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At the end of World War II, the Japanese surrendered to whatever Allied leader was close at hand. In North Korea, it happened to be a communist named Kim. In South Korea it was Sigman Rhee. Both men had visions of "uniting the peninsula" under their own dictatorships and were eager to go to war with one another. Realizing this, President Truman refused to equip the Republic of Korea with heavy arms. Stalin made the mistake of arming Kim and in 1950 Kim invaded South Korea. There followed a see-saw battle which ended up with General Douglas MacArthur commanding Marines, soldiers, and some UN troops at the dividing line between North and South, the 38th parallel. The North Korean Army was in full flight.
MacArthur's original idea had been to reestablish the original border at the 38th parallel. But his recent advances had been so successful and easy that he concluded we might as well kick the North Korean Army off the peninsula entirely, right over into Manchuria. With that in mind, he invaded the north. The rest of the UN commanders weren't quite so optimistic. What about the Chinese, who backed the North Korean communists and were worried not only about the border with the USSR but even moreso about MacArthur. Truman was worried about the Chinese too. Not that he LIKED the Chinese communists. In his pronouncements he began by calling them "Chinese," then "the yellow peril," and finally "Chinks." The Brits and other UN troops stopped to consolidate and resupply but MacArthur's Americans sailed blithely by them in trucks, waving and laughing. Still, MacArthur brushed off the threat of Chinese intervention, although there were reports of Chinese troops massing in Manchuria, on the other side of the Yalu River which formed the border between Manchuria and North Korea. MacArthur held them in disdain, a ragtag army made up of peasants. He assured Truman they would never pit themselves against a well-equipped modern army. Late in World War II, the Japanese would call these convictions "the victory disease." It had all been so easy at the beginning, so why shouldn't it remain so? Back home, MacArthur was a hero. Not so to the Chinese leader, Mao Dz Dung. From Mao's point of view, it was the same as if a communist army had landed in Mexico and began pushing north towards the American Southwest, rolling up capitalist forces as it went. Mao carefully infiltrated Chinese troops across the border into Korea. Their movements went undetected. They secretly occupied the mountains surrounding the single dirt road the Americans were traveling on. They hit hard and then withdrew according to plan, luring MacArthur farther into the hinterlands of the north, stretching his supply lines and thinning his ranks along the road. They repeated the tactic almost all the way to the Yalu River. Despite all reports to the contrary, to MacArthur the Chinese were only a handful of volunteers.
When the Chinese forces finally attacked the American spearhead, the Americans found themselves surrounded on all sides. Sixty thousand Chinese engaged General Oliver Smith's loosely organized Marines and GIs at the Chosin Reservoir. Smith had been doubtful of MacArthur's headlong rush towards the Yalu and now worried that the entire First Marines might be wiped out. Smith's headquarters were in the village of Haga-Ru at the southern end of the line. He turned his cooks, bakers, and clerks into riflemen. The combat was brutal. Enemies were sometimes no more than a few yards from one another and at times it was mano a mano. The Chinese withdrew at dawn to their daytime hiding places and Smith called for reenforcements from the south. A number of American troops, British commandos, trucks, tanks, and supplies were sent but were badly chewed up by the Chinese, who now surrounded just about everything. Fewer than half the reenforcements reached Smith at Hagaru. The extreme cold added to the misery. Nobody could build a fire or dig a fox hole. The cold was so intense that some of the wounded survived only because the blood from their wounds froze and stopped the hemorrhaging. Men stacked frozen Chinese corpses to provide shelter from the wind and from enemy fire.
Permission was given to the Marines and soldiers to withdraw from the Chosin Reservoir, which they did. But the only place of safety for anyone, from General Smith on down, was the port of Hungnam, protected by naval guns, but it was seventy-eight miles away on a single-lane road flanked on both sides by mountains.
Fourteen thousand men began the march. It was one obstacle after another: snipers, fire fights, blown bridges that had to be rebuilt, and ultimate exhaustion. The journey was an epic struggle, perhaps made successful only by forceful and extremely low, Allied close air support that dropped napalm and bombs on Chinese positions. The Chinese were hardly better off. They weren't clothed properly for winter and wore sneakers (trainers). Half the vast horde of Chinese that faced the First Marines were casualties either of enemy fire or the weather, because the temperature could drop to thirty below zero at night and rarely rose above zero even on sunny days.
