Welcome to My Neighborhood

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The first time we saw Connie she was packing a snub-nosed .38. It was strapped snugly to her narrow hips, which were wrapped in skin-tight jeans — knee-high black leather boots and matching jacket rounding out her outfit.

She didn’t look around as she mounted her Harley — or put on a helmet. Her dirty blonde mane was blowing in the breeze. Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

We’d just moved in across the street from her house, a plain, white block bungalow without frippery or landscaping, other than a lawn, doubtless maintained because of the nearly free irrigation water available — and her job.

Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

Parts of the Phoenix metro area are serviced by the Salt River Project (SRP) irrigation district, organized in the 1800s to exploit the flows of that perennial river for the benefit of the surrounding desert farms. Today, much of the farmland has been turned to housing, and the irrigation water, delivered by canals, to lawns bordered by berms to retain the water.

The schedules for lawn flooding are on a rotating continuous timescale, with no lawn receiving its share at the same time each irrigation period. Floodgates may be opened or shut at any time of the day or night, according to SRP’s schedule. Most homeowners, people who work regular jobs and value their sleep, prefer to hire out this task. Enter Connie, who, for a small fee, was available to take care of your irrigation responsibilities.

Within days after our move into the neighborhood, Connie came over to introduce herself, scope us out, and proffer her services. It didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable and express her relief that we weren’t black or Mexican. Before she got too carried away, ranting and raving against those two groups, I told her I was Cuban-American and my wife was Mexican-American.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

She said that was of no consequence. She was prejudiced against these people as a group, not against particular individuals, and she added that one of her best friends was black.

Yeah, right, I thought. To allay our doubts, she explained.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We had needed at least as long to absorb it. (What sort of neighborhood had we moved into?) She continued, explaining that the gang had been formed for protection and that racial and ethnic affinities were the simplest methods for organization. The gangs — black, white, and Chicano — set behavioral rules and enforced them. Compliance led to respect, and respect to incipient friendships — the tortuous path that had led her to a friendship with a black.

Whether Connie was a racist might be debatable, but her opinion of men was definitely single-minded. Glancing at Tina, my wife, and then locking eyeballs with me she declared in no uncertain terms that all men were after the same thing. Sex — no exceptions.

We signed up for her irrigation services.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged. Her house was ringed by security cameras, footage from which was usually available to neighbors to figure out neighborhood mysteries. On at least one occasion, she helped resolve a vandalism incident. Her boyfriend, a muscle-bound, tattooed skinhead in a permanent tank-top, was surprisingly modest and self-effacing. He would often wait hours in front of her door for a response.

Connie, however, was a meth head and occasionally went on binges. Once past the high, she’d get nasty and combative but then, when coming down, would sink into maudlin depression. Her solace was Frannie, our octogenarian neighbor. Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman. She and Tina would often share a glass of wine in the afternoon under the carport and talk men. I think it was Frannie’s affinity for Tina that facilitated Connie’s trust in us.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged.

Connie once invited Tina to a shooting range. She’d always wanted to try some shooting, so she enthusiastically accepted. Connie provided Tina with what Tina called a “complicated” handgun, while Connie took a semi-automatic rifle (Tina, knowing little about guns, called it a machine gun).

The female bonding experience was going well until Tina became friendly with the cops who were sharpening their skills in the adjacent gallery. Connie turned combative and abruptly cancelled the date.

Her immediate neighbors were of two minds about her. The family due west was reminiscent of the Gallaghers, the family depicted in the TV series Shameless — dissolute, disorganized, undisciplined, and possessed of a passel of kids. Connie pirated her TV cable off their cable and, I believe (I didn’t pry), shared the monthly fee. The family due east was a couple of editors for the Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. They and Connie were feuding — something having to do with a tree growing over the cyclone fence separating their back yards.

When Connie found out I was a mason, she asked that I build a block wall between her property and these neighbors’. Except for those lots, most properties in the old subdivision were separated by four-inch-thick block walls supported every ten feet by eight-inch-thick block pillars. I agreed, but I needed to look at her back yard to estimate the extent of the job. She took us over for a look.

