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Archive for August, 2015

9

Cooper sat on the end of the front pew and listened to the growing silence as the last of the attendees made their way out of the cathedral’s massive front doors.  Now that no one was around, he loosened his tie, and undid the top button of his shirt.  He felt tired.  Not the blind fatigue that marked the last three months, but the kind of tired that comes from an honest day’s work.  He knew he’d sleep well tonight.  He smiled as he bent over to pick up the program that someone had carelessly dropped to the floor.  His name wasn’t the only one on it, but he chuckled softly as he read his name, unable to concentrate on any of the others.  He’d reflected on the fickleness of fate, and how it would take an outcast and a refugee, who no longer had a country, and elevate him to the position he currently occupied.

“Sir?  Sir?”

Cooper was jerked out of his reverie, and silently cursed himself for not hearing the approach of the sergeant standing in front of him.  “I’m sorry, sergeant.  I’m afraid I was so lost in thought that I didn’t hear you approach.  How can I help?”

“I’m not sure, sir.  I heard the sermon.  I listened all the way through, which surprised me.”

“It’s ok.  I’m still surprised at the idea of giving one.”

“Yes, well…I guess that’s what I wanted to ask you about.  I found that part interesting.  The part about how you weren’t always a believer.  I was wondering…”

“How that changed?”

“Well, yes, sir.”

“I grew up with it in my family, so it wasn’t something I was unfamiliar with, but I guess I’d have to say that it wasn’t until I started reading that,” his hand reached out to the small, snap cover leather-bound Bible in the sergeant’s hand “that I started to look at things I was already seeing in a different light.  I suppose it is a cliché, but I don’t think a genuine belief is something I could lead someone else to.  They have to find it for themselves.  The best advice I can give you, sergeant, is to read it on your own.  Try to read three chapters a day, and then spend some time thinking about what you read.  If you can make the time, and you dedicate the effort necessary, I think that you won’t be able to help from coming to a genuine and sincere belief on your own.”

The sergeant was quiet for a moment.  Then he collected himself, and said “Thank you, Commander.  I’ve taken enough of your time.”

Cooper looked at the sergeant, and said “Not at all, sergeant.  I’m pretty sure that’s the reason I’m here, and I’m always a little surprised that this is the work my sovereign has me doing.  Everyone seems to be helped by it, no matter how inadequate I feel about it.”

The sergeant looked at him for a moment, his expression unchanging, even as a smile as big as the sun started shining in his eyes.  “Well, then, if that’s the case…”

Cooper allowed a trace of a smile to cross his lips in response.  “Yes?”:

“Sir, the only reason I came today is because some of my men wanted to come, and they asked me to come with them until I said yes.  But I stayed…I stayed because something you said resonated with me.  Our unit leaves tomorrow.  I was wondering if you could come by and counsel some of them.  It would mean a lot.  They won’t tell us where we are going, and in my experience, that usually isn’t good.”

Cooper looked at the sergeant’s unit patch, and realized that he knew where the sergeant was going, and that it wasn’t good.  “Of course I will, sergeant.  In fact, Lt. Col. Gearhart, and I have to drive by there on our way back to where we’re staying.  Why don’t you ride with us?”

Cooper and the sergeant started down the long aisle to the doors, with Rick and Lise in tow.  Rick asked Lise “I guess this means that we’re not getting back to the residence for a awhile?”

Lise, who had been smiling, said “Shhhh!” before saying “I think sleepless nights are about to take on a brand new meaning, Col. Gearhart.

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Over the last few years, Hollywood has been slowly building a library of space disaster movies.  And I have ended up watching most of them.  While some tell the story through telemetry (Europa Report, Apollo 18), the others have used first person/third person  “as-it-happens” narratives (Last Days On Mars/Interstellar/Gravity).  I think that the telemetry story telling is more difficult, but I also think that it has a greater potential that the films using it haven’t quite managed to use to full effect.  However, I like the fact that some in Hollywood have decided to embrace exploration as a theme again, rather than simply using it as a vehicle for other messages, even if in most of these films, it comes down to traveling a long way to meet a sudden and horrible death.  While it is always a possibility, it isn’t the reason for making the trip.  We make the trip because we want to go somewhere where very few others, or no one has been before.  We make the trip because going is the challenge.  We make the trip because there is always something to learn, even if it is just about ourselves.  We make the trip because making the trip helps us to grow.

