Apr

5

 Following on the successful Thai forerunner of this film, this new iteration provides a somewhat relaxed intro to a basic horror genre manifestation.

A man, Eliot (Mark Webber), gets telephoned tasks that begin deceptively mildly, though not without a disgusting quotient all the same. For his participation, which becomes more and more non-voluntary, he is gifted with increasing sums of money to alleviate his difficult living conditions: Loss of his job, a pregnant girlfriend, a vicious father, an Asberger's-afflicted brother needing institutionalization, and a looming wedding. Cash is too much in demand for the hero to turn down the increasingly horrible (and weird) tasks–though to Eliot's credit, when his orders include bloody dismemberments and ultimately the decapitation of innocents, he takes a stand. Forfeiture and loss are baked into the cake, but the ride is supposed to ensure that we get the full Monty of bloody excess. We never do know why the tasks are so arcane and crackers, though Eliot is a good stand in for Average Joe afflicted with what he thinks is an easy answer to his many money problems.
One usually steers a wide berth around full-on horror pics. This is not as gruesome, as soon, as the vast run of the field. But it gets there, Grasshopper. It gets there. There is no sex, no scatology, nothing offensive… except the premise and the grue-index as it escalates.

The film is not uninvolving, for a time. The production values are there: Attractive enough cast members, including Ron Perlman as a detective, accommodating scenery, scripting that does not wholly disgust the discerning. At first. But halfway through, the story line becomes muddled. One cannot figure out who is ordering the protagonist to do such outlandish and uncalled-for "sins," and soon, one gives up trying. The plot commits that ultimate sin: It fails to make sense. The story falls apart, and even by the last reel, we have no idea who did what, or why. Who won, who lost. Who cares. There are a cornucopoeia of questions hanging in the air at the end. That makes for audience annoyance and dissatisfaction. Be it known that the Thai original made better and more logical sense than this version.

It is still a mystery why even teenagers would want to see gore like that slathered over viewers with such films. (NB: Boys supposedly take girls to slasher films so the girls can squeal and climb onto the lap of her escort. Or clutch him for 'safety.' That part of the plot never changes…) Isn't ordinary life nowadays frightening enough, with its disappearing Malay airliners, its Ukraine takeovers, and its insane PTSD shooters going postal for no ostensible reason?

Guess it's a narrow, male-chromosome thing.

Mar

23

 The trailer is, well, weird. It is episodic bits and pieces of the full film, but you never get a coherent notion of what the film is about. It's Sacha Baron Cohen without the crudeness or the array of self-conscious cleverest boy in the room.

When you see the film itself, you understand why.

It is a solidly hilarious, but understated, shaggy dog tale. An as-told-to yarn about a marvelous mythical old hotel with the period furbelows and flourishes of a great majestic institution catering to the wealthy—at one time—and the down and out, as it slowly deliquesces. It is framed by F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law talking about the lustrous past. It is like Mad Mad Mad World, but less noisily hectic, [slightly] more refined.

Okay, a tidbit thumbnail: It is the Campbell's condensed soup adventures of Gustave H, a mythic concierge at a famous European hotel between the world wars, and his faithful servant, Zero Moustafa, the Lobby Boy who becomes his most trusted accomplice and confidante. Mixed in is the theft and recovery of a priceless Renaissance painting and the legal bataille royale for an enormous family fortune — against the backdrop of a dramatically evolving, modernizing European continent.

The movie stars Ralph Fiennes, but he is just the topmost foam above the vast surge of hilarious cameo appearances by beloved or irascible stars who are all but unidentifiable under moustaches, or bald pates, or beards, or tattoos. A lot of the fun is decoding who was that official arresting the duvet chevalier M. Gustave? Who is that chambermaid cum confection spinner with a birthmark the shape of Mexico? Who is the twittery old dowager, ready to plight her troth, with the agitated face and the powdered hair who adores M.Gustave? Adrien Brody plays against type, Willem Dafoe doesn't. Bill Murray is smarmy, Jeff Goldblum is sticky, and on and on.

It is an effervescent and convoluted bonbon spun in grand style, and even if we explained it, so what? The fun is giggling through reel after reel, seeing all the silliness and unbelievable script goofiness that has been perpetrated. The whole thing looks like it could be miniaturized into a Hummel Swiss coo-coo clock, with hourly suavely concierges bedding dowagers to everyone's delight. (Almost). And bad guys chasing good, followed by evil stepbrothers and ugly kinfolk and nasty hooligans trying to wrest away the spoils. (Priceless painting.)
One knows for sure that the dozens of actors who leapt at the chance to do these marvelously counterintuitive roles must have had a hell of a good time in rehearsals. It has many of the qualities of a Feydeau farce. About the only thing that bothered us were the stolidly American nasality, the inexplicably flat American accents. One kept expecting the carnival carousel of characters herein to skein out in guttural or mystifyingly unidentifiable European sonorities. This they resolutely did not do. Aside from this constant quibble, the movie is a foamy ice cream sundae of inebriated entertainment.

No bad scenes. No bad words–um, save for a few in exasperation, well earned. Plunking you back into the past elegant century in mittel Europe.

If you have ears to hear and eyes to glom, enjoy this silliness and giggle yourself away for a coupla hours.

Feb

17

 The first ROBOCOP, made for somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million back in 1987, with Peter Weller and Nancy Allen in the critical roles, directed by the capable Paul Verhoeven, was a hit. A sequence was quickly made in 1990, with Irvin Kershner as director. This being the animation- and action-feature era of films, 15 years is enough passage of time to give a permit for a run at a second potential franchise.

It's now 2028, but the plot is still the same: A dystopic and crime-ridden Detroit, and a terminally wounded police officer, Alex Murphy, is engineered by clever scientist Dennett Norton (played by the ever-suspect Gary Oldman) to return to the crime-fighting force as a powerful part-man, part-cyborg haunted by submerged memories. Norton is managed by Michael Keaton's opportunistic C EO of OmniCorps, Raymond Sellars. All together now: OmniCorps is a multinational conglomerate. Hiss, boo. And we know that though there are bad guys [inside and] outside the streamlined, latest-word police station that loving husband and father Murphy will get to dispatch without a backward glance, unerring in aim, the real baddie is the corporation. Surprise.
While it's good to see Keaton after a too-long hiatus, he seems slightly overshadowed by the acting firepower wattage of Oldman. Keaton was always better as a sardonic outsider, a cynic. Similarly miscast is a new character, Pat Novak, a talk-show host in the rabble-rousing, controlled-fury mode of Howard Beale, played by an over-the-top, too-out-there Samuel L. Jackson. He seems to be the moral conscience of the film, the Greek chorus, telling us that whatever fun being bad seems, the US is the greatest, and we must remember that through all the gunplay.

Today's eponymous popcorner was made for $130 million, about 10 times the cost of the original. And, yes,it has a glossy sheen with technology and whizz-bang graphics—as well as a blunderbuss percentage of special effects CGI that practically draws a text-message box at the audience—Here Be CGI for the ruined body of the Injured cop, played now by the unremarkable (though tall) Joel Kinnamon, new to films. The political angle enters as the Senate acts against the inclusion, Stateside, of robot cops with human internals. Around the world, we see the 'bots clomping around Japan, Afghanistan and elsewhere making the streets safe for pedestrians, but the corporation fears Americans won't cotton to huge, clanky-geared mechanical minders and transformer robots stomping all the spontaneity out midtown areas. The introduction of robots with "feelings," instead of the pandemic law-enforcement droids that maintain order around the world, is deemed the solution, but is debated hotly through the proceedings, and called, amusingly, The Dreyfus Act.

Not given enough to do is the beauteous and talented Aussie, Abbie Cornish, playing Murphy's determined and loving wife, Clara; we interviewed her in 2009, when she starred in the refined BRIGHT STAR, the captivating romance between 19th century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne. We thought she deserved an Oscar for her portrayal. Also lovely in a supportive role is the porcelain beauty, Jennifer Ehle, one of the corporate bad guys. Titian-haired Ehle was seen in ZERO DARK THIRTY two years ago, for too few minutes, before she was heartbreakingly terminated by an IED in front of us.

As depicted in the gorgeous computer graphic representations and on-street live action sequences, Detroit looks spectacular. Though it is apparently riven by petty crime lords and drug dealers. Detroit should live so long to look the way it's depicted here. Glitzy enough to rival Las Vegas. There is no hint of the ravaged city we know it to be, with vast swathes of the urban landscape blighted and abandoned to wild grass and the Northern equivalent of sagebrush. We see on Novak's hologram-inflected TV show that the President is some older guy, not H-R-Hillary nor Chelsea. [Thank the Deity.]

With enough shooting and white-hat carnage to rival the most violent video game, we can begin to see why there is a national shortage of bullets. Neither the fleshly, greedy creeps nor the droids get a shot in, 99% of the time, so there is little suspense. Murphy is, after all, largely managed by a chip that makes him near-invincible, and nearly mechanical, though his humanity seeps back in somehow at frequent intervals. Despite the constant fusillades and street firefights, we see little blood, and even the massively damaged Alex Murphy is discretely disarrayed when shot, his excellent red-laser-slit visor broken and sedately askew. There is little haunting injury or picturesque violence that speaks to the reality of gun contests , as there are few profanity logrolls, save for one sequence—bleeped–on Jackson's Crossfire-like program. Kids won't notice the underlying message of unbenign corporation vs. man vs. criminals. It's so like their video exploits, their fingers might twitch. The one stylized spousal scene between Clara and Alex is oblique and chastely not graphic.

Takeaway: The original, modest ROBOCOP of 1987 had more humor—more heart, too—than this one does. Despite the tacked-on patriotic message we get thrown at us out of the ether. Catch the original on late-night TV.

Feb

10

 For fans of the Fab Four, John, George, Ringo and Paul, Lennon elder son Julian Lennon has curated a round-up of many affecting or amusing, B/W photos (some in color), album-cover fodder, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.

The venue is the somewhat grungy, atypical 2nd-floor gallery of the SOHO Morrison Hotel on Prince Street.
The opening on Thursday, 6 February, was underwhelming, stuffed with neighborhood and uptown types jockeying for position in front of the minicams and still photogs, a bare wine table on offer to those slogging through the freezing night. For a minimum of $700 per, to well into the four-figures, one can purchase a prime shot of the mop-tops as they arrive for sundry song celebrations and interviews in the UK, US and around the globe, with Muhammed Ali, on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show appearance, solo and group portraits of each of the four, with guitar or on the tarmac. Limited editions of 25, 50, 75 or open editions, plus estate-stamped prints. Signed originals go for $7,500.

Surprisingly lean opening, considering the preciousness of entree, where one had to swear one's first bale of spun-gold hay or one's pancreas to get in. Up the rickety steep stairs, the gallery isn't much to look at, and of course, there's no John or George anywhere to greet one.
No Yoko or Julian, either.

Maybe no one else expected it to be so bland and sound-challenged. It did seem as if they could have played at least background Beatles, if the venue and fare were both so declaratively modest. Of celebs, nary a one in the throng of wine toters. Few if any fashionistas spotted in the crowd, though Fashion Week–held all over town, which begins on 6 February, too–may have siphoned off the tonier types.

In fact, it could have been the second or third anniversary of the brilliant band, not the 50th. Quietly on the down low, with little external glitz to clue one to the importance of the band.

Maybe it is a belt-tightening signal of filial devotion by John's first son in a notably straitened economy.

As they say, Let It Be.

Jan

6

 I went to see Wolf with a friend who has zero investments. As we watched the film, which for all its 3-hour length flew by in a compulsively sickening but sustained high-wire act of what's next?, he commented that she owns no securities. Now, watching this debauchery, he would never invest with this species of human infection.
When I spoke with my account manager after the film, I admit that even I–much more sophisticated than my friend, if far less knowledgeable than anyone in finance or the Speclist–also spoke with some shaded caution, as the film reminded me of the storied excesses that were tamped down in the 80s, 90s and aughts.

The initial article in Forbes that depicted Jordan Belfort as an ethics-challenged trader-wolf, Scorsese or the Belfort biographer would have us believe, initiated a tsunami of voracious young money-hungry who washed up in waves, excited by what they had read. But our reaction through the 3 hours, never less than interest, was yet never more than soured observation. Monitoring my reactions as the film unspooled, I was troubled, often found myself grimacing, disbelieving and disgusted. The man gave nothing back, and treated those who behaved less avariciously than he with oblivious cruelty. The single person who benefited from his early largesse, we are told in the film, is a female stockbroker who was given $25,000 at the start of her company tenure. We don't know if that is even true.

What is true, but got not one second of screen-time, were the pigeons, the wealthy and mostly not-so-wealthy who lost their savings, their IRAs, or their families in the wholesale losses engendered by the unscrupulous stockbrokers of Stratton Oakmont.

Earlier films in the same genre—Wall Street and sequel, Boiler Room, Glengarry Glen Ross, even the current American Hustle—spare a reel or two for the sorry shards of those impacted by all the coked-out fleecing. Though Belfort has by now served several years for his fraud and illegalities, he makes five-figures for motivational talks. Few of his numerous victims have yet gotten a dollar-for-dollar restitution. We see the Whee! rollercoaster, never the people vomiting outside the ticket booth. Belfort's sleazy partner, played by Jonah Hill, almost chokes to death from a failure of coordination brought on by heedless blow inebriation—but in real life, there must have been more casualties, directly, from that rampaging copulative and pharmacopic careening.

The core group of clueless dufusses who began the company with DiCaprio/Belfort discuss what they can and cannot do when they debate hiring dwarves to toss at a Velcro money wheel. The thought that such a subcivil act is abhorrent on the face of it never enters their mind. They are concerned only with the lawyers' codicils on what is actionable insofar as law and crossing the line goes.

 The drug-taking is endless, such that one doubts they would not have suffered cardiac arrests after even a few months of such pharmaceutical free-basing. Similarly, the women, prostitutes and for-hire, blur into a montage of backsides and breasts. The coarseness of everyone in major focus, and their vulgarity, is worse than that seen in the more resonant film, AMERICAN HUSTLE, where a few people could claim righteousness (or the movie poked fun equally at all societal tiers, frauds and famed, lawyers and lawmen, layers and layettes. In Wolf, only the FBI seems above greed and compromise for lucre, and even that's dicey for most of the film. Though Belfort clearly adores his second wife, he sees no problem whatsoever in orgies on planes, the office loo and anywhere else with anyone handy, even grading their whores in three levels for the audience's benefit. Oh, yes, he breaks the fourth wall frequently, in the manner of another Scorsese exemplar, Casino, to speak directly to us.

Scorsese's protagonists' motto, seen in this character as well as his other top-ten draws in Goodfellas, according to most of his oeuvre, is Want. Take. Simple. They snort enough nose-candy to mantle the Matterhorn an inch deep.

This was not prehistory: Didn't the female associates in pump-and-dump Stratton Oakmont feel devalued and denigrated by the disrespect and freak-show testosteronic hedony by their male colleagues? Didn't anyone get socially transmitted diseases?

And just sayin': Didn't the female associates in pump and dump Stratton Oakmont feel devalued and denigrated by the disrespect and egregious freak-show hedony by their male colleagues? Didn't anyone get socially transmitted diseases? Sexual harassment was well-known at the time: Did no one ever sue in this rank tank? Even Belfort's father, played by Rob Reiner as a shreier [screamer]against obscenely high T-and-E ("T-and-A" in the story) receipts, comes across as wistful he came along a generation too soon to enjoy the same… avocations his son is enjoying. More amorality.

There was no electric effervescence in the theatre, as you get from many movies that goose the public sensibility. Everyone sat in his or her private funk, watching the limitless crashing of our tradition-taught ethics. There was no laughter, not even any humor. There was silence and glumness at the spectacle of such dishonor. Worse to tell, this occurred in the late 80s and early 90s. But we are scarcely shed of this back-room bacchanalia even today. Much of what Scorsese shows could easily be updated with Madoff and his collective successors.

Do the corrupt goings-on and relentless abuse of women and bodily functions entertain, or do they instruct the young and impressionable that, say what you will, such unregulated frat-party-room excess pays off in the end. Babes. Pills. Candling backsides. Casual betrayals. Incestuous aunts. Exotic homes, cars, yachts. But also: Broken homes. Divorces. Swindled masses. Ruined lives. Children traumatized.

Does such a shocking glam-flam-stank-you,-ma'am make viewers less inclined to try to pull off such a litany of larcenous trespass, or does it instead encourage hot-breathed replication at any cost?

Is Wolf a howl of indictment, or an ode to the overdone olfactory?

Dec

13

 We hardly admit it, but we're drowning. Everyone reading is pretty much unable to stay above the tide. Like fish, only more sentient, we're dead center of the slurry, oceans of information swarming our eyes, crashing our senses.

We feel guilty when we sleep, take just one more peek at the email, post just a quick Tweet before we meet friends, dip into our mail for a fast minute at work, find we've deleted something we regret, but simply have no seconds to stomach the full-time, endless "oughts" of the electronic tsunami.

We all know someone who fancies herself smarter than the rest of us, because she won't truck with the latest cell phone, won't bend to the Illuminati of the instagram, doesn't yield to the demands of the computer.
But that person is seen increasingly through the rear-view mirror, trafficking with the stegasauri and Jurassic eosinifils. The rest of us can't afford to be that ludicrous, in the sense of celebrating the estate of being a Luddite.

Makes a nostalgic throwback to an earlier era. We don't have the luxury.

So the increasingly few opt out. They are now so quaint a phylum they own their own kenning: The cellphobes. They neatly elude and sidestep what the rest of us live with night and day: deadly Fear of Missing Out.
And as we fail to admit we are awash and below catch-up level of our Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr and Twitter accounts, not to mention our humdrum but cataracting email interstates on a daily basis, do we any the less avoid admitting we have FOMO phobia?

It feels ridiculous to admit the cyber manacles of our dancing digits, our pixilated programs. Though they suck the life from our life, induce stiffness in the joints and make of our bottoms the environment for immobile moss fields, we stay at our screen, at our tablets, at our Droids. Walking, as we almost all do, eventually, into curbs, traffic-filled streets, other people. We commune, we think, with others. But it is rather more a solipsistic arabesque with ourselves. We are ever more unapproachable, and even our social talking one-on-one skills are taking on water. Or oxidizing.

Can we opt out of text messaging, insta-memos, Wiki and pricky, emoticons and apps, sexting and wrexting?

Some decades ago, extrapolating from what scientists saw were disabling loss of mobilities when an organism failed to exercise an extremity or its limb, researchers predicted the loss of our toes. Why would we need these uncomplaining cuties, if we lumped ourselves endlessly at a screen, and walking was only a temporary way-station to further sedentary electronics? Think the animated feature, E-Wall, where evolution had re-scripted us, and no one could walk after centuries of sitting.

Ergo, we have, if you check your own footfalls, nearly sacrificed our metaphysical toes. We hardly walk the talk any more, making it all about the pecking order, the not-real-time message that need not extract a real-time response that might interfere with our communal communing. Do you prefer the cyberdunk over the telephonic challenge? We save time not speaking.

Even at important events, our preeny little bastards sit smugly on the table, wanting just the tocsin to light up and divert us from actual discussions with real protoplasm and corn biscuits, a bad hair day and Reeboks on decrementalizing feet.

These svelte palm-fit slugs with all the fingerprint maulings, 3" x 5" peremptory pashas, command our instant response. Our tablets command our eyes, engage our hands. NCIS would make a meal of these most intimate companions. We rush out of the conference, twist and tilt the axis enough to give us wrist-lock, artificially quell our a-borning panic with the callback feature.

Moreover, soon we are afflicted with telling thirst, as we see a dwindling energy supply. Bars fading. Shrinking-percentage screens. Making us dependent every night on the recharge buffets, slurping it slowly from our walls. Like those kissy-face suckerfish, the Plecostomus (Pleco to friends) that keep the aquarium clean by scarfing up the daily algae, their smooch-up lips tight to the glass tank; filling us up, getting us back to command-enabled. Open and charged for business, yo.

A good thing, since AAA doesn't service anything non-auto. Out of juice, we stay edgy and unfinished until we can refill. Even if we have those accessories that are quick-recharge. Another drain. Another device to keep track of, to lose.

And as with the emergence of all new industries, our energy usage obsession has spawned a pop-up industry, as devices get gussied up in a diversity of fashion: Some covers and tablet cases are fit for de Sade. Some for Masoch. Spikes, leathers, mirrorings. Studs and sequins.

Apps. Musical codas. More apps.

M etaphorically, we half-listen for a flashing beep, a vibrato, a tone, so we can importantly acknowledge our busy-ness. We choose to rudely respond to our strident musical summons, sometimes over what used to be considered far more …rewarding pursuits. Most barely remember to apologize for repairing to the handheld when in company.

Quick.Before it stops its variant b-b-r-ring.

An uncivil act, at base. Whipping us from meeting, art and intimacy. From the once-unshaken millennial cycles of sleep and life, work and rest, we get the permanent wash of twilight bytes. Crouched and poised to snap off our attention over anything less encompassing.

We are largely dependentized, now little more than unwonted reception-delivery systems.

We chomp, tautly tethered to the tele-, rather than they being umbilical to us. We subsume our creativity and -ertia to its vibratory summons. It is a molecular cyber-rope, just an architecture and definition from being just so much cyber-rape.

It is of course not Luddism we fear. It is much more the terror of being left stranded, Cast Away, but inside our metropoli. A more potent whipping than any lash; a guillotine of guilt and lockstep keeping-up'ism.

Our now-indispensable life-supports dispense telephony. We swim with, and against, the tide they provide, even if we might wish to be decoupled from their unending burden. Preferring not to be swept overboard, yet even on vacation, we clamor to outlets, recharging, hungrily back into the cyberswim.

Some of us are more manic than others, but even the mildest put in a toe, a foot, our all.

The question is, given our growling reluctance to be drowned, possessed by the nonstop tsunami: Do we dare click off?
 

Jul

29

 Blanchette does not get to depend on the kindness of strangers…

After a few films that do serious funny, such as the delirious Midnight In Paris and the slightly less gloriously fizzy To Rome with Love, as well as his tetralogy in London, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, along with Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream, the Woodster is officially back from the UK, Madrid, Paris and Rome, to home soil again. He is not about the nervous recognition laugh this time out. San Francisco and the Hamptons, in the top-tony sancta of the glassily rich, and the scruffy, wife-beater-singlet dinge of the lower-middle, are his foci.

The prolific Mr. Allen: Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's 14th film since the millennium, if you're keeping count. No secret that Allen will set up shop in whatever locus/city donates a substantial production grant/stipend of anywhere from a quarter- to a million and more if he dangles producing a film in their fair city.

This travelogue time out, San Fran got the gilded Allen halo, though it seems a far cry from the SF the rest of the country knows. No matter. Film is by definition filmy, not unlike the colorful gauzy scarves Blanche Dubois and Jasmine prototype (Jeanette by birth) toss over the room lamps in N'Awleans to 'soften the glare' of unflattering glare on the face. The NYC and the California scenes seem chock-a-block with lower-echelon types, exemplified by a rare more-than-foot in water by Andrew Dice Clay (MIA for lo, some 20 years, according to a recent on-air in late July) and an adorable lowlife but earnest Bobby Cannivale, playing Chili (swiftly becoming a personal fave, after recent stints on "Nurse Jackie" as an officious hospital head of department arse and on Broadway as a harried writer in the terrific Clifford Odets revival, "The Big Knife"), along with a B-side of average Joes intent on their beer, sports and just hanging out trying to live their lives.

Baldwin steps out again after his narrator-framing character in To Rome, this time in a skeevy Madoff-redux role he broke in back in 1996, in Miami Blues, as a charming, conscience-free cold-eyed petty crook to the ingénue heart-o'-gold hooker played by teenaged Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sally Hawkins, so wonderful in the Brit romp, the infectiously optimistic Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), is enjoying a reprise here, too, as younger sis Ginger, having first appeared in Allen's Cassandra's Dream.

Like his work or not, as a director, Allen has always led the crowd in recognizing lapidary talent he finds and features before the rest. You can make bank on the exquisiteness of his casting. (Full disclosure: I am still [sort of] downcast he declined to cast me in one of his [non-funny] flicks. After I saw the final cut, I thanked heaven he hadn't put me into the B/W freak show. You live forever in ignominy, frump, ditz or weirdness in all Woody flicks.)

With a filmography output of a film a year for roughly 35 years, he can be forgiven if he here cribs a plotline or two. With BJ, Woody Allen borrows from one of the best. Tennessee Williams, whose scalpel to the jugular of the disappointed but crawling-out-alive Deep South was exorcized in his timeless Streetcar Named Desire.

Most movies could play sleazy Madoff-type conmen and their outsize philandering and living large for cheap laughs. Not Woody. He sets the scene immaculately, with the slick golden real estate nabob (Alec Baldwin) in his tasteful and money-drenched aeries of fantasy money and glitter, a glossy if absolutely unemployable arm-candy wife (Cate Blanchette, certain to land her an Oscar nom). She dimly experiences life on the salon-yoga-shopping-charity mandatory must-be-seen lifestyle Roladex. Not incidentally, Alec Baldwin in fact played Stanley Kowalski, Blanche Dubois' brother-in-law nemesis, in a 1995 Streetcar. The role of latter-day beau Mitch, in Streetcar, is played by the popular if raffish comic, Louis CK, who here swains younger sister, Sally/Stella, Ms. Hawkins.

Brief recap: You probably recall Streetcar, if not from high school junior drama days, then from the brooding rough eroticism of Marlon Brando as Kowalski, his wife, sweetly besotted Stella, in her now-tatty living milieu by her macho husband.

Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans during the restless years following WWII, "A Streetcar Named Desire" is the story of Blanche DuBois, a fragile and neurotic woman on a cascading search for someplace in the world to call safe, to rest. Blanche explains her unexpected appearance on Stanley and Stella's (Blanche's sister) doorstep as nervous exhaustion. In reality, she has been exiled from hometown Laurel, Mississippi, for seducing a 17-year-old student at a school where she taught English. She claims her exhaustion is due to a series of financial reverses that have claimed the family plantation, Belle Reve. Stanley, unimpressed with her explanations, states that "under Louisiana's Napoleonic code, what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband." Stanley, sinewy and brutish, territorial as a panther, circles Blanche in a mix of distrust and intolerance; he doesn't cotton to being swindled of his wife's patrimony and demands to see the bill of sale. They are opposing camps; wife Stella, soft, accommodative and uncomplicated, is caught in a no-man's-land. She and Stanley are, in fact, despite the difference in their early stations, deeply in love.

Stella (Ginger in BJ) in Tennessee's play is simple, accommodating, drunk with love; and the fragile cut-bloom of Blanche, done to the nth by Vivien Leigh in the 1949 Streetcar, is a shadowy, fragile neurotic reduced in circumstance by events we learn gradually as she tries to collect herself in the shabby home of her sister and visceral, suspicious brother-in-law Stanley. Where is the family money? he asks throughout. Neurasthenic, delicate Blanche cannot be questioned. She has no firm answers to anything except her need for beauty and recovering lost…dignity, status. Peace of spirit. It does not end well for her.

Blanche/Blanchette/Jasmine is alluring, seductive, neurotic and mournful, prone to dark, cryptic pronouncements—the centripetal force of the film. In her shadowy past there are hints of poverty and sexual misdeeds or abuse. Men find her bewitching because there is so much they don't know. On a physical level, she is willowy and stunningly fair, blonde, unable. They interpret her remote fragility as the promise of female salvation and unearned ego-propagation. Here is a wounded being, the Southern male thinks, per Southern Mr. Williams. She does not challenge nor question, but will gratefully, perhaps erotically, accept the gallant assigns of affection consigned by the undemanding shaky ego'ed male…She has few definitive edges or constructive ideas except to get herself a safe niche. Strapped for cash, she reluctantly accepts a receptionist job with a horny dentist.

This classic scaffolding and a scant few laughs offset the sad reminders of Woody's obsession with his own eventual demise. Allen has been working on these late films for nearly two decades. This latest, Blue Jasmine, is a return to yeasty, emotional 80s Allen. It is a bittersweet, engrossing epilogue. Or a nervous, unreconstructed prologue.

Cate Blanchett is the title character, born Jeanette, then husband-dubbed Jasmine. She is the wife of an indulgent, dodgy finance oil-slick played by Alec Baldwin. He is not beyond a bit of philandering; it doesn't much surprise that Baldwin is a crook, though his wife, like a "Sopranos" spouse, is not concerned or even dimly aware of how she gets her palatial home and jewels and designer clothing. She's a full-time, subsidized self-absorbed foundation. Charity parties. Entertaining. Yoga, Pilates, Zumba. Shopping. Looking beautiful, matching the décor to her loungewear. Baldwin and cosseted wife lose everything in a squalid financial scandal. Jasmine westers to San Francisco to move in with her guileless sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a checkout girl at a grocery store. Her one-time husband is an earthy contractor played by Andrew Dice Clay. She has no airs, is a mom of two boys, and willingly shares what she has, ignoring the condescension and little-masked scorn of her elder sister. We account for the notable differences in physical traits, IQ and personalities by understanding both were adopted. "You were always smarter than I was," comments Ginger in reply to most unreconciled soliloquies by her reduced Blanche/Jasmine.
Allen hasn't set a film on the West Coast since scenes in Annie Hall. So it's odd that his SF seems as if it's somewhere near Hoboken, filled with dese, dem and dose types with unpretentious vocations instead of idolaters and oblivious self-promoting millionaires. But Woody's cities have always been as much a paradisiacal avatar, caught by his glorious cinematographers, as Chevalier's Paris. Don't go to Woody expecting subway graffiti or traffic backup on the L.A. Freeway. But he gets Marin County and the Bay area: the vapidities, casual wealth and enbubbled lives of the uber privileged. Full of, as Alvie says in Annie Hall, "wheat-germ killers."

The two sisters cohabit uncomfortably together in a too-small apartment—"it's so…cozy," Jasmine notes—and they each meet male love objects: an aspiring diplomat and a shvitzy audio tech, played by comic Louis C.K., who showcases the hyper, entitled and down vibe of the area.

Blanchette is amazing, breathtaking as the shrill narcissist falling apart. Her desperate prowl for a safe landfall makes her seem histrionic, but she is always in the act of creating an alternate, acceptable reality for herself, reflecting her dismissal of her actual fallen circumstance in the grubby present. Like Blanche, Jasmine's self-delusions and thrice-told bravura tales have finally worn through. In a revealing moment she explains more to herself than to her skeptical little nephews—who here form the Greek dithyramb Allen featured in Mighty Aphrodite–when they ask if it's true she went nuts, that "there are only so many traumas a person can bear…" Her disintegration is graphic. Even her little nephews note the distance between their sane mother and their flighty, uncertain aunt.

BJ is a layered rendering of a woman in a crisis of self-definition after living in cushy denial most of her vague life. It's guilt, trauma and retribution, of accepting the obvious, themes beautifully developed in his masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors, which some (me) consider his masterwork. His icy analysis of this character's state of denial is always at an artistic remove.

Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen's umpteenth film since 2000; accurate, in a sense, yet absent self-involvement. Again, his casting kills. His casts do more to enliven Allen's themes than do the casts of most other directors. And his films, oddly, wear well over time.

Jasmine's efforts to impose herself between Ginger and her men, her unending haranguing of her sister's rather unprepossessing males, enrages the animal inside first mate Dice Clay, then fiancé Cannivale. When Mitch/Peter Sarsgaard, a diplomat on the rise—arrives on the scene, acutely class-conscious Blanche swiftly sees a way out of her spiraling predicament. Sarsgaard, wealthy, suave, polished and above the brutish, himself on the rise, reveres Jasmine as beautiful and refined, focusing on her expensive and understated wardrobe, her beauty, and her distracted, unthinking superior airs. Yet, as tendrils of truth emerge of Blanche's/Jasmine's past—her suicided financial-cheat spouse, her financial destitution, an unspoken-of adult son, are spilled by an inadvertent meeting with her sister's ex-spouse Clay—suddenly catch up to her and her ideal mate, her circumstances become unbearable.

A not-funny Allen is still, overall, and with all the usual caveats (at least he's not lampooning and flagellating his Jewish background here, as he did in so many of the early, funny films; and he's not lambasting all women as unbearable, unisexual shrews, ditto; and he does switch laugh-triggers in updating his standard Valium throwaways to Xanax in the set-upon heroine) top shelf stuff. The good part is that for the average cineaste, we can watch the hybridity of his soiled and spoiled rich and poor lives with dispassion, since they are not the commonality of our picayune daily lives. We aren't Jasmine. And our crooked menfolk may have their bêtes noirs, but they are not Alec Baldwin/Madoffs.

If we had to choose, the message BJ is communicating is that loving passionately and plainly without all the tchatchkas of great wealth, ill-begotten especially, beats the hell out of loving money and privilege, both of which can be wilting, fleeting and dissolute. There is no hint of mission drift here; Allen grips the story, tells the hairy alarums of the wealthy, heedless life, and pays off the watch with a remorseless dénouement. A film risque and melancholy, moody and invested with intensely engaged and sometimes sexy performances, it is ultimately tragic.

A so-called amusing indie you can safely miss: Pedro Almodovar's latest–I'M SO EXCITED– a gordo disappointment. Too fey, crude, implausible and humor depleted to audiences primed for some of the keener and friskier glimpses into the manic Almodovar mold of tout Madrid. This one misses the mark by the 33 years since a vaguely similar but much better Zucker & Abraham's AIRPLANE! torched the high-giggle-meter high-jinks aboard a 747.

Jul

22

 Let It Be: A celebration of the music of the Beatles at the St. James Theatre

Your toes are tapping. Your fingers are snapping. Your hands are clapping. By the end of the first "act," the whole audience, mezzanine and all, is swaying and rocking such that my companion and I fled downstairs, afraid the balcony would crash to the ground with the syncopated movement of the St. James.

Let It Be, playing a limited engagement at Broadway's St. James Theatre from July 16 to December 29, sings its way through the extraordinary repertory of some of the greatest songs of the past three generations. We get the history of the fab four from a rock cavern in Liverpool to their world-acclaimed acclaim …everywhere. Strung tightly between bouts of newsreels and TV clips, grainy video of live-audience reaction back in the 60s, four nonstop singers give us note for note what we got and never forgot from John, Paul, George and Ringo. Graham Alexander (the only Yank among the fab Brits onstage), John Brosnan, Ryan Coath and James Fox go from earliest mop-topped teen time in Liverpool to psychedelia, war protests, Sgt. Pepper-y to…using a boatload of amazing-looking guitars (they changed instruments almost every song), a dandified piano, duds (Jack Galloway), and hairstyles, shoes to barefoot, and moustaches to go with the change of era. Bonus: They kind of look like their pseudonymous alter egos. Props to Jason Lyons and Duncan McLean for never-analgesic lighting and video design, providing drama and color and variety to suit the mood of every song.

Broadway wasn't designed for this many people rocking out in rhythm for some magical two hours. The balcony, BTW, seemed to hold the youngest theatre-goers, but even the real kids in the crowd were massively enthusiastic. And everyone knew the words to everything. Downstairs, though the crowd waved their arms and swung their bodies, they were older. But everyone, even those of us who broke out into lachrymose sniffles at memories of first boyfriends, ended up cheering madly for every set. Plus three generous encores.

A few years ago, there was a similar Broadway production, called Rain, using much the same menu of power-pop compositions and beloved standards, similar blocking (we are told) , Carnaby and updated threads and hair fittings. Some of the talent in this show were in that popular production. The ensemble, including additional musicians enhancing the sets, sing ther hearts out, bopping from one terrific torch to another wrenching memory. Though we never got to see Rain, and've all been sweltering in this week's weeklong melt, nobody going to see this will go away disappointed. Not 6, not 96.

