Film Review: Denial

Denial refers to what David Irving was accused by Deborah Lipstadt of doing to the Holocaust.  That said, Denial also refers to an unorthodox legal strategy cooked up by the dream team of Anthony Julius, James Libson, and Richard Ramport with which to battle Irving.  It is this strategy that is the focus of this wonderful account of the infamous libel trial that all but stripped away the lies of Holocaust denial promulgated by the likes of bigots such as Irving.

Denial is not only an excellent film that should be seen by as many people as possible.  It is also the most necessary film in this election season, which has seen assaults on the memory and historical record like no other.  Many of these assaults are a result of the rise from the sewers of the worst antisemitism (from the right and left) in my memory.  The story of Denial is the story of a discovery of how such assaults are perpetrated and what it takes to combat them.

A bit of background: Deborah Lipstadt is a Professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University.  In 1993, she wrote a book called Denying the Holocaust in which she identified David Irving as someone who twisted historical truth to fit his own bigoted assumptions.  Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in British court.  Because the suit was in Britain, the defendant Lipstadt was required to prove that her statements were true.

Lipstadt took on her counsel through various recommendations.  They are counted among the premier legal minds in Britain.  Julius and his colleagues recognized that Irving relished a chance to publicly humiliate Lipstadt and any survivors that might take the witness stand during the trial.  So, while lesser minds might have allowed Lipstadt and survivors to be harangued by Irving, Julius et al were having none if it.  Lipstadt and everyone else were to be denied to Irving throughout the trial so that the focus would be on Irving and his misdeeds.  Lipstadt had a hard time with this, but eventually saw that it was indeed a winning strategy.

The film pretty much follows the book History On Trial, written by Lipstadt.  Lipstadt herself is played by Rachel Weisz, an excellent actress in her best role since The Constant Gardener.  The British actress nails the mannerisms of a strong, intelligent, and passionate woman from Queens who is being told that her speaking out will harm her case.  She reminds me of Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger – always in pain, using jogs through a city to manage it.

(Actually, I think it relevant to say here that both Sullenberger and Lipstadt are American heroes: Sullenberger for saving every life aboard the plane he landed in a freezing Hudson river and for pushing aviation safety and Lipstadt for enduring a public trial so that the memory of millions of lives are remembered properly, as well as for maintaining the fight against their constant smears.)

The supporting cast is excellent but I want to acknowledge two standouts.  First, Tom Wilkinson as Richard Ramport QC is, no surprise, amazing at communicating to us through his body language and facial expressions the complexities of performing investigative work under such an emotional cloud.  Lipstadt mistakenly thinks he is being rude and heartless while they are working in Auschwitz.  She couldn’t have been more wrong; his heart was breaking, not only for what happened, but for his recognition that had he been there, he would have done nothing to stop it.  Wilkinson adroitly gets this across in the manner of a gruff barrister.  His character is a human being first, and that’s why he will win this case for Lipstadt.

The surprise standout is Andrew Scott as Anthony Julius.  Scott played “C” in Spectre and I thought was over the top.  I now see the reason for that was the slipshod writing and not his acting.  Scott perfectly captured the intense passion that Julius felt about this case and how that led to the denial strategy that completely went against his client’s thinking.  I have read Julius’s book, Trials of the Diaspora, and know of his commitment to fighting antisemitism in British culture.  When Lipstadt accuses Julius of being insensitive to the needs of survivors to tell their story during a trial that will surely affect them, Julius overcomes his British reserve and reacts accordingly.  In a moving scene, he angrily marches Lipstadt over to a television, pops in a cassette, and makes her watch David Irving mock and humiliate another survivor.  “Is THIS what you want?  You think this will help us?”  I loved this performance.

The heart of the movie lies in the deconstruction of Irving’s arguments that the facts of history favor his interpretations and that Lipstadt and some cabal are working to discredit him as a historian.  It is really amazing to see, time after time, how Irving made minor modifications to translations from German: a singular to a plural, leaving out a critical word or two, to suit his needs.  When he argues to the judge that, hey, aren’t I allowed to make mistakes, Ramport, with the help of historian Richard Evans and his staff, was able to show that all of Irving’s “mistakes” favored the Nazis, a statistical anomaly if there ever was one.

Irving was dangerous because he knew how to play to the masses.  He loved slogans.  “No holes, no Holocaust!” played in the papers for a while and was devastating to the public perception of the case.  The holes referred to the columns drilled through the roof of the gas chamber through which the Zyklon B pellets were dropped.  Although the expert, Robert Jan van Pelt, had plans showing the columns and holes as well as simulations based on testimony from a sonderkommando, Irving was able to cast doubt based on photographs he had obtained.  Because Irving skillfully waited until the end of the day to sow this seed, he was able to get the quip into the press in time for the evening paper.

Fortunately for history and very unfortunately for Irving, the truth revealed Irving to be a liar.  His photograph was misdated (he claimed it was fresh evidence when in fact it was years old) and Ramport was able to produce further evidence that the columns existed and that the holes were exactly were where van Pelt said they were.  The evidence of course came from the Nazis themselves.  Irving had of course mistranslated everything in his own favor.

Another telling scene is toward the beginning when Julius is with the judge, Charles Gray (a dour and rather forgettable performance, perhaps due to the character rather than the acting).  Julius is about to explain that he would prefer there to be no jury, just the judge.  Judge Gray asks Julius if they have gotten Irving’s agreement.  Irving, who is seated right beside Julius, looks on quizzically.  Why on earth should he give up the chance to rant to a jury?  Because, Julius says, Irving, as he has pointed out on numerous occasions, has been a historian for 30 years.  One cannot expect a mere layman to comprehend the complexities mastered by Irving over all of those years.  Only a learned judge will be able to keep up with the case.  His ego having thus been stroked, Irving agrees enthusiastically, to his detriment.

Timothy Spall plays Irving with the pathos of someone who seeks public approval for everything he believes.  Even when he is defeated, he seeks Ramport’s approval.  (It never comes; Ramport is determined to never even look directly at Irving.)  There are hints of more: he is shown to be a doting father to a young daughter.  (A fact that horrifies the young solicitors on the team as they seek documents from Irving for discovery.  We learn later what he is teaching this girl.)  It is briefly mentioned that he lost an adult daughter.  One wonders whether this loss has had anything to do with his motivations.  Irving, as much contempt as I must have for him and I certainly have zero sympathy for the things that have happened to him as a result of the trial (bankruptcy, humiliation, inability to publish, etc.) as he has brought that on himself, I cannot overlook the fact that he is still a human being and registers hurt and that hurt must affect his actions.

I say all this because Denial is so timely.  Why on earth are people flocking to the alt-right and Trump despite the obvious lies and conspiracies that form the basis of their actions?  These lies make for effective weapons with those people for whom history has little to offer.  There is a nice little scene involving a junior member of Lipstadt’s team up at night listening to some testimony.  Her partner awakes from bed and angrily accuses her of obsessing over something of little importance.  That person is exactly why we have Trump: because to many people historical truth is inconvenient and gets in the way.

The film is not quite perfect.  It leaves out a bunch of principals, including Holocaust historian Peter Longerich, and minimizes Penguin’s involvement.  It gives the impression that Irving was all alone when he in fact had antisemitic supporters testify for him.  And it overdramatizes the old British v American way of doing things.  (You know, British stiff upper lip v. American wear it on your sleeve.  Never saw that before, said nobody ever.)  If you want more of that, see A Fish Called Wanda.

Otherwise, make sure you see this movie before the election.  It is that important.

Ten books I would take with me to a desert island

Idea came from here.  In no particular order:

  1.  Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter – A classic that links the proof of one of the most shocking and bizarre math theorems to what ultimately makes us human. It took me seven months to get through it the first time but it was so worth it.
  2.  The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham – I have not read a better account of a war.   Such complete detail, the characters on both sides come to life as they fight in this fruitless and destructive war.
  3.  The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Leave it to Dick to present an alternative history and then an alternative history within the alternative history so that by the end you have no idea what is really the alternative history.  Awesome.
  4.  Fifty-Two Pickup by Elmore Leonard – Some scumbags try to blackmail and intimidate a factory owner.  They picked the wrong factory owner to mess with.  Fun dialogue and plotting make this a great little read.
  5.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – There is so much fun and insight and really just phenomenal, emotional writing here.  And it is wicked hilarious.
  6.  A Course in Pure Mathematics by G. H. Hardy – I have gone through this book several times and have learned something new each time.  Clear, witty, timeless.
  7.  The Winds of War/War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk – These two actually make up a single story about the effect of WWII on a single, American family.  Victor Henry may be the most ridiculous Zelig-type character and Natalie Jastrow may be one of the dumbest women in all literature, but the story they weave is incredible in scope and the history dead nuts on.  The writing is quite good to boot.
  8.  Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – David Foster Wallace remarked that “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”  No book I have read illustrates that principle more than this.
  9.  The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon –  I love good alternative histories and this one is a doozy.
  10.  Kaddish by Leon Wieseltier – It’s a book whose genesis is sad but embarks on a journey through the most arcane debates about the basic tenants of Jewish tradition.  And it does so with panache and wit and intelligence.  I’ve read through several times and got something new out of it each time.

Donald Trump Has No Balls

Did I stutter?

Donald Trump is a big, fat coward.  No balls.  None.

Why can I say this with such conviction?  Easy.  Have a look a this:

…@CyberTrump was responding to my recent tweet of an essay by Robert Kagan on the emergence of fascism in the United States…Just weeks later, I found myself staring down a social-media timeline filled with the raw hate and anti-Semitic tropes that for centuries fueled expulsion, persecution, pogroms and finally genocide…

I am not the first Jewish journalist to experience the onslaught. Julia Ioffe was served up on social media in concentration camp garb and worse after Trump supporters took umbrage with her profile of Melania Trump in GQ magazine. The would-be first lady later told an interviewer that Ms. Ioffe had provoked it. The anti-Semitic hate hurled at the conservative commentator Bethany Mandel prompted her to buy a gun…

…And still, we have heard nothing from Mr. Trump, no denunciation, no broad renouncing of racist, anti-Semitic support, no expressions of sympathy for its victims.

I’ll tell you why there has been no such statement (and even worse from his wife, the First Lady-wannabe): he can’t afford to say anything.  He cannot afford to isolate his supporters.  And, stop kidding yourselves, if you support Trump, the people who sent the anti-Semitic and racist crap to journalists who dared write anything not officially approved by the Ball-less One himself.

But that acknowledging a certain reality make one a ball-less coward?  No, not really.  I will tell you what does, though: throwing your own kids under the bus.  You see, Mr. Trump has a Jewish son-in-law, an observant one at that.  His daughter Ivanka converted.  Mr. Trump’s grandkids are Jewish.  I do not believe that Mr. Trump has an anti-Semitic bone in his body.

