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Naked City: Vengeance Is a Wheel (1961)
The Italian neighborhood
This tragic story tells us several things about the "Naked City" universe. First of all, we meet the lost child who comes from a neighborhood where no one trusts the police and yet she decides to remedy her lostness by walking into the precinct. Next, we are reminded that Det. Frank Arcaro is Italian when he suddenly speaks to the little girl in Italian and she answers him in the same language.
When Det. Adam Flint returns the girl to her neighborhood, her father, Mario Lacosa, tells Flint they do not have contact with the police, as a rule, because they usually take care of their own business. This is not necessarily a neighborhood with connections to organized crime, but they do have a culture similar to the one that produced La Cosa Nostra--which seems to be why Mario's family name was chosen. When someone murders Mario's father, the watch word becomes "vendetta". Mario's younger brother, Nino, thinks that since they are in America, they should not be doing things the old way, but his community shames him into going along.
The scene where Nino accepts the vendetta is remarkably done. The scene is framed by a prior one in which Nino talks to his sister-in-law about his qualms. That scene is in English, but the one in which the men persuade Nino to go along with his brother is all in Italian. The language is so well enunciated that even though I have never studied Italian, I could follow the argument. This has partly to do with the fact that I have studied a little Latin, French and Spanish, but more to do with the fact that the prior scene with the sister-in-law established what the discussion was going to be about, and the tone and body language showed how they were arguing and pleading with each other and who finally gave in.
Naked City: A Very Cautious Boy (1961)
Peter Falk understated as villain
Peter Falk plays Lee Staunton, a man who hires himself out as an assassin. His clients want him to murder a man they say is extorting them, although we never see any evidence that this is true. Falk plays Staunton like a man who has erased himself as a human being. He is only concerned with perfecting himself as a human weapon for hire and leading a comfortable life on the proceeds. In spite of that, Falk has a great presence, and I believe this is the first time he appears as a guest star even though he had been on "Naked City" before in minor roles.
The premise is that Staunton uses karate to kill, but what we mostly see in this episode is judo. A presumably real-life judo instructor does appear on camera to explain the difference, but the rest of the production ignores his explanation.
Staunton uses scuba gear to approach his intended victim's home on the beach. There is an old joke here about how to deal with a guard dog. I was expecting more of a surprise ending, but the story ends without even making it clear that the police know who all the criminals are, although there are enough clues that we can assume that they will sort it out afterward.
Ruth White and William Hansen as Staunton's clients, the Ganoulians, are good as the real villains of the piece. After all, they hire a man to commit murder and they perhaps have other motives than the ones they claim.
Random thoughts on "A Succession..."
Not all episodes are who-dunnits but this one happens to be and is a pretty good one.
Stirling Silliphant was author of many scripts for "Naked City" and also served as story editor. Before I knew for sure that he wrote this script, I knew he wrote it because it has the characteristic traits of a Silliphant script. The philosophical meditation in the opening and closing narration along with the title is typical of his writing. So is the moral ambiguity whereby, in this case, an otherwise good person does a bad thing. Characteristically, a Silliphant story isn't immoral; rather it's just that Silliphant likes to play with the fact that, in real life, things are not always black and white, and when we get the answers to the questions that trouble us they are not always satisfying.
When Flint hands Miss Walden the gun, she holds it in the worst possible way, proving his intuition that she had never fired a pistol before and could not have been the killer who had been established as being a good shot. The thumb of her left and possibly both of her thumbs could have been injured if she had fired the gun. You can see why if you pay careful attention to the gun during the ballistic test scene.
Sure, the special effects are spectacular. In the sense that they add up to a spectacle. (As in, Stop making a spectacle of yourself.) But is that what I really want when I watch a movie? The graphic equivalent of purple prose? Xerxes looks like the Big Bad in a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" arc. I kept expecting fangs.
