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Black Magic, Drugs, and Debauchery, 25 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In a defining moment of episode four of "Will," actor Richard Burbage effortlessly pulls a copy of the English chronicle of Holinshed from his lodgings and hands it to "Willy Shakeshaft" with the suggestion of writing a play on Henry VI. The program does not make clear how such an expensive, limited edition book would be floating around in a low-rent district of Elizabethan London. This example is at the heart of the lack of research into the Elizabethan theatres on the part of the producers of the series "Will."

This episode also takes us deeper into the world of religion when Will is improbably invited to the swanky get-together of men like Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Bacon in what is evidently the "School of the Night," the group that talks about atheism and would appear to engage in satanic practices when they stare into the blue flame of the fire lit by John Dee. Later in the program, it is clear that at least one member of the group was merely playing along and did not take the ideas of the clique seriously.

But during the ceremony, Will takes drugs, which transport him to such a wild and psychedelic state that, when he returns to his senses, he decides to cut ties with his "cousin," the recusant Robert Southwell. Will washes his hands of the entire religious imbroglio, returning the draft of the manuscript that Southwell hoped his cousin would revise to support the Catholic cause and lead to an ending religious hostilities in England.

In the personal subplot, Will climbs up a wall like Romeo in order to dissuade Alice from becoming betrothed to a wealthy brewer. By now, the question of adultery has dropped out of Will's mind while he is "swiving" Alice. "Swive" is one of the many racy words used by young Alice, who also cries out at the party, "Let's get "____-faced!"

After another gruesome torture sequence, Topcliffe conceives the notion of recruiting the upstart playwright to write an anti-Catholic play for the Elizabethan public theatre. On the one hand, Topclliffe asserts of playwrights that "Writers are the new serpent in the garden." Yet, he has no trouble in enlisting Will for the writing of propaganda. By the end of the program, Will is taken away by armed guard to the torture chamber of Topcliffe. But there is no need for concern, as Will confidently boasts in unpolished English that "Us Stratford boys are famously sturdy."

The Promise (2016/II)
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A Promise Fulfilled, 22 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

One of the finest films of 2016-17, "The Promise" is an ambitious epic in the tradition of "Dr. Zhivago." Instead of the sprawling treatment of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, "The Promise" focuses on the waning stages of the Ottoman Empire at the outbreak of World War I and the tragic Armenian genocide.

Writer-director Terry George describes the film's concept in the bonus segment of the DVD. Like "Dr. Zhivago," the historical developments were framed in the context of a love triangle or, more precisely, a rectangle with the characters of Mikael Boghosian, Maral, Ana Khesarian, and Chris Meyers. The love story was convincingly developed around the early stages of the Armenian genocide in Turkey in the years 1914-15.

In one of the film's deleted scenes, the screenwriters had conceived the meeting of top-level Turkish officials, wherein it was determined that "no one is to be spared" from the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. The nefarious character of Dr. Nazim led the meeting that unfolded much like the Wannsee Conference outside Berlin on January 20, 1942, wherein the fate of the European Jews was determined by Reinhard Heydrich and the Nazi officials.

"The Promise" was stunning in its cinematography from the breathtaking footage of the harbor in Constantinople to the Taurus mountains to the final scene of the escape from Musa Dagh Mountain in southern Turkey on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. The quaint village of Sirhoun, the native home of the Boghosian family, was also captured brilliantly.

Another strength of the film was how completely the secondary characters were developed. The playboy Emre Ogan, who first appears as a slacker in medical school, becomes one of the heroes of the film, sacrificing his life to save the American journalist Chris Meyers. Mikael's mother Marta was a character with depth as she was always thinking of the best interests of her son. The true story of American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr. is effectively told, as he takes a strong stand against the atrocities in Turkey.

The film's title reflects the original promise made by Mikael to marry Maral. But it also implies the promise made by journalist Chris Meyers to recount to the world the truth of the Armenian genocide. One and half million Armenians were slaughtered, and the Turkish government has never accepted responsibility for these atrocities. The film offers a quote from William Saroyan about the tragic plight of the Armenians that invites us to "see if they will not create a new Armenia." Such a promise was fulfilled by the filmmakers in this remarkable movie.

