Saturday, March 21, 2015

Flash Fiction: Nothing to Kill or Die For

First appeared on Blogcritics.

nothing 2 They left the elevator and walked silently in the hush of the hallway. Once inside the spacious rooms of the apartment, she kept looking around and he asked, “Something wrong?”

“No,” she said raising her eyebrows, “but you really live here?”

“Yeah.”

She went to the fireplace and stared at pictures of a young blond boy on the mantel. “This you?”

nothing 1He pulled off his hoodie and removed the Guy Fawkes mask, revealing darker hair and more matured facial features. “Yeah, I’m Rich.”

She laughed. “That’s obvious.”

“No, that’s my name.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Fitting! I’m Abbie.”

“I’m surprised that you walked here from Columbus Circle with me wearing the mask.”

“I liked your voice,” she giggled.

“Uh, thanks.”

“But why’d the doorman let you in like that?”

“He knows me well,” Rich said. “He also saw me wearing it earlier today.”

Abbie walked to the window and looked out over the autumn scene in Central Park. “Any parental units around?”

Rich fell onto a large leather sofa and kicked off his sneakers. “No. Dad’s in London on business and Mom’s in Fiji. They’re divorced, of course.”

“Right. Well, my Mom’s in Queens and Dad’s in Coney Island – also divorced!”

“Ah, we have something in common then,” Rich said.

Abbie unzipped her jacket separating the peace sign woven on it and sat on a plush red chair. “So, why were you at the protest?”

Rich looked up at the ceiling. “I go because of my friends.”

“Friends who live here?”

“No from school – Harcourt Hall!” 

“Holy crap!” Abbie said standing up. “I go to a public high school.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Look, I thought we were kindred spirits.”

Rich stood up and touched her arm. “When we were walking into the building, you didn’t think I lived here, huh?”

“I was just along for the ride!”

Rich took her hand and they walked into a lavish room with a large mahogany bar and chandeliers. “This is where we entertain – correct that, where my parental units entertain.”

“I thought they were divorced. “

“Yes, but for appearances they do lots of events together. It’s all phony and everyone knows it but doesn’t care.”

Abbie ran her finger along the bar. “Look, I live in a small apartment in Ridgewood with my mother. This is way out of my league.”

Rich laughed. “What league? Hey, we’re on the same team, Abbie.”

She flipped her long red hair over her shoulder and stared at him. “Why were you really there today?”

He turned away from her and walked toward the window. “My friends and I go because we’re not necessarily okay with everything our parents do.”

“But you’re okay living here?”

He turned to her. “Yeah, I guess. Why were you there today?”

Abbie stared at him with stern green eyes. “I want to change the world.”

Rich’s face glowed. “Hey, I want to show you something.” She followed him down a long hallway into his bedroom. There were Alien, Predator, Halloween, V for Vendetta, and Saw movie posters on the walls. 

“You’re into some weird stuff, huh?” she asked, noticing various horror action figures gracing several shelves.

“I guess. What do you have – One Direction and 5SOS posters in your room?”

“Seriously?” She bent her head to one side. “Are you on drugs?” 

“No, but I could use a beer. Want one?”

“I’m 15, Rich.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t drink. How old are you?”

“I’m 16 and don’t drink much either.”

“Right, I hear Harcourt guys like to party.”

nothing 3“All lies, but hey, I want to show something.” He directed her attention to a large painting of a man playing a white piano.

“Who is that?”

“Lennon.”

Abbie crinkled her nose. “The Russian Revolution guy?”

“No, John Lennon.”

“Oh, yeah, that Beatle guy who’s working with Kanye West, right?”

Rich walked toward her. “No, that’s McCartney, another ex-Beatle.”

“Oh, yeah, I hear grandma talking about them.”

He touched her arm. “He composed a great song called ‘Revolution’ and it tells about changing the world.” 

“Oh, yeah?” her eyes brightened.

“Yes. Also, this painting was inspired by a picture of him singing his song ‘Imagine’ and that’s about living in peace.”

