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Archive for the ‘Three Stars’ Category

Movie Review: Belfast (2021)

Belfast plays in 1969. Yes, those years when those of us old enough remember there were nightly headlines in the news about Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Northern Ireland.

Some Catholics and Protestants have been hating and killing each other in England for almost 500 years. When Henry VIII wanted to have his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, annulled, pope Clement VII refused to consent. This angered Henry VIII sufficiently to decide to separate the entire country of England from the Catholic Church.

Religious unrest has plagued the country ever since. Just read some of Ken Follett’s books to get firsthand accounts. A Place Called Freedom is one of those books.

Belfast is a semi-autobiographical account from the childhood of the director, Kenneth Branaugh.

Buddy is a 10-year-old boy from whose viewpoint the story is told. In the photograph above he is next to his grandfather and father, both caring men who do their best to keep their families happy and safe, but can’t overcome the epic battles taking place right outside their front doors.

The entire film is in black and white, except for explosions and when the characters watch movies or stage shows. Those are in color. This creates an odd mood.

The story starts slowly, almost boring, but it builds in intensity. While the subject matter is about extreme violence, there is no actual blood and gore shown. We just see people ransacking property, setting cars on fire and throwing firebombs, nobody is ever actually shown hurt. As we get to know the characters in this family, we get drawn in, and we can’t help but walk out in the end and call it a solid movie, a superb performance by the young boy Jude Hill as Buddy, and a film that will likely attract some Oscars this year.

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Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) is a young man in a poor village in India. With poverty and corruption all around him, he decides to make a better life for himself. I manages to become the chauffeur of the son of a rich man, who just returned to India after living in the United States, with his American girlfriend by his side.

As the servant class is trained to do, he makes himself indispensable to his master. When trouble arises, however, the rich family betrays him and sets him up to be the fall guy to save themselves. He realizes that the class system is rigged against him, and corruption is keeping him low. Eventually he rebels and becomes his own kind of master.

The irony is that in order to escape poverty, overt oppression, and a corrupt system, he has to become corrupt himself.

And so he does.

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Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) are a young and loving couple in Boston, awaiting their first baby. The room is ready. The expecting mother is radiant. Sean works in heavy construction, currently building a large bridge. When he comes home he becomes a doting husband and excited father to be. They are planning on a birth at their home, assisted by a midwife.

During the birth, things go unexpectedly wrong, and the baby dies minutes after birth. Their lives change as they are each independently trying to cope with the terrible loss. Her own mother, a domineering and challenging woman, meddles and makes Martha’s life even more impossible. Everything comes to the breaking point.

This movie is challenging to watch. The extensive birth section at a the beginning sets the stage. It is, by far, the most graphic and realistic birth scene I have ever watched. You’re right in the room with them, especially when the baby’s heartbeat starts slowing down.

I am not sure if I would recommend to young couples who are expecting childbirth to watch this, or not. I can say for sure, they’ll learn a lot.

The story is about the human spirit, and how it eventually transcends challenges. But it’s not a happy movie at all.

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Ben and Leslie Cash live somewhere in the mountains in the State of Washington, off the grid, in cabin in the woods, with their six children. They gave each of the children a made-up name so they would be unique in the world. Their names are Bodevan, Kielyr, Vespyr, Rellian, Zaja and Nai.

The children are homeschooled and unregistered. Even though they have no academic record whatsoever, the 8-year-old can recite the Bill of Rights and give an interpretation. The oldest, Bodevan, has been accepted at Harvard, Stanford and another 10 top universities. Ben is a survivalist and socialist. He teaches his children how to survive in the wild, by hunting, identifying edible plants, and growing their own food. The children have taken it all in and are remarkable each in their own way.

Leslie was a lawyer who gave up her practice to raise the children with their ideals. But she is bi-polar, and her illness starts escalating after giving birth to her first son. Even though he does not believe in modern medicine, Ben sends his wife to get treatment in a hospital near where her sister lives.

While at the hospital, Leslie commits suicide.

The family that can survive anything is almost broken by the loss of their mother. That’s when their battle with the “real world” starts.

In today’s gross-national-product-world, Captain Fantastic depicts a family that tossed it all away in favor of a simpler, yet much harder and harsher world. The elaborate idealism of facing the truth, no matter how adverse, how inconvenient, and how disturbing it might be, will work to some degree, but in the end the children all try to find their own balance and their own way. The question is, can Ben face that reality?

