Monthly Mixtape – January 2020


Welcome to a new year, and a new decade, of new music.

Alexandra Savior :: Send Her Back

Dream pop from Portland, Oregon.

Midwife :: Anyone Can Play Guitar

Fuzzy guitar-based atmospheric rock described as “Heaven Metal” by Madeline Johnston, creator of the project.

Atmosphere :: Dearly Beloved (Feat. Musab and Muja Messiah)

A hip hop duo from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

 

Previous Mixtapes:

Book Review: Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Rose Under Fire
Publication Info: New York : Hyperion, [2013]
Summary/Review:

This World War II novel is in the same universe as Wein’s excellent Code Name Verity.  Maddie from Code Name Verity is a minor character in Rose Under Fire, and the incidents of that novel are alluded to.  The protagonist of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, an American pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary responsible for ferrying aircraft among Allied airbases.  The book is written as her journal with some letters and poems.

Initially the book is about her quotidian concerns regarding flying, the War, friendships, and men. After the liberation of Paris, she flies to France (and buzzes the Eiffel Tower). Return a plane to England, she sees a V-1 flying bomb and attempts to divert it with the wingtips of her plane. Flying off course, Rose is intercepted by German jets and forced to land behind enemy lines.  She is sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp exclusively for women.

While this is a young adult book, it does not shy away from describing the full extent of violence and deprivation the Nazis carried out in Ravensbrück.  It is challenging for children, and adults, to read but I also think it is beneficial.  Rose is able to find hope and survive through the family she makes with the other women at the camp.  These include Polish political prisoners known as the Rabbits because they were forced to endure Nazi medical experiments.  Rose also bonds with Russian military pilots known as the Night Witches.

The story is heartbreaking and devastating, but also hopeful.  I also appreciate that after Rose escapes from Germany, the novel still shows her dealing with her ongoing trauma. Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire is an excellent novel the deals with the horrors of World War II and the bravery of the women who participated in it.

Favorite Passages:

Hope—you think of hope as a bright thing, a strong thing, sustaining. But it’s not. It’s the opposite. It’s simply this: lumps of stale bread stuck down your shirt. Stale gray bread eked out with ground fish bones, which you won’t eat because you’re going to give it away, and maybe you’ll get a message through to your friend. That’s all you need.

Hope is the most treacherous thing in the world. It lifts you and lets you plummet. But as long as you’re being lifted, you don’t worry about plummeting.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Hidden Fortress (1958)


Title: The Hidden Fortress
Release Date: 28 December 1958
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho
Summary/Review:

What I knew about this movie going in is that it was unique for its time as telling a period drama/war story from the perspective of two low-level peasants.  What I didn’t know is that the peasants are portrayed as whiny, craven, greedy, and would-be-rapists. Despite it’s bottom-up perspective, The Hidden Fortress still ends up showing the elite characters as being more noble people.

Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) have attempted to fight in a war among the provincial clans, but showing up late are instead forced to bury the dead, and then are captured and forced to dig for gold.  Escaping, they decide to return home not by crossing the heavily-patrolled border but by taking the long route through territory of a third clan.

Along the way, they discover gold near the titular hidden fortress.  A stranger, General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) follows them and then puts them to work finding more gold. Liking their plan of traveling the long way around, Rokurōta uses Tahei and Matashichi’s greed to get them to help carry the gold and transport a young woman (in surprisingly modern-looking shorts), who is revealed to the audience as Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara).

The movie depicts their adventures which are a mix of comic, swashbuckling, and sublime.  My favorite part is a scene in which they try to blend in with the locals at a festival and join in a communal dance.  Rokurōta also has a duel with his rival general Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) which ends up paying dividends later.

The Hidden Fortress is gritty, rather shouty, and does feature its lead characters talking about raping Princess Yuki on more than one occasion.  It’s not the most comfortable movie to watch, but it does have a lot of the basics of a great adventure story (if you like that kind of thing).

