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The Young Pope (2016)
Surreal and Yet Somewhat Confusing Fictional Pope
For some reason, when I began watching the first episode of this series, I thought this was an historical account of a pope who happened to begin his tenure when he was "relatively" young, which in Roman Catholic Pope terms, that's probably under 50. For those of you who may be tentatively interested in this series, "The Young Pope" is not an historical account of a pope. This is an entirely fictional narrative about a young North American pope who during the first episode desires to break with the religious traditions which have been keeping the Vatican stuck in a proverbial time machine for more or less 1500 years. Yes, the Vatican has electricity, its own television channel and even its own website which it updates periodically. However, the inner workings of the Vatican have essentially functioned as if it's still in the early Middle Ages. Princes and dukes don't arrive asking for land grants and bishoprics as they did in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but ceremonially, it's still the Roman Catholic Church as it for well over 1000 years.
Jude Law in an interesting and understated performance plays Pope Pius XIII (note the unlucky number) who has come to the papacy as a radical change: he's the first North American pope from the United States. The film begins with the new pope having some surreal dreams, first dreaming he's in a pit among baby corpses, waking up, then giving a speech about his radical changes to the masses in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Then he wakes up again. He is obviously new to the job but the story begins after Conclave, the assemblage of cardinals who choose the new pope after one has either died or resigned. He's meeting his inner circle who need to teach him the ways of the Vatican. Unfortunately, he's not a terribly good student, questioning the traditions and rules some of which were instituted 15 years ago while others were put in place 500 years ago.
To make matters more uncomfortable for the clergy in the Vatican, probably causing them more sleepless nights, he solicits the help of Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), apparently his guardian since he was a child. We see a few scenes of his childhood in flashback. The other senior members are a bit nonplussed by Sister Mary's presence in the Vatican as a confidante and adviser, but there's nothing they can do about it. He is pope and whatever he says becomes doctrine nearly instantly. If he wants Sister Mary, he gets her, despite that other priests and clergy who have spent nearly a lifetime in the Vatican may protest privately. But that's just the beginning. He even compels one of the priests to violate his vow secrecy in the confessional, and the pope learns about some intra-Vatican intrigue.
This series is a bit strange; I have no sense where it's going and even why I care about this "new" pope. He keeps asking for a Cherry Coke Zero and cigarettes which conflict with current papal comportment. While the visuals are amazing, I was finding my attention drifting away from the story. The first episode doesn't really seem like a story at all, but more like a set-up. The scenes are constructed in large open spaces where often only a handful of characters occupy. Probably the Vatican is occasionally like this, especially in their large chapels, but there's usually lots going on. The Vatican is a vibrant political organization at its core. "The Young Pope" appears to be portraying a different and surreal Vatican, one which is more dreamlike than the actual place. Interestingly, this series which has already aired in its entirety in other parts of Europe and Britain, was a surprise hit in Italy.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Old West Version of the Seventh Samuri Holds Up Reasonably Well Becoming the Prototype for the "Group of Guys" Subgenre
The "group of guys" movie if that's what it's called (I don't know if it has an established term), is a type of genre film in which a group of relatively diverse characters band together either to solve a problem or commit a crime. They are sometimes recognizable with a number referring to the number of characters in the title but many do not include a number. Often, the "team" is made up of name actors. Recent offerings, most of which are of the heist variety, include "Ocean's 11", "Tower Heist", "The Italian Job", and "The Usual Suspects". Older ones include "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Great Escape". Often the characters are assembled by a "leader" character of sorts before the mission is carried out. One of the earliest which may have provided the prototype for all "group of guys" films is "The Magnificent Seven" with Yul Brynner as the "lead", similar to Danny Ocean of "Ocean's 11".
The plot of "The Magnificent Seven" is not terribly original as far as these kinds of films are concerned, although it's not so much the plot but the characters and how they play out on screen. The story derives from Akira Kurosawa's "The Seventh Samuri" and MS is essentially the same story set in the Old West. It's main innovation, in addition to the "group of guys", may have been the beautiful on-location shooting in Mexico that makes the film as scenic as it is. Many films prior to The Magnificent Seven had been shot on-location with lots of studio scenes. (I wonder if they'll release a cleaned-up version of the original. The four "Magnificent Seven" films are available in a blu-ray set but they may simply be a straight transference from film to Blu-ray without much of a face-lift as the DVD appears to be.)
