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Killing Reagan (2016) (TV)
A Well-Acted Depiction of What Could Have Been Another Dallas, November 22, 1963, 24 October 2016

In the 19th century, stories abound of President Abraham Lincoln walking down the streets of Washington D.C., unworried about his safety, even though several million southern soldiers were pledged to kill him. (Alexander Gardner had taken what turned out to be Lincoln's last photograph, and the president had walked to the photo studio.) The Secret Service did not yet exist, and when it was inaugurated two months after Lincoln's assassination, it was not an operation to protect the president, but a federal investigatory unit to combat currency counterfeiting. One hundred years later, particularly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, ensuring the safety of the US President became a 24/7 job. What changed? Probably the biggest difference is the president's perpetual presence in national and international media, in the newspapers but mostly on television. Interestingly, television and film actors have the same problem: because of hyped media, there are people in the world, some of whom are not playing with a full deck, who become obsessed with media figures.

The made-for-cable film, "Killing Reagan", focuses on the events just before, during and after John Hinckley (Kyle S. More) attempted to assassinate then US President Ronald Reagan outside a Hilton Hotel in Washington D.C. only two months into his presidency in 1981. Hinckley was a disturbed young man not obsessed with Reagan per se, but instead with actress Jodi Foster. He was also obsessed with the film "Taxi Driver" starring Robert De Niro and also a very young Jodi Foster in a supporting role. In the film, the protagonist Travis Bickle fantasizes about plotting the assassination of a presidential candidate. Hinckley convinced himself that he could win over Foster's admiration by killing President Reagan, which given Foster's attitudes towards tougher gun restrictions, seems at face value absurd. However, stalkers live in their own "truth".

The film mainly reveals much of the behind-the-scenes activity surrounding the assassination attempt which came very close to being a replay of Dallas in November, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed by deranged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Oswald was 24 when he killed Kennedy (and was killed shortly thereafter by a local nightclub owner, Jack Ruby), and Hinckley was 25 when he shot Reagan. According to the film, Hinckley had been "stalking" President Carter during his reelection campaign, again probably inspired by "Taxi Driver". He moves to New Haven, CT, where Foster was an undergraduate, and constantly calls her and sends her postcards and letters. However, Hinckley's moves are never reciprocated, only rebuffed.

On the other side of the tracks is President Ronald Reagan (Tim Matheson in a convincing performance) and Nancy Reagan (Cynthia Nixon in what could be an Emmy-nominated performance) and their cabinet heads. What the public may not have known is how close another US President came to dying in office not two decades from the last time. In a split-second decision that influenced world history in the wake of the attempt, Jerry Parr (Joe Chrest), after noticing the president coughing up blood, changed the direction of the car from the White House to George Washington University Hospital, which was less than 4 minutes from the Hilton. Even when Reagan entered the hospital, it wasn't certain he would live, as the surgery to remove the bullet turned out to be far more problematic than anticipated. Some contradictory reports had been issued by the press, at first that Reagan had not been hit but later that he had. While in surgery, several of Reagan's cabinet members bicker about who is in charge, since then Vice President George HW Bush was in Air Force Two in Texas.

A good cast tells a very compelling and interesting story about one of the scariest episodes of the 1980's. Many who were alive at the time remember vividly the assassination of John F. Kennedy which, for some of them like my parents, seemed not that long in the past. I hadn't been born when JFK was assassinated, but I was in Junior High School at the time of Reagan's brush with death, and I remember where I was when I heard the news of the shooting. Although it didn't receive nearly as much publicity, President Barack Obama was shot at during his first term in office on the presidential balcony at the White House. The shot completely missed but only by inches. If there's anything which can be said of holding the office of US President, it's a dangerous job.

Auto Focus (2002)
The Tragic Downfall of a Television Legend from Sexual Addiction, 22 October 2016

The whole Hollywood/Entertainment scene in Los Angeles has to be one of the most surreal in modern culture. Actors who play "cool" and "suave" characters are often thought to be those characters in real life, but often they are not. Their creations are fantasies designed to entertain. Among the few name acting talents who receive accolades from both audiences and critics, some of them played characters which have become nearly iconic. Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock on Star Trek is one, Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker is another. And who could forget George Reeves as Superman in the 1950's. And Bob Crane playing the quick-witted and shrewd but lovable Colonel Hogan on the sit-com "Hogan's Heroes" is another. (Interesting that so many iconic television characters appeared from the 1950's to 1970's.)

Bob Crane was one of the most recognizable of television stars from the mid-1960's to the early 1970's as the title character of "Hogan's Heroes". "Hogan's Heroes" was a light-hearted fantasy set in a POW camp in Germany during World War II. During the show, Hogan and his fellow "prisoners" out-witted and out-smarted their incompetent German captors in light and mostly inoffensive farce, of course unless you were possibly of German descent. In particular Colonel Klink who was almost as lovable as Hogan was often the butt of Crane and his compatriots' schemes who ran an underground communications system inside the camp. (It is one of the few sit-coms from its era which has withstood the test of time more or less.)

