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The Social Network (2010)
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, A Billion "Friends", And A Few Enemies
Of all the Internet social platforms that have ever existed, Facebook is, and unless something better comes alone, will likely remain the best known. Initially a platform conceived by Mark Zuckerberg on the campus of Harvard University in 2004, Facebook was then later expanded to other Boston area institutions of higher learning, plus other Ivy League schools, and then to Stanford Univeristy, the latter which is, not coincidentally, located within driving distance of Silicon Valley. Zuckerberg founded the site with roommates Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes; but as is the case with more than a few projects of this kind, Zuckerberg's ego got the best of him, and got him more than a few enemies in the process. This great saga of the Internet became the subject of the 2010 film THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
Based on Ben Mezrich's book "The Accidental Billionaires", directed by David Fincher (FIGHT CLUB), and scripted by Aaron Sorkin (of A FEW GOOD MEN and "West Wing" fame), THE SOCIAL NETWORK stars Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, who, along with his friend Severin (Andrew Garfield), Moskovitz (Joseph Mazzello), and Hughes (Patrick Mapel), came up with the social networking site that started life with a somewhat grotesque name called "Facesnash", Eisenberg later changes the name to Facebook via a suggestion made by high-tech Silicon Valley hustler Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). But those efforts come to enrage the Winklevoss Brothers (Armie Hammer; Josh Pence), who had come up with the idea that may have inspired Zuckerberg's moves. And then later, other moves that Eisenberg makes on his own enrage the guys who helped him start it, resulting in the young Internet genius getting himself into legal hot water. And, as we have seen of late, it wouldn't exactly be the last time both Facebook and its creator would end up in hot water, both legally and politically.
With numerous flashback and flash-forward sequences detailing the rise of Facebook and the legal entanglements that Eisenberg must go through, many of which were of his own making, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is noted for a huge amount of expository dialogue that, as is the case with more than a few films done from Sorkin's screenplays, is delivered in rapid fire and often blackly comic fashion. But the overall impression, layered in with a great neo-futuristic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, is one of a feeling of uber-superiority on the part of Zuckerberg getting the best of him, and in the process, even as Facebook gains a billion-plus "friends" (as of 2018), making enemies for himself, mostly unnecessarily. And, as is the case with films like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and WESTWORLD, to name just two, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is also about the rapid pace of technology outpacing our ability both to deal with it and not allow us to be thoroughly immersed in it. Eisenberg does a good turn as the resident genius Mark Zuckerberg, as do a lot of the other, mostly younger, actors in this epic film that will, in the future, be seen as a portrait of the world that was shaped in the first ten to twelve years of the 21st century.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Steve Jobs: A Troubled Genius Of Silicon Valley
Genius is often a tough thing to define; and for the person that is frequently defined as a genius, it can lead to a feeling of invincibility, a feeling that you know more than anyone else, inherent insecurity, and indifference. A fair amount of that was very true of Steve Jobs, the co-founder, with Steve Wozniak, in 1976 of Apple, which over the ensuing two decades of turmoil and enormous growth became one of the biggest technological corporations on the planet. His death from a pancreatic tumor in the fall of 2011 at the shockingly early age of 56 led to a stream of films, documentary and feature alike. One of those was the 2015 opus STEVE JOBS.
Based on Walter Isaacson's hugely successful biography that included a lot of interviews with the man, STEVE JOBS stars Michael Fassbender as the "resident genius" of the explosive Silicon Valley technological scene of the 1980s always busy dreaming up new technological marvels, and parsing off blame on others when things don't go according to his own version of Hoyle. Indeed, his reactions to his former colleagues, like Wozniak (Seth Rogan) and former Pepsi chairman John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and even his own marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), are ones of almost intolerable cruelty, including Daniels having axed Fassbender from Apple, and Rogan pointing out in graphic detail how much he, and not Fassbender, created the computers and operating systems that made Apple a technological giant in the first place. And then flesh-and-blood reality in the form of a former girlfriend of his (Katherine Waterston) and her daughter, intrude; and he Fassbender is eventually forced to confront the failures in his rise to the top that were caused by his cold obsession with "changing the world".
Fassbender does not have an easy job in his portrayal of Jobs, largely because he has to get into the skin of the techno-genius, and that skin is clearly crawling with ego. Truth be told, Fassbender's portrayal really comes across as one of the bigger egomaniacal bastards seen on screen in recent times. This probably has a lot with the real Jobs having been so candid about himself with Isaacson in the book prior to his passing, though such a character, in what passes for today's Hollywood, can be seen as rather repellent. But that would seem to be what Steve Jobs himself was often like, especially during those times that the film focuses on, the roll-outs of new products of Jobs' own skewed creative mind that happened in 1984, 1988, and 1998. It also doesn't hurt that the direction of Danny Boyle (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE; 28 DAYS LATER; 127 HOURS), and the screenplay adaptation of Isaacson's book by Aaron Sorkin (A FEW GOOD MEN; THE SOCIAL NETWORK) have both a marvelous technological sheen and a scathingly sardonic edge (peppered with a fair amount of profane bits of dialogue) to it.
Nevertheless, despite (or maybe because of) the realistic, if frequently unsympathetic, portrayal of Jobs by Fassbender, along with Winslet's, Daniels', and Rogan's performances, the film is a very direct look at how being a "genius" with an outsized ego to match can do funny things to those who have both. STEVE JOBS, as such, is worthy of a '9' rating from me.
Uncovering The Man Behind The Pentagon Papers
The Vietnam War was the singular defining era of our history in which the trust that we had held for so long in our governmental institutions began to crumble. The longer that war went on, and the greater the number of American soldiers coming home in body bags and boxes, the more we realized that our trust was being abused. But the war had a further embittering effect on American society itself, one that divided us in a way not seen since the Civil War, and whose differences are even more corrosive now in the Age of Trump than they ever were back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Probably the biggest way we learned about our government's dissembling about that war occurred in June 1971, when a secret 47-volume, 7000-page study of the war commissioned in 1967 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was leaked to the press, first to the New York Times, and then to as many as seventeen other major newspapers throughout America. The man who blew the whistle on this was a former Defense Department analyst who had worked at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California by the name of Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg became, in the words of then-National Security advisor Henry Kissinger, "the most dangerous man in America", a man who, to his mind and, of course, that of his boss Richard Nixon, had to be stopped at all costs. And in 2009, that Kissinger phrase became the title of an Oscar-winning documentary about perhaps the greatest case of whistle blowing in U.S. history, both then and now, eventually leading to future whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
Co-directed by Judith Ehlrich and Rick Goldsmith and narrated by none other than the man Daniel Ellsberg himself, THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA details how Ellsberg went from a war hawk working inside the Pentagon at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin "incident" in August 1964 to feeling more and more culpable for the deaths of American soldiers and innocent Vietnamese civilians, and coming to that moment in October 1969, when he began sneaking out of his Rand Corporation office at night with copies of the Pentagon Papers in his briefcase to start the process of photocopying all the pages, an act that took many months; and what's more important, each one of those 7,000 pages was marked TOP SECRET, in big, bold, and unmistakable letters. He took the risk of prosecution and even conviction by giving them to the New York Times in the late winter of 1971; and after three months of intensive debate among the Times' staff, they made that monumental decision that put them and the rest of the American press on a collision course with the Nixon Administration. While the press and Ellsberg eventually won their fight with Nixon in the highest court in the land, it also had the effect of paving the way to the formation inside the Nixon White House of "The Plumbers", a self-contained dirty tricks unit whose extreme malfeasance, egged on as it were by a naturally paranoid president, would eventually lead to Nixon's cataclysmic downfall.
Ehlrich and Goldsmith, besides interviewing Ellsberg himself, interview members of Nixon's inner circle, including John Dean and Egil "Bud" Krough, who lend a great deal of insight as to how Ellsberg's revelations made Nixon, a man prone to fits of paranoia and viciousness, even more so. And through mountains of film and TV footage, the film depicts what the Pentagon Papers revealed: that five successive administrations-Truman; Eisenhower; Kennedy; Johnson; and Nixon-had so completely lied to the American people about Vietnam, and helped to collapse the whole idea of the Domino Theory of containing Communism. The whole film cannot help but bring out a huge torrent of memories, stimulate intense thinking (which any really good film, documentary or otherwise, does), and make us question the values we had been taught for so long to uphold, when those people who gave us those values betrayed them in the name of stamping out a system that most of them hated with a purple passion, but at the same time none of them ever understood.
Without question, THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN IN AMERICA is a '10'-worthy film.
American Experience: My Lai (2010)
Reliving The Horror Of March 16, 1968: MY LAI
Since it began in 1988, PBS's continuing series "The American Experience" has given Americans a window into the significant events of our history, and oftentimes uncovering things we either never knew or things that past historians may have gotten wrong on such events. As of this writing, one of the series' biggest triumphs was Ken Burns' massive mini-series about the Vietnam War. But in 2010, the series explored a singular event that demonstrated how divisive the Vietnam War was making America, and divisive in a way that had not been seen since the Civil War. That event, arguably the worst war crime in American history, was the My Lai Massacre. And that's where the "American Experience" episode MY LAI, which first aired in April 2010.
On March 16, 1968, the U.S. Army's Charlie Company, commanded by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley, acting on reports that Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army insurgents who had decimated their company with booby traps and 1960s-era improvised explosive devices were in their area, swarmed into the village of My Lai in the Quang Nai province of northern South Vietnam. The company's soldiers, unhinged by what had happened to their colleagues over the previous few months, went completely insane and embarked on a mass killing spree that lasted several hours that day. As many as 567 Vietnamese, men, women, and children alike, were slaughtered-and not a one of them was anything close to an enemy combatant. This was nothing short of a war crime; but what the Army did afterwards, in covering it up, was much worse, and much more corrosive. Of course, cover-ups don't last forever, because once pictures of the massacre managed to make their way onto the pages of Life Magazine and numerous newspapers, a bad situation in the form of a thoroughly unpopular war became an American firestorm in the form of this one singular event. Only Calley was ever tried and convicted for his activities on that horrible day; and after a mere four months in the Army stockade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was paroled by then-president Richard Nixon, and subsequently lionized by the pro-war and political right wing factions in the United States as a hero.
