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Dramatic ending answers some questions but perhaps leaves others for another year
In the finale of the second year of "The Man in the High Castle", the uneasy peace between Japan and Germany that was disturbed at the beginning of the first year is now restored, and the cause has been explained. However, the world remains divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Juliana Crain has answers to some of her personal questions, too, but the reappearance of someone she is glad to see poses unsettling questions.
Creator, producer and head writer Frank Spotnitz has expanded Philip K. Dick's short novel of the same title into a grand epic. While he has felt the need to deviate from Dick's novel, he has fulfilled its spirit in many ways, preserving some of Dick's inside-out view of the universe.
There are some well-earned dramatic payoffs to several long story arcs. Tagomi-san, the Imperial Trade Minister as much a favorite character of many viewers as he was for readers of the novel has returned from his journey to an alternate reality in which the Axis Powers lost World War II and where, to his surprise, Juliana Crain, his former employee in his own world, is his daughter-in-law. Although Tagomi could have remained in this world if he had wanted, the Cuban Missile Crisis has convinced him to return to his own time-line to try to prevent nuclear war. Meanwhile, Crain has been on a journey of her own. After letting Nazi agent Joe Blake get away at the end of the first year, facing an unfriendly interrogation from the Man in the High Castle, and going on the run from both the Resistance and the Kempeitai (Imperial Secret Police), she is in New York, under the protection of Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. She has been living a double life, used by both Smith and the East Coast Resistance; yet Crain proves to be the link between all the other characters and the fate world.
Smith has a secret: his son is incurably ill. Under Nazi law, he ought to be euthanized. Smith also desires to keep his own power, even under Nazi domination, while protecting America, at least in its geographical sense. (In his twisted way, Smith is a tragically compromised patriot.) Joe Blake, whose life Crain spared, has learned that he is not only a child of the Third Reich in a very disturbing sense, but he is the biological son of a powerful and ambitious Nazi official, Martin Heusmann, who has recently become the acting-Fuhrer after the death of the septuagenarian Adolf Hitler.
Tagomi and Inspector Kido of the Kempeitai have joined forces, with a surprise assist from the mysterious Man in the High Castle himself, who has Resistance member Lem Washington, give Tagomi one of the mysterious films the Man seems to curate. The film shows the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific but in our reality, not theirs. Kido gives it to his secret ally, Smith, persuading him that the film shows Japan's nuclear capability. Smith then uses his connection with Joe Blake/Josef Heusmann (who has tried and failed in his own attempt to dissuade his father from prosecuting global nuclear war) to bring it to the Nazi leadership, including Martin Heusmann and Heinrich Himmler. Heusmann does not want to call off the nuclear war, but Smith privately shows Himmler evidence that Heusmann poisoned Hitler. Himmler has Heusmann arrested and honors Smith for saving the Reich and the world in an international television broadcast.
Simultaneous with the development of these events, Crain's uneasy alliance with the East Coast Resistance comes to a head. George Dixon, who has been her sometime ally and who happens to be the father of Crain's half sister, sets off to publish evidence of the Smith family medical secret evidence that she unwittingly helped obtain. Then two Resistance members try to kill Crain. For only about the second time in the entire series, she uses her martial arts training (aikido in the TV series, judo in Dick's novel) and is forced to kill the leader of the Resistance cell. She then chases and kills Dixon to prevent him from exposing Smith's son, but she unknowingly also helps Smith to save the world without the embarrassing secret of his cover up of his son's illness getting in the way. In the ultimate irony, however, at the very moment of Smith's triumph, his son Thomas, seeing his father honored on TV, realizes that his own duty is to turn himself in and allow himself to be euthanized. Ultimately, neither Crain nor Smith nor the boy's distraught mother, Helen, can save him.
It now becomes clear that the opening of the episode was a bookend to this fateful ending. It showed a younger John Smith and a pregnant Helen watching a Nazi atomic bomb go off over Washington, DC. Smith, ever in uniform, was then a member of the American military and not yet a convert to Nazism. We more fully understand what has happened to Smith and its cost. First he sold his soul to the devil, and now the devil has taken his son.
