The leaves are beautiful as they change colors; there's something romantic about breezes shifting the carpet of yellow, orange, red, purple, and brown leaves across the streets.
But for me, the sure sign that fall has arrived comes a little bit earlier.
It comes when tap water turns cold again.
All summer long, the water pipes running under the street carry water ranging from lukewarm to warm. That's what comes into the house.
St. John the Revelator even had an opinion about lukewarm water. In chapter 3, verse 16, of the King James Version of Revelation, he says: "So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth."
If you want a drink of cool water, you either have to get it out of the fridge or keep bottles of it in air-conditioned rooms. If your house is air conditioned, then the water that is in the pipes inside your house will have cool water -- for about three seconds. Then you'll empty out what was getting chilled inside your walls, and reach the street water, which is lukewarm or warm.
The only advantage to warmish tapwater is that because the cold water isn't cold, it takes way less hot water to get your shower or bath to the desired warm temperature. So even if you bathe and handwash dishes exactly the same amount of time at exactly the same temperature, summer and winter, your hot water usage will be markedly lower in the summer.
If, for some reason, you need cold showers, a cold shower using summer tap water won't expose you to quite the same risk of heart attack as the shockingly cold tap water of winter.
You start to feel it in September. The tap water isn't exactly cold yet, but it's cooled down enough that using it to take pills isn't quite so unpleasant.
I'm not sure how close the clean-water pipes are to the surface of the street, so I don't know if the water is heated by the black asphalt soaking in and holding on to the sun's rays during long summer days. Maybe it simply comes warm from the reservoirs and water treatment plants, and doesn't cool off in the warmer roadbed fill.
But no matter where it gets warm, in autumn it starts to cool off. Shorter days of direct sunlight and lower temperatures at night combine to cool our tap water, until that joyous morning when you brush your teeth and rinse your mouth in cool tap water.
Ah, the simple pleasures of urban life.
The Accountant is an extraordinary movie. It delivers all the suspense and violent action I hoped for from the promos. But it also delivers powerful emotional stories about family, love, the struggle to overcome our limitations, and the proper uses of violence.
I read one reviewer's statement that Ben Affleck's performance as the title character was superficial in his depiction of high-functioning autism. It always amuses me when reviewers criticize the "depth" of an actor's characterization. As long as the character doesn't smirk his way through the whole performance (early George Clooney), what would acting "depth" consist of?
Let's start with the recognition that by its nature, all film acting is and should be superficial. By its nature, film cannot get inside characters' heads the way novels can. So, as an actor, you try to make any mannerisms you've created consistent and, usually, within the bounds of believability.
If you want to know where those bounds are, look at any performance by Johnny Depp: He steps back and forth across that line constantly.
Beyond that, what "depth" is possible? Acting teachers make a living from the absurd belief, fostered by The Method, that it matters what the actor "feels." It doesn't. It's counterproductive for the actor to feel what the character would feel, because the actor also has to hit his marks, say his lines, match his performance in one shot to the performances in other shots of the same scene, and be reasonably aware of lighting, on-camera effects, plus imaginary effects taking place on a green screen or at the location of a suspended ball.
In other words, "feeling" the character's feelings is both impossible and undesirable.
The emotions of the actor are trivial. The actor should be in the trance of performance, a completely different emotional set. The feelings that matter are those the audience feels, and the actor's performance should be designed to trigger those feelings.
First, the audience must believe in the character and the world of the movie; second, the audience must care about what happens to the character and what the character chooses to do from moment to moment.
So just how "deep" should Ben Affleck's portrayal of a high-functioning autistic accountant with the ability to break people in pieces with his bare hands be?
I think Affleck does an excellent job of showing us the absolute stillness of the Accountant as he manages his inner turmoil and his irresistible mental needs. His character is the end product of years of training and teaching by his military father, to compensate for his social and mental disabilities. But they haven't gone away.
