Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond: Monday, August 8 2016

Star Trek: Beyond is exactly what one would expect. Director Justin Lin makes sure that there is never a dull moment. We get to feel what it might be like to ride a starship into the wild yonder. There are fights galore, to keep us on the edges of our seats. The challenges are great. Will Captain Kirk and his crew survive to make a sequel? What would have happened to the great Star Trek series of TV programs if they don't? Although we know the outcome, it still is all visually exciting. 3D glasses make it all so much more than the TV series.

The casting has been so well done. Chris Pine as Captain James Tiberius Kirk is perfect. He fills the role of commanding officer of the USS Enterprise convincingly, and is a good prelude to William Shatner's unforgettable performance in that part. Zachary Quinto is a gorgeous Commander Spock, first officer and science officer, one of my favourite characters. Karl Urban plays Lieutenant Commander Leonard McCoy, M.D., chief medical officer, and reminds us often of DeForest Kelley, of the original series. Simon Pegg as Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Scott, second officer and chief engineer, is the epitome of a Scottish engineer. This character is a reminder of the times when Glasgow, Scotland, was one of the leading centres of engineering in the world, and Scottish engineers were prized.

Jaylah
The other members of the crew were all perfect in their parts, and it was such a pleasure watching their performances. The stage was set for the next episode with the acceptance of a new character into Starfleet. She is Jaylah, an alien scavenger, played by Sofia Boutella. The interplay between Jaylah and Scotty looks as if it will be very interesting. We are seeing a star in the making.

It was such a disappointment to see Krall/Captain Balthazer Edison, covered with so much makeup. It would be nice to have seen more of his face. It also was upsetting to see him blown off into space. Hopefully he will live to appear in another Star Trek movie. Idris Elba, who plays this part, is a leading English actor, and it would be enjoyable to see more of him. Perhaps he will appear in the sequel as the ruler of a planet on which competition is the ruling philosophy. Perhaps he will have modified the philosophy into working hard and achieving the best results, competing against past performances to produce one's personal best, as is part of the modern Unites States philosophy. He can combine it with the cooperation and friendliness of the Starfleet philosophy. Both are essential to a fully functioning society. It doesn't have to be either /or.

Star Trek: Beyond is a fun movie! I found it highly entertaining, but then, I love science fiction.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Cafe Society: Monday, August 1 2016

Cafe Society, written and directed by Woody Allen, is a delightful film if you are a fan of Woody Allen's work. I consider him a highly intelligent film genius, with great insight into human nature, so I enjoyed this, his latest production. Billed as a romantic, comedy-drama, it is written and directed brilliantly. The ambience throughout is evocative of the 1930s, and everything seems of a piece from the costumes to the sets. The film is infused with a sepia tone, like old photographs from that era, and the cinematography is outstandingly beautiful. In my opinion, the film is a true work of art. Beautifully crafted, and created by the hand of a master filmmaker.

Gangsters are usually equated with Italians or the Irish, but in this film we are introduced to, what was new for me, Jewish gangsters. They aren't really any different from the others. The Italians and the Irish have always been depicted as closely affiliated with the Church of Rome, but the Jewish gangsters seem to be secular. There is no Synagogue of Jerusalem. They use the same method of disposing of people who are problems: a concrete coffin. It has occurred to me in the past, to wonder how many of the fantastic buildings we see in the large, American cities have offerings of human sacrifices in their foundations. Shades of the pagans of old!

One amusing highlight of the plot is when Bobby is scattering the ashes of his brother, Ben the gangster. It is mentioned that Ben had converted to Christianity because he wanted to be forgiven and go to Heaven in the afterlife. Judaism is much more pragmatic than Christianity, and doesn't offer an afterlife. Woody doesn't spell it out as I have done, but as a student of comparative religions, I appreciated Woody's joke.

The acting is superb. Jesse Eisenberg's Bobby Dorfman is  totally different from his Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. He is appealing in this part, and I actually felt for him. Kirsten Stewart as Vonnie is equally attractive, and I felt for her too. Steve Carell as Phil, Bobby's uncle, is unrecognizable, and plays the part believably. As a fan of Steve Carell, I enjoyed his performance. Jeanie Berlin delivers a delightful cameo as Bobby's mother.

Cafe Society ends with Bobby and Vonnie, separated from each other, bringing in the New Year with their respective spouses. As the year dies and is reborn, we see them both gazing sadly into space. What are they thinking, is the question we are left with. It seemed to me they were wondering if life would have been very different if they had made different choices. Does this reflect what Woody Allen, at 80 years of age, may himself feel about life?

I like Woody Allen's wittiness, and use of the English language. I also like his deep understanding of New York Jews, and his ability to laugh at, and with, his people with deep affection. This is such a Scottish trait too, so I relate.

I enjoyed the film, and laughed out loud, which is unusual. It really was funny in parts.

Our Kind of Spy: Monday, July 25 2016

Our Kind of Spy is a British spy thriller adapted from John le Carre's novel of the same name. It is a film made by intelligent people, for an intelligent audience. Susanna White directed superbly, and keeps the tension at varying levels throughout the film, which holds our attention throughout. The acting is superb, and each character is totally believable. Ewan McGregor as Professor Peregrine "Perry" Makepiece, of course, is excellent. Stellan Skarsgard as Dima, the Russian money-launderer, Naomie Harris as Gail Perkins, Perry's lawyer wife, also give good performances.

I was particularly interested in Damian Lewis as Hector. He is a magnificent actor, already with a long, distinguished career. His Soames of the Forsyte Saga was unforgettable. His Marine Sgt. Nicolas Brody in Homelands is another totally different creation. I wonder how many people will even recognize Damian Lewis as Hector in Our Kind of Spy. Here, he is far removed from any of his previous characters. He has even changed his voice and way of speaking. Watching him present Hector was one of the highlights of the movie for me.

