Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Helping Malik

A couple of weeks ago, as I was walking our dog around the block, I encountered a young man.  It was one of those miserable days in what has been a miserable winter.  True, we were inching toward spring, and had had a day or two with temperatures above freezing.  But this day which had promised to be a touch warmer turned out to be cold—with a wind that cut through my jacket.

As this young man approached, it was evident that he must be a student at the nearby high school walking home. We live near a large apartment complex, and frequently have students cutting through our neighborhood.

What caught my eye about this young man was that he had NO coat on.  He had his arms tucked down inside his pants, in an effort to keep warm.  I always make it a point to acknowledge the students I see walking through our neighborhood—so, I said to him “you look cold.

His answer surprised me a bit—“I’m lost.”  Thinking he might want directions, I asked where he was going.  “To ____ High School.”  Now, he was walking from our school district high school and the one he named was another school which is over three miles from where we were.  Such a walk could take him over an hour.

And he was walking.  Without a coat. On a cold day.
Well, I said, I know where that high school is—why do you want to go there?
So I can get to the place I need to be, he answered.
I asked why he didn’t have a jacket on, and he shrugged with that mixture of nonchalance and cluelessness one sometimes sees in young teens.

I couldn’t just let this go—so I told him to walk with me to my house, a few doors from where we were.  As we walked, I asked him his name—Malik.  I asked what grade he was in—9th.  And I asked about favorite subjects, which teachers he had.

As soon as we got to my house, I asked him to wait, while I could get a jacket for him.  While he waited outside, I popped in my house, and quickly filled my husband in on the situation.  Immediately, my husband said he would drive Malik to the other school. 

My husband then went to the basement, and got a jacket for Malik.  Then we went outside to Malik, who very quickly put on the jacket.  We told Malik to keep the jacket and that my husband would drive him.
I then asked—where does he need to go from the other high school?  Oh, from there I can walk to Zion Church, he said.

My husband and I knew exactly where he meant, so my husband said he would drive Malik there.  Thinking that Malik might want to tell someone he was getting a ride, I asked if he wanted to call his mother, but he demurred saying she was at work.

So, my husband headed off with Malik, took him to the church where Malik went up to the door and rang a bell, knew what to say to get in, and went inside.


We haven’t seen him since. Every now and then, I have thought about Malik.  I hope he stays the sweet young man he seemed to be—only with a touch more common sense in remembering to bring a jacket to school on cold days. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Movies that Won't Go to the Oscars

By now, dear reader, you know I love movies. Every year, I wait for the Academy Award nominations, and then my husband and I go on a mad dash to see as many of the "favored" films as we can.  This movie affinity also means I pay attention to which movies top the charts--the primary measurement now being which movie grossed the most in any given week.

Frankly, sometimes it is downright appalling what drivel is foisted on the viewing public AND the public responds enthusiastically.  This past week's top movies:  Noah; Divergent; Muppets Most Wanted; Mr. Peabody and Sherman; and God's Not Dead.

Coming in at Number 6 is The Grand Budapest Hotel--and that's one of the movies we went to see this week.  More on this movie in a minute.

But, first, a digression.  Maybe you are old enough to remember when movies came out, and slowly by word of mouth their reputation spread.  A movie might start slow, but eventually it had time to catch up and become a hit.  Well, not anymore. Clearly, the profit a movie makes drives how long it stays in theaters.  No time for word of mouth, for a slow reputation to build.


Personally, I don't like to go to movies on the first week of their showing in our area--avoid crowds, etc.  But, sometimes, by holding back we can miss a movie's showing in our area.  We also like to patronize some of the independent theaters that still exist--so we sometimes wait for these places to bring in a movie.

So, what movies won't go to the Oscars?  I have noticed--and have also read--that when a movie is released during a year is calculated to make it Oscar-worthy or not.  For example, the earlier in a year a movie is released, the less likely it is to get an Oscar nomination.  Of course, some movies never aim to be nominated, and their release is pegged to holidays--summers, Thanksgiving, Christmas--in order to be the movie that makes a huge profit.

