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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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*******SPOILER ALERT********

Avengers  Age of Ultron

Today my oldest son took me to see the latest Avengers movie as my belated Father’s Day gift. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have a bone to pick with one of the central plot points, but for other reasons, the film redeemed itself spectacularly. Let’s start with the “bad” first.

Like so many other people, I grew up reading comic books, and the Avengers were one of my favorite titles. And in the world of Marvel Silver and Bronze Age and the 80s, Ultron was Hank Pym’s cross to bear. I realize that many of you may be saying “C’mon, you’re being silly. It was a great story!”, and you’d be absolutely right. I freely admit that the hang up about this is my own, and as stupid as it sounds, it is because these characters were as much my friends growing up as any flesh-and-blood people actually were. And because I actually give a damn, part of me was wondering all the way through “Is it too much?” Ultron was, and is, an extinction-level baddie, who was one of the many bad pennies that The Avengers had to deal with time and again. Because of this, I couldn’t help feeling that putting his creation on to the consciences of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner was a manifestly unfair act in story-telling. Tony is a man whose entire life has been shaped by his self-doubt and failure, a man who is divided between constantly running from his demons, and trying to make up for them. No matter how tormented be may be privately, at least he gets to hide behind the image of success, and a million-dollar smile, even if the music he hears when he closes his eyes is a thundering rendition of “Eminence Front”. Bruce Banner can only dream of that kind of peace. Instead, the best he can hope for is a life of anonymity in the shadows, where he can hide from EVERYONE, especially himself, and the monster that is freed by rage and anger. He lives a life in which he can’t close his eyes, because all he’ll hear are the screams of the hundreds of thousands the beast within has killed or maimed since being freed in an accident of science. This is why I questioned the retcon of the old familiar story. These two have enough on their plate without throwing Ultron into the mix. But that said, “It is done”, and so the cinematic universe continues.

Moving on to the “good”, first and foremost, the team has completed its metamorphosis from a group of unique individuals, into an actual “team”, with even a haunted Bruce Banner willingly freeing The Hulk when the team gets in over their heads with Hydra forces at the beginning of the movie and Hawkeye is injured. The team calls in a “Code Green”, bringing the gamma beast into the fray, and tipping the balance into the team’s favor.

Even so, there is still room for surprises, and we get to see Natasha let her guard down, and admit her attraction to Bruce Banner, which in a fun scene, she herself admits is improbable. We also got to see them all having fun in moments where nothing of consequence was at stake, and it very much felt like we got to enjoy it with them. But the part that hit it out of the park for me was the fact that Hawkeye got his due in this film.

In a world where so many spend so much time and effort attacking symbols for what they want to see in them and spend so little addressing the actual issues, because doing so might offend someone, or laud men in dresses for their “courage” while vilifying those who patiently ask “How is that courageous?”, Hawkeye reminded us what real heroism looks like. I know, I know, he’s a fictional character on a team of super heroes. How can that possibly represent real heroism?

The answer was plain as day in the story. Hawkeye and the Black Widow aren’t like the rest of the team. They aren’t invulnerable. They don’t have super powers, or a special suit to help keep them safe. They can be injured…severely…or even killed. And yet, they suit up. They play their parts on a team as members of a team. They are unafraid to put their lives on the line to save a teammate, or anyone else. When other people are running from danger, they run toward it. And they don’t have to.

When everyone on the team is paralyzed by the visions of their fears, the juxtaposition couldn’t have been more jarring to me. Captain America, in looking to those dreams, had to confront the truth that he fought for something he never got; the right to come home, and enjoy the peace he gave so much for and do it with that special someone. And now, he fights to give others that opportunity. And yet Hawkeye opened a home that only two others knew he had when they needed a safe place, and when the team had to leave, maybe for the last time, in order to settle accounts with Ultron, he left that oasis, a pregnant wife, and two small children, in the hope that whatever sacrifice he made, and whatever price he paid, other people would get that chance to go home, to be surrounded by their loved ones, to live.