Her home was neat and clean. She’d remodeled the tract house to carve out a tiny control room where she monitored the surveillance cameras, and a gun closet where her arsenal was stored. But her bedroom took the cake. A four-poster, crinolined, oversized bed dominated the room, together with a four-by-eight mirror on the ceiling. We didn’t ask.

Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman.

Connie didn’t depend for her income on just being the irrigator. When a neighbor discovered her call-girl website, the place went ballistic. (Meanwhile, of course, all the men surreptitiously peeked at her website.) Two doors down from Connie and one door down from the Gallagher-like family lived a cop. He knew all about Connie. He refused to get involved. His philosophy was, if Connie didn’t disrupt the neighborhood, he left well enough alone.

One midday our house was broken into. Purely by happenstance, Tina showed up while the burglar was inside. Tina didn’t hesitate; although small in stature, she was fearless, a rock climber, and built like a female Schwarzenegger. She opened the door and bee-lined toward the hubbub. Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground and was about to begin pounding when the woman yelled that she was pregnant.

Having been brought up by drug-addled parents in dodgy environments and shuttled between foster homes, Tina had street smarts and could spot a line of BS instantly. “That jewelry that you stole was given to me by my husband just before he was killed in a shoot-out,” she responded, giving the thief pause.

Tina dragged her to the phone and called 911. The operator told her not to attempt to apprehend the thief. While Tina was on the phone, the thief slipped her grip, ran across the street, and jumped up on the four-inch block wall separating Connie’s house from her cable-sharing neighbors. Then, incredibly, she ran atop its length to the next street, where her car was parked. For all her athletic abilities, Tina couldn’t catch up, though she did provide a description of the car.

Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground.

The thief didn’t get away. Two female officers had already been dispatched and caught her attempting to flee. Tina ID’d the woman and, expecting a lecture about taking the law into her own hands, apologized to the officers for not following the dispatcher’s orders concerning the thief’s apprehension. Instead, the cops congratulated her and expressed a wish that more citizens would get more involved. They added that the woman had done time and was under suspicion and surveillance for similar burglaries in the area — one reason they’d been able to respond so quickly.

When we related these events to Connie, she said the woman was lucky she hadn’t broken into her house.

I never built a wall for Connie; she was too unpredictable. Instead of improving, Connie’s situation deteriorated. She took more drugs, got more combative, and alienated more neighbors. We sold our house at the top of the market bubble (the one that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner didn’t spot), made a tidy profit, and moved away. Frannie told us that Connie ended up in prison for, I think, owning a firearm — a no-no for a convicted felon.

I love a diverse neighborhood: academic editors, polyglot artists, cops, Aryan Brotherhood meth heads, Cuban & Mexican-Americans, housing bubble speculators, handy call girls, classic car collectors, and other unique personalities we never got a chance to meet.

Our new neighborhood in a small town, anarchic in a completely different way, is calmer. While the characters aren't quite so extremely colorful, the property mix — along winding and hilly streets that change names seemingly without logic, and irregular land parcels — contains multimillion-dollar homes on acreage next to mobile homes and modest DIY homes on small lots, and even a nearly perennial creek called Miller Creek. We don’t even lock our doors.




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Acapulco Gold Rush

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Last weekend my wife was seized by an unwholesome enthusiasm for tiny houses. She’d read they were featured at something called a Better Living Show and wanted to go.

That’s what they call them, tiny houses; and in the truth-in-naming department you can’t do much better than that. Tiny houses are two-hundred-square-foot jobs, conveniently sized to fit into a single parking space. Except, if you lived in a parking space you’d have more room because you wouldn’t have to share your living quarters with a furnace and a water heater.

Tiny houses are the city of Portland’s newest, most environmentally correct way of encouraging neighborliness and doing something about urban sprawl at the same time. “Infill” is the word the planners use to justify them: 11, maybe 20 of the things bumper to bumper on a standard neighborhood lot. A business opportunity is what my wife called them. We could crowd a few dozen in the backyard, charge rent, and kayak the income stream into a comfortable old age.

