Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Primary Colors (1998)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Primary Colors (1998)

The best satires are thinly veiled reflections of true life events and figures.  Anyone who remembers the 1990s will know in an instant that Primary Colors is not only a send-up of Bill and Hillary Clinton but also the political climate of that decade.  And, like truly great satires, Primary Colors is funny but offers a biting commentary on very serious subjects.

Directed by the late, great Mike Nichols, Primary Colors is based on the novel of the same name and purports to provide a fictionalized behind-the-scenes account of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign.  John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, a Clinton-esque governor from an unnamed southern state.  Emma Thompson plays Susan Stanton, his tough-as-nails wife, who is in many ways smarter and more qualified than her husband for the job of president.

I mention that last bit because Hillary Clinton (the basis for Susan Stanton) has just recently announced her second run for the Democratic presidential nomination.  The last time she ran, I remember how many of the criticisms she faced during that campaign were explored nearly ten years earlier in this film while she was still First Lady.  Again, the power in good satire is how it holds up a critical mirror to what we are and why we are that way.

As for the movie, one thing I've come to appreciate about it over the years whenever I re-watch it is how we aren't given easy answers about the Stantons.  Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film that there are never any scenes of the Stantons alone interacting just with each other.  Because, really, how could any film seek to understand what a political couple like the Stantons (or the Clintons for that matter) are truly like with each other?  How does a wife deal with her husband's infidelities when seemingly larger issues are at stake?  What compromises and concessions would the two have had to have made in order to get as far as they did together?  Primary Colors implies these things are unknowable unless you are one of the people in the pairing.

What we do get is a glimpse of the effects such a couple has on the people around them.  We are introduced to the Stantons through Henry Burton, an idealistic campaign manager and grandson of a Civil Rights leader, who has become disillusioned with his current political work.  The Stantons recruit him for their campaign, and Henry begins an emotional tug-of-war of genuine admiration for the Stantons and disgust at the tactics they use to get ahead.

We also meet the strange, sometimes very eccentric staff with whom the Stantons surround themselves.  One that stands out is Libby Holden, played with great energy by Kathy Bates.  Libby is a staunch supporter of the Stantons and will go to extreme lengths to protect them.  Like Henry, she idolizes the Stantons although she appears to be aware but less deterred by their flaws.  After one heartbreaking revelation, Libby holds the Stantons accountable for the people they once were and still pretend to be.  This scene provides Primary Colors with a rare moment of deep sincerity and pathos.

Also deserving mention is the performance of Larry Hagman as Fred Picker, a former governor who comes on the scene and steals attention and political mojo from Jack Stanton.  His scenes provide an emotional weight to the movie and ask the question about what we have the right to expect out of our political leaders.  Hagman is truly magnificent in this role, and I've always felt he (as well as the rest of the film) should have gotten more attention during the movie award season.

Be that as it may, the satire and political commentary of Primary Colors hold up nearly twenty years later.  Next time you come across it and have an opportunity to watch it, give it a chance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Donnie Brasco (1997)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Donnie Brasco (1997)

February through April tends to be a barren wasteland for movie goers as Awards season has come to a close and the industry is gearing up for the Summer Blockbuster season to kick into high gear with the first wave of releases in May.  And, movies released in this wasteland period are often completely overlooked by the general public and by the industry a whole.  Donnie Brasco is, in many ways, one such movie.

Released on February 28, 1997, Donnie Brasco quickly became a critical success.  And, it even can be considered financially successful as it made nearly three-times its budget.  However, being released so early in the year meant that it was largely forgotten by the time summer rolled around and was largely ignored by the major movie awards that winter.  Had Donnie Brasco been released in the award-baiting season (September - December), it most certainly would have been a serious contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor.  Unfortunately, that isn't what happened, so Donnie Brasco joins a prestigious and ever-growing list of great movies overlooked by the industry that created them.

Donnie Brasco is based on the undercover investigation of FBI Agent Joe Pistone into the upper echelons of the Bonanno crime family in New York City.  Assuming the identity of Donnie Brasco, Pistone infiltrated and gained the trust of the Bonanno family and eventually gathered evidence that brought the family to its knees.

