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"Damages" (2007)
The Firm Meets The Insider, Michael Clayton: Dynamic Thriller Show But a Bit Overlong, 3 June 2015

I'll review Season 1 since that's the only one I've seen. The first episode hooked and reeled me in straight-away, a cinematic fisherman hunting for viewer-ship game. In the first minutes we see the front of a high-rise apartment in New York. The color of the visuals are rather strange, a kind of washy yellow somewhat blurred. The camera then zooms to an elevator and a young woman, 30-ish, emerges, bloodied. She runs from the elevator, into the lobby, and out into the streets of New York. She's eventually found by law enforcement and brought to a precinct where she is held for questioning. Her name is Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), and she's a "plaintiff's attorney", a lawyer who represents clients who have civil grievances against other individuals, groups, corporations, even government agencies. She works for Hewes and Associates, a plaintiff law firm run by an effective but amoral attorney, Patricia "Patty" Hewes (Glenn Close), who uses ruthless tactics and endless negotiations to get the law suit outcomes she wants.

A subtitle then states "6 Months Earlier". The blurriness disappears and the colors appear back to normal. This is how the series is organized. We flash back and forth between the events of "now", which is shown as yellow-blurred, while all flashbacks are shown in normal color, until by the series end, the two eventually merge. Parsons is being offered a job at a relatively prestigious law firm, but she turns down the offer, eventually working for Hewes and Associates. Hewes and Associates are involved in a class action law suit against a billionaire magnate, Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson), brought by his former employees who accuse him of dumping millions of shares of the company stock, thereby making their stock options worthless. Also, we learn Parsons' soon-to-be sister-in-law, the brother of her fiancée, also has information and connections to Frobisher.

The series moves between the two periods of time, the "now" and the "then", and more pieces of each part of the puzzle are revealed, although the only way to tell if we're in the past or the present is the visual look. In the present, we soon learn Parsons had been attacked at apartment flat. At first we are led to believe the apartment is hers, but then we find out she was staying at the apartment belonging to Patty Hewes. We also learn she has not only been attacked but she's accused of murdering someone else. As the series progresses, the flashbacks move closer and closer in time to the "now". The series balances between interesting corporate intrigue, like you might find in "The Insider" to urban violence, similar to "The Firm" and "Michael Clayton".

This is quite a compelling series from start to finish. Excellent performances by Rose Byrne as the young upstart attorney, Noah Bean as David Connor, Parsons' fiancée, Zeljko Ivanek as Ray Fiske, Frobisher's personal attorney, and Anastasia Griffith as Katie Connor, the future sister-in-law of parsons. These are all "A" performances. The "A+" performances go to heavy hitters Glenn Close as Patricia Hewes and Ted Danson as Frobisher. I was particularly impressed with both actors in this series. The cutting stares and elongated silences of Close as Hewes practically draw blood, while Danson has a fascinating take on Frobisher, who flip-flops between moments of fair-minded reasonableness and ruthless detachment. Frobisher in particular is in constant denial about what he's doing, whether in work or pleasure, either cheating on his young wife or hiring hoodlums to carry out "dirty work". Similarly, we learn Hewes also plays a deadly game of lawsuit "cat and mouse", not only against her courtroom adversaries but even her own employees. I can't think of another actress who'd be able to play Patty Hewes.

This is an extremely well-written and well-acted series. The only reason I give it 9 stars instead of 10 is I felt the number of episodes were too many. The story probably could have been told in about 7 45-minute episodes but instead the producers opted for 13. There were a few episodes in the middle, around 5 through 9, where I was getting impatient to get to the final denouement, and it felt like the story was being drawn out unnecessarily. Some of the forward-flash scenes, the blurry ones, were repeated several times with little new information, and I felt just a bit frustrated. Still the ending of the first season was a satisfying ending with the plot twists revealed, making sense more or less. I'll have to try the second season at some point, although I may have to wait to "recover" from this one.

A 21st-Century Indiana Jones in an Ocean's 11-Style Heist for Treasure:, 31 May 2015

In the wake of "The Da Vinci Code", "National Treasure" really is a very entertaining and fun fantasy-adventure film. While not perfect, it's better than most of the other treasure hunting of ancient artifact movies of this type, particularly the dismally disappointing "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". The one compromise is that the viewer has to "buy' into some episodes which are almost laughably implausible. However, if you can get past some of the "are you kidding me" moments, it's still an engaging trek through some of early American history, enjoyable for family viewing.

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is the next generation in the Gates family of treasure hunters who believe in secret societies, conspiracies and cults. They are obsessed with a vast treasure they believe contain ancient relics such as sarcophagi, monuments, and artifacts from Antiquity, worth the equivalent of the entire collection residing in the Louvre. Although displaced from the Eastern Mediterranean, the treasure was hidden somewhere by Freemasons in the United States, or so they believe. According to family lore, the treasure was discovered by the Knights Templar during the Crusades of the 12th century in the ground beneath the place where the Israelite Great Temple of Jerusalem once stood, which was destroyed in 66 C.E. by the Romans. The later heirs of the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, moved the treasure to a secret location in North America. Some of the early American Freemasons and maybe an American Founding Father or three, placed secret clues hidden in obvious but concealed places to aid in its discovery by someone "pure", who adheres to the code of the Freemasons and the earlier Templar Knights. An early 19th century member of the Gates family was offered one of the clues. For several generations, the legend has been passed down, and now it has fallen to Ben Gates, although his father Patrick Gates (Jon Voight), no longer believes in the existence of the treasure, having wasted several decades with his father John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer) trying to find the "treasure".

