Thursday, May 22, 2008

Welcome Back, Indy!

It would be impossible to capture the first-time magic of a movie that launched one of the most popular cinematic serials of all time, so Steven Spielberg and George Lucas wisely don't try to one-up "Raiders of the Lost Ark" with their long-awaited sequel, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." "Raiders" was made in a different time, when special effects referred more to model-making and matte painting than the computer-generated mayhem that is now in the DNA of every blockbuster.

"Crystal Skull" is of a different time, too. In the picture, we have jumped ahead to 1957, and Spielberg lets us know this with a hot rod careening across the desert Southwest, Elvis on the soundtrack and the wind whipping ponytails and the sun kissing crewcuts. This happens after a clever framing device with the Paramount logo, one that signals both that Spielberg is back in familiar territory and that he is not above a slap at the studio heads with whom he has had a prickly business relationship.

The opening scenes slyly suggest we are in the federal government's alien lockdown No-Man's-Land called "Area 51." Right away we know Dr. Jones is about to jump down a rabbit's hole that will involve "Saucer Men from Mars" in some way. Actually, that was the title of an early draft of the screenplay.

So there are crazy Russians on the trail of some mysterious and all-powerful crystal skull and none crazier than Irina Spalko, the psycho Soviet head-case with the bowl cut played with B-movie brio by Cate Blanchett. Her accent is as thick as borscht. And she's all business in the early going, proving in a confrontation with the famed archeologist that she won't take "Nyet" for an answer.

And it's here where Spielberg sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The scene is in a government warehouse that, when the camera pulls back, turns out to be the repository that appeared at the end of "Raiders," the one that holds not just the Ark of the Covenant but something even more valuable, or why make this picture at all?

What happens post-warehouse is a loose, loud, thrill-a-minute adventure that manages to set itself apart from the previous three pictures while also tipping a fedora to elements from all of them. Let's go down the list: attacking jungle natives from "Raiders," a white-knuckle river escape from "Temple of Doom" and an obsession with the iconic hat from "Last Crusade."

But the story is, for the Jones character, an inventive pastiche of all the alien myths and legends that were born in the post-nuclear era. In those days, the screenwriter's friend was the atomic radiation that gave rise to giant spiders, 50-foot-women and a fear that we had unleashed a power we could no longer control. Spielberg makes a pointed reference to nuclear testing in an early scene that packs a visual wallop but that defies both logic and physics. For me, it was the only flaw in an otherwise crackling good adventure yarn.

I always looked at "The Last Crusade" as the perfect Indiana Jones movie, both in tone and execution. But "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" deserves a place right alongside. It's not better, but it lives up to the expectations I had as I walked into the theater and heard the 20-something audience singing the theme song. Imagine. All this from a guy with nothing more in his arsenal than a whip and a hat.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Boycott American Airlines

Yes, it sounds crazy, but in Boston at least it shouldn't be an idle threat. The skycaps at Boston's Logan Airport recently won a judgment in federal court of about $325,000 against the airline. But it appears now American is fighting back.

In September, 2005, American started imposing a $2-a-bag fee and some customers were reluctant to tip above that. The result was that the skycaps lost a considerable amount of income, and they sued. A jury agreed that the new system was unfairly weighted toward the airline. Some skycaps said they had earned as much as $200 a day in tips.

But now the airline, after losing in court and looking vengeful and petty, has banned tipping altogether. American even has posted signs outside the terminal at Logan advising arriving passengers who check bags at curbside that tipping is verboten and that any skycap accepting gratuities, no matter how small, could lose his job. And American is monitoring the skycaps closely to assure the policy is followed to the letter. It should be noted here that the policy is in effect IN BOSTON ONLY.

So, I wrote a nasty e-mail to the airline and used a choice four-letter word to express my anger. Now it's time for some hardball. I am urging anyone who reads this to book flights on any other carrier. Let American see revenue drop and then decide that depriving a few skycaps a few extra dollars a day is both smart corporate policy and good public relations.

I hope the spin doctors at AMR are up to their armpits in extra work trying to make this seem logical and fair. Good luck to 'em.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Heading for a Fall

For anyone who lives in the Northeast, this time of year is one of anticipation. September and October are the months when the foliage promises to turn from various shades of green into a riot of color. Magic is the only apt word for it. When I was a kid, the season's advent also meant that as the leaves fell, the weekends would be filled by hours of raking and then a homey bonfire that would send up an aromatic smoke that always made me think of pipe tobacco. Of course, with environmental rules now in force, and air pollution to consider, leaf-burning is something you see rarely and only in rural areas.

