Classic Movie Review: Rome, Open City (1945)


Title: Rome, Open City
Release Date: September 27, 1945
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Excelsa Film
Summary/Review:

Filmed in the final days of World War II, Rome, Open City is a neorealistic film depicting a fictionalized account of the Italian Resistance Movement in 1944. There’s not much acknowledgement that Italy was an Axis power as by the time film begins, Rome is under control of the occupying German forces and the Italian fascist puppet government.  The main figures of the resistance in the movie are communist Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), Pina (Anna Magnani), and parish priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi). Don Pietro is supposed to marry Francesco and the visibly pregnant Pina but the crackdown of SS officers seeking Manfredi sets everyone in motion.

The film depicts the grim realities of the deprivation of a wartime city, betrayals, grim torture, and flat out murder.  But the film also contains moments of humanity, particularly Don Pietro’s devotion to protecting the resistance.  And there is hope in the children who assist the resistance and are the future of Italy.  Technically speaking this is a “low-budget film” but considering the conditions under which it was made it is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Lifeboat (1944)


Title: Lifeboat
Release Date: January 11, 1944
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Since I started my Classic Movie project in August, I’ve watched movies on streaming services on my iPad and DVD on my television.  With the Lifeboat, I took the opportunity to watch a 75th anniversary screening at Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.  And am I ever glad I did, because it is a well-scripted, well-acted, and compelling drama.

The film begins in media res with foreign correspondent Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead) alone in the titular lifeboat amid the wreckage of a merchant vessel and a U-boat in the North Atlantic.  She looks particularly well-dressed and highfalutin for the situation, but demonstrates her knowledge and resourcefulness over the course of the film.  Other survivors climb on board, including:

  • Gus Smith (William Bendix), an American merchant marine ashamed of his German ancestry and suffering from an injured leg. He’s kind of your city kid archetype.
  • Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), a U.S. Army nurse, a competent and compassionate healer.  Anderson was strong in this role (and also quite beautiful) and I’m surprised that she doesn’t seem to have any other major movie roles.
  • John Kovac (John Hodiak), an engine man crewman, who is the “tough but fair” man who takes the leadership role over the survivors.
  • Charles J. “Ritt” Rittenhouse Jr. (Henry Hull), a prosperous industrialist who initially takes the leadership role, but defers to Kovac’s experience. Nevertheless he remains a more compassionate voice in conflict with Kovac.
  • Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), the ship’s steward, who proves to the most heroic among the survivors and a quiet leader.  Joe is the only Black character in the movie and is written as a stereotypical/token character but Lee’s performance really elevates Joe.
  • Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), radioman, who is a friend of Gus and forms a bond with Alice.
  • Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a young British woman who is traumatized by the death of her infant child.

The last person to climb on board is a survivor of the U-boat wreck, Willi (Walter Slezak).  His presence on the lifeboat is the center of much of the conflict in the film as some, particularly Kovac, argue that he should be allowed to drown, while Connie, Ritt, and Stanley argue that would be inhumane and that he should be held as a prisoner. For a movie made in the middle of World War II, Willi is presented as a complex character and sometimes sympathetically, but ultimately untrustworthy.  The key lesson for viewers watching this film in 2019 is “Don’t let Nazis take charge!”

In addition to their German prisoner, the crew of the lifeboat have to contend with the loss of their food, water, and supplies, no navigational tools, Gus’ leg turning gangrenous, and a vicious storm.  Amid the depiction of conflict and deprivation in a close space, there are still many moments of humanity and even humor.  For example, there’s a running gag of Connie inadvertently losing her prized possessions to the sea. The final scenes of the movie are set among a stunning reenactment of a battle at sea and is suitably terrifying.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen.  Hitchcock’s direction is terrific and Bankhead, Lee, and Slezak in particular put in great performances in a strong cast.  It’s also interesting to note that the screenplay is by John Steinbeck, his first fictional work created for film.  Take the opportunity to see this movie if it plays at your local arthouse cinema.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 25th


BackStory :: In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud

Stories of the United States and nuclear weapons, including the hotel with the secret bunker for Congress, nuclear bomb testing and the birth of the Las Vegas tourist industry, and women in the Manhattan Project.

To The Best of Our Knowledge :: Being Sincere in the Cynical World

Different stories of maintaining sincerity among the world’s cynicism.

