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The Battle Between Military and Civilian Culture In Underrated Film
Besides that it marked the debuts of several major talents in solid supporting roles, particularly Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, "Taps" I think was partially misunderstood when it was released in 1981. Obviously, the story is rather fantastical about how a group of pre-West Point high school military cadet students take over and occupy their school as if it's a military assignment to secure a small foreign town. After learning it is going to be closed, the cadets use the skills they've been taught to defend themselves and their "territory". The story's subtext is about how military culture and civilian life often clash. Those in the military are taught about honor, loyalty, and duty, while their civilian counterparts seem only interested in financial gain.
Cadet Major Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) is the central figure, the leader of the "rebellion". George C. Scott, although top-billed, is a supporting character as Brigadier General Harlan Bache who is the top administrator of the school. Tom Cruise and Sean Penn, then unknowns, were in their first important film roles. The pivotal scene occurs during a formal in which the military students have brought dates to the school for presumably a formal dance. High school locals are jeering just outside the building, and eventually the civilian students and the military students end up in violent confrontation. (Of course, one wonders about the security of the school, but of course this scene is crucial for the story to continue.) The students then concoct a plan to confiscate the school's weaponry and make demands upon law enforcement. The most memorable scene involves Hutton confronting adult authorities and how he has back-up to make his point.
Overall, an entertaining and absorbing film. I think the main point is that these cadet students have been taught to live by a particular code along with weaponry to go with it, very different than their counterparts in public and civilian schools. Is it be inconceivable that they might see overtaking and occupying their school as a means to put to use their training? Certainly, it's a bit far-fetched that such a school could be realistically overtaken by its students. At the same time, so often we teach young people about codes of conduct that seem rarely to be upheld by the generation "in charge".
Not Only Misleading and Leaping Conclusions to a Bogus Theory But Bad History
Oh History Channel, what have you done? A ridiculously silly reality show that makes so many leaps the conclusions are not only ludicrous but laughable. The premise is the people in this show are trying to find the supposed lost treasure of the Knights Templar. There has been little or no evidence to support that such a treasure even existed, but we'll get to that later in this review. The players in this academic charade pick up an artifact at every turn and start making gross proclamations. But let's first discuss some of the bad history.
The only statement of fact which is true is that the Templars named themselves after the Great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem which was destroyed 66-70 CE (aka AD) in the infamous Roman Wars against the Jews. They probably discovered legends about the Temple (there were in fact two of them, the earlier one destroyed by the Babylonians circa 500 BCE) when knights were fighting to retake Jerusalem from Islam during the Crusades. This is probably the only true historical reality mentioned by this show. Almost all the rest of the assertions are an amalgamation of bad history or bogus conclusions.
Let's talk about the bad history. One of the claims was that Jesus was an Essene and Essenes buried people in ossuaries in Jerusalem. This gives rise to their "skull and bones" theory since the bones of the deceased were placed in the ossuary first and the skull on top. Their conclusion: this imagery was used by pirates in their skull and bones flags during the 17th century and is a direct link back to ancient times via the Knights Templar and later the Freemasons after circa 1600. Ridiculous. Firstly, the Essenes lived in caves apart from Jerusalem, and I don't know if they found graves there. The caves, known as Qumran is where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. While scholars have found similarities in the rhetoric of Jesus and the Essenes, there is no evidence that Jesus was an Essene.
Also, just about every Jew living in Jerusalem during the first centuries BCE and CE buried their dead in ossuaries. The practice was so common, many ossuaries survive from Antiquity and plain examples can be bought for about $500. Current residences of Jerusalem use some of them for plotting plants! The idea that because traditionally the bones were placed beneath the skulls in these ossuaries and therefore that's a link to the "skull and bones" flags of pirates of the 17th and early 18th centuries is silly. It's similar to claims of the Shroud of Turin which purports to be the shroud of Christ, forgetting that no evidence of such a shroud is extant until circa the 14th century, which is when the Shroud is carbon-dated. (There is one document from the early Middle Ages about a shroud, but considering there were millions of them by the end of Antiquity, it's definitely reaching.)
And then we get to the evidence. In the show, some divers find some far eastern artworks from shipwreck off of the island of Madagascar. They start making these leaps that these artifacts are linked to the Templars! For one thing, they don't do any proper analysis to determine when these artifacts were created. And then they start making these huge leaps about how they connect with the Templars. Just because an artifact may have been found near the Temple Mount of Jerusalem or off the coast of Madagascar in no way proves they had anything to do with the Templars, even if they were created during the period. But many of these kinds of artifacts were also created during the 19th century.
This presentation was probably aimed at the same people who believe "The Da Vinci Code" is really a non-fiction book about Mary Magdalene! Did the Templars discover a hidden treasure underneath the Temple Mount (the Muslim Temple in Jerusalem)? I doubt whether they unearthed a hoard but might have found some things. The Templars increased their wealth mainly from donations from the Church and other monarchs. And they were also bankers! Scholars believe their increasing wealth and power scared the "powers that be" which is why the King of France at the time, King Philip.
Overall a very badly conceived and poorly presented show masquerading as a documentary. One of the History Channel's sillier efforts and definitely not recommended for those serious about history and artifacts. There are much better documentaries about the Templars including one by the History Channel produced over 10 years ago.
The Female Equivalent of Donald Trump: Only Little People Pay Taxes
According to the film, if you worked for her organization and made an exceptional contribution to one of her projects, Leona Helmsley might fire you. Why? Because she wanted to take credit for everything. If you were one of her employees, you were obviously one of the "little people". In an infamous statement, testified by one of her employees at her trial, she was quoted as saying "We don't pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes." It was tax evasion which lead to the undoing of Helmsley.
Suzanne Pleshette is perfectly cast as Leona Helmsley who was honored with the nickname "Queen of Mean". She and her husband, Harry Helmsley (Lloyd Bridges) became rich running lavish hotels, particularly in New York. She not only made irrational demands towards her employees, but would either reprimand or fire them for seemingly trivial matters. In the film, she fires a security guard for taking a break and making a phone call on the hotel's "dime". Simultaneously, the film paints a complex portrait of the one of the strangest figures among the New York elites. At times she seems reasonable, at others completely irrational. Sound familiar?
Leona Helmsley represented the pinnacle of 1980's greed and decadence. Her attitudes towards money and elites was certainly extreme but not uncommon. According to the film she would eventually be charged with over 30 counts of tax evasion. They were using the money for their businesses to fund lavish homes. While there's nothing inherently wrong with using money earned from a business to finance personal property, the Helmsley's tried to deduct it as a business expense. Contractors knew what was happening but became vocal when the Helmsley's failed to pay the contractors. They sued and testified about the Helmsley's tax practices.
Later (after the events portrayed in the film), a sobbing Leona proclaimed to reporters during her trial: "I've done nothing wrong. I'm innocent. My only crime is that I'm Leona Helmsley." Sadly, no one came to her defense. If you're the queen of mean, no one will help you at your darkest hour. And that's because she had no friends. Her "little people" testified against her at her trial.
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
First and Foremost an Entertaining Episode in the Star Wars Canon
Stars Wars I-III (the prequels) failed largely because of the main fundamental flaw which is an accumulation of a host of other problems. Star Wars I-III basically failed to entertain. By contrast, Solo: A Star Wars Story definitely distracts us with a good solid piece of entertainment.
When you strip away the hype, the stars, even the franchise, still, a film is supposed to entertain you. It's supposed to take you into another "universe" of sorts, which can be anything from a lake and beach house (as in "On Golden Pond") or the mythical world of Middle Earth. But being in the universe is not enough. A story with memorable and interesting characters must inhabit that universe, world, setting for two hours. If audience members start looking at their watches (as I did with Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace) the film has failed.
While nothing will probably outdo the first two of the original series, "Star Wars IV: A Good Hope" and "Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back", especially with Harrison Ford, "Solo" will not disappoint. It's largely how Han Solo goes on his first interplanetary smuggling, meets Chewbacca and ends up with the Millennium Falcon. These last points are nothing new. Everyone who knows anything about Star Wars knows that these events happened in the past. because they are mentioned in other Star Wars films, but not in much detail. The question is how did these events in Solo's life unfold, and largely the present film answers how Solo became Solo.
While no actor is going to top Harrison Ford as Solo, Alden Ehrenreich does a reasonable as the young Han Solo, presumably about 10 years younger than the character in the original Star Wars film, i.e. "A New Hope". (Harrison as Solo is probably in his late 30's). Without giving too much away, the story begins on an industrial factory planet where they manufacture star ships. From the get-go, we find out that Solo has already been doing jobs for the local mob boss. When he doesn't produce, he escapes with the help of his love interest Kira, and becomes a pilot and new recruit for the Empire.
