Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

The Thinker

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar is another one of these movies that is quite good, providing that you don’t think about it too much. Don’t let this stop you from seeing the movie if so inclined. It’s not at all a bad movie and it is quite engaging. Ignorance about science actually helps, although director Christopher Nolan got plenty of scientific help to try to make the premise semi-plausible.

The premise of the movie is that the earth is dying, at least as a habitat for sustaining human life. Not much else other than corn is growing and you will see plenty of corn, at least until Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) decides to abandon his farm and family to take a trip through a wormhole around Saturn that appears to have been placed there by an alien intelligence. The wormhole has already taken some brave cosmonauts to across vast distances of space and time (actually to another galaxy) to some area of space where there are some candidate planets that might support human life. Mankind needs to vacate the earth soon, which is Cooper’s reason for volunteering to command this mission. He wants to save his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) from the grisly fate of slow death that all humans will face if they don’t get off the planet soon. Apparently, colonizing Mars is out of the question.

Cooper used to be a test pilot but became just another farmer after his test flying days ended. His skills were no longer required. He’s a competent but unenthusiastic farmer who frequently wakes from nightmares from his accident as a test pilot. Fortunately, there’s a gravitational anomaly on his farm. It’s not good to have one of these, but between this and the massive dust storms that regularly arrive he and Murph are reading signs in the patterns of dust in the library of their farmhouse. And decoded it sends them to a place on their handy USGS topographic map where nothing should be. When they drive out there though they find a fenced in area. Once inside, what they really find is NASA, now a hush-hush agency, and Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the genius working on the really hard problem of moving the human race off the earth, out of the Milky Way and to some far flung place to ensure the survival of the species.

This sounds like a worthwhile endeavor but goodness, what a strange set of coincidences already because Cooper already knows Professor Brand from his flying days. Brand immediately petitions him to take a spacecraft to Saturn, because he is the best test pilot he ever saw. He wants Cooper to take it through the wormhole and then to various systems and planets abnormally affected by gravitational waves to find a planet that humans can colonize. Just in case no one on earth can actually follow them en masse, each spacecraft comes complete with human incubators to restart the species on a suitable planet. It is, to say the least, a series of remarkable coincidences. But it’s just the beginning of these as well of many questions.

For me, among the questions is why some sort of intelligent species would place this prominent and useful wormhole near Saturn but not bother to give them a way to communicate. Then there is the physics on whether you could actually traverse through a wormhole and survive on the other side. Obviously, it makes for a great movie if you can. After a long trip from Earth to Saturn with his two travelling companions Brand (the professor’s daughter, played by Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi), they do slip through the wormhole. Cooper and Brand quickly engage in a series of literally hair-raising visits to a couple of local planetary systems. They go there to find some pioneers who went there and to see if the planets are habitable. Gravitational waves and relativity play major tricks on them, allowing them to age hardly at all while Romilly waits 23 years for their return. Meanwhile, Cooper knows that back home his daughter Murph is aging relatively much more quickly than he is and is seriously wacked out by her father’s disappearance. He promised to come home and get her, but as decades pass it’s hard to see how this can happen, particularly when none of the previous explorers have come back. Fortunately, at least one-way communications from Earth is possible. This gives Cooper many opportunities to tear up when he gets sporadic reports from Murph, who quickly catches up with him in age.

So yes, the plot is a bit convoluted and incredulous at times, but it is all portrayed quite realistically otherwise. Most science fiction and space operas don’t talk about the problem of relativity. At least this one tackles it. And the acting is quite good all around. The acting includes a supporting role for Matt Damon, who plays one of the pioneer astronauts, Dr. Mann.

The plot frequently moves across space and time, to this far-flung galaxy then back to earth, NASA and Dr. Brand’s lab where little Murph becomes one of his scientists and helps him with his complex space/time formula he can’t quite seem to finish. There are plenty of suspenseful parts of the movie. If you are having trouble feeling affected by the acting, then you can revel in the voluminous orchestration that, if you are of a certain age will sound familiar. It’s not just the organ music that feels like it’s come out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but many of the characters as well as much of its plot. Yes, the movie feels like it is something of a homage to the classic 1968 science fiction movie, imitating it in many ways but fortunately not in 2001’s cerebral nature, divorced as it was from emotion.

Matthew McConaughey has grown up as an actor. In the past I have panned his movies. Here he gets to play a serious role rather than a pretty boy with flaxen, blow dried hair, and he does a good job with it, as does Anne Hathaway, of course as his female partner Brand. There is plenty of emotion to revel in too, which considering the weighty topic of the survival of our species seems quite appropriate.

Just don’t think about it too much. Don’t think about how they manage to survive such a long time (hibernation certainly helps) in their spacecraft, don’t think about the improbability of emerging alive on the other side of a wormhole, and don’t think about the likely lethal amounts of cosmic rays just a trip to Saturn would have given them. Presumably NASA figured out a workaround. As regular readers may remember, I don’t believe we are destined to live on other planets, let alone other solar systems or galaxies, given the daunting nature of known physics and the distances between solar systems. Earth is it for our species, I’m afraid. But if you have to dream about such a possibility, Interstellar gives you as plausible a scenario as you are likely to get. It’s just, if you have studied the science and do think about it, you realize it is still implausible.

