A Must-See Movie: FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER

FIRST THEY KILLED MY FATHER: Loung Ung’s book has been powerfully brought to the screen by Angelina Jolie.

Loung Ung’s fascinating yet horrific book about her survival of the brutal and sick Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, First They Killed My Father, has finally become a movie.

I really have to hand it to Angelina Jolie.  I don’t know her personally, so I’m not shilling, but she’s someone who became a goodwill ambassador to the UN awhile back, which, by the way, was also chronicled in her fascinating book, Notes from my Travels.  She has been raising awareness of the problems in nations like Cambodia ever since.

So it was no surprise when I read the good news online that First They Killed My Father was being made into a movie and that Angelina Jolie was producing it.

The movie follows the story of Loung Ung, age five in 1975 at the beginning, whose happy life with her military man father, mother and several loving siblings in Cambodia is completely disrupted, then destroyed, by the Khmer Rouge takeover of the country.  It’s brilliantly done by showing the bizarre story unfold through Loung’s young and disbelieving eyes.

Wait.  Let me amend that.  Loung is hardly the only one who cannot make sense of what went on when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Neither could the adults who were there at the time, let alone all those of us who weren’t there, thank God, and only heard about the insane events later.

Loung’s gentle father is not the only one the rogue Rouge regime kills.  A quarter of the population of Cambodia did not survive the Khmer Rouge’s psycho system of starving, overworking, and outright murdering anyone who didn’t appear to be in line with their “revolutionary” philosophy, whether they be from the military, educated, in the upper classes, etc.  As seems to be the norm with a lot of the more brutal regimes of the Twentieth Century, this one was obsessed with making everyone into “equals.”  It never works, but those who want it to can go pretty crazy with their ideas of implementation.  The Khmer Rouge went more berserk with that “equality” crap than most.  The entire population becomes enslaved by the Khmer Rouge, who have guns pointed at them as they force them to give up their homes, possessions, former lives, and so on, putting them to work in work camps.  Question, though: how “equal” can people be if one group has guns on the other, then forces them to do all the work?

Sareum Srey Moch does a spectacular job at playing Loung Ung, a child fed with more propaganda than food who somehow manages to hold onto her humanity in spite of every insane thing that is happening around her.  This is a performance worthy of an award, and so is Angelina Jolie’s vivid direction.  As many times as someone can read  about the Khmer Rouge’s takeover of their own beleaguered nation, seeing it played out on the screen packs a wallop.

Get the movie, folks.  It’s on Netflix.  You can see the trailer here:

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What a Book! THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A cautionary tale about a double-agent.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen is more than just a book.  It’s like a force of nature.

The unnamed narrator is the illegitimate son of a North Vietnamese teenager and a priest.  He’s of “two minds,” as a result, or rather, he thinks he is, “torn” between two different cultures, Vietnamese and French, Asian and Caucasian, etc.  He grows up with a whole lot of ridicule and bullying, due to his mixed heritage, and believes it makes him someone who can understand situations from “two sides.”

Oh, really?

He may believe so, but he also aligns himself, secretly and wholeheartedly, with one side over the other.  One of his best friends trains him as a North Vietnamese spy for the Viet Cong.  Meanwhile, he also makes a big but fake show of spying for the CIA…

I won’t say any more, since I don’t like to add spoilers, but I will say this.  The story may be set in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, and is fascinating in and of itself, as a result, but it can also serve very well as a cautionary tale for today’s polarized Americans.  Careful, folks!  Don’t base your entire identity on your politics.  You may be in for a rude awakening.

 

 

 

Broadway Musical Fans, Here’s a Book Recommendation for You!

SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman: one singular sensation of a Broadway book!

If you love musicals – and I’ve loved them my whole life – then have I got a book for you!  Run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore, or better yet log onto your Amazon account, and check out SHOWSTOPPERS! by Gerald Nachman.

I’ve always enjoyed hearing about the back story of how theatrical works are put together.  In this book, Gerald Nachman presents a fascinating, detailed, beautifully researched account of Broadway hit songs and the legions of people who made them happen.

