Saving The President's Bacon Again In 'London Has Fallen'

Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning in London Has Fallen.

Gerard Butler stars as Mike Banning in London Has Fallen. Courtesy of Focus Features hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Focus Features

A moment of silence, please, for the many fictional lives lost and nonfictional careers sullied in London Has Fallen. It’s the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen, the gnarlier and less funny of 2013’s two (!) Die Hard ripoffs set inside the White House. Olympus was the 36th highest-grossing film in America that year, but its visible penny-pinching and its modest success abroad have been factored in to make a follow-up as inevitable as Zoolander 2 or Fuller House. My fellow Americans, I can say this without fear of overreach: London Has Fallen is the Fuller House of red-meat action movies. In the sense that what initially looks like a mostly-harmless hit of nostalgia for Reagan-era junk food turns out to be a slow-release capsule of apocalyptic dread.

The premise this time is that President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must attend the funeral of the British Prime Minister. But as the Royal Navy’s Lord Admiral Ackbar once observed, “It’s a trap!” A Pakistani arms merchant (Israeli actor Alon Moni Aboutboul) seeking revenge for the death of his family in a drone strike has flooded the British capital with hundreds of would-be assassins dressed like cops. The only man POTUS can trust to get him out is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, once again played by Gerard Butler, a vaguely sentient three-day beard who’s no better at hiding his Scottish brogue than Sean Connery was, though he sort of tries. (Q: Have you ever seen a not-undercover Secret Service agent with facial hair? I mean, with facial hair this thick and shiny and healthy-looking? That was a rhetorical question.)

Banning’s wife (Australian Radha Mitchell) is expecting their first child any day now; he’s been fussing over the diction of a two-sentence e-mail that would announce his resignation from the Secret Service. He’s a classic reluctant warrior, minus the reluctance. As before, he kills scores of people in blurry, underlit confrontations; mostly using firearms, but with a marked propensity for stabbing when a tool is available. “I’ve never seen a man suffocate before,” a shellshocked Asher blurts after a surprise throat-punching demonstration. “I didn’t have a knife,” Banning growls. Those mots! So bon!

Save for director Antoine Fuqua, who moved on to the greener pastures of, um, The Equalizer, most of the key players from Olympus have returned: Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman (he was Speaker of the House before; in this movie he’s the Vice President), Academy Award winner Melissa Leo as the Secretary of Defense, Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett as the Director of the Secret Service, Academy Award nominee Robert Forster as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. New to this installment is Academy Award nominee Jackie Earle Haley as some cabinet official or security adviser or something, because what this film clearly needed was one more overqualified actor in the Situation Room too look worried and occasionally bark into a phone.

Eckhart never got that kind of acclaim — well, he was nominated for a Golden Globe once — but in movies like In the Company of Men and Thank You for Smoking and The Dark Knight, he sure seemed destined for better than this. Only Butler is making the best possible use of his gift, his gift being to make Vin Diesel seem like Daniel Day-Lewis. If he and the equally square-jawed Eckhart were to swap roles, it could only help.

In his English-language debut, Swedish director Babak Najafi generates far less tension or atmosphere than he did in his prior sequel, the crime picture Snabba cash II (also known as Easy Money II: Hard To Kill), and evinces little mastery of the digital tools that have become de rigeur for action films. As in Olympus Has Fallen, the scenes depicting air-to-air combat and the resulting damage to centuries-old historic sites are rendered in reassuringly phony-looking CGI. He throws a time stamp in the bottom left corner of the screen occasionally, lest anyone be left wondering what time it is in the part of London that looks like Sofia, Bulgaria.

The primary screenwriters were the husband-and-wife team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt; Olympus was their first script sale. (Sylvester Stallone was impressed enough to hire them for The Expendables 3.) In that first movie, they at least troubled themselves to imagine what a coordinated attack to overrun the White House might look like. They also put in a scene in which that beardy Scotsman bludgeoned a North Korean terrorist (played by an American) using a bust of Abraham Lincoln.

London Has Fallen can’t even muster that level of grim surrealism. In an election year that already recalls late ’80s or early ’90s but with new depths of vulgarity, the escapism it purports to offer feels a lot more like confinement.

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Pop Culture Happy Hour: A Fond Farewell To 'Downton Abbey'

The series finale of Downton Abbey airs on PBS this Sunday.