When I learned that a movie based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, I couldn't wait to see it.  We saw Monuments Men last week.  In many ways, it is a good movie.  Oh, the acting isn't the greatest; there are times that the dialogue is somewhat stilted; and the plot greatly simplifies a complex aspect of World War II.  However, the movie does portray a story that few of us know. And one that ALL of us should know.

We may have read about recent discoveries of paintings, stashed in an apartment owned by Cornelius Gurlitt in Munich, most if not all of which had been confiscated--stolen--from Jewish families during the war.  What we might not know is that the Allies made a concerted effort to find, recover and return art works that the Nazis had systematically stolen and stashed.  As the Americans and British Allies are making a mad dash across France and Germany, they are not only racing to keep the Nazis from burning or otherwise destroying great works of art. They are also racing the third party of the Allies: the Russians.  They want to take the art and abscond with it back to Russia.  So many Russian lives were lost, why not take some art as reparations.

The movie centers on a small group of U.S. art experts, led by George Clooney and Matt Damon.  All the character names are fictionalized from the historic figures, which is a bit frustrating.  There is also a wonderful role played by Cate Blanchett, who was a French museum worker who catalogued many of the stolen works of art that came through her museum.  The movie also focuses on two signature pieces of art--the Ghent Altarpiece, and the Bruge Madonna, sculpture by Michelangelo.  While many thousands of work were stolen, the movie (following the book) focuses on a few works, no doubt to help the viewer appreciate the enormity of what they were doing.

All in all--this is a feel good movie.  It is also a cautionary tale.

The other movie we went to see--another early in the year release --was The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Curiously enough, were I doing my pre-Oscar reviews, I might have paired this movie with Monuments Men.  Both movies deal with the effects of World War II.  Both movies revolve, in part, around works of art.  Where they diverge is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is entirely fictional, based on a made-up country, the result of Wes Anderson's incredibly creative mind--he is director, producer, author, and screen play writer.

The movie tells the story of the hotel, now owned by a solitary old man.  The story begins in the late 1960s.  The hotel, once grand, is now practically in ruins, showing all the signs of deterioration seen so many places across eastern Europe after Soviet occupation and domination.  It is set in the country of Zubrowka--don't bother to look for it on maps.  It doesn't exist.  An author is staying in the hotel, and encounters the old man.  He is the one with a tale to tell.

The tale is of the hotel and Gustave H., played with a fine comedic touch by Ralph Fiennes.  Gustave H. is the concierge of the hotel who does everything, make that EVERYTHING to make his clients happy.  The plot follows a mad-cap path through the hey days of the hotel, to the reading of the will of a grand dame who loved to stay at the hotel, to the framing of Gustave H., to a thoroughly dissolute son of the grand dame, to a brass-knuckled enforcer for the son, to prison, to the Alps, to ... Oh, just go see the movie!  

In addition to seeing Ralph Fiennes, look for F. Murray Abraham, Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson--and one or two other fine actors. 

If you like Wes Anderson (and I do) you may find this to be his best movie yet.

I suspect neither of these movies will get a nod at Oscar time--but I still found them hugely enjoyable, and worth a night (or afternoon...which we retired folks can do) out.

Friday, March 28, 2014

I Survived TMI

Today is the 35th anniversary of an event that once was understood by simply saying three letters:  T - M - I.  If you said those letters, anyone living in Pennsylvania, certainly the East Coast of the U.S. and maybe the entire U.S. knew what you meant--THREE MILE ISLAND.  In fact, when we traveled overseas in the 1980s, if people asked where we were from , we could answer "near TMI" and the listener knew where you came from.

Now, with 35 years between that event and now, people may not remember so clearly.  They will have their own current sense of the potential dangers of living near a nuclear power plant--say Fukushima and everyone knows where that is and what happened.