I seem to have seen too many movies created by morons for adolescents with not too much between their ears; it is a delight to be able to say I thoroughly enjoyed this film.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Captain Fantastic: Monday, July 18 2016

Captain Fantastic is written and directed by Matt Ross, and stars Viggo Mortensen as Captain Fantastic. He is the father of six children he has been rearing in the wilderness alone. His wife is in an institute for bipolar sufferers. He is a hippie who hasn't grown up beyond that phase, and he is bringing up his family to celebrate the birthday of Noam Chomsky, the Canadian idealist, rather than Christmas, the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. That says it all! He is lost in the strange world of the utopian past! I couldn't identify with him in any way as he seemed such a fool.

The film opens with a scene where one of Captain Fantastic's children is "blooded" after taking down a first deer for food for the family. I found it difficult to then fit in all the "Progressive" stuff he was demonstrating: living in a tent; growing food; griping about "big corporations". The Captain became for me a caricature.

When we meet the Captain's extended family, they too are caricatures of modern Americans, living out in the wilds of suburbia. They were shown as being ill-educated: it was demonstrated that the young people know nothing about the American Constitution. Probably the adults don't either. They seemed to be a little above the level of simply grunting, but not too much. I seem to remember they were into guns. But then, so were Captain Fantastic's children. A mockery is made of a traditional Roman Catholic funeral, with Captain Fantastic arriving with his family, all dressed in outlandish 1970's dress, and announcing that burial was against his wife's wishes. She had become a Buddhist and had declared in her will that she wanted to be cremated.

The film has the feeling of trying to convey some message. Whatever the message is, it is very mixed. My friend got the impression that it was being pointed out that it is difficult to reintegrate into modern society if one has lived outside it. I was left with a feeling of great thankfulness that the world has moved forward, and the sooner the out-dated caricatures are of the past, the better. Hopefully, most Americans are of a higher level of intelligence than those depicted in this movie.

Captain Fantastic could be treated as a study of bigoted, confused thinking on the part of the writer director. Was he putting forward the hippie idea of life as good, on not? Was he trying satire? If so, he wasn't pulling it off. I wasn't sure if he was sneering at everyone, even his chief character. This makes it difficult to relate to anyone or anything.

I didn't find it amusing. Mildly entertaining? Perhaps. But it left a bad taste.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Free State of Jones: Monday, June 27 2016

The Free State of Jones is written and directed by Gary Ross, an experienced, award-winning director. An American Civil War film, it opens on a scene I found moving. Having been to Gettysburg, I was reminded of Pickett's Charge, and the inevitable loss of so many Confederate soldiers. They were marching heroically into the superior firepower of the Union Army. Over 7000 men died at Gettysburg. Absolutely tragic from any point of view!

But then the tone switched to one of objectivity. It seemed to me I was watching a documentary of the war from an unusual viewpoint. No longer mythical, we were faced with reality. We see the war through the viewpoint of Newton Knight and the supporters of his armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Living in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight views the war as that of rich people. Anyone who owned 20 slaves was excused from fighting. Knight was not thinking that the plantations still had to be managed, even during the war, nor was he seeing any larger issues. All he saw was that he didn't own the required number of slaves, so he was being forced to fight without any choice. Many of his followers were escaped slaves, and others were deserters like himself. In the eyes of his society, he was a traitor and agitator. The director passes no judgement, simply presents the facts. Unlike Robin Hood, Newton Knight is not turned into a hero of "the People" against the "wicked, rich King".

I liked that The Free State of Jones is so honest. There is no glamorization of the times. We see the rough clothes: all the dirt, even the dirt around the nail beds of Serena Knight, the first wife. I could almost smell the people. Having lived in Africa, where many people at that time didn't shower daily, I know what that would have been like. The houses are rough-hewn and offer bare shelter. The blood and gore of the fighting is authentic. It's all horrific.

The performance of Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight is remarkable. He is depicted as an ordinary man, a leader of ordinary men, not a glamorized figure. All the other actors were believable and play their parts well. It seems a reconstruction of an obscure part of the history of the American Civil War. It puts the case that there is another side to war that is not heroic, but is equally authentic. Gary Ross is examining war from reality and through reason, not glamorized or turned into myth.

Because it is so objective, the film will be enjoyed by people interested in history. Personally, I loved it. I consider this a great film, and would thoroughly recommend it to those who are prepared to look at this facet of the American Civil War objectively. My friends enjoyed the film, because they did just that, and had no mythology to have shattered.

This lack of romanticism and mythology may hurt at the box office. I notice it is already being called a failed summer blockbuster in some places. If you are expecting a summer blockbuster, this is not it. If you would enjoy a thoughtful, though-provoking look at history, this is for you.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller

Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, takes the result of research done by psychologists on attachment between mother and child, and applies it to the attachment between men and women partners. This is a new science.

It begins by stating that the desire to become attached to a partner is a natural human drive. It's built into our biology. It's not said in the book, but it seems obvious that without this drive the human race would not be as prolific as it is.

The theory is that each individual adopts one of three behavioural styles, as follows:
  1. ANXIOUS people are often preoccupied with their relationships and tend to worry about their partner's ability to love them back. Are they worthy of love?
  2. AVOIDANT people feel intimacy brings a loss of independence and they constantly minimise closeness. This is the aloof man whom women feel they need to comfort and cherish. 
  3. SECURE people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving. They need a healthy balance between the security a loving relationship with a person of the opposite sex brings, and the freedom it gives for each partner to freely pursue their own interests, coming home to the other, where they receive support. 
The book has questionnaires that help the readers find their own attachment style, and that of their partner and others. This leads on to being able to find the best attachment style to partner with you, and how to both reach the Secure style which is the happiest.

