28 October 2021

Eight Suggested Double Feature, All Featuring Female Leads


Regular readers of this blog (Edlerberry Winthorp of Bellow Falls, Vermont) may recall that last year I offered my second post suggesting double features for your viewing pleasure. I finally noticed that every one of those films centered around a male character or characters. I therefore determined to provide this third iteration in the series, now with movies featuring strong female leads.

Ninotchka (1939) Lubitsch and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Russell — Love Against the Odds. Greta Garbo and Jennifer Lawrence fall in love with characters played by Melvyn Douglass and Bradley Cooper, respectively. But as the great bard said, “the course of true love never did run smooth.” Garbo must overcome the small matter of being a cog in the wheel of the immense Soviet bureaucracy in the 1930s while her beloved is a count living in France. As for Lawrence her intended is struggling with emotional issues — then again, so is she. For either one to be on the same page as anyone else is a struggle. For this pair to sort out their romance seems an impossibility. Spoiler alert: in both films, love prevails and in both cases it’s damn entertaining stuff. Ninotchka is the very embodiment of a classic comedy, directed by Lubitsch with a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Silver Linings deals honestly with mental illness, if with a light touch. The cast includes a bloke named Robert DeNiro.

Vivre Sa vie (1962) Godard and Nights of Cabiria (1957) Fellini — Struggles In the World’s Oldest Profession. Anna Karina and Julietta Musina are both ladies of the night who long for better days. Neither one enjoy a happy fate, but their stories make for engaging viewing and they are two of my favorite female leads of any genre. They are in their own ways wise women who are victims of deeply ingrained sexism. Their fates may seem inevitable but even with repeat viewings, we root them on. Vivre sa vie (my life to live) is my favorite Godard film and Karina is one reason why. She is stoic, she is thoughtful, she is powerless, she is powerful, she is beautiful, she is vulnerable. She contradictorily accepts her fate while challenging it. The twelve episodes that make up the film are wonderfully individual yet connected. It's remarkable that the film clocks in at under ninety minutes yet is so rich. Nights is one of several masterpieces by Fellini. Cabiria is a fun-loving woman who wants out of "the life" and to attain that end she saves her money. There is a spirit to this character that is totally engaging to audiences and she is impossible not to root for. Our heart breaks for but we also celebrate her indomitable spirit.

Little Women
Little Women (2019) Gerwig and The Suicide Virgins (1999) S. Coppola Sisterhood is Powerful. Different times, different pressures, different circumstances. The siblings in Little Women have supportive parents and enjoy their freedom. While the girls of  Suicide Virgins, though living in the supposedly enlightened late 20th century, are victims of parental oppression. These are excellent films about the power and limits of sisterhood. Little Women is a familiar story having lived in American culture for over 150 years with numerous film adaptations. It mixes soaring ambition, family love, tragedy, success and romance. The trite phrase, timeless classic applies. The Suicide Virgins in my estimation, also deserves to be considered a classic. This was Sofia Coppola's directorial debut and she hit out of the ballpark. Here we have five siblings who, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt by one sibling, are closely monitored by their overly protective, uber religious parents. The story is told from the perspective of the male classmates who are fascinated by the sisters. It is an engaging story from beginning to the inevitable end. Kirsten Dunst steals the show.

Juno (2007) J. Reitman and Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always (2020) Hittman — Teen Pregnancy. Two movies about teenagers — both still in high school — who become pregnant. Juno has the baby then puts it up for adoption. In Never Rarely, the protagonist, who does not enjoy the loving brood that Juno does, travels to New York with a cousin for an abortion. In both cases our protagonist has the power of choice and we root her on. Juno was a main stream success starring the then Ellen Page along with Michael Cera. It is a charming story with broad appeal that deftly mixes comedy and drama. It received several Oscar nods, including one for best picture. Never, Rarely is in no way a comedy and was not widely seen, though critically acclaimed. This is a far heavier tale about the grim reality of a teenager seeking an abortion in the big city. I thought it was one of the best films of 2020.

Blonde Venus (1932) von Sternberg and Morocco (1930) von Sternberg -- Marlene Stands By Her Men. What can be better than a Marlene Dietrich double feature, with both films directed by her frequent collaborator, Joseph von Sternberg? Both films feature some of Dietrich’s signature musical numbers. In Morocco, Dietrich gives up everything for the man she loves (Gary Cooper) while in Blonde Venus, her self-sacrificing character has an affair that leads to a custody battle that leads to life on the road and eventually to reconciliation with her hubby (Herbert Marshall). Dietrich plays a night club singer in both and in both she, at least temporarily, gives up her career to be with the man she loves. In Blonde Venus she performs several numbers, most notably "Hot Voodoo" in a gorilla suit. Her signature performance in Morocco is of "What Am I Bid for this Apple?" done in a man's tuxedo.

