Mobius Strip

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Title: Predestination

Rating: 4 Stars

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This question is asked in the movie, and ultimately, is its theme.

This is the plot:

  • A child is abandoned at an orphanage
  • The child grows up to become a young woman
  • The young woman (Jane) meets a man and they fall in love
  • The man disappears, and the woman later discovers herself to be pregnant
  • The woman gives birth and the child is later snatched
  • As she’s giving birth, the doctors discover that she’s an hermaphrodite
  • Due to her difficult birth, the doctors begin to transition her to a man (John)
  • Now a man, John tells his story to a bartender
  • As they are talking, there are television reports of a bomber known as the fizzle bomber

Kind of a complicated plot, but survivable right?

OK, now factor in that every single character that is mentioned above is the same person. I’m not talking a clone. I’m talking literally one time traveling human being that makes all of this happen.

The child abandoned is the snatched child. The transitioned man time travels to meet and fall in love with the pre-transitioned woman, and they get pregnant. The transitioned man becomes horribly burned and is given facial reconstructive surgery and becomes the bartender. The bartender later meets and kills the fizzle bomber.

The mother, the father, the child, the bartender, and the bomber, all the same person. From a time travel perspective, it’s a perfectly closed loop. Within this loop, the person is born and the person dies.

Is your mind fucked yet?

This is really a very intelligent movie or an incredibly silly movie, probably depending upon how much alcohol is in your blood stream.

First of all, the title, predestination.This is the Christian ideology that all actions are preordained by God (think Calvinism). Within this closed loop, all must occur exactly as transpires. If any action does not happen, then the loop closes within itself. There are references throughout the movie regarding how much free will actually exists. Within this world, there is none.

Even in a movie as carefully constructed as this, there are holes:

  • Once Jane transitions to John, she looks into the mirror. In that mirror, wouldn’t Jane recognize her long lost lover John?
  • The bartender kills the Fizzle Bomber at a dry cleaner. Wouldn’t the bomber know that the bartender is there at that precise moment (since he presumably killed the Fizzle Bomber himself when he was the bartender)?

I could go on. There are multiple pages out there that discuss the paradoxes / time line explanations. The fact that I’m obsessing over this movie 24 hours after I’ve seen it is a pretty good sign that it’s a good, totally unexpected movie that left me delightfully surprised.

 

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Come Back

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Title: Atonement

Rating: 5 Stars

Briony is a immature, romantic, artistic young girl with a vivid imagination. She witnesses what she thinks is brutish behavior by Robbie, the son of her family’s maid, towards his sister, Cecilia. Later, she willfully misconstrues a situation to falsely accuse Robbie of rape. Robbie is convicted and is sent to jail. He’s released from jail to serve in the looming WWII, where he is part of the Dunkirk evacuation. Cecilia, who is mutually in love with Robbie, has abandoned the family to become a nurse. Briony, now haunted by the guilt of her actions, has become a nurse trainee. This is the story of Briony’s atonement for her actions.

This started off strangely. I found myself repeatedly checking when this was written. It was written in 2001. The first hundred or so pages felt like a Henry James novel. The characters are all so sensitive and well bred, almost to the point of sterility. They occupy the rarefied age of English privilege, where working for your own living is considered beneath you. What’s important is what you read, who you listen to, and if you’re a woman, who you’re going to marry. This part was set in 1935. Even in 1935, this would have to have been a dying world. It felt odd to me to be reading a book from this century that channeled James’ characters and world so stylistically.

It then seemed to morph more into the psychological nuances emanating out of the choices that the English upper crust make that is more reminiscent of E.M. Forster.

In the second part, set in Dunkirk, and in the third part, set in London right after the Dunkirk evacuation, McEwan seems to break free of this construct and is writing what appears to be a more modern novel. Could this have been intentional? Certainly, the start of WWII marks the final end of whatever the equivalent of the English Belle Epoque was. The change to a more realistic style could very well have been adopted to mark this change.

After a somewhat stylistically bewildering start, Atonement unfolds wonderfully. The struggles of Briony trying to become useful in this world and Robbie grimly trying to survive and get back to England for the sole purpose of reuniting with Cecilia are gripping tales.

In the works that I’ve read, it is so difficult to end a novel well. How do you, in one image or one scene, manage to pull together all of the threads that is winding through a novel?

McEwan absolutely nails it. I can think of few other novels where the ending is exactly right in style, form, and plot. A few examples that I can think of is The Age of Innocence, The Crossing (which, even now, thinking about it, nearly wrecks me), and bizarrely enough, McTeague, a middling novel with an absolutely brilliant ending.