HUB History :: Amelia  Earhart in Boston

Before Amelia Earhart become a famed, groundbreaking aviator, she was a social worker in a Boston settlement house.

Radiolab :: Post No Evil

The evolving document that guides what is allowed and what is forbidden on Facebook.

Start Making Sense :: Democrats: Centrism is Not the Answer!

Book Review: Human Nature by Paul Cornell


AuthorHuman Nature
TitlePaul Cornell
Publication Info: London : BBC Books, 2015 (originally published May 1995)
Summary/Review:

In this novel, the Doctor has himself genetically modified so he can experience life as a human. Forgetting his real identity, the Doctor believes he is a Scottish teacher named John Smith at a boy’s school in rural England in 1914.  If this sounds familiar to Doctor Who tv viewers, it’s because Cornell adapted this book as the two-part episode “Human Nature/Family of Blood” in Series 3 with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor/John Smith.  It’s best not to think of the television adaptation while reading the book as the stories differ in many ways.

Cornell’s basic idea was to have a story featuring the Doctor in a romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, Joan Redfern.  Again, in the present day we’ve seen the Doctor fall in love with Rose, snog Madame Pompadour, and marry River Song, so the elaborate plot of making the Doctor a human for him to experience romance would be excessive. Apart from the love story, this book is a good exploration of being human and the Doctor’s character.

On the one hand this is a brutal and gory story. The villainous alien Aubertides are merciless in slaughtering (and eating) anyone who gets in their way.  In response, the leaders of the school are willing to mobilize the boys into a military unit to fight back. There’s even a disturbing scene early in the book where the school boys murder one of their own.

On the other hand, John Smith, while still in a human guise is able to determine a better way.  To throw away the guns, lead the children to safety, attempt diplomacy, and then win through guile.  The willingness of the human characters in this book to support and sacrifice for one another shows our species at it’s best.

Like many Virgin New Adventures, there’s a surplus of side characters and interwoven sideplots that could be excised to make a tighter, more focused adventure.  But it’s still a gripping read and Doctor Who at it’s best.

Favorite Passages:

“I can see why Rocastle thinks that way.  It’s attractive.  Imagine, never having to make any decisions.  Because of honor. And etiquette. And patriotism. You could live like a river flowing downhill, hopping from one standard response to the other. Honour this. Defend that.”

“‘Isn’t it odd,’ opined Alexander, ‘how close masculinity is to melodrama?'”

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)


TitleWonder Woman
Release Date: 2017 June 2
Director: Patty Jenkins
Production Company:  Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

Talk about a movie living up to the hype! Gal Gadot puts in a great performance as Diana, the Amazon princess raised among the warrior woman of the island of Themyscira.  When the outside world arrives in the form of an American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashing his plane near the island and an ensuing attack of Germans, Diana is drawn to leave home to end the war and defeat the god Ares.

Diana and Steve go to London and then to Belgium in the last days before the Armistice, with a plan to prevent a German plot to introduce a more dangerous form of mustard gas that would kill thousands and extend the war.  One of the delightful parts of the movie is the team of misfits Steve puts together to accompany them on their mission: Sameer, the Indian secret agent, Charlie, the Scotish sharpshooter with PSTD, and Chief Napi, a Native American smuggler.  The disparate characters alongside Steve and Diana add the “world” to the World War while transcending stereotypes of their cultural background.

There are comical scenes of Diana trying to adjust to the strange, patriarchal world of London, and there are some spectacular visual in the action sequences, particularly the scene in No Man’s Land in Belgium.  Gadot may not be the type of actor to deliver a striking soliloquy, but provides a lot of striking subtle touches such as her little smiles as she discover her powers, as well as her convincing portrayal of a warrior.  Pine also does a good job as a character who would typically be the superhero, but accepts being second fiddle as well as being full of wonder at Diana defying all that is accepted in his culture.

I have a few nitpicks.  While the music in blockbuster films over the past 40+ years has been inspired by John Williams bombastic classical-style score, this movie attempts to break the mold with a score of bombastic prog rock that just doesn’t work, especially in the World War I period.  The final battle between Diana and Ares seems unnecessary because it would’ve just made more sense for Diana to discover that humanity is violent on its own (and still worth saving), which is ultimately the conclusion she comes through after a stereotypical CGI-filled battle that just pads the film’s length.