The film, however, is not about the investigation or how Donnie (Johnny Depp) maneuvers as an undercover agent.  Instead, the film focuses on the relationship Donnie forges with Lefty Ruggiero, an aging hitman played by Al Pacino.  Initially, the relationship is Donnie's way into the family, but it eventually turns into a genuine friendship between the two men with Donnie torn between his duty as a law enforcement official and loyalty to his friend.  Tension builds as the investigation draws to a close and Donnie desperately seeks a way to save Lefty from his fate at either the hands of the FBI or his fellow mobsters.

The real power of this movie comes from the finely acted scenes between Pacino and Depp.  The two actors deliver performances that are both real and heartbreaking as their friendship looms closer and closer to disaster.  In his portrayal of Donnie Brasco,  Depp came into his own as a screen actor with this film in finally playing a "normal guy" role while holding his own opposite Pacino.  Pacino dials down his usual over-the-top bluster to give a nuanced, sympathetic portrait of a man desperate for friendship and very much in need of being someone's idol.  Both are actors at the top of their game, and it is something to behold.

One last note: most critics took notice of Pacino's final scene in the movie.  It is a master class in the use of subtle expression and gestures to suggest an inner state of turmoil and regret.  There are a multitude of reasons why Lefty leaves the small drawer open before he leaves the room, and Pacino's performance makes you ponder many of them.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bill Cosby: Himself...Or Is It?

When I was in fifth grade, I read an article about Bill Cosby and Keshia Knight Pulliam (aka Rudy Huxtable) in an issue of Jet magazine.  In it, Cosby described how he and Pulliam related to each other on the set of The Cosby Show, particularly when filming scenes together.  He told a cute story about how Pulliam would correct him on his lines if he didn't say them exactly as written and that her corrections would sometimes ruin takes.

I remember thinking what a funny, even adorable thing that was.  And, I think part of me, not being much older than Pulliam at the time, subconsciously appreciated Cosby's patience with her childish antics.

A few years later, when I was about seventeen, Cosby made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.  The Cosby Show by that time had been winding down for a season or two, Rudy was pretty much all grown up, and Cousin Oliver...uh, I mean... Olivia had been introduced on the show, played by Raven-Symone.  She was there to replace Pulliam as the young foil to Cosby's Dr. Huxtable.

Symone also appeared on that episode of Oprah.  She came out and did some cutesy schtick with Cosby which culminated in Cosby telling Oprah and her audience the exact same story about Symone that he had told Jet about Pulliam a few years earlier.  Now, I don't mean to say he mentioned an interaction between Symone and him that was similar to what he and Pulliam experienced years before.  No, what he said was nearly identical word for word as though he were retelling a joke but only changing a name and a few details.

Recalling what I read in Jet years before, I remember thinking in all my angsty, teenagery cynicism, "This guy is full of shit."

Of course, it didn't help that, unlike Pulliam, Symone was an "experienced" child actor and had all the affected mannerisms and reactions that term implies.  And, it also didn't help that, unlike the Jet article, this interaction was on video where I could see Symone mugging for the camera and Cosby gently coaching her on what to say and when.  So, yeah, I couldn't help but think: "Bullshit."

That was the thinking of my oh-so-opinionated seventeen year old self.  Subsequent years softened my opinion into an understanding that yes, that story is bullshit, but it was also Bill Cosby cultivating the image he wanted to project to the public to ensure the continued success of his show.  Deceptive?  Okay.  Dishonest?  Maybe.  But, I'll address that in a moment.  Either way, establishing and maintaining a certain image is the game played by celebrities and politicians alike, and it would be foolish to believe Cosby was ever an exception to this.  He just did it far more effectively than most.

The Allegations
What connection does this personal observation of mine have to do with the multitude of rape allegations Bill Cosby is currently facing?  Nothing, at least not directly.  Certainty on what is true and what isn't about these allegations may never be available to the public in any way that could be called satisfying (although I think an argument can be made that the public would never be satisfied regardless of what the truth actually is).  And, I feel anyone not personally involved in this matter who is able to have a feeling of absolute certainty one way or the other should seriously consider their own bias before examining the issue.

