Monday, February 8, 2016

Quick Jots 2.8.2016

Hey, it's been almost three weeks between posts--a long time for me. So here's what's new this month, in no particular order:

--The Broncos may get the ring, but the real winner of the Super Bowl was Lady Gaga. The other acts fizzled, the ads were bleh, and the game was boring and badly played.

--Speaking of Lady Gaga, she's been pretty good in this season's American Horror Story, too. I'm three episodes behind--the last three--so don't ruin anything for me.  Of course, having said that, I've been seeing a little too much of Lady Gaga lately. If you've seen the show, you know what I mean.

--I'm not sure halftime of the Super Bowl is the place to make political statements, even if they're valid. People watching the Super Bowl are not always going to be the most politically-conscious.

--Trump losing Iowa--and almost finishing in third place--re-establishes. But it's early, so don't let me down, people.

--I've already had a Republican president who didn't quite think things through before he said them. I don't need another one anytime soon.

--Trump blamed the media and Ted Cruz for his poor showing. He strikes me as one of those people who never takes responsibility for anything at all. His advisers need to tell him that he lost because Iowa is a religiously conservative state, and Trump is just conservative. He stumbles at religion questions, and doesn't say the word "God" enough to win there. And they may not be too excited about Big City rich guys from New York, either.

--Having said that, Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012. The Iowa Caucus does not a president make.

--Local schools have been blitzed by fake bomb threats that have disrupted things greatly. Newport had three such hoaxes--in the same week. And then a snow day Friday and today.

--News reports today say RI police have traced the sources of the hoaxes to Russia. I could've told them that: According to Google Analytics, Russians read my blog more than Americans do. But I suspect there's just a bot or two coming from there and playing games with my numbers.

--Of course, if you're a solid Russian reader of this blog, I apologize...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant -- Movie Review


Photo: from the film's Wikipedia site

Very gripping, in-your-face film with fine performances and great directing and cinematography. The setting is really the main character of the film, and there are long stretches of it, with little action or dialogue, so you'd better like it. I did, like I do watching Terrence Malick films, but if you don't, this film may be an ordeal for you. (It's supposed to be an ordeal, but more on that later.) This scenery does for beautiful negativity what Malick's does for gorgeous serenity. It's all supposed to be taking place in the northern climes of the Louisiana Purchase in 1823, though most of it was actually shot in the Canadian Rockies and in Argentina. But I'm gonna call it the Arctic, 'cause that's sure what it seemed like to me. Unless you're an expert hiker and really know your landscapes, it'll seem that way to you, too.

There are so many shots of snow, trees, rivers and streams that it'll either strike you with awe or with annoyance. These shots are supposed to be metaphysical; yet they're also supposed to nail the point home that this is a beautiful, but desolate and unbelievably harsh landscape. The movie is more about survival in this setting than it is about revenge or anything else.

In no particular order, DiCaprio's Hugh Glass has to survive the greed of his fellow trappers; the anger and desperation of Native American tribes (three of them are mentioned in this movie); the unlawfulness of French trappers and traders (which includes murder, kidnapping and rape); the freezing temperatures; the blizzards and snow; starvation and dehydration.

And, oh yeah--that bear.


Photo: Hugh Glass (or an 1800s James Cromwell?) and DiCaprio, from The Telegraph's article of the real Hugh Glass

This is not a film for the squeamish, though the bear attack was not as bloody and brutal as we've heard. (Or maybe I'm just battle hardened.) More disconcerting is the frequent brutality of many forms. You know how in most movies guys get one bullet to the head or one stab in the chest and that's it, they're done? Not so here. And violent things happen to CGI bears, bear cubs, moose, elk and wild dogs, too. And a horse, from that cliff clip we've all seen, when Leo and Horse go over. And Leo uses that horse like Han Solo did to another creature in Jedi, but even more so here. Yuck!

And it's all very realistically written, acted and directed. If you've seen last year's Best Picture winner, Birdman (and if you haven't, you should), then you know that Innaritu--last year's Best Director--really likes close-ups. And I mean, close. So much so, so often, that the frozen wilderness will seem claustrophobic, though it's all open space and wide expanses. But the camera is right on these guys. Not in their face, exactly, but closely above them, or beside them, or under them. There aren't too many distant shots of these actors. If they're on screen, they're taking up the whole screen. So be ready for that you-are-there feeling that this type of direction generates. You'll feel like you're in the Arctic with them--and you'll feel like you can't wait to get the hell out of there. An interesting achievement, that: You'll be glued to the screen (no small feat, since it's over two and a half hours long), but you'll be so overwhelmed by the brutality and the conditions that you want to be able to leave. I got the feeling, somewhat, that I was trapped.