And that’s why he is a coward.  He knows about these stories – I imagine he is questioned many times a day about them.  The story to which I linked was in the Sunday Times and very prominent.  And he must know what these bigots are saying about his children and grandchildren!  And yet…he fears losing the bigot vote.

Now, some of you may say, well, Bernie is no better.  I mean, didn’t that Kirchick guy expose Bernie’s pusillanimity in the face of a direct anti-Semitic trope?

 …[A]nti-Semitism again reared its ugly head in the form of a questioner who confronted Sanders at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. “As you know,” the man asked, “the Zionist Jews—and I don’t mean to offend anybody—they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.”

Sanders’ answer was disappointing. Rather than use the outburst as an opportunity to rebuke blatant bigotry and leave it at that, Sanders thought it necessary to express his pro-Palestinian bona fides—so, you know, no one might think he was that kind of Jew. “Talking about Zionism and Israel,” Sanders said, “I am a strong defender of Israel, but I also believe that we have got to pay attention to the needs of the Palestinian people.”

This was also cowardly in a sense and Kirchick is right to have called him out on it.  But Sanders – as much as his supporters (I was one until that incident) wish to think otherwise – is not the presumptive nominee of a major party.

But Mr. Trump is.  And he has no balls.  That bodes not well for a supposed Trump presidency.

 

What is it about Wild?

The 2014 Reese Witherspoon flick Wild came and went in the theaters without my thinking much about it.  The story of author Cheryl Strayed’s journey across the Pacific Crest trail landed on my cable package via HBO late last year.  For whatever reason, I started watching it without much in the way of expectations.  However, by the end of the movie, I just sat there mouth agape, my raw face strewn with tears, wondering just what the fuck just hit me like a falling safe.  Yes, I can get emotional, but I simply do not cry at movies.  At least up until then.

Well, perhaps this was just a one-off.  Maybe I was feeling very depressed and vulnerable at that very moment and this had nothing to do whatsoever with the movie.  So I watched again.  Same thing.  And again.  And again.  Niagara Falls every time.  I even had this happen while watching a YouTube clip of a scene at the end that really gets me, where a little boy sings “Red River Valley” and Witherspoon’s Strayed barely holds it together as the boy recites the lyrics, and then collapses in a quivering heap after the boy and his grandmother are gone.  Actually, watching that scene, I found myself in a similarly quivering heap.

What is it about this movie?  And what is it about me?  I spent some time getting to the bottom of this question.  Actually, the answer wasn’t very shocking, but it did require a lot of honesty about what had happened in my life over the past decade and a half and some discussion with the people who knew me best.  I feel that what I have learned is worth sharing here – if you feel like this is about to become a major case of TMI, then please stop reading here.  Otherwise, you have been warned.

I’ll first summarize the movie, which is based on the autobiographical book of the same name.  Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed at a time when she hit rock bottom.  Strayed, a married college student in Minnesota, was particularly close to her mother, having left an abusive father, endured poverty and deprivation and somehow came out OK.  And then her young mother (played by Laura Dern) is diagnosed with cancer, given a year to live, and lasts only about a month before meeting an undignified end in a hospital.  (Nobody notified Strayed that her mother had passed.)  Strayed reacts by completely falling apart to the point of becoming emotionally numb.  Sensing that her husband is incapable of feeling her pain, she wanders around fucking any dude with a heartbeat.  She further slides into a heroin addiction.  The cheating and drugs effectively end her marriage despite the fact that she still loves her husband.  She hits rock bottom by discovering she is pregnant and not really knowing who the husband is.  In line at a store to purchase a pregnancy test, she comes across a book about the Pacific Crest trail, becomes intrigued, and decides that she needs to hike this trail to put herself back together and be the woman that her mother raised her to be.

The story of Strayed’s 1100-mile journey across the rugged terrain of the PCT is interspersed with flashbacks from key moments of her life as thoughts she might have when trying to figure out how on earth she got here.  Strayed, although someone who had known hardship and even lived in a house with no running water or electricity, is a complete novice hiker and requires a lot of help from kind strangers along the way.  While dealing with the substantial difficulties of the hike, she eventually comes to terms with the meaning of her loss, acknowledging that she misses her mother terribly but knowing that she has a life to put together.

The story as I have described it is really nothing unique.  There are plenty of stories out there about loss and redemption.  Crap, it seems almost every Disney movie starts with a kid who lost a parent.  But Wild succeeds because of the way the story unfolds.  We get to know Strayed and really how bad she let things get – the multiple dudes at once, the heroin injections in an alley, the estrangement from her husband.  This is a person in serious pain who has refused to really face it.  The PCT becomes her mirror so she can finally come to terms with it.  The rest of course is history – she remarries and becomes a successful author.

So, what does this have to do with me?  I think I deeply identified with the movie because I saw so much of myself in Strayed.  I too lost my mother to cancer at a young age, although not as young as Strayed.  No, I didn’t react by cheating on my wife or taking drugs.  But I certainly lost my way afterward.  The movie killed me because it reminded me of how I had yet to deal with the pain of my similar loss.

I did not lead a life much like Strayed’s.  Unlike Strayed, I grew up in a stable, middle-class family in Massachusetts.  I never suffered her hardships.  Although my family was close-knit, I was eager to move away from home and once I did, I was one of those call-once-a-week kids.  I couldn’t say that I was close to my mother like Strayed was to her.  For me, the decision to move halfway across the planet from my mother for a few years was pretty easy.  (My mother was convinced that I would never return and until I met Laura, odds were that she was right.)

When my mother was diagnosed with Stage III pancreatic cancer, I was still 30 years old.  I had just moved back to within a 3-hour drive from the parents with Laura and our toddler and infant.  My life until then had progressed as I had imagined:  Ph.D., marriage, job, kids.  Good stuff.  My parents were supposed to spoil and indulge my kids.  But that was not to be.  Instead, my mother was forced to fight a horrible, losing battle for a precious few months against insane odds.  And my kids were denied their grandmother.

Unlike Strayed’s mother, my mother did not go that quickly.  Under a then-new protocol, my mother survived a shocking 22 months after her diagnosis, when not long before, most of us would have been grateful for two.  A lot of those months were good.  We were even able to go on vacation together at one point.  But the decline was inevitable, and as ugly and dehumanizing and terrifying as one might fear and sadly expect.  My father retired from his career to care for her 24/7 and shielded my brother and I from the worst, but I saw enough to know just how bad life had gotten for my mother.

The end came abruptly.  I didn’t have much time to contemplate it – I had to pack the family up in the middle of the night and make the three-hour drive east to the hospital in Boston.  When I got there, my mother lay in a bed hooked to a machine.  She had undergone multiple organ failure and blew up like a balloon with fluid.  The doctors of course could keep her going arbitrarily long on that machine, but what was the point?  Although my mother had a boatload of morphine going through her system, we could see her wincing in pain in her coma.  Unlike Strayed, we had the choice to take her off the machine and complete my mother’s life in our presence.  We took that choice.

While all this was going on, and over the next week and a half of funeral, shiva, and purging the house, my brother was a train wreck, crying all along the way.  My father had already been through the mourning process and was pretty steady.  As for me…

…nothing.  I felt cold inside.  The death and all the events that followed didn’t seem to affect me in the least emotionally (my horror at witnessing the dying process aside).  I quickly tired of having people come up to me and ask me how I was holding up – but I couldn’t get mad of course.  I actually started to worry that I had felt nothing.  I just wanted to do what we needed to do to pay proper respects and then go on my way back to my life.

Over the next several months and years, the truth would begin to emerge.  The fact is that my mother was a super-important presence in my life, even when I was as far away as one could get.  I had up until then lived my life to impress my folks, to prove to them that I could succeed on my own in my own way.  And now a lot of that motivation was gone from this earth.

Soon after I returned to work, my work performance suffered.  I got my first negative review at work, although it was explained to me that I was being judged assuming I was about to be promoted.  But still, everything for me up until then was a steady climb.  With that review, all that would end.  Basically, I stopped giving a shit.

I used to be unable to sleep if I went to bed with a problem unsolved.  I would get back up and work things through until I came up at least with what was getting in my way.  I would think about my work constantly because I loved it.  And to be honest, I loved proving to myself and to my parents that I got here my way.  With my mother’s death, for reasons buried deep within my psyche, all that went away.

Instead of trying to improve things, I took a new job that offered me my effective promotion.  But of course, one cannot escape one’s problems and I lasted 2 1/2 years in that position before getting a bad enough review to be shown the door.  From there, I decided that a change in career was necessary because I no longer had the desire to do what I had been doing for the past 10 years.  I went into patent law after thinking that would be a different enough field to get my juices flowing again, but that turned out to not be the case either.  Within 8 months of joining my firm, I was being told that I was about to be let go.

Meanwhile, things at home weren’t going all that well either.  Laura had been putting up with a husband who had grown forgetful and got almost nothing done in the house.  I had also stopped watching our finances at a time when they needed to be watched very carefully, as I took a huge pay cut to start over in patent law and Laura had stopped working.  We ended up in a huge amount of debt with unpaid bills and the house falling apart due to my neglect.  And I was about to lose my job because I just couldn’t get myself to give a shit.

The reality of my situation had caught up with me and I suffered what I now see as a nervous breakdown.  I called an employee help line and got an emergency referral to a counselor and a psychiatrist.  We got to work on the long and sometimes tortuous journey back out of the hole I had dug for myself and my family.  My goal, although then I could not articulate it well, was to learn who I really was and what I needed for motivation.

9 years later, I am still on that journey, although I will say that I am a lot better.  I did not end up losing my job at the firm; they gave me a second chance and I used it well.  Over time, I would go on to another, smaller firm and would steadily improve and learn my strengths and weaknesses better than I could have imagined.  Steady counseling and a loving family have helped me through the dark periods which occasionally come back to haunt me.  But I would say that I now have a healthy respect for what has happened and why it happened.

Seeing Wild brought all of this truth from deep inside my gut.  Here was a person who lost their mother, too, and depended on her in a strange way like me.  She also just stopped giving a shit and hit rock bottom.  I saw in her emotional journey back everything that I had gone through too.  As I watched this film, I could feel all of the pain I had experienced for the past 15 years come rushing out, because Strayed’s pain felt like my pain.  And then, when that little boy (whose mother had died or left) sang “Red River Valley” – a touching song about loss and sadness – the tears just ran.  It was no surprise to watch Witherspoon just collapse in that quivering heap under her backpack, loud tears streaming as she declares how much she misses her Mom.  And I get it now.

So there you have it: I cried at a movie and I therefore had to write a novella analyzing it.  That said, Wild is a good movie with a very solid performance by Witherspoon.   It just hit me hard because of my own history and because Witherspoon does a great job portraying this person.  But I hope to never see another movie like it.

