Mike Kueber's Blog

December 27, 2014

Saturday Night at the Movies #135 – Wadjda, The Duchess, Tombstone, An Unfinished Life, and Temple Grandin

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:39 am
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Wadjda (2012) is the first feature-length movie to come out of Saudi Arabia, and it was a huge success. Ninety-nine percent of the Rotten Tomato critics liked it, and 89% of the audience did. The movie is about an 11-year-old girl being raised in a strict Muslim environment in Riyadh, with two complications:

  1. The beautiful mother is trying to keep her husband monogamous (with an alluring red dress), but because she is unable to provide him with a son, he is considering taking a second wife.
  2. The young girl dreams of having a bike to ride with her best guy friend, but bikes are considered inappropriate for devout girls.

If you think this plot sounds a bit like O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” you would be right. I loved seeing middle-class Saudi Muslims dealing in a realistic way with common issues, so I give the movie three and a half stars out of four.

After being bewitched by Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice, I decided to see if her appeal extended to other movies. The Duchess (2008) seemed like a good bet because, like P&P, it is an English period piece involving romance within the aristocracy. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed for the identical reason that I found Belle so disappointing – i.e., “The problem with this movie is that Belle is supposed to be turned off by an arranged, loveless marriage to a gentleman and drawn to an idealistic young lawyer fighting against slavery, but because of bad casting or acting, the supposed loveless gentleman is more interesting and charismatic than the Pollyannaish sap.” But Knightley and her “loveless” co-star Ralph Fiennes are excellent, and the true story of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire is fascinating. The Rotten Tomato critics scored the movie at 61% and the audience liked it a bit better at 67%. I liked it a lot better at three and a half stars out of four.

Tombstone (1993) is a classic western that somehow avoided me for all these years, even though some friends have told me that it is one of the best ever. It’s ending its run on Netflix streaming in a few days, so I caught it just in time. The movie stars Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer and co-stars Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, and Dana Delany. Its storyline, which is based on the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Earp Vendetta Ride, is pretty standard, with the Earp brothers trying to settle down, but being called upon to help the local folks stand up to an evil gang – shades of Alan Ladd’s Shane and Gary Cooper’s High Noon. Wyatt’s love interest with an Eastern singer and his friendship with a dying, gunslinging friend make the movie special. The Rotten Tomato critics generally liked the movie (73%), but the audience was much more approving (94%). I agree with the audience and give it three and a half stars.

An Unfinished Life (2005) is a drama about a modern cowboy (Robert Redford) struggling to get on with his life after his rodeo son is killed in a car accident. He is estranged from his son’s wife (Jennifer Lopez), but after a decade she returns to the ranch because she is broke and trying to escape an abusive boyfriend. Plus, she has a granddaughter the cowboy never knew about. Redford and Lopez are great, and co-star Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast as the wise, loyal friend. Damian Lewis from Homeland is weak as a one-dimensional abuser, and Josh Lucas is weak as a shallow new love interest for JLo. Based in Wyoming, this movie reminds me of Montana’s A River Runs Through It. The critics were ambivalent about the movie (53%), and I’m not surprised the audience liked it better (68%). Like usual, I agree with the audience and give it three stars out of four.

A few months ago I watched a movie called Adam about a young man with Asperger Syndrome. When I blogged about the movie, I provided the following description of AS:

  • An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.

Since watching Adam, I have noticed that a good friend of mine seems to have several symptoms of AS, which caused me to dig for more information about AS symptoms. Wikipedia provides the following, all of which ring true for my friend:

  • Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject
  • One-sided verbosity
  • Restricted prosody (the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech. Prosody may reflect various features of the speaker or the utterance: the emotional state of the speaker; the presence of irony or sarcasm; emphasis, contrast, and focus; or other elements of language that may not be encoded by grammar or by choice of vocabulary)
  • Physical clumsiness
  • A lack of demonstrated empathy
  • A failure to develop friendships or to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others (for example, showing others objects of interest)
  • A lack of social or emotional reciprocity (social “games” give-and-take mechanic)
  • Impaired nonverbal behaviors in areas such as eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gesture
  • An inability to engage in back-and-forth conversation
  • People with AS may not be as withdrawn around others compared to those with other, more debilitating forms of autism; they approach others, even if awkwardly. For example, a person with AS may engage in a one-sided, long-winded speech about a favorite topic, while misunderstanding or not recognizing the listener’s feelings or reactions, such as a wish to change the topic of talk or end the interaction. This social awkwardness has been called “active but odd.” This failure to react appropriately to social interaction may appear as disregard for other people’s feelings, and may come across as insensitive.
  • Not all individuals with AS will approach others. Some of them may even display selective mutism, speaking not at all to most people and excessively to specific people. Some may choose only to talk to people they like.

To gain some increased understanding of AS, I decided to watch some other movies that feature characters with AS. My first choice was Temple Grandin because this bio-pic was critically-acclaimed and starred Claire Danes, from Homeland fame. Danes plays a bi-polar person in Homeland, so casting her as autistic (not AS, but very similar) in Temple Grandin seems inspired.

Unfortunately, she is unattractive in both roles. As Temple Grandin, she is the daughter of a Harvard-grad mother who refuses to accept lowered expectations for autistic children in the 60s and who pushes Temple toward an advanced scientific education related to her enhanced sensitivity toward animals. Critics loved the movie (100%), and so did the audience (95%), but me, not so much. I give it two and a half stars out of four, mostly for its educational nature.

