Archive for the ‘Three and a Half Stars’ Category

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, there is turmoil all over the world. The American military in in Vietnam, in search of morale boosters for the men, is looking for performance acts to tour the country and play music for the troops.

In Australia, Aboriginals had just secured the right to vote. We in America are focused on American injustice through the centuries, particularly in the genocidal crimes against Native Americans, and then, of course, on slavery and racial injustice that reaches into today. But most of us do not know or realize the suppression, humiliation and subjugation other indigenous peoples have suffered and are still suffering. And that brings us to the injustices against the Australian Aboriginals, one of the oldest cultures in the world.

The Sapphires introduces us to an Aboriginal Family in Australia in modern times – well, in 1968. “Coloreds” are not taken seriously. But there are four sisters, Cynthia, Gail, Julie and Kay, who love to sing, and through a coincidence, are discovered by Dave, a hapless musician and talent scout. He takes them under his somewhat less than impressive wing and signs them up to travel to Vietnam to sing for the American soldiers.

While it was not obvious to the girls what they were getting into, a trip to the bush in Vietnam was nothing like a normal music tour. Events take on their own life when bullets fly and bombs hit all around you without warning.

This movie is based on a true story. It celebrates the human spirit, family bonds, and music, and it portrays the lives of modern Aboriginals in Australia.

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The Democratic Party Convention in 1968 took place in Chicago. It was the height of the Vietnam War, President Johnson had increased the number of soldiers in the war, and instituted an increase of the draft. Every day, innocent soldiers died in Vietnam. Back home, many activists were incensed and called for demonstrations at the Democratic convention. As history knows, those demonstrations turned violent and bloody.

After Nixon’s election in 1968, the Justice Department of the new administration wanted a poster trial, and appointed a reluctant young prosecutor named Richard Schultz to come after who became known as the Chicago 7: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner. They were all charged with conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other charges related to protests that took place in Chicago. Bobby Seale, an eighth man, and a member of the Black Panthers, who was not involved, was also charged in the trial and was forced to participate without legal representation. His trial was eventually pronounced a mistrial.

The trial was a 6-month-long spectacle, accentuated by antics of some of the defendants who were not shy about displaying their civil disobedience.

Abbie Hoffman is played by Sacha Baron Cohen, the “Borat” guy, and I really didn’t recognize him until I checked the cast later. He does not have any noticeable accent and while Abbie’s role is somewhat comic, there is nothing comical about this performance. Cohen does a great job playing Abbie Hoffman.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is one of the best movies I have watched all year. It features the corruption of the government, particularly the Justice Department, under a president with autocratic tendencies (Nixon) and his loyal Attorney General, John Mitchell. Yes, “the” John Mitchell who was later convicted and went to federal prison for his role in the Watergate affair.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is as relevant a movie today in 2020, as it would have been back in 1970.

History does seem to repeat itself.



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The Joker is a comic book character, a supervillain, psychopath and criminal mastermind who reigned over his empire in Gotham, the arch nemesis of Batman. The movie Joker is a prequel to the numerous Batman movies, but completely unrelated to them. It explains how the Joker came to be in the form of a stand-alone fictional story.

There is nothing funny about the Joker. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown for hire during the day. He puts on gaudy makeup and twirls signs in the city streets. When he goes home and his makeup is off, he dreams of being a stand-up comic. He writes joke material into his journal and performs in comic joints at night when he can get a gig. Maybe one day he’ll make it big.

But things are not easy for him. He supports his ailing mother, who has a secret or two of her own. He battles severe depression and desperately tries to cope with his illness by taking a multitude of medications and going to counseling. As a clown in a degenerate society where the social gaps between the desperate masses and the super powerful is huge, he is a perpetual victim of his purported friends, and of the bullies on the street.

When he gets beat up in the subway by a group of young Wall Street thugs he snaps and kills all three of them. That was his first blood. It wasn’t his last.

Joker is a story about mental illness in our society. It’s a dark, depressing, heavy depiction of a man with a will, a yearning for a decent life, a successful and rewarding career, who gets beaten. He get beaten by kids on the street, beaten down by his upbringing, beaten by his workmates, beaten into submission by his superiors, beaten by the mental illness support system of his city: “Where am I supposed to get my medication now?”