 

Bond Rankings, an explanation

I have previously published a ranking of EON Bonds, from 1-23.  I wish to explain.  I base the rankings on the quality of the typical elements of any Bond movie:

  • Bond himself
  • Plot
  • Villain, including henchmen
  • Bond girl(s), i.e., whom Bond beds**
  • Allies, non-recurring roles
  • Gadgets, cars, too
  • Usual suspects: e.g., M, Q, Moneypenney
  • Picture: locales, cinematography, editing, direction

**Yes, I know this is incredibly sexist.  Two retorts: 1) If you’re that worried about sexism, stop watching Bond movies and 2) I make judgements about how Bond looks, too.  OK?

Without further ado, in order of ranking:

1. From Russia With Love

  • Bond himself: Pretty much what Fleming envisioned.  Competent, patriotic, but also lets his weakness for women lead him astray.  Connery owns the role.
  • Plot: Takes the books already excellent plot and improves it using SPECTRE.  Never insults the audience.
  • Villain: Lotte Lenya is just fantastic.  Never underestimate the power of a loathsome woman.  Robert Shaw is just great as the powerful, psychotic Red Grant.
  • Bond girl: Daniela Bianchi is gorgeous and puts on a competent Russian accent.  She plays the part perfectly.
  • Allies: Does it get any better than Karim Bey?  The dude is a total stud.  Sadly, in real life, the actor playing him, Pedro Armendáriz, was dying of cancer during filming and ultimately took his life when he was finished.
  • Gadgets: The briefcase with the tear gas cartridge, knife, and gold sovereigns.  Relatively low-tech and exactly what Bond needs.
  • Usual suspects: M is usual gruff.  Kind of funny scene where Bond embarrasses him in front of his staff.  Q is introduced.  Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny is still young and pretty so the flirting with Bond is quite believable.
  • Picture: Gorgeous scenes of Turkey and the Orient Express round out a thoroughly amazing picture.

2. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

  • Bond himself: Lazenby could have been a good Bond over time.  Here, he’s unfortunately flat but not as horrible as many have alleged.  He at least looks like he belongs on the screen with his fellow actors, and he is quite tough.
  • Plot: Awesome and more or less follows the book.  The whole lair in the mountains is of course silly, but the bio-terrorism plot is realistic enough to be frightening.
  • Villain: Telly Savalas is the best Blofeld, even if he should have shed his American accent.  Else Steppat as Irma Bunt is scary good.  (Sadly, she passed away before the movie premiered.)
  • Bond girl: Diana Rigg as Contessa Teresa is simply the best.  Not just beautiful and tough, but portrays a degree of vulnerability that is rare in these movies.  But also very tough – she actually kills a henchman in man-to-man combat.  The book details her tragic backstory – Rigg makes it clear that there is tragedy in her life without needing it to be explicit.  The Angels of Death are good fun too, especially Ruby Bartlett.
  • Allies: Gabriele Ferzetti plays Draco, Teresa’s father, pretty much as described the book – that is, very likable.  Admittedly, the character is a little ridiculous – The Honorable Criminal.  Only into racketeering, no drugs or something like that.  The absurdity is captured perfectly at the end, at the wedding, where M and Draco are discussing  a previous confrontation some years before.  Does that ever happen?  George Baker is ho-hum as Sir Hilary Bray…until his voice dubs over Lazenby’s when Bond is “disguised” as Bray.
  • Gadgets: One of several models of automatic safe-crackers you will see throughout the Bond series.  This one, used in the lawyer’s office in Bern, was so reliable that Bond could sit and ogle the Playboy centerfold while it worked.
  • Usual suspects: Bernard Lee is at his best here as M.  Q doesn’t have much to do.  Moneypenny plays a small but critical role.
  • Picture: Peter Hunt only directed this Bond, but he should have directed more.  Previously, he was editor and his skill shows.  The action sequences are among the best in the series, and this is because the editing is done to help rather than hinder the viewer.  The scenery in the Alps and in Zurich is gorgeous.  And of course, the final tragic scene in which Tracy is gunned down is done exquisitely well – Lazenby succeeds wildly there.

3. Casino Royale

  • Bond himself: a revelation as Craig is worthy of comparison with Connery.  Ridiculously cut.  I think many men with spouses/girlfriends wished Bond could be played by, say, Kevin James instead.
  • Plot: a really nifty update on the book’s plot.  I wasn’t crazy about replacing Baccarat with Texas Hold ’em, but then again I do not have to market a $150M film to young audiences.
  • Villain: Le Chieffre is a bit of an odd duck.  He’s insanely vulnerable but somehow is able to stay one step ahead of Bond for much of the picture.  Mr. White is mysterious as he is meant to be.
  • Bond girl: Eva Green is not the prettiest or the toughest.  But she is real and smart and tragic and one of the best.  Easy to see why Bond falls in love.  I would have done the same.
  • Allies: Giancarlo Giannini plays Mathis with gusto – he is a lot of fun.  Felix Lighter, played by Jeffrey Wright, is as good as I can remember.
  • Gadgets: The medical kit in Bond’s car and…that’s about it.
  • Usual suspects: No Q or Moneypenny.  M is a bit awkward, as it is the same, wonderful Judi Dench but as a different M to fit the situation.
  • Picture: Gorgeous.  Montenegro and the town in which the casino resides is postcard-worthy.  The construction-zone sequence at the beginning is amongst the best action sequences of any Bond.

4. Goldfinger

  • Bond himself: Connery is a bit more relaxed here.  Also a bit less lean.  Never mind – he owns Bond more than ever here.
  • Plot: an improvement over the book in many aspects (including an explicit rebuke to the major plot hole of the book).  Less known is the disappearance of the vicious anti-Korean racism that the book unfortunately displays, as well as the uncomfortable nod to the casual anti-Semitism of the day.
  • Villain: One of the best.  By looks, Goldfinger, played by Gert Frobe, looks like a fat nobody, but we are over time disabused of that notion.  Harold Sakata as Oddjob is a series icon.
  • Bond girl: I never much liked Honor Blackman in the role of Pussy Galore.  (Though I admire her for how she reportedly took pleasure in embarrassing journalists with her character’s name.)  The picture also commits one of the worst crimes of all – making what looks like Galore’s rape by Bond to be a good thing.  Ick.  (Also, you gotta love Denk’s slap on the ass followed by “man talk.”  I’ll bet Connery enjoyed that.)  Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson is unforgettably beautiful and and tragic – her death, of course, is iconic.
  • Allies: Felix Lighter is useless.  More useful is the guy who stops the bomb’s clock ticking with 7 seconds to go.
  • Gadgets: The Aston Martin DB5, of course.  Also, the magnetic homing device used to track both Goldfinger and Bond himself.  (Bond’s went in the heel of his shoe.)  While these gadgets were really cool, I think the enormous success of this movie led later to a dependence on gadgets which was really not a part of Fleming’s novels.
  • Usual suspects: M is a delight with the black-tie dinner with Bond and The Banker.  Q has his iconic scene (“I never joke about my work, 007.”)  Moneypenny is meh.
  • Picture: terrific of course, but the set design by Ken Adam in Fort Knox is masterful and among the best in the series.  However, the “laser” is really cheesy, I don’t care that the movie is from the 1960’s.  The dialogue is endlessly quotable.

5. Thunderball

  • Bond himself: Still on top of his game, although Connery’s attitude toward women is at best questionable with yet another sexual assault by today’s standards.
  • Plot: A great one that follows a great plot in the novel pretty closely.  (Fleming was not solely responsible for this one.  The consequences of this on the series were tremendous.)  The plot is simple to follow yet completely engaging.
  • Villain: Adolfo Celi is fantastic as Emilio Largo.  He could have outwitted Bond, but you just can’t find good help these days.  However, a revelation is Luciana Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe: beautiful and completely evil.  I mean, do you really believe Bond when he says he bed her “for king and country”?  Riiiight.
  • Bond girl: Paluzzi wanted the part of Domino and was beautiful enough to get it.  But then the producers chose Claudine Auger, by far the most gorgeous woman in any Bond movie.  Her character is a bit of a needy girl (which is how she wound up ion her mess), but ultimately performs an act of bravery for which she suffers.  She also performs the coup de grace on the bad guy.  Top 3 or 4 easy.  And then there’s Molly Peters as Nurse Fearing whom Bond assaults (at first…), who is also as lovely as any Bond girl.  This movie is a standout with beautiful women.
  • Allies: Rik van Nutter is an improvement as Felix Lighter.  Martine Beswick – previously of the catfight scene in From Russia with Love – is nothing special as the tragic Paula Caplan.
  • Gadgets: The jet pack!  That one was real and really worked – why haven’t we seen more of them?  Also, the convenient, pocket-sized four-minutes of air as well as the geiger-counter-in-a-camera that gets Domino in trouble.
  • Usual suspects: M has his moments (scolding Bond in front of his fellow agents).  Q and Moneypenny are ho-hum.  Felix and crew are quite good here.
  • Picture: Bahamian scenery is stunning.  Editing a bit choppy, especially at the end.  Lots of underwater sequences that are gorgeous but hard to follow.

6. Dr. No

  • Bond himself: Iconic.  Connery, with “Bond. <pause> James Bond.” defines the role forever.
  • Plot: A bit hard to connect with.  Toppling rockets? Who really cares?  Adding atomic power I guess makes the whole thing seem modern for 1962, but I prefer the book’s obsession with guano.
  • Villain: Dr. No is sufficiently menacing, even if he is played by the decidedly non-Asian Joseph Wiseman.  (I guess Dr. No is half-German in the film.)  Unfortunately, Dr. No’s henchmen are incompetent.
  • Bond girl: Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder would be unmemorable is she weren’t the first.  Seriously.  She is dubbed over by Nikki van der Zyl, a rabbi’s daughter who would dub over many voices in the early days of the Bond series.  Eunice Gayson plays the aggressive love interest Sylvia Trench (and is also dubbed by van der Zyl).
  • Allies: Jack Lord plays the best Felix Lighter until Jeffrey Wright.  John Kitzmiller plays the tragic Quarrel unforgettably.
  • Gadgets: Nothing special.  There was the scene at the beginning where Bond is forced to trade in his Beretta for the iconic Walther PPK.  That was actually in the book and made more sense there because Dr. No was the sixth novel and Bond by then really had been injured in From Russia With Love previously.  One of the many instances in which the movies being completely out of order with respect to the novels causes confusion.
  • Usual suspects: M and Moneypenny are introduced.
  • Picture: A small budget ensures that corners were cut.  Jamaica looks gritty, and Dr. No’s lair is a bit cheesy.

