Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

The Thinker

Review: Carol

I’ve decided that if I were a woman, I’d fall in love with Cate Blanchett anyhow. There is something about her in every role I’ve seen that makes you compulsively interested in her character, but really it’s something interesting about Blanchett that leaches through. She is mesmerizing to watch, beautiful but not particularly pretty, but eye catching nonetheless. No surprise then that in the movie Carol when sales clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) spots Carol (Blanchett) across the sales floor that she finds it hard to serve her customers instead of watching her. The divorcing Carol senses something too but manages to discreetly rope in this filly such that the younger Therese is hardly aware that she is the one being pursued. “Accidentally” leaving her gloves on her counter leads to a lunch date, then a Sunday at her house, and then a road trip west.

The time is the early 1950s. President Truman is leaving office, President Eisenhower is coming on board, and America is at its busiest and brassiest. Unsurprisingly the movie starts in at Christmas time in a Manhattan department store where Therese is forced to don silly Santa hats. She does have something of a social life: an interest in photography and a boyfriend that wants to marry her who is more in her friend zone. Mainly Therese is a woman trying to blossom but not knowing quite how.

Carol on the other hand is trying to get out of a bad marriage and is desperately trying to remain a full time mother to her daughter Rindy while not so successfully trying to stay in the closet. It’s true that her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is brash and controlling. Who wouldn’t want to get away from him? It’s clear to Harge though that she prefers women and he’ll use that as leverage. Her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), an ex-lover, lives with her at her palatial upstate home and helps watch over Rindy and the household.

If you saw the movie The Imitation Game wherein Benedict Cumberbatch played the gay professor Alan Turing, you will know what’s in for Carol if she comes out as a lesbian. In Turing’s case, it landed him in prison. Just evidence that Carol might be a lesbian is enough for Rindy to go into her father’s custody while permanent custody is worked out. This makes Carol distraught and emotionally fragile. In other words, it’s not a great time to take on a new lover.

But so it goes. It’s often during turbulent personal times that affairs happen, and her relationship with Therese is something of an extramarital affair too, although they are a few days on their road trip before it gets tacitly acknowledged (they even sleep in separate rooms). Carol just wants to get away from divorce pressures. Therese is changing too, careers as it turns out, but she’s also chasing intimacy, which she doesn’t quite get from her circle of avant-garde New York friends.

Aside from both fine performances by Blanchette and Mara, the recreation of an early 1950s America should pull you into the movie as well. It is understated but well done and finely detailed, and almost a character in itself since that Puritanical decade frames Carol and Therese’s woes and loves. It’s not so much their love relationship that makes the movie special, although I appreciated the honest and understated way director Todd Haynes pulls it off. For me it was more the frame of this story within the gilded cage of its the times that is interesting. This is not a lesbian Love Story; indeed the love between these two women seems ephemeral at best. It’s more a story about navigating Carol’s personal crises, made especially challenging because she has to struggle to keep her daughter in her life. At best Therese provides her with some relief, but actually more in the way of distraction and companionship while these larger events unfold.

If you come to see great acting from Blanchett you will need to wait until the end of the movie. Meanwhile you can feel mesmerized by her presence and the endearing yet subtle way Carol wraps Therese around herself and her life. Can Carol be authentic to herself in these turbulent personal waters? That’s probably the most interesting part of the movie. Seeing lesbianism on the screen is not that big a thing in 2016 and what there is in this movie is softcore. Shot with a sort of grainy look, Carol feels as intimate as its subject; it’s just that the real intimacy in this movie is not their relationship but Carol’s turbulent personal life in which Therese gets caught up in the whirlwind.

Carol is a good movie with a raw and honest feel to it. It might win Blanchett an academy award, but it is a portrait in the small, not in the grandiose. This suits me fine, as I prefer an artsy and intimate film to an overstuffed blockbuster anyhow. It’s a good arts house film, but for discerning filmgoers only.

3.2 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: Star Trek: The Next Generation (Season I)

How strange to watch this series again nearly thirty years later. I watched episodes of the original Star Trek series many times, not because they were that good, but because repeats were so easily available. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a much better show but I never took the time to go back and watch the episodes again, except sometimes when they were first broadcast, or in hotel rooms when I caught an occasional repeat.

STTNG (for short) lasted seven series where the original series lasted only three. STTNG’s first season was notably bad, while the original series (STTOS?) was best in its first season. STTNG though managed to shake off its first season and won eighteen Emmy awards, not to mention two Hugo awards, five Saturn awards and a Peabody award.

My Netflix streaming account gives me the opportunity to see STTNG again easily and in high fidelity that was simply unavailable when it was broadcast (1987-1994). Thirty years later it still looks quite slick; in fact it’s hard to believe nearly three decades have passed. Unlike STTOS, which had to contend with pennywise network overlords, STTNG (since it was independently distributed) had the money to build expensive sets and do gorgeous special effects. Still, watching the first season of STTNG again, many episodes are cringe-worthy. The whole first season was very much a shakedown cruise for this fancier version of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I also watched on Netflix an interesting documentary that discussed the behind-the-scenes power plays going on, not really among the actors, but among the producers, curiously produced and narrated by William Shatner. The major problem was that the series original creator Gene Roddenberry couldn’t delegate and became myopic on the series. After two years Rick Berman effectively took over, Roddenberry’s health deteriorated, he became a figurative role (he died in 1992), and the series started to improve a lot.