But for me, TMI was a defining moment--herewith, my thoughts on the 30th anniversary.
------------------
Memory is a blessing and a curse.

Thirty years ago on this day a series of occurrences began a chain reaction that almost resulted in a nuclear plant melting down. At the time, the location was unknown to much of the country. In central Pennsylvania, we all knew the familiar sight of the cooling towers--the most recognizable feature of a nuclear power plant. In fact, the power plant at TMI is located very near the runways of the Harrisburg International Airport (no, I am not making up the "international" part). When I flew home last week, our plane came in right over the cooling towers. The sight whisked me back some 30 years, as I recalled the several days of absolute panic wondering what would happen next. I survived TMI.



contemporaneous photo of TMI in 1979


March 28, 1979 was a Wednesday. The specific details of what happened at TMI to set the accident in motion are well-known*. Early in the morning, a valve failed and all the water that cooled the fuel rods drained, leaving them exposed. The emergency back-up cooling system kicked in, but technicians--not understanding what they were seeing on the gages--turned it off. Even though the reactor itself shut down, heat kept building up which resulted in one half the core melting down.

News of what was happening at TMI did not immediately get picked up. If I recall correctly, the first person to break the story was a radio show host. There was no intent to keep things quiet; it was simply a matter of near mass confusion, and many aspects of the situation being unknown. Was the core intact? Had the core melted down at all? If so, how much? Would there be a release of radiation, or not? The local press did not begin covering the news until well into the first day.

By the second day, the news of "an event" at TMI really began to hit the news. At the time, I was working for the Pennsylvania Medical Society. One of my responsibilities was to staff committees--and on Thursday the Commission on Therapeutics had a meeting. The chairman was a physician named Arthur Hayes who was a physician pharmacologist working at the Hershey Medical Center. The meeting was set to begin at 10 a.m. Just as we went into the meeting, word came that the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island was very serious. Since Hershey Medical Center was about 5 miles from the nuclear power plant, Dr. Hayes decided to cancel the meeting and head back to the medical center. It would be a receiving facility if there were any nuclear contamination of people.

When the doctor who chaired the committee decided to cancel the meeting, I knew something BIG was happening. Understandably, news sources did not know the scope of what was going on. I decided to head for home, since my work place was on the west side of the Susquehanna River, and our home was on the east side. If road traffic was going to be restricted, I wanted to be on the same side of the river as our son, who was then 7 years old. I drove from my work place to the elementary school where he was, and gathered him up and went home.

Meltdown is NOT something you want a nuclear power plant to do. A popular movie at the time was The China Syndrome which featured a nuclear power plant accident and an attempted cover-up of the information. Needless to say, for all of us within a ten mile radius of TMI our adrenaline pumps kicked into overdrive.

When day 3--Friday--began, the news at TMI had gotten worse. While the plant had not melted down, a hydrogen bubble had been discovered. The fear was that this bubble could cause the plant to explode which would spew radioactive material over a wide area. While the experts did their best to first understand the situation, and then give advice based on their understanding, the public was genuinely confused. Should we stay or go?

As it happened, my husband was set to go out of town for a training workshop. He left on Friday to go to West Virginia. A family friend of ours had a vacation home in the Poconos that his family was evacuating to, and he offered the place for me and my son to stay. With my husband away, the decision to leave the area was largely up to me. So, I gathered up our son, our dog and cat, a bit of clothing--and drove to the Poconos. As we left our house, our son said plaintively--what about the goldfish? I recall my reaction--the goldfish will have to fend for itself for however long.

By the end of the weekend, the situation was better understood, and it was clear the nuclear event was not going to become any worse. I returned home. No meltdown. No core breach. No hydrogen bubble explosion. No mass radioactive release. But great damage had been done and the plant at TMI remained out of commission until 1985.
So, I survived TMI. Now 30 years later, it is hard to reconstruct the exact sequence of events. My husband was away, so his memories differ from mine. The friend who offered his house has been dead for more than 10 years. My son was far too young to remember. I have my own memories, but I am not tempted to rely on them for unadulterated recollection.

