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BTW, IMHO, the approximate percentages of reasonably good (including great) episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are, by season (that’s “series” to those across the Pond): First season, 90 percent; second season, 90 percent; third season, 90 percent; fourth season, 75 percent; fifth season, 50 percent; sixth season, less than 25 percent (generously); Seventh season – well, the seventh season only exists to make the sixth season look good.
WARNING: There will be spoilers!
A Gentle, Satisfying Slice of Life
A week in the life of a young bus driver-poet named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey (director Jim Jarmusch must enjoy this conceit), is the focus of this gentle drama. While it begins slowly, things do happen, and, ultimately, it all pays off. Everything about the movie is gentle, from the humor to the little bit of violence. (I know that might seem unlikely.)
Jarmusch telegraphs a lot of the plot points, but at least there is a plot to anticipate. For examples, I knew that Everett was going to do something crazy before he did it. (Hasn't Paterson just asked Marie whether or not Everett might do something crazy?) And I knew that Marvin was going to do something crazy, too, before he did it. (Hasn't the camera shown the glint in Marvin's eye before Paterson and his lovely wife, Laura, go out to dinner and a movie? And hasn't Laura spent much of the movie warning Paterson to take precautions?)
Paterson, played by Adam Driver, is a mild-mannered guy. His routine could be described as dull. It is almost the same every weekday, but the nature of life is that at least one interesting occurrence is bound to break up the daily routine, and that happens here. A nice touch is the series of overheard conversations among bus patrons. A brief conversation can tell a lot about people. And a recurring gag is that after Laura tells Paterson that she dreamed about having twins (the young couple is childless), Paterson keeps seeing twins of various ages throughout the rest of the movie.
Paterson wakes up every day, kisses Laura, eats breakfast, walks to work, drives his route, writes poems in his notebook, then goes home. Every evening, he finds his mailbox post leaning, and he straightens it up. The next evening he repeats this ritual. (Finally, we find out what has been making the box lean over.)
After dinner, Paterson always takes his dog for a walk, but this is really an excuse to go to the local watering hole where he knows Doc, the bartender. Doc has a wall dedicated to famous people from Paterson, including the twentieth century comedian Lou Costello, whom Doc and Paterson agree is probably the most famous of the many famous Patersonians.
"I wonder where his partner, Bud Abbott, was from?" muses Paterson.
"He was from New Jersey, too," replies Doc. "Ashbury Park. Born 1895."
Doc seems to know everything. He is also looking forward to a chess tournament over the weekend.
"I'm getting my ass kicked," Doc says as he moves a chess piece on a board sitting on the bar.
"Who are you playing?" asks Paterson after a look around.
"Myself," says Doc.
Few movies are made about poets, especially not about the undiscovered ones. Paterson narrates little poems on his way to work, and he writes them in his notebook, before he starts his bus and on his lunch break. (Jarmush got real-life poet Ron Padgett to provide all but one of the poems used in the movie; Jarmusch himself wrote the poem, "Water Falls".) Paterson also writes at a bench in his basement. His books, lined up on the bench, show his taste in poetry. Wallace Stevens and, of course, William Carlos Williams, a Paterson resident. These poets have something in common with Paterson in that they, too, had day jobs. Stevens was an insurance executive, and Williams was a medical doctor. Paterson also has a slim volume by Ron Padgett.
Paterson adores Laura and supports her, even though he may not fully understand all of her eccentric ideas. She is always painting things black and white, including walls, curtains and clothing. (Paterson checks to make sure the paint is dry.) She wants to buy an expensive guitar (a black and white Harlequin, natch) and dreams of becoming a Nashville star. She also thinks she could parlay her baking skills into a cupcake business. She creates a brussel sprout and cheddar cheese pie for dinner. Paterson may have his doubts about some of these things (I think he is less than thrilled about the expensive guitar), but he is supportive in all cases, just as Laura supports his poetry. He also always asks workmates and strangers how they are and seems to be genuinely interested. He looks out for a ten-year- old who has been left alone, and he seems unafraid when a gang- banger questions him on the street. A photo in his home appears to be of him in a U.S. Marine uniform, but nothing is ever said about this. One suspects that that might represent the only time he ever left Paterson.
