Monday, October 23, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon

Yesterday's matinee was this movie, based on the book by David Grann. It dramatizes the ways white people exploited the Osage Indians in Oklahoma when they struck it rich in the early 20th century oil boom – such as declaring them incompetent to handle their own financial affairs and forcing them to apply to a guardian for funds, convincing them that if their brand new car ran out of gas they should just buy another one, intermarrying with them in order to jigger themselves into ownership of a share of the oil money, and (to top all) arranging a series of convenient deaths knowing that the corrupt local authorities wouldn't investigate.

At the center of the story is a World War I veteran named Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) who rolls into town under the auspices of his uncle Bill (Robert de Niro) – and already I feel a digression coming on. It's just interesting that when you see the two actors' names in all caps, that "DE NIRO" really is all caps while "DiCAPRIO" has a lowercase i in it. What's with that? Another thing these actors have in common, both in general and specifically in this movie, is their ability to cover a wide and deeply nuanced range in their performance while, at the same time, having a resting scowl face; more the pity, when you remember how good-looking they both were in their prime. Now back to the picture.

So, Ernest rocks up and starts taking orders from Uncle Bill, who sees the nouveau-riches Osage as ripe for the plucking. Ernest sets his cap for a lovely, softspoken woman named Mollie and pretty soon they're married. Meanwhile, members of her family are dropping like flies – and Ernest goes from being vaguely aware of how convenient this is for his uncle's ambition to bring shares of those Osage land rights under his control, to being actively involved in the conspiracy. Before you know it, he's adding a little something to Mollie's insulin shots, making her so miserably sick that she becomes powerless to investigate what's happening to her community. While she gets sicker and sicker, a friend of the tribe goes to Washington to appeal for help and gets stabbed to death in the street, while her private eye gets beaten up and run out of town.

The murders get increasingly brazen and diabolical, and you're starting to wonder when someone is going to make an attempt on Ernest and his family when, long story short, he turns state evidence. Then flip-flops on this decision a couple of times. Despite a valiant bid to earn the audience's sympathy (and the tears on my face, at one point, show how close it came), he finally doesn't quite get there, and the story wraps up as a bittersweet (and none too sweet, either) reminder that there isn't much justice in the world, and for certain types of people, less justice than one generally sees going around.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Boom. A house down the street (occupied by a couple in Mollie's family) goes up in a dynamite bomb. And Ernest is in shock about it, despite the fact that he planned it and ordered it. (2) Ernest's grief upon hearing that his daughter has died. (3) The reasonableness of Uncle Bill when, through the bars of his jail cell, Ernest tells him he's going to testify against him. There are lots of runners up, but an Honorable Mention has to go to the epilogue in which, as an alternative to flashing a long series of title cards at us, director Martin Scorsese presents a sketch of what happened to everybody after the end of the story in the form of a radio drama recorded before a live audience, with an onstage orchestra and live Foley effects. Scorsese himself comes onscreen for the last bit, the one that twists the dagger in the wound.

Besides he of DE and him of Di, the cast also features Jesse Plemons (who played a Nazi in Jungle Cruise) as the lead FBI agent on the case, John Lithgow as a prosecutor, Brendan Fraser as a blowhard defense attorney (he's never been less attractive), Barry Corbin (of Northern Exposure) as the undertaker, singer Jason Isbell as the husband in the couple that gets blown up, and other familiar faces. Most importantly, because her performance equals those of de Niro and DiCaprio in its expressive range and power, it stars Lily Gladstone as Mollie, a mostly soft-spoken woman whose even temper and subtle manner of expressing herself somehow doesn't contradict her strong magnetism or inhibit the extremes that her role demands of her – from a shriek of grief to a feverish delirium. And despite the quirky radio play and a present-day drum dance with full regalia that follows, it is her character who really ends the movie simply by walking out of the room.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

These ...

...are the reason I haven't been posting much lately. I've become quite obsessed with trying to solve these funny little puzzle cubes. I started a few months ago with the 3x3x3 cube (the original Rubik's Cube, actually), studied a process for solving any scramble of it, and practiced and practiced and practiced, and also practiced, until I pretty much had it down by heart. Along the way I realized that it's kind of relaxing. Meditation ain't got nothin' on this $#@!.

So, just recently, I ordered the 4x4x4, 5x5x5 and the Pyraminx (a tetrahedral gizmo) and started learning them. Turns out that, other than having to learn a few simple algorithms to solve sticky cases, the Pyraminx is insultingly easy to solve, and consequently, less fun than the others. Meanwhile, the 5x5x5 is frustratingly hard – by which (I often have to remind myself) I really mean that I haven't worked at it long enough, and I have a lot more practicing to do.

The 4x4x4, however, is "just right." More challenging than 3x3 and not as apt to make me swear out loud as the 5x5, it calls for some critical thinking in addition to the rote patterns that I learned for the 3x3. It also has some "cases" you wouldn't encounter on ol' Rubik's Cube, and a couple of the algorithms you need to learn for them are a bit beastly. But all in all, it's a very satisfying puzzle to solve. Addictive, even.

If you're looking for something interesting to do with your hands, eyes and brain during your spare time, I recommend learning these puzzles. I'm sending for the Megaminx (a dodecahedral version, with 12 pentagonal faces) and a 2x2x2 cube as well, just to up my game a bit. And of course, I'm giving the 5x5x5 plenty of effort. At least I can solve it, but it takes me a lot longer than the 4x4x4 and it's nice to relax back down to the latter. As for my 3x3, it's kind of hard to settle back down to it. I reckon I'll keep it around and give it a spin now and then for "old times' sake."

