Two Good Movies: Their Finest & The Zookeeper’s Wife

It turned out that these two weekend movies had more in common than their World War II settings, strong female protagonists, and top-notch acting. Both were marred by trailers that told too much, so no trailers today. Avoid the previews if you can, but not the movies. (Or, order the books these films were based on. Affiliate links below.)

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest

Their Finest

While this drama, adapted by Gabby Chiappe Directed by Lone Scherfig, is too serious to be a comedy, it offers many laugh-out-loud moments, as well as a few tears along the way. The conceit is that the British government has commissioned a feature film that will inspire Britons and, with luck, the Americans too, to support the war effort. The subject: the inspiring evacuation of Dunkirk.

The filmmakers realize they need to appeal to women in the audience, so they hire a young woman (Gemma Arterton) for the writing team to create “the slop”—that is, the female dialog. She turns out to more than fill the bill and has the chance to find her own voice along the way.

In addition to Arterton, fine performances from Sam Claflin as the cynical head writer, Bill Nighy as an over-the-hill actor who’s never fully convinced he shouldn’t be the romantic lead, Rachael Stirling as a spy for the foreign office with a soft heart, and Helen McCrory as Nighy’s no-nonsense agent. You’ll love the Jeremy Irons cameo, in which he gets carried away delivering Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 87%; audiences 77%.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Jessica Chastain, The Zookeeper's Wife

Jessica Chastain in The Zookeeper’s Wife

On the very positive side, this drama about Jews hidden in the wreckage of the Warsaw Zoo is based on a true story. Right now, when meanness seems to trump acts of charity and compassion, that’s an important message.

At the same time, there’s quite a bit of déjà vu here, as director Niki Caro fails to plow new ground or to “capture the many layers of this unique story, relying instead on plainly-stated metaphors,” said Sheila O’Malley on Rogerebert.com, and a contrived and unpersuasive relationship between the main character and “Hitler’s zookeeper.”

Antonina and Jan Zabiński really did save more than three hundred Jews after German bombs and stormtroopers destroyed their zoo. They hid the refugees in their own home, changed their appearance, gave them false papers, and spirited them away, under the enemy’s noses.

See it for the animals, the fine performance by Jessica Chastain as Antonina, and for the reminder that even in extreme circumstances there are people who believe, as Jan Zabiński said many years later, “If you can save somebody’s life, it’s your duty to try.” Supporting performances are strong as well. Written by Angela Workman.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 60%; audiences, 81%.

Land of Mine (Under Sandet)

Land of Mine, DenmarkThis multiply-honored Danish-German movie from Martin Zandvliet (trailer) also could have been titled Land of Mines, since it is based on Denmark’s real post-World War II program that used POWs to clear the mines the Germans laid up and down the Danes’ western seacoast. Apparently, someone in Hitler’s command believed the Allied invasion might take place there, and when the war was over, the mines had to go.

In real life, we’re told, some 2,000 prisoners were given the task of clearing the beaches of 1.5 million mines—a task New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott terms “intuitively fair and obviously cruel.” About half of these former soldiers, many of whom were mere teenagers, died or were seriously injured in the process.

This movie, which has subtitles, is about 14 such prisoners and not easy to watch. Lacking the Hollywood cues that typically signal when disaster’s coming and who will be next to die, every moment of training, every defusing of a mine, every run on the beach is tension-filled. Hardass Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen (played by Roland Møller) doesn’t think these prisoners should get by with a thing, and he works them hard. The story, then, is about how he gradually comes to see them as the young boys they are.

The Danes are justly praised for saving the vast majority of their Jews in World War II, despite the country’s occupation by the German army, but this almost forgotten episode shows a darker side. Not everyone is capable of compassion or of easy forgiveness. And where should the Sergeant’s loyalties lie? With his countrymen (and the rest of humanity) who have suffered at the hands of the Nazis or with the boys now under his absolute command?

The boys condemned to this excruciating duty, with its meager diet and the receding possibility they will ever return home, are portrayed by a fourteen young actors—including a pair of twins—who are utterly believable. Is their deadly task necessity or punishment? How much bravery is required just to persevere?

A recent Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Land of Mine was shot on location on the Danish coast. A real mine—one missed by the young searchers more than 70 years ago—was discovered during filming.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics rating 89%; audiences 89%.

Oscar Shorts Nominees 2017: Documentaries

Watani, Syria

Farah, in Watani: My Homeland

Last night’s Oscar ceremony (though I wouldn’t have wished it longer and it couldn’t have been more dramatic) gave such short shrift to the short film nominees, it must have been hard for viewers to get any sense of them. Today’s post, the short documentaries; tomorrow, the live action shorts!

Watching a short film (technically, anything less than 40 minutes, including credits) is like reading a short story: the best ones crystallize the essence of a person or situation, sometimes more memorably than a novel, with all the distractions of backstory, secondary characters, side plots and the like.

