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Bridge of Spies ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the United States and the Soviet Union are at war. It isn’t the kind of war that’s waged on a battlefield, but a war of intelligence. Both sides are desperately trying to get military and strategic superiority through secret information that has to be stolen or gained surreptitiously by spies. It is a game of one-upmanship: If you can steal our secrets, we can steal yours.

In 1957 American agents capture a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) in Brooklyn. He isn’t what you would expect a spy to be. He is in his mid-fifties, soft-spoken, self-effacing and an artist who paints pictures. When a Brooklyn lawyer named Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) takes on the unpopular job of defending Rudolf Abel (on the theory that everybody, no matter what they’ve done, is entitled to due process and a fair trial), the two men become unlikely friends. When Abel is tried and found guilty, the popular sentiment is to send him to the electric chair, but Jim Donovan argues, successfully, that Abel might be used as a bargaining tool in the event that the Soviets capture an American spy.

American pilots are at this time flying spy missions over the Soviet Union in U2s. The U2 flies at 70,000 feet and is supposed to be undetectable, but one of them is shot down and the pilot, Gary Francis Powers, is taken prisoner. The Soviets hope to get all the valuable information they can from him before they let him go. The American side proposes a spy swap: we’ll give you Rudolf Abel if you give us Gary Francis Powers.

Bridge of Spies is about the negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to swap one spy for another, which turns out to be a delicate balancing act and one that might never come off, even when it seems it will. The Soviets, after all, are as tricky as they are allowed to be and don’t always play by American rules. Jim Donovan, the lawyer who defended Rudolf Abel, is the unofficial negotiator for the American government without being employed by the government in any capacity.

The spy swap is further complicated by the capture of an American college student in East Berlin named Frederic Pryor, just when the wall is being built. He’s in a very bad place at a bad time; the Soviets believe he is a spy and are in no hurry to release him. The American negotiator in the Abel-Powers spy swap makes the release of Frederic Pryor a condition of the trade. Will the Soviets comply, or will they engage in some of their nasty Cold War games?

Bridge of Spies is a weighty movie (as opposed to fluffy or brainless) on a weighty subject, so, if you’re looking for laughs, this is probably not what you’re looking for. It’s a “prestige” picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, the most famous of all current movie directors. (It’s interesting that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screen play.) It’s a thoroughly satisfying movie, beautifully made in every detail, for the serious-minded among us. Talky at times but talking the talk that is worth hearing. You’re looking at a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

City Dump

City Dump image 1

City Dump ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

When I was in the eighth grade, the Dutchman decided our old house needed a new roof. Instead of consulting the Yellow Pages to find a reputable roofer, he decided to save a few greenbacks by—no, not by doing the job himself—but by having a “friend” do it at a cut-rate price.

The price at which the friend agreed to replace the roof didn’t, oddly enough, include any clean-up. That means that pieces of the old roof dating from the time the house was built—boards, shingles, chunks of asbestos, nails, what-have-you—were scattered in the yard on all four sides of the house, looking like the scene of an unspeakable natural disaster. How many houses, I ask you, have a new roof while the old roof adorns the yard in the ugliest way imaginable?

The Dutchman’s solution to the clean-up was simple. He had a thirteen-year-old son: me. I weighed ninety-two pounds but was more than capable of picking chunks of debris out of the shrubs and off the lawn and placing them in a washtub. How many washtubs full does it take to hold the thousands of splintered pieces of an old roof? More than you can imagine.

He didn’t own a pickup truck so he borrowed one from another “friend.” (Where do all these friends come from?) It was an old dark blue truck that had seen better days. It was only a one-day loan, so that meant we only had one day to get rid of all the crap that surrounded the house. I was wishing I would lose consciousness and not regain it until well into the next week. I would rather have thirty hours of gym class than a day of enforced yard clean-up with the Dutchman.

