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Might as well reprint my letter to the Inquirer

August 13, 2017 Leave a comment

A challenge for Trump
A comment on the president’s proposed immigration requirements:
Five decades ago I came to the U.S. as a political refugee with only a high school degree and rudimentary English language skills. After years of struggle and menial jobs, I earned an engineering degree and started to climb out of poverty. Today I am a law-abiding, taxpaying husband, father, and grandfather. The United States offered me sanctuary and a lot more, a chance at having a life. What President Trump does not understand is that the American dream is not about where you start but where you want to end up.
As far as English language skills, I dare say that, compared with the president, I have the better command of the language. (Remember: It’s not where you start.) I’m aware that English is his native tongue, while I still suffer from the occasional grammatical error, no doubt due to English being my third language. Nonetheless, I would be willing to challenge the president to an English-language duel. The stakes? How about if the winner gets to tell the loser: “You are fired.” Win or lose, it might get him the Emmy he’s been pining for.
|Jim Kempner, Holland

I Bought a Zoo and the Descendants

“I have good news and bad.”

“Give me the good news.”

“I got you a part opposite Matt Damon / George Clooney. You play his wife.”

“That is fantastic. What are the bad news?”

“The wife is dead.”

I imagine that’s how two separate conversations might’ve gone, between agents and two actresses, Stephanie Szostak and Patricia Hastie, before being cast as the dead wives in “I bought a Zoo” and “The Descendants.”

What are the odds we would watch both films on consecutive nights?

The similarities end there. The Zoo apparently is based on a real story. I expected it would be a sappy, predictable, feel good movie with animal high jinks and Matt Damon falling in love with Scarlett Johansson. (It shouldn’t take much acting to fall for her) I was in the mood for something like that. I was disappointed. Not a terrible film but one I don’t think resolves anything. Not convincingly. Maybe its theme is: “You know sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you something great will come of it.”

I’m not too sure about that. Lots of stuff can happen in 20 seconds, much of it bad.

The Descendants, on the other hand, presents credible conflict and its main protagonist is a common man blessed with great luck, as far as inheritances go. But The Descendants does resolve the conflicts within its dysfunctional family in very convincing fashion. There are no ‘aha’ moments, only the closeness that comes from shared experience, the sort of bond that keeps families together. One interesting, albeit peculiar character, is a boy friend of the eldest daughter, who at her insistence accompanies them everywhere. He is a very awkward presence at awkward situations. But this seemingly hapless and clueless boy who is himself grieving for the loss of a parent, serves many and varied purposes, even though one wonders throughout what he is doing in this film.

I highly recommend The Descendants. A rare film.

Zoo, on the other hand, I’d pass on, unless one is interested in seeing yet another Fanning girl actor. There must be a Fanning child actor factory somewhere, and they are doing a very credible job. Patricia Hastie, by the way, did a good job as the comatose wife.

 

Justified and Jindabyne; a tale of two tales.

