Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

The Thinker

The real value of streaming music

I’ve been watching my mad money grow to four figures. My mad money comes from a small online consulting business. The business is sporadic, which is fine because I don’t have much time for it anyhow. I use the money to buy stuff I would normally be too cheap to buy. At least that’s the theory. In practice I don’t buy much with it except the occasional meal or some show tickets. Most of it eventually goes into a bank account. I am paid via PayPal so for a while it stays in a PayPal account. If I want I can buy stuff on impulse with my PayPal debit card.

The truth is I don’t want much that I don’t already have. So I’ve been searching hard for stuff I might want. What I am wanting is not so much physical stuff but virtual stuff. That explains my propensity to buy theater tickets with this money. Most recently, I used the money to buy a streaming music service, mostly to see what that’s all about.

Streaming content is hardly new. The main purpose of the Internet these days apparently is to watch Netflix online. This kind of ticks off the ISPs, who would much rather we use their online movie services. This is causing a few ISPs to give preference to their traffic as opposed to Netflix, Amazon or the other services out there. Apparently they aren’t brave enough to compete on price. Movies of course are gigabytes of content, all streaming over high-speed networks. Music, on the other hand, is relatively small in size. It’s small enough that so far at least my employer hasn’t noticed that I’m listening to online music much of the day. This is a technical violation of the rules but, hey, I’m only sipping content because it’s music. I doubt the network police even notice.

It’s not that I listen to music at work to avoid work. Music actually makes me more productive. My office tends to be quiet, but when it is not it also helps tune out the noise in my vicinity. I avoid listening to music with words in it, as that can be distracting. Instead, I concentrate on classical music. Without voices to distract me, listening to music becomes a mostly subliminal experience. It helps me focus, so I actually get a lot more work done.

I also listen to streaming music at home when I expect to be in front of my computer for a while. At home of course I feel freer to experiment in non-classical genres. Any type of music at home helps me be more productive. That’s because I am usually not alone. Both my wife and my daughter tend to broadcast their lives somewhat. While I love them, I don’t need a constant stream of what’s on their minds. So streaming the music lets me tune them out.

So this is a service that is actually useful to me. Google charges $10 a month for its Google Music service. (There is a free service that is more limited.) I haven’t actually paid my first bill yet, as the first thirty days are free. This is good because even though it reputedly has ten million titles to listen to, I’m new to this streaming thing, and there are a few things I don’t like about Google Play Music. On my desktop it plays inside a browser, which is not the ideal way to play music. At least on my iMac, when I ask the computer to do something else the music will often stop for a few seconds because the CPU is busy doing something else. It’s like coming across a scratch in a record, for those old enough to remember playing vinyl records. That’s distracting. So far I haven’t found a separate media-streaming player, although there are apps for mobile devices that I haven’t tested. These should provide a more seamless experience. So I might well migrate to one of the dozens of other services out there. Google at least is unlikely to go belly up, which is why I started with it.

So I am finding real value to paying for a music streaming service. It makes me more productive and it allows me to multitask. My consciousness is focused on my task at hand in front of the computer. Subliminally though I am also appreciating the music. I add both joy and productivity simultaneously. Classical music is also great when I need to write creatively. It certainly helps when I blog, but when I write fiction it is especially useful. It unleashes parts of my mind that would probably not unlock, resulting I believe in better writing.

The real value of this service though is the virtually infinite variety of music that I now have access to. Like most people, I’ve tended to listen to a lot of music that I’ve heard before. Increasingly though I am just going with random music in a genre, particularly classical music, and let it subliminally affect my brain. This is revolutionary. It used to be that we tended to buy whatever the DJ decided to put on the air. Often if we had access to a good record store we could listen to CDs using headphones the store provided. Neither are good ways to expose yourself to divergent music. We can of course go on the recommendations of friends, attend concerts and listen to performers in jazz clubs.

We know that music affects the brain, usually in a good way. It seems to make new neural connections inside our brain. Listening to new music may help us live longer. It stimulates creativity and can certainly affect how you feel. And of course a lot of music is really interesting to listen to. Some of it is brilliant. Sampling a lot of diverse music allows me to decide for myself what new music is of interest to me. It allows me to appreciate artists I would have never heard before. In short, at $10 a month, it’s quite a bargain. Add in the power of Google’s music search engine, and its recommendation engine, and I am likelier to find music that I will really like. The more I play, the more I rate content, the better the experience should become.

I’m into musicals, so it is especially valuable here. I can hear virtually every version of Les Miserables ever produced, including the original French version. I can hear obscure musicals that are rarely staged. I can compare the 1939 version of Oklahoma with the most recently staged Broadway cast recording. What’s not to like?

Even with ten million recordings, Google Music is missing some content. There are a handful of Beatles songs, but that’s it. I understand I can get the Beatles through iTunes. It’s not a deal breaker for me. I am more interested in variety right now. I want to be taken places that I have never been to before. Google Music is essentially a vast record store with aisles extending so far away they fade into the distance. Moreover, I don’t have to go anywhere; I just have to plug in.

It looks like I found a good use for my mad money after all.

The Thinker

Review: Noah

I was going to say this is a whale of a tale, but that would be a movie about Jonah. You may say to yourself after thirty minutes, water I doing here. You might also ask yourself what planet this Bible story takes place on because it doesn’t much resemble the Earth as we know it. Bible purists probably aren’t going to like it. The Muslims are being told not to see it. Atheists and skeptics will have a good chuckle wondering how any sane person could honestly believe this cockamamie story. And if the story of Noah, his ark and getting two of every animal species on it was not unbelievable enough, director Darren Aronofsky throws in some alien fallen angels that look like a cross between transformers and those rock critters from Galaxy Quest. At least they have cool glowing eyes.

