Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Thoughts on the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J. J. Abrams):
  1. It was highly entertaining and thoroughly satisfying.
  2. It captures the spirit of the original.
  3. The special effects are impressive and seamlessly integrated.
  4. The two young protagonists—Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are compelling figures who give the piece energy and interest even in the presence of the iconic characters from the 1977 original.
  5. Some portions of the film drag, especially in the first half.
  6. In plot, the new film follows the original.  This is not necessarily a flaw.  The story of a young and lonely figure struggling to survive on a desert planet who discovers that she has an important place in a greater scheme is archetypal.  It’s a coming of age story.  In The Force Awakens we have two characters finding their place in a greater scheme.
  7. How many Death Stars remain to be blown up? How many sleazy alien bars could there be?
  8. The pilots of the Tie fighters mostly no longer look like Radio Shack employees.
  9. Cute robots grow tiresome.
  10. Whatever people might say about the physical appearance of Princess Leia or Hans Solo, they look pretty much as you would expect nearly 38 years after we first met them.  Ford effectively and convincingly carries off his role—he really acts—not something you can always say of him in some of his recent films.  Carrie Fisher struggles a bit.
  11. The film is well suited for 3-D.
  12. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the film’s successor to Darth Vader, comes across as a disaffected bad-boy teen.  No doubt he does much damage and is evil enough, but in the end he is more irritating than fearsome.
  13. This film, more than the others, considers what it means to be an individual living in an oppressive regime.  For the first time we glimpse a Storm trooper’s inner life.  In its portrayal of the brutal and terroristic tactics of the First Order, for which Kylo Ren is a commander, the film seems to invite comparison with political situations and figures within our own world.
  14. Lupita Nyong'o plays my favorite secondary character, Maz Kanata.
  15. I would have preferred less of the original John Williams score and more of the new music he composed for the film.  However, the music remains a key and distinctive element.

Thunderstruck, by Erik Larsen

Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen (Crown, 2006) interweaves the stories of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic pharmacist and doctor, with Enrico Marconi, the inventor of the radio.  Though these individuals never met, their tales intersect in a seminal moment, perhaps the first such moment, that illustrates the galvanizing power of media in the human world.  Crippen’s story is a miserable one.  Regarded by everyone as meek and mild-mannered, he apparently murdered his flamboyant and overbearing wife, removed the bones from her body, removed her head, and buried what was left underneath his house.  His motive was, we can assume, to free himself of an unhappy marriage so that he could be with a young woman with whom he had fallen in love.  Persistent detective work by a Scotland Yard inspector brings out the truth.
Others besides Marconi were working to develop a way to communicate by electromagnetic waves.  But no one was so persistent as Marconi, who through hours and years of experimentation succeeded in developing the first successful wireless communication system.  In Thunderstruck Larsen describes how Marconi tries to prove the utility of his invention by sending Morse code messages over the Atlantic Ocean.  Marconi himself believed it was possible to do this, even though he also knew that because radio waves move in straight lines the curvature of the earth should have prevented it from happening.  When he did succeed in sending a transatlantic message, he wasn’t sure why it worked (the reflection of radio waves off the ionosphere provide the explanation). Marconi’s story is more interesting than that of the miserable Dr. Crippen.
The seminal moment comes when Dr. Crippen and his lover try to escape from England in a ship headed towards America.  Unknown to him, chief inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard learns what he is trying to do and communicates with the ship’s captain.  Messages fly back and forth as Inspector Dew on a faster ship tries to reach Canada first to be able to arrest Crippen.  His attempt to outwit Crippen is communicated by wireless all over the western world and widely reported in newspapers.  Everyone follows the developing events (except Crippen).  It’s one of those moments in media that punctuate the 20th-century: from Edward R. Murrow’s World War II broadcasts from England, to the moon landing, to O. J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, to the Gulf War broadcasts, to the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Everyone was watching.  The Whole World Was Watching, or in this case listening.
Such moments have had a major impact on reducing and leveling out cultural differences and gaps across the world.
Dr. Crippen was hanged.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making a Murderer

