Tom Cruise Runs a Lot, Even for Tom Cruise

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Title: Never Go Back

Rating: 3 Stars

Basically, this was a serviceable Tom Cruise action movie. It was a serviceable Jack Reacher adaptation. Since I’m a pretty huge Jack Reacher fan and Tom Cruise certainly knows his way around an action movie, it was going to be pretty hard for me not to like it. So, I did like it, but certainly it was nothing that will carry with me for any length of time.

I’m pretty much going to watch every Jack Reacher film that ever gets put out, regardless of the critical review. I’ve read all of the Jack Reacher stories and shorter stories, several of them more than once.

Since I do a lot of ‘high brow’ reading, the knee jerk reaction is to call this a guilty pleasure, because, after all, it’s a genre book (action) that follow a pretty predictable narrative arc. In all likelihood, there will be very few literature symposiums in the far (or even near) future studying the Lee Child canon. The fact is, I think the books, within the genre, are well written. They are very much paced by action and centered around one character, Jack Reacher.

Jack Reacher, although his edges have been softened over the years, is the prototypical anti-hero. He fills the space that Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name fills in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. A man with few words comes to a town where there are innocent people being terrorized in some manner by an evil influence. Although not his problem, his personal (if obscure) moral code dictates that he must step in and resolve. He does so through remorseless, brutal violence that in of itself is at best amoral. His is the classic ends justifies the means. By the end, the bad guy is dead (no trial by jury ever in his books) and peace is restored. He then continues on his nomadic adventure across America.

Reacher himself, although a man, is part of the superhero universe. Having said that, he has no super powers per se. He was never bitten by a radioactive spider. He is not Batman with some billions at his disposal and a gadget filled belt. All he has is his mind, his muscles, and his training. He is always the smartest guy in the room, at least three steps in front of everyone else. At one point, it’s mentioned that he has literally never lost a fight. All of the times as a MP serves him well as he navigates through the latest evil sinkhole that he must destroy. Now that I think about it, maybe the character of Reacher is even more like Caine from Kung Fu.

His is also a voice against the extreme capitalist consumerism running rampant in America. Infamously, all he carries is a toothbrush (now slightly enlarged to include an ATM card). He goes to a budget store and buys one outfit of cheap clothes. He wears them until they are dirty or torn. He then casts them aside and buys a new set. For someone like me that is barely a consumer, this strong independence from the trappings of our modern society sings to me.

Finally, the books are surprisingly funny, albeit in a dark, violent way. The bad guys always underestimate him. He always ultimately makes fools of them and they are always flabbergasted when this apparent indigent vagrant outsmarts them. Hilariously, one character actually calls him Sherlock Homeless.

Now, the actual movie…

The movie keeps the skeleton of the book plot. He’s been having a long running conversation with his MP CO replacement, who happens to be a woman named Taylor. Finally he decides to go up to Washington DC to visit her. Arriving, he discovers that she’s been arrested for espionage. Convinced that she’s being railroaded and is in danger, he resolves to free her.

Not only that, he discovers that a woman has filed a paternity suit against him. If true, this could put his entire way of life in jeopardy, because if he truly is the parent of this fifteen year old girl, then his code of ethics would dictate that he’d settle down and help raise her.

That is the two threads of the plot, which matches fairly closely to the book. Although it stays true to that course, it differs in fairly substantial ways.

Tom Cruise is a great action movie star. However, it appears that the movies in which he takes a very active part in developing pretty much bank on pure action, all the time. There are just very few moments of quiet time in the movies. This is a loss since, at the end of the day, Reacher’s main advantage is that he out thinks everyone. You don’t see a lot of evidence here. It is much more about who/how Reacher beats up and kills. In my opinion, this reduces much of the Reacher allure.

On the plus side, Cobie Smulders does an excellent job as Taylor.  She is strong and commanding. She is not a woman in distress. She fights fearlessly and ruthlessly. She kills a man without even a hint of remorse. This counts as diversity progress in Hollywood.

