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"Dig" (2015)
5 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A Cross Between the Da Vinci Code, State of Play and Raiders of the Lost Ark: Looks To Be a Compelling Series, 6 March 2015

While many film and television viewers like escapist comedies and non-strop action thrillers, I have a weakness for suspense with intricate plots. Sure, I don't mind the occasional chase, but I like them paired with puzzle pieces which are gradually woven together. Only by the end do we see not only how the pieces fit together but the entire picture. Hopefully, in the best films in this genre, each piece of the puzzle is offered but the characters along with the audience can't make the connections initially. They need more puzzle pieces for the mosaic to take shape. Part of the fun is for the audience to discover the pieces and ultimately the entire puzzle as the characters do so.

In this first installment of "Dig", USA network's new suspense-espionage thriller series, we have puzzle pieces but we don't have the full picture yet. The main action takes place in Jerusalem with a few inter-spliced scenes in a compound in New Mexico. The pieces so far: an antiquities dealer arrested for murder, a member of the police who has retrieved some kind of ancient artifact, possibly used with the garb of a high priest from ancient times, the murder of a young woman who is an intern in an archaeological dig near the temple mount in Jerusalem.

Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) is an FBI agent stationed in Jerusalem. It's not exactly clear why he's there, but he's part of criminal investigations in the city regarded as one of the holiest places on Earth by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He befriends a young woman at an evening vigil who takes him into an underground archaeological excavation. She tells him she's an intern at this excavation being overseen by an esteemed archaeologist-historian professor. She tells Connelly the site may hold the secrets of the Ark of the Covenant, the large ornate chest which, according to Jewish legend, held the original stone tablets of the 10 commandments which God bequeathed to Moses who in turn bestowed upon the Israelites. The Ark also supposedly contained artifacts associated with the Jewish people, such as Aaron's rod which, like Moses' rod, wielded magical powers. When the Babylonians conquered the Israelites by ransacking Jerusalem and destroying their temple in the 6th century BCE, the Ark disappeared. (Think of the 1980's hit "Raiders of the Lost Ark".) The following day after his trip to the excavation, Connelly enters his investigative offices and learns a woman has been murdered. When he sees the reports and pictures, he realizes it's the woman he met who gave him a tour of the excavation site. This is the first puzzle piece.

Simultaneously, a fellow Israeli investigator has arrested an antiquities dealer. He confiscated some kind of ancient artifact which has the shape of an abacus with strangely ornate stars. Apparently, they were used on the front of the garb of an ancient high priest, probably for some kind of ritual. This is puzzle pieces number two and three.

The last is the most enigmatic of them all. At a compound in New Mexico, a young boy of 11 or 12 is being held there without other children. We don't understand who these adults are, except they are caring for and in some ways imprisoning this boy. We are told that the boy thought he was waiting for his parents, but now his self-appointed guardians have told him his parents are dead and they are in his charge. And we learn that the head of this compound is called "Pastor". Is this some kind of radical religious cult? This is puzzle piece number four.

While I found the first few minutes dragged slightly, once Connelly meets the young woman, the story starts to pick up. Could be a compelling series. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait every week to get the next installment. Almost wish I could simply buy the whole first season on DVD instead of waiting many weeks to see all the installments. I hope the grand denouement lives up to this very good beginning.

Tabloid (2010)
One of Morris' More Confusing Documentaries Despite Compelling Subject, 5 March 2015

The subject of this documentary is a good one: In Britain in 1977, a Mormon missionary name of Kirk Anderson accused Joyce McKinney, a model and former Miss Wyoming World, of abducting and raping him. Both were Americans. Why were two Americans in Britain? According to McKinney, they were engaged to marry in the States when suddenly Anderson disappeared. McKinney hired a private detective who discovered Anderson, a Mormon, had been sent on missionary work in the UK. McKinney flew to the UK to find him. They did meet each other again and engaged in a sexual encounter, which they both agree on. However, the nature of that encounter is disputed by both sides. McKinney claims it was consensual while Anderson holds it was kidnapping and rape. Not a bad subject.

Unfortunately, in Morris' hands, the documentary doesn't work as well as it should. Morris doesn't like to use narrators for his documentaries, which is effective for certain subjects, like "The Unknown Known" in which Donald Rumsfeld is essentially his own narrator, while for other subjects, it's inadequate. Unfortunately, the lack of a narrator is rather ineffectual in "Tabloid" as I found much of the material confusing. This is not an easy case to understand if you've never heard of it, as I had not until I saw the documentary.