As it stands, several women have come forward and claimed that Cosby first drugged and then sexually assaulted them.  By and large, it appears these women have nothing to gain from making these claims.  And, given the statute of limitations on this sort of crime, Cosby will more then likely never face any criminal charges.  To date, aside from a reported joke made at a show in Canada, he has remained basically silent about the accusations.

Some say that the sheer number of women coming forward should be convincing enough in a where-there's-smoke-there's-fire logic.  And, yes, the fact that all these women are coming forward with essentially the same story and not backing down under scrutiny is very compelling.  However, that is the same logic that allowed for twenty people to be put to death in the Salem Witch Trials.  In that situation, there was also a group of women hurling accusations, not backing down under scrutiny, and stirring the public into a frenzy.  And, in the end, twenty people lost their lives.

Of course, nothing like that is happening to Bill Cosby.  He's in no apparent danger of losing his life.  I can't even say he is having his career destroyed by the allegations because, really, what career has he had in the last fifteen years or so?  The height of his fame was back in the 70s and 80s, and his career has been diminishing in bits and pieces ever since.  Regardless, he certainly isn't going to be hurting financially when all of this is said and done.

What has happened is that the carefully crafted public image of him as the quintessential father figure has been torn asunder with relish by the media and a public spurred on by the allegations.  It is an image (and the power it provided) that some say protected Cosby from the repercussions of his alleged actions for all these years.

The Image
If that is the case, the question we need to be asking ourselves is this: assuming these allegations are true, why would an image provide someone with enough power to escape the consequences of multiple heinous crimes?  After all, we aren't talking about an excess of extramarital affairs, like Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton, that, while being morally repugnant, at least involves willing participants.  Cosby, on the other hand, is being accused of serial rape, an act that demands great moral aberration as well as the objectification of another human being.  How could a celebrity, even one of Cosby's caliber, do something like that repeatedly for so long and not (at the very least) come under public fire for it in a more timely manner?

Some have said that it is the pervasive ideas and beliefs brought on by an endemic rape culture that objectifies, infantilizes, and finally victimizes women.  I would agree with that up to a point.  How women are perceived and treated in our society does in fact help someone with enough wealth and power side-step the consequences of sexual assault.

However, that unfortunate fact has been true for a very long time.  And, it doesn't explain how so many women could have been abused over the course of several decades with it being kept a secret from the public.  After all, Cosby isn't some anonymous weird uncle whose creepiness is an open secret and who people say to avoid.  He's BILL COSBY, a beloved public figure, someone who has visited people's homes for decades through our televisions, and who has been a welcome presence there for as long as I can remember.

But, that might just be the answer.  Bill Cosby as the funny, lovable father figure is a modern-day icon.  And, in today's world, being an icon inevitably means money.  A lot of people stood to make a lot of money from Bill Cosby's popularity, particularly in the 80s.  And a lot of people stood to lose much had Cosby been exposed.

The Real Problem
So, what should be of real concern to the public?  We seem to want to tear Cosby down in some modern-day form of Old West justice where instead of a tree limb and rope, we're using social media and vitriolic language.  We do love our righteous indignation and relish every opportunity to point the finger at someone, but is Cosby really the one we as the general public should be tearing apart?

Certainly, the women he allegedly assaulted have cause to speak out against him.  Their loved ones would understandably be filled with anger and hatred.  But, the average person who has no personal involvement in the matter?  How does that individual figure into all this?

The fact is we should be angry, but not at Cosby.  Or, not just at Cosby.  Assuming the allegations are true, we should be angry at the Hollywood system that allowed this to happen by either turning a blind eye or aiding Cosby in his continued cover up.  Because, again assuming these allegations to be true, many people had to have known about it and did nothing to stop it.

This idea first started germinating in my thoughts when a theater friend of mine told me she had heard "fishy" things about Cosby while she was trying to make it as an actress in the 1980s.  Apparently, the general message being spread was that young, good-looking actresses should avoid Cosby whenever possible.

