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Saturday, April 30, 2011

So Long, Grandma Red

I suppose it's not too many people who turn 50 with a grandparent still alive. That was the case for me, but sadly no more, as on April 30 at 4 a.m. by last grandparent, my maternal grandmother Dorothy, passed away. She was a few weeks short of her 92nd birthday and it was not unexpected, and she experienced a sad decline, including dementia and cancer in her jaw. As Shakespeare wrote in his Seven Ages of Man speech, the last role played is "second childhood."

This was particularly sad because Grandma Red (as she was known to the family, both as a shortening of her last name and her ever-present copper rinse--I never saw the woman with gray hair) was a vital woman. She and my grandfather, who died nine years ago, lived life with gusto. In many ways they were typical Midwestern suburbanites, but they enjoyed an adventurous life together, taking many trips abroad and having a variety of hobbies. I remember my grandmother collecting Hummel plates, some of them worth a pretty penny today.

When they lived in Dearborn, Michigan (they were both born and raised in Jackson, Michigan) their basement was a place of wonder for me as a small child. It was full of souvenirs of their trips, knick-knacks, curious, and tchotchkes that were fascinating to a little kid. They had a pool table, a built-in bar, and one of those rock fountains. It all bordered on the kitschy, but was marvelous to explore.

My grandparents also loved their four o'clock ritual of having martinis. It got to be something of a joke as the years wore on. At family gatherings Grandma made sure that there was plenty of vodka on hand. In the picture above, taken at her 90th birthday party, note the glass on the table with the tell-tale olive. When her health started to decline she was urged to give up the alcohol. She really missed having those martinis.

Dorothy was a registered nurse, in an era when there weren't too many working women. She worked at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn, and passed the legacy on to both her daughters--my mother and her sister, who also became nurses (my aunt is still a nurse).

In their retirement they lived in Bradenton, Florida for thirty years, where they enjoyed their golden years and made the dutiful trips to DisneyWorld with the grandkids. A few years ago, though, my grandmother made the return to Michigan, too feeble to live on her own. My aunt, who still lives in the Detroit area, became her de facto caretaker, and she and her husband and daughter logged in many hours of care and attention that are much appreciated by the rest of the family. I was fortunate enough to pay her a last visit just at the beginning of this month on a visit to Michigan. She was frail and forgetful (although she seemed to recognize me), and in good spirits. It was a good last visit to remember her by.

When I was a little kid, I thought my grandparents were rich, because they took all those trips to Europe and Asia and they had so much stuff. They really weren't rich in that sense--they were working people (my grandfather worked for Chrysler and was unceremoniously forced into retirement into retirement in his fifties). But in another sense they were extremely rich, richer than the people on the Forbes list. They loved each deeply, and that showed to even a little kid like me. They loved and were loved by their family, and they were cheerful, gracious people.

Dorothy leaves behind three children, nine grandchildren, and seventeen great-grandchildren, who all will miss her very much.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Reflections in a Golden Eye

There must have been some keen anticipation for Reflections in a Golden Eye, a 1967 film directed by John Huston and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando (although Brando was in his wilderness years, well before The Godfather revived his career). I'm sorry to say I found the film pretty much a dud.

Based on a 1941 novel by Carson McCullers, the film is full of subtext. Brando plays a major on a military base in the South who is wound as tight as a spring, and he gives one of his classic, loony performances. Taylor is his wife, who enjoys nothing more than riding her white stallion, Firebird. It seems she does not ride Brando, who might be interested in an enlisted man. There's a pointed scene where Taylor takes off her clothes (a tastefully lit shot, being 1967) and taunts her husband, who responds by doing nothing except threatening to kill her, a decidedly unusual response to having a naked Liz in front of you.

Taylor is having an affair with an affable colonel, Brian Keith, who is married to a mentally disturbed woman, Julie Harris, who went to pieces after losing a baby (she took garden shears to her nipples). Harris has a fey Filipino houseboy who is about as openly gay as 1967 would allow, and allows us to make the connection between Brando's presumed repressed homosexuality.

The enlisted man, Robert Forster, is valued by Taylor because of the way he tends to her horse. He takes it a bit too far, though, and starts showing up outside the house, staring into the window (he witnesses the nude scene). Then he starts sneaking into her bedroom and watching her sleep while fondling her underwear. It's quite a film when Taylor plays one of the most sane characters.

I found the film to be so lugubrious that it almost put me into a torpor. There are many shots of Forster just staring into the distance, or Brando left to his self-indulgent mannerisms. He teaches a class on base, and I dare say he gives the oddest lecture on Clausewitz that anyone is likely to here.

The story is very reminiscent of the work of Tennessee Williams, given its Southern-fried Gothic overtones, and in the biography of currently reading on him I learned that he and McCullers were good friends, so it's not a surprise.

Also, Huston shot the film with an overwhelmingly amber hue, as if to take the title literally. It makes the film appear to be dipped in bronzer. After running in theaters that way for a week the studio took it back and made a print with a normal color palette. The DVD shows the film as Huston intended it. I'm all for the freedom of a director, but I can't say the choice added anything to the film.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama's Birth Certificate

If there's anything more of a national embarrassment than the "birther" controversy, I don't know what it is. It would seem to be the reaction of the stupid and/or insane to having a black man occupy the White House, and that it has lingered so long makes Americans as a whole seem like a bunch of lunatics.

Now that President Obama has released the official, "long-form" birth certificate, naively thinking that it put this "silliness" to rest, it only reinforces how stupid birthers are. A new poll indicates 50% of Republicans still have doubts about the whereabouts of his birth, which should embarrass the other 50% of Republicans. The Democrats may be the party of spending and high-taxes, but now it can be known: the Republicans are the party of the stupid and crazy.

Any cursory examination of the facts would have told the reasonable person long ago that Obama was born in Hawaii. The shorter version of his birth certificate, plus birth notices in the newspaper, should have been enough proof. Also, lack of evidence that Obama's mother ever traveled to Kenya at the time of his birth should have been more than enough. The big honking clue that ignited this mess was a tape recording of a translation of Obama's step-grandmother, seeming to indicate that she witnessed his birth. During the entire recording, though, she states plainly that Obama was born in Hawaii.