When the case entered into the public consciousness, it became a media frenzy. It had everything the tabloids live to publish: celebrity, sex, bondage, and religion. In terms of the documentary, there were moments when I wanted to know more about the bare facts, not just some of the interviewees trying desperately to decide what they thought about it. Sometimes the interviews offer the facts but in long-winded and/or convoluted verbiage making it difficult to glean what was understood about the case. At one point in the story, McKinney was being exploited in the tabloids in fetish-like garb with a male as her slave. I couldn't understand if her "slave" was Anderson or someone else. And when was she released from prison? I read online she jumped bail in the UK, but I wasn't sure the ordering of events.

This was disappointing as I wanted to understand better this case. For those documentaries where "let the interviewees tell the story" sans narrator, the film risks being enigmatic and confusing. I still believe the most effective documentaries are those which juxtapose narration and interview in which we get the best of both worlds. This was clearly a case when a narrator would have been very helpful. But I'm sure Morris will always stick to the way he does things.

The Must-See Film for 80's Youth Is More a Character Study than a Story: Good But Not Great, 3 March 2015

If there was ever a Hollywood-backed film personifying the anxiety of Generation X, it was "The Breakfast Club". If you were a teen in suburban America in the 1980's (as I was), this was your film, or at least it was supposed to be. The Boomers had "The Graduate" and "Easy Rider", the Silent Generation had "Rebel Without a Cause" and "American Graffiti". We have "The Breakfast Club". Or do we? Is it a cinematic masterpiece or overrated? Let's take a second look at this cult classic because as of this writing, the 30th anniversary of its release is coming up in 2015 with theatrical viewings scheduled around the country. Generation X'ers will be lining up to relive their teenage years.

While in his 30's, John Hughes had a brief directing career making films targeted to Generation X'ers. Hughes offerings were considered the fresh new voice speaking both to and from the point of view of Generation X, the kids who were largely the sons and daughters of those who were children during World War II, a.k.a the Silent Generation. Other offerings by Hughes include "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", "Sixteen Candles", and "Pretty in Pink" to name a few. Many of Hughes' films used the same talent. These youthful upstarts of our generation were fondly known as "The Brat Pack". (Some of the "brat" actors transitioned into adult careers while others fell off the radar.) Among Hughes' favorite talent were Molly Ringwold, Anthony Michael Hall, and Ally Sheedy, all present and accounted for in "Breakfast Club". By 1991, the Generation X'ers were becoming young adults, graduating from college and beginning careers and families. The voice of 80's teen angst was becoming passé. Hughes directed his last film in 1991, "Curly Sue", which paired a Boomer and a Millennial with disastrous results. It ultimately bombed at the box office.

So does "Breakfast Club" uphold today? Well sort of yes sort of no. There is no plot per se, only a setting. The setting is the high school library where five teenagers are being held in a day-long detention on a Saturday for wrong-doings which are never made completely clear. The real story is about each character and how they get to know one another. The film's strength is also its weakness, depending upon your point of view. Each student comes from a different aspect of the student body of the fictional high school. They are in essence, prototypes, maybe even stereotypes, of each of the different faces of the school. Molly Ringwold is from the "popular" and chic crowd of girls who wear makeup and nice clothes. Judd Nelson is the rule-breaker, who we imagine never does his homework and goofs off at the back of the classes he takes if he's not cutting school altogether. Even from the get-go, we predict that this is not Nelson's first time in detention. Emilio Estevez is the jock, probably a football player and wrestler. Ally Sheedy is the loser loner female, who at first grosses out Ringwold. Anthony Michael Hall plays "the brain", a kid who gets straight A's, especially in science classes, but who is otherwise not part of the "popular" crowd.

The idea is that these kids would never have even said hello to one another during a typical school day because they are all worlds apart. However, because they're in detention for various infractions, they are forced to meet and interact with one another. The main crux of the story is how the kids learn about each other and how they both fit and don't fit into their own stereotypes. They also begin engaging in behavior of their opposite counterparts, such as when Estevez smokes and does cart wheels on the upper floor of the library, similar to what Nelson's character usually does. This aspect of the film succeeds in spades. As a character study, it works very well. It could almost be a play.

Where the story lags slightly is its lack of a storyline. When I first saw it, I had high-expectations because it was already becoming the "must-see" film for my generation. After viewing, I found I generally enjoyed it, but seeing kids of my generation simply talking and having some fun for 90 minutes is not exactly why I want to see a film. Near the end, is the famous "dance scene" where the characters let loose and let it all hang out. Hall being the brain is the DJ. Dance scenes like this were very popular with Generation X films of this sort, but now they seem rather dated. I want to see characters deal with and overcome dilemmas, not just talk about themselves and dance around. Of course the subtlety is to see the characters change slightly by interacting with kids they never otherwise would have. While I believe it's a nice beginning of an idea, I don't think that is enough to carry through an entire film.