Then I saw an interview with Roseanne Barr in which she gave her input on the Cosby scandal.  In the interview, she implied that it was about time something like this was made public because most women in the entertainment industry knew someone who had been assaulted.  She stopped short of saying assaulted by Cosby, but when pressed by the reporter, she made it clear she meant Cosby.

The reporter also asked Barr a question to which she gave a very thought-provoking answer.  When asked why she thought these years-old allegations were just now coming to light, Barr said, "Because nobody gives a damn...until a man says it."

The man Barr referred to is Hannibal Buress, the comedian who made a joke about Cosby's rape history and is credited with causing the explosion of women coming out claiming to have been sexually assaulted by Cosby.  Although Barr was speaking about sexism in the industry and blaming it for silencing these women until a man took up their charge, her words do bring out another issue: Bill Cosby is no longer a major power player in Hollywood, so damaging his reputation, his legacy doesn't offer a substantial loss to corporate Hollywood.  As Barr says, "nobody gives a damn" now.  In other words, nobody stands to lose anything (particularly money) by these horrible things now becoming known.

Except us, that is.  Those of us who grew up watching Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.  Who remember Picture Pages as well as The Electric Company.  Who have fond memories of laughing with our families while watching The Cosby Show on Thursday nights.  We stand to lose a great deal.  If these allegations are true, what does that mean for those of us who grew up learning life lessons from Cosby's work?  Are those experiences invalidated?  Should they be?

What now?
I tried watching an episode of The Cosby Show recently on Hulu and couldn't get through it.  I just couldn't shake the feeling of how wrong it is to appreciate, much less enjoy, the work of someone who is probably a serial rapist.  Yes, I know Cosby has not been charged with anything.  Yes, I know that Cliff Huxtable is a work of fiction, separate and distinct from Cosby the man.  Yes, I understand that humans are multi-faceted beings, comprised of both noble and evil qualities, and so it is possible for one person to display both the best and worst of what humans are capable.

Ironically, that was going to be the original point of this blog post: that we the American public, in order to salvage our childhood memories, have to separate Cosby's work from Cosby himself, regardless of the truth.  The work itself is true and good if not the man himself.

As an adult, I've come to realize and accept the fact that the icons of my childhood were/are fallible human beings, subject to the same vices and failings to which the rest of us succumb.  I saw the first crack in Cosby's facade when I watched that episode of Oprah.  But, while I have been very successful at separating a person's work from the actual person (I can still appreciate Tiger Woods' golfing skills as well as the successes of Clinton's presidency), I simply cannot reconcile an appreciation of the work of a man who is a rapist.

So, yes, I suppose I do believe the allegations to be true and cannot get beyond that.  Although I wholeheartedly believe in "Innocent until proven guilty," that idea really only exists in the courtroom if at all and requires one to be devoid of passion and emotional connection.  And, I am emotionally connected to this.  I feel angry and betrayed because we were sold an image, and in accepting and buying into that image, we were made unwitting participants in the systematic cover-up of one man's brutal actions.  And, make no mistake about it, there was a cover-up, a code of silence - there HAD to be - in order to protect the money-making "legacy" of Cosby's work.

Right now, I don't have any answers on how to reconcile the experiences of my childhood with the ugly truths that are now being exposed.  I don't think any of us ever will, at least, not for a long, long time.  But, my belief in the phoniness of Hollywood has certainly been reinforced with the horrible knowledge that greed really can outweigh common decency.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Cloud Atlas (2012)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Cloud Atlas (2012)

To: Scott
From: Steve
Re: You still haven't seen Cloud Atlas


We've been best friends for almost fifteen years now.  In that time, we have shared some good times and bad times.  We've bitched, griped, and complained about the world around us.  Joked our way through some legendary conversations(if only in our own minds).  And we've advised each other through various trials and tribulations.

With all the interactions we've had as a result of our friendship, chief among them are the exchanges we have due to your stubborn refusal to watch Cloud Atlas even as I espouse again and again just how great a film it truly is.  While I say it is a grand epic that ties together six different stories spanning several centuries, you say three hours is way too long to have to watch a movie.  While I admire the blatant theatricality of having actors play several different roles as well as the themes and connections it implies, you say it sounds confusing and too many characters makes it hard to follow.  And, while I love the back and forth and crisscrossing of stories and timelines, you say you can already feel the headache coming on just thinking about it.

