Obama’s Bow to Akihito – reposted

I came across this 2009 post where I commented on Obama’s bow. Here it is again:

Obama’s Bow to Akihito – Norbert Haupt

I still stand by my comments.

Movie Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

The Burbank brothers jointly own a ranch in Montana of 1925. Both are bachelors.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the rough cowboy who manages the physical work on the ranch. He is rough, uncouth, obnoxious, brutal actually, and as a result of those qualities he happens to be successful running the cattle ranch and the bunch of cowboys who do the work.

George (Jesse Plemons) takes care of the business side of the ranch. He is quiet, gentle, calm, sensitive and somewhat overweight. On a cattle drive on horses, while Phil wears chaps, George wears a suit and tie, sometimes even a bow tie. They are wealthy enough to be part of Montana society, and when the governor is in town, George invites him to the ranch for dinner.

The brothers have deep respect for one another, almost to the point of co-dependency. Phil calls George “Fatso” in front of the men, and George grudgingly accepts it. When Phil is expected to make a showing at the table with the governor, George tells him awkwardly that he should wash up before joining. Phil stinks.

One day, on a cattle drive, George meets Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the widow inn-keeper with an awkward but smart young son who is studying to become a doctor. George and Rose get married, and the dynamics on the ranch change drastically.

The Power of the Dog is a highly acclaimed film with great reviews, and yet, I could do very little with it. From the very beginning, I found it very slow-moving. For the most part I didn’t know what was going on, I still don’t know what the power of the dog means. I had to look it up. There is a bible verse:

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

If you can figure this out, please comment here and let me know.

There are many mysteries about the plot and the story, and what is actually going on. One scene has to do with anthrax, which caused me to look up the origin of the substance:

Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. Anthrax is rare in the United States, but sporadic outbreaks do occur in wild and domestic grazing animals such as cattle or deer.

There is a lot of mystery around this film, and perhaps it is one of those that requires you to read the novel first. It is based on Thomas Savage’s  1967 novel of the same name. Here is the description in Amazon:

Set in the wide-open spaces of the American West, The Power of the Dog is a stunning story of domestic tyranny, brutal masculinity, and thrilling defiance from one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in American literature. The novel tells the story of two brothers — one magnetic but cruel, the other gentle and quiet — and of the mother and son whose arrival on the brothers’ ranch shatters an already tenuous peace. From the novel’s startling first paragraph to its very last word, Thomas Savage’s voice — and the intense passion of his characters — holds readers in thrall.

Maybe I need to read the book to understand it.

Everything else would be speculation.

Movie Review: The Menu (2022)

The Menu has a rating of 89% on the Tomatometer, that’s why we chose it for tonight’s movie night out. Here is the only description I found:

“A couple (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef (Ralph Fiennes) has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises.”

After just reading about Michelin star restaurants recently in Shucked, I looked up all the three Michelin star restaurants in the country (there are only some 20 or so). Two of them are by chef Thomas Keller: The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Per Se in New York City. This movie is about such an exclusive restaurant and an iconic chef.

It’s a comedy, a satire, and a parody about expensive restaurants, the kind where after spending a few hundred dollars on a meal, you leave hungry. Except this restaurant has some non-culinary surprises, which makes the movie somewhat of a thriller. It least it tries to be a thriller.

It didn’t work for me – at all. First, I can’t relate to restaurants of that class, never having actually been to one. And I don’t drink wine, so you can skip the pairing.  I could not relate to any of the patrons. Their vapid dialog left me uninterested, the food descriptions seemed comical, and the entire movie was flat out boring to me. I found myself tapping my foot, waiting for it to be finally over.

Here is an example of a highly rated movie that I would definitely not recommend at all. Do yourself that favor, don’t bother, and you won’t miss anything.

To give away the plot: It all comes down to a cheeseburger in the end.

 

 

Book Review: Shucked – by Erin Byers Murray

I have never eaten an oyster in my life, neither raw nor cooked, at least as far as I know. Maybe there was one in a Jambalaya or other dish once. But I can say with confidence that I have never been much interested in oysters.

I am not a cook. I always say that I am a grateful eater.

I am also not a foodie. I just came back from three days in Washington, DC and I stayed downtown, a couple of blocks from the White House, surrounded by great restaurants, and I didn’t step foot in one of them. When I am alone, Subway and Chipotle seem to do the trick.

So what was it that had me read a 352-page non-fiction book written by a culinary writer about working on an oyster farm in Duxbury, south of Boston? Simple: a friend recommended it, and I loved reading Shucked.

