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Archive for the ‘Three Stars’ Category

Mystic River is an old masterpiece. I had watched it when it first came out, and while I remembered it “was a good movie,” I had forgotten what it was about.

Sean Penn won an Oscar for best actor in a leading role, and Tim Robbins for best actor in a supporting role.

The story is about three friends from a rough neighborhood in Boston who were best friends as boys. Jimmy Marcus (Sean Penn) was an ex-convict when his daughter Katie was murdered. His friend Dave (Tim Robbins), a blue-collar worker, saw Katie last, making a fool of herself late at night, dancing on the bar in a local watering hole. His other friend was Sean (Kevin Bacon), who happened to be a homicide detective, and he was put on the case. As the three childhood friends deal with this tragedy each in their own way, events unfold that pit them against each other.

There is a backstory, which is woven into the main plot. It turns out that Dave was abducted by child molesters one afternoon in the summer of 1975, when the three boys played in the streets. After days of sexual abuse he escaped and returned, but things were never quite the same for the three friends. The demons of the summer of 1975 come to haunt all three of them when Jimmy’s daughter was killed.

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The author of The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett, at age 32, is younger than my youngest child. She apparently grew up in Oceanside, California, which is about 30 minutes down the road from where I have lived for a lot longer than 32 years. Home.

Brit Bennett is an African American woman. For the remainder of this post I will no longer say African American, but use the terms “colored” or “black” or “dark” just as she uses those terms throughout the book.

The story starts in the early 1960s, and is about the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, who grow up in Mallard, Louisiana, a very small town in the country, almost entirely black, but the light version of black. So light, indeed, that the twins pass as white when they are out of their environment. As the twins grow up, they try to break away from the yokes of their ancestry, and each twin has her own way. Desiree is the outgoing one. Stella is the quiet one. When they move into New Orleans to get jobs, one day, Stella disappears. She is never seen again. Even private investigators can’t find her.

And that’s all I am going to tell you about the story, because you’ll need to read it for yourself.

The Vanishing Half is about racism in America, and it shows, without ever lecturing or judging, what it is like to be a colored person in our country. The subtle insinuations and the basic assumptions that we all have about black people come to life. As we experience this story, the absurdity of it all becomes obvious. The book deals not just with racism but also transgender issues, always nonchalantly, without getting in our face.

As I read The Vanishing Half, following the twins, their parents, their lovers, the fathers of their children, and their children, through their lives, I felt like I got to know them all intimately, and when the book was finally over, and I flipped the last page, I knew I’d miss the characters. I wanted it to continue. It is that kind of book.

And my awareness of what it’s like to be black in America was hugely elevated.

Brit Bennett, as such a young woman, has written a very wise book, and I will surely pick up her next ones.

And you should pick up this one.

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Movie Review: Pig (2021)

Robin Feld (Nicholas Cage), who goes by Rob, is a truffle forager who lives alone, off the grid, in the wilderness in Oregon. He is a recluse. His only companion is a foraging pig, which helps him find the truffles. He obviously loves the pig, kind of like most people love their dogs. I know that pigs are very smart, but of course that’s something I have no direct evidence for.

In the middle of the night someone attacks him with a gun, shoots him, and steals the pig. Rob survives the attack, but is devastated and he embarks on a journey to find and recover the pig.

To do that, he has to face his former life and his demons. As it turns out, he used to be a renowned chef in Portland. Everyone in the culinary community looked up to chef Feld. But that was 15 years before. It all came crashing down when his wife died prematurely. He abandoned his life and career, and walked away into the woods.

Nicholas Cage is almost unrecognizable in this film. If I hadn’t known it was him from the advertisements for the movie, I would not have recognized him.

Pig is a dark movie and it takes an effort to watch, but the story is intriguing, and the unusual love of the man for the pig comes through strong.

I definitely recommend this. It’s one of the better movies of 2021.

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Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a doctoral student in astronomy. One night, when working with a telescope, she discovers a new comet. Researching the details with her professor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), they come to the conclusion that the comet is larger than that of the Chicxulub impact event (see details here) that wiped out 75% of all flora and fauna on earth 65 million years ago. The problem is that the new comet is on its way to hit earth head-on in 6 months and 15 days.

The two understand that they have discovered a planet-killing catastrophe, and that mankind only has a little over 6 months to do something about it. They manage an audience at the White House with the help of the president’s chief science advisor, Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). But when they arrive, President Orlean (Meryl Streep) is completely indifferent. Her political ambitions don’t allow the distraction of an imminent extinction event. Jason (Jonah Hill), the Chief of Staff who is also her son, even ridicules the astronomers and eventually they are sent away. Nothing will be done.

Thunderstruck, the scientists decide to turn the the media instead. They are invited to the popular morning show The Daily Rip, where they are also received as curious, cute scientists and not taken seriously. They are trying to make the  world just “Look Up” and see what’s coming.

Don’t Look Up is a satire, of course, and it is extremely timely. It portrays a White House full of sycophants, staffed by nepotism, with a President who is completely self-absorbed and clueless. Facing a catastrophic event coming up, nobody wants to bother with it. The negative message it creates in social media is simply inconvenient. The industrial complex quickly figures out how they could possibly get very rich off of this, the danger and risk to the world be damned. Nobody takes the scientists seriously. They become the villains.

And that, my friends, is the state of our world today.

Enjoy a good laugh while you’re watching, and don’t worry that it will make you want to cry because of the insanity of it all.

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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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