What really got me was the scene where the Persian emissary meets with King Leonidas and demands, "Surrender your weapons". This is a rightly famous moment in Western history, although, given the Spartans' warrior ethos, Leonidas' reply was a foregone conclusion. ("Spartan" is Greek for "Klingon".) All Leonidas said was two words: "Come take". A phrase so laconic it has ever since frightened translators who usually insist on adding words to what he said. What "300" does is worse than add words, however; it adds images, narrative. It stretches out the scene unnecessarily. Cinematically, Leonidas basically says, I will answer your question, but first I must have a flashback. Then I must overdramatize my reply instead of making it understated, which is all that is needed.
This movie lost me right there.
Resets Terms of Debate
Dinesh D'Souza's "America" sets out to disprove the view that America is the source of evil in the world, and he at least succeeds in clarifying the debate. What does it mean to say America is good or bad? Is anybody or anything all good or all bad? D'Souza definitely makes a case against the simplistic view that America is all bad.
One of his first targets is author Howard Zinn whose "People's History of the United States" is here characterized as an exercise in cherry-picking. For example, it is debatable to argue that the actions of Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors reflect on the reputation of the United States of America when they weren't even Americans. As a tonic to Zinn's view of America, D'Souza offers Alexis De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," which takes a more rounded view of America both good and bad, coming out with a qualified thumbs up.
The way the world has always worked, says D'Souza, is conquest and imperialism; yet, if anything, America has been less inclined to follow the path of conquest and imperialism than the rest of the world. America has set itself a higher ideal, explicitly declaring that things should be different. Americans live up to that ideal as often and perhaps more often than they don't.
For example, D'Souza, who narrates the movie from beginning to end, says that every other continent had slavery before America (by which he always means the U.S.) existed. What is unique about America is that Americans held the ideal that all men are created equal and many Americans realized that it conflicted with the reality of slavery; so America fought a war with itself to free the slaves. Nitpickers will point out that this was not the only reason for the Civil War, but it was the reason for so many who fought that it determined that one outcome would be the abolition of slavery.
After World War II, the most powerful country left standing was the United States. While it arguably interfered in the affairs of other countries, it did not conquer them (as did other countries such as the Soviet Union). The United States invested tremendous resources in the Viet Nam War, but while this was arguably a wrong-headed endeavor, it was never the intention of the U.S. to conquer Viet Namjust as it was never the intention of recent administrations to conquer Iraq; eventually letting them determine their own course was always in the plan. This is arguably a bad way to go about things from America's own point of view: why does this country keep liberating other countriesat great cost in blood and treasureonly to set them free? This policy works wonderfully on occasion (see Germany and Japan) but it also has been a terrible waste in some other cases. D'Souza does spend a good deal of the movie dealing with the charge that America conquered land from Native Americans and Mexico. Again, I think he has reset the terms for further debate more than demolished his opposition.
In his defense of capitalism and, more properly, the free market, D'Souza is most successful. He shows how the free market works when it is allowed to work, giving America the highest standard of living in world history. When the system is perverted, however, D'Souza does not turn a blind eye. The policies of the administration of President Barack Obama come in for a drubbing here. D'Souza already looked at the president's legacy at much greater length in his previous movie, "2016." Here he makes a memorable indictment of the motives behind the health care legislation known as Obamacare when he says that Obama made people think that it is he and the American people against the insurance companies, when it is really he and the insurance companies against the American people. (Who benefits, after all, when people are forced by law to buy health insurance?)
The movie also reenacts some historical events and portrays numerous historical figures both famous and less well-known. Don Taylor is impressive as Abraham Lincolnbetter than many other Lincoln portrayers in the scores of dramas and documentaries that have featured the president. Other reenactors are good as well, particularly Janitta Swain as African-American businesswoman Madame C. J. Walker. Josh Bonzie is a little weak as Frederick Douglass, and I am afraid that his obvious wig does not help, though that is more the fault of the make up and hair department. The real Douglass had what later would be compared to an Afro, but he didn't look quite so much like Madame Pompadour as he does here.