Free Fire (2016)
A Lot of Shooting and A Big Misfire, 21 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Free Fire" is a cinema vérité style film with the action unfolding in "real time." The setting an abandoned warehouse in which a gun running operation goes sour. That is the extent of the action.

In the bonus segment of the DVD, the direct discussed how he was interested in developing a film concept of "smaller action," as opposed to large scale special effects. The result was a monotonous shootout that unfolded in the warehouse. The lengthy shooting sequence lacked credibility and became a lackluster exercise in special effects with shooting, shrieking, cursing, grimacing, and endless moments of violence. If there was an intended dark comedy to the film, it was difficult to discern. As the action is set around an arms deal with the IRA, it difficult to sense any humor in this long ordeal.

It is unclear what was the target audience of this film and who would enjoy this kind of nonstop violence. Martin Scorsese is listed as one of the executive producers of this film. Like so many of Scorsese's films, this one was a misfire...only on a smaller scale.

Wilson (2017)
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Based on a Graphic Novel..., 20 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The title above says it all. The idea for this film is drawn from a superficial graphic novel, and, predictably, the result is a superficial film. One of the bonus segments of the DVD of "Wilson" is entitled "From Strip to Film" and the filmmakers inform us that their goal was to be true to the original version. In other words, the "graphic novel" was being treated as a literary masterpiece.

Woody Harrelson stars as the eponymous title character who, according to the graphic novel, can "say what he is thinking all the time." But one of the problems with the film is that the Wilson character has some truly bizarre thinking, resulting in awkward and offensive moments with others. His sociopathic thought process also leads him into troubling predicaments.

The most disturbing part of the narrative is when Wilson learns from his ex-wife Pippi that she delivered his child, a little girl whom she gave up for adoption. Wilson and Pippi then begin to stalk the child who is by now a high school student. Eventually Wilson is arrested on charges of kidnapping and child endangerment and spends a considerable time (i.e., years) in prison.

Curiously, Pippi, who participated with her ex-husband in the illegal contact with the daughter is neither arrested nor charged for any crime. As interpreted by actress Laura Dern, Pippi displays no evidence of concern or love for her daughter. While Wilson is in prison, Pippi decides to run off to Australia with her sponsor from her 12-step program.

In the bonus segment of the DVD, one of the performers referred to the film as "a coming of age story of a middle-aged man." Wow! At the bedside of his dying father, Wilson called his dad "a toxic, soul-draining vampire." Those words were likely the projection of the sad inner life onto Wilson himself. There is nothing redeeming about Wilson's character, and, by the end, nothing to suggest that he has "come of age."

Disturbing and Provocative, 19 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"Remember My Name" is a fascinating character study with a towering performance by Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Emily, a deranged jailbird just let out of the slammer for a murder conviction. She unabashedly makes a beeline for her ex-husband Niel (Anthony Perkins) and overtly stalks him and his new wife, at one point even walking into their home and confronting his wife, Barbara (Berry Berenson).

The unhinged nature of Emily is apparent in nearly all of her actions, as she embezzles from her employer, destroys property, attacks a co-worker, stabs the co-worker's boyfriend, enlists a kind security guard in her psychopathic scheme to enact revenge on her ex-husband.

But the film is boosted by the characterization of Neil, who becomes just as creepy and disturbed as Emily. Perkins is outstanding as the callous womanizer, who, unwittingly, is as attracted to Emily as a moth to a flame.

The film is multi-layered with nuances that approach dark comedy. The recurring news broadcast of a cataclysmic earthquake in Hungary is a truly macabre backdrop for the sordid stalking activities of Emily. And Emily's connection to the mother of her boss at the thrift store includes the subtext of knowing that the boss's mother was also a murderer.

Audiences can debate the many ambivalent moments, nuances, and strange meeting of Neil and Pike at the end of the film. The tawdry settings and and recurring blues music are the final touches on a provocative film experience.

What's It All About, Alfie?, 19 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Tom Wilkinson is an actor who never fails to please, even in an average, low-budget film like "The Beautiful Fantastic." In this slow-moving fable, the film follows the life of a foundling child, Miss Bella Brown, who grows up to be obsessed with order. She is especially skillful as a mousy librarian who seemingly knows every book in the local library. But her definition of order does not include the outdoors and the paradigm of what is considered order in nature: a garden.

