Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars: The Inner Child's Lament

SPOILERS! Seriously, stop reading now if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.

A lot happens from the time a movie is green-lit to the day it hits the big screen, so it's no great sin if a creative misstep happens along the way. In the world of creative missteps, however, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is more a two-footed blind leap off a cliff.

That cliff is on Ach-To, the planet where Rey finds Luke, Jedi-in-exile and legendary embodiment of all the goody-two-shoes peace, love and happiness in the universe. His was the 30 year backstory we were waiting for. Luke was the sole disappointment of The Force Awakens and the giant, dangling carrot on a stick luring fans, super and otherwise, back to theaters. While we do find out why he's exiled himself, there's precious little meat on the bones of that reason. What we get is a Luke so out of character from his former self there's little reason to care what he's done or what he's going to do. Okay, the bit with Yoda was awesome, but only because his was the only callback of a legacy character that was treated with any regard for all the development that came before. Mark Hamill deserved a better storyline and so did the audience.

Speaking of deserving better, did Daisy Ridley even need to be in this film? You could say her acting was stiff, but she wasn't given any reason to act. Rey wanders around Ach-To for a long weekend being ignored by Luke before leaving to literally do some heavy lifting for the Resistance. Her big rescue scene near the end of the film is anti-climactic for a number of reasons, but mostly because (a) the boulders are visually out of place for the surrounding environment, (b) they look look like a third grade class made them, (c) a few blasts from a laser probably would have cleared them, and (d) the scene is so poorly filmed it might has well have been cut straight out of a Wonder Woman episode from the 1970s.

Which leads me to the major overriding issue I have with The Last Jedi -- quality.

The quality of the dialogue, never a strong point in Star Wars films, is atrocious. The dialogue might as well have been improvised by grade school theater students. Anti-diarrhea commercials have more natural flow of language and Mexican soap operas have more subtlety. The central characters seem to repeat the same conversations over and over with dwindling enthusiasm, while lesser characters lend nothing to the overall. No one is ever going to win an Oscar for a Star Wars performance, but holy guacamole you can at least give them something to work with.

The quality of the story-telling is atrocious. If I wasn't struggling with ADD going in to view The Last Jedi, I sure as heck was coming out. Most scenes last no longer than a few sentences before we move to a new set or cut to a different plot line. It's almost as though director Rian Johnson was afraid we'd get bored if we stayed in one place too long, but that's what we want. We're going to a party to meet a bunch of old friends and we want to hang out with them for a couple hours. Instead, every time we begin to strike up a conversation with Luke, Leia, Rey, Finn, Poe, Snoke, or Kylo Ren, we're shuffled on to the next person like we're speed-dating. It's difficult for me to believe the same man who directed Looper is responsible for this unfocused mess.

Most significantly, the quality of the plot is atrocious. Plot is the interrelated sequence of events that leads the audience to the climax of a story. As plots go, there apparently wasn't one. Nearly all choices made by the characters lead nowhere and the holes in basic logic are so ginormous that even Jack, Chrissy and Janet couldn't have missed them. Why didn't Laura Dern tell anyone she was planning to evacuate the remaining Resistance fighters in cloaked ships? How does Benicio Del Toro know Dern's plan when Poe and all his fellow mutineers clearly don't? How does Finn recover so quickly from having his spine severed without acquiring some cool, character-defining tech gear? Why does Poe change from a savvy squad leader in The Force Awakens to a reckless thrill-seeker happy to sacrifice a few dozen people to take out a single enemy ship? Why wouldn't Hux simply request another ship to approach the fleeing Resistance from the other direction, or zip ahead of them and blow them to smithereens? How in holy hell does a spacecraft slow down when it runs out of fuel? I'm as happy as the next audience member to suspend my disbelief from time to time -- we are talking about a serialized space opera, after all -- but space is a frictionless vacuum. A ship out of fuel would continue to move at a constant speed until it hit something.

There are more issues than bad dialogue, sloppy story telling and incomprehensible plotting, but the fundamental problems with those three are enough to qualify The Last Jedi a misfire and a mess.