Writer/director Barak Goodman gives all the room to the members of Charlie Company to relive a day and an event they would clearly like to put behind them, but will never be able to. The sense one gets from these men is that, given the circumstances of what they had seen in the weeks and months leading up to March 16, 1968, they felt they were following legitimate and justifiable orders from their superiors to go into that village and shoot and kill everything that moved, but almost as quickly found their consciences bothering them, especially when they were advised not to talk about it whatsoever to each other. But if there were "villains" in the personages of Medina and Calley, there were also heroes as well. As MY LAI points out, the helicopter crew of Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and Glenn Andreotta put their aircraft between innocent villagers and Calley's platoon; and Thompson gave Andreotta, his door gunner, an order to open fire on that platoon if they so much as fired a single round at the villagers. Thompson's humanitarian gesture that day wasn't recognized until thirty years later; and in those intervening years, while Calley was being hailed as a "hero" because of his actions, Thompson was condemned by the Right as a "traitor" for not only not "participating" in the massacre but actively trying to stop it. History, thankfully, rectified that disgraceful misjudgment while Thompson was still alive (he passed away in 2006).
After the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne Indians in Colorado, My Lai has to count as a sickening blight on both the U.S. military and our nation. It further polarized an already polarized America; but it also forced Americans to ask questions not only of their elected leaders, but of themselves, of how they had allowed their own sons to become so dehumanized by the war that a massacre of this sort was, if not inevitable, then certainly possible. MY LAI is a painful episode of "The American Experience" to watch at times, but it should be seen and discussed, so that we may understand how the whole of the Vietnam War in general, and this massacre in particular, so severely damaged the heart and soul of our nation.
Ex Machina (2014)
Dark Psychological Thriller About Artificial Intelligence
The history of computers and artificial intelligence seems like it's been a short and at a light-speed pace; but in truth, it has its beginnings in the development of ENIAC, the first so-called "electronic brain" in the years following World War II. At that time, of course, such machines, consisting of vacuum tubes, could take up whole buildings. By the late 1960s, however, their size had been reduced to taking up mere single rooms; and in our day and age, that technology can fit onto one's arm or onto one's ear. And it won't be long before the kind of artificial intelligence that legendary sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY fame) talked about, where one wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a human voice and that of an artificial intelligence, will be possible. But as with any technology created by Man, the idea of artificial intelligence can have its dangerous drawbacks. That idea was explored in "2001" by Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick, and expanded upon in 2001 (ironically enough) by Steven Spielberg in A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. And in 2014, Alex Garland, who had written the screenplays of such films as 28 DAYS LATER and SUNSHINE, made his directing debut (again, also writing the screenplay) with a new study in artificial intelligence entitled EX MACHINA.
In EX MACHINA, Domhnall Gleeson plays a computer programmer who ahs "won" a contest to spend a week at the isolated retreat of his company's CEO (Oscar Isaac). But it's not like any "vacation" that Gleeson has ever been involved with. Indeed, it's not a vacation at all, period. Gleeson will be put under isolation for a week (the most ironclad non-disclosure agreement, as it were, in modern history) as part of a study being conducted by Isaac on human interaction with artificial intelligence; and in this case, Gleeson will be studied in his interactions with one of Isaac's "cyborgs", Ava (Alicia Virklander). The test, known as the Turing Test (named after the English computer scientist Alan Turing) is to find out whether Gleeson can detect "real" feelings in Ava, who after all is an artificially created being. But Gleeson gets a little taste of confusion when Virklander, during each of the seven tests, automatically turns off the power in Isaac's mansion, and warns him that all is not what it seems in Isaac's "experiment". And indeed it isn't long before Gleeson finds out that his boss/mentor is in the business of basically "reprogramming" artificial intelligence, which pretty much would amount to the technological equivalent of homicide. Very soon, Gleeson's wonder at Virklander, whom he believes has achieved actual human consciousness, has morphed into a kind of paranoia that Isaac is now a genius of the most dangerous kind, a kind of 21st century Doctor Frankenstein of the world of artificial intelligence and cyborgs.
What is unique about EX MACHINA is that, while the technology and the special effects are seamless, Garland didn't exactly have a budget in the hundred million dollar range to fool around with in making it. Indeed, with only minor location shooting in Norway and the rest at Pinewood Studios in London, Garland made EX MACHINA for a ridiculously low $15 million, just $2.5 million more than what Kubrick expended on "2001" back in the late 1960s. And while EX MACHINA may not have ambitions or the scope of "2001" (something that Garland himself admitted very much in interviews, even going so far as to say that his film didn't go as high on the intelligence scale as Kubrick's had), it nevertheless has a lot more substance to it than most other films that are priced at five to ten times the budget Garland worked with. Gleeson and Isaac work quite well, sparring with one another over the issue of Virklander's "humanity"; and Virklander herself makes for an extremely appealing cyborg. The design of Isaac's mansion is also quite scary at times as well, mirroring the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's 1980 horror classic THE SHINING.
While the sex and language are a little bit much at times, and there is one brief but slightly graphic display of bloodshed, as Gleeson "tears" his own skin apart, perhaps to see if he himself has become a cyborg as part of Isaac's weird "experiment", EX MACHINA wisely sticks to the parameters about computer technology and artificial intelligence that were so daftly explored not only in "2001" and A.I., but also in past films as diverse as 1970's COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT; 1973's WESTWORLD; and the 1982 Ridley Scott classic BLADE RUNNER. EX MACHINA won the 2015 Oscar for Best Visual Effects, as they were very important in Garland's ability to create a real world out of man-made technology. Fortunately, he had also remembered to include the human element in the forms of Gleeson and Virklander; and those two, as much as the visuals make EX MACHINA a solid sci-fi/psychological thriller.
EX MACHINA will get an '8' rating from me.
Industrial Malfeasance On The Dark Side Of The MOON
If there is one thing that has become fairly pervasive in 21st century Hollywood filmmaking, it is the proliferation of films whose main attraction are compute-generated images (CGI). This can be seen in the enormous proliferation of comic book spectacles such as THE AVENGERS, THE AMAZING SPIDER MAN, and IRON MAN, as well as "apocalyptic" films like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, GEOSTORM, and "2012". But the 21st century has also seen a fairly huge number of films that verge more on hard and realistic science fiction concepts. This particular sub-genre was likely started by director Stanley Kubrick and his groundbreaking 1968 sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and continued on into the mid-1990s by Ron Howard's brilliant 1995 saga APOLLO 13 (recreating the saga of that almost-doomed 1970 lunar flight). And on occasions we have seen how science fiction can be done on relatively spare budgets, but somehow not stinting on credibility. This was the case with the 2009 film MOON, a combination of science fiction and psychological thriller components that was the directing debut for the British-born Duncan Jones.
In MOON, Sam Rockwell portrays a lunar mining engineer on a three-year contract for Lunar Industries, supplying fusion energy to an energy-depleted population back on Earth via helium and solar wind collection on the dark side of the Moon. His efforts, and those of his employers, have reduced the carbon footprint of Earth's atmosphere by close to seventy percent. But the three years of being at that base totally alone are taking their toll on Rockwell, given how absolutely homesick he is for his wife and family. His only real companion is a robotic computer (oddly) named Gerty (voice of Kevin Spacey); and absent a "real" human voice, Rockwell seems to be slowly sinking into paranoia. An accident with the lunar harvesters leaves him in a coma for several days during the final weeks of his tour of duty. But when he comes to, he finds to his shock a clone in the process of doing all his chores; and his paranoia and madness increase further. In an effort to find out more, Rockwell and his clone, along with a little bit of help from Gerty, find a storage area where there are, in fact, literally hundreds of clones of Rockwell, ready for operation if the "real" Rockwell ever got into an accident on the lunar surface (which he, of course, did); it was done as a cost-cutting operation on the part of Lunar Industries to ensure that the production of fusion energy not stop, even if Rockwell did. This will set up a showdown at the end once Rockwell is taken back to Earth.
Jones, the son of the late British rock icon David Bowie (whose 1969 hit "Space Oddity", after having been a British smash at the time of Apollo 11's landing on the Moon, became a belated U.S. hit in 1973, and jump-started his career), had a mere $5 million or so to toy with in the making of MOON, which was based on a story of his and scripted by Parker, a close friend of his. But much in the same way that Douglas Trumbull made a slim $1.2 million budget go a long way with his 1972 cult classic SILENT RUNNING, so too does Jones with MOON. And while it may be true that Jones' film takes its cue from a lot of science fiction films of previous decades, at least one can say that Jones borrowed from the better ones. Because Rockwell is virtually the only live "human" character in the film, his character functions very much the same way Bruce Dern did in SILENT RUNNING, as a caretaker of a vast resource that will prove beneficial to Earth. And of course, Spacey voicing the computer Gerty has its roots in Douglas Rain's voice of HAL 9000 in both "2001" and its much-underrated 1984 sequel "2010". MOON also ingeniously utilizes elements of such films as ALIEN, CAPRICORN ONE, and OUTLAND in its side plot of corporate malfeasance endangering its employees. The film is also helped out by a very good modernistic score by Clint Mansell, whose credits include "11:14", THE FOUNTAIN, and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.
While MOON is not necessarily the fastest-paced film ever made, and the idea of Rockwell being on the screen all by himself for extended periods of time may not be everyone's cup of tea, Jones nevertheless makes the setting of the film, and its depictions of the desolate lunar landscape and of space itself extremely convincing on a budget that would normally not pay even for just one set piece of most Hollywood blockbusters. The final verdict is that MOON should be counted at the very least as a minor gem of a genre, science fiction, that might seem passé (but emphatically is not) in the 21st century.
MOON gets an '8' rating here.
