Movie Review: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)


Title: The Lavender Hill Mob
Release Date: 28 June 1951
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

The Lavender Hill Mob is an Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness, much like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), and directed by Charles Chrichton, who later directed A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Guinness plays Henry Holland, a fastidious bank clerk who spends twenty years in charge of transfers of gold bullion.  While known for his honesty, he’s in fact playing a long game to steal the bullion.  The only problem he faces is how to smuggle the bullion abroad so that he can sell it.  The solution comes when he meets a new boarder at his boarding house, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), who runs a foundry that produces souvenirs for the export market.  The two men come up with a plan to steal the bullion, melt it down, make it into Eiffel Tower paperweights, and then ship it to France.

Things, of course, go very wrong.  But the way they go wrong and how the characters react is where the humor lies.  As an added bonus, much of this film was shot on location in London and Paris.  We get to see London still bearing the damage of World War II, and a stunning sequence where Henry and Alfred run down the circular staircase of the Eiffel Tour.  It all makes for an enjoyable, laugh out loud film with many twists right up to the conclusion.

Rating: ****

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai


Author: Elan Mastai
Title: All Our Wrong Todays
Narrator: Elan Mastai
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

All Our Wrong Todays takes the idea of the dystopian alternate universe and it turns it on its head.  In this novel, OUR universe is the dystopia where the narrator/protagonist Tom Barren ends up after a time travel experiment goes wrong.  In his world, the invention of a machine that provides unlimited clean energy in 1965 has lead to five decades of remarkable technological advancement, peace, and prosperity.

The great twist in this book is that Barren (known as John Barren in our world) is actually much better off in our timeline.  A loser in his world, he’s a successful architect in ours. His father is an aloof genius in his world, but a loving dad in ours.  His mother is dead in his timeline but alive in ours. He even has a younger sister who he’s very close to in our timeline.

Tom is faced with the struggle of knowing that he is responsible for changing history to our timeline with pollution, inequality, and war, and inadvertently making billions of lives nonexistent, but also wanting to cling what he’s gained in our world, especially the love of a woman named Penny.  Be warned that Tom is kind of a terrible person, and an unsympathetic character, but stick with it as his self-awareness is a strength.

This is an enjoyable and creative novel, and honestly I couldn’t stop listening to it once I started the audiobook.

Favorite Passages:

“The problem with knowing people too well is that their words stop meaning anything and their silences start meaning everything.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Sword in the Stone (1963)


Title: The Sword in the Stone
Release Date: December 25, 1963
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

The Sword in the Stone is an animated adaptation of T.H. White’s first novel based on Arthurian Literature (his work also inspired Camelot a few years earlier).  The Disney version distills the rich and detailed novel down to a few scenes in which Merlin becomes the tutor for Wart (young Arthur) and turns him into fish, squirrel, and a sparrow to teach him lessons.  The standout scene of the movie is a hilarious wizard’s duel between Merlin and the evil Madam Mim.

As a child, I disliked this movie because it was such a poor adaptation of the novel I loved.  As an adult, I am more forgiving and can see the movie’s charm and humor.  Still, I think The Sword and the Stone is below Disney standards.  The limited animation style betrays the possibilities for the fantastical worlds of Arthurian England.  And while Wart’s voice is suitably preteen, it’s odd that he is the only character with an American actor while being voiced interchangeably by three actors.

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 23


All Songs Considered :: Little Richard’s Life in 10 Songs

A tribute to the groundbreaking Rock n’ Roll artist through music.

Fresh Air :: Janelle Monáe

An interview with one of my favorite musicians, actors, style icons, and all around people.

The Politics of Everything :: Is Baseball Safe?

MLB is planning to return for a shortened season, but will it be safe for players, coaches, umpires, and other ballpark employees with the continuing threat of COVID-19?

Radio Boston :: As Mass. Reopens, Are You Ready To Start Riding The T Again?

Decades of disinvestment in Boston’s public transportation creates the conditions where many commuters will not feel they can safely travel while practicing social distancing.