And yes, Jesus Fucking Christ, Tom Cruise does just an insane amount of running in this movie.

Bottom line is, I liked it. I was predisposed to like it. However, at the end of the day, it took what most people would consider to be kind of a dumb action novel and created an even more dumbed down movie of it.

 

 

Forensic Accountant: Man of Action

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Title: The Accountant

Rating: 2 Stars

This is probably an unfair grade. It’s very close to three stars. It just had a layer of dumbness and predictability that made me grade it lower.

Ben Affleck does a good job playing a person on the autism spectrum. In my world of IT, I’ve seen various people that occupy various places on the spectrum, and he does a respectable job capturing it.

The relationship between Affleck’s character (Christian) and Kendrick’s character (Dana) was also well done. I do have a minor quibble with the movie trope of the awkward guy that always seems to warm the heart of the pretty woman through some kind of magical awkward charm. This perpetuates a whole generation of awkward boys who think that pretty girls / women should just recognize their awkwardness and just fall into their arms. They then get angry when that doesn’t happen. Well, that really doesn’t happen in the real world. Sorry guys. You actually do have to make an effort to make yourself at least semi presentable, physically, emotionally, and socially, if you really want to attract a woman, and continue to do those things if you want a long term relationship. It’s called growing up.

One mark in its favor is that Christian and Dana never really connect. An awkward attempt is made and the movie is heading in that direction, but then events transpire and it never happens. So, at least we don’t have to enjoy the socially awkward caterpillar transformed into a charismatic butterfly because of the love of a woman.

Now on to the silliness. Christian’s father apparently thought that the best way to deal with someone on the autism spectrum is to teach him exotic ways to fight, so the guy with with mad math skills is also apparently a ninja and a sharpshooter.  OK.

Christian has a brother named Brandon that is not on the spectrum. The two brothers go through the same 1970’s Kung Fu fighting ritual. Apparently, Brandon becomes some kind of tough guy hired gun to do dirty work. Of course, it makes perfect sense that the guy that Christian has a beef with just happens to have hired Brandon for protection. Of course, in true American fashion, the two brothers must work out their sibling issues via murder, mayhem, and destruction.

Another plot line relies upon J.K. Simmons playing a treasury agent named King. Some years ago, King crossed paths with Christian as Christian was committing a vengeful mass murder. Because King said that he was a good dad, Christian let him live (?!). Not only that, but apparently because he was a good dad, Christian would occasionally feed him crime tips so that King has by now become a legend in his field. He’s apparently now months away from retirement and wants to capture Christian (?!).  Or thank him? Or pass the baton to some random agent he’s brought on board? I have no idea what the point of that sub-plot was other than to add filler to the run-time.

So, yes, maybe this is a movie that aspired to be more. At times, it tries to be suspenseful. At times, it tries to be humorous. At times, it tries to preach on accepting those that aren’t neurotypical. At times, it’s about familial relationships. At times, it’s almost a romantic comedy.

Mostly, it’s a hot mess. I take it back. It’s a legitimate 2 star. There is another odd little plot line involving a Jackson Pollock painting. Maybe that painting is what this movie is equivalent to.

A Grim Foray into Desolation

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Title: The Man with the Golden Arm

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a beautifully rendered but an absolutely brutal read. It is an unblinkingly stark account of a man’s descent into addiction and suicide.

The main character is Frankie Machine. He is a card dealer extraordinaire.  He is fast, accurate, and always serves with a steady hand. He is the man with the golden arm.

He was wounded in WWII, and developed an addiction to morphine while being treated and recovering from it.  At the beginning of the novel, his addiction is fairly under control and is living what passes for a normal life.

But what a normal life it is. Although he has dreams of abandoning his card dealing job and becoming a drummer, he is trapped in his life. He’s married to Sophie, who has a blind love for him but knows that he does not return the intense love. Early in their marriage Frankie and Sophie get drunk. While drunk, Frankie drives them into a telephone pole. Sophie pretends to be paralyzed so that Frank, now wallowing in guilt at the accident, will never leave her. As she spends more time in the chair, she becomes more demanding and leaves Frankie in despair.

