My Day: “Burn After Reading”

I turned it off after it was half over.  not because it was a bad film, but because it was really a worthless film.  A CIA investigative agent gets demoted, and quits the agency.  He and his wife are having problems, but she has a boy friend, who has another wife.  So that’s one complication, especially as the agent doesn’t know about the boyfriend (although he knows the boyfriend).

In the meantime, the agent decides to write his memoirs.  It goes on a computer disc, which he loses and which is found at a local gym, where two of the people who find it decide, first, to return it (once the owner is identified), and second, to return it but ask for a reward, and, three (after several unpleasant communications with the agent) decide to ask for even more…….

This is where I quit.

But what is extraordinary about this film (which maybe you never really heard of) is the cast, which includes George Clooney and John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swain and Brad Pitt.  All those folks – but the film is just plain silly.

Yes, Malkovich is the agent, Swain his wife, Clooney her boyfriend (sorta), and Pitt and McDorman the blackmailers.  Bet you could have guessed that.

My Day: Around the World in 80 Days

Is Jules Verne for adults and adolescents?  I don’t know, even after reading this book.  And my other question is :  how come the film had that great hot air balloon, and there was no balloon in the book?  And I guess I have a third question, too.  Why isn’t his name Phineas Fogg, why is it Philius Fogg?

So, Philius, who is a reclusive Englishman who plays whist every day at his men’s club, makes a bet that he can go all around the world in 80 days.  This is still the 19th century, so that was about as fast as possible.  And he bets virtually everything he has.  And, with his newly hired valet, Passpartout, he takes off that very day.

For a while things go well, then there are some problems, largely because there was a big bank robbery in London, and someone decided that Philius is the culprit, which is why he is leaving town so quickly. and heading around the world.  So, a detective follows him, waiting for receipt of a warrant, so he can arrest him.  That’s fine, as long as they stay in the British Empire, including  in India where they rescue and damsel in distress, but once they hit China, all bests are off.

Transportation problems slow them down, but… luck he arrives 5 minutes before the end of 80 days, and gets the money and marries the damsel in distress, who is no longer in distress.  But he almost wound up with neither.  And why is that?  You have to read the book.


My Day: “Patrick Melrose”

A five part HBO series based on a number of “semi-autobiographical” novels by Edward St. Aubyn starring Benedict Cumberbatch.  What a weird series.  How unpleasant.  But, I think it is supposed to be.

Patrick is the only son of a dysfunctional father (a talented musician/composer who was trained as a doctor), who married a very wealthy dysfunctional woman and quit working, spending his days drinking, drinking, drinking, bossing his wife around, and abusing his son.  Patrick himself does not have his father’s talent or education, but drinks and takes drugs and is generally out of control.  Attractive to women, he is also married and has two sons, and spends most of his time out of control.  His mother owns a beautiful estate in the south of France, where Patrick and family vacation, but she decides to give it to a foundation run by a young new-age guru, leaving Patrick and his family out in the cold.  She dies, too.

Patrick’s wife leaves him, and at then end of the series he seems to be back with his old girlfriend, who has her own troubles.  Not sure what will happen after that.

The story line is not chronological, but goes back and forth, increasing a bit the confusion of the viewer, but then again, it makes little difference, because whichever generation you are looking at, whether Patrick is 5 or 45, someone is always drunk or stoned and out of control.  Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast do a fine job, but you can only do so much portraying the British idle rich.


My Day: Anthony Trollope and The Warden

I had never read Trollope and this seemed like an easy way to explore his writing.  I found the book an interesting period piece, but not one that I would recommend you put on your must-read list.

He’s the priest and warden of a rural church that has a connected residence for twelve aged, indigent men, a residence left to the church some time ago as a bequest.  The warden was put in this place by the presiding bishop, who also happens to be the father-in-law of the warden’s older daughter.  His younger daughter is unmarried, but in a 19th century English relationship with a young man whom today would be called an activist, looking to better the life of the poor and downtrodden.  (This reminded me of a book a read a month or two ago, Sybil, by Benjamin Disraeli, written about 20 years earlier but also centered on the difference between the wealthy and the much larger poorer classes of England.)

The warden is provided a good salary for his role with the old folks residence, which his daughter’s activist boy friend believes to be uncalled for,, thinking that the will bequeathing the building to the church required the earnings on the accompanying endowment be distributed in part to the residents of the building.  He arranges a lawsuit to the brought against his girl friend’s father, the bishop and the bishop’s son (his girl friend’s brother in law).  This does not go over well with the girl friend.

It also does not go over well with her father, the warden, one of the universe’s most noble beings, who thinks that maybe the lawsuit is appropriate and maybe he shouldn’t be receiving the annual salary he gets, which allows him and his daughter (he is a widower) to live as well as they do.

The activist and the girl friend make a deal.  One agrees to get the lawsuit dropped, and the other agrees to marry.  Simple.  But not so simple, because even if the suit is dropped, will the warden be satisfied to return to his financially comfortable life?