I watched the ten-part documentary Making a Murderer (2015; dirs. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) within the span of a weekend.  I felt compelled to watch each episode, even as I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the depiction of the murder and the trials that followed.  First, the series was too long.  It could have been compressed.  Second, the series is told from the perspective of the Avery family, and we see relatively little from the perspective of the family of the young woman who was murdered, Teresa Halbach. There’s a lack of balance. In fact, the series led me to believe (perhaps this was not its intent) that Avery might have been guilty.  Finally, the series ends unresolved—Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey remain in prison, still pursuing without success various lines of appeal.
Frankly, if the intent was to convince us that Avery and his nephew were innocent, I don’t think this documentary succeeds.  At best, it leaves us uncertain, although it leaves strong doubts about the guilt of Brendan Dassey, who was sixteen at the time of the murder and who was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The documentary does succeed in demonstrating that the quality of justice one receives is directly tied to the economic status of the accused, and to the availability of good lawyers.  It shows the helplessness of the accused when incompetent or dishonest law enforcement work against them. Steve Avery in the early 1980s was sentenced of beating and raping a woman.  The documentary demonstrates convincingly that he was framed by the local police and prosecutor. His family had a bad reputation in the community, was regarded as poor and shiftless, as outsiders.  He’s a convenient scapegoat. He spends 18 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerates him.  Released from prison, for a short time he becomes a public symbol of how weaknesses in the legal system can leads to unjust convictions.  Then he’s arrested again, this time for raping, killing, and incinerating a young woman.  This time the evidence appears to be more definite. Avery uses money received from a settlement with the state for the unjust conviction to hire two excellent lawyers to represent him.  As good as they seem to be, they can’t convince the local jury that their client is innocent.  Perhaps they err in arguing that evidence central to the case—a key, and blood found in the victim’s car—was planted by local police. It’s possible members of the jury, all from the local community, didn’t like their policemen being accused of corruption.  It does seem likely the key was planted.  It was not found until the seventh time Avery’s home was searched. The argument that the blood evidence was planted seems less convincing). Avery presents himself as a reasonable and affable man, and in the many recorded phone conversations used in the documentary, he never comes across as anything other than an innocent victim of police bias and malfeasance. However, other evidence (such as the victim’s bone fragments recovered from a fire-pit on his property, and her vehicle, recovered from the auto junkyard he owns), suggest his guilt. There may be a darker side to Avery, a murderous side, but the filmmakers don’t show it.
The documentary implies that the factors leading to Avery’s conviction had little to do with guilt or innocence, and more to do with poverty, the family’s reputation in the community, and Avery’s previous difficulties with the police. 
More clearly outrageous is the case of the 16-year old nephew Brandon Dassey.  He’s described as barely functional, with an IQ of 70 and a verbal IQ of 67.  When the police first question him, he’s hardly able to communicate.  He doesn’t understand what they ask him, doesn’t understand basic vocabulary (“inconsistent,” for example), doesn’t understand why they are questioning him.  The detectives lie to him, ask pointed questions, bully and pressure him, suggest that he won’t go to jail if he tells the truth (that is, the story they want to hear), he implicates himself.  His court-appointed lawyer is not present when he is questioned by the police without his presence, encourages him to take a plea deal, and basically connives with the police to convince the boy to tell a story that will make him a prime witness against his uncle.  An interrogator hired by the defense attorney bullies the boy into confessing. The boy gives three or four different versions of the story, ultimately insisting that he has nothing to do with the crime.  He’s a helpless, pathetic, manipulated victim of corrupt police and a dishonest defense attorney.  He’s the victim of a legal system that is biased against the poor and biased in favor of law enforcement officials even when allegations of corruption or incompetence are involved.
It’s quite possible Dassey was guilty.  But his guilt is not demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.  It’s possible his uncle manipulated him into helping with the crime or at least with covering it up.   It’s also possible, perhaps likely, he was innocent. 
The documentary uses recorded video testimony from the trials and from interrogations of Dassey, audio recordings of phone conversations and of courtroom transcripts.  Many individuals are interviewed, especially members of the Avery family.  The documentary generates an intriguing sense of place, of setting, of atmosphere.  It offers vivid portraits (some of them one-sided) of the principal figures involved.  It tells a disturbing story. It doesn’t convince us of the innocence of Avery and Dassey.  It does convince us of the egregious shortcomings in the law enforcement and legal system that convicted them.