You want to see the depths of the Accountant's autism? Just watch the child actor Seth Lee portraying the character as he progresses from barely controlled to highly skilled -- that's where the portrayal of serious autism takes place. As with Forrest Gump and My Left Foot, much of the power in the adult actor's performance comes from the audience's memory of the child actor's performance, and Seth Lee does an excellent job of setting up Ben Affleck.
But Affleck is no slouch. I have watched several children whose parents helped guide them from one or another place on the autism spectrum to high-functioning adulthood. There is something deeply poignant about the frenzy of autistic panic in the young child; but there is even more poignancy in watching the smooth self-control of the adult, when you, as observer, know that the turmoil is not gone, it has merely been mastered to a degree that it has become invisible to strangers.
Affleck handles it all brilliantly, from the rare moments of barely-controlled frenzy when he's alone to the painful silences and the awkwardness of his learned-and-memorized scripts for social interaction. We love him more and more as we see and understand his yearnings, and yet also see him recognize his permanent inability to be rather than seem normal.
We feel all that he wants to be, all that he wishes he were, and his recognition of his own extraordinary abilities. It's all summed up in the song that is played at the end of the film: "To Leave Something Behind," by Sean Rowe. I'm told that Rowe created these words as a message to his son.
And it's a good message: "I am not trying to follow you to the end of the world, and I'm just trying to leave something behind.... Oh money is free but love costs more than our bread and the ceiling is hard to reach. The future ahead is broken and red, But I'm trying to leave something behind."
At its heart, The Accountant is a noble romantic tragedy. Boy falls in love. Boy saves girl. Boy can never make girl happy, so boy rides off into the sunset.
That is far from being all that's going on, however. One of the most vital threads running through this movie is this question: How do you assess the value of a human life?
Ben Affleck's character has two vital father figures in his life. First is his actual father (Robert C. Treveiler), who died in part because of Affleck's inability to control his temper at his mother's funeral. Second is Jeffrey Tambour, as a criminal accountant whom he meets in federal prison. Tambour teaches him how to cook books and gives him a good number of criminal contacts whom Affleck can contact to set himself up in business after prison.
Tambour is carelessly released from federal prison -- and protection -- after his usefulness as a witness is over, and his enemies torture the old man to death. This is the kind of thing that Affleck cannot bear. It becomes unfinished business to him, and as we learn almost from the start, it is unbearable to this character to be forced to leave something unfinished.
The main storyline, however, begins when a young junior accountant (Anna Kendrick in her best role so far) discovers an anomaly in the books at a high-tech firm that designs working prosthetic limbs to restore the lives of the maimed. John Lithgow plays the brilliant scientist who creates everything, leaving the day-to-day operations in the hands of his wife (Jean Smart) and his lifelong friend and CFO.
The Accountant is hired for this non-criminal job by Lithgow, with the goal of investigating Anna Kendrick's finding to see if it really is a problem. This movie does a powerful job of showing the Accountant's methodical problem-solving method, and how he uncovers what's really going on, step by step, in cooperation with the eager young accountant.
Meanwhile, a top Treasury agent, played by J.K. Simmons, is training a young agent with a problematical past to be able to pursue the legendary Accountant and uncover who he really is.
As if that weren't enough, a truly scary assassin (Jon Bernthal), with a large team supporting him, is picking off other people involved with this case.
If these multiple plot threads don't confuse you, then all the jumping back and forth in time might do the job. And yet the writing and directing are so skillful that we are never confused, merely puzzled.
That is, we have questions to which we demand answers, but:
1. I promise you that every question will be answered in a completely satisfying way by the end of the movie. But don't leave early.
2. The suspense never comes from the puzzling questions. It always arises from the right source: What will happen to these people that we care about so much?
There are thrilling scenes. A moment involving a puzzle piece. Another moment with some high-tech sound equipment. There's the first time Kendrick sees the Accountant in full-blown violent mode. And lots of cool shooting and fighting.
But above all, there's a moment when J.K. Simmons has a gun pointed at his head and pleads for his life. I have children!
Are they grown?
Simmons, knowing that a truthful answer won't help his cause, toughs it out and says, Yes.
The gunman asks him, Are you a good Treasury agent? Have you changed the world for the better?