The program is almost all in black and white and shows still photos, combat footage, and survivors comments in almost equal measure. It's one of the most evocative and saddening documentaries on the misery of battle that I've watched.
This Woman Has Stones.
Man, does this sound like a loser -- a woman tends her unconscious husband at home and heaps all of her grief and sorrow on the poor guy's insensible bald head. A Lifetime Movie Network special, right? But no! I was caught up in it at once and couldn't break away. The wife is in her mid-thirties and, while by no means glamorized, has attractive features, striking. Somebody should paint her portrait.
But nobody will because she, her older husband, and their two little girls live in a shabby apartment in some unnamed city in the Middle East. They depend on a water bearer, who may or may not show up because the dusty streets are dangerous, what with the militia on one side and the rebels on the other. They have no electricity either and live by lamplight at night, when they dare turn it on at all.
If she goes out, she wears a mustard-colored burqa, which had always impressed me as a heavy garment made of something like canvas but is actually a thin, silken, all-around cape that's easily slipped back onto the shoulders. The woman has few friends -- one of her neighbors has gone round the bend because the men of her house have been slaughtered and hung upside down -- and her only relative is an older aunt who runs a whorehouse. There is a Mullah who knocks at the gate from time to time but he's extremely demanding and his predictions are wrong, so she turns him away.
After the first two or three minutes, it lost any resemblance to a Lifetime Movie Network special. When the rebels (or the militia, I couldn't tell which) break into her apartment, she hides the wounded husband in a cubby hole to keep him from being killed. When the two armed and ugly men begin to take an interest in her she lies and claims to be one of her aunt's prostitutes, which disgusts the men to the extent that they leave her impure body alone. Well, except that the younger of the two -- an inexperience young man with a stutter -- returns later, flings a handful of bills on the floor, throws her down among them, pulls off their hampering undergarments, and achieves intromission and ejaculation at almost the same instant. "Is this your first time?", she asks wonderingly, and he nods.
Thereafter he appears with some regularity desiring her services. He even secretly leaves a small bandanna-wrapped pile of food on their window sill. He's gotten to kind of like her, despite her professed profession. She rather appreciates his coming too -- not just for the money, which buys them food and water, but because he's so shy and inexperienced that she can guide him in foreplay and tell him what to do to give her pleasure. She begins to groom herself more carefully and, anticipating his arrival, she dresses in becoming clothes instead of her usual rags.
That brings us back to the balding husband, flat on his back, a bullet in his neck, the result of a personal quarrel. She's keeping him alive through a tube running from a drip sack nailed to the wall -- just water and sugar. And just how did hubby treat her, even since he married her when she was fifteen? Like an animal. The more beans she spills, the more we realize how complicated, how adversarial, their relationship was. He'd never kissed her or fondled her. The woman's job was to produce children. After the first months of their marriage, his family began to think she was sterile, when in fact it was he who was shooting blanks. Consequently, she allowed herself to be secretly impregnated by two other men.
The title, "The Patience Stone," refers to a legend in which a character confesses all her grief to a stone and when the stone finally shatters, she's freed of all her guilt and sorrow. It plays into the movie's climactic scene, which I won't describe.
The acting is as good as it is in any Hollywood movie, the setting is evocative, and all the elements fit together properly. It's pretty well done. You're not likely to be bored.
But I have to add two observations. The voices tell me to do it. I know two anthropologists who have done field work in Middle Eastern cultures. One told me that she'd met a middle-aged lady who had never had a period because she was constantly made pregnant by her husband. Another told me that the burqa is not a particularly good way of hiding a woman's beauty from the boys on the street corners, who sometimes whistled when a woman wearing a tent passed by. They muttered, "Wow -- look at those FEET!" And why not? The feet are the windows of the soul. So it is written.
Disaster at Sea.
HMS Hood, a British battleship, was the pride of the Navy. It had been launched in 1918 and had seen no combat but had sailed around to British colonies showing the flag for twenty years, a public icon. She was old but powerful and efficient and carried a symbolic charge. The Hood's chief weakness was her deck armor. There was plenty of steel around her hull, useful in containing damage from torpedoes or flat fire. But over the years naval weaponry had evolved.
