Friday, February 9, 2018

More Than A Dozen Athletes With Connecticut Ties Will Compete With The U.S. Olympic Team In Pyeongchang

Image result for 2018 olympics
Eight athletes from Connecticut will be among the more than 200 competing for the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympics. There’s two members of the luge team, two snowboarders, two aerial skiers who happen to both be from Madison, an ice dancer and a hockey player.
But that’s not where the Connecticut connections end.
Several others involved with the men and women’s hockey teams will head to Pyeongchang to compete or coach for the U.S.
Some went to school in Connecticut, while others passed through while playing professionally.
“We are incredibly proud to have a group of talented, powerful, and determined athletes from Connecticut representing our nation on an international stage in one of the most prominent sporting events in the world,” Governor Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement. “Although the games might be taking place on the other side of the globe, you can bet that there will be a vocal contingent of supporters in Connecticut cheering on our hometown stars. We congratulate all of the athletes on their impressive accomplishments and wish them the best of luck in the coming days.” Click here to continue reading.

Movie Review—Hostiles

Hostiles film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster

by Peter J. O'Connell

Hostiles. Released widely: Jan. 2018. Runtime:134 mins. MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and for language.

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”--D.H. Lawrence

The sense of an ending hangs over the beginning of Hostiles (directed by Scott Cooper from his screenplay, based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart). In 1892 New Mexico a renegade band of Comanches nearly wipes out a family on an isolated homestead. A father is scalped and three children, including an infant in swaddling clothes, are killed along with him. Only the wife/mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), survives, traumatized.

At the same time at Fort Berringer, in the territory, Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is treating some Apache captives harshly, while looking forward to his impending retirement after a long career as a noted Indian fighter. Also at Fort Berringer, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Chyenne chief who battled Blocker in the past and has been confined for seven years, is dying of cancer and has asked to be allowed to return with some family members to his ancestral homeland in Montana for his last days. In effect, the traditional Native American way of life is dying out. The Indian wars came to an end with the 1890 massacre of Sioux and Cheyenne by the U.S. Cavalry at Wounded Knee, South Dakota—Blocker was there—though occasional raids by renegade bands still occur. In fact, the frontier itself as a specific area of the country is vanishing also. In 1890 the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier no longer existed as a demographic category. 

Capt. Blocker seems the embodiment of that essential American soul described by D.H. Lawrence in the quote from his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923) that appears on screen at the beginning of Hostiles. Ramrod-straight, scarred, squint-eyed, scowling, Blocker almost seems to exist within a carapace of hardness, isolation, stoicism, and skill at killing. But, it would seem, the traditional breed of Indian fighter is now being dissed rather than praised as in the past. Blocker clashes over Indian policy with a liberal journalist from Connecticut (Bill Camp) and is outraged when his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) tells him that Washington, now in a more tolerant mood toward Indians, has granted Yellow Hawk's request and that Blocker is to take a squad and escort the chief and his family members to Montana. Blocker has to be threatened with court-martial before he will accept this assignment.

Shortly after leaving the fort, Blocker considers killing Yellow Hawk with a knife, but doesn't. Instead, he puts chains on the chief and his family. Later the squad comes across the burned-out Quaid homestead from the Comanche raid. Rosalie is still there and is terrified by the sight of Yellow Hawk and his family. She starts to relent, however, when the Natives treat her kindly. When the Comanches show up again and attack Blocker's group, in a brilliantly choreographed battle on horseback, Rosalie shows herself to be a formidable fighter. Yellow Hawk and his family also persuade Blocker to unchain them so that they can fight the Comanches, which they do to great effect. The renegade Comanches and the Cheyenne are hostile to each other.

Observing these developments, Blocker begins a learning process that will continue throughout the journey north. Women, as well as men, can be warriors. Native Americans are not all the same. They have differences among themselves. And vicious clashes with fur trappers, land barons, and a prisoner added to Blocker's group along the way show that whites can be villains as well as victims. “Hostiles” come in all colors and from within as well as without. 

Blocker is not inherently “hard, etc.” He reads Roman literature, says that he believes in God, praises a black soldier, respects the help from Yellow Hawk and his family, has deep regard for men who have served with him in the past, and feels romantic stirrings for Rosalie. But his past experiences have shaped him to an extent that is difficult to undo,. In some respects, he is suffering from PTSD and cognitive dissonance. After all, that white prisoner has been sentenced to hang for acts of hostility in the present that Blocker was commended for in the past! Can Blocker's learning process also become a healing process?

Scott Cooper and his cinematographer handle the changing landscape of the journey beautifully as arid scrubland yields to forested slopes and then to verdant grasslands. The score is powerful but restrained. The same might be said of the performances by Bale, Pike, and Studi, with strong support from the rest of the cast. And, of course, there are some allusions to classic Westerns. The emperor of Austria is said to have commented to Mozart that the composer's music had “too many notes.” Some may feel that Hostiles has “too many themes.” But for others these themes come together in the film's conclusion when Blocker faces a moment of existential choice. Can he “unblock”--unmelt--his soul—and begin a new life in a changing world?  

