Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Year-end film picks 2015

Alain Delon in
Le Samourai
The following is my list of top foreign films viewed this past year. The list will rival any top film list of 2015. Personally, they are all favorites of mine. The short video below shows Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel at the top of their reviewing form. They are discussing the German film classic, "M", that starred a young Peter Lorre, and Jean Pierre Melville's masterpiece, Le Samouri, which they call one of the greatest and most influential films of all time.

The Band's Visit: A fading Egyptian police band arrives in Israel to play at the Arab Cultural Center. When they take the wrong bus, the band members find themselves in a desolate Israeli village. With no other option than to spend the night with the local townspeople, the two distinctly different cultures realize the universal bonds of love, music, and life. (Israel)

Enchanted April: Stifled British wives Lottie (Josie Lawrence) and Rose (Miranda Richardson) rent an Italian villa for a husbandless vacation. Sharing the retreat are acerbic widow Mrs. Fisher (Oscar nominee Joan Plowright) and socialite Caroline d’Este (Polly Walker). The four spend a month savoring newfound freedom and the opportunity for self-discovery. This film also featured Michael Kitchen, Alfred Molina, and Jim Broadbent at the outset of their notable film careers. (England)

“12”: This powerful Russian film directed by famed director Nikita Mikhalkov is the story of a room full of jurors from all different levels of Russian society who are thrown together to determine the fate of a young man accused of murdering his stepfather. Each juror powerfully reveals his own story as they seek to discover the truth about the murder and themselves. (Russia)

The Lunch Box: In the bustling Indian metropolis of Mumbai, housewives still prepare hot lunches for their office- working husbands. A dedicated courier service delivers the lunch box right to the desk each day. The lives of two people are forever changed when one lunch box is delivered to the wrong desk. (India)

Mid-August Lunch ( Pranzo di Ferragosto): Gianni Di Gregorio stars in and directs this charming tale from Italy of great food, feisty ladies, and unlikely friendships. The setting is a weekend in a deserted Rome during the dog days of summer. (Italy)

Le Samourai: Alain Delon, who looks and acts a lot like the young Clint Eastwood, plays a contract killer with samurai instincts in this film by renowned French director, Jean-Pierre Melville. The film is a mixture of 1940s American gangster movies, 1960s French pop culture, and Japanese lone-warrior mythology. Shot is subdued color, Melville’s masterpiece defines cool. (France)

Of Gods and Men: This French film is based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibeherine in Algeria from 1993 to 1996. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear passes through the region. The army offers the monks protection, but they refuse. Should they leave? Or should they stay and continue to minister to the local Moslem community despite the growing menace in their midst? (France)

Not One Less: In the crushing poverty of rural China, a young woman is ordered to a remote village to be a substitute teacher. Barely older than her students, the shy girl is charged with keeping the class intact for a month or she won’t be paid. Faced with overwhelming family debt, her biggest little troublemaker disappears into the city to find work. The stubborn teacher, however, is determined to follow the boy and bring him back to school. The film, directed by famed Chinese film director, Zhang Yimou, is based on a true story. (China)

Note: Click here for the Siskel and Ebert video or view it below.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Symbol

Rockefeller Center (click on image to enlarge)

The Christmas tree remains one of the most popular symbols of the Christmas season. Whether a simple tree in our home or the most magnificently decorated tree in a public place like Rockefeller Center the tree bears the same meaning.

