They Shall Not Grow Old – a movie review

These men were filmed as they sheltered in a road cut , waiting for the order to advance at the Somme. According to Peter Jackson, most of them died in the next 30 minutes.

Since its release last November, I’ve wanted to see Peter Jackson’s First World War documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. On Monday I got my chance.

As the film opens, Jackson explains that in 2014, he was invited by the London Imperial War Museum to create a documentary using their 100 hours of archival footage from the Western Front. The only conditions were that he use their film in “unique” ways, and that the project be finished in time for the centennial of the armistice in November, 2018.

After the credits run, Jackson details the incredible effort and technology that transformed the jerky, black and white footage from film making’s infancy, into a movie that offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of the men who fought, suffered, and died because it seemed their patriotic duty, only to come home to signs reading, “No ex-military need apply” when they went to look for civilian jobs. Continue reading

The Crazy Wisdom of Mr. Rogers

Fred Rogers and fan in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” this summer’s biographical film about Fred Rogers, he says “Love – or its absence, is all that really matters.” The sincerity and quiet strength of the man, an ordained minister who chose to express this philosophy through the medium of children’s television, is one of the reasons the movie won a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As I watched Rogers’ interaction with children, the only comparison I could think of was clips I’ve seen of the Dalai Lama with young people. Both men – bodhisattvas by any reckoning – never lost their connection to the wonders and terrors of childhood.

I also thought of Saint Francis during the scene of Fred Rogers with Koko the Gorilla, who watched him on TV and was a fan.

At the end of the movie, we see a world that is changing for the worse. In a clip from a Fox News broadcast, commentators condemn Rogers for teaching children that they are all precious and lovable just the way they are. Let that sink in for a moment!

After his death, protestors gathered across from his memorial service to condemned him, not because they thought he was gay (he wasn’t), but because he accepted gays. One child in the crowd who looked miserable – in contrast to the children on Mr. Rogers’ show – held a sign reading, “God Hates America.” If Rogers had been there, he might have reminded the child and his parents that Jesus’ response to everyone he met was, “Neither do I condemn you.”

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first aired 50 years ago this summer. Watching this movie, I thought of the voice-over during the opening scene of Gandhi: “People of the future will find it hard to believe that such a man existed.”

Fifty years ago, America felt like felt like a nation torn apart: an escalating war in Vietnam; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed; the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the police riot at the Democratic convention, were punctuation marks in a year of one bad headline after another. Frightening times, yes, but no one living then would have ever imagined a summer in which we’d see children caged in concentration camps as a fascist administration, emulating the tactics of 20th century dictators, tries to stir up anger and fear at a people convenient to scapegoat. Fred Rogers would have been heartbroken!

What would he have done?

The movie showed Rogers’ testimony before a congressional committee that seemed determined to gut funding for PBS. With quiet sincerity, in a brief speech, he convinced them to do otherwise. He would have certainly found a way to speak before congress.

Beyond that, it’s impossible to say, but it seems that those who behave as heroes in the face of naked evil – people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and others, find ways to avoid growing numb in the face of repeated outrage, while keeping the anger alive, but under control, so it can be harnessed as energy.

One thing Mr. Rogers would have certainly told us is this: in the 2014 midterm elections, only seven states saw a voter turnout higher than 50% (source: The United States Elections Project). He would have made certain that every child in the audience understood how important it is that this November be different.

Now that Rogers is gone, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves!

Mystic Mountain

Tsering Dhondup, born in Lhasa, Tibet, was 10 when he and his father walked over Himalayan passes to exile in India. Recalling the experience, he says, “In order to take my mind off the dangers that lurked beneath each step of the formidable Himalayan passes, my father told me a story so terrifying and riveting that it haunts me to this day!  Mystic Mountain is the story, it is also the rope that held me to life and helped me cross the Himalayas as a child.”

Dhondup now lives in San Jose, CA, where he translates Tibetan Buddhist teachings into English. He wrote and directed Mystic Mountain, a film version of the story his father told him, both because it’s a compelling psychological thriller, and “to help preserve the Tibetan language and enrich Tibetan oral storytelling.” Mystic Mountain was filmed in Nepal, close to the Tibetan border, where the often brooding landscape itself is a powerful presence.

After Kunga, the chief of a remote village is killed by sorcery and his body is stolen, his son, Tsewang, sets out to find the corpse. Everyone suspects Migmar, a sorcerer, who has gained black magic powers through worshipping Yama, the Lord of Death.

Everyone fears Migmar except a young girl, who understands how lonely he is, for she has the same feelings. The nature of the bond between the girl and the sorcerer is one of the core issues that unfolds as the movie progresses. You can watch the trailer here:

Mystic Mountain, produced by Snow Lion Films can be rented on Vimeo.

Additional information on the film and the filmmaker is available also. An 11 minute interview with Tsering Dhondup was broadcast in San Jose in 2015.

Anyone fascinated by the lore, the legends, and landscape of Tibet, as I am will enjoy this intimate glimpse into a land of mystery, legend, stark beauty, and people who live from the  heart.

 

A Fake World

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” – Edgar Allen Poe

The world’s spiritual traditions tend to agree with these words Poe wrote in 1849, the year of his death. To Hindus, this world is “maya,” meaning “a magic show, an illusion where things appear to be present but are not what they seem.” (1)

Buddhists call it “samsara,” a Sanskrit word for “wandering through, flowing on, aimless and directionless wandering,” signifying the involuntary cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we grasp the true nature of appearances (2).

Jesus warned his followers that this is not the place to store up riches. In 1999, the Matrix reframed the appearance/reality question for the twenty-first century.

Being spiritual, doesn’t give anyone a pass on consensus reality. As Ram Dass put it, “We have to remember our Buddha nature and our social security number.” 

Navigating samsara has never been easy. Truth is hard enough to discover when we are sincere, let alone when we are not. That’s one reason why Buddha placed a special emphasis on truth as a core value. Not lying was one of his Five Precepts. He said, “When anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, they will not do” (3). Continue reading

Notes from 2017 – The Hollow Crown

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in PBS series, "The Hollow Crown."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in PBS series, “The Hollow Crown.”

I invite everyone to look at the magnificent productions of three of Shakespeare’s histories on PBS, on a series entitled, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses.

I’ll have more of to say on this in days ahead, for it bears directly on the stuff of our current and recent headlines – people who desperately quest for temporal power, but that can wait, because right now, and only for a while, you can watch the full movies online!

Watch these – they are great productions with star-studded casts!.

Henry VI, Part 1 – expires Jan 3, 2017.

Henry VI, Part 2 – expires Jan 10, 2017

Richard III – expires Jan 17, 2017

Enjoy, and make a contribution to PBS if you do!

Hell or High Water: a movie review

Ben Foster and Chris Pine in “Hell or High Water’

Hell or High Water came out last summer. It ran only briefly in one local theater, so I finally caught it on iTunes yesterday.  I’d planed to see it since reading an editorial that claimed Hell or High Water captured the mood of the country – at least the country between the coasts – better than any of the volumes of election year analyses.

Watching it, I remembered another great movie of hard times, Tender Mercies, 1983, but that was a film of redemption. There’s no redemption in Hell or High Water, just dry laughter at desperate measures aimed at overcoming desperate circumstance. “There’ll be no peace,” Jeff Bridges tells Pine in the closing scene. “This will  haunt you all the rest of your days. And me too.”

Two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), a divorced father, and Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-convict, begin robbing branches of the Texas Midland Bank. Their mother died owing the bank $32,000 and back taxes after taking out a reverse-mortgage to save her failing cattle ranch. When oil is discovered on the land, the bank issues a foreclosure notice. Toby and Tanner set out to steal money from the bank to redeem the mortgage it holds.

The robberies are too small to interest the FBI, so Texas Rangers, Marcus (Jeff Bridges)  and Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are assigned to the case. On the trail of the brothers, Alberto tells Marcus, “A hundred and fifty years ago, your great grandparents stole this country from my people. Now the banks are stealing it from you.”

