Book and Movie Reviews

 

 

NOTE:  All reviews by James L. Hankins unless otherwise noted.  Also included here are short essays or stories about events or persons regarding the human condition that I found interesting enough to share. 

 

 

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IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larsen

I got caught up on some reading over the holidays, including this book by Erik Larson, one of the best reads that I have had in a while.

Few subjects in twentieth century history are more fascinating than World War II, and especially the establishment of Nazi Germany and the rise of Hitler.  I read William L. Shirer’s classic account The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:  A History of Nazi Germany (1960) about 20 years ago or more, and it is still one of the most readable and intriguing books on the subject primarily, in my opinion, because Shirer was actually there during the 1930’s when Hitler and the National Socialists rose to power, and he saw it happen first-hand.  His account, as a reporter stationed in Berlin for most of that time, is told not as a dry history lesson of events about which we already know the outcome, but as a first-hand observer seeing things happen in Germany when the outcome is unclear.

Over 50 years later, Erik Larson has succeeded in doing pretty much the same thing with In the Garden of Beasts.  Whereas Shirer’s work is a sweeping compendium covering over 1,500 pages which describe the full arc of the beginning, and end, of Hitler and the Nazis, Larson has chosen to keep Beasts more tightly woven, focused on the tenure of William E. Dodd as U.S. Ambassador to Germany.  Dodd, a southerner, began his career as a history professor at the University of Chicago in 1908, but his ties to politics came in 1912 when he wrote speeches for then-candidate for Woodrow Wilson, and in 1920 Dodd published a biography of President Wilson titled Woodrow Wilson and his Work (1920).

However, Dodd was not on President Roosevelt’s radar for Ambassador to Germany in 1933, and in fact Dodd was about the fifth or sixth candidate deep before eventually being offered the post.  World War I was in the national conscience, Germany was still not quite stable, and the position in Berlin was not at the top of the pecking order for the established diplomats in the State Department.  Dodd’s name was eventually brought up by the Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper, a longtime friend of Dodd’s, and with time pressure mounting before an adjournment of Congress, President Roosevelt selected Dodd for the post.

Dodd was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Germany on June 10, 1933.  The frugal and down-to-earth Dodd set off for Germany the next month, along with his wife, son, 25-year-old daughter Martha Eccles Dodd, and his old Chevy.  The reader knows that Germany, in this time period, was poised on a path of destruction merely a little more than a decade later, but the Dodds, of course, had no way of knowing this.  The genius of Larson’s writing style is that he presents history as it unfolded for the Dodds, from their perspective as persons experiencing history as it happened, through their contemporaneous diaries and personal notes; and not as something told by a person who knows how the story goes.  It is very effective because it allows the reader to understand that the rise of Hitler was not so easy, nor was his true character all that clear to those living in the moment until it was too late.

Dodd’s mandate—the real mandate—from Washington was to overlook American financial interests.  American business had purchased a lot of German bonds and the government wanted to make sure Germany paid them.  This was, of course, a fool’s errand, and President Roosevelt simply told Dodd to be an example of American liberal values in a place that had become increasingly anti-Semitic.  Once Dodd and his family arrived in Germany, it quickly became apparent that the most interesting person in the quartet was not Dodd.  It was his daughter, Martha.

Martha’s view of Berlin at that time was fresh and new, and she embraced the parties, social gatherings, and power circles there with a sexual ferocity that would be scandalous even today.  Martha Dodd danced around the Third Reich through a string of lovers that included French diplomat Armand Berard, an aide to Hitler named Ernst Hanfstaengl, a senior Luftwaffe officer named Ernst Udet, future Nobel Laureate Max Delbruck, and incredibly, the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.  However, her most ardent lover at the time was Boris Vinogradov, a Soviet NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) intelligence officer masquerading as a diplomat.  Martha’s story extended until 1990 when she died, but during 1933-37, she was a central figure in Third Reich diplomatic circles.

When the Dodds arrived in Berlin in mid-1933, the city was a re-built beautiful example of German industriousness, including the titular central park named the Tiergarten (in German “animal garden” or the garden of the beasts) where Ambassador William Dodd spent many nights walking in thought or, later, meeting with other diplomats in order to talk without being surveilled.

The first seeds of anti-Semitic government policy had just taken root in Germany, and to some of the Jewish American under-diplomats in Berlin it was alarming, in addition to the random assaults on Jews and Americans by the newly formed Nazi SA, the brown-shirted storm-troopers who took it personally when anyone, including foreigners, failed to stop and deliver a snappy Nazi salute during a parade march.  But, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in America, too, particularly in the State Department at that time, and even in the attitude of the Dodds.  Martha, in particular, viewed Berlin, and larger Germany, as on the cusp of a renaissance lead by Hitler and the resurgence of hyper-nationalism, pride in country, reduced unemployment, and a general feeling of optimism.

Although Hitler was Chancellor at the time, the real power lay with the elderly President Hindenburg, who had the constitutional authority to appoint, or remove, the Chancellor, and more importantly had the support of the regular German Army.  Hitler’s power was growing, but he knew that Hindenburg would defeat him in an overt conflict.  Straightforward force would not work.  In the background of Dodd trying wrangle monetary guarantees from the Reichsbank and understand the German mindset concerning the Jews, and Martha’s sexual escapades with the media and diplomatic elite, Hitler was juggling the power struggles in Germany among the SA (Sturmabteilung or “Assault Division” a/k/a the brown-shirt, rag-tag Storm Troopers), the SS (Schutzstaffel or “Protection Squad” the black-clad elite troops of the Nazi Party), the Gestapo (an acronym of the GEheime STaatsPOlizei or “Secret State Police”), and the regular German Army (composed of the land forces “Wehrmacht” the navy “Kreigsmarine” and the air force “Luftwaffe”).

Ernst Rohm, the notorious homosexual and long-time friend of Hitler, headed the SA which was despised by the regular German Army and distrusted by the SS.  Conflicts between the Gestapo and the SS occurred frequently as well, including a fascinating account where one of Martha Dodd’s lovers, the first Gestapo head Rudolf Diels, had his personal residence ransacked by the local SS and his personal papers stolen.  In response, Diels organized Gestapo forces, went to the SS headquarters, surrounded it, and confronted the SS commander in his own office as he sat rifling through the papers of Diels that he had just stolen.  The confrontation was tense, and eventually it took Himmler and Goring to settle the matter (Goring had installed Diels and controlled the Gestapo at that time, while Himmler was head of the SS).  While it is not really possible to feel anything akin to sympathy for the head of the Gestapo, it seems that Diels had a small semblance of conscience, or at least was not cut from the same cloth as the pure psychopaths that succeeded him.  He went into exile at least twice for fear of being purged, and when Himmler finally replaced him it was with Reinhard Heydrich, dubbed by Hitler himself as “the Man with the Iron Heart.”  As Larson stated it, with Diels gone, the last trace of civility left the Gestapo.  NOTE:  Heydrich was played by actor Kenneth Branagh, and actor Stanley Tucci played Adolf Eichmann, in the excellent 2001 film Conspiracy detailing the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the “final solution” to the Jewish problem was formulated.

These things going on in the background, and the madness to come, were not perceptible to the Dodds, or to any outsiders who wandered into Germany at that time—other than Jews of course.  The Jewish population in Germany was small, and the overtly anti-Semitic laws began in small doses, mainly by excluding Jews from government, then from industry and business.  As this was going on, the sun still came up and the birds still sang in the Tiergarten, there was no disruption to the city, to the lifestyle of the Dodds (who had little sympathy in any event), and Hitler’s ultimate ends were far from clear, nor was he in power totally at the time.  Germans were weary from World War I, and the Treaty of Versailles had sapped the German spirit, but Hitler was beginning to strike the right chords.

Larson’s gift is that he sifted through the personal diaries, letters, correspondence, and other contemporaneous documents of the Dodds and those of their contemporaries, in order to weave a narrative that is personal and compelling with the looming backdrop of doom that the reader knows will come, but is not known by the Dodds.  To the Dodds, Hitler was a curiosity.  No established statesman or diplomate believed that he could sustain momentum, and certainly did not believe that he was capable of running a major European country surrounded by the likes of Hermann Goring, with his adolescent penchant for uniforms and absurd, lavish spending, or the hard-edged former chicken farmer Himmler (although the shrewd Goebbels did convey an understanding of how to acquire power and keep it).

The Dodds interacted socially and diplomatically with Goring, Goebbels, and other lesser Nazi officials.  Ambassador Dodd met with Hitler himself on several occasions, never quite sure what to make of the emotional outbursts, the seemingly irrational Jew-hatred, and the ever vehement protestations that the German people wanted peace, even though Hitler was clearly arming the military for conflict.  The gregarious Martha was introduced to Hitler in an odd attempt at a date-set-up by close aide Ernst Hanfstaengl, a Harvard graduate who distanced himself from the Nazis later, which ended in a polite Hitler kissing her hand, but otherwise showing no interest.

Martha, and to some extent Ambassador Dodd, seemed oblivious to the coming storm, but they soon found themselves experiencing life inside a militarized, irrational political surreality.  Journalists typically catch these winds early, and Berlin had several hangouts for journalists, intellectuals, and other avant-garde types that was frequented by Martha (William Shirer was a regular at these places as well).  These people, and Jewish friends of Martha’s (and of Dodds) spread unease at the warning signs that the reader can see, but for months Martha and Ambassador Dodd perceived no problems with Hitler.

The SA was always a thorn in Dodd’s side, with its fanatical brown-shirts seeding violence seemingly at random.  These were diplomatic headaches when Americans were attacked.  Other small harbingers emerged, such as the earnestness with which Germans were forced to snap a Nazi salute.  This was not a military phenomenon.  Citizens were encouraged, and did, salute each other in the Nazi style, and when Dodd refused to do it, he suffered social scorn but no physical harm because of his status as a diplomat, but failure of other citizens to show respect in this manner caused sometimes violent outbursts from the SA.

Later, more substantial was the atmosphere change in the country as a result of the surveillance and spying by the police.  This permeated the conscience of Germans, caused fear and distrust among them, resulted in neighbors informing on neighbors, and overall elevated the level of fear and hysteria in the country (similar to what America would go through with McCarthy-ism in the 1950s).  Even in the private residence of the Dodds, spontaneity of thought and conversation was stifled.  Even in Dodd’s beloved Tiergarten, he was able to walk and speak to other diplomats without fear of being surveilled, but even here, Dodd noticed when benches painted yellow appeared, those in the worst places in the park, reserved for Jews.  Dodd was a southerner, and an historian, and I kept expecting some thought from him regarding the parallels between how the Germans were treating Jews and how Americans treated Africans (my own father who grew up in the 1950’s can still remember seeing “Colored” and “White” water fountains at the county courthouse in Enid during his childhood), but if Dodd made such connections, it was not revealed in this book.

Dodd’s focus, of course, was on Adolf Hitler.  Hitler’s true character was revealed in mid-1934 when he finally resolved the brewing tension between the German Army and the SA.  SA leader Ernst Rohm was an old ally of Hitler’s but Rohm had ambitions, and wanted to consolidate military power.  Hitler was shrewd enough to know that he needed the support of the regular army in order to achieve total power.  Hitler resolved the issue through a devil’s bargain with Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg that guaranteed Hitler support from the regular Army upon the death of President Hindenburg in exchange for Hitler neutralizing Rohm and the SA.  Hitler betrayed his long-time friend, and orchestrated the so-called Night of the Long Knives, purging dozens of Nazi and government leaders, including Rohm, whom Hitler arrested personally.  When President Hindenburg died in August, 1934, Hitler seized total power in Germany.

The Dodds witnesses this first-hand.  They actually saw the long, black cars of the SS men as they surrounded homes; followed the purge, as executed by Goring and Goebbels, as it happened.  Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, who had weeks earlier given a speech critical of Hitler, was saved by his association with President Hindenburg, who was still alive at the time, but Papen was nevertheless placed under house arrest.  Dodd admired Papen’s bravery in delivering the “Marburg Speech” and drove by his house during the purge, seeing Papen’s son as he stared helplessly out the window.  Papen survived the purge, but two of his aides did not, and his son eventually found his way to the Dodds, telling Martha Dodd that he was heartened by the gesture of the Ambassador driving by.

As Hitler consolidated power, the Nazis became entrenched fully in German life from the summer of 1934 forward until the end of World War II.  Dodd’s stint as ambassador ended in 1937.  He continued to warn authorities of the dangers posed by Hitler, and also Italy and Japan; however, his career ended on a rather ignominious note when he was back in America, driving his car and struck a 4-year-old black girl, and then left the scene without checking on the girl.  She suffered severe injuries, but survived.  Dodd was charged with leaving the scene of the accident and found guilty, fined and ordered to pay for the child’s medical expenses.

This sad bit certainly besmirches Dodd’s character, perhaps rightly so, and Larson is to be commended for including it at the end of the book, even when the incident had nothing to do with Dodd’s duties as ambassador.  Larson’s book is indexed and end-noted as a history book might be, but it falls in the middle somewhere between straight-history texts and newspaper reporting—the area where art lies.  Larson provoked me to read more about the characters he presented which is, I suppose, one of the noble purposes of expression.  The Dodds were witnesses to the beginnings of events that would consume the lives of millions of people and affect generations to come.  Larson lets the reader have a glimpse into the face of it, as they saw it and lived it, and I think the world is better off for his effort.

*NOTE:  Erik Larson also wrote The Devil in the White City (2003), written in the same style as Beasts, which chronicled notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes amid the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  It, too, is an excellent read and highly recommended.

 

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Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571–November 15, 1630)

juxtaposition: an act or instance of placing close together or side by side, especially for comparison or contrast, e.g., I have been reading a fascinating book by physicist Lawrence M. Krauss titled A Universe from Nothing, which explores the fundamental nature of the universe, and specifically the intriguing idea that the universe may be a self-replicating system that creates itself from the energy in empty space (yes, it is a mind-blowing concept).

Of course, such books almost always explore basic scientific concepts, and give credit properly to the great minds that have come before. One of the great minds of old cited and recognized by Krauss is Johannes Kepler, a German mathematician and astronomer who lived from 1571-1630.  When a star burns itself out, and eventually explodes, it is called a supernova and it is among the most brilliant and brightest things in the universe.  The last supernova in our galaxy, witnessed from Earth, occurred in 1604 and was witnessed by Kepler.