Which was the director's goal, of course, and he succeeds. The film is an ordeal, and I mean that in a positive way. You suffer along with everyone--and everyone does suffer. This movie is about suffering and survival, and it does not have a solid, clear, winning ending. Consider yourself warned.



Photo: The director, Alejandro Inarritu, and Leonardo DiCaprio, from the same Telegraph article

DiCaprio deserves his nomination, and I'm not sure I saw a better leading performance this year. I don't mean that negatively, but nobody has stood out for me in terms of an obvious win at Oscar-time. I suppose DiCaprio is that guy.

Tom Hardy also deserves his nomination, as did Mark Rylance, whose performance I liked a little bit better. He didn't have the conditions to play off of, as Hardy does, and he says a lot more than Hardy does. (Tom Hardy, since his performance as Bane, seems to have specialized in roles that require minimal verbosity. He says more here than he does in Mad Max, but not by much.) I still feel Benecio del Toro deserved an Oscar nomination for Sicario, which itself was also not nominated. His was the best supporting performance I've seen this year. It's hard, as I mentioned in another entry, to compare his performance to Rylance's, because they're so different: his is exceptionally harsh and cold, and Rylance's is very powerfully quiet and nuanced. But del Toro's role and Tom Hardy's role are actually quite similar--though Hardy evoked quite a bit of Tom Berenger in Platoon for me here--and they both play guys who are cold and evil to the core, and who don't change. This was a nice change, by the way. Hardy says some very memorable things at the end of Revenant that you may not soon forget.

So go see this film if all of the above sounds like your cup of tea. Speaking of that, you will want something hot to drink after you see this, because the surroundings are so much the main character of this film that you will feel like you've just spent two and a half hours in the frozen, bloody Arctic.

P.S.--I always sit through the credits, so here I saw a name I haven't seen since the early-80s: Lukas Haas. Can you guess the movie? He was the little boy with Harrison Ford in Witness. Yeah, my mind works like that--I didn't even have to look it up. It hit me in the theatre. It's an illness.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

In the Wake of the Plague -- The Black Death and the World It Made





Photo: A Bubonic Plague map, from the Wikipedia page The Black Death in England.  This site quotes that up to half of England's population died of the plague in the Middle Ages, and another 20% later--and that doesn't count the last epidemic, the The Great Plague of 1666.


Fascinatingly in-depth, yet quick-to-read, take on everything Black Death.  This includes, but is not limited to:

--the biomedical facts of the Plague.  The memorable kicker here is that scientists have concluded, by digging up bodies of Plague victims in the frozen Arctic, that the Great Pestilence may have made about 10%-15% of today's descendants of Plague survivors immune to HIV, which causes AIDS.  This would've been certain by now, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, as this book was published in 2001.  The other memorable factoid is that anthrax was most likely killing off Europeans--especially the British--as the Plague was doing so as well, making London of the Middle Ages the worst place to be of all-time.  This explains why millions died in the winter--when rats and fleas are not abundant--and why millions died in the Frozen Arctic, where rats and fleas don't go at all.  Turns out, many of those people didn't die from the Plague--they died from anthrax.  And, why didn't many people have the tell-tale buboes and skin and blood lesions that Plague victims got?  And why did some people get struck by the virus one night and die before morning, which was unusual for Plague, which took days or weeks?  Answer, again: anthrax.

--social and economic aftereffects of the Plague.  In short, yeomen and women flourished, economically.  The Church was devastated and hired younger and more undereducated people, as the older but learned leaders died off. Serfdom ended. People questioned the infallibility of their monarchies (who were supposedly God-chosen and God-protected, but who during the Plague were God-forsaken) and of the Church, and of medicine.  After all, if the priests and friars and physicians couldn't save themselves, how could they save (spiritually and medically) anyone else?  And if they couldn't do that, what good were they at all?

--artistic expression.  Commonly thought to have become more morbid and pessimistic after the Plague, Cantor believes that art was going that way anyway, and that Renaissance art was less of a mirror of the Plague than previously thought.  I'm surprised by this, but Cantor is hugely respected, and he quotes many others, so I'll take his word for it.

--world government. The Plague spelled the end for the Plantagenets, which was a long-lasting monarchy and European power that you and I have never heard of. But they would've ruled England and Spain, and maybe, by default, France, at the time, which was a constant thought of every monarch for hundreds of years, but would've actually happened. But English Princess Joan, who was about to marry into the Spanish monarchy, died of the Plague (in France, at 15), and so that never happened. This led to the trials and tribulations of Edward II and III, and of Henry IV-VI, and, well, the rest is history.