The stuff isn’t even legal until July, yet here we were at a staid Better Living Show browsing booths filled with bongs and vaporizers and rolling papers and roach clips.

Marriages being what they are, we headed over to the Better-Living-in-the-Shanty-Town-of-the-Future Show, got out of the car, made our way on foot to where the parking lot receded over the curve of the earth, spotted a crowd, followed it into a warehouse-like building and found . . . marijuana paraphernalia. In fact, the first aisle was nothing but marijuana paraphernalia, display after display of the kind of things that would get you busted at any airport in America. Better living indeed.

Interesting, we thought, how quickly the free market kicked into gear once Oregon passed its marijuana initiative last fall. The stuff isn’t even legal until July, yet here we were at a staid Better Living Show browsing booths filled with bongs and vaporizers and rolling papers and roach clips. And it wasn’t just paraphernalia. One particularly popular young lady was pushing samples of what she billed as “medicine-free” edibles. Not that you can’t get edibles with medicine right now, just not at a recreational-use booth. Medical marijuana has been legal for decades but, until July, you will still need a prescription to indulge in recreational munchies.

In the next aisle orchids were being ultra-violated in the sort of high-tech grow-box you see in movies about space stations. Orchids, we thought. Now that we’ve found the more traditional part of the Better Living Show, can tiny houses be far away?

Turned out they could. It also turned out that the grow-box wasn’t meant for orchids. The orchids were nothing more than body doubles for the medicinal herbs that were meant to go in the grow-box but, like the medicine for the munchies, were biding their time until July. Next to the grow-box were shelves of seedless seed packets bearing the names of every imaginable variety of the scientifically engineered seeds you could grow in the grow box, just as soon as July rolls around and the seed packets contain seeds.

It began to dawn on us that, maybe, the better living show we’d arrived at wasn’t the same Better Living Show advertised in the paper. Sometimes we can be pretty insightful.

“This is the Oregon Cannabis Convention & Trade Show,” a nice young man informed us. “Better Living Show is the next building over. Building after that is the Gold & Treasure Show.”

Gold & Treasure? I thought. Gold and treasure is even better than marijuana paraphernalia. The Internet will send marijuana paraphernalia right to my home, but gold and treasure? Not even the most desperately dispossessed Nigerian widow ever came through with any of that. We headed over to the Gold & Treasure Show.

You had to go through a metal detector and check your guns before they’d let you in. I saw that as a favorable sign, a promise that we were about to be ushered into Aladdin’s cave. Or, and this is a particular fantasy of mine, Uncle Scrooge’s money bin.

Tiny houses are a lot more honest about what they call themselves than that Gold & Treasure Show. At the Gold & Treasure Show there was no treasure and not much more gold than there was marijuana at the marijuana show . . . and gold has been legal since the early ’70s. A couple of guys at out-of-the-way tables were pushing run-of-the-mill coins at about 30% more than you could get them for at any gold shop in town, which may say something about who they thought would be attending the show.

In the next aisle orchids were being ultra-violated in the sort of high-tech grow-box you see in movies about space stations.

What there was plenty of was late middle-aged men dressed up like prospectors who’d been thawed out of a glacier left over from Klondike days. They sported full beards and work boots, flannel shirts, and heavy-looking pants held up with suspenders. Their only sartorial concession to the 21st century was baseball caps advertising the names of equipment companies, which weren’t that much of a concession because the equipment they were advertising was as old-fashioned as the outfits. Row after row of sluice boxes. Pans. Picks. All the latest in 19th-century gold-mining technology. Pretty much anything you’d want if you were about to head on up to Dawson City in 1898.