This is a man who, a century before Isaac Newton, developed laws of planetary motion accurately.  However, the part that caught my attention was a blurb, almost in passing, where Krauss mentioned that Kepler also represented his own mother, successfully, in a witchcraft trial(!!)  I was so amazed by this that I had to look it up.  Sure enough, Kepler’s mother was accused of being a witch in 1617, spent fourteen months in prison, and was eventually tried and released in 1621, in part to a legal defense drawn up by Kepler.

It occurred to me that in this man’s lifetime, we saw exhibited the best of humankind in the form of soaring knowledge in mathematics, astronomy and application of the scientific method; and the worst of humankind in the form of witchcraft accusations fueled by human fear, ignorance, and reliance upon superstition.  In the end, the great Kepler conquered them all.


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DEAR ZACHARY:  A LETTER TO A SON ABOUT HIS FATHER (2008)

Of all of the tragic or tear-jerker films you have seen, this one will be at the top.  It is a true story told documentary style with real footage of the events and persons whose lives were affected by a serious of tragic events.

A young doctor, Andrew Bagby, was by all accounts a smart, positive person who touched a lot of lives, but he fell into a relationship with a mentally unstable woman named Shirley Turner. Dr. Bagby was shot and killed in Pennsylvania, and the woman was subsequently prosecuted.

However, she fled to Canada and that is where the story takes focus.  The woman was released on bail pending trial (with the assistance of a shady psychiatrist), and there were extradition delays as well; meanwhile, it turned out that she was actually pregnant with the child of the now-deceased Dr. Bagby—the man she was accused of murdering.  As the legal process dragged on, she had the child, Zachary.

This prompted a close friend of Dr. Bagby’s, filmmaker Kurt Keunne, to make a film about the life of Dr. Bagby that would be especially for Zachary to watch when he was older, so that he would know about his father.  Keunne interweaves old videos of Dr. Bagby when they were kids (Keunne was a filmmaker since he was a child, and Bagby would act in these early movies) with interviews of family and friends of Dr. Bagby, along with his parents who waged a titanic legal battle with Turner over custody of Zachary.

The story plays out as a legal drama, and its tragic denouement altered the landscape of the Canadian judicial system.  I won’t go into the details, but the parents of Dr. Bagby endured more heartache and tragedy than any two people deserve, and they emerge from it with grace and strength that is inspiring.  Keunne does a decent job presenting the story, but at times his filmmaking process is a little clumsy and amateurish (some of the editing is questionable, and his narrative at times seems a little forced and awkward).

However, he does a good enough job to do justice to this powerful story.  Be warned, though, that this movie is particularly poignant and hard to watch at times.


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THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

This film recounts the efforts of British mathematician Alan Turing to crack the Enigma code used by the Germans to encrypt messages during World War II.  Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (who did a great job as Khan in the last Star Trek movie), and the ensemble cast is solid, with Keira Knightley appearing as a love interest of sorts (Turing was a homosexual, which caused problems for him after the war).

This movie is well made, compelling, and historically important in several ways.  Turing shared that manner that geniuses often possess—social awkwardness, aloofness, single-minded determination—and director Morten Tyldum weaves those traits well into the backdrop of World War II, and Turing’s obsession to build a machine to crack the German code, no small feat considering the incredible number of combinations generated by the Enigma machine used by the Germans and the fact that they re-set the codes every day.  The window to crack any given message intercepted in a day was tiny.

The stakes were high, since London was actually getting bombed by the German Luftwaffe.  The British assembled a team of code-breakers and mathematicians, and it appeared that they sought to try to break the code with humans, but Turing felt that this was not possible—that only a machine could break the other machine.  So, he built one.

His machine was initially not powerful enough to crack Enigma, but with the help of some human cleverness, the British eventually did crack Enigma, and thus were able to, for a time, intercept and decode key messages and communications by the Germans.  Of course, cracking the code was itself subject to secrecy, and for that reason not every German attack could be thwarted.  This resulted in some profound ethical choices for the codebreakers, which is presented well in the film.  At the end of the film, it tells us that historians estimate that Turing’s efforts in cracking Enigma shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives.

Yet, things did not turn out well for Turing after the war.  He was arrested for indecency (soliciting homosexual acts) and given the choice of two years in prison or chemical castration. He chose the chemicals, and took them for a year before committing suicide in 1954 at the age of 41.

Such a tragic end to a brilliant mind, one of the fathers of the modern computer, and a patriot instrumental in winning the greatest war for the Allies.  In 2013, Turing was granted a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated.”


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THE BRIDGE (2006)

I remember when this documentary film came out in 2006 because of the controversy on how it was made.  I meant to watch it back then, but never got around to it for some reason.  It was probably for the best since I think a film like this is sometimes better digested with age.

The topic of the film is suicide, but director/producer/writer Eric Steel approached it from an interesting angle, by not focusing exclusively on people.  Instead, he focused on a place: the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge is a modern structural marvel, but it also attracts “jumpers” by the score every year. Steel conceived of the innovative, or dare I say rather ghoulish, idea of filming the bridge every day for a year to capture jumpers and then investigating their stories.  He did this in 2004, and during filming a person jumped on average every 15 days.  Steel’s camera crew captured almost every one of them.

The film consists primarily of interviews with friends and family of the jumpers, interspersed with the jumpers themselves as they spent their final moments on, and then off, the bridge. The effect is powerful, particularly the suicide of Eugene “Gene” Sprague, whose jump, shown unedited at the end, was caught in its entirety by Steel’s camera’s, and was the culmination of 90 minutes of fretful pacing and courage-building before he decided to free-fall to his death.

Although the idea of setting up cameras to catch these moments is distasteful, and in the abstract reeks of crass exploitation, Steel presents their stories with enough melancholy grace to forgive the intrusion.  Nor is the film all gloom and doom.  Some people were actually saved or prevented from jumping by passers-by (Wiki says that the camera crew actually prevented six jumpers), and Steel interviewed one man, Kevin Hines, who jumped in 2000, but survived when he changed his mind mid-air and landed on his feet.  He was severely injured, but saved from drowning by a black seal that was swimming below him.

There is most likely nothing that can compare to the sensation of falling mid-air on the way to certain death to alter one’s perspective on life, and there is some indication that jumpers regret their decisions in mid-air.  Said suicide attempt survivor Ken Baldwin, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except
for having just jumped.”

However, for others, like Mr. Sprague, there appeared to be no desire to stop it, just simple acceptance of what lay at the end of the fall.  In the end, there are no answers, of course, nor any particularly insightful observations about why some people commit suicide.

But, personal stories that end in tragedy told in a poignant way are powerful reminders of the human condition.  Steel’s blunt glimpse into the lives of the troubled does a passable job of what art is supposed to do, make an imprint upon the mind of the viewer.

The Bridge is tough viewing, but worthwhile.


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Alex Honnold (b. August 7, 1985)

awe-inspiring: causing awe; spectacular; magnificent, e.g., the free-solo mountain climbing of Alex Honnold.  There are thousands of mountain/rock climbers in the world.  Of those thousands, only a small percentage have the skill and physical prowess to scale “big walls” which are enormous, mostly vertical mountain faces with long ascents that normally require more than a day to complete.

Among this very small group of skilled climbers, free climbing these difficult walls involves incredible focus and physical endurance.  They use ropes and safety harnesses only in case of a fall, not to assist in the climb.  In almost all cases, the climber’s skill gets him/her to the top and the ropes are only there for safety.

But, out of this select group, there are only a handful of climbers in the world like Alex Honnold. He scales these sheer rock faces freehand and alone, using only his hands, rubber climbing shoes, and a bag of chalk dust hanging in a pouch down the small of his back; as he ascends hundreds of feet in the air, he does not use ropes, harnesses, or safety gear of any kind.

Climbing in this manner is known as “free-soloing” and less than one-percent of climbers ever attempt free-soloing at all (most consider it irresponsible), but Honnold is somewhat of a prodigy at it, seemingly oblivious to the danger and ever-cool the higher he goes.  He prefers monstrously tall walls that are incredibly difficult, most of which take hours of strenuous focus to climb.  He is considered to be one of, if not the greatest free-solo climbers to have ever lived.

Take in the first 30 seconds of THIS clip showing Honnold free-solo climbing El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico.  It is stunning to see him climbing the sheer face, unaided by safety equipment.  Yet, he has performed about 1,000 or more of these climbs, including THESE of Astroman and Rostrum at Yosemite, and even 60 Minutes profiled Honnold as he free-soloed Sentinel (the shot at the 9:45 mark leaves me speechless).

His climbing style is slow and controlled, which lends itself well to free-solo climbs, but I am amazed that a human being is capable of doing what he does. It does not seem possible. Many of Honnold’s predecessors have died during free-solo climbs, but this does not deter him. In fact, Honnold is joined by a handful of other free-solo climbers including Stephanie Davis, who views free-solo climbing as a psychologically profound experience. I bet it is, and one that I shall never experience!


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Irena Sendler (1910-2008)

cour•age: the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear, e.g., IRENA SENDLER, 1910-2008, a Polish nurse and social worker who had the bad luck of living in occupied Poland during World War II.

As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she was able to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for outbreaks of typhus.  Under the guise of inspecting the Ghetto for sanitary conditions, she began smuggling Jewish children out of the Ghetto where her helpers would furnish them with false identification and places to live.  It is estimated that she saved approximately 2,500 children this way.

She was eventually caught, and tortured by the Gestapo in the form of brutal beatings, fracturing her feet and legs.  She endured the beatings and refused to betray her colleagues or the children that she had saved.  For this, the Germans sentenced her to death by firing squad. Members of her organization, The Zegota, were able to bribe German guards on the way to the execution, and for the remainder of the war she lived in hiding but continued to aid Jewish children in Poland.

She is quoted as saying, “Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.”  In 2007, the Polish government nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize.  She did not win.  That honor went to Al Gore for his slide show on global warming.


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David Boies (b. March 11, 1941)

per•se•ver•ance (noun): steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement. E.g., David Boies, raised in farming country in rural Illinois, and who did not start reading until he was in third grade, and only then slowly and with great difficulty.

When his mother read to him at an early age, he memorized what she said because he could not follow what was on the page.  As an older child, he read comic books because they had colorful pictures.  He knows now that the problem he had reading was the result of his dyslexia.

But, was it a problem?  This is the idea explored by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book David & Goliath.  Are “problems” really problems?  Does adversity affect us adversely, or does it make us stronger?  The resilient Boies developed a prodigious memory, and he noticed the mannerisms of people when they talked.

Although he can barely, to this day, read a single book in a year, he is one of the most devastating trial lawyers and cross-examiners in the country.


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Eratosthenes (276 BC-195/94 BC)

in•tel•li•gence (noun): capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; e.g., Eratosthenes, a Greek who was born in 276 B.C., at a time when no modern instruments had been invented; yet he managed to calculate the circumference of the Earth without leaving his house in Egypt.

He did this by finding out that a well in a town south of his left no shadow at the same moment that it did leave a shadow in his city of Alexandria.  He measured the angle of the shadow in Alexandria, hired a slave to walk between the two towns, then multiplied that distance by how many times the angle goes into 360°–which according to his calculations was about 39,690 km. We now know that the circumference of the Earth is 40,075 km.

He also was able to calculate the tilt of the axis of the Earth (again, with remarkable accuracy), and may have calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun, as well as invented the leap day.  He is considered the father of Geography.


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Richard Dale Wood (1948-1968)

char•ac•ter (noun): qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity. E.g., RICHARD DALE WOOD, a boy from small town Indiana, who I never net, but whose life intersected with my father’s for a short time during 1968 in Vietnam.

In 2011, I wrote the following on Richard’s section of the Virtual Wall:  My father (also named James Hankins) served in Vietnam from February 5, 1968 to February 5, 1969 (U.S. Army, 25th Infantry).  He rarely discusses it except when I ask.  He told me recently of an incident where one day he and his men were involved in a firefight and got overrun.  Choppers were called in to evacuate the area.  When they arrived, dad sent his men ahead while he and few others stayed behind firing.

Dad was eventually the last one and was in a little foxhole-type ground indention when an NVA officer struck him in the back of the head/neck area, nearly knocking him unconscious.  To this day, dad does not know why he was not shot and killed.  Perhaps the Officer wanted to take him prisoner, and he surely would have, except that two soldiers came back for my dad, shot and killed the NVA officer, and each of them grabbed my dad under the arms and carried him to the chopper.

In the chopper, dad says that he remembered running, but the two soldiers laughed and said that he did not run at all, they carried him back about 30 yards to the chopper.  The two soldiers who saved my dad that day were a guy named Gutierrez and Richard Wood.  Dad told me that Gutierrez was ‘blown up’ after that and was KIA, while Richard Wood was also KIA later.  Dad does not use computers, but I searched and found that the ‘Richard Wood’ that saved my dad’s life that day was Richard Dale Wood from Goldsmith, Indiana.

On behalf of my sister and myself, I’d like to thank Richard Dale Wood, and let anyone else reading this know that Richard Wood is a true hero, and that there are at least several Okies who would not be here today if it was not for him. God bless, Richard, and thanks.

NOTE: Richard Wood was killed in Vietnam on May 13, 1968.  He was just 19-years-old.  Fellow soldier Robert Wrigley was by Richard’s side when he died, and described Richard’s death on the Wall.  Richard’s unit was sweeping a village loaded with NVA soldiers and was hit with RPG and AK-47 fire.  Several of the men ducked behind a hedgerow, bullets flying over their heads. Richard stood up slightly and was hit in the throat.  They dragged Richard back to the track, only to see the .50 cal gunner get shot in the head and fall into the track.  Two KIA in less than a minute.  Through happenstance, my father made it through his full tour, and back home.


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Sir Nicholas George Winton (b. May 19, 1909)

char•ac•ter (noun): qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity. E.g., Sir Nicholas Winton, a lesser-known figure from World War II, who organized the rescue of over 650 children destined for the Nazi death camps.

Winton told no one about what he had done—for over 50 years–and it was not until his wife found a scrapbook in their attic in 1988 that his act of compassion was known.  Later that year, the BBC aired a program where an unaware Winton was sitting in the audience—surrounded by the now-adult persons that he had saved.  This moment was captured on film, and is a profound event as one could imagine.


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Wallace Henry Hartley (1878-1912)

char•ac•ter (noun): qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity. E.g., Wallace Henry Hartley, an Englishman with an affinity for music, who was employed as a musician on cruise ships.