Unlike the pirate ships of the movies, ships no longer had to be close to each other to do damage. Shells could be fired from miles away. This took the shells into a high trajectory so when they reached the target they were coming down at an extreme angle. This was called "plunging fire" and made the decks vulnerable. Realizing this, the British halted the Hood's construction midway and armored the forward part of her deck. The armor wasn't extended aft for fear of cutting down the ship's speed with the extra weight.
The German battleship, KMS Bismark, was newer, launched in 1939, and was the most powerful warship afloat at the time, along with her sister ship, Tirpitz. But the Bismark was more than just an instrument of war. It was beautiful in its lines and overall design. Bismark looked as if she had been built by an architect who happened also to be an engineer. She carried eight 15-inch guns that fired a shell weighing nearly half a ton at almost twice the speed of sound. She also had superior optical instruments and fire control.
Bismark slipped out of port and into the north Atlantic, a major threat to the convoys from North America that were quite literally Britain's lifeline. Bismark and the heavy cruiser, Prince Eugen, were spotted and pursued by Hood and the new, untried battleship, Prince of Wales. Hood's Captain Holland knew about the problem with his weak deck armor and, finally catching up to the enemy, proceeded at flank speed to close the range and avoid plunging fire.
But now the problem was that since Hood and Prince of Wales were heading directly for the target, only their forward guns could be used, while Bismark was able to fire broadsides with all of her guns. This and other details were omitted from the popular British feature film, "Sink the Bismark." Holland had almost reached the point at which he was safe enough from plunging fire to turn broadside and engage all of his guns, but he began the turn a few seconds too late.
The Bismark fired a salvo that had to travel about ten miles and did so in only thirty seconds. One of the shells apparently struck the underarmored rear deck covering the magazines. The Hood blew up with a tremendous explosion, began to sink immediately, and took almost all her crew with her. There were three survivors, only one now left alive, Ted Briggs.
It's an epic story, filled with tragedy and eventual triumph. It's periodically interrupted by one of those "discovery" expeditions that the Titanic was subjected to a few years ago. I suppose if you're an experienced oceanographer you know what you're looking at and are thrilled by it. To at least one viewer, namely me, they all look pretty much the same, like some moss-hung haunted mansion in Louisiana after it has been blitzed by the Civil War.
The first half of the film is mostly narrated historical newsreel and combat footage. There are reenactors and some workable visual effects. The last twenty minutes are touching but a little out of synch with the story itself. The expensive project was funded by Britain's Channel 4. It's not bad.
We Own the Night (2007)
A Prodigal Son Comes Home.
Joaquin Phoenix is the ambitious night club owner who befriends all sorts of characters, some shady. His brother, Mark Wahlberg, is a principled captain in the NYPD, and their father, Robert Duval, is an even higher echelon type of cop -- Deputy Commissioner or Chief Executive Assistant Deputy of Commissioners and Non-Commissioners, or something. His beribboned uniform indicates that if he were in the Army he'd be a brigadier general, and in the Navy, a commodore except that the Navy no longer has such a rank. Naturally, Pop is prouder of his son the police officer, coming as he does from the kind of family that believes the fetus isn't viable until it graduates from the police academy.
Brother is pitted against brother but not for long. The heavies are all Russians. When a big time drug dealer, a really slimy type that wears his hair in an exotic do and never blinks, played by the Ukranian Alex Veadov, approaches Phoenix with an offer to sample his product and then spread the word about its quality among his night club patrons, Phoenix spills the beans at once to the cops. Phoenix is drafted as a conditional member of the NYPD and wears a wire to a meeting with Veadov. His true allegiance is uncovered by the heavily armed Russians and a shoot out follows.
There are other shoot outs, betrayals, and romantic squabbles in which Phoenix's girl friend objects to his becoming a police officer for the same reason that every other cop's girl friend in every other cop or military movie has objected to her man's job. The lines usually come out something like, "How do you think I feel, waiting for you every night, wondering if you're alive or lying dead in some alley (or battlefield)?" When John Wayne played a military man he constantly had these conflicts with his women and he always won, as Phoenix does here.
There have been lots of cop movies since American cities were turned upside down in the late 1960s and "Dirty Harry" incorporated all our fears of urban violence and serial killers. Most were shackled to action movie conventions. A bop on the head rendered a character unconscious for just as long as the script required. A sock on the jaw achieved the same effect. Not here, though. The violence is brutal but believable and done, if it can be said, with taste by writer/director James Gray.