Memory is a blessing and a curse.

-------------------------------------------

*To learn more about TMI, you can go to these two websites: http://www.threemileisland.org/virtual_museum/march28_1979.html or http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Indian Winter

I have been been very neglectful of this blog.  A whole month plus a day since I last posted.  Well, I do have a bona fide excuse.  We have had a break from winter--a kind of Indian winter.  

You know how we call that last lovely bit of summer, after a frost and the hint of autumn around the corner, "Indian summer"?  We have had such a miserable winter, here on the East Coast of the U.S., that we decided we needed a sunshine filled break.  As it happens, our son and daughter-in-law live in San Diego.  PERFECT!  Just the place to go to catch a break from winter blahs and yet one more snow storm.



Part of our time in southern California was spent going to Indian Wells (see--I had another reason for the title of this blog).  There is a major tennis tournament played there early each year.  It is a place where big name players can be seen, especially in the early rounds of play.  



We saw Roger Federer...



...and Maria Sharapova.




The desert air is clear with very little humidity.  The sun was shining brightly--a perfect antidote to our frozen eastern bodies.



There is always the Pacific Ocean--with waves crashing and pounding.  Just the sound of the ocean is enough to restore us.



Of course, the real treat (for me at least) is watching yet another lovely sunset over the Pacific.

We flew back to central Pennsylvania, completely rejuvenated...and ready for the next snow storm.  (Not really, but we have to be prepared.)  

Monday, February 17, 2014

It's Oscar Time Part 4

The final two movies I will review are Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club.  These two movies, with very different stories and themes, share an examination of human relationships and how we interact with and care for each other.

Nebraska features Bruce Dern in a sterling performance as a curmudgeonly old man who receives one of those “you have won a million dollars” come-ons that we are all familiar with.  He either did not read the fine print, or did not comprehend it, because he is determined to go to Nebraska and collect his million dollars. When no one will take him, he sets out to walk there—from Montana where he lives.

Bruce Dern is Woody Grant—such a wonderfully evocative mid-West name. He and his wife, Kate—played with a big dose of spit and vinegar by June Squibb—have two sons, David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk).  Their lives are really very small.  The more successful son Ross is a television newsman who occasionally gets to substitute as anchor.  David is a small-time salesman selling electronic products, or at least trying to.  It is David who tries to rescue his father, going out to get him as he walks along the road—to Nebraska. 

Eventually, frustrated and unable to dissuade his father, he gives in and agrees to drive his father to Nebraska.  Kate, Woody’s wife, is outraged and annoyed—her solution: put Woody in a nursing home.  He is obviously too confused and too drunk to function independently.

Along the way, David persuades his father to visit Hawthorne, the town where his father grew up and where many of his relatives still live.  There are marvelous scenes between Woody and his brothers—they all sit in a crowded living room, watching television, making an occasional laconic remark.  The sons of his brother—David’s cousins—delight in teasing David at how long it took him to drive from Billings to Hawthorne (Hawthorne, by the way, is not a real place name).  They return several times to remark about how slowly David must drive.

As Woody and David go from place to place in the town, small pieces of Woody’s life are revealed.  When Kate travels by bus to meet them, and then joins them going around the town, her salty observations add a delightful risqué commentary on small town life.  The scene in the cemetery is a classic as she goes from one headstone to another providing a bon mot observation on each of the departed.

It might be tempting to think that the director Alexander Payne is mocking small town life and small town lives.  But the touches in the movie are truly gentle, loving and humorous.  It is not difficult to see that these people’s lives, small though they may be, matter.

When Woody is pressed as to why he wants to win a million dollars, his simple answer is so he can buy a new pick-up truck.  While his motivation is heartfelt and straightforward, all the town’s people with their avaricious reactions to his supposed sudden wealth provide an interesting observation on how people see another person’s good fortune.

