Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
The Innovation of Nolan Creates the Best War Film Since "Saving Private Ryan"
If the Director of "The Prestige" made a war film, it might look something like "Dunkirk". Well, actually he did. "Dunkirk" may be unlike any war film to date. From the beginnings of filmmaking about the Second World War from the late 1940's, most stories were very linear from circa 1946 to 1970. The characters were established, we knew the bad guys and the good guys, and we followed the good guys through a series of wartime events. Even if the narrative was devastating in certain scenes, audiences could more or less follow along and know that somehow things would turn out all right for the characters. Often the Germans were painted as being not quite as intelligent as those among the Allies. Beginning in the 1970's and into the 1980's, war films became less idealized, less heroic and more gritty with offerings such as "Patton", "Full Metal Jacket", "Platoon", and "Saving Private Ryan". On the shoulders of Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan has taken the genre even further away from the linear story to new depths, painting a picture which is not only more gritty but much less predictable. War is not linear at all, and no one knows how everything will turn out. The twists and turns of war make for a "bloody mess indeed", to quote Ivor Gurney from his poem about the First World War "The Target". And on a personal note, this is the first time I've ever seen a film with Academy Award potential starring an actor with my last name!
A bit of background is necessary, which is the only piece missing from Nolan's otherwise nearly perfect film. Dunkirk was one of the most devastating episodes for the Allies during the Second World War prior to the United States' involvement. How events unfolded at Dunkirk would be one of the most compelling reasons for the US to enter the war. Dunkirk concerns the lost cause of France's War with Germany. Thousands of allied troops were cut off from the main armies at Dunkirk, a port town in the northern middle tip of France close to the border with the Netherlands. The Germans were closing in on this region, and the allied troops were stranded on the coast of the English Channel, essentially sitting ducks. They were in desperate need to evacuate otherwise thousands of troops would be either slaughtered or captured. No ships were being brought in to save the desperate soldiers. While ground troops were holding off the German foot soldiers inland, German aircraft were bombing the soldiers from above.
The film explores three points of view. A British private, aptly named "Tommy" (Fionn Whitehead), who we see at first sprinting through the town of Dunkirk avoiding enemy fire. He eventually comes to the beaches where the rest of the Dunkirk soldiers are stranded. We meet Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), a young civilian and son of an older gentleman Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) who owns a small yacht. We see them launching from the shores of Britain. And the last is Officer Collins (Jack Lowden), a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot. Kenneth Branagh has a supporting role as Commander Bolton, the commanding officer in charge of the stranded troops who are hoping for evacuation from France which has become, at this point in the War, a lost cause.
The film begins by introducing the three characters and their points of view concerning how they experience Dunkirk which is how the narrative unfolds. Tommy eventually comes to the beaches but realizes there's little hope for escape or reprieve. Some ships have arrived but they are primarily concerned with transporting the wounded. Peter along with his friend George and Peter's father are on a yacht sailing into the English Channel to help the allied cause in some way. George helps to stock the little boat with life jackets. And finally Officer Collins, the spitfire pilot, is attacking the enemy German aircraft which has been pummeling the allied troops and ships with bombs and gunfire at the beaches.
The brilliance of "Dunkirk" is how it shows that war is a very non-linear and frantic business. Events just happen, seeming out of nowhere. Also, when an episode of one character temporarily ends, we retrace back to the end of the view of the last character where we left off. For example, Tommy and another ground solider, "Gibson" (Aneurin Barnard), a French solider trying to pass off as a British private, try to board a ship with the wounded by carrying on a gurney a casualty they find on the beaches after a German air raid. We then cut to the civilians yacht and/or the pilot and then return back to the privates carrying the gurney. About a third of the way through the narrative, Mr. Dawson, Peter and George rescue a soldier atop of a wrecked ship, the victim of a U-Boat attack. We then learn that the civilians with their yacht have set a course for Dunkirk. Their first passenger begins to protest their destination, and the protests become violent. Officer Collins is the potential hero of the story, where his cunning and training are aimed at German aircraft.
The acting is top-notch, bringing the viewer right into the desperateness of what these soldiers must face. Nothing plays out as expected. At moments when the situation appears to be improving, another lightning bolt hits the characters forcing them to deal with yet more devastating circumstances. War is not only hell. It's bloody inconvenient! Ultimately a masterpiece of war filmmaking which will sit beside others of the genre, such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Platoon". This is war at its grittiest and not for those looking for a neat and tidy linear story which is what the Second World War should have been but never was.
Ask Why Corporate Greed is Out-of-Control in the United States: Smartest is not Necessarily the Wisest
If there is a main point to "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room", it's that intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. Intelligence can be used for good or ill, and in this case, the smartest guys at Enron were bankrupt in the wisdom department. While for a time the executives' bank accounts may have contained millions, their judgments were in the red, and this bankruptcy of sagacity and prudence led to the downfall of their company. They were "smart" enough to cook Enron's books long enough to artificially raise their stock price for a time. However, in the end, they weren't smart enough to mold a business model which made legitimate profits. And the man who proclaimed himself as f-ing smart when he was at Harvard Business School, CEO Jeff Skilling, reveals himself to be the most morally bankrupt of them all. Skilling for all his "smartness" not only couldn't create a truly viable business, he was unwilling to own up to his mistakes. Avoiding the truth and hiding behind one's own lies is very stupid.