7. Skyfall

  • Bond himself: It’s Craig, so it’s good, but much disbelief has to be suspended.  First he’s shot and falls like 100 meters off a moving train into a river.  Then, playing dead, he lives a life of leisure and drink on some island, but still looks like the cover of Men’s Health.  Still, the journey back to where he needs to be is well done.  And his response to homoerotic intimidation is classic.
  • Plot: Kind of wild, and really good.  Lots of twists and turns that keeps you on your toes.
  • Villain: Javier Bardem is an excellent actor, but he plays it weird.  As Silva, he is very menacing but could have been better.
  • Bond girl: Berenice Marlohe as Severine is forgettable, and just sad.  I wonder if we can include Naomie Harris as Moneypenny here, whose role is quite meaty and good.
  • Allies: Albert Finney just kills it as Kincaid the gamekeeper.
  • Gadgets: “A gun and a radio…not exactly Christmas, is it?”  The gun is a palm print-enabled PPK –  a much more compact model than that used in Licence to Kill.  The radio is…a little transmitter.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench is marvelous as one would expect, especially as her role is prominent.  Ben Whishaw is introduced memorably as Q.
  • Picture: gorgeous.  Shanghai looks unforgettable, as do Macau and the forgotten island in the South China Sea. The new MI6 HQ are also quite good.

8. The Spy Who Loved Me

  • Bond himself: As good as Roger Moore gets.  Still campy, but quite deadly serious and convincing, if still over reliant on the gadgets.
  • Plot: first of two Destroy the World stories.  Still, as pure escapism it works.  And really, what if someone got a hold of sub nuclear launch codes?  Scary.
  • Villain: Curd Jurgens plays Karl Stromberg with the evil-meter turned up to 11.  He is quite menacing, even if his existence is patently ridiculous.  And of course, everyone knows Richard Kiel as Jaws.
  • Bond girl: Barbara Bach could have flopped – her Russian accent just doesn’t work, and her acting chops are not the best.  Yet…she is a pleasure to watch as the agent XXX who must work besides Bond, even though Bond had killed her lover in the opening sequence (in self-defense of course).  She manages to be sexy, smart, and tough when need be.  Good show despite the odds.
  • Allies: I like the submarine captain: “What, you’ve never seen a major take a shower before?”
  • Gadgets: The submergible Lotus that can take out a helicopter from under the sea.
  • Usual suspects: Meh
  • Picture: Really well-done.  The opening sequence, ending with the Union Jack parachute, is unforgettable.  Sardinia makes for a lovely set piece.  And the submarines and ships that serve as the settings for many of the scenes are quite realistic.

9. You Only Live Twice

  • Bond himself: Well, this is where Connery starts to get a bit flabby and is clearly not happy about being Bond yet again.  He still owns the role, but the exhaustion is there.  It was said that he and Broccoli (the producer) were no longer talking during filming.  Yikes.
  • Plot: The good news is that the crappy and depressing end to the SPECTRE trilogy in the books has been changed.  The bad news is that the screenplay written by Fleming’s friend Roald Dahl is not a huge improvement.  Why is England even needed here?
  • Villain: Blofeld makes his maiden (explicit) appearance, and Donald Pleasance looks great in the role.  Unfortunately, not menacing enough.  Karin Dor as SPECTRE agent Helga Brandt is better  – the right mix of sexy and mean.
  • Bond girl: Mie Hama as Kissy Suzuki is beautiful and beguiling at first (though she of course falls for Bond’s charms).  I imagine having Japanese leads at the time was seen as a bit exotic, but I think Hama, as well as Akiko Wakabayashi as Aki make their characters accessible and enjoyable.
  • Allies: Dikko Henderson is played by Charles Gray and is quite different than the drunk Aussie from the book.  His portrayal here, which is fine, makes his later portrayal of Blofeld patently ridiculous.  Tesoro Tamba plays Tiger Tanaka with edge – he makes every scene he’s in that much better.
  • Gadgets: Little Nellie, which was a real thing actually flown by its creator.
  • Usual suspects: Poor Q just seems extra irritated.  I love M’s line” “Well, now that you’re dead…”  Moneypenny is a little fetching in her naval gear.
  • Picture: the Japanese settings are beautiful as anyone who’s been to Japan would expect.  The volcano lair at the end, though, is the definition of excess and makes the movie a little more ridiculous than intended.

10. GoldenEye

  • Bond himself: Pierce Brosnan’s first turn as Bond, and not bad.  He’s trying to find that happy medium between Connery and Moore, and away from the over seriousness of Dalton.  This is his best performance.
  • Plot: Fascinating, as should be expected in the first post-Cold War Bond.  Some cruel people are using Soviet weapons technology stolen from people they have killed in cold blood in what is essentially a mega-robbery.  Good stuff.
  • Villain: The main baddie is Sean Bean who is  serviceable but really not noteworthy in the grand scheme of things.  Actually, this movie belongs to Famke Janssen as Xenia Onotopp, perhaps one of the most unforgettable characters in the entire Bond lore.  Six feet tall and stunning, she is as big and strong as any man.  She kills mainly by crushing men between her powerful thighs during coitus.  Oh, and she orgasms as she kills.  Seriously, does this movie need anything else?
  • Bond girl: Izabella Scorupco is OK as Natalya Simonova, a programmer who is the sole survivor of a massacre committed by Onotopp.  One thing I became aware of is how hard it looks for someone who speaks Polish to put on a Russian accent.
  • Allies: Joe Don Baker is terrific as the CIA Guy Not Named Felix.  Robbie Coltrane is also a hoot as Zukovsky – at one point, telling one of his singers to get lost.  That singer was played by pre-fame Minnie Driver.
  • Gadgets: The exploding pen that gets derided in Skyfall.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench debuts memorably as M and calls Bond a “misogynistic dinosaur,” a charge that will never go away.  Desmond Llewellyn continues on as Q, but one wonders what the retirement age is in England.  The aptly-named Samantha Bond plays Moneypenny.
  • Picture: the movie opens with an insane bungee jump that is accomplished in a long shot.  There are a lot of nice scenes, including a tank chase through Moscow traffic.

11. The Living Daylights

  • Bond himself: This is the debut of Timothy Dalton, who is a great Shakespearian actor but had a hard time connecting with audiences.  He seems sullen as Bond, but I understand what Dalton was trying to do: play the character that Fleming wrote.  Daniel Craig would prove him right many years later.
  • Plot: a bit meandering, involving defections, Afghanistan, and illegal guns, but it begins to make sense around the 12th viewing.
  • Villain: Jeroen Krabbe as Kostkov is a fun villain to watch, especially because you’re not sure what to make of him at first.  Joe Don Baker plays Brad Whittaker, an arms dealer, well enough but not with enough panache to stick with you.
  • Bond girl: A great deal was made about Maryam D’Abo and how her relationship with Bond reflected the 1980’s.  Whatever – she still falls for Bond and he still beds her.  She is very pretty but she tends toward the helpless shrieker when all is said and done.
  • Allies: Thomas Wheatley is a bore as the unfortunate Saunders.  John Rhys-Davies on the other hand is fantastic as Pushkin.   Then of course Kamran Shah is played by a dude named Art Malik, which is not insulting at all.
  • Gadgets: The exploding wolf whistle used to pacify the sadistic Russian jail guard.  (And while we’re at it, how stupid was that guy to contribute whistles himself – was it not obvious that the whistles were going to lead to bad things for him?)  Also, the Aston Martin that has a “few optional extras installed.”
  • Usual suspects: Robert Brown plays M – he never stood out to me.  Neither did Caroline Bliss at Moneypenny.  Desmond Llewellyn is still Q.
  • Picture: The smuggling of Kostkov through the gas pipeline is awesome.  The scene in the Russian Afghan jail is a lot of fun: “James, we’re free!”  “Kara, we’re in a Russian airbase int he middle of Afghanistan.”

12. SPECTRE

  • Bond himself: Daniel Craig, who seems to be tiring of the role.
  • Plot: Sigh.  It involves a conspiracy to remove actual human spies and horde intelligence so that evil people can spy on everyone and wreak havoc.  Problem is the actual evil being done feels remote from the actual on-screen action.  A better effort would have had an unsuccessful attempt to stop a terrorist attack by the baddies, but as the movie is already 148 minutes, too bad.
  • Villain: Christoph Waltz as Blofeld!  He makes do with a weird backstory involving Bond being his little brother when in fact Blofeld as portrayed in the Fleming novels is not anything remotely like that.  Waltz is thus forced to play things too intimate when Blofeld, as played by the likes of Donald Pleasance and Telly Savalas, was cold and brutal.  But he does it well because…Christoph Waltz!  Dave Bautista plays a very very brutal henchman very very well.
  • Bond girl: Lea Seydoux is the best thing about this installment.  She is stunningly gorgeous and tough and seductive and delivers her lines with panache.  She’s up there with Diana Rigg and Eva Green.  Yes, that good.  Monica Belucci was advertised as the oldest Bond girl ever; her appearance was thankfully brief.
  • Allies: Felix Lighter is briefly mentioned but never seen.  How about Mr. White?  He has now made appearances in three of the last four Bonds and has been uniformly good.  This one is his best: sick, dying, crazed, and betrayed by his organization.  His scene is very good.
  • Gadgets: Exploding watch and a car that doesn’t quite work.
  • Usual suspects: M is badass!  Q and Moneypenny get more substantial roles than traditionally given, and it’s a good thing.
  • Picture: A mixed bag.  The initial action sequence in Mexico City is tops, one of the best.  The action scenes generally are all top-notch.  But the story as a whole is weakened by the ridiculous need to tie all of Craig’s Bonds together.  It makes zero sense and adds nothing to the story.  (OK, the end where all of the villians and girls are used to supposedly hurt Bond somehow, but in the end it really doesn’t matter.)  Take that away, make the evil plot more concrete, and you would have a top-notch Bond.  Alas.

13. Quantum of Solace

  • Bond himself: Daniel Craig.  Nothing else needs to be said.
  • Plot: A bona fide sequel, which is unusual.  The main thrust involving the hijacking of precious resources of a poor country through political manipulations seems relevant but ended up being kind of blah.  I like how the movie tied up the whole Vesper Lynd affair though.
  • Villain: Mathieu Almaric plays Dominic Greene, a self-identified environmentalist who plans to make a killing off the backs of the world’s poor.  Almaric is a good actor, but I think his character is weak and forgettable.
  • Bond girl: Olga Kurylenko plays Camille Montes.  Sure, and maybe I’ll screen test as an African warlord someday.  Couldn’t they have found, you know, a pretty Latina actress for this role?  Gemma  Arterton plays Strawberry Fields and gets covered in oil for her troubles.
  • Allies: Jeffrey Wright is still wonderful as Felix Lighter.  Giancarlo Giannini is back as Mathis, whose fate is quite morally disturbing.
  • Gadgets: Nothing much here, although I will nominate the can of oil at the end that Bond gives to Greene after abandoning him in the desert.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench plays an M who both loves Bond as a son but wants to see the back of him.  Still no Q or Moneypenny.
  • Picture: one of the most difficult to watch.  The editor of this movie should really find another vocation.  Choppy in the extreme, the action sequences are impossible to follow.  Half the time, I wanted to throw up or have a seizure.

