Dunkirk

Aug. 16th, 2017 03:14 pm
Sunday, August 12, we went to see Dunkirk, the World War II film by director Christopher Nolan. We thought it generally well done and interesting and very well worth seeing, although perhaps too dire at times to be entirely enjoyable. Yes, it’s a war movie, and there’s a lot of dying in it. However, a lot of the death, by drowning or burning, is too present.

The movie has an interesting structure, with three braided narratives that eventually meet. The first is titled “The Mole: One Week.” This follows the events on the Dunkirk beaches and nearby, focusing on a British soldier who isn’t necessarily an example of stoic discipline while trying to get off the beach and back to England. “The Sea: One Day” follows one of the British “small ships” answering the call to aid the evacuation, and its voyage to and from the zone of danger. “The Air: One Hour” deals with a sortie of three British Spitfire fighters whose mission is to protect the beaches and sea lanes, and drive away the Luftwaffe bombers. The film shift from narrative to narrative was of necessity not in overall chronological order, so it took me a bit to put things together, but, once I did, I was struck by admiration for the skill of the story telling. As the film nears its climax, the three stories come together in increasing tempo, and you see the same events from as many as three different viewpoints.

While the presence of masterful actors such as Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance enhance the picture, the compelling story is the main event, and the actions of the desperate soldier, the intrepid pilots, and the boys who go along to Dunkirk to “do something” predominate.

Military history buff that I am, of course there are a few quibbles. The beaches are attacked several times by Stuka (Junkers Ju. 87) dive-bombers. The Stuka, a pre-war design, at that time typically carried a single large bomb slung under the fuselage, and in a couple of scenes you can see one bomb separate from the attacking plane. However, on the ground, this results in a “stick” of eight explosions, as though the site was bombed by one of the larger multi-engine bomber types.

British shipping is also awfully fragile, at least for dramatic purposes. We see three British ships get sunk, one by a submarine, and two by bombing. All three capsized to the starboard side before sinking, which seems unlikely.

We always stay through the credits, and I got a substantial thrill seeing that twelve of the “small ships” that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation were used in the making of the movie.

We went to the Downer Theater to see A Quiet Passion, the film about American poet Emily Dickinson. Although now regarded as one of the most important poets of the 19th Century, her work was largely ignored during her lifetime, with only a dozen or so of more than 1800 poems written published during her lifetime, and those were usually significantly “edited” by the publishers.

Most of Dickinson’s correspondence was burned at her death by her wish, so I expect that director and screenwriter Terence Davies had to invent most of the dialog, if not incidents, but if, so, he does a very good job of evoking a very particular time and place. The Amherst we see is genteel, puritanical, and self-critical. Manners are everything. Emily’s father reproaches her, and she sincerely apologizes, for having spoken brusquely to the servants while suffering a kidney-stone attack (or something similar).

Things start off well enough. Emily has the support of her revered father, who uses influence with his friend, Samuel Bowles, to get her poems published in his newspaper. She has the friendship of her attractive sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her adored brother Austin, and her vivacious friend, Susan Gilbert, with whom she can exchange “wicked” ideas. Her mother, whom she regarded as distant, nevertheless gently tolerated Emily’s growing eccentricities.

Frustration begins to build up as she sees even her publisher, Bowles, repeat the idea that only men have the spirit to be poets in an article in his paper. (Noted poets of the time all had names like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant--.) Her comfortable life slowly unravels as her father dies suddenly. Her mother is incapacitated by a stroke and eventually also dies. Susan Gilbert marries and moves away. Austin Dickinson falls off his pedestal by becoming estranged from his wife and engaging in an affair with a married woman, Mabel Loomis Todd. There was tension between Emily, who was shocked and horrified, and Vinnie, who was more forgiving. (Ironically, Mrs. Todd was one of the people who helped get Dickinson’s poems into publication after her death.)

She gradually became more reclusive, declining invitations to visit elsewhere, and only speaking to visitors who came to the house from the other side of a door, but all the while continuing to write poems and letters. She died in 1885, at the age of 55, of what was diagnosed as kidney disease.

Cynthia Nixon plays the adult Emily, and does a very fine job of what of necessity must be an understated role. She’s supported by a cast of very skillful and subtle actors, including Jennifer Ehle as Vinnie, Duncan Duff as Austin, Keith Carradine as her father, and Joanna Bacon as her mother.

The film looks beautiful, capturing the period well, as the people act out their austere and reserved lives against a background of Victorian elegance in homes and lush beauty in gardens.

We were very glad to have seen this interesting movie about this very interesting person. (Georgie’s one criticism was “too much hard dying, too long,” referring to both Emily’s and her mother’s death scenes--.)

On Sunday, January 22nd, we went to see Hidden Figures, the movie that tells the story of three black women who, each in their own way, contributed to the success of, first NASA’s Mercury program, and then later projects up to and including the Apollo moon landings. We found it to be very well done, and truly inspiring.

In those days, much of NASA’s engineering and support operations were based in Virginia, which, pre-Civil Rights acts, was unrepentantly segregated. (Not that Florida or Texas would necessarily have been any better--.) I found it really painful to see segregated drinking fountains, segregated bathrooms, segregated bus seats, and to see that all those things existed at NASA, which should have been one of the most forward-thinking workplaces in the world. Instead, NASA employs a group of black women as their own “computing” unit, set off in a separate building except for when on particular individual assignments.

Gradually, the wall begins to break down, as Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) gets assigned to the unit engaged in orbital calculations. Johnson was a mathematical prodigy as a child, and as an adult can perform calculations in her head that make the male engineers’ eyes bug out. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) becomes NASA’s first black female engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) stakes a claim on the future by teaching herself Fortran and becoming an integral part of NASA’s new electronic computing division.