Finally, Juliana meets once again with the Man in the High Castle who explains that she has been his proxy all along, doing the right thing at every turn. We might suspect now if we have not previously suspected that the Man is a traveler between alternative realities (whichever one is his origin). He is somewhat like the Wizard of Oz. He has even sent Juliana, like Dorothy, on a hazardous mission to slay the Wicked Witch of the West (the European menace rather than the Asian one). She has not exactly slain the Nazi Reich, but at least she has played a key role in saving the world from nuclear annihilation so that the forces of good can live to fight another day.
If you liked "Gladiator" you might like this
After staying up late watching this blood-drenched but exciting adventure film, I was stunned to learn that it was something of a box office flop, having made back about half of what it cost to make. Most likely this has to do with how few screens the movie opened with, just over 100 in the UK and about 25 in the US, presumably with no hype. (I never heard of it until seven years after it opened.) This is certainly not your average date movie unless both parties like their violence graphic. So much for the chancy, grim aspects of movie-making. (Almost as grim as the blood in this movie.)
The story and acting are pretty good for an adventure/survival yarn: A small band of survivors of an ambush must take a circuitous route through enemy territory to get home. The hero is the son of a gladiator whose father taught him all of his skills and tricks. The best villain is a fierce woman warrior who tracks down the Roman prey. She wears animal skins and war paint, never speaks or smiles, and wields a scary, partisan-like polearm as if it were an extension of her body and soul. (This is not only about guys doing macho stuff, it has a couple of macho women characters, too.)
If you do not mind the blood and gore, this is a great adventure story with amazing photography of untamed Scottish mountain country. An interesting note (to me, anyway): The Romans speak English instead of Latin while the Picts speak Scots Gaelic instead of Pictish. Very little Pictish has been preserved, but from what we know of it, it would have been more similar to Gaelic than English is to Latin.
The Kindergarten of Spies
I give "Undercover" a perfect score because it does exactly what it intends to do. Directed by John Ford, this film was made for the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) during World War II. Its film-within-a-film structure helps us to understand how it was meant to be used. The filmmakers understand its flaws and exploit them.
The film opens with a group of men about to watch a movie. Two officers, one a moderator, introduce the movie, thus sandwiching it between this introductory scene and a closing commentary. The brief opening remarks admit that the movie about to be shown is simplistic.
The movie is about two novice spies, Al and Charles. The country that each spy is to infiltrate is not identified by name as a real country. Both spies are going to "Enemy Area", even though they might not be going to the same country. One is heading for Enemy City while the other is aiming for a seaport called El Porto.
In one scene, Al is on a train. The conductor, like all officials that both Al and Charles run across, has an armband with a checkerboard on it. (If you contemplate it, you soon realize that the "checkerboard" is really a swastika with all of its arms turned into closed boxes.) The conductor asks Al for his papers and asks a lot of other questions.
"Where are you going?"
"Enemy City", replies Al.
If he said that in real life, he would be hanging by his curlies by nightfall, but, of course, the generic place names are just the conceit of the movie. Geography is unimportant. Procedure, or what spies call "tradecraft", is everything here. (Although in the ending scene where the moderator discusses the film, he points out that in the Far East, a lot of the rules taught in the movie would have to be different.)
The plot is reminiscent of the story of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper agent is overconfident and arrogant. He reads magazines instead of studying. The ant does his homework and remembers his lessons in the field. They learn some of their lessons with their handlers in the comfort of their home country, but when they get to "Enemy Area", the narrator and other characters they meet tell us what lessons they have to learn or are being reinforced on the job. The lessons can be common sense but aren't always.
Al arrives in Enemy City and must find a place to stay. First he considers a big hotel, but Al reflects that the secret police are likely focusing on the big hotels, which will be crawling with informers; the whole staff will be regularly questioned by police. Besides, his cover is that he is a machinist. What would he be doing in a fancy hotel? Rule one is to be inconspicuous.
