In Our Hands

I’m always saving my pennies to purchase books, so I rarely spend money on seeing movies.  Well, that and the fact that I like to support my local library by checking them out.  With that being said, I still didn’t have to dig in to my Mason jar of book funds thanks to the generosity of my Aunt Deniece.  She bought tickets for me and my son to see In Our Hands.

In Our Hands is the docudrama commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Israel’s Six-Day War.  The movie features historical footage, personal interviews, and professional reenactments celebrating Israel’s 55th Paratroopers involvement in the battle for Jerusalem.

The barely twenty year-old nation of Israel staved off extinction at the hands of surrounding Arab nations determined to wipe Israel off the map.  Israel’s defense forces risked everything, taking on better equipped, larger military forces, for the sake of their homeland.  The unexpected Israeli victory returned the Jews to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the old Temple.  Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day every year in honor of the sacrifice made in June, 1967.

The title of the docudrama comes from Lt. General Mordechai “Motta” Gur’s famous statement broadcasting that the “The Temple Mount is in our hands!”  The movie does a wonderful job recreating this scene sure to give anyone goosebumps.  Equally miraculous is the scene of Israeli soldiers praying the Shema at the Western Wall.

I highly recommend viewing this amazing, must-see movie.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to own this one.

Florence Foster Jenkins

florence-foster-jenkinsPer my aunt’s suggestion, I recently watched Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg. I went in with the expectations of a hilariously funny movie, and there were some humorous moments, but overall I found it to be quite sad. In between cringe-worthy scenes where the protagonist made a fool of herself was a deeper story of love and friendship, passion for one’s chosen art form, and the true definition of success.

As usual, Streep gave a charming performance reminiscent of her Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Streep’s Julia Child was a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus on what she wanted and proved her abilities. As Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep portrayed a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus and ended in total embarrassment due to her overwhelming lack of talent. Not much of a stretch there except for different professions.

I don’t know if it was my parent’s high-definition television, which shows every unflattering flaw, or makeup, meant to create said flaws, but Hugh Grant, who did a decent job in the role of Jenkin’s husband, didn’t look so good. True, it’s been years since his performance in Love Actually, however, I choose to remember him as the intelligent, slightly sexy Prime Minister. Maybe because of his appearance in Love Actually, I had a hard time believing him as the weeping husband at the end of the film.

What truly made the film enjoyable for me was Simon Helberg. While I’ve always appreciated him as Howard on The Big Bang Theory, what a lovely surprise it was to see him act far beyond this role. Helberg’s Cosmé McMoon delighted with facial expressions and tones of voice that conveyed much more than the lines he spoke. As I watched him, I sensed that I’d seen his performance somewhere before. The longer I scrutinized, the more I had déjà vu regarding his portrayal of McMoon. Where had I seen this level of acting that was mysterious, charismatic, and quirky all at once?

Then it suddenly came to me. Helberg must have been channeling Gene Wilder because I’ve never seen anyone who could tantalize with just a twitch of a smile or flicker of the eyes the way Wilder did, and yet Helberg captured it perfectly and brilliantly. From that moment on, it was like I was watching Wilder himself. I have decided that Simon Helberg absolutely must remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When Gene Wilder passed away last year, my heart was broken. Now I believe I’ve found a way to overcome that grief and recapture the magic of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I know a remake exists, but it misses the mark in too many ways to count. No offense to Johnny Depp, but he’s Jack Sparrow, not Willy Wonka.

Now, one of my life’s missions is to stalk Simon Helberg on social media until I can convince him to take on the role of Willy Wonka. I’m sure he’ll agree that it must be done. He alone can reach back into our childhoods and recreate all the thrilling enchantment we experienced the first time we saw the movie.

The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

the-count-of-monte-cristoYou’ve probably heard it said many times that a movie is never as good as the book on which it was based. I’d have to agree 99.9% of the time, because I have two movies in mind that actually were better than the book. Still, as my aunt once pointed out to me, the reason I enjoyed movies based on my favorite books, and that is a rare occurrence, is because I read the book first and was familiar with all the details and nuances of story and character that never made it on screen.

With all that being said, The Count of Monte Cristo is one book that will never be captured in its entirety in a movie, and yes, I know it’s been made into a movie, and no, I haven’t watched any version; I don’t have to, I’ve read the book. All 1276 glorious pages. But perhaps a mini-series would do a good job of catching a few extra, interesting tidbits, you say. I’m sorry, my friend, that will never be sufficient.

