Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

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☆☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Cabin in the Woods (2012)

It’s hard to find a new wrinkle in the formulaic teen slasher movie genre. Even fans of the genre must be sick to death of these movies by now. Before giving up on the genre, make sure you check out this frequently amusing take: Cabin in the Woods. I can guarantee that you haven’t seen this kind of teen slasher movie before.

Co-written by Joss Whedon, the writer and director that gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and recent movies like The Avengers comes the sort of movie that he likes to write but curiously chose not to direct. Maybe he was too busy with other projects to direct this one in. No matter: co-writer and director Drew Goddard seems to be channeling Whedon. He delivers the sort of movie you would expect if Whedon had been directing it: quirky and fun, plus zombies, a creepy old man with an evil eye at an abandoned filling station and a stereotypical creepy cabin in the woods with an evil basement and root cellar, not to mention zombies in the family graveyard ready to come back to life when the right Latin is read aloud from a diary that is in the basement. I haven’t had so much fun with zombies since Shaun of the Dead. There is so much unnecessary blood and guts in this movie that it becomes cartoonish.

Anyhow you know the formula: a bunch of stereotypical teens go someplace impossibly remote. While exercising a little harmless teenage rebellion they find that the creepy cabin they are in is harboring a few horrors. Actually in this movie the teens have their choice of a huge variety of horrors, all on standby depending on where they inadvertently take the plot. While most teen slasher movies concentrate on a few horrors from the id, you get to peek behind the curtain in this movie. That’s right, there is a whole crew behind this cabin in the woods, in a neat off-site control room in what appears to be a modern office building. They are just a bunch of white collar technicians busy creating another sacrificial event to appease the gods, the ones that stay deep underground and haven’t been seen since ancient Greece. They only stay down in their subterranean vault if annually they get a tribute of fresh teen gore including a whore, a jock, a stoner and nice guy. The virgin is a nice extra, but is not required.

You would think it would be kind of ghoulish for these technicians to oversee such an endeavor, but they are so blasé about the whole thing. After all they have seen it many, many times before. The various departments, out of boredom, bet on which ghoulish fate the teens will inadvertently pick, and keep tabs on a big whiteboard. Among the technicians pulling off this event is Hadley (Bradley Whitford, a.k.a Josh Lymon from seven seasons of The West Wing.) Whitford doesn’t have to break a sweat acting in this movie, since he’s basically Josh in this movie, right down to the unbuttoned collared shirt. He’s put on more than a few pounds since The West Wing. He and Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) happen to be the directors of this particularly ghoulish dismemberment event, but the real director is Sigourney Weaver, who doesn’t show up until the end of this brief ninety-five minute movie. She’s a good choice because lord knows, she has run away from all sorts of creatures of the id. Hadley and Sitterson are best thought of as assistant directors, because there are staged paranormal events going on all over the planet.

So there is a lot of wry humor in this movie, which makes it perhaps one of the most enjoyable slasher movies to make it to the screen. The juxtaposition between the blasé backstage directors and the teenage debutantes and jocks that are dealing with the mayhem at their cabin in the woods makes for genuine entertainment and little in the way of what you would consider to be genuine terror. In short, if you see this movie to get scared, you probably won’t be.

If there is a problem with the movie it’s that it’s not long enough. Each of the teen characters is actually quite fun, and hardly stereotypes. You want more screen time from each before they mostly all meet their unfortunate but well planned demises. They include Jules (Anna Hutchison) the “whore” who just happens to like being sexually active, and who gets to French kiss the head of a wolf; Dana (Kristen Connolly) the virgin who appears to be a technical one only (it’s left ambiguous); Holden (Jesse Williams) who is so nice that he covers the one way mirror in his room that inadvertently lets him see more of the virgin than he ever expected; Curt (Chris Hemsworth) who has to prove his manhood in a desperate attempt to escape and Marty (Fran Kranz), the stoner, perhaps the most amusing of the bunch with all sorts of unusual observations. Curiously it is Marty that turns out to be the most grounded of the bunch and whose weed (and telescopic bong) seems to be throwing off the well-planned outcome. This is what makes this movie both particularly interesting and amusing. You won’t be too surprised by the plot twist, which involves a lot of karmic payback for the engineers behind the scenes.

It’s just that it all happens too quickly. Whedon’s touch is quite noticeable, with all sorts of quotes that stick in your brain, like Hadley’s quote: “These fucking zombies. Remember when you could just throw a girl in a volcano?” There’s a lot here, which means I’ll probably have to go watch it a few times to fully appreciate it.