She raised an eyebrow. “But how can you have a revolution and peace too?”

Rich sighed. “I don’t know, but he also sang ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and stuff like that.”

Abbie glanced up at the picture. “Sounds like a complicated guy.” He led her over to his extensive state-of-the-art media center and her eyes opened wide. “This is amazing! I have to share an ancient laptop with Mom.”

He touched a button and “Imagine” started playing. She leaned her head on his shoulder and listened to it with her eyes closed. He put his arm around her and rested his cheek on top of her head. When the song was over they didn’t move but stood there silently swaying for a moment. Finally he whispered, “What do you think?”

She looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “It says everything.”

“Right outside here one night, someone shot and killed Lennon.”

“Oh, no,” Abbie said, crying some more.

“I think that’s why I feel a connection to him. He lived in this building too.”

“Oh, wow!” She wiped the tears from her red cheeks with the backs of her hands. A buzzing noise came from her jacket pocket, and she took out her phone. “Mom’s texting me. I have to get home.”

“I’ll walk you to the subway.”

nothing 4 *

They went outside and across the street to Central Park. “Let’s sit here for a minute,” Abbie said.

They sat on the wall and looked out over the park. He extended his hand and she held it. Despite the sounds of the city behind them, leaves fell from trees and people walked along oblivious to the noise. “Nice and peaceful here. Nothing to kill or die for, right?”

She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Yeah, maybe.”

Photo credits: rarelee.com, panoramio.com, eil.com,tuningpp.com

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Tommy John Surgery – Three Words No MLB Pitcher Wants to Hear

First appeared on Blogcritics.

tj2 Back in 1974 when Los Angeles pitcher Tommy John had a 13-3 record before hurting his elbow, who could have guessed that the surgery Dr. Frank Jobe performed on him would save his career? More importantly, this surgery, which repairs the ulnar collateral ligament in the medial elbow by replacing it with a tendon from another part of the patient’s body, has gone on to be performed on numerous college and professional athletes and has saved many careers.

With the down time after the surgery usually taking at least a year, Tommy John surgery has become a thing that pitchers wish they never have to consider. Those words alone send shivers through the spines of fans, managers, and team owners, especially when connected to key pitchers upon whom a team has invested many dollars and hopes of success in that season.

According to MLB.com, 15-20 MLB pitchers undergo the procedure each year; however, a survey suggested that numbers are even higher – with “25% of MLB pitchers and 15% of minor league pitchers” undergoing Tommy John surgery during their careers. Recently it was announced that Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers would undergo the procedure, effectively ending his season. New York Mets pitcher Josh Edgin is reportedly deciding whether to take time off or have the surgery, and Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees, who has a slight tear in his elbow, has decided to move forward and pitch anyway after resting and nurturing the elbow all winter.

tj1Just yesterday another Mets pitcher, Zack Wheeler complained of “tendinitis” in his elbow, but the team is downplaying it by saying Wheeler has experienced this condition throughout his career and that it is nothing of concern to them. Believe that one and I’d like to show you several bridges over the East River for sale. The overriding question is not whether or not a pitcher should get this surgery, but rather why have so many pitchers reached the point where they even have to consider it? MLB provides an answer of sorts on its website:
There are a number of factors that contribute to the likelihood of having Tommy John surgery or another arm injury. The single most important factor is daily, weekly and annual overuse. Other factors include lack of rest, pitching while fatigued, poor mechanics, playing catcher when not pitching and playing on multiple teams at the same time. There are also certain behaviors which may increase your likelihood of an arm injury, including throwing curveballs and sliders, pitching multiple days in a row and throwing at maximum effort.
Back when an injury cut Tommy John's 1974 season short, pitchers worked differently than they do today. Many starters were in a four-man rotation, which would mean approximately 40 starts per year. In those days pitchers were being charted (as to pitches thrown, etc.), but no one was pulling John or Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton out of a game because he reached a 100-pitch-count. Relief pitchers may have been called upon every day, and perhaps both games of a doubleheader if necessary, and in general less pitchers seemed to be getting hurt in those days.