The first clue, revealed early in the first scene of the film, so I'm really not giving anything away, is "The Secret Lies with Charlotte". Benjamin Gates grandfather, John Adams, explains to the young Ben Gates the clue was given to his grandfather's grandfather from Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and supposedly a Freemason. (Carroll is a real historical figure, although probably this story was made up for the film.) The family has been unable to find the meaning of the phrase.

Fast-forward 30 years. Benjamin Gates is now in middle-age, and he is seeking Charlotte. He finds "Charlotte" and another clue. The deciphering of the clue points to another clue residing on the underside of the original Declaration of Independence, the hand-written document which formally declared the North American Colonies' desire to secede from British rule. Simultaneously, Ian Howe (Sean Bean), once a trusted partner of Gates in the quest at the beginning of the film, has turned into an enemy rival who also wants the Declaration of Independence to find the next clue, and hopefully, the treasure. The film becomes a series of chases and clues, somewhat similar to the Da Vinci Code. At one point, the FBI enters into the picture, literally.

To stop the baddie Ian and his entourage of nameless henchmen from stealing the Declaration first, Gates and Co. resolve to steal it first, in "Ocean's 11" style. A fun, sort of madcap adventure fantasy, somewhat similar to the Disney films of the 1970's, like "Candleshoe" in which a treasure lies hidden within an old mansion. (Interestingly, "National Treasure" was also produced by the Disney Company.) A few of the scenes are a bit implausible, especially a few moments where the Declaration of Independence seems in dire jeopardy. However, the acting is good enough and the ideas behind the hunt compelling enough, that overall it still works well. Just don't take it too seriously. And think twice if the film has led you to believe stealing such a document from a national archive is easy as it seems in "National Treasure". I guarantee you, it isn't.

Important Victory Over Fascism's Rape of Europa 70 Years in the Making: A Story About More than Art Restiutution, 30 May 2015

In 1907, early-modern painter Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) created the first of two portraits of a beautiful Viennese Jewish woman, Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925). The painting on canvas incorporates both oil and gold leaf giving the work a beautiful sparkle when seen in person, almost like a large golden jewel. The painting incorporates traditional representation and abstract elements. While the upper part of the woman is certainly discernible, i.e. face, neck, breast, and hands, the rest of the painting reflects both the Art Nouveau and modernist style coming into vogue in the 20th century. Ancient Egyptian-like eyes adorn her golden dress towards the bottom, and geometric patterns surround her face. Although the official name of the painting is simply "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" by Gustav Klimt, it has been nicknamed "Woman in Gold" and regarded as the Mona Lisa of Austria.

The Klimt portrait has a violent and horrific history. In the early 20th century, the family of Adele Bloch-Bauer was a prominent Viennese family making their wealth through commerce, and the painting hung majestically in their lavish apartments. Tragically, Adele Bloch-Bauer died young in 1925 and had requested her two portraits be donated to the Austrian State Museum upon the death of her husband. Of course, she had no idea the scourge of fascist ideology would overtake her country only 10 years later. In 1938, the sitter's widower was compelled to flee Vienna when the German Reich annexed Austria. Although he escaped, dying in 1945, he was forced to leave behind his art collection including "Woman in Gold" and four additional Klimt paintings which were confiscated by the Nazis. The Klimt paintings would then reside in the Austrian State Gallery for the next half century.

The story of the film begins in the 1990's. The niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren in an Academy-Award caliber performance), a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany now living in Los Angeles, has become aware of recent stories of so-called "art restitution", the reuniting of pilfered art to rightful ownership. Most of the restitution stories center on art plundered by the German Nazis in the 1930's and early 1940's, which, by some estimates, number in the 100,000's. She solicits the help of fairly green lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who, although born in America, has Austrian ancestry. In fact, he's the grandson of early-modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg who was also forced to flee Austria in the 1930's not only because of his Jewish background but because of his use of 12-tone serialism in his compositions, regarded as "degenerate music" by the Nazis.

Altmann and Schoenberg become a team resolved to reclaim through the legal process the Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis, including and most importantly "Woman in Gold". Their first step is to bring their case to the Art Restitution Board run by the powers-that-be of the state-run museums in Austria. Reluctantly, Altmann agrees to fly to Vienna with Schoenberg, the first time she has returned to the city of her youth. At first they seem to have a strong case. During their stay, the team of Altmann-Schoenberg find the documents of Bloch-Bauer regarding the paintings. It's not really a will in the legal sense, just a kind of "wish". The real will is that of Adele's widower, Ferdinand Block-Blauer, who names his heirs as his nieces, one of which is Maria Altmann.

