In the long years of adulthood I’ve thought of Aunt Emma — Great Aunt Emma to be exact — as one of my saving graces. As a young child I was a little afraid of both Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen. They were sisters to my grouchy grandfather — oddly called Grindad — and they had very wrinkly faces – especially Aunt Emma. Aunt Emma also had a tremor that got more and more pronounced as the years went on. When I was little, that contributed to the slightly nerve-wracking mystery of her — and of Aunt Helen, by extension.
Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen lived in a part of Philadelphia called Germantown and we went there every year on New Year’s Day for dinner. This was a mysterious, magical, old-fashioned affair that involved creamed oysters on pastry shells and ice cream in a mold that Aunt Helen sliced and served. The occasion was capped by the lighting of real candles on the Christmas tree. Here’s a photo of me, clutching my stuffed animal very hard (and Christmas Tree in the background) as I meet a great great aunt on my very first New Year’s visit to Germantown…or maybe it was my second!
My mother had a sort of reverence for them and for the way of life they represented. Call it WASPish gentility. They were not wealthy, but they had that patina and seemed to live as if they were of another time. My maternal grandmother, Mimi, always felt looked down upon by them. I don’t know if it was true, but there was a tension there, mostly on her end, that I became increasingly aware of as I got older.
In our family of Roosevelt-hating Republicans, Emma and Helen were different. They were Democrats and went to plays and concerts and didn’t have a TV. The older I got, the more fascinating they became — especially Emma, who taught at South Philly Girls High and was the more worldly of the two, basically supporting Helen.
They traveled a lot, Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen. They’d go to Europe, not on prearranged tours but in inexpensive ways, like on freighters. And they’d stay for a long time, going to off-the-beaten-path-places and having adventures that seemed very brave and exciting to me. I remember one story they told of a train ride in Italy where they talked at length with some players on an Italian soccer team. And I’ve images of the two of them sitting in an outdoor cafe in Athens when the military coup there was happening in 1967.
I spent one weekend with them in late elementary school, and was very nervous about spending a weekend alone with them. These were, after all, people that I only saw once a year — maybe I’d been with them about 10 times in my young life at that point. They were kindly, wrinkly, and mysterious strangers.
The weekend was at once filled with activity and somehow quiet. We went to see The Taming of the Shrew — my first experience of a Shakespeare play. We went to a church fair in Germantown and went walking in the Wissahickon Park, where we serendipitously came upon an obedience demonstration by the K9 Unit of the Philadelphia Police.
The whole weekend was magical, perhaps most because it was such a quiet time in its way. I don’t remember conversations, though I know we must have had them. One f my most vivid memories is of sitting in their living room reading a book and drinking acrid Philadelphia ice water while they prepared supper, having refused my help. Supper, I’m sure, was simple, and the mattress I slept on, as I recall, was filled with horsehair. (Any chance that’s an apocryphal memory? Perhaps.)
Mostly I just remember the calm quiet, and the small surprise I felt at being able to navigate it all by myself. I felt more grown up when I got home — at once proud and relieved. A rite of passage and surprise of surprises, I had gotten through it and actually enjoyed the experience.
Licorice Pizza: I'm starting anew here and have now been, twice, to Vax and Snax at Red River. These are Thursday night movies for vaccinated and masked folks, and you can get POPCORN! But I digress...Licorice Pizza was a sweet, coming-of-age in The Valley in the Seventies sort of movie that managed to include waterbeds and Jon Peters and two new stars -- Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman).
If Beale Street Could Talk: Quiet, beautiful, heartfelt, devastating. America wears many masks. This movie strips a few of them away. It shines a light on quite a lot of ugliness. As well, it illuminates dignity and resilience in the face of a system built on the abuse of privilege and power. A perfect movie to see on the eve of what is hopefully Donald Trump's last SOTU.
Shoplifters: A beautifully honest, quiet movie that is at once uplifting and devastating. Universal questions are raised and left open for pondering. What is a family? How do people survive in our world today? And how do we judge their choices?
Green Book: Very enjoyable movie and yet deeply flawed. The white guy comes across as the hero in ways that are typical for the American movie industry, and comfortably misleading in terms of the realities of our culture. Especially in the current socio/political atmosphere, can't we do better than this?
On the Basis of Sex: We applauded, we cried, we felt so glad that RBG was as prescient as she was. And I felt personally glad that her love of opera clearly predates her connection with Scalia. What an inspiring woman -- and a good movie about her early years as a student, professor, and attorney.