14. Live and Let Die

  • Bond himself: Roger Moore’s debut, and it must have been a shock.  OK, maybe not, as Connery went the way of camp in the previous movie.  Moore plays it suave to the hilt, and that worked with audiences.  I have the feeling though that Fleming was turning over in his grave.
  • Plot:  It was an act of bravery – or stupidity, depending on your perspective – to adapt the borderline racist material from the book. (At times, even well over the border.)   The movie simplifies the utterly bizarre scheme in the book and makes the crime heroin smuggling.  But still, it ends up being a blaxploitation flick starring Roger Moore.  Somehow, nobody complained much.
  • Villain: The inimitable Yaphet Kotto plays Kananga/Mr. Big.  You are supposed to be shocked that they are the same person, but nobody making the film seemed to be that interested in this crucial point.  Julius Harris as Tee-Hee is very enjoyable.
  • Bond girl: Jane Seymour plays Solitaire quite well. Like Domino in Thunderball, Solitaire is a powerful-seeming woman who is actually a girl in a very troublesome situation beyond her control.  Seymour is an excellent actress as would be proven over the years and is generally a quality Bond girl, if not the most memorable.  Gloria Hendry is awful as Rosie Carver – likely because the role is awful, not the actress.  (That said, nice to see Bond bed an AfrAm character, still gutsy in 1973.)
  • Allies: Felix is here, and pretty run-of-the-mill.  Roy Stewart plays Quarrel Jr because Quarrel was killed off in Dr. No.
  • Gadgets: The magnet that unzips dresses of Italian agents.
  • Usual suspects: M and Moneypenny are fun here.  Q’s absence is welcome, as Moore for once needs fewer gadgets.
  • Picture: the boat chase in the bayou is really the centerpiece of the film and worth the price of admission, even if it involves the execrable Sheriff JW Pepper.

15. For Your Eyes Only

  • Bond himself: Roger Moore plays it with a little less camp here and thus puts on one of his better performances.
  • Plot: It’s kind of a mixture taken from several Fleming short stories and involves the usual Macguffin.  Really, it’s about figuring out who the friends and enemies are.  Mildly interesting.
  • Villain: Julian Glover (who once was considered as Bond) as Kristatos is someone you want to punch in the nose, so Glover is quite good.  The other bad guys (Locque, Hector Gonzales, Erich Kriegler) are menacing.
  • Bond girl: Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock seems exotically Greek but in reality is sort of plain.  Cassandra Harris, the exotic-looking model, brought along hubby Pierce Brosnan to the set to meet Albert Broccoli – the rest is history.  I will not count Lynn-Holly Johnson as Bibi as that would just be criminal.
  • Allies: Topol is fantastic as Columbo.
  • Gadgets: That Identigraph used to identify Locque by matching Bond’s description with faces in a database.  It’s hilarious nay todays’ standards, but you do have to admire the fact that the writers totally anticipated what we can do today 30+ years later.
  • Usual suspects: Bernard Lee had passed away from cancer before filming began, so out of respect were was no M.  Q, Moneypenny as usual.  Yawn.
  • Picture: the scene where Bond and Melina are dragged, tied together, underwater is taken from the novel Live and Let Die.  The rock-climbing sequence at the end is stunning.

16. Octopussy

  • Bond himself: at 56, Roger Moore still has it, whatever “it” is at this point.
  • Plot: Actually one of the better ones of the series.  It is a bit complicated, involving jewelry smuggling and nuclear disarmament.  But ultimately it’s deadly serious and a bit scary.
  • Villain: Louis Jordan as Kamal Khan is evil and has this luxurious snob accent from Snobistan.  He’s a lot of fun.  Kabul Bedi as Gobinda aka The Angry Sikh is simultaneously hilarious and menacing – quite the feat.  Steven Berkoff is terrific as the crazy General Orlov; unfortunately, he would play Hitler the exact same way a few years later in War and Remembrance.
  • Bond girl: Why why why why was Maud Adams ever brought back?  Yes, she’s a pretty Swedish model who, at the age of 70, is still pretty.  But egad, what an awful actress.  She’s OK when sitting or saying unremarkable lines, but when asked to express emotion and she comes across as a robot.  Too bad, because the role of octopus is very meaningful within the Bond canon (she’s the daughter of a major that Bond had to arrest and ultimately committed suicide – a throwaway line that’s actually taken from a Fleming short story).  There were better actresses for that role.
  • Allies: Vijay, played by an Indian tennis star, is a fun but gruesomely tragic character.
  • Gadgets: The pen with acid that springs Bond from captivity and the little radio Bond plants in the fake Faberge egg.
  • Usual suspects: Robert Brown as M is not my favorite.  Lois Maxwell is the same age as Roger Moore but sadly age is not as kind to her, so thus we have Penelope Smallbone as something pretty to look at in Universal Exports.  Q tires of Bond’s “adolescent antics.”  The audience is not far behind.
  • Picture: Really, who the fuck thought it would be a good idea to insert Tarzan yells in a deadly serious chase?  Nobody knows whether they want camp or a serious Bond, so the story suffers.  Meanwhile, the Indian locale is stunning, and the climax at the circus in West Germany is thrilling.  Too bad that the editing staff had no idea what to do with the movie – it could have been Moore’s best.

17. Moonraker

  • Bond himself: This is the epitome of Moore as Bond: suave, campy, hardly breaking a sweat.
  • Plot: The movie keeps a few elements from the excellent book, but the rest involves the space shuttle and, well, extinction of the human race while the chosen few wait it out in space.  It gets as absurd as it sounds.
  • Villain: Michael Lonsdale as Hugo Drax is quite good.  I’ll bet Lonsdale knows that Drax is over the top and Lonsdale plays him with the requisite humor and good spirit.  Jaws comes back – apparently, he was needed when Bond killed Drax’s other henchman.  “Oh, if you can get HIM!”  Like megalomaniacs have a 1-800-GET-A-HENCH hotline or something.
  • Bond girl: I really never saw the attraction with Lois Chiles as Holly Goodhead (sigh).  Apparently, she was some sought-after model and agreed to be in the movie eventually.   She’s supposed to be a smart and clever female agent.  Instead,she’s a lousy actress and not all that memorable in any case.  Better was Corinne Clery as the tragic Corinne Dufour.  Too bad.
  • Allies: Emily Bolton plays Manuela, who I guess should be a Bond girl.  Anyway, the look of sheer terror on her face as Jaws starts to sink his teeth into her (but is foiled) makes an impact.
  • Gadgets: The wrist-enabled dart gun used to get Bond out of the centripetal accelerator (and, let’s face it, one of the most ridiculous scenes in any Bond – why on earth would Bond go into such a contraption while investigating the owner?).  Also, where did Bond get that tool used to stab the anaconda?
  • Usual suspects: Bernard Lee’s last outing – in retrospect, he seems weakened as M.  For once, he is actually protecting Bond from his tormentors in the government.  Moneypenny and Q return as usual.
  • Picture: Laser fight in space!  Yes, really.  EON felt that they needed to latch onto the success of Star Wars,  Good God.  Despite the utter silliness of these scenes, there are some good ones.  Draw throwing juicy steaks in front of his dobermans, who then only eat them on his command.  Draw complaining that Bond refuses the plan for him “an amusing death,” which has a sort of fourth-wall humor about it.  “And how does one kill four hours in Rio?”  How?  How?  Oh how I wonder!

18. The World Is Not Enough

  • Bond himself: Brosnan’s third outing, and we have pretty much gotten used to him by now.  Better than Moore, but not Connery, nobody looks better in a tux.
  • Plot: Several bumpy twists and turns, the plot concerns oil pipelines in the Caucusus, and the heiress to the empire whose oil flows in those pipelines.  This heiress had been kidnapped and has Daddy and M issues because they did not pay the ransom.
  • Villain: Robert Carlyle as Renard is OK, but his character is patently ridiculous.  (“He will grow stronger every day until he dies.”  What?!?)  I think ultimately the whole point was to use his lack of feeling (and, it is more than hinted, his inability to sexually perform) to make him angry and dangerous.  At the end, he is just another thug that get this in the end.  Much better is Sophie Marceau, his victim/lover and manipulator.  Her character is refreshingly complex and is a great user of men.
  • Bond girl: Denise Richards Oh My God.  So pretty, so shapely as Dr. Christmas Jones the nuclear physicist.  Read that again.  No, I am not gob-smacked at a woman – pretty or otherwise – being a physicist.  I am gob-smacked at Denise Richards and her awfulness as an actress.  Sophie Marceau is quite a lot better.
  • Allies: Robbie Coltrane is back as Zukovsky, to the movie’s credit.  Coltrane is great at balancing the cynical humor and deadly seriousness the role needs.
  • Gadgets: The airbag-like avalanche shelter.  The exploding glasses in the Swiss banker’s office.
  • Usual suspects: Judi Dench has a lot to do because the movie revolves around some questionable choices M makes.  Desmond Llewellyn as Q introduces John Cleese as R and retires in a sad sequence.  Samantha Bond returns as Moneypenny and is actually not bad.
  • Picture: the beginning is very promising with the longest opening sequence, very action-filled.  Another great sequence involves an attack filled with helicopter saws (!!) and a pool of caviar.  (Robbie Coltrane returns as Zukovsky and is a joy as usual.)

19. Licence to Kill

  • Bond himself: Timothy Dalton’s second and last outing.  He is like the Debbie Downer of Bonds.
  • Plot: Bond for whatever reason has involved himself with the DEA through Felix Lighter (and what on earth does the CIA have to do with the DEA?!?)  Felix suffers a ghastly fate when he is betrayed (a fate he suffers in Live and Let Die the novel), and Bond decides to throw away his double-o status so he can avenge his friend.  The most gruesome Bond, but also the most boring.
  • Villain: Robert Davi plays the uber-drug dealer Sanchez, and he is actually quite good in the role.  He has numerous henchmen, but this is Davi’s flick.  That said, kudos to Benicia del Toro for playing a really frightening henchman.
  • Bond girl: Catfight!  There are two: Talisa Soto as Lupa, who is actually Sanchez’s girlfriend who has attached herself to Bond (and whom Bond uses with glee).  Then Carey Lowell (she of the Law and Order ADA) as the comely Pam Bouvier.  You hope Bond ends up with Bouvier, which he does (barely).  (Not a racial thing – Lupa is really unlikeable.)
  • Allies: The various DEA agents are meant to be good guys but just come off as jerks.  Maybe this is how it should be.
  • Gadgets: the first palm print gun, but this does little but give Bond away to the people hunting him.
  • Usual suspects: Robert Brown as M revokes Bond’s double-o status, but worries about him.  Q has a large role to play as he too goes rogue to supply Bond with all the toys he needs.  Moneypenny simply frets about Bond.
  • Picture: This film features a lot of gruesome killings, none more so than the death of Milton Krest at Sanchez’s hand, by quickly depressurizing a pressurized chamber.  (Yechhh…)  Wayne Newton provides a nice little break for humor.  But really, death, killings, violence…a bit much for a Bond movie.