Joker is a story about the immense differences between the classes of society. There is the corrupt political layer, where the powerful enrich themselves by the labor of the masses and where those same elites convince the people that they have their welfare in mind. Does that have any parallels in our society this very day?

Joker is a movie with one main actor – Joaquin Phoenix – who portrays a comic book character with fierce intensity and relentless passion. I predict he’ll get an Oscar for this role.

When we left the movie Joker, we needed to distract our minds. Be prepared. It takes a lot out of you.

But you have to go!




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I love the classic Russian writers, Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, War and Peace), Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov) and  Turgenev (Fathers and Sons).  I have read Anna Karenina and Fathers and Sons twice. When a friend recommended I read A Gentleman in Moscow, I immediately picked it up and started reading. I didn’t check any reviews. I didn’t read up on the author. I didn’t check the date of initial publication. Reading A Gentleman in Moscow put me into the world of Tolstoy, and I found myself in Russian drawing rooms and in sleighs in the winter in the Russian countryside.

The story starts in June of 1922 in a Russian court. Count Alexander Ilych Rostov is 33 years old. He had had a life of privilege and education as a Russian nobleman. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917, he was abroad – and therefore safe. The Soviets didn’t treat nobility with kindness and many of them were executed on the spot. When the Count came back he was promptly tried by a court for some of his liberal writings that were against “the people.” His sentence: Live under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel where he was living at the time. He was not allowed to ever leave the hotel.

The entire book takes place inside the Metropol, the best hotel in Moscow at the time. We follow the Count’s life from his time as a young man through the decades into the mid 1950s. The story brings to life the changes that Russia underwent during the early Soviet years, and then the rule of Stalin and finally Khrushchev.

Towles tells the story in the style of the classic Russian writers and he fooled me. Towles is an American writer with an M.A. in English from Stanford. He has been to Russia a few times, but does not speak the language. He lives in Manhattan and worked most of his life as an investment professional. Starting writing later in life, he published A Gentleman in Moscow in 2016. I knew none of this while I was reading the book.

I enjoyed it very much and it made me want to travel to Moscow and stay at the Metropol in Suite 217. Why? You’re just going to have to read up on that.

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If you asked me what Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about, I’d be hard-pressed to give you an answer.

The story plays in Los Angeles in 1969. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the former star of a western TV series. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s stunt double, who also serves as his driver and definitely his best friend and buddy. Rick is struggling to keep his career moving forward. He feels washed out and does not know how to cope with Hollywood’s new realities. When he is recruited to travel to Rome and star in a series of “spaghetti westerns” he is depressed and driven to tears. Cliff’s own success is directly dependent on Rick’s career, since nobody needs a stunt double other than the star, and if the star does not have gigs, the double does not eat. But Cliff has other skills and he does not take shit from anyone. When he runs into Bruce Lee on a movie set and Bruce taunts him, he ends up giving him a good beating.

Rick lives in a nice house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills, and his next door neighbors are Roman Polanski and his girlfriend Sharon Tate. Rick’s ambition is to somehow meet the famous “Polish Prince” director in an effort to boost his own chances of landing a starring role, but he does not know how to go about it.

Cliff, in his own right, has been around the movie business for a long time, and he knows people. During one chance excursion he goes out to the Spahn movie ranch where he finds an old friend on his dilapidated farm taken over by a gang of zombie-like hippies. Their leader is Charlie and the hippie in charge of security is Tex.

The casting was somewhat unusual, too. Seldom do we see two top Hollywood actors share the same movie. Neither Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio was the star of this movie, they both were, and it was very well balanced. The two played off each other well, and neither dominated the other. The acting was superb, convincing and poignant.

So what is the movie about?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably a play on Once Upon a Time in the West, my favorite spaghetti western with Charles Bronson by Sergio Leone. It’s about struggling actors in Hollywood in the Sixties.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also about the Charlie Manson murders, specifically the Sharon Tate massacre on August 8, 1969. When Cliff ran into Tex, it was Charles “Tex” Watson of the Manson gang who was a central figure in the Manson crimes and is serving his life sentence to this day.