While it goes too quickly, it’s a great investment of your time nonetheless. This is my idea of the perfect popcorn movie. It’s quirky, fun and quite silly gore that is over way too soon. It deserves some sequels and I’m hoping Marty and Dana (the only two to survive) return for the sequel. The others can doubtless come back as zombies too.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Iron Lady (2009)

The Iron Lady? Who’s she? Did Tony Stark give Pepper Potts her own iron suit? It sounds right as last time I saw an Iron Man movie, Tony had turned over the company to her, so she sure could afford one.

No, The Iron Lady is not about Pepper Potts, who is a heap more attractive and younger than the subject of the movie, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep. However, the actress portraying a young Margaret Thatcher (Alexandra Roach) is quite attractive. That’s before Margaret Thatcher frizzed up the hair and started putting on those hats.

Her husband Dennis too could turn a few heads in his prime (played as a young adult by Harry Lloyd, and as a ghost by Jim Broadbent). As a ghost, Dennis is basically old and crotchety and Margaret Thatcher is senile, half in the real world and half out. The half out part is due to the passing of her husband, which she doesn’t fully grasp. Dennis may be gone, but not his ghost. Margaret and Dennis lived so long together that even in death, she cannot escape him. So Dennis becomes a figment of her imagination that basically drives her batty.

Curiously, as written by Abi Morgan and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, The Iron Lady becomes mostly a story about Thatcher’s decline, senility and her sparring relationship with her husband Dennis, who doesn’t appear to enjoy  being in her shadows very much. The story of her life is abbreviated, with snippets of key events of her tenure as member of parliament and prime minister acting almost as filler. It’s a movie that I think should have spent more time chronicling her tenure in office rather than her sad final years. Thatcher certainly was a memorable politician, almost the U.K.’s version of Ronald Reagan, who was also in office at the time just across the pond. Thatcher had a lot of tough love for her country, which mostly meant throttling its overpowered unions. The daughter of a merchant, she saw small businesses like her father’s as the true engine of economic growth, and worked tirelessly to allow them to thrive. This also meant putting labor in what she perceived as its rightful place: under management’s heel rather than being forces of obfuscation that they often were.

Thatcher was a woman that fed controversy; so much so that when she finally died in 2013 her passing also became a political event. To this day there is no one in Great Britain neutral about the baroness: she is either loved or loathed. On her death, many British radio stations were requested to play “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead” from the Wizard of Oz. For the Iron Lady caused a lot of pain, while arguably bringing Britain a new renaissance. For those who suffered her wrath and pain, like many in the labor unions, she will be despised as someone who triggered massive social change, unemployment and reduced standards of living. As in America, a lot of the wealth moved toward the privileged class.

Thatcher was certainly a woman driven by principle. Tenacity was bred into her. At least as portrayed in the movie, she was not intimidated by being one of the few women in parliament or to fight on the floor of the House of Commons as doggedly as any man. It’s not surprising, particularly given her gender, that she drew outsized attention in Parliament and within the Conservative Party. Streep portrays her as something of an anti-politician, who simply would not compromise and charged doggedly ahead. At times it made her look foolish, such as during a strike by sanitation workers when trash piled up on the streets and outside the Parliament. At times it made her look cruel, as when her police battled protestors in the streets with clubs and tear gas. In many ways, the 1980s were for Great Britain what the 1960s were for the United States: a period of great social change.

These nuggets of Thatcher’s life in politics are what sustain the movie. What pulls it back is the story of her relationship with Dennis, who is portrayed as both a ghost as bothersome husband. He is mostly just vying for her attention, as Thatcher’s interest is primarily in politics. That Dennis appears as a ghost is probably to emphasize a deficiency in Thatcher: that she gave her marriage short shrift. That was okay with Dennis going into the marriage, but as the marriage evolved and she gained in political stature it became more and more irritating. No wonder Dennis appears as a ghost. With nothing else about Thatcher to check her supreme self-confidence, only her relationship with Dennis is something the script writer could find to introduce self-doubt within Thatcher. Many other Britons found all sorts of faults in Thatcher, but none that Thatcher herself would acknowledge.

Overall, the movie is a decent portrait of a prominent politician and groundbreaker. Both Streep and Broadbent give fine performances worthy of their first class status as actors. That the writer and director chose to focus principally on Thatcher’s relationship with Dennis seems off, and particularly myopic. It imperfectly tries to psychoanalyze Thatcher and leaves you with more questions than answers. Another curiosity: the movie was financed in part with profits from the British lottery, much like The King’s Speech. That’s a sort of socialism Thatcher would not have approved of.

The Iron Lady is worth seeing as a character study of a woman as seen through the director’s narrow prism. It will keep your attention. However, it feels that with a different director and writer, it could have been a much better movie.

3.0 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
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☆ 

 

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