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BTW, IMHO, the approximate percentages of reasonably good (including great) episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are, by season (that’s “series” to those across the Pond): First season, 90 percent; second season, 90 percent; third season, 90 percent; fourth season, 75 percent; fifth season, 50 percent; sixth season, less than 25 percent (generously); Seventh season – well, the seventh season only exists to make the sixth season look good.
WARNING: There will be spoilers!
Tokyo Trial (2016)
A thought-provoking Inquiry into Japanese war crimes
This mini-series skillfully blends contemporary actors with archival footage from the two-and-a-half-year trial of members of Japan's World War II leadership, which took place in the late 1940s. For those who are not drawn in by the end of the first episode, let me say I found the end of part two to be a cliff-hanger. I am more amused by the many reviewers who want to argue with the program's point of view. I do not think it has a point of view so much as it stimulates discussion by showing all the conflicting views among Tribunal members.
You might think the filmmakers regard some of the justices as good guys and others not, but I prefer to take each character's argument on its merits, especially since each character defends his viewpoint pretty well. Surprisingly sympathetic is the Russian Justice, General Zaryanov, who only speaks to the non-Russian-speaking characters-and consequently to audience members similarly challenged-through his female translator. (Incidentally, although she is called "Russian Translator" in the cast, there is a technical distinction between a translator and an interpreter, and she is the latter.)
Although the program dramatically pulls us toward Justice Roling as the protagonist, the choice of his POV ironically might be due more to his being the most changeable of the justices rather than because the Netherlands is one of the three countries responsible for this production.
Roling starts out trying not to have any bias but soon realizes that he is attracted to Indian Justice Pal's blanket rejection of the idea that a tribunal dominated by colonialists and colonists can condemn Japan for what amounts to, well, colonialism. As the trial drags on, however, Roling realizes that he cannot go as far as Pal does, and he seeks to define a more moderate position.
As is explained in the first episode, there are three types of war crimes. 1) Conventional war crimes are easily understood: Somebody massacres civilians or prisoners, for example. 2) Crimes against humanity occur when, say, somebody starves, tortures, or exterminates people. 3) Legally more problematic is the category "crimes against peace", a.k.a., "crimes of aggression", which had been used at the earlier Nuremberg Trial. Some justices in Tokyo want to stick with that precedent while others question it. Maybe it should be a crime to start a war, but it isn't. Or is it? Here is the major sticking point, and the justices on the Tribunal disagree with each other and never stop arguing about it.
Sir William Webb, the president of the Tribunal, confronts General MacArthur early on with the question of why the Emperor is not held responsible along with the other men in the dock. MacArthur basically tells him that who is to be charged has already been decided above Webb's pay-grade, and he shouldn't worry about it. Another question that arises is why these men and not some others are on trial, but the justices can't get a fair answer to that one, either; and yet the Russian justice, General Zaryanov, is allowed to add two names to the list, apparently as a political sop to his government.
I like that the justices discuss the larger issues but remain collegial, despite the hardball tactics they often use against each other; although I think the audience should be told explicitly that some of the seemingly dry arguments are life-and-death issues. For example, if a Japanese leader is deemed responsible, but the act in question is ruled not technically a war crime, then the death penalty could be removed from the table. This is not made explicit enough.
When Justice Northcroft brings in a legal specialist, it sounds as if he is being introduced as "Quentin ... Quentin Baxter", but, no, the man is named Quentin Quentin-Baxter. (He is an actual historical person, and his full name was Robert Quentin Quentin-Baxter.)
The Russian interpreter is never given a name, but she plays a crucial role. At one point, she tells Quentin-Baxter that she cannot translate what he has just said because it would insult the Russian General; so Quentin-Baxter gives her a blander remark that she can say to Zaryanov without causing an international incident.
The relationship between Justice Roling and the German woman pianist is handled well if problematically. Was this part of the historical record? Either way, it is a nice touch that there is a platonic relationship between them. (Roling has a wife and children back home, and, in any case, a romance would be a distraction to the main story.) Their ultimate falling out is understandable if unfortunate, showing how fraught the political situation was. When Mrs. Harich-Schneider turns out to be friendly with the wife of one of the defendants, Roling cannot afford any appearance of favoritism even if it is not intended. Less tense is Roling's warm friendship with a Japanese male intellectual.
To put the Tribunal in context, this was the highest profile but hardly the only trial involving East Asian war crimes. Each Allied country put lower ranking Japanese on trial for specific, conventional war crimes, and there were many convictions and even executions. However, some individuals were exempted from prosecution along with the Emperor and his family (some imperial sons and nephews had been military officers). Forty-two potential defendants scheduled for subsequent trials in Tokyo were summarily pardoned by McArthur, possibly because of the daunting length of the first trial. (Imagine if these trials had still been going on during the Korean War in the early 1950s!)
Injustices went in both directions. On the one hand, Shiro Ishii, the Japanese Joseph Mengele, was never even charged, while on the other, the United States appears to have convicted and imprisoned the wrong woman in the Tokyo Rose case.
In a world where years and decades seem to go by without a single movie or TV drama that makes one think, this series is a welcome exception.
Hitler - Eine Karriere (1977)
You can learn a lot from this doc, but don't rely on it exclusively
As documentaries about Nazi Germany go, this one has its definite virtues. It gives more details than most about some aspects of how Hitler and his party came to power. In most such docs, Hitler's speeches are treated by excerpting them toward the end when Hitler is screaming, and translation is left out so often that we don't really know what he is saying, let alone how or why an audience might be taken in. In contrast, this documentary comes in at the beginnings or at least the middle parts of his speeches so that we have an idea how seductive he could be.
More importantly, key messages are quoted so that Hitler's program of ending democracy from within is laid bare. (In one speech to workers, Hitler acknowledges that many in his audience might begrudge his having outlawed the Marxist Party, but he maintains that this was compensated for by the fact that he had outlawed all the other parties, too.) The point that Hitler was twice banned from public speaking for lengthy periods of silence is stressed; a fact more often overlooked by similar docs (and by those who think that banning free speech is an effective weapon against extremism).
The Nazi's welfare programs, including soup kitchens and giveaways, are brought up, and a nod is made to the fact that planning for some of the public works projects, such as the Autobahn, although realized under him, preceded Hitler's rule. (No mention is made, however, of how frequently the Hitler government ran roughshod over people's land rights to build this superhighway.)
Many steps taken by the Nazis and many obstacles placed in Hitler's path get more of a mention here than they do in other docs of this type, but these steps are not always emphasized enough, nor kept in chronological order. Indeed, these obstacles are very apt to be mentioned out of chronological order, thereby under-emphasizing their potential significance. Alfred Hugenberg's objection to Hitler's appointment as chancellor is mentioned only after Hitler becomes chancellor, noting that it was "too late" to stop him. This doc makes a habit of mentioning many things when it is too late to register that these were, indeed, obstacles. Franz von Papen's well-received 1934 speech is not in this doc at all, even though it represented virtually the last time anyone in a position of authority criticized the changes brought about by Hitler; it was also too late but deserves to be mentioned. (Within a few months, the Nazis had put Papen under house arrest and murdered his speechwriter.)
The exploitation of young people and their unformed enthusiasm is mentioned only after the Nazis had gained power. This ignores the fact that all political parties-including the Communists as well as the Nazis-had been courting youth since the 1920s. Communist youth groups and Nazi ones had long vied to recruit young people. In connection with recruitment, the doc does not mention the Nazi program to recruit members from the Marxist groups. It says that when Joseph Goebbels became party leader of Berlin in 1926, he targeted Communists, but not only to fight against them in the streets. He also seduced many of them into switching sides, a program that Hitler himself heartily approved. This is not mentioned by this doc.
Other documentaries I have seen do a better job of covering all of the factions within the Nazi Party. This one only focuses on the biggest challenge from Ernst Rohm, the unruly leader of the Storm Troopers (SA), who along with other SA leaders was murdered early in the summer of 1934. (See "Hitler's Circle of Evil" for a better account of some of Hitler's other rivals within the Nazi Party.) Again, developments are not in order here; after Hindenburg died in August 1934 (You will notice how many major developments occurred in 1934!), yes, Hitler got the full support of the German military, but this was only the outward result of secret deal-making that had been ongoing since early that year when the Army agreed to support Hitler if he prevented Rohm from expanding the SA. It was the twin demises of Rohm and Hindenburg within weeks of each other that sealed a deal that had already been made.