Apollo 18

I wanted to enjoy this movie.  I think NASA lost something when it stopped manned missions to other planets, and I think we are poorer as a society for them stopping.  The start of this movie made me feel a nostalgia for a time I never really knew, as I would have only been two when this mission was to have taken place in 1974.  But watching it, I could feel the cultural schism that still gripped the country.  It was a time when nerds with slide rules and pencils teamed up with clean-cut, square-jawed men who were much smarter than their outward all-american jock exteriors would lead a casual observer to believe, and braver than counter-cultural footsoldiers who preached a gospel of excess, self-gratification, and navel-gazing that birthed the whiny, entitled, self-serving attitude so prevalent in our society today, to actually DO something of consequence, and inspire those paying attention to achieve and do more themselves.

I watched, as the three-man crew trained for a mission that wasn’t going to get the glory and headlines of previous missions, due to the clandestine nature of the tasks they were being sent to perform, and I marveled at their willingness to strap themselves on to flying bombs, with large computers that have less power than what is contained in a modern car’s emissions control system, or a smart phone.

Of course, it soon becomes clear that the people who sent them failed to tell them everything, and that’s when the movie started to fall apart for me.  These men were career military officers.  And yet they let their emotions override their training, which was fatal for all of them.  It made what started as a solid B+ slide to a C.

Interstellar

I liked that this movie explored the wonder and curiosity implicit in the act of exploration.  I loved the fact that it examined humanity, with all its faults and blemishes, alongside of its best examples of courage, sacrifice, and resolve.

But throughout, I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to make it necessary to leave Earth in the first place.  The film offered some tantalizing clues, but never comes out and describes the events that changed everything.

In the end, it was a breakthrough not in science itself, but our understanding of forces and phenomena that we’ve been aware of forever that allowed humanity to find a new home among the stars.

My initial reaction to the ending was “That’s It?”, but the longer I thought about it, the more I thought it was actually correct.  That said, it isn’t a film I think I’ll be watching again anytime soon.

Gravity

Out of the three films reviewed in this article, I actually liked this one the best.  The visual elements were stunning and convincing.  And I enjoyed the transformation of a scientist who was dead inside into a human being who WANTED to live.

If you can only see one, and want to take in the best story of the three, get Gravity.

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When I was much younger, my friends and I regularly spent a summer evening watching movies.  We all had jobs, and various places offered specials that made it possible to rent 3 VHS tapes for dirt cheap.  Our plan was simple:  We would rent one “good one” (usually a blockbuster or a vanity project for some well-known star), and two “bad ones”, which were films we’d either seen or read were terrible, or decided from the description, must be craptastic to some varying degree.  It was a fun way to pass an evening, and even as most memories of that time take on a more static and incomplete quality in my reflection, I can smile and reflect on four memories which I still carry and hold dear from that time:  The Blue Monkey quarantine, which is the worst in cinematic history; the Millennium paradox, about which one of my oldest friends and I still argue; The worst script ever, Interface, which I remain convinced to this day that they never finished filming (it was so awful we actually turned it OFF), and that you can sleep with a friend’s wife, and he’ll naturally try to kill you, but when he responds by killing your dog, it’s on like Donkey Kong (Revenge).  When I watched John Wick the other night, I recognized one of the bad guy’s errors for what it was: FATAL.  Never, ever kill a man’s dog, and expect mercy.

John Wick opens with a look at a man consumed by an incalculable grief.  He is obviously a man of means, living in an upscale, tidy home, who appears to be controlled, yet rudderless at the same time.  As the movie starts rolling, it is clear that his aimlessness is the result of his wife’s recent death.  The flashbacks tell us little about Wick himself, but make it clear that he adored his now dead wife, who looks to have passed away from cancer.  The only hint we get that there is something out of the ordinary about him is the exchange he has at the cemetery after the funeral, in which he and Marcus, played by Willem Dafoe, exchange emotionless pleasantries before Wick goes back to his home, which is filled with mourners.