Take the requisite car chase for example. "Bullitt" provided the holotype -- cars screeching at high speed around corners, shots exchanged, one car apparently trying to bump the other off the road, the shrieking and scattering of pedestrians and all that. Not here. The car chase is filmed with some originality. It takes place mostly on a single highway in New York City in a blinding rain. The point of view is limited almost exclusively to Phoenix, the driver of a car being peppered with slugs from the Russian mobsters. Phoenix is not angry. He's screaming because he's scared to death and because the rain is so heavy he can barely make out what's going on around him, and that's not to mention the dead guy in the suicide seat. The chase scene breaks most of the usual narrative conventions.
I'm not going to give Gray too many bonus points because he lapses into the cliché of the wobbling, hand-held camera during the final shoot out. I suppose it's designed to add a touch of authenticity but all it does is confuse and distract a viewer, interfering with the suspension of our disbelief. A camera that shakes crazily only reminds us that we're watching a movie.
But I have to say that in general this is a notch above the usual cop/action movie. There have been some neatly structured films in the genre -- "Serpico" and "Prince of the City", for instance. James Gray's movie is among the few that reflect the kind of thought and planning that requires skill and even artistry. Nice job.
Diplomatic Courier (1952)
The Purloined Document.
Tyrone Power works for the US State Department as a courier. His job is to carry documents safely from one point to another. He's sent by the Army on a mysterious trip to Europe to pick something up from an American agent, but the agent is killed and the document at issue disappears. Nobody knows what's up, not the Army, not the State Department, not Power, not even the viewer. The Army then sends him as "bait" for the commies, to Trieste, then part of Jugoslavia, where he meets Patricia Neal, who appears to be a horny aristo, and Hildegard Knef, looking mighty fine but always, well, "gespannt."
The problem is that Tyrone Power is not a secret agent, not even a flagrantly obvious agent. As Power describes his job, he's just a reliable State Department "postman." He's reluctant to undertake the task of being the bait and trying to recover the missing goods but he attacks the task earnestly enough, wending his way through a flurry of enigmatic messages and weird characters wearing a dozen wrist watches at once. If you think this description is confusing, wait until you see the movie.
The plot may be a little intricate but it's thought provoking too. How would you like to be a diplomatic courier, entrusted with the safekeeping of world-shaking documents? That's one of the thoughts it provokes. I, for one, wouldn't like it because I'm constantly misplacing things. Never mind secret treaties and all that. Sometimes I have trouble remembering where I put my glass eyeball and prosthetic nose. At any rate his job puts him in contact with some curious and unexpected people. There's Charles Bronson as a commie goon, for instance. Then there's Lee Marvin as a baffled military policeman. Karl Malden is a savvy and helpful Master Sergeant. There's a female impersonator who does a dynamite Bette Davis.
Then there are the two babes -- Neal and Knef -- and we know at once that ONE of them must be the femme fatale. It's true that Knef is German and that in 1952 Germans still made convenient villains but she has an endearing lisp in her husky voice -- "Pleathe come in, Mithter Kellth." Patricia Neal is an American but she goes around in a constant state of oestrus, practically inviting intromission on a nightclub floor, the slut. Both display facets of the stereotypical villain.
The plot engine is the momentous document. No power on earth could force me to reveal which side gets it but I guess it's okay if I proffer the hint that we get it. It's an abstruse narrative whose sense is only picked up gradually but there is plenty of action as well -- fist fights, drugging, attempted drownings, murders, the brandishing of weapons, and wearing white after Labor Day. I enjoyed it, and most people will probably be entertained by it.
Fake News Tricks Archduke!
The story of Archduke Maximilian, the Austrian nobleman who was induced by Napoleon III to assume the role of monarch of Mexico in 1863, displacing Benito Juárez, Mexico's liberal president, played by Paul Muni. His enthronement was endorsed by the wealthy land-holding aristocrats of Mexico -- eighty-five families. The US was too busy fighting its own Civil War to bother with violations of the Monroe Doctrine. Juárez and his armies put up a stiff fight, and eventually Napoleon withdrew his French forces from Mexico. Maximilian and two of his loyal Mexican were captured and executed. Maximilian's wife, "the mad Carlota", was hospitalized in Europe and finally sent to a sanitarium.