In a sense, you are right.  Cloud Atlas is a hard sell to most movie goers.  Why watch a film that requires that much time and attention when there is equally worthy yet far more digestible fare out there?  To be honest, I have no answer for that.  I only know that Cloud Atlas had me from Tom Hanks' opening monologue to the stunning extended montage-style ending.  I have watched it several times since I first saw it in the theater, and it just hasn't lost its power to move me.  The stories and their characters, the multitude of connections and thematic variations - it all feeds my desire for complexity and richness that I typically only encounter in literary texts.

Each time I watch it, I follow a different thread woven into the story.  One time I followed the path of the characters played by Tom Hanks and discovered the story of a soul slowly changing from villain to hero through the power of love.  There is also the recurring element of two souls finding each other again and again in different lifetimes, sometimes with a happy ending, sometimes not.  And, then you have the mystery of the comet-shaped birthmark.  What does it signify?  How are those that bear it linked together?

For me, there's a real power in this movie.  And, because of that, I get why people resist it or even outright hate it.

True, it's no Josie and the Pussycats, but, then again, what is?  Still...dude, at least watch the trailer. :)

Your friend,

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Reading History, Or How I Discovered the Joy of Reading

Anyone who knows me for any length of time will ultimately become well aware that I am an avid reader with a particular passion for super-hero comic books.  Of course, I read many kinds of literature other than the pulp stories found in the sequential artform, and so I tend to be singular among many comic book fans in that I will chew through William Faulkner or Edith Wharton and then pick up a Flash comic without skipping a beat.  I enjoy the variety, and I make no distinctions on the concepts of quality or artistic value - only on understanding what each literary work is trying to accomplish.  As such I've been able to always appreciate on some level a wide variety of genres and story types.  And, my reading life is the richer for it.

But, why and how does one become a reader, not in the mechanical sense of the word, but in the emotional one?  How does the passion for the written word first get ignited and then get fanned into becoming an essential part of one's life?  And, why do some have it and others do not?  For a long time, I've held the belief that the use of language, the ability to communicate abstract ideas and concepts through it, is a quality unique to humans and truly one of the few things that absolutely separates us from other living creatures.

In recent years, I've developed a lesson in which I have my students examine their own reading histories.  I have them think back on when (if ever) reading became a presence in their lives.  Their stories are varied and sometimes heartbreaking in how many of them don't get the crucial early childhood reading experiences so vital to creating lifelong readers.  

I also participate in the exercise myself and share my own reading history with my students.  It, of course, involves comics books, and I would like to share it here on my blog.

My Reading History, Or How I Discovered the Joy of Reading

The earliest memory I have of engaging in a story is at a pre-school age in which I would look through various comic books on the magazine rack at a local convenience store.  I say "look through" because I can remember not being able to read the captions and word balloons and only looking at the pictures to piece together the story from what I saw.

From these experiences, only images remain, impressions.  Spider-man diving off a dock to retrieve his sunken Spider-mobile.  The Flash trapped in a yellow bubble floating up to a spaceship in low orbit around the Earth.  Batman being dangled over a fire pit by a headless villain who was clad all in white.  These images, among others, stick out to me from my childhood, but they don't form a cohesive collection of storytelling in my mind.  They are just action visuals that enticed the mind of a young boy and made an indelible impression, which is, of course, what they were designed to do.

It was during one of these momentary excursions at the magazine rack that I encountered my first real experience in reading and following a story - not just the cool imagery, but an actual story that excited my imagination.  The comic book was Justice League of America #195.  It was the first part of a three-part story in which members of the JLA teamed up with the golden-age members of the Justice Society of America to battle the Secret Society of Super-Villains.

Yes, I know when I describe it like that, it sounds like a cheesy, run-of-the-mill episode of the Super Friends.  But, believe me, to my five-year-old sensibilities there was so much more to it than the silliness I encountered on Saturday morning cartoons.

