If you want to get away from Trump for an afternoon or an evening, go see La La Land. It is terrific. It is a subtle and realistic movie about a relationship – relationships, really – with the unspoken as music. It is a deep, moving movie disguised as a frolic.
We got hit by the big storm over last weekend and, as often happens in our neighborhood, a tree was blown over, taking out the power to three homes. But, to safely work on the power outage, PG&E shut down the whole neighborhood. Sitting in the dark, with no heat, did not seem like the best way to pass a Sunday, even though it was in the 50s outside, so we decamped and went out to a late lunch at La Viga, my favorite upscale Mexican restaurant.
After the distraction of a seafood stew for lunch, we still had a Christmas tree to take down and wanted to go home and get busy. In our new interconnected world, all we had to do was check the PG&E website to get all the details of the power outage and its repair which is handy and would have been even handier if they said we had power. But we still didn’t (although it was on the schedule). We decided to go see a movie because…what else are you going to do on a rainy Sunday. Hidden Figures was on our short list and was just at the right time, so Hidden Figures is was. We were not disappointed.
Hidden Figures is sort of an old-fashioned movie, the kind with a happy ending – wherein the white bosses redeem themselves – that you know is coming. Getting to the ending, however, is a rough journey. The movie centers on three black woman Katherine G. Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae, who worked for NASA as computers in an era when engineers often did the conceptional engineering but the complex and tedious math was done by people called “computers”.
This happy ending is one of those happy endings that leave the audience teary-eyed and it left me a little ashamed and embarrassed as a white privileged male. While this is an uplifting movie about three “colored” women, like any movie about people of color in the 50s and 60s, it is really about race, prejudice, institutionalized segregation, and our ugly past that has only somewhat been diluted in the ensuing years. There are very few white heroes in this movie – duh! – with the notable exception of John Glenn, and the story the movie tells about the interaction between Glenn and “the smart one” is, according to all accounts I can find online, true.
The opening sequence is about the fear that every black person has of the very police whose sworn duty is to protect them. This is 1961 or 1962 in the Jim Crow South and prejudice is institutionalized but that fear of the police, if one is black, sadly is still just common sense anywhere in the United States. Towards the end of the film, one of the white women supervisors, in talking to a black woman who should be a supervisor, says “I have nothing against you” and the black woman answers, “And I believe you believe that”. If all this makes Hidden Figures seem like a downer, it isn’t. The movie is fun, interesting, and touching while feeling very real. I highly recommend it, it is one of the best movies we have seen in the last year.
After the movie, the rain continued and we still had no power so we had a light dinner and returned to the multiplex to see Passengers with Chris Pratt and Jeniffer Lawrence. Passengers is gorgeous, a couple of the special effects are especially good, and Jennifer Lawrence is transcendent but, in the end, it was not what I had hoped.
As an aside, Michele says that I always think Jenifer Lawrence is transcendent which is pretty true, but, in Passengers, her acting is luminous, even for her. End aside.
After Passengers we still didn’t have power so we just went home and climbed into bed. We woke the next morning to a warm house with power, only slightly inconvenienced.
We saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story over Christmas and I was disappointed. Not that it wasn’t pretty good, it is just that I expected more. Part of the problem is that the photography was so good – both beautiful and real feeling – along with most of the acting, that the silly plot and outlandish killing looked fake. I was reminded of the first time I saw Westside Story on screen. I had seen Westside Story several times on stage and loved it but all that great Jerome Robbins choreography seemed fake on the streets of the actual New York.
This movie fits in the Star Wars universe, although the hero’s journey trappings are still there, the emphasis is more on fighting a rebellion against the Evil Empire. Speaking of fighting the Evil Empire, in the Star Wars universe, we identify with the brave Rebels, but, in real life, we are the Empire and the rebels are, for example, ISIS.
“Star Wars, the Franchise Awakens” touches on each and every trope of the original, bigger and better of course and lots of fun. Mike Moore
We saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens over our Christmas holiday in the mountains and it reminded me of Starbucks. I mean that in the best possible way, I like Starbucks. I really, really, do; a lot. Early in the morning, on the way somewhere, there is no better place to stop to pick up a breakfast on the go. The small Starbucks’ Double Cappuccino, with nonfat milk, is excellent – even if they want to call the small cup Tall – and the Double-Smoked Bacon, Cheddar & Egg Sandwich is always tasty and very satisfying. It is the perfect breakfast for eating in the car. I feel pretty much the same way about Star Wars: The Force Awakens except for the car bit. It was good, very good. But the thing about Starbucks is that the breakfast is planned to be consistent and non-offensive. That consistency means that my breakfast sandwich is always very good, never a disappointment, but never great either. It is never quirky or idiosyncratic, it does not reflect the personality of the person who made it. I never walk out of Starbucks saying Wow, was THAT a pleasant surprise.
As an aside, that consistency and tight control relates to the current residential zoning regulations in most of California. In an effort to protect us from having to live with a supposed eyesore down the block, anything that deviates from an authorized sameness is banned. So we have no bad houses in the neighborhood, but no great houses either. End aside.
