Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Dover, Delaware: Travel Tips

With only three counties and less than a million residents—including one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest city, Wilmington, but missing the capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.

Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the first state.”

Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art, furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own, but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.

We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.

Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.

All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!

Photo credits: View of the Legislative Hall by Marc Tomik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ; Johnson Victrola Museum, Vicki Weisfeld.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

Big Screen Music: Amazing Grace

Don’t miss these documentaries about legendary musical performers in theaters now. They are indisputable testimony about the power of music to overcome barriers and speak to the heart. Tomorrow: A Tuba to Cuba.

Amazing Grace

Eagerly anticipated since its impending availability was announced some months ago, Aretha Franklin’s performance of gospel music, recorded and filmed at two successive nights at the Watts New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, 1972, sat unwatched for nearly fifty years. These two nights provided the live recording of the most successful gospel album in history.  Originally filmed by Sidney Pollack and crew, “technical difficulties” with the soundtrack prevented its actual viewing until the project was resurrected by Alan Elliott (trailer).

Now, those difficulties are solved and Franklin’s genius as an interpreter of gospel is like a blinding light. She receives strong support from the other musicians, the powerful Rev. James Cleveland, and the Southern California Community choir and its charismatic leader, Alexander Hamilton.

I was delighted to see and hear from her father, Rev.C.L. Franklin, too. I’d heard a lot about his role as an early leader of the civil rights movement in Detroit. Aretha felt his influence felt her entire life. There’s a lot going on in every scene, with her family, the congregation, the other musicians, the filmmakers, and, on the second night, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the audience, but Aretha remains calm and centered in all this hubbub. It’s the music and its message that preoccupy her.

At that point in her career, with 11 number one singles and five Grammys, she could have done anything. She gave this her all.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 90%.

The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”

Artists’ Lives on Film

What with Caravaggio’s frequent legal troubles and rejection of some of his best works and Van Gogh’s failure to sell no more than a few paintings during his lifetime, both artists would undoubtedly be shocked to learn they’re such hot topics for films (film, what’s that?).

Caravaggio: The Soul and the Blood

An Italian art film, in every sense, directed by Jesus Garces Lambert (trailer). Its most impressive aspect is the up-close examination of some 40 of Caravaggio’s works, many of which are huge and hung high in various churches. You’d never get this well-lit and detailed view seeing them, as it were, in the flesh.

Three art historians comment on the significance of Caravaggio’s work and the ground he broke—for example, in showing emotion and using common people, even the poor, as models. At one point early on, Caravaggio’s paintings were criticized for not showing action. He responded with a vengeance through the rest of his career, as with the snakes surrounding the head of Medusa, which practically writhe off the background.

All that was interesting, but the filmmaker layered in a contemporary quasi-narrative involving a tormented actor (playing Caravaggio), three women, and gallons of black paint. Meanwhile, another actor reads from Caravaggio’s journal, presumably, against a discordant musical score.

A time-lapse camera recorded the deterioration of a bowl of fruit, much like one Caravaggio painted, with the creeping mold, the rot, the flies. The filmmaker ran that footage backward so that the fruit plumps and colors. It was a nice effect. After that success, he used the run-the-film-backward device several more times to less benefit.

Still, worth seeing for the art, if you can ignore the frame.

At Eternity’s Gate

Director Julian Schnabel takes a much more conventional approach in depicting the late life of Vincent Van Gogh (trailer). The film stars Willem Dafoe as the artist, Mads Mikkelson as his devoted brother Theo, and Oscar Isaac as his destructive friend, Paul Gauguin. You see Van Gogh settling into a small town, and if you’re familiar with his paintings, you recognize the townspeople’s faces and attire as his future subjects. Seeing them is like greeting old friends.

You could say the same for the stunning scenery, bathed in the golden light Van Gogh perfected. While the end of the story is well known, it isn’t entirely clear. Schnabel joins the speculation about Van Gogh’s mysterious death, throwing in with the idea that local children, in a prank gone wrong, shot him, rather than that he committed suicide, as has been commonly believed.

Chris Hewitt in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says “Dafoe’s elegiac quality hints at why the artist was ahead of his time: because he saw more than anyone else could. It’s a towering performance in a movie that casts a magnetic spell.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 80%; audiences 62%.

St. Patrick’s Day is Nigh

Excuse me a sec, while I run into the kitchen and check the corned beef brisket.

Ahh…

Now, as the last year has whirled by and St. Paddy’s Day once again approaches, here are my three most recent dives into the wellspring of inspiration, imagination, and experience that is Ireland.

