Saturday, August 23, 2014

"County Hospital" - Laurel and Hardy (1932)

What can you say about Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy that hasn’t already been said? They’re icons of comedy. Sometimes they can be a bit tedious to watch; after all we are used to a much faster paced style of entertainment today; but the roots of contemporary comedy can be found in these old shorts.

The plots are simple; much like the later sitcoms would be. The big difference is in the amount of time when there is no dialogue. Talkies had only been around for about 5 years at the time this film was made, and Laurel and Hardy were still drawing largely on the skills they had honed in silent films for almost 20 years at this point.

Stan Laurel was in the same vaudeville troupe as Charlie Chaplin when they both came over to America and stayed. Chaplin later left; but Laurel remained in America until his death in the early 1960’s. Oliver Hardy had been a football player at Georgia State; I could look it up but I’m being lazy. He was also a skillful ballroom dancer; sought after at many Hollywood functions.

Well, it’s all been written before. Sit down and try to watch this all the way through; if only to see that you are still able to concentrate on something for 19 minutes.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"Rob the Mob" with Ray Romano and Nina Arianda (2013)

This is the incredible but true story of Thomas Uva and his girlfriend Rose Marie De Toma, who infamously held up several Mafia social clubs in New York City during the trial of mobster John Gotti. In a deliciously written style, and directed with exuberance, this film takes you on the the journey with 2 young lovers who have a whole lot of love, but not too much sense. Still, you can’t help but be drawn to them; if only for their innocence.

Thomas and Rose are crackheads who steal to support their habits. When a robbery goes bad and they are both sentenced to prison terms, Rose makes a big change in her life. When she is released from prison she gets a job working at a collection agency, scaring payments from people who owe money. She is ruthless and the boss thinks she’s great. So, when Thomas comes out of jail the boss hires him as well.

But Thomas spends more time on the phone telling people how to avoid paying than he does collecting. And he often disappears for hours, looking for something more exciting to do. He finds it when he attends a session of the infamous John Gotti trial.

During testimony Sammy the Bull states the address and name of one of the Mafia’s social clubs in Queens. He also states that no guns are allowed in these clubs because “guns and wise guys don’t mix.” This is all that Thomas has been waiting for. He has a plan.

Approaching Rose with his idea to rob these clubs he is met with anger as Rose does not want either of them to return to their former ways, which will surely lead them back to jail; or worse. But she is an adrenalin junkie, just like Thomas; high on the fear and excitement that comes with it.

The first robbery goes well; and so does the second. But as the mob is under surveillance at all the social clubs the Feds have them on film by the 3rd job.  A reporter who is also covering the John Gotti trial becomes involved and conducts an interview with Rose, during which she divulges enough information about herself and Thomas that the mob is now able to find them if they chose to.

But Thomas has found something of real value in the last holdup. He now has a list showing all the members of the Gambino family and their positions in the mob. Armed with this Rose and Thomas actually call the mobsters up and tell them that if anything happens to either one of them the list will be given to the FBI. They have now signed their own death warrants.

The reporter asks the Feds to protect them, but to the FBI the two lovers are casualties; just collateral damage. The reporter offers them airline tickets to Mexico, but the two refuse, actually believing they are invincible. They were killed on December 24, 1992.

Featuring excellent acting by everyone; with Ray Romano as the reporter; Cathy Moriarty as Thomas’ beleaguered Mom, Michael Pitt as Tommy Uva; and  Nina Arianda as Rose; the film also sports a sharply written script by Jonathan Fernandez.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"The Education of George Washington" by Austin Washington (2014)

I have been unable to see the episode of "Between the Lines" with Barry Kibrick in which he interviews the author of this book, Austin Washington. Mr. Washington is the great great great etc grand-nephew of George Washington; as in the Father of Our Country. As such, he has a unique perspective on the story of the man and how he really willed himself to be what he became. 

If you haven't seen the interview then I would suggest taking a look at the book. In lieu of reviewing "Between the Lines" and Mr. Kibrick's interview with Austin Washington I offer a re-posting of my review of the book from February 22nd;

Get ready for the best book ever written about the Father of Our Country. What makes this book so special? It was written by his great nephew several times removed, Austin Washington. He is the direct descendant of one of George Washington’s brothers. He was even raised in one of the homes owned by the Washington family since colonial times. It was in the kitchen of that house where he first encountered the great man’s portrait; noticeably smaller than that of his 2 brothers; in the kitchen. The other 2 portraits were displayed more prominently elsewhere.

The premise of this book stems from an old miniature biography of Frederick, Duke of Schonberg; called a Panegyrick; that was published in 1690 and fell into young George’s hands sometime during his early years.