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King


Author: Maxwell King
Title: The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
Narrator: LeVar Burton
Publication Info: Oasis Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

I know a bit about the life of Fred Rogers from watching the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and reading articles about him.  But I couldn’t resist listening to the first book-length biography of Mr. Rogers narrated by another PBS hero, LeVar Burton.  King does a good job of getting a clear picture of Rogers’ background, starting from childhood.

His family was wealthy, which allowed Rogers the opportunities to try his new ideas, but his parents’ philanthropy and noblesse oblige also contributed to his humility and simple lifestyle.  Rogers was also affected by instances of childhood bullying and the sense that he could find support in the neighborhood of his hometown of Latrobe, PA.

As a young man, Rogers learned television production and studied for the ministry, with the unorthodox plan of putting both callings toward educating children.  The big question of this book is whether the Mister Rogers we see on tv represents the real person, with the unanimous response of “yes” from people who know him.  So this book won’t expose any “dark secrets” but it is a very good glimpse into how a wonderful man formed his philosophy for teaching children.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Naked Gun (1988)


Title: The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Release Date: December 2, 1988
Director: David Zucker
Production Company: Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker
Summary/Review:

After watching Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, my son chose to watch this 80s spoof of police dramas next. As the opening credits popped on the screen he said “Wait! What’s O.J. Simpson doing in this?” It struck me that he’s never lived in a world where Simpson was just a popular retired athlete turned actor. I had to wonder if a 12 y.o. would “get” parodies of 80s police shows and current events he has never seen.  He seemed to enjoy the part where Frank Drebin urinates while wearing a live mic, as well as a part I totally forgotten about where Drebin is on a ledge and inadvertently fondles some nude sculptures.

And then, when the movie was approaching it’s final act, he declared that he was bored and turned it off.  I tried to convince him to turn it on again for the baseball scenes to no avail, so I had to watch those on my own.  The sequence of gags about baseball seem to hold up the best, perhaps because baseball is so timeless.  Reggie Jackson, not Simpson, is the real MVP when it comes to retired athletes acting.  I also love a scene where Drebin commandeers a car to chase a villain and it ends up being a student driver.  John Houseman is hilarious as the instructor calmly teaching the student how to conduct a car chase and to flip the bird at sexist truck driver.

I didn’t remember this movie as well as I thought I did.  I think most of the jokes hold up or are stupid enough to at least get a chuckle.  I have to confess that I never realized that the Angels game is filmed at Dodgers Stadium until now which was a result of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker having to agree to the demands of Major League Baseball and the Los Angeles Dodgers not wanting to participate rather than just another gag.

The Naked Gun is no masterpiece, but it still has some good laughs and a startling collection of 1980s actors and cameos. It’s still worth a watch, especially if you like baseball, but maybe not if your 12 years old.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)


Title: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Release Date: June 11, 1986
Director: John Hughes
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

My 12 y.o. wanted to watch this movie which was a surprise since he rarely wants to watch movies at all, much less teen classics from the 80s.  Some things you notice when you’re watching a movie for the first time in decades with your children: 1. there’s a lot more profanity than I remembered, and 2. Ferris is really a jerk and deserves to suffer SOME consequences for his misbehavior.  Maybe not so much for skipping school, but  for how he mistreats his friends and family.  At least Cameron calls him out on it.

The story, should you not be aware of it or have forgotten, is that Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) pretends to be sick in order to skip school for the 9th time in his senior year in high school (we need 8 prequels to learn what he did on those days!). He picks up his chronically-depressed and hypochondriac friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), who is also absent from school. Ferris basically steals Cameron’s father’s antique sportscar (Cameron has some good suggestions of renting a car or hiring a limo, something these kids had the means to do).  They pick up Ferris’ girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), from school on the excuse that her grandmother died.