The readers are also shown how to avoid the toxic Avoidant and Anxious mix. The couple genuinely love each other, but the Avoidant is constantly shaking off the Anxious, and the Anxious is constantly chasing the Avoidant. This is destructive for the couple, and all those around them. This especially includes their family.

Written in lucid, North American English, Attached is an easy read. The authors have done a fantastic job of bringing the latest research in the field of psychology within the reach of laypeople. Since time immemorial, many humans have been trying to understand the human mind and human relationships. This book shows that we have come a long way in that endeavour: from Confucius wanting to create a happy society by imposing order; the Ancient Greek mystics writing "Know yourself" above the gate of the temple at Delphi; to Freud working for hours psycho-analysing patients, knowledge has increased. 

A "must read" if you would like to create and enjoy a happy, fulfilling relationship with your own, special partner in life. If you would like to create a happy home, this is the foundation.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Genius: Monday, June 20 2016

Genius, the film directed by Michael Grandage, is a British-American production based on the book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), by A. Scott Berg. It feels like a black and white film, and the story is a bit like that too. I didn't like Thomas Wolfe, the writer whose work was being edited by Maxwell Perkins, nor did I really like Perkins too much either. This placed the movie into the category of those that have to be viewed objectively.

Colin Firth is absolutely wasted as Maxwell Perkins. Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe is horrible. Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, is almost unrecognisable. Laura Linney plays Louise Sanders, married to Perkins, adequately. I'm not really one of her fans, but she did quite well.

I had just finished reading Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, on the new science of adult attachment. There are three types of attachment styles, identified as Anxious, Secure, and Avoidant. Wolfe and Bernstein play out, in front of our eyes, the way an Anxious interacts with an Avoidant like Wolfe. From that point of view, quite fascinating.

On the other hand, this was one of those films that literally send me to sleep. When I am bored, this my involuntary avoidance technique. I had trouble keeping my eyes open. John Logan has the reputation of being a good writer of film scripts. This wasn't one of his best. I think the direction was competent, but if it sent me to sleep, I really can't say too much about it.

Not a film I would say everyone just has to see.



Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Love & Friendship: Monday, May 30 2016

Love and Friendship is based on an early novel by Jane Austen, Lady Susan. The work is actually called an epistolary novel as it was written in a series of letters. It wasn't published until 1871, the year of her death, aged 41.

The film was written and directed by Whit Stillman. Set in the 1790s, the background to the film is lavish and the costumes fascinating. Lady Susan is clothed in black in the first scene, as befits a widow, but gradually her dress lightens as her prospects improve. She has to find a husband for herself, and her daughter, to secure their economic security, and this she does extremely well.

Lady Susan is played by Kate Beckinsale. Beautiful, and extremely attractive to men, she is a thoroughly modern woman. She knows what she wants, and she determines to achieve her goals, regardless of social mores. Beckinsale is perfect in this part, and creates a complex character with whom I could feel sympathy. I am now a fan of Kate Beckinsale.

The other actors were also perfect in their parts. As a fan of Stephen Fry, I particularly enjoyed his performance. A world was created that seemed real, and the interaction between the characters showed them as real people. The film is too short, as it left me feeling I wanted to see more of the story. Perfect for a sequel.

My one criticism would be that everyone. especially Lady Susan, spoke in accents difficult to interpret, and too quickly. This made it a little challenging to follow the storyline. Realism in acting is good, but can be carried too far. Perhaps it would be better if the actors and director took into consideration the needs of their international audience.

Whit Stillman is brilliant in his interpretation of the work of Jane Austen. He captures the essence of her perceptive insights into human nature. He understands the economic pressures on the women of her time that forced them into marriage. A lucky few women, married men who didn't exert the power over their wives that this economic dependence gave them. Those not so fortunate had to accept that they had to be sexually faithful, while their husbands could pursue their biological urges. Lady Susan was a woman outside her times, and Stillman depicts her accurately.

I enjoyed this film and now want to see it again.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Summer Before the War: Friday, May 20 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson was the choice for the last month by a member of my Book Group. It's not a book I would have read otherwise.

Set in a small English village, the novel begins in what by all accounts was an unusually beautiful summer. It depicts the idyllic world of the middle class of England of that time. Everyone was enjoying the summer and in denial that a war could be looming over the horizon. The fact that refugees arrive from Belgium brings with it intimation of the gathering clouds.

War breaks out towards the end of July, and men are off to join the forces. The agonies of the war are displayed, and the effects on everyone. It's a bit like Downton Abbey, but in a different section of society. After the war, life changes and moves on.

I didn't learn anything I didn't already know from this book. It was a pleasant read, but a bit too wordy for my taste. I prefer action and getting to the point. Probably a suitable book to read if one has spare time to spend. Good for the beach, or a holiday. Good as a diversion. I have to admit I skipped through the last half. I found that way I could keep up with the story without being bothered by too many useless words. I am a speed reader so used to doing this. I rarely savour the actual writing, but appreciate the modern North American use of English which gets straight to the point in as few words as possible.

Helen Simonson was born in England and grew up in a village such as she has depicted. She has lived in the United States since adulthood. I was quite surprised to learn that she was English, born and brought up in England. It seemed to me that she was writing from outside the world she was depicting. Two English women in our Group were of the opinion that she didn't get that world quite correctly. She was writing about it as if from afar. Pleasant book: not great literature.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Bigger Splash: Monday, May 16 2016

A Bigger Splash (2015) is an Italian-French mystery-crime film.
Directed by Luca Guadagnino; the film is slow-paced. I found myself waiting for the action to happen, never mind the murder I was expecting to happen anytime.

