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Archive for the ‘Two and a Half Stars’ Category

DuPont is one of the world’s largest corporations, and apparently one of the world’s most brazen polluters.

Dark Waters starts when a farmer with a box of videos walks into a law firm asking for help. He has farmed his land all of his life, but when DuPont bought the land next to his farm and started a landfill, the water in his creek quickly became poisonous.  All the livestock on his farm is dying. He finds grotesque deformities and strange behavior.

This movie is inspired by this true story and sequence of events that takes us from the 1960s to the current time. Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) is an attorney who works at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio defending DuPont. He eventually switches sides and takes on DuPont on behalf of the people in his home town in West Virginia. He is quickly ostracized by his peers, and even shunned by the townspeople. After all, DuPont is the main employer there, the company that puts bread on everyone’s table. They don’t want to know that the company also makes them all sick.

Reminiscent of Erin Brockovich or even Karen Silkwood’s true stories, Robert Bilott’s quest to get justice for his clients goes way beyond just a lawsuit.

We were shocked watching this movie, and we promptly, the next day, threw out our existing Teflon frying pans that we had been using for years and got new ones.

You just have to watch Dark Waters to find out why.

 

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Nicholas Hook was a common 19-year-old man in England in 1413. He had one gift: He was a superb archer and as a result he ended up in the army of King Henry V invading France. Henry V thought he was the rightful heir to the French throne, in addition to the English, and he thought God was on this side in his quest to claim what was rightfully his.

This story is about the legendary battle of Agincourt, about which many scholars of history have written numerous books. It tells the story of that invasion in vivid detail from the point of view of the common man. We get drawn into the lives of the people, the thinking of the nobility and the clergy at the end of  medieval Europe during the Hundred Years’ War.

Life was rough. Lords had the power of gods and could do anything they wanted. Clergy was revered and utterly corrupt. All evil deeds were somehow done on behest of God and great suffering was inflicted on the people, through taxation, backbreaking labor, and relentless abuse. During war, the boys and men of the losers were killed, and the women raped and enslaved. This was just how life was.

Agincourt is full of terrible, endless violence. Here is an example of a battle scene:

“Stay tight, stay tight!” Sir John bellowed, making sure there was a man to his left and Sir William to his right. You fought shoulder to shoulder to give the enemy no room to pierce the line, and Sir John’s men-at-arms were fighting as he had trained them to fight. They had stepped over the first fallen Frenchmen and the second line of English were lifting enemy visors and sliding knives into the eyes or mouths of the wounded to stop them from striking up from the ground. Frenchmen screamed when they saw the blade coming, they twisted in the mud to escape the quick stabs, they died in spasms, and still more came to be hammered or chopped or crushed. Some Frenchmen, reckoning themselves safe from arrows, had lifted their visors and Sir John slammed the poleax’s spike into a man’s face, twisting it as it pierced the eye socket, dragging it back jellied and bloodied, watching as the man, in frantic dying pain, flailed and impeded more Frenchmen. Sir William Porter was stabbing his lance at men’s faces. One blow was usually enough to unbalance an enemy and Sir William’s other neighbor would finish the job with a hammer blow. Sir William, usually a quiet and studious man, was growling and snarling as he picked his victims. “God’s blood, William,” Sir John shouted, “but this is joy!”

— Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt (p. 402). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

A good third of the book describes such atrocities. Skulls crushed by hammers and axes, a thousand eyes poked out by knives, swords rammed into bowels and twisted up to the lungs and hearts.

It is graphic and realistic, but it was too much for me. At times I’d start skimming over the battle scenes, as I simply didn’t need to know about every stabbed eye socket anymore, and I wanted to move on.

This was my first Cornwell book. It was recommended to me by colleagues as great historical fiction, and I found that it is. There are countless other Cornwell books, probably just as vivid and graphic. It was well written and very educational, but unlike other fans of Cornwell that end up binge-reading all his books, I think I am done and ready for other subjects.

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Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome who lives in a residential nursing home because he has no relatives and is under the supervision of the Department of Social Services with the state. He feels imprisoned, and realizes that he does not belong there. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is tasked to keep watch over him and take care of him. She does it with kindness and dedication.

But Zak needs to get out. His dream is to become a professional wrestler, and he wants to start by enrolling in the wrestling school run by his idol, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), in Florida. With a little help from his elderly roommate and friend (Bruce Dern) he breaks out one night and does not come back. He runs into an outlaw on the run named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and the unlikely pair team up against all odds and start heading south. First stop: Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school.

Reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine, a group of unlikely underdogs make their journey and come out better on the other side.

This is a feel-good movie for all of us and it makes us think about our place in society, and those who are not as fortunate as we are.

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In 1968, when I was a young boy of 12, I enjoyed learning about cars. I was impressed with the Ford Mustang, but my all-time favorite car was the Ford GT40. Of course, I never, ever saw one in real life. I had to be satisfied with pictures.

Ford built the GT40 as a race car, specifically designed to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race that was dominated by Ferrari in the early 1960s. One of the requirements to compete in the Le Mans was that the company had to build at least 25 road-going versions of the car they were racing. Ford built 31 GT40 Mk I street cars. Nowadays they sell at auctions for over three million dollars each.

The first time I ever saw a GT40 in real life was at the Escondido Hot Summer Nights a few years ago. Escondido is my home town. On Friday nights in the summer, they close down Grand Ave for an all-town party. Car lovers bring in their babies by the dozens, maybe hundreds.  All the restaurants are open, and it makes for a great outing – and an occasional sighing of a classic, like the Ford GT40.

The movie Ford v Ferrari tells the story of the legendary American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who worked with Ford on the GT40, and the daring driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale), as they built a car from scratch, in record time, against all odds, to beat Ferrari at the Le Mans.

The movie is over two-and-a-half hours long, but worth every minute of it.

Christian Bale did an amazing job in this movie. He had to lose a large amount of weight to fit the role. Remember, this is the same actor that played Dick Cheney in the movie Vice in 2018. See this article for a picture of the same man for these two extreme roles. I find he is unrecognizable.

I didn’t know much about racing in the 1960s, and this movie taught me a lot. And I got to see the Ford GT40 in action. What more could this 12-year-old boy in the body of a 63-year-old man want on a movie night?

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JoJo Rabbit is a satire. It is cartoonish and grotesque, and for the first half of the movie I really didn’t know what to do with it. It plays with an intense subject matter, the Jewish prosecution in Nazi Germany and how it was possible for an entire nation of people to be led to play along with such an obscene objective.

We all know it happened. JoJo Rabbit tells the story of a lonely and awkward 10-year-old German boy named JoJo who, as all children of his time, joined the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), an organization that brainwashed children from an early age by subjecting them to Nazi doctrine and the personality cult Hitler fostered. Peer pressure did the rest. Create a “family” of like-minded people, in this case children, who are told that their mission is a noble one of creating a pure and good empire and eradicate all bad, ugly, evil and low, and you have an entire generation of followers who never knew otherwise and think nothing of ratting out their own parents for the good of the country.

When JoJo finds a Jewish girl hidden in the attic in their house, it creates a conflict for him that he does not know how to work through.

JoJo Rabbit exposes what went on during the Nazi regime, and it makes us think about what is happening today. We vilify foreigners, especially a certain type of foreigner, we build walls to keep us protected from them by supposedly keeping them out. We know the walls don’t work, they never did, they never will, but we tell our children and our people who do not think for themselves that walls are good, and the illusion feeds on itself. We hold up an emperor, and it does not matter if he wears any clothes. We follow him, because we don’t know what else to do to solve our problems.

When the emperor starts killing and putting uniforms on 10-year-old boys so they can go out and die, the people still follow because they don’t know any better.

JoJo Rabbit shows how this works.

It disturbed and unsettled me.

 

 

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I usually don’t like musicals. When the actors in the beginning of Rocketman all of a sudden stopped talking and started singing, it had me pause. But Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John, who is one of the great singers and songwriters of pop music history. A little musical extravaganza with actors singing and dancing to make their point provides just the right mood.

Elton John burst onto the music scene in 1969 and his career exploded in the early 1970ies. In those years he was the best-selling musician in the world, rivaled only by Stevie Wonder.

Rocketman tells the story Elton John’s life, his childhood dominated by inept and emotionally abusive parents, and the discovery of his talent of being able to listen to a melody and instantly playing it back on the piano. When he crossed paths with Bernie Taupin, who would become a lifetime friend, their collaboration made creative sparks fly and changed pop music history. Most singer and songwriters write their music and then compose lyrics to fit them. Elton and Bernie worked the other way around. Bernie wrote poetry, gave the lyrics to Elton, who pondered the words, built the music around it, and sang it with his characteristic voice. The outcome was true pop music magic.