There are reasons to see a movie a second time. To understand everything about it, yes. To fully appreciate layers of detail, yes. To see how you were misdirected throughout the film to be set up for a twist ending, yes. Those are all valid reason why you should need or want to see a movie a second time. What you shouldn't have to do is see a movie twice to prove to yourself it might not be as bad as you think it is.

© 2017 Mark Feggeler

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Frankenstein on the Orient Express?

Kenneth Branagh broke my heart back in 1994.

Just 176 years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley crafted the perfect romantic horror novel – Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. Shelley gave us gorgeous settings, slowly developed the obsessive madness of her primary character, established the greater humanity and ultimate heartbreak of Frankenstein's creature, crafted burgeoning romance and subsequent tragedy, and intentionally kept us completely in the dark about the science of reanimation to dissuade future generations from repeating the horrendous mistake. Branagh's 1994 movie, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, did none of that. In place of all those graceful subtleties, Branagh gave us bombastic acting, manic storytelling, graphic gory nastiness at every turn, unnecessary and ineffective alterations, and a detailed (and disgusting) understanding of the reanimation process.

Granted, I am a purist when it comes to film adaptations of literature, but I'm willing to forgive creative license if the end result proves itself worthy. Branagh at least tried to be more faithful to the source material than James Whale did in 1931 with his iconic and truly awful Frankenstein that so many people consider to be the classic retelling. The big mistake Branagh made was to focus too much on the gothic horror elements of the story and not enough on the greater tragedies of the human spirit. The resulting movie is a grotesque version of a tale originally balanced on a razor's edge between horror and beauty.

When I first saw the poster for the new Murder on the Orient Express hanging in our local movie theater I was intrigued. The Agatha Christie novel is another one of my all-time favorites. Although the 1974 movie starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot was masterful, perhaps forty years on it was time for an updated presentation to lure in modern audiences. The poster listed a treasure trove of excellent actors including Brannagh, Pfeiffer, Dench, Colman, Depp, etc., etc., etc. And then it named the director – Kenneth Branagh.

Groan... Intrigue and dread. Branagh had already mercilessly vivisected one of my literary idols. Was Agatha Christie to fall victim to the same treatment as Mary Shelley?

Commercials showed chase scenes. There are no chase scenes in the book. The trailer shows a bridge and Poirot majestically walking ahead of the train. There's no bridge in the book, Poirot does nothing majestically and he never leaves the train. Branagh is shown to be a dapper, handsome Poirot with a ridiculous mustache. The only thing right about that is the mustache, to an extent.

When the time came for the movie's release, my feelings were mixed. I wanted to see it, but I didn't. Sunday at the Sunrise Theater in Southern Pines, I took my seat in the balcony and steeled myself for disappointment.

Divergence from the novel occurs immediately, telling you this isn't your mother's Orient Express. There are enough similarities between written page and celluloid to let you know Branagh respects the former enough to develop the appropriate atmosphere in the latter. In doing so, he successfully avoids the fundamental problem with his Frankenstein debacle. It feels right, even if details of character and plot are not. The general sense of humor is right, the beautiful scenery is right, the underlying motivation for the murder is right. Again, I'm not against creative reinterpretation if it's done well. Minor changes are easily forgiven because Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express is pretty, fun and loyal enough.

The only time Branagh really fails is at the denouement. When Poirot parades out the solution of the crime to the implicated passengers, the entire process feels rushed. Certain important details have not yet been uncovered, recent fisticuffs are still too fresh to have been forgiven, and a proper investigation of facts has not been completed. It's almost as though filming had reached a point where Branagh said "Right! This has gone on long enough. Let's wrap it up!" without properly building to the emotional payoff we expect from Agatha Christie's climactic expositions. The hamminess of classically-trained Shakespearean theater acting that had simmered below the surface throughout the film bursts forth and threatens to derail the entire show.