His wife didn’t hesitate to support his decision to do so, and she clearly understood that even if he wasn’t super-human, he was still central to the team being a team, and only asked that he made sure that they were worth the sacrifices he was chancing. But the finest moment came when he put himself in harm’s way to save the Scarlet Witch, who he had been fighting only a short time earlier, and gave her the game-winning pep talk when he could no longer ignore that there was still much work to be done if they were to carry the day.

Doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were. If you go out there, you fight, and you fight to kill. Stay in here, you’re good, I’ll send your brother to come find you. But if you step out that door, you are an Avenger.

And then he pulled an arrow from his quiver, kicked open a door, and went back outside.

The men and women who run toward the danger.

They are the heroes.

The ones who will STAND when the odds are against them, because the fight matters.

They are the heroes.

And although Joss Whedon can be the world’s biggest knucklehead when he gets in front of a microphone, he understands how to tell stories that inspire. And for that, I can forgive him.

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I have been watching the latest cultural crusades with some dread and trepidation.

The campaign against the Confederate Battle Flag is one in which cowards have not only prevailed, but engaged in an orgy of self-congratulation that would leave most rational witnesses convinced of the insanity of the most fervently committed, and it has enjoyed a success that could not have been possible until we empowered those among us who decided to be offended at anything.  Once we allowed offense to become a de facto crime, we robbed ourselves of the most powerful tool of personal and regional autonomy: The Burden of Persuasion.

Make no mistake.  This is where we have been headed the minute we set foot on this road.  One need only look back and recognize that this has been how the left has accomplished every major coup of the last 60 years.  What could not be won in persuasion, and therefore by legislative means, was won in courtrooms, by judges and justices peering in “the law”, and divining just the right purpose to reward petitioners by mining the necessary meanings from penumbras and emanations, until they have gotten so bold that they will announce their conclusions as rooted in shallow philosophy rather than actual jurisprudence.  And at the same time, they have set themselves up as the ultimate arbiters of culture, unafraid to take advantage of the general good nature of those they would browbeat into submission.  This, was in fact, their avenue to victory.  By claiming offense at anything and everything, they caused those they deemed themselves to be superior to surrender.  It is a cowardly way to advance an idea, a notion, a concept, or a worldview, but shame was not to stand in the way of victory.

It is said that one of the great flashes of genius in the Second Amendment is that it prevents compulsion and requires persuasion.  Small wonder, then that the Second Amendment is a touchpoint, and a sore one at that in the war that our cultural betters have been waging against us for years now.  I have largely stayed out of the battle over the Confederate Battle Flag, not because I didn’t think it mattered as a fight, but because it has been a convenient distraction and wedge to occupy good people in a never-ending battle against the cultural shock troops of our betters, while the very people who have fomented this conflict benefit from drawing everyone’s attention away from what they are doing.  Frankly, the only reason I’m commenting on this farce now has to do with a blog post that made its way around Facebook this week, where a “hero” took it upon himself to tear the battle flag off the back of a semi trailer.  The author waxed poetic about the vandal’s heroism, and about the “cowards” who fought for the losing cause of the Confederacy.   The aggressiveness of the ignorance underscored why this matters.

Back when I was young, and my skull full of mush, I believed in the nobility of the North’s cause in that conflict.  I too, referred to that banner as a traitor’s flag.  But when I got outside the halls of public indoctrination, and took the time to read first-hand accounts, and to dig deep into the history to understand the events of the era, I learned that not everything that I was taught was correct, and that it sure as hell didn’t tell the whole story.  But even when I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the conflict, I still wouldn’t have characterized the Confederates as “cowards”.  Knowing what I know now, I know that men don’t fight for years, in rags, sometimes barefoot, with as many of their number falling prey to malnutrition as to enemy action out of a belief in an institution that many of them weren’t wealthy enough to practice on their own, and it is cartoonish and silly to assert otherwise.

