RIP, Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy, who died today in Los Angeles, was the godfather of geek subculture. As the rational Mr. Spock on NBC’s science fiction dramatic series Star Trek, he was a voice of reason at a time in American history when audiences desperately needed to hear one. His character was both a contrast to William Shatner’s heroic Captain James T. Kirk and DeForest Kelley’s emotional Dr. McCoy and Spock emerged as a central figure on Gene Roddenberry’s show. Nimoy, a Jewish poet, actor and director (Three Men and a Baby) should be remembered for his distinguished career in show business, too, not merely for his role in the Star Trek franchise, including early performances for dramatic television that predate Star Trek.

NimoyBut it is for his embrace of the genre and spirit that defines the Spock character that sets Nimoy apart and for reasons that transcend the iconic series. First, the 1966-1969 series, which heralded the “voyages of the starship Enterprise” and sought to “boldly go where no man has gone before” was a radical departure from traditional TV programming in many respects. Second, it was a commercial and critical failure, being cancelled for low ratings and largely dismissed or ridiculed by critics and dominant intellectuals. Third, the part of Spock, who was an alien though also part human, was so distinctive that Nimoy became indelibly associated with it once the cancelled series earned new fans through 1970s syndication (which, incidentally, is where I discovered it with my brother). Nimoy’s first book, I Am Not Spock (1975), was published at what was thought to be the peak of the cult success of the Desilu/Paramount produced series. It would be years before Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would be released and it hardly took Hollywood by storm.

In the intervening years, Nimoy carried on and memorably so in the 1978 remake of the nonconformist science fiction picture Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a psychiatrist. He later played in an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, hosted the syndicated series In Search of… (1976-1982), played in the Marco Polo telefilm and portrayed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s husband opposite Ingrid Bergman in A Woman Called Golda for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award and of course he played Spock many more times after the Star Trek movies started to gain a wider audience. Nimoy appeared in the mediocre reboot in 2009.

Leonard Nimoy had helped bridge the gap between the wasteland of the late 1960s and the emergence and legitimization of geek culture in the 1980s. By the time the technology revolution launched in the 1990s, Star Trek was an established, respected brand in movies and television. Such acceptance may have fueled and ignited many an imagination for what huge and exciting industrial advancements were to come and Star Trek, with Spock, Kirk and McCoy in particular, led the way in cultivating an American, pro-Western, pro-industrial, pro-reason sense of life. In the words of Mr. Spock, and the late Leonard Nimoy had a hand in this, too: “Live long and prosper.”

These days, with the White House refusing to name an Islamic worldwide barbarian invasion as Islamic, it is all too rare to encounter such a blatantly pro-Western civilization, pro-capitalist, secular-rational-selfish formulation and his remarkable career on and off screen is as uniquely subversive and unusual as the roles he chose to portray (and he apparently did choose to portray Spock). May his Mr. Spock and what this iconic character means—the lone voice of reason defined by volition, not by blood, tradition or religion, acting on his own judgment, often against the collective and refusing to just follow orders—inspire future generations to be bold and radical in the spirit of uncompromising enterprise and may Leonard Nimoy rest in peace.

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Movie Review: The English Patient (1996)

EnglishPatientPosterAn epic movie about war, The English Patient, based on a novel and adapted for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, beautifully sprinkles its themes throughout sprawling north African desert scenes and landscapes, romanticizes religion and delivers an unforgettable elegy about forbidden romantic love.

Oscar’s Best Picture winner for 1996 centers upon an adventurer named Laszlo who poses in some sense as a discoverer (Ralph Fiennes, Schindler’s List). I say this because he never really discovers anything but trouble. But, during the first of three hours, he is the story’s more mysterious presence. The piercing eyes of this gaunt, handsome mapmaker haunt the story within a story and attract the liberated Western woman (Kristin Scott Thomas). Their affair—she is married, he is a loner—dominates the film. 

This includes a subplot featuring Juliette Binoche (Chocolat) as a nurse with an affinity for the dying. The English Patient begins with the gentle sounds of windchimes that foreshadow the winds of war and proceeds to alternate between the tales of Ms. Binoche’s Hana losing her values and reclaiming and restoring her life and the torrid, doomed affair between the mapmaker and the fallen woman. Amid pagan nudity, forbidden oils and fruits and readings from the Greek historian Herodotus, the clashing cultures intertwine in sensuality and theme. But, consistent with the film’s subtly Islamic subtext, the female is the temptress to the male; he is bewitched.

Some of the writing, possibly taken from the novel, is exquisite and perfectly portrayed, especially by Kristin Scott Thomas (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen). The best writing serves the story’s unfolding, such as when the nurse Hana explains to her English patient when he chides her for taking in a stranger for provincial reasons: “We’re at war; where you come from becomes important.” The patient, whose face is burned beyond recognition, asks and, then answers: “Why? I hate that idea.”

This is The English Patient‘s leitmotif; the idea that love knows no bounds and the world is whole and accessible to everyone in it. The nurse listens and learns from the wise, burned patient and nourishes the notion, healing herself back to mental health as she tends a garden and wills herself to love again. Nursing oneself is the movie’s best and most successful theme.