"The Breakfast Club" may be more important in terms of what it represents, the angst of Generation X, rather than it being a masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling in its own right. The mark of a great film is when it speaks to later generations. I have seen "The Graduate", "American Graffiti", and "Rebel Without a Cause" many times, and they never seem dated, even though these were targeted to generations previous to my own. Does "The Breakfast Club" do this for me? Not quite. It may have spoken to me more during that time, but I find it speaks less to me as I've gotten older. Maybe I wanted the cast to rip away the ridiculous sculpture in the middle of the library in the way that Dustin Hoffman steals away the bride at the end of the Graduate. For all its honesty, even by the end of their detention, it seemed the Breakfast Clubbers were still in their own prison. That prison was the 1980's.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Mediocre Scholarship, Gruesome Images, Biblical Misquoting, and Convoluted Hypothesis Plague Otherwise Fascinating Subject, 2 March 2015

After having watched the first episode of this new CNN series, "Finding Jesus" focusing on the Shroud of Turin, I found the scholarship and conclusions confusing and convoluted. It's disappointing CNN produced such a mediocre and muddying documentary. They even misrepresent Bible passages! Simon Peter and John do not visit the tomb. It's Mary and some of the other women associated with the group. Aside from biblical misquotes, the producers decided to approach the subject as if the Gospels are purely factual with little questioning of these texts. Were they targeting faithful Evangelicals? The purely faithful believe Jesus is the Son of God, etc. However, if the aim is to focus both on scholarship and faith, then the views of scholars who don't hold with the unerring historicity of the Bible need to be expressed. In short, the documentary seemed unbalanced towards faithful belief rather than objective scholarship, until the last 15 minutes.

Christian believers accept "historical" aspects of his life as portrayed in the Bible: there were crowds of people gathered who saw Jesus as he was carrying his cross towards Golgotha, Joseph of Arimathea petitioned Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus while it still hung on the Cross, the placing of the body into a tomb with a large rock, and of course the miraculous Resurrection. These items are in the gospel accounts and fine to believe in if you're among the faithful, but historical details such as these and many others are highly disputed and contested among scholars. Not one scholar interviewed for the programme had any skepticism about details as related in the gospel account of the Passion narrative, let alone that the gospels disagree with each other about a lot of details, such as who visited the empty tomb initially. (Some gospels don't specify which "Mary" visits the tomb. For those who don't realize the gospels disagree with each other in terms of many details, I suggest you reread them.)

During the first 75% of the documentary, very faithful individuals try to show the shroud is not only ancient but THE shroud of Jesus. Not one shred of actual physical evidence was offered linking the shroud to Jesus. All of it was pure interpretation and hypothesis. They show how marks on the shroud supposedly corroborate with details in the Bible. They rely mostly on the Gospel of John, regarded as probably the least reliable historically of the four gospels, possibly written nearly 100 years after Jesus' death. (Even the early church recognized the difference between John and the other three.) If the shroud were ancient, it could simply be one which wrapped an executed body, one of the many 1000's executed by the Romans during ancient times.

One of the most problematic of historical details in the Passion Story as described in the Gospels is the soliciting of Pontius Pilate by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus' body while it still hung dead on the cross. Scholars have combed through surviving sources and found almost no instances of government officials allowing crucified bodies to be handed over to family and/or admirers. It was not just that Pilate was a hardened man. Part of the point of crucifixion was to deny the victim proper burial. Why would he grant such a request for a convict of sedition? While Pilate could have cared less about the theological implications of Jesus declaring himself the Messiah, it seems highly unlikely to the vast majority of scholars Pilate would have granted Joseph's request. But of course, for the shroud to be the actual shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, than the Joseph of Arimathea story must be true. One of the more eyebrow-raising moments is when Prof. Candida Moss of Notre Dame describes the feelings of Arimathea when soliciting Pilate. Where is she getting all this? There's only "(Joseph of Arimathea) went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus." We don't get much else in the Gospels, yet Moss adds all these other narrative details to the story. If the story was true, although it's likely it wasn't, it's not out of the question Arimathea may have had in's with the Roman government. The point is so much of this documentary embellishes upon very scant details.

