Monthly Archives: December 2020

“Radiance: Creative Mitzvah Living” by Danny Siegel, edited by Rabbi Neal Gold— The Selected Prose and Poetry of Danny Siegel

Siegel, Danny. “Radiance: Creative Mitzvah Living”, edited by Rabbi Neal Gold, Jewish Publication Society, 2020.

The Selected Prose and Poetry of Danny Siegel

Amos Lassen

“Radiance” is the first anthology of the most important writings by Danny Siegel. They span fifty years of his insights and are interspersed with soulful Jewish texts with innovative Mitzvah ideas that challenge us to transform our lives, communities, neighborhoods, and world.

Siegel describes the different and creative ways individuals from different walks of life have brought compassion into the world. He see these people as Mitzvah heroes and shows how we can apply their life lessons. At the same time he shows us how giving makes life better and “presents Jewishly informed best principles for doing more world repair (Tikkun Olam).”

Siegel, as a scholar of rabbinic literature, presents us translations and commentaries on Jewish texts that illuminate Tzedakah, values, caring, and leadership. There are five new essays with his visions for a better world. The poetry included asks religious and theological questions in the face of oppression and war and gives voice to those personal moments that are often neglected by ritual. Further, he raises the wonders of modern Israel and the revelation of love.

We gain practical guidance on using Siegel’s classic and novel works in our own lives  in Jewish organizational settings. By exploring the interaction between heroes, texts, and ourselves, we become engaged in discovering our own potential for Mitzvah living in new ways.

Through the  mix of prose, poetry, classic texts, Torah insights, models of good deeds, portraits of Mitzvah heroes, we see the good in people and in living. We see the possibility of tikkun—healing and repair—for everything that is broken.  We see howany Mitzvah can change the world.

“The Cruising Diaries: Expanded Edition” by Brontez Purnell— A Queer Coming-of-Age Memoir

Purnell, Brontez. “The Cruising Diaries: Expanded Edition”, illustrated by Janelle Hassiq,Silver Sprocket; 2020.

A Queer Coming-of Age Memoir

Amos Lassen

Brontez Purnell’s “The Cruising Diaries” is a queer coming of age memoir that is quite bold as it follows author and musician Brontez Purnell on a series of sexual misadventures through 2000s Oakland, California. We have outrageous tales of taco truck trysts and bathhouse Santas and wonderful illustrations. The stories are very real and very funny. Purnell does not hold back and puts it out there for all of us. It is totally and wonderfully raunchy. Some may see it as anti-erotica. I, however, see it as fun.

“Severed” by Ignacio Lopez— A Monologue

Lopez, Ignacio. “Severed”, 53rd State Press, 2020.

A Monologue

Amos Lassen

Ignacio Lopez’s “Severed” is a short dark, disturbing monologue that is a coming-of-age story filled with horror. It is irreverent, and revelatory, held together by two very different voices who deal with crises of sexuality and conscience. The lines between desire and violence are blurred and we question the issues of empathy, forgiveness, and understanding. We are pulled into a physical reality that is frightening and yet very real. If you ever questioned what you see when you look into a mirror, this is a story that you must read. As we explore our deepest desires, do we see ourselves or are we someone else? Through Lopez’s own story, we cannot help but see something of ourselves.

The writing is gorgeous and the author’s ability to put us in his place is stunning. In just 77 pages, we learn more than we do in full-length novels and I am still reeling from what I read.

“American Traitor: A Pike Logan Novel” by Brad Taylor— A Hunt

Taylor, Brad. “American Traitor: A Pike Logan Novel”,William Morrow, 2021.

A Hunt

Amos Lassen

Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill are enjoying a sunny vacation when they get disturbing news: their friend and colleague Clifford Delmonty is in trouble. While he was working as a contractor at an Australian F-35 facility, he saw something he shouldn’t have, and now he’s on the run from Chinese agents. 

