Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Quiet American -- Two Films Worth Watching

This week flipping channels I landed (as I frequently do) on TMC, which was showing the 1958 film The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene's novel. Filmed mostly in Vietnam, the movie was written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and starred Audie Murphy, Michael Redgrave, and Giorgia Moll.

Watching it prompted me to go to Netflix and rewatch the 2002 film, a much more true-to-the-book version starring Michael Caine, Brandon Frasier and Do Thi Hai Yen.

Both movies, as is the book, are set in 1952 Vietnam in the waning days of French rule as Ho Chi Minh and his communist forces move toward victory. The films present an interesting look at a view of global politics in southeast Asia, one from a  movie made before the Vietnam War, and the other made afterward. 

The 1958 movie is good. It is probably one of Audie Murphy's best performances, and Mankowitz created an interesting plot twist, though by doing so, he sanitized Greene's story into an American view of the world at the height of the Cold War and the Domino Theory. 

The 2002 movie is more richly textured. It features an Oscar-nominated (and deservedly so) performance by Michael Caine as a jaundiced aging British reporter trying to hold on to his relationship with a young Vietnamese girl. Brandon Frasier is the quiet American, a CIA operative posing as an economic development attache'.  

If you are going to see only one of these movies, the 2002 version is the one to see. It captures Graham Greene's view, even in 1955, that questioned the morality and wisdom of American involvement in Vietnam, and his ultimate outlook that no matter who emerged from the Americans / Communist conflict, it would be the Vietnamese people who lost. 

In these days when some belicose politicians keep wanting to send young Americans to spill blood in every hot spot around the world, it is well worth two hours to watch the 2002 version of The Quiet American.

Besides, Michael Caine is superb, and it's just a damn good movie. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

2016 Milo Awards for Best Movie



The Golden Globes have been awarded. Oscar nominations have been released. But now it's time for the awards that really count -- my annual Milo Awards for Best Movies, Actors, Directors and Songs.

This year there are six movies that really standout for me -- and another 10 or so that are truly outstanding.  There is no common theme other than that they are engaging and well-crafted. 

Note:  I have seen most of this year's notable movies, but there are a few that are not included because I have not seen them, among them: Room, The Danish Girl, Steve Jobs, Trumbo and Anamolisa.

Here are my Milo Award winners:  

BEST MOVIES (Top 20)


Winner:  The Big Short  --  This film about the 2008 financial crisis takes a topic that is almost incomprehensible, and not only explains it, but thanks to incredible writing, acting and directing, makes it a remarkably gripping and entertaining movie. Steve Carell and Christian Bale turn in remarkable performances.

2.  Brooklyn -- This is the way romance movies should be made -- It's not just a boy/girl romance. The movie tells the story of an immigrant Irish girl in the early 1950s torn between her family and a known life of some comfort back in Ireland, and a life of uncertainty but unrestrained promise among strangers in Brooklyn. It's a choice between looking back and looking forward. This is tour de force by Saoirse Ronan, who is simply spellbinding, and deft directing by John Crowley who knows how to use Saoirse Ronan's eyes to tell a story.

3.  Bridge of Spies  -- This is storytelling at its best, an evocative and compelling story of the tension-filled years at the height of the Cold War. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are at their best. So is Mark Rylance as the multi-faceted Russian spy at the center of events. Based on a true story.

4.  Carol -- This too is a love story, but one between two women trapped in the world of 1950s New York. Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara are outstanding in this deeply textured movie. The uncredited star of this movie is 1950s New York City. The only down side of this movie is the lack of joy at any point in any relationship.

5.  Ex Machina -- Original. Suspenseful. Provocative. The best science fiction film in the past dozen years. Can't say more for fear of spoiling it. Just make sure you watch it.

6.  Beasts of No Nation -- This is a brutal unforgettable film that follows a young boy caught up in the indecipherable political violence of central Africa. Idris Elba is the rebel commander and Abraham Attah is Abu, the boy whose family is killed by government troops. They were snubbed by the major awards, but their performances are griping. After his village is decimated, Abu wonders into a rebel camp where he is transformed into a soldier willing to kill on demand. But beneath the violence, he still remains a boy, and there is some hope in that. Streaming now on Netflix.

7. The Revenant -- I know this won the Golden Globe for Best Drama. I put it this high on my list largely because of the performances by Leonardo DeCaprio and Tom Hardy. It is a well-made movie. But unlike t many movies on this list, I really don't have a desire to see it again.

8. Creed -- Oh no! Someone trying to milk one more movie out of the tired Rocky series. That's what I thought. But good reviews convinced me to go see it. And I was blown away. This is a reboot that is better than any movie in the series except the original -- and it even gives the original Rocky a run for its money. Sylvester Stallone delivers the best performance of his career, and young Michael B. Jordan is outstanding.

