Monday, January 25, 2016

Movies I Liked Best in 2015

Dear George,
We regularly go to the movies on Friday nights, and after each outing I give the movie a letter grade and place it in a rank-ordered list with past movies we’ve seen during the year.  This is sort of obsessive, but I like to keep track of stuff.  Here are my big screen favorites for 2015, along with runners-up, less favorites, and unfavorites.

My Top Twelve 

(1) Trumbo.  Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane.  In 1947 Hollywood’s top screenwriter is jailed and blacklisted for his leftwing political beliefs.  Bryan Cranston fully deserves his Oscar nomination in a film that reminds us that there were even worse times than the present in American politics.  Rotten Tomatoes: 71%; Blog: A. 
(2) Spotlight.  Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton.  The Boston Globe’s investigation of priestly pedophilia has all the feel of a mystery thriller.  Rotten Tomatoes: 97%; Blog: A. 
(3) The Danish Girl.  Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander.  Einar and Gerda’s marriage and work evolve as they navigate transgender pioneer Einar’s transformation into Lili.  Eddie Redmayne does a powerhouse job in a moving psychological study.  Rotten Tomatoes: 71%; Blog: A. 
(4) The Revenant.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy.  A frontiersman in the 1820s struggles for survival in the wilderness after being mauled by a bear.  The beauty and perils of nature, along with a gripping tale which taps into basic truths of the human condition.  Rotten Tomatoes: 80%; Blog: A. 
(5) Brooklyn.  Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson.  A young Irish immigrant navigates her way through 1950s Brooklyn, but her new life is disrupted by her past and she must choose between two worlds.  This tugs at one’s heartstrings and brings back my young adult conviction that love is pain.  Rotten Tomatoes: 98%; Blog: A-.    
(6) Bridge of Spies.  Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance.  An American attorney negotiates the release of a U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over Russia at the height of the Cold War.  A suspenseful thriller with excellent acting and cinematography.  Rotten Tomatoes: 91%; Blog: A-. 
(7) Selma.  David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery.  Despite criticisms of the accuracy of LBJ’s portrayal, this is a stirring movie which impresses the audience with the bravery and deeply felt mission of King and his associates and followers.  Rotten Tomatoes: 98%; Blog: A-.  
(8) Carol.  Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara.  An aspiring photographer develops an intimate relationship with an older woman.  A slow-moving, ethereal romance, though Cate Blanchett is a force of nature.  Rotten Tomatoes: 96%; Blog: A-.    
 (9) Mr. Turner.  Timothy Spall, Roger Ashton-Griffiths.  An exploration of the last quarter century of the great, if eccentric, British painter J.M.W. Turner's life.  A remarkable portrayal of a churlish genius, fine-tuned to Masterpiece Theater perfection.  Rotten Tomatoes: 97%; Blog: A-.     
 (10) Joy.  Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro.  A young woman rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.  Jennifer Lawrence stirs one’s heart as an inexperienced, gritty young woman pursuing her dreams in a rocky business world filled with hazards and no-goodniks.  Rotten Tomatoes: 60%; Blog: A.
(11) Room.  Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay.  After a 5-year-old boy and his mother escape from the room in which they’ve been imprisoned by a predator, the boy experiences all the joy, fear. and astonishment that the outside world brings.  Jacob Tremblay does an amazing acting job, and the treatment of the mother and son’s post-captivity psychological struggles is engrossing and sometimes painful.  Rotten Tomatoes: 96%; Blog: A-. 
(12) Clouds of Sils Maria.  Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart.  A veteran actress agrees to take part in a revival of the play that launched her career 20 years earlier.  An intelligent if esoteric discourse on aging, womanhood, generations, and the theater.  Rotten Tomatoes: 90%; Blog: A-.  


