Sunday, April 06, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Comic books and superheroes are all the rage at the box office, and Marvel has cornered the market on doing it right. "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is the best installment yet of the Marvel franchise, surpassing even "The Avengers," which I loved. The formula for success has been great acting, a good story, and buckets of money. The formula holds for the new installment of Captain America, and the result was $303.3 million opening weekend.

What makes "Winter Soldier" a success is its willingness to take an important principle and build a story for our times around that big idea. In our post 9/11 world, the balance between national security and individual liberty is a delicate business. After the alien invasions of "The Avengers" and "Thor: Dark World," I imagine a world ready and willing to consign most of their liberties to history in exchange for the illusory promise of security today. What happens, though, when the apparatus meant to protect humanity is turned against humanity itself? And when those charged with protecting humanity decide that liberty and freedom are the greater threat? Nothing good, I can promise you. 

Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Director Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), and Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) are formidable and fun to watch. The introduction of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) - the former soldier Sam Wilson who does everything Rogers does "only slower" - proves a major asset when no one knows who they can trust. It is this addition of a major conspiracy that runs the depth and breadth of S.H.I.E.L.D. that is the other element of the story that makes "Winter Soldier" so compelling.

Funny enough, the Winter Soldier himself is the least important part of this cinematic melange. No offense to Sebastian Stan whose portrayal of the Winter Soldier is both exciting and thrilling at times, it's just that the conspiracy and the exploration of the security/liberty theme is more compelling.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" just moved to the top of my list of movies to watch again and again. I also can't wait to see "Guardians of the Galaxy," a deep cut from the Marvel oeuvre which releases in August 2014.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Ian Rankin's Saints of the Shadow Bible

Being a fan of crime fiction and mysteries, I feel late to the Ian Rankin party. While contemplating a vacation to Scotland, I learned about Rankin's oeuvre, all set in Edinburgh. Starting with his newest offering Saints of the Shadow Bible would serve as a test; if it was good, I will have found a treasure trove of new titles to keep me busy.

Though there is significant back story to which, as a new reader, I am not privy, Rankin's story telling in the Saints manages to communicate all  all this necessary facts once needs to know, without a tedious recitation that long-time readers find boring. (Yes, I'm talking to you Sue Grafton.) Saints pits the old against the new in the realm of police investigations, where it's snitches and favors v. forensics and Google searches. Detective Sergeant John Rebus (demoted for past sins in past novels) represents the old, and internal affairs (complaints department) inspector Malcolm Fox represents the new, while Detective Inspector Siobhan Clarke stands between the two.

When Scotland's Solicitor General opens a new investigation into a murder from three decades prior, Fox is the lead investigator and Rebus is squarely in his sights. Billy Saunders, a police snitch, was accused of murder, but the case fell apart due to either police incompetence or outright obstruction. At the time, Rebus had just joined Summerhall and joined the Saint of the Shadow Bible, those detectives whose commitment to fighting crime was not to be hindered by the niceties of the law. They were known to plant evidence, beat confessions out of criminals, and, when the courts failed, to take the law into their own hands. Rebus manages to insinuate himself into Fox's investigation, though neither man trusts the other, and both hope to use the other to their own ends. Once Billy Saunders ends up dead in a canal, all bets are off.

At the same time, three other investigations - a car crash, the death of the Scottish Justice Minister, and another body in a canal - keep Rebus and Clarke busy. The relentless pursuit of coincidences and intuition with just a wee bit of intimidation leads to resolution, and respect for both the old ways and the new. Rankin manages to tell not only a good detective story, but a very human story that probes politics and business, the foibles of fathers and sons, and how virtues like loyalty and honesty can indeed become vices.

My only question, which Ian Rankin novel next?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sharon Kay Penman's A King's Ransom

Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Poitou and Anjou was the very definition of foolhardy. At the approach of his death (no this is not a spoiler as he died in 1199), I found myself angry with the great king for the reckless behavior that ended his life after only a decade of rule. The promise of what could have been died that April day with the Lionheart. If there are moments where the future of the world changes, author Sharon Kay Penman makes you believe that this was one of them. Jerusalem might have been returned to Christian rule had Richard returned to the Holy Land, and if he ruled long into old age, as his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine did, the Magna Carta forced on King John in 1215 at Runnymede would have been unnecessary, and thus even American democracy might have been affected by the Lionheart.

My anger was fleeting in response to A King's Ransom, for there is a deep and abiding sadness that permeates this biography of King Richard, especially when events are viewed through the eyes of Queen Eleanor who outlived all but her youngest son John. Though Death stocked the lives of those who lived through the Middle Ages more than we can hope to comprehend in our modern world of technology and medicine, man's inhumanity to man sets the most lugubrious tone of Penman's book. The Holy Roman Emperor's capture and imprisonment of Richard upon his return from the Holy Land, including a near death experience in the infamous dungeons of Trifels and the extortionist ransom that nearly bankrupted all of England and Normandy, left Richard broken in a way that changed him fundamentally. His sweet, innocent wife Berengaria suffered at least as much as Richard himself, if not more, as she never knew why she suffered so. 

