Friday, June 29, 2018

The World As It Is

What prompted this blog was a tv appearance of author Ben Rhodes with Fareed Zakaria.  It was just after the G7 conference when Trump accused Justin Trudeau of dishonesty and cut off an agreement for the conference.  Larry Kudlow sided with Trump saying Trudeau had stabbed Trump in the back.  Ben Rhodes pointed out that Obama had warned Trudeau he would have to stand up to Trump.  Pretty obvious  to most Canadians that Trump was way out of line.

Fareed had commented that the book reads like a novel and Ben admitted that he had a degree in fiction writing.  When my daughter decided to go to school in Halifax I thought I better find out about a part of Canada I had never been to.  I picked "Halifax: Warden of the North" by Thomas Raddall from the library and found it much more fascinating than anticipated.  Soon after I discovered the author had written many novels and I read (and bought) as many as I could find.  Later on I learned of a new book about neighboring Dartmouth and bought it, but a book seller admitted that historians are not usually as good as fictional writers even in narrating history.  Too often true.  But Ben Rhodes actually lived what he writes about and brings a personal understanding.

The title comes from the last sentence of the book,  "I was a man, no longer young, who--in the zigzag of history--still believed in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be."  The world of politics is frustrating--so many reasons why the right things can't be done, except maybe once in a while in a small way.

Ben met and befriended Barrack Obama in 2007 and although only in his late 20's, developed a trust relation that led to writing speeches, consulting on important decisions and assuming some responsibilities on an international scale.

It wasn't that long ago so most readers will have a memory of many of the events, but get an insider's view. The demands of a close relationship with the most powerful man in the world can be rough on family even though his wife was also involved with government administration.  In the book you will get a feel for the grinding demands, but this blog will only highlight a few events.

When Nelson Mandela died the two men headed to South Africa with Ben writing and shaping Obama's speech.  It was a unique experience with the first black American president mourning one of the greatest (black) leaders of the world.  What was mainly conveyed back to American news sources was a selfie with Obama and the Danish prime minster.

Benghazi took up a disproportionate amount of energy in American politics.  Ben wrote a memo to Susan Rice as she was being prepped to speak in national tv regarding the deaths at Benghazi, including points given by the CIA.  Ben found his memo was taken out of context and distorted and he felt bewildered at how aggressive the Republican party attacked him.  There was no smoking gun, but the issue was blown up because the Republicans couldn't find anything better to stir up the voters.

The Iran negotiations stretched over many years and involved many national perspectives.  But it hit some people the wrong way.  Particularly Netanyahu who distrusted Iran and hoped to somehow convince the United States to attack it.  Again hypocrisy reared its head and Republicans attacked the deal without having anything better to offer.

Towards the end of  Obama's second term it was decided that it was time to improve relations with Cuba.  Ben was given the opportunity to negotiate with Raul Castro's son and later with Vatican diplomats.  This required travel to Canada, the Caribbean and the Vatican.  Again there was a lot of resistance, but in the end there was improvement that not only stood to boost relations between the two principles, but raised the American profile over all Latin America.  Some of my thoughts at the time--

Another project that Ben got involved in was with Laos.  During the Vietnamese War  Laos found itself on a route of American bombers who dropped more bombs than were done in WW II over Germany and Japan.  Literally millions were left and were not detonated, but others have been killing children.  Ben campaigned to bring more attention and budget to the problem.

Anthony Bourdain, the traveling gourmet was admired by Ben who appreciated the efforts to spread peace and goodwill by encouraging people to sit down and eat together.  He arranged for Obama to join Bourdain for a television show set in Hanoi.  I remember watching that episode which among other things demonstrated that Obama was not above the common man.

The Russians started to assert themselves during Obama's second term.  They had tried to disrupt Ukrainian efforts to align itself with western Europe.  Americans got involved and had some success in forcing a Russian leaning leader to flee.  Putin pushed back as he felt the Americans should not interfere with what he considered his territory.   He claimed and then invaded Crimea and threatened eastern Ukraine.  During this time a Malaysian Airline plane was shot down killing all passengers.  Ben was concerned that the Russians refused to acknowledge their involvement and blatantly lied about it.