Hogan's Heroes aside, the film "Auto Focus" paints a darker picture of Bob Crane. Although the finer details of his "other life" were slightly altered according to his sons, Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) is depicted as a sex addict. When he was not in the studio playing Hogan, he would avoid his family and engage in sex-capades with a video tech rep, John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe). At first the two spend hours at strip clubs in which Crane would sometimes sit in as a drummer, and Crane would claim long hours at the studio as his excuse to his family.

Carpenter then introduces Crane to the wonders of home video technology, first reel-to-reel then video cassette tape, nearly 10 years before it would be widely available on the consumer market. They can not only watch pre-made videos, but they can produce their own. Crane and Carpenter would pick up young women at a club and invite them to Carpenter's place where he video tapes their sexual encounters. They were almost never rejected because of Crane's star status which would be too much for young girls to resist. Later Crane and Carpenter would watch their videos as yet another way to achieve stimulation and gratification. Soon, Crane's wife since high school discovers some of his tapes and videos and his appalled at his extracurricular activities. To add insult to injury, Crane begins seeing one of the actresses on the set of "Hogan's Heroes".

Probably the two most tragic television actors who enjoyed their biggest successes during the era from circa 1950 to 1970 are George Reeves who played Superman and Bob Crane who played Colonel Hogan. George Reeves was found dead in 1959 just after his stint as Superman ended, apparently having committed suicide. Bob Crane was found murdered in his bed in an apartment in 1978 while engaged in a theater play, "Beginner's Luck", in Scottsdale, AZ. Both struggled as actors after their respective shows ended. They may have suffered from "type casting" in which the characters they played were so fused with themselves they couldn't find acting work as different characters in other productions. Unlike Reeves, Crane did receive some work after "Hogan's Heroes", such as appearing in two Disney films. However, his career would never equal the success he had playing Hogan. The murder of Crane is still regarded as unsolved but the film implies who probably committed the murderous deed.

Enjoyable 19th-Century Mystery-Fantasy About the Power of Illusion, 22 October 2016

In the wake of the Enlightenment of the late 17th and 18th centuries, the 19th century saw a rise in interest in the occult, mysticism and magic. Séance ceremonies, fortune-telling, occult literature, and magic acts became widespread in popularity, and much of this interest in matters supernatural and the inexplicable have survived into the 21st century. However, from circa 1845 until the death of Houdini in 1926, magic and illusion were some of the most popular theatrical acts in Europe and America. (Previously performing magicians were often among traveling shows, and today only a handful of magic performers have national and international fame.) "The Illusionist", starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel, is a throw-back to the 19th century's obsession with mysticism and magic.

Edward Norton, in a compelling atypical performance, plays Eduard Abramovich, an Austrian provincial, who has made a name for himself as Eisenheim the Illusionist. The film begins in 1889 with the last of a series of controversial theatrical illusions in which apparitions of dead people appear on stage at Eisenbeim's bidding and speak to the audience. Chief Inspector Walter Uhl (Giamatti) stops the performance and arrests the illusionist on the grounds of disturbing the peace. He was sent to arrest both Eisenheim and the performances by Crown Prince Leopold of Austria (Rufus Sewell). Giamatti then meets with Prince Leopold later the same evening and recounts the story of Eduard Abramovich and his rise from lowly peasant to magic superstar who has a following similar to Harry Houdini.

Most of the film is a flash-back from a young Abramovich meeting an elderly magician and then befriending a girl betrothed to the crown prince, Duchess Sophie von Teschen. The two are caught spending time together, and are separated not only because of class but because the duchess is already promised to the crown prince. Fast-forward 15 years, and Abramovich, now known as Eisenheim, is wowing audiences with incredible tricks. The crown prince and duchess, intrigued with rumors about the magician, attend one of his performances, and the duchess is selected to participate in one of the spectacles.

Intrigued, the crown prince invites the magician for a private performance. Then Eisenheim inadvertently humiliates the crown prince in a trick involving the prince's sword, and the love between the duchess and the performer is rekindled. Sensing the magician is not only challenging his political power in the eyes of his subjects but may have designs on his fiancé, the crown prince orders the arrest of Eisenheim. His lust for power and control ends in an unexpected fatality.

This is just a really entertaining movie, somewhat similar to fantasies in the earliest days of Hollywood entertainment. Transitions between scenes sometimes use the old-style kaleidoscopic/tunnel wipes often associated with silent movies. Certainly, Norton's character is the center of attention, but equally good are the supporting characters played by Giamatti, Biel, and Sewell. Giamatti does a fine job of straddling between the inspector of Vienna pledged to uphold the law while doing the bidding of the power-hungry crown prince. Biel is convincing as the duchess not quite enamored with the power of Austrian royalty. I also thought Sewell's performance was superb as the crown prince who seems at first very sure of his existing political power but then finds himself gradually losing its grip. A nice twist at the end makes for a very satisfying cinematic experience. Maybe not quite "The Prestige", one of the best films on a similar subject, "The Illusionist" still uphold very well on its own.