9.  Mad Max: Fury Road -- Another surprise for me. I didn't like the Mel Gibson original Mad Max movies -- except for Tina Turner. But this update drew me in from the start. It is well written, well paced, and the acting is top notch. 

10.  Spotlight -- Perhaps the best inside journalism movie since All The President's Men some 40 years ago.  It is the newspaper equivalent of a police procedural. Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo lead an excellent cast. But whether it's because we all know the end, or because we don't feel a real fear that the Catholic Church will hire a hitman to do away with the reporters to keep its secrets, the movie lacks a bit of tension.

11.  The Martian -- This is Apollo 13 meets Castaway. Matt Damon does a great job of injecting a bit of believable humor into his dire situation. But did we really think we were going to sit through a 2+ hour movie only to have the guy who was on camera 90% of the time die in the end?

12.  Tangerine -- This movie got a lot of publicity for being entirely filmed with an iPhone. But it deserved attention for far more than this technical oddity. A transgender prostitute is released from jail on Christmas Eve, and spends the day seeking out her cab driver / pimp who has cheated on her while she was in jail. Meanwhile, the cabby is trying to keep his secret life from his family and particularly a disbelieving snooping mother-in-law from the old country. It is a slice of street life, with fascinating characters that take you through a range of emotions from sadness, to anger, to isolation. It also includes perhaps the funniest scene of any movie I've seen this year.  Streaming now on Netflix.

13.  Trainwreck -- Rude, crude and pee-your-pants funny. I'm not a big fan of comedies, but the struggles of Amy Schumer's flawed character clicked with me.

14.  Star Wars: The Force Awakens -- The biggest money-maker in film history takes its place as a deserving part of the Star Wars legend. But tell the truth -- didn't it seem like you had seen this movie before a long time ago in a theater far far away?

15.  The Walk -- Having already seen the award-winning documentary Man on Wire about this same event, I wondered if it would hold my attention. It did. Warning:  If you have vertigo, this may not be the best movie for you. I actually flinched at one point when he was on the wire -- something I never do in theaters.

16.  Spectre -- I know that reviews of this last and perhaps final installment of the Daniel Craig version of James Bond didn't set critics on fire. But I really liked this, particularly as a concluding segment to Craig's Bond. For those of us who have been Bond fans since the beginning, and have a love affair with the character as created by Ian Fleming in the books and Sean Connery in the movies, this was a nice way to wrap things up -- until the next Bond comes along.

17.  Man from UNCLE  -- This was one of the most delightful surprises of this year. Those in charge wisely elected to keep the movie set in the 1960s, as was the original television series. The action is fun and exciting, and unlike all the Mission Impossible movies, the plot is not so convoluted as to defy understanding. This is just plain old movie fun.

18.  Mr. HolmesIan McKellen brings to life an elderly Sherlock Holmes after WWII, now concerned with his failing intellect, and being looked after by a housekeeper and her son. It's a movie more about aging and regrets than solving a mystery, although that is there, too.

19.  Far From the Madding Crowd  -- This is like a richly woven tapestry. A wonderful version of the Thomas Hardy classic. Carey Mulligan and Tom Sturride play the star-crossed loves who cannot cross the societal barrier into being lovers. 

20. Dark Places -- This second movie made from Gyllian Flynn's books far outpaces Gone Girl. The story centers on a girl who was the sole witness and only survivor of a family massacre for which her brother was convicted. Now an adult and in need of money, she turns to a group that has an unhealthy interest in sensational crimes. The movie is very true to the book, and Charlize Theron's performance is riveting. 

Other movies of note:  Paddington,  Inside Out, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, A Walk in the Woods

Most Disappointing Movie of the Year:

Joy -- Okay, I know it got a Golden Globe Nomination and Jennifer Lawrence won the award for Best Actress (Musical or Comedy).  But there was no joy in this movie, outside of Bradley Cooper's performance. The script was nonsensical. 

Worst Movie of the Year:

Sicario -- A lot of critics liked this for some reason. But the entire scenario just didn't make sense. Is the CIA really going to take along an FBI agent as a witness when it sets up a plan to start assassinating people, including families? Is the CIA going to stand by while a rogue criminal threatens to kill an FBI agent? One word comes to mind:  contrived.