Erin was a young food writer who wanted to fully understand the farm to table process. Where does food come from, and  what does it take to bring it to her table?

She quit her job writing, and started working on the Island Creek Oyster Farm. Initially she was going to just do one season. She went out on the bitter cold New England bay and did backbreakingly hard labor harvesting oysters in March, learning everything about the farming of oysters over the months. Later on she worked with the seeds, the younglings that would have to be raised to be next year’s crop.

In the process, not only did she learn the mechanics of farming oysters, but also the business of oysters. Working on a renowned farm, she had access to some of the country’s most famous chefs. She was invited for a one-day internship in New York’s prestigious restaurant Per Se, and then partook in a 23-course meal that lasted for five hours.

The author vividly describes work on an oyster farm, shows the challenges of the trade, and provides a glimpse behind the scenes of the running of world-famous restaurants.

I learned a lot. I found myself googling the names of many of the chefs she talks about, and their restaurants. The book was very engaging, informative and never dull.

Now I’ll have to go out for an oyster meal, don’t I?

Rents are too High

This morning I had a few hours to take a walk around the block from my hotel in Washington, DC. Two blocks south, I tried to stop in to visit Joe, but I was told he was on a Ticket to Paradise in Bali. Oh, well, next time.

But there were many other visitors. Here was a group protesting high rents in the city. I don’t think anybody listened much to them.

Just one block north from that spot, a two-minute walk away, is McPherson Square. The whole park is one big tent city. This is the reality of the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world – two blocks away from the White House.

I guess the rents are too high.

Movie Review: Ticket to Paradise (2022)

Lily (Kaitlyn Dever) is 25 years old and just graduated from law school. To reward herself, she and her best friend Wren (Billie Lourd) book tickets to Bali for a vacation “in paradise.” When they get there, Lily falls in love with a handsome young local man – a seaweed farmer. She decides to stay in Bali and marry into the family, and give up her career.

When her parents David (George Clooney) and Georgia (Julia Roberts) get the word, they freak out. While David and Georgia have been non-amicably divorced for 20 years, this news unites them and they make a pact to travel to Bali and sabotage Lily’s marriage. They believe she’s about to make the same mistake they did when they first got married, and they want to save her.

Ticket to Paradise is completely predictable. You know what’s going to happen the minute the movie starts, and you check off your predictions one at a time as the events unfold. But that did not seem to matter to me, and I truly enjoyed the story.

It’s funny, at times emotional, and who cannot like the scenery in Bali – paradise after all!

There is a message that comes through in the end, that has already affected some of my decisions since:

“Why save the good stuff for later?”

To find out what this means in the movie and for you as a message, you’re just going to have to go see Ticket to Paradise.

Book Review: Fairy Tale – by Stephen King

Charlie Reade and his parents lived in a small town in Illinois. When he was just eight years old he lost his mother in a horrific accident in the winter when a plumber’s truck lost control on an icy bridge that she was walking across. Charlie and his father called it the goddam bridge after that, and neither of them quite recovered. His father was taken over by alcoholism, and Charlie not only had to deal with the tragic death of his mother, but also the loss of his father to the stupor and catastrophe of drinking.

Adversity caused a lot of trouble for the young boy, but it also made him strong. Against the odds, he helped his father overcome the drink. He became a popular kid in high school and he was a star athlete in several sports. One day when he was 17, walking in his neighborhood, he heard the pained howl of an old dog behind a dilapidated old Victorian house. Old Mr. Bowditch, a recluse, had fallen off his ladder when cleaning his gutters and broken his leg. His old German Shepard Radar was trying to get him help.

Charlie called emergency services and thus saved Mr. Bowditch’s life. He also volunteered to take care of Radar while she would be alone when her master was in the hospital. Boy and dog became friends.

Then Charlie noticed strange and frightening mewling sounds coming out of the locked shed behind the old house. Thus started Charlie’s adventure in a completely different world of magic and gruesome fairy tales.

Stephen King is a master story teller, as I have said many times. He also likes to create alternative worlds parallel to our own, like he did in the book he authored with Peter Straub called The Talisman. There is a world called “the Territories,” a strange fantasy land parallel to the American heartland where there are equivalent characters to our world, and some of them can cross over.

In Fairy Tale, most of the story takes place in such an alternative universe where magic is commonplace, and where the struggle between good and deep evil consumes the people. Of course, Charlie stumbles into this struggle and finds himself in the role of “the Prince” whose mission is to save the world and restore its beauty.