However, the plaintiffs suspect the museum doesn't want to give up the paintings without a fight. The board rejects their case, citing as legal grounds that the sitter of "Woman in Gold", Adele Bloch-Bauer, had consented to donate the portraits to Austria. The Austrian government further believes they have legal claim to the paintings because of the surviving documents, in this case the document written by Adele. Of course, being of Jewish origin and given the events which would transpire 10 years after her death, the plaintiffs are convinced Adele, had she lived, would have retracted such an offer. Also, it's a minor miracle the paintings survive at all, considering much of this kind of art was regarded as "degenerate" by the Nazis. They can sue the Austrian Museums in Vienna, but the legal costs would be astronomical. They seem to have lost. Then, just before they leave Vienna, the two visit the Holocaust Memorial. Schoenberg has an experience which becomes a turning point in the film, and he resolves to continue the fight. If they have any chance of succeeding, they need to find another means aside from directly suing the government in Austria.

The film chronicles the plaintiff's continued legal battle to restore the Klimt paintings to their rightful heir, Maria Altmann. The Austrian government wanted to keep the Klimt paintings in Austria, in part because of its iconic nature. While they had an argument because of the importance of iconic art residing in countries of origin, there were greater issues involved. This case was not just about art; it was about justice, and the way the film plays out, the museum's argument dismisses fundamental issues about injustice.

Three-quarters of a century ago, some extremists overtook the governments of Germany and Austria, led by one Adolph Hitler. They put into place rules which made Hitler absolute and unquestioned ruler. He decided that particular law-abiding legal residences of Germany and Austria had no legal rights only because they were of certain ethnic and religious origins. These people's lives were destroyed, being forced either to abandon their homes or forced into concentration and death camps. Some of these people owned wonderful art collections, and these were "legally" but wrongfully confiscated by the fascist regime. Nothing will make up for these losses. However, we as a civilized culture have a moral obligation to make restitution of the objects lost by living heirs. The restitution of art is not just about whether a piece of art belongs in a museum. It's about a statement against the wrongs of fascism.

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Goodfellas Meets Wall Street: Explicit Sex, Mind-Numbing Drugs, Gobs of Money, and Endless Expletives, 16 May 2015

When I saw "Good Fellas" during its initial release in 1990, I thought I had seen the goriest violence (outside of a horror film) and linguistically filthiest language I had ever witnessed in a film. While "The Wolf of Wall Street" was not as graphic in the violence department, it makes "Good Fellas" seem tame in the language department. Also, the sex scenes are so over-the-top and explicit, this film probably would have garnered an X-rating a few decades ago. It was almost too much, but luckily the story was compelling enough and the excellent performances by Leonard DiCaprio and Jonah Hill convincing enough that it still works fairly well as satisfying cinema.

The film centers around true-to-life penny-stocks trader Jordan Belfort played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his associate Donnie Azoff (Johan Hill) and how they built a multi-million dollar penny-stocks mini-empire which not only violated SEC rules of trading but engaged in securities fraud and money laundering. In typical Scorsese style, the story begins with the voice-over of Belfort, telling his story about eight years of his life in penny stocks trading and eventual securities fraud through his firm Stratton Oakmont from circa 1988 to 1995. Four things seem to drive Belfort: endless sex, gobs of money, constant drug-induced highs, and the endless spewing of expletives.

Belfort begins his story by telling us about the wealth he has achieved engaging in penny-stocks trading. He has a beautiful wife, a beautiful home, a beautiful car (not red but white) and endless amounts of cash in the bank. He can also have his way with just about any woman he desires, and he does, despite the fact he's married to a beautiful model who has family connections to English/British royalty. He seems to have it all, but it wasn't always this way. Time rewinds to the late 1980's when he was married to a different woman while renting an apartment in New York and gets his first position at a stock broker firm. There he meets Mark Hanna (Michael McConaughey) who explains the rules of the game: solitary vices, sex, and getting as much money as possible from clients. This firm sells respectful grade-A stocks to wealthy shareholders. Shortly thereafter, the firm busts as a result of the infamous "Black Monday" crash of 1987.

Belfort then becomes part of a firm trading in penny stocks, worthless low-trading stocks which may or may not have tremendous investment potential. He trades in a so-called "boiler room", a place usually in a low-rent district which sells penny and risky investments to lower-end investors. The one upside is brokers of penny stocks earn a 50% commission than the usual 1% offered at respected brokerage firms. Then an idea occurs to him: what if they can trick higher-end traders to buy the many penny stocks? They'll trade the high-end stocks to higher-income investors, gain their trust, and then manipulate them into buying thousands of shares of penny stocks, i.e. worthless investments.

Donnie Azoff (i.e. Danny Porush) played by Jonah Hill, a neighbor in Belfort's apartment complex asks to be in the business and eventually becomes an important partner in the firm. They rename it Stratton Oakmont Inc. to sound more official and legitimate. The firm grows as a result which leads to an exposé in Forbes Magazine where the article labels him "The Wolf of Wall Street". As the money grows, so does Belfort's desires for more money, more sex, and more Methaqualone, or Quaaludes. And so does his need to use more expletives in practically every other word he utters. The story forms an arc about how he keeps gaining more and more, climbing higher and higher, but simultaneously digging himself a deeper in which to take a huge fall.