After I got the washtub loaded up with stuff, it was too heavy to lift on my own. “Candy ass,” the Dutchman said. “You’re not worth the powder to blow you to hell.”

“I know,” I said. And I did know, as this phrase had been repeated to me in some form or another almost every day of my life.

The Dutchman saw that I could manage the loaded washtub only if he took the other handle. It occurred to him then for the first time that I didn’t have the strength of a grown man. Who knew?

With about eight tubs full of stuff, we had enough in the back of the truck to make a full load. I had to take a rake and distribute the stuff so we could get more in. Then, when the Dutchman was convinced the truck would hold no more, we headed for the city dump, about two miles outside of town. It felt good to sit down, even if the inside of the truck smelled like an old woman who never takes a bath.

At the city dump, the Dutchman carefully backed the truck as close to the edge of the embankment as he could get without going over the side, and we got out and started unloading. I stood up in the bed of the truck and tossed the stuff over the side but, of course, I wasn’t doing it fast enough to suit the Dutchman.

“Do you want to still be working at this at midnight?” he asked.

“I’m starting to feel sick,” I said.

By the time we got back to the house to begin work on the second load, it had started to rain the kind of rain you get in November: slow, cold and steady. The Dutchman made me put on a hat—not to protect my health but because he was thinking about how much money it might cost him if I got sick and had to see a doctor.

The second truckload to the city dump didn’t go any faster than the first one and, after two loads, we had made very little progress. This was taking a lot longer than the Dutchman thought it would. There weren’t going to be enough hours in the day. I was happy, maybe for the first time in my life, at the prospect of going to school the next day.

It was when we were working on the third load that an old man from the neighborhood stepped into the yard and motioned to us. The Dutchman stopped what he was doing and went over to him. I was near enough that I could hear.

“I know somebody that will take all that stuff away for you for a good price,” the old man said.

The Dutchman thought about it for a minute and shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said. “I can do it myself.”

“Looks like that boy there’s about worn out,” the old man said. He meant me, of course.

The Dutchman looked at me as though noticing me for the first time. “He’s stronger than he looks,” he said with a little laugh.

My mother came out of the house then in her plastic rain bonnet. “You know somebody that’ll do this hard work?” she asked.

“My nephew and his friend,” the old man said. “They’ve got themselves an old truck and will do little jobs here and there to earn enough money to fill it up with gas.”

“Does your nephew have a phone number?” she asked.

The old man gave the number and my mother said she would remember it without writing it down. She thanked the old man and he left.

“You come into the house,” she said to me, “and get cleaned up before supper.”

“He’s not going in,” the Dutchman said, “until the work is finished.”

“Says you,” she said.

She put her hand on my shoulder and drew me along with her into the house. It was one of the few times I ever saw her stand up to the Dutchman.

I took a bath as hot as I could stand it to get the roof grit off and put on my pajamas. I had the sniffles afterwards and there were some bleeding cuts on my hands, but I was happy and was sure I would be all right.

The next day when I came home from school, all the roof junk in the yard had been taken away. Mother told me she paid for it out of her own money and that it had been a real bargain. I was beaming with satisfaction at the dinner table that evening while the Dutchman looked unhappy and defeated, too dispirited even to complain that the mashed potatoes weren’t the way he liked them.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

After Alice ~ A Capsule Book Review

After Alice

After Alice ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Gregory Maguire is famous for his “Oz Series” of four books, the best of which is the first, Wicked. His latest novel is After Alice, a clever take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. On the summer day that little Alice Clowd disappears from her home in Oxford, England, in the 1860s, one Ada Boyce, her unhappy friend, goes looking for her and finds herself disappearing down a hole by the riverbank and ending up in Wonderland, where the two girls have separate but simultaneous adventures.

