Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

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 


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☆ 

The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

Mad Max: Fury Road

Believe it or not, I’m new to the Mad Max franchise. Post-apocalyptic Earth movies are not exactly my favorite genre, although with rapid climate change they are looking more plausible. Mad Max movies are almost as old as Star Wars movies. The first one was released in 1979. All of them have director George Miller in common, although in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller had George Ogilvie as a co-director. Thirty years between films is a long time, long enough that you have to be pretty old to have seen the earlier movies. In Mad Max: Fury Road we get something of a reboot. Mel Gibson, mostly an unknown before the first movie made him a star, showed up in the next two, but in this version Miller wisely decided that Gibson was just way too old, so he cast Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky instead. When you settle into your chair, you had best buckle your seatbelt tightly.

With so many action adventure movies made and on the market, it would be hard to pick the wildest of them all, but Mad Max: Fury Road would certainly compete well for the top of this heap. There is hardly a moment of calm in the whole frenetic movie. Shot in the Australian desert like I believe all of the previous films were, poor abused Max is one of many simply trying to survive. It’s unclear why he wants to survive, given the horror of this world, its lack of water, and the penchant of its citizens for war and bashing each other’s heads in. Max is so busy surviving that he doesn’t have time to tell anyone his name, particularly not Imperitor Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted confidant and commander of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe controls something of a dessert oasis where he sporadically releases deluges of water from his citadel for his dehydrated slaves. He also sends out war parties for his periodic battles. Sending out Imperitor Furiosa turns out to be a mistake as she is on a mission of escape to find the green land that she grew up in. Worse, she escapes with Joe’s prized and beautifully nubile five wives. Max comes along for the ride involuntarily because he is being tapped for his blood. Max manages to escape and joins Furiosa, while Immortan Joe follows in hot pursuit.

That’s pretty much the plot and while it’s not much of a plot it sure is entertaining as all get out. George Miller certainly knows how to direct action movies, and this one is definitely a tour de force of grit, gumption, violence, chaos and survival skills, all coherently packaged somehow in all its appalling horror. Most of us would prefer death to the lives that these people live, but not to worry, most will encounter death along the way. Part of the film noir of his franchise is this civilization’s ability to cannibalize auto parts from an older industrial age and create impressive and scary behemoths of belching automotive wonder, complete with a crazy guitar player on the lead vehicle channeling Black Sabbath as these battle groups move forward. It sure is weird and it sure is cool somehow.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling post-apocalyptic world, very well refined, but hard to turn away from. You won’t want to walk out of the theater during this movie, except possibly in horror or terror. Miller has lost none of his dubious gifts for this genre that he sort of invented. Having not seen the earlier movies, I can’t believe they are better. I think he has peaked and proven he is and probably always will be the master of this peculiar genre.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Mr. Holmes

Mad Max: Fury Road played pretty much everywhere, but this surprisingly engaging lightweight charmer was only available at the local arts theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mr. Holmes of course is Sherlock Holmes, previously of 221-B Baker Street, except this Holmes is 93 and nearing the end of a 35-year retirement in a modest country villa where he occupies his time caring for bees. There’s no one left alive that you will recognize: Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson are long in their graves, and Holmes is barely holding on and quickly losing his memory. Holmes, played by the master actor Ian McKellen, has been driven to visiting Japan in hopes of a potion that will help him recover his fading memory. For he very much wants to write down the details of his last case before he dies, the one that precipitated his retirement.

Unsurprisingly, McKellen does a great job playing an ancient looking Sherlock Holmes. The minimalist cast includes Laura Linney as the dowdy widowed Mrs. Munro, the housekeeper, and Milo Parker as Roger, her son, who takes an unusual interest in Mr. Holmes and his story. The plot frequently goes back to the past. We learn of the unusual events of his last case and his connection with the son of a British diplomat of Japanese ancestry. And there is something of an extra case to solve that you will discover toward the end involving the bees that Holmes and Roger take care of. In fact, the movie has something of a cliffhanger ending that ties things up rather nicely.

In short, Mr. Holmes is pretty good sleuthing, although it’s quite different than the sleuthing you are used to from Sherlock Holmes. Much of the movie focuses on his mental and physical decline. It brings some humanity to a man that is portrayed as too logical and smart to have passions and down to earth failings. It’s surprisingly engaging yet understated and deserves venues in more popular theaters. Marketers must have correctly judged there is not much of an appetite for a small film like this in the American public. It’s their loss.