We wondered if Yoko had dropped in yet. (It's not sanctioned by Apple Corps or The Beatles.) Even the ushers were rocking, smiling and moving with the crowd. "I'm 45," one usher confided, "and I love this stuff, every night! Love it."

Jun

16

 MAN OF STEEL

Actually Stalin meant steely man, too. Would his mild-mannered alter ego wreak more impressive havoc today than the muscled one-man wonder?

Directed by Zach Snyder

Superman was created in 1938 by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, designed as an adolescent anodyne and savior, in large part, from the hitlerian juggernaut that had sent so many surviving graphic artists and novelists over the oceans for succor.

For fact-chasers, this year marks the 62nd anniversary of the first Superman movie, Superman and the Mole Men—but not many will recall that first go-round of the man of steel franchise. The first Superman most of us recall or can see on late-night TV was the impressive Christopher Reeve, whose looming physique and chiseled good looks combined with his Juilliard-trained acting technique to generate the most paradigmatic Superman to grace the screen for the 5-issue franchise beginning in 1978.

The Brit Henry Cavill, who plays American Man of Steel without a lapse back into English (joke intended), is certainly handsome enough, but lacks the smooth, seamless facial planes and hauteur of his predecessor. Certainly, Cavill's physique is peerless, but he seems querulous and even hesitant onscreen as often as he seems commanding. It does not fill one with confidence. He seems a bit weather-worn, in a way that Reeve did not. Also lacking from this man of steel is much of a personality, or that naughty glimpse of sly humor that delighted audiences as it trickled out when Supe dealt with Margot Kidder's Lois—especially in those close-ups with chemistry evident between the two leads. Amy Adams, always competent, talented and pert-nosed cute, does not resonate any of the heat that you hope to see, especially as so few of these moments are visible onscreen altogether in MoS. She is a spunky, responsible reporter, refusing to reveal Superman's whereabouts to Zod or his people. But no frissons.

The Krypton mega-villain, the re-enlivened comeback Zod, played by a face familiar from innumerable mob pics, Michael Shannon, does not measure up to MoS villains of the past–Terence Stamp, Jack O'Halloran, Kevin Spacey, or the slightly buffoonish but clever Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor (whose solid chops as a tough guy, G-man and outlaw before this character stood him in good stead when the part as written could have defenestrated a lesser actor–and his diction slips into thugdom's unwonted dese, dem and dose from time to time. Krypton did not have a canton of Brooklyn to school such a pronunciation.

Jor-El, chief Kryptonite scientist [and father of Kal-El] played by sturdy Russell Crowe, sports a beard; one person, at least, who doesn't have a dimpled chin, as almost every major character seems to. It seems almost a cast member on its own, these dimples everywhere. (Is there something about dimpled kids that hurtles them into acting? It would seem so.)

This absence of chemistry between Lois and Supe may have been a choice of the writers, who figured people would go for the effects (yes) and the escapism (ditto), not necessarily for the romance (wrong).

Harking back to the innate value of the story (if that is what you unconsciously expect at base), the plot points are artificial, as nothing is at stake—the bad guys are just bad. There's no "On the other hand…" The earth is imperiled, OK, but that's SOP. We don't really worry about Metropolis and the violated and punctured mountain tops or glacial vistas. We watch the screen, zonked by the amazing effects that seem impossible. Thirty five years in advancing SFX have made a discernible difference. But viewers don't feel invested in either the characters or the outcome.

 As a counterpoint to the pure evil, we can say, of the Reich and its übercommandos, Superman was conceived as a polar opposite. You know the drill: Dedicated to truth, justice and the American way. (Had the comic geniuses that poured into the US to escape nazism fled to the steppes, we would have had a different and less fortunate motto: Truth, justice and the Really Red Cape Way.)

For lovers of complexity, Clark/Kal El is hard to get, one would think. An übermensch too loaded with powers and too innately good to be a source of much dramatic tension. Except in our day, when goodness and power are not often a matched set, a character exemplifying these traits may seem obvious for the child primed by a constant stream of fiction fodder. For the sager adult knowing the shades of complexity and gradual moral elasticity/atavism of the world we inhabit now, the dramatic tension shifts not to this avatar of goodness and ethicism, but to our shifting relationship and accommodation to compromise.

One could argue that we adjust to evil and a full-spectrum response in hellholes, say, Sudan, Iraq under Saddam, North Korea, Uganda under Amin, Chechnya, Romania under Ceaușescu, under their absolute tyrannical heirarchs, more easily than we do to the obverse scenarios. We idealize Shangri-La, but would soon grow irritated and restless under its unfailing puffy white cumulus and imperturbable smiling sun. Nothing but free golf and chicken croquettes.

Though Superhero Kal-El (in Hebrew, where the preponderance of comic book ethos originated: Vessel of G-d) is supposed to be uncomplicated, in reality, this generation of consumers of the myth sees a character fighting against his better instincts, as instructed by his earthly parents (Kevin Costner, Diane Lane). The battle is maintaining the goodness in the face of vast cynicism and normalized unwholesome. Young Clark wants to vent his anger when taunted, pestered by school colleagues—but holds back. We are taught now not to suppress our wishes or desires or instincts (other than murderous rage, perhaps, or the male lusts to have every passing female on the average American street). Superman must squelch his natural desire to pay back bullies so as not to raise fear among his little schoolmates and community. Thus there is a reverse dramatic tension: We would not hold back. We'd smash their faces into the electric fence, knock the bejezzus out of the drunken jerk in the bar. But Clark doesn't, even when his own father (Kevin Costner) is at risk.

Risen out of adolescent escapism, Supe had, critics had it, nothing much to say about the human condition other than to indicate by his existence and responses to threat or calamity that salvation was possible, and that goodness could be sustained in the world of constant unpleasant surprises. Today that optimistic template reads as revolutionary. We've largely forgotten optimism.

After devouring Superman and his Action Comics supercolleagues as a child—I often ascribe my relatively commodious vocabulary to the thousands of comic panels I consumed after buying them with my tiny allowance—during my teen years I came to apotheosize him as the ideal boyfriend. Not someone I could hope to locate, but someone to aim for—he was a goody two -boots in the primary colors with all the Jewish values: Decency, charity, openness to others, helpfulness, sobriety and zero dark mishugas. Unlike American friends, I was brought up British-strict, and he represented my salvation from a personal raging tyrant. As it turned out, the boyfriend I had was probably better than Superman, because he was smarter, funnier, and clued me into many of the clandestine realities my family never imparted.

 Superman makes broad-brush discriminations: These are good people. These, bad. We have many more dubious opponents, however, than were dreamt of in that Shuster and Siegel cosmogony. Most baddies today would not fall easily into either definitive camp. Superman and his cohort followers Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman et al., never dealt with the latter-day scourges of Communism or, more immediately, terrorism and radical islam. The seeping result of infiltration that imperils the free world with its encroaching ooze into all segments of society is not amenable to flying thrusts and grunting, lifting pounds per square foot. A man as rigorously physical as Superman has less impact on such foes than would, in fact, the meeker, milder spectacled version, Clark Kent. Kent's métier, as a reporter/journalist, unmasker of evil schemes and unholy plots, would today be effective in subtler ways, by informing the public and helping to dismantle terror networks. Clark is a crusader without a cape, a pen-in-hand counterweight to the forces tripping us up.

The film disappointed in its conscientious product placement of restaurant chains, camera brands, electronics and a variety of stuff we don't want to see any more in prominent Look-At-Me locations in our films. The flurry of product placement roused a counter-reaction that made such deliberate "subliminal sales" efforts embarrassingly gauche. Bad enough to have to cope with banner ads and customized computer–generated product sells on our laptops. No doubt the producers lowered the staggering costs of the film by selling rights to these commercial interests. (They have reputedly already netted $150 million before the film officially opens.) The authors of the hero, by the way, got the princely sum of $130 when they sold their strip in 1938, and until their dying days (1992, 1996) fought court battles to a fairer remuneration for the titan that is the Man of Steel. Using a dedicated lawyer and comic maven, Marc Toberoff, their heirs recovered some millions after epic battles in succeeding decades. $130!

For the alert, the film features a number of homages to films before it: Field of Dreams (Costner's 1989 baseball fable), Orson Welles' immaculate Citizen Kane, and a host of other swift visual refs. Most unsettling are the subtle but iterated Christ-like iconic shots of the Man of Steel as he stands still in the sky above citizens, erect and crucifix-like. Created by Jewish artists, about a largely idealized reverse-Dybbuk-figure of idolatrous [Jewish] beneficence, Christ imagery comes as a bit of a startle. There is no end of pertinent applications of Christian imagery in myriads of books and tales; this is not one.

It does damage to the well-worn legend of the destruction of the planet Krypton, a planet peopled by extra-uterine birth (but for our man Kal, who is the only normally birthed child, on screen, according to Jor-El, "in centuries"). The fellow next to me whispered: "First time I knew Jor-El was an Ob-Gyn!"

That pointed to another problem in the movie. There were too many scenes where if the audience was not so rapt on the special effects and blam-blam, they would have laughed at the silliness and unsubtle goings-on. Amy Adams scoots around the North Pole in her kicky parka and cute booties, no face mask, no earmuffs, all solo, crawling on rock faces jagged with ancient glacial formations. Really? I mean, really? The guy playing Zod, Shannon, is this side of over-exposed, a bad guy we have seen in one too many gangster flicks. His elocution is hardly Richard Burtonesque, when it needs to be, frankly, better. The guy next to me: "Burton wasn't available." Other reviewers, mind you, loved Shannon's performance.

Superman himself was slightly weathered in a way Chris Reeve was not, the planes of his face being more indented and chiseled than we are used to. He is immensely well-built, of course, so perhaps most people won't mind his indented look. The exuberance of diving up and clomping down on mountaintops, however, wears thin: Why just showcase wanton destruction of ice-faces, berms, earth forms?—We know what he can do. We miss the scene of the complicated Krypton baby-pod (hat-tip to Alien) landing in a Kansan field. But the liberties this sequel/prequel/he-quel takes with the cherished Superman tale (the film runs 143 minutes) get under the skin, even if viewers don't notice the feebler elements of the script, or the occasional silliness overall. Did anyone notice that all major characters except Diane Lane and bearded Russell Crowe had chin dimples? Even the bad-guy generals. What were the producers trying to say?

The time-honored red cape and red, blue and yellow body-leotard and tights worn by the toothsome but not quite right Superguy has been darkened here to deep navy, ruby wine red, and ochre yellow. It is a magnificent textured suit, a more mature palette, with a marvelous cape that you can tell at a glance has a lovely "hand," drapes beautifully as he walks or flies. Superman appears, from a distance, slightly colorized pewter.

But you'll go to see it no matter what the criticisms listed.

Best advice: Go with a witty companion. And note that the reporter actually has more impact against true evil today than the mighty Superman ever could. One serious op-ed, a stomping journalistic call-out, and Boom go the bad guys entrenched and doing their utmost damage in our upper echelons.

Apr

29

 BUT WAIT! Get a Second One FREE, just pay…

We've all heard the late-night spiels for some lightweight crinkle hose, or a new miracle chopper, carpet-tack holder or cat feeder floor- shield. Or domestic mail ricin detector.*

The ad engagingly shows you how fabulously easy it is to use the doohickey, how much time or energy or weight it saves you ("Why should you expect a cane to support you, if it can't support itself?!" Sophistry aside). Then comes the money shot, as it were. You can buy this life-changing device or product or varmint destroyer for just $whatever. Whatever or so. O, oh joy. Then the kicker: Wait! We'll "give you" another one, totally free! "Just pay postage and handling, extra."

So if P&H are, say, $9.99 for the first item, and it can easily accommodate a second item neatly spooned in a slightly larger cardboard box shipped to your front porch, why do you have to pay a whole extra $9.99 for the "free" second item you don't really need?

Because the manufacturer/retailer makes all their profit on that near-subliminal catchphrase: "Just pay extra postage and handling." Wow, what a deal. If you weren't so logy from sleep deprivation when you hear these infomercials, you'd pick up on the dicey proposition to separate you from your wallet with a feint to the word FREE! and the sub-audible addendum about the P&H extra cost.

Who knows? Maybe these incontrovertible must-haves are foreign, and they fall into the "overseas contingency operations" beloved of a certain gunmetal-haired appointee of the current Administration that do merit extra postage, taxes, handling, to get through Taiwan border sentries…? Last giggle: If you try to purchase the device or product without the add-on, they won't sell it to you. Discretionary purchases that wend their way into mandatory.

What brings this to mind is the bait and switch we experience with the late-night chief executive, who feeds us one message about "saving babies" in the Newtown, CT, massacre of kindergartners, a tragedy, versus his "celebration" of the long-lived, mostly government- underwritten abortion palace of Planned Parenthood, whose sole purpose is to crown our efforts with yet another aborted fetus or seventeen million.

The issue is laden with land-mines, yes, we know. For a period of time, most advocates of limiting abortion were, for perhaps one or two decades, advocates of "women's right to choose." A neat runaround for the notion that, au fond , we are speaking of the slaughter of little humans.

The worshipers of the faux notion of climate change, a theory that is maximally disputed by many, especially scientists without a Democrat agenda or debts, don't apparently believe the indisputable fact that it is human life developing from the time of the dividing zygote. They'll swallow climate change on the falsified info of dubious charlatans and wannabe's, but won't accept fertilization: Call them Cirque du the sun-addled.

Because we are never to be inconvenienced, we women must be permitted our hard-fought right to erase our 'mistake' (the current president's locution when once asked about the possibility of one of his daughters' becoming pregnant—she should not be "punished" with the results of her "mistake"). We are busy. We are important. We have other things on our minds. A baby would interfere.

Mind, we are not addressing the issue of pregnancy from rape or incest, or a threat to the health or life of the mother-to-be, all of which have legal, moral, ethical perspectives and dimensions apart from female or marital convenience. But in view of the ongoing but strangely muted coverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial for his decades-long grisly handling of babies born live after his maladroit abortive efforts, and his consummate population reduction of gestational mothers who pass his way, it is mystifying the larger public is not gummed to their recliners at the gory spectacle of "snipped" infant spines and shelved, bottled baby parts ( no pimiento included, sorry, folks )–scenes that have kept the tabloids in chocolates and Crystal for eons. Why the reticence?

It has all the ingredients of a bloody disaster ("tragedy" being the White House resident's fave locution, after not tragedies but deliberate acts of heinous sabotage and slaughter) so beloved of the famed "Never let a disaster go to waste," or waste disposal, crowd.

Hey, Janet Incompetano: Here's a REAL "man-caused disaster. " Yet Ms. Janet is…mum…on this issue that upholds and justifies her tortured and otherwise bizarre linguistic pretzels.

Doesn't Dr. Kermit warrant a wee wrist-slap by the nannygrams of the regulation-happy Ubama Reich? Don't hundreds of killed infants near to term, a Dr. Caligari-level chamber of umbilical fetal "preserves," and a handful of regrettably slain moms-to-be, rise to the level of public outcry and revulsion by the ever-outraged #1 Peevish POTUS and his ever-feckless companion Incompetano? Et al? (Actually, no one in the past fervid five years under BHU has stooped that far. No one et Al. Yet.)

But wait! You get two monsters in one—kills live-born babies and their 'inadvertently' murdered moms—just handling & postage, extra. Ye Presidential nostrils do not descend to the aroma of this particular olfactory stimulus.

Is there a way to package the Gosnell's gossamer tale of grue with the darned inconvenient Tsarnaevs of Boston Bombing infame–which colorful duo (and screeching family) "have no known connection to any known terrorist sect or group," right, Ms. Janet? And did this all wholly unaided by foreign monies or assistance; correct, again?—so that we get them both, FREE, just adding correct postage & handling, so we can drop-ship them anywhere out of the orisons of the lovely folk who brought you UbamaCare, otherwise dubbed the Affordable Care Act, whose very vocal proponents are now scrambling to exempt themselves from its regulation-barnacled, writhing, exorbitantly unmanageable and debt-ivied tentacles?

Call it Don't ask; won't sell.

*restrictions & conditions apply

Jeff Watson writes:

That get one free for additional S&H is exactly the same thing they busted McDonalds for when they offered super-sizing. I've often wondered that when one is at the airport and the bar at the airport offers a drink for one price, then offers a double for a little more, how much their profit margin goes up? Hey, with a short pour, a little at the top for taste, their profit margin might double. I know about up-selling, as that retail 101, and will make a mediocre business a profitable business. I wonder how many times a day the Mistress of the Market tries to up-sell the players? Probably on every trade…

Mar

4

 You may know a man by his enemies. So goes the adage, which is the guiding principle behind "Hating Breitbart." It fits. A summary of this intense documentary would be a man with a website who forever changed the narrative journalistic paradigm, upending the traditional press and changing the ground-rules of political journalism.

A year after the passing of media gadfly and truth messiah Andrew Breitbart, an exemplary doc on the brilliant and passionate advocate who was Andrew Breitbart is a biting, often hilarious, usually provocative leave-behind for those who noted his Olympian fight against lies, government distortions and, especially, media skew the size of the Andes.
He died, we were told, of a massive heart attack at 43. What some might not know going in is that Andrew (like his sister, who has strong Mexican blood) was adopted, so his genetic predisposition to heart or related ills was not known. Intriguing factoid: His close friend confided to me that she thought he was related to George Washington's family, since there is a resemblance [of sorts]. She added that Breitbart had tossed the idea around with her, too, so perhaps it tickled his fancy that as an acknowledged, rambunctious avatar of STTP–speaking truth to power– his DNA may have hailed from the Father of the country he so boisterously, and corruscatingly defended to his last breath.

The filmmakers culled his impish wit in hotels,conferences, panels; in cars on the move, with his ever-evident laptop a constant companion as he prepared to speak before appreciative, adoring crowds; in CPAC and at Tea Party gatherings. I attended several of the events he appeared at, where newsies massed in plantations of mics and notebooks around him for impromptu pressers, more often than not attacking him with unwarranted, even bizarre, accusations–desperate to take him down in their zeal to defend against his (what Gandhi called satyagraha) truth force. We see Blazing torrents of righteousness and sardonicism. His take-no-survivors full-on fury at those who tried not to correct the lies he pointed out, but to smear and barrage him from getting to the public with his message, make for amazing viewing. He did not back down when people of note accused the Tea Party protesting fiscal irresponsibility and waste (sound like the current sequester LP saga, eh?) of (baseless) racism. He offered, as we recall, the impressive sum of first $10,000 to anyone who could document even a single call against various black congressmen and "war heroes"–then, when nothing came forward, $100,000 to bring any solid video evidence of anyone calling out the N-word, let alone "15 people calling it out 15 times." With the thousands of cell phones and electronics, cameras and TV crews in evidence, not a single instance of any name-calling or deliberate "spitting" could be adduced or brought forth: No one collected. The charges were fiction.

Same thing happened with Breitbart as he broke the news of Anthony Weiner's …weiner being a public offering on Twitter and perhaps elsewhere. The first thing the press did, again, was to attack Breitbart; Anthony himself spent a good few days denying the evidence of his own underwear and his own privates on parade to college coeds and others of indeterminate but female non-wifehood. The scabrous attacks against him continued. When the truth emerged, and Weiner finally acknowledged his genitalia had 'unwittingly' made the news via his irrepressible obliviousness to how public the social media had become, not a soul of all the cackling hyena media apologized. The cheering section for the Administration failed to apologize for their insistent misstatements and distortions.

There are excerpts from TV interviews on all the major news channels, as well as those prominent for being unwatched but vociferous and consistently against the Fox channel. In most instances, tellingly, the razzing press indict themselves by their crude and unmodulated baying and nonsensical charges.

Breitbart's part in getting ACORN's flagrant abuses against ethical government and lawful policies is another major feature of this riveting doc. We see the two now-famous intrepid young journalists affecting prostitute and pimp as they ask office people in various cities how to cheat the government and get subsidized for bringing in underage South American girls for brothel use. The ACORN-hired and -trained workers colluding in practices both abhorrent and illegal are soon fired. Better, as we know, all of ACORN is exposed for the scam it has long been. Although they have changed their name and still operate under different guises, exposing this scurrilous tentacled scam was a major public service. Likewise, Congressional racism in the Shirley Sherrod case is also covered, with the usual suspects coming under scrutiny and eventual discrediting.

The focus is unswerving and blistering. Righteous indignation rises in the gorge of all viewers (or should). It is also the eponymous name of Breitbart's well-received and popular political scathe, Righteous Indignation. His impish humor is on display throughout, but when he is correctly exercised at media abuses, and they are legion, even today, he is unremitting in his salty censure. Not backing down from absurd charges, he relished his encounters with interviewers less prepared than he for a Brobdingnaggian fray and bruising back-and-forth.

Since no one knew his genetic parents, although he had had premonitions and signs of heart weakness, in the end, he could not, apparently, joust against the only combatant he could not shout down with mirth, brio and witty, palpable integrity. His like will not soon be matched.

In another century, in another country, he would have been an honored presence, a holy jester of counteraction. A year post-attack, Breitbart is sorely missed: He would have lots to merrily debunk.

Feb

11

 SIDE EFFECTS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

A cleverly plotted film that only reluctantly becomes evident, SIDE EFFECTS is a roller-coaster Hitchcockian ride starring a taut Jude Law, and a nearly unrecognizable Rooney Mara, a buttoned-up Catherine Zeta-Jones and Polly Draper (she of the whiskey voice from "Thirty Something").

Hate to say too much about the plot, since one of the rewarding parts of seeing this film is discovering what's going on, but nominally: A young New York couple's tidy world unravels when a new anti-anxiety drug prescribed by Emily's (Rooney Mara) psychiatrist has unexpected effects—on patient, husband (Channing Tatum) and others. Don't expect Tatum, beefcake delectable, to visit through more than the briefest of celluloid. The baddies in this thriller are not whom or what you originally think, especially given the title. BTW: The pharma industry now dubs them "adverse events," which neatly avoids the chilling taint connoted by the earlier, more popularly known term.

One of the choicer elements of the film is its exceptional photography; one sees a Gotham that is not the tired vernacular. This scenic Trou Normand may coast under one's cognition radar, but it is elegant, almost-Gordon Willis-level cinematography (from Woody Allen's more elegiac films), a gift floated to the receptive viewer. Audience members, many of them apparently physicians and therapists, gabbed with each other afterwards, discussing their take on the goings-on, comparing notes from their practices.

Jan

28

 Ban-dido Ban-ada, Oh Ban-ada Ban no-no Ban-dollar-O

Girls just wanna have guns

By marion ds dreyfus

By virtue of being lithe and of lower body mass, and having much smaller feet, in the main, women have always been terrific at mountain climbing. Women with ‘scopes were first among perseverant astronomers, though their achievements were largely ignored and stepped on by males with high-power magnification. Women are superlative and self-abnegating in the lab, often working 50 and 60 years, unmarried and unchilded, in the shadows of their discoveries before they reap awards and recognition.

Women are great in a myriad of occupations and professions, are as brave and heady as males in the full spectrum of human endeavors—not to mention childbirth, which Norman Mailer quipped would never be anything a male could do.

Since time began, women aspiring to “male” jobs and occupations have been derided and disrespected as a consequence of their menstrual periodicity. Everything suspect, from womb-connected “hysteria” to lack of judgment and inferior cognition was assigned to the female, and used as a club to deny women representation in education, careers, the opportunity rung on the rigorous escalator of achievement.

But women, on the whole, are not the best candidates for firefighter roles, other than support. The heavier duties of carrying deadweight injured comrades, the upper-body strength needed for many of the tasks associated with the military, and the steadiness required to maintain combat positions in the face of withering fire and lengthy attack, are not the circumstances where women shine. To disagree that women are, in fact, different from men in these specifics is to live in a faux-construct—we have many strengths, but we are not gorillas, and we have different musculo-skeletal apparatuses and hormonal tides than men.

All this by way of explaining why Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s recent initiative to open some 328,000 combat jobs is a bad idea. The prospective groundbreaking decision overturns a 1994 Pentagon rule restricting women from artillery, armor, infantry and other similar combat roles.

Career advancement, yes, does often result from valorous action in war, and to date these emoluments and ribbons of glory have been male-only. But there are numerous reasons not aired in the miles of ink generated by Panetta’s (and the President’s) little change of definition of who qualifies for what in combat-forward posts and training.

As Ryan Smith, an ex-military (currently a lawyer) who served several battlefield tours in Iraq explains in “The Reality That Awaits Women in Combat: A Pentagon push to mix the sexes ignores how awful cheek-by-jowl life is on the battlefield,” there are egregious battlefront conditions that absolutely militate against women being crammed into such conditions.

If you rejoinder that “women can take it,” assuredly yes, we can. If we choose to subject ourselves to the glaring lack of hygiene, the days-long stakeouts without toilets, the long spans without proper bivouacking, the shattering noise and grime, and the eternal close quarters with men in the same clutch of duty, without end. But the esprit de corps that is critical to unit success in the military is broken by having women around—even expertly trained, above-average-strength women with top honors in pushups and hauling and obstacle-course running.

Women are great firearms experts. We win awards in shooting competitions year after year. And Annie Oakley is a proud estrogenic legend in the country. But shooting is not the sum of tasks in combat. More of the time, most of the time, is spent in awkward human-human contact that is uncomfortable, difficult, dangerous–and messy.

“I think people have come to the sensible conclusion that you can’t say a woman’s life is more valuable than a man’s life,” the retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught once said. But in the IDF, there is a recognition, as is only reasonable, that women are different from men. And they are child-bearers, and their status in society is different, obviously, from that of men. Those differences bring consequences that ignoring would be worse than folly on the part of military brass. Imperiling lives is the natural result of the congeries of elements making women in close combat quarters a decided and constant liability.

Israel’s top-notch IDF (Israel Defense Forces), acknowledged as one of the best fighting forces in the world, has long had women in their military services. But the jobs they are assigned to are predicated on what women can do without subjecting them to frontline bullets and man-on-woman infantry and the like. Women are recognized as child bearers, and hard-wired male consideration for women cold-cocks neutral equality on the battlefield. The addition of women into the traditional male-male mucky soup of war or defense changes the equation. Men are prone to gallantry instead of better moves that save themselves and their fellows. Gallantry has little place in the menu of man-hours fighting. It will, as many writers and analysts have observed, cost us lives. Needless lives lost.

And as for training, there are indications, even now, that standards will be lowered. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made reference to such lowered norms at a Pentagon press conference in January that will be used by critics of the decision to open up combat roles to women. The New York Times headline read: Gen. Dempsey hints–Bar likely lowered for female combat units.

No. Wrong. Lowered standards are automatic reasons for rejecting the ‘wisdom’ of this females-in-combat initiative. Women in threat conditions need the same training and the same reliability as men. Making women acceptably laxer or less tough is simply unacceptable, and works against the equality notion we have come to worship as the gold standard in all of our public life.

Sources say outgoing Sec. of Defense Panetta will announce his decision to permit female soldiers to participate in combat roles starting later in 2013. Special units like the SEALS and the Army’s Delta Force, will have until 2016 to document why they should qualify for an exemption to the new ruling.

While some women may be able to come up to the mark achieved routinely by male inductees, most simply won’t. How many women wrestlers, miners and construction workers are filing their tax returns, even in 2013? Not that many. This is not about to change any time soon, even with Pilates, Super-Spin and Zumba classes as the hottest gym tickets around.

Aside from the ineradicable problems of excreting and undressing or not undressing in the tightest quarters, body sores from lack of bathing and maintaining uncomfortable postures for hours on end—as is typical when armies are on the move, as was true with Desert Storm in Iraq, and will continue to be true, even with reduced military budgets.

Which brings us to the slash and burn budget curtailments of the newly re-elected president. President Barack Hussein Obama’s brutal budget slices have already, to hear every defense head of the Joint Chiefs, destroyed our retaliatory or offensive strength, such that we will be sitting ducks for a determined and especially asymmetrical force such as the ever-stronger al Qaeda in both the Maghreb–and wherever else you pin the tail on the map. Such carefully calculated cuts in military and tactical supplies, equipment upgrades, accessories and general provender have been detailed despite strenuous objections by the military charged with conducting their forces to exemplary effect.

This initiative is, it seems clear to this writer, another in the nefarious efforts of an obdurate administration that believes in nothing, very much, beyond their own peculiar and failed notions of “normalizing” the status of the United States into the mediocrity of their imaginings. This initiative, coming from the mouth of Leon Panetta, but fronting for the top dog of the Administration, is another in the pantheon of disastrous missteps along the lines of Fast and Furious, a Team Obama/Team Holder stab at disenfranchising the nation’s gun owners by virtue of trafficking firearms to Mexican drug mafias in hopes of public alarums against gun availability.

From a comment thread between David Brooks and Gail Collins of the New York Times: Now [women] wear fatigues and tote rifles. So the Joint Chiefs of Staff have bowed to reality and told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that “the time has come” to stop excluding women from combat positions. The transformation won’t happen immediately, and it might not be universal. But it’s still a groundbreaking change. When the recommendation became public Wednesday, except for a broadside from the Concerned Women for America (“our military cannot continue to choose social experimentation and political correctness over combat readiness”), the reception seemed overwhelmingly positive. [Emphasis added.]

It’s hard to remember—so many parts of recent history now seem hard to remember—but it was the specter of women under fire that did more than anything else to quash the movement for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution in the 1970s. “We kept saying we hope no one will be in combat, but, if they are, women should be there, too,” recalled Gloria Steinem. (Gail Collins excerpt)

Why? Fortunately for the country, the stunningly failed plot by the anti-Second Amendment President Barack Hussein Obama and the 82nd U.S. Attorney General, Eric Himpton Holder, who seemingly share an aversion to the continued hegemony of the United States, flopped. Big time. We have, of course, under this current Administration, yet to get a full accounting of the bluffing, intransigence and simple mendacity involved in this audacious and simpleton scheme, which resulted in deaths of many innocents, including our own Border Patrol agent.

In a Newsmax article by David A. Patten, ex-Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke comments:

Former Navy SEAL commander and Montana State Sen. Ryan Zinke reacted sharply [Wednesday] to news the Obama administration will drop the prohibition against women serving in military combat roles, warning it is “nearly certain” to cost lives.

A Republican who served in the elite SEAL Team Six, Zinke cautioned that introducing male-female dynamics on the front lines “has the potential to degrade our combat readiness.”

“I know there are some women who can do the physical training,” Zinke told Newsmax in an exclusive interview. “When I was a SEAL instructor, the Olympic training center is in San Diego, and I watched some Olympic-caliber women athletes run through the obstacle course better than certainly many of the SEAL candidates could do.

“These were quality athletes. So physically, I think there are some women who can do it. But the issue is what are the unintended consequences? This is not a Demi Moore movie.

This administration seems to excel in leakproof debacles that then leak, hurt the country, hurt our citizenry, hurt our prestige and standing abroad (Think: Benghazi. Think: Algeria) yet manage never to result in an open airing of underlying orders and ideological priming that created the specific imbroglio. Somehow they only reluctantly come under the microscope of the bemusingly slacker media.

Ex-SEAL Zinke also suggested that the decision appears to be hastily undertaken and fails to reflect a real-world understanding of combat.

“The hard truth of combat oftentimes is brutal,” he said. “It involves face-to-face, hand-to-hand, close-quarter battle. And I think we forget that. We’ve become so sensitized that warfare is wrapped up in a 2-hour movie featuring stars who always live. And that’s not how it really is.”

Zinke said the decision to open up combat roles for women should have followed “a longer national discussion than a simple executive order.”

“I’m disappointed that it was taken lightly, and obviously it was,” he said.

Zinke also addressed concerns that mixing men and women on the front lines could impair unit morale and effectiveness.

In the case of women in the military, the “jobs” that could be provided would be taken up by men, if women do not fill them. The record of this government in the past four years has not been exemplary in their job numbers, either assessing the jobs they “will” create, or the jobs they “did create.” Both facets of employment in the public and private sectors have been, at best, extremely dubious, and given to all manner of Howevers, and data manipulations. The current 7.8% unemployment, for instance, “forgets” four million jobless who have given up in hopelessness, but they have been expunged from the official jobless rate, as have minority jobless figures, which conveniently ignore long-term unemployed among minorities. The true jobless rate is likely twice the official 7.8% in most cases.

But regarding the women in combat issue, again, this is yet another stealth way of de-balling the one institution in the country that works well, at least until the advent of the scorching budget cuts de-man the military’s effectiveness as a defensive and offensive force. It is no secret that the military is the orphan-child of a President who has little use for defense. His failure to react to provocations against our people on a global scale is already a scandal, at least among those who love the country, if not among the glazed eyes of the fawning and subterranean-IQ news corps.

Women in the military, in combat-forward posts, will further compromise esprit de corps, will lead to a heightening of the already-notable rape and sexual harassment in the ranks, will lead without question to a rise in unwanted pregnancies and liaisons (wanted or otherwise), and will create, as per the law of unexpected consequences, a host of other unconsidered sequellae. Men in command units cannot act as they normally would if a female colleague is threatened or in trouble: That spells certain disaster. Female soldiers might not be able to rescue fellow soldiers when one is injured. Women experiencing their menses may be sussed out by sensitive dogs and/or detection devices, and staked positions in camo may be disclosed.

Seem unlikely? It is not. Hunters refrain from aftershave and perfumed soaps when on the hunt, as do professional anglers: Animals and even fish can detect an infinitesimal taint of sweat, scent, cosmetics and ointments in hunters and fishermen.

This is not even to broach the fearsome scenario of captured females in war theaters. What will be done to captured women soldiers, when what is done to our brave male soldiers beggars description and defies comprehension for normal humans? All other armies are all-male–what are the uneven results of having a male and female force confronting an all-male force? Tennis gives us a good idea: The mixed-gender loses to the usually superior all-male singles.

The men making the decisions are, in this unmilitary Administration, largely unacquainted with military needs and circumstances, the President included. They are also signally uninterested in correcting their unacquaintedness with the military life. They know it all already, no lessons needed, thank you.

Is there any out? Perhaps. As James Taranto wrote on this topic in his Opinion column in the Wall Street Journal, Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women.

Net-net, our now-disemboweled military, with the addition of albatross women in duties for which they are unfit and unsuited, will be rendered a laughingstock. Exactly as apparently desired by the current, regrettable, Administration.

This is not “equal rights” for women. It is unacceptable wrongs, for men, and for women. Adoption of this foolhardy misstep will entail headaches, loss of efficacy, and needless deaths. Those in the military who know whereof they speak have already predicted “almost certain needless deaths.”

As a colleague once remarked to me, when she felt she was being shafted by our employers: The fornicating we are getting is not worth the fornicating we are getting.

Jan

20

 Remember the great Costa-Gavras political thriller from 1969, Z, which was so powerful in impact that even today it resonates in iterations of many a realpolitik lenser across the globe? NO bears a strong resemblance to its forebears. It is almost documentary in its unflinching reproduction of that time, the late 1980s, and place, Chile.

In that earlier film, after the murder of a prominent leftist, an investigator (Jean Louis Trintignant, sleek, young and gorgeous, as he does not any more in Amour, for all its current cachet) tries to unearth the truth while government pols scramble to cover up their participation and culpability in the murder.

In NO, a critically important work as much for what it reveals about our own relentlessly bullying and fraudulent leadership and the tricks it pulls to hide responsibility and machinations from the public, the script follows the tense efforts of subversive democratic free-thinkers to rid themselves of the torture- and murder-rife dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet (written PIN-O-8 on cars in the movie, referring to Pin + 8 = ocho = chet) after the 1973 coup displacing President of Chile Salvador Allende as head of a popular unity coalition of communists and socialists.

In the palace bombing, Allende mysteriously disappears, one of over 1,000 desasparacidos (the disappeared, numbering tens of thousands, one protest of which I witnessed in silent witness in town squares when I visited, hundreds of signs and photo-affixed placards held up by the mothers, sisters, wives and brothers of the vanished-by-government) who disappeared under the vicious mandate of Pinochet, never to be seen again.