Ready Player One (2018)
Spielberg + Virtual Reality = READY PLAYER ONE
After the huge artistic and commercial success of his 1993 Holocaust epic SCHINDLER'S LIST, director Steven Spielberg may not have totally abandoned the style of action/adventure films he had initiated back in 1981 with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, but he was determined to balance both commercial properties with riskier artistic projects, a trend that has been quite successful for him, right into the 21st century. Films like AMISTAD, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, MUNICH, BRIDGE OF SPIES, and THE POST have balanced themselves alongside more crowd-pleasing fare as THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and THE BFG. And then in 2018, he came up with his most audacious project to date, the futuristic virtual reality action/adventure opus READY PLAYER ONE.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline (he also co-wrote the screenplay, with Zach Penn), and set in the year 2045, the film stars Tye Sheridan as something of a techno-geek whose only solace from his bleak "real world" existence is in the futuristic virtual reality world known as The Oasis; and he is by no means alone. The Oasis is a place created by an eccentric video genius named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who won a Best Supporting Actor in 2015 for BRIDGE OF SPIES) and another man named Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg); and just before Rylance passes away, he offers ownership of the Oasis and a mammoth sum of "coin" ($250 billion, to be exact) if the right contestant can find the "Easter egg" hidden inside the world of the Oasis. Sheridan takes up the challenge, along with Olivia Cooke, and three other players he calls the "Hi Five" to get the three keys that will unlock the clues that eventually lead to Rylance's quarter-trillion dollar Easter egg. But in the meantime, they must battle an underhanded corporate tycoon (Ben Mendelsohn) who is equally anxious to get his hands on that Easter egg. In between the cross-cutting from the "real" reality to the "virtual" reality, Sheridan, Cooke, and company go on a huge, visually mind-busting sequence of adventures in the Oasis relating to examples of American pop culture from the late 1970s into the 21st century, including references to KING KONG, GODZILLA, the first two BACK TO THE FUTURE films (both of which Spielberg was executive producer on), A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and, even more shockingly (not to mention amusingly), THE SHINING.
It has to be said that a film of this sort, being helmed even by a director known for frequent sensory impacts (including the "Indiana Jones" films and the first two JURASSIC PARK projects), can seem a bit much; and indeed, READY PLAYER ONE is a bit like the ultimate in sensory overload. Sound-wise, READY PLAYER ONE may very well be the loudest film Spielberg has directed since the 1979 World War II comedy "1941", whose loud explosions, raucous dogfights, and insane mugging by the actors totally drowned out whatever comedy Spielberg might have indeed for that film. The earlier film was also the first instance of Spielberg playing homage to himself (references to DUEL and JAWS were there in "1941"); and apart from the occasional JURASSIC PARK and BACK TO THE FUTURE references, Spielberg stays away from those here (though Cline was known to be a huge Spielberg admirer). Instead, he chooses to highlight other aspects of 1980s culture (along with the Alan Silvestri score that sounds a fair amount like what he did for the BACK TO THE FUTURE series). The most prominent 1980s homage is to THE SHINING, notably its virtual reality recreation of that film's sinister Overlook Hotel and scenes like the horrific hag in Room 237 and the tsunami of blood.
Spielberg actually had READY PLAYER ONE finished in the spring of 2017, intending it for a Christmas 2017 release; but once STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI was set for release, he held off until the Easter weekend of 2018, and instead polished off (with seemingly little haste) THE POST. The re-juggling clearly didn't affect the quality of this film (or THE POST, for that matter); and while READY PLAYER ONE can be faulted at times for its emphasis on sound and spectacle (a rare thing for Spielberg, but an all-too-frequent thing for a lot of other 21st century Hollywood blockbusters), it has to be said that Sheridan and Cooke make an appealing young couple; and Rylance turns in another fine performance as the eccentric video game genius. In the end, READY PLAYER ONE is a rarity in Hollywood, in that it's a blockbuster that requires a lot of concentration. But Spielberg, it seems, wouldn't have had it any other way.
International terrorism can't be limited to groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. In fact, such a thing is nothing new on the scene. The never-ending conflict between the Jewish people of the state of Israel and the people of Palestine, whose land was taken from them following Israel's creation in 1948, is such an example. There were also, during the 1960s and 1970s, various homegrown terrorists organizations, most of a politically left-leaning variety, that existed in western Europe, railing against the capitalist system. Both such things came together in late June and early July 1976 with an airline hijacking that culminated in a daring and dangerous raid and incursion by Israel into Uganda's Entebbe International Airport to rescue the hostages. The raid was known as Operation Thunderbolt; and although that story was told in two U.S. made-for-TV movies (1976's VICTORY AT ENTEBBE; 1977's RAID ON ENTEBBE) and the 1977 Israeli-made feature film OPERATION THUNDERBOLT, in 2018 it was told for a fourth time in 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE.
Rosamunde Pike and Daniel Bruhl portray, respectively, Brigitte Kuhlmann and Wilfried Bose, the two German-born radicals who considered themselves "revolutionaries" who, on June 27, 1976, took over Air France Flight 139, flying from Tel Aviv to Paris with an unscheduled stopover in Athens, Greece, whose security procedures, at least in 1976, were tissue-thin to say the least. Armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and grenades, the two forced the crew to fly south, first to Benghazi, Libya, then, after refueling, another five hours south to Kampala, Uganda and Entebbe International Airport, where they got the support of that nation's infamous brutal dictator Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie). Their demands were that Israel free fifty-two Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails or they would, with the tacit support of Amin, start killing the 103 hostages onboard. But in the course of events, while saying that they would suspend Israeli's vow not to cave in to any terrorist threats, Israel's top two leaders Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) and Itzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) instigated what came to be Operation Thunderbolt. Requiring four large military aircraft and the kind of precision to fly into Uganda by stealth, the operation came into Uganda in the dead of night on July 3-4, 1976; and the rest, as they say, is history.
While a fourth retelling of the Entebbe raid may seem a painfully antiquated idea in the post-9/11 world where such groups as Black September (the group behind the Munich Olympics tragedy of 1972) or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (the ones behind Entebbe) seem to pale in comparison with Al-Qaeda or ISIS, 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE is nevertheless a hugely compelling political drama, a triangular one at that, since it put the Air France hostages, their mixed bag of captors, and the Israeli government on a collision course. Even though it does so in a not-so-subtle way, the film shows how the Jewish hostages are put in a separate part of the old terminal at Entebbe away from the others in a selection process not unlike what was seen in Nazi Germany, ordered by Pike, whose real-life counterpart had no qualms about doing it. And it also shows that neither Rabin nor Peres were totally sure that the military operation being conceived by the Israeli Defense Force could really work until the four planes used to carry out the operation were already on the way to Uganda; the specter of other failed Israeli operations always loomed in the background. And as Marsan remarks to Ashkenazi at the end, if Israel continued to refuse to negotiate with its adversaries merely out of national pride, nothing would get solved-as indeed has shown to be the case in real life.
Jose Padilha, a Brazilian-born director responsible for the 2014 remake of the 1987 sci-fi cult classic ROBOCOP, directs 7 DAYS IN ENTEBBE reasonably well; and given the toxic atmosphere of world politics in our time, the film, while it doesn't take any one "side", it does illustrate how terrorism worked in the 1970s, the blinkered reasons why young radicals like Kuhlmann and Bose took to it, and the people and governments caught squarely in the middle of the struggle. The fact that the Air France/Entebbe saga took place in 1976 and involved hostage taking and air piracy, rather than 9/11-type suicide missions, doesn't make it any less relevant in the 21st century than it was back in the day.
The Gambler (1974)
THE GAMBLER: A Most Hideous Addiction Depicted On Film
Apart from drugs and booze, probably the most costly addiction there is out there is Gambling. And yet it is an addiction that a hell of a lot of people can't seem to break, any more successfully than some can at the other two vices. One wouldn't think that such a grim subject matter could make for a good, let alone compelling film. But back in the experimental, anything-goes world of 1970s Hollywood, screenwriter James Toback, who by his own admission had been a compulsive gambler prior to his realizing how much better off he was at writing, made it compelling in the form of THE GAMBLER.
In this 1974 film, directed by the Czech-born Karel Reisz, known for such films as 1966's MORGAN, James Caan portrays Axel Freed, a highly respected professor of literature at City College of New York who seems to have it all. He has a great girlfriend (Lauren Hutton, in one of her earliest roles), and a line of work in which he regales his students in George Washington, and even the Russian writer Fyofor Dostoyevsky's classic 1866 short novel "The Gambler". Unfortunately, he himself is a gambler, in the most literal sense possible. And not just any typical here-and-there type, but one addicted to the rush of betting on casino games in Las Vegas (or Lost Wages, according to many a wag), and on sporting events. He gets so caught up in the rush, explaining that there is no "juice" in not risking, that pretty soon he realizes he is up to his eyeballs in gambling debts of up to $44,000-and to the kind of people who don't take their clients not paying up particularly well, including, among others, Paul Sorvino and Burt Young. It comes down to asking one of his students basically to throw a basketball game to get him out of his fiduciary jam; but by then, his self-destructiveness is pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Such an unsavory character just wouldn't fly these days in Hollywood, even though this film was remade exactly 40 years later with Mark Wahlberg in Caan's role (and was not all that memorable). But Caan, who up to this point had already gained a sizeable reputation as an actor via his role as Brian Piccolo in the 1971 TV film BRIAN'S SONG, and then as Sonny Corleone in THE GODFATHER, does such a good turn at playing the addicted teacher that we definitely feel for him in a lot of ways, even though we can despise what he does to others through that habit, not only to Hutton, but also to his mother (Jacqueline Brooks) and father (Morris Carnovsky).
By today's standards, even at 111 minutes, and with a fair amount of four-letter words in Toback's script, this film isn't exactly a fast film. But not films have to be fast to be compelling; and it is because of Caan's performance, Reisz's direction, and the steady editing of Roger Spottiswoode, who had worked with Sam Peckinpah on, among other things, STRAW DOGS, that THE GAMBLER works well enough to make even the slow spots more than bearable. It also doesn't hurt to have James Woods here, in one of his earliest roles, along with M. Emmett Walsh, Stuart Margolin, and Vic Tayback, either.
The other notable thing about THE GAMBLER is that the psychological and self-destructive dynamics of Caan's character are manifested via the underrated composer Jerry Fielding's chilling interpolation of Gustav Mahler's Titan Symphony (no. 1) into his score (it is also heard on the soundtrack as performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Bernard Haitink). The use of this ultra-popular Mahler symphony enhances the almost nightmarish quality of Caan's gambling addiction.
In summation, while it is not exactly the most rapidly-paced film ever made, and is sometimes quite disturbing, THE GAMBLER is also exceptionally compelling, and a solid look at the experimentalism of 1970s filmmaking, in a way that far too many Hollywood films of the 21st century are not.