Today managers are quickly out to the mound once a pitcher reaches 100 pitches. With a guy like recently returned from Tommy John surgery Matt Harvey of the New York Mets, his manager Terry Collins has been watching each pitch and no doubt saying a novena. On the other side of town, Yankees manager Joe Girardi is probably praying too and holding his breath each time Tanaka lets the ball go. So in this world of more coddled pitchers – pitch counts, innings limits for a season, and five-man rotations – why does it seem like more pitchers are getting hurt?

Can we believe the MLB explanation, or is it the coddling itself that may be part of the problem? An old friend (who is an even older Brooklyn Dodger fan and now a Mets fan) lays blame not only on the coddling but the type of pitches the pitchers are throwing. He notes that the split-finger fastball is the worst thing that a pitcher could ever throw.

He and I are no experts, but an article in USA Today lays the blame on velocity; too many pitchers are throwing as hard as they can on every pitch or almost every pitch. Perhaps the radar gun is the worst thing that has happened to baseball in the last twenty years. In Matt Harvey’s second start of spring training, people voiced concern because his pitches were around 93 mph, when in his first start they were closer to 99. Trying to hit the highest number is probably the best way to blow out an arm.

Dr. James Andrew and Dr. Glenn Feisig of American Sports Medicine Institute (who perform the Tommy John surgery) basically agree and give this advice to pitchers for avoiding the procedure:
Do not always pitch with 100% effort. The best professional pitchers pitch with a range of ball velocity, good ball movement, good control, and consistent mechanics among their pitches. The professional pitcher’s objectives are to prevent baserunners and runs, not to light up the radar gun.
Seems like a sound approach, yet apparently pitchers are not listening as they try to make their mark, get their teams wins, and perhaps achieve personal goals in strikeouts and victories. Whatever the case, pitchers are getting hurt at an alarming rate. One might hesitate to call it an epidemic, but the news each day seems to involve some pitcher coming up with a sore elbow or arm.

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver has an idea of how pitchers can avoid injuries – pitch more. He notes that back in his day three hundred innings a season were not unusual and no one was counting his pitches. The way they conditioned their arms back then was the old fashioned way – they pitched.

tj3Whatever your feelings about the situation, pitchers are going down for the count now and it is alarming. We will have to wait to see how many pitchers will get hurt this season even though they are under the watchful eyes of managers and pitching coaches. As fans we want to see healthy pitchers, and while strikeouts and velocity are exciting, there has to be a balance that provides an opportunity for that pitcher to get back out there for the next start.

No pitcher wants to hear the words “Tommy John surgery” and the long recovery time it entails. It may have saved hundreds of players’ careers over the years, but it is also something that maybe can be avoided if things change. My feeling is let’s get rid of the radar gun, pitch counts, and innings limits and find a way to get pitchers healthy and doing what they do best – pitching!


  Photo credits: nydailynews, getty images, flickr.com 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Missing Flight MH370 – The Mystery Continues But the Story Remains Personal

First appeared on Blogcritics.

mh4 On the one year anniversary of the missing flight MH370, there is much talk about the “mystery” surrounding its disappearance. A newly released report by investigators does little to clear up the many questions surrounding the Malaysia Airlines jet’s disappearance. In fact, besides the revelation that one of the two black box batteries had not been replaced before the flight, there is little that offers any clues as to why the plane disappeared.


One of the biggest questions has always been about the captain and crew. The report puts to rest any skeletons in the closet regarding this aspect of the mystery.
"There were no behavioral signs of social isolation, change in habits or interest, self-neglect, drug or alcohol abuse of the captain, first officer and the cabin crew."
The report goes on specifically regarding MH370's captain, Zaharie Ahmad Shah.
"The captain's ability to handle stress at work and home was good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict or family stresses."
So, the smoking gun in this report would seem to be the battery never being replaced. The report says,
“The battery of the underwater locator beacon on MH370's flight data recorder expired more than a year before the plane's disappearance.”

mh3 If this is indeed a smoking gun, it is low caliber at best. There is a possibility that even without the battery’s replacement that the battery may have still been functional; additionally, the battery in the other “black box” on board (the cockpit voice recorder) had been replaced as scheduled and was presumed functional. Of course, all the reports in the world are basically nothing more than salt in the wounds to family and friends who have been waiting a year now for concrete answers.