Radiolab :: Speedy Beet

Beethoveen may have composed his music to be played at a much faster tempo leading to his music being seen in a different light.

Snap Judgment :: The Country Doctor

The story of an Islamic doctor who loves serving the community in a small Minnesota town until he learns that most of the people their voted for Trump.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Movie Review: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957)


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
Release Date: March 30, 1957
Director: George Seaton
Production Company: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation | Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

For 63 years, visitors to Colonial Williamsburg have been introduced to the Historic Area with this docudrama account of the years leading up to the Revolutionary War in Virginia.  I first saw in 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center and later on hotel tv loops, and now I got to revisit it on a Zoom presentation from the Williamsburg Regional Library (which included a slide presentation on the making of the film and its restoration).  This movie is short, and a bit corny, but I maintain a stupid love for it that I cannot explain.

A young Jack Lord stars as John Fry, a wealthy plantation owner who serves in the Virginia legislature in the 1760s and 1770s.  He interacts with famous historical figures like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington as well as less famous historical figures like William Byrd III, John Randolph, and George Wythe.  The movie expertly depicts the series of incidents that precipitated the Revolution and the vote for Independence, and through Fry we see the gradual transition of someone from being a loyal British subject to supporting independence.  The movie also offers an introduction to the many sites in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area, especially when Fry gives a tour of the city to his family.

The movie does fail from a social history perspective, as views of historical events outside of Fry’s patriarchal, slave-owning planter class are kept to the margins.  Nevertheless, the movie packs in a lot of historical detail in 37 minutes.  And it does it with a score by Bernard Herrmann (of Vertigo, Psycho, and Taxi Driver fame) and in beautiful technicolor.  When I worked at Colonial Williamsburg in the 1990s, I frequently had people ask if I starred in this movie which demonstrates that the movie doesn’t look like it was made 16 years before I was born and that these people did not watch Hawaii 5-0.

Can You Spot the Difference?

Jack Lord
Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All these years later, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot remains “ever the best!”

Rating: *****

Music Discoveries: Peter Gabriel, Real World Records era


In previous posts I’ve examined Peter Gabriel’s origins with the band Genesis, and is increasingly successful output as a solo artist. Never one to follow trends, Gabriel followed up his hit album So by creating a new label called Real World Records, which would release his remaining albums to date as well as the work of non-Western musical artists, helping popularize World Music.  Gabriel’s output has been slight over the past 30 years compared with his earlier career, but there’s still a lot that I missed out on.

Title: Passion
Released: June 5, 1989
Label: Real World

Three years after achieving rock stardom with So, Gabriel returns with a collection of instrumental tunes drawing on Middle Eastern and African influences as a soundtrack to the controversial Martin Scorsese film The Last Temptation of Christ.  Not at all your typical career move.  I remember not liking the movie all that much, not because it was offensive but because it was weird.  Nevertheless I did play parts of Passion on my college World Music radio show.  I don’t think I appreciated the soundtrack album all that well, though, because listening to it now I find it far more entrancing and engaging.  Perhaps it was ahead of its time?

Rating: ****


Title: Us
Released: September 29, 1992
Label: Real World

After a six year wait, Gabriel returned with an album of new songs and it was a big deal.  I remember listening to this on repeat when it came out my sophomore year of college but not at all since then.  I found it worth revisiting, although ironically, two of the singles from the album are the weakest tracks: “Steam” is derivative of “Sledgehammer while “Kiss That Frog” is a puerile request for a blowjob.  The other hit from this album, “Digging in the Dirt,” is an excellent reflection of relationships which also doubled as my theme song for all the archaeological fieldwork I was doing at the time.  “Washing of the Water” is a song I didn’t recall but really liked upon revisiting.

Rating: ***1/2


Title: Secret World Live
Released: September 13, 1994
Label: Real World

I’m entering into uncharted territory here, as I’m not familiar with really any of Gabriel’s post-Us catalog, albeit it is mostly live albums and soundtracks. This album features live performances of songs from Us plus as smattering of earlier hits. In a very 90s moment, Paula Cole lends her lovely voice as a substitute for Kate Bush on “Don’t Give Up.”