The 15:17 to Paris (2018)
Stopping A Potential Bloodbath
Since September 11, 2001, terrorism has become something America has had to seriously contend with. Sometimes it has even involved Americans directly; and indeed, the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11 were the first to be involved. And on August 21, 2015, three young American men-Anthony Sadler; Alek Skarlatos; and Spencer Stone-on a jaunt throughout Europe that summer thwarted what could have been a very catastrophic attack launched by one radicalized Muslim extremist on a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. That extremist was disabled; and what almost turned into one of the worst bloodbaths of the post-9/11 era instead resulted in only two injuries, and the gratitude of the entire nation of France, where the incident occurred. The three men collaborated with magazine writer Jeffrey Stern to write about their lives and their day of heroism in the book "The 15:17 To Paris"; and in 2018, director Clint Eastwood made it into a compelling saga.
In an unusual way of doing things, Eastwood actually cast the three real-life heroes to play themselves in the film; and in keeping with the way that the three men and Stern wrote the book, the film shifts back and forth in time between the three men growing up in very religious backgrounds in Northern California and Oregon; the time that Stone spent trying to be in the Air Force's para-rescue program; and how they found themselves on the train on that day. It also details about how the disciplinary problems that Stone and Sadler had at school led them into high-intensity careers, and how Skarlatos (who just happened to be an African-American whose two Caucasian friends guns) made an effort to fit in. Then, the film shows how the three childhood buddies met back up in Europe, going on jaunts in Rome, Venice, Berlin, and Amsterdam, before finally making that fateful train trip into Paris, not yet knowing that there was an ISIS militant by the name of Ayoube El-Khazzani (Ray Corasani) with an AK-47 and three hundred rounds of ammunition on his person, enough to kill more than half of the 554 passengers onboard
Audiences not used to seeing shifts back and forth through time, especially those who had not seen the way Oliver Stone did this in his films, will certainly find the structure of THE 15:17 TO PARIS a bit confusing; and there's no question that the decision to focus so heavily on the men's childhoods slows the pace of the film down to an unusual degree. One can only put it down to the book itself, or the way Blyskal, whose first big-screen writing credit this was, structured it in her screenplay. Otherwise, however, once the film gets onto the Thalys train, it builds incrementally to the moment Corasani attempts to open fire and turn the train into a war zone, until the three men successfully throttle his plans. And in terms of this part, while it must have been enormously tempting for an ultra-conservative like Eastwood to turn "15:17" into an anti-Islamic bromide to satisfy the right-wing crowd out there, he avoids that tendency for a different kind of heroism not rooted in blind patriotism or jingoism, but in simple and basic human decency where the heroes just happened to be involved in the military, but didn't behave so much like American warriors as they did like Everymen.
In his thirty-sixth film as a director, and his seventh film since devoting himself strictly to directing following being both behind and in front of the camera for 2008's GRAN TORINO, Eastwood continuously shows himself to be extremely skilled at crafting a character study out of what could have been, in a more routine director's hands, a gung-ho and graphically violent action film (hence the film's PG-13 rating, lowered from the initial 'R'). And while the decision to cast the three real-life men to play themselves in "15:17" seems to be a little awkward at times, it nevertheless pays off in the end when they recreate the nightmare they found themselves in as their train was traveling through the countryside of northern France. In the end, while it may not have the emotional impact of, say, UNITED 93, THE 15:17 TO PARIS does share that film's look at what true heroism is, minus the political baggage.
The Post (2017)
THE POST: Another Timely And Timeless Film From Steven Spielberg
Many assumptions made about the freedom of speech in America were truly tested during the Vietnam War era, when it became evident to anyone watching the evening news on TV that what the press was telling us and what our government was telling us about that war were clearly diverging. But those differences became manifestly evident in June 1971, when the New York Times began publishing the first volumes of documents leaked by former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg that became known as the Pentagon Papers. And when the Washington Post, a relatively small newspaper based in the nation's capital, published them in defiance of a court injunction lodged against the New York Times for doing it, this led to a collision between the need for governmental secrecy and the public's right to know. This is the story told by director Steven Spielberg in his masterful 2017 political drama "The Post".
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star as, respectively, the Post's managing editor Ben Bradlee and the paper's publisher Katharine Graham, who are confronted with the reality that their as-yet-insignificant paper is losing out to the New York Times, even though they are located within spitting distance of the White House. When the publishing of the Pentagon Papers hits the Times, they seem to be caught flat-footed; but Hanks is determined to get those same papers published in the Post itself. But there are more than a few complications. For one, the Post is about to go public on the American Stock Exchange; and the publication of the Pentagon Papers is a potentially fatal move. For another, both Hanks and Streep have conflicting past loyalties to political figures, including former defense secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), whose actions implicate them in those papers. And for still another, president Richard Nixon is out to squelch not only the publication of the papers, but seemingly also even the First Amendment completely. Weighing all the options, including the fact that Hanks, Streep, and everyone else at the Post could find themselves going to jail forever, the decision is made to call the bluff and publish what Ellsberg gave, resulting in a clash between the two great powers in America, the press and the government, that goes all the way to the Supreme Court.
Spielberg had already finished one film (the futuristic "Ready Player One") when the Pentagon Papers script by Hannah and Singer landed in his hands in early 2017; and given the huge turmoil spawned by president Donald Trump's frequent attacks on the press at the time (which have continued practically non-stop), the director felt that he couldn't hold off and that he had to make "The Post" and get it out to theatres first. He did this in unusually rapid succession, filming it over a period of ten weeks in the spring and summer of 2017, and having it finished for release at the end of the year. Despite this seeming rush, "The Post" emerges as another huge masterpiece for a director who has had far more than his share of them. A great deal of this comes from working with a crew that he has been familiar with on a vast majority of his films from "Schindler's List" onward, and to the usual masterful performances by Hanks and Streep, both of whom have to look a bit rumpled and even bedraggled at times, fitting the tenor of the early 1970s. And it also doesn't hurt that he has one of the great political stories in American history to work with: the publication of documents that revealed to the American public that their own government lied to them about a war that proceeded to divide the nation in a way that it had not been divided since the Civil War. Spielberg's scrupulous attention to detail also includes the insides of the Post's printing presses, and the fact that actual typewriters were still being used in those days, as opposed to electronic word processors.
Besides Hanks and Streep, Spielberg gets solid performances from Greenwood; Matthew Rhys (as Ellsberg); Bob Odenkirk (as the Post's main Ellsberg conduit Ben Begdikian), and Justin Swain (as Neil Sheehan, the New York Times reporter who broke the Ellsberg story first); and the film also uses a number of tapes from Nixon's own White House from June 1971 to underline the sinister nexus of secrecy and paranoia that would eventually undo his administration, and almost undo the United States as a country in the bargain. Add on a terse and tension-filled music score by John Williams, maybe the greatest composer of film music of all time, and what you have in "The Post" is a film that will likely remain timeless because, particularly in 2017-18, it couldn't possibly have been more timely.
Blown (And Washed) Away
Not to be confused in any way with the 1939 John Ford big-screen classic of the same name, "Hurricane" is one of many made-for-TV disaster films that were even more prominent on the small screen than they were on the big screen during the 1970s.
Based on William C. Andersen's book "The Hurricane Hunters", and inspired by the massive destruction caused by two different Category 5 hurricanes, Hilda in 1964 and Camille in 1969, the film focuses in on a massive hurricane about to nail the Gulf Coast of the United States, something that wasn't unknown to them in those days but which, in the real world of 2017, was made manifestly different on two occasions with Harvey and Irma. And it isn't just those on the coastline that are in the bulls eye of this monster cyclone, with winds approaching 175 miles per hour swirling around the eye wall, who are being threatened; there is also a Coast Guard aircraft, flown by Martin Milner (of TV's "Route 66" and "Adam-12") to rescue a boat captain (Larry Hagman).
Absent all the CGI technology we've seen on recent big screen spectacles like "2012", "Geostorm", and "The Day After Tomorrow", "Hurricane" must inevitably rely on some fairly vivid film-to-TV footage of Hurricane Camille hitting the Gulf Coast in the late summer of 1969. It's not as effective as it likely would have been had it been made a couple of decades on, but it's good enough. Where the film falters to a fair extent is in having to put its cast through many of the expected disaster film hoops courtesy of Jack Turley's teleplay, including Frank Sutton (of TV's "Gomer Pyle") holding a "hurricane party" at his apartment, which just so happens to be right in the bull's eye of the storm. Such things might have been common in that era, but they'd never pass the laugh test today, either in reality or in the movies.
When the film concentrates on the storm itself, however, that's where it gets its greatest effect, thanks to the typically efficient handling of the proceedings by director Jerry Jameson, a specialist in small-screen disaster (he also did "Terror On The 40th Floor", "A Fire In The Sky". and "Starflight One", among others), though he also did a good job on the big screen with "Airport '77". The cast includes, among others, Patrick Duffy (later to star with Hagman in the legendary TV soap opera "Dallas"), Michael Learned, Will Geer (both from "The Waltons"), Barry Sullivan (whose many fine roles included portraying John Chisum in Sam Peckinpah's 1973 Western classic "Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid"), Jessica Walter ("Play Misty For Me"), and Lonny Chapman.
I'm willing to overlook the problematic things of "Hurricane", which are, after all, part-and-parcel of this genre, and give it a '6'.
Terror on the 40th Floor (1974)
High Rise TV Terror
Disaster films were a big staple of the 1970s, but they weren't limited to the big screen. In point of place, there were far more of them being done for television. The constructions of these small-scale productions, however, wasn't substantially altered from their bigger brethren: place a bunch of all-stars in a cataclysm; spice some personal melodrama and soap opera theatrics in there; get the special effects onto the screen; and then get out of the way. Such was the case with "Terror On The 40th Floor", which aired on September 17, 1974.
Perhaps designed specifically to jump the gun on "The Towering Inferno", this TV opus, like that big-screen disaster classic, focuses on a Christmas Eve party in a high-rise, this time a 40-story building in the Big Apple. But when a maintenance worker (Tim Herbert) is killed by an explosion near the ground floor of the building, a fire erupts within the building's interior and, as in "Inferno", it begins a night of soul-searching and personal drama for the cast, as the fire inches closer to their 40th floor locale. And it's a pretty big cast we have here: John Forsythe (known for his roles on "Father Knows Best" and "Dynasty", but also on the big screen for his portrayal of Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey in the 1967 crime classic "in Cold Blood"; Joseph Campanella; Don Meredith (former Dallas Cowboys legend and then-current NFL broadcaster); Lynn Carlin; Anjanette Comer; Kelly Jean Peters; Pippa Scott; and Tracie Savage.