Despite all the official proclamations and media coverage, this story is a deeply personal one. The people who await answers are struggling with this new report and all the other things that bombard them as the media picks up this story again on the anniversary of the plane’s disappearance.

mh5Offering little solace to the victims’ grieving loved ones, there have been many theories regarding the plane’s disappearance. Many of these have been heard before, but the standard one that seems mostly accepted by many investigators is that the plane went south out over the Indian Ocean where it ran out of fuel and then crashed into the sea. One of the problems with this theory is the lack of debris. You would think at least one seat cushion or one life vest would have been found. With a tremendously large jet such as this, it is almost inconceivable that there would be not a shred of evidence from the plane (as has been the case in many other plane crashes at sea).

The most bizarre of these theories (and believed by a small percentage of the public) is that aliens abducted the plane. This has to be the most incongruous and insulting to the loved ones awaiting word on the victims; however, some of the other theories are no less worrisome and this includes the plane being taken over and flown to a remote location by terrorists with nefarious purposes for the jet or that this plane was the one that actually was shot down over the Ukraine (and not MH17 as was widely reported).

mh2None of this speculation does anything to help the grieving loved ones. These are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, husbands, children, domestic partners, or friends who have waited a year and have heard nothing tangible from officials. Admittedly, that is a vast ocean out there and extremely deep waters, and searchers have an overwhelming task looking for the proverbial needle – not in one haystack but more like a field of haystacks.

The prospect of finding something after all this time remains dim and, as the theorists keep stirring the pot, it will no doubt only exacerbate the pain and anguish of the loved ones. They keep waiting for an answer that never comes, and some of them still hold out hope for finding survivors. No matter how futile this seems, faith and love coalesce to do things to one’s heart and mind. Of course, there is an inescapable truth that they cite that keeps them hoping – as long as there are no bodies, no wreckage, and no evidence, there is a slim chance that some of the passengers could have survived.

mh1When I think about this missing plane it always reminds me of the TV series Lost – a show about a plane that went down with some of its passengers surviving on a deserted Pacific island. Maybe the grieving loved ones are thinking about this as well, and we on the outside might call it crazy or wishful thinking; however, love has nothing to do with facts and figures and more to do with the notion that where there is nothing to the contrary one has hope.

Over the past year I kept thinking some debris would be found somewhere. I kept hoping that it would wash ashore on Australia’s west coast and that it would give these people closure. That has not happened yet and, since this is not a TV series but a reality beyond someone’s worse nightmare, the pain for these people will continue. We can only hope that investigators find something soon in that vast deep ocean,  but for now the mystery continues.

  Photo credits: epa, getty images, corbis, express.co.uk, wikipedia   

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leonard Nimoy Dies – Now Off to That Undiscovered Country

First appeared on Blogcritics.

spock 2 Sometimes when you hear of a famous person dying, it is like turning another page in your life; however, when I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s passing away, it felt like the closing of an entire book.

Growing up watching the original Star Trek series, it was impossible not to be affected by the weekly mission to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Though the voice over is done by Captain Kirk (as memorably played by William Shatner), there is also the feeling that the final frontier came into our living rooms courtesy of the green-blooded half-human Vulcan named Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who somehow managed to make “alien” a positive word. 

Spock’s logical but amiable alien nature certainly opened viewers up to the notion that all beings from outer space were not out to destroy us (as in War of the Worlds) replace us (as in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers), or give us a dire warning (as in The Day the Earth Stood Still). The character of Spock required viewers to reassess all pre-conceived notions – such as pointed ears were a sign of evil and someone from another planet was a dangerous alien. Credit Nimoy’s portrayal as one that imbued the character with wry humor (a raised eyebrow alone would be negative commentary on something a human did), acerbic wit, and a grudging pinch of humanity thanks to the blood of his human mother.