The Favourite: Did I say that being a queen was no fun? This definitely seems to have carried forward to Queen Anne's reign. Strong performances again, and more belly laughs than you'd think. And right along with it, grief, emptiness, ambition, and gouty excess.
Mary Queen of Scots: Being a queen was no fun in the 16th century. Excellent, complex performances in this one. I found Elizabeth especially compelling. Very unclear who actually wins out in this one.
Another Year: Loved this one! It's about a couple, and their friends, and their lives – painful in spots, and wonderfully everyday and enriching, to my mind. Great performances – and who knew there was so much wine being drunk in England!?
Tiny Furniture: A young woman (aka Lena Dunham) comes home after graduating from college and tries to find herself – or not. A character study that I found humorous and touching – and sometimes a little disturbing and/or self-indulgent. It's definitely a privilege to have the leisure to "find oneself." After this..."Girls."
Rabbit Hole: Painful/powerful movie about loss and grieving. Hard to watch but well worth the effort, with a strong cast and an especially on the mark performance by Nicole Kidman. I continue to be glad to see that she is clearly outstripping Tom Cruise as an artist. You go girl!
The Kids Are Alright: Very enjoyable movie with great performances and an excellent cast. Two kids whose moms are lesbians decide they want to find out something about their "father" – and everything moves on from that point.
The King's Speech: Warm, funny, inspiring – and apparently a bit of a rewrite of history, to boot! Colin Firth puts out an amazing performance – and was well rewarded for it. Everyone else is great too, and if you're one of the few people left who hasn't seen it, it's definitely worth a look!
Black Swan: This is a disturbing movie that I really loved – and in case you haven't noticed, I do have a tendency to like disturbing movies. What's real and what isn't? You be the judge. Also, be on the lookout for Winona Ryder – you'll never recognize her!
Blue Valentine: A couple in trouble – how they started and how they got to where they are. A good movie with excellent performances that left me wondering, especially in Michelle Williams' case, whether she was thinking about what's his name (her partner who died suddenly – the guy who starred in Broke Back Mountain – for some reason I can't remember his name – oh yeah, Heath Ledger).
Shutter Island: A dark period piece that has the creepy feel of the 1950s (creepy to me at any rate) and has stayed with me more than I would've thought. A movie with surprises – definitely worth a look.
Cyrus: I don't remember this one so well, but have a vague recollection of walking out of the theater feeling not so enthralled. I believe it's supposed to be funny – but as you can tell it didn't really make an impression.
I Am Love: Really beautiful, sumptuous movie that made me hungry, just watching it. A keeper!
The Girl Who Played with Fire: The second in the three part series involving the girl with the dragon tattoo, this movie was much harder to watch than the first, as Salander's triumph isn't quite so clear at the end. Painful, painful, painful.
Scott Pilgrim Versus the World: I loved this comic book take on young love. Went to the movie on a whim and came away very happy to have seen it! Quite a few laugh out loud moments – and touching, as well.
Going the Distance: A very lightweight romcom that kinda left me feeling like I had just spent an hour and a half reading People magazine. In other words, pretty much a waste of time.
Never Let Me Go: Wow! This was an amazing, stark, and moving movie about kids who are basically raised to become organ donors. Very much worth seeing.
The Town: Ben Affleck's movie about bank robbers. It's okay. Not great, but okay. It does make me curious about Charlestown – will have to go there one day.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: A Woody Allen movie that I honestly don't remember very well. It's pretty much about adults behaving badly – something that Woody knows a little something about.
The Social Network: The movie about Facebook. I found it very interesting and well done, and was especially fascinated/disturbed by the window on the incredible privilege and elitism still thriving at undergrad Harvard.
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest: Number three in the Dragon trilogy. I found this, in many ways, the weakest of the three movies – although that's not to say that it was weak. Perhaps my enjoyment was affected by the fact that I hadn't read the book. Anyway, it's a great trilogy and I was sorry to see it come to an end.
Fair Game: The movie about the Valerie Plame affair. One of the things that I found most interesting was how it uncovered my own biases, as she was clearly a very serious and talented agent, but because of her blonde haired beauty, I pretty much assumed that she was a lightweight in real life. I appreciated, also, the depiction of her husband as a bit of a media hound, which was how he seemed to me at the time. And of course, there are the despicable characters of the Bush administration. Glad they were on display in all their glory!
City Island: This was a fine, if predictable, movie about a family in which everyone has a secret and is telling lies. I mostly loved it because it gave me a glimpse of where my friend CB lives!
Winter's Bone: Wow! Unrelenting, stark, and ultimately uplifting – at least to my mind. This is a painful movie about life when you're the daughter of someone who runs a meth lab. Winter's Bone is a perfect title. J-Law is amazing!