Noah is some weird mixture of science fiction and fantasy, on some parallel Earth perhaps. This presentation should be enough to keep both devout and skeptic away. It is all done with such ponderous seriousness that you feel kind of guilty if you think the whole thing is really quite goofy. After a while you might react like I did which was, What the heck, I paid $10 to see this movie, so I might as well get my money’s worth and Just how did they convince Russell Crowe to play Noah? (Likely they waved a lot of money under his nose.)

Skeptics like me believe most Bible stories are myths anyhow, which makes it all the more puzzling that so many Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. There are a lot of myths to choose from in the Bible, including the preposterous story of Jonah, but the Noah myth also refuses to die too. Christians though are likely to have a hard time with this interpretation. It goes far afield from anything in the Bible and leaves you with so many questions. For example, at the start of the movie the earth is pretty much a barren place: no water, no plant life to speak of, the descendants of Cain pretty much rule the known world, and yet the scrappy Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and his various offspring and adopted offspring (including Emma Watson as Ila and Logan Lerman as Ham) somehow get by, wear clothing, find food to eat in a barren world (what are they eating, the lichen?) and somehow drink tea too.

The earth sure is an ugly place, but since it is occupied mostly by Cain’s descendants, it sort of fits, because they are a wicked lot, so wicked they’ve developed some decent technology, not bad for 10,000 B.C. or so. Noah and his small family are pretty much what’s left of the good side of Adam and Eve’s extended family. It’s amazing they survived with all the marauding brigands running around. No wonder with all the stress that Noah is getting visions: the Creator is warning of catastrophic floods and wants him to build an ark to keep the animals safe until the evil can literally be washed away. It’s time for Man, Version 2 and that’s Noah and his family, except Noah seems to get his signals crossed. At least this is true once his ark is afloat. Noah gets it in his head that they are not supposed to procreate either: Earth must be left to the innocent and sinless animals. And then his adopted daughter Ila, supposedly infertile due to belly wounds, gets pregnant. (And it must have been a fast pregnancy, because didn’t the voyage last just forty days and forty nights?) Noah becomes convinced that God is telling him to commit some infanticide once she delivers. It must have been PTSD from building that ark or something, because Noah is really at loose ends.

At least some things make a little sense. Those fallen angels sure are convenient, as is the seed given to him by his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) from the Garden of Eden. The seed starts a convenient forest, which provides plenty of lumber to build his ark and the fallen angels provide a lot of grunt labor and help protect Noah and his family from the encroaching hordes of Cain, overseen by a “king”, Tubal-Cain played by Ray Winstone. Tubal-Cain sure adds some excitement because he becomes a stowaway on the ark somehow. Yeah, I know it’s not in the Bible, but artistic license is allowed, even with Bible stories. Noah’s direction by God to kill his grandchildren was left out too.

The result is that Noah is a WTF sort of cinematic experience, all so deadly serious but still sort of cartoonish and easy to lampoon. Most puzzling of all is how the producers sold investors on this preposterous interpretation. It must be doing well enough since it’s taken in $178M worldwide so far at a cost of $125M to produce. The question is: why? The acting is decent if not a bit over the top sometimes, the special effects are great but the story is, well, quite a head scratcher. At least we get an Old Testament God. This was the angry God before God Version 2 arrived in the New Testament, in new garments, and all universal and lovey dovey. I must say I like God Version 2 better.

Noah thus is best viewed for what it is: entertainment. The less you know about the Bible and his story the more you are likely to enjoy it. But your audience may be like ours: a handful of people who when the credits finally arrived were scratching their heads and wondering why we went to see this movie in the first place.

However, if you like mindless entertainment with lots of gaping plot holes and you take your Bible with a bit of science fiction (after all, Ezekiel saw the wheel, a UFO?) it might be worth your time. I suspect most of you will be like our audience: sheepishly walking out of the theater and hoping that no one we know saw us.

In short, Noah is a bit of a turkey of a movie, but a tasty one. 2.8 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

The Thinker

Review: Groundhog Day (1993)

The recent passing of director Harold Ramis finally nudged me to watch his perhaps most famous movie, Groundhog Day. I’m not sure what took me so long. My daughter was four when it was released and at her most adorable age. It was a year devoted to reading her stories snuggled on the couch, not to seeing movies in theaters, which required babysitters. Since then, it just hadn’t been on my radar.

I’m guessing most of you have seen the classic movie. If so you can certainly skip this review! Having finally seen it, I sort of want to kick myself for having waited so long. Groundhog Day is definitely something of a minor classic and ranks in the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 films. It’s not quite Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s not quite a perfect movie either. But it is strangely fun and satisfying, sort of science fiction and sort of religious too. It left me with a pleasurable buzz, similar to what I got from watching The Adjustment Bureau. For those of us who are writers, or pretend to be writers, this movie makes us jealous. We wish we had written this script, mostly written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis.

Most Buddhist and Hindus believe in reincarnation. They believe that we reincarnate to resolve issues that we did not resolve in previous lives. At least Buddhists believe that it is possible to end this cycle of reincarnation and move on to a better state by achieving enlightenment. Phil Conners (Bill Murray) looks like he will be reincarnating forever. As a snippy TV weatherman in Pittsburgh, he manages to offend pretty much everyone, and is clearly hurting. He feels he has much more talent than he is given credit for. He hints to his management that he’s a short timer soon to be hired by stations with more money and mojo. He’s short with his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) and condescending to his new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell). The last thing this weatherman wants to do is go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to “cover” groundhog Punxsutawney Phil’s highly staged prediction of more winter or an early spring. He’s done this many times and he simply loathes it and feels it is beneath him. It also requires him to travel the night before with Larry and Rita so they can be there in time for the big event. Phil wants to be left alone. Rita wisely puts him in a B&B while they stay at the local hotel.