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Five years ago I read and reviewed the book Endurance by Alfred Lansing. It’s a documentary about Ernest Shackleton, the English explorer who, in 1914, wanted to be the first to cross Antarctica on foot, whose ship Endurance was eventually crushed by the ice, leaving the entire crew stranded on the ice in the Antarctic winter.

Shackleton’s Captain tells the same story, through the eyes of Captain Frank Worsley, who signed up to Shackleton’s expedition to sail the ship. As it turned out, his navigation skills and seamanship was what eventually saved the crew.

The book was graphic and captivating. The movie is a documentary with dramatization, sprinkled with actual film footage and still photographs of the voyage. After watching the film, I must say that while the visual story is strong and powerful, I got more out of it having read the book and being familiar with all the details, which can never be shown in a movie.

I highly recommend both.

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Bella and Hector are a reclusive couple who live at a remote farm in the mountains of New Zealand at the end of a dirt road. Bella is a cheery, upbeat person in whose world nobody can do wrong. Hector is a curmudgeon who almost never speaks. He just growls and frowns, and occasionally goes out to hunt a wild boar in the jungle.

Ricky is a foster boy in care of the government child services in the city. His child services officer and a policeman bring him to live with Bella and Hector. Ricky wants nothing to do with them at first, but quickly gets into the rhythm of country life and enjoys the simple routines and respect he gets from them.

When Bella passes away unexpectedly, Ricky and Hector, an impossible pair, have to make things work. Hector does not want to release Ricky back to child services and to an orphanage, and the two flee into the woods.

Soon they are the object of a national manhunt.

I got a kick out of the woods and mountains of New Zealand. I know that Lord of the Rings was filmed there. The woods are entirely different, both in fauna and flora, from what I am used to here in the west of the United States. We have great mountains, wild woods, but they look and feel very different here. New Zealand has no dangerous predators, except wild boars, and after watching a wild boar charge in this movie, I think I’ll deal with a mountain lion instead anytime – well maybe.

The Hunt for the Wilderpeople does not even try to be realistic. It’s a comedy, and it’s hilarious to watch. Ricky, played expertly by Julian Dennison, is a crack-up character, and eventually becomes a mini-Hector. Once I realized it would be a quirky movie, I enjoyed it immensely. I gave it an extra star just for the fact that the movie does not take itself very seriously.

Just sit back and enjoy. You won’t regret it. And while you’re there, enjoy cool New Zealand with its Wilderpeople.

 

 

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There is mud everywhere in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. The Jackson family is black and works the land. Their oldest son, Ronsel, is called into the service when America joins World War II. The McAllan family is white and they also farm the same land as the Jacksons. Pappy McAllan, the patriarch, is a racist through and through. The younger son of the McAllans, Jamie, is also called into the war. He is a pilot in Europe, while Ronsel is a sergeant and tank commander. While the two families struggle at home in Mississippi and try to survive in abject poverty, the two sons fight the demons of war in Europe.

Eventually, in 1945, they both return home to a place that does not understand them anymore. While they can’t connect to life at home, the two men form an unlikely friendship, bridging the vast gap of race and culture, while they sink into the self-sabotage of alcoholism. But in Mississippi, the people are not ready for human relations across the races, and especially not Pappy McAllan. While the two young men are trying to put the horrors of war behind them, they are not prepared for the horrible fate that confronts them right at home.

Mudbound came out in 2017, and watching it in 2021 when racism in America is as alive as ever, and white supremacy is once again celebrated in too many corners of the country, it reminds me that not much has changed in America in the last 50 years. We have had a black president, but the intrinsic hatred in the people appears to have been buried only in a shallow grave in the last few decades, and new fires have been lit.

Pappy McAllan is played expertly by Jonathan Banks, who we all know as Mike in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Pappy is pure evil, hateful to the core, and proud of it. He is a frightening caricature of the American racist and he inflicts endless damage on his fellow men by outright hurting them, as well as on his family by corrupting their ability to grow up and think for themselves.

The plight of black people in America is in the forefront of this movie. We understand why so many black soldiers returned to Europe after the war, where they were treated as equals and were allowed to have normal lives.

Watching Mudbound made me afraid it might take centuries for America to overcome its bloody and oppressive history. Watching Mudbound will leave you depressed and hopeless, but watch it you must nonetheless.

