Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

The Thinker

Review: Cinderella

My last movie review was a review of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In that review, I noted that there were two actors from Downton Abbey in the movie. It looks like during offseason the younger Downton actors are also booking joint gigs. That’s certainly the case with Disney’s live action version of Cinderella now in theaters. We get two young Downton actors in this movie: Lily James (“Rose” from Downton Abbey) as Cinderella and in a big role reversal from her utterly adorable portrait as Daisy, the kitchen maid/chef we also get Sophie McShera as Drisella, one of the stepsisters.

It should go without saying that you don’t go see a movie about Cinderella expecting any plot twists. You certainly get none here, but you do get a somewhat kinder and gentler version of the tale. Cate Blanchett gets to chew up the scenery as the wicked stepmother, but she seemed sort of wicked-lite to me. Mostly you get a rather upbeat version of Cinderella that moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace. There’s hardly another nasty person in it. The closest is Stellan Skarsgård as the Grand Duke, whose only crime is looking out for the best interests of the kingdom. And that would be that the prince needs to marry an actual princess, for the good of the kingdom.

Granted, most red blooded men would be happy to trade money and protection for the slinky and gorgeous Lily James, who must wear size zero dresses. With beautiful brown eyes, moist and pouty lips and of course long flowing blonde tresses this Cinderella would turn any prince’s head no matter how many cinder ashes are on her clothes or in her face. Besides, she takes to heart her mother’s dying advice: always be kind and have courage. She has to draw on a deep reserve of it after both her parents die and her stepmother quickly turns her into a servant. Yet sweet, dopey and innocent Ella can’t seem to be mad at any of them even when (bet you didn’t see this coming) her stepmother won’t let her go to the prince’s ball.

It’s not entirely clear why I went to see this movie. My adult daughter really liked it, which was something of a surprise as she is a feminist. The whole “I can only be complete with a man” and worse “I can only be fully complete if I marry a prince” memes should make any feminist retch. Well, it’s the magic of Disney I guess. It being Spring Break week and discount day at the cinema, we had a decent crowd for a Wednesday 1 PM matinee. It was perhaps 50% girls under age 8, 40% mothers attending to girls under age 8 and a few oddballs like my wife and I just looking for something halfway decent to see in early April when the movie pickings tend to be slim.

If nothing else Disney knows how to do fairy tales. More typically it has been delivering animated fairy tales. Having plumbed that for pretty much all the profit possible, making live action versions are now a big part of their business plans. Thankfully, at least with Cinderella they do a good job of it. What’s not to like about the handsome, kind and dutiful Prince (Richard Madden), except when he is hunting an elk in the forest (where he first runs into Cinderella, of course) that the ever kind hearted Cinderella does not like to see hunted? The king (Derek Jacobi) is similarly kind hearted, as is pretty much everyone except Cruella, I mean the wicked stepmother. The wicked stepmother is there mainly to keep the adults in the audience awake, and Blanchett gives a fine but not unexpected performance. Among the minor parts we get Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother.

It’s all so clean, sparkly and well done. There are no rainy days in this kingdom. The temperature seems to hover around seventy during the days. There is no mud from horse drawn carriages in the streets. The only thing dirty in this movie, and it’s just a smudge really, is Cinderella, who often sleeps next to the fire to stay warm. If there is a surprise in this movie, it’s its director: Kenneth Branagh, yes that Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor and director with memorable films like Henry V. How Disney snared him, or even considered him as a director in the first place, is something of a mystery, but it’s a good match. Branagh makes this well loved but predictable story not quite memorable (since you know the plot) but largely entertaining in spite of its lack of originality. Disney should consider him for more work like this, since it’s hard to get these factors right.

Branagh hits all the notes that make little girls sigh and swoon. Adults may sigh and swoon a bit too, given that we were young girls and boys once too. There’s nothing to criticize about this movie as long as you can forgive its utter lack of any originality. It’s sweet but not saccharine, strangely heartfelt yet absurdly surreal and it can take even us jaded adults back into a more innocent age in our minds, at least for a little while. The only thing that would have made this better would be to pull it off with a new plot, but then that would be a different story.

Enjoy the lack of surprises but also enjoy the way it so perfectly pulls all your strings as well. It’s the difference between hearing Beethoven performed by your high school orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Branagh has made Cinderalla high art.

3.4 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This movie answers the burning question: what do the actors of Downton Abbey do off-season? I can’t say what all of them do, but the film will answer the question of what Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) do, which is do movies together, well, at least The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Wilton is principally a British TV actor. Maggie Smith’s career needs no introduction. She inspires in most admirers a sense of awe with her amazing and seemingly reflexive acting. She can broadcast more meaning from a single stare or a turn of the head that many actors can do in the course of an entire movie. Like the late Robin Williams, Smith can make even a mediocre movie memorable, which helps in the case with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I suspect men who see the movie will share my opinion about its mediocrity. Most women who see it will probably be like my wife, who was crying at the end. In short, at the risk of showing gender bias, I strongly suspect that this is principally a chick flick.

It’s also a movie for old folks. With a few exceptions, the entire cast is sixty plus, and in most cases seventy plus. As such while the movie certainly has its comic moments, the subtext is that going from old to ancient is not an easy process. Each of these senior citizens deals with the problem in their own way. For example, there is Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) who won’t let the fact that she is turning eighty keep her from a career buying fabric in India for her company. She has a knack for finding great stuff, stuff that will prove highly fashionable, and for getting it at discounted rates. For Muriel Donnelly (Maggie), her job seems to be to give up control. She and her much younger business partner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) run The Best Marigold Hotel in India. Sonny is an energetic young man anxious to prove his business acumen, which is why he and Muriel start the movie in San Diego seeking venture capital from hotel moguls. But mostly the movie takes place at their hotel. Aside from the staff it appears to be populated with white, 60+ Americans and Brit ex-pats who check in but never seem to check out. The clientele is so stable that Sonny and his fiancé Sunaina (Tina Desai) do a daily roll call every day by yelling their names from the open-air lobby, mainly to see if their permanent guests are still alive.

