From the Netflix Movie Vault

Shirley MacLaine, Meryl Streep, Postcards from the EdgeThese two interesting movies couldn’t be more different, though both are based on best-selling books and turn on the unlikely matter of insurance. The more fun was Postcards from the Edge (1990), which, through a horrible coincidence, arrived just after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died. Postcards is based very loosely on Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel, and the obvious question is whether Reynolds was “really like that.”  Fisher said not and, suffice it to say, when Reynolds wanted to play the mother in the movie, director Mike Nichols told her she wasn’t right for it. (Nice Vanity Fair story here about the real mother-daughter relationship.)

I was apprehensive about sitting through another Hollywood druggie movie, even one billed as a comedy-drama (trailer), but in the first moments Meryl Streep walks into the frame, and I knew I’d be in good hands. Not only her performance as Suzanne Vale (Fisher), but Shirley MacLaine’s as Suzanne’s wine-drinking, self-absorbed, hyper-critical mother make the film worth seeing. Small roles for Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid are fun too. The strength of the performances means the movie holds up, nearly 30 years after it was made.

After a disastrous overdose, a stint in rehab helps Suzanne get her act together, but the only way anyone will give her another role is if she lives “supervised”—that is, with Mom. Otherwise, the studio will never be able get insurance for her. Returning to Mom ain’t easy. While you can see she totally adores her mother, she fears being “sucked into her massive orbit,” as Hunter Harris said in Vulture. Despite Suzanne’s shaky grip on herself, Streep plays it so you can’t help rooting for her, and you know she’ll come out all right.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences 66%. (Interesting split there.)

In-The-Heart-Of-The-SeaBy contrast, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea (trailer) is pretty darn depressing, if less emotionally engaging. It’s a seafaring adventure film about the 1819, real-life voyage of the Essex, a whaler out of Nantucket. While hunting whales in the South Pacific, the hunters enrage an enormous white sperm whale—virtually as long as the Essex itself—that takes its revenge on the ship, its whaleboats, and the crew. The Essex sinks, and the three remaining whaleboats struggle toward the coast of South America. Eventually, only eight crewmen make it back to Nantucket. Sound familiar?

The framing device of the story is that young author Herman Melville has an all-night interview with Thomas Nickerson, the Essex’s cabin boy and last surviving crew member. For decades, he has been keeping the secret of what actually occurred on the voyage and the desperate return trip. The ship owners, rather than have the world think whaling is too dangerous to invest in or insure (!) maintain the ship was lost when it ran aground.

But Melville is following rumors there’s more to the story, and by the time he leaves Nickerson’s company is determined to write what becomes The Great American Novel, Moby Dick (1851). In real life, both Nickerson and the first mate, Owen Chase, published accounts of the ill-fated trip, and these did inspire Melville’s book.

The film has exciting special effects—storms at sea, overhead views of the ship and the whales. Whale-killing is an unsavory business, and viewers can only be glad smellovision has not been invented. Good performances from Ben Whishaw as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as the aging sailor. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the Essex’s captain (Benjamin Walker) and first mate (Chris Hemsworth) very compelling, and I don’t know whether that was because of wooden performances or a bad script. Director Ron Howard clearly aspired for more here. As a fan of seagoing adventures, I wish he’d achieved it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 42%; audiences 53%.


Lion, Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Rooney Mara & Dev Patel

Another current movie that’s a fan favorite is Lion (trailer), well worth seeing for the heart-warming true story and excellent acting. Garth Davis directed and Luke Davies wrote the screenplay, based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, and the movie was lovingly filmed in Kolkata and Tasmania by cinematographer Greig Fraser .

The story begins in 1986, when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother at a train station. He falls asleep on a decommissioned train and can’t get off for several days. Meanwhile, it has traveled far from his home, reaching the sprawling city of Kolkata. At the time, Kolkata had approximately 10 million residents, including thousands of orphans, and was full of dangers for a child—especially one from a rural area who could not speak the local Bengali. Some effort is made to help him find his family, but he doesn’t know enough. Eventually he’s adopted by an Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Only when Saroo is a young adult (Dev Patel) does the technology come along—Google Earth—that may be able to help him find home. The search becomes a secret obsession, threatening his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and the parents who raised him. It’s worth the price of admission to see the happy-go-lucky Patel’s moment of overwhelming loss that starts this quest, triggered by the sight of the red jalebis he wanted as a child. With his hair grown out and shaggy, he even starts to look like a lion.

The story is rather straightforwardly about love, but what could have been overly sentimental is brought to a higher plane by virtue of the solid acting performances. Sunny Pawar, who plays the young Saroo is a marvel!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 93%.