Won’t give you the answer to that one……

My Day: Amy Adams and “Sharp Edges”

I just finished watching the 8th and last episode on HBO of “Sharp Edges”, a series based on a book by Gillian Flynn, produced by and starring Amy Adams.  I used it as my most recent treadmill watching.  I guess it was good enough for that……but not for much else.

Not that Amy Adams did not do a good job, nor that the rest of the cast was not up to par.  The story line was just dumb (IMO) and there were some other problems as well.

My first problems were parochial.  The primary setting is the imaginary town of Wind Gap, Missouri, in the southeastern boot heel of the state.  The secondary setting is St. Louis, where Adams (her role is that of Camille) works as a cub reporter on the St. Louis Chronicle.  Obviously, there is no St. Louis Chronicle, which is problem number 1.  Secondly, most of the sights in St. Louis didn’t look like St. Louis.  That is problem 2.

But the bigger problem was Wind Gap.  Problem 3 is that it is hard to imagine a town in Missouri called Wind Gap; it is just not a Missouri type of name.  Secondly, looking at the town (relatively spiffy looking in large part), you know you are not in the boot heel of Missouri.  In fact, the series was filmed in a town in Georgia, and it looks much more like Georgia.  To deepen the problem of the looks of the town, there are a few sites outside of town where you see pleasant rolling hills.  If you know of any pleasant rolling hills in the boot heel of Missouri, please let me know where they are.  (This reminds me of the  other Missouri-set show of recent years – Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri – which was filmed in the mountains of western North Carolina.)  Further, the big house in Wind Gap where Camille grew up doesn’t look at all like Missouri.  A large, Victorian house, these scenes were filmed in northern California. As a St. Louis native, all these things bothered me.

Then there’s the plot. Camille is the daughter of the richest family in town. Her one sister died some years back, another one (actually a half sister) was an 8th grader in Wind Gap.  Camille had left and moved to St. Louis and become a journalist.  In addition, two other young girls were killed in Wind Gap and Camille is assigned to cover the story.  She moves back with her mother, stepfather, and young half sister while she is in town.  She and her mother have never gotten along and, perhaps as a result, Camille has been a very troubled person, unable to form any real relationships.

So, it’s the story of the small town and you meet a lot of people.  Her family, and their black maid (one of the few blacks in town, or so it seems, not the case in the boot heel).  The local sheriff.  The young, attractive law man from Kansas City brought to Wind Gap to help the sheriff (of course, over the sheriff’s objection). The families of the dead girls, and their friends.  And assorted (and sordid) others.

Who killed the girls?  Well, you know (without having been told) almost as soon as the series starts, but you aren’t really told until the end of the last episode.  Because most of the characters are in paid, or causing others pain, throughout the series, and because you know who did it and know nothing good will come out of the story line, you are anxious for the whole thing to end.  Say, in about episode 3.

There is little violence, some but not too much sex, but…….there just is a lot that is disgusting.  And this does not make this an attractive series to watch.


My Day: Motherless Brooklyn

I watched the recent film “Motherless Brooklyn” last night.  I thought it was a terrifically entertaining film.  But it’s a bit weird, because it has the same name, and the same central characters as the book Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem, but an almost totally different story line.  When lead actor Edward Norton took up the task of putting the book on film as both director and star, he did it in a unique way.  He rewrote the story line…..entirely.

It’s Brooklyn in the late 1950s.  There’s a small time detective, Frank Minna, who runs an odd agency with four younger men whom he mentored out of an orphanage years before. Frank is involved in something that seems less than legal, and is killed.  This happens in the very first few minutes of the film.  It is at this point that the book and film completely diverge.  The story of who killed Frank and why, and how the truth was discovered is different is completely changed, as are all the other characters who were in the book.

I don’t want to give away the plot line, only to tell you that it has to do with Robert Moses (renamed in the film, and not at all involved with the plot in the book), and his rebuilding of New York at the expense of the poor blacks and Latinos and their neighborhoods, and a secret that could expose him in the city where he exerts much more power than anyone else.  And that once the secret is discovered, the question is what to do about, and how to protect those who know from his unbridled ambition and his belief that he is, as he says, not “above the law”, but “in front of the law”.

It’s a long film, 2 1/2 hours, but I thought well worth it.

My Day: The Invisible Man

I haven’t really read much H.G. Wells.  Except for his extraordinary Experiment in Autobiography, which I reported on about a year ago, I believe.  Extraordinary and unique mind, good political instincts, out of sync with most of the world.

I just read his short novel, “The Invisible Man” – simple story: doctor begins to be interested in the prospect of light and why translucent substances are translucent, gives up medicine, figures out how to make first a cat and then himself disappear.  He thinks he will have a wonderful time, being able to go anywhere and do anything (and steal anything) without anyone seeing him.  But he hadn’t really thought it through, I guess – he is only invisible when naked, and his feet hurt when he walks and he is sensitive to the weather in winterish England.  And when he eats, you can see the food until it is completely digested.  (Toilet matters are not discussed, but must have been problematic.)

So he needs clothes, but then people can tell he has no face, or hands, so he needs gloves and a mask.  And he must eat alone, but how does he do that three times a day?

