Monthly Archives: October 2016

Children Of Heaven – A loving look at ordinary Iranians

The 1997 film Children Of Heaven is a beautiful movie about an ordinary poor family in Tehran, Iran. It has no political agenda. Watching it may give you a different perspective on people who many Americans view as nothing more than “enemies”.

Children of Heaven revolves around a lost pair of shoes, and the adventures  of two kids trying to get them back. A middle-school boy named Ali has been given the task to bring his younger sister’s shoes to be repaired by the local cobbler. Through a series of mishaps he ends up losing them on the way home.

The missing shoes from Children of Heaven

The missing shoes from Children of Heaven

The kids  do not want to tell their father since they know he is too poor to buy a new pair. The brother and sister (Zahra) end up secretly sharing one pair of sneakers between them while desperately searching for the lost shoes

What makes this film so beautiful is that it is not played for pathos. Children of Heaven is not about how poor the family is. The film is about a loving family that cares for each other despite happening to be poor.  Ali’s father is a hard worker and his mother is too ill to work. Despite their problems  the family unit remains strong and caring.

A poor but loving Iranian family in Children of Heaven

A poor but loving Iranian family in Children of Heaven

Children of Heaven is also about the natural resilience of children. In one scene Ali and Zahra are washing their one pair of sneakers, and begin playing with the soap bubbles. Their laughter and happiness are wonderful to watch.

Bahare Seddiqi & Mir Farrokh Hashemian in Children of Heaven

Bahare Seddiqi & Mir Farrokh Hashemian in Children of Heaven

Children of Heaven also shows parts of Iran that we never see on American T.V. Ali and his father bicycle to the wealthy section of Tehran to look for jobs as gardeners. The houses and gardens shown would be the envy of many rich American suburbanites. There is also a running race in a beautiful park around a huge crystal clear lake.

Reza Naji ans Mir Farrokh Hashemian in Children of Heaven

Reza Naji ans Mir Farrokh Hashemian in Children of Heaven

In 1997, Children of Heaven was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film . (The first Iranian film to earn that honor). It came in second to the Italian film Life Is Good.  The acting in the film is perfect. Mir Farrokh Hashemian is Ali and Resa Naji is the little sister. It never feels like they are acting.  It seems as if you are truly watching  the everyday life of kids. Bahare Seddiqi is the hard working, but not too bright father, and Fereshteh Sarabandi is the loving mother.

Mir Ferrokh Hashemian as Ali in Children of Heaven

Mir Ferrokh Hashemian as Ali in Children of Heaven

Director Majid Majidi made Children Of Heaven for only $180,000. He filmed the  movie  surreptitiously in Tehran so that he could get natural shots of everyday street  and crowd scenes.

We found Children of Heaven a pleasure to watch and give it our highest rating.

 

 

 

 

Election – the 1999 comedy that is better than our current election mess

If, like everyone else in America, you can’t wait for this horrible Presidential election to be over, take a break and watch the 1999 movie Election.  This hilarious comedy stars Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, a hyper over-achiever running for Student Council President at a high school in Omaha Nebraska. Tracy is so much smarter, more ambitious and driven than the other students that she assumes there will be no contest.

Reese Witherspoop as Tracy Flick, who is willing to do anything to win the Election

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, who is willing to do anything to win the Election

The problem is that the friendly and popular teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) secretly hates her and is doing everything in his power to sabotage her election. While pretending to help her, he goes behind her back and persuades Paul, a nice but dumb football quarterback to run against her. Chris Klein is perfect as the likable but moronic Paul.

Matthew Broderick as the popular Mr. McAllister in Election

Matthew Broderick as the popular Mr. McAllister in Election

As Election continues  Tracy and Mr. McAllister turn to ever more devious and underhanded tactics.  Despite the fact that Student Council President is a completely meaningless office, Tracy and Mr. McAllister are willing to do anything to win, including fixing the results.

Chris Klein & Reese Witherspoon in Election

Chris Klein & Reese Witherspoon in Election

Be warned that this is sort of a raunchy comedy and not intended for little kids. Mr. McAllister hates Tracy  because Tracy had a secret affair with another teacher. The affair did not become known to the student body, but it ruined the other teacher’s career and his marriage.

There are also quite a few sex jokes. One scene shows each of the main character praying to God before going to bed.  Tracy and Mr. McAllister both pray for things they want. On the other hand, Paul the quarterback gives the following heartfelt prayer.

” Dear God- Thank you for all your blessings. You’ve given me so many good things, like good health, nice parents, a nice truck, and what I’m told is a large penis.”

So, if you are in the mood for a raunchy fun comedy about an Election where the results don’t really matter, take a look at this 1999 film. Perhaps for a short time it can make you forget  the real election mess we are being subjected to right now.

Machine Gun Preacher – true story or self-serving propaganda?

Machine Gun Preacher is an interesting  movie with a silly name. It is the supposedly “true” story of Sam Childers. He is  an ex-con, recovering alcoholic from Pennsylvania  who found God and began saving children in Africa. Childers does many bad things in order to accomplish a good objective. The movie leaves it to the audience to decide whether or not it is ethically  acceptable to commit violence in the pursuit of good. There is also a real question as to whether or not the movie is accurate, or if it is just self-serving propaganda for Sam Childers.