Five films were nominated for the documentary shorts, and if you weren’t comfortable with the gritty realities of the war in Syria, you were really out of luck. Three of the films, including the two longest, dwelt with the consequences of that war, made by some very brave filmmakers. The role of “documentaries” in documenting what most of us are protected from came home sharply. Winner in bold.

  • Joe’s Violin, directed by award-winning producer of Kahane Cooperman (24 minutes), which told the story of Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold’s decision to donate his unused violin to a public radio drive. In partnership with the Holland’s Opus Foundation, New York City’s WQXR collected no-longer-used instruments for schools. Joe’s violin went to Brianna Perez, a student at the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (fascinating in its own right) in the nation’s poorest congressional district. When Joe and Brianna meet, the social, cultural, and generational gulfs between them are dissolved by their love of music and this instrument. One hanky. (See it here.)
  • Extremis, a 24-minute Netflix documentary directed by Dan Krauss (interview about the filming). The wrenching decisions family members must make for critically ill patients are explored here. The medical team’s lack of a crystal ball is clear. Perhaps it will motivate viewers to have conversations with family before a medical catastrophe occurs, and not to leave them struggling with impossible choices. If you’ve avoided thinking about these issues, see it here.
  • 4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki (26 minutes), is the story of a Greek Coast Guard captain and crew sent out from the island of Lesbos, day after day, sometimes multiple times a day, in all kinds of weather, to rescue desperate, terrified, and sometimes half-drowned refugees (mostly Syrian) trying to cross the 4.1 miles from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Through an accident of geography, the physically and emotionally exhausted Coast Guarders must deal with this enormous humanitarian crisis, unaided by the world’s wealthier countries. (I can think of one. Has a big navy too.) (See it here.)
  • Watani: My Homeland was filmed over three years by director Marcel Mettelsiefen (40 minutes). As Aleppo explodes all around them, four young children live in an abandoned home next to an army outpost. Their mother had taken them away from the dangerous city, but the children insisted on returning to be with their father, a Free Syrian commander. He’s captured by ISIS, and they are heartbroken. When they finally reach sanctuary in Germany—an iffy proposition, at best—young Farah still runs to shelter when a helicopter flies overhead. The detailed portrayal of this close-knit family brings the nightly news home in a way generalizations and statistics never can. Makes you realize “home” is a complex concept too.
  • The White Helmets, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (41 minutes*), is the story of the unarmed and neutral civilians who respond to every bombing attack in search of victims. Last year, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Interviews with three of them working in Aleppo (a construction worker, a blacksmith, and a tailor in their former lives) show how they have responded with almost unimaginable compassion to the equally unimaginable destruction of their homeland. The white helmets they wear offer no magic protection from collapsing buildings or new bombings and, in fact, at times make them targets. At the last minute, cinematographer Khalid Khatib, a white helmet worker himself, was denied entry to the United States and, therefore, attendance at the Oscar ceremony. A sign of the strength of the film is that I found a Russian website debunking the White Helmets’ work.

These films were all fantastic and about compelling individuals, but my pick for Best Use of the Documentary Form was The White Helmets. Best Raiser of Blood Pressure: 4.1 Miles. Sentimental Favorite: Joe’s Violin.

*I don’t understand the Academy’s rules well enough to know why this nominee wasn’t disqualified for violating the length requirement.

A Thriller Reading List for the Trump Administration

Mar-a-LagoDear New Trump Administration Members, Friends and Hangers-on:

I propose an easy, entertaining way to enhance your understanding of how the world of secrets actually works. Read (or watch) a few of the many highly regarded thrillers for key lessons. They may spare you more of the embarrassments of the past few weeks.

Trust no one.
The initial reaction of ousted Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to the possibility he’d engaged with Russian spies—“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian Intelligence officer’”—was LOL funny to thriller fans. When you’re dealing with a power whose aims differ from yours, anyone may be a spy. To get his paranoia up, Manafort shoulda read:
The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry
The Increment by David Ignatius
John le Carré’s “Smiley” novels, newly relevant

There are no secrets.
If Manafort caused chuckles and head-shaking, the allegations against ousted National Security Agency Director Michael Flynn was jaw-dropping. Not because Flynn had premature conversations with Russians, not because he lied about them, but because he apparently didn’t know his conversations would be monitored, recorded, transcribed, and become fodder for a political debacle. Surely the head of the NSA would understand the reach of the nation’s security apparatus.

