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Scandal (1950)
7/10
Supporting player steals Capra-esque movie with an un-Capra-esque ending
12 July 2019
Warning: Spoilers
This movie might well encapsulate Akira Kurosawa's ambivalent relationship with the Japanese movie-going public, because if you watch this movie keeping Frank Capra in the back of your mind, you can see that it hits all the clichés of a Capra film, which is about as un-Japanese as you can be in terms of style. And yet, when the movie is over, you suddenly realize that it doesn't end the way a Capra movie would end. It isn't that upbeat. The ending might not have been enough to win back the Japanese audience at the time, but it certainly strikes the American viewer as an unexpected, almost realistic ending.

Toshiro Mifune is the handsome leading man here, but his character has little character. Yoshiko "Shirley" Yamaguchi as the female lead is nice to look at, too, and has a beautiful voice. (She was known as the Japanese Judy Garland - if you can imagine Judy being caught up in a World War II propaganda scandal.) The trouble with both nominal leads is that they are ciphers. He is an eccentric painter and she is a popular songstress. They are stoic throughout their victimization by a tabloid that prints a photo of them together and then prints an unverified (and untrue) story that has them carrying on a torrid love affair.

But Takashi Shimura is the principal reason to watch the movie. He plays an ambulance chasing attorney who presents himself to Mifune's character after learning that he is suing the tabloid. The lawyer wants to be an honest man but falls far short, and he agonizes over it while continuing to do it. At the last moment, he tries to redeem himself only to bring ruin upon his own head. (He also tells the audience a significant sociological fact: That in 1950, Japan had little more than three percent the number of lawyers that the United States had. This reflected a different attitude toward the legal system in Japan, one that would find suing a tabloid over a scandalous story as being less socially acceptable than would have been in the U.S. in the same era.)

Also worth mentioning are Yoko Katsuragi as the lawyer's tubercular daughter who tugs at the heartstrings of the painter (and the Capra-universe audience) and Eitaro Ozawa as the cynical publisher who seeks to ensure his victory in court by exploiting the cardinal weaknesses of the plaintiffs' attorney. Ozawa makes a good villain, smiling complacently at his own cleverness. Katsuragi is the Tiny Tim of the piece, but her lawyer father is the guilt-ridden Scrooge and Bob Cratchit rolled into one (which only reinforces what I said about Shimura having the plum role; imagine Scrooge and Cratchit battling within a single soul).
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9/10
A harsh depiction of France under German occupation
1 July 2019
Warning: Spoilers
When I first saw this movie in Boston in the mid-1970s, I came out of the theater and was accosted by an angry Frenchman. (I had just seen it; I don't know whether he just had.) He was infuriated by the fact that French director Louis Malle had made a movie with a main character who collaborates with France's German occupiers during World War II.

While the title character, Lucien Lacombe, is a protagonist, he is no hero. In fact, this is one of those movies where the great temptation is to psychopathologize the main character as a way of understanding the movie, but an analysis of Lucien seems almost futile. Why does Lucien do any of the things that strike us as good, bad or indifferent? In the middle of the movie, Albert, the Jewish tailor that Lucien exploits, says, "Somehow I can't bring myself to despise you completely."

The reason is that Lucien is a package of competing impulses that are neither good nor bad by themselves. He is mostly, Id, with what serves as Ego only looking for ways to get what the Id wants, and a Superego that is completely asleep at the switch.

From the outset, we get the impression that Lucien is indifferent to others. He takes a break from his job - mopping floors and emptying bedpans at a nursing home - and uses his slingshot to kill a bird outside the window. There is no interaction with staff or patients. We never learn Lucien's exact age (the actor was about eighteen when he made the film), but emotionally he seems to be no older than twelve, and he is an angry twelve-year-old despite his flat outward demeanor much of time.

There is a scene early in the movie where Lucien returns to the farmhouse where he grew up and walks right in while a family is at supper. The head of the household recognizes him and tells him that they now live here. What does he want? One gets the impression from what happens next that people are already a bit afraid of Lucien, because neither of the adults present raises any objection to what is about to happen:

Lucien yanks a chair out from under a small child, causing the child to begin crying. Then Lucien uses the chair as a stool to get something from the top of a cupboard. Bringing the object down, he unwraps it to reveal a shotgun. Is it only because we are led to expect such things from contemporary dramas, that I almost expected him to start massacring the family, or did Malle want us to consider this as possible? In any case, Lucien does not use the gun immediately, but he seems angry enough to do so. (Lucien is a good shot whether with a slingshot, a shotgun, or, as it later turns out, a handgun.)

Leaving his former home, Lucien goes across the way to another house where his mother lives with M. Laborit. Lucien's father is in jail or dead and his brother has joined the Resistance. Lucien tells his mother and Laborit that he has five days off from work. He does not want to go back, but it is made clear to him that he cannot stay longer than the week. So he spends his break hunting rabbits and wild birds, and killing and plucking chickens. He is very efficient at these tasks. He even seems to enjoy them judging from the number of rabbits and birds he kills with both the shotgun and traps, bludgeoning the caught creatures with whatever stick or stone comes to hand.