As fate would have it, the music agency through which Hartley sought employment assigned him to be the bandmaster for the White Star Line ship RMS Titanic on April 12, 1912.  Hartley was portrayed in the James Cameron movie Titanic as gathering his musicians to play “Nearer, My God to Thee” on the deck of the ship as it sank in order to calm the panicked passengers facing certain doom.

By all accounts, this portrayal appears to be accurate, and verified by eyewitnesses.  One survivor claimed to have seen Hartley and his band playing, when three of them were washed off the deck, while five others held onto the railing for a short time just before Hartley said, “Gentlemen, I bid you farewell!”  None of the musicians survived, and Hartley’s body was recovered in the ocean two weeks after the Titanic sank, fully dressed with his violin case strapped to his body.

Hartley’s violin was found in 2006, in the attic of a home in Britain.  Painstaking efforts to authentic the violin paid off, and the violin was confirmed to be Hartley’s.  The violin was auctioned off over the weekend, fetching a winning bid of 1.1 million pounds ($1.7 million).  In the wake of the Titanic disaster, a newspaper at the time reported, “the part played by the orchestra on board the Titanic in her last dreadful moments will rank among the noblest in the annals of heroism at sea.”


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GRAVITY (2013)

This stripped-down space/disaster movie takes IMAX 3-D to a new level, much like Prometheus (2012) did a year ago, and Sunshine (2007), with its magnificent visuals, before that.  However, where Prometheus was visually stunning in conjunction with its Alien pedigree which resulted in the spectacular visuals complementing the storyline, Gravity implements visual 3-D effects that
have a separate, powerful presence in the movie, almost like another, unseen character that interacts with the audience in a very entertaining and powerful way.  I cannot think another movie where the audience is immersed into the story visually to the degree that the director accomplished in Gravity.

The story is a streamlined space-disaster flick featuring essentially just two characters, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who float in space on a routine repair mission.  However, it seems that there are a lot of things orbiting Earth, such as satellites, and when one of them is blow up it causes bits of debris to travel in a rain-storm through space.  A ripple effect ensues wherein space shrapnel is sent hurtling toward our unwary astronauts.

The title is appropriate, because without gravity, as Newton told us, things will continue to travel unless something stops them—including astronauts.  Our two astronauts (actually three at the beginning) work in the serene silence of space against the backdrop of Earth until the deadly stream of space-junk comes their way—and it will continue coming their way every ninety minutes as it orbits Earth.  What follows is one visually harrowing, and deadly, predicament after the other for Bullock and Clooney.

But the thing that separates Gravity from other films is the amazing sense that the audience is floating up there with the characters.  The 3-D effect is astonishing on the big screen, and once the havoc starts it just gets better.  Things float in space, which means that there are a bunch of objects floating around most of the time, including tears cried by Bullock in one powerful scene.

Bullock delivers a good performance, and Gravity would have been a decent movie without the effects, but with the large screen and the 3-D effects, it becomes something special.  This is a movie that must be seen on IMAX 3-D.  If you rent it later, you will miss a lot of what makes this movie a special experience.

NOTE:  One thing about IMAX is that it is LOUD.  Very loud.  Gravity uses a common movie technique of building dramatic music to a crescendo followed by abrupt silence.  The effect is startling and powerful, but it used a bit too much in Gravity for my taste, and the crescendo is so loud as to be a little bit uncomfortable.  That is about the extent of my criticism of this movie, which is otherwise terrific.


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Doctor Sleep (2013)

*Note:  spoilers in this review

Stephen King published The Shining in 1977.  About a year or two later, my father was a police officer in Enid at the time, and one day he brought a battered copy of another Stephen King book, The Stand, home and read it.  After he finished reading it, I remember him telling my mom just how good it was.  I picked it off our book shelf and read it myself, then acquired a copy of The Shining and read it.  I must have been about 11 or 12, and have been a Stephen King junkie ever since.

I remember when the movie version of The Shining came out in 1980.  We were living in Tulsa at the time, and I talked my mom into taking me to see it.  She agreed because she knew I had read the book and thought it was so good.  It was raining that day, and there was picket line because the theater employees were on strike for some reason.  As we stood in line, another patron behind us whispered, “I can’t believe that woman is taking her son to see this.”  My mom toughed it out, though, and I got to see Jack Nicholson give a great performance as Jack Torrance, the troubled alcoholic writer in the story (although the movie was not nearly as good as the book, they hardly ever are).

Those early books by King are among the best reading experiences of my life (in addition to The Shining, books like The Stand and ‘Salem’s Lot stick with a young reader).  I think King lost some of the magic along the way with a string of good, but not great, novels.

In his latest effort, Doctor Sleep, he takes a dangerous path by revisiting the little boy from The Shining, Danny Torrance, who, we find out, is now a middle-aged, shiftless alcoholic, but who also still has his gift of the shining.  Dan ultimately finds a girl, Abra, whose shine dwarfs his own, and as it happens with gifts like that, she is pursued by evil beings who want the gift for themselves.

I say that King’s path here is dangerous because adding to, or building on, a story so monumentally well done as The Shining is an undertaking almost certain to end in failure, as the sequel is so rarely as good as the original.  This is the case with Doctor Sleep, I’m afraid.  To describe the book as a failure is probably too harsh, but it certainly does not pack any of the psychological or emotional resonance of its prequel.

The bad guys this time around, a group of sort-of-dead semi-immortal beings who call themselves the True Knot, are drawn to Abra (and Dan) because they feed on humans who have the shining—and Abra has it in abundance.  The story centers on the lives of Abra and Dan, and how their lives intersect with the True Knot, led by probably the most interesting character in the book—the beautiful and deadly Rose the Hat.  Rose and the True Knot inhale steam (the shining) from kids they kidnap and torture (intense pain makes the shining/steam more pure).

Part of the problem for me with this book is the ease with which the True Knot are dispatched. We are led to believe that these creatures have been among us for centuries or longer, have acquired billions of dollars, and own property all over the world.  Beings with these sorts of resources and experience are not so easily dispatched.  King is usually good at being “fair” to the bad guys in his books, meaning that if the bad guys are formidable then it takes extraordinary measures to defeat them.  Usually there is little hokiness.  Some of tricks played by Dan and Abra against Rose and the True Knot just seem clumsy and amateurish, things that would not work against such formidable foes.

Also, the True Knot is apparently susceptible to the measles, even though they have not ever had any diseases before.  This just seems silly, and sillier still the way that the members of the True Knot abandon Rose when things go wrong.  Again, these are beings who have been together for centuries, they have supernatural abilities and power, they perform rituals and chants about how the True Knot can never be undone, yada, yada, yada, and then at the first sign of trouble they all cut and run. It did not make any sense to me.

Another irritating aspect of this book is its heavy description of alcoholics and the AA protocol. Dan uses alcohol to dampen his shining, but at some point I thought I was reading an AA brochure.  Drug and alcohol addiction can be compelling story lines in books, or powerful character flaws—agents for change both good and bad–but mostly I find those kinds of story lines sad and tedious.  Personal self-destruction themes can be interesting and compelling, but I found it kind of trite here.  These themes are powerful because it is often unclear whether the character can overcome it.  When it is in doubt, the reader wants to see how it plays out.

Here, there was never any real question that Dan would conquer his alcoholism with the help of AA.  The way Dan lands in a quaint New England town and lucks into a job with the city, and then at a hospice, seems a little contrived, and King’s fixation on goofy trains does not work for me (nor, too, the way he gives goofy names to members of the True Knot).

That said, the book is not that bad.  I am probably too critical because of my old experience with The Shining and how good it was.  Some of my disappointment might have to do with the contrast between the Danny character in The Shining, a scared boy who is smart and possesses a powerful ability of the mind, and the middle-aged Dan, who is a raging alcoholic asshole most of the time with bits of contrived redemption thrown in by King.  I liked young Danny and felt empathy for him. I never really liked Dan.

During the course of the story, we do find out a little bit more about Jack Torrance (and Dan), who will forever be immortalized by Jack Nicholson’s persona from the movie, and also some of the creepy creatures from the Overlook Hotel make unwanted appearances.

Overall, Doctor Sleep is less friendly nostalgia and more incomplete (and uninspired) character study.  Like the aging process does to people, King has gotten more wordy and scattered in his books since he started.  His early books, such as Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, weaved tight writing with plot-lines that packed a punch.  Like an alcoholic, I got a taste of that when I was a kid and keep coming back for more.  King is capable of delivering the old magic, he just didn’t do it with Doctor Sleep.

NOTE:  King gives a shout-out to my home town of Enid, Oklahoma (page 160) when he mentioned that one of the characters was from there!  I got a kick out of seeing that (much like my surprise when Enid was mentioned in one of the Jurassic Park movies).  Also, when I was a kid, in my mind I thought of “the shining” as referring to a person who had the mental ability, not as the ability itself.  I think King meant it as a reference to the ability, not a person.  It is funny how, after all these years, I am thinking of the phrase “the shining” in a different way.


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THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES (2007)

I am a big fan of the “found footage” genre of movies.  The basic premise is that a cache of video tapes have been found, and the movie revolves around whatever action is depicted in the tapes.  The Blair Witch Project jump-started the genre, and was followed up with Cloverfield, the Paranormal Activity series (yes, they are all the same, but I like them), and then the other movies that followed (a neat little sleeper titled Grave Encounters is worth a watch).

One of the most disturbing that I’ve come across is The Poughkeepsie Tapes.  It chronicles a serial killer through video tapes found at his house, and also through narrative of law enforcement and (most disturbing of all) one of his victims who survived.  This film is notable for the savagery of the killer, but also for his cleverness and manipulation of the system.  This is a work of fiction, but is presented as a real case (a common movie device that heightens the “reality” of the movie).

As with most of the found-footage movies (and movies in general), sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.  I think this film works.  Serial killers are fascinating in any event, and a well-done movie about one is just entertaining.  I would warn you that this film is disturbing, along the lines of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, in its stark depiction of violence, but ultimately it does what good movies do, which is to entertain and move the viewer.

NOTE: I have discovered that there are a multitude of short films (most are 3-15 minutes long) generated by indie filmmakers.  I think the Oscars feature a category for them each year, but I never understood how someone was supposed to watch one since they never appear in theaters.  As it turns out, YouTube is made for these types of films, and I have been watching some of them.  Search “short horror film” on YouTube and they will appear (I like the horror genre, but there are thousands of short films on YouTube of every genre).  These are a quick diversion during the day, and some of them are nicely done and offer up some good scares, such as Bedfellows, There Are Monsters, and He Dies at the End.  The “babysitter” theme is always a staple of the genre, and Red Balloon is one of the better of these.  Enjoy.


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Justice Harry Andrew Blackmun (1908-1999)

char•ac•ter (noun): qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity. E.g., the elderly man who, back in the 1970’s, sat in the back row and watched a jury trial in Oklahoma County in the courtroom of the Hon. Floyd Martin.

The State had accused the defendant of rape.  Unable to afford counsel, the defendant was represented by a public defender, a young lawyer named Garvin Isaacs.  The defendant asserted that he was walking down the street and spied the young lady on her balcony, where she was smoking pot and drinking wine.  She beckoned him up.  Inside the apartment, the two continued to smoke pot and drink wine, and the woman put the record Hot Buttered Soul by Isaac Hayes on the record player.  As things began to get amorous, the woman’s boyfriend knocked on the front door and demanded to be let in.  The client dressed quickly and ran out, only to be charged with rape.

Garvin introduced into evidence a wine bottle, and two glasses, one that had her fingerprints on it, and one that had the fingerprints of the client.  He then played some tunes for the jury off the Hot Buttered Soul album.  When Garvin began to cross-examine the complaining witness concerning her boyfriend—which would be the motive for crying rape and a fact relevant to show bias–the trial court refused to allow it.  When Garvin persisted, arguing that Davis v. Alaska, 415 U.S. 308 (1974) allowed such cross-examination, the trial court became irritable, and told Garvin that he was the worst lawyer that the judge had ever seen, and if he kept asking those questions he would be put in jail.

The elderly man watched this in the courtroom, but did not say anything.  After the evening recess, Garvin went to the judge’s chambers and demanded to make an offer of proof the next morning, and permission to cross-examine the complaining witness.  The elderly man was again present and listened carefully to the exchange between Garvin and the trial judge.  The next day, when the trial judge took the bench, he announced that his ruling concerning the cross-examination of the complaining witness had been mistaken, and that Garvin would be allowed to ask those questions.  The trial judge gave no reason for the reversal of his prior ruling.

The client was acquitted.

Unknown to Garvin at the time, the elderly man who had seemed so interested in the legal question that arose during the trial was Justice Harry Blackmun, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1970-1994), and a vote in the majority in the Davis case, who was in Oklahoma City for a legal conference.  No one knows whether Justice Blackmun discussed the matter with Judge Martin, but I like to think that Justice Blackmun had a hand in directing the proper, real-life application of Davis in an Oklahoma courtroom.


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LT. COL. CHARLES WHITE WHITTLESEY (1884-1921)

char•ac•ter (noun): qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity. E.g., Lt. Colonel Charles White Whittlesey, who graduated from Williams College in 1905 (voted “third brightest man” in his class), and then from Harvard Law School in 1908.  He formed a law partnership soon thereafter in New York City.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I, which prompted the young lawyer to take a leave of absence from practicing law and enlist in the Army.  By late 1918, Major Whittlesey found himself in France fighting Germans as the commander of a 554-member mixed battalion of soldiers that was cut off from supply lines and subject to fierce attack at the bottom of a steep ravine.  For five straight days, commander Whittlesey maintained his position and refused to surrender to superior German numbers, despite no provisions for his men and relentless enemy attacks using snipers, hand grenades and flame throwers.

On the fourth day, his battalion was completely surrounded by German forces, had no rations, and almost half his men were either killed or wounded.  When the German commander offered terms of surrender, legend has it that Maj. Whittlesey responded, “Go to Hell!” Maj. Whittlesey himself declared that he simply said nothing at all because no response was necessary, although he did order white sheets removed (they had been placed as signals for allied aircraft to drop supplies) so that they would not be mistaken for a sign of surrender.

Later that night, reinforcements arrived and the Germans retreated.  Only 194 men were able to walk out of the ravine where they had been pinned.  The press dubbed these men “The Lost Battalion” and those that walked out with Maj. Whittlesey credited him personally for sustaining them during the siege through the sheer force of his will.  For his actions, Maj. Whittlesey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.