Nick Briggs/arnival Film & Television Limited 2015 for MASTERPIECE

It’s always a good week when Audie Cornish or Barrie Hardymon sit in, but this week, with Stephen off finishing the Austin 100 (which is now available for your ears!), they both stepped into the studio with me and Glen Weldon to talk about the end of Downton Abbey, which ends its run on PBS Sunday night — and which, of course, ended its UK run at Christmas. We talk about the overall arc of the show, its devotion to romance above all, its surprises and quagmires, and poor, poor Edith, who really deserves some degree of happiness, don’t you think?

In our second segment, we broaden out to consider period pieces more generally, from what makes them charming to what obligation they have to represent fairly what particular time periods really would have been like — especially for those not in the most powerful or luxurious positions.

As always, we close with what’s making us happy this week. Audie is happy about a film she previously recommended having a great night, and also about a phenomenon you can find all over Twitter under the perfectly logical hashtag #TrapCovers. Glen is happy about the finale of Gravity Falls and about the return of Better Call Saul and its related podcast. Barrie is happy about waiting for Outlander to return to her warm embrace. And I am happy about several things: the Austin 100, our meetup happening Saturday night in Brooklyn at Lowlands Bar at 5:00 p.m., how good American Crime is, how bonkers Real Housewives Of Potomac is, and the crazy magic of the Spotify Discover Weekly playlist. But mostly the meetup! I might not shake your hand if I still have a cold, but come and say hello to me, Stephen, Glen, Jessica, Gene and Kat.

Find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter: me, Glen, Barrie, Audie, producer Jessica, and producer emeritus Mike.

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There's A New Kendrick Lamar Project Out, But It May Sound Familiar Already

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February 2016.

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in February 2016. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Last night, hip-hop fans received a surprise: an unexpectedly released project from Kendrick Lamar called untitled unmastered.

Each of untitled unmastered.‘s eight tracks is — as the album’s name headlines — untitled, followed by a date. If those dates (most of which fall between 2013 and 2014) are correct, it means they were recorded during the same period as Lamar’s masterful To Pimp A Butterfly.

As of this morning, untitled unmastered. was available across many music platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Tidal.

The cover of Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered. project.

The cover of Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. project. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

When this music made its way online last night, some news outlets breathlessly hailed it as the leak of a “surprise new album” featuring “eight new songs.”

That’s not quite right, though. The project’s title suggests a certain fluidity and work-in-progress liminality, and its cover is an unadorned, almost industrial green field. It’s a strategy that nods to the lifting-the-veil feel behind Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo.

A lot of this material will be familiar to attentive listeners; as NME points out, Lamar has already performed certain passages from this project quite publicly already, including on TV performances on shows like The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And the sprawling, eight-minute “untitled 07” is partly a reworking — or rough, improvised version — of material that appears earlier on untitled unmastered.

There were hints that something was in the works earlier this week already, starting with a not-so-mysterious Instagram post on Wednesday from Anthony Tiffith — the CEO of Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment — which Lamar promptly retweeted.

All of the signs in untitled unmastered. point to this release as a snapshot of Lamar’s creative process, but given the intensity with which his work is received, and that surprise full-album drops have become almost expected in the marketplace, many fans may interpret this project as a full artistic statement.

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'Everybody Stretches' Without Gravity: Mark Kelly Talks About NASA's Twins Study

Expedition 43 NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and his identical twin, Mark Kelly, pose for a photograph in 2015 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.


Expedition 43 NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (left) and his identical twin, Mark Kelly, pose for a photograph in 2015 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

When astronaut Scott Kelly’s space capsule touched down in Kazakhstan, it was a familiar scene to Mark Kelly, who is a retired astronaut and Scott’s identical twin.

NASA is conducting a “twin study” on the brothers to explore what spaceflight does to the body. Multiple universities are involved in the research.

“We’re going to need to understand this really well before we decide to send people to Mars on an extended mission,” Mark Kelly tells NPR’s Renee Montagne on Morning Edition. For the study, he acts as a control to compare to his twin, who broke the U.S. record for longest space journey.

Kelly says one part of the study will look into the impact of space on aging. “One of the universities is studying a genetic indicator of how people age, and that’s the length of your telomeres. So the length of your telomeres is indicative of your physical age,” he says.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly works outside of the International Space Station during a spacewalk last year.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly works outside of the International Space Station during a spacewalk last year. NASA/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption NASA/Getty Images

Researchers are looking into whether that physical age is linked to the significant amount of radiation that astronauts are exposed to in space, Kelly says. He adds: “I’m not the scientist here, but I would presume the radiation would have a negative effect.”

As NASA explains, “The most dangerous aspect of traveling to Mars is space radiation. On the space station, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what’s naturally occurring on Earth.”