You probably know the basic plot: poor Phil gets to relive Groundhog Day over and over again. A blizzard keeps him in Punxsutawney and downed communications lines makes phoning home impossible. He hates the city and would prefer a root canal to enduring another day there. The same events keep recurring at exactly the same time no matter what he does. A distant classmate he cannot recall finds him on the street and tries to sell him life insurance. A weathered homeless man petitions him for money on a street corner. A tray of dishes falls to the floor at the same time at the local diner. Perhaps worst of all is every morning he wakes up at 6 AM to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s song “I’ve got you babe.” If that’s not hell, what could be worse? Nothing he does can change the pattern of events. And he can’t get out of Punxsutawney. In short, Phil is in one of the upper levels of hell. Phil can, and literally does, kill himself many times and it makes no difference. Mean or nice, apathetic or angry, loud or mousey, he cannot escape reliving the same day over and over again.

That’s the science fiction part of the movie, albeit without a trip into outer space. He is stuck in some sort of perpetual time warp that no one else shares. The religious part is more subtle but if you believe in reincarnation, this story about reliving the same day over and over again until you fully address whatever your issue is, is an interesting variant on reincarnation. It’s unclear from the movie how many Groundhog Days that Phil actually experiences, but it seems that he tries pretty much every possible variation, so it must be in the hundreds or thousands. Like dying, he goes through stages of denial, grief and finally a grudging acceptance. Like it or not he is the seeming eternal witness to this day in Punxsutawney. Out of boredom more than anything else, he has nothing better to do than to minutely examine every aspect of this town. He spends a lot of his time trying and largely failing to seduce women. The good part is that with every failure he learns one more clue that helps him refine his pitch. And yet despite having the opportunity to refine his advances, it’s hard to get beyond first base. Eventually he concentrates on trying to seduce his new producer Rita. At least she doesn’t have much of an opinion formed about him. Yet he encounters similar roadblocks with her too.

In some ways Phil resembles Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life except ever so slowly his crusty behavior changes. He gains some empathy for the people around him, since he seems doomed to share the same day with them for eternity. Over time his hurt and anger morphs into gentleness and kindness. You know the movie can’t last forever or leave this plot eternally hanging. Phil will find his escape, in time. The result may leave you a bit teary eyed.

Not bad for a director known for in-your-face films like Animal House, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. If you had been following his work and were expecting more of the same, you should at least not see this film coming. It’s amusing, heartfelt, annoying, grating, sincere and insightful all at the same time.

I’m glad I didn’t wait another twenty one years before seeing Groundhog Day.

3.4 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Review: Pump Up the Volume (1990)

Mark Hunter, a.k.a. Harry Hard-on, and played by Christian Slater, is a recent transplant to Arizona and Hubert H. Humphrey High School. He’s not exactly fitting in well with locals, or his teachers, or the students, or even his parents. He does go to school and does his best to keep his head down and to talk to no one. Mostly he pines for his friends back east, so much so that his father (the new superintendent of public schools) bought him a short wave radio to communicate with his friends back east. But his friends back east seem to have moved on.

In Pump Up the Volume, Mark Hunter earnestly wants to rebel but he can’t find the courage to do it in public, and certainly not with his parents, who he is pissed off at for making him move. So he holes himself in their basement as much as he can, and converts his shortwave radio into an illegal FM radio station. The mousy Mark becomes “Harry Hard-on” on his illegitimate radio station. At 10 p.m. he entertains using his underpowered transmitter to a narrow range of people who might be listening locally.

“Harry” is an irreverent DJ, that’s for sure. He laces his sentences with expletives and fills his shows with fake sequences wherein he pretends to masturbate on the air. Mom and Dad seem pretty clueless, but want to give him space. Mark simply wants to vent from the safety of his basement to what turns out to be a small but dedicated fan base of students at HHH high school. While the school is known to have the best SAT scores in the state, Mark channels the apathy and anger of its students who realize that their high school in many ways is run by Cruella de Vil.

If the plot seems kind of nuts in our modern day, you have to remember this is 1989. It’s a pre-Internet, or at least pre World Wide Web era, as evidenced by the TSR-80 in Mark’s basement along with his shortwave and stack of cassette tapes. Back then without smartphones, Facebook pages and text messages, this was what you worked with. Mark is nothing else if not audacious and even Howard Stern would not touch some of the topics in his broadcasts. Unquestionably though Mark has hit a nerve. Although he does not talk much with anyone at HHH High, they can relate to his brassy irreverence and his willingness to transgress all boundaries.

One of his biggest fans is Nora Diniro (Samantha Mathis), who tunes into every show and send him letters on red paper to his post office box (yes, this was before the days when most people had email accounts). Mark will call people who send him snail mail if they leave their phone number, and he will call people he shouldn’t, like the guidance counselor at HHH High. His illicit radio station consequently quickly attracts the attention of the school’s administration, particularly the iron-fisted redheaded school principle, Mrs. Creswood (Annie Ross). She has a reputation to maintain, and that is for academic excellence. It is achieved, we eventually learn, through some cruel and unorthodox techniques. Let’s just say the students at HHH have some legitimate grievances with their administration.

Harry Hard-on’s show goes viral at the school, to the point that his motto becomes a banner on the school’s bulletin boards. The show attracts the attention of the local TV station, which sends a reporter to cover the story. The only mystery is: who is Harry Hard-on? It takes his devoted fan Nora, meticulously recording key facts that he reveals in his show, to figure out who he is.

Meanwhile each show makes Mark more vulnerable to discovery while tensions grow to a boiling point at HHH. As the local TV station latches on to the story, it naturally attracts more attention, including the Federal Communications Commission, which sends some vans full of gear to locate the illicit antenna. It turns out that it is convenient to have Nora as a friend because she can drive his parents’ Jeep. Using its battery he is able to rig his shortwave, making for a portable radio station. You can guess that he can’t keep his identity a secret forever; otherwise there would be little plot here.