The story unfolds around the flimsy premise that Miss Brown will be evicted from her home unless she can transform her unkempt backyard into a beautiful garden. The "magic garden" scenario is played out alongside a children's story that Bella is writing about a magic bird. Perhaps the most unconvincing romantic subplot evolves between a library patron who is an inventor and Miss Brown. Yet there is no chemistry apparent between the characters.

The various narrative strands never come together in the film. But the most engaging scenes are those with Bella in conversation with her neighbor, a curmudgeon and lover of flora named Alfred "Alfie" Stevenson. As Alfie, Wilkinson shines with the one-liners and the character choices of a nasty old man with a heart of gold.

One especially glaring weakness with the film was the big build-up to the moment when Bella, working with the assistance of Alfie, completes her garden. It turns out we never even see the entire garden, but only glimpse a portion of the pond during the celebration. The filmmakers dropped the ball in not creating for the viewer a spectacular floral enclave that was the fruit of the labors of Bella, Alfie, and the long-suffering Irishman, Vernon, a widower who is clearly in love with Bella. With the exception of Alfie, the characters in this film were one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts.

As a expert gardener, Alfie delivers a memorable metaphor of the ideal garden as "a world of beautifully ordered chaos." Unfortunately, the film had plenty of chaos, but lacked the beauty and the order.

The Making of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona", 17 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Any dramatization of the playwriting career of Shakespeare must address the genius of a writer for the theatre. How did Shakespeare excel beyond any other writer of his day in his ability to depict the complexity of human nature?

This episode presents a fanciful and unconvincing scenario of how Shakespeare crafted his early comedy "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." At the start of the program, we see Will with a frightful case of writer's block. He is desperate for cash and about to be evicted from his quarters. He has penned a dreadful play that Burbage refuses to produce. Then, young Alice Burbage has the bright idea for Will to read books with stories that will engage his theatre audience. Will and Alice go to the London bookstalls where she steals a volume that contains the Italian romance that will be the basis for the play "The Two Gentlemen of Versona. In other words, the Will depicted in this program was so poorly educated and was so hopelessly barren of ideas for his plays that he required the assistance of the theatre owner's daughter to find a work that he could plagiarize.

The problem with this absurd hypothesis is that it misses the point that Shakespeare never had difficulty in writing stories. He also had the kind of education that offered his mind unlimited potential for culling classical, historical, and contemporary works for his plays. And, in the case of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," the author had undoubtedly traveled to Italy and drew on personal experience of Italy, as Shakespeare's play includes detailed references to geographical places and captures the spirit of Renaissance Italy.

In the religious subplot of this episode, Will finally pays a visit to his cousin "Mr. Cotton," who is in fact the Catholic recusant, Robert Southwell. Father Southwell gives confession to Will and warns him that Alice Burbage is tempting him as part of the work of the devil. Marlowe has a change of heart and warns Southwell that Topcliffe is about to raid his publishing house. Southwell gives Will a copy of his manuscript in which he hopes to convince the Queen that England should return to Catholicism. But what is the factual basis for this curious subplot?

The program seeks to find a connection between religious zeal and the creative impulse of Will Shakeshaft in the concept of "the hidden pattern." But there is no evidence that Shakespeare had a "cousin" who was a priest. And there is no evidence that Shakespeare ever had writer's block or problems in locating dramatic material. This was an author who did not need a "hidden pattern" because he had unlimited ideas for plays and a breadth of understanding of nearly every field of human endeavor, including plants, medicine, science, warfare, politics, religion, and philosophy.

This episode was another disappointing effort to come to terms with the Elizabethan theatre, the life of Shakespeare, and the creative process of dramatic writing of the greatest author in the English language. What a disappointment!

The King Meets the President, 16 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

On December 21, 1970, an improbable meeting occurred in the Oval Office of the White House. Elvis Presley, the "King" of rock-and-roll met the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.

It was Elvis himself who instigated the meeting for what appears to be the sincere purpose of assisting the government on the war on drugs. The outlandish request of the pop singer was to be made an "agent-at-large" for the investigation of drug abuse, wherein the singer would go undercover in the interests of justice.