The scene is set in the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria, in the heat of summer. The acting of Tilda Swinton, as Marianne Lane, is superb. She really dominates. She hardly speaks a word, as her character is recovering from a throat operation, and isn't allowed to speak, but we understand her every feeling. When Harry Hawkes, played by Ralph Fiennes, arrives to join Marianne and Paul De Smedt, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, his frenetic talking and behaviour certainly does stir things up. Here is a Ralph Fiennes very different from any other characters he has played. Harry is totally different from the Ralph of The English Patient. Paul is played competently, but Dakota Johnson is disappointing as Harry's daughter, Penelope.

Harry does emit a lot of inconsequential chatter, but the main communications are done by body language. It really is amazing how much can be transmitted by facial expressions. This the actors do so well we know what they are thinking. Which is just as well, as that is also the only way we really know what is going on between them. Four narcissistic, amoral people creating problems for themselves and the others by their behaviour. A crime is committed; the Italian police are blinded by Marianne the rock star; justice is done by not being done. The film gained 91% approval on Rotten Tomatoes. That came as a surprise to six of us who saw the film together. Only our seventh fellow viewer enjoyed it.

As I was viewing the movie something seemed strange. The film opens with a scene in which Marianne and Paul are stretched out enjoying the sunshine, completely naked. When Harry arrives, it isn't very long before Harry is joining Marianne and Paul in their state of nudity. Dakota Johnson as Penelope Lanier, Harry's daughter, also sheds her clothing. Full frontal nudity was reserved for Harry, as he runs around the pool before diving in. Quite a sight: fortunately it is done in the evening darkness. There is so little nudity in American movies nowadays, all this bare flesh seemed peculiar.

Afterwards, doing some research, I discovered A Bigger Splash is called an EROTIC crime film. It is also Italian/French. To people who believe sex is only for procreation and not to be enjoyed, this movie would seem salacious. My friends have a healthy, North American attitude to sex, and the nudity went right over their heads. Their complaint was that the movie was too long, and boring, only saved slightly by its setting in the sunlight.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Hologram for the King: Monday, May 9 2016

A Hologram for the King is far from Tom Hanks' best movie. In fact, without him the film would have been a "very silly" film, as Maureen called it. I viewed it as fantasy, and actually quite enjoyed it in that spirit. Fantastic scenery in Morocco where some of it was filmed. Amusing when the Saudis moved in to prepare for the arrival of the King. Magnificent carpets, furniture, staging, all fit for a King. Reminded me of the Arab oil money.

Henrietta saw it as a commentary on the relationship of the United States with the middle east and the rest of the world. A little sad. Alan Clay, the American salesman, is beaten for the deal by the Chinese. The Saudis showed him no respect, gave him the runaround, and made him look a fool. Seems about right! 

A Hologram for the King is based on a book of the same name by Dave Eggers. I gather it is considered quite a profound book by some people. Certainly, the film touches every point we know about Saudi Arabia: the position of women; the public executions; the deviousness of Arabs. We even see Mecca and the Muslims promenading around the Kaaba.

Somehow the film seemed a little shallow, stating the obvious. On the other hand, it was fun. I like Tom Hanks.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Hullo, My Name is Doris!: Monday, May 2 2016



Hullo, My Name is Doris is an American romantic comedy-drama directed by Michael Showalter. 

The film hangs on the performance of Sally Fields as Doris Miller. If you are a fan of hers, you will enjoy this film. 

I've never been much of a fan of Sally Fields, but would agree that without her this film wouldn't have been worth making. On the other hand, the character she plays is so immature for the 60+ -year-old woman she is playing, she must have needed the money to agree to take this part. 

Once you have substituted an inexperienced in love teenager for Doris, then the film reveals itself for what it is. 

When my friends and I came out of the Cineplex, I asked them what they thought of the movie. Annette's first comment was, "What a dumb movie!". Maureen said she had quite enjoyed it in spite of it being such a stupid film. 

That said it all, very well. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

AGO: The Outsiders. Thursday, April 28 2016

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is presently staging a photographic exhibition, The Outsiders, of the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. These photographs are not formally staged or posed. They are taken, often with hand-held cameras, by photographers who knew their subjects intimately. The people presented are from communities often considered as outsiders by more mainstream Americans.

The photographers shown were depicting a side of the States not usually shown by the TV, media, movies, etc. This was a world far removed from the ideal of happy families living in suburbia in the well-ordered houses run by the wives and mothers forced by convention to remain imprisoned behind the white picket fences. That ideal has been exposed now for the false picture it gave. The truer picture is of many unhappy women forced to live lives of boredom and loneliness trapped in the god-forsaken wilds of suburbia. But it was still being touted as what everyone ought to desire. The photos in this exhibition portray other small worlds within the larger world of what was considered normal.

Those many minority worlds range from the top echelon of society who are the super rich, to bikers, nudists, drag queens, crossdressers, a poor family in Harlem, peaceniks, hippies, social agitators protesting everything, even animals. This collection of photographs certainly fills in the picture of the States during the years of tremendous social upheaval that followed the Second World War. It brings memories of life as it was, and how much it has changed. How even the ideal of how families ought to live has changed from that white picket fence in suburbia.

The curators of the exhibition present the thesis that these photographers and their photographs changed the way people viewed the world. They consider that the social changes that have taken place were prompted by these images. Perhaps it was the photographers who were reflecting the thinking of their times.