For a rebellious teen movie, this one is one of the better ones although it is clearly dated. “Harry” ends with a plea for everyone to set up illegitimate radio stations. That was so, like, 20th century! Anyone can do that now for free on the Internet, although it’s likely most of these “stations” have few if any listeners.

Overall, the movie is surprisingly adult. It received an R rating, which meant that most who this movie was targeted at could not actually see it when it was playing in theaters. There is a semi-nude scene where Nora takes off her top, but curiously it’s easier for her to get half naked than for Nora and Mark to make the leap to their first kiss.

For a movie about teenage rebellion and angst, it’s perhaps equally a movie about how difficult it is to connect in any meaningful way when you are a teenager, or to be your authentic self when you are constantly hassled over grades and SAT scores. In public Mark acts a lot like Clark Kent, but he is no superman when he is broadcasting in his basement, just an upfront and confused teenager who quickly realizes his quirky “show” attracts a lot of other very confused teenagers that he attempts to awkwardly counsel.

If you can ignore the outdated technology and a rather predictable plot, the movie actually works quite well. Mark is easy to relate to and if you’ve been through adolescence you know his perspective is authentic. It’s not quite Rebel Without a Cause, but Mark kind of channels his spirit in a repressed late 1980s kind of way.

3.1 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

The Thinker

Review: The Graduate (1967)

There are a lot of things on my bucket list. Some of them include movies I never got around to seeing. In some exceptional cases, like The Graduate (1967), it was because I was too young to see it. When I was old enough, well, I never quite found a reason to rent it. Forty-seven years after its release I finally got around to it.

Looking at it so many years later, you have to wonder what all the fuss was about. The movie gets 8.1 out of ten stars on but I ask myself why. There’s not much to this movie, and it fails to satisfy on so many levels. However, if you can wind your mind way back to 1967, and I sort of can as I was 10 at the time, I can understand why it attracted controversy. First there was the subject of infidelity, a hot button topic in the movies back then. Second was the issue of women being sexual creatures at all. Women were allowed to have a sex drive in 1967, but not publicly, and women were never portrayed as being aggressive toward men, particularly younger men. And then Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) shows up and seduces poor 21-year-old Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who actually tries quite hard not to fall into her trap. But he’s 21, he’s full of hormones, and men his age will screw any woman they are lucky enough to seduce. When the woman does the pursing, even if she is twenty plus years ahead of you (but hot), you just can’t say no to that persistent erection.

Ben is back home in California after earning his bachelor’s degree from a prestigious eastern college, but mostly he wants to hide in his old bedroom. His parents want to show him off because he won all sorts of academic awards, and his dad (William Daniels) in particular doesn’t want him loafing around too long. He wants him in graduate school. The last thing Ben wants to do is to be shown off to friends of his moneyed parents. Ben is nice, but conflicted. He has been busy getting his ticket punched all of his life, and is the perfect gentleman with a clear complexion and perfectly cut hair. He even gets to drive a foreign sports car, a gift from his affluent parents, who like to give pool parties. To the extent Ben gets out of his bedroom, it is to hang out in the family’s pool where underwater he can try to clear his mind and figure out just who the hell he is.

He doesn’t get a chance for much reflection, because Mrs. Robinson swiftly reenters his life, senses his vulnerability and goes right for his jugular. She does a masterful job of seducing him without appearing to seduce him. Before Ben can summon his inner resources he is helping unbutton her dress. Within a day they are screwing at a local high-class hotel. Behind the counter is Buck Henry but the hotel is actually full of staff that have developed the ability to look the other way. Ben awkwardly has to learn the art of infidelity, although technically he is not guilty, being unmarried. Before long he and Mrs. Robinson are boinking every night at the hotel.

It must be great sex but this is 1967, so we don’t see any of it, although we do get to see Anne Bancroft in a bra and in one famous scene taking off her stockings and putting them back on again. The illicit affair helps drain Ben of testosterone but it also feels emotionally empty. Just who is Mrs. Robinson? She’s really hard to figure out. She is someone he has known all his life but never intimately until now. What little he can figure out is not flattering. She’s an alcoholic and a smoker.

When he tries awkwardly to move them to something that might approach emotional intimacy, he keeps hitting a brick wall. About all he can get from her is that she and her husband sleep in separate bedrooms, that their daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross) was a premarital mistake and that although everyone else wants Ben and Elaine to date, Mrs. Robinson does not. She has claimed Ben as her gigolo. Moreover, for a woman with compromised moral standards, she sure knows how to wield a host of psychological tools over befuddled Ben. Ben can’t say no, is not happy, gets his rocks off every night without fail, and really wants to take her daughter Elaine out on a date. The mere suggestion has Mrs. Robinson ready to pounce on him like a cobra.

In short, Ben is way over his emotional head and does not begin to have the skills to deal with the emotional mess he is in, for which he is largely not at fault. All his naughty affair does is screw him up even more inside. And then Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine enters the picture and just one date, which begins uncomfortably in a strip club, has him falling hopelessly in love with her. However, Elaine is at least emotionally perceptive, and quickly figures out that he is involved with someone else. Unsurprisingly, this house of cards must eventually fall. Ben eventually follows Elaine surreptitiously to her university and tries to convince her to marry her. Given his relationship with her mother, it doesn’t sound like their relationship will end up very healthy. Ben pursues Elaine anyhow.

With the now infamous soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel frequently in the background, we spend ninety minutes or so watching Ben mostly getting buffeted around by events bigger than he can master. His love for Elaine makes no sense, and we don’t see enough of their relationship develop to get any understanding why she should marry him, but that’s all he wants. Elaine tries to stay emotionally distant, but she finds Ben cute for his perseverance.