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THE PURGE (2013)

There are some movies that a viewer just naturally expects to be bad, like Fast & Furious 6.  I noticed that this movie (Furious 6) actually did well on Rotten Tomatoes, so I gave it a shot over the weekend.  It turned out to be horrible, full of clichéd themes, groan-inducing one-liners, insipid plot-lines filled with holes large enough to accommodate one of The Rock’s biceps, and was just such an overall bad movie that when I left the theater I was not surprised in the least.

Yep, I thought, should have known.

On the other hand, there are movies like The Purge, which seem to have original plot-lines, decent actors, and a budget to make it a good film.  The Purge refers to a 12-hour period of time (from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.) in a future America where civil authorities stand down and allow citizens to “purge” their inner-aggression in any way they see fit.  During this time period, any crime or act, including murder, is decriminalized.  There are no police, ambulances, or fire trucks to interfere with the actions of the citizenry.  There is only absolute anarchy for a full 12 hours.  We are told that this America is virtually crime-free and prosperous, largely because of the release-of-aggression outlet provided by the annual purge.

This is an interesting thought, and one that a viewer would think might provide a filmmaker with plenty of material to tell a compelling, ethically-ambiguous (or not) cautionary tale of how otherwise normal citizens might act if allowed to indulge in criminal behavior without any consequences from the government.

Director James DeMonaco (The Negotiator, Assault on Precinct 13, and Jack) tells the story of the Purge through the experience of the Sandin family, headed by James (played by Ethan Hawke) and Mary (played by Lena Headey).  I have never been a fan of Hawke (the guy just reminds me of a ferret, and he just does not have a strong enough personality to carry a film as a leading man), but I had high expectations of Headey.  She was in 300 (the queen), and also
starred in an eerie sleeper called The Broken (2008) which was a moody thriller in the string of “mirror” movies that cropped up a few years ago.

James sells security systems, which basically entails metal covers on the windows and doors, along with video surveillance.  He presses the button, and his house is covered before the Purge begins.  What happens next is a series of idiotic actions by the characters, insipid dialogue, and improbable situations that follow one after the other.  All of this gets started when the Sandin’s son sees a video monitor of the street and notices an injured black man pleading for help.  The kid hits the security system code and raises the metal door long enough for the man to enter the house.  The people chasing the man the converge upon the Sandin’s home, wanting their prey.

What follows is a third-rate version of the The Strangers (2008), which made no pretense to be anything other than what it was, rather than an interesting exploration of the moral and ethical aspects of the Purge.  James and Mary make one nonsensical decision after the other while violent strangers enter their home.  The strangers bent on “purging” wear creepy masks (just like in the movie The Strangers) and have the same nonchalant demeanors and casual attitude toward violence and their own safety.

In other words, these are not otherwise normal citizens wanting to try purging, they are simply sociopaths taking advantage of the situation.  This might make for a decent enough horror movie, but it has already been done with The Strangers, and why then make up the movie-vehicle of the Purge as a plot device?  It seems to serve no purpose other than to create a simple home-invasion horror movie, and weak one at that.

Hawke goes through the paces as a timid idiot (the viewer sits wondering if this guy will ever grow a pair, or make a normal decision in the situation), and most disappointing of all, Headey fairs no better, bumbling around in the dark, sobbing and hand-wringing until the end when she delivers one horrible one-liner after the other in an unsatisfying and totally hokey ending.

Normally, I would not waste the effort of reviewing a horrible movie (ala Fast & Furious 6), but The Purge really missed an opportunity to treat us to an interesting treatment of an original concept.  DeMonaco has never really distinguished himself as a talented director, and he has certainly not helped his cause with this dreck.


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MUD (2013)

This movie featuring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon has maintained an amazingly high rating (98%) with critics on Rotten Tomatoes and almost as well with audiences (87%).  Movies typically do not score that high without a good reason, and this one is no exception.  It is just a very good movie.

McConaughey plays the titular character, a ne’er-do-well who is holed-up on an island and living in a boat that has been deposited in a tree during a long-ago hurricane.  Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, go exploring and find the boat—and Mud—resulting in the chain of events that take the viewer along for an unexpectedly powerful story ride that touches upon deep, emotional themes concerning love lost, true love, divorce, and other powerful truisms of relationships between men and women, as well as human nature regarding revenge and justice.

The amazing thing about this movie is that all of those adult themes are illustrated powerfully from the point of view of Ellis—a 14-year-old boy struggling to find his way in southern poverty with his trailer-park orphan friend, Neckbone.  Bringing adult themes home in a powerful way through the focal point of a child is very tough to do as a filmmaker (I can recall Pan’s Labyrinth as one example).  Director Jeff Nichols does it in style.

The other noticeable aspect of this film is the incredibly strong performances by the supporting cast.  Credit goes to the actors, but also to the producers and director of the film for making a story where every character has an important piece of the story to tell.  I do not recall another film where the supporting actors were so well-rounded.  There were no throw-away characters in this movie like one might see in an action-adventure film where the bad-guy minions contribute nothing to the plot other than to get killed and/or beat up by the star.

In Mud, the characters face real problems and their actions go as one might imagine they would in real life.  Although McConaughey and Witherspoon are the big names here, and they both do an exceptional job, the central focus of the movie—and the character who steals the show—is Ellis played by Tye Sheridan.  Life happens to Ellis.  Sometimes he understands it, sometimes he doesn’t, but the audience understands it and empathizes with him every step of the way.

At bottom, Mud is more a coming-of-age story revolving around Ellis than it is a crime drama revolving around McConaughey, and it works on that level in an exceptional way.  Prior to Mud, the breakout movie of the season was The Place Beyond the Pines with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper.  However, whereas Mud weaved a compelling story into a tight and simple
plotline, Pines meandered way too long into three distinct acts that did not work well together for the viewer despite the solid acting.

Some critics have called Mud a capstone career-achievement for McConaughey, but I think he has many more good films left, and I would not be surprised to see more of Sheridan in the future. Mud is just good filmmaking, an increasingly rare thing to see at the movies these days.


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ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

Jessica Chastain has been making the rounds and getting a lot of buzz about this movie, so I thought I would check it out myself.  It was always a puzzle to me—a very frustrating puzzle—why it took so long to catch Bin Laden (UBL as he is designated in the movie).  UBL orchestrated and executed the most stunning and audacious attack ever on U.S. soil (yes, I think 9/11 surpasses Pearl Harbor in this regard, perhaps a generational thing).  The attack happened on September 11, 2001; yet, the SEAL team did not find and kill him until May 2, 2011.  How is it possible, with the resources of the U.S. military and intelligence apparatus, that it took so long to find UBL and take him out?

Well, Zero Dark Thirty provides a glimpse of the reasons why, and it isn’t pretty.  Some of the reasons have to do with the ultra-secretive structure of Al Quaida (AQ), the fact that members are fractured and compartmentalized without a clear knowledge of the hierarchy, the fact that members are ideologues who are highly resistant to cooperate or divulge information, and the overall intelligence gathering difficulties inherent in the dysfunctional societies in the third-world middle-eastern countries in which they operate.

But, none of that really made sense to me.  Despite these obstacles, I could never comprehend how the power of the U.S. military could not catch him in a timely fashion.  I always thought that President Bush should organize a 100-team unit of the best military Special Forces men we have, give them an unlimited budget, and give them a single order with every other consideration secondary: catch and kill UBL.  If that had been done, I can’t imagine that such a force would not have caught UBL within a few months.

As it is, we are treated to what appears to me to be CIA ineptitude and slow progress and—perhaps most disturbing—very little resources directed to finding UBL.  We are led to believe that the government is spending billions to try and find UBL, but what the movie portrays is only a handful of CIA agents working on it, including Maya (played by Chastain), and even then they have to grovel and scrounge for the simplest of resources such as assets in Pakistan to monitor leads.  Although Maya and her team are earnest and dedicated, it seems that no one else in the Government is that interested in finding UBL.

The story is not so much about UBL, as it is about Maya’s trials and tribulations in hunting him down.  We are told that she was recruited out of high school by the CIA, and during her 12 years with the CIA she did nothing but track UBL. Uh…what?  The U.S. government picks a high school kid to lead the hunt for UBL, and drags its feet at every turn when she needs resources to do that job? Something just does not compute here.

Maya shows up in the early days after 9/11 to an interrogation camp where detainees are tortured by the CIA through beatings, water-boarding, hanging by the wrists, isolation in a locked and cramped box, etc.  The torture she sees is disturbing, and she appears to be uncomfortable with it at times and seems conflicted, but she makes no effort to stop it, and indeed reaps the benefits of it through the information gathered.

I thought one of the interesting aspects of her character would be how she deals with the apparent hypocrisy of using torture while her government condemns it when other countries engage in the practice.  But, if Maya was conflicted or had any thoughts on that subject, she kept it to herself.

The “intelligence gathering” by the CIA just seems laughable at times.  One of Maya’s fellow agents arranged a meeting with a person who was believed to be a physician with access to UBL and his inner circle.  This person was to be bribed with $25 million to cooperate with the CIA. The meeting place is at a secure military base in the Middle East.  Tension mounts as we wait for him to show.  CIA agents, military attaches, and White House staffers stand around playing pocket pool until a car approaches, kicking up a dust trail.  The CIA agent who arranged the meeting is ecstatic.  The car approaches the gate, but balks.  She is so concerned that it may turn around that she orders the base commander to just let it in without a security search, with the idea of hand searching them when they get inside.  I was just shaking my head watching this.  How could there be such a lapse in security, and how could it be possible that a commander would allow it, no matter what some CIA agent said?  Of course, the car is laden with explosives and ends up killing many officials and agents at the base.

The raid on UBL’s house in Pakistan is strange as well.  For one, neither Maya nor anyone else in the CIA even knew for sure that UBL was there.  It was clear enough from the surveillance that a high profile target was there, someone who wanted to avoid detection, but they had no idea that it was actually UBL, even surmising that it was perhaps a heavy-hitter drug dealer or a lesser AQ leader.  Maya is portrayed as the only one who had unwavering faith that it was in fact UBL.  This is one of the goofy aspects of the movie in my view.  Of course, the viewer knows how the story played out, and that UBL was in fact at the house, but based upon what we see in the movie, the hesitation by Maya’s bosses at the CIA and the White House to simply accept her conclusion without some proof seems completely justified.  This leaves the viewer watching an exasperated Maya trying to get authorization for the raid that we all know should happen, but running into a bureaucratic brick wall.  In reality, however, her supervisors were probably acting prudently and responsible.

Maya eventually convinces her bosses and the White House that a raid is worth it, and it commences for the last part of the film.  The SEAL team conducts a night raid on the compound, flying two helicopters from Afghanistan across the border into Pakistan, into what is basically a residential neighborhood in the city of Abbottabad.  One of the helos crashes and a third is called in to extract the second team while the downed helo is blown up.

But, the strange thing is that the residents of the compound are seen to be surprised and asleep.  This makes no sense because two helicopters just landed in their front yard—one of them crashing—and the SEALS make entry by blowing the doors off the hinges as they intrude into the house.  It made no sense to me how a terrorist of UBL’s caliber would not have been alerted and either staged a strong counterattack or had a bug-out plan.  The SEALS surely gave him enough time with their loud entrance.  Did UBL just get complacent?  Did he really have no plan?  The film does not explore any of this weirdness, choosing instead to resort to standard movie schlock by showing the gung-ho SEALS doing their thing, with a finally vindicated Maya confirming UBL’s corpse at the end.

This film seemed to be aimed at touching a patriotic nerve through the dogged efforts of the plucky Maya, who overcame tragedy and bureaucratic inertia to finally achieve her goal of getting UBL.  But, for some reason I just never was moved by Maya or her efforts and I think Chastain, for all the emotional scenes, just could not pull off an emotional connection that made me want to root for her.

At bottom, I think viewers will see what they want to see in this film.  Viewers who identify with Maya will feel proud of her dogged determination and faith in finding UBL, and see the torture and other efforts of the government justified for the greater good.  Viewers who are critical of the government will see what I did, a mismanaged effort that dragged on way too long, ending up with success more despite the efforts of the government rather than because of them. Conspiracy theorist viewers will see the ridiculous raid and how easy UBL was captured, and wonder at the fact that no public evidence that it was UBL has ever been produced (did they really get him?)

Ultimately, the movie really does not make any statement one way or the other on the subject, leaving it up to the viewer to interpret it.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so it appears is a person’s perspective when it comes to UBL.


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DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

I am not sure what to think about this new offering by Quentin Tarantino. Spike Lee has sparked some controversy over the movie by charging that it is “disrespectful” to his slave ancestors (although one might consider Mr. Lee’s criticism dubious since he has not seen the movie). I would say disrespectful is not the word for it because there is an implication there that Tarantino made a film deliberately meant to offend or make light of slavery. I did not get that feeling, but the film did make me a little bit uncomfortable in places by the sheer volume of unintentional (??) humor throughout the film by the actions of the characters, the overuse of the N-word throughout the film, and the sometimes cavalier depictions of racial degradation that are often necessary in films of this nature, but executed by Tarantino in a clumsy way that does border on disrespect.

One scene in particular might support the charge.  A miscast Don Johnson (playing a plantation owner) tries to organize a KKK-like posse to track down and kill Django and his bounty-hunter mentor (Dr. King Schultz, played by the brilliant Christoph Waltz).  The posse, bent on revenge, wear masks but cannot see through the eye-holes.  What follows is a too-long running gag about the riders not being able to see, a meant-to-be-funny exchange about the eye-holes being too small lead by an irritating Jonah Hill (who is credited simply as “Bag Head #2”), and indignation by the posse member who’s wife made the masks.  The gag did not seem to fit in the seriousness of the scene, and even if a good director could have pulled it off, Tarantino makes it go on way too long.

This sort of thing is my main criticism of the film.  There is a juxtaposition of scenes of serious, dramatic violence followed by either humor or Blazing Saddles-like satire that detract from the real drama of the story.  I have never really felt comfortable with films that do this, although to his credit, Tarantino did pull it off brilliantly (albeit to a lesser degree) in Pulp Fiction.