Unfortunately, this doc, like several others I have seen, muddles its discussion of the crucial presidential campaign of 1932. It obscures the fact that the office that Hitler ran for was president of Germany and that he finally became a German citizen only this late in his career so that he could qualify to run for office. (How often this remarkable fact is not covered by documentaries about Hitler and the Nazis!) More importantly, while it does make the point that the Nazis made their best showing yet in the parliamentary elections even if they did not win a majority, it does not tell us that Hitler lost the presidential election to the incumbent chief executive, General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler subsequently became chancellor at the end of January 1933, yes, through appointment by Hindenburg, a fact that is revealed in this doc. The viewer should be excused if confused because this doc does not mention the fact that Hitler lost the April 1932 election (or that it happened in 1932 and not in 1933-the doc mentions the 1932 election results only after discussing events of early 1933). It is rarely mentioned by any of these docs that Hitler never won a national election where there were other candidates on the ballot.
You can learn a lot from this doc, but you will be misled if you rely on it exclusively for the facts.
Tabula Rasa: V. (2017)
Might rope you in belatedly
If you were watching "Tabula Rasa" with mixed feelings (either because it makes you uncomfortable, seems too confusing, or just weirds you out, and maybe you were only watching it because someone else wants to watch it) this installment will likely catch your interest because it suddenly makes sense out of much that is confusing.
Mie's memories often seem like events nobody would want to recall, but it is not safe for her to forget and not deal with her memories. Lives, including hers, but also others, depend on figuring out what has happened.
When she tries to find out why her husband has been acting so strangely, the devastating discovery she makes could change everything, but only if she can hold on to it. The question remains whether Mie ever recovers her memories permanently, or only we remember them while she goes back into oblivion.
Hitler's Bodyguard (2008)
Otherwise good study of Hitler's security can go off topic and be repetitive
"Hitler's Bodyguard" is a documentary about the attempts to kill Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator of Germany from 1934 to 1945, and the multilayered bodyguard, the men and organizations, that tried to make Hitler hard to kill. Several German services dealt with threats to the Fuehrer. Nevertheless, there were about forty attempts on his life, a few of which came close to succeeding. On the other hand, fantasy and paranoia fueled fears of assassination by Hitler and his minions. The series occasionally threatens to go off-topic in its attempt to put its main subject in context. For example, how much does the elimination of Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers in 1934 really have to do with protecting Hitler? It was rather an example of Hitler, Hermann Goring and Heinrich Himmler inventing a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and blaming it on Rohm in order to get rid of a troublesome rival leader within the party.
There are episodes about the different security situations in which Hitler needed to be protected. He traveled a great deal and had several different residences and headquarters. A whole episode is devoted to how his personal airplane pilot Hans Bauer kept Hitler safe, once taking off in a plane with Hitler seconds ahead of Russian troops. There is another about Hitler's special train. (There is another documentary called "Hitler's Steel Beast" that is entirely about his train.)
One quibble I have is that I do not understand why the narration is written so that it is unclear that Hitler was not elected to any office in 1932. He was running for president of Germany, but this is left out. Then it mentioned that he became chancellor, making it sound as if he was running for chancellor and won. Chancellor was an appointed position. Hitler lost the presidential election to incumbent Paul von Hindenburg who appointed Hitler chancellor as a sort of consolation prize.
The misleading account of the 1932 election is repeated in the course of the series, and so are other stories such as several about Hitler's favorite bodyguard, Bruno Gesche, who was cross-eyed as well as a belligerent drunk who kept getting into trouble with Himmler. Good stories, but they don't need to be told more than once.
Time Lock (1957)
Watchable, entertaining thriller
This is an entertaining thriller despite its dated-ness. The efforts to rescue a trapped boy make for edge-of-your-seat drama. The story covers every angle from frazzled nerves as time expires to anguished self-recriminations when there is nothing for some of the characters to do but wait. All of this is predictable yet compelling. Mr. Dawson, the vault expert, reminds me of Mr. Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" in that he's the guy who finally comes in and lays out what they have to do to solve the problem and rescue the boy. He has a straight forward but labor intensive plan and directs everybody to get it done.
As a bonus, we get to see Sean Connery in a pre-fame bit part. He is cast as Welder #1 (although his boss calls him "Bill" at one point) and is the only character who has a British Isles accent, even though he is not the only cast member who seems to be British. Indeed, the production is interesting in that while this movie seems to have been made in the UK, it is based on a television play that was originally done on Canadian TV. The cast is international in that it includes British, Irish, Canadian and American actors. (It is a sad note that Irish actor Victor Wood, who plays Mr. Zeeder, died less than a year after this movie's release.)
The dated portrayal of technical details is telling. For example, Welder #2 gets hit in the face with hot metal because he is not wearing a welder's mask. I can understand that maybe they are careless because they are hurrying to rescue a trapped child, and it looks as if, even then, they know better because once this accident happens the boss tells Connery's character to go get a mask before taking over the job.
I think I might be able to solve the mystery of the cloth over the registration numbers of the helicopter. (See Goofs.) The movie is set in Canada but was filmed in the UK. Aircraft registration numbers include a letter that designates the country. The filmmakers did not want to show a British helicopter flying over Canada.
The medical anomalies got to me particularly when the two doctors finally have access to the unconscious victim. They wait until he is taken out to the ambulance before they do anything to check his vitals let alone try to resuscitate him. Today, EMTs and doctors would immediately start working on the patient as soon as they got their hands on him. Way too slow.
(I once asked a retired nurse when she first heard of "ABC", the emergency medicine acronym for prompting immediate attention to "airways, breathing, and circulation", and she said it wasn't until the late '60s, so maybe doctors really were slower to do things in 1957, which would have made them lose a lot more patients than they would a decade later. Worse, back in the 1950s and maybe even into the 1960s, ambulance drivers were often not certified EMTs! I don't recall encountering EMTs until the '70s.)
On some personal notes: This movie was released in late summer 1957 and the boy in the story says that he has just turned six that day (though the actor is actually closer to ten). I myself turned six in September 1957, so I might have identified more with the boy if I had thought about that while watching, but it didn't occur to me until after the film ended.
Victor Winter, who plays the boy, was Scottish and a successful child actor as well as an assistant director and production manager in adulthood. He worked on a film where I was an extra in the early 1980s, "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom", although he worked in Macau, China whereas I worked in California, USA.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
Controversial Documentary Leaves It for You to Decide a Great Deal
"Wild Wild Country"-not the best title: it is a song reference as well as the echo of a comment made within the series about the "wild country" setting of Oregon-is a documentary about the controversial Rajneeshpuram commune founded by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in Wasco County, Oregon, which commune lasted from 1981 to 1985. It seemed on the verge of taking over the whole county in 1984. The documentary is made from archival footage (the events were rather thoroughly video-graphed) combined with recent interviews with the now aging participants from all sides. The general effect is saddening because it is easy to see in twenty-twenty hindsight how the extreme reactions of people on both sides created circumstances that led to what should have been avoidable escalation. There was certainly a degree of unreasoning fear of the unfamiliar on the part of the established residents of the nearby town and of the local, state, and federal governments. However, the documentary clearly shows that the Rajneeshees, as the commune members were called, never allowed their neighbors an inch of forbearance but became irrational and paranoid themselves. They were reactive and responded to threats with bigger threats of their own. Often times, both sides used tactics and arguments that do not stand up to scrutiny.
To make matters even more complicated, the generally reclusive guru allowed his commune to be run on a day-to-day basis by a woman known as Ma Ananda Sheela, a native of India who regulated the Rajneeshees with a combination of charisma and fear. She lived in a big house and surrounded herself with an inner circle of selflessly loyal followers who would do anything she asked-including, as it turned out, murder. Although she did demand that commune members do work for the benefit of the commune, she otherwise allowed them to do absolutely anything they wanted so long as they did not criticize the way she ran things. For the average commune member, it was almost absolute freedom with a minimum of moral responsibility. After Sheela fled the United States two steps ahead of the law, Rajneesh came out of seclusion to denounce her, perhaps preemptively trying to stave off the authorities by getting ahead of the scandals. But it was too little too late. To this viewer, it also exposed the guru as an extremely petty man. Having never read any of the Bhagwan's many books, I cannot really tell what his appeal was in the first place. (Though, having read many New Age books during the 1970s, I have a general idea about what ideas his books might give lip-service.) Fully explaining his appeal is something the documentary does not do well. In place of that, it does show, through interviews with his followers, the depth of affection felt by followers toward the Bhagwan. To me, the man's big, kindly-looking eyes are belied by the petty words that sometimes come out of his mouth. And he only spoke in public sometimes.
Another aspect of twenty-twenty hindsight is that the Rajneeshpuram commune historically came in between the Jonestown and Branch Davidian debacles. People in the 1980s thought only of the former as a point of reference while we now would tend to think more of the latter. In the end, Rajneeshpuram was only a little like each of the other cases while being very different from both (not least because while Jonestown and Waco both ended with a bang, Rajneeshpuram ended with a whimper), proving that analogies only help up to a point, beyond which they can be more an obstacle to understanding than a help.