Fast-forward three years. He's now working for the Empire, doing menial jobs, such as overrunning helpless planets with other minions. Solo is no longer with the academy of pilots because of insubordination. He inadvertently falls into the company of Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) who is part of a small band of smugglers and thieves who are posing as military personnel in service to the Empire. The only way Solo can see a way out is to join the band of thieves and help them pull off a big heist. His hope is to make enough money to buy his own star ship. But Beckett, his wife Val, and partner Rio Durant don't like Solo. They feel he is green and would be of no help in one of their heists. As a result he is thrown into the pit where resides a big human-devouring monster.
A fun-filled action science fantasy film which keeps the spirit of the Star Wars franchise well-intact. One of its positives is it doesn't lapse into the device of having the characters "run into" other Star Wars characters, except one. And that one makes sense because Star Wars fans know that this film is how Han Solo and this other character meet. A very good film.
The Great Impostor (1960)
An Enjoyable Schtick About a Real-Life Con Artist, Similar to "Catch Me if You Can"
"The Great Impostor" is quintessential Tony Curtis. Curtis was never an exceptional screen actor but a decent one, probably more for his good looks and charisma than his ability to become different people. He is in the category of what I call "charisma actors". (I would include Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the same category.) Charisma actors are talented and can be very convincing given the right role. And this was the right role for Curtis.
"The Great Imposter" tells the true story of Ferdinand Waldo Demara (Curtis) who was chronicled in a novelistic book of the same name written by Robert Crighton (who also wrote "The Secret of Santa Vittoria"). Demara assumed different identities, such as a monk, a sheriff's deputy, and notably, a prison warden, usually without the expected credentials. Probably the exploit he is most known for which brought him both recognition but exposed his chicanery was becoming a ship's surgeon for the Canadian military during the civil war in Korea. And he didn't have a medical degree!
Curtis was perfect casting as Demara. He makes his character fun and likeable. The real Demara was somewhat heavy-set, unlike Curtis. However, Curtis captures the essence of Demara's likability which was probably the reason for his success. The real Demara found ways of inserting himself to situations without alienating or threatening those already there. While the movie exaggerates a little bit the outcomes of some of Demara's ventures, it's a fun and thoroughly entertaining film. Not one which will go down in the annals of the greatest movies ever made, but it holds its own. A must for Curtis fans.
The Departed (2006)
A Modern Film Noir: Scorsese's Best Film with the Most Intricate Plot
Martin Scorsese has been on the cutting edge of filmmaking since the late 1960's. Prior to "The Departed", the legendary director's films had been recognized with 59 Oscar nominations and about 11 wins. He had been nominated five times for Best Director with an equal number nominated for Best Picture without winning prior to "The Departed", notable "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas". His actors have faired better with wins for Robert De Niro (Best Actor, Raging Bull), Joe Pesci (Best Supporting Actor, "Goodfellas"), and Paul Newman (Best Actor, "The Color of Money"). He needed a film to hit it out of the ballpark, and "The Departed" was it. It is unquestionably Scorsese's best film and will go down as a masterpiece of crime cinema.
The plot, probably the most intricate in a crime-drama film since "Pulp Fiction" is based on a Hong Kong film called "Infernal Affairs", which references Hell in Buddhist theology. William Monahan adapted the original Chinese screenplay by Alan Mak and Felix Chong. The story concerns two young Bostonians who have infiltrated the opposing sides of the wars between the Massachusetts state police and a crime syndicate run by a godfather type, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson in an academy award-caliber performance).
The two infiltrators are in fact double agents. Matt Damon plays the clean-cut Colin Sullivan who elevates from lower eastside broken home to being an high-ranking detective in the state police. Unbeknownst to his colleagues, his real loyalty is with Costello, his "dad", the name he often uses when he's in contact with Costello. On the other side, also from humble beginnings is Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) , son of an airport luggage handler who also had ties to the mob. He has tried with mixed reviews also to become a Boston cop. His superiors, played by Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg, don't believe he's police material but instead decide he's perfect as a mole to infiltrate Costello's mob. Interestingly, Sullivan easily works up the ranks with his steady demeanor while Billy is distrusted on all sides and must prove himself.
The authorities want information about a computer chip heist, not the kind of computer chips you purchase at Fry's, but one's which are not exactly publically available. These chips are mounted into computers aboard ICBM's. Another mob, a Chinese terrorist syndicate, desire to purchase the chips so they can blow up cities in the far east. The question becomes will diCaprio as a double-agent be able to tip off the authorities before the transaction can be completed? Or will Matt Damon tip off the mob in time to get away with the heist and sale.
A brilliant and compelling film from start-to-finish. Superb performances by all involved. Only Wahlberg was nominated for best supporting actor, although all the leads could have been easily been nominated for their performances. (Alan Arkin won best supporting actor for a far less interesting film, "Little Miss Sunshine".) In my opinion, DiCaprio's performance is one of the best of his career. Scorsese finally won Best Director and the film won Best Picture. These were not "sympathy' awards for Scorsese, giving them to him for his career. He and his film won because it's one helluva a great film.
Decent Portrayal of Deep Throat with a few Glaring Gaps: Unfortunately Disappointing
Anyone who knows the story of Watergate is typically fascinated by "Deep Throat", the government informant who tipped off Bob Woodward and the Washington Post about not only the cover-up but about Nixon's operatives who tried to sabotage political enemies. This film attempts to expose who Mark Felt was and why he became Deep Throat. The good news of the film is a tremendous performance by Liam Neeson and a solid supporting cast. The not-so-good news is the lack of juicy moments which were sacrificed. I was a bit unsatisfied by film's end.
Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat, will go down in history as possibly the most famous informant in US history. The question has always loomed: why did he break ranks and leak information to the press? Concerning these two questions, the film succeeds in answering them more or less. Felt was caught between a hard place and the Nixon administration. That hard place was Watergate in which the FBI was the de-facto investigative body.
After J. Edgar Hoover died while still serving as FBI director, the White House nominated L. Patrick "Pat" Gray as acting director and put his name forward as a candidate for permanent director. Gray was simply a pawn of the White House and the Nixon administration. The different federal agencies are supposed to act independently to prevent collusion and consolidation of power. Gray came from the military, and Nixon probably believed by putting Gray in the director's chair rather than someone who had decades of experience at the bureau, like Felt, the new administrator would carry out Nixon's bidding. Gray did things as ordered by the White House not realizing the FBI does not submit to the President. Mark Felt also believed he should have been nominated as the new director instead of an outsider like Gray.
With these forces acting upon him, Felt relents and engages in behavior which he had never done in 30 years: leak important information to the press. Where the film fails, sadly, is in one of the most important and fascinating aspects of the whole Watergate episode: his relationship with Bob Woodward. The film shows only two phone calls and one garage meeting with Woodward. In "All the President's Men", three meetings are portrayed with Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat.
A missed opportunity. I wanted to experience on-screen how Felt and Woodward met and how their relationship developed. This is the juiciest aspect of Felt's story which was compromised. Another side story explored in the film is Felt's daughter who joined a commune. While interesting, I found that tangent less compelling than his relationship with Woodward which was given very little screen time. Overall a bit of a disappointment.
Sort of Alien meets Gravity meets Predator: Death at the Hands of Calvin the Terrible
I guess if there's a message to this film, it's life is typically hostile, so you should be on your guard. Not exactly an uplifting message. A team of scientists in an orbiting space station extract a bit of Martian soil and in it is a one-cell creature. The first few minutes of the film are relatively interesting. The one-cell creature seems to respond rather benignly to Dr. Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) to his gloved hands which he has put into the chamber where resides "Calvin". Then Calvin appears to go into extensive hibernation which makes Dr. Derry bored and frustrated. Of course, he decided to "wake up" Calvin with electric stimuli. Turns out this was a very bad idea.
The creature not only responds but turns into a kind of flying organism with the shape of a star fish and the lethalness of 1000 jelly fish. From here on out, the story goes from bad to horridly unbearable. Calvin makes Alien (from the 1979 film) seem like a wimpy creature. Ripley and company had it much easier dealing with the Alien. Calvin is super-fast, seems to withstand anything, including large doses of the equivalent of rocket launch propulsion stuff. All the while, the thing consumes people, a rat in captivity (which is never explained) and grows bigger and bigger.
I think the main problem I had with this film was the notion that the creature was absolutely invulnerable. They do everything except nuke it and nothing slows it down. I think I would have liked the crew to figure out better about what made it tick. Even a dragon for all its grandeur has a vulnerable spot. Calvin is like a sting-ray on steroids which seems to be immortal. It's like the screenwriters just opted for a copout by having the alien creature indestructible, invulnerable, and faster than a speeding Superman.
Also, The characters were a bit flat, except for the scientist, who wants to explore the thing like he's a daredevil willing to try anything to find out more about the creature, Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), the pilot who likes floating around in space more than dealing all the horrible people on Earth, and Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) who seems to have more emotion than anyone of the crew put together save maybe the scientist. Jordan starts to show more emotion as the film progresses. The other crew members were quite unmemorable, unlike the crew of the Nostromo from Alien where each character was quirky and not necessarily likeable.
