Archive for the ‘The Arts’ Category

The Thinker

Review: The Imitation Game

Warning: The Imitation Game ends with perhaps the most heartbreaking five minutes in movie history. You might want to bring a box or two of tissues with you to the movie theater. Aside from the heartbreak principally at the end, it’s natural to feel irritated by Alan Turing, portrayed in this movie by the rising megastar Benedict Cumberbatch. Turing is not an easy man to like and really no one liked him except his parents and his childhood friend Christopher. Christopher is rarely seen in the film but he has really the major part in the film, as will become clear when you see the film.

Turing’s extreme antisocial behavior and brusque manner though did make a certain amount of sense. He was a product of his environment but mostly he was a homosexual. During the 1940s this was not something that you announced, or even admitted in duress. Homosexual conduct was a crime. To survive, Turing learned to keep his feelings tightly bottled up inside of him. Sexual orientation and intelligence have no correlation but perhaps his homosexuality fed his extreme introversion and fascination with mathematics. Today, Alan Turing is known as the founder of modern computer science. The movie is an attempt to show his impact on the world. I am a beneficiary of Alan Turing’s impact, for my career in information technology and my standard of living is a direct consequence of his work. Turing was the unknowing and largely unknown catalyst that brought the computer to life.

He was a more extreme version of Stephen Hawking, whose recent movie The Theory of Everything I recently reviewed. Hawking is a physicist. Turing was a mathematician, but both were geniuses in their own right. It was Turing though who succeeded in the impossible task of cracking the Germany’s Enigma machine, which was used by the German Army and Navy to decode instructions for German forces. This was done by sending coded broadcasts over the radio. The Allies had captured an Enigma machine but without understanding the cypher, which changed daily, there was no way to figure out what the true message was. Decrypt it and the Allies could probably win the war.

This was a staggering problem. Turing’s hope was to create a machine that would test all possible combinations and spit out a decrypted answer. It was an expensive approach and considered a fool’s errand. Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) was tasked with the project’s success. He disliked Turing personally and tried to cut him off. Turing simply went over his head and appealed directly to Winston Churchill, who ensured he had autonomy and millions of British pounds needed to construct his machine. Turing quickly got rid of many of those who were supposed to help him, but looked for suitable candidates by publishing a unique crossword puzzle and encouraging those who could solve it quickly enough to apply for a unique position. One of those he snagged turned out to be Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) with whom Turing forms a close professional bond, something of a close emotional bond but obviously nothing of a sexual bond. Most of Turning’s staff found him thoroughly irritating and disapproved of his methods. They detected his underlying homosexuality and resented being forced to work for him.

Turing though perseveres, in spite of his initial ambivalence about the war in general and his difficulty winning the respect of those charged to work for him. He inexpertly fends off attempts to shut down his project and also inexpertly tries to win the respect of his team. Their work of course is highly secret and takes place in a hidden military base deep in England. Only one of his male coworkers seems to respect him: John Cairncross (Alan Leech, who you may know as the character Tom Branson from Downton Abbey.) John though is carrying secrets of his own. There is in fact subterfuge underway, which will become clearer as the movie progresses.

It won’t surprise you that the team actually succeeds, thanks to Turing’s machine. Once decrypted though the story takes a different turn, as British intelligence must figure out a way to use the information without tipping off German intelligence that Enigma has been broken.

The movie occasionally moves ten years into the future after the war when we learn that Turing’s patriotism is being questioned and more importantly his homosexuality is discovered, and prosecuted. Turing’s work was so highly classified that his importance to winning the World War II was unknown to the police. Turing nearly went to prison for being a homosexual, and avoided it only through chemical castration that was thought to control his homosexual impulses.

Benedict Cumberbatch is ideal for the role and looks a lot like Turing, except he is skinnier. Keira Knightley is also a good choice as Joan Clarke, but director Morton Tyldum overall does a fine job with this cliffhanger that takes place well behind enemy lines. What becomes clear through the movie is that Turing is a broken and dysfunctional man who inexpertly rises to the occasion. He was also a man of genius, foresight and determination. The movie makes clear the magnitude of his accomplishments.

Turing began the information age. Stephen Hawking was searching for the theory of everything. Turing not only won World War II for the allies but also effectively ended the age of manufacturing and ushered in the information age. As you disable your smartphone before the movie starts, ponder that his accomplishments made your cell phone possible.

3.3 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Review: The Theory of Everything

Suddenly science is cool in the movies, at least if you don’t dwell too much on the science part. Witness two movies out now: The Theory of Everything about the life of physicist Stephen Hawking and The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turning, the founder of modern computer science. We’ll see the latter movie tomorrow, but my wife and I did see The Imitation Game last week, so here’s a review.