Please Give: Quirky, sweet, slice-of-life movie. I loved the low-key character development and good humor of it all. Enjoyable, with a great cast and few false notes.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Tho' parts of the book were missing, this was an excellent rendition of an excellent book. Not for the faint of heart, tho'! Lisbeth Salander is an Emma Peel for the 21st Century (watch for more from Noomi Rapace - I will be)!
Me and Orson Welles: Or was it Orson Welles and me? (If Orson had anything to do with the title, I'm guessing the latter.) I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, even as it reminded me of why the world of the theatre holds absolutely no appeal for yours truly! Nice to see Claire Danes back ... still have to finish watching Temple Grandin, too!
Crazy Heart: I left this movie thinking ... "Eh?" but it has stayed with me. Jeff Bridges does give a wonderful performance. The amount of smoking and drinking was nauseating - as I guess it was supposed to be - all in an understated, Jeff Bridges sort of a way.
A Single Man: One of the best movies of the year in my book. Haunting, beautifully acted and filmed ... marred only by an unnecessarily heavy-handed ending, IMHO. That was the only flaw in an otherwise brilliant bit of artistry. Colin Firth was perfect, and this was an amazing writing/directing debut for Tom Ford! See it!!!
Young Victoria: I am eternally grateful to have not been born the heir to a throne. Life was confusing enough! This was an enjoyable, tear-jerker of a movie that left me wanting to know more about the details. Perhaps a bio for Bookeaters?
Precious: Wow, wow, wow. Two weeks in a row - another amazing movie at Red River. This is a challenging and important movie ... about life in America ... every single day ... everywhere.
The Messenger: Wow, wow, wow. This is one of the best movies I have seen in quite some time. Its focus is on two men who notifiy NOK (next of kin) when a soldier dies. It is a raw, wrenching, unflinching and uplifting journey - not to be missed. Seriously
Damned United: This was a study in soccer, ambition, and friendship. For soccer buffs who actually know the players (I'm a late-comer to the game) the movie would be that much better. I loved it, though - and recommend it highly.
A Serious Man: The Book of Job envisioned by the Coen brothers evoked the early sixties and suburbia with humor, pathos ... and a slightly nauseating quality that tells me they pretty much hit the nail on the head. As one of the goyim, I am sure there were hundreds of nuances that were lost on me ... but I loved it (nausea aside) nonetheless!
Cold Souls: The premise of this movie is deeply strange, yet it is presented in an entirely believable way. It's by turns very moving and then hilarious (in ways that, in retrospect, are hard to capture/explain). The ending leaves a puzzled feeling - but that's not really bothersome. In many ways, puzzled is the appropriate way to walk out of the theater after "Cold Souls." Check it out!
Adam: Nicely done! Not a movie that will stay with you for a long time, but I liked it. The father (Peter Gallagher) seemed a tad overdone -and unnecessarily so. Unmemorable soundtrack - but since I mention it, does that make it memorable? Now I'm starting to feel like Steven Wright - not necessarily a bad thing!
Taking Woodstock: Even going in with low expectations, this offering from Ang Lee just wasn't good. Vilma was a high point in an otherwise shoddy effort. Harsh, eh? And watch out, world - it's only 6:30 AM!
Julie and Julia: I was not as bothered by Julie as some reviewers were - maybe because I liked seeing a blogger hit the big time. Meryl Streep was amazing as Julia .. and this is definitely not a movie to see on an empty stomach! Never have I enjoyed watching people eat as much as I did watching this flick!
500 Days of Summer: I think I wasn't supposed to, but I loved it. Engaging characters and script, great soundtrack. Not as quirky and lovable as "Away We Go" - but not far behind, either.
Whatever Works: People either like or hate this latest offering from Woody Allen. I must admit that it's a little weird to see this May-December relationship on-screen, feeling so creeped out by Woody's real-life choices. But I'd say he pulls it off. There are some really great lines throughout the movie, and while not entirely believable, I didn't mind being along for the ride. A pleasant diversion for sure.
Goodbye, Solo: Interesting movie that basically contrasts life energy and death energy, IMHO. Solo is the epitome of resilience - love him! Meanwhile William seems bent on being miserable, for reasons that the movie leaves mysterious. I didn't find him very a likable or compelling character - but Solo makes up for it.
Moon: I hesitate to write this one up, as I was tired when I saw it - and missed portions. But form my bleary vantage point, this seemed an intriguing movie set on the moon and exploring themes of identity, isolation, etc. It was not my usual fare - and I wasn't up to snuff - but at least had the wherewithall to be able tell that it was quality work!