I would place Atonement’s ending right up with them. It’s an ending that I’ll never forget and earns it my highest rating.

Gidget Meet Sybill

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Title: Psycho Beach Party

Rating: 4 Stars

This was held at the Eclectic Theater. It’s a nondescript little theater lacking a marquee. It wasn’t obvious where it was until I walked in front of it. It’s a small theater, probably seating less than a hundred.

It was a wonderful play. You need go into it aware that you won’t be receiving deep existential knowledge of the human condition. If you want to see a high-camp, screw-ball comedy, this is the perfect vehicle.

Chicklet is a surfer girl wanna-be. She’s young, on the cusp of growing up. She’s interested in boys but does not really know what to do with them. She wants to surf but the surfer dudes have no interest in teaching a girl how to surf. She most enjoys hanging out with her gawky best friend to discuss literature and philosophy.

However, all is not well at home for Chicklet. Her mom is a devotee of the Joan Crawford school of maternity, complete with coat hanger. That, along with some childhood repressed memories, has made Chicklet manifest many personalities, including a sultry one that has sexually enslaved the head surfer dude.

Throw in a movie star, sick of making cinematic schlock, on the run.

Throw in a couple of surfer dudes gradually coming to the realization of their love for each other.

Throw in a seemingly dopey surfer dude who wants to escape the drudgery of studying to be a psychiatrist so that he can ride the waves but ends up saving the day by helping Chicklet.

Throw in a sex-obsessed surfer girl trying to land herself a surfer dude.

Throw in the fact that this is a LGBTQ theater, so there are several roles performed in drag.

Mix that all together and you have a madcap frenzy of chaos. Some jokes work. Some don’t. There’s occasional lags in the action. There’s a false ending (seemingly inadvertent).

However, all in all, there were more than enough laughs and silliness to make this a very entertaining night.

On the Run in Dublin

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Title: The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley

Rating: 5 Stars

This one barely got the 5 stars because the ending was a slight cop-out (although totally understandable).

The main character, unsurprisingly enough, is named Paddy Buckley. He’s a career undertaker whose wife / unborn child died a couple of years ago. He’s in a fog of grief. He works to live and lives to work.

A couple of things bring this to a crashing end. He has a fling with a recent widow that dies during the act. He covers up for another funeral home’s mistake and nearly gets caught. These two things endanger his career.

Driving home, he accidentally runs over and kills a man, who turns out to be a mob boss’ brother. Buckley in turn must then arrange the funeral of the brother, while desperately hoping that he’s not discovered by the revenge obsessed mobster. This endangers his life.

And, oh yeah, he falls in love with the widow’s daughter, helping to clear his fog of grief.

All of that is a lot to take in.  Unlikely as it sounds, Massey manages to pull it all off. Paddy Buckley is an immensely sympathetic character that you root for, even as you’re dreading the end of the book and all that its title implies. Vincent Cullen is your prototypical charming murderous criminal kingpin.

The book movies at a furious pace. This was one of those books where you quite literally stay up late reading just one more chapter.

For what it is, it’s one of the best examples of this genre that I’ve read in a very long time.

I see from the author bio that he’s a third generation undertaken from Dublin. This is his debut novel. I’m now morbidly curious what he will do for a follow-up. Is this the beginnings of a brand new sub-genre, the Irish undertaker organized crime thriller?

A Sport I’m in Training For

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I wasn’t sure how to categorize this.  I guess it was a concert, kind of…?

Be that as it may, about a month ago, I saw a playbill posted on a telephone pole advertising the Seattle qualifier for the US Air Guitar Championship. This, I had to see.

First of all, for those uninitiated, this is a thing. There are qualifier competitions that feed into regional competitions that feed into a national competition that ultimately feeds into a worldwide competition, held (of course!) in Oulu Finland (and no I’m not making that up).

Part of the US Air Guitar Championship mission statement (again, I’m not making this up) includes the following:

In a time when US political, economic, military and athletic dominance faces unprecedented challenges around the world, it is our belief that air guitar represents one endeavor our country can dominate without controversy. US Air Guitar is here to make this possible.

Part of the World Championships mission statement includes the following:

According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.

Man, if only Bernie could figure out a way to integrate his beliefs with air guitar, we might achieve a true utopia.

Back to the actual event…Since the tickets were $7 and it was happening at a place called the Lo-Fi Performance Gallery, I was not expecting much.

South Lake Union used to be a seriously run-down part of Seattle. Paul Allen basically bought it, Amazon moved in, and it’s been Seattle’s finest example of out of control gentrification ever since. However, there are still tiny little pockets where the old character shines through.