These events don’t necessarily happen smoothly, and a good part of the story deals with overcoming—or undermining, or working around—casual, institutional racism and sexism. Although racism is there—in one scene, someone anonymously brings in a separate coffee pot, labeled “colored” to the otherwise white office she is working in—I don’t believe I heard anyone at NASA say words to the effect of “black people can’t do that,” although, “women don’t do that” is a common theme.

The plot is interesting and engaging, especially to those of us for whom that history is also memory. I remember staying home from school to watch Mercury launches, and knew that it was a dangerous and daring thing at the time, but of course had no idea of how many people were required in how many ways to make it happen. The plot had drama, but wasn’t “juiced up”—I kept expecting one of the women to be menaced or roughed up, but that didn’t happen, although tension is there.
The Golden Globe award for best ensemble cast was well deserved. The three principal ladies were excellent, and very well supported by the rest of the cast.

I’m pleased and proud to report that my company, AT&T, along with other “tech” companies, is paying for school groups to see this inspirational and uplifting movie. Highly recommended.
On Saturday, June 18th, we took the Historic Concordia Tour of Homes, on which a dozen private houses and other buildings were open to be visited.

We started by visiting the Elizabeth Pabst von Ernst house in the 3400 block of West Wells street. We had seen this house a few years ago, and were interested to see progress that had been made.
The Benzakein residence on North 33rd Street was a good example of a successful renovation. The former duplex has been converted into a single-family dwelling with eleven bedrooms and copious other living space, including a handsome deck atop the garage.

We were very interested to see the inside of the “Lion House” on West Highland Boulevard. This building, which looks like it should have been a bank building was in fact built as a residence by George J. Koch in 1897. Koch was a banker, so perhaps this seemed homelike to him? It has been office space since the 1980’s, and is presently used by the Forest County Potowatomi Foundation in what must be one of the city’s most distinguished offices
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The Grosse residence in the 3100 block of West Highland is very much a work in progress. Mr. Grosse bought the 1917 Craftsman bungalow at a sheriff’s sale in 2015, and has begun what will be an extensive restoration of the neglected but basically sound property.

The Manegold mansion, also on West Highland, is a very fine example of a Queen Anne Victorian which survived use as a nursing home and as a priests’ residence with many of its original appointments intact. The present owners are restoring it and hope to make it a bed and breakfast.
The former Gezelschap home on West State Street is another work in progress, with the new owners intent on restoring the spacious Victorian, which also had been converted into a rooming house. The original owner dealt in lighting fixtures, so the home has remarkable eleven-foot ceilings, appropriate for displaying his wares.

We re-visited the Charles Krause home on West Kilbourn, which has been very nicely restored and furnished. We had a very nice chat with the lady owner there.
This year, we skipped the Schuster Mansion and the Tower House, as we had seen them recently, and weren’t interested in the Woodlands School building or St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, although these were all open. We did stop in at the Tripoli Shrine Temple, the tour headquarters, for pieces of pie from the bake sale before heading home.

Notes about the tour had encouraged people to dress “period”, so of course Georgie and I did, being two of the evident few who did. However, we were very well received, and got many smiles and waves, even from neighborhood residents who weren’t part of the tour.
We saw the movie “Jimmy’s Hall” at the Downer Theatre. I was curious about this film, which is based on real events that occurred in an era I knew little about, the Irish Free State of the 1920’s and 30’s.

Following the conclusion of the Irish War of Independence of 1919-21, Irish self-rule was established by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which provided for the establishment of the Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion within the British Commonwealth of Nations. Disagreement over this treaty lead to the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, which left bitter and lasting schisms in the country. (I had vaguely known that there was an Irish Civil War, but it bled together with the War of Independence in my mind--.)
The main character, James Gralton, as an anti-treaty republican, had been forced to flee Ireland in 1922, going to the United States. In 1932, he returned, and tried to pick up life in his home town. The movie is the story of what happened then, with flashbacks to the parallel events of 1922.

At first, Gralton wants a quiet life. But then, responding to the pleas of the young people in town, stultified by lack of opportunity and lack of cultural stimulation in Depression-era Ireland, he agrees to re-open the community hall that was built on his land in the 20’s. While intended to be a peaceful place for educational and cultural activities, the Hall draws the ire of the Catholic Church, which claims a monopoly on all education in Ireland, and the suspicion of the Nationalist government, who view it as a likely focus for IRA-related political activities. While the Church’s fears about “teaching Communism” and “immorality” (i.e., jazz) are mostly unfounded, Gralton can’t help but get drawn into strife between the Nationalist government, representing the landed vested interests, and the IRA representing dispossessed tenants. Gralton and the Hall become the targets of escalating retaliatory action, until, echoing the events of 1922, he becomes a hunted man. Condemned without trial, he was ordered deported on the grounds that he held a United States passport, and was therefore an undesirable alien. Gralton remains the only Irishman ever to have been deported from Ireland*. Even when Ireland ceased to be a dominion in 1937, he was not permitted to return.

The various actors play their roles with passion and honesty, showing us the moral, philosophical, and practical dilemmas they are faced with. Barry Ward as Gralton is very good, but he’s somewhat overshadowed by the villain of the piece, Jim Norton as Father Sheridan, the parish priest. While he rants a good hellfire sermon about saving souls, he also shows that he’s capable of a Stasi-like surveillance of his parishioners, and, in private, frankly admits that it is all about power and control.

The film is beautifully shot in the areas events actually happened, and gives some insight into a rarely portrayed time and place, although somewhat prettified for movie purposes. (Evidently, Gralton was much more of a Communist than shown--.) We found the film very interesting and were glad to have seen it.

(*I found this injustice shocking. Then, this morning, I learned that. Between 1930 and 1945, the United States summarily deported (or “repatriated”) two million persons of Mexican origin, of which 1.3 million were naturalized citizens of the United States.)
On Saturday, March 14th, we went to the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus for Early Music Now’s presentation of the Newberry Consort, in “Rosa das Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria.”