Laborit injudiciously tells (or reminds) Lucien that M. Peyssac, the local schoolteacher, is the head of the local Resistance. Lucien goes to him and asks for a job. Peyssac, who evidently once taught Lucien, tells him he is too young. (We are still left to guess his chronological age, but does Peyssac simply know that Lucien is emotionally too young?)

Lucien goes back to the town where he works, but instead of going to his quarters, he snoops about and stays out after curfew, which brings him to the attention of the local Vichy police. France was divided by the conquering Germans into two parts: the part that they occupied themselves and the vassalized part that was nominally run by the French, but actually by the dupes of the Germans. This was Vichy France. The police Lucien encounters are Frenchmen, but they are working for the Gestapo and consequently have all of the charms that one would expect.

Judging Lucien to be harmless to them, the police get him drunk and easily learn the name of the schoolteacher who heads the local Resistance. They go and arrest him. When confronted by Peyssac, Lucien tries to say something as if he is sorry to see his old teacher under arrest, but Peyssac angrily cuts him off. Peyssac is subsequently questioned and tortured. Presumably they kill him or give him to the Germans, but, in any case, we only see part of the interrogation and get the impression that he has not yet talked. Then we never see Peyssac anymore. Perhaps this is because we are meant to see that from Lucien's perspective, out of sight is out of mind. (Or it might just be that more explanatory scenes were edited out of the movie.)

Lucien seems to be incapable of shame or guilt, certainly of any lasting or consequential type. Introduced to Albert Horn, a Jewish tailor from Paris who is hiding in the town, Lucien decides to form a relationship with the Horn family whether they like it or not. He is particularly smitten with Horn's beautiful daughter, who is named France in a deliberate act of overdetermination by the filmmaker and, no doubt, by her foreign-born father as well. Lucien proceeds, by turns, to court, seduce and rape France. (You see how overdetermined this is?), and then he asks Albert how he would feel if Lucien married France. This is when Albert realizes that he cannot completely despise Lucien. The youth has monumental chutzpah, but he has such naiveté that he quite evidently does not know when he is being a scoundrel; yet deep down in him are some innocent if not entirely good impulses.

Lucien enjoys his power as a "German policeman", but it only goes so far. He cannot control his superiors. When they turn their antisemitism on France and Albert, he cannot protect them. His notion of marrying France is an unrealistic pipedream under the circumstances.

After Albert is arrested and sent to Toulouse - a station on the way to a German death camp - Lucien takes matters into his own hands and rescues Albert's daughter and elderly mother rather than allow them to be sent to join him. Lucien steals a police car and takes the two women away, until the radiator explodes. Then they hike through the country until they find an abandoned farm. With his farm-boy skills, Lucien is able to feed them. In one telling reminder of their different characters, we see him take a bird out of a trap and hand it to France. She laughs and caresses the little thing. Lucien ignores her, but we know that he would sooner break its neck. (To be fair, this is not purely a matter of pathology; Lucien is totally country while France is city, and city people are less use having to kill their food.)

Who is Lucien? Is he a sociopath? Is he a cipher? Does he represent the shameful aspect of so many Frenchmen who collaborated with the Germans? The last is certainly the political implication of the movie. No doubt, what angered the Frenchman I encountered outside that theater four decades ago was that Malle had rubbed his countrymen's noses in the undeniable fact that not everyone was in the Resistance, and a great many Frenchmen from all levels of society sold out their country rather easily. Everybody would like to pretend they were, but few actually were. For the rest of us, the question remains, what would we have done in their shoes?

Notes: Excellent acting by the cast, especially the poignant performance of Holger Lowenadler as Albert. Also, the soundtrack is decorated with the great guitar music of Django Reinhardt, a figure who perhaps embodies the movie's ambiguous themes because he belonged to one of the hated minorities - a gypsy - and yet made his bread under the occupation by entertaining the occupiers, just as Albert must make clothing for those who despise him. Excellent photography in the old, almost exotic region of southern France called Occitanie, not too far from Spain.
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Danger Man: Name, Date and Place (1961)
Season 1, Episode 19
7/10
Entertaining crime story despite idiot plot and confusion about characters
29 June 2019
Warning: Spoilers
John Drake must solve a series of murders committed in different countries but with an identical MO: Always prominent victims, always shot through the back and heart, always the same caliber gun, and always the indication - cleverly discerned by Drake - that the killer was a stranger yet the victim trusted them.

Drake traces the killer's employer to the Soho area of London (not sure how) and goes through a rather hit-or-miss process to find someone who knows who the criminal is. This leads him, at last, to a seemingly upstanding citizen named Mr. Nash.

Although Nash stresses security in his criminal enterprise, he does not have the concept quite down. We never understand how Drake is able to find anyone who knows about Nash's murder-for-hire business and yet manages to still be alive. Also, when Drake shows up at Nash's home with two tight-lipped suits in tow, Nash never demands to know who they are before talking about his illegal business in front of them.