Interesting exhibition guaranteed to revive memories in all those who lived through those years. It also may illustrate for younger people how different the world looked in those days. It certainly makes clear how much attitudes have changed since then.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The First Monday in May: Monday, April 25 2016

The First Monday in May is a film about the 2015 show staged by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass.

Curated by Andrew Bolton, the show focuses on the impact of Chinese design on the fashions of the western world. China has been making silk for almost 6000 years, hence the Silk Road. Today, it is the most important manufacturer of silk fabric in the world. The Chinese are also experts at silk embroidery, and this, along with the lovely designs created by Chinese clothing manufacturers, has influenced the fashion world of the west.

Bolton made a magical choice when he decided to build his show around China. He had to be very careful not to offend the sensibilities of the Chinese people by his use of their culture as inspiration. He succeeded beyond even his wildest dreams. The show is one of the most successful in the history of the Metropolitan Museum, and 815,992 people visited it.

The film is fascinating as we see the origins of the idea, then the preparations for the show, then the staging of it. The creations are breath-taking works of art. But there is even more. We see the careful place-setting for the Met Gala Night Opening dinner, then the guests arriving and walking up the red carpeted stairs. We are shown Andrew Bolton walking through the galleries alone, after the Gala. We can be sure he is tired, but very happy at the result of all his hard work.

The bar has been set higher for his next Show!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Disgraced: Saturday, April 23 2016

Disgraced is a play written by Ayad Akhtar, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. It was a huge success in Chicago, New York and London, England. It has this month been brought to premier in Toronto, and played at the Panasonic Theatre on Yonge Street at Charles Street. This year, it is the most produced play in the United States.

Invited to see it with two Jewish friends, I went along without knowing anything about it. My friends insisted it was a "must see". The play had been held over, and the theatre was packed for the matinee performance we attended. The stage was set as a sophisticated apartment in New York City, and the atmosphere was electric.

The acting was good, the production well directed, and the play well-written. Altogether, a highly professional production. The performance received a standing ovation from an enthusiastic audience of the Toronto intelligentsia.

The characters in the play were: Amir, an ex-Muslim Pakistani lawyer employed by a Jewish firm; married to Emily, a White Caucasian woman artist; Isaac, Emily's Jewish art dealer; married to Jory, a Black woman lawyer; and Abe, Amir's nephew. In other words, the author had chosen to write about a Muslim, a WASP, a Black, and a Jew. All are sophisticated, humanist, liberal, secular people, living in a modern, North American city that prides itself on its Progressive attitudes.

The action is a dinner party at Amir's which becomes exceedingly tense, not only for the dinner guests, but for the audience. The taboo subjects in polite society of religion and racial prejudice are given a thorough airing. The main subject dealt with demonstrated how difficult it is for a person from a completely different culture to fit into that of North America. There is always the pull between the two cultures. This is especially difficult for a Muslim such as Amir, as there can be great prejudice against followers of Islam, even among such seemingly open-minded people as Liberal Progressives. 

Amir has thrown off Islam, and calls the Qur'an "one long hate mail for humanity". He has changed his name to give the impression that he is a Hindu from India. In spite of this, he appears the object of bigotry against Muslims when he is disgraced.  His career and marriage are destroyed in one evening. He has rejected his origins as a Muslim from Pakistan, but finds this is not completely possible. Even as an apostate Muslim, he is still the object of unease and lack of trust.   

As it meant to, the play left me full of questions. What was the audience meant to feel about it? It left me feeling as uncomfortable as I would be, if I had attended such a dinner party. 
Ayad Akhtar

In my world, all the points raised have been discussed often, in an honest, open-minded way. Perhaps they are not so discussed in politically correct circles. If that is the case, it is good to open up questions around assimilation, and racial prejudice. The author seemed to be suggesting that people face reality, instead of hanging on to an impossible Progressive dream.

The audience gave the performance a standing ovation. I wondered what they were applauding. Was it the polished performance, or the statement the play is making? 

Had any of the audience tried to adopt a completely different culture? Had anyone made the effort to leave their North American attitudes behind and adopt, say, those of China or Russia? Or those of Iran or Saudi Arabia? Did they really understand the difficulties for a Muslim to join our society? Was that what they were applauding?

Afterwards there was a question and answer session. As usual, some people chose to express opinions not realising how boring this is for everyone else. Some questions were offered and answered satisfactorily. No questions of any depth were asked.

Altogether, an interesting experience! My friends were right. Disgraced is a "must see"!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Midnight Special: Monday, April 18 2016

A science fiction drama, Midnight Special is written and directed by Jeff Nichols (37). He is an up-and-coming young director, and this is his fourth feature film. He shows great potential, not quite realised as yet in this film.

As is almost a given in modern films, the acting was excellent, the cinematography, writing, etc., were all competent.

I found of particular interest, Kirsten Dunst (33) playing Sarah, the mother of the strange child, Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher. Dunst has been in modelling and acting from the age of three. She has been working hard in the entertainment industry ever since. She was memorable in Spider Man (2002), playing Mary Jane Watson opposite Tony Maguire's Spider Man, which is when I first noticed her. As Sarah, she added a highly professional performance to her long list of parts.

The first half of the movie was fast moving, and lifted the film above the ordinary, but it seemed to sag a little thereafter. The story seemed a little unoriginal. It was another visitor from space movie, except this time with the added dimension that the weird boy was from another universe that lies just above ours, but is in another dimension. Fascinating concept, probably new to those who don't know too much about physics or science fiction literature. The ending was a little lame. A closeup of the father, showing clearly that his eyes were flashing as had done his son's, would have made the that punchline clearer. They were still in touch.

