Cultural cues in ‘A Letter to Momo’

Girls need their fathers. Fathers are the first super heroes in the lives of girls and their fall from grace of childish ideals can be hard. In the 2011 Japanese animated feature, an 11-year-old girl tries to make sense of life after her father’s death. Directed and written by Hiroyuki Okiura, the movie is filled with reminders of nature and the Shinto influence on Japanese culture.

The animated feature begins and comes back to imagery and mention of water. Three mysterious drops of water fall from heaven. We first see the mother Ikuko and her daughter Momo (which could mean peach and is typically associated with girls) on a boat. They are in the Inland Sea (Seto Naikai) and heading for Shiojima (Salt Island).

The drops of water fall on Momo and then to the deck where they shimmy along. We’ll see them again soon. Momo is looking at the letter in the title (which is a literal translation of the Japanese title).  The letter wasn’t written on mood-setting colored paper.  Instead, it was on plain lined letter writing paper, but only begun with nothing more than “To Momo” (ももへ).

Momo and her mother are returning to her mother’s hometown, an island just recently connected to Shikoku (one of the four main islands that make up Japan), but the bridge has yet to be opened to the public.

There she meets Yōta and his sister Umi. Up in her great-grandparents attic she finds a rare book about goblins or yōkai. Those drops from above work their way into the special box holding that book and three of the goblins pictured come to life.

As it turns out, Momo’s father, an oceanographer on a research project, has died, leaving the letter unfinished and Momo with the memory of her last angry words to her father. The movie is about how she comes to terms with her father’s death and the yōkai, for a brief period, watch over Momo and Ikuko.

The surname of the family, Miyaura, means Shinto shrine creek. There’s a lot of Shinto imagery in this movie, and language usage also plays a role in the mood set by this film. There are things lost in translation that I’ll try to explain.

宮浦もも(みやうら もも)

宮浦いく子(みやうら いくこ)

宮浦カズオ(みやうら かずお)

In Japanese, there is more than one word for return. To return home, or return to somewhere that is home-like is kaeru (かえる)whereas to return to another location is modoru (もどる).  One commonly says, O-kaerinasai  (お帰りなさい)or  O-kaeri when someone returns home.

Momo’s last words to her father are something like: “Don’t bother returning home.”


The same Chinese character for “to return home” (帰る)is used to say “to return to one’s home country” (帰国する). When old people return to childhood in their senility, one also uses kaeru (年を取ると子供に帰る)。 Yet it is also used when one dies or returns to dust (死んで土に帰る)。

To lead us into the world of spirits and strange creatures who change form, the word kaeru also calls to mind the homophone which means to change form or shift as in a sentence straight from Kodansha dictionary: “They turned them into swine” or 彼らは豚に変えられた。

Notice the difference in the two characters.  In the second verb, the character is more often used to the word “hen” or strange. So it’s small wonder that this movie is inhabited by “henjin” or strange people like Iwa, Kawa, Mame.  The names of the yōkai make us think of both nature, Shinto customs and fathers.

Iwa is a rock, crag or reef. It is also compared to one’s father in the song about the four seasons. “The people who love summer have strong hearts; The waves smash the rocks are (strong) like my father”

夏を愛する人は心強き人、岩をくだく波のような ぼくの父おや。

Kawa means river and Kawa seems to be a kappa or river child, a type of water deity. Different version of kappa exist and they can be anything from simply a troublemaker that plays tricks like farting (and this does figure into the story)  to a water monster that drowns people.

Mame reminds one of beans. Mame can mean beans. In Japan, on New Year’s Day, you eat beans to insure you’ll face the new year in good health. Mame is a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active. On Setsubun, one traditionally scatters roasted soybeans out the door and say “Demons out, luck in” (鬼は外福はうち).

Momo’s very name has a seasonal appeal. In March, on Girls Day or Hina Matsuri, traditionally peach blossoms are displayed along with the dolls. Peach blossoms are considered feminine (as opposed to the iris which is traditionally associated with Boys Day or Kodomo no Hi).

At the memorial service for Momo’s father, the scene is introduced with cherry blossoms which represent the transiency of life because the blossoms only bloom for a few days before the petals flutter to the ground, generally in about April.

The emergency or crisis that brings Momo into her own in the movie happens as the formerly calm waves are whipped up by a storm and are crashing against the island and it’s the yōkai who eventually help Momo in a scene that might remind anime lovers of the famous cat bus from Hayao Miyazaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro.”

I wondered if there wasn’t some fun word play in making the father, Kazuo, an oceanographer or kaiyōgakusha (海洋学者) and then reversing kaiyō to make yōkai (different Chinese characters) and have yōkai as the important part of the storyline as opposed to having specific mythical beasts such as the kappa connecting with this girl.

One reason why I wonder about the reversing of syllables is because of one of the character’s names. The young boy that becomes Momo’s friend, Yōta, has an unusual name for a Japanese boy. If you reverse the characters, his name becomes taiyō, the word that means sun.

There’s another name that seems signficant although not reversed. Yōta’s younger sister is named Umi. The characters literally mean Ocean Beautiful, 海美(うみ), but the pronunciation is the same as the first character read by itself, 海(うみ), and again meaning ocean.

The characters aren’t given for the first names for the Miyaura family, but one might guess that besides Momo meaning peach, Iku might mean go and Kazu might mean number, but these seem less important than the actual last name.

To a certain extent, you can contrast this movie with Goro Miyazaki’s “Up on Poppy Hill.” While Momo told her father not to return home, in the “Up on Poppy Hill,” another girl named Umi waited for her father’s return.

In Japanese movies, sometimes names have meanings and associations. Sometimes they do not. In “A Letter to Momo,” the cultural associations linked to the names given to the yōkai and the imagery of water and the seasons presented build up poetically layered animated feature about one girl and her father.


Get hopping and register by Wednesday for Camp Hollywood

If you’re serious about Lindy Hop or just popping with questions about taking a chance on this old American social dance form, then you have until Wednesday at midnight to register for four days and three nights of non-stop sweaty fun: Camp Hollywood XVII at the LAX Marriott!

You don’t need a date. Last year, we followed a mother-daughter couple who took the plunge and took beginner’s track to fast-forward them into the social dance scene. They were sweaty and a big giggly, but they had great fun. That might be because, as frequent attendee and sometime Camp Hollywood instructor (since 2001)  Tise Chao explains, “CH is an event that was created by dancers for dancers. It’s a swing dance camp where you can learn, social dance, compete, and be inspired by the bands, music, and dancers of all levels. Not to mention always meeting new friends and catch up with old friends once a year from all over the world.”

Rusty Frank, a local instructor (of Rusty’s Rhythm Club and Lindy by the Sea), has been attending from the beginning, perhaps missing it once or twice when she was out of the country bringing Lindy hop to other eager dancers.

“Who couldn’t hear about it if you swing dance in L.A.,” she explained in an email. “I just always knew it was happening.  I have been going since the first camp.  You’ll have to ask Hilary, but I think I might have even taught at the first one. Can’t remember.”

Chao has been attending CH  since dance friends told her about it in 1999.

Further, Frank commented, “I love attending Camp Hollywood for a variety of reasons:

1.  It’s great to take the classes from all the different instructors
2.  It’s great to watch the competitions
3.  It’s great to dance with a ton of people I don’t know
4.  It’s great to catch up with old friends
5.  It’s great to make new dance friends
6.  It’s a great opportunity to hang out with the legendary old-timers.
7.  It’s also fun to shop!”

Because she’s been going so long, Rusty now mainly visits with her Camp Hollywood friends and she loves seeing her students just having fun. Rusty Frank also remembers  “winning” the Inter-generational competition in 2007 “with a kid a met five minutes before the competition started! That was fun!”

If you’re not sure how to proceed, Chao wrote, “The best way to prepare for CH is to read all the information on the website before attending, and know when are the classes, contests, and evening dances, so that you have a schedule worked out, pack all your wardrobe and costumes ahead, and not miss anything. There’s something going on every hour of the camp, that you’ll need to know when to take a break or nap at the hotel room, and be energized again to dance for another five hours straight or if you are the hard core type dance until 4 or 5am!”

Rusty Frank prepared a check-off list for attendees:

1.  Stay at the hotel.  It just makes everything easier.
2.  Video tape the moves taught after each class, so that you don’t have to worry about remembering what you learned until after the camp is over.
3.  Bring LOTS of different shoes.
4.  Enjoy yourself!
5.  Hang out at the pool.
6.  Dance with LOTS of people you don’t know.
7.  Enter a contest; it’s another way to meet and dance with new people
8.  Introduce yourself to the old-timers

While that Sunday night competition is more fun and judged by applause, the other competitions are more serious and Rusty loves watching the Open Lindy Finals. Chao also finds the contests are her favorite part of CH. “It’s always so exciting for me to watch the creativity and energy the contestants put into their dancing, year after year.”

Chao always gets a tear in her eye when founder and main organizer Hilary Alexander presents the Golden Budgie award, but adds, “My favorite competition moment is when the Amateur dancers are doing aerials and more dangerous moves than the Pro dancers, showing a true jitterbug spirit and going all out to give the best show.”

People to watch for include Bill and Theresa who according to Frank “always have the best costumes for all the themes,” and Jeff Beauregard, who, according to Chao,  “is always wearing vintage gear and looks like he lives in the 1940’s. You can always find him in the Jack & Jill contest dancing up a storm and creating lots of attention from the audience.”

This year, Camp Hollywood becomes the fourth World Cup Lindy competition (along with The Snowball in Stockholm, Rock That Swing Festival in Munich, and Camp Swing It in Korea). When a couple compete at a World Cup they gain points in a ranking system. The top three couples in Open Lindy and Showcase will receive different sponsorship to participate at the World Cup Finale at The Snowball 2014.

If you love Hollywood, Lindy hop and dressing up while working up a healthy sweat, get registered and then get ready for a hopping good time at the LAX Marriott. Current cost is $215 until 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. At the door, you’ll pay $235 all weekend.

Los Angeles Airport Marriott is located at 5855 West Century Blvd, Los Angeles, CA. They offer a free airport shuttle every ten minutes to and from LAX so there’s no need to rent a car! There are hotel reservation matchups on Facebook. 

Frank is hosting a pre-Camp Hollywood event at her Lindy by the Sea on Wednesday. Thursday night, hop on the 110 and get on to the LindyGroove in Pasadena. Then the Camp Hollywood opens up at the LAX Marriott.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Broadway: ‘To Be Takei’

A funny thing happened when George Takei tacked social media to pump up interest in a musical being produced in San Diego: He became a media star. Takei has experienced various twists and turns in his career, but perhaps this was the biggest surprise, one that both probably proved as a catalyst for this new documentary, “To Be Takei,” and yet sorely puzzled the director Jennifer M. Kroot.

“To Be Takei” opens this weekend in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset Cinema and the Laemmle Playhouse 7.

Originally, Takei had hoped the documentary would end with the triumphant opening on Broadway of the musical that started it all: “Allegiance.”  The musical, which had its world premiere in San Diego,  is about a World War II veteran named Sam Kimura (Takei) who remembers in flash backs how the Japanese American internment took his family away from their California farm to prison camp Heart Mountain in Wyoming and differing opinions tore the family apart.

Takei has been outspoken about his experiences as a young child, born in Los Angeles, but taken first to Santa Anita Racetrack to live in horse stalls to Arkansas where his family was placed in one of two so-called relocation camps. Due to his family’s decision to be no-no boys, the family was transferred to the higher security camp at Tule Lake in California.

The no-no issue is at the heart of the musical. The term refers to the Application for Leave Clearance form where there were two loyalty questions (27 and 28).

  • “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?”
  • “Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, to any other foreign government, power or organization?”

There were problems with both questions. By answering “yes” to the first, was one enlisting in the U.S. military? To answer “no” to the second, was one admitting to having sworn allegiance previously to Japan? And then the greater question that the form didn’t answer was: What kind of treatment could either side expect when they had already been taken from their homes and transferred to different towns without really knowing their fate? What kind of justice could they expect in 1940s yellow perilism North America?

Kroot must have had ideas of how to start the documentary yet because the ending has changed, that perhaps changed as well. The musical is also very much part of this documentary, but instead of a steady drive toward a Broadway opening, the documentary becomes more centered on George Takei and his everyday life with his husband, Brad.

The big social issue now is same-sex marriage and can you imagine a world where two men, who had spent decades together as a couple can take their daily walk, have their meal together and face the world together without anyone blinking or spewing hate? Kroot begins the documentary following Takei and Brad on their daily walk. At 77, Takei no longer trains to run a marathon, but that’s how Brad and George actually met.

George Takei came out in 2005 and married Brad Altman in 2008.  At the time of their marriage, they had already been together for 21 years. As one would expect of any old married couple, they have figured out their roles and they know how to push each other’s buttons. There’s a bit of wheedling and some moments when Brad looks a bit uncomfortable, but that makes this documentary feel honest.

Kroot shows George meeting fans and, above all else, speaking out about the Japanese American internment and same-sex marriage. We see old family photos and, of course, the series that made George Takei famous: “Star Trek.”

George’s close friends, from the series Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, appear in clips from the past and recent interviews as does Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. The infamous missing wedding invitation is also addressed.

Yet George Takei was much more than “Star Trek.” He ran for a political office, helped in the mayoral campaign for Tom Bradley and he served on a transportation board before commitments to the Star Trek movie series took him away. Besides Star Trek, he was also in other movies and a frequent guest on the Howard Stern show where he at first denied rumors that he was gay. Kroot deals with the before and after, getting comments from both George Takei and Stern.

We also learn how happenstance led to the creation of “Allegiance” and follow George to the production in San Diego and the stalled waiting for its opening in New York.

Attempting to use his leverage as a Star Trek celebrity to promote “Allegiance,” made George a Facebook sensation and in many ways rejuvenated his career. Funny things happen when you keep active and stay committed to activism and “To Be Takei” is all about those funny things and how George Takei and his husband Brad have been able to turn adversity into a meaningful life–even when those issues may only be important to small pocket minorities. Takei does it without anger or bitterness, but with grace, good manners and a sense of humor.

At 77, Takei is even more famous than he was at the end of the three season run of the original TV series of “Star Trek.”  In that respect, “To Be Takei” shows that life can have surprising possibilities at any age if you have the drive and the commitment and the willingness to take risks.

Are You Green Enough to Write ‘A Will for the Woods’

If you’re feeling down this movie won’t bring you up because it is about death, certain death. This is also a very personal movie, one that follows one terminally ill man from his battle with lymphoma to his death and burial and along the way we learn about the green burial movement in the documentary “A Will for the Woods.”

Yet we all will face death and taxes and it’s never too early to think about death.

Clark Wang is a musician, psychiatrist and folk dancer.  We see him playing music with friends. Wang lives in North Carolina. His partner Jane Ezzard is beside him as he fights cancer through radiation treatments and yet the possibility that the battle against will be lost is not far from their thoughts between doctor’s visits and dealing with the side effects.

Director Amy Browne had first learned about the concept of green burial in 2007 from her sister, Sophie, who was working with Professor Roger Short of the University of Melbourne in Australia. They were looking for and developing future sites in that country for green burials. Sophie had begun her research in 2007, but it was in 2009 that Sophie and Amy were stuck in traffic near the Calvary Cemetery in Queens, that Amy decided to make a documentary. According to the press notes, the cemetery is wall-to-wall tombstones, mausoleums and memorials. The grass has dried up. There are few trees. It seems like a waste of land and resources.

Collaborating with co-directors Amy, Jeremy Kaplan, Tony Hale and Brian Wilson, Amy Browne took five years to film “A Will for the Woods.” The team looks at the key figures: Joe Sehee of the Green Burial Council, Kimberley and Dr. Billy Campbell, founders of the nation’s first conservation burial ground and Dyanne Matzkevich who is saving part of a forest in her conventional cemetery in order to make a green burial ground.

All that is facts and talk, contrasted to statistical information about the funeral industry–of expensive caskets and monuments and embalming for those who don’t find cremation the way to go. Cremation also doesn’t fit the green profile because it also causes pollution. If you need more background consider reading Evelyn Waugh’s satire “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy” or Jessica Mitford’s funny expose “The American Way of Death Revisited” (2000 update to the original).

Mitford (1917-1996) was born in England and became an investigative journalist in the 1960s. “The American Way of Death” was originally published in 1963 and looked at the business practices of the funeral industries and how they exploited grief. That led to a congressional hearing.

Waugh (1903-1966) got to the topic sooner with his 1948 “The Loved One” which became a 1965 Tony Richardson movie. Waugh was in Hollywood on the pretense of negotiating with MGM to adapt “Brideshead Revisited.” Instead, he did some digging into the Forest Lawn culture–its founder, facility and the peculiar practices of Americans when they die.

In essence, “A Will for the Woods” is also a reaction to American culture of death and the pomp and circumstance we’ve come to feel is normal. If it wasn’t normal from a universal perspective in the 1940s or the 1960s, one wonders if the culture has gotten better or more ridiculous.

With that perspective, what can we do to fight the mantra of American consumerism. What’s a green activist or even green friendly person to do for a funeral?

That was a question that bothered Clark Wang. Amy Browne and Kaplan heard about him and Wang is such a simple, unassuming man. He’s not an attention hog. He’s not preening. He’s not gloomy. He’s sad but also seems to find a certain comfort in the filming of this documentary. Of course, no one could be quite sure what would happen, but Wang does lose his battle with cancer. He has some regrets, but he does eventually meet his death with thoughtful preparation.

In our home, we often lament the lack of East Asian ethnic heroes and lead characters. Wang just happens to be East Asian American and he also happens to be dying. He’s an average guy trying to settle his affairs and he invites us all to join in his final journey. The co-directors handle this with great sensitivity. You’ll mourn Wang’s passing but also leave thinking about just how green do you want to be?

This documentary is showing at various venues and you can request to host a screening by going to the official website. 


  • Village East Cinema – New York City, NY
  • Creative Alliance – Baltimore, MD
  • The Plaza Theater – Atlanta, GA
  • Temple of Peace – Maui, HI
    • August 21st, 7pm in Haiku – Temple of Peace, 575 Haiku Rd.
    • August 25th, 7pm in Kihei – Awakening in Paradise, 1715 South Kihei Rd.
  • Upstate Theater – Rhinebeck/Woodstock, NY
  • Hyatt Place Hotel – Medford, MA
    • Saturday, August 23rd at 7pm
    • 116 Riverside Avenue
    • This event is free and open to the public
    • Filmmaker present for Q&A
  • Pinckney Community Library – Pinckney, MI
    • Thursday, September 4th at 6:30pm
    • 125 Putnam Street
    • Venue info here. This event is free and open to the public
  • Railroad Square Cinema – Waterville, ME
  • The Clinton Street Theater – Portland, OR
  • Knoxville Film Festival – Knoxville, TN
  • The New Parkway – Oakland, CA
  • Full Frame Third Friday (free screening) – Durham, NC
    • Friday evening, September 19th
    • 318 Blackwell Street
    • Cinema info. Free event, reserve here 9am 9/19 due to limited seating
  • Alamo Drafthouse – Winchester, VA
  • Greenfield Garden Cinemas – Greenfield, MA
  • Tallahassee Film Society – Tallahassee, FL
  • Matthaei Botanical Gardens – Ann Arbor, MI
  • Museum of Fine Arts – Boston, MA
    • Saturday, October 11th, 2:30pm
    • 465 Huntington Ave (Remis Auditorium)
    • Venue info here (ticket info TBA)
    • Q&A with filmmakers following screening 
  • Kansas International Film Festival – Kansas City, KS
  • Films in Forest Row – United Kingdom
    • Friday, October 24th
    • East Sussex, UK
    • More info TBA
  • International Film Series at CU – Boulder, CO
  • Full Frame Theater (3 day run) – Durham, NC
  • The Lensic – Santa Fe, NM
  • Dallas, TX – Venue TBA
    • Thursday, November 6th (Time TBA)
    • More information on this screening available soon – stay tuned!

‘Jarhead 2′ is a competent war tale

This is clearly a movie about war and there will be some casualties and it won’t be pretty. The pretty faces will be few because this, “Jarhead 2: Field of Fire,”  is a straight-to-video follow-up to a more popular movie.

Introductions are short and brief, but they really hardly matter. The troops are being shot at. We see each man’s name and rank and where he was from in white captions using fonts that imitate an old typewriter. Before we even understand who is the lead character, we have our first casualty. A man loses his leg, with blood spurting out into the air and he dies.This is the war and its very permanent consequences.

Then the music kicks in and we’re at Camp Leatherhead in Afghanistan. We’re remind we’ve actually been there 13 years. The introductions continue. The commanding officer of Camp Leatherhead, Major Gavins (Stephen Lang)  greets Corporal Chris Merrimette (Josh Kelly of “One Life to Live” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”).  Merrimette is in charge of a unit who will be taking a dangerous journey through hostile territory in order to resupply a remote outpost which lies on the edge of Taliban-controlled regions.

On the team is Cpl Danny Kettner (Bokeem Woodbine), Lance Corporal Danielle ‘Danni’ Allen (Danielle Savre), Private Rafael Soto (Jesse Garcia), Private Justin Li (Jason Wong) and Private Khalid Hassan abu Faisal (Ronny Jhutti) , a Afghan National Army who is bilingual. To get you in the proper mind set, let’s set up the archetypes. Kettner (Woodbine was in the 1996 “Freeway” and last year’s “Riddick”) is the black guy who should have led the team and immediately shows animosity toward Khalid–black guy against Arab guy (London-born Jhutti might be familiar to “Dr. Who” fans) is almost not like prejudice. No one else seems to show animosity toward Khalid.

Danni (Savre was the cheerleader friend of Hayden Panettiere in “Heroes” who was killed early on) is the woman minority. Soto is the Latino guy  who can’t help but ask Danni about the trim nature of her bush in the chatter as they proceed. Li is that East Asian guy whose most memorable scene is wearing a straw hat with flowers early on.

My husband correctly predicted that Li would be one of the early casualties.

As Danni bets the best of Soto in the scuttlebutt about her beaver, suddenly a Navy SEAL Special Operations Senior Chief Fox (Cole Hauser) appears. His crew is gone, he’s on foot and he needs to extract a package: the heavily veiled Anoosh (Cassie Layton).

Almost immediately, the team is ambushed. And people die. Soto freezes and Li died a heroic death trying to save him. He doesn’t get a last gasp for hair, but Li does get a close-up and his face isn’t bloodied. Soto will redeem himself.

Only three of these people will survive as this mission changes from supplying an outpost to taking Anoosh to a UNHCR conference where she will speak out about equal education. Khalid is, at first, the only person who recognizes her and he convinces her to reveal her mission to this team.

In Anoosh we have the answer to the question asked at the beginning of a movie when we are told that “a man has a lot of choices and these choices are rarely perfect” and that a man, “he wants to save this world” but then a man joins a group, in this case the Marines which is unnamed in the introduction. We’re then told, “he will be part of something bigger than himself” and learn to know his weapon better “than his own dick.” The question is: Why is he fighting; why is he dying; what’s the f*cking point?

Directed by Don Michael Paul (“Company of Heroes”) with a script written by Berkeley Anderson and Ellis Black, this is a by-the-numbers war drama about Marines on a mission. It aptly reminds us that our men are still in Afghanistan (and Iraq) fighting a war.