Given the apparent unwillingness of prosecutors and grand juries to indict policemen who shoot young black men in, at best, questionable circumstances, or who commit other actions that lead to their deaths, this documentary has particular relevance.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Martian

Andy Weir’s 2015 novel was an interesting fictional account of how an astronaut stranded on Mars might struggle to survive, using his scientific knowledge and training.  A major flaw in the story was the relative absence of an inner perspective.  The novel recounts the various solutions that the astronaut, Mark Watney, devises to overcome the problems that face him.  But it doesn’t tell us about his inner feelings: what is it like to wake up and discover that one’s companions have fled the planet; how the utter isolation, the lack of companionship, the desolation of the Martian landscape makes one feel?  It’s as remarkable that Watney doesn’t lose his mind as it is that he manages to survive, to preserve his physical existence.  Maybe the fact that he had to stay busy trying to save himself is the answer.  He had no time for inner emotions, no time to contemplate his situation.  Or maybe he is just one of those people who doesn’t need or even notice the absence of human companionship.  The novel didn’t satisfy my need to know more about the astronaut’s perspective on his situation.
The 2015 film adaptation (dir. Ridley Scott) of the novel at least partially addresses this issue.  It gives us some sense of how Watney regards his situation.  Yet even in the film he’s clearly the kind of self-reliant individual who takes solace in action and motion, who uses his mind and training to try to save himself, who doesn’t abandon himself to despair.
There’s a clear connection between the film and Apollo 13 (1995, dir. Ron Howard), about the three lunar astronauts who use ingenuity and resourcefulness to save themselves when an explosion virtually disables their spacecraft on the way to the moon.  Like Watney, they decide to “science the shit out of this.”  Much of the fascination of Watney’s story, both in the novel and the film, is following his efforts to do just that. Like the novel, the film limits itself to what is scientifically plausible—at least, I didn’t notice if it violated that principle.

The film seems well made in every sense.  It’s effectively edited.  It employs a cast of effective actors.  Matt Damon is very good in the role of Watney.  Cinematography is a major strength in the film.  The Martian landscape looks absolutely real.  Undoubtedly the filmmakers took good advantage of years of photography of Mars by rovers and satellites.  The shots of vast expanses of Martian landscape, contrasted against Watney’s tiny outpost in the red deserts, make us feel his isolation.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mad Max: Thunder Road

I’d heard so many positive comments about Mad Max: Thunder Road (2015; dir. George Miller) that I came to the film with great hopes of, at least, an entertaining two hours.  It showed up on a number of high profile "Best Films of 2015" lists. How could I lose?  It was a dismal time.  
There is a plot here, tenuous enough that you hardly notice it.  It is a plausible justification for what actually occupies the screen for most of the film’s duration: huge trucks powering across dusty, empty red deserts at high rates of speed.  Occasionally there are human refugees left over from whatever apocalypse destroyed the world.  They have all reverted to the kind of savagery we see in Lord of the Flies, or in Mr. Kurtz’s “unspeakable rites” of Heart of Darkness.  A few of these remaining savage humans are somewhat less benighted than the others.  They are our heroes. Furious driving, bomb blasts, bullets, and ingenious Rube Goldberg engines of destruction abound.  So do bizarre costumes and facial makeup.  And, inexplicably, there are diaphanously clad vestal virgins, the future consorts of the evil villain who’s only slightly more evil than everyone else.  What a snore. 
Paucity of gasoline seems to be an issue.  Yet in transporting precious gasoline back and forth across the deserts, our characters expend incredible amounts of it in their speedy trucks.   What a snore. 
Mad Max is the apocalypse as a 14-year old’s wet dream cartoon nightmare. My favorite elements of the film were the names of the main characters: Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, while Charlize Theron, hardly recognizable, is Imperator Furiosa.  The evil villain is Rictus Erectus.  Happy days are here again.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Underground Man, by Ross McDonald