The thing is, diminishing ice floes in the Arctic aren't the only indicators of global warming. It seems the annual foliage season here is also being affected. I drove through the Berkshires in western Massachusetts a month ago and already some trees had turned brown. That could be due more to drought than to global environmental issues, but it was still alarming and disappointing--and an unnerving repeat of last year. I drove through again last week and even more trees had succumbed to the unseasonal heat. For the leaves to turn their bright red or orange or yellow, a chemical process has to take place that depends on an annual combination of moderate late-summer warmth and cool, almost cold, nights. This year, we've been suffering with near-record heat during the day and only moderately cool nights. Those in the know see it as a troubling development.

It's a corollary development to the increasingly-early maple sugar seasons. These annual rituals are seriously out of whack. As a youngster, I can recall September mornings so crisp and cool and evenings almost cold. You needed to adjust your wardrobe accordingly. The light jackets and sweaters came out by mid-September. And October sometimes demanded something more akin to a ski parka. Hey, some years we had snow well before Halloween.

I read in "USA Today" recently that New England was considered one of the best spots for "leaf-peeping" this year. (Yeah, they call it that in some parts of Maine and Vermont.) But based on reports from friends as far north as Bangor, the forecasts for spectacular foliage might have been premature. For one thing, the unusual heat has delayed the onset of color. Here in Albany, some trees are still green while others have already dropped their leaves. I can recall years when everything seemed to change at once. Everywhere you looked, the oaks and maples were in their autumn glory. But this year in particular, everything looks baked and tired. After a miserably humid summer, I was wishing for some sunny and cool days, and a celebration of the season under a canopy of leaves that look like tiny, boldly-colored kites.

There is one consolation: I hear the local apple cider is especially fine, with natural hints of cinnamon.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gray Lady Down

Not that anyone else probably cares, but I am rather pissed at the New York Times because someone within that vaunted news organization has decided the Capital Region (Albany and environs) isn't deserving of regular delivery and/or availability. Twice in the past 30 days, including this week, there were no copies available here in southern Saratoga County. It's not like we're a thousand miles away. Hey, New York City is a little over two hours by car.

The last time this happened, I spent a couple of hours driving around looking for a copy. I finally found a vendor who gave me the phone number for the local distributor. A call to them gave me the information I had been looking for: the drivers from the Times were late getting papers to the distributor in Albany. By the time the Times truck arrived, the distributor's drivers already had left with other newspapers. A sympathetic secretary sold me my own (exclusive?) copy, telling me all the while that hundreds of copies would simply sit in her warehouse because she wouldn't be calling back the trucks to pick them up.

Now I know some will say, "Hey, just read it online." Well, until Tuesday, the Times wasn't available online except by subscription. Besides, I am one of the few who still enjoys holding a real newspaper in my hands. And if you can believe all the latest research about electromagnetic radiation via computers and electric clock radios, well, I feel infinitely safer with a paper copy in hand.

I did write a terse note both times to the president of the New York Times Company. I haven't received a reply from either e-mail, so my guess is Mr. Heekin-Canedy simply doesn't care that his newspaper isn't often available in the capital of New York State. And yet I read all the time how newspaper executives are worried about the future of their business. Maybe all the doom and gloom is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rendering Surrendering

In his testimony before Congress this week, Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee, and specifically Sen. John Warner (R-VA), that he isn't sure America is any safer after all the money and lives sacrificed in the name of national security. It's been suggested that Petraeus's answer was a momentary gaffe. But I think it was his honest opinion because how can it be otherwise?

The general stammered that all he knows is how to guide "the mission." So far, no one has explained to me satisfactorily what that mission is. John McCain, who has completely lost his mind, and much of his support, has decided now to tie his political fortunes to a new slogan, "No Surrender." It's painted on his campaign bus and is the new focus of his sputtering presidential campaign. So in McCain's view, the mission is not to surrender. Surrender to whom?

My best guess is, no one in the ranks of the GOP wants to surrender to public opinion. There's that little mess we call "Vietnam" that some point to as the era when America lost its political will and "surrendered" to the Communist North. I happen to see it instead as a brave acceptance of the geopolitical reality of the region as it existed in 1975.

So here we are, 32 years later, trying again to extricate ourselves from an unwinnable "war" and again the hawks are saying we must not "surrender." The surge is working, they say. Parts of Iraq are safer. But the PR spin, as artful as ever, can't hide the fact that we are digging deeper into a regional conflict that has a religious component we demonstrate almost daily we do not understand.

I agree that Islamic fundamentalism is a very scary entity. And by remaining in Iraq we are stoking the fires of a religious fervor that will take ages to tamp down. It seems inevitable to me that whenever the U.S. decides to remove itself from Iraq that there will be major chaos, not to mention factional killing on a massive scale. Everything we have seen so far will be simply prologue.