As he picks up after they depart, the doorbell rings.  A delivery driver drops off a puppy, with a card from his wife, explaining that the puppy is there to give him something to love in her absence.  Never succumbing to any show of affection, Wick nonetheless makes the puppy his companion, and clearly carves out a place in his life for the small dog, who accompanies him everywhere.

It is on one of these outings where Wick crosses paths with flashy russian thugs at a local gas station, where one becomes attracted to Wick’s car, a ’69 Boss Mustang, and crudely offers to buy it from the circumspect Wick.  Wick informs him that it isn’t for sale, prompting the thug to fall back on his thuggishness, and attempt to intimidate Wick, only to learn that the quiet man speaks Russian quite well, and wasn’t intimidated at all.

The Russians are not deterred, and later break into Wick’s home, brutally beat him, kill his dog, and steal his car.  They take it to a chop shop, and tell the alarmed owner that they would like new vins and clean papers.  The owner, played by John Leguizamo, recognizes the car, and decides he would rather face the wrath of the thug leader’s father than the owner of the Mustang.  When word gets back to the father, he places a call to Leguizamo, who informs him that his son just beat up John Wick, killed his dog, and stole his car.  The father, realizing just what a grevious error this was, simply said “Oh.”, and hung up the phone.

Meanwhile, Wick is making preparations, and we start to get a sense that his aimlessness is gone, only to be replaced by a bloody and single-minded resolve.  Meanwhile, the father, accompanied by his consigliere, played by Dean Winters (Mayhem), confronts his son, and lets him know the gravity of his offense, and the inevitability of a permanent penalty.

That fucking nobody is John Wick. He once was an associate of ours. They call him Baba Yaga. Well John wasn’t exactly the Boogeyman, he was the one you send to kill the fucking Boogeyman. John is a man of focus, commitment and sheer will. I once saw him kill three men in a bar, with a pencil. With a fucking… pencil. Suddenly one day he asked to leave, over a woman of course. So I made a deal with him. I gave him an impossible task. A job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he buried that day lay the foundation of what we are now. And then my son, a few days after his wife died, you steal his car and kill his fucking dog. John will come for you and you will do nothing because you can do nothing.

The rest of the movie is a tale of a father trying to save his son, while knowing it is an impossible task, and a man so focused on revenge that he steps back into a world he was fortunate enough to walk away from years before.  The body count was otherworldly, and the way in which Wick dispatched those between him and his objective was brutal, but it was done in a way that didn’t come across as gratuitous or pointless, which made watching the movie much easier than it could have been.  But the other thing that made this movie enjoyable was the fact that there was a code of conduct for the assassins, and when one of their number did not observe that code, and decided to “break the rules” to take the chance of getting the huge bounty placed on Wick’s head, the others didn’t remain on the sidelines, wagging their fingers.  They acted to enforce that code, because in the end, they too needed a place to take shelter, and have one place where they didn’t have to look over their shoulders.  In the end, the only time where Wick showed any emotion other than an appetite for revenge was in a scene where he answered the one question on everyone’s lips.  I won’t spoil that for you, but I will tell you that in the end, he walks off with another dog.  Maybe it is from dealing with autistic people, maybe it’s from having it myself to a degree, but in that scene, I thought he showed a glimmer of hope that he could still “get out”, and find a measure of peace.

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Black Sea

Captain Robinson has a problem.

The movie opens with the veteran submarine captain being informed by a desk jockey that his employment with the salvage company he works for has come to an end.  Robinson’s reaction is a mix of shock and anger, as he realizes that the career he has lost his family to has discarded him like so much refuse.