Pike and Jennifer learn that Dunkin’s attackers are a dangerous link to a much larger scheme that could launch a war between China and Taiwan. China is determined to reclaim Taiwan—an ally the United States has sworn to protect. Pike learns that the Chinese have a plan to bait the island nation into all-out war by destabilizing the government and manipulating an artificial intelligence defense system. 

When the threat becomes very real, Pike realizes that what they’re seeing isn’t actually real. He must now track down and neutralize the missing man who holds the key. With the help of Jennifer, the Taskforce team, and a Taiwanese intelligence agent, he rushes to prevent a catastrophic conflict from pushing the world to war.

There are many new and clever ideas here as well as thoughts about silent expansion of China. China has a team working within Taiwan to use AI targeting systems to “start” a war with China that will end Taiwan forever. Logan’s team battles with Chinese operatives while trying to understand exactly what is going on.
From the very beginning we see that China is the bad guy and only Pike Logan can stop what is happening.

The story picks up after an act of sabotage. A case of mistaken identity on vacation leads from one ambush to another. A South Pacific regional conflict that quickly becomes a National Security Flashpoint for the United States but it must be a silent operation.

The plot is very real and therefore frightening. Brad Taylor is a  retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel and knows what he writes about. There were times that I had to stop reading and take everything in yet I was totally into what was going on. The plot is filled with twists and turns with non-stop action of politics and death.

“Meditations with the Hebrew Letters: A Guide for the Modern Seeker” by Gilla Nissan– A Book and Card Set

Nissan, Gilla. “Meditations with the Hebrew Letters: A Guide for the Modern Seeker”, Greenleaf Publishing, 2020.

 A Book and Card Set

Amos Lassen

I was raised as an Orthodox Jew but when I moved to Israel, I left any concept of organized Judaism behind and lived my life secularly. When I returned to the United States years later, I searched for a community and I found one within the Jewish religion and I returned to what I had once ignored. More than that, however, I developed a love for with the tradition and teachings of the Judaism. I suppose that knowing Hebrew had a great deal to do with that. I put aside an hour a day to study Torah and holy writings and joined several study groups, constantly wanting to know more.

I recently received a copy of Gilla Nissan’s “Meditations with the Hebrew Letters: A Guide for the Modern Seeker” and jumped right into it, devouring every word and exercise. New ideas opened up and I was soon having a great time. I learned about the power of language and how it can so many different things. I learned not only about our texts but also about how to live a life filled with inspiration.

 

Nissan shares ancient knowledge about the power of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Kabbalists and sages believed the power of the Letters created the world but I never comprehended this before. I surprisingly began to understand what the letters of the Hebrew alphabet mean and how they influence how we live.  

Author Nissan does not just give us a book but rather a set. There is a book filled with beautiful illustrations, a deck of cards and a reference guide. We learn that the Hebrew Letters are not just building blocks of a language but that they are also a numerical system and mystical tools of creation.  We read how the letters are “rooted in Kabbalistic cosmology and can be used to elevate and expand levels of consciousness.” There have been those that, for example,  study the letters in their names and then use them to reveal the mission of their souls. Other draw Letters and use them as a daily guide and for introspection. We learn how letters can be used go our own personal needs and philosophies.

Nissan explains that today “the Hebrew letters are spreading in the world and being used in many ways; there is Yoga with the letters, Tai Chi with the letters, different sound works, and more books about the letters.”  There is fascination with them for our needs for healing and repairing our soul. This is the first book to present the letters as practical tools for creating change and a better reality. “If God created the entire world with them, we can create our small worlds as well.”

 This is not an academic study of the meanings of the letters. This is transmitted in a meditative state, through guided imagery and sound. Nissan has developed a movement to each letter because she feels that we need a direct experience of what we read in the holy books. Her hope is that people will experience themselves as a mystery, and become amazed by the wisdom of their roots— to learn and understand what they stood for before and become deeper and more mindful human beings. 

 

The set is user friendly and is divided into four parts: In part one we learn of Nissan’s life and how she became the recipient of her knowledge about the letters and how this knowledge explains her life. Part two is about the Hebrew language (and no, you do not have to know Hebrew for any of this) and how it became a holy language as well as a language of the street after being resurrected. In part 3, we learn how to use the letters as tools of creation and in part 4 we have twenty-two cards, one for each letter in gorgeous art and explanations of “how to interpret the letter and use it to create a better reality and in-depth perception.” 