An unusual number of female actors appear - six. A peculiarity of the way they are presented in the story and then credited makes it difficult to identify them. I am only able to pick out two: 1) Jean Marsh is cast as "Kim Russell", Drake's guide to Soho. (Evidently, one cannot explore the underbelly of Soho without a native.) She is not introduced by name and never identified as "Russell", but, at last, Drake's narration refers to her as "Kim", though if your mind drifts for a nanosecond, you miss that. 2) Olive McFarland as "Chambermaid", obviously is the hotel maid who finds the body in the opening scene.

None of the other four female characters is named in the dialogue. One woman is identified as "Mrs. Hammond", but there is no such name in the cast list. Obviously, she is one of the four female characters identified only by first name - but their first names are never used in the dialogue. This makes it almost impossible to match most of these actresses with the characters they play.
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The First (2018– )
8/10
Slow-paced but ultimately rewarding human drama just happens to be sci-fi
26 June 2019
Going to Mars isn't going to be whiz-bang fast or easy. It will cost money and will be dangerous. (IMHO more safety precautions should be taken than are taken either on this show or in some of the real plans that have actually been floated.) This show explores the various realistic human tolls that going to Mars could cost, and some of the technical problems that could plague such a project.

Do not expect the astronauts to get to Mars immediately. In fact, this was supposed to be a two season series, and although it looks as if it won't be, don't let that stop you from watching it. I think the first season/series adequately instructs us about what to expect from space exploration and does so in a dramatic and effective way that every human being who seriously contemplates the future of the human race off-planet should take into consideration.

I had to watch the whole series through and then go back and watch the first half over again to grasp everything that is going on. I can understand that some viewers might not like to have to do that or that they might not be interested in some of the personal dramas of the characters. I found that the pain of the character Denise Hagerty seemed too hard to take the first time through, but I eventually came to appreciate how it fit into the larger scheme, because the astronauts and their families are separated for several years due to the combined round trip to Mars plus the need to spend an adequate amount of time on the planet to make the trip worthwhile. A lot can happen in that time including a lot of things to worry about back home.

I did get a kick out of the sci-fi tech. The story is set a full decade in the future. People have access to tech we barely have now. They seem to be using what is called Augmented Reality (AR) glasses, which is similar to virtual reality (or maybe they have melded virtual reality with augmented?). Anyway, the AR effects are cool. Also, they have driver-less cars (natch) and voice-activated everything in their homes and offices and communications. When Denise Hagerty shows up unexpectedly at her family home, she remarks with some surprise that her father has not reprogrammed the device that let her in because it still recognizes the scan of her palm print.

The pace of the show puzzled me at first, but in the end the show grew on me.