3.3 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Thinker

Review: Almost Famous (2000)

Some years back I reviewed Dazed and Confused. I said it was a flawless rendering of the high school experience of my generation, who are now in our upper 50s. It wasn’t a great movie but it certainly was authentic.

Apparently it wasn’t quite the only movie of its kind, because I recently learned about and watched Almost Famous, released in 2000. This is a much more enjoyable though improbable romp into the world of rock music in the early 1970s, as seen through the eyes of fifteen year old first time Rolling Stones reporter William Miller (Patrick Fugit). Fugit plays an almost impossible not-to-hug teen. Fugit resembles and acts a lot like Tobey McGuire. Two primary forces shape him. First there is his mother Elaine (Frances McDormond), a single mother who teaches college and challenges her students with her unconventional thinking. She combines an interesting mixture of new age parenting with old-fashioned parenting. She sees potential in both her son and his older sister, but feels the need to be an obsessive helicopter parent too. This means a lot of questioning about their choices and too much distrust about their choices. Her concerns are somewhat dubious because they include Simon & Garfunkel, who she thinks are pushing a drug agenda. At the same time she challenges her kids to think independently, but won’t quite give them the space they need to act independently.

Early in the movie this becomes too much for William’s sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel). The moment she is eighteen she is out of the house, anxious to escape her domineering mother for her boyfriend and a life she hopes to create as an airline stewardess. She leaves something of a time bomb: a collection of vintage Rock and Roll records for William to discover. Discover them William quickly does, and he subsumes himself into the rock and roll revolution. Along the way he meets other hipsters, most noticeably Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who acts as something of a mentor into the world of rock and roll.

With Lester’s help, William learns some of the tricks of interviewing rock stars — not an easy thing to do when you are fifteen years old. His mother though is now willing to extend half a leash, so he gains her permission to hang out around a concert by the fictitious rock band Stillwater. There with the help of a local fan girl Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William gets a backstage pass. Through a series of improbable events, the doe-eyed boy quickly gains intimacy with the rock band, and turns his access as a rock and roll reporter for Cream into a sight-unseen assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which asks him to write a behind the scenes article on the band.

If the movie has an incredulous part, it’s what happens next. Perhaps due to her daughter’s rebellion, William’s mother lets him follow the band on tour, providing he makes it back in time for graduation (he skipped a lot of grades). William immerses himself in his assignment, and quickly becomes savvy navigating the personalities in and around the band. The guys in the band seem on the cusp of making a big breakout, but can’t quite seem to make it. They see William as their potential ticket to the big leagues of rock and roll stardom through his connection to Rolling Stone. William though seems doggedly determined to get insightful interviews and to hold to the journalistic standards, all while being included in the social life and mechanics of a band on tour. This means lots of late night parties, hanging out with a tight gang of girl groupies, drugs and sex. The curious thing is how William is sort of left alone. They sense his virginity and at least initially no one seems anxious to lose that precious part of him.

At least one real rock and roller makes it into the film: Peter Frampton, who plays the role of Reg. No matter, the film feels quite authentic and should engage you. Stillwater and its groupies form a reasonably complete sample of society at large. The band members have their quirks, personalities and egos, which are easily bruised. The groupies, all young women, make a sort of life for themselves through an uncommon intimacy with the band members. Penny Lane though is clearly someone special. Kate Hudson does a delicious and exceptional job of portraying her, who William quickly falls in love with. Of course band members’ affections for them turn out to be mostly superficial. They are simply using the girls, and Penny Lane is not alone. William keeps filing away observations and quotes on index cards while grabbing interviews when he can with the help of his portable cassette recorder.

What makes the movie memorable is the careful attention given to it, which adds to its feeling of eerie authenticity. All the characters have their interesting quirks too, which contributes to its plausibility. The only one who seems to grow in this movie though is William. Both band members and their groupies seem trapped in dysfunction. It makes for a hell of an interesting ride, and it is all done so very well. Like with Dazed and Confused, there is no real off note here. The quirks in its characters strangely enhance its plausibility. In short, it’s as authentic as Dazed and Confused, just a whole lot more enjoyable and watchable.