20. Diamonds Are Forever

  • Bond himself: Connery, back after the producers literally begged him to come back.  He has reduced the role to camp here and looks like he has aged 20 years.  Just awful, a real shame.
  • Plot: An interesting deviation from Fleming’s novel, this is a diamond-smuggling scheme involving a Howard-Hughes-like character and, ultimately, Blofeld.  The diamonds here are used for far more nefarious purposes, like changing the balance of military power in the world.
  • Villain: Charles Gray as Blofeld.  Really, they couldn’t have found someone that was bald?  Good Lord, what were they thinking?!?
  • Bond girl: Jill St John as Tiffany Case is another very pretty but in the end pretty flat.  She is introduced as a tough but when put to the test just sits and screams her head off.  More interesting is Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole who sadly doesn’t get enough screen time.
  • Allies: Felix Lighter has a meaty role here.
  • Gadgets: The fake fingerprints used to pass Bond off as Peter Franks.
  • Usual suspects: M is per usual.  Moneypenny has an interesting turn at passport control.  Q also has a nice array of gadgets, especially one for playing slots in Vegas.  Why not just stay there and retire?
  • Picture: Bond on a moon machine?!?  Whatever, the scenes in Vegas are well done, helped mainly by the local authorities who arranged for empty streets.  The scenes in Amsterdam are also nicely done.

21. Tomorrow Never Dies

  • Bond himself: Brosnan in his sophomore outing is really campy, using an array of double-and triple-entendres to establish his virility.  “Oh James, you are a cunning linguist!”  Groan.
  • Plot: A swipe at the likes of Roger Murdoch involves a media mega-mogul who actually plans to fool Britain and China into a war in order to monopolize its coverage.  Should be fascinating, but really handled poorly.
  • Villain: Jonathan Pryce as Elliot Carver is just weak.  He’s over-the-top evil, but seems laughable as Bond just keeps hacking away at him.  Goetz Otto plays his henchman Stamper, who is big and menacing.  The best, however, is Vincent Schiavelli (aka Mr. Vargas in Fast Times at Ridgemont High) as the moronic Dr Kaufman.
  • Bond girl: Michelle Yeoh plays Wai Lin and is extraordinary: desirable yet tough and every bit Bond’s equal.  Teri Hatcher plays Mrs. Carver who is unfortunately Bond’s ex-lover.  That does not go well for her.  Nor the audience, as Hatcher is awful.
  • Allies: Joe Don Baker is back as Bond’s non-Lighter CIA contact.
  • Gadgets: The car controllable by Bond’s cell phone – it led to a very cool chase in which Bond drives his car hunkered down in his back seat.
  • Usual suspects: Dench is meh as M, but Llewellyn is entertaining as Q posing as a rental car agent.
  • Picture: Some real brutality here, such as Stemper machine-gunning unarmed British sailors.  The mobile-phone remote control of the car is nifty and portends future innovations.

22. A View To A Kill

  • Bond himself: Roger Moore’s last outing, one too many as Moore is now 58 and looks every bit of it. No way he should have taken this role.
  • Plot: Cause a major earthquake in Silicon Valley, thus making the bad guy’s chips that much more valuable.  Unfortunately, even in the 1980’s chips were mainly made throughout the US so that scheme would be doomed to fail.
  • Villain: Christopher Walken as Max Zorin is sadly awful.  He plays an ex-KGB German freak experiment who is a psychotic genius as…every Christopher Walken character.  Sigh.  Grace Jones plays his henchman/girlfriend, which at this point why not, it can’t get any worse.
  • Bond girl: Tanya Roberts is ghastly.  I mean, she’s nice to look at, but she offers absolutely nothing as Stacy Sutton.  “James…SAVE ME!”  Good God.
  • Allies:  Patrick Macnee plays Sir Godfrey perfectly.  I mean, how would you react if you has a “sir” in your title but yet was a put-upon driver for a lowlife named “St John”? David Yip is OK as a CIA agent.
  • Gadgets: Whatever they needed to keep Roger Moore upright.
  • Usual suspects: Lois Maxwell’s last turn – 24 years with the company and they just dump her like an empty beer can.  Methinks her good friend Roger Moore kept her there.  Robert Brown continues his forgettable turn as M and Desmond llewellyn is still Q.
  • Picture: There is a scene in which Zorin machine-guns dozens of people – his own people – for what reason we have no idea.  It just seems gratuitous and cruel to the audience.  Dolph Lundgren has a cameo as a KGB agent – the backstory is that he was dating Grace Jones and was hanging around the set and was offered the part when the main actor got sick or didn’t show.  That’s about as interesting as it gets here.

23. Die Another Day

  • Bond himself: Brosnan’s last outing, and it may as well be that way.  To be fair, Pierce tries very hard, but he can’t save this movie.  Not much can.
  • Plot: A couple of N Korean baddies are using DNA alterations to hide among the westerners so they can wreak havoc on the 38th parallel.  Havoc is indeed wreaked.
  • Villain: Toby Stephens as Gustav Graves, the altered N Koran Col Moon, is over-the-top but is played with good humor.  Rick Yune as Zao seems like he should be really menacing, especially with those diamonds embedded in his face, but is actually pretty boring in the end.
  • Bond girl: Halle Berry should be awesome as Jinx, but ends up being nothing special.  She is actually lousy and a huge disappointment.  Rosamund Pike is beautiful but annoying as the turncoat Miranda Frost.  The catfight between these two has almost no zing.
  • Allies: Michael Madsen is awful as the CIA boss.
  • Gadgets: That invisible car.
  • Usual suspects: Dench as M is pretty harsh on Bond, considering he was held prisoner for 2 years in N Korea.  John Cleese never really pulls off his R successor to Q very well.
  • Picture: Invisible cars?  Ice castles?  Yeah, all done with CGI, ugh.  A major sign that the Bond franchise had poisoned itself.

24. The Man With the Golden Gun

  • Bond himself: Moore in his sophomore outing later stated that he was ashamed of some of the sequences he filmed for this movie.  Yikes.
  • Plot: Something to do with the energy crisis and some Macguffin called the Solex.  An assassin named Scaramanga who seems to have targeted Bond has gotten his hands on the Solex and…well, there’s a duel, I guess.
  • Villain: Christopher Lee is one of the film’s few bright points as Scaramanga.  Herve Villechaize is his henchman Nick-Nack.  Never should have happened.
  • Bond girl: Britt Ekland is awful.  Maud Adams is a little better, but not much.
  • Allies: JW Pepper?  Really?
  • Gadgets: An extra nipple.  Yes, you read that right.
  • Usual suspects: M, Q, Moneypenny don’t manage to make this any better.
  • Picture: a series of insults to the audience.  I mean, why is JW Pepper in this movie unless the writers are clutching at straws?  The end – after Scaramanga has been disposed of – devolves into borderline racism.  (Look at the way the dark-skinned guards leer at Goodnight.)  I could go on, but it’s kind of depressing.

Why Ben Cherington had to go

Ben Cherington is by all indications a good man who commands respect in a high-ranking position.  He is the architect of the 2013 world champion Red Sox team.  He deserves the benefit of the doubt, right?

Wrong.

From the fan’s perspective, Cherington’s decisions always seemed a little weird.  It seemed he was dedicated to the strategy of (i) overpaying so-so veteran players per annum in return for short contract lengths and (ii) hanging on to every prospect as one would hang onto food during a famine.  The WS win in 2013, while insanely satisfying, actually did a disservice to the long-term prospects of the club by giving the mistaken impression that the win was accomplished as a consequence of the strategy rather than despite the strategy.

Over the next two years, Red Sox fans found out the hard way that Cherington was far from the smartest man in the room:

  • The veterans who helped carry the team in 2013 by their superhuman effort effectively ruined themselves physically going forward (e.g., Victorino, Napoli, Breslow, Tazawa, Uehara, Buchholtz, Pedroia)
  • As WS champs, the Sox thought they could lowball their homegrown talent, Lester, because playing in Boston is its own reward.  The lowballing of Lester made offering any other pitcher of similar value on the market awkward, so no shot at Scherzer (and, of course, no long-term contracts to players over 30 anyway)
  • So we dumped our aces last year to get multiple players of some value.  For Lester, we got Cespedes…OK, but for Cespedes, we got Porcello, who got offered $10M more than Lester over 4 years – and, having far less talent, happily took it.  God knows what we will do with Porcello.  For Lackey, scheduled to make the major league min this year, we got Joe Kelly and Allen Craig.  Kelly is not a starter.  (He may have won his last 4 and pitched well the last couple of games, but he still can’t get beyond the 6th.)  Maybe we can salvage Kelly as a closer.  Craig is a bigger problem as he is no longer capable of playing ball at the major leagues, but is signed through the next two years for a total of $20M.
  • Oh, and Lackey is one of the best pitchers on the far and away best team in the majors.
  • The 2014 offense was so anemic, Cherington was right to sign offensive talent.  He spent huge money on Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and 28-year-old “prospect” Rusney Castillo.  Only Castillo seems to be breaking out of a rut, but he is still way overpaid.  Sandoval continues to underperform, which of course raises questions about his physical shape.
  • But Ramirez remains the most problematic player on the team.  He can’t – and shouldn’t – play left field.  (The breaking point was Sunday’s loss against the Mariners, when a fourth inning line drive went over his head and plated runs that decided the game. Six other players on the team could have made that play.)  He is severely underperforming at the plate, which is his entire value.  He makes so much money that the team feels the need to play him, but putting Ramirez in play guarantees that the best possible team is not playing that day.  Ouch!  He can’t even be placed at DH because David Ortiz remains there, productive as ever.
  • Having misevaluated the hitting talent, Cherington naturally sought out back-of-the-rotation pitchers who, while not dominant, could induce ground balls to our awesome defense.  That strategy would have been great if (1) the offense produced lots of runs and (2) the pitchers produced the ground balls.  Neither happened.  Really, the offense produced when Betts, Bogaerts, Holt, and lately, Bradley and Shaw, played.  But no team can sustain the run support required of ground-ball pitchers that give up more fly-ball extra-base hits than anyone in the AL.  Masterson, who if he succeeded would have been a nice story, is DFA’ed after 59 innings pitched.  Porcello is on the DL with an inflamed ERA (love that line, not mine).  Joe Kelly is scarier to watch than Tim Wakefield ever was.  Buchholtz is on the DL again (not Cherington’s fault – then again, he could have dealt him while he was healthy I suppose, given his injury history).  Wade Miley is probably the only pitcher that evaluated correctly.  As he was projected to be a #5 starter, and is paid accordingly, this is not a serious plus on the resume.)
  • This brings us to the biggest disaster for the Red Sox: the bullpen.  Theo didn’t have a great history here, and our incoming Pres., Dombrowski, has an awful history with the Tigers bullpen.  But right now the Sox have nobody capable of holding a lead in the middle innings.  Nobody.  The other day, the Sox were leading Seattle 19-2 in the 8th inning, and I still felt queasy.  (My queasiness was plenty justified – while Miley held the Mariners to 2 runs in 7, the pen gave up eight runs in the next two innings!)  No way can this team win anything without a major bullpen overhaul.  Our best guy, Uehara, is 40 and injured.  Our next best guy, Tazawa, is good but overused and the wear has been showing.  Nobody else in the pen is trustworthy.  The Ogando gambit is a bust – and he’s signed next year.  No addition to the pen has worked, and for all our talent in the farm system, there is nobody there who can help.  No issue has more urgency than this, Cherington’s greatest failure.
  • Then of course, the development of our minor-league talent has been inconsistent and less than smooth.  Xander Bogaerts had a miserable year last year because of the impatience with his slow start, which led to $10M wasted on Stephen Drew and Bogaerts playing a position not suited to him.  JBJ, the best outfielder in the AL, could not hit major league pitching and so was not given the playing time needed to learn to hit.  Both of these guys look like they all be able to reach their potential, though.  The pitchers, however, never seem to develop quite right.  Our vaunted farm system is deficient in providing pitchers that can pitch to major league hitters without getting shelled.  Henry Owens…we’ll see.  Many of these guys should have been dealt for known-quantity veterans.

