Friday, October 21, 2016

Movie Review—The Girl on the Train

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by Peter J. O'Connell

The Girl on the Train. Released: Oct. 2016. Runtime: 112 mins. MPAA Rating: R for violence, sexual content, language and nudity. 

Every weekday Rachel (Emily Blunt), along with thousands of commuters, rides the train into New York City from the suburbs. The commuters reach Grand Central and go out to their jobs. Rachel doesn't. The attractive but sadfaced young woman sits in the terminal all day. Sometimes she sketches some kind of vague scene taking place in a dark tunnel. At the end of the day, Rachel rides back to the suburbs, where she is staying with a friend from her college days (Laura Prepon). 

On her train ride, Rachel tends to become animated only when she looks out the window at a certain two houses near each other and the railroad tracks. Why is Rachel sad? Why is she interested in these two houses? Why does she ride the train so much?

Rachel does these things because her life is, so to speak, a “trainwreck.” She is an alcoholic struggling to recover. And she is a depressed divorcee, whose ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), had criticized her for being infertile and placed blame for his loss of a job on her drinking. Now Tom and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and infant daughter live in the house near the tracks that used to be Tom and Rachel's home.

The second house that obsesses Rachel belongs to another couple, Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett). Rachel fantasizes that the couple is a very happy one, but then she believes that she sees something involving Megan that shocks her. When Megan is reported missing, Rachel seeks to become part of the investigation of her disappearance.   
                                                                                                                                                                         The investigation is led by Detective Riley (Allison Janney), who actually suspects that Rachel may have some role in whatever happened to Megan. Rachel had engaged in some stalking-type behavior toward Tom and Anna, and Megan was both a neighbor of that couple and a nanny for their daughter. Meanwhile, it begins to seem that if Rachel can figure out the significance of the tunnel scene that she draws, she may gain insight into Megan's fate.

The Girl on the Train develops as both a psychological thriller and a psychological drama of the type more often found in Continental European films than Anglo-American ones. The time frame is fractured; events are out of chronological sequence. There are flashbacks by several characters. The bond between reality and fantasy is sometimes tenuous. Some characters resemble each other. There are many closeups. Much of the film is visuals and dialogue rather than action—though the action is intense when it does occur. 

All of this makes Girl a motion-picture puzzle. The audience can work up a mental sweat trying to put the pieces together so as to learn what is going on or has gone on—just as Rachel struggles to understand the truth about her past and present and that of the other characters. But once the truth becomes known, the “exercising” audience can “cool down,” for the film's climax is chilling. 

Emily Blunt as Rachel is quite simply superb. Her expressive face, though often of a haunted mien, can movingly convey a range of emotions. Blessed in the choice of lead actress, director Tate Taylor's film also uses cinematography in creative and effective ways through changes of focus and lighting linked to plot points and character development. For an audience willing to “work out,” The Girl on the Train offers enjoyable exercise.

Movie Review—The Birth of a Nation

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by Peter J. O'Connell

The Birth of a Nation. Released: Oct. 2016. Runtime: 120 mins. MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.

D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, is a landmark in cinema history. Watching this three-hour-long epic, we can see many of the basic techniques of motion pictures being used for the first time. The film is also a landmark in American history. Its depiction of the Reconstruction period after the Civil War as one in which rapacious blacks threatened white womanhood fed into the racism of the early 20th century and played a role in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which became a powerful force nationally in the 1920s. The film's racism was so intense that many of the roles of blacks were played by white actors in blackface.   

Now African-American filmmaker Nate Parker has directed and co-written a film with the same title as Griffith's. As Parker says: “I've reclaimed this title and repurposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America., to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.”

Parker seeks to achieve this ambitious goal through a portrayal of the life of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. We first see Nat as a highly intelligent child whose seemingly innate ability to read is fostered by Elizabeth Turner (Penelope Ann Miller), wife of the owner of the plantation where Nat lives and where he plays with Elizabeth's son, Samuel. 

Time passes, and adult Nat (now played by Nate Parker himself) is working in the cotton fields. One day adult Samuel (now played by Armie Hammer) and Nat witness a slave auction. Nat persuades Samuel to buy Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who becomes Nat's wife.

Nat's knowledge of the Bible from his reading leads to his being allowed to preach to the slaves of the plantation, provided that he preaches the sections of the Bible that counsel slaves to obey their masters. Eventually, a minister (Mark Boone, Jr.) suggests that the financially constrained Samuel take Nat around to neighboring plantations to preach the gospel of submission for a fee that Samuel will collect. Samuel agrees.

