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Archive for the ‘Three Stars’ Category

Pino Lella is a 17-year-old Italian boy living with his family in Milan in 1943 as World War II comes into its final chapter. To escape the draft of Italian boys into the Nazi’s war and face even odds of getting killed on the Russian front within months of deployments, Pino reluctantly volunteers and is assigned as a driver to a Nazi general. In this position he happens to be in a front-row seat to observe the war and the machinations of the Nazis behind the scenes. But along with the doubtful privilege of serving one of the top commanders comes the branding of being a traitor in the view of his Italian countrymen, friends and even family.

Beneath a Scarlett Sky is a novel, but it is dramatized around the true story of the real person Pino Lella and his actual experiences during the war.

Early on, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler hit it off as two open fascists. When Hitler decided to wage war, he started an alliance with Mussolini and the Italy German pact was a powerful force early in the war. But Italy fell earlier, and Mussolini was captured, and then freed. He served as a puppet leader under the Germans in the latter years of the war. The Italian people were brutalized both by the Italian Fascists loyal to Mussolini, and the German occupation force that was in Italy presumably to “protect” the nation from the Allied Forces. In reality, the Germans looted Italy, both of its young men for the war effort, and later of its goods, food, manufacturing, and industrial output. As it was custom for the Nazis, Jews were rounded up and shipped to concentration camps or into forced labor. Any non-cooperating Italians were forced to perform slave labor duties until they died. The Germans called it Vernichtung durch Arbeit (destruction through labor).

Atrocities by the Germans abounded. Here is a passage describing how General Leyer, one of the central protagonists, separates a child from her mother – while he knew it was forever:

A few moments later, a woman pushed through the crowd, helping a pale, sweating little girl about nine years old.

“Tell her that I am going to save her daughter,” General Leyers said.

Pino balked a moment before translating.

The woman began to sob. “Thank you. Thank you.” “Tell her I will get the girl medical help and make sure she never comes to Platform Twenty-One again,” the general said. “But the girl must come alone.”

“What?” Pino said.

“Tell her,” Leyers said. “And there is no argument. Either her daughter is saved, or she is not, and I’ll find someone more agreeable.”

Pino didn’t know what to think, but told her.

The woman swallowed but said nothing.

The women around her said, “Save her. Do it!”

At last, the sick girl’s mother nodded, and Leyers said to the SS guards, “Take her to my car, and wait with her there.” The Nazis hesitated until Colonel Rauff shouted at them to comply. The girl, though weak and feverish, went hysterical when they took her from her mother’s arms. Her shrieks and cries could be heard throughout the station while Leyers ordered the rest of the people out of the boxcar. He walked in front of them, looking at each in turn before stopping in front of a girl in her late teens.

— Sullivan, Mark. Beneath a Scarlet Sky: A Novel (pp. 347-348). Lake Union Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Reading Beneath a Scarlet Sky helped me understand the nature of the war in Italy so much better than I ever knew. That is actually surprising, because I could have had much more insightful knowledge of what actually happened had I just sat down with my paternal grandfather when he was still alive. He died in 1985 at the age of 80. We don’t know much about his role in the war, but he was off with the Bundeswehr all through the war, and in the final years he was stationed in Italy. He never talked about his experiences with me, or with anyone as far as I know.

But he was there, he was one of the Nazis described in Beneath a Scarlet Sky.

Maybe that’s why he never talked about it.

 

 

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It was about 2011. Ross Ulbricht was a brilliant young American college student in Austin, Texas. His main area of interest and study was physics. He wanted to change the world. He tried to get accepted to the reality show Amazing Race with his sister but they didn’t make it onto the show. If they had been accepted, his life might have been completely different.

Ross was also a libertarian. One of his fundamental believes was that the government has no right to dictate what a person does with their body or what they put into it. For instance drugs, including illegal drugs.

That belief eventually gave him the idea to create a website called the Silk Road which turned into a highly successful bazar for buyers and sellers of drugs. Within a couple of years the site grew to serve the sale of over $1.2 billion in drugs, weapons, and even body parts and organs. Ross made tens of millions of dollars in commissions for himself.