However, a conversation with other unemployed salvers in a pub offers the hope of a privately finance salvage job in the Black Sea…one that would allow him to retire richer than he could ever imagine, so he could attempt to rekindle his relationship with his 12 year-old son, who is being raised by his ex-wife and her new husband.  Soon he and his fellow conspirators hatch a plan to reach a Nazi U-boat, which supposedly disappeared in 1940 after taking on a cargo of gold paid to the Nazis by Stalin in a desperate attempt to buy peace with Germany at the outset of the Second World War.

He is soon introduced to a mysterious individual, who offers to provide the necessary financial backing in exchange for 40% of any gold found up to $40,000,000.00, and 20% of any gold above that amount the salvers recover.  From there, Robinson, and his friends hatch a plan to buy an old Soviet diesel submarine to use in their attempts to salvage the gold without either the Georgian or the Soviet navies learning of their efforts.  In order to keep the costs down, they decide on a half British, half Russian skeleton crew of misfits and psychopaths, and travel to Sevastopol to purchase a floating wreck which is no longer adequate to be repurposed into razor blades, and set to refitting and provisioning for the trip.

You can guess that this is a recipe for disaster, and you would be right, but Jude Law’s performance as the haggard captain convincingly portrays the kind of desperation that would push a man who should know better to seal himself in a tin can with a small crew of people who don’t like or trust their own countrymen, and mix them with an equal number of foreigners who they despise even more.  Once the predictable series of events and disasters start to unfold, the good captain becomes even more desperate, and ends up compounding the problem, returning to balance only when he discovers that he and his shrinking crew have been set up by their former employer, and weren’t ever going to be able to keep the tons of gold they sacrificed so much to retrieve, because the corporation and the Georgian government had already divided it among themselves.  At this point, the clichéd reimagining of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” ended, as the captain ended up sacrificing himself to save the only two characters who weren’t modern-day pirates.

Black Sea

While there were some “liberties” taken with the script in terms of the science involved in undersea adventures, there was really only one that managed to pull my attention from the story to the gaff and make me say “oh, c’mon…”.   I was also put off a bit by the language, but it would be foolish to expect a movie about sailors to feature sailors who didn’t talk like sailors.

Overall, it was an ok story, and a decent diversion for a short time, but it isn’t one that I would be looking to purchase for my collection.

The Equalizer

When this movie first came out, I made some jokes about how Hollywood had to put some old white male actor out of work in this “reimagining” of the 80’s television character, and how disappointed I was that some social justice warrior wasn’t starting a hashtag campaign in protest.  I confess that while I did so as a joke, I do suffer from a certain annoyance with Hollywood’s proclivity to “reimagine” my childhood, and often cast it in a darker light, rather than simply telling a new story, and that is why I took so long to get around to watching this movie.

My original memories of the show are somewhat vague, as I was still fairly young, and it originally aired at 10 pm on Saturdays, a time when I was normally in bed.  I recently borrowed the first season from my local library, and found that the Joel Surnow produced show was fairly well written and acted.  It featured Edward Woodward as the “retired” spy who set up shop in New York City after an operation was botched badly by a jittery agent who prevented Robert McCall from keeping his word to the subject of the operation.  Because he still had some highly placed friends in the Agency, because he knew where the bodies were buried, and because he agreed to make himself available for certain ops that required his expertise and skill set, the Agency unofficially agreed to look the other way, and not bring him in from the cold.  As I watched the episodes in order, I found myself reasonably impressed by the tradecraft written into the series, although some of the technology seems horribly dated in this day and age.  However, I believe that one of the things that the original series got absolutely correct was that its main character carried himself like a successful operative would, which is anything but what we see James Bond do in film after film.  Woodward’s McCall is an older man, without any distinguishing features that would make him stick out in the average person’s memory.  Yes, he had an English accent.  Yes, he drove a Jaguar, which was much less common on the nation’s roadways at that time than today.  But he also knew how to blend into the crowd.  He could, and often did observe without drawing any attention to himself, and if you ran into him on the street, there was nothing about him that would raise your awareness or pique your curiosity unless he wanted it to.  That’s why the character worked for several seasons.  And that’s why I found it easier to believe he was who he was supposed to be than Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall.