Due to international pressure following reports of thousands of tortured and murdered and disappeared citizens under his watch, Chileno military bruteman Augusto Pinochet in 1988 was forced to call for a plebescite on his presidency. Should he "win," getting a popular YES, his presidency would be extended another eight years (unstated, but obviously: of more of the same).

Opposition leaders for NO persuade a brash adman (Gael Garcia Bernal) to spearhead the campaign for NO on the plebescite, which seems to have little hope of winning. Such is the bully pulpit of dictators who control most of the media and the low-interest, low-information citizenry. Or nameless leftwing leaders with media clamps in their pocket.

The script, exemplary for its representation of both sides of the effort to displace the dictator, provides insights on the Machiavellian doings of Pinochet's defender-domos, and the advertising and PR men, exemplified by the soulful camera-eye visage the intense Bernal, manufacturing film and tape and promotional efforts to wean the Chileno public away from frightened, knee-jerk votes to continue the murderous, genteelly rampaging Pinochet.

Unseating the all-powerful Pinochet seems to be an uphill mano-a-mano, as he counters the NO campaign with silly echoing la-di-da campaigns of his own that make the public shake their heads.

WAG THE DOG (1997) and, more recently, ARGO (2012), come to mind. The public is being manipulated cunningly by those adept in the memes of persuasion, cajolery and propaganda massaged with pretty faces and breezy photography. Camerawork, and acting are uniformly superior. Hard to discern, sometimes, whether this is a staged film or a documentary.

Most Americans have zero idea of the abuses of South American near-dictatorships. News stations rarely report on anything below Mexico, unless it is an Earthquake of epic dimensions. Newsmagazines? Scarcely today even picked up (Newsweek is now solely online–not that anyone cares), so whatever they report is long-ignored.

Perhaps one failing of the film is that the interior dialogues and discussions assume a level of sophistication and familiarity that might be entirely beyond the Beyoncé- and Kardashian-addicted crowds that jam the multiplex. NO is not for those low-brow types. They get the current burnt frankfurter-and-mustard likes of DJANGO and THE GUILT TRIP. Low-hanging fruit requiring zero knowledge beyond where to sit one's glutamus down.

It is startling to see clips of Christopher Reeves (before his terrible accident), the traitor Jane Fonda, and [my faux husband] Richard Dreyfuss, on air with their actual testimonials, back then–amazingly, on behalf of NO, the side the audience clamors to support.

Excellent film worthy of awards already promised.

Go to see NO?

YES.

Dec

30

Barbara

Directed by Christian Petzold

With a time-frame starting back in 1980, the accumulating tension of time and place in Barbara begins as physician Barbara Wolff (Nina Hoss) arrives at a modest rural pediatric hospital in East Germany, clearly transferred there not with her acquiescence, from a prestigious hospital in Berlin by never-named Authorities. Her 'crime' is obliquely referred to as that she had had the unmitigated gall to commit a request for an exit visa.

What comes to mind is the Orwell book and film 1984 (1984), where remorseless monitoring, and literally rewriting reality into a never-was 'history,' are the norm. Adding to the received nerve-rattling classics of life under surveillance as the German The Lives of Others (2006), and 2007's Romanian 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, director Christian Petzold—one of Germany's leading contemporary filmmakers—visits the perturbed, seething yet everyday calamities and wastes of the East German totalitarian era: Paranoia goes deep. But, heavily draped with an Iron Curtain, paranoia is entirely justified.

The Barbara we see for the preponderance of this meticulously reported could-be reality is cool to stand-offish with colleagues—even a handsome, responsive doctor named Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) who gallantly batters against the wall of her reserve. No matter her remoteness from her physician coworkers, she comes to life with immediate sensitivity, professionalism and warmth when dealing with her sometimes desperate patients, who suffer from a plethora of socially induced ills. A century ago, these women would have been given a DX of "hysteria," but here, their paroxysms and longeuers have readily apparent etiologies. People cannot live healthily under constant fear, badgering, harassment and humiliations large and small.

We see from constant random body searches and intrusive shakedowns of her apartment that Barbara has ample reason to maintain her reserve. Anyone, everyone, in Cold War-era East Germany could be an informant or "a cadre" (as my grad students in China called class informants they surreptitiously, and cautiously, pointed out to me). Through another ocular, by the same token, anyone can also be an anonymous, clandestine hero. This however takes planning and cunning.

We see from constant random body searches and intrusive shakedowns of her apartment that Barbara has ample reason to maintain her reserve. Anyone, everyone, in Cold War-era East Germany could be an informant or "a cadre" (as my grad students in China called class informants they surreptitiously, and cautiously, pointed out to me). Through another ocular, by the same token, anyone can also be an anonymous, clandestine hero. This however takes planning and cunning.

With spare narrative and a dead-on sense of physical and emotional atmosphere, Petzold creates an unbearably vivid portrait of a period that, in the intervening decades, has come to seem strangely both current as well as fractured-old. Facial expressions do not alter with time, nor does the practice of medicine; even the era-clothing is not distinctive enough—as in the new American release about adoptive restrictions to non-typical couples in the early 1980s, Any Day Now, which shouts gaudy gauche gefehrlach post-psychedelic America to such an extent that you keep wanting to bring in the wardrobe mistress—to spank her for such transgressions against good taste. Filmed in strong mustards, greens, blues, it nevertheless reads like a grainy black-and-white feature of Russian 1950s vintage.

Filmed in the verdant, lush, blustery province of Brandenburg, Barbara is often ravishing to the eye, especially as the lithe eponymous character pedals through forests, windblown fields and country roads. As she appeared in the harrowing WW II A Woman in Berlin (2008), Hoss, who never smiles for the first two-thirds of the film, exerts an almost-hypnotic effect, drawing us in steadily to unveil a character whose single-minded goal, only gradually glimpsed, slowly yields to more, and more complex, issues. John Le Carré spycraft sensibility threads the story. Secrets are harder to keep when one's office, home and bodily orifices are searched at whim. As the story transmogrifies to assume the lineaments of a thriller, it might be open to debate whether the film ends the way Westerners are accustomed. Is it a 'happy' end? Such questions are often irrelevant to serious filmgoers, as they are noxious to fair consideration of the handling of important themes.

 This is not a manicured, made for TV all-ends-tied-together pastiche. In this sophisticated, deftly crafted portrayal of grass-roots Communistic realpolitik, Petzold leaves viewers with the sense that, when it comes to such events, people and issues, neat packages are rarely available. Nor, to be fair, ought they be.

The residuum is a silent acknowledgment that, indeed, some progress has moved the needle forward. Injustices and totalitarianism still exist, but a few of the worst have in time been ameliorated. There is some sort of hope in that.
In German. English subtitles.
 

Dec

25

 Throughout the year, you can run your maze of responsibilities, your jobs, your organic woes, your ironic little side-turns to absorb time we used to call hobbies. And you do it, you accomplish these daily To-Dos with as much dispatch as everyone else. More or less.

But comes the hols, those dreaded end-of-year false-cheer times, when people rush about buying unavoidable 'gifts' they can't get away with not buying. When doormen and concierges and mailmen and all the run of the necessary people we deal with have their smiles pasted on their warm and inviting palms. Tip or die, we might call that. They might make more in absolute terms than we, but Heaven succor you, sucker, if you fail to lard that particular bundt-cake pan.

For the average, which one believes is still the two-fer, the married duality of citizens, holidays is a grit and grin it and bear it. If in the rear-view mirror anyone accidentally admits they had a grand time with distant family and micro-universal friends from here and far, it seems, by the weight of post-holiday scrivenings, to be an anomaly.

Most people prefer the company of their nuclear selves, if they are well-married and well-childed. Even the Grinches in feathers and elongated nails have their preferred broods, and sit out the mandatory meals and avaricious present-openings with as much grace as can be mustered.

But the Single.

Now, we won't pretend that what was once the case, with a tiny sliver of the population being in the garb of the Star Wars creatures who could throw over their carefully coiffed heads a cloak of invincibility. No, the Single is now a huge demographic, like it or not. Particularly in the metropolis that get the most filmic exposure and the rivers of ink flowing into our still-breathing magazines and papers.

Singles can make plans, as they ought to, months in advance of the Chanukah/Christmas logjam of false merriment and hysteria, the flurry of swarming Happy! Jolly! Merry! That threatens to bury us before our time. Because though the days in January seem long and far before the horizon of the "the holidays," in fact they steal up pretty darned fast, and there you are, solo at the friend's table, alone at the vet's party with your shih tzu, hustling onto the Metro North to your aunts or cousins or nephew's aromatic, festivity-strewn homes.

Singles dread them. If they are not hooked up with a Signif. Oth., or a reliably haul-'em-to intimate partner, they are always the one at the tail end of invitations, at the nether end of the living room, at the "oops" side of the gift ledger. Not getting gifts is no calamity, of course. Most Singles can buy their own, we know.

But the prospect of yet another hilarity-imbued family or friend get-together where the preponderants are able to point to a spouse or cherubic Sunday-best-dressed kidlet is a quick killer. The data for self-send-offs are pretty clear—more people, probably solo, do away with themselves around the holiday period than at any other time. In nobody's book does the festival tranche engage Singles in an amplitude of joy and resolve: They are, /whoa/, again at the sideboard buffet, alone. Buying a ticket to the multiplex for the hot actioner, for one, then hiding companionably in the cozy bosom of the dark theatre, where no one can distinguish Matched from /Oy yey, still single?/

The single, in a sculpture, could be—not all, of course, but enough—anthropologized as a forward-leaning, vaguely huddled figure pressing his, and increasingly her, nose against a cold pane. The sculpture could be of bronze, as that is a suitable, enduring material, and well headlines the circumstance of the outsider who wouldn't like it to be so.

Of the great new possible holiday ideas, has anyone yet proposed a Singles week, or month, for those who give wedding presents to everyone, and never get anything back until or unless he/she ever manages to find a mate? For the millions who are perfectly unsubstance-abusing, relatively washed and shod and perfumed, yet have no one in their lives who can open that vault of loving feelings just waiting timorously to be opened and distributed in intensity borne of long sequestration (/not, /mind, the 2012 fiscal kind). Nah, because the namers of holidays, National Mushroom Day, National Chewing Gum Day, are married, and it never falls to their active creativity to cast a lasso to the ones pressing their noses to the wrought-iron gate of Everyone else.

Are these maudlin thoughts at a time when bells ring and smiles wreath the faces as leis bedeck the doors in MostTown, USA? Recent clerics in the received religions have doubted the existence, really, of Hell. Quite. No proof attends, and no one comes back with a cheeky Tweet to assure us it exists. But for Singles, Hell is a resident transparent reality existing side by side with the gratifyingly abundant life we lead in the 21^st century modern West. Hell is coping-through. Hell is Nobody-with. Hell is smiling-fast.

Singles have their own outreach programs by religious entities all too aware of the dichotomies of yoked, paired and unpaired, solitaries. But not everyone is within the compass of the religious outreaches striving to incorporate the not-hungry, not-destitute, but the flailing and annually sad.

Holidays evolved from holy days, of course. But for the Single, such periods of usually frigid temps and hurrying from transit to warm convivials and grog always making up for the parched absent embrace of someone else, holidays could as easily be spelled Wholly Daze. Wandering around in mandated visits, or alone, waiting for normalcy to re-descend. The tendrils of chugging into January's revived work or reconnoitered tasks, unremarked upon and anodyne.

Dec

24

 Jack Reacher

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Key to enjoying this competent and enjoyable flick is the fact that, one, Tom Cruise produced it, and his mother didn't spawn no laid-back fluke—he's not in the business of selling dogs; two, we are in the presence of a tightly crafted entertainment that aims to please, and it achieves just that.

A solid police procedural of a convoluted and ingenious crime, Reacher is a former USAF M.P. with Sherlockian powers of ratiocination. Hailed into a case of seeming mass murder, he immediately takes mastery of the mise en scene, baffling the defense lawyer (pert Rosamund Pike) who must patch together some sort of defense for the accused sharpshooter despite overwhelming evidence against him. We willingly suspend disbelief because Cruise/Reacher shows us how initial cut-and-dried judgments of who is guilty, why and how, can be…dead wrong.

Beyond the fun of a tsunami of testosterone (you feel like chewing 10-inch nails when you get out, even if you're a protected party fille in designer Louboutins), you have in the lead character, eponymous Jack Reacher, an update of the taciturn Alan Ladd Shane icon, a slightly more stateless cool Clint Eastwood. Man Alone. You get the idea.

Cruise's shrewd conceit is to strip his anti-hero hero of the lanyards of civilization today: While none of us can cruise through life without credit cards, jobs, telephones and bills, a change of clothes, a set of wheels—the whole connectedness matrix—the film asks us to accept that unlikely convention. Reacher is hard to reach, 'cause he lacks any of the usual tentacles of society making it so easy to Google or Wiki him blam in a tick. It further teaches us to accept his rootlessness. We do.

By this time in the ongoing saga of film's century we've seen enough crime thrillers to expect a chase, but this one's done by the hero—no stunt subs. The pacing is no shilly-shallying. And the script features a pilpulic intelligence: Reacher is encyclopedic in his grasp of the essentials, the details of any setting, the unstated unobvious. It's a Mensa tease-out to see him at lightning speed dismiss the supine superficial clue for the tertiary extrapolation of what something means. You try to out-jump him in his leaps from the evidence to what is really at issue. More fun than an SAT, Watson.

Add into the mix the droll, welcome appearance of crusty and lovable Robert Duvall; an authentic sonuvaB bad guy, Zek (Warner Herzog), that your skin crawls at the sight of; and an impressive if ambivalent D.A., Richard Jenkins. It's played out in Pennsylvania, too—no jamming up the bridges and back-roads of Gotham or LaLa Land, for a decided and relieving change.
Much of the flash-by scenery is dark, gritty, uncosmetized. Another aspect of the film is that it is devoid of scatology, a holiday surprise. And even more unusual, considering the lovely heroine, there is nothing you couldn't show to your maiden church-going aunt. Say what you will about the nutcase private sensibility of Mr. Cruise, under this film's game-plan, he pulls it off, as confident and maximally controlled as any Luke, Craig or Gosling.

No cursing. No smoking. No onscreen s-e-x. All right, it's not a perfect holiday bonbon. How compelling could such a flick be?

Very.

Caveat emptor: The film features gun violence that some will react negatively to, given the recent deplorable events at Sandy Hook.

Dec

21

 ZERO DARK THIRTY

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Hunting Bin Laden: Zero Dark Thirty

Ultimately, though it is an inevitable Academy Award nominee, I found ZD30 suspenseful, well-complected—but unsatisfying in parts, and as a whole. Others will probably disagree with my assessment.

Even in midweek, at a midnight showing, the queue stretched all the length of the huge AMC across the street in Manhattan's Upper West Side. This is a movie that was pre-sold in a major way—not by ads, either.

It is not only the liberties taken with the objective truth of the event, the culmination of a decade-plus of intensive CIA and allied effort. Bigelow and her associates purportedly spent considerable time closeted with the oh-so-busy President getting secrets that ought not, in many people's view, to have been shared. Operational coverts have no business being bandied about in an entertainment as easily viewed by national enemies as by the neighbor's kid. Our SEALs and our national security are abridged and narrowed by such disclosures. All for a buck or a billion.

It is also not only the fictionalized so-called 'torture,' which is scarcely even in the ballpark of real exertions visited upon our servicemen in the field when taken prisoner by jihadi and related Middle easterners or Mexican drug cartelniks. As this stuff goes, it was not, to this reviewer, even reasonable or realistic. The intensive enhanced interrogations looked uncomfortable, to be sure, but torture? No. Even so, the interrogator, a handsome, bearded guy (Jason Clarke) who scarcely fit the image of the kinds of guys who get put into this gig, was somewhat…genial…while intimidating, occasionally bequeathing drink and food along with his threats and demands.

Littleinaccuracies, here and there, marred the whole.

Watching from not far away, Maya, the female CIA operative intel officer (interesting Jessica Chastain, in a career-making role) stood awkwardly with an unlikely cascade of strawberry blonde hair and somber expression. (Originally cast: With Rooney Mara, */The Girl/* */Who/*… franchise, in the key role, the movie would have been immensely different if she had accepted.) Though she is murmured about as a "killer from Langley," Maya looks upset and uncomfortable on site at each 'enhanced' interrogation—this is wrong. She is telegraphing her own feelings as an actress to the movie audience; she is not playing the 'killer' who can take whatever is dished out in the highly charged field of black ops in Pakistan, Afghanistan and similar wastes.

Having spent some time in both the American Air Force and the Israeli, I think her speech tone and texture sounded about right, but her posture and reactions semaphored wrong. The expectable gaping (a beautiful woman! In "torture" scenes! And the prisoner/interrogatee [French actor Reda Kateb] did not seem to take note?) and service sexism that exists in all such government anti-terrorism outposts was entirely absent, which struck a continuing false note. Maybe writer Mark Boal, whose film this is, was not sensitive to this obvious issue, but its absence through the 2-hr film clanged. /Uh uh./

/
/

Even a total professional, as Maya evidently is, would get hit on in a 99%-male environment. Correctly, she encounters skepticism along the way, dedicated and insightful and hard-working as she is. As Gandolfini as CIA chief says to an underling who wants to trust Maya's judgment because "she's smart," in the face of widespread skepticism, "Hey, we're /all /smart."

The 'story' of the long and often frustrating hunt for UBL is so well-drilled into the audience that much of the work storytellers have to impart was pre-accomplished if you read the papers or have a TV or net access. The film begins in voiceover headspace, total black-screen pierced by audio of voices, cries and soothing 9/11 operators to incinerating WTC victims.

The gadgetry and spy tradecraft was about right, and the SEAL teams, seen relaxing at base as well as in the suspense-tautened scenes of the actual attack, are well-schooled, if beefier and more grizzled than the Channing Tatum-models we envision.

We don't see anything of Maya's private life—she evidently has none. She is single-minded about her goal. Bigelow must have kissed the stars for finding this bon-bon of a gift to her movie; most such narratives are devoid of females of such importance to the story. Maya doesn't, like Angelina or ScarJo, kiss ass. She kicks major IT. As she doesn't answer another female intel operative, another beauteous op, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), in the ill-fated Islamabad Marriott, who asks if she has any friends, we gather Maya has none. /Homeland/'s intense Carrie Mathison comes to mind, but here, minus the bi-polarity. Explosions and bomb effects in */Zero Dark/* are done very well, indeed.

Though the film shows dead ends and many snatched meetings with bigs in DC and along the decade-long trajectory of the narrative—including a welcome James Gandolfini as top general, to amused chuckles in the audience to see Tony Soprano suddenly elevated to such a high government post—the film is a tale of eventual success. The last half-hour is extremely well-done, though almost entirely in night-vision dim and green-light specialty goggles. The Angel of Death choppers are top of the line, but even as "quiet" as they could have been, how could they not alert the entire Abbottabad neighborhood? Which, of course, they did.

All that being said, and as deft as Bigelow and her tremendous crew clearly are, and despite the smattering of applause by the late-night SRO audience, I felt unsatisfied with the lacunae and drifts from actuality that I know were displayed. And I'm nobody.

We know the story in outline. We see the striving for telltales and leads come to naught. But the audience is all at the edge for the successful terminus, which gives the film more impetus than a regular entertainment offers. The conclusion, in this case, matters.

Is it worth a come-see? Assuredly. By the fanatic long lines even late at night, this is the pic to see. And probably 90% went out satisfied. But is it /all that/? Not so sure. Bigelow earns her stripes/, *The Hurt Locker*/ won Best Pic of 2008, and merited it. Moreover, probably few directors could have landed this baby as well as she. But somehow I think the hype is selling this sizzle more than the steak.

Dec

5

A Model, from anonymous

December 5, 2012 | 3 Comments

The best model I have for how the future will unfold is that of a "weakly" occupied country:

-The remaining enemy must be marginalized and denied growth opportunities

-Order maintained with a heavy hand (although without violence, as much as possible), those who are not with us are against us

-The "hero myths" of the Ancien Regime wiped out and/or turned upside down

-A new base of support and new institutions established

-Leadership enjoying the spoils of war without undue sensitivities

Kim Zussman writes:

This game is a perfect example of intelligent use of the source of power in democracy (majority rules):

Obama will only accept higher taxes on the minority (wealthy), which is supported by his constituency (the majority / non-wealthy)

The minority's representatives (house Republicans) lose in all cases. If they capitulate they will lose seats. If they don't, we go "over a cliff"– defined by Obama and the majority as increased taxes and decreased services for the majority — and Republicans will be to blame.

Sep

27

 Those familiar with Sacha Baron Cohen's sacrilegious work –"Borat" (2006) and "Bruno" (2009) will wonder why this film, "The Dictator"–not directed by the comic himself–made gargantuan strides into … nothingness. Hardly a soul saw it, and reviews arced from tepid to uninterested to quasi dire-warnings.

This then is the non-epic epic of a weaselly dictator who risks his life and limber length to ensure that democracy never gets to the desert country he so happily oppressed.

Though it got hardly a ripple in the critical columns, Sacha Baron Cohen's (vulgar but incessantly ribald) THE DICTATOR goes farther than any popular film (omitting the recent, much-criticized though unseen fraught "Mohammed video" trailer that may have spawned a reactive series of riots—not) at lambasting the deficits and negatives of life in the Arab Middle East. Naughty, profane, hilarious–but also prescient, no-holds-barred, and full of delicious ironies, DICTATOR is worth a gander, or a Netflix order, if you have a strong tolerance for some not-so-subtle digs at the foibles of the UN, diplomacy, our tolerance for the insane, and a little uneven but atypical romance, with a sprightly but naive Anna Faris playing the fervid "cute little boy" health crazy the dictator starts to work for in his effort to re-achieve his proper station in life.

If this nails your quirky late-night preference, you are invited to follow the giddy current adventures of a Middle east potentate of a country called Wahdiya who becomes displaced by his body double through a series of deliberate tricks and schemes of his major domo, Uncle Tamir, played elegantly and soberly by Ben Kingsley. As he tries to work his way back into power, and destroy the new Constitution his double will be signing, we follow him into the Waldorf, the new Apple store a block away from this reviewer, Brooklyn Heights and various tony watering holes of the clouted and privileged.

There are double-over laughs in nearly every scene, a mirage of a fantastic Wahdiya palace shimmering in the desert somewhere (perhaps Spain). Scenes from the months-old film are startlingly current, and especially the scenes in the UN could well have been time-jumped back to the filming of this silly-tickle outing. And made just about the same appeal to rationality and discernment as did the real goings-on in Oyster Bay.

If laughing is your game this week, given the fumbles in NFL football, you might aim your remote at THE DICTATOR.

"Much fool may you find in you, even to the world's pleasure and the increase of laughter."

/All's Well That Ends Well 2.4. 34-35/

Sep

24

 THE MASTER

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Joaquin Phoenix as the skanky ex-WWII sailor, Freddie, who falls under the sway of The Master played by Philip Seymour Hoffman has a broken-backed posture that is ape-like, consistent throughout the film. His arms curve down, into his unhealthily skinny, strange parenthesis of a body, like a starved gorilla's, ready to break someone's skull—if they say or do anything that runs counter to Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, a Hemingway-cum-L. Ron Hubbard amalgam with all the animal charisma, robustness and pseudo-sagacity of those epic characters. Is his Master at peace with such overreach? Dodd waggishly calls Freddie a "naughty boy" after such explosive incidents of lethal enforcement: Here is his useful tool for control of others.

Dodd's "processing" of the Id that is Freddie is not a cost-free transactional process. Freddie's mother is institutionalized. His sexual hunger is about debasement, not lust. He is a composite of a feral wild animal.

The unhinged, barely civilized Freddie meets the happily idolized Dodd as a stowaway in the latter's boat as it rounds from San Francisco through the Panama Canal, up to NYC. It is the 50's. Hoffman cannily corners the near-savage bootlegger Freddie for his own purposes, in a dysfunctional dynamic that manages not quite to quell the furtive Freddie of his internal demons and bad parentage. Freddie does not even require direction from the force-field puppeteer, Dodd: He easily slips out and kills those who question the conman cult-meister of The Cause, a shoo-in for takeover -ologies like Scientology.

The film has ravishing setpiece after setpiece befitting the accomplished director of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), MAGNOLIA (1999)—which shares this film's excoriation of strata of perhaps-corrupt society, and the grim hematology of THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007). Here, though the performances by the principles, including a primly demonic Amy Adams as Dodd's steely controlling, artificially beatific wife, Peggy, we are at a loss as to why all this energy and fury are expended for a topic that, distanced by some 60-odd years, means less to us than his prior cinematic subject matter did. Other than the news wagged by the Cruise shocker divorce initiated by a fed-up Katie Holmes, what meaning does the film convey, except to beware of Elmer Gantry-esque charlatans selling snake-oil "cures" for personality defects? In a parallel that may escape notice, Freddie has concocted a powerful alcoholic quaff that he sells to the eager unsuspecting. Like highly bruited China's exported foods adulterated with sweet melamine that go undetected until a baby or pet somewhere dies, Freddie makes his power likker using 'sweet' but toxic derivatives that pack a bigger punch, shall we say, than the average mini-umbrella cocktail.

There are anguished scenes involving de-programming effects that are treated the way Roman audiences at unfair gladiator vs. hungry lion spectacles were treated, or like the inane wealthy viewers of THE HUNGER GAMES (2012) were treated: These are just tickle your fancy entertainments, although we know, if we have an iota of decency, they are immoral and a crusty abuse of decency. There is a 'dream' sequence involving an entirely unnecessary signing Dodd, complete with naked ladies and fully clothed men. It serves no purpose other than as a fevered interlude for prurient rise in testosterone. Or whatever. I found it utterly unredeemed by anything preceding or following it. It could as easily have been excised and the film lose nothing.

The verbal and acting hijinks on screen immobilize the audience, but no good comes of it. You watch with queasy disgust, find yourself reacting with distaste and a push-pull desire to leave, while wanting a satisfactory resolution. Which never arrives.

Though MASTER is up for several European awards, chiefly for the two protagonists going at each other with such implacable force and verbal weapons, you leave your seat angry, uneasy, unsatisfied and perturbed. This is not to say that the filming itself does not capture the time it deals with. There are striking tableaux every few minutes. The jail sequence between Freddie, crashing his toilet out of rage, juxtaposed against the calm, almost professorial Dodd, standing with elbow crooked against the upper bunk of his neighboring cell, is a classic-to-be. But let Europe choose its poison: This is a masterfully filmed ugly film that does not teach us anything we did not already know, nor provide us with an elevating entertainment. It's one reason one avoids horror films—we know what there is coming, and if gore is not your chosen menu du jour, you steer clear.

Reactions range from robotic admiration for the many technical proficiencies, the cinephile's gotta see it, to the view that the protagonists are busy chewing the scenery and the movie as a whole is a visual feast but a mess.

To the extent that audiences buy in to this feast of sordid and nasty, we need worry about the direction of the population. TV is free, relatively speaking. To pay to see this, dragged into this muckish spectacle, is a judgment one must anguish over. The inkling of good the film might supply is the wakening of millions to the dangers posed by demonic and ungloved movements (and 'leaders') like Scientology, which historically stop at nothing to silence their detractors.

Is Anderson subtly signaling that we are blindly following the lemming example of a latter-day Pied Piper? Or is this just a movie?

Sep

5

 There is an old German phrase: Mann tracht; Gott lacht.

Roughly translated, it means Man proposes; G-d disposes.

This gritty, arresting mise en scene in the deep Carpathian woods in a wintry mid-Europe shifts from bardeau to bardeau. It starts as an actioner, shifts to a quirky comedy between the two dumbkopf hired killers, cycles to a torture spectacle, finally to an opera buffa of crescendo'ing blood and unexpected peripety (as the Greeks used to call it).

Two men, Walter and Micky–one of whom has erred in a simple rubout–are hired for what they are told will be essentially a walk in the woods kill gig deal. Plus they can, they are told, build snowmen. Hike. No real details, but their comfort with guns and silencers will be, they think, put to easy and uncomplicated use. It does not work out that way. They encounter the unaccountably out of place and sexy girlfriend, Sybelle, of tough-guy entrepreneur Berger, their employer. They are not good handling the days of waiting, enticed by alcohol, deep woods, the no-tell-hotel, and drugs, vistas of drugs. It takes days before they even learn what it is they are expected to do. Events before, and after, do not go smoothly. Sybelle is not what they had anticipated.

The gorgeous stenography of trees and snow, stark photography of pristine pines amid depths of snow, an exquisite ice-storm weighting down the branches of thousands of trees, a lonely hotel in the midst of nowhere, makes this an eerie metaphor for man against enemy nature, as well as man against man.

The protagonist we are first sickened by becomes the one we soon identify with. The goofball assassin partner, impressionable skinny Micky, we first like, we soon turn against. The implacable rich man experiences his comedown–and the hired gorilla-body man tries to out-think his boss in a fizzled-out mutiny.

It may start out a genre film, but swiftly transcends itself into a complex examination of turn and turnabout, resistance, keeping one's counsel in extremis, and the quirky results of not over-reaching, over-acting, or over-thinking one's predicament…

… But getting the hell out of the way of those even more bloodthirsty and disordered than one started out. A spare but provocative rumination for the un-faint-hearted.

Made in 2010, SNOWMAN has been on the shelf for two years. We can hear from the dialogue all the impacts US slang and culture has on German patois and issues. The music, often at amusing variance with the onscreen bloodletting, is in English sometimes, as well as in German. There is a contrapuntal lightheartedness in the early narrative voiceover. Mid-film descriptions, diagrams and explanatory freeze-frames add to the sang-froid, as it were, if not the seriousness of the proceedings.

In German, English subtitles.

Jul

12

 Slowgirl

Directed by Anne Kauffman
Written by Greg Pierce

Tucked away directly above the Vivian Beaumont, in a brand-new intimate theatre seating fewer than 132, is an inaugural new piece called "SLOWGIRL." It stars the longtime stage and screen character actor, Zeljko Ivanek, and (relative) newcomer, Sarah Steele. The story occurs on a long week of days in the Costa Rican jungle (FYI: This reviewer spent a while there while living in San Jose, capital of Costa Rica).

Zeljko plays the reclusive, loner uncle of his niece, a wise-acre, smart-mouth Californian late-adolescent who has been sent down to stay with her uncle in his isolated hideaway until things cool down back home, where she has been accused of a serious crime involving the death of a schoolmate. As we learn as the play proceeds, the laconic, self-sufficient uncle has a few secrets of his own involving stock dealings and partners, money disclosed and money undisclosed. Circumstances and precise stories evolve slowly, as the two mostly unacquainted relatives spend time in the wooden shack–drinking, smoking, reacting uneasily–surrounded by trees, geckos and various creatures of the forest. They talk. Truths emerge, fragmentedly. Playwright Greg Pierce is a fierce, assured voice; there is little humor, much menace and unfolding as the no-intermission play unfolds. Both characters are exceptional in their roles.

We don't know what to think, but raptly go along for the uncoiling of secrets. There are hints of actions and interactions that make brief appearances, but surprise the viewer by veering in another direction from what one expects … or fears.

There are no easy answers to the ethical considerations brought up by the protagonists. It is a great evening at the theatre, enhanced by the wooden lanai right nearby that lends an unwonted view of the Lincoln Center Fountain and plaza, and abetted, if you have a mind, by cocktails or bocas at the well-appointed little bar inside near the terrace. Also a factor: In an earnest to encourage new demographics attending the theatre, The Claire Tow Theatre, the diadem of the LCT3 effort devoted to producing the work of new writers and developing new audiences for Lincoln Center, makes tickets available at $20 per. "SLOWGIRL" mark's the playwright's New York debut production.

The roof complex was designed by Hugh Hardy, and offers valuable rehearsal and office space as well as the attractive open-air deck. Pierce's first production was performed last year at Scotland's Edinburgh theatre festival. My companion (usually a hard-to-satisfy hombre) and I spent an intense while afterwards discussing aspects of the play.

The theatre was understandably packed for the evening. Get tickets well in advance if you want to see America's newest theatre, in a taut, well-directed, contemporary mise en scene. Now through 29 July.

Jul

1

 What a glorious graffito of glamorous niceness NYC can be. Case in point, Thursday, 28 June. (When one needed a relief from Supreme Court doings of earlier that same day…ugh.)

Acquired two tickets for a reception and play for 6 pm, down at the Manhattan Theatre Club on West 43rd. The producers seek to make Hell's Belles into a perennial song-fest and fun evening like the long-running Forbidden Broadway (since 1982!) or the equally jolly perennial Nunsense (from 1985). They plan to open it for four perfs a week at a 150-seat house, Off-Broadway.

Having seen both Forbidden and Nunsense, I think the producers here have a safe bet–this is nonstop laughter and giggles.The reception was wine, cheese, chunky chip cookies, crackers, gooey Devil dogs, and soft drinks–with women in purple hair and exotic duds greeting each guest, welcoming comers to the evening. The revue, at 6:30, a cabaret in Hell for the more famous denizens of the deep, following the reception, was an hour of hilarious songs and movement.

The revue called "Hell's Belles" features hilarious quick-change sketches of famous people in Hell. Included: Eva Braun ("I saved hitler's [sic] brain"–hands-down favorite for this viewer), Janis Joplin ("Sex, drugs, booze–and Rock 'n' Roll"), Marilyn, Queen Guinevere ("I-N-F-I-D-E-L-I-T-Y"), Judy Garland, Lizzie Borden ("I got off scott-free–because I had a good LAWYER!"), Bette Davis & Joan Crawford ("I am twice as camp as you!"), Eva Peron ("Andrew Lloyd Webber made me famous") Princess Di ("All the best people are here"), Calamity Jane, Lady Godiva et al. Lyrics were screamingly funny, and the MC, Lester, was the devil. The three multi-talented female singers changed clothing, hats, capes, etc. They were in fine voice, and were not afraid to be funny, ridiculous or hilariously scathing.

When it was finished, I raced uptown to the Paris, where I was seated in the VIP section next to one of the Damages producers, I noted. SRO seating, and many speeches from directors, producers, etc., in a very posh crowd, indeed–lots of bling, of sky-high heels (among them, Glenn Close, who seems shorter than I am, but wore 6" heels, so she came up to my navel). The new season of the riveting law-and-mayhem series itself was dark and terrific, tense and dramatic, with gorgeous Boston backdrops–features Ryan Philippe, a terrific Jenna Elfman, John Hannah and gorgeous Rose Byrne as well as the pluperfect villain, Glenn Close, all did themselves proud. Afterwards, all these fab folks walked the 30 paces to the Plaza, where all ate and drank deep into the sweltering night.

A great, quintessentially NYC evening.

Jun

17

 Rock of Ages

Directed by Adam Shankman

"Rock of Ages," the long-run Broadway jukebox musical set to beloved 1980s power bubble gum ballads and demographic-cohort anthems, takes place in the '80s, when bands were still found in the smoke-wreathed clubs downtown, in CBGB's or along Los Angeles' Sunset Strip. No CDs or instant call-up of music that played subliminally in your iPod zonked-out consciousness 24/7. In times when record emporia were places to scumble through racks of LPs. Remember Tower Records?

Set in LA, 1987, rocker Drew (Diego Boneta) and ingénue songstrice Sherrie (Julianne Hough) are two new starry hopefuls chasing their (never before heard-of Hollywood-make-it-big-in-music) dreams in the City of Cynicism. When they meet, these two pluperfect examples of give-me-a-break, it's amour at first meet, though their romance will face a series of hurdles and setbacks. Yawn.