The Newberry Consort, based in Chicago, consists of six performers, augmented for this performance by four additional choristers. The players are: David Douglass (co-director, medieval strings), Ellen Hargis (co-director, soprano), Shira Kammen (medieval strings and harp), Dan Meyers (percussion and medieval winds), Mark Rimple (gittern and psaltery), Matthew Dean (tenor and narrator), and Francy Acosta (soprano), Lucia Mier y Teran Romero (soprano), Tom Crawford (alto), Corey Shotwell (tenor).

The Cantigas de Santa Maria were written by King Alfonso X, King of Castile, Leon, and Galicia (1221-1284), known as “el Sabio,” “the wise,” due to his many writings on a wide range of topics, especially the law. He supposedly attributed his recovery from an illness or injury to healing by the Virgin Mary, and so declared himself to be her troubadour. Four hundred and twenty-seven songs, each of which mentions Mary in some way, were collected as the Cantigas de Santa Maria. These are actual songs, accompanied by musical notation of the period, not just poems that were adapted later, so, as much as possible, the music is authentic to the time of Alfonso’s writing.

The consort included fourteen pieces, in two sections, which were accompanied by projections of illuminations from two of the known manuscripts, which are richly illustrated with over twelve hundred pictures. All are fascinating. One set includes illustrations that go with the stories of the songs, and another set depicts musicians and instruments. The Consort also used the projections to provide translated “supertitles” for the songs, much appreciated since they are in 13th Century Galician-Portugese, a popular language for music at that time.

Many of the songs are notable for their portrayal of the Virgin as the intimate and loving friend of the people, a mother figure for whom no job is too big or too small if the prayer be sincere. In one, she “saves” a pregnant abbess (the victim of a seduction) by miraculously removing the child from her womb and causing it to be adopted elsewhere. In another, Mary solves the theft of a mutton chop from some of her pilgrims. In one of the most interesting stories, a young man, recently engaged, places his engagement ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin for safekeeping while playing ball on the town common. Doing so, he declared his undying devotion solely to her. Miraculously, the statue closes its hand on the ring so it can’t be removed. The townspeople advise the man that there’s nothing for him to d now but become a monk, which suggestion he refuses, and goes on with his wedding. However, he is then haunted by dreams and visions of Mary until he leaves his wife and becomes a holy hermit. (Moral: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Mary!).

The one issue I had with the concert was that all the “fun” songs were in the first half, and the second half was made up of all Hymn tunes, which are sober and serious, which made them seem kind of dull in comparison, although all of the music was lovely, and beautifully played and sung. The range of instruments was intriguing also, including vielle, rebec, harp, flute, bagpipe, hammer dulcimer, and citole. I was particularly interested in the tuning of the vielle, which had a very “fiddle”-like sound.

Illustrations were entertaining as well, with those of the men playing ball, and the pilgrims hunting for the lost chop, being particular favorites. We also liked the depictions of the Virgin enthroned among Queens and wise women, giving a sidelong glance as though some of them weren’t trusted. The pictures of musicians were also fascinating, with their medieval instruments, including such oddities as a bagpipe with two chanters and four drones.

Quibble aside, this was a very interesting and enjoyable concert that gave us some music and stories we hadn’t been familiar with, and which was very much worth attending.

Mr. Turner

Feb. 21st, 2015 03:03 pm
Tuesday, January 28th, we went to see “Mr. Turner,” the biopic about one of England’s most famous painters, J.M.W. Turner.

The movie is mainly a character study of the great artist. Timothy Spall spent three years preparing for this role, including teaching himself to paint in Turner’s style, and it was effort well spent. Spall inhabits the role thoroughly, making Turner’s many contradictions of character believable and natural. He is normally monosyllabic and antisocial, but could be cheerful and sociable among colleagues. He had great erudition but could be horridly crude. He had a long and evidently tender relationship with his mistress, Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), but is totally cold towards his prior mistress, Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) and disavows his two daughters by her. Meanwhile, he callously exploits his abject housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).

This gives Spall the opportunity to enact a great range of emotion. A classically trained actor, he can literally express more emotion with his back to the camera than many actors can face front. In one scene, Sarah Danby is berating him for missing the funeral of their eldest daughter. While she sees only Turner’s impassive visage, the audience sees his hands behind him, fingers twisting into painful knots. We both thought it a masterful scene, and great kudos to Spall and to director Mike Leigh.

Although there’s no great plot, the film is beautiful to watch, at times reproducing scenes from Turner’s oeuvre, such as “Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway,” and “The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up.” It does show us some of Turner’s evolution as an artist, evolving from England’s premier painter of seascapes to an experimental pre-Impressionist whose work ceased to be understood by the average viewer. Leigh shows us Turner as a tireless worker, constantly either painting, or hiking along the coasts seeking new visions to capture. We see why he was called the original “painter of light,” and behold his mastery of atmosphere—sky, spray, steam, smoke, and storm—which galvanized the static landscape/seascape form.

For those who know some history of art, it’s also fun to see Turner’s contemporaries brought to life, even as cameos: John Constable, Benjamin Robert Haydon, William Beechey, John Edward Carew, and others figures of the art world, such as the Ruskin family, and Turner’s friend and frequent patron, the 3rd Earl of Egremont.

Recommended for fans of the art of painting, and of the art of the cinema.
We went to see “The Imitation Game,” the new biopic about mathematician, codebreaker, and pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing. Benedict Cumberbach is very good as Turing, creating an Asberger’s-esque character that is distinct from, yet has some similarities with the “high-functioning sociopath” Sherlock Holmes.