“Footnotes” to the film: (1) In Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), about the Jamestown Colony, Q'orianka Kilcher, who plays Yellow Hawk's daughter in Hostiles, played Pocahontas and Christian Bale played her white husband, John Rolfe. (2) Historians have called the 1890s a “watershed decade” because it was such a time of transition. Seven Western territories were admitted as states from 1889 to 1896. The Indian wars as major conflicts ended. The Census Bureau declared that the frontier had ceased to be. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner at the Columbian Exposition/Chicago World's Fair in 1893, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landings in the New World, presented his enormously influential thesis claiming that the frontier experience had shaped the American national character. (3) Scholars of American culture have often discussed several archetypes of the “American national character”:
 • The “essential American,” per D.H. Lawrence. Think Capt. Ahab or Gen. Patton and certain characters played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson.
 • The “Adamic American.” Brilliantly delineated by R.W.B. Lewis in his The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century. Like Adam before the Fall, sees himself as at one with God, Nature, others. If he does fall from grace, he tries to turn that development into a “fortunate fall.” Think Walt Whitman, Norman Rockwell scenes, and certain characters played by Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks. 
 • The “ugly American.” The term came into use following the popularity of William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick's novel The Ugly American (1958). In the novel the “ugly American” is actually an admirable character, but over time the term has morphed and come to refer to a rude, crude, ignorant, arrogant person. Think Archie Bunker (blue-collar version) or Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (nouveau-riche version) or the U.S. tourist complaining that the people in a foreign country are speaking a foreign language.      


Economical, Tweakable Hamburger Soup

Besides opening a can, there can hardly be an easier homemade soup than this simple, tasty hamburger soup. Depending on the contents of your fridge and spice rack you can tweak this one to add vegetables or beans, grains or pasta; or to change the flavor from plain to Tex-Mex or Italian.
One pound of ground chuck, onion, garlic, water, some canned tomatoes and a handful of rice is all that is required. Really.
Brown the burger with chopped onion and garlic, add half a can or so of tomatoes whole or chopped, water to cover and simmer away for half hour to an hour. Add salt and pepper, then for additional flavor oregano and basil, or chili powder and red pepper flakes.
That is all that is required for a basic hamburger soup. Add as much tomato as you like or have. Its job is to add color and flavor, but you don’t necessarily want tomato soup with hamburger in it when you are done. It might not be a bad idea to do as I and Leslie Lavendar in Stockton Springs do, and check the fridge or freezer for bits and pieces of leftovers too good to toss or compost.
Leslie wrote to say she tries to work down the house supply in January and February. Here’s what she found recently that was too good to throw away but too small a supply to make a whole serving by itself: “I had about 1 1/2 cups of a leftover zucchini, onion, pepper, tomato mix I had made earlier in the week. I found a scant pound of stew meat in the freezer along with some small amounts of frozen peas and lima beans and about a dozen frozen spinach/cheese ravioli (not enough for an entree).” If she had had this recipe for hamburger soup, she could have used the vegetables in it; instead, she wrote, “I used a quart of my homemade zesty tomato sauce and a can of chickpeas to create a sort of Italian-inspired vegetable soup. It’s making a lovely, thick hearty soup that I’ll serve with some crusty bread and a salad.” Click here to continue reading.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Movie Review--The Commuter

The Commuter film poster.jpg

by Peter J. O’Connell        

The Commuter. Released Jan. 2018. Runtime: 105 mins. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense action/violence and for language.

Lately, train rides in movies have been getting as dangerous as stagecoach rides through Indian country used to be in movies back in the day. In 2016 Emily Blunt’s character in The Girl on the Train becomes drawn into a mystery involving adultery, a disappearance, and murder, based on something she sees while riding the train. In 2017 Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) and his mustache become involved in attempting to solve the eponymous crime on the eponymous mode of transportation in Murder on the Orient Express. Now in The Commuter, Liam Neeson, Hollywood’s favorite senior citizen action hero, is sucked into a murderous conspiracy that turns a usually placid choo-choo ride into an hour-and-a-half life and death struggle. 

Neeson is Mike MacCauley, a former top profiler for the NYPD, who has been working for ten years as an insurance salesman in NYC in order to improve his family’s somewhat shaky financial situation. Mac lives in a northern Westchester County suburb and rides the train to and from the city each workday. At the beginning of the film, a barrage of brief scenes from different times of the year establishes that though the weather and Mac’s clothing may change, his daily journeys are pretty much always the same. Chat briefly with wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and son (Dean-Charles Chapman); ride to Grand Central reading one of the books that son is studying at school and chat with fellow commuter, Matt (Jonathan Banks); go to office—repeat in reverse.