Ross MacDonald has a considerable reputation as a mid-twentieth century mystery novelist, the creator of the private detective Lew Archer.  His actual name was Kenneth Millar.  I’ve been reading his correspondence with Eudora Welty, which came as a complete surprise to me.  It’s an intense and passionate correspondence, almost like the correspondence of lovers, which McDonald and Welty never were, except perhaps on paper.  They both professed a strong admiration for one another’s work.  Welty reviewed McDonald’s novel The Underground Man (1971) for the New York Times and praised it.  Because there are few writers I regard as highly as I do Welty, I decided to read McDonald’s novel.
One of the most unusual characteristics of the novel, narrated by its main character, Lew Archer, is how invisible the narrator seems.  He describes what is happening, what he does, and why, whom he is talking to, what they do, how events transpire, but he does it in a strangely passionless way.  He’s hardly present.  His personality is never really evident.  We learn a few bits of information about him—he lives alone, for example, he was once married, he feels sympathy for young people in the early 1970s of Southern California who have gone off the rail because of drugs.  But for the most part he is, as the main character, completely absent.  Even when a woman he is interviewing, a woman whom he describes as “well built,” throws off her robe and offers to have sex with him, it’s as if he isn’t there. He declines the offer.  I compared him in my head with Philip Marlowe, who’s being so thoroughly infuses the tone and narrative of Raymond Chandler’s novels--there’s no comparison.  McDonald is more reserved and removed from his subject than Chandler is from his, but at the cost of indifference.
The narrative revolves around two murders, the disappearance of a young child who is probably in the company of a teenage girl whose parents believe she is perfect but who for various reasons turns out to be less than.  Archer methodically works his way towards finding the child and unraveling the mystery of the murders.  There are no big surprises, no gotcha moments, one event simply follows another.  Perhaps it is the reader’s interest that gathers momentum.
Brush fires burn in and around the setting of the novel.  Archer is constantly thinking about and alluding to them.  The fires signify something—but it’s not mystery or passion.  Maybe its evil, the sin that underlies the kidnapping of the boy and the troubled life of the girl who is with him.  Maybe it’s his underlying assessment of the culture and the times.  But the fires evoke a troubling, unsettling atmosphere, as if at any moment they might change direction and move towards the town and engulf everything.  It’s California as a kind of modern hell.
Another motif is suggested in the title.  The novel moves towards uncovering the mysteries beneath the lives of its characters, unknown, hidden information that gradually comes to light.
I didn’t really care when the novel was over.  It’s dated, I guess. So am I.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Killing Lessons: A Novel, by Saul Black

A review described the serial killer at the center of The Killing Lessons: A Novel, by Saul Black (St. Martin’s Press, 2015) as more brilliant than any other of his kind.  Instead he turned out to be fairly typical--bright, sly, demented, and crafty--in the end a basic serial killer, the kind who happens along far more often in literature than in real life. 
The book begins with a warm description of her mother and two children, who are living in isolation in the north woods.  We see the mother and her son and her daughter in various poses replete with human detail.  The entire point of this exposition is to prepare us for the moment when the serial killer and his accomplice arrive.  It’s clear they mean to kill and torment and that their real victim is the mother.  There’s something incredibly gruesome about such an approach—convincing us to like the victims and then slaughtering the victims.  It invites us to participate in a form of perverse voyeurism.  The little girl escapes, and throughout the novel her efforts to avoid the killer becomes a continuing plotline.  So too does the effort of Valerie Hart, a detective who’s been trying to identify and capture the killer for years.  She has her own distinct pathology, along with an unknown adversary, and a tendency towards rash behavior that cause her increasingly complicated problems as she moves towards identifying the killer.  This novel is written well enough.  It’s entertaining, and the prose style and characterizations are above average.  Its plot is, however, fairly ordinary.  Ordinariness doesn’t prevent it from succeeding as an entertainment, but it does prevent it from rising above itself.
Saul Black is a pseudonym for Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf, a book which works better than this one.