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William Kamkuamb is a 13-year-old boy in a farming village in the East African country of Malawi. The corrupt leadership of the nation not only exploits its citizenry, it undermines it. Survival for each family depends on the grain they grow. If a harvest fails, either due to a drought, or even due to a flood, there is simply not enough grain to go around to feed the families. Worse, the next crop is also in jeopardy because it takes grain to seed.

Families sit around their barrel of grain, count the number of of cups, divide how much they need by day, and they know how for how many days they can eat. If there is not enough to last until the next crop, they starve.

This is the kind of pressure we in the western world cannot even imagine.

William is a gifted student and very interested in applied physics. He has a reputation of being able to “fix things” around the village. His family has scraped up enough for a down payment for school. He attends as long as he can, before he gets kicked out for non-payment of tuition. But he is creative enough to talk his way into the library, where he finds a few books about electricity and generators.

He believes he can build a wind generator to drive the village water pump and start an irrigation system. Everyone thinks he is out of his mind, including his father.

But the boy’s spirit is steadfast, and he keeps his eyes on the goal. 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is based on an autobiographical story. It brings the hardships of lives of people in rural Africa into our living rooms, and after watching the movie, you will not think about that light switch on your wall quite the same way anymore. It is truly inspiring.

I have not read the book that this movie is based on, but I have a review of the book  written by one of my readers. Please check it out here.

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England’s King Henry IV was a tyrannical monarch who was involved in many wars. His oldest son Hal (Timothée Chalamet), the Prince of Wales, wanted nothing to do with his father and had no interest in the crown. The king had made plans for this second son to succeed him. While the king was on his deathbed, the younger son died in battle, and Hal had no choice but to ascend to the crown, becoming King Henry V. Palace politics and intrigues kept trying to entrap him, but he stood his ground. However, due to the machinations of courtiers, he was deceived into invading and attacking France, particularly as he considered himself to be the legitimate heir to the French throne too. The war in France was not easy, but he was victorious, largely due to the advice and experience of his friend and confidant, Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Key to the invasion was the famous Battle of Agincourt.

There have been many history books written about the famed Battle of Agincourt. I always like to read historical fiction, as it provides colorful and tangible detail and makes history come alive. One such book was Agincourt – by Bernard Cornwell, which I reviewed here about a year ago. It goes without saying that you’ll learn a lot more about the battle and the historical details by reading the novel, but movies are good at fleshing out some of the imagery, the costumes, the living conditions and the times in general. The movie The King does that superbly. It is loosely based on the Shakespearean “Henriad” plays, but not specifically any one of them.

The Battle of Agincourt is described in Cornwell’s book from the perspective of the common soldiers and the knights, who were basically at the mercy of the young and inexperienced boy-king. In this movie, the entire story is told from the point of view of the king. A very different story indeed.

King Henry V lived from September 16, 1386 until August 31, 1422. He took the throne of England on March 21, 1413 at the age of 26 and ruled for only 9 years until his death at the age of 35. He died in war, but it is not clear exactly how. Some suspect dysentery, others heatstroke, as he had ridden all day in full armor in terrible heat that day. He is celebrated as one of the greatest warrior kings of medieval England. When he died, his infant son, only a few months old, became King Henry VI of England.

Just watching the movie, The King, would be entertaining, but learning all the historical background around that time in history makes it all worthwhile. So I definitely recommend The King.

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Professor James Murray (Mel Gibson) is a language scholar at Oxford. Despite the pessimism and outright hostility of some of the stuck-up faculty members, who would like to see him fail, he is assigned the project to compile the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-19th century. To do that, he has to catalogue and document the history of every word. He is not even through the letter “A” and struggling with the word “art” when he hits major hurdles, both from within his own team and their work, as well as from the faculty at large.

Dr. William Minor (Sean Penn) is an American veteran of the Civil War, who served as a surgeon. Haunted by demons inside his own head, he ends up murdering an innocent young family man, leaving his wife and children destitute. During his trial, his defender convinces the jury that he is insane, so he ends up as a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, rather than at the gallows.

When Professor Murray writes an advertisement asking the public for contributions to the dictionary, Minor ends up contributing over 10,000 words and gets the attention of not only the literary community, but receives special treatment by the leaders in the asylum.

Both brilliant men forge an unlikely friendship, but neither seems to be able to overcome his own demons.

The Professor and the Madman is a difficult movie to watch and follow. It is anything but light. The plot is complex and presumes some understanding of the Victorian culture in England at the time. The English and Scottish accents of some of the characters are strong. Along with the occasional mumbling and dialog in soft voices, it’s a challenging movie to follow for the modern American ear.

However, I enjoyed watching, I learned how the Oxford English Dictionary got started, and I caught some glimpses of severe mental illness.

The performance of both veteran actors, to me, was astonishing. They are both masters at their craft and the mastery carries the movie from the first second to the last.