At one point, when someone suggested sending in the National Guard, a rancher who was a neighbor of the commune countered that the National Guard might be out-gunned: The Guard practices marksmanship once a month at best, he observed, while the Rajneeshees could be heard practicing at their rifle range every day. In regard to guns, the documentary so evinces the non-gun person's confusion that the informed viewer cannot be sure that the series correctly explains the firepower at the commune's disposal. The Rajneeshees are said to have semi-automatic Uzis and AK-47s. (Are the AKs semi-automatic too or not?) The sound track of footage of Rajneeshees at their firing range does sound as if they are firing fully automatic weapons, but if the Uzis were semi-automatic, then they would not be fully automatic. Real AK-47s would be fully automatic, but I doubt that the filmmakers understand the difference, so their words are unreliable. (Real Uzis would be fully automatic as well, but there are semi-automatic-only copies of most fully automatic guns.)
Red Sparrow (2018)
Sex and Death
At the outset it occurred to me that this would be a movie about sex and death, and that is exactly what it is. Jennifer Lawrence proves to be a real actress. The characters are cold but the movie tells you believably why they are that way. Espionage has never been portrayed so unglamorously. (Well, maybe in "The Spy Who Came In from the Cold".) The plot twist at the end, though evidently not faithful to the book, is clever and shows just how cynical and calculating spies have to be to stay alive.
Some say there is no Russian in this movie? Other than Joel Edgerton speaking Russian to Jennifer Lawrence in the middle of the movie, I think Joel's first line in the movie is "Kofe, pozhal'sta," which means, of course, "Coffee, please." Follow this rule, moviegoers: If Russians are talking to each other, assume that they are speaking Russian, but if Russians are speaking to Americans, assume they are speaking English unless they are actually speaking Russian and have subtitles underneath the picture.
Entertainingly edgy, hilarious and even touching
For what it is, "A YouTube Carol", a low-budget spoof of the classic "A Christmas Carol", is entertainingly edgy, hilarious and even touching. The touching part is probably due mainly, if not entirely, to the source material. No matter how Steven Crowder and company try to step on the pathos with comedy, Tiny Tim's message, "God bless us everyone!" comes through - even though there is no such line in this script and even though Tiny Tim has been usurped by Tiny Not Gay Jared - whose fabled illness has somewhat paradoxically been updated to AIDS. (I presume that the reader has seen one or more of the many versions of "A Christmas Carol", if not read the book.)
Using Charles Dickens' original text as a model, Crowder and his sidekick, known only as Not Gay Jared, have crafted their satirical script as a pointed vendetta against YouTube, the social media platform they have had a love-hate relationship with for many years.
Instead of Ebenezer Scrooge, we have Ebenezer YouTube, and this personified YouTube is every bit as mean as Mr. Scrooge. He berates his "partners" who submit videos to his platform, denies them the advertising rewards they are due based on number of plays ("demonetization"), and bans them arbitrarily, apparently just because he takes a dislike to them or to their political leanings.
The production is remarkably good despite glitches. I have seen an out-take that showed that one scene took many, many takes because the actors kept breaking up. This must explain why there are occasional errors that were apparently passed on as good enough. For example, the conceit of this video-play is that the ghosts of Christmas are redubbed the Ghost of YouTube Past, the Ghost of YouTube Present, etc. But Crowder, as Ebenezer YouTube, greets the Ghost of YouTube Present with the words, "Are you the Ghost of Christmas Present?" It not being the worst flub in the production, this is allowed to stay. There is no director listed for this production, BTW, so I am impressed that this program is as good as it is without one.
The viewer who has not watched "Louder with Crowder" before may enjoy this offering for its universal gags. There is a lot of humor surrounding Ebenezer's nastiness. Several characters admonish him to "Stop being a dick." Dickens, himself, might have called Scrooge that, or its mid-nineteenth century London equivalent, if standards had been different back then.
There are several low jokes as when the Ghost of YouTube Present urges Ebenezer to "touch my robe" and later asks, "Do you want to see under my robe?"
There is a savagely slapstick video-within-the-video about how, ten years earlier, Ebenezer YouTube posted a video compilation of his own antic skits with singing, dancing and impressions. Then we see the computer screen scroll down to comments from viewers with screen names like akaJimmyLeach, BlueOceanMist, KarelessFeline, and FartyMeldmanEyz, saying things like, "Get cancer, hack", "What did I just watch? Kill me now", and "This is why we need fascism". So this satire not only skewers YouTube but also the kind of anonymous lurkers who seem to live just to rain on the parade of anyone who puts him- or herself out on the internet.
There are a ton of in-jokes, as well, that the uninitiated might not get. Take, for example, this exchange:
Ebenezer YouTube: Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold? Ghost of YouTube Past: I am. Ebenezer YouTube: But you're just a girl. Ghost of YouTube Past: Oh, you're so sweet. I can remember more than fifteen years. I'm the Ghost of YouTube Past.
The actress who portrays this ghost, Blaire White, is a transgender woman, so she is pleased with Ebenezer saying, "you're just a girl." (And, once again, explaining a joke does not make it funnier - or funny at all.) A bit more accessible, but just as much of an in-joke to the viewer who is less than familiar with YouTube, is the fact that the Ghost of YouTube Past would naturally remember no further back than fifteen years because YouTube only came into existence in 2005.
What is more, White, like other participants in this episode, has had her own disputes with YouTube over content and advertising revenue. So have the Hodgetwins (Keith and Kevin Hodge) and Gavin McInnes, not to mention the staff members of "Louder with Crowder" who participated. The Ghost of YouTube Present, for example, is portrayed by Bill Richmond, Crowder's attorney, who has brought legal actions against YouTube on his client's behalf. This character's portrayal by a lawyer explains the running gag about the Ghost of YouTube Present correcting Ebenezer for misusing the word "precedent".
Gavin McInnes, in a small role as the Boy in the Street, steals the show with his Scots accented, scrappy insouciance. The actors in this production all attempt British accents but most end up doing bad Cockney accents. Crowder, himself, though fairly consistent throughout, sounds as if he is trying to channel Michael Caine. But McInnes, who was born in Scotland and whose father evidently still speaks with a brogue, hilariously punches up his repartee with Crowder's Ebenezer:
How am I meant to do that? I have no money. Look at me. I'm a wee lad. I'm a tiny bearded boy with no money.... It's your only hope. Throw me a credit card. I'll blind trust it and hope I come back. That's all you got me.... That'll do it. But just to be on the total up and up, mate, I'm gonna get myself something with that.... I'm gonna get... well, not that it's any of your business (pronounced "buzz-ness"), but here's the deal. I'm gonna get me a Bluetooth keypad and one of those Magic Trackpads.
This special edition of Crowder's show is barely more than a half-hour in length, which bespeaks an impressive editing job. Much is left out, but the highlights of the original story are preserved if mainly in parody. One revealing change, for example, is that when Ebenezer YouTube finds himself back in his rooms on Christmas morning, he cries, "It's all still here!" as he accounts for his curtains and other furnishings. In the original story, this was because the Ghost of Christmas Future had shown Scrooge a vision of the harpies who would take apart Scrooge's unclaimed possessions after his death. Here, that echo from the original makes no sense because the satirists have substituted a scene in which future social media users discuss how nobody uses YouTube any longer.
The Big House
As Midge explains in her climactic stand-up set, the title of the episode is a Russian phrase meaning, "I live in the big house on the hill." Midge, who majored in Russian literature and now finds herself without a husband and potentially without a house located anywhere, realizes how naive and sheltered her life has been up until this point. She also cannot seem to help using four letter words and painting sexual word pictures in her act, and with policemen lurking outside of comedy clubs, ready to swoop down on obscenity violations, Midge could be destined for the big house of the other kind. This episode marks her second bust.
I really want to like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," but "Ya Shivu..." does not make this easy. To date I have seen three entries in the series. This one underlined the fact that the show is somewhat overwritten. The first time Susie visits Midge's apartment, she goes on and on for what seems like at least two pages of the script, making "funny" remarks about the enormity of the apartment, comparing it in turn to the residences of French, British, and Russian monarchs, and belaboring her fear that she has caught various diseases from the sticky hand of Midge's son.
The show has an odd combination of nostalgia and dread for its era, the late 1950s.) It was a time when the pop culture seemed to be dominated by sweet novelty songs. Television was by appointment only (There was no on-demand programming) and variety shows were showcases for old and new talent of every kind. It was an exciting time in underground entertainment, too. In this installment, Midge further develops her friendship with the great stand-up comic Lenny Bruce who seems at this point to be becoming her mentor. (Whether this is actually the case remains for other episodes.)
It was also a time when Jim Crow laws in the South prevented African-Americans from voting, or sharing public transportation and going to the same schools with whites; entertainers could get arrested for saying things on stage at a no-name basement comedy club that their modern counterparts routinely get away with saying on broadcast TV a 8:30 PM. The attitude of the show to this milieu is ambivalent. Do we want to romanticize it or wish it good riddance?