The film is a not-humorous graft of affectionate smirking homage and snarkily subsumed copycat for such icons as Journey, Foreigner, Guns N' Roses and Pat Benatar. It features such bastions of humility as Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones and music-sirenista Hough, attractive young talent Boneta and the ever-commercial skeevy agent played by Paul Giamatti. Almost unrecognizable as a philandering, masochistic husband, also a secret cuckold, is the intense actor Bryan Cranston, who has won Emmy plaudits for his TV persona as a drug-manufacturing chemistry prof, in Breaking Bad. Mary J. Blige's strip-club owner, who hires the perky Hough to "waitress" as she struggles to make it in Hollywood, does not exist at all in the stage play, like Zeta-Jones' character. Even in the film, one can't really see a reason for Blige's inflated role. One sign the script will be unreal: The minute Hough arrives in Hollywood, her suitcase is snatched by a sharky passer-by. Bloomy Hough frowns for a nanosecond, then proceeds to wear dozens of wardrobe changes from no money and no luggage.

I write "not humorous" because, aside from a very few visual pokes, such as Tom Cruise's bejeweled dragon codpiece, self-adulatory tats and tuchis-cutout chaps, and scruffy Alec Baldwin's mockup of a discovery I-have-feelings-for-him duet with over-the-top Brit Russell Brand, there is little to make anyone with a gamma-plus IQ laugh. Still, Baldwin and Brand are at least smile-worthy for going along so gamely.

The songs are of course winners, but the production is 'way over-tweaked, over-teased, over-something'ed. There does not appear to be a genuine emotion in the entire 2 hours. In the play, BTW, Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Tipper Gore-like scold does not exist. And Tom Cruise's role as the hyper-sexualized, tattoo'ed louche druggie Stacee Jaxx has a role no bigger than child-killer Casey Anthony's post-legal popularity in the stage play, like the energetic and talented Cath Zeta-J, who does her best with a singer/dancer yet still hackneyed role.

Whoever the high-priced talent, the film is like a two-polished speech: There is nothing fresh, nothing surprising. It is a stylized caricature. We've seen it all before, and we liked it not that much the first two dozen times.

The Cruise turn is at least amazingly seductive, more pronounced in his erotic squalor and vocal excess than his "Magnolia" (1999) huckster. His bevy of half-dressed bimbos and his half-cocked sensibility are more of the same: What Hollywood erzatz think a hot time consists of. And there might be truth to the blitzed-out druggie stupor and the lack of ethical dimension. He has a particularly libido-drenched interlude with a 'prim' Malin Ackerman, a reporter for Rolling Stone, to Foreigner fave, "I Want to Know What love Is." She never comes across as anything other than a comely starlet barely managing to keep her knees together, not a reporter from anything. But who cares?

Tulsa Sherrie befriends a sweet barristo name of Drew (Boneta), as a troupe of disapproving housewives protest 'filth' outside the Bourbon club where it all happens. Zeta-Jones's "Thriller" swivels–in a bravura production number of Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," in a church, no less–exemplify fleeting amusements that provide an otherwise-becalmed exercise in overproduction momentary lift. (Others arrive courtesy of Baldwin and Brand, as well as Cruise and Malin Ackerman, whose libidinous duet of Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" is staged for goofy indulgence more than explicit humpty-rumpty.) Throughout, sartorial excess, audial excess, booty excess.

Director Adam Shankman makes the camp and kitsch pile on for the demographic aimed at, but it is hardly worth the popcorn. "Rock of Ages" is chockablock treacly in add-on dead-ends, predictable snafus and theatrical numbers that are all too obviously pickups from the stage show. It goes on and on, per the trigger Journey song. And more than anything else, the word vulgar comes up as the aptest adjective for the entire endeavor.

As much fun as it is to watch Cruise, Giamatti, Cranston and Brand/Baldwin self-deflate at their own typical personae, "RoA" jumps the shark rather early, and never achieves the deft humor, release or gaiety it strives so sweatily to attain.

And if you're of the exeunt from Egypt faith, utilizing the name of a timeless Hebraic paean to immortality and perseverance seems a bit uncalled-for, too, you ask me.

Lots of sexual innuendo, pole dancing, drinking, drugging and profanity.

May

30

 MIB fandom: This third installment of the alien-fighting franchise headlined by the lovable duo, slick Will Smith as Agent J, and dour Tommy Lee Jones, Agent K, still wows with jaw-dropping CGI special effects, terrific galaxy-saving home-office somewhere on Wall Street, with ever-more incidental extraterrestrials tickling the retinal funnybone—including the small-fry skinny gold instrument-playing worms we loved from the first MIB–with the clipped, understated Emma Thompson in a comedic cameo as Agent O. Her younger blonde self is played Alice Eve. (One–<sigh>–misses Rip Torn, however.)

This time out (pun intended), hunky Josh Brolin does a head-turning rollout as the younger Tommy Lee Jones, giving a tiny bit of back-story to his usual laconic dryness. This segment installment of the enjoyable partnership presents us the ugliest villain, yet. When so many films are competing to out-ugly each other in the bad-guy department, having one this memorably alarming is an achievement of sorts. Boris the Animal is done by Jemaine Clement, who gives Hannibal Lector a run for his money in terms of hideous amorality and resentful nastiness to his captors on Earth. SNL standout Bill Hader is comfortably acceptable as a 60s icon, unrecognizable as Bill Hader.

Boris the Animal breaks out of major security in a remote, really inhospitable Moon prison keep, and threatens to destroy the Earth as his genus or whatever have in the past destroyed every planet they have hit upon in the galaxy. Scenes take place on the Moon, NYC, Coney Island, the Chrysler Building and Chinese restaurants cum aquaria, with hugely unappetizing “foods” available for the intrepid and undiscriminating. MIB HQ is, as ever, evocative of the brilliant architectural innovations of Eero Saarinen. J must go back in time to rescue his partner, K, from Boris' depredations.

Fewer laughs fly in this one, though the faster you are, the more likely to get the zingers that occasionally loop out at the audience–but also nothing in the way of blue language. The scripting is a lot darker, less larky than the first time our hearts went to these intrepid invader-fighters. It’s safe to bring the kids, if they can sit without fidgeting for the elimination of many alien life-forms in refreshing explosions of spectacular slimy goo. The love (=sex) interest here is exceedingly curtailed, a throwback to pre-movie code primness. Basically, don’t go expecting erotic stuff, as there is exactly none—the plot gets its kicks from time travel back to 1969, where we can comfortably amuse ourselves at the extended makeup, Andy Warholiana, and Hippie cool of The Scene. But for the fact that it’s not really true, the residue from the film is that there is not that much difference between 45 years ago and today, except for the miniaturization of cell phones and the tamping down of hairdos. Not everyone will want to be tickled, and it is always a treat to be in the presence of Smith, Jones and Brolin.

No Afghanistans, Syrian massacres of protesters or Egyptian elections. No Occupy foolishness. No terrestrial debt-ceiling headaches. Not even any Army or Marines–our heroes manage touts seules.

The good-natured biff-bam-boom offing the bad-guys that our black-suited designated alphabetic agents preside over is less taxing than the heavier hardware of many contemporary films, which is a small triumph in itself. The credit roll, BTW, had almost everyone in the non-industry audience sitting put, hoping for a post-credit scene or outtakes: Uh-uh. One assumes then that this is the last of the series.

Still, not a bad evening at the celluloid altar.

Apr

2

 MAGIC // BIRD

In Association with National Basketball Association

Directed by Thomas Kail

Written by Eric Simonson

Juggling. That’s what comes to mind as you sit transfixed by the terrific new play at the Longacre.

Juggling gets its power from two things: The juxtaposition of multiple balls or knives or bowling pins in the air, simultaneously, as the performer in front keeps up a running patter. And keeps those heavy, dangerous things in the air at all times.

With your expectation that they’ll fall. Especially if you’re sitting in the front row.

You hold your breath, convinced the agile guy doing his thing will ‘drop’ them, and all the whizzling, whirling heavy things in the air will plop, maybe onto your lap. Maybe into your face.

Just so, this fascinating study of the well-known animosity between the hoop greats, Louisianian Larry Bird, and the equally fantastic Michigander, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, in a terrific long one-acter by Eric Simonson. The stage design accommodates the sport by having two pneumatic backboards with fixed hoops revolving onto the stage for many of the scenes featuring the two main characters. They do lay-ups and toss basketballs from various angles into the hoops. (Are they gonna miss? Will I get hit in the head, since I’m right next to them?)

They don’t. They are big guys. They have big hands. They command the ball, the stage—and you.

Peopling the stage is a cast of wonderful actors, black and white, with accents from French Lick to LA to Boston. They are hoopsters, managers, barristas, moms, the greats themselves, assistant coaches, media egos, and friends of the Celtics and Lakers. The action takes place from 1979 through to the present. Along with the net contrivance are screens and scrims that show you the actual games, foul lines, interviews and rivalries as they were telecast back in the day. The woman next to me, some sort of Celtic fanatic, grunted and feverishly repeated the wins and losses, hoarsely whispering: That was the actual game! That was when it was happenin’!

And as terrific as are all the revolving characters onstage, you soon realize they are just six dazzling (mostly very, very tall) people, doing a whole mess of roles. As we know, Larry Bird was a whiz, but was, let’s face, it, pretty doofy looking. The guy playing him onstage, Tug Coker, is much handsomer, a Nordic stony-faced monolith, as taciturn as Magic (played by the generous Kevin Daniels, who actually wrote to thank me for my rave Tweet praising him) is gregarious and winning.

Another thing that hits you as you watch, not far from spellbound, is that with most plays, even titans like Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill–let alone a Mamet, Shepard, Athol Fugard or Albee—they have their emotions cooked into the play. Absent the characters’ doing a creditable job onstage, you aren’t all that involved or moved. The pyrotechnics are on the boards, or you are becalmed in non-reactive dormancy. But because, even to a sports illiterate, we know the cultural givens of our beloved (or be-hated) cultural icons, the emotion can be far more nuanced and subterranean than in the flaunt-it! characterizations of most Broadway vehicles, Off-Broadway pleasers, or even your perennial straw-hat circuit faves.

What a delight to hear and see the laconic answers of this largely outstanding dramaturgic team, and yet laugh with knowing—we remember or have seen the stuff that went on before and after these captured onstage moments. You bring to it a lifetime of hearing the dish, reading the gossip and watching the blah-blah. We revel in the life given to them here, in the grainy film clips from TV and game telecasts, or as a clearly non-Bryant Gumbel (Francois Battiste) squeaks out some freeze-frame datum or other about the latest Celtic-Laker win, loss or rival moment. The managers’ (Peter Scolari as Pat Riley and Red Auerbach) devotion to their charges is evident. Bird’s mother’s obsessional stats-awareness (a spectacular Deirdre O’Connell) is hilarious, homey and believable. Bird is a stoic, totally taciturn tall presence (though miles more good-looking than his alter ego). Magic is engaging, lovable and delicious. We are let in on their ailments, aches and sprains and more … dire … diseases.

A particularly risible moment came amidst a two-fer argument between the two rivals, as offstage, a huge roar went up, and the two ball-players looked at one another and, simultaneously, knowingly dipped their heads, grimaced, and mouthed: “Michael…”

Credit where credit is due: The writing is not flashy but is constantly first-rate. Even without an intermission, two words sum up this welcome arrival on West 48th Street: Slam dunk.

At the Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th

Feb

12

 Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, by John Tiffany

We've all grown up with the notion of PR, advertising and branding, because it seems like—as with coffee or aspirin—they've always been there.

But they haven't and weren't. John Tiffany's gorgeous remembrance of the /grande dame/ who began the true promotion and respect for indigenous American fine art fashion on total equal footing with the French or Italian modes, in ELEANOR LAMBERT: STILL HERE, is a privileged stroll through the fashion firsts of the past century, when Eleanor, alone among entrepreneurial thinkers about our new offerings, took industry firmly in hand and brought the world to heel with her amazing innovations. Starting with the underappreciated art world, she captivated the public, and made our galleries and artists world-famous. And world-rich. She cut the mold for all who followed—Ogilvy, B&B, Saatchi—where would they even be without Eleanor to trumpet the unprecedented innovative smarts of proud honor rolls tom-tom'ed by this hurricane of inventive newsmaking?

Tiffany had the amazing good fortune to work closely under Lambert's tutelage and aegis when she was well on into her fabulous career. He chronicles Lambert's snappy press releases of every fashion titan that came down the runway. He itemizes every Best Dressed recipient in a terrific treasury of names that goes beyond just giving us who was notable for what remarkable feat of consistent superlative dressing, when. The list parallels the rise of stars of almost every emergent US industry, probably the march of the century itself. Lambert started the list, now bequeathed to /Vanity Fair/. He makes us see that the country came of age, in a sense, with glittery promo travels to far-flung, never-considered fashion venues like Russia, Australia, Japan, and on and on—new turfs, all, for the old US "garmento" beat. Lambert began all of that. Here in solid but amusing (snarky, yes, to be sure!) chapters—with superb-quality pictures to bring it all home—how Black models in the knock-'em-dead Versailles fashion extravaganza of 1973 (no non-Whites had ever been used in major runway shows before Eleanor added them to the mix) proved a stunning Valhalla (from which, tee hee, the French never quite recovered as their first-and-foremost crown fell in shreds around them with America's fashion coronation). How President Johnson appointed her to the well-deserved National Council on the Arts. How she aided the founding of the great Museum of Modern Art, still turning heads.The first Council of Fashion Designers of America, CFDA, and the award that gave meritorious distinction to the unique contributions of our designers. This "empress of fashion"—her moniker to her many acolytes–colorized every industry she graced with her bright writ and vervy imagination and presence.

For lovers of the infra-dig, Tiffany gets into the tall weeds with cosmetic giants Coty, intra-industry feuds, World's Fair exhibits, snits and brouhahas. Droll yet devastating.It works as social history, as a kind of American love story, as an examination of several different kinds of historical narrative.

The author gifts us with this self-assured luscious book, gossipy bits about Lambert's fabled at-homes, her favorite recipes and A-list guests, hilarious anecdotes only someone in the office (and her 5^th Avenue aerie) could have told the reader—how Eleanor impatiently told the Queen Mum of England to put a cork in it (or the equivalent)—and the near-misses of the Black-and-White Capote party of the century. Her peppery ripostes make this exceptional read and terrific dessert-table treat consistent fun to peruse and browse.

Eleanor died at the ripe age of 100, in 2003, never slowing down. Neither does this baedeker of the industries she helped polish to shinier, healthier luster.

There are probably 8 million celebritology reads in the Naked City, if not more. This one, though, is what a devotee of art, advertising, American fashion, fun and fame cannot beat. Great read.

Feb

5

 A new study reinforces what most of us know from birth: Men get more caring and considerate when faced with a "beautiful woman." They apparently belch and pass gas less often, don't scratch and bellyache about life, bathe and shave, give generously and often.

Reasons are not hard to adduce: Even primordial instinct responds to robust mate material, and in the short-term, even married males are wont to hypothesize the ROI –return on investment– if the recipient female becomes intrigued [bribed] enough to return the favor either horizontally or over time.

The same study also states that women faced with handsome or very handsome men 'manifest no changes' whatsoever.

But women are always on show, to a huge extent, whether they are with handsome men or not, whether alone or not. Given their druthers, most females won't hang around unshaven in their skivvies, beer in hand, burping and lighting matches to their gas exhausts. Women are always making an impression, since we are always at risk of being dismissed as dizzy, or broads or ho's, or simpletons who can't manage their finances or a misbehaving vehicle. Rap "singers'" greatest hits never think of or address women in any way other than as pieces of flesh to be gotten, subdued, used and usually abandoned. That's "cool."

So women all, as a rule, behave themselves better than men. Acting well, men can comport themselves decently enough, according to the data, except when confronted with hard-wired stimuli men are not educated to manage–beauty or erotic attractiveness. this factoid often renders men bitter at the supposed "advantages" women have over men. But this power impact occurs because it is engendered by the men themselves. Inoculated to beauty, men would behave as badly, or as well, as their parents' training and education trained them to do and be.

 Not discussed is the erosion of this giddy/giddyup behavior over time. Men affianced to such women, arm-candy deluxe, shall we say, will perhaps continue chivalrous and expected knightly efforts–but once they think they have conquered, their assiduity dims, and the goofy behavior of being around desirable objects of the oppo sex returns to its upright and usual position, a bit shaken, but fundamentally unstirred. that is why oxytocin unhinges women, and sex becomes a flaming cause, attaching her to the male who gave her the good feelings and unleashed the erotic fealty; whereas men can home in, score, and recede without a care. Women have no genetic benefit conferred from responding unduly to male attractiveness, since the species DNA determines she will be the chased, he the chaser. Parsimony in action.

The field is not an even one. The numerous fails must be addressed if such a study is to be credible.

And how much charming behavior does the confrontation evoke? Can it be quantified as one bourbon's worth? Or does it go into the triple digits? Do such modified behavioral stances alter one's professional work, or do they fall prey to silliness-reax, the meat and grist of such programs as /Two and a Half Men/?

This female would dispute the findings about women not responding much to male pulchritude: Mitt Romney's rise is often ascribed to how handsome he is, and Bubba's success was often ascribed to how much charm, charisma and "presidue" he demonstrated. (This author voted for him as a consequence of his seeming to be a man who fully enjoyed the company of women. Even from afar, he telegraphed that he would be fun to flirt with, or "flirt" with.) Israel's Bibi Netanyahu exerted a mesmerizing effect on women, enough so that he has been elected more than once.

A measure of extra energy, one thinks, is noted in a female's speech when she speaks with a man she gauges attractive, or very attractive. She doesn't lose her lunch, of course, but there is the extra back-straightening to make the female chest more prominent. There is the catchier repartee, the quicker /bon mot/ and comic divagation, demonstrating high intellect, in case the male is available, and the female is shopping. Women walk with more attention to their body in the presence of such men. The stiletto heel trend of the present is not unalloyed with capturing male attention, and it certainly does that, as the "leg chair" (females bracketing men in the middle, so women's high-heeled legs are what a viewer sees first on pull-away shots) of such programs as/The Five/ and /Red Eye/ demonstrate, and men's commentary, oral and written, reinforces.

Nothing like spending research dollars on the obvious, aye? Especially when it can mean easy interviewing of attractive bevies as baseline backup for obvious male response.

Feb

5

 BIG MIRACLE aka Everybody Loves Whales

Directed by Ken Kwapis Reviewed by Marion D.S. Dreyfus

Cast: Drew Barrymore, Kristen Bell, John Krasinski, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, Ted Danson, Stephen Root, James LeGros, Rob Riggle, Bruce Altman

Drew Barrymore is the very dictionary pic of a bleeding-heart liberal, and naturally, her character is a Barbra Streisand-style loudmouth (in “The Way We Were” and a dozen other irritating stereotyped Jewish campus radicals)(albeit cute) called Rachel Kramer.

We are up in Barrow, Alaska: whale country. It’s 1988. A newsie reporter (Krasinski) import recruits his ex-gal pal (Barrymore) to rescue the family of gray whales trapped under the ice up near the Arctic Circle. This event really happened. It was apparently all over the papers and on every news program for weeks. (Were you aware of this ubiquitous unfolding drama when it was playing out? What were you doing then that you could have missed this 24/7 rescue story in the far north?) Three whales caught amid a vast unbroken swath of ice, with winter closing in, intuit it is almost impossible for the family to escape into the open seas without asphyxiating.

The open space they keep surfacing in is fast icing in as the temperatures plummet to 20, 30 and 40 below. Forced to come up for breath every few moments at the only opening in the frozen waterway, and whether the whales in the film are real or animated synthesized creatures, the heart goes out to them.

They know they can’t make the miles-long swim to the open water without breathing. How the news media alerted the listening and watching public—especially school kids, but not confined to them alone—to their predicament makes for a cheering tale. Along with the good-natured indigenous Alaskans are the charming, mild-mannered talents of John Krasinski, a latter-day Jimmy Stewart, we think, for cowlicky, grinning Aw shucks-ism; the beauteous Kristen Bell (almost too pretty to believe, even as a newscaster, even in the almost total immersion cold-weather protective swaddling everyone sports) and sturdy Dermot Mulroney as a chopper rescue and haul pilot for incoming color and opposing viewpoints.

Ted Danson is a standout as a dim but PR-savvy oil magnate. (No matter how adorably such films are premised, it’s always appropriate to point a finger at the big bad oil companies and sigh with delight at the radical noisemakers at the company proxy meets. What’s redeeming here is that the Richie Rich’es realize it’s in their interest to help these magnificent creatures survive, even if it costs millions, and does not figure on the company books.) There is lots of joshing nudge-nudges from 20:20 hindsight.

The Ken Kwapis fluke-tailed nature story is refreshing, wrenching, full of icy, snowy vistas and wise Inupiak elders. It is also (Holy blubber, Batman!) full of the fattest-looking cast this side of a Goodyear blimp-assembly warehouse. Everyone is hugger-muggered in down and bulk, puffy scarves and fur-lined everything else. Faces are scraggly with ice-particled beards, and pens stick fast to the absent-minded tongue.

Among the film’s charms are the interpolations of actual news clips of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, lovely Connie Chung, “President Reagan” and a flotilla of much-fresher-looking TV stars of today’s vintage (Larry King’s suspenders are some 23 years younger). A Russian ice-breaker and its tough crew feature prominently, as do the inklings of a Cold War thaw. Near the end, the camera cuts to a surprise talking-head TV appearance of a well-known personality, catching alert audience members by surprise, though it is perfectly reasonable to see this person in that setting at that time. Another excellent aspect is that the Inupiak are shown as deeply moral, ethical people with a great deal of dignity and thoughtfulness about their millennial ways.

No nudity. No Anglo-Saxonisms. A small cache of extraneous subplots as the predictable people find their predictable liplocks. A film for children (even if they don’t know a soul in the cast and clips of the original incident) and their parents, singles or teams of sled dogs, immigrants and fishermen.

A big hand to “Big Miracle.”

Jan

4

 When I was a tiny person, my beloved Uncle Lazarus took me to see the films of Charlie Chaplin. I was stunned by the black-and-white silent images of this silly, funny, pratfall-prone loner with the squooshy mushroom hat, the baggy pants, the cane and the clown shoes. Which he occasionally cooked—and ate! Movies were imprinted on me at the young age of 4 or so as black-and-white, privileged emporia in the company of beloved people.

Why go into this?

Because Hazanavicius’ THE ARTIST brings back the closeted smiles and the secret wonder that went dormant lo those years ago in a cramped theatre in Manchester, England.

In THE ARTIST, it’s Hollywood, 1927.

People are different today from how they were before the advent of ubiquitous cameras, TV, YouTube and Andy Warholic ‘15 minutes of fame’ for everyone including your cousin Pillethia. People held their faces and bodies in a way quite other than how we position our features for the world today. This film captures the expressions before we got so full of ourselves, before we were so all-fired smart and foible-averse about every damned thing around us.

The stars of this rags to riches (to rags to riches) tale are unknown to American viewers, virginal essences in a riveting romantic danceteria of amusement, smirks, joyous bursts, back-room skullduggery and twirling moustaches. French Jean Dujardin, as George Valentin (possible reference to silent film-dream-o Valentino?), is a dashing Douglas Fairbanks-like handsomer-than-life star of the silents, a man of smooth facial planes, broad shoulders and can-do loving heartiness. His co-star, a winning Venezuelan brunette hoofer who climbs the heady, unsteady ladder to dazzling stardom, is Bérénice Bejo, playing Peppy Miller. Perfect name for her energetic shpritzy style of flirtatiousness and talent. As Peppy fizzes higher, and gets her star-making big break, Valentin sinks into the west, a victim of the unstoppable newest craze, Talkies. Valentin won’t budge for the surging trend. And his voice isn’t all that euphonious, we gather. Will he make it?

As Bejo rockets to fame, tracking the maturation of the [American] film industry, she achieves éclat that outsparks poor unvoiced Dujardin/Valentin by a swirling album of sweetheart of America features, done in that page by page calendar style we hazily recall from old film-reels.

Oddly, one’s trepidations about seeing–even enjoying–such a throwback homage to the past in an art field we are so comfortable at dissing and dashing are allayed about three minutes in. The costumes, cars, music, subtitles and hair-do’s beguile and convince us we are seeing not a brand new offering, but a misplaced treasure we somehow managed to misplace for 80-odd years. Those Weinstein folks really know how to throw a throwback.

The fascinating faces, grimaces and unsheltered expressions that carry the day in this early Hollywood re-evocation are delicious to witness and relive. People could attain stardom with a lucky entrance, a toothy grin, a mild romance…all the stuff that disappeared with Lana Turner’s (1920-1995) ‘discovery’ at Schwab’s Pharmacy, at 8024 Sunset Boulevard, sipping a soda. Handy mythology: Even then, the industry was pretty hard boiled.

All that aside, one of the more striking aspects of the film–which also features a gruff John Goodman, a dutiful servant played by James Cromwell, and a long-suffering wife done to a pin-curl by Penelope Ann Miller–is how the audience files out.

As the credits roll, pretty much everyone wears that warmest of coats: A smile on their lips, a tap dance itching to escape the peep-toed shoes on their feet, and a hum warbling inside their throats.

Even a cheeky verbal exchange with Harvey Weinstein himself (the man can be notably testy, as you’ve probably heard) couldn’t wipe the smile overrunning my scarf.

Jan

2

 When director Daldry, who provided the above-average “The Hours” (2002) and the slightly less winsome “The Reader” (2008) approached Sandra Bullock about doing this project, she was still reeling from the disclosures of her then-husband’s public indiscretions with multilevel tattoo’ed women, a swift divorce, and the adoption of a son. Luckily for her (if not for us), despite misgivings, she gave in, and the film we have at least gives her ample opportunity for incessant frowning and unrelenting sobbing.

Tom Hanks, as Thomas Schell, who also headlines this overlong mawkish and contrived effort, appears episodically for whole minutes at a time, with the aggregate not amounting to more than about a dozen minutes all told. John Goodman, playing a wise-acre NY doorman, is arch and spot on, but we get maybe two minutes of him onscreen. He is treated disrespectfully by the 9–year-old offspring of Hanks and Bullock, as mom Linda Schell, but sprat Oskar Schell (see? they are now an 'empty-schell family') is never rebuked for his unacceptable ill manners.

Kid Oskar (note the transformative “k” instead of the more expectable “c” in his name, a tell that the family is once-European, attested to obliquely by the grandpa we meet later on), is an amateur artist, inventor, Francophile and know-it-all peacenik who roams around searching for the lock to match a portentous key left by his father in a closet, inside a vase. The beloved Hanks, Papa Schell, goes to the World Trade Center on the fateful morning, and is no longer around to mentor his 250-watt donnish DNA in short pants.

The film, based on a soapy novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, does not win hearts if you’re looking for serious discussion or narrative about 9/11. The word terrorist is not mentioned even once, let alone the affiliation of perpetrators of the heinous act. In fact, "ELIC" subsumes that stark and still-hurting story for an unrealistic, pseudo-picaresque trek by the ever-scratchy protagonist, son of Hanks and Bullock, played by Thomas Horn. Maybe it’s me, but he never won my heart, and each succeeding scene irritated ever more. Foer is not a great writer, and this is not a very substantial film, though the principals and Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis and particularly the always-great Maximilian von Sydow (doing a mute old man who has a remarkably coincidental role to play in the kid’s life) do their best.

What should and could have been a wrenching narrative about grief and reconciliation becomes instead the search for the owner of the key Oskar finds in a blue vase. On the basis of a ridiculous hunch that the word Black betokens a last name connected to the key, Osk follows up on all the Blacks in the NYC phonebook, well over a hundred, and a rainbow of the typically atypical. His dutiful mother apparently lets this attractive little genius wander at will around the five boroughs, first alone, then in the company of gramps, Von Sydow.

Horn is so irritating in Foer’s out-of-touch conceit that the kid reads Stephen Hawking as relaxation, yeah; is a brilliant artist the equal of Seymour Chwast; cuts school and lies because he can apparently do no wrong, saved from punishment for truancy and meretriciousness by a too-lax private school and mucho bucks, judging by the apartment we glimpse and its telling proximity to Central Park.

There are a few scenes toward the eventual closing credits that elicited tissues and waterworks by the too-credulous, but this is one ticket you can safely not buy, either for adult or child viewing.

Ms. Bullock might better have steered clear of Extremely Annoying and Incredibly Cloying. OK, cheap shot. The film however extends into what is, we all feel, sacred territory, and it does so in unbecomingly unrealistic and some might say untruthful ways.

Dec

26

 At the first, long take of the film, as it opens, we stare at the naked chest of Michael Fassbender, the person whose grim life of privilege and addiction we are forced to endure for several hours. The unsmiling protagonist stays so still, for so long, that we begin to look for signs that he is still in life. Is he breathing? Will he eventually blink?

The too-long take is repeated in scenes that are of his sister, played by a gamey Carey Mulligan—a part that decisively removes her from the ingénue of "An Education" (2009)—and scenes that involve a mulligatawny of sexual couplings of protagonist with the paid and unpaid; with duos; alone; in stalls, at home, in public/private spaces, even at work. The overlong takes do not serve for much other than to remind us of what Peggy Noonan inveighs against in the Wall Street Journal in mid-December about the pervasive "flatness" of "movie depictions of our sexuality." My escort joked that men seemed to be leaving to go to the restroom far more often than for other films; but the sex was squalid, painful, not in the least joyous. Unsexy, in the end. Death is not defied by these matings, but somehow beckoned by their dullness and decayed solipsism. Embarrassing, for the most part. (It was probably prostate, not projection, that shook these men from their seats.)

In a current, curiously shadowy NYC, Brandon's carefully compartmentalized private life, which gives him unfettered indulgence for his addiction, is suddenly invaded and compromised when his sad, ungovernable sibling, Cissy, arrives for an unannounced drop-in and stay-over. Their odd familial interaction raises a few eyebrows.

Not one line of humor in the film. Not a minute of erotic enjoyment, for all the naked real estate and fleshly writhing. It reminds one of the Dustin Hoffman/Jon Voight dark-street, bankrupt-old New York icky icon, "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) for pre-Giuliani no-tourist Manhattan griminess. Or of the bleak ice-cold vision of Christian Bale's gloved metrosexual automaton, mid-Gordon Gekko financial scrimshaw, a feral murderer in the unwholesome, relentless "American Psycho" (2000).

In the linear and episodic unspooling of the obsessive captive of sexual encounters, SHAME does not feature much dialogue. Under the entire film is a dirge-like melancholic musical frieze that serves instead of missing dialogue. As much as there is a dearth of talk for the most part, save for bursts of unconnected fits and sibling spats, the scenes are cool, blue, icy surfaces: unfaceted silhouettes and vistas of Manhattan from different vantage-points than those Woody Allen devotees are accustomed to, the glistening City postcards of cinematographer Gordon Willis. Not here.

Brandon's apartment, in the low 30s, Midtown West, is scrupulously neat and featureless, as opposed to his squint-eyed undiscriminating prowl for new sexual partners for do 'em/forget 'em pairings. His wordless exchanges leave no aftertaste, like cheap wine, gasps and gulps that get no revisiting by the affectless addict. His life is clean to the outward glance. He appears to be a decent man, not skeevy as our mind's eye would predict, despite his panther-like visits to late-night dungeons, lonely subways and clubby brothels. His workmates have no idea what he does, where he goes, or with whom, when away from his desk. Events and world news have no purchase here. He is absorbed in his next barren assignation or, more likely, non-nutritive rut.

Brandon's compulsiveness is so blatant for anyone with half an eye that it is only his male comradeship at some unnamed but upper-middle job that convince us that men are not looking to ID each other's foibles. They don't wonder about his liaisons or solitary entertainments. But women are drawn. He flirts with the faintest flicker of a come-hither intensity. Moments later, they are silently heaving—again, for scenes with too much unclothed flesh, too much writhing.

The extended graphic orchestration of grimaces and groaning proves nothing, teaches us nothing more than we already know. McQueen could easily have chopped half an hour sure to have its NC-17 (was X) rating plastered on its official public window, the way restaurants proudly post their A ratings. Scenes without dialog run too long, making sure we get the poke-poke of this emotional battle. But the resonance is not epic. We all battle some sort of addiction, perhaps, though ours are probably less dangerous and time-consuming. And probably less lifeless. The film seems an orphanage for our lust.

Fassbender is a lock for an Oscar nom, and his face and body, while not memorable for the most part, are handsome and indeed attractive. Especially nude. A woman being pushed out of the theatre by her granddaughter, a wheelchair commuter looking to be in her 90s, was delighted to be asked her opinion of the film. Her 30-something granddaughter quickly interpolated she had been "bored" by it. (Yes. It is no Brad Bird "Impossible" action adventure.) Grandma, grinning broadly, slyly exulted, "He was gorgeous! I'm going to see this in 3D!"

Whatever would make a woman of 30 take her swee'pea elder to such a deeply unhumorous, profoundly graphic film with such a title, even were she unacquainted with the unrelieved, tawdry subject matter?

And in the end, the director plays games with the viewer, which may or may not make you even more antsy and uncomfortable than you've been throughout. Not quite a holiday movie. What is saddest is that this is the film everyone will continue to talk up, a daring Euro-approx that is pretending to a soul it does not evince. A 12-stepper would take the heart out of the thing. But then the film would have no excuse for making us squirm with discomfort.

Not a date movie. Even with Grandma's excited post-mount-'em.

Dec

15

 Director Brad Bird has had notable success with animated features that were as good as live action films competing for major "ten best" lists, including "The Iron Giant," "The Incredibles" (my favorite) and saucy/snappy vermin-cuisine-adventure "Ratatouille."

But this "Mission," fourth exemplar of the popular "MI" franchise, is a nonstop jump-onto-your-seatmate peopled actioner that brings in the very latest electronics gadgetry and fun-ciful man-toys that has you wondering when you can queue up to buy or even just play with the hologram doohickies, mesmerizing frog-gloves and anti-grav devices used by a buff Tom Cruise, who performs many of his own dare-deviltry stunts, the sensitive but buff Jeremy Renner ("Hurt Locker," 2009), the amusing, just-this-side-of-slapsticky Simon Pegg, and the stunning, hyperfit Paula Patton, whose beauty is almost a match for her martial arts, shooting skills and split-second timing.

As you've come to expect, astonishing efficiency in expediting the eye-defying escapes and chases, prison scenes and ballroom mise-en-scenes. Smart sass punctures the tensest moments, and there's even the odd meditative moments where Renner does his soft focus sharing, with the whole deal orchestrated with panache and unstoppable pacing guaranteed to pop those pockets of sleeping adrenalin inside your eyelids.

This is produced by Cruise, a 'Bad Robot' production, and the look is smooth, sleek, exceedingly high-end in terms of production values. And mega-millions.

Lest you think it's all blue-screen digital pyrotechnic whiz-bang, locales are real: uber dazzling Bucharest, Czechoslovakia, Russian prisons (lots of subtitling distinguish this mission) and the Kremlin, sites in Canada and the US as well as the glories of the supertall Burj Khalifa in Dubai, where much of the aerial dizzy-making and amazing physical rodomontade happens. It raises the bar, brings even the masterly Bond concept to a newer, higher stratum than ever. My companion became vertiginous from the Burj-y heights, which were real, not simulated, especially on the gargantuan IMAX screen. Cruise rappels down the world's tallest, slimmest stiletto tower, skittering down 130 flights or so with startling, lightning dispatch. Bad guys with bad complexions, precision bullet holes soon leaking measured ampoules of blood, and demonstrating negative human scruples interfere with nuclear codes, shiny lethal suitcases, missiles aimed at heavily populated areas, and print-machine contact lenses.but wait, why give away any more of the goodies, if it'll slow your visit to what one colleague called "unreal, crazy, but lots of fun, anyway"?

Cruise? Still got it. Director Bird? Definitely got it.

With "MI–Ghost Protocol" and the cheeky witfest of "Sherlock Holmes," both gob-smacking theatres for the diversion-famished end of year cineaste, "The Muppets" and suchlike (admirable but decidedly low-testosterone) cavity-creators won't be dominating the hot top ticket tramway for long.