In American Kingpin, the writer tells the story of how Ross got the idea, how the started the site modestly by selling magic mushrooms he grew in his own apartment, and how it eventually grew into a formidable criminal empire. The story is reminiscent of the rise of Walter White in Breaking Bad. The only difference is, Walter White is a fictional character. Ross Ulbricht is a real person, an all-American young man.

Does this person look like one of the most successful drug dealers of all time? Does this person look like someone who ordered people killed, Walter White-style?

While the reader observes his rise, he is also following the various branches of law enforcement that start closing in on him, one minor step at a time, until they eventually close the trap.

American Kingpin is a very readable book. Once I started I just kept turning the pages, almost like a thriller. I learned much about the dark web and how it works, and while I was following the hapless journey of Ross Ulbricht from innocent college student to drug dealer, I had to remind myself that this was a true story.

Of course, there is a website to Free Ross Ulbricht where you can learn much more about the Kingpin. People argue that his sentence was not fair. There are drug dealers in prison for life for having sold heroin and cocaine on the street. The “dirty” kind of drug dealing. Ross did it from behind a keyboard. Hmmm. People still died from his product.

You get to judge for your own as you read the book.

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A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies, and Leadership

James Comey is probably the last person who ever thought he’d write an autobiography. But he did.

The book starts in his early childhood, when he was an outsider and a target of bullies. He tells his story eloquently and with very simple language. We follow him through his life and career in law enforcement. The name Trump doesn’t even come up until 75% through the book.

We come to understand that Comey is a man of strong principle and little ego, somebody who does what his conscience tells him, not what his ego demands. He is a person who is obsessed with always “doing the right thing.”

I learned that Comey first started out as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, under U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, who had a reputation as a brilliant and aggressive young prosecutor who was set on eradicating the mafia in New York City. He eventually did just that, and Comey learned a lot from Giuliani.

Here is an excerpt:

There was something of an unwritten code about working in the office of Rudy Giuliani, as I suppose there is in most organizations. In his case, the message was that Rudy was the star at the top and the successes of the office flowed in his direction. You violated this code at your peril. Giuliani had extraordinary confidence, and as a young prosecutor I found his brash style exciting, which was part of what drew me to his office. I loved it that my boss was on magazine covers standing on the courthouse steps with his hands on his hips, as if he ruled the world. It fired me up.

Prosecutors almost never saw the great man in person, so I was especially pumped when he stopped by my office early in my career, shortly after I had been assigned to an investigation that touched a prominent New York figure who dressed in shiny tracksuits and sported a Nobel-sized medallion around his neck. The state of New York was investigating Al Sharpton for alleged embezzlement from his charity, and I was assigned to see if there was a federal angle to the case. I had never even seen Rudy on my floor, and now he was at my very door. He wanted me to know he was personally following the investigation and knew I would do a good job. My heart thumped with anxiety and excitement as he gave me this pep talk standing in the doorway. He was counting on me. He turned to leave, then stopped. “Oh, and I want the fucking medal,” he said, then walked away.

— Comey, James. A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership (pp. 19-20). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

I found it strange to hear from Comey how impressive Giuliani’s skills were early in his career. What happened to the man? Now, when I see him speak, I can’t think of anything but a senile, goofy, confused fool. Impressive once, but not anymore.

Comey tells his story of how he served under Bush and then Obama, and how, to his dismay, he was drawn into the controversial events just before the election of 2016, when Anthony Weiner’s laptop  turned up in the hands of the FBI, and they inexplicably stumbled upon more than a hundred thousand Clinton emails they could not possibly read in the ten days remaining before the election.

And then came Trump, and one strange encounter after the other more and more convinced Comey that Trump was unethical.

One day Trump was schmoozing up to Comey, and the next day, without even facing him in person, fired him remotely via television.

In A Higher Loyalty, Comey tells his story in sober language without fanfare. When Trump tweets about the book as a collection of lies, he proves to me that he hasn’t even read it.