The trio drive to Chicago for the geekiest day of truancy ever.  Impossibly, they are able to to visit Sears Tower and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, dine at a fancy restaurant, attend a Cubs game, visit the Art Institute of Chicago, and then see the Von Steuben Parade, which Ferris famously crashes to lead a sing-a-long and dance of joyous Chicagoans (and since I visited Chicago in 2018, I recognized exactly where those parade scenes were shot).  Meanwhile, the school principal Ed Rooney (played by real-life sex offender Jeffrey Jones), creepily tries to track down Ferris, going so far as to break into the Bueller’s home.  Simultaneously, Ferris’ younger sister, Jeanie (Jennifer Grey), angered at her parents’ favoritism toward Ferris, also tries to bust him for faking illness.

The movie works because of the generally wholesome activities the lead trio engage in on their trip to Chicago, a steady series of gags, and all-around great performances from the cast and great chemistry among the leads.  But as I noted above, Ferris is not a hero, but more of an agent of chaos.  The real protagonists of this movie, or at least the ones who change the most, are Cameron and Jeanie.  Cameron finally reaches a breaking point where he’s able to stand up for himself to Ferris, which leads him to gain the confidence to stand up to his neglectful father.  And by the way, watching is this as a parent makes me wonder just how monstrous this father is.  Meanwhile, Jeanie is able to exorcise her jealousy and righteous rage at Ferris and attempt to just take control of her own destiny.  This, of course, means that everything works out just perfectly for Ferris, the little twerp.

Almost 35 years after its release, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is still very funny and doesn’t feel dated.  Sure, there are boxy cars and big hair, but it doesn’t scream “EIGHTIES!” as much as John Hughes’ other movies. I do wonder what this movie would be like if Ferris had a cell phone, though, considering his ability to use technology to his advantage. More importantly, it doesn’t have the inappropriate moments that make one cringe at the sexual misconduct and racism that you find in 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club.  I also appreciate the directorial style, such as viewing Cameron debating himself about joining Ferris through his car window, or how Ferris running home at the end is directed like a Chuck Jones/Tex Avery cartoon, complete with zany sound effects and music cues.

If you liked it when you’re young, watch it with your (older) kids.  They may just enjoy it as well.

Rating: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending January 25


Back Story :: The Real Martin Luther King: Reflecting on MLK 50 Years After His Death

Breaking through the softened, public persona of Martin Luther King to reveal the radicalism of his life work.

Best of the Left :: Our Longest War Has Been a Lie All Along (The Afghanistan Papers)

Back in 2001, I stated that a full-scale military invasion of Afghanistan, was not only immoral but a strategically unsound response to the criminal acts of the September 11th attacks. I have sadly been proven correct as the United States remains mired in this deadly quagmire going on 19 years.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: 4′ 33″

The story behind John Cage’s famous composition and why it’s more than a joke or a gimmick.

Have You Heard? :: History Wars: How Politics Shape Textbooks

How history is taught in schools is guided by textbooks, and the content of those textbooks is heavily shaped by politics, especially the government educational policy of two large states, California and Texas.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Classic Movie Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)


Title: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Release Date: August 27, 1958
Director: Richard Brooks
Production Company:  Avon Productions
Summary/Review:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a family drama set in a Mississippi mansion adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams. It features loathsome characters being horrible to one another.  I ended up watching it pieces over a period of four days, not because it is a bad movie, but all those bad feelings made it a hard movie to watch.

The action is centered around the birthday party for cotton tycoon Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives).  He has received a clean bill of health, but early in the film his doctor admits to other family members that he as actually dying of cancer and he lied to Big Daddy and Big Mama (Judith Andersen). Big Daddy’s younger son Brick (Paul Newman) has broken his ankle and has isolated himself from the family in a bedroom where he steadily drinks the night away.  His estranged wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), navigates between the party and Brick’s room.  Meanwhile, Brick’s older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) and their awful children are trying to kiss up to Big Daddy in order to ensure a good inheritance.