This movie has become something of a classic, but it largely does not deserve its status other than perhaps being the first movie to tackle previously taboo subjects. This is Hoffman’s first movie of note, and he plays Ben’s befuddlement honestly. Anne Bancroft deservedly won an academy award for her MILFy acting in a time when the acronym MILF was unknown. Mostly the movie feels more surreal than real, which was probably director Mike Nichols’s intent.

Even all these years later, it is an uncomfortable movie to watch. Its appeal at the time was likely in its taboo-breaking. It’s no wonder that Ben is befuddled given the plastic people that surround him and the plastic way he grew up. To escape will require a lot of metaphors that are hard to miss at the movie’s conclusion. Ben and Elaine’s escape together is wholly ludicrous. It suggests that they have traded in one confused life to start another one. I just hope Ben stays far away from Elaine’s mother. She is one messed up woman.

I’ll leave this classic movie unrated, but I do think with modern eyes it is overrated. I am glad I finally saw it to discover that all the fuss was about, well, not that much. I guess you just had to be there in 1967.


The Thinker

Three brief movie reviews

I’ve managed to cram in three movies these last couple of months into my hectic schedule. They were mostly from Netflix but the first review was in the theater.

The Monuments Men

This is one of those generally well done movies that tells an interesting story but still has you scratching your head about why it was made. It was made in part because it could be made and because George Clooney apparently doesn’t have enough to keep him busy, so he decided to produce and star in this movie about a small group of artists during World War II that were drafted into the army to recover the art that Germany was stealing during its occupation of Europe. No young buck privates here but instead you do get an A list of older Hollywood talent including Clooney, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and some character actors like Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. Bonneville is perhaps best known as Lord Grantham in the British series Downton Abbey.

The Germans were certainly methodical about stealing art. To me the biggest surprise was just how much of it they managed to steal and hide. The story unwinds comfortably with few surprises. A few of the men on this task get shot and die but most survive, including Clooney’s character. Blanchett’s role is as art curator at a Paris museum. She must watch as their art is trucked off elsewhere. She does not believe that the Americans will not take the art for themselves when they occupy Paris. Matt Damon spends much of the movie convincing her that he is a good guy. Blanchett’s acting is the only standout part of this movie. As for the rest of these actors, they are just there to have a good time with their pal George, which is the real reason this film got made. Still, with Clooney producing, directing and acting it’s not a bad movie and is competently rendered. It was a story worth telling but would have probably be better told without an all-star cast. Aside from the pretty faces on the screen, there is not much to see here to see aside from the art. We learn, again, that the Nazis were quite despicable. Yes, it beats yet another superhero movie, for which there were plenty of trailers, but not by much. In short, it’s easily skippable.

2.8 out of 4 stars.

Milk (2008)

I have been meaning to see Milk since it came out in 2008. It won Sean Penn, who plays the first openly gay person to serve in elective office in the United States, a best actor award. I will admit I was quite impressed by Penn’s performance and amazed by how well this temperamental and masculine actor managed to pull off acting as the effeminate Harvey Milk, who eventually wins a seat as supervisor for the City of San Francisco, representing its gay community. It was also something of an eye opener for me on the homosexual lifestyle. It’s not that I did not understand what it was about, just that I had never been immersed in its culture before, and you can’t escape it this 128-minute movie.

It was quite dangerous to be gay in the 1970s. Milk truly broke barriers, not so much by making it cool to be gay, but by being openly gay during a time when homosexuality was simply not tolerated in any place other than a few “queer” communities. Even there, as in San Francisco, the cops regularly beat up the queers.

Fortunately, Penn’s performance is not overwhelming. A fine supporting cast makes this visit into San Francisco’s Castro District feel authentic. It’s something of a nostalgic trip to go back to the 1970s with its typewriters and boxy Bell telephones. Ultimately this movie is about the courage it takes for a people to assert their fundamental human rights. It is not surprising that Milk was ultimately assassinated. He suspected he would not live to see 50, and he was right. Breaking through societal inhibitions and taboos is hard and dangerous work. It killed Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and ten years after King’s assassination it also killed Harvey Milk. Unlike Monument Men, which is nothing special, Milk is something special because it takes us intimately into the gay world of the 1970s at the cusp of major change. Thanks in part to Harvey Milk we have come a long way indeed thirty-plus years later. Gay marriage is legal in about a third of the United States. In twenty years, but perhaps a lot sooner if the U.S. Supreme Court revisits is gay marriage ruling, it will be just another fundamental civil right we will take for granted. As Milk discovers in a lot of his failed relationships, healthy relationships are just hard work, regardless of the gender that you are attracted to.

3.5 out of four stars.

Ender’s Game

Speaking of homophobia, the author of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, is a homophobic bigot, which is one of the reasons I deferred seeing this movie in the theater. Card is a Mormon, so perhaps he comes by it naturally. When I first read Ender’s Game back in the 1980s, I was just really impressed by this fast moving novel about Ender Wiggins, a boy on the cusp of adolescence with a talent for leadership and directing war games. For the Earth had narrowly escaped being colonized by an alien race, so now all of Earth’s resources are focused on developing the technology and leaders to defeat the aliens that Earth believes will attack them again. No means are off limits. Young boys are thrust into leadership roles beyond their years because they can think fastest and most clearly. Ender Wiggins, played by Asa Butterfield, turns out to be the scrawny little kid that could save the earth for all time from these aliens. It is Colonel Graff’s (Harrison Ford) job to find, train and deploy Ender along with his commanders to defeat these aliens.

If you haven’t read the books, you will probably like Ender’s Game quite a bit as it is technically well done and well acted. It moves very quickly and by necessity skips a lot of detail in the book. In fact, if you have read the series as I have you realize that this movie combines not only this book but also some of the subsequent books as well including Speaker for the Dead. It also changes a lot of the plot, probably necessary for making a motion picture, but it will leave fans of the book disappointed. Card may be a homophobic bigot, but he is a good writer and his original story is much better than this movie. So fans of the book are going to be disappointed.