This is a movie with several tracks that clumsily intertwine. One is Sonny’s desperate need to prove his business acumen by creating a second Marigold Hotel. The other is Sonny’s jealousy. He suspects that Sunaina actually prefers their flashy friend Kushal (Shazad Latif) because he is smarter and more entrepreneurial. The rest is a conglomeration of issues with many white people aging. These include Douglas (Bill Nighy), who is technically married and estranged but loves Evelyn with a dopey puppy love that would be cute except he is seventy something. For the women there is the eye candy of Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) to stalk. And there is a fair amount of aging infidelity, of the heart if not of the body, between these aging seniors. Happily the older men are of an age where they fall for personalities not good looking older women. Judy Dench and Maggie Smith are great actresses, but both are packing on the pounds they try to hide behind large blousy dresses.

So it definitely helps to be a much older person to appreciate the movie. For a weekday matinee our theater was surprisingly full, and virtually all of them were senior citizens. This is not surprising due to the day of the week, but also because there are not a whole lot of movies out there marketed for seniors. So this movie is a special treat for them, and something they can relate to instead of another superhero movie featuring impossibly gorgeous people in their twenties. So kudos, with some exceptions, for at least giving us a cast where character is more attractive than looks. With the exception of Gere, none of these seniors will win a senior beauty contest.

Sonny makes for an amusing and energetic if somewhat frantic co-owner. He provides decent entertainment for any of the under fifty crowd that shows up. Filmed principally in India, it of course must have a Bollywood element, which means there must be singing and dancing in it somewhere. Most of it happens at the wedding at the end of the movie. It makes for an interesting amalgamation of Hollywood and Bollywood.

But principally this is a relationship movie, which is what makes it a chick flick. A lot of the pairings don’t make a whole lot of sense to this older male, and overall it seems to be much ado about nothing. However, it at least fills a rarely filled niche of decent movie for the seventy plus crowd. Its basic message: your old but you’re not dead. Enjoy life in whatever way you can while you still have it. And just because you are much older doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a lot of heartache along the way, not to mention new opportunities for love and personal growth.

Both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench though provide plenty of incentive to see the movie regardless of its targeted market. Like a fine wine, these actors age well on camera. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a great use of two hours, but it’s a pretty good use of the time. In general, the older you are the more this movie is likely to tickle your fancy. If relationship movies are your thing, go for it. How nice to get through a movie without anyone dying from a gunshot wound.

3.0 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Double feature, take two

Jupiter Ascending

The last time I reviewed a Wachowski movie, it was a review of Cloud Atlas, a film with lots of potential. It sadly missed the mark, but was still worth seeing. The Wachowski siblings will probably always be best remembered for The Matrix (1999) and its two sequels.

In my humble opinion, Jupiter Ascending is equally as good as The Matrix, and maybe a little better. Sadly, it’s not doing too well at the box office. I have to attribute this to poor publicity, but it may also be because it is at its root a feminist movie and that will bug some people. The heroine, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) doesn’t take much shit. She spends her days in part getting rid of shit by cleaning toilets. She’s part of a Russian immigrant family living marginally in Chicago. Thieves in Russia killed her father before she was born. Of course Jupiter is drop dead gorgeous, and it’s kind of hard to see her being so devoted to her hardworking extended immigrant family that scrambles together a living cleaning other people’s houses. She naturally resists her 4:45 AM wakeup call to begin another day on her hands and knees. She hates her life, she tells us, but won’t do much to change it.

This is not much of a compelling plot but it quickly gets very weird. Apparently Earth is just one of many planets owned by huge profit-oriented conglomerates controlled by various families. We humans and specifically our DNA are much in demand so that its rulers can maintain effective immortality and maximize their profits. In fact, the likely heir to the earth, Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) is eager to harvest Earth, but first has to get rid of Jupiter, who has no idea that she owns the planet. It’s Caine’s (Channing Tatum) job to try to protect her, even though he is from a far inferior class (half human, half wolf). He does have a few tricks up his sleeve, including these amazing boots that keep him levitated and effectively make him a skywalker. He also has a terrific if somewhat violent dad, Stinger (Sean Bean) who when he is not beating up his son is busy helping him save Jupiter.

Jupiter’s hard scrapple life though is something of a blessing. It makes her tough, resourceful and someone who won’t take much shit when she learns she actually owns the earth and is something of a queen. It also makes her grounded, and she begins to appreciate her simple family that quickly becomes pawns in a much bigger chessboard of universal intrigue.

So that’s the plot, and it seems more appropriate for a comic book than the screen. What’s amazing is what the Wachowskis manage to do with this story. They breathe real life into it in an amazing directorial tour de force. I generally hate CGI in movies because they tend to overwhelm the story. That’s not the case here. The CGI complements the story, and intelligently so and it is full of neat special effects that I’ve never seen before, including ghostly figures and amazingly detailed extraterrestrial civilizations. Moreover, the characters (all of them) are quite interesting. There’s a real universe here, full of quirks and complexity and it is amazingly well visualized by the Wachowskis. There are also some very humorous scenes, such as when the new empress has to get certified by its bureaucracy, which is something out of a 19th century Dickens novel. If it seems a little familiar, think Brazil (1985), which was Terry Gilliam’s (of Monty Python) directorial tour de force. Gilliam shows up here as one of the bureaucrats. It’s a minor part but memorable one.

