Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top Film List 2017

Lists of top films will often appear in newspapers and online at this time of the year. My wife and I are avid film fans but rarely go to the movies anymore. We prefer to stay home and watch dvds from Netflix or my own collection. Below find a list of films that we have enjoyed in the past year. This year, in addition to foreign films, I include some classic American “film noir” classics from 1947-8.  These black and white thrillers have stood the test of time and can be viewed over and over again.

To Live: Zhang Ximou, China’s most renowned filmmaker, directed this epic tale of four decades of Chinese political turmoil.  “To Live” follows the lives of one couple as they struggle to survive their own changing station within the upheaval of the Maoist revolution. As the years go by, bringing bizarre twists, tragic losses, and profound hope, the family perseveres, striving to reach a calm within the storm. The film stars the beautiful Gong Li.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi: Famed French film star Jean Gabin plays Max, a gentleman French gangster who hopes to retire after pulling off his last and most successful heist. However, things go wrong in this French film noir when Max’s partner is kidnapped by rival gangsters and held for ransom. Jacques Becker directed the film that also featured a young Jeanne Moreau and the streets of post-war Paris. 
Monsignor Quixote: Alec Guinness and Leo McKern star in this delightful adaptation of a novel by famed British author Graham Greene. Guinness plays an elderly Spanish priest who fancies himself a descendant of Don Quixote. Circumstances lead Fr. Quixote and his friend Sancho to embark on a series of adventures both comic and tragic in the years after the death of Generalissimo Franco. Although unavailable on dvd, it can be seen on YouTube.

Callas, Forever: Famed director Franco Zeffirelli beautifully recreates the magic, passion, and artistry of the opera diva who was also his longtime friend. Callas died tragically at the age of 53, and Zeffirelli presents an imaginative retelling of her last years. Beautiful French actress Fanny Ardant perfectly fits the role of Callas, capturing all her fiery intensity on and off the stage. Jeremy Irons co-stars. The film is a unique rare gem featuring actual sound recordings of Callas in performance.

Together: A young violin prodigy travels to modern Beijing with his peasant father to encounter the ways of the modern Chinese metropolis as well as the cut throat world of musical ambition. The encounter will test not only his musical ability but also his relationship with his simple father.  Famed Chinese director, Chen Kaige was inspired to make this film of the new Chinese cultural revolution partly by the fact that he was forced to denounce his own father as a “counter-revolutionary” during the Maoist revolution.

Babette’s Feast: a lovingly crafted tale of a French housekeeper with a mysterious past who brings quiet revolution in the form of one exquisite meal to a circle of starkly pious villagers in late nineteenth-century Denmark. This 1987 film, based on a story by Isak Denisen, won the Oscar for best foreign film. It stars French actress Stephane Audran in the title role. 

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum
Out of the Past: This 1947 film about a former private detective who is forced to get involved in a search for a gangster’s girlfriend is generally regarded as one of the best of all film noir. Robert Mitchum plays the detective and Jane Greer plays the sultry murderous moll. A young Kirk Douglas plays the gangster.

Nightmare Alley: Tyrone Power plays a two-bit conman working in a lowlife carnival who learns the tricks of a mind-reading act that elevates him to stardom. He brings his act to fancy nightclubs and becomes the toast of high society until he is finally exposed and brought down. This grim 1947 film portrays 1930s America as “a sleazy, run-down carnival, where everyone is either on the make, a born sucker, or trapped in a real or psychological cage.”

Body and Soul:  John Garfield delivers an Academy Award nomination performance in this film classic of a boxer who will do anything to rise to the top. The film also features Lilli Palmer and Anne Revere as the two women in his life. The climatic fight scene, filmed by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, puts the viewer right in the ring. 

 He Walked by Night: Richard Basehart stars in this tense police drama as a crafty and elusive thief who becomes a cop-killer. The 1948 film, set in Los Angeles, became the prototype for the famed TV series, Dragnet. Jack Webb, the creator of Dragnet, appears in a supporting role. The ending of the film is remarkably similar to the ending of the great film classic, “The Third Man.”

Happy New Year!!!


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Time is Here

What is the significance of the name, Jesus? We know that throughout their history the Jews have been reluctant to use the name of God. Whether this was due to reverence, awe, or fear is hard to say. Instead of naming God, they chose to refer to His activity in the world. Thus the word, "Jesus" literally means, as St. Matthew tells us, God saves. Similarly, Emmanuel means God is with us. 