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The story starts in the year 2049, a few weeks after “The Event,” some apocalyptic global disaster that kills pretty much all life on earth. Augustine (George Clooney) is a space scientist stationed in the Arctic. When all his colleagues are flown out, he stays behind. Maybe he realizes that everyone else dies anyway, and the Arctic is one of the last safe places in the world.

He is lonely, and he is ill. As he goes about his daily routine, he discovers that a little girl was left behind. This complicates matters for him. A cantankerous old man is not a good caretaker for a little girl who (for some reason) does not speak.

Parallel to the catastrophe on earth, mankind’s first interplanetary space mission just visited a formerly not discovered moon of Jupiter, called K23. It is, due to internal heating, suitable for human habitation. The crew is now on its way back, approaching earth. Augustine knows that and tries to contact them to warn them about the disaster and encourage them not to come back.

The crew of the ship suffers severe damage from flying through a debris field and barely makes it back to earth. The situation is hopeless for the few people left on earth, and it’s just as hopeless for the space travelers who are weary and homesick after years in space and want nothing more than to go home. But that does not seem possible anymore.

The Midnight Sky is based on the novel Good Morning, Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton. It apparently follows the book very closely (I have not read the book, but gathered this from reading some reviews). It’s an unlikely story, with an open end, or you might call it no end at all.

I enjoyed the depictions of the space ship, the way they generated artificial gravity, and how they moved about the vessel. There were some nice EVA (spacewalk) scenes, too. The damage to the ship by meteorites was done with pretty neat special effects, but the fact that the ship survived a hail of rocks and ice was very unlikely. Also, I understand that it’s not possible to show realistically what it would look like to get hit by pebbles in space traveling 20,000 to 30,000 miles per hour. Just putting that into perspective, a bullet shot from a rifle exits the barrel at 1,200 to 2,800 miles per hour, depending on the type of rifle. Can you see the bullet flying? You obviously could not see the rocks coming at you at more than 10 to 20 times the speed of a bullet. You would just be obliterated from one moment to the next. But that does not make for a good movie.

Overall, I found Midnight Sky to be a good story, but not one you absolutely have to go and see – unless you’re a space buff – then you have to.

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In 1997, J.D. is a young boy living the Appalachians in Jackson, Kentucky. He is bullied by his peers and emotionally abused by his mother (Amy Adams), who is a druggie. His grandma (Glenn Close) rules the family.

When J.D. grows up he joins the Marines and later goes to law school at Yale on the G.I. Bill. He works very hard on getting his life together and breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education. He has a supportive girl friend in Boston and is looking forward to his life ahead, freed from the shackles of his hillbilly upbringing.

But things were never right back home, and when his mom is delivered to a hospital after a heroin overdose, he drives back to Southern Ohio to take care of her.

Hillbilly Elegy is a Ron Howard film, based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir of the same name. It was blasted by the critics and received only 26% on the Tomatometer, but surprisingly with an audience score of 86%. The critics call it terrible, trite, enforcing of stereotypes, deceiving with an Oscar-baiting narrative, an episode of Jerry Springer, and one of the worst movies of the year.

I disagree vehemently, I guess I don’t count as a critic, but audience. Glenn Close and Amy Adams are doing a remarkable job. J.D.’s grandma is a character made of real-life, below-middle-class people in rural America. I have known many people like that, and it took me home. J.D. is a smart boy who broke out of the cycle of poverty entirely by himself and the savvy counsel of his grandma. I found the movie educational and inspiring.

If you want to understand the soul and the plight of backwater America, watching Hillbilly Elegy is a treasure trove. It explains things.

Damn the critics. Watch this movie!

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A group of four London music executives pile into their BMW and head out to Cornwall, a remote fishing village, for a stag weekend. While out making fools of themselves, they come across ten fisherman singing sea shanties. Danny (Daniel Mays) is a band manager, and his slimy boss pranks him into trying to sign them on for a record deal.

Not knowing it’s a joke, Danny pursues the fishermen, and stays in the village, partly because he gets enchanted by the daughter of one of them. While he works with them on making a record, he slowly learns the way of life in the village, and his fast-living existence back in London loses its luster.

Fisherman’s Friends is based on a true story in England in the 2011 time frame. The plot is a bit predictable, but it’s a feel-good movie, and it really made me want to travel to the English countryside and hang out for a while, have a few pints in the pubs, and soak in some of the salt.

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Madame Rosa (Sofia Loren at age 85!) is an Auschwitz survivor who lives somewhere in a seaside city in Italy and runs a business taking care of the children of prostitutes. She reluctantly takes in a 12-year-old Muslim African orphan at the begging of her doctor, who is also the counselor for the Social Services Department that takes care of street kids.

Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is from Senegal, and is streetwise beyond his age. He robs strangers in the market, and he is a drug dealer under the wings of an adult gang lord. At first, as one would expect, he does not fit into Madame Rosa’s household, with the other kids who live there, and with the adults around him.

But Momo is smart and resourceful, and quickly he turns from victim to protector as he learns the hard lessons of life earlier than a 12-year-old should. As quickly as he calls Madama Rosa’s world his home and family, it starts crumbling around him.

The Life Ahead is in Italian with English subtitles. The director, Edoardo Ponti, is Sofia Loren’s son. The movie was made for Netflix during the 2020 pandemic.

The Life Ahead is completely carried by the two lead actors, Sofia Loren with her powerful presence, and the amazing talent of Ibrahima Gueye.

Here in America we are so inundated with our Hollywood movie formula, we’re not used to hearing other languages and exotic sound tracks, playing in locales that look foreign to us. The challenges of a 12-year-old black orphan from Senegal on the streets of a city in Italy are beyond our everyday comprehension. The movie may not present a culture clash for viewers in Italy, but in our American living rooms, they give us powerful jolts of realities we can’t even comprehend.

After the credits started rolling, I was mesmerized. I listened to the music until it was all done.

I owed it that.

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Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a farmer in Mississippi during the Civil War. Rather than being a soldier in the Confederate Army, he chooses to be a medic, because he thinks that actually helps people. When his nephew is drafted and he asks for his help, he tries to save him to no avail. When his nephew dies in battle, a chain of events forces him to desert. He find refuge in the swamp with a group of runaway slaves. Safely hidden away, they gradually attract other deserters and farmers who have no interest in upholding a system that keeps the rights of rich people to own slaves. They secede from the Confederacy and form the Free State of Jones in the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi.

Their actions change local politics during and after the war, and have an impact far into the 20th century.

Free State of Jones is a hard movie to watch, as the cruelty against black slaves in the history of America is brought to the forefront. Racism still persists today in 2020 and watching this movie today illustrates the massive injustice that was and is being perpetrated in the name of race in the United States.

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It’s 2015 in Los Angeles. Poppy (Annie K. McVey) and her film crew are working on a documentary of homelessness in Los Angeles. As they walk the streets and parks where homeless people abound, they get approached by a man in an antique woolen brown uniform who speaks with an English accent. His name is Alistair (Guy Birtwhistle). He asks for their help. He is quick, in a nonchalant way, to tell his story: The last thing he remembers was being in the trenches in World War I in 1918, when a grenade hit. He flew through the air, and ended up landing on top of a shipping container in an industrial section of Los Angeles. He’s been here for a month and literally learned to live off the land, mostly by trapping squirrels in the park, which he roasts and eats.

He has a wife and a life in 1918, and he wants to get back. The film crew has a hard time believing him, and for the most part think he is a mentally ill person with a fantastic imagination. Only Poppy wants to believe him. She starts taking him in and tries to help him on his journey back.

Alistair1918 is a simple time travel story with an unlikely and far-fetched plot. But it works. Alistair acts like a man catapulted 100 years into the future, although he picks up modern skills astonishingly quickly. He seems to teach himself typing and learning how to use a computer and the Internet in record time. Cameras seem to come naturally to him. He is an excellent map reader and he seems to be able to figure calculations on the movement of worm holes (which are needed for time travel) very quickly. While the time travel technology is somewhat hokey, it works in this movie. The ending is surprisingly satisfying.

This is definitely a low-budget film, and as such quite successful. It was completed in 2015. Guy Birtwhistle wrote and produced the movie, and also starred as the male lead, Alistair. Annie K. McVey directed the movie, and also starred as the female lead, Poppy. With only a handful other actors, and very simple scenery, I would say Alistair 1918 is a successful, quirky, but enjoyable time travel movie.

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Craig Foster is a South African diver. He likes to swim in the ice-cold Atlantic off the tip of Africa. As he explores a kelp bed, he finds a curious octopus.

He then decides to swim out and dive every day, seeking out the octopus in her den, waiting patiently for her to get comfortable with him. Eventually, an unlikely friendship develops, where man learns about octopuses, and – so it seems – the octopus teaches man a thing or two.

My Octopus Teacher is a documentary. There are only two human actors in this film, Craig, playing himself, and then there are a few scenes with Craig’s son, also playing himself.

The underwater photography is amazing, and I kept wondering just how he did it. There must have been other divers taking the shots of course. Also, he believes in free diving, not using scuba gear, and he seems like a he never needs to breathe.

A  documentary does not usually elicit strong emotion in its viewers, but I admit there were a few passages where my eyes teared up.

My Octopus Teacher is a remarkable film that shows that man is by far nothing special in this world and ecosystem, and that there are many other “beings” here living with us, so close, and yet so far.