The Lo-Fi is definitely a prime exhibit of this. It’s perfectly fine. It has a tiny bar, a couple of video games, an empty room with a small stage, and a balcony overlooking the stage that maybe can seat 20 people.

The first thing that I notice when I walk in is that Ronald McDonald is walking around, although it’s a Ronald McDonald who has probably done a little too much meth and has been homeless for at least a couple of weeks. I later look up and I see him in the balcony, with a woman dressed up like a little girl bouncing up and down in his lap.

It was supposed to start at 8:30. I ended up there around 9.  I didn’t need to worry because the show didn’t start until 10.  By the time 10 rolled around, there might have been, I’m guessing, between 100 to 150 in the crowd.

Where do I start? There were about 10 contestants. They each get to choose a 60 second set of music to choose from. To figure out their order of appearance, they pull numbers out of an empty PBR case. There are three judges. Each judge gives a score between 4.0 and 6.0 (like figure skating, of course!).

Much to my surprise, the dissolute Ronald McDonald is actually one of the judges. He’s apparently a local celebrity on the Seattle Semi-Pro Wrestling circuit (?!). You can find him on youTube rapping the song “Keep Abortion Awesome”. His name is (and, for the last time, I’m not making this up), Ronald McFondle. The woman dressed up as a little girl, of whom I just noticed is also wearing white pancake makeup, is introduced as Diddles the Clown.

The emcee, Tony Tapatio, is an experienced air guitarist himself. He performed at the nationals in 2011 (available on youTube) and was apparently formerly the lead singer of an air band (?!) named Airpocalypse. He’s definitely got the party in the back mullet and possibly missing teeth, but he’s actually hilarious as he ushers contestants on and off the stage. Equally funny, as each judge scores each contestant, they comment (freely), and occasionally, relevantly, about the performance that they just witnessed.

The contestants themselves.

The cream of the crop was Eddie Van Glam (?!), who before his performance apparently swallowed a mouthful of fake blood, which he then spewed into the audience midway through. Eddie is not a small man. Near the end of his act, he does a full front flip, lands heavily on his back (THUD!), and then, on his back, completed his set spinning in circles, jamming away on his air guitar.

A fairly elegantly dressed woman did an awesome Prince tribute. Other performers did AC/DC, Motorhead, and Metallica.

Not the cream of the crop but the most interesting appearance was by a man billed as Oral Sex Robert. He performed without a shirt. He was completely covered in tattoos, front and back, with total black-out sleeves on both forearms. He at one point had worn gages but had removed them and let ear lobes droop. They were now dangling about 6 inches down from his ear. At the bottom of each, he placed a pirate gold earring. I was expecting a stronger performance from him, but alas was rather pedestrian.

Bottom line, it was punk rock entertainment at its finest. This is exactly the kind of thing that you want to see when you pay a $7 cover charge at a dive bar.

I need to start practicing now.

The Safe Guys

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Title: The Nice Guys

Rating: 3 Stars

I like intricately plotted crime movies. I like comedy. I liked the previews. I grew up in the 1970’s (when the movie was set). I was set to love the movie, but at the end, …meh…

It wasn’t bad. There were several scenes that made me laugh. There was good chemistry between Jackson (Russell Crowe) and Holland (Ryan Gosling). Holly (Angourie Rice), who played Gosling’s daughter, was also very good.

My main problem was the lack of subtlety. It was pretty obvious who the ‘bad guy’ was. There was the usual many thousands of rounds fired impossibly from one gun that miraculously manages to always miss our heroes. Somewhere on the cutting room floor they must have made some more use of the fact that Holland does not have a sense of sense other than to give him a reason for his pathos. Although both Jackson and Holland behave at various times in amoral if not immoral ways, the film always makes clear that they both have a ‘good heart’.

Overall, it just gave off a sense of being a safe, main-stream, big studio movie. Within that narrow spectrum, it was fine. I was entertained. I felt no desire to demand my money back.

However, with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling both in good form, and with Shane Black as the director (he also directed the awesome Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (an awesome buddy / crime movie) and wrote two of my unexpected happy surprises, The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Last Action Hero), it could have been and should have been so much more.

Forget it, Jake, It’s Hell

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Title: The Devil’s Detective

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a standard story of an detective investigating a murder. The murderer is deviously clever, there is a bureaucracy that hinders the detective (Thomas Fool) at every step. Friends of his are murdered. He is nearly murdered and ends up severely injured several times (but never not quite enough to stop him). There are people that give him dubious help with hidden motives. Of course, there is the final battle to the death where justice triumphs.