The question that lingers is: why did Obama take so long to do this? He had to pay a fee to Hawaii to get the form, and had an assistant fly over there and bring it back (at his own expense). The crazed believe this is part of the conspiracy, suggesting that it's forged or that he's trying to create a distraction to distract from the distraction. I wonder, too, but given Obama's general savviness I think he was enjoying the blather, and perhaps was going to do this right at the height of the 2012 election. Perhaps he finally couldn't stand Donald Trump of all people mouthing off on the issue, and decided to shut him up (which has only allowed Trump to take credit for it).

But there's also the argument that Obama didn't have to do this at all. I liked the comparison one writer made--it's like asking a man to whip out his dick to prove he's a man. The basic requirements of Obama's citizenship are already there, why should he need to kowtow to the babble of morons? But now that he has done so, it will continue to make this wing of the lunatic fringe seem even more racist.

Trump, presumably the "carnival barker" that Obama referred to (what a great turn of phrase to describe this horrible man) is now questioning Obama's academic career. This, of course, is coded racism, suggesting that he wouldn't have gotten into Columbia or Harvard Law if he were white. That Obama graduated magna cum laude and was president of the Harvard Law Review seems lost on Trump, who is a braying publicity whore. It won't happen, but wouldn't you love to see Obama challenge Trump to a game of Jeopardy?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Turistas

Turistas, from 2006, could be assigned to that teeming trough of films called torture-porn, but that would be a mistake. It's not a very good film, but its flaws are not in fetishizing torture. The film isn't really that gory. What mistake it does make is to classify Brazilians as both malevolent and incompetent.

The set-up is familiar: a handful of tourists, from either America, England, or Australia, team up after a bus accident and find an idyllic beach location. They decide to hang out there instead of waiting for the next bus. Of course, there are being lured there in order to be kidnapped and having their organs removed by a doctor who is tired of poor Brazilians selling their organs to rich gringos.

The characters aren't terribly well-defined: Josh Duhamel stars as a guy who is overly cautious in protecting his sister, Olivia Wilde. There are a couple of obnoxious Londoners, and Melissa George is a well-traveled Australian who knows the local language. Beau Garrett is Wilde's friend, and I'm not sure if she had more than two lines. Her most vivid scenes are those in which she is opened and has her organs removed.

The film was directed by John Stockwell, who has an interesting directorial career. He's made films that are better than they should have been, like Blue Crush and Crazy/Beautiful, but he's also made schlock like Into the Blue. Turistas, then, can't really be considering slumming for him, as he hadn't made what could be classified as a top-shelf film. But it is interesting visually, with some stunning underwater photography.

Turistas got into trouble for giving Brazilian tourism a black eye. This has since been remedied by having most of these types of films set in a vague, sinister Eastern Europe. But in addition to making Brazil look like an exceptionally dangerous place (which it may well be for all I know), it also has the bad guys easily outwitted by their Anglo captives. If you do go to Brazil, make sure to take with you a Swiss Army knife, since your captors won't frisk you to find it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Next Three Days

The Next Three Days is one of those films that you can dig while watching it: It's nicely paced, well acted, and has some genuine suspense. It's only that it's over that the "wait a minutes" come out, and you realize how ludicrous it is.

Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks star as a normal couple with a young son. She's tried and convicted for murder, as the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. All of this happens in about the first fifteen minutes, as the rest is Crowe, realizing the appeal process is over, plots to break her out of prison.

Written and directed by Paul Haggis, in a film that is a departure for him in that it's not political and/or pretentious, seems to say that good old-fashioned book learnin' can solve anything. You see, Crowe is a professor (but a community college!) and he researches everything from skeleton keys to how to break into a car with a tennis ball from the Internet. In a deft cameo, he interviews Liam Neeson as a man who has broken out of prison seven times.

The planning process takes up much of the film, and it's mostly intriguing. A needless scene has Crowe robbing a drug dealer for some much-needed cash, I guess to establish that he's willing to kill to get his wife out, but the scene just seemed tawdry to me. Much better is the last half-hour, in the type of thing I love--the couple play cat and mouse with police as they attempt to get out of the city and then out of the country.

Of course all of this is impossible, and relies on Hollywood luck and the notion that the heroes will of course get away, which lessens the suspense. It's based on a French film--I wonder if they got away in that one.

The interesting thing about the casting is that Crowe plays a mild-mannered man, and he does it quite well. I wouldn't think of him first or even a hundredth for playing a professor who teaches Don Quixote. I guess I have to admit that the guy is a pretty good actor, although his projects since his three Academy Award nominations in a row from 1999 to 2001 (excepting for Master and Commander) haven't been the top-shelf stuff.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Conspirator

It was somewhat exciting to see The Conspirator in a theater just a few hundred feet away from the house where Abraham Lincoln slept the night before he gave the Gettysburg Address. As such, the history was palpable. Unfortunately the film, directed by Robert Redford, never really breaks free of its overly didactic style to present an interesting narrative film. In many ways it plays like an above-average History Channel docudrama, and one keeps expecting the word "Dramatization" to appear beneath the acted scenes.

The film is the story of Mary Surratt, (Robin Wright) who was arrested for conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln. She owned a boardinghouse where the conspirators, including John Wilkes Booth, met and hatched their plot (I think many Americans don't know that the full plan was not only to kill Lincoln, but also Vice-President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward. Johnson was left unharmed when his potential assassin got drunk and chickened out, but Seward was savagely attacked, though he survived).

Surratt's guilt or innocence, which is still debated today (from what I've read she was guilty) isn't at the heart of Redford's film (written by James Solomon). He's more interested in the shabby justice she received, and it's here that it becomes clear that Redford is probably less interested in Surratt than with events in the U.S. following the attacks on 9/11.