The movie deals most with the wartime years at Bletchley Park, with flashbacks to Turing’s unhappy childhood, and is framed by the events of the homosexuality scandal that brought about Turing’s untimely death.

Turing’s tragedy, of course, is that, having done such important work for the war effort, he was treated so shabbily by the police and courts. However, there is no way the court system could have taken his war work into account, since it was covered by the Official Secrets Act at the time. So the movie’s conceit, of Turing having told his story to the curious policeman (Rory Kinnear), even as an extended hypothetical, is a fantasy.

The movie was accurate in other ways, including the ultimate Enigma breakthrough being based upon an observation by one of the female code clerks (the type of women featured in “The Bletchley Circle” TV program).

The film looks very real, with the reconstruction of “Christopher”, the Enigma-breaking machine, most impressive. There is a good deal of real drama, not only in the ups and downs of the cracking struggle, but also in the realization of the power of life and death that has fallen into their hands when “Christopher” begins to work.

Very nice supporting performances by Kiera Knightley as mathematician Joan Clarke, veteran actors Charles Dance and Mark Strong, and “Downton Abbey” cast member Alan Leech, among others. Recommended.
We just came back from seeing the documentary film, "Jodorowsky's 'Dune'", about the 1975 attempt by Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky to make a film of Frank Herbert's science-fiction novel.

Jodorowsky, who was well known as a Surrealist for his films "El Topo," and "The Holy Mountain," wanted to make a genuinely mind-expanding picture. He was turned on to "Dune" by French producer Michel Seydoux, and the two agreed to work together on the project. At first, the film seemed charmed. Jodorowsky wanted to meet Jean "Mobius" Giraud to enlist him for storyboarding, but didn't know how to contact him. Jodorowsky went to his own agent's office in Paris and found Giraud there. When he and Seydoux went to New York to locate Salvador Dali, they found he was staying in the same hotel they were. Through a combination of serendipity and subtlety, they brought on board a most remarkable creative team, including special effects artist Dan O'Bannon, science fiction artist Chris Foss, and sculptor/graphic artist H.R.Giger, whose work had never appeared in films before. Jodorowsky got Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and David Carradine all to agree to appear in the movie though a combination of craft and charm.

The production designs we see are amazing, and, had the film been made, there's no doubt in my mind it would have profoundly changed science fiction cinema as we know it. For one thing alone, Chris Foss' brilliantly painted spaceships are a major departure from the utilitarian white, gray, or metallic spacecraft that are the current standard. (OK, in the "Star Trek" Universe, you can have a Rustoleum brown spaceship if you are a Ferenghi, or one in zinc chromate green if you are a Romulan, but that's hardly individualistic. Even the Bird-of-Prey designs all look the same--.)

Ironically, the project foundered on Jodorowsky's reputation as a wild man, even though the universally admired script was his, the 3000 picture detailed storyboard had been created by Mobius as Jodorowsky dictated, and all the fantastic production designs had been created by his inspiration. No major studio was willing to put up the money to shoot the film. Rights were withdrawn, and assigned to DeLaurentis, which resulted in the 1984 David Lynch disappointment.

In addition to the history of the film effort, we get a large dose of Jodorowsky's artistic manifesto, which combines irrational exuberance with brutal honesty, expressed with a great deal of charm and humor, although sometimes in distasteful terms. He is not reticent in describing his pleasure at seeing the Lynch "Dune" and realizing that it was "a failure." Nevertheless, Jodorowsky's energy and enthusiasm are infectious, even at age eighty-four.

Even unmade, it is inarguable that Jorodowsky's "Dune" has had a significant effect on science fiction cinema and popular culture, if for no other reason that bringing O'Bannon and Giger together resulted in the whole "Alien" franchise, and, as the documentary points out, influences can be seen in many other films. Jodorowsky also began a long and fertile collaboration with Jean Giraud, that created a number of well-regarded graphic novels.

This was a fascinating exposition of "secret history" of our genre that we were very glad to have seen.
Having missed “Captain Phillips” when it was in first-run, we caught up with it at the budget theater.

This story of the attempted hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama, and kidnapping of her captain, Richard Phillips, is based on Phillip’s book about the incident, A Captain’s Duty, and struck us as being totally believable. Since the movie was nominated for several Oscars, some of the crew have reported said they thought that Phillips was not as heroic as portrayed. Frankly, I thought that most of the character’s accomplishments (as portrayed by Tom Hanks) consisted of keeping a relatively level head and not freaking out until it was safe to do so—which, in real life, is in fact what most people who end up being called “heroes” have done--.

The film is actually relatively sympathetic to the plight of the Somali pirates, who are shown as the low men on the totem pole of crime bosses and warlords. These are not the kind of jolly pirates we would see in a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie. When the boats go out to hunt, the boat leaders pick out a handful of men from dozens of volunteers vying for a spot, like a “cattle call” for migrant workers. Competition between boats is fierce; when engine failure aborts Muse’s (Barkhad Abdi) first attack on the Maersk Alabama, back aboard the “mother ship”, he clubs down a rival team leader with a wrench and takes his outboard motor. Nor is this an organization where the rank and file get a generous share: when Muse brags to Phillips that last year, he captured a Greek ship that was ransomed for six million dollars, Phillips looks the pirate up and down—ragged and skeletally thin—and replies, “Oh, yeah, so what are you doing here?”—knowing that even a small fraction of that much money would have set the man up for life in Somalia.

Still, one has to have a grudging admiration for their spirit. It takes bold and desperate men to hunt the open ocean in their ramshackle open boats, and then to try to board a vessel thousands of times the size of their boat, probably moving at its top speed, when a missed jump means almost certain death.

The crew’s resistance foils the attempt to seize the ship, but the pirates escape in a lifeboat, taking Phillips as hostage. What follows is days of tension as the lifeboat wallows toward the Somali coast, shadowed by American warships. Tempers flare in the heat as the pirates grow more argumentative and fearful, and run low on khat, their stimulant of choice, and Phillips has to avoid setting off a lethal rage.