As I read Alexandre Dumas, admittedly for the first time, his writing constantly reminded me of Anne Baxter’s portrayal of Nefertiti in The Ten Commandments. Both Dumas and Baxter displayed the same intensity of passion for his and her craft. I’m talking over-the-top passion that sweeps one away with what they are reading, or in the case of Baxter, watching.

The cast of characters is as interesting and varied as the type of people one might view walking through a crowded bazaar in a foreign country. Rich and poor, saint and sinner, they all have wonderful personalities, even when it’s as an antagonist, and backstory galore. The interesting thing is I didn’t once mind reading their histories because without it the overall novel would have lost its magic and momentum. Dumas wove together what would have been for writers of today probably two or three novels. Yet he made the enormous quantity of words and pages work. He made it flow. He made me sigh when I finished the novel the same way I would upon leaving great friends.

The Count of Monte Cristo is not for the timid or impatient reader nor is it for someone who wants a quick hit story that translates well onto the big screen. Everything that makes the novel a classic is, unfortunately, being stripped out of writing today. There’s a reason it’s a classic, and I believe one would do well to follow in the footsteps of the masters.

One such technique, which Dumas employed brilliantly, was to engage his reader directly with gentle reminders of previously mentioned details, scenes, and actions. The writers of today would probably label this poor writing because they’ve been taught not to do anything that would jar the reader out of the story. How absurd. I wasn’t jarred out of the story, my mind so feeble or easily distracted that I took offense with the author. On the contrary, I found it tantalizing for this passionate man to say, “Now stay with me because I have something even more incredible to show you, and I didn’t want you to forget a single detail in my extensive, worthy novel.”

My classical literature book group read the Robin Buss translation published by Penguin. I researched Buss as a translator, and the general opinion about his translation of The Three Musketeers was that he did the best and most accurate job. Therefore, I trusted him for The Count of Monte Cristo. The point on which all agreed regarding the Buss translation is that it kept certain sexual overtones in place which had previously been removed or glossed over by other translators and/or editors so as not to offend delicate, Victorian sensibilities. Don’t allow this tiny fact to scare you off from reading Dumas. Compared to novels produced today for tweens and teens, the sexual scenes Dumas wrote would be considered implied at best.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for an easy yet engaging read, an exciting romp through history full of adventure, dashing, mysterious men, maidens who blanch and faint, and above all a great story of well-deserved revenge, then I highly recommend The Count of Monte Cristo.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

mary-shelleys-frankensteinI recently read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a requirement for my classic literature book club. It was my first time reading the book, and I looked forward to it. As I approached the story, I knew better than to compare it to the Boris Karloff version of the movie by the same title. I’ve only viewed portions of the movie, and from what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything.

Of course, there was the Kenneth Branagh version of Frankenstein that I watched years ago. I recall the movie seemed classier, and it had Mary Shelley’s name in the title, so perhaps it was more closely linked to her original tale. Prior to reading the novel, my only other experience with Frankenstein was during my senior English class in high school. The teacher mentioned that Mary Shelley wrote the story as part of a competition with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and friend, Lord Byron, to write a ghost story. From Mary Shelley’s efforts, the novel was born.

With all this build up, I launched expectantly into Shelley’s biography at the beginning of the book. She had an unfortunate life full of tragedy and was a husband stealing adulteress. I kept in mind that the last fact should have no bearing on her writing. I did, however, tuck away her comment that people often asked her how a young woman could have written such a tale. I didn’t find it difficult to believe that a young woman wrote the book; the novel gushed on and on with a relentless amount of filler. In tone and passion, it matched the sappiest of poorly written romance novels. Truly, Mary Shelley had written a horror novel.

I suspect Mary Shelley’s overinflated belief in her ability to write was influenced by her sphere of acquaintances. Her parents were prominent writers and philosophers (her mother died shortly after Mary’s birth but left behind quite a legacy), her husband and friend (Lord Byron) were well-known writers, so why not give it a whirl herself? I must admit that Frankenstein is the only work by Mary Shelley I’ve read, but based on what I encountered, I am not motivated in the least to seek out her other writings. Feminists everywhere are probably damning me right now.

