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American Animals (2018)
A Seemingly Innocent Heist of Rare Books Becomes Deadly Serious
Everyone knows about rare and fine art: Picasso's, Rembrandt's, Da Vinci's. When an art heist takes place it often gets top story news. But what about a rare book heist? One of the most valuable books in the world, which is really a hybrid between rare books and fine art is Audubon's The Birds of America. Audubon created about 120 copies of nearly 450 engravings of birds which he then hand-colored. Most copies have been broken apart. The small number of copies which remain intact with all of the engravings often sell at auction for about $12 million. Individual hand-colored prints can be worth anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000.
Four over-their-head college students decide to pilfer Transylvania University's copy of Audubon's Birds of America from their rare book/special collections room at their library. They think they're smarter than the library. Only a door, case and librarian are standing in the way of their acquiring these volumes. There's also a first edition of "Origin of Species", worth about $150,000. They also own a late medieval codex with miniatures and hand-illumination, probably worth $500,000 to $1 million.
The story is told quasi-documentary style with actors playing the four heisters and the real people telling how they remember the story. Evan Peters plays Warren Lipka, the ring-leader, Barry Keoghan as Spencer Reinhard, the youngest and most uneasy of the group, Blake Jenner as Chas Allen, the get-away driver, and Jared Abrahamson as Eric Borsuk, an accounting student who will help with the logistics. Ann Dowd has a small part as Betty Jean "BJ" Gooch, the librarian.
Lipka and Reinhard are the first to dream up the plan. They go on a wild goose chase which takes them to New York and then Lipka to Amsterdam, where they hope to secure buyer interest in the rare books on the black market. They realize they need help to pull off the heist, so they solicit help from two fellow college students, allen and Borsuk. Even when trying to decide how to pull off the heist, they seem over their heads. They use colors, such as Mr. Black and Mr. Pink to identify each other, like the film Reservoir Dogs. Their initial idea is to dress in disguises looking like Ivy League professors.
What starts out as a seemingly somewhat playful game until they finally enact the heist which becomes deadly serious. The outcome is worth the price of admission. One of my favorite rationalizations made is they plan to give the librarian $1000's when they sell the Audubon volumes. What they didn't know is that auction houses and rare booksellers, at least legitimate ones, will research items to make sure they're not on the black market.
The Central Park Five (2012)
Prosecution-Addicted NYPD Scapegoats Four 14-Year-Olds and One 16-Year-Old
In April of 1989, about 30 young underage blacks picked the wrong night to go to Central Park. Most of them were just screwing around, breaking bottles, play fighting with each other. Not harmless but not exactly lethal. A few of them decided to escalate their behavior. They beat up some people, and stole and vandalized property. These are serious offenses, maybe the kinds of acts which might get you 30 to 90 days in jail, or maybe the rest of the schoolyear in Juvenile Hall. Yes these were stupid and criminal acts but they were not perpetrated by all 30 of the youngsters, and these were not crimes warranting decades of incarceration. This documentary chronicles the wrongful convictions of five juveniles, four African-Americans and one Latino, for the rape and attempted murder of a white upper-middle-class jogger, a crime which happened to take place amidst the other mayhem.
The main reason this was the wrong night for these young blacks was because, unbeknownst to them, a young professional, a Phi-Beta Kappa no less, was being raped and nearly murdered at near the same time in Central Park. She had been on a routine jog. The police rounded up five of the young blacks for disorderly conduct and destruction of property and possible assault. It appears the approximately 25 others escaped but they captured five of them and drove them to headquarters. They were going to be charged with the crimes committed by the others. Again, evidence reveals that not all of them were involved in the crimes of assault and disorderly conduct, only some of them.
But then there's a twist. Police decided the five juveniles who were arrested for the crimes committed by some of the rest of the group, destruction of property, assault, etc, had also raped and nearly murdered the jogger. NYPD was going to prove what an exemplary and model institution its police and investigation units were in not only arresting these "hoodlums" but also solving the jogger-rape case simultaneously. This was going to be a home run for NYPD. At the time, New York was fighting a crime spree.