I was just entering my teenage years, and I remember clearly New Year’s Eve 1973 when I was with my friends, we were awaiting the New Year while with were playing cards, and Crocodile Rock was playing in the background. In the years that followed, Elton John and his music had a huge influence on me and my coming of age.

I remember as an 18-year-old, lying on the carpet next to the stereo with the headphones on listening to the Madman Across the Water and Captain Fantastic albums.

Rocketman brought back all of those memories and feelings.

What I didn’t know was how bad Elton John’s substance abuse was at that time, how destructive it was for all those around him, and how much he suffered from it. This movie, which celebrates his life and musical genius, also serves as one “hell of a warning” to everyone about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.

The actor Taron Egerton, portraying Elton, sings all his own songs in Rocketman. I was skeptical about this approach before I went to see the movie. After all, how do you imitate the voice of a legend who is a legend partly because of his voice? It seemed impossible, but it worked. Elton John’s music powers through the movie and keeps a relentless pace. For those of us that grew up with that music it is a joy to watch. I don’t know if it has the same impact on the younger generation.

 

 

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Instant Family is about a middle-class couple with no children, who are re-evaluating their lives. He (Mark Wahlberg) is a contractor who buys and flips houses. When they investigate adoption, they find out that the first step is becoming foster parents. They go through the training and eventually, at a big meet-up picnic, find a 15-year-old girl who comes with two smaller siblings. And thus starts the adventure of a white working class couple picking up an instant family of three Latino kids.

The foster parent community is a special one, and it has its challenges. Natural parents can show up all of a sudden, and the kids you have just gotten used to could be taken away from you overnight.

Instant Family is a better movie than I expected it to be. There is some slapstick like humor that is a bit over the top, but it’s tastefully done. It puts a spotlight on the plight of children who either have no parents, or whose parents are so unreliable that the kids need to take care of themselves. It’s a part of our society that we don’t really think too much about unless we’re in the middle of it.

The human drama comes through, and it brought out a few tears as the story progressed. I am glad I watched Instant Family. It entertained me, I learned, and it pulled me in emotionally. At the end, it was wonderfully, if predictably, satisfying.

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We all know Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel as the kings of Hollywood comedy in the 1940s and 1950s. Everyone knows them as Stan and Ollie, or Laurel and Hardy, or, as I knew them as a young boy in Germany in the 1960s, “Dick und Doof.” Their comedy is timeless. It worked for me in this biographical movie today as it worked for me when I was a child.

Stan & Ollie plays in 1953, when the duo went on a tour in Britain. They were older, and carrying their own suitcases was starting to be a challenge. The tour was depressingly slow at first but gradually built into a success. However, Ollie’s health was failing, and their partnership began to show the cracks of age.

What I didn’t know until now was that Stan, who played the feeble-minded of the duo, was actually the creative genius behind their comedy, and the business man, driving them forward to comedy success and financial reward. I enjoyed seeing Stan transform himself from a thoughtful, caring, clever and hardworking showman to a doofus klutz the moment he walked onto the stage, time and again.

Stan & Ollie tells the story or Laurel and Hardy as they come to terms at the twilight of their long and successful career.

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Vice is a biopic about Dick Cheney’s life. Cheney is played by Christian Bale, and his wife by Amy Adams.

How did a quiet man from Wyoming of humble beginnings become arguably the most powerful man in the world during the George W. Bush presidency?

Cheney reshaped our world. First, he made sure that he and Bush won the election in 2000. Bush won against Gore by less than 600 votes in Florida, as far as the world knows. What would have happened if Gore had won just his own home state and therefore the presidency? We will never know. Because Cheney was in charge.

After the terrible events of September 11, 2001, Cheney took the reins and shaped the world to his liking. What he did affected all of us, all over the world.

This movie guides us through Cheney’s life, and gives us a glimpse of his reasoning and motives. The likeness Christian Bale achieves at times is eerie. There is also a very powerful performance by Steve Carell playing Donald Rumsfeld and a hilarious one by Sam Rockwell, playing George W. Bush. Rockwell does not quite look enough like Bush to be convincing, but when you close your eyes and listen to him talk, he really comes to life.

I enjoyed the film, and I didn’t like Cheney any better when it was over than I did when I walked in. I just had more insight.

We live in a frightening world, where men with immense power can do horrific things to thousands, no, millions of others.