NASA breaks down the components of their study:

  • “Research techniques used in personalized medicine (technologies such as genetic sequencing) are employed to discern individual responses to the spaceflight environment
  • “Research from the molecular level to whole body function to brain function is being integrated together into one, coordinated study”

While his brother was in orbit, Kelly was providing NASA with his data for the study, including MRIs, ultrasounds, and blood and urine samples.

One effect of the extended time in space has already come and gone, Kelly says. His brother was temporarily 2 inches taller than him:

“In space without gravity, everybody stretches. But when you get back to Earth, gravity has this effect on you and it pushes you back. So by the time he got back to Houston, they actually measured both of us at about 3 in the morning after he got back and we were exactly the same height again.”

Kelly also talked about how is brother is feeling now that he’s back on Earth, beyond the shifting height and the unseen effects of radiation:

“You know, he’s pretty sore right now and he’s tired. People don’t sleep particularly well in space. And you know, a lot of hard work and then the fiery return in the Soyuz capsule. So he obviously doesn’t feel 100 percent. Except his neurovestibular system is really, really good — I mean, you would expect somebody after that period of time to be dizzy and have balance issues. He doesn’t have balance issues. He doesn’t have any of that. So he is doing remarkably well.”

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Hear Thrilling New Music From Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson's new album, A Sailor's Guide To Earth, comes out Apr. 15 on Atlantic Records.

Sturgill Simpson’s new album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, comes out Apr. 15 on Atlantic Records. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

A Sailor's Guide To Earth

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

I knew this would be a thrill but I didn’t expect the new Sturgill Simpson record to be have bagpipes, a Nirvana cover and the Dap-Kings! Sturgill has announced that his new album, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth, will be out on April 15, and he’s released a single called “Brace For Impact (Live A Little).” It’s a guitar-sliding rock dirge that wavers between Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones in its winding instrumental break. Its message encourages us to give a little in this life, a life we don’t have for long.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is an ode to Sturgill Simpson’s young son, born almost simultaneous with the release of his great second album, Metamodern Sounds In Country Music, in the spring of 2014. In a shift from the psychedelic sounds of Metamodern, the new album is filled with rock and roll, rhythm and blues and Sturgill’s thoughtful country music punctuated by a soulful chorus of horns courtesy of the fabulous Dap-Kings from New York City. There are eight new songs, including “Brace For Impact (Live A Little),” plus a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” Hearing this live is going to be mind-bending — Sturgill Simpson will kick off his tour at the top of May in Austin, Texas.

A Sailor’s Guide To Earth track listing:

1. Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)
2. Breakers Roar
3. Keep It Between The Lines
4. Sea Stories
5. In Bloom
6. Brace For Impact (Live A Little)
7. All Around You
8. Oh Sarah
9. Call To Arms


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'Zootopia': A Nimble Tale Of Animal Instincts And Smart Bunnies

Zootopia's first bunny officer Judy Hopps finds herself face to face with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox in Zootopia. Featuring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy and Jason Bateman as Nick.

Zootopia’s first bunny officer Judy Hopps finds herself face to face with a fast-talking, scam-artist fox in Zootopia. Featuring the voices of Ginnifer Goodwin as Judy and Jason Bateman as Nick. Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

The wild and furry landscape of Zootopia, Disney’s new self-contained world of talking animals, is a remarkable place. In this land, mammals have evolved beyond their traditional predator/prey relationship to form a fully functioning society. Their capital city, Zootropolis, is an intricate network of a dozen ecosystems, from a rainforest to a frozen tundra, and residents of all sizes and species are integrated into daily life. This, as our intrepid bunny hero Officer Judy Hopps constantly asserts, is a place “where anyone can be anything.”

And Zootopia is a movie that can be anything, whether that’s a succession of adorable rabbit jokes, a buddy-cop (bunny-cop?) flick for the tots, or—this is the big surprise—a remarkably prescient allegory of our time that comments on prejudice, urbanism, tokenism, politics and the role of the police in today’s society. It’s got the cuteness and childlike creativity you expect from Disney, while the story has some real bite for the adults. And if you needed more convincing, Shakira voices a Shakira-like pop star named “Gazelle,” who is a gazelle, and whose backup dancers are shirtless tigers.

Even with three directors and more “screenplay” and “story” credits than you can shake a carrot at, the film doesn’t feel cobbled together from spare parts. Instead, it tells a clear and engaging narrative about Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), an idealistic but naive newcomer to Zootropolis who fulfills a lifelong dream to become the first “bunny officer” on the police force. Leaving behind her mom, dad and 275 brothers and sisters in Bunny Borough, Hopps arrives in town with open arms, but receives only big-city dream busting: a bullheaded police chief (Idris Elba, as an actual bull) who has her write parking tickets all day; unconscious bigotry from co-workers who demean her as “cute”; and the run-around from a con artist fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), whose schemes remain one step ahead of the law.