Almost Famous is sort of an almost landmark of a film: really well done, really authentic, quite hard to stop watching and yet very much a film about real human beings. Director and writer Cameron Crowe can take a big bow for this movie, and viewers overall seem to really like it. gives it 7.9 out of ten stars.

I liked it too, particularly the frequently mesmerizing performances of Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, but also for the lesser seen roles, like Frances McDormand as William’s mother. Yet this is a movie principally focused on William. His mother is right in one respect: it was good to give him this opportunity to follow the band. William quickly turns from boy into man. In a few short weeks he gains a maturity that takes many of us decades to acquire, if we reach it at all.

In other words, the movie is really good stuff and well worth the two-hour investment of your time. 3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

Second viewing: M*A*S*H (the TV show)

When you are retired you often find you have time on your hands. Netflix streaming provides lots of content, but much of it is comfort content, i.e. stuff you have seen before. So I’ve slogged my way through all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H, mostly in microbursts, over the last few months.

For a show that began in 1972, it is still surprisingly good. “Good” is relative, however. In a time when most markets had four or 5 TV stations, you took what you could get. For its time, M*A*S*H was excellent TV. Today, it just rates as very good. Why is this? It’s because forty years later TV has gotten much better. This is due to the proliferation of cable and pay TV. While lots of dreck can still be found on TV, there is now so much excellent content on TV that it is excruciatingly hard to decide which ones merit your time. I’ve finished three seasons of House of Cards. While waiting for new episodes I have been watching Mad Men. Each episode of Mad Men sends jolts of adrenaline to my enjoyment system: it’s just so well done!

So M*A*S*H is comfort TV, although the harshness of that war would not normally make it something you would want to watch. There had never been a TV show that showed the reality of war before M*A*S*H. It showed life at a mobile Army hospital during the Korean War, and the crazy antics and horrifying things that happened there. Going through it again, I realize that I have seen every episode, not just once, but several times at least. I’m not sure when I found the time to see them so many times. I’m guessing it was when they were endlessly repeated on late night TV. Thirty plus years of distance has at least made me a more critical viewer. Some modern day reflections and observations:

  • The show is actually a reflection of the emerging values of its time (the late 60s and early 70s) than the time of the Korean War. Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rodgers) might as well be flower children with shorter hair. Their liberal and antiwar positions would have put them in the extreme minority in the early 1950s, and dangerously so. Both would have been children of the Great Depression but they are all flower power. The 1969 movie by Robert Altman provided the template for the show, and in 1969 the Hippie movement was everywhere, the Vietnam War was obviously a disaster and cynicism was rampant. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s simply not an accurate reflection of the years it purports to represent.
  • You can sort of break down the show into three rather distinct segments: the slapstick/buffoon comedy years (Seasons 1-3), the serious comedy-light years (Seasons 4-7) and the extended mediocre denouement years (Seasons 8-11).
  • The first year is particularly hard to watch today. Its blatant sexism and the casual way women are treated as objects rather than people is actually hard to endure today, and this is good. We have evolved.
  • The second segment is actually the best part of the show. The horrors of war and the imperfect way its characters react to it is the heart of the show.
  • There are some good episodes in the third segment, but it’s perfectly okay to stop at the end of Season 7. Those last seasons will disappoint if you’ve seen the other seasons. The show feels played out, particularly since the show lasted eleven seasons and the Korean War lasted less than four years.
  • Alan Alda won a number of Emmys for his performance as the surgeon Capt. Hawkeye Pierce. I found myself having a love/hate relationship with both the actor and the character. I don’t think there was that much difference between the actor and his character, aside from the fact Alda is not a doctor. Alda must have been insufferably difficult to work with on the set. He dominates the show in frequently unhealthy ways, making it hard for other characters to shine. On the other hand, he’s really good, very intense and totally convincing. It’s not too surprising that Wayne Rodgers left after three seasons, sick of playing Harpo to Alda’s Groucho (in some episodes literally). McLean Stephenson must have felt the same way portraying Lt. Col. Henry Blake.
  • In spite of Alda’s overwhelming presence, most of the other characters do make their marks. Most notably is the maturation of Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the head nurse. For three seasons she played comic relief but in the second segment she becomes human, matures and deepens as a character. It’s lovely to watch and an excellent reason to stick around.
  • Who’s the better sidekick: Trapper John or B.J. Hunnicut? Seeing it again, I found Trapper more real and interesting. M*A*S*H would have been a much better show if directors had restrained Alda a bit more so Trapper’s character could shine. Mike Farrell is not really funny, but Wayne Rodgers certainly is. Rodgers was intense where Farrell was understated. It was a real loss when Rodgers left the show.
  • Who’s the more entertaining commander: Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) or Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan)? Henry Blake for sure, even though he was there for only its first three years. Stevenson was consistently hilarious but somehow grounded in the insanity going on around him. Harry Morgan is not a comedian at heart, and it showed. The show lost a lot of its luster when Stevenson exited stage right.
  • The series most memorable and adorable character is unquestionably Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who was the only character that also appeared in the movie. He is an innocent thrown into a complex adult game that remains a good person with childlike tendencies. He’s cuddlier than his frequently present teddy bear.
  • Corporal Clinger (Jamie Farr) makes good comic relief but simply does not convince in any other role other than a Section 8 seeking transvestite. He should have been kept in a dress and probably let go after a couple of seasons.
  • Larry Linville as the one-dimensional Major Frank Burns was actually an excellent comedian. His character is so insufferable that it is hard to see this. I don’t think he ever won an award for portraying Major Burns, but he should have.
  • David Ogden Stiers as Major Charles Emerson Winchester did much to make the second half of the series worth watching. It declined steadily anyhow, but Winchester was certainly an interesting and quirky character.
  • Some of the sporadic characters are delicious, particularly Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) and Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter). Any episodes with either of them in it are worth watching, and in one episode they both appear together. Flagg is actually the funniest character in the whole show; he just appears so irregularly.