I personally have not had this much fun at the movies since the last Indiana Jones movie. If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, this is equally as good as that, if not better. It’s just not getting the same traction, for reasons I really don’t understand.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Birdman

I usually end up seeing Best Picture, for which Birdman took home the Oscar this year. It is usually sometime after it wins the award, and that was the case this year. Birdman is definitely memorable and is a directorial tour de force just like Jupiter Ascending, just on the micro scale. This movie by director Alejandro Iñárritu was made on a shoestring but he managed to assemble a pretty impressive cast anyhow, including Michael Keaton as Riggan (i.e. Birdman), Emma Stone as his borderline dysfunctional daughter Sam, Naomi Watts as his ex-wife Lesley and Edward Norton as the temperamental actor Mike. If you are looking for something you haven’t seen before at the movies, Birdman definitely qualifies. It is mostly a small series of very long takes wherein the camera closely follows Riggan, a washed up actor known for his Birdman superhero movies from twenty years earlier.

The sixty-something Riggan looks pretty awful. (Michael Keaton is not aging well.) This has to do with his life being a complete mess. His daughter Sam is fresh out of rehab and acting as his assistant, and doing a bad job of it. Riggan is out to prove himself, not as Birdman, but as a Broadway actor, and at the St. James Theater of all places. (I saw The Producers there many years ago.) He has sunk what is left of his fortune into this play, but he can’t seem to keep the other male actor. His producer manages to snag Mike at the last moment, but Mike is quirky, temperamental and prone to blowing up. Riggan struggles mightily to keep his play from imploding, which seems impossible, as each preview is rife with major problems. Moreover the characters intersect, mostly disastrously while what feedback Riggan gets is that he is not cut out for the real theater on Broadway.

It’s all this and Riggan seems to have the mystical powers of his Birdman character, including the powers of levitation, moving objects and flying. It’s left unclear how much of this is real or a product of Riggan’s imagination. But it is impressive to be able to pull off these incredibly long and intimate scenes so flawlessly. I am sure it took a lot of rehearsals. It shows what can be done for so little money and in such a short period of time. I am not sure it deserved Best Picture but it’s quite fascinating as a technical achievement, but perhaps a bit longer than needed. Plus you get to see Michael Keaton go around Times Square in his underwear.

3.3 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Spock lives!

When us denizens of the Internet yesterday weren’t debating whether a certain dress was gold and white or blue and black we were mourning the death of actor Leonard Nimoy, famous in his portrayal of the logical and taciturn Vulcan (well, half human-half Vulcan) Mr. Spock in the original TV series Star Trek, not to mention a bunch of Star Trek movies and even some animated episodes in the 1970s. It was unclear to me which topic won the day, but I do know which topic will endure: Leonard Nimoy’s outstanding portrayal of our favorite Vulcan. Spock, and by extension Leonard Nimoy who defined him, has become immortal.

Here’s the truth about Star Trek: it was always far more about Mr. Spock than it was about Captain Kirk. This was because Leonard Nimoy could act and William Shatner could not, unless he had a really good director (e.g. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)). But of course it was also because Spock was a far more interesting character. He was deep and mysterious, in spite of his projected lack of emotions and clockwork-like brain. He was different but somehow cool, an outsider but someone most of us secretly wanted to emulate. He was Sherlock Holmes on steroids, a super outsider fighting for truth, justice and the United Federation of Planets. He was virtually flawless: an intellectual giant that specialized in synthesizing disparate information for the benefit of good. His only flaw to my way of thinking was his dopey, over the top and undeserved loyalty to James T. Kirk, his friend for life who frankly deserved his scorn, not his admiration.

Unsurprisingly, Nimoy was thrice nominated for an Emmy for best supporting actor for his role as Spock while Shatner never got a single nomination. Maybe it was the 1960s, but we couldn’t get enough of Mr. Spock. Women in particular were fascinated by Mr. Spock. In a time when women were required to tightly reign in their passionate sides, Mr. Spock gave them a safe channel to vent. In particular women were fascinated by the Kirk-Spock relationship, mainly because it hinted that two men could have a relationship of great depth during a time when men’s relations with other men were typically superficial. Women knew there was something deeper there that us men did not see: a homosexual context. Perhaps Kirk was a repressed homosexual, or at least a bisexual. Spock’s puppy dog admiration for Kirk hinted that Spock’s ultra logical personality was a mere projection. Inside he was a cauldron of passion for his true love: Kirk, and certainly not Nurse Christine Chapel.

Spock was the infectious character of his time. While the series died in 1969 the character simply would not go away. Star Trek lived principally because of the subtext of the Kirk-Spock relationship. It was women more than men who kept the show in their hearts and petitioned Paramount for movies and spinoffs. When the movies became successful (and they did when the Kirk-Spock relationship became front and center in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan) of course the demand would spin off all sorts of Star Trek themed shows, some good, some not so good.

The emotional subtext of Spock aside, we grooved on Spock because of what he stood for. Our world today is far messier than it was in the chaotic late 1960s. But Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry laid out an idealistic but somehow hopeful vision of humanity’s future where we had overcome issues like racism and classism. We lived in peace and in something close to utopia, except for the Klingons, Romulans and other another assorted unenlightened species we encountered exploring brave new worlds that wanted to do the United Federation of Planets harm. Star Trek inspired us. It inspired me. The Prime Directive (which Kirk often ignored) was an enlightened way that acknowledged the greater forces at work shaping civilizations. Maybe it inspired the Beatles to create their song Let it be. It shaped my thinking on our war in Iraq and how we should handle our current conflict with ISIS. It was Spock, not Kirk that modeled this new and enlightened universe. As long as this half-breed could maintain his civility and logic, there was hope. I often think that President Obama channels Mr. Spock, so much so that I wrote a post about it. Due to Nimoy’s death, the post has surged to the top of my most popular posts list.