So many of the Scorsese devices are present in this film: the voice-over (as mentioned), introductions and short biographies of the major characters, in this case those working at the firm, the height of the characters' successes, all leading towards the climax in which authorities eventually enter the picture. The entire form and arc of the story closely resembles "Good Fellas" and "Casino". I would almost rate the film a "5", but it gets a "4", not because of what it leaves out but for having too much other things. I thought the many sex scenes and endless expletives became overwhelming. They started to detract from the main thrust of the story. There were parts where I wanted to understand better their financial schemes and see less of the sex. Also, Belfort engages in many speeches to his traders, some of which were too long-winded. Whenever the characters enjoy a major success, there would be along speech followed by a huge party and orgy-fest with lots of explicit sex bordering on pornography. I think once or twice would have been plenty, but the parties and orgies are so numerous I lost count. Still a compelling film with an outstanding performance by DiCaprio and honorable mention to Jonah Hill.

Downfall (2004)
The Crumbling of the Reich During Its Last Days from Hitler's Bunker: The Ideology Was More Difficult to Topple than Germany's Armies, 8 May 2015

According to the events of the film, which I assume are mostly accurate with some liberal aspects for cinematic effect, the ideology of the Nazi regime took much longer and was far more difficult to crumble than the buildings, infrastructure and military operations of the Third Reich. This film not only takes the viewer inside the bunker where Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in late April, 1945, it takes us inside the heads of the most loyal Nazis. And what we learn about these people is as terrifying in many ways as what the Nazis did to millions of people across Europe outside the confines of Hitler's final residence.

The structure begins and ends with an interview as cinematic bookends. A real-life survivor of the Reich who had been one of Hitler's private secretaries during the final years of the Third Reich, Traudl Junge, appears on screen. Now an old woman, she describes how she was enthralled to receive the opportunity to become a member of Hitler's inner circle. At the end, she alludes to the fact she didn't think for herself.

The narrative scenes begin in 1942 with Traudl Junge among a group of aspiring young women wishing to work for Adolph Hitler (Bruno Ganz), dictator and self-proclaimed savior of Germany. Not surprising, Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara) is chosen for the job by the Führer himself. Then the film cuts to April 20, 1945, Hitler's 56th birthday. It's inevitable to everyone involved that not only is Germany going to lose the war against the allies, but Berlin is only days away from being taken by the Russian Army. Hitler's inner circle, including Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels, insist that it's time for him, Eva Braun, and the rest of his inner circle to evacuate Berlin. Hitler refuses, claiming it would be a sign of cowardice and surrender. Before going underground, he awards Iron Crosses to members of "Hitler's Youth". Then he moves his operation into an underground bunker where he and his closest associates will try to keep the Reich together during its final days.

The events which transpire in this film are some of the most disturbing and devastating as any film about World War II and the Reich I've ever seen. While all the residents of the bunker, save the children of Goebbels, know the war and the Reich are coming to an anti-climactic but tragic end, they cling to their ideology like moths in front of a lighted bug zapper. They must have known in their heart-of-hearts that this was not going to end in their favor. However, they can't imagine life without the Reich and their Führer. He had become the acknowledged decision-maker, philosopher, and thinker for the entire country. In several scenes, the people around him acknowledge over and over again that only Hitler can make the decisions, no one else. And if they question him, or, God forbid, refuse his orders, they are labeled traitors, even in the face of impending destruction.

Barely a week and a half before Hitler and Eva Braun will commit suicide, Hitler is still barking orders, arresting wayward soldiers, and sentencing perceived traitorous officers and AWOL soldiers to death, as if he is still in charge of his country, even though the allies have by now taken most of Germany, and the Russians are on the outskirts of Berlin, a few kilometers away. He rants and raves to the highest officers in his command, chastising them for not winning the war. He instructs his officers to mobilize army units in other parts of the country, even though they have all been defeated by the allies. He continues with his maps and strategies, like a chess player contemplating his next move, even though his king has been surrounded and near checkmate. However, surrender is beyond him, even at the price of more killing and destruction. The real eye-opener is not that Hitler wouldn't let go of his ideology, but those around him couldn't bring themselves to stop following his orders.

In his final days and hours, according the film, Hitler never wavered from his ultimate ideology, even though the ideology itself is what led to the final demise of the Reich. His ideology for Germany was relatively simple: a national socialist government in which Hitler himself is absolute ruler without question or pause, and ethnic minorities, particularly Jews, Poles, and Gypsies have no place and must be swept aside. These ideas proved immoral and ruinous.