But flush in their recent judicial victories, complete with govern-given “rights”, and cultural victories against a symbol that represents a lot of things, good and bad, our betters now assume that persuasion is no longer necessary.  They show no hesitation at demonizing anyone who dares to think, or believe in ways in which they do not approve.  They seek to criminalize non-conformity, to bring the power of the state to bear against anyone who dares resist their collective will.  This is the essence of cowardice; the absolute refusal to persuade when compulsion has been made easy.  It shows no respect, despite demanding it still when “offense” is invoked, and it will brook no resistance.  The only view that is acceptable is their own, and if you cannot be made to voluntarily silence yourself, then they will shut you up by force, and make an example of you if necessary.  And when all else fails, they will attack the dead.

I read a tweet the other day by some Administration flunky, which expressed the view that states rights has been dead (and rightly so) since the Civil War.  In some ways, he was correct, but in the most important one, he was wrong.  I don’t recall any amendment repealing the Tenth Amendment, and until that occurs, Americans everywhere are free to exercise their rights within their home state to live in any way that they did not expressly grant the Federal government control over. And it is LONG past time to stop being polite, to our own detriment, and remind our betters and our rulers (BIRM) of that fact.

It’s been said that war is simply politics by other means.  Our betters believe that politics is war by other means, and that is why they are always on the attack.  If it feels like you’re always being put on the offensive, it’s because you are.  And its being done by people who are cowards, people who don’t want to have a conversation, people who don’t want to have a debate.  They are people who want to lecture.  They are people who want to scold.  No give and take is necessary, because they don’t have to afford you the courtesy or respect of acknowledging that your opposing (or even just different) thoughts and beliefs are honestly arrived at, derived, or earned.  They are people who eschew morals, but cling to their own ideology, and advance it by any means necessary as if it were the strongest moral imperative.  As long as your motives can be disregarded by the casting of aspersion, then they do not have to persuade you, because you…YOU…are a racist.  YOU are a hater.  YOU are a bigot.  YOU are a reactionary, and only their view may prevail.

The President recently said that the only thing we all have in common is government.  It is small wonder then, that so many among us keep trying to imbue it will power it was never meant to have, in part to stamp out any non-conformity with what it would plan for us.  I think that we could set the cultural cannon fodder back on their heels if we would only stand.  It wouldn’t mean being rude; merely firm.  But then, if they continue to criminalize thought, and continue to presume that they know what is in our hearts, then they should be weary.  Getting what one has wished for has been the undoing of many people throughout the years, and the fact is that if they are determined to make me, and my friends outlaws, then I am quite sure that we will be the scariest damn outlaws to ever walk the Earth.

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***SPOILER ALERT***

For some people, having to relive the worst day of their life, over and over and over again would seem like a private hell.  And Major Bill Cage finds out the hard way that he doesn’t much like it either.

Cage, played by Tom Cruise, is an advertising exec who finds himself in uniform after an alien invasion and a years long conflict with the invaders puts him out of business.  He’s still in sales, as the smiling face of the United States Army, selling enrollment in the United Defense Force, which is trying to reclaim continental Europe from the aliens (call “mimics”).  His job is made a little easier by the UDF’s recent victory over the mimics at Verdun, when he is seconded to the leading general at the UDF headquarters in London, who informs an incredulous Cage that the UDF was about to mount a D-Day like offensive, and that Cage would be hitting the beach with the troops to tell the story.

Cage is a coward, and is not afraid to say so, and attempts to refuse the assignment, unsubtlely implying that he would have no trouble convincing the public after the coming bloodbath that the General should be to blame.  The General, not one to be cowed by a smart-alec yank, has Cage arrested, and tased.  Cage wakes up the next day at the UDF staging area at Heathrow, stripped of rank, and in the care of a master sergeant who has been told that Cage is a deserter.

Cage is reluctantly taken in by J squad, who take an immediate dislike to Cage, and refuse to give him even the basic knowledge of how to operate the battle exo-suit that he will wear in the invasion of the mainland on the next morning.  The invasion is a disaster, and Cage is predictably killed, but in so doing, takes a larger mimic (an Alpha) with him…and he wakes up the previous morning, again in handcuffs, being yelled at by a sergeant before the master sergeant steps in and starts working on his reluctant charge all over again.

