Podcasts of the Week Ending April 4


Hit Parade :: La Vida Loca Edición

A history of Spanish-language hit songs on the Billboard Top 100 from the 1960s to the present with a special emphasis on Latin crossover artists Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Shakira.

Memory Palace :: Stories to Wash Hands By

Twenty stories of historical events that last twenty seconds each, the perfect length of time to wash your hands.  Whether or not this is practical (I mean if you push play on your device before your hands are clean it will be contaminated, no) the stories are all very interesting tidbits of history.

Radiolab :: Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day

The story of the Viennese doctor who determined that medical professionals should wash their hands to prevent the spread of deadly infections long before germ theory was even understood.

Sidedoor :: The Milkmaid Spy

The mindblowing adventures of Virginia Hall who worked as a spy in occupied France during World War II, helping establish resistance networks.

60 Second Science :: Bird Fossil Shared Earth with T. rex

Scientists discover evidence of the earliest modern bird, the Wonderchicken.


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Classic Movie Review: The Conformist (1970)


Title: The Conformist 
Release Date: October 22, 1970
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Production Company: Mars Film Produzione | Marianne Productions | Maran Film
Summary/Review:

This movie set in the 1930s focuses on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an agent of the Italian Facist secret police, sent to France to assassinate a former teacher,  Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). The story begins with Clerici pursuing Quadri in a car driven by his handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and returns to the car in-between flashbacks.  The flashbacks include moments further back in time such as his childhood when he believes he killed a family chauffeur who attempted to sexually assault him and more recently his engagement to his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli).

The bulk of the movie, though, is flashbacks to events that happened in Paris immediately before the car chase when Clerici and Giulia went to Paris on their honeymoon and paid social calls to Quadri and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  Obviously, Clerici used this as a cover for the assassination assignment but I don’t think Giulia was in on it.  In fact she seems to be having a delightful time socializing.  In a weird subplot, Anna ends up making sexual advances on both Clerici and Giulia, which seems mostly an excuse for gratuitous nudity.

The movie ends with a coda set in 1943 with the fall of Mussolini and Clerici ratting out his blind Fascist friend to the monarchists. I’m not sure what this adds to the movie as Clerici is already established as untrustworthy and lacking values so it’s just doubling down on it.

The sets of this film very large spaces with Art Deco design that are reminiscent of Metropolis (apparently not a coincidence).  There is also some great camera work with light and shadow. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have much going for it. The psychological study of a Fascist just seems to be making excuses for someone who is clearly just a nasty Fascist.  I never feel any tension that Clerici is going to do anything other than what he’s set out to do, although the movie feints at him being conflicted. In sum, the movie is pretty to look at, but it feels hollow to me.  Who needs a pretty movie about a Fascist?

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 7


Afropop Worldwide :: Remembering Johnny Clegg

A tribute to Johnny Clegg, who died last year, reviewing his genre-defying career of blending Zulu music and dance with pop in apartheid South Africa.

Futility Closet :: If Day

The true story of an effort to sell Canadian war bonds by staging a Nazi invasion of Winnipeg.  (This was dramatized in the weird and wonderful Guy Maddin film My Winnipeg).

Hub History :: Remembering the Boston Massacre

250th years ago this week, British soldiers fired into a rowdy crowd in Boston, killing 5.  Nat Sheidly reflects on the deeply personal tragedy for the people involved and how the incident has been reinterpreted in popular memory.

This American Life :: Everyone’s a Critic

Stories about white tourists observing Black church services, a Chinese journalist investigating coronavirus, and a woman who love the movie musical Cats.

Throughline :: Public Universal Friend

A glimpse into transgender identity in American history through the story of a Revolutionary War Era leader of a Quaker sect known as the Public Universal Friend.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Satanic Panic

The history of backmasking in popular music and the moral panic that ensued.

Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

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: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


Title: Twelve O’Clock High
Release Date: December 21, 1949
Director: Henry King
Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
Summary/Review:

In the early days of American involvement in WWII, the 918th Bomb Group gets a reputation as a “tough luck” group due to heavy loses and low morale. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is determined to be too sympathetic to his men and relieved of command. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over as group commander and implements strict discipline and attempts to get the group a victory to improve confidence. This includes doing things like putting all the flight crew deemed “incompetent” into a bomber named The Leper Colony.

Savage’s ways seem harsh, but on the other hand his insistence on keeping to the plan reduces losses for the group. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is a WWI vet and civilian lawyer who becomes an early ally to Savage’s system (in fact, the film is framed by Stovall’s post-war reminiscences of the war). It proves to be an interesting philosophical dilemma at the heart of this gritty war drama.