It’s not a bad movie, it just moves too quickly and is too superficial. It needed to be done right, and Director Gavin Hood wasn’t what this movie needed. What it needed was a trilogy with each movie focused on one of the books in this series. It needed Peter Jackson’s time and attention. There is a lot going on through young Ender’s mind. The movie doesn’t have time to go into much of it, but knowing what’s on his mind is really the key to fully appreciating it. This movie would have been better called Ender’s War, for in the book it truly was Ender’s Game. I won’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it. I strongly advise though skipping the movie and reading the book instead. The book is such a better experience.

3.0 out of four stars.

The Thinker

Review: The World’s End

Some years back, I reviewed Shaun of the Dead, a zombie movie you won’t forget and one of the best comedies I had seen in years. Starring Simon Pegg, perhaps best known to Americans at Scotty in the new Star Trek movies, it proved that zombie movies could be creepy and hysterically funny. Simon Pegg must have figured out he had a winning formula, because in The World’s End we get something sort of similar and just as hilarious, if not more so.

Simon Pegg is back as, not as Shaun, but as Gary King, a recovering drug addict who, finally out of detox, is hell-bent on recreating one glorious night from his youth. On that one night he and his four barely legal friends attempted to hit all dozen pubs in their village of Newton Haven in England and drink a pint of ale from each. They didn’t make it but twenty years later, full of zeal and fresh out of detox, Gary wants to find his friends Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) and give it one more try.

There are a few problems with his idea. First, his friends have largely matured while he hasn’t. Mentally Gary hasn’t aged at all, while his old friends tend to be tied down with wives and children. For Gary, that night from their youth was the best time he ever had. He is convinced that if he can recreate it and manage to down a pint at all dozen pubs he will have a new highlight in his life. What is likelier is that they will all be drunk long before they make it to the last pub, The World’s End. Needless to say Gary is quite persuasive and mostly through tenacity and guilt manages to get the guys, some balding and obese but all definitely in middle age to show up at the local train station to give the pub round one more try twenty years later.

Newton Haven was always a nice clean and respectable village but it seems on returning there again after so many years that it is even cleaner and more respectable than they remembered. It is also a lot more plastic than they remember, with the people more conservative and the bars now largely interchangeable. Dragging them from pub to pub like they were dogs on a leash, Gary manages to get the guys to stumble through his scenario while he becomes increasingly wild and out of control.

The pints quickly wash through them, which soon cause Gary to end up in the men’s room. There he soon learns that the good citizens of Newton Haven aren’t quite what he remembered. They used to be people. No, they are not dead, but they certainly aren’t what they seem. They invent a term for them: blanks. Whether zombies or blanks, they sure aren’t human because humans have foibles while blanks are imperturbable. And that drives Gary crazy because, well, he’s crazy and gets crazier as the movie progresses.

The blanks might as well be zombies although they do not seem that interested in eating brains. However, they are interested in getting the guys to become part of their collective, once Gary discovers the truth. They’re not bad aliens, they are good aliens that want to squeeze the bad out of humans and replace it with the good as well as turn their bodies into shells and their innards into a metallic structure with blue fluid running through it. And that offends Gary who can get philosophical under alien stress. For what does it mean to be human if you can’t be freedom loving and assert your right to make a complete ass of yourself? Toward the end of the movie we learn he takes it as his job to convince the blanks of the futility of their mission, already accomplished in Newton Haven. The blanks are quickly moving out across England to absorb other cities and eventually bring humans to a new stage of enlightenment. The blanks are kind of like good Borg.

It’s a crazy plot but it is surprisingly engaging and it gets funnier as the movie progresses. Simon Pegg as Gary is its central character and something of its ringmaster. Pegg himself is also one of its writers and an executive producer. Pegg proves himself adept as the John Belushi of his age, portraying a crazy, out of control, knows no bounds sort of guy who sees the world as his playground and who will always march straight toward fun, heedless of the costs and risks.

Perhaps Pegg enjoyed making Shaun of the Dead so much he wanted to see if he could top the fun he had in that particular movie. While this is not quite the same movie, it has a lot of the same elements, including Pegg playing the role of an eccentric guy. IMDB viewers gave Shaun of the Dead a higher rating, but I think you will like this movie at least as much. Arguably it is the funnier, and clearly more creative movie.

In short, like Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End is likely to be the funniest time you will experience with a 2013 comedy, so rent it. Alas, it left the theaters many months ago.

3.3 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Review: Porgy and Bess at the National Theatre

Seeing a performance of the Gershwin brothers Porgy and Bess has always been on my bucket list. Most people who think they know nothing about the opera probably know a few songs from it anyhow. It’s hard not to know its opening song “Summertime”. Porgy and Bess traditionally has been staged as an opera, and a somewhat bloated one at that. That doesn’t work so well by 21st century standards, which was why it was condensed to a musical of approximately two and a half hours (with intermission) instead. Since I may never get around to seeing the full opera, this Broadway cast version was breezing through Washington D.C., and tickets were surprisingly easy to get, last night we took the Broadway musical (Diane Paulus) version in instead at the National Theatre.

I obviously can’t compare it to the opera. If you haven’t seen either the opera or the musical, you likely won’t be disappointed by this touring musical version. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in rich acting and wonderful singing. I found the first thirty minutes or so magical, the sort of experience you hope to have seeing a musical but which most musicals don’t deliver. Perhaps this is because some eighty years later, Porgy and Bess, whether performed as an opera or a musical, is really different.

So many operas are about rich or famous people, lives that are hard for us to relate to. Porgy and Bess is a workingman’s opera. In its time it was genuinely revolutionary, both in its mature themes and its Afro-American centrism. It is curious but perhaps not surprising that it took white guys (George and Ira Gershwin) to make it okay for us whites to explore the African American experience in the deep south. In the 1930s, Jim Crow laws still tightly segregated blacks and whites, and that is the world of Catfish Row near Charleston, South Carolina that Porgy, Bess, Clara, Jake, Serena and others live their lives.