Except, that is, for the gold magnets. Gold magnets weren’t part of any 19th-century prospector’s kit I know about. The fact is, I’m not persuaded that gold magnets should be part of any 21st-century kit, either. The idea of using magnetism to suck gold out of the ground doesn’t fit with anything I remember from high-school science; and, when I tried one on my wife’s wedding ring, it didn’t notice anything special. Which could go a long way toward explaining why these guys were at a trade show selling equipment rather than making their fortunes in the wilds of Alaska. But then, gold-rush fortunes are always made by the guys who sell the equipment.

Competitionwise, the Better Living Show picked a bad weekend to come to Portland. Marijuana fills the better-living bill for lots of people, and pretty much everybody thinks gold and treasure would go far toward making their living better, but almost nobody except city planners and the occasional overly enthusiastic wife imagines tiny houses could possibly make life better for anybody except slumlords, which left the Better Living Show a distant third attendancewise.

The people who put on that show seemed to share the general opinion and gave tiny houses the same pride of place as the Gold & Treasure Show gave gold coins: next to a wall on the far side of the room. There were two of them, both looking like the kind of place Red Riding Hood’s grandmother immigrated to America to escape from, once she’d been regurgitated by the wolf.

While the Gold & Treasure people were mostly pushing 19th-century mining gear, the marijuana people were selling stuff from a century that hasn’t even happened yet.

Also, they were culturally better suited to Red’s grandmother than to modern Americans. Medieval European peasants were minimalists in the way of possessions, and the houses were decorated in that style. Nothing was in them, including plumbing, so you had to imagine where the toilet and sink and shower would go, along with the furnace and water heater, which took some imagining because a tiny house doesn’t have space for much more than a single room with a fold-down bed, and the beds weren’t there, either. I would have gone into one for a better look, but I couldn’t get in. Somebody was already inside and I wouldn’t fit.

The vendors at the Better Living Show appeared to have a lot of spare time on their hands. The one I got to talking to seemed much more interested in the marijuana show next door than trying to sell me whatever he was supposed to be selling. He was elderly, almost as old as I am from the grizzled look of him. He’d grown up in Detroit and, like a lot of inner-city Americans, didn’t have any tolerance for drugs. But marijuana? He spent time volunteering with veterans and, well, he’d seen guys even older than himself cured, by drinking marijuana tea, of the neuropathy that goes along with type 2 diabetes.

Tea, he said. “If it’s tea it’s not a drug. “That show still there tomorrow?”

“Think so,” I said.

“I need to go find out about tea.”

The marijuana show wasn’t really about tea, although there were people there who probably could have told him. Maybe the munchie lady would have slipped him a recipe or two. What the marijuana show was about was selling you equipment, then selling you the knowledge you needed to use the equipment.

The marijuana show was about gleaming pipes and tubes and gauges and vats and dials that looked like they’d been left over from Breaking Bad. It was about grow lights and consultants to tell you how to save electricity once you’d bought the grow lights. It was about other consultants who knew how to maintain the optimum humidity, or the proper day-night cycles. It was about scary-looking machinery to extract hash oil from all the buds you’d be growing with all the grow boxes and humidity and day-night cycles. It was about consultants on indoor growing to tell you about nutrients and hydroponics, and about entirely different lines of equipment and consultants for people who wanted to make their fortunes growing marijuana outdoors. Underneath it all, it was about selling people who didn’t know the first thing about marijuana cultivation or marijuana processing the dream of turning into international marijuana kingpins.

If I’d had a lot of money, even if I’d had a lot more money than that, I still would have had to go into debt, yea, even unto the seventh generation, to get started in that business. But none of that debt would have made the least bit of difference in light of all the money that would be rolling in, once I got the business cranked up. It was pretty clear these people had had a lot of practice selling this line.

They were, when I thought about it, the same sort of people as the ones at the Gold & Treasure Show, except that, while the Gold & Treasure people were mostly pushing 19th-century mining gear, the marijuana people were selling stuff from a century that hasn’t even happened yet.

Something that nobody was selling was the statistics on what became of marijuana prices in Washington when weed went legal. Despite sellers up there having their state, Idaho, and the whole captive Portland market to themselves, the bottom fell out of their businesses. Too many who thought they were getting on the elevator at the ground floor wound up stepping into an empty shaft, only to get smashed flat when the elevator turned out to be heading down at them.