His best friend, Sparrow, is a low life criminal who barely survives as a dog thief and a steerer, someone who cajoles people into joining the card game.

Things look up for Frankie when he falls in love with Molly, a friend from his childhood. With their love for each other, Frankie is able to kick his habit. However, a shoplifting deal goes bad with Sparrow, leaving Frankie in the lurch. Frankie spends time in prison and loses touch with Molly upon his parole.

Out of prison, without Molly, he descends again into addiction. He accidentally kills his drug supplier. He abandons his relationship with Sparrow and his downward spiral begins for real.

He reunites temporarily with Molly, who is on a pattern of descent herself and is now a stripper. Together, they again manage to get Frankie off drugs. However, the police are closing in on Frankie for the murder. Desperate, he escapes them, and realizing there is no ultimate escape, he hangs himself.

This is not a happy story. All characters are lower class people in a desperate struggle to survive. The drunks are subject to the bar owner. The bar owner is subject to the police. The police are subject from orders from above. All characters are just surviving. No characters seek a destiny. Destiny has assigned them a slot and their only role is existing within it. It is a bleak description of the life led by those that so few of us read, write, or even think about.

This novel has echoes to me both to the past and to the future. In terms of classic naturalism, this reminds me of Zola’s Germinal. Like Germinal, it is a merciless description of the struggle and ultimate futility of living a lower class life. It makes a mockery of any thought of anyone actually successfully escaping it.

It also reminded me of some of the 1970’s films, like Taxi Driver, or Joe. Again, there is just a bleak, desolate realism here that just sucks hope away.

So, although excellently written and an important work, this was not easy to read. It took me several weeks to finish it. I would pick it up, read a few pages, get depressed, and set it down. Rinse and repeat.

A Peace To End Peace

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Title: To End All Wars

Rating: 5 Stars

I kind of have an obsession with World War I. It’s fascinating to me on many levels.

Why did it even start? Oh sure, I understand that the Archduke was assassinated, which caused Austria to threaten Serbia, which caused Russia to back Serbia, which caused Germany to back Austria, which France to back Russia, and so on. But still, when you read about it, you get the sense that no one actually expected it to happen. Everyone was expecting that some sane person would come along with a proposal or a plan that would allow parties to gracefully exit.

The events quickly moved out of anyone’s control. Once armies started mobilizing, it was done. Armies were on such strict timetables that once started, the machine quite literally could not be turned off.

Four empires were destroyed by the war. There was of course the German Empire and the Kaiser. They were the young ‘uns. The other three, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman, were all hundreds of years old. In four short years, hundreds of years of European history were rewritten.

This truly marked the beginning of the twentieth century. From WWI, governments muscled up to immense size to deal with the demands of total war. Mass industrialization scaled up to feed and arm millions. The quiet pastoral nineteenth century was gone forever.

To End All Wars focused on two responses to WWI. First of all, there is the militarization. For historians, this is pretty well known material, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. You have incompetent generals who, in the year 1914, after having seen how the new era of machine guns decimated infantry in the Boer War and other wars in Africa, somehow seemed to believe that horse cavalry attacks would somehow make the difference in this war and that infantry rushes by doomed men wearing red trousers would somehow fight their way through murdering cross fire just due to their elan. In hindsight, it is fucking insane and actually infuriating. US Grant was considered the butcher of the Civil War, but Douglas Haig makes him look like Buddha. Many hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives due to generals incapable of adjusting to a new reality.

Many horrible firsts were initiated during the war. Among many, there was the first flamethrower, the first use of poisonous gas, and the first tanks.

A couple of facts provide some context to the uselessness of this war. In 1915, after a brutal battle lasting many months and costing hundreds of thousands of casualties, the allied forces reclaimed a total of 8 out of 19,500 miles. Secondly, the very first and the very last English casualties of the war are buried within yards of each other.