 

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In 1940, the Nazis rolled over Norway and subjugated its people. The British forces trained Norwegian soldiers in sabotage. They then went back and tried to do as much damage to the occupying Germans as they could.

In one mission, 12 saboteurs went to Norway in 1943. The Germans sunk their boat, captured 11 of them, but one got away. This movie is a dramatization of the true story of Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad), the soldier who escaped. The arctic winter in the north of Norway was as brutal to him as the Nazi patrols trying to capture him.

The 12th Man is a story of survival under the worst imaginable conditions. It is 2 hours and 15 minutes long, in Norwegian and German, with English subtitles. It made me admire the Norwegian people and their resilience. It reminded me of the movie The Revenant, which I reviewed in 2016.

I also remembered that they were the people of the Vikings, who terrorized the northern seas starting around the year 800 and conducted raids against England and France for some 600 years during the Middle Ages. The Vikings were featured in Ken Follett’s the book The Evening and the Morning that I recently reviewed here.

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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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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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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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We all know who John Bolton is, we all know how his tenure at the White House started and ended, and we know Bolton’s role, or lack thereof, in the Trump impeachment proceedings.

So I don’t have to tell you what this book is about, but I can rather focus on telling you my experience reading the book, about what I learned, and, most importantly, what conclusions I drew.

John Bolton has been around the United States government, and particularly foreign policy, for decades. I knew little about him, and I would simply have categorized him a “hawk” in line with the generally liberal sentiment in my usual circles. When I first heard that Trump was going to install him as National Security Advisor, I was deeply worried that his hawkishness would get us into new conflicts and would even further endanger our already very dangerous world.

I bought the book the day it first came out on June 23, 2020, and started reading it right away. But it is a long book, with detailed, journal-like narration describing events as they took place with sometimes down to the minute accuracy. It really does put the reader into the room where it happened. The book is very long, and takes a long time to read, so I had to interrupt reading it when Mary Trump’s book came out, so I could read that one right way, and then again I had to lay it aside to make room and time for Michael Cohen’s book. But I kept going back and I forced myself to slog through it, and I finished tonight.

Trump fought vehemently to have the publication of The Room Where it Happened blocked. I expected some type of tell-all book, but that’s not at all what it is. It basically talks about the United States foreign policy from the point of view of a man who deeply understands it and has lived it all his life. Since Trump has no understanding of world affairs and any matters that don’t involve him personally, clearly this book will “make Trump look bad,” not because Bolton says Trump is a fool or anything like it, but because Bolton allows us to sit in the room with him, and Trump, and Mulvaney, and Mattis, and Pompeo, and we can watch Trump make a fool of himself by showing clearly and overtly that he does not know what he is talking about, that he has no interest in governing and certainly not foreign affairs, and that he is as smart as the last person he talked to wants him to be. That was particularly dangerous and ludicrously embarrassing for our country when he “negotiated” with Putin, Kim Jong-un, Erdogan, Xi, and pretty much every other adversary of our national interests.

Bolton does not make Trump look bad. Bolton just shows us how inept Trump is for all of us plain to see. Unlike Trump, where his supporters always are quoted saying “he tells it like it is,” Bolton actually does tell it like it is.

Bolton is definitely a proponent of America carrying a big stick and operating from strength. Trump just thinks of himself being the smartest man in the room, and he tells us that all the time, and he thinks he is the big stick. Yet, Bolton shows us clearly that Trump was and is our most serious security risk, consistent with what we have learned from Mattis, McMaster, Coats and the entire national security establishment. I can see why Trump didn’t want this book published.

I know that a lot of Trump supporters have blasted Bolton as a traitor for writing this. Well, let me tell you this: If 3% of all Trump supporters actually read The Room Where it Happened, I’d be very surprised. To read this, you have to be very patient, persistent, interested in foreign polity, and tenacious. This is NOT AN EASY book to read, and I predict most people who buy the book won’t finish it. So let them blab about Bolton being a traitor, or let the liberals blab about him being a hawk. Neither side knows what it is talking about. They have to read the book first before I would take them seriously.

And here is my probably shocking conclusion: On a scale from 1 to 10, my respect for Bolton, for what I knew about him before reading the book, may have been around 2. It’s now at 9 or so. I actually believe he would be an excellent pick for Biden to choose for Secretary of State. It would ensure that our foreign relations would be rebuilt, corrected, and put on a secure footing. Our adversaries would be on notice and our security would be enhanced. By choosing Bolton for this critical slot, Biden would ensure consistency from the past, a strong presence in the world, and he could focus on the many domestic issues that need attention, without having to lose sleep about what’s going on in the world. I know this opinion of mine will shake up some of my readers, but I stand by it.