Sam Childers receiving a Mother Teresa Award

Sam Childers receiving a Mother Teresa Award

Machine Gun Preacher begins with Childers being released from prison. He is completely unreformed and wants nothing more than to get back on drugs and party with his wild wife Lynn. When he gets home, he discovers that his wife has become an Evangelical Christian. She has given up her career as a stripper and is now a clean and sober waitress.

For a while the movie is like an after-school anti-drug special. Sam is angry at first, but then turns to God  and even becomes a self proclaimed preacher.  Then things get interesting when he takes a church trip to Africa to do charity work in Sudan. When he see that rebels are kidnapping children to use as child-soldiers, he takes up a machine gun and begins to fight the rebels himself.  Each night, the Machine Gun Preacher goes out to kill  rebels and rescue kidnapped children.

Sam Childers in Africa with his "rescued" kids

Sam Childers in Africa with his “rescued” kids

We know the movie sounds ridiculous, but , the cinematography and acting make it worth watching. Much of it was filmed in Africa, and the scenes with the children are very moving. Gerard Butler is excellent as Sam Childers, and Michelle  Monaghan is great as Sam’s wife Lynn.

machine-5

Madeline Carroll  is  terrific  as the preacher’s daughter Paige. Back in America, she is angry that her father is away so much and that any extra money the family has goes to kids in Africa. At one point she is told she cannot get a prom dress since the African kids are “more deserving” of the money.  She knows that this  is actually true, but that does not make the situation any easier for an American teenage girl.

Madeline Carroll plays Paige Childers in Machine Gun Preacher

Madeline Carroll plays Paige Childers in Machine Gun Preacher

Sam Childers is an actual Evangelical gun-toting  preacher who has fought in Africa while maintaining a charity.  In 2013 he was honored with a Mother Teresa Award. However, there is a dark side to Sam Childers that the movie completely ignores.  His own son in law has accused Sam of skimming money from the charity.

Lynn & Sam Childers

Lynn & Sam Childers

While watching the movie, we did wonder where all the money came from for extended trips back and forth to Africa and for the building of an orphanage in Africa. Machine Gun Preacher strongly implies that all the funds came from Sam’s personal donations. In fact, he has his own website, and collects considerable sums from many sources. Whether any of those donations ended  up in the preacher’s own pocket instead of Africa is still a matter of speculation.

Even more worrying than potential embezzlement concerns are the allegations of arms dealing, kidnapping and child abuse.  The FBI has searched the charity’s “clothing shipments” to Africa under suspicion that they are a cover for weapons trafficking.  There are also people in Africa who claim that not all the kids Sam Childers has “rescued” are actually orphans. In some cases it is alleged that  he forcibly took kids from their parents. He felt he could feed and care for them better than their actual families. Some Africans also say that the orphanage itself has very poor conditions and the children are not really  well fed.

So is Sam Childers a tough-guy saint, or a money stealing con-man? Did he really give up his life of crime to serve God, or did he just become a more successful criminal? Unfortunately, Machine Gun Preacher does not address any of these issues. It was made with the full cooperation of Preacher Childers, and is more propaganda film than documentary.  It would have been a much better movie if it had been made without the preacher’s cooperation.

Still, Machine Gun Preacher is worth seeing, since it gives us a look at a fascinating character who most Americans never heard of.  However, after you watch it, surf the internet for a little bit to see the other side of the story. Then see if you can figure out if the real Machine Gun Preacher is Saint or Sinner.

 

 

The Accountant – “Rain Man” on Steroids

Take Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man  character. Mix him with Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne,  and add in all the high caliber automatic weapons and shoot-outs from The Town. Then you will have The Accountant. Despite the sometimes over the top fight scenes we really liked this movie.

Ben Afflect as Christian Wolf in The Accountant

Ben Affleck as Christian Wolf in The Accountant

Ben Affleck is Christian Wolf,  a mild mannered CPA who is somewhere on the Autistic Spectrum, most likely Asperber’s Syndrome.   Christian might have had a chance at an average life in Accounting,  Mathematics or Computer Science.  Unfortunately, when Christian was a child, his Army-Officer father decided to make him tough enough to stand up to all the bullies of the world.  The father has Christian trained in the use of weapons and martial arts and encourages him to fight whenever possible.

acct-1

As an adult, Christian combines all his skills and becomes the go-to Accountant for drug-cartels, mob families and terrorists. He is one of the few people in the world skilled enough to unravel their complicated cash transactions, but tough enough stay alive when dealing with those groups.

We meet Christian when he is in Chicago, performing what should be one of his few actual  legitimate accounting assignments. He has been brought in to audit the books of a robotics company that thinks someone may be embezzling funds.

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck

Anna Kendrick and Ben Affleck

Anna Kendrick is Dana Cummings, the low level accountant at the robotic company who first discovered the possible fraud. She immediately recognizes Christian as a kindred spirit, and likes him very much.

The situation at the robotics firm turns out to be much more complicated than it first appears, and some really bad guys decide to end the problem by killing Christian and Dana.  Of course, they do not know who they are really dealing with.

The Accountant has great action scenes, a lot of humor and some very touching moments with autistic children and adults. Ben Affleck, as Christian,  is perfect at the monotone voice and inability to comprehend appropriate social responses that are the hallmarks of Asperger’s Syndrome.

