Dad in Training

In this French film, we meet Antoine, the Dad in Training, who’s a mess as an adult. He’s a music producer and has little regular work. In the opening scene he’s begging for funding for the latest singer he’s found. It doesn’t look like that recording will get off the ground. At home, he contributes little financially and nil as far as child care of his two delightful daughters.

His wife Alice reaches a breaking point. The couple separate legally and Alice sends the two girls to Antoine for him to take care of for two weeks. She goes incommunicado so Antoine must manage juggling both his music career and figuring out how to be a father, how to get a 6 year old to take her medicine, how to console a nine year old daughter, who thinks she’s responsible for her parent’s separation and how to feed two kids when money’s tight. His sister often helps out and offers a realistic, sometimes critical but always true view of Antoine’s life.

As the story progresses, after various gaffes hooking up and with online dating, and Antoine does grow up as a father. Alice is impressed, but will they get back together?

All the performances rang true. I liked Antoine’s sister’s role as she offered real advice without pulling any punches. The ending was real and certainly not what a Hollywood film would have done. A definite thumbs up.

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Antony and Cleopatra

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The 1971 film, Antony and Cleopatra film starring, written & directed by Charlton Heston. It was a grand epic and I think today a director would be more naturalistic, which isn’t necessarily bad. I did appreciate the grandeur and pretty much expected that in a Heston production.

I was surprised by the amount of skin shown. We see Charlton Heston in a thong-like loin cloth and some women’s bare backsides. It was the early 70s and Antony and Cleopatra were led by their desires and Cleopatra’s court was hedonistic in Shakespeare. (Earlier Chaucer wrote about Cleopatra and she was more of a “good wife,” more nurturing and romantic.)

The film did make parts of the play, which I read for my online book club, clearer.

The film was able to show the scale of the battles and their brutality, which was quite gory, but how things would have been. While it wasn’t perfect, I got the sense that the film did include authentic aspects of the Ancient World.It reinforced my attitudes toward the characters–they weren’t at all admirable, but they were compelling as great people who suffered great falls.

As I watched I wondered why Shakespeare had all three servants–Iras, Charmian, and Eros–commit suicide for their masters. Such blind loyalty. I wondered how Shakespeare’s contemporaries thought of that. I wondered why no one went on to move on with their lives. Two women killed themselves for Cleopatra. Wow. Was she worth dying for? Ladies, you could have had a better life post-Cleopatra.

There was a scene in the film that really struck me. In Act 2, Scene 2 when Caesar and Lepidus are conferring Caesar’s watching two gladiators spar. Then Antony walks in and he and Caesar . All the while the gladiators spar and are quite violent. Therefore there was a good tension between the veiled, polite language Antony and Cleopatra use and the increasing fighting Caesar’s seeing.

Things to Come

Everytown, UK, circa 1970

Everytown, UK, circa 1970

H. G. Wells wrote Things to Come (1936) is a wild wide of speculative science fiction. I do wonder what people in 1936 thought of it. The plot revolves around war, never ending war that starts on Christmas in Everytown, UK. The world war drags on and leads to a plague causing civilization to decline. By the 1970s the plague is over but a tyrant obsesses over continuing the fighting. This maniac, dressed in a tattered WWII era uniform which he accessorizes with a barbaric animal skin, bullies and rages mostly against the scientists and aviators in his city. Yet he’s no match for the league of engineers and scientists of Wings over the World who live in a prosperous, sane society where logic and reason rule.

After the Wings over the World defeat the brute and his ragged army, we leap to 2045, where every building is sleek and people dress in Jetson-like attire with the one difference that men wear sleek, short Roman looking skirts or shorts. The head of the government is played by an actor who plays a rational man in 1936, and the emissary of Wings over the World in 1970. He’s the progeny of these earlier men. His personality, regal and scientific, is the same from generation to generation. He’s keen to send his daughter and a young man up into outer space via a high tech canon. A rebel tries to stop this voyage railing that this constant movement to progress is bad for society.

The set is brilliant. In the 1960s and 70s Everytown is falling apart. Every wall is decaying. Not one object is new or in good shape. The tyrant’s coffee pot has lost its handle. People use old cars as carriages drawn by horses. That’s the best metaphor for how the war has impacted society. In the sleek, 2040s era everything’s shiny and sleek. No doubt this set inspired subsequent futuristic films.

Everytown, UK, 2045

Everytown, UK, 2045

Since history didn’t exactly pan out the way Things to Come envisioned. The film amused me more than than anything else. The characters we’re to align with are so earnest in their dire prophecies. Unlike 1984 or The Brave New World, I don’t see any metaphoric parallels in civilization. It’s more of an example of early sci fi than a film with a message for me.

Kings of Pastry

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The epitome of achievement in the world of French pastry is the M.O.F., a pastry chef who’s merited the prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition (Best Craftsmen in France). The documentary The Kings of Pastry takes viewers into the world of the intense competition. MOF chefs receive a red, white and blue collar and a medal from the president of France.

The film follows Jacquy Pfeiffer, co-founder of Chicago’s French Pastry School, as he vies for the supreme honor. We see Pfeiffer and two other chefs preparing and competing. They must create a wedding cake, sugar sculpture, buffet of pastries under strict rules in three days.