Sunny Pawar, Barack Obama

Sunny Pawar meets Barack Obama

****The Piano Teacher


photo: Ovi Gherman, creative commons license

By Janice Y. K. Lee – Set in Hong Kong in two time periods—1952 and leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1941—this lovely debut  novel is part romance, part mystery, and part sociological study of the behavior of an expat community in good times and very very bad ones.

The 1952 story begins with newly arrived Claire Pendleton, wife of a water engineer who’s mostly away and mostly ignores her. Claire’s a bit bored and lets it be known she’s offering piano lessons. She’s hired by a prominent Chinese family, Melody and Victor Chen to teach their ten-year-old daughter Locket. With the Chens, she comes to know temptation.

On the street and at practically every social event she attends, she runs into a long-time Hong Kong resident, the emotionally elusive Englishman Will Truesdale. He has an odd limp and an confident manner, and he pursues Claire with determination. Over time, she learns his history and the preoccupations that haunt him.

In 1941, Truesdale was the Hong Kong newcomer. Almost immediately he meets and falls for Eurasian beauty Trudy Liang, a fixture in the social scene and cousin of Melody Chen. Will and Trudy’s love affair changes them both. Then the Japanese overwhelm the colony, bringing their detention camps, their bombs, their random, brutal murders, and deep, starvation-level privation. Choices were made, and those long-ago choices shape Claire’s world too.

Having shown the glitter of Hong Kong, Lee now exposes the grime. She reveals the aspects of character that allow individuals to survive changed circumstances, or not. The ones who come out the other side, like Claire, who needed to believe there was more to life, learn who they truly are.

The plot is strong and the prose elegant. Lee carries you along so easily that before you know it, you are plunged into difficulty all around. Her vivid description of the city of Hong Kong and the life there is like a prolonged, unforgettable visit to an exotic hothouse world.

Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

Ben Foster & Chris Pine in Hell or High Water

This modern outlaw Western directed by David Mackenzie (trailer) is receiving high praise from critics. Like the faceless cattle barons and railroad tycoons memorialized in 1950s celluloid, today it’s the bankers who are handy villains bent on destroying the little guy. That’s true even if the modern cowboy rides a drilling rig.

Brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine, respectively) team up to rob branches of the Texas Midland Bank, an institution that has drained the value from their late mother’s ranch and now (since corporations are officially people, I can anthropormorphize) sits rubbing its hands, waiting to foreclose. That would be a double catastrophe, because oil has been found on the land, and Toby is desperate to hang onto it so he can pass this valuable parcel to his kids. But he lacks the cash to save it. Thus, the robber scheme is hatched.

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges & Gil Birmingham, Hell or High Water

On the hunt for the robbers are two Texas Rangers—Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham). Hamilton is just weeks from retirement, and figures out the broad outlines of the plot. He just can’t quite put the pieces together. He rides his American/Indian/Mexican partner mercilessly, and you understand Parker’s stoicism in the face of these insults is part of the joke. He gets his own barbs in too. Early on, he asks Hamilton: “Are you going to do anything about these robberies, or just sit there and let Alzheimer’s take its course?”

Watching Hamilton and Parker is fun; watching the brothers is fun. They are real characters and they have real relationships here. For me, a big part of the fun is not knowing exactly what to expect, because the movie falls both within and outside the usual formulas. As Philadelphia Inquirer reviewer Stephen Rea says, it’s “at once a tale of desperation in hard times and a keenly observed character study—or studies.” I’d give it 7 stars out of 10.

I had a little flutter when the lawmen referred to Lubbock (home of my grandparents) and Young County (my great-grandparents). The filming, however, was in New Mexico. Not the same at all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%, audiences 90%.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the WilderpeopleThis New Zealand comic gem (trailer) is about 13-year-old misfit Ricky Baker, whose last-resort foster placement is way, way out in the bush. Frankly, he’d rather be in urban Wellington or Christchurch, hanging with his homies, busting out to his walkman, tagging prime real estate, and living the gangsta life (in his head). But it isn’t to be. He’s too far and too needy to make it back. Not for want of trying.

When Ricky (played superbly by Julian Dennison) disappears into the bush with his foster uncle Hec (Sam Neill, almost unrecognizable under a beard), the child protective system moves into high gear to “rescue” him. This dramatic and high-profile effort to save the boy, one can only imagine, comes after a dozen years of ignoring his needs and the quality and suitability of his placements atop no real understanding of what children need.

Directed with great energy by Taika Waititi, who also wrote the script, it has perhaps one chase scene that goes on too long, but as it occurs, the viewer is still basking in the enjoyment of Hec and Ricky’s hilarious encounter with a real bush man. Colander, anyone?