There are several twists and turns in the plot, and the ending brings a definite sweetness to the dénouement of the plot.

Dallas Buyer Club, based on a true story, is also a movie about human relationships, but with a very different starting point.  The story revolves around Ron Woodroof, played by Matthew McConaughey, who is living a licentious and free-wheeling life. He is a rodeo cowboy, who earns a living as an electrician.  To play the part, McConaughey lost so much weight (47 pounds) that he looks skeletal.  We are introduced to Ron as a hard driving, alcoholic, drug-abusing, sexually active rodeo cowboy—and all of that in practically one scene.  He is living a life of abandon.

Early in the movie, when Ron Woodroof is feeling ill, he goes to a doctor and learns he has AIDS and only a short time to live.  His immediate reaction is an outburst of disbelief and homophobic invectives—he cannot and does not see himself as the kind of person who would get AIDS.

So begins his journey—which is the subject of the movie.  He learns from his doctor that there is a drug—AZT—which is in clinical trials.  Ron wants it, but the doctor won’t guarantee that he would get the drug if he enrolled in a double-blind clinical trial.  So, he persuades a hospital worker to supply him with AZT, much as a junkie would get illegal drugs.  However, he does not get better.  He spends some time in the hospital because he is so desperately ill—there he meets Rayon (Jared Leto), a trans-gendered woman.

In a desperate bid to get better, Ron travels to Mexico to visit an American doctor who has lost his license because he does not practice traditionally accepted medicine.  He tells Ron that AZT is like a poison—killing not only the AIDS infected cells but also healthy cells.  Instead he prescribes for Ron various drugs that are not FDA approved in the U.S.  He also convinces Ron to clean up his health habits, and stop using illegal drugs. Amazingly, Ron—who had only 30 days to live when he was first diagnosed—begins to get healthy.  He knows it is the combination of drugs he gets in Mexico and the vitamin supplements he is taking that is restoring his health. 

He decides to share his good regimen with other HIV patients, but has trouble finding people who will take him up on the offer.  During this time, he re-encounters Rayon and she can help bring him customers.  Since the drugs are not FDA approved, and not wishing to run afoul of the law, Ron sets up the Dallas Buyers Club.  Members pay a monthly fee to belong to the club, and in return they receive packages of drugs for their use.  Predictably perhaps, the Buyers Club is a huge success—and also predictably, Ron runs afoul of the FDA.

Some of the energy in the movie derives from these interactions between the medical establishment and the FDA and patients like Ron who believe not enough is being done, and sometimes what is being done is the wrong thing.  It is difficult to remember what things were like in the earlier days of treating AIDS, but in this regard the movie rings very true.

Out of the Dallas Buyers Club grows an at first awkward and then supportive partnership between Ron and Rayon.  There are some very touching scenes with Rayon and her father that help underscore how too many people struggling with gender identity do not get the support they crave from parents.

Ron grows as an individual and eventually becomes a champion of the gay patients he has in his Buyers Club.  And, perhaps in the final irony, given his original 30 day predicted life span after initial diagnosis, Ron lived another 7 years.

I liked these two movies immensely.  After the seemingly empty stories of The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle, it was rewarding to watch movies where people with all their problems cared about each other and grow in their humanity.


I have no predictions as to which of these movies will win Best Motion Picture award.  I would happily vote got 12 Years a Slave, or Dallas Buyer Club.  But, I have learned time and again that the best picture doesn’t always win.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

It's Oscar Time Part 3

The next two movies feature the scam at its zenith.  Having declared this year’s nominees for Best Motion Pictures as being “The year of the scam” American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street show the fine art of scamming in two outrageous examples.

Each of these stories is drawn from “real life.”  American Hustle presents a reworking of the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  While I recalled having read about the Abscam scandal when it happened, I was a bit fuzzy on details.  So I refreshed my recollection by doing some background reading.  Had I not done that, the plot of American Hustle would have been laughably preposterous and I might have dismissed it as Hollywood hyperbole.  The real Abscam was an FBI conceived sting operation designed to ensnare American politicians taking bribes. 