The movie was genuinely suspenseful, and, although some events were speeded up or modified for dramatic purposes, seemed real. Certainly, Hanks as Philips did a truly fine acting job showing us very genuine reactions to a horribly stressful situation.

Recommended for fans of real-life drama. Although there is remarkably little foul language and actual violence, the intensity of the situation makes it not appropriate for children.

Notes: Some of the crew’s criticism of Phillips is based on his refusal to take the ship further out into the Indian Ocean, away from the Somali coast. Phillips’ reply was that 600 miles or 1200 miles would make no difference, with the mother ship support, the pirates could be anywhere. Subsequent events may have proven him right, since the Maersk Alabama was unsuccessful attacked by pirates a second time in 2009, in 2010, and twice in 2011. Presumably her new commanders would have taken all reasonable steps to avoid attack.

At the time of this writing, investigation is continuing into the deaths of two members of the Alabama’s private security detail, former Navy SEALs found dead in their cabin. The Maersk Alabama may be gaining a reputation as an unlucky ship--.
On Friday evening, February 28th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see the latest release from Studio Ghibli, "The Wind Rises".

This is said to be the last movie that the great Hayao Miyazaki will direct. Even if that is not the case, he certainly put many of his trademarks into it.

The movie is nominally about the life of Jiro Horikoshi (although heavily fictionalized), aeronautical engineer and designer of some of Japan's most effective World War II era military aircraft, including the notorious Mitsubishi "Zero." Besides the story of Japan's push toward technological equality with the West, the movie also tells us the love story of Jiro and his wife, Nahoko, and is an elegy for inter-war Japan.

Among the Miyazaki trademarks evident are the gorgeous painted backgrounds, the occasional dreams and visions, and the fantasies of flight opposed to the threats from above, ranging from a pulp-magazine fantasy WW I German dirigible to an American B-29.

We are shown that, as a boy, Jiro was already in love with flight, and supposedly enthralled by the designs of Italian air pioneer Count Giovanni Caproni. That Miyazaki is enamored of Caproni we know from "Porco Rosso," but I have my doubts about Horikoshi, since nothing could be further from Caproni's Gothic flying boats and tri-motor transports than the spare and lean Zero fighter.

Jiro goes to Tokyo to school for engineering. We see him surviving the devastating earthquake of 1923, depicted in a sequence that that is all the more effective for its subtlety. We see the rows of houses in Tokyo tossed like chips on a wave, followed by smoke on the horizon, flaming debris born on the winds, and the eerie roaring what would become a firestorm that consumed much of the city.

After graduating engineering school in 1927, Jiro is given a job by Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited, who are competing for military aircraft contracts. While the film shows Jiro troubled by the prospect that his designs may be used for war, as prefigured by the eerie Herr Castorp, he wants his country to become a modern nation, and so he works to design and build the best aircraft he can.

The movie has been released in both a dubbed and a subtitled version, which are alternating at the Oriental. We were pleased to get the subtitled version for our showing. I'm sure that the English dub, featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt as the voices of Jiro and Nahoko, is probably just fine, we do prefer hearing the expression of the original language. That said, there was very good voice acting by Hideaki Anno as grown-up Jiro and Miori Takimoto as Nahoko, and an excellent supporting cast.

One on line review suggested that this was Miyazaki's most beautiful picture. That might be debatable, but it is certainly a strong contender for that title. Being set mostly in the real world with some excursions into dreams, there are not the flights of fancy found in movies such as "Princess Mononoke," or "Spirited Away," but the delicate and lovely renderings of rural Japan succeed in portraying the country as a land worthy of being loved.

Lincoln

Jan. 28th, 2013 01:12 pm
The Oscar buzz reminded us that we had wanted to see "Lincoln," so we got out to see it on Sunday, the 27th. We found it every bit as good as the critics had said.

Most of the film takes place in January of 1865. Abraham Lincoln has been re-elected for a second term, and decided to risk all his "political capital" on ramming the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) through the House of Representatives. This is a tough job: although the Amendment has passed the Senate, it failed once already in the House the previous summer. The canny Lincoln calculates that, due to the Democratic Party, which is generally against the Amendment, having lost a thundering 60 seats in the House in the November election, there may be enough lame-duck Democrats with nothing to lose who can be persuaded to vote in favor. (Although Secretary of State Seward and others calculated that the Amendment could pass in the heavily Republican incoming Congress, timing was everything to Lincoln, who both wanted the Amendment to be seen as a bipartisan measure, and rightly feared that if the war ended before the Amendment was passed, it would die as being not presently needed.)

If the number of researchers and archives referenced in the credits (numbers we usually see only for special-effects programmers, these days) is anything to go by, the movie seems historically sound, and could be used as a textbook case on how to legislate by wheeling and dealing. Not only did Lincoln have the Democrats to deal with, he also had to hold together the fractious wings of his own party: the Conservatives, who would also have preferred to see an end to the war before amending the Constitution; and the strongly abolitionist Radicals. In Lincoln's speeches to his cabinet and confidantes, Day-Lewis does an effective job of selling to us the emotional intensity and intellectual urgency of Lincoln's obsession with finishing the job.

The performances of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln are definitely Oscar-worthy, and it is to be hoped that this noble film will garner more honors. Of course, Day-Lewis has been deservedly sweeping all before him in the "Best Actor" category, but it would be nice to see Field and nominated supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones (firebrand Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) win the statues also.

There is an excellent supporting cast, featuring David Strathairn as William Seward, Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, and Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant, among many, many others.

The film has also been nominated and won prizes for cinematography, costume, art direction, script, and score, and they are all worthy.