The best part of each episode is Midge's stand-up sets, always based on her life and understandable to us because we have just seen scenes from the life she is talking about. Midge is clearly a natural comedian, seeing the funny side even of the tragic. As in the first episode, she gets arrested for what she says on stage, although, this time, there is no bearing of breasts.
Tony Shaloub, who seemed underused in the first installment, sets a promising trend with a funny scene at the college where he teaches mathematics. The versatile Shaloub has played, Muslims, Christians, aliens from outer space and now a Jewish man, and each is a different, fully rounded character. (I like that Abe - Shaloub's character here - is both a mathematician and a good pianist. You might be surprised how often those skills actually go together in real life.)
The characters are often a bit clichéd, not to say stereotyped. There is a sentimental approach to the kind of Jewish culture that permeated New York City in the mid-twentieth century. There was a lightness and certainly an accent that might not exist any more. Midge's mother visits a fortune teller who reads tea leaves and sounds like an escapee from an amalgamated movie that might be called "Fiddler on the Yentl."
Midge's hapless husband, Joel, has a controlling father, Moishe, who runs a company in New York's garment district. We see father and son interact in this episode and better understand Joel's problem. (Not that this makes up for Joel announcing he was leaving his devoted wife and young children on the Jewish Day of Atonement.)
The big question seems to be how many episodes can "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" go before any of her family finds out that she is moonlighting as a comic. As of this installment, they remain in the dark without a clue that there might be an alternative to Midge either getting back together with her faithless husband or, as her father-in-law imagines, sitting on the couch, eating bonbons and watching the popular TV game show "Queen for a Day." He obviously doesn't know who Midge is.
As I say, I want to like this show, but this episode shows both its strengths and weakness.
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
A Gem of Its Genre
Horror and sci-fi can be overlapping sub-genres, and "Bone Tomahawk" seems an example of both. Outwardly, the film has a classic Western plot. Set in the 1890s in the southwestern part of the United States, it is about a sheriff and the posse he forms to track down a band of kidnappers and rescue their hostages, necessitating pursuit on horseback across seemingly endless plains.
The horror/sci-fi twist is that the kidnappers, though nominally Native Americans, are a nameless, pasty-faced clan of mute cannibals who are cave-dwelling, barely human monsters. Other Native Americans fear them, describing them as "inbreeds who rape and eat their own mothers." (Also, they communicate by means of an eerie howling sound that is due to a primitive implant. In some ways, they are reminiscent of the Borg from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" or, even more, the less orderly, marauding Reavers from "Firefly".)
The Professor (Zahn McClarnon) who refuses to join the posse calls the clan "troglodytes," a term that suggests a throwback. But they seem not to be a throwback to anything that ever actually existed. This clan of "troglodytes" rather seems to have opted out of humanity by collective choice, and perhaps they eat people precisely because they do not see themselves as people.
The creation of the Trogs seems to be speculative anthropology. Whether such an outcast population might have existed after the official close of the frontier might strain credulity, but it is always claimed by advocates for the existence of hidden monsters that they are right under our complacently civilized noses.
The captives include a murder suspect named Purvis (David Arquette), Sheriff's Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), and frontier medicine woman Samantha O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons), who is treating Purvis for a bullet wound and fever when the mysterious clan of Native Americans raids the local jail in the middle of the night. The posse consists of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell); his "back-up" deputy, "Chicory" Kory (Richard Jenkins); Samantha's husband, Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson); and egotistical adventurer John Brooder (Matthew Fox).
Samantha O'Dwyer is not a shrinking victim but the town's fallback when the regular medical doctor is unavailable (drunk as usual). She is sharp and competent, and her medicine kit holds items that come in handy as the story progresses.
Chicory is a man who is too old to be a regular deputy, but Sheriff Hunt respects his expertise as a Civil War veteran who has experience fighting, treating wounded, and just being observant. His great fault is that he talks way too much.
Arthur, the husband of kidnapped Samantha, is a would-be cattle drive foreman, side-lined after he broke his leg in a DIY roofing mishap. He is an unassuming cowboy, a devout Catholic, who loves his wife deeply. (There is a funny, tender scene in which he reads out loud a letter he wrote to his wife that she rightly calls poetic, but when he stops reading he scoffs that it isn't poetic at all.)
Arthur is not really well enough for the journey, and although he proves to be an asset, at first his broken leg seems obviously a hindrance and even a danger to the posse and its mission. Indeed, I can't understand why the sheriff agrees to let Arthur join the posse rather than locking him in jail for his own safety. Of course, one reason for taking him along is that too few other townspeople offer to join the posse. The posse consists of only four. There is no back-up plan. A telegram is sent only to ask for two deputies from another town to come and temporarily take over police duties while the sheriff is away.
Director S. Craig Zahler seems to be making a career of authoring (writing and directing) good B movies with sharp images and amusing dialog. (Instead of telling Chicory to "shut up", Sheriff Hunt asks him whether he can "close that aperture".) Zahler also gives work to good actors who have been misused or underused in Hollywood. Here we have Kurt Russell showing perfect savvy and grit as the sheriff, and Matthew Fox as the egotistical gunslinger who describes himself as purely rational but who hates Native Americans and loves his horse with equally unreasoning passion, and Richard Jenkins as the colorful Chicory. (More recently, Zahler has given Vince Vaughn a strong starring role in "Brawl in Cell Block 99".)
"Bone Tomahawk" is not for the weak of stomach. What the cannibals do to their victims is gruesome. In one horrific scene the production undoubtedly spent a large chunk of the special effects budget to show a human being butchered by the Trogs.
Megan Leavey (2017)
Serviceable Tearjerker - and That's a Good Thing
While it loses a couple of points for not being a masterpiece of cinema, the relationship between the title character and her dog is a masterpiece of emotional manipulation and will have most dog lovers reaching for the tissues.
I am both a cat and dog lover, having grown up with both. Each species requires a different set of expectations. A dog is usually willing to meet a human more than half-way, whereas a human must usually meet a cat more than half-way, but there are exceptions in both directions. This movie is about a somewhat difficult, aggressive dog that is only able to bond with relatively few handlers. Once a bond is created, however, the relationship between a particular animal and a particular human can defy expectations.
The poster for the movie says, "Based on a true story". Someday I'd like to see a promo that says, "*Loosely* based on a true story", since that is usually the truth. According to the movie, which begins in the early 2000s, Megan Leavey is a 20-year-old drifting through life in a small Upstate New York town. She escapes by joining the United States Marines and manages to complete basic training but still does not know what she wants to do with her life. After committing an infraction, she is punished by being sent to clean out the kennels of the camp's canine unit. There she connects with the idea of becoming a combat dog handler. Turning her life around, she takes the initiative to meet the qualifications.
Once admitted to the program, she is forced to start at the bottom, even having to "lead" a metal can on a leash around the yard because there is no dog available for her to work with. Then Rex, one of the more aggressive dogs, bites his handler so badly that he can no longer work with the dog. Leavey is ordered to take over with Rex. Despite Rex's aggressiveness, he ends up bonding with her so thoroughly that human and canine become inseparable, leading to the drama (and the Kleenex) when the pair are inevitably forced apart.
The dogs are trained both to take down bad guys and sniff out explosives. The character Sgt. Andrew Dean (Tom Felton) informs the dog handlers that the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that they and their dogs will encounter in Iraq (circa 2006) contain ingredients that the dogs will not have smelled before. The movie does not go into how this problem is remedied.
In a male-dominated field, Leavey is the only woman we see. (We hear of another female dog handler at one point but don't see her.) The rules are that women handlers are usually assigned to checkpoint duty, which involves searching people and vehicles for explosives. The male handlers and their dogs go on more dangerous missions, scouting ahead of convoys to sniff out roadside bombs. Inevitably, there comes a day when a handler and dog are needed for a mission and no one else is available; so Leavey and Rex go and perform heroically, but they become separated.
For the rest of the movie, Leavey tries to get back with her animal friend, even going to her state's U.S. Senator and filing a petition to get the military to let her adopt Rex. For every happy ending to such quests, there must be many more tragedies. As is pointed out more than once by Gunnery Sgt. Martin (Common), the dogs do not belong to the handlers, they belong to the military, and the military decides whether the handlers can adopt the dogs they've worked with or if anyone can. It is often necessary to wait until the dog has completed his useful service to the military, and dogs may have to work with other handlers in the meantime. Aside from all that, dogs don't live that long anyway. (Rex's dates are 2001-2012.)
There are also plenty of human connections in this dog story. Leavey falls in love with another dog handler and gets a supportive pep talk from her father that belies the impression given by Leavey's narration that no one in her family is supportive. That seems to apply to everyone but her father.