The Lady Eve
The Lady Eve (1941) Sturges and All About Eve (1950) Mankiewicz --Scheming Eves. In the great Preston Sturges film, Eve (Barbara Stanwyck) seeks to bilk a scion Charlies Pike (Henry Fonda) out of a chunk of the family fortune but then falls in love. However Pike is told of Eve's past and breaks off their engagement. The embittered Eve seeks revenge by posing as another woman for Pike to fall in love with. Her plans go awry when, again, she falls for the poor sap. The Lady Eve is one of the great screwball comedies of all time highlighted by the Stanwyck-Fonda pairing, but immeasurably aided by a typically stellar Sturges supporting cast. In our other film the Eve in question (Anne Baxter) looks to supplant the great actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in the theater world. Eve maneuvers herself into Channing's inner circle, acting the innocent ingenue. But she has other plans which not only threaten Channing's career, but her relationships as well. Simply put, this Eve is a real stinker.

The Letter (1940) Wyler and Tess (1979) Polanski — Murderess, She Wrote. The Letter starts with a murder of a lover and Tess ends with one. Both women leave behind men who love them. Bette Davis in The Letter escapes legal jeopardy, but revenge is extracted and she pays the ultimate price. This is my favorite Bette Davis film, she may have been as good in others, but never better. She's not only a murderer and a cheat but a liar -- and a pretty good one at that. Natasha Kinski in Tess does not escape the long arm of the law after killing the lover she never wanted. Tess is a victim of rigid social mores in a terribly sexist society where women have no legal rights and must adhere strictly to a rigid moral code that does not apply to men. Kinski is radiant as the gorgeous, vulnerable, resilient ill-fated title character. The film is an absolute masterpiece directed by Roman Polanski.

Ida (2013) Pawlikowski and Viridiana (1961) Bunuel — To Nun or not to Nun. Two stories about young women who choose to marry god, both of whom are tempted by the secular world. One succumbs, but the other remains true to her calling. Ida is a Polish film from director Paweł Pawlikowski and Viridiana a Mexican production from the great Luis Bunuel. Ida won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, the first Polish film to do so. The title character is about to take her vows when told she must meet her aunt, a former Communist state prosecutor and only surviving relative, who tells her that her parents were Jewish. The two women embark on a road trip into the Polish countryside to learn the fate of their relatives. On the journey Ida experiences and enjoys aspects of the secular life. Viridiana is similarly set to take her vows when called away. In her case by an uncle. The uncle turns out to be a sexual predator who covets Viridiana and from his attempts to "take her" our story takes different twists and turns leaving Viridiana to choose between two lives. 

25 October 2021

Trick or Treat or Horror Film? Movies to Get You Through the Season of Ghouls and Goblins

The Bride of Frankenstein 

During the first three years of this blog, I presented, at this time of year, a list of recommended Halloween films. The last one appeared in 2010.  A fourth iteration of the post seems way overdue. So here then is a reprinting of the post from eleven years ago.

It is my pleasure to bring to you my third annual Halloween appropriate films post. Last year I added a few films. This year I've nothing to add, so comprehensive were my first two posts. The paragraph below is from last year's post.

Last October I wrote a widely acclaimed post with recommended Halloween season films for your viewing pleasure. As a service to my readers (both of us) I am reproducing that post in toto below. As an added bonus I am suggesting a half dozen other Halloween appropriate films that you may enjoy, all good for scare, a laugh or at least your amusement. Within this post you'll find films that feature isolated castles, terrifying ghosts, hideous monsters, strange apparitions, mysterious powers, blood curdling screams and things that go bump in the night. Most of all you'll find some wonderful cinematic alternatives to bumming candy off your neighbors or enduring a silly costume party.

Hollywood has been churning out horror films since the silent era. Sadly, the genre has recently morphed into slasher films that emphasize gratuitous gore. But there's still plenty to choose from from days of yore. Here's a sampling of choices for your Halloween viewing pleasure.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Not just the best of the classic horror films of the Thirties, a wonderful film in its own right. The great James Whale's direction along with an intelligent script for a seemingly preposterous story outshine even the magical performance of Boris Karloff. Colin "it's Alive!" Clive is the now conflicted scientist and Elsa Lanchester is the blushing young bride. But Ernest Thesiger as the evil Dr. Pretorious is an absolute scene-stealer. This is a must-see film.

Frankenstein (1931) How about a shout out for the original? While out-shined by the sequel it’s still an excellent film. Clive, Karloff and the angry mob star. Excellent cinematography and some touching moments highlight this classic.

The Old Dark House (1932) It was a dark and stormy night. Let's see a group of travelers seek refuge from a driving rainstorm in a forbidding looking mansion. What could go wrong? You'll see. The residents are a decidedly odd lot with a temperamental butler. The amazing cast includes Melvyn Douglass, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Charles Laughton that man Karloff again and the delightful Thesiger (watch and listen as he offers his guests potatoes). This is my third straight Whale selection. Obviously he had the Gothic horror story down cold.

Alien (1979) No, no, no it's not science fiction it's a horror film. This time the role of the haunted mansion is played by a space ship and the victims/heroes are astronauts. This does not change the fact that all the elements of the horror film are at work. While the Alien is terrifying (and set the standard for many years to come) it's those moments when it is lurking off screen that are tense and scary.