UPDATE (Monday, Oct. 23): The 2x2x2 cube and the dodecahedral Megaminx arrived this weekend. Of course, the 2x2 is comparatively simple, but you might be surprised that taking a layer away actually adds a wrinkle. You start to solve one side and practically everything you try to do with the cube after that breaks what you've put together. Turns out you're pretty much dependent on a couple of algorithms, and they're not the short and easy-to-learn kind.

As for the Megaminx, I finally solved it last night after a two-day ordeal in which I repeatedly (and painstakingly) brought it up to configuration for the final step, only to mess up somehow. I watched three different YouTubers' videos demonstrating the step, learned two different algorithms (depending on the spacial orientation of the puzzle) but I seemingly couldn't reproduce the results I was seeing on screen. (One time I got SOOO close; the top layer was all one color, but somehow the corners got rotated out of alignment.) I thought I was losing my mind. I say this, however, knowing that it took me, like, three days to solve the 5x5 for the first time and after weeks of swearing at it, I'm starting to get it. As we musicians know, it's all about "practice, practice, practice!"

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance

Notes on Your Sudden Disappearance
by Alison Espach
Recommended Ages: 15+

Sally narrates this novel in the second person, addressing her older sister, Kathy. As adolescents, they both have a crush on the same boy – a strapping basketball star, one year ahead of Kathy in school, named Billy. Eventually, Billy and Kathy become an item. Then one morning, when they're late for school, Billy crashes his car into a tree and Kathy is killed. This touches off a complex journey of grieving, self-blame and neurosis for both Billy and Sally as well as her parents, to say nothing of an on- and off-again love story between the surviving boy and girl.

It isn't so much that Sally and her folks cope in different ways. It's how they fail to cope, and how they somehow go on living while not really ever healing. It's a risqué, gut-wrenching, withhold-nothing depiction of surviving the loss of a vibrant family member, never able to fully accept that they're gone, and continuing to look for them in the strangest places for, like, 15 years after their quote-unquote "disappearance." Adult and maybe Occult Content Advisories apply. (Expect the eff word, as well as some actual effing, as well as the involvement of a kind of psychic adviser, in these pages).

Another advisory is perhaps due: Prepare to be emotionally wrecked. There were moments in this book that actually made me cry. If one begins to wonder how an author of not very many books managed to reach so deeply into the emotional well of grief, the answer might be hidden in the acknowledgments where she thanks her brother Michael for the time she had with him on earth. If condolences are in order, I give them.

Like her protagonist, author Alison Espach grew up in Connecticut and went to an out-of-state university (Wash U in St. Louis, a campus I've actually been on!). Besides being a teacher in New York City, she has also written the novel The Adults and the novella Somebody's Uncle, both 11 years before this book, as well as the upcoming novel The Wedding People, slated for release July 30, 2024.

The Furthest Station

The Furthest Station
by Ben Aaronovitch
Recommended Ages: 14+

There's been a breakout of ghostly sightings on London's commuter rail system, and junior Detective Constable Peter Grant, from a division of the police force specializing in supernatural investigations, joins a rail copper and a few others (including his too-talented-for-her-own-good teenaged cousin, Abigail) in trying to learn what it means. It's a spooky mystery, for sure – first of all, because the witnesses quickly forget all about their spectral encounters; but also because the ghosts seem to have a message they desperately want to convey before strangely (even for ghosts) shattering into pieces. It doesn't take Peter & Co. long to work out that these shades of the dead may be trying to tell them that someone still living is in deadly danger. The question is just who, where and how to save them.

If you're entering this series late (as I am), what you need to know is that Peter Grant is a half-African Londoner who has just made detective in the police force, and also a magical practitioner who is studying Latin and jiggery pokery under a wizard Detective Inspector named Nightingale. They work for a branch of the police, sometimes known as the Folly (or maybe that's just the magical outfit they belong to), tasked with investigating weird stuff such as, for example, ghosts on the Metro Line. Also, just so you're aware, they sometimes have to deal with such folk as the High Fae and the genii locorum of Greater London's rivers, one of whom is Peter's girlfriend.

Clearly, you and I have missed a lot going into this book. Another thing I, for one, have missed is a lifetime speaking London's local patois. There were times, reading this book, when I had to look up references on the Internet because they went right over my head, despite the occasional footnote for the benefit of the American reader. Nevertheless, I collected the impression that Peter narrates his adventures with a nonstop flow of sardonic wit, moving swiftly from one turn of the plot to the next, and that someone with the sense to start the series at the beginning would probably find this story an enriching addition to a growing and multi-layered structure of plot and character.

Ben Aaronovitch is a sometime screenwriter who has written scripts for Doctor Who, Casualty and Jupiter Moon. This is the first title in his "Rivers of London" series, of which Fantastic Fiction enumerates nine novels and four novellas. By that reckoning, this novella is number "5.5" in the series, pretty much dead center in the list. Other titles that I've got on deck include no. 1, Rivers of London a.k.a. Midnight Riot; no. 7, Lies Sleeping (which I'm actually reading now); and no. 8, False Value. The newest title, a novella (no. 9.5) titled Winter's Gifts, is due for release in print on Dec. 1, 2023, though it's already available on Kindle.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Lines for Sherlock and Watson

(Interior, evening.)

SHERLOCK: Watson ...

WATSON: Yes, Holmes?

SHERLOCK: There's something I've been meaning to tell you about myself.

WATSON: Indeed, Holmes?

SHERLOCK: (Sighing) It's just that we've been close associates for so many years, and I'm ashamed to say, I never had the nerve to bring it up.

WATSON: What is it, Holmes?

SHERLOCK: Attend to me, Watson.

WATSON: I'm all ears, Holmes.

SHERLOCK: It's just that ... my name is pronounced "Homes," with a silent L.

(long silence)

SHERLOCK: Well? Watson?

WATSON: You think you know a man ...