Ben also gives his perspective on Russian involvement with the American election and told of Obama's attempts to deal with it.  The biggest obstacle was Mitch McConnell who threatened to call exposure of the Russian efforts as a partisan effort of the Democrats.  This is also the man who prevented Obama from having his Supreme Court judge choice even given a hearing.

Near the end of Obama's term he got into a discussion with Ben about one of my favorite books, "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari which was highly praised.  Here is my take on what I thought was the best book I read in 2015:

At this time it is upsetting to realize that the American voters have put in place a man who is dedicated to undoing Obama's legacy.  Many are regretting their decisions, but too many are complicit in what is happening.  Ben reports that Obama was very conscious of racist elements in opposition, but chose not to inflame the issues.  Donald Trump made public demands for Obama to prove he was born in America and has been focused on upending all the good things that were attributed to Obama.  As with Harry Truman it may be awhile before Americans wake up to how one of the greatest presidents was not appreciated during his term.

"Eight Years in Power" talks directly on how Obama's legacy has been distorted.  My take:

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Thailand is the source of some of my favorite food.  A nephew is teaching English in Thailand right now.  I have actually seen three or four Thai movies, but didn't see them as a major film producer.

Skimming through what Netflix has to offer I noticed "Bad Genius."  It seemed quirky, but I was struck with the idea for widening my foreign movies comfort level. It won the audience award at the Toronto Reel International Film Festival; best newcomer at the Asian Film Festival and at the Thailand National Film Association best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best supporting actor.

Part of the movie is like a heist movie with lots of twists and clever reactions, but part is also a morality play.  Instead of stealing valuable objects it is about stealing valuable information.  A very smart girl, Lynn is transferred to an elite high school in Bangkok with help from her widower father making some sacrifices and she making some shrewd negotiating points.  There she befriends (or is befriended by) a relatively wealthy girl, Grace and her wealthier boyfriend, Pat.

The viewer will be impressed with what a clever scheme is planned. But first  Lynn was induced to help her friend and her boyfriend cheat on scholastic tests.  Part of the cover was to give music lessons to an increasing number of customers.  We are introduced to a rival, a boy named Bank who comes from an even poorer family who is a loner and very honest.  His intelligence is equal to hers, but not only does he rebuff efforts to cheat he is able to uncover her scheme to the authorities.  She gets reprimanded and not allowed to compete for a scholarship she obviously was well qualified for.  

She becomes aware of an international test (for admission to elite universities) and figures out that if she takes it in Sydney, Australia that would give her four hours to work with for her paying friends back in Thailand.  She recognizes that her memory capacity will not be enough and her friends pick up that the honest guy needs to be recruited.  Unknown to Lynn one of the friends arranges to have the honest genius beaten up so he cannot take a local scholarship test

Bank is manipulated into participating, but when Lynn finds out how he was set up she wants to back out.  Although Bank is upset he decides maybe it is in his best interest.  The network of wealthy students organizes and fund a trip to Australia for the two while Lynn and Bank work out some details.

Security is tightened as the Australian test givers realize that cheating has stepped up.  You can feel the pressure as the two try to circumvent new scrutiny.  Bank actually gets caught (after sending coded answers to Thailand) and it looks like the authorities are suspicious of Lynn who feigns illness and takes off through the Sydney subway system with one man in pursuit.  She manages to convince the testers that she left early because of an illness, but that meant her own test scores won't count, even though she finished the test.  Using email and sophisticated tools the answers are sent to Thailand just in time for the wealthy take their test.

Now that is quite a lot of details (of course many have been left out), but you'll have to see the movie (available on Netflix) to find out how it ends.  You are highly unlikely to guess much of the ending, but you will enjoy how they execute the overall presentation.

There are lots of heist types of movies and some even have some moral theme, but for me this one really stood out.  I will mention some names with the expectation that they will be involved with worthy movies in the not too distant future.  Most of them are real tongue twisters

Nattawut Poonpiriya, director and one of four writers had done a few previous films with some of the same crew.

Cinematography by Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun was another strength of the movie.  It was filmed in both Bangkok and Sydney.  Music was effectively used to make you feel the tension by Vichiya Vatanasapt.  Editing  (important in the simultaneous action in Thailand and Australia was handled capably by Chonlaset Upanigkit.

