Is Merchantville fertile ground for marijuana shops? Reply

I live in the little town of Merchantville, NJ, outside Philadelphia. The New Jersey legislature is considering whether to expand the existing authorization to sell medical marijuana to qualified patients; six shops are in business across the state now.  Also under consideration is legalization of so-called recreational use of marijuana, including retail distribution and consumption in designated facilities.  Could our little town become a cannabis crossroads? Hey, it’s fifteen minutes from Philadelphia! I wrote a story quoting a local resident who edits two cannabis trade magazines.  My story is in the December issue:

Merchantville Observer Dec. 2018

“The Looming Tower:” Great TV Reply

If you are looking for intelligent, mature, and rather passionate TV, I highly recommend “The Looming Tower” on Hulu. It’s a story of 9/11 and how it could have been prevented — maybe — but not for the stupidity and arrogance of a few people. It makes you want to cry.

The 10-part series is based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright, published in 2005, which is largely a history of Al-Qaeda and its forerunners such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The filmmakers chose to focus on the still-controversial matter of the rivalry between the CIA, focused on foreign intelligence, and the FBI, which was trying to keep the bad guys out of the US or arrest them if they got in.

The story turns particularly on the horrible fact that the CIA was aware that at least two Al-Qaeda guys had gotten into the country, and not only failed, but actively refused, to tell the FBI about it.

The villain is a character named Martin Schmidt (played very well by Peter Sarsgaard), whom the filmmakers seem to claim is a composite but is actually based very closely on the real-life Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s “Alec Station” that was tracking Al-Qaeda and Usama Bin Laden. In the film and in real life, he took a very narrow view of his responsibilities and refused to share vital information with the FBI. Some suggest that CIA was trying to recruit the bad guys as informants, and thus wanted to keep the FBI off their backs. More…

Film Notes Reply

“The Post”

Slow-paced, talky account of how the Washington Post and its larger-than-life executive editor, Ben Bradlee, obtained and published the “Pentagon Papers,” a secret history of the US involvement in Vietnam, in 1971. The key performance is by Meryl Streep as

Hanks and Streep in the Post 2 x 3

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep defy Nixon.

Katherine Graham, owner of the paper, who evolves from socialite and timid businesswoman to a fearless defender of the free press – in about a week. A crisis can have that effect, I guess.  The film also explores the tangled relationship between media titans like Mrs. Graham and Bradlee on the one hand and politicians, including presidents, on the other.  One gets the impression that the Post might have acted differently if the president had been someone other than the socially undesirable Nixon.  Bradlee is portrayed by Tom Hanks in the latest of his long series of roles as All American Hero.  If you’re interested in films about the power of the press, “Spotlight” was better, in my view. More…

The Great Escape: Tumor-Suppressor Genes and Male-Female Cancer Disparity Reply

by Richard L. Lobb
American Association for Cancer Research

Stand Up To Cancer’s Innovative Research Grant (IRG) recipients,  early-career investigators who take fresh approaches to critical questions about cancer, continue to generate interesting and compelling research.

One of these IRGs is David M. Weinstock, MD, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, who was awarded a grant to help develop a rapid system for the identification of molecular abnormalities that drive cancer causation.  Recently he was part of a team that studied a puzzling question:  Why is cancer more prevalent in men than women?

Glioblastoma, the most common type of brain cancer, occurs twice as often in men as in women, as does kidney and renal pelvis cancer and stomach cancer; liver cancer is even more likely to occur in men than women. Overall, men are 20 percent more likely than women to develop cancer, for reasons not fully understood.

The team came up with a possible explanation: Women have more copies of certain genes that fight cancer.

More…

“Rogue One:” In The Beginning Reply

“Rogue One” is the slam-bang prologue to the first “Star Wars” movie, ending moments before “A New Hope” begins. If you were binge-watching “Star Wars,” “Rogue One” would be the first episode.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the Rebel Alliance’s attempt to capture the plans for the Death Star that will show its fatal flaw. Key to this effort is Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. Jyn’s father, Galrogue-oneen Erso, was conscripted by the Empire to design the Death Star; his revenge is putting in the back door that eventually allows the Alliance to blow it up.

