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From Jim Toomey to Charlie Hebdo, we need their levity

In any of 150 newspapers around the world — including the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun — you can bump into Jim Toomey any day of the week.
    But Bay Weekly kept the world-famous creator of Sherman’s Lagoon waiting in line.
    What kind of way is that to treat a neighbor?
    Toomey, who draws Sherman the shark and his aquatic friends from his West Annapolis home, makes a good story any week of the year. But I wanted the perfect week.
    “What’s our news peg?” I asked writer Bob Melamud, using the newspeak term for that perfect place in time to run his long-awaited story on Toomey.
    I never imagined we’d be hanging the story on a peg so newsworthy it reached round the world.
    Yet there’s no better time to feature a cartoonist than the week the world is reeling from the assassination of five French cartoonists in a wave of terrorism that’s taken 17 lives, put Paris on Red Alert and mobilized support across the free world.
    Charlie Hebdo, the satiric newspaper hit in the initial wave of terror, featured a comic style far more irreverent and raunchy than Jim Toomey’s. In wry Sherman’s Lagoon — as in the famous mid-20th century comic strip Pogo — we are our own worst enemies.
    Left, right or in the middle is pretty much irrelevant on the spectrum of free speech, Toomey tells us. In his own words:

    “There seems to be a prevalent reaction that goes something like this: I defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to express their opinion, but I question their judgment in this particular matter.
    I disagree with that assessment.
    We can’t live in a world where we fear the disproportionate reaction of a fanatical few, and as a result, muzzle our opinions. I believe there are limits to our freedom of expression, but the Hebdo cartoonists did not cross that line.”

    Like Sherman’s Lagoon, Toomey’s words reach me in a place very near home.
    Bay Weekly is not Charlie Hebdo. “We don’t,” as Toomey notes, “even run cartoons.”    
    For whatever kind of journalism we favor — mild or fiery — is but one part of the freedom at stake.
    As well as the five cartoonists, two editors and two columnists, a maintenance worker and two officers were murdered in the Charlie Hebdo attack.
    The policewoman killed the next day and the four Jewish shoppers the day following died because of who they were. What they might have said — their levity, their piety, their pleas — was irrelevant.
    At bottom, what’s at stake is freedom to be.
    If I make it my business to make your irreverence a capital crime, at what point on the spectrum does my rage stop? Your religion? Your color? Your tattoos? Your straight or curly, short or long hair? Your age (two of the murdered cartoonists were in their 70s; one in his 80s)? Your gender? Your sexual preference? The language you speak? The clothes you wear?
    From the French, we learned the phrase vive la difference. Modern France is a multicultural society, as are we. How many of the many differences we encompass — and which ones — can we still celebrate? At what point on the spectrum of difference do we allow our tolerance to end? At what point do you — or I — get to take offense?
    At that point, the slope turns slippery.
    Odd, opinionated and different we all are. If laughter helps us coexist — if irreverence keeps our fanaticism in check — bring on the cartoonists.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

Robert Kyle gives a new meaning to frozen drinks

How do creatures of the wild quench their thirst when outdoor water freezes to ice?
    Robert Kyle replenishes bowls with water in its liquid state for “cats, birds and whoever else is thirsty” at his Huntingtown home.
    “I have several water bowls around our place,” Kyle writes. “When the water freezes overnight I add fresh water.”
    As a side effect of his Franciscan charity, Kyle has invented a new art form: Cat Bowl Ice Art.
    “Recycling the frozen water, I remove the bowl-shaped ice and balance them upon each other,” Kyle explains. “After assembly the sun comes up, causing the opaque ice to glow. My daughter in Los Angeles tells me the sculptures resemble Zen balancing stones.
    “To my knowledge, I’m the only person in the Bay area that makes these,” Kyle adds, “as most people have better things to do at 6:30am on a cold morning.”