In the end, even though Branagh's Poirot gets the job done and Branagh himself provides a piece of slick entertainment, I'll have to stick with Albert Finney for authenticity.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Shutting the Shuttle Down

Twenty years. That's how long My Lovely Wife and I have run the shuttle. This September will mark twenty years of transporting the transportationally-disadvantaged to any number of locations within a 20-mile radius of our home for any number of reasons.
  • Doctor appointments
  • Daycare
  • Day camps
  • Pre-school
  • Gymnastics
  • Dance classes
  • Elementary school
  • Sunday school
  • Girl Scouts
  • Boy Scouts
  • Birthday parties
  • Middle school
  • Dance recitals
  • Sleepovers
  • Summer camps
  • Church youth groups
  • Band camps
  • High School
  • Band competitions
  • Concerts
  • Robotics competitions
  • Track meets
  • College tours
Logging sufficient hours each month to earn a chauffeur's license isn't the half of it. Child safety seats required for small children come equipped with a complexity of straps and harnesses worthy of the greatest puzzle masters. When strapping your first born into a car seat outside the hospital, they ought to warn you to prepare yourself for a buckling system so ridiculously intricate it should come equipped with a flight attendant to guide you through the procedure every time you leave the house.

"Take the right shoulder strap, feed it through the plastic chest thingy and down between your child's legs. Take the left shoulder strap, feed it through the other side of the plastic chest thingy until you realize you have the chest thingy backwards. Undo the right shoulder strap, reverse the chest thingy, feed the right shoulder strap back through the chest thingy, then the left shoulder strap, and place the two metal tabs at the ends of the straps together. They should fit like puzzle pieces, but they won't snap together because that would be cheating. Holding the two metal tabs together with one hand and picking up your child's fallen binky with the other, press the conjoined tabs into a narrow, invisible groove that lies directly beneath your child's heavily diapered buttocks. Spend the next three minutes struggling to fit the conjoined tabs into the invisible slot while cursing. Once you find the narrow slot and have inserted the metal tabs, press with a force much greater than you believe is safe for your child. If your child is not crying when you have finished, then he or she is probably not securely buckled. Return to step one and repeat the entire process."

It isn't just infants who need car seats. As your children grow, car seats morph like Transformers from back-facing infant seats, to forward facing infant seats, to half-infant/half-toddler seats, to small toddler booster seats, to large toddler booster seats, to the my-child-is-way-too-freaking-big-to-need-a-booster-seat booster seats. If there weren't a cut-off for age, most people I know would be riding with booster seats because the cut-off for height is six-foot-three.

If you're silly enough to have more than two children -- in fairness to us, effective family planning is impossible when they choose to arrive in pairs -- you'll need a vehicle of size, if not two. When our first child arrived, half our fleet was instantly hobbled because the Mazda Miata was not designed to serve as a baby-transporting device. The Miata, itself, is barely bigger than a pram, with almost enough leg room for a tall dwarf and head clearance adequate for a medium-height badger. With the invention of twins, it didn't take long for us to embrace the minivan, and later the minivan with automatic doors. Scoff if you must at the unsexy middle-aging of my family unit, but few things liberate the middle-class American more than pressing a button to eject children into the school drop off line. It's like all the convenience of tossing them out the window, only with a brief stop and the assurance of a soft landing.

Don't think older children are any easier to shuttle. Sure, you can celebrate ditching the diaper bag, bottles and spare onesies, but they are quickly replaced by school bags, instruments, dance bags, and after school club supplies. If children aged without taking on extracurricular activities, which I believe is a perfectly reasonable expectation, then life might get easier, but they don't. Before you know it, you're running each of them in a different direction for a variety of reasons that all begin at the exact same time at locations miles apart, and finish in 30 minute intervals conveniently spread over the dinner hours. Artistic programs such as band and dance are the best, by which I mean the most obnoxious, because there's something about artistic people that instills in them the belief that their programs represent the most important commitments your child will ever make. Every rehearsal and performance is mandatory. Absence or tardiness -- regardless of how many of your relatives just tragically died from powdered sugar inhalation at the donut factory explosion -- results in the stripping of privileges or public shaming. As if you weren't already stressed about managing a multi-stop municipal bus route, now your child is fussing at you to drive faster so she won't have to do push-ups in front of the rest of the kids in marching band.

With one child halfway through college (how the fu-hell did I get that old?) and the twins mere months away from being granted their driver's licenses, it might be possible that M&D Taxi is coming to the end of its days. I say "might be" because we so far have been colossally wrong about each coming stage being easier than the present one. I can not, however, in my wildest imaginings foresee the need for continued shuttle service, at least not on a daily basis, even with the twins sharing a vehicle.