Given that the film can't really overcome most of the typical disaster film soap opera stuff inherent in the Jack Turley teleplay, the film does have a certain panache to it, thanks in large part to a good cast and the sure-footed direction by TV (and occasional big screen) veteran Jerry Jameson, who did many such made-for-TV disaster flicks during the decade ("Hurricane"; "A Fire In The Sky:; "Starflight One"; "Heat Wave"), while also helming a big screen entry into the genre in 1977's "Airport '77". And the scenes involving the fire in a direct way are effective enough, even if they don't quite match what would be done in "The Towering Inferno", or the later 1991 Ron Howard offering "Backdraft".
So while "Terror On The 40th Floor" isn't on the level of "The Towering Inferno", I am willing to give it a '6' rating for effort.
The Big One--With Melodrama And Mid-1970s Visual Effects
For much of the 1970s, the disaster film genre was alternately one of the most popular genres with film audiences, and one of the most reviled in terms of what movie critics thought. Essentially, it involved a whole lot of people caught up in some kind of cataclysmic event, be it natural or man-made, sometimes, as in the case of the AIRPORT movies, involving passenger planes. Indeed, both AIRPORT (released in early 1970), and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (released at the end of 1972) were the starting point for the genre, which relied on a combination of soap opera plots, big-name stars, and incredibly spectacular special effects. the peak of this genre came near the end of 1974 with the release of three films. AIRPORT 1975 and THE TOWERING INFERNO were two of them. The third one was EARTHQUAKE.
Though every bit as melodramatic in terms of acting and subplots as other films in the genre, EARTHQUAKE also posits a highly realistic premise: that in the very near future, a major earthquake will strike Southern California and cause incredible damage, destruction, and death. It also speculates on the possibility of predicting where and when one will hit. In essence, this means that EARTHQUAKE would also qualify itself as being a science fiction film of sorts for that very reason alone. Charlton Heston portrays an architect intent, when he isn't fighting with his wife (Ava Gardner) or dallying around with a younger girl (Genevieve Bujold), on ensuring that any future high rises in Los Angeles not only meet but also exceed current building codes (as he points out, in the 1971 Sylmar quake, buildings that merely met the codes collapsed). George Kennedy portrays a toughened L.A. cop forced to spring into action when the massive temblor and its aftershocks tear through the heart of Los Angeles. Barry Sullivan, Kip Niven, and Donald Moffatt portray seismologists who have the information in their hands about the possibility of such an earthquake but who act upon it only after one of their colleagues is killed in a mysterious accident along a fault line near Fresno. As night falls on a metropolis devastated by the 8.3 temblor, a lot of other things happen: Kennedy has to rescue a close friend (Victoria Principal) from a deranged National Guard officer (Marjoe Gortner); people have to be rescued from an underground parking garage that has been severely damaged by an aftershock; and people have to be rescued from a collapsed shopping mall by Heston and Kennedy before the Hollywood Reservoir Dam crumbles.
By the standards of 21st century special effects, EARTHQUAKE looks admittedly very dated; the matte paintings and the scenes of destruction are all two to three generations removed from today's CGI. And of course the soap opera plotting isn't exactly a plus; some of it veers close to laughable on a few occasions. There's really not much that either the cast of director Mark Robson (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS; PEYTON PLACE) can do about it. But the ten-minute sequence of the "Big One" is quite scary, and was even more so when the film was released in late 1974 because of the Sensurround sound process that Universal used to enhance the feel of being in the middle of it all. Not only did it scare a lot of moviegoers, but it also caused some slight (but actual) exterior damage to the theaters that showed the film. And however dated the special effects are, they are still fairly convincing; this, it is no wonder that EARTHQUAKE won Oscars for both Special Effects and Sound. At a cost of $13 million, much of it spent on the special effects and production design, it wasn't exactly the cheapest film in the world (already the average cost of a film was nearing $7 million), but it managed to gross around $80 million, at a time when the notion of a $100 million box office hit (or a film that cost $100 million just to make) was still something unknown in the movie business.
Although, like a lot of 1970s disaster films, EARTHQUAKE largely faded from memory once the genre wore out its welcome at the end of the decade, later sci-fi and disaster films like DEEP IMPACT and "2012", just to name a few, helped revitalize the genre with the use of CGI. Gradually, however flawed it looked by the time those films came out at the end of the 1990s and the first decade of the new century, EARTHQUAKE assumed a greater prominence once again. It is no secret as to why that should be the case, what with a big host of stars, including Heston, who was at another commercial peak in his career in what he termed a "multi-jeopardy" film, leading the way. But the underlying theme of EARTHQUAKE is what keeps the film alive in our consciences: the very real possibility that Los Angeles may well be wiped off the map, if not by the dreaded San Andreas Fault, then by the myriad fault lines that crisscross the Los Angeles metro area itself, some that even seismologists don't yet know much about.
Airport '77 (1977)
Airborne Terror In The Bermuda Triangle
Of the three sequels to the 1970 blockbuster film AIRPORT, the film that is generally credited with having begat the first wave of disaster films that were so popular with audiences (and so vilified by the critic) in the 1970s, the 1977 offering AIRPORT '77 probably has the most to offer in terms of suspense, plot, and acting, and the least in the way of the kinds of clichés that nauseated critics no end in the 70s. Even though some of the situations depicted in this film seem incredible to believe, it is due in no small part to the above-average quality of the acting of a lot of the case that they seem fully credible, and the tension is often palpable. And this time around, there is a slight element of the supernatural, as most of the goings-on in the second half of the film take place in that part of the Atlantic bounded by Miami, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda—the infamous Bermuda Triangle, where it is said ships and planes have been known to vanish without a trace.
The plane in question is the new Stevens Corporation jumbo jet, whose owner (James Stewart) has invited many dignitaries onboard to take a flight from Washington to his place in Palm Beach, Florida for the opening of his new art museum and library grounds. There's also several million dollars worth of paintings onboard in the cargo hold, which makes it a target for a trio of art thieves (Michael Pataki, Robert Foxworth, Monte Markham). During mid-flight, the thieves siphon sleeping gas into the passenger cabin of the plane, and cause the passengers to go to sleep, while they try to get their hands on those paintings. Foxworth, meanwhile, sets the plane on a course that takes it right into the Bermuda Triangle, and underneath coastal radar. But the whole thing goes fatally awry when, flying through a fog bank, the jet strikes the top of an oil rig, and is set out of control onto, and then under, the Atlantic. When the passengers come to, they find their plane under one hundred feet of water. The combination of outside water pressure and the lack of oxygen inside the plane doesn't give them much time; and the chief pilot (Jack Lemmon) is forced to swim out of a flooded cargo hold and up to the surface in a life raft equipped with a homing device that will allow the Navy and other rescue parties to find the plane. Since physical underwater rescue of the passengers is impossible, the Navy is forced to use pontoons to somehow raise the plane up to the surface long enough to get the passengers out.
Lemmon's performance as the pilot is one of many reasons why AIRPORT '77 works as well as it does; his Everyman quality is the kind audiences appreciate (much like pilot Chesley Sullenberger in the real-life 2009 Miracle On The Hudson). And although Lee Grant's performance as the obnoxious wife of a philanthropist (Christopher Lee) does weight down the film at times, the solid performances of Joseph Cotten, Olivia DeHavilland, and Darren McGavin compensate for that fault, as doe the performances of others in the cast, including Kathleen Quinlan, M. Emmet Walsh, Pamela Bellwood, Robert Hooks, Gil Gerard, James Booth and (in a cameo as Joe Patroni) George Kennedy. Jameson, normally a TV director who nevertheless earned his pedigree in the small-screen disaster film genre via films like HURRICANE and TERROR ON THE 40TH FLOOR, does a fairly good job of handling what at first seems to be a typically implausible disaster film plot. A lot of the credit for that success must go to the fine visual effects work of Albert Whitlock, whose long list of credits include Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 horror/suspense classic THE BIRDS and the 1970 sci-fi drama COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, and Frank Brendel, who won an Oscar with Whitlock in 1974 for EARTHQUAKE. And the climactic rescue operation sequence, though it requires a suspension of disbelief not uncommon for the disaster genre, is also quite good too.
John Cacavas' score, which goes from brooding avant-garde to typical grandiose orchestral gestures, is the icing on the cake for AIRPORT '77, a film that manages to be suspenseful and entertaining, while dialing down some of the worst excesses of the disaster genre that so alienated critics, and doing so with solid performances from almost all of the cast involved.
Airport 1975 (1974)
AIRPORT '75: Terror And Melodrama In Mid-Air
The enormous success of the 1970 film version of Arthur Hailey's novel Airport was in no small part responsible for having given birth to the first wave of disaster films which scared their way through movie screens for much of the 1970s. All of them were trying to one-up the competition to see how much peril they could put their casts of all-stars through; and audiences ate it up, while the critics usually threw it back up. Lasting until the box office busts of BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE in 1979, and WHEN TIME RAN OUT in 1980, the disaster film reached its peak of popularity near the end of 1974, with three films that were the apotheosis of the genre. Two of them were THE TOWERING INFERNO and EARTHQUAKE. The third (from Universal, the same studio behind AIRPORT and EARTHQUAKE) was AIRPORT 1975.
Since Hailey never repeated himself as a novelist, the subsequent three sequels to AIRPORT hewed only to the formula of people caught up in a mid-air crisis that had been inherent in both the book and the original 1970 film. In the case of AIRPORT 1975 (or AIRPORT '75, for short), this involves a 747 jumbo jet flying from Washington to Los Angeles that, because of heavy fog along the California coastline, is forced to divert to Salt Lake City to allow conditions in L.A. to clear up. But on final approach, the jet is hit at 12,000 feet by an out-of-control Baron whose pilot (Dana Andrews) has suffered a fatal heart attack. The chief pilot (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) is badly injured, and his two crewmen (Roy Thinnes, Erik Estrada) are killed, and thus it is up to the chief stewardess (Karen Black) to somehow keep the plane in flight, despite the extensive damage to the jet's skin and operating systems, until a rescue mission can be coordinated. This is instigated by Charlton Heston, who also happens to be the man Black has been estranged from for some time), and professional troubleshooter Joe Patroni (George Kennedy, reprising his role from the original film, with help from Utah's Hill Air Force Base. One of their pilots (Ed Nelson) attempts to lower himself through the hold in the flight deck torn by the collision, but he gets a belt latch hooked onto a loose piece of metal, and the force of it tears him away and to his death. As a result it is up to Heston, who was a chief instructor of 747-jet pilots, to lower himself in and take charge. With Black's help, he manages to get the plane in line for a landing in Salt Lake City, going through steep mountainous terrain at 400 miles per hour, while the usual gaggle of all-star passengers (including Sid Caesar, Linda Blair, Jerry Stiller, Normal Fell, Myrna Loy, Helen Reddy, Gloria Swanson, and others) watches and waits.