More…

Adele: At “25,”Still Sad After All These Years Reply

Adele is still sad about everything. It worked brilliantly on her last album, so why mess with success? Even if she is world-famous, filthy rich, and happily settled down with a boyfriend and baby, she can still be really sad about a love that ended long ago, the ravages of age (I mean, my God, she’s TWENTY-FIVE), and the restless longing for a better life that afflicts pretty much all of us.

adele-25
Consequently, there’s really nothing new on her latest album, named, like the previous two, for her age at the time of production. Most of the songs sound like “Rolling in the Deep” or “Take It All” or other cuts off “21,” her phenomenally successful album from 2011. “Hello,” from the new album, is almost as spine-tingling as “Set Fire to the Rain,” but not quite. “When we Were Young,” “Water under the Bridge,” “Love in the Dark,” and “Million Years Ago,” are fine songs that share the pervasive melancholy that is her trademark.  Listen to this album long enough and you will wonder what the hell is the point of going on, anyway.


What saves the album, of course, is her wonderful voice and her willingness and ability to throw herself emotionally into the music. Time and again, she draws you into the song with gentle, sorrowful lyrics and then bowls you over with a sudden emotional blast.


Maybe her fans will never get tired of Adele’s rehashing her former love life, but unless she wants to be remembered as the Carole King of R&B (one huge album followed by years of trying for another), she needs to find some new material.

“Spotlight:” Uncovering a Scandal Reply

In the new movie “Spotlight,” the Boston Globe takes the long-running, episodic story of sex abuse in the Catholic Church and discovers how it was covered up for years by the church hierarchy, the local establishment, and a pliant legal system. The Globe blew the lid off the scandal with consequences that reverberate today.

As with “Apollo 13” or “Captain Phillips” or other movies based on actual events, the interest is not in how the story turns out but in how skillfully it’s portrayed. “Spotlight” is carried by exceptionally good acting by every member of the cast, bar none. The lead actors are perfect. Liev Schreiber is the new top editor who wants to know why the story has been so little reported. Michael Keaton is the investigative editor who realizes that he has to atone for previous journalistic lapses. Mark Ruffalo is the ferocious young reporter, while Rachel McAdams is the sympathetic journo who gets the victims to open up.

Outstanding cast in "Spotlight"

Outstanding cast in “Spotlight”

The supporting cast is nothing short of extraordinary, since every single one of them is perfectly believable in the difficult task of portraying the victims of horrid crimes – or the perpetrators. My favorite might be the hapless Father Paquin, who answers a reporter’s knock on the door and immediately, right then and there, standing at the door, admits he molested children. But, he says, it wasn’t important because he derived no pleasure from it. Then his sister rushes to the door and pulls him back, and in her few seconds on the screen, perfectly portrays a harried old woman who is utterly sick of her demented brother but still completely protective of him.

The film is full of such performance gems. The only people who seem to be acting even a little are those who in real life really were acting, desperately trying to hide the truth and protect the church from a devastating scandal.

The film is sort of a police procedural about how the Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team cracked the case. The church did its best to keep the facts out of public view, mostly by settling cases out of court. Stymied in their attempt to identify abusers, the reporters stumbled upon a Rosetta Stone published by the church itself: the annual directory showing where every priest in the archdiocese was assigned. Analysis showed which ones were being shuffled from parish to parish or sent to treatment centers and listed as on “sick leave” or “unassigned” or the like. Thus the church’s own phone book served up nearly 90 suspected perverts.