A friend told me that after watching this movie he went to get the 1974 book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, to read up on the Manson gang. Coincidentally, Helter Skelter was the first book I read in the English language back in 1974, and I still remembered quite a few of the details as I watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

I thought I knew what would happen, but I was wrong.

So what was the movie about?

You’re just going to have to go and see it to find out.


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Number 86 on the Random House Board’s list of 100 Greatest Novels is Ragtime. A business associate had given me the book as a present. I finally got finished reading it.

Ragtime tells the story of life in New York City in the years before World War I. It brings together a number of famous contemporaries of the time, including Henry Ford, Houdini, the famous anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and many others, and weaves them into the fictional characters of Doctorow that tell a compelling story of racism in America.

The main storyline is about Coalhouse Walker, a black American Ragtime musician who, through talent, hard work and discipline creates a successful life for himself in New York. He can even afford a car, and the drives around in a new shiny black Model T. Most whites cannot afford cars, and when he runs into a roadblock in front of a firehouse, the firemen thugs are harassing him. But Coalhouse Walker does not bend to injustice. He starts a one-man war, and it does not end well for the firemen and the city of New York.

More poignant than the story itself are the graphic description of life of the common man, the black man, and immigrants, at that time in our history. Here is an excerpt on immigration:

Most of the immigrants came from Italy and Eastern Europe. They were taken in launches to Ellis Island. There, in a curiously ornate human warehouse of red brick and gray stone, they were tagged, given showers, and arranged on benches in waiting pens. They were immediately sensitive to the enormous power of the immigration officials. These officials changed names they couldn’t pronounce and tore people from their families, consigning to a return voyage old folks, people with bad eyes, riffraff and also those who looked insolent. Such power was dazzling. The immigrants were reminded of home. They went into the streets and were somehow absorbed in the tenements. They were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illiterate. They stank of fish and garlic. They had running sores. They had no honor and worked for next to nothing. They stole. They drank. They raped their own daughters. They killed each other casually. Among those who despised them the most were the second-generation Irish, whose fathers had been guilty of the same crimes. Irish kids pulled the beards of old Jews and knocked them down. The upended the pushcarts of Italian peddlers.

— page 16

I have been to Ellis Island. This description does not match the glorious pictures we have in our minds of immigration into the United States over the years. It matches more the descriptions of Trump today, does it not? Ragtime is a novel, of course, and not reality, but it paints a very dark picture of our history that does not match what we like to tell ourselves today about “this great country.”

Life in New York was very different a hundred years ago. I have always loved the city. When I walk through its streets today, as I did 45 years ago when I first came to this country, I always think about its rich history and all the stories that its walls and streets and parks and sidewalks could tell – if they could speak. Here is a particularly graphic paragraph depicting city life not as we think about it:

That evening White went to the opening night of Mamzelle Champagne at the roof garden at Madison Square. This was early in the month of June and by the end of the month a serious heat wave had begun to kill infants all over the slums. The tenements glowed like furnaces and the tenants had no water to drink. The sink at the bottom of the stairs was dry. Fathers raced through the streets looking for ice. Tammany Hall had been destroyed by reformers and the hustlers on the ward still cornered the ice supply and sold little chips of it at exorbitant prices. Pillows were placed on the sidewalks. Families slept on stoops and in doorways. Horses collapsed and died in the streets. The Department of Sanitation sent drays around the city to drag away horses that had died. But it was not an efficient service. Horses exploded in the heat. Their exposed intestines heaved with rats. And up through the slum alleys, through the gray clothes hanging listlessly on lines strung across air shafts, rose the smell of fried fish.

— page 19

Racism in America needs more coverage. Reading Ragtime today, thinking of our current policies as they relate to immigrants and racial minorities, opens our eyes about our sketchy history and terribly flawed past. Our politicians always talk about:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Oh no, those are illustrious words, but we haven’t really lived up to them, and we’re not living up to them today.

Ragtime is a powerful book, with 320 pages a fairly quick read, that I highly recommend.