At IMDB they showed a pop music video which I liked enough to buy the audio, but didn't appear in the Netflix version.

The star of the show was Chutimon Chuenscharooenskying who played Lynn displaying a range of emotions.  She was a model and only recently got into acting.  Because they wanted to project her as a genius the script made her left handed, but in reality Chutimon was right handed and had to adjust  She won best actress award with the Thailand National Film Association.  At the New York Asian Film Festival she was awarded Screen International Rising Star. 

The other genius, Bank was played by Chanon Santinatumkul.  He had a few more films under his belt and won the Thailand National Film Association best actor award.  Viewers could feel a romance coming on, but that was not the director's aim.  The two developed a chemistry that spurred viewer's hopes.

One actor who appeared in the Australian section (actually the one in hot pursuit of Lynn) was Ego Mikitas.  An English speaking actor who has appeared in other Thai movies as well as one Japanese plus "O/A" on Netflix.  He also has performed stunts

All the actors left a feeling of reality, but I would like to give some attention to Thaneth Warakulnukroh who played the father of Lynn.  He stuck with her although you could feel his pain.  He was the lead character in "Pop Aye" which was shown at the Hamilton Film Festival.  In it he played a man who traveled over Thailand with an elephant.

Netflix seems to be opening up internationally and this is a good example of something worth exploring.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Czech Cinema

Never thought much about movies from the Czech Republic then saw two enjoyable movies in quick succession:  "Kolya" and "Divided We Fall"  Earlier had been impressed by "Protektor"  And then I realized a top American director, Milos Forman got his start in Czechoslovia as it was known then and maintained some ties.

Jan Hrebejk, directed "Divided We Fall"( (2000).  It was  based on some experiences he had been told of a Czech couple who hid a Jew and decided to collaborate with Nazis as a cover (which made neighbors upset and anxious).  The Czech title translates to "We Must Help Each Other," Jan felt the actual title was more appropriate.   Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic was given a cameo role in "Up and Down" (2004).  Did one Slovakian film "The Teacher" (2016).

A writer who often collaborated with Jan Hrebejk is Petr Jarshovky.  Co-writing   started with his first film, "Let's All Sing Around" (1991) and continued to "Up and Down" (2004)and "Divided we Fall,"  and "The Teacher." (2016 Slovakian script)  Petra wrote the script for another top movie, "Zelary" (2016)  Mostly it seems he writes for tv series in the Czech Republic.

"Kolya"(1996) was directed by Jan Severak and won the 1997 Oscar for best Foreign Film.  Jan had been noted in 1988 by the Student American Academy and in 1991 for his first feature film "Elementary School" for best foreign film.  He had rejected offers to direct several American films.  His father Zdenek Sverak has had a long career as both actor and writer.  He wrote the script and was the lead actor for "Kolya."  Altogether IMDB lists Zdenek with 47 credits for writing and 54 for acting.

"Protektor" (2009 ) directed and co-written by Marek Najbrt was set in 1938 Czechoslovakia as Germans taking over Sudentanland.  A Jewish actress is protected by her journaiist husband joins a propaganda organization.  Their relationship is affected by the Nazi occupation and we learn they are not really hero types.  The movie is very well done demonstrating the effects of the Nazi occupation and drive towards the Holocaust. 

Milos Forman's parents were imprisoned for co-operating with the resistance against the Nazis.  His mother died in Auschwitz and his father in Buchenwald.  Milos studied film in Prague.  In 1964 he directed a comedy, "Black Peter" and later "Loves of a Blonde"(1965). "The Fireman's Ball" (1967) was uncovered as critical of eastern Europe and banned for several years in Czechoslovakia before getting a Cannes nomination.  Milos appeared as an actor in a French film, "Beloved" (2011)

At about the time of "The Fireman's Ball" Milos was visited in Prague by Kirk Douglas who had just bought the rights for "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" from a book by Ken Kesey.  He arranged for a stage play to be written and starred in it taking a huge pay cut.  He was impressed with Milos and promised to send the original book, but Milos waited in vain for it.  Both thought the other had let the other down, but the book itself was stopped by customs and censorship.  Years later Michael Douglas sent him a copy.  Michael and fellow producer Saul Zaentz could find no major studio willing to finance the movie so decided to do it on a low budget.  Milos was heavily involved in the casting.  Most of the cast were low budget, but Milos decided to wait six months to get Jack Nicholson.  He also persuaded people he met on setting the site to take roles.  He worked with writer Bo Goldman on the script.  Milos liked to run the camera even during rehearsals.  He was noted for always demanding "it must be real." "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975)on 5 Academy awards including best director.