In a small village in Mexico in the late 19th century, some humble farmers keep getting everything they've harvested ransacked by the old west equivalent of Al Capone, Calvera (Eli Wallach), and his merry band of banditos, the Mexican equivalent of the James-younger gang of around the same time. The villagers believe if they allow Calvera to continue pillaging, he'll never stop until the village becomes nothing more than a starved out ghost town. A small entourage rides to a US border town to buy guns. They stumble across an altercation with a visitor and some locals concerning the proper burial of a dead Native American. Two gunslingers (Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen) keep the peace, preventing the town from becoming like wooden Swiss cheese. The Mexican entourage impressed with what they saw, ask Brynner to help them with their "problem" back in Mexico.
Brynner then begins assembling a group of gunslingers to combat Wallach and his group of sombrero-wearing thugs. Each character is introduced with a scene which tells us something about who the character is and their specialty in combat. This bringing-the-group-together sequence of scenes has become so prevalent in these films it's almost a cliché. In the recent Ocean's 11 remake, Clooney as Danny Ocean does the same thing. We see one of Ocean's potential recruits in one of their exploits before Ocean taps him to become part of the team. The same idea occurs in about the first third of The Magnificent Seven. Other notable character actors who fill out the "team" are James Colburn, Charles Bronson (who also played in "The Dirty Dozen"), and Robert Vaughn. Part of the plot which I assume was the idea behind the title "The Seventh Samuri" is that a young gunslinger Chico (Horst Werner Buchholz) wants to join the group but the older gunslingers believe he's a bit too green.
The seven then come to the Mexican village to await the return of Wallach and company. We experience the typical "W"-shaped story arc where things are bad, they get better, before becoming intolerable again. The final denouement of "The Magnificent Seven" is a bit weak compared to the rest of the film. That said, it still holds up reasonably decently as one of the better westerns prior to the Eastwood Spaghetti westerns. Brynner and McQueen have few lines and they always seem to do better in films where they don't have too much to say. Their on-screen presence fills in where dialog is superfluous. It's still a classic of two genres: the Western and the "group of guys". Although I wouldn't exactly call it masterpiece filmmaking in the way some later westerns are, particularly "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007).
The Merchant of Venice (2004)
Underrated Shakespeare Film Production: Pacino and Irons Are Exemplary Dueling Over the Pound of Flesh
The phrase "a pound of flesh", written by William Shakespeare in "The Merchant of Venice", entered into the English lexicon by the 18th century. It refers to a vengeful payback for a debt or injustice. In the 16th-century story, the Jewish moneylender, Shylock (Al Pacino), loans 3000 ducats, a very hefty sum of money, to Antonio (Jeremy Irons), the merchant and title character. The bond stipulates if the 3000 ducats is not repaid on time, Shylock has the right to extract literally a pound of flesh from Antonio, rather than paying interest. The story concerns essentially three intersecting plots: the loan from Shylock to Antonio, the courtship of Antonio's friend Bassanio with the noblewoman Portia, and the elopement of Shylock's daughter Jessica.
During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Christians, be they moneylenders, tradesmen, or nobility, were not allowed to charge interest on debts, called usury. Those enacting usury could be fined themselves, imprisoned, or in some cases hanged. However, during the same period, Jews, who were exempt from being able to engage in many aspects of business, were allowed to charge interest on loans, one reason why Jews would eventually have a major presence in finance in modern times. Shakespeare's story begins when Antonio's friend Bassanio desires to woo Portia, a wealthy noblewoman and heiress who is shown in the film living on an island, presumably off the coast of Italy. Bassanio needs financing to make the journey to the island, so Antonio in turn borrows money from Shylock, the wealthy but ostracized Jew. Most of the story takes place in Venice with some scenes on Portia's island palace.
