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A movie review by my reader and occasional guest blogger, Jean Claude Volgo:

The film Agora deals with the life and times of Hypatia of Alexandria, arguably the most illustrious woman in the history of Greek science.  The scant historical accounts of her life dwell on the gruesome death she is reported to have suffered in the hands of a Christian mob.  Yet this part of her story (tragic as it is) is less compelling than her reputation as a leading mathematician and astronomer at the twilight of ancient pagan culture.

A beacon of the Hellenistic Age, Alexandria in the late C4th was becoming the epicenter of escalating social tensions between various religious factions vying for political power. The authority of an impartial Roman governor was under constant challenge by Jews and Christians.  Yet in spite of the political turmoil, Greek science flourished in the Library of Alexandria under the mathematician, Theon.  Hypatia, his daughter, would have been well versed in Geometry and Astronomy under her father’s tutelage.  To understand how she became memorialized as a Martyr of Science, we need to step back to an earlier period.

Greek Astronomy was based on a geostatic and geocentric cosmology.  A complex system of interlocking circles had been proposed by Ptolemy (c. 150 AD) to explain what seemed to be erratic planetary orbits.  The system was designed to preserve the Greek geometric ideal of  uniform circular motion.  Although generally accepted, this astronomical model was weighed down by its unwieldy complexity.  Could Hypatia have raised doubts about the Ptolemaic system?  This is the intriguing question underlying a pivotal theme in Agora. The film speculates that Hypatia toyed with a simpler heliocentric model and may have even proposed elliptic orbits for the planets (a theory in keeping with her own publicized study on conic sections).  Furthermore, we know that she was schooled in Neoplatonism, which assigned a prominent role to the Sun in a universe guided by intelligent design.  In short,  could Hypatia — an avowed Neoplatonist — have been perplexed by the incongruity between Ptolemy’s inelegant theory and her own ideal image of a heliocentric system?

Agora is a courageous film: intellectually, for its bold imaginative leap; visually, for the meticulous depiction of ancient multicultural Alexandria with its famed Library.  Rachel Weisz is an intrepid Hypatia, unmoved by ardent suitors, and defying a superstitious mob. The film dramatizes the clash between pagans, Christians, and Jews.  Amenábar deserves credit for his unapologetic exposure of the savage horde that brought down the Library of Alexandria and extinguished the life of one of its most celebrated luminaries.

Agora broke box office records in Spain, but failed to get wide distribution in the USA.

 

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The name Al Gore is synonymous with Climate Change (capitalized on purpose). Gore started a popular uprising more than ten years ago with the movie An Inconvenient Truth and with this sequel he continues his fight.

He has been vilified by deniers and the far right lobby in the United States, and he has suffered setback after setback in his mission to get the message out.

Living in the United States in the age of Trump and the dumbing down of America, we tend to forget that we are pretty unique in the world. Americans make up less than 5% of the world’s population, and the far right is a small, albeit powerful slice of that 5%, but they seem to be the loudest criers. Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord. This makes no sense. 95% percent of the people of the world are scratching their heads.

I know people all over the world, Europeans, South Africans, Japanese, Brazilians, Indians, to name just a few. And I could not name a single one of them who would be what we call in the United States a climate denier. Denying climate change seems to be a uniquely American malaise.

Al Gore has the work cut out for himself in this country, and I am grateful for his leadership and tenacity.

You don’t have to “believe” in climate change to watch An Inconvenient Sequel and learn from it. The movie is full of facts and astonishing imagery about how our world has been changing and is continuing to change.

The most important experience for me, however, was as I walked out of the movie, stunned, but inspired. We have got this. There is no stopping that movement. People have turned their backs on coal and oil, no matter what the coal and oil lobby, and our own government, that is supposed to protect us, tells us. People are installing solar energy systems at an ever escalating pace. Solar will be cheaper and easier to use. Coal and oil will be inconvenient, and the planet will heal.

This didn’t happen by accident. This happened because of the tireless leadership of thousands of people, one of which is Al Gore.

Oh, no, we’re not done yet with the fight, far from it. But oh, yes, we will choose to take the baton so we can march toward a better world.

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Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful lawyer in New York City who commutes to the suburbs by subway. One night in spring, when there is a power outage on the train, he is delayed and by the time he gets home it’s dark. As he approaches his house, he sees a raccoon in the yard and as he scares it away, it runs into the door to the attic above his separate garage. He follows it upstairs and chases it out of the attic.

As he looks out of the attic window he sees his wife (Jennifer Garner) and twin teenage daughters in the lit up kitchen in the house. Covered by darkness, he sits down in an old dusty chair and looks out the window. He does not want to go inside. Eventually, he falls asleep.