Under the circumstances the actors did pretty well considering that behind the scenes writers and directors were being hired and fired right and left. Still, many of the episodes are so poorly written that even fabulous actors like Patrick Stewart could not make the manure of their script into a rose. The third show, “The Naked Now”, stinks to high heaven, even worse that the episode 4, “The Naked Time” from STTOS which it references. It’s amazing the series survived after this episode, but perhaps not so much given that the subscribing stations were locked in for the season and Trekkies were so desperate for new material they could overlook these stink bomb episodes.

Anyhow, some random observations and thoughts:

  • Boy, the Enterprise is awfully white-bred. This part looks really off. Oh, they do have their token black (Geordi – LeVar Burton) and of course Michael Dorn who played the Klingon Worf is black. But the crew is mostly lily white; you would think in the 24th century we’d all be pretty interbred. A lot more people of color were needed.
  • Thirty years gave me a chance to appreciate Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher). She did not resonate with me at all in my twenties. It’s not that she suddenly looks hot thirty years later but I discovered that she is actually quite a talented actress.
  • The whole boy wonder Wesley Crusher thing really annoyed me thirty years ago. Wesley (Will Wheaton) seemed pretty contrived: a crass attempt to bring in the youth market to make the show more successful. It’s still annoying seeing this in Season 1 again, and it is still feels contrived and artificial. However a second viewing showed me that Will Wheaton actually does a good job with the role, although his part often seems saccharine. For a teen actor in a half-baked part, he did a great job.
  • In the “whose the better captain” argument, obviously I vote for Patrick Stewart. He gave Captain Picard real gravitas. But Picard is cerebral where Kirk is instinctive, so being introverted of course I’m going to appreciate that more. But there is also the obvious fact that Stewart can act and that Shatner could not, at least not without a very good director. To me there is no comparison and it mystifies me why others would disagree.
  • Technology: they got most of it right, to their credit. A few things seem off thirty years later. In one episode Picard orders people use “printouts” for security purposes. So I guess they still have HP Laserjet printers in the 24th century. The Internet was not a thing in 1989 so the idea of a World-Wide-Web was something not yet envisioned, but it can be forgiven because starships are separated by space and time, so it was implausible anyhow.
  • Data (Brent Spiner) remains an interesting character. Thirty years later though you wonder what he’s got that the ship’s computer doesn’t, other than artificial arms and legs. Data’s quest to understand and emulate humans seems kind of silly and kind of like tilting at windmills. Overall though Spiner does an excellent job with the part and makes androids look admirable.
  • The United Federation of Planets often seems a saccharine place. Rick Berman changed that when he got control of the series, adding necessary drama that was often missing or seemed forced in the first season. It’s unclear how the UFP got to be so cohesive. Some species in the federation fight with other species. Klingons insist on their own starships and seem loosely aligned at best.
  • It still makes no sense to bring children along for the ride. Yes, the saucer section is supposed to separate in time of crisis, and they actually show it twice in the first season. I don’t recall it afterward. I mean, pretty much every episode the Enterprise is put in mortal danger. Picard does his best to keep his people safe but geez, what were they thinking?
  • Gene Roddenberry did think up the holodeck, something the late creator can take credit for. It’s a really interesting idea and presaged our current virtual worlds. Indeed, it might have been the impetus for emerging technologies like Oculus Rift.
  • One thing I like, even though it is unrealistic, is how much work and decisions are delegated to human beings. Everyone has a duty and a task that a computer can’t quite master by itself. The computer aids the crew, rather than supplants it. Humans are in charge and an integral part of the future, perhaps by design. Today that looks a bit off but it is at least consistent with the Trek philosophy that a hopeful future for humanity is possible.

If you want to scan the first season, here are some episodes to watch and avoid:

  • Watch: 5 (first Ferengi encounter), 9, 10 (Q is interesting to watch, but insufferable in the series opener), 13 (meet Data’s brother), 22, 23 (goodbye Tasha Yar), and 25 (I love a good conspiracy, even if this feels a bit contrived).
  • Avoid: 1/2 (series opener), 3, 4, 8, 11, 14, 17 (too much like “And the Children Shall Lead” from STTOS).
 
The Thinker

A riffing good time (and a review of “Starship Troopers”)

If you are going to watch a bad movie, why not do it with laughs and commentary? It’s hardly a new idea but it sort of went away in 1999 when Mystery Science Theater 3000 died on what was then the Sci-Fi Channel. You may have slept through the 1990s if you don’t remember Joel Hodgson (1989 – 1993) and later Michael Nelson (1993 – 1999) and his crew of compatriot robots (Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy) endlessly “riffing” (making fun of) bad movies from their “space station” usually parked on Comedy Central. You basically saw their silhouettes in the foreground while some dreadful movie generally from 1960 or earlier played in the background. Their wisecracking “live” commentary was usually great fun, and the films they “riffed” tended to be crap that the original producers didn’t care were riffed, mainly because they were now dead.

It had a good ten-year run but it definitely became less entertaining when Hodgson left the show and Nelson took up his slack. You can still find MST3K (as it is commonly known to its fans) online at the Rifftrax site. Rather than ripping off these riffs, devoted fans will get the DVDs instead, including whole seasons.