This movie cannot decide what it is—serious dramatic love story or campy violent satire?–and the viewer is led to and fro in a way that is not quite as entertaining as it should be.  The way the movie treats death is inconsistent.  In one scene, Django and Dr. Schultz are on a hill looking down at a man and a boy plowing a field below.  The man has a history and is wanted, but has settled down to farm.  Django aims his rifle at the man, but has true conflict whether cold-blooded killing of that type is in his nature.  When he finally pulls the trigger, the boy calls out plaintively for his dying father, leaving the viewer and Django confused about the morality of the scene.

But, most of the other violence and death in the movie is the typical shoot’em-up variety where the bad guys die like they are supposed to in a surfeit of blood spray (for some reason, the use of exploding blood bags when the bad guys get shot is over-the-top).  Tarantino also could not resist giving Django some horrible one-liners in the style of Schwarzenegger and Stallone shoot’em-ups which detract from the film as well.

This movie is way too long (almost three hours, and it keeps going after a point where it could have ended nicely), the violence is often gratuitous and cartoonish, and I question the casting decisions.  I was especially skeptical of whether Jamie Foxx had the acting chops to pull off the lead in a film like this.  He did a passable job to my surprise, but still, he is like Colin Farrell in my mind—a good enough actor, but lacking the gravitas to sustain a lead (in Alexander, Farrell just could not pull it off; imagine a powerful personality like Russell Crowe as Alexander as compared to Farrell, no contest in my mind).

Don Johnson is cast as a plantation owner, but seemed out of place to me (perhaps I just cannot get over Johnson as a Miami Vice cop).  Tarantino himself makes a cameo later in the film, which I hate.  He is a terrible actor, and I have always found that when the famous director appears on screen it takes me out of the story (Oliver Stone did this in one of the Wall Street movies).

Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a good performance as a ruthless plantation owner, and Christoph Schultz (who brilliantly played the evil and creepy Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds) delivers a good but not great performance as the bounty hunter who teams up with Django.

When I saw this movie, the theater was packed (not unusual for a Friday night, but still impressive).  When the credits rolled and the lights came on, the audience seemed to enjoy the movie, but there was a vague feeling of unease of whether we should have enjoyed such a movie.  For all its flaws, Django is worth seeing.  Tarantino is a director who (mostly) tries to avoid cliché and push the envelope.  Sometimes that is good, sometimes bad, but hardly ever is it uninteresting.


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ON KILLING by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Several years ago an old client of mine, Timothy McVeigh, recommended to a book titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.  I purchased a copy and read it back then, but was thinking about it recently and re-
read it.

Grossman dissects the psychology and physical dynamics of soldiers killing other soldiers in combat in a way that is interesting and fascinating—with some surprising studies and insights into the topic.  Grossman is a former Army Ranger and professor of psychology at West Point who has studied the dynamics of killing, but ironically, has never actually killed anyone.

It turns out that soldiers have an incredibly powerful aversion to killing other soldiers, even in war time (Grossman states that during wars from the turn of the century to mid-century, up to 85% of soldiers either fired high intentionally to miss the enemy or did not fire at all).  Although that might not be much of an insight, the way Grossman breaks it down is fascinating (physical distance makes a big difference, and concepts like group absolution play key parts in the psychology of those who kill).  Direct, intimate, hand-to-hand killing is so psychologically difficult to execute—and so devastating to the killer in most cases—that the psychological and emotional effects seldom ever leave the person, even after 50 or 60 years have gone by.

Grossman also discusses similar effects on commanders whose decisions result in loss of life—giving the example of Lt. Col. Charles White Whittlesey (January 20, 1884-November 26, 1921). Whittlesey earned a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1908, set up a law practice in New York City, but took a leave from the law to join the Army when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917. He eventually was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions as the commander of the “Lost Battalion.”

Grossman described the Lost Battalion as an example of “a unit that was sustained by its leader’s will.”  The unit, a division of the 77th Division, consisted of 554 soldiers, described by Grossman as “a composite infantry battalion made up of citizen-soldiers in a National Guard Division.”  As the unit advanced through a ravine, these men found themselves cut off from support and surrounded by Germans.  They fought pitched battles for days without food or water, enduring sniper attacks, volleys of German soldiers hurling hand grenades, a flamethrower attack designed to displace them, and the cries of the wounded who needed attention.

Through it all, Whittlesey refused to surrender.  After four days of this, the Germans sent a blindfolded American POW carrying a white flag and a note written in English:  The suffering of your wounded men can be heard here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop.  A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions.  Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead [the note-bearer] as an honorable man.  He is quite a soldier.  We envy you.  The German commanding officer.

Upon receiving this note, Whittlesey allegedly said, “You go to hell!” and ordered white sheets that had been placed as signals for Allied aircraft pulled so they would not be mistaken for surrender.  An Allied relief force arrived later that night, the Germans retreated, and the Lost Battalion was saved.  Of the original 554 men, 107 had been killed, 63 went missing, and 190 were wounded.  Only 194 were able to walk out of the ravine.

According to Grossman, all of these survivors gave full credit for their resolve directly to the “incredible fortitude of their battalion commander, Major C. W. Whittlesey, who refused to surrender and constantly encouraged the dwindling survivors to fight on.”  Grossman noted that many people know the story, but what they don’t know is that Whittlesey committed suicide shortly after the war.

Grossman left it at that, implying that Whittlesey’s decision to end his own life was the result of the personal distress caused by his wartime resolve, but not saying it outright.  On Killing tackles a subject that appears to be incredibly important, yet surprisingly free of critical analysis in the literature.  Grossman’s contribution is substantial, interesting, and well worth a read.


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KILLER JOE (2011) (NC-17)

Killer Joe is the second NC-17 movie shown at AMC Quail Springs in the last year (Shame with Michael Fassbender being the other), and it certainly earns the rating through some scenes of sexual degradation that are difficult to watch.

Killer Joe stars Matthew McConaughey as “Killer” Joe Cooper, a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a hired killer.  Hapless Chris Smith (played beautifully by Emile Hirsch) is a low-life drug dealer who gets in deep with some bad people and needs some money fast.  He gets the bright idea of hiring Killer Joe to murder his own mother for the insurance money which begins a series of events that culminate in a brutal and sad denouement.

This movie is set mainly in a Texas trailer park that oozes white-trash desperation and depravity at every turn.  Although the plot is straightforward and telegraphed to any savvy viewer, Killer Joe runs on pure exploitation, first of the innocent Dottie (Juno Temple), the cherubic sister of Chris who is unceremoniously given to Joe as a “retainer” for committing the murder, then of the simple-minded Ansel—the dimwitted father of Chris—who is drawn into the plot by Chris and humiliated by Joe and nearly everyone else, and then Sharla—the wife of Ansel—who is brutalized in a scene at the end that is painful to watch.

McConaughey deserves some credit for taking a risk with this movie because he is at a stage in his career where, in my opinion, he did not need a role like this.  Killer Joe is a sociopathic creature who does things that most actors would like to avoid doing on screen, but McConaughey not only does them, he seems comfortable with the character, and makes the audience believe it.

Concerning the degradation of Dottie and Sharla (played by Gina Gershon), I think director William Friedkin probably deserves some darts.  When Blue Velvet came out years ago, Roger Ebert criticized director David Lynch for his treatment of Isabella Rossellini, noting that her character was degraded and abused on film—requiring the actress to express emotions and on-screen scenes that were uncomfortable to portray–and if a director is going to ask an actress to endure those experiences, he should keep his end of the bargain by putting her in an important film that is worthy of the effort.

I thought that Ebert’s critique of Blue Velvet was a little bit unfair to Lynch since the movie was very good, but the same criticism might apply here to Friedkin for his treatment of Temple and Gershon.  Gershon, in particular, is asked to endure a seemingly unending scene of simulated fellatio with a chicken leg at the hands of Killer Joe that will likely make most viewers squirm.

To a lesser extent, Temple is given similar treatment by Killer Joe albeit in a less violent manner.
Is this movie important enough to expect these actresses to do scenes that involve harsh treatment and degrading acts?  It is a close question, but I lean toward yes, although important probably is not the right word for it.  The movie is good—but not great—enough to absolve Friedkin, but I still wanted to take a shower after the thing was over.


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PROMETHEUS (2012)

In 1979, director Ridley Scott created Alien, a then-genre-defining film that captured my 11-year-old imagination.  I loved that movie.  The sequels that followed were watchable (some more than others), but none really captured the style of the original.  Now, 33 years later, Scott has delivered a breathtaking prequel that is well worth the wait.

This film contains all of the familiar Alien-trappings (the pods, the creepy planet, etc.) but it also ventures into some extremely thought-provoking and profound themes surrounding the origin of man.  Did we come from God or alien beings?  The characters in this film seemed to find that we were created by alien beings, and they were dogged enough to travel to their planet and find answers concerning why and for what purpose.

Of course, what they find on the alien planet is not what they expected, and as the plot plays out the end is not really known to the viewer as in the previous films (where we all know that the clever, resourceful woman will defeat the alien).  But with this film, the punch is not the plot, it is the visuals.  “Visually stunning” is more of a cliché than a helpful description, but I think it fits this film.  I went to see it at AMC on IMAX 3D.  This is by far the best way to watch this movie.

Even if the plot was too thin and the acting sub-par, this movie would be worth seeing for the visual spectacle alone.  But an engaging plotline and solid performances enhance the film’s overall appeal, making it one of the best of the year.  Charlize Theron delivers a good performance as Meredith Vickers, the ultra-ice-queen from the company that financed the trip.

Probably the best performance was by Michael Fassbender as David, the android steward who is supposed to be free of emotion and human pettiness, but the audience is never quite sure if this is true.  I thought that perhaps the most underrated performance was by Idris Elba who played Janek, the captain of the ship.  He was perhaps a more complex character than the film allowed to be explored. All-in-all, I recommend this movie wholeheartedly.


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SHAME (2011) (NC-17)

This is a film rated NC-17, which is a rarity on the big screen.  I have not seen an NC-17 film at a movie theater before, and AMC at Quail Springs is to be commended for taking the chance with Shame, a film that tracks a snippet of the life of a New Yorker named Brandon (actor Michael Fassbender, whom I recognized as the British spy in Inglorious Basterds).  Brandon works in Manhattan and is apparently successful, although we do not find out exactly what he does.

What we do know is that he is a compulsive sex addict with an inability to maintain normal relationships.  Left to his own devices, this would probably not present much of a problem for Brandon (and certainly would make for a one-dimensional movie).  Brandon’s one-track life is interrupted when his equally damaged sister (played by Carey Mulligan, the love interest of Shia Lebouf in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps).  We get to watch as Brandon’s world begins to implode as his addiction worsens while at the same time he is forced to deal with the problems of his sister.

What follows is a graphic depiction of two siblings with emotional problems, and the tragic consequences when those problems go largely untreated.  I recommend this movie, but with some reservations.  It is a treat to watch a film that deals with these subjects in an adult way, with strong performances by Fassbender and Mulligan that relate the pain and frustration of being emotionally lost and unable to find a course back to normalcy.  Fassbender, in particular, is compelling as a man who realizes that he has a problem, yet is unable to cope with it in a constructive way; nor able to reach out to his sister even though the audience senses that he desperately wants to do so.  He just does not know how.

That said, the drawbacks to this film are substantial.  The audience is not told what Brandon does for a living (a relatively minor thing) nor given any indication of what happened to Brandon and his sister to make them what they are (a major thing), nor told what resolution, if any, was had in their lives.  The sister provides a vague clue when she tells Brandon, “we are not bad people, we just come from a bad place” but that is all the audience gets by way of explanation.  The level of dysfunction exhibited by Brandon and his sister is substantial, and I would have liked at least some inkling of their background.

This critique is more of a pet peeve of mine.  I typically do not like movies that have what I call “art-house ambiguity” where the filmmaker intentionally leaves the audience in the dark about key parts of the story.  The ending of The Sopranos is a good example of this.  Viewers either loved the ambiguous ending or they hated it.  I hated it (hey, David Chase got paid a lot of money to tell us that story each week; if I have to make up my own ending then I want some of the royalties).  Publishing house agents and college Review editors are another set of creatures that prefer ambiguous endings for some pretentious, gawdawful reason, and I suppose there is some aspect of drama with ambiguous endings, and sometimes it is best to leave them unresolved, but for the most part if a filmmaker tells a story well enough to get me engaged in what happens to the characters, then I would like for him or her to finish the story, not oblige me to create my own ending.

Shame does not involve an ambiguous ending so much as one that abruptly ends with no resolution to the plight of the characters.  I cared about these characters and would like to know what happened to them.  Although the performances were powerful, the film seems to be more about exploring raw emotional voids that are filled with sexual dysfunction rather than an exploration of the pathology of these two persons, its origin, or its ultimate conclusion.  We see the evidence that these siblings have severe problems, but are left to wonder how they got that way or how (or if) they will resolve them.

For some viewers, simply watching it unfold during a few weeks in the life of Brandon may be enough.  For me, I would have liked to have had some further explanation for what I saw.  But, for all its shortcomings (which might be more in the viewer (me) than the film), the movie is still powerful and worth seeing.

NOTE:  Concerning the NC-17 rating, I expected more content to justify that rating than what I saw.  The film contains copious sexual content, but really no more than a typical soft-core production on Cinemax.  Fassbender bravely graces the camera with full frontal nudity, which may have pushed the censors over the line, but it did not seem too shocking to me to warrant a rating above R.


TEMPLE LEA HOUSTON (1860-1905)

The November/December 2011 issue of Oklahoma Today magazine featured a nice article on Temple Houston.  Temple was born in 1860, and was the youngest child of Texas Governor Sam Houston.  Temple eventually found his way to Oklahoma where he settled near Woodward and became one of the most notable attorneys in the area.  In the hardscrabble territorial days, Temple Houston was a voracious reader and spoke Spanish, French, Latin, and seven Indian dialects.

Houston’s skill as an advocate was earned in his law practice in Brazoria, Texas, as was his skill with a gun.  He was a physically imposing man with great personal charisma, but also feared in gunfights.  According to the article, Houston was drawn to Oklahoma for the same reasons his famous father left Tennessee for Texas—it was a young, untamed land full of opportunity.

Houston left Texas for Oklahoma in 1893, settling in Woodward.  It was during this time that Houston left his mark on the territorial courts of our state.  One story relayed by the article had Houston representing a horse thief.  The case against the client was particularly strong, but Houston told the judge that he would do his best and give the client the best advice that he could.  Houston met the client in a closed room for a private meeting.  After a lengthy wait, authorities opened the door to find Houston sitting alone with an open window in the room. Houston said, “Well, boys, I gave him some good advice.”