The whole time Ada is in Wonderland, she is looking for Alice but she doesn’t have much luck in finding her for the longest kind of time. In the meantime, we get a glimpse of Ada’s life and the life of her family. Her father is a vicar, her mother a disconnected “dipsomaniac” and her little brother a tiny infant who screams all the time, little Boyd Boyce. He seems to get all the attention in the family, leaving none for Ada. She has some kind of physical deformity involving her spine that forces her to wear a kind of corset under her clothes. The corset is worth mentioning because it plays an important part in how the story is resolved. Ada also has a governess, the formidable Miss Armstrong, who seems to turn up when she is least wanted and seems to know everybody’s business. Miss Armstrong is secretly in love with Ada’s father, the vicar, and doesn’t always do a very good job of concealing it.

Then there is Lydia, Alice’s older sister, age fifteen. She isn’t very interested in where Alice is and is quietly contemptible of Miss Armstrong when she comes along looking for Ada and Alice. On that same summer afternoon, Lydia also meets a handsome young American named Mr. Winter. He is traveling with and assisting the famous Dr. Charles Darwin, who is paying a call on Alice and Lydia’s father. Mr. Winter has a small black child with him named Siam, who is a runaway American slave. Soon Siam disappears, as Alice and Ada did before him, and he also—what a coincidence!—ends up in Wonderland.

After Alice is a breezy 273 pages. It’s a fantasy, skewed toward adults. That doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate for children; it means that children would probably be bored by it. The pleasure of reading After Alice is in the subtlety of the language.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Martian ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Martian

The Martian ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Liberal gasbag Matt Damon is my least favorite actor in the universe. He plays fictional astronaut Mark Watney in director Ridley Scott’s fictional sci-fi fantasy, The Martian. I stress the word “fictional” because I heard that a lot of people believe it’s a true story. Just when did they think we put people on Mars? Don’t they think they would have heard about such an important event?

Anyway, Matt Damon is one of six American astronauts (three boys and three girls and, no, they’re not there to reproduce) living in what they call the “hab” on Mars, earth’s nearest planetary neighbor in the cosmos, but still fifty million miles away. When all six astronauts are outside the “hab,” a sudden violent storm blows up and a large piece of debris hits Mark Watney in the abdomen and sends him flying (very little gravity on Mars). It’s time for the astronauts to get the hell out and go back to earth, so the five remaining astronauts head on out, certain that Mark Watney is dead. The thing is, though, he’s not dead—only knocked unconscious. When he regains consciousness a day or so later, he discovers he’s stranded there on Mars alone with very little food, water and air, and the next scheduled manned flight back to the Angry Red Planet from earth is not for four years. Mark Watney will either die within a few days or weeks or figure out a way to go on living until the time he can meet up with some other earthlings to take him back home.

Remember the movie Gravity from a couple years ago? The Martian is a lot like that, only much longer, with more characters, and has a man instead of a woman in an I’m-probably-going-to-die-unless-I-can-figure-out-a-way-to-save-myself situation in space. Yes, there are overwhelming odds to overcome and, yes, he does overcome them, and, yes, we knew all along he could do it. Besides Gravity, there are elements of other movies in The Martian, including Robinson Crusoe on Mars from the 1960s, the “mission control” nonsense of Apollo 13 (cheering people doing the Rocky victory arm pump), and Airport, a 1970 movie with Burt Lancaster. I was especially reminded of Airport by the cardboard cutout characters at NASA. What is Kristen Wiig doing here?

I see on IMDb that The Martian was filmed in the Jordanian desert, which is, presumably, an appropriate stand-in for the Martian terrain. We see some beautifully photographed (simulated) Martian landscapes, and I like the idea of being the only man on an entire planet. What solitude! I also like the idea of being able to float weightlessly wherever you want to go, as we see in the scenes of space travel. Think how much easier that would be than walking.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The 33 ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The 33

The 33 ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In August 2010, a cave-in at a Chilean gold mine trapped 33 miners 2300 feet underground (it took a hundred years for the mine to get that deep). The 33 is the story of the unfortunate miners and the heroic efforts to get them out of the mine, a weeks-long endeavor that wavered from hope to despair and back to hope again. Antonio Banderas plays Mario Sepulveda, the leader of the miners who maintains a semblance of order among the desperate men (rationing what little food and water they have) and who refuses to believe they are all doomed to die.