Try as I might, and I tried for half an hour, I couldn’t get a clear reason why weed farmers would want to unionize their workers.

It wasn’t as if there was nobody at the marijuana show who knew that. Or knew how to run a business in general. Several organizations had booths selling business-support services. One fellow claiming to provide this kind of expertise was a union leader trying to organize the workers on marijuana farms.

“But nobody here is planning to be a farm worker,” I told him.

“Plenty are planning to be growers, though,” he said. “I’m organizing growers, too.”

“You think growers want to join a union?”

“Their workers would. I’m organizing the growers so they can organize their workers.”

Try as I might, and I tried for half an hour, I couldn’t get a clear reason why farmers would want to unionize their workers. The best unclear reason involved keeping all the farms on the same playing field, which would keep prices for the product at a uniformly high level so that everybody, farmers and workers alike, would get rich. When I asked if his union planned to organize the illegal growers who are, when I thought about it, all the growers that exist right now, his answers became more unclear than usual. When I asked how anybody was going to get rich when marijuana doesn’t sell for any more than it’s selling for in Washington, he became even less clear.

A few booths over, a lady was touting a security service. “Marijuana businesses attract a lot of shady characters,” she said. “Owner needs to know who they are.”

Maybe, I thought, when marijuana is against the law. When it’s legal and cheap, shady characters are a lot more likely to hang around jewelry stores and places selling gold and treasure.

“You see a car in your parking lot with some shady characters inside,” she went on, “the last thing you want is to have to approach that car to find out who they are.”

Probably true I thought. Of any business.

“If you hire us, all you have to do is call with the tag number and we’ll tell you everywhere that car has been in the last few months.”

“You know that?”

“Sure. We get it from the street cameras. We can tell you within seconds everywhere that car has been.”

I knew about street cameras. Street cameras are one of things I talk about that make people think I’m some kind of anti-government crazy person, along with the thing I used to say about how the NSA records everybody’s phone calls and emails. I never expected the government would bother about something like a warrant when it wanted to check up on where my car had been, but I did think that calling up a specific license number would take a bit of trouble, like those operators tracing phone calls in old movies. And that, at the very least, the government would be embarrassed enough by the whole thing not to go making it any more public than it needed to. It never crossed my mind that you or I or a private security firm could tie directly into the street cameras and know where somebody else’s car had been. And do it within seconds.

I also couldn’t see how knowing where a car had been would tell you much about the people in the car. Unless the car turned out to be parked every night in a federal motor pool, which would tell you all you needed to know if you were running a marijuana outlet.

Which brings up the gentleman in the insurance booth. He was selling policies tailored for marijuana businesses. “Cover slip-and-fall. Product liability. Renter’s insurance to ease landlords’ concerns about leasing buildings to use as grow facilities. Theft. Bad debts. Acts of Government.”

Say what?

“Acts of Government. It’s not just what the thieves are planning that a businessman has to worry about, you know. It’s what the government has in mind, too.”

Now that’s something I could understand, at least until I thought about it. Insurance against acts of government was the one thing out of the whole trade-show lollapalooza, the one thing among all the fantasies of tiny houses and 19th-century gold-mining, of drive-you-to-the-poorhouse high-tech grow equipment and knowing where somebody else’s car has been, that made sense to me. Insurance against acts of government — that has . . .

That has . . . I don’t know. The things the government gets up to always turn out to be so far ahead of anything any sane person can imagine, I’m not sure what that guy was really selling. Could be he was no different from the other hucksters that morning. At the very least, he knew who his marks were.

Lots of people who use marijuana, and lots of people who would have wandered over from the Gold & Treasure Show, have their suspicions about acts of government. Could be he saw us coming.

Could be I’m the sort of guy who’d be suckered into the empty promise of a policy insuring me against acts of government in the same way those latter-day prospectors imagined they’d make their fortunes in Alaska, or those urban wannabe farmers and processors fancied there’s endless money to be had in marijuana.