A rather disappointing film. It's really just Alien again, except it's a slimy semi-transparent creature with about as much humanity as Attila the Hun. I think the creature needed something a bit more redeeming rather than just a slimy brute who relentlessly goes after its human victims. He should have been called "Calvin the Terrible".
"Roman Holiday", "The Brave One" "Spartacus" and "Exodus" Must Be Have Had Communist Subtexts to Overthrow the US Government
Towards the end of the film, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston in an Academy Award-nominated performance) makes a profound statement during his acceptance speech for the Laurel Award for Screen Writing Achievement during a Writer's Guild of America ceremony (1970). He says (paraphrase) "It will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims (during the communist blacklist years of the 1940's and 1950's)." This part of his speech sums up well the point of this film which chronicles one of the few survivors of the communist blacklist scare during the two decades after the Second World War. Not only teachers, doctors, academics, factory workers, social workers and many others were targeted resulting in the devastation of careers and lives, but also people working in the entertainment industry in Hollywood, CA.
Few congressional committees in Post-World War Two United States were more un-American than the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security. The latter saw the rise of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch-hunts in which he accused people both within the US government and without but among the US citizenry as being communists in collusion with the then Soviet Union (USSR). As a result of these witch-hunts, friends turned on friends, usually fearing the wrath of the committee. If you didn't cooperate, the "scarlet letter" of communist or communist sympathizer was forever plastered onto you like a badge of shame. In addition, you might spend time in prison for being in contempt of congress. In the case of Dalton Trumbo, he experienced both indignities.
Dalton Trumbo was one of the most brilliant screenwriters of his era. He wrote such classics as "A Guy Name Joe", "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo", "Roman Holiday", and even the b-film noire "Gun Crazy". He also wrote the screenplays to two great Hollywood epics: "Spartacus" and "Exodus". Despite his credentials, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about whether he was or had been a member of the Communist Party. Many of his Hollywood friends were also subpoenaed, some were sympathetic to the cause of rooting out "communists" while others who were appalled at the committees' actions but terrified of being blacklisted reluctantly cooperated. Prominent members of the entertainment community including Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne, and Ronald Reagan were brought before the committee. Trumbo was no exception. Will he cooperate or risk losing his career?
A brilliant film with a tour-de-force performance by Cranston as Trumbo. Trumbo is not always the easiest of characters to like. He sometimes sacrifices the needs of his family to maintain his career. Cranston finds the difficult balance of finding the humanity of Trumbo while also exposing his many shortcomings, including writing in the bathtub! Trumbo was a brilliant writer who didn't deserve his treatment at the hands of the US government. At the same time, his family didn't deserve what they suffered either. As stated earlier, there were no victors but only victims.
Death on the Nile (1978)
Could Have Been One of the Great Christie Adaptions Except for Two Fatal Flaws (Where was Albert Finney?)
I'll begin this review by saying I've always enjoyed Peter Ustinov. But Ustinov as Hercule Poirot?? This was definitely not a casting choice made in Heaven. However, the rest of the cast is no less than superb which only makes the choice of Ustinov appear weak. Peter Ustinov was just about as diametrically opposite from David Suchet who will probably go down as the quintessential Poirot. This film was shot not long after "Murder on the Orient Express" and it seems like it would have been fairly easy to get Albert Finney to reprise his role, although maybe the producers had asked him and he declined. For audiences who had just seen Finney as Poirot, Ustinov as the Belgian sleuth was probably a let-down.
The other problem with the film concerns Poirot confronting each of the suspects of the murder. Poirot interviews the suspects in "Murder on the Orient Express" in a similar fashion. However, the filmmakers decided to show endless "hypothetical" scenarios in which each suspect engages in the murder. When the final solution is eventually revealed and the real events are shown, it's somewhat anticlimactic. Seeing Angela Lansbury grabbing the gun and almost dropping it caused me to fall down and roll over on the floor.
The actual story and events which lead up to the murder definitely rank as one of Christie's better offerings. We meet Jacqueline de Bellefort (Mia Farrow in an outstanding performance), a nice middle-class young woman and her fiancé Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale). We learn Bellefort works for a filthy-rich heiress, Linnet Ridgeway (Lois Chiles). After engagement announcements, Doyle meets Ridgeway and he seems more enthralled with her than his fiancé. The film then cuts to later events. Doyle and Ridgeway have married, Bellefort having been dumped by Doyle.
The honeymooners are on holiday in Egypt, and Bellefort has been following them, desiring to disrupt the newlyweds' enjoyment before they return to day-to-day living back in Britain. When they're observing one of the giant pyramids and having an intimate moment, Bellefort appears out of nowhere and offers them a history lesson. The couple then board a boat to tour the Nile with other passengers. Bellefort also becomes a passenger on the same boat (not surprising).
In true Christie style, it turns out just about everyone on the boat hates Linnet Ridgeway now Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. Several have direct and indirect connections to her, including her uncle Andrew Pennington (George Kennedy) who just happens to be traveling in Egypt as well, and Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury), a trashy novelist. A character in one of Otterbourne's books appears to be strikingly similar to Linnet, and she's suing for libel.
So just about every character has a motive. When the murder occurs, everyone is a suspect, although the one suspect with the best motive has an unshakeable alibi. Hercule Poirot agrees to take the case with the help of Colonel Race (David Niven). Marie Van Schuyler (Betty Davis) had heard about the Nile tour and the rich cargo. She has eyes on Linnet's pearls.
Without giving too much away, the night which leads up to the murder is one of the most compelling I've seen. If it weren't for the bad casting of Ustinov as Poirot and the endless "scenarios", this would have been nearly as good as "Murder on the Orient Express". So in other words, 90% of the cast works superbly with the one exception of Ustinov. If you could somehow take this movie and inter-splice David Suchet into the role it and get rid of the endless hypotheticals, it would be an amazing film.
Those Who Control History Control the Future: Holocaust Denial Put on Trial
"Denial" centers on a Hitler "scholar", David Irving, a British author who has consistently denied the Holocaust, and his lawsuit against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. To be fair, Irving was among several scholars who refuted the authenticity of the so-called "Hitler Diaries" which were revealed by the German periodical "Stern" in the early 1980's. While Irving has brought to light many interesting facts about the Nazis and Adolph Hitler, he has repeatedly stated in his books he doesn't believe the Holocaust occurred on the widespread scale which is generally accepted by mainstream historians. Lipstadt published a book "Denying the Holocaust" in which she refers to how Irving and other deniers misrepresent history and facts to perpetuate their erroneous conclusions about the Holocaust.
The trouble is, Irving wants it both ways. He wants to deny the Holocaust and yet be recognized by other scholars and historians. In short, he wants the keys to the academic washroom. He brought the lawsuit against Lipstadt because, in some sense, her books which referred to his denial of the Holocaust as bogus history was denying him the keys to the washroom. Lipstadt is a bona fide and recognized scholar, and her criticisms of Irving deny him entry into the exclusive club. The film is about Irving's attempt to debunk the criticisms of a fellow scholar and in some sense legitimize a debate about whether or not the Nazis systematically gassed Jews and other minorities labeled as "degenerate" by the German government in the late 1930's and 1940's.
Timothy Spall in an Academy-Award caliber performance plays David Irving, author and Holocaust denier who sues Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz). Tom Wilkinson is convincing as Lipstadt's British libel lawyer. The film begins at a lecture concerning the Holocaust offered by Lipstadt and Irving interrupts the proceedings, claiming he has filed a lawsuit against the speaker. Instead of settling out of court, Lipstadt resolves to defend herself. She hires a law firm whose cracker jack defense attorney is Richard Rampton. To prepare, they not only visit one of the Auschwitz camp sites but painstakingly go through Irving's books to see if he uses propaganda and deception to further his assertions that the Holocaust as portrayed by history is a fallacy.
An horrific episode in the annals of human history involved Germany whose government was controlled by right-wing radicals, the National Socialist German Workers' Party, better as the Nazi Party, and their supreme leader, Adolph Hitler. The Nazis with Hitler at the helm instigated what is known as the "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem", a systematic extermination of Jews and those of Jewish heritage, defined as an individual as having one grandparent or closer being Jewish. Millions of Jews and other ethnicities such as Gypsies, Poles and other Eastern Europeans were forced into concentration camps where many gassed or suffered other heinous indignations. At the same time, Germany was fighting the Western Allies in the Second World War. When the war ended, many of the camps were liberated, such as those collectively called Auschwitz, and the inmates told horrific stories of unimaginable torture and execution.
