Monthly Archives: March 2017

Life Itself – Film Critic Robert Ebert’s fascinating life and final days

Life Itself is a beautiful movie about film critic Robert Ebert’s fascinating life and painful final days. Life Itself also delves into the the decades-long love-hate relationship between Robert Ebert and Gene Siskel. Both of them were strong personalities who were best known for their T.V. show Siskel & Ebert At The Movies.

Robert Ebert & Gene Siskel

Robert Ebert & Gene Siskel

We find that Roger Ebert was a much more complex character than most people realize. A brilliant writer from a young age, he brought film criticism to a new level at the Chicago Sun Times. Prior to Ebert, the film reviews were done by whoever happened to see a movie that weekend. Ebert turned it into a high art. He saw a movie every day, and took the time to write an in-depth analysis. In 1975, Roger Ebert was awarded a Pulitzer Price.

Ebert was proud of his Chicago working class roots. The Chicago Sun Times is the paper read by the every day people who ride mass transit. After Ebert won the Pulitzer, he was offered a huge amount of money to move to Washington D.C. and become the film critic for the Washington Post . He turned the offer down flat saying simply that he “did not want to have to learn new streets.”

Robert Ebert on the cover of Esquire, after his cancer surgery

Robert Ebert on the cover of Esquire, after his cancer surgery

However, there was a dark side to Roger Ebert as well. He was a hard drinker with the rest of the reporters, and for a number of years was a complete alcoholic. Then one day, he suddenly had enough. He took a last drink, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and never drank again.

Roger Ebert also had a huge ego. He loved being the center of attention and telling endless stories while a group listened.  Whenever he met anyone new, he somehow was able to work into the conversation that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. Roger wanted to be a wild celebrity with beautiful women at his side. However, the fact that he was about 300 pounds meant that he was never very successful with the ladies. At one point in his career, he wrote the screen play for the cheesy soft core porn film Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. He later admitted that the only reason he participated in such trash was that he wanted a chance to meet some of the actresses. Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls is so bad that it actually became a cult film classic. People still watch it today to laugh at film making at its worst.

Marlene Iglitsen & Chaz Ebert

Marlene Iglitsen & Chaz Ebert

Roger Ebert was not happy to have Gene Siskel come into his life. Both Siskel and Ebert wanted to do a movie review show alone. However, the T.V. producers rightly thought it would be more interesting to have two reviewers discussing a movie, instead of one guy lecturing the audience.

It was the conflict and disagreements between the two that made Siskel & Ebert At The Movies so much fun to watch.  The were both egotists and both convinced that their view was correct and anyone disagreeing with it was an idiot. Their arguments about films were not just for show. Often their fights and discussions about a particular film  would continue for hours even after the  cameras were turned off.

Life Itself has many parts that are difficult to watch, since it also documents the final days when Roger Ebert was dying from cancer.  In attempts to remove the cancer, Ebert’s lower jaw had been removed, and he could no longer speak or eat any solid foods.  However, he refused to give up on life. Roger Ebert became a prolific blogger and continued to review movies constantly. He also adapted his computer so that he could “speak” electronically. He communicated to the world this way for a number of years, and even attended movie conferences and “spoke” to crowds with his electronic keyboard voice.

Robert Ebert & Martin Scorsese

Robert Ebert & Martin Scorsese

Life Itself is brilliantly directed by Steve James, who also created the stunning film Hoop Dreams. There are in-depth interviews with Gene Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen, as well as Robert’s wife Chaz Ebert. There are also touching interviews with fans ranging from everyday readers to famous movie people like Martin Scorsese. Steve James does not try to make Roger Ebert a larger than life celebrity. He shows Roger Ebert as a real multifaceted individual, whose passing was mourned by all film lovers.

 

Hoop Dreams- the film showing the evil side of “March Madness”

Hoop Dreams  is a documentary that shows how young  African American kids are used and abused by an athletic system that treats them as free labor whose only purpose is to play basketball so that schools can make money. The kids are told they will one day become millionaires playing in the NBA. They are not told that the chance of making  the NBA is about the same as winning the Power Ball lottery.

Win at all costs

Win at all costs

Hoop Dreams takes place over a number of years and details the lives of two inner-city Chicago Kids who are recruited to play basketball for a wealthy suburban high school. St. Joseph High is a Catholic school that has a man scouting Chicago middle and grammar school playgrounds looking for good basketball players. He looks for kids who are athletic and who seem like they will become unusually tall. St. Joseph High then offers these kids a partial scholarship to play for St. Joseph.

Coach Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph High School

Coach Gene Pingatore of St. Joseph High School

Of course the officials at St. Joseph High talk about how much they are helping the community. In fact, they thought that Hoop Dreams was going to show how great the school is. It did not turn out that way. After Hoop Dreams premiered, various St. Joseph High officials tried to sue the film makers.