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Each time he dies, he gets a little farther, before coming face to face with the hero of the Battle of Verdun, played by Emily Blunt, who seems to understand the unique predicament that he is describing to her.  Working with her, he repeats the two days over and over, until he learns enough to actually be a stone killer, the same as her, and the two embark on a plan to bring an end to the war.

I’ll admit to not being Cruise’s biggest fan, but I enjoyed this movie.  I became completely engrossed in Cage’s predicament, and the way that Blunt’s Sergeant Vrataski brutally trains him to become the selfless (and suicidal) killing machine that they will both have to be to win the ultimate victory, and how they make the ultimate sacrifice to save all of humanity…or do they?

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Wednesday night I got to share an experience with my oldest son which he will never forget. As my two regular readers will already know, both my sons are on the autism spectrum. The oldest one has Asperger’s Syndrome. Unlike his little brother, he is in regular classes, and if you were to encounter him in public or on the street, depending on the setting, it might take a few minutes for you to figure out that he doesn’t see the world the way you and I do. And like me, he is an Eric Church fan.

At The Key Arena

When we learned Chief was coming to Seattle this spring, my wife got on-line and we bought two tickets, so he and I could go and see one of our favorite singers in concert.

While I have been to many “big” concerts over the years, mostly at Michigan venues like Meadowbrook, the Pontiac Silverdome, The Palace at Auburn Hills, The Saginaw Civic Center, and Pine Knob, I have never been to any major Washington venue other than McCaw Hall.

We left in the early afternoon, so to avoid any traffic issues, and arrived in plenty of time to enjoy a spring afternoon at Seattle Center, and found a line forming already, with hard-core fans outside. I wish I could say that I was impressed with the venue’s handling of guests outside the building, I can’t. Conflicting information and instructions given by the venue’s workers made the wait frustrating and disappointing, especially for a young man who has a need to clearly understand what he is expected to do and participate in. However, once we finally got to the entry, the credit card/ticketless entry system seemed to work very well. The lines for souvenirs were long, but moved quickly, and soon my son had his first concert t-shirt with the image of his hero on the front and a list of concert venues on the back. We went to the concession stand to get a snack and some drinks and went to find our seats.

Let me say that for a concert, I don’t think there can be a bad seat in the Key Arena. We both spent a fair amount of time looking around and watching people file in, and looked at the stage at the south end of the arena.

The Brothers Osborne took the stage at 7:30 pm, and played a great show for about 45 minutes to a half-filled arena. I had heard them before, and knew they could play well, but judging from some of the reactions around us, several people were hearing them for the first time…and liking it. They played songs from their EP, including “Let’s Go There”, and “Rum”, and connected well with the audience when they spoke about knowing that you don’t have to be from the south to be country, before launching into a blistering rendition of “Down Home”. But my moment of great surprise and wonder came when they admitted to being great fans of The Band, then started playing an ambitious take on “The Shape I’m In.” While my son wasn’t familiar with the songs, he still enjoyed the performance, as did the concertgoers there to see it.

Eric Church

After the Brothers Osborne left the stage, the workers came to clear everything off, and soon a slide show started playing on the jumbotron above the stage as the arena filled over the next hour and fifteen minutes.

When the lights darkened and the opening strains of “The Outsiders” started, my son’s eyes got wide and he turned to give me a high-five as the crowd erupted. By now the woman next to me had figured out that my son isn’t “normal”, and that it was his first concert. At different points she tried to engage him, asking him what his favorite song was, high-fiving him when he appeared to be excited about a particular song, and urging him to wave his arms and cheer like everyone else in the arena, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Eric and the band played an excellent show on a stage meant to allow them to play to the front, the sides, and the back. His energy was undeniable, and he reminded the crowd of his many visits to Seattle. The drum kit came down from the ceiling and turned during the show, and lights lowered and raised from the ceiling and from the back of the stage throughout the show. Eric drew on his vast catalog of songs, getting some of the strongest crowd reactions to favorites like “Sinners Like Me” and “Pledge Allegience to the Hag”. As the top-fueled 2+ hour performance drew to a close, he and the band played a poignant version of “Springsteen”, and before he wrapped it up, he talked to the audience about the line “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory”, and how he wanted us all to form a memory of that special Wednesday night, before he invited the audience to sing along with him to the “Whoa-oh-oh-oh, Whoa-oh-oh-oh,Whoa-oh-oh-oh”.