Many of us fondly remember Spock’s hand signal (index and middle finger spread apart from ring finger and pinky) and the words associated with it: “Live Long and Prosper.” They seem like a mantra now, not just for his character but also for the entire series. The promotion of harmony among all beings – not just humans on earth but all creatures across the galaxy – struck a nerve with young people like me who were coming of age and feared a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Star Trek jumped forward to the 23rd century when Earth was an integral part of the Federation of Planets. All beings within the federation worked for a common cause and co-existed peacefully with some of them living and working together on ships that crossed the quadrants of space. To be sure there were always those surly Klingons, Romulans, and other belligerent races ready to cross the neutral zone and start up a confrontation (anyone thinking that sounds like the Cold War is right), but those conflicts qualified the importance of tolerance and working cooperatively for the common good of all planets.

A vibrant cast of characters existed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, especially the skipper played with gusto by Shatner. It is hard to imagine a more easy to imitate characterization (usually for laughs), but I wanted to be Kirk anyway because he was the focus of the show, the guy who got the glory and usually the girl. However, looking back on it now I think I also wanted to be Kirk because he had the indispensable Mr. Spock by his side. With such a great friend and colleague, Kirk seemed fortunate indeed.

spock 1There were the other diverse characters: Dr. “Bones” McCoy (played with panache by DeForest Kelley), chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), the all business but beautiful Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the Russian Ensign Chekhov (Walter Koenig ), Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett), and the Chinese helmsman Sulu (George Takei). These main characters were joined week after week by many other characters from distant planets and galaxies, and it became so commonplace that as a kid I took for granted that in the future all would be as uncomplicated and peaceful as series creator Gene Roddenberry showed us in the Star Trek universe.

Unfortunately, the original Star Trek series only lasted three seasons, but through all those episodes we were left with a lasting impression regarding race, gender, equity, and power. Kirk and company were not free to just blast away aliens and planets – the Prime Directive kept them in check every time. If Kirk contemplated stepping out of bounds, Spock was always there to reel him in before he did too much damage.

A situation often utilized in the series involved Kirk “beaming down” to a planet and leaving Spock in charge. If you were the captain of any ship, you would want someone as capable, dependable, and loyal as Spock to take over whilst you were away. Spock’s logic kept things clear and by the book, but Kirk’s impetuousness also was seen as the human element that made him a better leader overall.

Spock’s nature as half-human and half Vulcan always tortured him as much as it helped him to understand the shenanigans of the humans he observed. When someone got emotional and Spock’s eyebrow would arch and he would utter “Fascinating,” well there was probably not a better reaction that could have summed up the proceedings. Spock at times seemed the outsider looking in at humans, but the fact that he was part human would be revealed in subtle ways, such as his happiness (and revealing smile) when he discovered Kirk had not died in one episode.

Spock would live on after the series in Star Trek movies, and Nimoy would also direct two of them and other films, including the seemingly incongruous but very funny Three Men and a Baby, and Nimoy also became known as a serious photographer, but Spock would hover over him throughout his life and as he got older Nimoy not only accepted his alter ego but embraced it. Perhaps one of the hardest moments to take for true fans was when Mr. Spock died at the end of the second movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, giving up his life to save Kirk and crew. The first time around the scene was extremely hard to handle because it felt like we lost a friend, but even in subsequent movies after Spock was resurrected there was no way to forget that loss of someone who more than anything remained a friend to the end to Kirk (and all the fans who were watching).