The Exorcist (1973) I was reading the book in college on a weekend when my roommates all happened to be out of town. I slept in the living room with lights on and though not a religious man I've worn a cross around my neck ever since. The movie is just as frightening even after repeat viewings.  An innocent young lass is possessed by the devil (don't you just hate that?). Satan is profane, duplicitous and oh so dangerous. A great film by any standard.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) I like this better than the original (my God I've got a sequel and a re-make on this list, who'd have thunk). An absolutely terrifying concept expertly done by director Philip Kaufman. Alien clones are invading bodies and the human race is in peril. Will star Donald Sutherland save humanity or fall victim to this alien plot? The very notion of retaining your human form but your mind being taken over is chilling (hey, that sounds like Scientology!).

Psycho (1960) I know you've seen it a few times already but like a lot of Hitchcock's finest it gets better with each viewing. It never loses its suspense (how did Hitch do that?).  Just don't think about it in the shower. Janet Leigh and Vera Miles star along with the creepy Anthony Perkins and his..um "mom."

Young Frankenstein (1974) Why not some Halloween chuckles? I've never been a huge Mel Brooks fan but I love this film. This is, of course, the classic send off of the Frankenstein film with Gene Wilder as the doctor and Peter Boyle as the monster. The all-star cast includes Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman as the funniest Igor you'll ever see.

The Ring (2002) What's this? I have a film of recent vintage? Yes. I obviously quite liked it. It's a mystery as much as a horror film (many scary movies are) with an intelligent plot. The opportunity to enjoy Naomi Watts is a plus. She's both a great beauty and a great actress.

The Shining (1980) If he'd a mind to Stanley Kubrick could likely have directed a lot of good horror films and Jack Nicholson could have starred in them. Their respective directing and acting styles lent themselves to the genre.  The Shining is proof. A family of caretakers in a snowed in mountain resort. The father goes bats. Supernatural events take place. Kudos to Stephen King's story and Kubrick's adaptation of it.

Omen (1976) What could possibly be scarier than the anti-Christ?  I can't think of anything either. Gregory Peck is an American statesman who's got the bad fortune of being the anti-Christ's father (and you thought your kid was a little devil). Richard Donner ably directed. It's got grisly deaths, tension and excitement and maybe a little something for bible thumpers and agnostics alike to think about. There are sequels and remakes aplenty but stick to this, the original.

Rosemary's Baby (1968) What could be worse than fathering the devil? How about giving birth to it? That was Mia Farrow's lot in this wonderfully scary Roman Polanski film. The worst part is that everyone seems to be in on it. Not knowing whom you can trust is scary stuff indeed. What's really scary is when there's such a sense of normalcy but you gradually discover something is amiss. Horribly so.

Dracula (1931) We close with this absolute classic. No one will ever be better in the title role than was Bela Lugosi. His performance is one of the reasons that this Dracula version ages so well. A seductive and intelligent demon is the worst kind to deal with. Repeat viewings only increase the film's allure.

And now for this year's addendum.

Poltergeist (1982). I watched it again this weekend for the first time science it first hit theaters (thanks TCM). I'm pleased to say it holds up pretty well. By no means a classic but it does tap into some very real fears: loss of a child; not safe in your own home; unseen forces at work and goblins in your TV set of all places. It's also a cautionary tale about building tract houses over graveyards.

The Invisible Man (1933). I love this movie. The feature film debut of the great Claude Rains and what a debut it was. He's a cackling but diabolical mad scientist who's gone and got himself invisible (don't you just hate when that happens?). He checks into a typical English country tavern to try to sort things out and the next thing you know Una O'Connor is screeching left and right. Another horror classic from my man James Whale.

Carrie (1976). The granddaddy of all oh-my-God-I-totally-didn't-see-that-coming-I-thought-all-the-scariness-was-over movies -- to coin a phrase. Brian DePalma directed, Sissy Spacek stars in this story of a teen with telekinetic powers This is not someone you want to piss off and wouldn't you know, pretty much all of her classmates conspire to humiliate her, and at the prom no less. Hell hath no fury like a girl with telekinesis scorned.

The Mummy (1932). Our old friend Karloff again, this time he's all wrapped up in his work (pause while readers roll on the floor emitting gales of laughter). For God's sakes folks don't waste your time with any of those silly Brendan Fraser mummy movies of recent vintage, you want this classic. British explorers discover an old Egyptian tomb and let loose a killer mummy. This was an easy sell for audiences back in its time because of the supposed curse on discoverers (disturbers) of King Tut's tomb. Karloff is wonderful as is a supporting cast that's mostly unfamiliar to today's viewers.

Nosferatu (1922). Today silly vampire movies are a dime a dozen. We've even had silly vampire TV shows with equally silly slayers of said vampires. It's being done -- you should excuse the expression -- to death. But here we have the original, preceding even Lugosi's blood loving count by nearly a decade. Moreover it comes from legendary German director F.W.  Murnau.

A few of other titles to consider: Aliens (1986), Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Blob (1958), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Tremors (1990), The Wolf Man (1941), The Haunting (1963).