Most people assume that Washington was at least as educated as his colleagues Jefferson and Adams. But that would be wrong. Although his 2 brothers received the benefits of his father’s relative wealth; both received classical educations; young George was unable to take advantage of this attribute due to his father having passed away when the boy was only 11 years old. He would have to study at a local school, which would not afford him the same type of education as his peers in later life possessed. 

Washington did not quote the Greek scholars so highly thought of by men like Adams and Jefferson. To him Greek was; well, Greek. But the biography of Schonberg was a book which he studied and took to heart; and whose subject he tried to emulate in every way possible. Some might say he surpassed his idol in all respects; after all, until I read the man’s name, I had never heard of him. And I doubt you have either.

Drawing upon family history; as well as some of Washington’s lesser known writings; the author successfully debunks the myth busters on several of the most apocryphal stories about Washington; stories we were told about in Kindergarten, and then later on debunked by our high school teachers.

Some of the stories in this book are so wonderful in their original, true versions that you have to wonder why Reverend Weems; Washington’s local pastor; found a need to embellish them in the first place.

The Cherry Tree – it really did happen, but not like you heard. Little George did kill the tree, he just didn’t chop it down. This is the only case in which I will tell you what the book says. I want you to read the book on your own. Besides, I’m no spoiler.

George’s father had a favorite cherry tree; it was his pride. George was about 6 years old at the time and his father presented him with a hatchet. He took that hatchet and chipped away at everything he could find. When it came to the fabled cherry tree he merely skinned it of its bark. When the tree began to fail and the elder Washington noticed the bark skinned from the trunk, he inquired of the whole family as to who had done it; knowing all the while that it was George. The boy actually did say he could not lie to his father and owned up to the deed. His father expressed that he would not trade 100 trees for his son’s integrity. That’s the true story.

The silver dollar across the Potomac is a similar circumstance. Washington was a very strong and athletic young man. His feats of strength almost rival those of Abraham Lincoln’s.  Young George had an arm which rivaled that of famed Washington Senator’s pitcher Walter Johnson; who in 1936 actually did pitch a silver dollar across the 272 foot width of the Rappahannock, clearing it by an additional 42 feet beyond the far bank. If you want to know how this relates to the Potomac story; read the book.

His father was a very big influence upon young George; but you have to wonder how he would have developed had his father not passed away when he was so young. Most likely he would have gone on to the better schools over in England; as was the family plan. Had that occurred he would have been in a much different situation when it comes to any revolutionary ambitions.

Religion wise Washington was a Deist; meaning that he believed in a higher power, but not necessarily Jesus Christ as his deliverer. When he went to church as President he never took communion. When it was pointed out to him that this was a cause of dismay among the other congregants, he merely skipped church on the Sundays when Communion was offered. This was the type of man he was; tolerant and at the same time respectful of the sensibilities of others. Responsibility held more meaning for him than his “rights.”

This is a long overdue book which will hopefully set the record straight once and for all about the Father of Our Country. The timing couldn’t be better; it was just released late in January and it is already in the library in time for Washington’s traditional birthday; which is of course today.

The change in the calendar from the old style to the new in the 1740’s make Washington’s Birthday even more complicated than the ubiquitous “President’s Day holiday, which changes every year to accommodate convenience. Washington was actually born on February 11th on the old calendar. When the change to the calendar came it added 11 days to his date of birth.

Don’t discount this fascinating book by George Washington’s great grand-nephew. It is filled with wit and wisdom, displaying a keen sense of humor as it sets about to correct the record concerning the most well-known; and some not so; stories about his life. It also illustrates how one little book; which is reprinted in the back of this one; can alter a person's life, and affect millions in the bargain. Very well done.

For more about the change in the calendar, see the post at;

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Secret Ballot - Saving Democracy

The relationship between all the political noise out there and the dysfunctional government we have as a result of that division is something which needs to be spoken about more. But the person who risks saying anything about the polarization gripping the nation is sure to be labelled by one side or the other as a fascist, a communist or a number of other non-politically correct names.

The secret ballot is the underpinning of our system of government. No one can compel you to divulge for whom you cast your vote. At the same time you have freedom of speech which gives you the right to broadcast your political views, and choices, as much as you want to. These are both great principles.

But examine the situation more closely and you will find that when everyone exercises their rights to the utmost in regards to the freedom of speech, it can get so noisy out there that it becomes hard to filter out the noise from the real facts. Division grows among the populace and the elected officials; who are your employees; rejoice. If we can’t agree on how to run the government we sure won’t be firing anyone too soon.