I am still amazed at the many uses this set provides us—introduction to Jewish mysticism, a history of Hebrew, lessons on mindfulness, a look at “Kabbalah, spirituality, self-discovery, personal growth and ancient languages.” For me, especially, as one who has always had trouble with mindfulness and meditation, a way to deal with my own foibles. I found myself going to places I would probably never go without the guidance I get here and my explorations of Torah have deepened by spending time on the meaning of the letters.  I was recently in a course on the creation and many of the questions and issues that came up are dealt with here. I had always suspected that there is a hidden meaning to the holy texts we read and now I feel better equipped to look for them.

“GOODBYE MOTHER”— Gay in Vietnam

 

“GOODBYE MOTHER”

Gay in Vietnam

Amos Lassen

“Goodbye Mother” opens with a young man gazing out of an airport window, contemplating returning to the United States and life far from his family and native Vietnam. His boyfriend comes and sits beside him, trying to comfort him. They have been on a turbulent trip back to Vietnam which has challenged their identities and the relationship between them.

Filmmaker Trinh Dinh Le Minh looks at the pain of living far from home and the difficulties of coming out as gay in a very traditional Vietnamese society. Nâu Vân (Lãnh Thanh) comes back to visit his family and attend his dead father’s memorial ceremony after living in America for a number of years. His mother (Hong Dao) has eagerly awaited his visit and the scene is set for a poignant homecoming. But when Nâu comes through the airport, things proceed differently. He is closely followed by his handsome ‘friend’ Ian (Võ Điền Gia Huy).

Nâu has returned to Vietnam to fulfil family duties but there is a danger that these duties, especially the idea that he will get married and have children and this will pull him away from Ian. He struggles to resist these unspoken expectations.

He avoids telling his mother the real nature of his relationship with his friend and it is left ambiguous as to whether she picks up on the signals that are so obvious. Much of the film focuses on the relationship between Nâu and his mother (who also has her own secrets).

The film also sensitively depicts the relationship between Nâu and Ian, showing how they feel for each other and the way they are forced to repress this in Vietnam’s still traditional society. They dance without touching at a music concert and continually casting each other furtive flirtatious glances. Each morning, they set an alarm so they can get into separate beds.

Nâu’s grandmother confuses her grandson with Ian, to considerable comic effect. She develops affection for Ian and surprisingly able to accept the gay relationship. We first meet sitting in a tree and refusing to come down. A short while later Nâu’s young cousin has a crash on his scooter after drinking beer but these attempts at comedy just seem out of place.

Despite making significant progress over the recent years, including the legalization of same-sex marriages in 2015, the conservative Vietnamese society is yet to be fully acceptable of homosexual couples and the movie explores that.

Nau’s mother Mrs. Hanh is the family’s main bread-earner for his his elder aunt and her family, his younger unmarried aunt, and his senile grandmother. Ian. Is American born but raised Vietnamese boy and the family instantly warms up to. They have no idea that the two have been in a relationship for years or that they have come together so that Nau Van can come out to his family. That seems easier said than done in a family and society where everyone is pressuring Nau Van, the eldest grandson of the family, to marry soon and have children of his own.

Trinh Dinh Le Minh’s treatment of the subject is fresh and new. The film is as much a comedy as it is an LGBTQ drama and the director finds the right balance between the two. While the first half is filled with laughter, the second half brings the drama as secrets are discovered and realization comes. The film has a lot to say about traditional Vietnamese society’s bias towards the LGBTQ community and the expectations of elders from their children, including a comment on how only the senile seem to be the only sane in today’s society. It feels very natural and organic.

The film is content to observe the quiet glances at the dinner table, the longing gaze they share at a local carnival dance, wanting to hold each other but aware of the crowd around them and the rare kiss exchanged inside the outdoor shower cabin. The chemistry between the lovers is beautiful to watch and feels genuine. Everything from their romantic scenes to their arguments and the tears feel genuine.