The Globe’s blockbuster story, published in January 2002 (appropriately enough on the Feast of the Epiphany, the “revelation” or “showing forth”) put the church’s sex abuse scandal squarely into the public eye and brought about overdue reforms nationwide. The film is a tribute to the type of investigative journalism that is fast disappearing with the collapse of big-city newspapers. It is also a memorial to the victims whose youthful innocence was stolen by truly evil men.

 

 

Metrics? Really? Reply

Let me say I think the United States should adopt the metric system. I mean, who wouldn’t love to drive 100 on the interstate? Most of the conversions are easy. A gallon is basically four liters. A meter is about a yard. If Starbucks made the venti slightly bigger, it would be half a liter, We could call it a “half,” and you could order a half-caf half with half and half.

But I digress. I realize I am in the minority on this one. That is why I was slightly amazed to see that some guy from Rhode Island (or is it Connecticut?) thinks he can seek the Democratic nomination for president on a platform that includes adoption of the metric system. Mr. Chafee, whose dad was such a Republican that he named him Lincoln, seems to be a little unrealistic about a lot of things. But coming out for metrics may be the goofiest move we have seen yet in what is shaping up as a highly entertaining campaign season. Wherever she is hiding from the press right now, Hillary Clinton must be smiling.

“Birdman:” Action hero seeks relevance Reply

A washed-up but dedicated actor struggling for relevance in a rapidly changing world he doesn’t really understand is a quick summary of the new release “Birdman,” but it also applies largely to the star, Michael Keaton, which may explain some of the intensity he brings to the role. Keaton and the rest of the cast turn in excellent performances, but the film ultimately can’t escape the weight of its own cleverness.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his alter ego, Birdman

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) and his alter ego, Birdman


Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, an actor best known for playing a comic-book action hero, just as Keaton had his greatest success two decades ago in “Batman” movies. Riggan – may I call you Riggan, Mr. Thomson? — is trying to resurrect his career and give himself some legitimacy by taking a shot at theater. He is the writer, director, and star of a Broadway production of a play based on a collection of short stories by the late Raymond Carver.

Or he will be if he can get the production together and overcome his own demons, which include an impressive capacity for alcohol and the voice and eventually the image of the Birdman character belittling his attempt at a new life. His daughter, well played by Emma Stone, tells him, as even loving children sometimes do, just how irrelevant he is – why, he doesn’t even have Twitter or Facebook accounts!

A more serious problem is the open hostility of the New York Times critic, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), who promises to sink the play with a bad review just because it is not Art. In the end, she saves it with a backhanded compliment, attributing to Riggan “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.”

The film covers three nights as the cast and crew scramble to open the show, surviving mishaps such as a stage light falling on an actor’s head. He’s replaced by Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who brings a well-established Broadway presence at the cost of supreme arrogance. Riggan stumbles into social media when he steps outside for a smoke only to have the locked stage door close behind him. He has to run through Times Square clad only in his socks and underpants to get back into the theater, a trip promptly captured and shared with the world by eager celebrity-watchers.

The film could work as a black comedy of the insular little world of theater, but this is a movie, so the Birdman trapped inside Riggan’s head plays an ever-bigger role, leading to obviously imaginary action-film sequences. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu ultimately can’t decide if the film is comical, fantasy, or some sort of magical realism. The ending undermines the rest of the picture.

“The Interview:” Them or Us? Reply

The germ of an idea for a good movie is present in “The Interview.” Airhead TV personality lands interview with Kim Jong-un, gets taken in by the dictator’s charm offensive, comes to his senses in the nick of time, and helps ignite a revolution with probing questions and the help of a disillusioned functionary of the regime.

Unfortunately, this promising outline is promptly buried in vulgar dialogue and jokes for which “crude” is too kind an adjective. Seeing the film through to the end is not so much a relief as an escape from an entertainment evidently aimed at 13-year old boys. Except that they are not supposed to be able to attend an R-rated movie by themselves. If 16-year-olds find it funny, I shudder at the future of our culture.