This book is not for everyone. The Fairy Tale world is pretty whacky and I admit that you had better be a Stephen King fan, otherwise you might fade about 30% into the book. But out of this world as it was, I stuck with it. I wanted to find out what would happen next, and whether Charlie and Radar would ever return back to Illinois.

Fairy Tale is partly a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there are concepts of illness, disease and societal destruction that take place that clearly influenced King’s thoughts. It is not his best book, but it is truly a Stephen King book and therefore entertainment through and through.

 

Freedom of Religion is Freedom from Religion

In the interview of Mike Pence on the Kudlow show yesterday, Mike Pence made a truly frightening statement.

Mind you, before he got there he railed on about gas (and energy prices) being 60% higher than when he left office, and his answer is for the United States to become “energy independent.” No word about a major war in Ukraine that resulted in a global upset of the energy market. Does he really believe that starting up drilling again in Alaska, on federal lands, and offshore, would solve that problem? Does he really think we’re that stupid?

But I digress. He said that the “radical left” wants to keep God out of our lives. Hell yes they do, and I guess I am now also a “radical leftist” due to that attitude.

If you don’t want to watch the whole video (some of it is very painful to watch) you can scroll to 10:30 to listen to Kudlow’s introduction to the religious section, and at 11:10 Pence says it:

“The radical left believes that the freedom of religion is the freedom from religion.”

This is truly frightening to me.

Does that mean he thinks the government should have the right to push religion on me?

Which religion?

Jehovah’s Witnesses? Southern Baptism? Catholicism? Methodism? Mormonism? Islam? Hinduism?

Do I have the right to push any of these on him?

What his statement says to me is that he actually believes the government should be able to push religion on us. They could make is wear hijabs, or turbans, or yarmulkes. They could force us to waste our times attending their services. They could decide what we can eat and can’t eat.

Maybe he should go to live in Iran and see how that is working out for them.

Freedom of religion to me has always meant that the Hindus and Jews and Christians and Mormons and Muslims all get to do their thing, build their temples, proselytize, knock on my door to try to get me to join them, raise money, tithe people who want to pay, pray, and make excuses for systemic societal failures because “God works in mysterious ways.”

Just leave me alone, please!

Book Review: The Power – by Naomi Alderman

The Power is a what-if book.

Stephen King is a master of what-if books.

For instance, his novel Under the Dome is based on this premise: What if a bubble-like, transparent, but completely impenetrable dome a few miles across suddenly was placed over a New England town? Nobody gets in, nobody gets out. What would happen? Then King builds an entire novel around this unlikely, impossible and ridiculous assumption.

In King’s novel The Stand, he speculates that a human-made deadly virus accidentally gets out and kills 99.9999 percent of the population. Only a handful individuals survive. That’s the what-if scenario. Then a novel of well over a thousand pages follows, building an entire world based on that premise.

Stephenson also likes to write what-if novels. Seveneves starts: THE MOON BLEW UP WITHOUT WARNING AND FOR NO APPARENT reason. What would happen if that actually occurred?

The Power is a what-if book. What if women all of a sudden had an electrostatic power that they could use just by touching something or someone? What if a woman could touch a person’s hand and inflict an electric tingle, or a shock that would cause severe pain, or an immense jolt that would even kill a person? If women had that power, would there still be rape? How would society change?

This novel follows a handful of diverse characters, including a young Nigerian man, the daughter of a London organized crime boss, and abused orphan in Florida, an ambitious politician, and many others. The story develops as the world discovers this new reality, and society goes through massive changes.

Those changes are not pretty.

Movie Review – The Woman King (2022)

I like a movie best when it makes me think, and even more, when it makes me research afterwards.

In Smithsonian Magazine, I found an article about the Agojie, which starts out with this paragraph:

At its height in the 1840s, the West African kingdom of Dahomey boasted an army so fierce that its enemies spoke of its “prodigious bravery.” This 6,000-strong force, known as the Agojie, raided villages under cover of darkness, took captives and slashed off resisters’ heads to return to their king as trophies of war. Through these actions, the Agoije established Dahomey’s preeminence over neighboring kingdoms and became known by European visitors as “Amazons” due to their similarities to the warrior women of Greek myth.

Dahomey was a kingdom on the south coast of West Africa, approximately in the southwest area of today’s Nigeria. Throughout its history, starting in the 1600s, the kingdom was instrumental in its role of supplying slaves to European and later American slave traders.

The Woman King is inspired by true events in the 1825 timeframe. The female warriors of the Dahomey kingdon were called the Agojie. They were highly trained, fierce and skilled warriors. The army of women numbered in the thousands and essentially ruled the entire area for centuries.

The Woman King depicts the life of General Nanisca (Viola Davis). She leads her army with an iron will, as she trains the next generation of recruits. While the historical background is real, the individual stories are fictional. Yet, the plot is highly emotional and gripping, and it presented me with a view into the lives of Africans during the period of colonization by the Europeans and the exploitation of the black people. I usually thought about slaves being captured in Africa by traders and hauled across the sea. This movie shows that it was way more complicated than I ever realized, and how the African nations were complicit in the destruction of their own social fabric. You cannot sell your own people to the  world as slaves and maintain a thriving nation at home.

The movie tells a powerful story and it puts things for Dahomey into a much better light than the realities of history actually were. Read the article in the Smithsonian I quoted above for rich detail, about the country, its kings, and the Agojie.

The fighting scenes are extensive, brutal and graphic. There were many times when I had to close my eyes. While there is a lot of death and destruction, it is never shown as graphic blood and gore. It just makes your imagination create it.

Viola Davis has won many acting awards, including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Fences which I predicted when I wrote my review in January 2017. Let me make another prediction: She’ll win the Oscar for best leading actress for The Woman King.

 

Book Review: Split Second – by Douglas E. Richards

A brilliant physicist discovers that he can transport matter back in time, but only by 45.15 millionths of a second. That does not seem like a capability a that has any practical applications. However, as soon as the physicist sends an email to a close associate asking him to check his math, he and his girlfriend are abducted by a black operations team.

While that does seem like really bad news, it quickly gets worse, when the government team gets attacked on route by another force, which results in a gun battle that kills everyone but the girlfriend, who barely escapes. She hires a private detective to help her figure out what is going on.

What could possibly be so important that the government is literally willing to kill for it in cold blood?

Douglas E. Richards knows how to write page turners. His heroes are the most brilliant in their fields in the world. His villains are the most ruthless.

The concept of time travel in Split Second is based on leaving a copy of an object in the same space, while the earth moves to a different space in a given time interval. The earth rotates in 24 hours, which means that any point on its surface moves faster than a jet plane toward the east. The earth also circles around the sun in 365 days. The sun circles around the center of the galaxy once in about 250 million years. And our entire galaxy moves in yet another direction in space. Physicists have determined that this means that you and I move about 242 miles per second. This means that we, and any object, move about 58 feet in 45 microseconds. With the technology these guys invented, you can make a duplicate of any object and have it appear 58 feet away from where you copied it. It’s all very complicated and makes for a good story.

But somehow the author glossed over the minor point that the direction of the duplication always needs to trail the movement of the earth in the universe, which is in a constant direction. So as the earth rotates, this can be up, or down, or towards the west or east or anything in between. It can’t be controlled.

Yes, this is science fiction and you just have to accept that there is some magic tech involved. However, it bothered me that a book based on this much Einsteinian thought experimentation left this minor detail out of the equation. It kept getting in my way as I followed the plot.

Richards lives in San Diego, and so do I. This means that many of the locales he uses are very familiar to me and I can actually almost follow along, from Torrey Pines to San Ysidro, from Camp Pendleton to Orange County. Most importantly, I have spend a lot of time hiking and off-roading on Palomar Mountain, which is an important location in the plot of this story, and I therefore had very vivid and clear pictures in my head as I read the book.

I enjoyed Split Second enough to read it within a few days while traveling. I bought the second book in the series titled Time Frame since I was sure I’d want to know how the story continues. But after reading a few dozen pages into the sequel I quickly lost interest. I am sure it’s also a very fast-paced plot but I just wasn’t interested in reading more about this specific cast of characters and I decided not to read the next one after all.

Book Review: Unidentified – by Douglas E. Richards

Jason Ramsey is a science fiction writer who becomes obsessed with UFOs, particularly in light of the huge media activity about UFOs in the years between 2017 and 2021. He is on a quest to find out what UFOs really are, why they are here, and what their intentions are.

In his quest for the truth, he discovers realities upon realities that none of us are aware of, right in front of our faces, as he unravels not just the role of humanity on this planet, but the role of humanity on a galactic scale.

Of course, no good science fiction story would be complete without a heroine who is exceedingly smart, superbly attractive, trained as a lethal combatant, and of course in love with the hero.