Generally Interesting But Somewhat Confusing Tale of a Real-Life Tom Ripley, 9 October 2016

Like a lot of documentaries about crime puzzles, many of them are in desperate need of a narrator if for no other reason than it may be difficult to understand how all the pieces fit, risking leaving the viewer with a jumbled mess. After having viewed this documentary, I wasn't sure how all the puzzle pieces fit together. I've read two books about so-called Clark Rockefeller, the German provincial Christian Gerhartsreiter, who impersonated a Rockefeller and fooled the elites of New York for well over 10 years. The present documentary certainly added much I didn't know before, but if I had come into this subject with a clean slate, I think I would have been very confused. The time-line of events is not made clear, particularly when and where Christian Gerhartsreiter was under his many aliases. Certainly, the best known is Clark Rockeller, but he also want by Christopher Chichester, Chip Smith, and Chris C. Crowe among others. Although these aliases were mentioned, it wasn't always clear exactly when and where he used them.

In the late 1970's, Christian Gerhartsreiter who had been born and raised in the small provincial town of Siegsdorf in southern Germany came to the United States intent on "becoming" an American. He didn't just assimilate himself into America society. He decided to pass himself off as one of the nation's elites. After convincing some American's to "sponsor" him, he moved to San Marcos, CA, a quasi-Beverly Hills located in the northeastern part of the Los Angeles area. There, he named himself Christopher Chichester and claimed he was in the upper circles of Hollywood. He freeloaded off the elites of San Marcos who believed his story that he was a descendant of Lord Mountbatten. He even went so far as to imply he was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. Eventually, he would steal a car and murder at least one person, probably two, and then he disappeared.

A few years later in the 1990's, a young man name of Clark Rockefeller infiltrated the upper-crust of New York, claiming he was a member of the Rockefeller family, one of the most elite and prestigious of American clans. He spoke and presented himself in a way which endeared him to the NY elites and they bought his story hook, line and sinker. In America's largest and arguably most elitist city, Clark was given access to exclusive clubs, given prestigious jobs, and invited into elite circles. Even though he was supposedly worth $100's of millions, he freeloaded off of other people's generosity, often compelling companions to pay for drinks and dinners. And yet, almost none of them ever questioned that he was anything but a Rockefeller. He married a woman making $1 million a year working for a prestigious NY firm, and convinced her to give him full access to her bank account. He also claimed to have inherited an art collection which turned out to be filled with fakes and copies.

Back in San Marcos, police dug up dead bodies at a residence in which he used to reside, and were getting closer to the man who had called himself Christopher Chichester. The gig was up when, after his wife divorced him after a private detective determined he wasn't a Rockefeller, he kidnapped their only daughter. When the story broke, the Rockefellers claimed they didn't know who he is and that he definitely wasn't one of the family. He was eventually arrested and flown back to the Los Angeles area to stand trial of murder where he was convicted.

Even stranger than the incredible false identities he assumed was that so many people bought into his story. Nearly everyone he met were convinced he was a member of the Rockefeller family, and those in San Marcos believed he was descended from Lord Mountbatten. The documentary is mostly comprised of interviews of people who interacted with "Clark Rockefeller" aka Christian Gerhartsreiter. Very few actually questioned he was telling the truth. Far stranger was that many people could have easily researched online to find out whether this man was who he claimed to be. Of particular interest is Walter Kirn, writer of the novel "Up in the Air", who befriended Rockefeller and bought into his story. He admits he had witnessed many hints which might have led him to discover for himself whether Clark was telling the truth about his lineage but failed to do so. However, he missed these opportunities because it sounds like it never occurred to him until after Gerhartsreiter's arrest that he would have been lying.

A Modern-Day Treasure-Hunt of Epic Proportions Stylistically Like the Old Action-Serials of the 1930's, 40's and 50's, 11 September 2016

In the early 20th century, the fantasy-adventure genre was in vogue in the pulp magazines such as "Amazing Stories" and "Weird Tales" where western-society adventurers, typically British and American, replete with safari hat and khaki pants traveled to a far-away locale encountering ancient relics and ancient peoples. There would be a few obligatory scenes where an ancient people with spears would be chasing after the hero. Alan Quartermain was one of the first of these adventure-heroes traveling to distant lands seeking adventure. A few of these adventure-genre stories were produced into films, such as "King Kong", "The Most Dangerous Game" (by the same producers as "King King"), "Four Frightened People", and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre". Even the "Flash Gordon" serials had much in common with these adventure-to-other-lands series. "The Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a late 20th-century updated version of these old adventure films and takes place during the 1930's when Hitler and the Nazis ruled Germany.