Sean Penn BTW is excellent, as usual. But so is the rest of the cast.
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9/10
The First Modern War
21 May 2019
Americans are apt to know much about our Civil War and very little about the Crimean War, which took place only a few years earlier (1853-1856). Strikingly, the innovations of the Crimean War often predated those associated with the Civil War. For examples, trenches and the use of artillery that presaged more modern warfare; war photography; numerous letter and diary accounts by officers, private soldiers and civilians; organized nursing units; and canned food as rations. All of these things began not with the American Civil War but with the Crimean War. The Crimean War was also noteworthy for its odd alliances and adversaries. The war was precipitated by Russian aggression against Turkey. The Czar gravely miscalculated in thinking that the French and British would not side with a Muslim country against a fellow Christian nation. Thus an alliance of strange bedfellows amassed against Russia. The alliance between the French and British suddenly forced a change in old ways of thinking, because they had been seemingly perpetual enemies for so long. Further, their alliance with Turkey was also novel. Once, the Turks had threatened to conquer Europe. Now the western powers and the Turks were on the same side. It was not as if they liked each other any better. Indeed, the French and British lorded it over their Turkish allies. The British army was not as well prepared for the Crimean War as the French army, which had been fighting in Algeria for several years. I am always amused by those - particularly fellow Americans - who make fun of the French military. Up until 1871 - when they were crushed by the Germans - the French were considered to be one of the world's top militaries. The Crimean War happened before their precipitous downfall. The motivation for the alliance was a common enemy. Sensing the decline of Turkey, Czarist Russia pounced on the opportunity to control the Black Sea and the port of Constantinople. There were both strategic and symbolic reasons for this. Control of Constantinople meant control of the gateway between the Black and Mediterranean seas. That would give Russia year-round access to the world's oceans. Symbolically, the Russian monarch believed that he was getting back something that belonged to him. Constantinople had been the capital of Byzantium, the Greek-speaking remnant of the Roman empire in the eastern Mediterranean, which had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire (the Turks) exactly 400 years earlier. The czar had always considered himself to be the rightful heir to the last Roman Empire. This is why the Russian monarch was called czar - meaning Caesar, why the royal family is called the ROMANovs, why the Russians adopted a variety of Christianity more similar to Greek Orthodox than to Roman Catholicism, and why the Russian or Cyrillic alphabet bears a resemblance to Greek (St. Cyril was a missionary to the Slavs from Byzantium). As natural as the reconquest of Constantinople seemed to the Russians, it was intolerable to the British that the Russian navy should have a shot at becoming a major sea power. The French didn't like it either. Turkey, of course, did not agree that Constantinople or any place else on the southern shore of the Black Sea belonged to Russia. (Even Austria, while not committing to the war, actively discouraged Russia from pushing south of the Danube River as part of its war effort - a severe blow to the Russians.) Although the western allies tended to look down on the Turks, the initial attack on a Turkish port by the Russian navy was so brutal in its overkill (nearly every ship in the Turkish fleet was destroyed and civilians were deliberately targeted) that the British press reported it as a massacre and ginned up sympathy for the Turks. One of the great killers of the war was cholera. Whole armies, without ever having faced fire, were decimated or worse by the disease. Combat nevertheless took many lives. This was the war in which the Charge of the Light Brigade, immortalized by the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, took place. It was one of those moments when a traditional approach - in this case, a massive cavalry charge - was proven to be outmoded in the face of modern technology - in this case, artillery. The result was a suicidal massacre. This was also the war that made Florence Nightingale famous as the organizer of what would become a tradition of military nursing, though they were not yet formally part of the military. (America's Clara Barton would come a few years later, aware as she was of Nightingale's pioneering work.) On both sides, soldiers, soldiers' wives and journalists recorded their impressions of the war. Count Leo Tolstoy - future author of "War and Peace" - was an artillery officer in the war and, not surprisingly, kept a journal. Photographers took pictures (in one case, unfortunately, only a tiny fraction of a photographer's pictures survive) and some observers made drawings and even watercolor paintings. This three-part series is a very good survey of the Crimean War for those who know nothing about it or those who have forgotten what they once might have known. Billie Whitelaw's narration is crisp and intelligent without talking down to the viewer.
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The Enemy Within: Sequestered (2019)
Season 1, Episode 12
8/10
Tough cookie meets tough cookie
19 May 2019
Ordinarily, Erica Shepherd plays the clever mouse while Agent Keaton plays the self-satisfied cat who doesn't have his mouse completely boxed in but thinks he does. While this dynamic continues in the background, Shepherd meets her match in Congresswoman Bell (Margaret Colin) in a role unusual for Colin these days. She gets to be the tough cookie who knows Shepherd's number, but Shepherd knows Bell's number, too. Watching them play off each other is more dramatically rewarding than usual. I can only wish that Bell becomes a regular, but I suppose this was a one-off.
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8/10
Pujol: Conman as Hero
6 May 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Paul Schrader said that every movie, from its first moment, teaches you how to watch it. "Garbo, the Spy", which begins with a series of outtakes from films ranging from World War II military documentaries to dramas made by both Hollywood and Pinewood, will immediately have you wondering what kind of movie you are being taught to watch. Mixed in are interviews with several talking heads who are presumably talking about the same person, but who is he and what does he have to do with all those film clips? The confused viewer might want to know whether any of this will ever become clear and prove worthy of the investment in time. The answer to both questions seems to be "yes".

This peculiar movie is the story of a peculiar man named Juan Pujol Garcia, whose many guises might as well be explored by looking at odd movie clips - even if, at first, they strain patience and credulity. The story itself is strange. Pujol was essentially a conman who lulled people into believing he was whatever they wanted him to be; but his most specific ambition was to be a spy and a double agent at that.

Born in Barcelona in 1912, Pujol participated in two wars, but he did not initially get what he wanted. His efforts to play both sides of the Spanish Civil War were so disastrous that, I cannot tell which side of the Civil War he was really on.

When World War II came, Pujol again tried to become a double agent. The British rejected him four times, but the Germans proved to be more trusting. Pujol made his intelligence reports to the Abwehr, or German military intelligence, at their Madrid outpost. He told them that he was in London but, at first, he was right there in Madrid, though he later moved to Lisbon. His reports "from London" were faked by doing research in public records and then doctoring them by adding speculation.

If the Germans had been more careful in analyzing Pujol's reports, they might have realized the truth which was that he had never been to London. For example, Pujol told the Germans that British dockworkers would give up classified information for the price of a few glasses of wine. That dockworkers might know something strategically important was not incredible, but, as one of the interviewees (possibly British historian Nigel West) observes, the typical British dockworker of the period had probably never tasted wine in his life.

Pujol told the Germans that his intelligence came from a network of agents that he actually had made up. Still, the British rejected Pujol when he applied to work for them, but the Spaniard was already helping them. On one occasion, for example, he misled the Germans so badly about British strategy in the Mediterranean, that Germany diverted their forces to protect against a phantom attack. The British knew that someone must be fooling the Germans on their behalf, but they did not know who or why.

At this point, Pujol applied for a job with the Americans, telling them specifically about his deceptions. Although they did not hire him, the Americans passed on his information to the British, who realized that Pujol must be the mysterious agent who had been misleading the Germans. They hired him, brought him to London, and gave him the codename "Garbo", after the film star Greta Garbo. (The Germans already called him "Alaric" and called his (phony) network "Arabel".)

