Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Film Review: BlacKkKlansman (a Spike Lee film)

This film, probably Spike Lee's best work since "She's Gotta Have It" in 1986, is a joyous romp, karmic, powerful, absurd, and also flawed.  It walks a line between terrifying and funny, depicting a story that is based on a true story so implausible that, were there not a book memoir to read, one could dismiss it is a wild flight of fancy. It has beautiful and mesmerizing young actors, fascinating and snappy dialog, and the best actor impersonation of a young David Duke imaginable (compared at the end to the real McCoy).  The main protagonist, Ron Stallworth, is played with gleeful aplomb by John David Washington, who looks (in my opinion) utterly unlike his famous father Denzel, but is just as good an actor.  And Stallworth's sidekick Flip Zimmerman is played by Adam Driver (of Star Wars fame for playing villain Kylo Ren).  Driver's performance also stands out, and its good to see him in a non-villainous role.  The camera loves them both.

As the plot careens towards an inevitable confrontation, there is a lengthy segment that my husband found boring, but I thought was perhaps the high point of the film.  Cutting repeatedly between two groups of people, one all white (a high-level KKK dinner meeting) and the other all black (a Black Power meeting of young people at a collage), we watch as each speaker whips his listeners up into a frenzy of passion.  It's ominous when the white KKK members scream their hatred, and it's also surprisingly worrisome when the young, empassioned blacks wave their fists and scream just as loudly for black empowerment.  Spike Lee was clearly trying to make a point, one I appreciate particularly because just such angry energy scared me away from fully supporting the Black Lives Matter movement for a long time after it first emerged. 

I won't go into the film's faults; you'll see some of them.  But it has so many virtues that I found it overcame its own weaknesses.   And it also has a superb sound track.  Even if you hate the story, you'll love the music, and you'll be amused and worried at the same time.  And, most of it really happened.  It's a great case of truth being stranger than fiction.

I recommend it highly.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Film review: Plant-Pure Nation

I forced myself to sit through a viewing of the film Plant-Pure Nation, directed by (and starring) physician Nelson Campbell, son of T. Colin Campbell of The China Study fame.  I say "forced myself" because Dr. Campbell might have done well to hire a professional to direct this film instead of directing it himself.  Unfortunately, the film alternates between incoherently rambling lectures on the state of food in today's world and the clarity of a gripping story, which is Dr. Campbell's attempt to influence food policy in government.  It's unevenness will prevent many from getting to its really strong and important message, which is, that governmental policy remains bogged down in lobbying efforts by large corporations, so that government at most levels is incapable of making a food policy that is good for people, along with Campbell's call for a grass roots effort strong enough to overcome the corporate lies, the greed, and governmental inertia.

Although often unfocussed, in its moments of highest clarity, this film is riveting.  Especially, the segment where Dr. Campbell worked with a Kentucky legislator to try and obtain recognition for the science behind the benefits of a mostly plant-based, whole foods diet.  The failure of the political process is awful and the reasons for it (lobby interests of industry) are clear to see.  Dr. Campbell's personal perseverance is admirable.

It is a real shame that this film could not have been more professionally vetted, because its subject matter is of life-saving importance to the world.  As it is, I don't think many people will be able to plow through it.  The first gripping segment, in my opinion, was about 30 minutes in.  And from there on, it was up and down.  The case study in North Carolina was absolutely amazing--they found a few dozen people with dire health issues, provided them with three square meals a day (of a healthy, plant-based diet), and scientifically tracked the medical improvements and weight loss of the participants.  The results were compelling. 

For those willing to do the work, Dr. Campbell and his associates are also providing, now via the Plant Pure Nation website, a strong support network so that people can try out a plant-based, whole foods diet and experience the benefits for themselves.  All that is admirable, and they seem to be achieving some degree of success.  I do wish they had hired professionals to edit and polish the film more before releasing it.  It started weakly, had great moments along the way, but also incredibly boring sequences, and it seemed to lack a coherent, over-arching narrative.  I would have redesigned the beginning to get to the point more quickly--that governmental action is nearly impossible, and that a grass roots uprising demanding better use of food to prevent illness is required--and to stay on the message more diligently.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: A Mind of her Own: The Life of Karen Horney

Karen Horney was an M.D. who became one of the earliest practitioners of psychoanalysis in Berlin.  She immigrated to the U.S. in 1932 and joined the New York Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1942, she made a dramatic walkout from the Institute, followed by many of its members, in protest of its rigid Freudian theory of female development.

Karen Horney published numerous books, and one of the most famous was The Neurotic Personality of Our TIme (1937).  Her books developed a significant lay following, but until the late1980's, her work was largely ignored or denigrated by her peers.  Posthumously, she began getting the recognition from psychologists which, in her lifetime, was withheld or given wrongly to others.  She is now regarded as having been a pioneer in social psychology and female psychological development.