But Hopps stamps her feet and declares, “I’m not just a token bunny,” and suddenly we see the true promise of Zootopia. It may be approximately the 321st Disney movie about talking animals, but the film is exhilaratingly fresh: an irreverent product of our current era and an unmistakable satire of race relations. Dig the way Hopps condescends to her new fox friend by calling him “articulate,” or the speculation that the mayor of Zootropolis (a lion voiced, naturally, by J.K. Simmons) hired a woolly assistant because he “needed the sheep vote.” Over the course of investigating a missing otter, Hopps and Wilde—at first a reluctant partner, but later revealing a softer side—uncover a vast government conspiracy to pit predator against prey once more, by using the tried-and-true weapon of prejudice. Years of harmony between rival species are suddenly under threat, thanks to rushed assumptions about “biology.”

This makes the film sound about as heavy as an elephant-sized popsicle, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Zootopia nimbly turns its subject matter into a great deal of fun, with riffs about animal “nudists” and a goofy Godfather parody featuring a Marlon Brando shrew. The colors are bright, the animation is crisp and the design elements of Zootropolis itself are clever and future-perfect, everything we wanted from that other recent big-budget attempted Disney utopia, Tomorrowland.

It wasn’t until late in Zootopia‘s development that Disney elected to make Hopps the focus of the story over Wilde, but it was a wise decision: her spunky farm-girl personality is a throughline we readily identify with, as with Rey in the new Star Wars. Hopefully the merchandising team will make some toys featuring their heroine this time around. And with any luck, soon Hopps can get busy investigating the other great mysteries of Zootropolis, such as what happened to all the non-mammalians, and what the heck do predators eat if not their natural prey?

If Zootopia becomes fortunate enough to fall into Frozen-style heavy rotation for kids of a certain age, its messages of rejecting prejudice and embracing the complicated nature of multiculturalism could do some good for the world. Just be prepared for the invasion of a new “Let it Go”-style earworm, courtesy of Shak— er, Gazelle.

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The Ordinary World Shares Space With Ghosts, Spirits And 'Splendor'

Jenjira, a volunteer watches over Itt, a handsome soldier with a mysterious sleeping illness in Cemetery of Splendor.

Jenjira, a volunteer watches over Itt, a handsome soldier with a mysterious sleeping illness in Cemetery of Splendor. Courtesy of Strand Releasing hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Strand Releasing

In Cemetery of Splendor, a new film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an older Thai woman, Jen, is led around the grounds of a ramshackle building in provincial Thailand by an ecstatic young psychic named Keng. As they move about, we see only piles of dead leaves and old or broken statues, the detritus of a hospital that was once a school attended by the older woman, which she remembers fondly. The psychic, however, sees a former palace that, it seems, is buried beneath the building. She describes it in such opulent detail that even her somewhat skeptical companion is won over. To say nothing, we learn, of the FBI. Impressed by Keng’s skill at winkling out secrets and lies, the Bureau has been after her to join the company with full benefits.

Weerasethakul raises that kind of goofy eyebrow early and often in Cemetery of Splendor, as he does in all his films. Fundamentally though, he believes in believers, especially those who, like Keng, channel subterranean layers of memory not visible to the eye. Which is why we’ll also witness the long-dead cheerily materialize on a park bench to lunch and, as it were, chill with the living. And why at least one of the hospital’s patients, most of whom are soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness, periodically wakes to exchange gossip with Jen and squire her to a cheesy horror movie at the multiplex, only to slump back into slumber without warning.

To enter the multiple worlds of Weerasethakul, you have to slow down and bracket your Hollywood training in plots, endings, psychologically motivated characters and the like. As in all the Thai director’s films, the workaday world shares equal space and time with the ghosts, spirits, and memories of a richly decorated past — and, he never says outright, Thailand’s troubled political present.

The son of physicians, Weerasthesakul often takes illness and its treatment as his foreground. If that’s a metaphor, it’s also a tangible reality he’s explored before in his lovely 2010 Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Cemetery of Splendor is set in the director’s childhood home town of Khon Kaen, a sleepy backwater where a beautiful park and lake are disfigured by dump trucks shifting earth in order to lay cable. Nothing much happens — it’s almost boring, until you give yourself over to the long, atmospherically still takes that cover every scene. The mood is serene, with an undertow of sadness. The soundtrack is ambient noise — the clack of trucks, the quiet to and fro of nurses moving around a ward full of sleepers, the rustle of trees that cue us into fresh spheres of memory and spirit. The soldiers lie on their backs with whirring fans overhead and healing lights that change color beside every bed. Tenderly cared for by Jen (played by Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas Widner and Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram), the handsome young soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) is, puckishly or not, named Itt.

