Sunday, January 31, 2010

Walking in a winter wonderland

This week I was on a work trip to the Washington, D.C. area, and is my usual M.O., I decided to spend an extra day to do some sightseeing. Washington is unique in the variety of museums clustered close together. New York and London both have larger museums, and Paris has an unmatched collection of art, but only in D.C. can you walk half a mile and move from the National Archives and the founding documents of the country to the Hope Diamond, a forensic investigation of bones found in Fort James, and the C-3PO suit from Return of the Jedi. Nowhere else in the world is such a variety of stuff just packed together for public view, and it seems every time they renovate one of these places, things just keep getting better.

This time around, I most enjoyed reading some of the letters to the government that are in the National Archives. A little girl pleading with President Truman not to give Elvis a standard infantryman haircut, the northern Michigan town that wrote their letter on a sheet of copper, and the man who wished to assure the FCC that he was, in fact, not brought to the point of panic by Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast.

I also love looking at the edit marks on an early typeset draft of the Articles of Confederation. The editor had written "and Providence Plantations" next to Rhode Island, it looks like everyone forgets that part of the name. In one part line numbers had been added every five lines.

This trip to D.C. was also unique for me in another way. This was the first time I was here when it snowed. And this wasn't the kind of namby-pamby will it stick or won't it kind of snow. This was the roll around in it, have a snowball fight and there will still be an unbroken blanket of white streching over everything kind of snow. So I didn't visit Lincoln this time around, but the views from top floors of the museums were amazing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A tale of a prophet

Ever since the Road Warrior, I have enjoyed a good apocalyptic film. This year has seen a resurgence, first with Terminator: Salvation, then the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", and now with Denzel Washington and "The Book of Eli".

I enjoyed this film immensely. The movie is full of tiny moments, starting from the very first scene that do not make sense in a particular way. At first this rubbed me the wrong way, as I thought it was simply another example of substituting movie style for practicality. But the movie's wonderful twist ending redeemed all these small moments. And unlike films like the Sixth Sense which felt the need for a montage to relive all the out of place moments, The Book of Eli confidently keeps moving forward after the reveal, letting the viewer sort through memory and pick out those off moments that now make sense.

Even before the ending, however, this movie has a lot going for it. The bright palette (explained through use of a weapon that caused the apocalypse by altering the atmosphere) and gritty surroundings give the film a look half Road Warrior and half Western. It's an environment that encourages compromise. Who wouldn't follow the direction of the man who provides the only water in hundreds of miles? Even if he is a dictator who rules with an iron hand and treats the world as his inferior.

Our hero, that's who. Denzel Washington has always been good at projecting the calm in the storm, and this role as a wandering prophet was tailor made for him. But he is an old school prophet--bringing unyielding death and destruction to those who would thwart the path God has laid out for him.

The movie walks the fine line between faith and evidence, and raises wonderful questions. In the events of the film, we have only the word of Eli himself that he has been chosen by God. Is his survival evidence that he is in fact divinely protected? Or just another coincidence in a world turned intolerably cruel? Were the survivors of the apocalypse right to turn against religion as the cause of the war that tore their world apart? Or is it the only thing that can save the survivors? Images and events can lend credence to arguments in either direction. It is hard not to feel the positive aspect of faith as a girl prays before eating for the first time, but then the plan of the dictator to use religion to control an empire emphasizes the terrible things that have been done by people to other people in the name of faith and religion.

The Book of Eli, a tale of a prophet in a future that hopefully will never be.
4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, January 3, 2010


One Christmas long ago my brother and I received a pair of novels. His was a collection of Edgar Allen Poe, and mine was a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories of Sherlock Holmes. I fell in love with the character, and today consider this fictional hero a wonderful introduction to the work of a scientist. He was methodical, observant, and careful to always put observation before theory. Moreover, he was endlessly curious, taking cases because of their difficulty, not because they were easy.

These sides of the fictional detective have been captured in movies galore. But they usually failed to capture some of Holmes other qualities--his martial skills as a fencer and boxer, his slovenly ways, and his maniacal focus on a case.

So you can imagine my delight when I heard that Guy Ritchie (of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch fame) was directing a Sherlock Holmes movie. Ritchie has built a career out of constructing intricate action films with thugs in the leading role. Men for whom violence was not an abstraction, but an integral part of their world. That is how the Holmes stories felt to me. Some (like "The Hound of the Baskervilles") took place in rarefied settings, but most of the short stories took place in the grimy streets of the London underground. Holmes dove headfirst into these settings, disguising himself until he became one with the criminal element.

For me, the movie did not disappoint. The classic Watson Holmes banter was there, and the offhand deductive showpieces, but also a strong sense of Holmes as character actually driven to solve a case, who experiments with drugs and insects, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of London and its environs.

I have noted critics expressed surprise at Holmes in an action movie, but seem to forget that Holmes was the character who fought Moriarty atop a waterfall to the death. Holmes was not an armchair detective, but someone who put all his energy and action into a case. This is a fresh, fun take on Holmes that is rife with clues for the observant, a solvable mystery, and yes, action packed sequences that give new life to industrial era London. Grime included.

Sherlock Holmes
4 1/2 out of 5 stars