For all the melancholy that permeated the medieval world - illness and death, war and famine, unrelenting fear - one source of comfort should have the Church. Certainly there were priests, nuns, abbots, and princes of the Church who managed to do God's work, but too often, Penman shows us, the Church proved to be guilty of tolerating the misery of humanity, if not causing it outright. From Pope Celestine who was too weak to confront Emperor Heinrich for capturing Richard who was under the protection of the Church to prelates like the Bishop of Beauvais who shielded behind his pallium brazen acts of military and political power. Worst, though, was the Church's adherence to doctrines that focused more on sexual sins and heresy while ignoring sins against human dignity. (A problem still for the 21st century Catholic Church.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine, beside her husband King Henry II, at Fontverault Abbey
Sharon Kay Penman has accomplished something truly marvelous in her two volume historical fiction biography of King Richard, begun in Lionheart and concluded here in A King's Ransom. Through impeccable research of nearly all the extant contemporary sources, and probably every last page written on Richard and his family in the last eight centuries, Penman is as familiar with Angevin dynasty as if she were a not so distant cousin and family chronicler. Her familiarity with the historical sources allows her to enter into Richard's world through her imagination, creating the narrative thread that weaves together the actual chronicles with intelligent speculation and a immensely plausible story that I couldn't put down.

For all the adventures of Richard and the pure enjoyment of his triumphs over Philippe, Heinrich, and the rest, it was the first appearance of Justin de Quincy that literally brought a cheer to my lips. Justin is the main character from Penman's series of medieval mysteries, all centered around Eleanor's rule of Richard domain's during his absence. The second de Quincy book, Cruel as the Grave, was my introduction to Penman's writing, and I have loved every page I have read since.

I have but one complaint that comes not from the trials and tribulations of Richard the Lionheart, but from Penman's announcement in the Author's Note that this is the last book she will write on the Angevins. Eleanor is dead, and after twenty years in service to the great Queen's family, Penman will move on to another medieval family, set in Champagne and the Holy Land called The Land Beyond the Sea. I had hoped for a biography of the Devil' own King John, but returning to Outremer and the Kingdom of Jerusalem is a worthy adventure too.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

The death of Peter O'Toole in December left me nostalgic to watch one of my favorite old movies, "Lawrence of Arabia," which then pushed me to take the plunge and read Scott Anderson's new biography of T.E. Lawrence titled "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East." What Anderson presents is an unflinching look at the scholarly archeologist-cum-soldier, his two year flirtation with the brutality of desert warfare, and the way he was changed and ultimately broken by this experience. 

The book focuses on Lawrence's championing of the Arab tribes led by Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons in their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire (with the encouragement of the British Empire). Anderson creates a rich tapestry describing the Great War - the war to end all wars - so that the reader never forgets that this conflict, that played out throughout modern day Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, is part of a much greater whole. As Anderson writes in his introduction: 
"In terms of lives, money, and matériel expended, in terms of the thousands of hours spent in weighty consultation between generals and kings and prime ministers, the imperial plotters of Europe were infinitely more concerned over the future status of Belgium, for example, than with what might happen in the impoverished regions of the Middle East." 
This lack of concern for the desert hinterlands would allow a single man - Lawrence - to influence events during the war until the peace conference in Paris, when the imperial planner would once again exert their influence.

T.E. Lawrence in the Arab robes he preferred.
After graduating from Jesus College at Oxford and spending three years in Syria on an archaeological dig at Carchemish, T.E. Lawrence would find himself volunteering his intimate knowledge of the Middle East to the British Empire first as civilian cartographer, then as a junior officer (in order to brief a general who refused to be addressed by a civilian,the first of several awkward promotions Lawrence would receive). Sent to Cairo as an intelligence officer, Lawrence's linguistic talents, familiarity with terrain, adaptability, and genuine respect for the Arab tribesman allowed him to assert his ideas first through intelligence reports and then on the ground as an advisor to Faisal Ibn Hussein. Lawrence adopted the Arab dress of those he advised, and took it upon himself to help the Arabs secure a future for themselves, free of the yolk of the Ottomans and free of the imperial designs of both the French (whom he despised) and his own British superiors.

Nearly a century later, what Anderson present in this modern reassessment of Lawrence of Arabia is a very complicated human being, both the heroic figure idealized by many and the broken man whose suffering caused him to change his name twice to avoid the the celebrity of his exploits. Here was a man whose hubris drove him to commit treason against whose own country (he revealed the contents of the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France on the disposition of the Middle East to Faisal) because he was convinced he knew what was better for both the Arabs and the British Empire - a free and independent Arab state. At the same time, his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom is 600+ pages, much of it self aggrandizement, but he never printed more than 200 copies and he donated the proceeds from Revolt in the Desert, which could have made him a wealthy man, to an air force charity to benefit veterans of WWI.