Justice League of America, No. 195
Consider the cover as rendered by the magnificent George Perez.  With an ease and simplicity I don't see in many modern-day comics, it communicates the central conflict so crucial to the story: a group of super villains are planning to attack some super heroes.  And it is done with no big action scene, but a carefully crafted tableau - the villains are merely standing in front of computer-generated headshots of the heroes while Killer Frost crosses them out one by one.  This cover very brilliantly drew me into the story before I took one look at the pages inside.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it started the story for me - I was curious about this group of bad guys ominously threatening the heroes and, more importantly, I wanted to know what was going to happen.

Okay, I was a five-year-old and had fallen for what was essentially an advertising gimmick.  It had certainly happened before when I was putting the stories together by piecemeal images.  But, what was different this time was that it sparked me to become interested in what was written and not just some cool scenes of action.  It was the first time I sat down in front of the magazine rack and tried to actually read and figure out what the story was really about.

At the same time, I was also puzzled by the differences I saw in some of the characters familiar to me.  As I looked more closely at the cover,  I noticed Superman had white hair on his temples.  Huh?  Also, the Cheetah didn't quite look the same as she did on the Super Friends.  Weird.  And, that guy wearing the winged helmet in the red shirt with the lightning bolt on it - that wasn't the Flash.  Who were these people?

At the time, I had no clue about the intricacies of the DC Multiverse or alternate timelines or that these unfamiliar characters were different versions of more familiar characters.  I just knew that something seemed unusual about this story, and it intrigued me all the more.

And then I opened the book to the first page.

Two rows of hero headshots, looking almost identical to the cover.  Except...what was different?  Oh, wait.  Only three of the heroes had X's over their pictures.  Why the difference from the cover?  Why were Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and the blond woman I didn't recognize the only ones marked out?

JLA #195, Page 1
And the splash title: "Targets On Two Worlds."  I had to carefully sound that one out.  I knew what targets meant and to whom it referred, but I was clueless about the "two worlds."  Were the villains from a different planet?  Again, I had no conception of the greater DC Universe that existed at the time or the multitude of characters that inhabited it.

And there was the old Superman again and the strange-looking Flash...

So, I kept turning the pages.  I tried my best to take in all I could of the words as well as the images, desperately trying to figure out the story before my mother called me over to leave the store.

I glided over the part in which the villains gathered together and hatched their nefarious plot to kidnap (?) the heroes.  And they seemed to be following the orders of a white gorilla.


The Ragdoll character was cool and creepy, like the Joker would eventually be when I finally learned just how scary he really was.  And, Killer Frost had a different look - first time I ever saw a female comic book character, hero or villain, wearing what appeared to be an evening gown...and pearls.  She was clearly going to take on the guy whose head was on fire  And the old man who looked like a floating head and hands in the middle of a cloud.  He was...the Mist?  No brainer there.

Suddenly, my fevered digestion of the characters and the story came to a halt when I hit upon something I had positively NEVER seen before in a comic book.  My senses were snatched away from the events of the story, and I was once again overtaken by an image that has stayed with me throughout my life, partly because of the surprise and delight it inspired in me and partly because of the vast curiosity it evoked:  a two-page spread featuring a pin-up of all the heroes I was reading about and then some.

I didn't know one group was the Justice League while the other was the Justice Society, the counterpart super-hero group from an alternate Earth (so taken was I by the assemblage of heroes, the team titles went completely unnoticed by me - but, cut me some slack; I was five).  I just knew that some of the characters I clearly recognized, some I didn't, and some looked off in one detail or another.

The Pin-up That Blew My Mind

And, I also noticed the symmetry: the versions of Superman and Wonder Woman I knew (the ones to the left) were standing in mirrored positions to their slightly-off versions.  I gathered that meant that the other characters were positioned similarly, so Batman (who had no obvious counterpart on the other team) must be connected to the one who looked like a far-too-grown (and somewhat threatening) Robin.

In the years since, I have learned that the artist, George Perez, has a penchant for symmetry and carefully structured composition in his work.  It is simultaneously a strength and a weakness in his style in that some images (like the one included here) are wonderfully detailed and beautiful while others, particularly action sequences, can occasionally come across as too neat and clean, a little phony and choreographed even.