Over the many decades since the end of the Second World War, there have been a small but vocal group of so-called "historians" who have tried to tell and sell a different picture of the war. They claim the interment and execution of Jews and other ethnicities by the Nazis, called "The Holocaust", did not actually happen. They agree that inmates were interred in camps, but their captivity was intended for expulsion, not for extermination. They refer to the accepted fact of the Holocaust as a large propaganda hoax perpetrated by Jews.
History is not always a pretty picture. But if we deny history, especially the horrific episodes, we deny who we are today and who we can become. While the real Lipstadt did not agree with Germany's government desiring to put Irving in jail for 3 years for denying the Holocaust, it is extremely important that we understand real history to the best of our abilities. We can help prevent a holocaust from occurring in the future only if we acknowledge the reasons for holocausts of the past, which entail knowing and understanding how and why they happened. It is interesting that the Jewish Holocaust and Holocaust Denial seem to have common enemies: Jews. Just about all Holocaust Deniers are Anti-Sematic. Is this a coincidence?
The Incredible Story of a Homosexual Serial Killer Puts to Rest Gay Stereotypes
A lot of stereotypes depict gays as rather cookie-cutter: soft demeanor, non-violent, well-kempt, honest, easily prone to feminine emotions, and obsessed with fashion. "The Assassination of Gianni Versace" is not just about the murder of the acclaimed fashion designer and media icon in 1997. A lot of the story revolves around his murderer, Andrew Cunanan, a gay socialite who definitely was anything but a stereotypical young gay man. The series also engages in a fairly honest depiction of gay culture
The series reveals gay culture at its most un-stereotypical. Yes there are scenes in gay bars and other gay hang-outs. Simultaneously, we meet gays who are university students, millionaires in real estate and commercial development, even soldiers in the military. Being gay is just one aspect of these people's lives. And the story revolves around a true-to-life figure who will appear on the same lists as Charles Manson and Ted Bundy: a gay serial killer who killed other gays.
The series is really more about Andrew Cunanan than Gianni Versace, although the series does have some flash-backs of both characters' lives prior to the Cunanan's killing spree. The first two episodes concern Cunanan's murder of Versace and the manhunt which followed. In the third episode, the series tracks backward. The third episode details Cunanan's relationship with a commercial real estate developer in Chicago. Not until the fifth episode do we learn about the beginnings of his killing spree involving a gay formerly in the military. Many of the middle episodes are about Andrew Cunanan's gay liaisons and how his killing spree was interwoven into his behavior. He was both desiring to prove he was highly successful, often by dressing in expensive clothes and fabricating details concerning his family, particularly his father, and trying to seduce potential gays lovers. The killing spree began in April of 1997 when he murdered a former naval officer who had been anxious his homosexuality would be revealed during the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" policy instigated by then President Bill Clinton.
This series is just about as compelling as I've seen on cable television. The acting is first-rate, with highest marks for Darren Criss as Cunanan with a strong and compelling performance by Édgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace. Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace, Gianni's sister, who takes the reigns of the Versace company upon the death of her brother, is already being considered a potential nominee for a best supporting actress award at the Emmys. The teleplay equals the acting. All the lines seem like natural dialog rather than contrived which is often a problem with material of this sort. At the same time, since this series depicts heinous and violent crimes coupled with homosexuality, it may not be for all tastes.
The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
Two Amateurs Sell Their Souls to the Soviet Union
The Falcon and the Snowman, so-named because of the former's interest in falconry and the latter's addiction to cocaine, received about the equivalent of $20,000 each for selling US intelligence secrets to the USSR through the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City in the mid-1970's. While certainly in 1975, that was decent money, about $95,000 each today, however when you consider they were jeopardizing not only their country but also risking their freedom, the USSR got a bargain. The Soviet Union was the most powerful nation in the East and they certainly had resources far greater than a few thousand dollars. President Nixon was willing to offer $1,000,000 in hush money to the Watergate Burglars! Split five ways around the same time, in today's money that would be about $1,000,000 a piece! As someone far wiser than me has once pointed out, if you're going to sell your soul, it better be for the highest price imaginable considering all the risks.
"The Falcon and the Snowman" chronicles the ill-conceived and ultimately failed exploits of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee (Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn) who decided to play "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy" but forgetting this was not James Bond. Daulton was a loser drug runner who happened to be friends with Boyce because they had been boyhood altar boys at their local Catholic Church during their youth. Daulton is portrayed as not a terribly savvy drug dealer since he often gets caught during exchanges. Conversely, Boyce is the all-American kid whose father had been head of security at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corporation. Through his connections, he lands Christopher a job with TRW Inc. and is eventually promoted to the "Black Vault" in which high-level security intelligence information passes through their office.
Boyce discovers the US government is not just engaged in its own national security. It's trying to influence the governments of other nations, in many cases US allies, not just foes. In particular, he notices the US government tried to pressure the Australian government in the eventual ouster of then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The ouster succeeds but the US claims non-involvement. In a strange rationalization, Boyce decides to even the playing field and sell, through "inept drug-runner-turned-amateur-spy" Lee. In fact, Lee is a self-described courier.
To get the Soviet's attention, Lee infiltrates the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, a very stupid move on his part. There he meets his Soviet contact "Alex" (David Suchet in an underrated performance). Thereafter, the first few transactions go all right. However eventually, the relationship between Lee and the Soviets begins to sour when the latter realize the incompetence of the former and how it is jeopardizing the whole relationship.
The Falcon is searching for a means to deal directly with the Soviets rather than using the Snowman as a go-between . The Falcon is searching for a means to deal directly with the Soviets rather than using the Snowman as a go-between because his "friend" is still trying to finagle drug deals. However, even the Falcon doesn't quite understand the game he's playing: he think he's playing "Risk" and the Soviets are playing Russian Roulette. All the while, the Falcon has to steal the secrets at his office without the NSA becoming wise to his behavior.
A compelling story about one of the stranger treasonous episodes in US history. These 20-something's thought they were smarter than their Soviet counterparts, and didn't realize these people play for keeps on the Intelligence stage. Alex has decades of experience as part of the Russian KGB. The Falcon and the Snowman were basically college-age idealists who didn't understand that both parties, the US and the USSR, would easily sacrifice either one of them or both in order to further their idealistic "cause".
The Post (2017)
The Last Best Hope of a Democracy is a Press Unhindered by Governmental Power: Prequel to "All the President's Men"
Eisenhower, J. Kennedy, and L. Johnson all had positive contributions to the well-being of the United States. Eisenhower upheld the Supreme Court's decision to desegregate public schools in the South, Kennedy navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Johnson signed into law Civil Rights Legislation. However, they all had one huge stain on their proverbial presidential suits: Vietnam. The United States' involvement in Vietnam was both a gross failure of foreign policy and a tragic military miscalculation with 10,000's of US soldier deaths and many more casualties from circa 1960 to 1975. Countless more Vietnamese, many of them unarmed civilians, were also casualties of the war. The story is rather timely because, at this writing, the current occupant of the White House disdains journalism and admonishes anyone in the Press who reports stories which are anything less than completely flattering of him and his administration.
The main thrust of "The Post" is how the Washington Post obtains the Pentagon Papers, the secret classified report on the failure of Vietnam, and the decision-making process about publishing the story. A riveting story from beginning to end, and a wonderful send-up of the story which would follow shortly thereafter: the break-in of Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate Apartment Plaza in Washington D.C. Meryl Streep, in one of her most compelling performances, plays Graham as the house-wife turned executive owner who has to make some of the most crucial decisions about her company. Tom Hanks makes the best Ben Bradlee since Jason Robards played the role and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
US Presidents, particularly L. Johnson and R. Nixon, felt the public couldn't handle the truth about the war, or, far worse, would view the war as failures and, God forbid, may hold their politicians accountable. The administrations did all they could to keep the public from knowing first-hand the details of the US' grand mess-up in Vietnam. Interestingly, the administration under Johnson commissioned a detailed report of Vietnam, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. The report was not to be made public but was intended for scholarly research long after the fact. It was produced when troops were still in Vietnam. "The Post" is about how the New York Times and eventually the Washington Post were leaked the Pentagon Papers and their decision to publish excerpts, inciting the fury of President Nixon and his Administration. The film begins with Dan Ellsberg making copies of the Pentagon Papers in the mid-1960's, and then the film fast-forwards to 1971.
The Washington Post operating in DC was a relatively small local newspaper which inadvertently fell into the hands of Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) after her husband (and Post owner) Philip Graham committed suicide in 1963. The Post is now poised to become publically traded on the stock market and evolve into a national and even international source of news reporting and journalism. While Graham is dealing with New York investor types, the New York Times had gotten hold of parts of the Pentagon Papers and were publishing them. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) had smelled that their rival in New York was brewing some volatile story but failed to gather appropriate intelligence. Then the Justice Department issues an injunction against the Times prohibiting them from further publishing which is upheld by a New York judge. The ruling offers a window of opportunity for the Post.