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is a thoroughly compelling documentary about one of the strangest episodes in US corporate theater. Enron for about 10 years, from circa 1990 to 2000, was the darling of Wall Street, perpetually convincing investors they could do no wrong. They continually posted earnings in areas where they had actually been losing millions. The goal of the executives of Enron became to keep the stock price of their company high regardless of actual performance. They found clever ways to hide losses, and if that's being "smart", they were definitely smart in spades. However, the piper eventually has to be paid, lest the piper will toot his horn and the town will have to pay a much higher price. In this case, the townspeople were all of Enron's investors aside from the "smartest" guys who cashed out before the ship sank.
Skilling and the executives found an ingenious way to avoid paying the piper at least in the short term. They adopted what's referred to as "mark-to-market" accounting. Mark-to-market accounting is a tricky concept and essentially based on the idea that a party could reflect profits on a business transaction before the profits actually materialized. The numbers were based on current market values. For example, if a party bought a house for $100,000 and the current market price of the house was $500,000, the entity could show their net worth was $400,000 even though the party had not actually cashed in on the profit. Mark-to-market is used to evaluate stock portfolios. The challenge involved is that if the market fluctuates, in theory the transaction could be less profitable. Also, it's dangerous if the party uses mark to market in subjective areas. The executive's rationale was they should be able to reflect "profits" in mark to market simply because they had concocted a supposedly good business venture.
However, Enron was showing profits in mark-to-market accounting for business deals which ultimately failed. One example explored in the documentary involved Enron's financing some power plants in India. However, they weren't smart enough to understand Indian economics. India's economy, because they are at best a second-world nation (some would argue a third-world nation) is not like that of the United States and Europe. Their currency is not worth what it is in the West, and India could never pay the high prices for energy Enron was expecting to charge them. The power plants Enron helped finance lay dormant. And yet, Enron cooked the books to show the deal with the power plants in India were already profitable because they "should be" profitable, based on the current market. It was as if they bought the house for $100,000, showed the house was worth $500,000, but in fact, their investment was a loss because they paid $100,000 into a house which couldn't be resold for anything. Another example was a supposed enterprise with Blockbuster Video for video/movie streaming on the internet. Enron claimed they had developed the technology and already had customers subscribing to the service, but in reality, nothing had come of it. Blockbuster Video, once a viable video rental enterprise, is now largely defunct having been displaced by video-on-demand technology developed and offered by Netflix, Comcast, and Amazon. Enron at one point "claimed" they had developed on-demand technology and were reflecting mark-to-market profits on their books for an enterprise which was essentially fabricated.
As badly as Ken Lay and Andy Fastow are portrayed, the executive who appears the worst is Jeff Skilling. Despite mounting evidence that Skilling was right in the center of the fraud, he never comes clean. He never admits he didn't pay the piper. Ironically, his company was constantly playing "Survivor" in which 15% of the workforce was automatically laid off every year for sub-par performance. If this criteria was put on Skilling himself, he would have been fired. So many of Skilling's business ideas were either duds or failed to produce the desired results. Now Skilling is the smartest guy in prison, and Enron is history. If they were the smartest guys in the room, I'd really like to see who were the dumbest.
Probably the Most Popular of the 1960's Bond Films Shows the Origins of the Modern Action Film
By the last couple of decades of the 20th century and into the first decades of the 21st century, action films became the highest grossing offerings from Hollywood. Prior to circa 1960, period dramas were more often the pictures which brought movie-goers into the theater seats with their popcorn: "Gone with the Wind", "Spartacus", "Ben Hur", etc. A few action-suspense films, such as those directed by Alfred Hitchcock and film noir, did also bring in the box office bucks. Westerns were probably the most prevalent action movie prior to James Bond but many of them were lower-budgeted B-films. In 1956, the only action movie among the top-10 grossing films was "The Searchers", a western starring John Wayne. All others in the top-10 were epic period pictures and dramas. However, by circa 2000, the reigning king of film genres became the action film. By 2014, 50 years later, all the top-10 grossing films were action-oriented including science fiction, fantasy and/or superhero. Unlike decades gone by, the highest-grossing films and best picture winners are almost never the same.
The original James Bond films of the 1960's, particularly "Goldfinger", paved the way and included so many of the elements currently found in the genre. Firstly, the James Bond films were the first action films outside of detective films/series and Westerns to feature a recurring character in multiple offerings. Secondly, much of the genre's formula was established with "Goldfinger" and other Connery-Bond installments. The action doesn't begin with the main plot but instead begins with Bond engaged in another mission as a kind of "prelude" to the main story. This device has been used ever since ad infinitum, such as in some of the later Die Hard films with Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) which began in the late 1980's and even up to the Mission Impossible films starring Tom Cruise in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Thirdly, Bond makes little funny comments which has become such a trademark in entertainment action films. Often these comments are in the wake of a kill. For example, in "Dr. No", Bond kills a man with a bow and arrow and says, "I think he got the point."
