which the larger effort must be planned). Though we do not witness any of the great battles of history, dead is dead at every encounter if things don't come out right. I daresay it's easy for we civilian folks to forget that.

All the film's performances are excellent, with Pitt especially wearing the swagger and bravado and nonchalance his crew expects (and perhaps needs) while privately showing the immense strain of the choices with which he has been faced--and the decisions he has made. The men are distinctive personalities, and the actors do a great job of dragging their characters' baggage along, each character trying to play his role while having to conquer fear and to almost continually face death--theirs or someone else's.

I suspect Ayer's mission is to place the grim reality of war starkly before us: whatever a person's preferences and philosophies, a soldier's most basic job is to kill enemy soldiers. This simple calculus becomes inescapable for a soldier, especially if his opposite number is frantically aware of it. But the decisions facing a soldier are rarely cut-and-dried, and the deadly nature of the activity means there's little chance for deliberation and second chances. The razor's edge by which a long-standing crew such as Sgt. Collier's has managed to stay alive means that the men, if they live, come out the other side with very bloody hands and little opportunity to wonder luxuriously if they've made the right choices. Nasty, brutish, and short.

As a collection of characters, the film is excellent. The plot is linear and believable; the pictures are horrific and beautiful, and the tension runs like a piano string throughout. We are given a lot to think about. But I wasn't unreservedly enthusiastic. First, I always have a bad taste in my mouth when the "chaotic battle aftermath"--the opening scene of the film--is depicted by a field littered with debris and burning indiscriminately. Why would there be a bunch of little, uniform fires of basically equal size? Why would clumps of dirt be burning? A burning tank, sure. A demolished house on fire, you bet. A burning dead horse maybe? OK, sure. But just random chunks of metal? Metal don't burn, dude. And the music: There are a couple affecting themes presented to us, but overall I found the swelling patriotic music to be A Bridge Too Far. In general I hate soundtracks clumsily telling us what we're supposed to feel; it seems the most basic failure of storytelling.  But the Big Battle Scene suddenly slowing down to an artistic slow-mo and all sound dropping away while we are treated to swelling angst music--ugh. I know Fury is not trying to be a documentary, but if we're trying to understand what the soldiers experienced, I can guarantee that things didn't slow down beautifully and get accompanied by Musical Deepity.

Chalk that up to my quirks and don't let it stop you from going if you otherwise like war films. As a friend said, it's not Saving Private Ryan, but it's not bad.

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Wading Into The Teeming Masses

I have been a fanatical Diet Coke drinker for 35 years. It's been a lifelong obsession, nearly, and a constant accompaniment to my daily doings. Decades have gone by where I did not fail to have one in hand or ready-to-hand, 24 hours a day. I carried my mug upstairs with me to bed and a quick sip was the first thing I did upon waking. Really. Not surprisingly, I'm very particular about my DC, preferring fountain soda over cans or bottles, and the fountain soda requires good water and a careful mix to achieve soda nirvana. For this reason (much more than their food) I am a frequent habitué of McDonalds; they filter their water, and they sell more DC than probably any other chain (maybe more than any other single outlet). So they have it figured out. I can barely drive past without swinging thru the drive-thru--unless, as is likely, I already have one in the cupholder.

After my bariatric surgery 18 months ago, I had to swear off carbonated beverages. And because this was potentially such a trauma for me, I began three months before the surgery to find alternatives to DC--and indeed to see whether I could even live without it. Turns out, much as I love it, more of my love of DC was the habit, like the person who likes the movements and paraphernalia of smoking as much as the actual cigarettes. After an exhaustive search, I found I was able to substitute Crystal Light diet raspberry iced tea for DC, and I have subsequently become nearly as obsessed with that as I was about DC (though in the interest of full disclosure I have gradually resumed my DC habit post-surgery, having one or two per day mixed in with my Crystal Light).

This history makes my latest development, well, unexpected.

I'm currently in the midst of a monthlong experiment to see if I can't make friends with coffee. Yes, yes, this is the most mundane plot twist in all of recorded human history, but it's a shock to ME anyway. After 52 years of basically hating the stuff I've decided to give it a chance.

But why, you say? WHY??

I flew a 9-day trip recently with a fella who is a self-described coffee fanatic. He has a gazillion-dollar, do-everything coffeemaker at home that starts with filtered water and whole beans and spits out any of a hundred different products at the touch of a button. He talked a bit about this, and I found--as I always have--that the smell of his brewing coffee as we began our flying legs was quite alluring.