Or if you are more interested in the personalities than in the robots and the silly staged setting aboard a space station, you can watch Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy at your local theater instead. No you don’t watch them perform live, unless you are lucky enough to be in a city where they do this, but you can see their shows streamed live at many local theaters. You can also see rebroadcasts courtesy of Fathom Events. That’s what we did last night with maybe a hundred others (mostly local college kids) at our local Cineplex in Hadley, Massachusetts, where we enjoyed a rebroadcast of their 2013 riff of Starship Troopers (1997).

In some ways I do miss the robots because the personalities behind MST3K are now fifty-plus with bellies that generally precede them, often by a considerable amount. Their funding comes from devoted fans that sponsored their Kickstarter campaign. Presumably they also make money from these remote broadcasts. Seeing these riffs in a theater actually is better than seeing them alone, as you are more likely to laugh along. The tickets were a bit pricey ($12.50 each for us) but well worth the price of admission. This rebroadcast was typical: Mike, Bill and Kevin provided commentary in pop up windows on the right side of the screen whilst the movie occupied the rest of the screen.

Many of these bad movies can stand by themselves as stinkers without the commentary. That was certainly the case with Starship Troopers. I would have preferred to see it first without the commentary, then have gone back to see it with the commentary. Wow! Starship Troopers is really quite a stinker, and that’s not just because of all the oversized bugs that get dismembered! Allegedly based on the novel by the late Robert Heinlein, this is a movie only Donald Trump could love. That’s because with a few exceptions it stars an all-Aryan cast of trim and handsome men and puffed-lipped beauties with flawless skin, mostly blondes. You get an odd combination of “talent” like Jake Busey as Ace Levy with his famous spiked Marine haircut, Neil Patrick Harris as Carl, Casper Van Dien as Johnny Rico (perhaps the central character) and Dina Meyer as Dizzy who ends up in Johnny’s squad fighting together.

It’s hard to know when this convoluted plot is supposed to take place, but it’s presumably at least a hundred years in the future. The “federation” (our world government, with a vaguely Nazi-like symbol) is apparently at war with distant bugs from other worlds. We send vast spaceships across the cosmos to do battle with them, but for the most part we send in storm troopers to dry class M planets who use machine guns at close range to destroy these oversized insects. Strangely enough, fighting in these wars seems to be optional, as is the case for our young heroes here, who fight to kill bugs and to become “citizens” as opposed to being a lesser boring “civilian”.

What you get in this movie is weird vision of the future, shot in 1997 that epically fails to imagine what the future will look like. We still play football, but in indoor gyms with silver footballs where they keep score on 1990s technology dot matrix clocks. There are weird scenes of kids stomping on insects, Dizzy losing her lunch during biology class, where students dissect the insects from other worlds. Rue McClanahan in there in a bit part as their teacher wearing weird looking sunglasses. You also get an odd scene where teacher, also a veteran, points with the stub of his arm.

You get a space opera that basically makes no sense, but with tons of gore and CGI. These new recruits are off for the ride of their abbreviated lives, and that’s because most of them will end up dead with insect stingers through their innards. I’ll stick to being a civilian, thank you. You get a planet Earth apparently overwhelmingly Caucasian, even in Buenos Aires where the flaxen haired Johnny is apparently from. Given their short mortality, one can at least rise quickly in rank. It helps if you don’t mind seeing lots of dismembered storm troopers or having your brains sucked out by these insects.

The plot basically makes no sense at all. Carmen (Denise Richards) wants to be a spaceship pilot but I guess they haven’t invented shields yet. Worse, all these spacecraft stay in close proximity to each other, so they are frequently crashing into each other. Their tactics for defeating the bugs make no sense. It’s clear their machine guns are not quite up to the task and only occasionally does their air force (space force?) drop a bomb. A brave trooper will occasionally get an opportunity to lob a grenade down a bug’s throat, but mostly they are dismembered or pierced long before then. The bugs sure look lethal, but not so much if you are pretty. At the end of the movie Carmen gets a stinger through the chest but walks away firing back.

So Starship Troopers can stand on its own and doesn’t need the riffers, but the MST3K crew keeps the one line commentaries coming so quickly it’s hard to appreciate just how appalling this movie actually is. So lesson learned. Next time I got to one of these events, I’ll try to see the movie first and then enjoy the movie with the riff, its own special art form worthy of enjoyment.

And we’re likely to be going frequently as they release a new movie riff or a rebroadcast about once a month. It’s a highly entertaining way to spend an evening with fellow bad movie compatriots and an opportunity to get out of the house. Fathom Events is clearly exploring a new revenue model for movie theaters that might just give live events some competition to these bloated Hollywood features.

 
The Thinker

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I’m hanging with relatives in Maryland and hoping to see the sun before we leave tomorrow. Little sign of sun today but there has been plenty of rain instead, much of it torrential. Mostly I’m chilling with siblings, but I was able to see my father and stepmother, and it’s good to see a nephew and distant brother-in-law as well. Much of yesterday was spent back in Northern Virginia with our daughter. We could not resist driving by our former residence and noted the new owners have been busy ripping out the shrubbery. Got to let it go.