But it is secondary to the anti-war theme that love is lost in war. Like the bleak but enticing Pacific World War 2 picture From Here to Eternity, the bleak but enticing European World War 2 picture The English Patient lulls the audience into its passionate affair, reaching its climax in a dance between wife and would-be lover when it is silently, powerfully clear that he wants her, even as her patriotic war hero husband, expertly played by Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), watches the two as they dance.

Then, suddenly, Islamic cries of “Allahu akbar!” erupt in the exotic African sands before an illicit act of homosexuality precedes the fall from grace that hurls the couple toward consummation. This is where The English Patient falters. Ralph Fiennes as the brooding Laszlo is beckoned and beckoning, to be sure, but his character is also (and by his admission) a poor planner; he gets everything wrong, including himself, his love and his life. It is nearly impossible to become invested in his story, especially after he implausibly allows the woman to stay with the endangered party—none of the men object—to be stranded in the desert after the gays being gay cause a disaster. Really, would no one, Moslem or infidel, insist that the woman proceed with the journey? Their being thrown together is contrived.

The cast makes the most of the best lines and wide scope. When a duststorm envelops the camp, turning the desert into quicksand, she asks Laszlo if they’ll survive and he says, “yes, absolutely,” before she pauses to reply, “yes is a comfort,” adding, “absolutely is not.”

This intimacy moves The English Patient toward a dramatic, some might say melodramatic, conclusion, with Fiennes’ Laszlo as a modern nomad tethered only to a woman who spurns him. Here, too, the unnamed religion, Islam, infuses the film’s nobility—few Islamic characters speak; they are decent, silent types that chant, pray and help others—as Laszlo, the man without a country, tells romantic stories of the Fedayeen (which means those who sacrifice themselves). He might as well be talking about himself.

More stories unfold in the meantime, including a story of friendship between a Sikh explosives expert (Naveen Andrews) and a Brit, a Canadian (Willem Dafoe) and a Nazi (Jürgen Prochnow) and between the Sikh and Hana. Each subplot shifts and folds into the next. While scenes are sometimes striking and the point that war raises life and death issues to an extreme comes through, the beauty lies in the subplot and pictures, if not successfully in its bittersweet plea that one should be free to walk on earth without maps. As evocative as it is, The English Patient stumbles in charting that plot point’s course and fails to find its way.

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Best Pictures to See on TV

The Oscars may be over (thank goodness, except for Lady Gaga’s exceptional performance) but that doesn’t mean that Academy Award winners have stopped airing on television, thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM). This means three of the best movies in recent years will soon air uncut and commercial-free, two of them for TCM’s first time. All three won Oscar’s Best Picture.

As TCM host Robert Osborne told me in an exclusive interview last month, TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming includes the cable channel’s premieres of both 2010’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The King’s Speech, and 2011’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Artist, on March 3 (check TCM’s schedule here).

Both films involve leading male characters who must choose whether to rise above adversity and also about whether those who love them will choose whether to support the men through the most trying times of one’s life. They are both among the finest pictures in recent years and possess qualities many of today’s movies lack: intelligence, passion and a distinct visual style that makes them both utterly absorbing and also humorous, thought-provoking and enjoyable to watch unfold. I think it’s interesting to note that these two consecutive Best Picture winners concern two of today’s gravest problems facing Western civilization—war and economic collapse—and emotionally powerful depictions of how to triumph. Though I have both The Artist and The King’s Speech on DVD, I intend to watch them again and watch host Robert Osborne as he introduces their premieres on my favorite TV channel.

MPW-4877This Sunday, March 1, TCM also airs 2002’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Chicago, so I am adding my original movie review to the archive. The review of this unique musical film includes my thoughts on the brilliant DVD, too. How could I possibly enjoy a motion picture about murderers on death row set to music and dancing? This is what I wondered years ago when I went to see the stage production in Los Angeles, drawn only by the fact that one of my favorite artists and choreographers, the late Bob Fosse (Cabaret), had created it. Somehow, though the material is dark and jaded, the hard, city life of Chicago, that toddlin’ town I once lived in, comes through. The movie version does right by the musical and adds much, much more. If you haven’t seen it, and even if you hate musicals, don’t miss seeing Chicago for a grand and naughty good time.

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87th Oscars

220px-Oscar_statuetteThe 87th annual Oscars were another freakish mixture of preachy politics, vulgar humor and fading if lustrous glamour. It rained at Hollywood and Highland and the Academy Awards ceremony reflected the dreary fact with a master of ceremonies who made jokes at winners’ expense, including jokes about a filmmaker whose award for a crisis hotline movie was dedicated to her late suicidal son and a documentary about Edward Snowden, whom the host implied is guilty of “treason”. The host, deadpanning Neil Patrick Harris, also made several racist jokes, though these were told with an apparently deliberate attempt to induce guilt among white people, so it was expected to be acceptable.