Underrated Portrait of One of the Strangest Characters to Reside in the Ovall Office (Until 2017)
If George W. Bush was anything, he wasn't his father. His father, George H.W. Bush was originally a New Englander, born in Massachusetts and then grew up in Vermont. While George H. W. did not have a Texas accent, son George W. did, growing up mainly in Houston and Midland, Texas. George W. sported cowboy hats, consumed burgers and beers, and boozed it up with broads at bars unlike his father who was the consummate intellectual New Englander, although both went to Yale. The present bio-pic is a kind of montage of the life of George W. Bush, interspersing scenes from his presidency with those of his formative years.
Josh Brolin offers one of the best performances of his career, portraying the younger W. Bush as a carousing adolescent whose irresponsibility with booze is only matched by his exceptional driving techniques, which involve swerving through streets and running into things. Some of the best scenes are Bush's early years where appears almost diametrically opposite from his prominent father. While his father (James Cromwell in an equally compelling performance) was tempered and intellectual, Bush is the free-wheeling party animal. His first "test" is when he rushes Delta Kappa Epsilon, a Yale fraternity, where during a hazing, he's able to outdo his fellow rushers. (Legend has it the character of Bluto from "Animal House" was based on George W. when he was a member of the Yale frat house!) He is portrayed as a directionless scatterbrain, unable to hold down jobs and careers for any length of time. Unlike his steady father, W.'s drinking continually worsens, and he often proposes to women he barely knows.
Frequently, we fast-forward to the Bush presidency. Richard Dreyfus is outstanding as Dick Cheney, and honorable mention goes to Jeffrey Wright as Colin Powell. His presidency is as scattered as his adolescent years, not quite knowing who is doing what in his cabinet. There is a sense that others with more intellect than himself are actually calling the shots behind his back. In an interesting early scene, during lunch with the Vice President, Cheney proposes a "hypothetical" scenario in which the President takes it too literally and compromises his sandwich as a result!
Back in the formative years, Bush volunteers to help his father in his presidential bid. And then has life-changing experience after he's boozed it up hard one night. He goes on a jog which does not go as planned and by the end of the sequence, he's rubbing shoulders with Evangelicals. Eventually he would convert, help to bring out the Evangelical vote in favor of his father in 1988, and become governor of Texas in 1994. And then he would run for president.
A thoroughly entertaining film which ponders more questions than it answers. Who was the real George W.? In a few places, we see W. standing in the middle of an empty baseball field, trying to catch an imagined fly ball. Every time the scene returns, the ball is more uncatchable. Which maybe speaks to various aspects of W. Was it that he couldn't quite catch the life he desired? Or maybe he was over-reaching? Or maybe the figure of W. is us, and the ball represents him, and we can't quite grasp him? Certainly not Stone's best film, but a good one.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Focus on King's Sexual Laison and Rigg's Nuttiness Compromise Basically the Most Powerful Episode of the Women's Movement
The famous (or infamous) tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), female tennis superstar, and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), former tennis champion and vocal bigot, coincided with other women's movements. For example, women professionals in other fields, such as newspapers, picketed their respective businesses. While the film generally portrayed the story of the match, I believe where this film failed was to bring it into the larger context. Ultimately this story was not just about a middle-aged former tennis champion, albeit a bigoted one who claimed that women couldn't play sports, being put in his place by the best female tennis player of her generation. The story's context goes far beyond the foul lines. This match was a microcosm of the larger conflict in which women were arguing that they had as much right to be in the workplace and enjoy the benefits of their labors as men. Still in this country, we have a salary gap between men and women, although certainly the gap is closing fast.
The tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs was perhaps the climactic moment in the Women's Movement of the 1970's. As one reporter put it, it was the most meaningful meaningless tennis match in sports history. In other words, it was meaningful because it proved that yes, women could play sports with as much zeal, enthusiasm and prowess as men. It was meaningless only in the sense that this was not a "grand slam" tournament of some kind. Neither King nor Riggs would gain anything in the tennis rankings from this one-off.
The film begins with King (Emma Stone) winning one of her many grand slam events. Next we learn about the struggle of women tennis players trying to gain recognition that their brand of tennis was at least of equal value to men. In several tournaments prior to the WTA, the women's prize money was only a fraction of the men, even though many finals matches on the women's side were sold out. Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), former tennis champion and promoter-executive of professional tennis, is portrayed as the "villain" of the story, even more than Bobby Riggs.
In a meeting (which may or may not be fictitious), Kramer meets with King and other female players who solicit him to increase the prize money for tournaments he produces and promotes on the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association. He declines with the rationale that the men's game makes much more money than the women's game. The women counter that the difference in prize money is 8 times, which would mean that the men's game makes 8-times as much money as the women's. Apparently, the showdown between Kramer and the top stars of women's tennis did happen, and nine players, including King, were barred from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association tour, and the other women create the Virginia Slims Tour in retaliation, which finally forced the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association to merge with them. This much is factually accurate although the tour happened two years before the Battle of the Sexes match.
The Virginia Slims Tennis Tour will eventually evolve into what is now the WTA, the Women's Tennis Association. I felt this part of the film was the strongest. The film then delves into two aspects of the personal lives of King and her rival Riggs. King with a spontaneous affair with a hairdresser and Riggs with his inability to stop gambling addictions. For some reason, I felt these episodes were a bit less interesting than focusing on the match and the implications of the Women's Movement.
Still, great performances by Stone and Carell who captured the essences of their characters. Carell in particular features the nuttier antics of Riggs who honestly believed he could beat any female player (professional or otherwise) while sitting in a lawn chair. When the match finally happens, it's a great climactic event and saves the movie. The seed was that Riggs had beaten current no. 1 female tennis player, Margaret Court, portrayed as the well-mannered British player who would always do what she was told. A very good film but not quite a great one.
Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)
Not Even Modestly Entertaining, Overall Unbalanced Schtick Trying to Recapture the Success of "Guys and Dolls"
Robbo a.k.a. Robin (Frank Sinatra) is a 1920's era Chicago mob rival of Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk). They operate speakeasy casinos which serve booze via broads along with the little vice machines: slots, roulette, etc. Sinatra's mentor Big Jim (Edward G. Robinson, uncredited; we see his portrait in Robbo's office) has just been snatched from Chicago to go that big speakeasy in the sky thanks to a new sheriff in town. The film begins with a rather "entertaining" outdoor funeral/send off where Big Jim's fellas give him a last goodbye with some singing, throwing hats, and some pistol shots, Just like they used to do when Capone was pulling Chicago's underworld strings.
Now that Big Jim is gone, Guy Gisborne wants his operation to join with Robbo's so they can clean up the town, i.e. monopolize the gambling and the booze. Guy even says it would be better to be "the best of friends rather than the worst enemies." Robbo replies "finish your drink", meaning he's declined the offer. A new pool hustler, Little John, has come into town and wants to help Robbo with his operation. Sammy Davis Jr, has a role as one of Robbo's lackeys but, like Martin, contributes little to the actual story.
Turns out Guy is a sore loser and ransacks Robbo's speakeasy. Robbo then returns the favor. Okay, it's about a rivalry between two mob bosses. But then it gets cheesy. Interspersed with this mostly harmless but absolutely fantasized scenario of the 1920's gang wars are a lot of songs, mostly forgettable. "All for One and One for All" is sung by Falk and company at the funeral of Big Jim. "Any Man Who Loves His Mother" is sung by Dean Martin. Of course Davis has a song and dance routine where he shoots up booze bottles in "Bang Bang", and when Crosby enters the story, it's not long before he sings as well. A song which should be fast-forwarded is "Don't be a Do-Badder" in which he and the orphan boys don green Robin Hood hats and sing and dance.
Then Frankie, I mean Robbo, meets a beautiful blonde, Marian Stevens (Barbara Rush) who wants to see Robbo in private. Turns out she doesn't want a night out with Frankie. She's the daughter of Big Jim, willing to pay good money to hit whoever offed her father. The hit is carried out, but Robbo claims he had no part of it but ends with $50 G's (that's $50,000). He wants to return the money, which ends up in a charitable organization helping disadvantaged orphans run by none other than Bing Crosby as Minister Alan A. Dale. Robbo becomes an instant celebrity and labeled as the "Robin Hood" of Chicago for his charitable contributions.
It starts to ring of "Guys and Dolls" meets "Going My Way" and/or "The Bells of St. Mary's" (where Crosby played a catholic priest, Father O'Malley). "My Kind of Town", Sinatra's big solo, was nominated for "Best Song" but there's not a lot here to cheer about. The scenario didn't take itself seriously about midway.
The real standout is Peter Falk as Guy Gisborne but his role as the rival mob boss seems to have been cut in favor of endless and seemingly pointless song and dance routines. At one point Sinatra, Martin and Crosby do a song and dance routine, replete with hats and canes, as if they've been rehearsing for the latest Vaudeville show.