Other than that though, this is a masterpiece. A stunning action film that shows a heroes journey, brings together a lovable group of characters, and makes a convincing case against war.  See it now or see it again.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet 


Author: Souad Mekhennet
TitleI Was Told to Come Alone
Narrator:  Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

Note: I received a free copy of the audiobook for this work through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This is the memoir of Souad Mekhennet, a journalist raised in Germany but whose parents are from Turkey and Morocco.  Inspired by All the President’s Men, Mekhennet goes to journalism school and enters into the business just as the September 11th attacks change the way a woman of Islamic heritage will be received in Europe and the United States.  She covers the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of Al Qaeda and Isis, and the major terrorist attacks in Germany, France, and England.  She gains unique access to meet jihadists face to face for interviews, goes into war-torn Iraq, visits the Islamic communities in European cities where the attacks on Paris were planned, and helps people mistakenly captured by the CIA.  It’s an interesting life story and offers a unique perspective of the past 20 years from someone is both western and Muslim.

Recommended booksBaghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Walking Dead: March To War (vol. 19) by Robert Kirkman


Author: Robert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead: March To War (vol. 19)
Publication Info:Image Comics (2013)
ISBN: 9781607068181
Summary/Review:

As noted in my review for volume 18, The Walking Dead series too often forces the drama by having the survivors in violent conflict with one another and all too often with a sadistic bully who is using the zombie apocalypse as an excuse to make a personal fiefdom.  I think there are more possible stories to be told of survival and adapting to the new world, but here we have a whole volume with preparation for war, with the upcoming two volumes dedicated to the war itself.  Sigh.  I guess in a way, The Walking Dead shows the post-apocalyptic world is a lot like our own after all.
Rating: **

Book Review: Consistently Opposing Killing edited by Rachel M. McNair and Stephen Zunes


Consistently Opposing Killing (2008) edited by Rachel M. McNair and Stephen Zunes collects together essays and interviews focused on the Consistent Life Ethic.  This is a movement that opposes killing in any form: abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and unjust as war as well as promoting economic justice to end poverty, opposing racism, and seeking peaceful solutions to conflict. In addition to the editors, contributors include Mary Meehan, Michael Nagler, and Vasu Murti ,   Many of the authors refer to the Consistent Life Ethic as the “seamless garment,” a term originating with Cardinal Joseph Bernadin whose work is cited often by the contributor but not included in this book.  Bernadin’s lectures A Consistent Ethic of Life (1983, pdf) and A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue (1984) can be read online.

This book really hits home with me. When I was younger and developing my political and moral identity I was drawn to liberalism since it focused on standing up for the underdogs and the defenseless and opposing the things that damage and destroy life: civil rights, civil liberties, social safety nets, health care, opposing poverty, rehabilitating prisoners instead of executing them, opposing unnecessary war and nuclear proliferation, and seeking alternatives to violence. You can imagine my surprise that opposing abortion was not a liberal cause. I’ve become something of a political pariah in that liberal people who share many similar views to my own but support of legal abortion seems to be the one non-negotiable issue for acceptance in their ranks. On the other hand I’ve little political common ground with conservatives and often find their rhetoric and strategies for opposing abortion repellent. The authors in this book share similar experiences. Conservatives call them a bunch of peaceniks and commies. Liberals call them misogynist, racist theocrats.

These essays trace the history of the consistent life ethic (did you know that the link of feminism and pro-choice politics is a relatively development) as well as providing studies on Americans views on life issues.  Abortion is a central theme of many essays where it’s linked or compared with poverty, racism, the Israel/Palestine conflict and animal rights.  The better essays come toward the end of the books where the contributors propose consistent solutions with the essays by Meehan, McNair and Zunes being particularly moving.

One quibble I have with this book is the oft-referenced idea of the slippery slope.  Many contributors contend that those who support a legal right to abortion are likely to also support infanticide and euthanasia of the disabled and elderly.  This just doesn’t jibe with pro-choice people I know and public figures who are active and compassionate supporters of the needs of children, the disabled, and the elderly.

This book is one that should be read by anyone regardless of their political bent.  I’m sure there’s stuff in here that anyone will disagree with and will make them angry, but most of all what I find in this book is hope.  Hope that people can go beyond the battle lines of the so-called “culture war” and find common ground and solutions that will bring an end to the killing and degradation of human life.