In the gospels the birth of the Child will mean that God has entered our world in a special way. He will become one of us and from that day forward we will be able to call Him by his real Name, and even call Him brother. He can no longer be viewed as distant or unapproachable. We cannot imagine God as some angry old man in the skies waiting to throw lightning bolts at us when we step out of line. God is Love, and Love comes into the world at Christmas.

Just like the Jews of yesteryear we too need signs. Maybe there is nothing special about them. Maybe we just fail to recognize them. Maybe, we can just point to the signs expressed in Charley Brown's Christmas song.

                        Christmas time is here.
                        happiness and cheer,
                        fun for all that children
                        call their favorite time of year.

                        Snowflakes in the air,
                        carols everywhere,
                        olden times and ancient rhymes
                        and love and dreams to share.

                        Sleigh bells in the air,
                        beauty everywhere,
                        yuletide by the fireside
                        and joyful memories there.

                        Christmas time is here;
                        we'll be drawing near;
                        oh that we could always see
                        such spirit through the year,
                        such spirit through the year.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Stock Market Gains 2017

Kelly Evans on CNBC

Twice a week I go to a gym in a nearby Senior residential facility for a light workout. Most of the residents take exercise classes in the morning so when I go in the afternoon, I am virtually alone. I like to turn on the TV and watch the business news on CNBC for an hour. I like CNBC because it is much less political than Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. Also, during the commercials the stock ticker keeps streaming at the bottom of the screen.
I usually watch “The Closing Bell” jointly anchored by Kelly Evans and Bill Griffith. It is a real plus that Evans and the other women on the show, while as attractive as those on the other cable news networks, do not have to expose their legs or show excessive d├ęcolletage. They are free to report the news and interview their guests without appearing as bimbos.
Usually the pace is rapid fire with guest panelists going back and forth in the limited time available. Evans and Griffith are intelligent and curious questioners who do a good job of keeping their guests to the point. Often, the panelists will disagree and it is apparent that no one has the proverbial crystal ball. Even when they marshal impressive statistics, it is obvious that these can be interpreted in different ways. One guest recently argued that the improved earnings of a company would likely cause its stock to drop in price.
Once in a while, a breath of truth will come through the torrent of words. Just the other day a panel was discussing how the proposed cut in the corporate tax rate would affect the airlines. One commentator suggested that the airline companies might use the tax savings to buy back their own stock to the benefit of stockholders. But the other panelist pointed out that the cut in the corporate tax rate will have little effect on the airlines because they don’t pay tax anyway. What! Even the anchors gasped. He went on to explain that the airlines had such large loss carryovers that they would not have any tax liability for years no matter what the rate.
I thought this observation was right on the money. It should be obvious that rather than give up 35% of their profits corporations have found ways to shelter those profits from high tax rates. One of those ways was to shift operations overseas to lower tax countries, a tactic that the lower rate is designed to make less attractive.
I think most of the opposition to tax reform comes from people who just hate President Trump and do not want anything he supports to be successful. The well to do progressives who hate Trump should ask themselves how Trump has actually hurt them. Has the country really gone to Hell since his election over a year ago?
So far this year the major stock indexes have gone up dramatically. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) closed yesterday at 24504 up 24% so far this year. The tech heavy NASDAQ average has lagged the DJIA but still is up 17.64% this year, and the broad Standard and Poor’s stock average is up 19%.
I do not want to give President Trump credit for these gains although his critics will be quick to blame him if the market goes down next year. I suspect that the increase in stock prices has little to do with politics. The dramatic rise in the stock market began during the Obama administration and nothing that Trump or the Federal Reserve have done has impeded it.
In the first place, with returns on other investment being so low, where else have people been able to go to gain a decent return? Secondly, it would appear that the number of public companies is shrinking. We have high demand for stocks but the supply of eligible companies is getting lower. Whatever the cause, those who invest in the stock market do not seem to believe that the country is in bad shape after a year of Trump.
These stock gains have benefitted not just the rich but everyone. This year has seen record inflows of money into stock index and hedge funds. A large share of this money comes from pension funds. In effect, a pension fund that needs to average 8% a year has made two or three times that amount this year. Theoretically, it could just cash in and not make anything for another year or two.
People whose retirement savings are in 401k plans or IRAs have seen similar results. Anyone looking at their quarterly statement will see significant gains this year. The only problem is that their new contributions will buy fewer shares in their funds.
It could be argued that the poor do not share in these stock market gains but the poor paid very little tax under the present tax code, and will pay even less under the new. But business profits and stock market gains will allow well to do individuals to pay the taxes that shore up this country’s social service safety net.