Winston Churchill trailed by T.E. Lawrence and Faisal ibn Hussein
Without psychoanalyzing Lawrence overly much, Anderson turns his biographer's gaze to the darkest moment of Lawrence's life, the probable rape and torture he suffered in Deraa. Comparing what Lawrence wrote in his official reports, Seven Pillars, and letters to confidants after the war, Anderson pieces together what - in the absence of eyewitnesses and reliable evidence - is a strong case that "something happened in Deraa. Many of those who knew Lawrence best would report a change in his personality, an even greater remoteness, dating from around that time. It was also soon afterward that he began organizing a person bodyguard...." In the end, T.E. Lawrence was witness to and victim of - and some might argue perpetrator of - the very worst of humanity in war time. As Anderson argues, Lawrence certainly suffered from PTSD after the war as a result of all that he had seen and done and had been done to him, and more poignantly all that he had not done or had been unable to do. The final insult was having to witness at Paris the final betrayal of the Arabs by imperial Europe. He did make one last effort, assisting Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary who tried to make the best of a terrible situation. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Lawrence wrote that Churchill "made straight all the tangle" in the Middle East, fulfilling Britain's promises to the Arabs "in letter and spirit (where humanly possible) without sacrificing any interest of our Empire or any interest of the peoples concerned."
What makes Anderson's biography such a triumph is not just the story-telling and research on T.E. Lawrence (some of which has only recently been declassified) but his inclusion of other key actors in the Middle East, contemporaries of Lawrence. He focuses on three specifically, a German diplomat-cum-spy, an American oilman-cum-spy, and a Jewish Zionist-cum-spy. The story of Curt Prüfer, the German spymaster's whose machinations on behalf of the Kaiser and in service of the Young Turks then ruling the Ottoman Empire, helps to flesh out what was happening on the other side. William Yale, an American aristocrat fallen on hard times (the Ivy League university is named for his family), who went to work for the Standard Oil Company and found himself in the Middle East when war broke out; his inclusion is more about representing the American perspective and rather than his minimal contribution. Aaron Aaronsohn was a world famous agronomist living in Palestine whose commitment to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine put him on a collision course with Lawrence's ideal of a free and independent Arab state. Both Aaronsohn and Yale, with Lawrence, would attend the Paris Peace Conference, a disaster if ever there was one for the 20th century. Anderson manages to weave all of this together into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

After T.E. Lawrence's untimely death as a result of a motorcycle accident, immortalized in the opening of the 1962 movie "Lawrence of Arabia," Winston Churchill opted, appropriately, to remember all that is deserving of our admiration, saying "I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere. I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again." Times had changed, and maybe never again will a solitary man be able to make war against an empire mounted on a camel. Nearly a century later, there are still lessons to be learned from the story of Lawrence's adventures in Arabia.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

47 Ronin

The story of the forty-seven ronin comes from Medieval Japan, where a good and honorable samurai is executed by the shogun through the treachery of a rival samurai. The retainers of the executed samurai then took the next year plotting their revenge, and biding their time until their master's rival let down his guard. When the time was right, the 47 ronin took their revenge, and when ordered to commit seppuku themselves, they obliged without complaint, restoring the honor of both master and retainers and becoming the ultimate exemplars of bushido, the way of the warrior in samurai culture. It has been the subject of multiple fictional retellings, including a wonderful novel by Laura Joh Roland called The Ronin's Mistress.

Now the "47 Ronin"  is a big budget CGI fantasy adventure, moving the story to a realm of mythical beasts and evil witches. The potential here was massive, and I so wanted to love this movie. Then they announced the star, Keanu Reeves, the world's most wooden action hero ever. All that potential for greatness transformed into potential for utter to become a supremely awful film, ready to assume its place alongside such disasters as Gigli, Catwoman, and Battlefield Earth.

Instead, every superlative but one - negative or positive - has deserted this movie, leaving a $175 million monument to mediocrity, and Keanu Reeves is the least of their problems. The film suffers from a multitude of issues - the story, the pacing, the characters, and a subplot bolted on to no avail. First, the screenplay never explores the story of the 47 ronin in any more detail than the opening paragraph here. There is no nuanced answer to why these ronin seek revenge. They never explore the origin of their new character Kai, the half breed raised by demons played by Reeves, but for a few single scenes that leads to more questions than answers. 

It is obvious the director Carl Rinsch - a first timer - so much so that he refuses to cut away enough to make the film move at a pace beyond agonizingly slow. Everything take too long to happen, and not enough happens. How's that for confused? Finally, the stilted romance between Kai and Mika can only be the product of a studio note hoping to convince women to see the film. Missing from the source material, the romance brings nothing to the movie.