But you probably won’t care too much. Overall the movie is too good not to ignore a lot of dubious science and major issues with the plot in general. Indulge and enjoy. Here’s one movie that is quite literally stellar.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The meat of Meat Loaf

You miss a lot during your busy years. There are so many things I just gave up when real life consumed me. This included most television, most leisure reading, lots of movies and music. Now that I’m retired I’m trying to catch up on a lot of stuff that I missed. I’ll never catch up, of course, so it’s kind of futile to try, but I am trying to catch up on Meat Loaf.

His record Bat out of Hell soared to the top of the charts in 1977 and sold more copies than Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the world of rock music it was something of a nuclear warhead, flattening the competition for months. The album’s success was in part aided by the cover’s outrageously clever artwork. Still, I just had not gotten around to ever listening to it. 37 years later in semi-retirement, I found the time.

There were certainly many in the hard rock genre at the time. All sorts of artists were trying for the loudest and most outrageous acts on stage. We were looking for spectacle. We were looking for our eardrums to be pierced by music. In that sense, the artist formally known as Michael Lee Aday was just another screaming head. Still, when I finally got around to listening to the title track all these years later, I felt that he must have the loudest and certainly the most convincing of the bunch. Ably assisted by songwriter Jim Steinman, it’s not surprising that this album sold like gangbusters.

For a fat guy, Meat Loaf has had a remarkable career. Big fat guys aren’t supposed to be this talented, and if they are they are supposed to be spurned by the skinnier set. Meat Loaf was the exception but you can tell that his fellow artists begrudged his rise to success. Starting with a part in the rock opera Hair, not to mention a role on The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this accidental artist somehow dramatically beat the odds against him. Listening to Bat out of Hell, not to mention two sequel albums also enabled by Jim Steinman, it’s clear to me what makes him different. It comes down to one thing: authenticity.

Meat Loaf is a talented singer and performer, even when he did not have Jim Steinman’s songwriting talents to draw on. For artists like Alice Cooper or Gene Simmons though, music is just an act. For Meat Loaf, singing is a projection of the person he actually is. Consequently he brings a loud but honest sincerity to his singing that makes him unique. It was this I think that people latched onto, and why his album went nuclear. His songs were quite good, but they were by themselves no better than similar songs of his era. The reason they shown was simply because he puts one hundred percent of who he really is into them. Every word overflows with emotion.

Most big fat boys who grow up to be men are going to have issues. Meat had many, as will be clear if you read his biography. It would be hard to find an issue he didn’t have, but certainly they included the ones that usually bedeviled rock stars of his time, including drugs and booze. In his case it also included a dysfunctional family, something he sings about candidly in Bat out of Hell II, in the song “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”. As Steinman wrote the song, I assumed it was fictional. However, if you take the time to hear his story, this is not fictional at all. Meat’s drunken father did actually tried to kill him with a knife. Meat suffered the discrimination common to boys who did not fit in. It was these taunting boys and his father that gave him the name “Meat Loaf”.

So it turns out that spinning through Meat Loaf’s albums is a heady and enjoyable experience, if you don’t mind hearing pain leach out of his voice so frequently. He eloquently connects many of us to painful periods in our own past. You might say he is a grounded artist, both in real life and in his work. Unlike most artists who make a one hit wonder, he was able to resurrect himself. Bat out of Hell II was released in 1993, sixteen years after the first album’s debut and inexplicably moved his career out of the toilet and back into the stratosphere. Having heard all three Bat albums, the second is actually better than the first, and longer as well. It is also more personal.

The third Bat album was released in 2006. Steinman was the sole songwriter for the first two albums and contributed to the third album, with other songs contributed by Desmond Child, who also produced the record. The success of the Bat albums, all of which went gold, triggered disagreements and lawsuits between Meat Loaf and Steinman. Nonetheless, when their collaboration worked, it was to both their benefits. Steinman tried to put out some albums of his own, but he simply isn’t gifted with Meat Loaf’s voice, so they floundered.

Music is supposed to affect you. Sometimes music will touch you. Very rarely sometimes music will grip you tightly and rattle you with its power. Not all of Meat Loaf’s music qualified in the latter, but some of it, particularly many of the songs on his Bat out of Hell albums have that rare magic. Some of them can make you cry in spite of their loudness.

It took 37 years, but I’m glad I took these albums for a virtual spin. It’s curious that Meat Loaf has not yet been invested in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let’s hope it’s not a snub, because he should be in its gilded ranks.

 
The Thinker

Review: Ishtar (1987)

We like the occasional bad movie and Ishtar has a certain reputation in this category. The problem was for years I could not find it. Netflix did not rent it. It stayed in my queue for years. This movie about two terribly bad and tone-deaf songwriters (played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) getting a singing gig in Morocco sounded unique enough to sample, despite its reputed extreme stench. And then finally there it was on Netflix and I could stream it anytime I wanted to. Nonetheless it took a few weeks before we found the time and the motivation to sit down together in front of our entertainment center for this special “entertainment”.