March 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Sometimes I understand how critics feel. It is more fun to write a bad review than a good one. I’m more likely to write a review because a bad experience, whether a film, TV show, concert, play or whatever may annoy me enough to make me do something about it.
In this case there is also an interesting parallel. This piece is about two ‘shows’ I watched within a few days, one really good, one really bad, both based on short stories by famous writers.
“Jindabyne” is a movie based on a Raymond Carver short story while “Justified” is a TV series on its third season airing on FX and based on an Elmore Leonard story.
Ruth and I just finished watching the end of Justified’s first season. The first show, a one hour pilot, was quite good. I imagine it owed the most to Leonard’s short story (Fire in The Hole). In it straight talking, matter of fact, fast shooting deputy Marshal Rayland Givens has just been transferred from Miami to his hometown in Kentucky after killing a drug dealer in a very public manner. “He drew first” is the Marshal’s oft repeated explanation and presumably the source of the shows title.
Harlan County in Kentucky is not like Louisville or Knoxville, cities I have visited on numerous occasions. It is rural and apparently inhabited mostly by criminals. Including deputy Marshal Givens’s father and most of his childhood friends. The shows following the pilot were stand alone half hour extension/adventures which from time to time introduced or expanded on or eliminated characters and though watchable, I consider them standard cable fare. But the last few episodes, comprising the end of season 1, DVD 3—about three hours of non stop viewing for us—were riveting. And even after that marathon of watching we wanted more and watched the producer/writer narration of the last episode, which was quite interesting.
I imagine that after the pilot, which probably owed much to the Leonard short story, the writers needed to figure out what the show was about. Eventually they elevated one of the early baddies—Boyd Crowder, who was shot nearly to death in episode 1—to a recurring role that kept us guessing because he was much worse and much better than we ever imagined. And quite a bit more complicated.
The charm and draw of Justified is the relationship between the Marshall and his past, his ex-wife, his former crush, his father, and Boyd, a childhood friend who is his friend and adversary. There are bonds formed in childhood that remain a strong influence throughout one’s life. And there is a parallel where both have complicated relationships with their respective fathers. How they handle these adds a great deal of complexity.
I suppose one should comment on the acting though I’m usually reluctant. Tim Oliphant plays the Marshall and Walton Goggins the key baddie. They both do their job well. The whole cast is good.
There are two kind of actors: bad—which you immediately notice—and normal, or good, or competent or whatever term you might want to use. In other words, I either notice the acting is bad or I believe the actor and willingly suspend disbelief.
This issue of good and bad acting reminds me of a (now obsolete) maxim I coined long ago. Given a chance to watch a movie with Henry Fonda or one with Tony Curtis, always chose the latter. If you wonder who those guys were you are too young to be reading this. Otherwise you’ll know that Fonda was universally recognized as one of the best actors while Curtis was a competent pretty boy. Nevertheless, Curtis almost invariably appeared in good, sometimes great movies like “Some Like it Hot”—the best comedy film of all time—or The Great Race, The Defiant Ones, Spartacus, The Vikings and so forth. Henry Fonda made great movies but too often he was featured in bombs. Maybe the credit should go to their respective agents or to their ability to pick the right scripts. My point is that I’m happy with competent acting and seldom notice ‘great’ acting. In fact if I notice it, if I say, “wow that was some great acting,” it draws attention away from the story and defeats the whole concept of acting.
Nonetheless, this whole issue of ‘good’ actors has another corollary: a tendency to watch films with great casts. “Oh, wow, look at this, it has Lawrence Olivier and Meryl Streep and…” Which is how I came to watch the film that compelled me to write this piece.
I just had the unfortunate experience of watching “Jindabyne,” the film based on Raymond Carver’s short story. Jindabyne is 123 minutes of characters acting stupid and having the director play games with you, with your emotions and perceptions, making it appear this or that is going to happen, that someone is hiding in the weeds while never intending any of it to materialize. If anything you wonder whether there is anyone portrayed in the film or running the show who is an adult or capable of acting like one. After a while I was merely curious, not about how it will all end—I didn’t care—but how much longer will this film go on. Why did I watch it to the end? We were with friends and they wanted to know how it ended. A cast headed by Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne should have promised something better.
I wonder what effect Raymond Carver would have had on the film if he’d been around. Elmore Leonard plays a role—at least as producer—in the TV series.
There is no moral to this piece. Film is a director’s medium and the director gets to make ‘artsy’ films—which Jindabyne is not—at his or her own risk. TV has to deliver on a consistent basis and writing, in my opinion, is more important. So I suppose all I can suggest is to check Rotten Tomatoes—which had a surprising 50% audience approval for the film—and Netflix which at 2.6/5 was closer to my opinion albeit still too high (I think people are reluctant to give films the single star rating it deserves) As far as TV, do as we do: wait for a while and then watch it “on demand,” streaming or, as we did with Justified, on DVD. We are anxiously awaiting the delivery of the season 2 DVDs.