Should the end of the shuttle era truly be at hand, the ramifications will ripple through our personal and professional lives with immeasurable results. My Lovely Wife and I will be able to spend the kind of time together we haven't enjoyed since September 1997. If we're smart, we won't leave the house for a month.

© 2017 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sound and Fury

There is a tactic that has been employed lately when the ethics or intelligence of our elected leaders is questioned. Our sitting president used it effectively when asked by Bill O'Reilly how he could respect a dictator and alleged killer like Vladimir Putin. The response was: "There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?"

It is an argument meant to stop the opposition dead in its tracks by turning the question back on the one who asked it, without ever answering it. It is a discussion stopper, not only because it's a pivoting over-statement and a deflective non-response, but because it makes the opposition appear naive, or unprepared, or un-American. It is "sound and fury" -- a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

I don't mind when someone who disagrees with me shares an opposing view. Discussion is the first step to understanding, and understanding is the first step to compromise. Compromise, regardless of what extremists on either end of the political spectrum might think, is a good thing. Compromise is the no-kill zone where reasonable people who disagree meet to fashion an existence in which both can survive and thrive, each having bent a little for the other's needs, preferences or beliefs.

Extremists, by definition, do not compromise, which is why they best serve any culture as outliers, yelling demands and threats from the cheap seats while moderates set the rules and play the game. In recent years, we've seen what happens when extremists rush the field. The rhythm of the game is broken and all progress grinds to a halt. And why? Because extremists don't back down. They don't acquiesce. They find fault in good sportsmanship, demonize their opposition, and label those among their ranks who are willing to compromise for reasonable gain as traitors to their extremist cause. They prize loyalty to their socio-political dogma over loyalty to country and they draw out the very worst characteristics in their support base by using paranoia, fear and prejudice as siren calls.

Extremists, however, are not the only problem that worries me. Equally troubling to me as the hate and bigotry bubbling up at Klan rallies, or the domestic terrorism of bomb threats to Jewish schools, more disconcerting than government-sanctioned denial of scientific fact, or the intentional dismantling of the national education system, or wild paranoid accusations bandied about as distractions when journalists start getting too close to the truth, is that argument of "You think we're so innocent?" (YTWSI). Several times on social media and even once in conversation the YTWSI argument has been thrown at me, as if I shouldn't question the questionable behaviors of our present government because, well shucks, the behavior of our government has always been questionable.

I understand the United States is not innocent. Our federal government, in its various forms throughout 241 years, has committed some heinous acts of brutality, denied human rights, persecuted the weak, and denied religious freedoms. We have gone to war too quickly for the wrong reasons and chosen to isolate ourselves when our allies needed us. We have reneged on promises, seized land, stolen property, ignored the needs of the common man and murdered the helpless in the name of manifest destiny, national security, social purification and intolerance.

But the fundamental flaw underlying the YTWSI argument is that it accepts these behaviors as inevitable and unavoidable. It turns the fact that we abused yesterday into justification for continued abuse. Even worse, it is used to justify turning a blind eye to the abuse presently being perpetrated in front of our very eyes. It's the "everybody else is doing it" defense a child might invoke when caught being naughty in some largely harmless way, which is why it's so alarming and disarming when a sitting president chooses to invoke it when speaking of murder. Our government and elected leaders might not always hold the moral high ground, but aren't they at least supposed to be striving to attain it for the good of nation?

Although I am concerned about the current state of government affairs, I am a long-term optimist. Our country cycles through periods such as these more often than people care to admit or remember. The United States of America has survived the Iran-Contra Affair, Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII Internment Camps, the Langer Affair, the Teapot Dome Scandal -- and those are just a handful from the 20th Century -- so I have little doubt the Putin Problem will one day be put to rest. I just hope it's sooner than later.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Falafel Fail

Being volunteered for random tasks is an occupational hazard of parenthood. The ability to say "no" is a critically important skill to possess, particularly when you've been granted the luxury of deciding whether or not to accept the gift of having been involuntarily volunteered. Unfortunately, it is not a word of which My Lovely Wife and I avail ourselves frequently enough.