The film sticks pretty closely to historical fact, as far as a non-historian can tell. It's gripping. The hero is not Juárez at all but Maximilian. And, as presented here, it's an unalloyed epic tragedy. Shakespeare could have done wonders with it. Brian Aherne is Maximilian -- "Max", as his wife, Bette Davis calls him -- is a dignified man full of good intentions, whose policies (with one notable exception) followed those of Benito Juárez. Both were determined to promote equality and justice in Mexico. Again and again, Max defies the eight-five tycoons in favor of the ordinary people, most of whom can't read or write.
The way Aherne plays Max, he's so gentle and dignified that he's almost effeminate, an impression supported by his hair style, which appears to be braided and coiled atop his head, and by this spectacularly unwholesome looking set of muttonchop whiskers. He believes that the Mexican people have invited him to become their emperor by means of a referendum, not realizing until too late that the referendum was rigged. He's a man of principle tempered by good sense. The ongoing war is nettlesome to him and he sends a messenger to Juárez with an offer to become Prime Minister of Mexico. All that separates them, as Juárez observes, is the word "democracy." Muni plays the character as a pompous humanitarian, full of folksy liberal pieties. Hs movements are slow and deliberate. He overacts underacting. Unlike Max, he's never in doubt about anything, which makes him rather dull. And, in a mistaken attempt to have him resemble the historical Max, make up has turned Muni into a clayish lump. And Muni delivers lines that seem made of lead. "In a monarchy, the government changes the people. In a democracy, the people change the government." Clunk.
Actually, Juárez does seem like a law-abiding populist but he's about as yielding as reenforced concrete. He spurns Max's offer of Prime Minister, preferring war to compromise. Max, on the other hand gives a reasonably good argument in favor of kingship. A king, belonging to no party, owes no one anything and therefore can be impartial, while a president is beholden to the particular forces that elected him.
I called the argument "reasonably good" because Mexico in the 1860s, with most of its population illiterate farmers, may not have been entirely ready for a republic. What followed Juárez was a series of dictators, factional disputes and revolutions, including a raid across the border into the USA by Pancho Villa in 1917. Interesting parallel: When Max's French troops try to fight Juárez's army, that army dissolves into the general population in its own neighborhood. If you can't find them, you can't fight them. Ditto after Villa's raid into Columbus, New Mexico. The US Army sent a large expeditionary force into Mexico to find and punish Pancho Villa and his army. But there was nothing to fight. The soldiers had turned into farmers.
This was released in 1939 and lest we miss the point of dictatorship vs. democracy, the appearance of Archduke Maximilian is accompanied by the strains of "Deutschland Über Alles." Some other notes: Back in the USA, the South wanted to invade Mexico and turn it into a slave-holding nation, while slavery had been outlawed two generations earlier. And some of Lincoln's advisers wanted him to declare war on Mexico to deflect attention from the Confederate victories during the early years of the Civil War. (Mexico as low-hanging fruit.) In the end, the populist movement prevailed in Mexico; the vast haciendas were broken up and the land redistributed to farming families, each of which got enough land to support itself. The irony was that the birth rate became so high that the family farm could no longer feed so many people, so many of the farmers migrated to the cities in search of work, found little, and established the squatter settlements in shacks of corrugated tin and cardboard that now surround Mexico City. That's kind of off topic, an obiter dictum. Let's just say that in this movie, Juárez comes out on top but it's a tragic victory.
Pardon Us (1931)
Behind the Walls.
I wonder if some of the younger viewers will get the initial premise. A Constitutional amendment, whose number I don't want to bother looking up, made almost all forms of alcoholic beverages illegal during the 1920s until the amendment was repealed in 1933. It was a curious law. The targets seemed to be not so much booze as immigrants who drank for recreation (Irish) or as part of a meal (Italians). It was particularly bad for most of the breweries. They were run by Germans, who had just been demonized in World War I. (Think Schlitz, Blatz, Anheuser-Busch, Budweiser, Gablinger, etc.) When Laurel and Hardy are first seen, they're planning to buy enough ingredients to make 25 gallons of illegal beer. Presumably they get caught. That's why they're taken to jail.