On the other side are the pacifists. Some of these are truly heartbreaking. You have the socialist leaders, forswearing all war, claiming universal brotherhood, and then you watch their heart break as their union brothers, caught up in war fever, broke ranks, joined the army, and proceeded to murder each other for reasons that really aren’t clear today.

On a personal level, you have the story of John French and Charlotte Gespard. They were brother and sister. French was the head of the British Expeditionary Forces at the start of WWI. Gespard was a noted suffragette and an ardent pacifist during the war. Interestingly enough, this conflict did not affect their relationship. However, when French became head of the government in Ireland and ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion, Gespard, a strong support of Irish self rule, broke with her brother and never saw him again.

Many other stories are told. This is just a wonderful book that lays out the horrendous impact that WWI had on both the soldiers that fought it and the civilians that fought against it.

 

Yet Another Thompson Mind Fuck

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Title: The Getaway

Rating: 4 Stars

Jim Thompson is a strange writer. He wrote in such a conventional space: pulp crime fiction. It’s a genre where you were paid like a penny a word or some such ridiculous amount. You were not rewarded for creativity or uniqueness; it was all about quantity of output. I’m reminded of L. Ron Hubbard when he first started out. He was paid some similar pittance. He sat at his typewriter and just pounded out hundreds of science fiction novels, most of which are completely ignored today.

Thompson was different. His stories definitely fit his selected genre. They were quick paced, ultra violent, and featured amoral characters with a brutally realist nihilistic world view. They were relatively short books that he could pound out in about a month.

Within that genre, he stands apart. Killer Inside Me is the the story of a monstrous serial killer told in the first person by the killer himself. He narrates literally to his death.The Grifters has a pretty overt incestuous theme running throughout it.

The Getaway is equal to those in originality. The novel starts off conventionally. There is a criminal mastermind, Doc, recently paroled, who organizes a bank robbery. He partner, Rudy, does the heavy lifting. Doc’s wife, Carol, is responsible for the getaway.

In the aftermath of the successful robbery, there is a cross and a double cross. Doc shoots Rudy, leaving him apparently dead, and Doc makes his escape with Carol.

They are trying to make it to Mexico. However, the police is hot on their trail. Unbeknownst to them, Rudy is not dead. He is also trying to hunt them down.

As they crisscross the country they encounter various tight situations. Doc, always cool under pressure and willing to take desperate violent action, saves them repeatedly. There is a final shootout where Roy ends up truly dead.

At this point, the novel takes a turn for the weird.

They can no longer escape on their own. A local crime matriarch, Ma Santis, flags them down and offers to help. They end up hiding in a claustrophobic stone cave and later, in a dung heap. Finally, they get on a boat, and after another violent encounter, end up in Mexico.

There they stay at a place known as the Kingdom of El Rey. They stay at a first class accommodation and pay first class prices. The deal with El Rey is that everyone can stay as long as they can pay. Once the money is gone, then El Rey exiles you to a guarded town where no food is allowed in. The inhabitants of the town survive by cannibalism. Since no one has infinite money, the fate for pretty much everyone in El Rey is suicide, murder, or to descend into cannibalism and ultimately become food for the remaining cannibals.

When a couple comes to El Rey, ultimately one or the other arranges for the other to be killed so that the survivor can last longer. By the end of the novel both Doc and Carol have tried to kill each other and have failed. They grimly await their fate.

The ending is completely different in spirit from the rest of the book. I read an interestingly analysis where when Doc and Carol were hiding in the small stone cave, that was their grave. When they were in the dung heap, surrounded by flies and worms, that was their bodies decomposing. When they were on the boat, that was them crossing the river Styx. I would guess that would mean El Rey is their ultimate descent to hell.

It’s interesting and I can almost buy it. Regardless, this is another case of a Thompson pulp fiction work that has managed to outlive similar genre works by decades.

Some Things Can’t Be Unseen

So, this happened to me a while ago.  To provide context, please read this link. It’s important that you read it.  I’ll wait.  Go ahead.

Welcome back.