I know when I trust somebody, when somebody is sincere with me. Trump is not sincere. His words don’t ring true. He body language is that of a liar. And his words are so easily disproven, I don’t even need to observe body language to know that he lies. Five seconds of googling usually brings the lies into the light of day.

With Comey, it’s the opposite. Go read his book and then tell me to my face that he “made it all up.” That will seem like nonsense to you. Comey is sincere, dedicated, and committed to this country and to the institutions of law enforcement he has dedicated his life to.

No wonder Trump attacks Comey.

The bully is terrified!

 

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We have all heard about Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. He is a prominent philanthropist and American business icon. Today, in 2018, if you look him up, his net worth is listed at $30 billion. Phil Knight is one of the richest people in the country, even the world.

I just wrote a post about billionaires, and how I feel about them. This is very timely, and I suggest you read it before you move on here. Referenced within that post is yet another post about Vilifying Billionaires, which also has meaning in the context of this book review.

We have our preconceived ideas about billionaires and business icons. In this memoir of his life and the creation of Nike, Phil Knight tells his story in such a captivating manner that I felt like I was there with him in the early days. Shoe Dog is not about a shoe company, or a man creating a shoe company from scratch.

It’s about starting and growing a business, building the American dream. Everyone dreams of not working for “the man,” but being “the man.” Everyone dreams about starting a business, being one’s own boss, being independent, and of course, becoming wealthy in the process.

The bleak, frightening, brutal reality, however, is that 90% of all startups fail. Here are the main reasons why:

Fortune.com [click here for source]

I started a business over 25 years ago, and that business is still here, creating jobs, valuable services, and a livelihood for me. So I understood what Phil Knight went through when he started his shoe company in 1964.

There is something universal about a business: you have a payroll. It does not seem like a big thing when you start a business, but it hits you very, very quickly. Every two weeks you have to write paychecks for your employees, and then another set of checks for payroll taxes for the federal and state governments. In the 25 years I have been in business, there have been 650 payroll days. Every. Other. Friday. Payroll day comes, relentlessly. It comes even when your sales are down and you’re not making a profit. It comes when your biggest customer holds up a major payment. It comes after you had a major equipment breakdown and you needed additional cash to get it fixed. Payroll day comes, whether you have money in the bank, or not. And when you don’t have money in the bank, you have no choice but put some there. You first take all the money you have personally and put it there. You take cash advances on your credit cards. You borrow. And you have major, major stress. Every. Two. Weeks.

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who are responsible for payroll, and those who are not. Phil Knight was responsible for payroll, and he did what he had to do to keep his company moving forward. Every step of the way, he knew that he was just one financial mishap away from total, catastrophic failure. When you run out of cash, you go out of business. See the chart above: 29% of businesses run out of cash.

And then there are problems. Problems with suppliers. Problems with the government and regulations. Problems with employees. Problems with product quality. Problems with market demand. The problems don’t care that you are stressing out over cash for payroll. Problems keep haunting you on Christmas Day or during Thanksgiving dinner. Problems keep you up at night.

Shoe Dog guides the reader through Phil Knight’s journey of creating Nike from scratch and growing it to a world-wide leader in athletic shoes. Anyone who ever even remotely thought about starting a business needs to read Shoe Dog.

After that, you come and tell me why Phil Knight didn’t “deserve” to be a billionaire.

Hey, go ahead! Start a shoe company. It’s easy, right?

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In the mid-1960ies, the “Pentagon Papers” were thousands of pages of highly classified documents that proved that four presidential administrations knew that the Vietnam War could not be won, yet they continuously and repeatedly lied to the American public.

Thousands of young American men died in Vietnam for this war that was based on a lie.

When the New York Times got a hold of the papers and started publishing them, the Nixon Administration shut them down.

The Washington Post, at that time, was a struggling family business that tried to break out of the stigma of being a local paper. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) was  the “owner” of the paper. She had inherited it from her late husband. Being one of very few women in executive positions in the business, she was not always taken seriously. The paper’s editor, Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), pushed hard to get the Pentagon Papers published in order to establish a name for the Post and to uphold the freedom of the press as well as its responsibility to the public.