The central character is a young, untested lawyer, played by James McAvoy (in yet another of his performances where he plays the bland center of a film, as he did in The Last King of Scotland and The Last Station). He is recruited to defend Surratt at the urging of a Maryland senator (well-played by Tom Wilkinson). He is reluctant, both by the nature of the crime and in realizing it won't exactly help his career. But, as he begins the trial, which is a military tribunal, he comes to understand how Surratt is getting a raw deal. In a military trial, a defendant can not testify for themselves, and there are no rules of discovery. The deck is stacked, especially when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (played villainously by Kevin Kline) wants a quick conviction.

It is a scene between McAvoy and Kline that should be labeled "author's message." McAvoy points out that Kline is governing by using fear that more acts of terror may come. He might as well be talking to Donald Rumsfeld about The Patriot Act and orange terror-level alerts. That the film has come out right after the decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed at Guantanamo only perpetuates the parallels.

Beyond all the history, The Conspirator doesn't ever really emotionally engage the audience. Surratt, played well by Wright, but mostly in one-note, is not painted as a martyr, in that her guilt or innocence is not established. McAvoy, I suppose, is supposed to be the guy we have empathy for, as he loses friends, prestige, and even his girl (Alexis Bledel), but he's just not that interesting enough to hang the whole film on.

The film is also over-directed by Redford, who doesn't miss an opportunity to italicize a moment. He's aided and abetted by his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, who can't resist scenes where bright sunlight comes spilling into a darkened room.

For those just interested in the history, I recommend the film, as it hews pretty close to the facts. There are discrepancies--the defense actually called 31 witnesses, when it appears in the film that only two were called. It also doesn't do much for Stanton, who for years was sullied by a untrue account by a German historian that he was involved in the conspiracy. I guess he may been innocent of that, but was still guilty of being an asshole.

My grade for The Conspirator: C

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Pills

This is the last post from my forties, as I hit the half-century mark on Sunday. I'm not too bereft at turning fifty. I imagine the most common complaints about hitting that age are the unavoidable confrontation with mortality (as statistics would argue that more than half your life is over) and the rueful look back and its inevitable disappointment. How many can say they are at fifty where they thought they'd be when they were twenty? I certainly can't.

But I've been dealing with this for a few years now. Yes, the numbers say I'm closer to death than birth, but I don't feel old and I'm in pretty good health, and I don't have an overly keen fear of death. As for being disappointed with how my life turned out, that's pretty much been a constant for me since I can remember. I've always been the type, even when young, that has wanted a "do-over."

The one thing new about going into my fifties is that in the last few months I have been feeling an overwhelming sense of anxiety. Not so bad that I can't get out of bed, but enough that I sought out a psychiatrist for the first time in my life (thank you, health insurance!) I saw a no-nonsense Indian woman (almost all the doctors around me are Indian or Chinese) and she heard my story and prescribed an anti-anxiety medication and an antidepressant.

This is the age we live in: got a problem? Take a pill. Whether it's too frequent urination or restless leg syndrome, there's a pill for it (except for the big ones, like cancer or Alzheimer's). There are many mood-altering drugs, and each doctor has their favorites (as evidenced in the film Love and Other Drugs), and I got Klonapin and Celexa (they all seem to be named something out of science fiction, with the letters q, v, z, or x prominently featured). The Klonapin kicks in right away, and I will admit it helps some. I got a speeding ticket while on it and remained perfectly calm.

The Celexa takes four-to-six weeks to get into my system, and it's been about four weeks now. I await to see what it will do to me--will it make me a new person? When my father started his medication years ago his personality took a sharp turn for the cuddly--he called all of us kids to tell us he loved us and joined his local church (and he's a long-time atheist). Maybe my interest in Unitarianism is a result of these drugs.

I am also seeing a therapist (psychiatrists don't do therapy anymore, they just prescribe drugs). I saw a therapist about twenty years ago and it helped some, so I willingly went to an earnest young woman who is going to try to help me with my self-esteem issues, which are deeply rooted in my childhood.

A lot of this stuff is hereditary. While visiting my father I found out he's still on pills (Xanax and Zoloft). My grandmother, his mother, was a world-class worrier who was an expert in passive-aggressive behavior. There's a distinct strain of a kind of sense of humor on that side of the family that I can trace back to her father, my great-grandfather. My father has it, my great aunt had it, my sister has it, and one of my cousins has it. It's an almost Jewish sense of humor, in that one realizes that nothing is going to right, so we might as well make fun of it. It's the "eh, what are you going to do?" sense of humor.

I saw an article recently that said that the pursuit of happiness can make you unhappy. That is, if you equate happiness to material gain or accomplishment. The key to happiness, the article said, was to find comfort in helping others and in family. I do try to help others as much as possible, though I'm not big on volunteering. My idea of being a good guy is to wave in cars ahead of me. But I am appreciating my family more and more. We've always been close, if distant it terms of geography. We don't talk or get together much, but we appreciate each other when we do. A few weeks ago we threw a surprise 70th birthday for my dad and we all had a great time. The next day I visited my maternal grandmother, now living in a nursing home and having forgotten almost everything, and saw my aunt and a cousin and that made me feel good.

For my birthday weekend I'm headed to Pennsylvania to visit my mother and brother. He's got three adorable little kids. I remember a couple of Christmases ago, when I was feeling worthless and miserable, and stood one of his daughters on my lap. She was about one and a half, and having the time of her life. I thought, how can life be so bad when there's little children like this to hold?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tron: Legacy

I'm still chasing down films nominated for Oscars in the last go-round, and I'm down to just a few. I can cross of the list Tron: Legacy, which was nominated for Best Sound Editing.

I have not seen the original Tron, but I'm old enough to have played the arcade game in the basement of my college's student union. I didn't care for the game much, preferring Mousetrap and Berserker. But I take it that it was about a video-game creator who somehow launched himself into his digital world, and the exposition laid out by the bushel full in the sequel covers any information I might have missed.

In this second film, we learn that the hero of the first film, Jeff Bridges, has gone missing. His son (Garret Hedlund) is the largest shareholder of his father's now huge corporation, but he mostly just goofs off and rides his motorcycle dangerously. When his father's trusted friend (Bruce Boxleitner, who played Tron in the original film) says that he got a text from his father's old arcade, which has been shut down for twenty years, Hedlund investigates.