"Goldfinger" became the second-highest grossing film of 1964 behind "My Fair Lady" and is probably one of the two best Connery/Bond films, the other "From Russia with Love". The plot is typical of many of the Bond stories: a kingpin criminal magnate, called simply Goldfinger, is suspected of smuggling large amounts of gold out of first-world nations and possibly reselling it to third world nations who pay more. (This couldn't happen today since international markets constantly track the price of gold.) James Bond (Sean Connery), Agent 007, is sent on a mission to find out about Goldfinger (Gert Fröbe). Turns out he's vacationing at the same hotel in Miami Beach as Bond! Then Bond turns up at a golf course where Goldfinger just happens to be playing. The informal gold, I mean golf competition, is worth the price of admission alone.
The trail leads to a complex in Switzerland where Bond finds out about an operation called "Grand Slam". Bond doesn't know what Grand Slam is but is apprehended by the baddies in which Bond is shackled to a table and going to be sliced into pieces for 007 sandwiches by a laser. Bond must find out the nature of Goldfinger's scheme, but if he doesn't somehow get off the table, it will be Bond mince pies. Eventually he also meets Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), a beautiful blond who knows automatic weapons, judo and airplane flying. She is part of Goldfinger's operation for the money and immune to Bond's "charms".
A very enjoyable installment in the Bond canon and does uphold relatively well. Some of the sequences were a bit unbelievable by today's standards, such as Goldfinger puts only one guard on Bond initially. Of course the guard is not given reinforcements and Bond easily subdues him! (Goldfinger should be smart enough to use a lot more manpower to guard a hired assassin!) Although we may expect a bit more from action pictures (or may we don't!), the Bond cycle was the original blueprint which has influenced so many action films for over the next half-century. The series itself has continued at this writing with Daniel Craig as 007, for my money the best Bond since Connery. Still the Connery-Bond installments still provide good escapist entertainment. Pass the popcorn.
America's War on Drugs (2017)
Sobering Exposé of the United States' Biggest Policy Failure of the Late 20th and Early 21st Century
The best statement which sums up the drug problem in America goes something like this: The worst side effect of marijuana is possible incarceration. In other words, the effects of marijuana itself are not nearly as devastating as being incarcerated for using it and/or possessing it. If there was ever a governmental policy among first world nations which has failed disastrously to produce the desired results, it would have to be the US Government's so-called "War on Drugs". The History Channel's multi-part documentary pulls the curtain and reveals the "wizard" behind this confusing and enigmatic obsession which older government leaders have had towards drug use. While drug addiction and abuse are certainly problems, from circa 1970 to 2010, lawmakers and officials painted a picture about drug use which justified policy that has led to much police brutality, drug cartels, and unnecessary violence. This documentary is one of the History's Channel's best efforts to demonstrate how the whole idea of a "War on Drugs" has been a complete and utter catastrophe along the lines of the Titanic and the Hindenberg.
Were and are drugs a problem? Certainly. But so is bank robbery! It's not like the US government went on an all-out war on bank robbery! Sexual assault is also a huge problem, but I've never heard any government official declare a war on "sexual assault". And yet, according to the documentary, the old guard who were running the country in the 1960's and 1970's, particularly Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan, G. Gordon Liddy, and other top-ranking lawmakers and officials were scared to death of the wave of counter-culture which was questioning the sensibility of the previous generations. Part of the counter-culture movement was the use of psychedelic narcotics by some of the Beats and Boomers, certainly not all, initially consuming marijuana and eventually Acid (a.k.a. LSD). However, instead of engaging in a dialogue with young people, the old guard decided the best thing was to squash the movement, in particular vilify and stop drug use.
And yet, according to the documentary, there was much hypocrisy about drug use. In Cuba prior to the rise of Castro, the US-backed president Fulgencio Batista, allowed for much drug-use at his own private parties. Nevermind marijuana was illegal in the US at the time, and drugs were consistently imported from Cuba along with their cigars. When Castro came to power and dethroned Batista, trade relations with Cuba ended, particularly the importing of marijuana and cigars from Cuba! Other venues would have to be used.
G. Gordon Liddy and J. Edgar Hoover were convinced the counter-culture movement, particularly in California but elsewhere in the US was being supported by the Russian Soviets (USSR). Although FBI agents working for Hoover could find no evidence that Russia had anything to do with drug use, Johnson, Hoover and possibly then Governor Reagan believed that somehow the counter-culture was not just destroying the fabric of society, it was being backed by communists! The documentary does reveal that some Boomers from wealthy families were subsidizing the creation of LSD. Yes, they were being subsidized but not by Soviet communists!
Running beneath the entire documentary is a sense that lawmakers and officials were over-blowing the counter-culture. Yes, young people, made up of the Beat and Baby Boomer generations, were asking questions about US society and some of them were using drugs. However, that doesn't mean that experimental drug use was unzipping the fabric of America. The US government did their own experiments on LSD, and one of their subjects was a young Ken Kesey who eventually became known for his bus with kool-aid spiked with LSD. Eventually Timothy Leary got into the act.