The tweak on the formula, as you might have guessed by the title, is that all of this takes place in Hell.

This is not your father’s Hell (or even Dante’s). Dante’s Hell, with its circles and people eternally damned to certain, specific, horrific punishment fitting their sin in life, is long a thing of the past. It is beyond the memory of anyone still in Hell, with only dim long lost folk tales and rotting edifices of architecture still remaining.

Now, Hell is a place of small hope. People now come into Hell having no idea of what they did in their previous life to deserve being in Hell, so they have no idea how to redeem themselves. Inhabitants of Hell are very occasionally, apparently randomly elevated to Hell. Therefore, the inhabitants, although knowing they have no chance, gather at these Elevations, with just a glimmer of hope that amid the sea of lost souls, they will be selected.

People fall in love in Hell, but must conceal it because they know that it will be taken from them. Of course, all is known in Hell, so it will be taken from them. Fool secretly enjoys his job, so all efforts are made to make his job as hopeless and miserable as possible.

This is an interesting notion.

When people think of Hell, it’s usually thought of as a static place (very much like Dante). You are punished according to your sin and you spend eternity being punished.

However, the human condition is that eventually we get inured to everything. Punishment, no matter how severe, over time, will become something we grow accustomed to.

Therefore, to truly eternally punish a sinner, Hell itself must occasionally change. The current iteration of Hell cruelly plays on the inability of people to give up hope, thus eternally punishing them by quashing that hope.

It’s clear that this is now played out. The sinners have become inured to having their hopes crushed. Hell is due for another change. This need for change is the invisible force that is propelling Fool in his investigations. It’s clear that, by the end, his investigation, through his unknowing efforts, is bringing about this new Hell which will bring fresh new misery, thus punishments, to the denizens of Hell.

Although I found the plot itself pedestrian and the description of Hell to grow repetitive over time, I found this perspective on Hell and how it must adapt to eternity a refreshing, provoking idea.

Sweaty Men Grappling

I was watching UFC the other day.

One of my friends, a woman, does not really like watching it, but her husband watches it regularly. She likes to annoy him by saying things like…”Is it time for man-love?”

Which is really kind of funny, because, let’s face it, most of the action involves two men in a very tight embrace, passionately grappling, faces usually inches apart. If you close your eyes and listen to the broadcasters, you’ll hear phrases like:  top mount, rear mount, side mount, reverse mount, north/south position, submission, ground and pound, and my personal favorite, the rear naked choke.

Seriously, can it be that UFC is basically a practical joke on teenage boys put on by a cabal of gay men?

This wouldn’t be the first time.  In the 70’s, when I was a child, the Village People used to appear on main stream variety shows all the time.  I remember watching them on The Mike Douglas show and The Merv Griffin show, both of which broadcast straight into America’s heartland.  They were staid, upright shows that all of a sudden would feature a band of fetish costumed men singing about the YMCA and the joys of being in the navy (there is no need to wait / they’re signing up new seaman fast).

Of course, let’s not forget Judas Priest.  I grew up in a heavy metal town full of teenage thugs in leather jackets and long hair (for the full dose, watch the movie “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”, which is basically a documentary of my life when I was 17 years old; watching it over twenty years later for the first time, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry).

To a man, these toughs worshiped Judas Priest, specifically Rob Halford.  Many years later, when Rob…um…came out…as a flamboyantly gay man, I sometimes wonder how many of those now aging, but still quite possibly terribly insecure men committed ritualistic seppuku, or even better, started re-thinking their own up to then over-compensatory sexuality?

And don’t even get me started on the movie 300.

If years from now, Dana White publicly announces his devotion to the love that dare not speak its name, I for one will stand up and salute him, and then fall down laughing my ass off that one more time, the macho, conservative, God-fearing part of America got suckered in one more time.

Godfather – The Russian Version

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Title: Eastern Promises

Rating: 4 Stars

I watched this when it first came out in 2007. I was going to see the The Nice Guys tonight, but it was sold out, so I went home, saw that this was in my Amazon movie list, and decided to give it a shot.

I remember enjoying it and it has held very well. It is an extremely well made organized crime movie, with the focus this time being on Russian gangs in London.