We have served on numerous church committees, band committees, school booster and PTA committees. We have volunteered in school classrooms, Sunday school classrooms, chaperoned field trips, overseen finances, orchestrated parental support, planned and implemented fundraisers, and provided more meals than we care to recall. In almost all these situations, we had the chance to say "no." However, faced with the knowledge no other parents were stepping forward, we stepped up to take part or take charge.

The positive take aways from these experiences are immeasurable. The most significant is a rewarding sense of fulfillment knowing we helped enhance the lives of our children, and hundreds of other children, throughout the last two decades. The only negative is having seen the wizards behind the curtains at many different institutions and events that have lost their magical luster as a result. People are flawed, I get that, but sometimes flawed people are so content to remain flawed that they've no interest in receiving constructive criticism and no ability to learn from it when it's offered. It can be disheartening, causing you to back away from volunteering to regain your naive faith in humanity. It's at times like these -- when you start thinking you're doing too much in too many places and alienating too many people by offering your opinion too often -- your children volunteer you for a simple task you simply can't refuse. 

It's been years since I've been able to help with math or science homework. I've forgotten all formal education back to kindergarten, it seems, so when the twins told us they volunteered to bring homemade falafel to school as part of a Human Geography project, I was excited. Cooking might not be my calling, but I love it, and I had never before made falafel. Here was a challenge I could face with a smile, my boys by my side, as we mastered making this Middle Eastern meal. 

Perhaps mastered isn't the correct word...

We started off on the wrong foot by using canned chick peas instead of dried chick peas and soaking them for twenty-four hours like the recipe instructed. When you have only 48 hours notice, you can't sit around waiting for a garbanzo bean to rehydrate. You take the ones packed in water and chuck them in the food processor.

Next we added the brief list of spices that, despite the brevity of the list, infused such a toxic pungency of Mediterranean aromatics that tasting the raw batter was an exercise in self abuse. It's nearly impossible to determine the proper quantities of cumin and cayenne when your tastebuds have been carpet-bombed into oblivion.

The canola oil I found to deep fry our fiendishly fiercesome falafel batter wasn't much help. The only canola oil in the house had been used once already for frying donuts. Our falafel would set your mouth ablaze and scorch your throat like a barbed jet-fueled ghost pepper, but at least you'll enjoy the subtle hint of cinnamon apple while rolling on the ground scraping your tongue with a cheese grater. 

Fortunately, we never found out. Possibly because our batter was too wet from having used mushy canned chick peas, or possibly because the donut oil wasn't quite hot enough -- or most likely because we're from the Mid-Atlantic and not the Middle East -- our batter entered the oil in tablespoon-size dollops and rapidly dissolved amidst greasy cinnamon apple splatters into thousands of quickly burned falafel particles. We tried a few to similar effect, only to discard the remaining batter and reach the conclusion that hummus and pita chips are a reasonable substitute for a school project, especially since someone else would be making the hummus. 

2017 Mark Feggeler

Sunday, January 15, 2017

An Extra Plate

The work day is done and dinner is heating on the stove top when I reach inside the cabinet for plates. Five square ceramic plates clatter on the granite countertop and I head for the silverware drawer. 

Five forks, five knives and five spoons, counted out and placed on the stack of plates in a jumble of clinks and clunks. Five paper napkins follow, each to be folded in half and set on the dining room table to the left of each plate and under each fork. 

I realize something is wrong while folding the first napkin. I don't need it. Four will be enough. Four napkins, four forks, knives and spoons. Four plates. Only four. There is an extra plate.

For the last month, there were five mouths to feed. Five is too many to seat at the small table in the breakfast nook, which is why the dining room table is still set for service. Table pads and black tablecloth ready for five plates and accompanying silverware, along with bowls and trays and serving utensils, glasses and drinks and a game of cards afterward. 

Four fit in the breakfast nook. It's cozier for four and easier than carrying things out to the dining room. Four is an easier number, in general. Easier for setting the table, easier for meal planning, easier for clean up. Four is simpler. Four is quieter and quicker. 

Four still means conversation and games, laughter and delicious meals. Four can be tremendously infuriating or joyously enlightening. There is absolutely nothing wrong with four, with the single exception that it isn't five.

The days of five are numbered. Holiday breaks and summers off from college are now on the endangered species list. At least we have four, for now.