The film reminded me that physicists have put forward the string theory of 10 dimensions, but so far it is still being discussed as it is controversial. But, of course, as far as the fourth dimension is concerned, H.G. Wells tackled that in his The Time Machine (1895). These are the idea being used in this film.

I like what Rotten Tomatoes says about the film:
Critics Consensus: Midnight Special's intriguing mysteries may not resolve themselves to every viewer's liking, but the journey is ambitious, entertaining, and terrifically acted.
That rather says it all!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Golden Son: April 16 April 2016

The Golden Son, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, is the story of a young Indian man, Anil. He leaves his village in India for further education in Dallas, Texas. The author paints such detailed pictures of two totally different environments and cultures, it is easy to visualize them. Gowda draws her characters with an equally clear brush, we can feel them as real people.

This is beautifully crafted book, and written so well it becomes a work of art. We can smell the fragrances of India, and see the sun glinting off the man-made lake in Dallas as Anil runs around it. The people around Anil, both in the States and India, stay with us.

I liked the accuracy of the story. Gowda shows us both sides of life in each country. The good, and the bad. She also adds to our understanding of how difficult it must be for someone from such a different culture as India, to fit into life in the United States.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Not only is she exceptionally beautiful, she is an accomplished author, having already published the best seller Secret Daughter.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi: April 15 2016

The members of our Book Group were delighted to have Jacqueline Park with us for our meeting this month of April, to discuss her book, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, which we had been reading. It was fascinating to have the author talk about writing, and the writing of this particular work.

When asked about the creative process of writing, and whether images sprang into her mind already fully formed, Jacqueline's reply was truly humble. She explained that she doesn't first and foremost see herself as an artist, per se. She had spent many years writing for CBC television. On a Monday she would be given a one hour episode for a series, and had to have all 25 pages completed and ready to go by Friday. This had given her a foundation in the craft of writing. When she decided she would like to write a book, she spent three years researching how to write a book before she realised she really just had to begin. Her passion is storytelling, but that is not enough. What it takes to write a book is sheer hard work and dedication to the task. It took 10 years to write The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi: 10 years of dedication to the craft of writing; and doing the necessary research to give the story an accurate, historical background.

Jacqueline explained that historical novels are considered something apart from literature, as is detective fiction, and even slightly inferior. She sounded slightly apologetic. Considering that her first book was a best seller in North America and in Europe, she has no need to be in any way so modest. One of our Group said that when the book first came out, she had bought many copies of it to give to friends as she considered it such an important book. I totally understood that urge. It is 739 pages in the soft cover edition I bought, and I found it such a pleasure to read, I was sorry when it ended. Fortunately, it is part of a trilogy.

I love this book! It contains everything I like: the meticulous craftsmanship, and use of English written with such clarity; the rich historical background; a strong woman heroine; the complex storytelling, so well-written I almost feel as if I have seen the book as a dramatic production. Never once did the author intrude into her story with overly clever writing. I liked that! It was suggested that the book would make a television series, or a film. Jacqueline agreed, as she had written it with that in mind, as do all wise writers.

Jacqueline said that she had been concerned that it is such a Jewish book, with a Jewish heroine. As far as I am concerned, that is part of what made it so fascinating to me. I already knew a little of Renaissance history, and to see it through the eyes of a Jewish woman added greatly to my appreciation of that time. It also increased my understanding of the Jewish people, of how much they have suffered, and how this has molded their attitudes up to the present time.

There is no fortune to be made in writing, even a best-seller such as this one, yet the passion for story-telling drove Jacqueline to write. I felt a sense of awe when I finished her first book, and also gratitude that she had undertaken so much hard, even brutal, work to give me, and many others, so much pleasure.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Sleeping Giant, directed by Andrew Cividino, is a work of art. It is the first full-length film created by 32-year-old Cividino, and has established him as a new director to watch. The film has already won awards, including the best Canadian first film, at the Toronto Film Festival.

Cividino studied film at Ryerson University, Toronto, and spent many childhood summers at Lake Superior, near Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Sleeping Giant is a peninsula jutting into Lake Superior that looks like its name. In the film, this peninsula is the place to where the culmination of a summer of boredom leads.

The film stars Jackson Martin as Adam, Nick Serino as Nate, and Reece Moffet as Riley. Their acting is amazing. It is so realistic, it is hard to realise that they are, in fact, acting. Cividino has drawn the best out of these three young actors.

Jackson Martin was born in London, Ontario, and has been modelling and acting since he was 11 years old. He is a "natural" and headed for a successful career. Serino and Moffat are cousins, and this was their first performances in a film. It would appear they too are on the way to careers as actors.

Cividino gives us such insight into the minds of young adolescent males, spending a boring, unfulfilling summer without enough to keep them occupied. Left to their own by the adults, without enough outside diversions or activities, they do the usual things: smoking dope; drinking alcohol; thinking about the female sex; nothing particularly productive. The atmosphere is full of danger as we wonder what these idle young men will do to liven up their dull, boring environment.

It will be interesting to see what project Andrew Cividino tackles next. This is definitely a film to see.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Thursday, March 31 2016

Taken before performance
On Thursday, March 31, John and I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Roy Thomson Hall listening to a concert by the Victoria Symphony, from British Columbia. The conductor is Tania Miller. I seemed to me her style is deeply emotional, and her feeling for the music is extreme.

The concert began with a world premier performance of a piece by Michael Oesterie, Entr'actes. A modern piece, it displayed the differences between earlier classical music and that of the present. The harmonies are different, and there is a different idea of melodies. I enjoyed it, and was delighted that it had been chosen to begin the concert.