It was Nimoy of course who impressively pulled off a plausible and coherent character that the rest of us could latch onto. Unsurprisingly, Nimoy developed a love/hate relationship with his character. It caused him write a book, I am not Spock and years later another book, I am Spock where he wrestled with his feelings with being saddled by the character. However, it was Nimoy that really brought Spock alive. The character brought Nimoy huge celebrity and also drove him to drink, but like it or not it made him and his character immortal.

Nimoy quickly became typecast by Spock, which put a serious dent on his acting career. He wanted to be more than Spock, but for the most part he wasn’t allowed. He dabbled in directing and summer stock. His most impressive non-Spock role was as Morris Meyerson, the husband of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance, but didn’t feel too bad for losing, as he lost to Laurence Olivier.

Nimoy is gone but Spock has endured, and was most recently portrayed by Zachary Quinto, who was tutored in the role by Nimoy himself. At one time (2003) I was convinced that Star Trek was dead. These newest Star Trek movies proved me wrong, thankfully, because they were done so well. However, the reason they survived was because Spock, not Kirk, proved too popular to die. After all Spock died in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and we had to resurrect him, just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has to resurrect Sherlock Holmes from certain death.

Nimoy, a Jew, did not believe in resurrection but his character is likely to endure and may prove as immortal as Sherlock Holmes in the decades ahead. It would not surprise me if when the 22nd century dawns that portrayals of Mr. Spock will still endure on popular media and Star Trek, in it’s 22nd century projection, will as well. United Federation of Planets, here we come! And here’s hoping that Spock will be in charge.

 
The Thinker

Double feature

Seeing double? I am, after seeing two movies in two days. Here are capsule reviews:

Selma

Having seen two of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture this year (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything), it’s not hard to understand how the director and producers of Selma would feel overlooked for not having their film at least nominated. Some say that it is due to racism: when whites are largely responsible for nominating films, they tend to nominate films starring whites. But then again, it was only last year that 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. Whether or not it deserved a nomination, Selma is definitely worth seeing and certainly feels on par with the nominated films. Then again, any film about Martin Luther King during the height of the civil rights movement, if made really well, would make a compelling movie. Director Ava DuVernay certainly delivers the goods with the help of a cast of thousands (at least in some of the protest scenes), but principally with David Oyelowo as King and Carmen Ejogo as his wife Coretta Scott King.

The movie had to be made with a lot of funding from African Americans instead of traditional sources, which some attribute to discrimination. Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper but also owns Harpo Productions. Her company doubtlessly paid for a large part of the film’s costs, since it shows up in the opening credits. The producers’ struggle to make the movie was doubtlessly easier than King’s struggles in and around Selma, Alabama in February and March 1965, which is the focus of the movie.

In a way this movie is a brave portrait of King, since it does not shy away from King’s alleged infidelities. It is not like his mistresses are in your face, but it is alluded to in a very grownup discussion between King and Coretta. It’s hard to see how King could find time to fool around, but it is clear that he was both great and flawed, which seems to be true of all our great heroes. Also flawed is the movie’s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson. Very early in the movie, he is portrayed as wanting to punt on the Civil Rights Act in favor of more achievable goals. This is factually incorrect. Someday Hollywood will give Johnson his own movie because he is an interesting character, just not a particularly telegenic one. Selma does make clear that Johnson was a pivotal character in the civil rights struggle. Arguably, only Johnson had the power to get the Civil Rights bill passed, as his southern credentials (as well as his overwhelmingly Democratic congress) gave him the mojo to do this. Few blacks could actually vote in the south due to poll taxes and unreasonable voter registration requirements. This is the focus of the movie and the stage is Selma.

What Selma does brilliantly is connect us with the extreme discrimination and oppression in the south at this time. Your heart will race during many of these pivotal scenes. The focus of the movie is the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge by principally black protestors. These events are now fifty years in our past and thus beyond the memory of most Americans. The movie makes it easy to run back the clock and to understand the extraordinary bravery exercised by blacks (and some whites) back then.

King’s portrayal is thus nuanced, which make him plausible instead of glorified. Along the way we get a host of characters, some best forgotten like Alabama Governor George Wallace, and some we should remember more than we do, like Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. Like it or not you will get a close encounter with our nation’s ugliest side but you will also get a sense for the power of faith in action. King will bring down the walls of Jericho with the help of a lot of dedicated and very brave people. You should get an appreciation for King’s strategic and tactical strengths, and his ability to outthink his opponents. Short of being a reptile, you should be very moved by this movie.

3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Lucy

Lucy is another movie that really deserved an academy award nomination. It will unfortunately receive nothing from the Oscars this year because it was not nominated for anything. Interstellar will probably win any awards issued this year for a science fiction movie, but really Lucy is the better science fiction movie. In my humble opinion, it’s the most mind-blowing movie in this genre since The Matrix.

And yet of course there are parts of this movie that strain credulity, with its premise being the biggest one. Morgan Freeman plays a professor that ponders what humans would be like if we could use more than ten percent of our brain. This is a lot of silliness, as we do use all of our brain, but perhaps not with 100% efficiency. Lucy (Scarlet Johannson) gets to find out when she unwittingly becomes a drug courier for a very special drug, reputedly a chemical created during pregnancy that stimulates creativity in the fetus. In higher doses Lucy will discover it will let her use 100% of her brain, and this leads to all sorts of magical powers and incredible abilities to use her brain and process information and discern truth. The bad men in Taiwan who put the drug into her body (and a number of other couriers) must take commercial flights with the 500 grams placed in a pouch sewed up inside their bodies. Some very well moneyed clients are waiting, which means that Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) and his well dressed and well armed henchmen won’t let anything go wrong, and are willing to kill lots of people to make it happen. Lucy, once she is transformed by the massive drug overdose, wreaks her own revenge while trying to make use of her abilities to save her knowledge for mankind, while also certain that she will die soon from the cell replication the process spawns.