When he awakes the next morning, he decides not to go to work, or go home. He just watches his family go about their day as they report him as missing. Now that he has been gone for a full 24 hours, he can’t bring himself to return. He stays in the attic another day, and another.

Wakefield is almost a one man show, with Bryan Cranston doing an excellent job as the actor. He narrates the story in a subdued voice, almost just thinking to himself. Some flashbacks illustrate his lackluster marriage and his burned out life.

The movie is very slow and at times I found it hard to remain engaged. As the story progressed, I found myself interested in how it would eventually end. Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorow, this is not really a movie, but a long monologue. It would work great as a one man play.

This would be a dud, were it not for Bryan Cranston’s excellent acting. As it is, it’s a study on life, marriage and identity.

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We went to see The Big Sick because I heard from a friend that she “had laughed so hard” and it was one of the funniest movies in a long time. In addition, it was rated 98% in the Tomatometer. Look, the poster says “gut-bustingly funny!”

So we went and knew nothing about what we were going to see. Usually I check the reviews, or at least a trailer, but not this time.

It wasn’t funny. I didn’t think it was a romantic comedy. I didn’t think it was a comedy at all.

It is a film about a true story of culture clashes. Kumail Nanjiani (played by the writer of the movie Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself) is a budding stand-up comedian, Uber driver, and son of Pakistani immigrants who first meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she heckles him at a gig in a bar. After a one-night-stand they decide to meet again.

Kumail’s mother is trying to arrange a marriage for him and invites an endless stream of women to dinner for him to meet and hopefully pick for marriage. Emily is a graduate student in psychology, with bigoted parents and no idea what she is getting into when she gets involved with Kumail. The unlikely pair slowly, steadily and delightfully falls in love.

But as it is with courtships across cultures and races, they sometimes come apart, and the two break up. Then Emily, unexpectedly, gets very sick with a strange illness that nobody seems to be able to identify. She is in a medically induced coma for a good part of the story, while Kumail and Emily’s parents Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter) form an unexpected bond while they spend their time in hospital waiting rooms.

While it wasn’t gut-bustingly funny at all, I did chuckle from time to time and I was amused. The Big Sick is a timely movie, as it addresses some of the Islamophobia that we experience now. It shows that these strange people from Pakistan are not all terrorists, but people with feelings, with emotions, with love and dedication, like all of us. It brings us all a bit closer.

The two main actors do a wonderful job, and Ray Romano makes a great hapless dad for Emily.

We enjoyed two hours away from our world in a story of culture clashes and the rise of the human spirit.

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Maud (Sally Hawkins) is afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis and has been since she was a child. Her fingers are twisted, her legs misshapen, and she has a hunchback. When her parents died, her brother sold their home and put Maud up to live with her overbearing aunt. Nobody takes her seriously.

Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) is a local fish peddler in a village in Nova Scotia. He is a socially challenged, extremely reclusive, and verbally and physically abusive. When he puts up an ad for a housemaid, Maud sees it and applies for the job. She comes to live with him in his very small house out in the country.

Maud starts cleaning up around the place and decorating it with her own little paintings. By chance, one of Everett’s customers sees the artwork and starts commissioning works from her. Over time, Maud’s work gets the attention of the folk art scene in New York City.

Gradually the unlikely couple develops a bond of love.

Maudie is based on the life story of painter Maud Lewis, who lived in Nova Scotia with her husband Everett Lewis. They lived in poverty for most of their lives in a famously small house. You can google “Paintings by Maud Lewis” and find many of her paintings, her house, herself and her husband.

Maudie is a movie of unusual circumstances and deep emotions. It’s a story about life, its simplicity, and its cruel reality. Watching it made my eyes tear from time to time, and most of all, it made me go home and pick up my paint brushes again, which have been lying idle for too long lately.

Maudie is a celebration of the human spirit and life. In one of the scenes, when asked what painting means to her, she looks out the window and says:

The Whole of Life, Already Framed, Right There!

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Rose (Allison Williams) thinks it’s time to take her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), to meet her parents and family upstate over the weekend. “Do they know I’m black” Chris asks her when they pack. “No. But don’t worry. My father would have voted for Obama for a third time if he could have” she responds.

When they arrive, her parents, Missy and Dean Armitage, seem almost overly accommodating. There isn’t a moment of hesitation, an “oh” reflex of any type. It’s as if it was the most normal thing ever. But it turns out to be an unusual family. Dean is a neurosurgeon, Missy a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist. Soon she offers to break Chris’ habit of smoking by administering a ten-minute hypnosis session. But he declines.