Could well be something like that.

p/p




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Astonishing Life, Astonishing Performance

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Stephen Hawking is the most celebrated and renowned physicist of our time, not only because of his astounding theory about time, but also because of his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He has spent his career searching for that “once simple, elegant equation that would prove everything.”

If you, too, are looking for clues to Hawking’s elusive equation, The Theory of Everything isn’t the place to look. Although it does contain a few brief and basic conversations about Hawking’s research along the lines of “quantum theory governs subatomic particles; relativity governs the planets,” the film decidedly is not about physics.

Instead, it is an intensely personal film about how a family copes with the day-to-day emotional and physical trauma caused by a debilitating disease. And yet, it’s not about that either. Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years. It is a horrifying disease that gradually destroys the body from the outside in. Known variously as “motor neuron disease,” “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” and more recently “ALS,” it prevents the brain from communicating with the muscles, first in the extremities (hands and feet) and finally in the torso, face, and organs. The brain continues to think, but it can’t direct the muscles to move. It is simply devastating, and most people succumb soon after diagnosis.

But not Stephen Hawking. And I want to know why. Fifty years! I want to know something about the medical treatment and the personal regimen that have made the difference for him. Is it because he has such a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from his research? Is it because he doesn’t believe in the “better place” that makes it easier for believers to “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Or is it because he can afford the reported millions it costs each year for round-the-clock healthcare and personal assistance? The film completely ignores these issues, so if you’re looking for a theory, either of astrophysics or of medical physics, you won’t find it.

Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years.

The Theory of Everything is a love story. It includes the giddiness of first love, the devastation of being rejected, the warm settling in of married life, the trauma of dealing with chronic illness, the addition of children, and even the conflicts of infidelity. Stephen’s wry boyish smile belies the crippling devastation of his body and lights his face with charm and desirability. The emotional connection between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) is so raw and so tender that it sometimes feels like an intrusion to watch. The stunning musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes to the emotion of the film and will keep you in your seat through the final credits.

In short, The Theory of Everything is more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. According to the tag line of the film, “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his.” This should not be surprising, since the screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s memoirs, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007) and Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999). But it also very well may be true that her influence helped him continue his research and live, not as an invalid but as a scholar. Hawking himself has said that the film is “broadly true” and said of Eddie Tremayne’s performance, “At times, I thought he was me.”

Indeed, Eddie Redmayne is the reason this film works so well. He studied with therapists and dance instructors to learn how to isolate his muscles and contort them in just the right way so that he never becomes a caricature of Hawking but remains an embodiment of him. He expresses devastating frustration, unending optimism, witty charm, emotional pain, and tender love, all within the confines of a deteriorating body. Despite the pain, his eyes, his mind, and his smile remain bright. Both Hawking and Redmayne are remarkable.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh. Working Title Films, 2014, 123 minutes.



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You Be the Judge

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I like a character-driven film even more than a film with a good plot. Happily for viewers, The Judge offers both: it's a satisfying courtroom whodunit encased in a family drama portrayed by two powerhouse actors who convey the complex, competitive, and often painful relationship between a father and a son.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is one of those clever, conniving, cutthroat attorneys who put lawyers at the bottom of the list of most-trusted occupations. When he asks for a continuation on a difficult case because his mother has died, the prosecutor asks cynically, "How many times has your mother died this year?"

The truth is, only once. Hank's mother has indeed died, and he leaves immediately, alone, to attend her funeral. He has not visited his family since leaving home after high school.

Hank's father, Joseph (Robert Duvall) is the film’s title judge. He approaches the law in a way opposite to his son’s — not as a game to be manipulated but as a protective force to be honored and upheld.

Hank's first stop when he arrives in town is his father's courtroom, where he sits in the gallery unnoticed to watch his father at work adjudicating a case. Clearly he admires and has been shaped by his father. He even followed in his father's career path.

Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips.