The second piece was the Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op.16, by Edvard Grieg. The piano soloist was Stewart Goodyear, and he was outstanding. This is such a popular piece, it was a joy to hear, and Goodyear commanded the orchestra with his performance. He also commanded the audience and received a standing ovation.

After the Intermission, we were treated to Appalachian Spring (1945 orchestration), by Aaron Copeland. This piece was originally commissioned as a ballet with an American theme and first performed in 1944. Later, Copeland was commissioned to rearrange the music as an orchestral piece, and it was performed in 1945. This performance here in Toronto was very interesting.

The final piece was Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision), by the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. I have heard and seen this piece as a ballet, performed in London, England. The ballet was originally commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev of the then 28-year-old Stravinsky. Diaghilev was in the process of introducing Russian music and art to western audiences, and the music was intended to introduce new works of a distinctly 20th century style. The folk story of the magical glowing bird that can be both a blessing and a curse to its owner has been woven into a story around the Firebird and the evil magician Koschei. When premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1910, it was a huge success. The music was considered very modern, and created a sensation. To anyone, even today, brought up on Beethoven and Mozart, it sounds very different from either the Classical or Romantic periods of western art music.

The orchestra received a standing ovation from an audience that had appreciated their efforts. I found it interesting to hear once again, how different orchestras and conductors are from each other.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Eye in the Sky: Monday, April 4 2016

Eye in the Sky is a 2015 British thriller film directed by South African, Gavin Hood, based on a screenplay by Guy Hibbert. A professional production, everything about it is of a high standard. It is entertaining as a thriller. Helen Mirren, as Colonel Katherine Powell, is her usual fabulous self. Alan Rickman is superb as Lieutenant General Frank Benson struggling against great odds. How sad that this was his last part!

The film is about military and political personnel faced with the legal, ethical and moral dilemmas presented by drone warfare. What is more important, the life of one child, or the lives of many?

A six-year hunt for a British woman convert to militant Islam, working with the Muslim organization, al-Shabaab, is nearing success, in Nairobi, Kenya. The mission suddenly changes from a Capture and Arrest to the fight against Islamic Jihadist suicide bombers. They are observed readying themselves in the same house as the hunted traitor. This is in the wake of the 2013 Nairobi shopping mall attacks in Kenya when 67 people were killed and 175 wounded.

The Americans controlling the drone that is providing surveillance of the house, are now faced with bombing the Jihadists. We see the concern on the faces of the two American soldiers when they notice a little girl within the range of the bombs. What will be the choice? To bomb, or not to bomb?

I was left feeling completely perplexed by Eye in the Sky. Although a thriller, this film seemed to be trying to convey a message.  But what message, if any, was being conveyed? Is it good that the military is so bound by legal systems, moralists and ethicists? Should we feel sympathy for the literal tears of the American soldiers? Do good soldiers actually cry?

In many ways, Eye in the Sky didn't seem quite realistic. In fact, I hope it isn't too realistic. If soldiers don't recognize that their first job is to protect people against the enemy, in spite of their feelings about collateral damage, then our civilization is in big trouble. I remembered the comments by Lt. General Benson when he made it quite clear to the tea-drinking politician that military personnel are not devoid of emotions when they perform the often dreadful tasks they are called upon to do. Was this the message?

I was appalled at what I perceived as a lack of leadership, and a lack of being prepared to accept responsibility. Even Lieutenant General Benson didn't seem strong enough to champion the military against all the buck-passing politicians. But in the end, the job did get done. Is it perhaps good that so much soul-searching goes on? Is that hesitation before pressing the button perhaps a good thing?

The person I could really identify with was Colonel Powell. She was the only one who seemed to realize the importance of stopping further damage by al-Shabaab. She wasn't bothered by ethics or any moral system when it came to fulfilling the mission. She was prepared to do what had to be done.

If politicians don't realize that the first duty of a government is to protect the country, not their own backs, we are in deep trouble. How far are we prepared to go to protect our country and way of life? If a challenge arrived on our doorstep, can we trust that there is leadership to protect us?

Eye in the Sky is thought-provoking. Is it perhaps good to have us ask these questions?

This is a film everyone ought to see.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Leopard

The Leopard, by Guiseppe Di Lampedusa, is set in Sicily during the 1860s, when Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Redshirts conquered the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This led to the reunification of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II in 1861. It chronicles the changes that took place in the Sicily of the author's paternal great-grandfather, Giulio Fabrizio, the Prince of Lampedusa. The Prince of Salina, the Leopard, is based on Fabrizio.

The book was rejected by two of the leading publishers in Italy, but was published in 1958 by Feltrinelli, after the author had died. It became the top-selling novel in Italian history, and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature.

The atmosphere Di Lampedusa has created pervades The Leopard with the feel of Sicily at this time of great change. The sensual beauty of the country is evoked. The sexuality of the Prince and others in the story, is suggested and lingers in the air. There is an undercurrent of uncomfortable tension and melancholy as the old world of tradition and refined culture slips away. It is being replaced by the world of the newly rich, and their lack of any veneer of the niceties of the old way of life.

The pragmatic attitudes of the Prince of Salina are revealed in his acceptance of the changes happening in his society. The marriage of his nephew to the daughter of the local mayor who had become rich under Garibaldi, epitomises the shift in power in the new order.

Bendico, the Great Dane who accompanies the Prince of Salina everywhere, is a symbol of what is happening to the upper class in Sicily at that time. When the story begins, Bendico is lively and full of life. He ages, dies, and his carcass is preserved by the art of taxidermy. Concetta, the Prince's eldest daughter keeps the dead animal, and at the very end of the book, the cadaver is thrown out. It is full of dust, smells, and as it is discarded, seems to dance briefly in the air, with an expression of reproach.  