Unlike earlier WWII movies that had an optimistic, propaganda purpose, Twelve O’Clock High depicts the true psychological and physical toll on the flight crews. With the people-focused approach, much of the film is set on the base. Only late in the film do we see a sortie which features actual film from WWII air battles expertly intercut with the cast of the movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)


Title: The Third Man
Release Date: September 1, 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Production Company: London Films
Summary/Review:

The Third Man is a thriller set in post-World War II Vienna with the city divided in quadrants among the allies and a thriving criminal underground centered on the black market.  American Western novel author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives after being promised work by an his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime is being buried after being killed in a car crash.

Angered that British Royal Military Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) suggests that Lime was a criminal, Martins investigates Lime’s death and uncovers evidence that it wasn’t accidental.  He becomes acquainted with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend, who was born in Czechoslovakia, but with Lime’s help got a forged Austrian passport to avoid repatriation by the Soviets.

The more Martins investigates, the more he discovers things about the dark side of human nature. The film works as a metaphor for naive, can-do Americans compared with the more world-weary and resigned Europeans. And despite the noir aspects of the film, it also has many moments of humor. The soundtrack is cheerful music played on a zither by Anton Karas  which serves as a wonderful contrast to the shadows and light of the film.

The story is gripping but the cinematography is pure art.  Every shot is perfectly composed against the rubble of bombed-out Vienna, a worn out amusement park, and ultimately the city’s extensive sewers.  The denouement in the sewers is a clinic in light, shadow, and sound in a movie. This is a spectacular movie and I expect will reward repeated viewing.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Stranger (1946)


Title: The Stranger
Release Date: July 2, 1946
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: International Pictures
Summary/Review:

This atmospheric film in the film noir style tells the story of a Nazi war criminal hiding among the unsuspecting citizens of a Connecticut town. As someone who grew up in Connecticut, I’m surprised that so many of these classic films I’m watching are set there, particularly one with Nazis.  The film begins with Edward G. Robinson (who I liked so much in Double Indemnity) Mr. Wilson of the War Crimes Commission releasing a low-level Nazi named Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne) in hope of leading him to one of the Nazis most notorious masterminds.

In Harper, Connecticut, Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) has taken the identity of Professor Charles Rankin, a teacher at a boys academy, and marrying Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.  Rankin murders Meinike so that his past identity will not be revealed and attempts to bury his body in the woods.  Wilson stays in the town for several weeks hoping to catch Rankin in a mistake that reveals himself, as well attempting to shake Mary’s faith in her new husband.  The thrill of the movie is less of a “whodunit” than a “how is this going to shake out?”

Billy House is featured in a prominent role as Mr. Potter, the gossipy druggist who comments on the goings-on in the town while playing checkers with his customers (including Wilson and Rankin).  House provides comic relief but his character is also oddly unsettling.  Storywise the script is fairly predictable and dialogue unnatural, but it’s worth watching for the acting, and Welle’s use of light and shadows and long takes.  It’s also remarkable that a fictional film about a Nazi war criminal was completed so soon after the end of the war.  Additionally, it is the first film to include documentary footage of the liberation of concentration camps.

Rating: ***1/2

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: ****

Book Review: Dutch Girlby Robert Matzen


Author: Robert Matzen
Title: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: Blackstone Pub (2019)
Summary/Review:

The most famous story of Netherlands during World War II is, of course, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Hepburn and Frank were nearly identical in age, born just a month apart in 1929, and their narratives of the war share some similarities.  Nevertheless, Hepburn had a privileged position and not being Jewish didn’t suffer anywhere near the level of persecution, and thus survived the war.  Otto Frank actually requested that Hepburn play the role of his daughter in the 1959 film adaptation of the diary, but she demurred, both because she was too old for the part and because she would not be able to revisit the horrors of the war.

A lot of the narrative in this book focuses on people in Audrey Hepburn’s extended family and friends in family,  or just general history of Netherlands during the war.  Obviously these types of details add context, but their prominence in the book seem to indicate that Matzen had very little material on Hepburn herself to work with.  He also overuses the practice of writing what people may have been thinking in reaction to certain invents that relies more on his (informed) imagination than actual historical records. All in all, this book is an interesting glimpse into events in Netherlands during German occupation, but is less effective as a biography of Audrey Hepburn.

Recommended books:

Rating: **

Podcasts of the Week Ending September 21


Memory Palace :: Safe Passage

The true story of when the U.S. Navy accidentally fired a torpedo at the President of the United States.

Throughline :: Puerto Rico

If you’re like me, you probably don’t know enough about the history of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, and the efforts of Puerto Ricans to fight for independence and statehood.  This podcast fills in some gaps in knowledge.

The War on Cars :: Dying For Change

Bicycling activists stage more aggressive protests against politicians and the police as the deaths of cyclists increase in number.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances: