Book Review: Conscience and Courage by John Hawkins


Author: John Hawkins
Title: Conscience and Courage: How Visionary CEO Henri Termeer Built a Biotech Giant and Pioneered the Rare Disease Industry
Publication Info: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read for research at work.  It is a biography of the Dutch-born Henri Termeer who emigrated to the US to study at UVA’s Darden School of Business.  He then entered into the emerging biotech industry the blossomed in the Boston and Cambridge area in the 1980s. Termeer joined the startup Genzyme Corporation in the early 80s and soon rose to president. (Personal note: when I first moved to Boston in the late 90s I worked as a temp at Genzyme).

Termeer focused Genzyme on orphan diseases so-called because even though they are life-threatening illnesses they affect fewer than 200,000 people and thus there is not a lot of people and resources put toward treating the diseases.  Termeer’s patient-focused approach won him accolades due to the life-saving nature of Genzyme’s treatments.  But the success came with the high costs of research and development, expensive ingredients, and only a small number of patients to share the costs of some of the most expensive drugs in the world.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia


Author: Kate Racculia
Title: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Publication Info: HMH Adult Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Tuesday Mooney is a researcher at a hospital in Boston who looks into the backgrounds of prospective donors.  When an eccentric millionaire, Vincent Pryce, dies at a fundraiser, it kicks off a city-wide treasure hunt for the deceased’s fortune.  Tuesday teams up with her best friend Dex, her teenage neighbor and mentee Dorry, and Arches, the charming son of another first family of Boston.

There is a lot going on in this book with the treasure hunt a fun main plot around which various subplots orbit.  For one thing, Tuesday is dealing with her best friend Abby going missing (and presumably dead) when they were teenagers.  She can still hear Abby’s voice talking with her and advising her as an adult.  Arches, meanwhile, has famously had his wealthy father go missing in a boating incident 6 years earlier, the truth of which is something he is grappling with.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

I think the many stories going on within the novel make it needlessly complicated.  But it’s still a fun mystery/adventure/paranormal/romance novel with a lot of great Boston details.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Hocus Pocus (1993)


Title: Hocus Pocus
Release Date:  July 16, 1993
Director: Kenny Ortega
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

I was 19-years-old when Hocus Pocus was released to theaters in 1993, so I quickly judged it as “not for me.”  But over the decades, the Millennial generation have made it loudly be known that this is a Halloween classic, so I figured I’d give it a try.  The movie is very 1990s, sometimes painfully 1990s.  And very Disney.  And very sitcom-ish.  And very 1990s Disney sitcom, although I should note once again it was released in theaters.  And yet, despite the cringe moments, I found myself warming to the quirky charm of Hocus Pocus and its absolutely bonkers plot points.

Max (Omri Katz) is a teenager who just moved from California to Salem, Massachusetts and is having trouble fitting in.  That the movie depicts the people of Massachusetts as obsessed with Halloween and prone to making fun of Max for being from Los Angeles are some of the most accurate parts of the movie (I’m also impressed that so much location shooting was done in the real Salem!).

On Halloween, Max reluctantly takes his little sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick-or-treating.  Stopping at the house of Max’s crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) the three decided to break into the shuddered historic house museum of the Sanderson sisters, three women executed for practicing witchcraft in 1693. Trying to impress Allison, Max accidentally casts the spell that brings back the Sanderson sisters – Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy).  With the help of Thackery Binx (Sean Murray),  a colonial boy cursed by Winnifred to live in immortality as a talking cat (voiced by Jason Marsden), Max, Dani, and Allison must stop the Sandersons and save Salem.

This movie is a lot weirder than I thought.  Midler is obviously having fun in her over-the-top performance as Winnifred.  For my money, though, the MVP is Parker is almost always doing something bizarre around the edges of the shot (I’d forgotten how goofy Parker could be in her career before Sex and the City, although I haven’t seen any of her more recent work).  Birch is also excellent in the sarcastic, cute kid role.  And the great Doug Jones has a small part as the zombie Headless Billy.

This movie is a lot hornier than you’d expect for a Disney film.  A key plot point is that Max is “still” a virgin at 15-years-old and everyone gives him a hard time for it!  Also, a bus driver quips that he would be willing to impregnate all the Sanderson sisters.  Not for nothing,  there are also some scares in the movie, including a child being killed on screen within the first five minutes and a cat getting flattened by a bus.  Still though, this is light comic fair for the most part, and I’m not surprised that a generation of kids could enjoy watching this every October on tv.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Glory (1989)


Title: Glory
Release Date: December 15, 1989
Director: Edward Zwick
Production Company: Freddie Fields Productions
Summary/Review:

Glory was the first major motion picture to depict African American men fighting in the American Civil War.  I remember seeing it when it first came out at a theater in Washington, DC while visiting my sister at college.  I’ll always remember during the Battle of James Island scene that a Black man sitting behind us openly cheering for the 54th Regiment: “Get, him!  Yes! Ok!  Now help him out!”  This is why representation is important. I watched the movie several times in the ensuing years and it was one of my favorites, but this is the first time I revisited in a few decades.  I’m happy to report that it holds up very well.