For example, have you ever heard of a 1964 Broadway show called A Damned Exasperating Woman?  Of course not.  That’s because, after Jerry Herman wrote a song that Louis Armstrong liked so much he recorded and released it before the show in question opened.  The song became such a hit it was decided that the show should be named for the song.  Its title?  Hello, Dolly!    The new revival that just opened, starring Bette Midler,  is breaking box office records right now, 53 years later, and while Louis Armstrong is long gone (and missed), we’re all still singing that song.

The back story of the music of Hello, Dolly! is just one of the dozens of fabulous behind-the-scenes-to-before-the-floodlights chapters in this book.  Ever wonder about the differences between the partnerships of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein?  Curious about the real Annie Oakley, who inspired the Irving Berlin musical Annie, Get Your Gun, which was written with Ethel Merman in mind?  Want to find out more about another Annie, the one who was adopted by Daddy Warbucks?  Then this is the book for you.

The chapter that I personally found the most interesting is the one about the song “Wilkommen” in Cabaret.  But let me back up here.  I found the record one day when I was home sick from school as a kid, played the songs and adored them from that point on.  I’ve always particularly loved “Wilkommen,” where the Emcee of a Weimar Berlin cabaret, played by Joel Grey, welcomes the guests in German, English and French.  The song is at once a great show tune and a miniature language lesson in the bargain.  But keep in mind, the first time I played the song, I heard it.  I did not see it acted on a stage.  I didn’t know Joel Grey came out on the stage wearing bizarre make-up.  Until reading SHOWSTOPPERS!, I did not realize that the number, the first in the show, was staged to deliberately set a creepy tone for the audience and let them know what kind of theatrical evening they were in for.  Those who missed seeing many of these classics performed live  the first time around will surely welcome the chance to hear these stories.  They’re certainly giving me a new appreciation of many of my old cast albums.

This book is a treat.  Love Broadway?  Go for it!

 

IN ORDER TO LIVE by Yeonmi Park

IN ORDER TO LIVE by Yeonmi Park. Eye-opening on so many levels!

Want to know details on what’s going on in North Korea?  Read IN ORDER TO LIVE: A NORTH KOREAN GIRL’S JOURNEY TO FREEDOM by Yeonmi Park.

This is a horrifying book.  It begins in North Korea, where Yeonmi’s family cannot get ahead because they’re in the wrong political “caste,” and where their straits are increasingly  dire.  There’s a famine.  There’s the arrest of Yeonmi’s enterprising father, who was utilizing some unorthodox methods to make ends meet.  There are problems regarding the bribing of officials, medical staff, train conductors, and all sorts of people.  North Korea is a country where just about everybody who works anywhere has got their hands out in some direction, often, as in the case of the medical personnel little Yeonmi had to contend with when she was in the hospital, expecting a payoff simply for doing their jobs.

But just when you think the girl’s problems might be over after she crosses a frozen river on a cold winter night and escapes to China, they don’t!  It’s when she and her mother leave North Korea behind, and wind up in China as illegal aliens, that even more horrors begin…

As always, I don’t want to add any spoilers and reveal too much of the rest of the story.  I just want to recommend it, and add that it’s a “doozie.”  Read it if you’re not faint of heart and want to find out more about what the North Koreans go through.

God bless Yeonmi and her family, and the people they left behind in North Korea as well.

And P.S.: Shame on China for not doing a whole lot more to help North Korean economic refugees!  The horrors the illegal North Koreans were put through would not exist if China would have the balls to show them some mercy.  Come on, China – step up to the plate!

Lucille Ball Would Have Been Perfect in a Non-Musical Remake of “AUNTIE MAME”

Lucille Ball as the lovable character “MAME.”

Lucille Ball, they say, was terribly miscast in the title role of the movie MAME.  It’s been uttered so many times you’d think it was a universal truth.  “Lucy was too old.”  “Lucy couldn’t sing.”  “Angela Lansbury played it better on Broadway.”  I could  recite the list of reasons why they say she shouldn’t have done it the way she did it in my sleep.

