Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

Your Christmas Present

Christmas, holiday

“Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” –Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory – Hear it here.

See China’s incredible Harbin Ice Festival. How they do it!

“This,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr. Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.” Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the furthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face. —Charles Dickens, “A Good-Humored Christmas” Chapter 28 from The Pickwick Papers.

That Hanukkah holiday classic, “Chinese Food on Christmas.” Totally not politically correct.

“’Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.” –John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the Trenches.” See it performed here.

You know how the photos of Christmas cookies in recipes are always Martha Stewart-perfect? Take heart. Here’s a site with some of the ugliest cookies ever. You’ve got this!

Now I’m off to wrap last-minute gifts, to the accompaniment of this holiday classic from The Waitresses.

Back in 2020!! Happy New Year! Celebrate with these Dancing Fireworks from the Pyronale 2019!

Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Visiting the sights near Cairo, we criss-crossed centuries even more than we traversed the local geography. Yet, as ancient as the Egyptian civilization is, its legacy can be found in our own today.

The tour took us first to the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, a few short blocks from our hotel. There are collected some of the finest examples of the ancient culture’s sculptures and artifacts, though they are crowded together with little contemporary museum curation and context-setting, so that it’s hard to keep straight what relates to what. This situation will be remedied with the opening of the huge new Grand Egyptian Museum, expected next year.

Gradually over the course of the tour, when we saw other monuments, the treasures from that first day began to fit into place. My favorite room in the museum was the one containing likenesses of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Husband of Nefertiti, he was such an interesting character (and subject of a Philip Glass opera). His elongated features and sensuous lips are markedly different from the typical square-faced, mildly benevolent expression of most pharaonic depictions.

The oldest monuments near Cairo that we saw were at Sakkara and Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital of Egypt. Sakkara is an ancient burial ground for Memphis—Egypt’s capital 4500 years ago. (The Tennessee city was given the same name because it too, is on a great river.)

The area includes a beautiful temple and the famous “step pyramid,” the world’s oldest major stone edifice, built during the Third Dynasty for the pharaoh Djoser. It was the Egyptians’ first foray into this pyramid shape, something they later perfected with different building methods. The step pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, and there’s an archaeological museum there dedicated to him.

In Memphis are the beautifully detailed remains, if you can call them that, of a massive limestone statue of Ramses II, who ruled 3300 years ago, in the 19th Dynasty. Standing, it would be over 30 feet tall. He may be old, but he’s still impressive! (His statues inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “ʻLook on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’”)

Highlight of any Egypt trip is a visit to the pyramids of Giza, a Cairo suburb. You can be gazing at the pyramids, turn around, and there’s a city. They are the perfection of the pyramid form, used as tombs by the Old Kingdom Pharaohs. The largest is that of Khufu (Cheops), the second largest is that of his son Khafre, and the third largest that of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Smaller pyramids for wives are nearby.

From a distance, the pyramids look smooth, like the pyramid on the back of the US $1 bill. But up close, their profile is jagged because of the stepwise layers of stone. Each of these stones is enormous, weighing several tons.

Theories still conflict about how the pyramids were constructed, but our guide emphasized that they were not built by slaves. Evidence has been found that during the limited construction season, workers came from all over Egypt to fulfill their one-time obligation to their ruler and were advised to consider it a privilege. I hope they did.

It’s Khafre’s pyramid that has the unfinished-looking top. We learned that all the pyramids at one time had an exterior limestone layer that did make the surface smooth. Alas, thieves looted the limestone for other construction, and that bit at the top is all that’s left. Amazing as they are, they must have been even more so in those days. You can go inside Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s a very confined passageway and you have to crouch down to get through it. I declined. The taller men who went came back with skinned scalps. Treasures from inside are all in the museum or looted long ago.

We were told that one of the huge limestone blocks used in creating Khafre’s pyramid turned out to have flaws, so he directed his architect to make a statue out of it. From that block the Sphinx was carved, an animal with the body of a lion and head of a human–an Egyptian mythological invention. Repeatedly over the millennia, the Sphinx has been covered in sand, including when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, an encounter memorialized in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme that, amusingly, cuts the grand Napoleon down to size.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Photos: (Akhenaten) José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, creative commons license; all others, Vicki Weisfeld

Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Egypt, workmen, Temple of Dendera

What to wear? Inevitably, some American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin. While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans, which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)

Although I wouldn’t have expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.

But what about the Egyptians? In Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one. Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and the country’s leadership has tried to discourage it.

In the south, many men wear the long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their fields.

Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Egypt Adventure: Security

Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara
Close quarters in the temple at Sakkara

The first question almost everyone asked when they learned I was traveling to Egypt had to do with safety. So let me tell you what has been done to protect tourists—vitally important to the country, as tourism is a multibillion-dollar source of revenue and a huge employer. Tourism is on the rise again in Egypt, and our guide estimated it’s reached about 80 percent of pre-2011 levels. It’s an odd balancing act, really, with concerns about safety on one hand and wanting to see these popular monuments sans crowds on the other.

Friends who visited Egypt shortly after the Arab spring had the Valley of the Kings almost to themselves. By contrast, we visited it on the same 95-degree day as the vice-premiere of China and his many perspiring, black-suited minions, big video cameras, and hangers-on. That was a special case, but you could see how a crowd affects the experience.

There is a big police presence in Egypt, and wherever you drive, as you enter a new jurisdiction, there are knots of police, road barriers that must be negotiated—drivers cannot just barrel through—and elevated sentry posts, most of which have six or eight inches of a rifle barrel sticking out of them. If the young man inside sees you driving by in your bus, he smiles and waves.

As I understand it, whenever 10 or more tourists travel anywhere, they must be accompanied by the Tourist Police, and several times our three buses had to await the arrival of our police escort. Usually that escort consists of a police car in front or behind. In one rural area, the accompanying officer was so energized by this assignment that he gave us lights and sirens—charming and embarrassing in equal measure. Traveling to some sites, our security detail also involved a plainclothes policeman (always a man) traveling with us inside each bus. Yes, they were armed. Once when I lagged behind the group to take a picture, I noticed one of our accompanying officers discreetly hanging back to make sure I got back with the group. The tour company also had staff keeping track of us, especially in crowds, watching out for turned ankles, falls, over-insistent hawkers, and the like. Probably the right word here is teamwork.

On the boat there were police, but they were invisible to us, and a guy whom we’d occasionally see coming in from deck patrol carrying an AK-47. Our itinerary did not include the Red Sea or the Sinai Peninsula, where security is likely much tighter, as that’s where most of the trouble has occurred.

All this is separate from the well-armed security personnel working at the monuments themselves and not specifically for our tour. When we were at the pyramids, I even saw a policeman on a camel!

The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo has two public entrances, each guarded by a clutch of uniformed police and a sniffer dog that walks around every car, even checking the trunk. It’s next door to the British Embassy and adjacent to the US Embassy, and security around those blocks is extreme—piles of big, ugly concrete block the streets, police everywhere. The US embassy is capped by something that looks like a rural water tower—stuffed with listening gear, I suppose—and has asked the hotel to confiscate guests’ binoculars. Our guide advised us of this in advance and suggested simply, don’t bring them. They are returned on check-out.

Any well organized, reputable tour company and hotel probably provides these levels of security. Was it oppressive? Not at all. I viewed it as a preventive measure. I was never made uneasy by anything or anyone I encountered, even on a post-tour day-trip to Alexandria with only a guide and a driver. And, at the major sites we always had generous “free time” to wander where we wanted to, take pictures, soak in the atmosphere. Probably when we were on group outings our escorts kept an eye on us, but it wasn’t obvious. When we struck out on our own from the hotel or boat, we were unaccompanied (and the hawkers knew it!).

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress
Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld. I did not take pix of any of the security or police!

Go Like Hell! On Screen

The new movie, Ford v Ferrari, is based on the exciting 2010 book, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, by AJ Baime. The movie, directed by James Mangold, stars Matt Damon, Christian Bale, and Tracy Letts (trailer). It opened while I was in Egypt and audiences love it! (98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes). Critics too: 91%.

I’ve listened to the book twice over the years. If the movie is as good as the book, it’s a must-see. It is for me, no matter what. Here’s my review of the book, read by Jones Allen.

Go Like Hell is the story of classic duels of machine and driver in the French countryside.There’s just enough biography of Henry Ford II (the Deuce) and Enzo Ferrari to understand the motivations of these two rivals, willing to stake their fortunes, their companies’ futures, and (all too often) their drivers’ lives on this grueling competition.

The Deuce believed—correctly—that supremacy in the racing circuit would lead to sales of Ford cars. The components that had to be developed to survive the 24-hour race at Le Mans were testaments to product reliability as well as power, and many advances originally developed for racing vehicles—such as independent suspensions, high-performance tires, disc brakes, and push-button starters—have found their way into passenger cars.

For Enzo Ferrari, whose interest in consumer cars was always secondary to racing, the point was being the world’s best and proving it in the world’s most prestigious and dangerous sports car race, Le Mans.