Yes, this is a racy, race-tinged, sexy and quite controversial musical. Aside from two murders, white officers roughing up blacks, and drug abuse there is also poking fun at established religion (“Ain’t necessarily so”), rape and shacking up outside of marriage. Four years before Rhett Butler shocked America by uttering the word “damn” on screen in Gone with the Wind, all these elements were playing on Broadway in this opera. It thus should have been an opera it was okay to hate, but you can’t hate it as it is so true to life and has so many infectious tunes that keep your attention.

So little of Broadway allows African Americans, or really any ethnicity outside of European Americans, to shine. That’s not the case here with this near all African American cast. There is so much African American talent on stage at one time that it is delightfully overwhelming. It makes you want to see more shows like this. The cast is excellent and feels wholly authentic. Catfish Row is a long way from Park Place, but it is at least populated by real instead of surreal people.

There is new mother Clara and her husband Jake. There is Serena, who quickly loses her husband to Crown, who kills her husband with a cotton hook after a dispute at a craps table. There is poor Bess, pulled between three men: the rich dope pusher Sporting Life, the dominant murderer Crown and the crippled Porgy. And of course there is Porgy, a fundamentally decent man who has never known a woman but in a moment of vulnerability manages to woo and seemingly win Bess. It’s a delight to have a musical/opera full of real people, wending their way through a lot of chaos, hurt feelings and bad experiences.

This staging feels just right. You won’t be itching to leave because it is too long and you won’t feel cheated either. In fact, you will find it hard not to feel you are on stage yourself, with such a terrific and animated cast. All this plus Gershwin tunes and amazing voices. It makes for a compelling show, and received a standing ovation. The only mystery was why there were unsold seats in the back wings of the orchestra section on a Friday night. This was a show that deserved to be sold out. Those who gave other holiday activities preference should rue their decision.

Sadly its last performance here in Washington is Sunday. Given that Friday night was not sold out there may be unsold tickets for tonight and Sunday’s performances, so snag them if you can. You won’t be disappointed, but do expect to be thrilled and have one of the better nights of theater you are likely to enjoy.

The Thinker

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I have to wonder what J.R.R. Tolkien might think of Peter Jackson’s bloated three-part movie of his relatively small children’s book, The Hobbit. It’s hard to guess as being dead for nearly half a century there are not many alive who knew him. It’s not hard to guess what his son Christopher is thinking, given what he thought of his direction of the three earlier Lord of the Rings movies. It is probably something like, “My father must be rolling in his grave.”

Turning a book into a movie is an imperfect process. No movie can truly be faithful to the book, at least if its goal is to turn a profit. There were two dreadful movies made of Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged that were reputedly faithful but made dismal showings at the box office. In the case of Rand’s book, the material is pretty weird and unmarketable. It’s hard to turn such a turgid work into anything that anyone would want to see. The Hobbit probably could have been made reasonably faithful to the book, but it would have been one movie instead of three, and it would have been told the way it was written: as a children’s story. In short, it would have taken a different director with smaller, not larger expectations.

But Peter Jackson has his brand of Tolkien and he is not changing it. So in this second installment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, we get more of what we saw in the first installment, which was a lot like what we saw in the Lord of the Rings movies. Jackson is typecasting himself as a director in this second installment like he did in the first. You would not have to guess that he directed it, even if he did not show up in the credits. Just in case there is any ambiguity, watch the very first scene. In literally the opening scene in Bree, Jackson makes a cameo biting into a carrot.

Anyhow, this movie adaptation is no children’s story, so in that sense it’s all wrong to the spirit of the book. In fact, Tolkien himself would not want children to see this movie. It’s all grown up and action-ified with orcs heads being sliced off right and left. And that means there are also plenty of impossible escapes from death complemented by amazing but now ho-hum special effects. And since Jackson and the show’s producers know what sells, they must find reasons to have popular characters comeback. So Legolas, who is not in the book The Hobbit at all shows up, and gets a huge amount of screen time. And since this is a movie, and not the book, we get a she-elf (silver class), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). She is not necessarily a bad addition. Tolkien wasn’t into feminism but this is the 21st century. We expect a kickass female character or two, and Tauriel delivers by proving she can wield a bow and arrow at least as well as Legolas. Plus she’s cute to look at and gets infatuated with a dwarf.

Mostly though The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a bloated, feature-rich, puffed up excuse to take a modest children’s book and morph it into something barely recognizable from its source material. As a prequel to Jackson’s earlier Rings movies though, it is as comfortable as the first installment. You expect entertainment and you certainly get over the top entertainment. Plus you get all this stuff not in the book, but alluded to in appendices and other source material, such as a dangerous trip Gandalf makes to something of a haunted castle near Mirkwood. And since this is a Peter Jackson movie, you get more crumbling walls, collapsing pillars, cascading boulders and impossible escape scenarios where naturally all the good guys escape. About the only ones guaranteed to die are orcs and other vile creatures. For Legolas and Tauriel never miss a shot. Part of their magic is an apparently inexhaustible supply of arrows. It’s amazing: no matter how many orcs come after them, they always have more arrows. It’s like they have semiautomatic rounds for their bows.

So if anything this action-adventure movie is more comfortable than it is keeping you on the edge of your seat. We certainly were comfortable, as our local theater has upscaled by putting in comfy overstuffed leather recliners where you actually reserve your seat. There’s more music by Howard Shore, borrowing endless bars from the Rings movies. There are scenes that seem eerily prescient of scenes in the Rings movies, such as one with Gandalf that looks a lot like the one that ended The Fellowship of the Rings, you know, the one with the Balrog in Moria.