22 October 2021

From Chaplin to Chinatown My Ten Favorite Books on Films

Twelve Angry Men

I have a voracious appetite for books. Mostly I devour fiction or history but occasionally I combine two passions and read books about another great love, films. Here are brief reviews of ten books on films that I have especially enjoyed and highly recommend. Several of them are neither specifically about a particular film nor the works of a filmmaker, but all touch upon making movies in exploring their topic.

Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men by Phil Rosenzweig. This is an exploration of Reginald Rose who wrote the teleplay for 12 Angry Men (1957) Lumet, which he later adapted into the screenplay. The film, of course, is a Hollywood classic that has inspired countless theatrical versions, television parodies and remakes and has been used in classrooms to study everything from group dynamics, to the law itself. To say 12 Angry Men is one of America’s most important films is to understate it. Phil (I refer him to him by his first name because — full disclosure — he’s been a good friend since our high school days) introduces us to Rose, who besides 12 Angry Men, is also known for writing teleplays during TV’s golden age when brilliant anthology shows ruled the air waves. He also created an excellent (if little remembered) drama of the early sixties, The Defenders. Twelve Angry Men was the apex of a great career. (Rose was also co-producer, along with Henry Fonda.) It is a film worthy of study and re-study, as this wonderful book demonstrates.

Made Men the Story of Goodfellas by Glenn Kenny. A great film deserves books written about it and Kenny has done an admirable job writing about Goodfellas (1990) Scorsese. He seems to have had access to everyone involved, even tangentially, with the making of this Martin Scorsese classic. But this book does more than serve as a “the making of …” story, it also informs our love of the film, exploring why and how it has had such an impact on audiences and is watched and re-watched by cinephiles like me. As a book like this should, it will have you scrambling to watch it again, now with renewed appreciation.

Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen. Allen’s sharp wit and keen intelligence are on full display in this wonderful chronicle of his life as a comedy writer, comic and most importantly, a filmmaker. Allen has always been a master story teller and Apropos is rife with the kind of wonderful and often hilarious stories that are so integral to entertainment lore. Of course, there’s plenty on his process of filmmaking, featuring his own self-effacing humor and self-criticism. It is an absolutely delightful read from beginning to end. 

The brothers Marx
Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo A Celebration of the Marx Brothers by Joe Adamson. I bought this book over forty-five years ago and still haven’t found a better one about Marx Brothers’ films. The book is thoughtful, comprehensive and well-written. The author is clearly a fan of their work and happily celebrates their early classic films while bemoaning some of their weaker later efforts. There are stories and anecdotes aplenty in this  celebration of filmdom’s greatest comedy quartet (later trio).

Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut. Absolutely indispensable for anyone who loves films, particularly those with an appreciation for Hitchcock. The great French film director conducted a series of interviews with Hitchcock covering every one of Hitch’s film. It’s great fun to watch a Hitchcock film, then read what the master himself said about it. It helps that Truffaut was such an adept interviewer. We get real insights from the storyteller himself on just how he did it. (See also the documentary about the book.)

My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin. One of the giants of filmmaking left behind this absorbing autobiography. It is rich with detail and chock full of stories from Hollywood’s early days through the early fifties. Among his many other talents, Chaplin was a good writer -- as this book displays. Also on display are his wit and charm. An absolute must for fans of the Little Tramp, the silent era and great films.

Pictures at a Revolution Five Movie at the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris. It’s hard to overstate what a good writer Harris is nor how diligent he is about research. He is a superior journalist who also writes engaging prose. His topic here are the five films from 1967 that were nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. His main focus is on the two that helped revolutionize filmmaking (or at least were perfect examples of that revolution) Bonnie and Clyde (1967) Penn and The Graduate (1967) Nicholas. But he also explores the two that dealt frankly (for the times) with race, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) Kramer and In the Heat of the Night (1967) Jewison. The fifth picture was Doctor Doolittle (1967) Fleischer which fits not at all with others but represents the dying gasps of old Hollywood. 

Images My Life in Film by Ingmar Bergman. Bergman is my favorite director so you can well imagine how much I love a book by the man himself. But anyone who appreciates the great Swede, or for that matter appreciates films, would enjoy this intimate look at his oeuvre. As one would hope (and seems to be the theme of this writing) Images enhances one’s appreciation of films just watched and has one scrambling to watch more. Filled with photos that enliven the text.

The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans. First the negative: Producer Robert Evans’ memoirs are, in the way of many such books, self-serving. What he omits could fill another couple of books and be compelling reading. That said this is damn entertaining. Evans worked in interesting times and was at the epicenter of Hollywood’s big changes in the late sixties/early seventies and was a key player in the makings of such classics as The Godfather (1972) Coppola and Chinatown (1974) Polanski. He knew everyone and they all knew him and here he tells the tales. It is a book rich with gossip but it also gives insight into how films are produced and how talent is developed and used or misused. 