One of the first signs that I knew this film didn't really concern itself with details was when the abandoned arcade came to life when Hedlund through the switch in the fuse box. Just who was paying the electric bill all that time? In about two minutes he finds his father's secret office, and in another two minutes manages to type in the code in a computer that zaps him into "the Grid," the world of his father's creation. He's mistaken for just another program, an army of PVC-wearing drones, and put in a fighting arena. But when he bleeds, he's outed as a "user," and brought before the leader.

The leader, CLU, looks just like Jeff Bridges from thirty years ago, in a process that is slightly creepy. He's the bad guy, for he was programmed to create a perfect world, and took his orders so seriously that he purged anything that was imperfect, including a synthetic life form that sprung to life parthenogenetically. The real Bridges headed out in the wilderness to live a Zen existence with Olivia Wilde, the last of that life form, who wears her jumpsuit like it was painted on and is one of the best reasons to watch this film.

Father and son team up to get out of the Grid so they can deprogram CLU, and there's lots of chasing and fighting and mumbo jumbo computer talk that doesn't make much sense. There are allusions to fascist ideology, as when CLU addresses his army of programs like Hitler at Munich, and to Frankenstein, as Bridges must confront and destroy his creation.

The film, directed by Joseph Kosinski, is certainly technically expert, particularly a motorcycle chase through a series of levels. But the plot is so preposterous and ham-fisted that it's difficult to care what happens.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Body Work

In my review of Sara Paretsky's novel from last year, Hardball, I mentioned some of the drawbacks of reading a novel in a detective series. Mostly I harped on the character of V.I. Warshawski, but in this book, I found myself annoyed by supporting characters.

The mystery itself is complex and fascinating. It all starts with a performance artist who calls herself the Body Artist--a woman who goes on stage naked and allows people in the audience to paint on her. Another woman, who paints an image on her night after night, is murdered, and Warshawski is hired by the parents of the man who is arrested for her murder.

This is a good setup, but it leads to a wildly different place--the war in Iraq, with tie-ins to a corporation that may be making inadequately safe body armor. Paretsky handles this with deft strokes, and the characters unique to the book, such as the owner of the club and the Body Artist herself, are intriguing. But I found some of the recurring characters chores.

Faithful readers, I'm sure, consider these characters old friends, but I dreaded their appearance. A neighbor, Mr. Contreras, really only exists to fuss over his dogs and express his concern over Warshawski's safety. A cousing Petra, introduced in Hardball, is back and even more annoying here--her purpose seems to be nothing more than to get Warshawski's goat and act like a simpering ninny.

As for Warshawski, her character traits of being a high-handed crusader are again on display, but Paretsky calls her own character out. Still, too many character do her favors and by the end, when an old-fashioned "all the suspects are gathered in the same place" I was a bit aghast, but I will admit it was a page-turner.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Jane Eyre

"All governesses have a tale of woe; what's yours?" asks Edward Rochester of Jane Eyre, a governess working in his employ, in the latest adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's 1847 novel. Jane replies that she has no tale of woe, but we know better--we have seen her horrid upbringing, first being raised by an aunt who views her as a servant, and then in one of those awful Dickensian schools where children are beaten and ostracized.

I have never read the novel (I think I tried once and didn't get very far), but I have enough literacy to know the basic story, and the big surprise that comes toward the end, which I won't reveal here (I have seen the film version of The Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the story from another character's viewpoint). This adaptation, directed by Cary Fukunaga and written by Moira Buffini, is very well executed, and a cut above of the usual "Masterpiece Theater"-type movie that is very common these days.

But, I couldn't help but feel that something was missing. I very much enjoyed the first half, which lays out in flashback Jane's story. We first see her stumbling about on the moors, depressed about something and ready to die. She's taken in by a preacher (Jamie Bell) and his sisters, and periodically the action cuts back to her as a child. Then the major section of the film starts, when she works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, which is owned by the mysterious Mr. Rochester. She meets him in one of the most famous meeting scenes in literature, when she accidentally spooks his horse (the two have no idea who the other is). Rochester, played here by Michael Fassbender, is a Byronic figure who is both romantic and just a bit scary, but when he finds Jane to be a cultured, educated woman, he is enamored with her.

The romance between the two, which has complications, have made many swoon over the years, but it's here that I think the film doesn't quite work. Mia Wasikowska is Jane, and she's perfect for the role--attractive yet somewhat plain, with a permanent look of determination (Rochester asks her if she ever laughs). And Fassbender is quite good as the brooding Mr. Rochester. As I watched the film I forgot who was playing him, and was stunned to see Fassbender's name in the credits. I've seen him now three times in recent weeks, in the films Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds (a second viewing on DVD), and this one, and I have a hard time reconciling that it could possibly be the same actor.

But I just didn't buy the romance. The two didn't have any chemistry. They seemed to fall in love only because the script said they had to. I could see why he like Jane--he was tired of women who were vain and scatterbrained, but as to why Jane like him, well, aside from his smoldering good looks, I couldn't figure it out (and she does tell him that she doesn't think he's handsome).

Otherwise the film is lovely to behold. The photography by Adriano Goldman, using a great deal of natural light, is first-rate. Fukunaga's direction emphasizes the Gothic elements of Bronte's novel, especially those scenes in which Thornfield Hall seems to be haunted by some kind of spirit, and the motif of fire, which will play a great part in the story, is used to great effect.

After reading a plot summary of the novel, it would appear to be quite faithful to the book, although certainly some things have been left out. Many have commented that it is one of the best of the umpteen adaptations, but, having seen only this one, I have nothing to compare it to. I do recommend it, though, especially for fans of Victorian literature.

My grade for Jane Eyre: B+

Friday, April 15, 2011

That Evening Sun

Hal Holbrook's excellent, nuanced performance highlights That Evening Sun, an otherwise fair-to-good film that starts slowly but builds to a more complex finish than one might expect.