But we also took in the latest Star Wars movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 3-D IMAX, dodging raindrops coming and going, of course. Although old enough to have seen these movies before they had roman numerals assigned to them, the Star Wars genre has done little for me. Its story is timeless: good triumphing against overwhelming evil, just with an outer space theme. What originally annoyed me were mostly the robots, but also how unfaithful it was both to science and science fiction. There was no denying its popularity, since here I was again in a theater nearly forty years later to see the latest reboot of the series, this time by J.J. Abrams who successfully gave us back the Star Trek genre. If anyone could breathe some new life into this tired genre, J.J. could.

And yet Abrams main contribution is to make a new episode feel a lot like the first movie. This is excellent news for Disney, which now owns the franchise, and which needs to derive maximum profits for its shareholders from subsequent installments. J.J. delivered that, as evidenced by all the agog younger faces enthusiastically exiting our showing. Not that J.J. stayed entirely in the comfortable realm. He introduced John Boyega as the stormtrooper turned resistence fighter Finn. Boyega happens to be black, but that turned out to be annoying to some, who like their good guys with white skin. J.J. added lots of females including Daisey Ridley as Rey, probably the chief character in this latest incarnation of this space opera. She looks great but it’s hard to make a living salvaging parts from crashed spacecraft on her planet. Fortunately she quickly encounters Finn and the newest cute robot BB8, which is pivotal to the plot. The newest version of The Dark Side needs the droid because it has a map that will let it find Luke Skywalker and destroy what is left of the Resistence.

Unquestionably, if you are into this franchise then you are going to enjoy this “episode” enormously, much the way J.J.’s Star Trek reboot tickled us Trekkies. It will help you overlook some of the reboot’s downsides. Mostly it is too faithful to the source material, too comfortable, which has the effect of an insulin rush from eating too many Christmas cookies. What you don’t get is much in the way of nutrition. So you should feel very entertained but sort of empty inside, at least if like me you are not a member of this collective. You want more but it’s not quite there.

But you do get nostalgia, including Harrison Ford reprising his role as Han Solo, Carrie Fisher reprising Leia, but now as a general instead of a Princess, but boy they sure do look old. Luke (Mark Hamill) literally only shows up in the last minute of the film, never says a word, but does have a cool beard and looks vaguely like Jesus Christ. BB8 is at least more loveable than C3PO and R2D2 that reprise their “roles” too.

So this is a safe Star Wars sequel faithful to George Lucas’s original version at least. It’s just hard to feel a little resentment that J.J. didn’t plumb some new Star Wars depths. Instead we get an updated version of the 1970’s Star Wars movie.

3.3 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The Decemberists: improving with age

I’ve heard that rock and roll has been declared dead. The memo hasn’t gotten out to the band The Dememberists. In January, the band released its latest album, What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World that is probably its best album in its fifteen-year history. This is good news because most bands do their best work near their beginning. The Decemberists are proving the exception to the rule while also proving that rock music is certainly not dead.

Of course rock and roll won’t be killed anymore than jazz was killed. Instead it has spawned many offshoots. Some music marked as rock doesn’t quite qualify. The 1968 album Blood, Sweat & Tears by the “rock” band of the same name is not really a rock album at all, but more of a jazz album with some classical music thrown in. The Decemberists deliver rock songs, but they are also do folk rock and generate a lot of ordinary folk music as well. Indie rock is how the musicologists like to categorize the band. The label doesn’t matter much to me, but the content sure does.

The Decemberists are a small band oriented around the singer and songwriter Colin Meloy and based out of Portland, Oregon. Meloy is a gifted songwriter but with a so-so voice. Do not expect a voice like Adele out of Meloy. Meloy’s tunes though are pretty infectious. For an album to cement itself in my brain though, I need more than infectious music. I need great lyrics too, and this is where Meloy shines. He can compactly meld the poetry with music, leading to tunes that are both infectious but not vapid. In this album we get many such bountiful lyrics including:

And I
Seventeen and terminally fey
I wrote it down and threw it all away
Never gave a thought to what I paid
And you
All sibylline, reclining in your pew
You tattered me, you tethered me to you
The things you would and wouldn’t do
To tell the truth I never had a clue

So this kind of rock music gets my attention. Rather than be one song after another focused on love, we get a variety of vignettes and musings about life dressed up with music. While Meloy provides a frame and common tune, it gets even more interesting when the rest of the band combines their talents to turn the songs into a synergistic experience, mostly using instrumentation to combine complex harmonies that complement the main tunes. With Meloy doing most of the singing, it’s easy to get the impression that he monopolizes the group. However, band members Chris Funk (mostly guitar), Jenny Conlee (most keyboard stuff), Nate Query (bass) and John Moen (drums) do a great job of complementing the music and making it feel almost orchestrated.

The result is this latest album should resonate with mind, body and soul. The album includes quite a potpourri of melodies from the serious to the somber to the hilarious. The common theme though is that they all quickly cement themselves in your brain. Some highlights:

  • In The Singer Addresses His Audience, Meloy sings about the weird experience of having groupies and the odd things they do, including cutting their hair to look like drummer Moen’s.
  • Calvary Captain probably proves the most infectious tune on the album, in which a guy asserts that he is not just special but her one and only.
  • Philomena is apparently an ode to cunnilingus, or rather one man’s frustration that his girlfriend Philomena won’t let him “go down”. The arrangement here is particularly inventive.
  • Make You Better plumbs a romantic relationship and how it inevitably moves from infatuation toward clear-eyed realism.
  • Lake Song seems to be a continuation of the theme in Make You Better.
  • Better Not Wake the Baby betrays the group’s folk roots since it is not the least bit rock and roll.
  • Anti-summersong is another folk song with perhaps the second most memorable tune on the album.
  • 12/17/12 is about Meloy’s feelings of being pulled both ways on the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting: great joy in the potential of his new child combined with the horror of what happened in Newtown, Connecticut.