Rating: ***1/2


Title: OVO
Released: June 12, 2000
Label: Real World

The soundtrack to the Millenium Dome Show features guest performances by Neneh Cherry, Rasco, Richie Havens, Elizabeth Fraser, and Paul Buchanan, although I can’t find a source that credits which tracks they each appear on.  The songs tell a story of some sort and are a mix of genres.  The opening track features a rap which works surprisingly well with Gabriel’s grooves.  Other tracks have a Celtic sound reminiscent of the Afro-Celt Sound System (who are Real World artists, so maybe not a coincidence).  There are some good moments and some meh moments but nothing stands out as really amazing or terrible.  I am curious to what this show was like, though.

Rating: ***


Title: Long Walk Home: Music from the Rabbit-Proof Fence
Released: April 16, 2002
Label: Real World

Another soundtrack from Peter Gabriel with instrumental, atmospheric, World Music-y, tunes.  It’s fine and good, but I’m realizing that even though I’m listening to these over a few days, Peter Gabriel’s essential sound has remained unchanged for a decade now.  I do need to this movie.

Rating: ***


Title: Up
Released: September 24, 2002
Label: Real World

After a ten year absence, Peter Gabriel returns with a new studio album of original songs (which is also his most recent to date!).  I remember hearing “The Barry Williams Show” when it first came out, felt puzzled about why Gabriel was satirizing the Jerry Springer show a decade after it was trendy, and pretty much shrugged it off.  I may have been too hasty as there are some worthwhile tracks on this album.  He apparently spent the 90s listening to industrial music which is evident in tracks like “Darkness” and “Growing Up.” Ultimately, though, this album seems disappointing after the long wait.

Rating: **1/2


Title: Big Blue Ball
Released: June 24, 2008
Label: Real World, Rykodisc

This is less of a Peter Gabriel album than a collaborative project.  Gabriel is joined by artists from around the world including Wendy Melvoin of Wendy & Lisa, Sinéad O’Connor, Karl Wallinger (of World Party), Natacha Atlas, and Papa Wemba.  Recorded over several sessions in the 1990s, it has that enjoyable, if a bit dated, sound of World Beat fusion, something I’d have enjoyed on an album released by Ellipsis Arts, or Real World Records. I enjoy “Habibe,” “Shadow,” “Forest,” and “Jijy” most.

Rating: ****


Title: Scratch My Back
Released: February 12, 2010
Label: Real World

Maybe Peter Gabriel has had writer’s block for decades, because after another eight-year absence, he released an album entirely of cover songs.  The songs are from Gabriel’s contemporaries like David Bowie, Paul Simon, and Lou Reed as well as newer artists who were influenced by Gabriel such as Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, and Radiohead.  Unfortunately, every single interpretation is slow and maudlin, adding no value to original versions of these songs.  A disappointment piled upon disappointments.

Rating: **


 

Title: New Blood
Released: October 10, 2011
Label: Real World

Gabriel returns again, this time with orchestral arrangements of his previous work.  It’s kind of like a greatest hits with symphonic accompaniment.  Appropriately the music has a cinematic sound which fits in with all of Gabriel’s soundtrack work. Some tracks profit from the arrangement like “Rhythm of the Heat” and “Red Rain.”  Others, like “In Your Eyes,” lake the urgency of the original recordings and end up sounding dirge-like.  It’s a nice experiment but does make one wonder about Gabriel’s lack of new material.

Rating: ***


 

Title: Growing Up Live
Released: February 8, 2019
Label: Real World

Peter Gabriel’s most recent album release is a live concert recording that’s not all that recent (it was recorded and released as a concert film in 2003).  It is an excellent concert with guest vocals by The Blind Boys of Alabama.  I’d like to attend a Peter Gabriel concert if the opportunity presents itself in the future (and we’re allowed to go to concerts).

