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Archive for the ‘Three and a Half Stars’ Category

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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Hawser

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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McFarland

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.

Blue3

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.

Blue2

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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Boyhood

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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hamill1Pete Hamill is a New Yorker, and he loves to write about New York.

I first learned about him when I read his Novel Forever about five years ago. I gave that story a four star rating at the time.

In Downtown, Hamill simply tells the history of New York. And what a way to do it! Move over, history teachers. We think of history as a dry list of dates when things happened in a stuffy world we don’t care about anymore.

Hamill loves his city and he loves to tell about it. Of course, he can draw on his own lifetime for the last 70 years or so, but he owns and has read over 500 books on New York that he can draw on.

The outcome is a very readable tale, broken down into topical chapters, about one of the most fascinating cities of the world.

I was born and raised in Regensburg, Germany, a city literally 2000 years old with building sections and walls still in place built by the Romans in the B.C. days. As a kid,  I hung out in taverns and cafes in buildings built in 1300. Yet, I am fascinated about New York and its history, when the first tents were “only” pitched there by the Dutch settlers in 1625 or thereabouts. What is it about New York that made it so much the “center of the world” that it is today? What caused it that Regensburg is a city of 100,000 people – and not growing – after 2000 years, and New York started from some 200 people in 1625 and became the largest city in the world for many decades, and is still today the hub the modern world turns around?

It is the spirit of the New Yorkers that made the difference through the centuries and you have to read Downtown to understand what I am talking about.

Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 4)

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Tai-PanClavell wrote Tai-Pan in 1966. Almost 50 years later I finally get around to reading it. This is a novel about China and the beginnings of Hong Kong. It plays in 1841 in the Hong Kong area, including some scenes on the Chinese mainland and Macao.

The Tai-Pan is the “CEO” of a trading company. This is the story of Dirk Struan, a middle-aged Scott who worked his way up from cabin boy on a ship at age 12 to one of the richest men in the world. He is not only running his business, shipping tea, silk and opium between ports in England, India and the Orient, he is also shaping politics with the Chinese and creating the free port of Hong Kong, which he sees as pivotal to trade in Asia.

When Clavell wrote this novel in 1966, China was a sleeping giant behind the Communist iron curtain. Mao ruled the country with the will of a dictator, and the rest of us knew very little about China, except that one in four people in the world was Chinese.

Today, China is no longer a sleeping giant, but rather one that is very much awake and shapes international politics and commerce unlike any nation since the emergence of the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. When Clavell wrote about China, he wanted to educate the population in the sixties about the country. Little did he know that I would learn immensely about China reading Tai-Pan in 2014.

It does not matter that the story plays in 1841. China is ageless and its rich history and culture permeated the world in 1841, then it went to sleep under Communism for most of the 20th century, only to awaken again.

The Tai-Pan tells his son Culum:

“First thing to understand: For fifty centuries the Chinese have called China the Middle Kingdom—the land that the gods have placed between heaven above and the earth beneath. By definition a Chinese is a uniquely superior being. They all believe that anyone else—anyone—is a barbarian and of no account. And that they alone have the God-given right, as the only really civilized nation, to rule the earth. As far as they’re concerned, Queen Victoria is a barbarian vassal who should pay tribute. China has nae fleet, nae army, and we can do what we like with her—but they believe they are the most civilized, the most powerful, the richest—in this I think they’re potentially right—nation on earth.

– Tai-Pan (p. 91)

There was more wisdom that I enjoyed reading about:

“The rich are too rich and the poor too poor. People pouring into the cities looking for work. More people than jobs, so the employers pay less and less. People starving. The Chartist leaders are still in prison.”

–  Tai-Pan (p. 81)

The rich were too rich and the poor too poor. That was the problem in England in 1841, as told by Clavell in 1966. Here we are in 2014 and we’re telling ourselves that the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor. People are still pouring into the cities looking for work. They take jobs at Wal-Mart for minimum wage. People are starving. We pay out welfare. It is strangely comforting to realize it’s been like this for a very long time. Income inequality rules now, and it ruled then:

Do you know the price of bread is up to a shilling and twopence a loaf according to last week’s mail? Lump sugar’s costing eightpence a pound; tea seven shillings and eightpence; soap ninepence a cake; eggs four shillings a dozen. Potatoes a shilling a pound. Bacon three shillings and sixpence a pound. Now take wages—artisans of all sorts, bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters—at most seventeen shillings and sixpence a week for sixty-four hours’ work; agricultural workers nine shillings a week for God knows how many hours; factory workers around fifteen shillings—all these if work can be found. Good God, Mr. Struan, you live up in the mountains with incredible wealth where you can give a thousand guineas to a girl just because she’s got a pretty dress, so you don’t know, you can’t know, but one out of every eleven people in England is a pauper. In Stockton nearly ten thousand persons earned less that two shillings a week last year. Thirty thousand in Leeds under a shilling. Most everyone’s starving and we’re the richest nation on earth.

– Tai-Pan (pp. 560-561)

I enjoyed reading Tai-Pan immensely. Not only did I learn a lot about trade two centuries ago, the political situation in China, and the formation of Hong Kong, and the way of life and thinking of the ordinary Chinese, but the entire “lesson” was wrapped into a riveting plot that kept me turning pages.

Rating: *** 1/2

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