If you’re at all familiar with auto racing’s “golden age,” the big names are all here: Carroll Shelby, AJ Foyt, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill, John Surtees, Ken Miles, Bruce McLaren, and an upstart kid from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who took the pole position in the Indianapolis 500 the year I saw that race, Mario Andretti. To get an idea of the speeds they achieve, Baime notes that at top speed, they complete the 100-yard distance of a football field in one second.

This was a fast, fun read that shifts between Dearborn, Shelby’s racing car development team working for Ford in Southern California, and Ferrari’s workshop in Maranello, Italy. For a Detroit girl like me, whose grandfather, father, and many uncles worked for the Ford Motor Company, it was a thrill a minute! But even for people who don’t get goosebumps when they hear those Formula One engines roar, Baime’s cinematic recreation of the classic Le Mans races of 1965, 66, and 67, with all their frustrations, excitement, and tragedy is a spectacular true story.

Times have changed, and these past automotive battles have faded. But, hope is on the horizon. According to a 5/22/15 Jordan Golson story in Wired, new rules under consideration “could make Formula One exciting again.” Yea to that!

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

McCarter Theatre in Princeton imported the exciting new play, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. It opened October 19 and runs through the Halloween season until November 3. Written and directed by David Catlin, the play contextualizes the familiar story of Victor Frankenstein and his ill-fated creature by grounding it in the strange and tragic life of the story’s author, Mary Shelley. More than a tale of horror, it’s a tale of deep woe.

The five characters are Mary Shelley herself (played by Cordelia Dewdney), her half-sister, Claire Claremont (Amanda Raquel Martinez), her lover and, later, husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Walter Briggs), and the couple’s friends, Dr. John Polidori (Debo Balogun) and Lord Byron (Keith D. Gallagher).

During a sojourn on Lake Geneva, the ominously stormy skies fire the characters’ imaginations. Byron suggests they each pen a ghost story to see which is scariest. Only 18 when she begins writing Frankenstein, Mary’s life is already marked by terrible events, including the deaths of her mother from childbed fever and her own first baby. Mary’s real-life sorrows help shape her narrative and, as the five characters enact her gothic fantasy, reality breaks through at poignant moments.

Mary’s tale demonstrates the folly of trying to play god. Victor Frankenstein wants to be “the Modern Prometheus,” to bring the spark of life to the creature he’s assembled. Much tragedy occurs before he recognizes he hasn’t grappled with the possible unintended, bad consequences. (Is this a cautionary tale for today, with respect to artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation?)

Nor does Victor (nicely ironic choice of name) take responsibility for the monster. He viciously rejects him, yet the monster’s relentless pursuit of his creator contains an element of devotion. “I would have loved to be your son,” he laments. Thus, we are confronted with a truth Mary expresses: “Within every man there is a monster; within every monster, a man.”

The play’s emotional experience is intensified by the reconfigured theater space. McCarter undertook the massive task of removing several rows of seats and moving the stage forward, to create an “in-the round” effect. (Watch this amazing transformation here.)

Most of the company comes direct from the Lookingglass production. All strong players, they manage the dramatic aerial features and give the characters richness and three-dimensionality. Though all are excellent, Gallagher delivers an unforgettable portrayal of the monster.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

The Music of the Night

Sleeping with the windows open to catch the late-summer breezes is one of life’s pure pleasures. But here lately, we’ve been catching more than cool air—the night noises.

A screech owl has made itself heard several times, and I was able to identify its strange cry from audio clips posted on the excellent website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Apparently they make several sounds, but the one in the trees outside our house went for the whinny. When I heard that in the middle of the night, I wasn’t sure whether it was a bird or some other kind of critter. Very distinctive. We’ve not seen the screech owl. The Cornell Lab photos show the superb camouflage of these robin-sized owls.

For a story I’m writing I wanted to say something about the nighttime insects that keep up that steady late-summer buzz. Like a lot of people, I lumped those nocturnal music-makers in with the cicadas. No. Back in 2015, NPR did a nice piece on “telling crickets, cicadas, and katydids apart.” Cicadas are active in the daytime, I learned. Those night insects are tree crickets and katydids.

I was doubtful, thinking of the dark brown and black crickets that make individual chirps and like to hide in some obscure place and drive you nuts with their ventriloquism. Tree crickets are pale green and look like skinny grasshoppers. I’ve seen them, but I never realized they were serenading me nightly. When there are a lot of them, you get that constant sound. NPR has the sound clips to prove it! Or, listen to this!

And when to expect the steamroller of cicada noise? A few states will have broods of 13- or 17-year locusts next year, but for the eastern third of the country, 2021 will be amazing, when Brood X (ten) emerges. When and where.

Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren Resized and cropped for this use, under this creative commons license.