And how could I forget the rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Madison Rising. (See their rendition without seeing the movie at www.madisonrising.com.) Their knock-out rock version of the national anthem kept the audience in the theater during the closing credits (even if we weren't quite sure whether or not to stay in our seats).
Jersey Boys (2014)
I knew going in that Clint Eastwood was not going to do this movie as a standard musical. (The French might like the movie better this way, though the final credits do run over a musical street scene in which even Chris Walken's Godfather-type character dances in the chorus.)
At more than two hours, this movie still has to turn many of the events in the character's lives into highlighted moments. For example, the tragedy of Frankie Valli's daughter, Francine, is obviously a movie all by itself, but this movie only has time to suggest rather than explore it.
It is surprising that the movie does try to be more than just the "Frankie Valli Story," giving some attention to the other members of the group. One of the ways we get more of them than we might have is the technique of having them talk to the camera. It makes the viewer conscious of the play for a moment, but then the story--and the music--draws us back in, and we know something more than we might have otherwise.
There are other ways the movie makes us realize that it is a little bit the Tommy-Bob-and-Nick story, too. For example, we find out what it was like for Nick to room with Tommy for what he describes as a ten-year jail sentence, and I never thought I would find out Bob's story behind the song "December, 1963 (What a Lady, What a Night)" (but I never thought I needed to know).
There are delightful characters along the way such as record producer and sometime co-songwriter Bob Crewe. Walken is good as the mob boss who made sure that Valli didn't get in too much trouble. Also, while the band members do not seem to age much during the 1960s and early 1970s, the make up on their appearances in 1990 are pretty spectacular. (That is, they don't seem fake.)
Most of all, this movie uses lots of the Four Seasons' music, reminding me that even though I was never a big fan at the time, they were nevertheless the soundtrack to more of my own life than I had realized. I can remember like it was a minute ago, driving along the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire in 1962 between my father at the wheel and older brother riding shotgun and "Sherry" beaming into our car radio from WBZ in Boston.
Mad Men: In Care Of (2013)
Comedy Turned to Tragedy Part II
The only reason this episode does not get a ten is because of a few quibbles I have. It is not that the show is too subtly involved in its period. "Mad Men" can only do so much to spoon feed us what things were like in that different era. For example, when Don says that Nixon is president and all is right with the world, he is probably being a sarcastic drunk, although he is a bit all over the place in talking about different presidents. When the barroom preacher says that not one of the men Don has mentioned is or was a Godly man, it is hard to be sure which president was the sacred cow that made Don angry enough to punch the preacher (if this is the correct interpretation of the scene).
Another problem is Don's quick turnaround both in recognizing that he has an alcohol problem and that he has an identity disorder all in one episode. He doesn't solve these problems overnight, but he has a good start with the breakthroughs he makes. Don might not crash and burn after all, but we will have to wait and see.
Despite its speed, Don's nobody-saw-it-coming revelation about who he really is (he didn't reveal his name, but he told everyone who he once was anyway) was a breath-taking scene. He started out giving executives from Hershey's a false story about how he grew up middle-class and associated his Hershey's chocolate bar with the loving father who gave it to him. My eyes rolled and then he sat down. Then he tells the true story of how he grew up an orphan in a brothel and his real Hershey's memory was that a prostitute used to give him a chocolate bar for helping her rob her johns. "It was the only time I felt normal" he says about eating the chocolate. Then one of the executives says, "I don't get it. Do you want to use that in a commercial?" Comedy turned to tragedy and back to comedy. But, as in earlier episodes, the comedy is drained out of it because of the pain on display.
Don has made himself vulnerable once again, but unless he can't finally give up the bottle and unless he can't pull his career and his marriage and relationship with his kids back together, he might just make it. The final scene of this episode, of Don showing his kids the house where he grew up might be a start to repairing the tear in his relationships with them.