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times acknowledges Waititi’s effervescent touch reminiscent of Wes Anderson, and says, “Charming and funny, it is a drama masquerading as a comedy about an unloved boy whom nobody wants until someone says, Yes, I’ll love him.” And you will, too.

The credits include mention of drone pilots, and, though there are numerous helicopters in the plot, drones enable an amount of aerial photography heretofore prohibitively expensive. In the film’s travelogue dimensions, also awesome.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 100%!; audiences 92%.

Indie Documentaries Star

Iceland, sheep pen, rettir

Waiting for the Sheep (photo: Hansueli Krapf, creative commons license)

Last night at the Trenton Film Festival 2016, saw three short documentaries under the heading Ageless Friends.  Over a period of five days, the festival shows 55 films from 16 countries—live action, documentary, animation, and new media. Films submitted for consideration are selected by a panel of jurors (who must have been very busy!) and the festival culminates in an awards ceremony for “bests” in various categories, including audience favorite.

First up was a 7-minute film from the U.K., North Coast 500, which follows three cyclists on a tour through the beautiful Scottish Highlands. The scenery is magnificent.

A Thousand-Year-Old Tradition

It was the second and third films that competed on my ballot for “audience favorite.” The second, A Thousand Autumns, is a 17-minute U.S. film directed by Bob Krist. It follows the efforts on one of several groups of Icelandic farmers who each fall use ponies and dogs to herd their sheep from remote highland pastures to winter grazing lands closer to their farms and the coast. This is a tradition (called the “réttir”) that has been maintained, as the title implies, for ten centuries.

It’s a massive effort, involving the whole community, and family members who’ve moved to the city return for it. Over the summer, the sheep from various farms become all mixed up together, and the farmers have created a the clever method of separating hundreds of animals into individual herds. A round pen is surrounded by pie-shaped wedges, one for each farmer. The sheep are let into the central pen where people await, ready to sort them and push them into the correct farm’s wedge.

Filmmaker Krist first became committed to documenting this herculean effort in the mid-1980s, when on a photography assignment for National Geographic. He knew the separating pen would be a strong visual, which he calls a “sheep pizza.” In those days, he would have had to film it with an expensive and scary (for the sheep) helicopter; for this film, he used a drone.

A Full Measure of Devotion

The hour-long third film, Ageless Friends (trailer), opening in the U.S. in June, is from Netherlands documentarian Marijn Poels. As a teenager, Maarten Vossen adopted the grave of U.S. soldier Private First Class James E. Wickline, one of 8301 U.S. soldiers buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery. Wickline participated in Operation Market Garden, an unsuccessful Allied effort to overtake Germany’s industrial heartland in the Ruhr Valley. Vossen became determined to learn more about “his” soldier, a young man who died to restore his and his country’s freedom.


Ultimately, he learns that Wickline was one of some 1200 new recruits brought into the 82d airborne’s 508th Parachute Infantry Division to replace soldiers lost at Normandy, only 800 of whom survived. Evidence (Wickline’s documented injuries) led the military to conclude his parachute did not open, and he was killed on the first day of the operation, on his first jump into battle.

For Wickline to have died without ever having actually participated in the war dismays Vossen, who traces Wickline’s roots and connections in West Virginia and, working with a county commissioner there, succeeds in having a bridge named for him. That this young Dutchman, 70 years later and living thousands of miles away, cares so much about one of our forgotten fallen is extraordinarily moving, an ultimate expression of unselfish love.

****The Empty Quarter

desert, man in desert

(photo: Ilker Ender, creative commons license)

By David L. Robbins –What an exciting adventure combining military and medical thriller elements! It takes place in the Rub’ al-Khali, the world’s largest desert (“the empty quarter”), which occupies most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. People are scarce there, except for the ones you most do not want to meet.

It’s a multiple point-of-view novel, told mostly from the perspectives of members of a U.S. Air Force pararescuemen (PJs) team. PJs’ combined military-medical mission is personnel recovery, and they use both conventional and unconventional combat rescue methods. The motto of this branch of service is “That Others May Live,” and Robbins effectively describes the team members’ dedication to that mission, despite their differences in personality and temperament.

We also read the point of view of Arif, a middle-aged Saudi man whose wife Nadya is a member of the Saudi royal family. Her father, Prince Hassan bin Abd al-Aziz is the country’s head of security. Arif has fallen out with his father-in-law, and he and Nadya are in hiding in the tiny Yemeni town of Ma’rib. Robbins portrays their mutual devotion quite movingly.