Cherington may have left a mess, but there are bright spots.  The trade for Eduardo Rodriguez looks better and better each time he takes the mound, although he is still a bit rough.  The Miley signing looks like a good value.  If we consider that the Sox paid $39M for one year of Victorino, and about the same for a year of Napoli, then getting the WS trophy made those investments worth it.  But that’s about all I can see.  Cherington needed to go, and I applaud the ownership for acting.

Movie Review 30: Real Genius

1985 was an exquisite year for movies.  As a morbidly weird exercise, I am going to review some of the movies I watched as a 14/15-year-old  from the perspective of a wiser 44/45 year-old. Let’s begin with Real Genius.

Real Genius 1985 rating: B;  2015 rating A-

(NB My rating system will be like academic grades, e.g., A+ for the best ever, A for excellent, A-, B+,…, D- for let’s set fire to the celluloid, and finally, F for a crime against humanity.)

Real Genius is a movie that has held up remarkably well over the years.  Superficially, it is a teen, coming-of-age comedy in which the characters grow, fall in love, and make crude jokes about sex; if that’s all it was, then this is a movie that would have been forgotten long ago.  But of course, it’s way more than that.

This movie has held up so well simply because it doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.  This is a movie about how science really gets done in America: the military wants a new toy, a lead investigator at a prestigious university wins a grant to build an aspect of the new toy, and the lead investigator has junior scientists carry out the work.

In this case, the lead investigator is Prof. Jerry Hathaway (Bill Atherton, who I guess played a lot of slimy characters we loved to hate in the ’80s), a “dean” at Pacific Tech (a stand-in for CalTech).  Hathaway is the sort of guy who wins these types of grants all the time.  Hathaway is a celebrity scientist who has his own TV show (like Carl Sagan?) and carries the domineering personality that one might expect of an apparently successful, hyperintelligent dude.  He is certainly good at what he does – laser physics – as evidenced by his ease with the equipment his slaves team built for him in the scenes at the end of the movie.

Now, the way a university grant works is that the grant proposal names the people who will be working on the project, as well as their salary requirements.  The university then pays these people accordingly as the grant money arrives.  Other money is used for stuff like lab equipment, conference travel, support staff, and overhead.  If all goes well, the lead investigator reports progress on the project to the funding source (the military here) and presents deliverables according to a schedule.

However, the central premise of this movie is that Hathaway doesn’t quite do this.  Rather, Hathaway, for reasons I can only guess are related to his dean-ship, manages to divert his grant funds to other scientific endeavors such as extensive home renovations.  One might also guess that his grant proposal listed his graduate students as his junior investigators for whom he listed salary requirements.  Hathaway likely used some of the money to pay tuition for his students and for lab equipment, etc.  But the rest of the money likely went to salaries that were never going to be paid out to people doing actual work.

Now we imagine that the military (the Army I think) has provided a very generous dollop of dough to Prof. Hathaway and thus has expectations of a finished product as likely promised.  As no finished product is even close because, well, his junior investigators are mostly semi-competent graduate and undergraduate students who are kept in the dark about essentially everything, the Army overseers are applying the screws to Prof. Hathaway, at one point hinting at a possible felony conviction for his creative accounting with the grant.  So Hathaway, who already is a Type A that thinks he is better than everyone else, is stressed out beyond belief.  This is all his students’ fault of course.

Most of what I just described is barely presented in the movie, but the movie is so good that this stuff doesn’t need to be said.  Again, the audience is assumed to be intelligent.  However, all of what I did present now explains how Prof. Hathaway came to recruit 15-year-old phenom Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarrett, who never really did many films yet did an excellent job capturing the awkward kid who just wants to please): Hathaway was desperate.  His wonder boy, Chris Knight (a young and excellent Val Kilmer in a role that would prove to be so very against type), who had been driving the project, has questioned his one-track existence and thus progress is not being made.

Progress on what?  What Prof Hathaway and the audience knows, and what the students do not, is that the deliverable is a weapon deployed in space that can vaporize a person anywhere on the ground.  The movie immediately makes clear the moral outrage of such a weapon when a morally outraged Army guy who leaves the project is “liberated.”  (“You mean liquidated?” “Let’s get some lunch.”)

Nevertheless, to Chris and his fellow students, Prof. Hathaway merely demands the solution of a “power problem,” which apparently is the generation of a 5 MW laser beam; this beam needs such power to vaporize a human target from space.  For those not in the know, 5 MW is extremely powerful, but its real use can only be measured in Joules of output, or power over time.  For example, a recent article claims production of a 2 PetaWatt beam in Japan, which is several hundred million times the power density of the 5 MW laser that Hathaway needs.  But the Japanese version only lasts for 2 pico-seconds, so the actual energy output couldn’t even heat your leftovers.  On the other hand, the 5 MW laser lasts 5 or more seconds, and even longer when deployed in the air so the energy density of this contraption is truly lethal.

Because Chris has no idea of the true purpose of his work, he merely thinks Hathaway is irritable for some odd reason.  (“But – and I am only saying this because I care – there are a lot of decaffeinated brands on the market today that are just as tasty as the real thing.”)  Chris seems genuinely baffled as to why Hathaway all of a sudden is demanding the solution of a far-out scientific problem pronto.  To him, the threats are almost comical – until Hathaway, in true desperation, and against every ethical and moral rule, states outright that he is failing Chris out of school and blacklisting him from employment in physics.

The movie makes it very clear that the true victims of Hathaway’s corruption are his students.  Hathaway has to put the squeeze on any way he can so that he can achieve his deliverable and not get convicted of fraud.

In one of the most horrifying scenes in the movie, Hathaway angrily belittles 15-year-old Mitch because he took a few hours off from the lab to go to a party.  Mitch, so young and impressionable and far from home, becomes despondent and begs his parents to allow him home.  When I watched this movie as a Mitch, I thought the scene was overdone.  I thought I was pretty independent from my parents emotionally (turned out to be inaccurate in ways I didn’t understand then) and couldn’t understand why Mitch took being berated like that so hard.  However, as a parent of a Mitch, I watched the scene in horror.  This kid is too young to know that he is paying for this jerk’s crime with such emotional abuse.   I wish Prof. Hathaway ill.

And it gets worse for Mitch.  Mitch instantly angered the alpha graduate student Kent (Robert Prescott, whom some of you might recognize many years later as a thug in the excellent film Michael Clayton) by making intellectual mincemeat out of him in the lab in front of Prof. Hathaway.  Kent is one of the least appealing characters in the movie because I feel the character is over-the-top pathetic.  Kent too is a victim of Hathaway’s, but Kent is a willing slave.  He gets Hathaway’s dry cleaning and teaches his undergrad class, and for these trifles, expects the success that comes with actual achievement. So Kent, a man in his mid-20’s, becomes so enraged at and fearful of a 15-year-old boy that he utterly humiliates him in front of a cafeteria full of students by taping and replaying Mitch’s pleadings with his parents.  (The students all laugh at Mitch, which makes me wonder WTF is wrong with people.)  Kent also turns Mitch into Hathaway for the “crime” of taking a few hours off from the lab.

This low point of the movie is the catalyst for the expected bonding of Chris and Mitch.  I think Kilmer and Jarrett have really good chemistry together as senior and junior research associates.  Their characters rightly benefit from each other’s presence: Mitch is able to stand up for himself better (and gets an older woman to boot), and Chris is able to find the balance between being loose and being successful.  Mitch of course plays the straight man and Jarrett does that well.  Chris, on the other hand, has the majority of the great lines in the movie, and Kilmer, not yet the superstar, is more than up to the task.  Not only that, the characters are clearly comfortable rattling off scientific reasoning as the scenes demand.  (“Bromide in an argon matrix…radiatively coupled to the ground state…10^21 photons per cubic cm”; not easy stuff to say with conviction.)

One other character stands out: John Gries as Laslo Hollyfeld, the mysterious bearded dude that seems to live in Mitch’s closet.  One watching the film today might get angry at Gries’ character as being a ripoff of David Foster Wallace…until one realizes that this movie came out two years before an unknown Wallace released his first book (Broom of the System) after graduating from Amherst College.  Yes, so DFW may actually be a ripoff himself of Laslo Hollyfeld (although Hollyfeld has no bandana).

Real Genius takes a few twists and turns and so keeps the audience on its toes.  Chris has an epiphany about solving the power problem, and he and Mitch successfully carry the solution out in front of a gleeful Hathaway and an incredulous Kent.  Mitch and Chris’s celebration is cut short because Hollyfeld informs them of the true purpose of Hathaway’s nagging.  Horrified, the kids (along with an unwitting Kent) take revenge by infiltrating the demo that Hathaway is giving his Army patrons and causing the laser to fire at Hathaway’s house and pop a literal shitload of popcorn in the house. (Hathaway expressed disgust for popcorn earlier.)

So what can I say: good plot, mostly good characters, quotable dialogue, excellent science, respect for its audience.  Overall a terrific movie…but I do have a few parting questions:

  • Mitch pairs up with Jordan (Michelle Meyrink, who in hindsight is not bad to look at).  Jordan is 19, Mitch is 15.  A little questionable, but good for Mitch.  However, at some point in the film, Mitch is propositioned by one Sherry Nugill, whose goal is to sleep with the smartest people ever; Sherry is easily in her 30’s (a quite hot Patti D’Arbanville) and…don’t hot chicks in their 30’s get jailed for sleeping with young boys?
  • The finished product is not only the laser, but also a tracking system.  The tracking system is barely mentioned until deployment, but it seems to be Kent’s baby.  Why is Kent even working on this piece?  Wouldn’t this go to another group whose expertise is in…tracking systems?  And if Kent is able to develop and complete the tracking system as well as “contribute” to the laser development, doesn’t he deserve more credit?