In London, Pujol was teamed with a British spy named Thomas Harris. Together, Pujol and Harris continued the work that Pujol had already begun, feeding the Germans a combination of truths, half-truths and outright lies, supposedly based on intelligence reports from an international cast of what were actually fictitious spies. It was Harris and Pujol who repeatedly told the Germans that the Allies were going to invade Europe at Pas de Calais. Even after the Allies invaded at Normandy on 6 June 1944, Pujol continued to assure them that this was just a diversion and that the real invasion would be at Pas de Calais. How did the Germans continue to believe in Pujol when no Calais invasion materialized? Pujol told them that after a couple of months, the Allies had decided that the Normandy landing had worked so well that they cancelled the Calais landing. The Germans must have believed this because they continued to value Pujol's intelligence reports.

Pujol also helped the British codebreakers who were busily cracking the complicated Enigma Code that the Germans used. The key to the code was changed every day. Pujol's reports helped the codebreakers because, after his reports were sent to Madrid, they were always transmitted by Enigma to Berlin. By comparing the Enigma version to Pujol's original text, the codebreakers had a key to the daily code.

Pujol and Harris further humiliated the Abwehr by having them pay Pujol and his network, sending money to London through a businessman in Madrid. Since the fictitious spy network did not really need the money, it went to the British intelligence service to pay for their operations. The Germans were thus tricked into financing their own defeat. (The make-believe spymasters killed off one of their imaginary spies and made the Germans give a pension to his equally notional widow.)

I am reminded that there were plenty of times during World War II when the Germans fooled the British, but this is about a true case of the shoe being on the other foot in a way that proved consequential. At the end of the war, Pujol went back to Madrid and met the Abwehr agent who had been transmitting his reports to Berlin. The German abjectly apologized to Pujol on behalf of Germany for losing the war. He had no idea that he was talking to the man who, as much as any individual, had ensured that Germany never had a chance of winning.

After the war, Pujol continued behaving like the great imposter that he was. Leaving a wife and children in Europe, he traveled in Africa where he was reported to have died in 1949, but nearly four decades later he resurfaced in Venezuela where he had a new family. His two families might have been miffed, but Pujol was brought to the U.K. where he was given a medal by the Queen and a ticket to the 1984 celebration of the anniversary of D-Day.

"Garbo, the Spy" tells us as much as it can about what Pujol did, and winks at us noting that Pujol's mischief accomplished much good, but the man remains as much of mystery at the end as he was at the beginning.
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Winter Kills (1979)
8/10
Wild Goose Chase
3 March 2019
The premise of "Winter Kills" is that, in 1979, the younger brother of an assassinated president is presented with evidence that his brother was not killed by a lone assassin but by a team of them. He begins his own investigation, but, even with the help of his wealthy father, he finds himself running in circles. Every clue seems to lead to a different conspiracy theory, but each clue also leads to a dead end - "dead" often being the operative word, as more than half of the people he interviews are dead soon after he talks to them. Writer-director William Richert seems to have his tongue placed firmly in his cheek throughout this satirical send up of conspiracy theories. It is as if this is a parody of the fevered paranoia of Oliver Stone's "JFK" except that this movie was made a dozen years earlier.

In this fictional universe, President Timothy Kegan was assassinated while his motorcade rode through downtown Philadelphia on February 22, 1960. The similarity to the assassination of John F. Kennedy on a date more than three years later and in a different state of the Union is thinly disguised. So is the dead president's father, unscrupulous tycoon Thomas Kegan (John Huston), more or less a ringer for Joseph Kennedy. (Both pulled strings to get their sons elected to office, and even some publicity called the character "Joe Kegan" instead on "Thomas".) And the late president's brother, Nicholas Kegan (Jeff Bridges), is at least remotely similar to Edward M. Kennedy, only less of a libertine and without any political ambitions. (So, not very similar.) In the end, Nick almost resembles Truman Burbank of "The Truman Show" but controlled on the end of a much longer tether.

The cast largely consists of vintage actors from the 1950s and '60s. Even Japanese film icon Toshiro Mifune makes a cameo appearance in a rare English-language role. Unfortunately, these cameos are too numerous for many of them to amount to anything. Anthony Perkins, for example, is seen briefly at the beginning, but is not brought back until near the end for a performance that makes an insane semblance of tying the plot together.

On seeing "Winter Kills" a second time, I was amused to see how Richert toys with us just as Nick is being toyed with. The solution is in plain sight the whole time, if only we could look beyond the window dressing and face the seemingly unthinkable.

The dialogue contains many priceless parodies of conspiracy logic, such as an early line by Richard Boone.

Keifitz (Boone): You were just a little boy when President Kegan was gunned down in Philadelphia, but, in the subsequent 19 years, more than 16 people who seemingly had nothing to do with that awful event have died under mysterious conditions.

Lines like this hit a discordant note as the character avoids the more hackneyed yet almost comforting cliché "mysterious circumstances."

Funnier and at the same time even more evocative for the baby-boomer audience that originally saw this film when it was released, is the dialogue in the scene where Nick and a bumbling police captain named Heller visit one of the assassin's perches. Heller insists on interrogating the current proprietor at the location as if he could possibly have been at the crime scene nearly two decades before.

Captain Heller (Brad Dexter): Where were you on February 22, 1960? John Kullers (Kyle Morris): Nineteen-sixty? What is this? Captain Heller: You don't remember the date President Kegan was shot? John Kullers: Long Island... in school... Mrs. Sayer's eighth grade English class. Captain Heller (skeptically): Oh, yeah?