To start with, this was a daunting film not so much to make but to market. No one except physicists really care about physics and the nature of reality or, for that matter, people like Stephen Hawking who became crippled early in his career with a progressive neurological disease. Recognizing this the director decided to give short shrift to Hawking’s accomplishments in physics and instead concentrated on his relationship with his wife Jane (played by Felicity Jones). This is a compelling story but it is still hard to watch Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) move quickly from active but nerdy PhD student to crippled scientist. While I knew of Hawking’s notoriety and have read two of his books including his best known, A Brief History of Time, I never knew that he was married and even had many children with his wife Jane, all after he was severely hobbled by his disease.

This is where the film tightly focuses. What draws the literary student Jane Wilde and Stephen Hawking together seems hard to fathom, aside from the fact that they both attend Cambridge University. Jane is a die-hard Christian (Church of England) and Stephen is an atheist. Jane likes to sing in the church choir and Stephen likes to play chess. Jane likes to dance and Stephen cannot, and this is before his disease progressed. Jane is beautiful and Stephen is asymmetrical, ungainly, socially awkward and wears seriously ugly oversized glasses that accentuate his obvious nerdishness.

Much more puzzling is why Jane would want to marry Stephen, particularly when his disease manifests itself. Jane though is full of either grace or stupidity, because she plunges ahead anyhow, doing almost all the work. She cares for Stephen’s many personal needs, manages the household and then becomes the mother to a number of their children. His disease, which typically kills the recipient in about two years, doesn’t kill Stephen, but it does worsen. And over time technology helps Stephen cope with the disease, giving him an artificial voice and an electric wheelchair.

Jane’s seeming martyrdom does have its price: overwhelming work, stress and no sense of identity beyond being his wife, caretaker and mother of his children. Eventually she carves out a little time for herself by rejoining the church choir. There she meets the new choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox). Jonathan recently lost his own wife so he and Jane quickly become close, too close in the eyes of Jane’s mother, who suspects their last child is not actually Stephen’s. Jonathan though is a genuinely nice man and integrates himself seamlessly into their household, with Stephen’s tacit consent. Stephen seems to understand that he cannot provide the companionship that Jonathan can so this unusual arrangement starts to become the family’s new normal, although it raises many eyebrows both in and out of Cambridge.

By itself though this plot is not terribly compelling. Fortunately it has great acting, mostly by Jones and Redmayne to sustain your interest. We get insights into Stephen and his courage confronting the disease, but in reality this film is more an ode to and study of Jane than it is about Stephen. But even with overwhelming tenacity and perseverance Jane cannot help but feel somewhat the victim in the relationship, although it was a role she took on willingly. It’s not surprisingly that while she avoids a physical relationship with Jonathan for a long time, they become emotionally entangled and that causes more distance between Jane and Stephen.

As his disease progresses, Stephen needs the help of a full time nurse. Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) becomes more than his nurse, but also his confidant and lover, leading Jane and Stephen to eventually divorce and for Stephen and Elaine to marry. And, oh yeah, despite his disabilities Hawking manages to write his book, lecture and make new advances in theoretical physics, something that will not surprise you if you know anything about his life. Hawking is still alive at age 72 but his marriage to Elaine ended in 2006.

So don’t expect to learn much about a unified theory of physics in this movie, which is just as well since we likely wouldn’t understand it anyhow, but do expect to feel moved by the story of Stephen and Jane’s life together and how Stephen somehow managed to live a rich life in spite of the odds against him. Despite all the great acting, this is a fringe film. It hasn’t done great in theaters because it is a topic that won’t interest most people. However, if you are brave enough to inhabit Steve and Jane’s world for two hours, you will probably find it a film worth watching.

3.1 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Laughing all the way: Parks and Recreation

No question about it: NBC’s Parks and Recreation is a funny sitcom! The NBC TV series will begin its seventh and final season next month. I on the other hand have just recently discovered it, and am streaming past episodes on Netflix.

I have found that I tend to binge on Parks and Recreation. Sometimes I will watch four episodes in a sitting, which is not a hard thing to do since each show is about twenty minutes when you take out the commercials. Then I will take a break for a week or two. As I get more and more into the series, I can’t seem to wait that long. Sometimes I watch it during the day. I just can’t seem to stop!