He goes on to a private home that lets rooms. Maybe later when he gets established. For now, living with a family might be too constraining. They will ask where he is going and so on. So he moves on to a rooming-house where he might have a little more anonymity, but he overhears the landlady gossiping disapprovingly about one of her tenants. She is nosy and will watch him like a hawk.
So he goes on until he finds a small hotel. There are too many of these second rate hotels for the police to check up on all of them. It is within the budget of a machinist, and it will give him some anonymity. He takes it. There are hundreds or even thousands of little decisions like this that the spy has to make.
After the movie ends and we return to the outer story of the film, the moderator points out that the real usefulness of this movie is for a class to go over in more detail all of the points that are made superficially.
The moderator also points out some things that were not given attention but perhaps should have been. For example, didn't the grasshopper's handler make a mistake by sending him into the field knowing that the man was overconfident and had a cavalier and impetuous attitude?
Another detail: When Al is pacing nervously around his hotel room and chain smoking, he stubs out a half-smoked cigarette in an ashtray. This is probably a country where tobacco is being rationed. Might the hotel maid and others be suspicious of someone who acts as if, where they come from, cigarettes are easy to come by?
This is a kind of industrial/educational film that is explicitly meant to be studied and discussed for the insights that can be gleaned about undercover work, a very peculiar endeavor that requires a combination of training, native intelligence and attention to detail combined with an ability to think on one's feet.
The sound of this movie is poor. Captions are helpful or even essential. Without any credits you might not know that John Ford directed it or that he plays a supporting role. The two lead actors look familiar but are not named.
This show is very entertaining, but it is incomplete as it stands. There are too many unanswered questions. Who is Vic, for example, other than a character who departs without having revealed what he was or where he came from. Did someone cause the people to come back from the dead? Even in the French series "Les Revenants" and its American remake "The Returned" we get some clue from the longer arc of the story about why this happened (even though it has to remain shrouded in some mystery). In "Glitch!" we do not get enough of the story to get any closure on anything. The surprise ending is only a small, partial explanation.
Band of Brothers: Currahee (2001)
Band Holds Up After 16 Years
When I first saw this series, I was only aware of David Schwimmer and maybe Donnie Wahlberg. Now I can't see it without being aware of how many of the actors have gone on to distinguished acting careers. Having said that, all of the actors, whether in small or large parts, do very well. Even Colonel Sink, who is played by a real life military officer, is solid in his performance.
David Schwimmer has the toughest role to play in this first episode. His character, Captain Sobel, feels - we might think it is because he is conscious of his Jewishness - that he must work his men harder than the other company commanders so that he is recognized as a worthy officer. Unfortunately, his insecurity makes him a vacillating field commander. While some recognize that he has trained his men to be tougher than any other unit, his men both resent his martinet style and are disturbed by his inability to lead in the field. They are genuinely afraid that he will get his men killed.
His sergeants risk being executed by mutinying against him. In a way, they do act dishonorably. If their actions had not led Colonel Sink to realize that Sobel is a walking morale problem who needs to be relieved of his command, the sergeants being transferred to better led units would have abandoned the rest of the men of E Company to meet their fates with Sobel.
My favorite sequence - not a happy one - is when Lt. Winters first sees the sergeants leaving headquarters after they have been dressed down and reassigned. They salute Winters (they respect him to the same degree that they do not respect Sobel), and he returns their salutes. He knows something is up, but the sergeants kept him out of the loop, so he doesn't know what just happened. A little later, Winters sees Capt. Sobel being driven away in a jeep right after he has been transferred in a wrenching scene. (Sobel squirms as he unconvincingly tries to explain to Col. Sink why his entire staff of non- commissioned officers mutinied against him.) Winters salutes Sobel in the jeep. Whatever Winters thinks of him, Sobel is still his commanding officer - or so Winters still believes. Yet Sobel doesn't return the salute, may not even see Winters. Winters again senses that something is up, but, again, he doesn't know what. (You can read so much that isn't explicitly stated just from the acting - that is a sign of the quality in this production.)