The 2005 “Jarhead” was directed by Sam Mendes and starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx, Peter Sarsgaard and Chris Cooper. That movie was based on the 2003 memoir of U.S. Marine Anthony Swooford. Swofford’s novel gets its name (as does the original movie) fom the haircut that the Marines favor which makes their heads resemble jars nd thsu jarheads is slang for Marines. The movie “Jarhead” covers both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. The movie’s ending is far from happy and more disturbingly melancholy.

“Jarhead: Field of Fire” ends on a more positive note, or at least a more pro-military service resolution. In that respect, it is a less thought-provoking movie.

“Jarhead 2: Field of Fire” features good performances and special effects and Paul directs using various things to keep us interested, but thank goodness he deserts the shaky-cam early on.

Kelly brings a certain gravity and authority to his role: He served three tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq as an Army Ranger before beginning his acting career.

Jarhead 2: Field of Fire was available on Blu-ray Combo Pack including Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on August 19, 2014, including both an R-rated and Unrated version as part of the DVD Originals line from Universal 1440 Entertainment, a production entity of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.  The film will also be available on Digital HD two weeks early on August 5, 2014.


Robin Williams: ‘Popeye’ pretty thin in charm

When I was a kid, I watched “Popeye the Sailor” cartoons. The cartoon character was created in 1929 and became the subject of theatrical cartoon shorts for Paramount Pictures in 1933 and continued until 1957. The 1980 live-action musical feature film that starred Robin Williams as Popeye is a scattered mess of gags that aren’t particularly funny.

The cartoon always had the old-fashioned feeling Olive Oyl needed to be rescued. Popeye would do the rescuing. Bluto was the villain. In 1960, a new cartoon series was ordered by King Features Syndicate and ran for only two years.

Robin Williams plays his role straight. His character does get to mumble which if I remember correctly is what the cartoon character did, but he’s the straight man and the humor is in the situation. The problem is that we don’t get any of the fantastical characters like Jeep and that most of the humor is dated. Popeye was reassuring in its regular schedule of events. Wednesday would ask for hamburgers. Bluto would try to steal something or take Olive Oyl away. Popeye would save her by gaining strength through eating spinach.

There was nothing I recall as wildly funny as the Bugs Bunny cartoons. The movie does benefit from having music provided by Harry Nilsson, but that’s about it.

A lot of detail has gone into making the sets in Malta, but even that old-fashioned, poor man’s 1930-ish look help the script. Dick Tracy had style and atmosphere, but there’s nothing attractive about this stylistically. This is like Depression era clothing with a bit of exaggeration.

Duvall makes a good clutzy Olive Oyl, but there’s nothing funny about her homeliness or her screechy neediness in the 2010s and not even in the 1980s. We know that with the proper script, Williams can bring the over-the-top to any character and hijack a role into eye-rolling cartoon land, but he isn’t given the chance here. Popeye is neither pathetically sad like a kid who has lost his favorite toy or just realized Santa Claus is never coming back nor the zany take-no-prisoners funny talk of the salesman on speed.

“Popeye” was one of Robin Williams more prominent roles early in his career, but it was also one of his worst. Reportedly, this Paramount and Disney co-production came into being after Paramount lost the bidding war for the musical “Annie.”

“Popeye” is available for instant streaming on Netflix.

Robin Williams: ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’

The Baron Munchausen was a real person, an 18th century nobleman who told tall tales about his exploits against the Ottoman Empire. Co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam, the 1988 movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” was a critical success that was a commercial failure. You can watch this idiosyncratic tale on Netflix.

In 1988, Robin Williams had already done “Popeye” (1980), “The World According to Garp” (1982), “Moscow on the Hudson” (1984) and “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Williams has a minor role as the King of the Moon. If you’ve seen the movie, you won’t easily forget this role. He was a surprise cameo because the credits list him as Ray D. Tutto.

Gilliam would direct Williams again in the 1991 “The Fisher King.”

The movie begins in an unnamed European city in the late 18th century. We learn from an opening caption, that this is the Age of Reason. The Turkish army is outside the city walls.

The Age of Reason is also known as the Age of Enlightenment. It was a time of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke , David Hume and Isaac Newton. So the movement of intellectual began in the late 17th century. Reason and individualism was emphasized over tradition and faith was under siege.

The Turks are on the edge of Europe and Asia. Even today we can’t quite decide if they are Asian or European. The Ottoman Empire began in Anatolia in 1299 with the Oghuz Turks. By 1453, Constantinople came under Turkish control and what had been a state became an empire. By the 17th century, the empire controlled parts of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, part of North Africa and the Horn of Africa. Vienna and Warsaw were outside of the empire. Budapest, Belgrade, Athens and Sofia were part of the empire as was Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Cairo and Jerusalem.

The empire would eventually be defeated and dissolved between 1908 and 1922 (World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918).

During the Age of Reason, the Ottoman Empire was still powerful enough to threaten Europeans and this is definitely from a European point of view. In the movie, the people inside the unnamed city are being entertained by a touring stage production about the Baron Munchhausen’s life and adventures.