St. Joseph High is in an all-White suburb and the African American scholarship kids are seen as only there to play basketball. The first thing you notice is what St. Joseph’s does not have. It does not have anyone looking for inner-city kids with great math or reading or artistic skills. It does not have academic scholarships. The message to kids in the ghetto is clear. Sports is the only way out. Academic skill is not useful.

William Gates in "Hoop Dreams"

William Gates in “Hoop Dreams”

Hoop Dreams follows William Gates and Arthur Agee who are both recruited and given partial scholarships. They end up being treated very differently at the school, completely based on their athletic skill. William continues to grow very tall and his basketball skills improve. A supporter of the school gives William a part time job to supplement the partial scholarship.

Arthur Agee in" Hoop Dreams"

Arthur Agee in” Hoop Dreams”

Arthur, on the other hand is not so lucky. He does not grow as tall, and he suffers a knee injury. Coach Pingatore pressures William to play even though the knee is not quite healed. William re-injures the knee and needs a second operation. The injuries and intense pressure the kids are under seems like something from the pros, but you have to keep reminding yourself that these are unpaid high school kids.

When Arthur’s athletic performance becomes bad, the money starts to be a problem.  Unlike William, the school does not find a wealthy supporter to help Arthur.  This is when the school suddenly  reminds Arthur that this is a partial scholarship, and that Arthur will not be able to stay at St. Joseph’s unless his family can pay the back tuition. They cannot come up with the money and Arthur is sent back to the public high school in the inner-city.

As a final insult to Arthur, St. Joseph’s high will not release his transcripts to the public high school, since the back tuition is not paid. This will keep Arthur from graduating high school unless his family comes up with the money.

Neither William or Arthur ever do make the NBA. Both did go to college but even there, the main function was just to play basketball. One went to a large rural college that only had 6 African American kids in the whole college. Five of those 6 kids were on the college basketball team.

Hoop Dreams shows the bad side of American sports that no one likes to talk about. For every one NBA star there are thousands of kids who made sacrifices for  a high school or a college and got nothing in return. Supposedly the kids got an education in return, but many schools were never really interested in trying to educate any of them or give them any real help in life .

At one point in Hoop Dreams Arthur tells the story of when he had some very personal issues with his family that were upsetting him deeply and impacting his schoolwork . He still considered the coach his mentor, so Arthur went to Coach Pingatore to ask for advice.  The coach’s “advice” was very simple. He told Arthur to completely cut ties with his family and girlfriend, since they were interfering  with his ability to play basketball. Thanks coach. Way to help a kid in trouble.

In the 22 years since Hoop Dreams premiered, unfortunately not much has changed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In “Logan” The Wolverine’s final enemy is Trump

Logan is The Woverine’s final appearance and in the movie this X-Man hero battles the immigration policies of Donald Trump.  Of course, Trump is never mentioned, but any adults watching the film will get the message. Logan is far different from the proceeding X-Men movies, and covers subjects more geared towards adults than kids.  When a superhero gets old and senile do his powers become a danger to society? Is a simple peaceful life superior to that of a “hero”? Does the government have a right to break  hard-working families apart?

Dafne Keen & Hugh Jackman in "Logan"

Dafne Keen & Hugh Jackman in “Logan”

In Logan, The Wolverine is long retired from the superhero business, and is undercover trying to make a living as a limo driver. He is caring for a 90 year old Professor X, who is going senile and has periodic seizures.  Since Professor X has the most powerful mind in the universe, these seizures are dangerous for anyone around him.  In his demented states, Professor X’s mind can send out powerful waves that harm or kill innocent people.

Partick Stewart as the 90 year old semi-senile Professor X

Partick Stewart as the 90 year old semi-senile Professor X

Logan’s dream is to earn enough money to buy a yacht so that he and Professor X can live far out on the ocean where they will be of no danger to anyone. The Wolverine himself is feeling the effects of age. He still has superpowers, but now walks with a limp and has a chronic cough. He can heal if wounded, but this takes more and more time after each injury.

Dafne Keen give a mischievous smile in "Logan"

Dafne Keen gives a mischievous smile in “Logan”

Logan’s simple life is interrupted when a Hispanic woman recognizes him as The Wolverine and pleads for his help. She and her daughter are being chased by government agents who are trying to capture them and take them away. She offers Logan money to take them to Canada, which is giving sanctuary to undesirables the U.S. government is hunting. (Anyone not seeing the Trump connection at this point must have been living under a rock for the past 2 years).