Although the story of Temple Grandin is a success, I am troubled with her admission in real life that the possibility of emotional connections are not a part of her DNA. How sad that is! Although “some researchers and people with Asperger’s have advocated a shift in attitudes toward the view that it is a difference, rather than a disability that must be treated or cured,” I think we all agree that the possibility of emotional connections is something we wish for every human being.


September 13, 2010

Who is a Jew?

Joel Stein writes “The Awesome Column,” a sometime witty weekly column in Time Magazine.  A few weeks ago, he got into trouble for making fun at the expense of Indian immigrants who had taken over his hometown of Edison, NJ.  This week he made a comment about Jews that confused me.  The comment was his reaction to some advice he was given on how to persuade his wife Cassandra to have a second child:

“Then Jim Bob suggested I plan a date night once a week.  Also, that we put Jesus at the center of our marriage.  I told Jim Bob that I’m Jewish, Cassandra and I are both atheists and Cassandra is in her mid-30s.  Even the Apostle Peter couldn’t slip Jesus into our marriage in time for a second child.”

Aside from being surprised at his casual admission of atheism, I wondered (a) if an American could be a Jewish atheist and (b) why Jews didn’t have a place in their religion for Jesus.  My curiosity on this subject had already been piqued earlier in the week when I read in A Patriot’s History of the United States that Barry Goldwater, not Joe Lieberman, was the first person of Jewish ancestry to run for president or vice-president of the United States.

What do I know about Jews?  My upbringing in rural North Dakota in the middle of the 20th century didn’t expose me to any Jews.  North Dakota was populated with nothing but Germans and Norwegians, Catholics and Lutherans.  I don’t recall anyone ever discussing Jews or Judaism (the Jewish religion), but it was not uncommon back then to hear someone talked about being “jewed out of money.”  I thought that meant the same thing as being “gypped out of money” because the terms seemed to be used interchangeably.  I had no idea these were ethnic slurs until I met my first Jew while attending law school in Texas.  (Many years later, a Jew became one of my best friends and a mentor at USAA – Marv Leibowitz from Brooklyn.)

Fortunately, gaps in upbringing or education can be easily remedied in the internet age.  A simple Google search and a few minutes of reading reveal that being a Jew can refer to either nationality (citizens of Israel) or religion (Judaism).  Because Stein is an American, he must have been referring to his religion.  According to Wikipedia, people like Stein are “ethnic Jews”:

“Ethnic Jew is a term generally used to describe a person of Jewish parentage and background who does not necessarily actively practice Judaism but still identifies with Judaism or other Jews culturally and fraternally, or both.  The term is sometimes used to distinguish non-practicing from practicing (religious) Jews. Other terms include ‘non-observant Jew,’ ‘non-religious Jew,’ ‘non-practicing Jew,’ and ‘secular Jew.’  The term sometimes can refer exclusively to Jews who, for whatever reasons, do not practice the religion of Judaism, or who are so casual in their connection to that religion as to be effectively not Jews in the religious sense of adherent to Judaism. Typically, ethnic Jews are cognizant of their Jewish background, and may feel strong cultural (even if not religious) ties to Jewish traditions and to the Jewish people or nation. Like people of any other ethnicity, non-religious ethnic Jews often assimilate into a surrounding non-Jewish culture, but, especially in areas where there is a strong local Jewish culture, they may remain largely part of that culture instead.  Ethnic Jews include atheists, agnostics, non-denominational deists, Jews with only casual connections to Jewish denominations or converts to other religions, such as Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam.” 

This reminds me of a phrase that Catholics used back home – “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”

My second Jewish question concerned Stein’s surprisingly firm denial of Jesus.  I have recently learned about the religion of Muslims (Islam) and was surprised to learn that they accept the Old and New Testaments in the Bible and Jesus Christ, albeit as a prophet.  Thus, three major religions in America seem situated along a continuum, with Jews abiding by the Old Testament, Christians abiding by the Old and New Testaments, and Muslims abiding by the Old and New Testaments and the Koran.  There is friction, however, because Christians reject the Koran and the Jews rejects Jesus Christ.  One particularly interesting website explained in excruciating detail why Judaism had to reject Jesus Christ.  See http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/jewsandjesus/.  This website also explains why Islam is more consistent with Judaism than is Christianity.  http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/islamjudaism/.  

The real difference between the two religions, however, lies in their basis for belief. Judaism is based on the unique historical event of a divine revelation experienced by the entire nation. Whereas Islam is based on the prophetic claims of a single individual who subsequently convinced others to follow his ways.  Talmudic tradition says that while Abraham’s son Isaac became the forefather of the Jewish people, the Islamic line is descended from Abraham’s other son Ishmael.

This is excellent reading.

Getting back to Joel Stein, he seems to have been using some literary license in his discussion of his Jewishness and Jesus.  His status as an atheist, not his status as an ethnic Jew, defines his rejection of Jesus Christ.  And by claiming status as an ethnic Jew, Stein has attempted to ameliorated his status as an atheist.  You will rarely see someone in the mainstream proclaim their atheism or admit to having an abortion.  That would be the surest way to be forced out of the mainstream.