The piece has several other courtroom stories, most of which would not happen today, but illustrate the rough and tumble times.  Houston was a man who rode alone from courthouse to courthouse, earning the nickname the Lone Wolf of the Canadian by local cowboys.  He did not stay in hotels, preferring to camp out under the stars in cow camps.  He is buried in Woodward and is a true American original.

I believe that Enid attorney Stephen Jones may have contributed a monograph or some other materials on Temple Houston that are available in the Marquis James room at the Enid Public Library in Garfield County, but it has been several years since I have been up there and read them.


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THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011)

I finally got around to watching this movie on Cox OnDemand.  I had read Michael Connelly’s book years ago and thought it was pretty good.  Movies based on books are rarely better than the book, but this one is pretty close.  Matthew McConaughey plays the lead character, Michael Haller, a criminal defense attorney who offices out of his Lincoln Town Car.

He is chosen to represent an extremely wealthy client who is charged with a brutal assault upon a prostitute (for reasons that emerge later in the movie).  From there, the movie embarks upon an evenly paced mystery story of sorts, ending up in a cat-and-mouse game between lawyer and client.  Rarely is the courtroom drama believable (as we know it), but it is plausible within the course of the film and highly entertaining.

McConaughey is believable as a criminal defense attorney, and there are a few memorable lines, including a scene where Haller visits an incredulous client in county lockup who has not paid the fee, yet still wants Haller to represent him, telling Haller, “I have your money.”  Haller replies, “Yes, that’s the problem, you have my money.”  Undeterred, the client insists
that Haller cannot just back out of the case, saying, “I looked it up!”  In court, Haller seeks a continuance, citing the need for a critical defense witness.  The cranky judge asks which witness. “Mr. Green,” replied Haller.  Continuance granted!

The story line is original enough to avoid (mostly) legal thriller formula, and Marisa Tomei of all people delivers a surprisingly good performance as Haller’s assistant district attorney ex-wife. For the criminal defense bar, the highlight (at least for me) was when a jailhouse snitch, DJ Corliss, takes the stand and is cross-examined by Haller.  Shea Whigham, who plays Corliss, nails it, and if you have ever had one of these snitches on the stand you will definitely see aspects of your snitch in Corliss.  Overall, The Lincoln Lawyer is a solid effort and worth checking out.


LOOK (2007)

I caught this movie a few years ago on one of the movie channels and thought about it again the other day.  I did not see it when it came out originally, but it is an intriguing film.  The New York Times review described it as “an unsettling, rudely funny but not entirely credible” film and I think that is spot-on.

The premise is that there really is no privacy in modern culture because surveillance cameras are everywhere now, in elevators, at work, in public buildings, in schools, on the street corners, in convenience stores, etc.  The story is told entirely through surveillance cameras.  The viewer sees how people act when they are in public, but then change when the elevator door closes. Writer/director Adam Rifkin presents the story in this manner in a way that is an unsettling, voyeuristic ride which often blurs what public/private really means.

Some of the material is very creepy, and there is strong sexual content and adult themes.  The story unfolds in the manner of movies like Crash where seemingly unconnected people are featured going about their lives until they intersect at critical points.  I will not spoil the ending, but be warned that you might find it unsettling to watch and perhaps resent the lack of closure (or at least ambiguity).

I suppose that one of the marks of a good movie is whether it makes you ponder it after you leave the theater (or, in my case, after you turn off the television).  Look did that for me and may do the same for you.


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THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

Filmmaking, no doubt, is an art.  When a film is really good, we know it.  Cox cable has movies on demand, and one of the neat features is that I can access independent films.  On the one hand, independent films tend to feature new actors and original themes.  But the drawback is that most of the ones I have seen are just terrible movies.  Aside from the fact that most are low budget (which I can overlook), they just do not work.

The most recent examples in a long string of bad indie films include Septien and Cold Weather.  I was astounded at how bad these movies were (Septien actually had its moments, but was still just a terrible movie), and how so many people could put so much time and effort into making them and not realize that they are almost unwatchable.

But running that gauntlet makes me appreciate the good ones even more, like The King’s Speech. When I finally got around to watching this movie, the theater was almost full, which usually is not the case.  The reason, of course, was that the movie is very good!

The King’s Speech is a stylish account of the struggles of Albert Frederick Arthur George (played by Colin Firth), also known as Prince Albert of York, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, and affectionately called “Bertie” by his family and close friends. Since he was a young child, Prince Albert had a speech impediment that caused him to stammer (not stutter by repeating letter sounds, but stammer by being unable to say the words at all in one smooth manner the way most of us do).

This, of course, turned out to be a problem for a person in his position, and so he (more so his wife played by Helena Bonham Carter) hired someone to help him speak correctly (or at least passably).  That someone was Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush).  The movie takes place just prior to World War II, and chronicles how Logue and the Prince bond on a personal level in trying to overcome the speech problem.

The narrative becomes (more) compelling when Prince Albert is forced to become King when his older brother chooses to abdicate the throne for an American woman, Wallis Simpson, who had been twice divorced (since the King is head of the Church, he cannot marry a divorced woman).  Upon that turn of events, and on the cusp of world war, the speech impediment loomed large not only for Albert personally, but for all of England and the world.   Albert can no longer avoid public speaking, and in fact must address all of the U.K and the world on the prospect of another world war.

This movie just works on all levels.  We see a powerful man with personal frailties forced into a situation not of his own making that will highlight his shortcomings.  Firth does an excellent job of mimicking the speech-stammer and it is sometimes painful to watch it.  The interplay between Logue and Albert is alternately comedic and dramatic, but never feels contrived; and although Rush gives a solid performance as Logue, with an affecting countenance and likeable demeanor, it is Firth who delivers an Oscar-worthy effort as Prince Albert, who later became King, choosing the name King George VI.

Firth manages to simultaneously capture the insecurities of a person who stammers while also exuding the power of a monarch.  We see the bravery and humility in the man as he watches in horror as the nightmare scenario comes true: his older brother not only chooses to abdicate the throne, he does it at a time when Hitler has once again thrown Europe into the turmoil of war.  As King, Bertie knows that he must not only address it, he must do so for high stakes and before a worldwide audience.

The audience cannot help but root for him to be strong and make the speech without any stammering.  Overcoming such a problem is inspirational, and Prince Albert/King George VI does it in dramatic fashion (dramatic without being overly so), and in a context of historical significance (the beginnings of World War II) that does not overpower the story but rather enhances it.

It is a story and a movie that is at the same time simple and complex.  What makes The King’s Speech work and Cold Weather fail?  It is difficult to say; and for a filmmaker in the midst of
making a film it is probably difficult to know.  I have noticed that indie films often have good (or at least decent) acting and original stories/plots, but seem to fail mostly through directing and editing.  That is why Spielberg, Lucas, and Cameron will always be in demand.  They just seem to make films work.

As for us, the audience, Justice Stewart’s test for obscenity still prevails.  We know good films when we see them.  The King’s Speech is definitely one of the good ones.


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TESLA:  MAN OUT OF TIME by Margaret Cheney (2001)

I finished reading Tesla by Margaret Cheney last week.  My father read it and thought I might like it.  I remember Tesla vaguely from science class in school and the famous Tesla Coil, although I must confess that I did not know what it was exactly until I looked it up (it is a “resonant transformer” used to produce alternating current electricity).

Tesla the man was quite amazing, and he lived an amazing life mostly in New York City until his death in 1943.  Tesla was a Serb and apparently possessed an amazing memory such that he was able to conceptualize inventions all in his mind without resort to writing any of it down on paper or working with blueprints.  He came to America with about a nickel in his pocket and was able to get his first job handling a problem for Thomas Edison.  From there a “war” of sorts ensued between Edison’s preference for direct current, and Tesla’s preference for alternating current.

The struggle over which form of current would prevail was titanic, with J.P. Morgan backing Edison and George Westinghouse backing Tesla.  Tesla and alternating current prevailed eventually, but the story of how Tesla’s genius was exploited by corporate America is sad. Through misfortune, mismanagement, personality or just cruel happenstance, Tesla never realized true financial gain from his inventions as Edison did.

Which is not to say that did not lead a comfortable and interesting life.  Tesla was a peculiar sort of man with the idiosyncrasies found in men of genius (no time for women, odd eating and living habits) but was one of a last breed of true innovators who not only conceptualized his inventions in his mind, he had a full laboratory and machine shop and made his inventions himself with exacting certitude, some of which still defy explanation by scientists today.  This sort of genius attracted the inhabitants of Manhattan’s upper social strata of the day and Tesla was often invited to A-list parties and hob-knobbed with the social elite.

Cheney delivers the story of Tesla’s life with a decidedly (and natural) pro-Tesla bent, portraying Edison as eccentric and crass (paying boys to steal pets in the neighborhood so he could electrocute them in experiments; waging tactless and false propaganda wars in the press against alternating current).  I suspect that some of that was for Tesla’s sake, but Edison probably deserved better treatment in her book.  However, I think it is accurate to say that while Edison was perhaps the most prolific developer of new inventions and a true visionary in his own way, Tesla was perhaps the superior inventor and creative genius.

Tesla lived in New York City at the turn of the century, spending almost all of his time at his lab and living at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  Once, he was summoned for jury duty in New York for a murder trial.  He was excused because of his opposition to the death penalty, which he described as “barbarous, inhuman, and unnecessary.”

Tesla’s eccentricities (mental illness perhaps?) seemed to gather strength in his later life where he became fixated on helping injured pigeons that he found on his walks through New York.  By that time he was broke and deeply in debt, even as his inventions made millions for others.
The subtitle of the book is “Man out of Time” which is used to convey to the reader that Tesla was a genius who had visions too advanced to create by the science of his own time and Cheney does a good job of conveying that, although some of the science discussion is detailed and difficult to follow.

Sometimes Tesla simply got it wrong, as where he disagreed with the then-new theory of relativity presented by Einstein; or when he dismissed the idea of splitting atoms as folly because such a thing would not produce much energy.  Still, at the end of the story of his life, one is left with the impression that if Tesla had been born in 1956 rather than 1856, the things he would have conceived would have been wondrous indeed.


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SPOKEN FROM THE HEART by Laura Bush (2010); RESILIENCE by Elizabeth Edwards (2010) 

Over the Independence Day weekend, I read two books by two different women and I could not help noticing the contrast.  The books were Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush and Resilience by Elizabeth Edwards.  It is probably unfair to compare the two women based upon these books, but if you read them together it is difficult to avoid doing so.

Spoken from the Heart is a breezy autobiography, whereas Resilience is an extended essay on dealing with devastating personal tragedy; yet, in each book there are elements of the other.
One is struck first and foremost by the fact that Laura Bush was driving a car while she was in high school, ran a stop sign, and collided with another car driven by a popular 17-year-old boy named Michael Douglas, who was in fact one her friends in school.  The accident left Bush with minor injuries, but Douglas was killed.

In contrast, Elizabeth Edwards married future presidential candidate John Edwards and their first-born child was a son named Wade.  When Wade was 16-years-old, he was driving with a friend to the beach (to meet his family there later) when apparently a gust of wind came up and caused him to lose control of his car.  It fishtailed and flipped, killing Wade.  He was wearing a seatbelt and the airbags deployed, and there was no indication that he was speeding or otherwise driving recklessly.  It was, by all accounts, simply a freak accident.

Thus, there is the juxtaposition in the reader in that Bush caused the death of a teenaged boy in a car wreck (and by all accounts it was just an accident as well), and Edwards was on the other end of such a tragedy, being the mother of a teenaged boy that was killed in a car wreck.
A few things emerge from these tragedies.  The first is that Elizabeth Edwards provides a glimpse of just how profound the effects are of losing a child in that way.  Her grief is laid bare, and is genuinely moving to the reader.  Through the articulation of the effects of such a tragedy by Elizabeth Edwards, one cannot help but identify with Mrs. Douglas, whom Laura Bush heard weeping with grief through the thin emergency room curtain at the hospital.

The second is how Laura Bush dealt with the death of Michael Douglas.  What struck me most was the fact that she never apologized to his parents, and that she overslept on the day of his funeral and did not attend it.  Her explanation for oversleeping was that her parents did not wake her up and were trying to protect her, but to me at least that rings hollow.  I suppose one could cut a break to a 17-year-old dealing with a tragedy of that nature, but it just struck me as extremely disrespectful that she would not attend the funeral.

One might also cut a 17-year-old a break for not wanting to confront the parents and apologize. But, as I read the book and her life went on, I kept expecting her to say that later in life she did in fact visit with the parents of Michael Douglas and apologize, but she apparently never did (or at least, she did not indicate her book that she did).  The way a person handles tragedies like these often show their true character, and it was difficult for me at least to resolve the matter in her favor.

Another thing that stood out to me was the fact that she married George Bush when both were in their early 30s.  Although she had lived a big chunk of her life before then, the reader really is given no sense of who she was with or what she did.  The book provides just vague references to multiple (nameless) boyfriends and multiple moves between Midland/Dallas/Houston/Austin where she worked as a schoolteacher.  She ended up moving back to Midland where she married George.

A skeptic might wonder about George’s motivations in marrying her since he was single and planning to run for office and she was about as plain a person with no baggage as could be found.  Yet, her descriptions of their life after marriage seem to indicate that they are compatible and happy.

As with many of these books, the bulk of it is fluff (the endless descriptions of the committees/task forces/organizations she headed to help the children read, or to address world hunger, or to address women’s issues, etc.) and a fixation on the “ranch” in Crawford, Texas.
Bush does give an account of the day of 9/11 and a truly bizarre encounter with Sen. Ted Kennedy (another politician who showed a decided lack of character in dealing with a tragedy similar to that of Michael Douglas).  She was to give some sort of talk to a congressional committee and was in Kennedy’s office as the twin towers were engulfed in flames.  She relayed that Sen. Kennedy had the TV on, but he ignored it and prattled on and on about the photographs hanging in his office, seemingly uninterested in what was happening in Manhattan.  She finally had to excuse herself.  The account is just baffling, although she surmised that he had so much tragedy in his life that he could not bear to view any more, but still, her account of his actions indicate to the reader that Sen. Kennedy was in some sort of denial.