Oddly, the adventure films of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, circa 1930 to 1960, were relegated to B-film status and the serials. With the possible exception of "King Kong", most adventure films were low budget B-films with lesser-known actors, lower budgets, and relatively mediocre scripts. Many of these offerings were shot on sound-stages in Hollywood. When "Raiders of the Lost Ark" premiered in the early 1980's, the adventure film had received some serious face-lifts. "Raiders of the Lost Ark" set the standard with better scripts, better actors, location-shooting, and larger budgets, incorporating fun, adventure, antiquities, and even some humor into a satisfying cinematic experience.

When he's not engaging in mediocre lectures as a nerdy professor at his university, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford in one of his defining roles) is an archaeological adventurer, seeking antiquities throughout the world for museums in the western world, predominantly for the United States and Britain. His arch-rival is Belloq (Paul Freeman), a French archaeologist who has sold his soul to the Nazis in return for financing archaeological exploits. Jones studied under Dr. Abner Ravenwood, an archaeologist who has gone missing somewhere in Asia. Jones briefly dated his daughter, Marion, before the beginning of the events of the story.

After an altercation with his rival Belloq, losing a gold religious icon-head in Peru, Indiana Jones is approached by the US government to engage in a treasure hunt which has a nearly 2500-year history. The Nazis are after the so-called Ark of the Covenant (not to be confused with Noah's Ark, Joan of Arc, or Archie Bunker), an ornate gold chest which supposedly housed the Ten Commandments brought down from on High by Moses to the Israelites, a.k.a. the Jews/Hebrews of Pre-Christianity. According to Old Testament biblical tradition, the Ark of the Covenant resided in the "Holy of Holies" in the Great Temple in Jerusalem and would only have been seen by the highest priests of the temple. The Ark went missing after the Babylonians conquered the Israelites circa 500 BCE. (Whether the Ark actually existed has been debated for nearly 2000 years. Although some antiquities-hunters and Christian-Evangelicals want to believe the Ark may still exist, more than likely, if it had existed, it was destroyed by the Babylonians who probably melted down the Ark for its gold to create their own treasures and artifacts.)

The Allies believe the Nazis desiring the Ark of the Covenant has to do with their quest for ultimate domination, the Ark associated with divine power. So if the Nazis think they can attain the Ark, the Allies better confiscate it before they do. So US government officials offer Indiana Jones an offer he can't refuse: finance him to find the Ark before the Nazis. He travels first to Nepal where he meets his old flame, Marion Ravenwood, who has in her possession an amulet which turns out to be a crucial piece of the puzzle to find the Ark. The Nazis are also hot on Jones' trail. Marion and Indiana then travel to Cairo, Egypt, where the Nazis are already engaging in a large-scale dig for the Ark. Jones solicits the help of Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to hire a crew of excavators to find the Ark before Belloq and the Nazis. Unfortunately, Belloq has often been able to take artifact-treasures literally right out of Jones' hands.

One of the all-time great action-adventure films with a humorous script, top-notch acting, and wonderful scenic shots. A few scenes use some of the Old Hollywood devices, like a map with an animated line showing their journey across the globe. Some of the chase scenes go on a little bit long, but there's plenty of other ingredients which keeps the story fresh and moving. Even the love-story which is rekindled between Marion and Indiana is a nice relief from the action. One of the best scenes is how they discover the actual location of the Ark, supposedly hidden in the lost city of Tanis in Egypt not far from Cairo. While Tanis was a real ancient city now in ruins, the idea the Ark would have been placed there seems quite fantastical, considering the Ark was lost when they were conquered by Babylon, not Egypt. The Egyptians probably could have cared less about a Jewish artifact. However, we tend to run with the story all the way.

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Another Jason Bourne Installment with Decent Plot but Dizzying 9-Hour Action-Chase Scenes; Pass the Dramamine, 6 September 2016

I think it's amazing how many car smashes a single vehicle can endure and keep going like the Energizer Bunny. According to these Jason Bourne films, certain cars can plow through dozens of other cars like a chain saw going through butter, leaving them in the dust while still continuing to race through streets faster than a speeding an AK-47 bullet. Only when the cars being driven by Bourne and the current baddie collide do they finally go to the auto heaven in the sky. In this latest Bourne installment, there's overlong chase scenes at the beginning at the end, both of which could have been cut and still offered the same impact. That said, a decent installment in the Jason Bourne canon but again, I didn't feel the film quite transcended its own confines. Also, the camera work on the chase scenes used so many split-second quick cuts, I thought I was going to need to take some Dramamine.