Not really. No.
And then the question that to me was the heart and soul of this movie: Were you a good father?
To young viewers this scene may not have the same effect that it had on me, an old man whose child-rearing days are long gone. I think most fathers of grown or mostly-grown children, however, will hear that question as I did: If you died right now, what was the value of your life?
The movie continued to be wonderful right up to the end. As always, my wife and I watched the credits to the end. Yet when the screen was finally black, I couldn't move.
Let's be honest. I could have moved, if I had wanted to. I didn't want to move. Because then it would be OK to talk, and I didn't want to talk, because ever since that moment of "Were you a good father?" I had been emotionally consumed.
J.K. Simmons did a brilliant job of that very difficult acting moment. But the power of that moment came from an urgent call to my own heart: Gun to your head, did you do a good job as a father?
I heard Simmons's answer (written, of course, by screenwriter Bill Dubuque, who also wrote The Judge) and I wished that I could honestly give the same response. But the jury's still out on that. No, I don't want reassurances from my kids, who sometimes read this column. It's a question I have to answer for myself.
So will you, parents.
My wife and I also raised a brain-damaged child, though he could not possibly have responded to the methods that the Accountant's father used. We have seen how the care required by that one child can reshape -- for good or ill -- the childhood of the siblings.
So my extremely positive response to The Accountant must owe something to the special circumstances and personal bugbears I brought to the movie.
But I don't think that explains it all away. This is an action movie, not for adolescent males (though they could learn much from it), but for grownups of either sex. There is extraordinary depth in these characters and their relationships, but as always in movies, depth comes from the script first, and only then from actors who perform the script well.
Ben Affleck was a superb choice for the lead in this movie. He has grown into the role that he was born to play: The kind and generous adult who is torn by hard decisions and conflicting goals.
That's why he was good enough in Gone Girl and Argo, but unforgettably good (to me, anyway) in He's Just Not That Into You and The Accountant. He brings a maturity to his comic-book roles that works, I think, for Batman. Daredevil didn't work, partly because it's a really crappy idea for a superhero, and partly because the script had no idea what to do with Affleck. Not Affleck's fault.
What Affleck always has is the implication of quiet depth, of inward pain. Where George Clooney spent years in which his characters could never stop smirking, Affleck always plays characters for whom it is painful to produce a smile.
Which powerful movies deserve sequels? There's an obvious reason for never making Titanic II, but you can be sure that there were several brainstorming sessions trying to come up with a way. The Godfather needed one sequel. Not two. Patton? Forget it. Friday the Thirteenth? It obviously needed nine sequels, since it got them. Or, no, wait: None!
Here's a particularly difficult type of movie to sequelize: the movie whose entire title is a character's name. Not a real person's name, like Ali or Ray or Erin Brockovitch, because presumably the first biopic told the whole story. A fictional name.
John Wick. Jack Reacher. These are both excellent movies, and they're both getting sequels in the near future.
Jack Reacher begs for sequels. This is the ultimate urban Lone Ranger. Jack Reacher lives completely off the grid -- no driver's license, no credit cards, no ATM card, no luggage. He doesn't fly on planes. He pays cash for everything, or barters. He doesn't even carry weapons -- he defends himself with his hands, and if he really needs a weapon, he takes it from a dead enemy. You don't find him; he finds you. And as the first movie makes clear, he doesn't care about laws, he only cares about "what's right."
Never mind the deep and urgent question: What's the difference between a guy who does "what's right" regardless of law, and a criminal? We'll have plenty of time in the Jack Reacher series to explore that.
There are 21 novels in the series by Lee Child. The first one published was Killing Floor; the first one in chronological order of events is The Enemy, then The Affair, and then you get to Killing Floor and proceed in the order of publication. I haven't read any of them yet, but I'm going to give them a try.
Meanwhile, though, with Tom Cruise doing his usual brilliant job in the lead -- never a missed nuance, never a false note -- I can see this movie series going on for a while. Cruise isn't a kid anymore, so ... get a bunch of these in the can, guys, before Cruise graduates to later Harrison Ford and later Sean Connery roles.