James Franco and Seth Rogen in lame comedy "The Interview"

James Franco and Seth Rogen in lame comedy “The Interview”

Seth Rogen and James Franco do their bit and display a few flashes of wit, but it takes more than that to pull off a successful comedy, even the Adam Sandler variety. Anus jokes can’t carry a film.

In real life, Rogen and Franco owe Kim and his army of hackers (assuming it was really they who pulled off the assault on Sony) a big wet Hollywood kiss for gifting them with a gazillion dollars’ worth of free publicity.

Of course, when the hackers threatened terrorism against theaters showing the film, the major exhibitors demonstrated that they are in fact made of cotton candy and canceled the bookings. If Kim wanted to demonstrate the moral cowardice of the West, he succeeded handily. Sony finally pulled itself together and offered the film to a handful of arthouses, which reveled in the chance to profit from the controversy.

Watching the film, one can see why Sony was then anxious to dump it into cheap, pay-for-view channels ($6 on YouTube) rather than wait for the momentum to build from the limited release. Fact is, the word of mouth would have killed it anyway. So better to go for a quick buck from a mass online release and then take credit for being brave, so brave, in the face of the dictator’s threats.

At bottom, the film is not about Kim Jong-un and his madhouse of a people’s republic. This film, sad to say, is about America and the business of its popular culture.

“Unbroken:” a story of endurance Reply

“Unbroken,” directed by Angelina Jolie, is the story of the courage and endurance of a young American held prisoner, and brutally mistreated, by the Japanese in World War II. With a slow pace and a running time of 2 hours 17 minutes, it is also something of a test of the endurance of the audience. By taking a straightforward biographical approach, broken up only by some flashbacks to fill in the backstory, Jolie achieves accuracy and honesty while giving up narrative intensity and a decisive climax.

The film is based on the nonfiction book by the same title, by Laura Hillenbrand (known previously for “Seabiscuit”). It’s the story of Louis Zamperini, a young athlete who placed eighth in the 5,000 meters in the 1936 Olympics. He is played very effectively by Jack O’Connell, an Anglo-Irish actor in his first big role. After attending USC, Louie enlisted in the Army Air Corps shortly before the U.S. entered the war, was commissioned as a lieutenant, and served as bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific Theater.

Louis Zamperini about to be whacked by sadistic guard.

Louis Zamperini about to be whacked by sadistic guard.


Zamperini’s plane crashed in the ocean while on a search-and-rescue mission. He, the pilot, and one other crewman survived the crash and climbed into a life raft for what became the ghastly ordeal of floating adrift for six weeks in the hot sun, catching fish and birds to eat and hoping for rain to bring fresh water. A Japanese plane strafed the raft. The third man died after 33 days at sea; Louie and the pilot drifted 2,000 miles before touching land that was, unfortunately, occupied by the Japanese. Thus began Louie’s second hellish ordeal, imprisonment in several camps that ended only when the war did.

Being a prisoner is always awful, but Louie was targeted for special abuse by a sadistic guard named Watanabe, who did everything he could to break the American’s spirit. The guard is played by Takamasa Ishihara, an actor better known in Japan as a somewhat androgynous singer-songwriter and rock band guitarist. He brings a creepily erotic note to his sadistic treatment of the Allied prisoners. Watanabe’s ultimately unsuccessful campaign of cruelty provides the only real rivalry in the film.

And therein lies the problem. We know that Louie will somehow survive and triumph, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie made about him. Watching him get beaten time and again is a lot to pay for a brief scene in which Watanabe sinks to his knees, defeated by Louie’s unbeatable spirit.

In other war movies – “Bridge on the River Kwai” comes to mind – at least we have the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys killed (along with some good guys, of course) and the bridge getting blown up. It isn’t widely known, but in the “Kwai” book, the ending is very different. David Lean knew that a successful movie has to have a spectacular ending, so he took the liberty of providing it. Jolie remains faithful to her source and provides a story that is satisfying in its own way, but not one you would gladly see again.