Dec

11

 Saw the Italian financial wizards Nouriel Roubini (heavily accented English; you recall I was at his home recently at one of his swanky if chilly parties on all three levels of his sleek triplex) and Roberto Souviano (in Italian–he is part of a growing Italian diaspora, called that, because of the hopelessness trained/brilliant young professionals have felt for the past decade in facing corruption and joblessness in their home country, and Berlesconi's absquatulation and replacement by Monti is apparently the best thing to occur for many decades–but it will take a long recovery to get back on their feet) at Stern/NYU School of Business last night for several hours–they have nothing good to say about Europe's massive troubles, which will exacerbate if Germany does not deliberately expand, per Roubini; what they say is a menu for our destructive future, too, since we are not far behind the EU in our fiscal precipice-leaning. They had no good news whatsoever–they just laughed when the last Question asked was "Any good news?"

 They both warn that even China will implode in a short few years if they do not manage their economy more judiciously. Expansion will not last. They have little cheer about the fiscal wellbeing of Spain, Italy, of course Greece, and ancillary bailout countries.

Souviano is here because his life is threatened every moment he is in Italy, and he has bodyguards around the clock against people who do not like his analyses of the corruption that permeates Italian business at every level, from Mafia to more subtle and unglitzy organizations that destroy initiative and fair trading practices. Roubini also is a self-isolate emigre from his home country for similar reasons. They feel much more at home here, able to articulate their messages and live without imminent 'accidents.'

Nov

29

 A film that cannot be any hue other than noir attaches our attention because it is iconic, laconic and mesmeric. In initial outline, it resembles very closely the 1978 suspenser starring a sexy, silent, bruised-looking Ryan O'Neal before the cheeseburgers set in, THE DRIVER. DRIVE is a Hollywood stunt guy who freelances as a moonlighting wheelman. It need not be added that a contract is out on him after money goes missing and a heist goes very awry.

In both, a nameless driver is the getaway designee for petty criminals escaping their penny-ante gigs. In both, the escape chases and wild rides are breath-taking, split-second exercises in adroit car-handling. The criminals hardly count in the backseats, because the stars of each of these scenes are the driver and the automobile, both close to anonymous and incognito for being so average-looking. In each film, the protagonist barely says a word throughout, instantly picks the locks of strange cars for his getaways, then abandons them, and has a difficult time (much as one expects) with letting down his guard.

While the film gripped the SRO audience from start to weary, brutalized finish, not everyone agrees the film ought to be among the finalists for the 10 best films of 2011.

My escort for the evening, a powerful male, was turned off to the excessive blood and gore, as were a number of MoMA viewers, all NYC sophisticates, and even I, more aware (I knew what was coming, as I had spoken to people who had seen it, and had read 5 reviews, including the definitive assessment in The New Yorker), was also of the opinion that the film could have evoked a better response had the camera discreetly turned away from all that spurtive blood and mashed cerebellar material.

But there seems to be more than just a brief-candle film entertainment here. The film is sort of a Clint Eastwood homage, an opera buffa of silent strong male vs. the forces of entropy arrayed against l'homme humaine et juste. The color palette is that of Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." Inky blues, flashing white glints, umbers, yellow, red, washed out macadam grey. It offered very active silent spaces, a throbbing, building suspense missing in most films, and the tabula rasa of Ryan Gosling's interior turbulent though smoldering lava, unruffled exterior. Carey Mulligan is enchanting, more through expressive facial expressions than through her few words. The lush Christina Hendricks, so vavavavoom in TV's Mad Men, is here a moll seen for not long enough. Brilliant as a superficially gemutliche but merciless villain, Albert Brooks turned his comic-guy persona totally on its curly-haired ear. He is a nuanced portrait of a guy in a financial punch, plus a deftly handled shiv when necessary. Heavy-browed Ron Perlman is a furrowed presence as a questionable pizza store proprietor, and you are glad to not see too much of him.

DRIVE evoked, for me, the balletic rigor of Coppola's first "Godfather," as the 'family' extinctions and wastings swelled with the strains of operatic arias Don Corleone/Al Pacino was conveniently viewing as his assigns carried out his orders: Punish those who run afoul of his unquestioned godfather mandates.

As for the grue content, perhaps those who question its ubiquity in this engrossing film have it right: Spilling blood is also a spiritual tragedy. In the biblical literature:

Key hadam hoo hanefesh: Because in the blood is the soul.

Oct

21

A good friend of my daughter asked me for advice on the best way of winning a man's heart on a first or second date.

I told her to use the Jennifer Flowers Gambit (the surprise erotic interlude when stopped on a drawbridge) or the Lee Raziwell gambit (listen intently to everything he says and ask about his expansive greatness), or the Leona Helmseley Gambit (pretend that there is another suiter waiting for you that evening so you have to leave at 11 pm as nothing inflames a man more than competition) but I feel that others here are more sapient in this area and others and I  would appreciate your insights.

An Anonymous  writer comments: 

My conclusion is that the number one sign of a good long term relationship with a woman is based on the quality of her relationship with her father.

I am basically engaged to be engaged with a woman, and the emotional commitment on my end happened after a dinner where much of the conversation was her describing her relationship with her dad, and how he helped her with her math and physics homework, and then they would walk to the store for a treat, etc, and just the general way that her face lights up when talking about her dad.

So anyway, that's what worked on me. Perhaps she should try it.

/my 2 cents

 Gary Rogan responds: 

This sounds like good advice and the father thing is pretty well-known, but I'm just amazed that you have made some conclusions about long-term relationships after having dated women in around ten countries over two years. 

 Pitt T. Maner III comments:

Well then there are some who base decisions and strategies on a few minutes of observation. The HFT of the dating scene—your most important impression—the first 3 seconds!
 

 José Bonamigo shares:

From Forbes Magazine:

The mating practices of human beings offer a reason for thinking beauty and intelligence might come in the same package. The logic of this covariance was explained to me years ago by a Harvard psychologist who had been reading a history of the Rothschild family. His mischievous but astute observation: The family founders, in 18th-century Frankfurt, were supremely ugly, but several generations later, after successive marriages to supremely beautiful women, the men in the family were indistinguishable from movie stars. The Rothschild effect, as you could call it, is well established in sociology research: Men everywhere want to marry beautiful women, and women everywhere want socially dominant (i.e., intelligent) husbands. When competent men marry pretty women, the couple tends to have children above average in both competence and looks. Covariance is everywhere. At the other end of the scale, too, there is a connection between looks and smarts. According to Erdal Tekin, a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, low attractiveness ratings predict lower test scores and a greater likelihood of criminal activity.

http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2005/0815/096.html

Best regards from Brazil

JB

 Gary Rogan inquires:

 After a while this degenerates into just socially dominant and not necessarily intelligent men. This modified effect can be readily seen in the Charles/Diana coupling, at least in the older Prince William. Of course how did Charles come about if the theory is correct? 

 Stefan Jovanovich comments:

Trusting Forbes magazine on stories of family history is more than a bit like buying a Degas ballerina sculpture from Toby Esterhase's Soho gallery. The notion that the 5 founding brothers were "supremely ugly" is part of the standard viciousness of the portrait of the Jewish banker as Shylock that survives to this day. There is no evidence of any special ugliness in their portraits.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salomon_Mayer_von_Rothschild

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amschel_Mayer_Rothschild

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Mayer_Rothschild

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Mayer_von_Rothschild

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Mayer_de_Rothschild

The Rothschilds married money - the Ephrussis, the Guggenheims and the Oppenheims. One suspects that, as in most things, the question of beauty was left to the beholders.

In the 19th century the great minds were certain that criminal behavior could be predicted by examining the bumps on people's heads. It should hardly be surprising that we are back to estimating future viciousness by measuring the asymmetry of human features.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrenology

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smiley's_People

 Jim Wildman comments:

I would say that she can't on the first or second date. Winning someone's heart in a deep, lasting way, takes time. Anyone can fake interest for a while. What about when she is sick? When he is grumpy? When life intrudes on the lovers? Are their hearts still connected?

Granted, I haven't dated anyone for over 3 decades, but I have watched 3 daughters struggle with guys..

 Marion Dreyfus questions:

My question:

And some may find this offensive–

Does the ubiquity of pornography, specifically for the ones who purvey it day and night (I understand that equals a LOT of the male population), make falling in love with and making love with real women –including the physical aspects of affection–much more difficult than it used to be before every late-night channel offered a raft of such virtual substitutes for real relationships?

Rocky Humbert comments: 

Choices:

(a) Korean BBQ. Nothing excites a man more than watching a lady handle chopsticks amidst an open flame. Alas, times change. Woo Lae Oak has gone out of business. http://nymag.com/listings/restaurant/woo-lae-oak/

(b) Take whatever advice a parent provides, and do exactly the opposite.

(c) Que Sera, Sera

(d) http://www.datingish.com/695368212/how-to-win-your-guys-heart/

Score 1 point for picking the right answer. Deduct 1/4 point for picking the wrong answer.

 Bill Rafter writes:

When you are fishing, you need to match the bait to the fish. Striped Bass like clams, but Bluefish and Flounder will eat anything, so you might as well use bunker. Think of it this way: a young lady would wear one kind of dress on a date and a different dress when meeting the young man’s mother.

If a man is 25 or younger he is probably only interested in one thing and he is not looking for lasting qualities. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The interlude on the drawbridge is something he will never forget. A woman with an interesting job is attractive as long as it does not threaten him.

At some time the man starts to look for additional qualities in a mate. Maybe because of pressure from his parents he starts to think of having a family. Then he starts looking for someone who might be a good wife and mother. A schoolteacher is attractive in this case.

In foods, women are attracted to chocolate whereas men are attracted to cinnamon.

 Tim Melvin writes:

I told my daughter in response to a similar question that anything won so easily or quickly likely had little value in the long run. She should be herself at all times and the man who liked and fell for that woman was likely a better match. I taught all the tricks her old man had used over the years to win fair lady specifically so she could avoid them.

 Jose Bonamigo responds:

My intention with the Forbes extract was not to present solid evidence, just a likely explanation for couples like Charles and Diana (a common combination), as Gary pointed out.

Looking at the portraits it seemed to me they were "regular" uglies (just kidding)…

For a more scientific approach, at least in the physical part of dating:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17173598

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16318594

Sep

17

 Is it alluring to the average entertainment-thirsty movie-goer to hit the popcorn palaces for yet another ailment film? If you saw and found OUTBREAK (1995) involving, and I think it was, even without the credible talents of Rene Russo and Dustin Hoffman, or all the dozens of such films over the century of film fantasies that disgust, inform or titillate, CONTAGION is still worth a visit.

Sardine-packing in all the A-list actors you could wish for aside from Sir Lawrence Olivier and Orson Welles, perhaps, the film brings us to a renewed appreciation for how important constant hand-washing and hygienic mindsets are.

Though Gwyneth Paltrow (CONTAGION's first telegenic victim), Elliot Gould (a researcher who ignores CDC orders to destroy the pathogen samples in his lab for testing), the uninspiring Matt Damon (underused as the widower of frothy dead Gwyneth), Lawrence Fishbourne (CDC head), Kate Winslet (epidemiologist/researcher), the weird blogger played by Jude Law (with a distracting prosthetic tooth that throws viewers off every time he speaks) and Marion Cotillard (CDC disease investigator) and a quiverful of others are allup to snuff, the real protagonist in this investigatory thriller are the concepts of how fragile our sense of wellbeing is, given the ease of transmission of disease entities we know nothing of, as is the case with the mysterious MEV-1 followed here.

What the viewer gets an earful of is the workings of science and laboratories in the tracking, tagging and vaccine-producing process. When I was in the Peruvian jungle, and touching, using and appreciating the massive leafy pharmacopoeia of the natural 'drugs' profoundly abundant there, some trekkers with me kept hounding our barefoot shamin: "Why can't wecut all these bushes and use these healing properties right now?"

The shamin spoke precious little English, and my Quechua was rusty, so maybe he had no answer. But I knew why not already: It takes months of patient testing against myriads of substances to stabilize and replicate the properties needed to 'cure' or ameliorate diseases. Working with an unknown pathogen or virus, you have to isolate, refine, test, retest and do clinical studies on the entire ladder of phylogeny before you can dare test on humans.

Which is how it comes that Lilly and Pfizer make their money: They do the job, taking a Billion or two and a decade or more to bring a vaccine or tablet to market safely.

The "R-Noughts" and other statistical and scientific terms like "pathognomonic," "fomites," "paramyxovirus," "phylogenetic" and the like, all medical phrases—none neologisms–meant to impress the average theatre-goer (and they do) are instructive lessons in how we cannot demand instantaneous 'cures,' and the film cheats on having Gould's character identify the blowtorch virus 'way too quickly. But most in the audience won't notice. More culpable is the plot development that shows days going by matched with racing disease-afflicted areas of the world (essentially large blotches of people, planes and eating implements) is the resolution that comes mere months after the lethal initial exposures and deaths,. FEMA and the CDC are the real stars behind the curtain. The medical vaccine and pill process is arthritic. Were we privy to how the process serves to eliminate unnecessary dangers, it would reassure us, and we would be grateful, instead of making us as impatient as my companion in Sacsaywamman's wild fauna and flora in the sweltery Peruvian /selva/.

Coming so soon after the grocery hysteria engendered by Irene and Lee, however, the film has an added urgency. With the addition of the Red Alert of pre-9/11 potential terror plot, nebulous to amorphously defined (through no lack of police and FBI efforts, assuredly), CONTAGION provokes a panic that is not only real, it is downright pedagogical:

Two changes you will effect from the film: You will definitely stop touching your face as often as you heretofore have done. (The film is correct that we do indeed touch our faces hundreds of times a day, mostly unconsciously. Now you will get the startle response when you notice your hand is on your cheek or forehead.) And you will grab that loo door handle with a safety-buffer serviette next time you're in Grand Central Station, rather than breeze back to your bacterially teeming Zaro's mini-table and cutlery.

Sep

4

 A terrific seasonal movie — a film that reignites the flagging human spirit.

A charming–and true!–'tale' based on misfortune overcome, it focuses on strength and overcoming, has a refreshing feel throughout, features believable people–especially the always exceptional Ashley Judd, the engaging, masculine, relatable Kris Kristofferson, and the rugged, very intelligent Harry Connick, Jr.–and seems unusual in that adults can enjoy it alongside kidlets. I was at first under the impression that it was animated, since the beginning sequence with dolphins scooting about underwater did not look real, and I was prepared for animated storyline follow-up–but was relieved to see it was live action.

The Florida film is extrapolated from a real dolphin, Winter, a playful mammal who was caught up in netting and other human detritus now jetsamming and flotsamming the seas. With his tailfin gone from apoptotic cellular death, now rudderless, will Winter develop incurable spinal calcification difficulties and die prematurely? Winsome and not-too-precious kids take over plot machinations to rescue depressed dolphin Winter. Adults listen and assist.

The take-home of this sweet and no-naughty-anything entertainment is that science is busily working toward perfectability. In the film, it is a partially disabled dolphin, but the solution of her handicap, or "fin-icap," more precisely, is also the direction being taken for returning disabled soldiers and those born with physical challenges.

Fishy thought: I think 'Winter' here, the dolphin star, has a splashy career ahead of her, possibly in Esther Williams film remakes. Or surfing sagas with animal companions.

Aug

31

 SHAOLIN

Directed by Benny Chan

Eternal values, amped up with the historical costume drama of ancient feuding warlords and Shaolin monks fervidly schooled in the martial arts. Lovely ladies (one of the loveliest here: Fan Bingbing), exquisitely choreographed fight scenes–no special effects needed, as the timing and precision movements are impeccably performed throughout this rev-tempo film–and scripting that evokes empathy, enraptured involvement, sadness, awe from time to time, even tears. The monks are experts in fighting, but deeply compassionate and committed, to aiding the weak and hungry… and to not killing.

Stern, uncompromising General Hou (Andy Lau) opens the hostilities with his violence and take-no-prisoners ruthlessness in the place of no killing, the shaolin temple. Betrayed by fellow General Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), Hou is forced into monkish hiding at the Shaolins' hidden mountain retreat. Through his daily working with martial Zen, he expiates his furies and rage, though that does not deflect the vengeful tactics of his former 'brother' in arms, Cao.

'Brother' fighters fight over the conquest of a city, a gold purse handsome enough for many cannon, instant betrothals, and dominance issues. Children are involved, piteously requiring protection and succor. Gorgeous monasteries vie with mountain vistas and misty fortresses. Explosions. Swordplay. Chariot chases along narrow crevasse passes with uncertain footing. Knives and guns. (What could be bad?)

A peak experience, as one of my husbands used to opine, also includes the pleasure of a classic genial pixie we all love: Jackie Chan, playing a cook who knows from nothing in the martial arts. His bonhomie is infectious, he is willing to be as shabby as a bumpkin cook can look, in ramshackle outfits and even more mote-inflected venues–the casting is a knockout.

Strong men. Powerful images. A satisfying fight movie (a touch too long, but never mind) for kids, teens and adults who are enamored of the shaolin life, rigorous discipline and masterful boxing.

And the one geyjin in the film, a bearded Anglo gun merchant who speaks immaculate Mandarin, speaks one line in English during the 2 1/4 hrs. What is funny is that his crystal-clear English is subtitled–in English. Flash: Did they mean to subtitle it for Asian viewers into Chinese?

Zie chi'en — be good, so long. Don't bring the littlest. But for the King Fu, Tai Chi or Krav Maga addicts amongst you, this is a meaty if sanguinary entrée.

Aug

21

 CHA$INGMADOFF

Directed by Jeff Prosserman

This was on Reuters on 18 August 2011:

*Madoff Trustee Adds Claims in $2 Billion UBS Lawsuit*

08/17/2011 5:55:34 PM ET EDITOR'S NOTE:

This story has been updated throughout. NEW YORK (Reuters)—The trustee seeking money for victims of Bernard Madoff's fraud on Wednesday [Aug.17]…

Bernard Madoff made off with over $50 Billion in funds tendered him for investment over the past two decades or so. The billions came from other hedge-fund brokers, financial people, huge charities, schools, synagogues, and average working Americans. He had no actual investments, as it turned out, because he worked the classic Ponzi scheme: He continually brought in new dupes, fresh money, and paid off older 'investors' with the proceeds of his newer pigeons. His white-collar predators included bankers, international lieutenants, and sundry henchmen, all of whom 'fed' clients to the steely mastermind who heisted a larger sum than any single such dealer in history.

When Madoff, at the end of his machinations and available new marks, surrendered to the authorities in December of 2008, thousands of investors, big and little alike, suffered devastating losses. Often, in fact, their entire lifetime savings.

One persistent investigator tried matching the vaunted Madoff figures 'way back in 1999, and they made no sense. Harry Markopolos, a one-time Boston securities analyst, made it his quest to expose the clear fraudulent dealings of this highly public, highly venerated 'investor,' Bernard Madoff, acquiring a team that worked with him doggedly as he amassed mountains of documentation against the venerated, avuncular silver-maned guy with the seemingly magic touch. If Madoff accepted you, you never seemed to lose. Your earnings accreted month after month, nary a dip or a blip in the chart. The team—Marcopolos, Jeff Sackman, Randy Manis and Anton Nadler, with the legal help of Indian lawyer Gaytri Kachroo, dubbed The Foxhounds—pursued their quarry relentlessly. Years. The documentary makes frequent allusions—maybe too many—to the Eliot Ness/Al Capone /pas de deux/ in the mid-century. Though Chicago's Capone was a known criminal, and Madoff's Manhattan machinations remained shrouded and mostly unsuspected until his public arrest.

Strangely, after submitting piles of documentation, Markopolos found that no one would touch the story. /Forbes/ turned him down. The SEC ignored his repeated efforts to get their response to the ongoing fraud. Wouldn't touch it. Wouldn't return his calls. Markopolos became (understandably) frightened for his own safety, and that of his wife and adorable young twins. In the end, if it does not mar the film's unspooling too much, these cute 6-year-olds think their dad is their "hero," thinking he has "stopped a bank robber." Though they admire Spider-Man just slightly more.

 The tracery of the past decade of the team's effort makes this a compelling story. Interviews, personal recollections, plus highly stylized /mise en scene/ presents as a slightly overblown thriller that raises the ultimate questions: Can ethics exist under capitalism? Can greatness be achieved morally? Whom can we really trust?

Why did people fall for Madoff's charm, scheme, whatever? The average Joe cannot do the due diligence needed to unearth the likes of this mega-operation by a swindler who headed up NASDAQ. He seemed unimpeachable. The SEC seemed to be going about its bounden duties. And his unreal returns spoke louder than rationality. Getting into the game, when everyone was told "he has a closed shop," made surmounting the fencing even more alluring, if you will. Who doesn't relish the idea of being the last one to scoot under the wire before they clang down the *No more* mesh grating sign?

It happened. And Madoff is not the last of the predators by a long shot, though he is serving a 150-year sentence. There are still the unscrupulous, of course, and many hundreds who aided and abetted Madoff are still at large; according to the titles, 300 or so. The SEC, now peopled by new faces, witnessed the testimony, and many of the guilty resigned. But that is scant comfort to those who lost…everything, and at 75 or 80 had to go back to a McJob to pay their monthly rent.

Based on the book, *_No One Would Listen_*, by Harry Markopolos.

(John Wiley & Sons)
 

Jul

7

 This is a remarkable but somewhat painful film, "Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness." Notwithstanding the film title, one does not remember a single laughter anywhere in this faithful picture of the past century of tsarist pogroms and Stalinist anti-Semitic attacks against innocent scapegoat citizens of their colder and less hospitable vastnesses. It is a source of wonder to see how a 93-minute biography of a man whose life occurred largely before the advent of moving pictures, and before the art of photography was quite invested in the world, could be made using just an assemblage of photos, newsreel clips and world-renowned Yiddishists and literary recalls, plus photos that may be B/W and faded, but startlingly fresh. But director Dorman has achieved something great, and greatly moving.

Aleichem's granddaughter, the famed writer Bel Kaufman, contributes poignant family stories from her own recollections at her grandfather's knee, along with Harvard scholars (Ruth Wisse), think-tank mavens, archivists and literary figures. The archival research involved in such a film is amazing. That the filmmaker succeeded in creating such a lively recall of the brilliant folklorist and writer of Yiddish parables and classics is commendable. But well-done homage to a man who lived through so much horror and ugliness to Jews in Russia, in Poland, in Europe, and here and there, all the time writing his remarkable stories and books in Yiddish, a disregarded, almost despised but virile language, is not to say this is an easy entertainment to sit through. Perhaps it is this reviewer, whose history seems to be so interwoven with its passages of sadness and movement, of shifting and readjusting–the great writer's birth name, Rabinowitz, was this reviewer's family name before it was what it is now–and the knowledge that this man was a forebear that was cause for some thoughtful mulling and gestational processing.

Born Sholem Rabinowitz in 1859 in today's Ukraine, Aleichem was a champion of the common people who saw in him their muse and Homer. When the volk heard a reading, saw a play or read a story by this taleteller, they resonated to its tumultuous rhythms and precarious adventures, since no one, with few exceptions (much later, Isaac Bashevis Singer being a notable standout) wrote in this language that spanned the continents, and in many ways joined the Jewish people in disparate countries and extremises. His contemporaries wrote in literate Hebrew or, not Jewish, Russian (Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky). Jews could converse with each other if they came from Greece or Bulgaria, from Argentina or Lithuania—everyone, old and young, wealthy (who spoke French and Russian, as well as Yiddish) or poor could speak voluminously with anyone from other countries who also spoke their momma loshen—mother tongue.

 Yiddish is as rich a language as any the world has seen: It incorporates wildly colorful shtetl phrases with the raffish black humor emerging from centuries of murderous rampages in all of Europe, with phraseology from the French, German and Russian, with bits and pieces of Polish, Hungarian, even English and other languages that have hosted Jews for their transit through hectored anguish and emergent industry. It is the lingua franca of Jews the world over—even, to an extent, the Hebrew-dominant Israel—because it bespeaks and subsumes their turbulent lives in each of these sometime-hosts. Aleichem's idea to write in this 'subterranean low language' of the people was itself a revolutionary recognition of its myriad charms and multiple inflections. As to Yiddish humor, the Larry Davids, Jackie Masons and Woody Allens would not exist but for the choice to live, and laugh, through the nonstop vale of tears.

Born quite poor, Aleichem was fascinated by the stock market. Once he was married to the daughter of a wealthy merchant, he could indulge and play the market all day, every day. Then write far into the night. He was convinced he would make a fortune from his perambulations in stocks and bonds. Why not? Others seemed to do it.

When, late in his career, no longer wealthy (he lost 30,000 rubles in one fell swoop, an inconceivable fortune in the early 20th century) because of market debts incurred in one catastrophic market crash (what we might fashionably call a big 'correction') when he lived in Kiev, his mother-in-law then supported him and his family for years, but never spoke to him again, once he lost the inheritance from her husband. He came to the United States, lofted on the shoulders of thousands in New York, and his name–which in Yiddish means Hello! How are you! Well be it with you! As well as So long–was shouted in approbation, Sholem Aleichem! This was the creator of Tevye the Milkman, Fiddler on the Roof Tevya, and countless other beloved if bittersweet icons of Jewish folklore. But his two plays in the Yiddish theatre in the Lower East Side were poorly received by the critics, and he returned to Europe, to London, where eking out a living was always difficult. Sick with diseases he would have eliminated or managed to a large extent had he lived today–TB, prostate, diabetes–and alone without his wife and six children…he had accomplished much though he died too young.

Of the United States, he knew, and stated, that for Jews, the United States was "the best country for Jews that had ever been." He was widely considered the Yiddish Mark Twain.

A telling anecdote: When asked what he thought of the peregrinational, quintessential Yiddish writer, Mark Twain called himself "the English-speaking Sholem Aleichem." This biography offers an extraordinary wealth of rare pictures, even remarkable photographs of the writer's 1916 funeral in New York, where an unprecedented throng of some 200,000 showed up, making it probably the city's largest funeral attendance to date.

Incidentally, when someone hails you with Sholem aleichem, the correct response is Aleichem sholem! Go in peace. For lovers of the written and spoken word, this is vivid, involving biography-transcription. This portrait of a genius adroitly, if with weltsmertz, captures the world of chrysalis birthing, through acerbic and painful humor, as a brilliant observer explored the struggle to fashion a modern Jewish identity

Ironically, Aleichem's seesaw finances improved considerably after his death. His estate is worth a great deal more than he could have ever imagined in 1916. As someone famously remarked about the ever-popular and fiscally sound Elvis after his premature demise: Dying– a smart career move.

 

Jul

3

 It is, as usual, all about money. One has to question how a relatively poorly paid maid, already represented by NY's formidable prosecutorial team, found it necessary (or affordable) to hire barristers Kenneth Thompson, Jeffrey Shapiro, and Norman Siegel to represent her interests.

True enough she has since economized, releasing both Shapiro and Siegel, while retaining Thompson (who gave a real stem-twister presentation of her case immediately following the NY announcement that GSK would be given a longer leash).

The points underscored by Thompson clearly indicate that while the criminal case may be in doubt, the civil case still has legs. The always-available Susan Allred was brought on to re-emphasize the important "preponderance of evidence" guidelines that make civil cases (supposedly) easier to win.

However, there are still a few rarely referenced voices out there harping on the fact that besides GSK's "threat" to Sarkozy, the man had expressed the heretical idea that perhaps the bond holders, and not the public, should be tagged with any losses incurred with past and present bail-out packages.

In short, a dangerous man (to certain political and financial interests) has been effectively removed from the board. Frankly, what I find most disturbing about this case and other similar ones, is the government's increasing willingness to "leak" highly prejudicial information well ahead of it being substantiated.

Topping off this questionable (if not unethical) conduct is the burgeoning of coverage by Nancy Grace and her spawn. These so-called "legal experts" and their guests remind one of Madame Defarge (with little possibility of her eventual comeuppance) and her compatriots.

Sad to say, my wife is a huge fan of this programming (Casey Anthony being the villainess du jour). If that case, or any other like it, ever ends up with a hung jury (an unlikely event), one wonders if much of the jury pool for any subsequent trial is irrevocably poisoned.

I sure as heck would give serious consideration to pleading down (regardless of my innocence and/or bankroll) before giving those supposedly non- biased vultures a second crack at my bleeding (but still-breathing) body.

Stefan may disagree, but the price of justice is just way too high for the average guy to get his (equitable) day in court. Many of us would stand a better chance if we were to go back to "trial by ordeal." There, though overmatched against a seasoned knight of the realm, we might get lucky with a wild swing of the broad sword. Though unlikely, the procedure would be faster, far less expensive, and neither party would have to share with an "advocate" whose interests might well not extend beyond the pecuniary.

Rocky Humbert writes:

Although these pages were filled with cynical comments regarding DSK; there has been "radio silence" since we discovered that his rape accuser has a credibility problem (to say the least). My point is not to criticize fashionable Speclist cynicism, but rather to salute the hardworking (and comparatively low-paid) lawyers in the NY District Attorney's office on this Independence Day weekend. The DA has a sworn constitutional duty to upload our laws — and when he discovered that his case had some serious problems — the office promptly disclosed this to the Court and the Defense — rather than burying the facts in a back desk drawer (and hoping the defense wouldn't find the same facts.) If this case is dismissed (as it should be — in a he-said/she-said case where the accuser has no credibility and/or is deported for immigration fraud), then it will be an embarrassing political setback for Cy Vance Jr. (the DA), but a testament to the greatness of the US criminal justice system. Lady Justice is not only blindfolded, but her head swivels too! 

Here is a copy of the DA's letter. It says that the DA's investigators discovered DSK's accuser:

1) Lied abut her whereabouts and activities after the tryst…

2) Admitted to felony tax fraud.

3) Admitted to perjury regarding on her asylum application to the USA.

4) And other juicy tidbits….(And she had a good lawyer too.)

Marion Dreyfus writes:

Tarnishing one's reputation is a huge malevolence that cannot be expunged easily. I abhor women who accuse their soon-to-be-ex husbands of rape or abuse of their minor children if these are false. These charges are beyond ugly, and the man is often pilloried with no proof of wrongdoing– such women ought to be jailed and fined if their lies are uncovered.

He may be guilty, but her new facts are certainly exculpatory for his having 'raped' or 'forced' her– she was deliberately gunning for him, and she was less a maid than … made.

Jun

24

Anyone have any advice on passive investing– there is no timing the market, so one therefore invests with an eye to neither highs nor lows of a particular day or time or season?

Ralph Vince writes: 

Correct, but there are now two "flavors" to such, as you will, as an advent of "active" indexes. Typically, one would mimic, say, the S&P 500, and the returns would be those of the S&P 500 (there is a problem with reinvestment of returns here often, and of additions and withdrawals, but in theory, you would track the index).

"Active" indexes typically seek the same underlying components, but the weightings into the components tend to be dynamic, so the returns tend to be those of the underlying index with an upward bias.

Rocky Humbert writes: 

Ralph raises a brilliant point. Over the last 20 years, the Russell 2000 (small stock) index and the S&P500 (large cap) stock index have both returned about 8% per year.But from 1993 to 1999, the S&P returned 24% per year while the Russell returned 12% per year. A 200% outperformance for the big cap index…Next, from 2000 to 2011, the Russell returned about 7% per year while the S&P has returned 2% per year. A 350% outperformance for the small cap index…Today, the Russell is trading at 35x trailing p/e … while the S&P is trading at a 14.6x trailing p/e. In order to justify this record valuation difference, small caps must grow their earnings twice as fast as big cap companies. While small companies often grow faster than big companies (due to the math of compounding), arguably Mr. Market's pendulum has swung too far — and it's improbable that the Russell 2000 will outpeform the S&P500 over the next 5-10 years FROM THE CURRENT RELATIVE VALUATIONS.

Note: Dr. Zussman, I (and many others) have studied this phenomenon, and we've not found any consistent explanation for these swings other than investor preference…. and these cycles/trends last years and go further than "sensible" people expect. However, if I were starting a passive investment strategy today, I certainly wouldn't pick the IWM (Russell 2000) as my investment vehicle with a 5-10 year time horizon.
 

Jun

20

 After I got to the odd warehouse/loft venue on the 6th floor at 150 Varick—to a back room behind hall after hall of hip-hop clothing and buyers having nothing to do with the plain white-stucco'ed room where the film would be shown on the wall, and all there was at the 'reception' was a bin of beer, nothing else (even water), as the hour for the screening approached–they finally brought out a few Vietnamese things that were hard to identify, but sort of like tasteless white bao-bracketed sandwiches, maybe fish or chicken or something else entirely. Odd flavorings, like crystalline sugar or shredded algae as dressings. Each time a waiter came in, with about 100 guests milling about in their Manolo Blahniks and Ermenegildo Zegnas, they high-plattered about 7 sandwiches or canapes of indeterminate etiology onto a platter. Quickly, very quickly, emptied. Thence a wait for 10 more minutes for 7 more of these unusual edibles to be ferried in. A carafe of ice water appeared! At last, some water for my plastic cup of ice (scooped from the homely beer cooler, as a last resort to sweltering heat and no inclination toward beer).

The film was introduced, with the sad news that Bulli would see its last customer on 30 July. Hold your horses if you want to indulge—chef Ferran Adrià just decided, at the very Michelin top of his profession, to close up shop. Reservations were long since closed out. On the day they opened, in fact. There has not been an open place for a seating since the one day a year they open the phone for reservations. (There were 2 million requests for the 6 months they serve. That is a two with six zeroes after it.) The setting is on the scenic outskirty skirt of Barcelona, nowhere easy to get to.

The film is outstanding–*EL BULLI*, the world-famous restaurant that is closing end of July, I am sorry I cannot get to Spain to sample the miraculous creations the food imagineers and chefs concoct. Perhaps the best restaurant in the world, according to Michelin and the scant-favors /New York Times/. But however intoxicatingly amazing the confections (can we even call these unprecedented gustatory sculptures of taste that?), entrees and nameless wonders may be, they never got around to discussing the cost of this exorbitantly fabulous fare.

But such exorbitantly fabulous fare. What does price matter? Mere money is just green. These meals are a morsel of memorable majesty and magnificence. Whatever it costs, it cannot but be worth well more than one deducts from Mr. Visa or Mistress MasterCard. What the winter ice-fantasy carving extravaganza is to Harbin, China, and the art caravanserai of Art Basel is to South Beach, Florida, every February is to painting and canvases, *El Bulli* is to food.

At the end, I felt it was a transcendent involvement, and the audience of critics and chi-chi downtown types were knit together by the experience of seeing the developmental lab work of six months of R&D (every year it has been open for business) researching, documenting and formulating—exactifying and quantifying by tiny increments, taste upon taste, sensation upon sensation—the most exquisite ingredients in the most 'bewildering' and teasing conjugality.

And always: tasting, nibbling, sipping, popping into the mouth. And chewing, savoring, laving with the tastes coating the millions of taste buds in the moist ready orifice.

Reservations for this year are foreclosed and done. So <sigh> cross that divine wish off your bucket list.

When the tasting menu of this year's outstanding 35 unveiled onto the screen, two by two, like Noah's chosen survivalist species, mouth-wateringly poetized below the foods the precious word-pictures captivated, I needed…a cigarette… .

Jun

20

 For the image-and-effects crowd, there is every type of visual effect in this summer cooler—digital doubles, keying, crowd-simulation scenes, CG blood, compositing, digital environments and matte paintings. Space shots and montages, wholesale destruction and multiples.

Still, Ryan Reynolds, whose eyes are small and close set, dark and mischievous, has a narrow face and head, as if he had trouble negotiating the birth canal some years ago. Nevertheless, his body is that of an anatomical chart for the ideal corpus delectable.