I’d encourage you to give it a spin but since CD’s are obsolete these days, give it a stream on your streaming music service instead. This is a really excellent album and makes me hopeful that as the band matures their music will continue to do so as well.

 
The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

Crimson Peak

Whoever Mia Wasikowska is, she is luminous as Edith Cushing in Guillermo del Toro’s new movie Crimson Peak. She is the sort of actress that when the camera is not trained on her you wish it would move back and frame her. She may be an Aussie but she mastered American English in this role as the daughter of a Buffalo, New York magnate. She doesn’t have long to hang around Buffalo though once Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) trains his eye on her. Neither will her father, but I won’t get into that detail and spoil the plot.

Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) knock on Edith’s father’s door in search of capital, of the green kind. You see back in England at Allerdale Hall the brother and sister now run the family estate atop a hill of rich red clay. Thomas is perfecting an invention that will efficiently mine and process his clay, but has run out of money. When he can’t figure out a way to borrow the money from Edith’s dad (played by Jim Beaver) his only alternative is to marry his way into it. Edith’s dad Carter instinctively dislikes Thomas, so no nuptials or even dates with his daughter seem likely. It seems even less likely after Edith sees her mother’s ghost, rendered with the impressively creepy special effects we come to expect from del Toro, who warns her not to go to this place called Crimson Peak.

Ah, but you know the plot. Edith and Thomas quickly fall in love anyhow and she and her father’s fortune move to Allerdale Hall. The Gothic hall is in an advanced state of decay, so much so that much of the roof is missing. It’s not until she arrives as the new Mrs. Sharp that she realizes the decrepit place built on red clay is actually known locally as Crimson Peak, but by then it’s too late to run for home or from the ghost of Thomas and Lucille’s mother that inhabits this hall.

del Toro is an consistently creative director, but it’s hard to be creative with a story that is typecast as a Gothic romance. He does make the movie suitably creepy, but Allerdale Hall is perhaps a bit too perfectly Gothic. From its evil basement that Edith is warned to never venture into, to the incest going on upstairs and of course the many hauntings in the place it feels more stereotypical than a place where belief can be plausibly suspended. For one thing, there is never a sunny day. Also fall leaves are always falling through the roof and a blanket of snow (fairly rare in England) usually covers the ground. A lighter directorial touch here might have made for a better movie. But at least there is eye candy: Mia for the men and Tom for the women as well as some very sickening violence early in the movie and near the end. Some transformer-like creatures from del Toro’s earlier Pacific Rim might have been preferred to the tired Gothic frame.

Fortunately, there aren’t many Gothic romance movies anymore so given the slim pickings this one will stand out among them. Thus it’s best not to be too critical and to let yourself be carried away by the over the top frame. Mia Wasikowska may be luminous to watch but neither she nor Tom Hiddleston nor the film’s famous director can quite pull this film up to a master film of the genre. Nice try though.

3.3 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

Suffragette

The trailer really made me anxious to see Suffragette. It’s hard for me to stay away from a movie with left wing themes. Moreover, women’s suffrage has also been virtually ignored by Hollywood, which makes it fresh material for the screen. You don’t have to get too far into this movie to realize that women were quite literally second class citizens at this time (the early 20th century) with no right to vote and with the husband controlling all decisions including whether to give his son or daughter up for adoption.

Then there were the menial jobs women worked. For Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) it meant working long hours at the laundry for meager wages and a boss into sexually harassing his workers. Yet Maud finds herself a reluctant suffragette (the term given for a woman working for women’s voting rights). It’s mainly her sympathy for a fellow laundress Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) that convinces her to attend a demonstration. Later when Violet is roughed up on her way to testify to no less than the Prime Minister about this discrimination, Maud unexpectedly testifies for her. This gains her many enemies, including the eventual enmity of her husband whose manhood is threatened by his uppity wife.

It’s a story ripe for the telling. Director Sarah Gavron snags a few A-List actresses, principally Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Edith and Meryl Streep as Mrs. Emmeline Parkhurst, the central leader of the suffragette movement who is hounded by police and usually is in hiding. After fifty years of struggle with nothing to show, women are feeling pretty frustrated. Mrs. Parkhurst thus urges women to go beyond civil disobedience. Maud somewhat reluctantly gets involved in some violent acts including blowing up mailboxes and destroying the Prime Minister’s summer residence under construction. The Inspector Javert of this movie is Norman Tailor (Geoff Bell) who gets to try to control these increasingly militant suffragettes.

Gavron does a great job of portraying the age in its non-tech glory and a pretty good job of assembling an interesting cast. The story centers on Maud’s gradual inculcation into the suffrage movement, and Mulligan does a convincing job of making us care about her and the other women in this struggle. The laundry is a bleak place and her lodgings less than humble. Spats of prison time including a hunger strike are convincingly portrayed. Her only joy in life is her son.

Gavron went for the tight shot and handheld cameras, probably to enhance the film’s believability and intimacy with the story. For me it detracted from the film, which seemed overly jumpy and made it hard to focus on individual characters. Suffragette at least begins to plumb this era for Hollywood, however it doesn’t quite feel like the definitive film. But at least it’s a start.