--medical and scientific stagnation. These two things were just as much to blame as were the actual Plague and anthrax, as the vacuum of medical and scientific advancement in the Middle Ages (except in the field of optics) made these pandemics worse, and longer-lasting, than they necessarily had to be. Nobody knew or practiced anything that could've combated the Plague, so the main response was to pray, flee and blame--

--the Jews. The Plague wasn't the first time they were scapegoated, but perhaps this was the first European-wide excuse to massacre them, as entire villages, households and neighborhoods of Jews were set aflame and otherwise wiped out because the common man thought they were poisoning the wells, thereby creating and spreading the Plague. The first of many Jewish holocausts over the years.

In short, if you're interested at all in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, or in the Plague, this is necessary reading. An informative, well-written (and often sarcastic) account of the Plague, the people and the time.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Goodbye 2015 -- Affluenza


Photo: Ethan "Affluenza" Couch. By the Associated Press, December 28, 2015


And, his mother, also from the AP.  Read about them below. For the whole article, go here.

Good riddance to 2015!  Say goodbye to:

Ethan Couch, who drunkenly plowed into a disabled vehicle and the 4 people servicing it, all of whom died. This happened when he was 16, in Texas. During the sentencing phase, his lawyer said he suffered from "affluenza" because his parents were so rich and had spoiled him so much, he didn't know right from wrong. This apparently worked, because the judge gave him 10 years' probation! Rather than feeling responsible, he attended a party where alcohol was served, though in fairness the video does not show him drinking any. I don't know if that matters in terms of his probation, though. I'm guessing it violates it, because soon he and his mother threw a going-away party, then split for Mexico, crossing the border in an SUV (and after paying someone off, because I don't think people on probation can leave the country without permission, which he wouldn't have gotten because he missed a mandatory court date and a rehab stint). U.S. authorities finally tracked them down because they'd ordered a pizza over the phone, possibly with a credit card. The mother was flown back to L.A. and arrested (While living together after her divorce, she placed her son's bed in her own bedroom, saying he was her "protector."  Ewwwwww!!), but Couch won an appeal in a Mexican court, and is still in Mexico, fighting extradition. The prosecutor said this could take anywhere between a few days, to a few months, to perhaps years.

This nauseating story speaks for itself. But I have to ask: That judge gave him 10 years' probation (and a stint in rehab) for killing four people and crippling two others--if he did so because he believed Couch was too rich and too spoiled to know right from wrong, then doesn't this judge also have to give stupefyingly light sentences to someone very poor, who grew up so poor and abused that he also didn't know right from wrong?

Just sayin'.

So, Affluenza Ethan Couch, goodbye, man. And, by the way, that Mexican detention center you're in until the extradition mess gets worked out--that can't be any better than any American juvie center or rehab for rich kids. Again, just sayin'.  Oh, and one more thing: Do these two look haunted by their misdeeds to you? That first one is a sociopath if I've ever seen one. And the mom? Proud of it all.

More Goodbye 2015 entries to come. Why do you want to say goodbye to 2015?

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Top-10 Films of the Year (So Far) Part 2

This is Part 2 of my favorite films of 2015. For Part I, please click this link to read it.  Thanks.

As before, where I've written a blog entry of the movie, the title will be linked so you can go there. Thanks again.

5. Tie: Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II and The Martian

Far better than Part I, because this one has a sense of fate, of finishing up, of ending a war and moving on with life. Its themes and messages are more mature than the other films, on purpose. And it makes a point to choose humanity over war, of even winning a war, which is dubious to me, but carried out well here. It asks: How barbaric are we willing to be to win a battle, or a war? That depends on the war, I suppose, and it's easy to make sweeping platitudes, but it all works here, anyway. It's directed better, too, though all the Hunger Games movies have the same director. A minor bone to pick is how Coin was situated right behind Snow at the end; I didn't read the books, but I didn't have to in order to know what was going to happen there. It couldn't have been telegraphed more than it was. But it all wraps up well, and meaningfully, and I'll repeat here what I said in the blog: Kudos to the filmmakers for making an action movie where a woman is the main character, the one kicking ass, and the one who has to save the rather short-sighted and dim-witted (or tyrannical) men. And for showing that a woman can be just as tyrannical, just as cold and evil. Not a single stereotypical female role here. That's rare.