In the early 1970's, President Richard Nixon was the first to declare an official "War on Drugs". For the next 40 years, the US government has perpetually vilified anything associated with experimental drug uses. New laws and policies against drug culture and trafficking were passed and enacted which made, in the grander scheme of things, made people huge law-breakers if they were ever caught. Mandatory sentencing was enacted if someone was in possession of a certain amount of illegal narcotics, never mind the circumstances surrounding particular cases, and unfortunately much of the American public bought the idea that drugs were the cause of nearly every problem in American society. One young man who never broke any laws or ever hurt anyone was sentenced to life in prison for dealing marijuana.
However, the unintended consequences of the war on drugs far outstrip the problems of people taking the drugs themselves. Drug cartels of South America emerged out of the civil wars in places like Panama and Nicaragua where US-trained Latinos were using their skills to trade in one of the most lucrative markets the world has ever known: psychedelic narcotics. The so-called "War on Drugs", first implemented by President Nixon then President Reagan, later President George HW Bush, and even reaffirmed by President Clinton has only pushed the prices higher for those narcotics, making the trading in these substances more lucrative than property and other commodities. Because profits in drug trafficking are so astronomical, drug cartels can bribe low-level police officers, borders official, even truck drivers!
There will always be people who are psychologically unstable and can't handle certain experiences without dire consequences. That doesn't mean all people should be forbidden from having these experiences. Some people go crazy if they spend too long engaged in virtual reality. As far as I know we haven't banned virtual reality. People with gambling addictions have wrecked families. However, psychedelic and experimental drugs were vilified as being far worse than many other things. They failed to realize that during this entire period, crimes and felonies as a result of alcohol abuse far outstrip those of drug abuse. We tried from 1920 to 1933 to ban alcohol also with disastrous unintended consequences. Is this not the same problem?
Wonder Woman (2017)
The Feminist Icon Becomes A Message Against War In Oustanding Superhero Film
Wonder Woman was not created by Aphrodite or Zeus, but was rather the brain-child of a controversial psychologist and inventor, William Moulton Marston. (Marston's other claim to fame is the invention of the lie detector.) Although Superman and Batman were selling well to kids, there was a wave of pseudo-psychology which claimed that comic books were poisoning the minds of impressionable youths. Detective Comics (later renamed DC) were frightened that these radical groups were influencing the voting public which might hire lawmakers to ban comic books altogether. DC hired Marston to address this problem. Rather than changing existing comic books, Marston offered an unexpected solution: make a female superhero, i.e. a super-heroine. The result was Wonder Woman.
Little did DC comics know Marston had been involved in the early suffragette and birth-control movements of the early 20th century, and he incorporated much of the iconography and symbolism into the comic book. Wonder Woman's looks was originally a hybrid of the Varga pin-up girl posters of the 1940's and Suffragettes of the early 20th century. For example, Wonder Woman's early adventures often involved her being chained, an icon used by feminists and suffragettes in the early 20th century in propaganda posters and political illustrations. When chained, Wonder Woman loses her powers. Her magic lasso compels the person being lassoed to tell the truth, an obvious reference to Marston's lie detector. The comic was an instant hit and even became iconic for the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970's.
Fast-forward to 2017. Patty Jenkins has directed an outstanding film on a screenplay by Allan Heinberg from a story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder and Jason Fuchs based on the DC Comics character. Starring Gal Gadot as the title character and Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, this superhero action film flies as fusing of Ancient mythology and human history, and the offering is one of the best of the genre since the original "Superman" film starring Christopher Reeve (1979). Like "Superman", "Wonder Woman" begins with the backstory of the title character. Her name is Diana, daughter of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nelson) and she lives on Paradise Island where only women reside whose culture is a throw-back to Ancient Greek mythology. (Paradise because there are no men to screw things up...?) Diana as a youth is taught by the best combat teacher of the island, General Antiope (Robin Wright) in the ways of combat and becomes the best among her peers.
Sticking to the origins, Captain Steve Trevor, an American spy working for the British, is being chased by Germans during the First World War and crashes off the coast of Paradise Island. He has in his possession plans written by Dr. Poison (a real character from DC Comics). After a confrontation between Amazons and the Germans, Trevor is taken in by the Amazons and forced to reveal who and what he is. Eventually, Diana decides she must go with Trevor back to "the world of men" and help stop the war. Her reasons are mythological in which she must stop the "God of War". Of course Trevor doesn't buy into Diana's myth story but plays along to get back to the war. They sail by boat back to London.
One of the best sequences is Diana's introduction to early 20th century society. Gadot offers an excellent performance as the slightly culture-shocked fish-out-of-water but never overplays it. She tries on a pouffe dress which definitely wouldn't be "Wonder Woman". Eventually, she dons a suitable outfit and signs onto a mission with Trevor and several marginal characters to stop a fatal gas attack which makes the mustard gas of the war seem like the steam from a sauna. The inventor is Doctor Isabel Maru, a.k.a. Dr. Poison who has been supported by General Ludendorff. (In fact Ludendorff was a real general in the First World War and was involved in Hitler's so-called Beer Hall Putsch to overthrow the German government in 1923.) The mission is not sanctioned by the war office of London but in secret with only one member of Parliament offering assistance, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis). This merry band of misfits, a woman who knows nothing about western society and culture, a Scottish drunk, a Native American pacifist, an Italian actor, and an American spy make their way to the front lines of the First World War.