The stress of making the final decision at midnight before going to print was enormous. Katharine Graham bet the company, her livelihood, and that of everyone who worked there and had shares in the company, all in the name of journalistic responsibility and duty to the country.

Ironically, after I saw The Post, just a few hours later, as I was browsing Reddit, I came across this cigarette lighter, presumably from the Vietnam era. While I have no way to attest that it is authentic, and while there is an entire tourist trap industry of such “interesting” trinkets in Vietnam, the message stands.

 

[click for photo credit on Reddit]

In our current days, more than 50 years after those thousands of American boys died in Vietnam for a lie, and for the callousness of the presidents that sent them there, we are still facing the same old reality.

We still have presidents in the White House who think it’s ok to send American boys (and now girls) to strange countries across the ocean to do our dirty deeds and our dying, while the rest of us sit at home, watch MSNBC or Fox on TV, and pretend it’s all about our safety and our freedom.

The Post is about journalistic freedom, responsibility for integrity, honesty and truth. We now have a president who systematically undermines “the press” in front of the public, calls it dishonest, crooked, bought, biased and treasonous. “The press” are dozens, hundreds of newspapers, thousands of TV stations, thousands of radio stations, thousands of websites, and our president wants us to believe that all of a sudden, during the summer of 2016, when the election went into full swing, they all suddenly went rogue, and dishonest, just so they could all discredit him, all except a few far-right media channels?

I am not buying it.

The Post is about this responsibility and integrity of the press. It is a movie that could not be playing at a better time in history. Watch The Post, and then tell me who you trust: The media? Or Donald Trump?

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In May of 1940, more than 300,000 British soldiers were surrounded by the Nazis on the French beaches near Dunkirk. There was no way out, and the British Navy didn’t have the ships to come to their rescue. A backstory to this is provided by the movie The Darkest Hour.

In Dunkirk, we follow the frantic lives of just a few men, on the sea, in the air, and trapped on the beach. Through their eyes we see the horror of senseless war and the agony it brings to so many people.

There is little dialog, just a lot of graphic cinematography to tell the story. The haunting score of Hans Zimmer accentuates the relentless action and keeps the heart pounding.

The story at Dunkirk happened almost 80 years ago in World War II, yet now, these images are more important than ever.

Today we have pudgy, entitled men with inherited status and wealth, men who have never served a day in the military in their lives, “lead” us. We allow them to send the sons and daughters of other fathers into “conflicts” overseas to fight for what? For the right of other rich men to plunder the oil, and to support their own self-aggrandized notions of worth and value.

Watch Dunkirk and then ask yourself: How do they expect us to treat them with any respect?


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Winston Churchill was a pivotal figure in the 20th century, and, had it not been for his presence and dogged perseverance, the world might have turned out quite differently.

If Hitler had not lost the war, my parents would never have met, and I would not have been born. I would not be here to write this review.

The Germans could have been stopped before they took over Austria and made their first forays into France. Their military was not ready for a major war. But the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, didn’t put pressure on Hitler when he could, and we all know the outcome.

Winston Churchill came to power when the Germans had encircled the entire British army of about 300,000 men near Dunkirk in France. (There is a separate movie of the same name about this backstory, that I have not seen yet, but must now go and see).

In the face of severe pressure to negotiate with Hitler and save the British army, Churchill steadfastly believed that this was the wrong approach.

The Darkest Hour chronicles those weeks in British history. When I walked out, I had learned more about who Churchill was than I had from all the history books I had ever laid eyes on. A very rewarding film.

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Long before Trump was a household name due to his reality TV show The Apprentice, I read at least part of his book The Art of the Deal, until I got tired of it. I always thought Trump was a phony. When he announced his run for the presidency a few years ago I thought it was a joke, a vanity project for a man full of himself. When he, against all odds, won the presidency, I was repulsed. I could not imagine that a boor like Trump could actually start acting like a dignified person, like a statesman, like a president. But he can’t be that stupid, I thought. Surely, he can keep his blabbering mouth shut, check his ego at the door, and start acting presidential.

Wrong.