If you like your dose of Peter Jackson unadulterated, rest assured he will deliver in this second installment. Middle Earth feels nice and homey, in spite of all the roaming orcs and wargs. Sauron even makes a guest appearance, and Bilbo finds that his magic ring comes in handy freeing dwarves from an elf dungeon in Mirkwood and eluding Smaug the dragon under the Lonely Mountain, where he searches for the bedazzling jewel, the Arkenstone among huge caches of loot.

If you weren’t too impressed with the first installment, the second is at least a bit more fun and faster paced. If you like lots and lots of special effects and crazy action scenes, you will want to see the movie multiple times. So far I find these Hobbit movies entertaining but not compelling. I’ll always own the Rings movies on DVD. I feel no reason to do so for this bloated and artificial trilogy. I’m not even sure I will bother to watch them again if the opportunity arises.

3.3 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

Have you ever seen a picture and wondered how it garnered so many accolades? Usually I agree with the critics, but not on Lost in Translation (2003). Also lost is apparently my memory of when the movie was released. I figured it was a couple of years ago, but 2003? Really?

Lost in Translation was nominated for Best Picture and starred Bill Murray, who got a nomination for Best Actor. It ended up with an award to Sofia Coppola (yes, daughter of that Coppola) for best screenplay. She first came to my attention in her undistinguished and somewhat annoying role the 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married. In that movie she played Peggy Sue’s younger sister, and it was apparent that she got the part only because she was the director’s daughter. Perhaps she was wise to shift her career into producing and directing instead of acting. Whatever. In 2003 for some reason this movie of two Americans some thirty years apart in age temporarily intersecting in a very high class Tokyo hotel hit the sweet spot at the box office. It made people go gaga who really should have looked twice, because there’s not much there there.

Coppola would argue that was the point. This is an ephemeral movie of two people intersecting who should not. But this is not Once. This is not Love Actually either. It’s not quite a love story, but maybe in a way it is. What it is is a movie about a popular American actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) who is in Tokyo for a relatively short but very well paid gig wherein he pretends to relish a high end rice wine (sake). The work is relatively painless, the hotel five stars and hardly anyone speaks English. There is the redhead lounge singer (played by Catherine Lambert) in the nightclub upstairs. Bob’s main reason to hang out in the lounge is to kill time. In 2003, I guess even high end Tokyo hotels didn’t have the Internet for distractions. There is a lot of time to kill. He is alone and bored.

So is Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), at least half his age, a beautiful but somewhat nerdy girl who strangely married a musician John (Giovanni Ribisi). It’s pretty clear that despite pretensions they are not well matched, since John is frequently off on gigs in Tokyo, and even finds an excuse to leave Charlotte alone in the hotel for days at a time while he does gigs elsewhere in Japan. So what Charlotte and Bob really have in common is mostly boredom, but also distance from their significant others. Bob’s wife at home is obviously tired with him. Their calls are perfunctory and business-like. In their boredom they try to catch up with their jet lag but never quite make it. They spend their nights awake and days trying to stay awake. Charlotte spends a lot of time by her window about a hundred stories above Tokyo looking absently at the view, reading magazines and smoking. Bob spends his time fighting off the occasional fan and trying to stay distracted. It’s easy to feel distracted when he first glances the beautiful Charlotte in the elevator. It takes time for them to have a relationship of sorts.

Mostly though they are quite an odd couple, but they are at least an odd couple in an odd city. Neither speaks a word of Japanese, but they do inhabit a strange and opulent Twilight Zone. The humor, such as it is in this movie, has to do with the frequent mistranslations. Together they try to have a social life, and it involves going to parties with distant friends connected to work and trying to make conversation with Japanese people who largely have no idea what they are saying, and visa versa. This leads to a few comic situations that are both predictable and strained.

Bob is basically going through a midlife crisis. He is a successful actor and is a nice guy, but doesn’t know how to give his wife the heave ho for her marital sin of being emotionally empty with him. Charlotte too is non-confrontational. Bob is easily old enough to be Charlotte’s father, which implies their relationship must be wholly platonic, and it sort of is. Bob looks at carpet samples sent Fedex by his wife. Yet he and Charlotte eventually end up in bed together, not to have sex, but simply for such company as they can bring each other while they trade meaningless stories about their meaningless lives. Their commonality is they both speak English and they both feel lost and disconnected. They also feel isolated and strangers in a very strange land. But at least they inhabit a nice prison. No matter what they do or where they go, it is all sort of vapid and meaningless. Which sort of describes the movie.

Except of course Bob, being a nice guy, gets something from his relationship with Charlotte. He can’t put his finger on it, but as he flies to go home he feels it. Their connection was designed to be short-term, but they got some tangential amusement from simply hanging out with each other for a bit. And their opulent but emotionally empty lives at least gave them the pleasure of some connection, low wattage though it is, for a little while. It’s actually kind of pathetic, but it’s better than what they have with their significant others, so neither is particularly anxious for it to end.

This is not a bad movie, no more than Waiting for Godot is a bad play. But few people get much from Waiting for Godot, the classic existentialist play. The same is true with Lost in Translation. It’s pretty obviously an existentialist movie for the 21st century. The Hollywood crowd must have been looking for something like this. Perhaps it reminded them of Los Angeles, the center of superficiality in the world. So maybe they liked it because it felt so familiar. But like most Woody Allen movies, the rest of us with more connected lives won’t so much not get it as just not appreciate it. It’s basically vapid, but at least you get the feeling that you’ve experienced Tokyo, where the city is one giant mask of electronic distraction and bad karaoke. Ultimately, the movie feels more pathetic than shallow. If this is the closest Bob and Charlotte can come to a healthy relationship, their lives will be meaningless indeed.

2.9 out of four-points. If for some reason you are an existentialist at heart, go see it. If you abhor superficiality, avoid.

Rating: ★★★☆ 


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