It's not surprising that Hitler failed to see his ideology not only meant the destruction of Europe and the deaths and suffering of millions, but it also meant the near destruction of Germany itself. What is surprising is that those around him couldn't see passed Hitler's madness. During many scenes, high-ranking members of his inner circle could have refused his orders to save the German people, but they did not. They were so hypnotized by his rhetoric and ideology they had no concept to believe they could make decisions to save Germany and deny the Führer his power. Most follow him to the very end, and the price some of them pay for this loyalty is almost unimaginable. Goebbels's wife in a moving scene breaks down because she can't bear the thought of the country being without its socialist ideology and dictator.

The tragedy of Germany and those most loyal to him and the Nazi cause was a blind refusal to see how their ideology was self-destructive rather than life-affirming. They believed in one leader who would do all the thinking for them and therefore they couldn't and shouldn't think for themselves. Such a tragedy that that leader happened to be Adolph Hitler. At one point, Goebbels says he has no sympathy for the country, since it was the country itself which allowed these madmen into power in the first place.

Spider-Man (2002)
Possibly the Best First-Time Superhero Film Since Reeve's Superman of the 70's, 6 May 2015

The first time an iconic superhero flies across the big screen in his (or her) tights, cape and/or mask, the end product often has mixed results. The bar was set pretty high with the first "Superman" film starring Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman, still probably the finest superhero film ever produced. The first "Batman" film, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker had problems, some wonderful moments in between lagging scenes. (Some people have called "Batman" the best mediocre film ever produced! Or is it the most mediocre film among good ones?) Either way, the end result may or may not hit the mark. Luckily, especially for fans of the original comic book, the first Spider-man film, based on the character created by Stan Lee, works on a level towards the original Superman film.

When you boil down the raw elements needed to create a good film, you need three things: a good premise, good actors, and a good screenplay. And let's not under-appreciate the last one. While a good screenplay still may save mediocre acting, often the opposite isn't true. In Spider-man, all three are present in spades. Let's look at them in terms of how they are portrayed in the current film.

The Premise. Well, the premise must be a good one because, since its inception in the 1960's, Spider-man has become one of the most important comic heroes alongside Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. However, Lee brought a bit of a twist to the character. Like other superhero characters who have some magic-like abilities, in this case the abilities of a spider inside a human body, Spider-man's alter-ego, Peter Parker is a troubled adolescent suffering from the typical angst of all young people around that age. Unlike Superman, Parker is still finding out where he fits in. In terms of the present film, the original premise, although updated slightly for the 21st century, is still adhered to. Parker/Spider-man is an angst-ridden kid, loving a faraway female, trying to navigate school, and dealing with bullies.

The Acting. The acting takes us right into the heads of the three most important characters: Spider-man/Peter Parker (Toby Maguire), the Green Goblin/Norman Osborne (Willem Dafoe), and Mary Jane Watson, a.k.a. MJ, (Kirsten Dunst). Maguire offers both the angst-riddled teen and the resolved superhero. I particularly appreciated the way he was portrayed in the film. Not a bad-looking kid but not a GQ cover model either. He's rather nerdy, a science wiz, like Lee had envisioned him, but not the best at getting dates. The absolute stand-out is Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin/Mr Osborne. Character actors like Dafoe, similar to Gene Hackman as Lex Luther, are the best suited to play villains. Dafoe is terrific as a kind of Marvel equivalent of Two-Face, having two sides to him. On one had he's the upper-crust businessman who's tough but confident. However, the other side, the Green Goblin side, emerges and confronts the "waking" self. He becomes a kind of split personality that few actors can pull off, and the scenes in which the two sides speak to one another are entirely believable. Also honorable mention to Dunst who is a very attractive high school girl but certainly not someone who will be entering teen beauty pageants. She attracts the likes of Peter Parker at a very human level.

The screenplay, probably the most important ingredient, works well, and much better than the Keaton/Burton "Batman". Parker is a typical high school kid just trying to navigate through school, being cared for by his adoptive uncle and aunt since the death of his parents. Then a strange circumstance changes his life: he's bitten by a radioactive spider which gives him spider-like abilities. A nice series of sequences shows him testing his new-found talents. At first Parker uses them to earn money in trashy athletic events, but then he switches gears and decides to use them to combat evil. Certainly we know this will be Spider-man's calling but a conversation with his uncle puts him on track, reminiscent of Brando as Superman's father.

On another front, the father of a friend of Parker's, Norman Osborne, is head of a tech company testing a machine which would improve human metabolism in soldiers, probably for the military, a bit like Captain America. Osborne built the company, but now the board of directors are selling the company out from under him. He retaliates by testing the metabolic-altering machine on himself and hence a different side emerges after the experiment. Simultaneously, there's Mary Jane, the distant love of Parker, who knows he exists but is dating a much more athletic and popular guy at school. Eventually, these three stories clash in a wonderful and believable climax. Parker becoming a crime-fighting disguised hero, Osborne becoming an adversary of Spider-man, and Dunst caught in the middle.

The story is about transformations. All three characters undergo transformation during the course of the story. Not all seem to relish this transformation and none of them understand fully what it means. Some of them embrace the transformation more than others, but in the end it's unclear whether or not the characters are better for what has happened to them. Two survive the transformation while another doesn't. And that's the mark of a great story: when what seems the inevitable outcome isn't quite what the characters and the audience foresaw. Ultimately, it comes down to caring about the characters and what transpires which evolves them into something else, be they heroic or villainous. Maybe that's the problem with many superhero films, the filmmakers forget that we need to be reminded to care about them, not just be awe-struck when they fly around.