Every character in Michael Radford's beautiful adaption of William Shakespeare's "comedy" (although more serious than many of his other comedies) is exquisitely cast. The stand-outs are Al Pacino as Shylock, the money-lending Jew, Jeremy Irons as Antonio, the merchant of Venice, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, the love-struck youth seeking Portia, and Lynn Collins as Portia, the single heiress whose stories of her beauty, wealth and availability have spread throughout Europe. According to the Will set forth by Portia's father, a suitor who desires Portia's hand must choose among three caskets/ornate boxes. The potential husband is told that one box contains Portia while the other two do not. If the suitor chooses correctly, he automatically wins Portia's hand in marriage. If he does not choose correctly, he must leave her presence never to return.
From the Middle Ages all the way to circa 1800, Jews were marginalized in Europe. They had to wear special clothing to distinguish themselves from Christians. In Shakespeare's vision, Shylock is constantly harassed by Antonio, until, the latter needs money to help his friend Bassanio in his quest for Portia. Rather than charge interest on the debt if it's not repaid according to the agreement, Shylock desires "a pound of flesh" to be taken from Antonio's breast. He stipulates this in the bond or contract for the debt as payback for the many injustices inflicted upon Shylock simply because he is a Jew.
Meanwhile, suitors are coming from all over Europe to attempt the "game" of the caskets to win Portia's hand. Simultaneously, Shylock's daughter, Jessica, has fallen in love with a Venetian Christian, against her father's wishes. The different story lines intersect and climax with the famous courtroom scene in which Shylock demands his "pound of flesh", arguing his case in a Venetian courtroom presided over by the Duke of Venice. One of the great masterpieces of English literature brought to the large screen with beautiful scenery, costuming and music which does justice to the era in which the story takes place.
Jersey Boys (2014)
Amadeus Meets Goodfellas: Street Punks of Jersey Create the Defining Pop Sound Prior to the Beatles
In 1959, the music died: Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in the most infamous plane crash in the history of Rock 'N' Roll, and Elvis Presley was drafted into the army. In music a number of one-hit wonders entered and left the pop-culture music stage until a bunch of street hoodlums formed a singing group which would become the defining sound of the early 1960's prior to the Beatles. They went under a host of different names, until they settled on the Four Seasons and eventually Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli and Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio lead a tremendous cast of superb actors in this thoroughly enjoyable and intricate behind-the-scenes exposé of one of the biggest pop music phenomena prior to the Beatles. Some of the story techniques are similar to Amadeus and Goodfellas in which voice overs of the different characters tell the story at different times. The very beginning of the story is somewhat confusing. Eventually we learn that Valli's older friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is a kind of Jersey equivalent of Santino "Sonny" Corleone of "The Godfather". He gets into trouble in the streets, convincing Valli and a few other friends to hijack a safe from a local business. Eventually he decides to form a singing group and he asks Frankie and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) to join.
For a time they are a trio with different drummers. Their sound isn't bad but their songs are a bit "derivative" of other songs already on the radio. Then they solicit the help of Bob Gaudio, a song-writer who had one hit under his belt as co-writer of "Short Shorts". They become studio back-up singers under Bob Crewe but they can't land a recording of one of their own songs. Crewe claims their songs still aren't unique enough, until Gaudio presents the group with "Sherry" which becomes the group's first hit single which will define most of the group's sound during the early 1960's with Valli's falsetto the trademark voice occasionally punctuated with the bass voice of Massi.
Simultaneously, a sub-plot is developing in which Tommy has gotten in with loan sharks and the meter keeps running high. Eventually, it's time to pay the piper and the group is left holding the tab. The group disbands leaving just Valli and Gaudio. Gaudio writes a song which would become a kind of farewell anthem of the sound of the early 1960's but in a way looks forward to some of the music of the 1970's. Unlike the sound of "Sargent Pepper" of the Beatles, the song becomes an unlikely hit. Initially the records producers and executives felt the song would bomb because it wasn't Rock but wasn't really Pop/Easy Listening either. It's not Rock per se but a pop sound which would become part of the pop sound of music which appealed to a slightly older audience apart from the sound of Rock which was taking over the teenage Baby Boom audience. It would become Frankie Valli's biggest hit up until that time.