Chief
I was glad for that. For that evening, my son was part of an arena full of family, united in their love of a performer’s music, and of the performance itself, which was one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, and he got to just belong, and enjoy the irony of not being an outsider. I saw his shoulders droop just a little as the band left the stage at the completion of the song, and then I saw them raise back up a bit when Chief walked back out alone, and stood in the spotlight as he played “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young”.  It was a good ending to a great concert.  And we got to enjoy a day of good conversations, before and after the concert, and one of the best performances he’ll ever see by a guy who sings songs that will be permanently embedded in the soundtrack of our lives, and those melodies will always be memories.

Thank you, Chief.

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The Judge

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a Chicago trial lawyer at the top of his game. Prosecutors hate him, and the guilty who can pay his fees love him, because he helps them go free.  He has money, and the trappings of success, but a cynicism that cannot be disguised.  You realize very early on that he is a damaged person, and I found myself wanting to know why.

As the movie opens, he’s about to do it again, when he answers his cell phone as the Judge comes to the bench and calls the court to order. He asks the Judge for a continuance, as he has just learned that his mother passed away.

As he prepares to go back home, we learn that while he is talented and obviously wealthy, his marriage to the trophy wife with “the ass of a high school volleyball player” is on the rocks because she is sleeping with an old boyfriend, and while he blithely discusses their inevitable divorce, he tells her that he will be getting custody of their daughter.

Home, as it turns out, is Indiana, and as we begin to learn, he is less than welcome there. His father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is the local judge, and dispenses justice as only a small town judge can, as we see when Hank visits the court on his arrival in town. Their grief is shared by Hank’s older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and their retarded little brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong). There is no love lost between the Judge and his middle son, yet Judge Palmer manages to muster a modicum of civility when addressing the son who left, and didn’t speak to him for years. Having witnessed the Judge’s performance in the courtroom, however, Hank suspects that his father is drinking. On the evening after the funeral, the Judge leaves after thanking Hank for coming to the funeral, claiming he needs to buy eggs. The Palmer boys, however, go to the local watering hole, and stay to close it down. The next morning, Hank happens to discover that there is significant damage to the front of the Judge’s car, and the local Sheriffs want to question him regarding the death of a man he had sentenced to prison years earlier who had coincidentally been run down on the previous night.

As the story unfolds, so does Hank’s history. Downey is the right person to play the character, not because he does brash and confident well, but because he has such a deft touch playing the brash and confident ace attorney who is brought back to confront a past that he has spent decades running from. His little brother’s film hobby ends up causing him to confront both the good parts of his past, which include happier days when the Palmer boys were still boys, images of fishing with the Judge, and his older brother throwing the winning pitch at the state high school championships, and the car accident which ruined forever his big league dreams because Hank was high while driving. But it is a stray image captured by his little brother’s movie camera which provides the clue to a secret that his father has kept from everyone, and which would exculpate him from the first degree murder charge that his father was making it nearly impossible for Hank to defend against.

It clearly is a trying time for Hank, whether it was hosting his daughter, who was meeting her Grandpa for the first time, running into an old girlfriend, and trying to remain on an even keel when presented with the opportunities that the encounter offered, or dealing with the most difficult client he has ever had, with the weight of his brothers’ expectations being as heavy as can be, along with his own realization that, perhaps for the first time in his career, he actually is feeling the responsibility of having his client’s life in his hands.