What's hilarious is that because the Jack Reacher of the novels is tall, to some fans it's ridiculous to cast Tom Cruise, because he's not tall. Really? I thought this was a movie, not the NBA. Lee Child wrote a character, not a physical stereotype. The movie proves that height is irrelevant, because a character is what the character does, and why.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back promises to have the same combination of intricate mystery, conspiracy, and brutal vigilante violence. The only sour note in the trailers and promo materials is that the conspiracy part is at high levels of government.
This can work -- as in Blacklist -- but even that show bogged down when we were spending all our time trying to expose high-level government officials. Partly because the more realistic government stuff is, the more boring the movie.
Besides, we all live in the world of Hillary Clinton, where it doesn't matter that you discover and expose crimes, as long as the criminal has ideological soulmates in the media and Executive Branch to paper it over.
I hope that Jack Reacher: Never Go Back doesn't get distracted from the personal relationships that made the first movie work at an emotional level. It's a very good sign that the sequel isn't coming out till three years later. They took a little time with this. Now it's coming out this weekend, starting 21 October.
John Wick 2, set for release 10 February 2017, is a different matter. In the 2014 original, Keanu Reeves plays a hit man who is forced out of retirement by a brutal attack on his home by the hotshot idiot son of the crime boss who used to employ Wick. It becomes a relentless vengeance movie that gives us glimpse of a criminal life that is by turns gracious and filthy, elegant and brutal.
Keanu Reeves is perfect in the role, where you can believe that his soft-spoken everyman style is the disguise for a level of calculated rage that most people don't have. John Wick in part because the triggering incident, which is constantly referred to by stupid characters with "It was just a dog," completely explains everything.
But in the sequel, it won't be "just a dog." John Wick is still a "legendary" assassin, and probably the character will still be trying to discover his own identity separate from the legend. But this time, he won't be coming back to killing after five years of living a normal life with his loving wife. He'll be a guy who already proved that he's still in the game, even if not for hire.
So if they try to get us to feel the same sympathy for a guy who was out and was forced back in, they're going to fail. There are only so many dogs you can kill and get the same effect.
So even though the much-praised team that made John Wick is back, I worry that they might not understand that along with all the cool filming and staging techniques they used, what made the movie work was a character we cared about for very specific reasons, which cannot be present in the sequel. If he's just a killer, then who cares?
Daniel Radcliffe has definitely survived the child-star phase of his life and emerged as a serious actor in many roles. But the weirdest role of all has to be his title turn in Swiss Army Man.
I first heard about this very, very weird film watching the fall premiere of The Graham Norton Show.
It was a great episode of Graham Norton, by the way, with Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake dominating the show with their banter promoting their voice performances in the claymation Trolls. Anna Kendrick did the impossible -- she out-charmed and out-funnied Justin Timberlake -- which prepared me to like her all the more in The Accountant.
However, I would rather someone drive a nail in my head than have to watch Trolls. The more they promote it, the more I think of this as the movie that will run on an endless loop in Hell.
Daniel Radcliffe was on Graham Norton to promote a movie that I have to see, though it has already opened somewhere, apparently. When or whether it will come to Greensboro, the film backwater of America, I can't predict. I might have to wait for cable to show it. But I'm prepared to love it, because it absolutely fulfils all the promises of the old Theatre of the Absurd movement from my college days, and the exuberant quirkiness of Being John Malkovich.
Here's the premise. Hank (Paul Dano -- you'll recognize him) is stranded on a desert island. He has lost all hope ... until a dead body washes up on shore.
The dead body, Manny, is Daniel Radcliffe. The body is bloated, gaseous, generating a terrible stench.
But the corpse turns out to have as many uses as a Swiss army knife (hence the title). Hank rides the corpse like a Jet-Ski to get back to the mainland, for starters. But the uses of the body become more bizarre from there.
Will the joke get old? Of course. Will it have a stupid ending like most Saturday Night Live sketches? I'll be surprised if it doesn't. Will it matter?