Strangely Maybe the Best Fictional Sports Film of All-Time, 22 April 2015

While "Rocky" was about an athlete overcoming obstacles to pursue a dream, "The Natural" centered on an older man's comeback in professional sports, and "Jerry McGuire" told a story of transcendence between a sports agent and his fiery unpredictable client, "The Bad News Bears" focused much more on organic down-to-earth issues. Aside from films derived from real-life true stories, such as "42", "Hoosiers", and "Rudy", "The Bad News Bears" may be the most poignant fictional sports film ever produced. "The Bears" deals with prejudice, inequality, injustice, racism, and obsession, on one hand, while simultaneously searching and finding acceptance, bridge-building, and determination. Yet, the characters and setting are so real, the dialog so true-to-life, you don't realize you're being offered these larger ideas. They just emerge from the plight of the characters. Who knows whether or not the filmmakers were setting out to make a social statement, but they did which is the mark of a truly great story.

The essential plot is pretty basic. A group of junior high school age baseball players are thrown together to play on a team called "The Bears". They only have one thing in common: they are, for the most part, terrible. They can't pitch, they can't bat, and they can't field. Walter Matthau, in one of his best performances since "The Odd Couple", plays Morris Buttermaker, a swimming pool cleaner who is asked by a City Councilman to coach this team of athletically challenged misfits. The Councilman had filed a lawsuit against the city because the Little League was excluding players with less ability, and the Bears team was the city's "restitution", allowing less-skilled kids a chance to play the game.

What makes the film as good as it is has to do with the characters of the players as much as Matthau as Buttermaker. These kids were literally ripped right out of reality, and seem so similar to the kids I played with when I was of junior high age that it's almost scary. I can't name them all, but I offer a few of the ones which stick in my mind. In no particular oder: Toby, son of the councilman, who's probably the most vocal of the kids, Ogilvie, the most intellectual of the boys but not the best player, Amanda, their best pitcher and the only female in the league, Kelly, the trouble-maker who smokes and rides a Harley but is an amazing outfielder and hitter, Tanner, my favorite character, the shortest but craziest of the team who would give Napoleon Bonaparte a run for his money when he takes on the entire 7th grade. He defends Lupus against some bullies at one point in the film. Lupus is perhaps the worst player on the team and shows little knowledge of social decorum. At first Tanner and the others are put-off by Lupus, but at one point the team appreciates him.

At first, there seems little hope for this group of unskilled oddballs when they're slaughtered during their first game. However, as the film progresses we learn more about the characters and how they start to pull for one another. Several of the Bears are either dismissed or harassed at various moments in the story, and the teammates begin to learn to stick up for one another, both on and off the field. As a result they slowly begin to play better. Even Buttermaker changes during the story. At first he's not the best coach, but he starts to see things in his players the other teams around the league don't see. We also witness the obsession and over-zealousness of the parents, whose attitude becomes more about the kids winning than simply experiencing the game. In the climactic final game, Buttermaker makes a realization which is as profound as any in sports films of this type.

This is just an incredible story which says much more about modern culture, particularly about young people, then it may have set out to do. The dialog seems like it was derived right out of a junior high school baseball diamond. While most child characters speak dialog which is unrelated to their age and experience, the script of the Bad News Bears must have come from the mouths of babes, literally. I imagine the screenwriters must have spent time at actual Little League games and written down the dialog. The ending is one of the best in all of sports films, and it is not only completely believable but it fits with the rhetoric of the entire film. An absolute breath of fresh air, especially if you're tired of those fictional sports films where you can guess the outcome.

Slightly Better than the Shroud of Turrin Episode But There are Still Historical Problems, 20 April 2015

During the 16th-century Reformation, Protestants, who were against relics and icons, often said there were enough pieces of the "true cross" to build Rome, or as Erasmus famously remarked "...if all the fragments (of the true cross) were collected together, they would appear to form a fair cargo for a merchant ship!" No question, many churches around Europe and the Near-East from the Middle Ages onwards have claimed to have pieces of the "true cross", meaning the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. (Why this is regarded as the "true cross" as opposed to the many other crosses used by the Romans to execute criminals is a question which is not addressed, but we'll leave that for a later discussion.)

This installment of CNN's "Finding Jesus" tells the legend of how Christian traditions developed in which it was believed fragments of the true cross came to reside in churches in Europe, often places of pilgrimage for the faithful. Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, converted to Christianity in the 4th century, and went on a pilgrimage to Palestine to find relics connected to early Christianity. By this time, Christianity was about 300 years old. In Jerusalem, the city of Jesus' final ministry and death (and by tradition, the place of his resurrection), Helena was told by a local that Jesus' cross was there and he knew where it was located. After she had him tortured to reveal his knowledge, he brought her to the location. Apparently, Helena then dug up three crosses and supposedly identified them as the ones used during the execution of Jesus and two other criminals. She supposedly identified the one belonging to Jesus. She broke the cross into pieces and gave the fragments to different people to be taken to different parts of the Near-East. These fragments then became holy relics in different churches in which they were incorporated into artistic treasures to be venerated.