Nevertheless, when Hank shows up for the funeral, Joseph can barely contain his disdain, and Hank can barely control his eagerness to get away. We learn that Hank hasn't been home in 20 years, yet he had stayed in contact with his mother (by phone) and was close enough to confide in her the most intimate part of his life — his failing marriage. Why? What happened? Of course we blame the harsh, domineering father. But when Joseph is arrested for a hit-and-run that occurs on the night after the funeral, Hank jumps from the first-class seat in which he is preparing to fly out of town and rushes to oversee the judge's defense.

Hank hates his father bitterly, yet he clearly admires him, loves him, and can't stand the thought of him going to prison. As other details about Hank's childhood emerge we realize that something has happened between them that was so deeply scarring that neither of them has been able to address it directly. It holds them together even as it drives them apart.

Director David Dobkin reveals all of this to us in flashes and snippets — not all at once, because the characters themselves can't face it all at once, and he wants us to feel their aversion. He wants us to feel how hard it is for them to talk about it or even to remember it.

A film like this could easily devolve into sentimental drivel, but it does not, largely because of the skills of its actors. Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips. Jeremy Strong as the mentally disabled brother Dale and Vincent D'Onofrio as the older brother Glen who remained in the small hometown to hold the family together while Hank went on to defense attorney glory also deliver powerful performances.

At almost 2 1/2 hours, The Judge is a bit long, but if you have father-child issues of your own that deal with judging and being judged (and who doesn't?), you will find this film an absorbing and compelling opportunity for reflection and catharsis.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Judge," directed by David Dobkin. Team Downey, 2014, 141 minutes.



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The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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Executive Privilege

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Based on a Part of What Actually Happened

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The film opens on a man dressed in a ’70s leisure suit primping in front of a mirror. He wears a heavy gold chain around his neck, and more than a hint of chest hair shows above his open collar. He pulls back what is left of his thinning hair and sprays adhesive on his bald pate. He carefully pats into place a wad of dark wool that looks more like a Brillo pad than hair. Then he sweeps his long thin hair forward from his crown, shapes it over the wool, and sprays it into place. Voilà! He looks like a million bucks. A million bucks with a combover.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2, you might guess. And it would make sense. This is the kind of character that he revels in portraying. But no. The actor is Christian Bale — Christian Bale, for heaven’s sake! — and the film is American Hustle. This is not a mindless, zany Will Ferrell-style comedy, but a pseudo-serious film about a sting operation that involves a fake Arab sheikh, underworld mobsters, and congressmen taking bribes. You might even remember it as Abscam. But don’t expect to learn any history in this film. It isn’t Argo. As the opening credits proclaim with refreshing honesty: “A part of this actually happened.” Ha! “A part.” They don’t even try to claim that it is “based on a true story.”

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-potatoes con man running a small-potatoes Ponzi scheme based on accepting phony finder’s fees for phony loans from phony backers. This is the late 1970s, when inflation and interest rates were both in double digits, and loans were difficult to come by; I remember signing an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage at 14.25% in late 1979 and being relieved to qualify for it. When Bale is stung by an FBI operation, he is forced to help the Bureau create a larger sting operation to catch some dirty politicians and a big underworld mobster.

Everyone is conning someone in this film: not just the con men, but the FBI, the politicians, the husbands, and the wives. As one example, Irving is totally smitten by the vivacious, beautiful, and unpredictable Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but he is equally smitten by his sexy, kittenish wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an affair with the mobster’s chauffeur out of revenge for Irving’s infidelity. Meanwhile, Sydney falls for the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), who also falls for her, even though he is “sort of” engaged to be married. All of this is sleazy, but in the best sense of the word. The characters are deliciously amoral and completely unaware.

The film is a sexy, smart, kooky romp with some of the finest actors in Hollywood simply reveling in their over-the-top characters. The dialog is quick and witty, and the sting itself has satisfying twists with unexpected outcomes. Remember: only part of this actually happened. And because of that, none of it has to be true.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Hustle," directed by David O. Russell. Atlas Entertainment, 2013, 138 minutes.



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