This is a good start for a series that I have not seen since it originally appeared on HBO sixteen years ago. I want to watch the rest of it and intend to do so. This is in contrast to the same production team's sequel effort "The Pacific", the first episode of which I remember watching, again on HBO, and quickly resolving that I would not watch the rest of that series.
The life of a nearly forgotten heroine
Augusta Chiwy was a Belgian nurse who treated many wounded American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. There were only two nurses at the army medical aid station in Bastogne, Belgium, in December of 1944. There was another army hospital on the other side of town, but neither facility was well staffed or well stocked. They had almost no medical supplies because the town was surrounded by Germans for several days. During the siege, the Germans fired explosives into the town in an almost constant, nerve-racking barrage.
Nurse Chiwy and army surgeon Dr. Jack Prior became a team even though she only spoke a little English and he only spoke a little French. They once amputated a man's gangrenous foot and hand with cognac for anesthetic, hydrogen peroxide for disinfectant, and a serrated knife. (They didn't even have a surgical scalpel!) Chiwy not only administered the anesthetic and disinfectant, but she was the one who closed up (using God-knows-what for sutures).
Some of the American soldiers did not want to be touched by Chiwy because she was black. (Her father was Belgian and her mother was from the Belgian Congo.) Dr. Prior pointed out to these men, with more or less subtlety, that the alternative was that they could join the men who could not be treated at all and who were almost certainly going to die.
On one occasion, Chiwy and Prior commandeered a truck and drove to a snowy battlefield to bring wounded soldiers back to the aid station. Chiwy, who was under five feet tall, dragged a man with a leg wound to safety while dodging machine gun bullets.
When the Germans dropped a bomb directly on the aid station, Prior and Chiwy happened to be in the building next door where someone had invited them for a Christmas drink. Chiwy received minor injuries while 30 men and the other nurse, Renee Lemaire, were killed instantly. Prior and Chiwy worked with others to rescue the remaining patients from the demolished building.
Historian and film producer Martin King had heard of Lemaire but only belatedly learned of Chiwy from a local historian in Bastogne. He set about finding out more about her, and his research became the basis of this documentary. He found Chiwy living in a retirement home, where she graciously allowed King to make a fuss over her even though she kept saying that what she had done was not all that special. King made it his mission to persuade the Belgian and U.S. governments to recognize Chiwy for what she had done.
Chiwy, Prior and probably the other army doctor (who was a dentist by training) suffered from PTSD. Chiwy would occasionally become mute. Once, during the siege, something happened that made her want to scream but when she opened her mouth, no sound came out. For years afterward she would sometimes have trouble speaking. Similarly, Dr. Prior went back to the United Sates but found himself incapable of treating live patients who could experience pain; so he became a pathologist, a doctor who deals only with people who are already dead. The dentist became temporarily blind which was either caused by an hysterical reaction or a concussion, which was never made clear, perhaps even to him.
The First World War (2003)
Excellent if overwhelming intro to World War I
You would not recommend reading only one history book, so why would anyone recommend only one documentary about World War I? This is a good documentary because it covers a great deal and very engagingly, but sometimes it tries to cover too much and necessarily leaves gaps.
If you watch other documentaries, you will find out that the first great tank breakthrough was preceded by a tank failure and that the British Expeditionary Force was so unprepared for the breakthrough when it came that they failed to send enough troops into the breach to secure it, leading to the German recapture of the temporarily lost territory.
There is confusion, too, as when it is said that German commander von Hutier's attack on Amiens, France had no purpose, but a few minutes later it is said that when Ludendorff decided to attack Amiens he had an objective of smashing the railroad nexus there. Had Hutier succeeded, wouldn't that have served the same purpose even if accidentally?