Best actor:
Winner:  Leonardo DiCaprio -- The Revenant
Tom Hanks - Bridge of Spies
Matt Damon - The Martian
Michael B. Jordan - Creed
Steve Carell - The Big Short
Abraham Attah - Beasts of No Nation

Best actress -- 
Winner:  Saoirse Ronan - Brooklyn
Cate Blanchette - Carol
Amy Schumer - Trainwreck
Charlize Theron - Dark Places / Mad Max

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez - Tangerine


Best supporting actor -- 
Winner:  Sylvester Stallone - Creed
Mark Rylance - Bridge of Spies
Tom Hardy - The Revenant
Christian Bale - The Big Short
Idris Elba - Beasts of No Nation
Nick Nolte -- A Walk in the Woods

Best Supporting Actress:
Winner:  Rooney Mara - Carol
Alicia Vikander - Ex Machina
Mary Steenburgen - A Walk in the Woods
Olivia Cook - Me and Earl and the Dying 

Best Supporting Actor (Non-Human):
The Bear -- The Relevant

Best Cameo:
LeBron James - Trainwreck (He was VERY funny)

Best Director:
John Crowley - Brooklyn
Alejandro G. Iñárritu - The Revenant
Todd Haynes -- Carol
Adam McKay -- The Big Short
Alex Garland -- Ex Machina

Best Song:
Winner:  See You Again  - Furious 7 (Inexplicably not even nominated for Oscar)
Writing's on the Wall (Sam Smith) - Spectre (Likely Oscar winner)
Love Me Like You Do (Ellie Goulding) - Fifty Shades of Grey
Til It Happens To You (Lady Gaga) - The Hunting Ground”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Colts Are (Rhymes With "Lucked") -- But Not Yet

That sound you hear is the thumping of people jumping off the Colt's bandwagon. 

Yes, Colts, a team picked by many to be in the Super Bowl, are 0-2, and worse, they look awful. The vaunted basketball-on-grass offense looks more like poop on your lawn. The offensive line looks like a chef demonstrating a sieve on the Food Channel. And the word heard most often after Colt passes rhymes with Luck, but isn't.  



But the good news -- The Colts are still in the hunt for the AFC South Division championship. That puts them in the playoffs.

Despite an early season win, the Titans and Jags don't strike fear in anyone. And the Texans have already benched one starting quarterback, and just seem lost. 

It's hard to imagine the Colts not winning the AFC South. So that means that IF the Horseshoe can play decent at all, they are in the playoffs. And IF they can get the offense righted and the defensive backfield healthy, they could make a playoff run. 

That is, unless they get beat by division rival Tennessee this Sunday. Then truly they are . . . rhymes with Lucked. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Price of Indycar Racing -- #PrayersforJustin

Indycar driver Justin Wilson - Photo by Stephen Terrell
Ernest Hemingway wrote, "There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games."  And of all the forms of auto racing, the most spectacular, the most dangerous, is open wheel racing.  

Participants know this. Devoted fans know this. It is the cruel truth of the sport. And no matter how much safety is improved -- no matter how new designs, materials and technology make it possible for drivers to survive the seeming unsurvivable -- the sport can bite.  And it can bite again.

And it does so without concern as to who are the good guys, who is quick to laugh, who always has a smile and a comment for waiting fans, or maybe most disturbingly of all, who has incredible racing skill. In 2011, it happened to Dan Wheldon, a 2-time Indy 500 champion and perhaps the sports most popular driver both with fans and fellow drivers.

Racing fans care, and care deeply, about the men and women who risk their lives at speed. And when something happens, like happened Sunday to driver Justin Wilson near the end of the Pocono 500 Indycar race, it just saps something from you.

Sage Karem, the brash and talented young gun driving for Chip Ganassi, was leading the race. Exiting turn 1 at 210 miles per hour, his car snapped around and hit almost head on into the outside "safer barrier" wall. Even by Indycar standards, it was a particularly violent crash at an sharp angle. You could tell from the race announcers' voices that they were concerned for Karem's well-being. 

It took a while for Karem to get out of the car. He had to sit for a few minutes before walking with a bit of a limp to the waiting ambulance. But clearly he was not in danger.

But there was a second car involved. Justin Wilson's car never made contact with Karem, but he crashed into the inside wall and came to a stop. Casually watching, it seemed maybe he ran over some debris that may have damaged his tires and suspension, not an unusual occurrence in all forms of racing. Emergency crews were quickly on the scene, and it became apparent from their actions that this was not routine -- that something more serious was involved.

On replays, it became obvious that the nosecone from Karem's car had flown into Wilson's path. He had no time to react. Traveling at over 200 mph, Wilson hit the large piece of bodywork with direct impact in the cockpit, likely with Wilson's helmet.

It was a fluke. A devastating happenstance. 

The force of this impact is evident in the video. After hitting Wilson, the nosecone flew high into the air, perhaps 100 feet above the track. Such are the physics and forces of physical bodies colliding at more than 100 yards per second. 

Wilson was airlifted to a nearby hospital in a coma and in critical condition with a severe head injury. It has happened to other drivers. James Hinchcliff was hit with a flying piece off of Justin Wilson's car at the innaugual Grand Prix of Indianapolis and missed qualifying  for the Indianapolis 500 due to a concussion. Grand Prix driver Phillipe Massa was hit in the helmet by a spring dropped from the car in front of him at the Hungarian Grand Prix. He was knocked unconscious. Both recovered and raced again.