However, I digress.  Back to my reading experience...

JLA #195, Pg. 20
Once I recovered from the delightful shock of the pin-up, I moved on to the rest of the story, the part where some of the villains begin their attacks on the heroes.  The first to fall was the blond-haired woman (the Black Canary as I learned years later), who was ambushed and knocked unconscious by the Mist.  Then, I read through Hawkman's battle and subsequent capture - he was tricked into picking up a remote controlled monocle that could shoot laser blasts and was rendered unconscious.  And, finally, Wonder Woman was defeated by the Cheetah, the last panel depicting a ferocious looking Cheetah descending upon a dazed Wonder Woman as she lay at the foot of the Washington Monument.

JLA #195, Pg. 22
As I examined that last panel, two things occurred to me.  First, the heroes featured in the issue were the same ones marked by an X on the first page.  And, so I had my first encounter with not-so-subtle foreshadowing.  Second, for the first time, I realized that comic book stories aren't always resolved in one issue, that the heroes are left in dire situations that need to be continued a month later in the next installment.  Thus my young mind became enticed once again, this time by the tried and true methods of the serialized format.  What was going to happen next?  Would the remaining heroes be captured as well?  How would they get themselves out of this?

Sometimes, I would get whichever adult I was with to buy a comic book for me.  This time, for reasons I can't remember, I didn't get this particular issue.  Instead, I put it back on the magazine rack and kept postulating about the story in the back of my head, reflecting on how the three heroes had been defeated as well as that peculiar pin-up.

JLA 195, Pg. 24
About what must have been a month later, I recall seeing the cover to the next installment, Justice League of America #196.  It featured the white gorilla character (the Ultra-Humanite as I would also learn years later) standing over the unconscious bodies of several of the same heroes.  I didn't actually read this issue until years later, and, indeed, the memory of having seen it had left me until I once again gazed upon it as a teenager at a comic book booth at a local flea market.  However, I do remember the last issue, the one where the heroes escape their captors and defeat them in a huge battle

This final chapter, Justice League of America #197, is the one I read again and again, scrutinizing every panel, every word.  I don't remember the circumstances of how I acquired a copy of the issue, but it must have been one I picked up at a convenience store, and my mother or father must have been in enough good humor to decide to buy it for me.  Regardless, I had my own copy to peruse over and over in the quiet of my bedroom.

Justice League of America, No. 196
And it was in those moments that my imagination flourished under the power of a compelling story.  For the first time, I negotiated all by myself the beginning, middle, and end of a story, albeit in incomplete bits and pieces.  I understood and even sympathized with the initial crushing defeat the heroes had suffered and then rejoiced in their wily plan to stop the villains, who had run amok in their absence.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing one of the most powerful emotions a good story can elicit from a reader: closure.  Even being that young and with limited life experience, I had begun to realize that life offered very little in the way of finality or a sense of completion.  Things just seem to go on and on, ever evolving into something else, without really giving us a chance to put a period at the end of an experience.  And, the irony of human existence is that we crave this almost above and beyond anything else.  Stories give us that.  They put a nice bow on an experience, so we can say, "That was the point of it all," and then neatly move on to something else.
Justice League of America, No. 197

This silly adventure in a comic book opened up for me a world of escape.  A world of order and clarity.  And, as I grew older, the respite and certainty provided by reading, by comic books especially, allowed me a way to navigate a life becoming increasingly more complicated and difficult.  I honestly don't know how I could have gotten through some of the more harrowing moments in my life without having the written word to rely upon.

So I continue reading.  And, I continue writing, an act directly born out of my reading life.  And, I cling to both of these as rocks upon which my life is built.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Monsters (2010)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Monsters (2010)

One of my favorite types of film is one that seems to be functioning within a given genre but then manages to do something unexpected or find a different storytelling angle.  In Monsters, writer/director Gareth Edwards does both by making a film that weaves together elements of alien invasion and action thriller while evoking moments from It Happened One Night.  The result is a unique gem of a film.