According to the documentary, the five juveniles (the oldest was 16 while the others were 14) and their families believed they would be released. But when the story of the rape victim was entered into the gumbo of crimes, the police wanted confessions, and coerced the juveniles to cooperate. Four signed confessions and five were video-taped giving confessions which were dictated to them by the police.
First off, the suspects were juveniles. They were not given a chance to speak with their parents prior to their confessions. They were never given the opportunity to speak to an attorney which I thought was required by law. An attorney could have told them that any taped, video-taped and/or signed confession could be used against them in a court of law. However they were told that if they wanted to "go home" they had to sign the confessions. They had been in custody for about a day and a half, which is an eternity to most youngster that age. Almost none of their confessions matched up with the others and even contradicted known facts about the rape. They did accuse the others of committing the rape. Also, a DNA test of the rapist's sperm didn't match any of the five. No worries, said the prosecutors. We'll say there was 6th as yet unknown assailant. Trouble was, the confessions didn't describe a sixth rapist.
The only evidence linking them to this specific crime was their signed confessions. Unfortunately the jury found their confessions credible and found them guilty. Only one juror dissented but was persuaded by the others to go along, according to this juror's interview. Not only was the NYPD convinced of their guilt, all the country believed they were guilty in the court of public opinion. Only after more the five served more than 10 years in prison did the true perpetrator, who actually continued to rape and murder after the initial crime, confess to raping the jogger. But even then, several of the prosecutors wanted to "hold" to their belief in the original five's guilt.
Investigators and prosecutors Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein appear to be instrumental in the coercion of wrongful and fabricated "confessions" by the five. Because of the new Netflix docudrama "When They See Us", public opinion has turned against them. Fairstein in particular, a writer of mystery novels, was dropped by her publisher. Some posted online that it was "unfair" that Lederer's and Fairstein's lives be ruined by only "one mistake". That one mistake cost five teenagers the rest of their childhood and part of their adulthood. Also consider, that that's not how the judicial system operates. Even if someone gave millions to charity, if you shoot someone in cold blood, whatever wonderful things you may have done before have little or no baring on the case, except maybe you might get a more lenient sentence. Careers are typically destroyed by convictions. So to convict someone else wrongfully is actually a crime, and it seems the prosecutors and police who were involved should have faced some kind of penalties for not allowing the suspects at least the opportunity to speak to an attorney. Being forced to resign would be minimal! Lederer in particular still works with NYPD. I guarantee anyone reading this would want the right to consult with an attorney to be honored if they were ever arrested for a crime they didn't commit. It's easy to say "let the guilty hang!" until it's you.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
Movies Within a Movie: Only the Coen Bros Could Zing 1950's Hollywood Culture: All the World's a Movie
From the very beginning of film as manufactured entertainments to be consumed not unlike candy and popcorn until circa 1965, the Hollywood studios were giant movie factories. They cranked out films like the latest dessert or candy bar to be quickly devoured and ingested until the next time. The studios were often making multiple films on different sound stages. When television became serious competition for entertainment seekers in the 1950's, the studios fought back by making large epic pictures in a new format: Cinemascope, a widescreen format which could not be accommodated by current television technology. Cinemascope films often took place in ancient times: "The Robe", "Ben Hur", and "The Ten Commandments". (Only by circa 1990 did some films begin appearing on VHS tape in their original widescreen formats.)