Reynolds has a slew of impressive actors to help him in the delight-filled and entertaining comic-translated to celluloid flick. Blake Lively is lissome and lovely as Carol Ferris. And Peter Sarsgaard outdoes himself in an icky but challenging role as ne'er-do-well science-guy Hector Hammond with unfortunate integument and blood cells that do him in insofar as handsomeness is concerned. Tim Robbins makes a blessedly short appearance as Sarsgaard's senatorial papa. Mark Strong is eponymous in the allover crimson role of …Sinestro.

Not everyone will go for this comic-book invigoration; some won't like the SFX-heavy /leit/-motifs. Others will be distinctly uncomfortable with the metaphorical parallel to the late-in-film 'invasion' of the extremely bad-guy aliens—the street scene, though in California, is too close to the NYC 9/11 melee of panic in the streets. It is still early in our country history to evoke pillows of ash and smoke and people running in hysteria every which way.

Ryan Reynolds plays Hal Jordan, a hotshot test pilot who is recruited by the Green Lantern Corps to join their crusade against evil in the universe and membership into an intergalactic squadron tasked with keeping peace within the universe.His colleague hot-dogger pilot is Ferris-Corp daughter, played by the luscious Blake Lively, but she has Dagny Taggert elements of management in addition to being the ace pilot just shy of Reynolds' amazing air-climbing prowess. With the help of a power ring, Jordan is granted a number of superpowers–but can he overcome his fears in time to defeat a marauding army of evil?

Strong is good as an otherworldly presence in magenta. And sundry animatronics fish-people and oddities with beefy no-neck bodies and what-not voiced by Geoffrey Rush and others. The CGI, though really amazing here as rarely before—AVATAR, sit back down!—are, to use an overused term, awesome. The special effects are as good as the laser presentations in the Planetarium, and the protagonists have humorous, serious and bookish things to say that keep the audience leaning forward to catch lines before a Biff! Bam! Boom! scene erases the prior lines. It's good for 8 through 80, has eye-candy all over the place, and for fans of the comic book,,.or for those agnostic of the pulp paper of decades ago, this is a swift entertainment.

 Keep in mind: I never read the comic. I have no brief for conversion films from the ancient fanzine base. And I am a girl, so these things do not naturally float toward my delight index. Still, I have long loved sci-fi, and this is a satisfactory offering in the canon. Though not all my colleagues agree. (Can't please everyone.)

If you have teens or just-pre-teens, though this is a mite strong in the bash 'em/trash 'em in a few scenes, my view is it was a lot more not-to-be-missed if you want to get into the good graces of the young for the weekend. If not, carve yourself out a cardboard tyke and go and enjoy.
 

May

9

 With the new documentary HOW TO LIVE FOREVER, director Mark Wexler examines what it takes to live a long and—fulfilling? life —physically, mentally, and spiritually. The one-two punch experiences of the death of his painter-mother and the arrival of his AARP card were the seedbeds of his filmic research, in which he explores the most fundamental of human connections to life.

As a Southern California native, Mark's natural instinct was to live longer and, as Botox, surfing and Hollyweird attests, younger. In HOW TO LIVE FOREVER he embarks on a global trek to investigate what it means to grow old and what it could mean to really live 'forever.' But whose advice should he take? Does 94-year-old exercise guru Jack LaLanne have all the answers, or does British Buster, a now-103-year-old grizzled, chain-smoking, ale-guzzling marathoner? What about futurist Ray Kurzweil, sci-fi guru Ray Bradbury, a 'laughter yoga' maven, or an unassuming 74-year-old new-age Japanese recent porn-stud celeb (who chuckles: "I've made what I think are 200 films since I became a porn star." Amazing clips of some of his starring vehicles expand the average viewer's mental apparatus on what constitutes the upper regions of sexuality. He is part of the growing industry of older porn that is apparently taking the Far East by storm)? Wexler explores the viewpoints of piquantly unusual characters, alongside those of health, fitness, and life-extension experts in this engaging doc, which by the final credits challenges our notions of youth and aging with sometimes-dour if often-comic poignancy.

Begun as a study in life-extension, studying beauty contests for the AARP-aged, wandering to Las Vegas for connubial ceremonies for first-time married octogenarian set, then to cryogenic facilities for preservation of bodies ($150,000 a year) and 'neurologies' (heads alone, a bargain $80,000/year) until medicine finds a way to re-vivify these preserves in their jet-age stainless steel cylinders, LIVE FOREVER evolves into a thought-provoking examination of what gives life meaning.

One amusing sequence has Wexler confronting pierced and tatted teens through flinty centenarians, "If you had a pill that extended your life 500 years, would you take it?" Shades of the 2011 sci-fi LIMITLESS, which energetically explores a similar concept, except expanding the brain's capabilities to its maximal level. As many people say no to the 5-century-pill offer, interestingly, as say yes. Even the quite young think a beat, then often say that life gets its seasoning from being limited. One couple in their 80s is asked. The husband immediately assents to the idea: "Sure!" He agrees—lots of things to do, learn, experience. His wife looks on, unperturbed. At her turn, she answers, "Why would I want to stay married [to him] another 500 years? No, please!"
In addition to Jack LaLanne (a year before his recent death at 95) and futurologist Kurzweil, the film also features zesty interviews with writer Ray Bradbury, the still hysterical (in both senses) Phyllis Diller, newsman/interviewer Willard Scott, exercise doyenne Suzanne Somers, and writer Pico Iyer (a former colleague from when we worked at TIME). One physician, a surgeon, is still practicing surgery daily at 94. (He doesn't look it.) He shares the amusing nugget that he "doesn't often tell colleagues how old [he] is." He's thinking of leaving the office next year, but enjoys the camaraderie of the 'superior people' he encounters in his field, and regrets having to stop work, when and if.

Clearly, Wexler finds elderly who are both sensate and compos mentis in addition to being up there in moon count. It's no great shakes being older than the galaxy if you aren't also full of the life that could make use of the increasing years. He dismisses the claims of many in exotic climes who stake their ages to high triple digits because they offer no proof, and suggests they are motivated by competition, cultural tendrils and other aspects of society to claim older years than they are entitled to by the clock.

The people Wexler does find, among them a 122-year-old who seems unsurprised and unimpressed by the news she is the world's oldest person, offer a mix of advice for staying alive: From "Get yourself good parents and genes" to "Drink a coupla glasses of vodka, eat lots of chocolate and meat every day" and "smoke yourself a pack or two of fags" just to stay in the game.

Some gerontologists might disagree, but then again, how many of them can offer competing digits along with their advice and bromides to the longest lived?

May

6

 TRUE LEGEND held a lot of meaning for me, partially because I lived in Hubei Province, and the scenery/settings of the film were familiar to me from my travels in China. The costumes were gorgeous, inventive and worth a whole review in themselves. I liked the omission of ill-treatment of women, which was of course the case in the latter part of the dynastic period ending in the early nineteen teens. The period of this film is 1869. Though it was not historically accurate, I enjoyed the love story and the magnificent though strained familial ties greatly, especially absent the usual dismissive treatment of females during that time–a wise scripting choice for this viewer, at least.

Su Qi-Er retired from his life as a renowned Qing dynasty (1644-1914) general in order to pursue his creation of a family with his lovely, accomplished wife, Ying, and his own martial arts school in wushu. Su's idyllic life is destroyed peremptorily when his angry adopted brother, Yuan Lie, kidnaps his son, Feng, and leaves the soulful Su for dead in a harrowing near-death by cataract waterfalls. Saved from his watery demise by his loving Ying and the reclusive, ethereal doctor Yu (who rapels off precipitous heights regularly to get the herbs growing wild against the steep cliffsides that she heals her patients with), Su resolves to heal fully and perfect his technique so that he may defeat his brother-in-law Yuan Lie and reunite his family. Aided by the mystical "God of Wushu" and the eccentric, long-white-bearded Old Sage who is a staple in such films and myths, Su masters the stupendous art of Drunken Boxing, and embarks on the restorative fights for honor and family path that eventually gave rise to the legend of the "King of Beggars."

I very much appreciated the costume drama for its stately reconstitution of the nineteenth century in gorgeous, exotic backdrops, exorbitantly beautiful scene backdrops, paintings and photography, marvelous sets and nature captures, as well as the remarkable CGI effects that showed off the martial arts to extravagant effect. Like CROUCHING TIGER, some 10 or so years ago, LEGEND's flights of martial art wushu soaring provided magic and fantasy that lifts the spirit and offers a soaring vision for viewers to ponder and marvel at.

The actors too were well within the limits of believable, with a winsome leading lady, Ying, a charming and believable young boy, Feng, and handsome combatants in the brothers-in-laws, father-in-law and worthy court retainers.

It was a pity that David Carradine was seen for such a brief time, but it was understandable, given his regrettable death shortly thereafter; perhaps there was a problem with his total footage, and the segments were not therefore re-shootable.

The single thing I found negative was that the fights were far too lengthy and the choreography after a time became a bit boring, as no fight in the world could last as long as they did throughout the film, particularly in the last scenes, where the protagonist sustains attacks by four brutish Caucasians for an endless amount of body bruising. I know young boys go to this type of film for the fights and the choreographed mastery of hand to hand combat, but even a stalwart defender of these arts gets exhausted at the idea that a human being could continue to fight without a break for so many untrammeled minutes. The film could be just as good with a series of minutes lopped off, and the fighting contained to a more sustainable few minutes each. There is ample eye-candy to charm and tease the eye and mind without these extended combat sequences.

Apr

4

 If someone could relate the 10 most important ways to be a successful beggar and somehow rate the big CEO's on how they fare on this, perhaps it would be a good way to pick investments these days. Certainly the basketball player, and the [deleted pending resolution of offer and counteroffer] would be high up there, and the heads of the certain institution from areas that are renowned for their ability to compromise would have many lessons to teach, and juicy stocks ripe for investment. The head of a metals company renowned for its low cost elevators in my day was a butler and this would seem to be very ideal training in the absence of a school for beggars in this country. How to generalize?

Gary Rogan writes:

They can't really beg and retain any illusion of authority. They have to prostitute themselves to the regime while plausibly (somewhat) appearing highly enthusiastic and supportive.

Some of the skills:

-Be able to speak with passion and conviction about complete nonsense, generally in the collectivist/green future and similar areas.
-Be able to deny obvious truth with passion and conviction in public, such as the real motivation for any help from the government.
-Regularly show up in Davos.
-Express a great deal of concern for various oppressed constituencies, at home and abroad and describe at length how the company/CEO are helping them.
-Be excited about creating jobs, especially "good" jobs, "skilled" jobs, "green" jobs. Talk at length about how the US needs to be a country that "builds things".
-Be able to motivate a large number of employees by any means necessary to contribute the government political candidate.
-Invest heavily in a number of "relationships" in DC to create wide-spread support for bailing out the company.
-If the company is a conglomerate that owns any media properties turn those properties into the echo chamber for the regime.
-Infrequently offer mild criticism of the regime while emphasizing the silver lining.
-Get involved as advisers to the various regime commissions.
-Hire former regime members.

Steve Ellison writes: 

Maiming: In one country I visited, there were many beggars, who served an important role in their religion by giving the faithful opportunities to do good deeds. Many of the beggars had been purposely maimed by their handlers in order to attract more alms.

Spinning a yarn: When I first worked in the big city as a young man, I was stunned by how many panhandlers there were. Locals informed me that the Republican president was to blame. I saw the same panhandlers day after day, but every once in a while somebody would approach me with a sad story. One woman rode the subway telling everyone she needed to get to a hospital for a medical procedure but needed money to get there. I occasionally would be approached by someone claiming to be a stranded traveler who needed money to get home.

Performing unwanted services to create a sense of obligation: The last time I went to the Los Angeles airport, I was approached as I walked out of the terminal by a woman who asked if I needed help finding anything. I said I just needed to find the shuttle bus for rental cars. She pointed out where it was (it was right in front of me, and I would have found it myself within five seconds) and then asked for money. Squeegie men and charities that send preprinted address labels are in this category, too.

Feigning virtue: I know people who have offered jobs to people holding signs saying, "Will work for food". None of the sign holders have ever shown up to work.

John Tierney writes:

10 attributes which get the alms seeker off to a good start:

1. stresses that the company is concentrating on "giving back to the community"

2. actively involved in and/or seeking out green initiatives.

3. putting increased emphasis on organic growth, but always has an eye-out for M&A opportunities

4. working hand-in-hand with government agencies/NGOs to address hunger/AIDS/climate change

5. supports and serves on advisory boards of outfits like Breast Cancer Awareness, Habitat for Humanity, Thurgood Marshall Scholarship program, anti-vivisection league, and Sierra Club

6. never misses annual meetings at Davos & Jackson Hole; always has time for interview with CNBC and others; dresses casually, but not ostentatiously for same, addresses interviewer by first name…refers to this year's meeting as "one of the most exciting" ever

7. rarely indulges in short-term predictions, instead devotes most of his time to long term initiatives (which he'd like to discuss, but, at this time, is premature); sees things improving slowly but surely

8. believes the Fed did the right thing - might have made a few small errors but, generally, moved decisively at a critical time. Country will bounce back, always has.

9. bailouts, QE1 & QE2, though regrettable, were necessary for the preservation of the financial system.

10. insists the public will realize a "healthy return" on bailout funds

Vince Fulco writes:

Not to be forgotten, the institutions that pound their chests with pride in their ad campaigns using misinformation as JPM has been doing recently re: the X number of mortgages (400M as I recall) the company has modified in 2010. "In order to do our part and assist ordinary consumers get back on their feet…" is the approximate spirit of the ad. Needless to say, for better or worse, in early consultation with these companies, the administration & Treasury planned for a 4-5X number of alterations.

Gary Rogan adds: 

Basically, the main requirement for being a CEO today is excelling at credible hypocrisy.

Russ Sears contributes:

Here are a half dozen more.

1. Beg for federal money for your customers. This should allow your prices to double what they put in. Plus the room for undetected fraud goes up. (See higher education and Medicare, medicaid and first time buyers tax credits). This way you get the best of both worlds, customers thanking you for making it affordable and tax payers footing the bills.

2. Give away your product to third world countries with tax breaks so that the Feds will extend the favor by lengthening your patent protection in US. Again gratitude for sticking it too us.

3. Have the government make it illegal not to be insured, and then make sure your product must be paid for by insurance. (car, health, PMI etc) Again with the government involved raising the easy of defrauding insurance companies.

4. If you are captured by the unions, make the government give only union shops a chance.

5. Use your size to get tax breaks as incentives, use your popularity to have the citizens build your stadiums.

6. Make sure that court system understands that with all the lawyers you hire, you are the ones keeping the judges in a job. Bringing regulatory capture to a new level, too big to prosecute.

World traveler B.K. writes: 

I've seen countless mutilated beggars in India, enough to make you want to cry coins to them. However, the practical advice is not to give: "In India thousands of children are being mutilated annually. The joints of their bones get injected with bleach. Infection is the result and amputation follows. Eyes are stuck out as well. …"

However, the greatest beggar I ever saw was an armless man in the NYC subway with a sign around his neck, 'Please give to buy drum set.'

George Parkanyi writes:

That may well be, but I look at it this way– who am I to judge? I once gave a leg-less homeless man a ten-dollar bill. Well he just absolutely lit up into a beautiful smile, looked me straight in the eye and said "God bless you!". That blessing hit me like a sonic boom. I felt it physically, and walked away feeling like I received much more out of that exchange than he did. Make of that what you will, but it had a huge impact on my outlook on life, and how we relate to each other. 

Marion Dreyfus writes: 

I saw the same mutilations and deliberate crippling in Nepal. Hundreds of kids tottered after Westerners, begging and making mewling sounds. If once you gave you were encircled and could not advance another step until each and every child had gotten coins from one. 

Art Cooper writes:

One of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories is "The Man With the Twisted Lip," an exceptionally successful London street beggar, who gave his benefactors psychic value for their alms.

Pitt T. Maner III writes:

Here is an article on organized phony beggars. Those who donate must be able to differentiate the individuals worthy of a helping hand:

"Certain persons posing as social leaders have been running the racket of beggary. We are busy in gathering necessary evidence to initiate criminal action against them," Ramalingappa said.

He claimed that at few places the "beggary business" was going on a "commission basis"

and whenever the officials conducted raids, the beggars escaped from the clutches of law and also alerted others over mobile phones.

"Whenever the beggars in disguise are arrested, lawyers rush to get them released," Ramalingappa said. Most of these rackets thrive in and around well known pilgrim centres and religious places where people generously offer to beggars. He said an awareness programme will be launched to impress upon people that beggary should not be encouraged.

Stating that no proper rehabilitation of "genuine beggars" has taken place anywhere in the State, Ramalingappa said a comprehensive survey on the conditions of beggars will be taken up soon. There are 914 beggars including 168 women in rehabilitation centres all over the State. Steps were being taken to set these centres in order.

Mar

28

 Armadillo

Directed by Janus Metz and Lars Skree

In February 2009 a group of Danish soldiers, accompanied by documentary filmmaker Janus Metz, arrived at Armadillo, an FOB [Forward operating Base] army camp in the south Afghan province of Helmand. For six months, Metz and cameraman Lars Skree shadowed the doings of young Danish soldiers situated less than a kilometer from dug-in Taliban nests. The outcome of their work is a gritty and almost unbelievably authentic war drama that justly won the Grand Prix de la Semaine de la Critique at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Because of the nature of the disclosures in the record of the men's hitches, however, it provoked a firestorm of debate back in Denmark over the controversial behavior of certain soldiers during one pitched shootout with Taliban killers. But 'kinetic military activity' tends to be messy, and not subject to parental supervision.

Through the early tedium of their military entrenchment, through the nightly porn viewings and the computer games, the calls home to Mom on field telephones, through to the steely tension of encounter with the enemy, the filmmakers repeatedly risked their lives shooting this tense, brilliantly edited, and visually sophisticated mirror of the psychology of young men in the midst of a vaguely defined war whose victims seem to be primarily local villagers and farmers. At one point, village Afghanis ask some of the men if they are Jewish or Christian. Momentary pause. "Christian." They ask: American? British? "Danish." The Afghanis are up on their PC bonus points. Surreal scenes remind us that this is a civilian arena, as local children seeking sweets and leftover food rations pop up while the men pick their way through poppy fields ripe for opium manufacture, shooing them off kindly after sharing their food with them. More jostling than scenes in which Taliban tracers zing past their portable cameras is the unblinking footage of the handsome, tattoo'ed and unblemished soldiers as each tries, in the face of constant provocations and problems, to come to terms with waking each day to the realities of being in a terrain of rubble, faced with lethal enemies they rarely see except via overhead drone transmission, green screen computer paradigms and the hasty exits of black-blogged women and children fleeing their villages in advance of what they know to be gunfights ahead.

They are Special Forces, and the array of their equipment is majestic, including medics and translators who play key roles throughout in interplay with the agri harvesters and farmers. Their panoply of gear is the last word in impressive-and contributory to their ability to shout hectic instructions in the field of combat on helmet mikes, making the combat not only frightening, but loud and punctuated with noises and static-y orders, cautions and warnings.

 THE HURT LOCKER comes to mind repeatedly, as does APOCALYPSE NOW. But this cinema verite on the ground is something else. Those dead in the ditch are real men, and that is a real corpse. Though the men are warm and comradely with each other, we rarely catch them openly admitting how existentially terrifying their days and nights are with lives constantly on the line. The CO, commanding officer, seems exceptional, articulately reviewing each expedition and engagement, praising the men when needed, upbraiding them when they are careless, reporting on the progress of med-evac'ed comrades back in Denmark hospitals. Awarding the men, who started out at 180 cocky guys, patches of honor, all too aware of the fragility of temporary successes.

They seem admirably prepared, but how prepared is anyone, in the end, to having an IED blow off a leg? Their time is marked off, titles indicating each month, but each day of continued breathing undamaged, alive, a triumph against the inevitable encroaching odds.

________________________________

In Danish, Pashto and Dari. Subtitled in English.

Mar

9

 Mensa, the high-IQ society, provides a forum for intellectual exchange among its constituents. There are outlets and societies in more than 100 countries around the globe. Membership is open to persons who have attained a score within the upper 2% of the general population on an approved intelligence test that has been properly administered and professionally supervised. Many who might be qualified for membership admit they "are afraid" of taking the test, lest they discover unpleasantly that they are not the brilliant lights they fancy themselves. Alternatively, many smart people don't need the rubber stamp of Mensa membership to acknowledge their intelligence, and don't bother. Currently a thriving local activity in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgins, there are an approximate 100,000+ Mensans around the world, with the vast majority, some 55,000-60,000, in the US. Approximately 5 million people around the world qualify for membership. Group sizes constantly fluctuate, and ages of members run from the sub-teen to the nonagenarian and above. And although Mensans are often activists in private, the organization does not take official stands on political, religious or social issues, but does fulfill its original goals of social and psychological research through its research arm, MERF.

Although its precise history is somewhat shrouded in another "m" –for murk–best intel has it that the international high-IQ social group was born in England on October 1945, by lawyers Roland Berrill and Lancelot Ware. Though it almost faded from sight from lack of watering and care by its feuding founders, Mensa was revived from desuetude by an American in 1950, and has been growing ever since. Its initial raison d'etre was sociological and psychological research, apparently; social interaction was a distant third, if that. Recognize a Mensan by a small yellow lapel pin—or by self-identification. Activities include the exchange of ideas through lectures, discussions, journals, special-interest groups, and local, regional, national and international gatherings; the investigations of members' opinions and attitudes; and assistance to researchers, inside and outside Mensa, in projects dealing with intelligence or Mensa itself. Clinical studies and testing of new modalities, apps and even games are regularly sent through their paces at various annual state or (countrywide) regional gatherings. Scientists often ask for Mensa volunteers for their projects. Though associates are certifiably smart, at least on paper, there is some longitudinal anecdotal data to suggest that mere high IQ is no unifactorial determinant of all-around social intelligence, capability or even common likability. Indeed, spending a weekend at the annual is often a case in point. Snowball is the annual New Jersey chapter of Mensa, one that has been ongoing annually for 37 years. Or, as the attendance badge has it: Snowball XXXVII.

My experience includes some five or so attendances, all held in the townlet of Iselin, a 10-minute walk from the NJ Transit stop of Metro Park.

This year, I brought a friend, which made a huge difference. Generally speaking, being a female and alone, you takes your chances. Many attendees have been coming for decades, and they are a tight clique of hugs, high-5s and jokes and hang-out formations in the Hospitality-, game- and testing-rooms and lecture halls that are standard at every gathering.

Every annual has a room that has food, a huge trove of candy of all sorts, crudites and fruit, with side offerings of pizza on the second day, and heroes or subs and slabs of ham and onions that, take it from moi, do not tempt this gourmet. Still, even if one does not pay for the Saturday night "banquet," $25 extra, you can subsist on the copious juices, wines, beers, pretzels, chocolate Kisses, M&M's, peanut-butter cups and nuts arrayed all day and night as you meet and greet old friends (or never-were's). Old-timers have coded decals on their badges: Green dots for hug me! Yellow for hug but ask first, and red for Stop, no, don't you dare. There is a coded decal for single (I never asked which it was, though that would be smart). I just splashed a dozen colorful images on my badge because I liked them: animals, floral displays, snow, people, stars, spaceships, items of interest, symbols. Not a whole lot of meaning to my badge, except that I mostly obscured my name so as to make meeting me difficult.

Hospitality rooms are replenished constantly by a selfless phalanx of volunteers emptying chips and dips, bags of nuts and assorted broccoli florets, baby carrots and celery sticks onto platters on the long buffets. These Hospitality rooms are the wet-dreams of preteens (and sweets-partial Mensans, which is as good as 99.9%), the fraught nightmare of dietitians and dentists. The Game rooms are busy all night, with ferociously deft monster Scrabble and other word-strategy game players, card games, cunning new mental tests, as well as a ready pile of NY Times crossword puzzles, Sudoko grids and anagrams from the NY Post, should you be free for a nanosecond between bouts of this year's hottest group contests. Every year has its favorite game, sometimes impinging on the daytime lectures, but mostly battling sleep until 4 or 5 am. Games ensure a party atmosphere metaphysic without the burden of collegial or sequential conversation. Despite the hectic schedule of eating, lectures, parties, plays and games, most of the couples—there are a mess of couples, it seems—amazingly met at prior AGs, And their marriages seem of long duration. Though smarts is not the sole criterion of a mate for life, it is probably at least a guarantor that your spouse will get your jokes and value your profession. Even I have dated a few of the men encountered first at such gatherings, and in general a good (if temporary) time was had, mitigated by geographical distances and other tedious dissonances.

This year, there were 244 attendees, from 12 states. While there were no Big Deal headliners, disappointingly, the roster did offer stimulation of various sorts, as expected. In the past, we have had major entertainers, governors, astronauts, scientists and joke-meisters. But the lectures this time were not unsubstantial.

My reveries with having a friend to talk with and chat at table with, attend lectures and grumble about meager food offerings with were interrupted by a strange trio of weird mishaps at the normally excellent Hilton Woodbridge.

As soon as I registered, I wanted to bathe, and my room was clean, but the bath stopper would not work, so no water could accume. I called down, and up came three attractive 'technicians,' the better to instill in me visions (of soft-core movies?). Eric discovered that the stopper was in backwards and upside down, and the washer was worn plum away. He installed a new one with unworn threads. I asked the other two cuties lounging around why they were there, as 'Technician' Eric seemed to have the matter… well in hand. Uh, um…just in case. I gather the unemployment problem is less noted in Iselin's Hilton than elsewhere in the stricken country. Strange item #2 came when I tried to use the computers in the hotel, and I had a contretemps over which room and which CRT was apt, running into an officious manager, Brad the peremptory, who ordered me out and off the computer inside of 2 minutes. When I got to another computer, and swiped my credit card (30 minutes free; after that, 69 cents/minute), I was unnerved and uncomfortable, since the rudeness was not on the list displayed on the wall on how to treat customers/residents at the hotel. When I'd returned to my room, the phone rang. Someone in the gym had found my Visa, and did I want them to bring it up? Since I had not gone to the gym, but to the business center, that was a puzzlement. Later in the weekend, the hotel apologized to me, and acknowledged that Mr. Gateri had been out of order yelling at me for no reason. I had not been aware of the credit card being on its own, and was relieved to get it back.

Problem #3. The rooms on either side were filled with coughers, and kept me up with their stentorious hacking. Talk about thin walls. And for a final, though personal, upset, I slept gingerly in the delicious and fluffy beds in our double queens because with all the talk about even the very priciest hotels having—ugh—infestations, I worried about bites. My friend had no such concerns, and slept the sleep of the innocent.

During the weekend, I attended Joel Schwartz'es chewy, detailed round-up on "Total Wellness: The Keys to Health" (where I commented often on the varying views on 'diet' and wellness). We attended Don Slepian's gorgeous tapestries of music on his self-created keyboard, a grad-level Moog. He played music from Scott Joplin through classics after the style of Led Zeppelin, to Klezmer variants to Gregorian, through to rock standards, all brilliantly and soothingly. We dropped in for a few moments to "Clash of the Wolves," a 1925 Rin Tin Tin silent, which showed in a short space why "Rinty" was 'the dog that saved Warner Brothers.' RTT's 'wife' in the movie was played by his 'reel-life' mate, Nanette, we were told: Touching. My chum remarked that "Nanette was nowhere near as good an actress" as her hubby. When lectures flagged, my friend kept me laughing. We skipped "Icebreakers" and "Karaoke." Been there. Done that. Saturday a.m. A wake-up hike, hosted by Ron Ruemmler, a mathematician we saw a great deal of later on. Hikers first ride in cars to a suitable hiking venue, since the hotel is surrounded by the cement clover-leafs and industrial vistas of strip city hotel clusters. Robin Marion gave a slide show and realia-accompanied talk on Australia and New Zealand: "A trip Down Under." Well-edited slides, lots of facts and dates, and a modest speaker. Well attended, even at 9 am on Saturday. About 55 seated listeners. (I was taken with her name, which was the inverse of mine, many years ago. For her part, she told me that she had been married to a guy whose last name was Marion, so she was, at the time, Robin Marion Marion.)

We skipped "Assisting aging Parents & Patients," by Lesley Slepner, and just popped in to see a glimpse of "Hot-air ballooning," a scenic overview, as it were, given by Keith Sproul. The fun focus we had been anticipating was given by the hiking maven, Ron Ruemmler, called "A mathematical analysis of Love," which was hilarious from a number of points of view. One thing is, though he bills himself as the "world's greatest authority on love," and has been giving this formula-encrusted talk for 30 or so years, he is…unmarried. Challenged, he defended himself with the silly excuse that his closest almost-girlfriend, 15 years ago, was 'not right,' since she was a "fundamentalist Catholic," while he is "an atheist." I brought up the seemingly thriving marriage of GOPer consultant Mary Matalin and Dem James Carville.

Another funny aspect: Every step of the lecture, which was dense with Q factors and intensity and duration derivatives, Ruemmler was a pixie—tall, skinny and white haired, but with a protuberant 5-month belly—who mostly faced away from the huge audience, and spoke to the flip-chart with his magic marker flying, but not to us. This led to dozens of jokes at his expense, and general release of tension, sexual energy, and overall hilarity caused by the incomprehensible but charming attempt to reduce love and pleasure to graphs and charting. He did not address sexual love, by the way. And I must say that we were not much wiser about how to interpret or create love after the many pages of his exegesis and index cards yellowing from age.

We skipped "Meet the [NJ] candidates," by pol Marc Lederman, after a few minutes and having no idea at all of what we were watching. Instead, we attended Physicist Harry Ringermacher's slide-show lecture on "The search for Dark Matter," which had a substantial audience of nearly 100, after lunch. Maybe this subject matter ought to be reserved for before lunch, since it competes with digestion in a way that leads the gastric system to win the battle for attention. I had on Friday tried, numerous times, to catch Ringermacher's eye with questions when he held forth at my table as he discussed particle physics and Einsteinian time-space, but he apparently missed my verbal efforts not once but four separate times, until others at the table told him I had been trying to ask a question for minutes. He awoke from his private communication-miasma, it seemed, but by then I was disgusted by his not having noticed me, across the same table, for a Cartesian monologue. John Devoti spoke on Washington, DC, in particular its consolidation after 1900 from a patchwork of small buildings and unfinished monuments dominated by the Capitol and White House. My friend Roger Herz, one of the loyalest-members of this Mensa, gave a talk on "If you were Mayor…" –followed by two districting talks: one on Gerrymandering and its origins, by Don Katz, an expert in election law and current commish of the Middlesex County Board of elections; and a discussion of Roebling, NJ, an original 'company town' founded by the sons of the founder of the Brooklyn Bridge. The pro giving the slide lecture was George Lengel, a son of one of the factory's original workers, today a Roebling Museum historian.

We omitted the craft break, and bypassed the Mensa dance lessons given by the astonishingly smooth dancer, Don Jacobs, one of the handsomest, sexiest guys of the 244 people on the weekend, my opinion, but wholly into himself and dance. He's such a good dancer, he could break the bank at Dancing with the Stars, it was widely felt. George Scherer gave a well-attended jokefest, "Humor—the secret to Health, Happiness and Wellbeing." Much as we love to laugh, we spent the majority of the session in John Treffeissen's superb illustrated analysis of the economic mess we are currently suffering, in a pessimistic slide-lecture of "Somewhere over the rainbow: Economic curves of doom," which gives some idea of his take on our future. It was our favorite talk of the weekend, and the lecturer expressed disappointment that there were not more libs in the presentation, as he had been prepared for their objections. He entertained every question we brought up, dispatching our concerns with humor and information, though not hope. Or change. A woman in the back of the hall knitted stoically throughout, a Mme. DuFarge for our time. The keynote event, Saturday night, after the banquet we elected to miss, was a funny play done by Virginia Mensans, called M-Little Indians, done by the Pungo Players, 90 amusing minutes of "skewed skits and skewered show tunes," with a "light-hearted treatment of mass-murder," according to the well-rehearsed Tidewater company.

There was a poetry meet, the Mensa IQ test for those who had not taken it and wanted to become Mensans, a spelling bee, a trivia contest, and a traditional festive dance, then a Sunday morning multimedia and book swap, but we were done in by the satiation of Hershey's. Too many unrelieved carbs, not enough protein.

Home, James. Mmm… until the next year's supersaturation of mind-mugging mentition and merriment. Or not.

Mar

8

 The Adjustment Bureau

Directed and Written by George Nolfi Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

Cast: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Terence Stamp, John Slattery, Daniel Dae Kim, Anthony Mackie, Michael Kelly, Shohreh Aghdashloo

Look at the roster of films for the past two years, and the slate upcoming. Unknown. A crowd of Sci-fi invasion pics waiting in the wings (as it were) to be released. And now Philip K. Dick's famous sci-fi lenser THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU.

Coming from all sides except possibly the cooking channel are movies that beat singularly hard on one theme: Paranoia. Now of course we do face troubles afield, both in this country under unprecedented malpractice in government, and abroad in the theatre of turbulent fomented revolutions, whether financed by local insurgents, 'students' or even moneybags palindromes who seek to unsettle markets and profit therefrom.

The respected writer Philip Dick wrote many satisfying stories and books before the age of email manacled us to our computers and email. Among them was the story that makes the spine of this unsatisfying New York tale.

From the voluminous work of the protean Philip Dick, who died in 1982, but whose work, alone and compendiumized in the 90s, and recently, over the past three years, many times over. Since his death, 44 novels have been published or republished and translations have appeared in two dozen languages. Six volumes of selected correspondence, written by Dick from 1938 through 1982, were published between 1991 and last year. He was the first of the science-fiction genre to be given the OK imprimatur by the Library of Congress. Time was, you read Sci-Fi, you were playing at the edges of rad, too cool for school, taking the leap. You hid your Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes and the like books in some variant of a plain brown wrapper. Like toting around Ayn Rand 20 years ago, before she became the latest word in political reality reading matter. Last count, at least nine films have been adapted from Dick's work, with the masterful and still twisty-dark Blade Runner (1982) probably the gold standard touchstone for aficionados of the genre. Others include Minority Report, Next, Screamers, Imposter, Total Recall.

In keeping with a scholar of the writer who set the mode for all of us sci-fi geeks, the recurrent Dick philosophical memes include false reality (seen in so many films it's now almost a genre unto itself) human vs. machine (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), entropy, the nature of God, and mind and social control.

But this film adaptation changes the premise of Dick's original story, "The Adjustment Team," so that we are left with a wholly unsatisfying premise, a weak middle story, and a resolution that is plucked out of the air. As one of my colleagues, usually a diamond-back hard-nose, commented at my dissatisfaction, "Whaddaya want? It's a contemporary love story!" But the metaphysical elements Matt Damon grapples with as phalanxes of men follow him and try to threaten him his 'path' is determined, and it does not include the character of the luscious Emily Blunt, makes us ask repeatedly, Who are these guys? Why does wearing those anachronistic hats empower them to unlikely feats of transmigration and Manhattan-locale short-cuts? (Was the true financing pooh-bah a milliner? C'mon, you can tell us…) Apparently we lost our 'right' to free will, aside from which dry cleaner to take our shirts to or what yogurt bar to select, 'way back in 1910, when 'mankind' screwed it all up.

It beggars our suspension of disbelief to think a squadron of not particularly impressive men watch us as we go about our lives, tracking us on NYC subway-map lookalikes, determining what we get to choose, do, or proceed to wrest from destiny's no-goodniks. We are led to believe this is a Morgan Freeman-less unpleasant Supreme enchilada and His adjusters, all dressed in Brooks Brothers suiting bespoke and ties, hats and sensible yet apparently good for running shoes. Rain and water play a role in our hero's being able to elude their ubiquitous annoying presence. Men in Black deleted memories, too, but there and in the two amusing sequels, the actors (Tommy Lee Jones and sidekick Will Smith; Rip Torn) kept a hilarious tongue-in-cheekiness about their thingamajig mind resets. Here, it's darkly nasty and threatening, yet no real answers transpire, which gets ultimately annoying and exhausting. Blunt, a luminous actress and exquisite, looks just unhappy and dysenteric as Elise NLN (no last name) throughout, wearing ugly outfits that are Razzie-worthy. She is photographed poorly, and the guys responsible for that should be 'reset' into different professions. Blunt deserves better.