Earlier this year, we saw on Broadway, The Ferryman, which many reviewers said was “the ticket” for the winter’s season. From the promotional pictures (below), it looks like a multigeneration family sitting around the supper table, telling rollicking Irish tales, no? It turns out the IRA is involved, and, as everyone knows, the IRA is not The Clancy Brothers. Acting was super, especially the elderly Republican aunt who can’t give up her threadbare politics.

An Irish theme turned up unexpectedly in Angel Luis Colón’s Hell Chose Me (which I reviewed here). The American protagonist, Bryan Walsh, is AWOL from Afghanistan, and the only person he thinks can help him is his difficult and uncle Sean back in Ireland. IRA legatee Sean does give him a job for a while, as an enforcer and assassin, before Bryan returns to the United States (illegally). Lots else happens in this excellent thriller, but Uncle Sean’s menacing presence haunts Bryan evermore.

At the moment I’m reading (actually listening to) Tana French’s Dublin-based best-seller, The Witch Elm. I’m only a short way in, and while I know the book has received raves, am waiting for it to pick up steam. One of the characters is a genealogist, a profession I can relate to, who says that in the old days, people came to him out of curiosity about their Irish ancestors, and now with DNA evidence in hand, they come to him to find out who they really are.

Posts for past March 17s have focused on wonderful books from Irish writers, including the fantastic Irish crime/thriller writers, not only Tana French, but Adrian McKinty and Stuart Neville too.

But, excuse me, the corned beef is done. Now have to spread a mix of brown sugar and dry mustard on top for a final twenty-minute bake while I stir the potatoes and cook up the onions, cabbage, and sour cream. In delicious anticipation . . .

And, check out Janet Rudolph’s list of St. Patrick’s Day Mysteries.

Graphic by Barbara A. Lane from Pixabay.

****Amsterdam Noir

Edited by René Appel and Josh Pachter – Fourteen of The Netherlands’ premier authors of crime and literary fiction contributed stories to this collection, with the editors—top-rated crime authors themselves—providing the fifteenth. Amsterdam Noir is the latest in Akashic Books’ long-running series of place-based crime anthologies.

If this enterprise is in part intended to impart a vision of the locale and its residents through the lens of crime, this collection is another success.

Whenever a story purports to represent a certain place, you can fairly ask yourself, could these events have unfolded this way anywhere else? Geography, history, and culture all affect what can and does take place in a city and the official and unofficial reactions to events.

Appel and Pachter assigned the stories to four broad headings inspired by classic film noir, and below I briefly describe a story or two under each of their headings. The collection includes both well established authors, like Theo Capel, and writers new to the scene, like Karin Amatmoekrim. Meet some of the very best Dutch crime writers, right here in these pages.

Out of the Past

Welcome to Amsterdam by Michael Berg is a story of revenge—a revenge the wronged man never thought he could achieve. It’s pretty strong stuff. Berg was the 2013 winner of the Golden Noose, the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year. Herman Koch, who wrote 2013’s best-selling crime novel, The Dinner, contributed Ankle Monitor, which launches with a brilliant first line: “Maybe it was a mistake to go back to my old neighborhood on the very first day of a weekend leave.” No stopping reading there.

Kiss Me Deadly

All three of these stories are about ill-conceived love and all are written by women, interestingly. Silent Days by Karin Amatmoekrim proves that just because a woman is old and alone doesn’t mean she is helpless.

Touch of Evil

Here you have Satan himself, a pedophile, an alcoholic fratricide, and a man channelling Ted Bundy (for an international touch), plus a hard-working police detective who unexpectedly comes out on top in Theo Capel’s entertaining Lucky Sevens.

They Live By Night

Echoing that film’s theme of inescapable tragedy, most of these stories are from the victim’s point of view, but Abdelkader Benali’s The Girl at the End of the Line is told through the eyes of a Moroccan police officer assigned to find the killer of a Muslim girl. Winner of a top literary prize, Benali opens this story, “A farmer found her with her head facing southeast, toward Mecca, as if in prayer.” It’s an effective reminder of the pluralistic culture of Western European cities today and a strong intimation of the layers of social complexity the story will probe.