In her favor, Bush writes extremely well (or at least, she had good help), and she provides vivid descriptions of events and rich commentary, but in the end, the reader (or at least this reader) comes away with no real sense of who she is.  She was a person at the vortex of the upper echelons of power in the government for eight years, but gives the reader little sense of those things or how she perceived them.  I have noticed that in many of these autobiographies, there is an effort to convey to the reader that the subject is just an “ordinary person” who is humble, grew up tough and learned old fashioned values the hard way.  Bush tries this too much.

The reader is aware that her father was successful in his business, and that George Bush and his family had real money (she tries to hold on to the “ordinary person” from humble beginnings fiction even when describing George’s efforts to buy the Texas Rangers) but she insists on describing George Bush as a “land man” in the oil business, intimating that he was struggling along like everyone else when such simply was not true (and, I might contrast this with Sarah Palin, who does the same thing in her book, Going Rogue, but with Palin I got the sense that she really is a person from humble beginnings who grew up learning some tough lessons, and I do not even like Palin).

George Bush’s drinking is also handled with kid gloves.  Laura asserts that he abruptly quit, but provides really no compelling reasons why he would make such a change.  The reader is left with the distinct feeling that there is a lot more to the story, but it will remain unknown.

Resilience, on the other hand, is fluff-free and is a very different book.  It is not so much an autobiography as it is an extended essay by Elizabeth Edwards describing her quest for emotional catharsis in dealing with a triumvirate of personal tragedies:  the death of Wade, the return of her bout with cancer, and the highly publicized infidelity of John, her husband of 30 years.

By far, the death of Wade struck the most powerful blow in her life and the reader can feel her grief.  It is moving to read about her sorrow and sometimes irrational reactions to his death (such as noticing every Jeep Grand Cherokee on the street and looking to see if Wade is the driver, somehow alive and trying to get home).  Yet, her message is one of hope and inspiration. After spiraling down so far, she has managed to find her way back; and if she can deal with what is on her plate, then we can, too.

She tells us that, as we all might suspect, there is no magic solution to dealing with grief on that level.  You just have to go through it, experience the pain and ultimately survive it.  Her message is that, at least for her, how that is done is to focus and latch onto the other positive things in life to pull oneself back up.  In other words, people are resilient, but it is a long hard, dark road out of such depression and grief.

Which brings me back to my thought that it is perhaps unfair to contrast the two women based upon these books.  I suspect that Laura Bush bears more guilt about the death of Michael Douglas, and has more depth of personality than her book portrays.  But she has (wisely perhaps) chosen not to articulate those feelings in print.  Still, a casual reader who reads these two books close together in time will probably come away with the feeling that, between the two women, Elizabeth Edwards is by far the more substantial.


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INCEPTION (2010)

If you have not seen the new movie Inception yet, I would recommend that you go see it.  It has been a very long time since I have seen a movie this good.  Inception deals with dreams, a topic to which everyone can relate.  Then it takes the viewer into the dreams along with the characters, and we get to see what might happen if people could share dreams.  Could someone have a dream within a dream?  Then a step further:  what if there was a dream in that dream?  Could it continue?  If it did, what would happen?  What if someone dies in a dream?  We all know that we wake up (they call it a “kick” in the movie”).  But, what if someone is under sedation and can not wake up when they die in their dream?  What happens then?

It is an intriguing subject matter, and director Christopher Nolan (who also was the writer, and directed the Batman movie The Dark Knight as well as the sleeper Memento) pieces it together in a way that is thematically and visually arresting.  Leonardo DiCaprio also delivers a fine performance as Cobb, the leader of a team of talented people who can hack into the dreams of others and see their secrets.

I do not want to give any of it away, so suffice it to say that Cobb and his team end up trying to not only hack into a person’s dream and see the secrets there, they also try to take it a step further and actually plant an idea into the target’s subconscious which Cobb calls an inception. The movie tracks how they go about trying to do.  The result is one of the most original and imaginative films to come along in years. Definitely a must-see.


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OUTLIERS:  THE STORY OF SUCCESS by Malcolm Gladwell (Book 2008)

Outliers are points in a data set that lie separate from the other data.  In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell takes a look at outliers that come in the form of persons and events, and he takes a close look at the circumstances surrounding how they came to be on the fringe.

For example, why were The Beatles so good?  How did Bill Gates learn so much about computers at the absolute optimum time to capitalize on it?  Perhaps more interesting to many of you, he takes a look at the lawyers in Manhattan and delves into the background of the remaining named partner at Skadden Arps, reviewing his life and offering insights.

Although Gladwell does not go so far as to take the position that human success is entirely random, apart from individual effort, he does make a good case for the fact that luck and circumstances play key roles; and he also makes the case that there are no natural born geniuses, meaning persons who can just say, pick up a violin and play it immediately and intuitively on a world-class level with no training or practice.  According to Gladwell, there is a 10,000 Hour Rule governing such virtuoso talent, which means that virtuosity comes only after someone has practiced something for at least 10,000 hours.

One interesting story on this subject is The Beatles.  Gladwell describes how they toiled away in the red light district of Hamburg for sessions lasting several hours, every single day.  He quoted John Lennon on the “Hamburg days” and makes connections regarding several famous persons that are not at all obvious.

One of the most interesting sections is about plane crashes.  It turns out that almost all crashes are not the result of catastrophic mechanical failure, but rather a series of benign problems that
collectively lead to disaster.  Nationality and the cultural factors distinct to authority-fearing societies also play a prominent role according to Gladwell.  Particularly fascinating is the story of the plane crash that was caused by “fuel exhaustion.”  That’s right, the plane ran out of fuel just sixteen miles from the runway.  Gladwell’s account of just how that could happen to a modern aircraft piloted by a modern flight crew is revealing.

Perhaps the most poignant story is the chapter about Christopher Langan.  Langan had a very rough childhood, dirt poor, and dominated by an extremely abusive step-father (I looked him up on Youtube after I read the chapter about him and Erroll Morris of “The Thin Blue Line” fame did a special on him in which Langan describes his step-father as a “rat bastard”), and no support in either high school or college,   Langan worked as a bouncer for years in Long Island. During school he was so under-challenged that he spent most of his time in the library teaching himself.

One day, he saw an IQ test in OMNI magazine, only this IQ test was designed for geniuses who aced the regular one.  Langan aced that one.  The news program 20/20 did a piece on Langan and hired a respected psychologist to administer a proper IQ test.  Langan scored higher than any person who had taken the test in the 25-years that the psychologist had been giving
them.  His IQ was measured at somewhere between 190 and 210 (which would have placed him in the Guinness Book of World Records if it had not discontinued the category).

Despite his monstrous intellect, Langan ended up on a small ranch in rural Missouri where he tends to animals during the day and works on finding a unified theory for the universe at night, a problem that consumes the likes of Stephen Hawking today, and Einstein before him.  On his website, Gladwell described his time with Langan and stated that he could “feel” Langan’s intelligence which was an intimidating experience.

Other subjects tackled by Gladwell include why Asians are so good at math, and also a peculiar little town in Pennsylvania where everyone eats normally but no one has heart attacks.  His answers are both surprising and intuitive at the same time.  I read the book with a critical mind and had some quibbles with some of his conclusions and methods of analysis, but overall he presents us with a very interesting topic presented in an engaging and easy-to-read manner.

I highly recommend it.


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THE STORY OF TSUTOMU YAMAGUCHI

This is an amazing story of human resilience.

Mr. Yamaguchi was a Japanese man who, as luck would have it, was sent to the city of Hiroshima for a three-month long business trip by his employer (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries), which placed him in that city on August 6, 1945.  Shortly after 8:00 a.m. on that day, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb Little Boy from the sky above.  Mr. Yamaguchi recalled seeing the American bomber, as well as two small parachutes, as he walked toward the docks.

When the bomb detonated, he saw “a great flash in the sky, and I was blown over.”  The explosion was so great that it ruptured his eardrums, blinded him temporarily, and burned him severely over the top half of his body.  However, he survived the blast and recovered his faculties eventually, crawled to a shelter, and eventually found assistance to make his way back home.

His home was in the town of Nagasaki.

He made it back home to Nagasaki, where he received medical treatment for his injuries. Heavily bandaged, but otherwise able to function, he reported for work on August 9, 1945.  At 11:00 a.m. on that day, he was telling his supervisor all about the atomic bomb blast that he had experienced–and survived–in Hiroshima, when the American bomber Bockscar dropped the second atomic bomb Fat Man.  This time, he was unhurt by the blast, but was unable to replace his ruined bandages, which caused him to suffer from a high fever for over a week.

Incredibly, Mr. Yamaguchi had survived atomic bomb blasts on the cities where he was present–twice in three days.  He lived to be 93 years old, eventually succumbing to stomach cancer on January 4, 2010.


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ROCKnROLLA (2008)

This is from director Guy Ritchie.  love Ritchie’s directorial style in his previous films Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.  RocknRolla is essentially the same movie as those two, with different characters but the same snappy dialog and interconnected characters, most of whom are low-lifes, criminals, thugs, junkies, and the sort.

This film did not receive much critical praise, but I think it deserves it.  Although it is probably not as good as Snatch (Brad Pitt’s leather-tough pikey character is hard to top), I thought RocknRolla had the same energy and dialog as the other two, coupled with a plot line that was much easier to follow than Lock.

The thick British accents are sometimes difficult to follow, and Gerard Butler of 300 fame brings a very thick Scottish accent into the mix, but that is some of the charm of this movie and its predecessors.  The quirky characters are hilarious, particularly the indestructible Russian thugs who show up later, as well as the RocknRolla himself who is a junkie throughout the movie, but comes on late as a very strong character.  Check it out.


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MAKING YOUR CASE:  THE ART OF PERSUADING JUDGES by Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner (2008)

Justice Scalia is, of course, very well-known, but Bryan Garner less so (at least to me).  Garner has written many books on legal style and grammar, and is the editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary.  I was interested in Making Your Case primarily on the strength of Justice Scalia’s name as co-author, and in the hopes of finding some pearls of wisdom from this controversial and outspoken jurist.

Instead, I was greeted with what is essentially a primer on oral arguments and brief writing, rather than a text geared toward telling experienced practitioners something they did not know already.  It is an excellent primer, to be sure, but I think that most experienced counsel will be disappointed.  If you have never argued a case before an appellate court, or do not write appellate briefs with some regularity, this book will help you with the basics.  If you have a modicum of experience, you will be met with common advice that you probably were already aware of.

What’s that you say?  The sentence at the end of the paragraph above ends in a preposition and jars your senses?  It’s OK.  The authors assert that it is proper to end a sentence with a preposition and that, “it always has been.” (p.63)  They actually do this at some points in the book.  I suppose it might be technically acceptable to end sentences in such a manner, but I would surely avoid it in careful written legal documents.  Much like inviting your mother-in-law over on Sunday to watch the big game, it might be acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, but why would you actually do it?

What’s that?  You question my use of contractions?  Well, that is a subject discussed in the book, too, and the authors can not agree.  Garner advocated for years that contractions were verboten in legal writing.  Then he changed his mind.  Justice Scalia makes the case that the use of contractions is too informal for legal briefs and that, since “formality bespeaks dignity,” they should be avoided (p. 118).  I found it odd that Justice Scalia would give such a spirited view on how the use of contractions undermines formality in legal briefs; yet, seems to not notice that ending sentences in prepositions does the same thing (at least in my view).

And so it goes.  If tedious discussions over prepositions and contractions make your eyes glaze over, then I must warn you that these types of discussions are scattered throughout the book (also the proper use of footnotes and the dreaded masculine pronoun).  Some of the advice is so simplistic (in fact, most of the book might be viewed this way) that I wonder why either author thought this book necessary in the first place.  There are sections in the book advising you to make sure that the tribunal has jurisdiction over your case, to know your audience, know your case, know your adversary’s case, lead with your strongest argument, make sure your principal cases are current, make sure that you learn the record, etc.  If you have to actually be told to do any of these obvious things in preparation for an argument or in brief writing, then you might want to hire someone else to do it for you.

The writing style is easy to follow and it is well-written, although I noticed a pronounced overuse of the phrase “to be sure” scattered throughout the copy (a phrase that is permissible once, maybe twice in a text or appellate opinion, but its pedantic character and smug tone render it simply annoying and distracting if overused, as the authors do here).  Also, some of the advice I found troublesome.  For example, and this is a minor thing, the authors advocate the use of “guiding words” such as “moreover,” or “however,” or “nonetheless,” and the like (p.111).  I chuckled when I read this because I remember well the red-ink lines through my legal writing in law school when I used words like that.  In law school, we were taught to keep it concise and cut out useless words like those (and I think White and Strunk would agree).

More troubling is the continuous harping to keep legal arguments concise, using simple language and avoiding legal words.  A layman reading this book would come away with the idea that an appellate brief should generally be about 1-2 pages long, consist of a case citation or two, and a brief, clear conclusion.  I am sure that Justice Scalia would like to be presented with these kinds of briefs (and, truth be told, I would love to write such briefs), but I have seen too many legal opinions where appellate courts punish lawyers for not being specific enough in argument or for not providing enough of an argument in a brief.

If appellate judges want this kind of writing, I would suggest they take the first step and let us (the defense bar) know that they will not invoke stringent waiver rules or procedural default doctrines to torpedo claims they feel are underdeveloped.  The way the appellate courts enforce these rules (many times arbitrarily in my opinion) virtually force appellate lawyers to cover all bases, so to speak, and to err on the side of including everything, even all the legal phrases and principles that might apply, in order to avoid a claim being either denied or not considered on the basis that it is undeveloped.  If claims are presented in too concise a manner they are in danger of being deemed “abandoned” by the appellate court.

Another subject that is troubling is footnotes.  The authors can not agree on whether substantive footnotes should be used.  Garner states that inserting anything of substance in a footnote is a big mistake.  Justice Scalia disagrees.  However interesting this debate might be to a book editor or a Supreme Court Justice, to actual practicing lawyers that get paid by clients to draft and file briefs, there is only one correct answer:  do not ever raise substantive issues in footnotes.  Many courts have rules and published opinions in which they have declined to address arguments or points in footnotes.  As long as any court has ruled this way, any professional advocate would be a complete fool to even take a chance in this regard.

In sum, although Justice Scalia does deliver some pithy one-liners, and there are a few pearls that are not obvious that you will glean from the text, overall this is a book geared toward law students or for those new to the bar.