The Leopard is a classic in that it tells the universal story of the replacement of one ruling class and power structure with another. Di Lampedusa paints his picture in the unvarnished truth. This is not a romantic vision, nor is it sentimental.

When it was published in Italy in 1958, it was immediately attacked from all sides of Italian society. The Conservative Right and the Church of Rome didn't like the portrayal of the decadence of both the nobility and the clergy. The Left objected to what they perceived as the criticism of the unification of Italy and the destruction of the nobility. They had a much more idealized, glorified vision of events. The Communist Party of Italy was enraged by the definitely non-marxist depiction of the Sicilian working class.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, this controversy, The Leopard gained great critical acclaim, and won the Strega Prize, Italy's highest award for fiction.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Genghis Khan and the making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan by Jack Weatherford, is written in such concise English it is a delight to read. Published by Three River Press, of Random House, in 2008, it was a bestseller on the New York Times list.

Weatherford is a professor of anthropology at Macalester University in Minnesota. In this book he rewrites history from an objective point of view. He explains the benefits the Mongols gave to the tribes and peoples unified by their Empire, and how much that has influenced and shaped the modern world. He points out that the horrific picture painted of Genghis Khan was propaganda spread at the instigation of Genghis Khan himself, to instill fear into the people he intended colonizing. He prefered that they simply accept him and his rule, than to have to fight the leaders. If there was resistance, he was totally ruthless, of course, as he had to be to achieve his goals.

There is a long list of the beneficial aspects of the Mongol Empire. It united the tribes of Mongolia by breaking down the family structure and recruiting the men into military units loyal to Genghis Khan and each other, not based on tribe. A military genius, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) defeated the peoples around him, stopping inter-tribal fighting. He laid down a Great Law that everyone had to obey. He had a personal Guard who protected him and enforced the Law. A common citizenship was created, built on merit, loyalty, and achievement. Freedom of religion was guaranteed to everyone. A writing system was adopted. A postal communication system was put in place. A system of roads was built and free trading between all the different areas of the Empire was encouraged. He defended his people against raiding bandits and terrorist assassins.

The overarching belief system of Genghis Khan was that the Eternal Blue Sky had appointed him to rule over all the world and establish order throughout. Born as he was, in a little ger of his nomadic people, of an outcast family, perhaps he needed this conviction to achieve what he did.

The military tactics of Genghis Khan and his Mongol descendants are well worth study. I found particularly interesting their building a wall around an already walled community, and then demoralizing the inhabitants by catapulting gunpowder, naphtha, burning oil, etc. over the walls. It was the Mongols who invented the canon, combining Chinese gunpowder with Muslim throwing of the firelance. To the Mongols, honour was not in the fighting, but in the winning.

The Mongol Empire at its height during the 1200s, was one of the largest contiguous land empire in history. It stretched from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, northwards into Siberia, southward into the India, Persia, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia. Descendents of Genghis Kahn ruled in China, Persia, Russia, Turkey and India. As the Moghuls, they reigned in India until 1857, when the British drove out Emperor Bahadur Shah II and chopped off the heads of his sons and grandson.

Professor Jack Weatherford was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Chinggis Khan College in Mongolia. With this fascinating book, he certainly deserved it. If you want to catch up with history that has been neglected by the western world in the past, this book is how to do it.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a formidable work of art, beautifully crafted. The award winning Kristin Hannah is a master of her writing craft, and shows herself an outstanding artist in moulding this book. I loved her use of language. She created such clear pictures in my mind that I could have been watching the events in reality. She uses language to tell the story, not to show how clever she is. Not once did she intrude.

Set in occupied France, during the Second World War, The Nightingale tells the story of heroic women in that horrendous time. I felt for them, and was deeply moved by what they went through and survived. We are so used to hearing this story from the viewpoint of men, it was refreshing to hear it from the viewpoint of women.

Born in California, on September 25, 1960, Kristin Hannah is too young to have lived through the war, but she has recreated the world as it was during those ghastly war years when the world was tearing itself apart. I couldn't put the book down, and was sorry when I reached the end.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

All the Light You Cannot See: Book Group Choice


All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This is awarded for the best Fiction entry by an American author, preferably dealing with American life. The book was an instant bestseller on the New York Times list.

The Pulitzer Prize is basically given to journalists in many categories, and to work nominated. Although All the Light We Cannot See is fiction, and not about American life, it is almost journalistic in its depiction of the reality of how life must have been in Europe during World War II. 

It is a literary work, dealing with the Second World War, and the two main characters, a German boy and a blind French girl, whose paths cross in Nazi-occupied France. The book is an easy read, and conjures up a vivid picture of the horror of the war and the devastation it caused to Europe and the people who lived there. 

I enjoyed reading the book. I liked the author's use of the English language, although I did get a little tired of what I experienced as his overuse of descriptive passages. A little too flowery for my taste. The language got in the way of the story at times. On the other hand, the characters were believable, as was the story. 

Written from an objective point of view, All the Light You Cannot See clearly lays out different aspects of human nature in the face of a totalitarian authority that brooks no opposition. Some French people capitulated immediately in the shape of the Vichy government under Marshal Petain. Others formed the French Resistance under General De Gaulle and fought for their country. Still others quietly backed up the Marquis by small actions in their everyday lives. The majority kept their heads down and tried to keep out of any trouble. Others were caught up in what was happening, as were the main characters.

Over 60,000,000 people were killed: perhaps more, depending on how the numbers are calculated. Europe was devastated: the old world order had been destroyed, and a new world was born incorporating a different set of values. None of this was mentioned in this novel. I found it a little shallow.