This being the Age of Reason, the tide has risen against superhuman feats of courage. So much so that a city official (Jonathan Pryce) orders the execution of an extraordinarily brave soldier (Sting) because his bravery would demoralize the more ordinary fighting men.  As the play goes on, an old man protests that the play is inaccurate, claiming to be the real Baron (John Neville). He begins to tell the true story, but is interrupted by gunfire and explosions. He still continues while being pursued by the Angel of Death, carefully watched by the daughter of the theater company’s leader (Bill Paterson), Sally Salt (Sarah Polley).

During the stories, the Baron is alternately old and young, he recalls his romance with both the Queen of the Moon (Valentina Cortese) and Venus (Uma Thurman), both times having to fend himself from their respective jealous husbands, King of the Moon (Williams) and Vulcan (Oliver Reed). During these adventures, the Baron searches for his trusty companions: the fleet-footed Berthold (Eric Idle), the eagle-eyed rifleman Adolphus (Charles McKeown), the man with extraordinary hearing and lung-power Gustavus (Jack Purvis) and the strongman Albrecht (Winston Dennis) as well as his trusty steed Bucephalus (the name of Alexander the Great’s favorite steed although Alexander lived between 355 to 326 BC).

Members of the theater company, play duel roles with the exception of Sally and her father.

Williams is subdued as one can be for someone who has a flying head and who makes love to his wife (discretely shown) beginning with her feet while her head has gone away to speak with her former love, the Baron.

The movie was nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. The atmosphere fills the screen with the feeling of ancient cities. There’s a feeling of history, oldness fighting with the new.

The movie doesn’t tax your brain, but invites you to journey into a fantastical world and imagine a time when people could believe that someone flew to the moon in a hot air balloon and could outwit the Angel of Death.

As a Gilliam movie, this is more focused than the 1985 “Brazil” and in the same vein as the 2009 “Doctor Parnassus.”

“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” is currently available to live stream on Netflix.


‘Coldwater’ is a shallow dip into the juvey reform school boot camp controversy

The independent movie “Coldwater” comes out at a good time. Just when the topic of violence and abuse at reform schools is back in the news. The first set of remains found at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys has been identified. “Coldwater” is about a contemporary juvenile reform boot camp and there are extreme behavior modification techniques such as physical intimidation, starvation and torture.

If you’ve been following cover of the Dozier school, then you know that it was a place for white and black boys during a time in the South when discrimination was a way of life. Located in Florida, the school was opened in 1900 and at least 96 boys died between 1911 and 1970. 

For the boys on the black side, it was like a trip back into time. As one man recounted to Mother Jones, “It was kind of like slavery.”  The first remains identified belonged to a 14-year-old boy who died the same year he arrived, in 1940. 

In “Coldwater,” the boys are mostly white, with a token black boy and a Latino boy. The movie premiered last year at the SXSW festival and won Best Film, Best Director (Vincent Grashaw) and Best Actor (PJ Boudousque). Filming took place in Malibu and Ventura, California.  Grashaw co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Penney.

The problem with this movie is the young boys and men are too good looking. They have regular features, good haircuts and fine physiques when they take their shirts off. They don’t look like the products of bad times at homes. We also don’t get a sense of the psychology. Why do some of the boys stay to become counselors and what drives the retired colonel to cruelty?

Instead of being just a psychological survival story, it also becomes a slasher and revenge tale. Do we cheer for the boys finally breaking the mental hold of the colonel or do we think “Lord of the Flies”?

A better examination of similar circumstances in the 2010 Norwegian movie “King of Devil’s Island.” That story is based on true events of the Boys Bastoy Prison for youths. 

“Coldwater” opens at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. 

‘Weaving the Past’ between Pasadena and Mexico

When your grandparents immigrated from abroad, you’re not that far removed from the traditions of another country. Even if you’re not, even if generations of your family have been in America or even originated from America, it’s worth looking back. The rear view may be a window into your own family. First-time director/writer Walter Dominguez went on a journey into his past that set him into a new determined direction into a better future as he describes in his documentary “Weaving the Past: Journey of Discovery.”

Going back to Japan, I found distinctive connections between the person I am now and my ancestors, and that’s Walter Dominguez discovered when the events of September 11, 2001 sent him into a deep despair. Looking back into his past, and fulfilling his maternal grandfather’s last wish, Dominguez found himself and a new direction, one that led him back to filmmaking.

Born in the small town of Santa Paula, California in 1947, Dominguez was raised in the Pasadena area. He was student body president at John Muir High School and he went on to graduate from Occidental College and did graduate studies in cinema at USC.

Dominguez  went on to work as an assistant director (“The Andromeda Strain”), but had mostly left filmmaking since the 1970s. In 1973,  he married Shelley Morrison, best known for her role on the sitcom “Will & Grace” as Rosario, the maid to the title characters’ rich friend. Morrison is the executive producer of this movie.