But Wilson collided with a bigger piece of debris at a much higher speed. So as Indianapolis Star racing reporter Curt Cavin wrote, "Now we wait."

I met Justin Wilson in 2014 at the annual Burger Bash on the Friday night before the Indianapolis 500. He is well over 6 feet tall, much taller than any other Indycar driver. He has a warm smile and is quick to laugh. He has an easy engaging way with fans, enhanced by the charm of his British accent -- a throwback to those who remember Graham Hill charming Indycar fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But make no mistake. He is an incredibly gifted driver with a burning desire to win -- something he has done seven times in Indycars. When he joined the Andretti racing team at mid-season this year, the Andretti stable of drivers was suffering through perhaps its worst Indycar seasons. But Wilson joined the team, lending his expertise on car setup, and the fortunes turned. Almost overnight, the Andretti team was again competitive.  Wilson finished second at Mid-Ohio and former Indy 500 winner & Indycar champion Ryan Hunter-Raey, who was having a miserable season, suddenly won two races, including Sunday at Pocono. 

So now the Indycar drivers and crews will pack up and head west to Sonoma, California for the season ending race. It is what racers have done since the earliest days of the sport. It is what racers will always do. But that does not mean their thoughts and hearts, and those of Indycar fans, will not remain in a Pennsylvania hospital room.

#PrayersforJustin

Note: Hours after this was originally posted, it was announced that Justin Wilson died from his injuries. Thoughts and prayers are with his family and many friends.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Reflections in Shadows Past