It is sometimes a hard film to watch. We know how it is going to end, of course, and getting there, the tremendous stresses Lincoln and his family are subject to, from within and without, are played with raw honesty. Nevertheless, I think it is a movie every American should see.
Sunday afternoon the 19th, we went to the Downer Theater to see "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which is a documentary by filmmaker/auteur Werner Herzog about the discovery, study and significance of the Chauvet cave in southern France, which holds the earliest known artwork by humans.

Unlike other decorated caves, Chauvet, discovered in 1994, has never been open to tourists or casual visitors. It was speedily closed off from unregulated access and jealously perserved by the international scientific community. Thus, it took a film maker of Herzog's status to get permission to enter and film the cave under strictly controlled conditions. When we see the interior of the cave, we understand why this is done. Not only are there the astonishing drawings in a remarkable state of preservation, there are also such things as cave bear bones lying about, footprints of prehistoric humans and animals in the cave floor, and delicate 'soda straws' and other fragile cave stone constructions.

Scientists estimate that the original broad cave mouth was closed off more than 20,000 years ago by a rockslide, leaving only the narrow crevice through which the cave was rediscovered. This made the cave a literal time capsule.

The drawings themselves have been carbon-dated to be as old as 32,000 years, which makes them the oldest known drawings by a goodly piece. The well-known Lascaux cave paintings, by contrast, are estimated only 17,500 years old.

I joked with Georgie that the Chauvet paintings dated from before the discovery of color, since, with the exception of a couple of drawings in red ochre, the drawings are all in charcoal only. Nevertheless, they show a vital vision and very lively line. They incorporate sophisticated techniques of shading, and of composition, such as using natural features of the rock to make an eye or a shoulder blade.

There are both similarities and differences between Chauvet and later caves. Most of the creatures depicted are prey animals, such as horses, rhinoceroses, and bison. Lions, bears, and hyenas are also depicted, which is an ususal number of predators. As with most decorated caves, there are no complete human figures.

This film is fascinating for its view back into prehistory. On the big screen is probably the best opportunity most of us will ever have to see these artifacts, given the deteriorating conditions facing caves such as Lascaux. Highly recommended for those interested in human history, the history of art, archeology, or paleontology.
Easter Sunday afternoon, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center's Cabot Theatre for MCT's production of "The Lion in Winter," a play we are both very fond of. This was a co-production between Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Marquette University, so we had the somewhat unusual situation of college theater students sharing the stage with seasoned professionals Brian Mani, Tracy Michelle Arnold, and Marcus Truschinski, all veterans of American Players Theater and other professional groups. The difference in experience was generally noticeable although not equally so.

Of course, the play generally belongs to the characters of Henry (Mani) and Eleanor (Arnold), so as long as you have two skilled actors to carry those loads, you are going to have a pretty good show. Mani was very good as the growling, roaring, demanding, manipulative Henry, although I thought he could have done a bit better on some of those scenes where he is shown to be vulnerable. Tracy Michelle Arnold was excellent as Eleanor, playing chess against Henry with their children and desperately trying to make a stalemate out of her losing position.

Oddly enough, it was two of the professionals, Truschinski as Richard Lionheart, and Lenny Banovez as Geoffrey, that I was least satisfied with. Truschinski's Richard was comparatively one-dimensional and very stone-faced, as though the portrayal were based entirely upon Richard's line that he had no sense of humor and extrapolated to having few other feelings as well. Banovez' smiling and smarmy Geoffrey was a distinct departure from other portrayals, and, not, I think, a good one. It made Geoff lose his dangerousness and resentment, which is important to this character. Since these were very fundamental decisions about how the roles are played, I wonder how much of this should be laid at the door of director C. Michael Wright, rather than the individual actors.

J. Patrick Cahill as John was the standout among the student actors: his snotty and surly prince was very naturalistic and fit in well with the characterizations given by Mani and Arnold. Alexandra Bonesho, whom we had seen and enjoyed as "Cherry" in The Beaux' Strategem, was a bit too declamatory delivering her lines as Alais, but otherwise not bad at all. Joe Pichetti in the admittedly difficult role of Philip of France, needed to ramp up his emotions a notch on all fronts. Being tall and handsome is all to the good, but we really needed to see more charm, more fire, and more spite from him

MCT provided a monumental set that had the apparent heaviness and solidity of genuine Norman castle architecture and played really well. Costumes and makeup were generally period appropriate and good-looking, if you accept that Richard's ring-reinforced jerkin (an antiquated style for noblemen even then) was intended to be more decorative than functional. The one exception was the costume given John (inspired by the recent television production starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close). Although we are told in the script that John has poor personal hygiene (Alais: "He smells like compost!") and he might well be careless in his dress, I can't believe that would come to a royal holiday celebration dressed like a stable hand and with obvious dirt on his face.

Overall, the strengths of the production greatly outweighed it's faults, and we enjoyed it very much.

Saturday, June 19th, was a lovely day in Milwaukee, and so a lovely day for a walking tour of homes in the Concordia neighborhood, the 20th annual such tour of open houses in that historic area.  We had ordered our tickets on-line and picked them  up at the Tripoli Shrine Temple just before the 11:00AM start time.

As usual, the tour included a good mix of the houses in the area ranging from very grand houses at 2834 and 2825 West Kilbourn Avenue to more modest homes such as 945 North 29th.  As with several of the tours we have been on,  there was one house, 915 N. 28th, that was very much a work in progress of being restored, something we always find interesting.

Several of the houses had been converted into rooming houses or duplexes and were since converted back. One different case was the house at 1016 N. 29th, which had been constructed as a side-by-side mirror-image duplex, and was in the process of being converted into a single-family home. The owners of this property had also done much with the large lot, adding both substantial off-street parking space, and an attractive rain garden to compensate for the runoff.  