The Coen brothers attack the old Hollywood studio system and culture with the subtlety of a hacksaw and apply it to pre-1960 Hollywood like King Kong escaping from his bonds. Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is a "movie star" in the old pre-Marlon Brando sense. He plays over-the-top characters in love stories and epics, not just to please cinema-goers who like the stories of his films, but also his adoring fans who will pay the box office to watch whatever he stars in. He's currently in "Hail, Caesar!" (undoubtedly similar to "The Robe", the first ever Cinemascope movie, and "Ben Hur") as a centurion who will experience the humanity and divinity of Christ in ancient Palestine.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a movie mogul probably modeled after Louis B. Mayer (who executive produced MGM musicals) and Darryl F. Zanuck (producer of "Gone with the Wind"). The actors under contract under the studio Capitol Pictures are his chess pieces, and he moves them around from film-to-film, the studio being like a giant chess board. Mannix assigns his actors and directors at will. But he not only controls the projects; he also governs the lives of the Hollywood people. He determines who will go with whom to film premiers, and even occasionally gets involved with directing their person lives in terms of marriages and families. (In point of fact, Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller was forced by the studios to divorce his wife. The conventional wisdom: female audiences would be less interested in attending his Tarzan films if they knew he was married and unavailable.)
The film "Hail Caesar" is only a few scenes away from completion, but their star, Whitlock has been kidnapped! Interspersed with this plot are sequences in which we view other films being shot. In particular we meet a country-western airhead who is playing in musical westerns. He's tapped by the studio to play a supporting character in a sophisticated costume drama which has dire consequences! We also see a bar scene in a movie musical being shot where all the off-duty sailors break into song and dance! In the meantime, a horrid stand-in takes the place of Whitlock, and they shoot his scenes with his back to the camera!
While most critics enjoyed this scathing reality check of Hollywood culture, general movie goers were less than enthusiastic. There are many in-jokes about the entertainment industry, not all of them flattering, some of them sobering. In some scenes which are supposed to be "real life", the scenes look like film shots, particularly with the sky appearing more like a painting than real. I think the point the Coen brothers are making is that the entire Hollywood world is an endless movie in and of itself. Especially when you consider the gossip columnists who endlessly used their pens like swords to expose the latest scandalous behavior behind the scenes. A really fun movie if you understand the unreality of Show Biz. All the world's a movie, without the credits!
Underrated Suspense Thriller Is One of De Palma's Best Starring the Most Underrated Actor of the 1970's
Cliff Robertson, one of the most underrated actors of the 1970's, makes the whole cinematic experience work on just about every level, and now it has been released in a new blu ray edition. Part of the brilliance is the understated expressions by Robertson. "Obsession" is difficult to characterize. It's a suspense thriller with a lot of character drama. It has aspects of other films but I also believe it finds its own voice. It certainly has characteristics similar to Vertigo, especially the use of an original score by Bernard Hermann who composed the music for both films.
Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson in possibly his best role) is a successful real estate mogul in New Orleans in the 1950's, living happily with his beautiful wife whom he met in Europe and their attractive daughter. He loses both in a botched rescue mission when they're kidnapped and ransomed for $500,000 in 1959. He erects a large monument at great expense to honor their memory.
Fast-forward to 1975. Courtland on a trip with his business partner Robert Lasalle (John Lithgow) to Florence, visits the church where he met his wife over 25 years earlier. There he sees a young Italian woman, Sandra, who appears to be nearly identical to his late wife working on the artwork in the church. He sort of stalks for several days before introducing himself and asking her out. The couple seem to be falling for each other. It appears to be a chance for Courland to redeem himself after the loss of his wife and daughter 16 years earlier. However, Courtland's courtship with Sandra starts moving at a rapid pace, and when she brings her to his home in New Orleans, those close to him fear he's becoming unbalanced psychologically, obsessed with his new bride at the cost of his business enterprises.
Really a great film if you enjoy a slower-paced story which only gradually reveals itself and its characters. It certainly owes a lot to "Vertigo" directed by Robert Hitchcock but I wouldn't call "Obsession" a cookie-cutter remake. As much as I like "Vertigo", the performance by Robertson is one of the most moving I've ever seen in film. His glazed over eyes when he sees what appears to be his late wife is some of the most tear-jerking I've ever experienced in film. Since De Palma is more known for his visual cinematic techniques than character development, it's remarkable accomplishment. As a side note, Bernard Hermann was posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Score.