There is one scene where Christian saves a nice old couple from two men who are trying to kill them. After the fight the old couple sit motionless and  obviously in shock. Christian remembers that as a child he was taught ways to try to be friendly to people and fit in. Therefore, he turns and gives the old couple a friendly little wave and smile, not comprehending how bizarre that smile looks after what just happened.

Anna Kendrick is wonderful as the caring young woman who sees Christian for who he really is. You cannot  help but  wonder what Christian’s life would have been like if he had met her earlier.

The Accountant has unexpected plot twists and a surprise ending. It is a great action movie. It does, of course, perpetuate the Rain Man myth that somehow being autistic gives you super powers in math.  However, that myth is necessary for the plot so we will forgive it.

 

 

 

The Grandpa Episode On High Maintenance – A Lonely Dog in Queens

The “Grandpa” episode on the HBO series High Maintenance has the best portrayal we have ever seen of life from a dog’s perspective.  It does not resort to old cliches like giving the dog an inner monologue with a human voice, or having the dog understand perfectly what the humans are saying.  The dog is a dog, and what we know about his feelings are all from his actions and the expressions on his face.

Gatsby (later renamed Grandpa)

Gatsby (later renamed Grandpa)

Gatsby is a big rambunctious dog who moves with his owner from Indiana to Queens New York. Suddenly, Gatsby’s life is forever changed and he has trouble adjusting. He can no longer run free, but has to stay on a leash in little fenced-in dog parks. He cannot even  poop wherever he wants and people yell and him when he tries. He has to spend all day in a cramped apartment while his owner Chase (Ryan Woods) goes to work.

Yael Stone and Gatsby in the Grandpa episode of High Maintenance

Yael Stone and Gatsby in the Grandpa episode of High Maintenance

Then things get better for Gatsby. Chase hires Beth the dog walker, and Gatsby falls in love.  Beth takes Gatsby on long walks with other dogs. She brings him to parks, and talks to him constantly. At the end of each day, Gatsby stares hopefully out the apartment window just waiting for  Beth to return.

Gatsby's dream

Gatsby’s dream

There is a hilarious dream sequence where Gatsby imagines himself cavorting with Beth in a beautiful field while she dances around in a long flowing dress. Dogs do dream. Who knows? Maybe this is what they dream about.

Tragedy strikes when Chase gets into an argument with Beth and fires her. Gatsby is back to being cooped up in an apartment all day and only gets a few minutes walking time each day  when Chase comes home after work. One day Gatsby slips his collar and runs away; we assume to search for Beth.

The episode has a bittersweet ending.  Gatsby never returns home, but is adopted by a group of homeless people who love and care for him.  He has no tags so they name  him “Grandpa”. One day they happen to run into Beth. She pets “Grandpa”. Of course he immediately recognizes her and wants to go with her, but she has no idea this is the same dog she has know before.  Beth leaves without him.

High Maintenance's creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld

High Maintenance’s creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld

High Maintenance is a remarkably well done show that tells little interconnected stories of people throughout New York City. Theoretically the star of the show is Ben Sinclair (“The Guy”) who delivers marijuana on bicycle. However, often he is only in the story for a few minutes as a device to introduce the audience to the main characters in the episode.

Katja Blichfeld and her husband Ben Sinclair created High Maintenance, which started as an internet show. The acting is always superb. Yael Stone is Beth the dog walker. She  is perfect at portraying the odd quirkiness and love for animals that you see in all those people who walk packs of mismatched dogs throughout the city.

Ryan Woods as Chase is also terrific at showing the stresses on a  human moving to a new city.  One of the most touching scenes of the episode has Chase sitting in his apartment crying, and we do not know why. The dog, comes over to try to comfort Chase. This scene without words perfectly portrays how lonely life can be in a city with millions of people.

High Maintenance also shows viewers parts of New York that are often not shown in movies or on T.V. This episode takes place entirely in Queens. Perhaps the best description ever of Queens was in the book Where Am I Now by Mara Wilson. She writes:

“Queens isn’t hip like Brooklyn, or wealthy and glamorous like Manhattan. It doesn’t have the hip-hop history of the Bronx, and its not a punch line like Staten Island. It doesn’t try to be cool. It doesn’t try to be anything. ‘Queens,’ I tell my friends, ‘is where your grandmother lives.’ It’s the middle sister borough. That’s why I like it.”

If you haven’t yet seen High Maintenance give it a look.  Each episode will introduce  you to new characters. You will like some, hate others and find quite a few obnoxious and irritating.  However, you will find them all fascinating to watch.

 

 

Carol – a film of forbidden love in 1952

Carol is a beautiful movie about a love affair between two women in 1952. This was when such a relationship was not only illegal, but also incomprehensible to most people in American society.  Cate Blanchett is Carol, a wealthy middle-aged married woman. She becomes infatuated with a shy younger woman she meets in a department store.

Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett in Carol

Rooney Mara & Cate Blanchett in Carol

Therese (the younger woman) is petite and soft spoken and flattered at the attention being paid to her by by such a sophisticated upper class woman. As viewers, we are not sure if Therese understands what Carol is actually looking for.  Therese is perfectly played by Rooney Mara.

Carol herself is not sure how Therese will react to any advances, so she is very cautious as they slowly become friends.