Yes, his life is not what he thought it would be.  And it is even worse than he first realized it was when people began to speculate that there was an invisible man afoot (speculation that he, in his sinisterly playful manner, abetted).

It would only be a matter of time.

Should you read the book?  It’s simple (except on the pages talking about reflection and refraction), takes no mental strength to understand and there is no moral ambiguity.  It’s by and large a relaxing read.  So why not?

My Day: Tolstoy’s “Tales of Sevastopol”

It’s the Crimean War, the 1850s.  The French (along with the Brits and Turks, I guess) are trying to capture the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol.  It was a long siege.  At first, the Russians were cocky, then struggling, then lost.  Eventually, led by the French, the allies took the city.  Eventually, Russia gave up on the war and lost access to its Black Sea fleet.

Tolstoy wrote three short stories (together about 200 pages), taking place in December, in May, in August.  The stories follow Russian soldiers and officers, determined and then frustrated, and then worried, but afraid to let their fear show.  No organization, no leadership, injury and death follows injury and death, the civilian town disappears, it gets more desperate by the page.

The fog of war.  The horror of war.  Nothing ever changes.

Three Unrelated Books (Man in the Shadows, The Prisoner of Zenda, and God Sleeps in Ruanda

I guess it would be hard to find three books more different from each other, but these are the last three I have read.

Man In the Shadows (or “Inside the Middle East Crisis by a Man Who Led the Mossad) is Efraim Halevy’s memoir.  Halevy was in Israel’s Mossad for about 30 years and led it from 1998 to 2002. Born and raised in England, his writing is clear and smooth.  He is careful to note that he is going to discuss anything that was clandestine, and he was not going to permit other people to get into trouble because of his book.

That doesn’t mean, though, that he doesn’t have a lot to talk about.  Some philosophical, and some transactional.

He discusses the role of the Mossad, and of intelligence generally.  How it has changed over time.  How intelligence and administration have come closer together.  How the Mossad has been called upon to assist the prime minister in activities which would not normally qualify as intelligence.  (Reminds me of what’s happening today – with Mossad helping acquire medical equipment to help fight the coronavirus in Israel.)  In part it’s because the administration doesn’t trust the normal administrative channels, and because no one trusts traditional intelligence.

On the transactional side, the largest section of the book is devoted to the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel in the early 1990s, where Halevy was the prime minister’s main agent.  The PM was Rabin, and he and Halevy were obviously quite close.  It was Halevy, then vice head of Mossad, who was given the main job of negotiating with the Jordanians and who held several meetings with King Hussein.  He also writes about the times when the Mossad screwed things up, how things had to be made whole, how faith in intelligence would be compromised, such as when Mossad misfired when they tried to assassinate a top Hamas official in Lebanon.

Halevy talks a lot about the personalities of the various prime ministers.  He was closest to Rabin, he never trusted Peres, he thought Barak incompetent, he thought that Shamir was underrated and quitethoughtful, and I think I would conclude that he was somewhat ambiguous towards Netanyahu.

A lot packed into fewer than 300 pages.  Too much to remember.

The Prisoner of Zenda was written by Anthony Hope.  I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know what The Prizoner of Zenda was – a book? a film?

Turns out it was originally a book, and a rather short book written in the 1890s in England.  And what’s more, it’s the kind of book I would usually pass over, but……I really enjoyed it.

It’s a simple story – a young Englishman is a distant relation to the royal family of the Kingdom of Ruritania.  But he is a distant cousin through an improper liaison several generations back. And has had no contact with his royal relatives.  But a new king is to be crowned in Ruritania and our hero decides he will go to the coronation.

He didn’t know that the new king’s half brother thought that he, not the presumptive heir to the throne, should be the new king.  So with wicked stepbrother takes him prisoner at his home in Zenda.

But the presumptive king’s friends meet up with the Englishman in the forest and discover that he is the spitting image of the prince.  So they convince him to pretend that he is the king and go through the coronation, which he does.

The rest of the story is how he frees the real king, and goes back to England where he presumably is still living happily ever after.  Half adventure/half fun.  Flows right along.

Joseph Sebarenzi grew up a Tutsi in Rwanda, going away to school across the river in Congo. He married a fellow Tutsi while still in Congo, they moved back to Rwanda and then to Burundi.  He wanted the family to move to the United States, and he was hear, in advance of wife and children, when the massacre occurred in Rwanda.  His wife and children were fine, but his parents and most of his siblings were killed.  Nevertheless, they went back to Rwanda and within a few years he was the speaker of the Rwandan legislature.  He held that job for three years until pushed out by the would-be dictator of the country, Joseph Kagame.  Kagame is still in Rwanda; the Sebarenzis have been in the US for about 15 years.  Life goes on…..until it doesn’t.

A very touching book, a very sad book, but a very human book.  Gives a good, readable history of Rwanda in the pre-colonial days, after the Germans and then the Belgians became the colonial masters, and after colonialism.  How the Belgians manipulated the Tutsis and the Hutus against each other, and how that legacy continued, breaking out in riots and killings from time to time, exploding finally with the death of almost 1,000,000 in the 90s.  And how the United Nations and the Clinton administration ignored it all until too late.

Worth reading.