Then the documentary takes a very odd turn. After spending nearly 45 minutes of this hour-long documentary showing the viewers how the shroud matches aspects of the gospel accounts, the film discloses the results of the carbon-dating enacted on the shroud in 1988: the shroud dates from circa 1250 to 1400, not the 1st century. It is in fact a medieval forgery. While this part of the documentary was probably the most factually accurate, the trouble is showing these results so late discounts the previous 75% of the documentary! The last 15 minutes showcases how the shroud may be a medieval photograph of sorts, created by camera obscura. The form of the documentary makes little sense. I would have liked to see more about the history of the shroud itself, particularly why it became revered in the Middle Ages and into modern times, rather than gruesome details and graphic imagery of Jesus' crucifixion and how certain believers want it to be the shroud of Jesus.

While I don't have a problem with the faithful offering their arguments as to why the shroud is the shroud of Jesus, there needed to be scholars on the skeptical side. Details of the shroud being authentic are laid out no-holds-barred for 75% of the documentary without anyone else questioning these ideas, until the documentary declares, well no, it's not really from the time of Jesus! While I am among those who think the shroud is not the shroud of Jesus, I didn't know what to make of the view of the filmmakers, except they desired to play both sides, maybe because of a particular sponsor. Overall a missed opportunity.

The Coen Brothers Masterpiece: A Perfect Fusion of High Art and Modern Film Noir, 28 February 2015

For going on four decades, the Coen Brothers have produced films which lie slightly outside mainstream American films. Their offerings are more akin to the lower-budget film noir of the 1930s' to 1950's than the higher-budget franchise films financed by the larger corporations. Coen Brothers' trademarks include amoral, immoral and fringe-of-society characters, less-than-ideal settings, moody atmosphere, and of course violence. You could never imagine someone like Steven Spielberg directing any of the subjects chosen by the Coen Brothers. For many years, their films were kind of dismissed by the Hollywood mainstream establishment as being low budget fair only for shock value, until they made "Fargo" whose female lead won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Ten years later, they made their modern noir masterpiece: "No Country for Old Men" based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.

The artistic fusion of a Cormac McCarthy novel with the filmmaking of the Coen Brothers was a perfect match. McCarthy is an unconventional novelist whose books simultaneously straddle and challenge conventional genre fiction and high literature. Like the Coen Brothers, McCarthy subjects are not for the feint-of-heart: drug rings, the slaughter of Native Americans, and other un-Disney-type subjects. "No Country for Old Men" may be McCarthy's best use of genre fiction conventions in a literary novel. Since the Coen Brothers style is similar to McCarthy, both adhering to and breaking genre conventions, the natural pairing of these parties almost seems a bit late! However, the novel was published in 2005, and the film was released in 2007. No question, this was the perfect novel for the Coen's to produce.

"No Country for Old Men" is a combination modern western, film noir, and suspense thriller. The story unfolds rather non-linearly. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) decides to do some game hunting in an isolated area of West Texas. While pursuing pronghorn (a kind of deer-like animal), he happens upon the remains of a massacre. Dead bodies and debris are everywhere. Like a detective, he examines the remains, the cars, the bullet-holes, and the debris. This was some kind of illegal drug transaction gone awry. He also finds a Mexican dying of thirst and wounds in a pick-up truck and a case full of millions in cash. He returns that night only to find the Mexican dead and some out-for-blood baddies after him. They seem to know he took the money.

After a long chase, he finally returns home. But soon he realizes he's being stalked by perhaps the most ruthless and monstrous baddie in film history: Anton Chigurh, played with understated menace by Javier Bardem in an Academy Award-winning performance. Chigurh makes the likes of the Joker, Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter seem closer to cultured gentlemen. What makes Chigurh and his performance by Bardem so simultaneously compelling and terrifying is his calculated coolness. He even politely asks his victims to do seeming mundane things in order to do them in. Occasionally he offers his victims a 50-50 chance of surviving with the toss of a coin. Sometimes they live, more often they die. The film becomes a terrifying cat-and-mouse game, where Chigurh is more like a serial killer cat and Moss is a mouse with millions of dollars but not the know-how to evade Chigurh. Investigating the case is Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) who finds bits and pieces of the puzzle, trying desperately to put it all together.

A masterpiece of modern film noir but definitely not for all tastes. In true Coen Brothers/McCarthy style, nothing is as it seems. Just when you believe all may be right with the world, the story throws a curve, and you're on another cinematic wild goose chase. You can tell the story is moving to a cataclysmic end.