Jason Bourne is still rogue from the CIA at film's beginning. In the previous installments, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Scott Glenn were all at the helms of Treadstone, the CIA's ultra-secret sub-operation in which assassins are trained and sent on missions to kill political adversaries, all the while the CIA keeping knowledge of its very existence close to their vests. But none of the former three head-honchos seem to have any way to stop Bourne from thwarting the CIA's violent designs, all in the name of keeping "peace" in the world while pushing US interests. All three ended their mortal coils at the hands of Bourne. However, now Bourne has the most threatening of all the heads of the CIA's secret operations: Robert Dewey played by Tommy Lee Jones. And Dewey is in contact with yet another secret assassin who likes to play with really big guns, called simply Asset (Vincent Cassel). Of all the characters, including Bourne himself, Dewey (Jones) was by the far the most interesting, and I wanted more screen time with him rather than endless chase scenes. What Jones can do with sly expressions is sometimes worth more than 55 lines of dialogue. He has a way with expressing one emotion on his face while saying something completely different and making us understand the enigmatic qualities of his character.

Jones is almost too much of an obvious choice for the big chief/baddie who double-crosses his own people to achieve his aims. Aside from dealing with Bourne, Dewey (Jones) has had a secret deal with Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the CEO and founder of Deep Dream, purportedly a social website probably modeled on Ahmed and Dewey's new right-arm Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) are relatively young Stanford graduates, among the new crop of Millenials who understand coding, hacking, and infiltrating better than their Generation-X and Baby Boomer counterparts. Kallor we learn has allowed Dewey to infiltrate the Deep Dream social media site with everyone there under surveillance. Now, he wants out, and he plans to expose the US government's surveillance program at a Las Vegas computer/social media convention.

At the same time, through some "hacktivists" in Europe, Bourne learns more about his past and that his father, Richard Webb, was more involved in the CIA than Jason Bourne a.k.a. David Webb had realized. Of course, we only learn this after a chase scene in Athens, Greece, which just happens to coincide with public protesters. After about 9 hours of the scene, which ends similarly to another scene from one of the other Bourne installments, do we learn about Bourne's new information. We also learn that someone close to Kallor is offering information to the U.S. Government, and everyone will end up in Vegas for the final denouement

While I appreciated a lot of the plot elements of "Jason Bourne", mainly the CIA-Deep Dream relationship and Bourne's discoveries about his father, again, those stories were under-developed and the chase scenes lasted about as long as your average American Football game. Too often, I was waiting for the chase scenes to end to get back to the story. Unfortunately, while long chase scenes appear to be "in vogue", and I'm sure the studios think they have to keep pushing these on their younger audiences, lest they might rebel and go see "Despicable Me 4", I doubt these and similar films will withstand extraordinarily well. I feel strongly these Bourne film scripts were written to target consciously what they perceive as young audiences' tastes for extended chase scenes with faster-than-light quick-cuts, rather than telling the story they wish to tell. I don't know if these films will ever be released in special 50th anniversary editions in 4K in later years. Again, like the other films, they are basically "one-watch" experiences. A decent watch? Yes. A memorable film? Not really.

Entertaining Comedy-Action-Mystery with Possibly One of the Funniest Moments in the Annals of American Cinema: sort of "The Lady Vanishes" meets "Uptown Saturday Night", 3 September 2016

The plot of "Silver Streak" is a very common if not somewhat overused plot device. An average Joe, played by Gene Wilder, gets caught in the middle of criminal activities, in this case murder and a million-dollar art fraud scheme. (Similar fair include "North By Northwest" with Carey Grant and "The Lady Vanishes" starring Margaret Lockwood, both directed by Alfred Hitchcock.) George Caldwell (Wilder) in every sense a meek every-man who writes books on gardening is taking the Silver Streak train to Chicago to see his sister's wedding. He meets Hilly (Jill Clayburgh), a secretary to a brilliant art historian, traveling in an adjacent train compartment and they end up having dinner together. They're spending a lovely evening in her train compartment when George sees a dead body fall outside the window. At first he thinks it's a hallucination and Hilly doesn't believe him. The next day, George glances at the book by the art historian and realizes he's the man who was murdered. From there, nothing goes as planned.

Devereau (played with sly subtlety by the incomparable Patrick McGoohan) is engaged in an art heist of epic proportions. He's faked Rembrandts he's sold for millions but his jig has been discovered by the art professor who can prove the artworks are fake with authentic letters by Rembrandt. The art historian was on his way to Chicago for an art conference in which he was going to prove the Rembrandts were fakes, which is why Devereau hatched the elaborate scheme to take him out. Devereau then needs the Rembrandt letters in order to destroy them thus ensuring his art fraud will be successful. (In point of fact, original letters by Rembrandt, especially ones discussing his artworks would be worth millions, nearly as much as any of his paintings.) However, now there's been a witness to the murder, foiling Devereau's plans.

After several confrontations with the baddies, George ends up off the train and inadvertently befriends Grover (Richard Pryor). After Grover believes George's story, he's willing to help his white friend re-board the train but it's now being staked out by police and federal agents. Then Grover contrives a way for George to re-board the train without being discovered in one of the greatest comedic scenes ever shot on film. What makes the scene so outrageously funny is it how it taps into the gross stereotypes of race, and yet it works on all levels and is not offensive. Apparently, one aspect of the scene was changed from the original script at the request of Pryor and Wilder, and the result is a perfectly acted and shot comedic scene which is both playful and telling. This alone is well worth the price of admission.