Alberto’s ambivalence is mirrored by other people the rangers and the brothers encounter on their way to the inevitable showdown. Toby leaves a cafe waitress a $200 tip with stolen money. When the rangers arrive and demand the bills to check for fingerprints, the waitress says, “Get a damn warrant. This is half of a month’s mortgage. All I care about is keeping a roof over my daughter’s head.”

This is a country where hope for anything more than survival is missing. Thirty years ago, Tender Mercies showed Robert Duvall’s redemption from alchohol through the power of love and faith. In Hell or High Water, the only love is fast sex after a winning night at an Indian casino. The only reference to faith is Bridges’ comments on a TV evangelist – “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.”

Hell or High Water is not a depressing movie; it’s a sad movie. There’s a difference. The lonesome beauty of the land mirrors the towns that are falling apart, while the soundtrack, with songs from artists like Townes Van Zandt and Ray Wiley Hubbard, echoes the mood. Bridges’ world weary humor, and the brothers’ awareness of the irony of robbing the bank to pay the bank give us humor and moments of laughter even as a darker story unfolds.

Movies set in rural Texas have long depicted dying towns and troubled times. Think of The Last Picture Show, 1971, or No Country for Old Men, 2007. This one is filled with more topical references than any of the others. In one scene, the rangers stop as a couple of cowboys drive a small herd of cattle across the blacktop, fleeing a prairie fire that paints the sky an ugly black behind them. “It’s the 21st century,” one of the cowboys tells Bridges, “No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

I’m not sure a single a single political pundit has captured as accurately the reasons this country voted the way it did in the recent election. At the same time, there’s a power in this movie I think will endure beyond any socio-economic circumstance. As Jeff Bridges character puts it, I think it will haunt the viewer for a long time.

hell-or-high-water-graffiti

R.I.P. Professor Snape

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Creative Commons

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape. Creative Commons

We’ve lost another British luminary to cancer at the too-young age of 69.

Alan Rickman, whom Harry Potter fans remember as the tortured and acerbic Professor of Potions, is gone.  Tributes have poured into social media sites from those who knew and worked with him.

Daniel Radcliffe, who played Harry, wrote “As an actor he was one of the first of the adults on Potter to treat me like a peer rather than a child.”

J.K. Rowling offered a tribute, and Emma Watson, who played Hermione said,“I’m very sad to hear about Alan today. I feel so lucky to have worked and spent time with such a special man and actor. I’ll really miss our conversations. RIP Alan. We love you.”

That about says it all.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens

It’s like coming home 30 years later.

Minor spoilers – nothing you won’t see in other reviews.

The Empire is gone, but the First Order has risen to menace those who would live free. A young woman named Rey lives as a scavenger on a barren planet, waiting for her family, taken by First Order when she was a child, to return.  She has little else to live for until a mysterious droid, bearing a critical message for the Resistance, appears in the desert, followed closely by Finn, a First Order defector, with storm troopers hot on his heels. The pair make a narrow escape on the Millennial Falcon, which had been sold for scrap.

Sound familiar?  It is, down to such elements as a bad-ass intergalactic bar and a woman of Yoda’s race, but it works, for the faces and circumstances are fresh, and the story of young people waking up to their courage never grows old.

And there is plenty for those old enough to have seen the original Star Wars in theaters. Leia and Han have split up, and the latter is back with Chewie in his familiar role as a rogue, sought by intergalactic bad guys for non-payment of funds. Necessity calls him back to the aid of the Resistance, however.

The Death Star is gone but a new, bigger and badder planet-killing weapon threatens all that is good.  Vader is gone, but Kylo Ren, son of a pair we know and love, has gone to the dark side and wears a mask.  The battle is joined. Rey and Finn team up to battle Kylo, but this is only the start of their fight.

In the end it is Rey who finds Luke, last of the Jedi, in exile and brings him the message, “You are needed.”

To be continued:  serious cheers for that!