Not a bad premise wasted on an unbalanced if not occasionally annoying script. The musical idea essentially ruined the seriousness of the story. It still could have been a comedy-drama fantasy but adding the musical numbers clouded and crowded what could have been a decent story,
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Decent Updating of the Agatha Christie Masterpeace is Not Quite as Mysterious as the 1974 Version
It's difficult to improve upon the original "Murder on the Orient Express" film of 1974. Some aspects are slightly improved while others suffer. I give Branagh some credit for engaging in this project while simultaneously it seemed that a remake which is not as good as the original may have been ill-conceived. The original 1974 film is, by far, the best murder mystery ever shot. Sort of like remaking "Star Wars IV: A Good Hope". What's the point? Given there are many great Agatha Christie books which have not yet had large-screen treatment (the David Suchet series was meant for television), it seems Branagh could have chosen another one. And there are other large screen productions which could be greatly improved upon, such as the Peter Ustinov "Death on the Nile".
A quick run down of the story. Hercule Poirot, vacationing in Istanbule, is called to take a case back in London. He is to board the Orient Express back to Western Europe. (The Orient Express is a luxury train which runs from Western Europe to the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Today it can cost as much as $1000+ per day.) All expenses paid, he "runs into" several of the quirky characters which are also taking the train. He can't secure a first class compartment right away because the train is full and has to settle for a second class cabin with a roommate.
The train gets on its way, and Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a rather grumpy antiques dealer, asks for Poirot to take his case. He's been receiving death threats and desires Poirot to help him for $15,000, which would be a king's ransom in 1934, or about $275,000 in today's money. The next night, the train is moving through the snow-clad alps of Central Europe. Some strange things are happening near Poirot's compartment, such as someone who rings for the assistant conductor, and someone leaves another compartment, apparently a woman wearing a flowing dressing gown with a dragon emblazoned on the back.
The next day, Ratchett is found stabbed to death in his compartment. The son of the train owners, Bouc (Tom Bateman), pleads with Poirot to take the case to save the train from the disruption of a government investigation. At the same time, the train has hit an avalanche is unable to move forward. The Belgian sleuth reluctantly takes the case. Will he be able to solve the mystery before authorities arrive?
I'll start with the good. Kenneth Branagh, given he will be inevitably compared to Albert Finney and David Suchet, arguably the two best Hercule Poirot's of all-time, makes for a memorable Belgian detective (not French). His performance as everyone's favorite European continental sleuth is definitely better than the choice of Peter Ustinov, who came off like a cross between Poirot, Nero and Mussorgsky in two Agatha Christie films in the 1970's. Branagh more or less pulls it off. His is not a Poirot which will win him any acting trophies (Finney was nominated for both an Academy Award and a BFTA Award for Best Actor for the same part in 1974), but it's definitely not the worst. The cinematography is also exceptional when paired with CGI makes for some spectacular scenes of the Austrian/Swiss alps. Depp is fairly good as Ratchett, and Wilem Dafoe makes a good Gerhard Hardman.
The not so good. There was far more mystery in the original than in the present offering. The Daisy Armstrong case, loosely inspired by the Lindbergh Kidnapping case which was recent to the first edition of Christie's novel, was presented in the original with much more dynamic flair. Newsreel type footage shows the case at the beginning while in this offering, the case is revealed through what appear to be home movies.
Some scenes were a bit melodramatic. I love Michelle Pfeiffer, but here her Mrs. Hubbard is not quite as interesting as her counterpart from the 1970's, Lauren Becall. Pfeiffer's Hubbard becomes over-the-top melodramatic towards the end while Becall's becomes the opposite when things are revealed. Again, a difficult act to follow. Judi Dench as the Russian Princess Dragomiroff didn't have much screen time. In the original, played by Wendy Hiller, Hiller almost steals the show, and keeps up strive for strive with Albert Finney. Even Sean Connery's famous scene in the 1974 film where he, as Colonel Arbuthnot says "...are you suggesting that I'm fool enough to have entered Ratchett's cabin, murdered him, cleaned my 'peep', and dropped it into the ash tray on my way out?" Sadly this line was absent from this new production. Unfortunately, I found the final solution less captivating than the original of 1974.
Again, a decent one-watch, but it only made me long to see the original 1974 film. This film is good, make no mistake. But it didn't quite have the wit of the original. Strangely, this film was a bit humorless, save for an opening sequence (not in the book) where Poirot solves a crime in Instanbul. I found that sequence more compelling than a lot of other things in the rest of the film.
Michiel de Ruyter (2015)
An Exciting and Appropriate Tribute to One of the Greatest Naval Admirals in Maritime History
In the Netherlands, this film is simply called "Michiel de Ruyter", but in English-speaking countries it's called "The Admiral". If you grew up in the Netherlands, you'd know the name Michiel de Ruyter just like the British revere Horatio Nelson and Americans know of John Paul Jones. (Jones probably is one of those figures who ends up in his own colored box in American high school history text books.) Three statues plus a marble tomb exist in the Netherlands honoring Michiel de Ruyter which is a large number considering the size of the country. He is probably the most famous naval admiral in the history of the Netherlands, and probably ranks among the top half dozen in the history of Europe and America. A pretty good case could be made he was the greatest prior to the 20th century. He is a figure Americans could admire particularly because he was not of noble birth and seemed to have decided lack of selfishness, uncommon in a period where advancement through connections and not always achievement was the rule and not the exception.
The film begins with the death of Martaan Tromp during the Battle of Scheveningen, known by the British as the Battle of Texel. (Despite popular rumor, I don't think Martaan Tromp is an ancestor of Donald Trump, considering the latter's name probably comes from Germany, not the Netherlands, spelled Drumpf, and the family respelled their name to "Trump" when they came to America in the 19th century.) De Ruyter (Frank Lammers in an outstanding performance) is given an offer from the current grand pensionary (sort of like a prime minister) of the Netherlands, Johan de Witt (Barry Atsma), to become the new admiral of the Dutch fleet. De Ruyter declines citing his unfitness for the task. However, when it appears the English will attack again, de Witt asks de Ruyter to reconsider, persuading him by inviting him and his wife to dinner.
During the film, other events are taking place in politics aside from the naval battles. This was both the film's strength and weakness. Particularly for Americans, this history is unfamiliar. The Netherlands was a young republic in the wake of having pushed Catholic-Spanish rule out of Spain by 1648. The seven provinces were supposed to be ruled by an elected stadtholder (a governor or prince); some of the provinces who were ruled by princes who inherited their positions rather than being elected. William of Orange (Egbert-Jan Weber) ruled as stadholder over five of the seven provinces. These statholders then met in the Hague with other members of their parliament to decide matters of state. Two opposing factions emerged vying for control of the government: Republicans (desiring non-noble house or non-monarchical rule) and Orangists, those who favored rule by monarchy, which also implied non-elected leaders like a king. The latter faction desired William of Orange (who would later become King William of the William and Mary co-monarchy of England) to become King of the Netherlands.
While Michiel de Ruyter is trying to defend his nation from the English navy which had been attacking Dutch merchant vessels since circa 1650, the country was in a lot of political turmoil. The film juxtaposes two pieces of history: the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the mid-17th century and the political turmoil within the Netherlands. The only issue is that for those unfamiliar with the history this could get confusing. The Netherlands was attacked by ground forces from Germany which the Netherlands was unprepared to defend against. Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis de Witt were scape-goated for the attacks and also blamed for a possibly secret plot to assassinate William of Orange.
Still, this is a fantastic film about a period of European history which doesn't get a lot of cinematic treatment outside of the Netherlands. All the acting is superb. The portrayal of King Charles II of England is a bit over-the-top, but if there has to be a major baddie of the film, he's it. The other character, William of Orange, is shown to grow from a rather snooty young nobleman into a concerned statesman. He is at first worried about his own reputation as he feels there are unfair rumors about him. Towards the end we see him rise above his own political well-being and become more centered on the fate of his nation. He will eventually become King William III of England, a co-monarch with his wife Queen Mary II, the only co-monarchy in the history of England/Britain, and regarded as one of the finest reigns in the history of Europe.
Halloween 35 Anniv Blu-ray A Superb Facelift of a Horror Classic
Overall, the slasher film genre is pretty pathetic, most films so insipid as being worthy of the proverbial trash can. Save one. The original "Halloween", which brought intelligence to the slasher film, is still the best of its sub-genre, or one of two, the other being the original "Psycho". Sadly, its sequels, and other films it spawned, such as the Friday the 13th series and other films associated with holidays like "Silent Night, Deadly Night" don't just scrape the bottom of the barrel, but aren't worthy to be in the same company as barrels. Other films, aside, "Halloween" is both scary but also has a somewhat literary context, as far as a slasher-horror film can muster. It was recently released in a 35th Anniversary edition on Blu-ray, and it looks and sounds better than ever.