Kyle Chandler in Carol

Kyle Chandler in Carol

Kyle Chandler is Carol’s husband Harge. He simply cannot accept the fact that his wife is a lesbian. In fact, the word “lesbian” is never uttered in the film Carol. In 1952, the words “unnatural” or “deviant” were the phrases, and even those were only uttered softly and behind closed doors.

Harge wants his life to remain as it has always been, and is willing to use threats to keep the status quo. If Carole divorces him, she could be forbidden from ever seeing her child. In 1952 “deviant” behavior of a homosexual nature would have labeled her an unfit mother if it came out in divorce proceedings.

Carol avoids making Harge a film-cliche bad guy. He is not an evil man, he is just someone overwhelmed by his wife behaving so far outside the bounds of  normalcy. He wants to help his wife with therapists, and does love his wife.

Carol is a wonderful period piece film. It does not try to force 2016 behavior onto characters from 1952. People remain very much a part of whatever environment they are born into.  It is fascinating to see how forbidden love was handled 64 years ago.

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children- an interesting movie in search of an audience

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is an interesting movie that, can’t decide who its audience is supposed to be. It is too scary for kids, too childish for adults and not cool enough for teenagers.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children has been marketed as a kids’ movie. However, it received a well deserved PG-13 rating.  It includes completely unnecessary scenes of monsters eating plates full of children’s eyeballs, people having their eyes gouged out and a dead child kept in a bedroom.  These scenes take away from what is otherwise a joyful and magical film.

Eva Green as Miss Peregrine

Eva Green as Miss Peregrine

The overall plot is wonderfully imaginative.  There are certain children (“Peculiars”) who are born with special powers and have to be hidden away for their own protection. Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) protects the kids by keeping them in a time loop. They live in a large English country estate during World War II.

At the end of each day Miss Peregrin re-sets time and the day starts again. In some ways it is a happier sort of  “Groudhog Day”. The children never age, the weather is wonderful, and the outside world does not bother them. The powers of the children are strange and magical. One little girl has super strength. A little boy can project his dreams and show them as movies.

Ella Purnell steals the show

Ella Purnell steals the show

However, there is danger for the children. There are evil adult Peculiars in the outside world who have turned into invisible monsters called Hollows. They search for children’s eyeballs to eat and plot to attack Miss Peregrine’s home and kill the children. They are always looking for an entrance into the time loop.

Asa Butterfield as a young man transported back in time

Asa Butterfield as a young man transported back in time

The cast of the movie is terrific. Eva Green is Miss Peregrine, who has the ability to re-set time and to turn into a falcon. (Hence the name Peregrine). Asa Butterfield  is Jake, a young American who has the ability to see the invisible Hollows.

Ella Purnell steals the show as Emma; a beautiful young woman who is lighter than air and who re-floats a sunken ocean liner. Samuel  L. Jackson is in his element as the evil villain. As always, he brings some fun into his bad guy role. At one point, when  he grabs a kid by the suit jacket he happens to notices what great material the suit is made of.  As he shoves the kid aside he remarks, “Get out of my way. And remind me to get the name of your tailor.”

Samuel L. Jackson a bad guy with class

Samuel L. Jackson a bad guy with class

With some minor changes,  Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children would have been a far better movie. There was no reason to show such gross scenes in this type of movie. We already know that the children in Miss Peregrine’s Home are being protected from the evils of the outside world. Children in the movie-viewing audience do not need to see those  evils in such disgusting detail.  Producers should remember that sometimes kids in the viewing audience need to be protected too.

Squidward Tentacles from SpongeBob is a thief

Squidward Tentacles from the show SpongeBob is a thief.  He has been skimming from the cash register at the Krusty Krab for years. That is why he never quits, despite complaining about his position all day every day.  The show gives  clear indications that Squidward is an underwater white collar criminal. Lets take a look at the hints.

Squidward Tentacles. The world's worst fast food cashier

Squidward Tentacles. The world’s worst fast food cashier

Squidward’s house is more more expensive than a cashier could possibly  afford.  It is made of carved stone, has nice furnishings and even has an indoor elevator. You may argue that Patrick Star and SpongeBob Squarepants also have their own homes. However, Patrick Star’s house is nothing more than a rock he lives under and all his so-called furnishings are really just sand piles.

SpongeBob does have a actual house, but he grew it himself from a pineapple seed. On the other hand, Squidward’s house is a giant stone replica of the ancient carvings on Easter Island. Squidward also has a an boat-car. It is very seldom shown, but he does have one.

houses of Patrick Star, Squidward Tentacles and SpongeBon Squarepants

houses of Patrick Star, Squidward Tentacles and SpongeBob Squarepants

Squidward also has all the key characteristics of a white collar criminal.  Police have often noted that white collar criminals never think of themselves a thieves. They think of themselves as underpaid persecuted workers who are really just taking what the company should have been giving to them all along.

White collar criminals are often disgruntled employees and are very open about their hatred of the company and their boss.  Squidward is all of that.

Mr. Krabs and the Krusty Krab

Mr. Krabs and the Krusty Krab

Squidward  has the perfect opportunity to steal. Mr. Krabs never takes a turn behind the register and is usually locked away in his office. Although Krabs loves money, he does not seem to have any way to cross check the cash against the number of Krusty Burgers sold.