The Martian is a very gung-ho, optimistic movie from Ridley Scott, who's not known for being that way. Like, at all. An astronaut gets marooned on Mars, and is forced to grow food from his feces and to listen to bad disco music before he's saved by his crew, which comes back for him, thereby sacrificing another year of their lives in space. The martian, for his part, loses a ton of weight and endures a few catastrophes, but never loses his smile or his extremely positive outlook. A friend of mine found this excessively unrealistic and therefore didn't like the movie. I disagreed, saying that the movie was purposely optimistic about space, space travel, and our role in space. It was Ridley's way of saying, "Let's fund NASA more, because Earth is screwed and sooner or later we're going to need to leave." Ridley is known to be fascinated by space, about living in space, about the optimistic and positive attributes of being in space. This despite Alien and Prometheus, very pessimistic movies about the horrors of space--though both do end with an optimistically intellectual attitude about space, and about our ultimate creation. Well, Prometheus does, anyway. So IMO The Martian has to be seen with this in mind. It's not unrealistically positive, exactly, because it's whole point is to be very positive about humans in space. Think, Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

4.  Jurassic World

Extremely exciting and hyper-visual movie that was lightyears better than Jurassic Park 2 and 3. In some ways, this even exceeds the original. Yes, it's still what David Letterman infamously called "mechanical lizards," but here there are flying ones with razor-sharp teeth, and the gigantic whaleshark, and the velociraptors and T-rex are back, plus one more...All of them very scary, and very real. These all existed in the past, unlike a few of the original movie's lizards, especially that annoying fan-shaped thing. Real danger, real menace, and a couple of characters--especially Bryce Dallas Howard's--who might also exist in real life.  It doesn't focus on the kids as much as the first one did, which worked better for me. So, yes, again, just a romp with CGI lizards, but an exciting, eye-popping one, guaranteed to please and make you wish for popcorn. An almost perfect summer action / special effects popcorn-chewing visual experience, that must really be seen on the big screen.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

About this film I ca say almost the same thing as Jurassic World, but without the dinosaurs. An unbelievably awesome action romp, it's basically two very long action sequences, or a movie-long car chase. The most inspiring thing about it is that it's NOT CGI-heavy. George Miller wanted all the stunts and all the cars to be real, and they all look it. There are Cirque du Soleil performers, real cars on top of tanks, explosions and sand and jumping and so much precision it'll make your head spin. It's perhaps the best action movie ever made. That's not just me saying so, but most of the critics, too, all of whom have put it on their own Top 10 of 2015 lists. And the National Board of Review named it the Best Picture of the Year!!!

Perhaps as equally impressive is the message. First, it's an action movie with a message, a rare thing in of itself. That the message is of female empowerment and freedom is even more rare--in all of film, never mind in an action film. But don't lose sight of the fact that the cargo driven in the movie's War Rig is not gasoline, but the five women who are escaping with Charlize Theron's Furiosa to a better place, a world of green where they are not slaves, where they can be free. Think of the women worldwide, who live in cultures where they are not free, where they are subservient to men in absolutely every way (and I do mean every way) and I think you'll agree that this is no small thing.

2. Sicario

I have misgivings placing this here instead of at #1, and went back and forth about it. My reason is simple: It has hardly any special effects to speak of, and is all acting, writing and directing. It excels at all three, plus the score to boot, which I listen to on YouTube all the time, and will probably buy soon. Benicio del Toro gives a performance that is memorably chilling, and Emily Blunt gives a performance that is easily the best of her career. I hope they're both remembered at Oscar time--and Mark Rylance should be, too, for Bridge of Spies. (His performance was as quietly nuanced as del Toro's was loudly menacing, so it's tough to know who should get it. This shows the Oscars are often a crapshoot.) Anyway, this movie is exceptional in every way, and relevant, and a dirty little corner of America's politics and its (failed) War on Drugs. It's an important movie done dirty, menacing and well.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Of course. A huge movie that makes it all relevant again, and it sets the mark for the remaining movies. Makes you wonder why George Lucas went for the prequels and Vader, rather than the sequels, and Skywalker / Leia / Han Solo, plus the newcomers. My only caveat, as mentioned above, is that Sicario is all about acting, writing and directing, and does not count a lick on special effects. This movie has very good acting and directing as well, but it of course counts very heavily on its technical side--but how could it not, since it all takes place in space? Having said that, I don't know what else I have to say about it that I didn't say in my blog entry, so without further ado I'll direct you there.

Well, thanks for reading my two Top-10 Movie List blogs! What movies did you like the best this year? How would you rank the ones I mentioned?