In his travels around the area, Nat sees the many cruelties that slaves are routinely subjected to. Atrocity strikes home when Cherry is gang-raped by some white men. Nat becomes more and more defiant and begins to preach from the parts of the Bible that call for struggle against oppression. For this Samuel has Nat flogged.

Nat decides that the time has come for the slaves to strike back, and he organizes a bloody revolt in which a number of white women, children and men (including Samuel) are killed. The retaliation by whites is even bloodier than the violence perpetrated by the slaves. Yet Nat Turner's rebellion sends shock waves around the country and becomes an inspiration to later black efforts for liberation.

Parker's Birth accurately shows that most plantations were relatively small-scale operations rather than lavish estates a la Gone With the Wind. It also depicts well the complex relationships that existed between masters and slaves and among different generations and groupings of slaves. The severe production constraints that Parker operated under—a minuscule (by Hollywood standards) budget of $10 million and a shooting schedule of only 27 days—prevent his film from being an epic such as Griffith's film. But Parker makes the most of what he has.

As an actor, Parker's portrayal of Nat is always adequate, sometimes compelling. The supporting performances range from merely “generic” ones to fine ones. Does Parker fully achieve the goal stated earlier? Each viewer will have to decide that for himself or herself. But Parker deserves much credit for bringing a momentous, though often neglected, episode of American history to light.

“Footnotes” to the film: (1) Griffith's Birth featured the attempted rape of a white woman by a black man. Parker's Birth presents Nat Turner's rebellion as sparked by the rape of Turner's wife by white men. Yet according to “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” compiled by a white attorney in 1831, Turner stated that his revolt was inspired by religious visions. Nate Parker, lauded during the “Oscars so white” controversy earlier this year, has since come under attack because he was charged with rape in 1999. At trial, however, he was acquitted. (2) Burn! (1969), by Italian leftist director Gillo Pontecorvo, is a powerful, but unjustly neglected, epic film about a slave revolt in the Caribbean. It stars Marlon Brando, Evaristo Marquez and Renato Salvatori.   

Monday, October 17, 2016

Movie Review—Deepwater Horizon

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by Peter J. O'Connell                                                                                                                                                    

Deepwater Horizon. Released: Sept. 2016. Runtime: 107 mins. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language. 

Near the beginning of Deepwater Horizon, a seabird flies into the rotor of a helicopter. Luckily, the copter survives the encounter; the bird doesn't. This incident can be seen as both a foreshadowing and a salute. The copter is taking workers to the huge Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. This fact-based movie will depict the disaster that destroyed the rig, killed 11 workers and caused months of ecological devastation over a wide area. That is what is foreshadowed. 

The salute may be to Sully, a film playing in many of the same multiplexes as Deepwater Horizon. Both films deal with how seasoned professionals showed better judgment than corporate or bureaucratic “elites.” Sully depicts how a looming disaster caused by birds flying into an airplane's engines was averted and how second-guessing by bureaucrats was refuted. Deepwater Horizon shows how the advice of working professionals was ignored, with catastrophic results.

The working professionals aboard that helicopter headed for the Deepwater Horizon are crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), a weathered veteran of many rigs, and a younger man, electronics expert Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg). Once on the rig, Harrell and Williams are urged by Donald Vidrine, a “ragin' Cajun” representing British Petroleum, owner of the rig, to speed up the current drilling, which is occurring more than a mile below the surface of the Gulf, so that a new area can be tapped. Harrell and Williams advise against this but are overruled. Not long after this confrontation, the seabed, weakened by the speeded-up drilling, gives way, and a massive upshoot of oil begins—and doesn't stop.  

The oil spews all over the rig, causing catastrophic fires and explosions. The movie at this point becomes a spectacular, very convincing pyrotechnic display. The computer-generated imagery (CGI) is superb, some of the best ever created. The fine cinematography and editing add to the powerful effect.

Harrell and Williams are heroic in the midst of the holocaust, helping to save some of the 100-plus crew, though, tragically, some workers are killed. Eventually, rescuers arrive on the scene, but the ecological disaster has begun—as symbolized by, again, a seabird, an oil-covered pelican that goes berserk on the rig. 

Deepwater Horizon is an exciting and moving tribute to the “everyday heroes” who do the hard work that keeps the economy going—despite dangers that may be involved, especially when greed, arrogance and ignorance rule instead of experience. The heroes of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy are excellently embodied by Wahlberg and, especially, Russell. Malkovich is effective in his role, but it is the kind of role familiar to him from other films. Peter Berg's direction deserves a salute for his equally effective handling of both the dramatic and spectacle scenes.     