Ultimately a fun action-mystery-comedy which takes it's self seriously enough that the viewer runs with it and the comedic moments never seem out of context. Both Wilder and Pryor developed a unique chemistry, and they would work together in several subsequent films. Jill Clayburgh makes a wonderful woman in distress, and McGoohan is perfect as a British godfather type. Some parts are a little bit dated and the final resolution was rather weak. Still, the one scene with Wilder and Pryor is one of the great moments in cinema and makes an interesting yet inoffensive statement about race relations and perception.

Flawed Historical Methodology Compromises Otherwise Interesting Premise, 17 August 2016

Unfortunately, historian Michael Hesemann's methodology to prove whether the relic known as "Titulus Crucis" to be part of the so-called "true cross" upon which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified has a lot of holes in its logic. While I have enjoyed most of the other Myth Hunter episodes, especially the one about the Book of Thoth, this one lacks the objectivity of several historians. It relies almost completely upon the subjective work of Hesemann. Many steps in his logic appear to be missing, and the final scientific evidence proved not to be in Hesemann's favor.

The Titulus Crucis is a piece of wood with the name of Jesus of Nazareth inscribed into it, thought to be the inscription placed above Jesus' head during his crucifixion indicating his offenses. It resides in a church in Rome where it is venerated as a silent witness to Jesus' death. However, there's little about the wood inscriptions themselves that would indicate this is necessarily the crucifixion inscription. First off, the inscriptions just say a name "Jesus of Nazareth" in three languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. According to the New Testament, the inscription said "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" in Latin. I've read a lot about early Christianity, and I've never heard the inscription was in three languages, only Latin, and the present inscription doesn't say "King of the Jews". Hesemann even quotes the Gospel of St. John which says the inscription says "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews". Where is the "King of the Jews" part of the inscription?

The main thrust of the documentary is Heseman's pouring over ancient texts to determine the links between the Titulus Crucis and the true cross. The documentary recounts the story told by Eusebius in which Empress Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovers parts of the true cross in Jerusalem in the early 4th century, about 300 years after Jesus' death. She then built a church there, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The story has been passed down through Christian tradition, and resulted in the eventually canonization of the Empress Helena as a venerated saint. Eventually these wooden remains are discovered in the late 15th century.

While the forging of the new church is not disputed, the likelihood that these pieces of wood which were shown to Helena by a local as part of the cross of a specific crucified man from 300 years previous to her excavation is quite unbelievable. First off, the uprights of crosses remained standing as a warning in many Roman cities, which was punishment practice during a 500-year period, from circa 200 BCE to 300 CE. (Crucifixion was eventually banned by the Emperor Constantine.) The cross beams were frequently reused on many convicts. At least hundreds of people were crucified in Jerusalem between the first century CE and the excavation by St. Helena. After the Spartacus uprising circa 100 BCE, most of Spartacus' army was crucified along the long road reaching all the back to Rome. So there is absolutely not one shred of evidence outside of Christian tradition that Helena found the remains of Jesus' cross. Even if she found three crosses, given how many were crucified in Jerusalem especially during Pontius Pilate, the likelihood there was a connection to Jesus is about nil. The evidence? A local said they were.

One of the most fantastic statements has to be by John Haldane, professor of philosophy at St. Andrews. He suggests that it would be very likely that something like the Titulus Crucis would have survived for 300 years when St. Helena found it (now going on 2000 years old) because of its importance to Christians. In the ancient world, crucifixion was a humiliating punishment, and I doubt that the followers of Jesus would have run over to the uprights and grabbed the Titulus Crucis as a relic, anymore than someone would want to own the rope by which a loved-one was hung. Part of the reason many Jews did not accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah was because a crucified man was antithetical to their picture of the Messiah who was supposed to be a strong leader like King David or King Solomon. Only later did theologians begin to conceive the idea that the crucifixion was part of God's plan as in the Gospel of John written several generations after the death of Jesus.

Another silly assertion is that it's most likely not a forgery because a forger wouldn't have gotten it so wrong, the inscription not exactly matching the New Testament account. Forgers make crucial (no pun intended) mistakes all the time. A forger of late Antiquity or the Middle Ages are as prone to making mistakes as today, the partially faked inscription on a first century ossuary believed to be that of James the brother of Jesus is a case in point. The idea a forger would be "more careful" is ridiculous and proves nothing.