*****The Feral Detective

By Jonathan Lethem – Jonathan Lethem, who has been called one of America’s greatest storytellers, returns to crime fiction with this new novel, The Feral Detective. It opens with the narrator, Manhattanite Phoebe Siegler, searching for her best friend’s teenage daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared from Reed College. Her trail has led to the small California town of Upland, east of Los Angeles. It’s at the edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, a short drive to the mountains’ highest peak, Mount Baldy, and within striking distance of wilderness and desert, vividly described settings as bleak and untamed as the situations Phoebe will encounter.

The local police, loathe to put any energy into a search for Arabella, pass Phoebe on to a social worker who specializes in runaways, and the social worker refers her to The Feral Detective, Charles Heist. Phoebe’s told that, though Heist’s methods may be unorthodox, he’s a good man on a cold trail, an expert in rescuing runaways and teenagers snared in cults or human trafficking networks. In fact, Phoebe learns, one such teen lives in an armoire in his office.

Heist’s unique set of skills and experiences sets you up for a strange romp through the underbelly of California society. Scanning Heist’s unpromising office building, Phoebe says,“To make an appointment here was to have dropped through the floor of your life, out of ordinary time. You weren’t meant to be here at all, if you were me.”

Phoebe’s New York temperament is distinctly at odds with that of the Californians, and she’s pegged it; she wasn’t meant to be there. But Phoebe already has dropped through the floor of her life, first by quitting her job at a major newspaper because she couldn’t tolerate the prospect of the Trump presidency. She can’t fathom why the Californians aren’t similarly outraged.

She’s thirty-three, with no immediate employment prospects, a lot of anger, and dubious romantic feelings about Charles Heist. Her reflexive wisecracking is balanced by despair, a weak shield against reality. Lethem lets her be defensive, show poor judgment, and lash out when it would be better not to. She’s not perfect.

Road trips into the area surrounding Upland, with and without Heist, lead her to some sketchy places and characters. Heist has mysterious connections with these troubled people that the New Yorker cannot understand. Phoebe is drawn to the taciturn feral detective, though their mismatched relationship seems most likely to go awry. But perhaps he can give her the anchor in life she so obviously needs.

Lethem writes strong prose, with more than a sprinkling of appreciation for the ridiculous. Lovers of literary crime fiction will find Lethem has created interesting and engaging characters in Phoebe and Heist, as well as an array of distinctive secondary characters—and some dogs—whose fates are worth caring about. He never lets up in describing people, places, situations, and feelings in fresh and memorable ways. Several review sites included it among the top crime books of 2018, though I’ve noted that Amazon readers don’t much like it and seem to have missed the humor altogether.

Lethem’s previous detective fiction, Motherless Brooklyn, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was narrated by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome—sympathetically. In this new work, the characters are less overtly damaged, but the damage is there, not far below the surface.

rabbit photo by wbaiv, creative commons license

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*****LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media

In David Sanger’s chilling book about the dangers of cyberweapons, reviewed here last week, he includes the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, but P.W. Singer and Emerson T Brooking focus laserlike on them in LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. If you want to know chapter and verse about the barrage of efforts to manipulate American opinion in the election of 2016—and risk of even more in future—this is the book for you.

Singer and Brooking’s book, like Sanger’s, pulls together in one place the various threads of information about cyberthreats from the last few years, weaving them into a coherent, memorable, and understandable(!) whole. All these authors provide exhaustive lists of sources. It’s incumbent on responsible people to understand the tactics of information warfare, because, “[recent Senate hearings] showed that our leaders had little grasp on the greatest existential threat to American democracy,” said Leigh Giangreco in the Washington Post.

These ill-intentioned manipulators understand the human brain is hard-wired for certain reactions: to believe in conspiracy theories (“Obama isn’t an American”); to be gratified when we receive approval (“likes”!); to be drawn to views we agree with (“confirmation bias”). If we feel compelled to weigh in on some bit of propaganda or false information, social media algorithms see this attention and elevate the issue—“trending!”—so that our complaints only add to the virality of disinformation and lies. “Just as the internet has reshaped war, war is now radically reshaping the internet,” the authors say.

Contrary to the optimism of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw social media as a positive, democratizing force, this new technology is being used to destructive effect at many levels of society. At a local scale, for example, it bolsters gang violence in Chicago; at a national scale, it contributed to the election of fringe politicians; at a regional scale, it facilitated the emergence of ISIS; and at an international scale, it undergirds the reemergence of repressive political movements in many countries.

How to be a responsible citizen in this chaos? Like it or not, “we’re all part of this war,” the authors say, “and which side succeeds depends in large part on how much the rest of us learn to recognize this new warfare for what it is” and how ready we are for what comes next. Start by reading one—or both—of these important books.

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