You have to be a die-hard fan to watch all eleven seasons, particularly the last few years of the show. If you are tempted to watch the show, cringe your way through very funny but hard to endure first season and stick with it through seven seasons if you can. By the end of the first season all the characters are well established. Certain shows are gems and worth watching if you don’t have the time or patience for the many episodes that endlessly repeat the same theme (war really stinks). These include:

  • Yankee Doodle Doctor (Season 1, Episode 6)
  • Tuttle (Season 1, Episode 15)
  • A Smattering of Intelligence (Season 2, Episode 24)
  • O.R. (Season 3, Episode 5)
  • Abyssinia, Henry (Season 3, Episode 24)
  • Welcome to Korea (Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Change of Command (Season 4, Episode 3)
  • Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler? (Season 4, Episode 10)
  • Dear Sigmund (Season 5, Episode 8)
  • Fade Out/Fade In (Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Major Topper (Season 6, Episode 25)
  • Point of View (Season 7, Episode 11)
  • The Party (Season 7, Episode 26)
  • Good-bye Radar (Season 8, Episodes 4 and 5)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Who? (Season 8, Episode 9)
  • The Life You Save (Season 9, Episode 20)
  • Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (Season 11, Episode 16 – the extended end to the series)
The Thinker

Two short movie reviews

Ex Machina

In January, we saw The Imitation Game: the story of Nazi code breakers. Its principle character, Alan Turing, introduced the idea of the Turing test: a machine so sophisticated that when you interact with it you can’t tell it from a real human being. A lot of very wise people are quietly freaking out that we may be close to an era where we will be controlled by the machine. In Ex Machina we get to see what a machine that might pass the Turing test would look like and what it might mean. “She” is Ava (Alicia Vikander), the creation of mega billionaire Oscar Isaac (Nathan Bateman). Isaac created the next Google search engine and became so rich that he created a house and laboratory for himself so remote that even Verizon can’t reach it. Its location is unclear, but it appears to be in Alaska. One of Oscar’s employees, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is invited to Oscar’s remote location to be the second person to meet Ava. At the end of the week he is supposed to make a judgment on whether Ava passes the Turing test.

Ava is pretty obviously a machine because much of her frame is transparent. The 26-year-old Caleb though quickly finds her mesmerizing, although they cannot touch each other. They interact through a glass partition. However, her programming is obviously top notch. Caleb has a hard time not thinking about her, although their daily sessions are relatively brief. While Ava seems real enough to him, there are some unexpected glitches in their laboratory. It suffers from occasional power outages. During this time Ava is unmonitored. Like Ava, Caleb is pretty much a prisoner in this weird estate. His keycard will get him into certain rooms and won’t allow him into other rooms. During power outages he is locked in his subterranean room. He talks daily with Oscar, who tries to be something of a distant buddy to him. Oscar may be a genius but he also has human frailties, including binge drinking.