Chris is well adjusted and secure, and he deals with the complicated and stressful situation remarkably well. Soon, however, small discoveries reveal that all is not quite what it seems. The black servants of the Armitages are exhibiting slightly “off” behavior, which he finds puzzling. And telltale signs of something not quite right start escalating when party guests arrive.

Get Out is not a movie about racism or race relations at all, even though it looks that way. Get Out is a thriller and its objective is not to educate us, or make us think. It’s to entertain. There is very little more I can say without spoiling things, so I won’t.

The critics on the Tomatometer gave this a 99, the audience an 88. This is a high rating for a movie where I recognized none of the actors, a movie which I watched not because I was interested about the subject, but because of the rating, and because it was highly recommended to me.

I was thoroughly entertained. I enjoyed the suspense. I appreciated the plot and its crescendo. And when it was done, I said “oh well” and knew I would soon forget all about it.

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Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is a blue-collar single man in a coastal town in Florida. He fixes boats at the local marina, and lives in a small apartment – with his 7-year-old nice Mary (Mckenna Grace). The little girl’s mother, Frank’s sister, committed suicide when her daughter was an infant, and with the child’s father nowhere to be found, she made sure that Frank would raise her.

Mary turned out to be a child prodigy in mathematics, just like her mother was. Frank is trying hard to make sure the girl has a normal life, goes to a normal school and grows up as a normal child. That is difficult in their family background, and when Frank’s mother Evelyn steps into the picture, things get acrimonious. Evelyn wants Mary to be what her mother was not, and she plans to take her away from Frank.

Gifted is a study of character. It explores the morality of raising children as we want to raise them, rather than how the children want to grow up. Anyone with a child prodigy, whether that be an Olympian, a chess master, a world-class musician or an academic superstar faces this problem: Should we sponsor the talent, or should we let the child decide and live her life?

One thing is for sure, Mckenna Grace, the little girl, does a remarkable and marvelous job of acting in this film. She is completely convincing, all the way through, when posing as a smart-aleck mathematical genius in school, when dealing with the adults around her, and when – in the course of the plot – she is hurt to the core, and the deep pain and utter feeling of abandonment oozes out of her.

There is a bit of tearjerker in Gifted, just enough to get us thoroughly involved, and at the end, I asked myself whether this was a true story — it felt like it was.

It wasn’t.

But it was a rewarding movie to watch.

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A movie review by my reader and occasional guest blogger, Jean Claude Volgo:

CYRANO DE BERGERAC

United Artists, 1950, B & W, 112 minutes

Directed by Michael Gordon

Stanley Kramer Productions

This film adaptation of a celebrated French play features the inimitable José Ferrer in the leading role as the swashbuckling hero. His brilliant performance as Cyrano garnered him a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Actor. The plot, largely fictional, draws freely on anecdotes loosely based on a real historical figure: a 17th century French nobleman, Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, who dabbled in drama and science fiction, and eventually fell out of favor with the French authorities on account of his satirical jibes at the clergy and politicians. Cyrano’s fierce independence (jealously guarded with his dreaded épée) was legendary.   His swordsmanship, his poetic gift and (need we mention?) his notorious nose are reported attributes which are immortalized in the play. But what about Cyrano’s love interest, Roxanne? She was indeed his cousin in real life, but the romantic story line of unrequited love is dramatized fiction.

What sets this production apart from “costume dramas” of the same Hollywood era is the highly polished diction of the protagonist. The dialogue liberally borrows from the blank verse of Brian Hooker’s translation (1923), which strives to capture the cadence of the original French, composed in heroic hexameter by Edmond Rostand (1897). Rostand himself set out to emulate the poetic style of an earlier era, the Classical Age (1600’s).

The digitally-restored print of this artistic tour-de-force (which has fallen into undeserved neglect) is a crisp copy that projects the look of a newly released film in black-&-white.

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Antonina Żabińska (Jessica Chastain) is the zookeeper’s wife. With her husband, Dr. Jan Żabiński (Johan Heldenbergh) they run the Warsaw zoo in the late 1930s. The story starts in the summer of 1939. The zoo is very successful, due to the loving care of the Żabińskis.

Then, in September 1939, Hitler invades Poland and overruns the country within just a few days. The zoo is bombed. Many animals are shot by soldiers. The Żabińskis do whatever they can to keep the zoo and  the animals safe.

In the process of saving some Jewish friends by hiding them in their basement, they discover that they can help many others.  Pretty soon there is a veritable “underground railroad” passing through the Warsaw zoo. But eventually, the Nazis close in.