3 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
A View of American Middle-Eastern Military Intervention at the Ground Level, 24 February 2015

Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper in an Academy-Award nominated performance) was a trained military sniper, maybe the best who ever pulled the trigger from among hidden locales, usually the rooftops of buildings. According to the film, during military tours in Iraq in the early 2000's, Kyle had 160 kills to his name, mostly males, but sometimes females and even children. Was Kyle engaging in right and moral behavior whose efforts should be applauded because he protected his fellow soldiers and helped wrest Iraq from Saddam Hussein? Or was he a brutal mass murderer, whose exploits should have brought him before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity? However, I think the point of this film is to answer neither of those questions. This is simply Kyle's story.

The film focuses on Chris Kyle, an outstanding Navy Seal sniper who began as a would-be rodeo star who had experience hunting and shooting when he was young. In an interesting flashback scene, his dad claims there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheepdogs are the ones who protect the sheep from the wolves. The idea becomes a metaphor for who Kyle becomes and the role he will play in the US military. After having failed at being a rodeo star, Kyle signs up for military service in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. To the surprise of his superiors during basic training, he shows exceptional ability in shooting targets at long distance. He's the kind of material who could be a sniper for the Navy Seals.

The film chronicles four of Kyle's tours-of-duty in the Middle East. During each mission, his role as a sniper is primarily to assist his fellow ground soldiers, sometimes with them on the ground, while at other times in hidden places, usually atop small buildings. In one mission, they are assigned the impossible task of finding Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the primary heads of Al-Quaeda. In probably the most disturbing sequence, Kyle and his fellow soldiers sporting heavy-duty automatic firearms enter houses looking for Zarqawi. One older man with his family claims to have information, but for a price. Then a scene or two later, Al-Quaeda operatives, in particular one nicknamed "the Butcher", force the family to pay a deadly price for speaking with the enemy. Instead of receiving payment for their information, the family receives the ultimate punishment. And yet, the scenes play out such that they have no choice but to cooperate with the Americans and yet are pressuring Al-Quaeda to retaliate against them, at least from the terrorists' point of view.

Another fascinating element of the film is Kyle's "mirror", an individual on the other side who has a similar position and/or ability to Kyle. Kyle realizes a sniper is taking out American soldiers and other combatants at nearly the same success rate as himself. Essentially, Kyle has found his middle-eastern counterpart, a sniper with the same abilities as his own, except he speaks Arabic. Kyle and the American soldiers then realize they are engaged in a violent chess match in which Kyle and his counterpart-enemy are the most deadly pieces on the board.

One of the best and most poignant war films ever made, similar in style to "The Hurt Locker". The question which looms above the entire story is whether or not Kyle is doing the right thing. I think the film tries and succeeds to make the case that the issue is not whether Kyle was either moral or immoral. It's about the United States. Should the United States have engaged in an all-out assault on Iraq? In terms of military tactics, snipers are necessary to carry out missions. So the question is not whether or not Kyle should or should not have been sniping. The question is whether the "powers-that-be" in Washington D.C. should have deployed troops in the first place, which would necessitate the use of a cracker-jack sniper. It neither condemns nor applauds war. It simply shows what it's like from ground-zero.

As a footnote, the film ends with real footage from Kyle's funeral procession in which people waved American flags as they passed. (Kyle was killed by a fellow soldier suffering from PTSD after her retired from military service.) Does this mean the filmmakers viewed Kyle as a hero? Not necessarily. It simply showed Americans viewed him as a hero and he received accolades for his efforts. At the same time, Kyle did the duty he was trained for. We in America must debate and elect leaders who will make the right decisions in terms of military deployment. We must take responsibility for the fact that we need snipers when we put our soldiers into harm's way.

Newman's Best Performance in Probably His Least Glamorous Role, 24 February 2015

For most of his career, Paul Newman played characters who always knew how to make their situations work for them, because of their self-assurance, and confidence. Even if there existed a darker side to his jovial laughter, Newman's characters always had a clear sense of who they were. From pool sharks to train robbers to grifters, Newman's characters were always likable, even if they were not always completely comprehensible. Interestingly, Newman was nominated seven times for acting without winning until he snatched the Oscar for reprising his Academy-nominated role from "The Hustler" in "The Color of Money", Fast Eddie Felson. Some Hollywood insiders viewed the win more as recognition for Newman's career than a truly outstanding performance as the other nominees seemed to have offered far more powerful performances. However, some critics regard his performance in "The Verdict", for which he was nominated but lost to Ben Kingsley (Gandhi), as quite possibly his best.