The film, written and directed by Scott Teems, is based on a short story, and it kind of shows, as the plot is pretty thin. Abner Meecham (Holbrook), glumly residing in a retirement home, packs his suitcase and walks out, intending to go back to his farm. When he gets there he's surprised to find that his son has rented it out; not only that, he's rented it a family presided over a long-time enemy (Ray McKinnon).

The first third of the film is very familiar territory--the old man who's been relegated to the ash heap but still wants to assert his independence. Holbrook really has only one goal in the film--he wants to regain his farm, which he repeatedly tells us he's worked long and hard on. McKinnon's character is something of a redneck slacker, who has been earning disability checks and has a history of not having a job. He does have a wife (Carrie Preston) and a teenage daughter (Mia Wasikowska), whom Holbrook has nothing against; in fact he comes to their aid when they are beaten by McKinnon with a garden hose.

It's only at about the half-way point that my interest got really focused, when both McKinnon and Holbrook's characters became more shaded. When I first read about this film I thought it sounded like David Lynch's The Straight Story, but Holbrook's character is not warm and twinkly like Richard Farnsworth's. He's really no better a person than McKinnon's drunken lout, and the stand-off that the two men have (Holbrook has resolutely moved into the sharecropper's cabin on the property) starts to take on a epic proportion.

Teems' best work as a director is creating the world of the film, which is set in rural Tennessee. Though almost all of the action takes place in the approximately fifty yards between the farmhouse and the cabin, it never seems confined, and we get the sense that the entire world is represented in that space. The film is a bit slowly paced, another result of being based on a story--there's a bit of padding here and there that could have been excised.

But the best reason to see this film is for Holbrook, who creates a vivid character and never has a moment of inauthenticity.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Leonard Cohen

I don't think I became fully cognizant of Leonard Cohen until his great 1988 album, I'm Your Man. I ended up seeing him at Carnegie Hall during his tour for that record. Over the years he's come and gone from my radar, but I made a wise purchase of a two-disc collection called The Essential Leonard Cohen, and have listened to it several times over the past few weeks.

Many academics dismiss the idea that rock lyricists, such as Bob Dylan, could be considered poets. Well, Leonard Cohen was a poet and novelist for over ten years before he ever recorded a song. Many of his early works were better known for being covered by other artists, such as Judy Collins' version of "Suzanne." Those early 1960s songs, sung in Cohen's flat baritone, had some echoes of Dylan, mixed with Fairport Convention. The lyrics could be a bit twee: "Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river/You can hear the boats go by/You can spend the night beside her/And you know that she's half crazy/But that's why you want to be there/And she feeds you tea and oranges/That come all the way from China."

But the songs from his early days, even if they are overly precious, still have a certain nostalgic power. In addition to "Suzanne," I like "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Sisters of Mercy," "So Long Marianne," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." His second album, from 1969, featured "Bird on a Wire," which managed to become a title for an otherwise forgettable Mel Gibson-Goldie Hawn film, and "Chelsea Hotel #2" was about his love affair with Janis Joplin.

Somewhere along the line Cohen changed. His voice became deeper and raspier, perhaps from cigarettes, perhaps from an overwhelming sense of doom, as his lyrics took on an apocalyptic quality. Perhaps his most famous song is "Hallelujah," full of Biblical references, and covered by a variety of artists (k.d. Lang sang it during the 2010 Winter Olympic opening ceremonies--both are Canadian). Then came I'm Your Man, in which his sound incorporated synthesizers and female back-up singers--he was like the anti-Vegas lounge act. Several of the songs from that album are on the Essential Collection, including the title song and the whimsical "Tower of Song," in which he playfully sings, "I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice," punctuated by what sounds like a toy piano.

The album's opening number, "First We Take Manhattan," sounds like some sort of fascist manifesto, with ominous lyrics like "I'm guided by a signal in the heavens/I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin/I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons/First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin."

But my favorite song on the album is "Everybody Knows," which drips with cynicism. "Everybody knows that the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost/Everybody knows the fight was fixed/The poor stay poor, the rich get rich /That's how it goes/Everybody knows."

Cohen's next album, The Future, seemed even bleaker, considering the refrain in the title song is "I've seen the future, brother: it is murder" In "Democracy," he sardonically sings "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A. /It's coming through a crack in the wall; /on a visionary flood of alcohol;
/from the staggering account /of the Sermon on the Mount/which I don't pretend to understand at all. /It's coming from the silence /on the dock of the bay, /from the brave, the bold, the battered/heart of Chevrolet: /Democracy is coming to the U.S.A."

Since then I haven't kept up with Cohen's work, though, at 76, he still records and performs. Though he's probably best termed a cult figure rather than a popular success, he's widely respected in the music industry, and was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If you're unfamiliar with his work I recommend you rectify that posthaste.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Detour

Perhaps my favorite type of film is what is come to be known as film noir. The problem is, no one has really come up with a definitive definition of film noir, and some don't even think it's a genre--there are gangster noirs, mystery noirs, caper noirs, even Western noirs. When the Hollywood directors were making these films, they didn't even know it was called film noir--that was a label attached by French critics in retrospect.

Over many entries on my blog I've stated my interpretation of what film noir is, mostly about what is not film noir. I don't think police procedurals like The Naked City are noir, because the hero (or more precisely, antihero) of noir should be a character of mixed motives, and not a representative of uncorrupted authority. Most think of the antiheroes of film noir as being private eyes, and that they always get involved with a femme fatale, but that isn't always the case.

Over the past few months I received two boxed sets of film noir, and I'm going to share my thoughts on them over the next several weeks. There are numerous sets like these--it seems that noir sells, and studios are repackaging any old black and white movies that might involve a crime and calling it noir. But the ten films in these two sets are all certifiable noir, and all very good examples (I've seen them all before, but not for several years).

They don't include some of the best of the type, such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, Crossfire, Narrow Margin, or Night in the City, but it's a good sampling nonetheless. All of these films were made in the golden age of noir, 1944-1950.