Well!

My goodness!

Yes, Ishtar is a bad movie. But it’s the worst kind of bad movie. It’s not the kind that you can laugh at. It’s the kind of bad movie that feels like someone is jamming steel spikes into your head as you watch it. You have to wonder how many people simply walked out of the theater after the first fifteen minutes when this was in the theaters. (My guess is all but a handful.) Both my wife and I kept exchanging glances during this movie. We like a bad movie, but a “bad bad” movie? Our thumbs hovered over the stop button on our remote for most of the movie, but somehow we made it to the end. However, we could not endure the credits, which had we watched them probably would have been the only good part of the movie.

So no wonder this movie had been hard to find. It was likely that Beatty and Hoffman, when they saw the result, went on a vendetta to keep the movie from being seen at all, let alone make its way to video. Strangely, they both survived their debacles in this movie. Presumably those that subsequently hired them forgave them or (more likely) never saw the movie.

Thus truly you can skip this movie too with no feelings of regret that you missed some sort of classic bad movie. There are so many other candidates out there to enjoy, including my favorite bad movie made three years earlier and starring Tanya Roberts: the immortal Sheena where for 117 minutes you can enjoy an attractive blonde woman cavorting around the jungles of Africa on a horse painted to look like a zebra. If you do choose to rent Ishtar here’s some of what to expect. Warning: you may not be able to finish this review because just recapturing it is likely to make you feel the pain we endured for its 107 minutes.

The movie is all about Lyle (Beatty) and Chuck (Hoffman) and their collaboration as “songwriters”. They both have the itch but unfortunately neither has the least bit of talent. Neither of them can sing either. So it’s the worst of both worlds: songs or snippets of songs that make your teeth grate echoed by voices that would make you sound brilliant singing Karaoke. Truly, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard, except while that lasts just a few seconds at most, this just goes on and on.

And their “characters” are the worst sort of pathetic excuses for human beings. You find yourself hoping they’ll get run over by a bus, or that someone will murder them so they don’t reproduce. Both Lyle and Chuck feel washed up, as they are middle aged (both Beatty and Hoffman were 50 at the time) which makes it hard to find an agent to market their “songs”. They hound a third rate talent agent played by David Margulies who finds them a number of very unattractive gigs. You know he’s a bad agent because no agent in their right mind would book these two for anything, so he is as talent deaf as they are tone deaf. Their choices are two very underpaying gigs: one in Guatemala and the other in Morocco. They choose Morocco because there is no civil insurrection going on there. Or so they think.

There is the CIA in Morocco, however. Emir Yousef (Aharon Ipalé) is busy doing what a lot of emirs do in that area: oppressing his citizens through martial law for his profit and he uses CIA agent Jim Harrison (Charles Grodin) to facilitate his dirty work because, well, communism! Nuff said. His subjects though are feeling rebellious, and that includes Shirra (Isabelle Adjani), a Muslim woman showing so little skin that both Chuck and Lyle assume she is a he. This leads to some painful to watch scenes, including one where Lyle frisks her and discovers “he” has breasts but he can’t put it together that he is a she.

Somehow Chuck gets recruited by Jim to be a CIA agent but what the Emir really wants is them dead, because Chuck sort of likes Shirra, to the point where at her direction he goes to find a man who will sell him a blind camel. This leads to scenes in the desert where they are supposedly going to find an oasis, but they are basically being sent into the desert to die, with a blind and recalcitrant camel. Much more really bad dialog between Chuck and Lyle happens in the desert, not to mention more explicit attempts to kill them by air. First though they have to do their act, and the tourists are apparently tone-deaf too and lacking in even a modicum of discernment to realize they are wretched. They applaud and Chuck and Lyle think they are a hit.

So if this is your idea of a comedy or entertainment, please go ahead and rent it. You may be the first human being to actually like the movie. This is pretty much the plot, such as it is, and it’s so thin it’s hard to understand how it was stretched out to 107 excruciating minutes until you realize it was padded with more and more heaping doses of excruciatingly bad dialog between these two talentless jerks.

I’ve never rated a movie a zero before. Trust me: this qualifies. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, not even a moment of humor that is even a tiny bit funny. Basically it is an intensely painful experience. It must have been equally painful to make, and it’s a wonder it made it into the theaters at all, however briefly.

Yech! Make that double yech! Avoid! Avoid! Avoid!

Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy was out of this world, in part because we paid only $11.50 for two matinee tickets. Where do you get this kind of price to see a movie in 2014? It was in Amherst, Massachusetts in our case, which was where we were house hunting at the time. So this review is about a month late. Sorry about that.

What Star Wars has spun! Nearly forty years after the release of the classic first movie, it still spins off space operas, and Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest near Star Wars summer blockbuster. The movie has nothing directly to do with Star Wars, of course, but it has many of its classic trademarks. It’s actually another Marvel comic book spinoff.