If nothing else, the original Star Wars, now called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, was idiosyncratic, quirky even. George Lucas has made many, what most people consider to be horrible, movies; think Star Wars I through III, but he also made two of the most treasured movies ever. Those lousy movies and the great movies are related. The idiosyncrasy of collecting snippets of Westerns, Flash Gordon movies, Errol Flynn sword fight movies, War Movies like The Dam Busters, even Casablanca, and putting them in a plot lifted primarily – from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, worked. And it still works, sure most of the acting is not very good and the plot is silly – to be charitable – but Star Wars has become one of almost every body’s treasured memories.
Indeed, the silly plot is a big part of Star Wars’ charm and one of the reasons, along with the action figures of course, it has become so big a part of our pop culture. From reading some of the things that George Lucas has said, it seems his main interest is experimental film collages, and I get the feeling that he likes Star Wars I through III better than IV, while we have fallen in love with IV because of the characters and their stories. Star Wars VII, The Force Awakens , directed by J.J. Abrams who, from all accounts, was under the tight control of Disney – understandably so seeing that they paid $4.05 billion for, basically, an idea and the accompanying copyrights – is more a reboot of the franchise than a sequel.
Han Solo still dresses like a cross between a Indiana Jones and a Wild Bill Hickok, the heroes still have lightsaber fights, the spaceships still fly around like WWII airplanes – then popping off the planet very unlike, say, a Saturn V rocket that seems to stand on its fiery tail for hours – but we have a new Orphan-on-a-Desert Planet, and a new R2D2 in BB-8, and and a new guy in a fancier black mask (but, mercifully, no Jar Jar Binks). Not all, but many of the scenes still change with wipes copied by Lucas from early black and white movies and the plot feels eerily familiar, still, it didn’t quite feel like a Lucas movie to me.
For one thing, the acting is much better. Daisy Ridley as
Luke Rey was especially good and one lightsaber fight, in particular, is a stunner and very Kill Billish, taking place in a snowy forest with big snowflakes falling. One thing that is very Lucasian is that The Force Awakens was shot at real places and it looks like it ( although I suspect the shots of Ren’s home planet, Jakku, were really shot on Tatooine). All in all, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a much better than average action movie that doesn’t quite have the DNA of the Lucas films and may be better for that. It is a thrilling ride, sometimes funny and and sometimes touching.
After two offline weeks at Michele’s family cabin in Olympic Valley – which everybody calls Squaw Valley, but is officially Olympic Valley because the Squaw Valley name was already taken by a small town in Fresno County where one can buy 5.6 acres with a well for $65,000 – we are back home. We had a good time, hosting family for Christmas and friends for New Years, but it is always good to be back in home (for Precious Mae, it is great to be back home as she spent most of her time hiding from visitors by sleeping under our bed at the cabin). We went to Reno to see a couple of movies, Star Wars in a packed house, of course, and The Big Short, in an almost empty theater, did some walking, Michele did some skiing, I did some photoing, and we both did alot of watching it snow. We also went to the Nevada Museum of Art to see a superb show on Tahoe.
Starting at the end, Michele, at the suggestion of her sister, Claudia, campaigned for a visit to the Nevada Museum of Art. It is just down the street from an Adult Fantasy Store – crazy sexy hot – in a Reno neighborhood that is an up and coming art/restaurant area. The museum was new to us and we both loved it. It had us at the Deborah Butterfield bronze horse outside.
Inside, the show was terrific (no pictures allowed), ranging from a huge 1865 Albert Bierstadt painting to Frank Lloyd Wright drawings for unbuilt – fortunately – houses on Emerald Bay. From several Maynard Dixons, including a stellar portrait of a pine, to a luminous, Thiebaud-esque, painting of Emerald Bay by Gregory Kondos, to fabulous Washoe Indian – Native American? Indigenous People? – baskets, to a collection of postcards (with a backdrop of a window overlooking the neighborhood).On the day that Michele went skiing, I wandered over to the east side of Lake Tahoe to photograph the boulders at Sand Harbor, the view from the Mt. Rose Highway, and the gloaming twilight in Martis Valley.We were at the cabin just a day short of two weeks and one of the things that sort of surprised me was the logistics of getting around. Several days the temp was in the single digits at night and in the teens during the
hottest least cold part of the day, definitely parka over light fleece weather. The problem, though, is that most places seem to keep their thermostats set at about 80° which translates to about 107° under a parka and fleece; and where does one put the gloves, and what about the hat? Watching Star Wars, I had a sizable pile of winter clothing on my lap. We fared better in The Big Short because the seats were strangely wide and the theater was almost empty. That is a pity because the movie is terrific, a perfect example of Steve Allen’s observation that comedy is tragedy plus time.
The Big Short is based on the book of the same name, written by Michael Lewis, and I thought the movie – by Adam McKay, a director whose previously best movie was Anchorman – is about the roots of the 2007-08 meltdown and several of the people who saw it coming and bet against, essentially, us. The Big Short is funny – very funny – and more informative than I expected. I was especially dazzled by Christian Bale who plays Michael Burry, a savant who sees that the numbers don’t add up. He is so different from Bruce Wayne or Irving Rosenfeld, the con man in American Hustle, that I didn’t recognize him.
As an aside, there are several scenes in The Big Short in which the camera cuts away from the action to have celebrities explain various arcane financial instruments such as Selena Gomez explaining Synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligations). It was brilliant and got me thinking how hard it must be to make an aside like that work. Quentin Tarantino made it work in inglorious Basterds in which he broke the action to explain how nitrate film is flammable, but I can’t remember another example. End aside.