A third key point of view is that of Josh Cofield, a former Army Ranger, assigned to the American Embassy in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. Everyone, the ambassador included, erroneously believes Josh is CIA, because he is “awkward as a diplomat,” a bit of a bull in a china shop, but a skilled speaker of Arabic.

When an attempt is made on Prince Aziz’s life, he mistakenly blames the exiled Arif. He wants his son-in-law dead and his daughter returned to him, and he wants U.S. help in achieving these goals He cannot get it, however, unless an American life is threatened. A plan begins to take shape in diabolical minds.

A wild nighttime chase across the desert occupies the last half of the book. Part of Robbins’s skill is in avoiding making any of the principal players obvious bad guys. They’re complex characters with conflicting goals, and all doing their best to resolve an impossible situation.

I appreciated that the book includes helpful maps. Not as helpful—and something readers are bound to object to—is the frequent use of military abbreviations and acronyms. While Robbins defines a few of these in footnotes, it might have been better to have a list in an appendix  or to retain the abbreviations in speech, but not rely on them as much in the narrative. It would be a shame if readers abandoned a top-notch tale because of the resulting confusion. Robbins has 10 other novels under his body armor. I’ll be reading more of them!

A longer version of this review appeared on

The Assassin

Shu Qi, the Assassin, China

Shu Qi as The Assassin

This 2015 Chinese martial arts film (trailer) had one showing in Princeton last night—sold out! Thankfully, I caught it. The movie has had mostly positive reviews and garnered a “best direction” award for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at Cannes in 2015. A lot appreciation is due him for the overall beauty of the film.

In 9th century China, a young girl’s family sent her away to a convent for her protection. There she learned the martial arts and becomes a skilled assassin of corrupt local governors, although in one attempt, she instead showed mercy. Disgraced, she’s sent home with a deadly mission: to kill her cousin, the military governor of Weibo province, an assignment that also will test whether she can set her human feelings aside. As children the cousins were promised to each other, but for political reasons, the marriage did not take place.

Exactly why he’s a candidate for murder was somewhat lost on me, because the dialog and subtitles were sparse. Weibo faces other threats as well. Externally, the Emperor has been expanding his dominion, and Weibo is likely his next target; internally, the governor’s wife is playing by her own rules. Suffice it to say there’s plenty of intrigue, and if a few of the motivations are murky, the action is clear.

Shu Qi plays Yinniang, the assassin, and Chang Chen her cousin Lord Tian (Tian Ji’an). Beautiful sets and cinematography, and I wouldn’t mind having the costume budget, either. The soundtrack was spare, but compelling; no surprise that Lim Giong won a soundtrack award at Cannes.

People who appreciate the genre of period martial arts dramas like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers have come to expect exciting (and wholly unrealistic) one-sided battles. The Assassin contains fighting, too, though much less than these previous films. Nor does it depend on wires to the same extent. Yinniang is not just a killing tool; she thinks about what she’s doing and its ramifications. The most interesting and subtle battle was between Yinniang and another female assassin. Their confrontation concludes, and the two women walk away from each other. Only in the next shot do we find out what brought the fight to its decisive end.

Reviewer Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman, criticized Hou, saying he “seemingly has little energy or reverence for the form,” whereas I come down on the side of reviewers who have called the film “mesmerizing.” At its finest, this genre is a melding of cinematic beauty and heart-stopping action. Hou opted to emphasize the former, and that worked for me.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences 53% (a reflection of expectations?).

The Revenant

RevenantLeonardo DiCaprio won a Golden Globe for his performance as Hugh Glass in The Revenant (trailer), and the movie is nominated for a dozen Oscars. If these awards were for fortitude alone, the accolades would be well-deserved, as cast and crew have spoken at length about the physical hardships they faced in filming this movie. “The elements sort of took over,” DiCaprio told Wired interviewer Robert Capps. One must wonder, why did they undertake such a difficult and potentially perilous project?

Perhaps they did it because younger audiences today haven’t grown up knowing about the privations and violence inherent in the settlement of the West—there was life before Disneyland—and need to have the blood and guts smacked in their face. In which case, the movie is a success. It’s based in part on Michael Punke’s novel The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, set in 1820s Montana and South Dakota along the Upper Missouri River.

If they want to give cinematography awards to Emmanuel Lubezki for this film, I will be standing in the front row cheering. It is a beautiful film—with breathtaking views of the western United States (and Canada, Mexico, and Argentina)—shot with a deep depth of field worthy of a Sierra Club coffee table book. Snow-melt rivers, star-spangled nights, forests that pull you into the sky.