Space operas have become so institutionalized that you don’t even need to explain them anymore; they are as familiar as westerns. Of course there must be some sort of evil overlord, in this case Ronan, head of a race called the Kree that has its head up its ass and won’t let anything stop it in is quest to control the galaxy. The Milky Way Galaxy of course is an impossibly huge place, with 100-400 billion stars and a girth of 120,000 light years. Minor matters like its size and limiting factors like the speed of light don’t matter in the space opera genre and sure doesn’t here. Like Star Trek, we just somehow figure we’ve solved all these problems so we can wrap a story around it. In this case the galaxy has to be saved in 122 minutes, including credits.

The ultimate motivation for a movie is to make gobs of money, so director James Gunn did his best to tie it sort of to the present. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is mysteriously abducted by aliens shortly after his beloved mother dies abruptly. There is not much to remember her except a picture, a cassette with a mix of some 1980s pop music his mom made for him and an apparently indestructible boom box, which Peter takes with him. (Luckily, they rest of the universe has a handy supply of D batteries for his boom box.) The music becomes central to an adult Peter’s life and to keeping us engaged in the movie. For if Peter is involved in any action, he is probably doing it with the boom box on and one of his mother’s mixes playing. You can sort of dance your way through battle sequences in this movie.

Peter is now a space pirate working for a group called the Ravagers. Peter manages to steal the orb which Ronan needs to win control of the universe, so naturally the galaxy is focused on him, including a sassy genetically engineered raccoon who is also a bounty hunter named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his sort of Chewbacca sidekick Groot, an intelligent tree with an extremely limited vocabulary who is kind of cute and is more into expressing himself through action rather than words. There are other memorable characters like a green human-like woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and a Hulk-like alien Drax (Dave Bautista). Peter is more than a little like Hans Solo with perhaps a bit of a soft side, but mostly he is one of many sarcastic creatures that haunt this movie.

Since it’s a space opera, it’s much more of a popcorn movie than it is out to impart any particular deep thoughts. Its large box office receipts and how it has stayed at or near the top of the box office charts for the second half of the summer attest to its success. The characters are well drawn and they interact well enough with each other, and Rocket the sassy raccoon is particularly memorable. The CGI is seamless too but we sort of expect there will be enormous space battles with thousands of Millennium Falcon-like crafts to partake in them, in this case to save a planet full of good guys.

Part of the movie’s success has been its noted lack of competition. This has been a miserable summer for the movies, reflecting perhaps a lack of imagination from Hollywood. There’s not much new here either as it hoes a well-tilled genre. It’s just a shame though that a really good space opera like Serenity (2005) failed to take off, perhaps due to poor timing (released in late September) while this better than most Star Wars clone makes far more money. Serenity is more adult while this is not, and that may explain Guardians’s success in general. We’re not looking for plausibility; we’re just looking for action with decent characterization. If that’s your criteria and you haven’t seen Guardians, it’s still playing. If you’d rather spend the time seeing an excellent space opera, then rent or stream Serenity instead.

3.3 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Butler

It’s good to see black directors claim movies about the African American experience. Unsurprisingly since the legacy of slavery and oppression are burned into the experience of African Americans it’s a story that they want to tell.

A month or so back I got around to reviewing 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, an African American. The film won Best Picture, but I found it excruciatingly hard to watch, probably because of its challenging subject. An African American, Lee Daniels, also directed The Butler. Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) was never a slave, but he grew up in the Deep South so segregated that he might as well have been a slave. Any Negro perceived as uppity, and some that weren’t, were lynched with impunity. It’s part of Cecil’s world growing up as a boy on a cotton plantation.

The slave-holding mentality died hard. His parents and he worked on the plantation sowing and picking cotton. One day one of the owners of the plantation drags his mother off to the shack where he unceremoniously rapes her. When Cecil prods his father to protest what happened, his father’s tepid protest leads to a bullet in his brain. Of course, there is no justice for this murder. The plantation workers have to act like nothing unusual just happened.

Fortunately this is about as gruesome as the movie gets but racial injustice is its constant theme. In Cecil’s unusual case, his father’s murder leads to him being trained as a “house nigger” at the plantation, where he learns how to act proper and take care of white folk. Memories of his father’s death and being in the same house with his murderer leads him to escape as soon as he is old enough. A series of fortunate coincidences leads to a job as a butler in a hotel and eventually to one in Washington D.C. where his professionalism, as well as his ability to be attentive but always deferring leads him to a position in the White House as one of its butlers. There Cecil attends the president, his family and friends over many administrations starting with the Eisenhower Administration.

Cecil may be just a butler, but he has reached close to the pinnacle of professional jobs for blacks at the time. His new life could hardly be any more different from his boyhood of picking cotton on the plantation. He lives a middle class life in Washington D.C., marries a fine woman named Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and settles down into a lifestyle many whites would envy.