Now Leonard Nimoy and Mr. Spock are off to find that undiscovered country, or as Kirk once said when asked what course they should take, “Out there!” Space may be the place where heaven is or where God resides, but it is also a state of mind that leads the human consciousness to contemplate not just what it can see but what it can imagine in infinite wonder. Nimoy’s Mr. Spock has inspired generations to be logical but within reasons, to be loyal to those we call friends, and to wish people well with a greeting of “Live Long and Prosper.” Now that Nimoy is gone he leaves behind the image of Spock with his hand signal, a reminder that there is not just what we know out there in the universe but stuff beyond what we have ever dreamt could be.

spock 3When summing up Nimoy’s life, perhaps his old cast mate George Takei said it best: “Leonard played an alien, but he was the most human individual I ever met.”

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy and know that Mr. Spock will “Live Long and Prosper” in the minds of your fans now and forevermore thanks to your indelible portrayal.


  Photo credits: corbis kipa, startrek.com, wikipedia   

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Movie Review: Birdman – What Happens When a Faded Movie Star Does Broadway?

First appeared on Blogcritics.


bird1 The film Birdman has the “feel” of heft to it – it seems as if you are expected to associate gravitas to the proceedings basically from the first few seconds. Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is a middle aged actor known for playing super hero Birdman in a blockbuster film and its sequels (the obvious reference to Keaton’s turns as Batman). Now he is having an existential crisis of the most extraordinary kind – Birdman is an alter ego who keeps whispering less than sweet nothings in his ear as he tries to survive the premier of a Broadway show with him as star to restart a fading career.

Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu keeps banging us over the head with behind the scenes wrangling in a New York City theater, where Thomson is staking his already floundering reputation on a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” There are moments of literal drum banging as Keaton navigates a sticky path of getting the play right before the curtain rises. Along the way his difficult relationship with his daughter, formerly drug addicted Sam (played as a sharp NYC cookie by Emma Stone), and other actors provide the conflicts that our hero must overcome in order to succeed, but his greatest problem is his inner conflict with the always hovering Birdman.

bird3Iñárritu has established the setting and time and place well, and it doesn’t hurt that he has also stacked the deck with some really terrific supporting players – Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Andrea Riseborough, and Zach Galifianakas and others help keep things going – but the wildcard is the addition of Edward Norton’s Mike to the cast of Thomson's play that throws him into a tailspin. He knows Mike is a fantastic actor but all his baggage (and relationship with Watts’ character Lesley) seem to threaten the future of the production.

Antonio Sanchez’s drum score is both jarring and compelling. It is sort of a thumping heart that Thomson refuses to acknowledge is beating out of control. Thomson can flash brilliance in a scene, but then fall apart in his dressing room. All the while the Birdman alter ego is just steps away, giving him either the best tips or the worst advice on how to ruin a career (and a show).

Norton has a history of being a difficult actor to work with, and Keaton has his skeletons with the Batman films, and there is a tongue-in-cheek sort of referencing to these real world tidbits that audiences are going to either love or hate. The problem here is that the script (written by Iñárritu and several others) drags the story along at times, and there is not enough of that explosive kind of scene when Norton’s character throws a glass and goes postal during a rehearsal when none of his fellow actors are prepared for it.

bird2A play within a play motif is always difficult to pull off, and here it just seems more like a device to get us where we need (or ostensibly don’t need) to go. All of this is not just an attempt to capture the conscience of the king (in this case Keaton’s Thomson) but to sort of free him from his restrictions, allowing him to perhaps once again soar as Birdman – both literally and figuratively.


This is Keaton’s finest film performance (though my favorite remains Beetlejuice), and Norton and Stone are right behind him with complex, attention getting acting in key scenes. Together they should have knocked the ball out of the park, but I kind of feel that they only got a triple out of the whole deal. Credit or blame Iñárritu’s choppy hand-held cam style of directing that gets the feel of behind the scenes of NYC theater but never really captures its essence.

bird4In my opinion something is missing here even though there is much to admire, but in the end Keaton and his co-stars’ performances are going to win the day. Don’t be surprised if Stone and Keaton take home Oscars (Norton should win but I feel it’s J.K. Simmons’ year for Whiplash). While I am sure that Iñárritu is seriously in the running for Best Director, as with Norton I think this someone else’s year – in this case Richard Linklater for Boyhood.