The series stars Amy Poehler as the deputy director for parks and recreation for the fictional city of Pawnee, Indiana. It’s a “mocumentary” from the creators of The Office (American version). I have tried to get into The Office but it never took. Parks and Recreation on the other hand was easy for me to like, in part because it’s about the civil service, and I inhabited that world for thirty plus years. Granted that I was a federal employee, and Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her crew are city employees, but it feels familiar. With the exception of Leslie, most of the people working at Pawnee’s Parks and Recreation department though fall into the stereotype of civil servants that spend more time goofing off than working. This is particularly true of their director Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). Despite the fact that he does almost nothing, he is hoping to become city administrator and then to get rid of his department. Ron you see is a libertarian, but not just a run of the mill libertarian, but a severe libertarian. He wants the parks contracted out to the private sector and would like these companies to charge kids to see ducks.

Leslie is just the opposite and basically runs the whole department with cheerfulness, aplomb and dedication. It’s just that her employees emulate her boss for the most part. They include her assistant Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), a skinny and short guy of Indian ancestry but born in South Carolina with a green card marriage to a doctor from Canada but with a passion to run a nightclub. It also includes April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) whose job is to keep the public from seeing Ron Swanson, Jerry Gergich (Jim O’Heir) as a large fifty-something career civil servant on the cusp of retirement and Donna Meagle (Retta) as a snappy, fast-talking black woman with an attitude. Hanging outside the office and occasionally inside it are ancillary characters Andy Dwyer (“shoe shine boy”), Leslie’s friend Anne and toward the later half of the second season Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) and Chris Traeger (Rob Lowe), sent by the state of Indiana to help run city government, which had gotten badly mismanaged.

The mocumentary style is now well refined. The camera becomes an unseen presence that the characters interact around and with, although rarely explicitly. This gives us insight into the intimacies of each character and actually kicks up the level of entertainment. The comedy of the show of course comes from the interaction of these characters and the slow soap operas of their lives that continue incrementally from show to show. Individually no character is particularly memorable, but as an ensemble they prove most entertaining. They become more entertaining as you get to know each of them and their backstories.

Not every show is a hit but all are funny to some extent and some had me actually on the floor laughing hysterically. I watch these alone as my wife is not into mocumentaries, and it’s just as well because falling off your chair from laughter is kind of embarrassing, particularly when snot starts running out of your nose. I don’t watch a whole lot of TV series so there were doubtless many other funny TV series that I missed over the years. I can say honestly though that I have never laughed so hard at a TV sitcom in more than thirty years, since WKRP in Cincinnati entertained us for four seasons starting in 1978.

I am just starting the third season so there is plenty more laughter ahead. Most of the laughter evolves around Leslie, Ron, April and Tom. Some of the funniest episodes though involve characters that appear irregularly. Leslie’s boss Ron is a twice divorcee, one with the chief librarian of the city named Tammy (Megan Mullally). Ron and Tammy have a deeply dysfunctional hot/cold relationship. Apparently about once a season the writers invent a reason for them to come together again, and the fireworks that happen when they do are not to be missed. So far these shows have been the comic highlights of the series for me, but there are also many shows that individually are great gems. “Greg Pikitis” from Season 2, which was immediately followed by the first “Ron and Tammy” episode, were two back-to-back shows that had me laughing and careening off my chair and onto the floor. Both of these shows were particularly inspired and should have won awards for the longest periods of sustained and hysterical laughter. There are also a number of periodically recurring characters to enjoy, such as the smarmy skinny TV hostess of “Pawnee Today”, Joan Callamezzo.

As a portrayal of the civil service, the show largely goes for stereotypes. I haven’t worked in city government, but it was my experience that with a few exceptions most federal civil servants I worked with were focused, dedicated and talented. In Parks and Recreation the writers found more humor in portraying civil servants as dispassionate, web and text surfing bodies inhabiting desks. Leslie is the big exception, as was Mark Brendanawicz (Paul Schneider), a city planner, who unfortunately left the show after the second season. Stereotypes aside, this is a comedy so laughs are the important metric. It’s nice though that at least some of the civil servants in the series come across as dedicated and professional.

In any event, the show seems to be hitting almost all of my laugh buttons. If you haven’t seen the show, give it a try. Season 1 is a little rough as the characters were just settling into place. Season 2 though should leave you fully hooked. Seven seasons apparently is all we’re going to get of life in the fictional town of Pawnee. I hope it’s not ending because the writers ran out of ways to make us laugh.

 
The Thinker

Two brief movie reviews

The Maze Runner

There have been a number of books and movies where cruelty to children is the main theme. The Maze Runner is sort of a combination of the book Lord of the Flies mixed with The Hunger Games. As sickening as The Maze Runner is at times, you might say it is a lite version of both this book and these movies.