The major characters:

  • The elderly leader of the gang (Semyon) loves his family, is friends with all, is unfailingly polite, and is an absolutely murderous monster.
  • Semyon’s son (Kirill) bears the crown prince title uncomfortably. He’s a dissolute drunk that embarrasses his father. He wields what power he has wildly. He wants to make his father proud but has no idea how.
  • Nikolai is the son Semyon wishes he had. The quiet chauffeur quietly and efficiently does whatever is asked of him and gains the respect of Semyon. However, Nikolai has ambitions to run the gang himself and seeks to betray Semyon (who in turn betrays Nikolai). On an even deeper level, he’s actually an agent of the FSB working with Scotland Yard to infiltrate the gang.
  • The innocent midwife (Anna) inadvertently gets involved by helping to give birth to a child of an underage teenager that Semyon impregnates. Knowing that this can bring him down, Semyon tries to stop this information from getting out.

All of this unfolds in a suspenseful, compelling manner. I remember at the time that it came under pretty severe criticism for the graphic violence that takes place in it (particularly the naked sauna scene where Nikolai has to fight off two Chechen hit men armed with linoleum knives). There are certainly violent scenes. Not only are the scenes violent, but you sense the desperate struggle for survival that make them seem disturbingly realistic as you watch them.

Not surprisingly, there are several elements from The Godfather apparent. There is the party scene (in this case an 100 year old woman’s birthday), where the family all joyfully gather around while Semyon lovingly plays the role of the patriarch. There is the tension arising from the generational passing of the torch between Semyon and Kirill. There is the innocent woman (Anna) not quite believing the bloodthirsty nature of the family that she’s meeting. There is even a bit of the tension of the adopted outsider child (Nikolai) uncomfortably being enmeshed into the family.

And, oh yeah, there is a large amount of graphic violence propping up this seemingly innocent family business.

 

Meet the New Boss

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Title: Cartel Land

Rating: 4 Stars

This documentary tells the story of two thematically related stories of vigilantes fighting against the drug cartels.

One takes place near the border in Arizona. The leader is a person who has had a hard life, has made some mistakes, and has found his calling, which is trying to interdict the drugs coming into his little corner of the border.

This was less interesting to me. On a personal level, I can understand his desire to do good. It just seems like such a quixotic quest guaranteed to fail. It was simply hard to take his rag tag collection of people and treat them in any way seriously, despite their uniforms, weapons, and radios.

The more interesting story is on the other side of border (way on the other side, deep in the Michoacan part of Mexico). That state appears to have been taken over by the cartel.

One man, a doctor, decides to make a difference. He raises a group of men, they come up with whatever weapons they can muster, and they take over a town and kick out the cartel (the Templars). The town greets them as liberators.

They secure this town and go after the next town. And the next. And the next. Soon, they have a good chunk of the state liberated from the cartel. In each town, the leader, Dr Mireles, tells the town that the Autodefensas are there to help, but it is the people’s town and they need to control it. He asks for volunteers to join him, of which there are many.

In one unbelievable scene, the federal police come to confiscate the weapons from the Autodefensas. The church bell is rung, and the townspeople, equipped with sticks and other crude weapons, descend upon the authorities in defense of the Autodefensas. In the face of such an uprising, the authorities back down and return the weapons.

Dr Mireles is shown relaxing as an attentive, loving husband and father.

He then gets into a mysterious plane crash that leaves him seriously injured. In the aftermath, his right hand man (with the unlikely but utterly appropriate nickname Papa Smurf) tries to lead. Under his leadership, the discipline disintegrates. People from the Autodefensas steal from houses, they abuse their authority, and alienate the locals. In one scene, Papa Smurf is effectively shouted down in a town square meeting by the townspeople.

It also comes out that one of the other leaders in the Autodefensas is himself a member of the Templars. Several other members of the Templars have infiltrated them. In one of the final scenes, a meth cook casually mentions that money from drug sales are used to buy weapons used by the Autodefensas.

Dr Mireles tries to come back. He himself is now shown to be a tarnished figure. In front of cameras, he blatantly starts an affair with a woman half his age. In one aside, he pretty clearly orders the execution of a suspected cartel member. He fights to regain control of Autodefensas but ultimately he loses and the Autodefensas is brought under the authority of the federal government as a Rural Defense Force, with all of the possibilities of official corruption now available.

Dr Mirelese ends up on the run, in fear of his life. In a note at the end, it is mentioned that he has been arrested and is incarcerated in a federal facility.

This tragedy shows the possibly impossible difficulty of trying to bring justice to a country that has really never known civil justice. A power rises up to free the people, but the actual acquisition of the power ends up itself corrupting.

The leader on the Arizona border talks about how all it takes to break a cycle is someone to actually act to break it. The story of the Autodefensas shows how hard that really is to do.