The film is gorgeous - its costumes and scenery - which makes it even more disheartening that it is so very unremarkable. What "47 Ronin" needed more than anything was an experienced fantasy director like Guillermo del Toro, but instead we sing the ode to opportunities lost.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Emma Thompson as PL Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney 
"Mary Poppins" is possibly my favorite Disney movie of all time; thus began my long infatuation with Julie Andrews. I was of two minds about seeing "Saving Mr. Banks." Disney has become such a behemoth - the multi-billion dollar empire of the Mouse - buying up both creative properties like Star Wars and the Muppets and media companies like ESPN and ABC, that I found myself resistant to a self-aggrandizing account of the making of "Mary Poppins" that, like the Disney Christmas Parade, was nothing more than a long form commercial for the company.

In truth I was also concerned about the picture of PL Travers - the original author of the Mary Poppins books - that was being painted in interviews and pre-release publicity. There was a developing consensus that Travers was just a bitch that everyone hated, setting the audience up to root for corporation over the artist, the man over the woman. I am happy to report that my fears were misplaced, and the movie is better than the publicity junket that preceded it.

The early life of PL Travers in Australia with Colin Farrel as her father
"Saving Mr. Banks" is really two stories. One comprises the origin of the character Mary Poppins deep in the hinter land of Australia in the early part of the 20th century where Colin Farrell plays the happy drunk bank manager who also fathered the future the future PL Travers. The story of Mary Poppins is very much based on the childhood experiences of Mrs. Travers, and when she says the characters are family, this is neither metaphor nor hyperbole.

The second story is about the two weeks in 1961 when, after just nearly 20 years, Walt Disney finally convinces Travers to travel to Hollywood. Though Disney's goal was for Travers to sign away her creative rights to Mary Poppins for the sake of the movie, Travers was never quite convinced. Those two weeks were a struggle between an immensely talented Disney team, led by the man himself, and one prickly, curmudgeonly artist who is a match for all of them. 

Upon her arrival on the Disney lot, it quickly becomes obvious that everyone on the Disney team is convinced of their vision of Mary Poppins. Travers immediately dismissed both the idea of a musical and insists there would be no cartoon, much to the chagrin of the Sherman brothers, known fondly as The Boys, whose musical credits include "The Jungle Book" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." When she says she has completely gone off the color red and it was not to be used in the movie, Uncle Walt gives in unexpectedly. Travers' mantra of "No, no, no" nearly wears down everyone. The experience was so trying that Disney refused to invite Travers to the premiere for fear her negativity would affect the film. She showed up anyway. The movie manages to capture the humanity under all the vexatiousness.
Julie Andrews, Walt Disney, and PL Travers at the premiere of "Mary Poppins"

What the audience witnesses is the creative tension that forces the great Walt Disney to return to his roots as the artist who created Mickey Mouse and empathize with the artist in Travers who is so unwilling to relinquish her own creation. Together they create one of the most enduring films in the history of cinema which I am convinced was made better for all the tension between some amazingly creative individuals. It is no wonder that "Mary Poppins" was Disney's most successful live action movie, garnering five Oscars, including Best Actress for Julie Andrews and two for the Sherman brothers for Best Song and Original Score.

Though there is much that remains unsaid in "Saving Mr. Banks," both about Disney and Travers, the movie itself succeeds so long as we remember it is a story and not a documentary. It is packed with nostalgia and remind us of what Disney did best, and why we loved is so.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Official 2013 Thanksgiving Day Menu

So this year I hosted Thanksgiving for friends and decided that this meal needed to be the very definition of bounty and (over)abundance. Thank goodness I took the week off from work to accomplish this feat. It was a great fun.  It is because of its focus on friends and food that Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday of mine. Busy cooking, I forgot to take any photos, but my friends Jack and Dory managed to capture the turkey just out of the oven. Let the Christmas menu planning begin!

Herbed and Brined Turkey
Turkeys & Gravy

Smoked Turkey Ballotine with Prosciutto and Sage
Anne Burrell's Herbed and Three Day Brined Turkey
Apple Cider Gravy


Salt and Pepper Biscuits
Green Beans with Sesame Seeds, Soy Sauce, Molasses
Turnips with Bacon and Pickled Mustard Seeds
Classic Mashed Potatoes
Sweet Potato Soufflé with Marshmallow
Apple and Sausage Stuffing Muffins
Alton Brown’s Oyster Dressing
Honey Roasted Acorn Squash
Corn Pudding
Roasted Carrots and Parsnips
Cranberry Compote


Lime Coconut Custard Pie
Maple Pumpkin Brûlée Pie
Pear Pie with Red Wine and Rosemary
Butterscotch Trifle with Curry Crumbles

Maple Pot de Creme