Johannson is a great actor and gives us a riveting performance as Lucy, while the director Luc Besson makes sure lots of people get killed in and around her for those of us who demand action, blood and gore. Lucy is not afraid to kill either, and with her new precognition she really can’t be beat. But things really get freaky as she uses more and more of her brain and starts to have supernatural and then god-like abilities. But can the knowledge she acquired be passed on before she dies, particularly when so many people want her dead?

This is a terrific movie for any science fiction fan plus you get tons of cool special effects to enjoy too. I’m frankly baffled why it wasn’t nominated for anything and why it wasn’t rated higher by reviewers. It’s a great film, the sort of movie where when you leave the theater you definitely feel you have been taken someplace new. And a bonus: Johansson can act. I can’t say the same about Keanu Reeves (Neo) in The Matrix.

3.4 out of four stars too! What a great double feature!

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Imitation Game

Warning: The Imitation Game ends with perhaps the most heartbreaking five minutes in movie history. You might want to bring a box or two of tissues with you to the movie theater. Aside from the heartbreak principally at the end, it’s natural to feel irritated by Alan Turing, portrayed in this movie by the rising megastar Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing is not an easy man to like and really no one liked him except his parents and his childhood friend Christopher. Christopher is rarely seen in the film but he has really the major part in the film, as will become clear when you see the film.

Turing’s extreme antisocial behavior and brusque manner though did make a certain amount of sense. He was a product of his environment but mostly he was a homosexual. During the 1940s this was not something that you announced, or even admitted in duress. Homosexual conduct was a crime. To survive, Turing learned to keep his feelings tightly bottled up inside of him. Sexual orientation and intelligence have no correlation but perhaps his homosexuality fed his extreme introversion and fascination with mathematics. Today, Alan Turing is known as the founder of modern computer science. The movie is an attempt to show his impact on the world. I am a beneficiary of Alan Turing’s impact, for my career in information technology and my standard of living is a direct consequence of his work. Turing was the unknowing and largely unknown catalyst that brought the computer to life.

He was a more extreme version of Stephen Hawking, whose recent movie The Theory of Everything I recently reviewed. Hawking is a physicist. Turing was a mathematician, but both were geniuses in their own right. It was Turing though who succeeded in the impossible task of cracking the Germany’s Enigma machine, which was used by the German Army and Navy to decode instructions for German forces. This was done by sending coded broadcasts over the radio. The Allies had captured an Enigma machine but without understanding the cypher, which changed daily, there was no way to figure out what the true message was. Decrypt it and the Allies could probably win the war.

This was a staggering problem. Turing’s hope was to create a machine that would test all possible combinations and spit out a decrypted answer. It was an expensive approach and considered a fool’s errand. Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) was tasked with the project’s success. He disliked Turing personally and tried to cut him off. Turing simply went over his head and appealed directly to Winston Churchill, who ensured he had autonomy and millions of British pounds needed to construct his machine. Turing quickly got rid of many of those who were supposed to help him, but looked for suitable candidates by publishing a unique crossword puzzle and encouraging those who could solve it quickly enough to apply for a unique position. One of those he snagged turned out to be Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) with whom Turing forms a close professional bond, something of a close emotional bond but obviously nothing of a sexual bond. Most of Turning’s staff found him thoroughly irritating and disapproved of his methods. They detected his underlying homosexuality and resented being forced to work for him.

Turing though perseveres, in spite of his initial ambivalence about the war in general and his difficulty winning the respect of those charged to work for him. He inexpertly fends off attempts to shut down his project and also inexpertly tries to win the respect of his team. Their work of course is highly secret and takes place in a hidden military base deep in England. Only one of his male coworkers seems to respect him: John Cairncross (Alan Leech, who you may know as the character Tom Branson from Downton Abbey.) John though is carrying secrets of his own. There is in fact subterfuge underway, which will become clearer as the movie progresses.

It won’t surprise you that the team actually succeeds, thanks to Turing’s machine. Once decrypted though the story takes a different turn, as British intelligence must figure out a way to use the information without tipping off German intelligence that Enigma has been broken.

The movie occasionally moves ten years into the future after the war when we learn that Turing’s patriotism is being questioned and more importantly his homosexuality is discovered, and prosecuted. Turing’s work was so highly classified that his importance to winning the World War II was unknown to the police. Turing nearly went to prison for being a homosexual, and avoided it only through chemical castration that was thought to control his homosexual impulses.

Benedict Cumberbatch is ideal for the role and looks a lot like Turing, except he is skinnier. Keira Knightley is also a good choice as Joan Clarke, but director Morton Tyldum overall does a fine job with this cliffhanger that takes place well behind enemy lines. What becomes clear through the movie is that Turing is a broken and dysfunctional man who inexpertly rises to the occasion. He was also a man of genius, foresight and determination. The movie makes clear the magnitude of his accomplishments.

Turing began the information age. Stephen Hawking was searching for the theory of everything. Turing not only won World War II for the allies but also effectively ended the age of manufacturing and ushered in the information age. As you disable your smartphone before the movie starts, ponder that his accomplishments made your cell phone possible.

3.3 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Theory of Everything

Suddenly science is cool in the movies, at least if you don’t dwell too much on the science part. Witness two movies out now: The Theory of Everything about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turning, the founder of modern computer science. We’ll see the latter movie tomorrow, but my wife and I did see The Imitation Game last week, so here’s a review.