An outstanding film all around with excellent performances and a good balance between story and action. The filmmakers made the decision to withhold Diana becoming "Wonder Woman" until nearly half-way into the film, similar to "Superman". One of the best decisions: she never says "I'm Wonder Woman". A superhero speaking his or her name is a fatal screenplay error made by many other screenwriters who shall remain nameless.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
One of a Small Number of Gen X'er Films Which Captured an Era: More Satisfying Than "The BreakFast Club"
The so-called "Great Generation", those who fought in and/or came of age during and just after the Second World War, predominantly born during the First World War (circa 1910 to 1925), have been characterized as doing their duty. The Silent Generation, born circa 1925 to 1945, were known for conforming, hence they were "silent" on social matters instead focusing on careers and buying homes. Then came "the Boomers" (born circa 1946 to 1960), often associated with not only the social protests of the 1960's but also challenging the status quo. Then came Generation X, born circa 1961 to 1980. Generation X, so-called because they were largely undefinable, were about "me", sometimes called "The Me Generation". "I want to do this, and I don't want to do that" has been the mantra of Generation X. "Ferris Beuller's Day Off" is quite possibly the quintessential Generation X film about a kid who skips school to give a repressed friend the time of his life.
"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is certainly a comedy-fantasy, but unlike most comedies of the 1980's, there is an underlying message which spoke to Generation X. Certainly the message is perhaps not as deep as that found in something like "Rebel Without a Cause", but it does have a point to make. Through a largely innocent fantasy tale of three high school students who decide to take a day off from school without permission, they learn about life outside the classroom. They have experiences which couldn't be gleaned from text books from within the Purgatory of an American high school.
The catalyst of this little adventure is Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), a relatively intelligent but free-spirited high school-er who is determined to get the better of the school administer. He concocts a plan to fool the school and his family that he's in bed sick, which is one of the best bits in the film. His friend Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck) is in desperate need to "get out" and live a little bit. He suffers from hypochondria, obsessed with his health, and repressed resentment against his father. They are joined by Ferris' girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara) where they take Cameron's dad's car for a day trip into Chicago. They explore the city by doing among other things visit art galleries, sing in the streets, and attend a Chicago Cubs' baseball game.
Meanwhile, school principal Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students (Jeffrey Jones) believes something is amiss. He's convinced Ferris is up to something and decides to expose the "cheating" high school-er by engaging in a chase to trap him. For Generation X'ers of the time, Ferris getting the better of a high school administrator was probably worth the price of admission when it was originally released in the 1980's. But the principal is not the only one. His sister Jeannie Bueller (Jennifer Gray) is also suspicious that Ferris is not really home in bed. She ends up having a conversation at a police station with Garth played by Charlie Sheen in a small role.
This is mostly a pure fun film but strangely I found it more satisfying than "The Breakfast Club" also directed by John Hughes. In "Breakfast Club" the characters talk and talk and talk, and they dance. In "Ferris Bueller", the characters actually do stuff. Yes, they do dance and sing, but they do other things too. And of course Ferris, being smart enough to outsmart previous generations, gives the film it's bite. However, it's not him but another character who actually makes the biggest statement through a faux pas action, something "The Breakfast Club" characters never do. Sometimes I wonder what if Ferris had burst into the library where the Breakfast Clubbers were being detained and saved them from the angst of 1980's American teenage-hood. I would have paid good money to see that. In a sense, "Ferris Bueller" is a kind of send up to "The Breakfast Club", demonstrating what happens when Gen X'ers are released from Purgatory. Look out!
Underrated Masterpiece? No, More Like a Case Study in Bad Filmmaking
Young filmmakers, take notice. "Eureka" is a case study in bad filmmaking which could be used in filmmaking and/or film appreciation classes. The premise could have worked all right if the script had had about a half dozen additional rewrites and if the many cinematic tricks had been pared down. The story-line itself seems like it was recycled by out-of-work screenwriters dumped from "Days of Our Lives", barring the opening sequence. Part of the problem is the film throws more symbolism at the viewer than all of Orson Wells' films combined which we'll explore later. The scenes are also so overly directed the resulting cinematic experience seems more like a desperate film student trying to "prove" he is the next Orson Wells or Fritz Lang rather than allowing the characters and the scenes to tell the story.
In the 1920's Jack McCann (Gene Hackman) is a gold prospector in the arctic who finally hits it rich. He doesn't just become rich, but purportedly becomes the richest man in the world, so tally up silly problem number one. (If you examine history, almost no one became the richest person in the world from gold prospecting.) Fast-forward to the 1940's, McCann now owns an island in the Caribbean. He has a daughter Tracy McCann (Theresa Russell) who has given her heart to an emotional walking soap opera, Claude Maillot Van Horn (Rutger Hauer). Of course, Claude and Jack can't stand each other, although when we first meet Tracy, I thought she had had an affair with Jack, not that she was his daughter! Tally up silly problem number two. (They actually talk about having been in Paris, similar to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca"!)