Early-spawning crappie already on the move

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix: Her) fancies himself the Phillip Marlowe of the Free Love generation. With long hair, lots of drugs and a general distrust of the establishment, Doc runs a small private detective agency — when he’s not bumming around on the beach, high as a kite.
    When Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston: Boardwalk Empire) shows up asking for a favor, Doc knows it’s bad news. Shasta’s latest flame is real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts: Jake’s Road), who owns half the county. But Mickey’s wife and her new boyfriend disapprove of Mickey’s New Age philosophy. Afraid he’ll give away his millions and leave them destitute, the Mrs. and her boy toy want Shasta’s help to have Mickey committed.
    Shasta wants Doc to figure out what’s really going on and to foil the plot against Mickey. Still in love with Shasta, Doc agrees. On his first day of snooping, Mickey goes missing, and Doc wakes up next to a dead body.
    Now Doc must solve a murder, find a mogul and remember where he hid his stash, all while avoiding the oppressive attentions of his police officer nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For).
    Daffy, fun and fairly nonsensical, Inherent Vice will make you feel as high as Doc. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) adapted Thomas Pynchon’s California pulp into a woozy cluster of character and comedic set pieces. Think of it as Chinatown on a bender.
    Pynchon’s novel has been called unfilmable, and Anderson may prove the point. Inherent Vice is a visually rich, deep character piece, but the central mystery and surrounding plots are nearly incomprehensible. Characters wander in and out of scenes, plotlines are dropped or randomly introduced. You’ll need a flowchart to keep up with everything.
    Can you enjoy a mystery when the mystery makes no sense? It turns out you can. Anderson has always been able to coax fantastic, nuanced performances from his actors, and in Inherent Vice it’s Phoenix. He gives a wonderful, lived-in performance that makes Doc a loveable loser instead of an annoying cliché.
    As Doc’s police foil, Brolin offers surprising depth in what could have been silly. Brolin grounds Bigfoot’s establishment persona in a mix of repression and depression that make the character almost tragic instead of a brute.
    For all the great performances, the real star of any Anderson film is the camera work. He carefully crafts each scene, with framing, art design and tracking shots that add depth. A wealth of sunny vistas, urban grime and 1960s’ sensibilities, Inherent Vice is a beautiful sight, even if you can’t follow the plot.
    Much like Doc’s journey through money and free love, Inherent Vice isn’t an easy path. It will challenge and confound you.

Fair Mystery • R • 148 mins.

Great opportunities and satisfying careers for students of horticulture

Did you know that horticultural crops and services are major income-producing agricultural industries in Maryland? The green industries alone — including nursery plants, greenhouse crops, garden centers and landscape contracting — are the second largest agricultural income-producing industries behind only poultry. Horticulture includes fruits, vegetables, nursery crops, greenhouse crops, Christmas trees, landscape contracting, and garden center and arboretum management. 
    Horticulture is no longer trial-by-error agriculture. Horticulturists must be able to identify plants and know their growth requirements as well as the most efficient methods of producing them. They must also be able to identify and learn to control insects, diseases and weeds by using improved cultural methods such as biological systems, monitoring and properly using pesticides when necessary. The horticulturist is an environmentalist, aware of environmental restrictions so as not to become a contributor to pollution. Horticulture is a science learned through higher education and hands-on experience.
    The horticultural industries offer excellent opportunities for students with advanced training in plant science, soil science, entomology and pathology.
    In 2012, it was estimated that there were six to eight job opportunities for each student graduating with plant and/or soil science majors. Job opportunities include teaching, management, sales, research, production, consulting, horticulture therapy, landscaping and legislative support. Workplaces include arboretums and botanical gardens as well as farms, greenhouses and garden centers.
    All of the fruit, vegetables, nuts that we consume 365 days each year have to be produced, processed and transported under the supervision of people with plant-science experience. All of the flowers that decorate our homes, as well as all of the ornamentals that embellish our landscapes, were propagated and grown in a greenhouse or nursery.
    We enjoy eating fresh produce and seeing live plants throughout the year because of technological advances through horticulture.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The sky is awash in the sun’s absence

While winter has only just begun, it’s heartening to know that a little more sunshine is creeping into our lives day by day. Since a month ago, we’ve gained 15 minutes of light at day’s end, with sunset now after 5pm. Monday marked the latest sunrise of the year, at 7:25, and although it’s a slow go at first, that time will inch earlier hereafter. Heck, before you know it will be summer.
    The winter moon wanes through morning skies, reaching last quarter before dawn Tuesday, when it hovers less than two degrees north of the blue-white star Spica. Look for the two high in the south around 6am that morning. Look to the southeast for early-rising Saturn, which is roughly a dozen degrees above the red-giant Antares.
    Jupiter rises around 8pm, but it is high over the west horizon in the hour before sunrise. Look to its left for the backwards question mark known as the Sickle of Leo, punctuated by brilliant Regulus at its base.
    The real show-stoppers are Mercury and Venus, which will be within one degree of each other low in the southwest shortly after sunset most of the week. The two planets are at their closest Saturday, a mere 0.7 degrees apart. You should have no trouble spotting Venus, which outshines everything else visible and is more than a dozen times brighter than its neighbor. Even so, Mercury is one of the brighter objects in the heavens shining at magnitude –0.8. Look for them above the southwest horizon about 45 minutes after sundown.
    Mars, too, joins the fray, well to the upper left of Mercury and Venus. The red planet is no match for either of its kin, but its ruddy tint easily sets it apart from the similarly bright stars around it. Mars sets around 8pm.
    As darkness settles, the unmistakable hourglass figure of Orion the hunter appears above the southeast horizon. By 10pm, he stands high in the south, facing his quarry the bull Taurus to the west. Orion boasts two of the 10 brightest stars: Fiery Betelgeuse marks the shoulder of the hunter’s upraised arm, while icy Rigel marks his opposite foot.
    Perhaps most noticeable, however, are Orion’s three tightly aligned belt stars. Follow these stars toward the horizon and they point to the brightest star of all, Sirius in the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog. Another grouping of stars hangs from Orion’s belt, marking the hunter’s sword. One of these, appearing as a fuzzy patch of light, is no star at all but rather a stellar nursery, the Orion Nebula.