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David Kim (John Cho) is the techie father of Margot Kim, a 16-year-old teenager, whose mother died of cancer not too long before. Both of them struggle to overcome the loss. Margot, on the surface, is a normal American teenager. One day, without warning, she disappears and nobody seems to have any leads. After a day and a half of no progress whatsoever by the authorities, David manages to hack into Margot’s laptop and starts picking up the digital breadcrumbs which eventually leads him onto her trail.

A year and a half ago I reviewed the book The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Neal Stephenson. Here is an excerpt of my review:

It is a largely chronological assortment of diaries, emails, internal blog posts, government memos – sometimes heavily redacted, handwritten notes, narratives, translations, Wikipedia entries, and historic references. No one person tells the story. The author does not tell the story, and there is no major protagonist who tells the story. The various documents and excerpts, just posted one after the other, eventually tell the story.

My point was that Stephenson used a completely unconventional story-telling format, one I had never seen used before, and he pulled it off.

The structure of this film is similarly unconventional. There is no “normal” footage at all. The entire story is told by watching either a computer screen, a phone screen, and video feeds from the news, GPS screens, video chats, instant message chats, emails, Google searches and other digital formats. There is no film footage at all.

Yet, it works and it tells the story unlike any other medium could.

For instance, at one time David is chatting with his daughter in a text box, and the messages jump back and forth. Then David types a sentence, while – as we know – his daughter sees the ” . . . ” bubble indicating that a message is being typed. David thinks better of sending that sentence and backspaces it away. This simple gesture we all experience in our digital lives all the time tells more than any narration or video could. The technique is perfect for the story.

The digital footprints we all leave in our modern lives are central to the story and Searching exposes vulnerabilities in our world that didn’t exist when I was a teenager and completely immersed in the “real world.”

In addition to this unique and refreshing format, there are several major plot twists that jolted me and kept me in suspense. It all came together as one of the best movies I have watched in a while.

You should definitely go and see Searching. You will not regret it.

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Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is a horticulturist in Peoria, Illinois, who had so much passion for his work that he was a terrible husband to his wife, father for his children, and not just while they grew up. When his daughter got married, he didn’t show up to walk her down the aisle.

With the advent of the Internet, when people started buying flowers online, Earl got left behind and foreclosure ended his business and bankrupted him. Being well into his eighties, there are few options left and no place to go.

But he still has his truck and a flawless driving record. When a young man offers him a job to pick up some valuable items from El Paso, Texas and bring them back, he accepts. Naïve as he is, he doesn’t realize right away that he has signed up with a Mexican drug cartel to ferry cocaine. But the money is great, his financial troubles are gone, and he does one run after the other.

As his success grows, the cartel gets more and more interested in him and assigns a handler to him.

But there is also the drug enforcement agency (DEA) and a few hard-charging agents get on his trail. Soon Earl is in trouble with his family, the feds and the cartel. Everyone is looking for him.

Clint Eastwood produced and directed this movie, besides being its star. Eastwood is masterful story-teller with his movies, and I have enjoyed most of them. I just searched for his name in my blog and realized that I give almost always three stars or more to Eastwood-directed movies. There seems to be a pattern. While I did that search, I also realized that Grand Torino, the film this one reminded me of, was vintage 2009, almost ten years ago. Eastwood was 78 years old then. He is 88 now.

I hope he makes many more great movies like The Mule, a simple human story, masterfully told with a soundtrack that made me stay and sit through all the credits.

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Four young men hatch up a plan for a heist – stealing some of the most valuable books in the world, like one by Darwin, another by Audubon, all locked up securely in a local library/museum.

When you think of a heist, you think of Oceans 11, where a group of experts in various disciplines with nerves of steel get together, draw up detailed plans of every possible angle and contingency, and then execute the plan.

But the most well-rehearsed plan can go wrong, or very wrong. These young men are about to find out.

American Animals is a true story in the truest sense. It is actually narrated by the four real protagonists in real-life. Then, as they introduce section after section, the movie switches back to the actors who play out the plot.

This is extremely well done. The story is utterly entertaining. The sound track is superb. The cadence of the movie brings you along for the ride, all the way into the intense pressure of executing the heist itself, or rather, screwing it up.

American Animals is about four men who decide to do something extraordinary with their lives – and that’s exactly what they end up doing – albeit in a way, and with an outcome, that they didn’t expect themselves.

Definitely – go and see American Animals.

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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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The Martian

In the near future, six astronauts are on a mission to explore Mars. They are scheduled to be there for 31 days, performing scientific experiments. On day 18 an unexpected storm strikes and threatens to topple their ascent vehicle, stranding them all without hope for rescue. They decide to abort and leave. In the hustle back to the vehicle, one of them gets struck by flying debris from a broken antenna. When they can’t find him and he does not respond, the captain must make the decision to stay and search for him, dooming them all, or leave him for dead. They leave.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) wakes up a few hours later half buried in sand, with his oxygen alarms going off. He is impaled by an antenna rod, but he was lucky that this blood and the cold sealed his punctured suit and kept him alive.

Mark makes his way back to the habitat, operates on himself, and as he recovers he realizes he is completely alone on a planet, with rescue capability years in the future, in a habitat that was designed for a month, and with a total food supply of less than a year. And worst of all, he has no way to communicate to Earth or his crew, and nobody even knows that he is alive.

But Mark is a botanist, and a mechanical engineer, and he has lots of time.

The Martian is based on the novel by Andy Weir, which I have read and reviewed six months ago. The movie, surprisingly for a science fiction story of this complexity and with this kind of detail, follows the book’s plot quite closely and focuses on those parts that lend themselves to visualization. Thus, the movie does not replace the book, but it supplies superb visuals. I loved the shots of their spaceship, with its rotating crew habitats and the internal passageways to and from them. There were some great shots of crew members spinning around looking outside and observing the docking ports.

I also enjoyed very much the rescue mission and the problems with orbital trajectory matching. Ten feet per second does not sound like a large velocity when you just say it, but catching a human in orbit traveling at that speed is equivalent to standing at a railroad crossing, watching a slow-moving freight train rolling by, and catching somebody jumping off it. Go try that sometimes!

All in all, The Martian is a great science fiction movie with a plausible plot and a very human story.

Mark Watney is somewhat of a wise guy, and his dry humor actually makes for a funny movie.

If you have read and liked the book, you will most likely enjoy this movie. If you go and see the movie first, you’ll still want to read the book for endless additional detail.

Rating - Three and a Half Stars

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Lieutenant H. Hawes does not like his first name. His friends call him Hawser. He wants to be a pilot but does not make it in pilot school in the military, so he becomes the next best thing: a bombardier.

He is assigned to a crew on the B-17 in World War II. After extensive training they fly bombing missions into Germany.  The odds are that six out of ten will die doing this job. And when they die, there are no funerals. They just don’t come back. Their bunks are empty and the next day a new soldiers move in.

Long before he can complete his 25 missions, after which crew members are sent home, he is shot down over Germany and becomes a prisoner of war. When he thought he has seen the worst of the horror at the hands of the Nazi captors, he is crushed by the realization that even worse atrocities lie before him when he ends up behind enemy lines.

I have read a lot of books about World War II. Just recently I re-read King Rat, which plays in a prison camp in the Pacific. Emaciated prisoners live in the tropics, bitten by bugs, suffocated by intense heat, sick with dysentery, abused by the Japanese. At the same time American prisoners like Hawser are kept in camps in Poland, in snow and ice, with arctic winds blowing through the floor board of their huts, where they never get warm enough, where they have to stand at roll call in the snow for hours, some of them without shoes and feet wrapped in rags.

Another World War II book about prisoners, in this case women, was A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. Five Chimneys – by Olga Lengyel is a harrowing account of life in a Nazi death camp. Just recently I read All the Light we Cannot See – by Anthony Doerr.  It illustrates the lives of children growing up in the war in Germany. Then, of course, there is Unbroken – by Laura Hillenbrand, the riveting story of Louie Zamperini, the Olympian who flew in the Pacific and got shot down by the Japanese.