Incompetence in leadership always eventually blows wide open, becomes obvious to everyone around, and destroys an organization from the inside out. Nobody wants to work for a dilettante, as the incompetence wears off, and makes for a very unsatisfying work experience of a daily basis. I expected that unless Trump cleaned up his act, the whole organization would start rotting from the inside out. A foul apple can look just fine on the outside for a long time, until it suddenly implodes, and the stench wafts out.

I expected that this would happen in the Trump White House, and judging from the number of firings and resignations, I think I was right.

If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall in the White House, just read Fire and Fury. Wolff takes you right there in the middle of the action. There is no hype, no exaggeration. He just tells a story, goes from character to character, and reading it after hearing various anecdotes in the news throughout the last few years it just all makes sense.

Here is an excerpt, an email written by Gary Cohn, who is serving as the Director of the National Economic Council and chief economic advisor to Trump. He was formerly the president and chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs from 2006 to 2017:  

It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.

— Wolff, Michael. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (p. 186). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Trump is an ego-maniac, not a leader. That leaves those around him to constantly quarrel for power and influence, and it feels like a game of Survivor, where we listen to the players talk about how they are going to vote people out of the White House. It’s a reality show that is now running our country. What did we expect when we elected a reality show TV personality for president?

I am not surprised that Trump didn’t want this book to come out. He called it full of lies. Reading it, I do not get that impression at all. Yes, there might be some passages that are questionable, but only because he basically listens to what people tell him and reports it. The book is as accurate and reliable as the Trump White House staffers who were interviewed for it.

It’s a riveting story.

I was not surprised about anything I read. It just made sense.

We elected an unfit president. Tough.

Every American should read Fire and Fury.

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Vincent van Gogh picked up a paintbrush for the first time when he was 28 years old. He died less than nine years later at the age of 37, and left us some 800 paintings. Van Gogh changed art, yet he sold only one painting ever, and that to his own brother.

He died under mysterious circumstances, and like many deaths of famous people (for example JFK) there are many theories that speculate about what really might have happened, versus what is common knowledge on the record.

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, Loving Vincent is a film that explores the life of Vincent van Gogh and some of the speculations about his death.

What is unique about this film is that it is an animation based on painted images. Every frame of this movie is a painting, and thousands of them have been stitched together to make the film. Nothing like this has ever been done before, and it may well never be done again. Van Gogh’s painting style, using bold colors and rough, thick brush strokes, lends itself to this approach and I applaud the filmmakers for the unique, risky and ultimately very successful idea. Many scenes in the movie are based on actual van Gogh paintings.

One of them has special meaning to me: Harvest at La Crau with Montmajour in the Background. Sometimes it’s called “the blue cart.” The original is in the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam. Here is an image:

In the movie, Vincent is pulled past this scene in a cart on the road in the foreground.

When I was a child, some 11 or 12 years old, our German professor (now my friend Wolfgang referenced in this blog from time to time in the Latin Corner) assigned this painting as the subject for the essay form of “Bildbeschreibung” or image description. I remember struggling with this assignment, but doing a good job of it in the end. It stayed with me for life, and this painting represents the first exposure for me to van Gogh. I had tears welling up when this image went by in one of the scenes in Loving Vincent.

I am a painter. Van Gogh has always been my favorite artist. I have seen many original van Gogh paintings over the years. How could I possibly not love this movie?


 

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Marshall is based on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman).

As a young lawyer Marshall traveled around the country in pursuit of cases against African-Americans who were unjustly accused of crimes. In Connecticut, the defended a black chauffeur who was charged with sexual assault of his rich, white employer (Kate Hudson). The court was segregationist and didn’t allow him to argue the case. He had to join forces with Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad), a reluctant Jewish lawyer, who did not initially want to take on this responsibility. Eventually they prevailed in a very racist and anti-Semitic environment and the case contributed to Marshall’s fame and the eventual creation of the NAACP legal defense fund.

The movie introduces the character and legacy of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, appointed by President Johnson in 1967. While I roughly knew who Marshall was, I had never shown much interest in any of the details of his life, until I watched this movie. This is one of the most valuable and enriching facts about good movies: They introduce us to topics we sometimes know nothing about, only to get fired up and motivated to read up more about the subject.