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown."
The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson. In writing this post I’ve been constantly tempted to write that this book is the best or most important of the lot. It is again very tempting in my final submission to the list. Like Goodfellas and 12 Angry Men, Chinatown is a towering American film deserving of a book or ten about it. Absent nine others, this will do nicely. Chinatown brought together some of the most important people in Hollywood at the time, the aforementioned producer Robert Evans, director Roman Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne and star Jack Nicholson. The Big Goodbye tells the tale of how these giants came together and — sometimes in spite of each other — made a film that hasn’t aged a day since its release forty seven years ago. This is also a story of Hollywood at the time and the seismic changes that were going on in the film industry. It was after the collapse of both the studio system and the production code, when independent studios were making independent films with great directors creating the best decade of film the world has ever seen. We also see why and how that wouldn’t (or couldn’t last). Like all the other books on this list, a damn good read on a fascinating topic.

18 October 2021

From Beleaguered Housewives to Syrian Immigrants in Finland, The Five Films I Watched Over the Weekend

Diary of a Mad Housewife

Friday night I watched Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) courtesy of the Criterion Channel. Tina (Carrie Snodgrass) is mostly miserable. Her husband (Richard Benjamin), in the parlance of the time, is a male chauvinist pig, who treats her horribly. Her two young daughters are poster girls for spoiled brats, neither respects Mom. I’m sure it was a powerful social statement fifty years ago that members of the burgeoning women’s lib movement (as it was then called) would have celebrated. But today it is dated and more interesting as a reflection of the times it was made in. It is also over-the-top. There isn’t a hint of subtlety or nuance in Benjamin’s performance or character nor in that of the daughters. They're more like cartoon villains than avatars of  overbearing, thoughtless family members. Not surprisingly, Tina seeks comfort in the arms of another, a writer played by a young, long-haired Frank Langella. Sadly for Tina, he is a grade A asshole too, barely an improvement over her husband. One strains to understand what she sees in him. Despite its cinematic histrionics, I enjoyed Diary, mostly as a time capsule of the late sixties/early seventies. Snodgrass was a revelation in the lead role and indeed earned an Oscar nomination for best actress.

Saturday afternoon I enjoyed my umpteenth viewing of the classic film, 12 Angry Men (1957) Lumet. I was inspired to watch by the book I was reading, Reginald Rose and the Journey of 12 Angry Men written by Phil Rosenzweig. (I have numbered Phil among my close friends since high school.) Phil’s book tells the story of Reginald Rose who wrote the teleplay for 12 Angry Men which aired in the fall of 1954, then adapted it into a screenplay and co-produced the film with Henry Fonda, who also starred in it. Reading the book made me appreciate the film even more and I already greatly admired it. It features a great cast that in addition to Fonda includes Lee J Cobb, Jack Warden, Jack Klugman and Martin Balsam. (How many outstanding films were Warden and Balsam in? Clue: a lot.) Sidney Lumet directed and it was his first of many outstanding directorial efforts. Twelve Angry Men is a many-layered story which is why it has been successfully used for decades in management courses teaching about group dynamics, as well as psychology courses and of course law classes. It is a movie that many people -- yours truly included -- never tire of. The characters are fully realized, the set design and cinema photography top notch and the story of a jury that goes from 11-1 to convict to 12-0 to acquit, is compelling. 

Stage Door
Saturday evening the missus and I watched Stage Door (1937) La Cava another film with a great ensemble cast led by an acting giant. In this case Katharine Hepburn stars and is ably supported by the likes of Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden, among others. It is set in a New York theatrical boarding house. Most of the young women are struggling to get work. In addition to it being a competitive business, there’s the not so small matter of a depression ravaging the economy. The ladies survive by wit, sarcasm and togetherness. Some take dinner dates with wealthy producers or other sugar daddies. But those dinners and the minks and trinkets they receive are only temporary salves for the reality of being mostly out of work. It's not just a paycheck they hanker for, they dream of success and fame on the stage. Every day out of work is another day that dream is deferred. There is a drama and pathos in Stage Door. There is a suicide (so it’s not an entirely light comedy) but there is redemption and victory as well. I’ve seen the film several times and always enjoy being ensconced in the large boarding house with such witty and tough ladies, sharing their triumphs as well as withstanding the cruel blows they suffer. Stage Door was ably directed by Gregory La Cava. It is based on a play written by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman (no slouches) and adapted for the screen by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, another talented duo. Still much of the dialogue was improvised, a testimony to a sterling cast.

Sunday was Aki Kaurismäki day. I started with Lights in the Dusk (2006), the story of a night watchmen who is played by a group of gangsters via a femme fatale. Janne Hyytiäinen as Koistinen is the poor sap who is manipulated by an attractive woman, Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi). Koistinen is tricked into revealing the security code for a jewelry store and later is drugged and has is keys stolen. He is arrested for the robbery but won’t give up the girl. When Koistinen’s keys and some of the jewels are planted in his apartment, he accepts his fate and stoically goes to prison. Meanwhile there’s a young woman who he evidently has a history with who runs a hot dog stand. She will play a role in our protagonist’s post prison efforts to rebuild his life and perhaps extract a measure of revenge. It’s a beautiful story made all the more so by the director’s use of color and the moods and setting he creates. While the characters are particularly relatable to me as a Finn, Lights has enjoyed a wide audience. I highly recommend it.