Go see Birdman if you want to see great acting and get a feel for what happens in NYC theater, but be warned that you may be checking your watch as I was doing throughout. That is not an indictment but more a reality check. During the much longer Boyhood I never looked at my watch even once. Maybe this says something about both films or probably it’s just more about my proclivities as a movie goer at this point in my life.

Photo credits: imbd.com, wired.com, screenrant.com, entertainmentmonthly.com  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Review: The Imitation Game – Can Great Acting Overcome Tedium?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

im3 Sometimes there are films that I go in to watch with great expectations, and other times I am worried that I will be disappointed. Much of this comes from the so-called “buzz” from critics, friends, etc. As I went in to see The Imitation Game I was expecting to experience some kind of thrilling espionage tale set in World War II with highly praised acting by Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. Sadly, all I got was the acting, but you can question whether or not that was better than nothing.

As directed by Morten Tyldum and with a screenplay by Graham Moore, based on the book Alan Turing : The Enigma, the film is decidedly British in tone and theme. What I mean here is no disrespect; rather, there is a slow pacing, a buildup of the action (as it were), and the development of rich characterizations, particularly with Cumberbatch as genius Turing. Unfortunately, I was thinking along the lines of a James Bond type escapade and I got something more resembling a graduate course lecture.

To spice things up as much as possible, a lovely Keira Knightly is brought in as Joan Clarke, who along with a group headed by Turing is trying to break the Nazi code on a machine called Enigma. If the gang can break the code they will be able to let the military know when major attacks are being launched. The premise is exciting enough, but the way it is handled here has all the excitement of watching snails run a marathon.

I must give points for one scene where a fellow code breaker punches a pompous Alan (this is about as much action as we get), or when Joan gives a somewhat stilted confession of affection for Turing even though he has already revealed to her that he is gay. She argues that they will have more together than traditional couples who need sex upon which to base a relationship, but Alan is having none of it. Turing builds a machine that is basically a precursor to the modern computer, and with it they are able to break the Nazi code.

im1Ultimately the best scene comes after the Enigma code is broken; the gang discovers a convoy is going to be attacked, but Alan argues that if they reveal themselves now that they won’t be able to get to the bigger news and battles down the road. Obviously, members of the convoy prove expendable and it is a tight dramatic scene with solid acting.

In fact, this film probably would be a great one to use in an film school course. The acting is so articulate and impressive that it keeps you wanting it all to be part of something bigger and better. Instead, we have a lot of sound and fury signifying a story that had much potential but that is a disappointment as the impressive parts do not add up to a satisfying whole.

im2Still, Cumberbatch is a simmering mess of genius meeting the stark reality of time and place. No matter how brilliant Turing is the facts are that this is still 1940s Britain, with all its ignorance and especially intolerance for homosexuals. Despite Turing’s vital role during the war, his treatment later on is despicable and leads to unnecessary tragedy.

In the end the film should have used the title of book on which it is based; it is reminiscent of the way Winston Churchill once described Russia – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." That would best sum up not only Alan Turing but this film about his solitary but brilliant life.

  Photo credits: imdb.com, fandango.com, variety.com 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brian Williams – Only Guilty of Telling Us What We Wanted to Hear?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

bri1The sanctimonious uproar over the horrific “Brian Williams scandal” gets more ludicrous by the day. There are more new stories emerging about his tall tales than people accusing Bill Cosby of something. Williams, like Cosby before him, appears to be taking a hard fall and no one seems willing to come along and help him out.

My thinking is that Brian Williams is mostly guilty about being a part of a grand scheme to take “news” and make it into entertainment. The golden days of guys like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are long gone. If you are like me you have long ago given up the notion of getting “hard news” on nightly broadcasts – the fluff and puff are obvious, the filtering and pandering apparent, and the talking head as movie star material is lamentable.


I used to think if Mr. Williams were British and could act that he would have made a great James Bond. He has that look about him, and then we find out that his embellishing of stories could be said to border on acting, and apparently he was rather good at it. He seemed to have the credibility factor locked in, so we were open to believing in him and what he said. That isn’t his fault but our own. We want to feel like we know these people on TV, we want to like them, and it is clear people really liked Williams.