Pete's situation also betrays comedy mixed with tragedy. He can't get himself to stop being the prick that he is, and he and his brother prove not to be as different as they think they are. When they find out that their suspicions that Manolo murdered their mother are not being pursued by law enforcement, they are at first outraged, but then they both agree that since it would be costly to mount their own independent investigation, it is very tempting to let the matter lie. They are both funny and vile but it is tragic for poor Mrs. Campbell--unless she turns up next season, alive and happy. Then it will be comedy again. But her sons will still be vile.
Comedy Turned to Tragedy Part I
Don should be headed for self-destruction, but he is a survivor. No one can throw anything at him that he can't survive, and yet he is his own worst enemy; he might yet throw himself a blow he can't survive.
Here, Don's good impulse to help his neighbor's son--after having coveted (and more) his neighbor's wife--ends up looking less than virtuous when his daughter, Sally, walks in on him with Sylvia Rosen, the neighbor's wife and mother of the boy he has helped.
Don desperately wants Sally to believe him when he tells her that what she saw wasn't what she saw. "Mrs. Rosen was very upset and I was trying to comfort her." In a comedy, Sally would retort that that must be why the two of them were half naked, but this is not comedy: the comedy is drained from the situation by the pain of both Sally and Don. Sally through no fault of her own. (Don never asks what Sally was doing in Mrs. Rosen's apartment; that is irrelevant at this point.) Don's inability to face the fact that Sally is too old to buy his outrageous cover story is more pathetic than funny.
The scene where the boy and his father come to thank Don for his help is full of tension as Don's opportunity to play the hero is thwarted by the fact that Sally, sitting there as audience, knows that Don is less than a hero. And Don knows it too. His moment of triumph in the eyes of most people in the room is one of humiliation in his own and Sally's.
Heaven Is for Real (2014)
Something to make you go "Hmmm"
Other than missing the framing device (part of the plot structure), you won't miss much if you come a half hour late to this movie. The first half hour introduces us to Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) who wears many hats in his little community of Imperial, Nebraska: repairmanapparently specializing in garage door openers, volunteer fireman, high school wrestling coach, amateur baseball player, andoh, yespastor of a church. This establishes that Burpo is a middle class hero, only half a step ahead of his creditors and benefiting only because his forgiving banker (played by Thomas Haden Church) is both his parishioner and a member of the church board that hired himand could also fire him. (Call that a mixed blessing.) His wife, Sonja (Kelly Reilly); daughter, Cassie (Lane Styles); and son, Colton (Connor Corum), are almost equally active in the community. (The performances are very good, notably by Corum in his pivotal role.) Far from finances being his only woe, Todd is also hit with a series of health problems that keep him from his work.
Despite these struggles, the family decides to take a pleasure trip to Colorado. (If you start in Imperial and drive west for half an hour, you'll hit Colorado; Denver, however, is about three hours away.) While there, four-year-old Colton becomes seriously ill. Leading, at last, to the reason why we have been offered this story. Although it is pointed out that Colton is never "clinically dead" during the operation that saves his life, he nevertheless awakens with a story about visiting heaven, which comes out in dribs and drabs because, to Colton, it must not seem remarkable enough to blurt it out all at once.
At first, his parents are amused, but then they begin to question their own faith as they confront Colton's innocence and sincerity about his experience, which keeps pouring out with a new twist every day or so: he not only went to heaven where he heard and saw angels and Jesus on a rainbow-colored horse, but he sat on Jesus' lap. He had an out-of-body experience in the OR during which he saw his mother making calls to ask friends for their prayers and his father angrily confronting God in the hospital's chapel. He met a sister who had "died in Mommy's tummy" years ago even though he had never been told about his mother's miscarriage. Believing in visions within a scriptural tradition is one thing; meeting a person who has had a religious vision is anotherespecially when that person is your own four-year-old son.