Led around by the nose is the phrase that kept coming to mind as I read the book. Mary Shelley obviously had a point she wanted to make, but she didn’t allow her readers to arrive at this point on his or her own. Victor Frankenstein was meant to be disliked and the monster pitied. I believe her intent was to make us wonder who the real monster was.

I kept hoping that Mary Shelley would raise the Creator vs. Creation issue because I would have enjoyed arguing that subject as I read. After all, Victor Frankenstein as the imperfect Creator would have made for a wonderful debate. Instead, we’re given a pathetic, weak man who repeatedly saves his own life over those he claims to love. I still don’t know why he suddenly rejected his own creation. We’re expected to suspend belief and simply accept that he did.

As for the suspension of belief, prepare to do so over and over and over again. The most unforgiveable place I found this to be true was in the mary-shelleys-frankenstein-2creation of the monster. Mary Shelley didn’t do her research as far as I’m concerned. She didn’t provide any method of preservation or refrigeration for the body parts and briefly mentions decay. Still, we’re expected to believe that Frankenstein built a human in a rented room in the middle of town. She glosses over the part where the creature is brought to life by having Frankenstein refuse to tell Captain Walton how he did it to prevent the sailor from making the same mistake. As a writer, I know that’s a major faux pas. Perhaps it was more acceptable when Mary Shelley wrote.

It’s a toss-up who fluctuated more in character: Victor Frankenstein or The Monster. Frankenstein’s resolve wavered every time he decided he was going to deal with his creation, and right on cue someone he loved would die by the monster’s hands because Victor’s spinelessness reasserted itself yet again. It was dangerous to be loved by this man, and I do not buy into the belief that he was helpless to stop the monster’s rampage.

The monster was intelligent enough to grab clothes upon fleeing Frankenstein’s rooms, learn language and reading in about a year, quote Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” but couldn’t discern his own feelings or come up with better plans for inserting himself into society. From the last two incidents, we’re supposed to believe the monster was a victim.

And when, exactly, did Frankenstein’s creation become a monster? In my opinion, it was when he refused to extend the grace he sought from humanity. In his unjustifiable rage, he lashed out not only toward those whose company he sought, but he hurt innocent bystanders as well (ex: burning the cottage punished the owner when the creature was rejected by De Lacy, Felix, Agatha, and Safie.) I could not find him pitiable, and it was not his right to act accordingly.

I could continue with issues such as why the monster possessed supernatural strength, how the scenes were predictable, the presence of too many coincidences, and how the character arcs read more like character cliffs. Since I haven’t read what the feminists believe Mary Shelley’s intent was for her novel, I’ll not enter that debate.

Instead, I’ll sum it up with the question of what makes a classic. If shock value for the era in which a novel was written qualifies, then a certain book in fifty shades is destined to become a classic in about one hundred years. Or does a book become a classic by the fact that it was written by an anonymous author who turns out to be the opposite sex from what we expected? All this did for me was present Mary Shelley starring in the role of Victor Frankenstein. (If you’re going to write an opposite sex character, try to make them masculine or feminine as is required of said character.) Don’t forget popularity and sales; they lend high regard for a book in the opinion of many people these days.

I’m not sorry that I read Frankenstein because now I can say I know for myself, but I cannot recommend the book as either well-written or worthy of being called a classic.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald The Short StoriesAnyone who knows me knows I adore reading. And for those who don’t know me, it won’t take much time spent in my presence, whether in real life or via social media, to discover this. Recently, I’ve been reading the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I assigned this task to myself as part of the research for my new novel. My goal was to gain a better understanding of Fitzgerald through his writing first, and then I would tackle books of literary commentary as well as biographies of the man, the author, and his life.

I’m not sure where to begin with my review of Fitzgerald’s short stories because I must admit it isn’t favorable in the least. I must also confess my amazement that he earned the money he did during the era in which he wrote. This is especially astounding considering how small the payment is among literary journals today. According to the Dollar Times inflation calculator, four thousand dollars for “At Your Age” in 1929 would be like earning $55, 327.48 in 2016. The section notes prior to the story state this was his “top story price.” I interpret that as price per story and not salary for the year. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but either way, Fitzgerald was simply not that good an author.