In a wonderful book on so-called children's stories entitled "The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove",  G. Ronald Murphy S.J. explained the origins and meaning of the tree and its decorations. 
The evergreen tree has found its most lasting and most emotional place in our culture, without a doubt, in the Christmas tree, an amalgam of Germanic legend and the Cross. In December of every year the tree comes into the house. A tree inside the home after all the centuries that have passed is quite miracle enough. To glorify and celebrate its ancient, compassionate magic power, it is decorated with lights (with burning candles in Germany!) and with tinsel, to make sure it looks radiantly stolid and happy despite the cold and ice. Then a star is placed at its peak, since Wise Men must surely find their way to this tree. Below the tree, as if he had just emerged from its trunk, the true source of the warmth of the Tree of the Universe and its power to renew life, encouragement, and protection against all the kinds of cold, is lying in a manger: the newborn child. *

                         O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves.
                        you are ever green, not only during the summer,
                        but even during the winter when the snow falls.
                        O Tannenbaum, O tannenbaum,
                        how faithful are your leaves.

Click here for a brief video of the song that contains a clip from Joyeux Noel, a French film about the christmas battlefield truce in the first year of WWI. Or view the video below. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

San Bernardino, Newtown, and Violence

The recent mass shooting by a husband and wife team of Islamic terrorists in San Bernardino has once again led to the same kind of debate that followed the terrible massacre of 20 children and six teachers in a kindergarten classroom in Newtown three years ago. Once again, the inevitable voices are heard. On the one hand, President Obama has led the pack in calling for increased gun control. On the other hand, many criticize the President's reluctance to even use the term "Islamic terrorist", and some like Donald Trump have even called for a ban on future Moslem immigration to the USA. 

Islamic radicalism was not an issue in Newtown three years ago but in the aftermath of that tragedy similar lines were drawn. The governor of Connecticut led the charge for stricter gun control laws but others argued that the focus should be on the mentally ill young killer who wielded the weapons. Three years ago I wondered why people on both sides of the issue preferred to "demonize" each other instead of working together. I still feel the same way and reprint my Newtown article below since the response to San Bernardino has been much the same. 


I know that violent acts are going on all over the world but the massacre of twenty innocent children and six school staff in Newtown hit so close to home that it broke through our psychological firewall.

Since the tragedy innumerable words have been written and by now the newspapers are full of articles and letters offering solutions to the problem. Inevitably, most take a one sided view. Some writers call for stricter gun control laws. Others decry the violence in our entertainment media and overall culture. Finally, others call for reforms in treatment of the so-called violent mentally ill.

I would like to suggest all of the above. It seems striking to me that most advocates of stricter gun control are also ardent defenders of Hollywood’s right to do whatever it pleases in depicting violence. At the same time, opponents of violence in the media are often strong supporters of gun ownership. It seems that it is time for those on both the left and the right to come together and adopt each other’s solutions.

I have never owned a gun and never plan to own one, but I know very good people who do. Two beloved uncles were avid hunters, and so is my younger brother, a retired NYPD officer who also happens to be a fanatic about gun safety.
Even before the massacre of the children and their teachers in Newtown, it was hard for me to understand the intransigence of some people on both sides of the issue of gun control. On the one hand, I have never been able to understand why a hunter might require an assault rifle or a handgun that is just about the modern equivalent of the machine guns that were banned in the 1930s.

On the other hand, I am aware that even states like Connecticut that have the most stringent gun-control laws are among those with the most violent crime rates. Bridgeport, Connecticut is usually among the Nation’s leaders in firearm related murders. Frankly, I believe that the possibility that a one of my neighbors might actually own a revolver is a real deterrent to crime in my neighborhood.

Still, I don’t believe that the right to bear arms allows me or my neighbor to assemble an arsenal fit for a SWAT team. We have banned especially lethal firearms in the past and we can do it again. I know that criminals will probably find ways to get their hands on assault rifles, but the supply could be limited at the source.

While we are at it, I think that there is another so-called right that needs to be somewhat restricted. Why is it that proponents of stricter gun control laws never seem to oppose the acts of violence that appear daily in films, video games, and on TV?  The release of a new film this Christmas season was delayed because of the massacre in Newtown. Was it perhaps because the film begins with a rooftop sniper looking through his scope at a young girl? You could be watching “Miracle on 34th St.” this season only to see it interrupted by commercials for films full of bloodshed. I can’t imagine the violence that my grandchildren see on their video games where they themselves become the shooter.