First what the Blu-ray offers: the look is cleaner and more vivid while simultaneously retaining the subdued colors and hues of the original. During Halloween day, the sky is overcast which is a spooky prelude to the horrific events which will occur in the evening. Apparently, there had been released a previous Blu-ray version where the colors were brightened, ruining the spooky and even misty feel of the original film. After many complaints from fans, this 35th Anniversary edition essentially solves the problems of the former release. It retains the less saturated filters of the original while simultaneously appearing much cleaner and more vibrant than previous DVD and VHS releases.
What makes "Halloween" such an effective film of a genre replete with so many irredeemable examples unworthy of your time and expense is that there's more to the story than simply a mad guy in Halloween mask running around killing people. Yes, that is more or less the main plot. However, there is a subtext. An effective plot device which becomes the springboard of the story is that the baddie, Michael Myers, murdered his sister in a suburban home in Haddonfield, Illinois in the early 1960's which is the first sequence of the film. The story then jumps ahead to 1978. The night before Halloween, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) and a nurse are traveling on a rainy night to an insane asylum. The inmates are wandering around the grounds in the rain. They realize something has let them out, and suddenly their car is hijacked, the nurse nearly becoming the first victim of the baddie in 1978. It's most certainly Michael Myers, the "Evil".
Loomis suspects Myers plans to return to the town of his boyhood. Part of the story is Loomis following Myers' footsteps. Loomis travels to the suburban town Haddonfield, a good 150 miles away from the asylum. For a boy who has been locked up for 15 years, he seems to drive a car fairly well, which gives a somewhat supernatural aspect to the Myers character. Then we meet Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) who has to leave some keys at the abandoned Myers residence, which has become the local haunted house. A figure stares from inside the house when Laurie makes her deposit of the keys. For the next several hours, Laurie sees the strange figure of Myers off and on which is one of the most effective aspects of the film. In other words, there is great build-up before the horrific events actually transpire. Laurie and her teenage friends, Annie and Lynda, become the focus of Myers' wrath. Laurie and Annie babysit two children who are watching "The Thing" on television. The three young women, the two children, and one young man become unwilling characters of an horrific reenactment of the events of Halloween night 15 years earlier. Other subtle hints that there is more to the story than simply the slasher aspects, such as the reference to the mythological monster, the "boogeyman" and Laurie's vow to keep the children safe. Not to give anything away, one of the most disturbing and yet brilliant scenes is not when Myers is doing what he has come to do, but one of the characters discovering the nature of the reenactment.
No question, even the original "Halloween" is a terrifying example of fright-cinema. This film is not for all tastes, and if you would rather not be scared into submission, do NOT under any circumstance see this film. Simultaneously, if you desire to be scared and not necessarily "grossed out", "Halloween" is quite possibly the best slasher film of the genre next to "Psycho". And it's a real treat on Blu-ray. As a codetta, "Halloween" redefines the concept of "Trick or Treat". Are the other films and similar offerings in the genre worthy of being seen? In my humble opinion, only "The Nightmare on Elm Street" is worthy of viewing. The rest have no redeeming qualities at all, particularly "Friday the 13th" and its sequels, as well as the other Halloween films. I don't know how any other film can say more than the original "Halloween" without it becoming merely a cinematic blood-fest.
Maybe the Best SF Film of All Time: Partially Inspired by "It! The Terror from Beyond Space"
Most of the intellectual film community cites "2001: A Space Odyssey" as the greatest science fiction film of all time. Film critics take notice: I think the original "Alien" surpasses "2001" as the best science fiction film to date. That's not to say there aren't other films worthy of golden rocket ship trophies aside from "Alien" and "2001", such as the original 1977 "Star Wars" (aka "Star Wars IV: A New Hope"), "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and "Blade Runner". Probably the first aspect which pushes "Alien" passed many other films, is how it slowly brings us into a "universe" without being self-conscious about it, somewhat similar to the first space sequence of "2001". To be fair, "2001" did pave the way for films like "Alien" and "Star Wars". The scope of the story, again somewhat similar to "2001" is very confined: a space ship which has a brief encounter on a planet and what is brought on-board.
First we encounter a cargo vessel, the Nostromo, bound for Earth carrying millions of tons of iron ore. The vessel seems to be moving slowly through space. We then are shown the inner corridors of the ship. The corridors are all is silent, which is very different than the opening to the original Star Wars in which a small ship is being pursued by an imperial star-ship larger than a supernova. Here, we see the ship's empty corridors and for a moment wonder if anyone is actually on-board. We even see a room with a large computer. Suddenly, the computer and ship "come to life", lights flashing. But no passenger appears responsible for this end to the long silence.
Then we see seven sleeping passengers whose glass lids are opened. We deduce that one of the ways space travel is accomplished in this "universe" is to put the passengers to sleep, which probably solves the problem of life support and food. Passengers are put into extended hibernation for long periods during travel and are awakened at arrival. Now the hibernation compartments have been opened. The first passenger to awake looking groggy and spent is Kane (John Hurt) who moves slowly out of his sleeping bay. The other passengers follow.
Finally, the passengers finally awakened, they learn they are not home yet. Why were the passengers awakened before completing the voyage? Dallas the captain (Tom Skerritt) has consulted with the super-computer which runs the ship, affectionately nicknamed "Mother" who has awakened them because it received a signal from another planet. We learn it was programmed to awaken the passengers if certain situations arise and in this case, the signal was one of those scenarios. They are also compelled in their contract to investigate such a signal, or their shares, the money promised them, will be revoked.
Several of the crew board a shuttle craft and land on the planet where they find an ancient ship. The ship was designed for beings many times the size of the human crew. The corridors of this ship are much more ominous than that of the cargo ship, almost like a giant abandoned city. A fossilized corpse of a large creature many times bigger than an average human being seems fused to a large chair. Kane finds a strange holding area where large oval-shaped objects, about the half the height of a person, are spread about. Kane examines one of them which seems to come alive and attack him. The landing party returns but Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) declines to let Kane in until he's gone through 24 hours of decontamination. The science officer Ash (Ian Holm) lets them inside, contradicting Ripley's orders.
A strange parasitic organism is attached to Kane's face, and it has ultra defenses to prevent it from being removed from Kane. When Dallas and Ash try to remove it, its tale wraps tightly around its host. When they try to cut into it, it spews acid. This turns out to be the first part of a three-part encounter with something alien, interpreted both as a noun and an adjective. Aside from the action sequences, the reasons for the original signal, the awakening of the crew, the investigation and the presence of the thing itself all have political implications.
"Alien" is not just a classic science fiction story but a masterpiece of genre filmmaking. The pace and tone of the film are gradual but deliberate. At nearly every moment, the crew, who are simply a bunch of working class stiffs, never fully understand what they're dealing with. When finally the entire scope of their situation is revealed, it's almost too late.
A Kind of Murder (2016)
Underrated Thriller Which Owes More to Howard Hawks than Hitchcock
Thrillers made prior to circa 1970 often began with a "hook" of some kind, followed shortly thereafter by an unspeakable event. The story would only gradually unfold in which the viewer has no idea the who, the what, the how, the pieces of the puzzle only fitting into place at great effort. Think of the Maltese Falcon: a beautiful woman enters into the detective offices of Sam Spade and Miles Archer, claiming she's trying to find her sister who has been supposedly abducted. Shortly thereafter, Archer is murdered. In "A King of Murder", based on a story by the mystery-suspense writer Patricia Highsmith, famous for her Ripley novels, there's a similar form.
At the beginning of the film, we learn that the wife of a reclusive antiquarian bookseller, Marty Kimell (Eddie Marsan) has been murdered. We don't see the murder, but mainly hear about it through a newspaper clipping extracted from a newspaper by Walter Stackhouse, a prominent architect. The case is being investigated by Detective Lawrence Corby (Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men fame). Then we're brought to the other story-line thread. Walter Stackhouse (Patrick Wilson) seems to have everything someone in the upper middle-class could desire: a beautiful home, a beautiful wife, and a promising career as an architect and a short story writer. Except, his relationship with his wife, Clara (Jessica Biel), is on the rocks because of a dwindled sex life. At one of their lavish parties Stackhouse meets Elli, and he triangulates to fulfill his sexual needs. He also visits the bookshop owned by the husband of the murdered woman.
Clara's impotence worsens and so does her psychological instability. At the same time, the case of the murdered woman seems to be going nowhere. Eventually, Clara's mother is reported to be dying, and Clara leaves on a bus to go to her bedside. Stackhouse follows her but then returns home. Later, we learn Clara never arrived at her mother's. She was found dead under a bridge about half-way between her home and her mother's. Was it suicide or murder? Stackhouse is questioned by Corby who starts to believe there may be a link between Stackhouse, his dead wife, and the other murdered woman. When questioned about whether he knew about the other case, Stackhouse lies and says he's never heard of it, and claims he has never met the widower. Corby begins to question Stackhouse's claims. Will he be caught in his lies and therefore become a prime suspect in the death of his wife?