As with its predecessor and the two Airport films still to come, AIRPORT '75 has a lot of clichés that would nauseate a whole lot of critics. It is when it is focused on the basic physics of the mid-air collision, Black's ability to keep the plane in flight until rescue arrives, and the rescue and landing itself that AIRPORT '75 is at its most intense. Heston, not surprisingly, does his usual good heroic turn in his role, as does Black in hers, though there seem not to be enough sparks at the beginning of the film to keep their relationship from drifting towards standard disaster film melodrama. Kennedy, as always, does his usual tough thing well in reprising his role as Patroni; and Susan Clark is good in a significant supporting role as his wife, who just happens to be on the plane in peril.
Given that any kind of mid-air collision, even with just a small plane, would be enough to bring any other jet down to the ground, both Jack Smight (who directed the 1966 crime classic HARPER) and screenwriter Don Ingalls have to somehow cause the old suspension of disbelief stimuli to kick in with respect to this film's plot line. Although they are not always successful at doing this, and the clichés do at times get in the way, they are successful enough to at least make AIRPORT '75 no worse than any others of its kind. Given this, it is no surprise that the critics should have ratted on this plane-in-peril piece, nor should it have been a surprise that AIRPORT '75's success should have as big as it indeed was.
The Beginning Of The 1970s Disaster Film Craze
If the disaster film genre of the 1970s had an actual starting point, it would most likely have been with the spectacular success in 1968 of Arthur Hailey's best-selling novel Airport, which detailed the major ins and outs of an ultra-busy airport where things like stowaways, stuck aircraft, and security breaches are all in a day's work. The book was such a monstrous success, selling in excess of a million copies within its first year of publishing, that it was almost inevitable that Hollywood would try to make it into a movie. And this is indeed what writer/director George Seaton, who had made the 1947 Christmas classic MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, did after Universal bought the rights to it and got Ross Hunter (of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE fame) to produce it, with a cast of all-stars. The end result, released in March 1970, would be a box office smash and lead not only to three sequels, but also begin a film genre that would be much maligned by a good deal of film critics into the 21st century.
The setting for Airport is Lincoln International Airport in Chicago on a snowbound winter night. Burt Lancaster portrays the airport's general manager who, on this night, is beset by any number of minor crises, including a brother-in-law (Dean Martin) who needles him about the way he runs the place; a jet stuck in the snow out on the tarmac because its pilot cut the taxiway short; an elderly stowaway (Helen Hayes) causing havoc with security; and problems at home with a wife (Dana Wynter) who gets into an argument over his being far more obsessed with his job than with his home life. He somehow manages to keep it together, thanks to the help of a very reliable staff, including tough-as-nails mechanic Joe Patroni (George Kennedy), who helps to get that stuck 747 out of the snow so that a vital runway isn't clogged for too long (with that runway being closed, jets are forced to take off on a runway right in the path of homes whose owners have complained fiercely about the noise).
This night, however, he is facing another, fare more serious crisis. A mentally unstable and very depressed man (Van Heflin) has managed to get on a flight from Chicago to Rome being piloted by Martin and Barry Nelson; and in his suitcase, the only one he brings onboard (and keeps very close to him) is a bomb. Alerted to this as the flight is passing through the airspace monitored from Cleveland, they try to turn the plane around and head back to Chicago while at the same time trying to find a way to disarm Heflin and not frighten any of the passengers. Unfortunately, Heflin manages to detonate the bomb inside a bathroom, causing significant damage to the plane and injuring several passengers in the bargain, including a pregnant chief stewardess (Jacqueline Bisset). They have to fight the bad weather in the air and make it to Chicago, advising Lincoln Tower that they have to land on the main runway or there's no guarantee that anyone will survive Although clearly meant to be nothing more than old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment (and even in 1970, it definitely looked old-fashioned), AIRPORT, for all its melodramatics and sometimes off-center sense of humor, generated primarily by Hayes' dotty performance as the elderly stowaway (which won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar), works quite well for what it was intended to be. The performances by Lancaster, Martin, Bisset, Kennedy, and Hayes are all what you'd expect from professionals like them; and the cast includes Larry Gates, Maureen Stapleton, Jean Seberg, Lloyd Nolan, Barbara Hale, and Whit Bissell. Alfred Newman's score (his last; he passed away only a few weeks before the film's release) is also quite good and appropriate (its love theme was turned into a million-selling instrumental hit by studio guitarist Vincent Bell in 1970), and got Newman both an Oscar and a Grammy nomination posthumously.
While a lot of the clichés introduced in this film and tits three subsequent sequels would nauseate critics for most of the rest of the decade, AIRPORT nevertheless moves at a fairly good clip, given that it's close to 140 minutes in length and its special effects are painfully dated in the 21st century age of CGI. It also helps that some of the concerns raised in this movie, which came true in light of 9/11, have somehow managed to keep this film relatively relevant, which is saying something, given how many Hollywood films come and go every year.
Worldwide Weather Wackiness Courtesy Of GEOSTORM
It would be fair to say that a lot of the apocalyptic disaster films of recent decades, even after the potential horrors of global warming and extreme weather events had come to light, have certain credibility problems and plausibility issues that always pass muster with the studios but wouldn't do so with scientists that actually study things like that. Previous disaster films from the 1970s, like EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO, didn't exactly have this problem. But there's no question that they are often spectacular to watch, which is, after all, the point of such films to begin with, whether it's films like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, SAN ANDREAS, or "2012", each of which are modern-day extensions of the 1970s disaster craze taken to an extreme. And then there's GEOSTORM.
The film involves an international cadre of orbiting satellites known as "Dutch Boy", monitored from the International Space Station, which are somehow capable of controlling the world's weather in an era of extreme climate change. But when it appears that system is somehow failing, and extreme weather events are becoming even more extreme, the man (Gerard Butler) who designed the Dutch Boy program and was replaced three years before by his younger brother (Jim Sturgess) is forced back into service to find out what is going on. Beginning with the entire population of a village in the desert of Afghanistan somehow being frozen, the weather starts to go progressively more haywire by the day. Gas main explosions in Hong Kong, ice storms in Tokyo and Rio di Janeiro only make the situation more important for Butler, who is also starting to come to terms with both Sturgess and his own daughter (Talitha Bateman). As it turns out, the whole Dutch Boy program, which was an international project, was about to become wholly run by the U.S. government; and it is in fact being sabotaged from inside the White House itself, possibly even by the president (Andy Garcia), as he has the biometric codes that control Dutch Boy. While Butler and the I.S.S. crew try to fix a problem that's quickly coming up towards the dreaded Geostorm event, it is up to Sturgess, a Secret Service agent (Abbie Cornish) and a tech expert (Adepero Oduye) to find out who the saboteur actually is.
Dean Devilin, who both directed and co-wrote the screenplay for GEOSTORM, is no stranger to films of this kind, having collaborated with spectacle master writer/director Roland Emmerich on a ton of similar special effects-laden films in the past, such as INDEPENDENCE DAY, the 1998 versions of GODZILLA, and the 2016 reboot INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. In the case of GEOSTORM, Devlin has taken a page not only from his former mentor Emmerich, most specifically "2012", but also from more plausible films like DEEP IMPACT and TWISTER. Where he slips to a fair extent is in the notion of a whole program of satellites in orbit somehow able to "control" weather events around the world. It's an implausibility that the film can't really get around, simply because nobody would even try to do it without having an unintended deleterious effect akin to playing God with billions of people's lives hanging in the balance. It is bad enough, really, just for Mankind himself, by his extreme addiction to carbon and fossil fuels to so create the kinds of weather catastrophes that keep happening with ever more frequency and extremity. Why potentially make it even worse with a global network of weather-controlling satellites that are susceptible to sabotage? Even so, in other ways, the film works in showing how these horrific meteorological events are bringing both Butler and Sturgess, who have been estranged for one another ever since the U.S. government took Butler off the Dutch Boy project, back together, along with Sturgess developing relationships with both Cornish and Oduye, as well as Butler strengthening his relationship with Bateman. Had Devlin put a little bit more attention into those aspects of GEOSTORM, the plausibility problems might have been eased, and thus the issues of story and humanity wouldn't be so overshadowed by the special effects, which are admittedly quite good in whatever format the film is shown (regular; 3-D; or IMAX 3-D). Fortunately, however, Butler, Bateman, Sturgess, Garcia, and Cornish do more than enough to overcome most of the plausibility problems and Devlin's penchant for trying to one-up Emmerich. GEOSTORM may not be a masterpiece, but it is a fair bit better than most 21st century Hollywood spectacles.
A Man Once Known As "Deep Throat"
The Watergate scandal, which engulfed the entire American public at large, and the administration of president Richard Nixon, was the single greatest political scandal in U.S. history. But for a long time, one of the great mysteries of that scandal was that of the identity a mysterious informant who gave information about the scandal to writers Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post, but was never identified by his real name, only by a code name called Deep Throat. This character, portrayed by Hal Holbrook in the 1976 classic ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, was later revealed to be Mark Felt, a former top man inside the FBI dating back to the days when J. Edgar Hoover ruled the roost, and beyond Hoover's death in May 1972. Felt's own story has now been told in the gripping political drama MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE.