This movie might as well have been entitled "Wild Goose Chase", not that Nick and the audience don't find out what happened in the end. It is just that there is nothing that Nick can do about it and nothing we can take away from this entertainment except a lesson in the value of healthy skepticism about the agendas of those feeding us information.
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Timeless: The Miracle of Christmas Part I/II (2018)
Season 2, Episode 11
5/10
Strictly for Fans
25 December 2018
Warning: Spoilers
A couple of dozens of references to Christmas in this final, double episode of "Timeless" make me suspect that the producers planned it to be their holiday present to fans. I for one could not imagine ever watching this show at another time of year, but then I have no plan to ever watch it again, at all.

Aside from too many holiday references, there are an awful lot of references to other episodes (by location). I do not even remember the episode set in Hollywood, but from the several references to it, it must have been pivotal. I do remember Chinatown, which is where one of the main characters died. This show reminds me of "Dark Shadows", however, in that characters that die oftentimes do not stay dead.

It is not just the number of self-referential allusions, but the self-consciousness of them all. At one point, the character Rufus stands in for the (fan) audience and confesses that he has always been a Wyatt/Lucy "shipper." Yes, he actually uses the fandom term "shipper", as if this finale were a valentine rather than a Christmas present to fans. Of course, it is also a gift to Rufus/Jiya shippers - fans who want to see Rufus and Jiya get back together despite the metaphysical problem presented by what happened to Rufus in 1888 in a previous episode.

There is every plot cliche including a woman giving birth in part two. (This could refer back to the Christmas theme of part one.)

Have I said that this program is hyper-politically correct? Well, if you did not know or expect that, then you have not been watching the series. When Lucy returns to teaching, she is approached by a male student who wonders why her American history course only covers women. She offhandedly says that she had planned to include some male historical figures in the course but had found that there was not time enough. Don't worry. She gets tenure anyway.

She also tells a female student who ask how she knows details about early twentieth century feminists that "you'll have to trust me." Silly me. I thought historians had to prove their statements. (I realize Lucy can't tell people she is a time traveler, but the least she could do is use her first-hand knowledge of the past to dig up documentary evidence of her personal insights.)

Despite the politically correct aspects of the show, representing as it does different ethnic groups and sexualities in the cast, part two of this send off does mention "blood-thirsty communists". That must be acceptable somehow. These are Chinese and North Korean communists, circa 1950. Why did they choose North Korea? (It has been in the news lately. Perhaps that's why.) In the loose ends department, everybody's destiny is resolved even though a couple of outcomes might be tragic. (Just one or two of them.)

In the best closing of the circle, Lucy and Flynn resolve their affair with Lucy's notebook. (Time paradoxes are, indeed, enjoyed by all.) In the out-and-out villainy department, our heroic team is reduced from fighting a vast conspiracy by a powerful family named Rittenhouse to battling a renegade spin-off of the family that does not seem to be as resilient as the original.

If you have watched every episode up until this finale, you will be hard-pressed to resist watching, but you might be happier doing something else with the two hours.
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Atomic Blonde (2017)
8/10
This is Entertaining Though Not Everyone's Cup of Tea
2 December 2018
Stylish, eye-popping, bouncy. The story, acting, music are energetic and fun. The plot is not realistic even though it references some of the realities of a time and place: Berlin, Germany, 1989. (I like the disclaimer at the beginning that gives the historical background and then says, This is not that story.)

What this is, of course, is an adaptation of a graphic novel, "The Coldest City". The title "Atomic Blonde" is rather campy, though it suggests the nuclear threat that was on everyone's mind at the time.

Reality, also of course, need not apply here. I agree with those who say that this is the answer to the call for a female James Bond. This probably better than the Broccoli people would do it. It is amusing that people - including me - pair this movie with "Red Sparrow" because the latter movie is actually more realistic than this one in its use of a female spy who uses sex first and violence sparingly because she knows she can't sustain a physical fight with ten men (or even one powerful man) without a gun or at least sharp objects.

Charleze Theron is a kick-butt fantasy. She can do anything physical that she has to. Not only fending off multiple male attackers but jumping off of balconies with makeshift ropes and pulleys and counterweights made out of bad guys.

I liked the twists in the plot and the surprise ending. It is part of the fun.

Loraine Broughton navigates a world where she quickly realizes that everybody is out to betray everybody else, and somebody has decided to have everybody gang up on her. Does she whine about it? Only a little. Mostly she just deals with it by shooting or kicking somebody in the head.

The spycraft is a bit contrived not to say outright laughable. Somebody does not understand that the purpose of a code name is to obscure the person or thing the spies are talking about. So "Spyglass" is a very bad code name for a spy or asset. And "the list" is a very bad code name for a maguffin that is, in fact, a list. (I recently read a spy novel by a real life spy in which an operative's code name is "Tulip". See the difference?)