One day, however, becomes dramatically different from the routine. Mac loses his insurance job and fears that at age 60, he will not be able to get another good one. After drinking with a cop (Patrick Wilson) who used to be his partner on the force, Mac begins his train ride home. A flirty femme fatale with a silkily suspicious manner (Vera Farmiga, perfect) sits with him and offers him $100,000 to find, before the last stop, a
person on the train who is using the alias “Prynne” so that person can be killed. If Mac doesn’t do this, it develops that his own family will be killed.

The movie then unfolds in just about the amount of time that it takes to reach the last stop. Mac desperately prowls the cars trying to find Prynne--but to save that person from murder rather than to set him/her up, and yet somehow save the MacCauley family, too. He suspects first one then another of the diverse passengers on the train of being Prynne. Some turn out to be buddies, some good guys/gals. Mac engages in fierce struggles with the baddies and sometimes is helped by the good guys/gals—but the identity of Prynne remains elusive.

The cinematography depicting Mac’s prowling, fights, and some spectacular events at the climax is impressive. Liam Neeson has played the role of aging hero frequently in recent years, and he is always effective at it. The movie is interesting, too, for casting “overqualified” actors in minor roles: Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill, Florence Pugh. Hitchcockian allisions abound, from The Lady Vanishes, to Shadow of a Doubt, to (of course) Strangers on a Train, to Rear Window, to Vertigo, to North by Northwest, to Torn Curtain. The allusions, however, lack Hitchcockian psychological depth and nuance. There is also a surprising borrowing from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus!

The Commuter provides a thrill ride, but its plot is a train wreck. Or, perhaps, a Rube Goldberg machine. You know, one of those fascinatingly complicated devices constructed to carry out a simple task. With the movie’s complex conspiracy as with a Rube Goldberg machine, one gains some pleasure from watching it in operation but has to ask: “If you wanted to do that, why didn’t you just . . .?”  

Something Green in Your Artichoke Dip

Spinach and artichoke dip is a classic appetizer-time offering; you can even acquire it ready-made. It’s an appealing alternative to beany, cheesy, burger-filled, scoop-worthy goo found on the Big Game Day snack table. Not, mind you, that this dip with its hearty portions of cream, cheddar cheese, and sour cream will qualify as a serving of vegetables even if you eat it all.
So here comes February, and we are enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of our summer labor stashed in the freezer. Somehow, we always manage to eat all the spinach we grow fresh from the garden, so there is never any for the freezer. The cut and come again, and again, and again chard, on the other hand kept spurting new deep green leaves and gloriously colored stalks. The variety called Bright Lights is a favorite of mine. I plant it in April, and it is one of the last things to give up the ghost in October, and it is beautiful all the time.
To freeze it, I usually separate the green leafy part from the stems, which I cut into two to three inch lengths, blanch and freeze. The leaves I chop coarsely and barely wilt before packing in zip-closing bags. Depending on what I am making for supper, the stems and leaves may reunite (as in soup) or go their separate ways as in this dip for which I used chard in place of spinach. I suppose you could use tender kale or any dark green leafy vegetable you like in this recipe.
If you use frozen spinach, make sure to squeeze as much liquid out of it as you can before adding it to the dip, or plan on cooking it until very little liquid runs out. If you start with fresh spinach or other greens you will have to cook them dry as well. It is kind to your family and guests if you chop the greens quite small. Nobody will appreciate tendrils of spinach or chard trailing from their chip or cracker.
Your best artichoke choice is the canned one without oil or dressing. But use what you have; drain them well if they have an oil and vinegar dressing, and chop them well, too. Click here to continue reading.

Movie Review—All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World
All the Money in the World.png
Theatrical release poster

by Peter J. O'Connell              

All the Money in the World. Released: Dec. 2017. Runtime: 132 mins. MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content. 

It was said that oil magnate J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) was not just the richest living man but the richest man who had ever lived. He was also notoriously frugal. He even had a pay telephone booth installed in his mansion for guests to use in calling out. Getty's frugality, however, did not preclude him from being a great collector of art and antiques. Yet, apparently, it did preclude him from paying ransom for his favorite grandchild (out ofr 14), John Paul, when 16-year-old Paul, as he was known, was kidnapped in Italy in 1973. Director Ridley Scott tells the story of this kidnapping in All the Money in the World. 

Paul (Charlie Plummer) is seized off a Rome street by a scruffy band of thugs affiliated with Calabria's version of the Mafia and taken to a hideout in a rural area. A $17 million ransom is then demanded from the Getty family. J. Paul (Christopher Plummer) refuses to pay, saying that paying would simply expose his other grandchildren to possible abduction. An argument can, of course, be made in favor of Getty's stated position. (The U.S. government, for example, says that it will not pay ransom to terrorists who kidnap Americans.) However, Christopher Plummer's canny portrayal of Getty in the film suggests that the tycoon's motivation was either simple miserliness or, perhaps, an attachment to “the art of the deal” greater than familial attachment.