The Krusty Krab does accept any type of credit or debit card. This  all-cash environment makes it easy for Squidward to skim.

SpongeBob Squarepants

SpongeBob Squarepants

No matter how bad things get, Squidward continues to show up every day without talking vacation or sick days.  This is also a classic feature of white collar criminals. They never take time off, since that would risk someone cross-checking the books. If income went up dramatically whenever Squidward was on vacation, then Mr. Krabs would become suspicious of Squidward.

Squidward  only has 6 legs whereas a real squid has 8. Could this be  because two of Squidward’s legs were chopped off by prior employers that  he stole from? That may seem rather convoluted, but remember that a lot of the SpongeBob show is really geared towards adults rather than children. This is the same cartoon that once showed the grave of Diver Dan. Only a Baby Boomer would get that reference.

As SpongeBob enters what is rumored to be its final season, take a new look at good old Squidward. And if you ever go to the Krusty Krab remember to count your change.

Where Am I Now? – Mara Wilson, the little girl in Mrs. Doubtfire & Matilda

What ever happened to the little girl from Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire?  Where Am I now? is the autobiography of Mara Wilson, who went from child actor to awkward teenager to playwright and stage performer.

Where Am I Now? is a series of very personal introspective essays, which makes it a much more interesting read than the standard self-serving autobiographies which most celebrities produce.

Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson in Matilda

Danny DeVito and Mara Wilson in Matilda

Despite being a child star and coming from a happy home, Mara suffered from OCD and many anxieties. There was a time as a little girl when she was obsessed with death to the point where it was all she could think about.

Mara’s mother was definitely not a stereotypical pushy “stage mother”. She was happy that Mara was a successful actress, but also made sure Mara took her schoolwork seriously and never became stuck-up. Unfortunately Mara’s mother died of cancer during the filming of the movie Matilda.

Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson and Reah Perlman

Danny DeVito, Mara Wilson and Reah Perlman

Danny DeVito is one of the heroes of Where Am I Now?. He was always kind to Mara and was a comfort to her when Mara’s mother died . He and his wife Reah Perlman treated Mara like a member of the family and she loved them for it. Mara was upset that her mother never got to see Matilda.  Years later Mara found out that before the film was even complete Danny DeVito had taken a print of the film to the hospital and had  done a special screening in the cancer ward. Mara’s mother did get to see her little girl as Matilda after all.

Mara Wilson with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire

Mara Wilson with Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire

Like many child stars, Mara reached a point where she understood she would never become a star as an adult.  In her teens she went to auditions where she met a couple of other actresses. They were friendly and Mara liked them very much. But Mara immediately realized she could not compete with them. One was Kirsten Stewart and the other was Scarlett Johansson.

Mara Wilson Today

Mara Wilson Today

However, it was the normal petty slights  and meanness  in middle and high school that bothered Mara much more than any competition for acting jobs. Mara’s comment about high school girls is something that thousands of other young women have felt for decades. Mara states that:

The ones who scared me, who still scare me, are the girls who see all other girls as competition, who see themselves as the persecuted ones, the ones the pretty and popular girls hate. When you believe you’re persecuted, you will believe anything you do is justified.”

Mara is an excellent writer. She captures the essence of the struggles of a sensitive girl growing up in an ever changing environment. Mara stresses how important is is for women to be supportive of each other. She says,

A lot of men wonder what a woman wants. The answer is power. There are many ways to get it, but the easiest way is to tear other girls down. Any girl can play that game, but there’s no way to win, except not to play at all.”

Mara was very upset over the suicide of Robin Williams. She says that Robin had been wonderful with the kids on the set of Mrs. Doubtfire, keeping them entertained and telling them jokes. Mara kept in touch with Robin Williams through the years, and as an adult came to realize that he was actually a very shy person who had trouble communicating when he was not performing.

So where is Mara Wilson now? After graduating from NYU, she stayed in New York. Mara Wilson  writes plays, has a blog and performs stories at various small clubs. She  is very happy with her life.

Mara speaks of when she first moved to New York, and describes it by saying:

I was terrified, and there was nothing I could do but get used to it. New York, I soon learned, wasn’t so much scary as it was indifferent. In Los Angeles, I had felt judged. In New York, I felt ignored. Sometimes that was what I wanted: to disappear. But sometimes I wanted to be cared for, to belong, and I had to find that myself, because the city would not  provide it on its own.”

Mara Wilson did find a way to belong, by becoming part of New York’s artistic community. She faced her fears by expressing  her deepest thoughts and emotions in her writing and stage performances. Of course, this kind of exposure has its risks. Audiences can be mean or worse, indifferent. Internet trolls  are always ready to pounce and ridicule.

We are glad that Mara took the risk bare her emotions in her writings and performances. As Robin Williams once said:

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Steve Jobs – Tech Genius or Arrogant Poser?

Who was Steve Jobs? Books, movies and documentaries have never been able to truly capture the unique complexity of Steve Jobs. Unfortunately the 2015 movie simply  titled Steve Jobs is no exception. That said, Steve Jobs is an extraordinary well made film, with superb performances by first rate actors.

The real Steve Jobs

The real Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is structured as a play and could easily be converted to the theater.  It takes place in 3 acts with each one during a major product launch. Key figures from Steve’s past come back stage to have heart-wrenching, long discussions about life, just minutes before Steve has to go on stage to introduce the new product.

Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Seth Rogen as Wozniak

Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Seth Rogen as Wozniak

These conversations are dramatic and fascinating, until you realize that they are purely fictional.  They also tend to portray Jobs as a one-dimensional mean-spirited, nasty individual who will not listen to excellent advice from anyone. In real life, Jobs was stubborn and often cruel, but he also could be kind and generous. Jobs also certainly knew how to work with others in a team, and to take input from many different sources.

Apple's famous Super Bowl ad for The Macantosh

Apple’s famous Super Bowl ad for The Macontosh

Steve Jobs however, does explain well and in non-technical terms exactly why some of Job’s product ideas  were successes and other were complete failures. It also shows John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels) in a much different light than most other stories about Apple. Even today most people think of John Sculley  as the idiot who made one of the biggest business blunders in history by firing Steve Jobs.

Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen

Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen

This film shows that the situation was much more complex and nuanced than that.  The Board of Directors actually got rid of Jobs, in a decision which does seem to make sense when the historical perspective is shown.  Jobs had risked everything on the Apple Macintosh, including a famous Super Bowl ad. After a huge financial gamble by Jobs, the  Macintosh turned out to be a product disaster.

Jobs and Wozniak in the beginning

Jobs and Wozniak in the beginning

Seth Rogan is great as Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak. People used to seeing Seth Rogan in comedy roles will see that he is also a very talented dramatic actor. Steve Wozniak himself liked Seth Rogan’s portrayal, but said that Jobs was far nicer and kinder than the film showed.

Kate Winslet plays Apple’s Joanna Hoffman, one of the few people Jobs will discuss his personal life with. Much of the movie focuses on the fact that Jobs refused to acknowledge his daughter Lisa was his. However, at the same time he provided for her financially and had a lot of contact with her.

Steve Jobs is an interesting film but leaves us dissatisfied. After watching it we felt that we had seen a well acted film  about a Hollywood version of Steve Jobs, without ever meeting the real man.

 

The Lost Sounds Of Fall – a nostalgic look at bamboo rakes

Fall has always been my favorite time of year. The Sun is bright, the air is crisp and the leaves turn a wondrous range of colors. When I was a boy,  there were also the special sounds of Autumn.  As the weather turned colder, the last noises of lawn movers ceased and the world became quiet.

The whining of small engines was replaced by the unique soft sounds of bamboo rakes as people gathered the leaves into huge  piles. There were the delighted laughs of children when they ran full speed and jumped into the piles. Dogs barked as they chased each other through the leaves and searched for sticks as if they were hidden treasures of pirates gold.

People aren't the only ones who love leaf piles

People aren’t the only ones who love leaf piles

No one rushed at the task of raking. Adults spent a lot of time leaning on rake handles and chatting with neighbors about what they did over the Summer and asking each other how bad they thought the Winter was going to be. At the end of the day there would be the cracking sound as the piles of leaves were set on fire and we would warm our hands as the piles slowly melted into ash.

But somewhere along the way, the removing of leaves changed from being a slow, honored ritual, and became a noisy efficient task. Incredibly loud gasoline leaf blowers began appearing everywhere. They drowned  out all hope of civilized conversation. The people not actually operating the blowers retreated inside behind closed doors and windows to try to escape the noise. Leaves were blown to the curve, where giant vacuum trucks sucked them up and carried the leaves away. The delighted squeals of kids playing in the leaves were replaced the revving engines of two-ton diesel trucks.

Bamboo is superior to leaf blowers

Bamboo is superior to leaf blowers

The new way of getting rid of leaves is amazingly  efficient, and after the trucks move down the street not a single red oak leaf is left  behind. But in the race for speed, an American tradition has been lost forever.

The point of gathering leaves in Autumn was never to see how it could be done the fastest. The ritual for leaf gathering was a way for people to celebrate Life itself.  The older adults cherished  the last few days of  bright Sunshine with friends, knowing that soon they must face the inevitable dark Winter to come. There was solace in seeing that children and dogs forever live in the moment and take joy from the small pleasures.

A few years ago California had a voter referendum to try and ban leaf blowers. In our fast paced world, the referendum was soundly defeated. If I had lived in California I would have voted for the ban.   Give me a bamboo rake any day. It takes longer and is less efficient than a leaf blower. That’s the whole point.

The Forest – A Horror Movie Where the Strangest Parts Are True

The Forest is a horror movie where the strangest parts are true. It is about the “Sea Of Trees”, a dense forest at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, where Japanese traditionally go to commit suicide. Stylized suicide has a long history in Japan going back to the days of the samurai.

Even today, people will travel from all over Japan to commit suicide in Aokigahara Forest rather than do the act at home. Often individuals have not yet made a decision, so they will bring tents and camp deep in the forest. Sometimes, days or weeks later, the person will decide to live and return  from the forest. However, more times than not, the person never returns.