One of our stops on this trip was Incheon, a suburb of Seoul. The airplane gets restocked with basic supplies each time we land, and in Korea, he informed me, we are typically stocked up with an especially great instant coffee (instant coffee, he told me, is generally abominable, though of course it's what the airplane requires). This stuff was so great that he collects the unused packets for later in the trip.

He convinced me to try a cup. And, shockingly, it was delicious. This was maybe the first time I could connect the aroma of coffee--which I have always loved--to the taste. I noticed on the back of the coffee packs, amid the Korean writing, there were little graphics that placed the caffeination, the sweetness, and the creaminess content of the coffee on a scale. And the sweet and cream were, not surprisingly, pretty high. Just the stuff for someone wanting to transition gently into the camp.

And so the idea of giving coffee in general more of a chance sprang into my brain. So often I've heard the claim "It's an acquired taste," and I realized I've never attempted to acquire the taste for anything--which might explain why my tastes are so narrow, and getting narrower. What if I tried in a systematic way to acclimate myself to a new taste: would it work? So the plan: I would drink a cup of coffee each day for a month and see where it led me. I began on my trip with four days of Korean instant coffee--which continued to be delectable on successive days. And then I sampled coffee from our hotel in Almaty (quite nice, despite being unadorned), from a coffee shop in the Hauptbahnhof in Cologne (icky--too bitter) and, when I got home, from McDonalds (mild and consistent and quite good--and, of course, very easy) and the house blends of a couple local coffeehouses. My current taste is to add a bit of cream and Splenda. This past weekend I was in Chicago, where there are Starbucks on every other block, and some private coffee concerns on the alternates. Lots of opportunity to try things.

And I daresay I've come to like the stuff, even to crave it! Today I even broke my rule and had another half cup after my first was finished.

A couple friends have steered me toward the Aeropress as a means of making a great cup of coffee when on the road, but I think the social aspect of going to a coffeehouse is part of the allure--that, plus the fact that an essentially similar product is available everywhere I travel.

Anyway, being a creature of habit I now find myself looking forward when I wake up to going somewhere for a cup. And the smell just hooks into something that goes all the way back in my memory, of metal percolators and white Corelle coffee makers and Mr. Coffees and of church basements and early morning wake-ups from childhood and my mother at the kitchen counter. And now of stopovers in Korea.


Friday, October 31, 2014

It's A Gusher!

I recently finished the audiobook of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!

Readers may know the novel as the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 film There Will Be Blood (a movie which I admired but did not like, exactly). But having now sampled both, I think the book differs from the film enough for them to be treated as quite separate entities. While sharing numerous superficial traits, they really tell different stories.

Oil! tells of a young boy, James Arnold Ross (called Bunny by his family and friends), whose father is a California oil developer. Bunny's youth and early manhood are spent next to his father as "Dad" negotiates deals and drills and develops oil fields. Bunny is a sensitive and intelligent child who is increasingly troubled by the disparity between his own lavish lifestyle and the much more meager (and hazardous) existences of the working men on the oil fields. Dad looms large in Bunny's eyes (as fathers always do for sons), representing expertise and competence and accomplishment to the young boy; unquestionably talented and hardworking and knowledgeable, Dad is a mover and shaker in the world. But Bunny begins to see that other people not nearly as materially comfortable or accomplished as Dad are also intelligent and meritorious. And some of Dad's fellow movers and shakers--many of them, it seems--are nasty, soulless pieces of work. This divide is kept continually in front of Bunny as he grows up, dividing his time between the oil fields and high-toned schools and colleges where he is surrounded by other wealthy, privileged people. The folks in Bunny's social world are steeped in money; they accept their easy lives without question and feel entitled to anything and everything--yet none of them have ever worked or actually accomplished anything useful in life.

It's a story that places very basic questions before us about inequality and the value of labor and management, about justice and the transmission of information, about friendship and business ethics.