(13) Cinderella.  Lily James. Disney still knows how to do a fairy tale.  Rotten Tomatoes: 88%; Blog: A-.
(14) American Sniper.  Bradley Cooper.   War’s destructive effects on family life.  Rotten Tomatoes: 74%; Blog: A-.
(15) Far From the Madding Crowd.  Juno Temple.  A BBC-style romantic melodrama set in Victorian England. Rotten Tomatoes: 85%; Blog: A-. 
(16) Grandma.  Lily Tomlin.  Sometimes comic disturbed family relationships across three generations of women.  Rotten Tomatoes: 92%; Blog: A-.
(17) The Wrecking Crew.  Brian Wilson.  A heartfelt tribute to an amazing group of musicians.  Rotten Tomatoes: 91%; Blog: B+. 
(18) A Most Violent Year.  Oscar Isaac.  An ambitious immigrant protects his business and family against violence in 1980’s NYC.  Rotten Tomatoes: 90%; Blog: B+.
(19) Still Alice.  Julianne Moore.  Alice’s descent into Alzheimer’s elicits a lot of tears.  Rotten Tomatoes: 90%; Blog: B+.  
(20) Phoenix.  Nina Hoss.  A disfigured concentration camp survivor searches for the husband who might have betrayed her.  Rotten Tomatoes: 99%; Blog: B+.  
(21) Creed.  Michael B. Jordan.  Former champ Rocky Balboa serves as trainer and mentor to Apollo Creed’s son.  Rotten Tomatoes: 92%; Blog: B+. 
(22) Seymour: An Introduction.  Seymour Bernstein.  A beloved pianist and teacher shares insights about music and life.   Rotten Tomatoes: 100%; Blog: B.
(23) Jurassic World.  Chris Pratt.  The dinosaurs — the best ever — had Katja grabbing at my arm from start to finish.  Rotten Tomatoes: 71%; Blog: B.
(24) Iris.  Iris Apfel.  Fashion icon Iris Apfel offers optimism about life in one’s 90’s.  Rotten Tomatoes: 98%; Blog: B.

Just O.K. 

(25) Ricki and the Flash.  Meryl Streep.  Meryl rocks.   Rotten Tomatoes: 59%; Blog: B.
(26) Jimmy's Hall.  Barry Ward.  On being a Communist in 1930’s Ireland.  Rotten Tomatoes: 77%; Blog: B. 
(27) In the Heart of the Sea.  Chris Hemsworth.  Old-timey story, brand new oceanic special effects.  Rotten Tomatoes: 51%; Blog: B.
(28) Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation.  Tom Cruise.  The TV series occurred fifty years ago and this revival often feels like it.  Rotten Tomatoes: 92%; Blog:  B-.
(29) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.  Martin Freeman.  Phenomenal on battles and monsters, not so much on story line or dialogue.  Rotten Tomatoes: 61%; Blog: B-.
(30) Mr. Holmes.  Ian McKellen. Sherlock is old and doddering but gets the job done.  Rotten Tomatoes: 87%; Blog: B-.    
(31) A Little Chaos.  Kate Winslet.  Romance while building a garden in King Louis XIV's palace at Versailles (not for everybody).  Rotten Tomatoes: 39%; Blog: B-. 
(32) Woman in Gold.  Helen Mirren.  An elderly Jewish woman sets out to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis. Rotten Tomatoes: 54%; Blog: C+.
(33) The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Judi Dench, Maggie Smith.  Lots of oldies acting sweet and cute. Rotten Tomatoes: 73%; Blog: C+. 
(34) Spectre.  Daniel Craig.  James Bond returns but doesn’t bring much new with him.  Rotten Tomatoes: 64%; Blog: C+.
(35) Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Daisy Ridley.  Fine for pre-teens but not so good after age twenty or so.  Rotten Tomatoes: 93%; Blog: C+.   
(36) Taken 3.  Liam Neeson.  We learn that it’s appropriate for loving family men to destroy a few dozen people, so long as they’re Russians and ugly.  Rotten Tomatoes: 21%; Blog: C+.


(37) Trainwreck.  Amy Schumer.  I’m admittedly out of the mainstream since I didn’t find Amy funny.  Rotten Tomatoes: 85%; Blog: C.   
(38) While We're Young.  Amanda Seyfried.  I couldn’t connect with the married couples’ peccadilloes and dilemmas.    Rotten Tomatoes: 85%; Blog: C.   
(39) Irrational Man.  Joaquin Phoenix.  I almost always enjoy Woody Allen, but this offering was talky, implausible, and sometimes unpleasant.  Rotten Tomatoes: 40%; Blog: C. 
(40) The Big Short.  Christian Bale.  I appreciate the intent but I’d rather read about the economics of the housing bubble in the New York Times.  Rotten Tomatoes: 87%; Blog: C.
(41) Mad Max: Fury Road. Charlize Theron.  Can a movie with no plot, dialogue, or character development be nominated for Best Picture?  Apparently so.  Rotten Tomatoes: 97%; Blog: C-. 
(42) The Martian.  Matt Damon. I thought a high point was growing potatoes in human waste on the surface of Mars, but the rest of it seemed sort of outer-spacey to me.  Rotten Tomatoes: 93%; Blog: C-.  
(43 The Water Diviner.  Russell Crowe.  The title sounds boring and it describes the movie.  Rotten Tomatoes: 71%; Blog: C-. 
(44) The Connection.  Jean Dujardin.  A stylish 70's Marseilles crime thriller which does its best to be unthrilling.  Rotten Tomatoes: 67%; Blog: C-. 
(45) White God.  Zsofia Psotta.  (Hungarian) When her father sets her dog free on the streets, 13 year old Lili sets out to save him.  We don’t know whether to pity or be horrified by the roaming pack of dogs.  Rotten Tomatoes: 92%; Blog: C-.
(46) Pixels.  Adam Sandler.  I usually like dumb Adam Sandler movies, but this one about aliens attacking earth via video games is beyond the pale.  Rotten Tomatoes: 18%; Blog: D-.

I do notice that I’ve categorized three of the Academy’s “Best Picture” nominees among my least favorite movies of the year, i.e, The Big Short, Mad Max, and The Martian.  Perhaps this calls my judgment into question, but I’m going to stick with my choices.  Here are my personal favorites among the Academy’s nominees:  Best Picture: Spotlight; Best Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl; Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Carol; Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Big Short; Best Supporting Actress, Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl; Best Cinematography, The Revenant; Best Directing, Spotlight; Best Visual Effects, Mad Max: Fury Road; Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Room; Best Writing (Original Screenplay): Spotlight.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Cincy Ushers in the New Year*

Dear George,
Having grown up in a small town of 10,000, I’m always astonished by events that crop up in big city news.  Cincinnati’s metro area is 200 times the size of Menominee, so there are 200 times more of everything, including weird happenings.  The New Year in Cincinnati hasn’t disappointed so far.  Here are some of the un-Menominee-like events that have transpired in the Queen City in 2016’s first two weeks.  

40 Days for Cursewords.  On Jan. 5 Jaclyn (“Cutie”) Pleatner was sentenced to 40 days in jail for “telecommunications harassment”.  Two years ago Pleatner and her husband signed a contract to buy a $1.2 million home in Cincinnati’s wealthiest suburb.  However, when they learned that their upcoming next door neighbor had previously been convicted of attempted murder, they backed out of the deal.  The house seller filed suit for $350K, and, in the course of the legal proceedings, Pleatner sent e-mails to him, calling him “a real SOB” and “a despicable specimen of mankind.”   That’s telecommunications harassment, the judge ruled.  Begging for lenience, Pleater’s lawyer said being incarcerated would be very hard on her since she lives in a mansion and has never been jailed before.  The judge was unmoved.  He did, however, reduce her initial 180-day sentence to 40 days and two years probation.  It still seems like a harsh penalty for offensive language.  (Cinc. Enq., 1-6-16) 

Cincinnati is Number Eleven.  Cincinnati has a long-standing reputation for being prudish, partly because of legal battles in the 1970’s with Larry Flynt and Hustler.  On the other hand, it is the home and national headquarters of Deep Romance*, the nation’s largest purveyor of adult sex toys.  Deep Romance rated Cincinnati the eleventh sexiest city in the U.S. in 2014, based on direct sales and online orders of its products. The firm began in 1993 in the owner’s suburban basement and expanded over the years to a national business which had $138 million in sales in 2014.  Deep Romance announced last week that it had acquired one of its competitors, Passionate Soirees.*  Now the firm will have 25,000 consultants who organize parties of friends and neighbors to sell products which I cannot even mention on this family-oriented blog.  (Cin. En., 1-11-16) 

Treats for Teach.  Eddie Cochinski, age 19 and a recent Springbarrow H.S. student, pled guilty to bringing brownies laced with hashish to school and giving a brownie to one of his teachers.  A hallway camera also caught Cochinski handing out intoxicating brownies to fellow students all day long at his locker.  One of the brownies contained 1.5 ounces of hashish, more than enough to incapacitate everyone in the school but the gym coach.  (Cin. Enq., 1-13-16) 

Gun-happy Ohio.  With a long rural tradition, Ohioans are enthusiastic about guns.  Recently the Republican-dominated Ohio House passed a bill which allows concealed handguns in day care facilities, police departments, private planes, airport terminals (before going through the metal detectors), and most other public places.  The bill is now pending in the Ohio Senate.  Handguns, of course, remain banned from the statehouse because that’s where the legislators actually work.  (Cin. Enq., 12-9-15) 

Fake Guns—At Your Peril.  Police associations and departments around the state are not enthusiastic about arming the citizenry, presumably because millions of guns lead to various catastrophes.  Even fake guns aren’t good.  One recent case involved a 45-year-old white guy named Richard Trenbink who was wearing blue pajama bottoms when he attempted to rob two stores in Cincinnati’s West Side using a Daisy BB pistol.  Police located him walking along Sunset Avenue and, when he reached toward his BB pistol, killed him with a shot to the head.  The mayor commented, “If you point a gun at a cop, they are going to shoot.”  (Cin. Enq., 1-12-16) 

Bad Aim.  Guns can also cause trouble when people aren’t very good at using them.  The other day an 18-year-old named Marlin Johnson was selling marijuana to two men in his West End home when the deal went wrong.  Johnson shot up everybody in the place — the first guy, the second guy, and himself as well.  Johnson is charged with felonious assault against his two victims, but fortunately he wasn’t charged with self-shooting.  (Cin. Enq., 1-13-16)

Really Bad Driving.  Handguns aren’t the only lethal weapons in Cincinnati.  19-year-old Carli Tamera got into an argument with her husband while driving their Nissan Sentra near downtown.  She smacked him in the head and deliberately crashed their car on his passenger side into a guard rail.  The car then swerved across three lanes of the road and collided head-on with a large tree.  Thanks to air bags, the unhappy couple survived, and Mrs. Tamera is charged with felonious assault.  You hear a lot about not texting while driving, but talking can be even worse. (Cin. Enq., 1-13-16) 

Poopy Ideas.  It turns out that Cincinnati’s waste incinerator is falling apart, and it will cost a small fortune to fix it or to build a new one.  However, it would cost only half as much to build a facility that converts human waste into fertilizer that could then be used on area farms.  The converter would smell pretty awful, but it would be enclosed in an air-tight facility.  Nobody seems to have asked farmers if they want to cover their land in human poops.  (Cin. Enq., 1-15-16)

Anti-Zombie Persecution.  Jon Walker Thwarner was found guilty and sentenced to three days in jail for using a megaphone in his protest to support zombie Xmas displays.  Suburban township trustees had banned a homeowner’s zombie nativity scene in December because it supposedly violated zoning restrictions.  Thwarner staged a protest of the township’s action at the Hamilton County courthouse, using a zombie puppet and other props.  The judge said he had a right to express his opinion, but the megaphone disrupted courtroom trials.  Thwarner had been arrested earlier when he promoted the comedy act of a wheelchair-bound teenager by asking passers-by in the park if they wanted “to laugh at the crippled girl.”  (Cin. Enq., 1-6-16)

Despite all this excitement, we’re still only two weeks into the New Year.  I expect there’s a lot more to come.  