Newman plays Frank Galvin, a character who is not the typical Newman self-assured role. Galvin is a nearly washed-out civil-suit attorney who is in the twilight of his career. Having once, we learn, been part of a prestigious law firm until he's forced to play fall guy for the firm's scandalous behavior, and is fired, Galvin is a depressed barfly sporting hard drinks and frequent turns at the pinball machine. And he seems lost in a world where he doesn't know where he fits in. His law practice is dismal, and he's resorted to attending post-funeral wakes hoping the family of the deceased might retain him for services provided the death seems "wrongful". At one such wake, he's thrown out when he lies to the family, claiming he knew the deceased. He's not just "an ambulance chaser", but a "hearse chaser" in some sense.

Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden), a colleague and former teacher, brings him just the case he's been looking for: a young woman who fell into a coma during a failed childbirth at a Roman Catholic hospital in Boston. The family of the comatose victim desires to sue for malpractice. He meets a prestigious anesthesiologist who is willing to support the case, possibly testify at trial. At first Galvin is convinced the hospital and diocese will settle out of court, but then Galvin has a change of heart. He is technically not the attorney of the family members. His client is the comatose victim. He decides to take the case to trial despite a relatively large settlement offered by the Diocese. As a result, the surviving family, the victim's sister and her husband are incensed.

A sub-story develops when Frank meets an attractive young woman at the bar he frequents, Laura Fischer, who we learn was once married to an attorney. The story moves on both fronts, in which Frank pursues the case and simultaneously engages in a relationship with Laura. Several stumbling blocks occur in the wake of declining the settlement, including the sudden unavailability of his star witness. Galvin then must pursue other witnesses, some of whom don't wish to testify, while also pursuing another medical expert willing to testify. And then his colleague Mickey stumbles upon something which could put the entire plaintiff's case in jeopardy. The final summation at the conclusion of the trial may be the best courtroom speech of its type since Atticus Finch's summation in "To Kill a Mockingbird", as realized by Gregory Peck.

"The Verdict" is an outstanding character-driven story which has as its theme the idea of second chances. As the story unfolds, we learn several characters were compelled onto undesirable paths which were not of their own making, Galvin being the obvious example along with his comatose client. Others are also in similar situations, but more subtly. Larger forces were at work which drove these characters out of their desired situations and into mediocre existences. In this story, there is the possibility for another chance to achieve their desires and reclaim their paths. Some characters succeed while others are denied this second chance at fulfillment and/or redemption.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Sort of Apocalypse Now meets Excalibur meets Red Dawn: John Milius' Militarized Take on Robert Howard's Conan, 16 February 2015

Robert E. Howard (1906-1936), writer of pulp genre fiction in the late 1920's to early 1930's, had a vision or dream of a Celtic-Barbarian warrior. Legend has it that in this dream and/or vision the warrior identified himself as Conan and confronted Howard, instructing him to write his stories. Howard, then looking for a new character, went to work, and created not only Conan, a hulking barbarian warrior, part of Howard's mythical Cimmerians, a race which is a cross between Celts, Vikings, and Visigoths, but also the mythical time in which he lived, called the Hyborean Age. The Hyborean Age is a cross between the Dark Ages and Antiquity. These Conan stories appeared in Weird Tales during a 4-year period and became Howard's most memorable and beloved creation, spawning the fantasy sub-genre known as Sword and Sorcery. After Howard's death in 1936, other writers would not only try their hand at Conan, such as L. Sprague de Camp, but rip-off characters would also appear on the fantasy literature landscape, such as Kane by Karl Edward Wagner.

Fast-forward about 45 years after Howard's death. Universal released "Conan: The Barbarian", directed by John Milius and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, based on the original character created by Robert E. Howard. The film was produced in the wake of the successes of Star Wars and Excalibur when fantasy-genre films were in vogue. The resulting film is loosely based on several of Howard's original stories, although the slavery sequence towards the beginning is not the original history of the character. (He was a warrior in a Cimmerian tribe which went into demise, and he became a wanderer.) After having viewed this film on the new Blu-ray edition, I have to admit the original Conan film, for the most part, seems to uphold relatively well. The look of the film on Blu-ray is no less than spectacular. The best aspects of this film are the visuals which well-portray the Hyborean Age.