Of course, being black, even with the privilege of serving the president and first family, he is still a victim of discrimination. He is denied promotion opportunities available to whites within the White House and his boss is fine with paying blacks less than whites. Still, Cecil is intoxicated with his position and access and works long hours. This leads to marital strain and eventually infidelity from his resentful and neglected wife. Meanwhile, his son Charlie (Elijah Kelley) grows up and becomes active in the civil rights movement. He is among the group of blacks that dare to sit down at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworths store in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960, and marches with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Much of his college and early adult years involve getting roughed up by whites. He is lucky to escape alive, and he has a close encounter with death when his bus tries to pass a bridge into Alabama. His choices though deeply disturb Cecil, to the point they become estranged over them. These add to the reasons his wife is hitting the bottle so much.

This butler’s story is thus quite an interesting contrast. He works for presidents who generally sympathize with oppression against blacks but are still uncomfortable around them, even with their butlers who see them intimately all the time. While mostly presidents give lip service to civil rights, some take up what looks like a dubious cause, including presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Cecil gets to know his presidents too intimately at times, handing President Johnson the toilet paper for example (Johnson was notorious for using the bathroom in front of staff and guests) and even consoling a distraught Jackie Kennedy just hours after her husband’s assassination, with her husband’s blood stains on her clothes and legs.

Mostly though he has reflexively learned to keep his mouth shut. Nixon (played by John Cusack) tries to convince the butlers to vote for Republicans in 1960 by giving them campaign buttons. President Reagan discusses his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa right in front of him. Cecil seems to understand though that real equality for blacks is a long way off, while he is sensitive to the notion that the presidents he serves generally are moving the civil rights issue as quickly as they can.

The adventures of his son in the South form a major backdrop to the story, as does his wife’s many issues. Much of the movie concentrates on the crazy 1960s, including the rise of the Black Panther movement (which sucks in his son) and the race riots, with scenes of the rioting in Washington D.C. after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. It moves too quickly for Cecil, who is estranged from his son in part because he cannot sort through his own feelings on racism given the dual worlds he inhabits.

The Butler certainly has a lighter tone in general that 12 Years a Slave, but in many ways it is more informative, and certainly more topical as many of us remember the crazy 1960s and the civil rights era. Cecil’s juxtaposition provides an interesting perspective by being at the boundary between two worlds. Of the two movies, The Butler is actually the more interesting and certainly the easier to stomach. It’s nice to see Oprah Winfrey in a movie again. She has lost none of her acting ability due to her talk show years. Overall Daniels does a convincing job of rendering the times, portraying the White House and finding a fine ensemble of actors to carry it out.

Curiously the film was never even nominated for an Oscar, perhaps because 12 Years a Slave sucked all the oxygen from competing films about racism. It did win a number of other awards. It is also worth two hours of your time, particularly if you were born after the civil rights era. If you were, it will give you an intimate look into those times as well as introduce you to a number of presidents you probably only read about. The casting is sometimes curious – Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower? – so in a way it’s better to be ignorant about these ex-presidents as us older folk knew them. The movie does manage to entertain, inform and for the younger crowd to enlighten as well.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Jersey Boys

Now late in his career, director and actor Clint Eastwood seems to be steering away from pictures that demonstrate that he can produce landmark films. After all, he already has. The 83-year-old director already produced a best picture: 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, which won Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood and a nomination for Eastwood for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Most of his career has been in acting. He has made his mark in a number of landmark and unforgettable films including many Dirty Harry movies, The Eiger Sanction and The Bridges of Madison County.

With life still ahead of him Eastwood has the luxury of directing movies that will probably not add another Oscar trophy to his wall, and will be seen as less than stellar, but are still quite good movies in themselves. Jersey Boys, a movie that chronicles the life of Frankie Valli and the other members of singing group The Four Seasons falls into this category. It’s very well done, quite engaging, with excellent acting and flawless directing. Still, aside from telling an interesting but not too surprising story about the various flaws and conflicts of the men in this 1950s and 1960s singing group, there’s not much here to write home about. It’s simply a very well done human-interest story.

Eastwood did not have to spend too much time on this movie. The music of The Four Seasons of course is burned into the brains of any of us fifty-plus, plus this movie is heavily based on the Broadway musical with the same name as the movie. Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is known not so much for his face as for his voice. His voice was utterly unique for his time: a falsetto voice so high-pitched that you expected it came from a woman, or perhaps a man who had not quite finished puberty. His voice sure was distinct and powerful. You could not hear it without it drawing your attention. As distinct as it is, it was made better by the blended and contrasting lower registers of the other men in the band, including the group leader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and songwriter, lyricist and backup vocalist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

The band went through many names before they standardized on The Four Seasons. All of them came from New Jersey, known for its large number of Italian immigrants and their descendants and its Mafia. These boys, and Frankie is a minor at the start of the movie, are frequently getting in trouble with the law. They have Mafia connections as well: specifically Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who has shady connections that are never made clear, but who seems a benign sort of mobster, and who eventually befriends Frankie.