Unfortunately, the entire argument made by Hesemann is flawed. The relic is eventually carbon-dated as being from the Middle Ages. All he proved was he has a piece of wood from the Middle Ages with the inscription Jesus of Nazareth in three languages. He did not prove that the piece of wood currently in possession in a church in Rome are among those found by Helena in the 4th century, and he did not prove the pieces of wood found by Helena were in fact parts of Jesus' cross. The only inkling of real hard evidence is that the inscription is in a style dating from the first century, but that doesn't prove it was part of Jesus' cross nor does it prove it is from the first century. I think the documentary and its subject would have been better served if there had been incorporated more scholars with alternate points of view. As stated earlier in terms of the inscription itself, Hesemann appears to contradict himself.

Henry IV Part I (1979) (TV)
One of Shakespeare's Best Fusion of Drama and Humour in BBC Excellent Adpation, 14 August 2016

When William Shakespeare's history play, "The History of Henrie IV" (later renamed "The History of Henry IV" Part 1 to distinguish it from its sequel) entered onto the literary stage towards the end of the 16th century, both figuratively and metaphorically, one of the most famous and popular of Shakespeare's characters made his debut: Sir John "Jack" Falstaff. As far as we know, Falstaff was an immediate sensation, attested by the numerous quarto editions printed prior to the so-called Shakespeare First Folio of his collected works which appeared in 1623. Sir John Falstaff, possibly loosely based on Sir John Oldcastle, a knight and friend of Henry V until he rebelled against the king, is an old knight whose "vassals" are a bunch of drunken lowlifes who congregate with him at his "court", a tavern far removed from real court life among the nobility. Although, one frequenter of the tavern and friend of Falstaff is Prince Hal, son of King Henry IV.

Three different groups of characters form the play "Henry IV Part 1". There is the king and his immediate group of advisers, a rogue group who have designs to overthrow the king, and Falstaff and his group of "courtiers" at his tavern. Prince Hal moves within the circles of two of the three groups, until, by play's end, all three groups converge in the climactic scene. While the play is named "King Henry IV Part 1", much of the stage-time is devoted to the relationship between Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff. We never know why Prince Hal congregates with these drunkards, but we learn at play's beginning, he's been doing this for a long time.

The play begins circa 1400. It's been approximately one year since Henry of Bolinbroke, now King Henry IV (Jon Finch), deposed his inept and unresolved cousin, King Richard II in one of the most famous coups in English history. However, even after a year, there is still uncertainty in the court regarding King Henry, mainly among the nobles and barons that he has no legitimate claim to the throne. And there had been an outbreak near the Scottish and Wales border at the play's beginning, involving King Richard's chosen heir, Mortimer.

Edmund Mortimer, brother of Henry Percy Hotspur, is being held ransom by a Welsh traitor, Owen Glendower. Hotspur insists Mortimer fought valiantly against the rebels, but the king, based on his own intelligence, doesn't believe Mortimer to be as loyal and brave as Hotspur propagates and refuses to pay the ransom for Mortimer's release. The Percy's also hold in their charge prisoners from the rebellion, and the king wants them turned over to him, but they refuse to comply because of Edmund Mortimer. This compels Hotspur and other members of the Percy family, notably his uncle Thomas Percy, to raise an army and rebel against the king. The Percy's had backed Henry during the coup allowing him to become king.

On another front is Prince Hal (David Gwillim) who has been commiserating with Sir John Falstaff (Anthony Quayle) and his congregation of drunkards at a tavern, presumably in the seedier side of London. Most of the cronies are far older than Prince Hal, save one, Poins, who appears not only to be the same age as Hal but probably more intelligent than the others. Poins convinces Hal to play a trick on Falstaff and his drunkards. Through conniving, they convince Falstaff that he and some of the other bar-flies should rob money from some wealthy traveling tradesmen/travelers. Unbeknownst to them, Hal and Poins in turn plan to rob the money from Falstaff and friends, knowing that when they return to the tavern, Falstaff will boast that they were set upon by 20 to 30 vagabonds. Their predictions prove right, but Falstaff exceeds expectations, claiming he was set upon by 100 vagabonds who he fought off valiantly!

Eventually, a messenger is sent to the tavern summoning Hal back to the court at the king's behest. In a brilliant scene, Falstaff and Hal re-enact Hal's return to the king, with Falstaff playing the king and Hal himself, then reversing the roles. However, when Hal does confront his father back at the castle, neither of the play-acting scenes mirrors the confrontation. The king, in perhaps the most famous scolding in Shakespeare, reprimands his son for commiserating with the barflies at the tavern, reminding him he is to be king one day, and his behaviors shame him and his noble-royal family. He reminds Hal that they have serious matters to attend to, notably to confront Hotspur and the rebellion. Even though Hotspur's behavior has turned treasonous, the king admires Hotspur's military resolve, not convinced Prince Hal has the same metal.