Aokigahara Forest (The Sea Of Trees) at the base of Mount Fuji

Aokigahara Forest (The Sea Of Trees) at the base of Mount Fuji

In The Forest, Natalie Dormer is Sara Price, an American who is in Japan searching for Jess, her missing identical twin sister.  Jess is a teacher who went to the Aokigahara Forest more than a week before and has not returned.  Sara cannot accept that Jess has killed herself, and decides to take on the futile task of trying to find Jess in the immense “Sea Of Trees”

Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney in The Forest

Natalie Dormer and Taylor Kinney in The Forest

No Japanese person wants to help Sara search in the Aokigahara Forest. They are afraid of the Yurei, which are demonic figures lurking in the forest trying to trick people into killing themselves.  Then Sara meets  Aiden, another American (played by Taylor Kinney), who is willing to help search. It is only after they are deep in the forest when Sara realizes that perhaps it was not smart for a young woman to go into the woods with a large muscular man who she actually knows nothing about.

Natalie Dormer stalked by a Yurei in The Forest

Natalie Dormer stalked by a Yurei in The Forest

The Forest has all the usual horror movie scares. Strange creatures appear that may be real or may be hallucinations brought on by being alone in  the woods. It has the regular “jump scares” where people or things suddenly pop up.

Taylor Kinney as "Aiden". Nice guy or Killer?

Taylor Kinney as “Aiden”. Nice guy or Killer?

However, we found the the true story of Aokigahara Forest and ritualized suicide in a modern society the most interesting part of the film. Japanese politeness extends even into this darkest hour of human existence.  For example, if you are walking through the forest and see a person camped with a “suicide tent”, you are not to interfere. Japanese feel the decision should be left to the individual and you should not try to “rescue” that person.

There is also the bizarre feature of bright yellow tape crisscrossed in the forest.  People want to kill themselves deep in the woods, but many  also want their body to later be found and taken away by family.  Therefore, when people go deep off the trail to kill themselves they  leave a path of bright colored tape from the trail to their final death location.

The Forest is not a great horror film but it is still worth watching. Unfortunately it has some unintentional humorous  aspects that take away from its scariness.  Natalie Dormer (Sara) keeps showing people a photograph of her identical twin asking if they have seen her. Why does she need to carry around a photo, when they are “identical”?

The funniest scene is when Sara decides to visit the school where her identical twin was a teacher. Remember that Jess has been missing for a long time and presumed dead.  Without thinking about this, Sara walks into the classroom. The children start screaming, believing that Sara is a ghost.  The director of the film (Jason Zada) probably meant this to be scary, but it actually comes across as really funny.

 

Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee

John McAfee, the inventor of the McAfee antivirus software, is a rapist who has ordered two murders. Those are the allegations made in the Showtime documentary Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee. After making a fortune starting a company to defend against computer viruses, John McAfee’s life seemed to go off track.  He sold his stake in McAfee, bought a huge estate in Colorado and became a Yoga Guru. He then quit that completely and moved to the Central American country of Belize. In Belize, McAfee set himself up like a local god. There are even clips where he refers to himself like Mr. Kurtz from Heart Of Darkness.

John McAfee in Belize

John McAfee in Belize

Belize is a very poor, very dangerous country with a high crime rate and lots of illegal weapons.  McAfee surrounded himself with heavily armed security men who were hired from the worst elements of the local gangs. If John McAfee walked down a tourist beach, he would be surround by 10 or 12 men with shotguns and AK-47s.  He also had vicious dogs roaming the beach near his house.

A local thief named David Middleton had the nerve to rob John McAfee’s house. David Middleton was  later was tortured and killed. The documentary claims that John McAfee had David Middleton killed as a lesson to anyone else in Belize who would dare cross him.

Nanette Burstein director of Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee

Nanette Burstein director of Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee

Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee is directed by Nanette Burstein who does a fantastic job. She only gets 1 short interview with John McAfee, but does have an email relationship with him over a series of months. As it becomes obvious what information Burstein is after, the emails from McAfee get more ranting and threatening.

The film also alleges that John McAfee raped Allison Adonizio, a Harvard biologist who was working in Belize. McAfee had hired Adonizio and funded a lab for her to do biological research.

Allison Adonizio says she was raped by John McAfee

Allison Adonizio says she was raped by John McAfee

Allison Adonizio is a very sympathetic person on film. She comes across as a shy young woman. She claims that as John McAfee began acting more and more bizarre, she decided to leave the project. When she told him she was quitting, McAfee drugged her drink and raped her.

The second murder McAfee is accused of is that of American Gregory Faull, who had poisoned McAfee’s vicious dogs.  Gregory Faull was a next door neighbor and had  argued with McAfee about the dogs running wild on the beach.  When the dogs turned up poisoned, McAfee went berserk and the film alleges that McAfee ordered Faull killed. When the Belize police tried to question McAfee, he fled the country and made his way back to the United States.

Gregory Faull who allegedly was ordered murdered by John McAfee

Gregory Faull who allegedly was ordered murdered by John McAfee

John McAfee comes across as a nasty, crazy, dangerous person throughout  Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee. However, that does not mean that any of the allegations are true.  It is important to remember that any documentary can be edited to show a particular point of view and lead people to a particular conclusion.

John McAfee states categorically that he had nothing to do with the murders, and points out that he has never been charged for any crime in Belize. He admits to the bodyguards and weapons, but notes that these are a perfectly logical response to being the richest man in a very poor very violent country. He says he left Belize rather than face police questioning, since the police in Belize are so incompetent and corrupt that he could not be assured of a fair hearing.

As for the rape allegation by Allison Adonizio, McAfee also denies that.  He says he fired Allison Adonizio since she was making no progress in her research. McAfee claims that before Adonizio  left she destroyed every sample and document in the lab. He states the rape story is a vicious attempt to discredit him.