Birds and squirrels, horses and riders

I took Bay Weekly at its word.    
    “The best way to start learning about birds is to put up a feeder,” advised international birder Colin Rees, conveyed in Dotty Doherty’s Dec. 4 story Winter Is for the Birds. Today I’m reaping the rewards of refilling and hanging my feeders to celebrate Christmas for the birds.
    Snow has me and the birds home together. While I work at my livelihood via MacBook Air, they’re working at theirs, pecking up their fuel of safflower and black-oil sunflower seed. They’ve puffed up their down against the cold; I’m wearing multiple layers and keeping the fire burning. Even so, we can both feel the chill of temperatures in the 20s and falling.
    But we keep at it. Watching and writing, I’ve added blue jay and dove to make 11: Sparrows (all seem to be white throated), plus juncos and towhees. Plus, of course, titmouse, chickadee, cardinal, house finch, nuthatch and downy woodpecker.
    Whoops! Neighbor Sharon’s dog Cassie just walked past, scattering the flock.
    The ever-bold titmouse is the first to return. Then the nuthatch, which seems to be the white-breasted sort.
    My Snow Day bird count is small peanuts compared to the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, with some 30 organized counts focused on separate 15-mile circles throughout Maryland between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
    The hundreds of species and thousands of birds counted by these serious birders keep science abreast of life in the avian world.
    In the big picture, 71,531 observers in 2,369 circles counted 64,133 birds of 2,296 species last year.
    This year, on Dec. 14, the first day of the count, 30 birders at Jug Bay counted a “very low” 106 species. “Surprising given that conditions were good,” reports compiler Sam Droege, “but perhaps a reflection of the fact that the weather had been warm up until then and many of the waterfowl had not moved into the area.”
    At Patuxent River Naval Air Station on Dec. 28, 30 people counted close to 100 species, according to Andy Brown, of Calvert County Natural Resources Division. The big news in “an average year” is a record 33 bald eagle sightings.
    At Sandy Point State Park, on Jan. 4, 80 birders tallied 112 species, including three area rarities: a raven (only Edgar Allen Poe’s poetic license gives Ravens to our Atlantic region), a pair of snow buntings and four sanderlings.
    I fear I won’t add such oddities as a raven or snow bunting to my domestic count. But as a low-grade birder, I’m tickled by the appearance and antics of the usual suspects.
    Whoosh! There they go again, three dozen tiny creatures disappeared in a single burst of speed. Yet not a soul comes walking by …
    Instead the intruder soars into my view, a hawk on the wing.
    I have my Number 12, perhaps a Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawk judging by his russet-striped belly and small size. Or perhaps a kestrel?
    Make that 13! Mr. Red-bellied woodpecker just flew in.
    Not a bad day for snowbirds and snow birder.
    Count birds of the Bay on Jan. 18 with musician and birder Dan Hass of the Anne Arundel Bird Club. 8-11:30am at Thomas Point. Dress warmly. rsvp: 410-703-4664; ­nervousbirds@gmail.com.

Snow Birds of a Couple More Species
    This time of year, many Marylanders join the flights of snowbirds escaping winter’s chill for Floridian warmth. Among them are two particular species, equestrians and their horses. One of the flock, Diane Burt, tells their story in this week’s paper.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

Coast Guard’s sea turtle rescue brings them Internet fame

It’s all in a day’s work.    
    The day was August 12, when a boater reported an entangled sea turtle 30 miles off New Jersey’s southern coast.
    Using the boater’s GPS coordinates, the Cape May Coast Guardsmen and staff of Marine Mammal Rescue Center set out on a rescue mission. Finding a turtle in the Atlantic could have been as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. But the coordinates led straight to an ensnared leatherback.
    The team got close enough to grab the offending gear — a floating marker on a long pole ending in a rope. Then, the Coast Guard team “used their bare hands to control the struggling 800-pound creature.” Amid the grappling, the line was disentangled and the turtle swam free.
    Videotaping actions is also in a day’s work in the modern Coast Guard. Over the last two weeks, YouTube viewers chose the Coast Guard’s Video of the Year from 10 action-packed sea rescues and adventures. The leatherback rescue earned second place. So in sweet symbiosis, the sea turtle saved by the Coast Guard makes the rescuers stars.
    See the Coast Guard’s Top 10 of 2014 at www.youtube.com/user/USCGImagery.