I closed the weekend with my second Kaurismäki film, his most recent and purportedly his last, The Other Side of Hope (2017). It’s simply one of the most compassionate films I’ve ever seen. It begins with two stories that later intersect. One is about a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland while also looking for his missing sister. The other is about a Finnish businessman who has left his wife and job to open a restaurant. It is a funny movie which takes sudden and harrowing turns. There are thoughtless bureaucrats and racist thugs but there are thoughtful and empathetic citizens willing to take risks to help someone in need. As in a lot of Kaurismäki films, there are dark times but there is also the light which shines through. Hope was made in no small part to shine a light on the plight of immigrants and bring more awareness of their struggles. It's a cruel world but Hope shows there are plenty of people willing to help those in need.

14 October 2021

I Go to the Theater, I Give a Book Talk, I Rant About Classic Films, I Celebrate a Cure

Oscar Isaac in The Card Counter

Went to a movie theater for the first time in twenty months on Monday. Unlike all previous visits to the cinema, I had to show proof of vaccination and an ID. Also, I had to wear a mask. I didn’t mind.

I was one of only two people viewing the 4:05 showing of The Card Counter. As much as I love watching films in the comfort of my home, it was delightful to be in theater again, indeed it was like I’d never been away.

First, of course, there was an assault of commercials, the first cleverly disguised to initially appear to be a trailer. I tuned out the ads, I’ll never accept or get used to seeing them before a film. Then came the previews. I like previews, except for when there are several dozen of them before the feature. My favorite on Monday was for Wes Anderson’s latest, The French Dispatch, which opens later this month. Can’t wait.

I was really looking forward to The Card Counter. I loved Paul Schrader’s previous directorial effort, First Reformed (2017), an absolutely brilliant film. I admired the Card Counter, which features Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a professional card player who’d done a stint in prison for his role in torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. He is now repentant and takes under his wing a young man whose father was also guilty of abusing prisoners in the same prison and took his own life in response to being thrown under the bus. The young man wants revenge against the unprosecuted civilian who was the real mastermind and leader of the torture practices. Meanwhile William has an affair with La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who is William’s link to his rich sponsors on the pro poker circuit. 

Card Counter is unrelentingly dark but compelling. It is film that explores a number of themes and is a great character study. As one would expect from Schrader (he was also the screenwriter of Taxi Driver) it avoids cliches or easy answers to the complex issues it presents. It is an exploration of, among other things, the empty sadness of the casino going experience and professional poker. I wasn’t totally satisfied with its climax but I don’t think the ending went against the film’s flow.


Tuesday evening I had my first book chat for my second novel, Threat of Night. It was via Zoom, a format I’m not totally comfortable but it went swimmingly nonetheless. I read an excerpt from the book and then fielded questions. Here I was in my element as it was very much like being a teacher. My wife, sister-in-law, a niece and a nephew all watched and all said I did an excellent job, which pleased me greatly. One reason for my “success” was that I know the subject matter so well (hell, I wrote the damn thing) and love talking about it. When a book absorbs so much of your time, you end up having a lot to say about it. I know all the characters intimately, including their backstories, how they met one another and in many cases, their exact addresses. They come alive for me when I talk about them and their stories. Have you checked out my book yet? You really should. 


I saw the following tweet this morning: “What old classic movies like #TopGun can I watch now? I’m in the mood!” Excuse my language but, oh my God, seriously? Top Gun is considered a “classic?” One wonders whether it would be preferable to laugh or cry. And the responses blew what little remained of my mind. Here are some tweeters suggestions: Hot Shots, An Officer and a Gentlemen, Cocktail, The Game, Goonies, The Hunt for Red October, Big Trouble in Little China, Weird Science, Dumb and Dumber, Ghost, The Firm and Turner and Hooch. 

Turner and Hooch? A Classic? The mind boggles, it reels, it sways, it rumbas, it goes into full spin cycle. 

I’m singling out Turner and Hooch, but literally anyone of the above-mentioned films is a good example of not a classic film.

Call me old-fashioned, or just old (the latter certainly applies) but aren’t classic films supposed to be from the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and maybe the seventies? And isn’t a classic film supposed to be good? I mean really, really good and widely acknowledged to be. Shouldn't it be revered by cinephiles and casual film watchers alike? Actually, beyond really good, shouldn't it, dare I say it, be a recognized classic? Here are a few examples of classic film: Gold Rush, The Seventh Seal, Citizen Kane, The Big Sleep, On the Waterfront, Seven Samurai, Grand Illusion, Bonnie and Clyde, 2001, Chinatown, The Godfather. 

Turner and Hooch? Just wow.

What world are we living in where people call films like Top Gun and The Firm as classics?  Need we start having mandatory film appreciation classes taught in public schools, yearly, perhaps starting in middle school?

Come on, now, Turner and Hooch? Was someone having a laugh? Jesus.


Tomorrow will be my 36th and last day of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) treatment. I’m elated to report that I’ve not suffered any depression in several weeks and my overall mood is much improved. A tremendous weight has been lifted from me for depression feels like a tremendous weight. I may yet suffer some depression in the future and may indeed have to go back for further treatment, but we know that TMS works for me. I’m beyond grateful to the good people at Bay Psychiatric Associates. If you’re suffering from depression talk to your health care provider and find out if TMS might work for you too. This is not an ad it is a sincere thank you.