With the rise of the Beatles, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones, the Four Seasons became somewhat eclipsed. Music enthusiasts sometimes forget the Four Seasons were the Beatles of their day, producing a string of hits some of which have withstood more or less: "Sherry", "Walk Like a Man", "Ragdoll". I would certainly not crown the Four Seasons as the best group of the 1960's but they certainly had something to say in music. And Frankie Valli became the most popular falsetto singer of the late 20th century until Michael Jackson.
Relatively Enjoyable Installment in the HP World But Confusing Because of Lack of Focus
Francis Ford Coppola once said that to make a film work, a filmmaker should be able to sum up the entire film in a single word or phrase. (He defined his epic "The Godfather" as "succession".) In "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them", I wasn't quite sure of the main focus of the film, in other words I couldn't find a single phrase to sum to up what the story was about. Hence the film moves in many different directions, and while there is much to praise in the film, the screenplay was in need of a few more rewrites. At first the main focus seemed to be "save the beasts" but later it became "stop the Obscurus". Even by film's end, I wasn't entire convinced how these two ideas related to each other.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a Hogwarts graduate and scholar of fantastic beasts of sorts, arrives in New York. Scamander's character seems literally a cross between Harry Potter and renowned physicist Stephen Hawking (whom Redmayne played in the 2014 film "The Theory of Everything"). He's been engaged in a long quest to stop the highest officials of the magic world from exterminating the many magical beasts which infiltrate the magic world. The political body in America has been concerned that sometimes these beasts slip into the muggle (non-magic) world, and they are dedicated to ensure the muggle world never become privy to the magic world. Newt has brought with him a special "case" which contains many of these magical beasts, sort of like the magical equivalent of Noah's Ark.
Scamander crosses paths with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a lovable nobody muggle/no-maj who simply desires to create a bakery in the city. He is going to one of the local banks to plead for a loan, and he also carries a case similar in size, color and design to that being held by Scamander, although his is simply filled with samples of his pastries. Through several happenstance encounters causing several of Newt's beasts to escape into the muggle world, Jacob and Newt become reluctant bedfellows, so-to-speak, as Jacob is introduced to the magic world before he can be "obliviated", the magic world's term for erasing muggles' memories of magic encounters. Newt is then arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an agent of the Ministry of Magic, Auror division, which enforces the strict law of magic, which includes keeping muggles ignorant of the presence of magic people. They also meet Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Tina's roommate who takes a liking to Jacob.
Simultaneously, the city is being ravaged by an unseen "force" which seems to have supernatural qualities and inclinations. This thing enjoys chewing up buildings and streets and then spitting them into rubble. An anti-witch/anti-magic group run by Mary Lou Barebone is making street speeches that "something" is invading their city, preaching on a soap box a little bit like Aimee Semple McPherson of the Pentecostal movement in Los Angeles in the early 20th century. She seems to be aware of the presence of "magic people" and fantastic beasts in her midst. She also runs an orphanage and "cares" for several children: Credence, Chastity, and Modesty. The eldest, a young man, is Credence who wears funereal clothing and acts and appears to be constantly troubled. At one point, the Barebone "family" (if family they can be called) enter one of the local newspapers asking the editor Henry Shaw, Sr. (Jon Voight) to look into the matter. He refuses the request. Credence is then befriended by someone in the magic world: Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), one of the top officials in the Ministry of Magic in America. Graves promises Credence he will become "welcome" in the magic world if the younger man helps him to find the dark force, called an obscurus; Graves is convinced the force is someone in the Barebone orphanage.
The story then moves basically on three fronts: Newt dealing with his escaped magical creatures, the anti-magic society among whom Credence has befriended a wizard and Ministry of Magic official, and the strange dark "force" which runs rampant through the city, smashing up the metropolis into the equivalent of Dresden during the Second World War. While these different ideas do finally converge by film's end, much of how all the pieces fit was very confusing. Some of the sequences where Newt was chasing escaped beasts, trying to get them back into his case, went on for too long. One good sequence, which is I think Rowling's strength, is when Newt introduces Jacob to his menagerie of beasts inside his case.