Interesting Subject Matter But Rather Confusing and Uneven Script
To review this adequately, I need to offer some background. From circa 2500 to 2000 BCE, Ancient Greek civilization essentially molded what would become Western Civilization. Art, architecture, government, and communication were spear-headed by the Greeks. In particular, Greek sculpture and marble relief were the envy of Ancient Europe. Then with the dawn of the Middle Ages and the rise of Christianity, their Civilization was all but forgotten. Many texts were lost. Their buildings crumbled. Many statues were destroyed by Christian iconoclasts.
Then in one of the most fascinating turns of history, Renaissance Humanism in Europe rediscovered ancient Roman and Greek culture. At first their texts were rediscovered in the 15th century and eventually printed in the late 15th and 16th centuries. And then in the 17th century, a new group of scholars which eventually be labeled antiquarians set out to find and understand both ancient and medieval culture and artifacts. By the 18th century, a rebirth of interest in ancient art and antiquities flourished all over Western Europe. In the 18th and 19th century, these scholar began excavating old ruins and ushered in a new field: archeology. Items were taken to newly founded museums in Europe. In particular, the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles ended up in the British Museum in the early 19th century.
Fast-forward 200 years. Now some countries are claiming certain artworks artifacts should return their countries of origin. In particular, the Elgin Marbles which once resided inside the Parthenon in Greece are in the midst of a cultural tug-of-war. Greece claims they should return to Greece, and the UK believes they are rightfully theirs. The present film is about a fictionalized court case in which an American-Greek attorney fights in court for Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece.
The premise is definitely a fascinating idea. Unfortunately, the film is quite uneven. The attorney for Greece, Andreas (Pantelis Kodogiannis) upholds well in a script that at times became enigmatic. Some of the scenes are in flashback and it sometimes became confusing when were in "present time" and when were in the past. The rioting in Greece as a result of the financial crisis are shown in flash-back, and it wasn't clear until well into the film why were seeing the riots.
There is also a love interest, Eleni (Kassandra Voyagis). We finally understand they had been lovers and Andreas left Greece, but it's never made clear what exactly their relationship had been. Also the portrayal of the British museum curators was much to be desired. They are portrayed as pompous and self-righteous, as if the film wants us to despise them and have us root for the Greeks.
As to the question of the Elgin Marbles: the interesting aspect of all this is that when the Greeks became what we now call Greek Orthodox Christians in late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, for nearly 2000 years, they didn't care at all about their ancient past. These items were all around them, but the Greek Orthodox Church regarded them as heathen. Renewed interest in Antiquity began in Western Europe in the late Renaissance and Enlightenment, not in Greece.
British and French scholars from the late 17th to the early 19th century were the ones who began finding and studying ancient art and antiquities. Greek and Egyptian scholars did not come to the scene until much later. It was the French and the British, and to some extent the Italians, who saw the value in these artifacts. A French and British scholar were the ones who first figured out how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs. Now of course, Greece claims they made a grave error centuries ago by not treasuring their past. They were behind the French and the British by almost 300 years! And yet they feel they have to right to the items now held in the British Museum. My question, which is not addressed in the film: what would have happened to these artifacts if they had not been confiscated by the British and French? They may have been lost to time.
Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Engaging Embodiment of the Threat of True Democracy Personified by A Single Political Operative Who Is Ultimately a Nowhere Man
What's interesting about this documentary is Roger Stone makes no excuse or deflection concerning his dirty tricks methods to increase the chances his political candidates will win. He is one of the few operators of his type who owns up to his tactics. His tactics are fairly straightforward. Use any means necessary to win. Ethics and civil discourse have no place in Stone's "world". Among his breed of political operatives is the notion that civility is weakness. That's why he was trying to get Donald Trump to run for 30 years, and he was received his wish. Trump became Stone's racehorse in 2015. But after viewing this film, I had no sense what Stone wanted for the country, only that he wants to win and be famous. He is in my view a "nowhere man", like the Beatles' tragic figure, engaging in his nowhere plans for nobody. He doesn't even have a point of view and knows not where he's going to.