George Washington got it. He spoke about in his farewell address in 1796. We would all due well to read it and heed his words as the increasingly early election season heats up to a fever pitch. The secret ballot is the surest way to quell the noise, and with it the division, in time for some common sense choices in the coming political contests. Don’t ask me for whom I am voting. And don’t call me for any polls; as a patriotic American I won’t be answering.

Here is the pertinent portion of Washington’s Farewell Address;

20 I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

21 This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

22 The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

23 Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight,) the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

And here is a link to the entire address, which is still worth reading over 200 years later. If you have never read it you may consider yourself at a loss;

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Midnight Tail

I live in a development. We have a home Owner’s Association. Along with all of the usual rules there is one that makes no sense to me at all. It is the rule which forbids screens in the front windows of the houses, as well as barring any screen doors.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I like a bit of fresh air on those rare North Carolina days when the sky is blue and cloudless. More so on the days when there is a nice breeze going. These are the days I like to “air out” the house, placing fans in open windows and letting the breeze course through.

The other day was one of those beautiful days I have just described. I opened every window I could and even one of the front ones without a screen.  Our resident stray, Midnight, was quick to exploit the opening; coming in through the window next to the chair he likes to occupy on our front porch.

I was a bit surprised, as he is not a “house cat” by any means. Also I have severe allergies, so I was a little worried about the effect on me from having him inside. But with such a nice breeze going I thought I’d take a chance and let him stay for a while. He immediately began exploring the premises.

It was about 10 minutes later when I noticed Midnight’s friend “Ghost” had elected to come in through that same window, looking for him. She was shortly joined by her “significant other”; at least when she is not “catting” around with Midnight; “Lucky”, who lives down the street.

Well, before too long I had about 4 cats roaming all over the place, happily purring as I watched them explore every nook and cranny of the house. It was a nice sight, but I had decided; only Midnight would be staying. The others would have to go. After all, they have homes; unlike Midnight; who lives on my porch or in the garage, depending upon the weather.

To this end, Midnight was already marking territory in the living room near the fireplace. I guess even on such a nice, balmy day he was thinking of where he would be spending his winter. I hustled the other cats outside and closed the windows after them. Now it was just me and Midnight. I was ecstatic.

But I was suddenly seized with panic as I realized that he simply could not stay due to my allergies.  Already my asthma was kicking in big time. Accordingly, I went to pick him up and place him outside. This was getting to be like a bad dream; he had to go! And when I awoke, I was already reaching for my inhaler…

Midnight "went away" for the last time last weekend- this draft was written just a few days before he had to go. I really miss him.

Monday, August 18, 2014

"Mayor For Life" by Marion Barry (2014)

Marion Barry will forever be remembered as the disgraced Mayor of Washington, D.C. The images of him taken during an FBI sting will long outlive anything else about the man. And that’s a shame, because before the fall came Marion Barry was one of the people manning the front lines in the battle for Civil Right.

Born in Itta Bena, Mississippi he was one of 10 kids. His father died when he was 4 years old and his Mom moved the family to Memphis, Tennessee looking for work.  It was as a paperboy that he first encountered racial prejudice, and the incident became a defining point in his life. As a young man he picked cotton, bagged groceries, and worked as a waiter. He was also a Boy Scout, earning the ultimate rank of Eagle Scout.

It was while working as a paperboy that he first became involved in a Civil Rights issue. He had entered the contest to win a trip New Orleans for getting a certain number of new customers on a route. He won, but was denied the prize on the grounds that New Orleans was segregated and it would necessitate the rental of a separate bus to transport the African-American paperboys who had won. The young Marion Barry boycotted his route in the black neighborhood, and convinced the other African-American carriers to do the same. The result was that the paper hired a bus and took them to St. Louis, which was integrated. Barry resumed his route. Remember that this was before Rosa Parks and the bus boycott.

BY the late 1950’s he was a graduate of LeMoyne College. While there he and his friends wanted to go to the fair in Memphis; which was segregated. They were denied admission to the Science exhibit. Though they left without incident this is what prompted Barry to join the NAACP and begin his long road as an activist for Civil Rights and the Right to Vote.

He also attained a Master’s degree in Organic Chemistry from Fisk in 1960. During this time he was arrested several times for his involvement in sit-ins and other demonstrations. He was soon involved in the Freedom Riders campaign to desegregate the bus stations in Interstate travel. After a long and protracted battle they were successful. Their accomplishment in getting the Voting Rights Act passed is something which is currently under fire as some folks advocate its repeal.

He went on to become the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and organized the voting registration drive in McComb, Mississippi. He lived with the local residents so he would have a better feel for what their lives were like.