Overall, generally a good film, but it needed to be tightened more. The Harry Potter films were much better focused while this film seemed a bit "all over the place". Personally, the first 1/2 hour and the last 1/2 hour were the most interesting. Some parts of the middle hour were often perplexing. I liked the acting of all the leads, although sometimes Newt (Redmayne) was a bit difficult to hear, and he would move his head somewhat away from the camera. When he describes the dark force "the obscurus", he was somewhat enigmatic in his explanation. Maybe I wanted a flashback to see the creation of the obscurus and what it was about rather than the endless "lets get the creature" before the muggles find out sequences. Still, generally it holds together, but it was close to a misfire.
My Fellow Americans (1996)
Descent One-Watch Political Comedy Which Will End Up Being More Amusing than the Trump Presidency
The premise of the film is that current office-holder President William Haney (Dan Ackroyd) was involved in an illegal kick-back scheme, giving contracts to a defense company for cash when he was vice president. To prevent the downfall of Haney's presidency, his assistant Carl Witnaur (Bradley Whitford) creates an ingenious cover-up: pin it on former president Russell Kramer (Jack Lemmon). Now while kick-backs are viewed as essentially like bribes, these transgressions may pale in comparison to the nightmare of a Donald Trump presidency. At this writing, Donald Trump was just elected the 45th president of the United States, and the country's divisive nature is rearing its ugly head with protests against a Trump presidency in several urban centers.
The film essentially veers away from any controversy and is essentially a harmless road-movie comedy. The premise is that because of the cover-up, the forces loyal to Haney are hunting down both former presidents Kramer and his republican rival President Matt Douglas (James Garner), both one-term presidents. They are forced to help each other, traveling to Kramer's presidential library in Cleveland, OH. Lemon as Kramer seems loosely based on President George H.W. Bush, conservative republican, and President Douglas is loosely based on President Bill Clinton, womanizing democrat. The main outcome which is only applied with a sledge-hammer is that the one-term presidents of opposing parties have more in common than they realize.
Similar to many other road films, from "the Silver Streak" with Gene Wilder and Richard Prior in the 1970's to "Get Him to the Greek" starring Russell Brand and Jonah Hill in 2010, "My Fellow Americans" is the tried-and-true formula of two reluctant traveling companions who discover more about one-another than when they were political rivals. They intersect with members of middle America with which they probably wouldn't have ever seen even at campaign rallies, except maybe in issues of The National Enquirer: an obese female trucker, lower-middle class unemployed's, gays and lesbians in a small town, and, my favorite "dykes on bikes".
They learn that there's more to the working lower middle-class than meets the eye but again, it's kind of too obvious for its own good. Inter-spliced with this supposedly "deep" message is a lot of goofy bits. For example, they meet an Elvis impersonator about to board a costume-party train (rings a bit like scenes from "Trading Places"), and he assumes they're actors or impersonators dressed like recent US presidents. In another moment, their car is skewered by a "Jack in the Box" statue at a fast food stop while on the road.
The biggest problem is the film tries to be goofy yet somehow poignant, but it can't make up it's mind as to which road it wants to take. "Primary Colors", a far superior film to "My Fellow Americans" found an excellent balance between comedy and its darker message. In places "Primary Colors" was very funny, but the humor derived from scenes in which real politicians could be imagined engaging in outrageous behavior, such as when John Travolta as Governor Stanton throws his cell phone out of their car and they have to find it in the shrubbery. By contrast, many scenes in "My Fellow Americans" were too outrageous to be believed. The end up in a small town among a gay pride parade, hiding from their would-be assassins. The locals mistakenly believe the two presidents are "coming out". Seems like it would have been easy to go to the local authorities and contact the FBI or Secret Service! However they never seem to be able to acquire any assistance from anyone in Washington while on the road, and the baddies easily find them. One scene I did like was when they finally reach President Kramer's library, and there's a cut-out standing board with Lemmon as a young actor in uniform, supposedly when Kramer was a Second World War soldier.