Weerasethakul will never let on if there’s a thematic link between the palace and Thailand’s successive monarchies or its current political turbulence. Should we hate the soldiers or thank them for their service? Who knows? But it occurred to me that film may be the only place one can put the military to sleep without fear of reprisal. For his part, this most implicit of filmmakers never actually says anything. He makes art with a sense of time and place at once viscerally concrete and sublimely soulful, where the memory banks of our subconscious surge into the light, bringing unease, and a strange peace.

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More Literary Whispers And Another Quest In Malick's 'Knight'

Christian Bale stars as Rick and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth in Terrence Malick's drama Knight of Cups.

Christian Bale stars as Rick and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth in Terrence Malick’s drama Knight of Cups. Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Melinda Sue Gordon/Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Enigmatic writer-director Terrence Malick has made what is essentially the same movie three times in a row: Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and now Knight of Cups. It’s time to ask if he knows what he’s doing.

On one level, he unquestionably does. Malick’s movies are elegantly photographed and edited, set to evocative mystical/minimalist music, and intermittently rapturous despite under-baked narratives. And the filmmaker has no trouble attracting Hollywood stars who allow him to finance his films, even if those actors’ presence can be more distracting than compelling.

In Knight of Cups, a nearly silent Christian Bale mimes an L.A. man who meanders from downtown’s Skid Row to Santa Monica’s upscale bohemia, with interludes in Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the equally arid Century City. He eventually reveals that his name is Rick, and he’s clearly in The Biz. The film’s official synopsis says he’s a screenwriter, although that’s not apparent from what’s on screen.

Rick is surrounded by women, no more beautiful than the ones in Malick’s two previous films, but in greater profusion. These include his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a doctor who cares for the impoverished and disturbingly disfigured, and a married woman (Natalie Portman) with whom he’s having an affair. (Or maybe the fling is over; chronology is beside the point.) The other lovelies include a stripper (Teresa Palmer), a model (Freida Pinto), and two others of no apparent vocation (Imogen Poots and Isabel Lucas). And that’s not a complete list.

Like the protagonists of the earlier movies, Rick is haunted by family traumas drawn partly from the director’s own life. He’s on a spiritual quest, or should be, and encounters a priest with a foreign accent and a severe attitude. Last time, he was Javier Bardem; now he’s Armin Mueller-Stahl.

That Knight of Cups is not just a gambol through show-biz hedonism is announced by its title — a reference to the Tarot card that represents a restless man who’s guided by emotion — and its opening lines, which are from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. These are intoned by the late John Gielgud, commencing the movie’s dense, murmuring narration. The film’s characters rarely speak, but they do think out loud, and their ponderings overlap with lines from Bunyan; Plato’s Phaedrus, whose concerns include erotic love; and The Acts of Thomas, one of those gnostic texts left out of the New Testament.

The words and pictures seldom align, although the abundant water imagery may symbolize rebirth or purification. Rick and various belles are forever splashing into surf or lurching into pools, often fully clothed. These secular baptisms are contrasted by what may be an actual joke: shots of dogs underwater, retrieving toys. Humans don’t know what they seek, while canines have straightforward goals.

Visually, Malick often drifts into Koyaanisqatsi territory, and both his spiritual themes and his reduction of actors to flesh-and-blood mannequins recall Robert Bresson. Knight of Cups, however, also suggests a very different sort of filmmaker: Peter Greenaway.

Imagine Malick’s film as remade by the Prospero’s Books-era Greenaway, who saw cinema as a sort of hypertext. Rather than whispered literary allusions, there would be on-screen quotations, footnotes to identify references, pocket biographies of saints and philosophers, and perhaps even a history of divination by the Tarot cards that provide ominous titles for the movie’s chapters.

This is not, of course, a formula for rendering Malick’s films more accessible. But it would be a way for him to put some of his thinking into the film itself, to detail the ideas behind all the pretty wandering, posing, and splashing. Why not take the plunge?

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Missing: The Search For A Sister In China

Two sisters grew up in the same part of rural China but went down two different paths in life.

Isabel Seliger for NPR

Last summer, a Chinese-American woman and NPR listener reached out with an unusual request. She asked me to help find her sister, who’d vanished in the mountains of Yunnan province in southwest China.

