Current Events

Monday, July 22, 2013

Breach; Everlasting Moments; Hollywoodland; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger; Zero Dark Thirty; and twelve others

Breach   2007   110 minutes   It’s weird that the Netflix summary for this film tell us that an FBI employee, Eric O’Neill, is asked to spy on his boss, who is suspected of selling secrets to the Soviets, without mentioning that the boss’s name is Robert Hanssen.  Once I got over the shock of that omission, I enjoyed the film.  The story is well told, there’s plenty of suspense, and they get Hanssen in the end, just like it was in the newspapers.  Chris Cooper is fabulous as Hanssen.  He gives you half a dozen reasons to hate him long before it’s proved that he is a spy.  If you get the disk, you get a chance to see the real Eric O”Neill.  The real Hanssen is in the slammer and doesn’t appear.

Creation   2009   108 minutes   If you want excitement, watch something else.    This is a BBC biopic about Charles Darwin as he writes the Origin of the Species while grieving over the loss of his favorite daughter, Annie.   The film got good reviews, but I can’t decide if I liked it or not.  Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s wife Emma objects to what he is writing on religious grounds but nevertheless seems to be the glue that holds him and his household together.

The Devil’s Mistress   (The Devil’s Whore)  2008  A Miniseries    It centers on the adventures of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe and the historical Leveller soldier Edward Sexby and spans the years 1638 to 1660.  Once you file the fact that Fanshawe is fictional, the film is an interesting tour through Cromwell’s Puritan revolt, the execution of Charles I, and the various political movements of the time – like the Levellers who objected to great and growing gap between rich and poor.

Everlasting Moments   2008   131 minutes  The Swedes just keep on making great films.  This one is based on the life of Maria Larsson, an early 20th C photographer.  She married the charming but coarse Sigfrid and they had many children, but he drank and had trouble holding a job and became increasingly brutal.  Eventually he wound up in prison.  Maria was befriended by a photographer, who loaned back to her the camera that she had won in a lottery and had sold to him to get money for food.    He recognized from the beginning that she had a gift for seeing a picture and shooting it, encouraged her to keep shooting and taught her how to develop film.  She developed a little photography business of her own, which Sigfrid didn’t like, but it did bring in some money.  Eventually the photographer asked Maria to leave her husband and marry him, but she chose to stay with Sigfrid.  When Sigfrid got out of jail he started a haulage business, and, much to everyone’s surprise, made a success of it.  It’s a good story well told, but even better is the realistic portrayal of life among the poor and near poor in early 20th C Sweden.

Farewell   2009   117 minutes   A senior KGB official, Sergei Grigoriev,  tries to hand over hard evidence of his agency’s deep penetration of US intelligence.    He tries to use an American businessman with no previous intelligence experience to pass on his information, because he knows all of the American professionals are constantly monitored.  It works for a while, but the information seems too good to be true.  When the CIA tries to check it out with their mole in Moscow, it’s curtains for Sergei.  The businessman and his family escape to Finland by car with only seconds to spare.

Hollywoodland   2006   127 minutes   When Superman, George Reeves played by Ben Afleck, dies of a gunshot wound in the head, the police rule it a suicide.  Louis Simo played by Adrien Brody is a sort of shabby private eye.  He thinks Reeves’s death was murder and sets out to prove it.  What makes this film interesting is that it runs on two tracks and the director keeps cutting from one to the other.  The first is Reeves life in Hollywood up until his death, featuring especially his kept man status as the lover of the wife of a powerful and unscrupulous studio exec..  The other, the Simo track, is fictional, although Simo is loosely based on a composite of real people.  Apparently Reeves really wanted to be an actor and finally shot himself when it became clear that he would never get a part better than Superman.  As for the fictional Simo, his experience trying to prove murder eventually ends up with him getting his life together.  Almost any story of Hollywood in the 1950s is likely to be fun to watch, and this one is no exception, especially because you get to see Diane Lane as Reeves’s mistress.

K-19: The Widowmaker   132 minutes  2002   When Liam Neeson has to play second fiddle, because the first violinist is Harrison Ford, you know you have a movie.  This one is based on a true and long classified story of a Russian nuclear submarine, which developed a fatal flaw during its maiden voyage that could have ended with a thermonuclear explosion in close proximity to a US naval base.  Ford, perhaps the Soviets’ most experienced sub commander, was given command of the boat just before it sailed, and Neeson, the captain, had to step down to serve as executive officer, i.e., second in command.  Things don’t go well.  Ford drives the crew hard and creates resentment.  When the nuclear accident happens, his decision to try to repair the damage leads to radiation poisoning for several crew members and eventually to mutiny.  The mutineers want to escape their nuclear deathtrap by surrendering to an American destroyer which is monitoring them.  Neeson quells the mutiny, and eventually another Soviet sub arrives to rescue them.   The interest here is the interaction among Ford, Neeson and the crew.  Maybe Ford plays Ford, but it is a performance I won’t forget.  He must have been a Russian submarine commander in another life.