Friday, October 14, 2016

How to Make Better Than the Box Macaroni and Cheese

Homemade Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

At home, I almost always make macaroni and cheese from scratch — or I did until a few years ago. Somehow, it fell out of the rotation and on the rare occasion macaroni and cheese did appear in our house, I resorted to a box.
I’m not very fond of the box, but sometimes it hits the spot.
After that long not making my own, the muscle memory that made me able to whip up homemade macaroni and cheese almost on autopilot faded. I started to forget why it mattered to me in the first place. It wasn’t a priority anymore. I couldn’t even tell you why that happened — I just wasn’t making it and was taking the easiest route on the rare occasion I did.
It’s weird how that sometimes happens: something that mattered so much — like cooking from scratch being a priority for me — falls by the wayside and we start to forget why we did it in the first place. Click here to continue reading.

How to Choose the Right Medicare Plans

Many beneficiaries make costly mistakes, says this author

You think Social Security’s rules for claiming benefits are complicated? They’re nothing compared to Medicare, says Philip Moeller, author of the massively helpful new book, Get What’s Yours for Medicare.  
“I think Medicare is easily as hard as Social Security and perhaps harder, to the extent that once you make your Social Security benefit choice, you’re by and large done,” said Moeller. “But once you’ve picked your Medicare plans, you’re not done at all. Not only do you need to learn how to use them, but you should evaluate them on a regular basis to ensure you have the best coverage year in and year out.”
With Medicare Open Enrollment starting this Saturday (and lasting through Dec. 7), this is an especially opportune time to get wise about Medicare. That’s true whether you’re 65 and about to enroll for the first time; you’re a current Medicare beneficiary and want to make smart decisions for 2017; you’re in your late 50s or early 60s and need to begin learning how Medicare works or you want to help your parents make the best decisions for their Medicare coverage. All of these types of people would find Moeller’s book extremely useul, I think. Click here to continue reading.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Westport Police warn of suspicious people going door to door

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WESTPORT — Police are warning residents that there have been reports of suspicious people knocking on doors in town, and that an arrest has been made in connection with recent burglaries in the Greens Farms and Easton Road sections.
“While these burglaries remain under investigation, we have received additional reports from residents in these areas that suspicious people have knocked on their doors,’’ Lt. David Farrell said in a prepared statement Thursday. 
“When the resident answers the door, the individuals come up with a fabricated story about an internet posting or a broken down vehicle,’’ Farrell said. “These encounters end with the suspicious men leaving the area and police being notified. Police believe this is a tactic for the suspects to identify an unoccupied residence.’’ Click here to continue reading.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Cut Salt Intake Without Flavor Loss — Family Caregiver Quick Tip

Image result for salt shaker

Bland, boring and tasteless food is something none of us enjoy eating.
That’s especially true of our seniors who may have waning appetites.
Seniors are at even more at risk for bad appetites, as some of their medications may be causing unpleasant taste sensations in their mouth, inhibiting their meal consumption.
Many seniors also have been told for years, and maybe with even more insistence lately, they need to lower their salt (sodium chloride) intake to control their blood pressure or fluid retention.
Some of our seniors have been salting their food their entire lives and don’t want to stop now.
The bad part is that it isn’t just about the salt from the shaker, as some of the food choices we make out of convenience and availability are adding more sodium than most of us need for the whole day. Many foods we all eat add sodium to our menus which could surprise us once we read the labels.
How can our seniors still enjoy the foods they eat and cut down on sodium? It can be done!

Why Should We Lower The Sodium?

A new study published in Stroke confirms a direct link between salt intake and stroke.
It is estimated that 100,000 deaths each year could be prevented with sodium restrictions.
We know that lowering our sodium intake will help us manage our blood pressure, even if the exact number we need is in question.
The average American consumes 3,400 mgs of sodium a day but our senior loved ones (and us) should use closer to 2,300 mgs a day and, if we have hypertension, should be looking toward consuming only 1,500 mgs a day.

Tips for Lowering Sodium Without Losing Taste

Since taste is important and often why we eat a certain food, here are some tips to cut the salt while keeping the taste:
  1. Keep it fresh, using fresh or minimally processed ingredients so your senior can prepare it and season it themselves and be in control of the sodium they are getting. This can be as much as half the sodium in their meals.
  2. Add zest with healthy seasonings such as citrus, fresh and dried herbs, chili peppers, vinegars, ginger, onion, and spices instead of adding salt. Click here o continue reading.