“My little sister has been missing since Nov. 23, 2013,” the woman wrote in an email. “She married a farmer in a remote village and was abused by her husband shortly after her marriage. She escaped from him after a few abuses.”

Then, her little sister disappeared. Her account on WeChat, China’s most popular social media app, went dark, along with her cell phones. Police had initially investigated, but seemed to have lost interest in the case.

The big sister, who works in IT in the American Midwest, had heard a radio series in which I drive a free cab around Shanghai, giving people rides as a way to learn about the lives of ordinary Chinese.

“By reading and listening to your reports,” the woman wrote, “I know you can help me.”

People disappear in China all the time. Boys are kidnapped and sold to couples who want sons. Back in the 1990s, I traveled with a private detective who rescued women who’d been sold to farmers as wives. There’s even a popular TV show devoted to helping people find their missing loved ones, called Dengzhewo, which means “waiting for me” in Mandarin.

This particular case, though, stood out. It offered an intimate way to understand some of the country’s dramatic changes through the lives of two sisters — one Chinese, the other Chinese-American — who’d taken very different paths.

To protect their privacy, and because our investigation unearthed sensitive personal details, NPR is not naming the women or other characters in this story.

My assistant, Yang Zhuo, and I met the big sister at an airport in Yunnan last fall. Her journey back to China was not only a quest to find her little sister but also an attempt to do her duty, according to Chinese family tradition, as the first-born sibling. Her mother had passed away, and her father was a simple farmer who lacked the skills to mount an investigation.

We set out in an SUV, driving through lush valleys carved by muddy rivers. After a couple of hours, we hit a military checkpoint. A soldier in body armor with an automatic rifle asked for our IDs and where we were heading. It was a reminder that we were traveling in a distant, dicier part of China near the border with Myanmar and Laos. The region just south of here is known as the Golden Triangle and it’s notorious for heroin smuggling and human trafficking.

A Troubled History

As we continued into the mountains, Big Sister filled us in on her family’s history. The girls had grown up with three other siblings on a farm in Heilongjiang province, in China’s far northeast, in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the children were born before China instituted its one-child population policy. This was also at a time when the country was just beginning to shift from communism to capitalism. The family was poor and sometimes there wasn’t enough to eat. Little Sister struggled in school.

This section of Yunnan Province in southern China is near the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The area is notorious for heroin smuggling and human trafficking.

This section of Yunnan Province in southern China is near the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The area is notorious for heroin smuggling and human trafficking. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR

“She even studied so hard, even harder than anyone else in the family,” Big Sister said. “She never got good scores.”

Against the family’s wishes, Little Sister left school at 16 and moved to the city. With few skills, she fell into sex work.

“It’s just for survival,” said Big Sister. “A couple of times, she called me when I was abroad and she was beaten. Her nose was broken.”

Starting in the 1990s, tens of millions of women moved from the countryside to the city to earn money, as China shifted from being a nation of farmers to one of urban workers. Many women worked in factories. The brighter ones went into professions. Big Sister, for instance, became a nurse. Those with fewer skills, like Little Sister, sometimes ended up in massage parlors.

In the old communist China, the two sisters would probably have lived similar, circumscribed lives — essentially poor and rural. Under capitalism, they had new opportunities in an increasingly competitive society — which was less predictable and carried more risk.

After saving some money, Little Sister quit sex work and moved more than 2,000 miles away to the southwest corner of the country. Amid the warmer, more relaxed climate of Yunnan, she tried to reinvent herself — something that is becoming as much a part of modern Chinese culture as it is in the U.S. Little Sister studied business books to learn about investing. She looked into buying a bar and becoming a legitimate businesswoman.

A Sudden, Short Marriage

In the fall of 2013, she surprised her family and suddenly married a rubber farmer. After little more than a month, though, she left him. She told Big Sister that her husband accused her of cheating on him. Big Sister wondered if her little sister’s past — which she had moved to Yunnan to bury — was coming back to haunt her.

“Does he know what you did before and is that the reason he watches you so closely?” Big Sister asked in a series of WeChat audio messages, which she’s preserved. “If that’s the case, he’ll never trust you.”

Little Sister said her husband grew suspicious because she often traveled alone to a city several hours away to check on some investments which she’d kept secret from him. She said her husband began to beat her.

“I told him, ‘Don’t beat me anymore,'” Little Sister said over WeChat. “My injuries haven’t healed. If you beat me again, I couldn’t bear it.”

Little Sister was now 34. Her attempts to find a lasting relationship and turn her life around weren’t working.