If you read one short story, you’ve read them all and his novels as well. Beautiful, indifferent debutantes who pick up and drop men like they’re choosing and discarding shoes; rich ambitious fellas, possibly a football hero, who undoubtedly attended/will attend either Princeton, Yale or Harvard; a sprinkling of drunks, some hopeless, some loveable; endless comparisons between the North and the South or America and Europe; and the ambitious pursuit of money, fame, and power over, and over, and over again. The most unforgivable crime Fitzgerald committed in this reader’s eyes was to cannibalize his own short stories for the sake of his novels. Worse was the fact that his agent, editors, and publishers allowed him to get away with this.

Ridiculous and cliché are the two words that came to mind the most as I read Fitzgerald. The scenarios portrayed were outlandish and unbelievable, and I’m not counting “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when I say this. Why anyone, even fictional, would tolerate the behavior depicted among the characters is beyond me. I tried to keep in mind that attitudes and actions were different in the 20s and 30s, but my opinion of the situation often deteriorated to how stupid can one person be and how much longer before he/she quits putting up with this garbage? Perhaps this was common behavior among the rich and lovesick back then. I honestly couldn’t say.

None of Fitzgerald’s stories were memorable. As I looked back through the book, I tried to recall the storylines and characters by the title alone, but ended up cheating and reading the section notes. The only exception was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and that was because it had been made into a movie. So, I’m left wondering who decides what makes a piece of literature a classic. The death of the author, the passing of time, the payment received, popularity with the audience at the time of publication, being made into a movie, or some combination thereof? I shudder to think how the last four delineators will make classics of some of the drivel being produced today.

I don’t know what percentage of readers would stand with me in my assessment of Fitzgerald’s writing. Hopefully, I’ll find the commentaries and biographies more interesting. From what I already know about him, I believe if he had consumed less alcohol and been more content to hone his craft than pursue fame and fortune, he would have moved beyond his narrow world, experienced life to a greater degree, and found something new to write about. In the end, I’ll give Fitzgerald credit for leaving writers a good lesson even though he failed to learn it himself.

The Homesman – Movie Review

images (3)One of the best movies I have seen in a long time is The Homesman, directed by Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Jones stars as George Briggs, a claim jumper saved by pious spinster, Mary Bee Cuddy, played by Hilary Swank. The performance of these two Oscar-winning actors is brilliant as they draw you in to the stark reality of life in the 1850s American West.

In return for sparing his life from hanging, Briggs is pressed into service as a homesman by Mary Bee. A homesman is someone who accompanies people back home when they become too ill to survive life on the plains. In the case of three women who have experienced hardships beyond their endurance, severe mental illness necessitates removal from their families.

There are harsh and disturbing images in the movie, but in the hands of a director like Tommy Lee Jones, they don’t come across as cheap, shock value scenes. Factor in an all-star cast of characters in fabulous cameos, an unexpected mid-movie twist, and visually appealing cinematography and The Homesman presents the makings of a classic film.

I don’t want to start a firestorm debate on book versus movie; however, I’m anxious to see if the novel lives up to the quality of the movie. I researched the novel and author and was pleasantly surprised to find that Glendon Swarthout is also the author of the novel, The Shootist, which inspired the 1976 movie and is best known for being John Wayne’s last film. Admittedly, I’ve never read a western, but I am interested to give Mr. Swarthout’s The Homesman a try if for no other reason than to see how closely the movie follows the storyline.

Let us not forget Marco Beltrami’s beautiful yet haunting musical score which perfectly matches the scenes from the movie. If movie music allows you to recall and relive the scenes as if you were watching them all over again, I believe the score deserves the mark of excellence. Marco Beltrami achieves this with a score that is powerfully subtle, always blending with the scenes rather than jarring you out of them, and certainly memorable.

Whether or not you are a fan of the western, I believe you will find The Homesman an enjoyable movie not to be missed.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir is an enjoyable read. I’m not sure it was the best choice in books as I was still coming down from my high after Night Train to Lisbon, but light reads are good for balancing out the heavy stuff.

Written mostly as journal entries by abandoned astronaut, Mark Watney, the endless explanations on the necessary procedures conducted to survive life on Mars were tedious. I often felt as if I was reading an article from National Geographic or a really interesting survival manual. I skimmed a few descriptions until I found the story again.