The Nazis made it a crime, punishable by death, to help another human being out of misery, if that human being was of a category they had arbitrarily and unilaterally labeled undesirable. We all know how that all ended.

Yet, in our country, we are starting to do the very same thing today. We choose a religion we don’t like, and we start harassing members of that religion. We try to ban them from our country. Hooligans attack them on the street, knowing that the government tacitly backs them up.

Folks, there are movies about this kind of thing! Like the Zookeeper’s Wife! Don’t we ever learn?

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A reader, and now guest blogger, submitted a movie review of Barry Lyndon, a favorite movie of mine and an ageless classic. Here is his review:

BARRY LYNDON

British-American, 1975, 3 hours

Produced & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Few (if any) productions of costume dramas rival Kubrick’s film, Barry Lyndon, adapted from William Thackeray’s classic novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Thackeray designed his story as a picaresque novel, a genre that recounts the fortunes and misfortunes of a charming rogue who relies solely on his native wits to navigate through the vicissitudes of life. The novel was inspired by the actual exploits of Andrew Stoney, an Anglo-Irish fortune-hunter. Born into poverty in an Irish village, Barry Lyndon aspires to become a British aristocrat. He is first and foremost a survivor coping with events that are beyond his control. Again and again, the Irish rogue succumbs to the hurdles of blind fate, but overcomes old obstacles only to face new challenges. Barry’s precarious prospects are altered after a serendipitous encounter with the beautiful Countess Bullingdon: finally his chance to rise from pauper to aristocrat! But can an inveterate rogue ever settle for a life of domestic tranquility? Or will good fortune slip once more through his careless fingers?

The picaresque genre imitates life more closely than the conventional romantic novel: it eschews neat plots with predictable endings. The picaresque style of story-telling does not demarcate clear turning points in an overarching plot. Rather, episodes are connected through fortuitous events as well as unforeseeable consequences of human actions. The hero (or antihero) in Thackeray’s tale is no paragon of virtue. Yet, for that very reason, his human flaws make him a more endearing figure.

The film features Ryan O’Neal in the title role, with Marisa Berenson as the Countess. The famed Irish actor, Patrick McGee, puts on a strong performance in a supporting role as the Chevalier du Balibari, an Irish spy who befriends a beleaguered Barry. As partners in crime, the co-patriots join forces to fleece the nobility in the gambling houses of Europe.

Although Kubrick remains close to the original plot, his primary ambition was to recreate scrupulously the authentic atmosphere of aristocratic circles in 18th century Europe. His artistic deftness is reflected in the tapestry of mansions and landscapes, costumes and wigs. Kubrick received special praise for his elaborate design of interior scenes (inspired by paintings) using only candle light. The music, seamlessly woven into the narrative, is replete with generous excerpts from Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Mozart and Schubert.

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Movie Review: Lion

lion

In the mid-1980s in a small town somewhere in India, the five-year old boy Saroo is on a night outing with this older brother he adores. When Saroo gets tired, his brother leaves him to sleep on a bench in the train station and tells him to wait for him. Saroo, groggy, wakes up in the night, tries to find his brother, wanders onto an empty passenger train, and eventually falls asleep on one of  the seats. When he wakes up the next day, he is a thousand miles from home. He has no idea where he is, what town he is from, even the full name of his mother.

He is completely lost and left to his own devices alone in Kolkata. After being brought to an orphanage, he eventually gets adopted by an Australian couple.

Twenty-five years later he goes on a quest using Google Earth to find his home.

This is a true story, told in vivid details. We know, going into the movie, how it ends. Against all odds, he finds his home, and that’s not a spoiler.

According to the credits, there are many thousands of children that get lost in India every year, and most of them, I am sure, do not have a happy ending. The movie examines the human journey. As I walked out, wiping the tears off my cheeks, I knew I had just experienced a very simple human story, one of culture clashes, and one of emotional triumph. Good food for the soul.

Why is the title Lion you might ask?

You just have to go and watch the movie to find out.

Rating - Three Stars

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hidden-figures

In the early 1960s, the Russians had a little head start in the race to space. NASA was still young, and its engineers used slide rules, pencils and vellum to do its designs. And humans were the “computers” who had to figure out the math.

Hidden Figures tells the story of three brilliant African-American women who worked at NASA. Each one of them with her own special skill, each with her own drive and motivation. But in those days, blacks were not allowed to use the same toilets or coffee pots as whites. The odds were against them.

This movie tells the story of what it was like behind the scenes at NASA. We all know that it was John Glenn who was the first American to orbit the earth. What we didn’t know was that up to a few days before his launch they didn’t really know how to calculate the trajectory to get him back safely to earth.

In a time when racism seems to be back on the rise and gender equality is questioned again, Hidden Figures shows us what it was like to live under such conditions. But the human spirit rises, like the rockets of old rose.

As I walked out of the theater I could not think of a single thing wrong with this film. It just felt really good.

Rating - Three Stars

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rogue-one-1

The first Star Wars movie, Episode IV, came out in May 1977, almost 40 years ago now. Star Wars permeates our entire popular culture. Rogue One plays just before Episode IV starts. The rebels steal the plans for the Death Star with the help of the daughter of the chief designer. Epic space battles, laser gun battles in the jungle, and, of course, at least one light saber fight with the one and only Darth Vader. None of the original actors participated here, of course. Their story starts about five minutes after Rogue One’s credits begin to roll. Except for two: Grand Moff Tarkin, the Commander of the Death Star, and Princess Leia, both of which had to be digitally recreated, since both are now no longer alive.

A short scene featuring Princess Leia, receiving the disk with the plans for the Death Star at the very end, was digitally recreated. It was eerie, since Carrie Fisher had died just a few days before we saw this movie, yet, here she was in a very short scene, looking the 19 years old she was when she appeared in Episode IV.

One of my friends (JCV) commented that he can’t stand to watch silly science fiction movies with the stilted and inane dialog. I laughed at him. Nobody watches Star Wars for the dialog. Star Wars does not need dialog. You don’t have to listen to a word being said, and you can still enjoy Star Wars.

I love the bar or bazaar scenes where the crowd is full of grungy humans and exotic aliens, all enjoying themselves. I love the views of planets with rings, as they are seen realistically from the ground through the mist and the clouds as they seem to disintegrate in the distance. I love how small spaceships drift close to giant space ships. I love how all the ships seem to be made out of massive battle ship steel hulls, unlike the flimsy aluminum we actually use for space ships, like the shuttle or the Soyuz. And I always laugh that the fighters fly in space just like they fly in the atmosphere, banking into curves, accelerating and decelerating and completely defying all laws of orbital dynamics. Of course, after being conditioned for 40 years that space fighters behave a certain way, whether it makes any sense or not, we can’t change now, and Star Wars remains – well – Star Wars.

Rating - Three Stars

 

 

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fences

Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington) is a garbage man in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. He has life figured out and he rules as the king over his family, including his wife Rose (Viola Davis), his two sons Lyons and Cory, and his brother Gabriel. He is a bitter man who believes he was shortchanged as a baseball player with aspirations to the major leagues before blacks were able to play. But times are changing, and his 16-year-old son wants to play football in high school. Troy does not agree. His son won’t succeed where he could not succeed.

But there are secrets that are about to blow Troy’s little world wide open, possibly destroy his family and knock him off his pedestal.

We went to see this movie not knowing much about it, and within a minute or two realized: It’s a play. The majority of the movie is comprised of dialog that takes place in the grungy backyard of Troy’s house. It’s all language. There is no music. There is no score. There is very little action. It’s all dialog, and, not surprisingly, it’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson. It all made sense afterwards.

Fences is not easy to watch. It’s a story about the lousy cards some people are dealt in life, some lousier than others, and it’s a story about the human spirit in the working man and woman of this country.

Denzel and Viola do an amazing job in Fences. It will get recognition.

Rating - Three Stars

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manchester-by-the-sea

After this brother Joe’s sudden death, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) finds out that he has appointed him as sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is a janitor in Quincy, south of Boston, about an hour and a half’s drive from Manchester, his home town. When he returns to take care of his brother’s funeral and will, the is thrown back into his former life, with all the vengeance and violence that former life can muster.

The movie tells the story of the Chandler family’s misfortunes in frequent flashbacks, and gradually we come to understand why Lee is so stoic and void of emotion in his pathetic life as a bachelor in a one-room basement apartment, unclogging other people’s drains.

His nephew Patrick is 16 years old, has two girlfriends at the same time, plays hockey, basketball and is part of a teenage band. His life is full, and Lee’s life has no room for him.

This film is rated with 97% on the Tomatometer, so I expected that it would blow me away. I found Affleck’s acting intense and as I walked out I thought he’d get an Oscar for it. But Trisha, who watched it with me, didn’t agree at all. She pointed out the he had one face throughout the entire movie, the one in the photograph above, and that set the mood. No Oscar. Thinking more about it, I must agree. His mood was as gray at the winter in Manchester, Massachusetts, and the entire movie was gray and drab.

But then again, that’s what Lee’s life was like after his brother died, and perhaps that’s the story. I’ll let you be the judge, since despite my low two and a half star rating, I recommend you watch it.

Rating - Two and a Half Stars

 

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