 

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Tesla has changed the landscape of the automotive industry. Musk, through sheer vision and will, made that happen. Other people certainly could also have done it, but it would have taken longer. The large automotive firms, like Toyota, Daimler-Benz, BMW, GM, Ford, Nissan, all could have started the revolution, but they didn’t. Just like Checker Cabs could have become the Uber, but didn’t. It takes vision and grit to make a revolution happen. Musk had both, the started something unique, he started something big. In the the end, Tesla might not succeed, but the movement will certainly survive and there will be electric vehicles everywhere.

In Insane Mode, McKenzie guides us through that revolution and gives us the back story. He also shares some of his own thoughts and vision on just what an impactful revolution the electrification of automobiles actually brings, and how much it will change the way we live, work and play.

Insane Mode will change the way you think about electric vehicles. If you have an enterprising mind, it will make you ponder where you might apply your own ingenuity in the tremendous opportunities the near future offers.

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Bobby showed up for his first day at Sullivan Community College in upstate New York in the fall of 1980. As he crossed the campus, checked in for college and went to his dorm, girls came up and kissed him, guys slapped him on the back, and everyone seemed to welcome him. Finally, a friend figured it out. “Were you adopted?” he asked? “You have a twin brother.”

Together they called that brother, Eddie, who had dropped out of Sullivan CC the year before. Bobby and Eddie met soon after and were stunned when they looked at each other. The story made it into the newspapers and the national media. Soon, a third boy in New York recognized himself in the pictures and contacted the paper. Now there were all three of them, David, Bobby and Eddie, with three different surnames, all born on July 12, 1961, separated and adopted by three different families.

The boys and the families didn’t know they were part of a larger experiment. Only slowly did they find out. The debate of nature vs. nurture is central to this documentary.

Three Identical Strangers is a heartwarming documentary about human nature, raising children, and what upbringing can effect in a person’s life. It is a story well told. Initially a feel-good story, it eventually unravels into a dark tale of deception, where the innocent subjects find their entire lives upset, confused and shocked.

In Three Identical Strangers they tell their story to all of us.

Here is an article that provides more background you might read after you watch the film.

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Moondust came out in 2006 when Andrew Smith had set out to interview the twelve men who had walked on the moon. At the time, there were only nine alive. Three had already passed away.

Smith has an easy-to-read, colloquial style, and he weaves background stories about the astronauts in with the core interviews and tries to get answers to the most fundamental question we all have: What was it like to be on the moon?

We learn trivia about the intense competition in the early astronaut corps, and what their families went through during those years. We also get to know the men themselves, from the taciturn and almost reclusive Neil Armstrong to the gregarious and visionary Buzz Aldrin, and all the other astronauts that followed them on their journey.

Smith juxtaposes the moon landing over his own life as a boy in Orinda, California, and what he remembers happened to him on that historic day.

Moondust is at times a bit hard to follow. Its structure and the jumps back and forth and from one astronaut to the other sometimes left me guessing and mildly confused, but I was able to get past that. The tidbits of information, the insight, and the obvious awe the author has for the adventure of the 1960s came through and made it a worthwhile read.

Sadly, as I write this, of the twelve men who walked on the moon, only four are alive anymore. That includes  88-year-old Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), 85-year-old David Scott (Apollo 15), 82-year-old Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) and 82-year-old Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).

In addition to the missions that landed on the moon, there were a total of nine Apollo missions that left earth orbit and went to orbit the moon: Apollo 8, Apollo 10 and Apollo 13.

The total number of men who left earth orbit is 24 and 12 of those are still alive today.

Only 12 people are with us today in the history of mankind who have seen the earth as a pale blue marble in the black of space, and only four of those have walked on a body other than the earth. All of them are now well into their eighties or older.

I was a 12-year-old boy when I watched the first moon landing. I was sure I would be traveling to the moon as a tourist and spending time in a moon hotel by the time my retirement age came around. I was dreaming big, and I was inspired.

Yet, at this time, humanity has not sent anyone to the moon in over 46 years. The United States does not even have the capability to launch humans into space, not even to low-earth orbit. The only two nations that can do that now are Russia and China. The lack of vision and engagement by our people and our government has starved us out of adventures we took for granted 50 years ago.

Moondust by Andrew Smith made me marvel about all this and it fired up my imagination.