10 October 2021

A Conversation About Sadness and Depression

 “I’m sad a lot.”

“I thought you had been cured of your depression.”

“I’m not depressed, I’m sad.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Depression is all-encompassing, there’s not rhyme or reason to it, it’s just there. When you’re sad, you’re sad about something in particular. It’s far easier to distract yourself from sadness than depression. You can still be hopeful when you’re sad, but when you’re depressed, there’s no hope.”

“Are there medications or treatments for sadness?”

“No. But you can identify the causes of the sadness and address that. With depression there’s nothing to identify. It just is.”

“So you’ve gone from depression to sadness.”

“No, the sadness was always there. It blends in perfectly with depression. Now that the depression is gone the sadness is on its own.”

“So overall you’re better off.”

“Oh, definitely.”

“Are you sad all the time?”

“Not at all. Sadness can be chased away, unless of course there’s been a tragedy in your life that is causing the sadness, even then it goes away eventually.”

“What are you sad about?”

“Existential things like death. I’m getting old and I think of the end of my life a lot — far too much. It’s not healthy and not productive. I also think about the past and the many things I wish I’d done differently. All the wrong paths I took.”

“You can’t do anything about either. Mortality is a fact of life and the past can’t be changed.”


“So are you simply going to go through your remaining time on earth being sad?”

“No, I can’t, I’ve got to change the way I think, the way I view the world.”

“Goodness, that’s a tall order. What are you going to do, find religion?”

“Of sorts, perhaps. Maybe I need to get deeper into meditation and maybe I can explore buddhism more. I’ve got to do something.”

“It’s good that you can talk about.”

“It’s always the first step. Actually the second, the first is recognizing the problem.”

"You’ve done that. The third step, I suppose, is taking a step towards addressing the issue.”

“The hardest part. I know I’ve got to stop putting band aids on the problem, like finding things that will make me feel better in the moment, such as watching a movie.”

“Movies are good, but shouldn’t be used in lieu of taking positive action. So what are you going to do now?”

“What immediately comes to mind is to look more into buddhism and also to see if there are any in-person AA meetings in the area yet.”

“That would be good. Especially if you can do some service.”

“I need to get out of my own head a bit. It’s my ego that’s holding me back. I’m looking inward so much that I’m missing a lot of what’s going on.”

“Too bad your school isn’t back open.”

“Teaching would sure help.”

“But you’ve got some ideas. Get started.”

“I will. Thanks for listening and sharing your thoughts.”

“A pleasure.”

06 October 2021

I Sit Down With Myself for this Exclusive Interview

Drifting Clouds, a Kaurismäki film

I recently caught up with myself for the following interview.

Me: Thanks so much for taking time out from my busy schedule to sit down with yourself.

I: I'm welcome.

Me: How have I been?

I: Fine and me?

Me: Good, thanks. How's TMS going for you?

I: You mean transcranial magnetic stimulation?

Me: The very same.

I: I've had twenty-nine of thirty-six treatments and have already started feeling better. I've been depression-free for over a week and in two weeks have had no more than a half a day of the miseries.

Me: That's fantastic! I'm so happy for myself.

I: Yes, it's very encouraging but on the other hand it's still not a huge sample size. Also people show signs of improving and then slip back. That said I'm optimistic. The quality of my good moods are longer and better. It's almost like a normal human being.

Me: Me normal. That's a weird thought.

I: Yes, I've always been something of a strange cat.

Me: My life hasn't always been easy.

I: I'm not going to complain. So many people have suffered far worse. Relative to most people who've been on this globe, I've lived a life of privilege.

Me: I've got a good attitude.

I: Well, I try.

Me; Can TMS cure anyone with depression?

I: No. As a matter of fact I read a story in the New York Times yesterday about a depression sufferer who'd tried everything including TMS, with no success. But she has gotten a brain implant that seems to be working. A lot of people are having success with psychedelics administered small doses by health care professionals. That wouldn't work for me because of my history of panic disorder.

Me: Have I seen any good movies, recently, ones I hadn't seen before.

I: Just last week I saw an Aki Kaurismäki film I'd not seen before. Drifting Clouds. Sublime. Right up there with his best work and frankly most of his films are among his best. He's remarkably consistent.

Me: Where did I see it?

I: On the Criterion Channel. I wish they had more of his early films that haven't been seen in the U.S.

Me: Have I seen The Many Saints of Newark, the Sopranos prequel?

I: Yes, and I was underwhelmed. Not a bad film, but not what one would expect from David Chase, the Sopranos creator and screenwriter and creator of the film.

Me: Comments on the current political scene here in the U.S.?

I: I'm trying to ward off depression, not invite it.

Me: What am I reading these days?

I: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. About halfway through and am loving it. Prior to that I read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Which I greatly enjoyed. I'd just watched season one on Hulu.

Me: Am I going to continue watching?

I: I watched the first two or three episodes of the second season and felt like I'd had my fill. The first season was compelling but I suppose I didn't want to spend too much time in that world.