A decent one-watch but unfortunately a comedy which had much more potential than it realizes. The characters end up appreciating they are "both Americans". Oh brother. The espionage part is kind of interesting, but the road aspect seemed to be long strings of contrived set-up's for crazy comedic moments which were very forced. What silly thing is going to happen to them next? The two leads, Jack Lemmon and James Garner who are heavy-hitting dramatic-comedic talents make it work. In lesser hands it would have been more like a prolonged Saturday Night Live sketch. However, their characters' supposedly rivalry look more like Superman and Batman. The Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton rivalry of the last election ring more of Eleanor Roosevelt versus Dracula.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Classic Universal Horror Film Is Certainly Above-Average
Without question, the best actor in this classic Universal Studios horror film is Claude Reigns as Sir John Talbot, father of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), heir and victim of the curse of the werewolf. Larry Talbot is an American just arrived to Britain because of the death of his older brother. He is now heir-apparent to a British estate owned by his father John Talbot. (He must have been adopted since Larry bares no resemblance to John whatsoever.) The small town in Britain has some strange lore, particularly one regarding the plant wolfsbane, said to foreshadow the appearance of werewolves, half-man, half-wolf creatures. (Wolfsbane is a poisonous plant found in Europe.) There is even a poem known to the locals about wolfsbane and werewolves.
While trying to court one of the locals, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), Larry Talbot invites her and a friend to hear their fortunes told by some traveling gypsies who have arrived in town. Bela, the gypsy (Béla Lugosi) tells the fortune of their friend Anne on whose hand appears the pentagram, the sign of the wolf. She screams and runs only to be stalked and accosted by a wolf. Talbot hears her cries and runs to rescue her and attacks the wolf with a silver-headed cane he bought earlier in the day. He kills the attacker but unable to save Anne. The next day, Bela the gypsy is found slain where Talbot claims he killed the wolf. The locals now suspect him of being murderer, and possibly being insane. In fact, a curse that had been upon Bela the gypsy is now upon Talbot.
One of the better horror films of the era, circa 1930 to 1945, prior to the silly films involving Abbot and Costello meeting the Universal monster of your choice during the post-war era (circa 1945-1960). Sometimes Chaney's acting is a little bit over the top, and some of the scenes where he tries to court Gwen are a bit unbelievable. (He spots her using a telescope and spies her earrings!) A young Ralph Bellamy plays a local, and Gwen's fiancée has little to do with the story. (They briefly have a shooting contest when the gypsies come to town and put on a carnival.) Still, all things considered, better than many other horror offerings of the era. (Some of the British Hammer films of the 1950's, particularly their version of "The Mummy" are not nearly as good.) Chaney often said of all the Universal monsters he played (including the Mummy and Frankenstein's monster), he liked the Wolf Man the best.
Killing Reagan (2016)
A Well-Acted Depiction of What Could Have Been Another Dallas, November 22, 1963
In the 19th century, stories abound of President Abraham Lincoln walking down the streets of Washington D.C., unworried about his safety, even though several million southern soldiers were pledged to kill him. (Alexander Gardner had taken what turned out to be Lincoln's last photograph, and the president had walked to the photo studio.) The Secret Service did not yet exist, and when it was inaugurated two months after Lincoln's assassination, it was not an operation to protect the president, but a federal investigatory unit to combat currency counterfeiting. One hundred years later, particularly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, ensuring the safety of the US President became a 24/7 job. What changed? Probably the biggest difference is the president's perpetual presence in national and international media, in the newspapers but mostly on television. Interestingly, television and film actors have the same problem: because of hyped media, there are people in the world, some of whom are not playing with a full deck, who become obsessed with media figures.
The made-for-cable film, "Killing Reagan", focuses on the events just before, during and after John Hinckley (Kyle S. More) attempted to assassinate then US President Ronald Reagan outside a Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. only two months into his presidency in 1981. Hinckley was a disturbed young man not obsessed with Reagan per se, but instead with actress Jodi Foster. He was also obsessed with the film "Taxi Driver" starring Robert De Niro and also a very young Jodi Foster in a supporting role. In the film, the protagonist Travis Bickle fantasizes about plotting the assassination of a presidential candidate. Hinckley convinced himself that he could win over Foster's admiration by killing President Reagan, which given Foster's attitudes towards tougher gun restrictions, seems at face value absurd. However, stalkers live in their own "truth".