I recently attended the 45th Anniversary Class Reunion of my high school graduation class -- Muncie Central High School, Class of 1970.  Even though the class has reunions ever five years, it was the first time I attended. I thought maybe it was time.  Maybe I could put to rest some of those long ago ghosts from a high school experience that was, at best, a very unhappy time.
The reunion resulted in a surprising swirl of emotions -- some good, some not so good, some so multi-faceted that they are taking a while to digest.  In the end, this reflection about more about me than my classmates and the reunion itself.
To understand nearly anything, you have to start at the beginning.
I grew up on the east side of Muncie, the youngest of seven born to older parents (father 52, mother 45). My dad worked at Chevrolet and had a third grade education. By the time I started high school, he had retired with health issues. My mother had, at best, an eighth grade education. For most of my school years, she was an elementary school cook. Although they lacked formal education, they were among the most intelligent people I've ever known, interested in politics and the world around them.
I grew up mostly with kids who came from families that relocated from Jamestown, Tennessee and Morehead, Kentucky, seeking factory jobs. They brought with them their prejudices, but that mattered little since our neighborhood and elementary school were all white.
But that changed in junior high. Muncie Schools, in their infinite wisdom (sarcasm intended) took the poor white kids from the east side (Mayfield and Ault Shire additions) and the poor black kids who came from Whitely, an ironically named all-black neighborhood that carried the moniker of its developer, and threw them together in a new school -- Kuhner Junior High.  It was a volatile mix.
In my first day in junior high, two older black students jumped me and took the money I had on me. My joyfully innocent view of school was gone in an instant. I never viewed school quite the same after that. And the tension in the school spilled out in other ways. The most vicious fight I ever saw was at Kuhner when two girls attacked each other with knitting needles right outside the school office. Still, I got along with most of my classmates. Black and white alike, we shared one thing in common -- our economic status.
I didn't have great grades at Kuhner, but I topped the charts on all the standardized tests.  When I got to Muncie Central, I was placed in the "college prep" classes. The problem I faced was that those classes contained almost no one else from Kuhner. LouAnne was in a couple of my classes my sophomore year. Gary Marcum, who was a math whiz, was in my science classes. But that was about it. Everyone else in my classes came from McKinley and Storer junior high schools.
 I was shy, socially awkward and tremendously insecure. I was quite immature in most respects, though I didn't know it at the time. I didn't know how to make new friends. I was nearly petrified around girls. And now I felt isolated, like Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land." 
In my junior year, my father died suddenly. After missing most of that week, I returned to class only to have my English teacher confront me about why I hadn't been in class the previous week. Seems no one from the office bothered to tell my teachers. The experience confirmed that few at the school really knew anything about me.
This is not to say that I was bullied or picked on. I don't remember any instances of name-calling or classmates making fun of me (except in gym class, of course) -- not that I didn't give them the material. It's just that my life seemed so different from those others who sat in my math, history and English classes. They knew each other from junior high and before. They had an easiness and familiarity in their conversations. They hung out with each other, went to dances, ballgames, movies.  I stayed to myself. After school, I went home and read or watched television.
When Muncie schools erupted in race riots in the tumultuous late 1960s, police roamed our school hallways. But even then, I never had any confrontations. The experience of my first day in junior high was never repeated. 
My only activity was band. It helped me more than anything to get through my high school experience.  In the end, my absolutely awful grades as a sophomore gradually improved to mostly As and Bs by my senior year.
In college, life changed. I found my footing both in the classroom and socially. I graduated with honors. My life has traveled a long way from those days of high school insecurity. I've practiced law more than 30 years, trying cases and handling appeals in federal and state court. I've received numerous honors from the Indiana State Bar Association. I've written two novels and hosted an online radio show. And in 2014, the Muncie Central Alumni Association honored me with its Distinguished Alumni Award.
But still, sometimes in early morning dreams, those shadows from high school linger. Maybe that is why I decided, after 45 years, to attend my class reunion.
The reunion really started a night early. As I left a downtown restaurant after dinner, I ran into three classmates. I recognized Bruce Munson, a Muncie lawyer with whom I have had occasional professional contact over the years.  The other two were Portia Henshaw and Phil Scruton.  I recognized Portia, with whom I shared most of my academic classes. Phil was a leader in the band and dance band, which were my only school activities. 
Particularly heartwarming was the genuine excitement Portia showed at seeing me after all these years. We had connected several months earlier on Facebook, but there was nothing like a face-to-face meeting.
One of our classmates later described Portia as the type of person you knew, even in high school, would become a fascinating woman. You knew she would grow even more interesting and beautiful as she aged.  And he was right. She lives with her husband in Colorado where she teaches school, hikes and is an ultra-marathoner. And she bears that calm self-confidence that comes from being content and at peace with herself and her life. 
Saturday evening I walked into the Delaware Country Club not knowing quite what to expect. Part of me wanted to turn around, but the chance meeting the night before encouraged me to go forward. So I did.
Of course the first reaction is, "Everyone is so old!" Then the  realization hits -- you are that old, too. I glimpsed a couple of faces I immediately recognized, and saw some familiar names on people I didn't recognize at all.
Phil Scruton, who I had seen briefly the night before, was one of the first people I saw. Some things don't change. He is still the smoothest guy in the room, always ready with a winning smile, flirting a bit with woman, sharing stories with guys, and always seeming to know just a little something that you don't.
I saw Larry Ratchford, a slight man who for years played keyboard with various local musical groups. He is Muncie's version of Paul Schaffer, even bearing a likeness to David Letterman's long-time band director. I didn't get a chance to talk with him -- and he probably wouldn't have remembered me. But it was fun watching him scurry people up onto the dance floor, enjoying the music and encouraging people to move to the rhythm of the evening.
Stephen King wrote in his story "The Body" (later made into the movie "Stand By Me") that you never have friends like the ones you had when you were 11 years old. My biggest disappointment of the evening was that none of my good friends when I was 11 years old were present.  None of them. David True, Bradley Smith, Bruce Downing, Steve Miller, Benny Wyman, Gary Store -- the guys I played ball with and rode my bike with -- none of them were there.
But some of the guys I knew from elementary and junior high did make it. Sam Moore wasn't a close friend, but we played baseball together and were in the same elementary school classes. Sam moved to Dallas when he got out of service, the same city where my son currently lives.  He's now retired. You can tell something from a face, the way someone talks, the way a man carries himself. Sam is a just a good guy. I was happy I saw him.
Gary Marcum, who was a math whiz, was there, too. He seemed to be the center point for many of the Kuhner folks, most of whom sat at his table. Gary is a man of faith and a high-intensity bike rider who I enjoy following on Facebook.
There were another four or five Kuhner Junior High students who attended, but I only found out through post-event Facebook posts by Gary. Charlie Boggs, Dale Kiger (both good basketball players) and a couple more were there. I wish I had been able just to say "hi."
I spent a good part of the evening talking with Mike Frame. Mike was a bit of a wild man in high school, testing the limits of his 1968 big-engine Dodge Charger. But he survived -- including getting a ticket for doing 137 mph.  Mike ended up with a construction business in central Florida. With two heart surgeries behind him, he just retired, turning his business over to his son. Mike is a big personality, and one of the few people who dominates a discussion to the point that even I have a hard time getting a in a word or two.
He's a big bear of a man, oblivious to subtleties and nuance.  Like Popeye, "he yam what he yam, and that's all that he yam." I'm not sure Mike and I have much in common anymore. But I can't help myself. After all these years, I still like the guy. I hope to sit down with him over beers again some day.
There were two somber moments during the evening. The first is to be expected. In a corner of the room was the poster with the photos of all our classmates who have passed away. I stood looking at it with Portia. Her best friend's photo was there, a victim of cancer. I recognize maybe a dozen photos and names. All those young faces staring back at our no longer young eyes.  By the 50th Anniversary there certainly will be more of those once young faces on that board. It is the way of life.  And time.
The other moment was a long discussion I had with a classmate who had recently battled cancer. She was a sparkling sprite of a girl, full of life and energy. Her experience with cancer, her parent's strokes, and the aftermath in which people she had always counted upon had turned their back on her, have sapped much of the joy of life she always exuded. It was tough to hear. She's recovered from the cancer and has a good man in her life.  I hope it all goes well for her. She deserves better.
The Muncie Central Class of 1970 had well more than 500 graduates. Yet as I sat looking over the room, I realized that part of our graduating class was missing. In a school where perhaps 15 percent of the graduates were African-American, there was not a single face of color in the room.
Not one.
There were some serious racial tensions during our high school years. There were riots in the Muncie high schools all three years we were there. When racial tensions soared, we had uniformed officers patrolling the halls. 
But despite the tensions, the school was not overtly segregated. At least in my classes and in band, whites and blacks generally seemed to be at ease with each other. Of course it didn't help when the football coach's son punched out a black girl in the cafeteria when she cut in line. But that was the way of things in those often troubled times.
I don't know the reason such an important segment of our class was missing. Maybe class reunion organizers need to make a stronger effort to reach out to African-American leaders in the Class of 1970. I just hope that when the 50th Anniversary rolls around, that all segments of our class are represented.
When I arrived at the Reunion with Diana, my date from the Muncie Central Class of 1969, we chose to sit at an empty table near a window. The table was the only one that did not substantially fill during the evening. Throughout the evening, only Mike Frame joined us at our table.  Next to me was Gary Marcum's table, filled with those who attended Kuhner Junior High.  Elsewhere there were tables full of classmates with whom I shared classes, but who were only acquaintances rather than friends.