It’s many days after the mine cave-in before the people on the surface know that the miners are still alive. Meanwhile, the families of the miners build a kind of tent city on the site, unwilling to go home and wait to hear if their loved ones will, by some miracle, be brought out alive, or if the mine will be sealed forever with the bodies of the dead. The minister of mines, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), representing the Chilean government, assures the families that every effort will be expended to bring the miners to the surface, but even he knows there is little chance of success. The president of Chile seems mostly concerned with the political ramifications for him if the miners die.

Discovering that the miners are alive after 16 days gives new hope to the families and to those involved in the rescue effort. Drilling begins with three drills running 24 hours a day. It takes days for the drills to get that far down and when they do, they miss the open space where the miners are located. Just when they are about to give up, they decide to use the deviation to their advantage and try again. Finally they drill a shaft right over where the men are. They can get food and water to them through the shaft, but the problem still remains of how to get them out. It’s a race against time because an enormous rock with twice the mass of the Empire State Building, the rock that caused the initial cave-in, is pressing down on the mountain and threatens to slide down even farther to where the men are.

We already knew the miners were brought to the surface alive after 69 days, but The 33 shows how it was done and at what cost. The success of the undertaking could be largely attributed to two men: Mario Sepulveda, the leader of the miners below, and Laurence Golborne, the Chilean Minister of Mines, both of whom refused to give up in the face of overwhelming evidence that the cause had been lost.

There are a few familiar faces in The 33, but most of the actors who play the parts are unknown and speak in heavily accented (though mostly understandable) English. Juliette Binoche, barely recognizable, plays the sister of one of the young miners. Lou Diamond Phillips, surprisingly effective, plays the mining safety engineer trapped with the men, who must deal with his guilt because he knew the aging mine wasn’t safe. Irish actor Gabriel Byrne seems an odd choice to play the Chilean mining engineer in charge of the rescue effort.

The 33 is not flashy or over-produced but is just a straightforward telling of a true-life story that captured the attention of a large part of the world back in 2010. I found it much more engrossing and involving than the mountain-rescue movie, Everest. And the underlying theme is simple: don’t give up, even when nothing is going the way you think it should; or, to put it another way, God helps those who help themselves.

Copyright 2015 by Allen Kopp

Autumnal Animals

Job 35:11 ~ Who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser than the fowls of heaven?

Job 12:7 ~ But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.







She Wants to be a Country Singer

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She Wants to be a Country Singer ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

They gave each other an unfeeling peck on the cheek and sat on opposite ends of the couch. Squeamy sat in a chair across the room, crossed his legs and examined his shoelaces.

“How have you been, Squeamy?” Ouida asked.

“I have this terrible pain,” he said.

“You’d better have it looked into.”

“We didn’t come here to talk about Squeamy’s pains,” Mercelle said.

“Would you like a drink?” Ouida asked.

“No, thank you,” Mercelle said curtly. “We didn’t come here to drink, either.”

“What did you come for?”

“Now that mother has been dead for a month, it’s time we discussed some practical matters.”

“Like what?”

“Since she left the house to you, I think I should get all the money in the annuity, instead of just half.”

Ouida laughed, more with surprise than with mirth “Both our names are on it. That’s the way mother wanted it.”

“We both know that mother could be very unfair.”

“What is it you want, Mercelle?”

“I want you to agree to remove your name from the annuity so only my name is on it.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I deserve it.”

“Maybe I don’t agree.”

“You get the house and everything in it. Don’t you think it’s only fair that I get everything else?”

“I was the one who stuck with her and took care of her through all the difficult years,” Ouida said.

“Yes, you never pass up a chance to tell me how terrible your life has been, do you?”