Andy Weir has proven that he knows his technical stuff, but he delivers it inelegantly and without passion. I don’t need to know exactly how many molecules of various elements are produced when splitting hydrazine nor do I need to know how much power is required to do so. All I need to know is that it’s dangerous. Besides, how many of us could actually refute the science?

untitled (5)The diary entries came across as mild locker room humor mixed with surfer dude attitude and undermined any real tension in the plot. We’re told this is how Mark Watney deals with stressful situations. A more professional approach on the part of the main character with less “ugh, whee, yay, and boo” in his responses would have gone a long way to making me believe in the seriousness of the situation and that he was a highly educated person suitable for space travel.

We’ve been here before with Apollo 13, Castaway, and mostly recently, Gravity. Even Robinson Crusoe was a survivor story. The Martian lacks in respect to these stories because beyond saving Mark, there is no human side to the story. There is no wife or girlfriend waiting on Earth, no foul play to his situation that he needs to discover, not even a friend to whom he needs to make an apology for having spoken harshly. In short, there’s not much in the way of human interest for Mark Watney.

The second way in which The Martian differs greatly from these stories is that it’s pure fantasy. Obviously Apollo 13 is real and the other tales could actually happen. Travel to Mars and/or survival on Mars is still pretend. I find it’s easier to relive historical tragedies than get caught up in the drama of make believe. But that’s just me.

The story was mildly predictable in terms of the sequence of trials and tribulations Mark had to endure on Mars. No sooner would he triumph, I’d turn the page and right on cue the next crisis would appear. The constant up and down was interesting but not as suspenseful as everyone is claiming. This is most evident when thirty pages into the book, Mark wonders if he’s going to blow himself up undertaking an experiment. With about 92% of the book left to go, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to die. Result: zero tension.

Still, Andy Weir’s book is fun. If you’ve worked your way through all your DVDs of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dr. Who, I recommend reading The Martian. If you’re not a reader, you can wait for the movie which, according to IMDB, is due out in November, 2015.

Maleficent – Movie Review

images (3)My desire to support the local library, even if it is destroying itself from the inside out, means I’m coming in late with my review of the movie, Maleficent. I’ve already mentioned this in a previous post, so enough said on the subject.

I’ve discussed the movie with my friend and co-worker ever since the trailers for Maleficent first appeared. We agreed that Angelina Jolie was the perfect choice to play the character. My friend is into behind the scene facts and gossip about movies. She mentioned that Angelina studied the Disney cartoon extensively to ensure she portrayed Maleficent correctly down to her razor-sharp cheekbones.

I must admit I’ve only ever seen clips of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty, but what I’ve seen clearly depicted Maleficent as the bad character. All of Angelina’s efforts in makeup and costuming certainly went along with what I’d seen.

My biggest concern when it came time to watch the movie was that I wouldn’t be able to turn off my internal editor and enjoy watching. I worried that the makeup, costuming, cinematography, and scenery would distract from the storyline. It didn’t, and I was able to take it all in.

But let’s actually discuss the movie.

If anyone could rage onscreen with the strength of a betrayed woman scorned beyond all reason, it would be Angelina Jolie. Factor in those horns and cheekbones, and she’s one scary lady. That didn’t happen in Maleficent.

The backstory did a good job of explaining why Maleficent ended up bitter and angry, but along the way, someone decided to remove the teeth from what could have been an incredible tale. Maleficent was all bark and absolutely no bite.

Instead of watching the main character deteriorate into a sociopathic, homicidal maniac bent on the destruction of a kingdom via the cherished princess, we were treated to a kinder, gentler Maleficent. Seriously?

What was the point of making her look fierce if she’s going to offer a clause to her own curse, attempt to revoke said curse, grow close in heart to the victim of her curse, regret her own actions when the curse is fulfilled, and be the only one who could actually break the curse? These changes in script were bland at best and completely undermined the entire story.untitled (6)

Perhaps Disney was trying to make a subtle point? Bad people can be redeemed. Perhaps the writers and producers didn’t want to scare children? Take a look at what kids watch on TV. Has Disney forgotten how to portray good versus evil? They certainly blurred the lines this time.

I could ask many more questions and read many themes into Maleficent. Quite frankly, it’s just not worth it. For me, the movie didn’t satisfy, and I will be much more skeptical of the upcoming remake, Cinderella.

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