It was a strange feeling.  All these years later -- all these years, and miles and experiences later --  here I was in the same position as I was in high school.   I remained in that void between those with whom I grew up and those with whom I shared classes -- not really belonging in either world.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

It's Time for My Best Movies List - 2014



Sure, there are the SAG awards, the Critics Awards, the Directors' Awards, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.  But we all know what really matters.

It's Time for my annual Milo Awards for the best in movies in 2014.

It was a down year for movies. There were a lot of disappointments -- movies I heard about, that I was expecting great things from, but which ultimately were disappointing. But even through the chaff, there were some golden grains that sifted through.

Note: I have not seen the following movies, so they were not considered. Theory of Everything (which could change this entire list); Still Alice (by all accounts an incredible performance by Julianne Moore); Cake, Big Eyes, Inherent Vice or Foxcatcher (the Steve Carell drama).

Best Actor:  Winner:  Michael Keaton (Birdman). Great performance in a movie that was
stunning for 100 minutes.  Unfortunately it was 120 minutes long. Using the old phrase, it fell apart in the last reel. But Keaton's performance still shines.

Considered:  Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game); Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler); David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress:  Reese Witherspoon (Wild).  Wonderful, multi-faceted, gritty performance. Better than her performance in Walk the Line. Just like her backpack, she carried this movie on her shoulders.

Considered:  Emily Blunt (Into the Woods);  Rosamond Pike (Gone Girl); Rene Russo (Nightcrawler)

Best Supporting Actor: Robert Duval (The Judge)

Cosidered:  Edward Norton (Birdman); Vin Diesel (Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy - best 1-word performance ever)

Best Supporting Actress:  Laura Dern (Wild).

Considered:  Emma Stone (Birdman); Meryl Streep (Into the Woods);  Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best song:  Glory (John Legend & Common, Selma)

Considered: Big Eyes (Lana Del Rey, Big Eyes: Yellow Flicker Beat (Lorde, Mockingjay Part 1)

Best Animated Movie:  (Tie)  The Book of Life and The Lego Movie.  Despite Oscar snubs, these were the two best animated movies of 2014. Simply magic.

Considered:  Box Trolls;  Despicable Me 2

BEST MOVIES OF 2014
 
1.  American Sniper.  Despite people trying to create a political controversy, Clint Eastwood's film is a staggering movie about what war does to people -- those who fight it and those who stay at home.  It will stay with you long after you watch it.

2.  Wild - Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as wonderful in this movie about loss and self-discovery set against the challenge of a 1200 mile solo hike.

3. Selma -- Historical inaccuracies aside, this is a really well-done movie that recounts a remarkable episode in our history -- one of which we cannot lose sight.  I just wish they had made it more accurate. Far from opposing Martin Luther King and the Voting Rights Act, President Johnson bravely stood against virtually every other southern politician and worked with King, leading the way in Washington for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.

4. The Imitation Game -- Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonder in this telling of the greatest secret of World War II. A much more historically accurate film than Selma.

5.  Nightcrawler -- This movie is not for everyone, but it is a caustic reflection on what we have become.

6.  Guardians of the Galaxy -- Okay, when I saw the preview, I thought "Marvel has finally lost it." But this was so entertaining that no best movie list should be without it. Only one thing to say: "Groot!"