“I myself feel empty, always feel empty,” Little Sister said as she wept. “I simply want to find a man who dearly loves me. Why is it so difficult?”

She wanted a divorce, but said she was too afraid to face her husband again. A lawyer told her if she disappeared for two years, she could obtain a divorce without having to appear in court. She told her big sister she was heading to another part of the province to start anew.

“You don’t need to worry,” she reassured Big Sister. “I got off the bus yesterday and am now staying at a hotel.”

That was Nov. 22, 2013. According to police, she checked out of a hotel a few days later.

Map of locations in China

Credit: Katie Park/NPR

No one has heard from her since.

Earlier this year, a sign of hope emerged. Police received an alert that Little Sister’s ID number had been used at a bank in Dalian, a coastal city in northeast China where she’d previously lived. The cops thought she was following the lawyer’s advice and was in hiding.

‘She Really Ran Away’

One of the last people to see her was her husband. So we drove up a dead-end dirt road, past banana groves, looking for his farmhouse. We were a little anxious. Police had told us he had recently spent time in jail for theft. The husband, a skinny 26-year-old, was surprised to see us, but courteous. He offered us tiny wooden stools, typical seating for guests in China’s countryside.

Soon, Big Sister confronted him.

“Do you know what happened exactly?” she said angrily. “Where did she go? Or did you kill her?”

“If I’d killed her, I wouldn’t still be here,” he said. “She really ran away. You guys should not think that I sold her to someone or killed her. I’ve never done things like that.”

He said the couple had quarreled a lot, but he denied ever beating her. The husband also said Little Sister was secretive about her past. The day they picked up their marriage license, in October 2013, the clerk asked her to produce a divorce certificate. Her husband-to-be was stunned.

“Before we got our marriage license, she had just divorced a guy, just a month earlier,” he said. “When we were dating, she didn’t tell me that.”

A Big Sister’s Hopes Are Dashed

The next day, we had lunch with one of Little Sister’s friends, a local businessman with chiseled good looks. The friend, who wore a black t-shirt, said Little Sister read lots of self-help books and was often depressed.

“She gave out a feeling of loneliness,” said the friend, who has a wife and son several provinces away, near Shanghai. “She was clearly unhappy.”

Warm and gregarious, he talked for nearly two hours, but actually said very little. He insisted he had no idea where the woman was.

We were now down to our last lead. Big Sister booked a flight to Dalian, to follow up on the information from police about Little Sister’s ID number showing up at the bank.

“I really hope it was her,” she said, as we saw her off at the airport, “so we are just a step away from finding her.”

Trying to turn her life around, Little Sister moved from a bustling city in China's northeast to lush, tropical Yunnan province in the southwest, where the pace is slower and life is far more relaxed.

Trying to turn her life around, Little Sister moved from a bustling city in China’s northeast to lush, tropical Yunnan province in the southwest, where the pace is slower and life is far more relaxed. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR

But that hope – the one that had kept Big Sister going throughout our journey – soon evaporated. Bank officials told her there had been a misunderstanding. Little Sister hadn’t been to the bank after all. While the bank was reorganizing accounts, there was a computer glitch. Little Sister’s ID number popped up, triggering an alert to police in Yunnan.

Big Sister had arrived in China thinking her little sister was still alive. Now, she feared the worst.

“I don’t think anything good happened to her,” she said, choking back tears as we spoke over WeChat. “She’s a tough survivor. She would think of a way to contact somebody from the family or the police. I think she was probably killed by somebody.”

But who? And why?

A Forged Medical Report

Before returning to the U.S., Big Sister went to Little Sister’s empty apartment in a city along the Mekong River, where she’d lived before she got married and had stored her belongings before going on the run. Big Sister discovered medical results on a coffee table, showing that her little sister was pregnant a few months before she disappeared. Earlier, her family had also found a love note revealing Little Sister was having an affair with the handsome businessman — something he’d denied during our long lunch.

There was something odd, too, about the pregnancy results. The little sister’s given age was wrong, making her seem a decade younger. Puzzled, Yang and I went to the hospital that issued the document and showed a copy to several doctors.

“Where was this test done?” asked one physician. “It’s not done by us. Our department doesn’t have a doctor by this name or an ID number like this. This report is fake!”

Another physician called up Little Sister’s medical records and found an earlier, legitimate pregnancy test, which had been negative. He said Little Sister appeared to have created the positive test report using a Microsoft Word document.

Why would someone forge a pregnancy test?

“Some girls want to take some leave from their jobs,” said the first doctor. “Others lie to a man, saying, ‘I’m pregnant’ to get a sum of money.”