Liam Neeson portrays the long-time FBI executive who stands as a paragon of truth and integrity even as the FBI, by 1972, is still under the control of J. Edgar Hoover, as it had been since its founding in 1924. When Hoover dies, Neeson is thought to be the front-runner for the FBI director's post. Instead, however, that goes to Pat Gray (Martin Csokas), a law enforcement neophyte and, for lack of a better term, a glorified lackey to Nixon. Then comes June 17, 1972, the morning that five guys are caught with their hands in the cookie jar at the Democratic National Committee's headquarters inside the Watergate hotel. Neeson, still a senior adviser, is intent on having the FBI proceed with the investigation wherever it leads, and how far up in the government it goes; but Csokas only gives him 48 hours to finish the whole thing, then the bureau can wipe its hands off this so-called "third-rate burglary". Neeson, however, is undaunted; and very soon, under cover of anonymity, he gives things he knows from inside the bureau to Time Magazine writer Sandy Smith (Bruce Greenwood), and to Woodward (Julian Morris), who reveals to Neeson that he has been given the secret informant moniker of Deep Throat (the name being derived from the title of the notorious 1972 X-rated film).
Torn between the pressure of being loyal to the FBI and wanting the truth to get out about Watergate, and the various mini-scandals surrounding it (including bugging and wiretapping of the enemies of Nixon being conducted by Nixon's little Plumbers task force), Neeson also must mend fences with his daughter (Maika Monroe), who had become part of the radical Weather Underground, the domestic ISIS/Al Qaeda of its time. When Neeson retires after thirty-one years of service, his revelations about Watergate have already started the ball rolling on the implosion of the Nixon administration. This is not to make Felt out to be a saint, however; he was convicted for his part in illegal activities against 60s radicals, and spent a year in prison, before being pardoned by Reagan in 1981, and then, shortly after his passing in 2005, having him be revealed as Deep Throat.
Writer/director Peter Landesman, who also wrote and directed the 2015 sports drama CONCUSSION (about the NFL's attempt to cover up head injuries among their players for decades), brings a great deal out of this story, which may be two or three generations removed for 21st century audiences but which also seems as relevant as it was during the turbulent early and mid-1970s. Like ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, MARK FELT's existence is not predicated on how and/or where the story ends, but how one gets to that end. Neeson's performance as Mark Felt is one of extreme gravitas, making it clear that, whatever else they might do, the FBI is supposed to be a totally independent body to investigate high crimes, and that, however secretly, Csokas' loyalty to a president who is morally bankrupt is forcing him to go rogue and be a whistleblower.
Greenwood, Tony Goldwyn, and Tom Sizemore give very convincing performances in their roles; and the basic darkness of the story is well-established, as is the paranoia created by a presidency that trusts nobody, not even those in its inner circle, engulfs many people and morally compromises others, even, at times, Felt himself. At a time when Hollywood seems intent on avoiding good compelling stories that are based on events that are not as arcane or ancient as some like to make them out to be, MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE is an important film of our time.
Brian's Song (1971)
One Of The Great TV Films Of All Time, Sports-Related Or Otherwise
One of the great sagas in the history of professional sports in America was the friendship that transpired between Brian Piccolo, who was White, and Gale Sayers, who was African-American, while they were competing for the same position on the NFL's Chicago Bears frontline in the mid-1960s. At a time when professional football was still a White man's game, both Piccolo and Sayers developed a significant friendship, a friendship that only grew near the end of the Bears' rather disastrous 1969 season when Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. This is the true-life saga told in the highly acclaimed 1971 made-for-TV drama BRIAN'S SONG, one of the best of its kind, and unquestionably one of the greatest sports films ever made, television or otherwise.
Veteran TV/film director Buzz Kulik is at the helm of this film, where James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, both actors well on their way to illustrious careers but at that time not quite so well known, portray the two Bears legends who developed a closeness with one another at the time when segregation of hotel rooms according to race was still standard issue in the NFL, a precedence that was broken by the Bears organization. None of this is showed in any heavy-handed "message" form either in William Blinn's screenplay (based on Sayers' autobiography), or in Kulik's direction; it is just laid out in a very robust way by all concerned. Jack Warden ably portrays Halas, and the Chicago Bears, wisely enough, are played by the Chicago Bears themselves.
The airing of this film on ABC on November 30, 1971, coming just a little less than a year and a half after Piccolo passed away at the all-too-young age of 27 from the cancer that, despite an operation that removed a cancerous lung and a pectoral, had spread to other parts of his body, was quite a big deal, and rightly so. With the inclusion of actual footage from NFL Films, courtesy of the legendary Steve Sabol, viewers of the time got a pretty good idea of just how rough the game of football really is up close and personal. The main body of the film, of course, is done with sentiment, given its subject matter, but at no time is it ever gushy or hackneyed. This isn't an easy thing to do, but it is pulled off in a hugely successful way, and topped off by a fine and ultra-memorable score from Michel LeGrand, who also did the score for the 1968 heist film THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, among others.
If you want a sports film that touches on not just the sport itself but also the stories that happen behind the sport, BRIAN'S SONG is the one. Clearly it is among the best films ever made for television.
Revisiting The Climate Change Crisis
Things like climate change and global warming had become serious threats during the last quarter of the 20th century; but it was only when former U.S. vice-president Al Gore stepped into the breach via the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH that it really became an international crusade. And even after that film had awakened the rest of the world to this existential threat, one that human beings themselves were causing, there was still one country that was failing. It wasn't China, or Russia, or France, or England. It was the United States itself. The 2015 Paris climate agreement signed for America by then-president Barack Obama was a die-hard acknowledgment that climate change was a real thing. But that was thrown into chaos by the election of climate-denying Donald Trump on November 8, 2016, who vowed to end American participation in that agreement to supposedly bring coal, oil, and gas production jobs "back to America". And that was what likely led Gore to step once more into the breach with 2017's AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER.
As Mr. Gore points out, in the eleven years since AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, climate events around the world have gotten progressively worse and worse; and while a lot of nations have made strides to combat the ugliest aesthetic effects of climate change, it hasn't been at the pace needed to stop some of the worst things from happening. One of the things pointed out is what many right-wing critics liked to point out as a "fallacy" in the original film: the idea that rising ocean levels and storm surge would overtake Manhattan and the 9/11 World Trade Center complex. Unfortunately, that was anything but a fallacy at all, as Hurricane Sandy swamped the 9/11 site on October 29, 2012, while it was still under construction. And as was the case with AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, while Gore once again travels the world and ends up at the Paris climate talks, on the eve of the horrible terrorist attack against the French capitol, he illustrates other examples of climate change affecting various parts of the world: tidal overflow inundating streets in Miami Beach, Florida; a huge one-day rainfall event in a town in India that resulted in 33 inches of rain falling in just 24 hours; another big one-day rainfall event of three inches hitting Tucson at the height of the Southwestern monsoon season (a time lapse of that storm shows the rain actually visibly bouncing off the streets there); massive fires in the mountains and deserts of the western United States; huge droughts; and other horrific occurrences. In the meantime, he also illustrates the many solutions that nations of the world have come up with in terms of wind and solar power to combat the effects of a century and a half of fossil fuel usage that has resulted not only in damage to the environment and to the ecology, but also to the health and the very lives of the people impacted.
One of the big things that is pushed here in AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL, in some ways even more than in AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, is the impact that the United States itself has had in this arena, a lot of it on the negative side, such as, of course, the election of trump and his vow to rip the Paris agreement to shreds just for the sake of keeping a campaign promise to bring back jobs that, apart from being environmentally destructive, have long since become obsolete, plus his mockery of the whole notion of the reality of climate change ("a hoax manufactured by China"). But as Mr. Gore shows us, even some of the most politically red parts of America are getting with the whole movement to reverse climate change, such as the small town of Georgetown, Texas, whose mayor says (quite rightly) that they're the "reddest city in the reddest county" in the state, but they are adopting wind and solar energy to fuel their residences and businesses not only out of environmental practicality, but economic practicality as well. And there are efforts via many of the top law enforcement officials in various states to combat propaganda lobbed by Big Oil and the coal industry against the renewable energy industry sector, which is now developing jobs at a far faster pace than the all the outmoded fossil fuel cartels combined.
As Mr. Gore admits, his four decade-long crusade to get America in particular, and the world in general, to awaken to the crises caused by global warming and climate change has been met with dozens upon dozens of political and societal setbacks. But he also points out here in AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL that people are now finally taking action on their own, such as many U.S. states and cities vowing to stick with the Paris agreement despite Trump's machinations against it. We are beginning to persevere in this fight to save Earth, and this film encourages us to continue to persevere against all political odds.
And we must, in order to save the human race from our own self-destructive behavior.
British director Christopher Nolan is known for being an individualist when it comes to the films he does. Although he is known for doing "commercial" films like BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, many others have seen a more complex side to Mr. Nolan with such psychological thrillers as 2000's MEMENTO; 2002's INSOMNIA; and 2010's INCEPTION, as well as his 2014 science fiction epic INTERSTELLAR (a film to be placed up there with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY). Now, in 2017, he tackles the dark subject of the early part of World War II in DUNKIRK.
The film essentially ties five different plot lines into the evacuation of French, Dutch, and British soldiers from the French city of Dunkirk in the late spring of 1940 as the German army is about to sweep in and annihilate them. This includes, among other things, British civilians evacuating as many soldiers as they can on the dangerous English Channel crossing, including one portrayed in usual brilliant low-key style by Mark Rylance. Apart from the appearances of Rylance; Kenneth Branagh as an English commander; and Harry Styles as one of the British soldiers caught up in the horror of this battle, most of the actors are young and anonymous types convincingly portraying average people caught up in an apocalypse that threatens to engulf not only England and Europe, but the entire human race. In an era where linear spectacle is the order of the day, Nolan does just the opposite, intertwining several different strands into one complete film, with a maximum amount of visual spectacle, but also putting this battle into focus in a mere hour and fifty minutes. While Nolan doesn't go into the graphic horror of the opening D-Day invasion of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he nevertheless makes the tension palpable the entire time.
Nolan wisely doesn't explain all that much, which is what any good filmmaker, especially if he has written and directed the film (as is the case here), should do. This is what makes DUNKIRK a compelling film, and a sure contender for one of the best films of 2017.
HUD: A Man Who Clearly Doesn't Give A Damn
Paul Newman's career had so many high points, whether it was in Tennessee Williams (CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF; SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH), private eye films (HARPER), prison films (COOL HAND Luke), Westerns (HOMBRE; BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID), period comedy (THE STING), or even disaster films (THE TOWERING INFERNO). But he was known for being an actor who took big chances with the supposed image he had in the press. The best example of this was with the 1963 contemporary Western HUD, where he played, for lack of a better word, a genuine bastard.