3.1 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

A Mad Men retrospective

Eight years ago I wrote a retrospective for the TV series The West Wing, which lasted seven years on NBC. I am finishing the last season of Mad Men, which also lasted seven years. Mad Men appeared exclusively on AMC, a cable network, unless you include the many services belatedly streaming the show, including Netflix where I watched it. Netflix doesn’t have the last seven episodes available, however my wife has her ways so I am able to watch them anyhow.

Starting the series some months back I had to admit this was an unlikely choice of a show to hook me. It focuses on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. If you’ve been living under a rock, Madison Avenue is known principally for its advertising agencies. This was certainly true in the 1960s. Mad Men is a deep dive into this unlikely world, centered on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director for the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Sterling Cooper is filled with creative but deeply flawed people. Some like Draper also have natural good looks as an asset. Draper may be a creative ad guy but he is something of a wreck as a human being. Aside from smoking and drinking too much (typical of those with the means in the 1960s) Draper is also a chronic womanizer, constantly in and out of beds of principally very beautiful women, all while being married.

He is hardly the only one in the office to engage in these peccadillos. Most of his fellow partners are doing the same, and this includes the son of one of the founding partners Roger Sterling (John Slattery) who has a torrid on again, off again relationship with the office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). It’s a world of directing work from the upper floors of tall Manhattan skyscrapers, suits, frequent dinners with clients and personality dramas. With the exception of Joan and Don’s secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who becomes a copywriter, women are invariably secretaries. Pretty much every man in the place has one outside his door. The women peck away at their IBM Selectric typewriters and answer the phone while waiting to find the right guy to marry, who is often their boss.

It’s a world of wooing clients, losing clients, making pitches to clients and tenuously trying to maintain clients while dressed in fancy suits, smoking too much and drinking too liberally, mostly from the bars in their offices. These men drink more than most sailors; it’s a wonder they can function at all. And yet producer and creator Matthew Weiner makes this world eminently watchable anyhow, despite the white shirts, shined shoes, and neatly trimmed and parted hair. You want to root for someone in this show but it’s hard, not because everyone is evil but because they are caught in a system that rewards deceit. Peggy Moss is the closest the series comes to such a character. As for Don Draper, he’s pitiable and thus hard to root for until you get his weird but compelling backstory.

What the show has going for it is top notch writing and directing, overseen by its obsessive creator Matt Weiner, as well as standout performances by actors who are frequently required to show their characters’ seamier sides. Equally impressive in this period drama was the attention to detail to the turbulent 1960s. Many events at the ad agency overlap with dramatic news stories, such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moon landing. In a world where image is everything, everyone including the spouses tries hard to model their image while the story and camera takes us into their backstories.

There are lots of good characters to enjoy, but few you can feel sorry for. You can feel sorry for Betty, Don’s first wife played by January Jones until you discover she’s pretty insufferable herself. There’s the eager new exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) with his own Stepford wife back at home who, like George W. Bush, has to live up to the family’s expectations. It would take too long to list all of them, particularly when so many of them drop out to be replaced by others. There are crises both personal and business-related, sometimes at the same time. Don himself gets pulled more ways than Silly Putty. There are societal issues that creep into the insular ad agency world, including women’s liberation, racism, drug use, the space program and computers. From the first frame to the last, you really feel like you are living in the 1960s. I lived through these events, although I was a child at the time, so I can say it is eerily authentic. If nothing else, Weiner nails the 1960s and gives the viewer a largely accurate depiction not just of the world of advertising but of one of our most transformative decades. Much of the craziness we are living through in the 2010s has its roots in the 1960s, so the show helps you put today in perspective.

The show is principally centered on Don and Peggy, but more on Don than Peggy. Fortunately both Hamm and Moss prove up to mastering their roles. A closer inspection will find other things to admire. For example, the directing is outstanding throughout, and the transitions between scenes are often inventive and very clever, like the advertising world. I found excellence in places I did not expect. For example, Kiernan Shipka does a terrific job as Don’s daughter Sally across seven years of the series, and grew as an actress in the process. By the last season her role was mature and her acting was so good you could see her model both character’s mother and father mannerisms.

Mostly I was surprised that Weiner could make this sort of show work across seven seasons so consistently and with such uniform excellence. I really wanted to not like this show, as I find advertising reprehensible, but I was suckered in anyhow and kept spellbound for much of the series.

In my retrospective of The West Wing I said it was a classy show rarely seen on network TV at the time. Given that Mad Men was only shown on cable, its excellence and commitment to quality is a delightful surprise. It’s a compelling character drama and worth the investment of time, delight and heartache to watch all seven seasons worth.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Martian

Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s consistently great directors. His many credits include directing a few terrific and landmark science fiction movies. He first terrified us in outer space in 1979’s Alien, and then brought the story to earth in 1983’s Blade Runner. More than thirty years after Blade Runner, Scott proves he still knows how to direct a great space movie with The Martian starring Matt Damon as astronaut and botanist Mark Watney. This 144-minute film is unusually engrossing. If it were a novel it would be a page-turner.