To start with, this was a daunting film not so much to make but to market. No one except physicists really care about physics and the nature of reality or, for that matter, people like Stephen Hawking who became crippled early in his career with a progressive neurological disease. Recognizing this the director decided to give short shrift to Hawking’s accomplishments in physics and instead concentrated on his relationship with his wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones). This is a compelling story but it is still hard to watch Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) move quickly from active but nerdy PhD student to crippled scientist. While I knew of Hawking’s notoriety and have read two of his books including his best known, A Brief History of Time, I never knew that he was married and even had many children with his wife Jane, all after he was severely hobbled by his disease.

This is where the film tightly focuses. What draws the literary student Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking together seems hard to fathom, aside from the fact that they both attend Cambridge University. Jane is a die-hard Christian (Church of England) and Stephen is an atheist. Jane likes to sing in the church choir and Stephen likes to play chess. Jane likes to dance and Stephen cannot, and this is before his disease progressed. Jane is beautiful and Stephen is asymmetrical, ungainly, socially awkward and wears seriously ugly oversized glasses that accentuate his obvious nerdishness.

Much more puzzling is why Jane would want to marry Stephen, particularly when his disease manifests itself. Jane though is full of either grace or stupidity, because she plunges ahead anyhow, doing almost all the work. She cares for Stephen’s many personal needs, manages the household and then becomes the mother to a number of their children. His disease, which typically kills the recipient in about two years, doesn’t kill Stephen, but it does worsen. And over time technology helps Stephen cope with the disease, giving him an artificial voice and an electric wheelchair.

Jane’s seeming martyrdom does have its price: overwhelming work, stress and no sense of identity beyond being his wife, caretaker and mother of his children. Eventually she carves out a little time for herself by rejoining the church choir. There she meets the new choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jonathan recently lost his own wife so he and Jane quickly become close, too close in the eyes of Jane’s mother, who suspects their last child is not actually Stephen’s. Jonathan though is a genuinely nice man and integrates himself seamlessly into their household, with Stephen’s tacit consent. Stephen seems to understand that he cannot provide the companionship that Jonathan can so this unusual arrangement starts to become the family’s new normal, although it raises many eyebrows both in and out of Cambridge.

By itself though this plot is not terribly compelling. Fortunately it has great acting, mostly by Jones and Redmayne to sustain your interest. We get insights into Stephen and his courage confronting the disease, but in reality this film is more an ode to and study of Jane than it is about Stephen. But even with overwhelming tenacity and perseverance Jane cannot help but feel somewhat the victim in the relationship, although it was a role she took on willingly. It’s not surprisingly that while she avoids a physical relationship with Jonathan for a long time, they become emotionally entangled and that causes more distance between Jane and Stephen.

As his disease progresses, Stephen needs the help of a full time nurse. Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) becomes more than his nurse, but also his confidant and lover, leading Jane and Stephen to eventually divorce and for Stephen and Elaine to marry. And, oh yeah, despite his disabilities Hawking manages to write his book, lecture and make new advances in theoretical physics, something that will not surprise you if you know anything about his life. Hawking is still alive at age 72 but his marriage to Elaine ended in 2006.

So don’t expect to learn much about a unified theory of physics in this movie, which is just as well since we likely wouldn’t understand it anyhow, but do expect to feel moved by the story of Stephen and Jane’s life together and how Stephen somehow managed to live a rich life in spite of the odds against him. Despite all the great acting, this is a fringe film. It hasn’t done great in theaters because it is a topic that won’t interest most people. However, if you are brave enough to inhabit Steve and Jane’s world for two hours, you will probably find it a film worth watching.

3.1 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Laughing all the way: Parks and Recreation

No question about it: NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a funny sitcom! The NBC TV series will begin its seventh and final season next month. I on the other hand have just recently discovered it, and am streaming past episodes on Netflix.

I have found that I tend to binge on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes I will watch four episodes in a sitting, which is not a hard thing to do since each show is about twenty minutes when you take out the commercials. Then I will take a break for a week or two. As I get more and more into the series, I can’t seem to wait that long. Sometimes I watch it during the day. I just can’t seem to stop!

The series stars Amy Poehler as the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a “mocumentary” from the creators of The Office (American version). I have tried to get into The Office but it never took. Parks and Recreation on the other hand was easy for me to like, in part because it’s about the civil service, and I inhabited that world for thirty plus years. Granted that I was a federal employee, and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her crew are city employees, but it feels familiar. With the exception of Leslie, most of the people working at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department though fall into the stereotype of civil servants that spend more time goofing off than working. This is particularly true of their director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Despite the fact that he does almost nothing, he is hoping to become city administrator and then to get rid of his department. Ron you see is a libertarian, but not just a run of the mill libertarian, but a severe libertarian. He wants the parks contracted out to the private sector and would like these companies to charge kids to see ducks.

Leslie is just the opposite and basically runs the whole department with cheerfulness, aplomb and dedication. It’s just that her employees emulate her boss for the most part. They include her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a skinny and short guy of Indian ancestry but born in South Carolina with a green card marriage to a doctor from Canada but with a passion to run a nightclub. It also includes April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) whose job is to keep the public from seeing Ron Swanson, Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) as a large fifty-something career civil servant on the cusp of retirement and Donna Meagle (Retta) as a snappy, fast-talking black woman with an attitude. Hanging outside the office and occasionally inside it are ancillary characters Andy Dwyer (“shoe shine boy”), Leslie’s friend Anne and toward the later half of the second season Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), sent by the state of Indiana to help run city government, which had gotten badly mismanaged.