My pet peeves with some critics are that 1) The present generation did not invent feminism. That is not necessarily a thing that is anachronistic about this movie. In the 1980s, women were already making headway into previously male-dominated professions. 2) This movie was not an ad for tobacco but a reflection of how much a lot of people still smoked in the '80s.
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7/10
Reality show combined with history
1 September 2018
Warning: Spoilers
During World War II, Britain had a program called Special Operations Executive (SOE) that trained and sent out saboteurs, assassins, radio operators, and insurgency organizers. The SOE was not initially trusted by the military and traditional intelligence services, but it was effective enough to lead to modern special forces programs. The original program accepted candidates from all walks of life and, unusual for its time, of both sexes. Yet the training was tough, and the question posed by this series is, can 14 contemporary men and women make it through the same course?

The diversity of the group chosen for this reality show is not very different from what a class in the 1940s might have looked like. One candidate is Asian, one is African, almost half are female, and one male is an amputee. (Historically, one of the SOE's female agents was an amputee; there was a male amputee, too, but, oddly, he is not mentioned.) Age was not much of a limit because life experience and accomplishment were favored. Several of the candidates on this show are well over 40. Only two have had military training. There is a physician, a mathematician, a paralegal, a scientist and at least one candidate owns his own business. More than one speaks a second language fluently. This last ability was mandatory in 1940 when agents were typically dropped behind enemy lines throughout Europe and in Africa. Some candidates on the show were born in foreign countries including a Polish woman and an American man, which was not untypical of the original SOE candidates. (700 Americans and a large number of Eastern Europeans went through SOE training.)

The course, including survival training, took place in a remote Scottish area. The first phase of SOE training, the hallmark of which was psychological tricks, is evaluation. Students are told to test their ability to memorize the map of a compound, but the class is unexpectedly subjected to a bit of excitement when men rush into the room shouting, and one of them fires a gun. Afterward, the class is asked to write a detailed account of what just happened. The trainers not only evaluated candidates' written reports, but they watched how each candidate behaved during the ruckus. Taking cover, for example, is reasonable, but if they cried and curled up in a ball, then SOE training might not be an ideal fit for them.

The program was good experience even for those who could not cut it. One of the women voiced an extreme fear of heights, but she overcame it when she had to climb in a rope-and-tree exercise. One of the staff's tricks is that when they give you an obstacle course, you can choose not to do all of the obstacles if you want, but you are going to lose points if you do not do most of them. One woman was asked by the female trainer why she did not crawl under the barbed wire. "I was afraid my hair might get caught in the wire." You could see from the look in the trainer's eyes that she was thinking, "Okay, princess." An amazing sight was the one-legged man who was one of the few to make it over a high wall. Another who made it over was a woman who must have been the shortest person in the class. (I will call her J because IMDb does not seem to have a cast list.)

Another task involved dividing the class into two groups and having each group, in turn, solve a problem in an outdoor setting. The group waiting its turn would be indoors so that they could not see the other group perform. For each group, the trainers assigned one candidate to be the leader, and the first group accepted the leader they were given - I will call him D - and he really took charge. Eventually they completed the task but only after several disasters and taking a long time to complete it. The second group, while they were waiting, anticipated that they might be asked to choose a leader, so they used their waiting time to elect one, a male I will call C. This caused confusion when the trainers selected a woman (I will call her W) to lead the group. One of the trainers later scratched her head while noting that W took charge out of the gate, but after twenty seconds C took over. Then several of the other group members began to chime in with suggestions verging on orders. The trainers, at that point, did not know about the election that had happened.

The second group ended up doing better than the more organized group. The task involved building a raft to cross a pond, and one of the members of the second team took a little walk around the edge of the pond and discovered a ready-made raft among the reeds. Not having to build a raft made the task go faster. The ready-made raft, by the way had been planted. If this seems unfair, think about it. Suppose you are in the middle of Nazi-occupied territory and you have to get away across a river or lake before the enemy comes for you. Are you going to try to build a raft from scratch or are you going to give a quick look around to see if there might not be a boat you could steal? In the SOE, thinking outside the box earns you well-deserved points.

At the end of the first phase, four candidates are cut and sent home. The woman who overcame her fear of heights makes an inspirational story, but she was too slow and timid to be a secret agent. The princess whose hair could not be brought into proximity with barbed wire was cut loose, too, as was the man who had to miss most of the evaluations because he was laid up with migraines. (Not tonight Adolf, I have a headache!) The rest go on to firearms training, hand-to-hand combat, sabotage (explosives), radio operation, codes and other skills that SOE agents need. Firearms training is a challenge. These are mostly Brits, and only the few who have had military training know anything about guns, but D, who had been to a shooting range on a trip to Las Vegas, had some bad habits and could hardly be trained out of them.

Several candidates - including D and J - have had some training in martial arts, but in hand-to-hand combat SOE emphasized "dirty fighting" including eye-gouging and groin checks. After some work on fighting skills, each candidate was told that there is a Gestapo officer in a room, and your mission, should you accept it, is to enter that room, identify the target (a dummy seated at a desk), "kill" him, and get out of there alive.