This biography (see it on Amazon) is an ambitious work of history, setting the stage for each new development in Karen's life with great care.  It mercilessly exposes the in-fighting which has haunted Freudian psychoanalysis from its professional beginnings in the 1920's, and it attempts to understand a woman whose life was quite daring in comparison with the norms of her day.  Can you imagine, for example, what it was like to be one of the first women to become a medical doctor, let alone a psychologist, as well as something of a pioneer in, say, owning property or publishing books?

I would have had the author try a little less to get inside her subject's head, but the story is so exhaustively researched and documented that I was willing to put up with that.  I liked that the author did not try to soften the sharp edges of the personality of Karen Horney, who apparently was difficult in some ways as well as brilliant.  And as with all cases of misogyny, the question always arises of how much criticism from others was deserved, vs. how much was a result of professional jealousy intensified and amplified by disrespect of females in professional settings.  These agonizing questions of balance are still highly relevant to women today.

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here, with a few edits.

Book Review: Outside the Magic Circle: The Autobiography of Virginia Foster Durr

This book (see it on Amazon) speaks strongly to me of events rememberred from my childhood in the South.  It is a biography compiled from interviews taped in the mid-1970's by scholars of oral history.  Its language is rich and free like a spoken conversation, full of anecdotes and amusing descriptions.  It is both social history and the personal story of Virginia Foster Durr's life.  I enjoyed it and recommend it hightly.

Born into a well-off white family in Alabama in 1903, Virginia eventually endured ostracism and defamation for her support of civil rights.  Her interviews provided a vivid account of the paranoia of the McCarthy era and tthe racism and severe economic problems in the South up through the 1960's.

Her influence derived from at least three factors.  One was her husband clifton Durr, who became head of the Federal Communications Commission and later was a leading civil rights lawyer.  Another factor was her sister's marriage to supreme court Justice Hugo Black.  And finally there was her own well-formed mind.  About the importance of her marriage, she said, "It was only after I was safely married that I could really be interested in anything...   Old maids were pitied not just because they had no husband but because a life without a husband meant a life of poverty."

The in-her-time-prevailing racism of thhe South is vividly captured in this book, as in the following description of one Southern senator: "[He] talked race all the time...he would always go on about the sex thing.  If anything happened to change the Southern system, the white women would just rush to get a black man.  We'd have a race of mulattoes.  He and others like him seemed maniacal on the subject of sex...These men...would get up and make vile speeches about white women of the South and how they were protecting them.  Every black man wanted to rape a white woman and every white woman apparently wanted to be raped...they showed a kind of sickness...I really think those fears came from the fact that the white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women...It's the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject."

---- FOOTNOTE: I wrote the above review in 1988 for WoNet News, an internet newsgroup, and I'm republishing it here and now because all its topics are still relevant for women.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book review: "Flash Boys" by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis, author of the acclaimed "Blind Side" and "Money Ball", recently published a book about high speed trading on Wall Street.  His new book is called "Flash Boys", and this is a review of it.  A very positive review of it.  Michael Lewis has done it again.

About ten years ago, at a party in Princeton, NJ, I (who am a computer programmer who was then teaching computer science at the Univ. of Penn.) had a long conversation with a young mathematician working on a high-speed trading platform for "a small company" in Princeton, NJ.  This young man was full of enthusiasm for his work--it was going to be wonderful (and I was thinking, it's going to make someone a ton of money--but not for people like me).  I listened with half an ear and an inner sense of disgust.

In "Flash Boys", there is described just such a group of high-speed trading software developers, in (of all places) Princeton, NJ at about the time I met this young man.  As with each of Lewis' previous books, which I have also read, this one is a tour de force.  If most of us already wondered, in regards to financial matters on Wall Street, whether the whole thing were not rigged against us, the average EveryMan, now we can be certain of it.  Because Lewis can tell the story in terms that lay people can understand.  And it is a story that, until recently, even supposed experts in financial matters were not necessarily sure of.

It didn't take long for me to develop a feel for the odd, and to me unfamiliar, lingo of the financial world: "the flow", "flash trades", "the hammer", "prop shops", and arbitrage, to name a few.  The appearance of "Boys" in the title is accurate: this is a world of men, testosterone, vicious competition, and high risk.  It is no longer a safe world for EveryMan's retirement investments, or at least, not unless people are willing to pay the hidden, unacknowledged "tax", or percentage of all trades being skimmed off by the high-speed traders on practically every transaction now occurring on stock markets.  The hidden tax does not benefit anyone, except the rarified owners, employees and partners of high-speed trading ventures.

And how do they do it?  This work of non-fiction unfolds like a detective story.  It is, perhaps, mainly the story of one small group of financial workers, sheltered within one Canadian bank, who set out to try and find out what was really happening, and eventually succeeded in uncovering (and explaining to Michael Lewis) how the hidden tax works, how it is inadvertently legal, and why the government regulators have no incentives to stop it (their career path, if they leave the government, is in fact to be hired by high-speed tradings).