Leaving aside the debate about whether Snowden should have snagged our stuff, what about the content of his revelations? What does Flynn think NSA’s $1.5 billion data storage facility at Camp Williams, Utah, is for, anyway? He should have read—and maybe somebody over there still ought to:
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald (non-fiction)

The terrace of a resort isn’t the best place to strategize about national security. (See above).
Technology’s ability to “listen” by supersensitive microphones and by monitoring phone traffic and to “see” via miniaturized cameras and screen captures of compromised electronics far exceeds what participants in that meeting apparently supposed. Do all the Mar-a-Lago wait and kitchen staff have security clearances? Do the members? Are tested for common sense? Apparently not, since a number of them recorded the confab. Worst was club member Richard DeAgazio, who posted a picture on Facebook of himself with “Rick,” the service member who carries the nuclear launch codes for the President—the “nuclear  football.” One hopes Rick, now identifiable by millions, has a safe new assignment.
Eye in the Sky – film by Gavin Hood
Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

AND, WHILE YOU’RE AT IT, DEVELOP BETTER POLICIES, BECAUSE . . .

Climate change is real.
Dewy-fresh EPA director Scott Pruitt believes the debate about climate change is “far from settled.” While  recent heavy rains have alleviated most of California’s drought for now, the long-term trend persists. A fight over water in the U.S. Southwest is not inevitable, but its ugly consequences can be prevented only if the problem is squarely faced through regional strategies, which are what federal governments promote.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The War on Drugs is a loser.
This ill-conceived “war” has led to untold misery in Mexico and created a strong motive for illegal immigration. No wall will stop the drug flow. Fix this.
The Cartel, by Don Winslow
Down by the River, by Charles Bowden (non-fiction, not new, but harrowing. We’ve learned nothing.)

There, that should get the Washington newbies started. What would you have them read?

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Andrus Nichols & Eric Tucker in Saint Joan; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bedlam Theater Company is presenting, in rotating repertory productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through February 12. Each of the plays is done with the same four cast members playing all the parts, which makes for some quick persona changes.

Due to scheduling difficulties, I’ve seen only the Saint Joan—a difficult choice, because Hamlet is always revelatory, and the experience of each is meant to shed light on the other. As with any Shaw, a good twenty minutes near the end could be ditched. Good old G.B.S. seems determined to bang audiences over the head with his messages. Still, you’ll never see a more vigorous interpretation of this work, one that easily keeps you going through a full three acts (in direct contradistinction to the growing trend for one-act, 90-minute affairs), as religious dogma and divine inspiration cross swords.

The cast members manage to be simultaneously energetic and nuanced, and they wring every bit of humor out of the play’s early scenes. Bedlam founder Eric Tucker was terrific in Saint Joan, especially as the Earl of Warwick, but then all the actors (Andrus Nichols as Joan), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe (both in numerous parts) keep your interest and your intellect on their toes. I’m as much a fan of gorgeous sets and inspired costumes as anyone, but Bedlam’s stripped-down, bare-stage version has the virtue of showing how brilliant actors can conjure people and relationships to life unaided.

Bedlam has a commitment to using “all the house,” and for Saint Joan, the first few rows of audience seats were on the stage, and a cast member occasionally emerged from somewhere in the main house. Not to worry, audience members aren’t called upon to do more than observe.

Despite having been a patron of the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Shaw Festival for more than 20 seasons I’d never seen Saint Joan. And, if you also feel this classic is worth getting to know, you might never find a more approachable and engaging mounting of it than this one.

For tickets, call the McCarter box office at 609-258-2787, or visit the box office online.

Winter Break: Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac

photo: Guillaume Cattiaux, creative commons license

Three nights in Québec City was a perfect post-Christmas getaway for three generations in our family. In warm coats, ear muffs, fur-lined gloves, tall boots, and ski-wear, we stayed comfortable, even though daytime temps were in the teens and low 20s and nighttime temps in the single digits. On Thursday, there was what in New Jersey would be termed a blizzard, but to the Québécois was just 18 inches more snow.

We stayed at historic Le Château Frontenac (take the hotel tour). Though there are other hotel choices that look charming, many Frontenac rooms have panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River—persuasive evidence for why this city was considered so strategic by the French and later the English. Québec is an Algonquin word that means “where the river narrows,” and it’s only a kilometer wide here, covered in snow now. We saw a canoe filled with crazy people row across.

A Great Lakes freighter slid past the city one morning, en route to Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, or possibly even Milwaukee, Chicago, or Duluth, since the Straits of Mackinac appear not yet impassable. (This ship tracker showed the John B. Aird going through this morning.)

At the Musée du Fort, you get an excellent bird’s eye view of the several battles that have been fought for control of this location. Presentations are in English and French. We also visited the Citadel on Cape Diamond to see for ourselves what the military leaders could observe. A general “could see everything he needed to see,” a six-year-old member of our party observed. It’s an active military base, home of the distinguished Royal 22nd Régiment Canadién Français.