I start with Detour, made in 1945 by Edgar G. Ulmer. This is a B-picture, made on a shoestring, with a no-name cast. In many ways it looks lousy, but as many critics have written, it stays with you like a bad dream. It follows many of the "rules" of film noir--it's reminiscent of German expressionism, it has dream-like qualities, it's strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel. It's also a trim sixty-seven minutes, but seems to have more to it than a film twice that length.

The film concerns Al Roberts (Tom Neal, who ironically would go on to serve time in prison for manslaughter), a pianist in a New York nightclub. His fiancee goes to Hollywood to try to make it as an actress, and he decides to hitchhike to go see her. He gets a ride with a high-rolling bookie, and they hit it off, at least until the man accidentally dies. Neal, realizing the police would never believe his story, hides the body and takes the man's car.

Later, he stops at a gas station and gives a lift to a woman. He describes her, in great pulp language, as looking like "she was thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world." She's played by Anne Savage, in one of the nastiest performances in all of noir. In technical terms, it's not a great performance--it would seem that Ulmer just told her to be the bitchiest she could be, but boy does she deliver.

Savage, it turns out, knows that Neal isn't who he says he is, and blackmails him into taking part in a hare-brained scheme. I won't spoil it anymore than that, except to say there's a nasty bit of business with a telephone cord. Neal narrates the story himself, sitting at a diner as he contemplates his fate.

Detour is cheaply made, and their are several home video versions. I'm not sure if it's the quality of the film or intentional that the tinting of the black and white photography changes from scene to scene--sometimes it's more blue, other times more brown. Also, some scenes where botched but instead of reshoots, Ulmer flipped the negative, so it looks like the cars are being driven in England.

But the undeniable power of Detour is the elemental forces of desperation, greed, and guilt. Savage, we are led to believe, has some sort of terminal illness. Neal is bitter because he's a classically-trained pianist who plays for tips in a nightclub. The movie seems soaked in vinegar, and the existential dread is palpable. This is a must-see for those who like these sorts of films--you'll never forget it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Last Boy

The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood, is not a typical sports biography, and for that Jane Leavy is to be commended. This is one of the best books I've read about the curse of excellence and the drawbacks of stardom, and is a clear-eyed example of how it's never a good idea to meet your heroes.

Leavy incorporates herself into the book, describing her childhood and a grandmother who lived blocks from Yankee Stadium during Mantle's golden years. She also interpolates, at the beginning of each section, an interview she did with Mantle in Atlantic City in 1983, when he took a job with a casino, which got him temporarily banned from baseball. He ends up making a drunken pass at her, and both sides of his personality--hero and lout--are on full display.

Unlike most baseball biographies, Leavy does not get bogged down in a game-by-game recitation of a career. She focuses on twenty important days in Mantle's career. She does touch on his hardscrabble upbringing in Oklahoma mining country, where his father worked the mines, breathing in the lead dust. The famous story of how Mantle, not doing well in the minor leagues, was ready to quit and his father drove to shame him into continuing is told here. Mantle's father would die at age 39.

Much of Mantle's story is familiar to baseball fans, such as how he played hurt almost his entire career. He suffered from osteomyelitis, which kept him out of the Army, and in the World Series of his rookie year he pulled up to avoid running into Joe DiMaggio (on a soft liner hit by Willie Mays, of all people) and stepped on a drain, ripping apart his knee. He still remained one of the fastest players in all of baseball. Many fans also know that in the great season of 1961, when he and Roger Maris, "the M&M Boys," chased Ruth's record, Mantle gave way due to injury. What I didn't know was that the injury stemmed from a shot given to him by a Dr. Feelgood for a venereal disease.

And that's where Mantle's story becomes so fascinating. The man was a hero to so many, an ideal really, like Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, but he led such a dissolute private life. He ended up an alcoholic, and was a rampant womanizer. He married his childhood sweetheart, but treated her abominably, but never divorced her, even while basically living with other women. He seemed to be tormented by his stance as a hero, as evidenced by some of the things he signed on baseballs. One he signed "I fucked Marilyn Monroe" solid for $6,700.

Leavy is very thorough. She spends an entire fascinating chapter about a home run Mantle hit in Washington in 1953, which was the first to be described as a "tape measure" home run--a sportswriter walked it off and estimated it to travel over 600 feet. Like Stanley looking for Livingstone she tracks down the man who was the boy who found the ball, and uses some physicists and satellite photography to estimate how far the ball did travel.

There's also a lot of talk about the comparison between Mantle and Mays. The latter, due to a longer playing career, ended up with higher lifetime stats, but Leavy argues persuasively that Mantle was better, among the best of all time. Mantle certainly regretted the abuse he gave his body. In a discussion with Bob Costas he said, "I know I had as much ability as Willie. And I had probably more all-around ability than Stan or Ted. The difference is none of them have to look back and wonder how good they could have been."

Mantle's greatness as a player, and his generosity as a teammate, shines through in Leavy's prose. And though the subtitle sounds like hyperbole, I don't think it is--Mantle really was the last of a certain type of sports hero, before tell-all books and sportswriters ceased to practice omerta about player's indiscretions. In her introduction I think she says it best: "Mickey Mantle was the Last Boy venerated by the last generation of Baby Boomer boys, whose unshakable bond with their hero is the obdurate refusal to grow up. Maintaining the fond illusions of adolescence is the ultimate Boomer entitlement. He inspired awe without envy--except perhaps for what he got away with. Pain inoculated him against jealousy and judgment."

Monday, April 11, 2011

Harry Brown

Harry Brown is a fine, grim, well-paced film that will draw inevitable comparisons to Death Wish, in that it is about a man who becomes a vigilante. I haven't seen Death Wish in a long time, but it seems to my recollection that the earlier film was food for those who saw Charles Bronson as a hero, the kind of person who cheered Bernhard Goetz. Harry Brown has some of that, but is far more thoughtful and ambiguous.

Michael Caine, in another excellent performance, plays the title role. As the film begins he loses his wife to illness. He's retired, and a former Marine, but doesn't talk about those days, saying he was a different person then. He has one good friend, and they play chess together in the local pub.