Sinclair was an unapologetic socialist, and the book accordingly paints a sympathetic picture of the oil field workers, and indeed of workers generally. But though there are archetypes on both sides, Sinclair engages us by making all the main characters as nuanced and multi-faceted and flawed as, well, as real human beings are. The foibles of humanity are on display on all sides. Neither Bunny with his socialist leanings and Bolshevik friends (whom Bunny often funds and otherwise assists with Dad's oil money), nor his very big business father is given a free ride. Sinclair depicts uneducated and badly-behaved working men alongside the rapacious and astoundingly entitled oil executives; and he shows Bunny's father (J. Arnold Ross) as a principled and caring employer, someone sharply contrasted with many of the other oil executives (a fact which makes Bunny's deliberations much harder). The Bolshevik revolution in Russia is depicted in rather glowing terms, and the opposition to it as irrational and even as spiral-eyed fanaticism. Whatever truth may lay in these characteristics, the novel is not a work of journalism: the glowing praises of the Russian revolution are countered only with scandalous and unsupported accusations and wild, exaggerated stories. If we would make up our minds about these historical events, we'll need a better source of solid intelligence.

My attempts to survey my own political views over the years typically place me in the socialist camp, and so this worker-friendly tone is congenial to me. But I believe that I am utilitarian at base: whatever the theory, I'm interested in what can be shown to WORK. (Maybe everybody thinks this about themselves.) This of course presupposes that we can agree on what an outcome should be, which is itself a pretty tall order. (A law making abortion illegal may in fact reduce the numbers of abortions, but I'm unlikely to agree with the men passing such laws about the desirability of that outcome divorced from any other consideration; and I certainly will disagree with them about claims of any positive increase in "moral behavior" that results from such a law.) I can see as readily as the next person the pitfalls that await us  in a society that simply provides everything for everybody while demanding nothing in return, a society that does not differentially reward those willing to work harder, willing to take bigger risks, willing to dream bigger. So my socialist utopia would require significant modifications from "pure" socialism. (Interestingly, these basic ideas are still bandied about today with talk of "takers" and "job creators" and the appropriateness of a social safety net and the justice or injustice of taxation. Lest we think Sinclair's thinking belongs to a bygone era.)

But Oil!, which story is based on the Teapot Dome scandal of the early 1920s, reminds us of the troubles of unchecked capitalism, a lesson which in the last decade or two I think we've largely lost sight of.

For as long as I've chewed on these basic issues--the proper place of workers and management in society, the proper role of government in civilization--I'm always a little surprised at how they resist reflecting a single hue. There are two or more sides to any complex issue, and while I feel reasonably settled about where I fall on political matters I am still often intrigued by the arguments arrayed against my convictions. (This is partly why I am so continually disgusted by Fox News, since there surely are cogent arguments to be made in support of conservatism, and yet instead of informing people and making a case for their positions, they are happy to gin up a silly world of spook stories and straw men that keep red meat before an unquestioning audience.) Upton Sinclair's Oil! is not telling a balanced story, and yet it's a story that has useful observations. And it's an entertaining read.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Oh Vwah, FaceBook, Part the Third

Continuing my ruminations on the pointless, I’ve recently deactivated my FaceBook page.

This is the third or fourth time I’ve done this. The first time was to jettison some really odious “friends” who had made their way onto my news feed. The other time or two it was because I really began to have doubts as to whether it was serving any useful purpose. Well, here we are again.

I’ve covered all this before, and god knows I’m only one of millions with these same thoughts (and not surely one of the more articulate ones). But as ever, this is kind of my way of thinking aloud.

My FB experiences always contrast with my wife’s. FB works very well for her, both in her capacity as a teacher and in running a theatre. It’s the perfect platform for keeping tabs on a large group that shares an interest in theatre (and in TV and movies), and she uses it to post notices for auditions and the like. It’s a very useful and convenient tool for her. But I’m just not a person who sustains a large number of acquaintances. Of course I know a bunch of people from various jobs over the years, but I tend to be a few close friends kind of guy rather than a bushels of acquaintances guy. Most of my work acquaintances are not people I need to stay in touch with, and I can keep abreast of goings-on in my smaller circle with emails and an occasional phone call or text.

The problems with FB for me are several: first, most of my feed is political in nature, and I’ve really begun to question the utility of interfacing with politics in this way (to say nothing of whether very many of my friends wish to read political subject matter on their news feed). On the one hand, I find that following a group of more politically-active people keeps me abreast of stories and developments to a greater extent than would be the case otherwise. But on the other hand, what am I doing with this information except to make a mental note and pass it on to others? I have never canvassed door-to-door nor even manned phones for any political organization. I give a little money on occasion, but honestly my views and inclinations have been EXACTLY the same now for a couple decades at least. My FB activity has not, to my knowledge, changed nor assisted in changing my mind nor anyone else’s about anything. None of the information I put forth is information that my politically-active and -informed friends would not have had anyway. So what purpose is served?