Success eludes the group, but their otherwise spendthrift manager Tommy at least is smart enough to sense a lot of talent in Frankie and brings him onto the group. Still, his presence is not enough. Their most critical problem is a unique sound, and it is not until the shy, virginal but business-savvy songwriter Bob is integrated into the group that their breakaway hit “Sherry” emerges. From then on their career takes off something like a rocket. But unsurprisingly they often grate on each other. Tommy insists on being in charge, even though he squanders money and hides their financial troubles. Tommy and Bob share hotel rooms and snipe at each other. And Frankie rightly feels that he is the breakaway star of the group, and wants recognition that Tommy won’t give him.

It’s all this plus they’re Italian, so they are used to dealing with issues with fisticuffs and cursing. Inevitably, they enter into a number of bad relationships with women. Frankie largely succeeds in at least being faithful to his wife Mary (Renée Marino), but she resents his time mostly on the road and expresses her feelings in explosive arguments and by hitting the bottle. At least on stage, these Jersey boys give quite a show. They eventually land gigs on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. They do manage to hang around together for more than ten years, but inevitably they can’t keep up appearances. Tommy’s squandering of their income leaves their band deeply in hoc to a gangster and the IRS. Meanwhile, Frankie’s children grow up, and his daughter goes through major crises caused by his absence, and she eventually kills herself.

I hope I have not given away too much of the plot. The plot though does not matter so much, as its devotees know it anyhow and this is simply a human-interest story. These are the sorts of squabbles we all have to deal with, but that happen to more prominent people. Aside from the excellent acting and singing, Eastwood makes it shine with a flawless rendering of the 1950s and 1960s and by keeping our attention on the oversized talents and vulnerabilities of these young men arguably from the wrong side of town.

So it’s the combination of the directing and the frequently toe-tapping singing and dancing that makes this movie memorable in spite of its rather pedestrian plot. Stay through the credits, because the clever dance number during the credits may be the movie’s high point. I haven’t seen the musical but I suspect its ending came from the musical. You may want to wait until the final credit scrolls past the screen because the music of The Four Seasons is instantly infectious, even fifty years later, and you’ll want to hear every note.

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: 12 Years a Slave

It’s Oscar time, at least for me, as I am just now getting around to seeing last year’s award winning movies including its “Best Picture”, 12 Years a Slave.

Best Picture? It’s not a best picture in the sense that it’s a good movie. From its title you would have to assume it’s a horrific movie, and it is. If you want to spend 134 minutes examining slavery up close in the middle of the 19th century, then this is the movie for you. 12 Years a Slave is frankly beyond appalling and it is unfortunately quite faithful to the book of the same name, written by Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga, New York. I know this because after seeing the movie I downloaded the book, which is in the public domain and available on archive.org. As appalling as the violence and inhumanity to man is in this movie, if anything the book is even more appalling. It’s just that on the silver screen you get to see it in all its gory detail.

Slavery has been largely a taboo topic in Hollywood cinema, but it’s becoming less so over the last couple of decades. What’s good/bad about these movies is, unlike say Gone with the Wind, its depiction is becoming accurate. One of the more recent movies featuring slavery was Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx. That movie was more satisfying though because at least the slave masters and slave owners got what was coming to them. Solomon Northrup at least returned to freedom a dozen years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, for which he was very lucky. He was one of a handful of free black men caught this way to return to freedom. His slavery started on a trip to Washington, D.C. where he had supposedly been hired to play the fiddle for a touring troupe. At the time our capital had both slaves and some free blacks, but of course it wasn’t too hard for free blacks coming from outside the capital to find they had been illegally sold into slavery. It didn’t take too long for a plastered Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to end up in chains.

The violence appears over the top, but was rather typical for slaves at the time. A few whites could see human beings behind black faces, but in the South they were fewer and further between. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the first to own Northrup, was one of them. He has a few pangs of conscience separating a mother from her children but what could he do? Not to worry. He assures her that she will soon forget them. To most, like the slave broker ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), slaves are simply property to be sold like horses for their youth, stamina, muscles and subservience. It’s not hard to feel nothing for them when you see them as simply property.

The movie makes clear just how pervasive this attitude was in the south. Violence, lynching, abuse and working a slave almost to death were commonplace. Good Southern women, who you would hope would have a heart, have little in this movie. Indeed, they eye their slaves, particularly their female slaves with suspicion. Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), the wife of a plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) simply urges greater punishment of her slave, particularly when she suspects her husband has feelings for her.

Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of the violence and cruelty. Northrup quickly learns not to complain too much, since his first whipping nearly kills him. Life is problematic for slaves and even if you are alive, it’s not much of a life. Life is so bad that some of these slaves would rather be dead. One woman tries to enlist Northup in an attempt to kill her, figuring it has to be better than her living hell.

Unsurprisingly, most of the slaves are half dead anyhow, if not physically then spiritually. Their lives are hellish and brutish, and often capricious as well. Director John Ridley takes us on this adventure of man’s inhumanity to man in very clinical and personal terms. It’s a world that is utterly bleak. Northrup’s claims of being a free man are at first derided and subsequently punished. He discovers it’s a mistake to confide these secrets, or even to try to get a letter posted to set him free. His comfort, such as it is, is remembering his beloved wife at home and playing a fiddle he is given when his talent is confirmed. He even has to hide the fact that he can read.