John McAfee running for President in 2016

John McAfee running for President in 2016

Gringo: The Dangerous Life Of John McAfee is a fascinating documentary and we recommend you watch it and come to your own conclusions.  Certain points seem indisputable. One is that you should never visit Belize under any circumstances. The chief homicide detective admits that not only does Belize have a high murder rate, but that less than 10% of the murders are solved. Belize has no DNA testing and even fingerprint analysis is only now  just starting to be used. The fact the the 2 murders noted in  the film are unsolved is nothing unusual in Belize.

The second indisputable fact is that the American political electorate has an odd selection criteria. John McAfee ran for the 2016 Presidential nomination on the Libertine Party and came in second place. People asked him about cyber security and the economy, but the allegations of two murders and one rape never even came up. John McAfee has once again been able to completely re-invent himself. His days as Mr. Kurtz in the Heart of Belize have simply been relegated to a past life.

 

 

 

 

All Things Must Pass – The Rise & Fall of Tower Records

The 2015 documentary All Things Must Pass, is a fascinating look at Tower Records. In 1999 Tower Records  had 1 billion dollars in sales, and by 2006 was forced to declare bankruptcy. All Things Must Pass is now playing on Showtime, and is well worth watching.

Tower Records $1 Billion in sales 1999, bankrupt in 2006

Tower Records $1 Billion in sales 1999, bankrupt in 2006

Russ Solomon started Tower records in 1960 as a young man who knew absolutely nothing about business. However, what he did have was tremendous people skills and a feeling for what customers wanted.  In 1960, other record stores were small with very little selection, high prices and snooty salespeople.  Tower Records came along with a huge selection and inventory, low prices and a friendly atmosphere.

Early days at Tower Records

Early days at Tower Records

The people Russ Solomon hired loved music and loved talking to the customers about music. They were also a little crazy.  Many of the employees at Tower Records came looking for work since no place else would hire them. They had long hair and tattoos. They wore crazy clothing. They has a few drinks at lunch (and sometimes at breakfast). Russ accepted them all, and they loved him for it.

Cocaine charged to Tower Records expense accounts as "hand truck fuel"

Cocaine was charged to Tower Records expense accounts as “hand truck fuel”

The 1960s & 1970s were the era of “sex, drugs, and Rock & Roll” and Tower records was there  for the ride. If the employees had to work late doing things like stocking the shelves or counting inventory they would buy “hand truck fuel” and charge that to the company. Everyone in management knew that “hand truck fuel” was code for cocaine. Tower Records began expanding across the country and across the globe.  Tower Records opened in Japan and was a huge success.

At  its zenith, Tower Records was the place to go, even for megastars of the music industry. Elton John would go to the Hollywood store with his chauffeur following behind him with a box.  Elton John would buy stacks of records and hand them to the chauffeur to put in the box. Elton John bought three of any record he wanted, since he needed a copy at each of his 3 houses.

Most people now assume that Napster is what caused the demise of Tower Records. However, Russ Solomon himself is quick to point out that this is not the case. After all, Tower Records of Japan is still thriving with 85 stores that do a booming business.

There were really three things that caused the downfall of Tower Records.

  1. The greed of the record industry. Every time a new technology came out, the record industry took the opportunity to raise the price even if the new technology actually meant lower production costs for the recording industry. From 1960-2006 the format went from 45s to LPs to 8track tapes to cassettes to CDs.  Each time the price to the consumer went up significantly. In addition, the recording industry made it impossible to buy singles. If you only liked 2 songs by a particular artist, the recording industry forced you to by the whole $20 CD with a bunch of other songs you didn’t want. No wonder people turned to illegal downloading as a protest.
  2. Tower Records started expanding without thinking first. In the beginning, the executives agonized over exactly where to open a new store. Sort of like an Apple store today, a huge amount of forethought went into each new store location. But Tower Records was so successful that they began to think that no matter where they opened it would be an instant success. They jumped into markets like Argentina without ever doing any market research first. The result was that a lot of the new locations were disasters with low sales.
  3. The death of CFO Bob Martin. He was the guy who from the beginning of Tower Records ran all the finances. He was the polar opposite of Russ Solomon. Every time Russ wanted to sped more money, Bob Martin would try to hold him back. They were a perfect Yin-Yang combination. When Bob Martin died, a new CFO let himself get bullied by Russ Solomon into large expansions and took out bonds to finance everything. It was the crushing debt load from these bonds that ultimately bankrupted Tower Records. (Japan was sold off as a separate entity which is why it still thrives today). However, even Bob Martin was not your typical CFO. During working hours he was all business, but at night he became a heavy-drinking, woman chasing party animal.
Director Colin Hanks

All Things Must Pass Director Colin Hanks

All Things Must Pass is directed by Colin Hanks and written by Steven Leckart and Steve Stevens.  It tells the story beautifully with fascinating footage and still pictures of the early days of Tower Records. It also has great interviews with Russ Solomon and many of the original employees from the early days. The ending scene will bring tears to your eyes. Russ Solomon travels to Japan to visit the Tokyo Tower Records mega store. As he walks into the Japan Tower Records headquarters he is greeted with applause by the hundreds of employees paying tribute to this man of vision.