It’s revealed that Maggie and Brick have not had a sexual relationship for some time and Brick’s alcoholism picked up after the suicide of his best friend from his football playing days, Skipper. Brick’s biggest issue is that he’s repressed his homosexual feelings toward Skipper, but thanks to the Hays Code, you have to read the lines between the lines to get what’s happening. In the final act, Brick and Big Daddy hash out some long-time issues in a cathartic argument.  Ironically, this was the most palatable part of the movie for me although Williams objected to the substantial changes made from his script.

The movie is very much staged like a play with long scenes in a single location.  Brick is often centered in the foreground, quietly drinking while a family member rants in the background.  His silence says more than their wordiness.  Newman, Taylor, and Ives all put in excellent performances.  But, whoa Nelly, I don’t think I’m going to want to watch this one again any time soon.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: Island in the Sun (1957)


Title: Island in the Sun
Release Date: June 12, 1957
Director: Robert Rossen
Production Company: Darryl F. Zanuck Productions
Summary/Review:

Island in the Sun is a film with a large ensemble cast set on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta that is groundbreaking-for-the-time in its attempt to deal with issues of inequality due to colonialism and racism.  Unfortunately it’s also a bit of a bloated mess.

The main plot, if there really is one, deals with Maxwell Fleury (James Mason, cast on type as a super-creepy dude), the son of a plantation owner with an inferiority complex who decides to run for office against David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte), a politician who is a man of the people.  The election sets the colonial planter caste directly against the descendants of enslaved Africans and Indians on the island. In a pivotal scene at a public meeting, Boyeur calls of Fleury for his privilege and attempts at cultural appropriation that is a stand-out performance for Belafonte (Belafonte also sings in this movie, which is a treat).

While the story of the election may have been enough for a compelling drama, there are several parallel subplots running through the movie as well:

  • Fleury is insanely jealous of his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) possibly having an affair with military veteran Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie).
  • Boyeur has a romance with a prosperous white woman, Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine).
  • Boyeur’s friend Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) has a romance with aide to the governor Denis Archer (John Justin).
  • Fleury’s younger sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) has a romance with visiting aristocrat Euan Templeton (Stephen Boyd)

The movie shines when Belafonte and Dandridge are on the screen, and devolves into soap opera melodrama when it focuses on the Fleury family.  Unfortunately, there’s more of the latter than the former.  I suspect that director Robert Rossen – who had been blacklisted by Hollywood earlier in the decade – intended to make a bolder social drama but ended up having to emphasize the Fleury family drama.  Of course, due to the level of racism in the United States, the movie ended up being very controversial despite it seeming very anodyne today.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Wild Strawberries (1957)


Title: Wild Strawberries
Release Date: December 26, 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

The Nordic countries are generally ranked among the happiest nations on Earth, but the movies are depressing AF.  Well, this is actually only the second Ingmar Bergman film I’ve watched (I saw The Seventh Seal long ago), so maybe this is a rush to judgement.

Wild Strawberries is about the elderly and misanthropic physician Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) taking a journey to receive an honorary medal for 50 years of service.  Accompanying him on the road trip is his daughter-in-law Marianne Borg (Ingrid Thulin) who is estranged from her husband and makes it clear early on that she doesn’t like Isak much.  Along the journey they pick up three young hitchhikers, two men and a woman named Sara (Bibi Andersson), whose exuberance is a contrast to Isak and Marianne and others they encounter on their journey.  These include a vitriolic married couple who crash their car and Isak’s cold and unsentimental mother (Naima Wifstrand).

The journey is interspersed with Isak’s dreams and flashbacks to his youth. He’s particularly nostalgic for his childhood sweetheart Sara (also played by  Bibi Andersson), who ended up marrying his brother.  Both the journey and the dreams and visions help Isak confront what he’s lost in his past, his present loneliness, and mortality.  He also forms a bond with Marianne and the hitchhiker Sara. For all the grim realism of the film, it surprisingly has a happy ending. The movie is well-filmed and well-acted and worth a rewatch for a deeper analysis.

Rating: ****