never caught

Ona Judge was born in June 1773.  Her mother Betty was a seamstress and a spinner.  She was also a dower slave who belonged to the Custis family, Daniel Parker Custis was Martha Washington’s first husband.  When Martha married George Washington, Betty and the other slaves moved to Mount Vernon in Virginia.  Ona’s father was a white Englishman, Andrew Judge.  Andrew was an indentured servant who eventually worked through his contract and gained freedom for himself.  He could have bought freedom for Betty and Ona but did not.

Ona was a bondwoman, much like her mother, learning the same skills as Betty, becoming a seamstress and spinner, also waiting on Martha Washington, to fulfill her needs. Neither the family or the slaves could stay in Virginia could stay very long, George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States in 1789, so the family and  the slaves had to move to New York, the first capital of the U.S.  Even as the Washingtons and Ona Judge moved to New York, discussions were taking place to move the capital to Washington DC, Philadelphia would serve as the capital in the interim, starting in 1790.

The move to Philadelphia had a dramatic effect on Ona Judge’s life.  The Washingtons Judge and the other slaves moved into The Predsident’s House in Philadelphia in November of 1790. Philadelphia was a hotbed for abolition.  Ona was able to see and talk to free black men and women for probably the first time in her life. In addition Pennsylvania had a law which required the emancipation of any adult slave brought into the state for longer than six months.  George Washington routinely avoided complying with this law by shifting his slaves back and forth between Virginia and Philadelphia.

Just as George Washington was trying to shield his slaves from emancipation, Martha Washington introduced another life changing event into Ona Judge’s life.  Martha Washington pledged Ona’s services to her step-granddaughter Elizabeth Parke Custis, who was about to get married.  Betsy was known to have a quick temper with violent outburst.  This was the last straw for Ona Judge, she knew she couldn’t count on loyalty from Martha Washington.  So she ran away,  where did she go?  Was she ever found?

I’m not a fan of the mythology that is routinely taught about U.S. Presidents, the mythology around  George Washington is ridiculous.  He chopped down a cherry tree, and told his parents the truth about it, saying ‘I cannot tell a lie.’  This book successfully cuts through the mythology,  and gets to the heart of a very contentious issue slavery in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.

It was surprising how doggedly George Washington pursued Ona Judge and that he didn’t stop pursuing her.  I had always assumed that Washington, while not an abolitionist, was not actively involved in extending the life of the slave trade.  This book changed my mind, completely on that issue.  He signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, to make it easier for slaveholders to go after runaway slaves, and also to placate Southern slave holders. Washington could have easily not pursued Ona Judge, but he never stopped, so his sterling reputation is tarnished a lot in this book and rightly so. He finally emancipates his slaves in 1802 after his death, but the book de-emphasizes this fact.

The book humanizes Martha Washington a bit more, talking about the death of her children from her first marriage and how that affected her emotionally.  Martha is still portrayed as a moody taskmistress who ultimately treated her slaves like property.

More surprising was the story of Ona Judge herself, an illiterate slave when she ran away, used her wits and a network of friends and strangers alike to stay free, it is a harrowing and exciting story, one that deserves to be told, and one that should have been told many years ago.  Freedom was not an abstract philosophical or political concept or ideal for Ona Judge.  She would rather live free, or die trying.  She knew what slavery was like and she did not want to go back to that life.

This book is not flawless, the biographical details of Judge’s life in the last chapter become broader over a longer time period, and then ends abruptly.  My guess is that the author, Mrs. Dunbar ran out of documentation on Judge and couldn’t extend the book any farther than she did.  The book was done at 53% of its Kindle capacity, the rest were author’s notes and an extensive glossary.  Documentation on fugitive slaves must be hard to come by, but the last chapter and abrupt ending is disappointing for a book that is absolutely riveting before that last chapter.

Never Caught: A good book, Judge for yourself.

beauty and the beast live

A headstrong, well-read French village girl named Belle (Emma Watson) is tired of life in her small village and can’t help but think that life has more to offer than her small town gives her.  She is relentlessly pursued by town hunk and resident harasser, Gaston, (Luke Evans) who she cleverly avoids. Belle is very close to her father, Maurice, (Kevin Kline) who raised her after Belle’s mom passed away.  When she visits Maurice, Belle asks her dad for a rose, and he promises to get her one. On a snowy night, Maurice loses his way and gets captured by a Beast (Dan Stevens) who has been cursed  by an Enchantress (Hattie Morahan) for his superficiality.  Belle hears that his father has been captured and rides off to save him.  She switches places with Maurice, and traps herself with the Beast.