And related to that, I find that my immersion in these matters makes me a less happy person. I don’t know, maybe this smacks of the ostrich shoving its head in the sand, but if my views are not changed nor my actions changed, there seems little purpose in keeping myself stressed and miserable all the time (indeed, that’s one of my chief complaints about Faux “News,” that they sustain an audience by keeping people scared and pissed. That Faux does this by a steady stream of lies is another matter). I know who the bad guys are in life—I’ve known for years—and constant reminders are not terribly useful. My ballot gets marked exactly the same way in any case.

A second (and much more trivial) complaint relates to the constant, and constantly-evolving, marketing at work on FB. More and more it’s clear that the platform, like network television, exists to enrich someone else. I feel more and more like a patsy, clicking on things being fed to me based on past performance. The constant mining of data and the insidious targeted ads that cannot now be avoided seem like good things to thwart.

Third, for all the questions I have about the utility and healthiness of this kind of interaction, it sure takes up a lot of one’s time. I find that on days off I look through my news feed a hundred times a day, sometimes sucking up several hours in a single day. It becomes like an addiction: there's not anything on that feed that I even care much about, and yet here I am checking, checking, checking.

Jesus, what an utter waste of life.

Maybe underneath all this is a nagging question I have about the legitimacy, for me anyway, of the community that gets created this way. A friend is a friend, surely, and I’ve certainly burdened these pages before about the difficulties of making and keeping friends as the years advance. Certainly if I were housebound I would value the platform as a way of interacting with people with whom I would otherwise be unaware. And I surely value the contact with others who share my views of the world vis-a-vis both politics and religion; these are connections that are harder to accomplish in life than online. But the electronic nature of these relationships means they also yield smaller dividends. 

That’s been maybe the biggest hurdle for me. Given my work environment, I feel as though I need contact with people who share my outrage and continuous flabbergastery, and FB has provided this, albeit at a cost. So I’m having to decide if the frustration that comes from immersion in this world is adequately repaid by sharing that frustration and outrage with others, or whether I mightn’t be happier disengaging to a degree.

Honestly, I don’t know.

Lastly, I found that my attentions on FB have an inverse relationship to my writing on this site. My activity on the JW started hard and fast in 2005 and slowed to a trickle over the ensuing decade. This is pretty typical for a personal blog, I think. (And one wonders if blogging isn’t a ship that sailed years ago and we few remaining are already dinosaurs.) But it really came to a halt three or four years ago when FB kind of took over. I have missed the longer format of a blog vs the line or two that characterizes most FB posts—a line or two of your own thinking before one sends along someone else’s writing. I toyed for a while with resurrecting a diary to record daily thoughts, but I honestly think that FB kind of saps one’s incentive to keep at this. Mine, anyway. And I just find that my time put into the JW brings more benefits than the same time put into FB.

Maybe the solution, as my lovely wife suggests, lies in modifying my interface with FB so that it more closely corresponds to my convictions (assuming those two things are not fundamentally incompatible). There are a few people in particular with whom I only have contact with FB, and in truth I have missed them these last few weeks. Most people know where to reach me, but there are a handful with whom I have only ever had a FB relationship. But I might also just figure out how to email those people. I know that whenever I encounter someone now who has renounced FB I am impressed (as I am of those who have forsaken television).

In truth, it’s been a lovely three or four weeks, enough that I’m really in no hurry to amend my current situation.

And maybe that’s all I need to think about.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Who You Gonna Call?

It's been a week of movies for me. Stuck in Louisville for work and twice-annual training, I've had a number of days free and a fella can study only so much (or, in my case, almost not at all). And after removing my FaceBook page from life support (a topic on which I'll have more to say later. Or maybe not) I've been busying myself reviewing recent films.

Today, Scott Frank's adaptation of the Lawrence Block novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones. Liam Neeson stars as an aging ex cop-cum unlicensed private detective Matthew Scudder. A guy living kind of under the radar and sidling from task to task, Scudder gets roped into helping track down a couple guys who are kidnapping and brutally murdering young women. A recovering alcoholic, Scudder is approached after an AA meeting by another member whose brother is having a problem. After some hoop-jumping, Scudder is brought into the job in his usual unofficial capacity.