Rating: ***1/2

And so concludes my investigation of five decades of the musical creations of Peter Gabriel. Let’s hope he has some more music to add to his catalog before too long!

Movie Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


Title: The Shawshank Redemption
Release Date: September 23, 1994
Director: Frank Darabont
Production Company: Castle Rock entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’m scratching off another movie from my I’ve Never Watched It List. Based on a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Repemption is the story of two men held in a Maine prison and their friendship that develops over decades.  Morgan Freeman plays Red, a long-time prisoner who is the go-to man for smuggling in contraband for the other prisoners.  Much of the movie is from Red’s point of view with Freeman providing voice-over narration that proves an exception to the rule that voice-overs are bad for movies.

Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker who begins serving a life sentence in 1947 for the murder of his wife and her lover.  Andy prove unexpectedly resilient and is able to gain favor by providing tax and accounting services to the guards and the prisons cruel warden (Bob Gunton). Andy use his advantages to help the other prisoners feel more free and alive by doing things like getting cold beers for men working on tarring a roof and advocating for a full prison library and GED courses.

The movie is beautifully filmed, well-acted with some terrific dialogue, and contains a lot of surprises of what Andy is working on behind the scenes.  I won’t spoil them here if you’re even more behind the times in watching this movie than I am.  The Shawshank Redemption balances the horrific brutality of prison life with the good humor of the camaderie among men. But most of all it is a terrific story of friendship – a love story, really – between Andy and Red.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira


Author: Terry Jones and Alan Ereira
Title: Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives
Publication Info: London : BBC, 2005.
Summary/Review:

Terry Jones of Monty Python fame is also a medieval scholar and this book is a companion to his BBC documentary history.  Each chapter focuses on a different type of person in medieval times from peasant to damsel to outlaw to king.  Jones’ challenges popular misconceptions of medieval history and turns them on their head with evidence of the period being one of great change with innovation and more opportunity for the lower sorts than typically imagined.  It’s a well-written guide to the medieval past with doses of humor and lots of historical evidence.

Favorite Passages:

Perhaps the most surprising example of that distinctiveness is that in England, uniquely in Europe, bold robber outlaws were necessary for the effective functioning of the kingdom.


England now had an extraordinary and unique legal structure, entirely invented by an ingenious and desperate monarchy. Its most remarkable feature was the amount of power, however messily administered, it placed in the hands of the local community. English law was quite unlike that on the Continent. There, law was run from above and was based on Church law (canon law) and Roman law. In England, it was totally dependent on a popular understanding of law, and the job of the courts was to enforce ‘common law’. The juries who laid accusations and tried cases were made up of people who supposedly knew what had happened. This meant they consisted very largely of people who were legally in various degrees of servitude. This would have a very striking effect on the development of the law. It meant that the ordinary Englishman, even though he was a villein or even a serf, was familiar with the law and the courts, not as a victim but as a participant in the legal process.


These were not maps. Mappa simply means ‘cloth’ and a mappa mundi is not a ‘map of the world’ but a ‘cloth of the world’. The fact that we have derived our word ‘map’ from these cloths is not the fault of the people of the Middle Ages. If there’s any blame to be apportioned it’s our fault for forgetting where the word comes from. And a cloth of the world had an entirely different purpose from an atlas (a seventeenth-century idea). A mappa mundi is a depiction of the world as a place of experiences, of human history, of notions and knowledge. It’s more like an encyclopaedia. It’s certainly not – and was never intended to be – a chart to be followed by travellers.


In the United States medical treatment is the third highest cause of death (iatrogenic death) after cancer and heart disease. So, despite our undoubted progress in understanding the chemistry and biological structure of the body, and great advances in the techniques of medical intervention, we are not exceeding the achievements of medieval doctors as much as we might expect. In their terms we are doing worse, because the objective of their care was not necessarily to save the body (which would, of course, be wonderful) but to help save the soul by allowing patients to know the hour of their death, and prepare for it. This was itself a genuine medical skill and, again, one that depended on seeing the patient as a human being.