Postscript:

Upon a second read of my review, I find more than a little sexism.  I apologize.  I gave short shrift to the quirky character Jordan played by Michelle Meyrink.  That is another thing this movie gets right: in the 1980’s (and 90’s), women in very high-tech campuses are few and far between.  So there are not too many like Jordan.  But she is as adept at science and tech thinking as any of the guys, and makes no bones about it.  Another great character.  (See more in depth about women in science and this movie here.)

We are trans parents

Our younger child, formerly known as our daughter Eliza Hannah, has become our son Elijah Henry (Eli).  Let me explain.

Late last year, Eli came out to us as transgender.  In our case, this means that Eli, despite having female body parts, feels that he has always been male.

To say that this was bewildering news to Laura and me is a severe understatement.  Laura and I pride ourselves on our open-mindedness and have steeled ourselves for all sorts of surprises the kids could spring on us (e.g., “Hey Dad, I’m gay!”, “Hey Mom, I’m Baha’i.”, “Hey Mom & Dad, I eloped!”).  But we didn’t think about this possibility.  It never occurred to us.

Being clueless about anything transgender, we had no idea what this meant or what to do.  Clearly, Eli needed us and was confiding something major to us.  Very quickly, we had to educate ourselves on matters transgender.  Laura and I were simply overwhelmed at first.

That said, some months later, here we are, much more knowledgable and confident of the path we are taking.  Are things perfect?  No.  Eli is still a teenager and, well,…you know.  But we are very proud of Eli for having the courage to be true to himself, his family, and his friends.  We are a very out family and are happy to talk to anyone who may have questions.

Just for our sake, here are answers to questions and comments we get a lot:

  • Did this come out of the blue or did you suspect something was amiss?

While we never suspected anything like this, there were signs in hindsight.  For example, at Eli’s Bat* Mitzvah, he fought Laura incredibly hard about wearing a dress.  Laura relented, which says a lot because she invested a lot of thought into what dress to buy for Eli.  Eli also has always been sort of a tomboy, but that says very little because many girls who are tomboys are indeed girls.

Eli also had a rough year leading up to the announcement.  I won’t go into detail, but I will say it’s a miracle that, despite everything, his grades are stellar.

  • How do you know that this in fact a real thing and not just a passing fad?

To be honest, we don’t with 100% certainty.  99% certainty, not 100%.  But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter.  Eli is clearly serious about it – we know Eli and we know when he’s very serious about something.  And that’s enough for us.  If more time goes by and Eli changes his mind…well, lesson learned.  But we don’t see that happening.

  • I imagine you guys have gone through the mill with the school and other kids.

Wrong.  The school has been nothing short of incredible.  The teachers and staff have all been on board and have, to the best of their ability, respected the name and gender change.  We have been working very closely with the school and they are just a pleasure to work with.

The kids…wow.  Eli’s friends have been wonderful, just so accepting.  Zero bullying in the school.  Zero.  What a different world than mid-1980’s Brockton.  (To my Brockton homies: no offense meant, I will always love my hometown, but you know precisely what I am talking about.)

Some of this has to do with being here in Massachusetts.  Since 2012, gender identity has become a protected class in the public schools (but not in other public spaces such as businesses).  This means that if someone is bullied for being transgender, then the school is obligated to do something about it.  Further, the school staff are trained to work with transgender kids and educate other kids as the situation arises.

I will note here that this is obviously not the case in many states.  Even a very liberal state like New York does not consider gender identity a protected class in its public schools.  So we count our blessings that, sucky winter weather and all, we live in Massachusetts.

  • How has your family taken the news?

Really well.  Amazing.  Knocked our socks off.  First of all, Eli’s older brother Josh has been so incredible through this.  He understands that he is not getting as much grease right now as his wheel isn’t squeaking as much.  We are very proud of him.

Parents, brothers and families, aunts and uncles, cousins, close friends,…., just so much love and support.  We are so blessed.

  • Psst! You have to be really careful around the Gordons now because they offend easily.

(Actually, no one’s said this to us, but I can tell that some people we have told got a little careful in what they said to us at first.)

Hey, this is a bit weird for everyone.  We had no clue about what being transgender was all about not that long ago.  It would be awful of us to assume that everyone is instantly on board with everything transgender.  I alone have over 500 FB friends and I would be amazed if 10% of them knew anything about transgender issues.

We do not care if you don’t know the difference between trans and cis.  We are not concerned if you instinctively refer to Eli as “she.”  We understand if you are uncomfortable with certain perceived aspects of transgender issues (e.g., “Does my daughter have to take a leak next to a 275 lb, hairy, bearded dude in a ponytail, dress, and matching espadrilles?”).

But we will not lie about the fact that we are a little exasperated with misinformation being disseminated in articles and elsewhere by certain political and religious commentators that have the ear of many frightened parents.  Please, by all means, ask us about the content of these articles and ask us why we might agree or disagree with the assertions presented therein.  However, if someone truly buys into misinformation enough to express it as fact in public, expect a rebuttal from me.

Examples of misinformation I have seen:

  1. “The child has gender confusion.”  Wrong.  Eli is not confused one bit about his gender.  He is a male.  End of story.  Eli, however, suffers from gender dysphoria, which is trauma felt by despising the wrongly-gendered body he feels trapped in.
  2. “Exposing our kids to all this sex talk.”  Gender identity has nothing to do with sexual attraction.  Nothing.  This is about one’s identity and is centered on the self rather than other people.  The misinformation may come about by the “T” being included in LGBT.   The inclusion is really about similarities in societal attitudes rather than actual similarities.
  3. “Perverts.”  This is the language of bigots.  Used also to describe gay people.

When all is said and done, it is basic respect.  Asking questions about that which is not understood is respectful.  That’s all.

Religious Freedom, Pizza, and The Stupid: Please, Make It Stop

So unless you’ve been living in a cave the past week or so, you know about Indiana’s botched RFRA act and its signing by its terribly unfortunate Governor.  The incident has ignited a kulturkampf the likes of which are…let’s face it, necessary to keep the news agencies alive during periods of otherwise slow news.

But I’d like to focus on a micro-incident that has religious conservatives who support the bill in a lather.  An owner of a small pizza restaurant in Walkerton, IN, stated publicly, as the focus of a news segment, that as a Christian she would not cater a gay wedding.   If you see the video, the young owner seems very sincere about her faith and what it means, and that she supports the controversial new law.  Her father states plainly that he doesn’t have to support anyone’s lifestyle choice, so at least you know where he’s coming from.

The reaction was about as predictable as that of my dog upon smelling a steak being unwrapped in front of her.  That’s right: The Stupid.  Liberals pounced on the non-would-be-gay-wedding-pizza-caterers, one-starring them in Yelp and making grand pronouncements against them in blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else.  Conservatives who support this bill and every other anti-LGBT measure fought back.  The non-would-be-gay-wedding-pizza-caterers then announced very publicly that they were being forced to close their doors due to the backlash.  Liberals apparently became the “new McCarthyites.”

A bit of free advice to my pro-equality allies: stop!  Just stop being so dumb and visceral.  Know where you are.  The country as a whole is on our side.  Who gives a rat’s ass about a shitty** pizza joint that is turning away hypothetical catering business?  The attention that these folks have drawn to themselves – which to anyone not comatose is obviously done deliberately – has brought them, as of this writing, nearly half a million dollars from a GoFundMe account.  These people are playing the Martyr bit, and doing it well.  Don’t buy into it!

So, really, stop.  Stop paying attention to these people, and anyone else who boldly pronounces their refusal to serve customers that don’t exist.  Focus instead on legal protections for LGBT citizens of Indiana.  Because no kid  I know in this country has ever attempted suicide because of their oppressed religion.

**As I have never eaten at Memories Pizza, I have no idea how their pizza is.  But if they need this sort of publicity, then my guess is that the food does not speak for itself.

See kids: Actual anti-semitism!

I am frequently told these days that, at least here in the U.S.A., anti-Semitism is a rarity.  Oh sure, it’s pretty bad over in Europe.  And in the U.S., one can hear increasing hostility toward the Jewish state, especially on some university campuses.  But criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, I am told.

And for the most part, I buy it.  Of course the leadership of Israel does some things that drives liberals (and some paleo-conservatives) batty.  And the leadership of Israel, despite claims to the contrary, does not represent all Jewish people of the world.  It should go without saying that one has the right to condemn a new settlement, or an airstrike, or a failure in negotiations with the Fatah, without worrying about being labeled a bigot.

And I preface this by stating that I do not look for anti-Jewish bigotry.  I am always the one disagreeing that this or that statement is anti-Semitism.  For example, I defended Andrew Sullivan when he did a 180 on Israel and put out some seriously harsh words on the topic, like a lover scorned.

I say all this to emphasize my point: what I am about to describe is real anti-Semitism, make no mistake about it.  It is real, and it happened, at UCLA of all places, an elite state university in Los Angeles, the second Jewish city of America. The story has made the rounds on Twitter, but it has reached the NY Times and is now a big deal.  It is worth talking about so it is understood in light of all other bigotries that must be recognized and unlearned.

The incident happened last month and involved a 20-year-old student named Rachel Beyda.  Ms. Beyda, from all appearances (I obviously do not know her), has all the hallmarks of a bright future: intelligent, attractive, ambitious, and involved.  She had an interest in joining the campus Judicial Board because she wants to be a lawyer.  She was nominated and was ready for the questions from the rest of the Board, which she expected to be a formality given her formidable credentials.

But Ms. Beyda is Jewish.  This of course has nothing to do with anything in theory, but apparently it did in this case.  The Council debated, while Ms. Beyda waited outside for 40 minutes, whether one could be Jewish and “unbiased.”  The debate touched the theme of Judaism and dual loyalties, Judaism and dishonesty, you name it.  Everything except the elephant in the room: Israel.  Israel was never mentioned – just Ms. Beyda’s Judaism and her involvement with Jewish groups  (Hillel and a Jewish sorority).  That this is disgusting is obvious.

But there’s more, much more.

  1. Everyone has biases.  Jewish people involved in Jewish organizations have biases.  Muslim students who belong to Muslim organizations have biases.  Jews and Muslims and Christians and Atheists who stay away from such organizations have biases.  The question is whether Ms. Beyda could do the job.  Not one person said that.
  2. Being Jewish does not presuppose any point of view.  Again, this should not matter, but apparently it did.
  3. Even if it could be assumed that Ms. Beyda would try to assert a point of view in line with the Jewish groups to which she belongs (and that may indeed be the case)…so what?!?!?!?  Anyone who has not been asleep in a cave knows what happened here.  The Council members opposing Ms. Beyda wanted to make sure that certain votes in connection with the Israel/Palestine issue went a certain way and did not feel Ms. Beyda would go along because of the Jew.  But is this a requirement now to take part in student government – that one speaks and thinks as an anti-Zionist.

The BDS folks have now proven that their form of anti-Zionism is indeed anti-semitic. The four who voted against Ms. Beyda recanted, and Ms. Beyda is now ensconced in the Council.  The damage, however, is irreversible.