Take Shelter. It made me think. Not a review

March 3, 2012 1 comment

“Take Shelter” is a film that, as of this writing, is rated 92% in the tomatometer—average critic rating of 8/10 based on 145 reviews—and 82% on audience response, based on 10,970 responses averaging 3.9/5 (Rotten tomatoes is a great place to find film ratings http://bit.ly/qAxy0U )

All in all pretty good.

I don’t like reviews that give away parts of the plot but this is a discussion of what the film might mean, so consider this a Spoiler Alert.

Take Shelter is the sort of film that is difficult to recommend, to know whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It keeps you involved and guessing throughout and afterwards makes you think. So I’d vote for it being good. I’d heard a lot about the superb acting, but acting is a subject for a different blog.

Take Shelter made me think, among other things, about Noah. Consider what Noah’s actions made his family, his friends, his neighbors think. Surely someone ordered by God to build an ark had to be mad, and yet, Noah ‘knew’ he had to build it. So, is this a lesson? Does the Bible tell us we should pay attention to seemingly crazy people doing crazy things?

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has dreams of impending disaster, all involving storms. Apocalyptic storms, including raining oil. Not a good thing in spite of the energy crisis. The name LaForche itself is peculiar enough to suggest some meaning. Unfortunately I don’t know what. (Maybe LaForche stands for ‘The Force.’ Or more likely ‘The Fork.’ If it means something in French, I didn’t figure it out.)

Curtis’ dreams are so vivid that after a nightmare where his own dog bites him, his arm hurts the rest of the day. That makes it different from a regular nightmare. And the warnings are explicit: don’t trust even those who you hold closest, your dog and your best friend. Even Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, who seems to appear in every other movie) appears ready to attack him with a knife in one of his dreams. But in this dream Curtis shakes his head, maybe because he can’t believe his wife capable of such a betrayal. Or maybe because, even in his dream, without her there is no point to life. And indeed she sticks by him, in spite of his obvious descent into madness.

Not that Curtis hasn’t considered that he is indeed going mad. After all, he not only is suffering from these awful nightmares, he also experiences hallucinations, mostly involving birds. Curtis visits his mother—not a frequent occurrence—who was diagnosed a schizophrenic in her 30s; Curtis is 35.

He also secretly reads about mental diseases, takes back of the book quizzes, asks his physician for medication and goes for counseling but, at the same time, he believes the dreams. He builds his ark (or shelter) in spite of the consequences, going deep into debt, loss of his best friend, loss of job. He remains undeterred.

Why? In one of his dreams, he loses that which he loves most, his deaf daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart). He sees that as his duty, not to save mankind or the worlds fauna, but to save his family. He says as much to his wife when he can no longer avoid sharing his fears.

But when the dreaded storm finally materializes, it is only a tease, a garden variety something, maybe a tornado that passed near bye. After emerging from the shelter, we see a neighbor picking up small branches and a repairman working on a transformer. But this storm is only a test of faith.

This leads us to the only character that is rock sure absolute: the psychiatrist (Science?). The doctor is firm. He doesn’t sugar coat it. He prescribes medicine Curtis must take immediately, suggests a vacation to break away from his everyday surroundings and insists that after the vacation Curtis will have to receive intensive treatment. He will need to be committed into a facility.

What does it all mean? What is the writer/director (Jeff Nichols did both) trying to tell us?

The world’s asylums are replete with people who hear the voice of God. (Which is where I believe they belong.) A few, of course, escape that fate to become prophets or, more likely, charlatans. So is Take Shelter trying to tell us we should not dismiss people with such strong premonitions? People of such strong and unequivocal faith?