I recently watched "Amadeus" (1984) for a second time many years after the original theatrical release.  It is not a biography of Mozart so much as a morality play, but it is wonderful in conveying how a composer can go from a simple idea to the executed product.  Filmed across Europe, but mostly in Prague.  The actual events were almost certainly different from the portrayal.  Milos had been restricted from visiting his native country, but was welcomed--still under Communist dictatorship.  A second Oscar for Milos.

Other movies of Milos included "Man on the Moon," (1999)  and "Ragtime" (1981).

Worked with Czech cinematographer for many of his films Miroslav Ondricek, born studied and died in the Prague both when it was Czechoslovakia and later as the Czech Republic.  Did 7 feature films with Milos Forman and 2 documentaries.   Starting as camera assistant and second camera operator his first job as a cinematographer was with "Audition" in 1964 with Milos Forman.  Also worked on a Polish film, "Hotel Pacific."  He was nominated for an Oscar for "Amadeus" and " Ragtime."  Also noted for "A League of Their Own" (1992) and "F/X"(1986)

Hana Brejchova, at one time a sister in law to Milos Forman was lead actress with "The loves of a Blonde"  Later she had a role with "Amadeus."

The Czech Republic film industry is fairly active, but not a lot of distribution in Canada compared to other European countries.  With Milos Forman, Czech training has helped transform American movies.

As usual I bolded the movies that I was lucky enough to actually see.

Friday, June 15, 2018


Going to movies is usually a fun experience focused on the main feature.  But I always had a special liking for the trailers. Who has the money or time to watch all the many available movies, but one could always get a taste and maybe even a vicarious feeling from watching the trailers.  It seemed like one could see the best parts without being bogged down by the boring intervals.

Now consumers have access to trailers not only at the theatre, but on television and now on the inter-net.  Going to a movie is always a bit of a risk.  Some encouraged me to see the movie, while others were "educational." (meaning a lesser priority if not total avoidance).

Yes the trailers are part of the future selection process.  While we are sorting through dozens of entertainment options, movies are very big business requiring lots of sophisticated promotion.

Movie trailers can even promote books as I learned unexpectedly:    I was lured to read three books by movie trailers and then went on to enjoy three very good movies.

Trailers are usually shown a few months in advance.  Sometimes great care is taken of which feature to pair it with.  Trailers now fairly common on promotional and aggregate websites  They show on Facebook and other social media.   Great care is given to which current movie to tie in with.  Teasers (less than one minute) are used to stir up interest, often when the movie itself is still being worked on.

You know from experience that the movie might not live up to the excitement.  Action and sex teasing are common.  It is an art and a skill to design the right trailer for a particular film.  

Sequence is out of order.  Sometimes you are assured the couple do get together before the end, but often you can't be sure.  Usually with good trailers there is a bit of a cliff hanger--sometimes deleted scenes add to the action--I have watched movies anticipating something noticed in the trailer to be disappointed--but at least I got to see other interesting things.  A common complaint is the trailer is misleading--like most promotions

An old trick is to list actors, directors, writers and producers with their previous successes hoping your memory makes you more interested in the current offering.

The Hamilton Film Festival has a Trailers and Teasers nite for free usually involving at least twenty movies and supported by some expert comment.  I don't have the money or time (often overlapping schedules) to see them all, but later many are checked out at the library or even Netflix. The films include world debuts, North American debuts and Canadian debuts as well as some that have been shown at other festivals. 

Golden Trailer Awards exists to encourage excellence, They have dozens of awards including for voice over, music, different budgets, spots, different types of movies including foreign. Trailers are promoting an industry worth a few hundred billion dollars a year, but selling enough tickets for a profit can be a real struggle.  Recognizing excellence in this task makes a lot of sense.

To learn more visit: 

The two posters are from recent Golden Trailer awarded films.