“I refuse to have this conversation with you, Mercelle.”

“She’s been to see a lawyer!” Squeamy said.

“Shut up, Squeamy!” Mercelle said.

“A lawyer?” Ouida asked.

“I can take the house from you if you don’t agree to give me the annuity.”

“On what grounds? Mother had the house in her name and my name. Now that she’s gone, it’s in my name.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”


“I can say that mother was mentally incompetent and always meant to have the house in both our names, but you prevented her from putting my name on it because you wanted it all for yourself.”

“That isn’t true!”

“I can sue you. Tie up the house for years. At the end of all the legal proceedings that I’m prepared to engage in, the entire cost of the house could be absorbed in legal fees.”

“You would do that?”

“You probably think I want the money for purely selfish reasons, but I don’t.”

“You’re going to tell me you need a life-saving operation?”

“No, it’s Bobbie.”

“Bobbie needs a life-saving operation?”

“She’s in her last year of high school. She wants to get into a really good college next year. It costs a lot of money.”

“I wish Bobbie all the best, but her college education is not my responsibility,” Ouida said.

“No, you never wanted the responsibility of having your own children, did you? You remained an old maid living with her mother and now that the old woman is dead, what does the old maid have?”

“You can insult me all you want, Mercelle, but I don’t have to sit and listen to it.”

“I always thought you weren’t as smart as the rest of us. That you were deficient in some way.”

“Because I didn’t get married and have children?”

“No man ever wanted you because of your peculiarities. You were too much like daddy’s side of the family. Mother always talked about how odd you were and that she would have to take care of you always, until the day she died.”

“She never said that!”

“Not to you she didn’t, but she said it to me and to everybody else.”

“Let’s not talk about the past, Mercelle, or I just might end up ordering you out of my house.”

“Out of your house! I like that! This is just as much my house as it is yours!”

“The last time I looked at the deed, I didn’t see your name on it.”

“Well, that isn’t my fault! I know mother would have put my name on the deed, too, if you hadn’t kept her from it.”

“Why don’t you leave now, Mercelle?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Could I say something?” Squeamy said.

“No!” Mercelle said.

“What is it, Squeamy?” Ouida said.

“Don’t let her bully you into giving her money that isn’t hers.”

“Shut up, Squeamy!” Mercelle said. “You don’t know the first thing about it!”

“She wants Bobbie to go to a fancy Eastern school so she can have something to brag about to her friends.”

“That’s not true!” Mercelle said. “You should just keep your stupid mouth shut!”

“I don’t think it’s right to threaten your sister to get her to give you money. That’s called extortion.”

“Well, Mr. Big! You’re the voice of authority, aren’t you? This is a family matter that doesn’t concern you and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay out of it!”

“Bobbie doesn’t even want to go to college,” he said. “She wants to be a country singer.”

“Every young girl wants to be a country singer at some time or other in her life.”

“With Bobbie it’s different.”

“You’ve always been such an idiot and you don’t know anything! I look at you and I wonder how in the world I could have ever married you!”

“It doesn’t always have to be that way.”

Mercelle stood up so abruptly that the floor quaked. “Well, I’m going home now,” she said, “and you’re not getting into the car with me, Squeamy! You’ll have to find your own way home and if you don’t come home at all, it’s all the same to me!”

“Good night, dear!” Ouida said. “Drive carefully.”

After the door slammed and Mercelle was gone, Squeamy and Ouida looked at each other. Squeamy smiled and shook his head.

“You don’t have to stay married to her,” Ouida said.

“Maybe we deserve each other,” he said.

“I can give you a ride home, if you want.”

“No, thanks. I like to walk. It clears my head and gets the kinks out of my joints. I think I’ll stop off someplace and get drunk enough to slur my words. That’ll make her really mad!”

“Well, thanks for coming by,” Ouida said, “and tell Bobbie hello for me.”

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp


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