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CLOVERFIELD (2008)

The movie attached to the enigmatic trailers depicting the going away party in Manhattan that is interrupted rudely by loud, thunderous sounds has finally made it to theaters under the name Cloverfield. It opens with television color-bars from a Department of Defense feed, purporting to show a videotape recovered from “the area formerly known as Central Park.” The rest of the movie is the videotape.

This was done first (as far as I know) in The Blair Witch Project to great effect. As a cinematography device, it is very effective in building tension and underscoring drama. However, the “shaky” effect and the limited range of view for the moviegoer make it a concept that must be done with an expert hand or else the movie will become unwatchable. Unfortunately, I believe that Cloverfield has ventured into the unwatchable category.

You will need to take Dramamine before watching this film. I would venture to guess that 90% of the footage involves the person holding the camera running or moving in terror, which results in swinging the camera back and forth so fast that the viewer cannot see anything but blurred images. Some of that is effective for identifying with the terror of the character, but its overuse in this film makes it nauseating. I literally could not watch the entire film. I was forced to close my eyes for long stretches because of the wobbly/shaky camera work and had a splitting headache hours afterward. Maybe I am just too old to view this type of thing.

All of which is incredibly tragic because the film works beautifully as a straight-up monster flick had J.J. Abrams decided to just make a film in the usual manner. The monster is awesome, the story is solid, and the actors (all unknowns, at least to me) are lacking charisma but deliver serviceable performances. The effects are really good, but we are limited to mere quick glimpses of the most amazing scenes because of the videotape trick. It is frustrating. Plus, since we know that the movie will end if no one is using the camera to film, some of the scenes are too contrived because no sane person would continue filming through some of the scenes (they would simply drop the camera and run).

In the end, I left the theater with motion-sickness and a headache, feeling like I just sat through a terrific movie—only one that should have been made by someone else.


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SUNSHINE (2007)

Some movies simply must be viewed on the big screen. Sunshine is such a movie. I highly recommend that you top off your summer with this film, directed by Danny Boyle and starring…well, no big name actors, but some faces you will probably recognize.

The cast delivers surprisingly good performances all-around in a passable psychological thriller set in deep space, but the star of the film is…the Sun. Not the pleasant, warm Sun that gently cascades your cheek with warm rays on a summer day, but the huge, menacing Sun that burns violently away everything with six-digit heat.

In Sunshine, it seems that fifty years in the future the Sun is dying. Man’s only hope is to deliver a super-massive nuclear device to the Sun itself in an attempt to trigger re-ignition. The scenes of the burning Sun as the massive spaceship travels closer to it are spectacular. The ship is so close to the Sun that if any part of it ventures outside the shadow of the huge shield mounted in front of the ship, it is incinerated immediately. This looming danger sets the tension tone throughout the movie. The scenes in space are just incredible because the filmmakers were able to capture the scope and scale of the ship in relation to the Sun and make it work in the mind of the viewer. There is also a scene where the ship passes Mercury on the way to the Sun and it is just amazing on the big screen.

As the ship approaches the burning Sun, the psychological pressure of such a mission takes its toll on the crew and some bad things happen on the journey. I will not spoil any of the crises encountered by the crew, other than to say that they encounter both natural and man-made dangers.

But the thing that makes this movie work is the combination of a good, tight story with the stunning visual effects. In my opinion, Sunshine is a standout in the summer box-office fare. Next on my agenda is The Bourne Ultimatum, but do yourself a favor and do not wait to see Sunshine on video or DVD. It is a true big-screen flick.


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PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006)

Every now and then a movie comes along that restores one’s faith in the capricious art of film making; and reminds us that interesting characters, carefully plotted themes, and old-fashioned imagination can be infinitely more moving to the movie-goer than car chases, computer-generated special effects, and formulaic scripts. Director Guillermo del Toro had previously generated the adequate, if uninspired, Mimic and Hellboy, neither of which could have given us a glimpse of his capabilities to write and direct the moving film El Laberinto del Fauno, released in America under the name Pan’s Labyrinth.

I had been hearing a lot of buzz about this movie and finally went to see it when I was in Denver about a week and a half ago. I saw it at The Mayan, which is an art-house cinema where I had seen David Lynch’s Lost Highway several years before. The Mayan is somewhat gritty and I moaned when the film began and I realized it was all in Spanish and that I would be forced to watch it with subtitles. Thankfully, this film is so powerful and well-done that I was glad, in the end, that I was able to view it in the original language.

The story centers around a twelve-year-old girl named Ofelia who must accompany her very pregnant and ill mother, Carmen, over the Spanish countryside in 1944 to meet Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal. Vidal is a particularly fastidious and punctual commander of a fascist military battery trying to protect a mill from revolutionaries. He insists on having his child born at his side and thus Carmen and Ofelia at the beginning of the film are traveling to his command post, a journey that makes Carmen’s problem pregnancy even worse, in addition to the friction created when Carmen implores Ofelia to refer to Vidal as “father” which causes conflict in emotions in Ofelia because her real father had died.

The rest of the film weaves Ofelia’s fantasy world which she creates out of necessity to deal with the horrors of war and conflict with the actual armed conflict between Vidal’s fascist soldiers and the revolutionaries. This is done in such a way that seems completely logical and expected. Much of the credit goes to del Toro for directing and writing a story with no contrived scenes and two seemingly unrelated perspectives unfolding and meshing with each other in a seemless, tight, tale that is equal parts fantasy and war drama.

The cast gives solid performances all around but Ivana Baquero gives a particularly compelling performance as Ofelia, with Sergi Lopez playing Captain Vidal with unsettling discipline and Maribel Verdu playing Vidal’s chief servant, Mercedes, an incredibly brave and resourceful woman who figures prominently in the plot as the film unfolds.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that just “works” on all levels. Ofelia’s fantasy world is as rich and textured as any you are likely to see on film; and it relates to the other parts of the film in subtle and beautiful ways that are conveyed superbly by the actors in each scene. Note that Pan’s Labyrinth is not a film for children. The content is violent and intense but none of it in a gratuitous manner. I recommend this film but be warned that Ofelia may stay with you long after you leave the theater.


UNDER AND ALONE by William Queen (BOOK)

Ron Jones (Enid) and I went to Kingfisher last week to conduct a couple of preliminary hearings. Ron recommended a book titled “Under and Alone” by William Queen. I bought it that day and thought it was good enough to share. Queen was a BATF agent who went undercover to infiltrate an outlaw motorcycle gang called The Mongols. The book is his first-person account of that experience and it is surprisingly good. There does not appear to be any ghost writer and it shows (too many instances of ending sentences in prepositions) but that fact also makes the book a little more genuine.

Queen informs us that Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura was a member of The Mongols back in 1973 after he returned from Vietnam. Queen also infiltrated the National Alliance, the white-supremacist organization founded and lead by Dr. William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries which the government claimed later to be the blueprint for the Oklahoma City Bombing. Queen has a copy of The Turner Diaries inscribed by Pierce.

As you might expect, The Mongols are some very bad dudes, even by outlaw motorcycle club standards. Queen’s undercover assignment lasted over two years and I think he captures some of the emotional tumult that comes with befriending people, even bonding to a certain extent, and then having to betray them. I know that I could never do that kind of work and I have always been a little suspicious of people who could. Queen gives some insights into this dynamic that illustrate just how difficult it is. One example occurred when the woman who raised him (not his mother, but he considered her his mother) passed away and he went back home to mourn and attend the funeral. When he returned, not one of his co-workers at ATF expressed any sympathy; yet, nearly all of his associates in The Mongols hugged him, said they loved him, and said how sorry they were that his mom died. These were people he would eventually send to prison. That is some powerful stuff.

Queen also does a good job of explaining the mechanics of how motorcycle gangs work and how undercover operations are conducted. The gangs are very tribal and wear insignia called “patches” to signify “full-patch” membership. Once a person has achieved his patch, he is accepted by members everywhere (even in other states) and is entitled to the full protection of the gang which can be ferocious. A person who wants to join is called a “prospect” and a person who just likes to hang around bikers is called a “hang-around.” Queen started as a hang-around, went through the trials of being a prospect, and ended up as a full-patch Mongol by the time the investigation concluded.

Queen falters in some areas, delivering some ill-fitting BATF braggadocio as well as federal-law-enforcement-versus-the-bad-guys schmaltz, but for the most part his book seems genuine enough to enjoy and the schmaltz is met later with what seems to be genuine conflict between his role as federal agent and friend to persons in the gang who are extremely loyal and trusting.

One major criticism of mine is the fact that during this two-and-half year undercover operation, Queen apparently never had to use drugs or resort to serious violence against another person. He comes close many times and explains how he was able to avoid it, but I do not buy his explanations for the most part because it does not seem plausible that he would be able to avoid these things for so long being around persons described in the book as some of the most aggressive, volatile, and paranoid criminals likely to be encountered anywhere. It seems to me that he simply left those parts out for obvious reasons. Queen does explain the procedure and standard used by federal law enforcement when they must use illegal drugs undercover, which is something that I had not read before. But the ease with which he apparently escapes some of these touchy situations seems to contradict his characterization of the Mongols as bad-to-the-bone bikers (and on that point I do not think he is inaccurate).

In the end, I think the reader accepts this artistic license because the trade-off is more than worth it. The book is paperback, only about 250 pages, and is a quick, entertaining week-end read. Check it out.


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MARKET FORCES by Richard K. Morgan (BOOK)

Morgan. I have not been reading for fun a whole lot lately, but I squeezed this book in last week and it was worth it. Set in the future, the story centers around Chris Faulkner who works in the “conflict investment” division of a large UK finance firm which means that he basically calculates how to profit from regional conflicts around the globe. His world is cut-throat and even his co-workers and competitors can file a road challenge to him (or anyone else) and duel in cars on the way to work. If you win and take the other guy’s plastic you might get promoted. Come with blood on the wheels or don’t come. All the characters are fairly well-drawn and there are many parallels between the ethos of his business and what we do. You will see what I mean if you read it. The dialog is smart and sharp. Morgan doesn’t disappoint with a grim, but satisfying ending. Check it out.


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CAPOTE (2005)

Last Monday, I took my mom out on her birthday to see the movie, Capote. It is a low-budget ($7 million), indy art-film, but I think it is the best movie I have seen in a very long time. I read In Cold Blood many years ago and it remains one of the most compelling books of all time. This movie is equally compelling and well done as it chronicles Capote’s fascination with the Clutter case and with the men responsible.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of those character actors you see a lot (he was in Twister, Boogie Nights, Scent of a Woman) but here he gives a command performance in the leading role with solid performances all around. The film is biographical, but not overly ambitious, depicting the life of Truman Capote from the time when he was in New York and read in the Times about the murders of the four members of the Clutter family in Kansas until the ultimate resolution of the criminal case against Perry Smith and Richard Hickock that occurred in “the warehouse” (death by hanging) at Leavenworth.

It is not clear why Capote became fascinated with the Clutter case (and I do not think the book clearly spells it out either) but the film takes the viewer on a stylized, well-paced journey from Manhattan to rural Kansas, and then back again, and does it well. Catherine Keener gives a sleeper performance as Nelle Harper Lee, a childhood friend of Capote who navigates the swishy, dapper Truman through the investigation in Kansas. Harper Lee, of course, wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, and in the movie version the nerdy, sickly boy who moves next door to Scout is based on Truman himself.

The portrait of Capote is at times both unflattering and stark, but also reveals the basic compassion he felt for these two killers and exposes some of the nuanced reasons for Capote’s own personal demons, particularly his acute addiction to alcohol (which ultimately lead to his death and professional ruin) and stout bouts with depression and unresolved issues of abandonment by his parents (and in particular his mother) which draws him closer to the sociopathic Perry Smith, who’s childhood somewhat mimicked Capote’s own (Capote tells Harper Lee that “it’s like we were raised in the same house, only Perry went out the back door and I went out the front door”). Hoffman embraces the character but does more than simply mimic Capote’s over-the-top style in voice, mannerisms, and dress; he conveys the emotional and creative essence of the man with a fair amount of depth and with the right amount of effort.

Capote essentially ends up on a quest to find some answers about himself and the journey is well worth it, with some unintended(?) humor that I think criminal defense lawyers in particular might find very amusing (Capote is at the same time attached to Perry Smith, but also increasingly frustrated because he wants to write a book but Smith will not tell him about the murders themselves and the appeals keep going on forever and there is no resolution to the case(!))

In the end, this film stands on its own. You do not need to know anything about Truman Capote or the Clutter case to enjoy it. You probably will not have to wait in a long line to see it, either, but it is nice to know that someone still knows how to make a good movie with interesting characters without car chases and computer-generated special effects. Go see it.


Roustabout

ROUSTABOUT by Michelle Chalfoun (1996, Harper/Collins)

This work of fiction has nothing to do with oil wells. Apparently, a circus hand who helps erect the large tent is also called a roustabout and that is the focus of this story. Several years ago I quit reading formulaic fiction such as the Dick Francis mystery novels, the Sue Grafton books, etc., because there is, in the end, no real thrill to it. The main character has no moral flaws, always does the right thing, the bad guys are all truly bad and get what they deserve, and all the loose ends are tied up at the end. There is a certain degree of closure to a story like that, but I think it is more of a time-killer rather than a good read because the reader generally takes very little from the story.

In Roustabout, Chalfoun takes the reader along a journey for a few years in the life of Matilda, a roustabout for a traveling circus. The characterization in this story is deep and well-drawn which is something I do not see too often in modern, popular fiction. There are no rose-colored glasses here and you will recognize many of your clients in the personalities brought to life in this story. This is what many of your clients do when they are not in your office after catching that case.

Be warned: this is a dark story. Holmes said that even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over; and modern readers know the difference between gratuitous misery and misery that is part and parcel of a compelling and genuine story. The harsh conditions of circus life in this story are of the latter sort. Matilda (Mat or Matty as she is called) was swept into this world at a very young age and experiences the many life lessons that such a world has to offer, most of them harsh. But her journey through this world is meaningful and Chalfoun works her characters through the human condition with frankness and honesty. She insists that, even though she spent three years as a circus roustabout, the story is not real. However, I was never quite convinced of that and you may not be either.

The ending was, for me at least, satisfying. I will not give it away here, but suffice it to say that many readers (readers who enjoy formulaic fiction a little too much, for example) may find it disconcerting and untidy. But if you give the story its due and pay attention, I think the story ends the only way it could; and I like to believe that Matty turned out just fine.

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