Like most historical dramas, Glory is not 100% factual.  One of the biggest changes from the historical record is that apart for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), all of the major characters in this movie are composite characters rather than historical figures.  This has the unfortunate effect of lending a “white savior narrative” sheen to the story, especially early on when the movie is primarily from Shaw’s point of view.  But it also means we don’t get to know of actual Black members of the regiment like Frederick Douglass’ two sons, Lewis and Charles, or William Harvey Carney, who would eventually be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.  The real Massachusetts 54th Regiment was also made up primarily of freemen born in Massachusetts and other Northern states whereas the movie depicts the rank and file as mostly men who had recently emancipated themselves from slavery in the South.

Despite these inaccuracies, I still think the movie does a good job of dramatizing the 54th Regiments’ from recruitment to the fateful Battle of Fort Wagner.  The core group of soldiers in the movie include:

  • Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) – a formerly enslaved man with a lot of anger and mistrust of others
  • Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) – an older, paternal figure who is recognized as the first Black noncommissioned officer in the regiment
  • Corporal Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) – a highly-educated freeborn man from Massachusetts who is close friends with the Shaw family and struggles with the physical exertion of being a soldier
  • Private Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy) – a younger soldier who is generally enthusiastic about the opportunity to serve in the army

In other words, like most war movies, each of these men are more of a type than an individual.  But great acting performances, especially from Washington and Freeman, really bring these characters to life.  Cary Elwes also stars as a white officer who occasionally locks horns with Colonel Shaw over how to command the regiment justly.

Apart from addressing a historical blindspot of the importance of Black soldiers to the ultimate Union victory in suppressing the enslavers’ insurrection, I think that Glory is the earliest movie that depicted the full-scale horror of the Civil War.  At times it almost feels like an anti-war movie, and deals subtly with things like Shaw’s PTSD after the Battle of Antietam.  Despite factual inaccuracies, I think this film still stands as a more accurate representation of the Civil War than your typical Hollywood fare.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Social Network (2010)


Title: The Social Network
Release Date: October 1, 2010
Director: David Fincher
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Relativity Media | Scott Rudin Productions | Michael De Luca Productions | Trigger Street Productions
Summary/Review:

The Social Network asks the question, can a person unable to create bonds with other human beings make a billion dollar business based on friendship?  The movie is a dramatization of how Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) created Facebook while a sophomore at Harvard University in 2003.  The movie is framed by legal depositions where Zuckerberg faces off against Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield), his friend and Facebook CFO who claims his shares of Facebook were unfairly diluted.  He also faces a legal battle with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) who claim that Zuckerberg stole their idea.

I typically don’t like Aaron Sorkin scripts because his dialogue makes everyone sound insufferably smug, but that actually suits the film.  The historical facts of Facebook’s creation are played with loosely, probably because the reality was much more boring, but I feel that it was just as douchey as portrayed here.  Women don’t get much to do in this film except be kind of a decorative wallpaper to activities of the men, but given the dudebros ethos of the film it feels suiting.  The most significant women character in the movie is played by Rooney Mara, who plays a fictional ex-girlfriend of Zuckerberg’s who is supposed to be his inspiration for creating Facebook.

As a connoisseur of movies set in the Boston area, I enjoyed spotting the scenes that were filmed on location.  Poor Jesse Eisenberg had to do a lot of running in this movie, from the streets of real Cambridge all the way to Maryland where there is a dorm building that coincidentally has the same name as his dorm at Harvard.  I also used to frequent The Thirsty Scholar pub in Somerville circa 2003, so maybe I was there when Zuckerberg broke up with his fictional girlfriend.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: The City of the Dead (1960)


Title: The City of the Dead
Release Date: September 1960
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Production Company:  Vulcan
Summary/Review:

This is a horror film that is earnestly built on the premise that the people executed as witches in the hysteria of 1692 were not only actually practicing witchcraft but were in league with Lucifer himself.  In the present day, the fictional town of Whitewood, Massachusetts is home to a coven of the survivors of the panic where nearly 300-year-old witches still practice their dark rights.  College student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) visits the remote and mysterious town to conduct ethnographic research with the encouragement of her creepy professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee).  Nan stays at the Raven’s Inn run by the mysterious innkeeper Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessel).