But in the absence of a serious drawdown of troops, we are condemned to losing at least 60 young men and women, not to mention $8 billion, each and every month. All the public appeals and photo ops by the president do nothing to change the reality on the ground in a desert country halfway around the world. It's the mathematics of madness. And it doesn't add up.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Smoke & Mirrors

While I have long been one to eagerly anticipate the new "Fall Season" of network television (once gloriously heralded by the once-proud TV Guide), I no longer look to the networks to provide compelling or even interesting TV fare. The heyday of the "Big 3" TV sitcoms like "Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond," and "Will & Grace" (the early years) is long gone. Only "Two and a Half Men" seems a worthy successor, and sometimes that's debatable, given the show's grating tendency to push raunch over repartee a little too often. I also enjoyed "Becker," which I consider, like its cast, cruelly underrated.

Yes, there are some good dramatic hours. ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" comes to mind. And "CSI: Miami" is almost always an hour of dependable craftsmanship. Never have been a fan of the Law & Order franchises or of "Lost" or "24." Maybe I'll catch up one day on DVD.

For my money, the best stuff on TV these days is on cable. It's a real shame, too, that the off-network shows I've admired all summer are about to end. I'm speaking here of AMC's "Mad Men," a truly superior piece of acting set in 1960 at a Manhattan ad agency. How refreshing that the producers, for the most part, went about casting ordinary-looking actors and not just eye candy for the MTV set. Jon Hamm, movie-star handsome as the lead, plays a mysterious and enigmatic womanizer when he's not the go-to guy at Sterling & Cooper. The art direction deserves a mention, too, for it sets a new standard in TV drama. The women are tightly corseted, the men sleek and the surfaces shiny. It's Brylcreem and Betty Crocker, wrapped in a fog of eye-burning and unfiltered cigarette smoke.

The other show I admired all summer is USA's "Burn Notice," starring Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who gets tossed out of a domestic spy agency for reasons even he doesn't know. In the trade it's called getting "burned." So he's dumped in glittering Miami without money, credit cards or transportation. It's a carnival funhouse of death, with gunmen lurking behind the crazy mirrors. Fortunately for the writers, and the viewers, he was born there, can lean on his mom (the always-good Sharon Gless) and a former girlfriend (the darkly exotic Gabriel Anwar). Some critics have described it as a clone of "Magnum P.I.," but I think that's doing "Burn Notice" a disservice. A lot of the show is done in a noirish voiceover, and Donovan's character provides a running commentary on the tricks of the spy trade. Whether the how-to's are accurate is beside the point. They sound credible and make the show seem fresh. I'm really sad we have to wait another year to see Donovan light up the small screen again. And here's hoping the writers can find Gless more to do than scold her put-upon son.

A footnote: I read somewhere recently that the suits at HBO were given a chance to feature "Mad Men" and passed. Maybe that's why the once-formidable premium cable network has fallen on hard times. I'm not a programing executive, but even I could see the premise as the kind of innovative TV we need more of. I'm thankful, though, for their seeming stupidity, because I don't have to pay extra to watch it. Hallelujah! A fleeting example of the joy of "free" TV.

Friday, September 7, 2007


Okay, so now Osama bin-hittin'-the-sauce decides that he'll allow us all to live in peace and harmony if we simply convert to Islam. Of course, the Islam in his addled brain isn't the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek religion of the ages, but the oppressive, embrace-the-evil, new-age Third Reichian mindset of devil-worshippers. In short, the guy's nutso and so are his legions of dim-witted, Allah-praising acolytes who don't have the collective brain power of snails in a hundred of them. I don't care anymore. These people pretend to adhere to the tenets of historic Islam, and yet have abandoned its every tenet in favor of wreaking havoc in the vain hope of creating a worldwide caliphate.

In short, Osama, while better educated, is no improvement on history's evil-doers like Genghis Khan. His religion of hate is an embarrassment to good people of faith everywhere. The idea that Americans would listen to his ignorant ramblings, let alone adopt them, suggests he's the kind of despot who marvels at the sound of his own voice. In that respect, he's no better than Saddam.

Frankly, there's no form of death on earth yet invented that would satisfy my thirst for seeing him suffer. Although there are pretty good examples in any number of slasher films from the past couple of years. A bear trap to the throat comes to mind. Let it snap shut and cut his head clean off his body. And when he goes, wouldn't it be great if we could send the rest of his stinking, pea-brain followers with him?

Like the scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when Nazi sympathizers have gathered around the Ark of the Covenant and dare to open the gilded vessel. A white light becomes a searing arc of pain and sucks the life right out of them. That's the reward I foresee for these animals. Because they have become less than human. They are dirt. They are germs. They are the lowest form of life God could invent and still call them life. On second thought, Allah himself is recognizing his mistake.