The film mainly reveals much of the behind-the-scenes activity surrounding the assassination attempt which came very close to being a replay of Dallas in November, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by deranged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald was 24 when he killed Kennedy (and was killed shortly thereafter by a local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby), and Hinckley was 25 when he shot Reagan. According to the film, Hinckley had been "stalking" President Carter during his reelection campaign, again probably inspired by "Taxi Driver". He moves to New Haven, CT, where Foster was an undergraduate, and constantly calls her and sends her postcards and letters. However, Hinckley's moves are never reciprocated, only rebuffed.
On the other side of the tracks is President Ronald Reagan (Tim Matheson in a convincing performance) and Nancy Reagan (Cynthia Nixon in what could be an Emmy-nominated performance) and their cabinet heads. What the public may not have known is how close another US President came to dying in office not two decades from the last time. In a split-second decision that influenced world history in the wake of the attempt, Jerry Parr (Joe Chrest), after noticing the president coughing up blood, changed the direction of the car from the White House to George Washington University Hospital, which was less than 4 minutes from the Hilton. Even when Reagan entered the hospital, it wasn't certain he would live, as the surgery to remove the bullet turned out to be far more problematic than anticipated. Some contradictory reports had been issued by the press, at first that Reagan had not been hit but later that he had. While in surgery, several of Reagan's cabinet members bicker about who is in charge, since then Vice President George HW Bush was in Air Force Two in Texas.
A good cast tells a very compelling and interesting story about one of the scariest episodes of the 1980's. Many who were alive at the time remember vividly the assassination of John F. Kennedy which, for some of them like my parents, seemed not that long in the past. I hadn't been born when JFK was assassinated, but I was in Junior High School at the time of Reagan's brush with death, and I remember where I was when I heard the news of the shooting. Although it didn't receive nearly as much publicity, President Barack Obama was shot at during his first term in office on the presidential balcony at the White House. The shot completely missed but only by inches. If there's anything which can be said of holding the office of US President, it's a dangerous job.
Auto Focus (2002)
The Tragic Downfall of a Television Legend from Sexual Addiction
The whole Hollywood/Entertainment scene in Los Angeles has to be one of the most surreal in modern culture. Actors who play "cool" and "suave" characters are often thought to be those characters in real life, but often they are not. Their creations are fantasies designed to entertain. Among the few name acting talents who receive accolades from both audiences and critics, some of them played characters which have become nearly iconic. Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on Star Trek is one, Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker is another. And who could forget George Reeves as Superman in the 1950's. And Bob Crane playing the quick-witted and shrewd but lovable Colonel Hogan on the sit-com "Hogan's Heroes" is another. (Interesting that so many iconic television characters appeared from the 1950's to 1970's.)
Bob Crane was one of the most recognizable of television stars from the mid-1960's to the early 1970's as the title character of "Hogan's Heroes". "Hogan's Heroes" was a light-hearted fantasy set in a POW camp in Germany during World War II. During the show, Hogan and his fellow "prisoners" out-witted and out-smarted their incompetent German captors in light and mostly inoffensive farce, of course unless you were possibly of German descent. In particular Colonel Klink who was almost as lovable as Hogan was often the butt of Crane and his compatriots' schemes who ran an underground communications system inside the camp. (It is one of the few sit-coms from its era which has withstood the test of time more or less.)
Hogan's Heroes aside, the film "Auto Focus" paints a darker picture of Bob Crane. Although the finer details of his "other life" were slightly altered according to his sons, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is depicted as a sex addict. When he was not in the studio playing Hogan, he would avoid his family and engage in sex-capades with a video tech rep, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). At first the two spend hours at strip clubs in which Crane would sometimes sit in as a drummer, and Crane would claim long hours at the studio as his excuse to his family.
Carpenter then introduces Crane to the wonders of home video technology, first reel-to-reel then video cassette tape, nearly 10 years before it would be widely available on the consumer market. They can not only watch pre-made videos, but they can produce their own. Crane and Carpenter would pick up young women at a club and invite them to Carpenter's place where he video tapes their sexual encounters. They were almost never rejected because of Crane's star status which would be too much for young girls to resist. Later Crane and Carpenter would watch their videos as yet another way to achieve stimulation and gratification. Soon, Crane's wife since high school discovers some of his tapes and videos and his appalled at his extracurricular activities. To add insult to injury, Crane begins seeing one of the actresses on the set of "Hogan's Heroes".