Unidentified tries to grapple with what UFOs are and what role aliens play in our lives. It speculates extensively about alien technology and alien motives. The book is extremely well researched and documented with literature references.

It is definitely a page-turner, and it had me interested to find out what is going on. There is a lot that got me thinking, but there were also many areas that I felt were over the top, particularly where it concerns alien invasion of human minds, implanting memories, and controlling human actions.

I liked the fact that the author made this a stand-alone book. He could have easily made it a setup for a series, but he chose to finish the story.

I enjoyed it enough to pick up another book by the author right away which I am reading now.

 

 

Movie Review: Breaking (2022)

Our nation has been sending young men and women into endless wars in faraway continents for many decades. We supposedly revere our military, we thank them for their service when we see them in airports or in the lines at stores. They go overseas and many of them come home broken. Some never come home. Some come home with limbs missing. Some come home with terrible diseases due to exposure to poisons. Some come home with broken spirits. When they come home, we owe them.

But we don’t seem to pay our debts.

We have the Veterans Administration, or short the VA, whose mission it is to “take care” of our veterans. I am sure sometimes they do. But, as we all know from anecdotes of people we know, from the stories in the media in general, and from the crazy political machinations we watch on TV, all too often our veterans are not taken care of.

Sometimes they end up homeless, begging on street corners, rejected, abused and  addicted to drugs.

According to a study completed in 2021, 30,177 American active duty military and veterans after 9/11 have died by suicide. During that same 20-year period, 7,057 service members were killed in combat. Suicide kills four times as many service members as combat does.

Breaking is based on a true story of the soldier Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine whose disability check gets diverted due to no fault of his own. In a crazy scheme, to get public attention to his plight, he holds up a bank – not to rob money, but to get his $850 check that he says the VA owes him. That’s all he wants.

As he finds out quickly, holding up a bank to get on TV does not work, and he tries to somehow exit the situation with honor and alive.

After the movie, on the way home, I was not really able to talk. The images of the deep pain and despair haunted me. The pictures of the waiting room at the VA kept flashing through my mind, where seemingly hundreds of dejected men and women were languishing in endless lines, their dignity taken, their spirits broken, almost like cattle at the trough, just to collect what is due them, what we, as a country, owe them for their service: To care for their wounds – that’s all.

Breaking puts a spotlight on their blight.

Thank you for your service.

Movie Review: A Call to Spy (2019)

 

At the beginning of World War II, the British were desperate for information, and the traditional methods of espionage didn’t seem to work sufficiently.

In an age were women in war were not a common occurrence, Churchill requested that the spy agency, the SOE or Special Operations Executive, recruit women to work behind enemy lines and pass information back home via wireless Morse code transmitters.

Using those transmitters was a very dangerous activity. The units were bulky, the size of a suitcase, had to be set up in secret locations and could only be used for a short time. The problem was that they were easily traceable, so the users had to be on the move all the time. And if a “wireless operator” was intercepted by the enemy, the team that depended on him or her were left stranded without a connection home and had to operate “in the dark.”

Vera Atkins (Stana Katic) was the head of the spy department at the SOE. Among many other men and women, she recruited two very unusual candidates: Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas) was an American woman who had been turned down in her quest to become a diplomat because she had a wooden leg. She was very capable and ambitious, and took on the challenge. The other was a Muslim woman named Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Atpe), a pacifist, but a soldier nonetheless, because she believed in defending her and her people’s rights. Noor was the wireless operator, and Virginia the relentless spy and operative.

Together they helped to undermine the Nazi regime in France. Albeit at a terrible cost, they left a powerful legacy in their wake.

A Call to Spy was inspired by true stories and the credits at the end listing the fates of the players left me inspired about the heroism of that generation and the tremendous sacrifices they made – so we all could live in this world we built for ourselves after the war.

Movie Review: Elvis (2022)

I was never an Elvis fan. I certainly didn’t know much of his life story other than the stereotypes we all know.

Watching this movie, I learned so much about the person behind the legend and the idol that I didn’t know before, so I really appreciated it. I had prejudices about Elvis, the star, and some of those got squashed as I watched how he grew up, obviously very talented, how he became an icon and a star, and how life caught up with him very quickly.

Of course, it’s a film about music, and the sound track is – as you’d expect – incredible.

Tom Hanks does an incredible job playing Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker. I also never knew that Parker basically abused and exploited Elvis throughout his career.

My recommendation is simple: Watch the movie! You’ll like it.