It’s just that we’re shown unspeakable violence, then astounding beauty, then unspeakable violence, then astounding beauty, then unsp. . . .you get the rhythm. In fact the violence was always so gruesome that it became (I hate to say this, since human and animal lives were purportedly involved) borrring. The beauty that followed it began to feel like heavy-handed ironic commentary, losing any capacity to soothe. The sound design and music are emotionally apt and compelling, I thought (score by Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who wrote the script with Mark L. Smith, did not conceive of Hugh Glass as anything more than a character bent on revenge. Glass pursues this hollow quest for pretty much two hours and thirty-six minutes. What I like to see in a character is some growth, some change, some “ok, this is awful, but I can rise above it” (or not). But while DiCaprio may well be capable of a meatier performance, the film doesn’t ask it of him. We learn nothing by watching it except that having an angry mama-bear drooling over you is really disgusting, but wait a sec, now she’s going to fling you around like a rag doll again. And drool some more.

For good reason, we don’t like the Frenchies, or the single-minded Indians, or the dim Americans. Everywhere they appear, Lubezki’s beautiful landscape is soon tainted by blood, usually human. Please. A little nuance. But, as Manohla Dargis says in a New York Times review, Iñárritu “isn’t given to subtlety.” The word revenant means “ghost,” and it was clear why the ghosts of Glass’s murdered wife and son keep reappearing and where they will lead him. And I won’t even mention the many, many instances in which the viewer Sees What’s Coming a Mile Away.

All this made me long to reread The Big Sky, the 1947 novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner A.B. Guthrie, Jr. The novel was chosen as “The Best Novel of the American West” by members of the Western Literature Association. As in The Revenant, The Big Sky’s characters travel the Missouri River, live as trappers and guides, and face the vicissitudes of weather and the native population. Yet their struggles will stay with you always, while, I fear, The Revenant is at least dramatically forgettable.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 87%.



(photo: halfrain, creative commons license)

By Douglas Preston – This 2010 thriller with a sci-fi premise keeps the reader guessing—and turning pages—start to finish. And, what’s with the moon? Our benign space companion has suffered calamitously in several books I’ve read this year. Not good for us earthlings.

In Impact, Princeton dropout Abbey Straw uses her new telescope to snap a photo of a brilliant meteor coming to ground somewhere in the island-dotted vastness of Muscongus Bay. “It ruined your picture,” says her friend Jackie, peering over her shoulder. “Are you kidding? It made the picture!”

The astronomers all guess the meteor landed somewhere in the Atlantic, where it’s lost forever. Abbey, armed with her photo and data from a buoy showing no sea level perturbations at the time of the crash, believes it hit an island and she can find it. Selling a meteorite will do a great deal to replenish her empty bank account. If she gets there first.

Meanwhile, the President’s science adviser has sent former CIA agent Wyman Ford to Southeast Asia. He’s to investigate the source of some strange new gems finding their way into circulation up from the seedier layers of the international gem market. Called honeys, they’re beautiful, but laced with deadly radioactivity—Americium 241, an isotope of an element not found in nature. The U.S. government, fearing the stones could be ground down to make a dirty bomb, wants a quick and quiet mission to investigate, not the heavy boots of the Agency. If Ford goes, he goes as a freelance. No cover, no backup.

And, Mark Corso, working on a government-funded Mars observation project visits his former professor and mentor’s home and discovers his body—a murder the police describe as a random robbery-gone-wrong. The dead professor had been obsessed with tantalizing evidence that something on Mars is doing the impossible, emitting gamma rays, and sent Mark classified data and an illegal hard drive to prove it. Mark is determined to follow his lead, even though project managers forbid him to spend time on it.

These three pieces of the story come together, of course. Hidden in the islands, in the jungles of Cambodia, and in a crater on Mars’s moon Deimos, is a literally earth-shattering threat. But before that can be understood, more than one opponent is determined to stop them.

The plot moves along energetically and the characters of Abbey and Ford are engaging and believable. Corso is more than a bit irresponsible and self-satisfied, heedless of consequences. In fact, all the staff at the National Propulsion Facility (modeled on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) are two-dimensional. Preston expertly describes the settings Abbey and Ford must negotiate, whether the Cambodian jungles, the labyrinth of Washington, D.C., science agencies, or the stormy waters of the Atlantic.

This book “dances on the edge of sci-fi but definitely is structured like a contemporary thriller,” says Amy Rogers on the review site ScienceThrillers. I enjoyed it, although at the very end, just when the reader understands the significance of the book’s title, he pulled his punches. He has a new one in the Wyman Ford series (The Kraken Project), and I’d certainly read it, too.