Little Sister didn’t have a job, but she did have some money, so Yang and I suspected there was probably another motive. What had started as a hopeful search was turning more ominous.

Yang and I called the businessman. We expected him to hang up. Instead, he spoke for 40 minutes and came clean about the affair. He said he and Little Sister had fallen in love.

“She wanted me to get a divorce and then marry her,” he explained. “But I told her when this all started, ‘I have a family.’ “

He said he broke up with Little Sister and last saw her in the fall of 2013, not long before she vanished. Given the heavy drug trade and human trafficking in this part of China, he said he assumed something terrible had happened.

“After such a long time, she could have contacted her family,” he said. “She’s either been taken hostage or someone has murdered her.”

A Tale Of Two Sisters

Isabel Seliger for NPR

The Dark Side Of The Dream

Big Sister thinks her sister’s relationship with the businessman led to her disappearance, at least indirectly.

“If he were not married, they probably would have a nice family together and my sister probably would end up with a nicer life,” she said.

Little Sister’s story of failed reinvention — with potentially fatal consequences — is a particularly Chinese one. Over the past two decades, under capitalism, something new has developed in China: individual dreams. It’s one of the most exciting and encouraging developments in the country. People figure if they work hard, take risks, maybe they can succeed.

Big Sister is emblematic of those dreams. She came from a poor farming village, eventually made it to America, continued her education there and landed an IT job.

Little Sister represents the dark side of the dream. She didn’t have many skills, struggled and went into illicit work. When she tried to turn her life around, it seems she couldn’t escape her past. For all the many success stories here, China can be tough and unforgiving. Some people just don’t make it.

NPR News Assistant Yang Zhuo contributed to this report.

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Marco Rubio Defends His 'Small Hands' Criticism Of Donald Trump

Marco Rubio and Donald Trump participate in the Republican Presidential Debate in Detroit, Michigan.


Marco Rubio and Donald Trump participate in the Republican Presidential Debate in Detroit, Michigan. GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

Not even the best political forecasters could have guessed that Donald Trump’s hand and genitalia size would become 2016 presidential campaign topics. But they have, and it’s thanks in large part to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Rubio insulted Trump on the campaign trail last week by claiming the business mogul has undersized hands — and by implying that that smallness extends to other parts of Trump’s body. And while many have criticized Rubio for dragging down the tone of the nation’s political debate, he defended his rhetoric Friday morning. When NPR’s Steve Inskeep asked Rubio about whether he was stooping to Trump’s level, as some have suggested, the candidate said no.

“I think that’s not accurate. Please. That’s not even possible to be as crude as Trump,” he said.

Rubio defended making “a couple of jokes” at Trump’s expense because, Rubio said, Trump has been “personally offending not just everyone in the race but women and minorities and the disabled.”

“At some point, someone’s got to stand up and say hey enough is enough,” he said. “If you think you’re going to attack people, you’re going to get hit back.”

Rubio has been ramping up his verbal assaults on Trump lately, but it’s not just because he wants to defend marginalized demographics. The Florida senator is far behind Trump not only in polls but in the delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination.

Even in Rubio’s home state of Florida, he is polling far behind Trump. That state’s primary will be held on March 15. Rubio has only won one state thus far: Minnesota. If Rubio cannot pick up a win in his home state, it could be a campaign-ending blow.

For his part, Rubio said he doesn’t think the polls are accurate.

“We’re going to win Florida,” he said. He added, “We feel confident about it but we know that there’s a lot of work ahead.”

Rubio’s attacks on Trump showed no sign of letting up at the Fox News debate — after the discussion of Trump’s hand size and other parts of his body had passed, Rubio also criticized him for being insufficiently conservative.

And yet. Despite repeatedly bashing Trump, Rubio (along with his competitors, Ted Cruz and John Kasich) also at the end of the debate said that, yes, he would support Trump if he won the nomination.

When asked about that seeming contradiction, Rubio said he doesn’t want to “choose between the lesser of two terrible choices” — that is, Trump and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, whom Rubio characterized as “a danger to our country.”

Rubio added that the very premise of the question of whether he would support Trump should worry Republicans and spur them to back a different candidate.

“I don’t want the Republican nominee to be someone that people have to make excuses why they’re voting for him,” he said. “What does that tell you when the Republican front-runner is someone that people are being asked constantly, ‘Would you support them if they win?’ It’s unprecedented.”

When pressed on exactly his “excuses” for supporting Trump would be, Rubio responded, “He makes it hard to answer that question because of the way he behaves.”

He added that he is focused on becoming the nominee. But time is quickly running out to make that happen.

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