This is a wonderful production of perhaps William Shakespeare's best fusion of drama and comedy in a play. Jon Finch makes a compelling King Henry IV, his resonant voice echoes the words of Shakespeare of the late 16th century portraying a medieval king of the early 15th century. David Gwillim makes a good Prince Hal, who must juggle his desire to hang out with Falstaff and friends and yet do his duty as prince to the king. However, Anthony Quayle nearly steals the show as Sir John Falstaff. Quayle makes the lines of Falstaff his own, the old knight constantly telling stories of passed exploits in which the details are just a little bit bloated. In an interesting turn, when Prince Hal rhetorically puts Falstaff in a corner after the old knight claimed he was set upon by 100 vagabonds, and Hal admits it was only he and Poins, Falstaff in true Shakespeare fashion comes up with a quick-witted response!

Is Koko the Gorilla Using Language or Simply Mimmicking, 10 August 2016

The great scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and is unlike modes of communication used by any other animal species. In short, humans are the only species who use "language", according to Chomsky. A test-case begun in the early 1970's, Koko the Gorilla and her care-giver Penny, are challenging this human-centric nativist view. While certainly Koko the Gorilla probably doesn't have the capacity to read Greek and write analyses about James Joyce's "Ulysses", based on the video presentations, Koko clearly has internal thoughts and feelings, and she can express those thoughts in a form of sign-language adapted from the sign-language for the deaf. Of course, this is only an assessment of a layman who doesn't have scientific credentials. Not all of the scientific community, according to the documentary, is convinced that Koko or any other primates have the capability to express unique thoughts through some sort of language.

The present documentary, "Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People", makes the case that Koko is not just imitating her care-givers' gestures to get goodies. She's using sign-language to express complex inner thoughts and emotions. While I do believe it's a mistake to think that gorillas think and see the world in the same way as human beings, the point is that she is constructing her thoughts into recognizable patterns through her sign-language. If this is not language, maybe I don't understand the term. Scientists on the skeptics side have claimed Koko really isn't engaging in language because Koko's signing lacks the grammatical complexity of say a Western language like English, French, German or Italian. In English, we make the distinction between "boy eats sandwich" and "sandwich eats boy". While such subtlety of word-order may not be the case with Koko, generally speaking, she does appear to be expressing unique thoughts, not just engaging in "monkey see, monkey do". So my question is: does a language have to be grammatically intricate to be a language?

The documentary chronicles the history and goals of her care-givers, particularly Penny Patterson who is really a mother figure in Koko's life, and how they want to better understand the inner thought processes of non-human primates. As shocking as it seems to us now, as recently as the 1970's, it was believed that animals didn't really have thoughts and emotions, and they were just organisms which respond to stimuli. The ground-breaking work of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey was still on the edge of scientific recognition, showing how non-human primates exhibited much behavior strikingly similar to humans. At the very least, Goodall and Fossey proved that apes and chimps definitely have thoughts and emotions. Penny Patterson decided to take the idea one step further and see if we could understand better the inner reality of a primate by not only raising her from birth with humans but teaching her sign language to communicate. And she was of course Koko the Gorilla.

Much of the documentary shows Koko spewing out sign-language words in no particular order but they clearly are unique messages of her thought processes. If she signs the words "Koko, love, hug", she's clearly saying she loves someone and wants to give him/her a hug, even though she's not using a precise word order. Koko at one point asked for a pet, and her care-givers gave her a stuffed animal, but Koko clearly didn't want a stuffed toy, and kept signing "sad". She wanted a real animal. She was shown a litter of kittens not long afterwards and selected a gray kitten who she named "All Ball" because the kitten was like a little ball of fur, I suspect. Koko and All Ball became best buddies. There are few images which tug at our heart-strings than that of Koko, a gorilla who probably has the strength of about 10 men, holding little All Ball. The image is strikingly maternal, like a mother and child. Koko has so many of the same emotions humans have. The late Robin Williams had visited Koko a few times, and when news of his death was told to Koko, she became very sad and somber. She seemed to remember not only who he was but that he was no longer with us.

One of the things which makes this documentary exceptional is that it gives some of the skeptics sides. The scientific community is on the fence in terms of believing Koko is really using language. One of the counter-examples is the chimp called Nim, who seems to be engaging in "monkey see, monkey do", unlike Koko. However, as Penny points out, Nim was never with a single care-giver but "examined" by many different scientists who didn't conclude he was engaging with them at a linguistic level. Penny hypothesizes that it's not like a primate will automatically engage with anyone who comes in their midst. Just like humans, gorillas and chimps need to be in a relationship where they can interact with those they like. (Human teenagers can also be surprisingly uncommunicative to adults they don't know.)

Luckily, I think the skeptics are becoming a minority. Penny and her colleagues had to use their understanding of Koko to adopt her and keep her from being sent back to the zoo. At that time, zoo owners didn't believe such animals would care about who they were with, again a behaviorist view of psychology, particularly pertaining to animals. Whether or not someone has been convinced that there's more going on in Koko's mind than simple stimuli-response, she's making a compelling case. I'm one of those who's been sold, hook, line and sinker.

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