If you don't buy in to the whole super-human A-team notion, everything else falls flat, and the dark, rainy NYC story seems ridiculous. Special effects, as when these sort-of angels, maybe-jealous spirits chase men, they permeate walls and time-space by cutting through wormholes from the Statue of Liberty to the DMV to Yankee Stadium—the audience glazes over. They know it's just and forever a movie trick, and the real thing is not firmly established enough to buy in, so we numb over, unimpressed, in the end. Lots of well-known newsmen and local characters in the NYC scene make cameos. But let's not blame them: They probably never got to see the rushes before they did their 5-second stints to authenticate David Norris, senatorial candidate.
 

Mar

6

 RANGO

Directed by Gore Verbinsky
Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

An amiable though inexperienced lizard (a fabulous Johnny Depp) who finds himself in a spot of complicated Old West townspeople trouble tells some villagers that they ought not be afraid of a huge, malign rattler who threatens them all with death.

He assures them the humongous serpent, larger than the entire wadi gulch not-even-one-hoss-town outpost (called, yes, DIRT) is his “brother.” Some insightful critter listening asks how a skinny-cat little lizard (a cuz, no doubt, of the adorable Geiko gekko we see every three minutes on TV) like Rango could possibly be related to a massive snake that terrorizes their little pit-stop of the desert.

“Ah, uh, mother had a very active…social life…”

Not many kids get that, nor the Kierkegaardian response to a question of how Rango expects to get to the ‘other side of the road’ with huge trucks bearing down on him and his new friend. Says the armadillo wise elder he hitches up with temporarily, with a clear touch of asperity, “Look, forget it! It’s a metaphor.”

Zing! Right over their little keppelach.

A film about water scarcity and allocation hits many of today’s buzz-word consciousnesses, but cannot really be said to be a child’s movie.

Afterwards, a couple of child-sized respondents answered my question, Did you like the movie? They answered slowly, a bit hard-put for words. One little girl, maybe 7, told me, “That was a s-t-ra-nge movie…” Another testimonial, from a boy: “Um, well, yeah…I guess.”

Not ringing endorsements. But for grown-ups, it is an hilarious spot of whoops and chortling in the popcorn aisle.

And so it goes. The script here in this hilarious animated story, one of the best and most entertaining among a batch of marvelous such animated features by Disney and Pixar et al., is far over the little tiny headies of the tots sitting making messes in the movie theatre. But the parents seem to love it. It is in fact not 50:50 kid-parent based. It is probably closer to 80% targeted for the big people dragging along their tykes. The coloration and set pieces, bar-scenes and desert scenarios are outstanding, the product of amazingly gifted cartoonists and designers.

The single cavil, well, make that two, are that, first, the ‘bad guy,’ though it is not too heavily pressed, is the corporate-style big-buildings city—always the people in capitalism-land, huh, guys? Nice to pollute the kiddies’ minds with that suggestion.

And two, I have never seen a theatre so filthy at the end of a screening as after RANGO. So bad, in fact, that the clean-up crew that was did KP as I searched for my missing sunspecs kept remarking how they had never seen such an unholy mess before.

marion ds dreyfus . . . 20©11

Feb

28

Kimber Road: A Serious Musical Comedy

Kimber Road is a spirited new satire on synagogue life and star [of-David]-crossed lovers in America and the Old Country by retired Cantor Harold Lerner.
Kimber Road opens in flashback mode in 1980, as key characters Rosa Leah and her papa, Cantor Moishele Bratzker, recall events of 40 years earlier, when Rosa becomes smitten with David, the son of a rival religious leader, Reb Sholom Finkelman. With the knowing persistence of the tough, magical matchmaker, Chaye Sur'l, the two opposite-family scions are with effort affianced. Not so fast: The arduous engagement is torpedoed almost instantaneously by a dispute between the two religious factions before a wedding can transpire. From there, the dispute flares to engulf the community, when the full-blown feud is confronted with an unexpected common enemy. Each congregant must sort out his reasons for where he or she stands.

Playwright and lyricist Cantor Lerner perfected his understanding of the rhythms and vaulting melodies of Jewish cantellation in 60 years of singing in and creating soaring music for synagogues in upstate New York. Themes addressed in the satirical musical offering–and the threats such modern-day concerns pose to the survival of the Jewish people, particularly in an environment defined by contemporary cultural assaults, generational cross-currents, and ubiquitous doubt–find their robust and pleasing outlet in the play. The large issues addressed through zesty humor and delicately restructured liturgical compositions by cantorial greats of the past, good-natured chiding, and acutely observed Yiddische zeitgeist provide an insider's peek at life in a just-yesterday bygone era. These provide meaty insights into some of the strains that cleave our generations today.

Although the theme of disharmony is necessarily at the centre of these conflicted relationships, Lerner and director Klavan deviate slightly from the iconic originals to create an opposition between the modern man or woman who "loves love" and the hard-fought images and values of a religiously and ideologically strict ancien regime. With the character of the parents giving way to the modernity of their offspring in the goldene medina, America, the invocations and definitions of the past fuse with the choral invocations of the opposing synagogue members' activity, and brushes over the aesthetic of the poignant musical satire as a whole, with its own repeated dramatic, plaintive and narrative motifs of loss and redemption. Klavan casts a dozen talented actors and musicians in roles that give each a chance to shine musically and, often, dramatically.
Serviceable plays about the workings of faith and its adherents are noticeably sparse. Those that manage to dramatize intergenerational disputes without losing the cohering thread are indeed smaller still.

As entertaining as is the plight of the youngsters who seek to be with those they choose, the true target audience is parents and adults who forget that under the temporary rivalries of place or community group, it is incumbent upon grown-ups to strive for understanding of the Other, even in one's particular religious stratosphere; to listen with open hearts to those we might dismiss or impugn for less-than-exalted reasons. Kimber Road is a flash we need to heed: Though surely society is partially to 'blame' for the occasional dysfunctions of our various groups, the miraculous effort of love and open-heartedness can heal the fissures that crop up and threaten to calcify our interactions.

Though the characters do not have extensive speeches on the stage, since the staged-reading production is a swift 90 minutes, they all come across as fully dimensional, without artifice or separation from people we all know. Lerner manages to sketch a character in a few lines of potent dialogue, and extend that reality with lilting music that combines the best of Old Country nigunim, cantorial liturgies, with a satisfying awareness of Broadway and contemporary music. And for his part, the director marshals the elements of Jewish weltschmerz, poignancy, wringing Polish pathos, Russian recognition and Talmudic tradition out of the script and tapestried music.

A wee caveat is that the name of this tuneful satire does not immediately convey to a prospective audience what delights are to come. I would have preferred a name with more gemutliche resonance to tease the theatre-goer with what joyfulness, humor and perceived story lies ahead. But with inspired and inspiring lyrics, melodies that stay with one and, thanks to a cast that is top-notch and professional, and an author with so many years of musical expertise under his belt, Kimber Road offers at once a resurrection and construction of beloved sounds and imminent sense that beguiles an audience, even in a reading. With a full-bore staged piece, this would be a complementary sidecar addendum to the likes of a Fiddler or even a folksy, re-purposed Oklahoma!
 

Feb

23

 JUST GO WITH IT

Directed by Dennis Dugan

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, Nicole Kidman, Brooklyn Decker

Not sure how many laugh-factory films can evoke a premise of Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771-1831), "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive," but this 2 hours evokes the line again and again (in the head of this quondam English lit teacher, anyway).

On a weekend trip to Hawaii, plastic surgeon Adam Sandler (Daniel) convinces his loyal assistant, Jennifer Aniston (Katherine), to pose as his soon-to-be-divorced wife to cover up the useful.horizontalizing.device of a wedding band with no marriage behind it, a perpetual fiction Dan uses for quick trysts without cloying stay power. Here, now, he is hoist on his own wedding-band petard with his much-younger Gen Y girlfriend, Palmer, newcomer looker Brooklyn Decker (apparently, Mrs. Andy Roddick, real life).

In an effort to land the stunning blond he has fallen for after a dissolute near-career of bedding countless women on a false premise of cheating on some unnamed wife, Daniel embarks on a cascading escalator of just-barely plausible lies, embroideries and more fabrications that necessitate his assistant's also going along to substantiate the fictions. Nicole Kidman, as obnoxious high school "frenemy" Devlin, necessitates another small vortex of further lies, so Jennifer/Katherine can prove she has, after all these years, amounted to something other than her nerdy loser former self.

Aniston's two kids are handily roped into the Potemkin 'marriage' mirage for ballast-demanding Palmer, played outstandingly by Bailee Madison (fabulous) and Griffin Gluck (with an overactive bowel obsession), both hilarious. Sandler's pock-marked jerk of a brother, Dolf, an amazingly funny Nick Swardson as a near-sighted German sheep-vendor, 'not-that-Dolf Lundgren,' and a variety of cameo loons make this among the funniest films of the year: SNL alums Rachel Dratch and Kevin Nealon appear for hilarious character-bits that are ROTF spot-on. Kidman as annoying 'chum' Devlin and her supercilious, too-perfect husband add competitive back-story to the front and center tale.
Initially reluctant to see this film, we gave in, seeing the crowds hustling in to the best seats. Even my consort-a serious man not given to tolerating the ridiculous or dopily workmanlike-laughed. Non-stop.

Caution: There is always the danger of a too-enthusiastic review making the reader or prospective viewer cynical: I ain't gonna laugh; she can't make me go to this. Avoid that unlovely cynicism.

You emerge from this sun-drenched craziness as if from a costly spa. Your insides and major internal organs have been energetically worked over by the chortle mechanism triggered repeatedly, as this goofy winning script unfurls with its piled-on tangled untruths and their unexpected web of consequences. Endorphinically refreshed, you are ready for sushi or adult beverage of choice.

Feb

18

 UNKNOWN

Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera

Cast: Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella

The ubiquitous trailer for UNKNOWN captures a nightmare many fear: What if we are suddenly non-persons in a life we seem not to control or belong to?

Taking an Olympian view over this nail-biter thriller, casting had to be all important; in some important roles, it is cunningly counterintuitive. Some people are always good guys—Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Harrison Ford (most of the time), Sandra Bullock—and some people are bad (usually men with unfortunate complexions, uneven features, insincere rictus smiles or dysfunction of one or both eyes, legs, or other bodily part).

Here tall, handsome, accomplished Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) [A] arrives in Berlin with his gorgeous wife, Liz (January Jones, the stunner from Mad Men) for a professional convention of botanists. Very quickly, events take a disorienting turn, as Harris/A cabs back in a heavy snow to the airport for a forgotten piece of luggage, while his wife checks into their 5-star Hotel Adlon. He experiences a major accident that puts him into a coma. Luckily, it is Berlin, not Lesotho, so medical care is both swiftly competent and available in [accented] American English.

East Berlin and West Berlin sites are melded as backdrop for this homeless, placeless, stateless person. Car chases of unusual ferocity utilize the U-Bahn and Museum Island, edgy Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Studio Babelsberg (the world's oldest major film studio, a century old)—during which we cannot conceive of our man managing to elude the assassins who murder a number of earnest if subsidiary characters every few minutes, in hospitals, corridors, stairwells and garages.

His attempts to rejoin his gorgeous wife, a shoo-in for a latter-day Grace Kelly, at the swanky conference repeatedly meet with perplexing…stonewalling. She politely fails to recognize him, and points to someone else (Aidan Quinn, obviously not embodying one of his more ardent romantic roles) as her husband, Dr. Martin Harris [B]. Our man, now out of hospital, unshaven and dumbfounded, is pursued at every turn by would-be menace, scalpel-thin Germanic thugs with icy cheekbones who could double for James Bond nemeses, as he manages to escape from them sans passport or identifying documents, handicapped by disbelief from everyone he meets. Why? What do they want from him?

It does not help that snow is falling, he speaks no German, the Brandenburg Gate and vestigial relics from WWII, plus the Germanic obsession for documentation, offer chilling subliminal prompts.

How can he prove he is who he is? The audience is no more informed than the protagonist, and we root for him as he dredges up colleagues back home to call, rakes through papers to find something he can use to prove his identity. A photo, a book, anything. Bruno Ganz, ex-STASI, appears as Herr Jurgen, the feared East German secret police who until recently instilled terror into the blood trees of anyone coming into physical proximity. He is now a Berliner without a particular calling, as his keen brain and intuitive understanding of wrenching information from victims is no longer prized. Ganz is a marvel, as brilliant here as he was in The Reader (2008), inhabiting his rueful ex-torturer's persona without fireworks, but with minimal-maximalist conviction.

Returning to the meme of casting tells, the observant viewer notes how beautiful his cabbie, Gina, had been (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds, 2009; National Treasure, 2004). Clue: You don't waste beauties in bit parts of rescuing the protagonist with a tire-iron and then forget about her. Frank Langella hoves into view in the latter half. Another key player. A versatile actor's actor given to textured, complex oil paintings of characters (Frost/Nixon, 2008; Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, 2010), there is more here, too, than meets the casual eye.

While reflection reveals a number of truck-sized holes in the story, producer Joel Silver sums up the cat-and-mouse, the reason this genre of film stays around so long. Audiences live vicariously in trying to figure them out. "This film gives you both worlds. It's a ride that keeps you on the edge of your seat" … and keeps you guessing.

Feb

15

 Season of the Witch

Directed by Dominic Sena Reviewed by marion ds dreyfus

In Season of the Witch, one of the sillier sword-and-seal Hollywood products of the season, a daring duo of Crusades-deserters, hangers-on and a priest literally stop the Black Death with just their side-swords, a Latin missal and their shaken-but-unstirred faith in Deity. (But really, isn't it really about whether we should try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court. So saith moi, anyway.) As it opens, Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman, Crusaders with an anachronistic stream of nonstop cynical repartee, kid each other nonchalantly about the number of enemies they'll slay—buddy badinage that continues across a violent montage of the greatest Crusade hits of the 1330s and 1340s. That youthful cockiness gets a rude moral awakening (finally) within 15 years, in the face of a battle toll that includes blameless women and children. Would Christ honk in admiration of this? So they desert God's Army, abandoning battlefield for the Bubonically scarred countryside, its boil-bubbled icky faces and mass graves of plague-ridden corpses. Sorcerer's Apprentice, this ain't. But even that, starring the ubiquitous Cage, wasn't.

But neither is it Mad Max. It's a road flick, in which our Transit Irregulars transport a suspected witch to a monk stronghold. Its temperament is carefully studio-neutered, taking no greater casualty than Cage, too resolutely contemporary. When playing an ornery magician or a Middle Kingdom warrior, he reads like an L.A. bar-habituee in medieval drag. Period film is not him. Well, what is him? His capacity for crazy, his alacrity—and natural ability—to inhabit volatile characters, like the leads of Guarding Tess (1994), Adaptation (2002) or The Bad Lieutenant (2009), to their scruffiest ends. In paycheck plums like this, he's cocooned into impotency by studio dictat. As though he's force-fed Prozac to keep his real, unstable self back in the cloakroom producing soggy readings devoid of oomph or Oh-my.

Time-extending set pieces, from a wolf attack to a midnight chase through a mud trench, fill out the simplified 2-hour pitch. Together, the film exploits the libretto of medieval cinematic tropes. There's a ghostly, fog-foliaged forest; rickety bridge crossings; medieval witches who appear at first glance luminous, incapable of a nasty thought. Ditching the Dark Ages in attitude, though, it's assidulously anti-clerical, an unapologetic middle finger to Rome.

Pre-Renaissance Catholics also serve as surrogates for modern-day Americans, particularly military-class (amplified by Cage's tale about an unscrupulous recruiter). The film acknowledges compromised heroes, more or less unethical killers. Despite its suggestions of ambiguity, Season is 'good guys that have Him on their side' and a righteous mission. Like our War on Terror, the problem is never their objective (high-concept) but leadership and execution (Oy). Cage–and the viewer, us, by implication–insist on the 'witch's' right to a 'fair trial,' whatever that meant 600 years ago, but by denouement he can't

Feb

3

 SANCTUM

Executive Producer: James Cameron
Director: Alister Grierson

James Cameron produced several of the century's top earners after his blockbuster ALIENS (1986) and its sequels. He made TITANIC (1997), then, AVATAR (2009), both of whose earnings were, well, titanic.

He's done icky creatures in outer space, massive ship wreckage and breakage, then 10-foot-tall blue tree-people. He did a terrific documentary on the Titanic in 2005. What could harness his delight but an underwater spelunking cartographic expedition?

SANCTUM, which brought our hands to our eyes more than once during the excursion in uncharted glub-glub territory, is an underwater cave-diving team in Papua New Guinea. As this action-adventure would have it, you've seen two dozen of these hairy 120-minute terrors, though never this total immersion (as it were) in depths heretofore confined to sightless sea creatures. The attractive group, which brings to mind one of Agatha Christie's best loved works (And then There Were None), experiences heart-threatening crises during an expedition to the unexplored and 'least accessible cave system in the world.' Why? Because. . .it's never been done.

We were a 'perfect' audience: We are an adopted member of the Azmat tribe in Papua New Guinea, so had actually been where the establishing-shot land sequences occurred. Principal photography, underwater, we learn from the credits, was Australia, but that does not subtract from the excruciating testosteronic nature of this film. The cast are, every one, unknown Aussie actors, saving Cameron & co. millions on what clearly was an exhaustingly expensive project to film. Though they are to us unknown, the on-camera guys and women were as rugged and fit as anything you've seen since CONAN.

In addition to being scared IQ-less of water, a result of drowning when we were a preteen, we were treated to long minutes of another secret fear: Getting stuck in tiny slit apertures while spelunking. Except they undergo this in blackness, underwater, mind. While shlepping enormous backpacks of whatnot—food (though no one ate once except some Gorp by a really dumb and selfish guy), supplies, ropes, cameras, extra lights, electronic gear we don't pretend to recognize. So you have machismo to the ultimate max: Rapelling (our favorite) thousands of feet. Climbing down sheer rock-faces. Diving into the unknown. Cave-finning against expiring oxygen tanks. Underwater. Spelunking in a maze that has never been explored. All underwater.

Cyclones above; doubting Thomases, below. Girlfriends who don't know squat about diving or exploring. Father-son squabbles. Smoldering resentments. Expendable cast members. Agita and competition between gristle-and-bone mountains of one sort or another. Manliness. Muscles. Extraordinary bravery, pitched against ineradicable risks and stubborn refusals to face reality. Real leadership shining through the endless unknowns, even with the latest gadgetry.

Universal doesn't hand out press notes, so one can only guess at the millions this set the moguls back. The camera work is outstanding, even if the script does not give SOCIAL CONTRACT or its sequel scribes anything to fret about next year. And as much running around the world as we have done, most people will never, ever be able to rival the feats of stamina and gymnastics all hands bring to this enterprise. Quite the escape for date night.

It's 'way better than leapin' jumpin' AVATAR–and blessedly apolitical. As the women outside stood gabbing excitedly with their escorts, the word that came popping to mind and ear repeatedly was intense. We'd go with that: SANCTUM is about as intense an entertainment experience as you're likely to pay for on a Saturday evening.

Jan

25

 Part of the Russian film Festival at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.

Saw "Seven Bullets" today, a mixture of "Taras Bulba," "Gunfight at the OK Corral," and half dozen knife-slinger fighter cowboys vs. posses/aka guns-for-hire set in the harsh Russian steppes, with blood-thirsty horsemen and soldiers in the Soviet revolutionary war years of 1917-1920. The amazing horsemanship and gunplay, shootings, stabbings, burnings, imagined revenge for killings by wrongly identified people ("No, my son, that is not the killer; your brother's killer was handsome, and much shorter"), is alleviated only momentarily when one sees the brilliant white teeth of all parties. Real bad-guys and counter-bad-guys of that time would surely have had terrible teeth by the time their clothing got that grungy. The interesting difference between this film is that there were no stuntmen doing these leaps onto spirited stallions, or flying from building roof to saddle, or rescuing the unprepossessing young woman who is affianced to one eye-patched tribal leader "for 300 rams"–and men in both sides of the frequently changing sides are Soviet Muslims, stopping to pray inside their prisoner's cells, or facing their prayer mat hung on the yurt wall. Seeing the Russian or soviet mindset refracted through a somewhat primitive understanding of the cult of the moment is frankly fascinating, and a new theatrical experience on a number of levels.

The scenery is austere. It is also ravishing, hard and unvisited by many prior films in our acquaintance. The tiny snarky font shown by the filmmakers, and you can miss it if you aren't attuned, is the etiolated background theme from the TV show, "Mission Impossible," which detracts from the hellfire seriousness of the goings-on, but reminds one that one is watching a film, not brutal hired soldiers en route to delivering a bride-to-be. The color palette seems confined to dusty, umber and dirt-russet alleviated by black and leaden grey. The bride-to-be is a shy filly, not anyone's Hollywood idea of a knockout, but she is passionate and spirited in defense of the cavalryman she has fallen in love with. The purchaser/groom is decades older, of course, and—we learn—not really a be-caftaned and kris-decked bachelor. The men in the gang of horsemen must have families, because mention is made of their family members being trampled or knifed or hung or whatever, but we don't see these back-stories, so any sacrificed wives and children have a porous immateriality. Missing among the overacting and strident facial expressions: Yul Brynner, for whom this would have been catnip.

When the shooting commences in a silent, deeply canyoned village, perfect for an ambush, the audience cannot figure out which team to root for, or who is what, since they none of them wear identifying colors, and the action is nonstop bang-bang for quite a time.

 It is not a fun movie, but it is a rich sociological document. The Asiatic Russian tribesmen, as well as the handsome cavalry riders (no telling which were the necessarily good guys, which the bad, since both seem astonishingly fierce and whacko, except when they show the slightest mercy for the hapless condemned–just a moment, mind you)–speak a tough but clear Russian, and the translations are serviceable.

This film is exceptional in being less than the usual superb Russian lenser output, such as the remarkable Alexei Popogrebsky's "How I Ended This Summer"~ two men set against the icy sweep of the far North at a Russian radiation-measuring station. The two men, one a grizzled vet, the other a green newcomer to the field, interact in ways that keep the mind and eye glued to developments in mood, temperament and story twists, along with the strong 'character' of the rough glacial scenario itself, its unforgiving nature and sudden shifts. This film, nuanced and restrained, but taut from start to finish, lingers long in the memory.

In Russian, English subtitles.

Jan

16

Yellow grubby

The first day
of a snowfall
in NYC is
mag-magical

The second day
of a snowfall
in NYC is
tech-sledgical

The third day
of a snowfall
in NYC is
yekk-tragical

Jan

13

Midlife crisis. Age. The heart gets more interesting than structure. I've got kids, I've got a wife, we're stuck with each other for a while. And suddenly there's an understanding that this is what life is — it's actually the mess, it's the mud, it's the tangle. It's not the clean, hygienic … fireworks. It's the little invisible novels that get written between two people every day of their lives. It's the subtle power shifts. It's the love, it's the less-noble sentiments that make every single day either good or bad or not so good or wonderful or moving through all these things at the speed of West Cork weather. This is interesting stuff. Why go out there in search of extraterrestrial life when it's already here?

–David Mitchell

Jan

5

 CASINO JACK

Directed by George Hickenlooper

The second-banana movie that doesn't quite know "jack".

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Ruth Marshall, Graham Greene, Hannah Endicott-Douglas, Barry Pepper, John Robinson, Jason Weinberg, Spencer Garrett, Yok Come Ho, Anna Hardwick.

Some months ago, in May of 2010, I wrote a review of the austere but satisfying Alex Gibney directed documentary, CASINO JACK AND THE UNITED STATES OF MONEY, about the corrupt, over avid lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Given that Spacey is a tough actor, often given to overpowering the very characters he is tasked to represent. And personally, I have a slight grievance against him for his rude response to me when I tried interviewing him some years ago. Aside from my approach, though, Spacey is notoriously private, and refuses to reveal much or anything at all about his personal life (though speculation often devolves on unflattering presumptions). His visceral portrayal of power-monger Abramoff does not offset or mitigate the superior information and convincing power of the docu, however. Most upsetting was the feeling that Spacey was fundamentally miscast as the "Orthodox" Jew Abramoff, since for anyone in the know, Spacey or the script had him implausibly married to a Gentile, worshipping at peculiar and untenable times of the night, obviously flouting Orthodoxy, behaving hypocritically when it suited his needs despite religious strictures, and in general behaving disreputably more after the fashion of bad-boy Spacey's notions than Abramoff's actual misdemeanors.

The film is roughly, as we all know, how a hotshot DC insider uber-lobbyist and his oleaginous protégé (Barry Pepper) go down hard as their ever-more-stratospheric schemes to peddle influence for Indian tribes and their money-raking competing casinos eventually wend to Washington wickedness of various sorts, corruption, even murder. Tom DeLay, now apparently a dancer, figures prominently, as do the panoply of senators who did not have exactly Purell-sanitized hands in the dealings.

Irresistible as a ripped-from-the-headlines tale, as an also-ran, it loses much steam to make for the killer film it aims to be. Hollywood has been guilty of this re-make fever to an absurd degree of late, remaking films a scant year or so after they come from the UK or South American or India or even Japanese and elsewhere in the Pacific rim: Stieg Larsson's triptych of corrupt publishing in Swedish life films were just released, were wildly popular worldwide last year, and are already being remade and released as American versions. Copycat me-too-ism, anyone?

 Director Hickenlooper misses the boat in making this so-called biopic repellent on levels that the docu did not. One left immediately to disinfect oneself after the credits rolled: The whole film had a sleaze about it, even granting Spacey and his cast's gleeful and energetic portrayals. Even the Native Americans portrayed are clearly not from the right tribes, as we recognize too many of the players as bit characters from too many other cowboy-and-Indian lensers, TV, or trial films of yore. There is the strong whiff of overall inauthenticity about the story, and the constant eddying between the viewer's recall of the factual documentary and this macho'ed-up tsk-tsk of a film–so soon on the Alex Gibney original's heels, a bad release-decision point–makes for an unpleasant experience.

The planning for the film clearly began in the heyday of the current administration, late in 2008/early 2009. But we are in a different time now. We are not all delighted with finger pointing at the presumed misdeeds of prior administrations' miscreants, and the subject matter appears not to be as riveting as it might have seemed two years ago. Another SOCIAL NETWORK or even WALL STREET 2: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, it ain't, much as the protagonist huffs and puffs, vents and re-invents the time-dishonored career of influence peddling.

Dec

20

 TRON: Legacy

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Whatever you thought of the 1989 debut iteration of TRON, starring the sturdy Jeff Bridges as a man who is caught aspicked in the innards of a computer game, this iteration looks far more profligate with CGI and special effects, and specializes in extravagant 3D effects with occasional, deliberate 2D scenes to ease the bridge of your nose from the heavy special battery-run specs required for this film.

TRON: LEGACY offers everything the 14-year-old nerd would welcome. A virtual-world worker tries to take down the Master Control Program from the inside. No bad words, heavy erotic anything, references of scatology or bathrooms. Loads of chases and despoiling of other human-like male beings. A few decorative and pointless females in shiny second skin stretchy materials. To be sure, there are spectacular motorcycle races, overwhelming event horizons, convergences, gloomy bad-ass virtual dudes with defined musculature—and the piece de resistance, a couple of Jeff Bridges look-alikes from 1989 playing opposite his current more grizzled 2010 self.

The now grown-up son, rebellious Sam Flynn, played by Garrett Hedlund, seeks his long-gone beloved dad, Kevin Flynn, one-time patriarch of Encom and game-design pioneer. Encom, now, runs sans its founder lo these many years. One admires the composite name—if nothing else—which combines the ill-fated Enron with the laudatory premier syllable of encomium. Nice touch; like the substance in AVATAR called Unobtainium or some such unintentional humorous throw-away. There are overlong sequences of flashy light-diode frizbee discs, amazing high-tech electronic accumulated-on costumes a la IRON MAN, and a series of black-light vistas and topographies that flow effortlessly in cyberspace inevitabilities. “Programs” [buff game-piece men] crumple picturesquely into silvery cubes or picturesque crimson-and-orange fiery plosives when ‘hit’ or zapped. Script exchanges are <yawn> on the level of freshman philosophical profauxndity.

Compared with the outsized spectacular movie-making accomplished in the superb THE KING’S SPEECH, with breathing, pulsating, thinking human beings in recaps of real circumstances, TRON falls very short, despite the mega-millions spent to entrance the eye of the embryological specie young.

Even with copious free popcorn, always a bad sign, the couple next to us disappeared for half the film, no doubt occupied with more salacious and enjoyable acrobatics than could be located on the screen 10 feet in front of us.

Dec

13


YOGI BEAR 3D

Directed by Eric Brevig With Anna Faris, T.J. Miller,Tom Cavanagh, Nathan Corddry, Andrew Daly, Dean Knowsley

Though we personally know Tom Cavanagh (Ranger Smith), a handsome and dashing neighbor, this film is not so much for children fond of the beloved child icon as it serves to reinforce the annoyed suspicions of disgruntled adults. It features a lovably larcenous food-obsessed Yogi Bear (voiced by the amusingly gruff Dan Aykroyd, whom we have also met, a charming, gallant Canadian) and his short, faithful sidekick-wingman, er, wingbear, Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake).

The bears and rangers exchange volleys and jibes in Jellystone Park, where a bad man, the man-who-would-be-governor, Mayor Brown (Andrew Daley) and his unctuous chief of staff (Nate Corddry) try to sell the hapless and underperforming park to agri interests for mucho dinero to bail out their bankruptcy, though the principals are shocked at such a terrible and unwarranted act of perfidy. The film, lensed in New Zealand (though the car licenses all read Montana), features a peculiar though not unacceptable mix of cartoonlike human-sized man-made 'animals' alongside the winsome humans. Nefarious politicians scheme to sell the park. Rangers Smith and Jones (T.J. Miller), love interest swee' pea Rachel the filmmaker and forest polymath (Anna Faris) and picnic-basket-craving Yogi and sidekick all desperately fight to ward off the clear-cut disaster that awaits their beloved park if it is sold off.

The majority of the 90 minutes teaches unethical and seamy values, only latterly wrapped up in OK and per-the-rules because the filmmakers know it ain't cool to let bad guys and bad messages win out in children's films. After all is wrapped up, it's not clear whether kids will go off siding with the contraption-happy pie-stealing Yogi, or with golden-hearted forest ranger Smith, tongue-tied when confronted with a pretty woman, but decency running through his every stalwart sinew.

 How Do You Know

Directed by James L. Brooks

With Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Andrew Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Dean Norris, Shelley Conn, Brian O'Halloran, Mark Linn-Baker, Tara Subkoff

Is there a cuter presence than Reese Witherspoon in all the movie world? Owen Wilson, a dastardly serial polygamist sport figure, here, is also cute and impossible to dislike, even as a hopelessly Clintonesque cad, as he is here. Paul Rudd, adorable too, as he has been in everything from CLUELESS to the annoying THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, is impossible not to like, too–though Brooks gives you no reason to dislike him, as a schlemiel who has little luck but deserves a better fate, and father, than the one he gets here. Dad Jack Nicholson, also adorable, is alas not at all an admirable dishonorable mogul who would rather sell his son down the jail-route river than get himself in Dutch with the Feds. These four do a zesty and nimble pas de quatre worthy of the Rockettes; loads of laugh lines and fresh takes on this Shakespearian switch-up of dosie-do's and many dosie don'ts. HDYK is not a heavy-carb holiday dessert two hours in the Odeon.

 TANGLED

Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard

According to the Hollywood Reporter, animated movies have had a tremendous impact on the 2010 box office. Four of the year's top 10 grossers—TOY STORY 3, DESPICABLE ME, SHREK FOREVER AFTER and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON– are animated, and then there's TANGLED, which topped the Thanksgiving weekend's chart, and continues strong, while big-ticket vehicles for such as Depp and Jolie falter in the middling teens. MEGAMINDS, another animated feature along the lines of reformed bad-boy protagonists happily-ever-aftering, recalls DESPICABLE ME in a number of aspects, but its script and concept are both fresh and fully engrossing to both adults and (most) children. TANGLED features brilliant colorations, vivid story—a retelling and modernization of Rapunzel—it is an enthralling and charming entertainment, featuring an evil 'mother,' a strong heroine who is not afraid to use her wits as well as her hair, and a smoldering though often-jerky roué on a spirited steed who almost steals the show. For those who unaccountably missed the first through fourth grades, the long-haired Princess Rapunzel has spent her entire life locked in a tower, here because she confers eternal youth on her abductor parent. When she falls in love with a passing rapscallion she risks the trauma of the downstairs outside world for the first time to re-locate this cocky and oblivious brigand. Many witty passages, and risible enjoyment for all.

 LE PETIT NICHOLAS

Directed by Laurent Tirard With Maxime Godart, Valérie Lemercier, Kad Merad

Sweeter and gentler than all the American snark above, however, is the adorable live tale of a young French fellow of some 6 or 7 years. The young hero has a carefree existence, parents who doter on him, a great cache of copains with whom he enjoys enormous mischief and lark. All he desperately wants is that nothing change. Learning that Tom Thumb's parents abandoned him in the woods, and imagining his mother pregnant (he has only sketchy notions of what pregnancy constitutes, from lads equally ignorant), beatific Nicholas, in a panic, schemes hilariously with his mischievous school chums—rich, sleepy, favored, spoilt, daft—to get rid of the brother who has not only not been born yet, he has yet to be conceived. Laughter rolls from the moment the film opens, and the Paris of some 30 years ago unrolls in constant hilarity and delicate amusement. What a delight: No CGI. No stuntmen. No heavy-handed erotic nuances. Just imaginative and frolicsome writing, marvelous direction, unexpected dénouements and extraordinary ensemble performances from tiny tykes and established comic talents cherished in France. Moreover, we remember the pedagogy of the past here, as visions of how education in Parisian arrondissements differs so markedly from its partner parallels in the United States. The film is a magnum flute of the best champagne after a satisfying repast in a four-star French inn.

In French, English subtitles.

Dec

10

 THE FIGHTER

Directed by David O. Russell

A true story, give or take, THE FIGHTER is a look at the early years of boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his brother, a well-regarded fighter, himself, who helped train him before going pro in the mid-1980s.

Mark Wahlberg (Micky) was recently showcased in a 60 Minutes segment showing his actual Mean Streets youth and adolescence; echoing his own beginnings, the film is a hard-scrabble slog through ring training and bloody center-ring battles, usually waiting for Micky's coked-out, priapic brother, Dicky Eklund, an outstanding, skinny-as-an-optic-fibre Christian Bale, and homing in on the shanty Irish clan headed by the spot-on Melissa Leo (Alice Ward), who changes so galactically from film to film that you can barely recognize her from one mousy or intransigent or impervious role to another. The believable and plucky Amy Adams, Micky's stolid girlfriend, is a college grad doing barmaid honors in the 'hood in the rough economic weather of the early 80s. As Charlene Fleming, she gets called every name in the book by Micky and Dicky's seven decidedly uncollegiate sisters for interfering in his abusive familial 'training' under the drug-addled Dicky and their indefatigable, if not-so-thoughtful manager, Alice. The clan call her simply Alice, rather than mom, because she is a hurricane-force gale wind, wiping out her husband's–and Micky's–objections to fights or fight-matches, arrangements, set-ups and gigs.

Wahlberg undergoes the punishment you expect. If you heard him speak of his early tribulations as a street tough and thief; here, his fights are gruesome, often against mismatched fighters, until they are not. He has no stunt double, by the way.