The fact is, there is little reference to genuinely helpless high-born maidens in medieval literature. Perhaps this is not too surprising as the stories were often commissioned by noblewomen, to be read to their friends and family. We do not have enormous knowledge of their lives, but there is enough to show that the lady’s bedchamber was, in many cases, more like a salon, elegantly decorated, where she amused herself entertaining her women friends (generally her retainers, ‘damsels’ married to men of status in her husband’s service) and male visitors, and where they would ‘drink wine, play chess and listen to the harp’.*2 They would also read and be read to – silent reading was regarded as highly suspect, a sign of being antisocial or melancholy, suitable only for scholars.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Taxi Driver (1976)


TitleTaxi Driver
Release Date: February 8, 1976
Director: Martin Scorsese
Production Company: Bill/Phillips Productions | Italo/Judeo Productions
Summary/Review:

Taxi Driver is one of those movies constantly marinating in the ether of popular culture, but another one I’d never watched before.  It wasn’t quite what expected, at least the first half of the movie had some surprises.  I knew that Robert DeNiro starred as a taxi driver named Travis Bickle who becomes obsessed with protecting a child prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster.  I also knew that in the twisted mind of John Hinkley, this movie played a part in his plan to assassinate Ronald Reagan.

I didn’t know that this movie also starred Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle.  Shepherd plays Betsy who is a campaign worker for a presidential candidate, and Brooks is her very funny co-worker.  Bickle initially becomes obsessed with Betsy and the first half of the movie shows his extremely awkward and uncomfortable attempts to date her. Boyle plays Wizard, a fellow cab driver who attempts to mentor Bickle but fails to have any influence.

It’s only after being rejected by Betsy that Bickle begins his obsession with Iris, and Jody Foster only appears in a small part of the movie (albeit a brilliant acting performance, especially for a 12-year-old). Bickle stocks up on weapons and trains to both assassinate the presidential candidate and kill Iris’ pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).  It’s extremely disturbing and the final scenes where Bickle goes on a murderous rampage are gory but glamorized violence. The movie reflects the white moral panic of the 1970s when the victims of disinvestment and poverty in cities like New York were blamed for the degeneracy.  It also foreshadows the rise of MRA/incel ideologies with Bickle the prototype of men who feel that rejection by women gives them license to carry out unspeakable murder.

There is nothing technically wrong with this movie.  The acting, especially by DeNiro and Foster, is terrific.  The cinematography is stunning with many shots that are instantly iconic.  The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is both brilliant and disconcerting.  I can even admit that this movie depicts accurately the way a person like Bickle acts and thinks.  Nevertheless, I absolutely hate this movie and never want to watch it again.

Rating: *** (to be honest I don’t know how I can rate this movie at all, so I’m just giving it the standard ***)

Book Review: Jim Henson: the Biography by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: Jim Henson
Narrator: Kirby Heyborne
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

Brian Jay Jones writes a straightforward account of the life and work of Jim Henson, creator of The Muppets, and one of the most beloved figures in entertainment in the second-half of the 20th century.  I won’t go into a full summary, but here are five interesting things I learned from reading this biography:

  • Jim Henson’s career started when he was only 18 years old in 1954 when he had a show featuring puppet characters on local Washington, DC television called Sam and Friends, which aired for five minutes, twice per day.
  • Henson never considered himself as primarily a puppeteer and worked on projects such as experimental film, animation, and even an attempt to open a psychedelic nightclub.
  • Similarly, Henson fought against the perception of him being a children’s entertainer and his work for Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show, and movies like The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were all made to entertain all ages.
  • Henson’s wife Jane Nebel worked as a puppeteer on Sam and Friends but stepped down for a more domestic role when they had children.  Jim and Jane’s marriage was very strained by Jim’s dedication to his work and they were separated late in his life.  They never divorced and remained close friends despite the failure of the marriage.
  • Henson wanted to cast Sting in Labyrinth but his kids convinced him (correctly) that David Bowie would have more staying power.

This is an enjoyable and entertaining work of biography and worth reading if you love The Muppets and Henson’s other creations.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****