In this version of Conan, which I don't believe exists in any of the original stories, the plot-thread is a revenge story. Conan is a pre-teen among a small tribe of warriors. They appear to live a relatively happy and carefree existence until they are ransacked by a group of blood-thirsty warriors sporting superior armor and inferior moral codes led by an evil wizard-warrior who has a fetish for snakes, Thulsa Doom. (Thulsa Doom is a Howard creation, but he appeared as an adversary of Kull, not Conan.) Thulsa Doom and his minions kill the men and women of the village, and enslave the children, who are taken to a remote compound where Conan grows up working on some kind of large mill, "The Wheel of Pain". Later, he becomes a gladiator-like warrior, engaged in combat entertainments. Eventually he escapes and becomes a thief, but decides to track down Thulsa Doom and his strange religious order in which snakes are worshiped. My favorite scene is one in which Conan, newly liberated, stumbles into a cavern of sorts and meets the figure who will become his "god", Crom, and there finds a sword.

Some aspects of the Milius Conan do come off dated. The music is a bit cheesy in parts, although the low brass with bass drum accents well portray the brutal era as envisioned by Howard. Some of the acting is a bit "funny" although fantasy adventures set in mythical times don't always require the best acting. No question the stand-out of the production in the acting department is James Earl Jones as the main baddie of the film. The most memorable line of the film, "Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women," uttered by Conan towards the beginning still sounds funny come out of Schwarzenegger's mouth but somehow it kind of works. Its the most quoted line from the film.

One of the striking aspects of this film, after having seen it for the first time in over 20 years, is that the violence is relatively head-turning. Even today, a lot of films are not quite as violent as this offering. In a few notable scenes, heads are hacked off in true Milius style. Although you could never make a case that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a great actor, he seems the perfect choice for the part. Conan is burly and brutal, and so there was no need for a character actor in the lead role. (Legend has it the producer, Dino de Laurentiis, initially refused Milius' first choice for the lead, Schwarzenegger. When Milius then suggested Dustin Hoffman, Laurentiis threw Milius out of his office but financed the film anyway.) The film more or less works on its own terms. Probably the saving force is the incredible acting of James Earl Jones which makes up for the weaknesses of some of the other talent. Also, the set designs are no less than spectacular. Violent but occasionally tender, I do think it does justice to Howard. He might have been put off that the storyline was not directly based on one of his stories, but I think he would have appreciated the landscape and the big muscles of Schwarzenegger.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
How the Fed was Also Largely Responsible for the Financial Collapse of 2008, 14 February 2015

One of the best documentaries I've seen demonstrating how the role of the Federal Reserve contributed to the Financial Crisis of 2008. In the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 creating a Recession which could have led to another Great Depression, a lot of blame was leveled against Investment Banks who were vilified as being greedy, particularly Lehman Brothers and Bear-Stearns, and insurance companies like AIG who undertook too many credit default swaps. The financial banks had taken on nearly as much debt as their assets, particularly in sub-prime mortgages, and AIG had insured them against default, i.e. "default swaps". When Lehman went bankrupt, AIG owed trillions of dollars in insurance against default, which nearly brought down the financial system.

Now, while Lehman and Bear-Stearns share plenty of the blame in the recent crisis, these bad debts and faulty reliance on sub-prime mortgages were not solely private sector malfeasance. A US department agency also played a crucial role: The US Federal Reserve. The US Federal Reserve ("The Fed") since Alan Greenspan became Fed Chairman in the late 1980's under then President Ronald Reagan engaged a more "hands-off" policy in terms of financial regulation and at the same time allowed much more loan money to be acquired by these private financial institutions who in turn bought into risky investments. This documentary outlines why the Fed was created in the first place, its role over the years in terms of both regulating and stimulating financial markets and what it did and didn't do to contribute to the recent financial collapse. While I don't believe the Fed was solely responsible for the financial collapse, as suggested by the film, their policy approaches were vital as one of many contributing factors which created a financial "perfect storm".

Two of the leading characters whose roles were crucial in the Fed's policy-making in this unfolding drama were the two Fed Chairmen Alan Greenspan (1987-2006) and Ben Bernanke (2006-2014). Greenspan in particular was touted as a financial guru who understood financial markets better than a Super Bowl winning football coach understands how to get first downs and touchdowns. If Greenspan didn't know the answer to an aspect of the financial market, the question itself must be flawed, or so went the conventional wisdom for nearly 30 years. To his credit, Greenspan had steered the US economy through several storms. What he didn't know was that a financial hurricane was descending upon Wall Street.