Hawser belongs with these books. The author takes us into the B-17 and we fly the missions with them. We feel the cold of the airplane at 30,000 feet and 50 degrees below zero. The lack of oxygen makes us dizzy. And the terror, the absolute terror of knowing that the next cannon bullet from a Nazi fighter could end it all, right there in the freezing sky high above the clouds, paralyzes us and the only thing we can do is become numb and shoot back with a vengeance. We endure eight hours over enemy land, hundreds of minutes of fear, tens of thousands of seconds of despair.

The story is reminiscent of the plot of the 1990 movie Memphis Belle. It’s the same plane. If I remember right, there was a scene where the ball (the bubble on the belly of the plane where a gunner was sitting) got jammed, and the landing gear was broken. The gunner could not get out because the ball was jammed, and the belly landing would surely crush him. What to do? There is an identical scene in Hawser, which prompted me to wonder how common this situation was in the war.

The title of the book does not do it justice. It tells the prospective buyer nothing about what a ride he is in for. But don’t let that deter you. The author has researched the subject meticulously. It feels like he was a B-17 bomber pilot himself, even though that’s unlikely. He knows what life was like in a German prison camp. He knows how the country came apart at the seams in the last few years of the war. He shows us Germany from the inside, and how the Nazi machine not only ruined the lives of all the people it conquered and tortured, but also those of the Germans themselves. Generations were devastated, and Hawser tells the story about it.

After I finished the book, I researched maps of England and Germany and checked out locations. I pulled up diagrams and photographs of the plane. Here are some good shots of the inside of a restored B-17.

Stories like this one, playing in Germany in WW II, bring home my ancestry. My father was nine years old in 1945. He hardly knew his father, who was a soldier stationed in Italy. He only came home for a few days of leave every year or so.

When the Russians overran Poland and eastern Germany in 1945, they raped women and girls indiscriminately before they killed everyone. To get away, my father, his mother and siblings left their home in Breslau, Silesia as refugees, heading for Bavaria.

Had that not happened, my own parents would never have met, and I would not be writing this book review. Hawser brings that time to life.

Rating - Three and a Half Stars


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My first job was when I was 12 or 13, picking potatoes in the fields of southern Bavaria. The tractor would plow up the plants so the potatoes would lie on the ground in the dirt. We used baskets and walked bent over, with bare hands, picking up potatoes and filling up our baskets. When the basket was full, it was just light enough that one person could pick it up and carry it to the trailer behind a tractor parked off to the side. All day long, we would be bent over at the hip, walking slowly along the rows, up the field, and then back down the field. Getting up and stretching to carry the basket was a relief. The days were endless. The hours crawled on. Flies and gnats would buzz around our sweaty faces. And our backs were on fire. The next day, we’d do it all again, all day.

My first job was also my hardest job ever. I learned what work means when I was 12 years old working in those Bavarian fields. When I now drive up Highway 99 in the Californian Central Valley, and I look over the endless fields with Hispanic laborers hunched over, tending to the plants or harvesting, I know what their work is like. I know they work harder every day than I have done since that first job at age 12.

McFarland is a small farming town north of Bakersfield on Highway 99. I have driven through it many times on my way driving to Fresno or Modesto. I have never exited the freeway and stopped.

But now, after watching the movie McFarland, USA, I will stop next time and look around.

The movie tells the true story of Jim White (Kevin Costner), a high school teacher and football coach who has trouble with his temper, and thus he has lost job after job. In 1987, he moves to McFarland with his wife and two daughters to take a job at the high school. They go through culture shock. The all-Latino school population does not have much respect for the new white coach. They call him Blanco. He gets dismissed from the football team within the first week.

When he observes some of his students as they run home after school so they can work on the fields with their families, he notices that they can run fast. After a bit of investigating, he decides to start a high school track team and hand-pick seven boys. Whether these boys who just attend high school between work shifts can become athletes is not clear to anyone when they first get started. Their families, their community, their school, everyone thinks of the boys as day laborers that have to go to school as an inconvenience.

But coach White reaches through the outer layers, and touches their souls. Soon the boys find their spirit and their hearts soar, and they run. Their successes not only transform their own lives, but they give their school and their entire community a new purpose and spirit.