Maybe, most of us wouldn’t be led to commit acts of violence by witnessing violence, but what about the mentally ill? Some will say that exposure to this violence does no harm. Some also argue that it limits free speech and stifles artistic creativity.   If what people see on TV does not influence behavior, why do advertisers spend so much money promoting their wares, or politicians buy so much ad-time to get elected?

As far as artistic creativity is concerned, I believe that I can make a very strong case for censorship. During the 1930s the film industry adopted the now infamous “Production Code.” Faced with the threat of government censorship resulting from a public outcry, Hollywood agreed to police itself. Any new film would have to be reviewed and modified it if failed to meet certain set standards. The Production code was abandoned decades ago but modern filmmakers and critics still bemoan the censorship that gripped Hollywood.

Recently, Turner Classic Movies released DVD sets of some of the pre-code films and a reviewer in the Wall St. Journal thought that the Code had been a great tragedy. However, in his own review he could only point to one or two films of even limited value from the pre-Code era. He failed to mention that the adoption of the infamous Code coincided with what most critics regard as the Golden Age of film.

For example, 1939 is regarded as one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. “Gone with the Wind” swept most of the Oscars, but moviegoers that year also saw: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Stagecoach; the Wizard of Oz; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; and Dark Victory. The next two years saw the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca—two of the greatest films of all time. Restrictions on the so-called creativity of producers, directors, and artists only forced them to greater heights of excellence.

The  Newtown massacre occurred right in the midst of the Christmas season. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people on both sides of the political spectrum could come together next year to make America a more peaceful society? 


Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Memorial

Today, December 7, marks the anniversary of the Japanese devastating surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning almost 75 years ago. Being only two years old at the time I have no personal recollection of the terrible event but do remember that my parents pulled the window shades down during air raid alerts later in the war.

Nevertheless, I’ve always had a great interest in WWII. As a thirteen year old I watched on TV NBC’s epic 1952 series “Victory at Sea” that ran for half an hour on Sundays for almost a year. The black and white wartime footage, the narration by actor Alexander Scourby, and the musical score by Richard Rogers all came together to make for riveting viewing. (episodes can be viewed on youtube)

Maybe it was “Victory at Sea” that led me to devour Samuel Eliot Morison’s monumental and magisterial twelve volume account of the US Naval operations in WWII while a graduate History student at Columbia University. It was easy to put aside the readings assigned in classes in favor of Morison’s great history.  Morison was a sailor as well as an historian. Before the war he had already written his definitive account of the career of Christopher Columbus after personally tracing the explorers voyages in a sailboat. When the war broke out he was recruited by the Navy to be its official historian.

The result was one of the great histories of all time. The Navy managed to get Morison on the scene before many naval engagements and his writing is full of eyewitness testimony. He loved the Navy but was not a propagandist. He pulled no punches especially when examining the activity or inactivity that led to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. (It is available in a one volume abridgement)

My wife and I did get a chance to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial many years later in 2000. We were in Hawaii at a company convention where I was to be inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame in recognition of long years of service as a financial advisor. I suppose it could have been considered the high point of my career, but it paled in significance when we went to visit the Memorial shrine to those who lost their lives that day.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial is one of the great achievements of government architecture. You don’t just walk in. You check in and then join a small group of other tourists. After viewing a really good brief documentary, our group boarded a small motor launch that took us out to the Memorial built atop the ruins of the sunken battleship USS Arizona, a cemetery for the seamen who went down with their ship that day.

 It was an incredibly moving experience. However, the presence of many Japanese nationals at the site that day was the most moving thing. They had come to lay flowers in honor of the deceased. I guess the process of healing had begun many years before when after inflicting incredible destruction upon Japan during the War, the United States decided to help in rebuilding the devastated nation.