*Pseudonyms used throughout. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Dark Days

Dear George,
This is truly a dark day in Bengaldom.  Local hopes were never higher than this season.  The Bengals compiled the best winning record in team history (12-4), even after losing starting quarterback Andy Dalton to a fractured thumb.  Having failed to win a playoff game for four years in a row, fans have been not just confident of a playoff victory but have been thinking about tickets to the Super Bowl.  The only hitch was that our first-round opponent was our division nemesis and arch-rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Having tortured the Bengals for decades, the very mention of the Steelers sends shivers up one’s spine.

The  game, of course, was last night.  The Cincinnati offense, under second-year backup quarterback A.J. McCarron, was tepid for the first three quarters, and Pittsburgh led 15-0 by the start of the fourth.  Just as we’d resigned ourselves to another painful disappointment, miraculous things started to happen.  Running back Jeremy Hill plunged for a fourth quarter touchdown, and Mike Nugent added a Bengals field goal with five minutes left.  With less than two minutes in the game McCarron hit wide receiver A. J. Green with a 15-yard touchdown pass, giving the Bengals a 16-15 lead.  We leapt up and down in front of the TV, joyous and astonished that the Bengals’ 25-year playoff victory drought was coming to an end.  Then on the very next play Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict intercepted a Steeler pass, seemingly sealing a Bengals victory.  All the Bengals had to do was hold onto the ball for four plays.

As fate would have it, a Steeler defender stripped the football from Jeremy Hill’s hands on the very next play and the Steelers recovered.  Still they were pinned back at their own ten-yard line, and we remained confident the Bengals defense would prevail.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who’d left the game with a shoulder injury, returned and moved the Steelers toward midfield with a series of short dinks and dunks.  However, with barely half a minute to play Vontze Burfict smashed helmet-first into the Steeler’s star receiver’s head and was penalized fifteen yards for a vicious play.  In the ensuing melee Bengal linebacker Adam (PacMan) Jones was penalized another fifteen yards for shoving a Steeler assistant coach.  The Steelers moved thirty yards down the field on the two penalties, suddenly putting them in easy field goal range.  Their kicker kicked, the ball split the crossbars, and the dreaded Steelers won the game, 18-16, with mere seconds to go.  

Here’s what some of the commentators and principals had to say after the game:     

  • Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post Gazette sportswriter:  “The entire (Steelers) team can thank… some bone-headed stupidity by the Bengals…”  
    Marvin Lewis, Bengals head coach: “Our guys fought their tails off all year … got back and went ahead, and then destructed on ourselves — offense and defense together.  That’s disappointing.”  
    Bengals running back Jeremy Hill (whose fourth quarter fumble contributed to the loss): “It’s on me.  It’s unfortunate.” 
    Adam Jones (penalized 15 yards near the end):  “The [expletive] officials did a horrible job, the whole [expletive] game…I’m done talking to you [expletives].”  
    Vontaze Burfict (also penalized 15 yards; in response to nearly every question asked by reporters): “I don’t know.”  
    Defensive end Carlos Dunlap: "Bengals beat Bengals.”
    Bengals receiver A.J. Green: “You put in all this work for six months.  And then —  Nothing.” 

Katja and I numbingly watched all the post-game critiques we could find.  We turned off the TV about 1 a.m.  Our end of night conversation went something like this: 

K: I don't think I can be a Bengals fan anymore.
D: Me neither.  Do you think I should throw away my new Bengals sweatshirt?
K: No.  Just put it away. 
D: If I die tonight, my final wish is to be cremated.
K: Why would you die tonight?
D: A lot of people in Cincinnati are going to die tonight.  I could be one of them.
K: I don't think you’re going to die.
D:  I'm just saying, if I do die I want to be cremated.
K (who rejects the very idea of cremation):  All right, if you die I'll see that you're cremated. 
K (after a pause): If you’re cremated,  I'll mix your ashes with Mike and Duffy's.
D (enthusiastically):  Yes, yes.  That’s my final wish.  To have my ashes mixed with Mike and Duffy's.  