Although it seems as if nothing is happening at first, things do, and, if you give this movie a chance, you might be rewarded.
Men Go to Battle (2015)
Worth Seeing, But Much Work for the Reward
"Men Go to Battle" (a somewhat misleading title) has its charms. The party at the Smalls' house vividly displays the similarities and differences between life then and now. (The research into detail will appeal to the history buff; although, this is not to say that every single detail is perfect because you can't expect perfection.) The plot points involving the Mellon brothers' competing ideas about how to run the farm and their sub-textual rivalry over Betsy Small (Rachel Korine) are compelling when reviewed in the end. Everything that happens leads up to a resolution of the brothers' relationship. We do not know what becomes of them after the movie ends, but we know that some things must be permanent.
Apparently, the movie achieved its economical budget ($500K) by using Civil War re-enactors to make the several military scenes. (They have their own costumes and gear, after all.) The war is far from glamorized. It is boring much of the time and parasitic on the civilians except when it isn't, and you never know which it is going to be and then, suddenly, there is death.
The story-telling is slow paced. The camera work is detached, static, ponderous, and often disorienting. When there are long shots often starkly beautiful establishing shots they are so static that they might as well have been taken with a still camera, but there are too many close ups and it is often too dark. The lighting appears to be entirely natural or at least imitates natural lighting. This is not a problem in daylight, but there are many scenes at night in which the actors seem to disappear into and reappear out of an inky blackness. What is going on? A second viewing does not clear matters up in every case. (Were the filmmakers too pure to use day-for-night filter technique to control lighting in night scenes?)
The dialogue is an odd mixture of the boringly pedestrian with sudden bursts of spontaneity. Consider a scene between Henry Mellon (Timothy Morton) and Betsy Small on her porch. There hasn't been a real conversation between a man and a woman up to this point. (Arguably, there still hasn't been afterward.) There is a party going on in the house, but, as it happens, Henry and Betsy both feel alienated from the frivolity, albeit for different reasons. There is a very long dialogue between them about the weather. It definitely has a subtext, which is interesting, but the bare text of the exchange is numbingly boring. (I am reminded of the late Judith Christ's observation that a movie that is about boredom is inevitably going to be boring.) The subtext almost earns this movie its mischaracterization as a comedy, but only if you do not fall asleep or gnaw your own leg off before the payoff.
A scene that illustrates the detachment of the camera and sound work occurs about halfway through the movie. Francis Mellon (David Maloney), Henry's brother, is in the general store buying supplies. There is a conversation between a clerk, whose counter is near the front window, and some Union soldiers who keep demanding tobacco even after the clerk has explained that he has no tobacco to sell them and knows no one else who has any. (The soldiers overhear Francis ask for some tobacco seed, and one of the soldiers comments, "You can't smoke that.") Francis then walks out of the store, but the camera remains inside, only showing Francis through the window. In the foreground, we continue to focus on the long-since pointless dialogue between the tobacco-jonesing soldiers and their dried up source. Suddenly, we become aware that Francis has said something to two soldiers passing on the street and one of them punches Francis, sending him to the ground. Only on second viewing do we hear the faint dialogue: Francis addressed the soldiers as "ladies", they took offense, and he got hit. Why is this in the background instead of in the fore?
I am glad I saw this movie, but I would not recommend it if you just want an enjoyable adventure that won't make work.
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Thriller from a more innocent time
"In the Line of Fire" is a taut thriller, featuring performances by two different types of great actors.
Clint Eastwood is the seasoned star of action vehicles, working his screen image in a way that makes it seem impossible that anyone else could have played crusty Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan. (Yet several other actors were considered for the part before him, including Robert Redford.) Eastwood, who is now in his late 80s, was a virile 63 when this picture was released, and still believable as the love interest of younger co-star Rene Russo.
The biggest plot hole if one can call it that is that everybody wants Frank off the case because he is, as his boss says, "too old for this sh*t". Even his girlfriend seems only to want to keep him around because she feels sorry for him. Nobody except for the wiretapping technicians seems to recognize the fact that since the self- proclaimed assassin keeps calling Frank, his presence somewhere in the vicinity is indispensable to protecting the president.
In one of his more accessible and memorable screen performances, veteran actor John Malkovich plays Mitch, a villain whose intensity makes you believe he is capable of anything. Although he has been in over sixty movies and TV productions, most moviegoers have probably seen Malkovich rarely, usually in supporting or even cameo roles. He is almost anonymous despite having appeared in such popular movies as "Con Air" (1997) and the eponymous cult film "Being John Malkovich" (1999).
There is a scene in which Mitch meets two hunters who see too much, and right before he kills them Mitch confesses that he plans to assassinate the president. "Why would you want to do that?" asks one of the hunters in stunned horror. It does not matter what these men think of the president, who is portrayed as a vapid chameleon. This movie belongs to a quaint time when the idea of assassinating any president of the United States struck the overwhelming majority of Americans as plain wrong even if you thought the occupant of the White House was an execrable son of a bitch.
Better than if entitled "Turley"
The Western genre seemed dead, but then Lawrence Kasden and his brother, Mark, came up with this homage to the traditional, grand stories they probably watched together on Saturday afternoons when they were kids.
Here are all the clichés, but done with panache and a sprinkle of humor. You have an opening gunfight, the stranger rescued after robbers left him to die. You've got frontier towns rising no more than a couple of ramshackle stories from the arid, rocky expanse of New Mexico (where the entire picture was filmed).
There are stampeding cattle, saloons filled with hard-drinking trail-riders, cowboys jumping on their horses from roofs (cowboys who know and love their horses more than their women), a couple of love interests that waste the talents of some decent actresses (but a strong performance by Linda Hunt as the "Miss Kitty"-type character, Stella, who runs the local saloon), and you've got several deliciously quirky villains played by the likes of Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, James Gammon and Jeff Fahey.
You have all of these bad guys doing things to other people that they shouldn't oughta do, from shooting an old man to kidnapping a little boy to threatening women. And you have big gun battles as the team of four unlikely heroes rescue the hostages with clever ploys that make up for the fact that the heroes are always outnumbered by the villains' henchmen.
You have the final, high-stakes showdown between the chief hero and chief villain that is dramatically promised from the first twenty minutes of this rather long movie, following which, all is put right so that the four heroes can go off in different directions to meet their destinies (except that one always stays because now he belongs to the town he saved). And it is fortunate that of the two towns mentioned in the script, Turley (a relatively civilized town controlled by an only mildly corrupt sheriff - an Englishman played by John Cleese who admits he is "not from these parts") and Silverado (a wild town controlled by an extremely corrupt sheriff), the movie was not named for "Turley". Wouldn't have been as romantic a title.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Slow at first but gets more interesting
I found the initial pace of this movie painfully slow. But by the end I felt much more involved. I got to care about the characters, especially Patrick who is virtually orphaned and frustrated that his Uncle Lee does not want to be his guardian. Lee is hard to take because he is so estranged from the world. We eventually find out why.
Lee has been damaged by an enormous sense of responsibility and guilt for the ruin of his life, marriage and family. Aside from the slow pace, the telling of the story out of chronological order - with very little in the way of clues when we have gone back in time - makes this movie difficult to follow, especially for young children who, in any case, would not enjoy the movie's focus on death and tragedy.
As I became more interested in understanding Patrick's predicament and Lee's difficulty in providing his nephew with what he needs, I understood the appeal of this movie for some. It is a deep and troubling psychological exploration of the debilitating effects of guilt.
Lee has a pathological need to get into bar fights. We come to understand that this is a way of punishing himself. It is interesting that in the big city, everyone blames him for starting these fights, but when he goes back to his home town, at least the bartender who is a family friend, tries to prevent Lee from getting too badly beaten and then takes Lee home where his wife bandages and comforts Lee.
Meanwhile, Patrick goes to visit his estranged mother, but finds that she is as nervous if not more so than he is. She is so upset by his visit that her new husband, Jeff, sends Patrick an off-putting email in which he suggests Patrick no longer contact his mother directly but only go through Jeff. Clearly, any idea of Patrick moving in with his mother is dashed.
Finally, Lee works out a compromise that will keep Patrick's familial and financial options as open as possible while minimizing but not completely eliminating his own responsibility for Patrick.
In the end - after nearly two hours and twenty minutes - Lee is far from creating perfect solutions to his own or anyone else's problems. Most disappointing of all, he cannot resolve the crushing guilt that keeps him from accepting his ex-wife's forgiveness or helping Patrick in the way that Patrick would like him to; Lee remains a damaged person. This may be frustrating for the audience at the same time that it is realistic.
A seasoned psychotherapist once told me that people don't so much overcome their problems as, at best, find a way to go around them. This is the best that Lee is able to do, but in doing so he does show more compassion for himself and his nephew than he showed for anyone at the beginning of the story.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Not a big superhero fan gives a big thumbs up
"I am both frightened and aroused," says Sameer after Wonder Woman tosses a gun-wielding bully across the floor of the pub where she has been introduced to Sameer and other allies by her main ally, Steve Trevor.
I am not a big fan of super-hero movies, but this one has remarkable acting, writing, direction as well as impressive sets and costumes. (It is set during World War I.)
The opening scenes are richly imaginative as they take place on the mystical island where the Amazons live and where Diana (Wonder Woman) has been raised. The world of young Diana is sun-drenched and Greek-ified and establishes the mythological universe that informs Wonder Woman and all that she does for the rest of the movie.
After Steve Trevor is chased into the island's airspace and has to be rescued from his Imperial German pursuers by Diana and all of the Amazons, more and more of the world of (circa) 1918 is evoked. Diana goes with him back to Europe and becomes Wonder Woman as she battles the German Army and a fancifully villainous version of General Erich Ludendorff, one of the chief leaders of Germany during the war. (Though he would go on - historically speaking - to be largely responsible for introducing a nobody named Adolf Hitler to many of the influential people who helped the future dictator in his rise to power.)
There are formulaic action scenes that get Wonder Woman and her band of allies into and out of all kinds of predictable trouble. These are well-done dramatically with the help of bold special effects.
Most of all, the casting is terrific with the breath-taking Gal Gadot, as the title character, holding up the movie in all of her many scenes.
There is good chemistry between her and co-star Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. Their band of allies are entertainingly quirky if often ineffectual.
The most grievous fault is that the villains are too numerous and their villainy too spread out among them, and the Big Bad is only introduced at the very end. Almost anticlimactically.
The battle tactics of the Amazons are inexplicably poor. I am reminded of the titular protagonists in "13 Assassins" (2010) who shoot arrows from the roof at their enemies below until they voluntarily stop and jump down into their enemies' midst because their samurai pride won't allow them to take advantage of anything better than ten to one odds. In "Wonder Woman", no explanation is given for the Amazons giving up their similar but greater high-ground advantage over the Germans in the first battle sequence of the movie.
I found most of the humor organic, not strained, and the preachiness that some talk about was really kept to a minimum. (Native American grievances are alluded to and Wonder Woman recognizes that the Germans did not start the war alone. As presented, though, these things are acknowledged even by many conservative historians.)
When Trevor's secretary describes her obedience in her duties, Wonder Woman says, "Where I come from that is called slavery". But this is funny, and, otherwise, Wonder Woman takes the advice of her allies in fitting into a "patriarchal" society.