Hackman for about the next hour rants and raves about Hauer groping his daughter: tally up silly problem number three. For being the richest man since John D. Rockefeller, he seems unable to control these people! Couldn't he just hire some hit-men and off this irritant? At the same time, two Italian mafia-types played by Joe Pesci and Mickey Roarke are trying to finagle Hackman into starting a casino in Miami. Several times I couldn't hear what they were saying, but, more importantly, I didn't really care! Tally up silly problem number four.
Silly problem number five gets the silver medal: the shots. The shots were too innovative for their own good. Zooming in on characters when they do something "strange" or become emotional occurs ad infinitum. If a character is unhappy, zoom! If they're giving an endless tragic speech, as a fortune-teller/brothel madam does at the beginning, zoom! It's zoom in for this and zoom in for that, zooming down from above, zooming up from below. There was more zooming around than a typical Superman film. A strange episode at the beginning was supposed to be a dream sequence but there was so much zooming around and strange symbolism I didn't understand it was a dream or what it meant.
Which brings us to silly problem number six: the gold medal goes to the symbolism! Yes, this film is so chock full of symbolism applied with a sledgehammer I started forgetting why I care about the story! Explosions, candles and clocks get about as much screen time as the characters in "Eureka"! They also seemed to be overt homages to Orson Wells' "Citizen Kane" referring to the exploding crystal snow globe after Kane says "Rosebud". Explosions run rampant at the beginning of the film in the arctic, including a horrid blast-your-brains-out suicide which served no purpose at all. Later it's clocks and candles. And of course all the symbols are zoomed into again from all angles imaginable. Particularly, towards the last half of the film, we're zooming to clocks! Is the filmmaker running out of footage? Candles are also everywhere. People even walk around with candles as if we're in a bad Hammer Film from the 1950's!
The film is essentially a cinematic mess. For all the zooming and symbols, I couldn't get a hold of the characters. Hackman who often plays very resolved characters seemed strangely ambiguous. For a guy who has everything, he seemed to be in a real rut! Hauer is little better. He's won Theresa Russell, the most attractive character in the film, and even he doesn't seem very happy about it. Actually, Russell's character was the only one who was reasonably well-defined. But even she can't save this odd mess of a movie. Sadly it wasn't quite so bad that it was good. Essentially everything which should never be in a movie, and more.
The Founder (2016)
The Story of a Washed-Up Milkshake Machine Salesman Created an Empire
France is known for its art museums and literature. England for its poetry and novels. Germany for its music. What about the United States? Fast food franchises! "The Founder" chronicles the creation of the McDonald's fast food franchise which changed the world in terms of fast-food production. At the center of the story is Ray Kroc who did not invent McDonald's, and he certainly did not invent the concept of fast-food. The brilliance of the film is an on-going question: who is "the founder"? The McDonald's brothers created the original McDonald's restaurant in San Bernardino, CA in 1940. Ray Kroc didn't come into the picture until over 10 years later.
Michael Keaton in one of his most convincing performances plays Ray Kroc, a down-on-his-luck seller of milkshake mixers. In the Post-Second-World-War Era, the United States' culture was shifting. Young people were beginning to influence the culture with slick cars, pop music, and fast food. Most drive-up fast food places employed girls in miniskirts roller-skating to customers waiting in their cars with mixed results (no pun intended). The casual diner seems to have a new competitor in drive-up restaurants. A tray was secured on the outside of the window and the customer would receive their meal while in their car.
Kroc is trying to sell to different fast food restaurants his milkshake mixer which would speed up significantly the time to make milkshakes. These places seem to need his innovative product, but he has little success. He's been pedaling from restaurant-to-restaurant in the Midwest when he learns that a little fast-food restaurant in San Bernardino, California, has ordered 8 of his mixers. The restaurant, called "McDonalds" is about 2000 miles away from his residence in Illinois. Intrigued, Kroc takes a trip to see the restaurant.
In San Bernardino he learns that a couple of brothers who lived through the Depression of the 1930's came up with an ingenious way to deliver meals: an assembly line. At their McDonald's, people walk up to a window instead of being served by a doll on skates, which is certainly much less sexy but more efficient. Kroc orders the typical lunch: burger, fries and a milkshake and receives his order in less than a minute. Happy customers receive their orders quickly, and more orders can be fulfilled in less time. Kroc meets the brothers who tell their story.
Kroc realizes that there's an opportunity to expand the idea, duplicating restaurants all over the United States, which is I think Kroc's true innovation. The McDonald brothers lament that they tried with mixed results to expand, but managers in different locales had their own way of doing things. Kroc decides he needs to replicate the idea exactly. He then signs a contract with the brothers allowing him to entice other entrepreneur-investors to open up franchises. He signs businessmen with deeper pockets to open up franchises, but there's a problem. Despite that he convinces businessmen like himself to open up McDonalds restaurants, Kroc is receiving very little revenue for his efforts, and all the while the McDonald brothers are busy with their own restaurant in San Bernardino.