Favorite Passages

“Many people with serious moral qualms about abortion but not wanting to unwittingly promote a reactionary social agenda therefore remain silent.  This is also a poor strategy.  The timidity of many progressives with antiabortion sentiments to speak out has led to much of the movement becoming dominated by right-wing opportunists who oppose abortion for the wrong reasons,” p. 35 – from “Israel/Palestine and Abortion” by Stephen Zunes.

“Even unconscious people, who do not have anything on that list, offer us an extremely valuable service.  As long as their lives are protected, people seen as most on the margins, the the rest of us are safe.  Those on the edge of the social fabric guard it and keep it from unraveling.  The first step on the slippery slope is not taken so there is no slipper slope,” p. 61 – from “When Bigotry Turns Disabilities Deadly.”

“The thread of respect for life, woven among these issues, is not visible in the public forum, where political ideologies dominate the analysis.  Traditional liberals favor goverment intervention to “support life” by improving the opportuinities available to the poorest members of society, but oppose legal limits on issues deemed to be matters of private morality.  Traditional conservatives attempt to reduce government intervention in the economy, but promote legal restraints to protect vulnerable human life.  Each perspective both shares and disuptes some of the policy mandates that flow from the consistent ethic of life,” p. 75 – from “Does the Seamless Garment Fit?” by Edith Bogue.

“Most people, myself included, when you look at a complicated problem start off by seeing where your friends are.  Because you trust them.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Your friends are honorable and intelligent people, and you consult them to see what they believe in.  But that turns into a camp or culture of the Right or a camp and culture of the Left, nor based on real thinking or real dialog — just a desire to move with your particular herd.  Us against them, which arouse the most pleasurable, pervasive, and vile passions,” p. 107 – from “Activists Reminisce,” a quote from Juli Loesch Wiley.

Relevant Links:

Book Review: Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality


Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality (2006) by Lawrence D. Hart refers in the title to the paradox within each of us that we can be drawn to violence and hatred or to the peace and grace of God. The basic question of the book is whether or not a Christian can support war and the simple answer is no. A large portion of the book is dedicated to the ways in which the United States government has interfered militarily in the affairs of other countries for corporations and aims of empire. A central chapter reviews the War in Iraq and how a Christian could not support it as a Holy War.

The author also challenges the hypothetical dilemma asked of pacifists of what they would do should their own loved ones be under attack by a violent intruder. Drawing heavily on an earlier work What Would You Do? A Serious Answer to a Standard Question by John Howard Yoder, Hart shows that there really are many more options than kill or be killed, and that it’s also irrelevant to the question of supporting or opposing a national war effort. Living the Gospel allows for transformative powers both individually and socially.

From my perspective, reading this book was like Hart preaching to the choir. Sadly, I also felt that the many American’s, even Christians, who justify our country’s use of warfare would not be swayed.

Dale Brown has suggested that the holy wars of Hebrew Scriptures are to be understood as miracle stories. Decisive victories against incredible odds were meant to teach people to rely on God rather than on their own military strength. If the entire Old Testament Story of Gideon is read in this light, which seems to be the obvious way to read it, then there is very little support to be found for trust inn nuclear arsenals, military technology that shocks and terrorizes, unproven trillion-dollar defense shields, or for relying on a superpower status that will never end.

It is also possible that the holy war tradition in Scripture is to be understood as a concession by God, so that holy wars represent no God’s original intention but a kind of divine concession. When the people of Israel demand a king, God warns them that if they choose a king an oppressive military complex will dominate their lives [in 1 Samuel 8:7-22]. — p. 52-53

“Contemplation,” therefore, measures what is high above and what is below together. The earthly temple in Jerusalem is built according to the heavenly vision (Exodus 25:8-9). The vision from above determines the course of action below. There are those who say that contemplation is a long, loving look at God, and they are absolutely correct. It is that sustained gaze at God that leads to wisdom of heart, to a conscience of compassion — the mystical knowledge of God’s dream that we are to help make real in our own personal and public situation.

So the unifying theme of this book is the Christian conscience — a conscience that compels all who have heard the transcendent voice of God to do their best to love as God loves, to champion the cause of the poor and vulnerable, to pursue peace, to overcome evil with good, to insist on integrity and truth, and to vigorously oppose injustice and violence. Anne Lamott’s summary interpretation of the teaching of Jesus succinctly describes this idea: “The point is not to hate and kill each other today, and if you can, to help the forgotten and powerless.” — p. 140