Probably the two most tragic television actors who enjoyed their biggest successes during the era from circa 1950 to 1970 are George Reeves who played Superman and Bob Crane who played Colonel Hogan. George Reeves was found dead in 1959 just after his stint as Superman ended, apparently having committed suicide. Bob Crane was found murdered in his bed in an apartment in 1978 while engaged in a theater play, "Beginner's Luck", in Scottsdale, AZ. Both struggled as actors after their respective shows ended. They may have suffered from "type casting" in which the characters they played were so fused with themselves they couldn't find acting work as different characters in other productions. Unlike Reeves, Crane did receive some work after "Hogan's Heroes", such as appearing in two Disney films. However, his career would never equal the success he had playing Hogan. The murder of Crane is still regarded as unsolved but the film implies who probably committed the murderous deed.
The Illusionist (2006)
Enjoyable 19th-Century Mystery-Fantasy About the Power of Illusion
In the wake of the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries, the 19th century saw a rise in interest in the occult, mysticism and magic. Séance ceremonies, fortune-telling, occult literature, and magic acts became widespread in popularity, and much of this interest in matters supernatural and the inexplicable have survived into the 21st century. However, from circa 1845 until the death of Houdini in 1926, magic and illusion were some of the most popular theatrical acts in Europe and America. (Previously performing magicians were often among traveling shows, and today only a handful of magic performers have national and international fame.) "The Illusionist", starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel, is a throw-back to the 19th century's obsession with mysticism and magic.
Edward Norton, in a compelling atypical performance, plays Eduard Abramovich, an Austrian provincial, who has made a name for himself as Eisenheim the Illusionist. The film begins in 1889 with the last of a series of controversial theatrical illusions in which apparitions of dead people appear on stage at Eisenbeim's bidding and speak to the audience. Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Giamatti) stops the performance and arrests the illusionist on the grounds of disturbing the peace. He was sent to arrest both Eisenheim and the performances by Crown Prince Leopold of Austria (Rufus Sewell). Giamatti then meets with Prince Leopold later the same evening and recounts the story of Eduard Abramovich and his rise from lowly peasant to magic superstar who has a following similar to Harry Houdini.
Most of the film is a flash-back from a young Abramovich meeting an elderly magician and then befriending a girl betrothed to the crown prince, Duchess Sophie von Teschen. The two are caught spending time together, and are separated not only because of class but because the duchess is already promised to the crown prince. Fast-forward 15 years, and Abramovich, now known as Eisenheim, is wowing audiences with incredible tricks. The crown prince and duchess, intrigued with rumors about the magician, attend one of his performances, and the duchess is selected to participate in one of the spectacles.
Intrigued, the crown prince invites the magician for a private performance. Then Eisenheim inadvertently humiliates the crown prince in a trick involving the prince's sword, and the love between the duchess and the performer is rekindled. Sensing the magician is not only challenging his political power in the eyes of his subjects but may have designs on his fiancé, the crown prince orders the arrest of Eisenheim. His lust for power and control ends in an unexpected fatality.
This is just a really entertaining movie, somewhat similar to fantasies in the earliest days of Hollywood entertainment. Transitions between scenes sometimes use the old-style kaleidoscopic/tunnel wipes often associated with silent movies. Certainly, Norton's character is the center of attention, but equally good are the supporting characters played by Giamatti, Biel, and Sewell. Giamatti does a fine job of straddling between the inspector of Vienna pledged to uphold the law while doing the bidding of the power-hungry crown prince. Biel is convincing as the duchess not quite enamored with the power of Austrian royalty. I also thought Sewell's performance was superb as the crown prince who seems at first very sure of his existing political power but then finds himself gradually losing its grip. A nice twist at the end makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience. Maybe not quite "The Prestige", one of the best films on a similar subject, "The Illusionist" still uphold very well on its own.