Now while the story itself is fine as relating Christian tradition, there are many problems with the story at face value. Firstly, the traditional tale and the CNN documentary fail to note an important aspect of crucifixion, which may have not been known to Helena during her time since crucifixion had been outlawed by Constantine. Many aspects of how the Romans carried out crucifixion is not reflected accurately in most depictions of Jesus' Passion in art, medieval and/or otherwise.

Despite Christian visual tradition, such as the images found in the "Stations of the Cross", convicts to be crucified did not actually carry entire crosses, complete with upright and crossbeam. These would have been far too heavy for any individual to bear, despite the phrase "cross to bear". The uprights were already in place at the location of execution, usually near the entrance to the city as a warning. Convicts carried the crossbeams only. When they came to the place of execution, they were affixed to the crossbeam and hoisted onto the uprights as a kind of horrific advertisement to deter any future criminals and/or rabble-rousers. Films showing the entire cross being hoisted up with Jesus upon it is now known not to be accurate. And, there were certainly more than three uprights present when Jesus was executed. In point of fact, many uprights would have been at Golgotha, not just three, even though only three many have been used when Jesus was crucified along with two other convicts. Probably the most accurate depiction of Jesus' execution is in the television miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" which shows Jesus carrying the crossbeam through Jerusalem before being hoisted upon the uprights. Still a ghastly and horrific way to die.

Historically, it makes no sense that Helena would have found "three crosses" in Jerusalem in the 4th century which would have been crucifixion crosses. For one thing, crossbeams were reused for future crucifixions, and again, many uprights would have been present, even if none or few were actually being used at a particular time. The likelihood she found even the actual upright used for Jesus execution would be less than finding the dollar coin supposedly thrown by George Washington across the Potomac! While she may have found a long piece of wood, equivalent to a 4x4, attached to a crossbeam, it is highly unlikely if not impossible that this could be the "true cross" for the reasons just mentioned. Just like today, uprights and crossbeams were used for many structures in antiquity, not just crucifixion. My guess is she found some wooden crosses of some sort, and since they fit in with the gospel account that Jesus was executed along with two other criminals, she convinced herself this was the cross of Jesus. To commemorate the spot where she found the crosses, she commissioned a church to be built, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is probably true.

During the episode, interspersed between Helena's story is the recent carbon-dating of some wood attached to a relic believed by tradition to be a fragment of the true cross residing at a European Church. The Pope at the time donated the fragment to the church circa 1200, and a special ornate cross was forged with wood of the true cross visible. The understanding of all parties involved was that the wood had been part of the "true cross" of Jesus. Unfortunately, for traditionalists, carbon-dating revealed the date of the wood to be circa 1100-1250, not old enough to be from Antiquity. The Pope had simply donated a piece of wood which had begun its decay around the same time, claiming it was part of the true cross. So far, no artifact which has traditional claims to be directly linked to Jesus has ever been proved to be true. The Shroud has not, and more recently, the supposed ossuary of James, brother of Jesus, has not. Faith and religious imagination are one thing, but using religious mythology as a way to make historical claims usually doesn't work.

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Hunger Games Meets Lord of the Flies: A Solid SF-Action Film with Interesting Characters, 20 April 2015

In most films of the SF-Action variety, there's typically good action sequences and effects at the expense of good character development and convincing acting. "The Matrix", "2012", and "Man of Steel" come to mind. Or, the reverse: the film has good characters via solid acting, but the pace can't keep up with a snail so the action sequences are comprised and the story doesn't move along at a brisk enough pace. "Interstellar", "Prometheus", and "Oblivion" are ones which come to mind in this category. Few films achieve both ends, such as "Star Wars IV and V", the original "Alien", "Blade Runner", and more recently "The Hunger Games". Amazingly (no pun intended), "Maze Runner" has a terrific balance of character and action. In fact, the whole film would have failed miserably if there weren't fine acting inside the skins of compelling and believable characters. And there has to be enough action for the audience to understand the dilemma of the characters. "Maze Runner" equalizes both quite nicely, seemingly effortlessly.

Thomas, who doesn't know who he is because his memory has been wiped clean, is transported via a lift into a self-contained village within a small glade surrounded by huge walls on all sides. On one side, the walls have large doors which periodically open and close into a maze. The village-society is comprised of a few dozen males from age 12 to 27 but there are no "adults" over 30 and no females. They have structured their society such that different people engage in different tasks by day and then have ceremonial feasts and games by night. Supplies are also periodically provided through the same lift in which newcomers to the village arrive. However most of them have a sense they need to escape the glade through the maze, but not all the members have signed on to this idea.