And yet…

If you take away the distracting, and ridiculous, soft-focus shots they used to film her close-ups, which the movie could well have done without,  and if the singing numbers had been dubbed, what would you have?  The lady’s acting in the role of irrepressible, unconventional “Mame Dennis” can hardly be faulted.  She nails every scene, and not as a “Lucy Ricardo” type, either.  If I hadn’t grown up on “I Love Lucy” reruns, I never even would have guessed this part was played by the same actress.

Take the scene where she’s fired from the department store.  She’s tried on the roller skates to demonstrate them for her handsome customer, “Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside.”  She gets fired from the job.  She can’t get out of the skates because she’s knotted the laces.

What does Mame do?  Well, first let’s look at what she ought to do, what anyone else in her position back then would have done.  After all, it’s a scene set in 1929, she’s broke, the world is a different, stuffier place, and to be a lady accidentally on skates out in public in a store is supposed to be mightily embarrassing.  Yet watch the scene.  The character holds herself up high, as if being stuck in those skates is an honor, not a disaster.  She makes it look deliberate, a matter of pride, yet it’s all subtly done.

I imitated her stance for years, after seeing this movie as a child, whenever I got myself into a bit of a jam.  If life gives you lemons, stand tall, even if you’re five foot one, like me, and make some lemonade, folks.  Wherever you are, Lucy, thank you so much for that scene!

I only wish that Lucy had tried to make a remake of AUNTIE MAME, the non-musical movie version of the same basic story that was made in the 1950’s and starred Rosalind Russell.  Yes, Lucy in the musical was a mistake, but if she had starred in AUNTIE MAME, sans the unnecessary gauzy close-ups and songs, I think she’d have been remembered well for it, and rather than going down in motion picture history as something of a bad joke, it would be remembered as a good movie.

And let me add this: I hate it that Lucy took abuse for this movie!  Her version was the very first one I saw of this story, so Lucy was “my Mame.”  The joy and love and fun of this movie gave me a whole new perspective – and even got me through several godawful years at a terrible, abusive school.  Wherever you are, I say, BRAVA, Lucy!  Just wish I could have told you in person.

 

Stunning in every outfit: Lucy as MAME.

AMERICAN HEIRESS by Jeffrey Toobin

AMERICAN HEIRESS tells the bizarre story of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst.

Do you remember the Patty Hearst kidnapping?  I certainly do!  It happened while I was in the seventh grade, and it was the major news story of 1974, at least until Nixon resigned.  It got even more attention than the latest hilarious craze: streaking.  That kidnapping was a crazy story of countercultural revolutionaries run amok and had more twists and turns than a snake.

Patricia Hearst, grandchild of ultra-wealthy newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, was first kidnapped from her apartment by a group calling themselves the “Symbionese Liberation Army.”  It was an interesting title.  “Symbionese” is not a word, and that was one of the first things I remember hearing about the story after Patricia was taken.

What happened next, after Patricia was forcibly removed from her home at gunpoint, is still a source of some debate.  Her parents were instructed by the Symbionese Liberation Army to give food packages to the poor as a “good faith gesture” to ensure the 19-year-old’s release. Meanwhile, they kept Patricia locked in a closet, blindfolded, where she was justifiably terrified.  Some of the kidnappers took turns sitting outside of the closet door and subjected her to anti-American and Marxist harangues.  These were violent people, involved in not only this kidnapping but others, carjackings, bank robberies, and even a murder, yet they didn’t like “society” and wanted to “transform” it.  (Into what?)  Patricia, stuck in a closet, had no choice but to listen to this stream of nonsense.  Within a few weeks, the case took its first incomprehensible turn when Patricia claimed she had decided to join that “Army” of the people who had kidnapped her, and didn’t wish to be released.  What the…?

Even as it happened, the country was captivated by the seeming mystery of it.  I recall a very horrible tape playing on the radio of Patricia calling her parents “those pigs the Hearsts,” not long after they gave away a fortune in food to the poor to try to ensure her safe return.  I was twelve years old – and appalled.  Why would Patricia turn against her own parents, who had spent a fortune on the food giveaway in the hopes of “ransoming” her, and toward her kidnappers?  Why would she side with this spooky, shadowy Symbionese Liberation Army, anyway, after they burst into her house with a gun?  Did she really mean what she said, or was it possible that she had been brainwashed?