We are always interested to see what people do with the houses they have, in the way of decorations and furnishings, and on this tour, 836 N. 34th St. took the prize for “coolest” with its children’s rooms featuring raised beds built to look like galleons. We agreed that we would have cheerfully given eyeteeth to have had them when we were kids--.

This was a particularly pleasant and tour of this always interesting neighborhood.

The Weinstein film organization has done a gross disservice to the film viewing community and to the cast and crew of this excellent film by holding it in very limited release. In Milwaukee, it is showing on only one screen, and that at a Budget Cinema, which is unheard of for a first run picture. I had heard that a number of fillms were left in limbo as a result of the Weinsteins' severing ties with their major studio distributors, and I am wondering if something like that is responsible for the movie's ill treatment.

"Miss Potter," as a movie, is, to steal a phrase often applied in the film to Potter's work, "utterly charming." I am sure, as in any biopic, there have been factual changes made for the sake of drama. In particular, the film give the impression that Potter lead mostly a life of leisure until her first book was published at age 36. In fact, her parents (who were both pretty much idle due to inherited wealth) discouraged her intellectual development and appointed her their housekeeper when she became of age. Nevertheless, the facts regarding the publication of her books, her engagement to her publisher, his death, and her subsequent move to the Lake District and involvement in the conservation movement there, are all true.

Renee Zellweger delivers a fine performance as Beatrix. In the first sequences, where we see her trying to get her book (The Tale of Peter Rabbit) published, her features are pinched and she seems emotionally as tightly laced as an Edwardian corset. When she begins to break out of the shell of convention, she relaxes and blossoms. When tragedy stikes, she does not retreat into the tight coccoon of her earlier life, but bears sorrow with a womanly dignity and constructs another new life in the Lake Country.

She is ably supported by Emily Watson, as Millie Warne who becomes her best female friend; Ewan McGregor in a wonderfully low-keyed role as Norman Warne, who gambles his future in publishing on Beatrix; veteran actor Bill Paterson as her alternately doting and repressive father, and Barbara Flynn as her unfortunately narrow-minded mother.

The film is beautifully photographed both as to "London" and the Lake Country, and the brief animations of Potter's art work are well done and not intrusive.

This film will frequently be compared with "Finding Neverland," (also reviewed in this journal). To my mind, it is every bit as good if not better. Highly recommended.
On the 3rd, we went out to see “Amazing Grace,” the new movie about the crusade to end the slave trade in the British Empire. Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberforce, the leading Parliamentary voice of the Abolitionist movement. As the film opens, Wilberforce is tired, sick, and discouraged at his continued failure to overcome the entrenched, moneyed interests’ insistence that continuation of the slave trade was necessary to the continuation of the Empire. His friends Sir Charles and Lady Middleton take him for what we would now call a “spa holiday” to take the waters at Bath, and to set him up to meet Barbara Spooner, as a prospective wife. In the movie, neither one of them takes to this ‘blind date’ introduction well at all, and it appears to be some time before the two actually get together. (In real life, Wilberforce proposed to Spooner within two weeks of meeting her, and they were married within the following month.) The film does take some liberties with the historical record for dramatic purposes, but in the main is honest with the dynamics of the highly charged debate. I was a bit disappointed that we only saw minutes of debates in the House of Commons, but it was not on oratorical brilliance that the cause of Abolition eventually prevailed. Instead, we are shown the construction of one of the first popular movements for social reform. Indeed, many of the tactics, such as letter-writing campaigns, which are now over-familiar to us, had their first effective use in these times. Books were written, socially conscious young women were persuaded to boycott slave-produced sugar (nowadays we would hear about using only “fair-trade” sugar--), and “mass media.” At one time, the wall of nearly every pub in England sported a diagram of a slave ship’s holds showing the manner the wretched cargo was crammed in. We see the intricacies of Parliamentary maneuvering from old (distracting or diverting opposing members away from key votes) to newer, such as hiding purposeful legislation in an otherwise long, dull bill (a tactic still in use today). We also saw the use of all-too common counter tactics: as Prime Minister William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbach) says, in wartime (with France) “Opposition becomes sedition,”—something else we still hear today. (Cf: Ann Coulter, “Treason”, et al.)

Spooner (Romola Garai) does indeed marry Wilberforce and becomes the helpmeet he needs to help him and his cause succeed when the tide of public opinion begins to turn, although Wilberforce’s health remained poor. Wilberforce and William Pitt (the Younger) were indeed friends at Cambridge, and Pitt was certainly a factor in Wilberforce’s decision to enter politics, though it is probably doubtful he exercised the kind of influence shown in the film, which, if it were so, would make the Abolitionist movement far more beholden to Pitt than is usually acknowledged. There are a few liberties with the parliamentary record, also: Wilberforce’s first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 was soundly defeated, but garnered 88 votes to 163, far more than the sixteen favorable votes portrayed in the film. It is, however, true that when the Abolition Bill, which had already passed the House of Lords, was approved by Commons in 1807, there were only sixteen dissenters.

Nevertheless, the movie is a good solid story and tells its tale with great moral truth. Gruffudd and company are ably supported by a distinguished cast, including Michael Gambon as the weary realpolitiker Charles James Fox, Bill Paterson as the treacherous Lord Dundas, Ciaran Hinds as Lord Tarleton, fellow for Liverpool and Wilberforce’s chief antagonist, and Albert Finney as John Newton, reformed slave-ship captain, clergyman, and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It was also a pleasure to see Rufus Sewell, who has lately been playing smooth-faced villains, bring his slightly mad manner and fey looks to the role of the radical Thomas Clarkson.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “Amazing Grace” was “one of the best movies I’ve ever seen” as I over heard one of the audience say afterward, it is a thoroughly good, engaging movie with a highly moral and inspiring point. Recommended for all ages that can comprehend the intricacies of the ideas.