A mass of information is presented that dizzies the old hand let alone the beginner, but even so, I was glad that this documentary offers a wealth of stimulating information about all sides of the conflict. The fact that it is British-made gives it an unavoidable bias that is made up for by its attempt to bring other nation's voices into the narrative, using the accounts of both well-known and relatively unknown participants.
There are many documentaries about World War I that are also good. Some, for example, focus more than this one on the war from the point of view of those outside of Europe. This one gives a lot of information about that aspect of the war even though it tries to cover too much ground to tell the viewer all the details. This is a survey, and a pretty good starting point. Learn more about World War I, and you will come to see that there are other opinions on some of the topics. There is more subject matter than this documentary had time to cover, and you might even think that what they left out is awfully important. You might, nevertheless, always remember "The First World War" fondly as an equally informative and moving introduction.
Final 24: Jim Morrison (2007)
Mostly of interest if you are morbid or a Doors fan - but I repeat myself
Before I saw this program, I had seen Oliver Stone's "The Doors" in which I found the "account" of Jim Morrison's death in Paris, France in 1971 not an account so much as a disjointed, abstract tableau, devoid of drama of any kind. (It seems that Stone made a deal with the estate of Pamela Courson, Morrison's junkie girlfriend, so as not to implicate her in Morrison's death, in exchange for the rights to use Morrison's dubious non-lyric poetry, of which her estate bizarrely has custody.)
According to this re-enactment, Courson did indeed have more to do with Morrison's death than merely finding him dead in the bathtub. The night he died, she shared with him her own stash of heroin, which Morrison was not used to doing, and which he snorted as if it were cocaine, even though this is not a good way to take heroin (if one is going to take it at all) if one is not use to it. (This is consistent, however, with claims by those who knew him that Morrison disliked needles.)
I had also read Patricia Kennealy's memoir about Morrison, "Strange Days" (1992), which gives a non-eyewitness theory about his death that nevertheless confirms Courson's giving Morrison drugs but also reports some facts not mentioned by this TV account, even though a couple of alternative theories are mentioned by the program. For example, in the official version, Courson telephoned Alain Ronay, with whom Morrison had spent part of the previous day, and he called the paramedics. According to an alternative account mentioned by the program, she called her drug dealer first. Kennealy suggests that Courson called Ronay, who did more than call an ambulance; he orchestrated a clever deception. But was there a deliberate deception or a series of lucky (for Courson) errors?
Ronay himself (http://archives.waiting-forthe- sun.net/Pages/Articles/jims_last_days.html) confirms that there is a little truth to every alternative version of events. He admits to deceiving the police, but suggests that the police were, simultaneously, suspicious and yet remarkably obtuse.
The deception or mistake involved the authorities not picking up on two facts: that Morrison 1) had illegal drugs in his system and 2) was one of the most famous rock stars in the world at that time. The documentary reenactment only picks up on the first error, explaining that Courson had flushed drugs down the toilet, the medical examiners decided not to do an autopsy, and they decided there was no need to go beyond "heart failure" as the official cause of death. The second deception was that Morrison was initially tagged as "Douglas James Morrison" instead of "James Douglas Morrison", which scaled back the odds of anyone thinking that this might be a celebrity death, deserving of a full autopsy. The documentary does not deal with this at all, instead showing only the U.S. State Department's death report on Morrison, which does give the deceased's name correctly.
According to Kennealy, these were not errors but clever deceptions perpetrated by Ronay. Without them, Courson might have gone to prison. The other possibility, of course, is that the deception was too improvised to have worked without the error of the investigators, which is what Ronay seems to admit in his own account.
The documentary provides insights into Morrison's health problems at the time of his death. The program reports that Ronay said Morrison had chronic hiccups, physical weakness, and a tendency to stumble. We are told that the 27-year-old singer had been an alcoholic for more than ten years. Shortly before his death, he threw up blood in the bathtub and was bleeding from the nose and mouth (either related to snorting heroine or other, underlying conditions?).