A big, fun, escapist movie with some vivid touches of realism for atmosphere. I particularly liked the scene where Wonder Woman, the super-hero and goddess, rises above the historically accurate portrayal of the stalemate along the Western Front to march across No-Man's Land. (Though maybe there were too many trees and not enough barbed wire. The trees were dead and short but should have been non-existent due to frequent barrages.) She single-handedly defeats the German defenders, inspiring not only her band of allies but most of a British regiment to follow her. (If such a miraculous, un-ordered and unplanned attack had the faintest chance of working, it would have been because the higher-ups did not spoil it with a preliminary artillery barrage, which always tended to warn the enemy you were coming and tore up No Man's Land in ways that made it more, not less, impassable).
Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
Fanciful account of Heydrich assassination makes satisfying drama
"Hangmen Also Die!" was made during World War II about an eventthe assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia that had taken place only the year before the movie's release. So close to the event, and with the facts still classified, the filmmakers felt entirely free to make up their own version of what occurred. Since that time, at least three films about this assassination have been made, all more or less telling the same story as each other, which is very different from the one told here.
The filmmakers here were the great director Fritz Lang, the scenarist Bertolt Brecht, the cinematographer James Wong Howe, and a good cast including Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan (unusually but effectively cast as a Czech professor) and Anna Lee. The story is intricately plotted, suspenseful and inspiring if fanciful.
The first surprise is that, unlike later versions, this film skips over the assassination itself, opening with a scene showing Heydrich's (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) crueltyhe intends to execute 500 factory workers for poor production numbersbut then jumps to several minutes after the assassination. I had to wonder whether a reel was missing (even though this version was beautifully restored in 2012), but the film deliberately deals primarily with the aftermath of the assassination.
It is a story about collaboration versus resistance to a foreign invader. The Czech underground is behind the assassination but is infiltrated by a collaborator. The Nazis round up people they will execute every day at firstand later twelve times a dayuntil the Czech's betray the assassin. In a fine scene, the assassin, Dr. Svoboda (Donlevy), tells the leader of the underground, Dedic (Jonathan Hale), that he wants to turn himself in to save the hundreds of men who will be executed, but Dedic presents the argument that, since Svoboda was chosen as the assassin to represent the Czech people, if he turns himself in, it is as if he surrenders the whole country to the Nazis.
Meanwhile, Gruber (Alexander Granach), the Gestapo Inspector in charge of the investigation, cleverly closes in on the conspirators, even seeing through the smoke screens that they throw up for his benefit. The outcome is nevertheless more hopeful than the historical record.
The tame movie conventions of portraying Nazi atrocities were still uninformed by reality in 1943. More people were more relentlessly slaughtered in retaliation for Heydrich's assassination than this film shows. For that matter, when members of the underground suffocate a Nazi under a pile of towels, it takes no time at all. This probably seemed horrible enough to 1940s moviegoers, whereas, if anything, today's movies might be more apt to exaggerate how long it takes to smother someone.
Despite being made after Hollywood established its morality code, the movie toys with the notion of sex outside of marriage even though it is only part of a ruse to fool the Gestapo. Also, some characters are clearly meant to be prostitutes.
The message of this film is that Czech patriots can mount their resistance without any outside help. The only nod to historical fact is that the assassin's pistol is British-made, but we are not told how the homegrown resistance came by it. In reality, all of the weapons used by the assassins were British. There was not a lone assassin, and all of the assassination team members were Czechs who had been living in exile in Britain and had to be parachuted back into Czechoslovakia. Contrary to this movie, Heydrich was not killed by bullets from a gun but died as a result of a grenade that landed behind his car seat and propelled horsehair upholstery, along with shrapnel, into his back. He suffered in agony until doctors were able to give him painkillers, but, without antibiotics, even Hitler's personal surgeon was unable to save him.
Like a less funny version of "To Be or Not to Be," this cleverly plotted and beautifully photographed thriller works better dramatically than the true story. Well worth seeing, even if its history must be taken with a large grain of salt.
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 of the 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.