I’d first read that link many years ago. I found it pretty amusing. Because I run on treadmills, do weights, play racquetball, and things like that, I’ve spent many hours in the gym, so I’ve seen all kinds of interesting behavior.

My personal favorite continues to be the guy that came in carrying his exercise clothes in a KFC bucket. If this had happened in downtown Seattle, where I live, I would have just assumed that this was a clever hipster making some subtle comment regarding the intersection of obese fast food America with the fitness obsessed, let’s spend an hour on a stair climber America. But no, this was at an LA Fitness in Renton, which, by civil ordinance, does not allow hipsters to reside within city limits. This was probably just a guy that looked at his relatively small pile of exercise clothes and a leftover fast food dinner and made a connection.

However, I’d never seen any man standing naked in front of a blow dryer, drying off his balls.

Until now…

What makes this even worse was that this was at the local Boeing fitness center. I go there most mornings to either do weights or to run on the treadmill. I think that I’d just finished a run and taken a shower. The shower area at this fitness center is nice in that each shower has kind of an enclosed area for changing. Therefore, you can take your clothes off, hang them up, take your shower, and change into your clothes without ever having to expose your naughty bits to the community at large. This is nice because,  I guess I’m a prude, I don’t really relish sharing naked space with someone that shortly you might be standing in front of giving a PowerPoint presentation to. I realize that to alleviate nervousness while public speaking that people recommend visualizing your audience naked, but I have no need to be able to do so with such absolute anatomical accuracy.

So, all dressed and properly attired, I step out of my shower cubicle. I turn to my right, and what do I see, but a naked co-worker in front of a hand dryer. Before I could turn away in horror, he turns it on and thrusts his groin upward to maximize the heat. He then grabs a hand towel, places it over his genitalia, and proceeds to rub extremely vigorously. I’m talking so vigorously that I was half expecting to start seeing smoke.  I’m talking so vigorously that I wasn’t exactly sure if maybe this was veering off into an act that I really didn’t want to be a witness to.

I make a somewhat desperate move to extricate myself from the situation. He sees me (and he does knows me), and he gives me a zero fucks look and continues his absolutely thorough drying process.

Now, I’m not going to give the name of this person because I know that with such a heavily read blog as mine that it will inevitably get back to him, but I will say his last name is Forrest.

I hastily ran up to the third floor, where I work. There, in desperation, shock and horror, I explained to my co-workers what I had just witnessed. There was no way that I could keep this crime against humanity to myself.

As I was breathlessly describing the horror of it all, my friend, Wes, turned to me and said, “So you’re saying that you couldn’t see the Forrest for the tree?”.

Well played sir. Well played.

Another Dose of Ska Relief

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Title: Skatoberfest

Venue: Highline

I hadn’t gone to a concert for a long time, so I felt I was due. The Highline was hosting another ska festival, which I pretty much always love, so off I went. I always find it hilarious that the cover charge is $7, the club holds maybe a couple of hundred people, there are six bands, and the average ska band has about eight members.  No one is getting rich tonight!

I missed the first act and came in when Curtis Irie was playing. I had some hopes because Irie (the word) is Jamaican patois after all, but no, it was a one white guy playing an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. He clearly is a talented musician, capably playing both melody and bass lines simultaneously on the guitar (maybe that’s easy to do, but it always blows my mind when someone does it). However, despite his last name, he is way more Bob Dylan than he is Bob Marley. Some of his songs had ska like influences, but it was pretty folk and in at least one song, was outright blues. A good musician, but probably did not belong on the bill.

Next up was Heavy City. This was much more what I expected.  There were eight people on stage (two guitars, one bass, two saxes, a drummer, and a female lead singer). With that many people, the members were barely able to move on the stage.

They played much more traditional ska music.  They certainly had a signature sound. That’s basically a polite way of saying that their original compositions actually all kind of sounded alike. Where they got creative, interesting enough, was in their covers. They did a cover of an Ike and Tina song and an old Spinners song that was interesting when interpreted within the prism of their own sound.