Some of the saddest moments occur not through violence but simply witnessing the deadened faces of these slaves who are physically alive but mostly spiritually dead. At times they are required to dance, one time in the middle of the night, to entertain their masters and are “treated” to cookies. They are simply in a deep well of pain where not much registers other than an instinctive and sullen desire to simply endure the absurdity until they can catch some moments of relief in restless sleep.

The movie doesn’t need to feel authentic because it simply is authentic. The screenplay could not have been too much work, since it is often word for word from the book. A hundred and fifty years later it seems crazy to believe this happened in the United States. But it’s clear from my reading of history that this inhumanity toward man was every bit as bad as it is depicted here. The most appalling part of the movie is simply the indifference from the whites to the whole crazy system. It’s like, whatever. This is normal. How could it possibly be any different?

This is an in your face, up close and personal movie full of excellent acting, if vividly and accurately portraying immense suffering is your idea of great acting. I am glad to see Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. Ironically, in the movie Serenity he plays something of the opposite of this character, so it shows his flexibility as an actor. He’s terrific but really there’s not an off note among either the white or black cast of this movie. Among the talented actors is Brad Pitt as Bass, a suspiciously liberal tradesman that Northrup eventually confides in. The hardest part of this moving is enduring your heaving stomach.

Best Picture? It is most certainly the most sickening and moving movie of 2013, but not the sort of movie that you will seek out for entertainment. I’ll leave it unrated.

 
The Thinker

The Wildlife Concert: the best of John Denver

It is strange how you can leave some music or some artist on the shelf for many years, then pick it up again and find yourself so moved. With Google Play’s music service I have been reacquainting myself with these artists I’ve enjoyed but whose repertoire I’ve only mostly only sampled.

One of those pieces of music that I haven’t heard in decades was the Moody Blues very first album, Days of Future Passed. I haven’t heard it in literally decades, except of course for the famous song from the album most of us over thirty have heard: Nights in White Satin. So far, hearing music I listened to in my youth again has been a mixed experience. A lot of it, frankly, didn’t deserve to be heard again. (This includes a lot of Mike Oldfield.) Apparently I had pretty awful taste in music as a teenager but heck, how was I to know better? Days of Future Passed is one of the exceptions. It’s mixture of rock/pop and blended with orchestral interludes was pretty much unique for 1967. Arranger and conductor Peter Knight’s was able to merge and enhance their songs into a seamless story that begins before dawn and ends in the darkness perfectly complements the Moody Blues mostly gentle and heartfelt rock music. Forty-seven years later it’s still a remarkable album. (Simon & Garfunkel’s amazing album Bookends is another truly great album that deserves to be heard by younger generations.)

For the last couple of weeks I have also been listening to John Denver again. I actually wrote about John once before in 2005. Unfortunately, I’ve only got a few of the late artist’s albums and never felt inspired to pick up more albums, mostly because I was busy with things I judged more important. Now with Google Play, I am going through many of them. Mostly though I am stuck on a live concert he gave in 1995, The Wildlife Concert.

John’s relatively abbreviated life would end two years later in 1997 when his experimental aircraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean near Pacific Grove. John was in his early fifties when this concert was performed and recorded. The concert is quite remarkable. Was his singing any better than in the early 1970s when his career first took off? Not really, but his singing in this album feels more heartfelt, if that’s possible, from a man who openly wore his heart and soul on his sleeve and dared to be human rather than a stereotype. There is playfulness in much of John’s music, but in this concert, some twenty years after producing his major hits, we get a John that is more introspective, more real than surreal (his higher register voice can be startling if you haven’t heard him) but somehow even more deeply human. The effect, at least for me, was to feel like I heard John Denver performing at likely his very best.

For me about a third of the music was new. Most of his popular tunes are performed live in the concert, but it’s the newer songs that grabs your ears and pull at your heart and which in some ways are much better than his better known songs. Some are exquisitely beautiful. I am talking about songs like “A song for all lovers”, “Darcy Farrow” and “Wild Montana Skies”.

But it’s more than that. This concert feels more intimate and it sounds much better than his previous live albums. The accompanists include an excellent bass player, a saxophonist and a flutist. They frankly make for a better live experience than other live concerts of his that I have heard.

When I finished the concert recording, I felt more than a little dumbstruck. Quite frankly, I was all teared up. Moreover, I felt a profound sense of loss that we lost him too soon.

In one of his songs, John says, “It turns me on to think of growing old.” I wish he had the opportunity to do so. I wonder how much better he would have gotten with another twenty years to perform. I feel grateful to be able to listen to his music seventeen years after he was taken from us, for hearing him perform again is joyful and deeply moving. But knowing that there simply is no more, that is something to truly grieve over.