As it turned out, I made it through the night.  I talked to J by phone in the morning.  We decided that we would give our total allegiance to the Green Bay Packers.  That did make life more hopeful.  The Packers, though, have been really struggling on offense, and they're underdogs against the Redskins.  Just as I’m posting this, the Packer game has started.  If the Packers lose, I won’t even bother to die.  The crematorium is right down the street from our house.  I’m just going to walk down there and get in line. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Good Times at Pensacola Beach

Dear George,
Katja and I are recently back from our holiday trip to visit our family in New Orleans.  We opted to drive the 800+ miles with an overnight stop near Birmingham, AL.  Celebrating Christmas with our 7-year-old grandchildren, V and L, was exciting, and Santa came through with a bonanza of gifts.  On the day after Christmas we drove to Pensacola Beach on the Florida Gulf coast where J and K had rented a condo for five days.  We haven’t been to Florida for some time, and it was a perfect holiday vacation.  Here are some Pensacola Beach scenes.

White sands.  I enjoy beach vacations the best of all, and the Pensacola area features some of the world’s best.  The water was chilly to all except the surfers in their wetsuits, but being on the beach in December in 70-degree weather was still a great treat for us wintry Cincinnatians.    

The resort.  J and K booked a condo for our group at the Beach Club in the heart of Pensacola Beach’s entertainment district.  The Gulf was right under our balcony window, and the children enjoyed the indoor pool as well. 

The town.  Pensacola Beach was largely undeveloped until its first tourist attraction, the Casino Resort, was built in 1931.  Now it’s one of the most popular vacation destinations on the Gulf Coast.  Visitors partake of swimming, sailing, snorkeling, fishing, parasailing, and surfing.  We enjoyed the seafood restaurants every evening.       

The pier.  The longest pier on the Florida Panhandle until a few years ago, the Pensacola Beach pier stretches 1471 feet out into the Gulf of Mexico.  It’s a popular fishing spot (red fish, Mahi Mahi, mackerel, flounder, etc.), and visitors can see dolphins and manatee.  The original wooden pier was built in the 1930’s and was reconstructed with concrete pilings after hurricane damage in the 1990’s. 

The bay.  Pensacola Bay, 13 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, lies between the city of Pensacola on the mainland to the north and Pensacola Beach on the island to the south.

The fort.  Fort Pickens on the western end of Santa Rosa Island was built between 1829 and 1834 to defend Pensacola Bay and the Pensacola Navy Yard.  It was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War and remained in use through World War II.  Today it’s operated by the National Park Service.  

Pensacola.  We spent an afternoon in downtown Pensacola, browsing in the art galleries and shops.  Pensacola (pop. 51,923) is the site of the first settlement in the United States, initially established in 1559 by Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna and 1400 inhabitants.  It’s nicknamed “The City of Five Flags” due to five governments having ruled it during its history (Spain, France, Great Britain, U.S.A., and the Confederate States of America).  

The fish market.  Joe Patti’s Seafood market began in the early 1930’s when Anne and Joe Patti sold fish from their front porch in Pensacola.  From the 1960’s to the early 1990’s the Patti market served all of the seafood restaurants on the Florida and Alabama gulf coast, though the family then decided to concentrate on their retail operation.  They have a huge selection of fresh fish, and TripAdvisor rates Patti’s #2 of 609 places to eat in Pensacola. 

The aviation museum.  The National Naval Aviation Museum, established in1962, is next door to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola.  The largest museum of its kind in the world, it contains over 130 restored fighting planes from the early 1900’s through the Vietnam War and beyond, representing the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.  It includes an IMAX theater where we saw a documentary on space flight. 

The Gulf at twilight.  The seashore, of course, changes in the course of the day.  Twilight is one of the prettiest times.  

Postscript.  It’s always comforting to return home, but now we miss our sweet family.