The Japanese could have been reduced to slavery or at least a cruel oppression. Yet, the USA decided to allow the conquered Japanese to be free and eventually self-governing. The result was a miracle. Today we drive Japanese cars and watch TVs made in Japan. Who could have imagined 74 years ago that baseball players named Matsui, Tanaka, or Suzuki would have become New York Yankees?


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Russia: Friend or Foe?

Who has more business in the Middle East?

The recent Islamic terrorist attack in Paris has led the French government to respond with air strikes against ISIS in Syria. These events might lead American politicians to re-evaluate their thinking about the Russian military intervention in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in his two-pronged struggle against Syrian rebels on one front, and ISIS militants on the other.

In a recent Republican debate front-runner Donald Trump supported Putin’s intervention and argued that the United States can no longer act as the world’s “policeman.” In response, Jeb Bush argued that the United States should not give up its leadership role in world affairs. There is something to be said for both positions but sometimes leadership means stepping back from untenable positions and recognizing one’s limitations.

What could be President Putin’s motives for entering the Syrian conflict? I could think of a number of them but the first one that comes to mind might be his fear that the Islamic revolution could spread to his own borders. Any observer can see that the so-called “Arab Spring” has been a disaster. The toppling of “strongmen” or dictators in Libya and Egypt has led to chaos in Libya and military rule in Egypt.

If you look at a map of modern Russia you will see that almost its entire southern border is made up of non-Russian states whose population is overwhelmingly Islamic. ISIS and other Islamist militants pose a much greater threat to Russia than they do to the United States or Europe. When Russia lobs its cruise missiles into Syria, they only have to travel 1000 miles compared to the 6000 miles or so that separate the USA from the area.

The ISIS terror and bloodshed in Syria and Iraq certainly must be stopped but why can’t American politicians and commentators see that if the USA can ask England, France, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to help, why can’t we accept a role for Russia?

After the Second World War and the total defeat of Germany and Japan, we set about rebuilding those two battered nations. We had learned the lesson of the First World War where the victorious powers kept a foot on the throat of defeated Germany by saddling it with an enormous war debt.  The resulting chaos in Germany led to the rise of Hitler, the Nazis and the Second World War. As a result of the USA’s participation in the political and economic recovery of Germany and Japan after WWII, these two countries have become real allies. 

However, after the defeat of the Soviet Empire in the “Cold War”, we still continued to regard Russia as an enemy.  As former Soviet “republics” gained independence from a Russia in both political and economic chaos, we stepped up the pressure by welcoming them into the Western orbit, and, in some cases, even letting them become members of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, a military organization formed after WWII to counter the Soviet threat.

Today, Russia strikes me as Europe’s Canada. It has tremendous oil and natural gas reserves and both Europe and the now independent former Soviet republics are major customers. Wouldn’t it be in the interests of the USA to regard Russia as an ally and not an enemy?
It is true that Russia recently reclaimed its long-time sovereignty over the Crimea and is making threatening gestures in eastern Ukraine. But how many people are being beaten, raped, tortured or beheaded in the Crimea? The Crimea has literally disappeared from the news.

Someone should ask the Ukrainians if they prefer their current independent status within the Russian sphere of influence, or if they would prefer to be in the middle of an all out shooting war? The Ukrainians are major users of Russian oil and gas. We should consider whether it would be better for the Ukraine to be independent of both Russia and NATO.

Nevertheless, the USA and its NATO allies continue to call for increasing military and political pressure on Russia. Just this week NATO has offered membership to Montenegro, a tiny republic in the Balkan Peninsula that has only recently gained its independence from Serbia. Most of the NATO members provide little military or economic to NATO but it will add another country to the list of those that could involve NATO and the USA in a terrible war.

Last year we remembered the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War that began with a political assassination in a small Balkan state. Now we should remember the terrible fighting of 1915 and 1916 that caused millions to lose their lives in the trenches. The USA and Russia have much in common. It would be much better if we were allies rather than enemies.