The Thinker

Two flicks and a show

For your amusement, here are a few mini-reviews of movies and shows I have seen recently.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

If you put George Clooney, Ewan McGreggor, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey in the same movie will it necessarily be funny? To me this was the existential question of The Men Who Stare at Goats. Funny is as funny does, and this movie does have its funny moments. However, this is no Borat or Brüno. Its humor is far subtler. Whether you will find it humorous or not depends in large part on whether you think its premise is humorous.

Its premise is that during the 1970s the U.S. military, afraid that the Soviet Union was winning the Cold War in the new psychic operations battlefield, decided to invest some time and money of its own to create a set of New Age psychic warriors. The movie does have some loose basis in fact. Jim Channon, a Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam proposed a First Earth Battalion to the Pentagon. This new force would win the hearts and minds of the enemy by using tactics like positive vibrations and sparkly eyes. In real life, this did not get much beyond a Pentagon sponsored mailing list. In the movie, George Clooney plays Lyn Cassady, the most gifted of this allegedly defunct Special Forces unit. Among his talents is that he can stare at a goat with such intensity that it will keel over dead.

Ann Arbor Daily Telegram reporter Bob Wilton (Ewan McGreggor) runs into Cassady in the country of Jordon, who he soon associates with a crazy man he interviewed back in Michigan who told him about this Special Force. Before you know it, both he and Cassady are venturing into Iraq. Cassady apparently is on special assignment. Cassady uses his dubious psychological skills to outwit a few kidnappers, but they end up lost in the desert eventually, only to discover that a psychic corps is already out there. However, this group was contracted out, like much of our War in Iraq. The movie comes complete with lots of flashbacks where we meet the corps legendary founder Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), who is clearly playing Jim Channon.

The movie is strange but just plausible enough to suspend disbelief. It’s not a bad way to spend 94 minutes in a theater. It will keep your attention as well as keep you mildly amused. Ultimately, it tries too hard to make a movie out of a premise that has little humor in it. The main reason to see the movie is to see Clooney, McGreggor, Bridges and Spacey interact on screen and do their best with this thin material. I found myself chuckling at times but this is not one of those movies where you are on the floor laughing. It is probably worth renting but is nothing overly special. It is clearly aimed at the Catch-22 crowd. I give it a modest 2.8 points on my 4-point scale.

Paper Clips (2004)

I did not know what to expect of this documentary, but since it was on my sister’s Netflix list and she liked it, I added it to mine. Whitwell, Tennessee is the unlikely location for a story about understanding the Holocaust. Two teachers were looking for a project for students at the Whitwell middle school that would help them understand the magnitude of the Holocaust. Whitwell is one of these mostly lily white towns in the middle of Appalachia, and seemingly not fertile territory for empathizing with the plight of the Jews or learning about discrimination in general.

To help the students understand the magnitude of the Holocaust, the teachers start the students on a project to collect six million paperclips, one for every Jew killed in the Holocaust. The students start writing various people and organizations looking for donations of paperclips. At first, the paperclips trickle in, and then become a torrent. Each contribution is counted and meticulously cataloged. Soon, rooms are bulging with paperclips and the press is starting to pay attention.

The students make friends with actual Holocaust victims, who come to share their story. Over several years, succeeding classes of middle schoolers continue the project. Eventually the school receives an authentic boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. It is turned into a memorial and filled, of course, with paperclips. You can visit the mini memorial today if life takes you through Whitwell, Tennessee.

The documentary succeeds in helping students insulated from the ugliness of much of the world understand the prejudice and discrimination inflicted on different people far removed from them. They open bridges into a wider world that they would otherwise not come in contact with. If the documentary has a flaw, it is that despite its premise it is not particularly engaging. It could have done with a lot less saccharine music. Still, it is an unusual story and worthy of capturing. If I were teaching in middle school it would be required viewing by my students

I’ll leave it unrated. If you feel you need a lesson in empathy, it is worth seeing.

The Music Man at The Kennedy Center

When you go to hear a musical in concert, particularly with a pops orchestra, you should not set your expectations too high. Last Friday, we took my father (age 83) to The Kennedy Center to hear the music from the musical The Music Man performed live by the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marvin Hamlisch. The Music Man is his favorite musical. Growing up we often heard the sound track to The Music Man during our languid Sunday mornings.

What we got was a greatly abbreviated version of The Music Man, partially staged in front of the orchestra. Shirley Jones, who played Marian the Librarian in the 1962 movie, was part of the cast. At 75, Ms. Jones is way too old to play Marian, and arguably way too old to play Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother. Actually, Rebecca Luker who sang and performed Marian’s part is also too old to play Marian, who is supposed to be 26. (Ms. Luker is 48.) It didn’t really matter though. Luker was terrific in the part, and made me wish I had seen her perform the full musical on Broadway back in 2000. Patrick Cassidy, the son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, played Professor Harold Hill. He also directed the performance. Cassidy’s performance was not particularly noteworthy, but nothing for which he should feel ashamed.

The Washington Post found little to like about the concert except for Ms. Luker. The Post misses the point. The point of the concert was for us to hear Ms. Luker, enjoy an afternoon with the NSO Pops, check out Shirley Jones (who is aging very gracefully) and have a good time during a busy holiday weekend. I certainly had no expectations that I would be seeing anything of Broadway quality, which is why it was so nice to have Ms. Luker doing such an excellent job both singing and acting in the part. It was also nice to be four rows from both performers on a blustery November afternoon. After the performance, both Shirley Jones and Patrick Cassidy shared a few intimacies with the audience. Ms. Jones was pregnant with Patrick when The Music Man was being filmed. During the final intimate scene at the footbridge, Robert Preston felt Patrick kick and exclaimed, “What was that!” Twenty years later, Patrick related that he finally got a chance to meet Robert Preston. “Without missing a beat,” he said, “Mr. Preston said, ‘We already met.’”

The real treat for me was simply to see my father dabbing his eyes during the performance. It is hard to touch someone’s heart but on this one rare occasion, I fully succeeded. I am glad I was there to enjoy these moments with the best father a son could ever want.


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