Finally, they managed to step upon a pet peeve of mine. One song featured a flute. There is just no place for a flute in any rock oriented band, especially one that plays several other loud instruments. In the ska context, a flute just sounds like some little wispy voice trying to make itself heard against an ocean roar. Yes, I know about Jethro Tull, but no more flute!

The other band that I listened to was Natalie Wouldn’t. This was another band with a very traditional ska lineup (Trumpet, trombone, two saxes, a drummer, a bass, and two guitars). This group was clearly heads and shoulders tighter than the previous two acts. This was in your face, fun, get up and start skanking kind of music. And people did. For really the first time that night, the dance floor was shaking and I saw the sheer joy that ska inspires.

Interestingly enough, except for the female lead, every other person on stage for the three bands that I saw were white males. A huge percentage of them were either white males in hats or bald white males. It seemed like the average age of the band members was 35 to 45, which might make sense if you think of third wave ska as cresting in the mid 90’s. These are middle aged men with day jobs that are reliving the favorite music of their young adulthood.

Regardless, as always, I left the concert smiling.  No one is allowed to be down at a ska concert!

 

Not Your Father’s Western

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Title: The Magnificent Seven

Rating: 4 Stars

I came in with modest expectations. I’m not a huge fan of westerns and I honestly didn’t see the point of it. Was the original The Magnificent Seven somehow lacking (or for that matter, the Seven Samurai that it was based upon)?

And the answer, surprisingly enough, is yes. Antoine Fuqua managed to create a western that is relevant to our current times while staying true to the spirit both of westerns in general as well as The Magnificent Seven specifically.

First of all, the cast is diverse.  Of the seven, there is an Asian character, actually played by an Asian actor. There is a Mexican character, actually played by a Mexican actor. There is a Comanche character, actually played by a Native American.  And, of course, the lead is Denzel Washington. So, of the seven, only three are white men.  Even more shocking, the ethnic actors are not the first ones to die. In fact, some even survive to the end!

Similarly, previous westerns have the women playing some combination of helpmate, mother, or victim. Here, there is a strong female lead who actually instigates the formation of the seven, and during the climatic battle scenes, is right alongside the men firing her weapon.

In the original The Magnificent Seven (as well as Seven Samurai), the enemies were literal bandits. Here, the banditry, although still evil and deadly, is more of a metaphorical variety. An evil robber baron that is head of a corporation is terrorizing a small town because they happen to be situated where there are huge coal reserves. He kills some and threatens all as he attempts to buy the town’s interest on the cheap. This has resonance today to people today feeling threatened by faceless, monolithic corporations that can ruin a small city simply by deciding to move manufacturing overseas to save costs. This is truly a nemesis that many people today can relate to.

As the seven prepare to fight, they temporarily shut down the mining operation, which is being run by overseers and workers are being worked in near slave conditions. After being freed, the workers are encouraged to join the town people, who are primarily farmers, to help defend their town. To join the working poor with the agrarian poor has been a longstanding, heretofore unfulfilled dream of organizers for well over a century.

And guess what? Even with all of that PC multicultural diversity, it still follows the western pattern and is still an exciting movie.  Would any of us have trouble recognizing the following story arc:

  • A stranger is enlisted to save a town
  • The towns people, most of them untrained in defense, band together, under the stranger’s leadership, to bravely defend their interests
  • The bad guys are really bad shots (they have a Gatling gun for fuck’s sake), while the good guys simply cannot miss
  • Man, revolvers must hold a lot of bullets
  • The character who seems the most self interested ultimately is the one that makes the largest sacrifice
  • The cowardly character sneaks off in the middle of the night but comes back at the last minute to brave the final stand
  • Upon saving a town, to a chorus of tearful thanks, the stranger rides off

And it all works! I was caught up during the action sequences and I was tearful during the emotional scenes. Regardless of the ethnicity of the character, if the character was sympathetic, I cared about him (or her).

In case there was any doubt, this should lay to rest that great, entertaining, traditional movies can be made while acknowledging the reality of our world today.