The premise though is kind of interesting, if more than a bit disgusting. In case you missed the trailers, about fifty adolescent boys seem to be trapped in the center of a large maze. In its center, which doesn’t look like it is more than a square mile, they can live a Spartan sort of existence based on mutual cooperation. Except for one gap in the wall, which closes with sundown they are trapped inside. This gives them incentive to explore the maze during the day. This maze though does not stay static and changes daily. If you don’t make it out by sundown, you are presumed dead. The concrete walls of the maze press together, killing anyone unfortunate enough to be between the walls at the time.

Once a month a new male teen is delivered via an underground elevator, his past conveniently erased. He is forced to join the tribe. The latest one is Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) who quickly has to fit in among the established pecking order. Things have been scary but sort of all right in the center of the maze, but Thomas’s arrival seems to upset the apple cart. A teen gets “suckered” (goes crazy in the woods) nearly killing Thomas. Huge cyborg spiders that hang out in the maze begin to do so during the daylight, making going into the maze all the chancier. Thomas joins the elite group of runners of the maze and quickly decides they must confront their worst fears and the spiders inside it and actually escape. The unusual delivery of a girl Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) with a note makes this perfectly clear. Just in case they don’t take it seriously, a cyborg spider attack occurs during the day, which kills most of them. This makes actual escape an imperative.

The movie is well done, the acting is generally good and the premise is creepy. It’s pretty obvious though that they are the rats in this maze and their days are numbered. The only real question is who is inflicting this misery on them and why? Your curiosity will be rewarded at the end of the movie, but your patience may be tested when you get to the end you realize this movie is first of what looks like many more.

Being inhumane to children seems to be a new profitable Hollywood theme as actual child abuse is against the law. This movie is simply another one and actually less grisly than the many Hunger Games movies. My sensitive stomach found it hard to watch anyhow. It’s well done, it just doesn’t really satisfy the itch for a satisfying conclusion. 3.2 out of 4-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

How much you like this last movie in the bloated three-part movies based on JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit will probably depend on what you thought of the first two. This is more of the same, but is actually reasonably entertaining. It’s just that it is not too easy to reconcile the movie with the actual book, if you have read it.

Thankfully, it has been thirty years or more since I read The Hobbit, so I forgot many of the details, thus I didn’t mind too much that so many plot points had changed. What you really get of course is Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth and that requires entertainment and you get plenty of that. So it’s showy, bloated, way over the top, full of CGI and gives plenty of screen time to ancillary characters that never appear in the book itself, including more interspecies love between dwarf and elf, something of a father-daughter relationship between Legolas and Tauriel, and battle scenes that I admit are at least as compelling as the siege of Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. You also get little Peter Jackson signature items, like the invincible Legolas and his amazing abilities to defy gravity as well as lots of collapsing stone pillars, towers and bridges. Clearly these were constructed with low bid contracts because it doesn’t take much to turn them into rubble. You get to witness the awesome power of a dragon (Smaug) as he lets loose his fiery mouth on the town of Dale and watch Thorin descend into gold fever once Smaug is gone and those hordes of treasure are his.

The best parts of the movie though have nothing to do with these massive, mostly CGI-generated battle scenes, but those that are not part of the book itself, such as when an imprisoned Gandalf is rescued by Saruman, Elrond and Lady Galadriel at Dol Goldur. There we get to see the Ringwraiths again and watch Saruman (a near ninety-something Christopher Lee) kick some serious ass back when he was still a force for good. Most of the rest though is formulaic but at least comfortable as you pretty much get exactly the sort of Peter Jackson experience you expect. Jackson’s many movies now feel homey. They may be bloated but they are at least familiar.

Your feelings about Jackson are unlikely to change from watching this movie, but if you watch this last movie you at least get your money’s worth and see Jackson come close to reviving his best efforts from the original movies.

3.3 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Two very belated rock sequels

Now that I have a streaming music service, I am discovering plenty of new music. I am also discovering a few surprises. Within a couple of weeks, I discovered two very belated rock and roll sequels from artists I had tuned into during my formative years in the 1970s.