The reviews of Lewis' book that I have read, including the New York Times Book Review, do not do this book justice.  If anything, they tend to dismiss the author as paranoid, or exaggerating, or mistaken.  His is "just an opinion".  What?  Not only does he provide names and dates for every nail he drives into this story, but it also dovetails with everything I had perceived over the years, having been acquainted in my profession with both telecom matters and financial programming salary incentives and the rumored drive for ever-increasing speed in trading platforms.  I don't detect anything of paranoia at all.  Nor even of the kind of rage and frustration that many of us of the EveryMan variety must feel towards Wall Street, which has abused the public trust far beyond the wildest expectations even of a sceptic like myself.

The most amazing thing is that Lewis has also managed to make the sobering and sorry tale into a gripping, and sometimes amusing, story.  That is his talent, to expose complex material to lay persons in that field and to bring not only understanding but compassion to the process.

Even if you are certain that you hate Wall Street and all matters financial, consider reading this excellent book.  It will further your understanding of how the world now works, even of how it has always worked, and you may find yourself amused along the way.  And you might just decide to manage your financial resources a little bit differently as a result.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Film Review: "Chef" with spoilers

Someone said it was fun, so I decided to see "Chef", with little prior information.  I can see why it could become popular, because there are some real pluses--it being, to some extent, a rather joyous romp celebrating common  human foibles, social media, high energy music, food as art and comfort, and an all-round likeable cast.

The good news was that the men in this film loved cooking.  That our chef looked like he was going to keel over from high cholesterol or die of a heart attack at any moment did not deter this lively fantasy of a film, or its hordes of athletic, sexy, thin eaters depicted as fanatically desiring these death-dealing cholesterol bombs.   No salads, oh no, not this film.  No vegetables.  Rich deserts abound, though.  Bar-b-que, whole dead pigs, marinated meat, dairy, and white bread, depicted as Latino comfort food.  Watching this film, the pack of aging, over-weight, middle-aged men of this world will feel hope that the babes will still go for them despite their paunches. 

The depicted world is plump with suggestions that are far removed from any reality I've even known.  All real chefs (and even their assistants) are males, young boys are technical wizards, it doesn't matter how overweight men become, women look good, don't gain weight, and love their men no matter what.  In my world, skewed in the other direction, only the women cook and get fat.  And the young men decidedly do NOT appreciate them for either.

As a purely escapist romp, it succeeds.  As a celebration of grossly unhealthy comfort food (that will kill you, but let's don't talk about that), it succeeds.  As something that will remain in my mind for longer than the ten minutes it takes to write the review, it fails.  It is what it is.   If you don't eat meat, are dieting, or value honesty about food, money or sex, or even if you're an intelligent female, be cautioned about what you'll find.

I have to hand it to this film, though.  It is remarkable in that: 1) No one dies.  2) No one gets sick.  3) No guns are depicted.  4) No one smokes (except once, in a bar), and 5) Nothing blows up.  It is by far less violent than the average film.  There are no explicit sex scenes.  So its overall enjoyability, despite my objections, goes up pretty high just by comparison to the average and disgusting amount of violence and explicit sex depicted in almost every film being made today.

Finally, Dustin Hoffman is in it!  And he plays a not-so-nice guy, to the hilt as always.  It's almost worth seeing just for Dustin.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A little Schubert therapy

It was around 1820 that a twenty-something Prussian named Wilhelm Müller, survivor of several battles in the uprising against Napoleon, managed to publish a set of about two dozen lyrical poems called Die Schöne Müllerin (which translates to The Lovely Maid of the Mill).  The poems describe a shy, young miller's apprentice whose unrequited passion for the miller's daughter leads him to such despair that he takes his own life.   Within three years, most of the poems were set to music by Franz Schubert, also twenty-something at the time, as a song cycle to be performed by one pianist and one singer participating equally as partners.  

I first heard about Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle from German professors at the University of Tennessee in the 1970's.  Their praise was so distinctive that, approximately four decades later, I found myself forking out $68 for a seat in the next-to-last row of a side balcony at Princeton's McCarter Theater to hear a rare performance of these songs by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.  And I did not regret it; although Kaufmann and Deutsch have a very good CD of this song cycle out, they have continued to refine and deepen their understanding and presentation of the songs and have gone beyond even their own CD.  Jonas Kaufmann performed at the pinnacle of what is humanly possible, and so did Helmut Deutsch in his tender and responsive framing of the songs with the piano.

And oh my God, Franz Schubert and the dissonances and the sly changing from major to minor, and all the rest of the tricks of a composer's trade that I might not even know about--all this has kept these lieder popular for nearly 200 years.  And I think they might go another 200 years if the world survives.  And never, in all this time before or after, has any performance been better than this one was.  For what it's worth, it contained rare and precious moments of perfection so that even people who needed to cough were unable to cough, unable hardly to breathe at the time.