I was glad that the movie theater was dark, because that allowed me to let the tears run freely. I found appreciation for the Hispanic culture built around family, family values and hard work. I enjoyed every minute of McFarland, USA and when the credits rolled I remembered the endless rows of potato fields of my youth, and I was glad that I had had the opportunity to learn about hard work, dedication and willpower.

Rating - Three and a Half Stars


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Blue Warmest ColorAdèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a fifteen-year-old French school girl coming of age. An attractive young boy falls for her and gets her attention. She is looking for her first love, but things don’t quite turn out the way she expected. One day while walking in the city she notices a blue-haired girl and feelings well up that she does not quite understand. Eventually she connects with the girl whose name is Emma (Léa Seydoux), who is a few years older and an art student at college. Quickly the two fall madly in love and lust. They develop a complex relationship of a decade while they both find their calling, Adèle as a teacher, Emma as an artist. Love, passion and dreams all come together in an intense drama as their lives move forward.

Blue is the Warmest Color is over three hours long and very different from the general Hollywood fare. Rated NC-17, in French with English subtitles, the depiction of French life in the city is very realistic. I noticed how terribly rusty and dysfunctional my own French has become over the decades of non-use.

In the beginning, some of the scenes seemed too long and disjointed. As the story unfolds, ten years go by and sometimes I didn’t quite follow the jumps forward. But soon I fell into the cadence of the film, and I realized that sometimes it simply told the story by images, like a few seconds of sleep, or sitting in a bus, or walking down cobblestoned streets. A patchwork of images moved the action forward wordlessly.

Then, suddenly, I found myself watching a seven-minute-long lesbian sex scene performed by completely nude, teenage-looking, beautiful young French girls in the absolute heat of passion. In all my years of movie watching, this was the most erotic and explicit sex scene I have ever experienced.


While the picture above might indicate a pornographic bent, it is not so. The movie is actually not about lust or sex, but about intense passion. The two main actors are phenomenal in their depiction of intense emotion.


The photo above shows Adèle crying, her nose running, tears streaming down, and not for a minute does it seem acted. The passion invoked by love, lust, yearning, loss and betrayal is real throughout and left me speechless. While there is a lot of nudity and lesbian sex in this movie, the most passionate scene of all is when they are fully dressed and Adèle kisses the hand and fingers of Emma during a confession of love and need.

Blue is the Warmest Color is not for the prude and conservative. You have to be pretty open-minded. For me, watching this movie was an experience of passion in a coming of age story unlike any I can remember. It was an adventure.

Rating - Three and a Half Stars

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Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is about six years old when the story starts, around 2002. His sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is a year or two older. They are being raised by their mom (Patricia Ardette), who is barely able to make ends meet, financially and emotionally. Their “out of the picture dad” (Ethan Hawke) swoops in from time to time and takes the kids out. They love being with him.

Boyhood is the ultimate coming of age story. It’s a movie about nothing, just growing up. We watch Mason and his sister cope with their mom’s antics and life changes. She falls in love with her professor. They get married. She and the kids move in with him and the kids, but Brady Bunch it is not. He turns out to be an abusive alcoholic, and one day they all just walk away, with only the clothes they are wearing. The next boyfriend does not work out much better.

Mason and Sam are dragged away from their familiar surroundings, and schools, again and again. They have no stable homes, no security and no apparent plans. They grow up – just like millions of American kids in the new millennium.

Ironically, the guy portrayed as the wayward, absent father, their dad, is the best, most stable and healthiest influence on the kids, while their mom in her neurotic fog, and her men, and her friends, and her relatives are all mostly messing with the kids’ heads, even though they think they are helping. Does this sound like Thanksgiving day with the family?

Boyhood goes on for two hours and 45 minutes, telling the story, like a string of home movies. Which in a way it is. Linklater filmed this movie over a period of 12 years, and we literally see the kids grow from elementary schoolers into college in front of our eyes. Unlike movies where there is a Mason as a small boy, and another actor for Mason as a teenager, and another one as a college student, the same actor plays the boy as he grows up. It’s the same with Sam, who happens to be Linklater’s real-life daughter. This gives the film a sense of reality unlike any other movie I can think of, with the only exception perhaps of 7 Up and the Up Series that followed.

Rating - Three and a Half Stars

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