In 1965 he came to Washington, D.C. to open a local chapter for SNCC. The bus fare increase was his first political action in D.C. He wouldn’t call it a “boycott” - he termed it a “mancott” instead.  This was really the first step in his journey to becoming the second Mayor in the city’s history. He quit SNCC when H. Rapp Brown became chairman in 1967.

I could go on and on in summarizing the accomplishments and career of this ultimately flawed politician. But I would be remiss if I were to only concentrate on the failures of his later life. His work in the aftermath of the shooting of Martin Luther King, when D.C. was literally in flames, helped to set up food banks and early education programs for the poor. His positive impacts cannot be overlooked when assessing the man as a whole.

His slide down the slippery slope of drug addiction; and recovery; as well as his re-emergence as a politician again after the fall; will ultimately be what this man is remembered for. And that’s a shame. For the legacy he amassed prior to that is far more important.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jesus and the Fig Tree - A Parable

The parable in the New Testament concerning Jesus and his encounter with the fig tree just before overturning the money changers tables in the temple has always been a source of contention for many people; Christian and Jewish alike.

As a child; and being Jewish; I took this as simply being proof that Jesus was not the spiritual, healing person he claimed to be. That was before I knew about analogies; and also before I had actually read the New Testament for myself. (I got that opportunity while serving 3 days on bread and water in a Navy brig in Norfolk.  They only had New Testaments, and as I had no previous engagements, over the next 3 days I read it.)

This was the first time I ever heard of the book of Romans, which to my mind is the key to the larger meaning of the New Testament. It explains; in the form of an olive tree; the relationship between the Jewish faith and the Christians.

This past weekend I was reading the Religious Viewpoints column in the newspaper. I find it to be informative; and sometimes infuriating; but I enjoy reading it as both an intellectual exercise and also due to the possibility of learning something new. In this case I was pleasingly surprised to see that some of my suppositions concerning the larger meaning of the New Testament were possibly shared by another person; and a Reverend to boot!

Here is what the Reverend Eugene Curry, pastor of Park Hill Baptist Church wrote about the Parable of Jesus and the Fig Tree:

The incident with the fig tree troubles many people when they first encounter it. Stripped of context, it can make Jesus seem petty and impulsive.

But Jesus wasn't just being an unreasonable jerk to a plant. Instead, he was making a point.

The Israelites believed that they had a special relationship with God. And in the Hebrew Bible, this idea was commonly presented through agricultural metaphors: God was a farmer, and Israel was his much-beloved plant that he tended. Sometimes Israel was described as a grapevine, sometimes as a fig tree (Hosea 9:10).

Well, like any farmer, farmer-God hoped that the fig tree that was Israel would produce good fruit, things like justice and faithfulness.

But time and again, the prophets warned their countrymen that Israel wasn't being particularly fruitful in the virtues that God expected of them. And Jesus took up this motif of prophetic warnings in his own ministry.

So, in the Gospel of Mark, we're given a little sandwich of stories in Chapter 11.

Jesus approaches the fig tree, sees that it has produced no fruit, and curses it. Then, right after that, he marches into the temple and condemns the rank commercialism he finds there.

Again, Jesus finds no fruit, this time on the metaphorical fig tree that was Israel.

With that done, Jesus and his entourage leave the temple and Peter notices that the literal fig tree has withered, just as Jesus said. The moral of the stories is that Israel needed to finally shape up, that continued fruitlessness would not be tolerated much longer.

Tragically, Israel didn't heed this warning, and terrible consequences followed. The temple was destroyed. The nation was scattered. The figurative fig tree withered.

Now it's on us. We're called to produce the "fruits of the Spirit," things like love, goodness and self-control. Will we now heed God's call? Or will we be just another bunch of fig trees that refuse to produce fruit?

And here is my note to Reverend Curry;

Good Morning,

This message is for Pastor Eugene Curry. I just finished reading your wonderful viewpoint in "Voices of Faith" in the Charlotte Observer. I couldn't help but to try and find you to say thanks.

I am Jewish. My father was Catholic and my Mom was Jewish. I chose the Jewish faith as an adult. I read the New Testament while in my early 20's. My favorite portion was Romans. I especially enjoyed Romans 11; and the part about the Olive tree. Once again; a tree; just as in the parable referenced in your column.

In this section of Romans the Christians are warned about becoming too haughty over the original branches of the tree (Hebrew) being broken off- it says that if the original branches can be lopped off by God then what of the newer Christian branches if they displease him.

Reading your interpretation of the parable of the fig tree and Jesus brought Romans 11 to my mind in an instant! How wonderful that you can see the imperfection in us all- and that we do fall short- and so must try even harder to avoid being fruitless.

Your column was a breath of fresh air to someone like me who has a hard time with "organized" religion.

May you continue to do your work in Peace.