Me: How are things for me in the world of sports?

I: One of my teams is doing fantastic. Another is doing terrible. A third is doing okay.

Me: Seems fair. How many other teams do I follow?

I: One. Their season starts at the end of the month.

Me: Do I obsess over my teams?

I: Guilty. But then I don't brood or worry. I keep things in perspective. I've got a lot else going on in life. 

Me: Speaking of which, I know you definitely obsess over your writing. What's going on in the world of novels?

I: I love it. I love the writing. It's all about the process for me. I'm about ten months into my third novel and probably have a year or so to go before it's done.

Me: Can you talk about what this book is about?

I: I'd rather not. I'll just say it's set in Berkeley between 1963 and 1971.

Me: How's it going with our second novel?

I: Lot of people have read it and said they've really enjoyed it. Then again they've mostly been friends and relatives. I'm struggling to reach a wider audience and that's mostly my fault because I'm the worst at self-promotion. I do have an add in this month's Finnish American Reporter. And I'm doing a book chat with the Finlandia Foundation next Tuesday. Details to follow on this blog.

Me: I wish me good luck with that.

I: Thanks.

Me: I've noticed I've not been as prolific on the blog lately.

I: That's solely down to the book I'm working on. It occupies so much of my thoughts and it's been where I'm devoting my writing time. I still love writing on the blog, but it often feels like it's taking time away from the book and that makes me anxious.

Me: So this interview is cutting into my novel writing time.

I: Yup. But a break is good.

Me: I really appreciate me taking the time out to talk to myself.

I: It was a pleasure. I'd love to do it again sometime. I'm a good interviewer.

Me: Thanks and thanks again for my time.

I: Cheers. Oh, and give me my regards.

01 October 2021

Hey Look Everybody, It's My October Look at the Day's Headlines

Tennis star Emma Radacannu

In the summer of 2020 I started printing headlines from various news sources and writing comments about them that were either pithy, snarky, wise or brilliantly on point (or a combination thereof). The response was so overwhelming (thank you, Tom Stinkyton of Eufaula, Alabama, that I have made this is a regular feature -- to enthusiastic acclaim. Here then is the October 2021 edition of this critically-acclaimed monthly feature.

From the New York Times:

‘Mandates Are Working’: Employer Ultimatums Lift Vaccination Rates, So Far

Let me see if I understand this correctly, if you require people to get vaccinated as part of their terms of employment, more people will get vaccinated and less people will get the virus. Okay, makes sense.

After Rape Accusations, Fraternities Face Protests and Growing Anger

Fraternities promote toxic macho male culture that leads to sexual abuse and misogyny. This has been true for decades. I don’t know, as many quoted in the story suggest, that the solution is to simply ban frats from colleges, but something radical needs to be done. The good news is that people are fed up and demanding changes including accountability by frats for the actions of their members.

Manchin Voices Support for a Slimmer Social Safety Net Bill

Fuck that guy.

From CNN:

California to require Covid-19 vaccination for students, governor says

Would that every state would do this. It’s a simple and necessary step that will save lives. Proud of our Governor Newsom.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: 'There is going to be a lot of disappointment in the law, a huge amount’

With three Trump appointees on the Supreme Court, that’s a pretty safe bet. We need to reform the way justices are selected and do away with the whole lifetime appointment bullshit. We’ve currently got a court that does not represent the values and beliefs of the majority of the American people (the same can be said of the Senate) and they seem hell bent on curtailing equal rights, abortion rights and the rights of the poorest and most disadvantaged.

It breaks my heart': Unvaccinated teacher may leave job over mandate

Don't let the door hit you on the way out. Actually, go ahead and let it.

From the BBC:

Lavish Russian wedding for Tsar's descendant

This was a real "wow" story for me. I didn't realize there were still descendant's of the Czar Nicholas II still about and wouldn't have imagined one getting married in a "lavish" ceremony in mother Russia itself. I'd recently wondered what became of all the Russian royalty and their descendants that fled the revolution. Now I know a wee bit more. Interesting.

Spanish women filmed urinating left humiliated by judge

Suffice to say that the judge in this case is an abhorrent human being. Eighty women were secretly filmed in a public bathroom. Throw the book at the perps! But now the malodorous judge dismiss the charges. Outrageous.

Covid antiviral pill can halve risk of hospitalization

Good news! Nice to have some around from time to time.

From The Washington Post:

Koch-backed group fuels opposition to school mask mandates, leaked letter shows

The Koch brothers are going to make for some truly villainous characters in future history books and perhaps films. What bastards!

Opinion: Sending Americans to the Beijing Winter Olympics is unsafe and unwise

We should be boycotting those games anyway. The pervasiveness of human right's abuses in China is staggering.

From Talksport:

Emma Raducanu gains huge Instagram following as grand slam legend Roger Federer warns of ‘horrible’ dangers social media can bring ahead of busy October schedule

Wise words. Like many I fell in love with Emma during her improbable run to the U.S. Open title. She seems an utterly delightful young lady (still but eighteen) and I hope that she avoids some of the pitfalls of early stardom, particularly those inflicted by social media.