They live in a high-crime neighborhood, ruled by punks who openly deal drugs and terrorize innocent bystanders. When Caine's friend is murdered, and the investigating inspector (Emily Mortimer) tells him the most severe charge may be manslaughter, he's had enough.

Caine doesn't go on a killing spree like Bronson, baiting criminals to their grisly ends. There is a long, nightmarish scene in which he visits the local drug-dealer to buy a gun that ends with the kind of violence that reminded me of Taxi Driver. Mortimer is quick to figure out what Caine is up to, but her superiors scoff at her accusations.

Harry Brown is a taut, engaging film that will have you questioning your own beliefs. There's no denying satisfaction in watching criminals get their just desserts, but at the same time you may echo Mortimer's question to Caine: "Where does it end?"

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Unitarian Universalism

Those that read this blog regularly know of my religious beliefs or, more accurately, my lack of them. For many years I avoided setting foot in churches--even entering one as a tourist, like in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, gave me the willies. But about thirteen years ago I was turned on to the Unitarian Universalist faith.

I was inspired, by all people, by John Updike, who wrote in his memoirs about how the Unitarians were as exotic to him as Bantus. Intrigued, I looked in the Yellow Pages and saw that their was a congregation in Princeton. I attended for a year or so, and then for reasons that elude me now, I got out of the habit. A friend of mine who is very religious prayed for me last year to get a job. She said that if I did, I should accept God. Well, I did get a job, and figured the least I could do was go back to the Unitarian Church. It's not a complete quid pro quo, for I still don't believe in God, but I am willing to explore spiritual growth.

The Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 to form the current religious organization. They both a basis in Christianity--the word Unitarian comes from "one God," a deviation from the faiths that believe in the Trinity. But the modern church has no creed. The congregation, as best as I can tell, is made up of a diverse group of people, and accepts everyone--Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, regular old Christians, and even atheists like me. It also identifies itself as a "liberal" religion. I'm not sure how closely that ties in with the political meaning of the word, but I'm guessing that when I attend Sunday services there aren't too many registered Republicans in the ranks. A recent sermon was on the immigration policy of the country, and was solidly for the DREAM act, which had gone unpassed in Congress. The religion is tolerant of all sorts of rights, from women to homosexual, and there's a kind of sixties vibe to the proceedings.

I've been attending again now for little over a month. I got a voicemail from the pastor, a marvelous woman who is only serving in an interim capacity--she's moving on soon and making way for a new guy starting next month. She wondered about me joining the church, which I think is a little premature. I'm not a very social animal, and I always think of that Groucho Marx joke: "I would never want to join any club that would have someone like me for a member." But the people are so friendly that I might be convinced to do so.

For those who are left aghast at most organized religions, and have doubts about the supernatural hocus pocus espoused in many Christian faiths, I recommend you check out Unitarian Universalists. It's not only a collection of leftover hippies, there have been some serious thinkers who have been followers, including three of the first six presidents (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams), plus Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Susan B. Anthony. The sermons are like lectures from interesting college professors, and the word Jesus is hardly ever mentioned. When God is mentioned, it is always in the context of "God as you understand it to be."

The religion has seven principles, which I list here:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

There's nothing there I can't agree with.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Win Win

Tom McCarthy has made two of my favorite films of the last decade, The Station Agent and The Visitor (the latter was my choice for top film of 2007), thus I had high hopes for his latest, Win Win. While I liked the film, it is far less stringent than his first two, more of a crowd-pleaser, and follows a more predictable course. It's still a very good film, though.

Win Win (I'm not sure what the title means, perhaps it refers to the phrase "win-win situation") is a tale of ethics and second chances, with a complex protagonist who always doesn't do the right thing, even when he thinks he is. The film's first two acts are straight out comedy, but the final third edges into a message-oriented conclusion that veers closely into standard melodrama.

In his usual sad-sack mode, Paul Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a one-man law practice who is on hard times (this rings very true--my best friend had a single law practice and ended up having to give it up and become a teacher due to low business volume--not all lawyers live in luxury). He has an elderly client (Burt Young) who is in the early stages of dementia. When Giamatti realizes there is a stiped of $1,500 dollars a month for being his guardian, he jumps at the chance, but instead of letting Young live at home, which he promises the court, he dumps him in a retirement village.

The real plot gets going when Young's grandson (Alex Shaffer), shows up, fleeing his drug-addicted mother in Ohio (the film is set in New Jersey, though the closing credits indicate it was mostly shot on Long Island). Giamatti and his wife, Amy Ryan, take the boy in reluctantly, but grow to like him, despite him being monosyllabic and mysterious. Giamatti especially bonds with him when he discovers he's a champion wrestler, as Giamatti is the wrestling coach for the local high school team.

The film has a nice, fuzzy heart-warming tone as this odd family forms. Shaffer, despite never having met his grandfather before, grows to enjoy visiting the old man, and Ryan develops a motherly protectiveness for the boy. Of course, things get twisted when the mother (Melanie Lynskey) shows up, and of course Giamatti's ethical slipperiness will be exposed. Anyone with a pulse will know these plot developments will occur, and while McCarthy handles them with care and intelligence, there's a certain inevitableness about them. McCarthy really likes his characters, and lets them off the hook whenever he can. Giamatti is very good as a man who cares about people but isn't above taking the easy way out--it made me think how I can rationalize certain situations. Ryan is also good, but underused. Two supporting players, Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Canavale, play Giamatti's friends, but are also underdeveloped.

As for Shaffer, I kind of struggled with his character. He's really a cypher through much of the film, intentionally, I imagine, so his acts of stalwartness, while uplifting, seem to come out of nowhere.

I don't want to be too hard on this film, though. It's one of the best I've seen in this short year, though talks of Oscar nominations seem premature and fanciful.

My grade for Win Win: B

Friday, April 08, 2011

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

In another coincidence, I have seen my second movie starring Gemma Arterton in as many days. Here, in the awkwardly-titled Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, she plays a plucky princess of some vague Middle-Eastern city. That she's as white as the Cliffs of Dover didn't seem to occur to anyone.