The unearned guilt trip came on strong, too, in the Best Song category, which featured a rap song from the lackluster Selma by rapper Common and John Legend, who made political speeches when they won after a performance that all but repeated their routine at the Grammys. This after the white host chose an Academy Award-winning black actress, Octavia Spencer (Snowpiercer, Black or White) for a subservient role during the entire show, played for laughs, and mispronounced the name of the lead actor from last year’s Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. But the race-based humor and mistakes are all supposed to be forgiven and forgotten because the snide, pandering host kept admonishing the Academy for not nominating the mediocre Selma more often. Harris also mocked the Best Picture winner Birdman by coming out in his underpants in a new low, even for the Oscars.

Harris had started off the show with a good song and dance number honoring moving pictures, which was well performed with help from Jack Black, Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods) and visual effects that set the right tone with clever shadows that evoked Hollywood’s Golden Age. But left-wing politics quickly intruded once again as Best Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette told the audience of the world’s richest women, including powerful billionaire movie producer Oprah Winfrey (The Hundred-Foot Journey) that women aren’t paid enough and don’t have “equal rights”. The way these wealthy show business people preached, one would think that blacks and women don’t have rights in America.

Those who defend rights, soldiers and war veterans, went unmentioned on stage, though American Sniper producer and Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper recognized them on the red carpet to his credit and so did a few others. Some Hollywood women were simply ignored like the war vets. Among those forgotten in the Academy Awards ceremony were comedienne and red carpet fashion commentator Joan Rivers, despite the inclusion of a film critic few remember and other questionable choices. Joan Rivers was not the only Republican left out of Oscar’s memorial segment; film noir actress Lizabeth Scott, who starred in 22 films, was also dismissed. While Ida won Best Foreign Movie, Whiplash won a few times and what I think is 2014’s best picture, American Sniper, won an Oscar, some of last year’s best movies were not nominated, including St. Vincent, Black or White and A Long Way Down.

Reminding everyone in the audience at Hollywood Boulevard’s Dolby Theatre, a block from Oscar’s first venue, The Roosevelt Hotel, and the billion people watching around the world what really matters fell to the evening’s oddest couple and most elegant, talented and glamorous pair: Julie Andrews and Lady Gaga, honoring a truly great, serious and musical motion picture, The Sound of Music (1965). This is a movie about ideas, family and uniting against evil by bonding based on what one loves.

In paying tribute to its 50th anniversary, Lady Gaga erased the previous segment’s unearned guilt and captivated the audience with a breathtaking display of ability with a beautiful medley of songs from the film. She commanded the hall in her superior voice singing tunes by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for a magnificent movie about escaping from total government control of one’s life, work and music. She was followed by a clearly moved Julie Andrews, who spoke with eloquence and reverence for Oscar’s winner for 1965’s Best Picture. Lady Gaga and Julie Andrews delivered a momentary glimpse of ability and glamour, which lasted no longer than a few minutes. Yet it offered an unforgettable contrast in what it means to achieve in one voice true movie musical glory.

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Elie Wiesel Sanctions Speech to Congress

“As one who has seen the enemies of the Jewish people make good on threats to exterminate us, how can I remain silent?” Elie Wiesel, the great writer and survivor of Nazi atrocities, recently asked in an open letter (read the full text of Wiesel’s letter here).

The 86-year-old Wiesel, a staunch supporter of Israel, wrote the letter in support of the Israeli prime minister’s March 3 address to the United States Congress, in defiance of the Barack Obama administration, which is negotiating with Iran, Israel and America’s avowed enemy.

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Wiesel, an Andrew W. Mellon humanities professor at Boston University, author of the Holocaust memoir, Night, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, Medal of Liberty and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, chose this conflict between the U.S. executive branch and America’s ally, Israel, to proclaim his defiance against the administration and his willingness to hear the case against the U.S. foreign policy of appeasement of the ayatollahs in Iran’s Islamic dictatorship.

In fact, he dared to publicly declare his intention to attend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech and ask the president, vice-president and Congress:

Will you join me in hearing the case for keeping weapons from those who preach death to Israel and America?”

Wiesel’s radical refusal to remain silent—unlike most on the left, including Jews—and submit to Obama’s charge toward destruction is an act of moral courage from one with moral integrity. Elie Wiesel’s is a strong, powerful voice among Jews and those who care to know about the West’s worst act of self-destruction (so far) and, paraphrasing Leonard Peikoff (The Cause of Hitler’s Germany), America’s undeniably ominous parallel to the monstrosity of total government control of the individual.

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Wiesel’s singularly commanding voice of reason on this crucial issue has derailed the pro-Obama/anti-Israel campaign to stop this free exercise of speech—for now. There are days until Netanyahu’s address to Congress on March 3 and, as Americans and those living in the West have seen, civilization is increasingly and dangerously uncertain. This is war between the West and Islamic states that sponsor terrorism and this administration is driven to destroy the United States with its foreign and domestic policies. One who survived a Nazi death camp who lived and learned to Never Forget what causes mass death, like the old man depicted in the movie about the Jews’ revolt at the Nazis’ Sobibor camp, will not submit.

Neither should today’s American, who should follow this thoughtful intellectual’s example and watch Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3, come what may—then continue with a lifelong commitment like Elie Wiesel’s to speak out and defend against barbarism in its variously insidious forms.

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