A negative trick in this exercise was the placement of two additional "guard" dummies that popped out from behind a curtain. Many people in a life or death situation develop tunnel vision. They only see one threat and not all of the other factors - including other potential threats. Some candidates attacked the seated dummy with deadly force but totally ignored the two guards. "You'd be dead," the trainers told them. A positive trick was that a thick wooden stick, suitable as a club, was on the desk in front of the seated "officer"; yet few of the candidates touched it or paid it any attention. One candidate only picked it up and used it on the second guard after he had used his hands to "kill" the other two dummies. The point was that anybody who had the presence of mind to pick up the stick would be able to kill all three enemies quickly, which would be an advantage - and possibly one necessary to real-world survival - in a one-against-three situation.

The occasional lessons on the historical SOE are not always candid. For example, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in occupied Czechoslovakia did not go as smoothly as we are led to believe, rather showing that no amount of training guarantees complete mission success. We are told that two SOE agents attacked Heydrich using a machinegun and a hand grenade, but the narrator leaves out the fact that the gun failed to work and the grenade only wounded Heydrich. Had antibiotics been well-developed at the time, Heydrich might actually have survived, but they were not, and so the hated Nazi leader died a long, lingering death over more than a week.

The washouts continued during the second phase. D was a garrulous and confident candidate with business experience and martial arts training, but his reaction to being told about mistakes he made - in the Gestapo officer exercise, for example - was to explain away his behavior and choices in what one of the trainers described as a cavalier manner. D was good at rationalizing his mistakes rather than learning from them. Even after he was told to go home, he maintained that the trainers had just not seen what he had to offer. No. They saw what he had to offer, and his reaction to being washed out was an example of it.

B was an American male and, at 56, perhaps the oldest member of the class. He voluntarily withdrew well into the course because he realized he could not take the stress. There is a reason for age limits in these kinds of programs. Several members of the reality show's class were in their forties, but one often can do things up to the age of 45 that the same person might not be able to do at 55. It should also be noted that C, the one-legged man who does so well at all of the tests, is an ex-paratrooper. Experience counts.

By the time the class gets to the task of climbing a sheer cliff, there were only eight candidates left, fifty-fifty male/female, but two of the women were sidelined during that exercise for medical reasons(?). Of the two women who did climb, one nearly gave up, leaving J seemingly the only female candidate in the top half of the class, and she later excelled in the mental/manual skills taught at the "finishing school" in the final phase of the course where she learned to be a saboteur. Out of the original 14, only six graduated.
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6/10
Pedestrian imitation of Le Carre
13 August 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"Mr Palfrey of Westminster" reminds me of something the writer Noel Behn once said: that a detective story and a spy story should be different because a detective solves a crime while a spy commits one. That being so, counterintelligence is the exception that proves the rule. The spy commits a crime and counterintelligence detects it.

The titular Mr. Palfrey is a detector of spies, and supposedly pretty good at it. He takes such pride in his work that when his new boss tells him that he is expected to go through the motions of investigating a man that the higher ups have already decided is guilty of giving secrets to the enemy, Palfrey's nose is put out of joint. He insists that he investigates and only then determines who the spy is. He conducts his own investigation in his own way - wherever it leads - and that is exactly how he proceeds.

Here things start to resemble a standard whodunnit. If Spencer, the man his boss wants Palfrey to condemn, did not really do it, then who did? SPOILER ALERT: The usual red herrings are presented for us to suspect, but, in the end, the real culprit is not who we were led to expect.

I wonder how Palfrey thinks that his solution makes much sense. He finds that the normal justice system cannot punish players in the world of espionage, so he comes up with the best punishment that he can; yet I do not understand how he did that or where his authority came from. And is not the real culprit the one who gave the order to the one who carried it out? There is no punishment for them.

Mr. Palfrey would be nowhere without John Le Carre who has done all this before and done it better.
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Tokyo Trial (2016)
8/10
A thought-provoking Inquiry into Japanese war crimes
14 May 2018
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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8/10
You can learn a lot from this doc, but don't rely on it exclusively
29 April 2018
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.
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Tabula Rasa: V. (2017)
Season 1, Episode 5
8/10
Might rope you in belatedly
21 April 2018
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.
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Hitler's Bodyguard (2008– )
8/10
Otherwise good study of Hitler's security can go off topic and be repetitive
10 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"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.
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Time Lock (1957)
6/10
Watchable, entertaining thriller
4 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Wild Wild Country (2018– )
8/10
Controversial Documentary Leaves It for You to Decide a Great Deal
2 April 2018
Warning: Spoilers
"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.)
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Red Sparrow (2018)
8/10
Sex and Death
6 March 2018
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.
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Louder with Crowder: A YouTube Carol (2017)
Season Unknown, Episode Unknown
8/10
Entertainingly edgy, hilarious and even touching
31 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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8/10
The Big House
1 December 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Bone Tomahawk (2015)
8/10
A Gem of Its Genre
2 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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Megan Leavey (2017)
8/10
Serviceable Tearjerker - and That's a Good Thing
15 October 2017
Warning: Spoilers
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.
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8/10
Great cast, good idea, great cameo(?)
8 October 2017
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.)
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7/10
My Real Intro to Lady Gaga
25 September 2017
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.
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