This is a movie with hardly more than a handful of characters. It’s clear there is something else going on but it’s unclear what it is. Oscar is a bit of a control freak and Caleb is perhaps too intelligent for his own good. During power outages, Ava tells Caleb that she wants to escape from her room. Caleb eventually plots a way for them to escape together. I won’t spoil the ending but it does indicate if Ava passes the Turing test.

The movie is creepy without feeling like it is out of an Albert Hitchcock movie. Director Alex Garland’s greatest achievement might be the technical wizardry that shows that Ava is actually a machine. She is mesmerizing to watch with her blue tubes pulsating with artificial life. Yet she is not the only android on the premises. It’s unclear at first but Ava is but the latest version, and Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who does the cooking is another one. In fact there are a whole lot of robot parts in the closet.

This is a tightly focused movie that should keep you engaged and curious. It’s not exactly Oscar material, but it is a good use of your time nonetheless. 3.2 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 


I was expecting Tomorrowland to be a different movie than the one I watched. I was expecting this Disney movie to be saccharine, but it wasn’t. It starts out that way when twelve-year-old Frank Walker attends the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. The fair is pretty much Tomorrowland from Disney World, but Frank is there to impress the judges with his version of a jet backpack. Unfortunately it has some technical flaws, but he at least catches the eye of Athena (Raffey Cassidy), a mesmerizing freckle-faced young girl who we will later learn is a robot.

Athena senses in Frank a wild-faced optimism, not atypical of its times. In the early 1960s our future looked a lot like The Jetsons, and it was mostly filled with well adjusted and happy white people. Tomorrowland is at least faithful to that naïve way of thinking. Following Athena while at the fair the young Frank stumbles briefly into a real Tomorrowland, or at least its slick representation.

Fast forward to the present. We are quickly introduced to Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), another incurable optimist in an age of climate change. She spends her evenings sneaking into the Kennedy Space Center to prevent a famous launch pad there from being disassembled. This helps keep her father (Tim McGraw) employed but everyone sees the writing on the wall for the pad and for the end of human spaceflight. Casey is like a somewhat older version of Athena: she is mesmerizing to look at and full of positive spirit. Being an optimist she believes that global climate change can be averted and that the future will look like something out of The Jetsons. This also makes her of interest to Athena, who surreptitiously provides her with a token from the 1964 World’s Fair that takes her to this future, at least while she is touching the coin. It works great when she isn’t running into walls or ending up in the muck. And apparently its battery is not an Eveready.

What Frank and Casey have in common is Athena. They are destined to intersect, but Frank has aged fifty years and now looks suspiciously like George Clooney. This Frank is a cynical one who understands the forces pitted against a happy future, and these include David Nix (Hugh Laurie), the leader of Tomorrowland. Nix’s Tomorrowland bears little resemblance to the slick advertising that a younger Frank and Casey encountered. In fact, human life is about to end very abruptly on the planet and its end is certain. Just watch the countdown clock.

With Casey’s arrival though, the probability of this happening mysteriously drops from 100 percent. Athena eventually connects Casey and Frank, and a series of improbable adventures starts that forms the heart of the movie. Can somehow at this late date the future be changed for the better? It will take a lot of optimists and the time is very late.

So Tomorrowland was a bit of a surprise, both for the quality of the acting and the slick way director Brad Bird puts it altogether. Somehow the lovely Disney optimism is woven around the truly depressing reality of what mankind is doing to its biosphere. It makes you want to click you heels three times and find yourself back in Kansas. The depressing reality is that we are already victims of climate change and it will only get worse. Still, while this movie entertains its real mission may be to introduce to mass audiences the very serious problem of climate change. And if it is to be fixed it will take the masses demanding action. Given our general inability as a species not to look much beyond tomorrow, I am not hopeful, but perhaps if we were filled with less adult cynicism it would be otherwise. At least Disney is doing its part in describing the magnitude of the problem, while likely reeling in profits for shareholders for doing so.

I think Uncle Walt would be proud of what his gang did some fifty years after his passing.

3.4 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 


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