 

 

Linguistic comment: The plural of octopus is “octopuses.” The word comes from Greek, and the plural form is “octopodes.” The Latin word for “octopus” is actually “polypus.” There is no “i” in any form of octopus, and therefore the reference to “octopi” we occasionally see is grammatically incorrect.

References: I have written about octopuses a number of times in this blog, and will take this opportunity to direct you to those posts.

Here is a post about how an octopus is smart enough to escape from an aquarium: Octopus Escapes Aquarium Through 160-Foot Drainpipe Into the Sea (returntonow.net)

Here is my book review for Other Minds

Here is my book review for Aliens

 

 

 

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Every now and then I watch a movie and I get these vague flashbacks: I have watched this before. But I can’t remember much, just a scene or two, or a feeling. Such was the case with A Serious Man. We just watched this off the the saved playlist. I thought I saw it before “a long time ago, so long, I can’t remember.” But it helps when you write a blog and your self-discipline requires you to write a review of every movie you watch (all the way through).

So within an hour of turning off the screen, I sat down and searched for A Serious Man and sure enough, here is my review of April 6, 2010. I thought I should write another one now, but reading the 2010 one again, I must say – tapping myself on the back – I did quite a good job. I think I spent more energy on my movie reviews 10 years ago than I do now.

So I invite you to read my review – I assure you there are no spoilers there – and then watch the movie. I gave it three stars, and that should make it worth your while.

 

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Alex Jacobs (Kyle Gallner) is a washed-out but brilliant cryptographer. When government agents recruit him with an offer he can’t refuse, he finds out that he is being drawn into a world he was not prepared for. His job is to decrypt a message encoded in an American satellite that has been in orbit for apparently a long time, and was definitely not launched by America.

It turns out that the message is from the future and contains a blueprint to build a machine.

Alien Code is a low-budget film with fairly bad acting, awkward special effects, and a very difficult plot to follow. It takes a lot of concentration, and after a while, I just found myself giving up and just enjoyed the ride.

If you want secret message conspiracies, bad men in black, caricatures of government agents, time travel, scientific brilliance stereotypes, it’s all in this movie.

After you’re done watching, you’ll forget about it all quickly.

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Spenser (Mark Wahlberg) is a former Boston policeman with a dubious reputation who just got out of prison. He wants to get out of town and start a new life. But his friend Henry (Alan Arkin), who runs a gym and fighting school, talks him into coaching Hawk (Winston Duke), a young and huge black amateur, whom he has taken under his wings. Spenser, pretty much half of Hawk’s size, is able to teach him a thing or two.

When his former girlfriend Cissy (Iliza Shlesinger) get back into the picture, Henry sees trouble. And then two of Spenser’s former cop buddies end up killed, he decides he has to get to the bottom of what has happened. In vigilante style, with the help of his friends, he takes on the Boston police department and finds ever deeper layers of corruption.

Spenser Confidential is a simple who-dunnit movie, with a comedic twist, a good story, but overall not very inspiring. Mark Wahlberg is a good actor, and I have never seen a movie with Alan Arkin I didn’t like. He is such a convincing actor, and he always seems to get the dirty-old-grandpa roles that fit him so well.

I would not recommend you go to the movies and pay for this, but hey, it’s 2020, it’s on Netflix, and if you have nothing better to do at 11:00pm and want to get a couple of hours of entertainment – don’t let me stop you.

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The History of Time Travel, filmed in 2014, is a fictional documentary about a man who invents the world’s first time machine. What is a “fictional documentary” you may ask?

The entire movie is being narrated by various “authorities” like the general shown above, as well as scientists, journalists, and others. The are being interviewed and they tell the story of Richard Page, a physicist who invents time travel. The story involves his wife and two sons, who eventually carry on his work. While the narrations take place, there are grainy scenes of the Richard and his contemporaries during various periods in history.

As you might surmise, a time machine will quickly attract the attention of the government and military organizations, as well as foreign adversaries, and they will do what they can to obtain the technology. With the technology being the ability to travel in time, things tend to get interesting.

There is no good synopsis to write for this movie without giving away its inherent cleverness. But clever it is. It does require careful attention, and I suspect it’s the kind of movie that would be best watched at least twice. It is now streaming on Netflix, so you can do just that.

Hint: It helps if you have busied yourself marveling about time travel, like I have, and I suspect I am rating it higher than I would otherwise.

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Seb is a regular dude who finds a new girlfriend. One day, without warning, he just disappears. Or at least that’s what it looks like for us in the normal world. From his point of view, he simply wakes up a year later, skipping forward in time. From his girlfriend’s point of view, he was gone, and then, without explanation a year later, he comes back. It takes several of these jumps before the two of them figure this out. How do you have a relationship with a man who is only “with you” one day every year?

This movie is surprisingly well done for such a weird central concept. It’s a movie looking for a reason to exist, but, hey, it came out in 2020, what do we expect?

 

 

 

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