It's their first talkie but some of the verbal gags are unexpectedly cute. So the dynamic duo are being booked. "What's your name?", the gruff desk sergeant demands of Laurel. "Stanley Laurel," is the obedient answer. "Say SIR when you speak to me!" "Sir Stanley Laurel." More are routine puns but still amusing. What's a comet? A star with a tail on it. Correct -- name one. "Rin-tin-tin." For you young uns, Rin-tin-tin was a famous dog in the early movies. Hardy seems to break the fourth wall more often than usual but not enough to turn the viewer off.
There are scenes that some might find irritating or offensive because they are echt-non-PC. Laurel and Hardy escape from prison, don blackface, and join a small community of black who pick cotton and live in tumbledown houses. But so what? A lot of blacks in the South DID pick cotton. They're presented as positively as any other group -- singing and enjoying themselves after a hard day's work -- and Laurel and Hardy are perfectly comfortable in their company. Hardy sings "Lazy Moon," totally forgettable, while the banjo and guitar back him up, and Laurel does a little dance. Later, when they're back behind the walls, a quintet of inmates sings the more successful "I Want To Go Back to Michigan," written by Irving Berlin in 1914. From a materialist point of view, disregarding ethics, this was 1931 and all of the actors in this movie -- stars and extras alike, black or white -- were collecting pay checks that might be otherwise hard to come by.
One of the more notable scenes: Laurel and Hardy in the waiting room, about to have the dentist pull one of Laurel's teeth. There's no slapstick at all. One by one, the waiting prisoners are ushered into the dentist's office and shortly afterwards we hear screams of pain and fear, the crashing of pots and pans, while Laurel quivers in fright. Maybe I responded the way I did because one of the phrases I most dread hearing is a dentist saying, "Now just open wide and turn this way a little." The direction is pretty crude -- lots of close ups of faces registering one or another intense emotion. But the story has continuity and leads to a properly kinetic climax with some imaginatively choreographed slapstick.
Precision and Speed.
British Peter Yates drove race cars before becoming a director and turning out some pedestrian work and a couple of respectable films, including this one and "Bullitt." Steve McQueen, another racing aficionado, having seen the spectacular car chase through the streets of London in this film, invited Yates to direct him in "Bullitt" the following year, and there is a certain concordance between the two. "Bullitt" (1968) is superior. The interrelationships are more subtle, the musical score more apt. The score in "Robbery" shrieks "generic thriller" and lacks anything like the sophistication of the flute trio in San Francisco's chic Coffee Cantata. And if the car chase in "Robbery" is thrilling -- and it is -- the high speed pursuit in "Bullitt" provides a touchstone for all the car chases that followed, from "The Seven Ups" to "The French Connection." There was never anything like it before.
Basically, "Robbery" has Stanley Baker in charge of one of those gangs consisting of specialists, one expert in electronics, another in laundering, another who knows how to be a locomotive engineer, and so forth. The heist of more than three million pounds from the Royal Mail train is tense, engaging, and a little confusing. The confusion is compensated for by the many times we see references to "Royal Mail," which sounds infinitely better than "U. S. Postal Service." "Royal Mail." It doth roll trippingly from the tongue.
No guns are displayed or used, in contrast to "Bullitt", and even in the later film there are only two brief scenes involving gunplay. The fact is that guns aren't always necessary in robberies like the one described here. Imagine, two freaky looking dudes wearing black ski masks and threatening you with crowbars tell you to drive a locomotive at 20 miles per hour, and you're a balding, near-sighted, middle-aged man. Are you going to drive that locomotive at the speed requested? You bet you are. "No guns," orders Stanley Baker. "They don't use them so we won't either." On the other hand, "Bullitt" was made in America for an American audience and the final shot is of a .38 caliber police revolver in its holster, wrapped in its shoulder harness, lying on the bathroom sink, all coiled up like a rattlesnake.
"Robbery" is a caper movie. The police are always just one step behind the gang. The gang's hideout is at a now deserted and dilapidated base called RAF Gravesley, a bomber base that once accommodated Halifaxes and Mosquitoes. It's an eerie feeling to be in a once-populated and now empty community.
I had that experience at Fort Hancock, established during the Revolutionary War to guard New York harbor from the British. It was closed during the Cold War and all its personnel departed except for a handful of Coast Guardsmen, with whom I stayed for a summer. All the empty buildings were unlocked. The hospital staff had left its microscope slides carefully packed in drawers. There was the occasional pile of 20 mm. rounds, still intact. I had a similar feeling watching the scenes shot at RAF Gravesley. It was like being in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
Overall, nice job, and an entry for Peter Yates into the Big Money of Hollywood.
Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)
Okay, Who's The Canary?
This is one intricate plot about the British agency, MI-5, trying to stop terrorists from blowing up Oxford Circle and murdering everybody at the top of MI-5. One unusual twist is that the Americans aren't exactly the good guys. The terrorist leader (no mention of religious fundamentalism) has an American accent. Worse, MI-5 is losing its luster and they have reason to believe that they will somehow be absorbed into the American CIA.
Actually, the Brits field three or four fine intelligence agencies, including the equivalents of the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA. MI-5 is the equivalent of one of them but I forget which. In any case, the US often gets tips and evidence from the Brits. As I write this, it's just been alleged that the Brits learned about various connections between one of our presidential campaigns and Russian intelligence/business/government contacts. In Russia, under Putin, the social spheres are pretty much indistinguishable.
I missed the first five or ten minutes and it must have been a crippling mistake because there were times I felt like Kier Dullea going through the Stargate episode in "2001." In one scene, for instance, a young woman has apparently betrayed someone or committed some other peccadillo and when asked why, she replies, "I just did what they told me to." I didn't know who "they" were. The plot is impossible to describe in detail because there are so many details.
It's an unusual picture of London that we're presented with. It's changed a good deal since I was last there. It's all modernized now, or at least those parts of the city we see in the film. Swirling balconies and streamlined buildings and -- surprise -- it's often sunny. Even Waterloo Bridge looks clean and modern. The cleanliness of the streets, the sleekness of the mass transport, puts American facilities to shame.
The performances are fine. Peter Firth, one of the many important players, acts broody and looks like a half-wrecked Anthony Hopkins coming down from battery acid. There is no beautiful gal being fought over. The women, as well as the men, are more or less ordinary. Most outstanding PRESENCE is the noble and thoroughly committed head of MI-5, Tim McInnerny. You have never seen such a somatotype. His features are all squished together, as in a cartoon, and his neck seems about two feet long and bent forward at an angle that imperils his whole head. Really. His image is unnerving.
There are quite a few shootings and occasional rumbles but on the whole it's all well done. If you enjoyed, say, "Smiley's People," you should be able to handle this with pleasure.
Pineapple Express (2008)
This is their brains on drugs.
A description of the characters and the plot make the film sound as silly as an old Popeye cartoon, but it does have its moments and adults ought to find it almost as amusing as its target audience of teens. You'd never think laughs could still be gotten out of weed heads but marijuana works here as a kind of plot engine. If it weren't for some dynamite pot known as "Pineapple Express," nothing would have happened.
It's Los Angeles and there are two high-echelon drug organizations at war -- one run by Gary Cole, the other by Asians. The two protagonists -- Rogen and Franco -- are everyday users, with Franco a small time dealer and Rogen a process server. (Franco, in all seriousness, "What do you serve? Like, hamburgers?") Rogen witnesses a murder by Cole, flips away his roach and flees the scene with a great deal of commotion. Cole watches the car speed away, picks up the discarded butt, puffs on it, and says "Pineapple Express." Alas, the brand is so rare that it can easily be traced to dealer Franco. Realizing this, and it's one of the few things they DO realize, Rogen and Franco hastily pack up and leave everything behind. The rest of the movie is largely a story of pursuit, with shootings, a high speed car chase, various explosions and a general atmosphere of hysteria.
It's pretty funny. The most outrageous performance is by Seth Rogen who gives expert imitations of flooding out with fear, screaming hoarsely, waving his arms, weeping. Franco, comparatively speaking, has a Zen quality about him. Craig Robinson, as a semi-moronic hit man, gives a splendid performance and is given some good lines. "You know, I may look tough but I have feelings too, and you just hurt every one of them." But then many of the lines are -- well, not exactly WITTY, but funny nevertheless. While they are discussing their perilous situation, Rogen asks Franco if it's really possible for Cole and his gang to track them down. How could they do it? Franco, befuddled by dope, muses, "I don't know. Bloodhounds maybe. Dogs. Barracudas." There's a good deal of slapstick at the end during a bloody but still comic shootout, but that too is well choreographed. Grownups ought to get a kick out of at least some of the scenes and some of the dialog.