The documentary has an interesting format. It begins with him in the press box watching the Republican National Convention. He watches with intense elation as his dream candidate, Donald Trump, accepts his party's nomination. Interspersed are Stone's "rules", a few of which are most telling. His main one is "It's better to be infamous than to never have been famous at all." Others are of a similar vein: "Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.". The other primary one is "Win at all costs." Stone's main philosophy is to win. But throughout the documentary I never understood what Stone was in fact winning.
It chronicles Stone's rise from his first political maneuver in 1960 during the Kennedy-Nixon election. His school was going to have a mock election in a district which was predominantly Republican. So he told his classmates that Richard Nixon was going to force public school students to attend school on Saturdays. Come election day, the students voted overwhelmingly for John F. Kennedy. It taught him how he could sway the electorate with fabrications. It would also be the last time he would support a Democrat candidate.
Stone and a few others, such as Lee Atwater and later Karl Rove, would develop dirty tricks tactics to help them win elections. Stone was a fervent Reagan supporter and later desired George H.W. Bush to win the White House in 1988. He does in 1988 but in 1992, Bush was under threat from a new party called the Reform Party. Stone calls Pat Buchanan and urges him to run as the nominee for the Reform Party. Stone had no desire to see Buchanan as president. He thought if Buchanan ran, it would discredit the party. But then Stone's plans were thwarted when a much younger Donald Trump made overtures to do the same thing.
One of his earliest "dirty tricks" was to give a campaign contribution to one of Nixon's rivals in 1972, probably either Musky or McGovern. The contribution was supposedly from an organization called the Young Socialist Alliance, a far left-wing group. (The contribution was in fact not from the them, but from Stone.) But Stone took the receipt for the contribution and gave it to the press, hoping Nixon's rival would be painted as a socialist or worse, a communist.
He then meets Roy Cohn, the infamous political operative who assisted Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the communist witch-hunts in the 1950's. He would later help with Reagan's campaign by giving secret money to left-wing political leaders hoping they would run for president. The idea was if they ran against Carter, it would split the party. (Sen. Edward Kennedy did Stone the favor anyway.)
Stone is a sly and shameless operative who will do anything to win. But he also likes press coverage. He was a Trump consultant early on in the 2016 campaign and led rallies of "Lock her up", referring to Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton's supposed illegal behavior. However, eventually Trump fired Stone because he was hugging too much of the candidate's spotlight. Stone claims he quit, but I would give that reality odds of a million to one. Stone was begging Trump to run for nearly 30 years. Why would he jump ship from the campaign he been dying to be a part of? Trump's rational: he had to fire him because he often made it clear there could only be one celebrity among his campaign team. Stone was taking away Trump's press coverage, supposedly. Typical Trump at his best.
Maybe one of the strangest men in modern politics. He wants to win and hit his opponents below the belt. Not just attacking them with fabricated stories but giving secret money to opponents. However, after seeing the documentary, I had no sense of what Stone really wants for the country. There is nothing in his rhetoric which tells me his desires to make a better US. He only wants to aggrandize himself. He "wins" if his candidates win. And in my book, that's neither someone who is famous or infamous. He is a nowhere man, making his nowhere plans, for nobody.
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".
Did "Roman Holiday", "The Brave One" "Spartacus" and "Exodus" Really Have 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 has widespread acceptance among mainstream historians, particularly because of surviving prisoners and film footage. (The Nazis had destroyed many of their facilities to cover up the Holocaust.) 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 as legitimate 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 refer 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 of scholar-historians. 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 (Wilkinson). 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 known 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 individuals having at least one (or more) Jewish grandparent or closer. 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 prisoners 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. (Sound familiar?)
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.