Note: Since September 11, 2001, "Amazing Grace" has been dreadfully over done in this country, especially as a funeral dirge. Mercifully, we only hear the tune twice during the film, once when Wilberforce sings it, and once at the very end.
On Labor Day Saturday, we drove to Madison for the Farmers’ Market. This is the high season for such markets, and it was full of produce and full of people. We bought sweet corn, cheese, and trout fillets, all of which were delicious when we got to them. Then we drove up to the Dells and visited my parents, who actually seemed in good spirits despite my father having had another fall recently and just gotten out of the hospital a week before. They are both getting more and more feeble, but are determined to remain in their home, despite the local home care agencies having pretty much given up on them.
I don’t know what will happen, but I have to respect their choice, since I think I might act similarly.

On Sunday, we met Henry Osier and drove out to Old World Wisconsin for the Civil War Weekend. We enjoyed chatting with the various docents as usual, and enjoyed seeing the Civil War reenactors, who seemed to be having a great time being able to interact with the period settings and the museum staff. The ‘script’ for the weekend was that the 3rd Wisconsin division, which was in fact part of Sherman’s march through Georgia, was foraging for supplies and the locals were enacting the part of Southern farmers and villagers who were engaged in hiding their winter supplies from the hungry soldiers. We overheard a couple of the townswomen berating the members of the artillery detachment for having made off with their chickens. The artillerymen were polite but unrepentant. We got to stand quite close by behind the guns as the firing drill was completed and the cannons fired.

There was also a detachment of mounted Confederate skirmishers, who harassed the Union soldiers as they moved along wooded trails to raid the outlying farms. Our timing was a bit off, as we got out to the Norwegian homestead well before the Union troops and got tired standing around in the sun waiting for them to show up. (The Army was, as usual for those times, late.) We caught the motorized tram back to the parking area, and even after a substantial wait for other trams to clear the roads because most of the people on the museum grounds were going the other direction, we encountered the Union foragers still well away from their goal. Still and all, we had a good time.

Casanova

Jan. 15th, 2006 04:30 pm
We went out Monday night the 9th to see “Casanova.” We are both interested in the historical character, and the trailers looked good, and we did enjoy the movie. It should, however, be noted for the historical purists that, although there are some allusions to genuine episodes from the life for the notorious seducer, the events of this movie are fictional and not drawn from his famous voluminous autobiography. One might well ask why, since that same autobiography has given rise to numerous adaptations in novels and for the screen. The answer lies in two things: the anachronistically progressive character of Francesca Bruni, played by Sienna Miller, and the twist ending, which I shall not reveal.

As the story opens, Casanova (Heath Ledger) is in trouble for debauching nuns, and the Inquisition is on his trail. (In real life, Giacomo Casanova did indeed seduce a couple of novice nuns, but the Inquisition got on his case for “witchcraft.” He cast horoscopes and claimed other occult knowledge as a tool in his conquests.) He is set free when the seducee refuses to prosecute, evidently a common phenomenon, but the otherwise tolerant Doge of Venice (Tim McInnerny) declares that Casanova must either find a wife to put an end to his (publicly) scandalous ways, or endure banishment from Venice. Casanova picks out a beautiful and sheltered virgin (Natalie Dormer) as his intended. Why her father is so willing for the match to occur is rather a mystery, but he seems to like Casanova. However, shortly after the engagement is agreed upon, Casanova decides that he really loves the tomboy Francesca (whose brother loves the virginal Victoria), and decides to win her instead, meanwhile keeping Victoria on a string as backup. Since Francesca is a militant feminist who reviles the name of Casanova as an abuser of women, and has moreover been betrothed long-distance to a wealthy man who will repair her family’s fortunes, Casanova does the obvious thing. Obvious, that is, if you are in a comedic film: engage in an aggressive campaign to win the woman based on total deceit. Since the film is very light-hearted and clever about how Casanova agilely maintains his ever-complicated web of deception up to the point it all unravels, it is actually a very humorous and enjoyable movie, which builds up to a dramatic conclusion as Casanova once again escapes the gallows. Ledger plays Casanova as one in a long series of likeable movie rogues, and is fun to watch, although he is not very like the real Casanova in any respect. Sienna Miller is a very present-day young woman, which is good for the plot and doesn’t otherwise matter as she’s not supposed to be a historical character. There is a very entertaining supporting cast, including Omid Djalilli as Casanova’s servant, Lena Olin as Francesca’s mother, and Oliver Platt as Francesca’s gross but good-hearted fiancé. And, one cannot leave without mentioning the formidable Jeremy Irons in a rare comic turn as the Inquisitor. (Irons’ resemblance to the late Boris Karloff is quite striking: if there’s ever a Karloff biopic, Irons would be the man--.)

Suprisingly, what sex there is largely hinted at, and nudity implied rather than shown. The language is very chaste, and the violence is all comic.
The next movie we saw was this French film, by the maker of Amelie, and starring the same actress, Audrey Tautou, for whom the term gamine might have been coined. Unlike the first movie, which was a happy farce, A Very Long Engagement is a bittersweet piece. Tautou is in waif mode as Mathilde, a young French girl mildly handicapped by polio. She becomes engaged to her childhood friend, Mathieu, just as he is haled off to the trenches of World War I. When she is informed that he has been put to death for cowardice, she refuses to believe it, and, once the war has ended, begins the search to find him and find out what really happened. The story of her hunt is told alternating with the stories of other persons whose lives were affected by the same events, and flashbacks exposing the stupidity, cruelty, and brutality of the conduct of the war. This really is a marvelous piece. It has the same beautiful photography, open frankness, and wonderful acting as Amelie, but with a more mature, powerful plot. In French, with subtitles. Nudity, a couple of tasteful sex scenes. Highly recommended for mature viewers.

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