And just as the rest of us, all over the country, were wondering about those questions, the situation became even more convoluted about a month later: Patricia took the revolutionary name of “Tania,” then joined her new “comrades” in robbing a bank!  There was even a security tape to prove it.

Last weekend when I saw Jeffrey Toobin’s book,  AMERICAN HEIRESS: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patricia Hearst, had come out in paperback and was sitting on a table at my favorite Barnes & Noble, I eagerly bought it.  It’s an impeccably researched book – bravo, Mr. Toobin! – and brought back a flood of memories.  I can vividly recall reading about the case in a “Weekly Reader” in my mint-green-painted 7th grade Social Studies class, though I can’t remember much else of what we read that year in that little publication; seeing another article about it at my grandfather’s house, in a magazine that had Patricia as “Tania” on the cover, holding a gun; watching the news footage when a house that was surrounded by the FBI was burning down, with many of the “Army,” but not Patricia, still in it…

Nobody knew what to make of Patricia’s “transformation” into a “revolutionary” at the time, and no one is sure what to think about it even yet.  Yet Jeffrey Toobin’s book brings up a whole other mystery about the case of which I wasn’t aware until I read it.  The so-called “Symbionese Liberation Army” turned out to be comprised not of legions of units of soldiers but of eight young discontented assorted nuts.  There had been ten, but two were in jail for a murder they didn’t commit.  It was three of the members who kidnapped Patricia who were the real murderers.

These people were the oddest collection of malcontents imaginable.  The leader, for example, is a prison escapee, often drunk, who was believed to be a schizophrenic by a prison psychiatrist, so you can imagine what kind of people were his acolytes.  The descriptions of each one are fascinating to read, though reminiscent of watching a train wreck, where you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away, either.  AMERICAN HEIRESS is a page-turner and a jaw-dropper.  What a cast of characters!  And after reading about the members of this, ahem, “army,” there’s a new riddle to add to all the others about the unreal saga, and it’s this.  How did those eight lunatics manage to summon the logic to pull off any crimes in the first place, with guns, yet, without anyone shooting themselves in the feet?

This book needs to be made into a movie!

Splendiferous Movie Recommendation: HIDDEN FIGURES

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Janelle Monae, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in HIDDEN FIGURES.

Would you like to see a movie that will make you stand up and cheer, and not just once, but several times?  Then I can’t recommend a better one than HIDDEN FIGURES!

It’s 1961, and the United States is in a mad competition with the Soviet Union to win the “space race.”  Far behind the scenes, three gutsy and incredibly gifted African American women are working as human “computers” at NASA in Virginia.  Their talents are being well utilized by the powers that be…but the unenlightened time period is such that the ladies, and the rest of their friends in the Computing division, are being subjected to one segregated indignity after another…

I never like to include “spoilers” in blog posts about shows and movies so I don’t want to say too much more about the plot of this wonderful and layered film, except that the three lead actresses are terrific.  Katherine, played by Taraji P. Henson, is a mathematical genius and also a widow raising three lovely little girls; that Janelle Monae, as Mary Jackson, dreams of becoming an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer, is already working as her unit’s unofficial supervisor but has yet to get officially promoted.  Oh, and in addition, they’re all part of the team at NASA that’s frantically trying to get a man on the moon…

I’m already planning  to see this movie again, I liked it so much.  HIDDEN FIGURES won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast.  It’s also rightfully been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and so is Octavia Spencer, for Best Supporting Actress.  My only wish is that Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae  could have been nominated as well, because they were equally superb.  Kevin Costner is also fascinating to watch as Katherine’s initially-remote boss.

Meanwhile, get out of the house and go to see HIDDEN FIGURES.  These ladies will remind you that it’s always a good idea to reach for the stars!

Here’s the trailer: HIDDEN FIGURES