Scudder's character is nothing new. Part standard detective fiction, part film noir, Matthew Scudder seems a compendium of Jack Reacher and Sam Spade and Mike Hammer. And Neeson does this kind of thing very well. He's old enough that he's not to be mistaken for a 20-something tough guy, but he sports a deadly skill set and a tired patina of having seen almost everything. He's neither a guy who is likely to be caught off guard nor one to be much put out by any unpleasantness that gets dropped in his lap. He's a man of few words and he engages in only as much action as the situation requires. But he's also a bit of a luddite, and when trying to research other kidnappings on microfilm at the local library he runs across a young homeless boy who seems to have exactly the talents Scudder lacks. Thus does he find a sidekick and eventual partner in TJ (Brian "Astro" Bradley).

If there's not much new in the character of Matthew Scudder, well there's not much new in Tombstone's plot either. But that doesn't keep it from being a rousing entertainment. A distinct and linear story, with good, strong characters; we find ourselves swept along stem-to-stern. We may not be finding anything new here, but if you're gonna play in an established genre, this is how it should be done.

The film is briskly shot, and has a great New York City location much like The Drop. But Tombstone feels like Episode One of a franchise, which is fine by me. I for one would be happy to watch more of Matthew Scudder.

So, a slight demerit for unoriginality. Grade: B+

High Noon In Paris

I’ve always had a thing for Paris. 

OK, there’s something really unimaginative in that, I know; it’s surely America’s favorite foreign destination (which kind of taints the place). And it was the first foreign place I ever visited as an adult under my own steam. So in my case maybe it’s just bland expectation with a dollop of nostalgia. But the Paris I’ve always loved is a place of music, the city of Chopin and Debussy and Ravel, and most especially it’s a place for organ music. This is where Duruflé lived and worked, and César Franck and Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor and Camille Saint-Saëns and Marcel Dupre and Olivier Messiaen and Charles Tournemire. These composers are a huge part of what I love in music, and Paris is where they lived and worked and, not incidentally, where the incomparable Cavailé-Coll organs on which they played are located (as was his shop).

Anyway, this musical background—in addition to all the other things the draws the place to traveling Americans—means that any story set in the city gets a couple of free passes. And when you add in an all-star cast, as in Israel Horovitz’s new film My Old Lady, there seems every reason to expect success.

Kevin Kline plays Mathias Gold, a triple-divorcée from New York who learns upon his estranged father’s death that he has inherited an apartment in the City of Light. Mathias is a man to whom life has dealt a bum hand, it seems; he’s a rather embittered and tactless man staring down the barrel of old age armed with little more than an acerbic sense of humor. He arrives in Paris with everything he owns in life stuffed into a small duffel bag, guided by a letter in his jacket pocket that he scarcely understands and which in any case doesn’t begin to give him the real lay of the land.

He arrives to find the apartment occupied—for decades—by Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), and Mathias quickly discovers that he can’t, as he planned, simply evict the tenants and sell the apartment and live off the proceeds. Mathilde, who was Mathias’s father’s lover many decades ago, has what I can only regard as an utterly bizarre living situation: she (or her rental contract) is referred to as a “viager,” which means that she has a legal right to the apartment, whoever the owner, until she dies. Far worse for the penniless Mathias—this is the bizarre part—HE is under obligation from the viager contract to pay HER a whopping 2,400 Euros per month for the privilege of living in his apartment. Until she dies.

A day later I’m still trying to make sense of this. The film almost needs to stop the projectors at this point and subject us to a lesson in the arcane bits of Parisian real estate law if we are to have any hope of understanding the situation and sympathizing with the protagonists. It remains the case that Mathias has, as expected, inherited something of great value; but the mountain he must climb to attain his prize is quite unexpected and even surreal. He will have to outlive the Feisty Mathilde before he sees a penny of his inheritance, and the cost of outliving her could be staggering. Indeed, the requirement to pay her to live there is an impossibility for him and, worse still, it makes the apartment very nearly unsaleable as any buyer would be hamstrung by the same requirement.

Into this mix is thrown Mathilde’s daughter Chloé. Approaching Mathias’s age, she is similarly at sea, working a kind of nowhere job and tending to her aged mother in a huge apartment that someone is now trying to yank from under them.