Strange things happen.  The plot is straightforward, predictable, and kind of cheezy.  But for whatever else this film lacks it makes up for it with atmosphere.  The black & white cinematography and the rickety wooden buildings of the set are suitably spooky.  And the budget for artificial fog must’ve been enormous.  I thought the film was largely a dud but if you’re a fan of old-fashioned horror films you could do a lot worse.

The movie was released in 1960, so similarities with Psycho (woman protagonist stays at a hotel and goes missing halfway through the movie and her family and friends team up to find out what happened to her) are coincidental.  I do wonder if Monty Python watched this film, because the scenes of the witch burning ritual in this film and in Monty Python and the Holy Grail are shot in almost identical ways.  The City of the Dead was made in Britain so I suppose they can be forgiven for the inaccuracy of people driving around with their windows open and only wearing light coats in February in Massachusetts.  But they also make the common error of depicting witch burning when witches were only executed by hanging in New England. Nice American accents though.

Rating: **

 

Album Review: Tell Me I’m Bad by Editrix


 

AlbumTell Me I’m Bad
Artist: Editrix
Release Date: February 5, 2021
Label: Exploding in Sound Records
Favorite Tracks:

  • “Tell Me I’m Bad”
  • “Chelsea”
  • “She Wants to Go and Party”

Thoughts: The Western Massachusetts trio Editrix combines sweet singsong vocals over shredding guitar. Both the vocals and guitar are provided by Wendy Eisenberg, while Steve Cameron plays bass and Josh Daniel plays drums.  The great punk/indie rock melodies support lyrics that are often political but also humorous.  I found a great piece online that breaks down each song, something I’d love to see more of: https://www.talkhouse.com/a-guide-to-editrixs-tell-me-im-bad/

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Little Women (2019)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Little Women
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Regency Enterprises | Pascal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel by Louis May Alcott is a master class in capturing the spirit rather than the letter of a work of art. The movie is very clear when it is making a statement on the life of Alcott, and the limits she fought against in a time when the aspirations of women were more restricted, and when it is illustrating Alcott’s fictionalized story. The movie also benefits by setting the main plot at the time when the March daughters are older and intercutting flashbacks to their childhood, rather than telling the story chronologically. The book was episodic but the way it’s mixed up here makes it flow as more of a continuous story.

Saorsie Ronan is spectacular as Jo March, the talented writer who does not want to be pigeonholed into a life acceptable for a lady. Florence Pugh is also excellent in bringing out the many layers of Amy March, as opposed to the impression I had of her as being a vain and greedy caricature in the novel. The rest of the cast is good all around but Laura Dern as Marmee March and Meryl Streep as Aunt March deserve special praise. It’s quite a treat to have several generations of the most talented women in film all appearing in the same movie.

And if that wasn’t awesome enough, the movie was also primarily filmed on locations in Massachusetts. This includes a park nearby my house, Arnold Arboretum, which oddly plays the setting of Paris.


Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 19


Ben Franklin’s World :: The World of the Wampanoag

A two-party history of the indigenous people of Eastern Massachusetts who encountered the Puritan settlers of Plymouth in 1620.

Planet Money :: We Buy a Lot of Christmas Trees

A behind-the-scenes look into how the Christmas tree market works.

Planet Money :: The Case Against Facebook

A suit filed by the federal government and 46 state attorney generals against Facebook is stirring up the long-dormant history of anti-trust action in the United States.

Radiolab :: The Ashes on the Lawn

The purposes of protest and why they can’t be modulated to avoid offending people as seen through the story of the ACT UP protests to support relief from the AIDS crisis.

Smithsonian Sidedoor :: Edison’s Demon Dolls

Talking dolls are creepy and have been so since they were first invented in the 1890s by Thomas Edison himself.

Snap Judgment :: The Crossroad

A true story of a good Samaritan in the time of COVID 19.

RUNNING TALLY OF PODCAST OF THE WEEK APPEARANCES

Massachusetts: It’s Time to VOTE!!!


Today it is exactly four weeks until Election Day on November 3rd, 2020. It’s an exciting and terrifying time, but I remain hopeful. Voting alone will not help restore democracy and help make our country that works for all its people – advocacy, activism, and protest will be necessary as well – but I believe the results of the 2020 election can give us a big push in the correct direction.

I need my fellow Massachusetts citizens to do the following things:

Please share this post widely on social media and feel free to contact me if you need help figuring how to navigate the electoral system in you city or town.  I’m pretty good at tracking those things down.