A thoroughly enjoyable and biting suspense-thriller which has its roots in many of the noir films directed by Howard Hawks and John Huston. A positive reviewer quote states that the film would have made Hitchcock proud, but this is much more of a throw-back to adaptions of novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. "A Kind of Murder" is very gritty, similar to the "b-films" of Old Hollywood, such as "The Maltese Falcon", "Laura", and "The Big Sleep". And the climactic ending is not what you would expect from most of these kinds of films today.
War Dogs (2016)
Arms Contracts Equal Bucks: Makes the Drug Trade Look Like a Lemonade Stand
Recently on the television show "American Greed", the story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz trading firearms and ammo to the US government was showcased as a morality tale of greed beating out common or good sense. Although both were against the US-Iraq War, Doveroli and Packouz decided market profit eclipses domestic moralizing. The US government was at war, and there were people in the world who were going to profit by dealing arms and ammo to those engaged in the fighting. The dirty little secret about war: there are many who profit largely whenever a superpower goes to war. The kind of money made in arms dealing as compared to something like illegal drugs, makes the latter look like a few lemonade stands.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) was a massage therapist and occasional seller of high-quality blankets to the elderly. He doesn't make great money at either endeavor. He chances to meet his former school buddy, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill in an award-caliber performance) at a funeral. Diveroli has been in illegal drug trading, but has found a more lucrative market: dealing in used weaponry and selling to the most fanatical gun enthusiasts on the planet: the United States Military. They find used weapons at wholesale and then resell online and to the US Government. His small company was called AEY Inc.
Because the US is at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, there is a shortage of munitions supplies. Diveroli discovers there's a US website detailing hundreds of requests for munitions. With governmental approval, anyone can sell the munitions to the US Military. At first everything is on the up-and-up. But they are mainly getting the crumbs while the larger manufacturers are getting the bigger pieces. The crumbs are worth millions but the thing is, the larger contracts are worth in the hundreds of millions. They even get a silent partner/backer Ralph Slutsky (Kevin Pollack).
At a conference on firearms in Las Vegas, Diveroli and Packouz learn they may be in over their heads as they can't compete with the large munitions companies. Until Packouz meets with the notorious arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). Girard tells the novices several pieces of information which in this business can turn into hefty profits. (While I don't always agree "knowledge is power" only "potential power", in this case, the first one with the map to the treasure could win) Firstly, there's a shortage of AK-47 ammunition, needed especially for the Afghan army in the Middle East. Secondly, Girard knows where he can procure a large quantity of 150 million rounds of ammunition. The last piece is that Girard can't do business with the US Federal government, probably because he broke trade regulations. (Girard is probably loosely based on Swiss arms dealer Heinrich "Henri" Thomet.) Girard proposes to the newbies that he will sell them the ammo he has access to. If AEY can broker the deal to sell 150 million rounds of ammo to the US government, the deal is potentially worth $2/round, in other words about $300 million. It will be the largest deal AEY has ever brokered. The question is: will the US government fork out hundreds of millions to two twenty-something arms traders who have been in business for less time than a typical baseball season?
A thoroughly compelling film. Aspects are a bit like some of Martin Scorsese's offerings with voice-over and occasional freeze frame. The voice-over by Miles Teller helps us understand all the pieces of the arms-dealing world. Some aspects were fictionalized but many of the details of some of the deals are accurate, especially the one worth $300 million. All acting is solid, particularly Tellers as Packouz and Bradley as Girard. However, a fantastic and believable performance by Jonah Hill as the guiding force behind AEY. Definitely one of Hill's best acting performances. A fairly underrated film.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The Case of the Missing Replicant Offspring and Outstanding Visuals Compromised by Length, Pace and Distance
In the original "Blade Runner" film, blade runners were hired assassins paid to "retire" renegade replicants originally manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. Replicants were manufactured to work as slaves on colonization planets, and some replicants began to rebel and band together to fight their oppressors for freedom and longevity. It should be pointed out that blade runners were humans, and replicants were bio-engineered humanoids without biological births. In the new film, the Wallace Corporation has built upon what Tyrell began several decades earlier. Their new "breeds" of replicants are incapable of disobedience and some have been drafted to be blade runners themselves, mainly to find some of the older models which escaped blade runners.
Ryan Gosling plays "K", the beginning letter of a long-winded serial number. He's one of the new breed of replicants who is also among the new force of blade runners ordered to hunt down and retire renegade replicants, mainly older models which escaped retirement. During one of K's hunts, he finds a box containing skeletal remains which he brings back to the LAPD offices and labs. Upon further analysis of the remains, the deceased appears to have been not only pregnant but also a replicant. The implication is staggering: replicants may have the ability to reproduce. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) puts K on the case to find out more about the pregnancy and discover if the offspring is still alive with orders to retire it.
The main plot is generally a good one: a case of the missing replicant believed to have been born, not bio-engineered. Three groups are interested in the biological birth and the offspring, which may be a hybrid: half replicant, half human. On one end of the spectrum is Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), head of the corporation which has succeeded the Tyrell Corporation. Wallace is not against the biological breeding of replicants. When knowledge of the birth reaches Wallace, he embraces, for he plans to use the millions of new replicants as slaves. On the other side are a group of replicants who desire freedom, similar to the first film. And then there's Lt. Joshi, part of the LAPD, who simply fears renegade replicants and possible biological breeding will destroy the infrastructure of society. In other words, humans are humans, and replicants are replicants, and things should remain thus.
First the good news. The look and atmosphere of the sequel is very similar to the original. Even the music, written mostly by Hans Zimmer but based on some of the original themes and style of Vangelis, parallel the original. The story also explores the ideas of what makes us human. In the original, the rebel replicants seemed to have more humanity than the biological humans, which made for an interesting rhetorical juxtaposition between the nature of human reality. Similar ideas are explored here.
I think the biggest criticism is that it's almost too slow-moving and long for it's own good. The original was assessed as being too "slow-moving" but today it doesn't feel that way at all, and even the director's cut is still just under 2 hours. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, "Blade Runner 2049" could have used a lot more cutting. A couple of scenes, such as one where a large King-King-size animation interacts with Gosling could have been cut and the film would not have suffered one iota. However, some of the long drawn-out throw-away scenes made it difficult to focus on things which were more crucial to the plot. Other times we often see Gosling in multiple view shots where nothing is happening. Sadly, one character which will become important later is shown briefly in one scene. I would have liked more about that character and less screen time devoted to seeing the pores of Gosling's face!
Still, generally a good film, although I don't think it will become a classic like the original. Some parts were interesting, others became too long without much plot development, while other very important points were not developed very much. In both films, we hear about the off-world colonies but we never see them. And we never see the replicants actually engaging in rebellion, two aspects which would have made the original stories a bit richer.
School Ties (1992)
"A Separate Peace" Meets "Europa Europa": Thoroughly Engaging Film About Prejudice
We all have secrets, most often the concealing of a minor infraction. However, what if the secret concerns someone's identity or ethnicity among his or her peers? If the secret was revealed, would his opportunities be jeopardized? This is the plight David Green (Brendan Fraser in a fine performance) must face in "School Ties". In the 1950's, a prestigious college prep school, St. Matthews (modeled probably on Exeter Academy in New England) has been losing football games year after year, and the alumni is at their wits' ends. The alumni concoct an interesting strategy: put together a football scholarship and use it to compel an outstanding athlete to enroll in their school and improve their team.
They find a crack-jack quarterback from Scranton, Pennsylvania, David Green, and compel him to attend their school for his senior year of high school. However, there's one catch: Green is Jewish, and St. Matthews is a private Anglican school where students are required to attend Christian services. Green decides to conceal his Jewish heritage and "play" along by attending services and hiding a Star of David necklace. He makes friends, and as the new quarterback, the football team becomes a success.
However, Green's appearance at the school causes disruption in the tried-and-true storytelling device of "a stranger comes to town". He has knocked Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon in an outstanding supporting performance) out of the quarterback spot, and the latter will now play running back and blocker. Green becomes the star player. In one interesting scene, Dillon makes the crucial difference in a score but Green receives most of the credit. However, things continue to get worse for Dillon. His "girlfriend" Sally Wheeler (Amy Locane) begins to fall for Green at a school dance.
Dillon has only one trump card to play against Green to undermine the latter's meteoric rise to the heights of school super-stardom, potentially the turning point of the story. A thoroughly compelling film from beginning to fade out. The cast is excellent with many young actors who will become name talent in their own right: Fraser, Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris O'Donnell. And the story asks the question: will ethnic prejudice or individual character win the day?