Huay Bing Law’s colorful cinematography uses the stunning southwestern Vietnamese countryside and captures the green gardens, winding village roads and picturesque rivers and bridges with beauty. as it does the interiors of the vast house the family lives in.

“Goodbye Mother” is a progressive step in a film industry that is still stuck in the tragic love stories and cliched camp characters when it comes to depicting homosexual characters in Vietnam.

“NOWHERE”— Two Men, Two Countries, Nowhere To Go

“NOWHERE”

Two Men, Two Countries, Nowhere To Go

Amos Lassen

Adrian and Sebastian, gay immigrants, live an openly gay life in New York. When Sebastian’s visa is rejected, the two have to decide whether to return to Colombia where they face rejection and persecution for their sexual orientation or do whatever is necessary to stay in the United States. The thoughts and discussions associated with the decision will have a profound effect on the couple. The film looks at the difficult immigration situation in the US that brings about a sense of homelessness and lack of belonging for the two guys.

Love requires compromise and sacrifice and this is the focus of “Nowhere”. We see fear within the context of Colombians of the LGBT community. While progress has been made in Colombia for the LGBT community, it continues to be marginalized by the conservative population. We see something about the community and hear from those who are often silenced or ignored . Hopefully it will begin a dialogue on the importance of respect and love. 

The characters are seen within the context of the difficult immigration situation in the US that causes the feeling of the lack of belonging. What if the places that you believe you belong are the ones that don’t want you? That is the challenge that the two young men wrestle with and their relationship hangs in the balance. 

 

We meet 2 young attractive gay men, Adrian and Sebastian and are very quickly exposed to their problems and conflicts. Adrian almost immediately comes across as a know-it-all who is angry and unlikable. We soon discover that Adrian is running from his homophobic Colombian family that wants him to marry a woman and carry on the family business and he drags Sebastian with him to New York. Sebastian has come out and is rejected by his family but his visa to stay in New York expires and is unlikely to be renewed. Adrian works hard at trying to get Sebastian married to an American woman for hire to obtain the visa but he alienates all the prospective candidates along the way.

David and Francisco Salazar’s “Nowhere” is  attempt to showcase the issues of homophobic families and US immigration visas tearing apart relationships.

“BLADE: THE IRON CROSS”— Dark and Weird

“BLADE: THE IRON CROSS”

Dark and Weird

Amos Lassen

Sick science, punishing puppets, clairvoyant crusaders and a fascist zombies make “BLADE: THE IRON CROSS!” the strangest of the Puppet Master films. Dr. Hauser, the Third Reich’s maddest scientist has murder and mayhem on his mind. As Hauser’s heinous crimes are discovered, the psychic war journalist, Elisa Ivanov, awakens Blade, and together a bloody journey of revenge begins. It’s Herr Hauser’s reanimated undead army against a possessed doll and a beautiful vengeance-seeking clairvoyant.

Fans of the Puppet Master Universe have longed for a good Blade origin story since the very first movie. At first, this feels like it is going to be that film. Director John Lechago gives it a gritty feel like an early American noir film. Vincent Cusimano as Detective Jonas Gray has the persona of a fedora-sporting hardboiled cop down to a science and gives the best performance of the film (which is not saying much). The psychic war-reporter, portrayed by Tania Fox, is intriguing in concept, but sadly quite wooden as performance goes.

I liked the film all the way through the first half. Lousy acting is to be expected in B-horror sometimes, and the premise of it had me engaged at the onset. Set in 1945 during WWII, it has a great retro atmosphere and the perfect dark mood. However the screenplay is awful.

I did not care a bit about the characters, the dialogue is stilted, uninteresting, and completely ineffective for the most part, and from about the halfway point onward, I was bored. There is nothing  scary and the “special” effects are not special.

Yet, it is a decent film that is hardboiled and gritty, fun and bloody and it makes promises in the beginning. Then the second half breaks every single one of them. I completely lost interest in the film and had to force myself through the rest of it.