Cheri: I liked this a lot better than Easy Virtue - maybe because I went into it having already seen EV and had my expectations lowered. Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates are fun to watch as always - and I liked Rupert Friend in the title role. It all got a little too serious at the end - a tone-shift that didn't quite fit with the bulk of the movie. Still - a pleasant diversion on a rainy July evening!
Away We Go: This was an excellent movie in every regard. Great dialogue and plot line, endearing cast/characters, heartwarming/funny story that avoids tipping over into overly-sweet territory ... and great soundtrack, to boot! See it, if you haven't already.
Easy Virtue: Not my cup of tea - but I suspect it would have helped, going in, to know that this was a movie based on a Noel Coward play. The characters felt stilted and unbelievable to me, as it was - and I couldn't muster much concern for what became of them. All things considered, I'd rather have been in Philadelphia!
Sugar: Sugar is a baseball flick that is sweetly and realistically done - and definitely like no Hollywood film on the subject. The characters are real and the life is hard - and the film depicts it all in a matter-of-fact way that brings the realities home more surely than something more "dramatic" ever could. Two thumbs up on this one!
Sunshine Cleaning: Director Christine Jeffs has a winner in this tale about the hard times and resiliency of the Lorkowski family. Amy Adams, Emily Blunt and Alan Arkin shine in this movie about a bio-hazard clean-up company. Yes, that's correct. And the movie had the potential to cross the line into sappiness several times but demurred. For that I am eternally thankful. (Okay, eternally may be a little over the top.) Darn good flick, though - check it out.
Milk: Sean Penn deserves an Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Harvey Milk. It actually didn't even feel like a portrayal - more a channeling. Such a loss - that yet another creative and energetic and good leader, was senselessly murdered all those years ago. Fear, hatred and guns - why don't we remove at least the last ingredient in the tragic mix?
Doubt: Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are amazing, and Viola Davis is a heartbreaking revelation in this battle royale. I was left with less doubt at the end than some of my compatriots ... but that took nothing away from the experience. Meryl Streep deserves an Oscar, IMHO ... and I definitely want her on my side, always!
Slumdog Millionaire: Just a great movie, start to finish. Magical,epic, and a nail-biter (even though you know what's going to happen ... pretty much. The dancing at the end did my heart good - and having M.I.A. in the soundtrack didn't hurt, either!
The Secret Life of Bees: Or was it The Secret Lives of Bees? Anyway, whatever - I want Queen Latifah to be my mother!!! (What was Bill Clinton thinking, throwing her under the bus all those years ago?) The movie was entertaining but not a home run by any means. Too predictable ... but Alicia Keys was wonderfully cranky-verging-on-scary and the Queen was queenly and the honey looked delicious and it was nice hearing India Arie in the soundtrack!
Happy Go Lucky: I think I was supposed to like this more than I did. Perhaps it suffered by being seen pretty much on the heels of Rachel. I found Poppy to be a sometimes intriguing and sometimes annoying character. The relentless joking and "upbeatness" felt distancing and unnecessary. I didn't hate this movie by any means - but something was missing for me.
Rachel Getting Married: Jonathan Demme and an amazing script and cast just blew me away with this effort. The characters are fascinating and complicated and most every interaction in the film left me engaged and wanting to know more! Debra Winger was stupendous - although it's been so long since I've seen her that I kept trying to find the bull-riding Urban Cowboy persona within the steely, distant mother of this wedding movie. (She's not there.) Margot at the Wedding was very good - but Rachel puts her in her place. I highly recommend this to everyone!
Religulous: Bill Maher skewers the rampant "illogic" of religion in this free-wheeling film. His wit is right on target and as barbed as you'd expect. I found myself squirming every once in awhile. I don't mind you picking on the Pope, Bill ... but same as with Michael Moore ... sometimes when you set up "common folks" to look like fools, I cringe. Still, Religulous is worth a look for sure. The best point Bill makes? That conservatives of a religulous bent are about finding answers - while liberals are about asking questions. I can go with that!
Roman de gare: This was an intriguing, surprising, suspenseful, funny, quirky movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. The characters and plot lines are deftly developed. You should definitely check it out if you get the chance!
Young at Heart: YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS MOVIE! It's a documentary about a choral group of octogenarians in Northampton, MA. Very inspiring ... definitely something to check out!
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: Enjoyable, light fare with a stellar performance by my favorite police chief, Frances McDormand!