 

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First Man follows Neil Armstrong from 1961 to 1969 on his journey to be the first man to step on the moon.

We are in the space capsule with Armstrong and his fellow astronauts as they are launched, and we are in the homes and at backyard BBQs of the men and women in the early space program.

In the media, and in our nostalgic memories, we think of going into space as a romantic endeavor. Watching First Man changes this, as we witness the tremendous forces acting on the fragile human body as it is strapped into a couch on top of a gigantic rocket. We see the fear and the emotional and physical stress in the eyes of the astronauts as they embark on missions where a million moving parts have to hold together, and a million sequences of events have to work perfectly, over a period of many days, and where any failure of any type results in catastrophe – and death of the astronauts.

Armstrong was a cool dude who did not get rattled, either by a crash during a test flight of his experimental craft from which he bailed out literally a fraction of a second before it exploded, nor by the fury and agony of his wife who chastises him when he does not want to face his boys before leaving on his historic journey. History has shown that Armstrong’s steel nerves and calm under pressure made the mission successful.

I was a twelve-year-old boy who was allowed to stay up all night on July 20, 1969. Armstrong stepped onto the moon in the wee hours of the morning local time in Germany. And I remember being in awe, and being inspired, and looking forward to a life where I knew I would eventually be able to travel to the moon as tourist and visit the Apollo-11 landing site as a historic museum exhibit. It is now over 49 years later, and I realize that I had no idea that the Apollo landings would not just be the first landings on the moon, but  possibly also the last ones – in my lifetime.

I enjoyed First Man a lot. I have come criticisms. This is a movie review, after all:

I liked the flying and technical scenes, and I didn’t care too much about all the stuff at home and in the back yard. The acting was okay, but didn’t blow me away.

We saw a lot of footage of shake, rattle and roll, first in 1961 when Armstrong did a test flight in an X-15 where he literally skipped outside of the atmosphere by accident, then during the Gemini launch, then when the capsule went into an uncontrolled roll, and finally, when Apollo-11 launched. There was too much footage of launches from the point of view of the astronauts, but no re-entries, no landings, no recovery on the water, all the good stuff. The missions jumped forward days at a time skipping sequences that would have been interesting to me. There wasn’t a single shot of the large, looming moon during the journey there, nor any expression of awe by the journeyers. The real action that I was there to see went by too fast.

We caught glimpses of the life of Neil Armstrong and his family, but we didn’t get a good enough look at the space program, and that’s what I went to see when I bought the ticket for First Man. It was a long movie, at 138 minutes, and those minutes could have been used more effectively.

That being said, I am glad I went.

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Set in the last ice age in Europe, a tribe of Cro-Magnon men goes on a hunting trip. Keda, the chief’s son, comes along for the first time. His proud father is teaching him how to hunt, and how to be a man. But during the hunt things go horribly wrong, a buffalo charges Keda and throws him off a steep cliff. The hunting party can only assume he is dead and eventually they leave, the distraught father almost being dragged away by his friends.

Miraculously, the boy survives and must now fend for himself, fight off predators, and somehow find his way home, before winter comes and makes travel impossible. When a pack of wolves attack him,  he barely escapes into a tree, but he injures one of them. The wolf and the boy reluctantly form a bond and protect each other as they try to journey home. He calls the wolf Alpha.

Alpha is a survival movie. We see and feel how prehistoric people lived and survived. The landscape didn’t look like Europe 20,000 years ago to me, but rather more like South Dakota, but that is a minor point. I liked the fact that the tribe didn’t speak English. That would have been too easy and too distracting. They spoke their own language, accompanied by easy to read subtitles. This helped make the film more realistic.

I marvel about prehistory, and how unlikely it was that men survived at all, and how amazing it is that we’re all here today, descendants of these very Cro-Magnon men. If you have ever speculated how humans first started domesticating dogs, this is the movie to watch.

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I didn’t grow up as a boy in America, so I didn’t actually know the story of Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals, including the iconic Winnie the Pooh, the donkey Eeyore and of course, the piglet.

Watching this movie has caught me up. It’s a story about the boy Christopher who grew up in the Hundred Acre Wood, access to which is through a magical tree.

The movie is portrayed to be “not just for children” and so The Woman talked me into going to see it with her. Ok, yes, it was heartwarming, not even as corny as I expected it to be, and the acting was actually pretty good.

But I have to say – this is a movie for children – really. It’s about important lessons in life.

Take your kids!

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