Gaston sees an opportunity to be the hero, and rides off to save Belle with Maurice.  But Maurice refuses to let him marry Belle, and Gaston accuses Maurice of being crazy and wants to send him to an asylum.  In the castle, Belle and the Beast are becoming closer.  Lumiere, (Ewan McGregor) the candelabra Cogsworth ( Ian McKellan) the clock, Mrs. Potts, the teapot, and Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald) the wardrobe, are doing all they can to make the mood as romantic as possible.  They hope Bellle professes her love for the beast, because that will break the Enchantress’ spell on them too.  Things are going swimmingly until Belle checks on her father in a magic mirror, and sees that he is being taken away.  What does she do?  What happens to the Beast and his enchanted staff?

I was disappointed by Beauty and The Beast.  How could I not like a delightful movie such as this, you ask?  Easy, it was too much like its animated namesake, the live action movie followed the story of the animated movie, line for line shot for shot and scene for scene.  When Disney made a live action Jungle Book movie, they created a whole new story that was in every way better than the animated film.  That made me want to watch The Jungle Book, because I didn’t know what was coming with the next scene.  Since I had seen the animated Beauty before, not only did I know the scenes, I knew the songs, I knew the ending, I knew everything.  The few jokes that were added  for Josh Gad’s character weren’t that funny, and didn’t add much to the film.  Why is almost every actor speaking in a British accent, if the film is set in France?  Why does the Beast have blue eyes, is that important? The writers could have done a flashback and embellished the Beast’s character before the curse, and what made him such a superficial person, in the first place something to make it distinctive, anything.

The acting was good.  Emma Watson does the best she can with quite a limiting role, she is supposed to be an independent woman, headstrong, yet falling in love with a cursed Prince.  There is an inherent  contradiction in the role, but Watson is pleasant enough, and sings well enough to make Belle somewhat interesting.  Dan Stevens is pretty dull as the Beast, he doesn’t really bring much to the role.  Kevin Kline plays his role as comedy relief. Luke Evans is actually very good as Gaston, funny and evil at the same time, he put some real life into his role.  Of the Best’s household staff, only Ewan McGregor s Lumiere stands out, he infuses the role with humor and joy and a little sadness, he is truly a great actor.  Audra McDonald has a great operatic voice, I wish they gave her more songs to sing.

The direction is a mixed bag.  The visuals on some of the exteriors are visually appealing.  One of the opening scenes reminded  me very much of The Sound of Music, it was unintentionally humorous.  While the visuals were intriguing, the pacing is extremely slow, two hours seemed  more like four, and the performances were somewhat mixed.  The songs were great, just like the animated film,  but the CGI was overdone.

Beauty and The Beast:  It didn’t ring my Belle.

lego batman movie

Fresh from vanquishing all the villains in Gotham City, including his arch rival The Joker (Zach Galafiinakis)  Batman (Will Arnett) takes a victory lap to Gotham’s orphanage, where he mistakenly adopts Dick Grayson. (Michael Cera)  Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) suggests that Batman take care of his young ward, so Batman hatches a plot to steal Superman’s Phantom Zone Projector, a device that will send the Joker to an alternate dimension, called the Phantom Zone. Only Dick Grayson is small and agile enough to take the Phantom Zone Projector, and he succeeds from taking it from Superman’s Fortress  of Solitude.  Does Batman use the Projector on The Joker and send him to The Phantom Zone?  Does Dick Grayson get the love and support he craves from his adoptive father?  Does Batman learn to work with Dick Grayson and other allies, or does he continue to be a loner?

The Lego Batman movie is oddly disappointing.   Batman was a very funny part of the Lego Movie, so it seemed natural that Batman had a Lego movie of its own.  But the Lego Batman Movie lacks the humor and charm of the Lego movie.  In fact it’s not very funny at all, and instead choses to be another re-telling of the Batman mythology.  The writers had the perfect physical representation of a man cave, namely the Bat Cave and didn’t use it. The writers instead try to push a romance, and a phony father son relationship with cloyingly bad results. The writers return time and time to a theme, that doesn’t gain credence with repetition.

Will Arnett hams it up relentlessly, which is alright for a supporting character, but it is redundant and rather unfunny. Michael Cera plays Robin as an infantile boy begging for love.  There is something annoying about every character that Cera plays, and he brings that annoyance factor to a likeable character. Rosario Dawson plays Barbara Gordon as an uninteresting daughter of a commissioner who becomes commissioner. Dawson is also a love interest for the egomaniacal Batman, which is neither interesting or carries much chemistry along with it.

The direction is not noteworthy.  The pacing is slow, the performances are weak, and there is nothing eye-catching about the animation either.

The Batman Lego Movie:  A Batastrophe.

get out

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man dating a well-to-do white woman, Rose Armitage. (Allison Williams) This fact alone in post-Obama America shouldn’t be troublesome, but Chris is going to meet Rose’s parents, Dean (Bradley Whitford) a neurisurgeon and Missy (Catherine Keener) a psychologist  for the first time, so naturally, they are both a bit nervous about meeting her parents.  On their way to her parents’ house in the country a policeman pulls the two over, heightening the tension, but he lets them with a warning, thanks to Rose.  Chris meets Dean and Missy, the act somewhat oddly. Chris thinks they may be overcompensating for being “Obama liberals” but he undoubtedly gets a strange vibe from Rose’s brother, Jeremy, (Caleb Landry Jones) who  is always talking about Mixed Martial Arts, and Chris needing to bulk up. Chris also gets an uneasy feeling about the black people hired to help around the Armitage household.  But maybe living in the country has made them more laid back than the people he’s used to meeting. After talking to Chris on the phone, his friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howry) has a vastly different take on the situation.  His advice to Chris:  Get Out!

Get Out is not a horror movie per se, it’s more a psychological thriller.  Get Out is a thought-provoking movie that plays with the viewers’ minds.  Do Rose’s parents resent Chris for dating their daughter, despite their liberal leanings?  Does Chris feel guilty for dating outside his race?  Chris is also dealing with some baggage of his own that the viewer finds out about during the movie, and Rose has a secret that is also revealed.  Things are revealed gradually like pieces to a big puzzle, but when the puzzle comes together, it is a treat.  I could tell you what movies Get Out reminds me of, but that would give too much away.  It’s not easy to combine elements of suspense with social commentary and comedy, but Get Out does it all, pretty flawlessly.  If you haven’t seen this movie, you should see it.

The acting is great.  Daniel Kaluuya plays a normal guy in increasingly abnormal situations.  If this was a comedy, he would be the straight man. He notices some things that are off-putting, but he doesn’t really think anything is wrong, he’s still got a great girlfriend, if nothing else so he stays in the house.  Allison Williams plays his loving sometimes protective girlfriend, She will protect him during his stay if things get weird, won’t she?  Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are superb as typical upper class parents, the kind of parents any kid would be lucky to have, or would you?  The comedy relief is refreshingly provided by Lil Rel Howry, let’s just say he is the canary in the coal mine, and he is hilarious.

The direction by Jordan Peele, who also produced and wrote the film is pretty standard horror movie visual direction, closeups on the protagonist’s face, close-ups on the back of his head, while he is  walking down the stairs.  The protagonist is sometimes shot in the foreground, while unexplained things go on in the background.  It all sets a mood, which is not so much scary as it is creepy.  The pacing is excellent, it doesn’t get bogged down on any one point, and he gets excellent performances from a talented cast.  I just wish this movie had come out before Keanu, which was about as funny as a migraine.  This movie displays Jordan Peele’s true range of talents.

Get Out.  Outstanding.

Band Wagon (1953) 24

Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a washed-up Hollywood song and dance man.  He comes to New York by train and is met by the only two remaining members of his fan club, Lester Martin (Oscar Levant) and his wife Lilly. (Nanette Fabray) Lester and Lilly are also screenwriters and Lester has a script for a Broadway play all set for Tony to star in.  Tony’s not sure, but Lester has a meeting set up for Tony with the hottest Broadway producer/director Jeffrey Cordova. (Jack Buchanan)  Jeffrey hears the pitch for the script, and has ideas of his own, he wants to do the play as an adaptation of Faust, the literary character who wants to make a deal with the devil to achieve success. Jeffrey also wants ballerina, Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to be the leading lady, and after some reverse psychology on Gabrielle’s boyfriend, Paul Byrd (James Mitchell) Jeffrey gets Gabrielle to be the leading lady and Paul to be the play’s chorographer.

But as soon as the cast starts rehearsals for the play, tensions start to mount.  Tony feels like he’s being marginalized by Jeffrey.  Tony also fights with Gabrielle, he feels Gabrielle is arrogant and trying to make things more difficult for him. Even Lilly and Lester, the original writers and members of Tony’s fan club, are not even speaking to one another.  Will this play even make it to previews off Broadway or will internal dissension kill this play before people even see it?

Since I saw La La Land, which was a tribute to Hollywood musicals, I wanted to see a classic Hollywood movie to see if the authentic movie musical was worth the tribute.  The Band Wagon is definitely worth watching and definitely is a classic.  Whereas Singin’ In The Rain is a satire of Hollywood in the silent movie era, the Band Wagon is a satire of Broadway, much like Mel Brooks’ The Producers.  The pompous pretentious producer Jeffrey reminds me of the Horace Hardwick character from Top Hat, pompous, pretentious, and perpetually confused.  Part of this movie reminds me of Damn Yankees, a movie that was really based on Faust, with Gwen Verdon as the temptress, instead of Cyd Charisse The only kink in the armor of The Band Wagon is that they try to push a romantic storyline, where it was really not necessary. But I’m a sucker for Fred Astaire, and even an older version of Astaire has wit, charm, and dance steps to spare.

Fred Astaire plays what he always plays, a song and dance man.  But this time, he’s an aging song and dance man who’s staring the end of his career straight in the face.  Actor Astaire conveys the frustration of being an aging Hollywood star well, in a town that tosses out older stars like most people toss their garbage.  Dancer Astaire proves that he’s still got magic in those feet, doing some of the more masculine styles popularized by Gene Kelly in his movie musicals.  Similarly, Cyd Charisse plays her role with a dual purpose as well.  Actress Charisse plays the role of a shy ballerina, while dancer Charisse plays her role with a smoky seductiveness.  Jack Buchanan plays the haughty producer to perfection, and Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray add even more comedic value to the movie.

The director is Vincente Minelli, father of Broadway star Liza.  Minelli’s film, like many other movies in that golden age of film, pops with bright almost incandescent colors.  This was a visual style aped by Darren Chazier in La La Land.   The musical numbers are expertly staged, and the choreography is excellent.  Minelli also gets very good performances from a talented cast.

The Band Wagon Jump on!

th secret life of pets

Max (Louis CK) is a pampered pet living in New York City.  His owner, Katie (Ellie Kemper) raised him from a pup, and Max misses Katie terribly when she goes to work, but she hangs out with the neighborhood pets when she’s gone, he hangs around with other pets, a cat with a voracious appetite, named Chloe, (Lake Bell) a pug, Mel, (Bobby Moynihan) a dachshund ,Buddy (Hannibal Burress)  and a Pomeranian named Gidget  (Jenny Slate) with a secret crush on Max.  Max’s cushy life ends abruptly when  Kate brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound.

Max and Duke don’t like each other, and Duke drags Max way out of his neighborhood where they are attacked by cats, who forcibly remove their collars.  Max and Duke are then dragged into a van by animal control and are on their way to the pound.  Max and Duke are “rescued” by Flushed Pets a militant group of former pets who want to lead a revolution against their human masters.  They are led by a deranged bunny named Snowball, (Kevin Hart) and have their headquarters in the New York City sewer system.  Snowball holds Max and Duke hostage after they refuse to go along with Snowball’s revolution.  Can Gidget and Max’s other friends save him from Snowball?

This movie misses the mark almost completely, there are a few funny moments, but not nearly enough to sustain a whole movie.  I’ve seen a lot of animated films, and The Secret Life of Pets doesn’t even come close to Pixar films in terms of plot and theme. There are animated movies for kids and animated movies for adults and this one is definitely aimed towards kids.  Here’s the ironic part, the Flushed Pets are definitely not for kids, they espouse kidnapping and violence, so the theme of two dogs from different backgrounds trying  to get along is completely overshadowed by this strange subplot.  There are good characters, Chloe, the cat, Gidget the Pomeranian, but they are woefully underdeveloped.  The writers ran out of material, about 15 minutes before the ending and so they just repeat a plot point from earlier in the movie.