It is a relevant question. Years ago most every government or government wannabe blamed communism or imperialism or colonialism or fascism or capitalism for their troubles. Nowadays religion—lets not confuse God and religion—has retaken a more central position. The Iranian power structure—since Khomeini in the 1979—calls the US the great Satan. And the Iranian theocracy has acted accordingly, and with impunity. Others, such as former senator and current GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, openly state that Satan has infiltrated US society and that we need to follow God’s rules, not those of man. That is his stated plan if he is elected president

I don’t see much difference between these two views, both based on an unbending and unflinching belief in ‘sacred’ texts. That these texts espouse opposite views or that they are ascribed to the very same God doesn’t trouble either side; nor that these texts were written by men.

And so we get to the end to the film. The coming apocalypse. Did they die? Did we all die as well because we didn’t listen? Did the LaForche family succumb to the storm that had been foretold because Curtis didn’t remain adamant about his visions? Because he failed the one simple test? Curtis gave away his dog, he dismissed his best friend but he stuck to his wife. He confided in her, he trusted her and in the end, she betrayed him: she used the mild storm/test of faith to convince him he needed help, she led him to the psychiatrist, to the beach and to his failure.

How lonely, how solitary the visionaries lot.


The Artist

February 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Just in time for the Oscars—which I don’t watch—we went to see The Artist. Our friends, dog lovers, were excited to see the dog and indeed loved Uggie, who played the dog. (I wouldn’t mind a dog like Uggie if I don’t have to train it. Or pick up his nether region exhaust). I must confess to be relieved; I was afraid the film might be based on the artist formerly known as Prince. I don’t know what he is called these days; King would seem a natural progression.

I thought the movie was pretty good, except for the part in the middle when I fell asleep. But the beginning and end were good (it’s possible the middle was too but I doubt it. I don’t fall asleep at the movies.)

The music was excellent. It took the place of dialog throughout; I can’t imagine it not winning an Oscar. The mystery—I won’t give it away—as to the why, wasn’t revealed till the very end and was convincing. Meanwhile, Berenice Bejo, the lead actress, has eyes that reminded me of Natalie Wood and legs almost as nice as Cyd Charisse’s. Ruth tells me the lead actor is very handsome. I guess so, if you go for that sort of thing.

The Artist is one of the “Best” nominees. A film being touted for a best pic Oscar, should keep me awake throughout. And it doesn’t seem to have the heft to be the Best Movie. Unless one compares it to Moneyball, which was fine but, nominated for Best? Really?

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Movie review: Twin Sisters

October 22, 2011 2 comments

Last night I spent with friends, watching a 2002 Dutch film called Twin Sisters (De Tweeling.) It is an engrossing tale about twin sisters born in Germany, orphaned and forcefully separated when about eight years old. The girls, Lotte and Anna, are raised by distant relatives in very different environments: Lotte by loving, upper middle class Dutch in Amsterdam and Anna by abusive, exploitative German farmers. When WW II starts in 1939, they are about 20 years old and meet, very briefly, for the first time since being separated. That meeting, and the war, play the most critical role in their lives.

The film is well done and well acted and keeps you interested, though at times it felt long (it takes about 2 hours). But every so often some incident seemed off and now, the morning after, I have developed some additional—somewhat disturbing—thoughts on what the movie is about.

The film jumps back and forth between the two sisters but it reinforces their closeness, even while apart and incommunicado. There are a number of instances were they are connected by thought, as if they share some supernatural kinship.

Anna’s upbringing was grim. Eventually, after a near fatal beating by her uncle, she is rescued by a kind priest—the same priest who ten or twelve years earlier allowed Anna’s family to keep her enslaved, out of school and deemed officially ‘retarded.’ Anna becomes a maid to a Countess who dazzles her with her beauty and ‘kindness.’ Anna meets, falls in love and marries a kind German soldier who becomes a Waffen SS officer “by mistake.” To start with he isn’t German, he is Austrian, and a reluctant conscript. He volunteers to become an SS officer, but only to get leave and visit Anna, whom he treats with respect. She goes to live—largely off camera—with his parents, who also seem decent folk and treat Anna well. This makes him the first and only ‘human’ SS officer I have seen portrayed in film.