That there are no featured actors in this film that look vaguely Persian or Arabic (only Ben Kingsley, who is part Indian, looks right) is not the least of the film's problems. It is based on a video game, and my dictum that there has never been a good movie based on a video game holds true. Prince of Persia, to its credit, is on a higher plane than most, because at least it doesn't look like a video game. Sucker Punch, which is not based on a game, looks like one, to its discredit.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the titular Prince. He's an orphan who is adopted by the king, and grows up to lead an attack on Arterton's city. In a parallel to the modern-day "weapons of mass destruction"-based invasion of Iraq, it turns out that there is a traitor in the royal family and the whole thing was a set up. Gyllenhaal flees for his life, along with Arterton and a magical dagger which can turn back time.

The film looks great, and makes good use of its desert settings. But I found the action scenes boring. Alfred Molina, playing a part that Peter Ustinov specialized in, provides some comic relief. If there is a sequel, I'm unlikely to give it a look.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Clash of the Titans

By coincidence, Clash of the Titans is the second movie I've seen this week featuring Greek gods. A remake of the more campy 1981 film, it oddly features no Titans at all (the Titans were the progenitors of the Olympians: Zeus, Hades, Athena, etc., who are on hand).

When the film was released last year it got hammered by some critics who claimed that it was not worth being upgraded to 3D. I watched it in good old 2D, and while it is no classic, I had an okay time with it. The action is straightforward, there is little padding, and some of the special effects are good.

As with the original film, the film deals with the myth of Perseus (Sam Worthington), the demigod and son of Zeus who is called upon to defeat the gods. He is raised by a poor fisherman (Pete Postlethwaite), who gets killed as an innocent bystander by mean old Hades (Ralph Fiennes, wearing a ridiculous beard). Mankind is rebelling against the gods, which is making Zeus (Liam Neeson) both mad and sad, because he loves mankind. Hades, on the other hand, who was tricked by Zeus into ruling the underworld, sees this as an opportunity to overthrow Zeus, unleashing his secret weapon--a monster called the Kraken.

The film takes the form of a quest, with Perseus joining a band of hardy warriors, plus another demigod, Io (Gemma Arterton). They need to destroy the Kraken before the next eclipse, or the entire country of Argos will be destroyed. That is, unless Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), is sacrificed. After a visit to the some witches, Perseus, learns that the head of Medusa is the key.

Mostly Clash of the Titans is silly fun. Worthington makes a stolid and respectable hero, and Mads Mikkelsen is good as first his detractor, and then his ally. The good special effects include some giant scorpions, the bad is the depiction of Medusa. I figured she was completely CGI, but then saw that she was "played" by supermodel Natalia Vodianova. I imagine only her face was used to project upon a CGI creation that seemed to advance little beyond the age of Ray Harryhausen.

Of course, my favorite moment in the film, as it was when I saw the endless commercials for it last year, was when Neeson says, in full Royal Shakespeare timbre, "Release the Kraken!" I think that phrase can be a euphemism for almost anything.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Gasland

The fifth nominee and final nominee for Best Documentary Feature for the most recent Academy Awards that I've got a chance to see is Gasland, a stark and frightening look at the environmental havoc wreaked by natural gas drilling, specifically a technique called hydraulic fracturing.

Written, directed, and narrated by Josh Fox, it's a personal story for him, as it begins with him getting an offer from a gas company to lease his wooded land in northeastern Pennsylvania. He declines the offer, and starts to investigate just what happens to people who are unfortunate enough to be close by to the thousands of wells that have been dug.

There are two prongs to Fox's argument: one is that the chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing are proprietary, and therefore unknown, and two, the oil and gas industries are exempt from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The villain here, no surprise, is Dick Cheney, whose ties to Halliburton are cited as the impetus for ramming through legislation that makes it easy for these industries to basically get their way.

Fox interviews people from Pennsylvania to Texas to Colorado. All either have chronic health problems or, in eye-opening scenes, display how their tap water can be lit on fire. The film has come under fire (no pun intended) by the gas industry, who point out falsehoods (apparently one of the men who can light his tap water on fire is because of natural coal beds) but clearly the answer of natural gas, which is presented as preferable to foreign oil, is far from perfect. Numerous chemists testify that the chemicals used, primarily a variety of benzenes, are not good for living things.

Fox has made a film that is different than the usual documentary of this type. He takes an almost poetic approach, using shots of nature, and punctuates the action with some interesting music choices, including himself on banjo.

For anyone who has a general, automatic distrust of large corporations, none of this will be surprising.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

It's hard not to watch Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief without thinking of Harry Potter. Much of the template is the same--young man who feels vaguely out of place in the real world, with a miserable home life, discovers he is something special and gets sent to a place where others are like him. He makes special friends--one male, one female. Meanwhile evil creatures are after him.

The difference is that J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter's world from whole cloth, while Percy Jackson's creator, Rick Riordan, used the Greek myths. This makes the entire thing somewhat more educational, if anything. Over the course of the film we see satyrs, centaurs, furies, Medusa, a Hydra, and a variety of Gods. If this sends kids to Bullfinch's Mythology, it's not a bad thing.

The plot centers around a squabble between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. Zeus thinks that Poseidon's son, Percy, stole his lighting bolt. Why he thinks this is unclear. Hades kidnaps Percy's mother (Catherine Keener), and he needs to find a series of pearls to be able to go into the underworld and back out again. As he searches for the pearls we get some drollery, such as Uma Thurman as Medusa (she began her career as Aphrodite--thus is the manner in which an actress ages), having the lotus-eaters operate a Las Vegas casino, and the entrance to Hades underneath the Hollywood sign.

But the film has a kind of perfunctory attitude. The action scenes are nothing to write home about, and the direction, by Chris Columbus, who did a Harry Potter film, lacks spark. The young actor Logan Lerman plays Percy without too much charisma, and neither Brandon T. Jackson as the satyr or Alexandra Daddario, as Athena's daughter, don't offer much to the proceedings, either.

The film is definitely centered toward young people, especially those who might know who Zeus and Poseidon are, which I imagine is a pretty small demographic. Those kids might enjoy the film, but for adults it's a bit of a yawn.