The Visitor: Now this was an excellent movie ... from start to finish. It was similar to Smart People in that it had an academic as the main character. However, all similarities ended pretty much right there. In this warm, funny, and wrenching movie, the characters are well and subtly developed, the plot is (unfortunately) believable ... and there are no false notes. I would urge you to see it - you won't be sorry!
Smart People: Looks like we're getting back on track with our Tuesday night movie schedule ... for the time being. Smart People was enjoyable but left me unenthralled. (It probably didn't help that we ran into a totally enthralled movie-goer on the way in who was seeing it for the second time. High expectations may have killed this one for me.) Overall, I found the characters exaggerated and mildly unlikeable ... the dialogue stilted and self-conscious, perhaps just the way smart people talk. But then the lessons about loosening up and being less self-absorbed weren't exactly ground-breaking. Overall, it wasn't a wasted evening ... but not a movie I'll be putting at the top of my list, either.
4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days): Winner of the Palm D'Or at Cannes, this film by Romania's Cristian Mungiu certainly deserves the accolades it receives. It's a realistic and emotionally unflinching story of a woman who helps her friend obtain an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania. The story is harrowing, the acting wonderful, and the cinematography amazing. This film makes Juno look like Disney pablum!
Taxi to the Dark Side: This was a harrowing and eye-opening look at what our country has become under the leadership of Bush/Cheney after 9/11. The "road taken" has definitely been a trip to the dark side. Disgusting and important to see ... as we make our way back toward the light!
Michael Clayton: What an excellent movie! Engaging, engrossing, well-acted. Tilda Swinton certainly deserved an award for her protrayal of what I have to think must be the secret, inner life of Condi Rice.
Persepolis: This animated memoir is an engaging, heartbreaking, uplifting, realistic look at life in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Go see it! It humanizes what our current regime so consistently tries to dehumanize. An important movie, Persepolis is based on the book by Marjane Satrapi.
Margot at the Wedding: Dark, funny, tough to watch and very well acted.
I'm Not There: Bob Dylan's not my favorite, but this was a fascinating movie to watch (albeit long) and since he wasn't there, I couldn't very well feel annoyed by him. Cate Blanchette was just amazing - and I loved the surreal, Fellini-esque feel of the Richard Gere parts.
Atonement: Lush, compelling, painful - I especially loved Vanessa Redgrave's starkly powerful 5 minutes - and the Fellini-esque (can you tell I love Fellini?) flavor of the scenes of the evacuating troops on the beach - complete with ferris wheels - somehow depicting the disorienting horror of war in ways that blood and gore never could. Great movie!
Juno: Well, I went to see it. I totally agree with my friends who found the clinic scene extremely misleading, off-base, and gratuitously negative in its depiction of the women's health movement and its workers. In an otherwise nice movie, this was a thoughtless lapse ... and I was sad to see so many women in Juno's age group in the theater (one of them actually pregnant) ... who'll be coming away with a false impression that could so seriously affect their lives!
The Savages: Wow, what a good movie! Philip Seymour Hoffman has had an amazing run this year between this, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," and that other movie with Tom Hanks ... the name of which is escaping me at the moment ... Charlie Somebody's War. Anyway - he and Laura Linney are just wonderful as siblings dealing with their aging/ailing father. Painful and real ... and set in gritty, wintry Buffalo ... in perfect contrast to Sun City. (The latter looks like a setting that would do David Lynch proud.) Check it out if you haven't seen it!
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I love all the pictures you include – how fun! And what a story. Aunts Helen and Emma sound fascinating and I can’t wait for part 2 🙂
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Morning Big Al! Emma taught physical education — oddly, as she had majored in French in college. As the oldest, I was the first of my siblings to have a weekend with Aunt Emma and Aunt Helen. We each visited them for one weekend – and I think it was special, in its way, for each of us. I don’t remember if I was particularly scared of Great Great Aunt Harriet. I think all of those elders were a little daunting — although her face certainly looks kind in the photo. And yes – they traveled on freighters because it was significantly cheaper. I think, typically, freighters would take a few passengers along. And I remember one story of Aunt Emma leading the crew in calisthenics on one of their voyages. Here’s a link to an article about traveling by freighter — apparently it’s still possible: https://www.gonomad.com/1560-freighter-travel-faqs
What did Emma teach? Why were you there for the weekend? Did you run into them at other family gatherings? I was a little scared of Great great aunt. Were you? I love family stories and this branch is fascinating. Freighters? They traveled on freighters? Really? Any way to check that out? No matter. What a story! I wish it were a series.