This is an idea so wonderfully absurd that it had to be made, and it's all the more charming because the film relies on two such likeable actors to carry it.
Sometimes movies that you really look forward to end up disappointing you. But I wasn't looking forward to this movie -- it popped up out of nowhere. In that Graham Norton appearance, Radcliffe brought along Dead Daniel, the lifelike dummy that was occasionally used in the filming (most of the time, the hideous things on screen are happening to the living actor Daniel).
It was disturbing to see it on the couch with Radcliffe. And yet I so wanted to see Radcliffe reenact the fight between Donald O'Connor and the dummy in "Make 'em Laugh," from Singin' in the Rain.
Your vote is only thrown away when you cast your vote for garbage.
Voting for a decent candidate instead of Trump or Hillary is not equivalent to voting for the other monster. For one thing, nobody can predict who will benefit most from a third-party vote. For another thing, when both parties have failed, the only way to replace them or force them to reform is to vote for neither.
You may not love the way the parties react -- George Wallace's electoral-vote-winning campaign in 1968 led directly to the Republican Party's "southern strategy" and Reagan's open appeal to "Reagan Democrats" in the industrial states -- in both cases, a clear attempt to attract Wallace's constituency from 1968.
John Anderson in 1980 was a Republican in a year when many Americans feared Reagan's aggressive rhetoric, but chances are he drew more votes away from Carter than from Reagan. Yet we can't be sure, because nobody knows who the Anderson voters might have favored had he not been on the ballot -- and how many might not have voted for President at all. (Exit polls only tell you what people think they might have done.)
There are times when you need to cast your vote for the nearest equivalent to None of the Above. But we're no longer in the realm of holding your nose and voting for Trump because he stinks less than Hillary. He doesn't.
We don't know what Trump would do as President, because this is a man who acts (and speaks) on impulse and who breaks his word constantly. (Bush never lied, despite the unclever and dishonest chant; but neither Hillary nor Trump ever does anything else.)
So why do you think Trump will make better Supreme Court nominations than Hillary? For one thing, some of the more reliably liberal justices were appointed by Republican presidents who thought they knew how those justices would treat the law and the Constitution. Why would we imagine that Trump, not a conservative at all and completely ignorant of government (along with everything), would do any better?
All we really know about Hillarump is that between them, you couldn't assemble enough character to make one decent human being.
Evan McMullin is exactly the candidate most Republicans hoped for when the election year started. He's a man that even Leftists realize is a moderate they could live with. To all but the Trumpicles, this is an asset because it means America might have a functioning government again.
Meanwhile, the Trumpicles prove that they are as petty, vindictive, and hateful as their ticket-topper; watching them vilify a real statesman like Paul Ryan, as if he had ever run for President and is only biding his time to stab Trump in the back, worries me about the future. These paranoid conspiracy-theorists aren't going away after the election. Whether Trump wins or loses, they'll still be there in the Republican Party to attack everybody who has actually governed anything because they didn't "do" enough.
Trump looks more and more like the Republican version of William Jennings Bryan, who crippled the Democratic Party by dominating it and making it irrelevant for four election cycles back at the turn of the last century.
Evan McMullin represents either the best new direction for the Republican Party (if they can shed the stain of the Trumpicles) or a new party that wants to open its doors to all the reasonable people of good will in America -- which still, I believe, includes a majority, or at least a plurality, of Americans.
Many Americans will not be able to vote for McMullin, or even write him in. But he seems poised to be able to carry at least one state, Utah, with a serious chance at several more, mostly in the American west. Utah is the most Republican state in history, absolutely reliable for the Republican Party. But Utah voters are proving that many of them, perhaps most, understand that to vote for a candidate is to affirm that he or she is the best person for the job. So they can't vote for Hillarump, no matter which hairdo.
So they're going to vote for a person who really is prepared -- in training, in temperament, in character -- to govern the United States of America in a way that most of us could be proud of and happy with.
It's hard to imagine Hillarump accomplishing either.
If you want to change the way America does politics, you can't vote for either of our broken major parties. Vote instead for the kind of candidate they should have nominated.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com