Return to the Centre of the Earth (Rick Wakeman)

Rick Wakeman first came to mass attention as a keyboardist, composer and songwriter for the rock group Yes. By the early 1970s he had tired of Yes and struck out on his own. In 1974 he put out Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a hard to describe but definitely unique concept album that combined the classic Jules Verne book with his moog synthesizer, the London Festival Orchestra and narrator David Hemmings captured in a live performance. I was seventeen at the time. This album fused a number of genres amazingly well. Because of Wakeman’s often over the top antics on the moog, this album got plenty of play on my record player and grew somewhat beloved. It is an arguably a noteworthy album in the genre of progressive rock. He made two other attempts at similar concept albums during these years, one on the six wives of Henry VIII and another on King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but of the three this middle album is definitely the best.

By 1999, a full quarter century later, the moog was desperately old fashioned. This didn’t stop Wakeman from issuing a sequel that year, Return to the Centre of the Earth featuring himself again on the moog still sounding so very 1970’s-ish. This version takes us on a similar journey of the imagination that is more homage to the old album than something new in the way of story. It is also longer, somewhat better and classier. The orchestra got upgraded to the London Symphony Orchestra, and the narrator upgraded to Patrick Stewart. Listening to Stewart is like listening to Morgan Freeman: his voice is naturally compelling so you just cannot not pay attention. Despite the repetition in story, tone and music it is a fun journey of the imagination through music and a grade letter better than the original album. Wakeman also got a number of his peers to contribute to the vocals of the album including Justin Heyward and Ozzy Osbourne.

Today progressive rock seems the opposite of progressive. It seems antiquated, but for us middle-aged folk it is still quite a lot of fun. This album is actually about twenty minutes longer than the original album and proves that Wakeman’s still got it, both as a composer and a master of the moog. It’s a fitting but comfy sequel to the original album that is hard to dislike.

Update 12/9/14: Apparently the original Journey to the Centre of the Earth was re-released and extended in 2014, and even went on tour. My music service clocks this version at 1 hour and 48 minutes. You can find a number of excerpts from concerts online including this 27:41 excerpt performed in Buenos Aires with narration in Portuguese.

Thick as a Brick 2 (Jethro Tull)

In the early 1970s the competition was on to create the world’s most outrageous rock album. At the time arguably no album came closer than Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, released in 1972: an in-your-face and often patently offensive screed against God and organized religion. This one-theme album is framed as music the band wrote around a poem by fictional eight-year-old child prodigy: Gerald Bostock. His poem looked brilliant until it was actually analyzed and discovered to be completely antisocial and antiestablishment. It was so over the top that Ian Anderson expected that no one could possibly take it seriously. As a work of art though it was quite compelling and the lyrics, while often offensive and even outrageous, had resonance both then and today. For example, thinking of today’s Republicans, I can’t help but recall these lyrics from the album:

Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.
My words but a whisper your deafness a SHOUT.
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think.
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink.

I played it many times anyhow, and enjoyed it with a rebellious glee as it coincided with my loss of faith. It was often puerile, but it was for a good cause. But mostly it was great music. Take out the lyrics and you are still left with an amazing musical roller coaster from the rock and roll talents that was Jethro Tull. They were centered, of course, on Ian Anderson and his flute, who is always the primary artistic force for the band.

A full forty years after the album’s release in 1972 came Thick as a Brick 2, which is a rumination on Gerald Bostock forty years later around the age of fifty. In tone this 2012 album has a lot in common with the original album, but this is not particularly an anti-religious screed. Rather it is an examination into Bostock’s many possible life paths: as a banker, a homosexual and homeless man, a preacher, a soldier and a shopkeeper. (I’m betting Bostock would have been the banker.) Only when examining his life as a preacher does it resonate with the original album. As a work of music though it’s a reasonably close homage to the original, full of sardonic lyrics, occasional bars from the original albums and some quite memorable songs and tracks. (I particularly like “Adrift and Dumfounded”.) The original album really had no songs. It was issued in two parts, separated only because of the need to flip the record over.

So this forty year later homage to the original album is not really a homage, but a rumination of a fictional character navigating midlife. However, it is equally as clever lyrically and musically than the original album, if not more so. It is both different and the same and worth a lot of spins even if it won’t inspire you to start burning Bibles. It’s sardonic and at times melancholy, but rarely nasty. A sixty-something Ian Anderson (with some lyrics contributed by his son) proves that a forty year later sequel can still be damned good and fun, just a lot less in your face than the original, which is good.

Update 12/31/14: Enjoy this tribute band doing the original Thick as a Brick. Except that the vocalist is no Ian Anderson, it’s amazingly faithful to the original 1972 recording.

 
The Thinker

Review: Interstellar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.3 points on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

The meat of Meat Loaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
The Thinker

Review: Ishtar (1987)

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

Well!

My goodness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 

 
The Thinker

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.3 out of 4 stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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