Kate Mara is beautiful and touching as the titular dog handler. (If you watch carefully, the real Megan Leavey appears as one of the female drill instructors.) Edie Falco and Bradley Whitford are equally effective in supporting roles as bad parent and good parent respectively, although Whitford, as well as Will Patton, as Leavey's stepdad, go so deeply into their characters that I did not recognize either of them during the movie. Common plays the tough but caring "gunny" who lays out the rules that put obstacles in Leavey's path, even though he is privately sympathetic to her quest to adopt Rex.
Everything about this movie is professional, and, fortunately, even though the film is manipulative by the numbers, the unique aspects of the true story impose some degree of originality.
The dog performances must have been a particularly daunting part of making this movie, but they seem to come off flawlessly. It is impressive that credit for the part of "Rex" is attributed to only one dog, Varco. I had expected that several dogs would need to be used to do so many tricks.
On the whole, I am satisfied. I got from this movie exactly the kind of feel-good sentimentalism I expected and wanted.
Sleepwalk with Me (2012)
Great cast, good idea, great cameo(?)
Good things about this movie:
Lauren Ambrose. Although she makes it harder to understand why Mike does not want to marry her.
Mike Birbiglia. A nice, lovable guy who is also wickedly funny. (More like a naughty kid, maybe?)
James Rebhon and Carol Kane as Mike's parents. They love Mike and because they do they nudge.
Mike is a failed stand-up comic who tells flat jokes and wonders why his comedy career is going nowhere. Then out of desperation he takes lousy offers around the country for very little money, but he learns to use his real life as the basis for his new and improved material - especially exploring his doubts about his eight year relationship with the woman he loves.
Bonus: Because of his sleep-walking problem, Mike starts listening to a book on tape by Dr. Wm. C. Dement on sleep disorders. At one point, Dr. Dement (the real one???) makes a memorable cameo. (Yes, everyone makes fun of Dr. Dement's name, and so does Mike.)
Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017)
My Real Intro to Lady Gaga
I knew unbelievably little about Lady Gaga before seeing this documentary.
I knew that she wears elaborate costumes that sometimes make her look equal parts regal and ridiculous and that she has a gorgeous singing voice. I did not even know that she is an American (from New York City) and an earthy person in her private life. The first scene in this movie shows her as she looks when she gets out of bed and feeds her dogs. She is more how I would have imagined that her personal assistant might look.
Basically, a camera crew follows her around for possibly longer than we know. It is a good thing not to feel as if we are with her in real time because this doc may have followed her for many months.
The word exhibitionist might be a bit strong, but little of Gaga's anatomy is left to the viewer's imagination. We also meet the inner Lady Gaga (nee Stefani Germanotta) learning that she is affectionate with her friends, generous with her fans, and lonely at the end of every day. She is often insecure and is perhaps something of a snowflake. Her combination of provocativeness yet wariness about men is not explained, but is presented as is.
Gaga is conscious that she has turned thirty. The fact that her latest boyfriend has not worked out is only part of her misery. We learn that Gaga has an old pain in her hip that contributes to her worries. Keeping up with her backup dancers requires frequent sessions with physical therapists. She would like to have children, but she anticipates that her hip could make that prohibitively painful.
In one scene, her mother (?) suggests that she not be maudlin. It is a suggestion made in kindness, but might profitably be taken in a firmer sense. The heart of the movie – if there is a plot to this slice of life – is that Gaga is putting together an album (ultimately a successful one) dedicated to her aunt Joanne who died at age 19. This is not difficult to understand. Joanne was a promising writer and artist. Gaga clearly identifies with her almost as if she herself had died at a younger age. (Joanne is one of Gaga's middle names, I have since learned.)
For technical reasons, we do not get to see much of her concerts. This is not a filmed concert. We get to hear her sing, but not enough. The movie cuts away at the beginning of huge concerts. It is a little like being left on the launch pad at the end of "The Right Stuff," just as Gordo Cooper is about to take off on one of the most exciting and harrowing flights of the entire Mercury Space Program, but we don't get to see it.
Therein lies the problem that most viewers might have. If you want to see the diva, warts and all, then this is the documentary for you, but if you want to see her in action – or more importantly hear her – then you should hold out for one of her concert films.
A Gentle, Satisfying Slice of Life
A week in the life of a young bus driver-poet named Paterson, who lives in Paterson, New Jersey (director Jim Jarmusch must enjoy this conceit), is the focus of this gentle drama. While it begins slowly, things do happen, and, ultimately, it all pays off. Everything about the movie is gentle, from the humor to the little bit of violence. (I know that might seem unlikely.)
Jarmusch telegraphs a lot of the plot points, but at least there is a plot to anticipate. For examples, I knew that Everett was going to do something crazy before he did it. (Hasn't Paterson just asked Marie whether or not Everett might do something crazy?) And I knew that Marvin was going to do something crazy, too, before he did it. (Hasn't the camera shown the glint in Marvin's eye before Paterson and his lovely wife, Laura, go out to dinner and a movie? And hasn't Laura spent much of the movie warning Paterson to take precautions?)
Paterson, played by Adam Driver, is a mild-mannered guy. His routine could be described as dull. It is almost the same every weekday, but the nature of life is that at least one interesting occurrence is bound to break up the daily routine, and that happens here. A nice touch is the series of overheard conversations among bus patrons. A brief conversation can tell a lot about people. And a recurring gag is that after Laura tells Paterson that she dreamed about having twins (the young couple is childless), Paterson keeps seeing twins of various ages throughout the rest of the movie.
Paterson wakes up every day, kisses Laura, eats breakfast, walks to work, drives his route, writes poems in his notebook, then goes home. Every evening, he finds his mailbox post leaning, and he straightens it up. The next evening he repeats this ritual. (Finally, we find out what has been making the box lean over.)
After dinner, Paterson always takes his dog for a walk, but this is really an excuse to go to the local watering hole where he knows Doc, the bartender. Doc has a wall dedicated to famous people from Paterson, including the twentieth century comedian Lou Costello, whom Doc and Paterson agree is probably the most famous of the many famous Patersonians.
"I wonder where his partner, Bud Abbott, was from?" muses Paterson.
"He was from New Jersey, too," replies Doc. "Ashbury Park. Born 1895."
Doc seems to know everything. He is also looking forward to a chess tournament over the weekend.
"I'm getting my ass kicked," Doc says as he moves a chess piece on a board sitting on the bar.
"Who are you playing?" asks Paterson after a look around.
"Myself," says Doc.
Few movies are made about poets, especially not about the undiscovered ones. Paterson narrates little poems on his way to work, and he writes them in his notebook, before he starts his bus and on his lunch break. (Jarmush got real-life poet Ron Padgett to provide all but one of the poems used in the movie; Jarmusch himself wrote the poem, "Water Falls".) Paterson also writes at a bench in his basement. His books, lined up on the bench, show his taste in poetry. Wallace Stevens and, of course, William Carlos Williams, a Paterson resident. These poets have something in common with Paterson in that they, too, had day jobs. Stevens was an insurance executive, and Williams was a medical doctor. Paterson also has a slim volume by Ron Padgett.
Paterson adores Laura and supports her, even though he may not fully understand all of her eccentric ideas. She is always painting things black and white, including walls, curtains and clothing. (Paterson checks to make sure the paint is dry.) She wants to buy an expensive guitar (a black and white Harlequin, natch) and dreams of becoming a Nashville star. She also thinks she could parlay her baking skills into a cupcake business. She creates a brussel sprout and cheddar cheese pie for dinner. Paterson may have his doubts about some of these things (I think he is less than thrilled about the expensive guitar), but he is supportive in all cases, just as Laura supports his poetry. He also always asks workmates and strangers how they are and seems to be genuinely interested. He looks out for a ten-year- old who has been left alone, and he seems unafraid when a gang- banger questions him on the street. A photo in his home appears to be of him in a U.S. Marine uniform, but nothing is ever said about this. One suspects that that might represent the only time he ever left Paterson.
Although it seems as if nothing is happening at first, things do, and, if you give this movie a chance, you might be rewarded.
Men Go to Battle (2015)
Worth Seeing, But Much Work for the Reward
"Men Go to Battle" (a somewhat misleading title) has its charms. The party at the Smalls' house vividly displays the similarities and differences between life then and now. (The research into detail will appeal to the history buff; although, this is not to say that every single detail is perfect because you can't expect perfection.) The plot points involving the Mellon brothers' competing ideas about how to run the farm and their sub-textual rivalry over Betsy Small (Rachel Korine) are compelling when reviewed in the end. Everything that happens leads up to a resolution of the brothers' relationship. We do not know what becomes of them after the movie ends, but we know that some things must be permanent.
Apparently, the movie achieved its economical budget ($500K) by using Civil War re-enactors to make the several military scenes. (They have their own costumes and gear, after all.) The war is far from glamorized. It is boring much of the time and parasitic on the civilians – except when it isn't, and you never know which it is going to be – and then, suddenly, there is death.