Astonishingly, Nixon and the White House staff went along with Presley's request in return for a signed photo for Nixon's daughter Julie, as well as a promotional photo with Elvis shaking hands with Nixon that was released at a later time. According to the film, the photo of Nixon and Elvis is the most requested photograph in the National Archives.

Ironically, at the time of the White House visit, Elvis was already under the influence of drugs that would eventually take his life in 1977. One of the flaws of the film is that it was not made clear that Elvis was a drug user at the time. One need only to look at the Nixon-Presley photo and focus on Elvis's eyes to see that he was on the way to becoming a junkie.

Despite its shortcomings, the film was light entertainment that included two good performances from Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. The actors both delivered understated interpretations and avoided over-the-top caricature.

In perhaps the most memorable moment of the Oval Office conversation between the two titans, Nixon describes how he and Elvis share the common background of coming from humble origins to rise to the top of the ladder in their respective fields of politics and entertainment.

Only in America!!!

Uneven Romance with Vague Liberation Theme, 16 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

In the opening scene of "Félix & Meira," it is clear that the character Meira is just waiting for her moment of liberation from her repressed life in a Hasidic Jewish community in Quebec. One of the most famous plays of the 19th century is Ibsen's "A Doll's House," in which the character Nora Helmer similarly braces herself for the opportune moment to walk out on her stultifying home life.

But a major difference between Ibsen's writing and that of this film is in the ability for the audience to see the development of the protagonist, the evolution of her courage, and her moment-to-moment thought process in her life-changing decision. A shortcoming of "Félix & Meira" is the static nature of the film, even when the character makes the courageous decision to walk out on her husband and her community.

Similarly, the enigmatic Félix is also underdeveloped as a character. There is a startling moment when the rabbi husband of Meira reads a letter left to Félix by his recently deceased father. The father offers a heartfelt apology for the way he treated his son and adversely impacted his life. Yet it is never made clear in the film whether the letter has had even the slightest impact on Félix.

Much of the plotting of the film was clumsy with sudden changes from Quebec to Brookyn, where Félix adopts a truly bizarre disguise, and, later, to Venice, where Félix, Meira, and her child suddenly show up. Again, there was no arc of development of the characters. This is most apparent in a stunning moment when Félix touches Meira's hair, only to discover that it is wig. Yet Meira continues to wear the wig to the very end of the film.

It was easy to see why Meira would want to sever ties with her husband. At one point, she confesses to a friend that she is reluctant to bear "6, 10, or 14" children, as required by custom. The friend immediately reports the conversation to the husband, betraying Meira and making her life even more claustrophobic. In one of her early meetings with Félix, Meira confesses that "I'd like to know what it's like to be single." It is unfortunate that she never comes close to experiencing her wish.

A Searing Exposé, 15 July 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between from 1992-95 was one of the most horrific struggles since World War II. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia were thrown together in a postwar settlement that necessitated intervention from United Nation peacekeeping forces. It also included special "global service" contractors like Democra that is depicted in "The Whistleblower" as full of corrupt and mercenary predators engaging in human trafficking.

Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) is an honest cop from Lincoln, Nebraska, who volunteers for a stint in Bosnia to help with reconstruction, peacekeeping, and law enforcement and nation building in the late 1990s. The film depicts Kathryn's nightmare in attempting to rescue young women from the Ukraine who have been sold into bondage in Bosnia-Herzegovnia.

Katryn faces an uphill battle, as nearly everyone from the cops to local authorities to international bureaucrats seem to be complicit in human trafficking. The most appalling dereliction of duty comes from the U.N. itself, as evident in the feckless character of Bill Hynes. It was only due to the tenacity of Kathryn Bolkovac that the case files were eventually shared with the press that the truth was known. Eventually, Kathryn published the book that was the basis for the film: "The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman's Fight for Justice."

The film is successful in portraying Kathryn's heroic struggle as the whistleblower. It also demonstrates how international agreements can experience a total breakdown. In 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords laid out the framework for the division of the former nation-state of Yugoslavia following the Bosnian War. A stipulation of the accords was for an international conglomeration of organizations to monitor and implement the peace agreements. But human greed intervened, leading to enormous atrocities. The film is unflinching in depicting those atrocities, and it reminds viewers at the end that "private contractors" are worth billions in revenues from clean-up work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let us hope and pray that those contractors include more people like Kathryn Bolkovac.

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