The movie admits the possibility of non-supernatural explanations. When Colton talks about meeting Jesus, he says the Savior has greenish-blue eyes. When Todd describes this revelation to Sonja she suggests that Colton derived the blended eye color from the fact that her eyes are green and Todd's eyes are blue. "A child gets his image of God from his father" or, in this case, from both parents. It is interesting, though, that at the end of the movie, Colton sees a painting of Jesus (the other end of the framing device since we see this painting being started at the start of the film), and he exclaims, "That's him" even though the face in the painting has blue eyes, not blue-green; but maybe the painting so well represents all the other features of the Jesus he has envisioned that quibbling over eye color would just be picky.
A professional (or professor?) played by Nancy Sorel, whom Todd consults dismisses the out-of-body aspect by suggesting that Colton could easily imagine his mother calling people or his father praying in the chapel. But Todd hates to admit that he expressed anger at God in the chapel and that this is what his son reported seeing. It is clearly a conflict for Toddand many other clergy-peoplethat he is both an ordinary human being who would hate to have his son taken from him and, at the same time, a man of the cloth who is "supposed" to accept what God givesand takes. At the same time, this is also a remarkable detail of Colton's story because, yes, a little boy might imagine his pastor father praying in church, but would he likely imagine him railing against the Deity? Todd's reluctance to reject Colton's vision outright causes further trouble when some of his parishioners reject it and the board of the church seriously considers firing Todd as the pastor.
Todd's relationship with a board member played by Margo Martindale becomes key in resolving these issues, but also exposes the nature of people's objections to Colton's vision not only in the story but, very likely, in the audience: Is Colton's vision too simplistic? Some critic has complained that it appears too much like a child's version of heaven. Well, Colton IS a child. (The real-life Colton is now a teen, arguably still a child.) I would not necessarily expect him to see complex or scary versions of the afterlife like those portrayed in the movies "What Dreams May Come" (1998) or "Astral City" (2010; aka "Our Home: The Astral City", directed by Wagner De Assis).
It does not come down to whether Colton really went to some "place" that we call heaven or whether the historical Jesus would more likely have been swarthy and dark-eyed rather than blue-eyed. It is a matter of how powerful Colton's vision was for himthat he believed it and that it felt comforting to him. (In stark contrast to the far more stressful feelings he saw his parents expressing during his vision.) Some skeptical historians of Christianity take the view that it is not a question for historians whether Peter, Paul or Mary Magdalene ACTUALLY saw the risen Jesus, but whether they each BELIEVED that they saw him. By that accounting, Colton Burpo is in good company.
Best episode of the season so far
I'm way behind in watching this series. But so far this is my favorite episode of season six. I liked the way they juxtaposed songs from the late sixties and from the late thirties (for the flashbacks). Some episodes have used too many movie songs ("You Only Live Twice" in a prior episode, for example). This episode used some sixties' pop songs I had forgotten about, but, having lived through the period, I remember them.
The memory Don had explained a lot about him. He remembered adult women being mean to him, then the one time a woman was kind to him, she turned around and betrayed him (arguably twice). He was brought up in a brothel by people who thought he should not be affected by that. Huh?
Don later remarks, "Every time we work for a car company, this place turns into a brothel." Made complete sense on several levels, including a reference to how Joan became a partner by sleeping with the piggish Jaguar dealer. (The positive side of Don's ambivalence toward women: He was the only man who behaved decently toward Joan when that happened.)
This also made clearer why Don can't get over his wife being an actress who has to pretend to be intimate with other men. Still, it's hard to square Don's "open-mindedness" about many things with his inability to come to grips with his double standard. (It's OK--even necessary--for him to REALLY cheat on his wife, but its not OK for her to PRETEND to be with other men on a soap opera.)
The whole, Dr. Feelgood and his magic syringe bit was bizarre. Hard to believe, but I know it happened. All I could think about when he said, "Oh, it contains some vitamins and other things" was Hitler's private physician who shot the already mad dictator with crazy juice and also claimed that it contained "vitamins".
I gathered that, under the influence, Don spent the whole weekend working on the wrong campaign; proof, if anyone needed it, that drugs don't always help.