The film is engrossing as it goes deeper than the average TV cooking competition and really examines the passion and craftsmanship of the pastry world. It did make me crave some delectable, sophisticated treats so you’ve been warned.

The End of the Affair

end of the affair My online bookclub read Graham Greene‘s masterful The End of the Affair. I love how he makes Christian theology and faith real and meaningful to his characters – even nonbelievers. I’m impressed that he can make unlikeable people engaging despite their flaws. He captures Bendrix, the narrator, Sarah (the wife/mistress), Henry (the cuckolded husband) and the priest and the atheist preacher in such a way that you feel that God really does love them and us when we’re so flawed.

Here are some more thoughts:

I read this book years ago, but don’t remember how long ago. I now realize that it’s a book for mature readers, or one that the over 30 (maybe 35) crowd must get much better than young adults.

I loved how Greene writes from the point of view of an ordinary man, i.e. not a monster or villain, but a middle class, educated man who must seem quite normal to all around him and how he fills this man with self-acknowledged, un adulterated hate. It’s bold and honest. My guess is few if any writers today would deal with such a strong emotion without overdoing it or making the character implausible.

I loved how theology is absolutely in the water, air and earth of this world. The characters, all non-believers for most of the book, grapple with sophisticated ideas about God in a deep, unflinching way. Again this is bold and I don’t see it much in the modern era. I wonder how an atheist would take this book. Many seem to like their Christians to be simple-minded, superstitious fools (straw men)  and a good many of us just don’t fit that mold. Since Greene carefully chose his characters’ traits and background I wonder who his imagined audience was. Was he trying to show non-believers the Christian God more so than to write for “the choir”?

I thought the writing was so masterful and the phrasing strong and riveting. That made the book a “quick” read, while there were also several passages I underlined and hope to remember or come back to.

There is amazing power and significance in a love story with a “sad” ending. (Yet is the break up of an affair sad? I think Greene would say no. I’d agree.) Because we have so few stories that have the courage to take this route, readers and viewers don’t get to experience this catharsis and emotion. It’s quite sophisticated to have an audience experience a character walking away from a relationship. The marketers don’t understand that they’re stunting American audiences’ emotional growth by mainly (only) giving us stories that provide the happy endings that young people crave. I just showed one of my classes Once, a film where the couple doesn’t wind up together. It’s a beautiful, compelling story, rather noble actually.

I’ve been digging around the internet and found some articles on the book. I’m plowing through one scholarly article that looks at desire and desire. It’s quite erudite so it’s slow reading, but I think it’s worth it. I’ll offer more insights soon.

There’s a recorded version of the book with Colin Firth as the narrator, which should be worthwhile and there’s a fairly recent movie that changed the ending, which I won’t bother with.

Auntie Mame

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On my flight home I got to see the delightful Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell. How did I escape this film? Well, I was born too late, that’s one reason.

The story revolves around free spirt Mame, who becomes the guardian of her nephew Patrick, who’s orphaned. She’s a smart, unconventional, vivacious woman who lives life to the fullest. When she enrolls Patrick in a school with clothing optional, the bank trustee ships him off to boarding school.

Too bad. While she’s unorthodox, she does love Patrick and there was never any signs that he’d become a danger to himself or society under her watch. He would have wound up much less of a stick in the mud if he stayed with her. Yet their relationship continues and they remain connected as Mame travels the world, marries and is soon widowed.

The film is smart, funny and entertaining. Few comedies, if any, nowadays strike the notes Auntie Mame does. It’s a real treasure.

Never Sorry

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Be prepared to be blown away. Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry packs quite a punch. This documentary shows Chinese artist cum activist Ai Wei Wei as he stands up for victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and seeks justice after police break into his hotel room in Chengdu and beat him.

The film fascinated me. It follows Ai as he tries to get the government to publish the real numbers of students who died in the flimsy school buildings in Sichuan. With newsreel footage and interviews, it shows the torture and abuse his father endured in the 1950s. The documentary shows Ai in New York where he started his art career and in Europe installing current works. Filmmakers follow him as he pursues justice after being beaten by police and detained so that he was unable to testify on behalf of another Chinese activist, who was found guilty.

Ai is mesmerizing. He’s bold, audacious, brave, down-to-earth and shrewd. He’s figured out the power of social media and despite the government’s censorship has attracted a following of Chinese who share his desire for transparency and democracy. These folks aren’t just spectators as we see when Ai protests the government mandated demolition of the studio the government told him to build, hordes show up for his protest. They know they’re being watched and recorded and are willing to take that risk.

Ai knows what the government’s up to and finds clever ways to show it for what it is. Though he doubts he can win, he works within the system seeking justice from the police whom illegally knocked in his hotel room door, beat and detained him. By recording every step of his bureaucratic quest for justice, he shows the world how the government works and that all is not well in the new China.

I found the interviews with fellow artists and Evan Osnos of the New Yorker insightful and trenchant. They show how people who care about China will stick their necks out to make it better, even though they doubt they’ll see improvement.

Living in China myself, I see the good parts and know that experiences like Ai’s and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo‘s are true, but it’s so easy to forget. I’m grateful for this movie that reminds me and fleshes out Ai WeiWei’s life and work.

Ai Wei Wei’s Gangnam Style Parody