The mocumentary style is now well refined. The camera becomes an unseen presence that the characters interact around and with, although rarely explicitly. This gives us insight into the intimacies of each character and actually kicks up the level of entertainment. The comedy of the show of course comes from the interaction of these characters and the slow soap operas of their lives that continue incrementally from show to show. Individually no character is particularly memorable, but as an ensemble they prove most entertaining. They become more entertaining as you get to know each of them and their backstories.

Not every show is a hit but all are funny to some extent and some had me actually on the floor laughing hysterically. I watch these alone as my wife is not into mocumentaries, and it’s just as well because falling off your chair from laughter is kind of embarrassing, particularly when snot starts running out of your nose. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV series so there were doubtless many other funny TV series that I missed over the years. I can say honestly though that I have never laughed so hard at a TV sitcom in more than thirty years, since WKRP in Cincinnati entertained us for four seasons starting in 1978.

I am just starting the third season so there is plenty more laughter ahead. Most of the laughter evolves around Leslie, Ron, April and Tom. Some of the funniest episodes though involve characters that appear irregularly. Leslie’s boss Ron is a twice divorcee, one with the chief librarian of the city named Tammy (Megan Mullally). Ron and Tammy have a deeply dysfunctional hot/cold relationship. Apparently about once a season the writers invent a reason for them to come together again, and the fireworks that happen when they do are not to be missed. So far these shows have been the comic highlights of the series for me, but there are also many shows that individually are great gems. “Greg Pikitis” from Season 2, which was immediately followed by the first “Ron and Tammy” episode, were two back-to-back shows that had me laughing and careening off my chair and onto the floor. Both of these shows were particularly inspired and should have won awards for the longest periods of sustained and hysterical laughter. There are also a number of periodically recurring characters to enjoy, such as the smarmy skinny TV hostess of “Pawnee Today”, Joan Callamezzo.

As a portrayal of the civil service, the show largely goes for stereotypes. I haven’t worked in city government, but it was my experience that with a few exceptions most federal civil servants I worked with were focused, dedicated and talented. In Parks and Recreation the writers found more humor in portraying civil servants as dispassionate, web and text surfing bodies inhabiting desks. Leslie is the big exception, as was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), a city planner, who unfortunately left the show after the second season. Stereotypes aside, this is a comedy so laughs are the important metric. It’s nice though that at least some of the civil servants in the series come across as dedicated and professional.

In any event, the show seems to be hitting almost all of my laugh buttons. If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try. Season 1 is a little rough as the characters were just settling into place. Season 2 though should leave you fully hooked. Seven seasons apparently is all we’re going to get of life in the fictional town of Pawnee. I hope it’s not ending because the writers ran out of ways to make us laugh.

 
The Thinker

Two brief movie reviews

The Maze Runner

There have been a number of books and movies where cruelty to children is the main theme. The Maze Runner is sort of a combination of the book Lord of the Flies mixed with The Hunger Games. As sickening as The Maze Runner is at times, you might say it is a lite version of both this book and these movies.

The premise though is kind of interesting, if more than a bit disgusting. In case you missed the trailers, about fifty adolescent boys seem to be trapped in the center of a large maze. In its center, which doesn’t look like it is more than a square mile, they can live a Spartan sort of existence based on mutual cooperation. Except for one gap in the wall, which closes with sundown they are trapped inside. This gives them incentive to explore the maze during the day. This maze though does not stay static and changes daily. If you don’t make it out by sundown, you are presumed dead. The concrete walls of the maze press together, killing anyone unfortunate enough to be between the walls at the time.

Once a month a new male teen is delivered via an underground elevator, his past conveniently erased. He is forced to join the tribe. The latest one is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who quickly has to fit in among the established pecking order. Things have been scary but sort of all right in the center of the maze, but Thomas’s arrival seems to upset the apple cart. A teen gets “suckered” (goes crazy in the woods) nearly killing Thomas. Huge cyborg spiders that hang out in the maze begin to do so during the daylight, making going into the maze all the chancier. Thomas joins the elite group of runners of the maze and quickly decides they must confront their worst fears and the spiders inside it and actually escape. The unusual delivery of a girl Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) with a note makes this perfectly clear. Just in case they don’t take it seriously, a cyborg spider attack occurs during the day, which kills most of them. This makes actual escape an imperative.

The movie is well done, the acting is generally good and the premise is creepy. It’s pretty obvious though that they are the rats in this maze and their days are numbered. The only real question is who is inflicting this misery on them and why? Your curiosity will be rewarded at the end of the movie, but your patience may be tested when you get to the end you realize this movie is first of what looks like many more.

Being inhumane to children seems to be a new profitable Hollywood theme as actual child abuse is against the law. This movie is simply another one and actually less grisly than the many Hunger Games movies. My sensitive stomach found it hard to watch anyhow. It’s well done, it just doesn’t really satisfy the itch for a satisfying conclusion. 3.2 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

How much you like this last movie in the bloated three-part movies based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit will probably depend on what you thought of the first two. This is more of the same, but is actually reasonably entertaining. It’s just that it is not too easy to reconcile the movie with the actual book, if you have read it.

Thankfully, it has been thirty years or more since I read The Hobbit, so I forgot many of the details, thus I didn’t mind too much that so many plot points had changed. What you really get of course is Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth and that requires entertainment and you get plenty of that. So it’s showy, bloated, way over the top, full of CGI and gives plenty of screen time to ancillary characters that never appear in the book itself, including more interspecies love between dwarf and elf, something of a father-daughter relationship between Legolas and Tauriel, and battle scenes that I admit are at least as compelling as the siege of Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. You also get little Peter Jackson signature items, like the invincible Legolas and his amazing abilities to defy gravity as well as lots of collapsing stone pillars, towers and bridges. Clearly these were constructed with low bid contracts because it doesn’t take much to turn them into rubble. You get to witness the awesome power of a dragon (Smaug) as he lets loose his fiery mouth on the town of Dale and watch Thorin descend into gold fever once Smaug is gone and those hordes of treasure are his.