Anyone who has lived more than a handful of years can tell you that family can be hard…probably because you don’t get to pick them. I enjoyed this movie because it didn’t sugar coat the difficult events between the members of the family, or how they struggled to remain family in spite of them. D’Onofrio’s older brother seems resigned to a life much different from the one he’d expected. He seems to be at peace with Hank’s role in making him the town’s tire shop owner rather than big league pitcher that he was on track to be, and while he does harbor some resentment when it becomes clear that he is going to have to take in his little brother  soon, he still appears to be duty bound to do so.  In a very revealing scene toward the end, Hank’s ex girlfriend sums up why it is that she still loves him, and in a way, it’s why I could watch the movie, and like him too. The screenplay doesn’t leave him any outs. He has to confront his past, and make peace with it, and along the way, he makes peace with the Judge, too, as an anecdote in an unguarded moment explains all the hopes and dreams he’d had for his middle son, and a gut-wrenching testimony on the witness stand in his own trial explained why he had become so distant from the son he loved at one time. Duvall doesn’t disappoint, as he plays a man of duty and conviction who in the twilight of his career, and the twilight of his life becomes reconciled with his prodigal son, while that son learns that while redemption doesn’t make everything alright, it does free you to move forward without the weight of the past forcing you to run away, or dictating your next action.

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europa-report-poster (1)
***SPOILER ALERT***

I admit it. I’m a sucker for movies that DON’T preach at you. I’m always intrigued when a filmmaker presents a story, but allows me to draw my own conclusions, if only because I might end up examining why I came to the conclusions I did. Europa Report is one of those films.

The story is presented in a disjointed, voyeuristic way, as it is told as much through the cameras mounted throughout the spaceship and on the astronauts themselves, as it is through the more “strightforward” scenes filmed from a perspective within the action.

It starts at a point where the ship has already been en route to Europa long enough that Earth is no longer visible to the astronauts aboard. Through the mounted cameras, we see the crew going on about their daily routines, as something unexpected occurs, which cuts off the ship’s communication feed to Earth.

The film jumps forward a few days, and the conversations and actions we see make it clear that one of the crew is dead, communications are still out, and the crew is discussing whether to continue with the mission. We are also able to see that the crew is also concerned about the well-being of a male member of the crew who appears to be the oldest one among them.

Through flashbacks on Earth, we learn that the trip is a privately funded venture which was started after unmanned probes gathered data indicating water under the ice of Europa, along with thermal pockets which caused speculation about the possibility of life in the vast ocean there. Because of this, the company which made this discovery decided to send a manned expedition to learn more, and they assembled an international crew thought to comprise the best of the best. We also learn that the CEO continued in her belief that the mission was proceeding, even after they had lost contact with the ship.

Through the flashbacks from the ship, we meet the crew, and get a glimmer of their motivations for strapping themselves to a bomb, and hurtling themselves through the cold darkness to a meeting with the unknown, how they lost a crew member, and his act of heroism, and the subsequent toll it took on the survivors as they continued the mission.

When they finally reach Europa, their plans for the surface mission are again scrambled by events that they couldn’t anticipate, making it necessary for one of the crew to go outside to try to gather some of the data that they came so far to get. Staying almost to the end of her standard EVA time, she finally finds a unicellular life form which she likens to algae. When she sees something witnessed by the remaining flight engineer alone the day before, she naturally went to investigate. Because the cameras in the suits look at the astronaut’s faces and not at what the astronaut sees, we, and her crewmates know that she enountered…something…before she wound up under the ice, and communications were abruptly severed.

From this point, unforeseen events continue to snowball, until it is revealed that the astronauts never left Europa, but did manage to repair their communications array and transmit everything that happened from the point they lost contact with Earth, to their own last moments, ending with the CEO speaking about the crew’s sacrifice, and the final image transmitted, proving that there was indeed life on Europa, and that we weren’t alone in the universe. As I watched this, and listened, I couldn’t help but to regard this with the perspective of a professional. The CEO didn’t have the luxury of government immunity, and it was clear that while some of the things that went horribly wrong could not have been planned for, that wouldn’t stop some people from claiming otherwise, and that given how some of them had died, it seemed to me that she was trying to put a smiley face on what had been a terrible first contact situation.

I can’t say that Europa Report is a movie that I would watch again, but I did appreciate how the filmmakers got out of the way, and let the story tell itself. I liked the fact that the makers chose to eschew the typical bull-in-a-chinashop subtlety usually employed in such movies, allowing the viewer to enjoy their own anxieties and and resignations as the expedition came to a very different end than the ones its sponsors had planned.

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