Having all those things going for him, Williams should have been in the clear; however, his tall tales were eventually going to get fact checked. My goal here is not to go into them in detail; enough people have done that already; however, I suspect that Mr. Williams is not alone in his ability to enhance the danger of a situation, the drama of a reporting moment, and in that we have to look at the motivation for Williams and other reporters to do so.

Anyone who has seen CNN’s Anderson Cooper holding on to a lamppost as a hurricane blew rain and debris all around him has to know what I’m talking about. Now you may have asked yourself (as have I), why Cooper and many other reporters would put themselves in such situations. The answer is something that we aren’t going to like – they are doing it because we want and expect it!

Even your local humble reporters on TV are out there in zero degrees covered with ice and snow as they report on conditions during a blizzard. Why do they do that? Because the viewer at home, warm and snug and watching, will only keep watching if he or she sees how bad things are and wants to know if it will get worse. People get vicarious delight in seeing these reporters exposed to the elements, suffering for their art as it were, to keep everyone at home safe.

We have come to this sorry state of affairs as we are inundated with reality TV – which is neither real nor television in my mind. Just as “news” seems to be no longer true and unbiased reportage, but rather repackaged to come at you as entertainment to keep you from changing the channels. You have to like the guys and gals speaking, right? You have to imagine that they like you too, and no one wants to listen to a crusty and unattractive anchor droning on about facts and figures anyway. Of course, not!

bri2Brian Williams is charismatic, handsome, and extremely affable. I have seen him on talk shows, and he is warm, friendly, and genuine. He also comes across as a regular joe, the kind of fellow you could go out with and have a beer or two. Until all this came out, I bet many guys would have loved to watch the Super Bowl with Williams, and the female viewers would have had no qualms about him bringing them roses and taking them out to dinner.

Williams was a bankable star. This is what we have come to – news as commodity. The bottom line is always the bottom line. Williams was good for his employers, and since he has been off the air NBC Nightly News has taken a big ratings hit. Losing viewers is bad for business, and so that should be a warning for all networks and their reporters and anchors who may also be prone to embellishments in their stories.

Iconic late night host David Letterman may have the best perspective on Williams in terms of facing up to the “truth” of the situation. Letterman said,
“He (Williams) says millions and millions and millions of things every day on the little nightly news show over there so occasionally some of them have to be re-jiggered. … They should just put at the end of the (newscast): ‘Some of what Brian says may not be true.’ Not that big a deal; I don’t care. You like seeing him when he comes on here.”
And yes, the audience always liked Williams on Letterman, on his nightly broadcast, and wherever else he appeared. Williams was and is a highly likeable person. Perhaps (just as with Bill Cosby) the fall is even harder and more difficult to accept when the person has been so well liked for so long. The public cannot process or fathom how that can happen, but in the end we only have ourselves to blame.

bri3 I am all for the truth in news but that seems to be the same as wishing "reality" and "television" were never mentioned in the same breath. Brian Williams was an extremely lucrative product until he made the mistake that many people are guilty of making. We make it home through the blizzard, and it’s human nature to exaggerate a bit about how difficult the journey was for us. It’s normal behavior for most people but, when millions of people are watching, the stakes are exceedingly higher.

Just as Marc Antony with Julius Caesar, I am not here to bury Brian Williams nor praise him; rather, I am saying that he is not any better or worse than everyone else on TV news who shoot for the entertainment factor. In the end Williams may return to his broadcasting duties; and, if he does, he will be a little tarnished and contrite. He will look at the cameras, make his apology, and we will all believe him because that's what we want to believe.

Perhaps when the dust settles we will all see this as TV new business as usual, and that is what has been happening for a long time, since after Cronkite retired and Dan Rather slipped into his “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” mode. Either way we should face an inconvenient truth – TV news is no longer the indisputable source of current events and it never will be again. Brian Williams is not responsible for that – we the viewers are!

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