Director Russell captures the gritty living of this tier of outliers in the lower-middle-class battle for a toehold. The audience can feel the punches, almost needs a towel for the out-spritzed flopsweat from the onscreen fights. But as often as there are admirable moments in the neighborhood, living conditions, eating habits and even the unceremonial sexual hookups, viewers are more often scrunched in their seats emitting unwonted Oo, ugh, eek! in sympathy with the protagonist, who gets his share of knuckle-jabs to the eye-socket—much like that prior fight film, THE WRESTLER, where Mickey O'Rourke got hammered, torn up and ripped to near-shreds by his rent-a-rink-opponents.

FIGHTER may not be for everyone. Lest you think it's girly-girly delicacy, I very much liked TYSON, which became almost lyrical toward the end of that biopic, and enjoyed WRESTLER, too, because it showed a broader arc of the life and misery of O'Rourke's character, as well as his climb from the depths. I liked MILLION-DOLLAR BABY less, though that is probably because I did not buy lissome Hilary Swank as a prize-fighter (though she too rose from the ranks from trailer-park ramshackle).

This film is well-directed, well cast, and even better observed, but may not be the entertainment some seek for a respite from the wintry doldrums. It casts a chill, when the temperature does that before you sit down to watch.

Nov

29

 BLACK SWAN

Directed by Darren Aronofsky Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

With Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

Having for so long been in a market mindset, and the stock market has for a while now been consumed with the extrusive wonderments or lacunae of “black swans”— irregular outcroppings of more traditional or conventional events, sales, trends—I more than halfway expected this beautiful if gory and unexpectedly sexed-up film of a ballerina fighting to be Queens of the Swans (as it were) to have some sort of financial edge. I waited until the last seconds to come to the obvious conclusion that, no, there is little in the way of market tips or hunts here.

But all is not lost. Aronofsky has created a drama that holds one’s interest from position one to position umpteen. There is a gorgeous ‘turnout’ in the luminescent Natalie portman’s demeanor, acting and first-rate ballet. Unlike an earlier 2010 favorite, MAO’S LAST DANCE, which concerned a Chinese male dancert overcoming vast negatives to succeed in the American ballet pantheon, and the popular Shirley MacLaine/Anne Bancroft 1977 dance lenser, THE TURNING POINT, BLACK SWAN keeps a steely focus on the bleeding agony of practice, coping with the (yes) casting couch mentality of becoming prima ballerina in any production, the rack of toe shoes, and the unrelenting pain of the committed artistic life.

Vincent Cassel as dance impresario/master is not above compromising his lustrous stars, importuning them without cease. Women barely past 30 are unwillingly ‘retired,’ like it or not, as happens to the still-immaculate Wynona Ryder. And stars are often stellar because their hovering-helicopter parents (Barbara Hershey, here, a Lady MacBeth of manipulation and fanatic I-coulda-been-someone-if-I-hadn’t–had-you) chivvy them day and night to keep them on the very straight and narrow. Not to mention the Machiavellian designs of stop-at-nothing competitors who do not scruple to drug, undress, delay and disarm their prima prey. Adding to the eye-filling scenarios are the delusional moments Portman experiences that take the gorgeous fever of performance into a whole other realm of strangeness.

Transcendent scenes of Swan Lake, of course, even for a reviewer–full disclosure–who saw the Bolshoi in Moscow perform it two years ago. Caution: There is some raunchy girl-on-girl material. And funky backstage times in Lincoln Center, our own back yard (where we practiced with a Lincoln Center staffer when we were rehearsing an Off Broadway play, The Invitation, some years ago. The flamingo-like dancers in their starchy-fluffy tutus would enter the elevator in which we–diminished and miniaturized–rode, and would chirp and flutter, oblivious of our height-challenged personhood right next to them. Ah, fame).

Industry scuttlebutt is that Portman is Oscar bait already. All this, plus sublime Tchaikovsky?

Nov

13

 With Client 9, director Alex Gibney explores the shadowy corners of a seemingly familiar story.

There is a striking shot of a snow leopard toward the end of this remarkable documentary. The leopard, taken in the middle of a snowy scene midwinter in NYC or some vast landed zoo, stalks the forest or tree line. He is elegant, feral, dangerous … yet beautiful. There is a clear parallel in the Spitzer shown in this rare documentary that gives viewers close-up and personal access to so many pooh-bahs and mastodons of the financial world. Client 9 tells the story of a sensational trial with unprecedented access to prosecutors, defense attorneys, Market panjandrums, Fed types, usually inaccessible moguls, victims and, from behind bars, Mr. Spitzer, himself.

Some viewers were annoyed at having to sit through this well-photographed, well-paced, well-written doc, because they knew it to be Step One in the rehabilitation of the Man That Was Eliot Spitzer.

Since the film wrapped, he has inaugurated a (now failing) talk show on CNN, and he will be speaking around town in the near future (18 November, Fordham, for one).

The fascinating aspect of this 'kiss'-and-tell are the female distaffers of his escort service who speak on camera—some using surrogate actresses to mouth their speeches!—as Spitzer seems for all the world like a thinner, smarter, faster-talking Al Gore sitting at his ease, discussing the vagaries of Lehman or BoA mishandlings, arrests and such. Nerveless and shameless. There is only one point in the entire length of the piece where Spitzer's eyes dart to the side in a well-understood feint of embarrassment and guilt. But it lasts an eye-blink.

I see this as of a piece, in a sense, with THE SOCIAL CONTRACT, about the formation of FaceBook, and WALL STREET 2: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS. They form a triumvirate of fast-thinking, chicanery-ridden, entrepreneurial and high-energy brain friction that motivates and energizes so much of the picture we 'admire' so often about the canyons of Wall Street.

One looks at the title and wonders if it is prologue or prophecy. This was a man who had inexhaustible jet propulsion, almost. It remains to be seen if he can propel himself back into the graces of society again.

One kind of hopes he will, because he has the appeal of a cunningly patterned and talented snake. Always interesting to see how and where such mesmerizing creatures go, no?

Nov

8

 How many plays can you recall, offhand, that have at their center the subject of science? Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” is one, Stoppard’s “Arcadia” is another, and, um…

Exactly.

Anna Ziegler has taken advantage of the sensible idea that science is exciting, dramatic, and largely (alas) unknown in its atomistic dailiness and canine-cyclical rivalries. The Ensemble Studio Theatre offers monetary prizes for “compelling and credible” dramas involving science and technology, and if “Photograph 51” is any indication, they have a strikingly winning formula.

It is London, 1953, and separate teams of scientists are madly, often secretly, researching the “secret of life,” the strands of being we easily toss about as DNA and RNA. At the time, a British Jewish female scientist, Rosalind Franklin (amazingly convincing Kristen Bush) in concert with her by-our-standards primitive cameras, microscopes and developmental instruments and her self-possession, works doggedly and without assistance from her male cohorts to perfect an image of the helical pattern that reveals the building structure of life. Researcher Franklin used x-ray diffraction photography to minutely examine what people then called ‘the secret of life.’

Franklin’s work is of course derided and laughed at by her lab colleagues, some of whom cannot fathom that they admire her while envying her ferocious dedication. Her materials, especially her exacting crystallographic imagery, are secretly studied and handed around, as she persists with her driven examination of everything she theorizes and tries to resolve. A team of snarky researchers in a Cambridge lab removed from Franklin’s make errors and misjudgments galore, but recognize the Eureka moment weeks earlier than does Rosalind, and hasten to create the model that has made their names synonymous with the double helix. Watson & Crick, anyone?

What, however, kept Dr. Rosalind Franklin from the scientific halls of fame and glory that rightly belonged to her?

A play about the cruelties of being a female in the male-dominated world of science (which female scientist is ever married? Which ever had a child?), about the cut-throat worlds of science and succeeding. And the cost of not realizing that no matter what industry you squirrel or feint into, competition is the substrate name of the game.

The acting is uniformly superb, with a cast of (to me) unknowns. The set design, lighting, scene changes and especially the direction are first-rate. Even the diction for the majoritarian Brits, and the several American lab assistants and newly minted doctors, are pitch-perfect. Only one nitpick: One of the fellows, the American Crick, mispronounces data, as most people usually do, even today. It seems unacceptable for a scientist to do so, however. His coarseness in many matters linguistic and cultural, however, was of a piece, and contributed to the overall texture and viability of this remarkable piece of writing, which requires intense familiarity with the science of biology and genetics as well as dramaturgic niceties.

The packed SRO audience was held rapt from start to finish.

OK, so it’s science—does that mean it is dusty sere and stat-filled? Not the least. There is profound drama and emotion, taut expectation and riveting suspense. Of the past 5 or 6 dramas experienced in the past fortnight, this is far and away the very best. In fact I think it the best show I have seen this year—on or Off Broadway. Though it is a bit of a shlep to get to, the price is gentler than most shows today, and the recompense in enjoyment and full-throated literate comic, tragic and all the in-between elements are there for the inhaling.

Twist this helix as you might: A superb piece of science; a superb piece of theatre.

At the Ensemble Studio Theatre – 549 West 52nd Street, NYC Until 27 November

(For more info on this fascinating stuff: Try The New Yorker article “Photo Finish” or the PBS documentary “Secret of Photo 51?)

Oct

22

 Having lived two blocks from where PENTHOUSE used to be domiciled, I am probably the only one on this Spec List who met and–mirabile dictu!–actually worked for the man.

It was a funny job, with the lingua franca the stuff of which most homes wash their children's mouths out with industrial-strength soap. I was re-writing and editing what can probably best be described as …literary schmutz. I enjoyed the work, though: Not only did it pay better than the other magazines I had written and edited for, but the office was less than 5 minutes' walk, and the people wafting through were often the meat and potatoes of the gossip tabloids and the supermarket fantasies of the male half of the population. When they moved elsewhere, I was less interested in moving with them.

The stylebook all editors work around, at every mass circular and mag, used words and phrases that would make most seminarians blush (and why did that word pop into mind, rather than the simpler teacher), but we had to be mindful of phrases that upset the Canadians, or Brits, making the magazine unsalable in Toronto or Manchester. Similarly, I had to watch terms that were too graphic, even for us. Words alone, but combined in fetishistic conjunction, became verboten. It was amusing to slide the judgment yea to this cornucopoeia of heat, nay to that. Or launder to suit: I was for a time the washerwoman of choice.

The office was a human zoo. Giraffe-like women with impossible figures and imaginary clothing that almost covered them. Famed bucks, writers and inventors and marmoset entrepreneurs passed the office as I looked up from my shvitzy drudgery in 4-letter coin. Small and expensive inner-office soirées to which I was hardly invited, and did not go, as I knew I less wanted in than did the male staffers who hankered (drooled comes to mind) for entrée.

Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini ["Bob"] Guccione—17 December 1930 to 20 October 2010– founder/publisher of the adult magazine Penthouse, which went a step or two beyond safer, more hygienic pioneer, Playboy.

Guccione struck me as perfect for the place, and perfect for the 'job' he did–spending lavishly and often to get noticed in the columns, earn printing ink and news stand sales. He was not exactly buttoned down, but he tried to present in as Ivy a mimicry as he could manage, considering that deep oiled tan, and that voice, and those eyes.

At the time, I was struck by how amazingly subdued the place was, aside from all the glory gadabouts drifting through the halls. I used to joke with the then-live-in beau, "The sexiest thing you hear around the office is 'Want to meet for coffee before we catch the 5:35?'" Because inside the Penthouse offices was pretty much 95% … business. Magazines are about getting the next issue out: catastrophes, personal crises and subterranean faults aside. Even the drip, drip of the hotbed content mattered less than the civilities of interacting with co-workers in maximal efficiency. Sigh.

The Letters were my particular forte. Though they supposedly came in from real men, somewhere in flyover-yearning country, in truth, they seemed to be scrawled by someone in a nearby hutch, someone with a nicely honed, hyperactive imagination. I would tweak them. Add a little pet nickname here or there, clean up the grammar if not the bloated claims, zestify the naughty bits to get to the 'point' quicker.

In my darkened hovel of heightened humors, I vastly enjoyed the chance to get paid for working on this [bottom-sludge] with so many highlights and -low.

Of course, occasionally, I would edit the fine interview, or the long and flamboyantly cerebral piece on deep space or the interior workings of engineering marvels. These were a delight and a great change of pace, lagniappe, and repaid my work on the 'liquid pieces' fivefold–both instructing and correcting my—um–skewed recent view of the world according to Guccione.

When I wrote an Asian cookbook, working for a serious publisher up in Cambridge, I used to run home and blam open the door with "Let's go eat! Chinese!" And he responded with amiable accord.

Now, working for Bob G, dealing all day with mostly salivary and licentious images, the tautened fervors scribbled by lads barely old enough to shave, to the aged who barely had to shave any longer, I ran home with something else in mind when after a long day’s labor I opened the door.

Oct

3

 The mutual aggression model.

Host(h) and parasite(p) are taking part in an evolution arms race. The prudent parasite model. Selection in the p is always for characteristics that limit the damage done to the host. A de-escalating arms race (rabbits and myxomitosis in austral) incipient mutualism co-evolution is actively cooperative with both evoluting attributes so as to promote the continued presence of the other. A p that kills its host before it can transmit itself to other hosts doesn't get any genes into the next generation. The costs and benefits of a particular strategy determine the type of interaction that will occur. (From lecture 17 co-evolution and host parasite interactions): "it is important to contemplate an entangled bank clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by the laws acting upon us." Darwin, 1859. Okay, my query is how do the sponsor, the palindrome, the sage, the flexions–indeed the whole ball of Was– fit into this structure, and what predictivity can be drawn from it?

Gary Rogan writes:

The prediction would be that they will stop the nonsense before they let the economy disintegrate into complete chaos. However, there is a difference between genetic evolution and a single case. The evolution rolls the dice millions of times and the parasites that procreate are tautologically the ones that make it into the nth generation. Each particular parasite doesn't "know" whether it's killing the host. And with the flexionic complex we have just one roll of the dice so the results seem hard predict. They are supposedly sentient beings so that can be substituted for evolution, but what if they all individually have totally incorrect beliefs? What if they really don't care about killing the host? What if some of them are so close to the end of their lives that that's not even a consideration? What if some of them only care about the pinnacle of political power for however long they have as the most important concern? What if they have enough assets outside the system so that they don't have to worry? What if they don't have complete freedom to act anyway?

Overall, I don't believe they are actions can be analyzed as if they will preserve the system when push comes to shove. I can't even answer the question whether Ben Bernanke has any idea about what he is doing, and if so to what degree. I don't know what his ultimate goal is nor whether he can be self-critical to any degree. I hope others are able to make predictions.

Kim Zussman writes:

Another hypothesis is that government actions in the wake of the crisis reflects human nature with respect to pain. It is normal to avoid pain, and if given a choice between extreme pain of short duration and moderate pain which lasts a long time, many would choose the latter - even if "total pain" (something like level of discomfort * time) is greater.

The analogy may extend to the use of multiple drugs to lower immediate pain; it is hard to know how they will interact, and what unintended long term effects may develop, including addiction or death. Inexperienced doctors are sometimes overconfident in their ability to manage disease, but with time learn to carefully observe signs of normal healing, reassure the patient, and let the powerful mechanisms of natural repair work on their own.

Marion Dreyfus writes: 

Speaking for someone who has this past fortnight endured pretty sever immediate pain, which has subsided into a moderate constant ache–I would much rather endure the latter, over a longer period, than the former. I trust nature will expunge the dull ache and pain I have now, eventually.

Sep

21

 You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Written and Directed by Woody Allen Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto, Naomi Watts, Gemma Jones

One of the many delights of a Woody Allen annual release is that though the casts are different, we know these people. And we 'know' their predicaments.

Dysfunctional men and women in fizzling marriages; desperate bi-polars; older men yearning to stave off impotence or irrelevance via nubile honeys; women unfulfilled with their careers or the lack thereof. Career people in chrysalis or limbo.

The metrosexual mélange, famed population of the toney Upper East Side and the favored haunts of the Hamptons. In this film, as in several of his recent outings, Woody Allen situates his attractive band of locals and ex-pats in an arcadian London that rivals his most beautiful Manhattan cinematographic offerings.

Booksellers and art dealers proliferate in the daily scuffles of the couples being scrutinized. People have to make some sort of living, and books and art are industries, but they are 'clean,' nothing to soil the hand or frighten the hansom cabs. And these are the 'jobs' that are accepted and certified by the type of people populating Allen films and indeed, the Woodsman's real life.

Standing in for the now 74-year-old Woody as "Alfie," yet again, is the snowy-topped plutocrat played by Anthony Hopkins. Feeling his prowess fleeing, though he is very comfortably well-off, he abandons his long-time wife, Helena, played by Gemma Jones. The darkly troubled striving failed doctor cum efforting novelist, Roy, stormily played by Josh Brolin, is married moodily to Naomi Watts, Alfie's daughter, whose desire for children is thwarted by her husband until his latest novel or project is accepted.

Until the novel's acceptance, their rent and basics are subsidized by Naomi's somewhat dotty yet credulous mother, supplemented by an art gallery assistant's job for Sally, who works for the suave, Armani-suited Antonio Banderas.

Across the road, unhappy Josh peers from his window at a haunting guitarist, Dia (Slumdog Millionaire's gorgeous Freida Pinto), who represents something he won't quite verbalize. While he waits for the publisher's decision on his manuscript, he begins seeing the red-swathed beauty for walks and lunch, though she is affianced, slated to marry in the immediate future.

Alfie "dates" a long-faced, colt-like call-girl so quirkily tall and slim-hipped that for a good slab of the film one thought she could well be a he. But no. Desperately lonely without the sweet wife he jettisoned, he impulsively asks his call-girl shrewdie to marry him.

Helena, also hard hit by loneliness, takes comfort in tippling and a fortune teller several times a week. Though the seer, Cristal (Pauline Collins, so touching in Masterpiece Theatre's Upstairs, Downstairs) is bogus, Helena believes in her predictions and insights, and her occult delusionism makes her the most serene character in the film. Afterlives, prelife, contacting the dead, stars in conjunction…my, my.

Voiceover narration beloved of Allen in many of his iconic films indicate the points that characters do not or cannot voice. Cockney Charmaine is so used to her Vegas Johns that she doesn't even know why a man would have to wait for sex-enhancement little blue pills to take effect. Not in her vocabulary zone. Though she is clearly not his age-cohort, dizzy Charmaine (newcomer Lucy Punch) is not so clueless that she doesn't make hay while she can. Furs, jewelry, apartments, clothing. (Must have been a gig to find this woman, Lucy Punch: freakishly tall, horsey features and skinnily voluptuous, with the longest legs since Tommy Tune. On second thought, maybe she is Tommy Tune…?) Alfie soon regrets his culture-free marriage and wallet wail.

Shed of her mopey husband Roy–deep in serious flirtation with neighbor Dia–Sally realizes she wants her boss, gallery owner Greg Clemente. Too late. Greg is already having an affair with the painter being represented by the Gallery owing to Sally's own efforts.

Adultery is a given for these troubled urbanites.

Analyzing the title, one can make the case that it is more metaphor than actuality. We all, of course, eventually meet that "tall dark stranger," a morbid coefficient of all Allen films, even his prior laugh-out-loud funniest, now long gone.

The music and cinematography, always deeply pleasurable in Allen films, match the beauty of the sets, shiny London in the spring (even torrential rainy scenes are lit beautifully, and don't destroy the mood). The cast is superb, spot on, as always. Though the reviewer audience we saw it with was tamped down and rarely laughed, trademark Allenesque laughter hails not from comic lines or particular set-ups as from the viewer's ready understanding of the comic plights of these messed-up people and their life-trajectories, which so many of us empathize with, if we are not actually living at the moment. As well, of course, as from rueful character rejoinders.

TALL DARK STRANGER is couched in this vision of bleak pay for play. Woody with reference to the passage of time and the futility of life—"a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing" ("Macbeth")—"After all the ambitions and aspirations, the plagiarism and the adultery, what once was so meaningful won't mean a thing. Many years from now the sun burns out and the earth is gone, and many years after that the entire universe is gone. Even if you could find a pill that makes you live forever, that forever is still a finite number, because nothing is forever."

Talk about fatalism.

All the Woody tropes are here aplenty, in a fondly recalled yet disquieting way. Familial chaos, generational unease, mortal discomforts. One of the memes threading these scenes of striving, plagiarism, delusion and pain is a strong moral dimension. Those who do good (a rarity in an Allen film) are mildly rewarded, though not without effort. Those unable to resist the monumentally daft or unethical, however, are not accorded gentle recompense in the Woody canon, which is as morally connected as you can get: Actions are consequential.

TALL DARK is an edgily entertaining, provocative and eye-filling 100 minutes. This will become vintage–already prize-winning– Woody.

David Aronsen writes:

To explain the distinction between falsifiable and non-falsifiable predictions to my students I would contrast two statements. The non-falsifiable one was a fortune teller's "You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. The falsifiable one was you will see a man with one red shoe walking east on 42nd street whistling Satin Doll before 6PM next Wednesday. Did my powerpoints somehow fall into the hands of Woody Allen, and should I ask for a royalty? 

Sep

13

 Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History by Penny LeCouteur, Jay Burreson is a fascinating book. Isoeugenol is a single molecule that fits with certain human receptors. This molecule from the nutmeg gave rise to the Age of Discovery, discovery of the new world, the East India Trading Company and the development of stocks. Glucose drove the slave trade, and built capital that gave rise to the industrial revolution. The difference between molecules is often a small difference in the bonds or the location of the hydrogen bond to carbon atom and can have huge practical differences. The title derives from the property of tin to dissolve in the cold resulting in Napoleon's army falling to pieces when their tin buttons dissolved in the Russian winter. They could not fight when they needed both hands to hold their clothes on in the cold. The lines of that conflict remain today between East and West.

Of particular note to speculators was the discussion about the diagramming notation of chemical compounds. The diagrams contain many layers of information that are informative and aid analysis and understanding about the structure of the molecules. Chair asked why there is no table of elements for the market. The key to this would be a notation system for market patterns similar to a chemical notation which not only conveys information about the relationships of prices to each other as in your typical chart, but also the nature of the underlying structures and their composition. My soon to be Phd. daughter advises me that there are stereo notations that go beyond the 3 or 4 dimensions in standard notation. The fact that right hand, or left hand iterations of molecule react differently is a concept useful to speculators following this idea. For example, up markets differ markedly from down markets displaying a 'handedness" Standard chart notation like "W" or "M" lack this information and thus lack the tools for proper understanding and analysis. The visualization of information as Tufte demonstrated has benefits to analysis beyond charts, and formulas. Seeing the location of turns, tops, bottoms and the way those were created helps in quantification and testing. The nature of the bonds (I don't mean debt instruments, but refer to intermarket and intramarket relationships) in market relationships make a big difference in future price action. A visual notation of this could reveal important but previously hidden relationships. Many Nobel prizes in chemistry were awarded for discovery of some of these important relationships.

Stefan Jovanovich elaborates:

Napoleon's army did not freeze to death; they starved. So did many of the Russians and Prussians who fought against them. The French buttons may have failed; but no one with half a brain was using clothing as a shield against the cold in that campaign. They wrapped themselves– and their horses - in blankets (the officers used furs). As for "the lines of that conflict remain(ing) today between East and West", James has a point, but it is not the "lesson" he draws from this campaign. The old lines are being erased: the Germans seem on the verge of reaching a fundamental alliance with the Russians similar to the one that existed between Prussia and Russia in 1812. Napoleon's great error was to be foolish enough to insult the Austrians so badly that they decided - for once - to ignore their standing hostility towards the Prussians. The line of conflict between East and West that Europe lived with for the past hundred years came not from the divisions present in Napoleon's invasion of Russia but from their abandonment: Bismarck's stupid successors overthrew his sensible Prussian foreign policy of alliance with Russia (the Balkans are not worth the life of one grenadier) and chose to take the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish side of the argument. As for all other inferences about how molecules changed history, I offer no opinion.

Jim Sogi adds:

Another interesting factoid is that the Dutch and English fought bitterly over the spice island Banda where nutmeg was grown. It was valuable at the time. To settle the dispute, the Dutch signed over a small useless island known as New Amsterdam. The English renamed it New York. The Native American tribes called it Manhattan, "the place where we all got drunk". Still appropriate after many years. The spice turned out not to prevent the plague, and the monopoly was later broken when starts were smuggled out to be grown elsewhere. Banda is relatively abandoned except for rare tourists.

Marion Dreyfus comments:

Ha…!

I have been to Banda Island, where the king ("King," he said he was) offered me his throne if i married him–he gave me nutmeg! I brought it back to the States and of course it was confiscated as suspect importation, despite my protests that "the king of Banda gave me this as a earnest of his love!" and gave me other things, too. His wife had died some time earlier, I add. There are many lovely parrots there, but the dancing girls and the twittering photogenic fowl do not make up for lack of A/C, I am afraid. His home was spectacular, marble floors and walls, thatch covering more modern materials under the thatch; long, graceful rooms, not many rugs, but solid furnishings with luxe sewn into their DNA, and power-connotative. But I was not partial to the heat nor his particular nonmetrosexual demeanor. He gave me other gifts I cherish that were not taken from me by the immigration men. But small-island life as a way of life is not alluring to the overeducated big City female, I think it safe to say.

More's the pity!

Would my life have been far more glam and amazing? I would surely have saved a great deal of minutes and hours from huge gusts of email I would not have gotten, but one is forced to wonder what he could have given me that I don't have more of, and better of, right here in costly midtown Manhattan, with or without air conditioning. Gratitude for one's life, especially when arrayed against a might-have-been.

 

Sep

3

 Took my daughter to Cleveland and the Browns game last night.

I told her cell phones are an epidemic observing from my seat all the texting etc. and noticed all the fans around us covered in tattoos.

Inking is expensive. Makes me ponder if the economy is really so bad.

Fireworks show after the game were unreal and made the evening complete.

Regards,

Alan

Peter Earle writes:

Actually, like the market for shoes, the skin inking enterprise is a great example of the economic possibilities of a virtually unregulated market.

Typically relegated to prisons, the backs of bars/liquor stores, and other venues which the political parasites aren't wont to enter or be concerned with, the market for tattooing has seen explosive growth over the past 15 years; I personally attribute the growth to both (a) the social acceptance, later encouragement, of women to get tattoos, at least doubling the size of the market; and (b) the growth of musical and sports "gangsterism", in which an arms race for flesh adornment has led to "sleeves" and neck/head/facial tattoos to grow in prominence and, again, broadening acceptance of the undertaking.

With that explosive demand, from a fairly small number of parlors and side-venues I note the arrival of small entrepreneurs, ranging from affordable, storefront tattoo shops in malls to artist partnerships offering extremely high level quality and service: a virtually unfettered capitalism resulting in a wide range of various (sometimes bundled) services across a gamut of specialties and levels of talent, availability and differentiation resulting in a lowering of cost and huge product diversity.

Thus has arisen the inarguable ubiquity of the illustrated populace.

Marion Dreyfus comments:

My friends and I personally find tattoos artistic, executed in the main with extraordinary skill, and yet horrendous on a human being. I would not date a man with tattoos, and I avoid females who have indulged.

One always muses: What will happen in 10 years? How hideous will you find what you have done?

I surmise the followers of this unfortunate craft will subscribe to that existential philosophy: Live fast, leave a pretty corpse.

Peter Earle replies:

But from a broader perspective– the growth of tattooing is not only, in a market or business sense, a great example of the potential of free markets, but also illustrative of the social effects of what this country is in fact evolving into economically -hampered, intervention belabored, highly-regulated and increasingly socialist.

The social consequences arising of a credit-inflated, saving-disinclined, personal responsibility-defenestrated environment is/tends to be an immense high-time preference inclination of society; people thinking of the next 10 minutes, ten weeks or four years, and less of the long term picture.

In 60 years, elderly women with sagging, blotchy lower-back tattoos will crowd shorelines, and men's biceps/forearms/backs will murkily herald rock bands, songs, products and memes long since discredited and in any case extinct.

Pitt T. Maner writes:

Temporary tattoos made with henna were seen available near Manhattan east side docks where tour boats to Statue of Liberty are located. Advertised as an approximate 2-week tattoo experience. You could get the vicarious sailor tatoos around Halloween time as a good addition to your costume. Some might be allergic to henna though.

Indian bridal henna tatoos can quite elaborate and beautiful in some cases.

But I'll pass on anything permanent.

I also thought the 3-D photo images available at the docks where they holographically put your image in a block of plastic were kinda of neat if not a bit touristy. Good for a paperweight. Sort of dates the old photo booths. Evidently you can spend more on a real portrait. What tourists are being sold and what they buy is an interesting study in itself. It has to be a highly studied field.

I couldn't resist the Mexican jumping beans at JFK. Hadn't seen them in 40 years. You end up paying about a $1 a bean if you count only the alive ones! A nice markup there.

Gordon Haave writes:

A friend of mine who had tattoos and now is getting them removed says there is big competition and the laser removal guys are quick to cut rates. Apparently GE financed the purchase of the lasers the last few years and now people have defaulted and the lasers have hit the market cheap.

Just one date point, I don't know this firsthand.

Sep

3

 The American

Directed by Anton Corbijn Reviewed by Marion DS Dreyfus

Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn and George Clooney team up for a stylish but ultimately disappointing existential assassin cat-and-mouse thriller. If that is not too abrupt a round-up of reaction to this attractive but vapid exercise.

A movie trailer is a teaser, supposed to make the viewer hungry for the main course. But the ‘sin’ of many a trailer, including particularly the one precipitating many feet into many a theatre this week, is that in a pinch, if you connect the dots well enough, the trailer is a snappy skein of scenes that essentially makes seeing the whole film unnecessary.

With bad comedy, along with not inviting reviewers at all to previews, production houses hire expert trailer-creators. In turn, all the best lines of a dud are strung up like Xmas lights for you to thrill to and marvel at. But the excerpts are often the only funny moments in the script.

With this thriller of a hit-man in scenic, rugged Italy, the scenery wins the plaudits while we follow a morose and taciturn George Clooney around empty cobblestoned streets, twisting mountain roads, and gun-making candle-lit hotel rooms. To invoke Alice B. Toklas’es intimate, Gertrude Stein: There is no there there. Less occurs here, with less exposition, than in a classic Chuck Norris. It means well, we see lots of proficient gun assembly, icy women pretend they are immune to Clooney’s charms, but…?

Another thing: With a film portentously called THE AMERICAN, that’s a fairly iconic onus. You had better ensure the film is worthy of such a big-name concept. THE AMERICAN fails to live up to the portentousness of its name. Better: THE LONELINESS OF THE SULKY ESPESSO DRINKER.

Every seat is packed, everyone glued to the goings-on. But anchoring facts are a rarity, as the script fails to spoon-feed audiences anything in the way of WHY these people are packing heat with ingenious silencers, why Italian-speaking Clooney establishes a Spitzerian liaison with a gorgeous local pross (lots of gratuitous sex that does not noticeably advance the story, should you be reading with your sex-o-meters perched on the seat-edge), who Clooney’s boss is, why men are following him as he follows them, why this portentous restaurant empties out in time-honored Bazzini-, Johnny “Walnuts”- and Godfather-style, and why no one ever answers their cell phone with a normal Hello.

Though it is not a total waste (that eye-filling scenery; that sexy so-called local talent; George Clooney’s undressed working out, the better to display his butterfly tats), the whole is for us equal to less than the sum of its parts.

Haven’t we just seen this movie, except it was raffish, funny Ashton Kutcher and ditzy Kath Heigl (THE KILLERS, 2010) making with the crosshairs? On that one, we eventually got the 411 on what was going down.

Aug

27

 Did you know that eating in the dark apparently means one consumes fewer calories? A recent study says that's so.

Wonder whether that means it is an eye-mouth-salivary thing, so if you don't see 'em, you don't feel like eating 'em? Or whether you are not induced to feel the lust for, say, dessert because you don't make the connection of pretty colors and icing and chewy configurations? I think there is much more research to be done before we understand the mechanics behind this finding. It seems that the wiring could be broken when in the dark–but does that not fall of its own accord since everyone in the modern world knows we delightedly chow down on snacks in the dark–particularly in a theatre. I went recently with a swain to the movies in a museum, to a venue where they forbid food. Unacquainted with museum policy, he looked at me, concerned: Where is the popcorn? Do you mean we can't eat candy or goodies here? Why not? To many of us, movies and popcorn are inextricably linked. Smell popcorn, and, like Proust, the mind harks back instantaneously to the womblike coziness of a theatre palace or movie-plex. That is always in the dark.

Living across from the biggest and most popular movie house in the country, Sony Lincoln Centre on 68th Street, I am a test subject: Delicious hot popcorn smells waft at passers by as they amble the nether side of the theatre: Is that why I love movies so much?

I hypothesized the museum sponsors don't want vermin from food crumbs. In various countries I have lived in, there were indeed rats and other undesirables in the theatres where food and snacks were encouraged for obvious reasons (profit margins are far higher on food than for entry admission for the films themselves).

But the mind swirls: What if the appestat that controls our hunger is depressed in the dark, hard-wired from antiquity to eat in daylight, sleep in darkness? Thus it would be depressed automatically when we enter a darkened chamber for any length of time. Or what if the body prepares for a different activity in circadian terms, and slows down all processes, including that of the salivary response to food, or the mind/stomach's cues of hunger? Does it matter how much physical labor one does in the light or dark? Or if the work is strenuous mental work, versus sweaty physical labor? What about celebratory occasions, medication addenda, post-op, coming out of some grueling task?

Certainly, the darkness also engages for many the erotic impulse, but maybe that is linked to learned habit from a life of erotic endeavors in bed in the dark. Were we to have a lifelong habit of erotic engagements in the daylight–would that change our current tropism? When I was among Papua New Guinea natives, the Azmat, they separated the men from the women, all the males above about 8 or so living in a men's long-house, a thatched hut like a bivouac/dorm. The women lived in their own detached cottages.

When men wanted to couple, they visited the women's homes. But did they couple in the daylight, or the night? They are an interesting tribe because, for a long interregnum, they also experiment tribe-wide with polyamory, and men experiment with men and women with women, in tandem with their coupling with members of the opposite sex. They seem to come to a heterosexual norm after their teen years. But no opprobrium or disfavor attaches to homophilia at all. And since these are overwhelmingly lean people subsisting on taro and ambient greens, even if they ate night and day, they would not put on much in the way of Sumo wrestlers. And do Sumo mountains eat only during the day, to maintain their prized avoirdupois?

(Margaret Mead's Samoan recollections are also germane in connection with sexual behaviors among tribal peoples, though she made a number of protocol and research misjudgments that have been carefully examined, and her pioneering work in Samoa has been largely debunked from its shock-value onset. She did not record night-eating habits of 'her' Samoans. Subsequent studies have revised most if not all of her research. I was privileged to work on her Samoa collection in NYC's American Museum of Natural History archives, under her tall crook and ornery instruction, just before she died.)

Getting back to food.

It seems such a study requires a massive sample, double-blind, preferably, and cross-correlated cultural comparisons, in order to be valid at all. If the same variables are true for the Inuit as are true for Trobriand Islanders–if all people lose calories or interest in eating in the dark, then we have something of scientific merit. What of those people who, for exigencies like the Holocaust, lived in the dark for years–my former dentist and his parents lived in a sewer in Austria for years. They emerged barely alive, blinded by the street colors and light of the sun, he told me. Would they have been more robust if they had eaten in the light? And noted human rights champion (Christian) Brigitte Gabriel lived underground for years in the Middle East when her family was hunted by muslims. Yet they ate whatever food they could find or scrounge, any time, mostly found at night. Of course, such examples are extreme, as one must eat, and they would have been forced to eat whatever they could, whenever they could.

Do Scandinavians in their long, dark Arctic winters lose weight? Do people in the Antarctic gain weight because when they are doing their research, in the Antarctic summer, they are in bright light 24/7?

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