The story-telling is slow paced. The camera work is detached, static, ponderous, and often disorienting. When there are long shots – often starkly beautiful establishing shots – they are so static that they might as well have been taken with a still camera, but there are too many close ups and it is often too dark. The lighting appears to be entirely natural or at least imitates natural lighting. This is not a problem in daylight, but there are many scenes at night in which the actors seem to disappear into and reappear out of an inky blackness. What is going on? A second viewing does not clear matters up in every case. (Were the filmmakers too pure to use day-for-night filter technique to control lighting in night scenes?)
The dialogue is an odd mixture of the boringly pedestrian with sudden bursts of spontaneity. Consider a scene between Henry Mellon (Timothy Morton) and Betsy Small on her porch. There hasn't been a real conversation between a man and a woman up to this point. (Arguably, there still hasn't been afterward.) There is a party going on in the house, but, as it happens, Henry and Betsy both feel alienated from the frivolity, albeit for different reasons. There is a very long dialogue between them about the weather. It definitely has a subtext, which is interesting, but the bare text of the exchange is numbingly boring. (I am reminded of the late Judith Christ's observation that a movie that is about boredom is inevitably going to be boring.) The subtext almost earns this movie its mischaracterization as a comedy, but only if you do not fall asleep or gnaw your own leg off before the payoff.
A scene that illustrates the detachment of the camera and sound work occurs about halfway through the movie. Francis Mellon (David Maloney), Henry's brother, is in the general store buying supplies. There is a conversation between a clerk, whose counter is near the front window, and some Union soldiers who keep demanding tobacco even after the clerk has explained that he has no tobacco to sell them and knows no one else who has any. (The soldiers overhear Francis ask for some tobacco seed, and one of the soldiers comments, "You can't smoke that.") Francis then walks out of the store, but the camera remains inside, only showing Francis through the window. In the foreground, we continue to focus on the long-since pointless dialogue between the tobacco-jonesing soldiers and their dried up source. Suddenly, we become aware that Francis has said something to two soldiers passing on the street and one of them punches Francis, sending him to the ground. Only on second viewing do we hear the faint dialogue: Francis addressed the soldiers as "ladies", they took offense, and he got hit. Why is this in the background instead of in the fore?
I am glad I saw this movie, but I would not recommend it if you just want an enjoyable adventure that won't make work.
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Thriller from a more innocent time
"In the Line of Fire" is a taut thriller, featuring performances by two different types of great actors.
Clint Eastwood is the seasoned star of action vehicles, working his screen image in a way that makes it seem impossible that anyone else could have played crusty Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan. (Yet several other actors were considered for the part before him, including Robert Redford.) Eastwood, who is now in his late 80s, was a virile 63 when this picture was released, and still believable as the love interest of younger co-star Rene Russo.
The biggest plot hole – if one can call it that – is that everybody wants Frank off the case because he is, as his boss says, "too old for this sh*t". Even his girlfriend seems only to want to keep him around because she feels sorry for him. Nobody except for the wiretapping technicians seems to recognize the fact that since the self- proclaimed assassin keeps calling Frank, his presence somewhere in the vicinity is indispensable to protecting the president.
In one of his more accessible and memorable screen performances, veteran actor John Malkovich plays Mitch, a villain whose intensity makes you believe he is capable of anything. Although he has been in over sixty movies and TV productions, most moviegoers have probably seen Malkovich rarely, usually in supporting or even cameo roles. He is almost anonymous despite having appeared in such popular movies as "Con Air" (1997) and the eponymous cult film "Being John Malkovich" (1999).
There is a scene in which Mitch meets two hunters who see too much, and right before he kills them Mitch confesses that he plans to assassinate the president. "Why would you want to do that?" asks one of the hunters in stunned horror. It does not matter what these men think of the president, who is portrayed as a vapid chameleon. This movie belongs to a quaint time when the idea of assassinating any president of the United States struck the overwhelming majority of Americans as plain wrong even if you thought the occupant of the White House was an execrable son of a bitch.
Better than if entitled "Turley"
The Western genre seemed dead, but then Lawrence Kasden and his brother, Mark, came up with this homage to the traditional, grand stories they probably watched together on Saturday afternoons when they were kids.
Here are all the clichés, but done with panache and a sprinkle of humor. You have an opening gunfight, the stranger rescued after robbers left him to die. You've got frontier towns rising no more than a couple of ramshackle stories from the arid, rocky expanse of New Mexico (where the entire picture was filmed).
There are stampeding cattle, saloons filled with hard-drinking trail-riders, cowboys jumping on their horses from roofs (cowboys who know and love their horses more than their women), a couple of love interests that waste the talents of some decent actresses (but a strong performance by Linda Hunt as the "Miss Kitty"-type character, Stella, who runs the local saloon), and you've got several deliciously quirky villains played by the likes of Brian Dennehy, Jeff Goldblum, James Gammon and Jeff Fahey.
You have all of these bad guys doing things to other people that they shouldn't oughta do, from shooting an old man to kidnapping a little boy to threatening women. And you have big gun battles as the team of four unlikely heroes rescue the hostages with clever ploys that make up for the fact that the heroes are always outnumbered by the villains' henchmen.
You have the final, high-stakes showdown between the chief hero and chief villain that is dramatically promised from the first twenty minutes of this rather long movie, following which, all is put right so that the four heroes can go off in different directions to meet their destinies (except that one always stays because now he belongs to the town he saved). And it is fortunate that of the two towns mentioned in the script, Turley (a relatively civilized town controlled by an only mildly corrupt sheriff - an Englishman played by John Cleese who admits he is "not from these parts") and Silverado (a wild town controlled by an extremely corrupt sheriff), the movie was not named for "Turley". Wouldn't have been as romantic a title.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Slow at first but gets more interesting
I found the initial pace of this movie painfully slow. But by the end I felt much more involved. I got to care about the characters, especially Patrick who is virtually orphaned and frustrated that his Uncle Lee does not want to be his guardian. Lee is hard to take because he is so estranged from the world. We eventually find out why.
Lee has been damaged by an enormous sense of responsibility and guilt for the ruin of his life, marriage and family. Aside from the slow pace, the telling of the story out of chronological order - with very little in the way of clues when we have gone back in time - makes this movie difficult to follow, especially for young children who, in any case, would not enjoy the movie's focus on death and tragedy.
As I became more interested in understanding Patrick's predicament and Lee's difficulty in providing his nephew with what he needs, I understood the appeal of this movie for some. It is a deep and troubling psychological exploration of the debilitating effects of guilt.
Lee has a pathological need to get into bar fights. We come to understand that this is a way of punishing himself. It is interesting that in the big city, everyone blames him for starting these fights, but when he goes back to his home town, at least the bartender who is a family friend, tries to prevent Lee from getting too badly beaten and then takes Lee home where his wife bandages and comforts Lee.
Meanwhile, Patrick goes to visit his estranged mother, but finds that she is as nervous if not more so than he is. She is so upset by his visit that her new husband, Jeff, sends Patrick an off-putting email in which he suggests Patrick no longer contact his mother directly but only go through Jeff. Clearly, any idea of Patrick moving in with his mother is dashed.
Finally, Lee works out a compromise that will keep Patrick's familial and financial options as open as possible while minimizing but not completely eliminating his own responsibility for Patrick.
In the end - after nearly two hours and twenty minutes - Lee is far from creating perfect solutions to his own or anyone else's problems. Most disappointing of all, he cannot resolve the crushing guilt that keeps him from accepting his ex-wife's forgiveness or helping Patrick in the way that Patrick would like him to; Lee remains a damaged person. This may be frustrating for the audience at the same time that it is realistic.
A seasoned psychotherapist once told me that people don't so much overcome their problems as, at best, find a way to go around them. This is the best that Lee is able to do, but in doing so he does show more compassion for himself and his nephew than he showed for anyone at the beginning of the story.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Not a big superhero fan gives a big thumbs up
"I am both frightened and aroused," says Sameer after Wonder Woman tosses a gun-wielding bully across the floor of the pub where she has been introduced to Sameer and other allies by her main ally, Steve Trevor.
I am not a big fan of super-hero movies, but this one has remarkable acting, writing, direction as well as impressive sets and costumes. (It is set during World War I.)
The opening scenes are richly imaginative as they take place on the mystical island where the Amazons live and where Diana (Wonder Woman) has been raised. The world of young Diana is sun-drenched and Greek-ified and establishes the mythological universe that informs Wonder Woman and all that she does for the rest of the movie.
After Steve Trevor is chased into the island's airspace and has to be rescued from his Imperial German pursuers by Diana and all of the Amazons, more and more of the world of (circa) 1918 is evoked. Diana goes with him back to Europe and becomes Wonder Woman as she battles the German Army and a fancifully villainous version of General Erich Ludendorff, one of the chief leaders of Germany during the war. (Though he would go on - historically speaking - to be largely responsible for introducing a nobody named Adolf Hitler to many of the influential people who helped the future dictator in his rise to power.)