Based on the Larry McMurtry novel "Horsemen Pass By", HUD puts Newman in the title role of a n'er-do-well Texas cattle baron's son who lacks the kind of scruples and morals that the father (Melvyn Douglas, in an Oscar-winning role) thought he had passed on to him. Newman had lost his brother in an auto accident a few years back, and since then he has become a fairly lecherous, often inebriated no-count. He is a very poor example to his nephew (Brandon DeWilde), and his father is increasingly fed up with him. And yet, he does not give a damn. He has his eyes on a prize.
But that prize will be costly for Douglas. Pretty soon, he learns that his entire cattle herd has been infected with a dreadful case of hoof-and-mouth disease; and the only way to keep these cattle from going to market in the state they are in, and thus creating an epidemic all over the country, is to kill them all, something that will totally ruin the old man. Not that Newman cares, of course; he is thinking of the future there in Texas, and it's not cattle, it's oil. Newman also gets it on with the family housekeeper Alma (Patricia Neal, who also won an Oscar for her role, and was the wife of legendary children's novelist Roald Dahl). Neal tolerates this for the most part, but after Newman basically rapes her, she passes a Rubicon with him. The tragedies multiply, with the mass slaughter of the herd, Douglas' death, and the departures of both Neal and DeWilde. But Newman doesn't change.
With a screenplay by Irvin Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., and excellent direction by Martin Ritt, HUD is a stark and genuinely personal look at the world of ranchers and farmers in a Texas that is quickly becoming modernized. The world that made it possible for men like Douglas to make something of themselves is being replaced by a society that makes guys like Newman the future, and not necessarily a good future. The genuine flatness of the Texas landscape and the starkness of the small Texas town where the film is set are rendered with incredible realism via the superb black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe, who won the film's third Oscar. Douglas and Neal are excellent in their roles, as is DeWilde, whose other memorable role was as the young boy in the classic 1953 western SHANE. Elmer Bernstein's minimalist, minor-key guitar score is punctuated by the various bits of country-and-western music coming out of radios and jukeboxes, giving the film an even greater reality and authenticity.
But it is Newman himself who so brilliantly stands out. He plays someone who is thoroughly unsympathetic, a rake of the first order. Virtually nobody in this day and age would ever be able to play that kind of a role; and Hollywood wouldn't even bother to make such a film now. But HUD comes from the early 1960s, when Hollywood was becoming more attuned to the times instead of being stuck in the past, or too timid to be as close to real as possible. And Newman was a huge part of that. Had his good friend Sidney Poitier not been equally as good in LILLIES OF THE FIELD in that same year, Newman would have won that year's Best Actor Oscar (though I don't want to besmirch Poitier's exemplary career, or his Oscar-winning role in any way).
Still, HUD is a great, if rather depressing, film of a time that is, in a lot of ways, sadly a distant memory. It remains one of the most important films of its kind, and of its time.
Monte Walsh (1970)
Elegiac Look At The End Of The Old West
By the late 1960s, the Western film genre was less focused on the settling and exploration of the American West, and more on the expansion of civilization that led to its demise and that of a certain group of men who made the settling of the West possible and who refused to change. Sometimes that vision could be rendered in a quasi-operatic way, as it was by director Sergio Leone with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST; and of course, the death of the West was rendered with extremely violent ferocity by Sam Peckinpsh in THE WILD BUNCH. But there were other films that rendered it in more elegiac terms, such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, WILL PENNY, and a much less violent Peckinpah film, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE. Another film that showed the changing and dying of the Old West in those aforementioned elegiac terms was the 1970 western MONTE WALSH.
Set during turn of the 20th century, and based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, whose novel "Shane" was the basis for the classic 1953 western of the same name, MONTE WALSH stars Lee Marvin in the title role of an aging cowboy who, along with his longtime friend (Jack Palance), has been spending the winter on a cattle drive But more and more, Marvin and Palance are seeing the landscape become divided by barbed wire fences and the coming of the railroad; and opportunities for steady and gainful employment are becoming few and far between. The two men get onto the payroll of a prominent rancher (Jim Davis), and they enjoy whatever they can of what remains of the old way of being cowboys and free-range drifters; but even they know that nobody stays a cowboy forever. Indeed, Palance has designs on being a hardware store owner and marrying a widow (Allyn Ann McLerie); while Marvin carries on a relationship with a French woman (Jeanne Moreau, in her U.S. film debut). Among the ranch hands that Marvin and Palance ride with is an impulsive wanna-be cowpoke (Mitchell Ryan, making his film debut), who is intent on breaking a wild stallion, and failing at every turn. But when Davis has to lay off some of his hands because the work is drying up quite rapidly, Ryan is one of those he lets go; pretty soon Ryan takes to a life of crime, something that Marvin himself can't abide. And then when David murders Palance in Palance's hardware store during an attempted robbery, Marvin, however reluctantly, has to go after his former fellow employee to basically avenge his best friend's death. By the end, he is finally unemployed and more content to ride out into obsolescence, a trait echoed when he refuses to become part of some Wild West troupe, telling the promoter "I ain't spittin' on my whole life".
William Fraker, one of Hollywood's great cinematographers (he had done the cinematography on two classic 1968 films, ROSEMARY'S BABY and BULLITT), made his debut in the director's chair with this impressive end-of-an-era sagebrush saga, capturing the wide open landscapes of the West (shot on locations in southern Arizona), and illustrating as well as anyone how rough a life it had to have been for the people of that era. Up until the 1960s, Hollywood had largely glamorized or rather blindly celebrated the settling of the West as part of America's Manifest Destiny. But the historical truth of the matter was that it was a hard way to live, and only the strongest really survived for whatever time there was to them before what we know as "civilization" encroached on the landscape. Marvin and Palance, both of whom had been known for playing real heavies and villains, here are world-weary men of the saddle just trying to do what they can, and both are excellent in their roles. They try and settle down, but Palance doesn't live long enough to be able to do too much of that, and for Marvin it is too humiliating to do so, even with Moreau (and indeed, he does not). Marvin ends up alone and on his own in the melancholic coda.
Featuring solid support from genre veterans like Matt Clark, Bo Hopkins, Charles Tyner, Michael Conrad, Richard Farnsworth, and Billy Green Bush, MONTE WALSH, though highly acclaimed and highly successful at the box office upon its release in October 1970, has largely been forgotten by most audiences who are not already fans of the Western genre, as indeed basically the entire genre itself has been in the 21st century. But it doesn't have to be like this, not when there is a rich storytelling tradition in the genre still to be mined. MONTE WALSH was proof of that, and remains a classic of the genre to this very day.
In The Cosmos With Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt
Even with Hollywood's decades-long infatuation with CGI, which has caused the cost of such films to escalate into the $100-200 million range, there are moments of levity when such visual effects are put to solid use in the service of a story and not to the salaries of the effects men generating them, nor even necessarily to what studios think the audience might want. During the second decade of the 21st century, we have had at least three films that fit such a bill: 2013's GRAVITY (with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock); 2014's INTERSTELLAR (with Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway); and 2015's THE MARTIAN (with Matt Damon). And in 2016, there was a fourth film to join this illustrious group: PASSENGERS, a combination of intergalactic romance and science fiction.
The setting is aboard the starship Avalon, on a 120-year journey across the galaxy to a place called Homestead II, a new interstellar colony. The crew number 258, and the total number of civilian passengers five thousand—all of whom are in a deep state of hibernation, to be awakened within four months of reaching Homestead II, which Avalon is traveling to at half the speed of light. But something on the ship has gone haywire, and one of the hibernation pods has allowed a deep-space engineer (Chris Pratt) to awaken a mere thirty years into the journey, meaning that he will almost certainly die before anyone else awakens. In spending a full year in trying to find the cause of the hibernation malfunction, he also awakens a female journalist (Jennifer Lawrence); and they work at figuring out what has actually gone wrong. In the course of exploring the ship, and despite Lawrence's extreme rancor at Pratt having awakened her way too soon, they not only try to find a solution to an incredibly complex practical issue, but also find the chance to fall in love with whatever time they have left. A third person (Laurence Fishburne), a member of the crew (all of whom are still somehow in hibernation), assists them in finding the cause of Avalon's malfunction; and unfortunately it is actually hundreds of little problems morphing into one huge intergalactic nightmare.
Morton Tyldum, a Norwegian director whose previous credits included the highly acclaimed 2014 World War II docudrama THE IMITATION GAME, manages to make what could have been a potentially sticky and sentimental deep space film, courtesy of screenwriter Joe Spaihts (who co-wrote the screenplay for director Ridley Scott's 2012 sci-fi/horror opus PROMETHEUS), into something far more substantial and thought-provoking than a lot of critics, and even some audiences, have given it credit for. Certainly Pratt and Lawrence make for an appealing pair; and the potential for them having passionate lovemaking is there at certain points of the film. In the end, though, the focus is on survival and the inherent dangers of both interstellar travel and technology that doesn't always work the way we might want it to. Much like both GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR, PASSENGERS has a few distinct homages to director Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, as well as to Steven Spielberg's A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE and MINORITY REPORT, and the 2008 Disney film WALL-E. But just for good measure, in the early parts of the film, there is an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen), who looks like a dead ringer for Lloyd, the supernatural bartender portrayed by Joe Turkel in Kubrick's 1980 horror classic THE SHINING; and even the expansive set of the lounge has the look (albeit in the height of high tech) of the Gold Room in that film.
The scattered action sequences keep PASSENGERS from seeming too cerebral and slow (a criticism still lodged against "2001" by critics who really should know better), but the spacious production design and the CGI depictions of deep space keep the film from being a testosterone fest, and grounded in a certain amount of reality, again much like GRAVITY and INTERSTELLAR. Lawrence, known for her roles in the Hunger Games franchise and JOY, and Pratt, who starred in the 2015 box office smash JURASSIC WORLD, anchor the film's human element; and Newman, whose many scores include WALL-E and BRIDGE OF SPIES, among many others, provides a great music score of a very neo-futuristic kind. At a time when really good filmmaking that involves special effects work is hard to find, and total suspension of disbelief is all too easy to find, PASSENGERS illustrates just how well a certain sense of cosmic wonder, realism, and humanity can come off in 21st century Hollywood.