The German Countess employing Anna—’kind’ and beautiful as she was—has totally bought into Nazi propaganda, i.e., Poles being sub-human, Aryans being the master race. She hosts (and condones) Wehrmacht officers who are depicted as having no regard for life, shooting randomly at goats and servants. The film makes it explicitly clear that German/Nazi officers, even as early as 1939, were bloodthirsty anti-Semites and scum in general.

Meanwhile Lotte goes to university in Amsterdam—to study German, ‘a beautiful language’—and falls for a friend of the family, David, who is a Jew. When David gets ‘arrested’ while retrieving Lotte’s handbag, it seems to be by accident and, as explained by his mother, because the Nazi’s wanted to make an example due to some ‘raid’ in Amsterdam. (In other words, a random and unusual event) The arrest also serves to make Lotte feel guilty and responsible for David’s imprisonment and death. The film goes on to show Dutch Jews hiding in plain sight during WW II. David’s family even moves in with Lotte’s family, their gentile friends, but unlike Ann Frank’s family, they do not cower in silence behind false walls. Nor did I notice anyone wearing yellow stars (unless I missed it).

Now we come to the two sisters: Anna and Lotte. At the very core of the film is their German middle-class birth and that genetically they are the same person, i.e., twins separated by circumstance. Anna grows among lower class, brutal (Catholic) pig farmers. That’s the life she gets to know. She is portrayed as meaning nothing when she suggests David looks like a Jew; she is merely reflecting her upbringing while Lotte, her other self, brought up by the open minded (presumably Protestant) Dutch is so pro-Semitic she even marries one Jew after loving another. Nevertheless Lotte is portrayed as unreasonable, in spite of the very strong psychic bond that existed between the sisters, first by rashly uninviting her sister based on that single comment about David’s appearance and later by even denying her existence. The film seems to ask: everyone suffered in the war so why is Lotte taking it out on her own twin sister, who did nothing she herself wouldn’t have done if their places had been reversed.

But back to the portrayal of Jews in hiding: if memory serves, by 1942 Dutch Jews were forced to wear a yellow star of David and deportations started. The Germans and their Dutch collaborators deported 107,000 Jews to concentration camps where they were murdered. Only 1 in 20 survived. About 25,000 to 30,000 Jews went into hiding and of these two thirds managed to survive. http://bit.ly/coPo5G

All these discordant notes have gelled overnight and left me with questions. Could it mean that (according to the Dutch director/writer/producer) things weren’t nearly as bad for Jews in Holland as we have been led to believe by Ann Frank’s diary? Is that their point? Does the nice-boy-Austrian conscript signify the plight of occupied citizens, whether Austrian or Dutch, forced to do the best they can under the circumstances? Is this an attempt at revisionist Dutch history, at exculpating the collaborators, Dutch or otherwise, without whom the Nazis wouldn’t have been able to carry out the systematic murder of six million Jews?

Categories: Movie review

Glorious 39

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Sometimes we fail to do even the simplest due diligence. Maybe we are seduced by the idea, or by an expectation. And in the case of Romola Garai, it isn’t just her beauty (which is all her own though her lips remind me of Drew Barrymore while in profile her dimple is Laura Linney’s) but her performances in the first few episodes of “The Hour” which have been excellent. And then there was the rest of the cast, from Billy Nighy—who apparently must appear in every English film—to Julie Christie—how stunningly beautiful she was—to Jeremy Notham and then, of course, we had the subject, my favorite, a period piece at the outset of WW II. So it wasn’t hard for Ruth to convince me and Mikey to watch “Glorious 39” rather than stay with the disappointing Rams-Giants Monday night game.
The movie, almost from the outset, seemed to make no sense. But as we watched on, and as the tension mounted, we concluded it indeed made no sense at all to the point that we started to wonder whether any of the actors had read the whole script. By the end, we decided that not even the script writer had read it.
In a way this gives me hope—I can do better, oh so much better—and makes me despair: it isn’t quality that counts it is. . .what?

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