The Last King (Charles II: The Power & the Passion)  A Miniseries   188 minutes    It’s a shame Angelica Fanshawe (The Devil’s Mistress) couldn’t hang around to be one of Charles II’s mistresses.  He found plenty of others, including especially the manipulative Catherine Villier.  I happened to find a user review of this series that is so good that I would be wasting my time trying to do one of my own.  Here’s the url:

The Last Train (Der Letzte Zug)   2006  125 minutes   The last 688 Jews in Berlin are forced into cattle cars for transport to Auschwitz.  The journey is a horror.  Many die, some are murdered b y the SS for protesting, there is no water to drink.  Two of the men try to arrange an escape from the train.  Just before arrival at the death camp they finish a hole in the floor of their car large enough for a child or a slender woman to escape.  A girl and a young woman manage to get out and are rescued by Polish partisans.  The rest arrive at Auschwitz and get down from the train.  Their fate is already clear.  This is about as powerful a film as one could make about the atrocity of the transport of Jews to the death camps.
Max   2002   108 minutes   This is a fictional account of a relationship between Max Rothman, a Jewish art dealer and teacher and Adolf Hitler in the first years after WW I when he was studying art.  The film shows Hitler evolving into the demagogue he became.  I didn’t find it convincing and sort of wondered why the film had been made at all.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont    2006  107 minutes    The Claremont Hotel is really an old folks home, where the residents await the inevitable.  Joan Plowright plays Mrs. Palfrey, who takes up residence at the Claremont as the film opens.  This doesn’t promise to be an exciting film, and it isn’t, but it is a beautiful story of how an old women and a very young man can become true friends and give meaning to each other’s lives.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?   2000   106 minutes   Sometimes the Coen brothers get it right – maybe  because they based the film on the Odyssey.  It’s 1937 in Mississippi and George Clooney needs to escape from prison, because his wife has divorced him and plans to marry someone else.  While working on a chain gang, he persuades the two convicts chained to him to escape by promising them a share of the loot from the armored car robbery that got him locked up.  Actually he was in prison for practicing law without a license.  Most of the movie is simply the chase as the authorities try to round up the escapees.  Along the way Clooney and company meet the sirens and the Cyclops (John Goodman), unwittingly become a popular singing group and get pardoned by the governor (Charles Durning) for saving his campaign.  It’s billed as their least violent film, and it’s laugh out loud funny all the way.

Stalingrad   2003   156 minutes  This is a three part documentary on the battle for Stalingrad.  It includes some 8mm film shot by soldiers and the reading of some soldiers’ letters.  It got very good reviews.

Stalingrad   1993  150 minutes   The film opens on  squad of German soldiers recuperating  in sunny Italy after  service in North Africa.  Soon they re on a train bound for Stalingrad, defeat and death.  The soldiers must contend with a determined enemy, amoral officers and winter.  One by one they are killed.  The last two survivors freeze to death in a blizzard as they try to walk west.  The 2003 documentary was good, but this film made more of an impression on me of the horrors of the siege and of the motivations of the German leadership.

Super   2011  96 minutes  Here’s one I should have skipped.   When Frank’s wife takes up with a drug dealer, He decides to be a super hero and fight crime.  He becomes the Crimson Bolt and hangs out behind a dumpster watching for bad guys.  His power is in his monkey wrench, with which he does considerable damage, all or most of it unjustified.  Ellen Page, the reason I saw the film, plays a comic-book store clerk who becomes the Bolt’s sidekick.  Near the end we get to see her with half her head blown off.  Have fun.

The  Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada   2005   121 minutes  Tommy Lee Jones directs and plays a rancher with a place near the Mexican border.  He becomes close friends with one of his illegals, Melquiades Estrada.  A new and overzealous border patrol officer named Mike shoots Estrada and then buries the body in an unmarked grave to hide his mistake.  Jones had promised Estrada that if anything ever happened to him, he would take his body back to Mexico to his wife and child for burial.  I guess Jones wanted to say something about friendship.  He finds the body, captures Mike and sets off for Estrada’s village to see that he gets a proper burial.  No one in Estrada’s village had ever heard of him, including the woman in the picture that Estrada had always carried.  Jones finds an alternative site, has Mike dig the grave and then sets Mike free.  By this time Mike seems to have come to understand Jones and perhaps something about humanity.  There are a lot of Tommy Lee Jones movies that I like better, but this was OK.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger   2010  98 minutes   This is not Woody Allen’s best effort as writer and director.  There’s all kinds of star power, and it’s amusing all the way through, but nothing gets resolved.  Everyone makes bad choices, but we never find out what happened to them except for the flaky mother who finds a soul mate in a widower who also believes in reincarnation.  For everyone else, it’s like Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust.  (In that novel the nice guy ends up a prisoner in a South American jungle doomed to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to his deranged captor).

Zero Dark Thirty   2012  157 minutes   The first minutes of this film are almost unbearable as we become eyewitnesses to torture.  After that it’s pretty much a straightforward telling of how we got Bin Laden, including especially the work of Maya, the CIA specialist who figured out how to find him, and of the intelligence bureaucracy which finally got the President to order the mission.  Jessica Chastain’s Maya is absolutely fabulous.  My one criticism is that the sequence at Bin Laden’s hideout is shot with almost no light.  This was a deliberate decision by Kathryn Bigelow, the director, because she wanted to make the experience as real as possible.  Instead it’s just some people shouting from a black screen, which lights up occasionally and then goes black again.  James Gandolfini sneaks Tony Soprano into this film impersonating CIA Director Leon Panetta.

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