There are formulaic action scenes that get Wonder Woman and her band of allies into and out of all kinds of predictable trouble. These are well-done dramatically with the help of bold special effects.
Most of all, the casting is terrific with the breath-taking Gal Gadot, as the title character, holding up the movie in all of her many scenes.
There is good chemistry between her and co-star Chris Pine as Steve Trevor. Their band of allies are entertainingly quirky if often ineffectual.
The most grievous fault is that the villains are too numerous and their villainy too spread out among them, and the Big Bad is only introduced at the very end. Almost anticlimactically.
The battle tactics of the Amazons are inexplicably poor. I am reminded of the titular protagonists in "13 Assassins" (2010) who shoot arrows from the roof at their enemies below until they voluntarily stop and jump down into their enemies' midst because their samurai pride won't allow them to take advantage of anything better than ten to one odds. In "Wonder Woman", no explanation is given for the Amazons giving up their similar but greater high-ground advantage over the Germans in the first battle sequence of the movie.
I found most of the humor organic, not strained, and the preachiness that some talk about was really kept to a minimum. (Native American grievances are alluded to and Wonder Woman recognizes that the Germans did not start the war alone. As presented, though, these things are acknowledged even by many conservative historians.)
When Trevor's secretary describes her obedience in her duties, Wonder Woman says, "Where I come from that is called slavery". But this is funny, and, otherwise, Wonder Woman takes the advice of her allies in fitting into a "patriarchal" society.
A big, fun, escapist movie with some vivid touches of realism for atmosphere. I particularly liked the scene where Wonder Woman, the super-hero and goddess, rises above the historically accurate portrayal of the stalemate along the Western Front to march across No-Man's Land. (Though maybe there were too many trees and not enough barbed wire. The trees were dead and short but should have been non-existent due to frequent barrages.) She single-handedly defeats the German defenders, inspiring not only her band of allies but most of a British regiment to follow her. (If such a miraculous, un-ordered and unplanned attack had the faintest chance of working, it would have been because the higher-ups did not spoil it with a preliminary artillery barrage, which always tended to warn the enemy you were coming and tore up No Man's Land in ways that made it more, not less, impassable).
Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
Fanciful account of Heydrich assassination makes satisfying drama
"Hangmen Also Die!" was made during World War II about an event—the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia— that had taken place only the year before the movie's release. So close to the event, and with the facts still classified, the filmmakers felt entirely free to make up their own version of what occurred. Since that time, at least three films about this assassination have been made, all more or less telling the same story as each other, which is very different from the one told here.
The filmmakers here were the great director Fritz Lang, the scenarist Bertolt Brecht, the cinematographer James Wong Howe, and a good cast including Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan (unusually but effectively cast as a Czech professor) and Anna Lee. The story is intricately plotted, suspenseful and inspiring if fanciful.
The first surprise is that, unlike later versions, this film skips over the assassination itself, opening with a scene showing Heydrich's (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) cruelty—he intends to execute 500 factory workers for poor production numbers—but then jumps to several minutes after the assassination. I had to wonder whether a reel was missing (even though this version was beautifully restored in 2012), but the film deliberately deals primarily with the aftermath of the assassination.
It is a story about collaboration versus resistance to a foreign invader. The Czech underground is behind the assassination but is infiltrated by a collaborator. The Nazis round up people they will execute every day at first—and later twelve times a day—until the Czech's betray the assassin. In a fine scene, the assassin, Dr. Svoboda (Donlevy), tells the leader of the underground, Dedic (Jonathan Hale), that he wants to turn himself in to save the hundreds of men who will be executed, but Dedic presents the argument that, since Svoboda was chosen as the assassin to represent the Czech people, if he turns himself in, it is as if he surrenders the whole country to the Nazis.
Meanwhile, Gruber (Alexander Granach), the Gestapo Inspector in charge of the investigation, cleverly closes in on the conspirators, even seeing through the smoke screens that they throw up for his benefit. The outcome is nevertheless more hopeful than the historical record.
The tame movie conventions of portraying Nazi atrocities were still uninformed by reality in 1943. More people were more relentlessly slaughtered in retaliation for Heydrich's assassination than this film shows. For that matter, when members of the underground suffocate a Nazi under a pile of towels, it takes no time at all. This probably seemed horrible enough to 1940s moviegoers, whereas, if anything, today's movies might be more apt to exaggerate how long it takes to smother someone.
Despite being made after Hollywood established its morality code, the movie toys with the notion of sex outside of marriage even though it is only part of a ruse to fool the Gestapo. Also, some characters are clearly meant to be prostitutes.
The message of this film is that Czech patriots can mount their resistance without any outside help. The only nod to historical fact is that the assassin's pistol is British-made, but we are not told how the homegrown resistance came by it. In reality, all of the weapons used by the assassins were British. There was not a lone assassin, and all of the assassination team members were Czechs who had been living in exile in Britain and had to be parachuted back into Czechoslovakia. Contrary to this movie, Heydrich was not killed by bullets from a gun but died as a result of a grenade that landed behind his car seat and propelled horsehair upholstery, along with shrapnel, into his back. He suffered in agony until doctors were able to give him painkillers, but, without antibiotics, even Hitler's personal surgeon was unable to save him.
Like a less funny version of "To Be or Not to Be," this cleverly plotted and beautifully photographed thriller works better dramatically than the true story. Well worth seeing, even if its history must be taken with a large grain of salt.
Dramatic ending answers some questions but perhaps leaves others for another year
In the finale of the second year of "The Man in the High Castle", the uneasy peace between Japan and Germany that was disturbed at the beginning of the first year is now restored, and the cause has been explained. However, the world remains divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Juliana Crain has answers to some of her personal questions, too, but the reappearance of someone she is glad to see poses unsettling questions.
Creator, producer and head writer Frank Spotnitz has expanded Philip K. Dick's short novel of the same title into a grand epic. While he has felt the need to deviate from Dick's novel, he has fulfilled its spirit in many ways, preserving some of Dick's inside-out view of the universe.
There are some well-earned dramatic payoffs to several long story arcs. Tagomi-san, the Imperial Trade Minister – as much a favorite character of many viewers as he was for readers of the novel – has returned from his journey to an alternate reality in which the Axis Powers lost World War II and where, to his surprise, Juliana Crain, his former employee in his own world, is his daughter-in-law. Although Tagomi could have remained in this world if he had wanted, the Cuban Missile Crisis has convinced him to return to his own time-line to try to prevent nuclear war. Meanwhile, Crain has been on a journey of her own. After letting Nazi agent Joe Blake get away at the end of the first year, facing an unfriendly interrogation from the Man in the High Castle, and going on the run from both the Resistance and the Kempeitai (Imperial Secret Police), she is in New York, under the protection of Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. She has been living a double life, used by both Smith and the East Coast Resistance; yet Crain proves to be the link between all the other characters and the fate of the world.
Smith has a secret: his son is incurably ill. Under Nazi law, he ought to be euthanized. Smith also desires to keep his own power, even under Nazi domination, while protecting America, at least in its geographical sense. (In his twisted way, Smith is a tragically compromised patriot.) Joe Blake, whose life Crain spared, has learned that he is not only a child of the Third Reich in a very disturbing sense, but he is the biological son of a powerful and ambitious Nazi official, Martin Heusmann, who has recently become the acting-Fuhrer after the death of the septuagenarian Adolf Hitler.
Tagomi and Inspector Kido of the Kempeitai have joined forces, with a surprise assist from the mysterious Man in the High Castle himself who has Resistance member Lem Washington give Tagomi one of the mysterious films the Man seems to curate. The film shows the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific – but in our reality, not theirs. Kido gives it to his secret ally, Smith, persuading him that the film shows Japan's nuclear capability. Smith then uses his connection with Joe Blake/Josef Heusmann (who has tried and failed in his own attempt to dissuade his father from prosecuting global nuclear war) to bring it to the Nazi leadership, including Martin Heusmann and Heinrich Himmler. Heusmann does not want to call off the nuclear war, but Smith privately shows Himmler evidence that Heusmann poisoned Hitler. Himmler has Heusmann arrested and honors Smith for saving the Reich and the world in an international television broadcast.
Simultaneous with the development of these events, Crain's uneasy alliance with the East Coast Resistance comes to a head. George Dixon, who has been her sometime ally and who happens to be the father of Crain's half sister, sets off to publish evidence of the Smith family medical secret – evidence that she unwittingly helped obtain. Then two Resistance members try to kill Crain. For only about the second time in the entire series, she uses her martial arts training (aikido in the TV series, judo in Dick's novel) and is forced to kill the leader of the Resistance cell. She then chases and kills Dixon to prevent him from exposing Smith's son, but she unknowingly also helps Smith to save the world without the embarrassing secret of his cover up of his son's illness getting in the way. In the ultimate irony, however, at the very moment of Smith's triumph, his son Thomas, seeing his father honored on TV, realizes that his own duty is to turn himself in and allow himself to be euthanized. Ultimately, neither Crain nor Smith nor the boy's distraught mother, Helen, can save him.