The movie plot first introduces us to a small time hustler named Irving Rosenfeld, played brilliantly by Christian Bale. I promise you that you have never before seen Christian Bale appearing the way he does in the movie.  Ordinarily, the roles he plays are sleek, masculine, perhaps menacing, high-powered.  In American Hustle, he is a two-bit con man who hatches various schemes to get rich.  He is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and has a stepson whom he adores.

He meets his alter ego female in Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, who masquerades as an English aristocrat calling herself Lady Edith Greensley.  Lady Edith is not above running her own cons.  Irving and Sydney are well-matched and begin their own company to run scams on a larger scale.  Into this mix  enters FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  He is hungry for recognition and advancement within the FBI.  When he catches Irving and Sydney in one of their scams, he believes he has found a way to make the kind of impact he wishes. He offers them an exchange of sorts—if they can help him make four other arrests, he will let them off on the charges he could bring against them.

The hustle is on.  American Hustle.  The Abscam part?  The politicians getting mixed up?  Well, you will just have to see the movie.  It’s a deception, compounded by a deception, wrapped in a deception.  Along the way, you will see some delicious scenes between Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, like two cats fighting over a mouse.  Or Robert deNiro in a bit appearance as a mob boss. 

The Wolf of Wall Street is a three hour tour de force movie directed by Martin Scorsese.  As a director, Scorsese has directed a number of movies which lay bare an aspect of humanity that is  not always pretty.  Among these movies are Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Departed.  The most recent movie that Scorsese directed was Hugo—made at the request of his wife who wanted him to direct something that their grandchildren could see.

And now he directed The Wolf of Wall Street.  The pace of the movie is an odd mix—it is a frenetic movie from start to finish, and yet it seems as though the complications will never end.

Like American HustleThe Wolf of Wall Street is based on the true story Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who begins his working life as a money hungry success driven stock broker.  In an opening scene his boss (Matthew McConaughey) gives him a primer on how to succeed as a stock broker—indulge in copious consumption of alcohol and cocaine and sex.  Just as his stock broker life begins, the bottom drops out of the stock market on Black Friday.  Unemployed and unable to find a job as a stock broker, Jordan takes his wife’s advice and gets a job selling penny stock.  His high powered sales pitch combined with his drive to succeed make him successful in this marginal world of stock trading.  He attracts the attention of Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and together they come up with a plan to make their small operation a big player.

As his success grows Jordan’s life style becomes more and more flamboyant. He dumps his first wife, marries a gorgeous woman who appears to be the fulfillment of his fantasies.  His wealth is displayed in his splashy wedding to the trophy wife, in the newly acquired country estate house, and in a sea-going yacht with every possible amenity.

There is a sense in which The Wolf of Wall Street is a morality tale.  There is the FBI agent who sets his sights on Jordan and determines to bring him down.  There is the predictable crumbling of his marriage.  There is the ever-increasing over-use and dangerous abuse of illegal drugs, which still involves cocaine, but has now expanded to include Quaaludes.  His life is so out of control.

Enough plot summarizing—I’ll let you continue Jordan’s story.  I must point out that Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is stunning--he is in virtually every scene, dominating them. He is a charmer, a scoundrel, a drug addict, a narcissistic larger than life hero/anti-hero all in one.

After seeing each of these movies, I pondered what the message is. American Hustle seems to mete out a kind of justice—and does so with a touch of humor which helps keep the tone of the movie a bit lighter and more bearable.  The Wolf of Wall Street certainly demonstrates that crime doesn’t pay—but the wreckage is disproportionate.  Just as Bernie Madoff is now in jail for his financial shenanigans, yet thousands of people’s lives were disrupted and diminished by his actions—and they can never regain what they lost despite Madoff’s going to jail—so too does The Wolf of Wall Street seem unbalanced.  Whatever punishment Jordan suffered does not seem to be fit for the wrongs he committed against so many people.  And, I have a very strong sense that he is unrepentant.