The best parts of the movie though have nothing to do with these massive, mostly CGI-generated battle scenes, but those that are not part of the book itself, such as when an imprisoned Gandalf is rescued by Saruman, Elrond and Lady Galadriel at Dol Goldur. There we get to see the Ringwraiths again and watch Saruman (a near ninety-something Christopher Lee) kick some serious ass back when he was still a force for good. Most of the rest though is formulaic but at least comfortable as you pretty much get exactly the sort of Peter Jackson experience you expect. Jackson’s many movies now feel homey. They may be bloated but they are at least familiar.

Your feelings about Jackson are unlikely to change from watching this movie, but if you watch this last movie you at least get your money’s worth and see Jackson come close to reviving his best efforts from the original movies.

3.3 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Two very belated rock sequels

Now that I have a streaming music service, I am discovering plenty of new music. I am also discovering a few surprises. Within a couple of weeks, I discovered two very belated rock and roll sequels from artists I had tuned into during my formative years in the 1970s.

Return to the Centre of the Earth (Rick Wakeman)

Rick Wakeman first came to mass attention as a keyboardist, composer and songwriter for the rock group Yes. By the early 1970s he had tired of Yes and struck out on his own. In 1974 he put out Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a hard to describe but definitely unique concept album that combined the classic Jules Verne book with his moog synthesizer, the London Festival Orchestra and narrator David Hemmings captured in a live performance. I was seventeen at the time. This album fused a number of genres amazingly well. Because of Wakeman’s often over the top antics on the moog, this album got plenty of play on my record player and grew somewhat beloved. It is an arguably a noteworthy album in the genre of progressive rock. He made two other attempts at similar concept albums during these years, one on the six wives of Henry VIII and another on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but of the three this middle album is definitely the best.

By 1999, a full quarter century later, the moog was desperately old fashioned. This didn’t stop Wakeman from issuing a sequel that year, Return to the Centre of the Earth featuring himself again on the moog still sounding so very 1970’s-ish. This version takes us on a similar journey of the imagination that is more homage to the old album than something new in the way of story. It is also longer, somewhat better and classier. The orchestra got upgraded to the London Symphony Orchestra, and the narrator upgraded to Patrick Stewart. Listening to Stewart is like listening to Morgan Freeman: his voice is naturally compelling so you just cannot not pay attention. Despite the repetition in story, tone and music it is a fun journey of the imagination through music and a grade letter better than the original album. Wakeman also got a number of his peers to contribute to the vocals of the album including Justin Heyward and Ozzy Osbourne.

Today progressive rock seems the opposite of progressive. It seems antiquated, but for us middle-aged folk it is still quite a lot of fun. This album is actually about twenty minutes longer than the original album and proves that Wakeman’s still got it, both as a composer and a master of the moog. It’s a fitting but comfy sequel to the original album that is hard to dislike.

Update 12/9/14: Apparently the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth was re-released and extended in 2014, and even went on tour. My music service clocks this version at 1 hour and 48 minutes. You can find a number of excerpts from concerts online including this 27:41 excerpt performed in Buenos Aires with narration in Portuguese.

Thick as a Brick 2 (Jethro Tull)

In the early 1970s the competition was on to create the world’s most outrageous rock album. At the time arguably no album came closer than Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in 1972: an in-your-face and often patently offensive screed against God and organized religion. This one-theme album is framed as music the band wrote around a poem by fictional eight-year-old child prodigy: Gerald Bostock. His poem looked brilliant until it was actually analyzed and discovered to be completely antisocial and antiestablishment. It was so over the top that Ian Anderson expected that no one could possibly take it seriously. As a work of art though it was quite compelling and the lyrics, while often offensive and even outrageous, had resonance both then and today. For example, thinking of today’s Republicans, I can’t help but recall these lyrics from the album:

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.

I played it many times anyhow, and enjoyed it with a rebellious glee as it coincided with my loss of faith. It was often puerile, but it was for a good cause. But mostly it was great music. Take out the lyrics and you are still left with an amazing musical roller coaster from the rock and roll talents that was Jethro Tull. They were centered, of course, on Ian Anderson and his flute, who is always the primary artistic force for the band.

A full forty years after the album’s release in 1972 came Thick as a Brick 2, which is a rumination on Gerald Bostock forty years later around the age of fifty. In tone this 2012 album has a lot in common with the original album, but this is not particularly an anti-religious screed. Rather it is an examination into Bostock’s many possible life paths: as a banker, a homosexual and homeless man, a preacher, a soldier and a shopkeeper. (I’m betting Bostock would have been the banker.) Only when examining his life as a preacher does it resonate with the original album. As a work of music though it’s a reasonably close homage to the original, full of sardonic lyrics, occasional bars from the original albums and some quite memorable songs and tracks. (I particularly like “Adrift and Dumfounded”.) The original album really had no songs. It was issued in two parts, separated only because of the need to flip the record over.

So this forty year later homage to the original album is not really a homage, but a rumination of a fictional character navigating midlife. However, it is equally as clever lyrically and musically than the original album, if not more so. It is both different and the same and worth a lot of spins even if it won’t inspire you to start burning Bibles. It’s sardonic and at times melancholy, but rarely nasty. A sixty-something Ian Anderson (with some lyrics contributed by his son) proves that a forty year later sequel can still be damned good and fun, just a lot less in your face than the original, which is good.

Update 12/31/14: Enjoy this tribute band doing the original Thick as a Brick. Except that the vocalist is no Ian Anderson, it’s amazingly faithful to the original 1972 recording.

 

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