It now becomes clear that the opening of the episode was a bookend to this fateful ending. It showed a younger John Smith and a pregnant Helen watching a Nazi atomic bomb go off over Washington, DC. Smith, ever in uniform, was then a member of the American military and not yet a convert to Nazism. We more fully understand what has happened to Smith and its cost. First he sold his soul to the devil, and now the devil has taken his son.
Finally, Juliana meets once again with the Man in the High Castle who explains that she has been his proxy all along, doing the right thing at every turn. We might suspect now – if we have not previously suspected – that the Man is a traveler between alternative realities (whichever one is his origin). He is somewhat like the Wizard of Oz. He has even sent Juliana, like Dorothy, on a hazardous mission to slay the Wicked Witch of the West (the European menace rather than the Asian one). She has not exactly slain the Nazi Reich, but at least she has played a key role in saving the world from nuclear annihilation so that the forces of good can live to fight another day.
If you liked "Gladiator" you might like this
After staying up late watching this blood-drenched but exciting adventure film, I was stunned to learn that it was something of a box office flop, having made back about half of what it cost to make. Most likely this has to do with how few screens the movie opened with, just over 100 in the UK and about 25 in the US, presumably with no hype. (I never heard of it until seven years after it opened.) This is certainly not your average date movie unless both parties like their violence graphic. So much for the chancy, grim aspects of movie-making. (Almost as grim as the blood in this movie.)
The story and acting are pretty good for an adventure/survival yarn: A small band of survivors of an ambush must take a circuitous route through enemy territory to get home. The hero is the son of a gladiator whose father taught him all of his skills and tricks. The best villain is a fierce woman warrior who tracks down the Roman prey. She wears animal skins and war paint, never speaks or smiles, and wields a scary, partisan-like polearm as if it were an extension of her body and soul. (This is not only about guys doing macho stuff, it has a couple of macho women characters, too.)
If you do not mind the blood and gore, this is a great adventure story with amazing photography of untamed Scottish mountain country. An interesting note (to me, anyway): The Romans speak English instead of Latin while the Picts speak Scots Gaelic instead of Pictish. Very little Pictish has been preserved, but from what we know of it, it would have been more similar to Gaelic than English is to Latin.
The Kindergarten of Spies
I give "Undercover" a perfect score because it does exactly what it intends to do. Directed by John Ford, this film was made for the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) during World War II. Its film-within-a-film structure helps us to understand how it was meant to be used. The filmmakers understand its flaws and exploit them.
The film opens with a group of men about to watch a movie. Two officers, one a moderator, introduce the movie, thus sandwiching it between this introductory scene and a closing commentary. The brief opening remarks admit that the movie about to be shown is simplistic.
The movie is about two novice spies, Al and Charles. The country that each spy is to infiltrate is not identified by name as a real country. Both spies are going to "Enemy Area", even though they might not be going to the same country. One is heading for Enemy City while the other is aiming for a seaport called El Porto.
In one scene, Al is on a train. The conductor, like all officials that both Al and Charles run across, has an armband with a checkerboard on it. (If you contemplate it, you soon realize that the "checkerboard" is really a swastika with all of its arms turned into closed boxes.) The conductor asks Al for his papers and asks a lot of other questions.
"Where are you going?"
"Enemy City", replies Al.
If he said that in real life, he would be hanging by his curlies by nightfall, but, of course, the generic place names are just the conceit of the movie. Geography is unimportant. Procedure, or what spies call "tradecraft", is everything here. (Although in the ending scene where the moderator discusses the film, he points out that in the Far East, a lot of the rules taught in the movie would have to be different.)
The plot is reminiscent of the story of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper agent is overconfident and arrogant. He reads magazines instead of studying. The ant does his homework and remembers his lessons in the field. They learn some of their lessons with their handlers in the comfort of their home country, but when they get to "Enemy Area", the narrator and other characters they meet tell us what lessons they have to learn or are being reinforced on the job. The lessons can be common sense but aren't always.
Al arrives in Enemy City and must find a place to stay. First he considers a big hotel, but Al reflects that the secret police are likely focusing on the big hotels, which will be crawling with informers; the whole staff will be regularly questioned by police. Besides, his cover is that he is a machinist. What would he be doing in a fancy hotel? Rule one is to be inconspicuous.
He goes on to a private home that lets rooms. Maybe later when he gets established. For now, living with a family might be too constraining. They will ask where he is going and so on. So he moves on to a rooming-house where he might have a little more anonymity, but he overhears the landlady gossiping disapprovingly about one of her tenants. She is nosy and will watch him like a hawk.
So he goes on until he finds a small hotel. There are too many of these second rate hotels for the police to check up on all of them. It is within the budget of a machinist, and it will give him some anonymity. He takes it. There are hundreds or even thousands of little decisions like this that the spy has to make.
After the movie ends and we return to the outer story of the film, the moderator points out that the real usefulness of this movie is for a class to go over in more detail all of the points that are made superficially.
The moderator also points out some things that were not given attention but perhaps should have been. For example, didn't the grasshopper's handler make a mistake by sending him into the field knowing that the man was overconfident and had a cavalier and impetuous attitude?
Another detail: When Al is pacing nervously around his hotel room and chain smoking, he stubs out a half-smoked cigarette in an ashtray. This is probably a country where tobacco is being rationed. Might the hotel maid and others be suspicious of someone who acts as if, where they come from, cigarettes are easy to come by?
This is a kind of industrial/educational film that is explicitly meant to be studied and discussed for the insights that can be gleaned about undercover work, a very peculiar endeavor that requires a combination of training, native intelligence and attention to detail combined with an ability to think on one's feet.
The sound of this movie is poor. Captions are helpful or even essential. Without any credits you might not know that John Ford directed it or that he plays a supporting role. The two lead actors look familiar but are not named.
This show is very entertaining, but it is incomplete as it stands. There are too many unanswered questions. Who is Vic, for example, other than a character who departs without having revealed what he was or where he came from. Did someone cause the people to come back from the dead? Even in the French series "Les Revenants" and its American remake "The Returned" we get some clue from the longer arc of the story about why this happened (even though it has to remain shrouded in some mystery). In "Glitch!" we do not get enough of the story to get any closure on anything. The surprise ending is only a small, partial explanation.
Band of Brothers: Currahee (2001)
Band Holds Up After 16 Years
When I first saw this series, I was only aware of David Schwimmer and maybe Donnie Wahlberg. Now I can't see it without being aware of how many of the actors have gone on to distinguished acting careers. Having said that, all of the actors, whether in small or large parts, do very well. Even Colonel Sink, who is played by a real life military officer, is solid in his performance.
David Schwimmer has the toughest role to play in this first episode. His character, Captain Sobel, feels - we might think it is because he is conscious of his Jewishness - that he must work his men harder than the other company commanders so that he is recognized as a worthy officer. Unfortunately, his insecurity makes him a vacillating field commander. While some recognize that he has trained his men to be tougher than any other unit, his men both resent his martinet style and are disturbed by his inability to lead in the field. They are genuinely afraid that he will get his men killed.
His sergeants risk being executed by mutinying against him. In a way, they do act dishonorably. If their actions had not led Colonel Sink to realize that Sobel is a walking morale problem who needs to be relieved of his command, the sergeants being transferred to better led units would have abandoned the rest of the men of E Company to meet their fates with Sobel.
My favorite sequence - not a happy one - is when Lt. Winters first sees the sergeants leaving headquarters after they have been dressed down and reassigned. They salute Winters (they respect him to the same degree that they do not respect Sobel), and he returns their salutes. He knows something is up, but the sergeants kept him out of the loop, so he doesn't know what just happened. A little later, Winters sees Capt. Sobel being driven away in a jeep right after he has been transferred in a wrenching scene. (Sobel squirms as he unconvincingly tries to explain to Col. Sink why his entire staff of non- commissioned officers mutinied against him.) Winters salutes Sobel in the jeep. Whatever Winters thinks of him, Sobel is still his commanding officer - or so Winters still believes. Yet Sobel doesn't return the salute, may not even see Winters. Winters again senses that something is up, but, again, he doesn't know what. (You can read so much that isn't explicitly stated just from the acting - that is a sign of the quality in this production.)
This is a good start for a series that I have not seen since it originally appeared on HBO sixteen years ago. I want to watch the rest of it and intend to do so. This is in contrast to the same production team's sequel effort "The Pacific", the first episode of which I remember watching, again on HBO, and quickly resolving that I would not watch the rest of that series.