The movie opens quietly, and it doesn’t take long to see that McCall is a man who is hiding, and it isn’t until fifteen minutes or so into the movie that you start to get a glimmer of what it is…who it is…he is hiding from.  But it is obvious from the  introduction that while he lives a quiet life, it is not who he is.  His apartment is spartan, and spotless.  Nothing is out-of-place.  His bed is made so tightly that quarter could bounce on it.  He’s clearly been up since well before dawn.  His morning routine shows a rigid discipline, and his own personal maintenance, appearance and demeanor is too focused, too ordered, too strack for him to be the quiet widower working for a home improvement warehouse that he appears to be.

It is his routine that guides him into the conflict, and the confrontation with himself that drives the story, however, as his middle-of-the-night trips to his local 24-hour diner draw him into a friendship with a much younger prostitute working for the local Russian mob.  When she makes the mistake of believing that she could be something more, the local mob boss puts her in her place with a brutal beating that sends her to the local ICU, and McCall finds himself, almost absent-mindedly using his formidable skills against the gangsters, and the local cops who are on their payroll.  This brings him into conflict with the crime family’s enforcer, “Teddy” (brilliantly portrayed by Marton Csokas), a former Spetznaz member who is unburdened by emotion or sentiment, and who shows a singular determination to find the party responsible for upsetting the enterprise’s apple cart, and make an example of him.

McCall and Friend
When McCall realizes that his own message has invited a much larger response, he makes a trip to visit his former boss, who still has connections with the Agency, to get intelligence about his new and lethal adversary.  She, and her husband are both pleasantly surprised (but not too surprised) to learn that McCall is still alive, after having apparently faked his death shortly after his wife passed away.  This lead to one of what I felt were the two most telling sequences in the film, where in a moment of candor, his former boss tells McCall that it is time for him to go be who he is.  After he left, her husband asked “Is everything alright? Were you able to help him?”, and she sagely responded “He didn’t come for help. He came for permission.”
This permission wasn’t just official sanction, it was permission to be the person who he promised his dead wife that he would never be again, because that was the person who the world needed him to be.  This was the part of the story that the movie got absolutely correct, and because of it, this was the story that I had vainly hoped to see when I watched Harry Brown.  Washington’s McCall was the man I expected from Caine’s Brown.  A man who could afford to be quiet, because everything about him screamed the motto “Be polite, be courteous, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

The movie’s other telling moment came after Teddy, who is impersonating one of the dirty cops on his employer’s payroll, confronts McCall, because he doesn’t believe that the intelligence the police have gathered on McCall is correct.  While each knew who the other was, neither stepped away from the charade that they had decided to play.  McCall played the sort-of-informed citizen, who just happened to be at the restaurant where the mobsters were rapidly and efficiently dispatched, a bystander who wanted to help, but hadn’t seen a thing, and Teddy the detective, just trying to follow up with all potential witnesses.  However, McCall’s body language and actions didn’t match those of a harmless and ineffectual widower, and instead sent a very different message than his words.  The encounter ended on an awkward note, when McCall’s average citizen asked a provocative question, leaving Teddy to make a poor excuse as he retreated to the waiting SUV driven by one of the dirty cops, who had listened to the exchange without any idea of the conversation the two had physically carried on with each other, leaving Teddy to utter the one truth about Washington’s portrayal of the former spook that was obvious about him from the opening of the movie: “Everything about the man is wrong.”

It isn’t often when there is such an obvious disconnect in a film, and I end up liking it anyway, but this is the case with “The Equalizer”.   This might only be because I concluded that Washington’s McCall was never a spy so much as he was a fixer.  He wasn’t a man who could be inconspicuous unless he chose to be very conspicuous.  He was a man who would be sent to deal with problems in a very permanent fashion, and that would be what would allow him to be the Equalizer in today’s society, in which reason is much discussed, but rarely practiced, and in which the veneer of civilization is polished much more brightly in order to hide just how thin it has come to be.

This is a film I would watch again, because it reflects the world we live in.

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