After a confrontation with the bank which initially gave him the loan with which he is close to defaulting on, he meets Harry J. Sonneborn. Sonneborn explains why Kroc is not making nearly as much money as he could be. He explains to Kroc he shouldn't be in the fast-food business, but be in the real estate business. And this becomes the final piece in the puzzle to create the McDonald's empire.
A thoroughly enjoyable film, certainly not a masterpiece of filmmaking in the same way that McDonald's hamburgers are not exactly gourmet. The brilliance of the film is its understatement without becoming too maudlin or idealistic. The point of the Founder is that while Kroc didn't innovate the idea of an assembly-line food outlet, Kroc figured out how to take the idea and make it global. The only piece missing from the story concerns the french fries. Apparently, on that fateful day when Kroc visited McDonalds in San Bernardino, he asked why so many people were at the restaurant. Burgers good? They're okay. What about the shakes? Pretty good. Well, then what? The French fries were the best they'd ever had!
Gut-Wrenching Cinematic Dismemberment of an SF Classic: One of the Worst Film Adaptions of an SF Novel
"Dune" the novel is possibly the greatest science fiction novel ever written and this film will go down as one of the worst in SF film history. Even with a large budget, David Lynch and company managed to gut everything beautiful and compelling about "Dune". Although the sets and costumes were reasonably good much of the look and effects of "Dune" were disastrously disappointing, and the film lacked the charm and wit of Star Wars and its original novel.
The setting is one of the most complex ever devised in a science fiction novel. The known "galaxy" is made up of noble houses which seem very similar to the Italian city-states of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. The House Atreides is the focus of the story. At the story's beginning the House of Atreides has been ruling a lush water planet Caladan. However, now upon a command of the Emperor, Atreides has been assigned to take over the desert planet Arrakis. Arrakis is a mostly desolate desert planet nicknamed "Dune" with only one vital commodity. Arrakis is the only place in the known galaxy where the spice mélange can be mined and harvested. Mélange offers not only sensational properties to those who consume it, but it contains healing and even life-prolonging attributes. It is the most coveted commodity in the galaxy. However, the spice is difficult to harvest, not only because of the bitter climate of the desert, but large sand worms with maws the size of Star Trek's the Doomsday Machine and about the length of four 747's. They tend to be attracted by the mining equipment used to harvest the spice.
The House Atreides moves to Arrakis where the Emperor forced the evil and immoral House Harkonen to abandon their residence. Harkonen was abusing the spice trade not allowing the spice to "flow" to other parts of the galaxy without hefty inflated prices. While the Emperor doesn't entirely trust House Atreides, he feels the spice trade will prosper better under the direction of Atreides. The main family consists of Duke Leto I Atreides, the current head of the House Atreides, his son Paul Atreides, and his concubine Lady Jessica, mother of Paul.
Infuriated by their forced exodus from Arrakis, Baron Vladimir Harkonen has vowed revenge against House Atreides. He desires to subdue House Atreides and reclaim possession of Arrakis. The plot essentially surrounds the conflict between House Atreides and House Harkonen and their battle for the fate of the Dune planet. Paul Atreides begins to hear of a prophecy, a messiah who will come to Dune from out-world and save the Fremin, the main people of Dune.
Hollywood film executives thought David Lynch was the most appropriate director for the project. (Ridley Scott was the first choice but booked for "Blade Runner".) Problems were apparent going in. Lynch had never directed a science fiction film before, he was not really a science fiction enthusiast, and he had never read the original novel. The end-product was one of the worst disasters in both film history and cinematic science fiction. Not only was it a terrible film which didn't do justice to Herbert's novel, it bombed miserably at the box office.
First off, the script was very confusing. While there are a lot of characters in the novel, it would have behooved the project to focus only on Paul Atreides and his immediate family and the baddies the House Harkonen. Only someone who really knew and understood the novel thoroughly would be able to follow the script. Films of this sort can't be targeted only to readers of the novel, and thee were too many disjointed scenes. To give the film a few positives, the casting was pretty good, and Kyle MacLachlan was a good choice for Paul Atreides. However, the acting didn't seem quite up to Herbert's material.
Even given the large budget, some of the special effects looked cheap and silly. The sand-worms didn't come off as menacing as they do in the book. These are supposed to be the equivalent of sand sharks but the film made them seem more like woolly mammoths with long tales. The filtered look of the film itself was also much to be desired. For the entire film, I thought I was trapped in a sandstorm. Yes, I understand it's a desert planet, but even a desert planet should be made to look beautiful and inviting which is often part of the point of SF, again another reason David Lynch was probably not the best choice to direct it. Even the cover art of the first edition of "Dune" shows some green.
The film was also needlessly violent. The biggest blunder of the entire project was the portrayal of Baron Vladimir Harkonen, the equivalent of Darth Vader. While Darth Vader was certainly evil and menacing, Vader was never insufferable. Vader was also regarded as one of the best baddies in SF cinema, maybe the best ever. The Baron was portrayed so disgustingly insufferable, I didn't want to watch him. Herbert does describe him as overweight, but not disgusting. Lynch decided to portray him as a revolting and sickening blob of flesh with skin melting like wax. Who wants to watch such a horrid thing? Every time the Baron entered a scene, I wanted to look away. By contrast, the SF Channel's rendition is much more palpable. He's already an insufferable character; the filmmakers didn't have to add to the character's baddiness by making him so revolting I almost wanted to lose my lunch.