The voice acting is not great.  Louis CK is way too mellow as Max, I expected some sharper, funnier lines from him, the director should have let him ad lib a little. Eric Stonestreet at least tries to inject some personality into Duke.  Kevin Hart goes far overboard on Snowball, someone needs to give Snowball some kitty Xanex.  All kidding aside, again it’s the director’s job to reign in such prodigious overacting, and he did not.  Jenny Slate has a likeable quality to her voice, they should have developed her character more fully, but there were so many characters that the writers didn’t or couldn’t focus on a few.  Lake Bell does a good job also playing a cat who all the dogs are slightly wary of. She should have had more lines.

The direction is not that great.  The directors just seemed to let the actors do whatever they felt like doing, and sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  One of the directors directed Despicable Me which I really liked, but I didn’t like this movie at all.   The animation was not great other than a few scenes of the New York City skyline.

The Secret Life of Pets:  For the dogs.

wonder woman

Diana, (Lilly Aspell, Emily Carey, Gal Gadot) is princess of the Amazons, a band of fierce female warriors, who live on an island, with no men.  She wants to train to be a warrior, but her mother Queen Hippolyta  (Connie Nielson) forbids it.  So Diana gets training from General Antiope (Robin Wright) behind her mother’s back.  One day, American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes through the barrier that keeps the island from being visible to others and into the ocean.  Diana saves Steve and learns that Steve is an American spy on a mission to end a secret German chemical weapons program, spearheaded by General  Ludendorf (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru, (Elena Anaya)  and end World War I.  Steve has Dr. Maru’s formula for the mustard gas, and has to deliver the book to British intelligence.  Diana believes that someone on the German side is really the Greek God of War Aries, who is trying to prolong the war and kill as many humans as possible.  Diana’s mission is to find and kill Aries. Does Hippolyta allow Diana to leave the Amazon’s island and travel with Steve to the front?  Does Steve accomplish his mission to stop the chemical weapons from being used?

This could have been a classic movie, but it sends all kinds of mixed messages.  One is a message of a woman imbued with great powers to stop the human race from annihilating itself, which is a wonderful message.  But if Wonder Woman is so powerful, why does she need help from a man?  Then, the writers want to superimpose some kind of messy love story within the superhero genre.  This kind of genre mixing rarely ever works. It’s been tried in Superman with Lois Lane, and Spiderman with Maryjane, with varying degrees of success.  In the context of this movie, the love story actually undercuts the female empowerment story.  There are also silly scenes that overemphasize Diana’s femininity.  Other than the lead character being a woman, this is a pretty generic superhero film, and the ending is pretty generic as well.  And if anyone thinks that being a woman makes Diana a pacifist, you haven’t watched a Hollywood superhero movie lately, this movie is very violent.

There is one redeeming aspect to Wonder Woman, and it is the performance of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince.  Her earnest, sincere, heartfelt, and serious (that’s a compliment) performance make this movie worth watching.  While most superhero actors are looking for a tagline, Gadot conveys the genuine feeling to the audience that Diana only wants to help people.  Her naiveté is refreshing as well.  If this movie stands out, it is because of her.  Chris Pine is not so lucky, he gives the standard hero performance, but he’s supposed to be an American spy who infiltrates the German military not once but twice.  He doesn’t even try a British accent to blend in to British society, and his German accent is weak.  His ham handed performance almost steals the movie from Gadot, Chris Pine, this wasn’t your movie.  He seems to have forgotten that Gadot is the focus of the film.  Robin Wright has a small role as the woman who trains Diana, but the role is too small to make an impression.

A big deal was made that Wonder Woman was directed by a woman.  The fact is Patty Jenkins added very little to this movie that is different from a man directing the same film.  There’s a backstory, an over reliance on special effects, and a long, long running time.  What exactly is the difference between this movie and Captain America’s origin story?  Not much and so why should Patty Jenkins deserve credit for directing a standard issue superhero movie?  She shouldn’t.  The only outstanding performance is by Gadot, and the pacing is slow at times.

Wonder Woman:  Wondering Why It Wasn’t Better.