Marshall did that for me.


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Ebbing, Missouri is a town in rural America where everybody knows everyone else and their business. The people revere their chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) loses her daughter in a tragic murder and rape case. When, after six months, there is no progress with the investigation, she decides to take matters in her own hands and puts up three billboards in a bold move to attract attention. And attention she gets, seemingly be everyone in town. Officer Dixon, who works for Chief Willoughby, takes matters in his own hands and starts a chain of violence, and a war between a lonely but very determined woman, and Ebbing’s entire law enforcement contingent.

This movie tells a story, and we like our stories. It is very well-acted, it makes us think about justice and about life – which often brings us much adversity – sometimes seemingly too much to bear. There are no bad guys in this movie, only bad circumstances. And the ending is surprisingly satisfying.


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I am an artist, a painter, and you would think I’d have known more about the artist who created the two most famous paintings in history. Sadly, I knew pretty much only his name: Leonardo da Vinci.

The second most famous painting in history is The Last Supper. It is featured every year as the “grand finale” of the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters. And every year it is a new, powerful image.

Of course, the most famous painting in the world is the Mona Lisa. It is also the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, and the most parodied work of art in the world [Wikipedia]. It is also widely believed to be the most valuable painting in the world.

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. He was not just an artist, but an engineer, a scientist, an inventor, and a relentless researcher. He wrote thousands of pages of note books, filled with ideas, speculations, checklists, drawings, designs and drafts throughout his life. Through his writing, we know a lot about him, but on the other hand, a lot of mystery surrounds the man and his history.

Walter Isaacson, the author of the biographies of Steve Jobs and Einstein, guides us through the life of Leonardo da Vinci from birth to death. We see the artist grow from his humble beginnings as an illegitimate son of a Florence notary, to a true superstar of art who consorted with the most powerful people in the world at the beginning of the 16th century. Leonardo was at the peak of his game around the same time when Columbus first reached the New World. The world was very different then, and reading this biography, I learned a lot about the world in those years, and about the pursuit of art.

Now I feel like I know Leonardo da Vinci. I would like to visit him in his later years with a time machine and bring him back to my house. I’d have him ride in my Prius with some Mozart playing off my iPhone through the sound system. I’d show him how I could make a phone call from a moving car to the other side of the world. We’d go to the airport and I’d buy first class tickets to Washington, DC. I’d let him have the window seat and look out over the world from 36,000 feet. Once in DC, I’d take him to the National Gallery of Art and guide him to the Ginevra de’ Benci, the only original da Vinci located in the Americas and therefore the only da Vinci original I have ever seen with my own eyes. He would recognize his own greatness in the history of the western world.

And now I know I need to – as soon as I can manage it – go to the Louvre in Paris and see the Mona Lisa and all the other da Vinci originals there. I know there’ll be crowds of people. I know there’ll be lines. I know I won’t be able to get near the painting. But I know I’ll stand there and I’ll wonder who all has stood in front of that painting over the years, over the centuries and marveled about it. Did Vincent van Gogh ever go and see the Mona Lisa? Did Bob Dylan? Did Pablo Picasso? Did Frieda Kahlo? Did Henry Miller? Did Benjamin Franklin?

Maybe they all did, but someday not so far out, I will have gone – inspired by Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci.


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The Disaster Artist is a pretty good movie about the making of the worst movie in the history of  the world, The Room, which I reviewed here.

I found it hilariously funny, and I must admit that I laughed more out loud than I remember laughing in a movie in a long time. Maybe it was because of the infectious laughs of my son, daughter and son-in-law who took me, maybe it’s because the rest of the theater was laughing, or, just maybe it’s because The Disaster Artist is just a great comedy by itself.

To understand The Disaster Artist, and to really enjoy it, I think you have to have watched The Room. I am not sure if the movie would be funny without knowing the background, the true story of the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau, a crackpot goof-ball who spent over six million dollars of his own money to make a vanity movie of epic badness.