Why is this? It’s because it’s a story of survival that we can all relate to and understand, even if we won’t be going to Mars. It’s also because Scott did a terrific job of casting. Matt Damon of course is a first class actor, but he plays a character that is very likeable and quite interesting. It’s a gritty story of man over nature, with nature in this case being the inhospitable planet Mars. Mars certainly is exotic and generally hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, but it can’t support human life. Cold and without much of an atmosphere, it feels more desolate than the moon, which at least has planet Earth gleaming in its sky.

Watney gets left behind and is presumed dead after a massive sandstorm bears down on the landing site of the Ares III lander. The crew barely has time to get off the planet before the storm can tip over the lander. Watney himself might as well be dead and is “saved” only by being speared by an antenna, which limited the loss of air pressure in his suit. He can barely hobble into the Hab, a small weatherproof home placed on the surface. Watney must struggle to survive despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a food supply that would run out well before another craft from Earth could arrive. Watney though seems reasonably chipper about his whole miserable experience, which is a good way to survive when there is no way to survive. As he says, “fortunately, I’m a botanist”. Using the crew’s excrement, Martian soil that is mostly sand and some raw potatoes from earth, he develops a tent that acts as his farm. He figures out how to use the hydrazine left on the surface to create a water supply for his farm.

It’s just fascinating to follow Watney’s journey. As you might expect there are lots of setbacks, and there are daunting technical challenges like simply letting Mission Control know he is alive. The Ares III crew though is on its way back to Earth, its commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) more than a little upset over Watney’s loss. So is all of the crew, but at least the Ares III is a very attractive spacecraft to dawdle home in. The trip home is a long one but there are nice views out its amazing windows and neatly done effects of living in zero G. The ship’s fare may be a bit pedestrian after a while, but if you have to travel between planets you will want an Ares III.

Equally as interesting as Watney’s fate on Mars is the reaction back on Earth when Mission Control discovers he’s alive. It’s Apollo 13 all over again, except this rescue if it can happen at all will take close to a year rather than a few days. Alas, the Ares III just can’t turn around; celestial mechanics don’t work that way. In fact, Mission Control decides to leave the crew in the dark about Watney. Watney though quickly becomes an unintended world cause. Millions may be starving in Africa but everyone including the Chinese want Watney to make it alive back to Earth and no expense will be spared. It’s just that no matter how they run the numbers no one can quite figure out a way for Watney to survive until a new craft can arrive. Among the many catastrophes is the loss of Watney’s farm after an initial success.

So the suspense is equally as much back on Earth as it is on Mars. Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA. Presumably the government is no longer overrun with Republicans because the space program seems to be flush again. Even Mission Control looks great, which is in contrast to the real Mission Control today with tiles missing from its ceiling. The Ares III crew is mostly Wonder Bread, but the NASA scientists working on this problem are at least diverse. Sean Bean plays Mitch Henderson, the flight director who soon rubs Director Sanders the wrong way. At least NASA gets to do what it does best again, which is to show amazing creativity and resourcefulness. There are some terrific smaller parts in this movie back at Mission Control, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Mars Mission Director and Donald Glover as astronomer Rich Purnell. Combine the terrific acting with great special effects and the movie becomes wholly engrossing. Screen time just flies by.

A number of academics have taken issue with some of the science. I found a few things myself, including the shielding issue that is not mentioned but which I once posted about. But this is science fiction and we can give the director some license because it sure feels real enough. In the man vs. nature movie, this one plumbs new territory and leaves you on the edge of your seat through most of it. All of this is done without any terrifying aliens coming out of the ventilation system. It turns out that a plausible suspense movie is much more gripping than the implausible kind.

Sure, bring the popcorn but you may find yourself too engrossed to enjoy it. This is a really terrific movie and oddly timed. This sort of movie would normally be summer fare.

3.5 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Visit

Director M. Night Shyamalan, perhaps best known for The Sixth Sense is going back to his roots in this movie, i.e. do something on the cheap and hope that cheap gets better reviews than he’s gotten recently with his many big budget failures, like After Earth. In the creepy horror movie genre being cheap means hiring mostly no name actors, using natural locations and a small cast. If being cheap doesn’t work, well, there’s less financial jeopardy. If it does those union minimum wages don’t matter from all the residuals that pour in. In The Visit, it also means trying to reuse a formula I think first successfully pioneered in The Blair Witch Project, i.e. make the movie look like it’s being filmed by its participants to enhance its sense of realism. The formula can work but only if it’s not used very often. Blair Witch had plenty of imitators, and none that I recall that were successful, but that was sixteen years ago and if anyone can make it work then presumably Shyamalan can.

Teenager Becca (Olivia DeJonge) is supposedly making a documentary about her and her brother Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) visit to grandma and grandpa, or Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) in their case. The movie has to hang on an unusual premise or two. In this case it’s that their mother (Kathryn Hahn) left her parents for good at nineteen and hadn’t seen them since then. (Hint: this will prove pivotal.) She still doesn’t want to see them but does manage to reconcile enough by phone to send Becca and Tyler on an Amtrak train to see them for the first time. Mom gets to go on a cruise while Becca brings along an expensive looking Canon digital movie camera and a laptop with an apparently excellent built in camera. Nana and Pop Pop live in a place so remote there is no cell service but not so remote that they don’t have high speed Internet. Tyler gets into the project and plays second camera. Becca is the sober older sister and Tyler is her spirited brother with an interest in rap music and a germ phobia. Tyler’s peculiarities are of course one of many hooks that Shyamalan introduces that will prove pivotal to the plot.