The Hispanic woman is killed, and Logan is left caring for Laura, the little girl. But she is no ordinary little girl. She is, in fact a Wolverine, just like Logan. Laura is played by Dafne Keen, and she is absolutely the best part of the movie. Laura has superpowers and is great at fighting bad guys, but she is also a little kid with all of a kid’s funny quirks and infuriatingly annoying habits. Laura also desperately wants Logan to be a traditional father figure, despite the fact that he is completely unsuited to this task.

Hugh Jackman & Dafne Keen at the Berlin Film Festival screening of "Logan"

Hugh Jackman & Dafne Keen at the Berlin Film Festival screening of “Logan”

The acting throughout Logan is superb. Patrick Stewart gives a masterful performance as the aging Professor X. Hugh Jackman is perfect as Logan, the man who never wanted to be The Wolverine. Logan sees that with Laura he may have a way to find redemption for all the bad things he has done in his life. Dafne Keen is terrific, and we predict she will go on to become a major star.  She does not speak for most of the film, which means that she has to use her body language and facial expressions to get the meaning across to the audience. That would be a difficult task for even an adult actor, but Dafne Keen handles this challenge with ease.

There is a very moving scene in Logan in which the three superheros get a glimpse into the lives they might have had. They have dinner with a farm family, and the superheros pretend to be a family of their own. Professor X is the grandfather, Logan his son, and Laura is Logan’s daughter. For the only time in the film, they are completely relaxed and enjoy the simple pleasures of a good meal, friends and laughter. It is a picture of what they could be if the government had not labeled them as unwanted aliens.

Logan is an excellent film and despite being a superhero movie, it is not really for kids. It is R rated, has extreme violence and a very high body count.  It is also one of the best X-Men movies yet. It actually concludes a number of stories, and is not one of those films just trying to set up a sequel. We highly recommend Logan.

I Am A Celebrity in Estonia for Naljkad Toointervjuud by Gregory F. Farrell

Like most vain people, I constantly Google my own name to see how the internet perceives me. I was shocked to discover that I have become a celebrity in the country of Estonia for a book I wrote 20 years ago. A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview has been re-released in Estonia as Naljakad Toointervjuud, with a somber  cover.

Naljakad Toointervjuud by Gregory F. Farrell the Estonian business expert

Naljakad Toointervjuud by Gregory F. Farrell the Estonian business expert

Apparently Naljakad Toointervjuud is being marketed with a much more serious tone than A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview was sold in the United States. The scruffy cartoon resume on the cover had been replaced by a pair of serious all-business wing tipped shoes.

A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview by Gregory F. Farrell

A Funny Thing Happened At The Interview by Gregory F. Farrell

The book has become a hit, and there have been a lot of comments from readers on the websites of stores that sell Nalkakad Toointervjuud. Unfortunately, I do not speak Estonian, so I had to use Google Translate to convert the comments to English. Somehow, I think something got lost in translation, resulting in some bizarre comments like:

  • “Anyone can fly ninuli-important back up on its feet”
  • If any of this happens, put it behind the ear, and learn from their mistake.”

However, other comments are really cool and very complimentary.

Estonia

Estonia

So to all my readers in Estonia, Aitah! Good luck on your job search! Remember always that you and your family  are more important than any job, and that things have a way of working out. If the interview goes great you may get the job. If you have nothing but a series of horrible interviews, maybe you were meant to be an author.

 

A Farther Shore – Ireland’s Long Road to Peace

A Farther Shore  by Gerry Adams is the fascinating story of the negotiations that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which created a road map for peace in Northern Ireland. Some consider Gerry Adams a terrorist, while for others, he is a great civil rights leader. Since 1983, Gerry Adams was the leader of Sinn Fein, the political group closely associated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). A Farther Shore was written in 2003 when the details of the negotiations were fresh in mind. A Farther Shore still holds up today, and gives the reader a wonderful historic perspective.

British troops in Northern Ireland

British troops in Northern Ireland

It is difficult for people outside of Ireland and the U.K. to understand just how desperate the Northern Ireland situation was in the 1970s through 1990s.  There were daily shootings and bombing. People could be imprisoned indefinitely without trial and the British Army was a large occupying force. At one point in Norther Ireland, there was 1 British soldier for every 3 Catholic males between the ages of 16 and 60.

Margret Thatcher tried unsuccessfully to beat the IRA using the military

Margret Thatcher tried unsuccessfully to beat the IRA using the military

It seemed impossible that there could ever be a negotiated settlement. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and her goal was to militarily destroy the IRA by any means, legal or illegal.  The British have always portrayed themselves to the world as the epitome of “the rule of law”. However, the law did not apply in Northern Ireland.  British SAS forces had orders to “shoot to kill” rather than arrest suspected members of the IRA, even if those people were unarmed.

Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland

Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland

The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) was in many ways worse than the British Army. The RUC was supposed to be the police force protecting all the citizens of Norther Ireland. In reality, it was the force of the Protestant majority only, and considered all Catholics to be the enemy.

At one point Northern Ireland had 1 British soldier for every 3 Catholic males between 16 and 60

At one point Northern Ireland had 1 British soldier for every 3 Catholic males between 16 and 60

As well as the Catholic IRA, there were many armed Protestant “Unionist” paramilitary groups. The Unionist groups were technically illegal, but in fact were often being given intelligence and weapons by the British and the RUC.

Lord Mountbatten killed by IRA August 27, 1979

Lord Mountbatten killed by IRA August 27, 1979

The brutal methods of the British and the RUC did not destroy the IRA, and instead made it stronger. Once the British began to treat  ALL Catholics in Northern Ireland as the enemy, the Catholics turned to the IRA as the only force which would protect them.  The IRA itself continued bomb and gun attacks.  On August 27, 1979 the IRA killed Lord Mountbatten in Ireland in a bomb attack and killed 18 British soldiers in a separate attack in Northern Ireland on the same day.

Gerry Adams & Bill Clinton 1995

Gerry Adams & Bill Clinton 1995 at Queen’s University. Clinton also met with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party  Ian Paisely.

A Farther Shore is the story of how the groups battling in Northern Ireland came through those dark days to sign a peace accord in 1998 which came to be known as the Good Friday Agreement. Gerry Adams admits that his is not an unbiased account. He rightfully states that it may be 50 or 75 years before anyone will be able to write a story about Northern Ireland from a neutral, unemotional perspective. A Further Shore is Gerry Adam’s account of the Sinn Fein struggle and its involvement in the peace process.

Gerry Adams and Prince Charles share a friendly moment. Margaret Thatcher must be turning in her grave.

Gerry Adams and Prince Charles share a friendly moment. Margaret Thatcher must be turning in her grave.

The negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement took decades and included a huge number of people, countries and political and paramilitary organizations. Just to name a few these included, Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, U.S. Senator George Mitchell, Ted Kennedy, the IRA, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party, and more.

Results of the popular vote accepting the Good Friday Agreement

Results of the popular vote accepting the Good Friday Agreement

This was not a simple matter of just having groups sit down and talk to each other for a deal. Many of these groups hated each other and would have no direct conversations with each other, even if they were in the same room. The IRA and the various unionists paramilitary organizations were illegal and could therefore not even show up directly for any talks.

Senator George Mitchell ad Gerry Adams

Senator George Mitchell ad Gerry Adams

Peace would never have been achieved without the involvement of South Africa and The United States.  At one point,  representatives of all the involved Northern Irish  parties (other than the paramilitary groups) traveled to South Africa. There they met with Nelson Mandela and the ex-leaders of the all -white government.  There were long discussions about how it was possible to achieve a lasting agreement even among groups that had fought each other for decades. The Irish peace negotiators were inspired by the South African example.

Nelson Mandela & Gerry Adams

Nelson Mandela & Gerry Adams

United States Senator George Mitchell lead the negotiations that resulted in The Good Friday agreement.  Most Americans, even to this day, are not fully aware of the incredible achievement of Senator Mitchell. The fact that he was able to hold together such a diverse group and get a workable accord would have seemed impossible given the history of the conflict.

A Further Shore is a wonderful read, and Gerry Adams is a terrific writer.  Gerry Adams’ writing style is very personal, which makes this tale of an individual’s journey, rather than a dry historical document.  Gerry Adams sprinkles the book with amusing anecdotes. For example, at one point, he took a break from negotiations which were  taking place in an old castle.  As he walked the grounds of the estate he found himself being followed by a herd of wild cats who lived in the nooks and crannies of the old castle. Throughout his political life Gerry Adams has tried to continue to enjoy the simple pleasures of life and family. Despite having been imprisoned by the British and shot by Unionists, he has kept an amazingly positive outlook on the future and truly believes in the possibility of a better future for future generations throughout the world.

A Further Shore is a very inspirational book since it shows that seemingly “endless” conflicts can be resolved.  It is easy to think of today’s problems in the Middle East and elsewhere as completely insurmountable.  A Further Shore shows that there is always hope and possibility. Of course, the problems of Northern Ireland have not all been solved. The IRA and the Unionist military groups still exist. The political situation is still incredibly complex and fluid.

Just this week an election was held for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Unionist group the DUP came in first 28 seats. In a stunning success, Sinn Fein came in second with 27 seats. It was a hard-fought election, but the fighting was with words, not guns or bombs.  A Further Shore tells the tale of what made this possible.