Over and over, Greenspan had opportunities to regulate aspects of the financial markets, particularly the so-called credit default swap insurance policies, issued by the likes of AIG and others. He also could have reigned in loose lending practices. Once, early on as Fed Chairman, Greenspan hinted the stock market may be spiraling out of control, but was quickly vilified by Wall Street for his remarks. Since then, during much of his tenure, he took a position of deregulation in which "the market will figure it out" approach so prevalent in Conservative politics. Ben Bernanke, who is a self-described scholar of the Great Depression, also didn't see the financial collapse coming. In several interviews prior to the beginning of the collapse, Bernanke iterates the impossibility of a national drop in housing prices. His scholarship for some reason precluded him from seeing the coming crisis, first in terms of the bursting housing bubble, then the ensuing financial crisis which was spawned as a result.

While scholars have debated and will continue to do so over the next century over the reasons for the financial crisis, several things are clear about the Recession. The Fed contributed to the collapse with certain policies, greed does not necessarily regulate itself, and no single individual can know everything about every aspect of the market. At the ensuing congressional hearings which Congress called after the collapse, Greenspan admitted the flaws of his policies. He said he assumed that financial institutions would always make the best decisions which would be in the interest of their companies. The reality is, just like everything else in a complex modern world, the private sector cannot always be counted on to make the best of decisions, be it for their companies or the worldwide economy. The Fed has a role to play in at least helping to thwart a possible crisis in the future. That role is always endlessly debated by politicians, congressmen, financiers, advisers and occasionally scholars. Let's hope the financiers won't always get 100% of their desires.

22 out of 29 people found the following review useful:
Generally an Enjoyable Presentation But the Language Sounds Too 21st Century, 28 January 2015

There has been a tendency lately to "upgrade" works set in historical times be they fictional or true. Operas and plays written 100 and more years ago which take place in Europe during centuries past are being put into places like Las Vegas and California. Even Shakespeare has not been immune from updated versions of his plays, such as the film Richard III in which the medieval king is portrayed as a high-ranking British fascist of the 1930's! The trend is now infiltrating film productions which are supposed to take place in historical settings. One of the worst such productions was the recent HBO "The Tudors". The present History Channel offering of "The Sons of Liberty" is another such offering. At the same there are some good things in the series.

While there is much to be praised about this production, including wonderful sets and effects, the dialog and mannerisms of the characters are so 21st century I kept being reminded that the production was from the 2000's. A good period piece allows the audience to be transported, albeit temporarily, to another time where manners and culture were quite distinct from today. In 18th century Britain and America, class distinctions were highly pronounced and obvious. Working class adults would refer to any of the aristocracy as "sir" or "madam". There would even be the occasional bow from working class males and curtsies engaged by working class women to members of the aristocracy. Working class children would refer to any adult male as "sir", and more than likely, children were told to do things, not asked.

The present production, trying too desperately to appeal to 21st century American sensibilities, throws much of the formalities and mannerisms of 18th century life out the window in favor of more casual interactions. A young boy among the Sons of Liberty is often "asked" to do things, much like they are today, but children were ordered around. And working class children in this production don't use the formal "sir" enough. If an adult wished a child to engage in a task, it was expected to be done, not "would you please..." The expected interaction would be "Do this" with the response "right away, sir." Now, we can debate about whether this kind of treatment was unfair, but that's how it was in the 18th century. Also, working class members would be very formal towards superiors except in private conference.

In an interesting scene, John Hancock throws a party for the birthday of King George III, which was common for colonists and other subjects of Britain. (The custom still occurs today in Britain.) During the party, John Hancock walks and chats with then Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson who ranked just below the governor of Massachusetts and New Jersey who ruled at the behest of Britain and the King. (In a sense, the governor was the voice of the king.) In this context, Hutchinson would definitely be Hancock's superior although both were part of the aristocracy of the colonies. Several times, Hancock turns his back on the lieutenant governor to say hello to other arrivals. This would have been considered a gross faux pas by 18th century standards. You would never turn your back on a ranking official, even a lieutenant governor, in a social occasion to speak to others. You would ask permission to do so, and others would not interrupt if you were in conference with a superior. In other scenes, I heard people saying the epithet "bs", which I don't think existed at that time. People did swear, but never to those of higher rank and certainly not in mixed company.

The most interesting aspect of the series has to do with the behind-the-scenes business deals. These are what the Sons of Liberty did to avoid taxation. Still worth watching but I would have liked the filmmakers to consult with some historians concerning the correct manners and culture of the time. The HBO Series "John Adams" is much more accurate in this regard. This is after all supposed to be a presentation from the History Channel. Why not be as accurate possible, unless executive are worried that younger viewers won't "identify with it? Better than "The Tudors" but not as a good as "John Adams".

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