It’s not a bad premise as stories go, and one could hardly have brought better resources to bear in terms of acting talent or setting. So why doesn’t it make for a better film? Partly because the only sympathetic character here is Mathilde (Maggie Smith is a national treasure). I don’t think the writer’s intention is for us to dislike Mathias—and lord knows we sympathize with the ludicrous and unfathomable yoke placed around his neck when he touches down in Paris—but there’s just nothing to cheer for in this character. Bitter and unhappy for reasons that remain remote to us, he’s just not a guy one senses the need to know. And Chloé even less so. Her distress at having the home in which she’s spend most of her life taken from her is quite understandable; but she spends most of her screen time being terse or snappy or hysterical, such that the inevitable rapprochement with Mathias makes almost zero emotional sense—and there’s not even a rational case made for it. It’s all very deus ex Mathilde, dispensed with a throw-away line or two.

I just didn’t buy it, and I had little desire to spend any more time with any of these people. I can get my fill of Paris by watching the opening five minutes of Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris over and over again. Or picking something almost at random from my iTunes.

Grade: C.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Nobody Knows Anybody, Not That Well

This is James Gandolfini’s last film, though he gets second billing here to the very versatile Tom Hardy. Based on the Dennis Lehane short story “Animal Rescue,” Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a bartender in a gritty Brooklyn bar named after, and formerly owned by, Gandolfini’s character, Uncle Marv. Marv is under the thumb of a small band of Chechen mobsters who use his bar—well, their bar— (among other places) as a drop location for the loot collected around town by their myriad criminal enterprises.  As Uncle Marv is involved, so inevitably is Saganowski. But there’s other trouble brewing for Saganowski as well. A seemingly decent if reticent and low-profile fellow, he puts himself unwittingly on the wrong side of a different criminal element, the notorious bad boy Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). Walking home one night after locking up the bar, Bob finds a put bull puppy in someone’s trash can. The puppy has been beaten up, and Bob adopts the dog and (with some help from the garbage can’s owner, Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace) nurses him back to health. Turns out Mr. Deeds is the dog’s original owner, and he decides he wants his dog—and his old girlfriend—back. Or maybe he just wants to make trouble.

The thing is, nobody is really exactly who they appear to be; that’s kind of the whole banana. It’s a lovely script, focusing on these rather inscrutable characters in between and during the pinch points that drive the story. Uncle Marv is a guy with a lot of miles on the clock and without much—or any—opportunity to set anything right again (watching the overweight and out-of-breath Gandolfini chain smoking his way through the film, one cannot help thinking of the fate that awaits him shortly after the production wrapped). How desperate is he, and what’s left to lose? Noomi Rapace’s Nadia seems a basically good person who has touched the hot stove too many times. But how much has she participated in her colorful past? Eric Deeds is a man with a frightful reputation—or is he? Bob Saganowski, having almost a touch of Forrest Gump or the Rain Man about him, is the film’s great mystery: is he a bit of a simpleton or not? He was a wild youth—how wild? How far from his wild youth is he? Is Bob just not much of a talker or is he rather smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut?

The performances are magnetic. Hardy especially impresses, as he is given so few colors on his palette to work with, yet he’s in virtually every scene. Gandolfini plays a man who has lived hard and is now in over his head, and it’s a little hard to jettison the expectation that he will just summon Tony Soprano’s resourcefulness to get himself out of the hole he’s in. But Uncle Marv is not Tony Soprano. Noomi Rapace is lovely, though there’s perhaps a bit too much of the damsel in distress in her role (though that’s certainly not her fault). It’s really Tom Hardy’s story, and he gives a very restrained performance that feels exactly right for this story.

Lehane often sets his stories in his native Boston (Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, The Given Day--I almost said The Town, which is the right place but another author), and this could as easily have been set there. The Drop has a very blue collar setting that feels to me more Boston than Brooklyn. But that’s probably just me not knowing either place very well, and it’s neither here nor there in any case; the filmmakers have channeled a hardscrabble urban world that feels authentic and makes the perfect setting for this story.

Afterward I find myself impressed at the mob movie that’s more Hitchcock than Scorsese. It steers clear of most of the mob violence one expects (though not all). The Drop is about tension and about the interaction of personalities in a life-and-death world. I’m reminded yet again that a great film often needs a great basic story at its core, and that’s the job of a writer. A high proportion of my favorites have started life as a great book (though there will always be exceptions, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Chinatown). This one hits its marks in fine fashion.

Grade: A- / B+

(PS: Brownie points for identifying the source of this review's title.)