Now, of course, there is no chance Biden will do such a thing, and history will continue.

I gained a lot of respect for Bolton by reading his book, and his mustache doesn’t bother me one bit.

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It is the time after the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank) is a young and idealistic teacher who leaves her safe hometown of Newport Beach to teach freshman and sophomore English at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach. The school has just implemented a voluntary integration program, and gang violence in the community is terrorizing the school. The Latinos hate the blacks, the Cambodians hate the Latinos, every group hates every other group, and the white minority is drowned out. Every kids knows somebody who has been killed by gang violence. The students are un-teachable. None of them have any respect for Ms. Gruwell.

When she intercepts a racist drawing one day, she uses it to teach the kids about the Holocaust. Slowly, one student at a time, she wins them over. She asks them to write journals about their lives and experiences, and slowly she wins their trust. To finance materials and field trips, she takes on a second and third job. In the process, she loses her husband. Only her father sticks with her and supports her endeavor. One by one, she brings the students together and  they transcend their former boundaries and hate. The students become friends, and they revere Ms. G, as they endearingly call her.

Freedom Writers is not just a movie about a high school teacher, it’s about America locked in diversity and divide, trying to overcome the differences, and growing as a microcosm – a single class of kids – and as a nation.

Freedom Writers is an uplifting story that left me feeling enriched and inspired.

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When Disloyal came out I knew I had to read it. Who is this most powerful of Trump’s enablers? Who is this guy that I read about long before Trump’s announcement of his candidacy, the ruthless wolverine who came after Trump’s victims and threatened to ruin them if they even tried to assert their rights?

When the White House found out that Cohen was writing this book, they tried everything they could to stop him from publishing it. It was going to be a sensational tell-all book.

Well, it is.

Cohen was there from the beginning. He knows Trump intimately, and he was his most loyal and effective confidante and protector. To understand Trump, we need to read Disloyal, because it tells what it was like to work for Trump.

Here is an excerpt:

We all flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the event titled Trump: The New Owner of WWE Raw. All of us invited were eager to experience what we knew was going to be a wild, fun night. In the dressing room under the stadium, we could hear the mounting noise of the crowd coming in, and it was obvious that the place was going to be sold out, not to mention the huge pay-per-view audience. This was when Don Jr. spoke out of turn, at least in the eyes of his taskmaster father. “Hey, Dad, are you nervous?” he asked. “What did you say?” Trump asked, his face reddening. “I’m going in front of millions of people. What kind of stupid fucking question is that? Get out of here.”

We all stood in awkward silence, staring at our shoes, feeling sorry for the son and his perfectly innocent question.

“God damn it,” Trump said with a heavy sigh, as if his son wasn’t present. “The kid has the worst fucking judgment of anyone I have ever met. What a stupid thing to say—to put that thought in my head.” Don Jr. said nothing, also inspecting his shoes, and no doubt desperate to flee. The hurt was evident in his face and demeanor, even though this was hardly the first time I’d heard Trump insult his son and remark on his supposed lack of intelligence. I often wondered why the son stayed around in the face of the abuse of his father, though I knew the answer, because Don Jr. had told me the story.

— Cohen, Michael. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump (pp. 83-84). Skyhorse. Kindle Edition.

Obviously, the White House said that Cohen is a liar – and he is, by his own admission – but when you read his story, it’s obvious that he is not making this stuff up. He just tells it like it was, like a journal entry, and he doesn’t really “blast” Trump either. He just describes, almost soberly, some of his more atrocious deeds. The personality of Trump comes out, similar to how it came out in Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough.

Most of all I was struck with the realization that Trump USED Cohen, over and over again, until — suddenly — when Cohen fell due to his covering for Trump, he was no longer useful to him. Trump immediately disowned and abandoned him. Cohen is now in prison (at this time serving his sentence under house-arrest) and Trump is — still — in the White House. Trump uses people, everyone, his wife, his children, his best friends, his relatives, his employees, his vendors and contractors, and now the entire population of the United States, to serve him. Cohen’s book shows how he does that.

Michael Cohen’s book is not a “great book” or an exceptional memoir. It is a sober book, well told, revealing, and it shows us what Trump really is: a fraud.

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