The scam most certainly was in its zenith in these two movies.  Let me know what you think.

Monday, February 03, 2014

It's Oscar Time Part 2

Having determined that the common theme was “the year of the scam” I confess that that’s about it for exploring connections or linkages in  these movies.
So, I’ll just take them in twos—and share my observations.

Gravity and Captain Phillips

Gravity is the whiz-bang special effects movie nominee.  We saw the movie in 3-D, definitely the way to see it.  Of course, we were impressed with the technical know-how and the verisimilitude of the space voyage.

Gravity presents a space shuttle mission with Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) who is on her first space shuttle mission AND she is performing a spacewalk to fix the Hubble Telescope.

Now, right there, I should have been suspicious.  A rookie astronaut. OK.  A medical doctor.  OK.  Performing a spacewalk on her first space shuttle mission.  Wait just a minute.

She is accompanied by a veteran astronaut, good-old-boy Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney).  This is his last mission, and his primary goal is to break the record for space walks.  He is buzzing around in rocket propelled free form, untethered from the space shuttle.  Ryan is, of course, tethered.

When they get a message from Mission Control that a defunct satellite is disintegrating, and the debris is out of control and likely to hit the space shuttle, the astronauts try to complete their repairs.  Not soon enough—of course.  The marvelous effects of the movie very convincingly show the space debris pelting the space shuttle, which is destroyed. 
And so the adventure of the whole movie begins.  Kowalski persuades Ryan to unhitch her tether, and when she tumbles and somersaults through space, you tumble with her.

I will let the remainder of the adventure for you to see.  There is little character development in this movie, and the plot is the real engine of the story.  What will happen next? As viewer, you watch anxiously with each unfolding challenge.  My feet were sweating through major parts of this movie.  (I would consider myself “gravity” challenged.  As my family knows, I am not fond of heights—e.g. Ferris wheels high off the ground.) You know little about the characters, and learn almost nothing about them.  As a result, your only identification with them is our common shared human condition.

While Bullock’s acting is first-rate and very convincing, I have two complaints about the movie. First, why the ambiguous ending.  I don’t want to give it away—but, really, is she saved? Or not?  Second, just this—Gravity has no gravitas.

Captain Phillips is another voyage movie.  Unlike Gravity, the events depicted in Captain Phillips “really happened.”  The story is well-known.  Tom Hanks plays Captain Phillips, who is the captain of a container ship Maersk Alabama, which is transporting cargo in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia.

After a brief introduction to Captain Phillips in a family setting, and a drive to the airport with his wife, the remainder of the movie is set at sea.  We see him as captain, sense his wariness in the waters he is sailing.  His insistence on safety drills seems intelligent, and obviously foreshadowing of the challenges to come.

We also see the Somali pirates and their desperate circumstances as they squabble among themselves.  We learn that they are controlled by an almost anonymous leader of the mother ship.  As the pirate boat chases the container ship, you experience real excitement in the chase. 

When the pirates successfully commandeer the ship, we meet the lead pirate Muse, played by the remarkable newcomer actor Barkhad Abdi.  Thus begins the duel between Muse and Phillips for control of the ship.  When the pirates succeed, and the pirates flee with Phillips as hostage aboard the small lifeboat, the tension mounts.

As I said, we know the story.  We know that the U.S. mounts a rescue effort with the Navy Seal Team Six.  The account was well-covered in national news at the time.
What works so well in the movie is that even knowing the story, we still feel the tension.  We know how things will turn out, and yet we still grip our seats.

The surprise for me in watching this movie is that I experienced some sympathy for the pirates.  Not for their methods, of course, or their means of redressing the inequality of their lives, but for their desperate circumstances that would drive them to such a high stakes dangerous way of securing any kind of living.


So, whichever of these two movies you see—bon voyage.