“VERSUS”— A Japanese Gore Fest

“VERSUS”

A Japanese Gore Fest

Amos Lassen

If you are a fan of pointless and outrageous fight scenes and erratic characters, “Versus” is a film for you. It has zombies, cheesy humor and epic sword and gun fights. The plot is unique and keeps us wondering at the end of the film of who is truly the evil and good one in this world. The picture quality is excellent but the story line is a little ridiculous for a movie, making it fun to watch. This ultimate edition has a lot of extra interviews and behind the scenes footage.

More questions than answers are raised in the “Versus,” since director Ryûhei Kitamura seems intent on mixing eerie, bizarre plot twists all through the simple plot. It has plenty of gore, fighting and a brilliant debut performance by Tak Sakaguchi.  There is a wonderful battle scene between good and evil that apparently lasts throughout multiple reincarnated lives and we’re not quite sure which is which. According to the movie, there are 666 portals concealed in this world, which connect to the “other side.” One of these is in Japan, called the Forest of Resurrection — which apparently is connected to a long ago priest and samurai’s fight.

Now Prisoner KSC2-303 (Sakaguchi) and his fellow escapee are met near the Forest by a gang of mobsters, and the tense atmosphere becomes a bloody war. Dead bodies begin savagely attacking people. The prisoner escapes with a mysterious girl (Chieko Misaka) whom the mobsters had been ordered to bring  and he is compelled to protect her. She seems strangely familiar to him.

The mobsters pursue the girl and the prisoner into the Forest, trying to kill them both  but the prisoner and the leader both cause even more deaths and more bloodthirsty zombies. This is apparently a never-ending battle throughout the centuries in this very Forest, over a young woman with a mysterious power.  It brings Prisoner KSC2-303 up against an ancient enemy (Hideo Sakaki) whom he’s fought in many prior incarnations.

“Versus” is a movie to be watched twice because of the cryptic twists and strange explanations that are hard to get with one viewing. It is a horror/action flick on the surface that becomes even more than that as the story of the Man versus the Prisoner is slowly revealed through flashbacks, hints of familiarity, and a twist at the end  that turns everything upside down.

Many of the questions raised are left unanswered and left to the imagination. Ryûhei Kitamura gives fine direction with lots of action. There is a lot of blood, dismembered body parts and savage fights with guns, swords and fists. There is also a certain gruesome sense of humor and lots ] of over-the-top gore.

“Versus” is a layered, twisted tale with plenty of gore that is bound to become a cult film.

“TREMORS”— Limited Edition in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

“TREMORS”

 Limited Edition in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray

Amos Lassen

Last night, I watched “Tremors” again; I had not seen it in many years and I was amazed how much I loved it (and how much I had forgotten about it). The monster movie is just gorgeous to watch in 4K ULTRA HD.

Handymen Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward) are sick of their dead-end jobs the desert town of Perfection, Nevada with its population of 14. Just as they are about to leave Perfection forever, strange things begin to happen— half-eaten corpses litter the road out of town; the phone lines stop working; and a young female scientist finds evidence of unusually strong seismic activity in the area. It seems that something is coming for the citizens of Perfection and it’s under the goddamn ground. I really love that this is a film that can’t decide if it is a horror film or a comedy.

The threat comes in the form of four house trailer-sized worm-creatures, with multiple serpent like tongues, that tunnel underground before bursting up to devour human prey. All the conventions of the horror genre are here: a small town in the middle of nowhere isolated from outside help and a scientist on hand to study strange seismic phenomena. After that, however, “Tremors” is filled with clichés (but I do not mean that in a negative way). The scientist, for example, is a pretty young woman (Finn Carter) who doesn’t know where the monsters come from or understand why everyone keeps asking her to explain. The handyman heroes then carry on in comedic ways. As the movie moves forward, the pacing and action improve considerably and has a tongue-in-cheek approach while the situation becomes more perilous.