You can listen to lots of musical artists. I will bet that you will be unable to find a singer more heartfelt and sincere than the late John Denver.

Pick up the album or give it a spin on the music service of your choice. The concert is also available as a DVD, which I may pick up. It is John Denver at I suspect his very best and his most authentic. It’s a truly great performance.

 
The Thinker

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

The general rule of movie sequels is that the sequel is a pale imitation of the original, and was written primarily to make more money off the success of the original film. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the belated sequel to the successful Anchorman (2004), proves the rule is true.

Oh dear god, this is a painful movie to watch, even if you like screwball humor, which was the appeal of the original movie. To get through it, it helps to like the underlying actors. Will Ferrell (playing big-haired anchorman Ron Burgundy), of course, is known for lots of movies other than Anchorman, and is one of the forces behind funnyordie.com. Steve Carell (Brick Tamland, weatherman), of course, played Michael Scott over many seasons of The Office as well as a forty-year-old virgin, which he sort of plays in this movie as well.

One sign of a sequel in trouble is when they stuff Hollywood A list players into bit parts. So you get Harrison Ford as a network CEO, Tina Fey as an entertainment reporter, Liam Neeson as a History Channel host and Will Smith as an ESPN reporter. It helps to be on the A list because it means your career can survive association with bad movies like this one.

There are sophomoric movies and there are movies that basically only kindergarteners will find funny. This is the latter kind of movie. It includes “hilarious” bits like a fried chicken outfit that actually serves fried bats and an RV on cruise control that Ron leaves driverless going down the interstate. They took the things about the first movie that made it generally entertaining, and dumbed them down ten more times.

Naturally the plot is convoluted, which is perhaps to be expected for a comedy, but Jesus, this plot is one frigging mess. Ron and Veronica are married and have a six-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson) and are both co-anchors at a New York City network-affiliated TV station in 1980. Network CEO Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) calls them into his office, they think to be promoted to prime time news anchors. Veronica gets chosen and Ron is unceremoniously fired for being, well, Ron. He heads back to San Diego where he makes an unsuccessful attempt to kill himself. Immediately afterward, a talent scout for a new 24 hours news station, GNN, persuades him to come back to New York. Ron of course goes to fetch his old gang. Champ, the sportscaster (David Koechner) has turned into a crazy right wing Republican selling fried bat wings as chicken. Brick is psychotic and speaks at his own funeral. Brian, the sportscaster (Paul Rudd) seems to be channeling Matthew McConaughey and intimates he gave crabs to Florence Henderson (that’s supposed to be funny?) Ron is supposed to bring his team to the Big Apple for his show, which turns out to be from 2 AM to 5 AM. He is just a small potato next to telegenic Jack Lime (James Marsden), the prime time GNN actor.

Ron hasn’t lost his ability to be uncouth. His ignorant mouth gets him in trouble pretty much everywhere he goes. His boss is a take no prisoners younger black woman Linda (Meagan Good). Ron manages to immediately touch all the racial triggers in the worst possible way. Anyhow, Ron decides to wing his middle of the nighttime slot, and models Fox News that had not yet been invented. He does it by highlighting stories only the National Inquirer would love and which play on people’s patriotism. The show takes off and a lot of predictable things for a movie this bad happen. His improbable success means that Linda puts the move on Ron, and boy are they an odd couple. Meanwhile, Ron gets the rap of being a bad parent while Christina dates a famous psychologist (played by Greg Kinnear) who Ron believes can read minds.

Somewhere in the convoluted plot while at the height of his success Ron goes blind and a lot of kindergarten humor is exercised when he takes residence in a lighthouse. This includes creating a fire in the dishwasher, cooking poker chips for dinner and lots of stumbling over things. Ron and Christina sort of get back together, Ron tries to be a better dad and they even adopt (and I swear I am not making this up) a pet baby shark. Eventually surgery which conveniently leaves no scars restores Ron’s sight, and he goes back to work for GNN and sort of resolves his bad parent rap by belatedly making it to his son’s piano recital. To do this he first has to get through a gang war among various TV anchors and their crews in a city park. It was funny when it was done in the original movie; here it is not the least bit funny, just with ten times the cast of characters. Seriously, you will want to view this part between cracks in your fingers.

You will get a few inadvertent chuckles in. You will probably laugh more if you see this with a group instead of by yourself. This is the kind of movie to see with a few beers in your belly before the movie starts. To enjoy it you will need to lower your standards far lower than they have been lowered before. Beer will help but it might not lower them far enough. I’d say see it with your kindergartener, but there are occasional swear words and a few adult situations, so it’s not even appropriate for them.

Anchorman 2 is frankly an awful movie masquerading as a comedy that it largely fails to execute. The humor is so strained that the result has no substance at all. I assume the money was good. Sadly, Will Farrell shares the writing credits for this disaster.

If you haven’t seen the original Anchorman, that is worth your time. This one isn’t. It would be generous to say it’s a parody of the original movie. It’s frankly a massive embarrassment to anyone associated with it. I wish I had been warned.

1.8 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★¾☆☆ 

 

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