Overall one of the biggest mistakes in SF film history. Lynch's "Dune" is not even as entertaining as "Plan Nine from Outer Space". It's a humorousless, pointless, and unentertaining two hours of your life you'll never get back. And it had no heart, and that's the tragedy of this film. It had some of the look and feel of the novel, but none of its heart.
The Real Face of Jesus? (2010)
A Grossly Misleading Documentary About a Medieval Artifact
I'll pose the question in simple terms: Is the Shroud of Turin real or a fake? The answer is yes, it is a real medieval artifact possibly depicting Jesus Christ probably produced sometime in the 14th century. Is it an ancient shroud which wrapped the dead body of Jesus after his execution by crucifixion? The answer is almost certainly no. Even if the artifact was proved to be an ancient shroud, the likelihood that this linen wrapped Jesus' body is probably nil. But the shroud shows the image of a scourged and possibly crucified man; isn't this sufficient evidence this shows Jesus because this is the method by which he was executed? In the following paragraphs, I'll explain some of the problems with the documentary's intent to "prove" this was the shroud of Jesus.
First off, let's explore the first question: Is the shroud real or fake? Well, it depends upon the definition of "fake". I keep hearing in this documentary and others concerning this subject that the Shroud of Turin is either a "fake" or it's "real". A fake is an object which is meant to deceive people, implying the creators were trying to pull a "fast one". After everything I've heard of this artifact, there's nothing to tell me that someone in the Middle Ages decided they would create something to fool people for centuries into believing this was a contemporary image of Jesus Christ. The idea of creating fakes of something purporting to be something else is certainly not a new one, but it's not clear to me the intent was to create a deceiving object.
We have scant evidence for the Shroud's history dating before 1357 when it was first exhibited. This year is consistent with the carbon dating of 1988 which gave a time-frame for its creation as 1260 to 1390. More than likely, it was created probably circa 1300 to 1350 and eventually displayed. As the documentary describes, there is some evidence of a shroud of some kind with an image depicting Jesus dating back before the 14th century, but there's no definitive link between the Shroud of Turin and some of the stories concerning shrouds. As correctly pointed out in the documentary, the image of a face wasn't revealed until 1898 by photographer Secondo Pia. If this were a "fake" in the sense of trying to deceive, it wasn't a very good one since it took about 550 years for anyone to discover an image!
Could this be the shroud which wrapped Jesus' body? Wrapping a deceased person in a shroud was common practice in Ancient times, the Middle Ages and up to the present time in some traditions. If you consider the thousands upon thousands, perhaps millions of deceased people who were wrapped in shrouds and placed in ossuaries during the period 100 BCE to 100 CE (200 years), the likelihood this particular shroud is that of Jesus is astronomically minuscule. However, there are other problems, mainly a misunderstanding of crucifixion as the most brutal form of execution in ancient times.
Another interesting observation made by the players in the documentary is the scourging of the body. One of the commentators says the scourging is highly "unusual" because of its brutality. Actually, scourging was almost always a precursor to crucifixion in Roman practice. The condemned were scourged by flogging to subdue the poor victim into a helpless state of shock to prevent resistance. The brutality was intentional. Shortly thereafter, the condemned would carry the cross-beam to the place of execution, not the entire cross, while in a dazed state caused by scourging. So even in the remote chance this is possibly the image of a crucified man from ancient times, having been scourged would be expected. This wouldn't be unusual, although by modern standards, scourging followed by crucifixion is a terrifyingly horrible way to be executed.
The New Testament states Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and requested the body of Jesus. Most scholars believe this scenario is probably apocryphal, i.e. did not happen. Why not, the gospel writers say it did? The trouble is, this was part of the point of crucifixion as execution. The humiliation and degradation of crucifixion was not only during the time of the execution itself which was painfully slow, but it was also humiliation after death. Bodies were left to rot on the uprights, often subject to the elements. As a way to deter would-be dissidents, particularly among slaves and lower classes, victims were denied burial. During extensive research, only one instance was ever found of a crucified body found in an ancient ossuary. The Joseph of Arimathea story was probably written to create a resurrection scenario. Sad to say, the episode of Jesus' body taken down from the cross and prepared for burial is probably a storytelling device rather than an historical event.
The main problem with this documentary is the filmmakers obviously desire to prove the shroud is the real image of Jesus. I don't think scholars believe the image is a "fake" just not a real image of Jesus from ancient times. Crucified people were almost never given the dignity of burial. In the remote possibly this is an image of a crucified man from ancient times, evidence he was scourged does not offer any further evidence that the image is that of Jesus. Thousands of people were crucified. Many more were buried in shrouds. According to this and other docs, there is blood on the shroud. Why not carbon date the blood? One thing it could be: a medieval image upon an ancient cloth. Is that not possible as well?