Yet he moved away from directing movies in the 1970s, about the same time that his grandfather passed away. Only by looking back did he discover his grandfather Methodist Rev. Emilio “Tata” Hernandez had been part of a social movement, one that strove to end oppression of Native Americans and exploded into a bloody revolution that touched both sides of the border.

Like many people of Mexican background, Dominguez is part Native American, meaning that he has roots that extend further into the history of North America than most. While the Spanish and well-to-do Mexicans oppressed the Native Americans, on the other side of the border, white Americans exploited both the Mexicans and the Native Americans.

We also see how young men grow old quickly with war. After leaving the battles in Mexico, Tata, tired and ill, was only in his early twenties when he was drunk and homeless in Los Angeles, but the kindness of a stranger, a Norwegian minister brought him back to the world of the living. Through that man’s guidance, Tata became part of a different kind of revolution–one of giving and caring through faith and God. And although Tata’s association with the respected Mexican revolutionary writer, political organizer and outlaw Praxedis G. Guerrero ended with Guerrero’s death, Tata kept a life-long correspondence with a mysterious spinster in Mexico who tied him to Guerrero.

In the end, Dominguez renewed his interest in filmmaking and carrying on the tradition of his grandfather, became a social activist, one determined to record the personal histories of Latin Americans in Los Angeles and the Soutwest.

“Weaving the Past” is, in many ways, the beginning of that journey. Previously shown for a benefit at the Los Angeles United Methodist Museum of Social Justice in May of last year, the documentary opens on August 15 (Friday), but the 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. screenings have already sold out.  Director Walter Dominguez and executive producer Shelley Morrison as well as other members of the production team will be present for a Q&A following the Sunday, August 17, 2014 4 p.m. screening.



Ms. Geek Speaks: Fat shaming and the Dear Abby bikini top question

Some people are too comfortable in their own skin. I’d wish I could see less of theirs and this goes for both men and women.  Since I’ve already had a skin cancer scare and know others who have, I don’t lounge around in the sun in a bikini so I agree to some extent with Dear Abby

When I was young, I did have a bikini that was little more than a bandage according to one much more voluptuous friend. With my body type, I don’t really worry about support. I’m watching “The Birdcage” and some of those transvestites have better cleavage than I do. When I was in junior high and high school, my mother discouraged my wearing shorts (not Daisy Dukes) and wearing bikinis. I was 4-foot-10 at the time and about 90 lbs. I did gain a few on freshman year, but slimmed back down to 90 lbs. at 4-foot-11. 

When I first read the Dear Abby letter in question, I understood it without the fat-as-a-feminist issue. Mother doesn’t want her daughter wearing a bikini top because “it makes people feel uncomfortable.” When you’re on your own and visiting your parents, you’re supposed to abide by house rules: Dress code, drug usage (alcohol, smoking, etc.)  and sleeping habits.  

From the letter, we’re not sure exactly who felt uncomfortable, but then it seems likely that the daughter made everyone feel uncomfortable by asking all her aunts and cousins if the felt uncomfortable or was her mother just being puritanical. Pitting cousins and siblings against your mother never helps a family gathering unless you’re playing something like Twister or some team sport and even then it can be a catastrophe.

In some cases, a direct approach won’t get you honesty. It might just get people to say what you want to hear. If you didn’t catch her actual comment, she admitted that not all but “most” of her cousins and aunts. That means at least 51 percent and we don’t actually know if she has any uncles, but one suspects if she has cousins that men were somehow involved. So their opinions didn’t matter or the letter writer wasn’t comfortable enough in her own skin to ask. 

The plus-sized woman who wrote the letter was quick to query if her mother would feel the same about a large man swimming without a T-shirt. Her mother said it was different for men. Here, I’d disagree with her. I’d prefer not to see overweight men swimming without a T-shirt. I’d rather see everyone swimming with a rashguard.  One friend of mine had just finished college and found his days in the sun had left him with cancerous cells on his back that required excision and stitches. 

Other things we don’t know is just how tall the letter writer is and what percentage of her weight that 60-70 pounds is. If she was my height, then 70 pounds would make her morbidly obese. If she’s six foot tall and big boned, then she is more pleasantly plump. 

Nor do we know how much or how little coverage that bikini offers. Is it a string with two small triangles that signal danger with every shift of weight? Or is the bikini top as solid and athletic as what athletes wear for jogging or playing beach volleyball? 

The letter writer might “feel good when my curves are properly accentuated,” but not good enough to go out in public in a bikini.  If you can’t wear it in public then save it for when you’re alone with your significant other only. 

At some point, you have to grow up. Your cousins become potential business partners or sources of referrals and in this day of smartphones, they have them and will take photos as if they were the poor man’s version of paparazzi–hoping for viral fame out of your most embarrassing moments.  


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