A selected group of athletic villagers are "maze runners" who explore the maze and report back to the village with their findings before the doors close towards the end of the day. However, there are two challenges to the maze. First, while its doors are closed, the maze shifts every night, and second, there are "grievers", horrid creatures which are a cross between ALIEN and former Vice President Dick Cheney, which stalk humans inside the maze. If the maze is the way out, they have to make their escape before being swallowed and/or stung by the grievers. The villagers also wonder who created the maze and why, and why are the grievers there? As the story progresses, some of the maze runner realize there are hidden clues about escaping the maze.

The political structure is led by Alby, an African-American who is the wise leader of the village, and the first to arrive in the glade three years before the events of the story. Gally is a kind of second-in-command determined to take the leadership after Alby is incapacitated in the wake of having been stung by a griever. Newt is the leader of the maze runners, and Minho is one of the best runners. When Thomas, a "greenie" (a.k.a. a newcomer), becomes enthralled with exploring the maze when he's not officially a runner, Gally becomes enraged and desires the society punish Thomas and prohibit him from further running in the maze. What works well is not only the dilemma posed by the maze itself but also the power struggle between Thomas, who represents new hope in conquering the maze, and Gally, who represents the status-quo which may or may not wish to leave the village-glade. Then an unexpected "greenie" arrives to further shake up the delicate structure of the village.

Overall a very satisfying and interesting film. The character conflicts and action sequences are juggled well. At every moment, the viewer is pulled into the story without a shred of insight into what will transpire next. A few unexpected twists and turns occur which in retrospect make the story work on all levels. This is the goal of most action-SF films: to keep the viewer wanting to know what will happen next without being certain what will transpire while simultaneously caring about what happens to the characters involved. Weakness on either end can result in a mediocre experience, but luckily "Maze Runner" delivers on both fronts. Well done.

Godspell (1973)
Very Unique Demonstration of the Gospel Parables Through Off-Broadway Theater, 5 April 2015

If you turned to a channel broadcasting "Godspell", and you had never seen it before, it might take you a few minutes to understand what is going on. This is exactly how I was introduced to Godspell back in the 1980's. At first glance, "Godspell" might appear like some crazy sequel to "Hair", involving young actors in hippie-like garb dancing and singing around New York. The original was a university thesis project in which the Gospel parables and some of the narrative story of Jesus of Nazareth are presented in a style conducive to New York improv theater. The original was predominantly improv-like acting with a few songs. Eventually, Stephen Schwartz entered the picture and added songs creating a musical, and it became an off-Broadway hit musical 1971-72. This film adaption was produced shortly thereafter in 1973 with some song changes.

Unlike its counterpart "Jesus Christ Superstar" with which it has been endlessly compared, "Godspell" is less about the story and controversy of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and more a demonstration of select parables with a little bit of Jesus' narrative story at the beginning and the end. The original concept and subsequent plays and musicals were the brainchild of John-Michael Tebelak designed to speak to the crowd of college-age youth of the 1960's and early 70's about aspects of the gospels. "Godspell" is a "hip" alternative to the rather stuffy sermons orated by many-an Evangelical pastor since the 19th century, using vaudeville-like and silent-film pantomime and improvisation to demonstrate many of the parables.

The film begins with a voice singing "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord", and the characters who will become "the disciples" leave their respective places of work in New York (somewhat similar to the accounts in the Bible) and follow the voice. Interesting to note, in this interpretation there are males, females, African-Americans, even a Latino or two among the disciples, unlike other presentations in which these characters are often played by Whites of European descent. They come to a fountain in Central Park where the original singer, representing John the Baptist (David Haskell) in the River Jordan, is the "caller". They splash around in elation, now all singing "Prepare Ye...", which represents the baptisms. In the distance, a lone figure in curly hair appears in the distance. After the disciples run off, he comes over, receives John's baptism, and then dons suspenders and a shirt with a Superman-like "S" on the front. It becomes obvious this character represents Jesus (Victor Garber).

The characters then demonstrate the different parables. Only in a few scenes are parts of the life of Jesus acted out, such as Jesus' Baptism, the overturning of the moneychangers' tables, the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Interestingly, the events depicted in "Godspell" as if happening in Central Park by hippies are corroborated by scholars as being most likely historically true. Most of the songs are quite memorable, with the stand-out being "By My Side" (the only one not by Schwartz) which leads into the final sequence of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. The most memorable sequence is probably the Cruifixion in which Haskell who played the Baptist at the beginning now plays Judas Iscariot. Jesus and the disciples sing the Finale: "God I'm Bleeding". The film ends with "Long Live God" counterpointed with "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord".

A very remarkable film and experience. While the rhetoric is certainly derived as a faith-inspiring experience rather than historical controversy, such as in "Jesus Christ Superstar", I find the whole concept and execution of "Godspell" surprisingly moving. It never comes off preachy. It presents the story and parables as a series of vignettes which quickly make their points before moving onto the next one. Each character representing each of the disciples has their own eccentricity. One of which always makes me simultaneously happy and sad is a young woman with a little puppet. Jesus says good bye to both during the Last Supper sequence. If you're seeking a faithful rendition of one of the Gospel Accounts, this won't be for you, but if you're open to a different take on the New Testament, you'll feel inspired by the end.

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