The hotel has a thrilling toboggan run as well as indoor pool and hot tub for thawing out. Horse-drawn calèches right outside the front door offer an hour’s leisurely tour through the upper city. Excellent restaurants.

maple sugar popsicle

photo: Jaime Walker, creative commons license

The lower city is full of charming shops, restaurants, a bustling farmer’s market, and a funicular to transport you back to the top of the steep cliff.

Not to miss: snow candy! Outdoor vendors fill wooden trays or hollowed-out logs with crushed ice and snow, then pour on stripes of hot maple syrup. As it hardens almost immediately, it’s gathered up with a popsicle stick. Warm and cold at the same time—delicious!

Reading List

To understand the place of Quebec in U.S. history, two excellent reads are:

Ireland’s Easter Rising Reconsidered

Easter Rising

The dying Cú Chulainn, photo: wikimedia

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Easter Rising, when Irish Republicans staged an armed insurrection aimed at achieving independence from Britain and establishing a separate Irish Republic. At the same time, many Irish citizens were fighting in World War I.

For that anniversary, two Boston College professors—novelist and philosopher Richard Kearney and artist Sheila Gallagher—created a performance in images, music, and words to expand the perception of those events. Called “Twinsome Minds: Recovering 1916 in Images and Stories,” they presented it last week at Princeton University, their 16th performance, I believe.

What did I think? I liked all the pieces—images, music, words—but was the whole more than the sum of the parts? Did the underlying conceit work? The idea for “Twinsome Minds” comes from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. “Irish imagination is at its best, said Joyce, when moving between two ‘twinsome’ minds—that is, when it has ‘two thinks at a time’ opening onto a third,” Kearney said. In that it was partially successful.

I most liked the stories, and found the images alternately beautiful and distracting. Clipping headlines wanted to be read. Abstract images wanted to be interpreted. Art made on-the-spot wanted to draw attention to technique. Many of Gallagher’s images featured a raven, which sits of the shoulder of the dying Cú Chulainn, in the memorial to the Easter Rising.

The double meaning of twinning was that, as in any civil war brothers, cousins, friends, schoolmates, neighbors for various reasons found themselves on opposite sides. While some thought rebellion was the only way to achieve an independent Ireland, others though enlisting in the Royal Irish Fusiliers and fighting for the British in France better supported that goal. While 500 lives were lost in the six days of the Rising (more than half of them civilians), 3,500 Irishmen were killed in the battle of the Somme in one day.

Gallagher showed photos of Ireland’s men and women on opposite sides in this conflict. Poet Francis Ledwidge from County Meath, who died in France, suggested the depth of the divide—and perhaps a sprinkle of contempt—between partisans on the two sides: “I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions.”

You can see the whole thing (75 minutes) on YouTube and see for yourself.

****The Piano Teacher

piano

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.

****Foundation

bayeux-tapestryBy Peter Ackroyd, narrated by Clive Chafer – Is it anxiety about the future that’s propelling me to spend much time lately thinking about the past? I’ve pulled out the family genealogy to work on a new (updated and improved!) version. And I read award-winning British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd’s 2013 Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors: The History of England Book 1. Several subsequent volumes are planned, four of which have been published..

Foundation takes you from England’s earliest pre-history and the building of Stonehenge, through its occupation by the Romans, the Norman Conquest, the revolt of the barons, and up to the reign of Henry VIII. That’s a lot of history to cover, and to cover it takes more than 18 hours (or almost 500 pages in the print edition).

If one thing is clear from those often difficult and violent early centuries, history doesn’t move forward in a straight line. It’s full of contingencies. There are setbacks, and unexpected jogs in the path. Yet, the habits and customs of the English people, the rights they accumulated, their preoccupations, and, especially, the development of the common law and a vigorous language are part of the patrimony of Americans today. In that sense, this volume is well-named.

Starting with William the Conqueror (1066), I already knew a bit about English monarchy (enough anyway to recite the succession of  kings and queens over the past millennium, an especially lively rendition after a g&t). What fascinated me about Ackroyd’s approach is not so much the parade of often-bloody regime changes, but his parallel descriptions of the lives of everyday people. What was life actually like for those masses we don’t see much of in a BBC costume drama? Makes you glad to live in the 21st century, I can tell you.

Scholars have quibbled with bits of Ackroyd’s research and speculations and lament the lack of footnotes, maps, and documentation—a problem irrelevant in the audio version—but can’t fault him for readability. Foundation isn’t written for them.

Chafer is a fine narrator, a little stiff, but his presentation matches well with his subject matter. This is another one of those books that I wish I’d read in paper and had a physical copy to flag and refer back to. Much in it is worth rereading and remembering. In an interview with Euan Ferguson in The Guardian, Ackroyd said, “what underlines that random happenstance (of history) are the deep continuities of national life that survive, uninfluenced by surface events.” One can hope.