7.  Into the Woods -- Great re-telling of the childhood fairy tails of our youth, with a distinctive twist. Emily Blunt is wonderful.

8.  Boyhood -- This is a good, but not great movie, but it has gotten a lot of praise because of the 12 years it took the director and actors to complete this project.  


9.  100 Foot Journey -- It's a bit sappy. But this is a wonderful feel-good movie with wonderful performances. I'd like to see more movies like this.

10.  Birdman -- This is the hardest movie for me to place.  For the first 100 minutes, I loved this movie. It was a great tribute to New York, and acting, and Broadway.  I thought it might be my favorite movie of the year. Michael Keaton was sensational. So too were Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Then, well, it just went all artsy-fartsy, apparently trying for all types of symbolism that just didn't make sense.

11.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Marvel movie-making and story-telling at its best.

12.  Grand Budapest Hotel -- Quirky movie wonderfully done.

13.  Unbroken -- Movie was well done, but it relegated the most important part of Louis Zamparini's story -- what happened when he returned home -- to a couple of sentences the scrolled across the screen at the end. That's why this movie is here, and American Sniper is at the top of the list.

14.  Snow Piercer -- An apocalyptic future sci-fi movie that draws you in to a future world of ice, snow, and classes on a perpetually-moving train.

15.  A Walk Among the Tombstones -- This is a great telling of Lawrence Block's gritty New York City thriller.  Liam Neeson is well-suited for this role of a damaged former cop, but I think many stayed away from this because the trailer looked too much like another of those Taken movies. Too bad because it is much better.

16.  The Fault in Our Stars -- This movie was a surprise. It was not the sappy "Love Story revisted" that I expected. It was really well done.

17.  X-Men -- The Days of Future Past -- Really intelligent, entertaining re-boot of the X-men series. 

18.  Fury -- Brad Pitt stars in a powerful close-up look at war. Brutal and at times heartless, this is at times a hard movie to watch, but very well done.

19.  The Judge -- This isn't a great movie, but it is entertaining with wonderful performances by Robert Duval, Morton Downey Jr., and a great supporting cast.

20.  Gone Girl -- I like Gilllian Flynn's writing and Rosamond Pike is just wonderfully evil in this. But ultimately both the movie and the book suffer from the same malady --  there is simply no one in this movie to root for. 

Also considered:  

Interstellar -- This is on the list because of Matthew McConnaughey and the fantastic special effects. But the plot doesn't hold up to the rest of the movie. A disappointment.
  Mockingjay, Part 1 -- Difficult to make a good movie from half of a book. Lacks the full dramatic structure. But Mockingjay did a nice entertaining job of setting up the finale.

The Hobbit - Battle of the Five Armies -- By this concluding episode, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings / Hobbit epic is a bit long in the tooth. It has an "I've been here before" feel. But it brings the familiar characters and creatures back one more time for a final battle. I guess that has some value.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Reflection on Visiting Disney World -- 22 Years Later

This past week I met up with my oldest daughter for five days at Disney World.  She is now in her
30s and living with her husband in the Washington, D.C. area. She also loves Disney World.

But I had not been back since she was a young teen, and my two youngest children were about two and four years old.  I wasn't a big fan of Disney, and neither of my youngest children clamored to return. They would rather spend a week at the beach.

So I had not been back to Disney for more than 20 years. And the real reason for returning was to spend time with my daughter.  Disney World was simply the location she chose.

Prices are more than a bit higher than they were 20 years ago. A single day comes in at over $100. But if you plan a longer trip, the per diem price drops considerably. A basic 5-day pass without Park Hopper or Water Park options, and with a AAA discount goes for about $311 - or just over $60 per day. It's only about $15 to add a fifth day to a 4-day pass.

I must say, Disney World 2014 was a pleasant surprise.  Disney's skill at moving masses of people in and out of the park with minimal inconvenience is remarkable. And the park remains spotless, without a trace of age on anything - except by intent.  

The biggest improvement is the electronic tickets with the Fast Pass system. Long gone are the E-tickets, replaced by a modern electronic tickets that look like credit cards or wrist bands that can be purchased.

Fast Pass system that gives those in the know a way to avoid long lines even on the most popular rides. You can pick three rides each day, making reservations for specific times. When you get to the ride, you go to a separate Fast Pass line that admits you at your specific time, and allows you to bypass the long wait.

You can do this up to 30 days in advance on the Disney website. You can also link up tickets for the rest of your group to the same Fast Pass reservations. And after those are used, you might be able to schedule one or two more Fast Pass rides. This must be done in person at a Fast Pass kiosk in one of the parks, and depends on remaining availability for any particular ride.