The basic plot is simple enough.  It takes place six years after giant alien creatures have landed in northern Mexico.  During that time, the Mexican and American military have worked together to contain and defeat the invading creatures.  An American photojournalist, Andrew Kaulder, is in the middle of the action, covering the events, when he receives a call from his employer asking him to find his wayward daughter and bring her home.  Kaulder finds the young woman, Samantha, in a Mexican hospital, and the two proceed to make their way back to the U.S,

Of course, various events conspire to make the journey home not at all simple.  And, of course, the two bond in the midst of all this adversity.  But, where Monsters really succeeds is by focusing on the two main characters instead of relentless action sequences.  The audience really gets to know who they are and understand the connection they are forming, so when a threat does appear, it is made all the worse because Andrew and Samantha are real people facing a real danger.

Monsters also gathers its strength through an atmosphere of suspense and lingering dread.  We never get a clear view of the aliens, but we certainly see the results of their presence as Andrew and Samantha make their way through war-torn landscapes and ruins.  They could easily be walking through a human war zone if not for the occasional signs warning of extraterrestrial infection.  As these scenes play out, the audience is in a perpetual state of waiting for something to happen while simultaneously trying to imagine what kind of creatures could have caused such devastation.

Made for less than $500,000 (according to Wikipedia), Monsters is almost an art house version of an alien invasion movie.  But, what it lacks in special effects and set pieces, it more than makes up for in strong central performances and style.  Truly, I've seldom seen other alien flicks that are anywhere near as engaging and interesting.

Apparently, there is a big budget sequel, Monsters: Dark Continent, set to be released this May.  I've seen the trailer.  Stick with this one.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Chef (2014)

What-to-Watch Wednesday: Chef (2014)

Chef is one of those films I had been hearing about again and again in my consumption of film news for almost a year before I actually had the opportunity to watch it.  It caught my attention not only for the very eclectic and talented cast (including Avengers Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson) but also because the writer/director, Jon Favreau, passed up the chance to continue directing the Iron Man films (he directed the first and, arguably, the best of the three as well as the second one) in order to get back to his indie roots to make and star in this small, yet very entertaining film.

Favreau plays Carl Casper, a master chef in a top-notch California restaurant.  He has a busy, lucrative career but is creatively stifled by having to serve the same kind of food day in and day out.  His personal life isn't anymore fulfilling in that he is divorced from a woman he still obviously loves and cannot connect to a young son who idolizes him and yearns for his attention.  His frustration with his life along with his ignorance of social media lead him into a confrontation with a food critic that results in his leaving his job and running a food truck.

That sounds like a massive setback for someone once so successful and would be cause for excessive maudlin displays in a lesser film.  But, Chef is too smartly written for that.  And, slowly, as Carl deals with the changes befallen him, we begin to see his life take on a value and significance it was desperately missing.

The plot itself involves a road trip, a formula made fresh by actually having the road trip make sense given the circumstances of the characters.  The movie takes us on a trek from California to Florida to Louisiana to Texas and finally back to California, and we get to see a lot of local color in the mean time and a lot of delicious food.  I mean, A LOT of delicious food.  Someone told me that I would be starving by the end of this film, and they were right.  If only real food trucks would serve up anything close to the scrumptious delicacies that Carl hands out to his eager customers instead of cholesterol and heartburn wrapped in tin foil.

On a whole the movie is well-made, well-written, and nicely acted.  I don't know how Favreau got all the big name actors for this film (well, he did direct Downey and Johansson in Iron Man 2, so maybe they owed him a favor), but they all show a great enthusiasm for what they're doing and create interesting and compelling characters.  Maybe they just liked the script, which is funny and charming in all the right ways without skimping on the harsher elements of Carl's situation.

Personally, I am moved by the message of the film that any setback, any bad luck can ultimately result in something special and worthwhile.  All it takes is letting go of preconceived notions and recognizing the good things around you.  As Carl begins to do these things, we see his life blossom into something truly wonderful.

A Note For the Cast & Crew of Driving Miss Daisy

So, the run of Driving Miss Daisy at Possum Point Players has been finished for almost two weeks now.  My sense is that it was a success ...