This is a creature feature that successfully won support. Directed by Ron Underwood, this 1990 horror comedy is equal parts scary, daft, witty and warm hearted. The cast is excellent and the screenplay wins us over from the moment the film begins. and a beautifully judged script that will win you over in no time. It uses the idea that the less we see of the monsters, the scarier they are.

Kevin Bacon as slacker handyman Val, doing odd jobs alongside his buddy Earl (Fred Ward) is wonderful as is Ward. They never quite get things together to move out of Perfection. It’s the sort of town one only really sees in Westerns: buildings barely held together, everybody is poor dirt poor and have no real prospects. Then the mysterious deaths begin. As we wait for more deaths, emphasis is placed on strong characters, inventive death sequences and successful pacing. The cast engages enthusiastically with their roles, each deftly drawn and carefully situated within the group dynamic. Michael Gross and Reba McEntire are fantastic as gung-ho survivalist couple, the Gummers, and Finn Carter provides more than just love interest as Rhonda, the seismology student who conveniently happens to be passing through. The chemistry between Bacon and Ward that really clinches it. The action sequences are exciting but they are also silly enough to remind us that the film appreciates its cheap and cheerful origins. The pacing is superb, with both horror and comedy perfectly timed to and the film only slows down when it wants to make us really nervous.

There is not a great deal of depth to this film, but that’s fine. It does a fine job of using its simple set-up to challenge prejudices about poor communities at the same time using them for comic effect. While we may laughing at the characters, we also root for them to survive. Their humanity makes them appealing. The affection they have for one another makes them easy to identify and we become involved in their lives and near deaths and we have fun doing so.

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS

  New 4K restoration from the original negative by Arrow Films, approved by director Ron Underwood & director of photography Alexander Gruszynski 

  60-page perfect-bound book featuring new writing by Kim Newman & Jonathan Melville & selected archive materials 

  Large fold-out double-sided poster featuring original & newly commissioned artwork by Matt Frank + Small fold-out double-sided poster featuring new Graboid X-ray art by Matt Frank 

  Six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproduction art cards 

  Limited Edition packaging w/ reversible sleeve featuring original & newly commissioned artwork by Matt Frank 

DISC 1 FEATURE & EXTRAS (4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY)

 

  4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible)

  Restored DTS-HD MA original theatrical 2.0 stereo, 4.0 surround, & remixed 5.1 surround audio options

  Optional English subtitles

  New audio commentary by director Ron Underwood & writers/producers Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson

  New audio commentary by Jonathan Melville, author of Seeking Perfection: The Unofficial Guide to Tremors

  Making Perfection, a new documentary by Universal Pictures interviewing key cast & crew from the franchise (including Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross, Ariana Richards, Ron Underwood, Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson, among many others) & revisiting the original locations

  The Truth About Tremors, a newly filmed interview w/ co-producer Nancy Roberts on the film s rocky road to the screen

  Bad Vibrations, a newly filmed interview w/ director of photography Gruszynski

  Aftershocks & Other Rumblings, newly filmed on-set stories from associate producer Ellen Collett

  Digging in the Dirt, a new featurette interviewing the crews behind the film s extensive visual effects

  Music for Graboids, a new featurette on the film s music with composers Ernest Troost & Robert Folk

  Pardon My French!, a newly assembled compilation of overdubs from the edited-for television version

  The Making of Tremors, an archive documentary from 1995 by Laurent Bouzereau, interviewing the filmmakers & special effects teams

  Creature Featurette, an archive compilation of on-set camcorder footage showing the making of the Graboids

  Electronic press kit featurette & interviews with Kevin Bacon, Michael Gross & Reba McEntire

  Deleted scenes, including the original opening scene

  Theatrical trailers, TV & radio spots for the original film + trailers for the entire Tremors franchise

  Comprehensive image galleries, including rare behind-the-scenes stills, storyboards & two different drafts of the screenplay

DISC 2 INTERVIEWS & SHORT FILMS (LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)

  Extended hour-long interviews with Ron Underwood, creature designer Alec Gillis & more!

  Outtakes w/ optional introduction & commentary by S.S. Wilson

  Three early shorts by the makers of Tremors