A big plus is that there are more grown-up roller coasters.  The Mine Ride, Expedition Everest, the Rock 'n Roll Roller Coaster, all are nice additions to the classics such as Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain.  

But the true classic rides for children are still there. Peter Pan remains a wonderful ride. Dumbo has been updated. And there are still the spinning Tea Party and of course It's a Small World. 

Three of the four parks at Disney are absolutely wonderful.  

Magic Kingdom.  It remains the keystone of the parks, a place of imagination and delight for children and adults alike.It still has all the classic rides like Dumbo, Peter Pan, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and of course the Jungle Cruise. But it always seems fresh and new.
The entire park still seems sprinkled with Pixie Dust and Disney Magic.

Animal Kingdom.  This was my biggest surprise.  It is my second favorite, only behind the Magic Kingdom on my list.  There is a wonderful mixture of real-life animals and plant life with Disney's own magic creations. I could spend a day just sitting in the shade and watching the world go by. 

Hollywood Studios. This was my least favorite when I last visited, but I must say I now have a different opinion.  I'm still not crazy about the overall layout. The streets seem too narrow, and its hard to find your way around. There are many less-than-top-shelf attractions. But the top level rides are the best in any of the parks. And the evening show is simply the best thing at Disney.

EPCOT.  The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow is unfortunately in need of a major upgrade. Of all places, this is the one that should never seem dated. But it does. Most of the rides seem tired and not all that different from more than 20 years ago, despite how technology has changed all of our lives.  In someways, it seems like a flashback to the 1990s, not a look forward. Even the Illuminations park-closing fireworks show pales compared to the other parks. 

What does it say when my favorite "attraction" at Epcot was the saki bar at the Japan pavilion and the Bass Ale at the English pub? I enjoy walking around the lake, but if I visit again, I'll probably skip Epcot in favor of an extra day at one of the other parks.

So here are my Top 10 "don't miss" attractions from my recent Disney World trip.

10.  Toy Story Mania - Hollywood Studios: This is one ride you don't want to get a Fast Pass for, not because there isn't a long line (there is), but because the line is almost as much fun as the ride. You wind through a maze of all your childhood delights, oversized: Scrabble, Twister, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Crayolas. But the electronic pie-shooting target game is fun, too. Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin in the Magic Kingdom is similar - just not quite as much fun.


9.    Finding Nemo Musical - Animal Kingdom. This was the biggest surprise of the trip. This is a full-scale 40-minute musical version of Finding Nemo, complete with extraordinary costumes, special effects, and wonderful performances. Young or old, don't miss this.

8.    Space Mountain - Magic Kingdom. Still doing it in the dark. And still a thrill.

7.    Peter Pan Flight - Magic Kingdom. If any ride at Disney World is sprinkled with Pixie Dust, this is it. It is simply magical as you fly off to Never Never Land.

6.    Twilight Zone Tower of Terror - Hollywood Studios. Love the homage to Rod Serling. Well done ride that is different every time you ride. 

5.    Kilimanjaro Safari - Animal Kingdom. Personally, I would rather spend time close up with real life than watching Disney animatronics.  This gives you a close up view of giraffes, big cats, elephants, rhinos, crocks, wildebeests, and birds of all types, all in an environment that mimics their natural habitat.  

4.    Rock 'n Roll Roller Coaster - Hollywood Studios. Lives up to the Areosmith hype. You're upside down before you've settled into your seat - and the ride doesn't slow down until you're done. It's the best pure roller coaster experience at Disney.

3.    Expedition Everest -- Animal Kingdom.  Another true roller coaster, but with a few more surprises and  Disney touches than the Rock 'n Roll coaster. Pure fun that might even take your breath away.

2.    Seven Dwarfs Mine Ride - Magic Kingdom. This is Disney's newest coaster, and it is a work of art. I've never been on a true roller coaster that is as smooth as this ride. It incorporates the Disney experience, taking you through the bejeweled mine where the dwarfs are working. My view of this ride is a bit skewed because my daughter and I, by happenstance, timed it perfectly to take the ride as the Magic Kingdom fireworks exploded directly overhead. It made for a memorable, dare I say magical, experience.

1.    Fantasmic -- Hollywood Studios. This evening spectacular closes Hollywood Studios for the evening. It is the one absolute "DON'T MISS" at Disney World. Whoever conceived, designed and planned this show deserves some type of national award. It is the consummate Disney experience. Mickey runs the show calling up images of Fantasia. But every Disney character is there, either in person or in laser-light images cast against flowing water. Then there are the villains, particularly Maleficent, the Queen from Sleeping Beauty. Not to entirely give away the story, but by special effects she is transformed into the towering, fire-breathing dragon right before your eyes.  Fantasmic is everything that makes Disney great. It is a tribute to the genius of Walt Disney and the creativeness of those who follow in his footsteps.