The Story of the Jews

We caught 1 1/2 of the first 2 hours of the Simon Schama “Story of the Jews” on PBS last night.

In its typical “f*ck the viewers” fashion, PBS ran 2 hours last night and will run the final 3 hours back-to-back-to-back next Tuesday night, with re-broadcasts running in the middle of the night.

Complaints about the broadcast schedule aside, it’s a worthwhile program.  Schama, a British Jew and noted historian, takes a very personal, eclectic approach to the history of the Jewish people.  Even if you think you’re well informed, there’s a lot here you probably didn’t know.  I’d never heard about the Egyptian Jewish community of Elephantine, for example.   Some of Schama’s assertions are contentious (the Romans might be politically gone, but their influence on our culture prevails), but he is unfailingly interesting.

In one segment, Schama refers to the Talmud as “hypertext,” which I think is exactly right.  Unlike Christian and Muslim sacred texts, which are considered inerrant and unvarying, the Talmud incorporates scholarly commentary and disputation as part of the text — a distinction not always understood by those outside the Jewish community.

So give it a try.  Think of it as Cosmos for history geeks.

American Hustle

Notionally, it’s a story about the Abscam “sting” operation.  In reality, it’s a series of Oscar auditions featuring highly talented actors chewing scenery, in what seems to be a high concept send-up of the late 1970s.  The actors’ bits of business (Bale’s comb-over, Cooper’s hair rollers) overwhelm the narrative, so much so that you have to rely on the periodic voice-overs to explain what you’ve just seen.  If you’ve ever wondered what exactly a movie director does, this film is an unusual example of what happens without one.

And what’s with all the Oscar nods?  Technically, this film is pretty mediocre, with lots of obvious continuity problems in film editing (Amy Adams’ hair style seems to change hourly).  Perhaps there’s a hitherto unknown category for most shots of women in skimpy clothing apparently not wearing underwear?

Some of the scenes are very entertaining — Jennifer Lawrence has an unexpected gift for comedy.  But none of the characters, even though supposedly based on real people, are even remotely credible.

The title of the movie actually provides a pretty good clue as to what this is.  It’s not a film, but a scheme to separate you from your money.

It’s About Time

On his 21st birthday, a young British man learns from his father that the men, and only the men, in his family can travel through time.   There are certain limitations — you can’t visit the future, and you can only visit your own path.  But you can relive days where you messed up as many times as you like — Groundhog Day in reverse.

The movie deals with the paradoxes of time travel in the usual hand-waving way — this is not a science fiction movie.  But, like the best sci fi, it engages in interesting speculation — if you suddenly found out you had an awesome super power, how would it change your life?  Or would it

This movie was designed as light entertainment, and it succeeds on its own limited terms without condescending to its audience. It was made by the same team that did Love Actually — if you liked that one, you’ll probably like this.

It’s that rare thing — a movie pitched at adults which can nevertheless be enjoyed by the whole family.

Dallas Buyer’s Club

Ron, a Texas electrician who likes a lot of s*x, drugs and rodeo on the side, gets diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1980s, a time when no effective treatments were available and most people diagnosed died within a matter of months.  Ron refuses to accept his grim prognosis, does his own research on drugs being tested in other countries, and defies both the DEA and the FDA to bring them to needy patients.  Along the way, Ron forms relationships with the gay community he had previously scorned, including a transgendered HIV+ person with the wonderful name of Rayon.

Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are outstanding as Ron and Rayon.  One of my favorite scenes involves Ron insisting that one of his old rodeo friends, who has shunned Ron since his diagnosis, allow himself to be introduced to the flamboyantly-dressed Rayon.  It’s a very Jamie-Brienne moment.

But unlike Blue Jasmine, this movie really doesn’t live up to its hype. It’s got the dreaded “based on a true story” tagline, which means you can never be sure how much of the story actually happened. (Rayon, for example, is a composite character.)  The script is weak, and often clichéd.  The callous way that doctors set up clinical trials for possible drug therapies in the early days seems fairly presented, and AIDS activists like Ron deserve a lot of credit for changing the protocols for such trials in treating fatal illnesses.  But do we really need more “evil pharmaceutical companies only care about profits” caricatures?  And the notion that Ron prolonged his own life by “natural” products and drugs provided by dodgy Mexican doctors is dangerous nonsense.  Ron was right that AZT, the only drug available in the US at the time, was toxic at the doses then being given. But some people with HIV don’t develop full-blown AIDS for years after the diagnosis, for reasons still not understood. This seems as likely a reason for Ron’s beating the odds (he was originally given 30 days to live) as anything else.

Recommended, with reservations, if only for the principals’ outstanding performances.

Parental Advisory:  Some of the early scenes of Ron’s riotous pre-diagnosis life may be overly explicit for younger children.

Blue Jasmine

Jasmine, a wealthy NYC woman, loses her social position and most of her money when her husband is arrested for securities fraud.  She moves in with her decidedly down-market sister in San Francisco, and quickly comes to despise her sister’s boyfriend, who likes to hang around in sleeveless undershirts.  The similarities to A Streetcar Named Desire end there. Jasmine is no Blanche Dubois — more enraged tiger than wounded bird.  She is mentally unbalanced, all right — but her problems are all of her own making.  The “story line” of this movie, such as it is, comes through over gradual understanding of Jasmine’s complex mental state.  It’s extraordinarily well done —  Streetcar done right.

You have the usual excellent script by Woody Allen — whatever you think of Allen’s personal life, few writers since Tolstoy have understood a woman’s interior life so well.  Cate Blanchett was an inspired choice, and her performance of a woman at once a tough-minded realist and an insecure fantasist deserves all the accolades it’s been getting.   There is the usual strong supporting cast — Bobby Cannavale, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin.  (Note that despite the appearance of comedians Andrew Dice Clay and Louis CK, this is not one of Allen’s funny movies.)  And the streets of San Francisco are actually shot in San Francisco, not Toronto or a Hollywood back lot — although he must have waited weeks for that shot of the Golden Gate Bridge without fog.

Highly recommended.

Parental Advisory:  There’s nothing here a kid couldn’t see, but younger kids would probably be bored.  Teenagers interested in human relationships might like it.