Still, this is a horror movie so we know it will get increasingly creepy and serious, so the only question is how. I won’t spoil too much but it’s not too hard to figure out as Nana and Pop Pop are counselors but recently unexpectedly stopped their work. And of course they are a bit peculiar. Nana likes her built in stove nice and clean and wants Becca to go fully into it to clean it. Pop Pop frequently goes to a shed on the property with paper bags. They are warned not to go into the basement because of mold and never to get out of their bedroom after 9:30 PM … the old folks like their rest and don’t want to be disturbed.

Of course all sort of disturbing stuff happens after 9:30 PM and during the day for that matter, much of it filmed digitally on Becca’s camera and laptop that follows they everywhere they go. Nana projectile vomits and scratches the walls at night, and Pop Pop depends on Adult Depends. Both Becca and her brother are reasonably interesting teens, with Tyler perhaps being the more interesting and quirky. There’s lots of peculiar things in this plot, such as how their mother, a Walmart sales associate can afford to take a cruise and give her children such nice laptops and cameras. She must have gotten a hell of an employee discount.

The movie is engaging and creepy enough, but not terribly surprising as it moves toward its climax. It’s more scary than horrifying and only marginally gross. Of course the best horror movies leave the horror mostly to the imagination. Shyamalan gets you halfway there in The Visit. This is not Psycho or The Birds but Shyamalan is not Hitchcock either. He’s done better than this, just not recently. If the movie’s goal is to get a profit, it’s bound to do so but probably won’t turn into a cult hit. Maybe it doesn’t matter, except to Shyamalan’s standard of living. Shyamalan already has The Sixth Sense and probably nothing he does will come close to this cult masterpiece.

3.0 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Trainwreck

Trainwreck written by and starring comedian Amy Schumer is probably the first romantic comedy of its kind: a bawdy romantic comedy, so bawdy it got an R rating. Schumer has made something of a name for herself by plumbing the raunchy women’s comedian genre. I’d like to say that in Trainwreck that Amy portrays a slut, but it’s a word that is no longer politically correct. Let’s call her character simply called Amy a very sexually liberated woman, endlessly hopping from bed to bed in search of new thrills and greater sex. It comes naturally because early in the movie we discover that her parents divorced when she was a child. In an early flashback her father played by Colin Quinn tells young Amy and her sister Kim that monogamy just isn’t realistic.

Her private life mirrors her profession, as she is a writer for S’nuff. It’s an ultra bawdy men’s magazine overseen by an abrasive in-your-face editor Dianna (Tilda Swinton). No skanky story is too low for the readers of S’nuff, and it’s Dianna’s job to make sure the magazine goes for the bottom of the barrel. Because Amy vilifies sports, naturally her boss puts her on a story about the sports medicine doctor for the New York Knicks, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). Unsurprisingly, opposites sort of attract here. Aaron is a nerdish, affable but talented physician and surgeon who tends to the team’s many injuries while working sporadically for Doctors Without Borders. Aaron is also very tight with LeBron James, who plays himself. Many players on the Knicks have supporting roles in this movie, as do its cheerleaders. Surprisingly, LeBron James runs pretty well with his part, suggesting that when his basketball career inevitably ends he might have a secondary career as a character actor.

Aaron is not only nerdish; he is more than a bit shy and hasn’t had a girlfriend in six years. Shortly after meeting Amy however Amy is doing what she does best and before Aaron can object Amy has solved his problem of six years with no sex, almost as an afterthought. Having sex is something almost reflexive with her. Channeling her father however she doesn’t want to commit with anyone, even Aaron, even though she finds him cute. Their mutual attraction is one of the aspects of this romantic comedy that doesn’t quite gel on screen, but somehow they become something of a couple. This is disturbing to Amy who channels her father and thus doesn’t want to be partnered, let alone married.

Dear old dad is still around, but has multiple sclerosis. Amy and her very monogamous and happily married sister Kim have to manage his decline by moving him through various nursing homes. For someone with a degenerative disease, their father seems very much in the present. He is opinionated and obnoxious most of the time, characteristics Amy seems to reflexively emulate. Her mother has been long dead. As Amy and Aaron get closer, they become more integrated with her family. Amy begins to consider that maybe this monogamy thing isn’t so bad after all, but eventually the tension becomes too much and they grow apart while still thinking a lot about each other. Dear old cranky dad has to die before the mists clear in front of Amy’s eyes. You can probably figure out the rest of this movie, which follows formula but with a few twists.

So it’s a different romantic comedy for sure, perhaps in a class of its own yet still completely predictable. It’s kind of fun to watch Amy’s personal life implode and explode so much and to see her struggle with her dad, her feelings about monogamy and her relationship with her sister. But this is no Sleepless in Seattle and she is no Meg Ryan. She’s reasonably cute but she plays the sort of woman I would have avoided and which makes her relationship with Aaron seem kind of implausible. Amy’s quite obviously no thirty-something virgin and she’s quite messed up too. She is too much of a train wreck for most men, and should be for Aaron, but isn’t somehow.

Overall as a romantic comedy this one rates a bit below the median. It’s easy enough to enjoy and predictable, but there is no meat particularly worth eating here except for Amy Schumer fans. About all you can say is that it is a new take on an old formula, but it hardly takes flight, let alone soars.

2.8 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 

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