These medical details might point to chronic alcoholism in an advanced stage, despite his young years. Snorting heroine, of course, did not help. But there is an additional possibility that the documentarists don't consider and that an autopsy might have proved: pulmonary embolism. That could cause hiccuping and the other symptoms. Heart failure could result from an embolism.
Stylistically, this program is a bit heavy-handed. It spends more time on Morrison's sensational career than on his last day. When it does tell us about his last day, it keeps reminding us in overly colorful ways that Morrison is going to die, end up dead, cease to write any more songs or poems, or do any more drugs or alcohol, etc. Being curious about the facts surrounding his death, I found this program informative if not conclusive.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Moving tribute to behind-the-scenes heroes
Historically, patriotic African-Americans have often had to fight on two fronts at once, fighting for their country while countering friendly fire from countrymen who doubt either their ability or willingness to do the job. The story of black "computers" and engineers working in the U.S. space program in the early 1960s is presented here as one such example.
The Langley Research Center (near Hampton, Virginia, and not connected to the famous town where the CIA is headquartered) was an early hothouse for NASA research and development, and provided work for men and women of all races in what we now call the STEM fields. To give an idea of how affirmative action developed at NASA, by 1984, only 2 percent of U.S. engineers were black, but 8.4 percent of NASA engineers were black. This movie dramatizes how this shift developed from the beginning of NASA, when talented female and African-American mathematicians got the proverbial foot in the door. (Although, government and government contractor employment of African-Americans and women to do math related tasks went back at least to World War II, and the ups and downs of African-American civil servants can be traced back to the 1870s.)
The focus of this movie is on math prodigy Katherine Goble Johnson who becomes indispensable to the Mercury Space Program even while she has to work in a facility that still has segregated restrooms. It takes her a minimum of 40 minutes to take her breaks because the nearest "colored" restroom was half a mile away! (Sorry, as dramatic as this story is, it turns out that many of the advancements portrayed in the movie, from the biggest professional achievements of the three main characters to the desegregation of the restrooms, actually occurred by or before 1960.)
Nevertheless, this is an excellently told and acted story. As often happens, though, the filmmakers found that they had to pick one of the three characters to focus on more than the others. (Not that the other two women are ignored, they are just not done full justice.) Tariji P. Henson is a star in the best sense. Janelle Monáe and the increasingly ubiquitous Octavia Spencer round out the leading roles along with Mahershala Ali as Katherine's devoted husband. Good, if a bit stereotyped(!), in supporting roles are Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons. Glen Powell as John Glenn seems sufficiently Boy Scoutish, but he doesn't look like the thin and prematurely balding Glenn. (Ed Harris, in "The Right Stuff", remains a far more convincing Glenn.)
Couldn't quite make sense of the way Al Harrison (Costner) went about desegregating the restrooms; if he were going to be seen knocking down a sign, why the "Colored only" sign rather than the "Whites only" sign? Wasn't the latter the real problem for his star computer?
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Emotional tribute to a man of principle
Not a dry eye in my house while I watched "Hacksaw Ridge" alone. Desmond T. Doss was previously unknown to me, yet he was the real deal. Made me want to see the documentary about him. Evidently, the movie downplays the true story rather than displaying the usual Hollywood exaggeration. Moral of the story: You know your objection to handling guns is principled when you are willing to march into battle without one. Doss only touched a rifle to use it as a splint or part of a makeshift travois. (No indication, though, that he knew to empty the weapon before so using it!)
The cast of this movie is terrific. Obviously Andrew Garfield in the starring role, but also Teresa Palmer is fine in the kind of role that usually gets thrown away in a war movie (the hero's wife). Hugo Weaving deserves every award he can get for his role as the father, Tom Doss. Vince Vaughn is uncharacteristically understated as Sergeant Howell - even while saying lines that would make R. Lee Ermey jealous.
Sorry to be so provincially and patronizingly amazed at how so many Australians do believable American accents, but the average American movie-goer is probably not going to notice how few of the actors in this movie are Americans. (Andrew Garfield was born in the U.S. but did not grow up here.)