But young Paul's devoted, strong-willed mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), has a history of choosing children over fortune. Through flashbacks we learn that she and Paul's father, who is drug addled, are divorced and that she rejected any alimony in exchange for full custody of her children in the divorce settlement. The wrenching irony in her devotion to her children, however, is that in the kidnap crisis she lacks the means to pay her son's ransom. 

Gail desperately attempts to persuade J. Paul to pay the ransom before time runs out as the kidnappers become increasingly more determined, brutal, and volatile. But the old man will not be moved. As the advertising tagline for the film puts it: “J. Paul Getty had a fortune. Everyone else paid the price.” Gail “pays the price” by being excoriated in the media, with many believing Gail to be rich herself and blaming her for the refusal to pay the ransom. 

After a while J. Paul does ask Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative who has become a Getty oil negotiator, to involve himself in the case by attempting to locate Paul's whereabouts and secure his release—and also to keep an eye on Gail to see that she does not get too much “out of control.” As it develops, however, Chase finds himself allied with Gail as he ascertains where Paul is being held. A police raid there does not, however, free Paul. The youth has been sold to a new, more brutal, and more organized element of organized crime. 

The new group lowers the ransom demand to $4 million. J. Paul finally decides to contribute to the ransom, but only $1 million—the maximum amount that he can claim as tax deductible. But when the kidnappers cut off one of young Paul's ears and mail it to the media, old Getty finally relents and gives the full ransom money to Gail and Chase. The two follow the kidnappers' instructions about the money, but a suspenseful situation results, ironically, when Paul, not knowing what is going on, escapes from the kidnappers after being passive for most of his captivity and is pursued by them with the intention of killing him. 

The film's story is fascinating and the performances by the leads, backed up by a solid Italian supporting cast, are both compelling and nuanced. For some reason, however, Ridley Scott has chosen to have the film shot mostly in a kind of murky palette, with muted colors just this side of black-and-white but lacking strong contrast. Perhaps the idea is to convey a sense of moral ambiguity. In any case, All the Money in the World is well worth the price of admission.

“Footnotes” to the film: (1) After initially considering Christopher Plummer, Jack Nicholson, and Gary Oldman for the role of J. Paul Getty, Ridley Scott chose Kevin Spacey. However, when a sexual harassment scandal involving Spacey arose shortly before the film's release date, Scott (age 80) decided to rebuild sets and reshoot all 22 scenes in which Spacey (age 58) appeared, replacing him with Christopher Plummer (age 88). Astonishingly, the reshooting was accomplished in only nine days. (2) Surprisingly, Christopher Plummer and Charlie Plummer are not related. (3) Ransom! (1956), starring Glenn Ford, and its remake, Ransom (1996), starring Mel Gibson, are films in which a family head refuses to pay a ransom but instead offers the amount of it as a bounty for information about the kidnappers if the victim is not returned alive and well. The two are interesting attempts to get out of the dilemma postulated by J. Paul Getty when he refuses to pay the ransom demanded for his grandson.     

Neil Diamond and Coping with Parkinson’s Disease

Neil Diamond

Fans of Neil Diamond grieved this week to learn that the longtime pop singer has canceled the remainder of his 50th anniversary tour following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
“Very sad news,” one fan wrote on Twitter. “My brother and I listened to Neil Diamond in the back of the family station wagon growing up. So many wonderful memories with his music. Need a cure for Parkinson’s.”
The creator of such classics as Sweet CarolineSong Sung Blue and Cracklin’ Rosie said in a statement on his website that his doctor recommended the move.
“It is with great reluctance and disappointment that I announce my retirement from concert touring. I have been so honored to bring my shows to the public for the past 50 years.” The remaining shows were scheduled for New Zealand and Australia beginning in March.

What Is Parkinson’s?

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disorder, meaning it progressively causes nerve cells to lose function and die. Those cells produce dopamine, which coordinates movement. Parkinson’s affects about 1 million Americans.
Symptoms vary, but often include:
  • Resting tremor, which can worsen with stress
  • Slowness of movements
  • Problems with balance
  • A shuffling gait
  • Limb stiffness
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Cramped handwriting
  • Speech changes
  • Apathy and depression
  • Constipation
  • Sleep problems
  • Loss of sense of smell
Many people with Parkinson’s may also develop dementia or signs of cognitive impairment. “As Parkinson’s brain changes gradually spread, they often begin to affect mental functions, including memory and the ability to pay attention, make sound judgments and plan the steps needed to complete a task,” according to the Alzheimer’s AssociationClick here to continue reading.