Knowledge makes power

The horticultural green industries — nursery, landscaping and greenhouse crops — are the second largest agricultural industry, second to poultry in Maryland and third in the nation. With home gardening the number one hobby, it is no wonder that the demand for trained horticulturists is so high.  
    Gardening is therapeutic, and those who partake in it realize great satisfaction from watching plants grow as well as enjoying the flowers, fruits or vegetables they produce.
    Nowadays, gardening is no longer limited to backyard plots. More than 80 percent of plants are grown in containers on decks, patios, balconies and windowsills or under artificial lights. Plastics have made it possible to design and manufacture containers that resist freezing and provide good drainage while looking attractive. Soilless light-weight rooting media, packaged in convenient-sized bags or boxes, are weed-free and engineered to satisfy the growing needs of most plants. Some containers can even keep the rooting media moist for several weeks.
    Advances in fertilizers in both organic and inorganic forms make it possible to limit the need to apply fertilizer on a timely schedule. Slow-release fertilizers are balanced to supply the needs of each nutrient based on well-established research.
    Greenhouses for home use were once expensive to build and maintain because they were covered with glass that was frequently broken by accident or by hail. Today’s small home-type greenhouses can be built inexpensively and covered with double-layer polyethylene or composites that can be shaped using a box cutter. These greenhouses are easily heated. Some of the plastic coverings can be used for several years, while composites have been known to last 20 years or more. Greenhouses allow you to start your own transplants for the garden and can be used to grow winter crops such as short-day onions, spinach, lettuce, radishes and Swiss chard with minimum heat.
    Many home gardeners are now starting to use low tunnels, small hoops 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 inches wide, in their gardens or raised beds. The tunnels allow them to start growing plants at least one month earlier in the spring and extend the fall growing season by at least a month. Clear polyethylene covers the hoops and is anchored to the ground by soil.
    A new method called Aerogation Green Wall Systems even grows plants on walls. These plants are grown in containers mounted to the wall; air from the room is forced through the rooting media, cleaning the air of impurities while humidifying and oxygenating it.
    Horticulture continues to evolve. When I joined University of Maryland’s Department of Horticulture in 1962, 80 percent of all nursery plants were grown in the ground. Container plants were mostly grown in greenhouses in clay pots. The rooting media consisted mostly of sterilized soil and peat moss. Plants were fertilized mostly with dry fertilizers such as 10-10-10 or 10-6-4 or liquid 20-20-20 using a hose-on-nozzle. Greenhouses were covered with glass and heated mostly by steam or forced hot water.
    Horticultural technology has made many dramatic changes and created many opportunities. The demand for trained horticulturists is greater now than ever before. Anyone can dig a hole, but it takes a good understanding of plant science to grow plants efficiently, protect them from insects and diseases and use them properly.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Loneliness and tragedy fuel the genius that saves the world

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Hobbit) is an odd duck. Brilliant at arithmetic but horrible at social interactions, Turing is mercilessly mocked at boarding school. His only friend introduces him to cryptography, where he discovers a world he can understand.
    The grown-up Professor Turing would have been another in a long line of oddball academics but for World War II. Instead he joins an elite circle of cryptographers tasked with cracking the German Enigma. A coding machine hitherto impossible to beat, Enigma allows the Axis powers free lines of communication to coordinate attacks that left the Allies reeling.
    The British captured one machine, but without the code key, which the Germans change every 24 hours, the machine is useless. While the other cryptographers work 18 hours a day on a Sisyphean task, Turing plans to create a machine that can run codes faster than any human.
    Loud, massive and expensive, Turing’s machine seems like the creation of a mad scientist. The socially challenged Turing — whose homosexuality, then illegal, is a complicating factor — must figure out how to convince the establishment that his machine is the only way to win the war.
    Most of us now have versions of Turing’s machine in our homes and in our pockets. We call them computers.
    Director Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) creates a competent portrait of a complex man. But intercutting scenes from Turing’s school days and future downfall into the race to beat Enigma, he struggles to make the whole gel.
    Screenwriter Graham Moore (The Waiting Room) also skimps on character development — but not on platitudes. You’ll hear the film’s mantra — “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” — many times. Turing is the only character who gets the semblance of a real personality. The people surrounding him fill out stereotypes.
    Cumberbatch turns in a stunning performance. Now an old hand at playing geniuses on the Autism spectrum, he makes Turing a frustrating, funny and pitiable man. His Turing is much like the machine he creates, a whirring, seemingly emotionless being capable of amazing feats.
    Another actor rising above the writing is Keira Knightley (Laggies), who turns a Girl Friday role into an interesting, nuanced look at a woman who sees more to life than the conventions of her time.
    With Cumberbatch and Knightley’s insight into the loneliness of genius, The Imitation Game is a good movie — though one that could have been great.

Good Drama • PG-13 • 114 mins.