Be that as it may, The Room is forever a cult classic, and The Disaster Artist may well generate some Oscars.

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Movie Review: Lady Bird

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior in high school in Sacramento, California in 2002.  She does not like her name and gave herself the name Lady Bird. She signs as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is a strong-willed person but not very good at being a mother. She routinely and methodically puts down her daughter, denigrates her, and shows her with actions and words that she does not respect her. Yet, as mothers are wont to do, she loves her, and Lady Bird desperately needs her approval. Her father (Tracy Letts) is a computer programmer who lost his job. He is passive, beaten down but he loves his children and wants their best, yet, he knows he can’t help them. He suffers from depression. There is also her brother and his girlfriend who live with the family in the little three-bedroom house that the parents bought 25 years ago and never dreamed they would be stuck in all their lives.

Lady Bird copes with coming of age in a depressed family, during an economic downturn, desperately trying to have good friends, first love, and a future at a college in New York that will cost much more than her mother can afford working double shifts as a nurse. But life does not cooperate, at least most of the time.

The movie Lady Bird plays in Sacramento, California. I have, through my work, visited Sacramento often over the last two decades, and there are many scenes where I recognized the background down to the camera angle, particularly at the airport, and by the Tower Bride near Old Town. Sacramento looks romantically beautiful in this movie, much more so than it ever did to me in the real world. I enjoyed how the cinematographers pulled out the beauty and mood.

This film is the debut of director Greta Gerwig. It reminded me a bit of the 2008 movie Juno, another story of a young girl who asserts herself in an adversarial world.

With a score of 100% on the Tomatometer, you probably should not miss this film. It makes you think, it makes you remember your own youth and how hard it was to be accepted, to go your own way, and to overcome your own family and the yoke it can put on you.

Lady Bird is a really good movie.

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After I read Two Years Before the Mast I was inspired to learn more about sailing in the mid-nineteenth century.

John Whidden was born in 1832 and lost both of his parents by age five. He lived with his grandparents. When he was fourteen, he felt a calling to go to sea.

In those days, “boys” served on ships along with the crew, mostly performing menial tasks of all types, and “learning the ropes.” Usually families placed the boys with a captain they knew and trusted. Voyages by merchant ships, for instance from Boston to India and back, could easily take more than a year.

A ship had several classes of crew: The captain, the officers, usually a first officer or mate, a second mate, sometimes a third mate, depending on the size of the vessel, a cook, a carpenter, a steward, the sailors, and a few boys.

John Whidden tells his own story. He worked his way from ship’s boy to sailor to officer to captain in less than twelve years. By the time he was 26 years old he sailed the world’s oceans as a ship’s captain.

His stories are simple, easy to read, sometimes funny and entertaining, and, above all, very educational. I learned much about shipping on sailing vessels and the lifestyles of the crews.

Here is a sample:

I have, in a previous chapter, spoken of the large variety of cockroaches on board the ship “Brutus,” Calcutta trader. Across the docks, opposite the “Danube,” lay the ship “Guiding Star,” Captain Small, just out from Boston, where she had discharged a Calcutta cargo. This ship was literally alive with roaches, but at the time I did not know it.

In the evening I went on board to make Captain Small a social call, and when, after passing a very pleasant hour, he invited me to spend the night with him, I accepted, and he gave me his stateroom, taking a spare room for himself.

Retiring about eleven o’clock, and pulling off my boots, I disrobed and turned in, sleeping soundly until morning, when I arose, and proceeding to dress, found nothing left of my boots but the soles and straps. All outside of these resembled a piece of brown tissue paper perforated with tiny holes.

On asking Captain Small about it, he explained that he meant to have told me to put everything, including my boots, in the basket at the head of the bed, but he forgot it! The cockroaches had eaten them in the night, and the captain’s forgetfulness cost me a new pair of boots. However, he was good enough to loan me a pair to put on.

— Whidden, John D.. Ocean Life in the Old Sailing Ship Days (Kindle Locations 3247-3257). Roquelaure House. Kindle Edition.

Anyone interested in history, sailing, the merchant marines, and life at sea will greatly enjoy this delightful book.

 

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